It was a crisp and fine day as I made my casual stroll down Hurst Street in the almost supernatural light of dawn's glow. I had concluded my business for the day, having made the decision to undergo a particularly dramatic firing of one of my employees. Appears he had been assisting a police officer digging through some of our more, valued, client's records. One had to admire his moral fiber, but one also had to know his place. And the place of a typist was not to poke his nose in the business of his superiors. But of course such inconveniences were not at all on my mind, having purchased a particularly smashing new overcoat and a large bag of peanuts for my daily entertainment at the park.
I bid good morning to the goatee bearing Harold Darkhurst as he brushed past. One of my valuable clients. He was a worm, in the scheme of things, but valuable nonetheless. Political clients were always priority, and regardless of my feelings about beholding such a smarmy invertebrate like himself, a good word and a grin every now and then was simply protocol. Even though these were usually accompanied by the thought of, "I could crush you like the ant you are, you bearded devil, with my knowledge of the transactions you make." The pissy little mayor had more than enough questionable deposits for me to have him by his short ones.
I paused before the large, wrought iron gates of the Stephen Darkhurst Memorial Arboretum, the blackened metal carved with meticulous care into the form of dragons and barbed wire. 'Rather distasteful', I thought, but Stephen Darkhurst had been fascinated by strange things. Such a waste. The time and money spent on embellishment and detail could've made ten of the same in a simpler, more practical style. Imagination was the bane of industry. I found the world made much more sense in two colours. Red and black. Preferably black, which those of us in the banking industry unfailingly are.
The park beyond that ridiculous and somehow disturbing entryway was not reflected in any way by its gruesome portal. It was like something in some wonderful ad, with trees lining the cobbled pathway like a picket fence, I would've preferred the picket fence, but the trees served well. If one didn't mind the added annoyance of having to rake up the refuse that fell from it's branches every autumn and in between to keep it looking nice. I made my way towards the usual spot. A place well shielded by a curtain of foliage. Even in the winter, the crisscrossing barren branches made a wonderful veil. This spring, it was perfection.
The squirrels in particular favored this area.
There was a sign that blatantly proclaimed, 'Do Not Feed The Squirrels' posted regularly throughout the Arboretum's vibrant grounds. One at every entrance, several at places where paths intersected, and 4 in a circle around the frivolous fountain that marked the park's center. Another time consumingly chiseled creation of Darkhurst's, featuring not only a large, serpentine dragon but several other strange beings, posed among its cascading waters. The only use it really seemed to have was that even the young vandals who were active in other parts of the town seemed to realized that it was so terrible it needed no further defacing. Which saved the city a small chunk of change. I always gave it what it deserved as I passed it: a hearty, 'Pshaw!', and if my bowels were serving me, an equally bellowing wind passage from my derrière.
No one had heeded the signs in the past. In fact they disobeyed them with such diligence that the squirrels had become totally reliant upon their handouts, forgetting that food could be found on their own if they would take the time to search. But apparently it was the nature of all creatures to adapt to a more simplistic means of living, even if doing such deprived them of skills that at one time were necessary for survival.
This made my morning pass-time all the more interesting.
They began to gather in the nearby branches as I made my way to my customary bench. Some time ago I fancied how it would look with my name upon it. Then I proceeded to make a donation to city hall. One aimed at the restoration of the aging park benches. My fancy swiftly became a reality, on not just my favorite bench, but upon every seat in the arboretum. The plaque bearing my name-sake shone me a greeting in the morning hues, and I returned it's hospitality with a smile and a prideful grin. My observers made no such greeting merely twitched their tails in anticipation, beady eyes frozen upon me as I sauntered to my seat.
At one time the squirrels frolicked together often. They once utilized teamwork to gather food and store it for the coming winter. But when food became such a conveniently achieved end, such skills were no longer necessary. At first, this did not cause much of a change in their demeanor with each other, as even the ones who missed out upon the handouts could still salvage food. But with time, the skills necessary for accomplishing such tasks were not only not needed, but completely forgotten. And with the increased reliance on the handouts of humans, it began to pit them against each other for the right to feed. All out brawls, usually, where it was not the boldest who won, but the most cowardly and underhanded.
These were excellent times for my game. As at first, people had been so quick to feed them, they were scarcely ever desperate. But with the growing influence of television, cellular devices and video games, such uninteresting things as animals went virtually unnoticed by the media-smitten populace. Why, I may have been the only one in Darkhurst who still fed them! And I had found a way to make them interesting.
