“Okay now, be easy with it.”
This ran contradictory to Reggie’s mantra of keeping his hands clean. Nonetheless, he hoisted the foul thing onto the tarp and slammed the trunk door shut. His employer pressed cold keys into his palm—passing by him and walking over to the passenger’s—then waited as Reggie contemplated those keys, thinking he was making the same mistakes he’d always made and wondering vaguely about the likelihoods of death and imprisonment.
Regular Reggie had been in a couple pickles and this qualified as the third. His latest mantra had come to him in a dream he’d had of his deceased mother. “Don’t get your hands dirty” is all she’d said to him, and he had been following that advice since. He had earned his nickname previously by being a steady driver, bruiser, and no-questions-asked-er, with a knack for discretion in business; what some would call business sense. In this fashion his nickname had come to symbolize both his worst inadequacy and his greatest asset, and it was at the mercy of his nature that he found himself once again.
The man beside him was wearing a cobalt suit made from wool and striped with pink, with a matching fedora that cast his face in shadow and deepened his scowl. They’d struck an agreement one week earlier based on the aforementioned requirements of the job, but with that now out the window, they kept their eyes on the road and said nothing. He’d said his name was Horace. He had a peculiar tick of licking the edges of his mustache and then sliding his tongue around the rest of his lips, which happened every minute or so.
Beneath the white sun they drove for hours among deadened yellow hills. The man offered Reggie a cigarette which he declined. But he preferred the smell of the smoke over the slain, hollowed thing in their trunk.
This was how it was supposed to go: Reggie drives to a spot down in Wyoming with Horace. Horace’s friend meets them at this predetermined spot, heading north. Reggie takes the friend’s truck and hightails it south to a scenic spot in Colorado where he is meant to lay low and wait for a phone call telling him how to get home. Once home he would receive the other half of his pay: $1000 dollars. Which he felt now would have to triple or quadruple depending on the ensuing events.
There were clauses in the contract, including that Reggie had to be back within one week to tend to his flock and resume his quiet life, a clause which his reputation had garnered for him. The new stipulation that he wouldn’t hurt nobody or get involved in the deed itself was properly attended to and not unexpected. And the only thing that would supersede these clauses, was if once he was in the safe house he received a phone call from a woman claiming to be his “Lord and Savior”. In this event, he was to flee with two large taxidermied squirrels hidden within the house, and head to a private airstrip circled on a map in the glovebox.
In this unlikely scenario, he would see his take double. There’d be 3 Gs under his pillow and he could mind all the sheep, cows, and chickens he wanted. So long as the squirrels were given over in tact.
They had continued driving south, Reggie needing no prompting to continue in this direction, recognizing the carcass for the symbol that it was: A gourd had been shoved into the mouth of the slaughtered calf. The gourd had a rope burrowed into its core, and the other end was threaded down the animal’s throat. Horace had pulled on it for one moment before relenting and telling his hired hand to get it into the damn truck. Reggie had figured, We’re driving south then. They left behind their intended liason’s abandoned truck and a pile of wet viscera in the sand.
Horace directed him toward a partitioning in the fence, which they drove beyond for a short while until the terrain became rough and they pulled over. They exited the car in silence, stretching and breathing in the fresh air.
“I know you don’t got anyone,” said the suited man. Reggie had no reaction either inside or outside. “That’s why I kept you along.” His tension surfaced in his body and shone in the thin slits of his eyes. His words hung in the air, his mind calculating something unknown to his companion but imminent. They stepped out of the car.
“Best thing you got going for you, is no one knows your face,” Horace said.
He drew a sheathed knife from his vest. He then opened the trunk and tugged the tarp down onto the hard earth with a dusty thud. The calf was weighed down by something sewn into its belly and he wasted no time getting the thing onto its back, placing his boot on its throat, unsheathing the knife, and slicing open the calf’s stitches. He reached his hands into the blood and pulp, grasped the rope, and forced the dead calf to swallow the gourd, pulling a canvas bag loose from its carcass.
