“There is no love here,” the workers answered in unison.
“I thought it was ‘Divide and Conquer,’” Marvin wisecracked sotto voce to Jack.
Jack smirked despite himself. What a place to work, he thought. He found himself wondering for the umpteenth time why didn’t he just quit?
The sixtyish Marvin, who had twenty-odd years on Jack, ran his fingers ever so gently through his sparse white hair that was turning yellow. If Marvin was gentle enough, maybe his tallowy white hair might not fall out, decided Jack.
Jack glanced at Marvin, who rolled his eyes.
Standing in front of them and the other workers, a conveyor belt behind him, Boss Frank blew his nose. Blood spewed out on his handkerchief. He balled up the mess.
“With that in mind, let’s kick ass, you bums!” he went on. “That’s why my father named this organization ‘Smash.’ Because smashing the competition is what we’re all about!”
Nobody cheered. You could have heard a pin drop, decided Jack.
Most of the workers looked sick. Others exchanged hostile glances.
“He loves to make us feel like dirt,” muttered Marvin.
On account of the funereal silence, unfortunately for Marvin, Boss Frank overheard the remark.
“What did I just say, Marvin?”
“You said we smash—” Marvin started nervously.
“I said, there is no love here,” Boss Frank cut in.
Actually, it was the workers who had said that, Jacked wanted to correct him, but didn’t.
Marvin nodded. His hunched shoulders tensed.
“I don’t love making you feel anything,” said Boss Frank. “How do you feel about retirement, Marvin? You look old enough to use a bedpan and walker.”
Several of Boss Frank’s toadies sniggered.
“Or how about termination, Marvin? You’re not exactly our most productive worker.”
Boss Frank blew another splotch of crimson blood into his hanky.
Sartre was right, decided Jack. Hell was other people.
“Anybody got a problem with our motto?” asked Boss Frank. He glowered at the workers. “Good. Remember it and let’s kick the competition’s collective ass!”
He stuck his pinky in his right ear and twisted it inside. Blood trickled out of his ear canal and down his neck. He towered before them, all six-feet-five of him, waiting for any sign of resistance. He hawked phlegm and spat it out on the floor.
“Clean it up,” he said.
Marvin hustled forward, knelt down, and started to wipe the mucus up with his handkerchief.
“Not that way,” said Boss Frank. “With your tongue.”
Marvin made a face. He looked back at Jack and implored him to help him with morose, watery green eyes.
Jack did not respond.
Humiliated, Marvin licked the mucus off the floor.
“Guess you don’t want to get terminated, huh, geezer?” crowed Boss Frank.
He left the room, laughing to himself, his bulk shaking with merriment in his three-piece grey suit.
On the floor, Marvin looked sick with frustration, embarrassment, and repressed anger, and underneath all of them, as far as Jack could see, an icy sheet of fear. Disgusted with himself and with what little there was of Boss Frank’s mucus in his handkerchief, Marvin jammed it into his rear trouser pocket.
Jack could hear Boss Frank singing in the background:
“Oh mares eat oats,
And does eat oats,
And little lambs eat ivy.
A kid’ll eat ivy too.
Afraid of being seen with Marvin, everybody backed away from him.
Marvin had trouble getting to his feet. Jack wanted to help him, but he did not want to lose his job. After all, decided Jack, Boss Frank might see him give Marvin a hand.
Jack retreated to his station and counted the parcels on a nearby pallet.
Marvin groaned as he struggled to stand, then returned to work, looking sheepish.
What was happening to him? Jack wondered. He was too scared, too damn buffaloed to help a harmless old man to his feet. Jack had to get out of this place. There had to be a better way to make a living. Or, and this thought made his skin crawl, was he too far under Boss Frank’s thumb to quit and find another job?
Was there really any way out of this job from hell?
Middle-aged Joe Buck, a company clerk, sidled up to Jack and asked, “Are you in on the football pool?”
“It’s ten bucks.”
“I wanna see the Vegas line before I put down any money.”
“Friday’s the deadline.”
Joe Buck started to walk away, dragging his club foot. He stopped, leaned toward Jack, and whispered, “Boss Frank’s wired the bathroom with parabolic mikes and fiber-optic video cameras.”
Jack wished he was surprised by Buck’s revelation, but in truth he had expected it—if not now, then in the near future.
“It was only a matter of time,” he said.
“We can’t even take a leak in private anymore.”
“What does he thinks going on in there?”
“Who knows? He’s a paranoid schizo.” Joe unwrapped a stick of Juicy Fruit gum and slipped it into his mouth. He sighed. “Back to work.” Then he snarled, “Fucking life, fucking world, fucking job.”
“How can you stand working for this guy?”
“How can you?”
“Something called food and shelter.”
“Another day in paradise.” Joe pointed his forefinger at Jack and winked.
“It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Even the building depressed Jack—what with its institutional green walls, wire mesh glass windows that would not open, and fluorescent strip lights that provided scant light. It had all the makings of a prison.
Boss Frank swaggered down the aisle toward them. His pasty amorphous face floated closer, a trickle of blood beneath his left nostril.
“What this all about?” he barked.
“I just said hello to Jack,” said Joe.
“Yeah. And nobody’s got an angle,” jeered Boss Frank.
Jack remained silent.
“Break it up and get back to work. The only thing your hides are good for is lamp shades.”
Boss Frank decamped. As he approached his office, a rat scurried out in front of him. Without breaking stride, he crushed it to death under his heel. Its squeal died with it.
“That guy gets weirder and weirder,” Joe muttered to Jack.
“Didn’t he ever hear of an exterminator?”
“He looks like he enjoys doing it himself.”
“Marvin!” cried Boss Frank, eying the crushed rat on the floor. “Got another job for your tongue.” He chortled.
“That fuck,” whispered Joe.
Jack drove his tan delivery truck down Wilshire Boulevard to Santa Monica. He turned right on Euclid and parked in front of a pink adobe apartment house.
He could not wait to get away form Boss Frank and the Smash Corporation. Even hauling heavy parcels around all day beat being cooped up inside that dismal Smash warehouse.
On the apartment house’s frontage a single palm tree arched thirty feet into the clear blue December sky.
He had a parcel to deliver to Melody. He was eager to see her. Usually she was working in the garden when he delivered to her. He did not see her at the moment. He withdrew her parcel from the back of the truck and made for the apartment house’s entrance. He spotted her in the foyer.
She was carrying a green gardening trowel. She was also wearing one of her low-cut, sheer, bra-optional mini-dresses that exposed an eyeful of cleavage and white thigh.
She must have been wearing a bra today, Jack decided, because her breasts were squeezed together for an effect of maximum fullness. Two beautiful scoops of vanilla ice cream. She was probably wearing one of those Wonder bras—as if she needed one.
He had been working up the courage to ask her out on a date for weeks now.
“Hello, Melody,” he said.
“Oh, hello.” She smiled at him. Her blue eyes twinkled. She always smiled at him, which led him to believe she was interested in pursuing a relationship.
Any other day he would have chatted her up, but today he cut through the small talk to the chase.
“Wanna go on a date Saturday night?” he managed to ask through a tight throat. He was confident that no matter however apprehensive he might have felt, he sounded cool.
She looked more or less embarrassed and shifted awkwardly in her daisy-printed dress, her shoulders stooping and her long legs looking somehow gangly now, as if they weren’t part of her, as if she wanted to disown the enticing pair.
“I can’t, Jack. I’m married. He won’t let me.”
He should have known. On the other hand, her packages never said Mrs. on them, not that wives used Mrs. nowadays. The good ones were always married, he thought in dismay.
“Leave my package now. Thank you, sir,” she said, sounding annoyed and superior, wanting to put as much distance between them as possible by adding sir to her request.
He laid the package on the ecru linoleum tiles at her feet, nonplused.
“Goodbye, sir,” she announced, encouraging him to leave on the double.
He could not move. It had taken him weeks to screw himself up to ask her out and now it was over just like that—all for naught. He was standing there feeling like an idiot, egg on his face, his ears red—like a teenager who had just been rejected.
It wasn’t as if she was the first girl he had ever asked out. What was happening to him? Why was he acting like—like such a wimp?
Her rejection of him was a vicious blow to his self-esteem, which was already in tatters, courtesy of Boss Frank. The guy was gelding him in all aspects of his life—the personal as well as the professional side.
How could he have been so wrong about her? Jack wondered. Surely she had been flirting with him from day one—smiling at him, bending over in front of him, showing more and more cleavage . . . But that was all it was—flirting.
What made him think that married women stopped flirting once they got married? She had been raising her self-esteem by making herself desirable to him—but that was as far as it went.
He got the feeling that she had played him for a sap, made use of him to increase her vanity, casting him off like so much slag when he put the moves on her.
There was no question about it: he felt like a king-size jerk.
He sat in his truck and watched her dig in her garden. He felt walled in by unbreakable glass, and no matter how hard he fought he could not free himself from this living tomb.
She noticed him watching her and gave him a long look.
He didn’t want her to get angry at him. He wanted to get out of there. He split.
The next day he delivered a manila envelop to her. He noticed that it was from a law firm.
She wasn’t home. He felt relieved. He had no desire to see her after yesterday. As she had instructed him on earlier occasions, he left the envelope at her doorstep.
He returned to his truck in a brown study. Could the envelope have anything to do with his asking her out? he wondered.
What if she was going to file sexual harassment charges against him and sue Smash? That would drive Boss Frank up the wall. He would can Jack in the blink of an eye rather than face a lawsuit.
Had she set him up? Jack wondered. Had her flirtation been an act so she could sue Smash for millions? He found that hard to believe. But, after all, it was a litigious society and everybody was out to make a fast buck come hell or high water.
He wanted to talk this problem over with somebody, but he could not—dared not—tell anyone at the company, for the place was swimming with sharks and backstabbers who would do anything to get ahead, including ratting out a fellow employee.
Maybe he was being too negative about this whole deal. He decided to reexamine the situation. What were Melody’s exact words when he asked her out?
“I can’t, Jack. I’m married. He won’t let me.”
Yeah, that was it, Jack decided. Her words were engraved on his mind like pain. He won’t let me. She was blaming her husband for preventing her from dating Jack. Maybe Jack had overreacted to her rejection.
Maybe, but this seemed to be stretching it, maybe she wanted to hire a lawyer so that she could divorce her husband and go out with Jack. Hence the letter from the lawyer. No. Jack wasn’t that full of himself. He could not buy into that interpretation.
Perhaps, the lawyer had nothing to do with him and Melody, Jack decided. She may have needed legal representation for another matter altogether.
Yet, Smash had deep pockets, and sexual harassment lawsuits were the going rage these days.
Any way you cut it, Jack had problems. He had to stay away from Melody and hope she would not report him to Boss Frank. Jack did not know what to do.
That night he drove his car to Melody’s apartment. He parked across the street from it and watched it. He didn’t see her the whole time. He could not shake the feeling that he was entombed in glass.
All he did was ask her out on a date for chrissake! Was that against the law these days?
He was making a mountain out of a molehill, he told himself. He was letting his imagination run amok and get the best of him. That had to be it.
But she inflamed him, and he wanted her.
He recalled Smash’s motto “There is no love here.” Boss Frank was brainwashing him but good.
Boss Frank took Jack into his office the next morning.
“Your production is slipping, Jack. I’m gonna have to turn you into a lamp shade.”
Boss Frank blew his nose. Blood filled his handkerchief.
Jack shifted his legs anxiously in his seat. He wished he knew what Boss Frank was talking about. He looked into Boss Frank’s bloodshot eyes and was at a loss. Did this little tête-à-tête have anything to do with Melody?
Boss Frank crumpled his blood-soaked handkerchief and tossed it over his desk and onto the floor beside Jack’s chair leg.
“Come clean, Jack, and maybe we can work something out to our mutual satisfaction.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Boss Frank sighed. “Do you think we’re stupid here? We’ve had you under surveillance, because we’ve got you pegged as a troublemaker.”
“What sort of trouble do I make?”
“You’re a loner. You don’t socialize with your fellow workers. What the hell are you up to?”
Boss Frank scratched his ear, and a thread of blood wended its way down his lobe then down his thick neck.
“My private life isn’t any of your concern,” said Jack.
“Whoever told you that lied.” Boss Frank got to his feet and walked to his office window. He returned to Jack. “We understand you’re seeing a married woman. Where I come from, that’s called adultery.”
“That’s a bald-faced lie!”
“What? It’s not adultery?”
“It’s not happening, period.”
“We have videotape that says otherwise.”
Boss Frank smiled. He was unfazed by Jack’s denials.
“We’ve got the goods on you, Jack. If you don’t play ball with us, we’ll expose you to the world. Nobody’ll hire an adulterer like you after we get through dragging your name through the mud.”
“Get to the point,” said Jack, feeling feisty, even though he knew Boss Frank had him over a barrel and it would behoove him not to antagonize the short-tempered Frank.
Boss Frank sat down and leaned back in his swivel chair.
He said, “I used to work for a top-secret department in the CIA. Sort of like Sidney Gottlieb’s technical services department back in the seventies. You know, MK/ULTRA—brainwashing by means of LSD. The workers in my department were fired by the Agency, who shut down our department.”
“Why? And why should I believe any of this?”
“The infighting petty bureaucrats in the Agency didn’t want my department bathing in any of their glory, so they went behind my back and cut off our funds.”
“Why are you telling me your life story?”
Boss Frank glared at him with red eyes.
Jack cringed. Boss Frank was a sight to behold, what with his red eyes and blood-streaked face and neck.
“We were involved in mind-control drugs in my department,” said Boss Frank. “We made a lot of headway in that area—too much, I guess. We stepped on toes, stole a jealous colleague’s thunder, and had to be stopped.”
Jack glanced at Boss Frank’s bloody handkerchief on the floor. “Did you sample your own product?”
“And I sampled the antidote to the mind-control drug, too. The antidote, I might add, has not been perfected. Our money was cut off before we could complete our testing.”
“And you want my sympathy?”
“I want to perfect the antidote before I die from this crap they injected me with. I need you to deliver me a shipment of drugs from Mexico.”
“Why should I?”
“Do you see that lamp on my desk?”
Jack looked at the indicated lamp that had a beige shade. “Yeah.”
“Do you wanna look like that?”
Jack closed his eyes and shook his head. “Am I missing something here?”
“Remember your buddy Marvin?”
“Haven’t seen him lately, have you?”
Boss Frank pointed at the lamp shade. “That’s what’s left of the goldbricker. The only part worth saving. His skin.”
Jack felt sick. He tried to dissemble his true feelings. He had no idea if he was successful. He did not want to give Boss Frank the pleasure of wallowing in another person’s misery.
“I see we’re on the same page now,” Boss Frank went on. “And, of course, I’ll tell everyone about your adultery—if you don’t cooperate, that is.”
All of a sudden it hit Jack out of the blue. Had Melody been working for Boss Frank? Had she set Jack up? Or was she an innocent bystander caught up in this quagmire?
Boss Frank withdrew a palm-sized object from his trouser pocket and showed it to Jack. It was a tan purse.
Boss Frank smiled. “I made this out of his scrotum.” He opened it up. “It’s for my lucky charm.” It contained a rat’s head.
Jack could not get out of that office fast enough. He heard Boss Frank’s deep guffaws behind him, following him into the hallway like the Furies.
“O mares eat oats, and does eat oats,” sang Boss Frank, still splitting his sides.
Now what? wondered Jack. Whatever drugs Boss Frank had dropped at the CIA had unhinged him. The man was capable of any atrocity in his current condition.
Jack had to figure out what to do. One thing was sure. He wasn’t going to be Boss Frank’s whipping boy.
It was time to turn the tables on Boss Frank. He had spied on Jack. Now Jack would spy on him and dig up dirt on him in the process. Turnabout was fair play. There was no way Jack could stand living like a browbeaten sheep a minute longer.
Jack followed Boss Frank’s brand-new silver Mercedes coupe home from work that night. Boss Frank lived in a tiny neighborhood in Beverly Hills. Jack wondered if Boss Frank had another source of income besides that from his delivery service.
Jack also wondered why Boss Frank, with his medical background, had gotten into the delivery business. Maybe the CIA had blackballed him from medicine as a career. Or maybe Boss Frank was so deranged he could not practice medicine anymore.
An olive-skinned guy in a 6-liter V-12 Lamborghini Diablo drove onto Boss Frank’s driveway as Jack watched from his car parked on the dim-lit street.
