Only What’s On The Menu
by Kenneth C. Goldman
The ritual went just like it always went, the same idiot words spoken by the same disheveled hag of a waitress. “Some breakfast today, Mr. Harlan?”
“The usual, Ethel. We both know the drill.”
“You got it.”
The woman handed Harlan a single sheet of yellow paper that included the brief check-list menu. Without losing her thin smile she reached behind her ear and, pulling out a short pencil, she handed the wooden nub to him.
Like a man with his ass against the wall, Harlan took a deep breath and read the morning’s selections. The choices were always limited, but he no longer bothered to protest the options given him.
* * * Today’s Breakfast * * *
2 Eggs Over Easy, Toast, Bacon
2 Eggs Scrambled, Toast, Bacon
2 Eggs Fried, Toast, Bacon
“Today’s assignment?” he asked.
“Plane crash. My guess is that it’ll be a big one, the kind most terrorists will fall over themselves trying to grab the credit for.”
“No assassinations today? Maybe a car wreck like the one that did in Di?” He showed no sense of irony asking his question; Harlan simply wanted to know. He might as easily have asked if he could substitute pancakes for his eggs.
“Just what’s on the menu, Mr. Harlan. We both know the drill, remember?”
He X’ed in the appropriate boxes.
“I think you can expect something similar to Pan Am 103, that Lockerbie incident. Or maybe TWA Flight 800. If it’s not a terrorist bombing, it might be like that ValuJet thing. You were on board during that flight, weren’t you? Lots of bodies lost in the Florida swamp?”
Harlan nodded. It was one of his earlier jobs.
“Well, in any case I don’t think you’ll be involved in any of the the smaller aircraft, nothing military where you’d be too obvious. But I could check for you.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“Some coffee with those eggs?”
His politeness seemed a tacky afterthought because the diner’s negligible ambiance offered at least a respite he might not otherwise get. Somehow the meaningless formalities seemed appropriate, because Harlan knew how much worse those in charge — whoever they were — could make it for him had they selected to do so. And after all, he was working at a job he knew something about...
Like another job you once even enjoyed, eh, pal? a voice inside reminded him. A short while ago Harlan was not above turning a few wives into widows for the right price. He had made plenty of kids orphans to ensure that his own wife and kid continued to live in the manner to which he had made certain they had grown accustomed. Harlan delivered death. That was the man’s job, a job he was good at.
“Mr. Harlan, I swear I’ll have the money for you by next week. I swear on my mother’s grave you’ll get your money!”
“Time to balance the books, Walter. Those thumbs healing up?”
“On my mother’s grave, I’m telling you! Jesus, just give me a few more days —”
“Now, did I say anything about money, Walter? Did I even mention money...?”
It was only a matter of time before someone else returned the favor. On the day he shook his mortal coil, Harlan left his remains on a gurney inside Saint Mary’s Emergency Ward with a bullet lodged inside his frontal lobe. He had never really expected death to come calling for him in any other manner.
Paybacks were certainly the proverbial bitch, but if there were such a place as Hell, then Harlan had expected much worse. As it turned out, as a dead man he was still doing the job he had always done. True, killing was far easier, but dying wasn’t really all that hard once you got the hang of it.
Harlan was a catalyst, a middleman necessary to close the deal between life and death, between seller and buyer. Seen in that perspective, things hadn’t changed much. Death still required his presence as some sort of cosmic formality, perhaps to demonstrate that there were no guardian angels in the heavens, that there were only hit men having their breakfast.
During earlier visits he had imagined his own version of what this place must be, that this dusty canteen was certainly Hell with prancing demons in the kitchen dressed as short-order cooks. But that wasn’t the way it worked here. He had discovered no infernos, no six levels to descend into, no fire and brimstone to identify the old diner even remotely as Purgatory. This chew-and-choke eatery seemed more Sartre than Satan. There was only the bony-assed waitress named Ethel taking his order inside this nameless greasy spoon floating somewhere on the edge of a dark universe.
The woman brought Harlan his eggs which he picked at, lingering a bit too long over his second cup of coffee. Eventually she removed his cup and cleared his setting although no other persons sat at the counter with him.
Perhaps old Ethel faded into nothingness like some ugly specter the moment she left Harlan’s sight, her purpose being served. He no longer gave enough of a sweet damn to care. Closing his eyes he leaned back to let the darkness take him.
