The First Kill by Darcia Helle

Quiet Fury by Darcia Helle

NOTE: This story contains graphic images and extreme violence. Reader discretion is advised.

The First Kill is a short story from Darcia Helle’s collection Quiet Fury: An Anthology of Suspense

About This Story: 

Sean Riley is a minor character in my two Michael Sykora novels – No Justice and Beyond Salvation. The First Kill gives Sean the chance to step into the spotlight as the main character. The plot here has no connection to any specific plots in the full-length books.

***

The first kill was the hardest. His father staring with those dark narrow eyes that had incited fear for so many years. Even as the life seeped out of him, those eyes were full of scorn.

“You killed my mother,” Sean had said.

His father spat a mouthful of blood. A front tooth dangled, barely hanging on. “She was a whore.”

No remorse as death closed in on him.

A lifetime of pain. Hours of revenge. And it came to this. Nothing. Sean felt nothing.

A lot of years had passed since then. Sean McCarthy became Sean Riley. He reinvented himself. Went to college. But the past wouldn’t leave him.

Now he looked at the man across from him. Not his father’s eyes but enough like them to cause his stomach to tighten. Life bled from the man slowly, because that had been the request. Make him suffer.

Dave Billings, the dying man, appeared ordinary to those who knew him. Middle aged, thinning hair, wire-rimmed glasses. Unmarried, quiet, respectful. Billings worked as an accountant, volunteered his time as a soccer coach for young beginners. That’s when it all started to go horribly wrong.

“How many?” Sean asked.

Billings shook his head. “Please…”

“We’re beyond begging. How many?”

“I’ll do anything.”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it? You’ll do anything. No territory too creepy for you to wander into.”

“I…”

Billings yanked at the restraints. His wrists chafed against the zip ties, the effort futile. Thirty minutes ago, Sean had crept into the house where Billings lived alone. Sean had dragged Billings from his bed and had his wrists and ankles secured before the man had managed to blink the sleep from his eyes.

“How many kids?” Sean asked. “Don’t make me ask you again.”

“You don’t understand.”

Sean stuffed the rag in Billings’ mouth. “You’re right. I don’t.”

Fingers broke easily. One. Two. Three. They hung at odd angles, while Billings screamed against the gag. Sean sighed. He sat on the kitchen chair opposite Billings and waited for the thrashing to stop.

Hit man. Assassin. Hired gun. Those words had all been used to describe him. He was a killer, plain and simple. That didn’t bother him, the killing part, anyway. His father had taught him how to kill and how to detach. He’d seen his first snuff film when he was three.

Billings finally slumped back against the chair. Sean reached forward and pulled the gag from Billings’ mouth. “You’ll answer my questions now. You see, I don’t care how much I have to hurt you to get the answers. Understand?”

Billings nodded. Tears and snot ran down his face. Sean said, “How many?”

“Can I explain? Please?”

The gag filled Billings’ mouth before he could flinch. Another finger snapped. “Next time,” Sean said. “I’ll cut it off.”

He crossed the room and picked up the small backpack he’d brought. Back in the chair, he opened it and gave Billings a glimpse of the contents. Pliers, knives, a small torch. Billings’ eyes bulged.

Sean took the rag from Billings’ mouth, said, “How many?”

“Five.” Billings’ voice trembled. “But it’s not like you think! Let me explain!”

“You molested five boys. Five. Innocent. Children.”

“I didn’t molest them! I just… it was just touching. That’s all!”

Sean stuffed the rag back in Billing’s mouth. When he’d started out in this career, he hadn’t cared about the why. He never asked. He was hired to kill someone, so he did it. He was damn good at killing and even better at not caring. Watching his father murder his mother had done that to him.

Then he’d met Michael Sykora. A client who wanted his fiancé’s murderer found. Tortured. Destroyed. Sykora had been looking for justice in a world that rarely gave any. And he wanted to see it happen. That was a request Sean never granted. No one ever watched him work. Nor did he take photos. Killing wasn’t a spectator sport. But something about Michael Sykora had made him say yes.

Sean had found the scum who’d murdered Sykora’s fiancé. Then Sykora had taken one look at the man and something snapped. Ten minutes later, Roger Dossing’s bloody body lay in a heap on the concrete floor of his garage. Sykora had beaten him to death, while Sean looked on.

Turned out, Michael Sykora was damn good at killing, as well. Only he cared. He had to know why. Losing his fiancé to a repeat rapist-turned-murderer changed the person Sykora had been. He got a taste for justice, vigilante justice some would call it, but justice nevertheless. He set out on his own crusade to right the wrongs, rid the world of the bottom-dwelling scum. And somewhere along the way, Sean had joined him.

He turned his attention back to Billings. The man was squirming in his chair. Five children had their worlds turned upside down by this man. Five children whose lives would never be the same.

“Just touching?” Sean said softly. “That’s how you justify what you do when you look in the mirror every day?”

Billings shook his head furiously. Desperate to speak, his muffled pleas got lost in the gag. Sean removed the pliers from his backpack. “Do you know how sensitive that spot beneath your nails is? Have you ever had one tear too far down?”

Billings’ eyes nearly popped from his head. His body shook violently and he toppled over, chair and all. Sean reached down and righted both the chair and Billings. Five minutes and five fingernails later, Billings lay in a heap on the floor. His body convulsed, as tears streamed down his face. His nose drained snot and he fought for breath around the gag.

Sean searched through the kitchen cabinets, found a glass and filled it with cold water. He drank it slowly, watching Billings struggle for air. When he’d finished his water, he carefully washed the glass and put it back. Then he yanked Billings up and sat him back on the chair. He pulled the wet rag from Billing’s mouth and the pedophile gulped at the air.

“That was a fingernail for each child you molested,” Sean said. “We have a problem, though. Your fingernails will grow back. But the kids are damaged forever. You think that’s fair?”

“I’ll give you anything you want,” Billings stammered. “Please. Anything. You want money? I’ve got ten grand saved. You can have it! Please, just stop!”

“Tell me about Bobby Lawrence.”

Billings sucked in a breath. His eyes darted around the room, seeking escape. “Tell you what? Bobby is a good kid. I coached him on this year’s team.”

“Coached him or molested him?”

“I…”

“Do not lie to me.”

“I touched him! Okay! Is that what you want to hear?”

“How many times?”

“What?”

“How. Many. Times.”

“I… I don’t know!”

Bobby Lawrence’s father had hired Sean to take care of Billings. How Lawrence knew for sure that Billings had been the one to molest his son was something Sean didn’t know. He didn’t need those kinds of details. He did, however, look into Billings before agreeing to do the job. Last week, he’d broken into Billings’ house while the guy had been at soccer practice with a group of four-year-olds.

He’d emptied Billings’ hard drive onto a small flash and given it to Michael Sykora. His client was now his partner and the guy was a genius with computers.

Sean hated the machines but pedophiles consistently loved them. They hid and encrypted their files, thinking that would somehow save them. Michael took no time in finding the hidden photos. Hundreds of them. Images that Sean would never get out of his head.

“You don’t know how many times you molested Bobby Lawrence?” Sean asked.

“I only touched him!”

“And took photos.”

Billings gulped air. “I…”

“Don’t.” Sean glanced at the digital clock over the stove. Almost four a.m. He needed to end this soon, get out before the neighborhood woke up. “I don’t want to hear your excuses, Billings. I don’t think Bobby or his father want to hear them, either. However, Mr. Lawrence would like to know a few things. His main concern is whether you put his son’s naked photos on the Internet.”

“The Internet?”

“Spare me the innocent act. I have no patience for that. You share photos with other twisted men who get off on little boys. We both know that. You post them on a website where you all go to get off. Did you do that with Bobby’s photos?”

Billings slumped, defeated. “No.”

“If you lie to me, it will be much worse than a few missing fingernails.”

“I didn’t!”

“Why not?”

“I… I hadn’t wanted to share him, yet.”

“I see.”

Sean got up, paced across the room. His skin crawled. Being around Billings made him feel dirty and he desperately wanted a shower.

“I love Bobby!” Billings blurted.

Sean groaned. “No. Don’t do that.” He walked back to his chair, sat down. “Mr. Lawrence would also like to know if you made Bobby do anything to you.”

Billings’ Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. Sweat seeped through his t-shirt, dripped down from his scalp.

“I asked you a question,” Sean said. “Don’t make me ask again.”

“He wanted to. I didn’t make him do anything!”

“Bobby wanted to touch you?”

“Yes! He wanted to please me.”

Sean’s stomach lurched. That was it. The things Lawrence needed to know for his own sanity. Sean could erase Billings from the world and end both of their suffering.

He had the knife in his hand. A five-inch blade, brand new, serrated for extra pain. Before Billings saw it coming, Sean buried the blade deep into his flabby gut. Billings sucked in a ragged breath, gasped, begged with his eyes.

