The Steel ValentineJoe R. Lansdale
The Steel Valentine
A Short Story
by Joe R. Lansdale
For Jeff Banks
THE STEEL VALENTINE was a workmanlike story, or so I thought. I felt somewhat the same way about INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD, but when I finished them I was surprised at how much power they had. That may sound immodest coming from the writer, but I’m referring to the response both got. This one I believe was in a Best of the Year volume, and I know it was done as a special chapbook and was reprinted a lot. It was in my first collection of stories, BY BIZARRE HANDS. It was a favorite, and then, it sort of got lost. I’m glad to have it reprinted here. I think it was inspired by a collection of old MANHUNT digest magazines I was reading at the time. MANHUNT was a unique crime publication, and the stories in it were different from most crime magazines, and my guess is we will never see their like again. That said, this is certainly one of its descendants.
Joe R. Lansdale
EVEN BEFORE MORLEY TOLD HIM, Dennis knew things were about to get ugly.
A man did not club you unconscious, bring you to his estate and tie you to a chair in an empty storage shed out back of the place if he merely intended to give you a valentine.
Morley had found out about him and Julie.
Dennis blinked his eyes several times as he came to, and each time he did, more of the dimly lit room came into view. It was the room where he and Julie had first made love. It was the only building on the estate that looked out of place; it was old, worn, and not even used for storage; it was a collector of dust, cobwebs, spiders and desiccated flies.
There was a table in front of Dennis, a kerosene lantern on it, and beyond, partially hidden in shadow, a man sitting in a chair smoking a cigarette. Dennis could see the red tip glowing in the dark and the smoke from it drifted against the lantern light and hung in the air like thin, suspended wads of cotton.
The man leaned out of shadow, and as Dennis expected, it was Morley. His shaved, bullet-shaped head was sweaty and reflected the light. He was smiling with his fine, white teeth, and the high cheekbones were round, flushed circles that looked like clown rouge. The tightness of his skin, the few wrinkles, made him look younger than his fifty-one years.
And in most ways he was younger than his age. He was a man who took care of himself. Jogged eight miles every morning before breakfast, lifted weights three times a week and had only one bad habit—cigarettes. He smoked three packs a day. Dennis knew all that and he had only met the man twice. He had learned it from Julie, Morley’s wife. She told him about Morley while they lay in bed. She liked to talk and she often talked about Morley; about how much she hated him.
“Good to see you,” Morley said, and blew smoke across the table into Dennis’s face. “Happy Valentine’s Day, my good man. I was beginning to think I hit you too hard, put you in a coma.”
“What is this, Morley?” Dennis found that the mere act of speaking sent nails of pain through his skull. Morley really had lowered the boom on him.
“Spare me the innocent act, lover boy. You’ve been laying the pipe to Julie, and I don’t like it.”
“This is silly, Morley. Let me loose.”
“God, they do say stupid things like that in real life. It isn’t just the movies…You think I brought you here just to let you go, lover boy?”
Dennis didn’t answer. He tried to silently work the ropes loose that held his hands to the back of the chair. If he could get free, maybe he could grab the lantern, toss it in Morley’s face. There would still be the strand holding his ankles to the chair, but maybe it wouldn’t take too long to undo that. And even if it did, it was at least some kind of plan.
If he got the chance to go one on one with Morley, he might take him. He was twenty-five years younger and in good shape himself. Not as good as when he was playing pro basketball, but good shape nonetheless. He had height, reach, and he still had wind. He kept the latter with plenty of jogging and tossing the special-made, sixty-five pound medicine ball around with Raul at the gym.
Still, Morley was strong. Plenty strong. Dennis could testify to that. The pulsating knot on the side of his head was there to remind him.
He remembered the voice in the parking lot, turning toward it and seeing a fist. Nothing more, just a fist hurling toward him like a comet. Next thing he knew, he was here, the outbuilding.
