THE FLICKERING - WILLIAM BLICK
The old man sat in darkness except for the flickering of the movie projector on the small screen, which the images danced across. He knew the images. Knew them well. He had called ‘Cut!’ and ‘Action’ when they were produced. On the heels of the French New Wave, he brought European sensibilities to American horror films in the late 1960s. His films were praised as ‘straddling a thin line between high art and visionary grotesqueness,’ as the Times critic wrote. He was enormous in his field. A giant of the cinema. An auteur, visionary, and prophet. Now he was a broken man estranged from his only child, a daughter who was a drug addicted actress in Los Angeles. His wife was long dead. She had taken her own life. Now all the man had left was a musty old mansion and these images dancing across the screen. He lived like a hermit. He had a nurse, Edna, to cook for him and help him with several more private hygienic activities.
Edna was the only person with whom he would interact except for the occasional phone call from the Royalties division at Caravan Pictures.
On Thursday morning, down in a sordid room on Hollywood Boulevard, the old man’s daughter lay dead with a needle in her arm. Overdose. The boyfriend came to after being on-the-nod. He tried to wake her but he could not.
On Thursday, the old man, Jensen, was watching the images on his screen and smoking cigarettes against his doctor’s orders. Edna would be coming to check on him around 5 P.M. The doorbell rang. Jensen, angry, listened closely for the sound of the intercom.
“Hello, anybody home?” said the boyfriend. Then realizing there was an intercom, pushed the button to gain the old man’s attention.
The old man pressed the button from within. “Yeah, who is it?”
“My name is Sal Caruthers. I’m a friend of your daughter’s,” said the boyfriend. The old man pressed the buzzer to let the boyfriend gain entrance. The old man on walking canes, stood in the doorway.
“If we could just sit down for a moment,” said Sal.
“What do you know about my daughter?”
“If you know something about my daughter, you better tell me now.”
“Mr. Jensen, your daughter is dead.”
The old man looked with a glance that was unsettled but not surprised. He began to walk to the parlor.
“I’m sorry, can I offer you a drink,” said the old man. The two walked slowly into the parlor. The old man poured the scotch and handed a glass to Sal. They sat on the vintage furniture and stared at one another.
“How?” said the old man, with watery eyes.
“On what,” said the old man.
“Did you shoot heroin?”
“No, I tried to help her.”
“Yes, she was always quite headstrong. Beyond help. Beyond anything. I suppose that was my fault.”
“Mr. Jensen, it wasn’t your fault. I’ve heard a lot about you. She used to talk about you all the time and everytime your movies were on cable, we watched them.
“I suppose I’ll make the arrangements,” said Jensen.
“I’m sorry. I loved her, too. Loved her. We were going to get married.”
“Next year. As soon as I sold one of my scripts.”
“This town is a leech, boy, it will suck you dry.”
Jensen sat in his favorite chair. A tear ran down his cheek. He looked over to the picture of his daughter on the mantle. He thought of her childhood, walks in the parks, puppy dogs, ice cream in the summer, looking for seashells.
The waves of Jensen’s memory washed over and soon, he fast-forwarded, like in one of his films to the burnt-out shell of a person that Llewelyn had become. She was always off with one of her boyfriends. Didn’t he care for her? He would give her anything she wanted if she had just come home.
“May I use your bathroom?” asked Sal.
“Last door on the right.”
Sal wandered the hallway for a time glancing at photographs and awards and an Oscar. He washed his face in the bathroom sink and then walked into the foyer and double locked the doors. Then he walked back into the darkness of the living room, where Jensen sat sipping scotch and gazing at the flickering images on the larger movie screen against the far wall. Jensen wasn’t really watching the images; he was deep in thought.
Sal poured himself another scotch and sat down on the easy chair across from Jensen.
“Jensen,” said Sal in a louder than usual voice.
“Yes,” said Jensen, somewhat startled.
“Now, I need your full attention,” said Sal and, with that, got up and stood in the rays of the projector.
“Your daughter was a degenerate drug addict. That is why she is dead. But before she died she told me things.”
Jensen nearly dropped his scotch and his heart pounded fast. Who was this man? What did he want?
“What kinds of things did she tell you?”
“She told me of your selfish, rotten stinking obsession with film and how you neglected your wife. How she threw her life away because you were a fool. How you never showed your own daughter any love or affection. The only affection you had was for the flickering images on the screen.”
The flickering antiquated images danced off of Sal’s forehead and nose.
Sal continued. “She also told me of the 5 million dollars cash you kept hidden in this rundown old mansion. That you were saving to finance and invest in a final picture. A final picture that would never come.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” said Jensen, clutching his canes.
“5 million dollars to finance an independent film of horrfying proportions. While your own daughter struggled on the streets, all you could think about was your lousy movies.”
“She could have had anything she wanted, but she chose the streets.”