I had thought up the game the night before, whilst in the arms and thighs of my secretary. I had been feeding them for years, noting the growing urgency and ferocity in their battles as their food sources dwindled. This alone was quite amusing, but it did very little for me now. Which was I today I had in my new overcoat approximately 20 small stones, selected with great care from my massive drive. The squirrels darted closer as I took my seat. Eyes trained not upon me now but at the vast packet of peanuts which had, I suppose, become as much a God to them as I had. A few were not but two feet away upon the ground, indifferent to each other even in proximity.
As always, I began by plucking individual peanuts and coaxing some of the squirrels to take them from my hand. This never caused violence. For who would question the judgment of their God? This was a glorious tactic for infuriating those not so fortunate as to get personalized, direct nourishment. I usually expended, perhaps an eighth of the bag in this manner. It was then, when the first glares of resentment began to enter the black little oculars, of those that went without, that I began to throw small, (Approximately ten per handful) precise clusters of peanuts at the ground before me. Not nearly enough for all of them, which was precisely the intention.
The effects were magnificent. They would tear at each other, even a few of those that had been previously fed, though a few simply stood and watched, as I did, seeming to understand the joke. They were indifferent to one another's pain, apathetic to any suffering inflicted upon one's fellow squirrel. Never did I laugh as furiously and as whole-heartedly as I did on these morning occasions before another boring day at the bank.
I positively howled with mirth during today's proceedings, as I knew what further hilarities would ensue later. As the last of the peanuts were claimed, and the casualties limped away, (A few had even died this time! Twas an excellent show!) the remaining awaited my next merciful volley. "That's right, chums!" I clicked my tongue playfully. "Here you are then!" The volley unleashed was not the one they were used to.
The first of my stones did not hit a single one of the vermin. It landed between a group of three, one of them bloodied at the ear and standing defensively over a fallen, though not deceased, comrade. Amazing how some of them still clung together, even though one's own success was almost impossible caring for another. Such stupid life-forms. It was a privilege to be able to weed these simpletons out. This one, however, surprised me. His gaze followed the object, seemed to understand, and fixed upon mine. Sadly, almost. Accusingly. The rest flocked after the projectile, sure it was another bit of food to savor. Another even died in the ensuing squabble just to draw near the thing. This particularly tickled my funny-bone, and despite my unease at the wounded squirrel's glare, I was almost too incapacitated by laughter to toss the next stone.
They had turned back to me upon discovery that the stone was not, in fact, a peanut. Not with the same accusation as he of the tattered ear and the foolish ideology, but with confusion, expectation, and the self-deceiving assurance that it had been a mistake. My second stone glanced with an audible thunk off the belly of one of the clueless squirrels at the head of this dumbstruck line. He fell backward with a dry squeal and began to writhe. The others somewhat flinched at his suffering, and many again flocked to the fallen object and the revival of their battle, but still others stood still and waited for me to toss another peanut.
I threw with great rapidity then, my aim increasing with each throw. They began to scatter when I got down to my last ten rocks. I ceased then, delighted that my plan was becoming so true to my imagination. One had not budged since the tossing of the first rock, though one had hit him square upon his wounded ear. Still he stared, his friend still taking laborious breaths upon the cobbles. I threw more peanuts then. They inched back, at first with caution, and then it was as if they had forgotten the events of the past few minutes, and swarmed the small beige alternatives. But the one squirrel did not budge.
I repeated the process several times. One I even struck directly in the side of the head as he was fleeing. He had collapsed and did not move for the rest of my stay, even after I had pelted his prone form with my last two rocks, though he was clearly still alive. When I reached half the bag and the last of my rocks were diminished, I packed up. They had gathered as closely as they had before I began, tolerant of my punishment for the food they were assured they would get. It was the most incredible rush and the most entertaining thing I had ever witnessed, and I knew it would be many years again before this variation of the game tired me.
The next day I came armed with bigger rocks. My nemesis was still perched over his fallen friend, who was beginning to stir more. They had relocated to the base of a large willow. Betwixt the tree's living drapery not one, but two pairs of eyes stared resentfully at my happily whistling form. Yesterday had gone beautifully, my spirits greatly heightened by the evolution of my game. The typist's sacking had been the flavourful cherry upon a perfect dish of gourmet ice cream. His pleas for mercy and a second chance reminded me of the squirrels, pelted with stones and still returning for handouts. Pathetic. Such disillusionment, such willing blindness.
It surely was a glorious Monday, and this one would be ripe with just as much splendor.
It began much as it usually did. The individual prizes were awarded for those that ventured closest, with an extra for those that had watched the spectacles with the same amusement as I. I had memorized their coats and builds. Ah, yes. There was even more resentment in their tiny, mostly vacant eyes. Devoid of all else but the hatred, not of me, whom they should reserve their fury, but of those who were more privileged.
