John Necessary IV’s family were important people once. The settlement named for his great-great-grandfather, whose real name was Essworthy from Devonshire, was impressive for the time, a year after the Revolutionary War—a couple hundred pioneering families, this according to an entry in the calfskin journal his ancestor left behind. That journal now resides in the Special Collections of the University of Connecticut Library, a donation from John’s mother. He recollected with bitterness the day he rooted behind the chrome racks of her high-heeled shoes looking for it; prior to that, it had lain undisturbed in her chifforobe for decades. Desperate for cash, he was planning to put it up for sale on eBay.
Like John Young, who gave his name to the once-vibrant steel town of Youngstown just a few miles south of Necessary, Elias Essworthy and other favored citizens of Connecticut were the recipients of the Western Reserve land grant from King Charles II. A year earlier, the Revolutionary War ended, the following year saw the establishment of the Northwest Territory, and six years later Ohio became a full-fledged state. The name-change from “Essworthy” to “Necessary” occurred resulting from the dual forces of superstition and time: first, the subconscious desire to avoid a curse brought to the settlement because John’s distinguished ancestor killed a Native American; life was tough enough wringing scanty food out of the ground and keeping malnourished bodies going throughout the brutally cold winters. Then the settlers who came in the generations that followed Essworthy’s band of colonists were rugged, unlettered people. One female kin might get more credit than most as this semiliterate matriarch ordered her entire brood of 13 sons and daughters to adopt the surname’s spelling as she recognized it in a schoolbook. Essworthy, in that sense, became “Necessary” overnight. Like the original Indian place names lost to history, the tiny settlement grew from village to the present-day town of Necessary, Ohio after an inauspicious start.
John liked to tell strangers where his ancestor’s famous murder occurred in Smackover Creek, now a much-polluted stream that yields a foul chemical odor in summer heat. French explorers, the first white men in the region, called the creek “Sumac Couvré” for the dense foliage surrounding the once-pristine water. Over time, that name elided in the mouth with more colonists following the first-generation of settlers into the Northeastern Ohio wilderness and “Smackover” it became when the maps were finally drawn. The murder victim was an Indian, although variations of the legend dispute the tribe; some said Iroquois, others claimed it was the Seneca, and still other insisted Chippewa. John bored people in Stoney’s Tavern, the one working-class bar in Necessary, so often with the story of his ancestor’s murder, downing his exotic drinks between pauses, that a working stiff occupying a stool at the end of the bar saddled John with the moniker “The Last of the Mojitos” and it stuck.
All John knew from stories passed down in his family was that Essworthy had been chopping a hole in the ice with his hatchet to fetch water for his wife and children when that Iroquois (or Senecan or Chippewa—it depended on who told it) followed his tracks in the snow right to the creek’s edge. John thought the Indian was going for the scalp prematurely and wound up being flipped over his ancestor’s back into the icy water, which might have stunned him. Then John’s ancestor drowned him with his hands locked around the Indian’s neck until he stopped breathing.
The more he told it, the louder the groans from the end of the bar where the Stoney regulars were encamped. John, forced by ridicule to decamp Stoney’s, headed down Route 45 for his weekly night out (his weekends at the country club were his busiest times at work) and he settled on a couple bars on Mahoning Avenue, neither pretentious. John’s snobbery regarding his family lineage was reinforced by the necessity of not being seen drunk in places where the country club’s clientele might spot him.
One night he decided to cut loose and ordered several shots with beer chasers. It had been a tough week with one event dovetailing another and John’s responsibilities for the catering and the clean-up were complicated by the lack of time between events. After the whiskey had warmed him enough to be sociable, he made small talk with another man at the bar. The whiskey clouded John’s judgment or else he’d have detected the unfriendly vibe the man was giving off, nursing his drink, shoulders hunched, staring into the tarnished bar mirror.
John mistook something the man said or grunted casually in his direction as permission to begin the family saga once more. Big mistake. Dimitri Ganady had hopes of starting a career in America as an MMA fighter until two I.C.E. agents showed up at his motel that morning and informed him an immigration judge had denied his application for a green card; with an expired visa, he was facing deportation. He’d booked a flight back to Moscow from Cleveland-Hopkins that evening and was drowning his sorrows at that very moment. His scheduled bout at the Chevy Center the following night was forfeited; instead of fame, riches, and adoring women in America, he was on his way back to food lines, Putin’s FSB, and rationing. The fighter just wanted to be left alone when John showed up and started chatting to him.
John said something about the average person’s “willful ignorance of history,” but the fighter took it personally. Although John outweighed him by forty pounds, he was no match for a skilled fighter and wound up on the floor, his face puffy, one eye shut, his ribs squeezed in a leg lock, and Dimitri’s arm bar pressed against his throat. John instinctively slapped the floor, a good thing because his attacker instinctively responded to the tap-out signal for “surrender.”
The pain was dissipated with plenty of Scotch and Tylenol back in the apartment, but the humiliation rankled. John realized he was a far cry from his brave ancestor and it rankled. He recovered from his wounds in short order, but his employer, a fussy, prissy older man had ingratiated himself with Mahoning Valley’s once-famous rogue politician with wild hair and remained ensconced in his position as general manager of the country club ever since. He got wind of the fight in the bar and asked John as soon as he laid eyes on him to come into his office to explain himself.
“It wasn’t much of a fight, really,” John began. “We were talking, this guy and me, a total stranger, by the way, and the next thing I know, I’m being clobbered and pummeled.”
John could sense Mr. Carlyle was not amused so far.
“He dropped me to the floor. I couldn’t breathe. It was like being attacked by an octopus.”
“All right, John, we’ll see what’s to be done.”
“I don’t want to press charges,” John replied, too quickly, wondering if he’d misread the old man’s sour expression. “I just want to forget it, sir.”
“The trouble is, John, we have a reputation to uphold here.”
The country club was John’s life long before his mother died. He never knew his father. He’d started working right out of high school cutting grass, worked his way up to landscaping, and finally worked his way inside with the cleanup crew. Years of that led at last to “assistant caterer” and from then on to “booking manager”; he never looked back—all the way to Assistant Manager. He ordered all the catering and hired the maintenance crews to set up and tear down events. The club was established and respected for political fundraisers, gala social events, and every important wedding in the county. The job didn’t pay much, but it hummed with the trappings of privilege, and John basked in the aura of knowing and being known to so many important people in society and politics. Only Carlyle had a higher position and salary. John had every reasonable expectation of succeeding the geezer once he finally had to pack it in—hell’s bells, everyone knew—and quietly admitted—the old guy could do nothing with John around. He’d even told John he’d back him when it came time. Now this.
