An excerpt from the short story by Josh Lanyon
Murder had its drawbacks of course, but once the idea came to Ridge, it was hard to get out of his mind.
It began with the argument over the cable bill. Raleigh objected to paying for cable when he was never home to watch TV or use the internet. It didn’t seem to dawn on him that the only reason Ridge was stuck home watching TV and surfing the net was because Raleigh had been driving the car that plowed into the tractor and left Ridge in a goddamned wheelchair.
Ridge reminded Raleigh of that factin words of one syllable so Raleigh could understandand Raleigh turned the usual shades of red, white, and blue and then agreed to pay Comcall their exorbitant rates before he stormed out leaving Ridge to sit at the study window watching his cousin fling himself in his Mazda MX-5 and blast off down the cracked and weed-rutted drive.
There was sour satisfaction to be had in winning their latest skirmish, but some of Raleigh’s barbs had hit home. They worked their way in deep.
You’re not a prisoner. It’s your choice to sit here all day. If I was the one that got crippled, I’d try to show some dignity.
Ridge’s sense of injustice swelled and burst. As luck would have it, he was working on an In Sympathy design at the time. He stared down at the purple and blue line drawing of a Black Prince water lily, and the idea seemed to float into his mind.
The idea that the world would be a much better place without Raleigh Baneberry.
The world, in generaland Ridge’s world, in particular.
For long moments he sat there, his hands shaking with adrenaline and anger, and he realized with a flash of dazzling clarity that he was right. Not only right but reasonable. Plus, this was something still within his power to achieve. He could do it. He could get rid of Raleigh.
No. No euphemisms. He’d had enough of greeting card sentiments.
He could kill Raleigh.
He could murder Raleigh.
Ridge tested the words, tasted the concept on the palate of his conscience. He found it delicious. Delicious after the months of indignity and pain. Mental pain, of course. Oh, blah, blah, blah. But more to the point, physical pain. Physical pain like Raleigh could never imagine, let alone bear.
In fact, for a few pleasant seconds, Ridge toyed with the fantasy of not killing Raleigh at all, simply leaving him somehow helpless and tethered and in excruciating, agonizing pain from his waking moment to the first troubled dream of the unending night.
But no. Totally unrealistic. Besides, Ridge wanted his inheritance. The inheritance that was now Raleigh’s because he had murdered Uncle Beau when he crippled Ridge. Or as good as. It was when Uncle Beau had received the terrible news that his two nephews had been in a possibly fatal car crash that he’d suffered a massive heart attack and died that very night. Died with his new willwhich was, in fact, his old willunsigned.
And though Raleigh knew the old man had fully intended to make Ridge his heir once moreand even old Mr. Maurice of Maurice, Maurice & Morris had tried to shame him into doing the right thingRaleigh had clung tight and tenaciously to the letter of the law. Raleigh had prevailed.
And he was going to die for it.
It had to be something that couldn’t be tracked specifically back to Ridge.
Fortunately, all kinds of people would be happy to see Raleigh out of the way. Ridge had the best motive, no doubt, but he’d likely be dismissed as a serious suspect. He was a helpless cripple, after all, and he’d had three weeks to see how a man in a wheelchair was generally overlooked and dismissed.
Of course, his disability did limit his options. He couldn’t drive, so he couldn’t run Raleigh down in a hit-and-run accident. He couldn’t walk, so he couldn’t disguise himself as a burglar and overpower Raleigh.
Hadn’t he once seen an episode of Columbo where a fragile invalid had pretended to mistake her victim for a prowler and shot him through the heart? That might work. The drafty halls and broken windows of Baneberry Castle would help sell that one.
Complicated, though. And messy.
Noshooting, stabbing, and blunt instruments were probably out. An accident would be best, but given Ridge’s physical limitations, an accident might be hard to arrange.
Which left... ?
