~~~

“You shouldn’t be here,” Wendy said. She kept her distance, waiting to throw her serving tray at the repulsive man the moment he stood from his table.

Mr. Silver flashed her a yellow-stained toothy grin. “It’s nice to see you again, too,” he said. “I’d heard you were here. Had to see it for myself. Wanted to wait, though, until things settled down a bit.”

“Haven’t you and your friends caused enough trouble in this lifetime?” she said. “Leave now, and I’ll forget your stupidity for walking in here.”

He laughed. “My, oh, my, I don’t remember you being so ballsy the last time I saw you, girl. But I must say, you wear it well.” He undressed her with his eyes.

Wendy covered her chest with her tray. “Get out, creep! Last warning.”

“Or what?” he teased. “You gonna throw me out? I’m a paying customer and I’ve still got silver. I’ve every right to be here. And it don’t look like your friends are around to save the damn day, neither.”

“You can take it up with the owner. I’m sure he’ll be pleased to find out that the asshole who started that bar brawl a couple weeks back and brought the Lunatics in his establishment just wants a beer.” She turned and started to leave.

“Now, just hold on, girl,” Silver said. “I’m not here to cause trouble. Just wanted a word with my favorite soon-to-fuck.”

She turned back and glared. “What did you call me?”

“Never you mind,” he said with a laugh. He held up his hands submissively. “Just wanted to speak my peace and I’ll leave. What I got to say won’t take long.”

Wendy sighed. “Go on. Say whatever demeaning thing you need to say to me. Then get the hell out.”

Silver laughed. “How’s your tough boyfriend doing these days? And I’m not talking about the big fella fighting in the pits. I’m talking about that world class A-hole who wouldn’t let me have a piece of that fine-”

“That’s none of your fucking business,” Wendy cut in. “You shut your foul mouth about my friends!”

“Mark, isn’t that him? Apparently, he’s no one’s business these days. Haven’t seen him around, much. Thought he’d be here sniffing around the goods.”

“You’re disgusting,” she said, shaking her head. “Are we done here?”

“Almost.” Mr. Silver stood up slowly, causing Wendy to take a step back. He walked out from behind his table, crossed his arms over his chest and leaned up against the wall. He stared at Wendy and said, “I was relieved to find out you survived after auction and all. Lots of girls like yourself don’t last very long after they get bought and poked. Some girls just break once their Twinkies get cream filled enough times-”

“Okay,” she said, “that’s enough! You don’t get to come in here and talk to me like that!”

“I tried to buy you out,” he pushed. “But the auction price was too rich for my blood. Once old Ollie put in that high bid for your piece-of-ass, he made sure good folks like me didn’t have a chance. Damn shame, too. We could have had all sorts of fun together.”

Wendy cringed at the thought of being legally sold to this man at auction. It seemed Herbie had looked out for her far more than she’d realized. “So, what is this? Did you come here to window shop for things you clearly can’t afford, or is there a point coming?”

Mr. Silver didn’t appreciate the condescending remark. His smile faltered. “I was ready to pay enough for you… way more than your worth.”

“Fuck you.”

“But, like I said, I was out-bid.” He stepped away from the wall and took a bold step toward her with his hands in his pockets.

Wendy stepped back and started looking around for Herbie.

He got within five feet of her and stopped. “But then, the strangest thing happened, girl. Almost like it was meant to be.”

“What was that?”

“A couple of days after auction, I was feeling down for letting that fat fuck get you, was beating myself up for not putting up a better fight and all. So, I needed to let off a little steam, you know, get my mind right.”

Wendy rolled her eyes. “I don’t want to hear about your ‘whore’ encounters. Save that shit for your pig friends.”

“No, no, no,” he said with a laugh. “That wasn’t what I needed right then. Sometimes, when I feeling particularly down, there’s nothing better than killing someone to get you in a better mood.”

Wendy said nothing.

“So, I went over to one of my favorite murder shops, hoping to find some release, and you’ll never guess what I stumbled across, girl.”

