Darkness and the Man in the Window
“It’s raining, it’s pouring,
the old man is snoring;
he bumped his head,
and went to bed,
and couldn’t get up in the morning.”
Andrew Bennett was tired of killing people.
In his twenty years working as a gardener, he had been hired by three separate estates to trim both their hedges and their family trees, and while he’d appreciated the extra cash and the opportunity to utilize his highly underestimated artistic flare, his partnership with the grim reaper had taken its toll.
It was due to this fatigue, this growing hollow place inside his chest, that he was absolutely dreading his eight-o’clock-in-the-morning meeting with Morticia. But if Andrew was anything, he was a man of his word, and so at seven-fifty-seven on August 29th, his knobbly, weathered fist rapped sharply three times on her heavy black wooden door.
“Punctual as always,” she said tartly. Her smile sent a troupe of ants parading up his spine, but he simply smiled back at her. They did not speak as she led him through the cavernous front entry of her manor house, down a hallway, and into her drawing room. Andrew personally found it strange that the drawing room was at the back of the house, but the view onto the lawn he groomed so meticulous was quite nice.
“Coffee, if you’ve got it.”
“Of course.” And she poured a steaming cup of coffee, its aroma warming Andrew to his very core, giving him the courage he had been grasping for since entering this vapid house.
“I don’t want to do it, you know.” His words came out a great deal sharper than he’d meant them to. As she slunk toward him, cup of coffee extended, he braced himself. She simply continued to smile.
“I don’t see that you have a choice,” she said quietly, once she was directly in front of him. He gulped.
“Is that so?”
“I know what you’ve done. What you are. I could turn you in.”
Andrew stared into her cold eyes, his heart nothing but a heap of ash. His eyes burned, bile stinging his throat, his stomach in the soles of his feet. He had a family that loved him, and a granddaughter that thought he was the most precious thing in the world. He couldn’t bear to make them deal with his mistakes. He sat down on the uncomfortable sofa, and accepted the coffee from Morticia.
“There, now. Let’s discuss the specifics.”
She took her time arranging herself amidst some lavish cushions on a sofa across from him, and took her time again studying his anguished features with devilish intent written all over her angular face.
“As you know my husband and I own the morgue here in town, so first of all I’d like to extend our sincere thanks to you for all the business you’ve brought us.”
Andrew tried to swallow his coffee, but his throat had turned to a roll of sandpaper, coiling tighter and tighter, and as he spluttered and choked she gave a tinkling laugh that made him want to hurl the delicate porcelain cup right at her face. He didn’t though. He steadied himself, taking off his cap and resting it on his corduroyed knee.
She continued to speak. “As it happens, Mr. Bennet, my husband and I are well connected people. We know who comes into our morgue just as well as we know who put them there. And now that we’re in a spot of trouble, we can only be bothered to hire the best help in town.”
“I’ll garden for free for you,” Andrew ground out.
“Actually you’ll have to be fired as my gardener, you’ll understand that I can’t be connected to you once you’ve done the job. It’s a great pity too because we’ve been nothing short of thrilled with the work you do.” She cast an appreciative gaze over her shoulder to the back lawn of the house, with the pretty garden beds and well groomed hedges.
“No, I need you to kill someone for me. And make it look like an accident.”
“Would you get to the point, madam?” Andrew said. He was nauseous and wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hole and never face the sun again, and she was clearly toying with him.
“I need you to kill a surgeon.”
Andrew blinked. He leaned back. He let out a booming laugh that took both himself and Morticia by surprise. It wasn’t that he thought it was particularly funny, but stress plays strange tricks on the mind. It was an impulse. He took the last gulp of his coffee and set the cup roughly on the polished table between them.
“And why would I do that?”
“It’s actually quite strange. A little funny, really.”
“My name is Morticia and I own a morgue. Does that not point you toward any ideas?”
“You have a dark sense of humour,” Andrew ventured weakly.
“My darling, I am Death, incarnate.”
There was a stark silence in which Andrew considered the very real possibility that the woman before him was raving mad.
“Is that so?” was all he said.
