MASTER OF MISERY
To the memory of my father, Bud Lansdale
Six o'clock in the morning, Richard was crossing by ferry from the Hotel on the Quay to Christiansted with a few other early-bird tourists, when he turned, looked toward shore, and saw a large ray leap from the water, its blue-gray hide glistening in the morning sunlight like gunmetal, its devil-tail flicking to one side as if to slash.
The ray floated there in defiance of gravity, hung in the sky between the boat and the shore, backgrounded by the storefronts and dock as if it were part of a painting, then splashed almost silently into the purple Caribbean, leaving in its wake a sun-kissed ripple.
Richard turned to see if the other passengers had noticed. He could tell from their faces they had not. The ray's leap had been a private showing, just for him, and he relished it. Later, he would think that perhaps it had been some kind of omen.
Ashore, he walked along the dock past the storefronts, and in front of the Anchor Inn Restaurant, the charter fishing boat was waiting.
A man and a woman were on board already. The man was probably fifty, perhaps a little older, but certainly in good shape. He had an aura of invincibility about him, as if the normal laws of mortality and time did not apply to him.
He was about five-ten with broad shoulders and, though he was a little thick in the middle, it was a hard thickness. It was evident, even beneath the black, loose, square-cut shirt he was wearing, he was a muscular man, perhaps first by birth, and second by exercise. His skin was as dark and leathery as an old bull's hide, his hair like frost on scorched grass. He was wearing khaki shorts and his dark legs were corded with muscle and his shins had a yellow shine to them that brought to mind weathered ivory.
He stood by the fighting chair bolted to the center of the deck, and looked at Richard standing on the dock with his little paper bag containing lunch and suntan lotion. The man's crow-colored eyes studied Richard as if he were a pile of dung that might contain some kernel of rare and undigested corn a crow might want.
The man's demeanor bothered Richard immediately. There was about him a cockiness. A way of looking at you and sizing you up and letting you know he wasn't seeing much.
The woman was quite another story. She was very much the bathing beauty type, aged beyond competition, but still beautiful, with a body by Nautilus. She was at least ten years younger than the man. She wore shoulder-length blond hair bleached by sun and chemicals. She had a heart-shaped face and a perfect nose and full lips. There was a slight cleft in her chin and her eyes were a faded blue. She was willowy and big breasted and wore a loose, white tee shirt over her black bathing suit, one of the kind you see women wear in movies, but not often on the beach. She had the body for it. A thong, or string, Richard thought the suits were called. Sort of thing where the strap in the back slid between the buttocks and covered them not at all. The top of the suit made a dark outline beneath her white tee shirt. She moved her body easily, as if she were accustomed to and not bothered by scrutiny, but there was something about her eyes that disturbed Richard.
Once, driving at night, a cat ran out in front of his car and he hit it, and when he stopped to see if there was hope, he found the cat mashed and dying, the eyes glowing hot and savage and terrified in the beam of his flashlight. The woman's eyes were like that.
She glanced at him quickly, then looked away. Richard climbed onboard.
Richard extended his hand to the older man. The man smiled and took his hand and shook it. Richard cursed himself as the man squeezed hard. He should have expected that. "Hugo Peak," the older man said, then moved his head to indicate the woman behind him. "My wife, Margo."
Margo nodded at Richard and almost smiled. Richard was about to give his name, when the captain, Bill Jones, came out of the cabin grinning. He was a lean, weathered fellow with a face that was all nose and eyes the color of watered meat gravy. He was carrying a couple cups of coffee. He gave one to Margo, the other to Hugo. He said, "Richard, how are you, my man."
"Wishing I'd stayed in bed," Richard said. "I can't believe I let you talk me into this, Jones."
"Hey, fishing's not so bad," said the captain.
"Off the bank at home in Texas it might be all right. But all this water. I hate it."
This was true. Richard hated the water. He could swim, had even earned lifeguard credentials as a Boy Scout, some twenty-five years ago, back when he was thirteen, but he had never learned to like the water. Especially deep water. The ocean.
He realized he had let Jones talk him into this simply because he wanted to convince himself he wasn't phobic. So, okay, he wasn't phobic, but he still didn't like the water. The thought of soon being surrounded by it, and it being deep, and above them there being nothing but hot blue sky, was not appealing.
"I'll get you some coffee and we'll shove off," Jones said.
"I thought it took five for a charter?" Richard said.
Jones looked faintly embarrassed. "Well, Mr. Peak paid the slack. He wanted to keep it down to three. More time in the chair that way, we hit something."
Richard turned to Peak. "I suppose I should split the difference with you."
"Not at all," Peak said. "It was my idea."
"That's kind of you, Hugo," Richard said.
"Not at all. And if it doesn't sound too presumptuous, I don't much prefer to be called by my first name, unless it's by my wife. If I'm not fucking the person, I want them to call me Mr. Peak. Or Peak. That all right with you?"
Richard saw Margo turn her face toward the sea, pretend to be watching the gulls in the distance. "Sure," Richard said.
"I'll get the coffee," Jones said, and disappeared into the cabin. Peak yelled after him. "Let's shove off."
The sea was calm until they reached the Atlantic. The water there was blue-green, and the rich purple color of the Caribbean stood in stark contrast against it, reaching out with long purple claws into the great ocean, as if it might tug the Atlantic to it. But the Atlantic was too mighty, and it would not come.
The little fishing boat chugged out of the Caribbean and onto the choppier waters of the Atlantic, on out and over the great depths, and above them the sky was blue, with clouds as white as the undergarments of the Sacred Virgin.
The boat rode up and the boat rode down, between wet valleys of ocean and up their sides and down again. The cool spray of the ocean splattered on the deck and the diesel engine chugged and blew its exhaust across it and onto Richard, where he sat on the supply box. The movement of the water and the stench of the diesel made him queasy.
