by Drema Deòraich
Jell-O smacked Benny in the back of the head, stray droplets splattering in orange beads that jiggled against the inside of his glasses. Benny gasped and spun, almost losing his tray, to face his assailant. Stupid brat! The boy pointed, laughing, while his mother shook a finger.
“Now Philip, I told you not to throw your food,” the brat’s mother chided.
Gobbets of goo oozed through Benny’s thick brown hair and dribbled beneath his collar to slide in sticky trails down his back. He ground his teeth, ignoring the cacophony of a mad Friday night, and stared daggers at table six before taking two steps toward the boy seated there. “You—”
Saul, the manager, materialized out of thin air with his shiniest customer-service smile.
“Is there a problem here?” he asked.
“It took us half a goddamn hour to get our food,” blurted the man, “and when we finally got it, the crap was cold.”
“So sorry about this,” Saul mewled at the customers. “We’ll get you a fresh meal, on the house.”
“But—” Benny blustered.
“Kitchen,” hissed Saul. “Now.”
The moment the door swung closed behind them, Benny sat the tray down with a clatter.
“Half an hour, Benny? What the hell? They’re regulars! You gotta give them some priority!”
“They’re regular pains in my butt! That little shit’s always making trouble—he threw Jell-O at me, Saul!”
“It happens. Clean it up and move on.”
Benny swallowed his next words. Saul didn’t want to hear that his “regulars” took fifteen minutes to make up their minds in the first place or that their darling offspring spat at him when he first approached the table. Being right wasn’t worth losing his job. Twelve years of service or not, he could be easily replaced. His shoulders slumped closer to his chest than usual.
“I need a couple minutes to get this mess out of my hair.”
Saul jerked his head toward the men’s room, then barked at the cook.
Benny locked the door and looked at himself in the mirror. The hair net had been no protection against the brat’s attack, so he pulled it off and dropped it on the sink. Wet paper towels only went so far toward a Jell-O spill. He did the best he could. Cleaned his glasses. Wiped his sticky hair. Scrubbed away the orange spots on his hollow cheeks and slender neck. He unbuttoned his uniform to glance at the orange trails that gleamed between his jutting shoulder blades, but he couldn’t reach those. They’d have to wait. With a sigh, he settled the hairnet and straightened his clothing and finished his shift in a stiff shirt.
Probably would have been a good idea to shower before hitting the pub, but if he went home, he wouldn’t go out again. No way was he missing his weekly drunk, not after a day like this one. Friday night at O’Malley’s made the rest of his week bearable. Patrick would pour him a Ten High and ask about his week. Benny would complain and bemoan dropping out of school. Then they’d surrender their meager conversation to some game on the telly. Benny would drink himself numb. Patrick would put him in a cab. Tomorrow he’d wake up and start over. The dance never varied.
At the subway station, and in the car, fellow travelers stood or sat apart from the greasy, sticky smell of his uniform. Benny didn’t notice. At his stop, Benny pulled himself off the train car and trudged through the heat to the welcome coolness of the pub. Inside, the smell of stale sweat, and cheap booze wrapped him in a familiar cocoon and Benny smiled for the first time that day.
The bartender nodded. “‘Sup, Benny. How ya been? Good week?”
“Yer usual?” Patrick asked, his hand already reaching for the bottle.
Patrick nodded, poured, and slid the glass onto a napkin.
Benny claimed a stool, looking around. The predictable suspects filled booths or played pool, men and women with familiar, lined faces whose lips pulled down at the corners under the weight of drudgery. A few, like him, manned the bar, including one stranger. Slim man. Dark hair with wisps of grey at the temple. Tallish. Long clean-shaven face. Snappy dresser. New Guy oozed more enthusiasm from his bar stool than Benny ever felt, even on a good day. Patrick could run his whole bar off that surge of energy.
“What’s that fruity smell?” Patrick asked, his nose wrinkled.
“Orange Jell-O,” Benny said, sharing his run-in with the Brat from Hell.
“Oi! That bites,” Patrick said, shaking his head. Another customer called for a refill and the bartender excused himself.
“Waiter, huh?” New Guy said.
Benny shrugged and downed half his whiskey. “Yeah.”
“My hat’s off to you. Not sure I could do that for a living.”
