Shortlisted – CWA Margery Allingham Short Story Competition 2018

It was only after swallowing the fourth dumpling that Chief Willows realized that something wasn’t quite right, perhaps even terribly wrong.

I’m just too damn old, he mused bitterly as he felt the dumpling ride its way down his throat, inexorably towards his stomach. Had it been just a few years earlier, he would have certainly picked up that slight aftertaste the very moment the delicate parcel of steamed dough touched his tongue. The eighty-year old ex-copper cursed his old age, more disappointed in his fading abilities than angry at whoever had tricked, and quit possibly murdered him with such ease.

It was poison, and not the gentle kind. During his many years in the force, the Chief–as he still insisted on being called–had become quite familiar with the multitude of death concoctions that took the lives of adulterers, old wealthy relatives, and unwanted rodents every day. Some poisons made victims slowly drift away without pain, fall asleep as if in a sudden onset of narcolepsy. Others worked their magic so quickly that one might have thought the lights had simply gone out, if one were still able to think past that point…

Unfortunately, what the Chief had detected was a special and potent neurotoxin that he was actually quite familiar with: tetrodotoxin; as ominous a name as any poison. It caused just about every horrifying symptom imaginable: from seizures and gradual paralysis, to vomiting, diarrhea, and even madness. The slight, unusual aftertaste of old fish had tipped him off, as the unrefined form of the poison could be extracted quite easily from the organs of fugu pufferfish: a delicacy he had once tried during a trip to Japan. Extremely potent, the toxin present in a single fish could kill several people if butchered incorrectly before serving. But whether in its pure tasteless and odorless form or as unrefined, blended fish guts, it wasn’t a ever pretty way to go. The Chief had already gobbled up four of the delectable poison-laced dumplings, so he estimated he had about ten minutes before things started to get ugly.

Like every year at the Willows’ family Chinese New Year dinner, the Chief’s personal bamboo steamer lay on the table before him, a little to the right of his pint of lager. Two glistening dumplings still sat quietly within, looking rather harmless, and actually quite enticing. Like every year, he had the honor of his own personal steamer of these special dumplings crafted to his taste. Other than the slight aftertaste of neurotoxin, the dumplings were a very successful reproduction of his late wife’s signature recipe, which she had adapted to his preferences over their many decades of marriage. This meant that the poison had indeed been meant for him, and only him, rather than the other members of his family who were now gathered around the circular table.

The table, draped in a bright crimson tablecloth, was strewn with all manners of delicious dishes that the Chief had once found exotic, but had since grown accustomed to through exposure to Chinese and Hong Kongese culture through his wife, Yee. A steamed whole flounder, red-cooked pork belly, stir fried lobster, longevity noodles, deep-fried custard balls, and an assortment of other, less deadly dumplings were but a few of the dishes twirling round and round the red circle, riding the Lazy Susan from each family member to the next; each one seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had been murdered…

And indeed, each one a suspect…

Of course, after a long career of fighting crime, one would have been expected to have made a few enemies on both sides of the law. But though Chief Willows tried, he could not think of anyone from his professional life that would have gone to all this trouble to poison him, especially after all this time. For one, Willows had been an admirable and thorough officer, quite liked by most of his peers, and at least respected by the criminals he’d taken down. Furthermore, the Chief had basically outlived all who might have disliked him enough to add pufferfish poison to his food. All this left very few people with a motive and, to his knowledge, those very few were all sitting around the red table that night.

Now it might seem that this meant Chief Willows had been an incompetent or ineffective father. A possibility, but he thought that he’d done a pretty damn good job considering how much he’d also put into his career. In the end, he knew that what he thought didn’t really matter; people always found reasons to commit murder, no matter how misguided or unreasonable. Additionally, the clearest and most indubitable fact of the matter was that no one other than the people around the table had actually participated in the preparation of the meal. As such, the only questions that remained were: which one and why?

