1956: An Interlude VI
They sat down to tea—some earthy stuff Verina called erde heilen—in the kitchenette, and Evan decided it was time to broach the subject of their future. He’d had every intention of breaking off the relationship, ending it and his career and returning home to his wife and girls with his hat in his hands and a promise of a fresh start in California, a promise he’d fully intend to keep.
But then Verina had shown him. She’d shown him the world in all of its infinitesimal glory, socked in the corner of an ever-expanding universe. And could he ever really go back? If he asked Verina to stay with him, would she? She didn’t need a man, didn’t want one in any permanent capacity, but Evan found that bit hard to digest. Every girl wants a man. Every man wants a girl. It’s etched into our genetic code. The gregarious human, how silly and pathetic he appears when alone. Verina would have him, Evan was certain. All he had to do was ask.
She was studying him with that strange and playful intensity that sent equal parts thrill and anxiety through his muscles. Evan cleared his throat. “Oh, I almost forgot,” he said, digging into his hip pocket. “This belongs to you.” He held out the oval hunk of glass, concave side up so the honeyed iris caught the light and scintillated.
Verina looked bemused. “You didn’t give it to your boss?”
“He didn’t want it.”
Verina’s confused expression shifted to a kind of chary anger as she first reached for the bauble then stopped. “He didn’t want it? Is that so?”
“And why wouldn’t he want it after going through so much trouble to get it?”
“I didn’t ask.”
Verina’s single eye narrowed. “You’re lying.”
Evan shrugged. “If I were lying, wouldn’t you have seen it in your crystal ball or whatever?”
“I don’t use a crystal—” Verina took a steadying breath. “Evan, this is very important. I need to know what really happened.”
Seeing Verina put so out of her usual, elfish countenance unnerved him, and so, with reluctance, he told her of his final meeting with Tony Tredio, of Sal Puccini’s phone call, of Rebecca’s suspicions, of his unrealized dream of being a good father to his girls, and of his new dream of spending his days with Verina in her garden.
“I don’t want anything else,” he finished. “Only you, Verina.”
Verina’s lips had pursed indignantly during his telling, but now they bowed and trembled. “You don’t know what you want!” she burst out. “How could you think of abandoning your children? And did the thought even cross your mind that your boss is setting you up? Maybe he even followed you here!”
She shoved away from the table and strode into the sitting room with its statues and knickknacks and floral perfumes. Evan went after her, leaving the eye on the kitchen table. Verina stood by the front window, having thrown the curtains wide as if in defiance of some dark hunter waiting in the night that pressed so close to that glass.
“Verina—” Evan began, but she silenced him with a look from that new purple eye.
“No, Evan. It’s over. All of it. Go back to your family. Go back to your life, whatever remains of it.”
His heart thudded against his ribcage, slow and sick. Red seemed to be bleeding into his vision. “You can’t mean that. You—you said you loved me.”
Verina shook her head. “I do. But loving you was a mistake. I should have listened to—” But she said no more.
“Listened to who?” Evan demanded. “You told someone about me? Who? Don’t you know how stupid—”
Verina reeled on him. “Certainly no more stupid than lying to Merlin! Don’t you understand that he’ll come after you? After your family? Would you just abandon them to that fate?”
“How did you know his—? No—I—Of course I wouldn’t abandon them.”
Verina’s expression softened a little. “Then this needs to end.” She turned away from him to look out the window once more. “Go home, Evan. Take your family away.”
He shuffled his feet. “What about you?”
“I’ll be moving on, too,” she replied obliquely. “There’s nothing left for me here, now.”
Evan raised a hand, perhaps to caress the soft skin of her shoulder in a final goodbye, perhaps to close it around her throat. Breaking the heart of a killer is a dangerous prospect, and not even Evan was certain of his intentions in that moment.
But as his hand rose, there was a sound of whispering metal and the glass of one of the front windowpanes tinkled inward. Evan felt something burn deep into his right shoulder with hot, little teeth. There was no resounding thunderclap, no lick of fire in the darkness beyond to indicate the gunshot’s origin, and it didn’t matter much. Evan was falling, falling, caught in an infinite loop of descent that reminded him all too well of his plummeting return to his dozing body from the far beyond where Verina had sent him.
He hit the warped wooden floorboards hard, clacking his teeth together painfully. An ordinary man would lie there, firing off inane questions to an absent person. What happened? Why am I on the floor? What hit me? Did you see it? Who?What?Why?When?How? But Evan was not an ordinary man. Years plying his trade had honed his instincts to a primeval edge. He rolled away from the window, cradling his wounded shoulder and smearing blood over the assiduously swept floor. He shouted for Verina to run and got to his feet, stumbling briefly, and reached for his coat on the rack near the front door. Verina was nowhere in sight, and that was fine. Someone had shot him, and that someone was likely on his way inside to finish the job. Evan would be waiting.
