The Book Doctor – Britney King

For a long time, the two of us were friends. Long being a subjective term. Long being the amount of time it takes to write a novel, and in this case, long meaning far more time than any of the parties involved preferred. “When are you ever going to learn?” he asks, stepping in front of me. Looking me in the eye, he shakes his head. “When?” Believe me, I wish I had an answer. “You can’t see it, can you?” It’s an asinine question, considering my left eye is nearly swollen shut and the right is filled with blood. I can’t see anything. “Love is blind,” he tells me—a sentiment that has everything and nothing to do with my current predicament and feels like a very good metaphor for my life up until this point. “It’s like the whole world—everyone,” he says, “they all went mad.” Eventually, he ceases pontificating. He pushes me backward into the office chair, and I tell myself, this is it. This is the point in which you suddenly realize the story shakes out much, much worse than you could have ever imagined. “You know,” he says, slapping the back of my head, the force of which causes blood to spray from my lips. “It really can’t get much worse.

” Surveying the blood that coats my desk, I beg to differ. He spins the chair around until I good and truly can’t see anything. Then he smacks me with the barrel of the gun. The crack reverberates from ear to ear, bouncing around inside my skull like a snare drum. “Write.” When I can manage and not a moment sooner, I flex my fingers. Stretch and flex. Flex and stretch. It’s a scene he is used to, which is maybe why he elbows me in the face. My mouth fills with blood.

I spit a broken tooth onto the keyboard. “I told you. I can’t.” “You are going to die,” he tells me. “Either way, you are. How it happens is up to you.” When he moves to strike again, I lean away. This time, I hold my hands up in surrender. I relent. “Okay…just give me a minute.

” I watch in relief as he shoves the gun in the waist of his tuxedo pants. He walks toward the door and I think this is where it ends, but then, I know him better than that. With a smile, he lifts a plastic bag from the floor and raises it to eye level. “Do you know what this is?” I’m a writer. I’m afraid I might. He pulls out a container of lighter fluid and then another and another, counting as he tosses the empty bottles onto the floor. When the bag is empty, he drops it and fetches a book of matches from his coat pocket. On the front, the name of the restaurant where we had our first meeting. “Don’t worry,” he says. “It’ll go quick.

” My eyes dart toward the door. “Listen—” As he watches me contemplate my next move, a grin spreads across his face. He knows I’m thinking about what’s at stake if I don’t make it out of this room alive. She will die. She will burn to death, and while he will have been the one to set the house ablaze, we both know this is a fire that started long before he struck the match. “You see? This is what happens when a person doesn’t know their own limits.” He’s wrong. It’s the dead of night, and even if I could manage the mile and a half it takes to reach the neighbors, it would be too late. “You can’t save everyone,” he says, confirming my suspicion. “That’s the problem nowadays.

Everybody wants to be the hero.” He lifts me by the throat and drags me across the office. I could ask why he doesn’t just put a bullet in my head and be done with it, but I don’t have to. That would ruin the ending. “It could have gone differently, you know.” I hold my breath as I crane my neck. There’s a car coming up the drive. Or at least I thought there was until I discover that it’s only wishful thinking. Hope will suffocate you if you let it. My eyes flit toward the gun.

His attention is on the door. That’s always been his weakness, his distractibility. He tears off a match and drags it along the rough edge of the matchbook. “I know what you’re thinking…” What I’m thinking is I’ve spent some time in burn units doing research. Even if I didn’t love her, even if I could hate her for what she’s done, I don’t want her to die this way. The match ignites. At the halfway point, he leans forward and stubs it out on my hand. I move to block him, to go for the gun, and as I do my hand grazes my face in the process. Bile rises in my throat. What was once my jawline is now just flesh hanging.

