FICTION: A Kindness by Max Sheridan

The late-October wind blew shadows down the canyons of empty office buildings and dead lamp-lit streets. Barr checked his phone. Eight o’clock. Late for dinner again. He gave Deborah a quick call, telling her she should go ahead and eat without him, and left the practice by the front door.

The Audi was in the lot adjacent to the building, the only car left at this time of night. The gate was down, but Barr had a card. He’d just reached for his car keys — in his left jacket pocket today, not his habit — when he ran head-first into the man.

Barr’s first reaction was to apologize, though he had the strange sensation the man might have run into him on purpose. He was big, not homeless, but perhaps not gainfully employed. His upper front teeth were a bluish metallic color, his nose torn at one nostril. He was a half foot taller than Barr, who stood almost six feet, unshaven and wore a short green padded coat that showed hairy, tattooed wrists.

“I’m sorry,” Barr said. “I didn’t see you.”

The man growled. “Fuck you say?”

Barr tried to look the man in the eye but the man’s body language made this difficult, so he looked off into the distance, as if he might be getting ready to hail a cab.

That should have been the end of it, but neither Barr nor the man walked on. Barr wanted to leave but couldn’t. He didn’t know why he couldn’t, his legs just wouldn’t move. But by then it was too late. The man had already taken a step forward, a deer-gutting knife he’d drawn from an inner jacket pocket hanging from his hand. The knife was scarred along the length of its blade but shone like mother-of-pearl in the street light. Eight inches of street light.

For a moment Barr was captivated by the blade. He couldn’t imagine such a thing entering a body. It was more knife than anyone could possibly need, enough to butcher a bull. The sight of the giant blade unfroze Barr’s limbs and he found his wallet quickly and puckered it open for the man to see.

A hundred and fifty dollars. Barr was relieved. Usually, he only carried a twenty or two, but this would be enough to satisfy the man, he was sure of it.

“I don’t want your money,” the man said. “You hit me.”

“An accident.”

The man looked Barr over. Barr finally managed to meet the man’s eyes. This was his building after all. He’d left and entered it safely a thousand times. The smell of the almost-winter air had always buoyed him up on the way home to dinner, despite the emptiness and stark lighting. He saw the man as a barrier. On this side, where he was standing, death would butcher him with a knife. On the other side was his life as he knew it, everything he held dear. He saw both sides clearly and yet he still couldn’t move.

And then he heard the footsteps.

Merciful God, thought Barr.

Another man was approaching from the direction of the lot. He was short and round, older than Barr, in his mid-fifties. He wore a knee coat like the attacker’s and a salt-and-pepper goatee. His eyes, beneath his wireframe glasses, were just slightly Asiatic.

“What’s going on here,” the little man said. He was talking to Barr. He ignored the big man completely, as if he didn’t exist. As if the eight-inch blade in his hand were nothing more than a lollipop. The big man’s grin was wet and blue.

The little man turned on him. “What’s so funny?” he said. “Put that down. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

“All right, you tiny piece of shit.” The big man lumbered forward, the knife held low, making little feinting motions. He lunged at the little man faster than Barr had expected. The little man followed the motion out, using the momentum to drive the knife arm down and back. In the same movement, he twisted his compact body sharply to the left, sank to his knee and jerked the big man down and rolled him over his hip. The big body slammed hard against the sidewalk with a whooshing sound.

What happened next, Barr wasn’t sure how it happened — hadn’t actually seen it — but when the little man got to his feet, the eight-inch blade was sunk to the hilt in the big man’s neck. Blood spewed from the jugular. There was a spectacular crimson geyser of it that sprayed a good minute as the man’s teeth chattered and his cheeks shook. The man made a gentle shhhing sound as the blood poured out of his neck, the coppery odor of oxidized hemoglobin mixing with the hot stink of excrement that filled his pants. The little man watched intently as the big body bled out. Only when the convulsions stopped did he stand.

“Are you ok?”

“Yes,” Barr said. Though he wasn’t. He didn’t know what to say, so he said something foolish. “Is he dead?”

The little man laughed and held out his hand. “Robert Armi. I just did you a kindness, doctor.”

Barr kept his hand at his side, wondering how Armi knew what he did for a living.

“You’re coming from there, aren’t you?” Armi said, nodding at the building. “Figured you weren’t sweeping up.” Armi spoke with a slight accent you had to listen very carefully to catch. Irish, German, Polish. It was impossible to say.

