In Los Angeles a thick warm brume embraced the city’s inhabitants like an unwanted lover, its suffocating advances objectionable and despised. Fierce and condemning the sweltering heat showed no prejudice, no bias, only devilish contempt as it burned like the fires of hell; not a few cases of heat stroke sending many to meet their maker, forcing others to jostle for scant sidewalk shadows like race horses do the inside rail of the Kentucky Derby. Only the city’s dead were ignorant of the suffering, but even their graves were brown and flowerless.
To the west, in Marina Del Rey, a few blocks from trendy Abbott Kinney Blvd, a mansion looking north with Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains in the distance, stood alone against the heat. The twenty-three-acre estate was in disarray?its groundskeepers fired?two riding lawnmowers abandoned on a trail of cut lawn that stopped like an unfinished highway, as if road crews had left their equipment at a dead end. Other lawn tools (rakes, hoes, trimmers) had been abandoned as if those wielding them had melted under the blistering sun, wisped up and away by hot vapors. There were other oddities: the outdoor pool had been drained and capped; and despite the heat wave, the Jacuzzi was as dry as the day its fiberglass shell was laid. Security lights as big and luminescent as searchlights on a helicopter were placed about the perimeter. It was as if the house was packed up, shutdown, and discontinued like an out-of-season hotel.
Certain structural modifications had been made to the house, as exhibited by a front-loading commercial dumpster sitting on the mansion’s six-car garage driveway. Inside the dumpster, two-by-fours of odd sizes stacked haphazardly like strands of broken fettuccine and discarded pieces of metal furring twisted and coiled, the longer pieces having sharp edges that peered over the dumpster like curious snakes. Within the house safer plastic knives, spoons, and forks replaced metal eating utensils. Every unused electrical outlet had protective inserts. All medications had been removed a week ago, not even an aspirin could be found. There would be no overdose, accident or not. Industrial fire extinguishers??checked daily for a full charge??were located on each floor. Still, twice within the past week, the Los Angeles Fire Department had been called??resulting in two false alarms??because the mansion’s owner thought he had detected the scent of smoke.
On the third floor, in a room suited to be called an enclosed bunker, a desperate man coward like a frightened child behind newly installed three-inch metal walls. Despite the best efforts of an oscillating fan turbulently whirling in one corner of the room, he profusely sweated. The man had no idea what the weather was like outside, for the unbearable external heat was masked by the mansion’s two central air conditioners that had pumped furiously for several days. No. The apprehensive man had no idea what was going on in the world, not since he?d locked himself in his man-made steel enclosure several days ago.
A strangled gasp escaped his trembling lips as he watched a wall clock tick silently away. The time was 6:30 PM. He shook his head in despair. I?m dead, he admitted. As if hypnotized, he stood underneath the wall clock and stared. Below average height, he strained his neck, and caught his breath when 6:30 became 6:31.
Hopelessness filled his countenance with absolute resignation. For the umpteenth time he wiped nervous sweat from his eyes. Despite the oscillating ceiling fan he could feel the fires of hell drawing close, licking his body like hungry tongues anticipating a scheduled meal. A meal, he mused bitterly, that’s what I am.
His mental equilibrium was shot. It had been that way for weeks. He teetered on the edge of madness and would have welcomed the disabling consequence of insanity. But things were all too clear??he understood exactly what his future held. The hangman’s noose has a way of bringing clarity of thought to the most bizarre of situations.
Shivering with fear he surrendered to the hopelessness of his condition. He stood transfixed under the clock and watched another minute expire, never to return, gone forever, forgotten and pointless when all a man has left is impending doom. Nothing more. Just doom.
His eyes blinked involuntarily with each passing minute, as if each sixty-second transition of time was accompanied by a gun’s loud report. What have I done? Then he answered his own question, a condemning grin in his mind. You sold your soul, you idiot.
Dear God! How he regretted his fateful meeting with the tall man in the hat.
Twenty years had transpired since that cursed meeting when he made that contract with evil. At the time it seemed like a good idea: the fame, drugs, women??all of it, all of everything. What a wild adventure it had been. But things change with time. And now it was time to pay up, and no power on earth would negate that fact. A rueful expression changed to a forlorn one, godforsaken and hopeless. The contract for his soul was firm, clear...final. Was it worth it? He didn?t need to answer; his shaking bones confirmed what he already knew.
He jerked uncontrollably as another minute disappeared, watched the remnants of his life wind down like a worn-out spring of an antique watch. And that had been it from the start: just winding down. Twenty years of fame and fortune coming to an end.
He stared at the clock. Each second seemed to transpire faster than the previous one. There was no escape from the tall man in the hat. It dawned on him that the analog clock would keep running long after he was dead. He had bought it at the beginning of the year; its? shape??a brass techno head??was never a determining factor for purchase. He purchased it because of its synchronization with atomic clocks used by Global Positioning Systems. The clock was never wrong.