She didn’t like where this was headed.

Mr. Silver laughed, his eyes glazing up as if remembering the punch line to some joke only he was privy to. He shook his head. “Damn,” he said. “I mean, talk about a stroke of good luck. If I’d gone in that shop an hour later… or an hour earlier… I might have missed such a sweet opportunity.”

“What are you talking about?” she said.

He stared at her and smiled. “I’m sorry. We was talking about your friend, Mark, before I lost my train of thought. How’s he been since our big blow out?”

Wendy saw something sinister in the man’s eyes that made her heart drop. She started entertaining a truly horrible possibility that she quickly shut out of her mind. No! I won’t believe that! This creep’s just playing mind games!

Mr. Silver raised his hands and stared at them with a laugh. “I never knew how much joy… if that’s the right word… a man could receive from working with his hands. I wasn’t ever good at that, back in the day. Couldn’t build or fix shit. Just didn’t have the knack, I suppose. But when I stepped into my first murder shop and heard all those screams, I thought I’d walked right into hell, without the flames. I was so terrified I nearly pissed myself.”

“Nice. Thanks for the image.”

He was still staring at his hands. “I was so scared I nearly ran from that place the first time. But I was so glad I’d stayed. You just don’t know what you’re missing until you do a thing for the first time, or what you’re really capable of… know what I mean?”

She nodded, swallowing hard.

“Anyway, the first one was hard… and messy. But I got better at it. Went back several more times when I needed to find more… release. Eventually, you know what I discovered, girl?”

“No,” she said, absently.

“I figured out that I wasn’t so bad with my hands, after all. I just hadn’t found the right motivation to fire up my creative side. It’s amazing what a little legal murder can do for your soul, as blasphemous as that sounds.”
He laughed again. “Would you like to hear how I use my hands to create masterpieces in those shops?”

She stared into his beady, cold eyes. There was nothing compassionate in them. To Wendy, she might as well had been looking into the eyes of the dead, right before one lunged at her throat. What is it about this world that makes people like this? she wondered. There’s so much violence behind his eyes. Maybe some people were always like this, hidden and full of dark desires. Maybe this world only brought out the truth in people—the darkest parts of who they truly are?

Silver lowered his hands and smiled. “Sorry, girl. Got lost there for a moment. I believe we was talking about your friend.

“No,” she said. “You were just leaving.”

“But I didn’t tell you yet about my latest adventure at the shop. You really need to hear it. It’s kind of… what’s that saying? Oh, I know! It’s kind of like a little poetic justice… or maybe fucking karma or something. Either way, I rather enjoyed myself, and I’d love to share what I’ve discovered… or should I say, ‘who’ I discovered on my last visit.”

“Get out!” she screamed in his face, drawing the attention of the few remaining patrons.

Silver laughed and took a step back. He held up his hands defensively. “Woah, girl. Just calm down.” He raised his voice deliberately for others to hear. “Don’t want to get jumped by you and your friends again. I mean, next thing you know, this place will be crawling with Lunatics and we both know what happened last time.”

Wendy lowered her voice and took a threatening step forward, surprising herself. “You need help,” she hissed. “Whatever was wrong within you before the world changed, just got worse. Maybe you can’t help being cruel and heartless because you’re in pain, or maybe you’ve just been off your medication for far too long. Maybe you’re just evil to the core, and always have been, and this world just gives your kind an excuse to be as ugly as you want to be. Doesn’t matter. I don’t know and I don’t care.”

Silver’s face changed. He was losing his good humor.

“What I do know is that me and my friends won’t tolerate your ‘dog eats dog’ excuses anymore to harm good people just because the old world isn’t looking anymore. We’ve been out there and have seen our fill of your kind, asshole… and we bite back!”

Silver smiled. “Well… I can think of one dog who isn’t biting shit these days… and I’ve got a couple of his teeth to prove it. Wanna see?” He started reaching into his front pocket.

