1st Place – March 2020

The Vultures Visit

by Gary Christenson

Steam swirled upward from my third cup of coffee and fogged the kitchen window. Outside, four vultures rested in a dying tree, waiting for me. I named them Death, Famine, War and Pestilence.
I lit my cigar and suffered through shooting pains in my throat and chest. Every day I smoke four or five aromatic cigars and drink too much bourbon. These small pleasures dull the pain and allow me to sleep.
Each cigar costs twenty bucks. The price of bourbon makes the cigars look like penny candy. I don’t care because they taste fabulous and help me survive the day. My cigar and bourbon habits cost me over sixty grand per year, chump change for an ex-bank executive.
At this rate, I’ll run out of money in the next century. The vultures and I know death’s icy finger will soon tap my chest. My throat and lung pains are severe. I can smell my ill health.
Did I mention I live in a tiny house in a small town, call it Podunk, in central Texas near the former home of an ex-president? I made a huge effort to conceal my new name, Jorge Valdez, and address when I disappeared from my former life.
A liquor store in a nearby town special orders cigars and bourbon. The proprietor, Adam Hernandez, acts happy when I walk into his store. He asks about my health every time I pay for my standing order.
After smoking a cigar one dreary day, I glanced out the kitchen window. Only the first vulture remained. Pleased, I sat in my favorite recliner and savored the complex flavors and scents of fine bourbon. When my pain diminished, I smiled, trusting I would soon achieve my goal.
The next morning, while drinking coffee, someone knocked on my door. I have no friends. I don’t receive mail, and I never order from Amazon. Who would knock on my door? The police, volunteer firemen, a nosey neighbor? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Who?
I shuffled from the kitchen and opened the front door. Every step hurt. After my initial shock, I greeted my visitor.
My heart fluttered. “Hello, Janet. Come in.”
“Good morning, Dad.” My only daughter looked healthy, allowing for fifty years of stressful New York living and fifteen extra pounds. She had overdressed for Podunk, wore a dark blue Armani suit and Jimmy Choo pumps. Her hair was short, probably styled at an exclusive New York salon. Capped white teeth smiled at me. Perfect makeup enhanced her dark and predatory eyes.
***
The last time I saw her was years ago, after I walked out on Heather, her mother and my New York fashionista wife. At lunch in a posh New York restaurant, Janet expressed her undying anger that I abandoned her mother. I told her, “It had to happen. I’m sorry I hurt you.” She refused to understand.
My banking executive job paid well, so I left Heather a comforting pile of Treasury Bonds and never looked back.
I missed Janet, but even when we both lived in New York, I seldom saw her while she worked her dangerous jobs in the dark shadows of Wall Street.
In my sixties, I lobbed a bomb into my successful banking career. I abandoned five million per year in salary and bonuses, plus ego satisfying power and influence. Living with what I had to do as a banking executive became intolerable. Our bank foreclosed on thousands of homeowners and evicted those families to survive who-knows-where. I hated myself and the bank for those and other heartless, but profitable, decisions.
Mindful of many suspicious banker suicides, I informed our CEO I possessed incriminating records stashed in a safe place. I claimed an unspecified person would produce those records for a federal agency if I suffered an untimely death. That night I disappeared from New York City.
I had created my new identity as Jorge Valdez months earlier. My assets were hidden and liquid. Jorge Valdez arrived in Podunk weeks later. I left no paper trail.
***
I asked Janet, “Can I offer you coffee and a chair?”
Janet accepted both, crossed her legs, and said, “How have you been?” Her tense voice reeked with hatred.
I said, “Old age has not been easy. Half of my body hurts, and I suffer throat and lung problems, but considering I’m seventy-three, I’m doing okay.”
She stared at me for another minute, examined my humble home and studied the floor.
I asked, “How did you find me?”.
“You smoke those Arturo Fuente Opus X cigars. Few people know your taste in cigars and bourbon. You drink an exotic bourbon, Four Roses Private Barrel. Both are expensive.”
My daughter is intelligent. She followed my breadcrumbs.
Warming to her story, she said, “I spoke to cigar shops in New York, spread money around, and discovered one shop sent regular orders to many locations in the country. I enquired about your favorite bourbon with liquor wholesalers. It’s expensive and somewhat rare.
“When I cross-checked the two lists, I found interesting connections. I asked myself, where would dad prefer to live? Is St. Paul, Minnesota likely? What about the Oregon seacoast? South Florida? Seattle? Los Angeles? Or central Texas? Knowing your distaste for both coasts and cold weather, I assumed Texas. I bribed several people and discovered a tiny liquor store in rural Texas ordered thousands of dollars of expensive cigars and booze, your brands.”
Janet paused. Her smile was smug. I thought about my goals.
“How am I doing?”
“Good detective work. Did Adam at Hernandez Liquor sell me out and give you my name and address?” I didn’t blame him. Janet can be persuasive, and hundred-dollar bills loosen most tongues.
“Don’t get upset with Adam. I had leverage on him, and I sweetened the pot with several C notes. Yeah, he sold you out, but he felt bad doing it.” She sounded triumphant.
“So, you used my personal tastes and found me. Most people wouldn’t think of that approach or know my preferences.”
I paused and asked, “How is Heather? I often think of her.”
“She died an ugly death a couple years ago. Neither of us forgave you for leaving her.”
“Another coffee?” There was more to her story. I knew what was coming. My stomach flip-flopped with anticipation.
“No, I’m fine. But there’s another reason I came to see you.” She inserted a hand into her purse and took a deep breath.
“Janet, it’s good to see you. Before you do something terminal, I must tell you several things.” I watched her arm.
“I’m happy you came to see me. You’ve fulfilled a long-term dream of mine. I don’t blame you for accepting the contract. You did accept their contract?” I saw surprise in her eyes, but she quickly recovered.
She said, “You always were too smart for me, probably for everyone. Yes, I took the contract on you. Your former employer still views you as a significant threat to their livelihood and profits. They want you silenced, even though the statute of limitations has passed.” Her hand remained inside her purse.
I told her, “No hard feelings. It had to happen, and I’m glad they offered the contract to you.” I smiled and made no move to escape. “I needed to see you again.” My hands shook, and my voice quivered.
“Look in that corner.” I pointed. “Inside that cabinet is a safe. The combination is twelve, seventeen, sixty-eight. Before you leave, open the safe and empty it. The contents will please you. It’s yours.” Tears poured from my eyes. Love and relief overwhelmed me.
Janet looked at me in complete shock. “Twelve, seventeen, sixty-eight is my birthday.” Her mouth dropped open.
I wept and waited. Seeing my daughter again made my heart soar. My chest pain disappeared for a moment.
“You knew I’d come, and that I hated you enough to accept the contract. And knowing that, you still love me. Dad, you always surprise me.”
I smiled through my tears of gratitude. “Do what you must, empty the safe, and leave. Your employer will want a picture and fingerprint. Drive west and fewer people will see your car. No one will discover my body for several weeks. Thank you for releasing me.”
 “Dad, you deserve to die for the misery you caused Mom.”
Janet removed her handgun, screwed on the silencer, and shot me through the heart.
My last thought was I loved her and hoped she’d find peace. I heard the last vulture fly away as I slumped forward into a welcome death.

 

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