Old Scratch

I don’t know this room, Carter thought.  He could feel the weight of the other man’s stare on him, and looked everywhere but.  Not that there was much to see.  The room was small.  His wife would have said cozy, but small was small when the walls were too close, and you could smell the breath of the man across from you, a mixture of coffee and something sweet.

The walls were battleship grey, like the table his hands rested on.  The steel felt cool under his fingers, and he absently flexed them and pressed his fingertips against the metal.  Overhead, a single light hung from a long arm fixed somewhere above the tile ceiling, the light bulb protected behind a cage.  He glanced up at the ceiling and thought it was just like corporate to put a false ceiling in a basement.  Keeping up appearances, and all that.  His gaze drifted from the ceiling to the walls again, and he could feel the man across from him waiting.  No clocks, he noticed, with an internal grunt of dissatisfaction.  Though again, not surprising.  We don’t pay you to be clock watchers, Coombs would have said.

Coombs.  The name filled him with a mixture of anger and loathing, and he was surprised to discover, a little bit of fear.  He thought about that, and realized maybe that was perfectly normal.  The man signed his paychecks, and was the thin blue line between making his next mortgage payment and life lived from his Subaru.  It didn’t make him dislike the little shit any less, with his suits and his narrow rat face and the way he said the phrase step up like it was a magical motivational trigger.  His wife would have frowned and told him not to judge a man until he’d walked a mile in his shoes, but Carter thought Coombs’ shoes probably squelched when he walked.

A feeling in Carter’s gut told him he had another reason to hate Coombs – being that the man was probably the reason he was in this room.  Well, he and that goddamn Margaret.  If she hadn’t been so gung-ho on him taking the report to Coombs, things might have shook out differently.  He almost smiled, remembering the way that sonovabitch’s face had gone white when he saw it.  The other man had made a phone call – probably Upstairs, capital U, and the next thing he knew, Coombs was all smiles again, and Carter found himself sitting here in the grey wasteland with a man – well, he wasn’t sure what to make of him.

As though the thought had reached the other man’s mind, there was the sound of knuckles gently rapping the table.  They made the metal ring in the quiet.  The other man cleared his throat.

“Mr. Carter.”

Carter turned his head, and focused on the man across from him.  He reminded Carter of pictures he’d seen of men from the 50s, and thought he wouldn’t have looked out of place in his grandmother’s photo albums.  He was slight, but skinny wasn’t the word Carter would have used to describe him.  Wiry, that was it.  He wore a short-sleeved white button-up shirt with a breast pocket, and a red cloth tie that looked like something Marty McFly would’ve worn in Back to the Future.  His hair was styled in a brush-cut, bare above his ears and rising into a short spike naturally.  Beneath that, on a simple face with few lines – Carter guessed the man to be close to 50 – he wore black horn-rimmed glasses.  Behind the glass in the frames, he had pale blue eyes that reminded Carter of the sky on winter days.  Carter looked down at the man’s hands, where he was playing with a pen he’d taken from his shirt pocket.

“Mr. Carter,”  the man repeated.  Carter looked up, and the man allowed himself a little smile.  “Good.  That’s good.  I need you to pay attention.”

Carter realized he didn’t know the man’s name.  He was in a tiny room in the basement of a multinational organization, and the thought that he should know the name of the man he shared it with was suddenly very important.

“Sorry,”  Carter blanched.  “I uh, I didn’t catch your name.”

The man across from him stopped smiling and looked him in the eyes, hard.   Carter felt uncomfortable under the gaze, but didn’t drop it.  Finally, the man spoke.

“Foster.”  He didn’t offer a hand, or lean back, or do any of those things, but instead stayed in position, playing with his pen, an old blue clicker model with gold writing on one side.

He turned it over and over in his hands, and Carter thought of those old toys with a wheel and two bars, and when you squeezed them, the wheel would slide down the bars and up a curl at the end before it slid back down again.  He looked up, and saw Foster still looking at him.  Despite the chill of the basement, he felt a light sweat threaten to break on his forehead.

“Let’s not belabor the obvious, Mr. Carter.”

The man’s voice was – well, Carter thought of it as normal.  As white bread as you could get, like Bill Paxton or Bill Pullman.  He always got those two mixed up.  Still, combined with Foster’s demeanor and out-of-time quality, there was something deeply unsettling about the man, a quality that made Carter squirm inside like a toddler in wet pants.  He tore his mind away from those thoughts and looked back at Foster, still playing with the pen.

“What’s the obvious?”  He wanted to needle the man a little.

Foster smiled and stopped turning the pen over long enough to tap it twice against the tabletop.

