In a crowded mall, he was just one body among many, a laboring man in a sea of humanity. GRAND OPENING, a sign said. DOOR PRIZES! CASH WINNERS! WELCOME!
Jaydee folded his horoscope and tucked it in a shirt pocket. He wiped perspiring hands down his faded blue denim trousers, tugged his garments to create folds that hid the pistol in his belt. Sweat gathered in his eyebrows and crawled down his flesh.
He’d left his twenty-year-old station wagon in a mosaic of parked cars baking under the relentless south Florida sun. Even inside, a petroleum smell from freshly pressed paving perfumed the air.
The shopping center was the newest commercial blister to pock the West Palm Beach suburbs. He had come here because here the herd congregated. For one among these patrons today, he was destiny.
A sense of power condensed and at this moment—he was a god. He selected a bench outside a bank and lit a cigarette, using an ashtray as a pretext for sitting. He shifted to relieve the prod of his weapon, blew a trickle of smoke lazily, his slate-gray eyes almost sleepy as he lounged. He saw everything, stared at nothing. To the casual passerby, he was a man patiently awaiting someone. Which, indeed, he was.
A pregnant woman pushed a stroller, her toddler sleeping among sacks of wares. A boy counted his allowance and skipped away from his parents to spend it. An elderly man slumped in a wheelchair, palsied hands fluttering. His companion, a woman decades his junior, shouted in his ear, “Sit here and watch the people!”
Abandoned, the old man shook and stared.
The image made Jaydee think of his grandfather. Resolve intensified.
He was impelled by forces he didn’t truly understand. He was having difficulty sleeping nights, a vague uneasiness kept him depressed. Sometimes he could shake it off, other times it overwhelmed him. Finally, driven by the same compulsion that makes a beast gorge, or procreate, his body demanded relief.
He imagined himself a specter, invisible and omniscient, dispensing mercy, or death, at will. A river of humanity flowed around the old man in his wheelchair, around planters and benches—they sensed no peril.
In the civilized pod of a modern mall, the world without was forgotten. In here, background music provided subliminal assurance, an artificial sanctum with a carnival atmosphere. Artisans crafted baubles in wide center aisles. There was a puppet show for children. A camera club had mounted a photo display.
As if filled with ennui, Jaydee peered through doublewide doors of the bank, observing first-of-the-month transactions. The herd ebbed from J.C. Penney’s to Sears, past fast food outlets and lethargic guards. Every store boasted special discounts for the elders, free fun for the juniors. No gamble: Satisfaction guaranteed …
Different shopping malls catered to varying segments of society. This was a Walmart and Target crowd, no Cartier or Neiman-Marcus here. These merchants advertised “Retirees Welcome!” That meant women, really. Old women.
Jaydee hated old women as much as he loathed astrology. Elderly women looked to their children and their horoscopes, convinced that one or the other would shelter them.
The desire to mingle was a strong geriatric impulse. Widows in particular sought continuity to their existence, a chance to be part of the whole, even if among strangers. And here, they were safe. Beneath these skylights the sun never set, rains never fell. The air was always cool and constant. Who among them would suspect a predator had penetrated the fold?
He watched, as all predators do, for a hint of infirmity; the hesitant step, a lax awareness, a straggler away from the flock. They had forgotten, or never knew, the hot breath of a hunter. To these flaccid specks of humanity, pestilence was a thing of the past, famine banished. Lightning struck; barns burned; outside crime stalked the unwary. But in here, they were coddled and nurtured. They expected discounts, they insisted. They had earned them!
Their men died after years of toil, supporting creatures more thick of thigh and hale of heart than themselves. Always, it seemed, their men died just before the family savings were threatened by rising medical costs.
Jaydee took a deep breath, a study in languor.
Down a far corridor, a queue awaited the start of an early movie. Silver-haired ladies sold tickets to a raffle—WORTHY CAUSE, a sign pledged.
Inside the bank, a woman in her seventies cashed a check. She sheltered her money from prying eyes and counted it twice.
Something about her …
She was thin, frail, but posture correct. Her full pink cheeks were dabbed with a tint of rouge, accenting summer-sky eyes that flitted from face to face as if seeking recognition.
She emerged from the bank and paused to get her bearings. She looked this way, then that, and stepped into the stream of shoppers, letting them sweep her toward a pet shop window where kittens cavorted on artificial trees.
Jaydee moved nearer.
“I have too many cats as it is,” she sparked conversation with a younger mother. “Someone else must give these pussies a home—not I.”
“We live in an apartment,” the mother remarked.
