Marc Wildon's legs were rigid and both feet were jammed against the firewall, white finger tips clutching the dashboard. His chest was pounding, his breathing was strained and his eyes were wide in shock/fright, focused fully on the granite block retaining wall directly in front of him. For one, shattering second his eyes flicked over to the seatbelt hanging neatly from the doorpost, and a flittering but non-verbal thought filled his head: `why didn't I use it?'
"I was just thinkin' the same thing," a white-faced Chris St. Jacques said, clutching the steering wheel with both hands, shaking. His feet were still thrust down on both the clutch and brake of his old Tercel - which had stalled when it hit the curb - his shorter legs as rigid as Marc's. He was suddenly conscious of the dull ache at the base of his rib cage: he'd lurched forward and struck it against the steering wheel. He'd also gotten a quick but very good close-up view of the amount of glass it took to form the windshield of a Toyota. It was a closer inspection than he ever wanted to have again.
With wobbling legs, both boys got out and looked at the small car. Chris had been forced to cut the wheel at the last possible second when the Andover police cruiser had gunned out of the driveway just ahead of them. The single cop in the front seat had taken no interest in them whatever - he was red-faced with anger and his mouth was working furiously if soundlessly to their ears, Marc could vaguely recall. For some reason or other the cop had floored his accelerator as he backed out. It was entirely possible, Chris would later explain at the Andover Police Station when he filled out the complaint, that the officer had been so concentrated on his rage when he backed out of the blind driveway at full throttle that he hadn't even noticed the little white car swerve, jump the curb and come to an abrupt halt in what turned out to be a half-inch from the granite wall. The cop simply slammed his cruiser into drive and roared past the rust-pocked Tercel, leaving a few patches of rubber.
The two boys studied the situation. Chris noted that they'd been lucky - when he looked down the street, he saw this was the only house with a poured concrete walk and granite curb. Everywhere else, grass stretched out to the roadside and simply tapered down to the tar. If it had been the same here, without the impact of the tire against the curbing, they'd have likely rammed the wall. Chris' face got a little whiter as he considered just how he'd nearly come to a closer inspection of his windshield. That was too close, he thought. At least I was already slowing down, getting ready to turn into the driveway.
Marc rubbed his jaw, noting for the first time that he'd clamped it down so hard it ached. They stepped back and Marc whistled when he got his first full look of the front of Lou Sciuoto's house.
Just as David had described it, the place was practically an estate, sitting on top of a steep hill with a sweeping horse-shoe driveway in front. The driveway created a frame for some special landscaping, and Marc studied the three large displays, each on its own tier and protected from the elements by rather large - and out of place - Greco-Roman columns.
Marc wrinkled his nose, confused. "What are those?"
Chris was starting to relax, and chuckled. "Pretty much Catholic shrines," he explained to Marc, whose limited exposure to religion was a trip to West Parish Congregational every Christmas until he was seventeen. Chris pointed out and briefly explained the significance of the poured concrete and brightly painted shrines: St. Francis of Assisi - complete with birds and wild animals; a gruesomely bloody Pieta; and at street level, something he could only describe as Mary-on-the-Half-Shell.
"Guess he's real religious," Marc commented, trying to reconcile that with what he'd heard about Uncle Lou.
"Nah. Dave said it's just to piss off his neighbors. The town's got all kinds of restrictions about what you can put in the yards… but religious displays are exempt. The neighbors bitched last year when he wanted to build a small fountain, so this spring he said he found Jesus and did this stuff."
Marc snorted and looked to the top of the hill. David he recognized, but not the second. They were standing around what looked and sounded like a pair of huge speakers that were pumping out a thunderous racket. They'd both been aware of the noise since they'd gotten out of the car, but only as noise. Chris started to laugh when he recognized the song. Marc shook his head wearily and they piled back in the car and, after they carefully snapped on their seatbelts for the short drive, the Tercel groaned its way up the steep grade and parked next to a new-vintage Jeep. A familiar face came by just as Marc killed the engine, but Chris bailed out of the car first and shouted at David.
"You played `Cop Killer' with a cruiser in the driveway? No wonder he was pissed! Who's the sicko?"
"That would be me," shouted the stranger. Marc looked him over and felt a slight shudder. It wasn't a face he wanted to see in a dark alley, but the grin was huge and even with a sudden view of the space between the front teeth Marc fought the feeling down.
"Enough with the friggin' noise," the stranger said and turned to the house and roared for someone to turn it off. Marc reached into the back of the car and began hauling out large grocery bags of junk food.
Leo grinned even more at the sight of munchies and the gap in his teeth was given full play before he turned his head back to the house again. "What's with the kid - is he deaf or just ignorin' me?" He stuck two fingers in his mouth and let out an earsplitting whistle. "MARTIN? I SAID KILL IT!"
The sudden silence left a tingling in their ears.
Chris gave Leo and Marc a quick introduction before he stopped in mid sentence and shook his head. "What's with the speakers? How come you had it so loud?"