As he scanned the faces of the family members, he felt his mouth and the back of his throat start to tingle. There was also an odd tightness starting to take root in his belly, as well as numbness creeping steadily up from his fingertips; from knuckle to knuckle. He didn’t have much time left.

Of the six other people sitting around the dinner table, chatting away cheerfully as they dug into the sumptuous celebratory feast, Chief Willows could already discount two. Though he had seen many unfathomable crimes in his time, Willows was unable to place his granddaughter Autumn amongst the suspects. The bright, adorable eight-year old girl was his daughter’s only child, and she adored him as much as he did her. There was simply no way she could have been involved in the poisoning.

The other one Willows eliminated from the get-go was the ony guest at the table he had never met before that night: his son Anthony’s latest girlfriend, who was sitting to the chief’s left. Her name was Jennifer… or was it Katie, or some other cliché name? An American from the Midwest, she had moved from her backwater hometown to Brooklyn to work in some creative industry the Chief had never heard of, before subsequently coming to Europe to experience the culture, find herself, blah blah blah… There was not enough time to dwell on the tedious circumstances of the young woman’s impossibly mundane backstory.

Still, she was quite fetching: athletic, with straight blonde hair, blue eyes, and a dazzling smile. Oh the things he might have done, back in the day. Now, in his old age, all he could do was muse about how being pretty was probably her only quality. Though the Chief had admittedly met many cunning and devious criminals hidden behind naive, innocent exteriors, there was still an objectively high probability that the girl wasn’t very bright, as indicated by the fact she was screwing his son. In any event, it was enough to know that she was a newcomer, and that they shared no connections other than the aforementioned son-screwing, to keep her out of the suspect pool for now.

As you might have guessed, the Chief wasn’t very proud of his son; a fact which had been painfully apparent to everyone else in the family ever since the day a three-year-old Anthony had discovered what would become a lifelong passion for painting, and subsequently used his pots of finger-paint to deface and destroy his grandmother’s portrait collections. Despite the Chief’s best efforts, he had never managed to extract the infuriatingly misguided creative impulse from his son. Part of the reason for this, he suspected, was that Yee had gone behind his back and encouraged their son to pursue his dream of being a painter. His wife had also been passionate about art, and never truly given up on her bizarre abstract sculptures made of clay, many of which still adorned corners and shelves of the apartment. The misshapen, vaguely anthropomorphic blobs had never meant much to the Chief, but he had quietly accepted them, as he knew Yee enjoyed creating them, for whatever reason. Even now, one of her works stood in the center of the rotating Lazy Susan, a red and orange monstrosity which was supposed to represent joy, or at least something happy, but just looked like a old rusty cauliflower. The sculptures were a poor reminder of the vibrant, beautiful woman that his wife had been… Well, that and their son.

Anthony was currently describing his new project, something he did very often without ever producing anything. It seemed like the satisfaction he got from imagining great works was enough to satisfy the impulse without requiring any actual work… As he described how he planned to channel Warhol and Lissitzky while running his wiry fingers through his spiky, jet-black hair, the Chief felt bile rise in the back of his throat, and wondered for an instant if it was another symptom of the poison, or a physical manifestation of his disgust and disappointment. His feet and fingers had now gone completely numb, however, and that was unquestionably due to the tetrodotoxin.

Their relationship had always been difficult, but had it been too much for Anthony? Was he tired of living a life under the disappointed gaze of his judgmental father? Doubtful. The Chief knew that his son reveled in the disapproval. In fact, Anthony probably thought that a dysfunctional relationship with his family made him a better ‘artist’. Moreover, even though the boy was poor as shit–as wannabe cool artists tended to be–killing his father would not help in that regard, as the Chief wasn’t a particularly rich retiree. Still, considering Anthony’s fiscal history, the few thousand pounds he would inherit might indeed have been motive enough for patricide!

