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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Debts in the Dark (NYC Midnight Short Story Competition 2013)

Johnny Flanders saw three new text messages from “Unknown.”

“I’M COMING TO SEE YOU,” read the first. Johnny wasn’t expecting any visitors.
“SEE YOU REAL SOON,” read the last.
Johnny sent back a text: “Who is this?”
Within a minute, he had his response: “238279. I’M ONLY A NUMBER TO YOU PEOPLE AFTER ALL.”

Johnny sighed. Not only was he getting strange texts from a client, but they were from him. He didn’t usually remember account numbers, but it was hard to forget Flint Whittaker: surrounded by a cloud of Marlboro smoke, the hilt of a large knife sticking out of his belt and a heavy disregard for “the taxman.” His boss thought Whittaker was harmless.
“Earth to Johnny. Come in, Johnny. Do you read me?” asked a smooth dulcet voice. Johnny jammed his phone back into his pocket.
“Yeah, sorry Leslie,” Johnny grinned.
“I’m gonna fall. Are you ready?” Leslie asked from atop the table.
“Yep, I’m set.” Johnny raised his hands, shoulder to shoulder with his co-workers. Leslie took a deep breath and then inched her way backwards off the table until her heels were suspended over thin air. Johnny couldn’t help but notice that she bit her lip as she looked away from her group of saviors-to-be. He didn’t blame her. Would you trust a bunch of CPAs to catch you?
“Here I go...” Leslie said, swallowing a lump in her throat.
Before she could take her final step backward, darkness descended on the hotel ballroom. Johnny gulped. Was this Whittaker’s work?
Leslie’s scream brought him out of his worries. Instinctually, Johnny stepped forward catching her, descending harshly to one knee. He wouldn’t say it out loud but she was heavier than she looked, or more likely, he was weaker than he looked.
“Th-thank you,” Leslie whispered into his ear, wafting the scent of peppermint past his nose.
“Any...any time,” Johnny whispered back.
Someone’s phone lit up their trust circle, revealing small dew-like tears in her eyes and a hand cupping her breast. Johnny’s hand recoiled in the light like a vampire from the sun. He was glad nobody could see him blush in the near-darkness.
Leslie stood and wiped the tears from her eyes. Straightening the pleats in her skirt, she sat on the table from which she’d just fallen and smiled in Johnny’s general direction.
A clamor came from the doors to the hall as they swung open and slammed shut in the darkness. “Whittaker, is that you?” thought Johnny.
“The light switch isn’t working,” someone called from the far side of the room.
“Alright folks, that’s it for today. We’ll pick this up in the morning,” boomed Henry Potter’s voice through the room. “Grace, go find someone from the hotel, will you?”
“Yes, Mr. Potter,” replied Grace as she headed to the doors with her cell phone illuminating the path ahead. Everyone pulled out their phones and followed suit.
As Henry left, Johnny could hear him saying, “Next year we’ll do our retreat on a cruise...”
Johnny lingered in the back with Leslie walking slowly towards the door. He kept expecting Whittaker to burst from the shadows. As they crossed the threshold into the hallway, the lights flickered back on.
Johnny turned to Leslie and asked, “Should we go back in?”
Leslie chuckled. “Nah, Potter’s already gone. I’m wiped, anyway,” she said, smiling tiredly.
They walked in silence to the elevator, occasionally bumping elbows as they went along.
Johnny pressed the button for the seventh floor. “Which floor are you?” he asked.
“I’m on seven too,” she replied.
Johnny nodded quietly. As the doors opened, he caught a whiff of stale cigarette smoke before shambling down the hall towards his room, Leslie following behind him.
“Well, this is me...” Johnny said, pulling out his keycard and swaying slightly in the doorway with nervous energy.
“Thank you, again, for catching me...that was really something,” Leslie said quietly. Johnny had to lean in to catch all of her words.
“Of course...of course...” Johnny said, noticing her lips part slightly and eyes close.
Johnny swallowed a lump in his throat and in one fluid motion shouted “Good night,” opened his door, and slipped through, closing the door on Leslie and her slightly parted lips.
“What are you doing, you idiot!?” Johnny whispered to himself in the darkness. He peered out the peephole but she was already gone. “Idiot!”
Sighing, Johnny made his way through the dark to bed. He turned on the light and sat down, emptying his pockets onto the nightstand. He took off his clothes and lay down.
“You had the perfect opportunity, Johnny, and you blew it. Well done.”
He stared at the ceiling and wondered if he’d ever get another chance with Leslie. Probably not. He’d worry about it in the morning when he saw her for more of those silly trust exercises. Johnny pulled up the covers and reached over to turn out the light.
Once again, he descended into darkness but he had been expecting a satisfying click. There was no click. He wasn’t sure that he’d caused the lights to go out. He touched the switch: it was still on. One power outage was a coincidence, but two? And the cigarette smoke outside the elevator? What was Whittaker up to? And if it wasn’t Whittaker, what was wrong with this hotel?
Johnny pulled his arm back under the covers and tried to fall asleep. He was soon interrupted by an unsatisfying click at the door. Was someone coming in? When he was a child, he used to think that ghosts hovered over him as he slept. If he just kept his eyes closed, the ghosts wouldn’t know he was there in a phantasmagoric game of peek-a-boo. Johnny squeezed his eyes closed now. “Go away, ghosts or Whittaker or whoever you are,” he thought. He heard the door open, then close a second later. Someone was coming.
He heard slow and deliberate footsteps make their way across the dark room.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
Johnny felt a radiating presence as the footsteps stopped next to him. He took shallow breaths, hoping to be as invisible as possible. “Go away!” he thought, reverting to adolescence.
Johnny listened to breaths that were not his: slow and steady with an occasional gasp of excitement.
A new sound invaded the room: a slow and steady scratching of the headboard above him. It sounded like a knife: Whittaker’s knife, making its way across the headboard like it would soon be traveling across his neck.
Johnny gulped, his own breathing gaining in speed. He wondered if he had time to jump out of bed, if he could send a fist into Whittaker’s gut and get out of there. He wondered if he’d even know where to punch. He wondered if Whittaker was just trying to scare him, if Whittaker wouldn’t strike until Johnny was demonstrably awake. He wondered if he shouldn’t have followed Leslie back to her room. He knew he should have.
Something thin and hard jabbed him in the ribs, tracing a line over his heart. There was no way he could send a punch flying now without taking Whittaker’s knife in the chest. Johnny’s pulse quickened. He heard Whittaker’s breathing get louder, closer. This was it. Whittaker wasn’t going to wait for Johnny to wake up. Maybe Johnny could plead for his life, say something, anything that would get him to stop? Or at least, to wait?
Johnny opened his mouth, not sure of what to say.
Johnny felt his assailant’s breath on his face, hot and surprisingly minty. For a moment, he realized that he didn’t smell cigarettes. What was this? Did Whittaker have his wife helping him? Johnny’s thoughts were interrupted by a pair of soft lips.
Johnny’s eyes flew open, not that he could see anything, his head jerking back.
“Leslie!?” he whispered forcefully.
“Were you expecting someone else?” Leslie laughed.
“No, not exactly. Just...oh, fuck it.” Johnny put his arms around her and pulled her into bed.
Johnny woke in the morning prompted by the sun-baked room, the on-again lamp, and an unquenchable thirst. He extracted himself from the covers and rolled over to rouse Leslie.
“Hey, how’d you get in last night anyway?” Johnny asked, his voice coarser than he was expecting.
“What? Oh, the lights went out so I told the maid I locked myself out and didn’t want to take the stairs down to the lobby,” Leslie said, grinning.
“Oh. What would you have done if the power hadn’t gone out?” Johnny asked, shielding his eyes from the light with one arm.
“I’d have thought of something. Otherwise, I’d have just gone back to the fourth floor and gone to sleep,” Leslie said, rolling herself onto Johnny’s side.
“What’s on the fourth floor?” Johnny asked.
“My room, silly. I need water. Want some?” She slid over the edge of the bed, looking to him for a response. Her face dropped.
“What the fuck is that, Johnny?” she said, all life drained from her voice.
“What’s what?” Johnny said, twisting his body to see the wall behind him.
Carved deeply into the headboard read “TIME TO PAY YOUR DEBTS.”
“Christ, he’s been here,” Johnny said, jumping out of bed.
“Who’s here?!” Leslie cried as Johnny slipped into his pants.
“Put on your clothes, Leslie, we need to go,” Johnny said, thrusting her clothes at her.
Johnny grabbed the phone and called the front desk. The line was dead.
“Fuck.” Johnny drew open the curtains to see if the windows could open, in case they needed to escape. They were sealed.
Leslie finished pulling on her shirt as the smell of Marlboros overcame the room.
“Don’t leave on my account,” spoke the calm voice of reason.
“Johnny, who is this?” Leslie demanded.
“What are you doing here, Whittaker?” Johnny asked through clenched teeth.
“Didn’t you get my messages, Mr. Flanders? Maybe you’ve been...pre-occupied,” Whittaker leered at Leslie.
“We’re on our way downstairs, Whittaker-” Johnny said.
“‘Whittaker?’ Not even a ‘Mister’?” Whittaker interrupted.
“We’re on our way downstairs, Mr. Whittaker. Let’s discuss your account in the office on Monday. First thing,” Johnny stared him down.
“Yeah, Monday morning would be great. I’ll put it in the books right now,” Leslie pulled her phone from her pocket and turned it on.
“But I’m here now, Mr. Flanders. And I think you can put that phone down, Miss,” Whitaker said calmly, resting his hand on the hilt of his knife.
“Sure, just a second. I’m just checking our schedule...” Johnny could see from his position that she was definitely not checking their schedule, but he also saw Whittaker slowly advancing towards her.
“Leslie, put the phone down,” Johnny said, performing semaphore with his eyes to signal “MAYDAY, MAYDAY. THIS MAN IS FUCKING DANGEROUS.”
“Almost done...” Leslie said, turning her back to Whittaker. A mistake.
“Time’s up,” Whittaker said quietly as he marched up to Leslie and ran his large, oh-so-harmless knife across her throat.
“Leslie!” Johnny screamed as she fell to her knees, her hands trying in vain to staunch the explosion of arterial blood. The light quickly faded from her eyes as Johnny’s stung with tears.
“Goddamn you, you didn’t have to do that!” Johnny shouted.
“She didn’t have to keep playing with her phone and you didn’t have to try to get me sent to prison for tax fraud,” Whittaker spoke as calmly as ever, wiping the blood off his knife with Leslie’s shirt.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Johnny said, his teeth clenched so hard that he thought they might crack.
“You told me to take the deduction for married couples. The government didn’t much like that,” Whittaker said.
“You told me you were married,” Johnny said.
“I said I might as well be, common-law and all that.” Whittaker slid his knife in and out of its sheath, soothed by its sound.
“...that’s not enough to take the extra deduction,” Johnny said quietly.
“Nope, it’s not. And now I owe the government a lot of money and Sally’s rather irked that I never asked her to marry me, so I have you to thank for that as well.”
“Flint...Mr. Whittaker, I did my best with the information you gave me,” Johnny’s gaze was fixed on Leslie’s body.
“Well, Mr. Flanders, now it’s time for me to do my best. I’ll be taking that extra deduction. From you,” Whittaker pulled his knife from the sheath and looked up at Johnny. Johnny returned the stare.
He yelled as he ran at Whittaker as fast as humanly possible, dipping his shoulder to catch Whittaker in the chest. Whittaker went down hard against the wall. Johnny leapt to his feet, flung open the door and ran down the hall.
“Help me, anybody!” he shouted as he ran towards the elevator, each step growing more and more painful. The elevator released a maid pushing her cart towards him. Johnny looked back at his room seeing Whittaker hobble towards him, bloodied knife in hand.
Johnny grabbed the cart from the maid and flung it at Whittaker, then stumbled into the elevator, his thumbs rapidly pressing the “Close Door” and “L” buttons interchangeably. Whittaker cast aside the cart and sprinted for the doors as they closed in front of him.
As the elevator started its descent, Johnny slid down the wall holding his side, now oozing blood from a hole the size of Whittaker’s blade. The elevator stopped and Johnny was once again plunged into darkness.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” Johnny shouted. “I’m never staying in this hotel again!”
The elevator shuddered violently.
“No, Mr. Flanders, you never will,” came Whittaker’s muffled voice through the ceiling.
Johnny winced as he stood back up. He reached for his phone but it wasn’t there. He pressed all of the buttons he could in the darkness, the emergency lights clearly malfunctioning by their absence, but he was all alone with Flint Whittaker.
“It’s time to pay your debts, Mr. Flanders,” came the eerily calm voice from above.
Johnny felt the sides of the elevator before muttering under his breath. “Pay your own goddamn debts.”
Johnny leaned back towards one wall before flinging himself at the opposite side. The elevator swayed dramatically.
“What are you...stop that!” shouted Whittaker.
Johnny flung himself back at the previous wall, slamming into it with his shoulder.
“I said-” Whittaker began to cry out as Johnny shook the elevator once again.
Whittaker screamed as he fell down the shaft.
“Finally,” Johnny exhaled as he held his side with both hands, most of his shirt and pants now damp. He slid down the wall into the corner and waited for the power to come back on.
“There’s no goddamn way I’m taking a trust fall,” Johnny whispered as he closed his eyes, accepting the darkness.