David rolled his eyes for a response and pointed to Leo.
Leo let out a chuckle. "David's uncle said we should make sure everyone in the neighborhood knew we were here," he said with a shrug, obviously pleased with himself. "I figured the guy prob'ly had some nice sound equipment, and David said I was right., so I brewed up a few special MP3 disks last night. Hours of the stuff, if we needed it."
Chris' nose wrinkled. "Yeah, but Rap? I figured you for the last guy in the world for that stuff."
Leo began coiling the speaker wire absently, trying for a semblance of innocence. "I hate that rap shit," he said with a shrug. "But a while back, I was ticked at my old man, so I downloaded a couple of gigs' worth o' crap. Made for a fun week at my house." He gestured to the neighborhood that stretched out below - one large house after another with weed-less lawns, lush landscaping and at least two imported cars parked in every driveway. "This is Rush Limbaugh country - white-bread suburban America that thinks it's upper class. Can you think of anything that might get more attention in a neighborhood like this? Besides," he added with a chuckle. "Shoulda seen how quick those guys down there came rushin' out of their houses when we pumped up the volume." He grinned again. "I love pissin' off rich people. Even almost rich people."
David winced. "Maybe so, but cueing up `Cop Killer' when the police arrive isn't the best idea in the world. And readin' the guy the town noise ordinance just made it a little worse."
Leo's chest swelled. "Even better, you mean! The law specifies `after eight,' and it was almost nine when I turned it on, and there's no mention of decibel levels! Can I help it if the town doesn't keep up with the times? All I did was let him know there wasn't a damn thing he could do. And the only reason I had Martin go in and cue up that song was… well, you might say I got a history with that guy. There was no guarantee it would be him on duty today, but…" the grin broadened more. "Sometimes, God just answers a prayer and throws you a freebie. I made sure I had that song last night, just in case. Havin' him show up was pure luck… and if it were any other cop, I wouldn't have done it."
Chris raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, and you almost got us killed, you douche. What's this about a history?"
Leo grunted when he tried to pick up one of the big Klipsch speakers, couldn't manage it and leaned on it instead. "The guy pulled me over one night - really gave me a hassle. Wrote me up for defective equipment, a broken tail light. Fifty bucks for the fine, the new light was eighty, and it gave me enough points on my license to get me an insurance surcharge. Plus the fact it was for operatin' a vehicle `without proper safety equipment' got me another rate hike on my insurance." His eyes narrowed and his voice hardened. "Trouble is, I know damn well I didn't have a broken tail light when I left my house. I got pulled over and patted down because mine ain't the sorta face you see around there after dark. And in a neighborhood where they give the maid a Saab to run errands… well, my six-year-old Honda kinda stands out, y'know?"
Martin appeared in the doorway and Marc blinked. He hadn't seen the boy since last March and the changes were unbelievable. His face was well on its way to looking more like a young man's, but still round and dimpled when he smiled. He was taller by a good four inches, which went a long way to stretching out his once-pudgy middle, even if the blue spandex bathing suit with the shiny silver stripe up the right side was still a questionable choice. Marc knew better than to mention it.
"Marc!" the boy shouted and came bounding across the lawn with a grin plastered over his face.
Marc almost made the mistake of treating him like a kid and resisted the impulse to pat him on the head; after a slight pause, he gave him a `cool guy' tap with his fist on the shoulder instead. "'Sup, li'l dude."
The boy's eyes darted anxiously, searching. "Is Drew here?" he asked breathlessly.
Marc Wildon fought back a smile. He's still got that kid crush on Drew… and totally forgot he hates me. "Nah, he's still at the Cape, Mart - there's only four of us taking care of the guesthouse, plus Charlie, and two of us slippin' away for a weekend just wasn't gonna fly. Stick and I came in last night to avoid all the traffic, but I called Chris this morning and he asked me to come along. The only reason I'm up here is because Stick's got business with Dave's dad."
Martin's face fell.
David disconnected the second tower speakers and looked up sharply. "My dad?"
"He's Stick's lawyer, remember?" Marc said with a shrug. "Leonard Stickman made an announcement this week - he's sellin' the Mid-City Manor and retiring to P-Town. He set up a business brunch with your ol' man to get things going - only brought me with him to help with the driving. Not that he let me behind the wheel, of course." He chuckled. "Believe me, I needed the break," he continued ruefully. "It's a trip dealing with the guests. Some of 'em are snobs, most are okay, but then there's the ones who think their room rate includes the houseboys. Dealin' with that can be tough. But let me tell you: living and working with your boyfriend ain't exactly the best idea in the world… especially when you're also his boss. I think that's why Stick brought me back - me and Drew both needed a break."
Dissing Drew was not a good move. A pair of hard, narrowing eyes caught Marc and too late he remembered the natural laws governing Martin's universe: all things Drew were perfect and good. Marc was along for the ride, but only because he had what Martin wanted most: Drew.
Marc caught the look and smiled. "But we're doin' okay. You look good, man. Keep that up, and you'll be a hottie, for sure."
Martin was suddenly all grins and excitement again and he grabbed Marc's hand and tried to jerk him along. "Man, have I got somethin' to show you. C'mon!"
The tall boy hesitated, gesturing to Leo, David and the speakers. Leo reddened. Chris and David exchanged smirks at Martin's expense, who paid no attention at all.
"Our boy's got something special he needs to share," David said, nodding towards the house. "Go ahead - we can handle this stuff." He eyed Chris. "And, you! Try not to trip over your own feet. These speakers ain't cheap."
Martin jerked Marc along, jabbering aimlessly about things Marc didn't have a clue about and people he'd never heard of, but he smiled anyway, just because Martin was happy about something for once. He allowed himself to be dragged through the large, nicely-furnished living room that seemed to boast home entertainment gadgetry than an average Circuit City, then out through a pair of sliding glass doors into a screened summer room that opened out onto a larger deck flanking a pool.
Marc spotted a girl stretched out on a recliner beside Alan in the sun. He stepped out just in time to catch a blur of motion on the diving board. Marc got an impression of a sleek, nicely defined form in a bright yellow swim suit execute an intricate dive, slicing the water almost without a ripple. Marc pursed his lips. Oh, baby - that's nice. And I don't mean just the dive.
He nudged Martin "Who's the hottie? Please, tell me isn't here with the chick."
"The chick's my sister Sandy, and she goes out with Leo," Martin said and dismissed the subject. Then his chest swelled. "And the `hottie' is Randy," he said and all but gloated. "And Randy's with me."
Marc stroked his jaw with a long finger, let out a low whistle. He may have been in a relationship, but he was human. The swimmer broke the surface and pulled himself out of the water.
Eye candy was a treat, but Marc was startled to see how young the face was - much closer to Martin's age than his own. He appreciated the boy's good looks and well-toned body so thoroughly on display in the small swim suit, but somewhere in the back of his mind a word registered: kid. Even though he looked a little younger, Marc was nineteen; Randy was fifteen at best. Another year or even two, and it might be different. But right now, Marc had a sense of an ill-defined line in the sand between child and adult. Randy - like Martin - was still way south of it. At some gut level, an understanding was generated without really forming words in Marc's mind: look, but don't touch.
Randy barely acknowledged Marc with his eyes and focused on Martin. Martin mirrored the same goofy look. Marc caught it and smiled. Wait'll I tell Drew, he thought, with a strange sense of satisfaction. Our little boy is growing up.
A puffed up Martin swung his face up to Marc, begging for approval and supremely certain it was on its way. Marc put a hand on the boy's shoulder, gave it a firm squeeze and treated Martin to a knowing smile with a conspirator's wink. "You've done well, Young Skywalker."

* * * * *

Once he'd cut the leg all the way through, Javier held the chainsaw up in the air and gunned the motor - chunks of meat, blood and bone splattered across Griff's face. Then one of the men picked up the rough-cut section and thrust it in Griff's face - and a second frozen scream was strangled in Griff's throat, trapped behind a mouth sealed with duct tape.      Not that it would have drawn much attention from neighbors. The noise the machine made was enough to drown it out. The man sauntered over to the maw of the wood chipper. Dennis nodded, and they fed in the shattered chunk of leg and a section of carved-up maple tree. The blades caught both items, jerked them out of the men's hands and a red-tinged arc splattered against the plastic-sheathed back-catcher. The mix of flesh, wood and splintered bone was funneled into what was basically a biodegradable leaf bag - just a lot thicker and larger than anything normally found around a household. One of the grinning men nudged t he other half of the hind leg of beef they'd just carved with chainsaws for Griff's education.
Griff himself was propped up against the garage door, hidden behind the landscaper's trucks in case a curious neighbor decided to come walking up the drive to see what all the noise was. Dennis had blocked the driveway with saw horses, posted with notice when they'd arrived - and timed their arrival late enough in the morning not to cause too much of a stir. If a neighbor decided to explore beyond that, all they'd see when they rounded the bend and got clear of the woods would be the landscaper trucks blocking the garage doors. Dennis had pointed this out to Griff before they'd started cutting.
Dennis chopped the air with one of his big hands when the fourth man came out of the house. Javier killed the saw, and Neil silenced the wood chipper.
Griff sat, shaking, tears running down his face and wondering how he'd gotten caught up in this nightmare. In the sudden silence he could hear the sound of his own blood racing through his temples, felt the throbbing in his head. He'd almost thrown up, but fought it back down, afraid that with his mouth taped he could drown in his own vomit. Griff was fairly certain that he might have crapped himself again… his earlier product had already cooled, but now he felt something warm and wet oozing again. He shook, struggled for breath and if he could just remember how, he would have tried praying.
