Night Work ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
It was eleven o’clock on a Saturday night. I had spent a strenuous day doing next to nothing, laying around my apartment reading Dostoevsky, and was ready to go to sleep, when the phone rang. I was inclined to let it ring, but I figured it was probably the Lord and Master, Mr. Ludwig, He Who Pays Me Well, so I answered. I was right.
“Got a little job for you,” he said.
“I don’t suppose it matters that I was about to go to bed,” I said.
“I can always get somebody else if you’re indisposed.”
“Just kidding,” I said. “Spill me the details.”
“A doctor had somebody die in his office. A young woman. He wants her removed before morning.”
“What was he doing to her?”
“It doesn’t matter. The doctor has a problem and is paying us plenty to remove it for him.”
“Shall I wear my Boris Karloff disguise?”
He gave me the address and I wrote it down on the inside of a match book. “There’s a dead-end alley that runs behind the doctor’s building,” he said. “Pull in there. The doctor will be waiting for you.”
“Sounds like a cinch to me.”
“Bring the deceased to me.”
“I won’t exactly be taking her out for a night on the town.”
I found the address easily enough. As expected, the doctor was waiting. Dressed all in white as he was, he looked like a ghost.
“You the man Ludwig sent?” he asked.
“Turn off those headlights!”
“No need to be so jittery,” I said.
“Did anybody see you?”
“There’s nobody around this time of night.”
“Nobody but the police,” he said.
He pulled the door back and pointed down. He had the girl in a body bag right inside the door.
“You sure she’s dead?” I asked.
“I strangled her,” he said.
She was so light I thought she must only be a child. I was glad I didn’t have to see her face. I put her in the trunk and turned to bid the doctor farewell.
“You have a wonderful evening, now,” I said.
“You were never here!” he said, slamming the door.
Mr. Ludwig lived twelve miles outside of town in a hundred-year-old house that he probably built himself, he was so old. He was some kind of doctor, I think, but I didn’t know what kind. I didn’t ask questions and I knew without being told that he admired that quality above all others.
Any time I drove out to the Ludwig manse, it seemed I was leaving civilization behind. The road was hilly, curvy, and dark with that special kind of lonely darkness that exists only in the country. I hardly ever met any other cars and if I did I figured whoever was driving them was lost.
I made sure I didn’t exceed the speed limit—I couldn’t afford to be stopped with a corpse in my trunk—and I got to Mr. Ludwig’s place a little before one o’clock. The big iron gate opened for me as if by magic and I drove through, up to the big house and around to the back.
I stopped the car and got out. I stood there beside the car, looking up at the silent hulk of the house and listening to the crickets. In a couple of minutes Mr. Ludwig came out the door with one of his goons, a muscle boy named Kurt Spengler.
“Any problems?” Mr. Ludwig asked.
“No,” I said.
“Nobody saw you turn in here?”
“Only a couple of owls.”
“Well, bring her on inside then.”
I opened the trunk and Kurt lifted the bundle like a sack of feathers and carried it inside. Mr. Ludwig motioned for me to follow him so we could sit down in his study and complete the transaction (I could get my money, that is) and call it a night.
“Would you like a drink?” he asked as I sat down on his expensive leather sofa.
“No, thanks,” I said. “It’s late and I just want my money.”
“Stay and have a drink with me,” he said. “I hardly ever have a chance for any intelligent conversation.”
“Just one,” I said.
He poured some scotch, a drink I hated, into a glass and handed it to me. He was a large man, slightly stooped in the shoulders, wearing a cashmere smoking jacket that made him look like an enormous brown bear.
“How has the world been treating you?” he asked.
“I can’t complain,” I said.
“You like working for me, I take it?”
“You like night work best?”
“I guess so.”
“Everything is more exciting at night, don’t you agree?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. “Yes, sir,” I said.
“There are infinite possibilities lurking in the dark.”
“Yeah, I guess I know what you mean.”
“I thought I’d give you a little extra this time for your trouble. Say six-fifty instead of the usual five hundred.”
“Thanks,” I said, managing a tight little smile.
“Don’t thank me. Thank Dr. Voyles. He’ll be picking up the tab.”
“You met him when you picked up the girl?”
“Yeah, he seemed a little nervous.”
“Did he say she bled to death, or what?”
“He said he strangled her.”
