Two Halves Don't Always Make a Whole
Lanny put on his plastic shoe covers and stepped into the house. The lady was talking, but the room stole his attention. Pink carpet, mid-century lamps, and that drop-leaf coffee table…he’d had déjà vu before, but….
The schlunk of the deadbolt engaging brought him back to himself, and he turned to the woman. Mid-40s, blonde, neat—even prim, he would’ve said. Old-fashioned hairdo, like she’d stepped out of a black-and-white tv show—I Love Lucy or something.
Her face, too, was familiar, but there was something wrong with it…something missing or something added. He couldn’t tell which. Maybe both.
“Is something the matter, Mr. Thompson?”
Lanny tried to reinstate his poker face, even though Elvin always told him he didn’t have one. “No, ma’am, just gettin’ the lay of the land. Which way to the kitchen?”
She started walking, and Lanny suddenly realized he knew perfectly well where the kitchen was. It bugged him that he couldn’t puzzle out how. Felt like trying to put his memories back together after they’d been shredded in a garbage disposal. Darned old age.
It came to him as they crossed the kitchen threshold. He’d been in this house before…only it’d been across town—identical right down to the pink carpet. An eerie chill spiked the hairs on the back of his neck. Same decorator maybe?
Lanny strode over to the sink and set his bag down. “Let’s take a look here.” He knelt, grabbed a wrench, and leaned into the cabinet.
Something brushed up against his leg, and he slammed his head on the top of the cabinet.
He groaned and rocked back on his heels.
The woman stood uncomfortably close. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Thompson.” She didn’t look sorry, though. She looked…amused. “I was just trying to watch what you were doing so I can fix it myself if it happens again.”
While he looked at her, the face of that other woman finally materialized in his head…the pretty brunette in her 20s. Her, he couldn’t forget. Just took him a minute to put the woman and the setting together. Different women; identical houses. Weird.
He rubbed the knot already forming on the back of his head. “That’s all right; just startled me.” A familiar ache formed in his chest, though, and he rubbed it absent-mindedly. His pipes were just as clogged as this kitchen sink.
Alt-Lucy put a hand on his shoulder. “Let me make you a cup of tea.”
He leaned in to unscrew the p-trap, and suddenly found he didn’t like putting his back to this woman.
Stop it, you old fool. You’re here to work, not get the namby-pambies.
He pulled the trap away, and saw the grimy charm of a necklace dangling from one end. He wiped it with a shaky finger: half a heart that read “…ther, …ever.”
His blood turned to sludge, and a sharper pain shot through his chest.
He’d pulled the other half of that necklace out of a toilet a week ago—the part that read, “Toge..., for….”
What are the chances? he asked himself. Zero chances at all, he answered.
This crazy I Love Lucy wanna-be was the stalker that pretty brunette had tried to escape.
Last week’s lady had sobbed out a near-unintelligible story after Lanny held the necklace up as the culprit.
Moved across town, she said. Changed her name. Quit her job. That necklace had come early on when she’d just thought she had a nice secret admirer. She’d forgotten it was in her jewelry box. Flushed it when she noticed.
“Just when I thought I was rid of him! It feels like he always finds a way to come back. He killed people—anyone who came in my house. The gardener died, and my housecleaner, then the electrician. I didn’t know about all of them at once, because none of ‘em came regular. And they all seemed like accidents, so I didn’t put it together at first.”
Lanny had stood by awkwardly while the woman hunkered on the bathroom floor. How do you comfort someone when your hands are covered in toilet water anyway?
Plumbing wasn’t supposed to be dramatic.
Turned out, the brunette didn’t know the half of it. Not a man stalker…a woman. And based on this carbon copy of her house, the brunette never had been rid of him/her. This stalker-woman had seen that new house with her own eyes—and not just a glance either.
And here I am, bent over with my back to a murderer and my head under a sink.
A plumber’s stance was mighty vulnerable when you got right down to it.
He stood up, gripping his wrench tightly in one hand and keeping one eye on the woman. He made a show of knocking the rest of the grime out of the p-trap into the trash can, then set it down by his bag.
He considered running, but that wouldn’t help. She knew who he was; she’d called him after all. He wondered if he could take her. He wouldn’t normally have doubted; granted, his beer-belly and his heart were both marks against him, but he was a foot taller. She’d killed before, though. Maybe she knew jiu-jitsu. Or maybe they just hadn’t seen it coming. Could he kill a woman if it came to it? Yes…yes, he thought he could, if it was “kill, or be killed.”
The brunette’s words seemed like accidents echoed in his mind. He scanned the kitchen and wiped away a pearl of sweat that rolled down his face. Would he crash through a weakened floor joist? Succumb to an odorless gas leak? He sure wasn’t gonna drink any of that tea.
The teapot whistled as if on cue, and he jumped again. Another pain in his chest told him the “accident” might happen without any help at all. He’d normally reach for a nitro pill, but then she’d know he had heart problems. He didn’t want to give her that advantage.
Psycho-Lucy held a cup of tea out to him. “It’s chamomile; it’ll help your head. I’m awfully sorry about that.”
