“Oh, my God,” Greg said. He looked sick. “What happened in there?”
“We were too late.” Liam opened the door behind the driver’s seat and slid into the cab.
“Too late for what?”
Chef fell into the back seat next to Liam, struggling to move his body against the pain. “Hartford Street. Fast.”
Two sets of eyes, both the closest to lifeless that Greg had ever seen, stared at him. The car accelerated and, by the end of the block, was traveling at over twice the speed limit. His driving, while unreasonably fast, compared with every day travel, seemed restrained, respectful, if not quite hesitant. Greg’s joy in his driving had evaporated as completely as Chef and Liam’s.
His whole body numb, Chef could only bring himself to stare out the window and, that only because when he closed his eyes, he saw Liz lying dead on the floor. Street lights passed at regular intervals, but he couldn’t be bothered to notice the rise and fall of light against the darkness. The cab passed pedestrians and cyclists, living their lives as if nothing had happened. They passed nightclubs and burger joints and abandoned buildings that all looked the same.
The car stopped.
The importance of that fact made only the vaguest impression on Chef. He paid it no mind. He took a strange solace in the blackness outside his window, feeling a kind of kinship with it. A hand nudged him. Someone was speaking and he suspected that person was speaking to him. He wished they wouldn’t.
“Someone is in your house, Chef.”
Chef blinked. “What?” He leaned forward to get a better view. A silhouette moved in and out of view, every few seconds, through the living room window. “Please tell me you –”
“Amberly is safe. She’s with my wife.” He patted Chef’s shoulder.
After a long look at his friend, both nodded and exited the car. They walked side by side for a while, neither speaking, both preparing for what, they could only guess. The cab had parked up the street and Chef was grateful for the opportunity to stretch his limbs, to enjoy the simple pleasure of Liam’s company, maybe for the last time.
“I love you, Liam. If we don’t make it out of this … .”
“Don’t start with that, Chef.” Liam smiled sadly. He stopped walking and embraced his friend.
Chef stepped away, watching his friend disappear into the shadows behind his neighbor’s house. The front door loomed ahead, waiting impatiently for Chef’s approach. He hadn’t seen the silhouette move past the living room window since before he’d left the cab, and couldn’t decide whether that was a good sign.
At the head of the walkway, Chef faced his house, hesitating. He took one deep breath before stepping onto the walkway. With each of the twenty-two steps that took him closer to the house, his mind screamed at him to run away, to call the police and have them deal with the man waiting inside. But he couldn’t, not only because the man had stolen his cell phone: Chef needed to stop him from doing to anyone else, what he’d done to his own loved ones.
Chef reached out to the doorknob, twisted it and hesitated, suddenly aware that he was unarmed. He pushed the door open gently and took a step back to avoid anything that might be swung at him. When nothing came, Chef scanned the lawn and, seeing nothing, stepped inside.
“Oh, stop being so melodramatic. Close the door. What, were you born in a barn?” Ethan’s bleach-tipped faux hawk stuck up over the cushions of the couch. He was looking down, at what, Chef couldn’t tell.
“Welcome home,” Ethan said. He held up a book, a hardbound copy of Doors of Stone. “You have good taste in books. I haven’t read this one; I hope you don’t mind my borrowing it.”
“It’s my wife’s.”
“Ah, well, then you have good taste in women.”
Chef clenched his fists, felt his knuckles pop. “Don’t talk about my wife,” he growled.
“You ain’t a cop,” Ethan said, ignoring him. “I mean, I kind of assumed: no badge, no gun, no backup, but a chef?” Ethan laughed, clutching his side, exaggerating to further irritate Chef. “You’re fucking nobody.” As if a switch had been flipped, his demeanor changed. His face lost all of its mirth, exchanged with rage. “You’re nobody, and still you found me.”
“I told you, I have some talented friends.”
“Not any more, you don’t.” Ethan giggled. Giggled, as if he couldn’t see anything wrong with what he’d done.
Chef lunged at him, throwing his fist at the man’s throat. Faster than Chef could imagine, Ethan dodged to the side, taking hold of his fist, twisting it back to drive Chef to his knees. A flurry of blows landed on his head and the world darkened. An arm snaked around his neck and lifted.
Weakly, Chef struggled against the arm around his throat, clawing and pulling at it, but it only squeezed harder. Chef flailed around. He threw his elbows and feet backward, trying desperately to escape before the world faded to black. Silver streaks flashed across his vision in rhythmic succession. He imagined that it was a psychedelic display of the beat of an old tribal song. It was Ethan’s fist pounding the right side of Chef’s face into oblivion.
Ethan’s arm went slack; Chef collapsed to the floor. Floorboards creaked behind him, accompanied by a loud thump. Breaths came only in ragged gasps, and hesitantly, at that. Slowly, he brought himself up to hands and knees, seeing and feeling soft, moist soil beneath his hands.
A dirty hand appeared in front of his face. He looked up and found Liam reaching down to pull Chef to his feet. When left to stand on his own he wobbled but stayed vertical, much to his surprise.
“Are you alright?” Liam asked.
Chef tried several times to speak around a swollen mouth, but failed. Instead, he looked into Liam’s eyes and shook his head. Lying next to Ethan’s unconscious body was a shattered clay pot lay with soil and a single hydrangea, in full bloom – Liam had apparently taken the plant from Chef’s neighbor, Mrs. Peters.
Chef walked out the door to the shed out back, opened his toolbox and selected a hammer, all the time working his mouth to try and regain the gift of speech. The time had come to end his family’s suffering.
Hammer in one hand, Chef returned to the living room and stood facing Ethan. He gestured for Liam to pull Ethan up. “Knees,” he said slowly.
Liam obeyed immediately, pulling Ethan to his knees, grabbing his shirt and a short tuft of hair. Chef leaned forward and slapped Ethan’s head a few times to wake him up. He blearily looked up at Chef, understanding slowly dawning on his face.
“You don’t have to watch,” Chef struggled to say to Liam.
Ethan struggled against Liam but was held down.
His shoulder aching, Chef drew his arm back, raising the hammer above his head. Every muscle from chest to fingertip tightened to swing the hammer down.
Chef spun. Miranda stood in the open doorway, her eyes wide. In the back of his mind, Chef noticed how little clothing she wore, and reminded himself to talk to her about it later. His body went slack and his mind lit up with a thousand competing ideas for how to respond. Instead, he stared dumbly at his daughter.
Behind him Chef heard a roar and, before he could react, he was tackled to the floor. Dull pain roared in his lower back. Ethan had begun clawing and pummeling his way upward.
Miranda screamed but didn’t move.
Cold steel rammed into the muscle of Chef’s calf, feeling like it was digging into bone. Chef screamed, and the clawing, frantic motion of his assailant on top of him had stopped. Chef turned around to find out what happened and saw Liam holding the handle of his long knife, buried, to the hilt, in the man’s back.
Ethan Hatcher was dead.