Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and fifty-five.
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Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, Harm Carter explores the interior of a companion’s son’s home, while considering his future in a land brimming with homicide.
Flash Pulp 155 – The Murder Plague: Democracy, Part 1 of 3
There’s not much in the way of conversation starting after you and some friends have abandoned a bound paranoiac-madwoman, even if she was sick and likely to murder the lot of you.
Still, I suspect the thoughts of the five of us remaining in the Escalade spun around the same few questions: when was she infected? How was she infected? Were we now infected too?
Well, maybe all minds except Jeremy’s. That boy rarely had anything on his mind beyond the interior of his pants and his own position in the world.
After an hour’s driving, he broke the silence.
“So, uh,” he said. As he spoke, I remember him undoing his seat-belt and lifting himself off the leather so he could tug at his over-sized t-shirt. I also remember wondering how he’d managed to wrangle the passenger-side spot. Old man Tyrone didn’t look terribly comfortable wedged in back, between the ladies, and I felt like a chauffeur to the trio – with the middle row missing, it seemed like they were sitting at the far end of a football field. I could only guess where the former owner had stashed the rogue bench, as peculiar objects often went missing during the time of Hitchcock’s. “We should nominate a leader. I think we all agree that, as the strongest dude here, I should probably be it.”
“This isn’t a game of schoolyard red rover,” I replied. “We don’t need a team captain.”
Two days prior my discharge from Uncle Sam’s marching penguins, I’d been directed to kill a sixteen-year-old looter. The sole person to issue me an order from then, till the plague, was Kate, and cancer ended that chain of command well before the young hooligan’s suggestion that he might elect himself as a tinpot President.
“My boy lives a half mile down from the next right-hand turn,” said Tyrone.
I have to give the codger credit for knowing when to change the subject. I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth or not – it struck me as odd that he he hadn’t mentioned anything until we’d gotten so close, but, in retrospect, I can’t blame him for avoiding answers.
I rounded the corner.
The house had a big yard, slightly overgrown, and various children’s toys seemed to float on its surface, half-submerged in the greenery. There were no lights behind the windows of either floor.
“Don’t think anyone is home,” said Johanna.
Minnie cleared her throat.
“You guys can go poking around all you like, but I’m not going in. Leave me the keys, though.”
I killed the engine, watching Tyrone’s rheumy eyes in the mirror as he sized up the shadowy front-porch.
“OK then,” I said, “This decision is simple enough – we break into two groups: everyone going in, get out.”
There was a pause, during which nobody moved, then, for some bloody reason, I opened my door.
The real surprise came next, however. It was just me and Johanna.
“It’s really appreciated,” shouted Tyrone, from behind the glass.
I damned my mother for raising her son so well.
Johanna cocked an eyebrow, but said nothing. She did crack a bit of a smile when she noticed me dropping the Escalade’s starter into my pants-pocket.
What else was there to do?
We walked down the cobble-stone path that split from the driveway and took the double tread up onto the welcome mat. Out of sight of the rest of the group, my companion snuck a flip of her flask, then offered me some of the same.
It was tempting, but I declined. As she raised another tipple, I alternated between the brass knocker and the buzzer. No one responded.
Tucking away her thirst, Johanna tried the lock and found no resistance. I followed her inside.
Across from the entry, sitting on a buffet below the flight of steps leading to the second floor, was an ancient answering machine. The only source of light in the room was the digital counter, which was blinking five. I would rather have avoided it, but, while I was still fumbling for a switch, she hit the barely visible play button.
The device gave a few metallic clicks, then started talking.
“Paul, Maggie,” said Tyrone’s voice. “It’s, uh, Tuesday, 9AM. I’m not liking the looks of the neighbourhood. Your dear old dad is coming to visit. See you soon.”
As it was a Tuesday, the communique must have been at least a week old.
There was a flat beep, then a woman’s suburbanite mutter. As she spoke, I managed to locate a row of dimmers and flooded the entrance area – which included the living room to the left and the kitchen to the right – with illumination.
There was a fat dead dog at the bottom of the stairs.
“Hi,” said the machine. It sounded as if she were calling from a moving vehicle. “Nick was telling me about the birthday invitation you guys sent last week. I’ve just got a few quick questions, if you could give me a call back.”
She left her number, but my memory isn’t as reliable as a cassette tape.
We went around the couch, ignoring the tidy stack of magazines and remotes on the coffee table at its center.
There was a large fireplace beside the flatscreen, so I picked up a poker, and Johanna followed my lead by grabbing a solid metal ash-pan. There wasn’t much else of interest, nor in the little office that adjoined the space, nor in the dining room that lead off of that.
The litany of missed calls continued.
“It’s pretty rude not to give some simple answers,” opened the third message. “Nick is, uh, really upset that he doesn’t know what’s going on. You better call me.”
Our exploration brought us to the kitchen’s other access, and our path at that point inevitably lead back to the canine cadaver. It looked in rough shape. It’s dark brown fur contained streaks of dried blood, but the thick coat also hid the exact nature of its injuries from view. Fortunately, it didn’t smell terribly rotten yet.
I spent a moment guessing if Tyrone would be offended at my idea of using one of the canvas grocery bags, which were hanging on a hook beside the pearly white microwave, to collect up some canned goods.
The box gave another beep.
“Listen to me. I’ve driven by your house twice now, and I can see you moving inside. ANSWER MY CALLS.”
I decided to skip the pillaging and move directly to the second floor. Keeping my eyes firmly on my feet, I took the steps two at a time. Johanna was right beside me, close enough that I could tell it was rye she’d been drinking, and we moved in unison.
Neither of us made it beyond the baby gate which barred the opening to the upper hallway.
There was a lot of someone, or someones, spread around the carpet.
“Beep,” announced the phone-minder.
“I’m coming over,” said the woman. Then she hung up with a clunk.
“Why did she kill the dog too?” asked Johanna, as we made our way back onto the porch.
“She didn’t,” I told her. “The mutt’s what made the mess. Poor pooch probably hid under a bed while it was happening. Then, days later, once there was nothing usable left to eat, it must have tried to jump the gate, breaking its neck in the process.”
Before climbing into the vehicle, we agreed to tell Tyrone the house was empty.
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