“Mother,” her daughter pleaded, “I’d look after a kitty of my own, I promise I would.”
“No pets,” the mother said. “It’s in the lease.”
Jaydee stubbed out his cigarette, listening.
“My husband and I never had children, but, oh, how we loved them. We taught school for fifty years, my Eugene and I. After he died, I needed my pussies. They’re all the company I have.”
Widowed. Teacher. Alone.
She meandered from one display to another. She sat beside an indoor fountain watching spurts of water change patterns, talking to anyone who paused long enough to listen. She bought an ice cream cone, taking tiny licks to make it last.
Jaydee trailed her through a store she would have called “the five and dime.” She sniffed samples of perfume, fingered the weave of a shawl. It cost nothing to look, touching was free.
He knew old women. They moved on a dreary treadmill timed to some inner clock. They could waste a day dawdling, and then suddenly demand speed and action. Oh, yes, he knew them. Wheedling, whining, commanding—they lived in the past.
On her vanity, he would find loose face powder, cleansing cream, hand lotion. In her dresser drawers, lace-up corsets with garter straps, step-in panties, and sachets of dried herbs. There would be a saucer filled with large hairpins, old hats in boxes on shelves of her closet, awaiting a revival of popularity.
In her icebox (she would call it that), homemade mayonnaise. Bibbed aprons would hang behind the kitchen door. The cupboards would contain cans of evaporated milk, a box of starch, and a tin of baking powder. In the laundry would be soap flakes, because she didn’t fully trust detergents. The medicine cabinet would be stocked with Epsom salts, rubbing alcohol, iodine and castor oil.
He closed his eyes, opened them again—watching.
She had taken a seat outside a bookstore, looking at customers come and go. Behind her, Jaydee waited.
He knew old women.
And this one was his …
Inez Cumbie watched people browsing in a bookstore. Libraries were everywhere and the price of books so high, yet there remained those who could afford them, obviously.
She loved books, had always treasured words. During a half century of teaching she was known for her ability to define almost any term in an unabridged dictionary. Then, she would trace the etymology, giving a word weight and substance, relating the way the Greek and Latin intended it to be. She could parallel the development of civilization with changes in the language. War brought societies together, melded tongues, altered speech. Armies of occupation left a linguistic stamp on foreign lands. Immigration and commerce transported idioms abroad, and America had become the richest recipient of all.
Well. Her memory was not as it had been. She suffered the lapses of incomplete connections between axons and synapses. She despaired that all her hard-earned knowledge was evaporating as she aged.
Exercise of the mind was as critical as calisthenics to the body. A part of her pension always went to Dell publishing for a crossword puzzle book filled with jumbles, anagrams, and IQ teasers.
So she would not finish the book too quickly, she allotted herself one puzzle per day. She admired those wordsmiths who outsmarted her—except when one cheated, inventing a variation to make his puzzle complete.
Before Eugene died, they had worked the puzzles together. Nearly always she bested him and, oh, how he enjoyed her victory!
“Too smart for me, Inez,” he’d say. “Always were. Too smart for me.”
It was a loving lie. Eugene was an analyst, the mathematician in the family. But his grasp of abstracts seemed confined to logarithms and algebraic deductions. Synonyms and antonyms eluded him.
Theirs had been such a good marriage. She had no regrets about a day of it. They were both third-generation Floridians, products of the Great Depression, childless but with great regard for children. They began teaching in the same rural Palm Beach County school the year they married.
Five decades ago, where she now sat there had been sand dunes and marshlands. She and Eugene had come here to watch sea eagles soar in utterly blue skies. She wasn’t sure where the old oak tree had been—Eugene would have known—in the housewares section of Sears, she thought. Under that tree they always spread a picnic lunch and, once, as newlyweds, they made love in the twilight. Of course, the nearest neighbor was miles away in those days and winter was the best time for picnics, because the insects ruled summer. She could still remember the rustle of palmetto fronds in a breeze, the whispering oak overhead, a tinkle of trace chains as their mule stamped his hooves restlessly; the feel of Eugene’s hands, the kiss on her neck, the sigh of satisfaction.
So long ago, but yesterday.
Good memories are deposits for withdrawal in less happy times. She and Eugene had made many fine deposits.
Teaching had been a life of penury back then. There were no unions. The satisfaction was not in the money. But somehow they always had nearly enough. With that first mule, Eugene tilled a garden. They never felt deprived. It didn’t occur to them to change professions. Together they had taught nine thousand students, watched them go off to wed, to war—
“Forty-two were reprobates,” Eugene once commented, “but the others weren’t so bad.”
