Search Engine |
Random Story |
This was written for the Hardtime100 Halloween challenge on LiveJournal.
Needles and Pins
by Riley Cannon
Thank you to Maverick for beta assistance and much more.
"Submitted for your approval -- that old black magic.
"Ever since man started looking up at the sky and out into the darkness, there's been magic in the world. It's even right there in the Bible, good old Saul seeking out the Witch of Endor so she could summon up the spirit of the prophet Samuel for advice. At war with the Philistines, Saul believed God had abandoned him and wanted Samuel to do something about it. Thing was, though, Samuel was all pissed at being hauled out of his grave and told Saul that for his trespasses, Israel would be delivered into the hands of the Philistines and Saul and his sons would be in the grave with Samuel by the next day.
"Think about that when you haul out the old Ouija board to have a sance and try and contact Aunt Lucille over on the other side. Might not be Aunt Lucille who comes through, and even if she does, you might want to be careful what you ask her, otherwise you might wind up like old Saul, stirring the magic and paying a higher price than you planned on..."
~Needles and Pins~
The first thing he was doing when he got out of this shithole was go find an honest to Christ decent cup of coffee. That was the one good thing he remembered about Arlene, how she'd always have a pot of hot coffee brewing for him first thing in the morning. He missed that, getting home after a long night on the graveyard shift and walking into the kitchen to find Arlene already up and fixing his breakfast. Andy and Hank would still be asleep in bed, and he and Arlene could have a few minutes all to themselves.
Yeah, Vern took a drink of the swill they called coffee here, those had been some good times. Least until Arlene would open her yap and say something stupid, like that time she told him about Andy having a crush on some little kike girl at school. Or how that young nigger reverend, Sloane, had given a mighty fine sermon that Sunday, just like she didn't see how no darkie had any business preaching the word of God in their church. Things like that made a man start to wonder, made a man start to pay real close attention and figure out what was going on right under his nose.
Well, he'd taken care of that. Nobody made a monkey out of him and got away with it.
Vern took another sip of lukewarm sludge and winced, rubbing his stomach. Indigestion was nothing new in here; this cafeteria was never getting one of those four-star ratings, that was for sure. This was new, though, sharp pains shooting through his belly that made him double up, groaning with it and breathing hard as a clammy sweat broke out all over his body, so bad he couldn't sit up and tumbled off the bench to hit the floor, arms wrapped around his stomach.
Curled up there, waves of agony rushing through every nerve, Vern could hear a babble of voices, somebody shouting. But nothing could get through the pain. That had become his entire world, like there had never been anything before, like there would never be anything after. Plunging down into a deep, dark oblivion was the only relief that beckoned and he went to it eagerly, not caring if it ever lifted again.
Getting a can of soda from the machine in the lounge, Tim McManus popped the top and took a swig. "So what's the diagnosis on Schillinger?" he asked Gloria. "Don't tell me it's Nino Schibetta all over."
She brushed a lock of hair off her forehead and smiled her thanks at Sister Pete for the cup of tea, and Murphy for pulling out her chair as she sat down. "Believe me, I checked for that." She sipped the tea, shook her head. "There is absolutely no reason for Vern's attack. No ulcers, no tumors, no poison, nothing. According to all the tests I've run, he's healthy as a horse."
Sister Pete lowered her glasses and said, "It could be psychosomatic, guilt eating away at him."
Tim almost snorted Dr. Pepper; Murphy did spit some coffee.
"No disrespect, Sister," Murphy snagged a napkin to wipe his mouth and the table, "but wouldn't he need to have a conscience first?"
"Oh, he has one, Sean," she told him, "he just doesn't listen to it very often."
"What are we talking about?" Father Mukada asked as he came in, plucking a pack of cigarettes and book of matches from a pocket.
"Schillinger and his conscience," Tim said. "Sister Pete thinks that's what's making him sick."
Mukada sucked down a lungful of smoke and blew it back out with evident pleasure. "Well, meeting it some dark and lonely night would probably send him into a state of shock all right."
Pete gave him a look of chastisement and said, "That's very harsh, Ray."
