44 – It's Like That

Not far outside the Columbus city limits, the continuous rain had turned Whispering Hills City Metropark into a slick marshy terrain that had left it largely vacant for several days. The once arid soil had become a squishy sponge of saturated pores with thick sheets of runoff water that trickled down the hilly landscape. The bottom of the glacial valley where once a man could stand with dry feet was now the bank of a thriving river, continuing to rise with the water table.

At the top of the hill, a vast oak tree that had been dead for many years jutted from the sloped earth, straining against the midafternoon sky of bleak grey. The network of roots dug deeply through the sloshy dirt like elongated fingers that had clawed their way through the earth and anchored the tree throughout its lifetime. In the wake of such a wet week, however, the fingers began to slip slowly towards the surface, and the tree began to sag.

Finally, the old oak could bear the stress of its own weight no longer, and the loosened dirt threaded through its root system upended violently with a sharp crack. The tree came plummeting down the hill, an enormous log that leveled everything in its path. Smaller trees, along with stones, leaves, mud and rain were swept downhill in a mucky brown avalanche that poured into the bottom of the valley. The valley floor was bulldozed beneath the unyielding mudslide, the ground churning up in silty dunes that were carried away by the river.

Somewhere beneath the falling debris, the corner of a dull green plastic tarp emerged from the flow, flapping under the forces of the upheaval like a flag waving in the wind. The mudslide continued to augment, moving anything that it touched, and the lightly packed soil that buried the tarp below the surface began to wither away. Particle by particle began to float downstream and disappear. Finally the tightly wrapped plastic shroud was fully exposed, and there was nothing left to fight the shearing movement of the river and the mud. With one last heaving surge the tarp lifted from the earth and was swept away by the current, floating down the steep gradient of the valley that led back towards the city.

o0o0o0o0o

Iona sat patiently in the passenger seat of Mark's Ford Escort and stared through the misty fog of falling rain at the house on the top of the hill. An aged being from the gothic revival era, the mansion sized abode sat back behind an acre of puddle spotted lawn in the dark shadows of a thick tree canopy. Steeply pointed roofs lined the top of the building like spearheads aimed at the sky. The faded wooden walls, greatly in need of fresh staining, were interrupted at evenly spaced intervals by pointed arched windows. Raspberry colored curtains created a veil that blinded outsiders to the going-ons inside. Spilling from the gaping mouth of the garage door, a winding concrete driveway snaked across the front lawn and latched onto the street next to where Mark had parked the car. Iona didn't like it at all. It looked too much like the typical horror movie haunted house, and she was not fond of horror movies.

Bringing the stumpy remains of the cigarette to her lips, she dragged on it once more before snuffing it out in the ashtray fixed to the center console. The air around her was musty and smelled like mold. She cracked the window just enough to prevent rain from coming through and seeping into the upholstery, then turned her head towards Mark. He was still on the phone.

"Yes, I understand," he muttered into the mouthpiece for what Iona counted as the fourth time. The muffled chatter of a female voice crackled on the other end, but she couldn't make out what was being said. "No, no, Amy," Mark said with a spike of urgency in his words. "Listen to me. No, listen! I told you that I'll keep you out of it, okay? We go in, we cook a batch, I leave with it and it never comes back to you… no, I already told you that… of course I would never do that. I know you're invested in your school. It won't be an issue, okay?" He held the phone away from his ear for a moment while he rolled his eyes and emitted a silent sigh. "Fine, one time, that's all I'm asking. And depending on how it goes, you can decide for yourself if you wanna do it again. Yes, I know, no obligation… okay, thank you. I'll see you next week." He flipped the phone shut and threw himself into the back of his seat, his head slumping until he was staring at the foot pedals. "Holy shit…" he said, pushing his beanie back far enough to bury his face in the palm of his hand. "I didn't think she was ever gonna shut up."

"Did she agree?" Iona asked, shifting uneasily in her seat.

"Barely," Mark said, "and not before I got a lecture from the morality patrol about this that and the other thing. Plus I had to promise her like fifty million times that none of this was gonna come back and bite her in the ass."