Starting to feel a little dizzy, the Chief turned to the other side of the table, where his daughter was sitting with her husband and their daughter Autumn. Sharon had always been the good daughter, a stark contrast to the Anthony the degenerate son. Though not especially bright or good at anything in particular, Sharon had always worked hard, never been in trouble, and done her best. Compared to the exasperating whirlwind that followed Anthony wherever he went, Sharon had always been an oasis to both her parents; an obedient, hardworking girl who did what she was told, and to the best of her abilities. On top of all those qualities, Sharon was quite pretty, prettier than either of her parents, and it had always been agreed that she’d be the one to go far with her work ethic, calm disposition, and looks.

As such, it was a catastrophe when Sharon dropped out of University College after falling for some Spanish guy who proceeded to get her pregnant and disappear, which led to an abortion, depression, uncontrolled weight gain, and a few years of wallowing in sorrow. The Chief and Yee had almost given up hope when Sharon, nearly obese and riddled with symptoms of depression and anxiety, met Mike, an architect from Leeds. He was a good guy, though he did have a tendency to be fiercely overprotective. It was something which had helped during her difficult time, but was now starting to get a bit tiresome and patronizing after a decade of marriage. Still, Sharon seemed to tolerate it, and even somewhat enjoy the way he didn’t allow her to help herself, followed her to the washroom, called her ‘pumpkin squash’, and squeezed her plump cheeks in front of the whole family.

When Yee had died the previous year, Sharon did not speak to her father for several months. When they’d started talking again, neither of them mentioned this long silence. He wondered, as he felt his left forearm tingle and his breath shorten, if she had somehow discovered or realized something, perhaps something Yee had told her about him, something which might have made her bitter and angry.

Bitter enough to murder him, though? It still seemed like a stretch. Or perhaps it was Mike? Behind his prim and proper appearance, under his slicked back, thinning red hair, his thick, horn-rimmed glasses, his too-wide smile… Maybe the architect had conceived of this devious plan to rid the world of the father who had so wronged his little chubby pumpkin?

Yes, Yee had always been closer to the children, seeing as the Chief had always been focused on his police work. This had been especially difficult during their teenage years. As a mother, Yee had done a lot of the heavy lifting while the Chief had been content to offer advice from a more theoretical, hands-off point of view. This had aggravated Yee to no end. She couldn’t believe he had the arrogance to think he could raise children without talking to or even seeing them. Willows had never seen the problem with a little separation between theory and practice. Maybe Yee had been right all along, and his failings as a father had come back to haunt, and murder him.

But there was still one other person at the table. She sat right across from the Chief, staring straight at him with dark eyes behind large, pink, oval spectacles.

Auntie Jane was Yee’s younger sister. Thirty years prior, she had moved here from Hong Kong upon her sister’s recommendation. Those first few years, she lived with them as she gradually settled down in this foreign country and searched for the right opportunity. She eventually found a job with a local fashion company and gradually grew to become one of the most important people in the regional fashion scene. Jane had always been fiercer, tougher, and more goal-oriented than her elder sister, something which the Chief had admired and found rather refreshing from the first moment he’d laid eyes on her at the airport.

Now, he couldn’t quite tell why Jane was eyeing him. Could she see that something was wrong? Or was she watching in gleeful silence as her homicidal plan unfolded? Of all the people around the table, she was perhaps the most likely to have poisoned the dumplings. She had the skills, the knowledge, and most importantly: an actual motive.

The Chief could now feel his stomach burning as beads of sweat formed above his brow, rolling down to his neck. His heart too, was aching, but this was not from any pufferfish venom, and rather from the bittersweet memory of that time when Auntie Jane had been living with them, in that small apartment on Essex Street. Ten years Yee’s junior, she’d been such a breath of fresh air to the Chief, who had been growing a little tired of Yee’s lack of interest in finding a job, pikcing up a hobby, or showing any sign of ambition. All his wife did was sit at home, take care of the kids, and craft those grotesque clay figures, day-in, day- out, filling their home with their wretched, twisted forms. Compared to that, Jane had reminded the Chief of what Yee had seemed like when they’d first met in Hong Kong: curious, exciting, exotic, and full of youth…

