Mr. Caine's assistant, Rita, was a slender, large-eyed girl of "at least eighteen," as she kept telling him. His previous assistant, Marla, had had blonde hair which was often pulled back into pigtails tied with foolishly enormous bows, but Rita was a practical girl, and her auburn hair was always down in a fashionable bob. Whereas Marla had preferred dainty dresses with polka dots or lace ruffles, Rita always wore nice buttoned-down shirts and slacks. Quite professional, she looked. And she wasn't half-bad looking, either: her skin was clear as a winter sky, and her eyes were so big and brown under those wire-rimmed glasses. Mr. Caine enjoyed looking at her. She cut a nice figure in her tight little outfits, and she was a good secretary. He had half a mind to bring her home one night and keep her there. After finding out her real age, of course.
Now, Rita poked her pleasantly-bobbed head into Mr. Caine's dingy little office. "Sir, there's someone waiting for you on the line."
"Didn't say her name." Rita's head disappeared, no doubt sauntering back to her desk.
So it was a her. A woman caller. How interesting—women never called Mr. Caine, at least, not regularly. He picked up the phone with some enthusiasm.
"Roger? Roger, is that you?"
He let out a long, long sigh. "Wrong number."
Just as he was about to let the phone fall gently back into its resting place, he heard the woman screech, "Don't hang up, Roger, or I swear to God—!"
It wouldn't hurt to humor her just for a moment. The cold, cold receiver of the phone brushed Mr. Caine's ear. "What is it now, Gladys?"
She had such a horrible voice, grating, like nails on a chalkboard. "What do you mean, what is it now? Why won't you talk to me, Roger? It's been six months since I received a check from you, and I'm—"
"How did you find this number?" he interrupted.
"That's no concern of yours. Where are my checks? Where's my money?"
"This isn't the time to be discussing this."
"Then what time?" she whined ear-splittingly. "By Christmas, do you think?"
He glanced at the calendar on the wall: May twelfth. "For God's sake. I don't want to hear about this right now. If you get them, you get them. If you don't, then leave me alone about it."
"Aren't you rich?" she moaned. "Can't you afford to send me a measly hundred dollars a month? My medical bills—"
"Gladys, I am done talking about this. Don't call back." He let the phone tumble out of his hand back onto its cradle, and for a moment relished the faint sound of the dial tone as a new father would relish the sound of his baby's first cry.
After a moment, he called out, "Rita, darling, would you mind changing the number for this office?"
Her voice, only slightly petulant (a great relief; Marla had always been very petulant about everything): "I've no idea how to do that, sir."
"Just call the county, or the phone people, or whomever. They'll take care of it."
After a moment, her voice returned, in quite a different tone—an expectantly afraid, yet deliciously curious, tone, as if she'd heard something she wasn't meant to hear, and was equally frightened of punishment and eager to learn more. "Why'd that woman call you Roger?"
Mr. Caine's entire body went still, cold as ice, and he felt a wave of disappointment overtake him. She'd heard. She'd heard everything. Been listening in on the other line, no doubt. He'd expressly told her not to do that, for this very reason, on the very first day of her employ.
"Ah, no reason," he called out, in an impressively jovial voice. "It was an old nickname."
"Isn't your name Pete? How do you get 'Roger' out of 'Pete'?"
Frustration, now. Why couldn't she be a little stupider? "My middle name is Roger. Now, how about you take the day off and—"
Insistently: "On all the forms you've signed, it says your middle name is Andrew. And who's Gladys, by the way, and why do you owe her checks?" Nervousness overtook her voice, as if she'd finally realized she might be overstepping her bounds. "Sorry, sir, don't mean to be nosy; I'm just a busybody, is all."
He'd tried. For goodness' sake, no one could say he hadn't tried.
"Rita, dear," he said, soothingly. "I'll explain everything. If you'd just come over tonight for cocktails, that is. Then we can have a talk."
Thank God, she wasn't smart enough to suspect anything about that. "I'd love to," she gushed, curiosity forgotten for the moment. "What time?"
"Seven would be fine. I think you know my address."
This was a joke: he lived right above the office; everyone knew that.
That night, Rita knocked on Mr. Caine's apartment door, which was promptly opened. He hadn't dressed up for the occasion; he wore casual clothes, as usual. Rita, however, was her regular prim and proper self, with a tight rose-colored dress that stopped just at her knees and had no straps whatsoever. It looked expensive, but, of course, she could afford to be: Mr. Caine paid her a great deal more than a regular man would likely pay his secretary, if only because the job carried such heavy hidden risks, and Mr. Caine felt rather bad about it. He was a man of conscience, after all. A bastard, but a man of conscience just the same.
They sat together on his soft red couch with the television flickering before them, and he got Rita absolutely flaming drunk on blackberry wine, and, before long, she was asking him questions she'd never dared before. "What's your business? I know I'm not supposed to ask, but—"
"And I'm still not going to tell you," he gently reminded her.
"I don't see what the big problem is," she said indignantly, cheeks flaming red, words slightly mixed into one another. "Unless you're dealing in human bodies or something. I record all your meetings and take all your calls, I know everyone's names who you work with, I just don't know who they are. If you won't tell me, I can just find out for myself, if I've got half a mind."
"But you won't," he said, again, gently, "because you know I wouldn't want you to."
She changed tactics. "Who's Gladys? I'm dying to know."
The words cut him. In a minute, poor girl. In a minute.
