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Saturday, 31 January 2015

Saturday story - 'The man who had a date with the past'

Cold revolver - Wikipedia commons
Nik Morton

His thick-veined wrinkled hands raised the gilt-framed photograph from the old sideboard’s bottom drawer. ‘Well, another year nearly over, Detta,’ Cosmo Pontiferi whispered to his wife, Bendetta. ‘Tomorrow’s the big day.’

Lifting pale brown eyes from her crochet-work, she smiled softly. ‘Yes, our thirtieth…’

Cosmo scrutinised the picture of the fourteen-year-old dark-haired boy. ‘Do you think he will come?’ He didn’t wait for her answer. ‘It’s been so long…’

Absently, he fingered the folded letter in his shirt’s breast-pocket. Their son, Emilio, who had left home shortly after the photo was taken, had just written, saying he was returning for their anniversary. ‘I keep a promise, Papa,’ he had written simply.

Carefully placing the picture on the sideboard, he tried controlling his trembling hands.

Thank God Detta didn’t listen to gossip, he thought, eyeing her hunched in her creaking rocking-chair.

Recently, the rumours had had more substance. Thinking about it, he felt his weak heart flutter. Nothing too definite yet, but it seemed that since the Syndicate retired him they had learned that he hadn’t been as devoted to their ‘business’ as he would have had them believe.

It was true, he’d always managed to hold back quite a substantial sum of all his transactions for the Syndicate – unbeknown to them.

The fear of discovery and reprisals had always hovered in the back of his mind. He had thought the risk worth it when younger – and the excitement had thrilled him.

The Syndicate had a very good retirement pay organised for the faithful. He had genuinely wanted to level with them – but couldn’t.

He had been grateful when they retired him and had hoped his past would retire with him.

Thankfully, he had kept Detta in ignorance. No matter what he’d done, provided they believed she wasn’t implicated she would be looked after as his widow…

Before this week, he would have quietly resigned himself to his ‘just deserts’ at the hands of their executioner. But since receiving Emilio’s letter, he found he didn’t want to die – at least, not until his son kept his promise.
The phone blared, derailing his train of thought. ‘I’ll get it,’ he whispered gently.
‘Hi, Marco, old buddy – long time no see?’ he greeted his old friend. Then his blood drained from his grizzled face. He almost froze solid as he held the receiver closer to his ear.
Marco hissed in an urgent voice, ‘It’s about those rumours, Cosmo… We’ve been good friends a long time – I wanted to warn you… My contacts reckon there’s a known Syndicate killer in town and it’s said you’re the Mark…’
Cold fear seeped into his aged frame. So it had come to this after all. He self-consciously eyed Detta, but she didn’t appear interested in his phone conversation.

Clammy hand gripping the phone tighter, he said, guardedly, ‘No, I can’t believe that, Marco. Why me?’
‘The rumours, friend…’
‘Not true.’ He forced an unconcerned chuckle. ‘Anyway, thanks for calling, Marco. I shan’t forget…’  Hanging up, he shuffled across to the apartment window. Dusk was already slithering across the city.
The vigil now begins, he thought. ‘It’s getting late,’ he observed absently. ‘I’ll follow you to bed in a short while, Detta.’
Wordlessly, she rose from her chair. On her way to the bedroom, she patted his weathered cheek. ‘Don’t stop up reading too late, now…’
And then he was alone, more alone than he had ever been in his life. Bristled chin determinedly set, he unlocked his desk drawer and removed an old .38 Colt. Slipping it into his tight waistband, he shoved the nearest armchair round to face the door.
He switched off the lights and sat waiting in the dark for his appointed executioner.

Dimly he recalled the other times he’d stayed up all night like this, on heists, etc… but then he’d been younger. He could hardly keep his eyes open and felt sure he dosed for odd minutes, only to be brought up with a jerk as the apartment block made its eerie night sounds.
His old heirloom fob watch said he’d been waiting two hours. He smiled. Detta hadn’t bothered calling for him to come to bed. Probably fallen straight to sleep, he thought, imagining her lying serenely in the next room.
Then he remembered he hadn’t locked the door after putting the cat out. Tiredly, he heaved his stooped body from the chair.
Harshly shattering the stillness, next-door’s tomcat screeched in sudden pain, as though it had been kicked down the stairs. Cosmo’s pulse raced maddeningly. The killer!

Standing as if transfixed with one hand on the gun and the other steadying himself against the armchair, he watched speechless as the brass door-handle slowly turned.

The door swung open on soundless hinges. His finger trembled on the trigger.

Tall, immaculately dressed, with lean tanned features shaded by a fedora hat, the stranger stood half-highlighted by the landing’s dull bulb. The grim stubborn mouth twisted into a kind of ironic grin as the hidden eyes scoured the blackened room. Large nimble fingers flashed to his breast-pocket.

Old and out of practice as he was, Cosmo moved with surprising speed. He raised his revolver and fired instinctively.

The man wheezed incredulously and doubled up. He stumbled backwards onto the landing and tumbled downstairs, arms and legs flailing. The clattering noise seemed sufficient to awaken the dead.

Tremulously, Cosmo flicked on the light and stepped to the doorway. The body crumpled to a halt at the next half-landing as Detta’s voice shrieked, ‘Cosmo! What’s going on out there?’

The pungent cordite choked his nostrils. He felt sick inside now. He could never hide this deed from her. Slowly, he descended the stairs, gun at the ready, just in case the corpse wasn’t quite a corpse.

His heart wavered as he laboured down to the unnaturally twisted figure. He was too old for this sort of thing, he thought, and smiled grimly to himself. But still a match for their much younger executioners, by the saints!
It seemed a century had passed since he’d done this, he mused, and turned the body over.

His head spun giddily. He stared unbelievingly into the vacant eyes of his son, Emilio, whose limp hand held a box of his father’s favourite Corona cigars.

* * *

Previously published in Parade, September 1972, under an old penname Platen Syder.

Copyright Nik Morton, 2014.

Again, another short story where every word of the allocated thousand must count. Yes, I’d reduce the frequency of ‘had’ now, and I should have shown the cat, since it was mentioned being put out. This was the only short story of mine where the editor/sub-editor decided to change the title; mine, 'The Reckoning' was not considered appropriate.
While I think I managed the characterisation in the limited word count reasonably well, and built up the suspense, I suspect that the ending is probably obvious. In 2011, I reworked this theme in a different setting and created a double twist ending for a longer story, to wrong-foot expectations.

If you enjoyed this tale, then you might like my collection Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat Publishing, featuring Leon Cazador, private eye in 22 cases.

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