Last time he was here, circumstances were different, and better. He was with Julie. He met her for the first time at the club where he worked out, and they had spoken, and ended up playing racquetball together. Eventually she brought him here and they made love on an old mattress in the corner; lay there afterward in the June heat of a Mexican summer, holding each other in a warm, sweaty embrace.
After that, there had been many other times. In the great house; in cars; hotels. Always careful to arrange a tryst when Morley was out of town. Or so they thought. But somehow he had found out.
“This is where you first had her,” Morley said suddenly. “And don’t look so wide-eyed. I’m not a mind reader. She told me all the other times and places too. She spat at me when I told her I knew, but I made her tell me every little detail, even when I knew them. I wanted it to come from her lips. She got so she couldn’t wait to tell me. She was begging to tell me. She asked me to forgive her and take her back. She no longer wanted to leave Mexico and go back to the States with you. She just wanted to live.”
“You bastard. If you’ve hurt her—”
“You’ll what? Shit your pants? That’s the best you can do, Dennis. You see, it’s me that has you tied to the chair. Not the other way around.”
Morley leaned back into the shadows again, and his hands came to rest on the table, the perfectly manicured fingertips steepling together, twitching ever so gently.
“I think it would have been inconsiderate of her to have gone back to the States with you, Dennis. Very inconsiderate. She knows I’m a wanted man there, that I can’t go back. She thought she’d be rid of me. Start a new life with her ex-basketball player. That hurt my feelings, Dennis. Right to the bone.” Morley smiled. “But she wouldn’t have been rid of me, lover boy. Not by a long shot. I’ve got connections in my business. I could have followed her anywhere… In fact, the idea that she thought I couldn’t offended my sense of pride.”
“Where is she? What have you done with her, you bald-headed bastard?”
After a moment of silence, during which Morley examined Dennis’s face, he said, “Let me put it this way. Do you remember her dogs?”
Of course he remembered the dogs. Seven Dobermans. Attack dogs. They always frightened him. They were big mothers, too. Except for her favorite, a reddish, undersized Doberman named Chum. He was about sixty pounds, and vicious. “Light, but quick,” Julie used to say. “Light, but quick.”
Oh yeah, he remembered those goddamn dogs. Sometimes when they made love in an estate bedroom, the dogs would wander in, sit down around the bed and watch. Dennis felt they were considering the soft, rolling meat of his testicles, savoring the possibility. It made him feel like a mean kid teasing them with a treat he never intended to give. The idea of them taking that treat by force made his erection soften, and he finally convinced Julie, who found his nervousness hysterically funny, that the dogs should be banned from the bedroom, the door closed.
Except for Julie, those dogs hated everyone. Morley included. They obeyed him, but they did not like him. Julie felt that under the right circumstances, they might go nuts and tear him apart. Something she hoped for, but never happened.
“Sure,” Morley continued. “You remember her little pets. Especially Chum, her favorite. He’d growl at me when I tried to touch her. Can you imagine that? All I had to do was touch her, and that damn beast would growl. He was
crazy about his mistress, just crazy about her.”
Dennis couldn’t figure what Morley was leading up to, but he knew in some way he was being baited. And it was working. He was starting to sweat.
“Been what,” Morley asked, “a week since you’ve seen your precious sweetheart? Am I right?”
Dennis did not answer, but Morley was right. A week. He had gone back to the States for a while to settle some matters, get part of his inheritance out of legal bondage so he could come back, get Julie, and take her to the States for good. He was tired of the Mexican heat and tired of Morley owning the woman he loved.
It was Julie who had arranged for him to meet Morley in the first place, and probably even then the old bastard had suspected. She told Morley a partial truth. That she had met Dennis at the club, that they had played racquetball together, and that since he was an American, and supposedly a mean hand at chess, she thought Morley might enjoy the company. This way Julie had a chance to be with her lover, and let Dennis see exactly what kind of man Morley was.
And from the first moment Dennis met him, he knew he had to get Julie away from him. Even if he hadn’t loved her and wanted her, he would have helped her leave Morley.
