The Devil in the Details
By June Avila
"You're dying, Mr. McCoy." The pleasant smile and casual tone of her voice were more chilling than the words or even the automatic in her hand. "It's now 9:37 p.m. If everything goes as I anticipate, you should be quite dead by about 4:00 a.m."
Another wave of nausea washed over me and I had to close my eyes again.
"You really should lie back," she told me, a note of concern in her voice. "The blurred vision is going to get worse. And the double vision could start any minute. It's a particularly virulent, fast acting botulism. The optic nerves are especially vulnerable and they're the first ones to be affected. There are a lot of other symptoms and believe me, it's going to get pretty rugged as the poison progresses. Actually though, it's not the toxin that kills you, per se. It causes progressive paralysis and you die of respiratory failure."
This couldn't be happening! It was some kind of nightmare, a horrible mistake. Only a half-hour ago, as I'd been going over a brief for Monday, there'd been a knock at the door and there she'd been. Late thirty-something, petite, a little over five feet maybe, slender, dressed all in black -- turtleneck sweater, jeans, boots, leather jacket, large tote slung over her left shoulder. Curly black hair, worn short and close to her head, huge dark eyes set in a pale, round face.
"Mr. McCoy," she chirped, "I'm Emily James." She'd looked up at me expectantly, like she thought I should know her. As I'd started to tell her that I don't see people at home and to call my office for an appointment, she'd dipped her hand into her bag and produced a gun. Not a small, ladylike pistol more suited to her little hand, but a large black automatic, the silencer on the muzzle making it look even bigger. Motioning for me to back up, she'd stepped into the apartment and locked the door behind her. It was then I'd realized that she was wearing plastic gloves, the tight, flexible kind doctors wear.
Once in the living room, she'd ordered me to sit on the sofa while she took the large wing chair on the opposite side of the coffee table, sliding her tote bag off her shoulder and dropping it on the floor beside her with a thud. I'd started to ask what this was about, when I noticed a sort of smudging at the edge of my vision and felt a little lightheaded. And that's when she'd casually dropped her bombshell.
"But why would you want to poison me?" I'd asked, completely confused. "I...I don't even know you."
"Well that's not very flattering," she'd pouted. "With all these books, I would have thought you'd have at least heard of me. I created Dr. Peter Moore, world famous cardiologist and amateur sleuth. 103 Degrees of Murder was on the Times Best Seller List for eight weeks. Got all the way to number three. And do you know what my trademark, my signature is?"
I shook my head slightly, keeping my eyes closed and leaning my head back. There was nothing but unfocused fuzz and it was starting to make me a little queasy.
"Murder so real, you'd swear she was there," the woman responded proudly. "Not that I was always successful. I wrote for years and had enough rejection slips to carpet my ivory tower. I was actually working in a hospital when I committed my first murder. Well, actually, it wasn't a murder; more of an accident. I won't go into detail, but it had to do with a pornographer who contracts a fatal staph infection in the hospital after a relatively minor operation and dies. Anyway, it was the first thing I sold. So I wrote another story and the editor turned it down saying it lacked the 'immediacy', the 'realism' of the first story. I thought about it for a while and then suddenly, I realized what the difference was."
"Oh, God," I cried, my head coming up, and my eyes flying open. "You mean..."
James nodded. "Nothing lends realism like hands-on experience."
"You kill people...for your murder mysteries?" The nonchalance of this woman was too horrible, too bizarre even for me. It was incredible. "You're crazy. You have to be."
The fingers of her right hand tightened on the grip of the gun and her smile hardened ever so slightly. "Most people don't understand how competitive, downright cutthroat writing is, " she explained carefully. "Readers are very sophisticated these days. They expect everything to be perfect. Believe me, the devil's in the details. That's what makes research so important. I mean, if I write that botulism symptoms begin within six to eight hours of ingestion and that death can occur in as little as 12 to 18 hours, I better by-God know what I'm talking about. And no matter how much you read, nothing beats being there, writing about what actually happens. What you've actually seen. After all, if I were writing a cookbook, you wouldn't think anything of me actually experimenting with the dishes I was writing about. It's the same thing."
"And...and that's what killing me is? Research?"
