“This Is How It Begins”: Suspense Short Fiction By Ben Orlando
Ben Orlando, author of “This Is How It Begins”, is a former assistant professor of English at George Mason University. He has previously published stories in the Bellevue Literary Review, The New Guard, The Tusculum Review, Mystery Weekly Magazine, Best New England Crime Stories, and others.
His manuscript “The Lost Journals of Sundown” won the Cornerstones Consultancy Prize, was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award, and longlisted for the Killer Nashville Claymore Award and Caledonia Prize.
He walks up to the door. My brother. He just turned sixteen and tonight’s going to be his first knock. He’s not supposed to knock until the twelfth visit but it’s really my discretion. If he screws up it’s on me, but he’s my brother and he deserves it. We all do.
“Just get behind me fast after you do it,” I tell him. “And remember you can’t talk.”
Vaughn always has something to say, but now he just nods, eyes down.
I remember the first time I knocked. It somehow came out right and then I backpedaled behind my point man just before the woman answered the door. I knew what my point man was going to say and I tried to guess how the woman would react. I predicted her tears but I didn’t think she’d stand there for two minutes frozen in time.
“Go ahead,” I tell Vaughn. “Just knock quickly and then step behind me. But not right behind me. To the side so they can see you.”
Vaughn nods, walks up the three steps of the small wooden porch and I follow behind. When he reaches the door, he stops and looks back at me. Vaughn has blue eyes and hair so blonde it’s almost transparent. He’s a shock at first sight, which has its benefits.
“We have another tonight,” I tell him. “You want to call Norman, tell him why we we’re late?”
Vaughn turns back to the door and breathes deep, lifts his right hand. There’s a bell but we don’t use bells. Too impersonal. You can’t convey your emotions through a bell like you can through a knock. A bell has repetition and repetition alone. A knock has pressure, it has volume, it has pitch and endless permutations of pattern. The first thing we do when we get to the school is work on the knock. For six months we study the impact of different knocks on people’s moods. Norman is very serious about setting the proper mood, and now my brother is unsure just how he wants to begin the most important night of his life.
There’s a bell but we don’t use bells. Too impersonal. You can’t convey your emotions through a bell like you can through a knock.
“Look around,” I tell him. “Look at the Volvo in the driveway. What kind of people are they? How do they react to pressure? Remember the file. This is the first path under the skin. What are their associations with the most terrible things?”
Vaughn looks down and bites his lip.
“She’s seven months,” I say because this too makes a difference.
Vaughn nods like he gets it, and then he knocks on the door five times with a fisted knuckle. A good compact knock. The kicker is the dead space, a good two seconds between each. There’s something uncertain about the knock. Ominous. Leading. I’m proud of his choice.
He turns around and I give him a nod and he smiles and scrambles behind me.
While we wait, I switch on the video player on my phone and hand it to Vaughn.
All the lights in the house are on, but after a minute nobody comes to the door. There could be a hundred reasons for why this isn’t a problem, but Vaughn looks at me like it’s Tuesday night Pizza night on the farm. I always give him my pepperoni because of the look. He looks at me the same way on Friday night Female night—staring through the curtain when I’m with someone, and then declining his turn when it comes.
When I moved from the school to the farm, Friday night blew me away, but Vaughn doesn’t seem to care. He prefers Saturday Night Karaoke Night and Wednesday Night Movie Night, which we’re going to miss if things don’t pick up here. But I can tell that’s not what Vaughn is worried about.
His look right now is for last night. He stayed behind me where he was supposed to be. He didn’t talk. He just watched. He watched the man break down sobbing in front of his wife, the wife staring hard and cold at the man, bringing to life all his worst fears. And then the man receded, and she remained.
We wait without speaking or moving. From the street we probably look like Mormons except Mormons only ever wear white shirts. We wear suits for this job because it’s nice to look professional. You don’t want to be standing in stained sweatpants and a ripped transformers t-shirt when you tell a mother she can’t keep her child. She will hate you with or without the suit, but with the sweatpants she has reason to feel like she can grab a knife from the drawer and drive it deep into your gut. The suit, with the words, puts them in a certain place. Norman and the board have experimented over the years to find the perfect blend.
