Forty Percent

Here’s the setup. Flex’s nephew, Jake (his brother’s son) is married to Paula. Paula’s brother, Danny, kills himself. Danny is—was—artistic, brilliant, funny, and even joyful, but emotionally fragile. Then this manipulative, conniving young woman swoops into Danny’s life. This Stacey Lark.

Talk to her and you would think that butter wouldn’t…well, you know. But that’s exactly how sociopaths do. They’re charming and intelligent, blading charisma in and twisting it, all with a smile.

Stacey Lark and Danny move in together after only a month, and anybody in this broken world can predict that (it/they) won’t settle. Stacey talks Danny off his antidepressants. Danny goes crazy, gets institutionalized for 28 days. When Danny’s away, Stacey starts living with another man. She’s using and dealing, too.

When Danny gets out, Stacey ignores his already teetering existence. Danny blows up her phone. She changes her number. He comes around. She gets a restraining order and won’t let him get his stuff. Danny doesn’t even have a winter coat and, baby, it’s cold. Flex hears that Danny even had to go barefoot for a day, wandering like some pilgrim in the Middle Ages.

Paula (again—Danny’s sister) won’t have it, tells her little brother to move in with Jake and her—that’ll fix him up. And Danny does.

Jake (again—Flex’s nephew) owns four guns, but he gets three off premises because … well, Danny. But Jake keeps one gun in the home safe in his and Paula’s bedroom for protection. Jake, Danny, and Paula go out one night because, hell, it’s time they had some fun, right? Some laughs? Danny gets drunk, picks a fight with a bouncer (of course), and gets beaten up. When they arrive at Jake’s, Danny sprints from the car, into the house, and up to the bedroom.

Jake’s right behind, and kicks the door in. Just in time to see Danny pop himself.

Now think about that. Dwell there for a beat.

Imagine having that burned into your retinas.

Slight detour, here, but Michelle Chambers gets convicted for manslaughter at around this time. Remember her? She texted her boyfriend into killing himself. Well, Stacey Lark doesn’t leave a trail. Noooooo, sir. Too smart for that.

“I hope you’re feeling better, now, Danny, I really do.” Those were the sort of messages from Stacey Lark that they discovered later on Danny’s cell phone.

One day, Jake says to Flex: “She hides it real good, Uncle Flex. You’d swear she had nothing to do with it. A total psycho.”

Flex nods. They’re in his kitchen, with streaming sunlight fuzzing the edges.

Did she have anything to do with it?

“I think that she killed Danny!” Jake’s response startles Flex, and not just because of its intensity. Some thoughts Flex verbalizes and some thoughts he doesn’t, and he doesn’t always keep track. Jake amends: “She might as well have!”

Flex asks: “What’s she up to now?”

“With another guy!” Jake says, slicing the air like he’s running for office. “That’s how she rolls. She uses dudes, gets what she can out of them, and then moves on.”

“Is she beautiful?”

“I don’t think so,” Jake snaps. “Look.” He holds his cell phone up so Flex can see the image. “The thing of it is, Uncle Flex, the thing of it is: It’s what’s inside, and what’s inside her is not good. She’s a real sicko. Mental.”

Flex’s cough revisits; it’s a fit, really, like a motor not quite turning over. He’s carried it for a long time. Flex turns, spits into the sink, and looks out the window. On the street, Mrs. Calloway walks her dog.

Flex wheezes out a question when the cough subsides a bit.

“Is Stacey Lark mentally ill or is she evil?”

He seems to be addressing this to the oblivious Mrs. Calloway, who’s just pulled a plastic poop-scooper baggie from her pocket, and mutters at the sky. “Because that fascinates me. At what point do we hold the mentally troubled morally accountable? And what is your ethical responsibility? If you met Adolph Hitler in 1930 having foreknowledge of what that man would unleash, you’d have a moral obligation to kill him, would you not? You’d be wrong not to kill him. Even in the midst of a civilized cocktail party, you’d throw yourself upon der Fuhrer. You’d do it for humanity.”

He hears Jake grab the check that Flex had laid on the kitchen table.

“You’re paying me too much, Uncle Flex,” Jake says. He’s repaired a ceiling fan, and replaced some hinges.

“A lot less then I would pay a stranger, and a stranger would screw it up,” Flex says.

“Yeah, but you helped me.”

Flex did. He is one of a loosely formed crew who are close, but not too close, to the Danny tragedy. They work some nights and Saturdays to get Jake’s house ready for sale. Paula doesn’t want to live there anymore; who could blame her? She’d cradled Danny’s bleeding head in her lap while waiting for emergency response. Spattered in blood and brains, she was.

Another coughing fit, and after it passes, Flex says: “I am happy to help.”

Then he turns, but Jake’s already gone.

