Authors: J. Robert Kinney
By J. Robert Kinney
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, and incidents are used in a fictitious manner or are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is purely coincidental.
Precipice © 2016 Justin R. Kinney
Cover Design © by R. Atanassova, elementi-studio.com
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without the express, written permission of the copyright owner, except in the case of brief quotations included in articles or reviews.
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In memory of Arthur and Marian Schumacher
In honor of Robert and Marilyn Kinney
To those who taught me to write
To those who taught me to love to write
And most importantly, to those who always believed in me and taught me to believe in myself
Two weeks ago…
The rickety door to O’Grady’s Pub smashed open with a metallic clash as two men tore into the dark alleyway, lit only by a flickering neon sign. The first stumbled, his sandals struggling to grip the wet gravel. He kicked them off, hoping bare feet would give better traction. The second man skidded a few feet behind. Finding footing, they charged toward the main road.
The man in front scrabbled frantically at his pocket for his car keys.
Why did he pick tonight of all nights to actually lock his car?
Finally finding his grip on the fob, his finger mashed the unlock button. A slight click and the headlights on his black Wrangler—fifty yards ahead—flashed in the night. Too far away. If he could get to the main street, there’d be enough light to deter his pursuer, but with each thundering step, that possibility seemed less likely. In a split second, Andrei Tankov made a decision.
Tankovs don’t go down while their backs are turned
I’m no coward.
He planted his left foot into the gravel, wincing slightly as the pebbles cut into his flesh, and spun to face his assailant. As he did, he whistled a left hook through the air, catching his pursuer by surprise and clotheslining him.
The man dropped with a thud, but he recovered in an instant and sprang back to his feet. The two men circled each other, each looking for an opening.
“What do you want?” Andrei stammered. The muscles in his jaw were tense and he could feel sweat beading on his forehead.
He noticed, for the first time, that the man wielded a blade in his meaty left fist. Cold, hard steel, about five inches. This changed the equation.
The question went ignored and the attacker made his move. He charged forward, swinging the knife in a wide arc, a little too rashly. Andrei sidestepped right, dodging the weapon, and extended a leg into the man’s path.
The assailant stumbled and landed hard on his chest, skidding on the gravel. He snorted in disgust, rolled over, and popped up again. The man was spry for his size. His black t-shirt sported a few holes from the rough pebbles, but he looked like he barely noticed.
Andrei was tall and bulky, but his opponent had the look of a fighter, hardened by years of physicality and brutality. Andrei had built his physique for looking good on the beach—for the ladies, really—not for anything real. Suddenly he regretted that oversight. Those Krav Maga self-defense classes his brother kept trying to convince him to take would have been helpful right about now.
Fear clogged his throat and he swallowed hard.
This might be it.
Andrei clenched his hands into fists, ready as best he could. The man charged again, but this time Andrei wasn’t quick enough to evade the assault completely. The impact sent both men tumbling to the cold, wet ground.
Andrei tried to take advantage of the fall and fired a right jab to the man’s chin. A left fist bloodied, and probably broke, the guy’s nose. But the man was strong and managed to shove him off. As they scrambled to their feet, the assailant pounded two quick punches to Andrei’s stomach that doubled him over.
Panicking, Andrei swung a right hook wildly, hoping fist would meet flesh. But the man deftly ducked beneath the swing and hammered a quick right to the ribcage that emptied Andrei’s lungs with a crack, followed by an uppercut with the knife hand that sliced his cheek.
The blood that flowed felt warm in the cool night air. The big man ran at Andrei again. He managed to duck under the next swing of the knife, but a follow-up hook to his jaw sent him sprawling toward the brick wall lining the alley.
Head hit brick with a dull thud and Andrei’s head swam. He tried to clamber to his feet, but slipped and the attacker jammed a right heel into his chest, pinning him to the wall.
Blood mingled with the rain and the sweat to muddle his vision. He slumped against the wall as fireworks exploded in his head and muddied his consciousness.
Andrei shook his head, trying desperately to clear his vision. Pain throbbed throughout his skull—he must have a concussion—but the movement did help him see again. But what he saw was of no comfort. The big man knelt over him and pressed his blade against Andrei’s throat, emitting a strange hiss as he did so, like a snake before striking and devouring his victim.
“Why are you doing this?” Andrei sputtered, words struggling to escape past the blade cutting off his speech. “Who are you and how did you find me?” Up close, he could see the man’s eyes, set deep below a pronounced brow. Dark brown and hard, behind which flared barely suppressed madness.
“You know how this works, Dre. You don’t get to walk away.” Another hiss. Then with a flick of his wrist and a flex of his massive forearm, the blade sliced across Andrei’s throat.
