Ruthless

This story was a finalist in the most recent Fairfield Scribes anthology contest. It’s about two people who try to steal the same dead body for different reasons.

The girl in the cat-burglar outfit did not have the thievery skills to warrant her excellent wardrobe. Kit Sheffield lowered his distance lens and squinted at her over the edge of the rooftop. The diseased yellow glow of a sodium lamp showed the girl fumbling at the hospital’s rear fire exit was wearing leggings, boots, and a trim leather jacket, all in solid black. A knit cap pressed the curled ends of her hair around her jaw. The clothes were fine for light breaking-and-entering, in his opinion, but she manipulated slender tools that were too delicate for the heavy door.

“Come on, sweetheart,” he murmured. Kit figured her for an opioid addict looking to raid the hospital’s stash of pharmaceuticals. For both of their sakes, he wanted her to surrender and withdraw. “Give up and get out of my way.”

He had planned to use the same door for his own burglary, but he couldn’t move in until amateur hour was over. His acetylene torch would make much quicker work of the lock than the dainty picks the girl kept dropping. He admired her backside as she stooped once again to retrieve a thin metal cylinder from the concrete. What she seemed to lack in experience, she made up for in persistence.

After another six minutes and three fumbles of the lock picks, Kit’s patience was gone. He descended from the rooftop, gloved hands skimming along ladder railings, and dropped to the ground.

“Ma’am,” he called. The girl lifted her head, eyes widening. He fished out his wallet and flicked it open to flash a photo identification card. “I’m going to need you to step away.” He stashed the billfold and arranged his face into sternness. But instead of fleeing or stammering out an apology, the girl frowned.

“That,” she said, “was an undergraduate library card.”

Damn. He should have moved quicker.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he said. “Go home—or, if you prefer, you’ll find a methadone clinic two blocks east of here.”

She raised arching eyebrows. “I’m not an addict. What are you doing here, library cop? Do you want to search me for overdue textbooks?”

“I am—none of your damned business. What are you looking for, if not drugs?”

The girl smiled, a slight lift to pale lips. “Just visiting an old enemy.”

“How sweet. I suggest trying the front door. And visiting hours are nine to five.”

“There are no visiting hours at the morgue.” She pressed her mouth tightly closed.

Kit stared in consternation. Overhead, the sodium security bulb hummed an insectoid drone. The morgue was the last place he wanted her to go, since he was heading there himself. And in the morgue, there was only one recently deceased man who might have enemies come to view his corpse.

“John Josiah Seegmiller?” he ventured, just to gauge her reaction.

The girl twitched. “How did you—do you know me?” she demanded. “Are you stalking me?”

Clearly his hunch had been correct. “The infamous cult leader is your enemy?”

“Was. Past tense.”

The longtime leader of the Arensen Light of Dawn sect had been shot by federal agents in a raid the day before. Cable news had followed the standoff, and cameras on circling helicopters had broadcast the moment when John Josiah Seegmiller appeared with a rifle trained on the nearest FBI negotiator. He’d been killed in a barrage of bullets.

“The past must be quite tense indeed if you’re here to visit his holey corpse.”

“He is not holy,” she shot back. Kit opened his mouth to clarify, but the girl barreled on. “He was a charlatan. I need to see for myself that he’s gone.”

He knew that feeling of disbelief. Ten years ago, he had received the phone call about his parents’ deaths at the Arensen Light of Dawn ranch. He hadn’t really understood until he’d seen their lifeless bodies. From the acid anger in the girl’s voice, she must have also lost someone to Seegmiller’s cult, but Kit wasn’t going to ask.

“I should call the police,” he said.

“Oh yeah, library cop?” She folded her arms. “To tell them how you heroically averted my misdemeanor? Maybe the police will decide you’re the one hunting for opioids.”

Kit hitched up the straps of his backpack. They didn’t have all night to argue. “As a matter of fact, I agree with you about Seegmiller.”

“What do you mean?”

“Can we perhaps discuss this inside? The longer we stand here, the greater the chances that someone comes along. It will take me less than sixty seconds to burn through that lock, and there are no cameras in the interior rear hallway.” He flicked his fingers for her to move away from the door.