Flex isn’t exactly oblivious to this reaction from people, even loved ones. Flex knows he’s a bit strange, knows that people think he’s a character; silent until some trigger unleashes goofy ideas tumbling out like clowns somersaulting from a Volkswagen.

Jake just had to get out of there. Flex takes no offense.

Focus! Stacey Lark must die!

Flex can get away with it, too. Nearly 40% of homicides in the United States go unsolved. And even if Flex doesn’t get away with it, what does he have to lose? He’s been adrift for, like, always. So, he goes to prison. So what? He’s been a toll both operator on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for 32 years,for jiminy sake. Prison gives him more elbow room, without the endless stream of cars crawling toward emptiness. It’s the price he’ll pay for doing good. And he owes the world, Flex figures. Because years before he yelled “jump!” to a man on an office building ledge and that man obliged, suddenly shadowing out of the sun like a meteor. Flex’s friends (this was back when he had friends) consoled him. Flex thought it was a workman, but still…. Flex can now atone.

Yes, of course, there’d been a before and after in Flex’s life.

And it’s simple: He’d fallen in love, once. Her name … well, what does that matter now? And when another young man took her, Flex had been devastated, but resigned to still worship her from afar, willing to wear that emasculating badge of a “friend.” He’d wheedle his way back in, is what he’d do, stay close to her in some capacity. And when the new relationship floundered, as it inevitably must…. But then God or fate or life or an uncaring universe took her and that ending was forever. Hope left Flex and never returned. He was 25.

In dreams, he and him at 25 chat amiably. Young Flex tells Older Flex how it all unwinds if the girl had stayed; if she had lived. And it’s a good life, wherever it’s being played out. They marry, have three children. She encourages Flex to reach further, find more fulfilling work, and he does. He becomes a history teacher, in this alternate, and he’s one of the cools who can reach the kids. He moves up in the union, speaks at school board meetings, and negotiates better contracts for his members. He’s respected and needed. He may even run for township council.

“You just had your first grandkid,” Young Flex announces on the recent visit.

He sits cross-legged in the corner of the bedroom, smoking Newports. His hair is male-permed; if it’s good enough for Mike Schmidt, the greatest third baseman of all time, it’s good enough for Young Flex. Older Flex, of course, knows he’s dreaming, his subconscious massaging his anxiety. Still, he’s transfixed.

“And what are you up to these days?” Young Flex asks.

“Same old, same old.”And Young Flex smiles, and Older Flex can’t quite figure out what that smile means. If it’s supposed to be kindness, it misses, coming off a bit as condescending. Something else in it, as well. Relief?

Flex awakes, wiping sweat on his brow while getting his bearings.

Another dream.

The alarm clock says 2:22 a.m. He goes to the bathroom, and when he comes back, he swears he smells cigarette smoke.

Pull it together.

And he does, like always. Sleep deprivation keeps Young Flex at bay. Eventually, though, Older Flex succumbs to slumber’s depths, and that’s OK for a spell because Young Flex stays away, though he will return eventually. He always does. But for now, Older Flex has a mission, and Young Flex, wherever he is, seems content to simply watch.

Yes. Stacey Lark must die.

Within six months of Danny, Stacey Lark’s gone through two more men, and gotten two more restraining orders. So, enough time and drama have passed. She’s riled more families, if not the boyfriends (or marks)—for they all blame themselves. Somehow, it’s their fault. They defend her, even after being used. Like Danny, who absolved her in his suicide note. Oh, she’s good at what she does, this Stacey Lark.

Flex has got a plan, an approach, a modus operandi. First off, absolutely no Internet footprints. No searching for anything remotely connected to the mission. No more questions for Jake, either. Nothing. Flex gets his information drip by drip. Very retro. When Jake talks about Stacey Lark at family gatherings (which happens less often), Flex pretends to be watching the game, any game.

Flex goes to the bar on Route 13 that Stacey Lark frequents. Before setting out, he switches his license plate for one that he’d found at the toll booth. This is a risk he needs to take. On his third visit, the door opens behind him and the bartender calls, “Stacey! What’s up?”In the mirror behind the bar, Flex sees a woman in her early 20s with much ink and some piercings. Athletic. Trim. Beautiful, but not too. Is it the Stacey? Flex hadn’t gotten a very good look at Jake’s phone photo that day.

Luckily, it’s early—45 minutes until happy hour—and the overheads in the place haven’t been dimmed. People can scope each other. The girl glances in Flex’s direction and he sees the cast in her eye. That’s Stacey Lark, all right.

Flex returns two more times, figures out which car is hers. Then, one night, he follows Stacey Lark home to a unit in an apartment complex off Newportville Road. Tailing somebody turns out to be easy. When she parks, Flex parks not too far from her. He gets out, and she glances over at him and sees just an older man walking to his residence. Or maybe it’s an older man visiting a friend. Or an older man who might be lost. She probably doesn’t give it much thought, even as she enters B14.

