Henry Simpson is the author of several novels, two short story collections, many book reviews, and occasional pieces in literary journals. His most recent novel is Golden Girl (Newgame, 2017).
Gary Gits’s apartment house was in a neighborhood a mile or so from the beach. The streets and parking lots were filled with pickups, SUVs, and muscle cars. His apartment was on the ground floor opposite a swimming pool occupied by noisy, sunburned young men with short haircuts. A party was in progress with smoking barbecue grills and beer kegs on picnic tables. A black Hummer with smoked windows and a Camp Pendleton parking sticker was in one of Gary’s parking spaces.
Lane knocked on Gary’s door.
It was answered by a large, musclebound, buzzcut man in starched U.S. Marine Corps camos with Corporal emblems on the collars. “What!” he said, glaring at Lane.
“I’m Curtis Anderson,” Lane said in a soft, quavery voice. “I have an appointment with Gary.”
The Marine softened. “Oh, sure, sumbitch said you was coming. He ain’t home yet. C’mon in, have a seat. I’m Wayne, y’want a beer?”
“Thank you very much, but I don’t usually imbibe when I have something important to discuss. It makes it so difficult for me to concentrate.”
“Suit yourself, bro.” He slammed the door. “I’ll have one.” He went into the kitchenette.
The room smelled of beer and sweat. It contained an enormous wall-mounted TV, couch, chair, exercise machine, footlocker, stack of fifty-caliber ammo boxes, and pile of crumpled beer cans in a corner. Marine Corps recruiting posters decorated the walls.
Lane dodged the exercise machine and sat on the chair.
Wayne returned with two beer cans, plopped onto the couch, popped open a can, took a long swig, then crumpled the can and tossed it across the room onto the recycle pile. He wiped his mouth with the back of a hand and opened a second beer.
“Are you in the Marines?” Lane said.
“Yes, sir, for life, a lean, mean, killing machine, that’s me. I’m a twenty-year man, U.S.M.C., all the way.”
“Are you an officer?”
“Non-commissioned. I’m a Corporal, but that’s temporary like, till I get a few things straightened out. I was a Staff Sergeant—that’s higher—but my last C.O., he was this straight-laced motherfucker, he busted me on account of he said I was on duty drunk this one time and so he sends me over to drug and alcohol rehab counseling for six weeks and when I finish that shit they spring a surprise urine test on my company and I test positive.”
“Oh, my,” Lane said.
Wayne glared at him. “Shit luck, man, that’s what it was. What if I smoked some dope? Everyone does it.”
“Motherfucker knocked me down two paygrades, sent me out here to proctor ranges. ‘Square yourself away,’ says my new C.O. ‘Got my eye on you.’ But it’s all a temporary situation. I’ll be out of here and back with my old Infantry outfit in coupla months. Just hafta play it cool is all.”
The front door opened and in came a large man in a blue security officer’s uniform, ball cap cocked back. Lane recognized him from his portrait, particularly the cold, expressionless eyes.
Lane stood. “Gary? I’m Curtis Anderson.”
“That’s me,” Gary said. As they shook hands, Lane caught a whiff of body odor and deodorant.
“What’s this deal about me inheriting money? How much, and how soon can I get it? Show me the fucking will.”
“I must ask you a few questions first, Gary,” Lane said apologetically. “It’s to establish your identity. There are thousands of Gary Gits in the world. I must be absolutely sure you are the correct one.” He paused. “Why don’t you sit down? This won’t take long, I hope.”
Gary sat on the couch. As he did, Wayne got up and left the room.
Lane opened his briefcase and took out a notebook. “Date of birth?”
“April 7, 1977.”
“Where were you born?”
“San Diego. That’s in California.”
“Where were you employed ten years ago?”
“At this fucked up little company, Elysium Analytics.”
“What job did you have after that one?”
“Wiley and Associates.”
“Where did you work after that?”
“What happened to the presidents of those three companies?”
Gary glowered at Lane with those empty eyes. “They died.” He paused. then shouted, “Wayne!”
Lane felt a hard blow to the back of his head, then nothing.
Lane opened his eyes with blurry vision, a headache, pain in the back of his head and wrists. He gradually realized he was sitting on the floor, back against a chair, handcuffed in front, upper body swathed in duct tape. As his eyes focused, he saw Gary and Wayne sitting across from him on the couch with his briefcase open on the floor, Taser and Beretta in plain sight.
Gary, holding his wallet, turned to Wayne. “He has a retired military ID card, man. His name is Edward Lane, Army Lieutenant Colonel.” Gary chuckled. “Better call him sir, Wayne.”
“Fuck that,” Wayne said. “I hate officers. This one played me, I think, unless he’s as queer as he acted.” Wayne glared at Lane. “Hey, motherfucker! You awake over there, recovered yet from that Korean style kick in the head?”
“You caught me by surprise with that,” Lane said. “I honestly admire your technique.”
“Fuck you, Army.” He turned to Gary. “Listen how he talks.” In a lilting, high-pitched voice, Wayne mimicked Lane, “I honestly admire your technique.”
“Shut up, you fucking moron,” Gary commanded.
“Don’t you call me no moron!” Wayne cried. “I’m a United States Marine.”
Gary laughed. “You and grandpa here are two of a kind, both triple-M, Mindless Military Morons. Keep your mouth shut while I find out what this motherfucker’s up to.”
“I ain’t no moron, Gary,” Wayne said, chastened.
Gary turned his attention to Lane. “What’re you doing here, old man?”
“I wanted to meet you, Gary. I went to an Elysium party, met some folks who remembered you. Don Blunt said you were a brilliant analyst. So did Bob Angle. Al Wiley thought you were some kind of genius.”
“What’s your opinion?”
“You nailed me as phony. What say, we agree you outsmarted me and we call it a day.”
“What did John King say about me?”
“He barely remembered you.”
Wayne laughed. Gary reddened, slapped Wayne across the face. “Shut up, dumbfuck.”
“You killed him,” Lane said. “I don’t blame you. Everyone at Elysium hated him.”
“You’re talking bullshit, Lane,” Gary said. He turned to Wayne. “What do you think, Wayne?”
“You’re right, Gary. No question. He’s talkin’ bullshit.”
Lane said, “You must’ve been real pissed off at him, blowing away his face like that. Cops thought it was a shotgun.”
Gary giggled, patting something shiny on the couch by his leg that Lane realized was a .357 Magnum revolver. “Cops are stupid. I used this.” He grasped the gun, raised it, pointed it at Lane’s face. “Want a taste.”
Wayne leaned close to him, cupped his hand, and said softly, “Better not, Gary. Make a big mess, ruin all the furniture. I know how to handle this one.” Wayne leaned close, whispered in his ear.
Gary smiled. “That’s outstanding, Wayne. It’s the first intelligent thing you’ve said. Go ahead and get ready.”
Wayne got up and went out the front door.
They were alone. Gary said, “Yeah, I did John. It was fun. I waited by his pool. He came out, I showed myself, he jumped. Took him a while to recognize me. I resented that big time. He was like that with all his little people. You can imagine his surprise to see me. He thought I was there to talk, didn’t get it until I showed the Magnum and made him walk up that hill behind his house. He begged me for his life.” Gary laughed.
“He even offered me my old job back. What an idiot, how absolutely, fuckingly dumb. He must’ve seen it in some old movie. I will always remember, and treasure, the moment I put the Magnum up to his face and pulled the hammer back. Guess what he said.” Gary laughed.
“‘You’ll regret this, Gary. Think of your career’. I laughed so hard I almost dropped my piece. ‘Fuck that,’ I said, then kissed him three times, figuratively speaking, but I don’t believe he felt much after the first kiss.”
“You’re a psychopath.”
“No, I’m not. I enjoyed killing John, but that wasn’t my reason. I did it because he derailed my career.”
“You killed Harold Carney, didn’t you.”
“Yes, I did. That company was dumping hazardous chemical waste into wells, poisoning the water table. I stopped that. The people I kill, they deserve what they get. I’ve enjoyed our conversation, even recorded it for future listening with this neat little gadget.” He pulled a pen recorder out of a pocket.
The apartment door opened and Wayne entered. “All set, Gary.”
“Great, Wayne.” He turned back to Lane. “I regret that this deep, philosophical discussion has to end, but I have to go back to work at my shitty, demeaning job. Wayne will entertain you for the rest of the evening.”
Wayne grabbed Lane’s hair and pressed a wet sponge smelling of chloroform against his face. Lane struggled as his sensations and consciousness faded.