After a couple of hours of pushing onward, Jones slowed the engine, and finally killed it. "You're up, Mr. Peak," Jones said coming down from his steering. He got a huge, metallic chest out of the cabin and dragged it onto the deck and opened it. There were a number of small black fish inside, packed in ice. Sardines, maybe. Jones took one and cut it open, took loose one of the rods strapped to the side of the cabin, stuck the fish on the great hook. He gave the rod to Peak.
Peak took the rod and tossed the line expertly and it went way out. He sat down in the fighting chair and fastened the waist belt and shoulder straps and put the rod butt in the gimbal. He looked relaxed and professional. The boat bobbed beneath the hot sunlight and the minutes crawled by.
Margo removed her tee shirt and leaned against the side of the boat. The bathing suit top barely managed to cover her breasts. It was designed primarily to shield her nipples. The top and sides of her bathing suit bottom revealed escaped pubic hair, a darker blond than the hair on her head.
She got a tube of suntan lotion out of a little knit bag on the deck, pushed the lotion into her palm, and began to apply it, slowly and carefully from her ankles up. Richard tried not to watch her run her hand over her tanned legs and thighs, finally over her belly and the tops of her breasts. He would look away, but always his eyes would come back.
He had not made love to a woman in a year, and for the first six months of the year had not wanted to. Now, looking at Margo Peak, it was all he could think about.
Richard glanced at Peak. He was studying the ocean. Jones was in the doorway of the cabin, trying not to be too obvious as he observed the woman. Richard could see that Jones's Adam's apple rode high in his throat. Margo seemed unaware or overly accustomed to the attention. She was primarily concerned with getting the suntan lotion even. Or so it seemed.
Then the line on the rod began to sing.
Richard looked toward the ocean and the line went straight and taut as the fish hit. The line sang louder as it jerked again and cut the air.
"I'm gonna hit him," Peak said. He tightened the drag, jerked back on the rod, and the rod bent slightly. "Now I've got him."
The fish cut to the right and the line moved with him, and Peak hit him again, said, "He's not too big. He's nothing."
Peak rapidly cranked the fish on deck. It was a barracuda. Jones took hold of a metal bar and whacked the flopping barracuda in the head. He got a pair of heavy shears off the deck and opened them and put them against the barracuda's head, and snapped down hard. The head came part of the way off. Jones popped the head again, and this time the head hung by a strand. He cut the head the rest of the way off, tossed it in the ocean, put the decapitated barracuda in the huge ice chest. "Some of the restaurants buy them," he said. "Probably sell them as tuna or something."
"Good catch," Richard said.
"A barracuda," Peak said. "That's no kinda fish. That's not worth a damn."
"Sometimes that's all you hit," Jones said. "Last party I took out, that was it. Three barracuda, back to back. You're next, Mrs. Peak."
Jones baited the hook and cast the line and Margo strapped herself into the fighting chair and slipped the rod into the gimbal. They drifted for an hour and finally Jones moved the boat, letting the line troll, but nothing hit right away. It was twenty minutes later and they were all having a beer, when suddenly the gimbal cranked forward and the line whizzed so fast and loud it sent goosebumps up Richard's back.
Margo dropped the beer and grabbed the rod. The beer foamed out of the can and ran over the deck, beneath Richard's tennis shoes. The line went way out. Jones cut the engine back plenty, and the line continued to sing and go far out into the water.
"Hit him, Margo," Peak said. "Hit him. He's not stuck, he's just got the bait and the line. You don't hit, the sonofabitch is gone."
Margo tightened the drag, pushed her feet hard against the chair's footrests, and jerked back viciously on the line. The line went taut and the rod bent forward and Margo was yanked hard against the straps.
"Loosen the goddamn drag," Peak said, "or he'll snap it."
Margo loosened the drag. The line sang and the fish went wide to starboard. Jones leaped to the controls and reversed the boat and slowed the speed, gave the fish room to run. The line slacked and the pole began to straighten.
"Hit him again," Peak said, and Margo tried, but it was some job, and Richard could see that the fish was putting a tremendous strain on her. The sun had not so much as caused her tanned body to break a sweat, but the fish had given her sweat beads on her forehead and cheeks and under the nose. The muscles in her arms and legs coiled as if being braided. She pressed her feet hard against the foot rests.
"It's too big for her," Richard said.
"Mind your own business, Mr. Young," Peak said.
Young? How had Peak known his last name? He was pondering that, and about to ask, when suddenly the fish began to run. Peak yelled, "Hit him, Margo, goddamn you! Hit him!"
Margo had been working the drag back and forth, and it was evident she had done this before, but the fish was too much for her, anyone could see that, and now she hit the big fish again, solid, and it leaped. It leaped high and pretty, full of color, fastened itself to the sky, then dived like an arrow into the water and out of sight. It was a great swordfish, and Richard thought: when we drag him onto the deck, immediately it will begin to lose its color and die. It will become nothing more than a dull gray dead fish to harden in some taxidermist's shop, later to be hung on a wall above a couch. It seemed a shame, and Richard suddenly felt shamed for coming out here, for wanting to fish at all. At home, on the banks, he caught a fish, it got eaten. Here, there was no point to the fishing but to garner a trophy.
"I want him, Margo," Peak said. "You hear me, you don't lose this fish. I mean it, goddammit."
"I'm trying," Margo said. "Really."
"You know how it goes, you screw it up," Peak said. "You know how it works."
"Hugo... I can't hold him. I'm hurting."
"You'll hold him, or wish you had," Peak said. "You just think you're hurting."
"Hey," Richard said, "that's ridiculous. You want the goddamn fish, take over."
Peak, who was standing on the other side of Margo, looked at Richard and smiled. "She'll land it. It's her fish, and she'll land it."