“You know why you’re here.”

“I do?”

A slight frown, really no more than a flash wrinkling of the skin between the eyes, crossed Foster’s face.  He laid the pen down and reached into his back pocket.  Carter flinched, every movie he’d seen flashing into his mind.  He imagined a sleek pistol, black, the eye of the barrel staring at him right before it barked out once in the quiet of the cinderblock walls.  Foster’s hand came up, and in it was a small leather wallet.  He laid it next to the pen, and folded his hands on top of one another on the tabletop.

“Are you familiar with the concept of risk management, Mr. Carter?”  His tone was gentle, a teacher to student.

Carter gave a little shrug.  “It’s like theft prevention, that sort of thing, right?”

“Close.  What I do is identify and assess the chances of an event happening.”  He gestured.  “Like your example – theft.  Or fire.  Or any other unforeseen incident.  Then I take action to ensure that it either doesn’t occur, or if it’s inevitable, to minimize its impact.”

Realization crept up on Carter.  The report.  He’d known this was a direct result of that, but wasn’t until now, sure of the consequences.  He looked at Foster, and felt himself unclench a little.  Risk management.  This man was a pencil pusher, and this was a debriefing.  He allowed himself an exhale, and felt his shoulders loosen just a fraction.  He thought of his wife again, and another one of her sayings – worry not, fear not.  Foster saw him relax, and gave a small smile.

“Good.  Nothing to worry about here.  Just a routine follow-up, Mr. Carter.”  He picked up the wallet and began playing with it, opening and closing it like a bird on the wing.  Carter could see the photo inserts flipping back and forth; the light overhead catching the plastic and making it glow.  It was fascinating, and a little hypnotic.

“That report, Mr. Carter.  You understand what it represents?”  He went on, not waiting for an answer.  “You plan, and you plan, and you try to see a thing from all angles, like a chess game.  Three moves, five moves, twelve moves out.  Still, there’s always a wild card, and no matter how you plan, you can’t foresee those.”  He snapped the wallet shut, and the leather made a tiny thunderclap.  Carter jumped a little, and felt his face turn red.

“All because some pissant analyst and his assistant decided to do the right thing.”

His knuckles were white around the wallet, and his voice had hardened, taking on an almost audible growl.  Carter blanched and tried to push his chair back from the table.  It didn’t budge, and he risked a glance down.  He saw it was bolted to the floor.  More disconcerting was the drain he saw under the table, a brass plug with square holes.  What the fuck is that for?

He felt the tension come roaring back into his body, and his head started to ache, a dull low throbbing behind his eyes.  Foster was watching him, and Carter briefly wondered if the man ever blinked.  The silence stretched on, became a palatable thing, until he was sure the edge of it would shred his nerves.

Foster broke the silence, his voice light again.  “You’ve got family, is that correct, Mr. Carter?”

Carter nodded, not sure where this was going.

“So do I.  Love them with all my heart. Would you like to see pictures?”

Again, Carter nodded, unsure of where this was going.  He felt off-balance, the sudden change in Foster’s demeanor like the wind blowing warm on a winter’s day.  Foster’s smile reappeared, sunshine breaking through storm clouds, and he lifted the wallet and opened it.  It opened on the plastic dividers, worn but whole, and the pictures behind the protective coating.  He held it out, and Carter leaned in.

“That’s Katie.  Isn’t she pretty?”

Cold swept over Carter and licked down into his belly, sending spikes of fear deep into his stomach.  He recoiled.  The smile held on Foster’s face.

“Oh dear.  I think we’ve had a misunderstanding.  I didn’t say she was my wife, did I?  Here, you should look at this next one.”  He turned the divider over and held the wallet out.

Despite himself, Carter leaned in.  He pressed his hands against the table to keep them from shaking, but rather than comforting, he found the metal cold and unforgiving.  The picture was a little worn, as though it had been taken out and looked at time after time, but the subject was easy to make out.  Carter knew his own son on sight.  One of Katie’s favorites popped into his head – no good deed goes unpunished.  He leaned back in his chair, emotionally frayed.

“What do you want?”  His heart thudded in his chest.

Foster smiled at him.  It was as if the man was getting a perverse pleasure out of this.  Maybe he was.  Carter had read about people like that – guys who liked to slap their women around, maybe tie them up a little, choke them, candlewax on the ass, all that.  It wasn’t his kink, but he tried not to judge.  Not everyone was the same.  This didn’t feel quite right though. He thought maybe Foster liked those things, but thought it more likely he liked those things taken to the extreme.

