For a con man, karma can be a bitch.
|Alan stood up, brushed the grit from his blue-jeaned knees and eyed the exposed tubes and hoses of the air conditioning unit. Still crouched beside the machine, a squat Hispanic man with close-cropped hair tugged at a long wrench. The tool slipped from the nut and he tumbled onto his rump.
“Senor Smiley,” the man began and pushed himself to his feet. “These parts mucho barato. They no good. They cheap, no bueno. Whole system, no bueno.” He bent down and flipped the cover up and began to screw it into place.
Alan glanced up and down the street. He noted a gray-haired woman, walking a white spot of a dog and the hum of a mower in the backyard next door. He smiled and waved as the woman passed, then put his hands on his knees and leaned over the other man’s shoulder.
“It’s not your business to worry about the damn systems, Juan,” he hissed through his smile. “Just get all of them finished by tomorrow…got me?”
Juan looked up and nodded. “Si, Senor Smiley. We have them all done. Just be sure we get our money or we no come back.” He stood up and jabbed the wrench and screwdriver in a leather pouch at his hip and glared at him.
Alan gritted his teeth and jacked a thumb behind him. “Why don’t you make sure the rest of your crew aren’t screwing something up.”
Juan nodded and paced down the street. Alan turned and watched him cross the manicured lawns of the complex and disappear around the bricked corner of a condo at the end of the block. With a sigh, he turned back to the unit. When he did, he leapt back in surprise upon seeing the petite form or Grace Davis standing behind him.
Just shy of five feet tall and skeletally thin, the woman, who Alan guessed was in her early ninetys, was wearing a long, yellow sundress, a floppy, straw hat and large, round sunglasses.
“Excuse me, dear.” She reached up a tremulous hand and pulled away her shades. “Is there a problem with my new system?”
Alan cleared his throat and laughed. “Of course not Grace.” He laid a hand on her shoulder and guided her gently towards the back door. Her bones felt sharp and frail through the thin material of the dress. “Juan’s one of my new employees and hasn’t yet learned all the ins and outs of these units.”
Alan was just over six-foot tall and athletic of build, so he was surprised at the rigid resistance when Grace pulled up short and glared at him. He dropped his arm and pushed his sunglasses to his forehead and met her dark eyes.
“My hearing isn’t what it used to be, but I thought I heard that man say the system was ‘no bueno’.”
How in the hell did she hear us? He was certain no one was around when he and Juan had been talking. “No, no,” he smiled. “Juan gets frustrated when he runs into something new. These systems are top notch.”
He stepped over and patted the metal casing of the air conditioner. “These babies are the highest efficiency replacements you can get for an old system. Not only will they last for years but you’ll be saving money every month.“ He swept an arm, taking in the rest of the condos in the neighborhood. “And not only you but most of the Flowering Springs homeowners are replacing their systems. So many customers can’t be wrong.” He broke into a toothy grin.
She crossed her arms and pursed her pale lips. Her dark eyes moved from the air conditioner to his own. “I had been considering replacing my old equipment for some time. I simply hadn’t found the right person.” Her lips seemed to darken as they curled into a wide smile. She tongued the upper plates of her dentures into place. “But, Alan Smiley, I think you’re my man.”
“Well, you certainly picked the right contractor when you went with Smiley Heat and Air,” he breathed an inward sigh of relief. “Now if you’ll excuse me, Grace. I’ll drop by tomorrow with your warranty and pick up the check, but right now I need to look in on the rest of the crew.”
“Yes dear, I understand.” She laid a hand on his arm and he unconsciously flinched away. “But could you do me one tiny favor?”
“Sure Grace. Name it?”
“Tomorrow, when you come by to pick up the checks, could you come to my house first? I have a doctor’s appointment at 9:30 AM and I don’t want to miss you.”
“No problem,” he smiled. “I’ll be there at 8:00 AM sharp.” Alan turned and marched off along the path that Juan had taken moments before. As he crossed the road and strode through the lawn, he knew her dark eyes followed him.