Nothing more was said until a week later when John was pink-slipped at home via a registered letter that arrived at his apartment and had to be signed for. He was given a two-hour window to come in and collect his belongings and clean out his desk. John couldn’t believe it. He intended to forsake his pride and beg for his job back. Before driving to the club, he pressed his only suit and wore a new tie, stopped for a haircut en route, and polished his shoes in the car to ensure a high gloss when he entered Carlyle’s office.
There would be no pleading or groveling. A uniformed police officer met him at the door and escorted him to his locker and stood by while John piled all his belongings into a couple cardboard boxes. Mr. Carlyle’s door remained shut throughout the humiliating ordeal.
“They’re afraid of me,” he said to himself out in the parking lot. “They think I’m going to go postal because I got fired.”
The blow to his pride was redoubled every time he went around to job sites to drop off his résumé, a necessarily skimpy affair. No one called for an interview. John had no choice but to list Alton Carlyle as a work reference. The other two were provided by John’s apartment manager and the tenant across the hall from his apartment—and those grudgingly. Now he wondered if Carlyle were secretly sabotaging his efforts by bad-mouthing him to prospective employers out of some hysterical notion he’d sullied the club’s reputation and would carry it to his next workplace like a contagion.
“I’m being paranoid,” John said to the dour image staring back at him in his shaving mirror; “that’s all it is.”
A month passed since he was let go and not one call for an interview had come in out of three hundred resumes dropped off or mailed out. He’d stopped shaving and only left the house for food or to pay bills. He stopped going to bars out of a fear they’d know everything about what had happened.
“I’ve got to snap out of it,” he told himself.
His loneliness and anxiety about his future threatened to overwhelm him. He found himself scouring dating sites on the internet. He thought that going out occasionally and meeting women would be good for his bruised ego and prevent him from wrapping himself deeper in this cloak of isolation. He knew it wasn’t smart to be tapping his dwindling stock of cash to register for those sites, but the more he advertised, the less success he had in engaging any female’s interest. Finally, a woman who listed herself as divorced, one small child, and looking for a serious relationship with a man who can “sweep me off my feet.”
She said her name was Elle from Eleonora. He’d misstepped when he mentioned the short story of that name by Poe. Her response was stiff, suddenly chilled between them as if he’d mentioned a personal flaw. He apologized profusely, lamely adding it was a “happy ending” tale and rare for Poe. He silently cursed himself for coming off like a hoary professor of literature, not a man courting a woman. Nonetheless, she seemed less reluctant the following night and gave him permission to Skype her that night.
It was a disaster. She looked pie-eyed, even drunk. She misinterpreted his words, slurred hers so that he had to ask her to repeat herself—blaming “the connection”—and put him on hold several times to take phone calls. He had composed a witty good night, practiced it, something meant to display his good breeding and simultaneously pique her interest when she abruptly ended the connection after yet another interrupting cell phone call that she claimed was “an emergency.” His face flushed with shame, disappointment, and more than a little self-disgust for not putting a halt to the bad experience in medias res.
But she called him begging for a second chance, pleading to make her case “in person” via Skype. He reluctantly agreed. Weeks of emailing, Skyping, phone calls accumulated to make the abortive beginning forgotten and John was in the middle of his first full-fledged love affair, a real “romance,” as he called it, albeit long distance.
They planned to meet. In a cavalier moment of generosity, he wired her $money for a round-trip plane ticket and “a good hotel” so that she wouldn’t feel obligated to stay in his place.
She accepted the money, sent profuse thanks—and then emailed him from Chicago. Her plane was grounded for mechanical failure at Midway and her purse was stolen in the food court. She cried over the phone. John came to the rescue by wiring her money.
All evening, he paced nervously, wondering if she were able to arrange a connecting flight to the small county airport from Cleveland-Hopkins. He slept an hour at most and woke up to find an email from Eleonora saying she’d been paged at the Cleveland airport when she arrived on the red-eye flight. Her mother, the email said, was dying of bone cancer, and she had to return home immediately. She’d spent most of the money he sent on a return ticket. Could he send her more cash, which she promised to pay back, as soon as things settled down?
John felt as if he’d been kicked in the solar plexus. It was a scam. But he refused to believe it. Their emails and phone calls had taken them to the brink of love, after all. Life happened. It wasn’t her fault that it looked bad. He debated another hour, pacing more frenetically than before—and wired her another three thousand to the same Western Union in Chicago.
Three days later, she contacted him via Skype and gave him a tale of woe that was part-Grand Guignol and part-farce comedy. The result was another plea for more cash. He looked into the monitor and saw—not the attractive woman with the face of an angel—but the twisted face of a succubus, something that flies in the night and seduces men.
Ashamed, he ended the connection. For weeks, he was too devastated to boot up his computer lest he find dozens of emails either asking for cash or mocking him for his gullibility.
There was one. She emailed to say they “weren’t a good match” and she wished him luck “in his future endeavors.”
My future endeavors, he thought bitterly.
He called Western Union and learned that the money he’d wired had been signed for by an “Eleonora Smith” within twenty minutes of sending it. When he booted up the dating site, he discovered her profile had been removed and her email address was no longer valid. He dialed the number she’d given him to call for their single conversation and after several attempts, a black man’s voice responded to say the number he was calling happened to be attached to a Dairy Mart across the street from the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.
John thanked the voice and summoned the memory of Elias Essworthy’s powerful hands around the Indian’s neck, plunging him into the muddy bottom of Smackover Creek, air bubbles of the death-struggle popping the surface. John transferred that wretched Indian with Eleonora and saw his hands replacing his ancestor’s until her eyes bugged and veins burst knowing she wasn’t going to get out of his iron grip.
On the television, an attractive woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to Eleonora belabored the President for some recent gaffe. Her eyes were the same pretty steel blue as hers and John slapped the side of his head to knock the image out. He returned to the image of drowning her in the icy creek, watching her neck’s strap muscles go taut with exertion and the carotid artery bulge with trapped blood like a fat nightcrawler.
He resumed pacing, now querying the empty space down his darkened hallway to the bedroom. Then back to the kitchen, double time. He was a pale imitation of his ancestral hero. That God-fearing man would not have accepted his adversary as being even a human being, never mind the sneak attack. It was kill or be killed.
The woman on the TV set was growing ever more impassioned with the President.
“Kill or be killed,” John said to her, muttering the phrase under his breath.
Somewhere deeper than in his neocortex a silent reasoning played itself out. The truth crushed him beneath its weight. He collapsed onto his sofa for hours, too sapped of will to undress and too agitated to sleep. He contemplated suicide as the hours of the morning passed—midnight, one o’clock, two, then three—and was earnestly debating the relative degrees of suffering involved between death by hanging versus dying like Roman in a warm bathtub with his wrist veins opened. He rejected the former way because his he could easily imagine his treacherous neighbor across the halls telling the police it was sexual asphyxia and the latter way offended his sense of decorum; he’d cleaned up after too many messes, and besides, no one would come calling for him; it could be weeks until the smell penetrated the other nearby apartments. Why inflict on anyone the grotesque sight of his rotting corpse floating in a stinking bathtub of bloody, maggot-filled water?
