I had to include: a dirty cop, a celebrity, a nuclear wasteland, and stranded/left to die conflict.
As it happens, the nightmare is real. I wake up in some shithole skeleton of a building and a dozen kinds of pain. I’d been dragged from my bed, burlap sacked, drugged, transported to God knows where, and tortured. But wasn’t there a girl, too? Oh yes, there she is. She’s so dirty now she’s damn near the same color as the concrete she’s propped against. She’s my only clue, this girl who almost assuredly doesn’t deserve what she got. This is all about me.
It’s hotter than Satan’s balls in this shed, or whatever we’re in. If it was ever livable, it’s been years since, maybe decades. The windows and doors have been blown out and there’s rotten wood and other unidentifiable crap all over the dirt floor. I can’t hear anything, not even a breeze or a drip.
If I can just figure out what we have in common, I can get us out of here. Not that it has to be an us. I’m happy to just leave the bitch for dead, but she might be my ticket out of here. That’s how Sage operates: there’s always a trick. There’s always a way out if you’re smart enough.
Her left eye is purple and puffy, swollen shut. Her thousand-dollar blond weave has been torn halfway out and matted back onto her head with blood. She’s waking up, and when I see her unbashed-in side I recognize her—America’s Sweetheart—but that won’t help me. She’s looking at me with such contempt and derision, you’d think I was the one who tried to murder her. She’s scrappy, though, for a starlet—held her own against the Sage’s guy. Unbelievable as it is, I actually respect her a little. I smile at her scowl, not meaning the offense I know she takes.
“What’s so funny?” she sneers from across the room. Her hands, like mine, are tied behind her back. I’m working on the flimsy twine with a fingernail and a rock I found while she was still passed out. If the Sage wanted us to die here, he sure as shit wouldn’t have used twine.
“Nothing’s funny, sweetheart,” I say, “but you can wipe the murder-look off your face. They hurt me as bad as they hurt you, and now we’re in this together.” It’s true. I’m pretty sure I’ve got at least three fractured ribs and, well, there’s the torture burns. Those are his favorites; Sage did them himself.
“You’re one of his guys! He told me so himself,” she spits, but her voice trails off. I can tell she’s the talk-first, think-second type.
“No, I was one of his guys. Not anymore. Why do you think he beat the shit outta me, too? Guess you don’t have to be smart to be a movie star,” I say, knowing I’m pissing her off. I can’t really help it; that kinda shit just comes out my mouth sometimes. Anyway, the twine is almost completely scratched to shreds behind my back.
“So you do know who I am,” she shrieks. God, her voice is just the worst. It’s the kind that crawls in your head and sends chills down your spine like pieces of Styrofoam rubbing together.
“Never said I didn’t,” I snap, and the twine snaps, too. I show the lady my wrists and flash her another grin.
She’s pissed. Rightfully so, I suppose. She tries to wriggle out her own wrists, but ends up screaming in pain instead.
“I suppose I’ll have to help you,” I tell her, and stand up slowly, pushing against the wall with my back for support. Dried blood flakes off my hands and gets crushed into the pocked cement, but helps my grip. “I suppose I’ll have to drag your happy ass all the way out of here.”
“Believe me, my ass is not happy,” she grumbles, but I barely hear it over my own screaming fucking pain as I try to get across the shed.
It seems at least three of my left toes are crushed. Funny how your brain will prioritize pain at a time like this. After the burns, the crowbar, and the steel-toed boots did their thing, crushed toes came out at the bottom of the pain list. Who knew? “Here,” I say when I finally get to her, “roll over and I’ll untie you.”
“I’m not tied up in string, buddy-boy,” she says, and rolls over to show me. She’s right. Her hands are in a zip-tie.
“Well, fuck,” I say, “I guess you’ll just have to walk all tied up. Can you walk?”
“I think so,” she grunts, “Help me up?”
“Help me up please,” I say. It’s hard to stop playing the bad cop, no matter how long I’ve been out of the game. Even when I was straight, I was always the bad cop. I’m intimidating even at parties and barbecues. Something about my face, I guess.
Anyway, she looks at me like I can’t be serious, but I am. She needs to know I’m in charge, even if she is a temporary ally. She sighs and says, “please?”
“Okay, kid,” I say and pull her up, even though she can’t be more than ten years younger than me. She’s not a tween star or anything like that, just a flash-in-the-pan starlet soon to be forgotten. Unless she has some sort of bizarre death, I guess.
Her left leg is weak and it takes a minute for her to find her feet, but besides the smashed part of her face she doesn’t look all that bad. “Alright,” I say, “now that we know we’re both in walking shape, let’s get the fuck out of here.” I lean fully on the wall and push myself to the doorway to scan for clues.
“Where are we, anyway?” she asks. “Somewhere in the desert?”
“In my professional opinion, we’re at the site of the Jalisco Bombing,” I answer.
“In Mexico?” she shrieks, and her voice is so irritating I want to rip out her vocal cords.
I wince and say, “yeah. In Mexico. Site of the failed fusion reactor. Nine hundred deaths. Hotbed for radioactivity. So we gotta go before you start growing tentacles or something, buttercup.”
“How?” she whines and I really am starting to wish I could knock her back to unconsciousness. It’s mostly because she is absolutely the last person I’d want to be stuck with when Sage finally came for me, but that shrill voice isn’t doing her any favors. I knew he would come one of these days, but I was hoping he’d do me the solid of letting me go it alone. After how I left? Stupid, wishful thinking. It’s always harder when you have baggage, let alone high-profile, deadweight baggage with a voice like a dying cat. I swear, they fix her voice for the movies.
“Well since there isn’t a limo outside, we’re going to have to walk, but keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. This is all a very elaborate, very bloody game, but he leaves clues. If we make it out of here, we win. If not, he wins, and he almost always wins.”
“A game?!? This is a fucking game?” she asks, but I only nod. I don’t have time to explain it to her. Like I said: elaborate.
I’m looking around the cement shed for some type of sign, but then I remember I’m talking to the first one.
“Say, did you ever get in trouble with the law, possibly financially? Tax evasion, embezzlement, you know, that sort of thing?”
Her good eye narrows at me and she says, “noooo. Why?”
“Because. When there’s someone innocent there’s always a connection to the person he’s trying to punish. I’m assuming you are innocent, and I was a corporate financial investigator for a while before I worked for Sage,” I say.
“Of course I’m innocent! Whoever did this is gonna—“
“What? Pay? Be sorry? No, he won’t. If we do make it out alive, you’ll never say a word, princess. He’ll guarantee that,” I chuckle, and stumble out of the shed into a filthy fucking wasteland.
“I’m not a princess,” she grumbles, and I can’t really refute it, given the way she fought back before they knocked her out. She follows me outside and helps me look on the walls. In the light I can see how green she is, which is no surprise. She gags and says, “did you ever—“
“Wait,” I say. I hear something. It’s a buzzing sound, low and constant. Something that would need electricity. “Come on,” I say and gesture with my head toward the noise. Within hearing distance there’s nothing but a bunch of decrepit, unusable furniture and three more blown-out sheds, which I guess are actually houses people died in; one is in the wrong direction so I only have two places to check. The rest of it’s a craphole desert where everything left is dead and angled away from the blast site. Yep, Jalisco.
We limp toward the next house, and it takes forever to even move ten feet. I tell you I’ve never hurt so bad in my life, the devil’s breath against strips of raw burns on my left side, evenly spaced rectangles of open, festering woundflesh caked with dirt. She’s not doing better. The wound on her head looks to be swelling, and either that or dehydration is making her sway back and forth stupidly as she walks.
I roll my eyes and go back to help her stand upright even though it kills my ribs. “What were you going to ask me?”
“Did…did you ever do any homicide investigations?” she says, just louder than a whisper, and then starts to nod off.
As a matter of fact, I did, and I shake her back awake to look in her eyes. “Yes. Why? Can you hear me? Were you involved in a case?” She nods, wincing in pain, but doesn’t say anything because she’s gagging again. I flip her over just in time for her to retch away from my face.
“My…my dad,” she manages to get out after the first round of dry heaves.
I pull her back close and start dragging her toward the buzzing sound. “Keep going,” I say.
“My brother,” she says, trying to make her feet useful—and failing.
“Well which was it? Your dad or your brother?” She starts heaving again, but I know nothing’s coming so I keep dragging her along.
“Both,” she says. “My brother killed my dad before I was born.” I think back over my career, straight and criminal phases, and I can’t remember working a case like that. Meanwhile, the first house is empty. I’m dragging her to the next one when she mumbles something like, “jacksaw.”
Now I remember. I was only in high school when it happened, but I remember the case because my partner wanted to reopen it when I was a rookie. Some nutjob kid had tied up his dad in a garage and tortured the guy until he died, then fled into obscurity. He was never found, but he carved jacksaw into a chunk of the guy’s beer gut and left it like a front doormat for the police. The buzzing’s getting louder, and I think I know what it is.
By the time we get to the last little house, the girl is unconscious again, and I drop her into the dirt outside the doorway. In the center of the one-roomer is a table with an array of knives and saws, including a hacksaw. Carved into one corner of the table are the words “you know what to do.”
I do. I walk over to the girl and pull up her shirt. In that purple surgeon’s ink there’s a dotted line in the shape of an oval, and inside it are dotted letters that spell out JACKSAW.