THE WINNER - STEVE WEDDLE
I’d carried the list around for years, every so often adding a name, moving it to a new scrap of paper in my wallet. I read it like some kind of mantra. Calming myself. Focusing.
Jake Martin. Junior year of high school. He punched me in the nose on a dare.
Mike Gibson. First job out of college. Weaseled his way into my spot and got me fired.
Chad Michaels. At the Tire Factory. Sold me three used tires, claiming they were new.
I guess they don’t seem like that big a deal to you. But that’s because they didn’t happen to you. This isn’t about you. This is about me. And the seventeen people on the list.
And the six numbers that brought me ninety-eight million dollars.
The date of my birth, month and year. Four. Twelve.
The age at which I lost my virginity. Twenty-three.
My lucky number. Thirty-three.
The meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Forty-two.
And the random number I left to chance each time. That day it was a meaningless number. Just fell out of my head onto the form. Nineteen. Not from the Steely Dan song. Not from my age when my parents died. This time nineteen didn’t mean anything. And, of course, it meant everything.
It meant I was the sole winner of the Midwest Wonderball lottery. After taking the cash option and giving a large fortune to the taxman, I still had ninety-eight million dollars and change.
And my list, which had pressed against the ticket in my wallet for three days while I waited for the drawing. The ticket and the list getting to know each other. Sharing. One completing the other.
And I held the ticket in one hand and the list in the other that Tuesday night at 10 P.M.
As the numbers started falling for me, I knew I could complete some of my list. Then most of my list. Then, when the last number fell, all of my list.
I got an accountant. Then I picked up my winnings, which was basically just information about getting the money wired to an account. Then the accountant took over and set up tax shelters and investments and all sorts of nonsense. And she left me with plenty of cash. Liquid money.
She handled the forms. I took the list. Then I hired a man to find Nick Jacobsen, my roommate right out of college. The piece of shit who had told my girlfriend, Angela, that I had gone back to smoking pot. He was first on my list.
He was divorced by the time I got to him. Decent job in an insurance office. Nice house. Normal life. I decided to go after the house first. He ruined my comfort, so I’d take his. Local bank. I worked with my accountant for a month and a half, used a small company to buy Nick’s mortgage. Got his credit information and sold that for fifty bucks to a Russian called “Mirlov.” Didn’t take long for him to start getting hit with phone calls. Certified letters. Then I took his house.
By then I was on to Kirsten McGee. I’d worked as a temp for a while and ended up a filing clerk at a corporate headquarters in the city. She was thirty, kinda pale and thin, but with this deep, brown hair that wouldn’t have worked on anyone else, but made her, I don’t know, otherworldly. We talked in the hall. On Mondays she’d tell me about her weekends. On Fridays, her plans. In between we’d talk about “Lost” and “Survivor” and whatever other shows we watched. After a month or two, I’d call her up and we’d talk on the phone, sorta watching the shows together. We stopped watching reality shows when they kept eating disgusting food – rats and goat kidneys and whatever. She was grossed out easily, which I found charming and ladylike.
Then she started seeing a guy called Brad Hanson. Everyone at the office called him “Brad Handsome.” Oh, ha ha. So clever. Then she would just barely talk to me in the hall. And never like we used to talk.
Kirsten lived in an apartment. Leased a car. Didn’t have much I could take from her. So I decided to give her something. I used another company to buy the crappy little apartment complex where she lived. Then I made some smaller purchases, from people I met on the internet. I started small at first. A decaying mouse in the back of her underwear drawer. Going through her fridge while she was at work and changing out her food for spoiled things. Milk. Moldy cheese. Rotten eggs. For six or seven weeks, I worked slowly. Coming in while she was at work and making small changes. I watched her from the parking lot when she got home. She started sleeping with the lights on.
Then I met a man who helped me out. He was “Firefly64” online and worked at a hospital. Thanks to him and an envelope of hundreds I gave him, I was able to fill Kirsten’s toilet with eyeballs and kidneys. Not my most clever moment, but I was just starting on the list.
After Kirsten, I decided to go back to the original plan and keep things even, in perspective. No reason to go crazy with the whole thing. For example, Jake Martin punched me in the nose. Physical. So I’d deal with him on the physical level. He could keep his house. His wife. His job. But he’d balled up his fist and punched me in the nose. Things had to even out.