The Dark Night of the Soul.
The phrase warbled across his consciousness. The medieval mind—its pendulum-swing between a groveling before the magisterial throne of a wrathful God and the hubris of their cathedral-building, sending their sharp Gothic spires pointing like mighty arrows through the clouds aimed at God.
What, exactly, was different in the consciousness and essence of a human being today?
“Nothing,” John said, answering his own question. A veil of self-deceit had mysteriously been lifted. His lethargy fell away, dropped from his shoulders; he felt—free, free!
Kill or be killed. Kill or be killed. Killorbekilledkilledkilled . . .
In the morning, he washed, dressed, and drove to his bank to clean out his checking and savings accounts; it was all cash from here on out. The plans were already assembling in his subconscious—but oh so many details to accommodate all at once! The ennui of the night before was shattered in a frenzy of activity. He barely stopped to eat.
He called one of the catering services where he’d dropped off his résumé, one he’d helped by booking them over Carlyle’s petty objections they were “only a small family operation.”
“John, I’m sorry,” a familiar voice said; “we just don’t have the business to hire right now.”
“As it happens,” John replied, “I’ve found another job. I’ve put in a good word for you with my replacement.”
Let it work, John thought.
“That’s great. I do appreciate that. Look, I shouldn’t say this but one of your references—well, the guy stabbed you in the back, I’m afraid.”
John named the apartment manager.
“No, the other one. I called him because I thought maybe I could help you out with my cousin in Sharon, PA. He has a catering service, too. Kinda runs in the family, ha-ha. This guy, man, he really did some dirt on you. Said you were ‘a liar,’ ‘a thief,’ and you couldn’t be trusted.”
“Well, I guess I’d better remove that rascal’s name from my references—ha-ha.”
“Yeah, sure, John. I’m glad I told you. Good luck in your new career.”
No luck needed, friend, John thought. It’s all cold logic from now on.
* * *
Brian Deemer, to give the specific miscreant his name, was leaving his apartment with a song on his lips. It was a brisk night, the bright autumn moon above the tree line seen from his balcony was full, and he felt like howling at it. He was on his way to the new gentleman’s club on Mahoning and she would just be starting her set by the time he got there. Her stage name was Alexandra, but her real name was Amber—or was it the other way around? He didn’t care. She was gorgeous and worth every cent of the lap dances he intended to purchase.
He cast a look in the direction of his neighbor’s apartment, wary of any sound issuing from it. In fact, he hadn’t seen or heard from him for weeks. Boy, did he ever give that smug bastard a royal screwing! He’d taken three or four calls in the last couple of weeks, enquiries regarding the character of John Necessary and laid it on with a trowel: “what a rat the guy was,” “how he’d bragged about stealing from the country club”— his “midnight requisitions,” et cetera, et cetera.
Deemer embellished with every succeeding enquiry. John Necessary was not only a liar and a thief but the police had come around last month asking about someone from the complex selling drugs and lurking around schoolyards. He said didn’t want “to hurt the man’s reputation unfairly.” Deemer felt the arctic air wafting down the line, so eager were they to get off the line. The poor goof wouldn’t be able to get hired on as a banana peeler at the monkey house after this.
Deemer later recalled putting his thumb on the key fob to unlock the car door. Then, it seemed, time stopped. More accurately, he thought in his dazed state, that time ballooned outward, contracted where it was squeezed—and there he was. Before he came fully awake, he thought he might have slipped on ice in the parking lot and hit his head getting into the car—but it was October, still autumn despite the brisk chill in the air. Then he knew he was in big trouble. His head was shrouded in a mask of some kind. Fibers in his mouth. His feet were cold, wet—very cold. The icy wetness was a shock to his system. And he couldn’t move his legs . . .
He knew, finally, it wasn’t from any fall; he’d been clobbered and knocked cold.
Rope. He felt rope binding his ankles. His torso was wrapped in rope and he was tied—tied to a tree. He felt the rough bark against his back. He twisted his body and understood how securely he was bound. He could wiggle his hands, but he couldn’t lift his legs.
The voice coming from behind him out of the eerie silence startled him. The mask was ripped from his head. Without the saffron glow cast by the moon, it would have been a palpable blackness you could touch with your fingers. Out here, no lights. Sounds, smells. He was in the woods. He was in the woods tied to a tree.
“Who . . .who is it?”
“It’s me, your humble servant, John Necessary.”
“Oh God, John, look, I didn’t mean—”
Spasms shook Deemer’s body.
“I can’t feel my legs. My feet are numb.”
“Of course, they are. They’re submerged in water. I’ve tied your feet to a cement block.”
“Where am I?”
“Poetic justice, if you require an answer. I mentioned to you my ancestor had drowned an Indian here. Who knows? It could be this very spot.”
“John, I’m freezing! Please let me go.”
“I’ll give you the short answer, Brian: no.”
John set the box of knives down in front of Deemer and opened it so that he could see them lined up in two rows. It was a field dressing kit he’d purchased online. He’d had to fork over a hundred for the free-mailing service Amazon Prime provided its customers, but it was worth it to get them delivered fast. Walmart offered a limited selection; besides, he would have been deprived of the effect on Deemer’s face. His flashlight beam swept back and forth over the glittering blades tucked into the red velvet interior. The psychological terror of the scene was greatly enhanced. John awarded himself a silent kudo for thinking of it. It was like that first sip of Glenfiddich.
“Now, then, to business—”
The bellow erupting from Deemer’s throat was loud enough to send nocturnal creatures scatter through the leaves and pine needles. A hoot owl protested from a high branch overhead.
“Scream all you want. No one can hear you way out here.”
John swept his light in a three-sixty-degree circle; the light shimmied among the tree tops.
“See? All is darkness, all is quiet.”
That, he thought, was a little over the top, too Harlequin Romance. Focus, focus—
“I’m not going to stab you,” John said. “Do you think I’m a savage?”
“Please, please, please, please let me go. I’m ff-freezing.”
Brian’s eyes were turning glassy from hypothermia. Soon, the shivers would become muscle spasms that would prevent him from speaking. Hallucinations would follow. A false sense of warmth as the body’s blood fled to the trunk. Then death.
“I won’t let you go,” John told him. “But I will help you.”
John hunched over the box of knives and flashed his beam over the row of sharper knives, those for filleting rather than gutting. The last knife at the end of the bottom row was a punch dagger. Something to deliver the coup de grâce to a dying deer. He steeled himself not to weaken and use it.