It wasn’t that Morley was openly abusive—in fact, he was the perfect host all the while Dennis was there—but there was an obvious undercurrent of connubial dominance and menace that revealed itself like a shark fin every time he looked at Julie.
Still, in a strange way, Dennis found Morley interesting, if not likable. He was a bright and intriguing talker, and a wizard at chess. But when they played and Morley took a piece, he smirked over it in such a way as to make you feel he had actually vanquished an opponent.
The second and last time Dennis visited the house was the night before he left for the States. Morley had wiped him out in chess, and when finally Julie walked him to the door and called the dogs in from the yard so he could leave without being eaten, she whispered, “I can’t take him much longer.”
“I know,” he whispered back. “See you in about a week. And it’ll be all over.”
Dennis looked over his shoulder, back into the house, and there was Morley leaning against the fireplace mantle drinking a martini. He lifted the glass to Dennis as if in salute and smiled. Dennis smiled back, called goodbye to Morley and went out to his car feeling uneasy. The smile Morley had given him was exactly the same one he used when he took a chess piece from the board.
· · ·
“Tonight. Valentine’s Day,” Morley said, “that’s when you two planned to meet again, wasn’t it? In the parking lot of your hotel. That’s sweet. Really. Lovers planning to elope on Valentine’s Day. It has a sort of poetry, don’t you think?”
Morley held up a huge fist. “But what you met instead of your sweetheart was this… I beat a man to death with this once, lover boy. Enjoyed every second of it.”
Morley moved swiftly around the table, came to stand behind Dennis. He put his hands on the sides of Dennis’s face. “I could twist your head until your neck broke, lover boy. You believe that, don’t you? Don’t you?… Goddamnit, answer me.”
“Yes,” Dennis said, and the word was soft because his mouth was so dry.
“Good. That’s good. Let me show you something, Dennis.”
Morley picked up the chair from behind, carried Dennis effortlessly to the center of the room, then went back for the lantern and the other chair. He sat down across from Dennis and turned the wick of the lantern up. And even before Dennis saw the dog, he heard the growl.
The dog was straining at a large leather strap attached to the wall. He was muzzled and ragged looking. At his feet lay something red and white. “Chum,” Morley said. “The light bothers him. You remember ole Chum, don’t you? Julie’s favorite pet… Ah, but I see you’re wondering what that is at his feet. That sort of surprises me, Dennis. Really. As intimate as you and Julie were, I’d think you’d know her. Even without her makeup.”
Now that Dennis knew what he was looking at, he could make out the white bone of her skull, a dark patch of matted hair still clinging to it. He also recognized what was left of the dress she had been wearing. It was a red and white tennis dress, the one she wore when they played racquetball. It was mostly red now. Her entire body had been gnawed savagely.
“Murderer!” Dennis rocked savagely in the chair, tried to pull free of his bonds. After a moment of useless struggle and useless epithets, he leaned forward and let the lava hot gorge in his stomach pour out.
“Oh, Dennis,” Morley said. “That’s going to be stinky. Just awful. Will you look at your shoes? And calling me a murderer. Now, I ask you, Dennis, is that nice? I didn’t murder anyone. Chum did the dirty work. After four days without food and water he was ravenous and thirsty. Wouldn’t you be? And he was a little crazy too. I burned his feet some. Not as bad as I burned Julie’s, but enough to really piss him off. And I sprayed him with this.”
Morley reached into his coat pocket, produced an aerosol canister and waved it at Dennis.
“This was invented by some business associate of mine. It came out of some chemical warfare research I’m conducting. I’m in, shall we say… espionage? I work for the highest bidder. I have plants here for arms and chemical warfare… If it’s profitable and ugly, I’m involved. I’m a real stinker sometimes. I certainly am.”
