Deacon sat in the waiting room pretending to read a magazine as the clock ticked and tocked on the wall overhead. He looked at the words and looked at the pictures but none of them actually entered his mind. His attention was on the door and the room that was behind it. The door with the nameplate saying J.C. Braddock, the name of the man who owned the building and the company within it and who also owned Deacon, in a manner of speaking.
When Mike Dominguez found him twenty minutes earlier, he said that Braddock wanted to see him. Deacon knew it couldn’t be good. The boss hardly ever called him into the office. The few times he had in the past, he had yelled and thrown things. So Deacon wasn’t too keen on going inside.
He’d been sitting here fifteen minutes already. Just long enough to wonder and worry and let his thoughts run away. There were no windows in the waiting room, nor were there any pictures hung, and the clock on the wall was like no other clock. Its ticks and its tocks were a mechanical pulse pumping perpetual pangs to his heart.
The door opened. It was Dominguez.
“C’mon in, Deacon.”
Deacon folded the magazine and set it aside. He got up and followed Mike into where J.C. Braddock, thin, sallow and balding, with a glass of brown liquid trembling in his hand, sat behind his desk, looking just like he always looked.
“Have a seat, Deacon. Right there is fine.”
Deacon sat in one of the two puffy chairs. Mike sat down in the other. The office was much nicer than the waiting room. There were colors in here, things on shelves and windows with sunlight. It was nice to be here after being where he was, and Braddock’s ashen face showed no signs of yelling.
“How have things been?” He sipped his brown liquid.
“Good as good can be.”
“That’s good, that’s good.” He drank more liquid. “You still like what you do?”
“You’re not tired of Illusion Aerosol yet?”
“Not enough that anyone would notice.”
Braddock smiled. His teeth were yellow. The two had known each other since school days. They’d never been friends and never cared to be. At a high school party they’d had a drunken brawl and Deacon had won but suffered concussion. He still had minor problems with movement at times, and occasionally his mind struggled.
J.C. had married into money. His wife had inherited the family business.
Mopping floors was all Deacon knew how to do.
J.C. Braddock gave Deacon his job.
In a manner of speaking, Braddock owned Deacon.
Braddock pushed back from his desk just enough to give room, then bent and lowered and came back up and when he did he held a box and he placed it on his desk.
“Today’s a special day, Deacon. Do you know what today is?”
“No, sir, I don’t.”
“It’s my tenth anniversary.”
“Ten years today I’ve been married to my wife. You were married once, weren’t you?”
“And what happened?”
“That’s right, yes, I’m sorry.” He took another sip and looked at Mike Dominguez, who was sitting there quietly. “Anyway, I’ve been planning things all week. Different kinds of things to celebrate this day, you know?” He pointed at the box he’d put on the desk. “This is one of the things I’ve planned. It’s a gift, one of many, but this one is extra special.” He lifted a lid on a different box and took out a cigar and put it in his mouth. He struggled with a match. “You run errands for me from time to time, don’t you?”
“I have in the past.”
“That’s fine, just fine.” He puffed up smoke and then changed the subject. “Do you still sing?”
“I haven’t for a while.”
“I remember you having a great voice.”
“That was a long time ago, I know, I know. You used to sing that old love song. You remember the one?”
“‘How Deep is the Ocean’.”
“Yeah, that’s right. That’s the one. Man, you were as smooth as Sinatra.”
Braddock looked at Mike Dominguez again. Dominguez sat with one leg crossed over the other. Deacon kind of wondered why the guy was here at all.
Braddock puffed his cigar and then drank some drink. He straightened up a little and smiled.
“I want you to run an errand for me, Deacon. Can you do that?”
“It’s not a standard errand, mind you. This one requires a little more instruction and a little… bravado.”
Deacon shifted his weight around in his chair. “What would you like me to do?”
Braddock pointed to the box he’d placed on his desk. “This box is a gift. It’s a gift for my wife. One of several anniversary gifts.”
“It’s a nice box.”
“Yes, the box is nice, but the gift is inside.”
“What is it?”
“I can’t tell you that. I tell you what’s in it, you might let it slip. Then it wouldn’t be a surprise, like I want it to be. You see this here?” He pointed to the box. It was a small red leather box, about the size of a book; but what he pointed at was the feature on the box’s exterior. A strap that crossed from the bottom to the top and on the top was a brass latch with a tiny keyhole. “You can only open it if you have the key, but there’s a catch to the whole thing. The box is useless, really. The leather is fake and the wood underneath is mostly sawdust and wax. I have the key right here in my pocket. Thing is, the lock is set so it can only be opened once. When the latch is undone, it’s broken forever.”
