Monday, July 10, 2017
By Daniel Skye
The man–if you could really call him a man–had great difficulty recalling his Christian name. Rick was the loving handle his parents gave him. But he and Gloria had gone by so many aliases over the years.
Jack and Jill.
Albert and Victoria.
Harold and Maude.
Sid and Nancy.
That night, their names were John and Jackie, and they were celebrating their twentieth anniversary. Of course they hadn’t even known each other for twenty years, nor were they married. Rick and Gloria were grifters, con artists. Some of the best in the game. And they never paid for their meals.
Rick had a term for it. “Dine and Dash.”
Though Gloria preferred the phrase “Chew and Screw.” At least she didn’t call it “Gulp and Blow”, Rick thought.
But it wasn’t like Rick and Gloria invented the scheme. They just stole the idea like they stole everything else in life. You walk in, order your meal, eat your food, and then walk out without paying the bill. It worked for a while, until Gloria devised her own system.
They would go to fancy, upscale restaurants, posing as a married couple celebrating their big twentieth anniversary. They would make a huge spectacle of it, making toasts and longwinded speeches, sending glasses of (cheap) champagne to other tables. The surrounding patrons would stand up and applaud and clink their glasses together, toasting the happy couple.
And Gloria surmised that inevitably, some rich sucker would pick up their tab out of sheer generosity. And Gloria’s plan never failed. Everywhere they went, there was some wealthy big shot who wanted to pick up their check and be the talk of the restaurant.
That night, it was dinner at La Bistro, an establishment as pretentious as its name implied. Being that it was a French restaurant, they both ordered the duck-a-l’orange, along with a sparkling white wine that they had mistaken for champagne. Nevertheless, it did the trick and gave them a nice buzz, especially once they polished off the entire bottle.
They ordered the chocolate soufflé for dessert, the most expensive dessert item on the menu. The waiter informed them that the soufflé would take roughly an hour to prepare. Splendid, Rick thought. More than enough time to stick some rich snob with the check.
Rick had the waiter fetch them two more drinks while they waited on their soufflé. Rick took a sip and gave Gloria a wink. “Showtime,” he whispered.
Rick proceeded to stand up in front of the entire restaurant, tapping the side of his glass with a table spoon. “Everyone, if I could please have your attention for just a moment. I’d like to propose a toast–to the sweetest, kindest, loveliest, most understanding wife that a guy like me could ever ask for. Jackie, you’ve been with me through the darkest and brightest of times. But you never gave up on me despite all my imperfections. Sometimes I wake up next to her and ask myself how I got so lucky. Happy twentieth anniversary, honey. You’re the love of my life. Here’s to twenty more years of health and happiness.”
He made sure that every stranger in earshot heard this charade. Rick, careful not to break character, only referred to Gloria as Jackie. And Gloria played her part to perfection; blushing, covering one side of her face with her hand, blowing kisses to her “husband”, and waving to the applauding spectators.
It wasn’t long before the waiter shuffled over and whispered in Rick’s ear, “Sir, the man at table four has offered to pay your meal. And he wishes you both the very best.”
“John and Jackie” stood up again and proposed another toast to the extremely generous man at table four, who tried to remain modest as his fellow patrons commended him, but the man could not contain his grin of satisfaction. Rick could tell he was wealthy with his designer eyeglasses, Brioni suit, and the fact that he had an extra two hundred bucks to spare for their dinner. Rick felt no guilt, no remorse. He’s got it and I don’t, was Rick’s rationale.
Rick and Gloria finished their wine, devoured their soufflé, and left in a hurry. Rick bumped shoulders with the maître d’ on the way out, swiping his shiny, expensive Rolex from his wrist. Rick moved so fast, the maître d’ didn’t even feel it. He apologized for his clumsiness and was out the front door before the maître d’ had time to notice his naked wrist.
It wasn’t hard to locate their car in the parking lot among the BMW’s and Maserati’s. It was the beat-up-bucket-of-bolts parked between the red Mustang convertible and the silver Lexus. It took Rick three tries just to get the Plymouth Barracuda started. The engine squealed as it turned over and the tailpipe coughed up a cloud of exhaust fumes.
“Third times the charm,” Rick said with glee. The tires chirped as he floored the Barracuda in reverse and then sped out of the parking lot, just as the maître d’ realized his watch was missing.
“Well, we didn’t make any money, but we got a free dinner and this watch is pretty sweet,” Rick said, admiring the Rolex.
“You gonna pawn it?”
“As soon as the sun rises. This’ll give us enough gas money to make it to Vegas.”
“Are we going to drive all night?”
“That’s the plan. But we’ll need a little something to keep us alert and awake.”
“I hear you loud and clear,” Gloria nodded. She took a dime-bag of crystal meth from the glove compartment and poured it out on the dashboard, crushed it with the bottom of her cigarette lighter. She took out a dollar from her purse and rolled it up.