“I knew you were a thief!” she said. “And yet so self-righteous.”

“I take some pride in my work,” he said. He unslung the backpack and opened the zipper to slide out the wand for the torch and three feet of hose. The oxygen and acetylene canisters stayed in his pack. “Unlike those members of our illustrious guild who bring flimsy lockpicks to open a steel security door. And my name is Christopher, not library cop.”

“There is no thieves’ guild,” she said. “Christopher.”

He grinned and splayed both hands, palms out. The wand’s trigger guard dangled from his thumb. “You caught me. There is no guild.”

She snorted, an inelegant sound that might have begun as a laugh, then shifted away from the door. Kit opened a trickle of acetylene. The flint striker he used to ignite it had been purloined from a college chemistry class, one of the many misspent fruits of his education. When the gas burned in a low, steady flame, he twisted the valve for the oxy flow and resettled the balance. The girl watched, although he could not make out her expression.

The cutting flame melted through the lock’s tongue in about a minute. When it was done, he straightened and closed the torch valves, then the tank valves. The girl reached for the door’s pull bar.

“Whoa.” Kit batted her hand away. “That handle is going to be a bit warm, rookie. Since I was just blasting nearby bits of it with a six-thousand-degree flame.”

“Oh. Sure.” The girl smiled, revealing a dimple in one curving cheek. “Thanks. If we don’t snitch on each other, history may record this as my most successful relationship. Not even the shortest. I’m Ruth, by the way.”

He finished with the torch and donned the backpack, then tugged the door open with his gloved hand. The destroyed lock grated past rough edges. “After you, Ruth.” Kit gestured to the dark interior of the rear service corridor.

“Thanks for the help with my breaking-and-entering,” she whispered, slipping past him. Her black clothes made her one of the shadows. “Good luck with your thievery. I’ll be gone in ten minutes, tops.”

 


 

“Actually, I—” Kit let the door close with another rasp. “I’m also headed to the morgue.”

Ruth turned back. Her face was a soft-edged oval in the darkness. “I don’t suppose you’re visiting your dearly departed grandmother.”

“No.”

“What do you want with Seegmiller?”

“Doesn’t matter. You’ll have your soul-affirming glimpse and be on your way in ten minutes, as you said.”

She turned to the utilitarian stairwell that descended to the basement, where the medical examiner’s laboratory was located. “Fine, library cop. Come along.”

“Walk softly, rookie. It’s in the guild rules.”

Ruth crept down the stairs, and Kit trailed a few steps behind, listening. The lower-level offices were generally empty overnight, although security and cleaning staff would be circulating.

At the bottom step, Ruth paused and reached up for her cap. With a tug of the stretchy material, she carefully unfurled the brim down over her face. It had eyeholes cut out like a ski mask.

“The cameras,” she explained, pointing a round, black dot high on the wall.

“Yeah,” said Kit. He towered over her from the step above, so he bent his neck and spoke close to the hidden lump of her ear. “You’re adorable in your very serious gear, but please don’t be offended if I go another direction, fashion-wise.”

He reached into his bag, then showed her a roll of duct tape. The mask shielded Ruth’s expression, but she stayed on the last step as Kit squeezed past her. She smelled of black tea and lemon, and he imagined a collection of plastic cups with green straws in her car’s cupholders. With a quick nip of his teeth, he tore off a six-inch segment. Pressed close against the wall, Kit slid directly under the camera, then jumped up and slapped the tape over the convex lens.

“Good enough?” he asked softly.

Ruth harrumphed. She raised her mask back up to her forehead, revealing pursed lips. Staticky strands of hair hovered around her chin. “Fine, I suppose.”

Together they walked along the hall to a door beside a large plate-glass window embedded with wire mesh. The door was labeled Pathology in no-nonsense hospital lettering. Beside it was a nine-key electronic security pad. A tiny red light glowed in the top corner of the pad.

“Shit,” Kit muttered. That little red dot could put his whole plan off by a day.

“What?”

He shook his head. After the medical examiner signed off on the autopsy, the body would be gone. Even one day was too long. “I thought it was just a physical lock. My buddy told me—”

“The blow to your professional pride must be quite painful.”