"It's ripping her apart," Richard said. "She's just not big enough."
"Please, Hugo," Margo said. "You can have it. It could have been me caught the barracuda."
"Look to the fish," Peak said.
Margo watched the water and her face went tight; she suddenly looked much older than she had looked. Peak reached out and laid a hand on Margo's breast and looked at Richard, said, "I say she does something, she does it. That's the way a wife does. Her husband says she does something, she does it."
Peak ran his hand over Margo's breast, nearly popping her top aside. Richard turned away from them and called up to Jones. "Cut this out. Let's go in."
Jones didn't answer.
"He does what I want," Peak said. "I pay him enough to do what I want."
The boat slowed almost to a stop, and the great fish began to sound. It went down and they waited. The rod was bent into a deep bow. Margo was beginning to shake. Her eyes looked as if they might roll up in her head. She was stretched forward in the straps so that her back was exposed to Richard, and he could see the cords of muscle there; they were as wadded and tight as the Gordian knot.
"She can't take much more of this," Richard said. "I'll take the fish, if you won't."
"You won't do a goddamn thing, Mr. Young. She can take it, and she will. She'll land it. She caught it, she'll bring it in."
"Hugo," Margo said. "I feel faint. Really."
Peak was still holding his beer, and he poured it over Margo's head. "That'll freshen you."
Margo shook beer from her hair. She began to cry silently. The rod began to bob up and down and the line on the reel was running out. The fish went down again.
Jones appeared from the upper deck. "I've killed the engine. The fish will sound and keep sounding."
"I know that," Peak said. "It'll sound until this bitch gives up, which she won't, or until she hauls it in, which she will."
Richard looked at Jones. The watered gravy eyes looked away. Richard realized now that not only was Jones a paid lackey, he had actually made sure he, Richard Young, was on this boat with Hugo Peak. He had known Jones a short time, since he'd been staying on St. Croix, and they had drunk a few together, and maybe he'd told Jones too much. Not that any of it mattered under normal circumstances, but now some things came clear, and Richard wished he had never known this Captain Jones.
Until now, he had considered Jones decent company. Had told him he was staying in the Caribbean for a few months to rest, really to get past some disappointments. And over one too many loaded fruit drinks, had told him more. For a brief time, two defenses, he had been the Heavyweight Kickboxing Champion of the World.
Trained in Kenpo and Tae Kwon Do, he had gone into kickboxing late, at thirty, and had worked his way up to the championship by age thirty-five, going at a slow rate due to lack of finances to chase all the tournaments. It wasn't like professional kickboxing paid all that much. But he had, by God, been the champion.
And on his second defense, against Manuel Martinez, it had gone wrong. Martinez was good. Real good. He gave Richard hell, and Richard lost sight of the rules in a pressed moment, snapped an elbow into the side of Martinez's temple. Martinez went down and never got up. The blow had been illegal and just right, and Martinez was dead and Richard was shamed and pained at what he had done.
He had the whole thing on videocassette. And at night, back home, when he was drunk or depressed, he sometimes got out the cassette and tormented himself with it. He had done what he had done on purpose, but he had never intended for it to kill. It was an instinctive action from years and years of self-defense training, especially Kenpo, which was fond of elbow strikes. He had lost his willpower and had killed.
He had told this to Jones, and obviously, Jones, most likely under the influence of drink, had told this to Peak, and Peak was the kind of man who would want to know a man who had killed someone. He would want to know someone like that to test himself against him. He would see killing a man in the ring as positive, a major macho achievement.
And those glowing yellow shins of Peak's. Callus. Thai boxers built their shins up to be impervious to pain. Used herbs on them to deaden feeling, so they could slam their legs against trees until they bled and scabbed and finally callused over. Peak wore those shins like a badge of honor.
Yeah, it was clear now. Peak had wanted to meet him and let it lead up to something. And Jones had made at least part of that dream possible. He had supplied Richard, lured him like an unsuspecting goat to the slaughter.
Richard began to feel sick. Not only from the tossing of the sea and the smell of the diesel, but from the fact that he had been handily betrayed, and that he had to see such a thing as a man abuse his wife over a fish, over the fact that Peak had caught a lowly barracuda, and his wife, through chance, had hooked a big one.
Richard moved to the side of the boat and threw up. He threw up hard and long. When he was finished, he turned and looked at Peak, who had slid his hand under Margo's top and was massaging her breast, his head close to her ear, whispering something. Margo no longer looked tan; she was pale and her mouth hung slack and tears ran down her face and dripped from her chin.
Richard turned back to look at the sea and saw a school of some kind of fish he couldn't identify, leaping out of the water and back in again. He looked at the deck and saw the bloodstained shears Jones had used on the barracuda. As he picked them up, and turned, the line on the rod went out fast again, finishing off the reel. Peak began to curse Margo and tell her what to do. Richard walked quickly over to the rod, reached up with the clippers, and snapped the line in two. The rod popped up, the line snapped away, drifted and looped, then it was jerked beneath the waves with the fish. Margo fell back in the chair and sighed, the harness creaking loosely against her.
Tossing the shears aside, Richard glared at Peak, who glared back. "To hell with you," Richard said.
Two days later Richard moved out of the Hotel on the Quay. Too expensive, and his savings were dwindling. He got a room over a fish market overlooking the dock and the waters of the Caribbean. He had planned to go home by now, back to Tyler, Texas, but somehow the thought of it made him sick.
Here, he seemed outside of the world he had known, and therefore, at least much of the time, outside of the event that had brought him here.
The first night in his little room, he lay fully dressed on the bed and smelled the fish smell that still lingered from the closed-up shop below. Above him, the ceiling fan beat at the hot air as if stirring chunky soup, and he watched the shadows the moonlight made off the blades of the fan, and the shadows whirled across him like some kind of alien, rotating spider.
After a time, he could lay there no more. He rose and began to move up and down the floor beside the bed, doing a Kenpo form, adjusting and varying it to suit the inconvenience of the room's size, the bed, and the furniture, which consisted of a table and two hardback chairs.
He snapped at the air with his fists and feet, and the fan moved, and the smell of the fish was strong, and through the open window came the noise of drunks along the dock.
His body became coated with sweat, and, pausing only long enough to remove his drenched shirt, he moved into new forms, and finally he lay down on the bed to try and sleep again, and he was almost there, when there was a knock on his door.
He went to the door, said through it: "Who is it?"
Richard opened the door. She stood beneath the hall light, which was low down and close to her head. The bugs circling below the light were like a weird halo for her, a halo of little winged demons. She wore a short summer dress that showed her tan legs to advantage and revealed the tops of her breasts. Her face looked rough. Both eyes were blacked and there was a cut on her upper lip and her cheeks had bruises the color and size of ripe plums.
"May I come in?" she asked.
"Yes." He let her in and turned on the bare bulb that grew out of a tall floor lamp in the corner.
"Could we do without that?" she said. "I don't feel all that presentable."
"Peak?" he asked, turning off the light.
She sat on the edge of the bed, bounced it once, as if to test the springs. The moonlight came through the window and settled down on her like something heavy. "He hit me some."
Richard leaned against the wall. "Over the fish?"
"That. And you. You embarrassed him in front of me and Captain Jones by cutting the line on the fish. He felt belittled. For a moment he lost power over me. I might have been better off you'd stayed out of it and let me land the fish."
"Sorry. All things considered, you shouldn't be here. Why are you here?"
"You didn't work out like he wanted you to."
"I don't get it."
"He wants to fight you."
"Well, I got that much. I figured that's why Jones got me on the boat. Peak had plans for a match. He knows about me, I know that much. He knew my last name."
"He admires your skill. He has videos of your fights. It excites him you killed a man in the ring. He wants to fight a man who's killed a man. He thought he could antagonize you into something."
"A boat's no place to fight."
"He doesn't care where he fights. Actually, he wanted to get you mad enough to agree to come to his island. He has a little island not far out. Owns the whole thing."
"He thinks he can take me?"
"He wants to find out... Yes, he thinks he can."
"Tell him I think he can, too. I'll mail him one of my trophies when I get home."
"He wants it his way."
"He's out of luck."
"He sent me here. He wanted you to see what he'd done to me. He wanted me to tell you, if you don't come to the island, he'll do it again. He told me to tell you that he can be a master of misery. If not to you, then to me."
"That's your problem. Don't go back. You go back, you're a fool."
"He's got a lot of money."
"I'm not impressed with his money, or you. You're a fool, Margo."
"It's all I've got, Richard. He's not nearly as bad as my family was. He at least gives me money, attention. Being an attractive trophy is better than being your father's plaything, if you know what I mean. Hugo got me off drugs. I'm not turning tricks anymore. He did that."
"Just so he'd have a healthy punching bag. A good-looking trophy. 'Course, he's not treating you so good right now, is he? Listen, Margo, it's your life. Turn it around, you don't like it. Don't come to me like it's my fault you're getting your ass kicked."
"I could leave a man like Peak, I had another man to go to."
"You sound like you're shopping for cars. You see what kind of money I got. You'd leave Peak for this? You want a dump like this? A shared toilet?"
"You could do better. You've got the skill. The name. You've got the looks to get into movies. Martial arts guys can make lots of money. Look at Chuck Norris. Christ, you actually killed somebody. The media would eat that up. You're the real McCoy."
"You know, you and Peak deserve each other. Why don't you just paint bull's-eyes on yourself, give Peak spots to go for next time he gets pissed."
"He knows the spots already."
"Sorry, Margo, but good-bye."
He opened the door. Margo stood and studied him. She moved through the doorway and into the hall and turned to face him. Once again the bugs made a halo above her head. "He wants you to come out to his island. He'll have Captain Jones bring you. Jones is taking me back now, but he'll be back for you. It's a short trip where you need to go. Hugo told me to give you this."
She reached into a loose pocket on her dress and brought out a piece of folded paper, shoved it toward him. Richard took it but did not look at it. He said, "I'm not coming."
"You don't, he'll take it out on me. He'll treat me rough. You see my face. You should see my breasts. Between my legs. He did things there. He can do worse. He's done worse. What have you got to lose? You used to do it for a living. We could do all right together, you and me."
"We don't even know each other."
"We could fix that. We could start knowing one another now. We knew each other, you might not want to let me go."
She moved toward him and her arms went around his neck. He reached out and held her waist. She felt solid, small, and warm.
Richard said, "I've said it. I say it again. You can leave anytime you like."
"He'd have me followed to the ends of the earth."
"I'd rather run like a dog, than heel like one."
"You just don't know," she said, pushing away from him. "You don't know anything."
"I know you're still turning tricks, and Peak's a kind of pimp, and you're not even aware of it."
"You don't know a goddamn thing."
"All right. Good luck."
Margo didn't move. She held her place with the bugs swarming above her head. Richard stepped inside his room, and closed the door.
Richard lay on the bed with the note in his hand. He lay that way for a full fifteen minutes. Finally, he rolled on his side and unfolded the note and read it in the moonlight.
COME TO THE DOCK AND TAKE JONES' BOAT BY MIDNIGHT. HE'LL BRING YOU OUT TO MY ISLAND. WE'LL FIGHT. NO RULES. WE FIGHT, IT'S BEST FOR MARGO. YOU WIN, I'LL GIVE YOU TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS. I'LL GIVE YOU MARGO. I'LL GIVE YOU A RESTAURANT COUPON FOR FIVE DOLLARS OFF. YOU DONT COME, MARGO WILL BE UNHAPPY. I'LL BE UNHAPPY AND THE COUPON WILL EXPIRE. AND YOU'LL NEVER KNOW IF YOU COULD HAVE BEAT ME.
Richard dropped the note on the floor, rolled onto his back. It's that simple for Peak, Richard thought. He says come, and he thinks I'll come. He's nuts. Margo's nuts. She thinks I owe her something and I don't even know her. I don't want to know her. She's a gold digger. It's not my problem she hasn't the strength to do what she should do. It's not my fault he'll kick her head in. She's a grown woman and she has to make her own decisions. I'm no hero. I'm not a knight on a white charger. I killed a man once by accident, by not staying with the rules, and I'll not fight another man without rules on purpose. The goddamn sonofabitch must think he's a James Bond villain. I won't have anything to do with him. I will never fight a man for sport again.
Richard lay in the dark and watched the fan. The shadows the fan cast were growing thicker. Soon there would be no shadows at all, only darkness, because the moonlight was fading behind clouds. A cool, wet wind came through the open window. The smell of the fish market below was not as strong now because the smell of the sea and the damp earth had replaced it. Richard held his arm up so that he could see his watch. The luminous dial told him it was just before ten o'clock. He closed his eyes and slept.
When he awoke, rain was blowing in through the window and onto the bed. The rain felt good. He didn't get up to shut the window. He thought about Hugo Peak, waiting. He looked at his watch. It was 11:35.
Peak would be starting to warm up now. Anticipating. Actually thinking he might come. Peak would believe that because he would consider Richard weak. He would think he was weak in that he wanted to protect a woman who had no urge to protect herself. He would think Richard's snipping the fishing line was a sign of weakness. He wouldn't think Richard had done it to make things easier on Margo. He would think he did it as some sort of spiteful attack, and that Richard really wanted to fight him. That was what Peak would be thinking.
And Richard knew, deep down, Peak was not entirely wrong.
He thought: If I were to go, I could make it to the boat in ten minutes. It's not that far. I could be there in ten minutes easy, I walked fast. But I'm not going, so it doesn't matter.
He sat on the side of the bed and let the rain slice into him. He got up and went around the bed and opened the closet and got out his martial arts bag. He unzipped and opened it. The mouthpiece and safety gear were there. He zipped it back up. He put it in the closet and closed the door. He sat on the side of the bed. He picked the note up and read it again. He tore it into little pieces and dropped the pieces on the floor, frightening a roach. He tried not to think about anything, but he thought about Margo. The way her face had looked, what she said Peak had done to her breasts, between her legs. He remembered the eyes of that dying cat, and he remembered Margo's eyes. The same eyes, only she wasn't dying as fast. She was going slowly, piece by piece, committing suicide. He remembered the horror of killing the man in the ring, and he remembered, in some hidden, primitive compartment of himself, the pleasure. It was a scary thing inside of him; inside of humankind, especially mankind, this thing about killing. This need. This desire. Maybe, he got home, he'd go deer hunting this year. He hadn't been in over ten years, but he might go now. He might ought to go.
Richard got up and took off his clothes and rubbed his body down with ICY-HOT and took six aspirin and downed them with a glass of water. He put on a jockstrap and cup and loose workout pants and pulled a heavy sweatshirt on. He put on his white tennis shoes without socks and laced them tight. He got his bag out of the closet. He walked to the door and turned around and looked at the room. It looked as if no one had ever lived here. He looked at his watch. He had exactly ten minutes. He opened the door and went out.
As he walked, the ICY-HOT began to heat up and work its way into his muscles. The smell of it was strong in his nostrils. Another fifteen minutes, and the aspirin would take effect, loosen his body further. The rain came down hard as steel pellets and washed his hair into his face, but he kept walking, and finally he began to run.
He ran fast until he came to the Anchor Inn Restaurant. He slowed there and went around the corner, and there was Jones' fishing boat. He looked at his watch. He was right on time. He walked up to the fishing boat and called out.
Jones appeared on the deck in rain hat and slicker. Water ran off the hat and fell across his face like a beaded curtain. He helped Richard aboard. Jones said, "It's just that I needed the money. I owe on the boat. I don't pay on the boat, they're gonna take it away from me."
"Everyone needs something," Richard said. "Take me out, Jones, and listen up. After this, you better hope I go home to Texas. I'm here, walking around, I see you on the dock, anywhere, you better start running. Got me?"
"Take me out."
The wind picked up and so did the rain. Richard's stomach began to turn over. He tried to stay in the cabin, but he found that worse. He rushed outside and puked over the side. Finally, he strapped himself into the fighting chair and rode the boat like a carnival ride, taking great waves of water full blast and watching lightning stitch the sky and dip down and touch the ocean in spots, as if God were punishing it.
It wasn't long before the lights of the boat showed land. Jones moved them in slowly to the little island, finally came to a dock and tied them up. When Richard went to get his bag out of the cabin, Jones came down from the wheel and said, "Here, take this. You'll need it for strength, all that pukin' you done."
It was a thick strip of jerky. "No thanks," Richard said.
"You don't like me, and I don't blame you. Take the jerky though. You got to have some kind of energy."
"All right," Richard said, took it and ate. Jones gave him a drink of water in a paper cup. When Richard was finished, he said, "Water and jerky don't change anything."
"I know," Jones said. "I'm going back to St. Croix before it gets worse. I'd rather be docked there. I think it's a little better protected for boats."
"And how do I get back?"
"Good luck," Jones said.
"So that's how it is? You're all through?"
"Soon as you get off the boat." Jones stepped back a step and produced a little .38 from somewhere under his shirt. "It's nothing personal. It's just the money. Margo was pretty convincing too. Peak likes her to be convincing. But it was the money did it. Margo was just a fringe benefit. The money was enough."
"He really wants to fight to the death, doesn't he?"
"I don't ask about much of what he wants. You got to see it from my side, taking big shots out in boats all the time, getting by on their tips. It costs to take out a charter, wear and tear on the boat. I'm thinking about doing something else, going somewhere else. I might hire some goon like me to take me out fishing. I might go somewhere where the biggest pool of water around is in a glass."
"You're that easy for money?"
"You bet. And remember, I didn't make you come. Get off."
Richard went out of the cabin and climbed down to the dock. When he looked up through the driving rain, he could see Jones looking down at him from the boat, the .38 pointed at him.
"You go up the dock there, toward the flagstones. Follow those. They lead around a curve through the rocks and trees. Where you need to go is back there. You'll see it. Now, go on so I can cast off. And good luck. I mean it."
"Yeah, I know. Nothing personal. Well, you know what you can do with your luck." Richard turned and started up the dock.
The directions led him up through a cut in the rocks and around a curve, and there, built into the side of the mountain, was a huge house of great weathered lumber, glass, and stone. The house seemed like part of the island itself. Richard figured, you were inside, standing at one of the great windows, on a good day, you could look out and clearly see fish swimming deep in the clear Caribbean waters, see them some distance off.
He followed the trail, tried to get his mind on what it was he was going to do. He tried to think about Thai boxers and how they fought. He was sure this was how Peak had trained. Peak's shins were a giveaway, but that didn't mean he hadn't done other things. He might like grappling too, ground work. He had to think about all this, but mostly, he had to think about the Thai boxing. Thai boxers were not fancy kickers like Karataka, or Kung Fu people, but they were devastating because of the way they trained. The way they trained was more important than what they knew. They trained hard, for endurance. They trained themselves to take and accept and fuel themselves off pain. They honed their main weapons, their shins, until the best of them could kick through the thick end of a baseball bat. He had to think about that. He had to think that Peak would be in good condition, and that, unlike himself, he hadn't taken off a few years from rigorous training. Oh, he wasn't all washed-up. He practiced the moves and did exercises and his stomach was flat and his reflexes were good, but he hadn't sparred against anyone since that time he had killed a man in the ring. He had to think about all that. He had to not let the bad part of what he was thinking get him down, but he had to know what was bad about himself and what was good. He had to think of some strategy to deal with Peak before Peak threw a punch or kick. He had to think about the fact that Peak might want to kill him. He had to not think too hard about what kind of fool he'd been for coming here. He had to not think about how predictable he had been to Peak. He had to hope that he was not predictable when they fought. He had to realize that he could kill a man if he wanted to, if the opening was there. He'd already done it once, not meaning to. Now he had to mean to.
At the top of the slope there was an overhang porch of stone, and a warm orange light glowed behind the glass positioned in the thick oak door. Before Richard could touch the buzzer, the door opened, and there stood Margo. She had on the dress she had worn earlier. Her hair was pinned up now. She looked at him with those dying cat eyes. The wind and the sea howled behind him.
"Thanks," she said.
Richard stepped past her, inside, dripping water.
The house was tall as a cathedral, furnished in thick wood, leather furniture, and the heads of animals, the bodies of fish. They were everywhere. It looked like a taxidermist's shop.
Margo closed the door against the rain and wind. She said, "He's waiting for you."
"I should hope so," Richard said.
He dripped on the floor as he walked. She took him into a large, lushly furnished bedroom. She went into an adjacent bathroom and came out with a beach towel and a pair of blue workout pants and kicking shoes. "He wants you to wear these. He wants to see you right away, unless you feel you need to rest first."
"I came here to do it," Richard said. "So, the sooner the better." He took the towel and dried, removed his clothes, except for the jock, and, paying Margo no mind, dried again. He put on the pants and shoes.
Margo led him to a gymnasium. It was a wonderful and roomy gym with one wall made of thick glass overlooking rocks and sea; the windows he had seen from the trail. There was little light in there, just illumination from glow strips around the wall. Hugo Peak sat on a stool looking out one of the windows. He was dressed in red workout pants and kicking shoes. His back, turned to Richard, held shadows in the valley of its muscles.
"He's waiting," Margo said, and faded back into the shadows and leaned against the wall.
Richard turned and looked at her, a shape in the darkness. He said, "I just want you to know, I'm not doing this for you. I'm doing this for me."
"And for the money?" she said.
"That's icing. I get it, that's good. I'll even take you with me, get you away from here, you want to go. But I won't argue with you to go."
"You win, I might go. But ten thousand dollars isn't a lot of money. Not considering the way I can live now."
"You're right. Keep that in mind. Keep in mind that the ten thousand isn't yours. None of it is. I said I'd take you with me, but that means as far as the island, after that, you're on your own. I don't owe you anything."
"I can make a man happy."
"I got to be happy somewhere else besides below the belt."
"It's not fair. You win, I go with you, I don't get any of your money, and I don't get Hugo's."
"Then you better root for Hugo."
Richard left Margo in the shadows, went over and stood near Peak, and looked out the glass. The sea foamed high and dark with whitecaps against the rocks. Richard saw that the dock he had walked along was gone. The sea had picked it up and carried it away. Or most of it. A few boards were broken and twisted on the shore, lodged between rocks. The great windows vibrated slightly.
"There's going to be a hurricane," Peak said, not looking at Richard. "I believe that's appropriate."
"I want you to write the ten-thousand-dollar check now," Richard said. "Let Margo hold it. I lose, she can tear it up. I win, we'll see someone gets us off the island. Jones isn't coming back, so it'll have to be someone else."
"I'll write the check," Peak said, still looking out the window, "but you won't need to worry about getting off the island. This is your last stop, Mr. Young. You see that prominent rock closest to the house, on the left side of the trail."
"Yeah. What about it?"
