The blood on the floor is mine. The bullets in my head belong to someone else.
Twenty-twos, I think, though I must admit my knowledge of guns is, at best, minimal. Most of what I know about guns has been gleaned from old Clint Eastwood movies: Dirty Harry pointing a small cannon at a cowering suspect and saying something about a .44 Magnum being the most powerful handgun in the world and how it could blow the guy’s head clean off and did the guy feel lucky. Since my head is still more or less attached to my shoulders, I can only assume the gun wasn’t a .44 Magnum.
But apparently it was big enough to do the job because there is blood all over the place, so dark in the moonlight – almost black.
That’s what it is, a black lake spreading out encircling my head. Can it really all be mine?
Despite my circumstances, I find myself wondering if he thought the same thing when he died. I’m talking about Wilburt Preston. Did he look at the crimson pool forming under his battered head and wonder if all that blood was his? Was he scared? Did he pray?
Probably not. Wilburt Preston wasn’t the praying sort. And he wasn’t the sort who would have begged for his life either. What he was, was the sort of man used to getting what he wanted, when he wanted. And he always knew what he wanted.
Not like me. I’ve never known. Oh, there were times when I thought I knew. But it turned out I didn’t. And now look at me, two bullets in my skull, blood all over the floor, life oozing out of me with every beat of my heart.
Now there is a dichotomy for you. If my heart weren’t beating so damn fast, I wouldn’t be losing so much blood. But if my heart wasn’t beating, I’d be dead already. It’s really very transcendental if you think about it. Or is it metaphysical? Certainly ironic.
Wilburt Preston and me. Worlds apart. Lives lived at different ends of the spectrum. And yet we wind up the same, lying in pools of our own blood, killed by the same person.
Fine, if you want to argue technicalities, I’m not yet dead. But the way the blood is spreading …
So, you might be wondering just how the hell I got myself in this mess. MSG, as my newspaper friend Charlie Hall likes to say.
That’s what it always comes down to Charlie says.
Charlie is one of my best friends, and I’ve never known him to be wrong, even if he is a newspaperman. He wasn’t this time, that’s for sure.
Money, sex, and greed. MSG. I always heard that too much MSG could kill you. Now I know how true that is.
Wilburt Preston discovered it, too. And, like me, too late.
I wasn’t there the night he died, but I know enough now to put the pieces together.
He must have stood in his dark study, lit only by the darting tongues of flame from the fireplace and, silently cursing his failing eyesight, urged his visitor to come nearer.
I can hear him asking, “Where are you?” and the answer, “Here.”
Resting his palms against the heavy oak desk and, with a hint of irritation in his voice, he must have said, “I thought you wanted to talk. Come closer so I can see you.”
But his killer would have stayed in the shadows, saying, “I want the money.”
They would have argued then, I’m sure. But by that time Preston would have been in no mood to be blackmailed. He had something else entirely on his mind. I imagine him sighing heavily and staring out the double glass doors as a streak of lightning tore a jagged seam in the sky. It was raining that night too, just like tonight, with the wind bending the low row of palm trees that line the back edge of his property and clacking the fronds together like swords.
Maybe then his killer threatened him. I can’t say for sure because, as I said, I wasn’t there. But of this I’m certain. He didn’t cave in. He was a fighter who never thought twice about fighting dirty. Someone once told me that whenever Wilburt Preston saw a belt, he had the irresistible urge to hit below it. Castro hadn’t been able to threaten him.
A Honduran death squad hadn’t been able to silence him. He’d never have given money to a small-time blackmailer, though, Lord knows, Preston could have afforded it.
What he did probably, was laugh, the sort of rich man’s laugh that humiliates and taunts, and move from behind the desk, crossing the room to the fireplace with a tall, proud stride, his body so straight Charlie once asked him if he had a stick up his butt.
Chances are, the killer moved closer and Preston most likely squinted through his gold, wire-rimmed glasses, trying to adjust his eyesight. It was then, probably, he saw the fireplace poker. It was then he saw the light.
“You’re not …” he would have said, and then the poker slicing through the air would have choked off the words. From the pictures I saw, the curved end of the poker imbedded itself in his cheek, crushing the bone, ripping the flesh. The pain must have shot through his body like a jolt of electricity.
The first blow would have knocked him to his knees. He was old, the killer young and surprisingly strong. Knowing Preston, he probably struggled to regain his feet, but the poker hit him again, this time behind the ear, driving the wire earpiece of his glasses into his skull. The poker smashed him once more and he pitched forward onto the plush gray carpet now stained crimson with his blood.
Even then, I don’t think he was scared. Surprised maybe. He was a powerful man, used to getting his own way. He could never have imagined something like this happening to someone like him.
One more blow did it. I’m not sure if he died with his middle finger held proudly in the air, but I like to think he did.
I know whodunit, of course. And why. Which is why I’m here, lying on the floor, my cheek, slick with my own blood, pressed hard against the dingy, mildewed carpet.
Were this a movie, this is where the director would cue the music, I suppose. Something bluesy and evocative, a melancholy trumpet playing a mournful tune, a plaintive wail that captures the dark mood and the rain slick streets. This is what I’ve always wanted. The girl, the music, everything but the bullets.
You’re likely to hear a lot of stories about all of this in the coming weeks. Most of it will be bullshit. What I’m about to tell you is the way it went down. Remember it for me and tell Charlie. And if you forget some of it, don’t worry. Charlie will just make it up as he goes along. He always does.