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"Magnificent beast. I can see why they took it in." - Astro-Man



Death of a Three-Time Loser

Stevie tried to suppress his snickers as the tale wound to its conclusion, though the mental image of the soaked Sphinx made it difficult. "Priceless. Driving off the cliff, though?"
    "One of my more memorable exits," the Muse claimed.
    "Must have been. I'd like to see that bike she had someday. Plastic, though... just doesn't feel quite the same, y'know."
    "We'll take you at your word," Felix replied in his usual dry tone.
    "But come now, what of yourself?" Larry prompted.
    "Whattya mean?"
    "We speak of 'getting started,' and your late mentor's name is yet spoken with respect—particularly by young Scott it would appear. Yet you have said nothing of your own entrance into your corner of the Game."
    "He didn't call it that." Stevie's voice flattened slightly. "But... yeah. Long time ago."
    "You see me here, you gods, a poor old man, as full of grief as age," Larry said in sonorous tones.
    Felix sighed, not quite silently.
    "King Lear," the wounded Muse supplied when Stevie looked confused. "In any case, the story? It will, as Felix said, pass the time."
    "All right, I guess. Lemme get a beer." He fetched one, sat back in the chair, looking into the past. "It was in New York. Autumn...."

* * *

Steven Stevarino had been living at the Geo (George's Auto Graveyard in Queens, but "Geo" was all that was left on the arched sign over the entrance, with a lonely "yard" at the other end) since the day at Vagoda's Auto Body when a car had crushed Pop's head. It was almost midnight and he was just about done with the Packard he was working on.
    He heard a noise outside, a car pulling in. It stopped. No one had bothered him in the months he'd been here alone; he grabbed a tire iron and went to one of the "windows" in the cavern that he had created from a heap of dead cars. The visitor was a late-model coupe, good condition although not as well cared for as it could be. The engine was running, the lights on, and people were getting out, though he couldn't see them clearly.
    A small person got out from the driver's side, a woman wearing a bowler hat. She opened the passenger door. "Come on, get out," she ordered. "I can't believe I have to tell you to do everything." A moment later, "The trunk's open, go get it."
    An absolutely huge figure in a well-cut suit emerged. "Holy moly," Stevie murmured, watching the figure move with an odd gait to the trunk and casually heft out something.
    "Something" being a corpse.
    Stevie retreated a bit, ducking down from the window.
    The big man made a questioning noise.
    "Well, put it down," she ordered. Thump. "I can't believe you killed him," she sighed irritably. The big guy shook his head. "Yes you did. You killed him. You stupid..." She turned and kicked the corpse.
    Stevie must have made some slightly sickened sound; the big man's head snapped up and turned in his direction. The kid froze mid-swallow, mid-blink, did his best to turn to stone.
    "What?" she snapped. "Get back in the car."
    The man grunted.
    "What are you trying to tell me?" Pause. "There's no one out here. Nobody's here. Get in the car."
    He climbed in; she slammed the door shut and got back in herself, and then the coupe peeled out. Stevie breathed again, surprised that she hadn't been able to hear his heartbeat. He rolled down the car window the rest of the way and climbed out. Tire iron in hand, he approached the body in the grip of morbid fascination.
    The man had been big, about 200 pounds, in fairly good shape, dressed in cheap, ill-fitting clothing. A cursory examination of what remained of his face suggested that he had been beaten to death.
    A cursory examination was all it was going to get; Stevie staggered back, tried to cross himself and vomit at the same time. Recovering from that he found a rag in his pocket and gingerly dropped it over the guy's face so he wouldn't have to look at it while he tried to think.
    Okay, dead guy, right out in front of my house. Okay. Nobody comes back here, but if the cops are looking for him they might come back here. Dead body in front of... okay, think, think, think. Call the cops? But they come, they find me, they find my place, stuck in some stinking orphanage, I'm pretty sure they don't let you have a car in an orphanage. Aw, man. Man oh man. Wait a minute. I could drag him.... Drag the guy outside, and then go find a... they'd never even know he was in here.
    Decision made, he grabbed the guy by the heels and dragged him out past the gates, not quite in plain view, and went to find a pay phone.
    "Yeah, precinct hotline whattya want?" a bored voice answered.
    "Uh, you gotta come down here by the old Geo, the graveyard?"
    "Some lady in a bowler and some really big guy in a suit just—just dumped a dead body, some guy. In prison duds, beat to death."
    "What's your name sir?"
    "Um, um... You gotta hurry." He hung up and found a vantage point in a high stable pile of cars with a good route of retreat to the Stevie Cave.
    A patrol car pulled up. They found the body, called it in, did a check around with a flashlight but didn't seem to find anything. A little while later the meat wagon arrived. A man got out and took a few photographs, and then they loaded the body and drove away.
    Stevie breathed a sigh of relief. "Well, that's that."
    The annual conference of the Columbia Physics Society was getting underway with the traditional banquet. Professor Bernard Miles did not normally attend such meetings; his own theories were somewhat beyond the pale, and the train journey from San Francisco a lengthy one. He could have flown, but that presented problems of its own....
    He walked around making small talk with professors, looking for Peter and Hazel Turnbull, whom he was supposed to meet at the conference. It struck him as odd that they had not yet arrived and left no message at his hotel if they were going to be delayed.
    He asked the man to whom he was speaking if anyone had seen them.
    "You-you haven't heard?"
    "What happened?"
    "Um... Bernard I'm so sorry. Peter and Hazel are dead."
    "They were killed. Someone tried to rob their house. About a month ago."
    He hadn't heard from them since their letter last month, saying that they had something they must tell him, and the invitation to the conference. It must have happened shortly after that....
    "Um, I'm sorry," the man said quietly. "In fact there's a toast and a memorial service for them later tonight."
    "I see."
    "I thought you knew."
    "Have the police captured the, the killer?" Miles asked.
    "I don't have the whole story mind you, I just have the same details everyone else got. Apparently someone broke into their house intending on committing a robbery, shot both of them after breaking up some of their furniture, shattering things around, there must have been some sort of a struggle. And then he ran outside and a patrolman who had heard the sound of the shots and struggle showed up, he yelled at the man to stop, the man turned with a gun out, the patrolman shot him. So the killer's been caught, but that—that doesn't do anything to bring Hazel and Peter back...."
    "I see. I need to... go lie down," Bernard decided.
    "I understand."
    He did not go lie down; he went to the library and looked for the back issues of the newspaper that covered the crime. It had been front-page news the day it happened. The newspaper carried the same story he had heard at the conference. The police thought that the robber must have thought the Turnbulls would not be home; they were. Hazel had been shot, there was a brief struggle in which large amounts of furniture were smashed, then Peter had been shot, then the criminal ran out and was shot dead in turn by the responding officer. One bullet apiece.



** Based in part on a Peter Turnbull novel. Artwork by Jason Dressel.

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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson