That evening, Friday evening, two days after receiving the butcher’s dinner invitation, Michael finds himself alone in his apartment. The token light afforded by a wincing moon glimmers off the sleek metal surface of his cigarette lighter. From the bottom drawer of his writing desk, he removes a pack of cigarettes, shakes free a stick, taps it against the crystal face of the watch at his wrist, and lights it. A deep drag dries the moisture in his throat. Tongue curled back he expels the air in a soft white ring of smoke that floats gracefully from his mouth toward the window where it splashes against the glass before dissolving into nothing. Another follows, spinning deftly and liquescing on impact.
Beside him, the curtain lifts and falls sending a chill wind circulating the room that raises the hairs on his neck.
Turning the latch tears a jagged hole through the silence as he locks the window. Before moving away, he stops to lay a palm against the frame as he rests his forehead against the back of his wrist while staring blankly into the infinite spaces between the stars in the sky. A steady stream of fragile smoke rises from the forgotten cigarette in his fingers. Smoldering embers recede. Tiny flecks of soft ash flake and fall on the carpet.
Moments later, an alarm sounds.
He stares down at his watch. It’s eight o’clock. Time to go.
A weak smile tugs at the corners of his mouth.
Katrina had stopped by earlier to drop off the snap gun she’d borrowed from her brother-in-law, the locksmith. She had classes that afternoon, but promised to be back at his apartment no later than eight-thirty, nine o’clock. She’d messaged him about a half an hour ago to confirm she was just now boarding the train back to the city.
From the back of the chair, he lifts his coat, pockets the snap gun, and takes one last drag on the cigarette before grinding it out in the kitchen sink.
Though technically late, he makes no effort to hurry. At a slow, deliberate pace, he walks to the door, down the hall, and into the elevator. When he reaches the bottom floor he continues his unhurried pace across the lobby and through the building’s front door. Outside, he draws a staggered breath. In the rush of a cold wind, he stops to breathe a puff of warm air on his balled fists.
A big blue bus goes careening past.
The sidewalk is empty and glistens in the night mist. Wood-studded heels scuff against the concrete as he ambles, head low, toward the corner. The trembling in his knees has nothing to do with the cold. At the entrance to the butcher’s building, he presses the buzzer and waits. All he needs is proof, he reminds himself, evidence of murder. A body, a body part, even a smear of blood would do.
The buzzer sounds and an electronic device unbolts the lock.
At the butcher’s door he lifts his hand, holds it poised in mid-air.
You know what you saw, he whispers.
With one last deep breath, he knocks.
The door opens to a familiar face and a wooden dining room table that has been extended and moved so that it now sits at the far end of the living room near the window. Around it, a host of seated guests.
The butcher offers a boisterous greeting. “Here he is!”
A warm cheer rises from the group.
“May I?” the butcher asks, offering to take Michael’s coat. Remembering the snap gun, Michael considers trying to sneak it into his pants’ pocket, but knows there’s no way to remove it without being seen. Instead, he watches as his host places the jacket on a hanger in the front room closet.
Afterwards, Wayne turns to face the rest of the room and hollers, “Who’s ready to eat?”
The crowd answers in harmony.
As Michael approaches the table, a woman with a pleasant voice asks, “And your name?”
Before Michael can answer, a heavy hand clamps down hard on his shoulder, forcing him into a chair. “This here is Michael,” the butcher says. “He lives just down the hall.”
The rectangular table is long, affording space for four chairs along each side and one at either end, enough to accommodate all nine guests and their host. At the foot of the table, with a full view of the other guests, Michael takes stock of his company. There’s a woman to every man and eight of them in all. From what he can gather, they’re all couples.
As he scans their faces, the butcher emerges from the kitchen hoisting two large bowls of fresh cut salad. Michael waits before taking his turn to heap a pile of crisp, leafy vegetables onto his plate.
“No, no, no,” a voice shouts. “That’s the wrong fork. Remember, you always start from the outside and work your way in.”
At the head of the table, farthest from him on the left, a thin, grandmotherly-looking woman voices instructions into her husband’s ear. The man nods, adjusting his hearing aid.
Across from her, at the far end of the right side of the table, sits another couple. These appear less acquainted with each other than the rest. Neither carries a wedding band, and by the way they avoid looking each other in the eye when speaking and offer exaggerated apologies every time their elbows touch, it’s obvious they’re in the early stages of courtship. Far younger than their fellow diners, Michael pegs them for grad students.
A pair of tongs is passed to him and Michael takes a turn to fill his plate.