Peak sat silent for a long time. Not answering. "Did you know, in the Orient, some places like Thailand, India, they have death matches? I studied there. I studied Thai boxing and Bando when I was stationed there in the army. I've fought some tough matches. People brought here from Thailand, champion Thai boxers. They came here to win money, and they went home hurt. Some of them crippled. I never killed anyone though. I've never fought anyone that's killed anyone. You'll be the first. You know I intend for this one to go all the way?"
"What's that got to do with the rock?" Richard said.
"Oh, my mind wandered. At the base of it, Hero is buried. He was my dog. A German shepherd. He understood me. That's something I miss, Mr. Young. Being understood."
"You're certainly breaking my heart."
"I think maybe, since you came here, on some level, you understand me. That's something worth having. Knowing a worthy opponent understands you. There aren't many like you and me left."
"Whatever you say."
"Death, it's nothing. You know what Hemingway said about death, don't you? He called it a gift."
"Yeah, well, I haven't noticed it being such a popular present. Shall we do it, or what? You were so all-fired wanting to do it, so let's do it."
"Warm up, and we shall. While you start, I'll get a check."
Richard began to stretch and Peak came back with the check. He showed it to Richard. Richard said, "How do I know it's good?"
"You don't. But you don't really care. This isn't about money, is it?"
"Give it to Margo to hold."
Peak did that, then he began to stretch. Fifteen minutes later, Peak said, "It's time."
They met in the center of the gym, began to move in a circular fashion, each looking for an opening. Peak stuck out a couple of jabs, and Richard moved his head away from them. He gave Peak a couple with the same results. Then they went together.
Peak threw hard Thai round kicks to the outside of Richard's right thigh, tried to spring off those for higher kicks to the neck, but Richard faded away from those. Thai boxers were famous for breaking the neck, Richard knew that. He was amazed at how hard the kicks were thrown. They were simple and looked almost stiff, but even though he managed to lift his leg to get some give in the strike, they still hurt.
Richard tried a couple of side kicks, and both times Peak blocked them by kneeing Richard's shin as the kicks came in, and the second time Peak blocked, he advanced and swung an elbow and hit Richard on the jaw. It was an elbow strike like the one Richard had used when he killed Martinez. It hit pretty hard, and Richard felt it all the way down to his heels. When he moved back to regroup, he looked at Peak and saw that he was grinning.
Then they really went to it. Richard threw a front kick to get in close, nothing great, just a front kick, more of a forward stomp to the groin, really, and this brought him into Peak's kill zone, and he tried a series of hand attacks, from backfist to the head, reverse punch to the solar plexus, an uppercut up under Peak's arm, solid to the ribs. It was like hitting a hot water heater.
Peak hit him with another elbow shot, jumped, grabbed Richard's hair, jerked his head down, brought his knee up fast and high. Richard turned his head and the knee hit him hard on the shoulder and the pain went all the way down Richard's arm, such pain that Richard couldn't maintain a fist. His hand flew open like a greedy child reaching for candy.
Richard swung his other arm outside and back and broke the grab on his hair, but lost some hair in the process. He kicked Peak in the knee, a glancing blow, but it got him in to use a double swinging elbow on either side of Peak's head, and for a moment, he thought he was in good, but Peak took the shots and did a jumping knee lift, hit Richard on the elbow, and drove him back with a series of fast round kicks and punches.
Richard felt blood gushing from his nose and over his lips and down his chin. He had to be careful not to slip in the blood when it got on the floor. Damn, the man could hit, and he was fast. Richard already felt tired, and he could tell his nose was broken. It was hot and throbbing. He had been a fool to do this. This wasn't any match. There wasn't going to be any bell. He had to finish this or be finished.
Richard kicked twice to Peak's legs. Once off the front leg, followed with a kick off the rear leg. Both landed, but Peak twisted so he took them on his shins. It was like kicking a tree. Richard began to see the outcome of this. He was going to manage to hit Peak a lot, but Peak was going to hit him a lot too, and in the long run, Peak would win because of the conditioning, because he could take full contact blows better to the body and the shins.
Richard faded back a bit, shook his injured arm. It felt a little better. He could make a solid fist again. The storm outside had gotten busy. The windows were starting to shake. The floor beneath them vibrated. Richard began to bob and weave. Peak held his hands up high, Thai boxer style, closed fists palm forward, set that way to throw devastating elbows.
Richard came in with a series of front kicks and punches, snapped his fingers to Peak's eyes. Managed to flick them, make them water. That was his edge, a brief one, but he took it, and suddenly he was in with a grab to Peak's ear. He got hold of it, jerked, heard it rip like rotten canvas. Blood flew all over Richard's face.
Peak screamed and came in with a blitz of knees and elbows. Richard faded clockwise, away from the brunt of the attack. When Peak stopped, breathing hard, Richard opened his fist. He held Peak's ear in his hand. He smiled at Peak. He put the ear between his teeth and held it there. He bobbed and weaved toward Peak. Richard understood something now. Thai boxers trained hard. They had hard bodies, and if you tried to work by their methods, fists and feet, and you weren't in the same condition, they would wear you down, take you.
But that was the advantage that a system like karate had. He was trained to use his fingers, use specific points, not just areas you could slam with kicks and elbows. True, anywhere Peak kicked or hit him hurt, but no matter how tough Peak was, he had soft eyes, ears, and throat. The groin would normally be a soft target, but like himself, Richard figured he had on a cup. That wouldn't make it so good to hit, and there was the fact a trained fighter could actually take a groin shot pretty well, and there was that rush of adrenaline a groin blow could give a foe, a few seconds of fired energy before the pain took over. It was like a shot of speed. Sometimes, that alone could whip you.
Okay, watch yourself–don't get cocky. He can still take you out and finish you with one solid blow. Richard glanced toward Margo. She was just a shape in the shadows.