Yet something niggled at me, and it was only after the first round of stone throwing, (I pulverized one's spine!) that I was enlightened as to what it was. There were fewer squirrels today. There always was after my little shows, be it from their battles or my new gift for stoning, but it seemed that there ought to be not so much gone. I counted yesterday's bodies. There were six who had died in the frenzies, and the one I had brained ('Headshot!' as my son would say), the flies already dancing upon his corpse.
Yet it appeared there were at least ten missing from the swarm. I was slightly unsettled, but I was not to be distracted from my exquisite hobby. After the second round, as I had come prepared to at least four today, I discovered where the rest were. Five squirrels had joined the two battle-scarred bushy-tails beneath the willow. I could not fathom the reason for their being there, as certainly their empathy for others had long since dissolved. I had tried belting a few stones in their direction to no avail. The willow's branches provided an almost unbreakable canopy, and the squirrels, being further away, managed to avoid the projectiles that did get through.
After I ran out of stones, I rose to the scattering of squirrels. So, they had come to fear me! And still, without fail, they would dash for the peanuts I scattered in my wake. I left them a healthy handful before I began to stride away, chuckling at the melee that unfurled. Curiosity gripped me before I could reach the end of the path though, and I returned to the willow. It appeared only the severely wounded squirrel remained. The others and even the hard-case had apparently gone to better horizons. Had they packed up and left? Tiring of my fun?
Perhaps they were not so stupid after all. I observed the area around them, but really, found nothing all that peculiar... But wait. My eyes lighted upon the lid of an acorn; and then two more. Wait! Five more here! The befurred bastards were gathering their own food again! It was then a rustling of underbrush was heard behind me, and I turned to see the formerly absent squirrel sextuplet hop through the willow's curtain. Acorns were clutched in their paws. The nerve! To presume themselves too good for the peanuts that I toiled weekly behind my desk to provide them! With a bellow of primal fury, I charged.
The rodents, however, were much swifter than the likes of me. I succeeded only in missing a rather forceful kick and depositing myself in the dirt, soiling my overcoat. This considerably dampened my spirits, and I lunged again, only to be avoided just as easily. A savage growling was erupting from my throat, growing with my agitation and failure to vent it. I grabbed some of the stones that sat within the willow's circumference and threw them at random, so aggravated that not one of them struck home.
I pounded the ground furiously, apathetic to the protest of my arthritis. It was then my eyes fell upon the wounded squirrel, who was trying to drag himself away from my wrath. I grabbed a particularly large stone and set upon him. There was never a chance in hell for the little coward. But even as I dashed the life out of him, he lashed out with his hindquarters and drew blood from my hand. If I did not know that these beasts were mentally and physically incapable, I would've sworn the little bastard died smiling.
I hissed and spun away, appalled to find my coat in even greater disrepair than what had initiated my anger. It had been worth it. I was almost tempted to let the stain of the squirrel's life-blood remain there, to remind the others of the power I had over them. But this would not do for public relations. I did, however, glance back as I made the turn that would bring me out of sight of my spot. He of the wounded ear had returned. His eyes were not on me initially, as he stood in hunched defeat over the carcass of his cohort. Yet not moments after I had laid my own eyes upon him, his own raised to meet mine.
And despite the distance, the screen of the willow branches, and the morning sun...
I saw fire in them.
Things seemed fine and dandy the next morning. There was very little sign of my enemy, though the five who had disbanded yesterday had returned, frightened back into compliance. The carcasses had also disappeared. Undoubtedly some park official had come and cleared them out. A slacker, no doubt, as the rest of the park bore no sign of management from the previous few days. The work of some bleeding heart no doubt. Some hippy who couldn't stand to see a dead animal. This was not a world for the weak of stomach.
The individual award ceremony began in earnest, the members of this club unfailing in their loyalty and never receiving the blunt agony of my judgment. And the second part of the game, the 'Feeding Frenzy' aspect, as I liked to call it, began in earnest. Even the task that had bored me was given new life with the promise of a good stone throwing after, and I enjoyed the carnage as I had the first day of my game, all those years ago, with tears of laughter rolling down my face. The defiance of last night was all but forgotten.
That was until I spied its perpetrator, pushing his way to the front of the mass as I readied another handful of peanuts. "Had a change of heart, did we?" I taunted with a victorious smirk. He of course, did not respond. Only stared at me with an expression I could not read. Not like the fire of last night. "Very well then. I suppose your fortitude and wisdom in selecting the right side should not be without reward." I plucked two peanuts out of my bag and placed them before the squirrel. Even the most dedicated idealists can be broken with enough stress.