The suit has another purpose. It’s a stall tactic. Buys us a little time before the weight of our words sinks into the marrow and hits the sweet spot of pure unadulterated grief. Most of the time the woman, the carrier, the one who does all the work, she has no idea because her jackass of a husband or scrap of a boyfriend, the one who really screwed up, is already on his way to Argentina or more likely Tijuana. It’s a shame, but it is what it is.
“Sorry, ma’am,” I told the woman last night. If I wore a cowboy hat I would have tipped it at that moment. “But what’s done is done.” Of course when I said it she already knew because she knew her husband, knew he was capable of something like this. At the same time she looked like she’d been sideswiped by a tractor trailer.
It’s not legal. We know that. They teach us all this at the school and reinforce it on the farm. But sometimes the people on the other side of the door don’t figure that out because mostly they’re the ones without the brains. For the others, it doesn’t matter what they figure out because we’ll get the kid, somehow, and then we’ll disappear. We may seem to be visible, but we don’t linger, and the farm is not easy to find.
Vaughn puts his hand on my shoulder, but I shrug it off and climb the steps of the porch, knock again, this time an urgent, “Get-the-hell-out-here” knock.
While we wait, I look around. We’ve never been to this neighborhood. It’s upscale, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. When you have more you just piss more away. What is it about men and gambling? Are we raised to be more compulsive, more out of control? I asked Norman once and he laughed.
“You don’t think women gamble?” he said, shaking his head like I hadn’t learned anything. “All those women you talk to,” he said, “they all gambled, they took a chance and maybe they got lucky before, but this time they ended up with you knocking on their door. You don’t think they could have avoided that situation?”
Some of them yes, I thought at the time, but now I think all of them no. What seems like a choice is mostly not a choice when you have the full story. Free will is mostly bullshit if there’s nobody there to help you, which I guess is a double argument against it.
I look around this neighborhood and wonder how many more guys from the school knocked on these other doors. We graduate ten a year but that’s been rising with expanding casinos and the legalization of sports betting. There are a couple more sets working the region but I haven’t seen them. Only back at the farm where we talk trade, where we learn from each other’s experiences. Where we drink beer and listen to Norman verbally ass rape the American adoption system.
“It’s a shame,” he says, “that some people have to pay for their mistakes with their child, but that’s the way it is, and in the meantime mothers and fathers screwed over by the system get a second chance from me. From us. It’s dirty, sure, but it’s also a chance many parents wouldn’t get otherwise. And boy do they pay for that chance.”
Norman says this last line in a clownish way that makes us all hoot and holler, and usually we go on for a while before he raises his hands for us to stop.
“We’re providing a service, boys,” he tells us every time. “Never forget that.” And we don’t. But remembering and agreeing sometimes only start out on the same road.
“There’s nobody home,” Vaughn says and I give him a look.
“Just wait,” I say. I can tell he’s losing his cool. He’s not ready. I rushed him.
Last night the woman came to the door, and I told her, and she just stood there for a while before her husband appeared behind her. He didn’t know what was going on until he saw us. Sometimes I like this moment and sometimes I don’t, but this time I did, because the woman rubbing her hands across the bowling ball inside her belly clearly denied the truth that the man she married was so much scum. And then he shows up and sees us and I get to see the transformation in his eyes. The terror, the memory of what he did two years ago when we sat him down in a small chair in a small room and went over his options.
We usually give them three years to pay back the loan. After that we start taking things most dearly attached to them. Fingers, toes, kidneys, lungs, and children, born or not. You’d think they’d go for the organs, the pinky finger, but for most of the younger ones the idea of a child is too abstract. And of course they’re men. They don’t carry it, connect to it. They can’t imagine it and so that’s the box they check on top of their signature, which would not hold up in court. And that’s what some of them think when they’re signing it. This shit won’t hold up in court. But it doesn’t matter. They never understand, and that’s why they’re in the shit in the first place.
“They’re not coming,” Vaughn says. For any casual observer, Vaughn would appear calm and controlled. But I see the index finger on his left hand twitching, the thumb rubbing a hole through the back of the phone.
“Relax,” I whisper. “One more minute.” His method of dealing is twitching. My method is remembering why it’s their fault.
Most of the time it’s gambling. But sometimes they need the loan to pay back an emergency surgery or a business going under. Sometimes they decide to help someone they shouldn’t. And that’s a shame. It really is. I don’t think we should loan to people like that, but I’ll have to put in a lot more years before I can bring it up with the board.
Of course there is a way out. Pay back the loan, with interest, within the three years and certainly before that first child pops out. It’s not fair, I know, but I am a product of unfair actions. I was on the streets when I was barely able to walk, and then I went into foster care, and then I found Norman. Same with Vaughn. Same with the others. People who learn about Norman, about us, they judge. But they don’t know. Life’s unfair. You just have to do your best to not be completely stupid about living it.
Vaughn wants to leave. He’s been through years of simulations, mock scenarios of shouting husbands and screaming, pleading, pregnant mothers and cowering fathers. It’s amazing, really incredible the training center Norman’s set up. Still there’s nothing like the real thing to slowly vibrate you out of your skin. Vaughn’s watched the real thing seven times. He’s gone out with me, with Steve, with Terry Package, the point man who leaves every scene with a white bow tied to the doorknob as a reminder.
Vaughn’s making a face. Just wait, I say with my eyes. Just wait. I want to tell him at least we’re not the crew who actually takes it away. We’re just the reminders, the verbal enforcers to let them know of their obligations and limited options. We pull out a paper and have them sign away more of their rights. I had to spend two years on the taking side, and because of me Vaughn skipped it. Maybe he should experience that. Maybe he’s too soft.
“Hold on!” comes a kind feminine voice from inside the house. “Just need to put some clothes on!”
Vaughn and I exchange looks, wondering the same thing. And then Vaughn puts on that face again, the face he wears on Monday night karaoke night when some other guy from the farm sings the song Vaughn wanted to sing, and I know how much he loves Piano Man by Billy Joel. Sometimes I really wish I didn’t love him so much. Sometimes I try so hard to remember that he’s not really my brother.
I lean in close to his ear, speak through gritted teeth.
“Get it together.”
Vaughn nods as the door in front of us opens. It’s a woman just like it was a woman last night. She’s standing there a silhouette in the light behind her, her bulbous stomach punching out through a loose-fitting blue dress. She stands with her hands on her hips. She smiles at us the way a privileged princess might smile at a garbage man.
Normally we prefer when the man comes to the door because the man knows what’s up. He’s the one who made the deal, who signed the papers, who we recorded shaking our hand and nodding his head to the terms.
I nod to Vaughn and he lifts the camera.
The woman before us, she’s got the glow. Vanessa Henrich, married to Thomas Henrich. He’s not too scummy as far as that goes. Successful architect. Borrowed the money for a gambling debt brought on by his brother. Investigation told us he got talked into it by the real scum who went to Vancouver and left his little brother to settle the bill. I wanted to go after the other one, the real problem, but Norman didn’t care. Mistakes were mistakes and stupid was stupid. To Norman there was no such thing as a blood tie. Either you used your brain or you didn’t.
Vanessa has long red hair, wet and stringy like she’d just hopped out of the shower. Her blue dress stops at the knees. Nice knees. Tan. Good calves. White furry slippers on her feet.
She doesn’t know why we’re here or what we are, but she’s tolerant, ready to listen for a minute, give us the courtesy ear and then nudge the door closed. She looks like a former prom queen who never completely had to wake up to reality.
Twenty seconds of silence. I can’t help looking around once more, at this neighborhood, at the car in the drive, probably another behind the garage door. How could they not be able to pay us off? I know what I said, but still.
“Is your husband around, Mrs. Henrich?” I ask in a voice like I’m asking if my friend can come out and play. This is my gift. I graduated at the top of my class in charm, in the ability to disarm. Sometimes I get right to it, but other times I ease the knife in so slow they can’t even tell it’s just pierced their kidney.