John selected one with a fine delicate blade about nine inches. He slipped behind Deemer who swiveled his head to see him.
“What are you . . . duh-doing?”
John slit the jacket above and below the ropes. He did the same with the shirt.
“I suspect that’s your best shirt. Going a-courting, were we?”
“Oh my God, don’t—”
John pressed the blade flat against Deemer’s cheek; the tip of the blade just tickled the skin under the eye.
“Say another word and I’ll take your eye out.”
It was difficult work and required several knives of differing sizes and widths, but he had all Deemer’s clothes removed, hanging in strips except for his underwear, now reeking of urine.
Deemer had stopped straining against the ropes; he could no longer talk clearly because his teeth chattered like castanets; he’d bit through his lower lip and a trickle of blood dripped down his sallow, hairless chest like ruby drops against a white napkin. Another morsel to be savored. He’d try later to recapture the lovely chiaroscuro effect.
Deemer’s groans were becoming inaudible, a repeated pattern of bursts: uh-uh-uh. Pause. Repeat. Shock, no doubt.
The end is nigh, Brian Deemer. The animal brain was taking over, maybe a last comforting squirt of enzyme from the amygdala to ease the transition from life to death. Victims of hypothermia often tore off their clothes because they felt “too hot.”
“You’ll feel warm soon,” John said, almost kindly.
“I’m leaving now,” John said.
No reaction. Deemer remained motionless against the tree.
John gathered up his knives and swept the beam carefully around to be sure he wasn’t leaving anything but the disturbed ground of his boot prints. Let them make of that what they will. Out here, one good rainfall will remove all traces of his footsteps.
“I hope the animals wait until you die before they start to eat you.”
Again, no reaction. Hearing was the last sense to go.
John whistled a Puccini aria on his way out of the woods to the place where he’d hidden his Jeep. Back inside the vehicle, he checked his watch. Better hurry, lots to do before the sun rises.
* * *
Carlyle was in an irritable mood. He still hadn’t received permission from the trustees to hire the new man to replace Necessary—actually, the new girl. She was less qualified than almost every other applicant and younger by ten years than the next youngest one who’d applied for the post. But Carlyle was mesmerized from the instant she walked in exuding that marvelous perfume that just tingled the nostril hairs. A Youngstown State graduate in Hospitality with raven hair and body as trim as a weasel’s. Such a lovely name too: Cassandra.
He said the name to himself several times on his way inside to his office. Cass-an-dra. It even felt lovely in the mouth.
He hated coming in this early. He was used to a ten o’clock appearance. By then, Necessary would have had the job assignments worked out and the order lists computed and attached in an email to his computer. Everything in place and running like a Swiss watch in preparation for the next event. He looked forward to mentoring Cassandra. For her, he’d be pleased to get up so early.
“Why Cassandra, dear girl, it’s no trouble at all to come in early. So kind of you to ask.”
It sounded about right, but he’d practice it a few times in the mirror to get the winsome smile into place after it. Let her see there’s some pretty plumage left. He’d take a quick peek at Martha to make sure she couldn’t overhear, not likely, as her godawful snoring around dawn sounded like a pack of hyenas tearing into a wounded gazelle.
“Aren’t you just the perfect gentleman?”
The voice made him jump so hard he slammed into the wall behind him. He slapped at the wall to hit the light switch, although he knew that voice so well.
John Necessary had a grin on his face that went from one ear to the ear. His first reaction wasn’t to bellow an alarm; he was mortified to be caught talking to himself, preening like that, to be overheard by a man he’d fired, swept away his common sense in the first rush of fright.
John felt supremely in charge. Last night in the woods had been his baptism of fire, a test he’d passed with flying colors.
“I wonder,” John said, stepping away from the corner bookcase where he’d planted himself as soon as he heard Carlyle’s key fumble in the lock, “if in flagrante delicto applies to your little contretemps of a moment ago. I did overhear some sexual overtones, I think.”
“What are you doing here? How did you—what are you doing in my office? Get out or I’ll call the police!”
“So many questions, sir, so early in the morning? Here’s the phone. Have at it, by all means.”
John shoved the phone console across the desk in Carlyle’s direction.
“Go ahead,” John said. His smile widened. “It’s not a snake. It won’t bite.”
Without taking his eyes off Necessary, Carlyle stepped cautiously to his desk to reach for the phone. His instincts clamored for him to Run, flee! But that would add another indignity. He stiffened his spine and rotated the phone toward him and removed the handset from the cradle. He pressed the button for the outside line and heard nothing. He hit the toggle button impatiently, his eyes never once leaving John’s face.
Too late, he saw the cord lying on the floor where it had been cut from the wall jack. He dropped the receiver at the same time, now ready to listen to his brain’s fight-or-flight message when Necessary stuck the black rectangle in his fist under his chin; the shock of voltage walloped him, and he fell to the floor unconscious. His body twitched for a while and then calmed.
“Got you right in the dewlap, didn’t I, you hypocrite?”
It was another gift life gave him to watch Carlyle drool and jerk about on the floor. John used the lowest setting on the stun gun and hoped it didn’t exceed the old boy’s tolerance. He wasn’t trying to gain him admission into an Alzheimer’s clinic; he needed him fresh for the next stage.
That was going to be the riskiest part, John knew. Carlyle was nothing but a bag of bones in an elegant suit. He doubted the man weighed a hundred-fifty, yet dead weight was something else and it took a longer time than he expected to get him into a fireman’s carry over his shoulder.
John had fifteen seconds to cross an open vista where he could be seen toting his bundle. At this hour, no one else would be about the place but the foyer and glass doors, not to mention the plate-glass windows would give anyone outside a clear view.
Made it! He had only the corridor leading to the furnace room and maintenance department left. Beyond that, was a door leading to the gym and saunas. Members had sauna privileges and scheduled massages but nothing this early. He figured he’d have an hour before the first gym rats arrived to begin torturing their overfed bellies and slack muscles on the club’s treadmills.
With Carlyle’s master key, he had nothing to fear. A sign declaring the room off-limits for plumbing repair would do the trick once inside. The duct tape would ensure no screams from inside the room would escape to the gym where headphones, TV monitors in the corner, and the occasional noisy grunt from some link on the bench press would drown out cannon fire from this room.
John set to work. It thrilled him to think that the instruments of his revenge were all here in the club, everything in place, just waiting to be put to good use.
He lifted Carlyle into one of the club’s three one-person hot tubs, careful not to hurt him, and arranged his arms above his head. Nylon cuffs secured his hands to the pipes over his head. He’d have a little wiggle room for thrashing, but John was certain he wouldn’t be able to raise himself from that angle.
