A light snow was falling as Charlie Reardon left the diner and made his way down Madison Street. Glancing over his shoulder he couldn’t help but wonder how he had gotten into this mess. To be fair, mess wasn’t the word he would have used in hindsight. There was nothing random or capricious about the events that had led him to this street, but then again in the present moment everyone always believes that the choice they make is theirs and theirs alone.
It all began with a letter, handwritten in a script both rapid and precise. The envelope had slipped under his door in the dead of night. Charlie had been sleeping alone, but even the whisper of paper under his door would interrupt his slumber when registered in tandem with the receding click of heels he had heard on the stairs. He tossed aside the threadbare sheet abandoning the little warmth it provided him for the sweet relief of the cool night air as he walked past the open window to his studio door. Opening his front door he stepped into the stairwell. Silence greeted him despite his quick response. His midnight Mercury had swiftly retreated before he could identify the messenger.
Abandoning the lost cause for what it was, he closed the door and turned to the next matter at hand. He picked up the envelope gingerly taking into account its weight. No powder shifted within the envelope and a whiff of the paper across his nose revealed no identifiable threats. He walked over to his dresser and set the envelope down. He felt his way along the aged wood to a pack of matches. Taking one and striking it into life he matched it to the candle on top of the dresser. Orange light filled the room dancing into the corners and receding just as quickly, as the night air caused the flame to writhe in its pool of wax. He could only remind himself that it might have been helpful to turn on his electricity for moments such as these, but considering it further he realized that a candle was a much cheaper alternative, and there was no point in paying for an electric bill that would only fuel the occasional flick of a lightbulb.
He returned his attention to the envelope.It was crimson with a black script on its face that read To Benjamin. Charlie knew as well as anyone that his name was not Benjamin, but he also knew that he was the occupant of this particular door. He took the message into his hand and read the following:
I told you that they would come for me. By the time you
read this message they may find me alive. Don’t come looking for me because to do so would only cause you pain.
I will think of you every night I take breath, and remember “Dragons instantly need endless rivers. Benefitting all children knowingly can only ruin nearly every reptile.”
In place of a signature was only a pair of lips preserved in black lipstick. It made as little sense to him as the fact that he had received the letter, but curiosity was ever his strong suit. He did the only thing he could do under the circumstances, he went to sleep with the conviction that he would figure this out in the morning.
He woke to the sound of a domestic dispute. On the floor above him it seemed like someone was kicking out a man for a number of indiscretions that Charlie had neither the care nor the caffeine to figure out in his waking moments. “I’ll be back! I’ll get what’s mine!” the man shouted. Charlie was most certain he would judging by the guttural force with which he projected the promise. Charlie figured this was his time to beat a retreat to grab some breakfast. Throwing on some serviceable boots and a scarf he ventured out into the chill morning with only his khakis and his long grey thermal to protect him from the cold.
He hugged the letter protectively to his chest as he made the short trip around the corner to the local restaurant, “Harold’s”. No one knows why the restaurant was so named, because the owner’s name was Frank and his father’s name was Greg the third. Despite the lack of familial history this is where Charlie called home most mornings, and he had not had the opportunity to find a home more hospitable. He walked into the restaurant and grabbed a seat at the counter. A meaty arm of coarse hair set down a cup of steaming coffee in front of him. A man with a voice that commanded attention spoke in a subtle rumble, “Welcome back Charlie, I’m humbled to have you call on us peasant folk so early.”
“Very funny Frank, thanks again for finding me that rathole to stay in,” Charlie choked out sarcastically over his first sip of the muddy water Frank passed for coffee. “One of its many denizens was kind enough to give me a wake up call this morning.”
“Now come on Charlie, it’s just a place for you to stay while you get back on your feet. You did just get back, and semper fi or not it’s the nicest place I have ever sent a ‘Charlie’ to so be thankful you ingrate.”
“Yes sir Sarge.” Charlie quipped while sending off a sarcastic salute. “You just hold up your end of the bargain by keeping me fed in the meanwhile and I’ll ignore the fact that some of your manners were left back in ‘Nam.”
“Right, of course,” Frank said as he grabbed a plate of food that had been sitting in the kitchen window for an indeterminate amount of time. “You’re lucky this one ordered a large combo before deciding to skip out on the bill and the food. Eat to your hearts content.”