Something snapped inside the young woman who detested violence. Wendy had spent most of her young adult life in opposition to the base tendencies buried below the surface of humanity. She’d always believed violence was a choice, no matter what the circumstances dictated to provoke it. In the end, choosing to abstain from it, and find another way to deal with the cruelty of others, promoted peace, love and light, and all that warm-feeling bullshit that once held her and the illusions of her old world together.

But this was another world now.

And Wendy was done playing nice.

Before the little monster with the beady eyes could retrieve whatever was in his pocket and confirm her worst fears, Wendy stepped forward while Silver was distracted and slammed her serving tray down hard on the top of his head.

The man looked up stunned, staggering back into the wall. “What the fuck!”

Before he could say another vile word, Wendy swung the tray sideways into the man’s jaw, causing Silver to fall to the floor, gripping the side of his face.

Again! Her mind screamed. He’ll just come back! They always come back!

Mr. Silver held one hand up toward the girl who’d lost her mind. The other was holding his swollen and bloody face.

She can could see something new in those cruel eyes now. She could see fear. And the fear fed her need for violence like gasoline added to a fire.

Finish it! Finish it now before this vile man says those words you know in your heart will destroy you forever.

Wendy had never felt such intense rage coursing through her. It was like everything she’d ever suppressed for the sake of peace just came crashing to the surface. What she experienced was the closest she’d ever come to some out-of-body sensation where the anger just consumed all… was all… as it controlled her actions now. She raised the cracked serving tray, which now had a sharp edge she wasn’t aware of, and was about to finish the pathetic excuse of a man.

“Wendy!” the voice of reason boomed. “Put that fucking tray down… NOW!” Herbie rushed over, pushing his way through a small crowd of patrons enjoying the show. He reached the young woman, pulled the tray out of her hands, then stood between her and the broken Silver, holding one outstretched arm toward Wendy.

Wendy returned to her body and placed her hands over her mouth. Her eyes went wide in shock. “What have I done?” she whispered, staring down at the man she’d almost killed.

No, she corrected. Murdered!

Herbie bent down to check on the battered patron, obstructing her view.

“Is he… alright?” Wendy managed.

Herbie turned, his eyes ablaze. “Go!” he snapped. “Get your ass in the backroom and out of my sight! And for fuck’s sake… pull your shit together!”

Wendy nodded and turned. As she walked back through the crowd, each of them giving the crazy woman a wide berth, she saw the fear and loathing in their eyes. But mostly she saw her own hypocrisy reflected back at her.

You’re no different, those half-dead eyes accused. You’re just as infected as the rest of us… just as infected by the violence.

Wendy shook her head in shame, fighting back tears until she was out of sight in the back room. She sat down in a corner created by a row of stacked kegs and the wall and wept.

What just happened to me back there?

“Could you keep the waterworks to a minimum, stupid girl?” Sheila said from the other side of the kegs. “It’s already bad enough I’ve got to close for you tonight, but I’ll be damned if you ruin my break with your woe-is-me bullshit.”

“Fuck off, Sheila,” Wendy shot back, apparently still wrestling with the violence.

This made the stripper/waitress laugh. “Take it down a notch, killer. I’m on your side. I was only hoping that fat fuck would’ve moved a little slower so you could’ve finished the little prick before he broke up the fight.”

“Don’t say that!” Wendy said. “I almost… almost killed a man!”

“Yeah, yeah, welcome to New Cleveland, stupid girl. In case you haven’t noticed, people die here… and for less reason than the one you had. I heard what that cheap bastard was saying to you. He had it coming.”

“That wasn’t me out there,” Wendy said. “I don’t… that just wasn’t me.”

There was a moment of silence from the other side of the kegs. Finally, Sheila said, “Look, stupid girl-”

“Stop calling me that!” Wendy hissed.

