Another previously unpublished short story. I hope you will enjoy it.
a Dark Scenarios short story by Harvey Stanbrough
Before I opened the door, I peered through the window. It was one of those security windows, with that criss-crossed wire imbedded in the glass.
The hallway was pitch black. Even the Exit sign that should be glowing red above the door at the other end wasn’t lit, though I could just make out the slightly lighter small rectangle that marked the window in that door. Or maybe that was my imagination since I was about to go through the same kind of door.
Earlier, when I met with my client, Mrs. Prentiss, I asked her about the whole door situation. At the time, we were in a posh home office that smelled faintly of some kind of perfume. It was situated through a set of mahogany double doors off her living room. In most mansions, I guess that room would be the library.
I was sitting a few feet in front of her desk in a comfortable chair.
She was sitting in a high-backed leather desk chair behind a broad, expensive-looking mahogany desk. She was trim and wearing a white blouse that I assumed was silk. A colorful scarf was tied loosely around her throat. Her clear blue eyes were framed by short-cut silver-grey hair that looked more or less like a fashionable helmet. In short, she looked like everyone’s grandmother, if everyone’s grandmother wore a five hundred dollar haircut and ran a multi-national corporation.
“You come highly recommended, Mr. …?” She put on a wrinkled smile that came out more like a smirk.
I eyed her steadily, my hands in my lap. “Smith will do. And thank you. I aim to please, so to speak.”
After she’d filled me in on the job—location of the target, my entry and exit points, things like that—I said, “So since the target is in the last room on the right from my entry point, why not just leave that door unlocked? That would reduce my time on the scene from a few minutes to several seconds.”
Her response was a smirk. “I have my reasons.” Then she said I could accept the job or take a hike. In so many words. You know.
That’s when I smiled, pushed up from my chair and opened my mouth to say I probably wasn’t the right guy for the job.
But I didn’t get a chance to say anything.
As I opened my mouth to say adios, she said, “Before you answer, you should know I’ve decided to double your fee.” She paused, then added, “Mr. Hines.” The smirk was still in place for a moment. Then she laughed lightly as she watched me closely.
So she knew my name. And she knew it wasn’t Smith.
My mind raced. I’d never met her, but three years earlier she’d been a target. Well, not her personally, but her corporation. Not that she had any way of knowing that. The job I was hired to do back then was a small thing in the overall scheme. My part of it had succeeded without a hitch, but the competitor still failed in his bid to bring her company down. Then again, that wasn’t my problem.
So where’d she learn my name? It couldn’t have been from the old guy who’d hired me three years ago. He wouldn’t give her the time of day if his middle finger was a watch. But he was the only other person on Earth who knew both her and me.
Still, the rich move in circles so high that people like me don’t even feel the wind.
I didn’t blink. “Fine,” I said. “But it has to be the same split. Half now, half later.”
I expected her to at least blanch or sputter a little or something, but she didn’t do any of that. She only reached down to pull open a drawer on the right side of her desk.
As she did, I slipped my right hand behind the left lapel of my suit coat. That’s where I keep my Kimber .45 pistol.
But again the woman didn’t flinch. As she continued to maintain eye contact, she pulled a white business sized envelope from the drawer. She held it up, the smirk still on her face, and said, “No. One-fourth now, three-fourths later.” Then she leaned slightly forward in her chair and dropped the envelope heavily on her desk. The flap wasn’t sealed.
The smirk moved up to her eyes, assessing me. I wondered whether it was a permanent fixture or a personal challenge. Either way, that smirk is what convinced me to accept the job as she’d drawn it up. Screw her. Money’s money.
I took a step toward the desk, picked up the envelope, and flashed it open to be sure it wasn’t filled with blank paper. It contained several hundred dollar bills, about the right number to make up half of my original fee. So one-fourth of my new, doubled fee. “All right,” I said, then closed the envelope and slipped it into my inside coat pocket.
The smirk still in place and spreading to her mouth again, she said, “So you accept?”
I smirked back at her. “I accept.”
“When you’ve completed the job, call the number in the envelope. But the task must be accomplished in the next five days.”
I almost asked why, but unless she was setting me up, really it was none of my business. And I can’t be set up—I’m too careful for that—so I just nodded. “Want to see me out?” It was my way of getting her away from her desk. You never know what people might have in mind when your back is turned.
She almost smiled, slight wrinkles forming at the corners of her mouth and eyes, then pushed her chair back and stood. “Certainly.”
I watched as she stepped around the desk. Other than the white blouse and the scarf, she was wearing chocolate-brown slacks under a gold-braid belt. On her feet were black low-heeled shoes.