“I don’t understand.” She speaks for the first time, still not worried, except she’s spotted Vaughn with the phone pointed at her face.
She steps back.
“Is he here?” Vaughn presses. He’s not supposed to talk and his voice is too menacing. Now I know he needs to be sent back. I want to jab him in the ribs but I can’t break character.
The woman shakes her head in a trance. Maybe it’s me, but sometimes one of us or the pair gives off a vibe, a dump truck full of crap about to drop its load on the front porch. It’s clear no part of her wants to be standing there anymore.
“Do you know when he’ll be home?” I ask, wanting to get this thing going.
“I don’t. . . .”
She’s going to have to find out, and we aren’t leaving until someone signs the new contract.
“Your husband made a deal three years ago,” I tell her.
“What deal?” Her eyes flick to the driveway behind us. She’s still calm, but also unsettled, like she’s mostly sure we’re harmless, but not quite there. She takes a step back but stops, sees something over my head.
“What do you want?” comes from behind. A deep voice growing louder. I turn and there he is, Thomas Henrich. Not scared. Not worried. He steps closer, right on top of me. We stare at each other for thirty seconds, no one budging.
I feel my heart picking up speed, the muscles in my neck setting like concrete. But I can’t show it. I stand nose to nose with the man. I’ve never seen this reaction. All those tapes, studies, close-ups on the eyes. He isn’t scared, no trace. And he’s tall, lean, muscles under the jeans and gray long-sleeve t-shirt. He isn’t the man in the photos. He’s had a life change or something. Maybe the Jehovas or Mormons came by.
“It’s about the baby, Mr. Henrich,” I say, not breaking eye contact. “Remember the deal?”
He nods without much reaction. He looks like a marine. In fact he did serve two tours in Iraq intelligence.
Staring at the man’s eyes, his tight mouth, I think he’s going to hit me. I set my feet like they taught me, and brace.
“The camera has a live feed,” Vaughn says, his voice unexpectedly strong and steady. “In case you’re thinking about trying something.”
Henrich turns to Vaughn, who’s suddenly grown. But it doesn’t matter to Henrich. He’s determined. The camera doesn’t have a live feed but he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t care. Any moment he’ll start swinging and kicking and then she’ll run and get a knife or a gun even if we explain that fighting doesn’t help, that if we’re killed someone else will show up a few days later with the same message, because Norman is in control and he doesn’t worry about setbacks. So far this year, two of us were killed in these kinds of disputes. Mostly, though, it happens to the other teams. When they come for the babies.
I look back at the woman. She isn’t confused any more. She seems to know and still she isn’t scared. Maybe Vaughn and I have switched spots, because now I want to walk away.
Another few seconds and the man visibly relaxes, drops his shoulders. Shrugs.
“Why don’t you step inside and we’ll talk this through, huh?”
He’s smiling now like he’s just won a bet, like he’s somehow now standing on the other side of this arrangement.
“We’ll have some coffee and talk,” he says and waves us in as he walks up the stairs and kisses his wife on the cheek.
Vaughn and I don’t move.
What the hell is this turning into? People want to talk, sure, they want to tell us their life story, hand out excuses like business cards. But with tears in their eyes, their voices cracking, their eyes twitching. Not like this. No one changes like this.
I turn to Vaughn, who’s back to losing his composure. It’s his body that’s shaking, his eye that’s twitching. He’s confused as hell and looking to me for an answer.
“You want to . . . talk,” I repeat.
The man nods. I want to get a read on the wife, but she’s already back inside doing god knows what.
“I’m just going to make a phone call,” I say and walk off towards the driveway, Vaughn at my side.
Thomas Henrich rubs his square chin with his right index finger, nods and disappears into the house along with his wife.
I grab the phone from Vaughn’s hand and call Norman, leave a message because he never answers.
Vaughn and I stand there not talking for thirty seconds until Norman calls back.
I tell him the situation.
