We arrived at the scene to a Castaway in flames, the fire department already responding in full force against burning walls of pure color. The flames were technicolor right down to the embers; brilliant shades of blue, green, purple, red and yellow pouring out of the windows to consume whatever they could get their greedy little tendrils on. The flames could have been a result of the building’s wiring going up in flames or the imminent immolation of any number of valuables with the right chemical properties, but the simplest answer was that the fire had been set by Madeline.
The first poltergeist had been faked by the Madam. Now we had a real one to deal with.
It was a bitter pill to swallow, but occam’s razor never lied. If Madeline was haunting the Castaway, there was no question it would be destroyed. The fire wouldn’t stop until her remains were immolated along with the rest of the building. She would bring the whole damn thing down on her own head if it meant taking the Madam with her.
“Sostene,” I said, trying to think of the best way to enter the building, “you think you can bust one of these walls down?”
He grunted. “Should be easy enough.”
“Alright. This is what we’re gonna do then…”
We circled around to the back to keep the firefighters off of our tails. What we were about to do wasn’t exactly encouraged by the department, but I felt like they’d thank us after we’d gotten those girls out of there alive.
Sostene forced his hands through the wall, grabbing hold of the metal doorframe, the pipes, and every other bit of leverage he could get his hands on from his limited range of movement on the other side of the wall. Once he felt like he had enough, he started to peel.
Sostene wouldn’t be able to enter the building now that it had gone up in smoke like this, not unless he could run, fight, or do much of anything while he was burning to death over and over again. His curse of restoration healed his injuries by rewinding time in a fashion, so once he was on fire, he’d burn anew each time his body tried to heal itself until he either reached a safe point in his own timeline or found a body of water large enough to immerse himself in. He’d be useless to me once I went inside, so I had to make the best possible use of him out here. Maximizing my escape route was one way of doing that.
Sostene yanked in the direction opposite the first floor wall, ripping it off the face of the building like a giant brick band-aid. It smacked into the building behind the Castaway, breaking down a three meter by three meter section of their wall and filling it with, ironically, more wall.
I wouldn’t say I grinned, but the sight of it did give me some measure of satisfaction. This would work. I had a sizeable point of egress to evacuate the girls, and a quick escape for myself. Now the only problem was how I’d deal with the fire.
I pulled out the container of burn cream I’d used earlier in the day, applying it vigorously to my face, neck, arms, and legs. My gloves and shoes were both leather, so I let them be. I’d need a strong grip anyway.
I turned to Sostene one last time before I went in. “Alright big man, I’m pretty sure we can both agree what I’m about to do is pretty crazy. So if I don’t make it out of here, make sure you tell Marq this was my idea. I don’t want you taking the fall for this. You did your best to look out for me, but in the end I was just too stupid to listen. Okay?”
“Good. One last thing. I want you to keep lookout while I’m in there. If you see the Madam trying to leave the building, do whatever you have to keep her from escaping. She’s not gonna get to just gonna walk away from us after all this.”
“You gonna make the call on whether I should bring her in dead or alive?”
I hesitated. “… dead or alive, then.”
He nodded again. With that final assurance, I walk towards the inferno.
When I stepped inside, I immediately felt the burn cream start to simmer and bubble, although the heat didn’t affect the skin beneath it. It was working, but not for too long. Conservative estimates gave me ten minutes before I started developing worse than first degree burns, fifteen minutes before I started cooking to a crisp. I had to hurry.
Tying my handkerchief around my face like a bandito, I waded through the halls filled dancing rainbow lights, trying to keep my balance and sense of direction amidst the strobelights of flashing colors. Working quickly, I stumbled and bumped my way into the main hall. The stage was on fire, an absolutely horrid smell spilling out from behind the curtains that smelled nothing like burning pork butts. It still kinda bothered me that I never knew what had actually happened back there. I mean, what the hell had the Madam done to that place to make it smell that bad?
The girls that hadn’t already made it out were running around like chickens with their heads cut off, some of them huddling behind the bar, others smashing chairs against doors in a bid to flee through whatever exit wasn’t already on fire.
Lifting my handkerchief, I whistled to catch their attention. Without wasting any more precious oxygen, I wave my hands in the direction I’d come, signaling the exit. The next five minutes were spent trying to get each of them out safely, doubling back and turning around each time a hallway that led to the hole collapsed or was consumed in the blaze. The whole time, I didn’t catch one glimpse of the Madam. Had she already escaped?
As I helped the last girl out of the hole, I heaved and just about coughed up half a lung, spitting a gray wad of phlegm at the dumpster next to me. I went to find Sostene. From what I could tell, he didn’t have the Madam with him.
“Any sign of her?” I asked him, hoping he’d tell me she’d already been taken care of. At that moment, I don’t think I would’ve minded if it was the police that got to her first, just as long as someone did. Taking care of her in prison would’ve been less trouble. But considering my run of luck in today’s events, I sincerely doubted that was going to happen.
He shook his head. “Nothing.”
I sighed, dipping back into my pocket to spread on another layer of burn cream. “Sostene, I’m going back in to find her. We can’t leave this one hanging.”
He didn’t try to stop me. I don’t think he would’ve if he could’ve, anyway. We both knew it had to be done. Family business was family business, and we couldn’t allow this to go unpunished in the same way we couldn’t hand her over to the police. This had to be dealt with in our own private circle, or else word would get out the Allesandris couldn’t clean up their own messes.
The gun I kept in my pocket felt especially hot and heavy as I headed back inside the burning building. Sizzled or shot, I wasn’t leaving here without a body, it seemed.
The interior had decayed to the point where it was unrecognizable. I could no longer navigate properly, or even be sure of where I was in relation to the hole. Everything seemed to be made of fire and stark, harsh outlines. Part of me recognized this meant the building was about to collapse on my head, but I kept working, kept moving forward through the thick maze.
One of a poltergeist’s most potent abilities is to manipulate regions of space and time at the site of a haunting. They can stretch out hallways, open doors that don’t exist, suspend or reverse the orientation of gravity, and even loop or slow down time, extending a short misery into a painful, unending torture. They used these abilities instinctively, with no thought to rhyme or reason. Not in any way the living would understand. A poltergeist isn’t a being of thought, but rather one of action. And right now, it was hard to tell if I was being acted with or against.
I said I had no perception of orientation in the blaze. I could only rely on my memory to show me what should have been the way, and intuition when I had to improvise. Minutes felt like hours, and the heat and the smoke added an air of delirium to the proceedings, never fully robbing me of my wits but sneaking up on me just often enough to make me question where I was or what I’d seen. Lost and confused, but still moving. Still continuing.
I lost track of time, even began to suspect it no longer mattered, but I found the Madam. I found her clutching the walls as the building warped and stressed, trying her damndest to make it to the safe. She didn’t notice me in the slightest.
I drew my gun. The click of the hammer finally caught her attention, and she turned around to look at me. I saw the moment she realized there was nowhere else to go, no refuge anywhere in the world. I saw the defeat, the spite, the bitterness, the disappointment, and the unending sadness all pass us by in those moments, without either of us saying a word.
“Awfully convenient for a fire to start right as you make your big exit. Must be nice having an accomplice willing to work with you even in death.”
“I suppose it would be. Who knows?”
“Yeah. Who knows…
“… Open it,” I commanded her.
She did nothing. Her defiance was impressive, if problematic. I reached for my knife. I didn’t waste my breath saying it, but the gesture was a reminder. No matter how this ends, this safe is ours. Once this place is burned down to the foundations, we’ll just come back and open it up again anyway.
The scare tactic had no logical relevance, but it seemed to weaken whatever psychological barrier still kept her standing, and she gave in, and started working the combination lock. I approached her slowly, stopping at a distance of a mere one meter. This would be called point-blank range by anyone’s definition. I kept the gun pointed at her head the entire time she worked the safe, enduring the scalding hot metal with handwraps and gloves. She had planned to do this anyway. I was the only wrench in the works.
