His name was appropriate.
H. J. Meek.
Oh, he had known since childhood it fit him, the last name anyway. He was shy and unassuming and scared of his own damn shadow as a child. An accountant now, crunching numbers and juggling spreadsheets all day long, still quiet, but friendly he hoped, he had lived up to his name his entire life.
There was hope in college when writing essays in English class that he would come to resemble his other names—Henry James—but once when he mentioned to his mother that it was the name of a famous writer, she had frowned and looked at him suspiciously, trying to remember why she had scribbled that on his birth certificate.
Thinking it more professional, there was a time when he asked everyone at work to call him H. J. but they couldn’t remember or chose not to deviate from Henry. He had tried for a week not answering unless they used his initials but he got tired of people standing next to his desk with questions on spreadsheets, thinking his silence was either deafness or just plain stupidity. So he was Henry, plain old Henry, willing to take on the work of others when their figures didn’t add up or they wanted to skip out early on Friday.
Like his name, the look of his apartment also fit him like one of the gauntlets he used for the yearly Sword and Saga Tournament. When he slipped his hands into the gloves with built-in knuckle dusters, he felt powerful with fists closed, able to defend with the backhand protection of raised knobs. The posters of knights holding damsels protectively under one arm were comforting each evening when he came home, and with the displayed Star Wars posters he had gotten at conventions, both realms allowed him to time travel using either actual horse-power or warp drive. If only his damsel in the space-time continuum hadn’t fallen for Eddie Brown in the auditing department, announcing to him one night right after walking into the apartment that she was unhappy, the marriage over, their own inventory management and accounting of worldly goods to commence immediately. What really got Henry was Eddie—who also belonged to Sword and Saga, had even gotten interested in it through them. Eddie looked so damn good dressed as a knight with bright surcoat and a wonderfully sewed quilted coat under his body armor. What really galled Henry was the pointed cap with its long scarlet streamer that was so damn jaunty. No wonder Louise had fallen for the guy.
So every evening he came in and took his tie off and sat for a while in the quiet, knowing he was shy and unassuming, yes, but also realizing he was downright lonely, and the prospects of finding another woman to share his life was about as likely as one of the figures on a poster coming to life and taking him away to adventure in distant lands.
Hell, he’d settle for a few more friends.
One Friday night one came into his life.
He had been home a couple of hours, his tie hung neatly in the closet, but was still wearing the cardigan he had put on in the morning. Once he retrieved his usual TV dinner from the oven—no microwave for this nightly ritual—he put it on a tray and went to the couch in the living room. Tucking a napkin under his chin, he glanced at the Star Wars figures on the coffee table and smiled. He looked at the framed photograph next to the model of CP3O, he and Louise dressed in costume, searching her face for clues to her unhappiness. Before forking up the first bite toward his mouth, there was a light knock on the door. Guessing it was probably somebody at the wrong apartment, he sighed and got up to answer the door. Framed in the opening was a short man, nicely dressed, head titled slightly, smiling like he was the nicest guy in the world. Henry couldn’t help smiling back at such openness in the man’s expression.
“Hey, hello,” the guy said. “I’m Steve . . . unh . . . I live across the parking lot.”
“Oh, sure,” Henry told him. “I’ve seen you around. I’m Henry,” he added, wondering why he hadn’t introduced himself as H. J.
While shaking Henry’s hand, his other on the back of it where the knuckle dusters would be if Henry was wearing a gauntlet, Steve smiled and revealed perfect teeth. “You’re the guy who told me my cat had been run over. You were kind that day.”
Henry smiled and nodded his thanks at the unexpected compliment.
“I appreciated the kindness,” Steve said, flashing another infectious smile. “And here I am asking a favor and I can see I am disturbing your supper.”
Glancing down at the napkin under his chin and pulling it off, Henry replied, “Oh . . . well . . . not much of a supper.”
“I smell something good,” Steve said with real pleasure. He glanced over at the coffee table, at the tray of food, noting the one piece of chicken, peas and carrots, and mashed potatoes. A few of the miniature peas had migrated from their small aluminum compartment and were sitting on the potatoes like wrinkled bonsai boulders in a snow scene. “Wow. I didn’t realize they made those TV dinners any more.”
“Easy to tell I’m a bachelor, hunh?”
“And a collector of Star Wars figures.”