The crank shot up her nostrils like a cannon, burning her sinuses. Meth always burned because of the rancid chemicals it was cut and mixed with. But that never stopped Rick or Gloria from snorting it.
The plan was to hightail it to Vegas so Rick could work his card counting scam at the local casinos and clean house. Rick was a whiz with numbers, but not much else. Gloria likened him to an idiot savant, but he didn’t care for any terms that started with the word “idiot.”
Rick wanted a bump so Gloria poured a little crystal onto the compact mirror she carried in her purse and held it up to his nose. Rick’s eyes lit up as he ignored the burning sensation in his nasal cavities.
“More,” he said, which sounded like a demand, not a request. Gloria held up the mirror and Rick took another bump.
Gloria took one more bump off the dashboard and bagged the rest, stored it in the glovebox.
Rick leaned over the steering wheel, peering off to Gloria’s side of the road.
“We got a car coming up on the side of the road. Looks like the driver could use a lift.”
“Pick him up,” she said. “Maybe we can squeeze some gas money out of him.”
Rick cut the wheel and veered off to the shoulder. Gloria rolled her window down and watched as a man approached with caution; briefcase in one hand, flashlight in the other.
“Car trouble?” Rick asked, leaning over his seat to get a better look at the man.
“Darn thing keeps overheating. I think the radiator hose is busted. Think you could give me a lift to the next service station? This road goes on for another fifty miles until we hit the next town and I really don’t want to get stuck out here all night. I have money for gas. I’ll fill up your tank as soon as we reach the service station.”
“Sure thing, buddy. I’m John, by the way. And this is Jackie.” “Jackie” waved to the stranger on the side of the road.
“Pleased to meet you both,” the man nodded.
Gloria got out so she could lift the seat and let the hitchhiker get in back.
“So where were you heading, buddy?” Rick asked as they got back on the road.
“I was on my way to Washington for a business convention.”
“Washington? That’s a bit of a drive from here. Where in Washington?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. When I said Washington, I didn’t mean the state. I meant Washington, D.C.”
“Whoa, that’s a long drive from California.”
“The price of being a traveling salesman, I guess,” the man shrugged.
“What sort of business are you in?” Gloria inquired.
“Nice, got any free samples?” Rick asked, glancing back in the rearview mirror with a wink.
The Salesman chortled. “I’m afraid not.”
“You’re traveling pretty light,” Gloria chimed in again. “All you have is that one briefcase?”
“I left my bags in the trunk of my car. I’ll get them back later when I get the car towed. Didn’t want to leave my work behind. Those samples, as you called them, can be pretty tempting if someone broke into my car and found them. Boy, you two sure are a curious pair.”
“Forgive us,” Gloria chuckled. “But you can’t be too careful nowadays. And traveling salesmen are a dying breed. You can’t blame us for having a few questions.”
“No, I suppose not.” The Salesman was a tall, lean man with broad shoulders, arched eyebrows, a dull complexion, and a blank, almost apathetic expression. He had the energetic voice of a salesman, he had the benevolent smile, he even had the hair–all gelled and slicked back. But there was nothing behind his eyes to indicate this man felt or processed any normal human emotions. He was a blank slate.
This guy would make a killing in Vegas, Rick thought. He’s got the ultimate poker face.
A convoy of military vehicles blew right past them, all headed west, all moving in a hurry.
“What the hell?” Rick exclaimed. “Where are they going in such a hurry?”
“Terrorist attack, maybe?” Gloria suggested, hating to speculate about something so grim.
The Salesman was quiet, and that unnerved Rick to no end. He never sighed. He never yawned. He never coughed, never cleared his throat. Rick wasn’t even sure if the man ever blinked.
Without a word, The Salesman popped open his briefcase and produced a small box with six black lacquered sides, no wider than the palm of his hand; it fit right in.
“What’s that?” Gloria said, perusing the box in the rearview mirror.
“This…this is the answer to your questions. This will explain everything that’s about to happen in the near future.”
“Ooh, so it can see into the future?”
“In a way,” the man said, a grin spread from ear to ear, bordering on malevolent.
“And let me guess, this box is for sale?” Rick asked.
“Everything in this world is for sale,” The Salesman replied.
“No, really, what’s in the box?” Gloria asked, curiosity gnawing away at her.
“I can’t tell you,” The Salesman said. “It’d ruin the suspense. And I am a salesman first and foremost.”
“What do you want for it?”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly take your money. You’ve been so kind to me. But I’m afraid I can’t just give this box away. It’s way too valuable.”
“Come on, Jackie,” Rick whispered. “You don’t recognize a con when you see it?”
“I assure you this is no con, no grift. The box and its contents are very real.”
“You said you’re a salesman,” Gloria said. “You must want something for it.”
“That’s an exquisite timepiece,” he said, admiring Rick’s newly acquired Rolex. “I’d be open to a trade.”
Gloria gazed at him longingly. “Oh, no,” Rick shook his head defiantly. “He’s not getting my watch.”
“Oh, come on, Rick,” she said, slipping up and calling him by his real name. She paused briefly, hoping The Salesman didn’t notice. When he remained silent, she continued. “We can always score another one. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Rick glanced at the watch, then looked up at Gloria’s pleading eyes. He relinquished the watch with a bitter sigh and passed it back to The Salesman.
“Now give her the box,” Rick demanded.
The Salesman, still grinning, passed Gloria the box. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you,” he said.
Gloria’s eager fingers searched the box for an opening. She found the top, pried open the box, and peered inside.
The box was empty.
“Son of a bitch,” she muttered. Then she turned to The Salesman, her eyes burning with rage. “You ripped me off.”
“I know the box appears to be empty, but just because you can’t see something, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”
“So the box is a riddle?” Gloria said, ready to chuck the thing at the salesman’s head.
“No, the box contains an airborne toxin, one you breathed in when you opened it. And only I possess the antidote. Those military trucks, they’re on their way to Fresno, where the virus has already begun to spread. I plan on selling my antidote to the highest bidder in Washington.”
Rick and Gloria looked at each other, then at The Salesman in the rearview mirror. They both threw their heads back and laughed loud enough for the salesman to hear. “Uh oh, better watch out, Jackie. It’s gonna get you.”
“You laugh now, but you’ll see. When the virus starts to take effect, you’ll be begging me for the antidote.”
They drove on, eventually seeing signs that advertised a rest stop. “Hey,” Gloria said, breathing laboriously, “can you pull over? I don’t feel so hot.”
“Are you just fucking with me?” Rick asked, knowing Gloria’s dark sense of humor.
“Wish I was,” she said through gritted teeth. “I’m burning up. And it feels like my insides are churning. Please, pull over.”
Rick pulled off at the rest area and Gloria exited the car and expelled her soufflé…along with a handful of blood.
“What the fuck did you do to her?!” Rick screamed.
“Would you like the cure? All it’s going to cost you is your car, your money, everything that you have on you.”
“You son of a bitch. You won’t get away with this.”
“Only time will tell for sure. Speaking of time, your wife, or whatever she is to you, doesn’t have much of it. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Do you want the antidote? Or do you want her to turn into something beyond your worst nightmares?”
“Take it,” Rick sighed, his fists balled up, knuckles turning white from inner tension. “Take everything. Take it all. Just help her.”
The Salesman’s briefcase clicked as it opened. He removed a vial containing a reddish brown liquid and tossed it through the air to Rick, who just barely caught it in both hands.
“Good luck,” The Salesman breathed. “You’re going to need it.”
The con artists had just been conned. Now Rick and Gloria knew the sting. But if Rick didn’t act fast, Gloria would not live long enough to learn her lesson.
“Oh, and Rick, or John…whatever your real name is…it’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”
He took their keys and drove off into the night. Gloria lie on the pavement, writhing and convulsing, the heels of her black boots scraping against the asphalt. She rolled to her side, spraying more blood from her mouth across the pavement.
Rick fumbled with the vial, unplugging it and pouring the contents down Gloria’s throat and holding her mouth closed to help her swallow. He checked for a pulse, but couldn’t find one.
“Gloria? Gloria! Can you hear me? Come on, stay with me, babe. Don’t go anywhere.”
Gloria’s eyes snapped open, her pupils vanished. Her eyes grey and cold, the absence of life. Her dry, pallid skin highlighted her discolored veins as the life drained from her flesh. In the pale moonlight, she appeared to be decaying at an exponential rate.
Gloria sprang to her feet, teeth snapping, blood and foam dripping down her chin. Rick inched back as Gloria staggered towards him, walking like it was her first time.
Two beams of light caught Rick’s gaze–burning, blinding light. The high beams of a military vehicle.
“Step away from the girl!” A voice commanded, clear and with authority. “She’s infected!”
Rick glared through the light and saw several men standing in the bed of the truck, all heavily armed, their guns aimed at Rick and Gloria.
With Rick’s back turned, Gloria crept up and sunk her teeth into the nape of his neck–ripping, tearing at the flesh. A thread of skin dangled from his neck to his chest, blood spurting out in thick jets across the pavement.
Rick could not hear the gunshots as the men opened fire and sprayed Gloria with bullets until she collapsed along the pavement. He could hear nothing other the rapid beating of his heart. Rick croaked as he tried to suck in the air. The last breath he would ever take.
Rick’s eyes closed.
Then they opened. And his mind was no longer his own. He had no memory, no control over his actions. He was filled with an insatiable hunger and his body was being driven by the most basic of impulses.
The need to feed.