“This surgeon is after my husbands career, so I need to fix that. And, I need to have it look like one in a string of many unfortunate events.”
“A few things there,” Andrew said, and he stood up and began pacing, trying to burn off the nervous energy. “First of all, does your husband know what he’s married to? and second, why can’t you just kill him yourself?”
She didn’t miss a beat. “No, he doesn’t know. He thinks I’m an ordinary woman. And I can’t kill the surgeon myself because it’s against the rules. They wouldn’t let me.”
Andrew returned to his seat, not taking the bait to ask who “they” were. As his knee began bouncing convulsively and he rubbed his palms together to stop them prickling, he asked, “how could a surgeon be after a morticians job? Aren’t those direct opposites?”
For the first time, Morticia’s smile wavered. She rose and refilled their cups, taking a few steadying breaths. The twisting in Andrew’s gut intensified. That hollow place in his chest was swallowing up what was left of him, and if he carried this act out, he knew that would be the final straw.
Morticia handed him the full cup and he gripped it, savouring the warmth it provided. It grounded him, made him feel real, and human. She sat, and finally met his eyes.
“Whenever anyone pictures Death as a person, they picture the devil, or a creature in black cloak. Someone with horrible intentions and a penchant for evil. That isn’t who I am though. I have a schedule to follow, lists to maintain, it’s actually quite stressful. I don’t go around with a pitchfork killing people — big fan of your pitchfork murder, by the way, I thought that was really clever. Anyway, I simply facilitate death.”
Andrew wasn’t sure he understood how you could facilitate death without causing it, and he didn’t appreciate being called out for one of his killings either. He said nothing, and she continued.
“I normally visit the local hospitals, under the guise of asking for follow-ups on our paper work. Those nurses are always getting it wrong. But I also visit the wards. I go to the ICU, and I speak to people. I see who is ready. I check it against my books.”
Morticia stood, and crossed to the end of the room where vast bookshelves lined the walls. Andrew thought it was a shelf full of prop books, and wondered privately if she was just trying to seem impressive. But she ran an expert finger along the spines, selecting one once she was sure, and brought it to show Andrew. She sat next to him on his sofa, and he would have sworn before God the air got colder.
She opened the book, and he was stunned to see a ledger.
“This is last year,” she said, with the air of an accountant in a business meeting telling him he really ought to trim his expenses. Looking closer at the pages, Andrew saw that beside each name was a date, and in a third column there seemed to be one of four letters. N, M, A, or S.
“What are these for?” He asked, pointing to an N.
“N is for natural. A is accident, M is murder, and S – ”
“I see,” Andrew cut across her. “You still haven’t told me what mistake you made. Stop stalling.”
Morticia sighed and went back to her sofa. Andrew was grateful to feel warmth return to the air around him. His head was getting fuzzy. It was as though he could hear a faint static, and see faint blurs in the edges of his vision. His pulse had quickened, and all together he felt quite ill. His eyes flicked to the lawn, and he imagined could smell the freshly mown grass and damp earth. Andrew swallowed, and the acid in his throat burned a little.
“I was at the hospital, and I overheard the surgeon talking to a technician. This surgeon happens to be my husband’s twin brother, and they also went through school together. One became a surgeon, the other a mortician, and everyone found it darkly funny. Anyway, I heard that he wants to take over my husband’s business. He wants to commodify his patients even further. It’s sickening. I was angry. I acted rashly. I wanted to make a note so I’d remember to talk to my husband about it and I just wrote the name of the surgeon down.”
“In your ledger?” Andrew asked. This was the most ridiculous story he’d ever heard, and vowed to himself that once he was out of this mess he was going to retire once and for all and never leave his house if he could help it.
“It’s not something that can be undone.”
“So I have to kill a man for you because you wrote down his name, have I got that right?”
“I’m so glad you understand.”
“I don’t,” he said, nonplussed.
“If he’s successful he will basically become a serial killer. He will make sure his patients die, so he can send them to his morgue, and double the bill for their loved ones. His name is in the ledger. So it’s final. I haven’t written a date yet. When can you get the job done?”