“If I cut this lock, it’ll send alarms to—”

“Dr. Vinod G. Tendulkar, chief pathologist.” Ruth nodded at the name plate beside the door.

“What about him?”

She extracted her phone and loaded a social media app on its bright screen. She typed, then scrolled, the blue-tinged display lending a ghostly pallor to her face.

“Please tell me you’re not checking your hearts or re-likes or whatever,” Kit said.

“Oh-nine-one-six-nine-four,” Ruth announced. “Try that.”

“No way. It’ll freeze up after a certain number of incorrect codes.”

“You have a better idea? Melt it with your miniature flameflower?”

“No, but I—it’s not a flamethrower.”

“Just try it or move out of my way. I think it’s right.” She pushed two fingers at the center of his chest, but Kit didn’t move.

“You think.”

Ruth dropped her prodding hand. “How many times have you called me a rookie? I’m not totally sure, but the good doctor only has one daughter, and she only has one birthday. She does have over a thousand friends, however.”

Kit pulled in a deep breath and turned to the keypad. “Oh-nine-one-six-nine-four,” he muttered as he stabbed at the buttons.

The lock emitted a cheery chirp, and the light turned green. From inside the door, something moved with a slight chunk.

Ruth beamed. “You needed me after all. I’ll accept your gratitude later. Let’s go see that cultist donkey.”

Kit did his trick with the duct tape again and covered the camera mounted above the doorframe. Once inside the lab, Ruth’s smile faded. Four cold drawers lined the far wall. The first one Kit opened was empty, but the second was occupied. He rolled the tray out and flipped the sheet back to reveal the pale corpse of John Josiah Seegmiller.

Ruth and Kit stood on opposite sides of the body and stared down. The man had been in his mid-sixties, with trimmed gray hair and an authoritarian beard. The face was waxy and stern, with deep creases in the forehead. His pigeon breast was marked by the neat Y-shaped incision of an autopsy and three bullet holes.

“Nasty old bastard,” Kit muttered. He glanced up at Ruth and realized with a start that she was trembling. Silent tears coursed down her cheeks. Her hands were clenched in white-knuckled fists and folded to her belly. “Hey, rookie.” What could he possibly say? “Ruth. He’s definitely dead, yeah?”

“And so is my sister,” she hissed.

“Ah,” Kit breathed out. That was her personal connection. It hurt to hear the pain in Ruth’s voice. “She was a Lighter of Dawn?”

“Up until her last, poisoned breath ten days ago. This man persuaded her, as he persuaded so many others, that her enlightenment could come only after her death. That she would regain her body but refine her soul. I always wanted to know, refine it to what? I said she was trying to please a madman. I shouted and begged. She said I didn’t understand.”

Ruth glared at Seegmiller. Kit cleared his throat. “What was your sister’s name?”

“Faith.” Ruth shook her head. “Look at his smug face. Did you know she died wearing lipstick? He preached endlessly about the sanctity of corporeal forms. The most sanctified, I’m sure, were the beautiful young women. Listen here, you won’t believe this.”

She wrenched at her leather jacket and parted the zipper. From an interior pocket she produced a slim, soft-bound book, some sort of journal. Ruth touched a fingertip to her tongue and riffled through several pages.

But Kit didn’t need to hear the musings of a cultist. “There’s no reason to—”

“‘Wednesday, the fourteenth of June. One hundred crunches, twenty-five push-ups. Breakfast, eggs with green pepper. Lunch, salad with tuna. Dinner, cod fillet, broccoli, lemon, green tea. Ten units of Botox, forehead and crows’ feet.’ My sister was twenty-five years old, mind you. ‘Thursday, the fifteenth of June. One hundred crunches, three miles at nine minutes per mile. Breakfast—’”

“All right.”

“‘Eggs with spinach. Lunch, salad with—’”

“All right,” he said again. “That’s enough.”

Ruth shut the journal with a snap and shoved it back into her jacket. “That’s scarcely a religion. It’s a fitness plan. You must know Seegmiller was obsessed with bodily perfection. There are no emotions in the whole thing, no personal thoughts, no higher meaning to it.”

“I’m surprised the police let you have that journal.”

“It has no value as evidence.” Ruth dipped her chin and spoke to the man’s corpse like she was issuing judgment. “Death, for him, had to be conquered before you were worthy of his love. Like clearing up acne before prom. And because no one conquers death, none of his followers were proven to be faithful enough. But she tried anyway. It was the most horrible cycle.”

“I know.”

“He told her how much more perfect she should be while he had sex with her.” Splotches darkened Ruth’s cheeks. “He collected the money she should have spent on college and told her it was necessary for the Light of Dawn.”

“Yeah.” Kit twitched his shoulders to ease the trickle of sweat that snaked along his spine.

“Seegmiller cut off her contact with her friends and family and somehow convinced her that we were the bad guys. That he and the Lighters of Dawn were the only true family she—”

“Damn it, I know!” He clenched the edge of the rolling tray so hard that the corpse shivered. “Did you think I was here for a social visit? Did you think that Seegmiller meant nothing to me?” Kit drew in a deep breath. Ruth stilled. He had told no one the story in a long time, but it was clear that Ruth was listening.

“Ten years ago,” he began slowly, “my parents were the same as your sister. The Arensen Light of Dawn was their retirement hobby. I think it started after my dad’s older brother died of lung cancer. The message of truth and eternal life through bodily perfection was… appealing. My sister and I were grown and out of the house. But nobody dabbles in the Light of Dawn and walks away. They spent a few years in the compound. They handed over all their money. Then, on a cool September morning, they joyfully drank poison.”

“Oh,” Ruth whispered.

“They didn’t leave a note, presumably because they assumed they would be—” Kit waved a vague hand in the air above Seegmiller. “Resurrected, or perfected, or whatever the hell this guy said. My mother wore her lipstick, too.”

“Christopher.” Ruth circled around Seegmiller’s feet to stand on his side of the table. “I am sorry for your parents. I’m sorry for you. This means we are the same. You will understand what I must do now.”

Do? Kit stared into her face. In the dim light, her eyes glinted with unshed tears. “You’ve already done what you came for. You’ve seen his dead body.”

“Dead and peaceful,” Ruth spat out. “Like he’s waiting to rise. He does not deserve it. What will the government do when they’re done examining him? I won’t see his body released for a solemn burial. No. I’ll do to Seegmiller the only thing that would have really terrified him. I’ll take him and build him a pyre. I will watch the flesh melt from his bones, then watch the bones turn to ash.”

She wanted to take him? Kit couldn’t have that. He needed the body for his own purposes. “Ruth, no. You don’t believe in his bullshit anyway. He’d dead, end of story.”

Nothing about her stance or her face bent under his objection. “I am taking him. And I am burning him.”

A tiny, sizzling bolt of panic set Kit’s heart into a quicker pace. She looked so certain. He was going to have to tell her the truth. “No.”

“You think he deserves better? Embalming and burial according to his insane belief system? Afforded the respect to carry out the strictures of his false religion?

“No, I—”

“Maybe you’d prefer to see him buried beside your parents. Is that it? A nice cemetery where other Lighters of Dawn can come and lay flowers?”

“No! Damn it, I want my fucking inheritance.” Kit pushed the heel of one hand across the ridge of his brow.

There was a long silence. “Your inheritance?”

He sighed. “Yes. My parents’ money is in the Arensen compound. Probably scammed retirement funds from a lot of others, too. There is a safe. Seegmiller didn’t trust banks.”

Ruth backed up one step, then another. “You’re nothing but a plain, old thief.”

“What did you think I was? I’ll give my sister her half. And as you keep telling me, Seegmiller deserves whatever post mortem nastiness he has coming.”

“What does that have to do with me burning his body?”

“The safe is keyed by a facial-recognition scan.”

“You came here to steal him for yourself. For the money.” She made money sound like a filthy word.

Kit grimaced. “Not all of him. I just need his head.”

“Oh my God, Christopher, are you hearing yourself? That’s macabre. And don’t you think the police will collect the safe?”

A distant clang of doors slamming reminded him that people were at work in the hospital above them. They had to move on. “They haven’t removed the money yet. Look, I’m sure we can work something out. Let’s get out of here and discuss once we’re on the road.”

“On the road…to the Arensen compound?”

“That’s where the safe is. After I access it, you can burn him there as well as anywhere else.” Kit strode to the side of the lab and yanked at the brake on a wheeled gurney. “You grab his feet.” Ruth pressed her teeth into her bottom lip. For a moment, she didn’t move. “Or are you ready to walk away?”

She shook her head once, a sharp jerk of her chin. Together they slid Seegmiller onto the gurney, still swaddled in the white sheet. His cold flesh was oddly spongy. Kit swiped his hands on the seat of his jeans when it was done.

“Get the duct tape.” Ruth angled the gurney toward the door. “We’ll take the service elevator. My car is a hundred yards down along the alley.”

“No, I’ll drive.”

Kit slid the empty tray back into the wall and shut the hatch. Once Ruth and the gurney were clear of the lab, he stretched up and peeled the tape off the camera, sparing a thought for poor Dr. Tendulkar.

 


 

No one saw them wheel the gurney from the service elevator onto the loading dock. Ruth waited while Kit backed his battered sport-utility vehicle up to the edge of the ramp. He took the engine out of gear and hit the latch for the trunk.

“I’m going to pay you gas money for this trip,” Ruth said when Kit walked around to help load the body. “I don’t want any favors from you.”

“That’s fine, Ruth, I don’t care,” said Kit. She bent the dead man’s knees and shoved the feet inside. “Anybody ever call you Ruthless? Anyway, I already melted the lock on the security door for you. Was that not a favor?”

“I know I could have gotten in. Eventually.”

Kit glanced up at the wry tone in her voice. She flashed a tight smile over the dusty roof panel. It was a little manic, the feral gleam in her eye. Kit circled back to the driver’s seat, then unlocked her door. Ruth climbed into the car with a whoosh of black leather and black tea. Kit cracked the windows to flush out Seegmiller’s sickly smell, and they drove away with the stolen corpse.

“It’s a couple of hours to Arensen,” he said. “At the edge of the desert.”

“I am sorry about your parents, you know,” she said. “You truly believe you can break into Seegmiller’s safe?”

“I think so. We have the right face for the scanner, anyway,” said Kit. “I’m not really a professional thief.”

“I guessed.”

“And you? What is your life? When you’re not body-snatching, I mean.”

Kit hoped she would reveal a job or a hobby, but Ruth reached into her jacket again and pulled out Faith’s journal. She folded the cover back and angled it toward the window. The moonlight was crisp, and she fanned the pages for a moment before she spoke.

“Here. ‘Thursday, the twenty-eighth of September’,” she read. “That’s my birthday, but Faith isn’t writing about her big sister. I doubt she even thought of me. ‘I am not yet perfected,’ she writes. ‘With further work and attention, I expect to be perfected by late February.’ Faith did die in February, so there’s a little marker of success,” Ruth added bitterly. “There’s more. ‘Dream notation: a hotel bed with white sheets, and I am lying in the center. Someone knocks at the door. It is a maid pushing a cart full of juice, muffins, cereal, yogurt, granola, fruit, and milk. I ask about hot food, but it’s only being served in the restaurant downstairs. I am irritated out of proportion by the response. Interpretation: the hot breakfast is an analogy for my strong desire for progress and achievement.’ Or here’s another grand fucking interpretation, Faith,” Ruth said. “Maybe you’re fucking hungry.”

Kit said nothing. Ruth closed the book and hid it away. She turned her face to the passenger window. Outside, the urban crowding faded to gas stations and acres of parking lots.

“When we get there,” Kit said, “I’ll open the safe while you build your pyre. Then we’ll burn the bastard.”

“Thank you.” Ruth leaned back against the head rest. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep knowing Seegmiller was destined for a venerated gravesite.”

“I know what you mean. He shouldn’t get to indulge in his cultish beliefs after death.” Kit pulled onto a highway ramp and pushed the car up to speed. “Does your family know you’re here? What do they think about your sister’s cult?”

“I could ask you the same thing. What about your sister? Does she know you’re stealing back her inheritance?”

“No. She’s in college in Los Angeles.” Kit paused, hands twisting on the steering wheel. “You have parents but no sister, and I have a sister but no parents. Together we’re practically a whole family.”

