I hear a truck pull into the driveway. A few moments later, a knock at the door. I open it. In front of me stands a man of forty, just beginning to paunch. He is wearing a red windbreaker, paint-splattered jeans, a pair of soiled running shoes with frayed laces. In his hand is a clipboard.
'Mr. Marcato?' the man asks.
Marcato. The name makes me smile.
'Yes.' I extend my hand. The man 's skin is rough, calloused, stained. He reeks of cigarettes and turpentine.
Tm Kenny Beckman,' he says. 'We spoke on the phone.'
'Of course. Please come in.'
Except for a few plastic trash barrels and dusty glass display cases, the space is empty.
''Man, what's that smell?' Beckman asks.
'It's coming from next door. There used to be a sausage shop there and I think they left some meat to rot. I intend to speak to them about it.'
'You better. You're not gonna do any business in here if it smells like this.'
'I understand.' I gesture at the room. As you can see, we're going to need quite a bit of work here.'
'You can say that again.'
Beckman walks around the room, touching the moldering drywall, fingering the dust-caked sills, shining a flashlight along the baseboards. He produces a measuring tape, takes a few dimensions, jots them on the clipboard. I watch him carefully, calculating his speed and agility.
A minute or so later: 'You've got a pretty good sag in the floor joists.' He bounces a few times, driving home his point. The parched joists creak beneath his weight. 'The first thing we're going to need to do is shore that up. You really can't do too much else with the floor out of level.'
'Whatever is necessary to bring this up to code.'
Beckman looks around the room again, perhaps in preparation for his closing. 'Well, you've got a ways to go, but I think we can handle it.'
'Good. I'd like to get started right away.'
'Sounds like a plan.'
'And by the way, you've come highly recommended.'
'Oh yeah? Who recommended me? If you don't mind me asking.'
'I'm not sure I recall. It was a while ago.'
'March 21, 2002.'
At the mention of the date Kenneth Beckman tenses. He takes a step backward, glances at the door. 'I'm sorry? 2002? Is that what you said?'
'March of 2002?'
Another glance at the door. 'That's not possible.'
'And why is that?'
'Well, for one thing, I wasn't even in business then.'
'I can explain,' I say. 'Let me show you something.' I gesture to the dark hallway leading to the back room of the first floor. Beckman takes a moment, perhaps sensing that something is slightly off kilter, like a radio that cannot quite find a signal. But he clearly needs the work, even if it is for a weird man who speaks in riddles.
We head down the hallway. When we reach the door I push it open. The smell is a lot stronger here.
'Fuck!' Beckman exclaims, recoiling. He reaches into his back pocket, takes out a soiled handkerchief, brings it to his mouth. 'What the hell is that?'
The small square room is spotless. There are two steel tables at the center, both bolted to the floor. The night-black walls have been expensively soundproofed; the drop ceiling is made of acoustic tile purchased by mail order from a Swiss company specializing in outfitting the finest recording studios in the world. Above the tables is a microphone. The floor is a high- gloss enamel, painted red in the name of practicality. Beneath the tables is a drain hole.
On one of the tables rests a figure, supine beneath a white plastic sheet pulled up to the neck.
When Beckman sees the corpse, and recognizes it for what it is, his knees trick.
I turn to the wall, unpin a photograph, a clipping from a newspaper. It is the only adornment in the room. 'She was pretty,' I say. 'Not beautiful, not in the Grace Kelly sense, but pretty beneath the coarseness of all this paint.'' I hold up the picture. 'Don't you think?'
In the pitiless fluorescent light Beckman's face contorts with fear.
'Tell me what happened,' I say. 'Don't you think it's time?'
Beckman retreats, waving a forefinger in the air. 'You're fucking nuts, man. Fucking psycho. I'm outta here.' He turns and tries the knob on the door. Locked. He pulls and pushes, pulls and pushes. It is a mounting frenzy, with no success. 'Open the goddamn door!'
Instead of unlocking the door, I step forward, remove the sheet from the figure on the table. The body underneath has begun to decompose, its eyes now descended into their sockets, its skin fallen sallow, the color of overripe corn. The form is still recognizable as human, albeit emaciated and on the precipice of putrefaction. The hands are gray and shriveled, fingers stiff in supplication. I do not gag at the sick-sweet smell. In fact, I have begun to anticipate it with some measure of desire.
I pry back the index finger on the corpse's left hand. There is a small tattoo of a swan. I look at Kenneth Beckman, and say, in my best broken Italian:
'Benvenuto al carnevale!'
Welcome to the carnival.
Beckman staggers against the wall, horrified by the sight, the fresh surge of decay in the air. He tries to speak, but the words bottleneck in his throat.
I lift the Taser and place it to the side of Beckman's chest. Blue lightning strikes. The man folds to the floor.
For a moment the room is silent.
As silent as a womb.
I take the three killing instruments out of their sheaths, lay them on the table, next to the salon-quality hair trimmer. I open the hidden cabinet concealed behind a door that has a touch latch, revealing the recording equipment. The sight of the matte-black finish on the six components, free of dust and static, fills me with an almost sexual sensation. The warmth coming off the components - I always warm everything up at least an hour before a session - coats me in a thin layer of perspiration. Or maybe that is just anticipation.
Beckman is shackled to the table with tape over his mouth. His head is held in place by a neurosurgical clamp, a precision device used to fix a patient's head to a table during stereotactic procedures for the placement of electrodes, an operation requiring rigid immobilization. A year ago I ordered the apparatus from a German firm, paying by international money order, receiving the product through a series of remailers.
I slip on a surgical gown, stand next to the table, open the straight razor. With the index finger of my left hand I probe the soft skin on the man's forehead. Beckman howls into his gag, but the sound is muffled.
That is about to change.
With a steady hand I make the first cut across the forehead, just beneath the hairline, taking my time. I watch the skin bisect slowly, revealing the glossy pink tissue beneath. The surgical clamp does its job well. The man cannot move his head at all. With a foot pedal I press Record, then remove the gag.
The man gulps air, pink foam leaking from the corners of his mouth, lie has severed the tip of his tongue.
He begins to scream.
I monitor the sound levels, make a few adjustments. Beckman continues to shriek, blood running down both sides of his face now, onto the polished stainless steel of the table, onto the dry enamel of the floor.
A few minutes later I blot the blood on Beckman's forehead, clean it with an alcohol pad. I go to work on the man's right ear. When I am finished I take out a measuring tape, measure down from the ait on the forehead, mark the spot with a red felt-tip pen, then take the second killing instrument in hand, hold it to the light. The carbon tip is a dark, lustrous blue.
One final check of the sound levels and I set about my penultimate task. Slowly, deliberately - largo, one might say - I proceed, knowing that just a few feet away, on the other side of the outside wall, the city of Philadelphia is passing by, oblivious to the symphony being composed inside this common looking building.
Then again, has not the greatest art in history come from humble surroundings?
Zig, zig, zag.
I am Death in cadence.
When the power drill reaches its full RPM, and the razor-sharp bit nears the skin covering the frontal bone, in an area just above the right eye, Kenneth Arnold Beckman's screams reach a majestic volume, a second octave. The voice is off key, but that can be fixed later. For now, there is no need to hurry. No need at all.
In fact, we have all day.