Sunday, January 30, 2011

Close Counts in Horseshoes

Five years ago, Ray never would have considered himself capable of murder. Not only did he assume he simply wasn’t the type, but he had watched too many Law and Order and CSI shows to believe it was possible to get away with it in the modern world. His mind had shifted on the first point over the course of the past year. He now believed anyone was capable of murder given the right motivation. His friend Benny, who sold life insurance, was in the process of changing his view on the second point. Ray had stopped after work at a local pub for a drink with Benny and the boys. Benny urged they all buy insurance on their spouses.

“Haven’t you ever seen Double Indemnity? he asked.

As it happened, Ray was the only other classic film buff in the group. “Yes. The conspirators get caught,” he said.

“So don’t enlist the aid of Barbara Stanwyck. Do the deed all by yourself.”

“No one gets away with anything like that.”

“You know, that’s where you’re wrong,” Benny said, turning more professional. “Don’t believe all those TV shows. Strangely enough, even though the national crime rate keeps dropping and the technical tools available to police keep getting better, the solve rate for murder in the US keeps getting worse. Back in the 1960s 90% of cases were solved. Nowadays the rate is only 65%. And most of those cases require no brains at all to solve. Most murders are stupid acts of violence by stupid people. Half the time they are committed in front of witnesses or security cameras. The perps leave evidence all over the murder scene, sometimes literally including a smoking gun. True planned murders are another matter altogether. How do you think serial killers become serial killers? It’s by not getting caught for the first several. If the police have a prime suspect and if he has made some stupid mistakes, all those new CSI techniques may help build a case against him, but the odds are a lot worse than you think.”

“Is this part of your usual sales pitch for life insurance?”

“No. Why, is it working?”

Though Benny merely had been indulging in dark humor, his remarks reminded Ray that in fact Emilie and he each carried $200,000 in term life insurance. Had they been whole life policies with cash values, they likely would have been cashed in already in order to feed Emilie’s worsening drug habit. Oddly, it was Emilie who originally had insisted on buying the life insurance the week after they married; in order to make the idea more palatable to him, she had suggested they each carry identical policies.

Ray was acutely aware that he was largely to blame for his predicament. It wasn’t as though he didn’t know Emilie was wild and troubled before they were married. Their relationship had surprised everyone who knew either of them, her friends more than his. Before Ray, she had dated bad boys as volatile as herself; all of her affairs had ended in alcohol and drug fueled fights. Unlike her other men, Ray had a good job and he owned a cozy brick ranch house with acreage and a four horse barn in back. An enjoyment of horses was among the few things they actually had in common, and it largely had explained Emilie’s willingness to date him in the first place. Emilie was aware her own lifestyle precluded her ever achieving anything so stable on her own, and she had answered yes to Ray’s proposal without a second thought.

Ray, on the other hand, always had been as cautious and conservative in his dating habits as in any other part of his life. Not only was Emilie pretty, but walking on the wild side with her was an appealing departure. Their dates were a roller coaster of excitement. Her drug use concerned him a little, but she assured him she had it under control. He shared none of her enthusiasm for ecstasy and cocaine, a disinterest that didn’t seem to bother Emilie one way or another. Except for an occasional Jack Daniel’s and a few sociable puffs on a joint now and again, he avoided mind altering substances altogether. Yet, he didn’t object to her enjoyment of them, especially since they usually resulted in a night of long and enthusiastic sex. Their dates sometimes even included something he never expected to experience: a threesome with her attractive, mellow, and far more sober roommate Brittany in the trailer the two shared not altogether platonically at the edge of Fernley, NV, east of Reno. Emilie told him that Brittany usually gave such performances only for cash and was indulging him with this lagniappe only as a favor to her. When Ray proposed marriage to Emilie, he failed to consider that a roller coaster might be a fine ride but a dubious lifestyle. He also failed to recognize the extent to which Emilie’s drug use was addiction rather than recreation.

Their marriage had started auspiciously from Ray’s point of view. There were no more threesomes, to be sure, but Ray had not expected those to continue. Emilie made an effort to settle down and the evenings they spent together were pleasant. She abandoned hard street drugs, though she succeeded at this only by smoking vast amounts of pot. The persistent odor of marijuana in the house caused Ray to lose what little taste he ever had for the substance, but he suspected he experienced a contact high almost every night. Emilie also distracted herself with their horses, and they both enjoyed long rides in the desert. Things changed for the worse after only a few months. Emilie ratcheted up her spending as yet another way to get her mind off drugs. She spent on everything from bric-a-brac to silver studded tack. Increasingly, she also sought out opioid painkillers on the internet, costing hundreds per bottle, to supplement her pot. Then one night the catastrophe happened; she went out with “the girls” and rediscovered crack cocaine. Her hard core drug dependency returned with a vengeance. Since then Ray’s life was in a spiral toward disaster.

