The Beetle Literary Crime Short Fiction By Erik Dargitz

The Beetle: Literary Crime Short Fiction By Erik Dargitz

In The Beetle by Erik Dargitz, a listless hitman becomes intrigued with his newest target.

*****

George stared through the glass at the multi-colored tapestry of candy bars, bags of chips and packs of gum.

Something sweet, yes, but nuts or no nuts?

Some would think it funny how things like this could stall out his tired mind, when he had no reservations about what was next. The whole ending-of-a-life thing.

But: caramel or nougat? Or neither? Or both?

Not funny funny, but you know: unusual. But it wasn’t, really. Not when you stopped and thought about how our DNA is 1.4% away from that of a chimpanzee.

Pan troglodytes.

Anyway: he’d narrowed it down to Peanut M&M’s or Snickers.

The other business was already all figured out. That was easy. Clean and simple, nothing messy. He wasn’t a sicko, after all. He was a businessman, and this was business. Sprinkle the powder, down the hatch, voila, nighty-night, paycheck earned, go home, pour a glass of wine, watch Fallon, fall asleep on the couch.

Now, the upside of the Peanut M&M’s is that they lasted longer. You could have one here, one there, no commitment, no biggie.

Tonight’s job was no biggie, either.

He wasn’t a sicko, after all. He was a businessman, and this was business. Sprinkle the powder, down the hatch, voila, nighty-night…

For the record, toothpicks killed more people a year than he did, but you didn’t see folks putting the workers at Chef David’s Fine Culinary Accessories on trial. It’s all how you look at things. More people choked to death on candy bars, too, come to think of it.

Now, with Snickers, see, you got it all. All the good stuff in each bite. So, there was that to consider.

He didn’t know anything about her, and didn’t really care to. Her name was Madison Mayfield, but it might as well have been Jane Doe. Or Mary Poppins. Or Lady Gaga. Or the Queen of England. All the same. All Homo sapiens. We don’t ask questions when a Procapra gutturosa gets her throat ripped out, do we? That’s a Mongolian gazelle.

We’re no different. Not really.

Rule #7: Don’t question it.

If he had to wait for Ms. Mayfield, he figured he’d want his candy to last. So, Peanut M&M’s. There. B17 on the keypad. George reached through the little doggy door and grabbed the yellow bag. He tossed it in his jacket pocket and climbed into his car.

It didn’t matter why Madison had to go, or what she had done. Just another Mongolian gazelle.

He checked the tracker on his phone and saw she was on the move. George sighed. He preferred the days when you had to use your own skills and intuition to track a target. Now some nerd hacks into their phone and, ta-da, you see their every move while you’re buying candy. Or watching Netflix. Or sitting on the pot. Takes the sport out of it.

The world held no surprises anymore.

For his money, though, she probably cheated. With looks like that? He had the photo on his phone, and she was something. Add a jealous husband, a little neglect, a dash of suspicion. Give him enough money, and there you go. It’s an old story. Seen it a hundred times.

Surprises were extinct.

Oh, but whatever. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe Madison was an oil tycoon that made some bad business decisions. Maybe she was a Martian princess that some galactic federation wanted assassinated. What did he care? He was just the telephone pole that falls on the car in a windstorm. The nephrosis in your grandpa’s kidneys. The peanut allergy swelling up little Timmy’s throat. The peanut doesn’t decide who is guilty. It just does its job.

And, for the record, nobody ever blames the peanut.

George drove with his window down, breathing in the warm air of another clear San Diego night, chewing a piece of chocolate. The boats in the harbor glowed pale, like a hundred ghosts. The city rose to his left, full of gazelle. Gazelle who didn’t know they were gazelle.

He wasn’t like them. Not a gazelle. Maybe a Panthera pardus. A leopard. A predator, camouflaged into its surroundings. Probably something like that. Probably something on the Red List of Threatened Species, too. Whatever he was, there sure weren’t many like him, he knew that.

A big herd of humans waiting for the crosswalk. Waiting to be told it’s okay to move. So much decorum. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not covet. Thou shalt not let your grass get too long. Thou shalt not cross the road until the light says it’s okay. If thou do killeth even though we said thou shalt not, then thou shalt pick on someone your own size.

See, these gazelle, they go, oh how could a man kill a woman? That’s worse than normal man-on-man murder, they say. What a sicko, they say.

So sexist, thought George. Were all lives not equal? Of course they were. Whether in hiring opportunities or political opportunities or murdering opportunities. All same-same. Only a real sicko would treat different races, genders, classes and creeds as more or less human. He was no sicko.

George pulled into the big parking lot at Seaport Village. He crunched an M&M. The sun had fully set now, and the night crowd was out. Cigarettes and street lights and car horns and drunk laughs and distant songs all blending together.

According to his little phone tracker, Madison was walking into the Mexican restaurant.