“I want the same thing you do.  I want Katie and Erik safe and sound.  I want them to be provided for.”  He paused, and closed the wallet, and laid it back on the table, then folded his hands over it.  “I don’t want them to be dismembered and delivered to you piece by piece until you beg me to kill you.”

Foster picked up the wallet and tucked it back into his pocket.  Carter watched, his stomach churning.  Rage was threatening to replace his fear, and he fought against it.  He thought of Katie and Erik, and the consequences he might bring on them.  He thought of his wife, standing in the sunlight, watering her garden, Erik playing in the dirt at her feet.  He thought of her slender fingers holding the hose, and an image came to him, unbidden, of one of those fingers arriving at his desk in a plain brown box, packing peanuts turning red.

His gorge rose, and he managed to turn his head in time to vomit a splattering mess of his lunch on the floor.  An acidic smell wafted into the room, along with the scents of hot shrimp and garlic, and his stomach threatened to rise again.  He took a deep breath and choked it back.  He could feel tears streaming down his face, and he took a moment to wipe them from his cheeks before sitting up.  Carter looked at the man across from him, his head throbbing, and his face hot.  Foster was still wearing that smile, and anger tried to worm its way back into his chest.  He swallowed, hard, and took a deep shuddering breath.

“What do I do?”

Foster opened his hands, a magnanimous gesture.  “Good.  You see reason.”  He leaned back.  “You’ll take a sabbatical.  Take the wife and kid up the coast.  Beautiful country this time of year.”

Suspicion itched in the back of Carter’s mind.  “Why?”  He asked.

“Because you had to get away.  You forged that report; you’ve got an axe to grind.  While you’re gone, we’ll make it go away, and your position will be quietly phased out, and you’ll find a quiet little job in a cozy little town nowhere near here.”

He stopped talking, and leaned forward, his hands folded over one another once again on the table.  Carter thought about the proposition.  He’d lose his job.  Katie would keep her fingers.  A little ember of anger stirred in his chest.  He’d lose the job it had taken him five years to rise to.  Over a bit of misplaced honesty.  The man sitting across from him stared, and he thought he saw the slightest bit of a smirk.  The anger kindled to a flame.  They’d threatened his wife and child.  Over a piece of paper with some numbers on it.  He flashed on the sudden image of him and the family in the car, driving up the coast.  A black semi, going too fast, passes them, and clips them.  They careen off the cliff.  Or, the brakes fail.  Or, they’re shot and killed at a rest stop.  The flame kindled to a bonfire.

Carter looked down, at the pen still on the table, its blue and gold shining in the light.  Foster was still staring at him.  Carter’s hands shook, but he did his best to steady them as he placed them on the table, pressing his palms against the cool metal.

“Well, Mr. Carter?”  Impatience, just the barest hint, tinged Foster’s voice.

The rage galvanized him.  Now or never – another of Katie’s.  He lunged forward and grabbed the pen, then snapped it upward with as much force as he could.  There was a moment of resistance, and then wet heat covered Carter’s hand and wrist like syrup.  His stomach threatened to spill its contents again at the feeling, and he fought it, won.

He looked into Foster’s eyes. They were wide and frightened.  He could see the tiny veins in them, red and angry.  The man clutched at his throat and knocked his hand away, blood pouring from the hole in his neck.  For a moment, Carter watched him, struggling to pull the pen free.  With deliberation, Carter leaned forward again and grabbed the barrel.  He held Foster’s gaze, and with a grunt of effort, he rammed it in until it was too slick to hold.  Foster made a glurk glurk noise, and fell out of his chair, twitched, his leg kicking the metal chair and making a hollow sound, and then was still.

Carter looked down at the floor, and saw a red stream running to the drain.  Well, that’s that, he thought.  He waited, expecting someone to come barreling in the door.  When they didn’t, he stood, and walked over to Foster.  His heart was beating what felt like a thousand beats a second, and he took several deep breaths to calm himself.  He looked down.  The man’s horn-rims were crooked on his face.  Behind the lenses, blue eyes stared up into the bright overhead light.  Carter leaned down and did his best to clean the blood off his wrist and hand with Foster’s tie.

After another minute, when he was sure he had regained control of himself, he left the room.  The hallway outside was empty.  He waited for a beat, listening.  There were no shouts of alarm or pounding feet.  Satisfied, he headed for the stairs.  He straightened his shirt a little, and rubbed at the blood on the cuff.  As he went, he wondered about Margaret, and thought it might be too late.  He thought about his wife in the sunshine instead, and his son playing in the dirt.  He thought about Coombs.  He wondered if the man had any pens on his desk.


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