Ridge backed his chair from the desk and wheeled it over to the ceiling-high bookshelf. There it was. Eight shelves up. Poisons: Their Properties, Chemical Identification, Symptoms, and Emergency Treatments. He set the brake on his wheelchair, gripped the thick mahogany shelf with one hand, used the other to push himself up. He sucked in a sharp breath at the burning sensation of ground glass at the base of his spine. The pain radiated up through his back and down his legs. But he only needed to stand long enough to snatch the book from the shelf. Prize in hand, he lowered himself again to the padded seat.
He nearly shot out of his chair as the doorbell rang.
Unexpected as it was, the feeble tinkle sounded like the heavy chimes of Big Ben. Boom. Boom. Boom. The sound of the old-fashioned bell rang through the long and crooked halls, sprinted up the peeling staircases, and cannonballed out the cracked and broken windows.
The shock of it held Ridge immobile for a long moment.
They did not get visitors.
The last visitor who’d rung that bell had been the coroner.
They rarely got deliveries. Most days they didn’t even get mail. Long ago, Ridge had set the local post office straight on the irresponsible filling of their mail slot with junk letters and catalogs for things no one in their right mind needed.
The doorbell chimed again.
Ridge wheeled vigorously across the room, down the hall to the door. The simplest things were a pain in the ass when you were in a wheelchair. You couldn’t just yank open a door without banging it into the footrest of the chair. Whatever it was you were doing, you had to position the chair. You had to consider whether you needed to set the brake. You had to remember to keep your hands, arms, elbows and feet within the framework so you didn’t pinch them between the chair and another object. When reaching or stretching or leaning, you had to consider whether you were in danger of overbalancing the chair. Or tipping yourself out of it. You had to consider whether you were rolling yourself into a position you wouldn’t be able to roll out of. That was one of the big things to remember in Baneberry Castle.
So Ridge opened the door partway, using his free hand to back the chair while hanging onto the handle.
A young man in khakis, a navy polo, and tennis shoes stood on the doorstep squirting Binaca into his mouth. The peppermint scent drifted on the breeze. Ridge sneezed.
“Oh. Hi.” The young man leaned over and offered a self-conscious smile through the door opening.
“Yes?” Ridge asked sharply. He had never been fond of the golly-gee school of charm.
On closer inspection, the young man wasn’t quite as young as Ridge had thought. He was probably in his early thirties, no more than a couple of years younger than Ridge, though Ridge was looking a hell of a lot older these days. Chronic pain did that to you.
“I’m Tug Gilden.” When Ridge frowned more deeply, Tug said uncertainly, “From our house therapy services?”
Ridge scowled. “Whose house?”
Tug seemed to think it was a trick question. He said cautiously, “Our house?”
“Who are you?”
“Tug Gilden.” Tug smiled hopefully. He was very cute. Not tall but compact and well-made. Tanned, muscular arms, muscular thighs, untidy blond hair cut in crisp waves, wide eyes that matched that expensive shade of Ralph Lauren blue, a smattering of adorable freckles across a boyishly snub nose.
Ridge was pretty much thinking hate at first sight. “Are you insane or am I?” he asked coldly.
“Well…” Tug seemed to give it his full consideration. He said slowly, “Neither, I guess.”
How delightful. Huckleberry Hound had come to visit.
“Go away.” Ridge slammed the door shut.
He gave the wheels a long, hard shove backward, which caused the front of the chair to fishtail to the right, spinning nearly around in a complete circle. The book fell off his lap. Ridge swore. He kept forgetting to use short strokes when reversing. It was a lot harder to propel a chair backwards because the chair’s center of gravity was in front of the casters.
The doorbell chimed again. Tug’s voice said distantly through the thick wood of the gothic design door, “I think we got off on the wrong foot, Mr. Baneberry.”
The wrong foot? This idiot was a natural.
The desire to tell him so to his face got the better of Ridge. He shoved the right wheel, twirled left, and yanked for the door handle. The door opened and naturally banged into the chair, rolling Ridge back a few inches.
“God damn it to hell!”
