DEAD AND BURIED - ALLAN LEVERONE
The moon’s dirty grey light struggled to penetrate the ground fog as it swirled and twisted, illuminating the forest weakly, like an old-time black and white television show. In an isolated clearing, a man knelt at the edge of a freshly-dug three-foot-deep hole, hands fastened behind his back with nylon cord, damp earth crusting the knees of his blue jeans. The man was still but keenly observant, seeming to acknowledge the hopelessness of his situation. He knelt and waited.
The hole—the gravesite—had been constructed roughly six feet long and three feet wide, the approximate dimensions of its prospective tenant. The earth excavated to form this makeshift resting place was piled neatly at one end, convenient for its return trip.
Behind the soon-to-be victim a second man paced, agitated and clearly nervous. He sucked on a cigarette and held a Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum Model 60 revolver in one hand and a shiny Easton aluminum baseball bat in the other. The silvery reflection of the moon’s light offered a jarring contrast to the monochromatic dimness casting the rest of the scene.
The man with the dirt on his knees waited patiently, warily eyeing the nervous man next to him as he paced back and forth. He was not anxious to hurry things along; he was perfectly happy to let the other man deal with his inner demons for as long as necessary. Every breath he took was one more than he had expected to get after being forced to the ground by the handgun barrel pressed to the back of his head.
Finally he spoke. “Why the baseball bat? Planning to sandwich a little batting practice between putting a bullet in my head and moving in with my suddenly available wife?”
The man with the gun and the bat stopped pacing for a moment. He almost seemed to have forgotten his victim was even there. He licked his lips nervously. “No bullets,” he said. “I’m going to do you with the bat instead.”
“I hope you don’t mind me asking the obvious question, but why?”
“I’m not stupid. A bullet lodged in your head can be traced back to the gun it was fired from and used as evidence if you’re body is ever discovered; not that it will be. The baseball bat will be buried in a different location as soon as this is over, and will never be seen again.”
The man kneeling at the edge of his own grave considered this information and then nodded. “I can see you’ve given this a lot of thought—or Maura has—although from my perspective I have to tell you that a home run swing to the side of the head sounds much more painful than taking one in the hat from that cannon you’re holding.”
“Sorry about that,” answered the man holding the weapons. “I know it’s not ideal, but I’ve got to do what’s best for me.”
“Clearly. You do understand I’m going to make you pay for this, right?”
A soft, high-pitched squeal erupted from somewhere in the back of the agitated man’s throat and he turned and raised his bat and swung from the heels, connecting with the other man’s head. A wet noise that sounded nothing like a bat hitting a ball exploded into the heavy night air and the man with the dirt on his knees tumbled slowly, almost gracefully, into the bottom of the shallow pit.
The other man dropped his bat like it contained an electric charge and puked into the grave, neatly extinguishing his cigarette with the acidy yellow contents of his stomach. He dropped to his knees and reached down and yanked his victim’s wallet out of the back pocket of his jeans. He then produced a pocket knife and sliced the cord holding the dead man’s hands together, rose unsteadily, and staggered through the silence of the killing field back to his car.
Tossing the incriminating bat and length of cord into the back seat for later disposal, the man grabbed his shovel and steeled himself for one more trip into the forest, this time to toss the pile of dirt over his victim and hide the evidence of his treachery forever.
Maura Stapleton pulled her Mercedes into the driveway of the home she shared with Vince Gower, talking on her cell phone and driving much too fast, as usual. She slowed just enough to squeeze under the garage door still rumbling up on its tracks, then screeched to a stop in the middle of the stall.
It had been ten long months since Vince completed their nasty business—at her insistence—and Maura, for one, had never been happier. Her marriage to Jim Stapleton had been a sham, at least from her perspective, and she had finally prevailed upon Vince to dispose of her pain-in-the-ass husband once and for all.
She would have been free of Jim months earlier if Vince, the man with whom she had been having an affair practically since saying “I do” six years ago, hadn’t been such a frigging wuss. Maura kept pounding into Vince’s thick skull the fact that the only way the two of them would be able to live together in a comfortable manner would be for Jim to disappear. Permanently. The sooner the better. Eventually he had come to see things her way, as she had known he would.
Coming into the marriage, everything had been Jim’s: the business, the cars, the investments, even the house, which was much too big and ostentatious for the two of them, but which Maura loved because it trumpeted to the world in no uncertain terms her new status.
Divorcing Jim would never work, Maura had explained to Vince, because then the prick would get to keep virtually all of the stuff—those goodies which she loved so much and which, to her astonishment, she had discovered Jim didn’t seem to care that much about. She had foolishly agreed to a very restrictive pre-nup before marrying Jim Stapleton and then regretted it almost instantly.