With both chipper and power saw shut down, suddenly it was just another warm mid-Saturday morning in a New England late July. The hum of insects danced in the air, backed up by the chirping of grasshoppers from a distance. The men grouped together for a conference, voices kept low.
Griff's mind leaped to the hope that instead of a neighbor walking around to the drive, he might cut through the woods separating the properties to see what was going on… then Griff remembered that when he built the house, he'd had an 8-foot chain link fence run around his property, just to discourage any impromptu visits. It was common enough in that area; people moved to out-of-the-way country places like his for privacy, but brought city ways with them. When Griff first scouted the property, he'd seen a few of those fences and it seemed a good idea. No old ladies looking for a wandering dog who might get too close and see more than they should. Eight-foot chain link - enough to discourage someone, but not enough to draw the attention of or be a temptation to curious kids.
Griff fought to keep his breath in a rhythm. Kids, he thought. Is that what this is about? Kids? Danny swore none of the boys could ever find their way back to the house, he always made sure of it. But then, where the hell was Danny? Did these men grab him the day before? Did Danny cut some sort of deal for himself, and leave Griff behind? He couldn't believe it… Danny was utterly devoted to him… and dependent. Plus he was into this almost as deep as Griff was. No. Danny could never betray him. He'd never dare.
The fourth man who'd just come out of the house wore a utility belt, displaying both ordinary tools mixed with some electronic gear. He and Dennis conferred while Javier and Neal listened quietly. They came to some agreement and three of them walked around to the back of a truck. Javier pulled out packages and passed them out.
Dennis squatted next to Griff, pushed his cap back and smiled down at him. The smile was pleasant, reassuring even… but the eyes were cold, calculating and dead.
"The boys have to get into some special gear, Mr. R," he said amiably. Then he sniffed the air. "Goddamit, did you shit yourself again?" He tsked. "Javier was right. You really should learn to eat better - a guy your age should be watching his cholesterol more." He shook his head. "Let's face it buddy - you've gotta be in your mid-forties, right? You're a prime candidate for a heart attack. Especially if you should hit a little stress in your life." His smile broadened and he poked a finger hard into Griff's chest. "Today's an example - I mean, you should see yourself right now. You're all red in the face, your eyes are bulging - shit, I can even see red in your eyes from a couple of burst blood vessels. Goddam man, you gotta learn to unwind." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a packet of Parodi cigars and flicked one of the little black, crooked stogies out. They weren't much longer than an ordinary cigarette, but thicker and far more potent. Dennis lit up, and quietly blew the acrid smoke into Griff's face.
Griff choked, fought for breath and tried to roll away but Dennis reached over and grabbed him by the shirt. He slammed Griff's head against the garage door, which echoed a metallic clang.
"You don't move unless I tell you it's okay! You got that, asshole?" He blew more smoke into Griff's face. Dennis noted the labored breathing and the trembling. The smile came back, but the eyes never changed. "Trouble breathing because of the smoke?" he asked pleasantly. "Sorry, buddy." He ground out the cigar. Griff tried to relax.
Then just as quickly Dennis' hand came up again and pinched Griff's nostrils shut. A desperate Griff tried jerking away but Dennis swung a leg around and straddled Griff's waist, squatting over him, then slammed Griff's head back against the metal garage door again. He let him struggle for almost thirty seconds, enough so his face turned crimson from the lack of air, before he released the man's nose.
Dennis' voice dropped to a whisper and he leaned to within an inch of Griff's face. "See that? If I only wanted to kill you, all it would take is two fingers - like just now. You dyin' today is pretty much a good bet, you fuckin' old perv. So try to keep somethin' in mind: I really don't care how you die. Only when. It can be quick an' easy…" He snapped his fingers. "Or it can be very, very slow. Javier was an army medic back in the Gulf War. He knows exactly what to do to keep you from bleeding out while we slice parts of you off, and has a nice stash of drugs to keep you very alive, very conscious, and very, very aware of what's happening to you." He cocked an eyebrow and flashed his shark grin. "And some of the stuff in his goodie bag actually heightens the sensations you'll feel."
He looked Griff up and down, then leaned closer. "I know some guys who lasted six, maybe seven hours. But you?" He shook his head. "I figure 90 minutes, but there's always hope. And believe me, you'll be beggin' to die when the moment comes."
Griff's breath came in furious bursts through his nose. His body shook, tears even ran down his cheeks. He wanted to scream, the sound even roiled around in his throat. And all the time, Dennis grinned, the cold dead eyes fixed on his. Dennis relit his little cigar, and blew another stream of blue smoke into Griff's face. The prisoner choked, but this time didn't try to pull away.
Dennis stood up from his squat over Griff. He patted Griff on the head and dropped down beside him, stretching his long legs out on the driveway surface, and crossed his ankles. Then he resumed speaking in his previous laid-back, easy conversational tone. "See those guys, buddy?"