He yanked the revolver from its holster and crouched in a shadowed corner near the front door, which was open to the night (Verina must have run through there, which was a poor decision), and waited. A breeze soughed saltily through the standing oaks and birch lining Leeds Road. Crickets chirred, indifferent to the happenings of humans. He thought he heard a twig snap, thought he heard some bracken rustle, but that could be the wind toying with him.
Or Verina running for her life, he thought with equal parts bitterness and relief.
He eased the revolver’s hammer back, wanting the initial pull to be quick and smooth; after the first shot he would rely on the double-action—though if he needed more than one quick shot he’d likely not make it home tonight.
He waited, and his shoulder was a sack of liquid metal, smoldering and spreading its heat. If he didn’t staunch the wound soon whoever had shot him could plug the last bullet into his head with no trouble whatever. And maybe that was the bastard’s plan.
Keeping his ears attuned to any sharp sounds, he undid his belt and yanked off his shirt. Crouching there on his hams, he inspected the wound briefly. The bullet had passed through, leaving relatively small holes on both entrance and exit. He tore away a sleeve from the shirt, biting his lip at the pain this movement sent shooting through his upper body, wrapped it around the meat of his shoulder and cinched it with the belt before put his shirt back on. A clumsy job, but it was all he could do for now.
He’d almost given up waiting—perhaps the moron thought he’d gotten him with the one shot and sped off along the cackling dark of that cursed road—when a shriek sounded from the back door. Evan moved that way, stepping lithely through the kitchen and over the chair Verina had overturned when she’d dashed into the living room.
He paused at the back door. Verina was there. A beetle-browed ape of a man stood with her, one large arm wrapped almost protectively around her, and a gun—likely the same gun that had shot him—pointed at Evan’s head. Verina clawed at the slab of the man’s forearm to no effect. Her living eye was hectic, her cheeks flushed, her toes splayed on the linoleum, and even now Evan found himself wondering at her terrestrial beauty.
“Evan,” a kind and familiar voice called from just outside the open back door. Evan peered around his own raised weapon, into the dark, and was disheartened to see that many of the flowers and shrubs had been uprooted in the scuffle to cow Verina, who, for reasons beyond Evan’s understanding, had gone around the house to the yard. Another man strode through the door, his face hidden beneath a cream-colored trilby, and when he raised his face to the soft light thrown by the kitchen overheads Evan felt his heart sink. He lowered his gun.
“Sal,” he said. Verina had been right.
Sal raised his hands inquisitively, passed his cold, blue eyes over the small kitchen. “What’s all this, now?” he asked, and his voice was that of the father for the willful child. “Got quite the row going here.” Sal loved bourgeois words like “row,” Evan had learned, and he exercised them most often when his temper was boiling evenly. “Why all the fuss?”
Evan nodded to the ape man. “It appears your friend here took a poke at me.” He gestured to his wrapped shoulder where the makeshift bandage had already turned a bright red.
Sal raised his hands. “Larry, here?” he said, his tone feigning an attempt at refuting the accusation. “No, not Larry.” He reached inside his coat and brought out a small pistol equipped with a silencer. “I took that shot. I s’pose my aim’s rusted over. But now we’re good and close.” He grinned, a genial hey-this-is-just-a-misunderstanding grin, and aimed the pistol directly between Evan’s eyes.
Sal’s grin faltered. “You’re not going to beg me?” he asked, gesticulating with the gun. “I mean, I came all this way, followed you down to the goddamned boonies, the least you could do is make it worth my while.”
“I’m not one of your fucking pikers, Sal. You and I both know nothing I say’ll stop you from pulling that trigger. So either do it or don’t, but don’t wait for me to cry about it.”
Sal pursed his thin lips, rubbing a hand thoughtfully along the gun barrel so his ring—the queerly cut ruby set in silver he always wore—caught the light and twinkled. “You’re resigned, then?”
“Well, that’s intriguing,” Sal went on, holstering the gun and sauntering around Larry the Ape who still had Verina clutched against him like some stuffed toy. “I’ve been reading a lot on psychology, you know? Freud and Lacan and Hartmann and other eggheads. Did you know that, for some sociopaths, the desire to commit an act rises in direct proportion to the converse that it not be done? I’m paraphrasing, of course, but you get me.”
Evan sighed. “No, Sal, not really.”