Tug cautiously poked his head in. “Mr. Baneberry, your insurance is paying for this.”
“If they’re paying for this, I think I’ll sue them!”
Tug craned his head around the edge of the door, spotted Ridge and chuckled. “This is like that who’s-on-first thing, isn’t it? Let me try this again. I’m from Our House Therapy Services. Your application for in-home physical therapy was finally approved by your cousin’s insurance company. So here I am.”
That was excellent news, of course, but somehow it didn’t feel like excellent news. “When did this happen?”
Tug wrinkled his cute little nose. “Last week?”
“And you just show up here? Without a word of warning? You don’t call and set up an appointment? You just show up here.” He seemed to be on a loop. Ridge stopped talking.
“But I did call. I called and spoke to your cousin a couple of days ago. He set up this appointment.”
Ridge opened his mouth. He could think of nothing to say. Well, not to Tugboat Danny anyway. He would have plenty to say to Raleigh when he finally stumbled home in his usual drunken stupor. “I’m sorry you’ve had a wasted trip,” he managed. Once upon a time he’d been a polite, even occasionally charming person, and he still vaguely remembered how it was done.
Tugand what kind of a name was Tug?appeared unreasonably disappointed. “I’m sorry. Did I catch you in the middle of something?”
Ridge remembered what he’d been in the middle of when the door bell rang. Why no, I was just plotting to murder only living relative. He threw a quick look at the book now blocking his left wheel. “I... er.. .”
Tug said quickly, persuasively, “You know, this first meeting is just fifteen or twenty minutes. Not long at all. We’ll just introduce ourselves and talk about how you’re feeling and then we’ll set up your regular treatment schedule.” As Tug spoke, he inched the door open a bit at a time so that by the time he finished he was all the way inside the house and smiling down at Ridge.
That was one of the things Ridge hated most. Having to look up at everyone. He was six feet tall when standing, but he couldn’t stand for more than a few seconds nowadays. He frowned at Tug. Tug smiled confidently down at him, and Ridge noticed he had dimples.
Of course. Because Tug was apparently designed for maximum annoyance.
Uneasily, suspecting that it might be no use, Ridge said, “I’m very busy. I’m working.”
Tug noticed the book still lying on the floor. He stooped, picked it up, handed it to Ridge without glancing at the title. “Well, then, we should get going,” he said. “You do want to get better, right? Your doctor filled out that prescription, you filled out all that paperwork, and the insurance company finally shifted their lazy asses and put it through the system. We’ve lost enough time already.”
That was all perfectly true. It was just that after the shock of Uncle Beau’s death and three agonizing months in the hospital and three weeks of Raleigh being master of Baneberry Castle, Ridge had given up on…pretty much everything. It was disconcerting to have the possibility of hope thrust back at him.
But Tug continued to smile down at him with all that bright and shining certainty, and Ridge felt a tugha!of something he hadn’t ever expected to feel again.
“Oh very well,” he said ungraciously.
To which Tug replied, “Great. Why don’t you show me to your bedroom?”
* * * * *
“This is some room!” Tug stared up at the marble gargoyles leering from the nine-foot-tall fireplace façade. His gaze traveled to the ceiling with its ornate carved moldings and medallion. His brows rose in wonder.
They were all “some rooms” at Baneberry Castle. The place had been designed in 1901 by the architect Bradford Lee Gilbert. Originally, nearly one thousand surrounding acres of meadow and forestland had guaranteed the Baneberrys their privacy, but by the 1940s most of the land was gone. Now only the moss-covered castle, ringed by a dense swath of tall, ancient trees and wild grass, remained. Remains was about right. Ruins might be closer to the facts.
Tug turned to observe Ridge lift himself from the wheelchair and take two shuffling steps to the bed. He didn’t try to help, didn’t say anything, just watched as Ridge eased himself onto the bed and pulled off his tee shirt.
