by Alan Baxter
Tim Rinneman had never met a lock he couldn’t pick. It was his expertise, his pride. And his curse, as it had become a compulsion he could not resist. He grinned as he worked at the front door of his latest target, hidden in the night shadows of the porch. He had cased the joint for nearly a week, established it was occupied by a lonely but wealthy-looking man in his late forties or early fifties, who went drinking at the Blakeley Hotel every night from seven until around nine. Easy mark.
The lock barrel turned and Tim let out an almost silent, “Yes!” He slipped his lock picks back into the pocket of his dark grey jacket—everyone knew you didn’t wear black to be camouflaged at night—and pushed the door open. His wool cap was low over his brow and a grey bandana masked the lower half of his face. Tight, rubber surgical gloves kept his fingerprints private.
He had been caught twice before, and twice avoided jail. Once, still a minor, he had been put on a good behaviour bond for two years. Then, right after he became a legal adult, he was caught again but managed to get away with community service and a three-year suspended sentence. Any further run-ins with the law and he would immediately go down for those three years, plus whatever the judge decided to hit him with for the new offence. But he simply couldn’t help himself, and he wasn’t going to get caught. He had been young and stupid. At twenty-two, he was still young, but not foolish any more. Worldly wise. Street smart. Savvy. That’s how he knew the occupant drank red wine, like some freaking connoisseur, every night at the Blakeley. The door clicked closed behind him. He stood for a moment in the gloomy hallway, hands on his hips, enjoying the simple thrill of invasion. Then he nodded to himself. “Time to get to work!”
Usually women provided the best, most portable loot in the form of jewellery, but it wasn’t the haul as much as the buzz of the crime that drove him. Anyway, these days it was easy to collect laptops and iPads and all manner of other swag both compact and valuable. Of course, that brought with it a modern problem, avoiding the internal security of such items, but Tim had contacts for that side of things.
He climbed the stairs to find three bedrooms. One a small, sparse room with a double bed, side table, and little else. The next was like an old-fashioned boudoir, all red silks and purple velvets, ivory combs and crystal perfume bottles. Tim stared. He knew the man lived alone. Did he have some kind of gender or transvestite curiosity going on? No matter, Tim wasn’t the kind to judge. The room had the vibe of a museum. A well-stocked museum, for that matter. Tim sniggered and began emptying the contents of a jewellery box into the side pockets of his backpack. The stuff looked old and valuable, crusted with gems, glittering gold and silver.
The third room was clearly the homeowner’s, everything about it redolent of a bachelor who was fastidiously tidy and organised. An expensive watch lay on the dresser and Tim nabbed that. His heart thrummed, adrenaline raced with the thrill of the theft. Tim Rinneman in his natural habitat, doing what he did best.
Downstairs he filled his backpack with a laptop, a Samsung tablet, several items of silver from a cabinet, an impressive carving of an entire Asian village, in delicate detail, in a single piece of elephant tusk, and nearly a grand in cash. Honestly, the stuff people left lying around or tucked into unlocked drawers never ceased to amaze him. A knitted throw rug lay over the back of a sofa, and he used it to wrap and muffle his hoard then settled the backpack comfortably into place. It felt reassuringly weighty on his shoulders, bulging almost fit to burst.
Thoroughly pleased with himself he headed for the exit. He glanced back to consider the kitchen at the back of the house, but there was rarely anything in kitchens. He paused. Sometimes a valuable item might be left on a bench… He hurried in and scanned around once. Nothing. Good.
Returning to the front of the house, he passed a door under the stairs he hadn’t paid mind to before, but a new detail caught his eye. It had a Yale lock beside a small, looped metal handle. Who locked the cupboard under the stairs? He pulled on the handle, but the door didn’t budge.
Curiosity burned. If it was locked it could only be because there was something of value inside. Tim pulled out his lock picks and went to work. It took less than a minute and he was in. Grinning, he pulled the door wide and saw not a cupboard, but stairs leading down into a basement. Light spilled up from below. He hadn’t expected that.
He had promised himself that he would be in and out in under thirty minutes. He checked his watch. Twenty-five minutes so far. Smart thieves didn’t compromise their plans. That’s why plans were made, to avoid cock-ups on the job. So he had five minutes for a quick once around the basement. Or four, to allow a minute for his exit and stay within The Plan.
He crept down the stairs into the stark, fluorescent light. A long bench against one wall came into view, covered with a neatly organised array of shining silver knives and drills. And bone saws. And a dozen other implements of surgery Tim could not readily identify. The room was spotless, like a surgical theatre. As he got halfway down the stairs he noticed a couple of glass-fronted cabinets, metal gas bottles on wheeled stands with clear plastic masks hanging from them. And ten blood-stained toes. He staggered to a shocked halt.