His scream ended abruptly in a gurgle.
It was a long way down. Standing at the edge, Will heard the gargling roar of the rushing water nearly one hundred feet below, violently churning over the rocky riverbed. The night sky was devoid of stars, giving him the all too familiar feeling of being alone. A dim glow from a street lamp illuminated the area enough to reveal rainwater forming small puddles on the concrete barrier.
Shadows flickered back and forth across the concrete, raggedy fingers stretching, reaching for him. He hesitated, imaging what would happen if the shadows got what they desired. He wanted the fingers to grab him, to sink their talons around his heart and suck him in, to end this curse.
A solitary tear escaped his eye and slid over his cheek before mixing with the rain and disappearing forever. He shuddered; he couldn’t wait on shadowy fingers to do the job. It was time to man up, to finish the job.
As he clambered onto the slick barricade separating the road from the dark drop-off, his mind ran through the last couple days like a broken reel in a movie theatre, trapped in a loop, replaying the same scenes again and again.
The doorbell rang, echoing through his large vacant house. It felt empty ever since Allie’s passing. Without her around, the house lacked a certain something, a happiness and warmth that disappeared along with her presence one month ago today.
The lack of curtains and other absorptive fabric caused the cheery doorbell jingle to reverberate off the stark walls, creating a harsh, grating cacophony of noise as the sound waves doubled over each other. Footsteps thudded as the elderly butler plodded across the tile floor toward the door.
He shook the memory away, struggling to keep his wits about him. But he couldn’t maintain control for long and slowly succumbed to the burning memory.
One day earlier…
He understood what awaited him on the other side of that door. In the blink of an eye, he’d lost everything. A life, a fortune, a future. Not that he had much of a future to look forward to anymore. He and Allie should have had another fifty years of happiness together. Now he was destined to do it alone.
Staying glued to the lone chair left in the house, in what used to be his study, he let the paper—the one he pretended to read, with the news he pretended to care about—fall to his lap. His head hurt; the immutable burden of life manifested as near-constant migraines lately. Then again, maybe it was just an endless hangover from the bourbon.
He pressed two fingers against his temple and shut his eyes tight in a last ditch hope it was all just a bad dream. Maybe, just maybe, he’d open his eyes to realize his mind had enacted a sick, twisted illusion on him in his sleep. A rancid bitterness rose in his throat, leaving a horrible, acrid taste in his mouth. This misery was no delusion.
“Master William!” The butler called out for him, the words dying in a fading echo. Will opened his eyes but stayed put. The room still stood empty. Nothing had changed. “Master William? Are you there?” A brief pause. “There’s someone here to see you,” he called.
Still not moving, Will drew a long breath, but a wheezing cough cut off any words and he choked for air. The spell lasted a few seconds, so he tried again, “I’m coming!”
Hefting himself out of the stiff-backed armchair, he began the dreary trudge of a much older man to the stairs, a side effect of the misery that shrouded the entire house. Struggling to find the willpower to lift his feet, Will resigned himself to dragging them across the wood floor. Shoulders slumped, hair hanging in his eyes as he stared at the urethane-coated oak panels below his feet, he crept toward the hallway.
As he approached the foyer, a vase on a small pedestal positioned at the top of the stairs caught his attention. Once, it had been full of colorful, fragrant flowers: lilacs, roses, carnations, lilies, asters. Allie would change them out every week. But all that remained now were a few brown stems and decrepit petals, the final vestiges of the delivery from the funeral home following the service. Will refused to buy new blooms. He couldn’t replace them...couldn’t replace her. A sudden wrench twisted his gut in a knot and his stomach lurched.
Finally, he tore his eyes away from the lifeless twigs and spotted the butler. Miles Curtis had served the Ricketts family since before Will’s birth. The last remnant of a stately past for the family, he was clean cut, dressed to the nines, and nearing seventy. When the late Mr. Ricketts passed due to complications from a heart attack, Miles had been tasked with raising young Will. His years of service and guidance, through each parent’s death, Will’s marriage, and every significant rise and fall of the young man’s life, had been irreplaceable. Indeed, he served as the Alfred to William’s Bruce Wayne.
As William neared the balcony overlooking the foyer, he paused. From this spot, he snuck a cursory glimpse of his visitor while remaining unnoticed. In front of Mr. Miles stood a man—early 30’s, tall, muscular, lithe, with glasses. He was sharply dressed in what could only be a top-of-the-line Italian suit, tailored to fit. His impeccable posture, head facing forward with an upward tilt, gave the appearance his nose in the air was the only thing keeping the glasses from sliding off his face. From this angle, Will couldn’t make out any distinct facial features, but the man made an imposing figure in the doorway.
