by J.E. Allen
Twisted Tales Contest, 2nd Place - A cancer diagnosis changes everything...
|Duncan McCafferty stood in a parking lot, outside a hole-in-the-wall bar, under the buzz and flicker of a failing “Open” sign. The night’s rain was a fine mist, transforming into a heavy drizzle, that brought on a chill that made his bones shiver. Before opening the heavy wooden door he hesitated, thinking to himself: Get back in the car and go home to your family. He pushed away the thought, it’s not every day you get to meet the man who will murder you.
He stepped inside the stale, smoky atmosphere of The Fisherman’s Wharf. This working class dive bar relied on the rotating, yet constant return of local fishing boats from the bay. The men returning from sea were just as thirsty as the fish they caught. Out for weeks at a time, The Wharf - as the locals called it - was their haven.
He crawled into a back booth and ordered a gin and tonic from a forty-something waitress. Her hair was blond and stringy, and her fingernails looked as if they came straight off the rack at the grocery store. Years of cigarette smoke and coffee yellowed her teeth, but Duncan could tell that she used to be pretty. The place reminded him of the Cantina on Mos Eisley… minus the band. Duncan McCafferty was no Han Solo, just a middle class accountant from suburbia, diagnosed with terminal intestinal cancer.
The waitress returned with his drink, and set it down hard on the rough wooden table, spilling some in the process. “That’ll be $5.50 honey, and don’t forget the tip,” she said as she popped the gum in her mouth and smiled.
Duncan fought back a shudder and handed over a ten dollar bill and said, “Thanks, keep the change.”
She stuffed the bill in her apron pocket and said, “Oh, by the way, your friend is out back, he said you should go out there and meet him for a smoke.”
Duncan hesitated for a moment, "Uh, ok," he said, nodding his head.
The waitress chuckled, pointed a plastic fingernail towards the restroom sign and said, “The backdoor is by the bathrooms over there. Just keep goin’ straight and you’ll see it. Thanks for the nice tip sweetie.” She disappeared back into the small crowd, making her rounds through the other booths and tables.
He sat in his booth for a few minutes longer, again, contemplating his decision to have this meeting. The manila envelope containing ten thousand dollars in his coat pocket, seemed like it weighed a hundred pounds. If the patrons of this fine establishment only knew how much money was on his person, they would tear him apart. Maybe that was the better plan. He pictured his body being discovered, beaten and stabbed near the docks, covered in seagull shit and bum piss.
Leaving the gin and tonic behind he walked towards the bathrooms, weaving through gruff men who smelled like fish and salt water. As he stepped out into the back alleyway, he looked around while he buttoned his coat. He took a few apprehensive steps away from the safe confines of the fluorescent light illuminating the rear exit door. The rustle of a tin can near the dumpster, caught his attention. A large man in a green overcoat and blue jeans stepped out of the darkness. His hulking frame, was visible, but he kept his face in the shadows. Duncan’s heart dropped to his stomach. You can do this.
“Are you McCafferty?”
“Ye- yes, I am,” he said as he stepped closer to the man.
“Mr. Scaramucci said you were interested in hiring me for an insurance settlement consultation?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“First off, how do you know each other? I’m sorry, but you don’t look like the type of guy to that would associate with a mob boss, like Tony Scaramucci.”
“I did some accounting work last year for some of his legitimate business holdings. I saved him a lot of money, and he seemed to appreciate that. He said if I ever needed a favor, to give him a call.”
“This is one hell of a favor,” the hitman said. “Tony gave me some details regarding your situation. Fill me in on the rest.”
Duncan took a deep breath and began. “I live at 309 Purcer Avenue, on the West side, in a white house, and there will be a blue Toyota in the driveway. My wife will leave a little after 8:00 PM, she’s going to her sister’s house for their weekly visit, and she won’t be home until a little after 9:00 PM. Our daughter Shelby is going to her friend’s house for a sleep over. Go in through the back door, I’ll leave it unlocked after taking out the trash. I do that all the time, so it won’t be suspicious. I’ll be in the living room, watching TV in my recliner. Do it quick, I don’t want to suffer.”
“Are you sure you wanna do this? Why don’t you give it a few months and see if you change your mind? You know, after we leave here tonight, there’s no calling it off.”
