Saturday Night Off, by Linda Boroff
The four occupants fall silent as the Buick crests the top of Empire Grade and begins to wind down the narrow blacktop road, nearly invisible in the night fog.
“Pick it out, willya?” says the man beside the driver. In response, Royal throws the car into neutral, takes his hands off the wheel and crosses his arms. He removes his black-booted foot from the gas pedal and rests it against the dashboard. The car instantly surges forward like a horse with the bit in its teeth.
“You was soundin’ like you was wantin’ to drive, Don,” Royal says as the car accelerates toward a stand of young oaks bisected by the road.
“Shit, you crazy bastard!” Don lunges for the wheel, but his glancing touch only causes the car to veer and careen, throwing the two women in the back up against each other and eliciting sharp screams. Royal winks at Don and resumes the wheel with exaggerated cool, throwing the car into second and turning calmly into the skid as trees flash past.
The women yelp and whimper, shielding their faces. Lauren, the one with long dark hair, covers her eyes with her arms. When she dares peek out, the car is again traveling smoothly down the steep grade. The blonde-haired woman beside her now focuses in silence on the back of Royal’s neck, her lips pursed and eyes narrow.
“Oh my God,” Lauren gasps.
“Just watch it the hell,’ says Don to Royal, trying to reclaim his hegemony with this loser.
But Royal only laughs, scowling. “Just you open that pie hole one more time, Don.”
Don glares straight ahead, consumed with rage. Royal half-turns to the two women. “And that goes for you too. I’m the one drivin’, you got that clear?” As Don’s mouth opens, Royal raises his voice. “And you don’t none of you know shit.”
Don exhales noisily. Headlights loom, but the cars narrowly clear one another. “Fuck you very much,” mutters Royal at the other driver.
“Are we getting close yet?” Lauren ventures after what feels to her like a long time.
“Shut up,” says Don. “We get there when we get there.” Royal gives a short, contemptuous huff.
“Just be patient, honey,” says Kathi. Lauren turns to her, and Kathi smiles apologetically. Royal’s just testy that way, the smile seems to say. Don’t take it personal. Lauren tries to smile back at Kathi.
Women are so much more understanding, Lauren thinks. We really are the superior sex. We know how to be nice to each other even when we’re nervous. To show simple human kindness.
Kathi’s very short blonde hair is cut in playfully ragged wisps. Even in the dark, her eyes look bright blue. Those must be contacts, Lauren thinks. She wonders vaguely if Kathi’s daring hairstyle would look good on her, then dismisses the thought. No, she was a classic brunette through and through. She had tried all that when she was younger, dyeing her hair, and the roots kept growing out and looking cheap. She just didn’t have the persistence to be a proper bottle blonde. Anyway, inch for inch she is prettier than Kathi; her breasts fuller, and her face more sophisticated, more classic, everyone says as much. Just because Kathi has those plump cheeks, people assume she’s still a teenager, but she’s at most three or four years younger than Lauren. Tops.
“This’ll all be over in a few minutes honey,” Kathi says. Royal turns and glares at her. “… And you’ll be on your way home,” Kathi continues, staring back defiantly at Royal, who turns away with an exasperated head shake.
The hair falling over his collar is blond, thick and wavy, enough hair for a woman, Lauren thinks; two women, in fact. Royal’s hairline is low for his age—forties—which makes him look like an animal, albeit a kind of handsome one. But a low forehead is a sign of bestiality. Lauren has heard that alcoholics don’t lose their hair because the booze suppresses their male hormones. So anytime you see a mature man with the hairline of a ten-year-old boy, that man is most likely an alkie.
Lauren cups her hands to her temples and tries to look out the window into the night, but here in the deep woods, there is nothing to see, not even the lights of a cabin. No street lamps either. Santa Cruz might be one of the world’s most beautiful places by day, but now, amid thick redwoods and fog, beauty did not exist. Nothing existed.
“You remember that movie The Lost Boys?” Don says, and nobody answers. “Well this here place reminds me of that movie. Pure Santa Cruz.”
“This place is nothing like that movie,” says Lauren. “That movie was mostly on the beach. And the boardwalk.”
“The hell,” says Don.
“Are you getting senile or something?”
“Will you two morons shut the fuck up?” Royal snarls. Kathi turns to Lauren and puts a finger to her lips in mute appeal. Silence again crushes the car like an iron weight. “Pardon my French, you two ladies,” Royal finally says.
“I guess it’s somewhere around here,” Kathi ventures.
