Mystery

Stepping Stones

By Matt Hughes · Oct 23, 2018
4,453 words · 17-minute reading time



Almost fifty years ago, I read a magazine article about psychopaths, those amoral, narcissistic creatures who live among us as predatory lookalikes.  Since then, I've occasionally explored the way they operate.

This one -- not SF or fantasy -- originally appeared in the lost and lamented online magazine, Blue Murder.

STEPPING STONES

by Matt Hughes

 

I knew what Myrlene Buttle was the moment I saw her, bringing over the greasy paper sack that held the lunch I’d ordered from Herb Tetchley’s Chikkin Shakk next door.  She had a tumble of red hair, a face that could have shamed a Christmas angel, and the kind of body you find on glossy paper with a staple through the midriff.  But she was trouble.

Normally, Calvin Feeblecorn would have brought my lunch order.  He was the slow-blinking counterman with pimples and an adam’s apple that looked like he’d tried to swallow a hardboiled egg unchewed.  But Herb sent his new waitress instead, after first dressing her in a uniform a size too small, because that was his way of saying, Check out what I’m gonna be gettin’ some of.

I didn’t look up when I heard the street door chime because I was typing out a new listing -- a piece of old orchard land that could be converted to a real sweet little money-maker of an industrial park, if somebody with cash was ready to move fast.

It had been a long dry spell since I’d seen the kind of  commission that flows from a real estate deal like that.

By the time I noticed Myrlene, she’d already crossed the outer office and was leaning one rounded hip against the doorway of my half-glassed enclosure.  Her eyes were blue.  Most men would have found them as wide and innocent as a doll’s, but they would have been reading into the frankness of her gaze a lot of things that would never be there.

That’s because the girl was a full-blown psychopath.  But don’t get excited -- there’s nothing particularly startling about that.  The movies and the newspapers make quite a fuss about psychopaths, real or imagined, so you’d think they must be some kind of supernatural bogeymen.  But the truth is, they’re not so special.

On the outside, they look like you.  The difference is inside:  you’re a complex mix of shades and tints;  a psychopath is just a few pure, primary colors.  And there’s plenty of them around -- the condition is no more rare than lefthandedness or a tendency to go bald. 

I’ve made a study of them, and I’ve found that psychopaths come in two basic varieties:  dumb and smart.  Smart ones plan ahead, eyes on the prize.  They dance you around and around, leading you on though you don’t know it, until it’s time to let loose.  Then you go spinning off to anywhere, and they just smile and scoop up whatever it was you had that they wanted.

Dumb ones -- and Myrlene was one of the dumb ones -- they have no idea how to wait -- an inability to defer gratification was how one of the books I read put it.  They never learn how to counterfeit emotions like sympathy and compassion.  Your dumb psychopath just walks up and hits you right away, hard and straight between the eyes, then strips you clean and moves on.

That’s how Myrlene played men, and later that day that’s how she would decide to play me.

But right now, she was glancing around the office, taking in the ten-year-old paint, the chipped desk and the dusty certificates on the wall.  I watched her catalog me and everything I had in under two seconds.  By the time she moved in and held out the sack, saying, “I’m supposed to bring you this,” in a voice that sounded like there was honey in the back of her throat, I knew I’d been written off as not worth the trouble.

I said, “Thank you,” and got a shrug in reply.  Then she undulated back to the front door.  I figured the movement was more from a habit she’d probably developed along with the hips than from any concern for how it might affect me.

The moment the latch clicked behind her, I heard the buzz start in the outer office.  I employ two women of pretty advanced age, Miss Ellen and Miss Adie.  A generation ago, before computers, there might have been enough secretarial work to justify their scant wages.  Nowadays, I do most of the office chores myself, using a software package called Realty Prime.  But I keep the old ladies on because, between the two of them, they’re related to most of the town -- including each other at some degree of second cousinhood once-removed.  The ones they’re not related to are old cronies from church socials or fellow coffee-klatchers at the Little Dixie cafe down the street. 

There’s very little that happens around here that Miss Ellen or Miss Adie don’t know about within a day or so.  And since death, desertion, divorce and drinking are known precursors of properties that arrive on the market, the information the two of them brought in -- for free -- more than compensated for the little I could afford to pay them.