Mr. Ludwig laughed so that his jowls quivered like jelly. “That’s a good one!” he said. “An odd choice of words, but then he’s an odd character.”
“He a friend of yours?” I asked.
“Oh, I’ve known him about thirty years.”
I looked over at the clock and cleared my throat. I was so tired that everything seemed like a dream. “Well, Mr. Ludwig,” I said. “If you don’t mind, sir, I’d like to get my money and go home now.”
As if on cue, Kurt came into the room. He stood a few feet away, silently, until Mr. Ludwig looked at him.
“What is it?” Mr. Ludwig asked.
“I think you need to see this,” Kurt said.
“What is it?”
“Just come and take a look.”
Mr. Ludwig left with Kurt and in a couple of minutes he came back into the room. His jovial manner had abandoned him. The corners of his mouth turned down as if his face was made of dough.
“Anything the matter?” I asked.
“She’s alive,” he said.
“If Voyles thought he strangled her, he was wrong.”
“How could she breathe in that bag?”
“Apparently she had just enough air.”
“What are you going to do with her?” I asked.
“We’ll have to kill her.”
“Would you want her identifying you to the police?”
“She hasn’t seen me,” I said.
“Nevertheless, we’ll have to do away with her.”
He opened a drawer of his desk and took out a gun, laid it down and pushed it toward me.
“I’m not doing it,” I said. “I’m no killer. Get Kurt to do it.”
“Kurt’s no killer, either.”
“Her being alive doesn’t concern me,” I said. “I did my part, which was to deliver her to you. Now, if you’ll just give me my money…”
“You were hired to bring a dead body to me,” he said. “You brought me a live one. It’s not quite the same thing, is it? Your job isn’t finished until you give me what I’m paying you for.”
“Why do I have to do it? You’re a doctor. You do it.”
“I draw the line at killing,” he said.
“You never killed anybody before? I would have said otherwise.”
“I’ve converted. I’m a new-born man. I can’t take another person’s life any more than I can leap over the moon.”
“Are you talking about religion?”
“Not exactly,” he said.
“Is it Buddhism or something?”
“It really doesn’t concern you, whatever it is.”
“How about if I take her back to town and drop her off at the nearest hospital? An anonymous drop-off. No questions asked and none answered. She hasn’t seen you or Kurt. She hasn’t seen me. She hasn’t seen any of us. She doesn’t know where she is. She was in my trunk unconscious all the way out here.”
“When they see the state she’s in, they’ll call the police and the first thing she’ll do is put the finger on Dr. Voyles. I must do away with her to protect an old friend.”
“Maybe I can talk to her and make her promise not to say a word to anybody.”
He laughed again. “My goodness, you are naïve, aren’t you?” he said.
“It won’t do any good to argue about this,” I said. “I won’t do it. That’s not my line. I’ll bet you have half a dozen guys on your payroll who specialize in that sort of thing.”
“None of them are here, though. You are.”
He stood up, walked around the desk and placed the gun in my hand.
“I don’t want to shoot her,” I said. “Maybe I’ll hold a pillow over face until she stops breathing.”
“Use whatever method you prefer. Just do it.”
“And what will you do with her after I kill her?” I asked.
“I have a special process all my own for dissolving bodies, including the skeleton. Nobody knows about it but me. Why do you think I have dead bodies brought to my home?”
“I never thought much about it.”
“That’s because you’re a doer and not a thinker.”
“Yeah, I’m a doer,” I said.
He had Kurt strong-arm me into the room where the girl was and before they closed the door, he said, “I’ll give you five minutes. We haven’t got all night.”
She was laying on a kind of dissecting table, half out of the body bag. As I approached the table, she opened her eyes.
“Who are you?” she asked weakly.
She was older than I expected, maybe around thirty. She was one of those small dames that probably stood no taller than five feet and weighed no more than a hundred and ten pounds. She looked terrible, as if she had just gone a few rounds with a gorilla.
“I’m nobody,” I said. “I’m not even here.”
“What is this place?”
“It’s the castle of a mad scientist, high on a mountaintop.”
“Do you think you can walk?”
“I see that gun you’re holding,” she said. “What are you going to do with it?”
“I’m going to shoot our way out of here if I have to.”
“I don’t like any of this,” she said.
I helped her to her feet. She was able to stand on her own but was barely able to walk. I put my left arm around her and bore most of her weight while I held the gun in my right hand. I led her to the door and banged on it with the ball of my hand. “Open up!” I said.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Mr. Ludwig said when the door swung open and he saw I was pointing the gun at him.
“I’m leaving with the girl,” I said, “and I’ll shoot you if I have to.”
“You’re making a big mistake to try a thing like that.”
To show him I wasn’t jesting, I fired one bullet that whizzed past his head and lodged in the wall.
Kurt stood by helplessly and looked at Mr. Ludwig. “Do you want me to call for help?” he asked.
Mr. Ludwig laughed. “Don’t bother,” he said. “With one phone call, I can have him run to ground before he even gets halfway to town.”
I don’t know how, but I managed to get the girl outside and into my car. I fumbled with the keys in the dark but finally managed to get the car started. I expected Mr. Ludwig and Kurt to come after me, but they didn’t come out of the house. I knew Mr. Ludwig didn’t like scenes and he didn’t like being discommoded, especially in his own home. He always had somebody else do all his dirty work for him.
I knew they would be expecting me to go back to town, so I went in the opposite direction, away from town. After I had driven thirty miles or so without seeing a single car and was beginning to feel more relaxed, I turned and looked at the girl. She had been so still I almost forgot she was with me and then I remembered she was the reason I was running away.
“How are you doing?” I asked her.
“I need a drink of water,” she said.
“Sorry, I don’t have any water, but I’ll stop whenever I can.”
“I guess I’ll live,” she said.
“What’s your name?”
“That your real name?”
“Do you remember what happened in the doctor’s office?”
“Dr. Voyles. That’s where I picked you up.”
“Oh, yeah. Him.”
“What were you doing at his office after office hours?”
“I’ll bet it’s not what you think.”
“How do you know what I think?”
“People always think the worst.”
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
“Well, it’s like this. I went to buy some morphine. You know. Like black market stuff.”
“You an addict?”
“Of course not! My old man’s got a busted back. In terrible pain all the time. His doctor won’t give him any more of the pain stuff—says he won’t do anything else for him until he has an operation—so he has to get it any way he can.”
“Your old man? You mean your husband?”
“My father, you dope!”
“Don’t get excited.”
“Dr. Voyles told me to meet him at his office after he was finished seeing patients for the day. The office was dark and he was the only one there. He had me sit beside him on a couch and then he began pawing me.”
“You ought to report him to the medical authorities.”
“When he saw I wasn’t interested, he told me the only way he would sell me the medicine was if I cooperated. He tried to kiss me and we struggled. He was hurting me so I kicked him and bit him. When he wouldn’t stop, I started screaming. He became enraged and tried to strangle me. I thought I was going to die. That’s the last thing I remember.”
“He believed he killed you. He was plenty scared.”
“You were there?”
“I was the delivery boy.”
“I pick up the bodies of people who die by misadventure and take them to the mad scientist who lives in a mountaintop castle.”
“Are you crazy?” she asked.
I drove for a hundred and fifty miles into another state, only stopping once to gas up the car. When it was getting close to dawn, I came to a medium-sized town. I stopped and got a room for us in a hotel. One room so I could keep an eye on her and nothing more. She didn’t interest me except that I wanted, for some reason, to keep her alive. I figured if I was able to do that, it might square me a little for some of the bad things I had done. It didn’t even matter to me that maybe she didn’t deserve to live any more than I did.
We checked into the room and the first thing she wanted to do was take a bath. I left her to it and went out to try to find us something to eat. I told her not to answer the phone or open the door to anyone.
I was gone for about forty minutes and when I got back with the food I could still hear the water running in the bathroom. I was starving so I began eating, leaving her food in the bag to keep it warm. After a few minutes, I realized the water had been running the same way for an awfully long time and I knew something was wrong. I stood up and went over to the bathroom door.
“May?” I called. “Are you all right?”
When she didn’t answer, I pushed the door open slowly. She was fully reclined in the tub, the water up to her ears. Her eyes were partway open but she was lifeless. A single gunshot to the middle of her forehead. I knew there was no chance this time that she might still be alive.
I turned off the water and left. I got into my car and began driving. I didn’t know where I was going, but I supposed the only thing left for me to do was to go home. What would happen then, I didn’t know.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp