Thursday, January 9, 2014

Two Percent (Revised Version)

Genre: Horror

Daniel Skye (Randy Benivegna)

            There’s one crucial fact they neglect to mention when you sign up for law school: In order to do this job–fully commit to it–you have to be willing to abandon your soul in the process. That’s what they really should be teaching you.
            They should be teaching you how digest all the lies. How to carry the guilt, how to live with the secrets. Most imperatively, they should be teaching you how to silence that annoying little voice in your head. We all know that voice; the voice of reason. That tiny thing called a conscience.
            And over the years you’ll have to do plenty of things that disagree with your conscience. Basically, you’ll need to forget you have a conscience.
            In the courtroom, the truth is insignificant when your ultimate goal is victory. Win your case, earn a fat paycheck and makes all your colleagues’ at the firm green with envy. Lose your case and you’re one step closer to losing your cushy position with the firm. Lose the firm and no other firm will want to hire you. Your only career option from there is the dreaded assignment of public defender.
            Nobody bothered to alert Adam Keller of these facts. No one warned him of how this job would peck and gnaw away at his spirit. The impact it would have on his health, the toll it would take on his body. Nope, nobody said a word to poor Adam Keller. They just let him pay his tuition and learn the hard way.
            At age thirty-five, Adam’s hair was already falling out. Every year his hair grew thinner. His bald spot grew wider, forming that classic horseshoe-like pattern of hair around the base of his skull. In the pit of his stomach, a gastric ulcer had formed. The pain was often debilitating, and left Adam dependent on heavy-duty painkillers.
The pain grew so intense that simple painkillers like vicodin and Percocet just weren’t doing the trick anymore. So Keller’s doctor opted to try something different.
Exalgos, a new drug that had just hit the market. Top of the line stuff, two hundred dollars a bottle for ninety pills. Since the drug was fairly new, they were not fully aware what, if any, long-term side effects it might carry. And due to its strong potency, Keller’s doctor recommended use in moderation.
Once Adam Keller was made aware of the basic side effects (nausea, dry mouth, constipation, dizziness, vomiting, fatigue, lightheadedness, impaired vision, etc.) his doctor notified him of the two-percent factor. Two percent of all patients who take the drug are liable to suffer strokes, seizures, blood clots, or abnormal changes in vision. It was a rare occurrence, but like all prescriptions drugs, the risks were present.
But Keller was a gambling man, and he liked the odds. And it sounded no worse than any other pharmaceutical available on the market. Go figure, the cure is potentially more threatening than the affliction.
* * *
            Tuesday, December 3, 2013.
            Adam left the firm early that afternoon to have lunch with a client–Vito “The Shark” Corelli. It was Keller’s brilliant courtroom magic that had saved Vito from two consecutive life sentences. Not only was Keller able to woo the jury and sway them all into believing his client’s innocence, he was able to provide Vito with an airtight alibi for the night of the murders, though he had to call in a few favors for that one.
            There were no prints on the gun found at the scene and it wasn’t registered to Vito. Hell, it wasn’t registered to anybody. The serial number had been filed off and the gun was impossible to trace. There were no witnesses and the only shred of evidence they had was a traffic ticket Vito’s BMW got for blowing a red light ten blocks from the scene on the night in question.
            But the grainy photos from the red light cameras were not enough to prove it was Vito himself driving the car, and Corelli had reported the vehicle stolen three days prior to the murders.
            The judge–though certain of Corelli’s guilt–was forced to acknowledge the evidence was not substantial enough for conviction. The jury agreed and Corelli was declared “not guilty” within a few hours.
            Vito had invited Keller down to the Shark Shack, Vito’s restaurant for burgers and beers. Hey, every mobster needs a legitimate business for tax purposes.
            “I can’t thank you enough,” Vito said in between shots of tequila and pitchers of beer. “You really came through for me again.”
