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Michael’s body was gradually climbing out of a deep sleep but his mind had been on the edge of awake for what seemed like hours. “How the hell does a thirty-one year old investment banker get himself in this situation,” his subconscious asked his slowly rousing conscious.

“Money,” Unbidden, the word almost tripped coming out of still unresponsive lips.

The air conditioner clunked away in the window, dragging him closer to the conscious light. Even in the artificially cool air, he could feel the slime of nervous perspiration coating his skin. He forced his reluctant eyelids open and stared up at the barely visible ceiling in the low-budget motel. Neon red was winking on and off through the worn drapes. There were water stains above him that looked like bloody pools when the lights outside flickered.

He’d killed six people in the last six weeks. He hadn’t thought he’d be able to do it but it turned out to be remarkably easy. One more and the job would be over. He could get back to his life. A new life. A better life.
His hand almost involuntarily groped over to the nightstand and grabbed the remote control, aiming it at the television across the room. He thumbed the power button once and waited for the picture to appear.

Nothing.

Impatiently, he punched the button again harder, and again nothing happened. In anger, he threw the remote at the dark, mute eye staring blankly back at him. To his amazement, the spinning remote struck the ‘on’ button of the set.
“Ha,” he laughed. “Today’s gonna be my lucky day.”

The hiss of snow gradually gave way to a fuzzy picture. Jillian Barberie was doing the weather report on Fox 11 News. He didn’t particularly care about the weather but Jillian was really hot so he watched through droopy lids.

Suddenly, his body jumped involuntarily, his eyes snapping open. The springs on the bed bounced as if he had levitated above the mattress and had fallen upon awakening. Jillian was gone and some dumb-ass talking head was yammering away on the television. He had dozed off again.

“Oh, fu-u-u-ck,” he groaned, realizing the sound was the same one his old man had made not long before he disappeared some years ago.

Michael swung his feet off the creaking bed and sat up. He scrubbed vigorously at his face with both hands trying to massage away the sleep from his eyes and the scotch from his foggy brain. He reached down and took off his shoes and socks, stood and removed the rest of his wrinkled clothes.

He squinted toward the window where sun was finally coming through. He walked naked to the cheap drapes and made sure the battery operated motion alarm he’d hung there was still activated. He peeked out the drape and realized the windows were so filthy that the drapes were almost redundant. He turned, looking across the room at the chair he'd taken from the small desk in the corner. It was still firmly propped under the knob of the cheap door, the deadbolt thrown. Michael knew that neither the chair nor the deadbolt would stop a six-year old boy if he really wanted to get in but at least he’d have some warning.

Four steps took him across the room and into the tiny bathroom. There was mold growing on the peeling wallpaper and he was pretty sure the towels hadn’t been washed since the last occupant. “Christ. What a filthy place.”
He slid open the plastic door to the shower and turned on the water. While he waited for the water to get hot, he ejected the clip from his Glock 9mm. He knew the clip would be full but he never allowed for surprises...full as he suspected. He put the gun on a small shelf above the shower door and stepped into the now tepid water trickling out of the rusty shower head.

#

While he dressed, he thought about his final victim. His philosophy had always been to ‘eat the big frog first’. His dad had taught him that.

“Son, just remember,” he used to say. “When ya’ have to eat frogs, eat the big one first and the rest’ll go down easy.”

Michael had saved her for last because he figured she’d be the easiest. Still, the fact that she’d killed four and was still alive made him wonder if he shouldn’t have eaten her first. He snickered at the double entendre’.

He’d actually met her only once before all this began. Sara was her name, not that it mattered. She was definitely a looker, all right. Blonde and blue. Big tits. Great legs hooked up to a fine, round ass. She worked as a stripper in one of those clubs over by the airport.

“I’m just doing it to work my way through college,” he mimicked in a high falsetto, and laughed again. She had to be dumber than a post but the others must have underestimated her badly...a mistake he wouldn’t make.