“You should take it back to wherever you got it. Sounds like they gypped you.”
Braddock smiled at Deacon then smiled at Mike and then emptied the glass he’d been sipping at. “No, I wasn’t gypped. The box is made that way on purpose.”
“Seems a silly thing to make on purpose.”
Braddock kept on smiling and poured himself another drink. Deacon didn’t see where the bottle had come from. “All right, okay,” he said. He drank and then crossed his arms and placed them on the desk. “I’ll let you in on a bit of the secret. Promise you won’t tell anyone?”
“I wouldn’t know anyone to tell.”
“Okay then.” He leaned a bit closer. “The box is sort of a gag gift, Deacon. There’s a reason once it’s closed it can only open once.”
Deacon edged a bit closer and squinted at the box.
“You know those party poppers? Those little plastic champagne bottles with confetti inside?”
“The kind where you pull the string and it shoots like a canon?”
“Exactly, yes. This box here”—he nudged it a bit closer for Deacon’s benefit—“it’s a lot like one of those. A little fancier, yeah, and instead of pulling a string you turn the key. The bottom of the box stays in tact but the top explodes in a shower of flower petals and confetti.” He slid the box across the desk. “In the bottom part is a very special gift for my wife.”
“How’d you get it in there with all the confetti and stuff?”
“I had it specially made.”
Deacon moved closer and studied it. It was impressive craftsmanship.
“It’s just about lunchtime,” Braddock continued. “Would you like to make a hundred dollars on your break?”
“What, exactly, do you want me to do?”
“Just a simple errand. My wife should be at home. I thought it would be really romantic if you could deliver this box to her.” He drank some more and put out his cigar. “But I wonder if you could maybe do it sort of like, you know, a singing telegram.”
“Aren’t there places you can call that do that? I don’t sing much no more.”
Braddock frowned. “Well, sure, I could call someone, but I thought of you first. Seems anytime I hear about you, you’re struggling. I figured it could be a quick little side job to make some extra money.”
“Well then, thanks for thinking of me, I guess.” Deacon had worked here fifteen years. In that time he’d never gotten a raise unless the law required it.
“So how about it? You can take off for lunch early. Just go to my house and when my wife answers, you sing her that song you’re so good at singing…”
“‘How Deep is the Ocean’.”
“Yeah, you sing her that, and when her eyes are all teary and the song’s almost done, unlock the box and she’ll jump. Then she’ll be showered in flowers and confetti and you can hand her the box so she can see her gift.”
“That’s really sweet,” Mike Dominguez said.
“Just remember when you give it to her,” Braddock went on, “tell her it’s a gift from her loving husband, and our special day has not even begun. By the end she’ll be breathless. Can you remember all that?”
Deacon repeated this last part and Braddock seemed satisfied. Braddock reached into his pocket and took out a small key and a hundred-dollar bill. He slid both across the desk, next to the box.
“Thanks, Deacon. I knew I could count on you. I can always count on you.”
Deacon stood up and put the key and the money in his pocket and picked up the box and made his way to the door.
“You can take a long lunch, if you like,” Braddock told him. “Aw, hell, take the rest of the day off. I really appreciate what you’re doing.”
“You’re welcome,” Deacon said. “And thank you.” He stepped out of the office and was back in the waiting room. He could no longer hear the tick-tock of the clock.
Back inside the office Dominguez poured himself a drink while Braddock stared at the door.
“Asshole,” he said.
Outside the street was lined with other buildings. People hurried this way and that, heading to lunch or on errands of their own. Deacon moved among them with the box under his arm. Cars, horns, footsteps and voices, all of it white noise at the highest decibel.
A hundred dollars. That was real money. He hadn’t made that much for doing so little ever in his whole life. Cora would have been proud of him. She would have smiled and kissed him and said what she always said. She always told him he had the potential to be a polymath, if only he’d focus and worry less. She always told him he could excel in anything if he’d just allow himself the chance to do it. Like singing. She always loved when he sang and he loved to sing, and people always told him how good he was. When he had the nerve to do it. He hoped he’d have the nerve today. It wouldn’t be worth a hundred dollars to Braddock or anyone else if his worry grew up to fear and fluttered his heart and tremored his hands and rubbered legs.
But there was nothing to fear. Braddock’s wife would be so surprised that she wouldn’t even be listening to him. She’d know there was a song and that would be enough. Her attention would really be on the fake red leather box that was tucked under his arm. The box with the gag-gift lock on it. The gag-gift buckle box. He knew about the confetti and the flower petals, but wondered what the actual present was.