After a few minutes, the mood settles as everyone seems to be enjoying the salad while apprizing one another with friendly get-to-know-you questions. Everyone, that is, except the two people seated on either side of Michael, the only two people at the table for whom silence is not awkward. To his right, sits a broad-shouldered, stern-faced man with salt and pepper hair, and a deep, rumbling voice. Beside him, his wife, the one who’d asked Michael’s name, keeps the mood lively with an infectiously plucky demeanor and crackling laughter.
To Michael’s left, a small, mousey woman does her best to blend in with the wallpaper, and if it weren’t for certain empirical laws of physics, she’d probably have succeeded. Despite her timidity, she’s quite pretty, the type of natural beauty that fades rather than enhances with makeup.
She catches Michael eyeing her and offers a polite greeting.
Her name is Michelle.
Michael introduces himself and, for the next several minutes, they engage in the sort of superficial exchange that brings them no closer to intimacy than when they began. But the conversation flows well. Without saying anything memorable, she’s good company, asking more questions than she answers while maintaining a look of genuine interest.
As simple questions progress into lengthier discussions, several streams of dialogue evolve around the table mostly between neighbors with the occasional cross-cutting of someone at the far end having overheard a topic they feel they have something worth contributing to. Such that, by the time the appetizers—cream cheese stuffed jalapenos wrapped in bacon coupled with cheesy potato skins—arrive, the mood has matured into a more buoyant atmosphere with the theme of discussion soon turning to everyone’s favorite subject, themselves.
Michael is starving and wastes no time loading his plate with a half-dozen of the delicious treats.
“Looks like someone skipped lunch today,” the plucky woman smiles.
Michael blushes. She’s right. He hadn’t had anything to eat since that morning.
“Don’t be shy,” the host urges. “There’s plenty more.”
Before the butcher disappears back into the kitchen, the husband of the mousey woman to his left snaps a pair of attention-demanding fingers, whispering loudly for the host to be so kind as to bring another bottle of wine. “Doctor says I need to lower my blood pressure.”
“You could always slit your wrists,” mutters the man to Michael’s right.
“How is that?” the drinker asks.
“Come, again?” the other says.
Distracted by the return of the host with an uncorked bottle of Yellow Tail that he places in front of him, the drinker shrugs off the comment in order to fill his glass.
“And what is it that you do?” A sprightly voice to his right asks.
He turns to find the bright, smiling eyes of the stern-featured man’s wife peering over at him.
“Oh,” he hesitates. “I’m a writer.”
“Really,” she says, as if startled by the thought. “And what is it that you write?”
“Romantic fiction,” Michael admits.
“Would you look at that?” she says, clapping her hands, “A regular Bill Spence! Do you know Bill Spence? I love Bill Spence.”
“Of course,” Michael smiles, “he writes under the pen name Jessica Blair.”
“So, you’re a fan?”
“Why not,” Michael answers politely.
“That’s just delightful,” she continues. “Isn’t that delightful, Ronald?” The question is directed at her husband.
“I suppose it is,” her husband shrugs.
“Not that I can get him to read any of the books I pick out. If it’s not Tom Clancy or Robert Pattinson, Ronald won’t go near it.”
“James Patterson,” her husband corrects, “I think you meant to say James Patterson.”
Ignoring him, she asks, “And what’s your last name, again?”
“Michael Kincaid,” she says, searching the index of her mind for any hint of familiarity. After coming up empty, she asks, “What are some of your more popular titles?”
“Remember Delilah, The Immortal Game, and my latest, Love in the Time of Chlamydia, where Chlamydia is the name of the female lead.”
“Um… Sounds provocative.”
“Sounds like a good name for a stripper,” her husband rejoins.
“Strippers!” the drinker shouts. “Who said what about strippers?”
No one answers him.
“Hey, Wayne,” he hollers, looking toward the kitchen, “I know you said we’d be having meat, I just didn’t know you meant the kind you eat with your hands.”
Michael cuts a glance at the man’s wife beside him. Although she hadn’t moved and her expression hadn’t changed, she somehow appears smaller beside her loud and obnoxious husband. Gauging by her response, it’s obvious this is not atypical behavior for him; the type for whom drinking is an excuse for recklessly exaggerating one’s own idiosyncrasies for humorous effect, the type who smiles a lot, as though everything anyone says, or is about to say, is fit for laughter, the type for whom the word shameless categorically applies.
Noting the wife’s discomfort, the plucky woman turns the attention back to Michael.
“And your stories, are they all standalone or do they follow a serial character?”
“Mostly standalones, but—”
“Have you ever considered another genre, say, crime, perhaps?” It’s the male half of the young couple. For the first time, Michael catches sight of the young man head on. His face carries the strong presence of a big screen actor, clean-shaven, clean cut, and smooth featured.
“You’ll have to forgive him,” his girlfriend apologizes. “Ethan is studying to be a defense attorney. Crime and criminals really appeal to him.” Beside him, the pale brunette flaunts a vivid jewel tone dress the way only brunettes can. She too has the Hollywood look. Though, by the way she carries herself, it’s obvious she doesn’t take it too seriously.
“I think it would be fascinating to be a criminal psychologist,” the plucky woman boasts.
“I don’t believe she said criminal psychologist,” her husband challenges. “She said he wants to be a defense attorney.”
“I heard what she said. And I’m talking about being a criminal psychologist.”
“Oh, yes,” says the older woman at the far end of the table. “To be a criminal psychologist, deciphering the complexities of the human mind, debriefing colleagues on high-profile cases and how to track killers and criminals.”
“De- what?” her husband shouts.
“Debriefing,” she hollers, leaning into his ear. “Criminal psychologists often debrief their colleagues on criminal profiles!”
“Debriefed!” says the deaf man, his eyes growing wide in terror. “Nobody’s touching my underwear!”
“Lawrence!” his wife scolds.
Swallowed napkins and forced coughs stifle the smattering of giggles and grins rippling throughout the table.
“Enough with that,” the plucky woman says, returning to Michael. “Let’s hear about the story you’re working on right now.”
“Sorry,” Michael frowns. “I don’t do spoilers.”
“The process then,” she says. “How do you come up with a plot?”
“It’s sort of complicated,” Michael admits. “I’ll often begin a story with a particular idea in mind, but usually, by the time I’ve reached the middle, something else takes over entirely, and from that point on, I’m as interested as any reader as to how it’s going to end.”
“You mean the story writes itself?” a timorous voice beside him asks.
“I suppose so.”
“I’ve heard it said romance novels are as damaging to relationships as porn,” the drinker says, filling another glass.
That was his fourth by Michael’s reckoning and they were still only on the appetizer. “I’m not sure I follow,” Michael says.
“Think about it. Porn gets a bad rap because it supposedly fosters unreal expectations about what women should look like and how they should behave in bed. Is the same not true of men in romance novels?”
“The two hardly appear comparable,” the plucky woman says, shaking her head distastefully.
“Why not?” the drinker defends. “The content is the same, it’s just a different method of delivery. For men, who are more visually wired, they like to see it. For women, who are more emotionally wired, they like to visualize it. But the effect is the same.”
“So, too, is the scope,” the young lawyer notes. “I read an article the other day on this very topic and, did you know, the annual revenue of the porn industry is estimated at roughly $2 billion dollars a year whereas the romance industry pulls in just over $1.4 billion. That’s not a considerable difference.”
“Perhaps we’d better change the subject,” the plucky woman suggests.
“Or, how’s about we eat?” the butcher says, entering from the kitchen, hoisting a platter of steamy, red meat. “Food’s ready.”
A chorus of approval makes its way around the table as hunks of juicy meat are forked onto their plates.
As he reaches Michael, the butcher pauses. “I hope you’re not a medium-well kind of guy,” he says, looking down, an odd twinkle in his eyes. “We took a poll before you arrived and everyone agreed they liked their meat with a little bit of blood still on it.”
A cut of fresh meat is slapped down on the plate.
All around the table the other guests begin cutting into their first bites. The piercing ring of knives chinking against porcelain plates has the same grating quality of a woman’s short, desperate shrieks for help. A current of electricity chases up Michael’s spine to the base of his skull.
A terrible thought assaults his mind.
As the other guests tear away at the bloodied flesh, their chins dripping with runny juice, a thickness balls in Michael’s throat.
A flux of vomit lurches up from his stomach. He reaches for his drink, slopping water on the table cloth as he chokes down the entire glass.
No one seems to notice. In their faces, Michael sees no hint of suspicion, no subtle retraction at the toughness of the muscles or the slightly bitter tinge of flavor.
A spell of dizziness blurs the room as it begins circling around him. Faster and faster, everything smears into one: faces, voices, furniture, walls.
He grips the legs of the table for support.
“Wa, wa…” he gasps.
“Are you all right?” the plucky woman asks, the first to observe his fit of angst.
“My goodness, you’re dripping like a faucet,” her husband notes.
Faint and unable to stop the room from spinning, he burbles, “Wa…”
“Water?” another asks. “I think he needs some more water. Somebody get him a glass.”
A cup of water is thrust before him.
“Wa, wa… WAIT!” he roars, pushing up from his chair.