Never squeezus with whoosis when whatsis is on the wheresis?-The Princess Inchworm

Inch by Inch
by C. M. Barnes ©2021

The courtyard was coming to life all around them. The day had been hot, punishingly so, but now pink and purple bruises of dusk filled the sky over the ocean, and buzzing and chirping began to sound. Scaled and feathered things started to creep out from under the leaves to sniff the coming night. They sat at a small white table in the middle of this: two men in relaxed poses on either side of a lattice-worked disc of iron about four feet wide. One man was young, and he seemed to vibrate with a nervous energy even as he held his nonchalant posture, legs crossed at the knee, hands folded in his lap. The other might have been anywhere between thirty-five and fifty. No sagging skin on his tanned face. Only a few wrinkles around his sharp eyes and pursed lips. Twin streaks of gray highlighted his otherwise black hair like faint runs of silver in an obsidian rockslide. A full bottle of wine stood upright on the table between them. Its thrown shadow streaked across the white latticework as starkly as the needle in a sundial. Its contents were almost black in the dusk light. Only the faintest blush of red shown through.

Neither man had a glass before him.

"It's an unfortunate situation," the older man said. "I really thought you had a future with this organization, but obviously that is no longer the case."

He spoke without looking at the younger man. He was staring out over the courtyard wall overhanging the cliff. Beyond it, the sea lapped at the rocks far below and met the sky in a distant, fiery crease of shadow and sun.

"Instead, we find ourselves in this situation."

He pronounced the last word with careful distaste.

English isn't his first language, the younger man, Cole, thought, but he respects its particulars. For some reason, this thought struck him as funny, but he kept his face impassive. It wasn't easy. He felt something with a lot of sharp, little legs crawling up his bare ankle under the table.

The older man, whose name was Armand, looked at him and smiled. The expression was cold even in the warm dusk.

"That said," Armand spoke, "this kind of thing has happened before-a few times in fact, and we've developed a procedure for dealing with it. You're about to experience that procedure now."

"What are you going to do?" Cole said. "Cut my fingers off one-by-one? If that's the plan, then let's get to it."

He couldn't help himself. He knew he wouldn't be leaving this courtyard alive. Probably not even this table.

Armand laughed, a flat, reptilian clicking sound that undercut the rising birdsong.

"Not exactly," he said. "I don't like to get my hands dirty anymore. But you're closer than you might think."

What's that supposed to mean? Cole thought, but he didn't say anything. He was still angry about being caught, and that helped, although he knew it wouldn't last. Fear was already beginning to creep in, a cold dread rising up his spine about as fast as whatever was crawling up his leg. He struggled to remain still. He'd lose his composure soon enough. There was no question about that. But if he could just hold out long enough for Raymond to get on that plane...

Armand blinked at him, and this gesture also looked lizard-like. Cole wondered for a second how such a handsome man could manage to look so repulsive amid such beautiful surroundings.

"You're thinking about your lover," Armond said curtly. "Raymond, isn't it? You're hoping he's on his way to the airport now, soon to fly away free as one of these little birds flitting around us. You've no doubt told him to go with or without you. Probably you were planning to meet him with the money at the gate. I'm speculating a little bit here, but not much. We have him, you see. An associate of ours picked him up just as he left his apartment a few minutes ago. Here. Take a look."

Armand removed a sleek, black phone from the pocket of his gray sport and slid it across the table. For a few seconds, Cole just stared at it, unwilling to reach out and touch the device. Then he picked it up, glared at the screen, and set it back down.

"Not impressed," he said. "Anyone can send a bullshit text message. Even someone as stupid as Crawley."

Armand chuckled and beckoned for the return of his phone. Cole pushed it back to him with more force than necessary.

"True," Armand said as he tucked the phone away. "But, in this case, how do you know? Did you get any confirmation that Raymond was on his way to the airport before we caught you? You and I both know there are only two flights out of this city each day, what with the perilous condition of the current government. The next one isn't due to leave for"-Armand checked a glimmering silver wristwatch-"another thirty minutes. Which gives us just enough time to complete the procedure even if I was lying to you, which I assure you I am not."

A large, green bird streaked overhead, cawing into the sunset spreading out over the water.

"Let me speak to him," Cole said, "or at least show me a video."

"I'm afraid that's not possible."

"Bullshit. You don't have him, and I'm not telling you anything, at least not until I know that he's on that plane heading for another continent."