Charlie dug into the lukewarm food with gusto. He wasn’t a man that you could peg with a refined palate, but no one could argue that he lacked an appetite. As he shoveled down the tasteless hash browns he glanced up at the local news. “…and she was found safe and sound last night. No word as of yet about her whereabouts while she was gone, but…”
“What’s that you got there?” Frank asked. “Hopefully it’s work, but with a red envelope like that I wouldn’t have figured you for…”He gave Charlie a thoughtful look. “Prostitution?” Frank laughed as he wiped his hands clean on a dish rag that was long overdue for a wash itself.
Charlie scraped the last of the egg yolk off his plate showing Frank that it wouldn’t take too much more to get the dish spic and span. “No, it’s nothing like that. Someone slipped it under my door last night. I don’t know who it was, but it might be pay me to figure it out.”
Frank grabbed at the envelope and opened it proclaiming, “Well let me have a look then. God knows you have to pay me back for all this food one day.”
“If you can call it that…” Charlie muttered.
Frank took in the letter through squinted eyes then laughed from deep in his chest. “If I were to make a guess I would say this is about that girl they just resurrected not a few miles from here.”
Charlie looked at Frank incredulously, “Resurrection huh? Next thing you’re going to tell me I got a letter from the Messiah himself.”
Frank threw the letter back into Charlie’s chest, “Well if you actually took a glance at the idiot box since you returned, you would know that they’ve been looking for this heiress for months. She disappeared off the face of the earth with a good chunk of the coin of the realm.”
Part of the letter now made sense, but the rest of it still added up to nothing. He supposed that it could have been the girl that wrote the letter, but it didn’t make sense that she was spouting off about fairy tale dragons. “Okay. Let’s assume that it was the girl that wrote this letter. What was she doing in this corner of the world? This is not considered the prime vacation spot for the rich and famous.”
Frank shook his head laughing quietly to himself, “That was the point you idiot! If you were followed around constantly wouldn’t you want to find a way to get out of the limelight. I’m sure she could’ve lived comfortably the rest of her life with the nest egg she took from Daddy when she turned 18.”
Charlie snapped back in frustration, “OK well regardless of a rich runaway hiding out in these parts, what’s that got to do with me? If she’s smart enough to disappear I’m sure she was plenty smart enough to know the difference between a door she called home and the door of some fresh vet.”
“Well corporal you can’t expect me to have all the answers.” Frank turned back to his place of business. “I got work to do now so don’t go getting yourself into trouble, you hear?”
Charlie shrugged off the warning, “Right because that’s what I came back for. Trouble.” Charlie threw the scarf back around his neck as Frank moved down the counter to the latest customers that had ventured into the dump. “You take care of yourself Frank.” Frank waved off Charlie’s remarks with the back of his hand and Charlie took to the street through the front door.
Charlie took out the letter again studying its contents carefully and puzzled over what this nonsensical fairytale had to do with anything. He asked why she would put quotes around any passage of the letter let alone the fantasy she had thrown out as an afterthought. He was making his way back upstairs to his place when he was pushed roughly against the wall. Caught off guard or not he was trained to handle threats so he crouched out of his assailant’s grasp and twisted in time to see his surprised adversary flung down the stairs by his shove.
“You have something that’s mine give it to me!” Charlie did not recognize the man’s face except to acknowledge that he was an occasional visitor to the apartments, but he did recognize the man’s voice as the source of the abuse that had woken him up that morning.
“Look punk, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but if you lay a finger on me again, I promise it won’t come back whole.” Charlie threatened the man with a cold stare, but the man was nearly rabid.
“That letter was meant for me, the money is mine! Give me the letter!” The man, Benjamin, Charlie guessed, was crouched in the corner ready to pounce despite the small trickle of blood that the tumble down the stairs had left him.
“I’m going to count to three, and if you don’t leave me alone, I’m going to hurt you. I don’t want to, but I can, and I will. One…” Charlie was serious and had curled his left fist in preparation for the beating he might have to dish out.
Benjamin shouldered the door open to the street, “I’ll find it, and if I have to get through you to do so, I will.” He ran out into the world and away from Charlie’s apartment which was all that Charlie cared about. Charlie rubbed his shoulder absently thinking that the encounter could have gone very differently if Benjamin had been carrying a weapon. He opened the door to his apartment and he retreated into his own space. Benjamin looked at the letter again and shook his head laughing. “Dragons…right.” He sat down and circled the beginning of every word in the short fairy tale the girl had spun:
Diner. Back corner.