Ruth huffed out a breath through her nose. “Not exactly.”

“No.” Kit searched for a different, easier topic. “You can put some music on, if you want. Are you thirsty?”

She angled her hips in the seat to look at him. “It’s not a road trip, Christopher. We have a dead guy in the trunk.”

“I hadn’t forgotten, believe me. You can still listen to music.”

Ruth turned away to face forward again. “Sorry. It’s just that I… I don’t want to like you. You don’t have to be kind to me. It won’t make anything easier.”

Kit laughed. Her grumpy admission pleased him. “So you find me a little likeable? A kind, thoughtful, helpful thief? Don’t forget wildly handsome and resourceful.”

“Stop it.”

He kept his eyes on the narrow ribbon of highway ahead, but he heard the smile in her voice. They drove in silence, and at some point Ruth dozed off. Kit drove smoothly, protective of her even breathing. Her lips parted as her head lolled back.

For all the Lighters of Dawn that Seegmiller had damaged and destroyed over the years, perhaps the family members left behind, like him and Ruth, were even more damaged. Maybe the money and the destruction of the corpse would salve their wounds.

 


 

The compound was a small, closed village off a gravel county road. A scattering of low aluminum-sided buildings clustered around the central square. The car’s headlights bounced off yellow police tape drooping across the entrance road. Thirty-six hours after the standoff and shooting, the place was deserted. Kit slowed the car just off the main road. Ruth inhaled when the car stopped, then pressed her knuckles into her eyes.

“We’re here,” Kit said. “The sun will be up in a couple of hours. We should try to be done by then.”

“Right.” Ruth cleared her throat. “I’ll move that police tape.”

The opened door admitted a gust of cool, dry air to the car, breaking the peaceful stillness that had permeated the drive. Ruth jogged up the lane. Her black cat burglar’s outfit blended into the darkness, but Kit had no trouble tracking her movements. She stood at the side of the road and lifted the arc of yellow plastic overhead. A strip of ivory skin was exposed above her waistband. Kit pulled forward, driving under the police tape.

Past the barricade, he rolled the passenger window down. Ruth leaned on the sill with one forearm.

“I’m taking Seegmiller to the office,” he said. “He and I will access the money. You find a place for the pyre.”

“I can help you with the safe, if you want,” said Ruth, one hand on the door frame.

Kit smiled. “Oh, no,” he said. “You stay away from my money, rookie.”

Ruth rolled her eyes and shut the door. “So suspicious. Have fun, library cop. Bring me that body when you’re done with it.”

“Ruth, be—” Kit stretched across the seat toward the open window. “Be careful.”

She disappeared into the darkness with a wave. Kit idled the car forward along the lane. The structures in the compound were all simple and similar. A few of them looked like dormitories. Had his parents found real happiness here? He tried to imagine them, graying and civilized, carving their initials into a shared bunk, but found it impossible.

The administration building fronted the square and featured a smiling photo of John Josiah Seegmiller in the window. Kit pulled his vehicle between two yellow lines near the door, then uttered a rough laugh. “Legal parking, illegal entry,” he mumbled. None of his colleagues at work would have been surprised by the orderly parking job. Kit was the one who tossed expired yogurt from the break room refrigerator. They would have been shocked by the dead body in the trunk.

The safe sat in open sight in Seegmiller’s office. With one broken window, Kit was inches from his inheritance. Seegmiller was confident in, or contemptuous of, the trust his cultists extended to him. Kit had no qualms about taking their money. Ruth had called him a plain, old thief, but the gullible Lighters of Dawn were practically begging to be victims.

Kit borrowed the wheeled desk chair to retrieve Seegmiller from the trunk and brought the corpse inside via the front entrance. The safe, when Kit propped Seegmiller before the camera and pulled the shroud away, popped open with a welcoming bleep bleep for its master.

“Well,” Kit said. He rotated Seegmiller around to slouch toward the desk in a dark simulacrum of ordinary business. Then he knelt and peered into the interior of the safe.

It held neat stacks of banded hundred-dollar notes. The inky, papery smell of the fresh bills competed with Seegmiller’s chemical funk. Was it that easy? The compound remained silent, and the little light on the safe glowed the steady green of a traffic signal.