He shrugged and pulled out a chair to sit down. "He had a child murdered. I'll leave it to God to hand out any mercy and compassion."
She looked troubled but had to nod her head in concession after another moment. "Even so, I think I should schedule some sessions with him. There could be something preying on his mind."
And if Father Mukada thought that was no more than Vern deserved, he kept it to himself.
"Well," Tim was still lounging against the counter, "good luck getting him to actually say anything. Now, what about Beecher and Keller?"
Expression guarded now, Pete looked over at him. "What about them?"
"They're being a pain in the ass," Murphy said, "playing these little mind games with each other. Tim thinks making them roommates again will bring peace and quiet to the cellblock."
Tim rolled his eyes. "You got a better idea?"
"Yeah. Boot both their asses over to gen pop and let them be someone else's problem."
"Tim might have a point," Pete chipped in. "Querns never should have separated them, it was a mistake."
"Well," Gloria finished her tea and got up, "if you do put them back together, give me some advance warning. I'd like to be prepared in case they shank each other."
Tim gave his head a mournful shake and poured the rest of his soda in the sink. "You're a fucking bunch of cynics."
"We're a fucking bunch of realists," Murphy returned, but gave him a pat on the back in support. "Ah, hell, I'd put my money on those two jamokes living happily ever after a whole lot sooner than on Schillinger's conscience getting to him."
Tim appreciated Murphy's gesture anyway. "Maybe he's making a play for sympathy?"
Mukada crushed out his cigarette. "Doesn't seem to be working, does it?"
"I can think of three inmates who won't be sending him get well cards," Gloria said.
"Maybe they'll chip in on a funeral wreath, though," Murphy said as they all left the break room.
Tim shot him a grumpy look. "You're not helping with that attitude."
"Hey, what can I say? Twisted Nazi fucks don't bring out the best in me."
This was good, not thinking about anything except the mail he was sorting out. Maybe it was what they called getting into a zone, nothing else making an impression but the immediate task at hand. Vern could stay there a nice long time, just checking names and numbers and cellblocks and forget all about the attacks, the attacks that kept coming out of the blue. Each one a little more severe, taking a slightly bigger toll.
But he couldn't think about that. He couldn't think about anything. He had to stay in the zone, stay in the zone, stay in the--
He didn't jump; he wasn't going to give the cocksucker the satisfaction. "Keller. What the fuck do you want?"
Keller strolled on into the mail room, easy as could be. That was the first thing Vern had noticed about him back when, how this kid moved through a room like he owned the place. Back then it had all been an act, a front; somewhere along the way, though, Keller had grown a real set of balls. Part of Vern even admired that, patted himself on the back for having been proved right about the kid having a lot of potential. The rest of him had sense enough to know to never turn his back on his one-time protg.
"Nothin'," Keller said, hopping up on a table and kicking his legs back and forth. "Heard you've been feeling kinda sick is all. Gotta say you don't look so hot, Vern. You think you oughta be working so hard, all by your lonesome and all?"
Vern was damned if he'd let that get to him either. "I'm touched by your concern." Besides, now he knew he'd been right all along. Whatever was happening to him, Keller, Beecher, and O'Reily were behind it, and probably thought they had him down and could move in for the kill any time. Looked like they needed a good, hard reminder of who was top dog around here.
"Ah, Vern," Keller winked and flashed him a cocky grin, taking something out of his pocket, "it ain't my concern that's touching you."
Expecting a shank, Vern could only stare at the object in Keller's hand with baffled disbelief. "What in hell is that?"
"This?" Keller held up the doll, stitched together out of black cloth and bulging in spots with whatever had been stuffed inside. "This is you, Vern," he said, examining it thoughtfully. "Pretty good likeness, don't you think?"
Christ, and everybody thought Beecher was the crazy one. "You know what you can do with your doll, Keller? Shove it up your--" Oh Christ. He dropped the mail he was holding, one hand holding onto the counter with a white-knuckled grip while the other was pressed to his eye, scratching at his eyelid as if that might stop the sharp pain shooting through his eyeball, straight into his brain.