“A contortionist might do it,” John said to the semi-conscious Carlyle, “but not you. Now I have to leave you for a bit, but I’ll be right back.”
John had convinced the old man to purchase some lightweight, fold-away carts for the kitchen staff who had to traverse a long passageway to the cold locker. He used one of these and loaded it with the Styrofoam containers of dry ice for the packed steaks that were stored beside the walk-in cooler. He forbade the staff from dumping the ice in the garbage chute where it would release a build-up of carbon dioxide. (Carlyle, the swine, took credit for his idea at a board meeting.)
Back in the sauna room, he realized he was humming a doo-wop tune from the fifties—a safety valve releasing some adrenalin, a little joy, no doubt, as his body jolted him while he labored to pack the ice all around Carlyle’s body up to his navel.
John had an ampule of smelling salts ready to break under Carlyle’s nose if he didn’t come around soon. Carlyle opened his eyes. John had a strip of duct tape ready in case he intended to scream, though he trusted the solitude of the empty room and the silence from beyond the double doors. Carlyle looked at John, then craned his neck to see his hands and then cast his eyes down to the dry ice.
“My neck hurts,” Carlyle said.
“That’s because you’ve been hit with a hundred KV,” John said.
“One hundred-thousand volts, relatively low amperage, all things considered.”
“You—you electrocuted me?”
“‘Shocked’ is the more precise term—yes.”
“What’s in this tub?”
“You really should get more involved in the day-to-today activities of the club, sir. The staff would have more respect for you.”
“It looks like dry ice—Oh my God.”
“Bingo, sir. Got it in one this time.”
John made a show of checking his wristwatch.
“I’d love to stay and chat, Alton, but I have to make some preparations. I’ll be leaving town soon and I must pack. Tidy up a few affairs, so to speak.”
“Get me—out of—here right—now!”
The old man’s hoarse, cracked voice was another fillip of delight he would savor in recall.
“I’ll swing by in a few hours and check on you, how’s that?”
“It burns! It burns!”
“I’m sure it does. Interesting paradox, eh, sir? Ice that burns. But I really do have to go.”
He applied a thick swathe of tape across Carlyle’s mouth. If eyes could beg, Carlyle’s pleaded for mercy. He didn’t really hate the old buffoon. His namesake ancestor’s image returned to memory to lash stiffness to his spine—his frontiersman’s hands holding down another human being, plunging him down, down up to his elbows in frigid water. His ramrod-stiff arms out of sync with his line of sight owing to the angle of light refracting—not that he would have paused to appreciate that scientific fact but still, amusingly strange to ponder in retrospect, John realized.
It would come to this and nothing but this: Kill or be killed.
* * *
“That’s progressed nicely in three hours,” John said, casting a glance all around the tub.
“Your right leg is the color of an eggplant. As for this one,” John said, bringing it up beneath the crook of the knee to inspect it, “it needs a bit more color.”
Carlyle said nothing. The glassy stare like Brian’s out in the woods but deeper, pupils almost fixed. John feared the man dead, but a quick check of the pupils revealed some dilation and the carotid thrummed with life when he touched it. Life will struggle. John was pleased. The legs were turning black although the kneecaps were albino-white like a mountain tops capped with snow. His stomach was splotchy like a bunch of rotten bananas.
The old man’s papery skin was no match for the onslaught of frozen carbon dioxide gas, which kills skin cells on contact. John had seen Carlyle in Bermuda shorts on the links and grimaced at the knobby knees and pale shanks. He wouldn’t last much longer.
“Listen, tell you what I’ll do,” John said. “I’ve got a few more errands to run before I leave town, but I’ll make every possible effort to stop by once more to say goodbye. Would you like that?”
John removed one end of the tape, sodden with mucous. Carlyle didn’t seem to notice. Not willing to take a chance, John applied fresh tape over the man’s mouth.
Coming back once more was essential. He had to see for himself. But the risk was great. The exercise room had six or seven people, none of whom acknowledged John’s passing among them to enter the sauna room. All intent in their glassy-eyed stares at their various forms of self-inflicted pain or locked into their head phones and earbuds. A few watched the TV screen; two stationary bikers had furrowed brows as they concentrated on their computerized pre-programmed runs playing out on the monitors fixed to the crotches of the handlebars.
He had just finished locking the sauna room door when a voice behind him startled him and made hi drop his keys.
“Whoa, John. Guilty conscience or what? Ha-ha. Listen, when are you going to get the plumbing in there fixed? I am just desperate to get back into the sauna.”
John forced himself to relax; he smiled.
“David, isn’t it?”
David Brown. Sandra Maxwell Brown’s third husband. Thank God, his wife wasn’t with him. Her tongue was as tough as shoe leather from gossip. She’d have had his dismissal from the club straight from the horse’s mouth, not twenty feet from where they were chatting.
“I’d heard . . . you ha d taken a new position,” Brown said discreetly.
“That’s right, Dave. But Alton asked me to break in the new—my replacement.”
“I think my wife said something about her,” Brown replied. “‘Dishy,’ she said.”
“That’s a great word,” John replied, “we must keep it alive—yes, ‘dishy,’ would be accurate.”
The men shared a wink and a nod at Carlyle’s expense. “The old goat,” Brown whispered and nudged John in the ribs with his elbow.
John laughed. He mimed drawing a zipper across his mouth. “I say nothing,” he replied.
More yuks. John’s heart hammered in his chest with incipient panic. What if he heard something behind the door? Does he know? Is he playing me?
Brown returned to his Nautilus machine and began working out; his arms flapped and met in the center like a wingless butterfly. As John passed by, Brown gave him a wink and he offered back the thumb’s-up, sighing with relief.
Outside in the autumn sun, knees shaking, John almost threw up bile from his empty stomach. He needed to eat. He straightened his back, calmed his shaking hands and limbs, a solid, determined man once more. The tang of rotting leaves tickled his nose. The unstoppable, gangrenous rot occurring inside that tub was remorseless. Like me, John ordered himself. He was no longer concerned about upsetting the tummies of first responders on the scene. Time for reminiscing would come later: he really did have things to do.
* * *
The owner of the Boat Captain’s Diner on Tioga Street stared once more at the résumé the smiling, pleasant man handed him. He looked all right, but . . . Lord knows, he’d had some doozies come in here to apply for the short-order cooking position. Frank Udell was weary of hiring people for a few weeks at a time. The damned paperwork, for one thing. In the last five months alone, he’d seen more dopers, convicts on parole, crazies, losers come through that door asking for a job than Carter’s has little liver pills. Most stayed a few weeks; the record was six months.
“We don’t serve them fancy meals you got on here,” the owner said, casting another suspicious look at John’s résumé.
