Have a short story — The Marlboro Man

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Ephemera came up in my interview with Roqoo Depot, in particular one of the stories in the collection entitled The Marlboro Man.  I actually get a lot of emails about this story.  For whatever reason, it resonates with readers.  Often they mention the prose — and I do think the prose is some of my best — but I think what really reaches them is the voice.  A jaded, cynical angel (maybe) has his appeal, it seems.

In any event, given that readers of Ephemera seem to enjoy the story so much, I wanted to post it here for all to see.  Obviously, if you enjoy it, you might also enjoy the other stories included in Ephemera.

Fair warning — the story includes some expletives and unpleasant imagery.

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The Marlboro Man

The Apostle Paul told the church in Rome that all had sinned and fell short of the glory of God.  He was right, but neglected to mention that God didn’t give a shit.

Man, I need a smoke.  And I need to get out.

Let me introduce myself.

My God-given name is Uriel.  I’m fairly certain of that.

Yes, that Uriel, the one who watched Lucifer and armies of angels clash in Heaven and fall in flames to this ball of dirt you call Earth.  But you know me primarily by other names.  You’ve called me The Ripper, Jack the Axe, Zodiac, and a host of others, but most recently Coleman Stewart.

Doesn’t have the same ring, does it?   Sorta ordinary.  The Picayune called me The Blood Priest, which I liked, but it never caught on.  The Times called me a sorcerer once.  I liked that, too.

If memory serves, I’ve preyed on humans for millennia, with whatever tool took my fancy.  Hands, blades, guns, cords, even a Spiderman Pez dispenser once.

Man, that was funny.

For me.  Not so much for my victim.

You think it’s evil to murder?  Hell, even if there were such a thing as evil, with a capital E, it would not apply to me.   I’m an angel, remember?  For me, killing is a need, a drive, like eating.  You can’t blame an angel for eating, right?

And anyway God made me this way, so you can thank him for it.  I didn’t even know I had an appetite for killing until two sinners scurried out of Eden, and God banished me from Heaven and turned his back on Creation.

You didn’t hear it that way in Sunday school? That’s because everything you think you know about God, angels, and demons is mostly wrong.  God has been gone a long time.  Trust me on that.  And Lucifer is just God’s excuse, a celestial fall guy.

So being abandoned by my father – the Father – sat poorly with me, really pissed me off, back when I could still get pissed off.  Righteous wrath, the whole thing. I realized then that God was a prick, and I’ve seen nothing since to change my mind.

So, what to do with all that wrath, hmm?  Well, I decided to take it out on you, His junior Creation, the JV team.  Oprah would call that displacement.  I call it fun.

Sucks for you, though.

Where were we?

Oh yeah.

My current abode is a concrete-walled holding cell in Joliet Prison. Florescent lights cast the room in a lurid glow.  A single window, barred, lets in a few rays from the afternoon sun.  The corners of the room stink of stale sweat and old vomit.   If God were still watching, I think he’d see irony in my incarceration.  I, who once guarded the border of Eden, now idle away my hours behind gates guarded by fat men with truncheons and marital problems, and the only thing watching me now is the closed-circuit camera suspended from the wall near the clock.

I’d fallen as far as Lucifer.  Farther, perhaps.

Wonder what he’s up to these days?  Last time I saw him he was turning all of Europe into a graveyard.

I chuckle and the guards outside the cell glance at me with eyes of snow.

“Something funny, Father?” Lionel says.  His brush cut grips his scalp in a vise of Just for Men brown.  A belly birthed in too many beers and too few sit-ups pokes amicably over his belt.  I like Lionel.  He’s a good Catholic, attends Mass weekly, still calls me ‘Father.’  I can use that.

Same as God used me.

“No, Lionel,” I say.

“Then shut up,” says the other guard, Gordon, whose angry eyes and fidgety manner remind me of Belial and any number of other murderers I’ve met over the eons.  Happy hands, murderers have, and I should know.  Not much religion in Gordon.

The table at which I sit is bolted to the floor.  Manacles around my wrists secure me to two of its corners, make me look like someone’s Aunt Clara waiting to hug a reluctant nephew on Christmas Eve.  The short chains give me a few inches of play, just enough to tease me.  An analog clock on the wall behind me taps out seconds.

I want that smoke.

Lines gouge the table’s surface, the graffiti of interrogation.   My power lives in lines.  Not those of men, but those of God, at the edges of things, the natural borders of Creation.  Bits of God’s power still live in those cracks, like cockroaches.

Playing on those borders too long will drive a man mad.  But not an angel.  Not me.

That’s because Eden’s gates, the border once upon a time, was my natural station.  I stood there once with my own truncheon, bad hair, and beer belly, and none of Lucifer’s crew dared approach.  Back then, my power could level mountains.  Now….

Well, time and God’s absence have siphoned it away, left me a birthday magician, the David fucking Copperfield of angels.   I look like a man and might as well be a man for all the power I have, just another biped living out his days in the cubicles of incarceration. These days it takes me months to horde enough power to move a Marlboro.  I gather energy from the lines I encounter, use it to build my nest, then sit on the egg of my power until its large enough to make an omelet.  Takes forever.

But that’s the benefit of immortality.  It makes one patient.  Tick tock.  Tick Tock.

From the hall, I hear a buzzer, the click of an electronic lock release, the grate of a barred gate sliding along its track, the autonomic beat of the prison.  Lionel and Gordon shift on their feet as someone approaches.

My detective is coming.  I’ve been waiting for him.

Italian leather shoes meet with the concrete floor in the hall to make a chord with the clock.

Tick tock.  Tick tock.

Keep your eyes on the ball, Lionel, the show is about to start.

*   *   *   *   *

Detective Wes Anderson wears his four-hundred dollar suit and badge like a priest wears his vestments.  He thinks they give him power, authority, distance him from the congregation.

Gordon and Lionel appear to agree.  They back off a step, nod respectfully.  Neither likes the detective much.  I’ve heard them talk and I know they’d love to see him taken down a notch.  He’s too fit, too cocksure, too smart.

“Detective,” says Lionel, a grudging admission.  Gordon only grunts as he fumbles with a key and opens the bars that pen me in.

Detective Anderson thanks the guards perfunctorily and enters the holding cell.  A manila folder is tucked under his arm.  Anger is tucked into the creases on his brow.  Those lines, too, have power.

“Detective,” I say.  “I wish I could say it’s a pleasure to see you again.”

Anderson has been to see me three times.  I’ve been playing him the while.  He’s my Lucifer, my patsy.

Anderson hooks his foot around a chair leg, pulls it out, sits.  His eyes are on me the whole time, unblinking halogens beaming accusations.  His mouth is a parabola under his moustache.

I hold an uncertain smile and play dumb.

Anderson is handsome despite the frown.  I imagine the women in the department say his name in breathy whispers.  I know at least that one of them did, before I murdered her.

Sunlight reaches through the window, hits half the table, draws a sharp line between light and shadow.  I inch my hand forward, stretch my fingers across the demarcation, pull a bit of God’s power into my nest and feel the egg warm.

Anderson, ignorant of this, interlaces his calloused hands as though in prayer and rests them on the table.  Sunlight flashes on the wedding band on his finger, its own kind of shackle for a man like Anderson.  He stares across at me.

“How’s that eye, padre?”

I smile.  I know it’s blackened.  “Hurts.  Ribs, too.”

“Got caught up in that riot, eh?”

I pretend discomfort at the subject of the riot, shift in my chair.  I know where he’s going.

“This is not a pleasant place, Detective.  Bad things sometimes happen.”

“Thank God for small favors.”

I smirk off the insult.  “I do not deserve to be here, Detective.  I did not murder Officer Bergman.”

A tic in his cheek betrays his anger but he doesn’t let it infect his voice.  He was having an affair with Officer Bergman before I killed her.  Bergman I killed because it was necessary. The others, my ‘worshippers,’ those I did for fun.

“I want you to look at these again,” he says.

I pretend disinterest.  “We’ve already done this, Detective.”

Ignoring me, he opens the manila envelope, takes out nine pictures of attractive young women and deals them onto the table like a hand of Texas Hold’em.

I keep my eyes from the photos, playing my part.

“Look at them,” he says.

“Detective—“

“Look at them.”