The next day, Alan pulled into the parking lot outside the Flowering Springs Retirement Community and hopped out of his white Mercedes C450. He dragged a pack of Marlboros from his suit pocket and tapped one out. He held it up to the hissing blue flame of his lighter then took a lung filling drag. He turned and puffed out a cloud of tension.
Today was payday and by noon, he’d have payments from virtually all of these old codgers. And when the banks closed at five, the money would be transferred and his ‘Alan Smiley’ alias would be nothing more than a bad memory. He leaned against the side of the car, enjoying his smoke and the momentary morning peace.
Flowering Springs and the towering walls that surrounded it had been build decades prior when the region had been a thriving middle-class neighborhood. Although Flowering Springs had actually grown in beauty as the trees and landscape matured, the same could not be said for the surrounding homes. Over the years, most had fallen into disrepair or abandonment and graffiti colored the fences and alleys along the road.
From across the street, there was the echo of raucous laughter, and a disheveled man, wearing brown shorts and a red tee shirt, stumbled from behind one of the homes.
Three men followed him out and eyed him with jackal-like intensity. “So buddy, can I borrow some change?” he heard one of them ask before a blow crashed the first man to the ground.
Alan puffed sedately on his cigarette as the three kicked and pummeled the fallen man, then rummaged through his pockets and disappeared behind the house. The third man, the one who had done the talking, stopped and eyed Alan before he rounded the corner. Alan brought his fingers to his brow in a smoky salute. The thug flipped him off and vanished.
That’s gratitude for ya, Alan laughed. He ground out the cigarette and marched to the guardhouse that squatted across the entrance to the complex. At the side of the building, a wooden shelf jutted out from beneath an open window. He picked up the battered clipboard resting on the shelf and peered in.
“Morning Dan. How’s that girl of yours?” he called.
A youngish man dressed in a dark green uniformed shirt and khaki slacks tore his attention from a row of monitors. Garish patches were sewn onto each sleeve and a tarnished, copper badge sagged on his left breast. He pushed up and lumbered across the room, tucking the shirt in around his large belly before thrusting out his hand.
“She’s doing great Mr. Smiley.” He grasped Alan’s hand in his meaty paw. “And you don’t have to sign that. We all know you 'round here.”
Alan scribbled his name and looked up. “Now Dan. You’re the professional here, and I remember you saying to sign in every time.”
“Awww, Mr. Smiley, “Dan blushed, “that was before we all got ta’ know ya’. Everyone 'round here is so fond of you. Why you’re practically family.”
“Thanks, Dan,” Alan said. He stepped away from the window and called over his shoulder. “I’ll see ya' around noon. And tell Martha I enjoyed that plate of tamales she sent.”
Dan leaned his elbows on the shelf and watched him go. “Oh, I will,” he said, “I will.”
Alan rounded the block and paused in front of the brick mailbox labeled, “Mrs. J.P Davis, 101 Brook Ln”. The front door was open, so he stepped up and knocked at the glass storm door. Soon, Grace rounded the corner on her way down the hall. She threw him a quick wave as she toddled towards him. She moved with great care, exchanging her focus between slow moving feet and the door.
Alan could almost feel the minutes tick by before she finally arrived. She fiddled with the latch for several frustrating moments then finally swung the door open. “So nice to see you again Mr. Smiley,” her voice quavered.
“Thank you, Grace, it’s always a pleasure. And might I add that you look quite fetching this morning.”
“Why, Mr. Smiley, “she laughed as he glided past, “You ARE such a charmer.“ She turned and locked the glass door and swung the heavy outer door shut. She slid home a large, bronze bolt with a ‘thunk’.
Alan held out his elbow and Grace grasped it in her weak fingers before he led her along the hall and into the living room.
“I fixed some muffins and tea,” she said, continuing into the kitchen. “I do hope you like tea.”
“That sounds wonderful. Thank you, Grace,” Alan dropped onto the couch and threw an arm over the back. He gazed around the room with appreciation. The place was remarkably well decorated for an old coot. He leaned back in the settee and scanned the walls. Of course, it had that same smell as the other condos; old people, moth balls, and death.