Sal waved him off. “I think I’ve got a better idea.” He turned to Verina who stared back like some wild and beautiful caged animal. He ran his fingers through her hair, touched those fingers to his lips, and moaned lightly. “I see why you couldn’t bring yourself to do it. She’s quite a piece, Ev.” He turned back to Evan, an approving smile smeared across his face. “But I couldn’t help but notice, when I was lining up my shot out there, that you two were having a little spat. Am I right?”
“What’s your point?”
Now Sal’s anger flashed: his face reddened, his brow clenched, and he bellowed, “Answer me when I ask a fucking question!”
Evan flinched away from that anger. Having never been on the receiving end of it before, it took him by surprise. “Yeah, we were arguing,” he admitted.
Sal’s bowed lips and knit brow loosened immediately and that warm, amiable smile returned, and Evan understood something that should have been apparent long ago: Sal Puccini was unquestionably insane. “A little domestic dispute, eh? Rebecca know you’ve been shacking up with this witch? I wager not, but that doesn’t matter to me. A man’s business is his own, but I find myself in the peculiar situation of having to share my business with you.
“You see, little Rina and I here have a history.” Sal gripped Verina’s face in one large, sausage-fingered hand, squeezing her cheeks together. “Don’t we, gorgeous?” He released her, seeming disgusted. Angry red circles lingered where his fingers had bit into her. “You see, Ev, I arranged the hit on her. I wanted her dead. And maybe you understand my reasons. But a woman as savvy as my little Rina, she wouldn’t go easy. So I needed the proof. Needed that pretty amber eye.” He paused and took a second, amused glance at Verina. “Which I see she has replaced. She gave it to you, didn’t she? That’s fine. Keep it. I was just going to melt it down anyway. You see, she’s a witch, Ev. A real witch. A fucking storybook crone. She might put on a pretty face, but that’s all a ruse. Did you tell him, sweetheart? Better yet, did you show him? Did you show him what he’s been plugging these past few months?” Sal waited patiently, gazing at her with that easy smile that displayed far too many teeth. Verina licked the blood from her lip where the ape man had likely struck her during their tussle and said nothing. “That’s all right,” Sal continued. “I suppose you should die with some kind of dignity.”
Evan’s steady heartbeat had sped up during this conversation. “What’s he talking about?” he blurted, looking directly at Verina, but she would not meet his eyes.
“Don’t pester her, Ev,” Sal said, his tone dripping admonishment. “The woman’s been through a lot over the years. Drinking chicken blood. Cutting out her own eye. Sacrificing babies.”
“I never!” Verina shouted, and strained against the ape man, kicking wildly. Larry the Ape tightened his grip, and Verina stilled.
Sal chuckled. “Don’t get testy. I understand the price for immortality’s pretty steep these days. Leastwise that’s what Father O’Connor taught me back in grammar school. Smart guy for a Mick. You see, Ev, our little Rina’s in business with the devil. And it’s not the devil you know. It’s not booze or pony or gambling. It’s dark, dark stuff. The kind of stuff the Brothers Grimm wrote about.”
“That’s a lie!” Verina shrieked, and Larry had to tighten his hold on her again.
Sal dismissed her outburst with a wave and strode toward Evan, drew him in companionably, and whispered loud enough so all parties could hear. “Look, Ev, I always liked you, appreciated your work, ya know? So I’m willing to cut a deal.”
Evan glanced at Verina who stared back with her one eye. And did that eye show a hint of fear? of hurt? of pleading? Evan did not know. “What kind of deal?” he asked, and the sound of his own voice seemed very far away.
“Simple,” Sal said. “You kill her. Right now. Right where I can watch and make sure. You do that and we’re square. No balance owed. All’s forgotten.” He gripped Evan by the shoulders, taking care to apply just enough pressure to the bandage so his point was clear. “You know I really liked Tony. He was my cousin. I know you did for him, Ev. Beat that poor bastard senseless in the alleyway, left him by the damned dumpster like some fucking bum. But I can let that pass. All will be forgiven. All you have to do is kill her.” He turned Evan gently in Verina’s direction.
Evan, his muscles twitching under that slimy grip, said: “And how do I know you won’t just kill me after?”
Sal clucked his tongue. “Ev, if you’re going to make a deal, better it be with the devil you know. I mean, what other choice do you have?”
“That’s not an answer.”
Sal groaned. “I came out here myself. I could’ve just sent Larry here and he would’ve done for both of you. But I came. And do you know why?” He placed a magnanimous hand over his heart. “Because I care. I didn’t want to see you taken in by this—this succubus.”
Evan laughed—he couldn’t help it. “You tried to kill me. Shot me once and then had a gun pointed at my head a few minutes ago.”
Sal released his grip from Evan’s shoulder and stepped in front him so they were standing eye level. His cheeks were red again, the rage kept at bay by some diaphanous control. “You heard the stories about me?” he asked. Evan nodded. “You think I really missed?” Evan, after a moment, shook his head. “Games are all well and good. But now we’re talking business, Ev. And business is serious. You kill her, right now, and the books get wiped. You owe me nothing. I let you go back to Rebecca and the twins—how old are they now? ’Bout ten? Eleven?”
“Good. Want to see them graduate grammar school? Want to keep their skirts white when the wolves come prowling? Maybe see them step off stage at some fine Jersey finishing school? Walk them down the aisle? Sure you do. And because I want all that for you, I’m making this offer. But it’s a one-time deal, and you got to collect on the spot. Won’t be any reneging. No counteroffers. One deal.” He moved forward and gestured at Verina, who stood immobile in Larry the Ape’s massive arms. “So, whattaya say?”
Evan gnawed his lip even as he strode forward. The revolver, holstered in his waistband now, was a forgotten relic of some long-ago man. Verina, her eye meeting his, cried out. “He’s lying!” But it didn’t matter. None of it mattered anymore. Deal with the devil you know. Sal had always been wise like that. Besides, like Sal said, what other choice did he have?
You can save her, a voice spoke up in his head. You can change the course of your entire life—right now.
His hands rose up, leveling with Verina’s throat. “Evan!” she cried. “Please!” And Evan paused, seeing her again almost for the first time, a mysterious and wonderful creature of the earth, and felt the will to carry through drain away. Yes, he could save her. He could draw his pistol, smash Sal’s grin, shoot Larry between the eyes before he realized what had happened, then, as Verina moved away, he could blast a shell into Sal Puccini’s black heart.
But then—a peculiar thing. Verina’s shape seemed to blink. At one moment she was the young and beautiful woman he’d known, a young and beautiful woman with a swollen lip, but in the next she was different. She was old. Cadaverous. The smoothness of her long fingers interrupted by bulbous knobs of knuckle. Her face scored, her teeth jagged. The lustrous dark hair that always smelled of honey now hung lank and dead in sparse, ugly strands about her bony shoulders. The pretty summer dress that had displayed the smooth lines of her legs now hung from her frame like an old dishcloth on a coat hanger. “Evan!” she cawed, and even her voice had lost the music by which he’d been lulled. Was this really happening? Was this ugly thing the real Verina? Had he—lain with it?
He glanced over to Sal and Sal gazed back, his eyes—black eyes (had they always been black?)—intent and madly jovial. He toyed with the ring on his finger, twisting it this way and that with apparent expectation. And he was muttering unintelligibly.
“Please!” Verina cried. “Evan, just listen! It’s a lie—”
His hands. His strong, storied hands. On her throat, her miserable, wrinkled throat. Choking. Pressing. Culling the life from her decrepit and deceitful body.
“You lied to me!” Evan sobbed, and he squeezed harder.
Larry the Ape released his precious cargo into Evan’s talented hands, and now Evan bulled her to the floor, straddling her, dumping all of his weight into his grip to crush that horrid voice—so much like dry twigs snapping under mud-caked boots. “You lied to me!” he bellowed again. “How could you!”
Verina stared up at him, her one eye bulging and turning red as the capillaries burst in groups. Her tongue lolled, her flesh bruised, and still Evan squeezed, throttled, crushed.
“Follow the pain,” someone whispered in Evan’s ear. “The pain shows the truth.”
Verina, her breath gone, her heart beating senselessly, reached out, reached out with her clawed, disfigured hand and caressed Evan’s cheek, caressed it with such tenderness, such longing that he knew, he knew—
The spell snapped. Evan came away from it like a raving man taking a heavy blow to the chin. “Verina?” he gasped, and spittle flew from his lips into the upturned and dead face below him. “Verina?” he repeated. She lay there with her tongue, swollen and horribly red, protruding from her mouth, her young, full mouth; her one eye set in its unwrinkled place gaped at the world from which he’d expelled her. Gone was the old and ugly crone. Had she ever been? Had he been tricked? How? “Verina!” he cried once more and took her body up into his arms, crying harder at the boneless way her limbs flailed. “No! No, no, no! I didn’t want to! I swear I had no choice. Oh God, forgive me!”
“Oh, you did have a choice, Ev,” Sal said from behind him. “You did. But that’s all right. You followed the pain. You saw the truth just before the end. And that’s all—right.”
The inimitable click of a cocking gun.
The susurrus inhale of a man taking aim.
The lifeless glass eye.
The bottomless pit of the pupil.