            “It was a piece of cake,” Keller insisted, averting his eyes from Corelli so as to not make contact with his. “They knew they had no evidence to go on. And juries are always easy to manipulate. You just have to show them a shred of reasonable doubt and they’ll argue and debate for hours until everyone breaks down and votes not guilty. I’ve seen it happen a million times before.”
            Keller stared down at his half eaten burger, plate full of French fries and ketchup. The pile of dried up ketchup turned Keller’s stomach, as it bared a strange resemblance of blood to him. It reminded him of the blood his hands were stained in from helping Vito beat the charges for whacking that couple.
            “You know the one thing this celebration is missing?” Vito chirped with glee. “Cigars and strippers. Stick around and I’ll make a few calls. We’ll close the restaurant for the day and get a real party going in here.”
            “That’s one hell of an offer, Mr. Corelli,” Keller said, clutching at his stomach. He couldn’t tell if his ulcer was acting up or if he was just genuinely sickened by this man’s presence.
            “Vito,” Corelli corrected him. “Please, always call me Vito.”
            “Vito… that’s a very generous offer, but I’m afraid I can’t stick around. I’ve got some more business to attend to at the firm. Unfortunately the work never stops for me. But thanks for the food, the drinks, for everything.” He shook off his coat and got up to excuse himself.
            “Don’t mention it,” Vito replied. “I owe you one, Adam. I really do. Anything you need, call me and I’ll make it happen.”
            Sure, Adam thought as he bundled up with his gloves and coat and walked away from the table. And then I’ll owe you a favor for the rest of my life. Thanks, but no thanks.
            As Keller stepped through the stained glass doors of the Shark Shack, the pain in his stomach did not diminish. It only seemed to intensify as he walked further and further to his blue Lamborghini.
            Just go back to the office and get through the rest of this day, Adam thought. You’ll feel better once you get home.
* * *
            For Adam, home was a high-rise apartment building in the downtown section of Ocean City. The building was a sixty-story filing cabinet for unmarried couples, widows, divorcees, swinging bachelors, and raving lunatics of every variety. The tenants are all diverse to say the least. While the rent was high and the apartments were spacious and luxurious, the walls were disappointingly thin and provided Keller with little solitude from his surrounding neighbors.
            It was around eight o’clock that evening when Keller strolled into the lobby with his Halliburton briefcase swinging at his side. He greeted the doorman with a crisp twenty dollar bill and strutted to the elevator like he owned the place.
            Adam bumped into one of his neighbors on the way up and realized they’d be sharing the elevator. Milton Snodgrass was a cartoonist for the Daily Buzz and was a total dweeb in Keller’s eyes. Milton had a penchant for gaudy neckties and cheap aftershave lotion. And he sported horn-rimmed glasses that only served to solidify his nerdy status. He was the only tenant Adam went out of his way to avoid conversation with, but today there was no dodging him.
            They stepped into the elevator together and as the doors slid closed, Adam pressed the button for the forty-sixth floor.
“What’s the difference between a lawyer and a prostitute?” Milton quipped. He didn’t even give Adam time to guess before he answered his own question. “A prostitute only screws one person at a time.”
            Adam sighed. “That joke was a lot funnier when you told it last week… and the week before that.” There was exasperation in his voice, but Milton failed to pick up on it.
            Adam found himself counting each floor, silently cursing the elevator and its gears for not moving faster. Sixty floors in the whole building and they had to stick him on the same floor as Milton Snodgrass. Talk about your harsh luck of the draw.
            As they reached their floor, the elevator buzzed as it came to the halt and the doors parted. Adam said a brief farewell to Milton and bolted from the elevator. He already had his keys in hand before he approached the door to his apartment.
            Adam entered, locking the door behind him and tossing his coat and briefcase aside. He dropped his keys and thick wallet on the Formica countertop in his kitchen and moved swiftly through the living room.
            His apartment was a spacious, two-bedroom setup that overlooked the park from his living room windows. The bedroom on the left of the hall was his. The bedroom to the right was reserved for guests, though he was mainly using it for storage at the time.
