Everyone's got their limits. Some people never find out what happens when they reach the edge. However most people wouldn't be surprised that Mike's story ended like this. He leaned against the enormous hood of his Delta 88 and ripped the top from a pack of Parliaments, because that is what you do when you've just lit your wife on fire and left her smoldering corpse in the bathtub. But then he eyed the three rows of little white circles and tossed the box into the open passenger window. Maybe later. He still didn't feel the way he'd hoped he would. Yeah, maybe later. He'd be a different man no matter what happened now.
“Is it done?”
Mike turned to the guy who'd spoken. This was a figure wearing a dark mustache and a leather jacket with fur collar. He wore giant round sunglasses and his face was obscured by the flare of the setting sun and its reflection off the brittle crust of snow all around. Behind him a herd of red faced kids swarmed over the discolored metal bones of a sagging playground and squealed like swine. Despite the cold, they'd play out here until the dark set in, just to delay their return to the string of apartments that formed a square around the playground and the parking lot as though they were cell blocks encircling a prison yard. Michael hated this place and everything in it.
“Yeah Leo.” he said. “Yeah.”
He repeated himself to test the timbre of his voice. Had it changed? It would. Everything was different now. Mike walked around the car and climbed into the driver's seat. Leo grabbed the cigarettes from the other seat and sat down. He lit one and propped his boots into the corner of the open window, blocking the mirror. Rather than ask Leo to move, Mike hoped their weren't any kids over there and pulled away. At the mouth of the parking lot stood a traffic island and a sign reading “Fairy Circle”.
“So long.” said Mike.
“That's right.” said Leo. “Fuck this shit hole.”
They shot over the bridge in yellow orange twilight. Away from here there was nothing. Nothing but hills and trees a man could get lost in forever, if he wanted to.
“Are you glad she's gone?” said Leo. “Do you breathe and feel like a free man?”
“What do you mean? Did what I had to. It's not like I wanted to kill Bridget, but she wasn't Bridget no more. Something else took her place and if I could get my girl back I would and I'd keep her safe. I loved Bridget. The real one.”
Leo turned to Mike with a blank face. The rim of the dying sun reflected in his shades.
“Sure.” he said.
“You don't think so? This was all you're idea.”
“I know. But I can't say if you loved her or not.”
“Not what I meant…”
“I can't say what you meant either.” Leo flicked the cigarette, put his feet down, and rolled up the window. “Anyway, it doesn't matter. That's the past. We've got to think about what's next.” He removed a rolled up paper from the inside of his jacket and threw it down on the dash. It was from that day, November 21, 1986. “See this?”
Mike glanced at the paper. The front page read CHANGELING KILLER TERROR.
“So it’s made front page news?” said Mike.
Leo read from the first paragraph, “Legends of the Changeling Killer have been around for years and now the police have acknowledged they believe those legends are real. The public is outraged it took so long. The legend tells of a man who places ads in newspapers. They may be personal ads, but they may also be ads to buy or sell goods or offer services that would appeal to young women. Once the killer meets his victim, he plants a hypnotic suggestion. At first it’s a benign thing, just enough to get the woman to come back. She returns again and again, each time subjecting herself to the killer’s manipulations. He changes her personality and makes her a slave to his whims. Eventually, he instructs his victim to kill someone in her life. When she completes the act, she comes back one last time so the Changeling Killer can murder her and eat her body.”
“Well even the police think there’s no doubt, I guess.” said Mike. “Poor Bridget.”
Leo shook his head. “Mm hmm, poor Bridget, right? Too bad you couldn’t save her.”
“What could I do? The only thing was to get her before she got me or… he ate her.”
“If you say so.” Leo chuckled.
“What’s do funny?”
“Nothing, just drive where I tell you.”
Night fell and they came to a dirt road leading off through the trees. It ended at a rundown house with broken vinyl shingles and propane tank nestled in moss by the front door.
“Is this where you live?” said Mike, with some alarm. It’s not what he signed up for.
“Of course not. Do you think I’m going to take you to where I live? Listen, Mike. I can make you disappear. Never doubt that. I’ve done it a hundred times. This is a process. I think you understood that when you called me, but let’s just make sure we’re clear. Rule number one is that you have to give up everything that you were or had before. You just killed your goddam wife. Don’t think that just because the police think the Changeling Killer is real they’re going to take that as an excuse from every fed up husband or boyfriend. Tell me that’s not what you were thinking when you saw that article, Mike.”
Mike paused. To be honest, that thought really had crossed his mind. No, he wasn’t dumb enough to think he could just tell it to any cop and they’d shrug it off and help him dispose of Bridget’s remains, but the article had to mean something, didn’t it? It had to mean he had a chance of escaping this. It had to mean there was a jury somewhere that would look at all the evidence and see that Bridget had stopped behaving like his Bridget and had changed into someone else, someone more dangerous. Didn’t it?
“Good. Kill those hopes. Kill them dead. No matter what the police think, the plan now is the same as it’s always been. I do a job and I do it well, so long as you follow the rules. You’ll get a new name and a new look. But this isn’t witness protection. When I’m done with you, you’ll really believe you’re someone else. And that’s better than the shitty unemployed person you were right? Better than the humiliation of a wife who makes all the money and makes all the rules, right?”
“Leave her out of this. I don’t want to talk about her anymore.”
Leo grinned. “Good man. She’s gone. Mike’s gone too. In his place we’re going to build something better. Give it a few weeks and you’ll take home any girl you see in a bar.” When Mike started to speak, Leo lifted a gloved hand and said, “Just wait. I don’t think you’re stupid enough to buy that just because I said so. That’s why I’m going to introduce you to some people I’ve helped before. What do you think?”
“What do I think?” Mike opened the car door so he could be doing something with his hands while he spoke. “Do you really need to ask?” That sounded like the right thing to say. At least, it sounded like the right thing to say to a guy like Leo. You might want what he’s got, but you can’t fall all over him. This was a business relationship. Money had exchanged hands. That’s all.
“We start with this.” Leo produced a wad of cash and threw it down in front of the steering wheel just as Mike was exiting the vehicle. “Call it a little rebate on your fee, something to get you started.”
He left the money there as he walked up to the house and unlocked the door. He went inside and turned on a light too dim to illuminate very much of anything to anyone standing near the car, as Mike still was. He called back.
Mike could leave at any time. He could get in that car and drive away. Leo wouldn’t have a better chance of finding him than the cops. Hell, Leo probably wouldn’t even try. Somewhere deep down, Mike knew he was being given a chance. This slicker with the mustache and the jacket was waiting to see if his prey was the kind of man who’d take his chances alone or keep playing the game. Maybe if he did run, Leo would rather move on to the next sucker than give chase. But Leo knew that wasn’t going to happen. They’d come this far. A part of Mike knew this, a part he never listened to. Bridget wouldn’t be ashes now if he ever had listened. That was just as true of him as it had been to the Changeling Killer’s victims. They’d all been men, not women. Men like Mike. As he came closer to the house he noticed an arch dug into the ground and marked with stones here and there. No, not an arch. A circle marking a perimeter around the building. Mike stepped over it and went inside. The point, after all, was not so much becoming someone else as it was believing that you were.
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