“You guess?” Royal bridles again.
“I can’t see nothin’ in this dark.”
“Well ain’t that just peachykeen,’ says Royal. “Our guests here are expecting a quarter million’s worth of blow, and you ‘guess’ the house is ‘somewhere around here.’”
“I done everything just like you told me,” says Kathi, and Royal reaches around and smacks her face so hard that she grunts. He slams on the brakes, and Kathi begins to sob softly.
“Now wait just a fucking minute, man,” says Don. “I think this is maybe where Lauren and me get out.”
“No, there it is, the house,” Kathi says through her tears. “Thank God.”
“You sure?” says Royal. “Or I got some knuckles for you.”
“That’s the place.”
“S’more like it.” Royal pulls the car off the road, and sure enough, Lauren sees a lighted house through the trees. But a deep ravine separates it from the road. Were they going to have to descend all the way down to the bottom and cross the river in the dark and then climb back up the other side to get to that damn house? That sounded crazy. How she yearned to be in that lighted house right now, warm and cozy, with a drink in her hand and some lines on the table. A nice, strong whisky and ginger ale would be perfect.
“How do we get across the ravine?” Lauren says.
Royal looks straight at her. “You don’t,” he says, “until me and Kathi search you. And then I will show you the way. There’s a bridge. But you can’t cross it till we search you.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” says Lauren. “Here. Look at me. You can see I’m not carrying anything. Not even my purse, just like you said.” Royal scans her closely. She wears only a white tank top with no bra and tight yellow pants. There’s no way she could fit a playing card into those pants, let alone a gun or a wire or anything else, not even underwear.
“Them’s the rules,” he says. “Climb on out. Kathi’ll search you, okay?”
“It’s just a formality, honey,’ says Kathi.
“You wait here,’ Royal says to Don, who is looking deep into the dark ahead and not moving.
“Don’t you get no ideas neither,” says Royal. “We don’t show up with the money, we’re dead. We trusted you with this and don’t you try to bail on us now. We gotta bring you in one at a time, and all searched, so we’ll be right back.” Kathi is patting Lauren’s body gently with her hands, running them up and down Lauren’s curves. Watching her, Don feels a little aroused, nervous as he is. Those two would be quite an interesting pair, except for the fact that he never wanted to see Kathi or that crazy-ass Royal again. This is the last piece of business he will ever conduct with those two batshits.
Don lights a cigarette and watches the moon play hide and seek through fast-scudding clouds; stars prick the dense black sky. He tries not to dwell on what he would do to Royal if given half a chance.
“Stanislaus County Superior Court… etcetera,” Denny reads from the legal-size manila folder in his lap, “denies appellant’s motion for modification of the penalty and imposes a judgment of death. Appeal is automatic.” He looks up at Fanchon like a little kid who has found a buck. “Did you hear that, baby? Appeal is automatic, and they’re letting me handle it.”
But Fanchon does not respond. Is this intentional, he wonders, or is she merely preoccupied? Feeling a little foolish now, he bends once again to the file and pretends to read for a few moments, but he is really listening to Fanchon make the salad. He steals a glance to see her shaving the cucumber’s deep green, warty skin in long, sinuous strips.
Off in some parallel salad-creation cosmos, she wipes her forehead with the back of her hand, then seizes a red onion the size of a softball, peels its purple parchment, and slices it deftly into concentric rings, which she frisbees into the monkeypod bowl. They land on a glistening bed of ruffled emerald lettuce. When she shakes the vinegar, the sudden, sharp smell makes Denny’s mouth water. And it waters too at her spandex-clad ass tilted up as she leans on one leg, bending her knees a little at the counter because she is nearly six feet tall.
Denny lifts his wine goblet, so large and thin that he has to cup it breastlike from the bottom to raise it to his lips: Oh, this is too good; his cup truly runneth over: Saturday night off, just him and Fanchon alone together, the baby with his parents. He should simply bask in the moment.
Still, he can’t leave it alone. “Did you hear me? About the death penalty?”
“Stop reading right now.” Fanchon tosses the salad with two giant, square-tined wooden forks. “Can you just stop for a little while?” Her tone is playful, but irritation lurks beneath.
Instantly, he feels like a rebellious little boy. Why did she marry an assistant D.A. if she was so squeamish about crime? “You act like I committed the damn murder,” he grumbles. To conduct a truly juicy capital murder trial had been his sustaining fantasy, his holy grail. What other reason for all those nights battling the waves of sleep lapping seductively at his splintery little craft, tossing on the vast, shoreless ocean of law school.