Now, with Jim missing, she and Vince were already almost one year into the seven year wait required by law before ownership of everything reverted to Maura. In the meantime, if Jim wasn’t found—which of course he wouldn’t be—as his wife, she retained the use of everything; it just wouldn’t legally belong to her for six more years.
Maura stepped out of her car and grabbed the shopping bags out of the tiny back seat, struggling to carry her three purchases and not spill her large iced coffee. She loved shopping and considered it a travesty if she went more than two days without buying a new outfit and of course some sexy lingerie for Vince’s benefit. He was everything she needed in a man: handsome, strong, great in the sack, not overly bright, and easy to control.
She stepped into the kitchen and took exactly two steps—elapsed time, maybe one second—to notice something was very wrong, and by then it was already too late. Seated in the middle of the kitchen, secured to a heavy pine chair that was part of the six thousand dollar kitchen set she had purchased to celebrate her husband’s disappearance, was Vince Gower.
He shook his head violently but silently, any attempt at warning Maura muffled by a rag stuffed into his mouth and secured with twine wrapped tightly around the back of his skull. His wrists were tied behind him, his ankles lashed to the legs of the chair. His thick brown hair tumbled down his forehead, tangled and sweaty, obscuring his eyes.
Maura froze for the barest fraction of a second as her brain attempted to process this unexpected scenario. Then the gears engaged and she turned in a panic to double-back; to flee the house via the garage, to exit the way she had just entered. She screamed as she ran straight into the solid—and very much alive—Jim Stapleton.
Her shopping bags fell to the floor, followed immediately by the iced coffee, splashing everywhere and destroying a brand-new, four hundred dollar Donna Karan dress. Maura didn’t notice or care. Her entire universe consisted of the impassive face of her dead husband as he held her in a vice grip, staring down at her with hard grey eyes.
Jim couldn’t have planned it any better. Maura walked through the door, preoccupied only with herself, as usual. He had known she would make it all the way into the kitchen before the sight of her bound and gagged boyfriend would register. In fact, he had half expected her to waltz right on by and into the living room without noticing him at all.
He stationed himself behind the basement entrance when he heard the big garage door rumbling down on its tracks, having purposely placed Vince in as obvious a location as possible. Then, with Maura frozen in shock at the sight of her immobilized lover—she looked literally like a deer caught in the headlights; until now, Jim had not realized how accurate that expression could be—he simply stepped behind her and waited for her to bolt. Which she had done, right on cue. Now he held her tightly by her forearms while her panicked eyes regarded him as if she was seeing a ghost, which, Jim supposed, in a way she was.
Finally he spoke, when it became clear Maura was unable to form an intelligible sentence. “Hi, honey, I’m home. Did you miss me?”
“You’re...you’re dead,” she gasped.
“Well, yes and no. There’s ‘dead’ and there’s ‘not exactly.’ Care for an explanation?”
Maura Stapleton nodded in mute terror. Her eyes were enormous. She had not taken them off her husband since nearly running him over in her aborted escape attempt.
Jim took his wife by the elbow and guided her gently to another kitchen chair, which he placed directly opposite Vince’s. Easing her into the seat, Jim fastened a long plastic zip-tie around her right ankle, which he secured to the leg of the heavy wooden chair. He did nothing to her hands; he wanted them free.
“So. Isn’t this cozy?” Jim said with a smile. He reached behind Vince’s head and pulled the twine securing the gag free, and as soon as he did, the words began tumbling out of the frantic man’s mouth. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, “I’m so sorry,” spittle rolling down his chin as he faced his lover, now seated just three feet away, staring at him with murder in her eyes.
“You fucking pussy. You told me you did it; you said he was dead,” she whispered, the words measured and soft but clear as gunshots in the sudden tense stillness of the kitchen.
“He was, and then he wasn’t. I mean, I thought he was but he really wasn’t,” the distraught man babbled, clearly more afraid of the petite blonde woman lashed to a chair in front of him than he was of her husband, newly resurrected and holding a gun on them both.
Maura Stapleton’s eyes bored holes into her lover’s, and then she shook her pretty head scornfully and turned to look at Jim. “I didn’t have any idea he was going to attack you last summer,” she purred. “I don’t blame you for being angry, but holding me against my will doesn’t make any sense. I had nothing to do with what happened.”
Vince Gower made a sound of incredulous disbelief, his jaw hanging half open. He began protesting but the words died in his mouth when Jim trained the Smith and Wesson on him. It was the very same weapon Vince had used to force him to his knees over an earthen grave less than one year ago.
“Little did I realize,” Jim said conversationally, his gun aimed at Vince but his words aimed at his wife, “when you said you needed a gun for self-defense, that it would get so much use. It certainly has been well worth the money I paid.”
Now Maura began to speak, eyes flashing, but she stopped just as quickly as Vince had when Jim swung the weapon her way. “I’m going to keep the floor for a while,” he said. “Is that okay with everyone?”
No one answered and Jim nodded pleasantly. “I thought so. Here’s the thing,” he continued, smiling down at his wife while his eyes glittered, grey and flinty and cold. The contrast was chilling. “I had a long chat with Sexy Rexy here before you arrived—”
“His name is Vince,” his wife interrupted, her mouth turned down in a pout. “You know that.”
“Of course it is. Sorry. Anyway, Sexy Rexy told me a story much different than yours while we were chatting, awaiting your arrival. He says killing me was all your idea, that you wanted the house and the cars and the business, and that you told him the only way to get it, thanks to that pesky pre-nup, was to kill me and make sure I was never found. You would have to wait awhile, of course, before everything was legally transferred into your name, but even during that time you would still have control over everything. Is that about the size of it? Have I left anything out?”
Maura began protesting loudly, leaning forward in her chair and pointing an accusing finger at Vince, who cowered away from her, before Jim silenced her again, this time by shoving the barrel of the gun under her chin, hard. “I believe him,” he whispered fiercely. “He had no reason to want me dead and he’s not bright enough to come up with that scheme on his own. He had been banging you for years, I was aware of it from the very beginning, and nothing much was going to change for him whether I was alive or dead. You, on the other hand,” he pushed the gun barrel harder against her throat until she began to gag, “had everything to gain and you’re smart as a whip and cold as ice to boot.”
“You would never shoot me,” she said as he eased the pressure of the pistol off her throat. “You love me too much.” Her face was ashen but her voice was strong and steady and filled with conviction.
Jim smiled. “You know, you’re right about that,” he said, pocketing the gun and sitting in his own chair, spinning it around and straddling it with his chin resting on his arms, interlocked over the top of the chair-back. “I’ve had plenty of time to think about this whole messy situation and I came to the same conclusion months ago.”
“What the hell happened out in those woods, anyway?” Maura asked Vince, again staring hard at him.
“I hit him with everything I had,” he answered quietly, his voice shaking, “but when I returned from my car with the shovel to fill in the hole, he was gone. I didn’t realize he was still alive after I hit him. Somehow he crawled away in the ten minutes it took me to go to my car and back. I don’t know how he managed it, but he didn’t die.”
“Obviously. And you didn’t think to tell me this?” Maura’s eyes blazed and her face flushed in anger, her play for Jim forgotten. “You didn’t think the fact that my husband was still alive and not laying at the bottom of a shallow grave was important enough to clue me in on? It slipped your mind, maybe?”
Vince seemed to shrink back into the chair. His fear of the tiny woman was palpable. “I figured there was no way he could make it out of the woods alive. We were miles from anywhere, so if he crawled a few hundred yards and then died, what difference would it make? I knew you’d be furious if you found out, and he was going to die either way, so, really, why say anything?”
“Yes, what difference would it make?” Jim said dryly. “When I saw you swing the bat I had the presence of mind to snap my head to the side at the moment of impact, so, although you still split my head open, I never lost consciousness. As soon you went back for your shovel, I crawled out of the hole. I still don’t quite know how.
“I was injured badly, suffering from a fractured skull and bleeding from the head, but I walked for what felt like an eternity and finally exited the forest on Route 42, where I got lucky for the second time that night. A couple of kids driving west on their way back to college picked me up, and I was able to disguise the extent of my injuries, thanks to the darkness and the fact that they were drunk off their asses.
“I rode with them for hours, finally allowing them to take me to a hospital somewhere off Interstate 90 in western New York State. They dropped me off at the emergency room door and left. I had no identification, you made sure of that,” he said, nodding at Vince, “so I feigned amnesia. It wasn’t difficult; I was badly injured and my temperature was so high by the time I stumbled into that hospital that I was hallucinating. But I forced myself to do it. And do you know why?”
Maura and Vince looked at each other without speaking. Jim leaned forward until his face was inches from the man who had hit him over the head in a desolate forest and left him to die. “Come on, big guy,” he said slowly, enunciating each syllable in a voice that would cut glass. “You’re not even trying. Why do you suppose I put myself through the agony of walking out of the forest and then suffering for seven hours in a car with a fractured skull, when I could have died at any moment? Why?”
Vince looked at him with terror in his eyes, while Maura observed the exchange with an air of detachment. She could have been watching a political debate on television. Jim finally continued, “I put up with that pain and agony for one reason, and one reason only. When you had me on my knees, preparing to finish me off with a goddamn baseball bat, I told you something, and I meant it. Do you remember what I said to you, Rexy?”
Vince was pushing against his chair-back with all his might, unable to move the heavy piece of furniture even an inch although not for a lack of trying. His head thrashed side to side. Jim couldn’t tell if it was because he didn’t remember what he had said that night or because he did. The silence lingered, Vince shaking his head but afraid to speak; Maura sitting quietly, clearly hoping Jim would expend his rage on her sap of a boyfriend and spare her.