After ten minutes of walking the buildings thinned out. Trees sprouted up and the sidewalks turned grass. A dog barked from an enclosed yard, and Deacon stopped and put his hand in his pocket. He double-checked that the key was still there. It was, and so was the money Braddock had given him. Satisfied, he continued walking.
A couple minutes later he arrived at the house. He cleared his throat and tried to find the proper singing key and took out the box key and rang the doorbell. He held the box out in both hands like an offering, then stood there, waiting.
No one came to the door. After a time he rang the bell again. He waited again, but nobody answered. He sighed and tucked the box back under his arm. The neighborhood was lovely and the day was stunning. He rang the bell one more time and when no one answered, he walked to the street and thought what to do. He didn’t want to let Braddock down. If it wasn’t for Braddock he wouldn’t have a job. Cora had been the moneymaker, but now she was gone and it was Braddock who helped him. Maybe they never much got along, but Braddock could have let him rot. He didn’t, though; he gave him a job, and when Cora died and he lost his home, Braddock gave him a home in the building’s basement.
Another waiting minute and he walked away. The grass paved over and the trees shrank, and five minutes later the town was a town again. All the time he walked he thought about things. He remembered the man from years and years ago, who asked if he could record Deacon’s voice. They stood in the man’s living room and the man played piano and Deacon sang along with it. On a table between them had been a recorder, a little portable cassette player that picked up the piano and his voice, and played them both back as a song.
They didn’t much make tape recorders anymore. On the other hand, it had been a long time since he’d bothered to look for one. Around the next corner was a pharmacy and drugstore. Deacon went in and found a few shelves of electronics. To his surprise they carried a small black boom box with a CD player and cassette recorder. They also had blank audiotapes. Not very many, but he only needed one. Both things together cost less than twenty dollars. That was okay; he’d still made more than eighty for such a simple job.
He carried it all back to Braddock’s house and set everything down on the porch. He rang the doorbell again and waited. Just like before there was nobody home. He put the buckle box aside and opened the recorder and opened one of the blank audiotapes. There was a socket in the wall and he plugged the boom box in and then opened the cassette tray and put in the tape. He looked around to make sure he was alone, then he pushed the button that began the recording. He gave it a moment, counting in his head, and when the rhythm seemed right he began to sing.
It felt good to sing, and he sounded pretty good, at least to himself. He closed his eyes and imagined he was singing to Cora. He loved the way she looked, starry-eyed and smiling as he sang about love. There was no fear for him then. Only the music. The soft gliding music.
When he came to the end he took a brief pause. Then, keeping his voice in the tone of the music, he said the message Braddock told him to say.
He stopped the recorder and smiled. He felt good about himself and what he’d just done. When Braddock learned that his wife wasn’t home, he’d be impressed with the plan that Deacon had constructed. He rewound the tape then set the stereo and the buckle box so Mr.s Braddock would see them but no one on the street could. He put the little key on top of the buckle box, then gathered everything else and was about to walk away when Mrs. Braddock pulled into the driveway.
For a moment she seemed skeptical, but then she lit up like a low-watt bulb and said, “Is that you, Deacon?”
“How are you? What brings you here?”
He looked at the stereo, the box and the key. The recording was useless now but that was all right. Now he could do what he’d been asked to do, and this way he could also take the boom box with him.
“I’m afraid our timing didn’t quite mesh. I understand today is your anniversary.”
“Oh, you were sent by J.C.”
“Isn’t he the best, and aren’t you a peach?”
“Thank you. I’m supposed to surprise you with a special delivery.”
“You are too much.” She wrinkled her nose and smiled. “Tell you what. I’ll go inside and then you ring the bell. We’ll forget this part of our meeting ever happened.”
“All right, sounds good.”
Mrs. Braddock went to the front door. As she unlocked it, she saw the stereo and the buckle box. Her eyebrows were question marks and she pointed and smiled.
“Too much,” she said, then went inside.
Deacon cleared his throat and found his pitch. Then he picked up the box, pinched the key between his fingers, and rang the doorbell.
A moment went by and she opened the door and the moment she did he began to sing. Her face lit up again. Tears filled her eyes. She clasped her hands with joy in front of her.
Deacon watched her as he sang, and the more he watched her the more she looked like Cora. He loved the way she looked, starry-eyed and smiling as he sang about love. His dear wife, Dear Cora. There was no fear for him. There was only music. With his Cora there was never anything but music. The soft and gliding, passionate music.
She stepped back and he stepped in. The distance between them closed. They stood in the foyer and the door drifted shut. The foyer was small but they both still had room. He held up the box like a man holds a ring. He held it as if he were proposing again, asking Mrs. Braddock, asking Cora to spend her life with him.