“You just seem as if,” Fanchon searches for words, shaking one of the forks like a ruler at a student, “I don’t know, you’re beginning to sound as if all these people exist only to populate your trial. As if they weren’t even real people, just… names in a file. Or a cast of characters, yes, in your very own play.”
He swallows his wine, still deep in recalling his student self, lonely and scared shitless, swilling bitter vending machine coffee, memorizing each self-inflated professor’s favorite aphorism as if it were scripture. Enduring the patronizing sneers and veiled threats and rumors; wriggling like an insect on a pin under the merciless fluorescent classroom lights. Now he feels more like a cat who has laid its hard-hunted rat at the feet of an adored mistress only to be greeted by a scream and the broom.
“Somebody has to deliver justice; it’s the least they deserve, these victims. Even if they were dope dealers.”
“Well that’s better. At least you aren’t seeing this case totally as a career builder.”
“Not totally. Just monumentally.”
“Or I should say, you’ve learned the right formulaic response to placate me.”
Fanchon tilts her head the better to admire the salad she has constructed: how can something so simple and cheap be so utterly gorgeous? The lettuce—brilliant shades of green that don’t even have names—sparkles in its bath of thin, savory oil. The sliced tomatoes, speckled with coarse grated pepper, jut vermillion from their leafy nests. And here came the croutons thundering, dark with rich garlic, real, jagged-edged bombers, not those little prefab porous cubes in a plastic bag.
Would he even notice this joyous riot of a salad, this synthesis of nature and art—or would he merely shovel it in, oblivious, while he went on about his bloody murder and scumbag defendants and witnesses rotten with secrets; his colleagues conniving in backstage machinations. Fanchon shudders. The sun is slipping down toward the deck, but she had better put up the table umbrella or they would be baked alive.
“Admit it,” Denny says at the worst possible moment, “Murder is fascinating.”
“If you read one more gruesome sentence, though, you can eat dinner alone.”
“Okay okay.” He tops off his glass of wine. “A great pinot,” he says to flatter her, because he really can’t tell the difference.
She whips her head around grinning, and her dark blonde curls bounce like a little girl’s. “It took me half an hour to pick that out.”
“Time well spent.” But he is thinking, good save. And the baked potatoes smell incredible. So he reads on alone, his internal sea once again balmy and blue, letting the pinot carry him back into the moment.
“I’m sorry, Denny,” she intrudes suddenly, contrite. His slightly downcast expression reminds her of one of her students struggling with long division. The shock of brown hair falling over his forehead is boyish too, and his gray eyes are softened now from the keen, cynical glance he has recently affected—perhaps to compensate for being the youngest assistant DA working felonies? “But you prosecutors,” she continues, searching for words, “you get so… desensitized. You don’t even realize how all that ghastly stuff affects regular people. It may be fascinating, but it’s nothing to read out loud before a nice romantic dinner sans Her Diapered Majesty. And we haven’t had a night off in so long.”
The setting sun suddenly sneaks below the kitchen blinds and shoots a molten golden arrow right into Denny’s eyes. Blinded, he reaches for her, and she permits him a promising grope before dancing out of his arms and then playfully yielding again to his imploring hands.
“At least listen to this part then,” Denny dares, emboldened by the wine and by the affectionate weight of Fanchon now in his lap, curled around him in her half serpent, half ingenue way.
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” Fanchon says. “Okay, just make it quick.” Denny gives her his mischievous cat/canary stare and reaches behind her and opens the manila folder.
“Thank you for humoring me. This is a big event in my life, a trial like this. In our lives.” Fanchon sighs with good-humored resignation and reaches for her wine goblet as Denny shuffles the papers in the file.
“This is one of the perps testifying, we charged her with accessory and she caved; that was major. ‘Royal,’” he reads, “‘first he made me dig a couple of shallow holes to bury them in. That was the day before. He lured the two of them there to pick up the $250,000 worth of cocaine. He told them that this was where they was to take delivery, in a house nearby.
‘I went along with Lauren. See, Royal told them they had to be searched before they went in the house to get their coke. Then after I searched her, Lauren leaned up against a tree, and he shot her in the back of the head. Then he turned quick around and Don was standing by the car, and Royal did the same thing but in his chest. But Don did not die at first, and so Royal shot him a second time, in the head that time, and then he did die.
