SHORT STORY DRAFT IN WORK – ‘Death Strokes’

A Short Story (to be edited, expanded and refined further)

Inner Harbor — Baltimore, Maryland — Saturday Morning

The soft voice was just as distinctive—for most of the audience—as the hair. “I’m only here this weekend, so let’s have some fun… I’m going to show you how to create happy little places on canvas.” The man dipped the four-inch brush he held in an open can that sat on a low bench beside him then slapped it back and forth rapidly against the legs of the easel. “I like a clean brush.” He turned and grinned at them, “beat the devil out of it.” He darted the brush’s toe into a glob of paint loading the bristles, then rotated its heel parallel, flat, and drew across the stained palette pulling the color higher onto the bristles. “We’ll start with titanium white.”

Tony, sitting in the back, didn’t give a shit. He scanned the seats in front of him most of them filled with women his age–40 something—or older and a handful of men. He spotted Anne front row center and shrank down in his seat. What could he say to change her mind?

Saturday Afternoon

The light-brown Afro shimmied under the lights as the man turned head and shoulders to look at his audience. On the easel behind him was a completed forest scene. In a small clearing was a small cottage that faced a stream with sunlight that slanted down and danced off its surface. Yellow black-eyed Susans grew in clusters on the banks of the creek whose edges reflected the largest that bent and swayed over the water like Narcissus checking his reflection.

“Tomorrow,” he grinned, “those of you who want to… bring me a picture of your favorite quiet spot… that place that makes you happy… makes you smile…” His own pulled at the corners of his ears making them drop and rise. Just a bit of wiggle as his expression changed. “And I’ll choose one to paint for you.” He dunked the brush in his right hand in the solvent can and smiled as he cleaned it with a rapid metal-on-wood thwacking sound as he slapped it back and forth. “See you in the morning.”

Sunday Morning

Tony had waited until the last minute before entering to sit in the back as he had the day before. He caught the artist–couldn’t help but think of a Q-tip when he looked at him—as he announced the photo that he would paint from for them.

“Anne Concannon…” He read from the back of the picture he held in his hand and looked up and around the room. “Anne?”

Tony saw his eyes pass over the room–lingering on the women and moving quickly over the men—then stop when he saw Anne’s raised hand.

Bill Rodgers’ smile broadened, “Please stand.” He waved the photo to gesture at a seat next to the easel. “Come on up. I’m going to paint this for you today… and as special thanks for being here, I’ll get it framed and shipped to you.”

Noon

He felt like an idiot standing by the door—waiting for her—as the room emptied from back to front. He had chickened out the day before, leaving before Anne saw him. He was more resolute today.

“What are you doing here Tony?” The hands on her hips pose told him she thought he was an idiot too, or maybe just an asshole. “It’s a waste of a 45-minute drive—one way—for you.” She started to move past him through the doorway into the hall.

“Anne…” He lightly touched her shoulder. “I don’t…”

She went around him through the door and kept moving until halfway to the hotel’s lobby then stopped and looked back at him trailing behind her. “Don’t what Tony? Don’t care enough about me to say what you feel?” Her sharp head shake was like watching a person ward off something they had seen or heard that they didn’t like or believe. “We’re not kids who don’t know how to deal with what’s happened between us. And we don’t have to stick with something or someone that is not working out.” She took five steps toward him. “What happened to Laura was hard on you, I know. But drinking isn’t a solution… the only thing it’s pushing away is me.” She started to turn from him and paused. “And I can’t take that you keep everything inside.”

Cove Point – A Week Later

The incoming number was area code 520. Anne had no idea where that was but had never cared for letting even unknown callers talk to voicemail.

“Hello?” There was a pause, and she heard the person calling take a breath.

“Is this Anne?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

Hi Anne, this is Bill Rodgers.”

She recognized his soft tones—more familiar to her coming from a speaker than it had been in person—as he continued.