Apparently delighted that I'd finally grasped the situation, she beamed. "Oh Mr. McCoy, your death's going to be the centerpiece of my next book, A Dish Served Cold. You know, from that quote about 'revenge is a dish best served cold'. That's what the book's about. A woman's vengeance on the four people who ruined her life, including the ruthless, ambitious District Attorney who railroaded her into prison by suppressing evidence so he could win a high profile case and give his political career a huge boost. Revenge is a universal concept. It's very important to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
"Anyway, in the book, everyone dies by ingesting something; one from a touch of peanut oil in her salad dressing that triggers an allergy. An old man with bad eyes and memory who has a medication 'mix-up' and apparently takes the wrong drug. One from 'accidentally' eating wild mushrooms that turn out to be poisonous and the attorney, who dies from what everyone, including the police, think is accidental botulism poisoning. This story's been especially difficult because this is my first multiple murder and I always have to be sure and pick people to kill that I don't have any connection with. That's a very important element in the perfect crime. The police won't suspect you if you don't have any motive."
"But why? How?" The nausea was getting worse but I couldn't be sure whether it was the poison or the casual insanity of the woman sitting across from me.
"I saw your picture in the paper about six months ago. You were prosecuting that hideous Karl Rings, the child molester. As soon as I saw you, I knew you were my DA. Handsome, sexual, powerful. From there, it was just a matter of following you, watching you, making notes. That Yamaha motorcycle of yours is very easy to keep track of in traffic so I didn't have any trouble finding where you live. You're actually a creature of habit, Mr. McCoy.
"Every Thursday, you have lunch with your boss, District Attorney Adam Schiff. He orders lean pastrami on rye for himself and ham and Swiss on wheat for you from a little deli about four blocks from Hogan Place. This afternoon, I pretended to be a secretary and intercepted the delivery boy. A few drops of the toxin on the ham and then to Mr. Schiff's secretary and you."
"You can't just kill people," I insisted. In 25 years of prosecuting criminals, I thought I'd seen every conceivable perversion. Junkies who sold their children's bodies to whoever came along with the price of a fix. Rapists for whom the terror was more sensual than the act itself. Serial killers who got their instructions from stray dogs. But the concept of killing strangers in cold blood as practice for imaginary crimes was beyond even my understanding.
A flash of light penetrated my closed eyes. Another and another. Slowly opening my eyes, I saw my visitor and her fuzzy shadow taking pictures of my living room, the automatic in her right hand, a small camera balanced in front of her face with her left.
"You know, Mr. McCoy," she told me enthusiastically, "this really is marvelous. Not at all what I expected. I imagined something orderly, perhaps even a little formal. A place for everything and everything in its place. You're so precise and methodical. Why, in court you're practically surgical." Waving her hand, she turned, that damned smile still on her face. "This is why I do research. I could never write anything like this without actually seeing it. You have no idea how much little details like your messy, cluttered apartment will add to the story."
She moved around the room, stopping finally in front of me, just out of my reach. "Look at me, Mr. McCoy." I tried to focus but she was nothing more than a runny image, outlined by another, fainter, runny image. Two bright flashes made me wince and I immediately shut my eyes again. I could feel my stomach do a slow roll.
Don't panic, I tried to tell myself. She's totally insane and the only chance I have of getting out of this alive is to keep my head. Collect all the evidence, weigh the options and then make my move. I was physically bigger than she was but she was armed and with my deteriorating vision, a direct attack was almost out of the question. She'd said that things would get "rugged" as the poison progressed. And while she'd been vague about the symptoms to come, she'd been very specific about one thing; I was going to die before morning.
I heard her move into the kitchen, the door swinging softly behind her. Cautiously, I tried to open my eyes but they refused to move beyond slits. I could feel my eyelids drooping, as if I was half-asleep. As quietly as I could, I slid to the side of the sofa and reached out to the end table where I keep my phone. All I needed to do was punch 911 and help would be here in minutes.
Tilting my head, I made out the white blur of my cordless phone sitting where I'd left it and my heart rose. Stupid bitch, I thought smugly as I reached for the phone. By tomorrow, I'll be in St. Vincent's Hospital and you'll be in Bellevue's locked ward. Pulling the receiver to my ear, I didn't need my sight to know where the 'on' button was. I punched it, listening for the dial tone. It took a few seconds for me to realize there was none.
"It's no use, Mr. McCoy," she said softly, leaning down from behind me and gently pulling the phone from my hand. "I took the precaution of turning off the phones. We don't want to be disturbed."
"I'm expecting someone," I lied.