‘And then Royal, he cut off their heads and put the torsos, that’s what they call them, in the holes I had dug. And then we had some quicklime that Royal’s friends, these two girls he knew, had bought.’”
Denny stops reading. “Got that?” he says. “Remember that, Fanchon: quicklime.”
“Okay. I shall remember quicklime,” Fanchon says, cuddling compliantly.
Denny reads again: “‘… because Royal he said that dissolves bodies fast. So we put the quicklime on them and then we covered the graves with dirt and brush and leaves. The rest of the body parts, we put into plastic bags, and Royal got rid of all that shit. And the gun too. I never did know what he did with that.’”
Denny stops reading and lights a cigarette, an infrequent indulgence these days. Fanchon suppresses her urge to admonish him. “On February 20,” Denny reads, slowly and distinctly, “a mushroom hunter off Empire Grade discovered fragments of a female skull. They belonged to a missing woman named Lauren Graven.”
“How horrible. Now I won’t sleep tonight.”
“You won’t anyway.” Denny grins. “The mushroom hunter brought the fragments to the sheriff’s office—I know, he should not have moved them, chain of evidence, but there was plenty of other evidence, believe me. The sheriffs went back to the site and they pieced the other fragments together. One skull had a hole the size of a .44- or .45-caliber slug. The next day they found more bone fragments, some hair, a shovel, a kitchen or steak knife, and a green garbage bag.”
“How do you like your steak. You like peppercorns?”
“You really have to ask me that?”
“Medium rare, is that right?”
Denny nods. “Humor me,” he says. “They found another naked body the next day. And here is the grand denouement. Here’s the fascinating part. Each torso had a white, clay-like substance clinging to it.”
“What was it?”
“Can’t you guess? No. We couldn’t either, at first. Anyway, Don Macalister’s skull, the second skull, they found in the same area on March 18. And there was a .45-caliber hole in the skull, no surprises there. They surmised from neck and wrist wounds that the heads and hands had been removed post mortem with a slicing or chopping instrument, perhaps a hatchet, machete, or cleaver. They confirmed the identity of the victims through dental records.”
Denny reads quickly now. “Defendant’s involvement became known when Kathi Kent, fearing for her life and the safety of her family, disclosed her participation to her brother-in-law, who arranged for her to meet with an FBI agent and local law enforcement officials.
“Kathi Kent claimed to have acted under the domination of defendant and to have feared him. She testified about her relationship with him and about various drug-related criminal activities they had participated in prior to the murders.”
“Okay, but aside from all the legalese,” Fanchon says, “what about the white substance?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Fanchon looks at him blinking expectantly. Slowly, with relish, Denny returns to the file. “...The evidence, insofar as it relates to the murder counts, blah blah blah.... okay. Royal’s two teenybopper accomplices waiting in that house came out after the shots and joined them at the murder site. They were ordered to take the clothing off the bodies and place the clothing in one of the garbage bags. As they were doing so, Royal Cooney tried to use a hacksaw to cut off Macalister’s head, but the blade broke.” Fanchon closes her eyes.
“I’ll spare you that. Anyway, here comes the good part.” Denny looks up and grins. “See, the perp had sent these two Rhodes scholars waiting in the house to buy quicklime that would dissolve the bodies, but what they brought back instead was regular oyster shell lime they had bought at some garden shop. That was the white substance we found all over the bodies. So nothing dissolved, all the evidence was preserved, and we now get to send Royal Cooney’s worthless ass to the gurney. Tell me that’s not sweet.”
“Oh my God,” Fanchon blinks. “You guys caught a big break there.”
“Did we not.”
She embraces him. “So tell me, what possible defense could there be in a case like this?”
“Oh they pulled out a whole bag of tricks at trial, all right,” Denny says, “but they kept getting buried in that damned oyster shell lime.”
“Tell me some of the tricks.”
“Happy to.” Denny takes a deep drink of wine. Finally, at long last, she is hooked.
Linda Boroff graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English. She was nominated for Pushcart Prizes in 2016 and 2021. Her first novel, Twisted Fate, was published by Champagne Book Group in March 2022. Her Young Adult novel, The Dressmaker’s Daughter, was published in March 2022 by Santa Monica Press.
Leave a Reply.
HalfHourToKill.Com is a literary website publishing authors of Flash Fiction and Short Stories in the genres of Fantasy, Horror and Noir. Feel free to submit your Fiction, Poetry and Non-Fiction work to us year round.
Site powered by Weebly. Managed by SiteGround