“A living.” Benny snorted. “Is that what they call it?”
“Falls short of the brochures, does it?”
“You could say that.” Benny knocked back the rest of his drink and signaled Patrick for another. “Not sure which one is worse.”
“You have more than one?”
Benny nodded. He gulped his booze, face twisting at the burn. “Two,” he rasped.
“Waiting tables and …”
The stranger nodded, bar lights reflected in his eyes. “Reaching for the stars, aren’t you?”
Smartass. “Yeah. Well, it pays the rent.”
Three glasses later, New Guy had moved closer and introduced himself as Dave and joined in with his own blues tune. It’s true. Life sucked for the little guy. Work yourself to death to make ends meet, and no chance to break even, much less get ahead, but his words rang false. The way Dave dressed, the way he carried himself made Benny wonder if this guy had ever known real hardship.
Benny signaled Patrick for another round. “Every morning I wake up, shower, eat breakfast, drink a cuppa coffee and hop the train so I can sit for eight hours in a tiny booth in a smelly garage and take crap from people all day. I’m bored out of my mind. In the winter it’s cold. In the summer it’s an oven. Then I jump another train to wait on jerks who throw food at me or stiff me on tips. What for? I mean, yeah, I’m paying my bills, barely, but what’s the point?” He stared at the space behind the bar, shaking his head. “Sometimes I wonder is this all there is. You know?”
“Yeah,” Dave said. “I do.”
Something in his tone caught Benny’s attention and he turned to find an odd expression on his new bar pal’s face. The light in the man’s eyes gleamed brighter. How was that possible?
He blinked, shook it off. “I’m just so tired. I don’t think I can do this much longer.”
Dave’s lips twitched. Not a smile, exactly. Not a smirk, either. “This is where I’m supposed to say, ‘Come on, man, suck it up, it won’t always be like this.’” He peered at Benny. “Is that what you want to hear?”
“No,” Benny grunted. “Don’t be just another sap who feeds me bull, Dave. Because then I gotta ask—when’s it gonna change? Huh? Tomorrow? Next week? Next year? I got no prospects. No schooling. No training. This is as good as it gets for me, and it’s not enough. Not nearly enough.”
An odd intensity crept into Dave’s expression, his eagerness reaching across the space between them to raise the hair on Benny’s arms. Benny blinked, squinting at him in the dim light.
“Then what do you want?” Dave pressed.
“A winning lottery-ticket.” Benny turned away from the challenge.
There was that tone again, the one Benny had heard in Dave’s voice earlier. Benny looked back at his bar pal. “So am I. One single, sole-jackpot-winning lottery ticket would solve a lot of problems for me.”
Dave’s silence stretched out, his eyes demanding a better response until Benny squirmed on his stool.
“It would!” he insisted, defending himself even though Dave hadn’t said a word. “I could quit both my jobs and do things I never got a chance to do before. I could stop living from one dead-end job to another. Make a real life for myself.”
“What kind of life?”
“I dunno,” Benny said, waving an arm in a vague gesture. “Something more exciting. If I won the lottery, I’d always have plenty of money, maybe a girlfriend, a chance for some down time. I’m tired of being a lackey, ya know? That kinda money grants a man a whole new level of importance. People listen to him, do what he says.”
“So you want to be a boss.”
Benny thought about it. “No. I’m sure that has its perks, but it’s gotta have a lot of responsibility, too.”
“What, then? Forget about the lottery for a minute,” Dave urged. “If you could pick any life you wanted, what would it be?”
Benny chewed on the possibilities while Patrick refilled his glass.
“I don’t even know what options are out there. I’ve never seen anything except the bottom of the heap,” he said, almost to himself. “I’d definitely want a job that paid better, a nicer apartment. But that’s not the most important thing.”
Dave leaned forward, his eyes fastened on Benny’s face. “What is?”
“Power.” Benny drank. “I’d want a life where I could call at least some of the shots. I’ve been a nobody my whole life. I’d pick a life where lots of people knew who I was, so when I came in the door, all conversation stopped.”
“Like a movie star?” Dave sounded almost disappointed.
“No, jeez, not like that. I’d want to be that guy people don’t screw around with, the guy with the cojones and the resources to get even with everyone who screwed him. Me, Benjamin Noah Swann. I’d like to be the guy people go out of their way to make happy, to take his coat or fill his drink.” He grinned a little, warmed by the booze. “I’d make people quake in their boots.”
Dave huffed, as if unbelieving. “So you’d give up all this,” he gestured, “to be a big shot tough guy.”
Benny stared at him. Dave’s words sent a crawling sensation through Benny’s gut, but the attraction of the game they’d been playing sparkled like starshine in the grunge of his life. He nodded.
“Yeah. I would.”
Dave smiled, his features oozing into a look of satisfaction that shriveled Benny at the edges. Dave lifted his glass. “Then let’s toast the miracle that will make that happen, my friend.”
“That I can drink to,” Benny said and drained his glass.
He could never say, later, what woke him. A change in temperature or air pressure. A slight sound. Rustling of clothes.
His eyes snapped open in the darkness to see movement above him, and he rolled away fast. Something large slammed into his pillow. He kept rolling, his body on autopilot for a light landing on the far side of the bed. Whirling, he met the next attack face-on, hands raised to grab the swinging bat before it could connect with his head. Instead of trying to free the weapon, he shoved its horizontal mass as hard as he could, felt the impact smash his assailant’s face, heard the guttural grunt of pain. His foot shot out to hook behind the intruder’s uncertain stance, then he shoved again. The shadow before him went down and he leapt forward to straddle it, shoving the bat—his weapon now—against the gasping throat. Hands slapped at his face and arms and knees, clawing at his fingers to rip them away from the choking wooden throttle. He leaned in, threw his weight into the effort. The panicked body beneath him bucked and kneed him in the back. He rode out the frenzy, his heart pounding as if it would batter its way through his ribcage and join the fight. It didn’t matter who this was, only that they never do this again. The moment the struggles ceased, he grabbed the head and twisted. A short, sharp snap reverberated in his ears and echoed back from the walls.
He sat atop the corpse letting his breath return to normal before he stumbled to his feet and staggered back against the bed. What the hell just happened?
He just murdered a guy. That’s what.
He’d never harmed a flea before, though he had entertained spiteful thoughts about that bratty kid in the diner. His body began to shake, and he ran a trembling hand over his face before his brain spoke up in defense of his actions. Yeah, he killed someone. An intruder. It was self-defense, wasn’t it? And anyway, how did someone get into his flat in the first place? How had he even survived an attack like that? He’d never been a fighter, or trained in martial arts, unless you counted balancing two laden trays while crossing a crowded dining room without dropping or spilling anything. So how had he been able to snap someone’s neck for chrissakes?
Whatever, it didn’t matter. He should call the police. He shook off his confusion and felt his way through the room to the night stand to retrieve his glasses and his phone. Fumbling in the dark, he switched on the bedside lamp——and stopped cold, thumb frozen over the phone’s keypad.
This was not his phone. In fact, this was not his bedroom. He’d never seen this place before. Where the hell was he?
He dropped the phone on the bed and flipped the switch by the door. Light flooded the room and he stared at his surroundings. Muted purplish walls punctuated by real honest-to-god paintings, acres of floor carpeted in dark grey, silk sheets pulled off onto the floor, piles of pillows on the bed, floor-to-ceiling drapes, heavy wooden furniture.
Body on the floor, its face a bloody mess.
His feet carried him through the surreal space toward the far end of the room where a door stood ajar, an invitation to explore. It swung open with nary a squeak, and he flipped on the switch.
A stranger stood silent in the bathroom, and he flung himself back out into the bedroom, ducking and whirling to face this new threat. But no one came, and he crept back toward the door, every muscle tensed and ready to fight.
No sound. No movement. His blood pounded so loud in his ears he thought the new intruder might hear. Agonizing seconds passed before he shot a look into the bathroom.
He risked a more detailed look. The room was empty. He stood and reentered to see the stranger again—his own reflection.
His gaze locked on the image. One hand came up to touch the stubbled, bald pate, the firm cheeks and thick neck, the mustache and small patch of hair below his bottom lip. The scar on his forehead.
