*69, p.1Blake Crouch
a short story by
* * * * *
Blake Crouch on Smashwords
Copyright 2010 by Blake Crouch
Cover art copyright 2010 by Jeroen ten Berge
All rights reserved.
PRAISE FOR BLAKE CROUCH
Crouch quite simply is a marvel. Highest possible recommendation.
Blake Crouch is the most exciting new thriller writer I've read in years.
*69 is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
"*69" originally appeared in Uncage Me, edited by Jen Jordan and published by Bleak House Books, July 2009.
For more information about the author, please visit www.blakecrouch.com.
For more information about the artist, please visit www.jeroentenberge.com.
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* * * * *
At nine-thirty on a Thursday evening, as he lounged in bed grading the pop quizzes he’d sprung on his 11th grade honors English class, Tim West heard footsteps ascend the staircase and pad down the hallway toward the bedroom.
His wife, Laura, appeared in the open doorway.
“Tim, come here.”
He set the papers aside and climbed out of bed.
Following her down the squeaky stairs into the living room, he found immense pleasure in the architecture of her long legs and the grace with which she carried herself. Coupled with that yellow satin teddy he loved and the floral tang of skin lotion, Tim foresaw a night of marital bliss. Historically, Thursdays were their night.
Laura sat him down in the oversize leather chair across from the fireplace, and as she took a seat on its matching ottoman, it struck him—this fleeting premonition that she was on the verge of revealing she was pregnant with their first child, a project they’d been working on since last Christmas. Instead, she reached over to the end table beside the chair and pressed the blinking play button on the answering machine:
Ten seconds of the static hiss of wind.
A woman’s voice breaks through, severely muffled, and mostly unintelligible except for, “…didn’t mean anything!”
A man’s voice, louder and distorted by static: “…making me do this.”
“I can explain!”
“…late for that.”
A thud, a sucking sound.
“…in my eyes.” The man’s voice. “Look in them! …you can’t speak….but…listen the last minute…whore-life…be disrespected. You lie there and think about that while…”
Thirty seconds of that horrible sucking sound, occasionally cut by the wind.
The man weeps deeply and from his core.
An electronic voice ended the message with, “Thursday, nine-sixteen, p.m.”
Tim looked at his wife. Laura shrugged. He reached over, played it again.
When it finished, Laura said, “There’s no way that’s what it sounds like, right?”
“There any way to know for certain?”
“Let’s just call nine-one—”
“And tell them what? What information do we have?”
Laura rubbed her bare arms. Tim went to the hearth and turned up the gas logs. She came over, sat beside him on the cool brick.
“Maybe it’s just some stupid joke,” she said.
“What? You don’t think so?”
“Remember Gene Malack? Phys ed teacher?”
“Tall, geeky-looking guy. Sure.”
“We hung out some last year while he was going through his divorce. Grabbed beers, went bowling. Nice guy, but a little quirky. There was this one time when our phone rang, and I picked it up, said, ‘Hello?’, but no one answered. The strange thing was that I could hear someone talking, only it was muffled, just like that message. But I recognized Gene’s voice. I should’ve hung up, but human nature, I stayed on, listened to him order a meal from the Wendy’s drive-through. Apparently, he’d had our number on speed-dial in his cell. It had gotten joggled, accidentally called our house.”
One of the straps had fallen down on Laura’s teddy.
As Tim fixed it, she said, “You just trying to scare me? Let’s call your brother—”
“No, not yet—”
“No, you’re saying that a man, who we know well enough to be on his speed-dial list, was killing some poor woman tonight, and he accidentally…what was the word?”
“Thank you. Joggled his phone, inadvertently calling us during the murder. That where you’re going with this?”
“Look, maybe we’re getting a little overly—”
“Overly, shit. I’m getting freaked out here, Tim.”
“All right. Let’s listen once more, see if we recognize the voice.”
Tim went over to the end table, played the message a third time.
“There’s just too much wind and static,” he said as it ended.
Laura got up and walked into the kitchen, came back a moment later with a small notepad she used for grocery lists.
She returned to her spot on the hearth, pen poised over the paper, said, “Okay, who are we close enough friends with to be on their speed-dial?”
“Anyone we know.”
“My parents, your parents, my brother, your brother and sister.”
“Jen.” She scribbled on the pad.
“Shanna and David.”
“Jan and Walter.”
“Dave and Anne.”
“Paul and Mo.”
“Hans and Lanette.”
“Kyle and Jason.”
“Corey and Sarah.”
This progressed for several minutes until Laura finally looked up from the pad, said, “There’s thirty names here.”
“So, I’ve got an unpleasant question.”