She passed me by without looking at me again, walked to the mahogany double doors and opened the left one. Then she stepped back and gestured. “Thank you for coming.”
As I stepped past her, I only nodded.
The door latched behind me before I finished the nod.
I glanced back. Well, good for her. When I faced front again, the maid had appeared and was waiting for me.
She was a young, slim and very pretty Latino, with short black hair and black eyes that seemed to smile even when her mouth didn’t. Her uniform consisted of a powder-blue dress and a white bib apron. I almost lapsed into a fantasy. As she turned away, she said with a heavy Spanish accent, “Thees way, pliss.” She led me across the living room to the front door. Like her employer, she opened the left door and stepped back.
I smiled at her. “Thank you.” As I stepped past her, I turned to say something more.
But the door closed, and just like that, I was alone on the front porch.
That was about eight hours ago.
I arrived on scene a little early. Twice. Like I said, I’m careful.
Given five days to accomplish a job, most people in my profession would avoid the middle day. They would make the hit on the second day or the fourth day. Me, I wanted to strike fast and get it over with.
I scoped out the area within sight of my entrance and exit with a casual walking tour that lasted most of the final two hours of daylight. There were other people around, but most were young mothers walking their kids to or from a nearby park and, toward the end of the day, young dads out walking their dogs. And I saw why she wanted me to enter the building through a particular door. It was more secluded. So I paid more attention to the area around that door. If the job went off as I’d planned, I would exit that way too.
Then I returned after dark and wandered around again. Both times I was sure to view any possible ambush sites from every possible angle. But I found nobody lying in wait and no sign that anyone had lain in wait or might later. No makeshift seats or bench rests. No curious imprints in the grass or sand that might indicate a boot heel or footprint or elbow had been placed there to sight-in a rifle.
When I was through, I felt as safe as anyone can in my situation.
And here I was, peering through a window in a door and wondering what lay in wait inside. I’d exchanged my suit for a black stocking cap, a black long-sleeved t-shirt and black gloves, black trousers and my soft-soled moccasins.
I pulled gently on the brushed steel bar that served as a door handle, stepped through the opening and then caught the door behind me with my palm to be sure it closed silently.
The hallway was pitch black as advertised. Like the Exit sign above the door at the far end of the hallway, the one above and behind me was also dark as evidenced by the lack of a glow on the walls.
So far, so good.
I put my hands out to my sides. The hallway was so narrow I could touch both walls at the same time. They were painted-over concrete block. Cool to the touch and slightly uneven but smooth, so painted, and with a slight curved indentation about every foot, so mortared concrete block.
The hallway smelled of human sweat under a thin veneer of disinfectant and—onions? Maybe a slight touch of onions. Weird.
It was so black I couldn’t even see the doors that exited to either side off the hallway, but I knew when I passed one. Oddly, they weren’t symmetrical. They were offset, with each door facing the middle of the wall of the room across the hall. Mrs. Prentiss hadn’t briefed me on that. But then, I hadn’t thought to ask.
But the woman had said there were nine doors on the right and eight on the left. And one of those on the right led to the janitor’s closet.
The gentle, regular sound of snoring came through the first door on the right. Well, yeah. It was just after midnight.
The sound of sobbing came from the first room on the left, but not loud sobbing. Quiet, like she was crying in her sleep. I assume it was a woman. The sound wasn’t harsh enough to be a man. Most men I’ve met don’t let themselves cry at all, but when they do it’s much louder, like they’re deeper into it or more invested. Or maybe they just don’t know better because they don’t do it much.
From the second room on the right, a faucet dripped. Dripped. Dripped. No other sound. Not even snoring.
No sounds at all from the second room on the left or the next room on the right, the third.
The quiet sound of voices hummed from the third room on the left.
I froze for a moment, but it sounded like a radio or television talk show. Maybe NPR. Those folks always talk quietly, like they’re afraid they might disturb someone.
I released a silent breath, touched the walls again to verify my bearings, and continued past the third door on the left.
With a small sense of pride, I noted that no sound at all came from my footfalls on the floor. I figure it was linoleum, or something else smooth and without noticeable joints, laid over a concrete pad.
Still, I wore my soft-soled moccasins specifically because I’d forgotten to ask the client about the floor. An older building like this, it might be anything. A wooden floor might have creaked. And on any surface other than sand, rubber-soled shoes might have squeaked. And leather—you can’t depend on leather soles at all ever unless you’re outside where other sounds render quiet footfalls unimportant. Leather picks up all sorts of stuff, and if you’re listening at all it clatters off your shoes like a tomcat turned over a trashcan in the alley or a drunk stumbled into a corner and dropped his bottle. Especially when silence is of the essence.
