The Ignominy of the Devil
Fergus separated a portion of the venetian blinds and watched the man plod up the stairs to the second-story apartment. Now, Fergus didn’t consider himself a completely impatient person, but good God, it was going to be a struggle to not kill this guy as soon as he walked through the door. The dolt had shown up almost an hour earlier and just sat in his car. Fergus had debated withdrawing and coming back another day before the man finally exhibited signs of life.
It wasn’t as if Fergus didn’t have other things to do. His job may not be nine-to-five behind a desk, as much as he wished it was, but he still stuck to a schedule. Even after the bulk of the work, there was the time required to carefully pull open drawers and toss around furniture to make it appear as if it had not been done carefully. Then he had to go home, clean his tools, and try to scrub out any stains that may have missed his plastic bib and gotten on his clothes.
The whole idea was that by sunset, Fergus would be submerged in his easy chair with a bitter wheatgrass smoothie in one hand and a whodunnit in the other.
But before any of that, he had to actually do the work.
As his father used to say, he had to earn his keep.
As the man kicked the apartment door closed, Fergus snuck up behind him, wrapped an arm around his shoulder, and pushed the tip of a pocket blade into his neck.
“Oh!” the man yelped. “You scared me.”
At least he didn’t faint, Fergus thought. It’s way too early for that sort of thing.
“I wasn’t expecting company,” Stewart said. “Are you with the landlord? Here about that ant problem?”
“Seriously?” Fergus asked.
He guided Stewart around and faced him towards the couch. “Drop the groceries.”
The man complied. A six-pack fell on Fergus’s left foot.
“Son of a!” he said, flexing his toes to make sure they weren’t broken.
“Go! Sit!” Fergus yelled, pointing with his free hand to a floral-patterned loveseat falling apart at the seams while he hopped slightly on one leg.
Stewart shrugged and waddled away without needing to be prodded further with the knife.
Fergus wasn’t worried about any resistance. Usually, they were too scared at this point, but if need be, Fergus could take care of the matter. Being a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was immensely useful for this line of work.
You need to be prepared for anything. Another favorite refrain of his father’s.
Once Stewart took his place, the picture was complete. The whole apartment resembled a museum exhibit for Failed Man; an example of everything wrong with the world. Hung on the french vanilla walls were prints of snow-peaked mountains and fall landscapes that this guy had probably never seen in real life. DVD box sets were strewn around an old tube television: Season two of CSI was slightly buried beneath The Bachelor and Girls Gone Wild.
None of this was a surprise to Fergus. It was why he was here. He chose Stewart like he’d been taught to choose most of his ‘victims’ (a word he hated). Sitting outside the local AM/PM mini-mart each day for the past month, Fergus seethed, observing this pot-bellied, unkempt buffoon walk in empty-handed each day, exiting a minute later with a six-pack of Natural Light in one hand and a pack of Kool’s in the other. Looped around his free fingers was a plastic bag stuffed with more junk, most of which Fergus found in his pantry: Ding Dongs, Fritos, and dozens of those little powdered donuts that left a mess everywhere.
He imagined the taste of each of those sinful things on his lips, but pinched the thin skin of his wrists to snap himself out of it.
Time to get on with it, Fergus thought.
“You’re a mess, Stewart. I’m here to help clean things up.”
“Wait,” Stewart replied. “If you’re not with the landlord, how did you get in? And how do you know my name.”
Fergus wasn’t used to answering the questions. At this point in the process, it was usually Please! Please don’t kill me! that he was dealing with. Still, he didn’t see any harm in responding.
“To answer question number one, I just used the key in the fake rock you put next to your door. You know, the one not surrounded by any other rocks and the price tag still attached?”
Stewart’s eyes glazed over.
“As for number two,” Fergus continued with a slightly exhausted breath, “While you were out there doing God knows what in your car, I got bored, so I went through your stuff.” He indicated towards a pile of stuff on the kitchen counter. “You have loyalty cards for every damn store within a mile radius, not to mention piles of expired Blockbuster Video memberships laying around. They’ve been closed for over a decade, buddy.”
Stewart shrugged. It seemed as natural to him as blinking.
“What were you doing out there anyway?”
Stewart replied, “Sometimes I just get too tired to come in right away, so I sit out there and think. Hey, did you want to see where the ants are?”
“I’m not here for your goddamn ants.”