He sat in the car and waited.

Rule #9: Don’t enter a building at the same time as the target.

His windows were still down. Warm air floating along. He watched a mosquito buzz in through the window and out again. A Culex pipiens. 

George yawned, wishing he’d gotten coffee. The truth was, he was more bored than tired. There used to be a little rush in his work, but after a while it was just a factory job. Adding wingnuts to widgets and sending them on their way. Next. Adding powder to a person’s drink and sending them on their way. Next. It wasn’t how it looked in the movies. These were generic store-brand murders. Nothing crazy. He wasn’t the guy wrapping the hotel room in plastic. He wasn’t the guy with a garotte wire or a car bomb or a knife in an alley. Professionals didn’t spill blood. They just spoiled it.

Boo hoo, he thought. Life’s so tough. Maybe he just needed a vacation. Something exciting. Something to break up the monotony.

But for now, time to go to work. He tossed the last M&M in his mouth and climbed out of his car.

Madison was sitting at the bar, which made it all too easy. He asked the hostess for a seat in the bar area, too. Open seating, she said. Just order at the bar. George found a high-top near the target.

The place was a Mexican restaurant, but it wasn’t really Mexican. It was upscale hipster chic American, but with Mexican candy skulls painted on the walls. It was all exposed concrete and piping. It was all Top 40 hits. It was all pretty people and overpriced lengua tacos.

He sat at his high-top, almost close enough to touch her. As expected, she was by herself. She was telling the bartender how she was here on business. What business, the bartender asked. If I told you, I’d have to kill you, she said. George smiled, at least inside.

She asked the bartender: Did you know that chile con queso was invented by Kraft? In America? Not Mexican at all, she said.

George liked smart people. They were the only ones worth spending your time on. Madison, she sounded smart—and maybe a little snotty, too, not that George was here to judge. She could have been Mother Teresa for all he cared. It was going to end the same either way.

Then she went and ordered the chile con queso anyway. I don’t care where it was invented, she said. Give me all the Velveeta cheese.

So, she wasn’t snotty, he thought. Just funny. Not that it mattered.

Rule #1: Don’t let the target become human. 

That was good advice, it really was. But it was mainly meant for rookies. Greenies. He was beyond that. He was on autopilot. Plus, he was bored and he found her interesting.

George had the strychnine in a little baggy in his pocket. The nice thing about strychnine was that it took a couple hours to go to work. That meant you would go your separate ways long before it happened. That meant the target was usually alone, and by the time anyone found them you were gone, far away from the crime scene. The other nice thing was that it was fool-proof. There was no guessing game with the dosage. If you drank it, you were on a one-way ticket and that train ain’t stopping.

Madison was looking down at her phone, like every other person in the bar. Every other person in the world. Phones made it so easy.

Phones also killed thousands of people every year with distracted drivers alone. But everybody loves cell phones.

George walked up to the bar, directly next to the target. He never even looked at her, but he could see her all the same. Years of practice.

Rule #2: Don’t engage the target unless necessary.

He looked down at the bar-top menu. Decisions, decisions.

Rule #5: Don’t drink on the job. 

A good rule of thumb, but this was a cake walk. This was an electrician screwing in a bulb. He wasn’t going to electrocute himself dead because of one drink.

George usually went with a beer. He could make it last if needed, nursing one while he waited for his window. A margarita didn’t sound too bad either, though. When in Rome and all that.

Madison mashed away at her touchscreen beside him. He could see it all. His periphery was second to none, a skill he’d honed to perfection.

Now: beer or margarita?

Madison smelled really nice, by the way. Floral, but not overpowering.

These were the decisions that really turned his brain into a pretzel. The beer? Old reliable? Or something different: the margarita?

Madison poked and swiped at her phone with her index finger. Emails, by the looks of it. Popular lady, by the looks of it.

The bartender asked if he knew what he wanted. He still did not.

He asked the bartender: Do your margaritas use sweet and sour mix, or are they from scratch? The sweet and sour gave him heartburn. This might help him choose.

Get the mango margarita, Madison said.

George went: What?

For the record, the target engaged him.

Get the mango margarita, she said again, smiling. It’s really good.

She lifted her own as if displaying it for an advertising photo.

A rookie might abort the mission right here, but there was no need for that. None of it mattered. George could do this in his sleep.

The mango margarita, huh?

What the hell, he thought. He ordered the mango margarita. She gestured to the seat next to her with a flourish.

What the hell, he thought. It was against the rules, but those rules weren’t for pros like him. Veterans like him.

She introduced herself. He gave a fake name, not that it mattered. She asked where he was from. He gave a made-up birthplace, not that it mattered.

Madison told him there were theories that the margarita wasn’t invented in Mexico either, but in Dallas. Just like the chile con queso.