Dennis pointed to the two men standing with Javier, dressed in some sort of hooded protective gear that wasn't exactly cloth. The coveralls even wrapped around their feet, with small tie offs to keep the suit from dragging down and tripping the wearer. The hoods were up over their heads and tied tight. Both men wore goggles.
"Those are disposable coveralls - what they call bunny suits," Dennis said easily, and took another drag on his cigar, but this time blew the smoke away from Griff. "They use 'em all the time in those `clean rooms' in the microchip business, but you bein' some kind of electronic wiz, I'm sure you know all about that stuff. They're a sort of paper - completely disposable if they should get all covered with something red and sticky." He nudged Griff. "All things considered, that's kinda likely to happen today. Fortunately, those suits burn real good and that takes care of the extra evidence, 'cuz these forensics guys are gettin' way too sharp these days. It ain't too likely anyone'll be coming soon, but just in case someone decides they're worried about you goin' missing and all we've got it all worked out. If by some miracle the police start to look harder than I think they'll bother, there won't be much to trace us down."
Dennis stopped and pointed over to the wood chipper. "That leg of beef we just cut up and fed to that thing is how you're goin' Griff. There's a lot more of you maybe, but that's mostly lard. Believe it or not, cow bones are a lot thicker than yours, so if it handled those…" Dennis shrugged. "Well, you get the picture. The skull's always the tough part, but Javier brought a couple of sledge hammers so we can take care of that. That'll play hell with your driveway maybe, but don't worry. We brought plenty of plastic sheeting, so nothin' should stain."
Dennis reached over and gave Griff a fond pat on the head. "I promise you, buddy," he continued in a confidential tone, "there won't be anything left to find. And Bob - the guy we sent in the house? Yeah, he found your burglar system and made sure it was disabled, just so we don't get interrupted. He's real good in electronics. He set up this signal jammer just in case the system had a battery back-up and started up when the main power source got interrupted - which it did. But the thing's completely disabled now, just like your phone lines are dead, your satellite's disconnected, and he pounded a couple of cell phones into pieces. But the best part is this, and I got to tell you something." Dennis reached into his back pocket and pulled out a broken padlock and dropped it into Griff's crotch. He tsked again.
"Honest to God, Griffy," Dennis jeered. "You spent thousands of bucks extra to run the electric and telephone lines under the ground, then have the works in a stainless steel box. Now, that's really pretty good security, you know? But then you go and screw it all up usin' a three-dollar padlock to keep it all safe! Bob said he could have used a nutcracker for all the protection this thing offered! Ah, but what the hell, he had the bolt cutters anyway. And as for that alarm system - Jesus, Griff, you gotta think `upgrade' every now and then. I mean, that thing was about as up-to-date as Fred Flintstone's car. Believe me, Javier know a lot about alarms, and yours just ain't up to speed anymore, more like some relic from the 90s. Very low-tech. They must've offered you the batgain pack, huh?" He tossed the lock into the back of one of the trucks and Griff jumped when he heard metal slam against metal.
"On the other hand," Dennis continued, "he really admired that lock on your private office in the cellar. I mean, you got that heavy-duty, solid core door, and he figures you've got the good metal frame on it to keep it in place. Those electronic combination things can be a pain in the ass to crack sometimes, but it can be done. Only we don't have to. You know why? Oh, right, you can't talk… well, I'll tell you why that lock isn't worth shit: see, when you build something with an eye to security, Griff… well, you gotta use your head. A great lock, a really good door… to protect a room built with wood studs covered by sheetrock?" He shook his head in disgust. "Honest to God, what the fuck were you thinkin'? You shoulda paid the contractor extra to use cinder block or something. 'Cuz you know what?" He pointed to one of the chainsaws on the ground. "Five minutes, tops, and we get to see all your little treasures. I mean, we'd have to dick a round for a half hour cracking the code otherwise, and maybe all that time ain't important but," he shrugged. "Hey, I like things easy. So maybe - just maybe - you can help me out and just give me the combo, okay? I mean, there's a lot at stake here. And it might help my mood, you know?"
Griff felt the tears running down his face. His eyes darted between Dennis and the small group of men by the truck in their coveralls - one holding a chainsaw, the other holding gallon jugs of bleach in each hand. Dennis leaned over and slapped Griff lightly on the cheeks to get his attention again. "Over here, Griff. Never mind about them! Focus, buddy, focus! Remember, they take their orders from me, so I'm the one you should pay attention to."
Griff swung his attention to the smiling face, tried to speak - producing nothing more than grunts.
Dennis' mouth formed a small `o' and his face dissolved into mock surprise. "You wanna talk, Griffy? Tell you what - I can maybe peel back that tape a little, and we can jaw for a little." Griff nodded his head up and down frantically, grunting in his throat. Dennis' finger tugged at the corner of the tape, then stopped. "Must really suck with your mouth sealed shut like that. But keep two things in mind before I pull it off: First, if you try to yell, I can seal you right back up and we start carving, but not that side of beef again. I mean, this time, it'll be for real. But before we do that, I'll kick you in the balls so hard you'll taste 'em in the back of your throat, and these boots got steel toes. Capisce?"