Andrew blinked at her. “You can’t be serious,” he spluttered, beginning to stand, but she lifted and imperious finger and he halted. He thought of his family, his granddaughter, and the dark hole in his heart.
“I will do it on one condition. Don’t pay me. Write down my name too.”
“What?” Morticia whispered. Her eyes were wide, and the flare she normally spoke with was replaced by an almost childlike awe.
“I am old. I hate myself. I’ve become a monster. Either kill me here and now, or if you insist I do it, kill me afterward. I can’t have my family knowing what I’ve done, so I’ll do what you say if it will protect them from knowing. But I don’t want to be around after.”
“That’s no way to talk, Andrew. What’s one more?” She said it soothingly, like a mother speaking to a child being theatrical over a mild case of the sniffles.
“What’s one more?” He croaked. “What’s…? It’s everything. I’m being swallowed up, and not much of me is left as it is. You’re pushing me over the edge. You’re driving me to it.” He was spitting the words at her, but she did not flinch.
She spoke in a dark, low voice. “Making a deal with Death is no laughing matter, Andrew Bennet.”
“You’re the one striking the deal here. You’re welcome to walk away, and neither of us gets what we want.”
She did not answer. She picked up a pen that had been on the table between them, and slowly opened her ledger on her lap.
“Simon Travers is the name of the surgeon,” she said, pointing her pen at the spot on the page that marked Simon’s fate. With a flourish, she began slowly etching a name underneath it, in the next vacancy.
“Andrew Bennet. Call me when you’ve finished the job, and I will add the date for your entry.”
It was about noon when Andrew Bennet finally left Morticia’s house. She’d told him what hospital Simon worked at, and he’d said he’d call her.
The hollow spot in his chest was writhing and expanding, pushing on his lungs so that he was panting for breath. He walked through downtown, and as he passed a shop window he saw a hunched, careworn man slouching down the street with no trace of life left in his eyes. It was his reflection, of course. His cellphone rang, and he watched the man in the shop window reach into the pocket of his jacket and answer the call.
“Hi, Grandpa!” Came the happy little voice. He looked away from the man in the window, unable to watch.
“Hello, dear,” he said happily. She mustn’t know anything was wrong.
“Mom said next weekend we’re gonna come visit you,” she said happily. They talked for a minute, and he promised they’d make cookies and watch her favourite movie, and go out for lunch somewhere special, and then he hung up. He couldn’t handle this. Not again.
As he continued past shops, the man in the window fell into step beside him. He allowed a small smile to cross both their features, appreciating that the lighting was just right that day so that he didn’t feel like he was walking to the hospital alone. Feeling alone is so much worse than simply being alone, Andrew thought. Today, the world seemed to have understood that he couldn’t feel alone. Not now.
It was an odd twist in the tapestry of life that caused Andrew Bennet to become a gardener in the first place. He had been a factory worker, close to retirement because his lungs couldn’t handle it much longer. His wife had suggested that he take up gardening on the weekends, to force him to get outside and clear his lungs. He’d fixed up their front lawn so beautifully, that when his wife threw his retirement party and invited the neighbours, he got quite a few requests. It was the combination of his exacting eye for careful detail, and his vision for what things could be, that gave him his edge.
As he thought of this edge of his, the man in the shop windows looked at him and seemed to say do you remember how proud you were of your plan? He’d set up an elaborate mouse trap of gardening tools that resulted in his wife’s killer being run through in his own backyard. Technically an accident, and while many of that man’s neighbours had seen Andrew milling about the place tending to the flower beds, they’d also seen him carefully arranging his tool box every day. They knew him to be a measured, thoughtful man. Never absent-minded. He’d gotten off scot free.
What about the second time, we weren’t so careful then, were we? The man in the window mocked. But Andrew was approaching the intersection in front of the hospital, and he decided it was too exhausting to go through his own ledger, so he said goodbye to the man in the windows. He crossed, and headed up the steep steps to the front doors.
The lobby of the hospital was lit by large green-blue glass walls, giving the impression that it was a gloomy, rainy day outside despite the sun. It was sombre and sterile, and Andrew heaved a sigh as he approached the reception desk.
“I have an appointment with Simon Travers, could you tell me where his office is please?”
“Of course, and may I get a name?” Said the receptionist without glancing up from her screen.
“I’m a good friend of his brother, Scott, actually. My name is Andrew.”
“I don’t see you here.”
“His brother sent me. We spoke on the phone. Where’s his office?”
“Whatever. Fourth floor, room two-fifty-one.”
He walked away without thanking her.
On the fourth floor, he got off the elevator and was greeted by a wide hallway, across which was a large cafe and seating space. Andrew felt the hollow spot inside him settle into a calm, background type of feeling, as a mixture of resolve, focus, and resignation took over his mind. He glanced at the signs on a post which told him that the room he was looking for was to his left. He crossed the hall and bought two coffees, then took them to a table in the corner where he could look out over the balcony at the floors below.
He wasn’t really looking though. The main thing was that his back was to the hallway.
He unzipped his jacket a little bit, and pulled out an envelop. Inside were some dried plants he’d brought with him. While he hadn’t known who Morticia had wanted him to take care of, he’d known what the meeting was about, and he’d come prepared. Being a gardener had given him certain advantages.
To the untrained eye, he was an old man sitting alone with two cups of coffee, looking at a dried Queen Ann’s Lace flower, possibly mourning the death of a loved one, or else praying for their swift and safe recovery. To an expert however, he was carefully avoiding touching the Hemlock roots with his bare skin, as he rolled the dried stems between the paper of the envelop, dropping the fine powder and liquid from inside the roots into one of the coffees. Highly toxic, all he had to do now was get Simon Travers to take a few sips. He replaced the envelop carefully in his jacket pocket, and rose.
Room two-fifty-one was a prestigious office at the very end of the long hallway. The door was open, and hands laden with coffee, Andrew knocked gently with the toe of his shoe.
“Simon Travers, yes? I’ve been so keen to meet with you.”
Simon Travers looked up from the papers he’d been reading, and his furrowed brow deepened as he said, “sorry, do I know you?”
“No, we haven’t met, young man. I’m here for a chat about your practice,” Andrew said boldly, using the same foot to now ease the door shut. He crossed the room with a confidence and ease of gait that only comes with age and experience.
“There you go, son,” he mumbled, setting the coffee down in front of Simon. He took a seat directly across from him, took a laboured sip of his own coffee, and set it on the edge of the desk with a satisfied “aahhh, there we are.”
“Who are you?” Simon pressed, trying not to be too rude while speaking loudly and slowly.
“Andrew Bennet is the name,” Andrew said in the same tone. Simon’s brows shot up, and he pursed his lips, an invitation for Andrew to continue.
Looking at the young man before him, the hollow darkness in Andrew’s chest reared up, pushing on his lungs so hard he felt he might faint, pushing up his throat so that he could barely speak, and reaching his brain to form a dark cloud over his thoughts. He couldn’t very well snatch the coffee back, could he. His palms prickled with sweat, and he suddenly became aware of his own body odour. It was too late. His head was swimming. He was here. It was about to happen. Again. He didn’t want to watch. He shut his eyes, pressing his lids so tightly together he thought he might be able to force blindness upon himself.
“Are you okay?” Simon’s voice sounded a long way off. Andrew hadn’t prepared anything to say to this young man. His plan had simply been to give him the coffee.
“Listen, sir, I’ve got a surgery I have to perform in an hour. If you have something to say, spit it out.”
And just like that, eyes screwed shut, a blinding clarity came over him. Maybe he wasn’t a bad person. He had been exacting justice this whole time. Avenging his wife was noble, and preventing the murder of several patients at the hands of a surgeon with a tendency for malpractice, well, that wasn’t so bad either. Andrew opened his eyes. Over Simon’s shoulder was a stunning view of the city. He let his gaze wander, curious if he could spot home from where he was sitting.
“Sir, I’m going to have to insist that you make this quick.”
Andrew’s eyes stayed on the glass but his gaze shifted, so he could see the man in the window again. He supposed he’d followed him from the shops on the street. Andrew watched the man in the window speak to the back of Simon’s head.