Bile rising, heart racing, he crept a couple more steps down and the grisly display revealed itself in full. A man lay strapped to a metal table, tilted almost vertical. His arms were belted out to either side like a crucifixion, his head held against a black rubber rest with another brown leather belt. Blood transfusion bags were attached with snaking tubes. Other drips, clear and unidentifiable, stood on the opposite side. The man was naked and desecrated.
His toes were bleeding because each nail had been plucked away, as had his fingernails. In patches all over his legs and torso, small areas of skin had been flayed and folded back, neatly presenting slabs of wet, red muscle. Along one forearm, a several-inch length of bright white ulna was exposed to the air. His penis had been vertically bisected and hung open against the top of each thigh. His jaw was stretched wide with a bright, chromed device of bars and screws, and several dark, red holes dotted his gums were teeth should have been. His eyelids were gone, his eyes crimson-rimmed. And those eyes! They stared at Tim with such beseeching, such desperate pleading. The man’s tongue danced in his wide gaping mouth as he expelled short, sharps breaths and gurgling grunts.
Tim cried out, his vision swimming as vomit shot into his throat and was only prevented from expulsion because his heart was already blocking the way. He staggered away, tripping and stumbling back up the stairs, wanting nothing except the outside. Fresh air, not this house, not that sight, he wanted to be far away and fast asleep and he would never, ever get that vision of atrocity out of his mind. Tears streaming his cheeks, breath in hard gasps, he spun a full three-sixty to slam the basement door, ran through the house, backpack slamming against his shoulders, and out the front. He dragged that door closed without stopping and bolted down the path, out to the street, and didn’t stop running until he was a dozen blocks away and dizzy with exhaustion.
Tim found a pub and ordered a double bourbon. He downed it in one and ordered another. What the hell was he supposed to do now? His cap and bandana were stuffed into the backpack that was heavy with loot which now felt like the greatest burden a man could carry. He should just throw the lot off a bridge into the river, let it sink and never be found. His prints were not in the house, he was certain he hadn’t left hair or anything else to be found by any forensics team. He could just walk away and be done with it all. Pretend it never happened, except for the image burned into his brain of that poor bastard. He shouldn’t have run.
How could he walk away from that guy? But if he called it in, the police would want to know how he knew about the situation, and that would only get him busted. That meant a guaranteed three years in the can, plus a new sentence. No way was he going to do time like that if he could help it.
He could call it in anonymously, but then there was no guarantee it would be taken seriously. And he would get no closure, no knowledge the victim was saved. Then he realised that his reluctance all came back to the fact that he had fled in horror. Given all the poor man’s suffering, wasn’t that perhaps the cruellest cut of all? That salvation had been right there at hand, yet it had run gagging and crying from the sight? Tim needed to fix that.
A cold certainty settled over him. He would have to go back and save the man. The thought sent shudders through him once more. He was a burglar, but he wasn’t a bad person. He knew right from wrong, even though he chose to do small wrongs from time to time. It wasn’t his fault he’d grown up with drunk and distant parents who refused to enforce his schooling. It wasn’t his fault he’d ended up uneducated and unemployable and had turned to a life of petty crime.
Well, maybe it was his fault, in part. He was smart even if he wasn’t educated, and he could still turn that around. Go to night school or something, learn a trade. He could make a much safer living sweeping the bloody street if it was only about paying the rent. It wasn’t. It was about that buzz, the decadence of the non-conformist. But everything had changed now. He swallowed the whiskey and ordered another, paying with the freshly stolen cash. It was well after 8:00 p.m. No way was he going back tonight and risk running into the evil prick who owned the place.
He would go back tomorrow, with his Uncle Pete’s car, and rescue the poor bastard. He’d simply take him to hospital, leave him in the emergency department and scarper. Easy. Uncle Pete would lend him the car, no problem.
And if the guy doesn’t go out tomorrow because he’s been robbed tonight? a small voice taunted in the back of Tim’s mind, but he pushed it away. Tomorrow. He’d go back and rescue the guy then.
The night was bright with moonlight when Tim parked Pete’s battered old station wagon at the curb and stared along the street to the charnel house. It looked so normal from the outside, just like the dozens of others either side of it.
He sat and waited, fingers toying with the phone in his pocket. I should just call it in anonymously. Find a public phone. But he stayed put, watching.
He jumped as the front door opened and the large man emerged. He wore his signature three-piece suit, silk shirt and matching handkerchief in his jacket pocket. Bowtie. His shoes were shined like mirrors, reflective in the night like his slicked-back dark hair.
He headed off towards the Blakeley like it was any other night. Tim fumed at the man’s nonchalance. Perhaps the fact he was leaving was evidence enough that, although he must realise he’d been robbed, perhaps he assumed the burglar hadn’t found the basement hell. And given what he had down there, the bastard was surely not about to report the robbery. There was some vindication for Tim in that. Last night he stole the man’s goods and chattels. Tonight he would deprive him of his sick fun. He watched the butcher all the way down two blocks until the distant figure turned left towards the Blakeley.