Most of the furniture in the room was French design, with spindly, gilded legs and dark, rich wood. He leaned forward and squinted at two paintings hanging on the wall. He recognized them from art history courses in college as the works of French artists Cezanne and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Alan pushed off the couch and examined the Cezanne. He eyed the piece and reached up to verify the brush strokes when Grace returned, tray in hand.
“Oh, please don’t touch that dear,” Grace said. Alan’s hand jerked away in surprise. “I wouldn’t want you to damage the piece.”
“I’m sorry Grace,” he apologized. He dropped onto the settee and waited while she poured the tea. When she leaned across the table, he blinked against the fetid stink that seemed to waft from her dress. He hadn’t noticed a pet before, but she must have gotten one and the damn thing was pissing all over her clothes.
He picked up the cup and leaned back. Motioning towards the painting he said, “That must be an expensive print. The brush stroke reproduction and all. It’s certainly beautiful.” Grace eased onto the blue, satin fabric of an armchair and turned to look at the wall. “Print? Oh my, no dear,” She giggled. “That’s an original. Why I bought that from Paul fifteen years before he passed. We were good friends you know. We had quite a correspondence.”
Alan arched a brow and took another sip. “I thought he died at the turn of the century.”
“Oh, he did.” She shook her head and frowned. “It was 1906 if I remember correctly. Very sudden it was. Such a loss.” She raised the cup and drank. Her dark eyes sparkled above the rim as she watched him.
This old broad is crazy as a loon, Alan thought. Better get this done quick.
He set down his cup and produced a sheaf of papers from his coat pocket and laid them on the table.
“Well, Grace, I hate to rush, but I’ve got to pick up checks from everyone today. But I’ll be available. I’m leaving my number in case you have any questions.”
Alan unfolded the documents and tapped at the bottom. “As you see, we’ve got your old system completely updated. It should keep you cool all summer and cut your electric bill in half. All for the bargain price of $4,000. You have to admit, it’s quite a deal. All I need from you is a signature and a check.”
“Oh, yes, quite a deal.” Her cup clinked in the saucer when she set it on the table. “I’ve been waiting some time for an …upgrade,” she sniggered.
She ran her tongue across her lips and pushed herself up. He hadn’t noticed how long her tongue was. “Give me a moment dear, while I fetch a pen.”
But she didn’t move. She stood there her black eyes locked with his. For several heartbeats, Alan sat transfixed by those ebony orbs; his breath choked in his throat and his heart hammered in his ears.
Grace brushed a hand across her head and with dreamlike slowness her wig tumbled to the floor. The light from the shuttered windows glinted off her bald, scabrous pate. Her lips writhed together then birthed out her false teeth. First the uppers followed by the lowers. They gleamed, wet and smooth, before thumping to the floor. Her toothless smile stretched unnaturally wide and split open revealing crowded rows of needle-like teeth.
In a swift, fluid motion she dropped into a crouch and leapt across the table. Her fingers had transformed into black tipped claws, and when she landed on his lap, they clamped to his shoulders like vices. Alan sat frozen, only his eyes following the deliberate progression of her mouth towards his neck. Her lips smacked and hovered above his jugular. Then, she cocked her head, searched his panicked eyes, and giggled.
The putrid odor of her breath sent a flood of adrenaline-fueled fear coursing through his body and jolted him into action. Alan surged to his feet and stumbled across the room, battling her crushing embrace. He slammed against the wall and sent the Toulouse-Lautrec shattering to the floor but managed to break her grip and hold her at arm’s length. She flailed like a fish her lips drawn into a savage snarl while her nails slashed long, ragged tears through the silken fabric of his suit.
With a grunt of effort, he heaved her above his head and flung her against a curio case filled with vases and figurines. Then he turned and dashed for the front door. The double crash of her body smashing the cabinet and the cabinet shattering to the floor rang in his ears.
This cannot be happening. Alan thought and froze at the door. He glanced up the hall in confusion then gaped in dry mouthed terror as the thing rolled from the debris and came up like a sprinter to the line. Her mouth stretching into a rictus grin, her tongue, long and red, flicked across her lips before she sped towards him.
Alan spun, grabbed the door handle, and yanked. The effort almost pulled his shoulders from their sockets. He had forgotten the bronze bolt. With trembling hands, he slid back the bar, hazarding a look over his shoulder and there she was. She came at him arms and legs splayed like a spider's. Landing on his back, her claws dug deep into his shoulders and with lightning speed, her legs snaked around his chest. His neck flashed in black pain and he cried out as her fangs sank into his flesh.
Alan’s grip on the handle slipped away and he stumbled into the hall as she dragged him down. He groped over his shoulder for an arm or her head, but his fingers slid futilely across her ancient, flaky skin. Hot, thick blood drizzled down his back, and he threw himself against the wall in a desperate attempt to dislodge the monster. Instead, he lost his footing and toppled to the floor.
Outside! There’s help outside! His instincts screamed. He battled to his feet, the creature’s spindly legs constricted like a python embrace, the sucking mouth, a flaming brand against his flesh.
Alan waded towards the door through a tightening tunnel of darkness. With numb fingers, he clutched at the handle and heaved, just as the tunnel snapped shut.
Alan sat up with an effort, the fog of confusion clearing in slow, throbbing waves. The pain in his back vied with the burning agony at his neck. He ran a hand through his hair and stared about. Memory surged back with the rhythm of the pain and he recognized he was sitting on the floor of Grace’s living room.
Everything seemed to be in place except the curio cabinet, which was noticeably absent. Couched luxuriantly on the settee was a beautiful woman in her early fourties. Flowing black hair cascaded across one shoulder, and she sipped from a teacup held in delicate, pale fingers. She studied him with familiar, ebony eyes. Alan grabbed the arm of the settee and stumbled to his feet.
“Well, Alan. I think you’d best be on your way. Don’t you agree? “ She set down the cup and smoothed the pleats of her black skirt. “After all," she said. "The predators come out at night.”
Alan stumbled into the hallway, catching himself on a table. For some reason, he was having trouble walking. His legs weren’t moving like they should. And his clothes, they hung on his limbs loose and baggy. He glanced up and an old man stared back at him from the hall mirror. Alan reached a hand to his face a gasp of shock escaped him as the image did the same.
“Yes, it’s quite terrible getting old,” The woman said, now standing beside him. Eyes wide, he retreated towards the door. “But I expect you have some experience dealing with the pains of the elderly, don’t you dear?”
She glided past and her hand brushed seductively across his back and arm. A smile tugged at the edges of her red lips. She unbolted the door and swung it wide before stepping aside. Outside, early evening shadows slid dark and smooth across the manicured lawns.
“Like I said dear. You had better hurry the predators come out at night.”
Alan shuffled past and out the door, his heart doing its best to climb into his throat. His feet scuffed slowly along the empty road toward the gatehouse. “Dan, you gotta help me,” he begged, looking through the window at the portly guard.
Dan’s eyes peered tiredly over the top of the magazine, then he tossed it to his desk and sprang to his feet. He stepped into the road and squinted up and down the block, his brows knit in confusion. “How’d you get in here old timer?”
“Dan, it’s me. Alan Smiley.”
“I don’t know who you are mister, but you sure ain’t Mr. Smiley.”
He grabbed Alan’s elbow and escorted him to the gate then shoved him out.
“Now, get on back to where you come from and don’t be botherin’ the nice folks of Flowerin’ Springs.”
Alan stumbled down the sidewalk staring about in confusion. The final beams of spring sunshine sparkled in the upper branches of the trees and cast long forlorn shadows across the lawn.
Across the street, he noticed three men who had been hidden in the darkness suddenly step out and stare in his direction. They were laughing behind him as he turned and tried to run. He barely managed a stumbling gait. He shuffled into the parking lot and dug for his car keys then heard behind him: “Hey gramps. Can I borrow some money?”