            He grabbed the remote for his fifty-inch flat screen and flipped the television on, and then moved into the bedroom, the television serving as nothing more than background noise. He changed from his two-piece Armani suit into his basic home attire; silk red pajamas and matching slippers. Then he returned to the kitchen and fixed himself a stiff glass of whiskey.
            Planting himself in front of the TV on his suede couch, he massaged his throbbing temples with his middle and index fingers. His skull was pounding like a drum and felt inflated to the size of a Thanksgiving Day parade float.
            Unrelaxed, he got up and headed straight for the medicine cabinet. His bathroom was roughly the size of a high school classroom, and with the superintendents permission, Adam had installed a Jacuzzi next to the shower-bathtub combo. But the Jacuzzi was the last thing on Adam’s mind as he fetched the aspirin bottle from the top shelf of the cabinet. He shook two loose from the bottle and swallowed them dry, no water, hoping it would soon alleviate his migraine.
            It was a bit of a catch-22. Adam was aware of the fact that regular abuse of aspirin can actually cause or even worsen an ulcer. But as noted, Adam was a risk taker and it was the only thing that seemed to assist with his constant migraines. He also knew it wasn’t wise to mix alcohol with his medications. Another risk he was perfectly willing to take.
            Though, it was a dangerous game to play with the ulcer. The alcohol often exacerbated the pain and intensified that burning sensation in his gut. He returned to the couch, sipped his Jameson, flipped through the five-hundred plus channels on his flat screen TV.
After a few minutes, the sharp pains in his gut flared up. This sent him scrambling frantically for his pain pills. He twisted the cap off the bottle and dropped two small oval pills into his hand. He downed both with a swig of Jameson and prayed for them to kick in soon.
But half an hour and one awful sitcom later, the pain was still present. In fact, it only seemed to be getting worse. Adam decided to throw caution to the wind and take another pill, another thing his doctor advised against. He placed it on his tongue and gulped it down with another sip of Jameson.
They say the third time is usually the charm, and this was no exception. The extra dose of Exalgos seemed to do the trick as the burning sensation in his stomach quickly subsided and he was able to rest comfortably again.
The meds, combined with the alcohol, put Adam in a tranquil state. His eyelids fluttered and he couldn’t stop himself from yawning. Next thing he knew, he wasn’t sitting up anymore. He was sprawled out on the couch, legs propped up, eyes ready to close. He drifted off peacefully, without any resistance.
* * *
It was near midnight when Adam woke to find himself in a cold sweat. He was nauseous, dizzy. His skin was beet red and itchy. He was cold on the outside, but the inside of his body felt as though it had been set ablaze. He tried to pull himself up, but in his disoriented state, collapsed back onto the couch.
Then he heard the noises. The faint skittering sounds across his hardwood floors. He rolled to the left side of the couch, where the end table was placed. Atop the end table was a lamp his mother had given him at last Christmas.
Adam reached out and yanked a thin silver chain dangling from under the lampshade. The light popped on and Adam twitched at the very sight. He let out a loud wail and proceeded to scream at the top of his lungs, “Spiders!”
A whole horde of them swarmed across his living room floor. Each one was easily the size of a fist. Hideous black pear-shaped bodies with red spots painted across their hairy backs. Long angular legs like needles.
They were creeping up the walls, hanging from the ceilings. They were crawling up the sink drain, bursting through from the fixtures. They were everywhere.
At this point, Adam had leapt from the couch and was hopping around like a frog in search of a lily pad. The spiders were clinging to his body, crawling up his silk pajama shirt. He felt one squirming around inside the leg of his pajama bottoms. He even felt a few brushing against his thin scraps of hair.
Writhing in fear, he swatted away as many as he could. Brushed the eight-legged beasts from his hair. Then he pulled up his pajama leg and smacked away the hairy black monstrosity that was creeping up his thigh.
He snatched the lamp from the end table and hurled it across the room. It shattered against the floor and sent the spiders scattering in every direction. But their departure was temporary as they only seemed to regroup and return in larger numbers.