Emily laughed. "That's very good Mr. McCoy. I'd have been disappointed if you hadn't tried to defend yourself. But the truth is, you don't have any friends. At least people outside your office. And you haven't been...involved with anyone for sometime." She shook her head a little. "No. No one will miss you until at least Monday morning. When you don't come in or answer your phone by say, ten, eleven o'clock, Mr. Schiff will call the police who'll find you dead."
"You won't get away with it." I knew how lame it sounded even as it was coming out of my mouth but I couldn't just sit there and listen to her talk about me being dead like it was already an accomplished fact.
"Of course I will," she countered nonchalantly. "In fact, you'll be lucky number 13." She moved around me and back to her tote bag. Bending down, she rummaged for a moment and came up with a small glass jar in a plastic bag. "I'll put this in your garbage can," she explained. "I washed it out but there's still a trace of the botulism toxin for the police forensics lab to find. Of course, with that science experiment you call a refrigerator, they may not even bother." She laughed again and put the jar back in her bag.
My mouth was beginning to feel like cotton and the strain of keeping my eyes open so I could watch this fun house monster was too much. "I need a drink of water," I croaked. "I don't think I can get up and get to the kitchen. Please, Miss James."
"Of course. And call me Emily. After all, we're going to share one of the most personal, intimate moments in a your life." She stood up and went into the kitchen. In a moment, she was back with a tall glass of cool water. "Be careful, Jack," she cautioned as she handed it to me. " The dry mouth is going to get worse but your muscles are going to begin getting weak and you're going to have trouble swallowing and speaking."
The water disappeared down my throat but didn't seem to have any effect on my thirst. However, it hit my stomach like a rock, sending little shock waves through my gut.
"Are you all right?" It didn't seem so much a question as a statement.
A nod is all I could answer.
"Don't lie to me, Jack," she chided gently, putting a finger under my chin and raising my face so she could look down into it. "You keep forgetting. I know the symptoms of botulism poisoning. I know what's coming. Right now, your throat feels like sandpaper but all the water did was curdle your stomach. In a very short while, you'll feel like you're dying of thirst but you won't be able to swallow. As for that little twinge in your stomach...well, let's just say it's probably time for you to go to bed." A black blob appeared in my fuzzy vision and I felt cold steel between my eyes.
"No," I said flatly. "If I'm going to die, you might just as well shoot me now. I'm not going to play any more of your sick game."
"Shooting you would spoil the story."
"I could give a shit about your story," I snarled.
"Then perhaps you'll give a shit about this," she responded calmly. The gun disappeared and was replaced by her face, her lips barely touching mine, her voice suddenly sultry, sensual. "Untreated botulism is almost always fatal. Almost. About 70% mortality actually. That's a three in ten chance that you could survive this. Thin odds certainly, but much better than the zero per cent chance of surviving a .45 bullet in your brain."
"So I survive the poison." I tried not to let her know she had my interest. "You can't let me live to tell anyone about...about this, about you. So you shoot me anyway."
"Now why would I do that? I mean, who's going to believe such an outrageous story? I'm a famous writer and you're a man who's just survived a terrifying, life threatening illness. Who knows what kind of fever induced delusions you may have had? And besides, we've never even met." Her fingertips traced a soft, slow line along my cheek. "No, Jack, we're going to finish the story. You don't want to die. Certainly not an instant before you have to. And certainly not if you think you could bring me to justice for my crimes." I heard her chuckle. "Now I suggest we get up and go in your bedroom. Believe me, very shortly you're going to want to be considerably closer to the bathroom."
She was right; I knew it, she knew it. I didn't want to die and I definitely did want to get her if I could. Crazy or not, she was a self-confessed serial murderer who would no doubt go on killing until she was caught and put away, either in prison or a mental ward. Carefully, unsteadily, I got to my feet and she followed me down the hall.
That part of the nightmare was violent but mercifully short. When it was over, I lay on the bathroom floor for several minutes, sweating and shaking, dizzy and feeling like I'd pass out at any second. All the time she stood there, calm and impassive, watching me like an interesting specimen under a microscope. I was just glad she didn't take any pictures. When I was finally able to move, I staggered into the bedroom and collapsed on my bed.
With her writer's gift for understatement, she'd said it would get "rugged". If I hadn't been going through it, I wouldn't have believed this kind of pain existed outside the Marquis de Sade's twisted imagination. Even a childhood of abuse that included beatings and broken bones hadn't prepared me for this.