A sizzling plate of steak fajitas floated by. Cooked pieces of a Bos taurus. A plain old cow. Also not from Mexico, she said. Fajitas were a Tex-Mex thing. From Texas.

They talked about real Mexican food. Lobster down in Baja. He told her the Latin name for the California spiny lobster, its binomial nomenclature. Panulirus interruptus. He told her that he knew the Latin names for tons of animals.

You’re weird, she said.

He suddenly regretted engaging with the target. It was a mistake. He was very stupid.

But then:

That’s a compliment, she said. Weird is fun. Weird people are the only interesting ones, anyway, she said. If you’re not weird, you’re just sheep.

Ovis aries.

He didn’t regret anything anymore. In fact, he was captivated by Madison. She saw him for who he was—except for the murderer part. He could talk to her for hours.

Well, he couldn’t, but he’d have liked to.

Rarely did George ever get bummed out by having to remove a person from the planet. There were too many people, anyway. About 6 billion too many, according to scientists. But Madison was different. He liked her. He could have pursued her if he wasn’t paid to kill her. And also if failure didn’t mean a price on his own head. But they could have been good together in another life.

Her with her quick wit. Him with his fun weirdness.

But he was no rookie. In fact, he was a professional of the highest degree. How much so?

This much so: the strychnine was already in her drink.

He’d sprinkled it in while he had been looking at the menu. Before they’d even started talking. Sleight of hand. Under the cover of distractions: menus, TVs, that cell phone.

Abracadabra! A rabbit out of the hat.

Abracadabra! Cut the assistant in half.

Abracadabra! Make your life disappear.

On the outside, she had two and a half hours left. He knew he couldn’t stick around all night, but they were right in the middle of a good conversation. They were talking about favorite cities. George had been to a million. Perks of the job. Madison had been to a million and one.

They were done with their drinks. The strychnine was in her belly.

But then they ordered two more mango margaritas. What the hell.

Oh, and she was electric. She was just what he needed. He’d been desparate for something to come along and surprise him. After a life like this, not a whole lot made the old ticker go double-time, but here it was. He felt alive.

Which Madison would not be for much longer.

And that’s how it was. That’s how it would be. He wished he could stay and talk—he really did. She was water for his dried-out thirsty soul.

But it was time for him to go. And nearly time for her to go, too, in a sense.

Rule #7: Don’t question it.

Just another beautiful Mongolian gazelle. The world keeps spinning.

He said goodbye to her. He got in his car. His job was done, and he held no regret.

As he drove home, he was bored again.

As he sat himself on the couch, he was bored again.

As he watched the menial drivel of the TV, he was bored again.

His jaw tightened and he massaged it absently.

A commercial for cologne. A shirtless man ran through the jungle.

His legs stiffened and cramped. He was getting old, he thought.

A commercial for an office chair. Real low-budget stuff.

Madison would be dying shortly now.

George’s facial muscles flexed suddenly. Like a little spasm.

Other muscles began to twitch and seize. Little surges in the arches of his feet. His calves. He wondered if he was dehydrated.

George tried to sit up. He felt weak. Oddly weak, and a little confused. He was running hot, and sitting up took a tremendous amount of effort. His limbs stiffened painfully, as if hot steel was hardening in his veins.

His phone buzzed on the coffee table.

His back lurched and spasmed violently.

A commercial for an online adult store. Order more than $20 worth of items and get a free special gift for both of you to enjoy.

With great strength, he reached for his phone. Unknown number. He opened it up.

Nice grabbing drinks with you tonight. XOXO

His whole body seized. He stretched out on the couch and his spine curled, bridging his body so that only his heels and the crown of his head supported him. Classic strychnine symptoms.

Madison. He hadn’t given her his number, that was for sure. Somehow she found him out. Knew who he was. Had already known?

His throat began to contract as his body twisted, convulsions coiling his bones like bacon in a pan.

Get the mango margarita, he thought.

The old switcheroo, he thought.

The Epomis circumscriptus is a type of beetle found on the other side of the world. As a larva, it’s easy-looking prey. So it draws in its predator, like the Hyla savignyi, the tree frog. When the frog attacks, the larva is ready. It dodges the assault. Then, with the frog in close, the prey attacks the predator. The larva latches onto the frog with its special mandibles. And then? Then it sucks the juices right out of the frog. It dines on its skin and tissue. It eats and eats and eats until the frog is a dried-out carcass. Until the prey is the predator.

The convulsions were exorcismesque now. His throat had closed. He writhed and writhed, the lights of the TV dancing on the ceiling above him.

As his back corkscrewed, every nerve exploding with pain, his lungs nearly bursting, George smiled. He smiled, and it wasn’t even his risus sardonicus, those contorted facial muscles.

It just felt good to be surprised.

*****

If you’ve enjoyed The Beetle, you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here. For online archive of short fiction (longer pieces) on Mystery Tribune website, you can visit here.

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