Ray’s work suffered from worry and lack of sleep. Having received two official warnings for lateness and inattention, he fully expected to receive a pink slip before long. Often Ray would come home from work to find strange men and women “partying” with Emilie in his house. They still would be there the next when he arose groggily to drive off to work. Sometimes Brittany would show up on party nights, though apparently less for the drugs then for Emilie. He would hear them in the spare bedroom while he tried without success to sleep in the main bedroom. Despite her obvious affection for Emilie, Brittany, in an odd act of betrayal, once leaned in his driver side window wearing only a bathrobe as he was about to leave for work after a party night.

“Get out while you can,” Brittany warned. “She’s going to destroy herself, and if you are in the way, she’ll destroy you first.”

He never mentioned the remark to Emilie.

As he drove home from the pub after the talk with Benny, Ray decided Brittany had been right. Emilie’s reckless spending was part of a determined effort to destroy her own safety net. She, for whatever reason, really was plotting her own self-destruction. The drug bills alone had risen to thousands of dollars per week. He had refinanced as far as was possible. Emilie repeatedly had promised to reform, and seemed to mean it when she said it, but her resolution always would fail within a day or two. Now they faced the loss of everything. She was destroying him. He was merely collateral damage in her attack on herself, but she was destroying him nonetheless. Ray resented it. He admitted to himself that he hated her. He hated her as only someone in love can hate.

Even so, Ray would have put Benny’s remarks out of his head had it not been for a serendipitous accident the previous evening. He had come home to find Emilie limping out of one of the paddocks. She had intended to bring in a paint quarter horse named Goblin. On this particular evening, Goblin decided he didn’t want to go. As Emilie approached him, he had turned, fired off an exuberant kick, and then run off. It is unlikely he actually intended serious harm. If a horse wants to hurt you, he will. However, the kick had caught Emilie in both thighs, taking her off her feet. A horseshoe shaped bruise on each thigh developed quickly. Emilie demanded to go to the doctor in order to wangle an oxycodone prescription out of him. The doc reluctantly gave her one.

If the horse had aimed higher, Ray realized, his troubles would be over. An idea formed in his mind. Her doctor visit had put a horse accident on record.

It might have remained an idle idea had not his cell phone rung on his drive home from the bar. It was Emilie. She was in Reno and wanted him to pick her up.

“How did you get to Reno without a car?” he asked.

“One of the girls drove me here.”

“Why can’t she drive you back?”

“We had a fight. Are you coming to get me or not?”

He turned his car around and headed back to Reno. The GPS guided him to the downtown address where Emilie waited. Emilie got into the car.

“Go,” she said.

As he found his way back to I-80, Emilie fumbled in her purse and removed a spoon, a lighter, bottled water, baking soda, and a baggie of white powder.

“Do you have to do that now? Wait.”

“I don’t want to wait. All they had was fucking powder,” she said.

She mixed the cocaine, baking soda, and water in the spoon and held a Bic lighter under it.

“Do you always carry baking soda in your purse?” he asked.


The nuggets of crack quickly emerged in the spoon as the water boiled away. She stuck one of the nuggets into a tiny bronze pipe, held the Bic over the bowl, and inhaled. The car filled with a smell like burning plastic. Ray drove quietly. They almost were a mile from their driveway when Emilie spoke up.

“Don’t go home, just drive.”

“Why don’t you want to go home?”

“The police are watching our house.”

“I don’t think so. I’m not driving you around the desert while you smoke that shit. I’m going home.”

“I hear the horses galloping. They’ve gotten out.”

“Then we definitely should go home. But they haven’t gotten out and you aren’t hearing them. No one’s ears are that good.”

“I hear horses.” She fiddled with the A/C, turning it up full blast. “The air conditioner is busted. It’s blowing hot air.”

“It’s blowing ice cold air. It’s freezing in here.”

“It’s hot air!”


“What’s wrong with you tonight? You’re really freaking me out.”

“Nothing that can’t be fixed,” he answered.

He pulled in the driveway. There were, of course, no police, and the horses were still in the main paddock.

While Emilie called friends to come over and party, Ray walked out back to stable and feed the horses. He worked out his plot in his head. Guests arrived quickly as they always did when free drugs were offered. They were not, of course, free to Ray. They had cost him dearly.

Ray petted the horses, though their attention was entirely absorbed by their grain buckets. He went to the tack room. He picked up a steel shoe one of the horses had thrown a few weeks earlier. He slipped it in his pocket and returned to the house.

No one saw him enter the back door or cross to the stairway that led from the kitchen to the basement. The guests were in the living room where a rap station blared loudly on the radio. In the basement, Ray groped under the stairs until he found the baseball bat he still owned from his teen years. He carried it to the basement work bench and took the horseshoe out of his pocket. He nailed the horseshoe to the bat with 7d flooring nails.

Ray experimentally swung the enhanced bat. The balance felt good. He tugged on the horseshoe to be sure it was secure. It was, but he cut his finger on a nail head, smearing blood on the bat. He sucked his finger until the bleeding stopped. He swung again and accidentally clipped a wrench kit, which clattered onto the floor.

“What are you doing down there?” called Amy from the top of the stairs. She couldn’t see the workbench from her position.