Tim’s heart hammered as he picked the lock of the front door for the second time. He crept along the hallway, swallowing repeatedly against his nerves and the anticipation of what he might see. Would the man’s torture have progressed further? There was a moment of panic at the thought the whole thing might be ended already, the body removed in the face of the previous night’s incursion. Only one way to find out.
He picked the basement lock, hurried down into the brightness, and cried out in shock at the sight. The man’s torture had indeed progressed. Both shins had been laid open, the flesh folded to either side like fillets of salmon, exposing stark bone. His testicles each hung down near his knees on a single thread of tissue, the scrotum gone. Glistening organs pulsed through windows carved in his abdomen. But worst of all was the poor bastard’s head. The top of the skull had been removed above the eyebrows and the exposed brain bristled with filament-like acupuncture needles.
And yet somehow, the man lived. One eye rolled in its socket, the other an empty red and black cavern. His tongue was absent, and wet, slushing breaths rasped in his throat. A sob escaped Tim as he stared, dizzy and trembling. There was no way he could move this person without killing him for sure. His fucking brain was uncovered!
“Keeping them alive is the real art. Just enough new blood, antibiotics, shock treatments.”
Tim cried out and spun around. The well-dressed man stood at the top of the stairs, his bulk filling the doorframe.
“That’s what they pay me for, of course.”
Tim shook his head, close to unconsciousness. “What?”
The man slowly descended and held out a business card. “This is me.”
With shaking hands, Tim took the card and numbly read.
PURVEYOR OF THE EXQUISITE
“What?” Tim said again.
“I’m impressed you came back,” Mislovski said, his tone calm, entirely relaxed. “You planned to save him? Very noble. But as you can see, he’s deep in his experience now and it would be a travesty to interrupt it or end it early.”
“Travesty…?” Tim could feel something nipping at the edges of his mind and he realised it was madness. He felt something in his head that was very ready to snap. “You’re a fucking monster!”
“I am an artist.”
Tim stuttered and gaped, convinced his fate was equal to that of the man strapped upright.
“I will largely ignore the outrageous liberties you took in here last night,” Mislovski went on. “But I must insist you return my mother’s jewellery. And then you can leave and we’ll call it even, yes?”
“I… I can’t leave…leave him…” Tim’s mind was spinning, desperate to find purchase in some course of action, some semblance of sanity.
“There are hidden cameras throughout the house, Timothy Rinneman,” Mislovski said, and Tim’s bladder let go. The large man either didn’t notice or chose to ignore it. “I know who you are, and I know you’re hanging by a thread in regards to prison. Let me convince you that this man chose to be here, paid very handsomely for the privilege, in fact, and then you and I can go about our business as usual. We each have something over the other, no?”
The absurdity of the man’s claims was finally giving Tim something to cling onto. “You can’t compare a few years for burglary to this!” he said, gesturing at the brutality.
Mislovski produced a photograph from his pocket and handed it over. It showed the large man with his arm around the shoulders of another, younger man. Both were smiling. Between them they held up a piece of paper on which was written: PAIN IS THE ONLY TRUE EXPERIENCE. EXQUISITE IS THE ULTIMATE, ENDURING RELEASE. I CONSENT. Below the words was a date, from a little over a week before.
Tim looked at the man on the metal bed. Remembered him from the previous night when he was more intact. It was definitely the same person.
“I always have a photo like that,” Mislovski said. “Partly as a keepsake from each client, partly as a possible defence should something go wrong. It’s no real defence, of course. A person can’t sign away their statutory right to life. They can’t absolve me of murder. But they do consent, they do pay very well, and I am the best at what I do.”
Tim thought back to the night before and a terrible realisation arose in his mind. Those beseeching eyes as he’d crept down the stairs. It was so obvious now in context. The man had not been pleading with Tim to rescue him. He’d been desperately willing Tim to leave. Those eyes weren’t saying, “Save me!” They were begging, “Don’t ruin this!”
Tim Rinneman had never met a lock he couldn’t pick. But he would never be exercising those skills again. He busied himself stacking empty, flattened cardboard boxes for the huge recycling bins in the concrete yard outside and thought about his forklift driver’s licence test that afternoon. A job in a big warehouse like this was perfect, keeping his body and mind busy without too many people around. Without too many people to watch, and wonder what they might have in their basements. Or wonder what they might secretly desire.
About the Author
Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author who writes supernatural thrillers and urban horror liberally mixed up with dark fantasy, crime, and noir. He rides a motorcycle and loves his dogs. He also teaches Kung Fu. He lives among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, with his wife, son, two dogs and a cat. Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website – www.warriorscribe.com
About the Narrator
Dan Rabarts is the author of the grimdark-steampunk-madcap fantasy novel Brothers of the Knife, first in the Children of Bane series, and co-authors the supernatural tech-noir crime thriller series The Path of Ra with Lee Murray. He narrates stories for Tales to Terrify and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and hides on the web at dan.rabarts.com.