“I may not have a few months. The doctor said the cancer is pretty aggressive. I don’t want to put my family through the chemotherapy and the torture of watching me die. I have a no autopsy clause in my will, so they won’t see the cancer and think I hired you for the insurance money. Please make the cause of death obvious, so they won’t get a court order.”
“I know what I’m doing Mr. McCafferty, I’m a professional.”
Duncan nodded and said, “One last thing. My wife will have some jewelry on top of her dresser upstairs and there is a bit of cash in my office, inside the wall safe. The combination, is 18-34-17. The police will think I told you before you killed me.”
“Did you bring the money?”
He reached into his pocket and removed the folded envelope and gave it to the man. As the envelope left his hand, Duncan experienced a sudden wave of calm. The feeling washed over him, just as felt his problems fall away.
“Go home, McCafferty. Enjoy your last day on earth.” The man turned and walked away, disappearing into the shadows. Duncan pulled his coat tighter around the neck and walked the other way.
He woke the next morning before his alarm and watched the ceiling fan spin, throwing shadows in the morning light. It took a moment for the fogginess of sleep. But he soon remembered, that today was his last day on earth. His wife was still asleep next to him. He remembered the happy times before their relationship crumbled. They had been so in love. His wife was so cold and distant now. Duncan just wanted to feel the warmth of her body and breathe in the soft aroma of her shampoo one last time.
A sudden wave of nausea washed over him. Stumbling to the bathroom he fell to his knees and retched. The clean white porcelain became painted in a hue of pink, which meant blood was present. This wasn’t the first time he had vomited blood, and it was becoming more frequent. But now he knew why, and he had come to terms with it.
The vomiting was the reason he went to see Dr. Sinclair. Thinking it was some the stomach flu or an ulcer. After a battery of tests, the doctor sat him down in his office and broke the news.
“Mr. McCafferty, your CBC test showed that you were anemic, and when we tested your stool, we found blood. I’m going to put you on a round of antibiotics in case it is a gastrointestinal infection. Also I’m also going to refer you to Dr. Stan Roechner in Bridgeport. He’s one of the best Oncologists in the state. Hopefully, he will be able to rule out cancer.”
A few days later, Dr. Roechner ordered a CT scan. When he showed Duncan the mass of tumors that had developed in his intestines, his attitude wasn’t so positive.
“I’m sorry Duncan,” the doctor said. He noticed that the doctor used his first name after only knowing him for a short time. From his Psychology classes, Duncan knew he was trying to show empathy, which meant his news wasn't good. “This is an aggressive form of intestinal cancer, and I’m afraid to say, you are what we call end stage.” The word END resonated in Duncan’s heart. “I can order an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy to buy you some time. We can also get you in to a surgeon and attempt to cut out the tumors. Most likely, that option will leave you with a long recovery time and a colostomy bag.”
Duncan thanked the doctor for his expertise and told him he would be in contact soon. Two weeks later, he decided he would skip the whole pain and suffering part of the ordeal and move forward to the dying. Because of the large life insurance policy he bought a few years before, his daughter would never want for anything.
Another bout of vomiting snapped him back to reality. When he came back into the bedroom his wife Linda, who looked worried, asked, “Are you still sick? I thought you went to see Dr. Sinclair?”
“Just the stomach flu. I have to let it run its course. I should be fine in a few days,” he lied.
"Well, I hope it passes soon, and you feel better," she said.
After his wife went to work and Shelby was off to the bus stop, Duncan went to his office and spent the morning working. If the police checked, he wanted to make sure there was proof he spent his last day working. His accounting firm was a small operation with no need for any other employees. So he worked from home to keep the overhead costs low. Linda would help him with the paperwork and filing during the tax season, but the rest of the year was smooth sailing. He had planned to bring in Shelby as a helper when she was older, to see if there was a spark of interest in the adventurous world of accounting and finance. But now, that he would never have the opportunity.
He spent a good part of his afternoon daydreaming about the betters times in his life. The first time he met his wife Linda, at Kat’s Kitchen Diner of 4th Street, her radiant beauty snared his heart. He smiled when he thought about Shelby coming in to the world kicking and screaming. Upset from being removed from the warm and safe womb, and mad at the world. She was a strong child, and Duncan hoped she would hold on to that strength throughout her life. When she learned of her Father's death, she would need to tap in to that strength.
