For some, a life of crime is an easy choice.
For others, it’s the only one…
Sam is a “fixer.” A black market handyman of sorts. And he and his partner Joe find their jobs often take them to the most curious places. Directed by their elusive employer known only as Caretaker, the duo’s latest assignment appears fairly ordinary. But there’s nothing in Sam’s world that’s ever been ordinary…
It’s a curious thing when you figure out there is no hope. It was Christmas Day and I was sitting in a booth at the One Eyed Jack feeling sorry for myself, drinking double bourbons. There were others there, a few guys at the bar, another shooting pool with himself, but it was quiet enough to hear the cars intermittently passing by outside.
I had four of Kentucky’s finest before I finally gave up and went to drain the old dragon. My pop used to say that. I thought it was the funniest goddamn joke in the world. Dead for over a decade now, and it still made me smile to remember him. I was facing the wall, minding my own business, when a stranger took the urinal to my left. I read the graffiti on the wall doing my best to ignore him. If it could be believed, Linda gave great head, but…so did Jimbo.
“How’s it going?” he said. “Holidays. What a pain in the ass.”
I nodded, trying to shake my pecker free of dribble. It wasn’t that I’m against small talk, but not when I’m holding my dick in my hand, and absolutely not when I’m in a men’s room. A sacred rule I thought all men observed. Normally, I’d just zip up and walk out. The way I figured it, my schwanze was cleaner than my hands by a mile, but I had gotten piss on my palms trying to close up the camper. Before I could rinse the soap off my hands and get the fuck out, the stranger was next to me, chatting me up again like we were old pals.
“Yeah, this time of the year is nothing but bullshit anyway. Buy, buy, buy! Between the fucking stores, the churches and the goddamn television specials, it’s enough to make a guy go nuts.”
I left the water running, leaving him in the bathroom talking to himself. At my table, a new bourbon was waiting for me. Rings of condensation shimmered on the dark wood like coins at the bottom of a wishing well. Just as I was about to put the thick glass tumbler to my lips, my chatty pal from the men’s room drops onto the worn blue velvet bench across from me. He had an identical tumbler in his hand, clicking it against mine, spilling booze from both our glasses. The man held up two fingers, signaling the bartender for another round. I was about to get up and leave him there when he grabbed me by the forearm, a powerful grip I never would’ve guessed he had, one I couldn’t have broken without somebody getting seriously hurt.
“The way I see it,” he said, “you got two choices.”
“Is that right?” I asked.
“You can sit back down, be polite and have a drink with me and listen to what I have to say. Or you can leave, go back to your pity party, and never think about me again as long as you live. Ball’s in your court, but you look like a smart guy, somebody who can recognize an opportunity when it falls in his lap.”
I sat back down.
The stranger relaxed his grip but didn’t let go of me until my ass was flat again. I listened carefully as he explained how he represented a select list of clients, persons who preferred as much anonymity as their money could buy. Sometimes these people needed something picked up and delivered, other times they might need you to answer a phone, things like that. Simple shit. Any moron could do it.
“So why don’t you go get a moron. It’s not like the world ain’t making more.”
He laughed like it was the funniest thing he had ever heard. When he reached inside his coat, there was a moment I worried he was going to pull out a gun, grease me right here in this bar while he was still laughing. I imagined he would walk out and nobody would be able to describe him. He was thin, but not skinny. His hair was turning silver. But then again, maybe he was completely gray. He wore gold, wire-rimmed glasses. Or were they black frames, or were they sunglasses? Nothing seemed to distinguish him. It was his absolute calm, his inability to be disturbed by irrational people or ridiculous situations that made him seem like a ghost among the living. He handed me his card, CARETAKER – SERVICES stamped in gold leaf above a phone number.
“What area code is this?” I asked.
He stood to leave, smiling without a care in the world, or at least he sure as hell seemed that way to me.
“California,” he said. “Hollywood, to be specific.”
I called him before I went to bed that night. The next morning, a kid no more than fifteen years old came banging like a fucking cop on my door. He didn’t say shit except to ask if my name was Sam before pushing a sealed envelope into my hand, one of those postage prepaid numbers they send out with credit card offers.
“Here,” he said.
Inside it was twelve hundred dollars. My phone began to ring as I counted the cash for the second time.
“Did you get the money?” Caretaker asked.
“You know I did,” I said.
Two hours later I was standing on a corner when a man came up and handed me a plain brown box that could’ve been used to ship office supplies like pens or a page-a-day desk calendar. It had been sealed with packing tape as if what was inside could escape. I took it, like I was supposed to, tucked it underneath my arm and walked away. The guy who handed it off to me didn’t so much as blink. He wore old jeans and a faded Cardinals hat, trying to dress down, but his shoes gave him away. Alligator boots—the real deal, which cost more than my car—that nobody in this neighborhood of tire shops, storefront churches and abandoned fast food joints would ever notice.
I knew what was in that box the second I took it. The weight, the curious shift inside as I put it under my arm, those were all the clues I needed. I drove to an address Caretaker had given me—a Christian daycare center for seniors—and parked on the street. No one
so much as peeked through the curtains as I walked through the alley. There was a privacy fence surrounding the dumpster. When I closed the gate behind me, I might as well have been invisible. The dumpster reeked of shit, piss, puke and blood. I involuntarily gagged as I lifted the heavy plastic lid and tossed the box inside. Jesus, I pitied the poor asshole who would have to crawl inside this pile of shit to get find it.
As soon as I got back to my car I lit a cigarette and rolled down the windows, but the stink followed me like a bad dream. Two hot showers and ten beers later I finally, thankfully, couldn’t smell it any longer. I did, however, wonder about that box.
More About I CAN TASTE THE BLOOD
I Can Taste the Blood offers up five novellas from five unique authors whose work consistently expands the boundaries of conventional fiction. From Bram Stoker Award-nominated authors Josh Malerman, the newly minted master of modern horror, and John F.D. Taff, the “King of Pain;” to the mind-bending surrealism of Erik T. Johnson; the darkly poetic prose of J. Daniel Stone and the transgressive mania of Joe Schwartz, I Can Taste the Blood is a stunning volume of terror sharing five visions, one common theme and one terrifying nightmare that can only be contained within the pages of a single book.