  1. I received some critical comments from the judges like "This piece could use some better grounding -- tell us who/what/when/where up front; who is Johnny? And where is he standing when he gets these texts? When the reader knows where he is up front, he can much more easily go along for the ride. In this instance, a couple of minor details -- such as he's on a street corner, and that he's an accountant -- would fix the issue."

    Do you guys agree? I enjoy learning about these things as I read, but maybe I'm alone?

  2. Who are the judges? The only thing that was awkward to me was that Leslie caught his attention on the upcoming fall instead of the coworkers he was shoulder to shoulder with. And that's pretty minor.

    The way you wrote the opening seemed incredibly cinematic to me - close up on the texts, him reading it, revealing he's talking to a girl on a table, no wait, a girl on a table at a company trust exercise work event. I loved how you did that.

    "Johnny Flanders, CPA, checked his texts in the middle of a trust fall exercise and sighed. They were from Flint Whittaker, who hated accountants."

    I mean, where is the beauty in that? Yours is far more interesting.

    Not everyone is going to like your writing the same way. So do what you do. Some people can't stand Stephen King but he does what he does and he does it very, very well.

  3. Thanks so much, Lira!

    My judges are from the NYC Midnight panel - a decently large group of authors and other writers. I was more surprised that I didn't receive critiques on some of the other more stilted language I used. This was definitely an orphaned work-in-progress that I submitted (I still don't really like the last sentence and I would have liked to have developed Flint a bit more), but stylistically I'm glad you liked the opening too.