Adam realized there was nothing in the living room he could use at his disposal to fight them off. He would have to make it to the kitchen. Stomping through the living room with his slippers, he felt hundreds, maybe of thousands of them squish and crunch under his feet. But for each spider he snuffed, two or three more would appear crawling out from the darkness. The entire living room floor was a solid canvas of black and red.
He finally made it to the kitchen, which was also teeming with the eight-legged freaks. He couldn’t take a step without hearing that nasty crunch underfoot.
The closest object in reach was a kitchen knife. He grabbed it by the handle, not even sure what he intended to do with it. He wasn’t a do-it-yourself kind of guy and he didn’t have any tools handy, save for a screwdriver. What he needed was an ax. A sledgehammer. A blowtorch. A submachine gun. Anything but a frigging kitchen knife.
Knife in hand, he stomped his way back into the living room and eyed the door. If he could run his way through this horde and make it to the door, he’d be safe, free.
He wailed again as a brief, sharp pain shot up his leg. Out of this mass of spiders, one of them had managed to sink its fangs deep into Keller’s ankle.
Adam collapsed in seconds as the toxic venom coursed through his veins. On his back, Adam writhed and squirmed, trying to make it to his feet. He still had the knife in his hand.
He helplessly watched as the light fixture of the ceiling gave way, releasing a cascade of spiders that flooded his open mouth. He choked, gagged as they crawled down his throat, filling up his belly.
His stomach stung and swelled like an air balloon. The pain was relentless, the pressure unbearable. His body twitched and convulsed involuntarily. He was too weak, his throat too hoarse to scream. But if he had the capacity, all sixty floors would’ve heard his final screams echoing throughout the halls.
His belly swelled and distended to such a degree that it could no longer endure the strain. With a loud pop, Adam burst from the inside, and a parade of black spiders came pouring out just as they had entered.
A fist pounded against the outside of his door, and a familiarly unpleasant voice chimed through. “Adam, it’s me, Milton. Are you all right in there? I thought I heard screaming.”
Adam tried to respond. Tried not to focus on all the blood, the steaming pile of entrails that rested near his feet. Tried to keep his eyes from closing. But sleep was too big a temptation to ignore. His eyes shut and all he could see was black. He embraced it, and slipped deep into a world of cold darkness.
* * *
Milton Snodgrass spent the next several hours conversing with the police. Once the superintendent was summoned to unlock the door, the cops found Keller sprawled out on his living room floor. A large kitchen knife was grasped tightly in one hand, stained with blood. His body had been split open from the sternum to the waistline.
“You’re positive you heard screams?” one of the officers asked.
“I’m sure,” Snodgrass replied. “He was ranting and raving about spiders.”
“We’ve searched every inch of this apartment and we haven’t found evidence of a single spider.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Milton shrugged. “I know he was under a lot of stress and he was on some heavy-duty meds.”
“What kind of meds?”
“Painkillers. You think that might have factored in?”
“Could be,” the officer responded. “We’ll know more when we get the toxicology and autopsy reports back. In the meantime, it looks like we could be dealing with a homicide or a suicide. There are no signs of forced entry, but the broken lamp indicates signs of a struggle. Do you know of anyone who would have cause to hurt this man?”
“The guy was a lawyer,” Milton informed the officer. “I’m sure you’ll have a long list of suspects to go on. But I personally don’t know anyone who hated him enough to kill him.”
“So you’re saying there were people who hated him?”
“Like I said, the guy was a lawyer. Half the building hated him. He treated the place like it was his own personal palace.”
“I know the type,” the officer smirked. “My brother-in-law is this big shot attorney from New York. He’s got his share of enemies too. As for Mr. Keller, we’ll know more once we get the official report.”
“Shame,” Milton sighed. “He was only thirty-five. Am I free to go?” The officer gave him a dismissive nod and sent him on his way.
As he walked to Adam’s door, Milton heard a dull crunching sound as a solitary spider was crushed beneath the weight of his shoe.

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