October 16th 1:00AM (Five weeks earlier)
Benton entered Leopold’s dark study carrying the golden idol in both hands. It was a squat, grimacing little relic. A genuine Mesoamerican artifact representing Mixcoatl, Aztec god of war and hunting. Roughly the size of an ostrich’s egg and heavy. Flickering light from the fireplace poured over the midget god’s insectile eyes, exaggerated grin and an elongate tongue that, even in relief, seemed suggestive and obscene.
Benton knew the relic represented his targets’ two chief appetites, which were sadism and power. That Mixcoatl might also contribute some corrupt metaphysical energy to their preferred climate of malignancy would be, to them, counted as bonus. Benton knew they’d love it. They’d probably scratch each other’s eyes out to take it. That was fine with Benton so long as they all gathered around it at the proper moment.
He stopped and set the evil totem on the oak desk where it produced a hollow thump in the large room. “I need to take this,” Benton said. “Can’t tell you why.”
Leopold sat in a highback leather chair facing away from Benton. Only his scarred and withered old hands were visible. “No.” The voice was harsh and definitive.
Benton disregarded this. “I need to modify it first. Can I use your workshop?”
“I said no.”
“My equipment is still there? Drills? Crucible? Acetylene torches? Plasticizer? Everything I need for the proper effect?”
“My equipment you mean,” the old man corrected. “Does the boy even know that you left? Does he know that you’re here? What you’re planning for his mother?”
“Of course he doesn’t know. None of it. I spared him as long as I could. If this goes well then I’ll spare him from it forever.”
“If it goes well? Look at your life so far. Look at how very well it’s gone.” The old man’s sarcasm was meant to burn like acid and Benton reflexively turned his head.
Benton had anticipated his grandfather’s contempt but it was still painful. Worse still was knowing that he deserved the old man’s derision. He’d accrued it like debt through squandered opportunities and poor choices so counterintuitive in retrospect they seemed acts of self-sabotage. Leopold had built a fortune from nothing. Benton was a cut-rate CPA providing cheap online actuary services to struggling smalltime entrepreneurs with million dollar dreams and nickel heads. The old man lamented Benton’s professional mediocrity, but of course it was the hasty, blasphemous marriage that Leopold viewed as the extremity of insult and constitutionally unforgivable.
“Why now, Benton? After all these years?”
“She sent me a letter.”
“Some crazy idea of hers. Threats disguised in hints. They were clear enough.”
“Clear enough for what?”
“For me to finally come back and settle all the old accounts. All at once, I hope. It’s the only way to be sure.”
“And when you kill yourself in the process, what then? What you’re actually saying is that you’re leaving it all up to me. I’ll be the one to look after the boy the way I looked after you.”
“His name is Simon,” said Benton. “And I guess you’ll do what you want, however you want, regardless. That’s always the way it’s been. But I don’t want you to involve him in the family business.”
“Don’t tell him anything.”
“I’m serious. In fifteen years, I’ve never asked you for anything. I’m asking you now. Promise me.”
“Would you trust my promise?”
Benton paused. “No.”
“Good. Then I promise.”
Benton turned and started toward the door. Leopold called out behind him, “Try not to blow the house apart. Clean up when you’re done. As for Mixcoatl, I’ll subtract the cost from your inheritance.”
He paused in the doorway and looked back. “You already cut me out of your will.”
“Did I?” the old man pretended. “Good. Then leave a check by the front door on your way out.” The old man turned the chair so that even his hands disappeared from Benton’s view. “Now go.”
The workshop hadn’t been touched in all the years Benton had been gone. Everything was there and, aside from being dusty, ready for use. Leopold could have easily dismantled it all, preventing Benton from ever concocting another explosive device. But the old man had always given his silent consent and approval by first allowing Benton to dabble in bombmaking and then funding the acquisition of ever more complex equipment.
Benton inverted Mixcoatl, placed him in a vice and set to boring a broad hole in the flat undersurface with an auger. He was careful to collect the gold shavings into a small pile to be melted down and used to seal the hole once finished.
It was a strange hobby. Benton had started at the age of eleven when he’d emptied the pyrotechnic flash powder out of three dozen M-80’s to make his own stick of TNT. The explosion gave a brilliant flash and loud report but did little damage. The mixture of aluminum and potassium perchlorate was abandoned and the boy moved on to black powders, picric acids and potassium nitrates.
In his hands these elements came together like the artwork. It was his one area of true mastery. For the past few years Benton had secretly harbored a daydream wherein some belligerent foreign power invaded and occupied the homeland. Then Benton rose from mediocrity. His skills for improvising explosives thrust him into a role of critical importance and made him valued, desired and revered. It was a silly thing to dream, he knew, and kept it to himself.
Benton filled Mixcoatl with plastic explosive and set in the tiny detonator and receiver. The receiver was the one item Benton had purchased prior to arriving. Cell phones had not been in widespread use when he’d left Leopold’s estate fifteen years prior. This receiver could be activated by any cell phone in the world, so long as you knew the number to dial. A phone call would wake the receiver, which would activate the detonator, which would trigger the explosive. It was all very simple. The hard part, he knew, would be arranging the party. They all needed to be present, preferably indoors, and in close proximity. Then Benton could place the call that would blast them into twitching bits of ragged red sinew. And then his son would be safe.
He sealed his work within and allowed the recycled gold to sufficiently harden. Then he scored the undersurface to conceal his effort. He cleaned up and set the modified statuette in a canvas bag, then carried the bag to his car.
Benton looked back at the decrepit mansion silhouetted in moonlight and was filled with grief. He knew he would never return.
Twenty minutes later Benton pulled into the motel’s gravel parking lot. The place was a barely erect pile of cinderblocks under a sagging roof. But the proprietors took cash and didn’t check ID and they’d never bothered investing in security cameras. Benton suspected that, like himself, the clientele here valued privacy over security. The old lady at the desk eyed him indifferently when he checked in. He passed her two wrinkled twenties and got a key. Room 13.
He could have stayed at Leopold’s estate. Benton had grown up there. It was his boyhood home. The old man might even have welcomed him if only to spew out the pent up resentment of fifteen years. Leopold saw him as an unparalleled failure, the only weak link in a thousand year old chain of successful men bound together by blood and their one unified purpose. No, Benton thought. Sleeping in that house would be like sleeping at the bottom of a lake. The coldness and the suffocating weight of it would have killed him.
Benton stopped at the door marked 13 and entered. The little square room was what he expected. A frugal container for nomads, deviants and lost souls. Cigarette burns pocked the carpet. The lumpy queen bed was covered by a quilt with stains like impressionistic flowers of yellow, grey and maroon. There was a boxy Zenith TV and a lamp missing its shade. Otherwise the room was bare.
He picked up the cheap phone and dialed her number. All these years later he still remembered those seven digits.
He listened as her phone rang half a dozen times. Finally she picked up.
“Hello?” she answered. Fifteen years had passed since he’d heard his wife’s voice.
“It’s me,” said Benton.
There was a long pause. Longer than he expected.
“Do you know what time it is?” she asked.