Stacey Lark keeps irregular hours, and she leaves at about midnight. When she pulls away, Flex gets out of his car, and whistles softly as he heads to B14 carrying a grocery bag with his hands coated in skin-toned paper-thin plastic gloves. He pulls out the keys, finds the one, turns the lock, and enters.

That’s huge!

Flex figured that , with the kind of life Stacey Lark that led, she may have asked the landlord to change the lock. But she hadn’t, and that makes this so much easier.

Flex had found the key under Danny’s alarm clock when he was cleaning up after the event. Looks like Danny had taken a black marker and scrawled “SL” on it, and Flex knew right away. He’d guided it off the chain, pocketed it before finding Paula downstairs, and handed the other keys to her.

Paula held them up by her thumb and index finger, angling them as if they were a specimen. When Paula asked: “Where’s that little bitch’s apartment key?”, Flex stepped back, but the question hadn’t been addressed to him.

Jake responded: “Oh, Danny threw it out. He told me.”Danny may very well had meant to, but he’d obviously hadn’t gotten around to it. Or maybe Danny’s plan had originally been to hang himself at Stacey Lark’s place. They’d found a stool, rope, and duct tape in the trunk of Jake’s car. Whatever, this minor stroke of dark luck Flex takes as a sign.

Go on.

Flex doesn’t turn on the lights. What if Stacey Lark or one of her friends passes? No, this is where it becomes cat-burglary. Rummaging by flashlight.

“Anywhere and everywhere,” was what the television show said. That special about the opioid crisis and where at-risk teens hide their stashes.

He places the grocery bag on the counter in the kitchen, and hesitates for a moment.

Do it!

Queasiness syrups down Flex’s chest and into his legs and feet as he bumps into Stacey Lark’s bedroom. Suddenly, someone outside shouts once and Flex flicks his flashlight off, his breathing sputtering in the pitch. He waits—one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi—but the single wayward note echoes off.

Then – shit! – he starts coughing. Nerves.

Flex grabs a bottle in his pocket, tilts his head back, and swigs cough suppressant laced with codeine. He waits until he’s breathing easy again, or as easy as he can breathe with another fit gurgling down there like lava.

Not one more cough! Get this done!

Flex extends his hand, shuffles over toward the wall, and finds the dresser. He kneels, then flicks the flashlight back on, pulls out a drawer, and feels underneath. Nothing. As Flex replaces the drawer, his light inadvertently flashes across a form on the bed.

No!

He refocuses the beam, and sighs with relief. A stuffed animal is all it is. Kermit the Frog.

You scared the living shit out of me, Kermie.But wait. Flex stands, takes three paces, and grabs the Muppet. He fingers the stitching under the little purple driver’s cap, finds the opening, and feels the plastic. He pulls the baggie out.

Hello.

It could be baking soda, but it’s not. Flex knows it’s heroin, Stacey Lark’s drug of choice. Flex needs to be even more careful now. He creeps back to the kitchen, opens the grocery bag, and pulls out his tools: a half-faced respiratory mask, nitrile gloves, and a prescription. Over the sink, he pours the contents of the pill bottle into the baggie, reseals it, and shakes it a couple of times.

The heroin is now mixed with enough fentanyl to kill 10 people. She’ll be dead within a minute of snorting or shooting. As he makes his way back into the bedroom, Flex lets his mind drift a bit. He wonders if the people close to Stacey Lark—parents, step-parents, siblings, half-siblings, misused friends—had yet reached the point where they’d washed their hands of her. When news of her overdose reached them, would they think: “Thank God!” Probably not. She’s too young. Some people still hold out hope. It will be a large funeral with a lot of young girls in tears.

But Flex knows at least somebody who will celebrate. He can just hear Jake: “Ding-dong, the wicked bitch is dead!”

Flex stuffs the baggie back into Kermit’s head, and replaces the Muppet on the pillowed throne. There’s no such thing as the perfect murder, but still—remember now—40% do go unsolved. Not bad odds.

He’ll have to return to the bar on Route 13 periodically. Never showing up again might register with a bartender or one of the regulars. And, for all he knows, one of those regulars might be a cop.

Flex pauses after repacking. He’s tempted to linger. He gets it now why arsonists return to the embers. What a rush! Flex holds the power of life or death, and he made his decision.

And the world will be better for it.

Flex shakes off this reverie, and gets the hell out of there. He drives a few blocks, pulls into a roll-off, and puts his real license plate back on. He’s tempted to throw Stacey Lark’s apartment key into the woods but decides that it’s too risky. He’ll melt it down instead.Flex knows that he won’t sleep this night. Hell, he might not sleep for days, with the thoughts racing and banging about like particles creating a strange energy. He hasn’t felt this alive in like…. Flex can’t recall.

I can get used to this.

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