Before the door tinkled closed behind Myrlene, the two old heads -- Miss Ellen’s a frosty blue, Miss Adie’s a bright orange -- were together.  I heard the words, “trailer trash,” and, for the first time outside an old movie, the expression, “no better than she should be.”

I moved closer to the door and listened for a while.  The Buttle girl, I learned, had come down from some little crossroads way up in the Smokies, after winning the heart of young Nestor Tollard.  Nestor was one of the notorious pack of Tollards infesting the Rivertown district, which has more cars rusting in weedy front yards than moving on the potholed streets.  He had met Myrlene while visiting a far flung branch of the Tollard tribe, staying long enough for Sheriff Abby Fellowes to lose interest in a recent string of gas station and liquor store stick-ups.

When the Tollards aren’t relieving others of their surplus property, they hire out for yard work in the classier parts of town.  They’re capable workers, but they only take honest work to get a closer look at the locks and motion sensors of houses they plan on visiting in their other capacity.

Miss Adie told Miss Ellen that Nestor’s only possessions were a hot-pepper temper and his daddy’s old Smith and Wesson .38, each of which came with a hair trigger.  Miss Ellen told Miss Adie that Herb Tetchley better put his brain into gear around that girl, because if he started thinking with any other part of his anatomy, Nestor was like to shoot it off.

I wasn’t hearing anything that might lead to a listing or a buyer, so I went back to my chicken burger and shake, the Chikkin Shakk’s Tuesday budget special.  While I ate, I thought about Herb -- specifically, I thought about the five fried chicken franchises he had acquired by marrying the former Evelyn Handefly, along with a block of downtown commercial property and a twelve-room colonial revival on Berkshire Crescent that had come to the happy couple, old Sam Handefly having died not long after their blessed union.

A lot of guys had taken a run at Evelyn.  She wasn’t pretty and she wasn’t much fun to be around, but she’d been Sam’s only child.  I’d asked her out myself a time or two after high school, and tried to move things along.  But it was plain that Evelyn was looking for someone who could carry on what her father had started.  And I guess that’s how Herb won the prize.

I’d sounded Herb on a couple of potential deals -- the piece of old orchard land would be just right for him -- because everything old Sam had left them was paid for and could have secured the financing for some solid plays.  But, although Herb had always talked a good game, especially when he was courting Evelyn, once he was married his ambition veered well off the vertical.

Now all he wanted was to personally run the franchises, spending half a day a week in each one, and collect the rents from Sam’s investments, which included the run-down office where I sat chewing his factory-processed chicken. 

That left more time for his new interest, according to Miss Ellen and Miss Adie:  corrupting the young women who came looking for minimum wage employment. 

Miss Adie wondered why poor Evelyn didn’t toss him out on his oversized ear.  Miss Ellen was of the opinion that it was because the law now provided for an even division of assets, and Evelyn wouldn’t part with a stepped-on bean.

After lunch, I drove out in my eight year old Honda to show a small farm to a middle-aged city couple hankering after bucolic paradise.  The farm wasn’t it.  The place had been a hard scrabble even when it had first been cut from the virgin forest, more than a hundred years back.  Now the thin soil was worn down to grit, and the only thing the land would raise was dust.  I tapdanced my best about the view and the sense of history, but I couldn’t even get a “we’ll see” out of the prospects, and drove back to the office once more with nothing to show for the day.

The Misses Ellen and Adie were locking up.

“That girl came by again,” said one of them.

“Said Herb wants to see you before you go home,” said the other.

I shrugged and went into the chicken place.  It was too late for lunch and too early for supper, so the little open area with its few tables and chairs was empty.  Myrlene was straightening up the condiments on the take-out counter.

“Herb looking for me?” I said.

“He’ll be here directly,” she said. 

“Uh huh,” I said.  I doubted there was any profit in waiting around for Herb Tetchley.  The lease was coming due, and he’d be looking to raise the rent.  “I’ll catch him tomorrow,” I said and turned to leave.

She came around the counter fast.  “No, please, he really wants to see you,” she said, and put a hand on my arm.  “Maybe I could get you a coffee?”

She was using her voice in a way that a lot of men would find compelling, and she left her fingers where they were.  I could feel their warmth in the crook of my elbow.  She was also trying to hold me with those big blue eyes.  Something should have gone ding for me right there, but it doesn’t always, does it? 

