March 23, 2015

The Final Price
by Terry Petersen (short, PG)
Cover image.
Image credit: Terry Petersen. More info.

And all he could hope was that his old partner was still as nice...

~~~

Arthur Hazen sat propped in his bed with its sixty-nine-thousand-dollar Vividus mattress, silk sheets, and hand-carved headboard. He wouldn't have considered owning anything less luxurious. Hazen had never shared his bedroom with anyone. He was not married, engaged, or considering a relationship. In fact, few visitors had ever entered his property except to provide landscaping service or deliver a package. A printout of his recent investments lay propped against his knees. A high wind struck his window, but could not penetrate the thick walls and strict isolation that lived inside the house.

A random thought interrupted his concentration. He remembered Jake Kendell, his partner, a capable, intelligent man -- burdened with the scruples of a monk. Jake's heart pulsed with integrity in public; in private it needed a handful of pills a day to function. He also suffered from severe, bizarre food allergies; he didn't talk about them with anyone. He simply ate so little acquaintances assumed his intense dedication replaced the mundane world of food.

Therefore, the idea came easily to Hazen to hand Jake a glass of wine at a dinner in his honor, a glass tainted by a thumb thickly smeared with ground shrimp, a food item that many people at the feast praised as the best they had ever tasted.

Jake had been caught up with the enthusiasm of his colleagues. He hadn't looked at the glass. Moments later he clutched his throat, gasped, and collapsed. Hazen created a scene that mimicked concern.

"Probably choking. Heimlich! Anyone know the Heimlich maneuver?" he called.

A burly manager of one of their departments jumped in and made a useless attempt as Hazen slipped his glass and Kendall's onto a tray of dirty dishes going back to the kitchen.

The death certificate blamed Kendell's weak heart, and Hazen played the part of the mourner. In his office he displayed the few sympathy cards he received from people who worked for him, even as he reversed Kendell's policies. Within months Hazen's bank account swelled.

In the evening cave-like quiet of Hazen's home a knife-sharp pain struck his chest. Perhaps the memory of Jake Kendell had caused it. After all, in the first months of their partnership he and Kendell had worked well. Jake had introduced unique business connections because of his PR skills. He had won opportunities that benefited Hazen -- and the firm.

Then heated arguments had surfaced. Kendall worked toward mutual profit, but never at the cost of principle. Hazen claimed, "Survival depends upon hard-lined financial focus." Kendall countered, "A pig that owns gold remains a pig."

Hazen had seethed while Kendell cocked his head to one side and quoted Oscar Wilde, "Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

Apparently Kendell understood that he and Hazen had polar basic principles. Kendell ended up winning that argument; the deal involved a secretive fracking contract. He refused to endorse it.

Not that the financial loss meant anything now. Hazen had more than made up the difference. He willed away the pain in his chest. After all, couldn't he handle just about everything?

The wind smacked against the window again, this time harder, followed by a flash of lightning, as if it had found a way to sneak inside all barriers. He could ignore that, but not the footsteps coming up the stairs. They sounded faraway at first, moving with a deliberate pace, slow, but without pause, as if the invader knew exactly where he was going. The sound grew louder, stopping outside his room. His alarm system was sensitive enough to catch a wayward ant. What was going on?

The door to his bedroom opened.

Jake Kendell walked in as if he had come in from a casual stroll. "Long time no see." He extended his hand. "The least you can do is to greet an old friend."

Hazen looked around the room for a clue. It didn't look any different. He decided he must have dozed off. The pain in his chest could come back after something this terrifying. He couldn't let that happen.

The next time I'd better work on these figures at my desk. This dream comes straight out of an old Boris Karloff movie. Peculiar. I haven't remembered any of my dreams since grade school. Why now? And why one so lucid?

"You aren't dreaming," Jake said.

Hazen leaned back and felt the presence of someone next to him. As he turned around he saw himself, white as bleached cotton, his mouth and eyes opened. He jolted out of bed.

Jake offered his hand again and Hazen, aware that there would be no other choice, accepted it. As they walked past the full-length mirror on the back of his bedroom door Hazen saw his face, gnarled and gray, even more repulsive than the one lying cold in the bed.

Where am I going?

"Where do you think you are going?"

"Where you came from?" Hazen choked.

"Don't you have any questions?" Jake dropped Hazen's hand. Hazen opened and closed his fist. It was cold, frostier than the chilliest wind. He considered running, but up, down, inside, and out didn't have a place anymore.

"Perhaps," Jake said summoning Hazen to follow, "you should ask me the price for your forgiveness."

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Article © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.


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