#52weeks52stories – Week 2
Word Count: 3553
She caught her blurred reflection in the antiquated steel doors of the basement elevator.
Black turtleneck. Black Jeans. Black boots. Jacket and gloves, also black.
But she wasn’t some voluptuous bad-ass fashionista making a statement or setting a trend. She wore black for one reason. It hid blood splatter.
“Give me your knife, Jess.”
She’d forgotten it was still gripped tightly in her hand, blood dripping from its blade to the tarp on which she stood.
They extended their gloved hands, and he took the knife, dipping it into a small container of clear solution.
The blood disappeared.
He tossed the knife onto the tarp with the body and began rolling it up.
Jess stepped off her end and bent to help.
“No. I got this. You look a little shaken up. Scour the area and make sure we leave nothing behind.”
Jess walked around the small area of the underground parking garage but glanced over her shoulder to see Ren complete his task with ease and no emotion.
Was she shaken up?
Jess took one last look into the unseeing eyes of Neil Garner AKA William McNaughton before he disappeared into the folds of the tarp. She couldn’t muster up one ounce of guilt or remorse. She’d sent him to hell and knew she’d join him one day.
Jess grabbed Ren’s ‘tool bag’ and tossed it into the back of the Mercedes. She heard a dull thud and turned to see Ren walking away from the abandoned dumpster.
They climbed into the vehicle and began their return trip.
Thoughts of her aunt, Carmella Gordon, flooded her mind.
Her amazing aunt who’d always been a major part of Jess’ life, was gone, dead from her own hand.
Because of Neil Garner.
The heartless sixty-two-year-old Lothario picked Carmella out of a group of wealthy women attending a charity benefit and stalked her. Running into Carmella by “accident” on several occasions, the conman then asked the youthful seventy-eight-year-old retired physics professor out to dinner and his game began. Courting her aunt, spoiling her with gifts, and convincing Carmella he was in love with her.
Two short months after the senior citizens met, Neil asked Carmella to marry him and she accepted.
Distracted by new love and wedding preparations, Carmella wasn’t her usual watchful self and didn’t realize until it was too late her identity had been stolen.
And Neil Garner was nowhere to be found.
Humiliated and penniless, a bottle of Xanax and a water-glass of vodka was all Carmella needed to stop her broken heart and hide her carelessness.
Shame kept Carmella from reporting the crime and when Jess tried to after Carmella’s suicide, the police were no help.
Interested at first after hearing about the deceased woman’s empty bank accounts and missing property deed, detectives back-pedaled and double-talked Jess on her next visit to the station three days later. Phrases like ‘lack of evidence’ and ‘no complaining witness’ were tossed around.
When Jess said she’d take her story to the media, the captain of detectives took her by the arm, walking her to the elevator.
“Ms. Hunter, I believe you and I want to help you. But our hands are tied. This Garner character has friends and family in high places. We’ve been ordered off this case. Your aunt’s death is ruled a suicide, reasons unknown. I’m sorry.”
Shaking with rage, Jess spoke through clenched teeth, fighting to control herself.
“He took advantage of my aunt, stole everything from her and walked away. He. Must. Pay.”
“I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do.”
“Fine. I will go to the media. And the Internet. I’ll tell my aunt’s story and -”
He grabbed her arm again, pulling her closer to the elevator and lowering his voice.
“No, you won’t. If these people think nothing of threatening an entire police department, what do you think they’ll do to you?”
The weight of his words took Jess’ breath away. Was her life in danger because she sought justice for Carmella?
The elevator doors opened. The detective helped her inside and walked away before the doors closed.
The man was scared.
Her aunt was dead, Neil had vanished without a trace… and all of Carmella’s assets and Jess was furious with nowhere to turn.
Until she found Ren standing next to her Jeep as she left the market one evening.
With a few shadowy details about himself and even fewer about the group he represented, Ren got Jess’ full attention when he produced a file on someone he’d been following for quite some time—Neil Garner.
Carmella Gordon was not the grifter’s first victim. Ren had photos of a half-dozen other women who’d lost millions to Garner.
Carmella’s case was unique because she was the only victim to die. Neil didn’t kill her, but his fraud and theft made him culpable… and made it time to find a permanent solution to the problem of Neil Garner.
Ren was sure Garner had accomplices on foreign soil. The money disappeared quickly, and skilled forensic accountants had failed to find the destinations.
His victims were left with nothing, forced to move in with family or even worse, nursing homes. Neil Garner never served a day in jail or had even been arrested.
