A young woman stumbled through the night, a mere silhouette against the ghostly snow and bright moon. Wintery fingers manhandled her clothing and swirled around her in curls, but she continued. Her face was blurred by the hood that dipped over her eyes. She staggered to an abandoned two-story building. The windows emitted sick gray light into the violet evening air. She knocked on the door.
“Yeah?” came the low, curt voice of a man.
“I-I need to talk to you.”
“Most people do. Come in—the door automatically locks in twenty minutes. New system. Cost me a fortune.”
“Interesting idea,” the girl said. Indeed, it was unlocked. A tired man was in the corner of the ground floor, behind a large table, sitting in a chair crafted of black leather. “But are you sure it’s a good one?”
“Who cares if it’s not? No one comes here ’cept the people who need help—you need some, I suppose?”
The man didn’t look like he was capable of helping himself, much less other people. Although he couldn’t have been older than thirty, he had dense blue circles under his eyes and a peaked face. His heavy boots were propped on the desk.
“Yes,” she whispered suspiciously.
“Chilly out there, huh?”
“It’s on the colder side,” the girl replied. She shook her head vigorously to loosen the viscid snowflakes from her coat.
“Well, that doesn’t explain the oversized jacket. How can I help you if I can’t see you?” He gestured to the hood that strategically hid the upper half of her face. A spasm convulsed her mouth into a bitter smile and she pushed the blob of fabric from her brow. Even though the light in the square room was poor, it wasn’t difficult to see the girl’s swollen right eye.
The man’s eyebrows twitched but he remained silent. She slid into the chair in front of the desk, skidding it to the corner to avoid his grubby footwear.
“How did… that happen?” he finally asked, motioning to her injuries.
She shrugged pathetically. “ ’T’s a long story. You mind?”
“Besides psychiatrists, I’m one of the few people with an occupation where I’m supposed to listen. But lucky for you, I’m also supposed to help.”
“Aren’t psychiatrists supposed to help?”
He dismissed this with a contemptuous wave of the hand. “Yes, but they don’t. And I mean real help.”
“Oh, yes. I agree. Do I have to give you money or something?”
“No. This time, and only this time, my business is free.”
“Yes. There's no cash involved whatsoever.”
“What’s the catch?”
“Oh, if there is one, you’ll find out soon enough. It all depends on you.”
The young woman hesitated. “Is this true? I got your name from a coworker, but they never said you had conditions. I agreed because they told me I didn’t have to set up an appointment.”
“My terms vary between people. But it’s always good to hear that my former clients are pleased.” He leaned back into the amiable chair and smiled as it squeaked. “So, start. What’s with the shiner?”
Her pale hands flailed onto the huge wooden table and her angular fingers wriggled. “My brother was wild—I knew it when I was growing up and I still do. He did crazy things and was seldom home. He had wild friends and wild enemies. Yes. I guess it started with him. He was older than me by four years. One day when I was very young, maybe thirteen or thereabouts, I was upstairs when he came in with more noise than usual. Our parents would be home soon, so I was by myself until he arrived. I went to him. He tried to escape to his room, so I couldn’t see him. But I saw him anyway. He had a cut running down the side of his face.
“I asked him if he was all right, and he shouted at me. He said, ‘Why should I be?’ before he hurried off to go to his room. But I caught his sleeve. He yelled, but I didn’t let go. Boy, was he mad. When he jerked his arm, an object hidden between it and his sleeve clattered onto the floor. Even before I looked down, I knew it was a knife. It had stuck right to the floor, blade first. It was dotted with something red. He knew what it was too. There was no doubt it belonged to him.” The girl then stopped and snacked on her thumbnail.
The man tapped his fingers on the table and said patiently, “Continue.”
“Then he pushed me away—hard. With both hands. He knocked me across the hallway. We had a small table at the end of it, me and my parents’ bedroom were across each other’s with his at the other end. So on top of the miserable piece of furniture was a vase of these flowers that we hadn’t watered in years. I smashed into the table and it came down too. The vase crashed and gave me a shower of painful glass and crisp roses.
“Before that year, my brother had been nice, and I’d liked him a lot. I guess I still wanted to remember him in his glory days, even though it seemed like he was no doubt gone. When I looked up and dusted the slices of glass off, I hoped he would be there. But he wasn’t. He was gone and so was the knife. I went over to his door, but it was locked. I was shocked, and, not to mention terribly disappointed. There I was, covered in glass, and he hadn’t even the grace to stay there and check my condition. I cleaned up the mess as best as I could and when my parents got home I didn’t mention it to them.” She toyed with the buttons on her jacket.
“They never even noticed the table was gone. The next day, my brother stayed in his room. Then another day. It was summer vacation, so he got away with it. He said he was sick. That was the day I knew something was going to happen. I began my investigations the next day.”
“Oh, nothing serious. I just looked through his room for something.”
She smiled. “I’m not sure, just anything interesting, or anything that could explain his strange behavior. His drawers were full of junk: broken bottles, smoky clothes, and tobacco; evidence of his wild times. There was no doubt he was doing things. But after a month or so I stayed off of it, since nothing too bad had happened yet.
“Then almost two years later, it happened. It was at a high school dance. I saw my brother go out with some people, and I got a glimpse of a dark bottle and sparkle of a knife. The bottle didn’t concern me, but the knife certainly did. But then I figured maybe he was planning on using it to open the bottle. So I didn’t let it bother me. Besides, I was having too much fun to go out after him. Then near the end of the party there was this really loud scream that caused everyone to stop. A few of the teachers went outside and they found the body of this girl.