As he got dressed, Michael watched himself in the cracked mirror above the thrift-store dresser. Today would be an important day so he wanted to look his studly best. He was recognizable enough to the general public so he didn’t want to dress in a way that would attract too much more attention to himself. And, he didn’t want to make it easy for her to see him coming, at least not until it was too late. But, he still wanted to look good. He dressed all in black wearing Rebok cross-trainers and the same Lycra turtleneck and slacks he’d worn three weeks ago when he’d killed Bruce. It was Michael’s lucky outfit.

“Bruce,” Michael thought. “Now, he was a lot tougher fucking kill than he’d expected. Who’d’a thought a guy named Bruce would have taken four deep rips with the stiletto and keep coming.”

Fortunately, Michael hadn’t taken this guy for the pussy he appeared to be. Never...never underestimate your enemy. Michael’s nostrils flared slightly, imagining he could still smell the cordite from when he finally shot Bruce in the face.

Michael secured the wrist sheath to his left arm and slid the German-made stiletto home. He’d already strapped the small .32 to his right ankle and the Glock 9 was shoved comfortably into a Bianchi holster on the front left side of his belt. He mimicked a quick draw, giving himself the evil-eye in the mirror. He shook his head and thought, “What are those assholes in the movies thinking when they put their holster in the small of their backs. Try getting it out in a hurry when you’re sitting in a car.”

He knew they were out of style but put on a Member’s Only windbreaker. He needed to cover his equipment and, although it was a little warm, he’d not be too conspicuous wearing it. Turning sideways to the mirror he gave himself the once-over, instinctively sucking in the slight bulge of his stomach. He cocked his head and winked at his smiling face.

#

It was too early for it to begin but he’d lived this long by being overly cautious. He quietly removed the chair from under the doorknob and knelt to the side of the door. He turned the knob and opened the door slowly, peeking at the immediate area outside his room. Then, he stepped quickly out with his back to the building, hand inside his jacket. He stood stalk still for a full minute, shifting his eyes back and forth, slowly scanning the motel’s courtyard. Down the walkway from his room, a chubby, working girl in her underwear stood in the doorway tongue sucking with last night’s ‘trick du’ jour’.

“What a waste of humanity...both of ‘em.” he thought. “Wonder if I could get extra credit.”

A heap of dirty, brown rags stirred at the corner of the building. Filthy, ratted hair covered the face but both hands were in sight and crusted with filth. Michael turned away in disgust.

Through the window of the motel office, Michael could see the greasy-haired, desk clerk sleeping with his head on the counter. It was the same guy who checked him in a couple of days ago so he had no concern.

He looked around again, this time searching for something else. He found it on the windshield of his car. It was a simple, white 3x5 card, folded once and tucked under the wiper blade. He opened and read the words printed there. ‘Ferris Wheel-9’. It wasn’t much of a clue but it told him plenty. There was only one Ferris Wheel inside the perimeter and he was safe until nine a.m.

He tucked the card into his pocket and made a quick glance around once more, hoping to catch them watching him. He hadn’t seen them once in the last six weeks and couldn’t figure out how they did it. It was the last day so he knew they’d be out there but he didn’t see anyone. “Oh, well, fuck it,” he thought. “As long as they don’t miss my finest hour.”

#

He looked at his watch, deciding to leave his car at the fleabag motel and find alternate transportation to Santa Monica. She would know what he’d be driving and might be looking for him to just boldly arrive at the pier in it. He watchfully walked seven blocks to The Pantry, a downtown landmark right out of some noir novel. His regular, day job wasn’t far and he ate breakfast here two or three times a week. It had been in the same place since L.A. had dirt streets and had never been closed.

Michael took a table in the corner of the dining room, his back to the wall. Scanning the crowd, he thought, “This place always draws such a mixed bag’a shit.” Two men in suits sat at one Formica table, briefcases open, poking away at their Palm Pilots. At the table next to them was a filthy guy who looked as of he didn’t remember what soap and razors were. He’d probably been able to scrape up enough from panhandling to buy the morning special. Michael thought about the guy sitting on ‘skateboard legs’ out front, begging for spare change. His face cracked a smile and he shook his head. “People from all walks and those who can’t walk.” The counter along the far wall was shoulder to shoulder with businessmen trying to eat and read the Wall Street Journal. Soon, he’d be past that rat race.

“What’dya want, Bud,” the waiter said in the usual surly tone. Michael looked up at the tall, burly man with the shaved head. He wore a stiffly starched white shirt, black bow tie and a stained black apron, double-wrapped around a watermelon waist. There was no smile of welcome on the impatient face. Normally, Michael wouldn’t have allowed anyone to talk to him in that tone, especially a waiter, but here it was almost part of the cachet. Michael didn’t want to risk getting his ass kicked for mouthing off. Not now...not so close to the end.

“Eggs, basted. Bacon, crisp. Hash browns, well done. Biscuits with gravy on the side. Large O.J. and coffee black.” The waiter hadn’t written a word of Michael’s order but he poured jet-black coffee into the chipped mug already on the table and walked away without a word of acknowledgement. He watched the waiter go and wondered what the final victim would be having for her last meal.

#

Michael had the cab let him off in Venice Beach, which would mean a substantial hike to Santa Monica, but he thought it would be best to come up the beach rather than down the road where she could easily see his approach. He walked north on the asphalt bike path past punks sharing a morning ‘j’, longhaired students and hippie artists sucking down $4.00 Starbuck’s mocha cappuccinos. Dozens of cyclists in their ‘ass-padded’ shorts and rollerblader’s in thong bikinis passed in colorful blurs.

One very beautiful blonde approached and his hands began to sweat as she got closer. His immediate thought was that Sara had somehow deduced his route to the pier but there we no weapons hidden on this body. In fact, nothing was hidden on her. When he realized it wasn’t Sara, he concluded that it was simply the volume of exposed flesh and flexing thighs rolling his way that got his heart pumping. He moved aside and blatantly turned to watch her as she passed him on hissing wheels. Muscular brown globes, divided by a strip of red, flexed up and down as she disappeared into the crowd.

“I’ll have more babes like that than I know what to do with once this is done,” he said to himself. Energized with lustful thoughts of his future, he turned back toward his goal, the top of the ferris wheel already visible in the distance.

#

Michael stayed on the bike path until he passed beneath the Santa Monica Pier and the ferris wheel. He worked his way slowly up the stairs from the beach to the pedestrian level of the pier. With just his eyes above the walkway, he scanned the area. It was beginning to get busy with vacationers, students out of school and fishermen who were crazy enough to actually eat what they caught in these waters. He could see the amusements ticket office and the passenger-loading ramp for the colorful ferris wheel. There was only one person on the ride. A woman’s blond head crested the top of the ride and he could see quick flashes of her through the spokes of the wheel.

“What is she thinking…”, he thought “…putting herself in such an obviously perilous spot.” He shook his head at her stupidity, then snaked his way from the stairs, through the building that housed the Merry-Go-Round and over to an ideal spot to take her when she came into view. He settled his Glock firmly in a two-handed shooter’s grip. Leaning against the side of the building, he steadied himself.

Ready.

Wait.

Wait.

The blond head came into view. “What the fuck,” he said. Then looking for her trap, he spun left and right, waiting for it to spring.
Nothing.

Still gripping his Glock, he walked over to the pimply-faced ride operator.

“I know you,” the operator said excitedly, wagging a skinny finger in his direction. “You’re Michael. Sara left you a note on the dummy. Hold on a sec.” He brought the ride to a stop where the realistic blond dummy sat in the seat. “It’s hooked to the blouse”, the operator said, again pointing.

Michael ignored to man and ran to retrieve the note. “God-damnit! This is one of their tricks. They’re always pulling this shit.” He unfolded the paper.

“Roses are red, violets are blue.
I was here but where were you?
Hugs and kisses,
Sara”

Angrily, Michael crumpled the note and threw it on the ground. He ignored the operator who ran over and scooped it up, smoothing out his souvenir.

Michael heard the young man say something about ‘autograph’ but ignored him as he walked away, deep in his own angry thoughts. He’d find her without the clues. He knew her profile like his own. He knew her habits, like and dislikes, friends and family, just as she knew his. So, he’d play it that way and make damn sure they didn’t cross paths without him seeing her first. Maybe he’d even take a little extra time doing her just for aggravating him.

#

“Fuck!” Michael shouted, throwing a wad of crumpled dollar bills through the window at the cabbie. “Fuck, fuck and more fuck!” he muttered through clenched teeth. The last Goddamned day and he couldn’t hunt her down. What was wrong with him? She should have been a walk in the park, an easy kill. The only positive side was that she hadn’t found him either but he hadn’t really expected her to. He was much better than she was.

It was eleven fifty p.m. and at midnight straight up, it’d all be over. He didn’t know what the hell he could do at this late hour but, even so, he couldn’t imagine sharing his fortune with her. Crossing the street, he watched the shadows that hovered all around him like dark specters in the orange glow of the streetlights.

Just in case, he stood at the entrance to the parking lot of his flop for last two nights. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Only two parking spaces were occupied including one that contained his car. There didn’t appear to be anyone hiding behind or under the cars. The rest of the motel courtyard was clearly visible. The usual pile of filthy rags was again sleeping in the corner. He mounted the sidewalk and headed toward his room to await the call. As he passed the room next to his, he could hear the methodic thudding of the cheap headboard banging against the wall in rhythm to animal grunts and fake moans.

Michael pulled the cheap plastic key ring from his pocket and started to slide it into the rusted brass knob. He heard a faint sound behind him and smelled the rank odor of sweat and piss. Turning slowly around, his mind only had time to register filthy rags, ice blue eyes and strands of blond hair peeking out through a greasy, matted mop. He never heard the shot that blew out the back of his head.

#

Michael’s gray matter was just starting its viscous slide down the cheap veneer door when red lights flashed and a siren sounded. The bum in the filthy rags, turned to face the sound and was greeted with the sight of two men rushing toward her. One, a tall, slickly-dressed man with a mouthful of white caps, held a microphone in his hand. The other had a ponytail and had a steady-cam belted around his bony hips, light glaring in her direction.

Sara peeled the awful wig from her own blond hair and smiled toward the approaching men. A beauty mark of Michael’s blood flecked her face just above the left point of her curved lips.

The man with the microphone jumped up onto the sidewalk beside her. Throwing his arm around her shoulder, squeezing her to him, he excitedly said, “Sara, it must have been a tough few weeks but you did it. You won this season’s contest on “The Final Victim”.

She took a deep breath, letting it fly out of her in a rush. “It was very tough, Bob. I really wasn’t sure I was going to make it through this last round. Michael was a terrific competitor.” She smiled shyly for the camera and, in a little-girl gesture, pushed a thick strand of hair away from her eyes.

“He just quit the game few minutes too soon.”

“Well, Sara,” Bob said flashing his expensive dental work at the camera, “you’ll be taking home the five million, tax-free dollars.”

“And,” Bob turned to look directly into the lights, “you can, too.” Sara knew he was addressing that relentless audience whose thirst for reality programming was never slaked.

“Twelve determined contestants will be selected to compete against one another in next season’s contest. If you’re willing to put it all on the line for five million dollars, absolutely tax free, call the number on your screen or visit our website at www.thelastvictim.com. Auditions begin next week. Do you have the guts?” One bushy eyebrow raised accusingly. His expression was serious and challenging.

Then, the Bob hugged Sara to him again and they waved cheerfully at the camera until the lights blinked out.

“That’s a wrap,” Bob shouted, turning his back to Sara. Then, hooking his thumb over his shoulder at Michael, he said “Someone clean this shit up and let’s go home.

The End
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