Morley was still waving the canister, as if trying to hypnotize Dennis with it. “We came up with this to train attack dogs. We found we could spray a padded up man with this and the dogs would go bonkers. Rip the pads right off of him. Sometimes the only way to stop the beggars was to shoot them. It was a failure actually. It activated the dogs, but it drove them out of their minds and they couldn’t be controlled at all. And after a short time the odor faded, and the spray became quite the reverse. It made it so the dogs couldn’t smell the spray at all. It made whoever was wearing it odorless. Still, I found a use for it. A very personal use.”
“I let Chum go a few days without food and water while I worked on Julie… And she wasn’t tough at all, Dennis. Not even a little bit. Spilled her guts. Now that isn’t entirely correct. She didn’t spill her guts until later, when Chum got hold of her… Anyway, she told me what I wanted to know about you two, then I sprayed that delicate thirty-six, twenty-four, thirty-six figure of hers with this. And with Chum so hungry, and me having burned his feet and done some mean things to him, he was not in the best of humor when I gave him Julie.
“It was disgusting, Dennis. Really. I had to come back when it was over and shoot Chum with a tranquilizer dart, get him tied and muzzled for your arrival.”
Morley leaned forward, sprayed Dennis from head to foot with the canister. Dennis turned his head and closed his eyes, tried not to breathe the foul-smelling mist.
“He’s probably not all that hungry now,” Morley said, “but this will still drive him wild.”
Already Chum had gotten a whiff and was leaping at his leash. Foam burst from between his lips and frothed on the leather bands of the muzzle.
“I suppose it isn’t polite to lecture a captive audience, Dennis, but I thought you might like to know a few things about dogs. No need to take notes. You won’t be around for a quiz later.
“But here’s some things to tuck in the back of your mind while you and Chum are alone. Dogs are very strong, Dennis. Very. They look small compared to a man, even a big dog like a Doberman, but they can exert a lot of pressure with their bite. I’ve seen dogs like Chum here, especially when they’re exposed to my little spray, bite through the thicker end of a baseball bat. And they’re quick. You’d have a better chance against a black belt in karate than an attack dog.”
“Morley,” Dennis said softly, “you can’t do this.”
“I can’t?” Morley seemed to consider. “No, Dennis, I believe I can. I give myself permission. But hey, Dennis, I’m going to give you a chance. This is the good part now, so listen up. You’re a sporting man. Basketball. Racquetball. Chess. Another man’s woman. S
o you’ll like this. This will appeal to your sense of competition.
“Julie didn’t give Chum a fight at all. She just couldn’t believe her Chummy-whummy wanted to eat her. Just wouldn’t. She held out her hand, trying to soothe the old boy, and he just bit it right off. Right off. Got half the palm and the fingers in one bite. That’s when I left them alone. I had a feeling her Chummy-whummy might start on me next, and I wouldn’t have wanted that. Oooohhh, those sharp teeth. Like nails being driven into you.”
“Shut up! You, Mr. Cock Dog and Basketball Star, just might have a chance. Not much of one, but I know you’ll fight. You’re not a quitter. I can tell by the way you play chess. You still lose, but you’re not a quitter. You hang in there to the bitter end.”
Morley took a deep breath, stood in the chair and hung the lantern on a low rafter. There was something else up there too. A coiled chain. Morley pulled it down and it clattered to the floor. At the sound of it Chum leaped against his leash and flecks of saliva flew from his mouth and Dennis felt them fall lightly on his hands and face.
Morley lifted one end of the chain toward Dennis. There was a thin, open collar attached to it.
“Once this closes it locks and can only be opened with this.” Morley reached into his coat pocket and produced a key, held it up briefly and returned it. “There’s a collar for Chum on the other end. Both are made out of good leather over strong, steel chain. See what I’m getting at here, Dennis?”
Morley leaned forward and snapped the collar around Dennis’s neck.
“Oh, Dennis,” Morley said, standing back to observe his handiwork. “It’s you. Really. Great fit. And considering the day, just call this my valentine to you.”
Morley walked over to Chum. Chum lunged at him, but with the muzzle on he was relatively harmless. Still, his weight hit Morley’s legs, almost knocked him down.