To the Chief’s shame, though he wouldn’t go quite so far as to say regret, he and Auntie Jane had fooled around regularly for quite a few years before she left to London to pursue career. And even a handful of times after then… Both of them had vowed to keep the secret for the good of their family, and Jane had even gone off to marry a few times, though she’d never had children of her own. This affair, in some ways, had actually helped the Chief get through many rough patches between him and Yee. Plus, they’d had fun…

Had Jane’s conscience suddenly caught up with her? Did she blame him for what they’d done behind her sister’s back, and decided to exact revenge? It was the most convincing explanation the Chief had considered so far. But what could have made her change her mind after all these years? Perhaps Yee’s death had precipitated this change of heart. Faced with death, people tended to reexamine their lives, no matter how old, wise, or stubborn they were.

Speaking of death, Willows wasn’t quite sure how many minutes had passed, but was certain that the poison was starting to work its malevolent magic throughout his entire body. He was now sweating profusely and having trouble both breathing and moving his limbs. In response, Auntie Jane’s look had suddenly turned to one of clear concern. Was it all an act? Or perhaps she wasn’t the one.

Dammit, there simply wasn’t enough time. In all his years, the Chief had never been required to solve a crime quite so quickly. It was becoming very possible that he may never get to the bottom of this before it all ended. He took some small consolation from the fact that at least he’d been challenged all the way to the very end.

He became aware of movement to his right, an dangled his head in that direction, which caused searing pain to shoot from his neck down his spine, making him wince. Autumn, his much-loved granddaughter, was eyeing him curiously:

“You’re sweating grandpa!” she exclaimed with a giggle, blissfully unaware of the macabre reason for his perspiration.

He tried to speak, but the words were caught in his throat, burning like hot coals.

Shrugging, Autumn grinned sheepishly as she grabbed a pair of chopsticks. Sneakily, she leaned over the table and reached in an attempt to grab one of the dumplings in his personal steamer.

In the split second before Autumn’s chopsticks reached the poisoned dumpling, the Chief looked up and scanned the faces of everyone sitting around the table. The girl, Anthony, Auntie Jane, Mike, Sharon, all of them simply watched Sharon with tenderness and affection. No one seemed worried that the child was about to bite into a deadly dose of neurotoxin.

As Autumn caught the dumpling between her chopsticks, the chief mustered every last ounce of strength he had, and swung his right arm towards her, knocking the chopsticks out of her fingers and sending the dumpling flying across the table. It landed with a splatter of meat juice on the glassy surface of the Lazy Susan.

At first, everyone just stared at the Chief in surprise, expecting an explanation, but soon realized that something was wrong. He was hunched over the table now, wheezing painfully as his vision got blurry.

Anthony was the first at his side:

“Dad?” said the son. “What’s wrong?”

“Are you okay?” said Auntie Jane.

The chief could only groan in response.

“What’s going on? Is it your heart?” Sharon said as she stood. “Dad!”

“Mike, call an ambulance,” Anthony said, panicked.

“Oh my God! Is he having a heart attack?” Auntie Jane sobbed.

No…” the Chief managed to say. “Dumplings…

“What do you mean?” Sharon asked, confused.

Who… made dumplings?

“It’s mum’s recipe,” Anthony said, confused. “Same as every year. She left some dumplings in the freezer, labeled for you especially. She must’ve made them before she died.”

Perhaps Yee had found out about him and Auntie Jane. But it was likely something more, something deeper, darker that had gnawed at her soul for years, decades. After all, he’d never believed in her, never believed she could be a mother without him, never believed she’d be a successful artist. This was his fault, it was. He’d just never thought that the things he’d said and the way he’d acted could have hurt her so deeply, eroded her happiness away, wringing her into a being made of frustration, anguish, abandoned and alone. He’d never thought it would turn her into a murderer.

