Sandra Shippy, Sandi Johnson, short stories, radio plays, ray bradbury,DIVERSITY website
CRACKING THE CODE
It has been my experience that those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it. It shows a lack of confidence in one’s objectives and abilities – not to mention the honourable acceptance of the consequences that come with failure. I should know – I’ve put myself on the line so often that when I’ve under achieved I live with it – die with it too should that be necessary.
The room was seedy, the garish red of the walls streaked and marked with the smoke of endless cigarettes and the spilling of many drinks and other things hardly bearable to think about. There was a momentary lull in the murmur of talk from the patrons as I worked my way through the room, bypassing the small rickety tables with the even frailer chairs designed to make you shift so uncomfortably that, to obtain release, you would walk to the bar for another drink. The couple of waitresses in too tight clothing moved languorously about the floor as if they could not be bothered to serve, often ignoring the clientele’s demands in favour of a chat with each other leaning against the grubby bar while they stared about the room with feral eyes.
sat down in the one empty booth, the cracked and worn black leather giving under my weight with a resentful sigh. Almost magically a shot of tequila appeared in front of me, a plain white saucer laden with lemon and salt making a clanging sound that rang momentarily like the bells of a church as it hit the cheap formica, piercing my head with a sudden arrow of pain that told me I had not yet shaken off the residue of last night. I brushed aside the memory of a warm, silken body that had writhed and moaned in my arms until her departure. She had faded from my view in the dim light of dawn that had broken through the chink in the faded, grimy curtains of my apartment window.
The trembling hand that had placed the drink and saucer in front of me receded, drawn back against the small, heaving chest of the birdlike man that sat opposite me. He was the kind that could and did fade and flit from shadow to shadow. I had seen him many times before and even in his broken, sidling state, the force of his pale blue eyes spoke of an intelligence and agony that never failed to impress me. Once, he had been a different man. Once he had been upright, beautiful even, but no more.
‘She got you then?’ he queried, ‘took you for a ride and then left you bleeding while she walked off with it.’
‘How do you know that Squid?’ I asked.
‘How do I know, how do I know? For one thing you wouldn’t have called asking for information and for another – well you might not think it now but I’ve been there.’
He spread his arms wide.
‘I wasn’t always like this, once I thought I was really going places, going right to the top. I would have done too, only I met her didn’t I? Just like you. Twice I let her get to me, twice I believed her and twice she left me for dead. What you see now is a result of all those injuries. Hard to believe isn’t it that something so lovely could almost kill a man and keep him coming back for more.’
I surveyed him grimly. I knew what he meant. I could still feel the thrust of the cold steel as the knife had plunged into me. Only a last minute alert from my brain had caused me to turn in the bed and take the thrust in the shoulder instead of the heart. She had screamed like a Harpy, pulling the knife out and throwing it at me as I leapt from the bed and fell, the wound draining blood and strength from me as I sank to the floor, fumbling for the gun in the pocket of my jacket that lay with the rest of my clothes like the tumbled man I was now, abandoned last night in the heat of desire.
The amulet I wore swung on the chain about my neck by a small thread. She had almost taken it. I turned with difficulty and lifted the gun with my left hand as she made for the door. Her huge, beautiful eyes had locked with mine and she had smiled.
‘Too bad Heartford, but never mind. If its any consolation, you’re better than most. Better but not good enough.’
Sumina had swung on her heel and left before I could focus through the fog of blood loss and pain, leaving me to patch myself up as best I could. There was no time for a hospital visit, not if I wished to catch up with her. You could never just get in and out of the damn things. There was such a ritual about it that it always cost you dear in terms of time and I couldn’t afford that. It had already cost me too much.
‘So where is she likely to go?’ I asked Squid, ‘you of all people should know. Just tell me where and I’ll make sure you get some of what you deserve.’
He smiled bitterly.
‘It’s too late for me. I’ve lost too much. I can never get it back. I’m just hanging on to see that bitch get taken down. There’s no one else who can do it now. You can if you don’t give in at the last minute. She’s so beautiful she can almost blind you. And she’s smart. If you let her talk to you, well you’re lost. Once that honey voice begins to hypnotise you, you’re a dead man and she always sounds so persuasive, so believable – because you want to believe her. Want to believe she never meant to hurt you, that you can be with her, that you’re all she wants. At that moment, that’s when she goes for your heart – or your head. Look.’