"She's my sister," he admitted; no point in keeping that much a secret now.
"Why do you owe her money? And hospital bills? What's the matter with her?"
He got up, went to his cupboard in the kitchen, took out a jug of good red wine. "When I was younger," he said, "I couldn't control it."
She didn't hear him. "Pardon?"
"Never mind." He went back to the couch, took a swig of wine right out of the bottle, and offered it to his lady companion.
While he watched her drink, a battle flashed through his mind, quick as a snap of the fingers. Earlier, he'd thought he would make it quick. He liked Rita, and he would resist the urge to drag it out, for her sake. But now, all that seemed like nonsense to him. He'd do her just like he'd done all the others. Why not? What did it matter that he'd liked her? He'd like another one, soon, and she'd turn out the same. Better to gratify himself by taking it slow. He loved the fear, loved the theatricality of it, and why should he deny that to himself? In just a few short hours, Rita wouldn't care one way or the other.
They all found out eventually. If he liked a woman, or was friends with a man, or even the other way around, then one day, sooner rather than later, they'd hear something—a whisper, a hint, words from friends of a friend of a friend, of what they weren't supposed to know. It always happened that way. And Mr. Caine had learned from experience that letting them live was never the smart thing to do. Curiosity always kills the cat, eventually, after all.
Rita finished her long drink and wiped her mouth with a hand, flushed. He knew what she expected of him, and pretended to give it to her. "Want to…?" he suggested, hinted.
"Sure," she said, lipsticked mouth twitching, suppressing a grin. Mr. Caine wasn't an unhandsome man, and, almost certainly, Rita had desired and aimed for this ever since she applied for the secretary job from the classified ad she'd seen in the paper.
He took Rita to the back room, not the bedroom, but she'd never been in the apartment before, so she wouldn't know the difference. He led her through the dark hallway, hand in hand, until finally they reached the room where he'd taken Marla some months before.
He flicked on the light switch.
"Where's the—?" Rita said uncertainly. To ask where the bed was would insinuate a level of impropriety that certainly would get her fired—were she still in the office. Maybe she thought she was still there. Maybe she couldn't get it out of her head.
The room was bare white plaster, a shelf on the opposite wall, no windows. A single lightbulb swung from the ceiling. On the shelf were two items, hard to see, but they looked like hair. If you approached closely, you'd be able to make out the sight of blonde pigtails done up in garish yellow bows. Mr. Caine's weakness, the habit he couldn't shake, was taking mementos.
Rita had the good sense not to approach. She was a smart girl, even drunk, and now she backed towards the door, eyes wide and distrustful. No doubt she'd heard stories, fiction and non-fiction, of what happened to girls in situations like these. "I'd better go."
Mr. Caine was at the door in a second, and it was shut. He stood there and tasted Rita's fear as it dispersed into the air and simmered like a fine fricassee. "I'm afraid that's out of the question," he said, a bit sadly.
Her eyes were like saucers, big brown saucers. "Please—"
He went towards her, slowly and softly. She backed away. They circled each other, two cats.
"What do you want?" Her voice was choked with fear. "I'll give it to you—whatever it is. Please, just don't hurt me. I-I've been a good secretary, haven't I? I've done a good job, haven't I?"
"I'm sorry," he said, and his tone was honestly regretful. He truly did like Rita. Maybe he wouldn't drag it out after all—but, oh, her fear was so delicious. "You shouldn't have listened in. If only you hadn't listened in."
"I—I won't tell anyone," she begged, begging for her life, though not in so many words. "I swear to God, not a w-word about Gladys or R-Roger or the checks or any of it. I w-won't say a word."
Once, he'd listened to those words. Gladys had paid him a visit, with her forever-ashy skin and her eyes ten times too big for her bony face, and demanded money, which he'd given to her. His sister would never stop trying to suck money out of his guilt, and he'd never stop feeling guilty about it, even if he truly almost hated her by now. What he'd done to her—well, that was beyond forgiving. Even if it had been a mistake, a fluke.
But his friend George had been in the room, had seen, and afterwards had been too curious for his own good. That night, George, trapped in a room much like this one but in a different house, had begged and begged, sworn he wouldn't tell a soul. And Mr. Caine had believed it, and let him go. The very next day, George was at the police station spilling every single detail about everything he knew—though precious little—and, when the police arrived at Mr. Caine's (then Mr. Willerman's) home, they'd found nothing there but dust and emptiness. Mr. Caine only returned to that town once, months later, to finish the business he had with his old friend George.
Mr. Caine remembered himself, as a child, having walked in on a sight he'd never forget, and, afterwards, covered in the blood of the girl he'd stupidly tried to resuscitate, begging for leniency as the pale-as-death man stalked towards him. And the man had been lenient, and, instead of killing poor young Mr. Caine, had made him one like himself. And now how many more were dead?
No, leniency was foolish. Better to kill.
Afterwards, savoring the memory of Rita's awful screams—and, at the very same moment, despising himself for it—Mr. Caine, by now washed clean of all the wreckage of the event, placed a small item on the shelf next to the pigtails, a reminder: Rita's wire-rimmed glasses.
The next morning, Mr. Caine was his own secretary; an ad in the paper would have to wait until later. Sitting at Rita's desk, he glanced over at the two white buckets he'd brought down as he made the call to an old friend. Rita, in death, would make him a far richer man than she could've ever hoped to in life. For his business—and Rita had this in aplenty—was blood.