But this was a good solid concrete floor, hard as a rock beneath my moccasins. Probably covered with that off-white linoleum with the black flecks they use in places like this.
Or maybe that soft green color since this is a looney bin. Well, to be more specific it was the special-care wing of an old-folks home. It housed people who were afflicted with advanced brain problems. Dementia, things like that.
The fourth room on the right was silent.
A gravelly, rough snoring came from the next door on the left, so the fifth. And the fifth room on the right was as silent as the fourth. Probably that one was the janitor’s closet. Halfway there.
That soft green color is supposed to be calming. In fact, the walls were probably painted that color too. Hard, solid, confining concrete block painted over with a soft, calming green.
That’s what they ought to call it: calming green. It was developed specifically to keep folks calm, and then some moron named it Institutional Green, which reminded the people whose emotions it was supposed to mitigate that they were locked away in an institution—probably against their will—and there went the calming effect.
I didn’t leave my fingertips out there, on the walls, I mean. I pulled them away after only a few steps. Otherwise I’d look like an idiot if anyone could see me. Of course nobody could unless they were crouched at the far end of the hall and I was silhouetted against the slightly lighter window behind me. And if they were, wouldn’t they have taken me out earlier?
But I felt stupid anyway with my arms spread like that. You can’t be ready for anything with your arms spread. Put your arms out to your sides anywhere but on a high wire in strong winds and you feel off-balance. You’re like a toddler taking his first little steps. The only thing you’re ready for is to fall on your face. And in my business, if you fall on your face you’ll continue on into your grave. A nonstop trip to your final destination.
Anyway, I only touched the sides in the first place to get my bearings, to register with my mind that the walls were really there. Well, and because that’s what you do when you’re in an unfamiliar place, especially in the dark. You have to give your brain something to latch onto. The human mind can’t quite grasp total darkness. The void seems endless until you give your brain a reference point or two.
More quiet sounds filtered from the other doors as I eased past them.
Someone turning over in bed in the sixth room on the left, the springs squeaking.
Someone on the right snoring quietly. And above that, the sound of the venetian blinds tapping the wall lightly after the breeze had pushed them away. That’s what it sounded like. Apparently the window was open just enough.
Then on the left, someone breathing audibly but not quite snoring. That was the seventh room on that side.
The window at the end of the hall was much closer. I could just make out the off-white frame around the dark Exit light over the door. The ambient light filtering through the window was just enough to reveal that nobody was crouched along the wall on either side.
In the next room on the right, also the seventh, the theme of Gunsmoke played quietly. That was definitely on TV. I stopped, listened. Light snoring just beneath a flirty conversation between the marshal and Miss Kitty.
I pictured an old guy fallen asleep in his chair. I hoped for his sake it was a recliner, and I released a breath.
They had Gunsmoke on radio for awhile, but it sounded different on radio. I like Gunsmoke okay, and some little parts of it strike me as pretty realistic. But that Bonanza show—are you kidding me? You think anyone took Lorne Greene seriously as a rancher? Ever get a look at the palms of his hands? They should’ve roughed those up a little, maybe muss his hair now and then for good measure. Probably the same people who cast Lorne Greene for that role cast Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor as farmers. As if..
I glanced at the next door on the left, the last one, then stepped up closer to it. Another leaky faucet, and again, sounds of quiet snoring punctuated by a kind of gurgling in the throat.
My quarry was behind the next door on the right. The door was supposed to be unlocked. I reached down, found the knob, put a little pressure on it to keep it quiet, and tried it.
I held onto the doorknob, but stopped to listen.
The room was silent.
Mrs. Prentiss said the bed would be only a few steps into the room, slightly to the left, and that it was a clear path from the door to the bed. She also said the target most often slept on his back with his hands crossed one over the other at his waist. When she told me that part I thought, maybe morbidly, it was nice of the old gentleman to assume the casket position before he was even dead. Maybe he was practicing.
She’d said the guy was 90-some years old and had COPD, so chances were he wasn’t long for this world anyway. If money weren’t involved, I might have wondered why she wanted to hasten his departure.
My plan was to push open the door quietly, ease it shut behind me, then proceed forward and slightly left. When I felt the bed against my knees—and this was something I got from Mrs. Prentiss, but it made sense so I decided it would be best—I would press hard on the old guy’s chest with my right hand, all my weight behind it. That would shove all the air out of him as I ripped the pillow out from under his head with my left hand. Then I’d grab the ends of the pillow, press it down across his face, and hold it for a 30 count. That would be plenty.
Like the client said, easy-in, easy-out. No noise, no bother. But I was ready for pretty much anything.
In case the plan went awry—say I walked in and the old man was in the bathroom or doing anything else but lying in bed sleeping—I had a little throw-away .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol standing in my right trouser pocket. The magazine was loaded with low-velocity ammo, and I’d already affixed a can to the end of it. So if I did have to shoot, it would make about as much of a pop as a flyswatter wielded by a two year old. And in my left trouser pocket, I had a pen light.
Of course, I also still had my .45 in my shoulder holster, though it wasn’t covered with a jacket—no need—but that was only in case of unexpected real trouble.
I eased the door closed behind me so the sliding latch rested against the frame. Then I looked across the room where the window should be but there was nothing. The room was warm, smelled lightly of urine and disinfectant, and was absolutely pitch black. I lifted my left hand and felt to my side.
A few inches to the left my fingers curled against what felt like the side of a chest of drawers. Something wooden, anyway. I moved my hand up until the back of my fingers contacted the top protruding over the side by a half-inch or so.
I took a step forward, letting the back of my left hand slide along and then past the corner of the top of the chest. When it was in open air again, I eased forward another step, feeling for obstructions with the toe of my moccasin. Silent.
I kept my left hand up, ahead of me and to the left. I didn’t want to bump into anything and maybe wake the old guy. No need for that. And just in case Mrs. Prentiss was lying about the clear path, I kept my right hand up and crossed in front of my chest. If I contacted anything at all with either hand, I’d stop and figure a way around it.
I took another cautious step. Stopped. Listened.
Only his quiet breathing, albeit a little raspy. It seemed to come from directly below me. I was close.
I eased forward with my left foot—and the edge of the bed pressed the fabric of my trousers against my leg. It was cool. It felt like metal. A rail maybe?
I brought my right hand down a little and felt.
Yes, a cold metal rail with slightly rounded corners.
I eased my left hand forward.
No rail between my left hand and his pillow. Good.
I gathered myself, checked my balance, shifted my weight to my right foot. I turned my left hand over and gathered part of the pillow case in a fist between the thumb and curled fingers of my left hand. I took a silent breath, then visualized the old man’s chest, spread the fingers of my right hand, and slapped down with all my weight.
When the sharp click sounded, I understood everything. I knew that sound, but I hoped I was wrong.
It should’ve been muffled, that click—shouldn’t it?—since it came from beneath the old guy’s body.
But it wasn’t. It was crisp and clear and unmistakable in the dark, quiet room. The only other sound was the sweat popping out on my forehead.
The muscles in my left arm were still tensed, ready to rip the pillow out from under the old guy’s head, but I caught myself. Instead, I let go of the pillow case and moved my left hand to my left trouser pocket to retrieve my pen light.
The man beneath the weight of my hand issued a quiet, breathless, raspy groan, and somehow I recognized the sound.
It couldn’t possibly be him but I knew it was and that thought was edged out with an image of Mrs. Prentiss and that patented smirk. Oh, the woman knew what she was doing all right.
I pulled the pen light out of my trouser pocket, hurriedly turning it in my hand, searching with my thumb for the switch. Finally the narrow beam flashed against the far wall.
I couldn’t be set up. Isn’t that what I said?
I kept pressure on the old man’s chest as I fumbled with the light. I wanted to tell the old man to stop struggling, but he wasn’t. It was all nerves. My nerves.
The beam jiggled and jerked a jagged path down the wall, over the chocolate brown plastic kickguard at the base and across the floor.
I was right. The floor was those ugly off-white linoleum tiles with the little black specks.
Then the square rail on the far side of the bed flashed silver in the light, and then the beam was making its way closer. Across the light-blue loosely woven blanket, the institutional white top sheet showing through the waffle weave. I leaned harder with my right hand to be sure.
Then the light slipped up over his face.
And as if that wasn’t enough for me to recognize him—but it was—I pulled my left hand back while keeping the beam on his face to make the circle of light wider.
As I had expected, albeit far too late, it was Larson Kennelley. The man who’d hired me to help bring down Prentiss Inc.
He looked up at me, his withered crystal-blue eyes peering at me from beneath a frowning, bony, heavily wrinkled forehead. His face moved a little side to side and his lips parted, but no sound came out. There was no breath behind them to filter past his vocal cords. Still, I could’ve sworn he was trying to say Hines.
And her plan became clear in its entirety.
Mr. Kennelley was lying on a pressure-release device. And it was a pressure-release device that I had activated.
If I pulled out the pillow and tried to finish the job, I’d hear a second click.
If I let go and tried to run out of the room, I’d hear a second click.
If I did anything other than keep leaning on Larson Kennelley, I’d hear that damned second click.
Well, if it came long enough before the explosion.