“Okay… whatever… killer. Just listen to me now. What you did out there, regardless of why you did it or how fucking shitty it made you feel… it gave you some ground to stand on. Those fuckers out there who watched it all go down and did nothing will remember what you did and then think twice before they grab at you again. They’ll tell their friends and they’ll all understand not to fuck with the psycho waitress with the serving tray.”

“Is that supposed to be funny?” Wendy said.

Wendy swore she heard the woman rolling her eyes. “I’m just saying, you stood up for yourself and just got promoted from ‘pushover nobody’ to ‘someone not to fuck with’. And that’s a list you need to stay on to survive in this town. So, stop crying over a little bit of blood on your hands, and be thankful that it’s not your blood on someone else’s hands tonight.”

Wendy closed her eyes and shook her head. “You’re all fucking crazy,” she said. “Every last one of you.”

“I’ll take crazy over crybaby any day,” Sheila defended. “Doesn’t matter much now, though. We all might be called something less pleasant by the end of this evening if Ollie can’t clean up your mess.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You should have finished the job, killer. If only that fat fuck had moved a little slower. I had no idea Ollie could even move that fast. Now, your mouthy fan out there, once the swelling in his face goes down and he can speak again, he’ll have grounds to have you arrested for what you did, in front of all those witnesses, too.”

“Shit,” Wendy said.

“Shit is right,” Sheila continued. “He could get us all in trouble if Ollie can’t calm him down. Did it even occur to you that your friend out there was trying to provoke you to begin with?”

“He’s not my friend,” Wendy said. “But… no. I didn’t think about it at the time. I just… lost control.”

“I heard some of the crude, piggish things he said to you, and you blew it all off. So, he must have said something beneath the words to get your goat. What was it?”

“None of your damn business,” Wendy said.

“It is now,” Sheila said. “If Ollie can’t pay the creep off and buy his silence, who do you think’s gonna have to suck his dick after Ollie’s given him free drinks for life?”

“Herbie wouldn’t do that,” Wendy said. “Besides, that little monster came in asking for trouble, just like the last time. He won’t risk standing before that scary-ass female Lunatic again.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Sheila said. “If that prick had an agenda, and I’m sure he did, who’s to say that you won’t be sold to that man before the end of the night? For all you know, he provoked you on purpose to create a scene just to get the boss to hand you over to him.”

Wendy’s eyes went wide. She’d never considered that. “Fuck. He did mention trying to buy me at auction.”

“What, that little creep said that?”

“Yes.”

“I think you’re fucked, killer. If that perv demands you for payment for his silence, you think Ollie, or Herbie, or whatever you call him, is going to have any choice but to comply?”

“I think I liked it better when you called me ‘stupid girl’,” Wendy said, shaking her head.

Sheila paused for an eternity this time.

Wendy could hear her taking drags off her cigarette behind the kegs.

“What should I do?” she finally asked. “Should I… apologize?”

Sheila laughed. “Wow, you really are a piece of work. ‘Apologize’? Really? This isn’t the old world. Apologies mean shit around here. It’s blood for blood, or something equivalent. Unless your apology involves something a little more oral than words, of course.”

“That’s not happening,” Wendy assured her.

“Then… all we can do is wait. But understand this, killer. Next time you confront someone like that, you best finish the job quickly. And I don’t want to hear about what you can and cannot do. I think you just saw for yourself that you’re already capable, so fuck your moral high ground bullshit. You and I both know better now.”

Wendy could not argue against that.

“You make sure you finish next time, if there is a next time, because dead men can’t retaliate.”

Wendy sighed. “So, Herbie’s going to have to sell me to him. I guess I better prepare myself for what that will mean.”

“Relax,” Sheila said. “Ollie’s a cunning man. He’ll probably outsmart that prick, but it’s still going to cost him, big time. I’m probably the one getting sold before the end of the evening.”

“Fuck that,” Wendy said. “I won’t let that happen.”

“Nothing you’ll be able to do about it,” Sheila said. “Ollie knows the score. He knows I can handle myself with creeps like that. He also knows that you can’t. The deal makes sense, even if the prick really wants you… he’ll settle for me.”

“That’s bullshit! You didn’t do anything wrong. This is on me.”

“Yeah, it is. But I don’t blame you for what you did. I respect what you had to do, and it’s okay. Ollie’s protecting you, that much is clear. He’s protected me, too, for as long as he could. But if flesh gets involved, he’ll let me go before he hands you over to that pig. He’s a good man like that… well… as good as it gets around here. Ollie will weigh the more acceptable loss against what his conscience can bear.”

Wendy didn’t know what to say.

“So, why don’t you tell me what it was that set you off? I think I’m entitled to know, don’t you?”

Wendy nodded to herself. “That monster was talking about the murder shops and how much he enjoys them.”

Sheila remained silent.

Wendy took a deep breath and decided to trust the girl. “My friends and I meet up when we can. We talk about where we’ve ended up and what we’ve been doing, and what we’re planning on doing to get the hell out of here. But none of my friends know what happened to two of our own. There’s been no word what became of them after auction.” Wendy paused, wiping a tear from her eye. “One of them, his name is Mark, he’s… well… I guess he’s my closest friend left. We weren’t always that way, but we lost others, and it brought us closer. Anyway, that fucking creep came in talking about those murder shops and then kept inquiring about Mark. He had this evil little smile and this excited gleam in his eyes. I started hearing what he was saying, beneath the words, and I didn’t like what I was hearing.”

“Is your friend… did Mark end up in the murder shops?” Sheila asked. There was a slight tremor in her voice, and a surprising amount of tenderness in her tone that Wendy wasn’t used to hearing. “Is that what the little fucker out there was hinting at?”

“I don’t know,” Wendy said. “Honestly, I don’t know if he was just fucking with me, but a part of me thought he was telling the truth, without actually coming out and saying it. That asshole just kept talking about his love for killing while throwing Mark’s name around at the same time. I started to imagine the worst-case scenario, and then… I just lost it.”

Wendy heard the young stripper take a long drag off her cigarette. “I lost a lot of my friends in those despicable places,” she said. “It’s a horrible way to die. In fact, there’s probably few ways worse to die in New Cleveland, and that’s saying a lot.”

“I didn’t say Mark was there,” Wendy defended. “Like I said, that creep never said it directly. He just hinted at it. That doesn’t mean he’s there.”

“If he is,” Wendy said. “Then Mark is dead. You must realize that.”

Wendy said nothing.

“I get it. I was once where you’re at. I couldn’t accept it either. But after seeing one of these places for myself… well… let’s just say after you’ve seen one, it leaves no room for doubt. Anyone with the misfortune of ending up in the murder shops is dead. In truth, they’re worse than dead because they’re kept alive and tortured long before they expire. I’ve seen some of this, and I can’t un-see it… ever. It’s the stuff of nightmares, Wendy. Trust me, if Mark is at one of these places, you’ll need to let him go.”

“Well,” Wendy said, shifting uncomfortably. “Like I said, I don’t know if he’s there or not. That evil man could have just been pushing my buttons, and maybe the right ones, just to get me upset. That doesn’t mean he’s even seen Mark.”

“Or, he’s not only seen your friend, but he’s had the satisfaction of torturing him, too,” Sheila said.

“Just shut up. You’re starting to sound like him.”

“I’m just preparing you for the worst,” Sheila said. “You said it yourself, none of your friends even know where Mark is. That happens a lot here, especially with people who end up in the murder shops.”

Wendy balled her fists. She was getting angry again.

“Did you… love him?”

The question surprised her. But more surprising was her immediate response. “Yes. I don’t know if he felt the same, or if I even understood what I felt at the time. Hell, there was no time to think about anything like that. We were just trying to stay alive. But, yes, I do love him, for whatever that’s worth.”