Blood seeped from the wound. Sean stuffed the gag in Billings’ mouth, then twisted the handle. The blade shredded organs. Billings whimpered into the gag.

Lawrence had wanted the death to be slow. The man would be happy if this went on for hours. Days, even. But the suffering wouldn’t change what Bobby Lawrence had gone through. Nothing erased that.

Sean sat in his chair and watched the life seep from Billings’ eyes. He flashed back all those years ago to his first kill. His father’s eyes, so much like Billings’. Both scum who preyed on children, shaping the adults they would later become.

 ###

Darcia Helle lives in a fictional world with a husband who is sometimes real. Their house is ruled by spoiled dogs and cats and the occasional dust bunny.

Suspense, random blood splatter and mismatched socks consume Darcia’s days. She writes because the characters trespassing through her mind leave her no alternative. Only then are the voices free to haunt someone else’s mind.

Join Darcia in her fictional world: http://www.QuietFuryBooks.com

The characters await you.

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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

The Vanishing Act of Esme LennoxBook Review
Title: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
Author:  Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Headline Review
Released: May 17, 2007
Pages: 277
ISBN-10: 9780755334803
ISBN-13: 978-0753308446
Stars:  3.5

I have a been a fan of contemporary British novelist Maggie O’Farrell since I read her gorgeous novel After You’d Gone (2000 – winner of the Betty Trask prize) quite a few years ago, followed by the equally charming and poignant, The Distance Between Us (2004 – winner of the Somerset Maugham award).  Her prose is exquisite and she writes about the relationships between sisters, loss and the psychological impact of loss with total truth and conviction.

I’m behind on reading her most recent works but finished reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006) a little over a week ago.  “O’Farrell’s fourth novel brilliantly illustrates her talent for gradually revealing her characters’ inner lives by jumping back and forth in time and juxtaposing different narrative points of view.”  The story investigates an appalling chapter in Britain’s history, the practice of disposing of “difficult” women by sending them to psychiatric institutions.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox reads like you’re watching a film flashing back and forth between the 1930s and the 1990s.  It is the compelling tale of two sisters, Esme and Kitty, and Kitty’s granddaughter Iris, who suddenly finds herself introduced to a great aunt she never knew she had and for whom she wants no responsibility, and who subsequently unravels the Lennox family’s long hidden secrets.  The story is told without chapters and morphs back and forth between Esme Lennox’s childhood in 1930s Edinburgh and Iris Lockhart’s present as a single woman who owns a vintage clothing shop, is carrying on an affair with a married man named Luke, and who harbors her own secrets about her relationship with her step-brother Alex.

Beautifully written in the present tense with an obvious love of language – many of the sections in this story start with a dash and are like pieces of a story cut out of another book and carefully pasted into this one in sequence – O’Farrell paints her settings with precise brush strokes of carefully chosen words, each one in its place to achieve maximum advantage.

At the beginning of Esme’s story, she and her family live in colonial Bombay. We soon realize that Esme is a precocious child, a dreamer who sees the world with very different eyes than those of her sister Kitty.  Esme is inquisitive and stubborn with a vivid fantasy life (she can hear trees crying) but has been labeled “impossible, disobedient, unteachable, a liar…”  Her mother ties her to a chair at dinner so that she won’t slip under the table to study all of the strange and interesting things going on beneath it.  In contrast, Kitty, who is six years older than Esme, is a normal, well-behaved girl who does what she’s told.  We learn that their baby brother Hugo and “ayah” Jamila died of typhoid at the same time when they were girls, an event which resulted in their father moving the family to Edinburgh.

In the 1990s, Iris is telephoned by a hospital official who declares that she is the contact family member of one Euphemia Esme Lennox, the sister that she didn’t know that her grandmother Kitty – currently living with Alzheimer’s – had.  Esme has been locked up in a psychiatric asylum for over 60 years and now the facility is closing down and its patients have to be relocated.  When suitable accommodations can’t be found, Iris ends up taking Esme (diagnosed with bipolar disorder) in to live with her in the house that was once owned by Esme’s father and gradually a sad and shocking mystery unfolds as the two women get to know each other.

We discover that Esme had been raped by a young man (Jamie Dalziel) whose parents her family had known, a man who was meant to court Kitty but who ended up preferring Esme’s direct but quirky personality instead.  Esme didn’t know she was pregnant when her parents, finally fed up with her tantrums and unpredictable behaviour, decided to have her committed to Cauldstone.  Months later, in the psychiatric hospital, Esme gives birth to a baby boy who she is allowed to hold for a few seconds before he is violently snatched away in an altercation that ends up with a distraught Esme in restraints.