Something alive, glowing white-hot, slithered and raced through my gut, twisting and knotting as it went. Razor blades and glass shards tangoed around my insides, ripping and tearing. I couldn't do anything but lie curled in a pain-wracked ball, my knees pulled up to my chest, arms wrapped around myself, rocking slightly and whimpering. I was beyond caring how I looked or sounded, especially to Emily James.
"This is the worst part," she whispered, kneeling by the bed and leaning over me. "Tell me about the pain, Jack. Tell me how much it hurts. Everything. Every detail." Her voice took on an excited edge. "The details make all the difference. Watching the murder actually unfold, seeing the wrinkles and unforeseen developments is interesting. But it's being able to describe everything - that terrified animal look in your gorgeous brown eyes, the texture of your pale, clammy skin, the precise shade of that faint blue tinge around your lips from lack of oxygen. The fading thump of your heartbeat and the slight rattling wheeze in your breathing. These are the things that give the story its depth. It's reality."
The anxious, insistent tone of her voice struck something in my head and made me open my eyes. Because of the distortion in my sight, her face seemed thinner, longer, her chin sharper, the top of her head more pointed. In fact, with the double blur, it seemed as if there were two points, one on each side. After all those years of parochial school and early Mass, I guess I'd never really considered that Satan didn't necessarily have to be male.
"Tell me, Jack," she repeated, her voice growing edgier, more intense. "Tell me about the pain. I have to know. I have to."
Hate. Cold, rock hard, purposeful hate. It roiled up inside me like a fountain of black, filthy water, washing everything else away. First this lunatic had poisoned me. Then she'd stood around watching me die by inches. Now she wanted me to give her my pain so she could put more "detail" in her story. Give it the finishing touch.
"Fuck you, you crazy bitch," I growled, the fury in my voice as cold as the hate in my heart.
There was a split second of surprised silence and I wished I could see her face clearly. And then, she started to laugh. Not a delicate chuckle, but great, rollicking belly laughs that rocked her backwards. "Oh God, Jack," she managed between laughs, "you are absolutely priceless! The perfect last words. I could never have written anything that good. This book will be my best one yet. Next year, millions of readers will sit in this apartment, on the edge of this bed, and share your death. And just when they're on the brink of literal gut wrenching anguish and tears, you'll give them the perfect exit line." Gales of laughter erupted again and I watched as she wiped her cheek.
Nausea and swirling blackness overtook me.
I don't know how long I was out, but when I opened my eyes again, I wasn't curled up in a ball anymore. Instead, I was lying on my back, a single pillow under my head. And miraculously, the pain was gone. In fact, I didn't feel anything.
"There you are," she said, moving from the foot of my bed and into my field of view. She put her fingertips on my neck, just under my jaw, checking my pulse. "I thought maybe you'd finally decided to give it up."
Her voice sounded fuzzy and far away. My whole body felt heavy, like lead wrapped in cement. I wanted to open my mouth, ask her what she meant, but no matter how I tried, it just refused to work.
Almost as if she'd read my mind, she smiled that horrible smile again. "Don't worry, Jack," she reassured me, "this is the last part. The paralysis. It won't be much longer now." As if to emphasize the point, she picked up my right hand, held it up for a few seconds and then let it go, dropping back to the bed with a soft plop.
Paralysis. 'Not much longer'. I really was going to die. Until then, I guess I hadn't believed it was actually going to happen. Maybe I thought that three in ten would pay off. And that grinning psychopath was right. I did want to see her strapped to a table with a needle in her arm. Instead, I was going to be an interesting puzzle for her fictional detective. If I could have breathed, it might almost have been ludicrous.
"Well," she chatted amiably, perched like a vulture on the edge of my bed, "it's 20 to 5 and much as I'd like to stay to the end, I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave. I need to get back to my townhouse before someone sees me. And I have to fly to Atlanta later today for a book signing. You know, when you were going through the abdominal cramps, I would have bet money you wouldn't survive to my estimate of 4:00 a.m. But, here you are, still hanging on. I think it must be that damnable Mick stubbornness of yours. Ah well, I suppose I'll just have to settle for the crime scene photos and autopsy report. They'll be available for research in a few months." She chuckled softly again.
Leaning down into my face again, her voice took on that same sultry sound it had before. "Would you like me to put you out of your misery, Jack?" she whispered, brushing her lips lightly against mine. "I could you know." I felt the index finger of her left hand under my chin, the index finger and thumb of her right on either side of my nose." It would be very simple." Her finger and thumb pinched closed and her index finger applied slight pressure on my lower jaw to keep it from opening. Immediately, what little air I'd been getting was cut off.