Just as suddenly as it had come, the pain was gone, his knees giving out with it. He sank to the floor, breathing hard, still rubbing his eye like he couldn't believe it was still there.
"Awww, what's the matter, Vern? Feel like somebody just jabbed a needle in your eye?"
He shook his head to clear it, looked up at Keller holding the doll in one hand and a needle in the other. "What?"
"You feel that?" Keller's fingers were curled around the neck of the doll, squeezing. "You having some trouble breathin' there, Vern?"
He clawed at his throat, desperate to pry loose the unseen hands that were strangling him.
"What do you suppose would happen if I gave its head a little twist, huh? Wanna see? Nah," Keller let up the pressure, holding the doll lightly now, "me neither. That'd be way too quick."
Gasping for air, sucking down anxious lungfuls, Vern tried to pull himself to his feet. "What ... what the fuck are you doing?"
Head tilted, looking at him like that should be obvious, Keller said, "I'm killing you, Vern. What'd you think I was doing? See," he held up a little matchbox, took out a stick pin, "the hard part's deciding where to start. If I just go ahead and stick it all the way in your heart," he pricked the doll's chest and Vern felt a burning sensation, "it's over like that and that's just being sloppy. You want to finesse a job like this. Start out slow and build up to your climax bit by bit."
"What? Stop, show you some mercy? That what you want to say, Vern? Funny, I remember begging you to stop, and I bet Beecher did too, and I bet when his little boy was scared out of his mind and hurting he cried and begged for mercy but your goddamned son didn't give him any. Nope, Hank chopped off the kid's hand and let him bleed to death and dumped his body like it was no more than a sack of garbage. So don't you fucking ask for one drop of mercy from me, you motherfucking sonofabitch."
Each word, each syllable was accented by a pin jabbed into the doll until it looked like a pincushion, Vern sprawling out on the floor, writhing in pain, babbling for him to stop, stop, curling up in a ball as if that could end it.
Standing over him, Keller said, "One more pin, Vern, just one more, right through your heart, and it's over. And you know what? You'll get to burn in hell right alongside Hank for all eternity. See," Keller smiled down at him and winked, "you got a family reunion to look forward to."
Vern didn't hear him leave.
"Belief's a fickle bitch. You can spend your whole life seeing the world through your favorite pair of colored glasses, but sometimes what you see ain't what you get. Sometimes, all it takes is the tiniest crack in that faade for everything you built your life on to come crumbling to the ground.
"Because what you believe don't mean dick if you don't have faith. You'll be like that fool who built his house on sand instead of solid rock. All it'll take is one big wave to come and wash it all away..."
"Vern? Vern." His free hand roamed restlessly across the blanket that covered him, and Sister Pete tried to still it. His other hand, cuffed to the railing, was just as animated, endlessly grasping at air. "Vern, do you hear me?" He was conscious, his eyes were open and aimlessly rolling in their sockets, every now and then growing wide at a horror only he could glimpse, but otherwise he was completely unresponsive. Sister Pete was utterly baffled.
"No one knows what happened?" she asked, looking up at Gloria.
Gloria shook her head, looking wilted after another long day on duty in Oz. "They found him like this in the mail room, curled up on the floor, twitching and babbling. I thought maybe a stroke, but," frustration in her eyes, she gave her head another shake, "there's no sign of it. Just ... nothing."
Sympathetic to her irritation at not being able to find a cause, Pete said, "You've eliminated absolutely everything?"
Gloria gave her a wry look. "Well, he might have been bitten by a rare South American fly that transmits an unknown neurotoxin, but short of that," she sighed, "yes. No tumors, no sign of epilepsy." She looked at him there in that bed, trembling and twitching, a pitiful shadow of himself, and Pete could see her struggling with that, her knowledge of Schillinger's crimes making it hard to spare him sympathy. "Some people might say this was justice."
Pete nodded. "They might," she said, and saw no point to comment on the flash of stricken guilt in Gloria's eyes. The thought had trespassed across her own mind, that this could be divine judgment. Such an idea was unworthy, though, and she had quickly banished it. "You said he was babbling?"
Gloria nodded. "Yes, and he repeats it every once in a while."
"Words or only sounds?" Pete pressed her, leaning forward with heightened intent.
"Both, but the words don't mean anything."
No, probably not, but then again everyone had believed William Giles was only spouting gibberish. "Do you remember the words? It could be important."
"Stop -- he says that a lot, stop stop stop." Gloria studied him again, the restless movements, a tiny fleck of froth at the corner of his mouth. "And then something about a doll."
Frowning over that, Pete took a tissue and dabbed at Vern's mouth. "A doll?"
Gloria gave her a you got me look and shrugged again. "That's what he says. The rest is just noise."
Equally baffled, Pete sighed. "All right. I'll sit with him a while."
Nodding okay to that, Gloria went off to check on other patients and Pete pulled her chair closer, turning the riddle over and over. For a moment she was almost tempted to consult with Giles, perhaps his tangled mind could help unravel Vern's.
Stop ... doll ... How did that mean anything? Stop the doll? No, of course not. Cross with herself, she followed another random memory, a guilty indulgence of many years ago, reading a trashy popular novel where doll was a euphemism for pills. Could there be something there? Vern was vehemently opposed to drugs. Might he have gotten wind of some drug scheme here in Oz, and his present condition was the result of retribution exacted by the dealers?
Oh for... Even more annoyed with herself, Pete furiously polished her glasses, knowing there was as much likelihood of Vern Schillinger referencing Valley of the Dolls as there was of Kareem Said drawing inspiration from Mein Kampf.
It had to mean something, if only in the depths of his mind. Doll, doll... A pretty woman was a doll. Children played with dolls. Had Vern punished his sons for playing with dolls, and now his broken mind was chasing after that memory, fueled by grief over Andy's death?
Pete sighed and sat back, dissatisfied with that line of thought as well. Preoccupied with her thoughts, she almost didn't hear Vern, his voice so low and hoarse.
"Yes, Vern." On her feet, bending over him, she tried to catch his gaze but it bounced wildly around the room. "Do you want some water?"
"No, no..." A deep sigh, pale eyes fixed on her suddenly. "You'll stop him?"
"Stop who? Vern," she caught his hand as he waved it around as warding off blows, holding it still between her own, "is someone hurting you?"
"The doll," he told her, looking at her so earnestly. "Stop the doll. One more pin ... one more pin, I'm dead. You'll stop him? Take the doll away?"
"Yes, Vern," she squeezed his hand, caught unawares by the pity she felt for him. "I'll stop him, you'll be safe."
As if drawing real comfort from her empty promise -- stop who from doing what? -- Vern nodded and let out a pent up breath, settling back against the mattress. "Rest now," he murmured, closing his eyes.
Pete laid his hand on the blanket, nodded. "Yes, that's best," she told him, going back to her chair to keep watch a little longer.
Chris was watching him again, leaning against the railing upstairs, the pose so casual, the look in his eyes so intent. Toby had to take a break, though, and tore his own gaze away to track the progress of some random Aryan, pushing the mail cart into Em City. Glancing at O'Reily, he said, "So what do you think's up with Schillinger?"
One high-topped sneaker propped on the table, O'Reily's shrug was a study in nonchalance. "What I hear, he's being poisoned."
"And I hear medical tests haven't turned up anything."
"Sometimes they don't find out what it was until the autopsy."
That was true, and death often came cloaked in some outlandish and exotic form in Oz. Toby was finding it difficult to imagine such a fate overtaking Schillinger, that was all. The cocksucker had strode through Oz with an air of arrogant invincibility, humbled by nothing, and now he was toppled by some microscopic bug that didn't even have a name?
It seemed incredible. It felt like justice.
"Well," O'Reily waggled his foot back and forth, "all I know is, I didn't have anything to do with it."
They both raised their eyes to Chris, head tilted slightly now and the hint of a mocking smile curving those lips Toby still longed to kiss.
"Think K-boy's that resourceful?"
Toby looked at him up there, so near and still so far. "I think he has depths no one's ever plumbed."
O'Reily shot him a cynical look. "Yeah, well, you'd know all about that, wouldn't you, Beecher?"
Oh no, not nearly; as deep in as Chris had let him, there were still a thousand walled off areas, allowing no admittance.
McManus was at the railing now, looking over at Chris and then down into the quad at Toby. "You two, Beecher, Keller, in my office," he ordered.
"Oh oh," O'Reily chuckled, "getting called in to see the principal."
"Fuck you," Toby grumbled, getting to his feet and climbing the metal steps, wondering what the hell was up now, wondering why his body had to react as Chris insolently brushed against him as they went inside.
"Here you are," Murphy said, ushering Keller back into Beecher's pod, "home sweet home."
"You and Mineo and Lopresti, you should put together a comedy act," Keller said, carrying his armload of belongings over and setting it all down on the bottom bunk. Beecher was stretched out on the top one, pretending he was reading; would've been more convincing if he didn't have the book turned upside down.
"Yeah, we'll give that some thought, Keller." Murphy lingered in the doorway, watching for any sign of imminent mayhem. Looked all right, but you never knew with these two. Most of the time he was convinced Tim was living in his own little dream world, but maybe he was just too cynical. Time would tell.
"There is one thing you two could do for me," he said.
"And what would that be, Officer Murphy?" Keller asked; Beecher was still busy not reading.
"If you gotta kill each other, have a heart and wait until my shift ends," he told them, got a fuck off look from Keller and decided everything would likely be all right. At least for tonight.
He really would like to get through his shift without one more thing happening, though.
"So, what, you're going to give me the silent treatment?" Toby finally demanded, anxious frustration simmering away inside. He had kept his own reaction to McManus's announcement low-key, yes, but it still chafed at him that Chris hadn't given anything away either. Had sat there, impudently slouched down in the chair, a smirk plastered on his face. Toby wanted to believe that had been for the benefit of McManus, but could he really be sure?
Chris looked over from setting his shaving gear on the shelf, expression unreadable. "Got nothing to say," he said, grabbing his rolled up clothes now and kneeling to open up the footlocker.
No, not so indecipherable, Toby decided. Not playing hard to get, either, as Toby had sometimes thought. It was only that they were engaged in a game that didn't have any rules. No opportunity to give the dice a roll and draw a card -- You will go and kiss him, go straight over and kiss him. -- and make this all so much easier. Of course, when had they ever done anything the easy way?
"I doubt there's nothing on your mind," he said, loath to make the first move, to reveal too much, but hating this sense of perpetual standoff.
"Didn't say that," Chris returned, stowing his things away. "Just don't see the need to jabber about it."
Dissatisfaction coloring his sigh, Toby edged closer, making is casual, not wanting it to seem like he was hovering. "It shouldn't be so hard for us to talk, Chris." And, Jesus, that was too much, too fast, but no one ever claimed holding his tongue was his strong suit.
"That's right," Chris said, taking out a hooded sweatshirt to put on over his wifebeater, something falling out and to the floor, "it shouldn't."
Toby sighed again, knowing it was far too late for I'm sorry, or even I know I never should have believed those lies. "What do you want me to say?"
His mask of cynical hurt in place, Chris scratched his shoulder, shrugged it. "How's it matter anymore?"
"It matters, Chris, it always did," Toby said, knowing that probably sounded like bullshit, but it was the best he had. Funny, though: sometimes he found himself considering both of them should have talked a little less, and listened a great deal more. If there had been more time... But there hadn't been and here they were, a do over handed to them practically on a silver platter. They couldn't let it slip away again. "I was wrong," he said, stopping to pick up the object on the floor. "Doing a good deed for Schillinger was the worst idea ever, and I should have listened to you, not Said."
"Why didn't you?"
Well, that was blunt enough. "Because I want to believe good deeds really do beget more good deeds."
Dark blues softened a bit then, a trace of real sorrow in them. "That'd be a pretty world," he conceded.
Turning the object -- some kind of doll? -- over in his hands, Toby let out another weary sigh. "Yeah, it would. But that's not Oz and never will be." Smile ironic and bitter, he added, "I just always have to learn the hard way." And someone he loved always paid the highest and harshest price. He shook his head, wanting to cast off those memories, because this wasn't at all the way he had pictured their reunion.