If contentment was success, they were Rockefellers. Eugene taught math and she taught English and they both taught moral values, developing character.
Enough of this. She would buy her crossword puzzle book, catch a bus out to the West Palm Beach city limits, and walk home in the sunset. Daylight Saving Time made for a late nightfall. There was no reason for haste. The buses ran every twenty minutes.
So she watched the passersby, smiling when her eyes met theirs. By their raiment she guessed their occupations, education, and social status. By their demeanor she calculated the degree of their success, imagining burdens they secretly bore.
She purchased a crossword book, strolled back through the crowded mall toward the bus lines.
One would think, among so many people, she would meet a former student, at least one person she knew.
There were familiar faces.
But nobody noticed her.
The sun was a golden globe on a russet horizon when Inez stepped off the bus at the last stop. Long shadows fell across the road. The hiss of air brakes released and the bus turned to leave.
That’s when she had seen him—the setting sun bathed the old station wagon in tones of ocher.
Followed her. She realized that now.
Now was too late—her legs were bound to a sturdy wooden chair, one arm tied to the arm of the furniture, her body strapped against the back.
Killing her cats.
Inez heard a tumble of drawers thrown aside, the crash of breaking glass. Then, a shriek—killing her cats.
How could this be happening? This nightmare—how could this be?
He appeared at the kitchen door, asking mildly, “Are you writing?”
“I’m trying to.”
“Be about it,” he said.
The smell of blood was nauseating. Inez stared at the notebook paper on the table, a pen quivered in her free hand.
“Dear Violet Day—”
She listened to the bump of things he threw, the spit of a trapped feline. A thud. Another.
He hated cats, he’d said. But he said it after he’d gained entry.
She thought back to their meeting—the bus gone, Inez walking in the dusk.
“Hello there!” he’d called through his opened car window.
She’d had difficulty seeing his face in the dark of the interior. “Do I know you?”
“You ought to,” he’d said, pleasantly.
He wore a cowboy hat, work shirt and jeans. On the side of his station wagon, in faded places where once there’d been a painted sign, she read OR O—a farm or ranch, perhaps. South Florida had become the cattle capital of the nation. Corporations controlled most of the farming these days. But she couldn’t remember an OR O ranch hereabouts.
“How are your cats?” he’d asked.
He obviously knew her. The son or grandson of a former student, maybe. Inez remembered smiling, trying to recall a similar high brow, the unruly sandy hair and such straight, even teeth.
“Taught my folks and me, too,” he’d said without accent. Tourists were the invading influence here—even native-born Floridians had lost their drawls.
“Are you Wilma’s boy?”
“Lived about five miles away most of my life,” he’d said. By then the door was open. Expecting her to get in.
“Still got your cats?”
“Come on, let me give you a lift. It’s good to see you again,” he’d said.
One of her students, certainly. Wilma’s boy, perhaps. “Whatever happened to Wilma?”
The car smelled of exhaust fumes, the floorboard was littered with soft drink cans, wrappers from hamburgers. Ants crawled the windshield, she remembered. She’d scrutinized his profile in fading light. Wilma had gray eyes, the same short neck.
“I heard your husband died,” he said.
“Several years ago. I miss him.”
“I’ll bet you do. Tell me where to turn.”
“End of the fence coming up. I can walk from here.”
“No problem. I’ll take you to the door.”
“I need the exercise,” she’d said.
“No problem.” He turned into the long, unpaved drive toward the house a quarter mile away.
“You’re retired now?” he’d commented.
“Nearly nine years ago. You can stop here. The ruts aren’t worth driving over.”
But he kept driving, the vehicle lurching on squeaking springs, the undercarriage scraping, the sun bleeding away beyond the last rise.
“House is dark,” he’d said. “Nobody home.”
“Well, thank you for the ride, son.”
He let her out, his forehead and eyes masked by shadow, teeth white in a boyish smile.
“Tell me your name,” she’d said.
Wilma had married, perhaps twice or more. Inez didn’t ask rude questions. She patted the car door, having closed it. “Thanks again for the ride.”
“Aren’t you going to ask me in?”
“In? Well, no, actually, I—I’m not prepared for guests.”
He was getting out by then. Eyes squinting—shoulders broad, muscular. His shirt hung outside his trousers. Boots rough—a laboring man.
“Long way from anywhere out here,” he mused. “But I remember when it was further. City folks are moving this way, though. New shopping mall and all.”
Then she recalled—that’s where she’d seen him.