Iona wrinkled her nose with distaste. "What's up her butt?"

"In short," Mark replied, "jesus."

"Ew…"

"Yeah, well, what can I say? She's the smartest, most dedicated, overachieving chemistry student that I've ever met. And she pulled through. Took one look at the Frankenstein under a microscope and said that she can replicate the process using basic chemicals. They have most of them already at Ohio State's chemistry labs. She even figured out I was mixing it with crystal without me having to tell her. Now she thinks she can make them together at the same time and fuse the DNA or something. If that's true, not only will the shit be way more pure, but we won't have to go through a middle man to buy meth anymore. And all I have to do is bring a few more ingredients with me when I meet up with her. We're going in late night on Monday when no one will be in the labs. She's a teaching assistant for some basic chemistry class so she has her own set of keys."

"Wow…" Iona trailed off, blinking three times in rapid succession. "You convinced a jesus freak to break into the school chemistry labs and cook crystal meth with you. How'd you swing that?"

"She goes to the same church as me," Mark explained, "so we go back. Plus I'm quite the convincing soul from time to time."

"That's the other thing," Iona said with a hint of suspicion in her otherwise pleasant tone. "Since when do you regularly attend church? You never struck me as a believer."

"I'm not," Mark replied, "it's a long story."

"You don't think after this morning I deserve that?"

Mark chuckled into his fist, his lips curling into a sly smirk. "You're right," he agreed, and then lifted a casual finger and pointed it at the house they were parked in front of, "but right now we've got some business to take care of. Don't want to keep Keith waiting on us too long. I'll tell you the whole thing on the ride back."

"Oh alright," Iona said, feigning poutiness. She leaned across the center console and brought her face closer to Mark's. "At least give me a kiss then."

Mark covered her mouth with his and their lips pressed together for several seconds. He teasingly curled a strand of her hair around his finger before they finally broke apart and he tossed the car door open.

"Wendy said that as a courtesy, no guns were to be brought to this little meeting," Mark said as they stepped out into the damp haze. The water outside was crisp and cool, and the rain on his face felt like water being sprayed through a spritzer bottle. The heaviest drops had subsided and for the first time in days a tiny sliver of clear skies was approaching from the western horizon. When Iona had circled the car and was at his side, he began up the driveway towards the house where the mysterious stranger awaited him, leaving the new shotgun Curt had given him alone in the back seat. "But that makes me a little nervous. I've got a butterfly knife tucked away discreetly. Do you still have that blade I gave you?"
Iona snorted. "Oh, you mean that ridiculous prison shank you gave me after you made me get rid of my actual gun?" she asked, voice heavily laced with sarcasm. "Yeah, as silly as it is I actually do still have it. It's tucked in my shoe. Not that it's doing me any good there. By the time I get it out, whoever I needed it for could have killed me twice."

"You'd be surprised how fast you can get something out of your shoe if it means the difference between living and dying," said Mark.

"I'm not optimistic about that."

They reached the front door, a massive sheet of redwood where a rusty metal knocker in the shape of a lion's head stared at them with beady black eyes. "Let me do the talking," Mark instructed as he lifted a hand to the knocker and banged it several times against the door.

"Sure," Iona scoffed, "'cause I remember how this whole business was your idea and I just tagged along because my meth lab blew up and killed my partner."

"Shh," Mark hissed, "shut up."
The door swung open slowly, the creaky hinges whining in protest, and a man stood in the doorway wearing an expensive looking suit. He looked to be about forty, with neatly groomed brown hair and beard stubble speckled across his face. His thin, pointed nose was hawk-like and his bushy eyebrows looked like two fat, bloated caterpillars crawling across his forehead. He possessed a shoulder span that easily doubled Mark's and had the build of a high school quarterback. His teeth were a row of pearls that were too flawless to be believable.

It was even worse when he smiled, and it made Mark highly uncomfortable. "Ah, welcome," he said, extending a hand formally in Mark's direction. "Keith Williams, it's a pleasure to meet you. You must be the elusive Machiavelli that everyone's been talking about."

Mark took Keith's hand and gave it a solid shake. "Just a cog in the machine, I'm afraid," he lied, "but it's nice to meet you all the same. You can call me Marky."

Keith nodded a few times before turning a curious eye to Iona. "And who would your lovely lady friend be?"

Iona turned her head, scowling sourly, to Mark and was silent for several seconds before saying with mock excitement, "Oh, do I get to talk now? My name's Iona." Her handshake with Keith was timid and limp, but he did not seem to notice.

"Please, come in," he said, stepping backwards away from the door and beckoning them inside.

He led them down the hallway into a kitchen that was a brightly lit display of sleek tile floor and checkered furniture not unlike a fifties diner. Three identical globe shaped light fixtures hung low enough that Mark could have hit his head on one if he passed beneath it. The smell of searing cow greeted them as a glob of ground beef hissed in a frying pan over the flickering blue flame on the stove. Scattered on the kitchen counter were an assortment of cooking ingredients: cans of diced tomatoes, tomato paste, and sauce, kidney beans, a whole onion, cloves of garlic and oregano, hot sauce and crushed red pepper. Through the doorless opening that led into a minimally furnished living room, a girl that looked to be younger than Mark sat in a faded green recliner with her feet kicked up, watching the television. Paler than Iona, her cream colored flesh was covered everywhere Mark could see with tattoos, and in a near microscopic mini-skirt and lacy halter top, there was a lot to see. She rose from the chair at the sight of their arrival and sauntered into the room.

"Marky, Iona," Keith said, gesturing with one hand at the girl while his footsteps carried him to where his half-finished meal preparation waited for him, "this is Janey, a coworker and mutual friend of my employer."

Iona's eyes darkened with mistrust. Mark kept Janey in his peripherals as she lowered her thick hips into a seat at the kitchen table, crossing one silky leg over the other. Keith remained the center of his sights, and not just because Iona shared the room with them. This Janey girl was trying entirely too hard, twirling a hooked finger ambiguously through strands of shiny black hair that fell in sheets around her heart shaped face. Her mouth worked a wad of bubble gum like a cow chewing its cud. It wouldn't have sparked Mark's interest on any day of the week.

"I hope you don't mind," Keith began when he saw that no official pleasantries would be exchanged, "I wasn't sure what time you would be showing up and I'm afraid you've caught me right in the middle of fixing supper." The jaws of the can-opener clamped down on the tomato jar and the aluminum began to spin. "My famous chili recipe. Famous because it's basically the only thing I know how to cook."

"By all means," Mark replied, watching Keith's hands tediously crank away at the handle of the can-opener. The lid peeled back, its underside bleeding tomato juices, and fell lightly onto the counter. "I actually have a chili recipe of my own that I make from time to time, although to be honest I don't think I'd ever use canned tomatoes." He clapped his hands together in front of his chest. "But! I digress. I suppose a man confident enough to wear a suit that expensive in proximity to tomato sauce would like to get right down to business. So here's the deal." His hand dipped into the pocket of his jeans and produced a tiny bag of the infamous green crystals. They threw the light of the brightly illuminated room and sparkled like rock candy as Mark tossed them onto the counter next to the onion. "You want bulk, you've got bulk. If you want it today, the best I can do is five pounds, but by the end of next week I should be able to give you that several times over. Price is negotiable and may or may not go down with repeated business. So what are your thoughts?"

Keith drummed a meticulously clipped fingernail on the countertop. "What are my thoughts…" he echoed thoughtfully, his mouth drawing up into a contemplative pucker. Janey smirked and released a devilish giggle, like she knew some dirty secret that Mark had been left out of. "My thoughts are this," he said after a moment. "As a business man for over twenty years, it seems like a poor investment for me to pay for what is already mine."

Mark's eyebrows drifted upwards until they brushed against his disheveled bangs. "I beg your pardon?" he asked with more than a little confusion spilling out with the words.

"Well, I don't know how much you know about your boss, Mr. 'Cog-in-the-machine,'" Keith began. He systematically shoveled the contents of each opened can into a pot on the stove, his back to Mark. "But the drugs that are being sold by your little outfit, the drugs you so generously pulled from your pocket, do not belong to you. They belong to a very powerful man in a very powerful place, and they were stolen from him in a cowardly nighttime robbery in which one of our men was murdered."

Mark offered a lazy, apathetic shrug. "First I'm hearing about this," he said. A sideways glance at Iona told him she was becoming nervous.

"Yes, well, guess you're out of the loop," Keith replied, overturning the pan of darkened beef and dumping it into the collective pot where it sizzled angrily. Garlic scented steam shot out of the mix and clouded the air above the stove. Keith turned around to face Mark once more. "You should also know that my employer does not take kindly to having his possessions stolen from him. Whoever you're working for really has no idea what they've gotten themselves into. Who they've pissed off."

Leaning back against the counter, Mark folded his arms defensively across his front and looked up to meet Keith's icy stare. "And who have they pissed off?" he asked, voice flat and blander than the sub-mediocre chili that his host was preparing.

"Never mind that," Keith dismissed Mark's inquiry, taking a bold step and closing the small gap between them. "Here's my counter offer to your supposed deal. You tell me who it is that runs your network of dealers, you deliver them to me along with the rest of the drugs that you stole, then you go back to whatever squat or halfway house you crawled out of and you forget that any of this ever happened." His eyes moved sharply from Mark to Iona and back to Mark again. "I see no reason that two innocent subordinates who had no knowledge of the thieving nature of their trade should come of any harm…" He peeled back the outer jacket of his suit. From the other side of the counter, neither female could see the handle of the Glock 22 pistol protruding from his waistband, but for Mark the threat was not subtle.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Mark's jaw dropped absentmindedly and he began to pat down the pockets of his jeans, both front and back, with his palms. "Ah, shit," he muttered, gritting his teeth and sneering. He craned his neck over the counter towards his partner. "Iona," he called, "I think I totally spaced out and left my keys in the car. Will you do me a huge favor and check to make sure that I didn't lock them inside? I'd really hate to be stuck here for hours, waiting on triple A."

"Sure thing, Marky," Iona blurted out, a wave of relief washing over her voice. A bead of sweat rolled down her freckled cheek as she eagerly sidestepped out of the room and shuffled away.

When he heard the door slam shut behind his fleeing coworker, Mark's sunken eyes fell to the checkerboard pattern of the tile floor, and a sigh escape from his lungs sheepishly. "So…" he said in a defeated tone, "it's like that, huh?"

"Yeah," Keith replied, "it's like that."

Mark lunged at Keith before either he or Janey had a shred of a moment to react. His hands grabbed the back of the larger man's head, his fingers curved hooks that dug into the scalp, and threw it down on the counter top. The porcelain came rushing up to meet Keith's forehead with a forceful bunt, and soon he was stumbling backwards, teetering and dazed. Mark quickly scooped up the lid to one of the aluminum cans before he hurled his entire body weight at Keith and easily toppled him. He heard Janey let out a shrill gasp as Mark drove his knee into the small of Keith's back and pinned him to the floor on his stomach. By the time she scrambled out of her chair and rounded the counter, however, it was too late.

"Either of you move and he dies!" Mark shouted. The fingers of his left hand were curled possessively through Keith's hair, pulling his head backwards and exposing the tender flesh of his throat. His other hand pressed the jagged edge of the metal can lid, a blade in its own right, into the soft skin just to the left of Keith's Adams apple. Janey's vibrant red lipstick formed a perfect circle around her mouth as she stared on in wide eyed horror, frozen, still five feet away.

"Now let's everybody stay calm," Mark advised, "I'm a former meth head and I don't have the steadiest hands on the planet. Definitely not winning any games of Operation in the near future, so you really don't want me making any sudden movements, capiche?" He pushed harder on the makeshift weapon, applying enough pressure for a tiny trail of slippery blood to drip onto the floor. "Now this is what I want you to do, Keith," he continued. "Slowly reach down, remove the clip from your gun, and toss the gun and the clip away. Not towards Janey."