Richard spit the ear out and they came together again. A flurry. Richard didn't have time to try anything sophisticated. He was too busy minimizing Peak's attack. He tied Peak up, trapped his hands down, but Peak shot his head forward and caught Richard a meaty one in the upper lip. Richard's lip exploded. Richard shifted, twisted his hip into Peak, turned and flipped him. Peak tumbled across the floor and came up on his feet.
And then Richard heard the great windows rattling like knucklebones in a plastic cup. He glanced out of the corner of his eye. The hurricane was raging. It was like the house was in a mixer. The glass cracked open in a couple of spots and rain blew in.
"None of that matters," Peak said. "This is the storm that matters." He moved toward Richard. The side of his head leaking blood, one of his eyes starting to close.
Richard thought, Okay, I do better when I don't play his game. I'll look as if I'm going to play his game, then I won't. Then suddenly he remembered the ray. How it had leaped out of the water and flicked its tail. It was an image that came to him, and then he knew what to do. The ray's tail reminded him of a flying reverse heel kick. In a real fight, the jump kick wasn't something you actually used much. No matter what the movies showed, you tried to stay on the ground, and you kicked low, and Peak would know that. He would know it so strongly he might not expect what Richard could do.
Richard threw a low front kick off the front leg, followed with a jab as he closed, followed with a reverse punch, and then he threw his back leg forward, as if about to execute a leaping knee, but he used the knee to launch himself, twisted hard, took to the air, whipped his back leg around into a jump heel kick, whipped it hard and fast the way the ray had whipped its tail.
He caught Peak on the side of the head, above the temple, felt the bones in Peak's skull give way to his heel. Peak fell sideways like a dipping second hand, hit the floor.
As Richard stepped in and kicked Peak with all he had in the throat, the windows blew in and shards of glass hit Richard, and a wall of water took the room and all its occupants, carried them through the other wall as if it were wet cardboard. Richard felt a blow to his head, a timber striking him, and then the water carried him away and everything was dark.
When Richard awoke he was in darkness, and he was choking to death. He was in the sea. Under it. He swam up, hard, but he couldn't seem to make it. The water kept pushing him down. He continued kicking, fighting, and finally, when he thought his lungs would explode, he broke up and got a gulp of air and went under again. But not so far this time. A long, dark, beam of wood hit him in the head, and he got hold of it. It had been an overhead beam in the gym. It was thick, but it floated just fine. He realized the storm had struck and moved on, like a hit-and-run driver, leaving in its wake stormy seas, but an oddly clear sky lit up by a cool, full moon that looked like a smudgy spotlight.
Richard looked down the length of the beam and shuddered. The beam had broken off to a point down there, and the point was stuck through Margo's chest, dead center, had her pinned like an insect to a mounting board. Her head was nodding to one side, and as the water jumped and the wind lashed, her head rolled on her neck as if on a ball bearing, rolled way too far and high to the left, then back to the right. It was like one of those bobbing, toy dog heads you see in the back of cars. Her tongue hung out of her mouth as if trying to lick the last drop of something sweet. Her hair was washed back from her bruised face. A shard of glass was punched deep into her cheek. Her arms washed back and forth and up and down, as if she might be frantically signaling.
The beam rolled and Richard rolled with it. When he came out of the water and got a grip on it again, Margo's head was under the waves and her legs were sticking up, spread wide, bent at the knees, flopping, showing her panties to the moonlight.
Richard looked for the island, but didn't see it. The waves were too high and choppy. Maybe the damn island was underwater. Maybe he was washed way away from it. He had probably gone down below and fought his way up a dozen times, but just didn't remember. All reflex action. God, he hated the sea.
And then he saw Peak. Peak was clinging to a door. He was hanging on the door with one hand, gripping the doorknob. The door was tilted toward him, and Peak looked weak. His other arm hung by his side, floated and thrashed in the water, obviously broken. He didn't see Richard. His back was to him. He was about ten feet away. Or he was every few seconds. Waves would wash him a little farther away, then bring him back.
Richard timed it. When the waves washed Peak away, Richard let go of the beam and swam toward him, then when the waves washed him back, Richard was there. He came up behind Peak, slipped an arm around Peak's neck, and used his other to tighten the choke. It was the kind of choke that cut the blood off to the brain, didn't affect the wind.
Peak tried to hang on to the door, but he let go to grab Richard's arm. The waves took them under, but still Richard clung. They washed up into the moonlight and Richard rolled onto his back, keeping Peak on top of him. He held his head out of the water with effort. Peak's hand fluttered weakly against Richard's arm.
"You know what Hemingway said about death," Richard said. "That it's a gift. Well, I give it to you."
In a moment, Peak's hand no longer fluttered, and Richard let him go. Peak went directly beneath the waves and out of sight.
Richard swam, got on top of the door, clung to the knob, and bucked with the waves. He looked for the beam with Margo on it. He spotted it far out, on the rise of a wave, Margo's legs dangling like a broken peace symbol. The beam rolled and Margo's head came up, then it rolled again, went down into a valley of waves and out of sight. Nearby, Richard saw the check Peak had written ride up on a wave like a little flat fish, shine for a moment in the moonlight, then go down, and not come up.
Richard laughed. He no longer felt frightened of the sea, of anything. The waves rolled over him with great pressure, the door cracked and shifted, started to break up, then the knob came away in his hand.
"Master of Misery" was originally published in Warriors of Blood and Dream [Avon/Nova Books]. It was later included in the Lansdale short-stories collection, A Fist Full of Stories [and Articles], published by CD Publications, and Bumper Crop, published by Golden Gryphon Press. "Master of Misery" © 1995 Joe R. Lansdale.
Be sure to come on back next week, on Thursday, April 21, when we swap out this fine story for another piece of genuine Joe R. Lansdale Mojo fiction!