“Shut up, Jensen. Shut the fuck up! I am going to say this and say it only once. You will tell me where that money is, or I will take a piece of your flesh for every time you hold out on me.”
“But the nurse, Edna, will be here. She will call the cops.”
“Don’t worry about Edna. I’ve already taken care of things.” Sal withdrew a blue nurse’s scrub top from his back pocket. It was stained with blood.
“What have you done with Edna?” said Jensen.
“Let’s just say, she will make good fertilizer for that great lawn of yours out in the back.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about. There is no movie. There is no money.”
Sal withdrew a switchblade from his pocket and flicked it open. He walk over to Jensen and played it over his soft, wilting flesh. He held it to his eyelid and pulled on the eyelid with his index finger and thumb of his opposite hand. Sal then let go of the lid and worked his way down with the knife to Jensen’s thumb. He pushed hard with the blade and sliced cutting a large gash in Jensen’s hand.
Jensen let out a scream. “There is no money.”
Sal wiped his blade with a rag he had in his pocket, “That’s once, Jensen. You’ve got plenty of body parts. Plenty of time to tear the flesh. Tell me where you keep the money.”
“I don’t know why she told you that. It is a lie. There is no money! Now, I beg you to please let me go. I won’t call the police. Please leave now.”
“You leave me no choice. There is nothing I like better than teaching a selfish old fool like yourself how to share with others.” Sal walked over to the old man. This time, he had wire cutters in his back pocket. It seemed like he had an endless supply of gadgetry in his pockets for supplying pain.
“Give me your hand,” said Sal. The old man had his hands behind his back. “Give me your hand or I will break your arm and cut your thumb off.” The old man held out his arms. Sal used the wire cutter to remove Jensen’s pinky.
Sal waved the smelling salt under Jensen’s nostrils. Jensen had blacked out from the pain. “Where is the money,” asked Sal. Jensen was trying to establish his surroundings and he felt unbearable pain coming from his left hand.
Think hard. Think fast. What to do? What to do. What would Harry Carver in his films of the ’70s do to get out of this situation. Money. Money. Fear. Pain.
“Alright, Mr. Caruthers,” said Jensen, out of breath and struggling for air, “you win. I will show you where it is.”
“No, tell me where it is.”
“I have to show you, but you have to help get me down the stairs into the basement.”
“I don’t like it. You try any funny stuff and I’ll shoot and bury you next to sweet Edna, you dig?”
“I don’t want any more pain. Please.”
Sal helped Jensen onto the motorized seat that lifted him from the top of the long staircase in the hallway down to the old basement. When Jensen reached the bottom, with Sal right behind him, Sal asked, “What’s all this stuff?”
There were movie cameras and film canisters everywhere. “Why, this is my laboratory. Many of my films ended up right here.”
“I don’t give a shit, you hack. Tell me where the money is!”
“Alright, please don’t get angry.” Jensen, still sitting in the motorized chair, had a rag wrapped around his pinky. Blood was seeping through and onto his pants.
Jensen continued, “Do you see that door?”
“Yeah,” said Sal.
“That is the door to the cellar. At the base of the stairs is a lockbox with combination. 25-32-19 is the combination. You will find the cash of 1000 dollar bills in there. Be careful. There is no light.”
Sal looked at Jensen with distrustful eyes. “At the bottom of these stairs, huh? What are you up to?”
“Look, Mr. Caruthers, you hold all the cards. I am but a simple broken down old man. You’ve already took my finger. What more do you want?”
Sal began his descent down the second staircase. He could feel the moist, damp air on the back of his neck. He could smell the mold.There was no illumination except some light seeping in from a dirty window. He struggled in the darkness. A faded sound was getting louder.
“There is something I forgot to tell you, Mr. Caruthers. We’ve had a slight infestation of rodents as recent, that I’ve not quite got the chance to take of.”
Jensen hobbled over to the door to the cellar, using the canes for support and slammed it closed. He locked it with a dead bolt. Down in the cellar, Sal was looking at the lockbox, the sound grew louder as the vermin closed in for their feeding. Thousands of rats scurried across the floor and took bites of Sal’s flesh. Scores of them overcame Sal’s body. He fell to the ground and screamed.
Above, in the basement, Jensen turned on his infrared camera and pointed it through a hole in the basement floor to peer at Sal and the feeding frenzy of his flesh that ensued.
“One more thing, Sal,” he shouted. “There is no money, but, as for that final movie, well, this is my final masterpiece — a chaotic, frenzied death scene. A brigand eaten to death. This one will be great. This one will last forever in the annals of time. A fitting farewell tribute to death.”
The rats chewed through flesh, organs, tissue, muscle, and bone. The squealing was unbearable. It only lasted about ½ an hour.
BIO: William Blick has published work in Mysterical-E, Pulp Pusher, Pulp Metal Magazine, Beat to a Pulp and many others.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
13 hours ago