Now, she had answered in kind, in her own way. She had never been one to answer back, never one to argue. She had kept it all bottled inside and carefully planned for this moment: a posthumous murder.

How could she have been sure that the rest of the family wouldn’t be put in danger? Maybe they knew, maybe they had simply suspected, or maybe she just knew them better than he did. After all, he had believed his own children capable of the act. The question had never been who or why, as the answers had always been there, in every old dusty corner of the apartment, on every shelf, in every word…

As he felt his body ignite in painful spasms as the hands of his children steadied him, his bleary eyes turned upward from the red tablecloth. He saw a lone dumpling lying broken on the surface of the slowly rotating Lazy Susan, at the foot of Yee’s orange sculpture; that ugly mass of fiery clay in the center of the table which now seemed to dance as it undulated slowly in the dim light.

The Chief couldn’t help but let a smile creep onto his tingling lips.

He finally understood what it all meant.

© Alex Sadeghi 2018

Bad Things

Dear Mom,

There’s something you need to know: I did a bad thing, a really bad thing.

The other night, I was standing over the sink for hours, scrubbing my hands until the skin started to fray and my blood mingled with hers. They look clean, now, but I can’t seem to get rid of the smell: that earthy, coppery smell that clings to everything.

After it happened and I’d cleaned myself up, I went down to the pub on the corner of Lemon Street and Staunton, the nameless one run by a big mute Serb from behind his dark, cherry-wood counter. I thought it’d probably be safe there: the kind of place where causing trouble will get you thrown out, and asking the wrong question will get you disappeared. I sat alone with my back to the wall, downed a couple of straight whiskeys in the hopes of dulling it all away. The shaking fingers made the ice cubes into clinking little bells that rang incessantly while I silently prayed for some relief. I haven’t prayed in a long time.

But she was dead, and no amount of prayers or liquor would bring comfort. I can see her face, twisted by fear and agony even after she stopped breathing. It’ll haunt me forever, that image of her like that, with my jackknife still sticking out of her belly. It may pursue me even after I die and head down to Hell.

We can run from the bad things we do, Mom, but we can’t escape them.

It happened Tuesday night. Ralph and I were smoking under the abandoned bus stop down in Beech Alley. The old metal canopy there make for good shelter from the rain, and the busted street lights keep us hidden from nosy cops. Ralph’s one of the homeless guys I sometimes hang out with. He has eight fingers and the same number of brain cells, but he makes me laugh and doesn’t ask questions. Like most of the guys I hang out with, he’s not a friend, and more of a way to pass time. I don’t have friends.

Anyway, we were out there like every week, shooting the shit, joking around, wasting our dumb lives away. It was getting close to midnight, and we were about to head home, but that’s when we heard the crisp clacking of high-heels on the asphalt.

I almost didn’t catch it, and in retrospect, it’s a shame I did. Her face was half-hidden behind the unfolded collar of her two-thousand-dollar trench coat, but it took only a single glance to recognize her. Like most in the neighborhood, I’d seen and heard about her in papers, on magazine covers, and even on TV.

It was odd for a rich, beautiful socialite like Amy Ruskin to be walking down Beech Alley after midnight. Maybe she was coming from some kind of social gathering or fundraising event. I’ve also heard she sometimes helped out in shelters and soup kitchens. Why else would she be dragging her shiny heels through the city’s dregs? In any case, at that moment, I didn’t dwell on the why or the how; all that concerned me was what would come next.

Because I wasn’t fooled. I knew who Amy Ruskin really was under all the good deeds, the make-up, and the perfect smile.

There wasn’t long to think. She was walking real fast, so I left Ralph behind to smoke himself into a stupor, and followed her down the alley. In the occasional dim flashes of the flickering street lights, I saw tears glisten as they ran down her cheeks. Had she just broken up with her boyfriend? Or had an argument with her father? Why do girls cry so much anyway? These questions briefly entered my mind, but were just as quickly pushed aside by the one thing that mattered: Amy Ruskin was bad, and someone had to make her pay.

She realized I was tailing her, and her pace quickened. I broke into a sprint, and she shrieked as she tried to run away. I can’t believe she thought she could outrun me in those heels. After striking the back of her head to make her stop screaming, I dragged her into a small alcove off the side of the alley. It was almost pitch-black in there, and rats scurried between drenched garbage cans and soggy mounds of cardboard.

Maybe she begged or kept crying. I can’t quite remember. What I do remember is the switch-blade in my hand, the rain soaking through my clothes, and how cold it felt compared to the warm blood that began to coat my fingers as I stabbed her, again and again. In each brief flicker cast by the broken street lamp, I could see her reactions, a slide-show of agonized faces, until they stopped changing.

I’ll stop too. I can’t bear to think of it any longer. That poor girl…

Why did I kill her? Because of her father: Mister Ruskin, also known as the bogeyman.

Ruskin might even be more famous than his daughter, but not for being a rich, social butterfly, and definitely not for being pretty. I’ve seen him up close, and it’s true what they say about that scar, it makes his face look like it split in two and put back together with a glue stick. When Mister Ruskin walks down Main Street, people don’t pull out their phones and selfie sticks, they move to the opposite sidewalk.

Most outsiders probably see him as an ugly, but otherwise upstanding citizen, in no small part thanks to his daughter’s public persona. But outsiders don’t hear what the streets say: that Ruskin made his millions running drugs, guns, and even people. All that pain and suffering infecting the streets? Ruskin’s the one at the center of it all, the unshakable trunk of a tree with a canopy made of gold, and tar-black roots spreading like cancer through the city’s underbelly.

But this isn’t news to you. Is it, Mom?

It’s clear you never thought I was very bright, but I’ve known all about you and Mister Ruskin for years. No one’s dumb enough to trust every rumor on the streets, but listen enough, and one can start to hear the underlying, whispered truths under all that noise. And they’re talking about you, Mom: the Bogeyman’s right hand woman.

That’s right. I remember all those trips you took around the world, and waking up in the middle of the night to find you walking up the stairs with blood on your shirt, stinking of gunpowder and death. It took me years, but I eventually understood that you were the one doing the running, and Ruskin was just signing the checks, filing the papers, and keeping receipts. I always knew how formidable you are, Mom; it’s no wonder you made both Ruskin and yourself rich.

So it must really have stung when he kicked you to the curb. People whisper that it’s because he wanted to go legit, and didn’t want to string someone like you along. The rumor mill says he did it for money, land, or whatever, but I know that he only did it because of his daughter.

Scary old Mister Ruskin didn’t want his poor choices and misdeeds to spoil the life of his beloved Amy. All he wanted was for her to be happy, to live a long life free from fear, worry, and hardships he himself had endured. He wanted to change. Can you believe he even started going to church? I heard he even carries a tiny Bible around in his jacket pocket, and reads from it every night before going to bed.

I’m sure he regretted betraying you, in a way, but he did what he did for that most sacred of things: family. That’s something you never quite got a handle on, did you Mom?

I remember being a happy kid, but then again most kids don’t know any better. With Dad six feet under, your being around could have helped steer me in a better direction. The rare times you were around, you always told me to be tough, to get smart, and to trust no one. I took your advice: I became a bully who took advantage of the weak, and never made a single friend or meaningful connection. While you were out there trading crime for cash, I roamed the streets looking for trouble, when I should probably have been at school learning how to be better, or at least trying to not be a worthless parasite.

Did you really think that showering me in all that blood money would fix me? Make you a good mother? Or excuse the fact that you were a bad one? Well, contemplate the result of your efforts, Mom: the loser I’ve become, spending my days in the streets with cretins like Ralph, day-drinking and smoking pot, burning through my life savings like there’s no tomorrow.

You might as well have just showered me in straight blood, because that’s where I ended up in the end, standing drenched in Amy Ruskin’s down in Beech Alley. At least, I guess you could say I followed in your footsteps, because I’m a killer too, now. Are you proud?

And that’s why I did it, Mom. I did it so you’d be proud of me. We rarely even talk these days, and when we do, I’m just asking for cash, and you just yell at me for being the nobody you made. I’ve never had any gifts or prospects, and the smoking and drinking could only keep the emptiness away for so long. So when Amy Ruskin walked down that alley, I saw an opportunity for change. That’s something else you taught me: to seize opportunities round the neck, and throttle them until they choke up every last penny.

I know how much you hate Mister Ruskin, how you blame him for betraying you after so many years of fruitful collaboration. That’s the thing about you, Mom, you’re loyal to a fault, so Ruskin cutting all ties must have hurt, but also real angry. I remember all those angry letters you wrote to him, and all those plans you hatched in attempts to get revenge. He was always a step ahead of you though, that Mister Ruskin. He knew you too well, and knew how to protect himself.

And that’s why I did it Mom: so you could finally get your revenge. So, in a way, you’re the one responsible for all this.

When it was done, I could barely breathe, my whole body was shaking. I wiped my hands on my jacket, for all the good that would do, and ran away as fast as I could. I was still high, though, so I left the knife behind. That was a big mistake.

But as I ran home, sticking to the shadows, I was also looking forward to seeing your face light up when I told you the news, feel your arms squeeze me tightly as you showered me in thanks and congratulations. After all these years, you’d finally be proud of me, and maybe you’d let me help the family business. That’s all I ever wanted, deep down.

Oh, the things we’d achieve together!

We could partner up with those arms dealers you play bridge with on Sunday afternoons. There are so many teenage gangs on the streets, every one inching to wipe another out, and unable to access the most efficient tools for the job. Remember the Cherry Street Massacre? Back in the eighties, you and Mister Ruskin orchestrated the most brutal gang war in the city’s history, and supplied guns and ammunition to all sides. It must have been your idea. Who else could come up with such a clever plan?

Well, just imagine the money we could make today from the blood of all those teenagers, and the tears of their crying mothers. You see, Mom, I want to perpetuate your legacy. There’s so much we could do.

And why stop there? I know about every scheme you’ve ever hatched, and have seen the growth potential in every one. For instance: you helped cartels smuggle people into the city for decades. Men, women, children, all corralled like beasts, deprived of their identities, and forced into slave labour. Thousands of them now mill about in the dark recesses between the skyscrapers, doing all the jobs that would turn our fellow citizens’ noses up, and lining your pockets in the process.

We could expand our reach, and start trafficking these poor souls across the entire country! After all, you once ran a drug empire that spanned the continent, and supplied addicts with their preferred poisons in every city, backwater town, and rural village in-between. You even set it up behind Ruskin’s back! That was your masterpiece, and parts of the supply chain are still running to this day.

I wonder, how many lives do you think you destroyed? Sorry, you probably don’t think about it all that much. But remember Ralph? He and his buddies all buy from your dealers, scrapping together what little savings they have for another hit, another step down into the void. A percentage of all the profits still end up in your bank account, don’t they, Mom? Ruskin knows all about it, but he’s powerless to stop it.

Speaking of your old partner. Hell, maybe we’d even pay Mister Ruskin a visit. We could take away his wife this time, and then perhaps burn down his entire mansion. That’d cause him even more pain than we already have. Wouldn’t that be so much fun? And once he’d sunken into the deepest, darkest despair, we’d wipe him off the face of the Earth too. Then it’d just be you and me, Mom, and we’d rule over this city like a Queen and her son, the Crown Prince. Wouldn’t that be nice?

It’s never going to happen though.

Remember that whiskey I mentioned? The one I drank in the pub after it all happened. It actually helped dull my senses a whole lot more than I’d expected, probably because it was laced with morphine. Maybe one of the other shadowy individuals in the pub slipped the sedative into my drink, or maybe the Serb had some connection to Ruskin. Maybe the bogeymen helped the Serb and his family escape their war-torn homeland, and find refuge in this country. It’s possible, but pretty hard to say. You see, I don’t remember much of what went on after that.

Now, you’re probably sitting in your big fancy penthouse, worried sick, casting your gaze out over the city like a net, praying to catch something, any kind of clue, even just a glimmer of hope. Sorry, Mom, but just like you, I can only guess what might have happened to me next.

But wouldn’t it just be so terrible if Mr. Ruskin had actually found me? If he drugged me and took me away for killing his little girl? He’d be so furious, blind with rage, he’d probably lock me up in a cellar somewhere, chain me to a wall, and beat me for days while I cried out and called for you, screaming at the top of my lungs. But you’d never answer.

I’d tell him whatever he wanted to hear. About me, about you, and about that night. But mostly, I’d tell him that I was sorry, and that I wished I could bring his daughter back. Nothing could bring her back, though.

And at nights, back in his mansion, he would weep and weep for hours over his lost little girl. He’d smash his expensive furniture and throw million-dollar vases against the walls. All the while, his wife would wail in the background, shrieking about killing herself to escape the anguish of losing her only child. Can you imagine that? Losing your only child?

I can’t even begin to fathom how Mister Ruskin must feel. It must be eating him up from the inside, tearing down everything good he thought he’d built. Something changed in him when his daughter was born. Every day from then on was a new chance to repent, and try to give back to a world from which he’d taken so much.

He donated to museums and churches, gave millions to orphanages, war veterans, and charities around the world He even distanced himself from old associates like you, and made it clear that he wouldn’t be running anything illegal any more. It’s around that time he started going to church, and diving into the Bible every night. He simply had to be better, for Amy’s sake.

From then on, all his free time was spent with his family, watching his daughter grow from a scrappy little tomboy into a a beautiful, elegant woman, and a smarter person than he’d ever be. With a few pushes, here and there, she became a shining star, someone who people looked up to. For the first time in his life, Mister Ruskin felt like he’d done something good, and that feeling was overwhelming: it gave his life meaning.

And then, I took her from him. We took her from him.

One night, Ruskin would come back down into the cellar. Maybe he’d be drunk on about six whiskeys, with blind rage seeping from every pore on his body. I’d still be there, chained to the wall, and he’d come close and spit in my face. There would be tears in his eyes as he cursed me, then he’d kick me a few times like he usually did.

And then he’d pull out his gun and unload it right into my body, without even giving me time to beg for my life one last time. He’d keep pressing the trigger long after the clip was empty, and stay there for another hour to watch the blood drain from my lifeless body, and sink down into a rusty drain in the cellar floor. Later, he’d ask his guys to get rid of me, chop me up or whatever it is they do, and dump me somewhere no one would ever find me.

I’d be dead. Wouldn’t that just be awful, Mom, to lose your only child in such a brutal, horrific fashion?

I’m sure it would be. Even though it’s probably what I deserved, and–let’s face it–what you deserve too. An eye for an eye, that’s what it says in the Bible.

It’d be so painful for you, if that came to pass. You’d blame yourself, question all the decisions that brought you here, and the thought of me lying dead in pieces somewhere would drive you mad, keep you from sleeping, and haunt you until the day you died.

We can run from the bad things we do, Mom, but we can’t escape them.

Oh, that would make Mister Ruskin real happy, the knowledge of your torment. In fact, he might even add insult to injury, and take the time to write you a letter so you’d still have hope I was alive.

At first, you’d feel a rush of relief thinking I was the one writing it. But then, he’d pull the rug from under your old, decrepit feet, and expose the terrible truth: that I was gone, and that it was your fault.

That would be a pretty bad thing for him to do, wouldn’t it, Mom?

© Alex Sadeghi – 2020