Armand smiled again faintly. "I wish I could give you that assurance," he said. "It would make things much simpler. An easy exchange of your lover's safety for the location of the money. Unfortunately, this organization has a reputation to maintain. We cannot allow ourselves to be-how would you say it? -ripped off with impunity. No. You must suffer, and your lover must suffer. In fact, you must die. But, as for Raymond" -Armand broke off for a second to study his surprisingly long fingernails-"the suffering might be enough. How much he must endure will be up to you."

Cole brushed at his knee and connected with something crunchy under the thin cotton of his slacks. He crushed it against his skin.

"Sounds elaborate," he said as calmly as he could.

Armand raised both hands in a what-can-I-say? gesture. "I agree, but word about these little situations always gets out, one way or another. It's important that everyone know we do more than simply kill you if you cross us. Otherwise, the competition might get restless. But now we're losing time. Let me explain the procedure."

"Go ahead," Cole said. "Bluff away."

Armand's smile faded into a cold, blank look.

"You see this bottle on the table before us?" he said. "It contains exactly ten vertical inches of wine-a cabernet of good vintage, actually, but that is incidental. Each inch represents one pint of blood. There are ten pints of blood in the human body. Therefore, ten inches for ten pints. Do you understand?"

Cole nodded, doing his best to ignore the icy lick of fear now running up the back of his neck. The gesture felt distant, as if a freak wind had blown his head back on forth on the end of his trembling spine.

"Good," Armand said. "Then I trust you have put together the implication. We have Raymond. I have a phone, and I'm going to ask you about the money now. Depending on the quality of your answer, I may or may not send a message to an associate who is standing by with a scalpel and a measuring cup. If necessary, he will use them, and I will pour the wine out accordingly. He will be precise, and so will I. I hope-and I sincerely mean this-that you will be too."

Cole had met Raymond at the beach. It had been simple, like something out of a cheap novel. Cole had been wading into the warm, blue-green water, enjoying the feel of the sun on his pale shoulders, when he had seen Raymond walking out of the waves toward him. His tan body had glistened in the surf, every inch of him wet with sea spray and carved with a light that would have pleased Michelangelo. Their eyes had met-Cole had never really believed that eyes could meet before-and Raymond had smiled. Cole didn't know what his own face had done, but it must have communicated something because soon the two of them were talking.

Talking was all they had done for a long time.

"This would be a lot scarier if I believed you had him," Cole lied. "As it is, pour away."

"Where is the money, Cole?"

"Go fuck yourself."

"Very well."

Armand reached for the bottle with one hand and took out his phone with the other. His thumb danced quickly over the screen. Then he held the bottle out over the hot patio cement beside the table. The bottle tipped, and a sample pour's worth of red liquid escaped and splattered on the cement below. It spread out like a tiny, crimson firework where it hit, and it was thin enough that Cole could still see the glimmer of the sparkling bits of shell embedded in the white stone beneath it. They winked up at him through the spreading red stain like a miniature galaxy suddenly enveloped in a rosy haze.

A drop had also fallen onto Armand's fine black shoes, a minute imperfection tear-streaking the dark leather.

"There," Armand said as he returned the bottle to the center of the table. "One pint removed. Nine to go. Of course, we will have to wait a moment for the draining to be completed. Would you like to see the message I used to signal my associate? It's a little amusing."

Now, the icy grip of fear had closed around Cole's throat. Frigid fingers strangling away his breath and closing off the warm evening air.

"I'm sure it is," he muttered.

Armand held his phone out for Cole to see. The screen was hard to read under the sunset's reddish glow, but there wasn't much to interpret. Just a text exchange with an outgoing message from Armand and an incoming reply from its recipient.

Outgoing: A wine glass emoji

Incoming: A thumbs up

Cole's gaze lifted to fix on the bottle in the center of the table. Its blushing contents did look to be about an inch lower than their previous level, but it was hard to be certain.

Armand retracted his phone and set it on the table in front of him. He said, "You might be interested to know that the human body typically goes into shock after the loss of five pints of blood. Not all bodies. Some slip away more quickly. Some linger a little longer. Regardless, this procedure will continue until you tell me what I want to know. You can be sure, however, that your lover is very conscious right now as he watches his first cup of life drain away. The man on the other end of my messages will not let him pass out prematurely. He is well trained."

Armand's thin lips broke into a small grin.