He slid the key in the slot and finished the song. She was starry-eyed and smiling and he turned the key. There was a pop, like opening champagne. The top of the box exploded, just like Braddock said it would. But there weren’t any flower petals. There wasn’t confetti. There was a bitter-almond smell that came fast and hard. The sight of Mrs. Braddock gasping for air and collapsing in seizures. His own heart and breathing and nerves went berserk. Weak and confused and sick to his stomach, he fell down, too, twitching beside her. And then he wasn’t breathing, and everything went black, and then he passed out.
J.C. Braddock was plenty drunk. He usually was by this time of day. For the past few hours he’d gone over his story again and again. Drunk or sober, he could repeat it backwards.
He had sent Dominguez to the store for another bottle. The one he had was nearly gone. Now, at least, it should all be over. That needy bitch should be gone from the earth. Ten years to the day and now he could breathe. And good riddance Deacon, half-wit bastard. Two birds with one stone, in a manner of speaking. He knew how they both acted and knew what they’d do. She was a backer, he was a pacer, and the front door never stayed open on its own. Just stick to the story and go through the motions, and then he could enjoy life once again. And this time he could enjoy it with money not attached by strings.
Someone knocked at the door. Dominguez with his bottle.
“Yeah, come in.”
But it wasn’t Dominguez. It was three men who entered. One wore a suit. The others wore uniforms.
“Jason Carl Braddock?” the suited man asked.
Petals of ice opened up in his stomach. “Yes?”
“Would you come with us, please?”
“Why? What’s going on?”
One of the uniformed men walked around the desk with handcuffs.
“You’re being charged with the double murder of your wife and Deacon Jennings.”
“What?” Never in a delirious nightmare had words sounded more savage. This one direct statement contained more hell than the dark forms and faces that broke him apart each and every night at bedtime for the last ten years. “Impossible.” He looked back and forth at the expressionless faces. “There’s some kind of mistake,” he said, metal clicking around his wrists. “There’s gotta be a mistake. This is nuts. I’m sure whatever’s going on, there’s a simple explanation.”
“Agreed,” the suited man said.
When they put him in a squad car he saw Dominguez in another. On the way to the station he rearranged his story to fit it with the unexpected turn, but the story fell apart before it even got started. He was able to argue that anyone from the company could have obtained the hydrogen cyanide, and sure, Dominguez was the chief mechanical product engineer. He could have certainly rigged up a box to trigger and release that amount of gas. Yes, even at a concentration of 3500 PPM. Anyone in the company could have done it. Hell, Deacon could have done it.
“Well, you tell me. He was there.”
“Yes, he was.” The suited man nodded at the one-sided mirror. Then the door opened and an officer came in carrying a black boom box.
“What’s all this?”
“A voice from beyond,” the suited man said, then nodded to the officer, who plugged in the stereo and pressed play on the tape deck.
There was the sound of a throat clearing, then a voice like an amateur Sinatra began to sing “How Deep is the Ocean,” and the room became full of watchful intentness.
Braddock sat, unmoved, for the entire length of the song, guilt shrieking out in the form of sweat. With all eyes on him, all ears on the music, his heart rate increased and his hands started shaking, until, finally, the song came to an end.
“This is insane,” Braddock said.
“Wait,” the suited man told him. “There’s more.”
A couple seconds of audio hiss slithered throughout the room, turning the stuffiness to a noxious gas. Then, in a sweet and sonorous voice, Deacon spoke again from the past.
“Hello, Mrs. Braddock, this is Deacon Jennings. I work for your husband, and he asked me to bring you this delivery of love. Your not being here kind of spoils it a little, but he’d asked me to sing you that song, and to present you with this gift, which I will leave here with this stereo and recording. I can get the stereo later, or you can keep it, I guess, if you want. He said it’s a gift to you from your loving husband, and your special day has not yet even begun. By the end, he hopes to leave you breathless. Gosh, heh, I lost my wife. You’re lucky, Mrs. Braddock. You’re lucky to have someone love you so much. This key here I’m leaving. It goes to the little latch. Be careful when you use it. Your husband said the box could only be opened once.”
Braddock drew a breath and closed his eyes.
“Asshole,” he said to himself.
Trent Zelazny is the Nightmare Award-winning author of To Sleep Gently, Fractal Despondency, Shadowboxer, The Day the Leash Gave Way and Other Stories, Destination Unknown, A Crack in Melancholy Time, Butterfly Potion, and the soon to be released Too Late to Call Texas. He was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has lived in California, Oregon, Arizona, and Florida. He is currently back in Santa Fe. He also loves NBA basketball.