Lane woke up to the sounds of a powerful V-8 engine, whirring tires, and pop country-western music, moving in what felt like a military Humvee—Wayne’s Hummer. He was on his back, handcuffed, mouth taped, with little mobility, beneath a coarse tarpaulin, in darkness, trapped.
Barely able to move, he struggled to free his arms. Working up a sweat beneath the suffocating tarp, he managed to loosen the tape a bit at the bottom, where it held his arms to his body.
The vehicle slowed, made a turn, continued for a short distance, and gradually came to a stop. Above the radio, he heard Wayne and another man converse briefly, the words “tank gunnery”, “range”, “have fun”, “Saturday night”, several names, laughter, then silence.
The Hummer started up again, back on a paved road, but more slowly than before.
Lane kept struggling with his upper body, loosening the tapes more. He kicked away at the tarpaulin, dislodging it from his lower body, bringing in a breath of fresh air. He kept at it, working it down, opening up the space above his face. At last, he could breathe.
He tried to reach up and pull off the tape covering his mouth, but could not yet reach that far. He struggled on, rested for a while, then more, and eventually gained enough freedom to unwrap the tape from his body and mouth.
He sat up, looked forward, saw the back of Wayne’s head in the driver’s seat, moving through darkness by headlights along a narrow road. At one point, Wayne raised a can to his mouth, drank, then lowered it; the foul smell of beer breath.
Lane lay back. He had better mobility now, but remained handcuffed.
The Hummer turned onto a rough dirt road whose dust rushed past the rear windows like raindrops. From time to time they hit a rough spot, bounced, landed hard.
The Hummer slowed, straining up a hill, broached the top, continued slowly, then stopped. Wayne set the emergency, killed the headlights and engine.
“You alive back there?” Wayne said softly.
Wayne opened his door and got out. Lane heard footsteps moving away from the Hummer and then the sound of Wayne’s urine wetting dirt.
Soon, more footsteps, a click as the tailgate opened, a cold breeze wafting in. Wayne pulled something out, then shut the tailgate, returned to his open door, and climbed in. The radio soon filled the Hummer with pop country-western blandness.
The pop-hiss of a beer can opening, then gurgling as swallowed. The sounds repeated for several minutes as Wayne killed a squad of beers.
Silence for a while, then whistling, and Wayne softly talking to himself, or to others as if in a dream, or perhaps he was praying.
He was drunk, Lane thought, and maybe it was time to make a run for it, but then Wayne’s door slammed.
The door behind Lane opened and Wayne grabbed Lane by the shoulders, and pulled him out onto the ground.
“Get up, motherfucker!” Wayne said.
Lane turned to his side, pushed himself up from all fours to a standing position on legs that felt weak from being in a cramped position. They were out in the lightless boondocks somewhere with only the stars overhead, but it sounded like a war zone, with the sounds of artillery rounds exploding in the distance, machine gun fire, and tracers arcing the sky. Wayne, a shadow, shone a flashlight in Lane’s face and in its glow Lane saw Gary’s silver Magnum in his other hand, his watery, bloodshot eyes, and his unsteady stance; drunk or heedless, he failed to notice Lane had freed his arms.
Wayne grabbed Lane by the collar, turned him down the dirt road, and shoved him forward. “Walk, motherfucker!”
With Wayne’s flashlight beam as guide, Lane walked, Wayne behind him, periodically shoving, poking him with the Magnum’s muzzle. The road soon ended at a rough footpath, enough moonlight to see shadows and brush. They covered a hundred meters or so, reached trail’s end at a valley ridge, and stopped, Wayne panting. While he drained his bladder again, Lane looked out across the valley, saw moving lights aligning themselves on the opposite hillside, heard the faint sound of gas turbines.
“Go, motherfucker!” Wayne yelled, shoving Lane down the hillside. The earth ahead was strewn with shadowy rubble like moonscape. Lane tripped on something, fell, felt its metallic surface and jagged edges as he got back to his feet. It was a chunk of metal like detritus left on a battleground after a ferocious tank battle. Lane’s heart pounded as he realized they were on the target end of a firing range, and the lights on the opposite ridge were a platoon of Abrams tanks positioning themselves for a gunnery exercise.
Wayne prodded him again and he moved forward, then ahead, opening the space between them, looking down, searching for a weapon, purposely stumbled and fell, grabbed onto a chunk of metal with sharp edges shaped like a fat ax head, picked it up, carried it along.
The shadowy mass of a Russian T-54 tank loomed ahead, huge and awesome, turret scarred, tracks missing, fenders gone, barrel sagging—a once proud weapon of the Iraqi Armor Corps now serving as a target. Others like it arrayed the hillside.
“Stop, motherfucker!” Wayne yelled from behind. Lane turned, looked back. Wayne was ten feet away, aiming the Magnum at him one-handed, like a wild west gunslinger.
As Lane looked back, a bright red laser light illuminated the T-54 and everything around it. Wayne, blinded, shut his eyes, and lowered the Magnum. Lane raised his weapon high and slammed into Wayne’s crown, splitting his skull with a sound like a melon cracking open, drenching Lane with blood as Wayne fell backward onto the ground.
The light flashed again, and a moment later an explosion rocked the T-54 and blew its turret into the air in a yellow fireball followed by the crack and thunder of the firing tank across the valley. Other explosions followed on other targets from other tanks.
Deafened, feeling the heat, Lane turned out Wayne’s pockets, found Wayne’s cellphone and keyring, locked with his own. He uncuffed himself, pocketed the keys and cellphone, grabbed the Magnum, and ran, stumbling away from the T-54, soon engulfed in another explosion and fireball.
He did not look back again until he reached the ridgeline. Across the canyon, the opposite ridgeline flashed as tanks fired at targets on the hillside below, lighting it up with fire and explosions, tossing huge chunks of metal into the air.
As he followed the footpath, the explosions grew fainter. He felt a great sense of relief when he reached Wayne’s Hummer, no longer in fear for his life, under the starry sky, the night now gone silent.
He got in, started the engine, the dashboard clock said 9:14, and the radio blared country-western crap. He shut it off, turned the Hummer around, and drove cautiously back along the dirt road until he reached a paved crossroad. Which way to go? He waited for the first vehicle to pass, a Camaro with a pair of young, laughing Marines in civvies. He followed it to another paved road, around a turn, and soon reached the gate. The Marine guard waved him through, out to Highway 101. He found his way back to Oceanside without difficulty.
He drove to his motel, bagged his bloody clothes, took a shower, put on fresh clothes.
He dumpstered his bloodies, drove to Gary’s. Both parking slots empty, he parked in one. Almost eleven o’clock, the swimming pool was empty, barbecue grills dead, but a few young men with short haircuts were gathered at picnic tables, quietly working a beer keg.
A light was on in Gary’s apartment window. Lane knocked on the door, waited, no response, tried the doorbell, waited, no response. He took out Wayne’s keyring, worked his way through several keys until he found one that fit the lock, opened, entered, immediately struck by the smell of stale beer. His wallet and briefcase were on the table. His Taser, Beretta, and extra clip were there. He dropped in his handcuffs, pocketed his wallet.
He started his search in the bathroom. Tidy, for two single men, no illegal drugs, nothing surprising.
Wayne’s bedroom contained a single bed, a dresser with a framed photo of mom on top and nothing noteworthy inside, USMC posters on the walls, uniforms and civvies in the closet.
Gary’s bedroom contained a double bed, desk, and dresser. The walls were covered with certificates, work awards, a high school and junior college diploma, and diplomas from several institutions of higher learning Lane had never heard of. On the desk were a laptop computer and cup of pens. In the drawers were checks and pay stubs from Silcor, a scrapbook of photos and news clippings, and a box of college class rings, including Lane’s, King’s, and Carney’s. They were evidence, and belonged here for authorities to find. In the closet were security guard uniforms, clothing, and a footlocker containing a gun nut’s collection of sidearms and ammo. He was almost to the door when he returned to the desk and checked the cup. In it was a pen recorder. Lane played with its controls and heard Gary’s voice, “Did they die by Magnum?” followed by laughter. He stuck the pen in his pocket.
He drove the Hummer to Silcor’s industrial park. Silcor was located in back of a large and almost empty parking lot. The main office building was separated by a driveway from an outbuilding with a tangle of pipes, tanks, and towers. Lane circled the building for a better look at the layout and to orient himself. He parked in front of the main office building beside a shiny, late model pickup. Wayne’s military cap was lying on the seat. He put it on, then pulled back the Beretta’s slide to chamber a round. The dashboard clock said 11:27.
Inside the lighted office building, a uniformed security guard was sitting behind a desk. Lane looked closely, Gary.
Lane flashed the headlights on, then off. The security guard came to alert, looked at the Hummer, and then stood, walked to the entrance, opened the door, came outside, locking it behind, walked toward the Hummer. He wore a holstered sidearm. As he approached, Lane lowered his window. Gary stopped directly opposite, looked at Lane, flinched, and reached for his sidearm, but stopped when Lane raised his Beretta and pointed it at his head.
“Hands in the air! Turn around! Do it now!” Lane commanded.
Gary raised his hands, stepped backward. “No way! You won’t shoot me.”
“Why not? You tried to kill me.”
Gary turned around.
Lane got out of the Hummer, handcuffed Gary behind his back, removed his pistol, tossed it into the Hummer, searched him, turned up a keyring and wallet.
“What happened to Wayne?” Gary said.
Lane turned him around. “He had an accident.”
“I don’t get it, man. He was supposed to take you to your motel. I swear to God I told him to drive you to your motel.”
Lane laughed. “Let’s talk, Gary.”
“Fuck you. I don’t have to say anything. You’re the one in trouble here. Cameras all over the place. You’re on TV, man. Shoot me if you want to. Before you do, figure out how you’re gonna explain my dead body to the police when they get here.”
As Lane turned, Gary kneed him in the groin, shoved him to the ground, and made an awkward run for it.
In excruciating pain and feeling like a rookie, Lane got to his feet and watched Gary run to the entrance.
He could not shoot him in the back, sprinted after him.
Gary tried to open the main entrance door but it was locked and Lane had his keys. He glanced back at Lane, then ran across the lot to the outbuilding. He backed against the door, opened it, and disappeared inside before Lane could reach him.
Lane followed after him. Inside were bright fluorescent lights, machinery noise, and the smell of toxic chemicals.
He looked up, heard footsteps on metal twenty feet above, spotted Gary climbing a metal ladder to a second story catwalk, moving precariously, trying to maintain his balance.
Lane had his own problem with balance and heights ever since jumping with a faulty parachute, landing hard, and spending time in a hospital. He looked up the ladder. “Do you want me to shoot you?” he yelled.
“Go fuck yourself,” Gary said, reaching the catwalk.
Lane shoved the Beretta into his belt, climbed up to the catwalk, grabbed the handrail, worked his way along it, trying not to look down, growing uneasy as Gary’s footfalls vibrated the catwalk. Gary stopped at the far end where it extended over a white tank over a containment pit of clear liquid.
Blocked at the end, Gary looked back at Lane as he drew closer, glancing below from time to time as if judging his chances of escaping.
Lane stopped ten feet away from him, held his hands up. “You’re at the end of the line, Gary.”
“You’re nuts,” Lane said. “Now what?”
“What do you think of this place?” Gary said. “Beautiful, isn't it? My stepfather was a chemical engineer. When I was young, he took me to places like this. I learned to love them.”
“People love different things,” Lane said.
“What do you love, Lane?”
“My wife and daughter.”
“You’re a fucking neanderthal.”
“An original thinker.”
“Murder’s not original. Give it up. I don’t want to kill you.”
“I know, and you won’t. You don’t have it in you. Bye bye, Lane.” He turned, climbed onto the railing, sat precariously there for a moment, then leaped down onto the lid of the tank below. Once there, ever so slowly, he slid down its slippery side, over its edge, and fell down into the pit with a splash, covering himself with clear liquid. At once, he sat up, raised his arms, and screamed as the acid began bubbling and misting from him like steam from hot skillet.
An alarm sounded. Workers shouted to one another and a figure in hazmat gear appeared at the edge of the pit, watching the spectacle of a man being oxidized in acid. Toxic fumes rose up to Lane. Gary continued screaming for a while, but then went silent and there was only that foul smelling mist and a faint hissing sound.
Too late, they hosed him with water. The workers watched helplessly, wary of the corrosive liquid he was in, unable to pull him out.
In the end, Gary resembled one of those ancient Egyptian mummies displayed in museums, body shriveled, brownish in color, garments dissolved.
"The story is adapted from material in the author’s novel, Finding Elysium (Newgame, © 2015)."