Ridge got himself spread eagled on the faded gold coverlet and waited. He was already regretting the impulse that had led him to agree to this examination. Maybe it was being in his bedroomthis bedroomwith another man, maybe it was the fact that the other man didn’t look or sound like a doctor. But this felt too weird, too intimate. And Ridge felt too vulnerable.
“I’ve seen your charts and your X-rays. You should have more range of movement than this.”
The bed dipped, box spring objecting, as Tug sat down on the edge of the mattress. He rested his hands on Ridge’s scarred, tender back. Ridge tried not to jump, but it was startling to be touched with anything but clinical impersonality. Tug’s touch was... kind.
It made him angry. Angry to be grateful for kindness.
“I’ve got an advanced degree in physical therapy and I’m licensed by the state of Georgia to practice. I specialize in musculoskeletal injuries, in particular injuries to the spine.” Tug was still talking, but all the time he talked he was gently, carefully stroking Ridge’s back.
“How’s that feel? Pain?”
“Course there’s fucking pain.”
“On a scale of one to ten?”
Ridge snarled, “Eleven.”
“Well, that’s not good,” Tug said as patiently as if humoring a cranky little kid.
He continued to run his hands in smooth rhythmic strokes from Ridge’s lower back to his neck, where the pressure gentled as he circled around and returned to the base of Ridge’s spine. “We got to do something about that.”
Under Tug’s ministrations, Ridge’s knotted muscles relaxed, and some of his tension eased. This was supposedly an examination, but Ridge had had plenty of examinations, and none of them had been as pleasant as this.
“Would you like to ask me any questions?”
“Like what?” Ridge asked.
“Like how much experience do I have?”
“How much experience do you have?”
“About five years.”
Tug made a sound too quiet for a laugh but too loud for a smile. “Okay, well, why don’t I just answer the questions you should be asking me? We’re going to try some different things, massage and hydrotherapy and ultrasound, and if those don’t work, we’ll try other things. I’ll give you some exercises to do on your own, and we’re going to work together as well. Don’t worry about the equipment because I’ll bring most of that with me. You’ve got a swimming pool here, right?”
Ridge almost laughed at that. “Nobody has used that pool in years. It’s a swamp.”
“Yeah? Well, you’re going to want to get the swamp cleaned up because you need to start swimming.”
“Swimming!” Ridge tried to laugh. “I can’t even walk.”
“You don’t need to walk to swim. Anyway, we’re going to get you back on your feet.”
“Are you saying I won’t need a wheelchair anymore?” He wanted to scoff, but his voice came out thick and husky.
Tug stroked his back in that calming way. “I’m not going to bullshit you, Ridge. You’re still going to need the chair, especially when you’re tired or have to travel any distance. But we’re going to get you a lot more mobility and a lot less pain.”
Ridge considered this silently. He felt winded by hope. It was almost worse having something to look forward to.
“One thing we need to see about is getting you a walker. And better wheels. Although pushing that old clunker around is probably one reason you’ve got such nice upper body definition.”
It was just an observation, not flirting, of course, but Ridge’s face warmed. It was difficult to believe there was anything attractive about him now.
Tug was still chattering about different kinds of wheelchairs, like it wasn’t a sensitive subject. Ridge said shortly, “There isn’t money for a better chair. This is all we can afford.”
“We’ll see about that.” Tug said with annoying assurance. “So you’re probably wondering how often we’ll need to meet and how long each session will last. Right?”
“Right,” said Ridge who was only thinking how nice it was to be pain free for even a couple of minutes. Tug’s hands were not particularly large, but they were warm and strong and agile. Ridge couldn’t help wondering what it would feel like to be touched by Tug in other ways.
Just academic curiosity, because, despite the fact that Tug gave off a subtly gay vibe, he didn’t seem like the brightest bulb in the box, and that relentless cheerfulness was bound to drive someone to murder. Even if they weren’t already at that point.
Ridge gave a smothered laugh.
“See, you’re starting to feel better already,” the clueless Tug said. “Just making the decision to take action makes you feel better, right?”
“You bet,” Ridge replied.
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.