The guy was wearing a silk moiré lemon-colored suit. He went inside Boss Frank’s Spanish-styled mansion for a half hour then came out.
As he was striding to his Lamborghini in the driveway, Jack approached him.
“Frank said I could score coke off you,” said Jack.
Wary at first, the guy lightened up. “You a friend of Frank’s?”
“Yeah. He does deliveries for my company.”
“That’s Frank, all right. He delivers.” The guy smirked at his obscure joke. “How much you want, my friend?”
“Does Frank got a stash inside?”
“Does a bear shit in the woods?”
“Gotta run, dude,” said the guy, and ducked into his Lamborghini.
That explained Boss Frank’s bloody nose, Jack decided. Too much sampling of the Colombian snowflake. And the cops would give their eyeteeth to know about Frank’s stash, he was sure.
Jack was about to leave when he noticed a light turn on and fill an upstairs window. A man’s silhouette, holding a knife or scissors, glided by the pane.
Something told Jack he should have left that minute, but he paid no heed to the warning bells that were sounding in his head.
He made for Boss Frank’s front door. A cool night breeze brushed his face and harried fallen eucalyptus leaves skittering across the driveway like so many bowling pins.
He tried the doorknob. It turned. Boss Frank’s guest had neglected to lock it when he left.
Jack edged into the foyer, spotted the steps that led upstairs, and ascended them, trying to creep on cat’s paws on the carpeted treads, fearful of alerting Boss Frank.
In the spacious corridor, Jack heard noises like muffled groans ahead of him and to his right. He made for them. The hairs on his skin stood on end. He had no idea what was going on.
Repressing an overwhelming urge to turn back, he continued forward, intent on discovering what Boss Frank was up to.
Jack cracked open the door to his right and peeked into the room, whence the groans emanated.
It was a capacious room with a table in the center of it. Nothing was out of the ordinary, except for the body lying supine on the tabletop, with its arms and legs manacled to the walnut wood.
The old man on the table, for indeed it was a man, was naked save for a bandage that covered his groin area, where his manhood used to be.
With his back to Jack, Boss Frank was hovering over the man in the ill-lit room. It was difficult for Jack to discern what Boss Frank was doing, due to the poor lighting and Boss Frank’s back shielding his actions.
The nightmare scene made no sense to Jack. He could not fathom it because of its very outlandishness.
It looked for all the world like Boss Frank was carving another square on the old man’s chest, which already had a checkerboard of squares tattooed on it.
Jack felt sick to his stomach. He recognized the old man who had his eyes shut in pain. It was Marvin—and he was very much alive, though in agony.
Jack took in the rest of the scene, which looked more ghastly by the second. On a straight-back chair beyond Marvin’s head, was sitting a stiff man dressed in an old suit. His face was covered with a black-and-white photograph of a man’s bespectacled face.
As Jack was absorbing the hellish spectacle, Boss Frank turned toward him, humming the tune to Mares eat oats and does eat oats . . .
Jack stood rooted to the spot. Maybe Boss Frank could not make him out in the dimness, Jack hoped, even though he knew better.
Tweezers in hand, Boss Frank held up a square of skin that he had surgically removed from Marvin’s chest. He deposited the bloody skin in a jar that stood by Marvin’s head.
“Let the game begin,” said Boss Frank.
Jack had no idea who he was talking to, if to anyone. Jack still wasn’t sure if Boss Frank had twigged him. Boss Frank wasn’t looking at him when he spoke.
What game? wondered Jack.
“Checkers, Mr. Gottlieb?” asked Boss Frank, as if reading Jack’s mind.
Only he wasn’t addressing Jack. Boss Frank was talking to the figure in the straight-back chair.
Boss Frank giggled. “Come in, Jack. I won’t bite.” He giggled again.
Jack could not restrain his outburst any longer. “What the hell are you going?”
“Playing checkers with Mr. Gottlieb, my idol. Isn’t it obvious?””
“Don’t you recognize him?” Boss Frank gestured toward the photograph taped to the seated figure’s face. “Robert Gottlieb, CIA deputy extraordinaire.”
“What in the world are you doing to Marvin?”