"Long as it's finally sunk in," Chris said, frowning as he noticed Toby holding the doll. "Give me that."
Perversely, Toby gripped it harder as Chris tried to take it from him. "What the fuck is it?" he asked, giving it a better look now. It looked like someone had taken a black t-shirt, cut it up and then crudely stitched it back together after stuffing it, drawing a face on it afterward. "You taking up arts-and-crafts?"
Chris got it away from him then, holding it as if cradling a precious objet d'art. "Guess you could say that," he said, laying it on the closed footlocker.
"Must be something special if one of your wifebeaters had to die for it."
Chris smiled then, something uncannily cryptic lurking in the expression. "Actually, it's one of Schillinger's. I snatched it from his cell a while back."
"Yes, because you were just passing by." Toby frowned, pretty certain he didn't want to pursue this, but driven to it all the same. "Why Schillinger's?"
"Had to be something that belonged to him, just like how the stuffing's gotta contain things like some hair and toenails."
Toby knew he was gawping now. "Excuse me?"
Chris shrugged. "Told you, Toby, I do what I gotta."
Momentarily distracted by Chris saying his name like that, easy as could be, he forced his attention back to the matter at hand. "Okay, let's just leave the disgusting details aside for the moment, and tell me why. What the hell's it for?" he asked, and couldn't have expected the answer in a million years.
Easy as could be, like it was nothing out of the ordinary, Chris said, "It's a voodoo doll. I'm killing Vern with it."
Oh, well, of course, that made perfect sense. "What the fuck?"
Another offhand shrug. "You asked."
"And I had this funny idea we might try telling each other the truth."
"Did tell you the truth, Toby," he said, a brief flash of what looked like hurt in his eyes for a moment. "You just can't ever believe me, can you?"
"You can't expect me to believe something like this."
"Because..." He huffed. "Because there's no such thing as voodoo dolls, that's why."
Chris' response was perfectly reasonable. "Sure there are. Go down to New Orleans and you can find all kinds of `em."
"Yes, I'm sure you can, but they aren't magical."
"Ah, sure they are, Toby, if you want them to be."
"Okay, this is crazy."
"Makes you happy, think that."
And if it was anyone else, Toby would be positive his leg was being pulled. "Why should I believe you?"
"Don't know. `Cause a couple minutes ago you said you would?"
Fuck. He looked at Chris, searching for every sign of deception he'd come to know, discovering only the raw honesty he had also come to be familiar with. Nodding slowly, he sat down on the bottom bunk. "Okay, make it good."
Studying him with equal intensity, after a lengthy moment he sat beside him so they faced each other. "Used to go down to New Orleans every year for Mardi Gras, party a little, scam a lot."
Toby nodded, well able to picture that, envious of it a little. "And?"
"And," Chris smiled reminiscently, and Toby jealously coveted that as well, "I met this gal down there, Pascaline Lafontain," he spoke it like a native born. "Built like a brick house," he added, like he was well aware this part was getting under Toby's skin, and tickled by it, "and fucking wild in bed. You ever hear that expression rode hard and put up wet?"
Well aware he was being provoked, Toby put out an extra effort to play it cool. "Heard it a time or two. Get to the point."
Still looking pleased, Chris nodded. "Point is, she was a witch, knew all kinds of spells and potions. Could put a hex on you, and it'd take. Could make a doll, and that doll would become whatever she wanted it to be."
"And you believed her? Because I never took you for the gullible type."
"Only played make-believe one time, Toby."
Chastened, Toby lowered his eyes, shrugged. "So, what?"
"So, I thought it was bullshit, but bet there was money to be made with it, and got her to show me her secrets. Figured the more real details I knew, the better I could sell it."
Looking at him again, frowning, Toby asked, "And she went along with you?"
"Yeah," irony dimmed the smugness of his smile, "until she figured it out and then you know what happened?"
Toby shook his head.
"She made a doll of me and told me to watch my step. I told her to fuck off, walked outside, and got knifed in the back by a goddamn mugger."
He remembered asking about that other scar once, Chris saying he got it down in New Orleans. "Coincidence."
Shaking his head with conviction, Chris said, "Nope. Saw her, just before I passed out. She was standing there in the doorway, the doll of me in one hand, a kitchen knife in the other."
Still dragging his heels, Toby said, "Power of suggestion then."
Conceding that with a tilt of his head, Chris said, "Could be."
Toby looked over at the doll, so primitive in appearance, almost comical. "Did you tell Schillinger what you were doing?"
"And he believed you?"
Enigma back in his smile, Chris said, "Didn't have much of a choice."
He had to admit it was an appealing idea. There was even an inbuilt salve to his conscience, since he could always convince himself whatever happened was nothing but a bizarre coincidence. If it really could be that easy... "All right, say I believe this. What exactly are you doing?"
Chris took his time answering now, studying Toby as if weighing some deep matters. Another moment and he nodded to himself, like he'd made a decision. "Well I don't have the magic, not like Pascaline, so you might call it a crude approach. Doesn't have to be pretty to be effective, though," he said, launching into a surprisingly straightforward account. Surprising because Toby had expected one of those classic Keller stories, the kind that were ninety percent bullshit and illustrated what had made him a successful con artist.
This was all stripped down, though, just the bare facts laid out without embellishment. And yes, that could have been a ploy. In that pretty world Toby longed to live in, unconditional trust would never be difficult to attain or give, but caution did have to temper things in Oz. Chris knew that; he didn't demand blind faith, only a fair hearing. Toby gave him that, digging his heels in as long as possible, turning everything over and over. What motive could there be for a lie? That's what he kept coming back to, unable to pounce on anything that smacked of ulterior motive. But for McManus deciding to put them back together, he might never have known a thing about this, after all.
"When it was all over," he asked, searching Chris' eyes, "were you going to tell me?"
"Didn't plan on it, no."
Another shrug, radiating resignation. "Figured you wouldn't believe me. Figured it wouldn't make a difference."
And he could have been right.
Toby crossed the next section of the bridge and reached over to touch him, carefully laying his hand on Chris' wrist. His skin was so warm. He'd forgotten that, and had to fight the urge to curl his fingers around the wrist. Instead, he kept the touch light and easy, appreciating every tiny detail as he never had before. That warmth, the hardness of bone, the barely there tickle of hair. Raising his gaze to watch him, he saw Chris absorbing the touch, biting his lip and struggling with how to react -- afraid to react.
"You did this all for me?" he said, because the moment was stretching out unbearably.
Chris turned his hand so their palms were pressed together. "Is that so hard to believe?"
Such a simple question; it shouldn't have hurt him so much to hear it. The corners of his mouth turned down and his shoulders lifted ever so minutely. "No, it isn't," he said and squeezed his hand. "I don't know what to say."
Chris gave him the warm smile he remembered from earlier days when they could tease each other. "Worth it all for that then."
He nodded, returned the smile. "Guess it would be."
Toby looked over at the doll again, realizing it bore a much more sinister aspect than had been apparent at first glance. Still a sense of something primitive about it, but no aura of the comical now. Primal and dark and packed with old power, he could feel its pull as if were calling to him.
"When do we finish it?" he asked, itching to grab it up immediately.
Shooting him a sharp look, Chris said, "We aren't doing anything, Toby."
"Chris," intractable purpose was fueling him, "I have the right, more than anyone. Gary was my flesh and blood." He had put the grief away; had to, if he wanted to be of any use to Holly and Harry. "When McManus brought the news, I..." He shook his head, afraid to revisit that moment, McManus telling him about the hand, all the horrors that had flashed through his head in an instant. "Chris, all I could think about was how scared my babies were, how terrified and hurting Gary must be, and how goddamn useless I was, not able to do one thing to help."
Chris squeezed his hand now, holding on night. "Toby, I know, I was there."
He nodded, blinking away the tears that burned his eyes. "I know, and I didn't appreciate that either."
But Chris dismissed that with a shake of his head. "You couldn't. All you could think about was your kids."