“An investment, yeah,” Henry told him, the ready answer when anybody asked. The last thing he wanted someone to imagine was him playing with the figures, zooming around the apartment like a kid holding a landing craft above his head, a Naboo royal cruiser in pursuit. He hadn’t done anything remotely like that since Louise had come into the room one night when he thought she had gone to bed. Hell, he was just on the couch holding a Millennium Falcon and making whooshing noises.
“I was wondering, Henry,” Steve began, “if you could help me out. But let me come back after you finish your meal.”
“No problem.” Henry returned Steve’s perpetual smile. “You need to borrow something?”
“A manner of speaking, yes.” Steve dipped his head like asking a favor was painful. “I’m moving out and need to borrow a couple of things.”
“Oh. Okay. Sure. I guess that would okay,” Henry said, a short laugh following. “I guess I should ask what they are first.”
“I was noticing your large trash can. I had a peek on my way over. Mostly empty for tomorrow’s pickup.”
“Okay, sure,” Henry replied. “You can put some garbage in it. I won’t have much tonight, maybe one small bag with the TV dinner tray thingy.”
“Okay, good,” Steve answered, sounding relieved. “And I need to borrow some muscle.”
“Yeah, we all seem to collect a lot of junk, don’t we?” Henry said. “We’re talking about an old couch to the apartment dumpster or what?”
When Henry could answer, it was a long lost echo, a flat statement. “A body.”
“What kind of body?”
Henry just stared at his neighbor, attempting to read something in Steve’s eyes. Finally Henry started to smile and nod knowingly.
“I get it,” Henry said. “You’re with that Channel 9 show, Prank it Forward. Where’s the camera?” Approaching Steve, Henry bent over slightly and peered at the buttons on his suit coat. “Hell-low-oh. You see me? Which one of you just looks like a button?”
“So you’ll help me, Henry?”
“No-no-oh-oh,” Henry said lightly in sing-song. “I don’t think I want to help you put some heavy dead body in my trash.”
“Please stand up straight. Good. There you go. Seriously, I need your help.”
“But this is a joke, right?” Henry asked him. “Nobody just walks next door and says, Hey, help me throw a body in your trash.”
“Sure they do,” Steve said. “I just did. Now. Go ahead, please. Finish your supper. I insist. I feel bad about that.”
Henry frowned, finally saying slowly, another statement, “You feel bad about interrupting my supper. My old fashioned TV dinner.”
“Absolutely. Please. Sit. Enjoy.”
Henry slowly made his way back to the couch. Sitting, he looked down at the TV dinner and then back up at Steve. Finally, his voice shaking, he pointed to the wall with his fork, indicating Steve’s apartment across the way. “What . . . unh . . . Who’s . . . unh . . .?”
“Friend of mine.”
“Actually a former business partner.”
“Oh, my goodness gracious Jesus in Heaven help me.”
“Are you going to hurt me?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because you just told me you’ve been a naughty boy.”
“Naughty? You sound like my mother.”
“Oh, I hope you like your mother.”
“Relax, will you? Enjoy your supper.”
Henry looked down at the TV dinner. “What a shitty last meal.”
“I am not going to hurt you, Henry. Relax. I need help with the stairs,” Steve added as explanation. “You can’t expect me just to throw Junior-Boy out of my window. Remains should be treated with a little respect.” He thought about that for a moment. “Well, up to the point when they go in the trash anyway.” Hands in his pants pockets, Steve did a slow turn. “A dump like mine.”
“It is a dump.”
“Well, yeah,” Steve said, some wistfulness in his voice. “Not like when we had people on the construction payroll. We still did quality work on any project.”
“In . . . unh . . . light of recent developments,” Henry said softly, “I should’ve moved out after Louise divorced me. Clean slate, new place. No dead body.”
“That’s the two of you, hunh?” Steve asked, indicating the photograph on the coffee table. “And you’re still mooning over her.”
“That’s us at the Renaissance Faire, the Sword and Saga Tournament. She fell for a guy in our office giving the Pig and Whistle concert.”
“I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about.”
“That’s okay,” Henry said, shrugging. “A bunch of grownups playing fantasy games. She left and it almost killed me. And I see them every day.”
“Not too late to drag up and start over, Henry.”
After a long moment of staring at Steve, Henry decided maybe honesty was the best route. “I’m expecting to die in a little while. You know, leave no witnesses and all. Concrete shoes, swimming with the fishes, fingerprints burned off, tongue pulled through a slit throat and hanging down like a tie . . .”
“You watch too much TV.”
“Yeah,” Henry said with a sad smile. “I prefer a .22 bullet in the back of the head. Supposedly bounces around in the brain.”
“You’re creeping me out,” Steve told him. “Honestly. Just relax, hunh?”
“I can’t. I gotta help you carry a body.”
“Well, get your rubber gloves if they’ll make you feel better. I know you use them to wash dishes. Well, when you actually use a plate.”
Henry looked again at his TV dinner, noticing the peas in the dry mashed potatoes. “Exactly how much does your former business partner weigh?”
“Two-seventy, three hundred. ‘Course that’s dead weight.”
“Oh Jesus Mary Lord in Heaven above . . .”
“Please don’t start that again,” Steve said.
“I couldn’t even open the cardboard box before I buried my cat.”
“It’s much harder to lose a pet than an idiot business partner.”
“Meow . . .”
“Junior set up this score,” Steve said, pulling one of chairs out from the dining table. He sat and crossed his legs, making sure the seam was straight on his pants. “I’m not proud of it. A Sunday School class at the Missionary Baptist Church was supposedly counting the building fund money.”
“Sunday School?” Henry said. “Geez, that’s awful.”
“I feel terrible. I’m probably going to hell for that.”
Henry started to respond, thinking maybe murder might qualify for a trip down below, but he decided against saying anything.
“It turns out instead of piles of thousands in cash, there’s five old men playing checkers.”
Steve gave Henry a slight smile and nodded, like the joke was on him. Henry returned Steve’s look with a shrug and a sick smile like these were his last minutes on earth.
“So I leave immediately but Junior robs them anyway and gets thirteen dollars and a cell phone. So when we walked in with that haul I blasted his fat ass.”
“Head shot, hunh?”
“No, I shot him in his fat ass and then a head shot.”
“Wow,” Henry said after a quick moment. “I feel like I’m in a dream.”
“Pardon me for saying,” Steve told him, looking around the apartment. “But you need to wake up and start living.”
Noticing Steve looking around, Henry did the same, and in a moment they looked at each other, both acknowledging with nods the beat-down condition of the apartment
“I’ve always been too chicken shit to live on the edge,” Henry admitted, his voice barely audible. “Too scared to take what I wanted. I didn’t even know how to fight for Louise.”
“You send her flowers?—candy?—all that stuff women love?”
“I took her to a Star Wars convention.”
“She into that?” Steve asked him, watching Henry turn his head away and shrug. “You really do need some help, don’t you?”
“Well, she liked all the Renaissance stuff.”
“Tell you what, Henry,” Steve said, rising quickly from the chair. “Why don’t you team up with me?”
“Oh Jesus Mary and Joseph . . .”
“I’m in the market for a new partner.”
“Hunh . . . pardon me for saying this,” Henry told him, choosing his words carefully. “Your partners end up in the trash.”
“That wouldn’t happen to you,” Steve assured him. “Unless you stole some space figures from some little kid.”
“If . . . if I politely decline your offer,” Henry ventured, “am I gonna end up next to Junior?”
“I said I wasn’t going to harm you,” Steve said, offering one of his bright smiles. “I am a man of my word.”
Henry returned the smile, kind of, the smile more a grim grin. “We don’t have much in common.”
“I didn’t ask you to marry me. It was just an idea. I need a partner, you need a life. I like you, what can I say?—ever since you told me my cat had been run over, tears in your own eyes.” And with that Steve did a slow tour around the living room, stooping slightly and peering at the posters. “Of course my track record in picking partners is not the best. If you want,” he said, turning to Henry, “help me dump Junior and I’m out of here. You just can’t call the cops.” He smiled and added off-handedly, “I would have to hunt you down if you do.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Henry said, a note of hope in his voice. “When they question me how Junior got in my trash can I know nothing. Like they always say about serial killers, he was a nice quiet murderer.”
“You finished there, Henry?—with your supper?” Steve asked, pointing at the untouched TV dinner. “I’ve got to get Junior moved.”
“Should I change clothes? What if they check for fibers and all that? Trace them back to me. Suddenly I’m known as the Cardigan Killer.”
Steve flashed his smile. “I’ve got a couple of jumpsuits we can wear then dispose of. Just like the movies, Henry.”
“What about masks?”
“Masks? We’re disposing of Junior, not robbing a bank.”
“What about blood-borne diseases?”
“Junior always made sure his companions were clean.”
“Well,” Henry said softly. “That’s a relief, I guess.”
“So you’re in? I can count on you?”
“Can I have a few minutes?”
“The first kill is always the toughest.”
“But I didn’t kill him.”
“Am I being framed for this?”
“Tell you what, Henry. Take a few minutes. I trust you. To show that, I’ll leave you alone and check on Junior. Be back in a few. Okay?”
“Check on Junior?”
Steve held his hand out. Henry stared at it for a moment then shook it.
“Okay, that’s settled,” Steve said, heading for the door. “Oh. Henry.” There was that friendly smile again. “I hear sirens it’ll be bad news for you.”
Henry nodded and watched Steve leave. Sitting a moment longer, dawning on him that his life was forever changed, he stood suddenly and began pacing.
This is some deep shit.
Is this really happening?
I was just trying to eat my supper.
I’m suddenly a hardened criminal? The only thing I ever stole was a Superman comic.
He stopped pacing.
‘Course it was at a convention and was worth $3,000. Now I’m dumping some dead fat ass named Junior in the trash.
The pacing resumed.
Please, Lord, somebody help me.
The pacing stopped again when he noticed the photograph on the coffee table. He picked it up and studied it.
And you. I want to blame you!
Henry started the pacing again, still holding the photograph. He fumbled in his pants pocket, pulling out his cell phone, punching one number, never noticing Steve appearing in the doorway. As he watched him, Steve’s hand went under his coat, ready to end the call if necessary.
“Hello? Shit.” Henry stopped pacing and waited a moment. “I gotta talk fast. There’s something going on that I’m a part of. A life-changing serious as shit event.”
Steve continued to watch, a slight frown, but pulling his pistol out and holding it down by his side.
“It’s clean slate time, Louise Brown.” Henry had to take a deep breath before continuing. “I’ve been accused of many things. Not loving you madly was never one of them. So I’ve become hard . . . suddenly, very suddenly. I can’t blame Pig and Whistle boy. But if you hadn’t pretended we were so happily married while you were sleeping with him. So, yes, love denied and lied about has pushed meek Henry over the edge.” Another deep breath and he yelled into the cell phone. “Look at me, Louise!”
Henry threw the cell phone against the wall, noticing Steve in the doorway.
“Her voice mail,” he said, feeling his face turning red. “She deserves a little guilt.”
“With Junior in your trash she will think you’ve gone over the edge.”
“I didn’t want them to trace the cell phone.”
“And I was angry.”
“I want to change my name, Steve. What do you think of Deuce?”
Steve nodded and said, “Should last the rest of your life.”
“Deuce Harding,” Henry said, a new world opening in his imagination. “That’s sounds tough. Do I get Junior’s gun?”
“You sure do. And the bullets, too.”
“Louise gave me her father’s German Luger. I’ve shot that a few times.”
“You’re going to be a real hit with me, Deuce.”
Henry smiled at the use of his new name. “I better get my kitchen gloves.”
“Good thinking,” Steve said, watching Henry go into the kitchen and return quickly, yellow gloves in hand. “Perfect.”
Henry looked around for a moment. “Kind of mysterious this way, isn’t it?” He frowned at a sudden thought and then smiled. “I’ll need to stop and withdraw what money I can.”
“You’re thinking clearly, Henry.” Steve smiled. “Everyone will wonder what happened to you. A real mystery. Come on, partner, let’s go dump Junior and then I’ve got to take care of some other business.”
“Can I have one more minute?” Henry asked him, taking a last look around. “This is a huge change.”
“Okay, Henry, sure, I understand,” Steve said. “Look. I’m going on. Don’t linger. I can trust you?”
Henry nodded. “As much as I trust you, partner, yes. I’m right behind you,” Henry told him, starting to follow him out but stopping. He walked over to the coffee table, picked up a Star Wars figure, and put it in the pocket of his cardigan. He started to leave but stopped again and went through the kitchen to his bedroom. Reaching up, on his toes, he found the German Luger under some old sweaters and pulled it out. He checked to make sure it was loaded and then concealed it under his cardigan in the small of his back.
Aaahh, Deuce, smart move.
Just in case, Stevey-boy, right?
Just in case.