In the meantime, in the flashbacks of Kitty’s life, we learn that she married a man named Duncan who was also a virgin and so uncomfortable and unknowledgeable about sex, that they never consummated their union.  One day Kitty goes to the hospital to visit Esme, and although she never actually sees her, she finds out about her baby.  Kitty, who wants a child so badly but can’t have one with her husband, asks her father for permission to raise Esme’s son and concocts a scheme to go south for a few months to “have a baby.”

Theirs is a slow burning, simple but cruel tale with no real climax.  All of the family secrets come undone when one day Iris takes Esme to see Kitty in the hospital she’s committed to, and instead of a proper denoument, the story ends abruptly and we are left to wonder exactly what happened between Esme and Kitty while they were alone together and Iris and Alex were outside in the car sharing their own revelation.  While I took pleasure in reading the prose in this tragic story, and O’Farrell maintained an elevated level of tension throughout, the ending was unsatisfactory and just a bit too abstract for my full appreciation.

This will not, however, deter me from reading O’Farrell’s more recent work, The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), winner of the 2010 Costa novel award, and Instructions For A Heatwave (available February 28, 2013) because I enjoy literary psychological suspense and Maggie O’Farrell is a master.

The Ledge: A Suspense Thriller With A Riveting Narrative That Should Not Be Missed!

DVD REVIEW
Title: The Ledge
Studio/Distributor: eOne Films
Director: Matthew Chapman
Principle Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Patrick Wilson, Terrence Howard, Liv Tyler
Length: 101 minutes
Released: September 27, 2011
Stars: 4.5

I rented The Ledge based entirely on its cast, without ever reading the plot synopsis on the back cover of the DVD.  This is one of those magical times when the movie you pick without much thought turns out to be one that you can’t stop thinking about.

The Ledge is a truly compelling dramatic suspense thriller (filmed in Baton Rouge, LA) that explores love, pain, human relationships and the complexities of our religious and spiritual beliefs.  It’s not a popcorn movie.  It’s deep, provocative, and explores faith in a very original way by both attacking and condoning religious beliefs.

The movie opens with a man talking to a doctor about his state of fertility and then quickly cuts to a younger man (Charlie Hunnam of Queer As Folk & Sons of Anarchy) walking along the roof of a very tall building, out onto a ledge, and it appears that he is about to jump.  We soon realize that he doesn’t want to jump but is being forced to and over the course of the next 95 minutes (which unfolds in real time), we find out why.  How did he get there?  If he doesn’t jump, someone else is going to die.  Why?  Who is it?  An interesting premise…

At the same time, there’s a cop (Terrence Howard of The Brave One, Hustle & Flow and is also a musician) who is sent to the scene to negotiate and try to talk the guy out of jumping.  We discover that he’s dealing with his own extraordinary personal situation and that both of the men are struggling with faith.  In fact, all of the characters in this film are faced with circumstances that force them to look at faith; either their belief or disbelief.  But this is not a preachy movie and you care about every person in the story.

Written and directed by Matthew Chapman, The Ledge took quite a few years to get made, but Charlie Hunnam knew he had to play Gavin Nichols from the time he read the script, four years before he started filming.  After watching the performances given by Hunnam and Patrick Wilson, I have a renewed commitment to watch them in Sons of Anarchy and A Gifted Man.

The Ledge is a refreshing far cry from today’s Hollywood mainstream film fare.  This is exceptional storytelling with a brilliantly written script that was brought to life by a cast of passionate and seriously gifted actors.  The lead role of Gavin is flawlessly portrayed by the remarkably intelligent and charismatic Hunnam while his nemesis, Christian fundamentalist, Joe Harris, is also played to perfection by the astounding Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy, Little Children).  Their common love interest, Shana, is created with complete honesty and emotional depth by the exquisite Liv Tyler (The Incredible Hulk, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) who can express more with just her face than most actresses of her generation.  Christopher Gorham (Harper’s Island, Ugly Betty) lends grace to the supporting role of Gavin’s HIV positive, gay roommate, Chris.  Finally, and no less important or impressive is the role of Detective Hollis Lucetti, played by the divine Terrence Howard (who co-executive produced the film), who so completely made me believe in his character’s emotions and predicament that I felt physically ill at the end of the movie.  I was so moved, I felt as if I’d had the wind knocked out of me while tears trickled down my face.

It isn’t often that I’m so surprised and motivated to write a review about a movie rental, but I could not let this one go back to Classic Video without telling my network about how excellent I think it is.  I watched Terrence Malick’s Oscar-nominated visual feast, The Tree of Life, the night before and although I admired the beauty of his filmmaking, I was left feeling somewhat confounded by the storyline.  That isn’t the case with The Ledge.  It’s a return to classic filmmaking in the sense that it doesn’t rely on any of the trappings of modern movies.  There are no special effects, explosions, or super heroes trying to save an unrealistic world.  The Ledge is simply a spellbinding story, impeccably conveyed by its director and actors.  After watching the film and some of the interviews featured in the extras on the DVD, I wanted to watch it all over again and that does not happen very often.

The Ledge is sexy, romantic, suspenseful, philosophical and terrifying, and all of those components are seamlessly woven to create a really riveting narrative that should not be missed.

Fade To Pale by James Cheetham

Book Review
Title: Fade To Pale
Author: James Cheetham
Publisher: Wild Child Publishing
Released: July 2007
Pages: 248
ISBN-10: 1934069523
ISBN-13: 978-1934069523
Stars: 4.5

Seven-year-old Rita Hamilton is fond of sleep and believes that Heaven can be found at the beach. She’s staying with her Grandma, who loves her, and her Grandpa, who barely tolerates her, because her mother has finally been locked up in an institution after years of suffering through an alcohol-soaked personality disorder. Grandma is quite worried about Rita’s penchant for sleep and tries to bring her out of her cocoon with a trip to the beach.

While lounging on the sand, Rita’s only friend and confidante, the mean-spirited Emily, makes an ominous appearance and the next thing Rita is conscious of, is awakening in a hospital room after nearly drowning.

Twenty-six years later, married but estranged from Michael and her two children Zack and Angie, and more like her mother than she ever wanted to be, Rita lives in her own, private nightmare, possessed by drug-induced dreams of menacing water rising in her bedroom and telephone calls that may or may not have actually occurred.

Winnipeg author James Cheetham has woven a brilliantly, creepy tapestry highlighted by the horrific, messy, unraveling of the human mind in this superb tale of dark fiction called Fade To Pale. It is so good in fact, that I believe that Stephen King should be worried…very worried. Fade to Pale is unnervingly accomplished for a debut novel and although it has developed a well-deserved cult following, it should be a best-selling, award-winner. Cheetham’s got the writing chops to achieve horror superstardom to rival the likes of King, Clive Barker and Dean Koontz.

Nothing is as it seems in Fade To Pale. We slowly discover through Rita’s mental breakdown that her entire existence has been a lie and there was no other way that her destiny could have been played out given the sensational circumstances of her life. We also realize that there is a lot more to Emily than we could have imagined and that one might not exist without the other.

Emily shook her head.

“YOU ARE THE UGLY DUCKLING OF THE HUMAN RACE, AND I’M SORRY FOR THAT BECAUSE UNDERNEATH ALL THIS TRAGEDY YOU ARE ONE OF THE FINEST HUMANS I HAVE EVER MET, THE ONLY ONE WHO EVER MADE ME RECONSIDER MY OWN PLACE IN THE WORLD. YOU ARE THE VIRUS AND I AM THE CURE. THERE WILL BE DIRE CONSEQUENCES IF I DON’T LET FATE TAKE OVER FROM THIS POINT ON. I ONLY HOPE THAT YOU AND YOUR FAULTY MIND CAN GET THROUGHT HIS BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.”

Fade To Pale is an intense, chilling, audacious and deeply disturbing psychological thriller about how unbelievably ghastly human beings can behave towards one another, and at the same time it introduces us to another world called the Here and There…a world you don’t want to visit. The nightmarish world that is Rita’s mind invoked remembrance of Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s The Shining and more recently, Mike Enslin in the movie 1408 starring John Cusack, based on a short story by King.

The ending of Fade To Pale was satisfying and gave me goosebumps, but I won’t give it away.

My one criticism of the book is that the text should be more generously spaced out (but then again, I need bifocals and don’t have them!) and the layout could be much more attractive, but that’s really not a big deal and does nothing to distract one from the story.

Lovers of horror, psychological thrillers, and dark fiction should NOT miss out on reading James Cheetham’s Fade To Pale. Where there was once Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft to scare us to our cores and make us doubt our sanity, there is now James Cheetham, King of Fear and Loathing on the Canadian prairies.