Chapter 56


    Tommy Archer had never gotten used to the smell. Probably never would. This did not bode well for someone with a dream of one day owning his own beauty salon.

    Today's offending odor - there were so many from which to choose in this line of work - was the cloying aftermath of the perm he had just finished doing on old Mrs. Smith. The perm smell was mostly ammonia, which, if he remembered correctly from his chemistry classes, came from ammonium thioglycolate.

    Tommy just called it skunk.

    He always told his customers that, seeing as the perm solution was very alkaline, the best way to get rid of the smell was with an acid- based product like tomato juice. He told them to apply it to their hair, leave it on for ten to twenty minutes, then shampoo and rinse.

    His customers all thought he was some kind of genius when he explained this to them, but it was pretty basic science. Still, he let them believe what they wanted to believe. In his twenty-six years there hadn't been too many people who considered Tommy Archer a genius. Especially his father. On the other hand, considering what he had once done for his father, he had earned the man's undying gratitude, if not his respect. Not that the man would ever show it.

    While getting the perm smell out of hair was one thing, getting the smell out of the tiny shop, the sum total of six hundred square feet that made up Country Cutz (inarguably the worst salon name in the history of the business), was something else.

    Even though the temperature was around forty-five degrees, Tommy opened the two windows overlooking the street. Mrs. Smith had been his last customer for the day.

    Tommy popped a tape into the player behind the register and began to sweep up. He felt a chill cross the salon. It was getting near the holiday season, which meant more work, more money, but it also meant that the loneliness would begin to descend again. He was the poster boy for Seasonal Affective Disorder.


    He was not allowed to smoke in the shop. After the floor was swept and the sinks rinsed, with combs and brushes cleaned, he stepped outside and lit a cigarette. Dark already. The main street of the town was all but deserted. The lights from Patsy's Diner two blocks away and the Aamco shop across the street were all that were on.

    'Are you still open?'

    Tommy nearly jumped a foot. He turned to locate the source of the voice. There was a man standing right next to him. As in right next to him. He hadn't heard him walk up the sidewalk.

    The man wore a dark overcoat.

    Tommy glanced at his watch. 'Actually, we close in about five minutes.'

    The man ran a hand over the back of his hair. 'I was hoping to get a quick trim. You see, I have a wedding reception tonight - I'm the cool uncle, the one with the big wallet - and, while I could probably show up in a rainbow wig, I do like to make an entrance.'

    Tommy looked again at his watch, as if the answer was going to be there. He liked the man's style, though, and the big wallet reference was clearly meant to imply some sort of huge tip. Plus, it wasn't like he had anywhere to go. His little hamlet didn't exactly have a thriving gay community, or even a seedy part of town. All he had to look forward to was a bottle of cheap Orvieto and the DVD box set of the second season of Jericho. Thank God for Netflix.

    He glanced at the man. Nice eyes. Nice smile.

    'Just a trim?'

    'Yes,' the man said. 'And I'm willing to pay double the going rate.'

    'That won't be necessary,' Tommy said. 'Besides, what would I do with all that money in a dump like this town?'


    The man didn't really need too much work, but if Tommy understood anything - about both himself and most of the people he had ever styled - it was that personal grooming was just that. Personal. Everyone had a right to look exactly the way he or she wanted.

    'Nice little town you have here,' the man offered.

    Tommy snorted. 'Yeah, well, it is if you don't mind living in a place where you call the wrong number and end up talking to that person for an hour anyway.'

    The man laughed. 'I'll bet it's not that bad.'

    Tommy took out his hair dryer, blew the hair from the man's shoulders. When he was done he dusted the man's neck with powder.

    'So, you're going to a wedding reception?' Tommy asked.

    'Yes,' the man said.

    'Whereabouts? Over at the Legion Hall?' Tommy took off the cape. He picked up his brush, brushed off the last stray hairs from the man's shoulders and neck.

    'No,' the man said. 'This is at the Crystal Room.'

    Tommy had never heard of the Crystal Room. 'Is that around here somewhere?'

    'It's in Philadelphia.'

    Tommy shrugged. He figured that the man was on his way across the state. They got a lot of travelers here, being so close to the Flight 93 memorial. Tommy wondered how the man had managed to find the shop.

    The man stood up, straightened the crease in his trousers. 'I really appreciate this. I feel like a new man.'

    A new man, Tommy thought. I wish.

    'It was my pleasure.'

    The man slipped on his coat. 'How much do I owe you?'

    Tommy told him. The man doubled the price, as promised.


    At just after eight Tommy locked the shop. As per his explicit instructions, he left the register open, drawer out, under a solitary spotlight.

    He walked quickly to the parking lot. The temperature had dropped in the past hour or so.


    He spun around. He saw no one, just the long-shadowed street.

    Thomas? Who the hell called him Thomas? The last person to call him Thomas had been his ex, Jeremy. But that had been in York, and that was three years ago.



    Tommy stepped back around the corner. A car trundled past, one person inside, never glancing his way. He looked both ways down the street. And saw him. The man he had just given the trim to. Except now the man was wearing a dark jumpsuit, zipped to the throat.

    'Benvenuto al carnevale.'

    The man lifted something into the air, an object about the size and shape of a large old-school garage-door opener. Tommy heard a loud crackling sound, smelled something burning. Then his legs went south.


    In a van. Moving.

    Tommy blanked out. Came back.

    He could not move his head.


    The van was stopped. The man climbed into the back, put on a pair of thin latex gloves, shut the doors. Classical music was playing on the car stereo. Violins or something.

    Tommy heard something else. It sounded like a drill.

    Tommy screamed.

The Echo Man
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