He's enjoying this, Cole thought. I wonder how many times he gets to do it. Maybe he's always secretly hoping for someone to take the money and run. Fucked up, but you don't get to be where he is without being fucked up to begin with-not in this business.

"You're thinking about it now," Armand went on. "You're imagining all the details. The bare gray walls. The bare white lightbulb. The humid stink of a shadowy basement. There's a chair in the center of the room. It's not so different from the one you're sitting in now except for the straps. There's a small operating table next to it. It is laid with only a few tools: the blade, the cup, a stained rag for spills. Believe it or not, the person in the chair is usually not yet screaming at this point. They are usually still lost in what you might call a fog of disbelief. They watch the first pint go like they're watching a gravy dish fill up, like it's a delicacy they themselves will soon sample. It's a very strange thing to see. I know because I used to be the man on the other end of these messages. That won't surprise you. You've already gathered that I know this procedure intimately, even that I derive pleasure from it. Please don't make the mistake of thinking that this means I want it to continue. I am a professional, first and foremost. I have a job to do and superiors to whom I report. The sooner you tell me what I want to know, the sooner this will be over-not just here between you and I, but in that shadowy little room you're imagining so clearly now."

"You wish," Cole forced himself to say.

"Whatever you say. But, by now, my associate will have staunched the flow, and we can continue. I should probably add that he collects what comes out in a bottle identical to the one before us-aside from its starting empty, of course. It sits on the operating table next to the rag. When this is over, I will cork it and place it on a special rack in my cellar. None of the bottles on that rack are full. I hope you don't plan on giving me my first."

"Go to hell."

"After you. But, then again, you're already there, aren't you?"

The sun was fading over the sea, its crimson brilliance gone ashy just above the courtyard wall and the horizon line. It's bleeding out, Cole thought, just like Raymond-Raymond who I love, Raymond who I got into this, Raymond who I am responsible for.

"You paint a vivid picture," Cole said. "Too bad none of it's true."

"Alas, I'm afraid we don't have time to bring you a finger."

"You would if you actually had him. You would if you weren't worried about him getting onto that plane and jetting out of here."

"Interesting point. Maybe you're the one whose blood I should be collecting."

"I thought you didn't like to get your hands dirty, or was that just bullshit too?"

"Time for another pour, I think. I mean, another pint."

Cole had discussed everything with Raymond very carefully. They had gone over what to do if Cole didn't show up at the apartment in time to leave for the airport. They had talked about how Raymond would go on his own, leaving by the back fire escape and avoiding the main streets. He would talk to no one. Stop for no one. Get a cab as soon as possible and pay the driver double to avoid police and army check points. The organization owned the police and about half the army. They didn't have all the cab drivers yet. At the airport, he would present his ticket, go immediately through customs, and then not go back for any reason whatsoever. He would board, sit next to Cole's empty seat, and be confident that-whatever happened to Cole-he would be better off where he was going. That is, he would certainly be killed if he remained.

Raymond had agreed to all of this, and the only possible deviation he might have made would be to pick up the...

Armand picked up the bottle and took out his phone. "To our loved ones," he said.

He texted and poured.

Cole still couldn't say for certain why he had taken the money. They could have just fled together, he and Raymond. Gone back to the real world where Cole was from, a world that was not actually any more real than this one but that felt that way because of its drive-thrus, strip malls, and lack of revolutions. They could have made a life there together, a wonderfully boring life where no one ever talked about cutting someone's fingers off, let alone draining their blood. Raymond liked to collect pots and little tchotchkes. Cole had a business degree. There was a world very unlike this one where they might be-might have been-happy.

Careful, Cole thought. You're slipping. Only about fifteen minutes to go. Then he's safe, and it doesn't matter what you do anymore.

Armand stared at him from across the table. The bottle was back between them, another inch-or was it two?-lower.

"Sorry," Armand said casually. "I might not have been as precise as I promised. I think I accidently poured out two inches. Everything's always trickier than you expect it to be."

"I suppose you accidentally texted two wine glasses too?"

"I might have, yes."

"It's getting on your shoes."

Armand's chilling smile returned. "That is regrettable, but necessary, seeing as these shoes are worth less than the money you stole. Not as much as you might think, but less. I will polish them after you are dead."

"I'm not going to tell you where it is."

Armand picked up the bottle, swirled it contemplatively, then set it back down. "Fine," he said. "Then at least tell me why you took it. I'm curious, as the organization has been nothing but good to you-at least until now."