“Right. I’m sorry.” Barr opened his wallet again. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me.”

“Did it happen to you?” Armi said. “Or did you cause it to happen due to your unpreparedness?” He waved the wallet away. “I didn’t mean for you to pay me. But I repeat, are you ok? Do you need medical attention? Did that thug hurt you in any way?”

The two ground-floor windows, the pharmacy and a sandwich shop, looked like their twins at a slaughterhouse. The sidewalk was covered in a fresh viscous purple-red graffiti. The dead man had rolled over onto his side finally and the blood that had poured out of his neck filled a space as big as a rain puddle.

“I’m fine,” Barr said and put the wallet away.

Armi was pleased. “Good. Now, since I don’t want money and you owe me for my kindness, here is all I ask, doctor. Accompany me to dinner.”

Barr was speechless.

“I’m a bachelor,” Armi insisted. “I was on my way to dinner when I found you. There’s only one thing a single man misses more than a tight piece of strange.”

It was a question, Barr realized. He shook his head.

“Dinner conversation,” Armi said. “Come, now, what do you say?”

Barr glanced at his pocket. His cellphone. Deborah. The cold dinner. The kids. “Let me just call my wife.”

Armi took Barr’s arm. “Later. At the restaurant. Come. We’ll take my car.”

“What about this?”

“Ah, yes.” Armi pursed his lips. He stood over the body, bent at the waist like a gas inspector. “Do you really want to be involved in this? A homicide? Justifiable, of course, but a homicide nonetheless. There’s no camera that I see.”

Barr had been meaning to install one for months. They’d all been urging him. Like all the other modifications to the office he hadn’t gotten around to. Still, he couldn’t just walk away.

“It’s illegal,” Barr said. “I’m a witness.”

Armi made a dissatisfied face. “You are a witness, doctor, yes. To this repugnant criminal’s final act of violence. Are you married, doctor? If your wife had been here, your children, god forbid, if you have any, this criminal would have butchered them.” Armi peered down into the dead man’s eyes. “No conscience, doctor. This man is a moral automaton. He only lives to inflict pain. And you happened to have crossed his path. For no other reason he would have killed you — sliced you open with that hunting knife of his — and made your wife a widow. No, let the police take the body to the morgue where it belongs. There will be no inquiries, as I’ve said, because no one saw anything.”

Before Barr could respond, Armi was leading him down the street to a well-maintained, burgundy-colored, late-model Hyundai Elantra. They passed the Audi, Barr still thinking he could make the evening right by simply slipping free of Armi and heading home. Thanking him, of course, and then discussing the matter over with Deborah before going to the police.

But by then they were standing beside the Elantra. Armi opened the passenger door. He cast an eye back at the building where the corpse lay like a homeless man cut down by the cold. “Are you absolutely sure I’m not keeping you from anything?” he asked Barr. “We must be clear on this. I don’t want to compel you.”

In fact, that was just the word Barr would have used to describe Armi’s techniques.

“No,” Barr said. “You’re probably right. Let the police take care of it. I could use a drink.”

Armi smiled so that his meaty upper lip curled up and over his dogteeth, his eyes disappearing into slits. It was a strange and not-very-pleasant sight that made Barr regret he’d agreed to the dinner.

* * *

Armi had chosen a busy, upscale restaurant in a well-lit part of town. He ordered a ribeye steak medium and a bottle of Zinfandel for the table. Barr poured over the menu for seasonal options, but the dead man had destroyed his appetite. He chose a soup and salad in the end, annoying Armi, who reminded Barr that he was paying. They’d discussed the issue in the car and Armi had insisted. Barr had finally given in, but it wasn’t right. Armi had saved his life and now he was paying for his dinner.

“I never had the chance to thank you,” Barr said. “If you hadn’t been walking along when you did—”

Armi cut the thought off aggressively with the flat of his hand. “Nothing is chance, doctor. I was prepared. You, unfortunately, weren’t.”

It was final and Barr was too exhausted to argue.

Their wine came. Armi insisted on opening the bottle himself. He set it down between them, the label facing Barr.

Barr said, “You must be trained in something, the way you took him down.” He shook his head, still unable to process it. “It all happened so fast.”

“Aikido. Black belt, eighth Dan,” Armi said. “I can protect myself.”

“But you weren’t afraid? That knife.” Barr was already beginning to forget how it looked. Only the feeling of being threatened by it wouldn’t leave him.