Jess was incredulous.
“Because his real name is William McNaughton, and he is the first cousin of a United States Senator.”
Jess stiffened with rage.
“So, he’s allowed to steal from women with no recourse? Ruin their lives without arrest or punishment of any kind because of who he’s related to?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“That’s not right! My aunt is in her grave because of him!”
Ren didn’t respond.
“You said you needed a permanent solution. What? You going to murder his cheating ass?”
He tilted his head and smirked. “No, Jess. You are.”
She didn’t try to stop the grin growing on her face.
Thirty-four-year-old Jessalyn Hunter was pragmatic and methodical. She didn’t make waves or bend rules. An only child, she was the product of her upbringing by West and Bonnie Hunter—both English professors.
When Jessalyn lost her parents to sudden illnesses eleven months apart, it was her mom’s older sister, Carmella, who kept Jess from sinking into depression.
It was also Carmella Gordon who helped Jessalyn through her divorce, when ex-husband, Randy, decided he liked gambling and sex with random women… and men better than being married to her.
The once-dependable HMO benefits manager had no boundaries during the divorce. When fake apologies and tears didn’t work on Jessalyn, Randy resorted to forgery, attempting to take stock portfolios and life insurance benefits he knew no divorce court would award him.
It was then, Carmella Gordon presented her niece with a large manila envelope.
“I had my suspicions about Randy a few months ago, sweetie, and I’m sorry I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know at the time it was this bad.”
Confused, Jessalyn opened the envelope and pulled out its contents—a thick stack of eight-by-ten color photographs.
She stared at her soon-to-be-ex-husband shooting craps at gaming tables, placing bets at race tracks… and in several different sexual encounters.
Jessalyn looked up at Carmella. “Auntie?”
“I’m so sorry, darling. There was no easy way to tell you.” She led her niece to the sofa and sat her down. “I’ve taught college students for too many years to not recognize the signs. I know the look—wild-eyed and crazed—that comes with too many hits of Ecstasy, too many uppers, and yes, even cocaine usage.
I thought I saw that look in Randy’s eyes when you two came to dinner on Easter, but I talked myself out of it. Randy wasn’t the type, and you’d already know if there was a problem.
Soon after, you confided in me about his late hours and gambling. My concerns returned. My suspicions were confirmed when I stopped by your place early one evening. You hadn’t made it in from work yet, and Randy answered the door… wired. He said he was coming down with something. I told him to get some rest, and I left. And hired a private investigator the next day.”
Jessalyn closed her eyes, stunned at Carmella’s confession. She had been so focused on Randy’s gambling, she’d missed everything else.
“I never planned for you to see these photos, Jessalyn, but after Randy showed his true colors and tried to steal from you, it’s time to play hardball.”
Jessalyn was almost childlike. “What do I do, Auntie?”
“You seal that envelope and have it delivered to Randy’s attorney. And wait.”
“No. I could never do that! It’s too ugly. People will know.”
“Jessalyn Christine! You will do it! Randy already knows what he did, and I doubt his attorney wants anyone to ever see them. Those photos will encourage him to convince his client to walk away before anyone else does see them.”
“Like his job.”
Jessalyn’s mouth gaped open.
Carmella reigned in her anger and cupped Jessalyn’s cheek.
“West and Bonnie did such a great job raising you. You’re a good, honest, caring person. But Randy is scum. He isn’t going to stop until he gets his hands on your inheritance to squander away and you’ll do nothing to stop him. You’ll be the bigger person—following laws and rules.”
Jessalyn saw a darkness creep into Carmella’s eyes.
“But not anymore. You’re going to play by his rules and have that envelope delivered tomorrow.”
Carmella stood and headed for the kitchen but turned back to her niece.
“Wrong, mean, bad… call it what you will, sweetie. But a touch of malice never killed anyone.”
Carmella was right. Two days after Randy’s attorney received the envelope of evidence, she signed her divorce papers. Randy Gates was not present. After an expedited filing and shortened waiting period, she was once again Jessalyn Hunter and her marriage, a fading memory.
But Carmella Gordon also had it wrong. A touch of malice could kill.
After Ren told her what her job would be, she went from Jessalyn Hunter to Jess, the hunter.
Ren’s vigilante group provided her with everything she needed.
Carmella had looked out for Jess and interceded when her own husband tried to steal from her. The shrewd professor gave Jess the means to protect herself and move on with her life.
But she’d not been there for her aunt.