“Hope you don’t mind me calling. I wanted to be sure you got the painting.”

“Oh… Hi… Bill! I did just this afternoon.” She glanced at the now framed painting that lay on her kitchen table with its brown wrapping paper pulled away. “It’s beautiful. Thank you so much!”

“Great, I’m glad you like it. Say, I’m in the area again and wondered if you’d be so kind as to show me that spot. I’d love to see it with my own eyes.”

* * *

He had just raised his hand to knock when the door opened.

“Tony…” She had that exasperated tone that had become routine when she spoke with them. “I’m headed out.” She didn’t wait for him to move and brushed by him pulling the door closed behind her.

“Anne,” he reached for her arm, but she dodged down the steps to her driveway. “Can we talk?” She slowed and looked at him over her left shoulder. He saw silver earrings catch the late afternoon sunlight. Earrings? She rarely wore them when they’d gone out evenings, much less during the day. “Please…”

She stopped with one hand on her car door, “I’ll call you… Maybe tomorrow. Okay?”

He knew that really hadn’t been a question because she didn’t wait for an answer. And her calling was doubtful; she was still pissed off at him. He didn’t blame her but was trying to make things right. He watched as she backed out and headed east on McAdam Street. He half-jogged to his car at the corner curb.

* * *

Twenty minutes later he had an idea where she was going. That scenic point over the bay where she took—and had shown them all to him–dozens of photos at sunset. After the first nine or 10, they had all looked the same to him. It was the spot where she went, usually alone, to think. And to take many pictures. But he had noticed as she hustled out of her house she had makeup on and her hair was long and loose, not pulled into a bun or ponytail as it normally was when she headed there. Was she meeting someone? He shook his head, it’s not my business, he thought. But then–and the thought didn’t make him turn around–why am I following her? He knew the answer. It had been eating at him for a month. The breakup was his fault because even after three years, he couldn’t tell her that he loved her as much as she loved him.

Stopped at an intersection where the highway narrowed to the two-lane that hugged the Southbay coastline, Tony had lost sight of her. A dozen cars were now between him and Anne’s and half were driving as slow as molasses poured in the freaking wintertime.

The Southbay Cafe

Anne had expected to recognize him by his hair, but no one facing or even turned away from her matched Bill Rodgers light bulb shaped head and shoulders profile. A man wearing an Orioles ball cap waved at her. How in the world had he packed his hair into that hat? She thought as she walked to his table. The overcoat he wore was odd—too heavy—for a cool late spring evening. It made him look larger but his face, even with the mustache and goatee now shaved to stubble, was the same. Those eyes under the stiff brim of a brand-new cap were as gentle as his voice.

“I’m sorry Anne,” he stood. “But my flight leaves earlier than expected… I’m not going to have time to buy you dinner.”

“That’s okay. We can get to the overlook now in plenty of time for sunset.”

Bill Rodgers put a $10 bill on the table next to a half-empty coffee mug. “Great. I have a car and will follow you.”

Outside in the parking lot, he stopped at a faded gold car that had to be 30 years old and worse for the years of wear. She had read that his syndicated show had earned him over $15 million and was surprised at the car. But that he was so unpretentious was one of the things that made most people like him so much. Maybe he just didn’t care about material things.

“It’s only about 10 miles.” She gestured at the street, her arm sweeping to the right. South.

He nodded and opened the car door. “I’ll be right behind you.”

As she got into her car, his started with a belch of smoke. But on the road, he stayed right with her only a car length back.

* * *

“Shit!” Tony cursed as he scanned the roadside to his left. The couple of times he had gone with Anne she had driven. He had missed the sign for the access road to the overlook. “Dammit!” Now he was stuck on a freaking narrow two-lane hoping to come to a crossroad or turnout where he could reverse direction. Coming back the sign would be even harder to spot in the twilight. He mashed the gas pedal.

The Overlook – Sunset

It was an old overlook, the kind that didn’t overprotect visitors and the price of stupidly getting too close to the crumbling edge was a long fall onto water-worn rocks 80 feet below. Anne and Bill were in the safe spot, where a short wall erected as a long-ago Depression-era WPA project was the end of the trail that led back to the arc of asphalt access to and from the main highway. The wall formed a half-moon containing a clump of trees and a stone bench.

“It’s beautiful… More than any photograph,” Bill Rodgers laughed and turned to Anne. “Or painting.”

“Yours comes close though.” She lifted the paper wrapped painting she carried and peeled back a top corner revealing the rich, deep hued sky portrayed.

“It’s not good enough.” He paused and turned. “Did you hear something… someone… over there.” He pointed at the massive thicket of bushes surrounding the trees fringing the southernmost edge of the overlook.

Anne looked where he was pointing.

***

Twelve miles south and an east-west country road dead-ended into the southbound road Tony was on, and he’d three-point turned around. Now on his right, the bottom rim of a blood red dying sun was touching the waters of Southbay. He twisted his lights on and focused on the right side of the road. When it started to widen, he would be close.

***

“I don’t hear anything,” Anne looked up at him.

“It’s just not good enough.” Bill Rodgers repeated sadly as he shook his head and then hit her in the face, feeling the crunch of a breaking nose. “Never good enough.” He brought a snap kick up, and his heavy boot caught her in the chest. She folded over and fell to the ground. Leaning down he grabbed a handful of hair twisting her face up to catch the waning rays of light. Blood from her mouth and nose was a brown shading lighter and redder only on her upturned chin. It was that color—that heart pulsing red—he could never capture on canvas. He slipped his right hand into his pocket. It came out adorned in metal that flashed as he hit her again then dragged her into the thick patch of underbrush and live oaks fringing the south end of the overlook. His gentle smile had returned. He looked down at her, “Gonna beat the devil out…”

***

The nearby state park, always busy even into winter, drew all the attention and Tony knew from Anne that most people would pull into the overlook, see the bay just over the guardrails and then drive on. He glanced at the reddening water then at the two cars parked off to the side. One was Anne’s new Hyundai and the other an old late 80s Chevy Nova that looked like it’d been driven to Hell and back. Anne’s car was locked, but the piece of shit Nova wasn’t. Habits don’t go away when off-duty, he pulled out the pocket notebook he always carried and wrote down the Nova’s tag number. He opened its passenger-side door. Inside, on the seat, was a pair of thin gloves and a wig that looked like a giant light-brown Brillo pad and an envelope full of photographs. On the floorboard, neatly folded atop clean, white but well-worn New Balance running shoes, was a pair of blue jeans and a gray chambray shirt. He closed the door and walked to the path that locals knew led to the real overlook. First time here with Anne he had learned that the best spot was a ten-minute walk from where you pulled off the highway. Huffing at the pace… when he got to it, the only thing there was the view. No Anne. The sound of thrashing to his left drew him closer to the dense undergrowth and copse of trees laden with moss so thick it was as if they were curtained off. At the bocage-like growth he stopped. Scanning the thick hedges fronting the cluster of trees he spotted an area that had been split, pressed aside and back creating a sliver of an opening.

***

Rodgers looked down. She was unconscious… her mouth and throat were too damaged do anything but bubble and moan a froth of blood spilling over torn and pulped lips. There was no pleasure taken in hurting someone who can’t show you their suffering through pain-jacked-open eyes. He raised the serrated blade, ready to finish the work on the flesh canvas at his feet. The shout made him raise his head, angry at the interruption.

***

The point of land was triangular, a thorn projecting from the green stem of the Maryland shore. Shrouded by the Spanish Moss draped trees, the rocky point jutted out enough to give you a view north as the bay ran all the way to Baltimore and beyond and south to where it broadened and ran to the sea. The setting sun had painted the underside of the clouds a yellow-orange tint that slowly turned roseate. It darkened to scarlet as it dipped beneath the horizon in what looked like a spreading pool of blood.