He tuned his small, narrow head to the side and I could see the deep runnelled graze that was etched from the front of his face to just behind his ear. No hair grew there. That he had lived at all was a tribute to his abilities. But the wound had gone deeper than his head. It had knocked everything sideways taking the stuffing and spirit from him along with all else that he had lost. He leaned forward now, his face a taut mask of pain and anger.
‘I don’t want anything, just don’t mess up. Just kill her. Promise me and then I’ll tell you.’
I stared into the obsessed blue eyes, lit now by the fires of vengeance. I saw myself mirrored in the pupils and had the weird sensation that maybe I was talking to myself – or at least what I might become if I once let my guard down.
‘Don’t worry. I won’t be fooled again. Not anymore. I promise.’
Squid leaned back a huge sigh expelling from his mouth as if it were a dying man’s last breath.
‘There’s this loft. It’s in a deserted factory. The downstairs is huge, full of big pieces of machinery. I don’t know what they did there – maybe textiles, or engineering. I’m not good about those sort of things. I followed her after the last time. She’d left me for dead but I wasn’t. I was leaking blood and life but I followed her anyway. Thought if I ever recovered I could return, kill her then. Didn’t happen. I’ve just never got well enough and now there’s no more time. At the end of the building there’s a metal staircase. It looks like it goes to another part of the factory. So it does. Upstairs. That floor’s split into two large rooms. Some machinery, not much. I can’t remember exactly. At the end of the second room there’s a door set into the wall. Solid steel. Behind that is where she lives. There’s just one problem.’
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘There’s a keypad. You need the code. I watched her punch it in but I wasn’t close enough to see the numbers. It’s real dark in there. I dragged myself home after that. Don’t think I could ever climb that steep staircase again anyway. Not after what she did to my leg the first time I tangled with her.’
I’d never liked to ask what made him limp so badly. Now I did.
‘I’d just got undressed. It had been a long day. I’d met her for drinks and thought I was in with a chance. She told me we’d share everything, wealth, life and, for me the prize at the end of the rainbow, would be her. All I had to do was give her the data I had. She’d do the rest. I was crazy for her. I said yes. Said I’d meet her the next day and we’d work it out.’
He paused. I licked the salt and sucked the lemon, the tequila hot and fiery as it chased them down my throat. Squid took a nervous sip of the warm beer in front of him, his Adam’s apple jerking and moving like the throat of a man about to be hanged.
‘I put the light out and lay on the bed. Dreaming I was, dreaming of the wind I could hear, the wealth I thought I would get and best of all, her in my arms. The pain was intense. I thought the ceiling had collapsed on me. I opened my eyes. She stood above me, her chest heaving with effort. There was a crowbar in her hands. It was high above her head. Pain coursed through me like a living thing. I knew my leg was shattered.
She reached down with one hand and tore the amulet from my neck. She raised the crowbar again. I threw myself off the bed on the other side but I couldn’t control my damaged leg and it flopped on the bed. I saw her arms descend. I screamed liked a baby. But I had my gun. I fired blindly and heard the bullet hit something. It wasn’t her but it was enough to drive her from my room.’
He sipped his beer pensively.
‘She’s got two now. She only needs yours and it’s all over’.
I signalled one of the waitresses hopefully for a refill.
‘You wouldn’t think a guy would be stupid enough to believe her again after that would you?’ he asked me plaintively.
I shook my head but knew in my heart - that piece of rock I thought I had successfully honed to granite but had proved otherwise - that it was all too easy.
‘I met her in the underground car park by the station. She rang me, sounded frantic, said there were three out to kill her, that she would share everything with me if I would just help her, protect her. Told me she was sorry, that she really cared for me; that she’d been mad with greed but that was all over now. We could have a new life – together. All we’d ever need. Go straight to the top. Be winners. I wanted to believe her so I did. It was very dark in the car park. Two of the lights had been smashed. I should have known then. I heard the bullet leave the gun. Turned my head just a fraction but it was enough to save me. Went down like a spent rocket. She must have thought I was dead. When I came to there was blood everywhere. Even I thought I was dead!’
He laughed harshly.
‘A pathologist friend of mine tells me head wounds can bleed like an attack of twenty vampires on a mission and yet be very minor. Mine wasn’t minor but then again it wasn’t deadly. But Sumina is. It’s like its just part of her. Like she can’t help it. Like that deadly spider that always kills its mate. I think she enjoys it a little too much. You should take care Heartford, you might not get another chance.’
The ache in my shoulder and the slow seep of blood each time I forgot and moved too quickly told me he was right. He slumped back and swallowed the rest of his beer. He picked up the second with no pause and stared at me morosely.