The McCafferty family enjoyed a nice dinner together, Duncan smiled as Shelby told him about her day. Even the mundane details about elementary school was music to his ears. Time was short, and he was trying to make the most of every minute. Such a nice dinner was almost a thing of the past. Tonight was a bittersweet example of how things used to be. The chasm that formed between Duncan and Linda, was too large to mend.
After finishing the dishes, Linda rushed upstairs to get ready, like she did every Friday night. Duncan finished drying the last dish and grabbed the day’s trash and stepped out the back door. The frigid air bit his skin, causing the hair on his arms to stand at attention. He didn't bother to bring a jacket, he wanted to feel the winter's touch one last time.
He threw the trash in the dumpster and went back inside. When he closed the door, he found his fingers touching the deadbolt. Torn between his wife’s constant reminders to remember to lock the back door, and the directions he gave the man he met behind the bar. He supposed his subconscious was trying to keep him alive. A lingering second thought about the man trying the door and turning around, aborting his mission crossed Duncan’s mind. He removed his fingers from the unlocked door and retired to his recliner.
His wife and daughter came downstairs at 7:45 PM, to tell him goodbye. Linda was to drop Shelby off at her friend Allie’s house on her way. His eyes became hot with tears as he watched them drive away. Stepping out in to the lawn he looked both ways down the street, for any cars he didn’t recognize. He found none. The dark man was a professional.
Back in his living room, he took his agreed position in his recliner and flicked on the TV and thumbed through the channels, until he landed on a late night episode of Wheel of Fortune. The puzzle was a Person, Place or Thing, and the three contestants were just starting out, guessing their consonants.
Fran from Boise was on the far left and was the first to spin the wheel. It landed on $200 and she said, “Gimme a T!”
A grimace covered Pat Sajak’s face and as he responded, “I’m sorry Fran, there are no T’s.”
The crowd exclaimed in unison as if they were sorry for Fran from Boise. Next up to spin, was Bill from Sacramento. He yanked on the wheel as if his strength would give him an edge on the competition. It landed on $500 and Bill yelled, “Give me an N Pat!”
This time a smile erupted over Mr. Sajak’s face. He said, “Yes, there are three N’s! You’re on the board with $1500, would you like to buy a vowel?” The crowd cheered for Bill’s success and Duncan realized he was smiling.
Just as Bill was telling Pat Sajak he would like to buy an “A,” he heard the familiar cry of the rusty hinges on the back door, accompanied by the click of the lock finding its home. The dark man had arrived. Duncan’s heart leaped into his throat and a fresh wave of nausea swept over him, causing him to break out in a cold sweat. Gripping the arms of his recliner, he closed his eyes and tried to catch his breath.
A few moments later, he heard the floorboards creaking in the hallway near the living room. He kept his eyes shut and tried to stop hyperventilating. Hoping this part would be quick, he wondered what being shot in the head would feel like. Would there be pain? Would everything go black and empty, turning off like a basement light? Until his diagnosis he didn't think much about death, other than picturing himself dying in his sleep at an assisted living center. Learning your number is up, and leaving so much undone, can change the way someone thinks.
When the shot didn’t come, he opened his eyes and looked around the room. Disappointed and relieved there was no one lurking in the shadows, he thought maybe he had imagined the sounds. At that moment he heard a door open down the hall. He got up from his seat and crept to the archway, and peered down the hall, and saw the door to his office was ajar.
Sure he had closed it when he left his earlier in the day, Duncan went to investigate. What do I have to lose? He had never realized how long the hallway was until he was trying to find an insane killer in his home. Who knew you could order a hitman like you could order a pepperoni pizza? He opened the office door the entire way and stepped inside.
The office was just as he left it hours before. Except for the light of a desk lamp, the room was dark. In the distance, on the table under the window, a blinking green light caught his eye. The answering machine was trying to tell him he had an unheard message. In an automatic gesture, he took a step forward, but he stopped himself. No message left on an answering machine could change the inevitable. Death was lingering at Duncan’s front door, whether at the hands of a cold blooded killer in his home, or by wasting away from cancer in a sterile hospital room. Nothing else mattered.
Turning to leave the office he reached for the door knob. The large man, dressed in black clothing and a ski mask came rushing out of the spare bedroom. Forcing him back in to the office and pinning him against the wall. The hulking man overpowered the accountant and put one hand around his neck, cutting off his breath. In the light of the desk lamp he saw the faint glint of stainless steel. A serrated hunting knife pierced his abdomen and a flash of pain enveloped his entire body. The dark man pulled the knife out and stabbed him again, this time he twisted the blade a quarter turn, before allowing his victim to fall to the floor.
Duncan McCafferty fell to the floor, writhing in pain. The growing puddle of blood, stained the cherry wood floors of his home office. In one strong motion, the killer flipped the desk over, tossing the lamp, tax documents and computer across the room.
Turning towards his victim he said, “I have to make it look like a struggle took place Mr. McCafferty. You wanted it to look real don’t you? My theory is that you heard a noise in your office, and due to the late hour you went to investigate. A struggle ensued and the burglar stabbed you. They'll remember you as a hero."
“It hurts, you said it would be quick,” Duncan sputtered through the pain.
“No Sir, you asked for it to be quick. I agreed to no such thing. Besides, I need a larger pool of blood for the forensics team. I want to ensure they’ll know you suffered. A deal is a deal. I told you I was a professional,” he said with a sinister smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. As he took his last breath, Duncan McCafferty was no longer in pain. His life was over, and the world would move on.
Linda McCafferty, almost hit the curb, as she took a right-hand turn from Elm Street to Purser Avenue. After two glasses of wine, she was driving home and attempting to reapply her eye liner and cream colored lip stick. Next, she sprayed perfume to cover up the smell of her boyfriend’s cologne. The weekly visits to her “sister’s” house, served as a much needed antidepressant. After years of chasing the way things used to be, she had given up on their marriage. Although, the past few weeks her husband has been more involved and caring. Even though she was grateful for that, he still spent a considerable amount of time sitting in his recliner, watching TV and ignoring her.
Pulling into the driveway, she tapped the garage door opener and parked inside. Taking one last look at her makeup in the rear view mirror, she stepped out of the sedan. As she closed the car door, she adjusted her blouse, took a deep breath and walked through the kitchen door. Setting her purse down on the counter, she peered through the dining room to where her husband’s chair was. A rerun of The Price is Right playing to and empty room. Some college kid named Alex was trying to guess the retail value of a Cuisinart Power Blender.
She called out to her husband, “Duncan, I’m Home.” There was no answer. Figuring her husband must be in the bathroom, she walked through the living room to the hallway leading to the stairs. The house was dark, except for the light coming from Duncan’s opened office door. She walked down the hallway and poked her head inside the room and saw the desk flipped over and papers strewn about the floor. Alarmed, she opened the door the entire way and rushed inside. As she fumbled along the wall for the light switch, she slipped on something wet, and came crashing down hard on her right leg. Reeling from the pain she tried to push herself up, but her hand touched a cold and viscous liquid.
Linda crawled to the former desk lamp lying on the floor, and as she grabbed it she saw the blood covering her hand. Lifting the lamp above her head to illuminate more of the dark room she saw her husband’s corpse, lying near the far wall, his face frozen in agony. A shrill cry escaped her lips before her breath became caught in her throat. Trembling in fear, she looked towards the table near the window and remembered the office telephone. Crawling across the room, she cried out each time she had to move her right leg. When she arrived to the phone and lifted the receiver, pressed 911. There was no dial tone.
Remembering the cell phone in her purse, she dropped the land line and began the painful trip to the kitchen. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a shadow growing and moving closer. The dark man wrapped his hands around her neck, lifting her into the air and slamming her body down on the hardwood floor, knocking out her breath. With his fingers tightening their grip, precious oxygen was just beyond her cream colored lips. The already dark room began to fade around the edges and the killer lowered his face close to hers and said, “I have a message from your husband. He wanted you to know, he knew about your boyfriend all along. He paid me $10,000 to kill the pair of you.”
The dark man applied more pressure to her neck and felt the pop of her larynx collapsing below the massive weight of his hands. As she thrashed her body one last time, her eyes opened wider in shock, before relaxing, never moving again. He held his grip a few moments longer, trying to squeeze the last remnants of life from her body.
Standing up from Linda McCafferty’s body he surveyed the room. Once he put the finishing touches on the crime scene, he stepped back and admired his work. A blinking light captured his attention. Walking around the over-turned desk, to the table under the window he pressed the PLAY button on the answering machine.
“Mr. McCafferty, this is Dr. Roechner calling with some good news. I had a colleague take another look at your CT scan and there may be an alternative treatment option available. This may not be as challenging as we previously thought. Please call my office at your earliest convenience.”