“Okay,” I said, “I take it black.”

I sat down by the window.  She brought me the coffee, then went back to the counter, and began rearranging the salt and pepper shakers.   The coffee smelled like wet cigarette ash, and tasted thin and bitter.  After a moment I said, “Wait a minute, isn’t Herb always over in Bennettsville Tuesday afternoons?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  She was looking past me, out into the street.

“Well, is Calvin here?” I said.  “He’ll know.”

“He’s gone home on his break.”  She craned her neck and stretched over the counter a little, still looking out at the street.  Then she turned without a word and went through the swinging doors behind her, into the kitchen. 

I looked to the street, wondering if she’d spotted Herb’s Lexus pulling into the alley that led to parking in the rear, and had gone to let him in -- he was always forgetting his keys.  But all I saw was a ten-year-old blue Lincoln making the turn.

“Mister,” came Myrlene’s voice from the kitchen.  “Could you help me with something?”

“What?” I said.

“This thing,” she said, “I can’t do it on my own.”

I went through into the back.  She was standing at the stainless steel table where the fry cook would dip the chicken parts into premixed batter before dropping them into the deep fat.  It was probably also where Herb dipped into the female staff, but I didn’t care to think about that.

Her back was to me, the brown and yellow uniform’s polyester stretched tight across her buttocks.

“What do you need?” I said, crossing the space between us and peering around to see what she had on the counter.

There was nothing there.  “What’s the deal...” I started to say, but then she turned full on to me and I saw that her uniform was unbuttoned to the waist.  She wasn’t wearing anything under it but skin that was mostly creamy white, except for two small pink spots.

She took my hand and pressed it to one of her breasts.  I had time to register only warmth and softness, and the nubbin of her nipple against my palm, then the back door opened and a skinny young man with narrow eyes and a black tee-shirt walked in and froze.

Myrlene said, “Nestor!  Thank God!”  She stepped back and pulled things together.  Nestor looked from her to me, and his jaw twitched sideways a couple of times.  Then he spun on his boot heel and went down the three steps into Herb’s parking lot.  The girl followed him, and like a fool so did I.  I wanted somebody to explain what was going on.

I was standing in the doorway when I heard Myrlene say, “He made me do it, I never wanted to,” and saw her boyfriend reach through the open window of the blue Lincoln.  He came up with a big hunk of black metal, and pointed it at me.

Luckily, from here on in, things started happening in slow motion.  I had time to slam the door shut and throw myself sideways before a hole appeared in the painted wood.  But that was just a little less time than I needed.  Something with the force of a dinosaur-killing asteroid slammed into my left shoulder and set the inside of it on fire.

I went down.  The tiled floor was a cold contrast to the blaze in my shoulder. 

There was a sliding dead bolt on the bottom of the door, only two feet from my face.  Without thinking, I reached and threw it closed.  A half second later, Nestor hit the door from the outside.  The next blow was from his boot, swung hard.  Wood splintered, but the bolt held.  I heard him swearing.

No more than thirty seconds had passed since I had come into the kitchen in response to Myrlene’s call, but already I was putting things together, my head somehow rising cool and clear above the white fire of my wound and telling me, She wants him to kill me

I got to my feet and headed for the front of the restaurant.  Why she wanted him to put holes in me was a mystery I could leave until I had time to work on it.  Right now, I needed to get out of the Chikkin Shakk and across the street to the red brick building with the sign that said “Sheriff” over the door.  And I needed to do it quickly, before Nestor thought to come around to the front of the restaurant and finish what he’d started.

I was most of the way there, and getting ready to yell, “Abby, I’m shot!” at the big man in the tan uniform who was standing in the doorway with that big old heavyweight pistol in his hand, looking up and down the street.  Then I saw his eyes go past me and focus.

“Down!” he said, and I let myself fall forward as his hand came up.  The impact of the pavement against my outstretched hands sent a shockwave through the outraged flesh and bone of my shoulder.  Then, for the second time in both my life and the last minute, I heard a shot fired in anger.

There was a big hole spreading itself beside me, inky black and bottomless.  I wanted to let go and fall into it, away from the pain.  Instead I rolled over onto my back and lifted my head up.  Framed by my feet, I saw Abby Fellowes entering the alley next to Herb’s restaurant where Nestor Tollard was sprawled face down.  The young man wasn’t dead;  he began to push himself up on trembling, sinewy arms bent at the elbow, eyes casting around for the Smith and Wesson.

He located it a few feet in front of him.  But just then the sheriff’s size thirteen boot swung and kicked it way out of reach, then came around a second time to catch Nestor under the jaw and send him to the same black place that I could now let myself sink into.

I came to in the ambulance.  A female paramedic was covering my nose and mouth with a plastic mask connected by a tube to an oxygen cylinder.  On the other gurney, a second attendant was applying a tourniquet to Nestor’s right leg.  The pants of his jeans were soaked in bright red arterial blood.  He was unconscious.

The paramedic lifted off the mask and asked me, “How you feeling?”  Damned mad, I thought, but aloud I said, “I think I’m okay.  How’s he doing?”

“He’ll live.”

“Good,” I said.

“Don’t try to talk,” she said.

She didn’t have to tell me.  I was already too busy thinking. 

The .38 slug they took out of my shoulder had been surprisingly cooperative.  It had let the door absorb a lot of its force;  once inside me, it just knocked a chip off the socket where my arm bone connected then tunneled most of the way through the muscle at the top of my shoulder.  The ER doctor found it sitting under the skin like a kid hiding under the bedclothes, and sliced it out.

“You’re going to have a small hole and a big bruise,” he told me, then gave me a shot of Demerol that turned down the pain from high to simmer.  “Lucky,” he said.

I was out of emergency and into a regular ward by the time Abby Fellowes came to see me.  “How’s Nestor?” I said.

“They’re doing an arterial graft.”  He pulled up a chair and sat on it carefully -- men Abby’s size don’t automatically trust furniture to hold their weight -- and said,  “Why’d he shoot you?”

“I can only think it must’ve been an accident.”

He stared at me and let the seconds go by.  After a while, he said, “What were you doing in the kitchen?”

“Looking for Herb.”

“On Tuesday afternoon.”

“I forgot what day it was.” Another wait.  “What’d you want him for?”

“See if I could interest him in a real estate deal.”

He looked at me even longer.  “Where was the girl?”

“The waitress?  Outside, I guess.  I heard voices.  Then bang!  Bullet came right through the door.”

Abby got up.  “An accident?”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“And Nestor was coming up that alley after you cause he was so worried for your health?”

I said nothing.  After a while, he walked out.

They wheeled Nestor in after supper.  He didn’t look too bad, but they’d wired up his broken jaw so he couldn’t talk.  That was okay with me;  I just wanted him to listen.

I got out of bed and traipsed across the floor in the hospital gown and slippers, close enough for him to see me, but out of reach.  He tried to sit up, making the kind of noise dogs make when their chains won’t let them rip into something.

“I told Abby Fellowes it was an accident,” I said.

He kept making the noise.  “Shut up and think,” I said.  “I told Abby it was an accident.”

This time he heard me.

“That’s right,” I said.  “The most they could get you for is careless handling of a firearm.  And, since Abby shot you without a warning, they’ll probably just want to let the whole thing slide.”

He made a noise that sounded like a question.

“Because you and me, we both been suckered,” I said.

Nestor’s gears moved slow, but they ground it out in the end.  It took about ten seconds.  Then the muscles at the hinges of his jaw bunched themselves up and his eyebrows joined themselves together.

I moved in and sat on the side of his bed.  “That’s right,” I said.  “I figure it’s the two of them.  They set us up.”

That wasn’t strictly true.  Probably all Herb wanted was to lay Myrlene out on the stainless steel.  I’d been shot because the girl saw Herb as the next stepping stone in her path, and getting Nestor sent up for murder was the quickest way to get rid of him, now that he’d served his purpose.  Typical grab-it-quick thinking of your dumb psychopath.

But I didn’t figure I owed Herb any consideration.  On the contrary;  he looked to be standing between me and something I had always wanted, and now might be able to get.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” I told Nestor.

I was back in the office in a few days, my left arm in a sling, still calling the whole thing an unfortunate accident.  Myrlene, meanwhile, was making herself agreeable to Herb.