“Well go in and talk,” he says. “Explain it to them because they don’t seem to understand.”
“But has this ever happened?” I ask.
“Everything has ever happened,” he says, and pauses. I think maybe he’s hung up, but then he asks me, “they’re inside?”
“You can’t see them?”
I hear the deep sigh of a disappointed father.
“Be ready,” he says. “Shoot if you have to, but remember #3. And call me back in ten if something’s not right. No. Just call me back in ten.”
“Got it,” I say, although I’m not really sure he gets it. I want to keep talking until he does, but I know I don’t have anything new to add. So I hand Vaughn the phone and start walking.
Rule #1 – Be civil.
Rule #2 – Secure the product at all cost.
Rule #3 – Do not involve the police.
With my hand I brush down the stiff hairs on the back of my neck as I grab the knob on the front door.
“What’s in there?” Vaughn asks. “What are they doing?” He looks like he’s two seconds from running. Why does he get to be the coward?
“Nothing’s in there,” I tell him. “They’re just in denial, that’s all. We just haven’t seen this type before. We’ll set ‘um straight. C’mon.”
Once inside, I see a room to the left. It’s spacious and carpeted with a fireplace and two couches and two chairs around a long rectangular coffee table. Thomas Henrich sits on the far end of the right sofa. He waves us in.
“Vanessa’s getting some coffee and tea. Sit. Please.”
Vaughn looks at me. I shrug and we sit together on the couch opposite Henrich, the table between us, the fingers on my left hand firmly wrapped around the Beretta under my jacket.
For a while we all sit without talking.
“Thomas?” The woman calls out in a sweet, loving voice. I detect a little doubt in the voice, but no fear. Why no fear?
Henrich stands and sidles around us towards the hall.
“Vanessa needs some help,” he says. “In the meantime, um, there are some photo albums under the table.”
“Please,” Henrich interrupts. “We won’t be long. We want to straighten this out as much as you do.”
“We really don’t have time,” I say, half standing, but Henrich lifts his hand.
“Won’t be more than a minute. For such an important matter a minute’s not long.” And then he’s gone, and before I return to my seat Vaughn’s pocketing the phone, digging his hands under the table, dragging out a thick twelve-inch square album and flipping open the thick cover.
I think I know what this is. They’re going the sentimental route, trying to soften us up with pictures of their family, trying to buy some time. I’ve seen whole wallets dumped on the ground. Baby pictures, birthdays, graduations, anything to break through the business skin. And Vaughn, he loves photos. Loves taking them and then looking, thinks it means he’s got a family. But I don’t want any part of it. I’m not giving in to their manipulation. I want to leave. I sit back and imagine what I’m going to say to quickly put them in their place. I know Henrich has two sisters, one living parent. She’s got a brother and three nieces. At this point everyone’s on the table.
I think I have it all worked out when a strange movement catches my attention.
Vaughn pushes the photo album away and doubles over. He starts to convulse like he’s going to puke.
“Jesus what the hell?” I whisper, darting my eyes to make sure they’re not seeing this.
Vaughn closes his eyes and breathes deep. He points with his chin towards the album.
Without taking my eyes off him, I slide the album towards me and glance down at the pictures. At first I can’t tell what I’m looking at. Some are so dark. It’s impossible to know for sure.
But then the shapes start to reveal themselves in the shadows.
I don’t want to but I have to. I turn the page. Page after page. I’m not going to throw up, but I feel dizzy like I might lose my balance just sitting on the couch. I feel disconnected like what’s happening is not really happening to me in this present moment, like it’s part of some other reality or maybe some other dimension I’m slipping in and out of.
It goes on for a while, I don’t know how long. Then I hear: “So what do you think?”
I’m so deep in it, so far away, the sound of her voice jolts me backwards and I drop the album onto the carpet.
I look up. Thomas and Vanessa Henrich ease themselves onto the sofa opposite us, each carrying a tray of cups and sugar packets.
“They range from 4 to 10 years old,” Vanessa says, her voice sad but calm. “There are people who will pay a lot of money to do . . . whatever they want.”