He had her by the arm, as if to steady her, but his grip was too strong—she tried to ease away.
“Kitty-kitty,” he said in a monotone. “How many do you have?”
“I-I-I don’t know for certain. They come and go. Thanks again for—”
“No problem,” he said. He pushed her through the door into the hallway, into the kitchen.
“Cats stink,” he said. “I hate cats.”
Everything was so methodical. So deliberate. Like a bad dream. He tied her to a chair. He found paper and pen and sat down, leaning toward her with an elbow on the table.
“When were you born?” he asked.
“What are you going to do here?” she’d demanded.
“I am your destiny.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Ah, but I am. Here we are. Tell me the day and month of your birth.”
“Leo.” He removed a folded newspaper page from his pocket. “Do you know your horoscope for today?”
She watched him spread the page, find a column and trace it. “Leo—‘this is a good day for bargains,’” he read. Looking up, he asked, “Did you buy something at a good price?
“Is it money you want?”
Still reading, he intoned, “‘A stranger may bring good news.’”
“What is this?” she questioned. “Are you playing a game with me?”
He folded the newspaper, stuck it in his top pocket. “Cats stink, don’t they?”
“You don’t have to endure it. You could leave. My money is in my purse.”
He swiped at his face, making a dry spitting sound. “Fur all over the place—the stench—Jesus.”
“Young man, what is the meaning of this?”
“I’m going to clean up a bit. Get rid of these cats. While I do that, I want you to write a letter.”
“A letter to Violet Day. You know who she is.”
He turned full circle, looking at the cats, mewing, waiting for their evening meal. He grabbed a mop and swung at one—the cat was thrown across the room.
“Violet said today was a good day for bargains and you got no bargain,” he said, stalking another cat. “Violet said a stranger might bring good news. I am a stranger.”
He faced her then, the boyish smile now insanely menacing. “The news is not good.”
“Why are you doing this?” she cried. “I don’t deserve this. I’ve always been good to people. I gave my life to help people. You’re making a mistake!”
“Oh?” He sat again. She could smell his breath. “Have we made a mistake?” he asked. He took her one free arm, turned it so her palm was up on the table. He fingered her flesh, peering at the creases.
“This is your life line,” he murmured. “Fate, heart, marriage—you see, it tells about your one marriage. One tiny line, right here—see it?”
“Please,” she sobbed. “What are you going to do?”
He learned her name from identification in her purse. “Inez,” he said, “I’m going to make a deal with you. I’m going to give you a chance to make peace with your god. You believe in God, don’t you?”
“God will not let you hurt me.”
“You say you’ve been a good girl, Inez,” he said, smiling. “But all girls say that. I wonder what your husband would have said? When he became ill, did you take him to a hospital, Inez?”
“God will not allow this,” she prayed.
“Oh, yes, God.” He put his hand on the table, showing his own palm. “See that little mark—that hourglass mark? That’s the mark of Cain, Inez. My grandmother told me about it. Cain and his children and all their children for all time bear that mark—I am not good news.”
He chatted conversationally, trapping cats, killing them.
“As long as you write, you live, Inez. But when you’ve said all you have to say—I must kill you.”
So calmly. Stuffing a cat into a sack, beating it with a piece of firewood. Dumping the dead animal and going for another—room to room—
“What do you want me to say?” she wept.
“Anything you wish. It is your last letter. Tell Violet about yourself. She’ll be interested in that. Tell her when you were born and where. Give her as much information as you can, Inez. Tell her she lied to you—the stranger did not bring good news. You got no bargain today.”
Her hand cramped. She’d urinated in fear. Her fingers were too stiff to hold the pen. She’d written of Eugene and crossword puzzles, anagrams and IQ teasers. She’d reminisced about her life as a teacher.
As he read it over, he chuckled. “You don’t mention me.”
“I didn’t think you’d want me to.”
“You could tell her I’ve killed your cats. I’m about to kill you. Tell her that. You forgot to mention she lied to you, Inez. That’s important—tell her that.”
Inez worked her fingers. Her mouth was so dry she couldn’t get enough saliva to moisten her tongue. She wrote. Hours passed. The windows were black with the night beyond. Her cats lay broken and bloodied about the room.
The bastard. Evil bastard!
I am about to die, he tells me.
She prayed that Eugene’s spirit was here, waiting. She begged forgiveness for sins of omission and a few of commission. She thanked God for the good years, the good deposits.
He took a gun from his belt, stood over her, that smile, that terrible smile—
“A good letter, Inez,” he said. “Surely Violet will see she was wrong …”
He pulled the trigger.