“It’s okay,” he says, shoving me toward the sofa. “None of it will matter when you’re dead.” “You don’t—” “Now is not the time for bargaining.” He strikes another match. “Really, you should be thanking me. At least she won’t have to see you like this.” My brow furrows, giving me away. I don’t mean for it to happen. My poker face has a habit of betraying me where she is concerned. Automatic response is inevitable, and if distraction is his weakness, she is mine.

I’m half-seated, half-slumped on the couch when he pulls the gun from his waistband and aims it at my head. “I thought you’d be more comfortable here.” He motions toward the notepad beside me. “Now write.” “You might as well just shoot me.” Before the sound of the gun firing registers, I feel the white-hot searing pain. Before I feel the white-hot searing pain, I see bone fragments fly from my kneecap. The blood makes me realize I should have made an effort. Later, when I come to, I hear a mewling sound somewhere deep in the belly of the house. Maybe it’s her.

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m dead and maybe this is hell. He’s seated cross-legged on the floor in front of me, gripping the gun in one hand, picking pieces of bone out of the carpet with the other. “The things you make me do.” I watch as he spreads the pieces of my knee out in front of him and begins fitting them together like a jigsaw puzzle. “Not bad, eh?” He flashes a smile. “What do you think?” What I’m thinking is maybe it’s impossible to survive a man like him. “Now that you’re awake,” he says, “it’s time to finish the story.” “I—” “Don’t. Remember? You promised.

” He’s right. I did promise. That’s how this started. H C HA P T E R O NE Then er skin is milky white, like freshly fallen snow. Her thighs are exposed. Her hair partially conceals her face. A thin dress barely covers her. One strap has fallen from her left shoulder, the other is torn. Except for the bruising, she’s like a ghost, almost translucent. She is young.

How young, I can’t say. One thing is for sure—she does not look peaceful. She does not look like she is sleeping. Her eyes are wide open, glassy. Transfixed. Frightened. Her head is shadowed by a halo of matted blood in the same shade of burgundy as the curtains in my childhood home. Knocked off balance by the memory, I stumble forward, catching myself on the curb. I’m not a stranger to the sight of a corpse. I just wasn’t expecting to see one here.

Movement flashes in my peripheral vision. Glancing sideways, I see a uniformed officer taking long strides in my direction. In his left hand dangles crime scene tape. When he reaches me, he offers a curt nod. “Can I help you?” I realize he expects an answer, but all I can do is stare over his shoulder at the girl’s face. “Sir,” he says, clearing his throat. “You’re going to have to move along.” “I’m—” I start to speak but can’t get the words out. I swear her mouth twitches upward. I once read about “body farms” where they study decomposition, so I know it’s possible.

Bodies keep moving for up to a year after death. I’ve seen time-lapse footage. It’s really quite something. Swallowing hard, I nod toward the opposite end of the lot. “I’m trying to get to the pharmacy.” He raises his hand to his brow as though to shield his eyes from the sun. He looks animatedly in the direction of the pharmacy and then back at me, stating the obvious with his body language. “Afraid that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.” Widening his stance, he partially blocks my view of the woman. When I strain and stretch upward, he follows my gaze until we’re both looking at the body sprawled out on the pavement.

A man stands over her, and a woman leans over his shoulder. He’s taking photographs and the female detective appears to be directing the shoot. “Wait a second…” the officer says. “I know you. You’re—” He takes a step back, reaching his free hand toward his jawline and then leans forward. “You’re George Dawson. Author of—” “Yes,” I say cutting him off. The average crime scene where murder is involved takes four to ten hours to clear. I don’t have time for this. He scratches his chin.

“Author of those Croft books.” “No. That’s Jake Patterson.” “Ah. Well, I saw the movie and—” “Murdered?” I ask. Nodding toward the body, his eyes follow mine. Eventually, he looks back at me with mild amusement. “It’s an active investigation,” he tells me. “Can’t say.” “Right.