“I’m eclectic in cuisine, Mister Udell,” John said.
“Versatile, sir. I can cook anything on that menu.”
“We don’t do no damn frog legs in here,” Udell said, still concerned about the hoity-toity items listed on the man’s data sheet of work skills. The crack about ‘frog legs,’ however, happened to be true. John’s apprenticeship in the kitchen before he moved on to office work had exposed him to all sorts of cuisine and he discovered he possessed a real knack for cooking.
“Job in the paper says short-order fry cook only,” Udell repeated, suspicions not all allayed by the man’s tidy appearance, shaved face and short, trimmed haircut. He’d seen how furloughed cons from Arrowhead Regional Corrections could clean up good for the job, too. He was no fool.
Udell ticked the greasy plastic menu with his thumbnail a couple times. He mentioned the salary again.
“You all right with that, Champion?”
“It sounds . . . generous, Mister Udell.”
“Call me Frank. What kinda name is ‘Champion’ anyway? That Mexican?”
“No, sir. I mean, Frank. It’s English. My family go way back.”
“So don’t mine. All the way to and back from Shitsville to right here. You start tomorrow. Five-forty-five sharp. And don’t be late, else I got to dock your pay.”
“That sounds fair to me, Frank.”
“You know it gets cold up here, right? This ain’t Florida.”
Neither is Northern Ohio, you cretin.
“I love the winter time. I’m a big fan of cold.”
Udell grunted. “You just wait, Champion. Your balls’ll be clinking like icicles against your legs you don’t find some heavier clothing that that flimsy suit you wearin’. Hell’s-bells, they’ll be ice fishing out there on the lake in three weeks.”
“I can’t wait,” John said.
The job was hectic at first with the morning rush; he had a short learning curve but in a couple weeks he’d mastered everything on the menu and knew the grill intimately—where the hot spots were, what had to be started first, how much time before flipping the pancakes, burgers, and some disgusting concoction called the “Jailhouse Special,” which Udell claimed had made his diner famous all over Duluth. Given his boss’s level of literacy, John suspected the difference between famous and infamous minimal at best.
It had taken time to find her, weeks of browsing reverse directories, online searches, and even People Finder proved useless. He routinely browsed dating sites from computers in local libraries across the Midwest until he hit pay dirt close to mid-January. By then, John Necessary was wanted in Ohio and the BOLO on his Jeep meant it was the second thing to go after his name-change.
She was married and living in Duluth with a man who owned a small plumbing company. Once he recognized her Facebook photo, he examined every one of her postings with the care of a scholar poring over a newly discovered Shakespeare folio.
Like the bulk of America’s exhibitionists posting their entire lives online, including the sordid catastrophes of abuse, divorce, and adulteries, she was voluminous in uploading photos of herself and her new hubby, a big blonde Swede. She posted throughout the honeymoon in Acapulco. That gave John a few worrisome moments. He hoped she didn’t stray too far from their resort on the beach where a spree of grisly cartel executions and beheadings were happening. He didn’t want anything bad to happen to the woman calling herself “Berenice”—not for a while anyhow.
Her girlish, simpering photos belied her age, which John guessed was not relayed to her husband, as his few photos showed him to be many years younger. It pained him to admire her: she was an attractive woman—comely, to use an old-fashioned word. Her posts were fraught with misspellings and the godawful text-English of millennials: u for “you” and r for “are,” but John forgave her. More selfies than Kim Kardashian, John thought. “Keep them coming, Berenice Johansson, keep them coming . . .
Udell was usually wrong about everything, uninformed, and appallingly ignorant of anything that required intellectual thought. However, he was right about the weather. Necessary, Ohio, a dot on the map, was used to deep snow and impassable roads in winter, but it was nothing like Duluth. It was going from the minors to the majors in one fell swoop. Arctic winds threatened to take the skin off your face. A 10-degree dawn was in reality 25-below-zero with wind chill factored in—and it never stopped blowing from due north or northwest where the winds roared down from the pole across the open vista of Lake Superior. Breathing was like swallowing razor blades. The howl of the wind at night rattled the glass panes and even fluttered the tops of the drapes in his cheap motel.
His short walk to the bus stop from his efficiency room was a descent into a brutal wasteland of whipping snow and blinding, stinging spray. He took Frank’s advice and used most of his first few paychecks to outfit himself, choosing thick, woolen castoffs at Goodwill and the Salvation Army. But if hardy Elias Essworthy could tough out winter in a tiny cabin with just a smoky, wood-burning fireplace, he could handle Duluth for her sake.
The post he was waiting for finally came in the first week of February. The weather had been relentlessly frigid, but forecasters predicted a short-lived thaw was coming. He’d heard chatter in the diner from regulars who hunted and ice-fished. Many were gearing up for the city’s annual ice-fishing contest. Soon, the frozen shoreline for ten miles out would be dotted with ice houses. Not even the mighty lakeboats tied up in Thunder Bay with their foot-thick steel plates in the hulls and bow could pound their way through ice that thick. Rodger Johansson was an avid ice fisherman. He’d won the ice-fishing championship sponsored by the Duluth chamber of commerce twice.
His wife said they were both looking forward to this year’s competition.
So am I, Berenice . . .
* * *
The day before the competition was busy. The sun shone in a steel-blue sky. People were energized and grateful for the short interlude before the next round of pummeling winds tore across the Great Lakes. Fishing sheds, tackle, and gear were being hauled out onto the ice in all directions from Park Point. City workers were setting up the booths and rigging up the banner that would commence the competition the following day.
John, outfitted in thermal underwear and several layers went out on the ice in his bird-watching outfit. His quilted parka prowling the shoreline for new and rare species of bird and waterfowl was, by now, familiar. Frank found his employee’s bird-watching hobby amusing. He found opportunities to call John out from the kitchen where he sat with some of his regulars and asked John to tell them about “them interesting birds” he spotted. John would oblige with names and descriptions of some winter birds he’d logged into his notebook. In a dry-as-dust tone, he’d inform Frank’s Neanderthals, as he called that particular booth, all about the gorgeous Fulvous Whistling Duck following in the recent track of a Hooded Merganser near the Aerial Lift Bridge. Even before he was back in the kitchen, laughter exploded. John smiled to himself at the grill: They call themselves hunters but they forget the value of camouflage.
The woman helped the man unload the trailer. She worked every bit as hard as he did. She toted fishing gear, oversaw the benches, buckets, and vents that would go into the fishing shed. Neither noticed the man approaching slowly in a random fashion, always with his Zeiss field glasses sweeping the shoreline and harbor for geese or duck to record in his notebook, which was in fact filled with the sightings of birds and locales, although he couldn’t tell the difference between a wood duck and a bald eagle. John studded the notebook with names from a birding book he’d purchased at a used bookstore.