When it became clear Vince either would not or could not answer, Jim spoke. “I told you that you were going to pay for what you were about to do to me, and tonight I’ve come to collect.”
Tears cut tracks down Vince Gower’s face, transforming it from handsome and proud into something sad and pathetic. Jim stood and stretched his back, wincing as it cracked and snapped. “Anyway,” he said, turning his attention to his wife, who looked less than pleased with this turn of events, “let’s wrap this up, shall we? It’s getting late and it’s almost show time. Just to satisfy your curiosity about how I managed to come back from the dead, I had been stashing money away for a long time after discovering your true nature. I guess to say ‘some money’ would not be doing the amount justice. It was a lot of money, very liquid, and very easily accessed.
“I knew you had been sleeping with Sexy Rexy here for years and would eventually figure out a way to take everything from me, and while I really don’t give a damn about all our stuff, I had no desire to live like a pauper forever, either. So I slowly stashed plenty of cash where I could get at it easily—it’s not hard to do when you have a friend or two in the right places—and after I recovered sufficiently in the New York hospital, I simply walked out the front door and disappeared.
“No one knew who I was, so officially, I didn’t exist as far as the authorities were concerned. I made my way back to this area to collect my money and then left again to start a new life while I considered the question of what to do about you two. I finally made up my mind, so here I am.” He smiled at his two captives. Maura looked less sure of herself, but still not overly concerned.
Jim pulled the Smith and Wesson out from behind his back, where he had slipped it under the waistband of his jeans while he was talking. He held it in his gloved hands. “And you’re right about one thing,” he said softly to Maura. “I could never shoot you. I actually still love you, God help me, so killing you is out of the question, but I’m sure you can agree that the situation as it currently stands is untenable. So you’re going to kill Sexy Rexy.”
“You heard me. You’re going to take this pistol and shoot your lover in the head, and then you’re going to be arrested for murder and spend the rest of your miserable, greedy, grasping life in prison. Not the perfect solution, I’ll admit, but it’s the best I could come up with under the circumstances.”
Vince Gower’s tears were now mixing with snot, the whole mess running down his chin as he whimpered. He seemed to be having trouble breathing. Maura said, “You’re crazy. Why would the police think I killed Vince?”
“Well, let’s see,” he replied, checking off the reasons on his fingers. “Your pistol, the one registered to you and stored in this home, is used to murder your boyfriend, who I suppose you could say is also stored in this home. Your fingerprints will be the only ones on the gun, and poor Vince’s blood will be on your hands, as will blowback residue. Sounds like an open-and-shut case to me.”
“I’ll tell them you did it; that you came back and killed Vince in a fit of jealousy—”
Jim burst out laughing. “About that,” he said, still chuckling. “I don’t exist anymore, remember? In fact, if I had to make a wager, I’d be willing to bet that the police will begin looking for me again, all right. They’ll be searching for my body, figuring since you killed poor, pathetic Vince here that you probably offed me last year, too.”
Horror blossomed in Maura’s eyes as she considered his words. “You don’t have to do this,” she babbled. “We can kill him together, bury the body. I’ll say you were lost and had amnesia and you suddenly regained your memory and we’re back together and—”
Jim leaned over, cocking the pistol. In one smooth motion, he grabbed Maura’s right hand, wrapping it around the butt of the weapon and forcing her finger through the trigger guard. Vince screamed and Jim guided Maura’s hand toward the target and they pulled the trigger together and the gun roared and Vince’s head exploded, splattering blood and bone and hair and gore all over the back wall of the kitchen.
Maura sat motionless, in shock, her beautiful face white but her hand steady, suddenly holding the weapon all by herself. Jim pulled a switchblade out of his pocket and sliced the zip tie securing his wife’s ankle to the kitchen chair, stuffing it into his pocket. He stood and walked toward the door.
He heard the audible click and sighed, then turned to face Maura one last time. “The reason you can’t shoot me is that I made certain the gun contained only one bullet. It’s useless now, unless you need a paperweight. I’ll call the authorities when I get a little ways down the street. Run if you want, but you won’t get far.”
Jim turned back to the door and placed his gloved hand on the knob. Without looking at his wife, he said, “Good luck, kiddo. Have a nice life.”
BIO: Allan Leverone is a three-time Derringer Award Finalist for excellence in short mystery fiction and a proud member of the International Thriller Writers, New England Horror Writers and Short Mystery Fiction Society. His debut thriller, FINAL VECTOR, will be released by Medallion Press in February, 2011. When not burying bodies in the forest, you can find Allan at Facebook, Myspace, or Allan Leverone.com.