"Do you have any idea who you're fucking with?" Keith grumbled, his oversized hands obediently gravitating towards his waistband and removing the firearm. With a slick sliding motion the clip fell out of place and clattered harmlessly to the floor. The gun followed suit shortly after. "Any idea who we work for? What he'll do to you if you hurt either of us in any way?"

"I don't," Mark admitted, "but what I do know is that if I make one quick slash with this, the people that you work for will be the last thing on your mind. You see, this can lid isn't that sharp. So if I decide to kill you with it, it's not gonna be one of those Hollywood throat slittings, where your blood just waterfalls out and you're dead in two seconds. No, this is gonna come out slow, in little spits and gushes, and it's gonna take a really long time. So long, in fact, that you might even think that if you put your hand over it and head straight for the hospital, you might make it. But once I nick the carotid artery, it's pretty much a done deal. And the pain." He gave a whistle in admiration. "Whoo, that's gotta be pretty intense. I mean I've never had my throat slit, but I've always ranked it second on my top ten worst ways to die, behind getting mauled by a shark. And so I know when you're lying there, in searing pain, the life slowly ebbing out of you and spilling onto your tacky ass 'Happy Days' tiles, it's not gonna matter who you work for!"

Keith let out a low groan as Mark clenched his hand into a fist, yanking harder at the mop of hair on his head and tearing several strands out by the follicles. A few feet above them, the smell of charcoal began to fester as Keith's chili burned past the recommended cooking time. "You'll never be safe," Keith spat, a bullet made of saliva firing from his mouth and striking the floor. "You kill me, and they'll come after you, just watch."

"Lucky for you," Mark continued, largely ignoring Keith's threats, "I came here to arrange business, not shed blood. So how about you guys stop dicking me around, and tell me what you're willing to pay per pound for bulk Frankenstein?"

The room went quiet less for the whiny protests of Keith's dinner, hissing and popping on the stovetop as it blackened. Keith's lungs were taking careful, calculated breaths, but Mark could feel the quickened pace of his enemy's heartbeat through the throbbing veins he stood poised to slice. Janey clutched her chest nervously.

"Sixty-five," Keith finally said, and he broke out into exasperated panting, like he had been holding his breath underwater for some time and had only now come up for air. "Sixty-five grand a pound."
Mark applied more pressure to the lid of the can. "Eighty," he demanded.

"Okay, fine," Keith agreed almost instantly, "just get that thing out of my face."

The can lid slipped from Mark's fingers and fell to the floor with a splat, sticking to the tiles by the tomato residue that still coated one side. Mark rose casually to his feet and brushed himself off while Keith scrambled to put as much distance between Mark and him as he could, backing himself into the corner of the kitchen. Janey let out a sigh of relief buy ultimately remained motionless.

"Ten pounds for eight hundred k, this time next week," Mark said plainly. "I'm sure if your people are so powerful that that won't be a problem. I'll let you know the exchange point the day of. Don't try anything funny." Taking nonchalant strides towards the hallway that would lead him back outside, Mark stopped at the kitchen threshold and turned back to the frightened, panicky Keith. "I told you that I would never use canned tomatoes," he added.

He walked back to the car, where the smell of burnt hair told him that his partner had chosen her meth pipe as a means to fight the anxiety Keith's house had infested her with. Her hands trembled violently as they struggled to bring the cigarette to her lips for a long, drawn out drag. Judging from the thick curtain of smoke that hung in the air, it was not the first one she had smoked in the last several minutes. Her pupils had dilated like two black marbles.

Mark gently lowered himself into the seat, clapped the door shut, and reached into his pocket for the keys that he had not actually forgotten.

"W-what happened?" Iona stuttered feebly. The tips of her cheeks glowed pink like sunburn while she pulled her knees into her chest, sitting in the fetal position with her head pressed against the glass of the window and looking nauseous.

"We were able to reach a peaceful compromise after all," Mark replied, sticking the key into the ignition and firing up the engine. He pulled the car out onto the puddled road and began back towards home. "Do you feel like chili tonight? I'm starving."