Benny did not have a scar on his forehead. Nor, for that matter, had he ever looked this good in silk boxers. “You must work out,” he muttered at the mirror, where the stranger’s lips moved to the same words. It wasn’t him. Except—it kinda was. The eyes were almost the same. They looked strange without his glasses, which he didn’t seem to need. The cheekbones were familiar. Ditto face shape. He pulled down the boxers to inspect the package. Yep. That was his equipment. Damn. Everything else was improved. Why not that too?
He snapped the boxers back into place, looked at his face, turned his head to one side, then the other. He raised a hand. The stranger did the same. He barked a laugh at his own weirdness, but how was he supposed to react to this situation?
New bedroom. New body. “What else is different?” he whispered at the reflection.
He turned back to the room, exploring. A second door opened on a closet almost the size of his old flat. He could explore that later. The third door led to a narrow hallway, same grey carpet, same muted purple walls. To one side he found another lavatory, to the other an office. Later, he thought. Lay of the land first.
The other end of the hall ended in a king-sized great room filled with expensive furniture, more paintings, and company. A Hispanic man in a dark suit stood, hands clasped before him, by the main entrance. Another, smaller man in tailored clothing stood before the hearth. Hands in his pockets, he examined the nude portrait above the mantel. Some instinct brought his attention to the hallway.
“Benjamin. Good. Glad to know you’re still on your game. I was beginning to worry.” The man’s lips curled in a smile that did not reach his eyes.
Careful, Benny. You are on foreign ground here. “So this was a test?”
The stranger shrugged. “You’ve always been good, Benjamin. One of the best I’ve ever seen. You never make a mistake. But your last job turned into such a colossal fuckup, Joe here had to run interference for you. If the great Jammer’s lost his touch, I need to know.”
“Right.” Benjamin. Jammer. Not Benny, then. Not here. Which was…where, exactly?
“Joe,” the man said, “take out the trash.”
“Sure thing, Mickey.” Joe opened the door and spoke to another man outside who came in and disappeared into the bedroom with a small shoulder bag.
Mickey ran a hand through his immaculate white hair and took a seat in the wing chair nearest the fireplace. “I want to give you a chance to regain my trust.”
“Nolan Whitehall,” Mickey said. He pulled a photo from his breast pocket and stared at it. “Been doing my laundry for years, keeping my books audit-ready.”
Jammer waited. The third man came back out of the bedroom, satchel over one shoulder, wrapped body over the other, and exited out the front. Joe closed the door behind him.
“Turns out he’s skimming.” Mickey dragged his gaze to Jammer’s face and held out the photo.
Jammer took it. “You want me to talk to him?”
“No. I want you to plant him. Boy used his warning chit last time.”
Mickey was watching. Jammer didn’t think the man would miss the smallest twitch. “No problem.”
“In fact, do them both.”
Jammer’s heart skipped a beat. He willed his face to remain neutral. “Both?”
“Him and his wife.” Mickey grinned. “Sends a stronger message.”
“Got it.” Jammer swallowed in a dry throat.
“That’s not going to be a problem, is it?”
“Good. You won’t get a second test.” Mickey got to his feet and headed for the door. “Address is on the back of the picture.”
The door clicked shut behind Mickey and Joe, and Jammer crossed the room to lock it behind them. Not much of an assurance, but he’d take what he could get right now. He hurried to the bedroom. Not even a trace of blood darkened the carpet.
So, no need to call the police then. Probably wouldn’t be the smartest move anyway. Mickey would not approve.
He sank down on the edge of the bed, staring around the strange room, then pinched himself hard on the inside of his thigh.
Ouch! Not a dream. He replayed the ordeal, recalled how it felt to handle himself so well. Benny wouldn’t have known how to do that thing with the bat even if his life depended on it—which it had.
Jammer had known, though.
I’m not Jammer. But he was in Jammer’s body. It had filled in where his memory could not. How—
A memory flashed in his head—a clear image of his conversation with Dave in the bar. I’d want to be that guy people don’t screw around with. Hell, maybe Dave was like the poor man’s tooth fairy, because Benny sure got his wish. He hoped he wouldn’t come to regret that conversation.
Never mind. Far more important right now to get acquainted with his “host.” If he planned to live long in this whatever-it-was, he’d need information. Jammer lurched to his feet and began going through the bureau. From there, he progressed to the closet. Then to both bathrooms. The front room. A small gym. The kitchen. Jammer’s tastes ran to the expensive, and from the looks of things, he cooked. A lot. He’d never seen such a well-equipped kitchen outside a restaurant in his old life.
He saved the office for last. Its simple, uncluttered space told him a lot about the man whose skin he wore. Jammer liked things crisp. Efficient. Simple. A computer on a glass-top desk, a matching credenza, a couple of chairs, and a sculpture in the corner that bore vague human resemblance.
Oh, and the painting. Sheesh. The closest thing to a painting Benny ever owned was a poster from a long-ago Flock of Seagulls concert set in a plastic silver frame. Jammer must be a patron of the arts.
No file cabinet. Everything had to be stored in the computer then, no doubt double- or triple-protected. Jammer gritted his teeth. Computer security wouldn’t bow to muscle memory. He’d have to know the password.
Moving around the desk, he dropped into the chair. The computer screen came to life, a plain black prompt on a white screen.
“Optical scan: Ready.”
Okay. Where’s the scanner? Nothing sat atop the desk but the computer. Maybe….
He leaned forward, his face a few inches from the screen. From the top of the frame, a small red light probed his right eye, and the screen changed to a black background with three unlabeled icons. Jammer kept his computer as tidy as the rest of the place. Invoices, monthly bills, vehicle registrations all filed by year/month/date, storage locker address and inventory of weapons. It was almost too easy. After another few hours, he’d learned much info necessary to carry off this new identity.
Now he just needed to figure out how to kill someone. Outside the whole fighting-for-his-life scenario, that is.
He leaned back in the chair. Could he really do it? Yeah, he’d just rammed a man’s nose up into his brain and crushed his windpipe and then—for good measure—snapped his neck, but that was self-defense. This job for Mickey would be murder, plain and simple. Could he do it? More to the point, did he have a choice? Given the recent interview with his new boss, Benny—no, Jammer, he was Jammer now—doubted Mickey would take “no” for an answer.
Maybe he should leave town, grow his hair out, change names.
Yeah. That would end well. Mickey didn’t seem the type to let him go easily. Jammer didn’t want to spend the rest of his life running.
He got up and opened the drapes to peer out at the night skyline. Chicago. Huh. Strange. He’d switched bodies, lives, and jobs, but his city was the same. He’d have to check out the diner and O’Malley’s, see if they were different too. Hell, his new job might even take him to those places, or to others from his previous powerless life. He imagined walking up to Saul to tell him off, or even getting him fired. Let him see how it felt for a change. But before he could do any of that, he had to handle this job for Mickey. Jammer hoped it would come as easily as the fight with the bat.
He went back to the great room and snatched up the photo of his target. Nolan Whitehall. White guy. Blond ponytail. He looked about as tough as any other accountant. Jammer looked down at the layers of muscle in his own arms and shoulders, his taut belly, and sculpted legs. Oh yeah. He felt sure he could take the man. Would Whitehall be afraid? Would he beg for his life? For his wife’s?
A spark of excitement lodged in Jammer’s gut and crept, quivering, through his body. Finally, it was his turn to be the big shot. No more putting up with rude customers. No more spitting brats. No more Jell-O in his hair. That was Benny’s lot. He was Jammer now, and Jammer took no shit.
He carried the photo into his office and dropped it on the desk. He’d need to visit the storage unit tomorrow, see his tools for himself, maybe take one of the handguns to a range and test his skill. Surely even this finely tuned body had limits. He needed to know what they were. He couldn’t afford to screw it up.
The fork caught him in the ribs hard enough to draw blood, and Benny winced, dropping the tray. Food sprayed in all directions, painting a spectacular mosaic of color and texture across the floor, as well as every nearby patron.
“What the hell—” Benny babbled. He peered through thick glasses at his new surroundings. Christ on a pogo stick—a diner? He’d traded his upscale racket for a waiter gig? Oh no. No, no, no. This would not do. No way he’d wait tables. Uh uh. Even Jammer wouldn’t last a week in this hole. Maybe Mickey wasn’t so bad after all.
Beside him, the demon-spawn child only pointed and laughed, fork still clutched in one hand. Benny glanced at the blood on his shirt before he snatched the brat by the shirt to hang mid-air, inches from Benny’s face.
“If you ever do that again, I’ll squash you flat,” he whispered.
The brat bawled. The mother screamed. The father came out of his seat, fists balled and ready. Benny dropped the kid and swung at the father with an unfamiliar, scrawny arm that threw the punch too wide.
Saul materialized amid the squawks of angry patrons and screaming kid and threatening father. “What happened?” Saul asked, his voice calm, controlled.
“This bastard attacked my kid, and then took a swing at me!” the father blustered. “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer!” He picked up his boy, gestured to his wife and started toward the door.
“Hold on,” Saul consoled. “There’s no need for that. Let us fix this.”
Father jabbed a finger at Benny. “He’s a maniac! I’m not bringing my family anywhere near him again.”
“You’re right.” Saul turned. “Benny, you’re fired. Get your things and get out.”
An ugly snarl twisted Benny’s features and he thought—hard—about going after the brat’s dad. Instead he forced his face into a blank mask. “Fine. I don’t need this shit.”
He shoved his way out the door and stormed down the sidewalk. He hadn’t meant to lose it like that. It was the fork that did it. And the shock of his new status. A waiter. He grunted. He’d done a job for Mickey last month, just two blocks from here. This whole neighborhood was a dive. Not to mention his back and feet ached. No thanks. This wasn’t at all what he signed up for.
Just ahead, he glimpsed a familiar form through the crowd. Shoving others out of the way, he rushed forward to grasp the man’s shoulder and spin him around.
“Dave!” he cried with relief. “Am I glad to see you! Listen. This isn’t going to work. I’ve changed my mind.”
Dave smiled. “Benny, it’s a one-time thing. You knew that when you made the deal.”
Benny pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose and barked a nervous laugh. “Yeah, but you didn’t explain that I’d still be a lackey.”
“We’re all lackeys, Benny. It’s just a matter of degree.”
“Stop calling me that. My name’s Jammer.”
“Not here, it isn’t.”
“But,” he began, then stopped. “This isn’t what I expected. I mean—look, does this Benny loser even have money? Assets? Anything I can use to make this deal worthwhile?”
“Then I want out.”
“You sought me, Benny. You paid for an anonymous life, away from Mickey and his people. A risk-free identity where you weren’t always looking over your shoulder. Your words, Benny. I gave you what you asked for. Now nobody’s more anonymous than you.”
“No. I can’t live like this. I won’t.”
Dave shrugged. “You can’t undo it, either.”
Benny’s blood pressure ticked up a dozen notches. “You don’t understand,” he said, stepping closer. “I’m not asking. I’m telling. Send me back.”
Benny’s punch, when it flew, felt spot-on. Dave caught it with one hand and stopped it cold. Still smiling, Dave shook his head. “Shouldn’t have done that, Benny.”
The two men stared at one another before Dave released Benny’s fist and whirled, stepping out between parked cars to cross the street.
Benny watched him go through a sizzling red haze. People didn’t just walk away from him like that. He wasn’t some wuss that could be pushed around, like this Benny fool he’d switched with. He was Jammer.
Time to inspire some fear.
Jaw set, Benny followed Dave into the street.
He never felt the impact of the bus, nor that of the car where his body finally landed in macabre, tangled array. He never heard the screams of nearby pedestrians or the screeching of brakes. He didn’t see Dave watching from the opposite curb, or the horror on the faces of surrounding drivers. Limbs twisted, eyes open, mouth ajar, Benny stared over his shoulder into a clear blue sky. He never saw that either.
The bus travelled another fifty feet after the driver, Nolan, stood on the brakes. Holy shit—where had that guy come from? Oh, this was just what he needed. After the week he’d had…
Nolan threw the bus into park, pulled the hand brake, and fell forward over the wheel, oblivious to the chaos around him as he wept.
Great move, Whitehall. He never should have asked for that deal.
About the Author
Most of Drema’s work is fiction, though she does make the occasional jaunt into essays about Life, the Universe, and Everything. She loves chocolate and Brussels sprouts in equal measure. Her current locale is Norfolk, Virginia, where she lives with her husband and all her other characters, though she dreams of experiencing every other country in the world before her time is up. Drema’s short story “Last Call” appeared in issue 37 of Silver Blade e-zine. Her blog and book reviews can be found at www.dremadeoraich.com.