I do, and see the faces of the lost and lonely girls, runaways mostly, who had come to me, drawn by my power and the things I could do.

“These girls were all in your cult,” Anderson says.

“Religion.”

“Bullshit.  Cult.  They thought you were a sorcerer, for God’s sake.  You’re just a defrocked Catholic priest.”

“If only,” I say, and the import of my words is lost on him.

“They’re all missing, Stewart.  They’re all dead.  I know it.  You know it.  I just don’t know where you hid the bodies. But today, you’re going to tell me where I can find them.”

I think of the meaninglessness of existence and use it to look appalled.  “I did nothing of the kind.  I would never hurt my girls.”

“Bullshit,” he says, sure of himself.  He reaches into the envelope and pulls out one final picture, slowly, like he’s unveiling a secret.  He lingers over it for a moment before placing it in the center of the others, decorating the tabletop with a constellation of the murdered.  It is a photo of Janice Bergman, his lover, my victim.

“And you’re also going to tell me where Janice’s body is.”

I’d gotten convicted for Officer Bergman’s murder without her body ever being found.  Circumstantial evidence.  She had been asking questions about the other missing girls.  I’d had to kill her, and after I did, when a certain dogged Detective Anderson had come to me with still more questions, particularly about Bergman, I assumed I’d be arrested.  So I took precautions.  I don’t like cages, not for long.  I was created to be a guard, not a prisoner.  I look past Anderson to Lionel and Gordon.  Both are watching, spectators at a prizefight where the purse is a dozen corpses.

“I want out of here, Lionel,” I say, and start to rise.  The leash of my cuffs keeps me in my chair.  “Please.”

“Sorry, Father,” Lionel says.  Gordon only smirks.

“He’s no ‘Father,’” Anderson says over his shoulder to Lionel.  “Don’t buy his act, Officer.”

Lionel says nothing but his eyes narrow.  He doesn’t like being told what to do by the detective.

Anderson goes on: “These girls joined your little cult.  Did all the….,” his expression crinkles as he shuffles the pages of the dictionary in his brain to find a word, “…debased things you asked of them.  They thought you were a priest, or a sorcerer.  Isn’t that what they all said, Stewart?  Cripes, some of them still do.  And you returned their worship with murder.”

God did it first, I think, but say, “I am a man of God.  I didn’t do anything to them.  They were my flock.”

“Let’s see about that.”

He’s smiling now, and eyes me with the look of a hunter with a ten-point buck in his gun sight.  Then he shows me his hole cards, thinking I didn’t already know he had a pair of aces.  What he doesn’t know is that I’m holding jokers.

“We got the riot on tape, padre.  The whole thing.  Including events in the laundry.”

I make like I’m letting that register, and try to look frightened.  “There’s no camera in the laundry—“

He leans forward in his chair, grinning.  “Newly installed.  A week before.”

“A lie,” I say, bluffing, letting my skin flush.

“You fucked up, father.  Your little gang of apostles used the riot to pull Wojtowicz into the laundry and beat him unconscious.  Then they stomped on his windpipe.  I’ll bet one of them will say it was on your orders.  That makes it a conspiracy.”

“No,” I murmur, as if the word is pulled out of me with a fish hook, as if the room were spinning, though I know none of my apostles would betray me and I knew about the camera in the laundry.

Anderson laughs, the sound as harsh as the cough of a child with croup.  “Yes. And the life sentence you got for Janice?  That becomes a ride on the lightning for this.  We got a body.  We got a tape.  I’ll see to it you fry.  So will the D.A.”

I make like I’m as dumbstruck as Lucifer when he first hit the ground in Hell.

Gordon and Lionel look on.  Lionel looks vaguely distressed.  Gordon looks satisfied, though the look doesn’t quite leave his mouth to reach his eyes.  No doubt he likes that I’m being bent over.  No doubt he wishes someone other than Anderson was doing the bending.

The sunlight paints another line between light and darkness on the table, bisecting the pictures of the girls.  I snatch at the power oozing out of the border.

Anderson puts his finger on the faces of the girls on the table.  “You tell me where they are, including Janice, and I’ll see to it you get nothing worse than consecutive life sentences.  That’s better than dead.”