Armi shook his head. Poured out a glass of wine for both of them. Put the bottle back in its place. “Never. As I said, or as I meant to say, if you are prepared, you should never be afraid. What about you, doctor? You must have nerves of steel to deal with sick patients on a daily basis. Terminal diseases are death sentences.”

In the middle of this thought their meals came. Armi dove right into his steak, cutting off a thin, dripping strip, his little teeth mincing as he waited for Barr to continue.

“Well,” Barr said. “I suppose most of the time they aren’t terminal, thank God.”

“But surely a case without options arises from time to time.”

“Without options? Never. At least, we never approach it like that. Psychologically. Patients must always be able to choose a path of treatment.”

Armi nodded, swallowed. He washed another morsel down with a small sip of wine. “As a doctor, do you feel you are accomplishing good?”

It was a strange way to phrase it surely.

“Of course,” Barr said. “If you mean, am I helping people? Serving them? It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. The fact that you can do good. It’s undeniable.” The wine had made Barr more expansive than he normally would have been with a stranger, which the little Samaritan unquestionably was. He was feeling better than he should have too given the circumstances of their meeting.

“And yet,” Armi said, “there is so much bad in the world. I speak, of course, of that repulsive creature on the street. Sometimes it feels like the difference between the two doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to you know who.”

Barr nodded, wondering what was happening at the practice at that very moment. Shouldn’t he have at least reported the death? Phoned in an anonymous tip? Or would the secretaries arrive at seven in the morning to a puddle of blood and a corpse? He poured himself another glass of wine, then remembered Deborah. He found his cellphone. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I forgot to call my wife.”

Barr made the phone call, explaining that he’d run into an old friend from medical school. He’d be back shortly, he said, right after dinner. He listened a moment longer, said goodnight, then hung up.

“So what do you do?” Barr said. “We’ve only talked about me. Are you an Aikido instructor?”

“I was in business,” Armi said, slicing off a thin strip of steak. “Now I’m out.”

Barr finished his light meal quickly. They were already down to the last glass of wine, Barr having drunk most of the bottle on a near empty stomach. There was nothing more to say and an awkward silence inhabited the table. Barr played with his napkin, waiting for Armi, a slow and precise eater, to finish his steak.

“I haven’t had a piece of ass in over five years,” Armi said at length. “I don’t really care for conversation either. Not while I’m eating at any rate.”

Barr was already flushed from the wine. He went a shade redder. “I’m sorry to hear that. If you’d just let me get the bill. I realize I agreed but I really have to insist.”

“Aren’t you going to ask me why I brought you here?” Armi said. “I was persistent. After all, it was I who did you a kindness.”

“I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to repay your kindness,” Barr said. “It was just so … unexpected.” He added, to humor the man, “I know, nothing in life is unexpected.”

“That is so true, doctor. Well spoken. Would you care for dessert?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Consider carefully,” Armi said, piercing Barr with flat blue eyes. “Consider it your last.”

Barr raised his hand to flag down the waiter.

“Put it down,” Armi said. “If you go, your wife will take your place. Your children. You have three.”

It must have been, if not a practical joke, then something along those lines. A temporary derangement, thought Barr. A desperate way of calling attention to himself. He was a lonely man obviously, socially awkward.

Armi flagged down the waiter himself. He ordered two Peach Melbas. “I’m perfectly serious,” he said to Barr with the waiter still in earshot.

“Bullshit,” Barr said. All the color had drained from his face. His eyes dropped to his left jacket pocket, where the car keys had been haphazardly placed, the beginning of all his troubles, where his cellphone now sat, both useless. Armi’s eyes followed.

“If you call your wife, again she will take your place, and you will be an accomplice,” Armi said.

It was the easiest thing to do, Barr thought. Stick up a hand and call over the maître d’. Have Armi escorted out of the restaurant. Better, call the police. It would all be over. And yet, there was the dead man stabbed in front of the building. He was involved. If Armi was bluffing, and he called him on it, everything would have to be explained. He would be exposing himself to police scrutiny. Playing Armi’s game was the only option he had.

“If you wanted to kill me, why didn’t you do it already? You had your chance.”

“Very good question, doctor,” Armi said. “I wanted to state my agenda first.”

“Your agenda?”

“You must know why you are going to die.”

Armi was a hired murderer then, Barr thought. That was it. It was a relief to know this in a way. But who had hired him? A disgruntled ex-partner? There were only two he’d worked with and both had left amicably, had initiated the departures to open practices of their own. Barr was still on their Christmas lists. An ex-patient?

