Slightly out of breath, the man in the black trench coat slipped into his seat, set his briefcase aside, and peered out the window of the train. The sun was dying somewhere in the west, beyond the ragged, red-tinged rooftops of the city, and it cast a sanguine blanket over the woodland park. The trees, the lawn, the benches, the small pond where the geese came to waddle and shit, the whole scene looked like a Monet that had been dipped in blood.
He let his gaze wander along the main path, just visible beyond the ruddy stone entrance, down past the pond, down around the broken teak bench where he’d caught up with The First, to the thick hawthorne that hovered over the wishing well like a gnarled and twisted beggar. There, from under the brush around the base of the old tree’s trunk, the end of a silk tie stuck out like a bloated blue tongue. Even from such a distance as this, the man could see it clearly. It looked exactly like The First’s tongue had looked, right before he died.
The man in the black trench coat clenched his hands as he relived the moment. He could feel The First’s soft, warm neck collapse beneath his thumbs. He could see the bright pink spots pop into the whites of The First’s eyes. He could smell the rancid odor of feces as The First soiled himself right before the end.
The train pulled out of the station, and his thoughts turned to tomorrow. The Second had left town. He was attending a wedding with his wife. The man in the black trench coat would be in Camden by morning, and then he’d hire some college kid to drive him out to Medford. He’d find The Second, end his life with a quick wrench and a snap, then dump the piece of shit in a swamp. Swamps were everywhere in Jersey. He’d roll The Second into the muck and sludge and let the rats and fungus hide his handiwork. The thought made the man smile. They all belonged in the muck and sludge.
As the train trudged out of the city, he opened his briefcase and snatched out that day’s copy of The Times. The front page was smeared with news of the war, an article on the latest Broadway sensation, and the demise of a well known Fortune 500, complete with executive immunity and a strip-mined pension plan. Hundreds of families, hundreds of lives, ruined. The man felt a sharp prick behind his eyes, but he grinned despite the pain. By the Sunday edition, the only news fit to print would be about him, or, at least, about his latest work. How many could he kill by then? Five? Six? There were fifteen in all. Some might put two and two together, once word got out. But he doubted it. They weren’t that smart.
The man reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and took out a folded piece of paper. He unfolded it and looked at the names again. God had chosen him to take down those names. The night before, he’d been doing something at his desk in his apartment. He couldn’t remember exactly what it was. It had been around dinner time, TV blaring in the background, his wife crying in the kitchen. Whatever he was doing, he thought it had been something terrible, something to do with accounts and catastrophe and… What? The memory was stuck there, like a splinter jammed into the front of his brain, but he simply couldn’t pull the memory free.
The last thing he could recall with any clarity was The Voice of God. The man in the black trench coat had been doing whatever it was he’d been doing, when suddenly everything went black, and The Voice of God spoke to him. God had sounded a bit like Brian Williams, which had made the man smile. God had told him to write down the names of the condemned, the names of those who must suffer and die for their sins. Those names were in front of him now, a bloody network of red letters, like a page out of the Book of Life. But none of these people were going to heaven. They were going straight to hell, and he was God’s Reaper. He took out a pen, drew a dark line through the name of The First, and put the piece of paper away.
The train jerked its way north, through suburbs and past open fields and cemeteries dotted with endless rows of marble and granite gravestones. Make room for fifteen more, thought the man in the black trench coat. He chuckled and flipped through the pages of The Times until he came to the crossword puzzle. After only a brief span, he had inked in a few answers: Charles, diligence, ergo, Luxemburg, madman.
That last word rolled about in his mind, sliding through the slippery gray matter, and right before it was expelled into the ether of forgetfulness, it snagged on a barb in his brain. Madman. The sensation was irritating. The word felt like an eyelash wedged under his eyelid.
Madman, he thought again, and the word rebounded through his brain. It bounced around until it caught itself once more on that mental spike. Madman, he thought. Madman. Mad man. MAD MAN.
Finally, the word flushed from his brain, and the man in the black trench coat let it go with a sigh. He slid The Times back into his briefcase, pulled the collar of his coat up around his neck, and settled in for some sleep. He had a lot of work to do before he could rest.
Before he could retire.