I stare at the pictures, at Anderson.  I speak my next sentence loud enough to ensure that Lionel can hear me.

“I had nothing to do with Jesse Wojtowicz’s death, Detective.  And I didn’t kill Officer Bergman.  Someone framed me.  Someone who knew how to do it.  You were at the trial.  She kept a diary, had a lover, a married man.  They’d been fighting.  She didn’t name him but I swear before God that he’s your murderer.”

Anderson can’t meet my eyes, unconsciously covers his wedding band with the fingers of his other hand.  It takes him a moment to gather himself.

“No.  I’m looking at her murderer.  You don’t want to give me what I need?  Then you can die in the chair.  Someone will turn on you, Stewart.  They might think you a sorcerer but they’ll turn.  I’ve seen it a hundred times.  I’ll look forward to seeing you burn.”

He starts to gather the photos and I let the moment stretch.  Gordon and Lionel share a glance and in that moment I signal to Anderson with my eyes that I want him and me without chaperones.  He takes the point, leaves the pictures where they are.

“Let me talk with him alone,” he says over his shoulder, and I can barely contain a giggle.

Gordon says, “That ain’t the way it works, Detective.”

Gordon speaks Anderson’s title with so much distaste he might as well have a turd in his mouth.

Anderson turns in his chair.  “He can’t hurt me and I won’t hurt him.  There’s a camera in here.  Now get the fuck out.  End of story.”

Lionel and Gordon both look like they’ve eaten something disagreeable.

“End of story,” Anderson says again.

“All right, Detective,” Lionel says.  “We’ll be down the hall.”

Gordon fires a shot in retreat as they walk away. “Asshole.”

Anderson ignores it.  To me, he says, “Talk.  Everything.  I wanna know where they all are.  I’d just as soon see you dead but the families need closure.”

And you need to salve the guilt of your adulterous heart.

I make a show of a deep breath, look at the pictures.

“I need a cigarette.”

Anderson grips the table.  “You need to tell me what I want to hear.”

“A cigarette, Detective.”

I nod at the vest pocket of his suit coat.  I know he’s got Marlboros in there.

Much turns on this so while he thinks of the best way to tell me to fuck off I take Officer Bergman’s picture in hand, stare at it.

The gesture does its work.  Anderson eats his sentiment, snatches away the picture with one hand, reaches into his pocket with the other.

He looks up at the camera, knowing he’s not supposed to give a smoke to an inmate.  But he’s never been one for rules.  Or vows.  He taps one out, holds out the pack.

I remind him of my manacles. “If you could light it for me, Detective.”

Eyeing me coolly, he withdraws it from the pack, places it between his lips, and fires it up with a Bic.  Unable to resist the pull of his addiction, he takes a long draw before offering it back to me, a priest offering the Host.

“Thank you,” I say and extend my right hand as far as I can.  I take care to hold the white coffin nail by the body, not the filter.  Perhaps I don’t need it to put Anderson away, but it pleases me to have it.  The smoke spirals toward the ceiling fan, toward Heaven, where it finds the “vacancy’ sign.

“Yeah, I’ll tell you what you want to hear.”

I clear my throat, lean forward, put my head in the space above the table.  He leans forward, too, drawn like so many by the promise of revelation.

Looking into his face, my back to the camera, I whisper the truth.

“Bergman is buried in your backyard.  At the edge of the pond.”

I palm the cigarette while my words register with him.  It’s a slow burn but he explodes just the same.  His expression goes from dumbfounded to enraged in the space of two breaths.  He lunges across the table for me, grabs me by the jumper, reaches for my throat.  His chair tumbles.  My chair tumbles, too, but my manacles prevent a retreat.   Spit flies when he speaks.

“You sick bastard!  I’ll kill you with my own hands!”

He starts to squeeze and Lionel and Gordon appear the cage door, Gordon working the keys.

“Help me, Lionel!” I squeak.

“I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch!” Anderson says.

“Detective!” Lionel shouts.  “Stop!”

Anderson’s face is unrecognizable, the handsomeness supplanted by rage.  I hold onto consciousness, onto the cigarette.  Gordon gets the gate open and both officers pull Anderson off of me.  He’s flailing wildly and catches Lionel in the jaw.  I could not have asked for more.  If I didn’t know better, I’d think God was helping me out.

“I’ll see to it you die here, Stewart!” Anderson screams. “I’ll see to it!  Take your fucking hands off me!  Take your fucking hands off me!”

Lionel and Gordon wrestle him to the door, interpose themselves between him and me.  He glares at them, his chest a bellows.  He glares at me, straightens his suit, and stomps out.  Lionel watches him go, massaging his jaw.

“What the Hell just happened?” Lionel asks of me, of Gordon.

Gordon only shrugs.

I shake my head and play like I got something to say.

“Father?” Lionel asks.

“Nothing.  Take me back to my cell please, Lionel.”

“Yeah, sure.”

He is too distracted to notice the cigarette I’ve palmed as he unhooks me from the table.

En route to my cell, we pass a window.  “Lionel, can I look outside for a moment?”

He considers, nods.

I stop at the edge of the light from the window, stand on the line that separates darkness and light.  I take the little power God has left there, combine it with the other bits I’ve harvested for the past month, and use the whole of it to transport the Marlboro into the dirt under Janice Bergman’s body.  The cigarette will be the final nail in the coffin of Anderson’s conviction.  No way it could have gotten there other than being left by the killer.

Or David fucking Copperfield.

“Something on your mind, Father?”

I turn and face him.  Lionel, the good Catholic, the noble soul.  “There is something I must say, Lionel.”

He winces, perhaps expecting me to confess to him.  He looks almost relieved when I utter my next words.

“Lionel, Detective Anderson confessed to me that he buried Officer Bergman in his back yard, near his koi pond.”

“Now, Father…”

I nod, acknowledging the absurdity of my words.  “I know, Lionel, but I am telling you the truth. Please report this, send someone to his home.”

Lionel shifts on his feet.  “Why would he tell you that, Father? Come on.”

I shake my head.  “I don’t know, Lionel.  Perhaps Detective Anderson was Officer Bergman’s lover.  Perhaps he was just toying with me, as is his wont.  But you saw what he is capable of.  He would have killed me if not for you.  I don’t know what motivates such men but please report it, Lionel.  See to it that someone investigates.”

Lionel considers, consults the requirements of his faith, nods.  “All right, Father.”

I smile a blessing at him.  “You’re a good man, Lionel.”

And thank God for that.

I return to my cell.  Nothing to do now but wait.  Tick tock.  Tick tock.

*   *   *   *   *

My lawyer contacts me the day after news of Anderson’s arrest breaks.  It’s all over the air, he tells me.  A police love triangle, murder, a body in his own backyard.  The cigarette found with the body is key, he tells me.  It’s Anderson’s brand and if it has his DNA, then Detective Anderson is going away for a long time.

I’m released in a month, just as Anderson’s trial begins.  I’m provided with a cheap suit, some pocket change, and a bus pass.  One of my apostles will be tried for Wojtowicz, but I will not be implicated.

Lionel is there to see me off.  “What are you going to do now, Father?”

He is relieved that I’m not the man he feared.  If only he knew.

“This and that, Lionel.  Eventually I think I’ll see the shore, the line where ocean meets terra firma.”

He nods, smiles.

“But the first thing I want to do is take a drive, grab something to eat.  Men and angels both gotta eat, right?   Can’t a blame man or angel for that, right?”

“I don’t know about the angels, Father.  But you can’t blame a man.”

I smile, because I do know about the angels.

“Be seeing you Lionel.”

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7 Comments

  1. I really enjoy how your descriptions of the guards are mirrored later in Uriel’s monologue.

    The writing is tight and each sentence tugs at you like a run in a sweater – you can’t let it be and must pull. But instead of the story unraveling like so much yarn, it forms a wholly new garb.

    I feel you’ve watched your fair share of crime dramas, as the story unfolds to your precise specifications, but is a complete surprise to readers!

  2. Amazing, amazing, amazing! Never have I been so enthralled by a short story. Thank you for this little bundle of joy for my brain this morning, Mr. Kemp!

  3. Pingback: “The Marlboro Man” by Paul S. Kemp « Roqoo Depot

  4. Darn it, you’ve sold me on another book. Truly phenomenal short story.

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