“No, thank you, ma’am.” He prided himself on his nonchalance. “My prostate’s gotten a bit too friendly with my bladder. At my age, it’s more efficient just to dump the tea in the toilet.” OK, maybe he’d overdone it with the second half. “I’ve got some aspirin in my truck, though; think I’ll run out and grab it.” He turned toward the door, but stiffened as a hand gripped his arm.
“Oh, don’t go all the way out there.” She pulled him across the kitchen. “I’ve got aspirin right here.”
He watched as she poured two into her hand and held it out. She was practically daring him.
She knows I know.
Guess Elvin was right about that poker face.
She couldn’t have poisoned everything in the house, though…could she?
No way she’d figure on me wantin’ an aspirin.
He took the tablets and dry-swallowed ‘em, never breaking eye-contact.
“So, you found the trouble?” She gestured to the sink.
Why were they still pretending? She knew he knew. He knew she knew he knew. They might as well just spit it out. And how would that go?
“Hey, Lady, I know you’ve killed at least three people and stalked a poor young woman to ruin.”
“Oh, of course, Mr. Thompson, and I’m going to kill you, too, just as soon as you stick your head back under my sink.”
“I don’t think so; I’ll just be on my way and call the police.”
“And tell them what, Mr. Thompson? That there are two women with strangely similar tastes in decor?”
“There’s the necklace…”
“Ahh, yes. And where is the other half?”
Gone with that morning’s trash. The brunette had begged him to take it away.
Then they’d be back to “kill or be killed.” Lanny felt another stab at his heart—thankfully, just one sent by his body’s own internal electrical pulses. He thought of that poor, broken woman and started to get angry—really righteously angry—for the first time in years.
I might be old and fat and grumpy, but I’m no coward. I won’t die with my crack in the air and my head in a cupboard. If it’s my time to go, I’ll die defending that poor woman.
“I think I’ve done all I plan to do to your sink.” He met the woman’s gaze as if withholding his plumbing services turned him into a bastion for good practically on par with William Wallace.
A maddening sort of smile rippled across her lips. “Oh? It seems you haven’t quite finished.”
“No, ma’am.” He found he couldn’t break his habit of politeness. She was a customer, after all. “But I’m done all the same.”
Alt-Lucy slid into a chair at the kitchen table. “What shall we do instead then, Mr. Thompson?”
She had him there. Stare at each other till one of them fell asleep? Challenge each other to mortal combat?
He sat down across from her. “Why do you harass that poor young woman?” he finally asked.
“She doesn’t know what’s good for us.”
Us? Lanny tried to wrap his brain around that. “She doesn’t even know who you are, lady…there is no ‘us.’”
“Oh, but I know who she is….”
The woman raised a hand from her lap, and Lanny tensed, gripping his wrench a little tighter. Stupid. What was he gonna do…beat her with it? He couldn’t even stop calling her ma’am.
The stalker removed a blond wig, then slowly unwound a long, brunette braid. She proceeded to fake a reenactment of last week’s sobbing discourse before smiling sweetly at him.
The wrench fell from his hand and clattered to the floor.
So that’s what’s wrong with her face. It isn’t hers.
“You can’t be…I mean, you’re so much older….”
Was it makeup?
“Of course, I’m older,” alt-Lucy snapped. “She needs me to be older because she’s weak. I have to protect her. She’s better off without that job; she hated it anyway. And those people I killed were thieves.”
“All of ‘em?” Lanny shook his head doubtfully. “Besides, I’m not…I didn’t even charge her…um, you, after you told me the story.”
“I’m not her, you idiot. I didn’t tell you anything.”
“OK, OK.” Lanny held his hands up. He’d heard of stuff like this, but he was out of his depths.
“Anyway,” alt-Lucy said, “you probably wanted something else from her.”
“I didn’t!” Lanny objected. “I felt sorry for her…wished I could do more to help. I’m trying to help her now!”
Alt-Lucy stood and stepped toward him.
Lanny felt another pang, and this one set his left arm on fire. “Killing people isn’t helping her, you know.” He clenched his teeth against the pain. “She’ll go to jail eventually, and then how are you gonna help her? She’d never make it in there. You’d have to lock her up inside you—a prison in a prison. It’d be the same as killing her.”
He felt himself sliding from the chair but was powerless to stop it.
“I believe you are trying to help her, Mr. Thompson…and maybe you have a point.” She towered over him where he lay on the floor. “It’s a shame really; we might’ve been friends. But I don’t think you’re gonna make it.”
He gasped for oxygen. “You should help her be strong,”—wheeze—“not fight her battles.” His chest heaved. “Introduce yourself…work together…”—he wheezed again—"…help each other.”
The world started turning black. Lanny didn’t know if the aspirin was poisoned or if his heart gave out. He didn’t care. He wasn’t dying a coward. He’d been defending that girl…no, both of those girls. Because she was the same girl, broken into bits.
“I think you’re right, Mr. Thompson. I will introduce myself….”
Lanny heard the words as if they came from a long way off.
“…just after I get rid of your body.”