(Will's note: For those of you stopping by for the first time, hi. Last year I finished work on a book called Infernal Machines that is coming soon from Immortal Ink Publishing . Today I've decided to take a big flying leap and preview the prologue for all of you. I hope you like it. Without any further ado, here it is.)
Markheim found the darkest corner of the woods and spent the night digging. The box lay close, shrouded in yellow lantern light. Every now and then, he would mop the sweat from his brow and when he did, he would watch the box. Markheim didn’t think it was going to move, not really.
He watched it anyway.
The bastard was stuffed away in there. Stabbed, strangled and shot before he finally went down, grinning, like an alligator with a mouthful of spoiled meat, or like fucking Rasputin. Even the damn death-rattle had sounded like laughter.
Markheim dug and dug, and flung the shovels of dirt as far as he could. Top soil gave way to packed earth, then mud, and finally, heavy black clay. The digging felt good. The groaning muscles in his back drowned out the whispering in his head. The sour sweat that drenched his skin was a baptism.
When he stood up, he noticed that he might have dug a little too deep. The box was no longer in his line of sight. A taste like dirty copper filled his mouth and little pins and needles pricked his heart. Out loud, Markheim cursed himself for a fool and tried to laugh it off. Like whistling when passing a graveyard. The bastard wasn’t going anywhere.
Still, Markheim listened.
The forest listened back, intently. No night-birds trilling,; the bullfrogs and crickets had paused in their infinite song. Markheim threw his shovel up and out, in the direction of the box. It smacked into something solid before landing on soft ground. He heard that - —clatter-thud! –and he wondered what he hit.
“The box, idiot, and nothing more.” He told himself this, as he gripped handfuls of dirt and grass and tried to hop out. His feet kicked and skidded against crumbling earth. He scrabbled, clambered and fell back into the hole.
Markheim jumped higher, pushing his belly into the ground, and slithering out like a worm. He clutched at empty space for purchase and pinpoints of haze stippled his vision from the effort. He was out, gasping for air, blood thundering in his skull. He rolled onto his side and saw what his shovel had hit.
He cursed again and scrambled to his feet, tearing off his jacket. The small lantern was broken. Its contents spilled across the box and into the ground. Yellow flames licked across the cheap wood and tall grass. Markheim stomped at the tiny, scurrying blazes until he’d doused them completely, leaving him alone in utter darkness with the bastard.
“This was your plan all along, no?” Markheim resisted the urge to kick the plywood box. Instead he sat down next to it, laid his head on the charred wood, and listened, hearing nothing but his own heart, ticking away.
Markheim wrestled the box to the edge of the hole and after a moment’s consideration, hooked his fingers into the bottom and lifted, allowing gravity to take hold. The box tumbled on its side and crashed into the pit. Markheim lowered himself, looking for breaks in the box. It looked solid enough, although without the lantern it was too dark to be sure. He groped for the shovel and began hauling dirt into the grave.
When he finished, gray streaks of dawn were beginning to banish the darkness in the east. White tendrils of mist curled around trees like hungry cats. Markheim had strung a length of fishing line festooned with tiny silver bells around the grave. The idea that anyone would stumble across this place was ludicrous.
He gathered his things quietly amidst the whispering trees, and the sibilant hiss of nearby waves breaking against jagged rock. The bells tinkled soft music.
He’s dead and buried, they sang. You could stop here, if you wanted.
Markheim felt a pang of regret as the bell-music receded. He wanted to return to the grave, and just lie down. God! He never knew a man could feel this tired. He wondered if it really was going to end once he rid himself of the last piece. It thumped against the side of his leg and he grimaced in revulsion.
Amongst the lantern and tools, Markheim clutched a colorless burlap sack, the bottom of which was beginning to stain.
___ ___ ___
Soft rain ticked across the deck. Markheim kept the bay windows open, allowing what meager light the morning had to offer to filter into his kitchen. He sat at a scarred oak table. A mug of coffee steamed just out of his reach, untouched. Markheim spun a police badge with the tips of his fingers. It had been his for almost 10 years. Now this.
If he made the phone call, the item in the burlap sack would be gone forever. Perhaps he would be done with the whole nasty business, then. He didn’t think so, but perhaps.
He spun the badge again, too hard. It skittered off the table and clattered to the floor. He left it there. Markheim pushed away from the table, retrieving his mug. He took short, careful sips as he dialed the number. He heard a click as the other end of the line picked up, then silence.
Markheim cleared his throat. “It’s done,” he said.
The voice that came back practically purred. “You’re a good man, Mr. Markheim.” He relayed the instructions. Markheim listened.
___ ___ ___
It took almost three days of leapfrogging ferries to get from Chapel Harbor to San Juan, across Anacortes and then almost due west towards the Aleutians, to an island roughly the size of a supermarket parking lot, where the meeting was to take place. Markheim slept fitfully when he could, imagining an interception at every new dock. State Police with German Shepherds. Everyone he made eye contact with glared at him. Parents clutched their children a little closer.
It rained constantly, and yet the sun only disappeared for a few hours a day. The sun-showers made everything glisten like cheap toys. When it wasn’t raining, the sky took on a raw pink hue, like abraded skin. Plus, the night this far north, true nighttime, lasted about as long as a song. It hurt Markheim’s head, looking at a sun that was always either rising or setting. More than once Markheim considered pitching the works right over the edge of the ferry and figuring out a way back, but every time he took a walk top side there were the other passengers. Watching him. Sizing him up.
He saw a group of women conversing and periodically one would look his way. They were talking about him.
By the time the final passenger ferry docked, the cooler was beginning to stink. Markheim hurried off with it tucked under his arm like a football. He elbowed somebody and they cursed at him and he muttered an apology. He felt the eyes of the crew on him all the way down the ramp. He rounded a corner and banged his knee into a wire trash basket and almost fell.
A hand seized him by the upper arm and pulled him upright.
“Easy, big fella. The deck gets a little slick when it rains.” Markheim’s rescuer was a broad-shouldered young man in a black watchcap and peacoat. A pair of absurd looking gold aviators hid much of his face. He grinned, and three of his front teeth were broken off at the root. The gap made the boy look like a wolf.
“Thanks,” said Markheim, “but I really must be-“
“Going somewhere? Yeah, I got it, pops. Everybody’s got to be somewhere, right? Only you already are. Somewhere I mean. You’re right here, talking to me.” The boy stuck out his hand. “Billy Newell’s the name. You have something that belongs to my boss.”
The young man stood there grinning with his hand outstretched. Markheim hugged the cooler into his chest. His heart knocked on the hard plastic.
“C’mon man,” the boy said. “I ain’t gonna bite.” Behind the ridiculous Elvis glasses, Billy’s skin was stretched against his skull like cellophane shrink wrap. His remaining incisor looked like it had been sharpened with a file.
Markheim shook the boy’s hand with reluctance. “You work for-“—”
Billy shushed him, a little too loud. Passengers and crew alike were beginning to stare at the unlikely pair. A crew member whispered into a walkie talkie. An invisible net tightened around Markheim’s shoulders.
“Not here,” said Billy. “We’ll go somewhere with a little privacy.”
___ ___ ___
Not far from the docks they found a bar, a ramshackle clapboard structure with flames of barn red paint curling from the wood. It leaned over the water’s edge like a suicidal bridge jumper. Billy pushed through the doors, and Markheim followed. Three flannel lumps were at the bar. They didn’t bother to turn around. A thick Russian woman, peasant stock, wiped down counters with a filthy rag. She paused long enough to glower at the interlopers.
Billy tipped a finger wave at her and smiled from under his shades. “Don’t worry sugar pie, we’ll seat ourselves.” To Markheim he said, “Grab us a booth. I’ll buy the first round.”
Markheim sat the cooler between himself and the wall. The stink was getting worse. Seconds later, Billy slid in across from him with two pilsner glasses full of dark ale. “Good times,” he said.
Markheim took the glass, and Billy drained the contents of his in a single pull. “Your boss,” said Markheim.
Billy burped loud enough to rattle the table. Nobody in the bar so much as stirred. “He doesn’t usually meet folks face to face the first time. He’s got me and Georgie, that’d be George Hull, we’re the whatdyacallits... . . . ” Billy thumped the side of his head as struggled to think, and then snapped his fingers. “Proxies, he calls us. Anyway, I’m supposed to see if what you have is on the up and up, and then maybe he’ll arrange for a sit down.”
“I see,” said Markheim. “Well, the deal was ten thousand. Did your boss manage to-“—”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Billy. From his coat he slid a manila envelope rubber banded around the middle. He snapped off the rubber band and pulled out a wad of cash the size of a brick. “There. I showed you mine, now you show me yours.”
“Come on, grampa, don’t be a chicken. Nobody’s going to notice, believe me.” Billy licked his lips. “Just pop the lid, and you can walk on out, cash in hand.”
Markheim leaned back. The butt of his service revolver jabbed his back. It reassured him. He was in control. He watched the lumps at the bar as his fingers worked the lid.
The air instantly grew rancid as the cooler popped open. Billy Newell cackled as he fanned the air. “That motherfucker’s ripe!”
Markheim wanted to close the lid again right away but couldn’t. The severed hand had turned a mottled grey, and the skin was beginning to slough away from the black fingernails. It mesmerized him. The barflies and their frog-like benefactor could have jumped on top of the bar and danced the Charleston, and Markheim wouldn’t have noticed. He almost reached into the box.
Billy stopped him, placing his own hand over the lid. “Easy, pops. You want to wrap this up or what?”
Markheim pulled away from his reverie with an effort. “I do,” he said.
Billy took the cooler and slid the envelope across the table. “We’re finished, then. You did real good, Mr. Markheim. My boss is gonna be pleased. He’ll probably want to tell you himself.”
“Thank you young man, but you can tell him not to bother. This is it for me.”
“Sure it is.” Billy laughed and pushed his shades up the bridge of his nose a fraction of an inch. For a moment Markheim thought he was going to take the sunglasses off and the idea terrified him for some reason. He turned his back and hurried out as Billy Newell’s laughter echoed through the bar.