Stewart shrugged again.
“And stop shrugging.”
Stewart looked at his shoulders as if they were individuals. He managed to keep them in check.
Fergus cleared his throat. “As I was saying, you’re a mess and it’s my job to clean up messes.”
“Yeah, sorry. I don’t normally have company. But if you’re hungry,” Stewart directed his eyes toward a jar of cookie butter that had rolled out from his grocery bag near the door, “I have snacks.”
Fergus quickly fought back a rising thought. “I don’t eat that garbage. No nutritional value. Nothing good about it whatsoever.”
Stewart smiled. “Sure tastes good, though, don’t it!”
This wasn’t going as planned. Fergus decided he would just skip the initial part of his usual presentation and walked over to what could be called, by a long stretch of imagination, a dining room.
“Come here,” he said. “I want to show you something.”
The man inhaled loudly, then blew the air out of his cheeks as he picked himself up from the sofa and stood next to Fergus. Together, they stared down at the long, black leather case sitting on a worn table. Fergus unlatched the metal buckles on each end and flipped open the lid.
He looked at Stewart to gauge his reaction, but there was nothing there. No twitch in his cheeks. No gleam of fear in his eyes. Just an emptiness.
“Huh,” Stewart said.
“That’s right,” Fergus said, trying to build some momentum. “My tools. Most of them pretty sharp and painful.” A smile crept across his face.
Fergus caught Stewart looking at his own shoulders again.
“Look,” Fergus said, throwing his hands in the air. “I don’t get it. I greet you with a knife at your throat. I drop not-so-subtle hints that I’m about to kill you, and then I show you how I’m going to do it. How are your pants not loaded down with shit right now?”
Stewart looked Fergus in the eyes. “Honest truth?”
“I was thinking of killing myself today, anyway. Figures something like this would happen.”
This was a new one. Fergus didn’t quite know how to approach the situation. He felt something stir inside. An unusual emotion that defied all classification.
“Well,” he fumbled for words. “You don’t have to worry about that now.” They sounded stupid as soon as they left his lips.
“Nope,” Stewart said. “Guess not.”
He wasn’t even being stoic, Fergus thought, just obtuse. He tried to increase the fear factor.
“Do you want to know how I’m going to kill you?”
“Eh, not really,” Stewart replied. “I guess I’ll just find out.” He attempted a pathetic smile that seemed to rile up Fergus’s unusual emotion even more.
“Oh.” An awkward silence. “Do…do you want to talk about it?”
Fergus put his hand to his mouth. Did he just ask that question?
Stewart took a deep breath and blew it out his mouth. “Not really.” He absentmindedly picked up one of the serrated blades sitting in the case and lightly ran his finger across its sharpened edge. A tiny cut opened up and blood began to pool. There was a brief sign of emotion.
Fergus wasn’t sure he heard him correctly.
“Why do you do it?” Stewart asked.
Why do I do it? A question Fergus had occasionally posed but dismissed out of hand. He didn’t need a reason other than it was a job and it was what was expected of him.
“Well, it’s just what us McDowells do. I come from a proud line of men who are, in my father’s words, ‘society’s moral pilots.’” Again, Fergus put his hand to his mouth. Why was he confessing all this?
“Is it fun?”
“Fun?” The notion made Fergus’s voice crack. “You think this is fun?”
He yanked the knife from Stewart’s hand and thrust it back into the box. The slamming shut of the case rattled the pathetic artwork hanging on the walls.
“Let me tell you right now, there is nothing fun about what I do. I take this very seriously. I have to.”
“I didn’t mean–”
“Having no ambition. Sitting on your couch and guzzling cheap beer. That’s fun, right? No responsibilities there.”
Stewart was silent, finally.
Fergus had always tried to treat his career seriously. It was a job and his father had instilled in him, through all means possible, a strong work ethic.
“Why do you have to take it so seriously?”
“Why? Why do I have to?” Fergus thought his head might explode. On the one hand, that was probably a good thing. With his blood boiling, he was reminded of why he was here. The anger always made his task easier. Maybe this new line of questioning meant that he was headed in the right direction. Each “session” seemed to have a different driver, after all.
“Look, I get that you have zero things in your life to worry about–”
“That’s not true!”
Alright, Fergus thought. An ounce of emotion after all. But Stewart appeared wounded and that damned weird feeling was building up in Fergus. He suddenly felt exhausted and he’d barely gotten underway. He maneuvered himself to the recliner beside the couch and sat on its edge. A part of him worried that he was wasting time, but another part seemed to be intent on shutting the first part up.
“Tell me,” he asked, speaking calmly, “why are you thinking of killing yourself? You don’t seem to have obligations to anything or anybody.”
Stewart walked over to the front door and picked up the fallen beer. He yanked two cans from the plastic rings and brought them over to the couch, collapsing into a deeply indented cushion. The sound of releasing pressure seemed so loud. He placed an open can in front of Fergus and took a loud slurp from the other.
“That’s just it. I don’t have any friends. Mopping floors at night means I don’t converse with anyone at my shitty job. My parents moved to Florida and haven’t talked to me for ten years. Who would know if I was gone? No one would care.”
Ugh, Fergus thought. Why did he have to say that?
“So, after I slice you into tiny little pieces and use your entrails to spell out vague clues, there’s not a single person that would come to your funeral? No one to push the police to try and solve the murder after they’d mark this a cold case?”
Stewart shook his head slowly and rested his chin on a chubby palm. A streak of blood from his recent cut smeared across his left cheek.
“Look, I won’t fight back. Do you have to tie my hands? I have this weird issue with not being able to use my hands. I mean, maybe you’ll need to. I can’t say that I won’t try to resist a little. If, I mean, if that’s what you want.”
Flabbergasted. That was the appropriate word for how Fergus felt. This Stewart was ruining everything. Completely unorthodox.
He’s not scared enough, Fergus thought, and neither am I. It was time to for some motivation.
“Take off your shirt,” he said. “I want to see your disgusting body before I make you beg to have parts of it back again.”
Stewart hesitated for a moment but set his beer on the table. The t-shirt was way too small. It was like trying to pull an old sticker off a wooden surface: nearly impossible without tearing the thing in multiple spots. Fergus had to help him until they were both breathing way too hard.
Though Stewart had some flab around the middle and was showing signs of gynecomastia, he was disappointed that the man’s torso wasn’t completely revolting. He was as hairless as a twelve-year-old boy. If anything, Fergus felt even worse. He thought about just slicing Stewart’s throat and leaving, but what would be the point in that?
“I can’t….I can’t do this.”
Stewart blinked and lifted his head. “Why not?” He sounded offended.
Fergus ran to his instruments, hoping the sight of them would give him one last charge. His legs felt so weak as he stood before the case and stared at his father’s initials embossed on a gold plate beneath the handle. He found himself collapsing onto the stained carpet beside the table, sobbing uncontrollably.
“Hey, hey.” He felt a hand on his shoulders. “Take it easy.”
“Take it easy?!” Fergus tried to say through choking tears. “If my father was alive to see me now, he would disown me.” The words came in a torrent now, without regard. “I hate this job. I hate my life. I never had a choice in this.” He mimicked his father’s voice:
Why don’t you want to strangle the kitten, son?
Where’s your book report on the Son of Sam, Fergus?
No, you idiot, you don’t use a cleaver for sawing work.
“Hey, now,” Stewart said. The sternness in his voice shocked Fergus out of his breakdown. “At least you had someone who cared! Some of us didn’t even have that.”
“Well, if you think it’s so great, here!” Fergus shot up onto his feet, slammed the black instrument case shut and shoved it into Stewart’s hands. “You do it!”
There seemed to be a minute of awkward silence between them until Stewart said, “Do you think I could?”
It was a day for firsts. That much was obvious.
“I mean it. I feel like my life has zero meaning. Oddly enough, this would give me purpose.”
Fergus was tired of being a McDowell and the expectations that came with the name. Within a matter of minutes, he had come to the breakthrough realization that he no longer wanted to serve his family, and yet by a chance of fate, he picked the one person that wanted his job.
An idea sparked in his mind.
Fergus’s eyes grew intense with pleasure as the sticky substance dripped down his index finger.
He licked it clean.
Cookie butter was everything it sounded like and more.
“Now,” he said, his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth, “I’ll probably pass out a few times, so make sure you keep the smelling salts handy at all times.”
“Got it, got it.”
It made Fergus feel good to see Stewart wield the blade so deftly.
“And when you’re done, don’t forget the bleach. Lots of bleach. Bleach is your friend.”
For the first time in a long time, Fergus sported a genuine smile.