Finally, the door clicked. I gave her a curt nod, and she pushed the door open. It took longer than it would have if I’d helped, or just done it myself, but I wasn’t going to give her another opportunity to worm her way out of this. I would bring shame to the entire family if I let her get away, and my life as a gangster would end before it even began.
I walk her into the safe, the door left open. With a gentle but firm push, I remind her to get on her knees while I confirm what we both already know.
Reaching out, I pull open one of the many drawers within the safe room. Empty. I suspected others would be too. Nothing too important missing, nothing that would be noticed. She would skim money off the top, just enough to go unnoticed, or pass it off as weak sales. Part of me wondered for how long. Lately though, she’d gotten greedy. She’d taken too much. I didn’t know if it was in preparation for her flight from the Castaway, or the reason for it. But the money wasn’t the issue here.
I was aware I didn’t have all the breath in the world to spare, but I felt like I had to say something.
“We never noticed. Not once. The money was always there. Except it wasn’t really, was it? That money was coming from the Pescatorres. You and them, you had an arrangement. You sold to them on the side, and used the money from the sales to cover what you’d already skimmed off the top from the club’s annual revenue, then kept the rest for yourself. You made a net profit selling around us, going behind our backs, letting the Pescatorres get an edge in on our business. Why?”
If she said anything, it was quiet enough to be concealed by the fire. I wanted to hear her say it.
“You stole from us. You tried to fool us with your rigged-up poltergeist. You even had your own employee, your accomplice, axed to keep her quiet and confuse us, then you tried to pass the buck off to your husband. Hoped we would kill him and not ask questions. Then you went and drove the final nail in the coffin. You went and made a real poltergeist. And for what? To cover your tracks? Why? Where were you going to go? What did you think you were gonna do? Cheat the family and get away with it?”
She still said nothing in return. “Answer me.”
“Because I wanted to be free. Free from this rotten family. Free from this business.”
“Freedom? That’s what this was about?”
“Of course that’s what this was about. What else could it possibly be?” She paused. “You may think the Allesandris are saints, that they’re the lesser of two evils, but you’re wrong. They’ll destroy the person you were before, turn you into something you don’t recognize. And I’d hate to see you where I’m going in twenty years.”
“I hate to break it to you lady, but there ain’t gonna be no afterlife for us. Just a bullet and cold dirt. The good you did, the bad… it isn’t going to matter. Those things are for the living.”
“Isn’t that just what you believe?”
Somewhere in the distance, a section of the building collapsed into a pile of burning wreckage. There wasn’t much time left. I couldn’t afford to put off doing this any longer.
I raised my gun arm again, pointing it right at the back of the Madam’s head. I thought back to what I’d said earlier. About what kind of thug I was. It’s true that I wasn’t that kind of guy. I’d always been a tough, but not a killer. Even when I was initiated into the family, all I’d done was drive the getaway car. I hadn’t actually fired a single shot. That had been enough for Marq back then. Not this time.
I had a debt to pay for kindness shown. This is who I had to be now. For her. For me. For us to have that perfect life, blood had to be shed. I knew that. I’d always known I’d been surrounded by death the day I entered into the service of the Allesandris as an acquaintance to the family. In a way, I already had one man’s death on my hands. Two, maybe even three if you count the events of today. It helps if you don’t think about it too much.
But now here I was. I’d been called on to kill a helpless woman. Shoot her right in the back of the head. And you know what? Now that the time had come for it, I found myself hesitating. Despite everything she’d done to wrong us, all the people she hurt, I hesitated.
“Hey killer,” she said. “Before you… finish this, I want to ask you something. What you said earlier, about splitting the insurance money up between the girls… did you mean it?”
She smiled. In the middle of the inferno, it looked warm, and unbearably sad. “That’s good then. I guess I’m ready now. Do it.”
I didn’t wait any longer than that. I pulled the trigger, and put an end to this “simple job”.
– from the memoirs of Alfonso Anastasio, written 1973