A moment of utter terror! I could feel my heart speed up, my lungs struggling for air. A lightheadedness and a dimming of my already fuzzy sight. I was on the brink of blacking out when her fingers released their grip and air flowed uncertainly back into my heaving lungs.
"But that would spoil the story," she giggled, standing up and stretching. "Good-bye Jack. I'll always remember you." I listened to her boots tapping softly down the hall and through the living room. The click of the lock on the front door and the apartment was silent again.
Futilely, I tried to move, speak, make any sound. My bedroom phone extension sat on my nightstand, tantalizingly, not more than two feet from my head. It might as well have been on the other side of the moon.
"I don't want to die," I screamed in my head. "I don't want it to end like this!" Suddenly, I didn't care about my conviction rate or being DA or even nailing this psychotic bitch. None of the things that I'd always thought were so important seemed to matter anymore.
I wanted to see my daughter again, tell her how much I loved her, how sorry I was about...about everything. Give her away at her wedding. Hold my grandchild. All those mundane, trivial things that you take for granted until you realize you're being cheated out of them. "I want my life!"
Relax I told myself firmly. I couldn't afford to use up whatever life I had left in trying to do something physical. The paralysis wasn't going to yield. I needed to lie still and try to think. As long as I was still breathing there was a chance I could get out of this.
I don't know how long I lay there. The clock was a blur; the only measure of time I had was the beat of my heart, growing slower and slower.
And then I heard the faint sound of a key scratching and the loud click of the dead bolt on the front door.
"Don't piss your pants, McCoy. It's just me."
Oh God! I couldn't believe it! Sheila Harrington, my next-door neighbor!
"I know you don't like me using the key you gave me," she called as the door closed behind her, "but this is an emergency and I figured you wouldn't want our neighbors listening to me banging on your door at this ungodly hour of the morning. My God damn shower's on the blink again and our lousy super says the plumber can't get here 'til tomorrow. Do you fucking believe that? You're a lawyer. Let's sue the bastards!"
Overwhelmed by the joy and relief flooding through me, the sound of her bawdy, sarcastic voice made me positively giddy. I was going to be saved! Not only would she call 911, but as a nurse, she'd take care of me 'til the paramedics got here.
"And don't give me any grief about being a pushy neighbor either. After all, I didn't have to wait for your 'friend' to leave even though I have to be to the hospital early this morning. Meeting with the Goddamn negotiator. Says he wants to 'dialogue'." There was a short, derisive laugh. "Yeah. Right. That's Bureaucrat for 'you can kiss off your raise for another year.' Christ! I must have been stoned or drunk to ever get myself suckered into being the union rep."
She'd actually seen Emily James! Sheila knew that someone had been here and could help me put that lunatic in the death chamber. How's that for irony, bitch! I'll give you lots of details about Murder One and the death penalty. Oh God, Sheila, I love you! My body couldn't even twitch, but my soul was absolutely flying!
Uh oh! The room began a slow spin. Settle down, I told myself. Take it easy. You don't have that many heartbeats left. Don't use them up too fast. Not when you're this close.
I heard the refrigerator door open and slam shut. "Jesus, McCoy," she shrieked, "what's with your 'fridge? You going into the homemade penicillin business? Shit, if you can't find some broad to shack up with for sex, you ought to at least hire a fucking housekeeper."
Stay calm, stay calm. She'll be in any second now. Sheila's just being her own bitchy, raucous self. But she will find me. She has to.
"Speaking of which," Sheila continued sharply, "why was she leaving so early? Got a husband she's gotta get back to? Or are you just losing your touch?" I heard her deep, earthy laugh and the opening of a cabinet. "She's not your type anyway. You gotta watch out for those perky little brunettes. They're generally looking for something permanent. You know, the 'C' word. Commitment. You're better off sticking to those tall, long legged blonde hookers. More your style."
I could barely breathe now and the room was spinning crazily around me. Dear God, Sheila, where the hell are you?
"Shit! When was the last time you washed this coffee pot?" I heard the kitchen faucet running. "Face it, McCoy," she yelled, "you're a pig, even by Mick standards."
A whiff of brewing coffee wafted down the hall. I was barely conscious now. Please dear God, let her be in time.
"Okay, McCoy, whip it out or tuck it in, 'cause ready or not, here I come."
Please God...let her be in.....