Moving once again, Will shuffled to the top of the stairs. After pausing to gather his courage, he embarked on the dreary death march to the foyer. Each slap of his bare feet echoed on the wooden steps, announcing his arrival long before he reached the bottom. Approaching the visitor, he extended a hand.
The man’s nose had a slight bend, probably broken years ago, but this only created a more daunting aura. His deep blue, piercing eyes were recessed in his head. They were cold and mysterious, yet empty as they turned to monitor Will’s arrival. His hair slicked backward, not a strand out of place. A thin outline of a goatee had been sculpted to perfection. Only one blemish detracted from his otherwise striking appearance. A faint, thin scar traced over the right cheek, from ear to nose. Lighter than his face, the line was barely noticeable.
The man possessed the look of a former athlete, tough and wiry. From this close, Will confirmed; the outfit was Italian, terribly expensive and topped off with a pair of alligator-hide shoes.
William felt inadequate and ashamed of his own appearance. He bowed his head and stared at his bare feet. His unkempt, shoulder-length hair and untucked dress shirt hanging over an old pair of blue jeans didn’t seem appropriate in the presence of this man.
“Mr. Ricketts, I presume? The name is Sean Lynch,” the man briskly introduced himself. As they shook hands, the shine of a fancy silver watch became visible on his right wrist, Bvlgari by the look of it. The back of his hand bore a series of five dots—Ricketts couldn’t tell if they were unusually large freckles or a strange tattoo—four in the shape of a box and one in the middle. “I’m here to go over your file.”
The full realization of this visit sunk in. Will understood what Lynch meant. This was
visit. A lump rose in his throat and he struggled to breathe, but forced himself to appear calm. As his heart pounded harder and faster, a sudden strength returned and the effects of his depression dissipated as survival instinct kicked in.
This couldn’t be happening, not to him, not after all he’d suffered. This meeting would certainly ruin what was left of his life. Probably even worse. Like rusty machinery gears recently lubricated, his mind began to turn, going over his options. There was only one that didn’t end horribly.
“Yes, sir…call me Will,” he finally replied. “Miles, please escort Mr. Lynch to the living room. I’ll be with him in a moment.” The butler nodded his assent and led the visitor down the long, vacant hallway into the depths of the house. Watching them disappear around the corner, Will listened intently. He waited, leaning his ear toward the vanishing sound of footsteps.
Seconds later, he no longer heard the clacking of the visitor’s fancy alligator wingtips. He sprang into action, patting his back pocket to ensure his wallet was there. Finding it, he gently opened the door without making a sound. A chill hit him as he slipped outside and a subtle mist fell, causing a shiver to run up his spine and reminding him to grab the long, black trench coat hanging on the wall hook.
He moved to the edge of the porch as he slipped on the coat, switching abruptly to a faster pace as his bare feet hit the front walk. Picking up speed, he accelerated to a slow run by the time he reached the gate. Not bothering to waste time opening it, Will attempted to clear the fence, hurdling his 27-year-old body over like an Olympic track star, but a miscalculation resulted in his coattail catching on a post spike. He tripped and lurched awkwardly, falling face first toward the ground, his body sprawling out at the impact.
Sharp pain coursed through Will’s body, his right knee taking the brunt of the fall. A long gash bled through a new tear in his pants, a souvenir from the collision with the stone walk. But the pain dissipated as quickly as it arrived. Adrenaline had hijacked his body’s senses. He picked himself up off the ground and took off running, sprinting toward the woods lining the road. He flew past the rusty mailbox, with its peeling, stick-on, reflective letters: RICKETTS.
As he raced through the trees, branches reached out for him, ripping, tearing, scratching. The underbrush thrashed underfoot as he tore deeper into the woods. His mind raced, knowing it wouldn’t be long before Lynch noticed he was missing, before backup was called, before they were on his trail. And if they found him, there would be no more nice greetings and handshakes. No “I’m here to go over your file”.
He needed to put distance between them.
After many minutes—he wasn’t sure how many—he felt the ache in his muscles begin to cramp. And as his breathing grew ragged and his vision hazy, he slowed to a stumble, unable to muster the will to go any farther, and used a hand to wearily prop himself against a tree.
Will’s adrenaline began to subside, allowing reality to retake control. He sank to the ground and rested against the trunk. As his heart rate slowed and heavy breathing relented, Will choked back a few anxiety-filled tears. A depressive exhaustion seized his body and he gradually succumbed to sleep.