An unearthly chill feeds upon his spine.
As if perceiving Michael’s very thoughts, the butcher casts a pair of emotionless eyes down at him before returning to the task of arranging the instruments on the counter. From somewhere beyond Michael’s line of vision, he watches as the butcher reaches for something.
It isn’t one of the heavy instruments. That much Michael can tell. It appears to be a bottle of some kind. He’s still trying to determine what it is when the butcher uncaps the lid and begins drenching Michael’s clothes in it’s clear, pungent liquid. The unmistakable burning in his nostrils tells him it can only be one thing.
From his pocket, the butcher’s hand returns, pinching a book of matches. Michael squirms and screams, biting and chomping at the rag in his mouth.
There’s a soft hum as the match is run across the strike surface.
The smell of sulfur quickly fills the room.
Held upside-down, the flame grows brighter as it feeds on the paper match stick.
A warm, stinging fluid pools at Michael’s waist, seeping through his pants before coursing down his legs toward the drain. Tears cloud his eyes and smear his vision.
Beside him, the butcher stares jadedly at the flickering flame before lifting it to his mouth.
The cigarette sparks and smolders.
The flame is shaken to smoke before being tossed into the sink. Void of expression, the butcher lowers the lid on the toilet and sits down. Leaning back, he exhales the smoke of that first steep drag through the side of his mouth.
Unhurried, time serves as the first device of torture.
The noxious scent of lighter fluid makes Michael’s stomach queasy.
From his odd angle, he lies motionless, watching the gradually receding embers of the cigarette as they count down the moment of his demise.
Outside, a light breeze drops to nothing. The wind has died, having breathed its final breath. Everything lies utterly still beneath an infinite canopy of blackness; the light of day having coalesced into the single dot of the moon.
In the stillness of night, a killer sits. A decision has been made. A threshold breached. Across the courtyard, in a lighted bathroom, Michael closes his eyes and waits.
Waits for him.
Waits for death.
“So, that was your plan was it,” the butcher smirks, “wait for your opening, spin that little story, and try to get everybody to go along with you?”
He takes another long draw at the cigarette.
“When the police knocked my door that night, I knew I’d been fixed. The only question was, by whom? All day, I’d been working on how to draw out the witness, figuring it had to be someone with whom I shared a wall or someone whose window directly faces mine. That’s a lot of suspects. How was I ever going to whittle it down? That’s why I knew it must have been fate when I saw you in my hallway that night and put it all together. The only question for me was how you knew. I guess I didn’t count on our shadows being projected onto the wall for everyone to see.”
Again, he pauses to fill his lungs with smoke.
“Of course, you didn’t honestly think I’d keep a dead body in my own freezer, did you? Or that I’d really try and feed human flesh to my guests? What sort of sick freak do you think I am? As if they wouldn’t notice that their steak tasted more like pork.”
“You know, it’s too bad you’re not a crime writer as this would make for one hell of a story. Not that it would make much difference now, seeing as how you’d never live to write it.”
Scratching his chin with a broad thumbnail, he seems lost in thought. “Funny,” he says, “I’ve always hated it how books and movies have criminals explaining how and why they committed their crimes to their captives just before killing them, especially since it always seems to buy the captives just enough time to be rescued. I’m sure it’s just a literary device for helping clue the reader in to the backstory, but sitting here now, I feel there’s actually something very cathartic about it. You’re probably wondering how I did it, how I disposed of the body. It wasn’t easy, I can tell you that. The first thing I had to do was flay off all the skin from her body and remove her organs, the way you would an animal. Next, I removed each bone and tooth, individually, which then had to be ground to a powder in the grinder. Afterwards, I took turns burning the skin, the organs, the flesh, and the powder so that not a single trace remained. I then spent the next several hours wiping down every square inch of wall, floor, and furniture to eliminate blood spatter and spr—.
Michael’s heart stills.
The butcher’s head turns.
Echoing up the hallway is the sound of a fist pounding at the front door.
A look of trepidation blankets the butcher’s face. He stands, crushes his cigarette on the countertop.
Without bothering to look back, he shuts the door behind him.
Michael’s heart races. Katrina! She must have phoned the police!
Eyes closed, he hears the jostling of the security chain and the creak of a hinge as the door is pulled open. The butcher’s voice offers a simple, yet unassuming greeting, “Good evening, gentlemen. How may I help you?”
Another voice, low and gruff, responds, “We got a call about a possible domestic battery in progress.”
“In this apartment?” the butcher says. “I’m afraid there must be some sort of mistake. You see, I’m a bachelor, I live alone, and I don’t entertain much—”
The loud thump of blood pumping sounds deep in his inner eardrum, obscuring Michael’s hearing. He shakes his head. A second voice, younger than the first but just as strong, says, “So, all of those empty dishes on the table over there, they’re all from you?”
The butcher explains, “It just so happens I threw a dinner party for several friends of mine. I suppose it did get a little raucous there at the end. Maybe that’s the call you got?”
“May we come in?” the first voice asks.
“Why, certainly,” the butcher says. “Make yourselves at home.”
Feet plod across the hardwood floor.
“Can I get either of you something to drink?” the butcher asks.
Tenebrous flashes pulse across Michael’s vision.
“Is this your cellphone?” the junior officer asks.
The cellphone, Michael remembers. It must have fallen out of my hand when… when… his thoughts are slipping away, pulled by some invisible force down a dim, ethereal tunnel.
Michael makes one final plea for vigilance before his eyes shutter to a close. Under the inexhaustible strain of horror, he lapses once more into a world of darkness. It’s difficult to say how long he lay there in that realm of unconsciousness, where time passes at an indeterminable speed, or how long he may have stayed like that had that same echoing plea not come racing up from his subconscious to snap him back to life.
“Then you won’t mind if I use your restroom before heading out?” he hears a voice call out.
“Help yourself. It’s the door at the very end of the hall.”
“The one with the light on?” the officer asks.
The creak of floorboards resounds as pounding footsteps grow louder. Someone is coming closer. Michael’s heart accelerates, his muscles tense. An irrepressible smile causes the tape around his mouth to tear at his cheeks. On the other side of the door a hand extends to cradle the knob.
“You know what?” the butcher hollers. “I just forgot, I’m all out of toilet paper.”
The footsteps stop, the twisted handle is released. Stifled screams go unheard as Michael writhes and hollers.
“No bother,” the officer says. “I’m sure I can hold it until we get back to the station.”
Hulking footsteps make their way back down the corridor.
“Is there anything else I can help y’all with?” the butcher asks.
“I don’t think so,” the senior officer affirms. “Sorry for the trouble. You have yourself a pleasant evening.”
The sound of the front door closing and the bolt turning in the lock is like the sound of a coffin’s lid being sealed. Michael knows to whom the next set of heavy footsteps stalking down the empty corridor belong.
The door to the bathroom opens and closes.
In the butcher’s hand, he carries what appears to be a thick leather belt with a small chain and a ring clamp attached to one end. Once used by barbers, and later as a prop for barbers in old spaghetti westerns, Michael recognizes the fat leather strip as a strop for sharpening knife blades.
“Now, where were we?” the butcher asks, looking around as if trying to recall his reason for coming back there.
In the tub, Michael lies perfectly still.
Looking down, he smiles. “You’re probably wondering what happens now. Well, the first thing that’s going to happen is I’m going to lick your foot and neither of us is going to like it. Then, I’m going to take my time shaving your entire body. That, you might enjoy. I’m not even going to tell you what we’re going to do with these baby wipes. But when we’re done, I’m going to give you your choice as to which of these utensils you’d like me to end with. Afterwards,” he says with a wink, “I turn you to ashes.”