The time had come to go to work...
* * *
From the dull roar of the engines he figured he was inside a jumbo jet this time. Looking around, he noticed that practically every seat of the cabin was filled and there were close to two hundred and fifty passengers on board. There were not many children, and that was a relief. A young woman sat fast asleep in the seat alongside his. That was a relief, too.
Although it seemed a clear night, he could not see any lights below to indicate a city or even a small town. If there were one, then several thousand tons of metal crashing down from the skies would certainly claim a few surprised folks below. But if this was not a local flight, maybe they were above water. Then, too, the jet could be flying at a high altitude or with a low ceiling, and solid ground may have slipped away into the uncertain darkness somewhere below. If it mattered at all it was only because Harlan wanted to know precisely how death planned to take him this time. He preferred drowning to being burned to a cinder. The bastards running this show must have known that much.
Ten thousand feet or sixty thousand, the altitude didn’t concern him, because this jumbo was going to go down just as sure as God made all them little wormy apples. In one scenario the aircraft might suddenly go kablooey in midair like a giant metal balloon. An intense explosion would blow unsuspecting passengers and crew to the four winds piece by piece, perhaps tearing off arms and legs, shredding arteries and providing Harlan a genuine bloodbath before his personal darkness set in. It was a messy way to buy the farm, but Harlan preferred bombings because death usually came fast, even within seconds.
Of course in another circumstance the craft’s twin engines might inexplicably punk out, and in this event death would take some time. There would be panic, then passengers’ screams that he would hear all the way down for several minutes, useless shrieks while the jet plummeted from the night sky like a great bird that had died in flight.
Regardless of the reasons, Harlan preferred not to feel trapped along with the others inside the plunging airliner like some poor schmuck strapped into an enormous roller coaster about to leave its tracks with no place to go but downdowndown. He had been through the scene before where his presence and death’s had become inextricably linked with cause and effect, as drinking too many beers causes a man to piss his brains out. Harlan’s appearance on board this flight meant the plane was going to return to earth nose first, and that was abso-damned-lutely certain. Given his druthers, he elected not to prolong the experience.
Harlan looked up at the stewardess, a tall brunette with her hair pulled back a little too severely for her age.
“We’re experiencing a bit of turbulence, and the captain requests all passengers remain seated. Is your seat belt in place?”
Harlan heard the engine outside sputter.
He knew the stewardess must have heard what he had heard, but she did not miss a beat. She touched the shoulder of the young woman with the honey-colored hair in the seat alongside his. He couldn’t see the girl’s face, but she wore jeans that were cut off at the knees, suggesting she was probably just a kid out of high school, maybe a college kid on her way back home.
“Miss? Sorry to wake you, but —”
Another sputter from the engines, more like a choke this time, and the plane’s entire cabin shook hard. Something outside thumped, and the craft twitched as if the jumbo had been pulled back on a short leash. Lights flickered inside. Passengers shifted in their seats, murmuring syllables spoken in staccato.
“It’s all right, Stewardess,” Harlan said. “It looks like she’s getting up anyway. You go ahead. I’ll tell her.”
The flight attendant’s teeth seemed made of porcelain, but her broad smile evaporated the moment she moved on and Harlan knew why.
He leaned toward the young girl coming out of her half sleep. “Miss? The stewardess asked that you should fasten your seat belt because we may be running into some nasty weather.” He almost smiled. “But I guess you already know that, huh?”
Yeah, kid. Better buckle up. You wouldn’t want your torso imprinted on this plane’s ceiling once we go into our tailspin.
The girl stifled a yawn with her fist in a gesture disarmingly childlike. Brushing a rogue curl from her forehead she turned to him. “Thanks...”
Her eyes bulged like two agate marbles.
Harlan’s jaw came unhinged. “Jennifer? Is that you?”
“Only What’s On The Menu” appeared in print in The Edge: Tales of Suspense #5 (September 1999), Black Satellite Vol. 1, No. 1 /Dark Tree Press (December 2001), and Thirteen Stories #11 (Canada: July 2003); online it appeared in Misanthropists Anonymous (MA: Zine) e-zine (April 2005).
Copyright © 2006 by Kenneth C. Goldman