…And Then What Happened?
by M.C. Neuda
Sarah’s eyes came to rest across the crowded networking party on her husband, after roaming over every other man in the room in cool assessment. It seemed to her that she had never seen Larry in such a clear light.
What a disgusting little man, she thought.
Everything about him filled her with a horrifying wonder: his short, fat body with the stumpy legs; his head too large for the rest of him, balding except for the fringe of long, dark, curly hair across the back; his stubby fingers, all out of proportion to his long and powerful arms, just now stuffing a slippery canape down his greedy gullet. Even across the room she could hear him snorting from the catarrh in his nose and throat. She wondered that she had ever been that desperate to leave Wyona, Kansas.
He was a salesman, as middling in that as in his looks. His mother had left him a few acres of land that he was holding onto until real estate prices rose; but it was the serest property she had ever seen, with no nearby power supply or water and abutting a toxic waste disposal site.
That pretty much summed up Larry: barren and unproductive and ever hopeful that something was going to give.
She could have forgiven all that perhaps, if he hadn’t also been such an inept lover. Oh sure, he could slip a rigid prong into her socket all right, get the juice flowing, find the switch that turned on her light; but just when she was beginning to burn brightly, he’d yank the cord abruptly, and all those electrons would buzz awhile in her body without having any place to go, leaving her cranky for days. The fact was, she was cranky most of the time.
How to get rid of him. That idea leapt to mind so fast it surprised her. But the surprise dissolved just as quickly into an unwavering and implacable determination. It was as if she had always known it would come to this.
Mentally, she riffled through the means available to her. Poison. She knew nothing about them. Rat poison, maybe. In coffee. But it would probably taste bad and he’d suspect something. Maybe if she gave it to him very slowly, over many weeks.
Guns or knives. No, she didn’t believe in violence. Hanging? She’d have to get him into a noose and that would be tricky.
Car accident. She could get him drunk and drive him off an embankment by the river. Maybe hit him on the head beforehand or strangle him to make sure, like in that Lana Turner movie. But then the police might suspect something, her first and foremost. Besides, she had already decided against acts of force. No, Larry would have to cooperate somehow.
“Hi darling, enjoying yourself?” asked Larry, sliding a damp arm around her shoulder. His large, protruding eyes (like a bug, she would say) swept across the crush of partygoers, looking for the next opening he could slip into. So to speak. Actually, she had never doubted his fidelity. Good thing; she’d have killed him if she’d had even a shadow of a hint of a suspicion.
“Lots of great leads, baby. Yup, Poppa’s going to do some heavy cashing in soon. You’ll see, baby, I’m gonna give you a life beyond what you’ve ever dreamed. You deserve it.”
God, she thought, his hands are clammy.
Even in an air-conditioned room, where the dying heat of the day couldn’t touch him, Larry managed to add to the humidity.
She bent down as if to retrieve something, breaking his clasp, took out a handkerchief and dabbed at her face and then at her shoulder in an absent-minded way. All those plans of big money. How many times had she heard them? She never listened to him anymore; he never knew the difference anyway.
“Excuse me, honey, I see Morton, I’ll just be a minute.” He turned back and said, “Can I get you a refill?” She shook her head and he plunged back into the crowd.
Morton, she hadn’t seen him, that little weasel, that two-timing rat. Always coming up with a scheme to fleece Larry, who never caught on. Full of himself because he was good-looking and always praising you for the very quality you didn’t have but most craved.
She winced. He’d gotten her too once, telling her how gorgeous she was and how smart, like he sometimes felt she could see right through him and everybody else. Then he’d told her about a deal of his and how he’d love to give her a dividend. She was the one who’d suggested a non-cash investment, but he’d been angling for it, she just hadn’t seen it. And then he’d reneged. “Who you gonna tell, Larry?” he’d said, laughing at her. She hadn’t even gotten any fun out of it. If anything, he was worse than Larry. She’d pay him back, that dirty little prick, if it was the last thing she did.
First things first…she thought, and went back to her inventory. Guns, knives, poison, hanging, car accident… Heart attack. That would be great, but how could she induce it? Larry was as strong as he was dumb.
A fall from a window. Now there was an idea. It wasn’t likely he’d survive ten stories. That cheap pendant he’d given her for her birthday— “A hundred percent gold-filled!” he’d said, as if gold-filled meant filled with gold, always somebody’s patsy—she could hang that out the window. She’d read something like it in a book somewhere. Maybe she could rig a hook of some kind. She could tell him that it had come loose and fallen while she was shaking out a dust mop, but she couldn’t retrieve it, she was afraid of falling. Then, as he was leaning out the window… God, she’d have to push him. Or… She could get somebody else to do it… She’d seen it in a movie somewhere… Or… And then…
A plan formed in her mind.
Larry came over to her again. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Morton’s got a great scheme, but he can’t tell me with all these people around. He’s afraid someone might overhear.”
Sarah put on her blankest look. “Why don’t you bring Morton home with you for dinner tomorrow night, dear?”
“That’s a great idea! But, you sure you don’t mind? I didn’t think you really liked Morton all that much.”