He removed the rope from the gourd, revealing a climbing hook. The canvas bag held a larger bundle of rope and other climbing equipment. Reggie had been staring at a bluff only a couple miles away, and Horace followed his gaze. “Yup,” he said after a moment. “That’s it.”
An hour later they were tying the rope around each other’s stomachs. There were bolts in the side of the bluff and a clear path between jutting greenery to a plateau about 100 feet up. One man would tie himself to a tree on the ground and lock off the rope as the other climbed. Then vice versa at the top.
“We have to trust each other,” Horace said. “They usually tell you, it’s a climb you only have to make once.”
Reggie was obliged to go first. The mercenary’s aging bones ached as he climbed the mountain, but he had no fear of falling. The climb did not frighten him in the least. What was left below and approaching above were the things he was running from, and their perpetual movement locked him in place.
Horace climbed up after him. At the plateau the air was sweet and there was the sound of mooing. A few hundred feet in, one could see a remotely settled land and a path leading to some hidden smattering of civilization.
They walked along the path. There was livestock and well-maintained gardens and beyond them, cabins with windows facing out onto this road, where families were eating their supper. Many of these families turned to watch the two proceed up the road, but made no effort to come greet them. They were disturbed by the presence of these men.
Their destination was a large, ranch-style house at the farthest end of the plateau, where the mountain formed a granite wall. A middle-aged blond woman was crocheting a frilly scarf on the porch. She did not note their approach, though she did appear to be awaiting their arrival.
Horace placed one foot on the steps, took off his hat, and said, “Ma’am.”
“Horace,” she said. Her voice was flat and uncaring, mellow as the sun-kissed rock they had ascended, smooth and worn from time. “They’re finishing up now. They will be with you shortly.”
The wool-suited man made a facial expression that could be interpreted as a nervous smile and walked lazily away from the woman, pulling a cigarette from the pack in his pocket and lighting it. She snapped his eyes to him as he did, but if he felt her gaze he made no show of it. She put her creation down onto her chair and went inside, calling “Stephen, Bill—“
“Bill,” He said, between puffs. “Was supposed to meet us up north.”
On queue, another sharply-dressed scoundrel was pushed out the door into the dust between the two men. This was Bill. He bounced to his feet as immediately as he could with his hands tied behind his back, and shared a worried glance with the newly arrived. “Jig’s up Horace, the jig is up—”
The large man who had shoved him down the stairs stomped his feet and yelled something unintelligible at Bill, who turned his back in frustration, pacing, trapped on the plateau. This giant held the door open now, staring down the staircase at the three outliers.
“Come in now,” Stephen said. He was simultaneously grizzled and distinguished. A shaped beard faded into gruff stubble on his face and his tongue searched for leftover meat between his noticably straight, white teeth. His eyes burned blue, matching the color of his overalls.
Horace and Bill shuffled past him into the house, greeted with a long, even look. Their employee remained at ground level.
“You too, Reggie,” Stephen grumbled. Reggie acquiesced.
The house was decorated with elaborate tapestries depicting the small plot of land they inhabited, a coat of arms depicting a calf and a wolf entwined, a family tree with many branches. Their lumbering leader pointed to the family tree and looked back at the main source of his ire: “Branches, Horace. Ya’ll make me sick.”
They descended an uneven staircase into dark depths where the air thinned and cooled and smelt of metal. A match was struck against the wood railing, and a lantern lit. “All sorts of rumblings from your neck of the woods,” Stephen continued. They realized they were entering the mountain, with old, opaque lanterns garnishing the walls, and as they reached the stone floor they became aware of rusted trestle at their feet. Bill began to shiver.
“Stealing. Illegal drug trafficking. Murder, incest, usury. You two bastards. What kind of society are we trying to live in here?” Stephen seemed to be talking to himself, while the rest felt the weight of the cold and dark bearing down on them, stifling their thoughts, enlivening their fear. “You lusted after money. That makes you the enemy.”