There was only one diner about a mile outside the city, on Madison Street. Charlie figured he should head over there before Benjamin came back with some cold steel to back his madness. Charlie threw on a pair of slacks and an overcoat, doing what little he could to disguise himself against Benjamin’s prying eyes. He took off some 10 minutes later with his collar turned up and a fedora sitting on top of his close cropped head. On the walk over he thought back to that young woman that would smile at him the few times he had gone to his mailbox to collect his disability checks from the military. She would ask him how he was getting on, knowing that he wasn’t getting hired anywhere due to the PTSD that would come up in his background check. He would be civil, but he would return to his studio without a glance back in her direction. It was hard to make eye contact with her when he knew she had heard the screams born from his nightmares one evening. They had never spoken of it, but the pity in her eyes had told the story just as clearly.
Charlie saw the diner growing closer in the distance. Dark grey clouds huddled closely in the sky as if they too could feel the chill of the day. It was nearly noon by now, but the sun was hidden from sight. Charlie took in the weather and pulled down his fedora further. Before he knew it his swift gait had brought him into the diner. The hostess greeted him with a smile not meant for anyone in particular, “You’re free to seat yourself anywhere that’s open, I’ll be with you shortly.”
Charlie nodded in thanks and made his way through the rest of the restaurant. He slid into the booth in the back corner and considered the fact that he was being stupid going on treasure hunts for money that might not exist. Money that he knew was not meant for him. He reached his hand under the table, and he found another envelope. This one was just as red as the other, but when he opened it a small silver key tumbled out. He took it into consideration for a passing second, and moved on to the letter waiting for him in the envelope. Waiting for him because his name, and not Benjamin’s, was written across the front.
I’m sorry for my confusing message Mr. Reardon. Originally that message was for Benjamin, but my sweet Benji had changed. The first couple months were wonderful because he loved me and we had all we needed. Apparently though, we didn’t have everything he wanted. He never actually hit me, but when I denied him access to the money he would get angry. I know I don’t know you that well sir, but I figure you would need this money more than him. Thank you for your service. I hope this makes your life a little easier. And don’t worry. My father won’t find out what happened to his money so feel free to live a comfortable life.
There was no lipstick signature on this letter, but it did have the address of a bank complete with a number for what Charlie guessed would be a safety deposit box. He looked up from the letter considering his luck, when he noticed someone duck quickly behind their morning paper. Charlie studied the man closely. He could not identify the face behind the newspaper, but he could more than easily identify the glint of a pistol hidden on the hip of the interested party. Charlie considered his options and took off calmly towards the front door.
A light snow was falling as Charlie Reardon left the diner and made his way down Madison Street. He was coldly calculating how he was going to leave this situation alive. He almost laughed at the irony of making it out of the hell that was the Middle East only to die in the streets at the hands of one of the money hungry citizens he had fought to protect. A glance over his shoulder proved to him that Benjamin was following. He walked briskly behind Charlie with his hand slowly inching toward the pistol at his hip.Charlie passed an ice cream parlor and quickly turned into an alley. He ducked behind a dumpster just in time to hear the footsteps of Benjamin enter the alley. The footsteps stopped, as Charlie took into his hand a small rock of concrete that had divorced itself from the alley floor. Benjamin’s voice floated into the air, “Mr. Reardoooon. I know you’re theeere.”
Slow tentative steps made their way further down the alley. “Look, we can split the money, but I think we both agree I should get the larger share for putting up with that spoiled princess for the longest amount of time.” Charlie took the concrete into his hand and prepared to throw. “I don’t want to have to kill you, but maybe it’s just your time.” Charlie could see the faint shadow of the pistol making its way past the edge of the dumpster. Soon enough the muzzle of the gun itself followed.
Charlie threw the rock down the alley at a trash can filled with garbage. The clank of the rock against the metal attracted Benjamin’s attention and his gunfire. He unloaded three bullets into the unsuspecting waste, when Charlie grabbed the pistol as he rammed Benjamin into the wall. Benjamin wrestled for control of the pistol while Charlie pulled his fist back. Benjamin twisted the gun to point towards Charlie’s shoulder. Through gritted teeth Benjamin let loose a yell. As Benjamin’s finger tensed on the trigger, Charlie brought his fist across Benjamin’s face with full force. The pistol clattered to the floor as quickly as Benjamin’s head hit the wall. He was out cold and his jaw was probably broken.
Charlie exited the opposite end of the alleyway knowing that Benjamin would be found soon with the discharged gun. He made his way to the bank nearby, the bank that had been mentioned in the letter. He let the adrenaline drain out of him as he calculated his tab at Harold’s and the size of the tip that Frank was going to get before Charlie skipped town. Charlie took the silver key into his hand and smiled, maybe now he could consider the merits of electricity.