“Most disappear,” Thomas Henrich tells us. “Some don’t make it, but they’re the lucky ones.”
“What’s he talking about?” Vaughn asks me, his eyes more than sixty percent sticking out of his sockets. He’s about to cry. He’s about to crawl back into himself and lose all he’s gained over the years. Just like that. “Joe what are they talking about?” he pleads. “Why do they have these pictures of children, of, Joe why do they have these pictures?”
Thomas Henrich sighs, places his hands on his knees. His anger is completely gone. His eyes are sad, caring, like his wife’s.
“You know,” he tells me.
I can’t help looking down. I really don’t want to but I have to see. I have to see their bodies, their eyes begging.
“Vaughn. Vaughn, sweetie?” It’s Vanessa Henrich. I don’t think any woman has ever spoken to him in this tone, and now, with all this, it’s like a duck barking.
“Vaughn,” she almost whispers. “This is what happens. This is what really happens to the taken. You, and your friend Joe here, this is how it begins, and this is how it ends.”
“I don’t…” Vaughn looks to me for support, to get him out of this but I can’t move. It’s not adding up. I see parts of it, but not the whole, and the not knowing, the not understanding is jamming me up inside.
“No,” Vaughn says, talking like a machine. “Norman sells them to mothers and fathers who’re willing to pay more to speed up the adoption process. The American process is fucked,” he says, now mimicking Norman’s weekly rant. “We’re providing a service. We’re providing a service.”
While Vaughn rambles, Thomas Henrich reaches under the table and pulls out a second album. He flips it to somewhere in the middle.
“They don’t all end up this way,” Henrich says. He opens the album and places it on top of the other. We’d have to close our eyes to not see it.
I’m holding my breath, starting to feel dizzy until I look. I look at the pictures and huge wave of relief floods my body. I feel so relaxed I could sleep when I see they’re just pictures of young girls and boys wearing clothes. Smiling. But they’re not just that. They’re stages. Progressions, from baby to toddler to adolescent to teen.
And then I see it. I didn’t see it at first, so obvious, because I was looking for something else.
“These other ones, these boys, they get tested,” Henrich says. “And if they pass the tests, they go to an orphanage for a few years, and then they go to a special school. They learn a trade. So do the girls. Turn the page, Joe.”
I shake my head.
“Joe,” Vanessa Henrich repeats in her saccharine sweet voice. “Turn the page.”
“No,” I say and begin to stand, but Vaughn can’t help himself. He’s already grabbed the corner of the page, turned it over. And now he’s staring. Now he looks from the pictures of the girls, the women, to me.
“I saw her,” he says, his voice flat, mechanical. “Last Friday. She was with you, Joe. So was that one.”
He stares for a while longer, then flips back to the previous page, because like me, he didn’t see it either. Didn’t see us.
Now he does. He’s getting to a place in his brain I reached five minutes earlier.
Vanessa Hendrich says something about knowing, about helping. She keeps talking but I can’t hear it. What I hear is a loud static blasting between my ears like an untuned radio. I feel a thickening in my head, my brain turning to stone, getting heavy, heavier. I just want to lie down, rest my eyes for a bit, shut my lids and push it away.
At first I think the buzzing is part of it, but then I realize it’s coming from the table.
Somehow my fingers reach out, grab it. My hand goes to my ear. I hear a ticking, maybe a clock in another room. In this room everyone is quiet. Everyone is staring at me.
“I said ten minutes,” Norman hisses through the phone. “Everything okay over there?”
I look at Vanessa Henrich, her eyes narrowed, concerned. Thomas Henrich seems calm, professional, but also softer somehow. Almost vulnerable.
And Vaughn. Vaughn is in the woods. Completely.
I lift my eyes to the two people across from me. I see the albums. The pictures.
“Yes,” I tell Norman. I try to breathe deep but only get halfway. My mouth is like the morning, lips glued by dryness.
“Everything’s fine,” I say and hang up the phone.
If he’s distracted, Norman might not hear it in my voice. But he probably did. Which means, they’ll be here soon.
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