The head bobbed.
"Good boy." Dennis bent down and yanked the tape. Griff let out an involuntary yelp then cringed, eyeing Dennis' foot. Dennis ignored him and studied the sticky side of the tape. "Shit. Too bad you didn't shave today, 'cuz that must've really hurt." He squinted more closely. "Damn. Looks like some skin came away."
Griff gasped for air at first, and when the frantic heaving of his chest slowed he tried to look up at Dennis, who stood cross-armed and smiling above him. He licked his raw lips a few times and tried his voice, but only a croak came out. He swallowed hard and tried again but it was a little too loud. His eyes caught a quick movement of the heavy work boot and he panicked. Without thinking he tried to curl into a ball.
Dennis only prodded him until he uncurled enough to look up again. "Hey, hey. Don't be such a wuss, Griff. I'm sure a twelve year-old gettin' his ass boned by a full-grown man feels a lot worse. Now, how about you and me talk for a little? First, how about that lock code? Be a good guy, save me some trouble. Might help my mood, y'know?"
Griff stuttered, but gave the code to Dennis, who laughed when he heard it. Then he tried playing his only card. "I've got money," Griff sputtered. "There's a wall safe in my bedroom - there's over twenty-thousand in it! Cash!"
Dennis shook his head. "Nah, Griff, you got this all wrong," he said in a patient tone. "We'll be happy to take the money you got in the house, though that'll just be a perk. But this isn't about money. And if it was money we were after, it'd be for a shit-load more than twenty grand, I'll tell ya." Dennis jerked his thumb at the trucks. "Twenty wouldn't even cover the cost of our equipment!" he chuckled.
"I can get you more," Griff added desperately. "I can get it from the bank - hell, gimme a cell, and I can set it up. I…"
"You don't have shit in the bank, Griff." Dennis pointed to Javier. "See that guy over there? Yeah, you thought he was just another dumb spic I'll bet, doin' my dirty work. Actually, Javier knows a lot about banks, credit reports and computers… stuff that gives a strong-arm guy like me a headache. He knows how to get into accounts in special ways that'd be tough to spot, even if someone knew where to look. Well, last night he took an hour or two out of his day and devoted them to you… and your banks. I mean, the credit cards were a snap - they're history. But don't worry - we paid them up in full with that checking account you got, but I got to admit, that cleaned you out pretty quick… good thing you got overdraft protection, huh? Of course, that's at the limit now. I guess that leaves you pretty much tapped out, especially with your other accounts all tied up."
Griff stared at him, open-mouthed.
"Don't look at me like that!" Dennis snapped. "We didn't exactly steal nothin', but… well, it'll be awhile before anyone figures out where the hell everything went. And Javier can't be sure, but he thought he might've done something that's gonna attract some attention… like maybe from the IRS, and you know how nasty they can get. So… well, let's just say you're financially fucked for awhile and let it go at that."
Dennis waited for it to set in, his hard eyes locked on Griff, who tried not to see. When Dennis spoke, it was in a silky-smooth voice "No, this is about a lot more than money anyway," he said, stroking his jaw. "This is about something a lot more precious. See, somewhere along the line you played around with the wrong little boy, and that pissed off somebody real important. Someone who's got lots more money than you do. He's retired and all, but unfortunately for you, he's still got all kinds of connections. Tryin' to buy us off is no good - 'cuz if we crossed him, he'd find out real quick, and chances are we'd wind up where you are right now, or worse. Our friend… well, he's kind of an old country type, and he keeps to a lot of the old-world ways. He lives by this personal code that's almost sacred to him. So that means today is all about one thing."
Dennis flashed row of white, even teeth, and for the first time Griff saw a flash of life in those hard eyes when Dennis summed it all up. "Today is about revenge."
Griff's eyes bulged and his body shook. When he felt his stomach rise he couldn't fight it down. Dennis jumped back in time to miss the fountain of puke that shout out of the man's mouth and covered his front.
A look of combined pity and disgust crossed Dennis' face. He took out a rag from his back pocket and wiped Griff's face clean before resealing the tape. "Jesus H. Christ," he muttered in disgust. "What a pussy. If it isn't one end of you lettin' loose, it's the other." He turned and shouted to the group of men standing on the side. "Javier! Get the garden hose and clean him down! That shit still has DNA in it and I don't want a trail of shit an' puke going through the house. Once he's clean, skin him out of those clothes."
Javier smiled and flicked open a razor knife just to watch the effect on Griff, who tried to fight his way out of the cuffs and tape again.
Dennis approached the other two men and his voice dropped. "You said it's all good inside?" he said, nodding towards the house.