“Easy now, pilgrim,” said Boss Frank, sounding like John Wayne in a B-western. “Let me explain before you have a cow. Get a hold of yourself, man.” Boss Frank paused a beat, studying his handiwork on the tabletop. “What does it look like I’m doing to him?”
“It looks like you’re flaying him alive!”
“Correction. I’m using his chest for a checkerboard, so I can play checkers with Mr. Gottlieb.”
So saying, Boss Frank grabbed a pair of scissors and severed one of Marvin’s fingers.
“Marvin’s fingers are Mr. Gottlieb’s checkers,” said Boss Frank in an ungodly monotone that sent chills through Jack. “I myself will use Marvin’s toes as my pieces.”
Boss Frank snipped off Marvin’s right forefinger, punctuated by Marvin’s ear-splitting cry of excruciating pain.
Jack could not stand it a moment longer. He rushed Boss Frank, not having a clear idea of what he was going to do to him when he reached him, but Jack had to do something to prevent Boss Frank from mutilating Marvin any further.
Jack crashed into Boss Frank, rocking Boss Frank on his heels and slamming Boss Frank’s right hand and the scissors in it into Boss Frank’s stomach.
Grimacing, Boss Frank clutched his punctured stomach. He cried out as blood percolated through his fingers and onto the scissors’ plastic grip.
“Holy shit!” he wailed. “You’re gonna die now, motherfucker!” he yelled at Jack.
Marvin screamed again as he saw that he was missing fingers from his right hand.
“Shut the fuck up, Checkerboard!” said Boss Frank.
With that, he stabbed at Marvin’s throat with the blood-soaked scissors. His swing missed its mark. The scissors ended up slicing Marvin’s ear as Marvin flinched from the anticipated blow.
The room echoed with screams. At this point, Jack wasn’t sure whose screams. Even he was screaming now, as he charged Boss Frank and leapt onto his back. The impetus of Jack’s charge sent Boss Frank stumbling toward the window, Jack aboard him.
Boss Frank’s face crashed through the window. Bloody glass shattered and flew helter-skelter. Jack grabbed the curtain rod and, suspended from it, tried to kick Boss Frank through the window.
Impaled on teeth of glass in the pane, Boss Frank’s doubled-over body would not budge, no matter how hard and how many times Jack kicked him.
At last, in frustration, exhausted, Jack stopped kicking Boss Frank’s inert body that bent obscenely out the window, his massive backside facing Jack.
“Don’t stop now!” howled Marvin. “Kill him! Kill him! Kick him out the window!”
Jack strode over to the seated figure and tore off its mask. He did not recognize the corpse.
“Who is it?” he asked.
Marvin tilted his head up to eye the cadaver in back of him. “It’s the founder of Smash, his father.”
Jack heard clinking behind him. He wheeled around and spotted Boss Frank charging him, stomping on broken shards of glass on the floor. Dripping with his blood, fragments of glass jutted out of his stomach, as he lunged at Jack with a foot-long spike of shattered window pane in his hand.
Jack kicked the cadaver, which fell off the chair and impeded Boss Frank.
Boss Frank stumbled and lurched to his right, slamming his head into the wall and smashing the sheetrock, which dented and crumbled raising a cloud of chalk dust.
Jack yanked a lamp’s plug out of its wall socket and coiled the wire cord around Boss Frank’s throat from behind.
Boss Frank winced, grabbed the wire, and tried to pull it away from his neck, choking on the chalk dust.
Jack tossed the shade off the lamp. He grasped the lamp’s six-foot-high stand at the top and swung it like a baseball bat toward what was left of the window with Boss Frank tethered at the other end of the stand, still wrestling to free his throat from the wire noose.
Boss Frank blundered headlong toward the window, prodded by Jack’s swing.
Jack released the lamp.
Boss Frank tumbled over the window sill and somersaulted out into the gusting, shrilling wind outside. The lamp stand sailed against the window jamb, jerked to a halt, and broke Boss Frank’s fall, as well as his neck, which fetched up at the end of the wire around his throat.
Jack picked up the mangled lamp shade from the floor. “He was right about one thing.”
“What?” groaned Marvin.
“He’s gonna need a new lamp shade.”
Readers can find Bryan Cassiday’s book “Blood Moon” at: http://amzn.com/0615318207