He watched from the shore while they set up their ice house a mile in the distance. So much expensive gear for a few fish. An hour later, he watched them climb aboard their snowmobiles and return to the shore where their pickup and empty trailer waited alongside dozens of others.
“I’m sorry you’re leaving, Champion.”
“I’m sorry, too, Frank, but there’s no helping it. My mother fell ill so suddenly. I have to go home to North Dakota for the funeral.”
John packed up everything from his motel room and stuffed everything into three garbage bags which he took to the dumpster. He left a twenty on the bedside night table for the motel maid. He checked his gear one more time to be sure he had everything he’d need for his all-night vigil. He remembered to take his notebook and extra batteries for the electric hand-warmers. The rest would fit into a duffel bag or be carried in a sling across his back.
The trek across the ice was less onerous than he expected despite his heavy clothing and thick-soled boots. The thaw was better than anticipated and the high of twelve degrees tomorrow was ideal for fishing on the ice. Hundreds of sheds and portable tents were dotted across the flat wasteland of ice on the lake. John had studied Rodger’s shed in its every minute detail. He knew he’d have to find it in the dark. If someone on shore spotted a flashlight out here, the Coast Guard or police might be summoned; his bird-watching explanation wouldn’t go far.
“Kill or be killed,” John said to himself as he trudged across the turquoise ice beneath his feet.
When dawn finally broke, he peered out from the shed to see the hillside houses painted in a saffron glow that turned orange, red, and finally lemon-yellow as the sun rose to a tiny orb just above the frozen lake’s horizon. It was going to be another blue-sky day, the final in the promised thaw. Precipitation fell in tiny ice crystals all around the dozens of ice sheds and portable tents set up as far as the eye could see, the “diamond dust” of ice particles falling from a clear sky.
John took it as a good omen.
* * *
“Who the hell are you?”
The man was big up close.
John leveled the sawed-off shotgun at his midriff and told him to sit down on the bench. Rodger did as he was told.
She came inside a moment later, her pretty face surrounded by the ruff of rabbit fur surrounding the hood of her coat.
She looked at her husband. “Rodger, who is this man?”
“He says he knows you, Bernie.”
“I never saw him before in my life!”
“That’s true, Rodger. We never had the pleasure of an actual meeting. Did we, Eleonora?”
“Ele—who? Bernie, what’s he saying?”
“Be quiet, Rodger. I’ll do the talking from now on.”
The whine of snowmobiles crisscrossing the ice all around them made talking hard to hear as fishermen prepared to begin the contest, holes in or out of sheds dug or screwed with ice-boring drills or axes. The competition was slated to start in twenty minutes. It had been a long, cold vigil inside the ice shed waiting.
“This is what is going to happen . . .”
He’d tossed the used tire chains he’d fashioned in his motel room into a pair of leg “sleeves” connected with small padlocks in the webbing. He ordered Rodger and his wife to slip their opposite legs into a sleeve and with the padlocks he tossed the husband, to secure them to the bench where they sat.
“You two like competition,” John said. “I’ll bet you took first prize in the potato-sack races. No? Never did that? Well, there’s always a first time . . .
And a last, he thought.
“As you can see, I’ve taken the liberty to widen your fishing hole with your power saw. Even a big fella like you, Rodger can fit into it.”
“I’m not jumping into ice water. You can go screw yourself, whoever you are.”
“Now, Rodger, if you interrupt me again, I’ll blow your head off with this. What I have to tell you is important. You need to listen. Understand? Nod your head. That’s a good boy. I’ve stuffed the vents with rags so that propane heater you so unwisely decided to add to the décor is going to pump out deadly Cee-Oh. You know what that is, both you? Nod your heads. Good. You can jump into the water. I mention that as a last resort. Maybe you could do a synchronized swim to the nearest hole—or better choice, see if you can hop over to the door and bust it open.”
John watched them look at each other, a silent husband-wife communication.
“You’re thinking the door, naturally, but I’ve added a challenge. I’m barring it as soon as I leave you. Oh, yes, I almost forgot. The propane tank. The valves are going with me. Don’t waste time trying to shut off the gas.”
He wagged a pipe wrench from the duffel bag at them and bent down at the propane tank. The shotgun was cradled across his knees for instant use. He removed the shut-off valve and dropped it into his bag; then he turned around at the door. He had prepared a final speech for this moment, but it seemed tawdry and unnecessary now.
“So long, Bernie. Poe would thank you if he could for keeping his memory alive with his women’s names.”
He could hear them screaming at each other inside. John worked fast; he’d practiced it many times in the motel. Minnesotans were a trusting lot and didn’t use locks on their ice houses. The metal bar wouldn’t hold a strong man thrusting into it, but a man attached to a woman and a bench might not.
John felt the tension of the night drain away in the daylight. Spiraling flocks of gulls cree-cawed all over the lake like white buzzards hoping for a fish left to flop on the ice. He drove the final nail home and secured the second bar tightly into place; he recited Shakespeare: Let my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth . . .
On the trek back to shore, he nodded and waved at the hordes of late-arriving fishermen walking past him on their way toward the fishing holes and sheds they’d set up the day before. One of the regulars from the Boat Captain spotted him and waved. “Hey, Champion, seen any good birds lately?”
“Just two,” John said and smiled.
* * *
The flight to Moscow from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport boarded early. John cleared Customs with his stamped visa and new identity papers announcing himself as “John Essworth, Canadian, businessman.”
He’d been living in Ontario for the past year and subsisting on yet another impoverished salary. All the flab he’d been carrying at the country club was long gone. He’d adopted an exercise regimen that he followed rigorously and had dropped his weight down to 187 pounds. He was lean and sinewy as a farmer with ropy tendon muscles in his forearms from pushups. His cooking skills were a passkey to any city, anywhere, and he took advantage of any opportunity he came across or heard of in the public places he hung out, such as libraries, lobbies of hotels, seedy bars, and diners like the one he’d cooked in back in the states. Duluth still warmed him during those bitter Canadian nights.
He had his stake collected and secured in money belts. It wasn’t much by traveling Western tourist standards, but he was counting on finding the right opportunity rather than digging in for a long staging process. Once more, access to the inter net was paving the way.
Dimitri Ganady was fighting in two days at Fight Club Kerisomov. His opponent was a Tajik fighter from Kazakhstan. Dimitri had gone undefeated in Moscow arenas since his return from America. He was ranked in the top 5 in his super-welterweight division. A convincing victory in this bout could entice a certain Moscow trainer connected to one of the elite, an oligarch and person friend of Putin, to take him on and get him into the serious money.