Sheila was quiet for a long time. Then she said, “If you love him… then you have to say goodbye. Maybe he’s alive, maybe he’s dead. Doesn’t matter right now. You can’t carry that around with you inside these walls. I’m not trying to be harsh. Love’s a vulnerability in here that can be used against you. You’ll need to say goodbye to Mark, then let him go.”

“Not without knowing what happened, first,” Wendy said. “I’ve lost enough friends already. But at least I know they’re gone and far from this horrible world. But the thought of leaving behind someone I care about, when they could still be alive and waiting for me to help them… well… I deserve to be dead if I can forsake them like that, just to save my own ass.”

“You might not have a choice,” Sheila said. “But… I get it.”

Wendy thought of something. “Did you lose someone you love?”

“I told you that already,” the stripper added with annoyance. “Yes, I’ve lost friends here.”

“That’s not what I asked,” Wendy pushed.

“And that is definitely no one’s business but my own.”

Wendy thought of something else. “You did, didn’t you? That’s why you’re being so nice to me now. You even called me by my name a moment ago.”

“Sorry, slip of the tongue. Get over it.”

“No, you said you saw the murder shops for yourself. Something drove you to do that. You needed to do that. What was it? Closure?”

“Doesn’t matter anymore,” Sheila said. “But if it will shut you the hell up, then yes, I lost someone I loved. It drove me insane not knowing what happened to him. So, I did a lot of dangerous things, and put myself in one of those places… and almost didn’t make it out again.”

“Did you… find what you needed?”

“No. I never did. But I knew where he ended up,” Sheila said. “And after I saw the horrible things that I saw, I knew without a doubt that he was dead. There’s nothing alive in the murder shops, Wendy. Whether it’s the victims or the predators who prey there… doesn’t matter. They’re all dead inside. That’s the one thing I remember, seared into my memory forever. Doesn’t matter if you have a heartbeat or if you’re flesh keeps on surviving the gruesome acts done to it in there, everyone is already dead in those places.”

“Do you regret it?” Wendy asked.

“Do I regret what? Going in the first place?”

“Yes.”

Sheila considered this. “No. I still needed to know.”

“Then take me to one.”

“Excuse me?”

“You said you got into one of the murder shops.”

“Yeah, but I also said it was dangerous and I almost didn’t make it out.”

“But you know how to get me in, right?”

“Fuck off, stupid girl,” Sheila said. “And that time, you deserved being called stupid. Haven’t you heard a word I said?”

“I need what you needed,” Wendy said. “That’s the only way I can let this go.”

“But you don’t know if he’s even in the murder shops. I knew. That’s the difference.”

Wendy got quiet. Finally, she admitted. “I know. That creep might not have said it, but his eyes did.” She hated saying the words out loud, but she needed to. “I attacked that man, gave into the violence I’d fought my whole life to avoid, because I knew that evil fucking beast found Mark in one of these places. Then, he used the money he’d saved to buy me, to buy him instead. He did unspeakable things to my friend. I saw that in his eyes, too. And then he came to the bar to make me suffer, probably hoping to toy with me about it for as long as he could before finally just telling me what he did to Mark.”

“You sure about all that?” Sheila said.

“Yes. I’m sure.”

Sheila got quiet again. Wendy heard her frantically trying to light up another cigarette. Finally, the young stripper said, “I can tell you how I did, stupid girl, and who to contact. But the risks are all on you. You might not get out of there. You better prepare yourself for that and ask if it’s worth the risk.”

“It is,” she said. “I need to know what Mark went through. I need to know if he had a chance to get out of a place like that, or if it was over the moment he arrived.”

“Okay,” Sheila said. “But you won’t be same after you’ve seen it, if you do get out at all.”

“So be it,” Wendy said. “Do you want to keep talking through these fucking kegs, or can I come over there and smoke a cigarette with you, first?”

Sheila laughed. “Come on over, killer… I mean… Wendy. I suspect this might be our last conversation together, one way or another.”

~~~

Next Episode 50-6

Previous Episode 50-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 50-5: Amusement” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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