“I can put up with him if it helps you out, dear.”
“Yeah? Boy, are you a sweetheart! Let me go ask him right away.”
Say yes, you bum, she thought.
And when he did, Sarah knew that the forces of the universe were with her.
* * *
The next evening was clear and hot, just the weather Sarah wanted. She was all ready and busying herself in the kitchen when she heard the apartment door open.
“Honey, I’m home!” Larry called. She heard him inviting Morton to fix himself a drink and the sound of the living room window being closed.
Larry slipped into the kitchen rubbing his hands with glee. “It’s even better than I thought,” he said, keeping his voice low. “But listen baby, I gotta ask you a favor.”
Here it comes, thought Sarah.
“Wow a turkey! Wow is that beautiful! Have I got a wife?” He paused. “Isn’t it a little hot for turkey?”
“It’s already cooled off. I’m cutting it into slices, and we’ll have it with a salad.” She took the electric carving knife in hand and turned it on.
“Well…like I was saying… I know you think I’ve got hare-brained ideas, but I’m always looking to make it up to you. And this time I will, for sure, in spades. The only thing is… ” and he rubbed his nose, “… I promised Morton I’d ask you first.”
“How much?” she asked.
“How much what?” he answered, blinking.
“How much seed money. There’s always some investment, right?”
“Five thousand dollars…”
Sarah’s hand twitched, and the electric carver slipped and tore into the turkey’s spine.
“Careful honey,” he said, “let me do it for you.”
“No, I’ll do the rest of it at the table,” she said, turning off the carver. “Why don’t you carry the turkey in for me?”
“Okay, but let me unplug the knife first.”
“Don’t bother. I bought an extension cord so I wouldn’t have to replug it.”
“That’s a pretty long cord,” he commented.
“Actually, it’s the shortest one they had.”
“So sweetie, before we go in…what do you say?”
Sarah’s eyes darted from side to side. “Can’t we talk about this tonight? When we’re in bed and relaxed?”
Larry’s eyes shone. “Oh baby!” he said. … “But…you see… I promised Morton I’d let him know this evening.”
Sarah thought a minute, then said, “Sure. Why not?”
Larry’s face exploded into joy. “You mean it? What a woman! What a wife!” He made a move to embrace her but was deterred by the carver between them. “God was really looking out for me when I ran into you. I’ll tell Morton,” he continued, picking up the turkey platter.
“Sure,” she said affably, “you can take out the money tomorrow.”
Morton paused. “Well, see,” he said, “I was really hoping you’d say yes, and in case you did, I already took it out. But hey,” he said, seeing her face, “I’d have put it right back if you’d have said no. No way I’d do it without your approval.”
And with that, he sashayed to the kitchen door, bearing the half-cut turkey. Sarah was tempted to hit the switch on the carving knife and make an end of him immediately; but then he turned as if struck by something and said, “By the way, did you have the living room window open for a reason? That’s a waste of money, you know, with the air-conditioner on.”
Sarah went into her act. “Oh Larry,” she whined, “you have to do something for me now.”
“Anything, baby, you know that.”
“You know that beautiful gold pendant you gave me for my birthday? Well, I was dusting out the mop when the clasp came loose and it slipped and I couldn’t catch it. It’s caught on a nail or something outside the window. It’s hard to reach. I’m afraid to lean out and get it.”
“Don’t worry, baby, leave it to me.”
With that, he trotted out of the kitchen bearing the platter, and Sarah followed, knife in hand. Morton rose from the couch as they came into the living room and called out, “Hi beautiful! She’s a beauty, isn’t she, Larry, and smart as they come! You’re a lucky man.”
Larry put the turkey on the table and drew himself up. “You’ve got that right.”
“So, what’s the deal?” said Morton.
“Larry, the pendant,” Sarah said.
“Oh yeah,” said Larry, looking from one to the other. Then, thrusting his open hand over to Morton: “The deal is...consummated!” he said.
Sarah almost laughed. Screwed, you mean.
Morton clasped Larry’s hand in both of his. “Good! Terrific!” he said. “You’ll never regret it!”
You’ll never live to regret it, dumb-ass, she thought. She glanced over at Larry’s briefcase lying on the sofa. She could almost discern a five-thousand-dollar outline.
“So what do you say we put it together right now and then we can really enjoy our meal,” Morton prompted.
To Sarah’s surprise, Larry withdrew five thousand dollars in small bills from his jacket pocket. Morton took an envelope of similar bills from his breast pocket and showed them to Larry. “Here’s my five thousand dollars. Go ahead, count them.”
Larry proceeded to do so.
“Larry, that pendant means the world to me,” Sarah said.
“Pendant?” said Morton, lifting his head as if scenting new prey.
“In just a minute baby,” said Larry, “I’ll be all yours.” He finished counting the money and then put all the bills together into the envelope and handed it to Morton. Sarah watched carefully as he put the envelope into his breast pocket, paused, and then withdrew it again. “Tell you what,” said Morton, “why don’t you hang onto the money until I’ve got all the details worked out? Why shouldn’t you handle the finances for a change? I trust you.”