It was more than two weeks before Nestor was up and about again, while I waited patiently.  The hospital released him on a Thursday, which conveniently coincided with Herb’s regular stint at the counter next door, it being Calvin Feeblecorn’s day off.

A little before five, I told Miss Ellen and Miss Adie they could go home and I’d lock up.  I stood in the doorway to the street and watched them totter along to the Little Dixie.  Standing where I was, I heard the click from next door as Herb locked the front entrance of the Chikkin Shakk from the inside.

I gave Herb and Myrlene a minute to get started, then I went into my office and dialed a number.  It rang in a phone booth a couple of blocks away.  I heard the sound of the receiver being lifted but no voice came down the line.  “Oops,” I said, “wrong number.”  And hung up.

A couple of minutes more, and Nestor’s old Lincoln came down the street, turned into the alley beside the Chikkin Shakk and cut into the rear parking lot.  That meant it was time for me to take my walk over to the sheriff’s office. 

“Some kind of funny noises coming from next door,” I told Abby.  “From around the back.”

“What kind of noises?”

“Sounds like shouting, could be a fight.”

He looked at me like he wanted to say something, then reached for his hat.  I followed him out and stood on his front steps as he crossed the street.  He tried the front door of the Chikkin Shakk and found it locked, then went around to the back.

Abby was halfway down the alley when the sound of gunfire erupted from the back of the restaurant.  I watched him draw his pistol and crouch as he peered around the corner then eased out of sight.  I heard him shout, “Drop it!”  Almost immediately, there was a shot.

I waited.  A couple of minutes went by, then Abby came out the front door of the Chikkin Shakk.  He crossed the street and stopped in front of me.

“Any idea how Nestor got a key to Herb’s back door?” he said.

“You’d have to ask him,” I said.

“I can’t do that,” he replied.

“Or the girl,” I suggested.

“Her neither.”

“Maybe Herb gave him...”

“Never mind,” he said.  “You still got that set of spares he gave you on account of he used to lock himself out?”

“I’m sure they’re somewhere in the back of the safe.  Want me to look?”

He just spat and walked away.

The whole town turned out for Herb’s funeral.  I scraped up enough for a new suit and tie, to look good for the new widow.

I drove the Misses Ellen and Adie to the church in a rented luxury car -- appearances count -- then we joined the cortege out to the cemetery.  The two elderly ladies sat in the back seat, and complimented me on being such a good chauffeur.

“Poor Herb,” said Miss Ellen.

“But such a dignified service,” said Miss Adie.

“Very,” said Miss Ellen.  “And isn’t Evelyn holding up well.”

“Poor dear,” said Miss Adie, and then she wanted to know if Miss Ellen had noticed the good-looking man whose arm Evelyn had leaned on while they lowered the coffin into the ground.  Miss Ellen said that she’d have had to be blind not to, and that she had heard the man was some kind of high-flying investment advisor the widow had been consulting.

Later, at the reception, I held onto Evelyn’s hand as long as I could.  “My deepest condolences,” I said.  “If there’s anything I can do, any help I can offer.”

She flicked her eyes over me the way she used to do back at those high school hops, when I’d ask for a dance but she’d be just too tuckered.  Then she smiled that same little smile and said, “You’ve already done more than plenty.  But you could talk to Tom Cromarty, here.  He’s my financial advisor now.”

Cromarty’s Armani suit was worth more than my car.  He took my card and pocketed it without giving it a glance.  Then he looked straight through me, and I saw the familiar blankness behind his eyes. 

Later, I drove my secretaries home.

“It’s funny how things will turn out,” said Miss Ellen.

“Isn’t it just,” agreed Miss Adie.  “I can’t help thinking, if Evelyn hadn’t hired Nestor Tollard to dig her new flower beds, Herb would never have seen that Buttle girl, and none of this would ever have happened.”

“It’s the hand of God at work,” said Miss Ellen.

It was somebody’s hand, all right.  The same cool hand I’d now failed to win for the second time. 

Like I say, psychopaths come in two basic varieties:  dumb and smart.  I’d always figured myself to be one of the smart ones, but I guess I had to face the facts:  smart comes in all different sizes, and I would never be playing in the same league as Evelyn Handefly and Tom Cromarty.

This story originally appeared in Blue Murder.


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Matt Hughes

I'm an award-winning crime writer.

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