And this was the real question, wasn't it? It had been more than just greed. More like some desire to redeem himself. Not all the way. He'd done too many unforgivable things for that, but enough that he might be able to look at himself in a mirror someday and say, "At least, when you get out, you stuck it to them a little bit." This seemed ridiculous now, not only because the money was almost nothing to them, but because it was going to get Raymond killed. No. Not killed, but changed, as if anyone could experience what he was experiencing now and then ever sit in a café again, see a wine glass come out, and not think how many inches...

Armand's phone rattled against the table. An incoming message. He looked at it and raised a dark eyebrow against the gloom.

"Let me show you something else," he said and held the phone out.

It was a picture. At the center of it, a small operating table stood above a gray concrete floor. On the table rested a scalpel, a measuring cup, a rag, and a bottle of wine. The scalpel glittered maniacally under some unseen harsh light. The measuring cup was made of clear glass, and a faint ring of red was visible around its base. The rag was gray, tattered, and calicoed with blotchy, rust-colored stains. The wine bottle, as promised, was identical to the one standing before Cole on the table-except it was almost half full of dark liquid!

"That's too much!" Cole shouted. He couldn't help himself. "You've only poured out three inches here. Your guy is going off the rails!"

Armand's face was invisible in the fresh darkness. The sun had finally set.

"You forget the details of the procedure," he said calmly. "I am pouring out inches. He is collecting pints. Of course his bottle will fill up faster than ours will empty."

Cole stood up, and Armand slid a pistol out of his pants pocket and pointed it at him over the table. In the new dark, it looked like the long joint of a leg bone in his hand.

"Big fucking deal," Cole spat. "You took a picture of your little stage set-up. Doesn't mean you have him. You've never had him. He's probably boarding right now."

The pistol was trained on Cole's chest. The barrel was unwavering. The little, dark hole at the end of it swallowed the remaining twilight like a tiny, evil star.

"Then I'll pour out two more inches," Armand said. He reached for the bottle with his free hand. "That should be enough to induce shock-"

"Don't do it. Please!"

"Shock is deadly, you know, if left untreated."

Armand tipped the bottle over the cement, and Cole heard the splattering hiss of wine hitting the ground. The blood of innocence crying out for mercy, for revenge...

He lunged across the table, trying to catch the falling liquid in his fingers. Before he could reach it, Armand lowered the pistol and shot him in the thigh. Cole's leg went immediately numb. Then a fiery pain roared up through his hip and down through his knee. He staggered backwards toward the courtyard wall.

"There's something you don't know," he said. He was holding his leg now, feeling his own blood escape through what had to be an artery. It was welling hot and thick through his slacks. "Something important."

Armand kept the pistol trained on him with one hand while he texted with the other. "Oh, yes?" he said. "Then you better tell me quickly. I'm about to send three glasses. Two for our diminished bottle and one for your draining leg."

Cole's back connected with the courtyard wall. Behind him, he could hear the water lapping at the rocks below. They were at least fifty feet down. Fifty feet should be enough. The hard part would be getting over. It would come down to inches, just like everything else.

"Raymond knows where the money is too," he said. "And if he dies, you'll never know."

"And why is that?"

"Because I'm not going to be around to tell you." "Really? And where will you be flying off to? The wine dark sea?


Cole turned and heaved himself up over the wall, just making it over the crest. A shot cracked the night behind him, but he never felt the impact. As he fell, he had time to think only one thought. It was about a tanned body walking out of the waves, every perfect, glistening inch of it welcoming him with a heat the sun would be happy to kiss. Then water swirled over his head in a loving embrace. He went down into it gladly, letting it fill him with a gentle warmth he had never known in life.

* * *

Armand stared at the place along the wall where the young man had plunged over. It was too bad. The boy had shown real potential. But sometimes love-or whatever it was people called love-got in the way. He had never had this problem. He was thankful that he never would.

He set the pistol down on the table and picked up his phone.

Forget it, he typed. The bird has flown, and probably with the money too. No need to keep up the charade.

He pressed send and then set the phone down next to the pistol. The stars were beginning to come out overhead, and a pair of them appeared to be moving across the dark sky. The last flight of the day leaving for parts unknown.

x x x

Mr. Barnes returns with another fine tale. We love his stuff here at anotherealm. Agree?

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