Tony looked at the man at his feet. In 25 years as an albeit small-town cop, he had never pulled his gun on anyone. Now he had shot a man. The hole in the man’s chest was the size of the center of a sunflower but one with crimson petals. The last of the sun’s light caught their color.

Bill Rodgers lifted his right hand to the chest wound, dipped two fingers in and brought them up so he could see them, “Alizarin” he muttered and died.

Tony’s hand felt heavy with the gun still in it. Bringing it up into that last bit of sunlight, he stared at the black metal, a dark glint in juxtaposition line of sight with the blood and still figure beyond. The body of a would-be killer and now that’s what he was… a killer. He shuddered and holstered his handgun. He stepped to where Anne had fallen and knelt, afraid of what he would find… his hands shook as he turned her over.

Night

It was now dark, the moon rising over the bay cast pale rays on a full-blown crime scene. Yellow tape still marked off the area where they had just taken the body away. Local reporters were the first media on the scene and had been held at the now full parking area.

Tony and Anne had given their statements; Anne’s taken as the EMT treated her and she was put on a gurney and carried to the ambulance. Tony had handed over his gun and been advised to prepare a Firearms Discharge Report and to expect to meet next day with a Review Board that he would have to walk step-by-step through the shooting. He followed the EMTs and planned to follow them to the Cove Point Medical Center. As he approached the jam of cars, the only clear area around the ambulance, he overheard one of the local reporters talking to the First Responding Officer. He moved ahead and held Anne’s hand as the EMTs got their gear in before loading her.

“Did you know that an article came out this morning, on the AP wire, about a serial killer… who over the past year has killed four people—amateur artists—at scenic points in Arizona?”

“No, we didn’t… and no BOLOs or alerts.” The officer looked uncomfortable, glanced over at Tony and the reporter let him go. She turned to Tony who had been identified to her as the off-duty cop who had shot the alleged…. what should she call him: Killer? Assailant?

“So, you were just in the right place at the right time?” She waved her microphone at the Medical Examiner’s van, a body bag sliding into the back. “To get this guy…”

Anne’s hand squeezed his tight. Tony hoped she never let go. “I was just saving the woman I love.”

The reporter looked at them. Both showed some gray and the careworn lines of life. Anne’s face still showed traces of blood smear, her jaw had been broken, and the metal knuckles used to pound her had torn half of her bottom lip away, but that was covered by a now bloody compress. She was conscious, taking shallow breaths trying to avoid the piercing pain of three or four broken ribs. The reporter stepped away from them and the cameramen followed. She looked off camera and smiled at the couple then signaled the cameraman to cut the feed.

# # #

A Month Later

DEATHStrokes - short fiction by Dennis Lowery“Though some have taken to calling him the ‘Death Stroke’ killer… our colleagues in Arizona are referring to Bill Rodgers as the ‘Four-Seasons Slayer.’ DNA evidence has connected him with a string of suspicious deaths that date back to 2010, and the timing approximates the exact midpoint of each season. The first murder coincides with the disappearance of Rodgers’ ex-wife who had divorced him in 2009. Unexplained is what caused him to leave Arizona to kill in Maryland, but the FBI is now looking into a number of missing person reports in areas around scenic points across the nation.” The reporter’s stern look eased, and a smile replaced it. “On a much lighter note, Rodgers most recent victim—who survived—is celebrating her release from the hospital today with an engagement announcement. She and her long-time boyfriend—the man who saved her—are getting married. We wish them well and a long and happy life together!” The camera pulled back to show the broad vista of a setting sun. The red—an artist would say—was a particularly deep and rich alizarin crimson that spread, congealing at the edges, as the orb settled in the waters of the bay. “This is Susan Stanton at the Cove Point overlook for KCPT, Channel 7… your local station.”

This was a DRAFT to be edited, expanded and refined further in the future.

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