“Who paid you?”

“I’m not an assassin,” Armi said, “if that’s what you’re thinking. I have no motive other than my stated objective of wanting you dead. I assure you of that.”

“Am I supposed to believe this?” Barr spluttered. “That you just want to kill me? For no reason?”

“Did I say I had no reason? You obviously haven’t been listening.”

The police would have to be notified then, Barr thought with genuine relief. Until they came, he would just remain seated in full view of the other diners. Given his state of mind at the time, and Armi’s obvious derangement, with a good legal defense he would be looking at a fine, he guessed, nothing more.

Armi shook his head sadly. “I expected more of you, doctor.”

Barr kept silent.

“I thought, as a doctor and a good man, the decision would be final and morally unambiguous. You’re spoiling this.”

“Did you expect me to allow you to kill me?”

“Yes,” Armi said.

Barr laughed. “This is ridiculous. This whole conversation.”

“So much in life is ridiculous, Doctor Barr. This is not. This is quite serious, and yet you are laughing. Please tell me why.”

The hair rose on the back of Barr’s hands.

“How did you know my name?”

“It’s on the door, doctor.”

“You didn’t see the door.”

And the dead man, Barr thought. Had Armi just happened to be strolling by? Had he perhaps orchestrated the whole thing? Paid the man to attack him? It seemed impossible, and yet—“I just don’t understand,” Barr said.

Armi’s upper lip curled back into a smile. “One morning two months ago I was passing by your office. I saw you entering. So sure of yourself, so confident. A dog ran by, it’s owner trailing after. You ran nearly a block to catch the it, doctor. She was a pretty young woman. Surely, she would have made an advance, given you a number, a handsome man like you, why not? But you waved it off. I saw it with my own eyes.” Armi shook his head. “No, nothing bad has happened to you in your life, doctor, I’m quite sure of it. On the contrary, you have done nothing but good for others.”

For an irrational moment Barr’s hopes of a night salvaged from lunacy returned as he sat listening to Armi’s speech. The key to his liberation from the madman was at his fingertips. If he could just figure out what Armi really wanted to hear.

“I watched you for sixth months,” Armi continued. “Your wife is named Deborah, age 45. She is not on the door either. Firm if expansive buttocks. Botox injections every third month. Three children ages 8 to 13. The little angels. The twins are in separate classes. Should I tell you their names?” Armi allowed their dessert plates to be delivered, nodded the waiter off. He said in a confidential whisper, “You aren’t going to have any more, doctor.”

Barr waited.

“You fuck approximately three times per month,” Armi said at normal volume. He lifted his dessert fork, inspected it for water spots.

“You sad motherfucker,” Barr said. “You’re nothing but a thug. A lunatic.” Barr kept his voice down. He didn’t know why. “Like that cockroach.”

“I am not,” Armi said, leaning over his plate and baring his tiny rabbit teeth. “I am so obviously not. I am going to kill you because you are a good man and you don’t deserve it. That is all. And if you have any thought of calling the police, of making a ruckus, of drawing attention to yourself in any way, remember that I know where you live, and I will visit, and it will be worse. If not tonight, then the next night. Or the next or the next or the next.” Armi retracted his head, brightening up. He opened his napkin, peeked at his dessert. “Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I think we might have a conversation. Will you drink a Calvados with me?”

It was just after ten. The restaurant was still packed, the conversations bursting forth around them and then trailing off into laughter and silence. When the Calvados came, Barr made his move. He grabbed the waiter’s shirtsleeve and shouted, “This man is going to kill me!”

The waiter pulled back, looking over his shoulder. No one had heard the unhinged outburst. Maybe only the tables to the right and left, but conversations picked back up almost immediately.

Armi grimaced and nodded at the empty bottle of wine, grinning knowingly. “Yes, of course,” he told the waiter. “I’m going to take him to my car and shoot him in the brain, using a silencer of course, to spare my eardrums. Then I’m going to open the passenger door and dump him along some perfectly well-used stretch of highway.”

He nudged the waiter. The waiter winked at Armi and then ran off to another table.

And that’s just what Armi did.

# # #

BIO: Max Sheridan, who dedicates A KINDNESS to a friend named Dominic Cabot, lives and writes in Nicosia, Cyprus. Max’s short stories, about sex, death and midgets, are available online and in print from select, degenerate publishers. His novel Dillo is seeking a home. If you want to see how far the human imagination can sink, please visit maxsheridanlit.com.

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