I nodded knowingly as he inched toward a peanut, my smirk growing as he picked it up in his forepaws and spun it around. His eyes never left mine as he raised it toward his face. And then it shot forward, propelled by a forward thrust of the creature's appendages. With disturbing accuracy it bounced off my chest and fell to the ground. Being a peanut, the damage done by this was not in any way heinous, but it was as though I had been struck with a mallet. Before I had recovered from this twist, he belted me directly in the eyeball with the second of my generous and completely selfless gifts, which did in fact inflict a minute amount of pain and impairment of my vision.
"Despicable little vermin!" I howled as he stood on his hind legs before me, chittering angrily. Alas, I had gotten careless in my combined hilarity and rage, having forgotten that the visual seclusion of my spot did not provide the same audio privacy. As I prepared the first round of the day's stoning, (now seemed as good a time as any) with that gimp-eared little ingrate as my bull's-eye, a voice rang out.
"What the fuck are you doing, man?"
I whirled to see a young man staring in disgust. Hah! This bum, all hair and laziness with a guitar on his back! Judging someone as equivalent to himself as our planet was to the sun! I was too simultaneously amused, shocked and terrified at the whole scene to muster a response.
"Is that what turns you on? Preying on those weaker than you? Hurting things just because they're smaller than you? Fuck you. Every one of those little guys you throw shit at, torture and laugh at has more fucking spine, resilience and character than you have in your whole, money-grubbing, sagging, sadistic old body. Hope you're fucking proud of yourself." He spat, his voice rising with every sentence and profanity.
I turned and looked at the squirrels that stood about, waiting for my next handful of peanuts despite the fact that a large stone was about to be chucked into their midst, and back to the nothing who talked like a dropout and dared to chastise me, of all people. It was simply too much. It was the loudest I'd laughed yet during a session of my game. Even misfortune could provide such grand entertainment. These squirrels? These stupid little bags of filth? Spine? Resilience? Character! I did screech with laughter.
"Yuk it up, fat-ass." The young man smirked as he pulled a cell-phone from his pocket. He waggled it at me. "Let's see if the piggies think it's that funny." He looked up at me with a smile that did not reach his eyes, within which resided an accusation and fury much similar to that of my much tinier nemesis, "Though they probably will, knowing the state of the world."
My hilarity abruptly ceased. I had not even considered this. In all likelihood he was right about the police laughing and doing nothing. Even if they didn't, the charges could be made to go away with very little effort, officers could be paid off. But this was Darkhurst... And people talked in small towns. My eyes cast to my still raised hand and the hefty stone clutched within it's grip. As the youth moved to dial the first number, probably being 9, (911! For squirrels! Rich!) I let fly. The rock caught him straight in the nose with a dull crunch, depositing upon his ass and bringing a gout of blood from each nostril.
He got halfway through a choked, 'The fuck?" before I assaulted him, another of my large rocks smashing his skull much in the same fashion as his nose. All the same, it took four good smacks before he perished. There was a small crick about thirty meters beyond the willow, and it was no small chore to drag him there and deposit him in the deceptively fast moving water. The crick led to the Thames, and he would be out of sight and out of mind before long. Sure, he would be found, but tracing it to me would be nearly impossible.
Many police officers were not as keen on protecting and serving as they claimed to be. Particularly in small towns, where audits are few and far between and the action is scarce. I'd imagine it would be simplicity itself to dispose of evidence whilst it sat in the locker. But it would never even come to that. Very little of the young man's dirty blood had gotten on me. None on my coat, surprisingly, but my clothes would have to be burned. Though parting ways with the topcoat would simply be impossible. Too good a bargain, and my! If it didn't look fetching!
I departed and made my way home. I knew many back ways and shortcuts through the residential areas of Darkhurst that surrounded the Arboretum, and I met not a soul as I made my way back to my estate. The clothes were quickly taken care of, and I stewed the last of my time before work away huffing my pipe in furious disappointment. My game would be delayed for a while. I could not risk returning to the crime scene until I was absolutely sure it was safe. No one knew the destination of my daily excursion, not even my wife, as I left home only after she had departed to work. But perhaps the boy's presence in the park that day had been knowledge to another, and his steps could be retraced.
The next two weeks were hell. I spent them constantly watching the newspapers, having to pour over countless inconsequential tidbits about sick children and the state of the environment and the bitchings and moanings of the local reporter, Jack Stewart. All for nothing, as well. Not a single blip about the young man, save for a 'Missing' bulletin. Such wasted time. Nonetheless, it was enough to keep me away from my ritual for that miserable span of time. Time spent having to endure the irritatingly high voice of my well-endowed secretary without the added sparkle caused by my park exploits to brighten the day. Even slipping her one seemed soured. That voice was even more annoying in the throes of fornication, (such a shock I had not noticed before) and made it very difficult to concentrate.
So two weeks was all I could handle. Monday I returned, the breeze through my toupee and my trusted overcoat fluttering in that same spring wind. A bag of peanuts swayed from my left hand, its crinkling plastic keeping time with my jaunty steps. As I neared the center of the park, giving the architectural abortion there a marvelous fart, I noted the squirrels following me through the trees and upon the ground with amusement. Their movements were not as slow as I had assumed they'd be, after having gone so long without the sustenance I granted them. Most likely their excitement overwhelmed the energy taken from them by malnourishment. Yet several times I swore I saw my nemesis where he was not, catching a glimpse of an enraged stare more than once in their eyes. But as I looked upon the ears of those bearing that twin expression, I saw no wound.
My faithful followers awaited me at my bench, ears pricked and noses snuffing as I took my seat and opened the seal upon my bag. The others gathered, but I took no notice of them as I rewarded my fan club. As I let fly the first handful of peanuts, my heart jumped into my throat. Every one of them wore upon his tiny face the almost visible look of contempt I had previously seen in only one other. Yet still they moved for the morsels I scattered amongst them. Ha! They feared, and now hated, but still they complied!
It was then that something fell against my toupee. Even through the hairpiece, it tapped a painful jolt against my cranium. With an oath I looked upward. There, in his ear torn malcontent, perched upon one of the higher branches of the tree my bench inhabited the base of, was my arch-enemy. I looked down at what had fallen upon my head to discover a large acorn. I snapped my gaze back to the other vermin, whom, though they had taken the peanuts, had not even fought or begun to eat them. It was then they let fly. A barrage of peanuts filled the air and pelted down upon me. Acorns followed suit from the treetops.
I looked to my elite for assistance to find them bounding away, so conditioned to the ease I had bestowed upon their lives that the slightest alteration in the scheme of things drove them to fits of hysteria. I rose to flee only to slip upon the impossible multitude of spherical projectiles and meet the harsh cobbles upon my side. The air wheezed out of me and something cracked in my arm. Fear filled my body and dripped from every pore in the form of cold sweat. This could not be! They were so tiny! So unimportant! I, so gigantic and superior!
Didn't they know who I was?
I nearly made it to my feet before they overtook me. There must have been hundreds of lithe, furry black and gray bodies, each one attacking a different portion of flesh. My topcoat was pierced by their vile little teeth, and blood flowed from every wound they inflicted upon my bare skin. I managed to stagger to my feet, despite the agony, only to see my body entirely invisible beneath a layer of whirling, gnashing squirrels. "Stop! Stop!" I shrieked. "You can't do this! You can't!" One squirrel climbed the mountain of his brethren and clung to my face. My legs gave out from under me and I collapsed backward. Knowing only the agony of their million bites, an increasing tingling sensation as my blood flowed from me, and the simultaneously infuriated and triumphant gaze of the squirrel upon my face. One with a tattered ear and fire in his eyes.
At least, I saw him before he went to work on my eyes.
"What've you got, Lloyd?" Sergeant Steve Anders inquired of the county's renowned pathologist, physician and crime scene investigator. Dr. Lloyd Gaznik surveyed their only bit of evidence.
"Well. The coat itself is impressive. Pricey. The Big and Tall store uptown has a few. The frays in the fabric are very interesting. I wish we had a body so I could analyze the wounds."
"Fucked up. Resident's hear screaming; call 911, by the time anyone gets here, nothing but this." Anders intoned. "Who disposes of an entire body that fast, but leaves a coat just drenched in evidence?"
"Some murders leave little gifts at the scene. I don't have to tell you that. This does seem different, however, I'll agree. So much blood, but the largest of the holes is perhaps the size of my fist. The rest of the clothes are gone. It's as if somebody carved him up from the inside out and left his coat." The pathologist shook his head. "But there are NO signs indicating anything like that."
Steve Anders sighed. "Why do we keep getting cases like this, Lloyd?"
Gaznik stood, removing his latex gloves and breathing mask. "I think it's something in the water, Steve." The two men moved away toward their van and cruiser. On a branch behind them, a squirrel scuttled by, a scraggly crimson and gray object dangling from its mouth.
It was a toupee.