Between Jess’ job and Carmella’s active lifestyle, niece and fiancé had only met on two occasions. Jess wasn’t there to notice warning signs or discuss the hastiness of the engagement.
She didn’t know he’d convinced Carmella to allow his business-manager nephew to manage their affairs while they took an extended honeymoon and traveled the world.
A life stolen.
A life taken.
It was time for Jess to make it right and hold McNaughton accountable.
Had the police not been threatened and taken off their investigation, they would have found William McNaughton hadn’t gone far. Just twenty miles. And he was now Claude Pierce, retired physician, wooing his latest mark—Leta Howard, an aging star of B-movies.
With Leta having no family, a fading fan base, and a diagnosis of early onset dementia, Jess had to work fast. William would waste no time disappearing with her millions.
Jess became a true hunter. Stalking the conman for several nights at a time, learning his routine. She switched to days, calling off work due to a mysterious back injury she even visited her doctor for. Jess would say or do whatever it took to get justice for Carmella.
Despite the snowy days and below freezing temps at night, Jess continued learning all she could about the cold-hearted scam artist.
She couldn’t believe the arrogance of the man. Cruising around the southland in his S-class Mercedes. Stopping for three-hundred-dollar haircuts and thousand-dollar massages. Spending money he had not worked a day for. Money he’d stolen.
Jess wondered about McNaughton’s well-connected family and his cousin, the senator.
They knew what he was doing. Why didn’t they stop him? His family waited until after he’d defrauded some trusting widow or divorcee then used all their considerable resources to help him avoid jail.
It was cruel.
And it was about to end.
After a month, Jess had the information she needed and called Ren. It was the only time she called the burner phone. They met in a crowded downtown cafeteria during the lunch rush.
“The man has a clear-cut routine, but the only time he’s alone is when he visits Leta on Wednesday evenings for dinner.”
“Good. And for the record, we knew about his Wednesday dinners with Leta. We just had to be sure about how committed you were to this. You wouldn’t be the first person to get cold feet.”
“I understand.” She smirked. “And my feet are nice and warm.”
Five days later, Ren pulled up in front of Jess’s house. She was out the door and approaching the Tahoe before it stopped.
Jess climbed in and fastened her seatbelt, not greeting or glancing in Ren’s direction until he failed to move the vehicle.
He was staring at her.
“Jess, it’s not too late to call this off.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Not everyone can kill.”
“You’re wrong, Ren. Put in the right situation, anyone can kill. Anyone. With what you do, you of all people should know that.”
Without another word, he pulled away from the curb.
They made the drive in silence.
Three miles from Leta’s, Ren found a spot on a crowded side street and parked. He got out.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes. Be ready to grab the bag and leave the truck.”
Jess sat in the silence and waited. She thought of Carmella and everything which had happened in the year since her death.
It was a hard year. She’d struggled with her lot, slipping in and out of depression. Coworkers and her few friends showed concern, but none were close enough to know the extent of Jess’ pain.
But it was better not having anyone close.
Her nightly activities would have raised alarms and brought questions Jess wouldn’t answer.
Seven minutes later, a dark gray Chevy Celebrity pulled up next to the Tahoe. Jess saw Ren in the driver’s seat, grabbed the tool bag and left the Tahoe. Seconds later, they were on their way to Leta’s.
They exited the Celebrity half a block from their destination and walked the rest of the way. They appeared to be a couple out for a late evening stroll.
Had anyone been around to notice them.
Much like Leta Howard, her neighborhood was crumbling in decay from lack of care and concern. The once pristine and coveted properties were now a Hodge-Podge of vacant lots and boarded up homes, with a handful of buildings dissected into one-room studio rentals of which most were empty. Greedy developers kept watch waiting for the area to take its last dying gasp before rushing in to scoop up the land at cut-rate prices.
Leta’s Tri-level brownstone stood at the end of the block. Despite the missing tiles and peeling paint, it was obvious the building has once been a showplace. Leta purchased the dwelling during the heyday of her film career when she was the brunette with the big blue eyes. She never got the guy and her name never appeared over the title, but with her D-cup bra size and generous hourglass figure, Leta had love scenes—and side flings—with some of the industry’s most popular leading men.
Shrewd to a fault in her younger days, Leta negotiated better deals for herself than her agent did, and she made sound investments amassing a small fortune.
Jess looked around as she and Ren walked down the incline into the parking garage. Leta Howard had the resources to restore her home to its grandeur, but she didn’t have the mind to see it through.
A perfect mark for William McNaughton.
A bare, low-watt bulb cast an eerie glow over the six-stall area.