He sniffed, nodded again. "When my dad told me Gary was dead, I was too numb to feel anything. Just," he shook his head then, hating himself for it, "just relief that he wasn't suffering anymore."
And Chris crossed some more of the bridge, cupping a hand around his neck and kneading. "I know."
"And then Hank gets away with it? Some cocksucker doesn't do his job right, and that motherfucking little bastard walks free? Schillinger just goes on with his life like nothing happened?" He almost spit the words, they filled his mouth like bile. "You tell me how that's justice?"
Chris let out a deep sigh, eyes troubled. "This ain't justice, either, Toby. This is a reckoning."
Toby shrugged. "You think I have a problem with that?"
Still uneasy, Chris thinned out his lips, clearly reluctant to share this. "I think you might, later on. This kind of magic, it doesn't come cheap and easy, Toby."
"And you're the only one allowed to pay the price?"
A sad and bitter smile lifting one corner of his mouth, Chris said, "One more black mark on my soul's not gonna matter."
Toby laid a hand against the base of his throat, feeling the pulse of his life. "I'm not scared, Chris."
Looking unhappy about it, but also like he knew there was no talking him out of it, after another long moment Chris nodded. "All right." He got up from the bunk, retrieved the doll and brought it back, setting it on the bunk between them. "Here," he offered a long, sharp needle, holding onto a second. "You gotta believe, Toby," he cautioned.
He nodded, picturing it. Schillinger might be resting easy now, thinking the worst was past, happily contemplating the misery he would inflict as soon as he was able. He and Chris might get a black mark on their souls from this? Not a problem, if it meant sending Vern straight back to hell. "Let's do it."
Still looking unhappy about it, Chris nodded, positioning both the needles carefully over the doll's heart. "On the count of three?"
One ... two ... three ...
He sat back, trembling, thinking he must have imagined that part, something like a surge of power traveling through him. Looking across at Chris, he could see he was shaken too. "You all right?"
Broad shoulders lifted in an uneasy shrug. "Yeah. You?"
He nodded that he was. "It's over?"
"If we did it right."
How would they know?
Impatient with the need to know, Toby got up, pacing over to the door and looking out at the quad. Getting close to lockdown, it was quiet, a couple of idle card games going on, not much more. Sensing Chris behind him, he watched McManus come out of his office and call to Murphy, both of them engaging in an urgent consultation. Hard to tell really, but Murphy's reaction appeared to be along the lines of I'll be damned. One of O'Reily's posse, Liam Meaney, was lingering nearby and suddenly broke away to hurry down to whisper something in O'Reily's ear that brought a diabolical gleam to his eyes. Whatever the news was, it was spreading like wildfire, chattering voices filling up the earlier silence.
Catching sight of them, O'Reily sauntered over. "Guess what?"
"Miss Sally's got a Penthouse spread?" Chris said.
A trace of crankiness dimming his unholy joy, O'Reily said, "No. Schillinger's dead." he studied them carefully. "Person might think you weren't too surprised."
"You ain't exactly actin' overcome with grief yourself."
"Yeah, well..." O'Reily gave his head a shake, like the news was really settling in. "The motherfucker's really dead. Damn, I gotta tell Cyril," he added, heading upstairs to his brother.
Toby went back over to the bed, looked at the doll. "Could have been an aneurism."
"Sure." Chris stood behind him, massaging his shoulders. "Might've had a heart problem nobody ever knew about."
He nodded. "Can we get rid of this thing?"
"Planned on it, yeah."
Toby turned to face him, meet his eyes. "Thank you."
That troubled look still lingering, Chris said, "Don't thank me for this, Toby." He wrapped his arms around him and pulled him close, as if he truly feared the devil himself might appear and claim both their souls.
"You want to get rid of something evil, sometimes you gotta dance with the devil. You can call it justice or righteousness all you want, but it's nothing more than cosmic tit-for-tat.
"It's like my Aunt Lucille always says, though, you gotta pay the piper. Maybe not in this life but surely in the next. Because just like that piper, the devil always gets his due."
Please send feedback to Riley Cannon.