Larry beamed and put the envelope in his pocket. Sarah breathed easier. She was pretty sure her money was safe for the moment.
Larry strode over to the window and opened it. He leaned out, Sarah and Morton close behind.
“Hey, that’s not so far down,” Larry said. “All I have to do is put my hand on the ledge and… ”
And Larry slipped far out just as Sarah thought he would, having greased the ledge to a fare-thee-well. Morton reached out, caught hold of the jacket, which slipped from his grasp, and then the pants legs. Sarah screamed incoherences.
“Morton, no!” Larry yelled. “My pants are falling down!”
With a quick move, Morton caught hold of Larry’s legs and pulled him upwards.
Dammit! thought Sarah, he’s going to do it.
“Stop screaming and help me,” Morton gasped. In answer, Sarah turned on the carving knife and jabbed at Morton’s wrist.
Morton cried out in pain, and Larry’s legs disappeared out the window.
“Omygod, omygod, what have I done?” she gabbled.
Morton backed away from her. “Turn off that knife, you blithering idiot,” he said.
She did so and put it down. All at once collected, she said, “Let me take care that,” whipping out a handkerchief from her apron. She dunked it into one of the water glasses on the table and, gently taking his hand, dabbed away at the wound, then wrapped it tenderly. She continued to hold his hand.
“Gee,” she said softly, “all that money out the window.”
Morton chuckled. “You don’t think I’d trust that boob with my money, do you?” and he tapped his breast pocket. “Oldest trick in the book and he falls for it. What a sap! Rest in peace,” he added as an afterthought.
“This is just awful,” she murmured.
“Yeah, too bad,” he said.
“No, I mean the way I feel. I don’t know what it is, but all this excitement…it’s got me excited.”
“No kidding,” said Morton.
They were undressed by the time they got to the bedroom door. Sarah opened it and a blast of air greeted them.
“Jesus,” said Morton, “it’s freezing in here!”
“Larry always liked it really cold. Just slip under the electric blanket for a minute and I’ll be right with you.”
She darted into the bathroom and picked up a pail of water that was standing just inside the door.
Now for you, she thought.
Just then, she heard Larry’s voice at the bedroom door. “Morton, I found these in the living room.”
She peeked out. Larry was standing at the foot of the bed, holding Morton’s jacket and pants and her dress. He was rumpled and had some bruises but otherwise looked alive and well.
“What is going on? I mean, the minute I disappear, you move in on my wife?”
“We were devastated Larry, we were trying to console each other. Uh, how did you manage to… ?” And Morton reached nervously for cigarettes that were on the end table.
“On my way down I bounced off all those awnings that I always thought were so ugly. Not any more. They broke my fall.”
“What a miracle,” said Morton, taking a drag on a cigarette. He tossed the electric blanket aside, inadvertently flicking the match onto the sheets. “Well, I’ve got to be going,” and he got up and reached for his pants.
Sarah drew a scratch the length of her cheek with her fingernail. Then she came out of the bathroom and slipped in front of Larry.
“You’re alive!” she said, with a tremble in her voice. “I was so afraid! He forced me!” She turned her cheek for him to see, for emphasis, picking up the blanket and drawing it around her.
“Why you… ” said Larry and rammed his powerful fist over Morton’s heart, who keeled over, never to rise again.
Sarah screamed, pointing to the bed. It was blazing up.
“I’ll get some water,” Larry shouted and ran to the bathroom, where the fateful water bucket was waiting. Sarah ran past him but was caught short by the blanket’s electric cord, which had wrapped itself around the jamb of the door. Larry ran back, tripped over the cord and sent the contents of the bucket over Sarah, who only briefly knew what hit her. Larry was torn between disasters, but the rapidly mounting flames decided him. He struggled out of his jacket and was about to use it, when some alert part of his brain stopped him. He snatched up Morton’s jacket instead and beat at the flames. It was no use; they were consuming everything. The only thing he could do was flee.
* * *
At the police station, he wept about the cruel outcome to all his hopes.
“I didn’t mean to kill either of them, officer. You’ve got to believe me. Sarah, every hair on her head was precious to me. And Morton was my best friend. I only punched him out because he…he was forcing his attentions on Sarah.”
His head fell and he sobbed aloud again. Officer McCluskey exchanged looks with his partner.
Larry lifted his tear-stained face. “There’s ten thousand dollars in that envelope,” he said, motioning to it on the table. “I’m sure you’ve counted it. Five thousand dollars was mine and five thousand was Morton’s. I want it all to go to his daughter.”
“Ten thousand dollars,” said McCluskey. He looked at his partner again.
Larry sobbed in reply. There was a pause.
Then McCluskey said, “Let’s go over the sequence of events one more time… ”
◊ ◊ ◊
M.C. Neuda explores darker human strivings in short stories of all lengths. Flash fiction pieces have appeared in, among others, Flash Fiction Press, Shotgun Honey, Yellow Mama, and Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine. A longer story is scheduled to appear in Crimespree Magazine.