‘Give me some paper and I’ll draw the directions for you. It’s easy to get lost down there. It’s a bad area. Sometimes you never come back.’
I complied and, his hand still trembling, he began to make rapid marks on the paper. When he was done he passed it to me in silence. I glanced at it for a few moments, then folded it and put it in my inside pocket. The taste of the lemon was especially bitter so I killed it rapidly with the second shot of tequila and then rose to my feet. I placed my hands flat on the table, as much to balance myself as to seem imposing. On impulse I said ‘I usually work alone but if you want you can come with me. You’re owed that I think.’
He shook his head.
‘No thanks. I haven’t the stomach for it – or the legs! It’s up to you now. Besides, despite it all, I couldn’t bear to watch.’
I threw down some credits, enough to keep him drinking for a few hours and made my way to the exit. I could feel those blue eyes on my back all the way out the door. Squid had been a great guy. It was just too bad he hadn’t got what it takes to make the final cut.
I slammed the door of the yellow buzzing thing that seemed to pass for a taxi these days and it sped swiftly away down the dark, dank street. When and how exactly had the black, upright, elegant vehicles I was so fond of passed from use as cabs? I couldn’t quite seem to remember. The pool of light from the street lamp under which I stood seemed to be a small oasis that was quickly swallowed by the mass of black around the tall faceless buildings on either side of the road. As I stood getting my bearings, letting my eyes narrow until they began to focus more clearly, here and there, I saw the frail, tiny points of light that signalled humanity going about its business in the box- like compartments that passed for habitats down here. That should have reassured me. It didn’t.
Squid’s directions had been solid. The door set in the side wall moved silently as if it were oiled frequently. Strange obelisk shapes loomed overhead as I made my way slowly forward through the darkness lit only by the passing moonlight that bravely filtered in tiny strands through the small, square windows set high up close to ceiling level. I shuddered. I pitied the poor beings that had once worked here. I moved slowly, silently amongst the sleeping giants. A squat, black dwarf close to the end of the room bit me in the shin as I hurried too fast in my eagerness to attain the slender steel staircase I could see gleaming like an ethereal stairway to heaven. I muttered a silent imprecation as I bent to rub the bruised area, my hand encountering sharp gears and wheels on the dwarf that to this day are a mystery to me as to what their function might be, save that of a possible metal guard dog.
I had thought the staircase might creak under my weight. It didn’t. Steel is so deceptive don’t you think? Decorative and deadly all in one slender package. At least the stiletto she had shived me with had been. Sumina was female after all. Don’t they all just love functional things that accessorise so well with their outfits? My progress through the two upper rooms was easer than the ground floor. Less machinery. The faint outline of tables at each side running parallel the length of the first room made me wonder what the hell had gone on in there. But I had no time for digressions.
I gained the second room and stood, paused in the doorway. Something wasn’t quite right. I held my breath. I held it for a long minute. I could still hear breathing. It wasn’t mine.
Slowly I drew out the two Frakes from my trouser pocket. Not a weapon I favoured often but perfect for this moment. I stood motionless in the doorway still not breathing. I focused strongly on the detail of the room in front of me. The room ahead was clear but still I knew. There were two of them. One each side of the door. Sumina’s drudges no doubt. I took a deep, quiet breath and stepped over the threshold, my arms stretching out and throwing the Frakes simultaneously. I heard two quick gasps that almost instantly changed to gurgles and the slow thump of descending bodies. Strange how a death rattle can sound so close to a baby’s first sound of life. I nodded in satisfaction. My long training sessions with China Jones had been worthwhile. The Frakes had caught each of them in the throat, one more fiercely than the other nearly severing his head. I sidestepped the slow spreading pools of blood and made my way down the centre of the room to the steel door that grew in my vision the nearer I got. The keypad was in front of me. I had to solve the code or it would be all over.
I thought of everything I knew about Sumina. Her tricks, her deceptions, her love of money, her almost insane desire to win to the exclusion of everything else and most of all, her overpowering need to kill everyone she encountered. As if she was unable to help herself. Full of hatred and anger and – animus.
Lights exploded in my head.
Her name! Sumina. ANIMUS.
Quickly I counted down in my head my finger punching in each number as I mouthed off the letters – 1, 14, 9, 13, 21, 19. For a moment it seemed I had got it wrong. Then the door swung open silently and I entered the room, gun already drawn.
There was only one central light. It was dim but shone down on the luxurious bed in the centre of the room. Everything was lush and plush the scent of lilacs whispering through the air with a heady, enticing aroma. Strangely, soft furry toys were dotted here and there as if from time to time a small girl might linger and play contentedly with toys that contained no hurt.
She lay on her stomach, arms outstretched her face turned towards me rosy with the sleep of innocence, her golden hair cascading over the cover of blue that matched that of her dress.
Her eyes opened as if she had stopped dreaming. Shock pervaded her face and she reached instinctively for a weapon that was not there. She rose to a sitting position and swung her legs off the bed her eyes moving towards the table just a few feet away where her weapons lay discarded.
‘How clever you are Heartford’ she said sweetly ‘I always thought if anyone could it would be you that would find me. Shall I reward you for your efforts?’
I shook my head.
‘It’s too late, I’m not like the others. Once bitten no-one gets close enough to take another.’
‘We could team up, go all the way to the top together. Think of it. You, me, and all we’ve ever dreamed of.’
Her hand grasped the two amulets that swung about her slender neck.
‘I’ve got two, you’ve got one. Together we’ll know it all. No-one could stop us. And I am so very, very fond of you Heartford.’
‘It won’t work Sumina. I don’t want it. I don’t want you. Once I thought I did but not now. All I want are the amulets. Finish the job and get on with the next one.’
For the first time fear crossed her face as she considered the reality of her own demise.
‘Don’t kill me’ she begged ‘don’t kill me, I’ve worked for this for so long. Please. We could be good together. We could be partners, share everything. I have a lot and I could share it with you. Please don’t kill me.’
‘I always work alone’ I said ‘and I don’t like to share. It will all be mine once you’re gone. Third time lucky they say and this is it – at least for me if not for you. I let you trick me far too often but no more.’
Her red mouth trembled and she raised a hand to her golden hair tightening the short blue dress over her gorgeous breasts. Once this would have stopped me in my tracks – twice before it had – and I had the lumps and wounds to prove it. But not now; not this time.
I raised the gun until it was level with her heart. Even now I couldn’t bring myself to deliver a head shot, not and spoil that beautiful face.
‘Don’t’ she whispered, ‘please don’t.’
I thought of all the pain she’d inflicted on me in the past; Squid’s broken form and all the others that had trailed in her wake; the taunting laugh that had echoed in my ears every time she had beaten me.
I closed my eyes and fired.
The shot was so loud I was deafened, the noise echoing and rebounding throughout the small, empty room until I dropped the gun and put my hands to my ears to block out the sound.
Too loud, I thought, far too loud. Someone should do something about that. Someone should turn the volume down.
Then I opened my eyes.
It was over – I had won! For the first time, in a long time, I had won.
I stared at her fallen body, her still- beautiful, fallen body. Suddenly I felt tired. So tired I simply wanted to lie down and sleep for a thousand years. The darkness began to crawl from the shadows towards that single point of light that illuminated her and even that was beginning to fade. Her blue dress began to mingle with the red of her blood until it became impossible to distinguish the one from the other.
It was time for me to go. Time to call it a day. Everything was over and I was safe. These things happened. People came and went; people died, people disappeared all the time. No one would know I was responsible. No-one ever did. Get in, do the job and get out. That had always been the way I had played the game. Only with her had I lapsed; allowed myself to be cajoled, coerced, coaxed, distracted and diverted. I felt a kind of sadness at her passing but I steeled myself against the sudden influx of emotion.
The only thing that mattered was that I had won.
I moved to where she now lay so still and, bending, ripped the two amulets from around her neck. Everything I needed was in there; the information highway to take me to my final destination – and a chance at a new life.
The darkness began to cover everything more forcibly. Even the gold of her hair was fading from view as it lapped over her. Soon it would be as if she had never been. I felt drained. It had taken everything I had to kill her. I had to go before someone else came, before anyone found me, before the edge of the safety margin I possessed was eaten away.
And they would be coming. That was the cold hard truth. There was always someone who wanted what you had got, someone else desperate to get where you were going, ready to climb over you and grind you into the dust. I should know.
Everything was beginning to blur, coming apart ready to renew itself. I was too tired to deal with anything else now. Another day, another time maybe I could start again. But not tonight.
I could hear the sound of running feet coming from far in the distance. I only had moments now.
I rose and stood upright my hands limp at my sides.
Slowly I reached out and with a trembling finger I pressed the exit button.
Then I closed the computer.
Copyright Sandi Johnson, 2010