Art of the Kill
‘It’s beautiful,’ Oliver concluded, as they gazed upon the sprawled corpse illuminated before the large furnace of snaking flames. ‘Like a soldier from those old Greek war paintings.’ A gentle exhale escaped his lips. ‘Beautiful.’
‘Not to me’ Jim replied. ‘Just looks like a mess. And its eyes creep me out – we should’ve closed ‘em. They were fixed on me all the way down.’ He looked back up the stairwell. ‘Come on, I need my money.’
A moment passed, and then Oliver moved forward. Standing by the head, he tucked his hands under the corpse’s armpits, and Jim wrapped his arms around its weighty knees. ‘One,’ Oliver warned. ‘Two. Three!’ With a groan, they heaved up the corpse, staggered to the furnace door and, straining, were able to tip it over the threshold. It landed with a dull thump. Panting, they stepped back from the burning heat and squinted into the blaze. The frenzied flames converged upon the body, as though each flame were a caged animal, desperately struggling against the others for the long-awaited morsel of sustenance. In seconds, all flesh was lost behind the ravenous horde. Jim shut the furnace’s iron door with a resounding clang, and turned the screeching wheel on its front until it locked. Oliver closed his eyes, inhaled the warm air, and listened to the soft hiss coming from behind the door: he imagined the corpse’s cold body devoured in the fire, its congealed blood licked up by hundreds of hungry tongues.
‘Did you know,’ Oliver said, ‘that in some cultures, by burning him, we would be freeing his soul for passage into the next life.’
‘Perhaps in exchange,’ Jim said, ‘for our own.’ He gave Oliver an insistent look, and Oliver collected from the floor the small wooden box.
Outside, the air was noticeably fresh, and the cars and people seemed unsettlingly loud after the heavy silence below. In the pure sunlight, every detail appeared precise and sharp. After several minutes’ speechless walk, they arrived at a little shop, which seemed to be pressed in by the two newer shops either side of it. The worn brown print across the window read: ‘Miller’s Pawn Shop’.
‘Morning,’ the owner welcomed with a husky voice, peering over the thin bronze rims that circled his small glasses.
‘Morning,’ the two men responded, and they made their way toward the owner. Oliver placed on the counter the small wooden box, and removed the lid. Inside lay a gold signet ring. ‘How much can we get for this?’ Jim asked.
The owner gave a hushed whistle as he stooped to inspect the ring. He picked it up between his forefinger and thumb, and twisted it in the light, while rotating his head around it for different perspectives and smiling. ‘You didn’t bump anyone off for this, did you?’
‘Of course not,’ Oliver said. ‘Do we look the type?’ The owner gave an appreciative chuckle.
‘Obviously,’ the owner said, ‘I can’t offer you a great deal, but if you’re after a quick sale, I can pay you eighteen-hundred pounds.’
Oliver looked at Jim. Jim gave a slight nod. ‘That sounds fine,’ Oliver said. The owner’s face brightened, and he turned aside to draw the money from the antiquated till. As he did this, the solemn ring drew Oliver’s attention. The sight of it conjured vague thoughts that gradually sharpened with clarity: meeting Penny for the first time in the deep-blue evening of the park: sitting at his desk in the Civil Service Department, agitatedly checking the defiant clock above: holding the gun, desperate and prepared to do what was necessary, sensing the moment of action stalk toward him inexorably.
‘Here you go,’ the owner said, holding out a wad of mostly purple notes. Oliver shook the reverie aside, and Jim took the money.
In the street outside, Oliver said, ‘That should clear your debts.’ Jim just stared: something inconsolable lurked in his glazed eyes.
‘What are you going to do now?’ Jim asked.
‘I have an appointment I’ve got to keep.’
As nothing in the world engaged Oliver during the fifteen minute walk, he withdrew to the event that at the time had seemed a blur, but, as he mulled over it, seemed more vivid than the present. There was something quite intoxicating about losing oneself in the past. With surprise, he realised that his feet had taken him to the door of his destination.
The waiting room’s walls were coated with a drab green. The colour reminded Oliver of the back wall of Penny’s garden, but he thought that would look very pretty in the sunshine, when they would eat there in the summer, free and together. But this room faced away from the sun, and therefore was tarnished with gloom. Penny should never have contact with it.
The door opened, and a woman emerged, seemingly in contemplation. ‘You may come in now, Mr. Lawrence,’ the voice inside the room said. Oliver entered. Dr. Holloway, seated behind her desk with the familiar plaque on top, studied him as he made his way to the leather couch, then stared at the file in front of her, presumably his, gravely; tiredness, perhaps. Not till he had settled against the headrest did she speak.
For an hour they discussed his recurring and vivid hallucinations. Oliver liked to view their sessions as an intricate spar between two seasoned acquaintances: both knew what to expect, and while there was always the chance of a mistake, the possibility of injury never felt plausible. Today, the adrenaline coursing through his blood allowed him to mislead her probes for the truth with a joyful ease. She would never pry open the common clam to reveal the hidden pearl within. Yet, intermittently, Dr. Holloway would spy Oliver rubbing his wedding finger while he talked, apparently unaware of what he was doing. But she chose not to pursue it. She pushed it from her thoughts, and continued the routine.