He truly hated that clock, but he stared anyway, watching another minute expire. His oval face sagged, fleshy jowls dangling from despondency. His nose, the shape of a Western Meadowlark’s bill wrinkled at its bridge as if smelling the stench of his impending doom. His walnut shaped eyes hid under bushy, unkempt eyebrows that supported a furrowed brow. Gray speckled stubble covered his face. It had been several days since the sharp edge of a razor had touched his neck. Since the psychological feeling of despair was more real to him than the olfactory property of bad hygiene, a bodily odor hung thickly about him?’shower floors were ominous, wet and slippery and best not used.
Another minute ticked off. He shuddered again. His entire body shook to the core.
There was not, unfortunately, much he could do. Tragically, others would follow in his place, lines of eager men??men darker than he??jostling for position like hyenas at another’s kill, each wanting more in exchange for their soul; all eventually finding themselves in the same dilemma. Yes. Everyone had his time under cover of night, and with the rising of the sun all would inevitably pay in full, just as he was about to do.
The man blinked as if coming out of a trance, and gazed about the room through thick glasses that couldn?t hide the dark circles under his eyes. Lines of regret compressed on a high forehead as he surveyed the walls that had become his prison. Platinum covered plaques hung everywhere, each one indicating another multimillion selling rock ?n? roll hit. Numerous pictures signed by influential and powerful people in the recording business hung as reminders that his singing career was long and successful. And now it was time to pay up.
One soul for a glorious singing career; wasn?t that the deal? The answer burned panic into his hazel eyes. An involuntary shrill of fear ran up his spine and caused him to shudder again. His eyes darted back and forth, searching for a way to escape, but he was imprisoned??a frightened man finding solace in an artificial womb of decorative wall panels over hardened steel.
Stark naked, he crossed the room. He wanted nothing on his person, not a single thread of stitching that might catch fire, nothing that might hide a poisonous snake or a deadly spider. He even forsook his hairpiece. The same hairpiece his fans always saw him with. Long and full it lay like road kill on the room’s huge mahogany desk. He moved behind that desk. As he sat, his stick-white legs seemed to buckle under the pronounced weight of his short frame. Through the years he had become fat, but not obese; liposuction and tummy staples had ensured that.
Fearfully, he glanced back at the clock, hoping another minute hadn?t yet expired. He wished he hadn?t looked. Disappointment metamorphosed into desperation. Like a bed-bound invalid on life support he was close to taking his last breath. His life was over; he could never escape??he had a bargain to keep. But the intrinsic nature of self-preservation had its own inertia, providing him with the will to try. So try he did.
His shaking hand reached across the desk to manipulate an intercom system. He toggled the switch for the guard at the front door of the house. Leaning close to the microphone he spoke with the dullness of someone who has repeated the same name over and over.
"Preston." He waited for a moment, and then leaned closer. "Preston?"
After a few anxious moments a voice finally came over the speaker. "I?m here."
Preston’s voice sounded bored over the expensive two-way radio he grasped in one hand, the other hand expertly manipulating a switchblade. With that knife he notched another mark representing another call from his employer??fifteen in the last three hours??on the front door frame of the mansion. Preston was a lean, ropy man. Only twenty-three years of age his sleepy eyes??hidden under dark eyebrows and a bushy tuft of long, dark hair??had, in his adolescent years, attracted young girls. That attraction abated after drifting from job to job.
"Anything?have you seen anything?" the mansion’s owner asked, nervousness in his voice. Preston used the knife’s blade to pick out a piece of evening dinner from his teeth. "Preston!"
Preston’s cheeks bubbled and then exhaled. "Paranoid moron," he remarked, to no one. His eyes rolled as he brought the two-way to his mouth and pressed the transmit button.
"Nothing’sir." His tongue scooted across molars, finding food fragments and spitting them out. "Everything is clear."
The terrified man toggled a switch connected to a different guard stationed at the back of the house. "Simpson," he said, fearful expectancy inching into his tone.
Simpson was a new hire with a new family. He had that terrified look of a young man realizing the responsibilities of family and life. Just out of high school, he had recently regretted not applying himself to studying. Instead, he had wasted his time trying to be the next Michael Jordan. Skipping classes to play basketball kept him in the dark regarding his ability until after graduation. He responded quickly.
"All clear, sir. Excuse me, but I?ve got to use the restroom."
"You?ve seen no one?"
"No one, sir. May I??"
The man toggled a third switch. "Jenkins."
In the hall outside the triple-bolted three-inch steel door that was the only entrance to this man-made prison, another guard responded. This security man was the largest of the three guards. Broad in the shoulders and thick in the neck, he looked like a comic book hero with indestructible muscles. The guard’s resume stated he held a black belt in karate. His employer didn?t mind that the man did time for assault and battery, as well.
"Yeah?" The guard had a deep voice that rumbled slowly, a confident voice.
"Stay on your toes, Jenkins." The anxious man glanced at the clock. "He?ll be here any minute."