Neil nodded, shifting his eyes back and forth to Griff. "Fiberglass tub unit, one of the big ones, a solid one piece. The floor in the bathroom is a smooth, un-textured vinyl, real easy to clean in case something goes wrong." He shifted around uncomfortably, shot a look at Javier then back to Dennis. He swallowed hard. "Uh, look. When we got the call - well, this is a little out of our line, ya know? I mean, we're thieves, prob'ly the best north of New York. That's why the old man called us. We're not… contract guys. How far's this supposed to go?"
"As far as it has to," Dennis said simply. He caught the nervous exchange between Bob and Neil. "Relax, guys. My bet is, he'll fold as soon as you get him inside. It might be a good idea to start up the chipper again before you take him inside. If he doesn't start talking, crank up one of the saws. Get him talking, keep him talking and get it on tape. If he doesn't open up, come and get me."
"'Cuz I won't think twice about slicing off a finger or two to make a point, and you guys might," Dennis said simply. He glanced at Griff and let his voice get louder for effect. "Keep latex on the hands, boys. And don't take off those suits until you're done with him, okay? No point in tempting fate with forensics in case there's blood. We can burn everything later."
The two men exchanged uneasy looks, but nodded. Dennis was a wild card to them, a complete unknown. They had no choice but to take him at his word.
Dennis turned back to Javier, who'd given Griff a hard-spray hosing and was busy slicing up the inside seam of the man's pants. "Hey, try not to nick anything when you get to the crotch, okay? Assuming there's anything there to begin with. I'll be in the cellar - join me down there. Bob and Neil already know what to do."
Javier nodded and continued cutting away the pants, smiling into the face of a terrified Griff as he slid the blade slowly up the seam. The other two men watched and laughed.
Whistling, Dennis walked around to the passenger door of the old International pick-up. He pulled out two new laptops, each a different platform, bought special for the job at hand: they hadn't been sure what kind of equipment Griff might have. Both would be disposed of by the end of the day, at least one of the hard drives pummeled into useless scrap. After flashing another big smile and a wave at Griff, Dennis made his way into the house.

* * * * *

Sandra Seduko sat up in the lounge chair where she'd dozed off in the sun and took a long stretch before checking her watch. Three o'clock. She still had plenty of time, but she had to get ready for her evening shift at DeMille's Market. She sighed. It had been a nice morning and afternoon. When she'd heard she would likely be the only girl at an all-guy (and as it turned out, mostly gay) party, she'd assumed she'd wind up taking care of all the cooking. She didn't understand what it was about grills that made men fight to cook on one, but Leo - who could barely fix himself a ham sandwich in a kitchen - and Alan spent the day hovering over the grill, telling her to take it easy. Instead of being the private maid for the day, she'd been waited on, and she liked that. Even by her brother, who usually required a smack in the head just to pick up after himself.
Chris was drifting on a raft in the pool, a cap pulled down over his face and hands folded across his stomach, making snorting sounds now and again. Alan was stretched out in a lounge chair next to hers. She nudged him and he looked up with a pair of bleary eyes. "You're getting a little crispy at the edges," she warned him. "Better move out of the sun, or slap on some sunscreen."
Alan said something that was most likely a `thanks' in the middle of a yawn then sat up, smiled and stretched. Then he spotted Chris floating in the pool and his eyes shone. He flashed a quick grin at Sandy and with a quick sprint was at the edge of the pool. Chris snorted again and Alan froze. When the figure on the raft didn't move, Alan cautiously lowered himself into the water. If asked to describe his motions from that point on, Sandy would have said he slithered under the water, like the Loch Ness Monster after his prey.
She didn't need an explanation to know what was coming and collected her bag and wandered over to the picnic table set up in the shade of a tree. Leo, David and the tall blond - Marc? - were playing some kind of card game and arguing about something. Sandy laughed when she saw what they were playing. "You're playing Mille Bornes? That's a kids game!"
"Is not," David said, playing out some mileage cards. "But it's Leo's fault. We were all set to play poker, but when he heard the stakes he chickened out."
"I ain't playin' strip poker with you guys," Leo muttered. "Not when the only thing I got to bet with is a T-shirt and my bathing suit." A poker faced David dropped a `Puncture' card on Leo for his last play. Leo glared at him across the table, and David pretended not to notice.
She looked around. No sign of her brother or his friend. "You guys seen my brother?"
Leo stuck his tongue out at David and snapped down a card. "`Increvible'," he sneered. "No more flats. So much for your little treasures." He looked up at his girlfriend. "Dunno, Sand. They were sittin' in that glider thing on the screen porch last time I noticed."
Marc played out a mileage card, did a discard and then a nonchalant David dropped an `Accident' on Leo.
"You suck," Leo growled.
"And he's good at it," Marc tossed in, nailing David with an `Out-of-Gas.'
Leo turned red and Sandra rolled her eyes. Marc and David savored another victory. Embarrassing Leo was almost too easy but it was still good sport. She poked David. "Will you guys quit picking on the breeder? Now, where's Martin?"
Leo looked around. "I dunno. Their sneakers are still here, so they didn't go far. Why? You worried about him?"
"Just curious. Listen, I have to get ready for work. Are you going to drive me?"
Leo stole a quick look at David, who shook his head slightly. Sandy knew something was going on, she just didn't know what and Leo wouldn't say. It was frustrating, but Leo had stressed his presence here today was important, yet he couldn't say why. She'd suspected it had something to do with her brother's disappearance during the week, and questioned both her boyfriend and brother, but each was a brick wall. Nor would anyone explain why David and Leo were suddenly inseparable. And today - a sudden party with no one but her brother's gay friends? Seems kind of convenient, she mused.
Leo slid his car keys across the table to Sandy. "I really should stay here," he said warily. "Just take the car - one of these guys can run me up tonight to pick it up, okay?"
Sandy bit her lower lip and nodded. She flashed a smile she didn't fully feel and took the keys. The others waved and she collected her clothes and went back into the house, heading for the bathroom to change and fix herself up. Leo had sworn that everything - whatever `everything' was - would be over and done with today, and she'd have to trust him.
Still… where Martin was concerned, she was careful. There was nothing overt about them, but Sandy had seen the dynamic between Alan and David and understood their relationship without having to ask. Chris was… well, not as obvious as her brother perhaps, but she had few doubts.
When Martin's older friends started turning up, she'd watched and studied them. Sandy remembered too well from her first year in high school what a lot of older boys wanted when they started coming on to the freshmen girls, and a few of her friends had learned the hard way. Straight or gay didn't matter; a sleaze was still a sleaze.
She demanded to be introduced, and a complaining Martin gave in. She watched and didn't miss much, analyzed these boys carefully: the way they acted around her, and the way they acted around Martin. She listened to not only what was said but how it was said, with a particular eye towards body English. In the end, she accepted that her brother's new friends were nothing more than what they seemed: just a group of nice, older guys who helped Martin out with a ride when he needed it, and sometimes took him along for a special trip. Chris played the lecherous clown sometimes, but it was obvious he'd never be a danger to Martin. Marc she'd recognized - he was Drew's boyfriend, someone for whom her brother once had a major crush.
She smiled to herself. Kind of like he has a crush on that Randy kid. It bothered her a little that maybe Randy and Martin might be more than just `friends' - she'd watched the peeking games, the way they'd follow the other around with their eyes when they thought no one was looking, and while they were friendly enough with everyone else they'd spent most of the afternoon sitting together on the porch glider, just talking.
Sandy debated having a few words with Martin, but there was no point - sooner or later, he'd meet a boy and `it' would happen. Sandy understood an implacable truth: guys were guys, no matter what. The only thing that ever kept a straight boy from getting what he wanted was a straight girl saying no. So when you had two guys who's sex drive kept saying "yes"…. well, they'd have to work it out for themselves. And Randy seemed like a nice kid. Better him than some jerk who'd use Martin like a piece of meat.
Meanwhile, there was a sudden commotion in the water followed by a loud splash and they all turned to see the empty raft. Alan's head broke the surface of the water by the side wall and in what seemed a single move he clambered out of the water clutching something red in his hands. He hit the ground and started running.
A spluttering, angry Chris St. Jacques struggled to the surface and was about to climb out of the pool and chase Alan until he spotted Sandy. He dropped back into a crouch, but howled after Alan who was standing by the cabana, swinging the red thing over his head and laughing. "Gimme back my bathing suit, ya weasel!"
Sandy laughed, decided to give Chris a shot at revenge by stepping inside. Once through the sliders she took in the spacious living room with its fine furniture and felt a pang of envy. Someday, she thought. Maybe someday.
She walked down the hall and grabbed the bathroom door.
She rattled it. "Martin? Are you in there?"
There were sudden noises on the other side and she caught some whispering - two voices, she was sure. She shook the door again. "Martin? Let's go, kid. I've got to get ready for work."
"Just a minute!" Martin shouted. She heard a frantic Randy whisper "lemme finish" followed by her brother's low pitched "hurry up."
Martin's made more sounds. She heard a grunt and waited. Impatient, she rapped the door again.
More rustling around and whispering. There was a quick snap! and she heard the toilet flush. Finally the lock clicked and the door swung open.
Two furtive red faces eyed her suspiciously, then two sets of nervous eyes looked down and away. Randy and Martin edged passed her and slunk away down the hall, sending guilty glances over their shoulders.
Now what the hell were they up to? Sandy scowled. Was Martin's bathing suit on backwards? She was sure the silver stripe was on the right side, now it was on the left.
She shook it off and began changing into her work clothes. While she was brushing out her hair, she heard voices outside the small bathroom window.
"Thanks for finishing," she heard her brother half whisper. "I'll give you one later. Promise."
"No sweat," Randy replied and giggled.
Then Sandy heard the cry "Cannonball!" followed by two big splashes and Chris St.Jacques cursing them both.
Sandy froze. Thanks for finishing?
"Oh, shit." She fell back against the door and started to laugh.

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