“If we’re going on the assumption that what’s on that answering machine is a man we know murdering a woman, we have to ask ourselves, ‘which of our friends is capable of doing something like that?’”
For a moment, their living room stood so quiet Tim could hear the second hand of his grandmother’s antique clock above the mantle and the Bose CD player spinning Bach up in their bedroom.
“I’ve got a name,” he said.
“Oh, come on, you’re just saying that ‘cause he took me to that titty bar in Vegas, and you’ve hated him ever—”
“I hate most of your college friends, but he in particular gives me the creeps. I could see him turning psychotic if he got jealous enough. Woman’s intuition, Tim. Don’t doubt it. Your turn.”
“Your friend Anne’s husband.”
“Dave? No, he’s so sweet.”
“I’ve never liked the guy. We played ball in church league a couple years ago, and he was a maniac on the court. Major temper problem. Hard fouler. We a
“So what should I do? Put a check by their names?”
“Yeah…wait. God, we’re so stupid.” Tim jumped up from the hearth, rushed over to the phone.
“What are you doing?” Laura asked.
“Star sixty-nine. Calls back the last number that called you.”
As he reached for the phone, it rang.
He flinched, looked over at Laura, her eyes covered in the bend of her arm.
“That scared the shit out of me,” she said.
“Should I answer it?”
“I don’t know.”
He picked up the phone mid-ring.
“How’s my baby boy?”
“I’m fine, but—”
“You know, I talked to your brother today and I’m worried—”
“Look, Mom, I’m so sorry, but this is a really bad time. Can I call you back tomorrow?”
“Well, all right. Love you. Kisses and hugs to that pretty wife of yours.”
“You, too. Bye, Mom.” Tim hung up the phone.
Laura said, “Does that mean we can’t star sixty-nine whoever left the message?”
“I don’t know.”
“You think there’s some number you push to like, double star-sixty—”
“I don’t work for the phone company, Laura.”
“Remember, I suggested we buy the package with caller ID, but you were all, ‘No, that’s an extra five bucks a month.’ I think it’s time to call the police.”
“No, I’ll call Martin. He’ll be off his shift in an hour.”
A few minutes shy of eleven o’clock, the doorbell rang.
Tim unlocked the deadbolt, found his brother, Martin, standing on the stoop, half-squinting in the glare of the porchlight, his uniform wrinkled, deep bags under his eyes.
“You look rough, big bro,” Tim said.
“Can I come in or you wanna chat out here in the cold?”
Tim peered around him, saw the squad car parked in the driveway, the engine ticking as it cooled.
Fog enveloped the streets and homes of Quail Ridge, one of the new subdivisions built on what had been a farmer’s treeless pasture, the houses all new and homogenous, close enough to the interstate to always bask in its distant roar.
He stepped to the side as Martin walked into his house, then closed and locked the door after them.
“Laura asleep?” he asked.
“No, she’s still up.”
They walked past the living room into the kitchen where Laura, now sporting a more modest nightgown, had put a pot of water on the stove, the steam making the lid jump and jive.
“Hey, Marty,” she said.
He kissed her on the cheek. “My God, you smell good. So you told him about us yet?”
“Never gets old,” Tim said. “You think it would, but it just keeps getting funnier.”
Laura said, “Cup of tea, Marty?”
Martin and Tim retired to the living room. After Laura got the tea steeping, she joined them, plopping down in the big leather chair across from the couch.
Martin said, “Pretty fucking quaint and what not with the fire going. So what’s up? You guys having a little crumb-cruncher?”
Laura and Tim looked at each other, then Laura said, “No, why would you think that?”
“Yeah, Mart, typically not safe to ask if a woman’s pregnant until you actually see the head crowning.”
“So I’m not gonna be an uncle? Why the hell else would you ask me over this late?”
“Go ahead, Laura.”
She pressed play on the answering machine.
They listened to the message, and when it finished, Martin said, “Play it again.”
After the message ended, they sat in silence, Martin with his brow furrowed, shaking his head.
He finally said, “I know you’re too much of a cheap bastard to have caller ID or anything invented in the twenty-first century, so did you star-sixty-nine it?”
“Tried, but Mom called literally the second I picked up the phone.”
Martin undid the top two buttons of his navy shirt, ran his fingers around the collar to loosen it.
“Could just be a prank,” he said. “Maybe someone held the phone up to the television during a particular scene in a movie.”
“If that’s what it is, I don’t recognize the movie.”
Martin quickly redid the buttons on his shirt, said, “What do you think you’ve got there?”
“I think someone’s phone got jiggled at the worst possible moment, and we were on their speed dial.”
“You call nine-one-one?”
Martin nodded. “There’s gotta be a way to find that number. You know, something you dial other than star-sixty-nine.”
Tim said, “Star-seventy?”
“I don’t know, something like that.”
“We tried to call the phone company a little while ago, but they’re closed until eight a.m. tomorrow.”
Martin looked at Laura, said, “You okay, sweetie? You don’t look so hot.”
Tim saw it, too—something about her had changed, her face seasick yellow, hands trembling imperceptibly.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“You sure? You look like you’re about to blow chunks all over your new carpet.”
“I said I’m fine.”
Martin stood. “I need to use the little girl’s room.”
Laura watched him walk out of the room and down the first-floor hallway, and only when the bathroom door had closed, did she look back at Tim and whisper, “You see it?”
“When he unbuttoned his shirt a minute ago, it exposed his white tee-shirt underneath.”
“So I saw blood on it, and I think he saw me looking at it, because he buttoned his shirt up again real fast.”
Tim felt something constrict in his stomach.
“Why does he have blood on his shirt, Tim?”
The toilet flushed.
“Listen, when he comes back out, you say since you aren’t feeling well, you’re going to bed.” The faucet turned on. “Then go upstairs and wait several minutes. I’m gonna offer Martin a drink. We’ll sit in the kitchen, and you sneak back down and go outside, see if you can get into his squad car.”
“I don’t think he brought his cell phone inside with him. He usually keeps it in a little pouch on his belt. Probably left it in the car. Get it, and look back over the outgoing history. If he called our house at nine-sixteen tonight, we’ll know.”
“And then what?”
The bathroom faucet went quiet.
“I don’t know. This is my brother for Chrissakes.”
Tim opened one of the high cabinets above the sink and took down a bottle of whiskey.
“Old Grandad?” Martin asked.
“What, too low-shelf for you?”
“That’s what Dad used to pass out to. Let me see that.” He grabbed the bottle out of Tim’s hands, unscrewed the cap, inhaled a whiff. “Jesus, brings back memories.”
“You want ice or—”
“Naw, let’s just pass it back and forth like old times in the field.”
They sat at the breakfast table, taking turns with the fifth of Old Grandad. It had been several months since the brothers had really talked. They’d been close in high school, drifted in college, Martin only lasting three semesters. Tim had come home two years ago when Dad’s liver finally yelled uncle, found that something had wedged itself between him and his brother, a nameless tension they’d never acknowledged outright.
And though all he could think about was the message and Laura, he forced himself to broach the subject of Mom—hostile territory—asked Martin if he thought she seemed to be thriving in the wake of Dad’s passing.
“That’s a pret
“I didn’t mean it like—”
“No, you’re saying she’s better off without him.”
Beyond the kitchen, Tim heard the middle step of the staircase creak—Laura working her way down from the bedroom—and he wondered if Martin had heard it. The last two steps were noisy as well, and then came the front door you could hear opening from Argentina. Nothing else to do but get him riled and noisy.
“Yeah, Martin, I guess I am saying she’s better off without him. What’d he do these last five years but cause us all a lot of heartache? And what’d you do but step in as Dad’s faithful apologist?”
“Ever heard of honor thy father, Tim?” Martin’s cheeks had flushed with the whiskey and Tim wondered if he’d intended to raise his voice like he had. His brother’s back was to the archway between the kitchen and the living room, and as Tim saw Laura enter the foyer and start toward the front door, he tried to avert his eyes.
“You know he beat Mom.”
“Once, Tim. One fucking time. And it was a total accident. He didn’t mean to shove her as hard as he did.” Laura turning the deadbolt now. “And it tore him up that he did it. You weren’t here when it happened. Didn’t see him crying like a goddamn two-year-old, sitting in his own vomit, did you?” Tim could hear the hinges creaking. “No,” Martin answered his own question as the front door swung open, cold streaming in. “You were in college.” Laura slipped outside, eased the door closed behind her. “Becoming a teacher.” Any curiosity Tim had harbored concerning his brother’s opinion of his chosen profession instantly wilted.
“You’re right,” Tim said. “Sorry. I just…part of me’s still so pissed at him, you know?”
Martin lifted the bottle, took a long drink, wiped his mouth.
“Of course I know.”
Tim pulled Old Grandad across the table, wondering how long it would take Laura. If the cruiser was locked, there’d be nothing she could do but come right back inside. If it was open, might take her a minute or two of searching the front seats to find the phone, another thirty seconds to figure out how to work Martin’s cell, check his call history.
*69 by Blake Crouch / Thrillers & Crime / Horror / History & Fiction / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes