Bewildering Stories

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The Wages of Sin

by Gerald Sheagren

Jack O’Malley hunkered down in the bushes, observing the darkened mansion from afar. No one was at home, despite the late hour; he had watched Aaron Goldberg drive off in his Mercedes a good twenty minutes ago. The night was as dark as pitch, the old Victorian lighted by only two iron sconces on either side of its front door. This job would be a simple break-and-enter, for Goldberg was a trusting soul, if not a bit miserly, depending on nothing more than a simple lock to protect his valuables. Finally, with one last glimpse around, Jack broke from cover, darting across the lawn like a ballet dancer, on the toes of his black sneakers.

Using a pick, he was in within seconds, moving across a foyer the size of a Wal-Mart parking lot, heading for the spiral staircase to the second floor. Man, this was going to be a cakewalk, the easiest haul of his ten years as a thief! How could Goldberg be so abysmally stupid? Guiding his way with a small penlight, he moved swiftly down a hallway and opened a door to the right, at its far end. Sure enough, there it was, wholly unprotected as his source had stated: a display case, housing dozens of firearms from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries! Wrapping his hand in a cloth, he began to shatter the glass, plucking out the most valuable weapons and placing them in a canvas mailbag he had brought along for the occasion. He would fence them all and keep one, and only one, for his own budding collection. This would be the take of a lifetime, worth more to him than all the cash and jewels in the world!

He finally found what he was seeking, resting on a bed of red velvet: a plain-looking 1932 Colt, .38-caliber, with faded bluing and checkered grips! Compared to the rest, it was hardly worth a second look, but he was well aware of both its value and its bloody history. In the course of one heinous week, this very weapon had taken the lives of sixteen innocent people, beginning in Chicago and spreading across the states of Iowa and Nebraska! He had yellowed newspapers at home, chronicling each day of that terrible and unexplained episode in American history. It faded the killing spree of Charles Starkweather. In the comparison, Son of Sam was nothing more than an asterisk.

Peter Paul Jennings had been a mere teenager in those days of the Depression and the Dust Bowl: a thin, spindly, pale-complexioned boy of humble beginnings and farm-boy innocence. Then his father, not realizing the horrible events he would ultimately unleash, had bought the teen a .38 Colt to plink at bottles and cans and to rid the fields of woodchucks. Two weeks later, for reasons unbeknownst to anyone but himself, Peter Paul had used the gun to murder his parents, an older brother and two younger sisters. Then hopping into the family’s Model-T Ford, he had set out on a bloody odyssey that would take him across Iowa and Nebraska, gunning down an additional eleven people who had the ill fated luck to cross his path.

After receiving three wounds in a shootout with police, just outside of Lincoln; he was arrested and hospitalized under tight guard. His trial was speedy, as often was the case in those days, and the judge sentenced him to death by electrocution. After he had been strapped in the chair, the warden asked if there were any last words, and, following a few moments of pensive reflection, the teen had uttered in a hoarse voice, “The gun made me do it.” The statement had drawn a ripple of laughter from the dozen or so witnesses, and, then, with a chuckle of his own, a guard had flipped a switch and Peter Paul Jennings had paid his dues to society. The monster’s last words, although chilling, had caused little sensation, drawing only a brief mention in a half dozen of the nation’s newspapers.

Jack turned the Colt over in his hands, marveling over its tragic history, his fingers smearing a thin coating of oil. He would give it a place of honor in his own collection, right next to the reputed six-gun of John Wesley Hardin that he had stolen two years ago. As he was about to place the weapon into his waistband, a strange urge came over him: a compelling desire to locate some bullets and feed them into the gun’s chamber. In a quick search of the room, he located a box of .38 cartridges in the top drawer of a cabinet, loading the Colt and placing the remainder of the shells into his pocket. Not wanting to waste any more time, he threw two more handguns into his bag and hustled down the hallway, heading for the front door. Mission completed! A cakewalk just as he had expected. Poor old Goldberg; he hoped the cheap bastard had had the presence of mind to insure his collection.

When he was only a few feet from the front door, it suddenly swung open, with Goldberg entering and switching on a light. The two men faced each other, unmoving, their faces registering twin expressions of surprise. The only sound was a clock ticking on the mantel.

“What the hell are you doing in here?”

“Now just take it easy, pal. Don’t do anything you’ll be sorry for.”

“You’re the one who’s going to be sorry, you thieving bastard!”

Goldberg took a step forward and Jack took a quick one back.

“What do you have in that...?” The millionaire’s eyes grew wider, his mouth working angrily. “You... You’ve got my firearm collection in that bag, don’t you?”

Jack snatched the Colt from his waistband, cocking back its hammer and taking aim. “Just keep cool and nobody will get hurt. I don’t want any trouble, here.”

At the sight of the Colt, Goldberg panicked, his face draining of all color. “No, no, you don’t want that gun! Just put it down and leave! Simple as that; just put it down and leave. I’ll even give you a half hour before I call the police.”

“Oh, I’m going to leave all right! Move aside!”

Then, suddenly, Jack felt it; a cold, numbing feeling, starting at his shoulder and racing down the length of his arm, like an electrified icicle, clear to the tips of his fingers! What in the hell was going on? He tried to move the arm, but it was rigid, beyond his control, his finger slowly snaking around the Colt’s trigger!

“Jesus H. Christ! What... what’s happening, here?”

Goldberg scuttled backwards until he bumped into the door, his features taut with fear. “You... you frigging idiot; you just had to touch that gun!”

It all happened in one horrifying second: the Colt bucking in his hand; the ear-ringing shot; a neat, bloodless hole appearing in the center of Goldberg’s forehead. Jack watched in disbelief as the man tottered for a few moments, eyes bugging, his mouth forming a large O, before crumpling to the floor.

“Oh, Christ, no; I didn’t mean to! Please, please, don’t let this be happening!”

The cold, numb feeling drained from Jack’s arm and the limb fell to his side like a dead weight, his fingers opening and dropping the Colt. He stood there, whimpering, nearly on the brink of tears, as he stared at the man he had just killed for no reason at all. Then, it struck him like a Ted Williams alongside the head, the last words of Peter Paul Jennings, “The gun made me do it.” Jack spun in a complete circle, running his fingers through his hair, a mewling sound building deep in his chest. What, in the name of Jehovah, was he going to do? Thankfully, two things were in his favor: there were no witnesses and, most likely, the gunshot hadn’t been heard by any neighbors. But of all the rotten luck: he couldn’t take the chance of going to his usual connections to fence his haul! This had all been for nothing, absolutely nothing!

Racing to a window, he parted the curtains and peered out, making certain that the coast was clear. As he turned to retrieve the mailbag, his eyes fell to the Colt, lying on the hardwood floor, where he had dropped it.

“You piece of shit! You sent Jennings to the chair, and, now, you’ve totally screwed things up for me!”

Taking a running start, as though punting for a field goal, he kicked the revolver hard, sending it sailing across the room. He watched, with a small degree of satisfaction, as it bounced off the wall, skittering along the floor and spinning in circles. Cursing, he stepped forward and snatched it up, whipping back his arm to hurl the wretched thing with all his might. Just then, he felt the strange, numbing coldness, once again building in his shoulder and coursing its way to the tingling tips of his fingers!

“Ah, shit, now what?”

Before he could realize or react to what was happening, his hand brought up the gun until the end of its barrel was snug against his temple!

“Oh, please, no! Noooo!”

The shot sounded at the exact moment the mantel clock struck the half hour.

Copyright © 2003 by Gerald Sheagren

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