“I haven’t got a lot of money and that coffee was a gesture you know,” he snapped. Simon pulled a face, picked up the cup and tilted it toward Andrew as though to say “cheers”, and took a swig.
“Now, I’m here because Morticia said you’re her husband’s twin.”
“Oh, here we go,” Simon said, rubbing a hand over his face. “What did she tell you, that I’m driving her business into the ground because I’m so good at saving people?”
“What? No, she said you’re killing people to support your brother’s business, the business that you plan to steal from him.”
Simon leaned back and let out a laugh without mirth. His chair turned a bit, and he stared out at the city before turning back to Andrew.
“I save people for a living, do you understand that? I could never do something that monstrous.”
“Why should I believe you?” Andrew said, feeling the roiling monster inside him start to gnaw on his ribs.
“Go ask any of the staff on this floor. I’ve been working at this hospital for nearly two decades and I’ve only ever lost two patients on the table, both during my fellowship at the beginning of my career. I’m a miracle worker, Mr. Bennet.”
The smooth arrogance on Simon Travers face was not enough to condemn the man to death. If what he had said was true, Morticia had told a boldfaced lie, though why that should surprise Andrew he did not know. He no longer felt present. The darkness inside him had made its way through his brain, his bones, his heart…he watched Simon raise the coffee for another drink, the whole time staring with a triumphant glint at Andrew.
When he set the cup down again, Andrew could see it was half empty. More than enough had been drunk.
“My mistake then lad, sorry to bother you.”
“Tell Morticia she can rot,” he said darkly. Andrew merely nodded and left the office, careful to close the door behind him.
He made his way out of the hospital, and realized it wasn’t the glass that made the sky look rainy. It was now pouring. He didn’t care. He pulled out his phone, and called Morticia. She answered, and he said, “It’s Andrew. It’s done,” and hung up.
He pulled his hat down more snugly on his head, and let the rain soak him as he stepped outside. He let it work through the thick denim of his jacket, let it make the corduroy of his pants turn to lead from the weight of the water. His feet squelched in his shoes, his socks sliding down and balling up under his toes. He let the water get into his eyes, welcoming the stinging, blurred vision. He let his nose run. He let all these things happen because they grounded him, made him feel present and real and human, even though the dark hollow thing in his chest was doing everything it could to prove otherwise.
He had been right, when he was sitting in Morticia’s drawing room that morning. This murder had been the last straw.
As he walked up the final block into the suburbs where his house sat, he wondered who had been the liar: Morticia, or Simon. He wondered if it mattered. He wondered whether he would have acted differently if it had been Morticia. He wouldn’t have, because she’d blackmailed him. He thought of his sweet granddaughter. He wondered if Simon had a family of his own. He hadn’t bothered to ask.
While he was wondering all this, Andrew hadn’t been paying attention to his footing. His toe caught on a raised lip in the sidewalk that he trod every day - he had memorized this little raised lip and normally carefully stepped over it, but today was different. He crashed to the ground, smacking his head off of the concrete.
He rolled onto his back.
He let the rain thunder onto his face for a moment, allowing it to soothe the stinging on his forehead where his skin had broken. He swiped at his face. There didn’t seem to be too much blood. No one had been around to see Andrew Bennet fall, and as the old man hoisted himself back to standing he felt a small relief that his dignity wasn’t hurt. He shuffled the remaining few steps, not bothering to take his usual glance at his immaculate front lawn as he entered the house.
Though it was only about five in the afternoon, Andrew shuffled upstairs and changed into dry clothes, and climbed into bed. He embraced the weight and warmth of the blankets after the long walk in the rain. He hadn’t turned on any lights, and as the dim early evening light lulled him into that blissful middle state between sleeping and wakefulness, he wondered if Morticia would keep her promise to him.
As the rain kept pouring down, the darkness inside him pounded in his chest and in his head - though he couldn’t be sure if his head didn’t just hurt from its introduction to the sidewalk.
Evening turned to twilight, which turned to night, and the darkness inside him ate up the entire room, easing him into slumber.
When morning came, Andrew Bennet did not wake.
[[[originally posted on my account, spilledinkstories.tumblr.com :) ]]]