“No one knew who it was or where she was from. Someone said that it was the younger sister of some kid who went to the high school and that he’d come with her, but no one knew for sure. The kid wasn’t found, and he died a week later anyway. There was a rumor those two kids had a brother in college, but he was just as mysterious as the girl’s other so-called brother, as no one ever saw him either.
“The party ended early, and my brother never showed up. I thought maybe he went home, because his car was gone. I got a ride from one of the teachers. When I got to our house, he wasn’t there. My parents said he’d show up. He didn’t come later that night. We waited a day then two then three until a whole week rolled by. We made posters. We even put his name in the paper. But he never came back. Later, we were told that he was spotted at the border of the state. To this day I still haven’t seen him.”
“That’s it? That doesn’t explain that eye,” the man said, fiddling with a silver ashtray. He had renounced the initial informal position and his shoes were now pressing against the floor.
The girl lowered her eyes to examine her hands, which were clasping her knees. “I’m not done. A few years later, I was alone in my kitchen when I heard gunshots in the distance. I figured it was no big deal. But when they seemed to be getting closer, only then did I begin to worry. My kitchen walls were absolutely covered in windows. So, when the window near me cracked, I managed to go under the dining table before the window fell apart and splashed onto the floor like little glass marbles. Then I saw tiny silver things hit the wall straight across the window, along with some smoke.”
“The window that broke?”
“Yeah. It went like fireworks, sort of. Bang, bang, bang, bang. It went like that for a while. When it finished, all the pane from the windows was on the floor in sharp shards. Even though I was under the table, a good amount still made it on me in the form of a slick powder. Except the cuts on my arms, I was all right.
“But that was only the beginning. Since that day six years ago, I’ve been dodging poison and mercenaries with knives. I’ve been lucky. Within this time period I’ve only been in the hospital twice. The first time was a couple years ago, and then recently when I got hit by a car. That’s why I have this black eye. I was released yesterday.”
The man nodded and yawned. “So what do you think your brother did?”
The young woman closed her eyes. “I think he had something to do with that girl’s death, which is why he left. He would rather leave then fess up. And I’m afraid I’m also close to my demise.”
“I’m sick. I’m so sick and so tired of living like this. Something’s going to happen—I know it.”
The man lowered his eyebrows. “I believe you are correct, as this is when that catch we were talking about earlier comes in.”
The young woman straightened her curving spine and her unhealthy fingers clung to the table’s corners. “What are you talking about?” Fear curled her words.
“That girl you spoke of had a name, you know. Her name was Kendra Timmons. And she did have two brothers. And she was killed by your brother and his friends. The death of my brother, however, is still a mystery. Despite your sibling’s long record of crime, I don’t believe he or his allies did it. I’m still trying to find his murderer. But I decided long ago to take care of my sister’s first, as I already know hers. Always have.”
The girl stood up. Her despair was hurried and visible. Her chair was on wheels and it span across the room until it tipped over. The jaded man supported his head on a closed fist. His right hand slipped from sight and opened a drawer on the side of the desk.
“Nearly ten years ago, my friends and I had run into your brother and a few of his—associates. It had ended in a fight we won. I still remember the place. Blackwell Avenue. I had been taking my sister to get some candy at the corner store when they had come. I had noticed him observing her. I didn’t think it was serious then, but now I know. Some people might not care if they had lost in a simple scrap, but your brother was different.” His grin had transformed into a sorry arc. “He was determined. Determined and all its synonyms. And he had an inability to forgive that came hand-in-hand with his patience, and his fury at defeat—all defeat. He had promised he’d get revenge on me and at the time I had scoffed at him, but I later learned that he wasn’t simply threatening, but telling the truth.”
The girl was creeping over to the door. The man didn’t seem to mind.
“And so on the night of that dance eight years ago, he and his friends waited for my sister to come outside. And she did. All it took was a knife, a few minutes, and that was it. Of course he’d go after my sister—she was innocent and, without me near her, helpless. That’s what your brother likes in a victim.” The girl was moving faster now, and so was the man as he found what he was searching for.
“I had no doubt it was your brother. But he was never known for being brave and once a coward, always a coward; he fled the state. And, like you, I haven’t seen him since. I had been hoping that you’d know.”
“I promise I don’t.”
“I believe you.” And with that, Mr. Timmons rose from his comfortable leather chair. In his hand was a small item crafted of heavy, dark metal. His middle finger prodded the trigger. “I had always wanted to figure this out with your brother, but this will have to do. I’m finally going to repay him in the same way he did me. This gun has been loaded for nearly three years. Admittedly, you’ve done a good job evading me. Until now, of course.”
He focused on his horrified target and rearranged his grip on the weapon.
“Please don’t do it!” the girl pleaded. “I didn’t do anything. I told you already; I’m innocent!”
“You don’t understand how it feels to lose something so priceless in a fight you not only didn’t start, but won.” The pain and anger flowed strong, despite its decade-old existence. The girl shrieked and turned the knob. It was locked. It squirmed but remained fastened. She resorted to tugging, but it still did not loosen. Soon, the ten-year vow for vengeance would be completed and transformed from an empty threat to an article in the newspaper. The girl’s brother had assumed he had the power to end his oath after he accomplished it, but, like a curse, it spread. In the past decade, it had simply gotten stronger.
“Don’t you remember?” Timmons inquired. “It locks after twenty minutes.”
It was quick and easy, as the man had said. There were a few bullets, a scream, and a splatter of blood, then nothing more. Except one small sentence.
“Now for Max’s killer.”