Ren went to work, laying out a black tarp which almost covered the small area between the elevator and McNaughton’s Mercedes.
Jess leaned against the wall and watched him prepare.
After the tarp was in place, Ren took a slim-Jim from his bag and opened the Mercedes, exposing the wires under the dash he’d soon need.
Returning to his bag, Ren took out a 9mm Glock and attached a suppressor. Making sure the safety was still engaged, he reached out, handing the gun to Jess.
Ignoring the gun, Jess bent down and pulled a seven-inch Smith & Wesson fixed-blade knife from her boot.
She saw the look of surprise on Ren’s face, but also saw that he understood. From beginning to end, this was personal.
He returned the gun to his bag and went to the other side of the Mercedes, crouching low against the wall.
Jess leaned back in the shadows next to the dumpster. And waited. Her eyes never leaving the elevator door.
Twenty-nine minutes later, McNaughton exited the elevator.
He was reaching for the car door handle when Jess stepped from the shadows.
He turned to face her, the muted lighting giving his white hair and pale skin a ghost-like pallor. The arrogance in his eyes sickened her.
McNaughton opened his mouth to speak, but Ren was behind him in an instant, pulling his arms behind his back with one of his massive hands and covering the suddenly terrified man’s mouth with the other.
Jess plunged the blade into his heart, her eyes never leaving his.
His body jerked as Jess hit her mark. His muffled cries became pitiful moans.
“This is for my aunt, Carmella Gordon.” With a quick flick of her wrist, Jess turned the knife and watched McNaughton’s eyes flutter as life left his body.
Ren held on to the slumping man’s body making sure it fell onto the tarp. He removed McNaughton’s rings, watch and took his wallet and cell-phone, removing the battery. Then he set about his cleanup.
The drive home was another exercise in silence.
Jess re-thought the last two hours, making sure she’d missed nothing.
While stalking McNaughton and learning about Leta’s neighborhood, Jess found out the street changed to curbside trash pickup years before and the bins sat on the other side of the brownstone. The dumpster sat unused in the underground parking area, a rusted out memento to another time when life was full and busy with nights of endless parties.
McNaughton was the only one to use the parking area while Jess kept watch.
Leta Howard only left her home once—through the front door—and by medical transport to a doctor’s appointment. Jess never saw Grace, the forty-seven-year-old agoraphobic who rented the second level of Leta’s brownstone. As far as Jess knew, Grace hadn’t left the home in over twelve years, living by Internet shopping and home deliveries.
McNaughton’s fortune at finding the perfect isolated victim led to his perfect isolated death. The empty street combined with Leta’s diminished capacity ensured it would be some time before his body was discovered and identified.
Jess and Ren left Leta’s in McNaughton’s Mercedes, stopping for Jess to get the Celebrity and follow Ren. They left the Mercedes on another side street blocks away. After wiping the car down, Ren got in the Celebrity and the two vigilante assassins repeated the process with the Celebrity and Ren’s Tahoe.
When the Tahoe stopped in front of her house, Jess reached for the door handle, but Ren stopped her.
“You know my name isn’t Ren, right?”
The corners of her lips twitched.
“And you know you’ll never see me again? Never be able to find me?”
This time, Jess did smile.
“Yes, I know.”
He looked straight ahead as Jess got out the truck. Just before closing the door, Jess looked over her shoulder, still smiling.
“Merry Christmas, Ren.”
He drove away, and Jess made her way up the walk to her front door, past the reindeer and mini-Christmas trees all covered in tiny white lights.
After entering and locking her door, Jess didn’t stop until she reached her laundry room. She stripped out of her black murder apparel, including the knit skull hat which hid her unruly auburn curls, tossing everything into the washer and starting the cycle. Jess pulled a pair of sweats and a t-shirt from a folded pile of clean laundry and padded into her living room.
She slipped into the clothing by the light of her blinking Christmas tree, and just like that, Jessalyn Hunter, eighth-grade history teacher was back.
Jess smiled at the photo on the fireplace mantel of her and Carmella taken during the holidays last year. She caressed the frame.
“Rest in peace, Auntie.”
Turning, she eyed the dozens of mini-gift bags she’d set out earlier. Tomorrow was the last day of school before Christmas break and she promised each of her five classes a party. Including her coworkers and school administrators. Jess had more than two-hundred bags to fill.
Grabbing her tablet off the coffee table, Jess loaded Spotify. She returned to her world, filling bags with goodies as Johnny Mathis sang It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.