” I turn on my heel and start to go, but my feet might as well be cemented to the asphalt. I contemplate making a run for it. At my age, I don’t think I could outrun him, but maybe if I cut out in a zig-zag pattern, maybe I can outmaneuver him. Better not. What I don’t need is to get arrested. Or any other complications. As it is, if I don’t cut out of the meeting early, there won’t be enough time. Joni made it clear she can’t stay. If she doesn’t leave by 2:30 on the dot, she’ll be late to pick up her daughter. She warned me.

It can’t happen again. The other thing that can’t happen again is Eve going another night without her medication. It’s entirely possible one of us might not survive. “Say,” the officer smiles. He shoves a notebook at my chest. “Before you go…can I get your autograph?” He removes a pen from his pocket. “I wouldn’t worry too much,” he says, handing over the pen. “Probably just one less junkie on the street.” I scribble out Jake Patterson and head in the opposite direction. S C HA P T E R TW O ‘The Book Doctor’ Journal Entry he didn’t smell bad the way they sometimes do.

The way her eyes glared into mine as I fucked her…I found that pleasing, as well. Something to be said for, really. No one makes eye contact like that anymore. Her search was endless. Whatever she was looking for— answers, a home, love, all of the above—I wanted to make sure she found it. The lack of smell and absence of dirt under her fingernails told me she hadn’t been on the streets long. That or she wasn’t as bad off as the rest of them. Roaches—scattering in the daylight, but at night, well, it’s a different story. When night falls they’re everywhere, which is why when I asked her where to go for a little privacy, she didn’t bat an eye. “Around the corner,” she pointed.

“There’s a parking lot.” Turns out, I should have done my goddamned homework. It wasn’t just any parking lot. It was a fucking pharmacy. And do you know what pharmacies have? Cameras. “It’s okay,” she said. “I do it all the time.” The way she spoke made her sound younger than she looked. It made me sure she was what I was looking for: a liar. It wasn’t until after I’d paid her and rolled the condom on that she proved herself, saying, “I don’t usually do this.

It’s actually my first time.” Obviously it wasn’t true. Obviously she was trying to add to some sort of fantasy she thought I had. It worked. It turned me on— and it enraged me. I pushed her back against the wall, running my fingers across her cheek. She wasn’t pretty, but she wasn’t horrid either. Not like some of them. She seemed like the kind of girl who, with a little effort, might have had a shot at making something out of herself. “Do you mind if I hit you?” She shook her head.

“Just don’t leave a mark.” I flashed a knowing smile and then lightly tapped her cheek. Rule number one: a little buy-in in the beginning can save you a whole lot of trouble in the end. “Can I ask you another question?” A slight nod. “How many continents are there?” She laughed nervously. “Is this a trick question?” “Maybe.” “Good thing you’re not paying me to answer questions,” she said, leaning in. Pumping into her rhythmically, at first fast and then slow, I cupped my hand over her mouth. Against her filthy ear, I whispered, “Don’t scream.” She was an easy listener.

Her eyes kept searching. Even in the salty glow of the dim streetlamp, I could see that they were blue with green flecks. The kind you could easily forget if you let yourself. I kept moving, eventually timing myself with the rhythm of her pulse. When I wrapped my hands around her throat, she didn’t protest. Women always put up with things way longer than they should. Maybe there’s a school where they take little girls aside and teach them this, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the fairy tales. Whatever the case, my hands squeezing her neck…closing her airway. I’m sure she thought this is what he’s into.

This is his thing. This is it. This is the money shot. And it was. In a different sort of way. I didn’t let up, not even when she started to panic and I was forced to slam her head against the brick wall. To her credit, she didn’t stop fighting, not even then. I had eighty pounds on her, easy, and a whole lot more experience. The more she fought, the harder I pressed. I squeezed and I squeezed until we both found our release.

Her eyes fixed in place and blood trickled from her nose. Her breathing slowed, before it ceased altogether. Finally, her struggle had come to an end. It was beautiful, being that for her. “The answer is seven,” I told her afterward. For what it’s worth, I let her keep the money. Not that she’ll be needing it, but because it was the right thing to do.

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