Pest Control by Jason Beech
It took Jeff ten-or-so steps out of his van to loosen his sore back. The old lady who opened the door released him from the mood that grabbed him up the long solitary road to her house. That sweet smile, a waft of home cooking, and a phrase all colored his memory in sepia tones. This job would rectify the previous disaster that had led to a week’s “recuperation.”
He put a hand over his heart where the rat, trapped in a red circle and terminated by a zig-zag strike of lightning sat on his uniform. “Szia to you, too.”
“Ah, pest control. Come in, come in.”
The step up to her door plucked the sore muscle, but his nose sent massaging signals across his body and eased the pain. Jeff sniffed and let out a friendly “Aaahhh.”
The lady had that strong accent like she’d only just stepped on these great United States shores. “I’m cooking. You do a good job, maybe I’ll feed you. How about that?”
Jeff didn’t think she’d look down on him if he licked his lips. She reminded him of his grandma and she’d squeeze his cheeks as a boy if he showed appreciation of her cooking. He replicated that boyhood joy and though she didn’t pinch his flesh, her beam said the same thing.
He sniffed again. “Pörkölt?”
“You cheeky little Magyar.”
Jeff guffawed and rocked forward on his toes at the jolt of pain up his back. “What’s the job …” He looked down at his clipboard. “… Mrs Barna?”
She held him by the elbow, looked up at him with a sly smile, and led him to the back door. Pointed to a little concrete shed in the back yard, about thirty yards down a thorn-strewn path. “It’s starting to stink. It needs sorting out.”
Jeff caught a subtle whiff emanating from the bunker-like structure. Added a bit of spice to the pörkölt. He glanced down at her and back through the untidy rooms strewn with piles of books with titles like 1957, to where the meat pulled at him.
She pahed, and questioned his Hungarian credentials. “Chicken liver.”
“Smells good whatever it is.”
She nodded to the shed. “Well it’s all yours when you’ve done.”
“Okay. I’m on it. Mice? Rats? Raccoons?”
“That’s what I’m feeding you to find out.” She spun back to the dish he hadn’t tasted since his old anya had passed on. He watched her, suspicious she didn’t have money to pay his fee. Still, the company would pay him and take her to court for the fee. He didn’t like that idea, but out of mind he’d get over it.
He rubbed at his back as he picked his way over weeds and thorns, scared it would give out. That’s what happened at the last job. He’d failed to do the job properly because to bend down and lay traps in every nook would have had him in bed for a month. His boss would let him go with a Walmart watch as a memento, if that. He had five years to retirement and his wife wanted her end days in Florida.
Jeff reached the shed. The smell had got stronger with every step until the sick-sweet stench monkey-swung from his long gray nostril hairs.
The afternoon sun didn’t much penetrate the clouds never mind the blackness of the shed, but if the nice lady expected him to haul out a deer that had trapped itself, or a horse she couldn’t look after, then that pörkölt better sit on his taste-buds nice all the way through the day back to his wife’s plate. He hoped the lady’s husband still walked the Earth. You couldn’t get a more barren place, isolated under a canopy of trees with meadows beyond the edge that hadn’t seen a farmer or mower in decades, if ever. A place, primeval, where the mind fosters legends and monsters.
He could call in for back-up, but again, his boss would wonder why he had him on the books at all. Jeff couldn’t face the glue factory just now and he’d not yet made out the smell’s origin. Could be a mouse. A big one, though.
A shape formed in the murk. Some big animal, fetid – a miserable death had caught it in this godforsaken middle of nowhere. Jeff took a moment to acknowledge the loss of life. He dealt with rodents, cockroaches, bees, wasps, those goddamn hornets. Lives so small they didn’t have a hundredth the meaning of this poor beast.
The old lady called from her back door. “Any luck, yet?”
“I don’t think this is a pest problem, Mrs Barna.” He looked back and that sweet smile mixed with his boss’ possible sanction pushed him to the low entrance. She meandered halfway towards him in her apron, holding the recipe, the chopping knife, and a porcelain bowl. “It’s okay. I’ve got it it, Mrs Barna, I’ve got it.”
He would drag the beast out the best he could, maybe burn it. He didn’t know – he killed the small things. Its when he bent beneath the doorframe that he saw the leg. The human leg. Shaped at an angle that said the man hadn’t rested like this in acceptance of a peaceful death. Jeff reached into his tool belt for the flashlight and that’s what took out his back. He grunted and that grunt expanded into a pig’s squeal which blasted back at him through the shed’s gaping mouth. A streak of white hot lightning paralyzed him from the small of his back to the nape of his neck. All he could do was stand there stooped as if he’d never evolved past the first stage of man. His voice came out in little staggers until he managed to stutter Mrs Barna’s name.
“What is it?”
Stress Balkanized and competed – A dead man. How would Jeff get home? Would he keep his job? That Florida home, modest and hardly luxurious, backed away and looked for an owner who could afford the upkeep. His wife. Her face. She’s strong and she’d understand, but that initial look of a long-held dream vanquished dissolved his innards.
Mrs Barna crunched the twigs, the weeds, the gravel underneath.
“Mrs Barna.” Hard to breathe. His heart had filled his chest, crushed his lungs. The leg inside the shed slanted over a mound that he recognized, now his eyes had adjusted to the dark and the wet in his eyes had cleared them of late summer dust, as a bloated belly, and disconnected from that leg. A different body, the faded insignia of the USPS on its breast.
Oh, God, what had happened here?
“Lady, you got to get outta here? Somebody … someone is …”
He tensed against the coming shock of her scream, but she only shuffled her feet as she hovered left and right behind him in search of a gap to see beyond his immovable body to the carnage inside. A third man developed from the negative, his wan face crooked, unseeing eyes wide open, jaw a bear trap.
Mrs Barna touched him. Cold. “I like my pörkölt fresh, Mr …” she slid round him, slight as a wraith, but so very real. She stood on her tiptoes and reached his chin, the bowl against his belly. She thrust the knife into his chest. Jeff shuddered. His damn back slipped to the bottom of his problem pile and he shifted his attention from the bodies to Mrs Barna. He knew she’d stuck the knife deep, just below his heart, it’s just the benign smile she gave him made him question the reality.
“I like a little human heart with my chicken liver … shhh, shhh.”
She pushed the knife, so sharp, upwards to his heart, and the Florida palms, the hand of his wife, his whole life grayed and faded to black as the blood spilled and his heart slipped into the waiting bowl for the hungry Mrs Barna.
Sheffield native, New Jersey resident — writes crime fiction. You can buy Jason’s work from Amazon and read his work at Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey, Close to the Bone, The Flash Fiction Offensive, and Pulp Metal Magazine. His latest novel is Never Go Back.