They were in an enormous chamber with a domed ceiling that twinkled with minerals, playing off the light of the men’s lone lantern and giving them an impression of the immensity of the carved catacombs winding beyond them. The flayed carcasses of pigs and cows hanged above, and below in the center of the room was a clean and long metal table. Against the wall gleaned sharp tools of dismemberment.
“Tenets. Meant to guide us towards a more copacetic life.” The bearded man’s voice quivered for the first time, anticipating his rage. “What have we worked for, here? We, we separate ourselves, we unite ourselves, for higher causes! Not to bring that Hell of an outside world back to our people!”
Bill panicked. “It wasn’t me or Horace—“
“That’s a lie.” Stephen said.
“Add lies onto the heap, deceit. You two stink like Hell. Think your lives are more important than everyone else’s. Do you realize now what we have to do?”
No one had an answer.
“We have to start from scratch.”
“We don’t gotta start over!” Bill was crying now, dropping to his knees. Horace, for his part, seemed stricken but resigned. He stared into the eyes of his judge guilelessly, and his judge stared back.
“You have cultivated the evil thoughts. You’ve let loose evil. I gave you the keys to your own city and what have you wrought?” This last question echoed throughout the chamber.
Stephen turned at this point to his implements.
Horace removed the knife from his vest quickly and quietly, kneeling down to sever the binding of Bill’s hands. Bill leapt off the floor and towards the stairs at the same time as Horace sprang for the hind of his towering enemy. As his hand was raised it hit the ground, Stephen’s eyes trained on the escape of his other prey, a cleaver extended in front of him where it had tore through Horace’s wrist.
“Reggie!” The large man bellowed. Reggie’s former travelling companion was now writhing on the ground, choking on screams. “Get him!”
But he did not move. Stephen dropped the cleaver and picked Horace’s hand up off the ground. With his other hand he seized the squirming man by his throat.
“Please, Stephen—“ he croaked. “We can help you—“
Stephen inserted the knife into Horace’s mouth, and pushed down on his dismembered hand until the screaming stopped and he could hear the unsteady scrambling of Bill above them in the dark.
“We’ve got to clean this up,” he said, kneeled over the corpse. “Destroy that corrupted town, and create the next utopia. We’ll do things right this time around. I’ll lead both if I have to. Clean dealings, from then on, like it’s supposed to be.”
“I’m old,” Reggie replied. “And I don’t pick sides. I want no part of it. This was supposed to be my last job. It’s looking like it might be.”
“You don’t want to work for us anymore?”
“No,” he replied. “I never planned on it.” He thought now of his solitary ranch, where his hands would be kept clean, where nothing disturbed him but the changes of the wind.
The big man stood up slowly and retrieved his lantern. There was a trace of humor in his face made sinister by the flame he carried.
“‘Regular Reggie’.” He remarked with a chuckle, and lumbered toward the stairs, hearing the scratching of hands against the dark wood that spiraled above them. “You’ll do what we need you to do in order to remain alive and contented, ain’t that always been the deal? We can’t afford to lose you right now.”
As he ascended, the light removed itself from the room. “There’s no need to pick sides; there are no sides anymore.”
Horace’s body disappeared into the shadow as plainly as Reggie did.
“There’s only life or death.”
Reggie slumped onto the cold floor, the features of the cavern dwindling. Exhaling, he stared up at the fading silhouettes of an innocent herd. They were dead from birth, he thought, forced to live the story that had already been written for them. After a short while he closed his eyes and began to dream, savoring this moment of freedom, until his name would be called again.
Published in Lovers & Other Strangers, Spring 2014. Image courtesy of Lovers & Other Strangers. Purchase the issue with this story here. Also available at Forbidden Planet NYC and Barnes & Noble Union Square.