“Putting some things away. I’ll be up in a minute.”

He stored the bat back under the stairs and went up to the kitchen. He was surprised to see Brittany at the kitchen table.

“Oh, hello Brittany.”

“Brit isn’t staying,” Emilie said. “I think she disapproves of me tonight, but she brought over some homemade lasagna. Isn’t that nice of her?”

“Yes it is.”

“Stop flirting with her and come outside,” Emilie said.

“I wasn’t flirting.”

“Maybe not on purpose.”

“Nice to see you Ray,” Brittany remarked. “I’ll be going as soon as I finish my coffee.”

“Uh, yeah. You too.”

Ray followed Emilie out the door.

“I need some money and the credit cards are maxed,” she said.

“Ask your friends.”

“They’re losers. They don’t have anything.”

“And you want me to pay for drugs for all your loser friends so you can play Queen of the Crack Den. No. I want them out of my house now.”

“Our house. Ray, I need money.”

“No. OK, I’ll compromise. Tell them you are broke and get rid of them. Then and only then will I give you my last emergency stash.”

“Why are you being such a bastard?”

“Those are the terms. And don’t invite these people back later tonight.”


He waited until the last of the guests had gone. Then Ray went to his car and removed his last emergency cash from inside the spare tire wheel. As unsafe a place as this was to hide money, it was safer than in his own house. He handed Emilie $1500. She quickly left in her Suburban, scattering stones on the grass in her hurry.

Ray sat in the dark house eating lasagna. He knew Emilie would go to one of her friend’s places because she hated to smoke alone. He figured she would be back sometime just before daylight. Rather than go to bed himself, Ray cleaned up the kitchen, read, and then watched DVDs of The Twilight Zone.

At 4 a.m., Ray went down to the basement, retrieved the bat, and walked back to the barn. He put the bat in an unoccupied stall. He sat in the dark on an upturned bucket in the aisle where he could see the driveway. He waited. The headlights of the Suburban lit up the driveway. Ray turned on the floodlight above the barn so Emile would know he was there. The light blinded him to anything beyond the exterior illuminated area. Emilie walked into the light, her face a pasty white. Her mood after a drug party was unpredictable. Sometimes she was sentimental. Sometimes she was giddy. Sometimes she was in a rage. It was too soon to tell for sure, but this time she looked somber. She entered the barn and her features were lost in the dark. He could make out only her silhouette. He reached into the stall and laid one hand on the bat.

“What are you doing back here,” she asked quietly.

“Hanging out with the horses.”

“Yeah, I do that sometimes, too.”

He tracked her shape as she walked past him to Goblin’s door. She petted his nose. The roan across the aisle grunted jealously.

“They just accept you for who you are,” she added.”

“They have that luxury.”

“Look, Ray, I know you’re mad at me, and I know I make life hard for you.”

Ray lifted the bat and felt the weight of the horseshoe. He waited for her to move away from Goblin. He didn’t want to hit the horse by accident.

“I don’t know why I’m this way,” she said. “You’re a good man and put up with a lot from me. Don’t give up on me yet. I’ll try to get better someday.”

Goblin backed away from her and nosed the hay rack in the corner. Emilie kept her back to the aisle. Ray moved into position and lifted the bat over his shoulder. Emilie was a full head shorter than he. She looked so small. He caught a whiff of her shampoo, something he always noticed when they made love. Hands shaking, Ray lowered the bat. He put it back in the vacant stall. He walked wordlessly to the house and sat in the living room in the dark. He held his head in his hands. Complete disaster would overtake him in months. Perhaps weeks. The destruction that Emilie had engineered would envelop them both, as Brittany had warned, and it simply wasn’t in him to do what was necessary to prevent it.

Ray heard the back door slam.

“Why are you sitting in the dark?”

The voice sounded peculiar. “Emilie?” he asked.

“No, it’s me.” Brittany flicked on the light switch. “Emilie came over to my place after she scored her coke. I insisted on driving her home when she was done because she was too drunk and high.”

Relief and nausea hit Ray. Brittany’s presence meant his crime would have been exposed at once.

“I see.”

“I think you should take me home.”


“Call the paramedics when you get back.”

“For what?”


“Where is she?”

“In Goblin’s stall, of course. I knew you wouldn’t do it. It was a clever idea, though. So, I finished the job.”

“You looked in the basement when you were here earlier?”

“I did. I want to settle down, Ray. I always liked this place and you, too.”

“Me? I’m awful. Look what considered doing.”

“Oh, everyone does. The point is you didn’t. That’s what matters. You couldn’t.”

“But you could?”

“Something you should keep in mind. By the way, I’ll be taking the bat with me. It has your fingerprints, your blood, and Emilie’s blood on it. I wore a pair of work gloves. Don’t worry, I wont let anyone find it unless you give me a reason to be unhappy with you. We’ll wait until you settle the insurance thing before I move in. I think that would be wise. OK?”


“You’re a sweetheart.”

“Th-thank you,” he stammered.

“Don’t mention it. Ever.”

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