I had some people pick him up on his way home from his gym. A sort of “Rent-A-Thug” I came across. Times were tough in this economy for some drug dealers. You wouldn’t think so. Or I wouldn’t. Bad economy means people do more drugs. That’s what I’d thought. But folks try to save money and make their own meth at home. Grow their own weed. So I got a deal on some tough guys. They didn’t ask why. Just who and what.
By the time I got to Jake Martin in a field fifteen miles outside Monroe, he was hanging upside down from an oak tree and had a seed bag over his head. The field was still a little damp from the morning dew. He was screaming and crying. Still with a high-schooler’s energy. I had the tough guys lower him to just above the ground, thought about how he’d punched me in the nose, then put my steel-toed boot square into his face. A wet crack, like a twig snapping in the rain. I started to walk away, then thought about how he’d punched me. How he’d balled up his fist and walked across the gym floor after practice, after the coach had gone back to his office. How he’d punched me in the face, then turned around and walked back to his friends while everyone laughed. Because they’d dared him to hit me.
I walked to my Hummer, got what I needed, then walked back Jake. The tough guys were standing next to their van along the logging road on the edge of the field. I cut Jake down and he thudded and plopped around while I kicked him some more.
I stood on his right forearm, the one he’d swung at me. I stepped on it until it sank into the ground. Then I swung once, kneeling, then another time, until the axe made it through his wrist, pulling off the fist that had punched me, that had made everyone in the school laugh at me. Look at me for weeks. Blood. Swollen eyes. Never able to breathe right. For a dare. He’d punched me on a dare. How wrong was that?
He was flopping around and the thugs looked at me, asking what to do. I turned a garbage bag inside-out and picked up Jake’s hand, closed the bag and put it into my coat pocket. Walked to the guys, told them to dump what was left of Jake near Ruston. “Alive?” they asked. I hadn’t thought about it. Hadn’t considered dead as an option. I reached into my pocket, felt his bagged hand, and nodded. Then I reached into my other pocket, pulled out some more cash I’d brought along, and handed it over to them. It’s a good idea to tip well, I thought.
I made it through the last name on the list near the end of last year. Only two out of the seventeen people died, and neither of those was really my fault.
Truth be told, it felt good for a few days to be done. But then I started missing it. Having a reason to live. A job to do. Being a multi-millionaire means that your job is being a multi-millionaire. My money keeps growing. When I was poor, I couldn’t hold onto ten bucks. Now, I make a million dollars while I sleep. I didn’t really have much to get out of bed for.
That’s when I met Leslie at a donor dinner for the library. She’d brought her daughter, who was three, because she couldn’t find a babysitter. Both of them were beautiful and charming. We’ve seen probably fifty movies in the year we’ve been dating. I bought a theater so we could have plenty of room to watch whatever new release we want. Amber had her fourth birthday at the movies, watching something in 3-D with a half-dozen of her friends.
They moved in with me two weeks ago after Leslie lost her job at the car dealership. We’ve become major donors to a few charities and I’m working on new jobs to do. New reasons to live.
“Uncle Conrad,” Amber said to me, and I thought again how Leslie and I needed to figure out what the girl calls me.
I put down my fork and Clarence cleared my breakfast plate away, taking it back to the kitchen where he and the cook could start preparing lunch.
Cooks. Chauffeurs. An honest-to-goodness butler. I missed handling things myself.
“Can I tell you a secret?”
“Sure, Amber. What’s the secret?”
She looked around to make sure no one was listening. Then she looked back up at me and I thought she was going to cry. She sniffled a little. “At school yesterday,” she stopped. “Yesterday at school.”
School. I thought again of Jake Martin. How complete I’d felt when I put his hand into that garbage bag. Amber was talking again. “At school, Monica punched me in the tummy and I cried.”
“And she did it on purpose. She didn’t even say ‘sorry’ or anything.”
“Are you OK? Did you tell the teacher?” I pulled Amber up into my lap and hugged her.
“No. She said if I told, she’d punch me again.”
I thought again about Jake Martin. About my nose. I felt fluid behind my nose, under my eyes, like I was about to cry with her. Then I thought again.
“Amber, tell me. This Monica girl.”
“What’s her father’s name?”
BIO: A former English professor, Steve Weddle has an MFA in poetry and hates guns. Every Monday, he takes a break from being a complete sissy to blog about crime fiction at DoSomeDamage. He is the editor of Needle, a magazine of crime fiction, featuring work by Christopher Grant and others. Weddle's work has recently appeared at Beat To A Pulp and CrimeFactory.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
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