Dimitri’s entourage and his trainer paid no attention to the other fighters training in the gym or their handlers and spectators who gathered in cliques about one of the rings where both boxing and mixed-martial arts bouts took place. Here and there, John spotted a journalist interviewing a fighter or, more often, his manager. The place reminded him of the cantina scene from a Star Wars film: a dozen nationalities and as many languages were overheard in a casual stroll from one ringside to the other. He noticed a sign over a room leading to the shower room: “Нет зрителей за эту точку.” He copied the Cyrillic as best he could.
He had counted on people—the fans, groupies, hangers-on—that gather in gyms everywhere in the world to watch the athletes train for matches. In case he was questioned by security, he showed a notebook and some phony press credentials announcing he was a stringer for Knight-Ridder. No one questioned why he was there.
Dimitri at that moment was working on his axe kicks. He hoped to close the distance between him and the Tajik with some “dirty boxing” tricks he’d picked up that enabled him to close the distance. Up close, Dimitra was at his best in a caged ring. He liked to leave those showy spinning back-kicks to the Asian fighters.
He left and took a taxi back to his third-rate hotel in the Arbat. A little rest for the body. He listened to some classical music from iTunes. Satie’s Gymnopédies were always a relaxing favorite, but he chose the Adagio for Strings instead. Its melodic beauty crescendoed to forma a magnificent arch of diamond notes, all sadness and fragility, then a fall, like a dying man’s breath, expiring, leading to nothingness.
* * *
John had overpaid in American dollars for the ringside seat. He had no metal on his to alert the metal detector he was ushered through by a pair of security men in black leather jackets that made them look like American bouncers at a seedy American strip joint. One of them put a hand on John’s chest and said something in Russian that didn’t need to be translated as “Stop right there.” He checked John’s shoulder bag and pawed through the rubble of loose packs of Marlboro and Winstons scattered around as distractions—bribes, if need be. Notebooks, pens, phony press credentials, kopeks, ruble notes and about a wad of American ones with a fifty wrapped around the wad, and a bottle of Russian vodka with tiny paper cups from the hotel.
The guard hefted it, checked the brand, and looked at John.
“Wodka,” he said, belaboring the obvious.
John pointed at the note secured to the neck of the bottle.
The guard looked at the note: Vashe zdorovie. “To your health.”
The English pleased him. Adopting the monosyllabic style of communication, John replied: “Dimitri, for Dimitri, fighter, in there.”
“Ho-kay, you can take it,” the man said.
He handed the bag back to John sans all but two of the cigarette packs and waved him on.
John exhaled and walked into the arena on shaking legs. In the foul men’s room, he discovered the fifty was missing from the roll and a couple packs of cigarettes.
The matches were compelling as spectator sport. John knew little about any kind of violent sport. He’d never played any sport in high school. With his new body, he might have enjoyed a contact sport.
Dimitri’s fight against “The Tajik Assassin” was next. Dimitri entered the octagon ring with a look of confidence, his face was shiny with sweat. John wondered if his trainer had greased him in the fighters’ waiting rooms sealed off back there. He’d translated his sign with a Russian-English dictionary: “No Spectators Beyond This Point.” Perfect.
The strikes, jabs, and kicks were easier to follow after the prior bouts, but they were still a blur and he had no idea what any of them were called in the lingo of mixed-martial arts. No wonder he’d been overmatched so easily. The men in the ring were killers.
Dimitri, however, had the advantage from the start. By the end of the first round, the Tajik’s face was bloody from a flurry of punches. His right eye was swollen, and he had to spit blood into a bucket. Unlike most boxers who go in for the kill once he an opponent has been weakened, he seemed to hold off and began a more measured attack, once dropping the Tajik to the mat with a vicious liver punch. But a wounded dog is a dangerous dog and the Tajik threw a sweeping leg kick that caught Dimitri off-guard and toppled him. The Tajik was on him, using a ground-and-pound strategy that looked to be working until Dimitri did something so fast and acrobatic John couldn’t follow the movements. The result was the Tajik on his back and Dimitri slugging down at him with punches that reared back from over his shoulder; it was merciless and it was savage.
The arena crows exploded in cheers. No one was surprised when “The Tajic Assassin” tapped out inches from the referee’s face hunkered beside his. John was amazed the Tajik could even stand up after that beating while the referee raised Dimitri’s arm in victory.
We’re made to be barbarians, John thought. It is in our very DNA.
* * *
John had a window seat on the flight back to London. From Gatwick, he expected to take a flight to JFK. From there, he didn’t know. He’d worry about it later. Outside his window the cerulean blue sky belied a minus-twenty temperature. Shafts of sunlight speared the clouds below.
The thrill of the hunt was subsiding. He’d stayed three more days in Moscow until the paper printed what he had hoped to see. Dimitri’s face, an old file photo, looking as he had that day back in the bar in Youngstown, not as he’d seen him in the ring with his mouthpiece hanging from a corner of his mouth and his arm raise din victory.
Vodka, many a young Russian man’s failing. He’d chosen the most expensive brand he could find in one of the most expensive Moscow suburban shops in Rublyovka, a decade ago the home of billionaires and millionaires with an ultra-high-end mall. Now it leaned toward the seedy and vacancies between the mega-houses were like missing teeth in a meth mouth. He’d debated for a long time, almost to the point of madness, whether an expensive cognac or a good vodka was the right choice. In the end, he went with the odds. Nearly half of Russia’s male population comprised heavy drinks and vodka was their king.
Boosting the alcohol content from 80-proof to twice that with grain alcohol was the easy part, but he had to trust Dimitra to chill the vodka first, and he had no control over that. The guard at the door ignored the other two words he’d inscribed: Держите замороженные: “Keep Frozen.” Cheap vodka would freeze; it was a myth that said otherwise, but any vodka with that high an alcohol content, if slugged down the Russian way, could stop a heart and constrict the throat, even a young fit man like Dimitri Ganady.
It was Carlyle himself who had provided this final inspiration. Years ago, he’d shown John a newspaper item that made him chuckle. Some tour guide for Americans traveling in Siberia had ended their trip with a toast from a high-powered Siberian brand of vodka. He’d left the vodka outside in the snow overnight to chill it, and the intense cold had turned it to slush. The high content had caused him and several others to drop dead immediately after imbibing the slushy liquid that stopped stunned their hearts and stopped their throats like the rags he’d inserted into the vent pipe aback in Duluth. Carlyle laughed and told every member he came across that story at every banquet for the next two months. He even put the article under the glass on his office desk. He told John it “cheered” him up to read it now and then.
In Dimitri’s honor, John ordered a vodka tonic from the Aeroflot attendant. The fold in the corners of her eyes caught his attention and he asked her where “home” was—glavnaya.
“Siberia,” she replied in flawless English.
“To Siberia,” John said and raised his plastic cup to her in a toast.