Kit crammed his backpack with stacks of cash, but it wasn’t capacious enough. He wanted everything, and his sister would have her cut. Maybe Ruth could have a couple of stacks. Maybe he could take her out to a nice restaurant for breakfast. He strode to the office’s narrow closet, where he rummaged and found two grocery store shopping bags.

Between what he stuffed into his backpack and the shopping bags, Kit pulled over a million dollars from the safe.

“Well,” he said again. The success swelled in his lungs. It should have been harder. Maybe it would have been, except for his thorough planning and research. Maybe he should quit his job to pursue his natural criminal knack. He wanted to find Ruth and say, Yeah, sure, I’m done here.

 


 

Once the money was stashed in the trunk of his car, Kit returned to the office to fetch Seegmiller. The door swung closed on the empty safe with a smug snick. He chuckled at the stupid thing, fooled by a simple trick.

He found Ruth behind one of the service buildings. A small mound of ash and debris marked where the cultists had burned landscaping waste and trash. Ruth had discarded her leather jacket, and she was stacking split logs in a flat layer. She glanced over when Kit approached.

“The garbage heap?” he asked, frowning. “That seems… rude.”

“I’d say we’re well past rudeness. Hand me some logs, will you? I have no idea how to build a pyre, so I just decided to make a stack. Did you get your inheritance?”

“Yes. It’s done.”

“Good for you. Where’s Seegmiller?”

“In his desk chair, waiting.”

“His desk chair?” Ruth echoed. When she lifted her face, Kit caught the shine of perspiration on her cheeks. “Talk about rude.”

They stacked a final layer of wood. Kit retrieved Seegmiller from the chair, and he and Ruth laid the body across the logs. She used a lighter to ignite the pyre in half a dozen places around the perimeter of the body while Kit stepped back to wait. The fire was her closure, not his. His closure waited in the trunk of the car.

When the flames were well caught, Ruth came to stand beside Kit. She folded her arms over her chest. Her unreadable face reminded him that he didn’t truly know her at all.

The shroud burned first and revealed the naked flesh beneath. Kit shifted his gaze to watch the logs instead of the corpse. He had no need to add gory memories of Seegmiller to his store of lifetime horrors. He barred his mind to the scent of meat mixed in with the wood smoke.

“I’m glad things worked out this way,” he said. “I got what I wanted, and you’re getting what you wanted.”

“Yes,” Ruth said. “This is exactly what I intended. I do wish we had a bottle of whiskey.”

“Can I take you to breakfast?”

She turned to him. “Like a date?”

“Um,” Kit said. “Yes.”

Ruth’s lips twitched. “You think tonight has been an auspicious beginning?”

“Why not? We worked quite well together.”

“You were very cooperative, Kit,” she said.

He blinked at her unexpected use of the nickname. “How did you…my friends call me Kit.”

“Oh,” Ruth said. “I’m friendly.”

Her fingers tangled into his, and he turned to her. She stepped closer, her chin lifted.

“Ruth,” he said, one hand moving to her waist.

The warmth of her torso radiated through her shirt. She exerted a steady draw at his belt loop, and Kit closed the gap between them. He dipped his head to brush against her lips. She sighed. It was all the encouragement he needed to lean into a kiss. His hand cupped her jaw, and curling locks of her hair brushed the backs of his fingers. He touched the downy softness of her earlobe. She slanted against his lips, and he was eager for her mouth. He forgot, for a moment, the pyre crackling only ten yards away.

Ruth groaned deep in her throat. Kit was heady with desire and triumph. She leaned back, breaking the kiss, and her eyes were dark.

“Do you like me just because I’m rich now?” he teased, his voice a notch deeper than usual.

Ruth smiled. “No. I swear.” But her smile faded, and her expression turned pensive. “You know, I suppose I should burn Faith’s journal. To finish the job. There is nothing useful in there.”

Kit inclined his head. “It did seem to occupy your thoughts. Maybe you’ll have better memories of your sister without it.”

“I think you’re right. I’ll grab it from the car.” She squeezed his hand before turning.

Kit tilted his head back and looked at the stars. The column of smoke would be visible for miles. They needed to leave before anyone thought to come investigate. It would be dawn soon anyway, and they had at least half an hour’s drive to find a civilized breakfast.

 


 

When he dropped his gaze from the heavens, Kit noticed Ruth’s leather jacket discarded by the woodpile. A blue corner stuck out near the zipper. He walked three paces and plucked up Faith’s little notebook.

“Ruth,” he called, pivoting toward the parking lot. “The journal is right—”

An engine turned over. Kit frowned, listening. Wasn’t that his engine?

Yes. Someone had started his car. Ruth had started his car. How could she have opened—He groped at his front pocket, where the car keys should be, but their familiar weight was not there.

She tugged at my belt— She had taken his keys. Why would she…

The money. His money was in the trunk. And Ruth had started his car.

“Oh, fuck.” Kit ran.

He dashed around the building and saw his car rolling at low speed through the parking area. Ruth wasn’t watching the road, though. She had the window cracked two inches and her head turned toward Kit.

“Ruth,” he roared. “Stop!”

He dashed alongside the car and pulled at the door handle. It was locked. He shoved his fingers in the narrow gap between the window glass and frame. The engine pitch revved up, and Kit opened his stride into an awkward run. His left arm splayed for balance, the blue journal still clutched in his fist, while his right grasped at the gap in the window.

“Don’t,” she said. Her voice was muffled by the engine noise and the window, and her beautiful face had that feral gleam again. “You’ll get hurt. I’m going to hit the accelerator at the end of the lane, Kit, so let go. I will run you over if you make me.”

The end of the lane was a hundred yards away. “You liar!” Kit panted. The car was moving just slow enough for him to keep up if he ran. His lungs burned from exertion and smoke and anger. “You lied about—”

“Nearly everything. Let go!”

“You kissed me. You called me Kit!” Seventy yards to the border of the compound. How much had she known about his parents, about his plan to empty the safe?

“Check the journal, Kit.”

“I thought you—I thought you liked me.” He wheezed and stumbled a step, his weight dragging on the arm that clutched at the doorframe. Fifty yards. He recovered his footing and stared past his own glass-reflected grimace to Ruth’s profile.

“I did like you. Don’t blame yourself. You’re just a little gullible, and you were fooled by a pretty face. You did what I needed you to do. But I really did like you, Kit.”

Thirty yards to the lane. She had provided the passcode to the morgue. He’d called her a rookie. “You had the code for Tendulkar’s door. I thought you wanted revenge on Seegmiller!”

“I did. That part was true. Check the journal, Kit. It will tell you everything else I didn’t lie about.” She flicked a glance through the window, and then Ruth’s eyes shifted to the lane ten yards ahead.

“Did you even have a sister in the—”

The engine roared. The car whipped into the turn, and Kit’s hand was wrenched away. It pulled him off balance. He stumbled forward and fell face-first onto the gravel road. He cried out as sharp rocks lodged in his knees and palms.

His guttural groan was swallowed by the desert silence. Kit rolled sideways and lifted his head. His car, its familiar license plate illuminated by tail lights, sped away with Ruth and the money inside. The pain in his hands and lungs was nothing compared to the agony of betrayal and humiliation.

Faith’s diary had fallen a few yards away. He struggled to his feet and lurched toward it. The cover, as he angled it toward the softening haze of dawn in the east, was embossed with Faith in curving script. It had the glossy, mass-produced sheen of the notebooks in grocery store aisles during back-to-school sales. He flipped open the cover, and something slid out and fluttered to the road.

Kit stared down at the fallen rectangular paper. Two twenty-dollar bills were paper-clipped together with a yellow sticky note on top.

Kit:

Gas money.

Ruthless

Nothing else fell from the journal when he fanned the pages. The first page inside the cover was blank. The second and third were similarly empty. He flipped to the next, then the next, then skimmed to the center.

Nothing.

Not a single word written anywhere, and no jagged edges marked extracted pages.

He tossed the blank journal to the road. Behind him was the column of smoke that marked Seegmiller’s pyre, and ahead the pale horizon dawning across the desert. Kit’s throat closed around a spasm of bitterness. He had been nothing but her loyal cultist, her gullible victim.

2 thoughts on “Ruthless

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