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Staged by Christopher Butt

 



Stephen Miller swerved the stolen car to avoid a deer in the middle of the road. The car left the road, bulldozed its way through the bushes, and crashed into a large oak, killing the engine. His chest exploded in pain as he pushed himself off the steering wheel. The bullet in his right arm joined in the pain parade.

  “Christ, what a disaster.”

  Grunting, he opened his door and slid out of the car. He landed on his knees and vomited.  Using his good arm, he lifted himself up and stumbled around the car. He retrieved the gun from the passenger side along with the small amount of cash he'd managed to take. He put the gun in his back pocket and the cash in his front left. He stumbled through the bushes and fallen trees out to the road. Turning back to the car, he was satisfied it safely hidden within the debris.

  A low mist hung over the road in the evening cold and Stephen figured he was still a couple of kilometres from the safe house. He cursed as the pain in his chest and arm reminded him of his current circumstances. A half an hour later, Stephen came up to a sign that stated, ‘North Otterville Cemetery Grounds.’ He smiled, remembering the sign.

  Painted underneath the sign was the phrase. “Welcome to North Otterville. It’s a quiet neighbourhood.” Stephen smiled at the joke.

   Fog swirled around the headstones as Stephen walked by the fence. Another sign indicated the Catholics to the right, the Protestants and the rest to the left. Stephen stopped and leaned against the Catholic gate to catch his breath. Despite the coolness of the evening, he was sweating and started to wonder if he was going to make it out of this caper alive.

  As he walked along the graveyard, a house appeared out of the darkness. Smiling, Stephen recognized the house he and the others had scouted earlier that week. It was empty and in the middle of nowhere. It was a perfect hiding place after the job or if something went wrong, the meeting point.

  In front of the house was a sign with ‘Otterville Realty’ written across the top. It had a picture of a beautiful dark-haired woman smiling back at him with Rhonda Walker written beneath it. Stephen paused for a second as he looked at the name. Something at the back of his mind nagged at him. He knew the name but couldn't place it. Eventually he shook the thoughts away and moved toward the house.

  As he stumbled up the front steps, he noticed the house looked different. When they scouted the place, it looked like it had a lot of fire damage, but now it looked brand new. Stephen wondered if he was at the right house. He dragged his memory in front of his eyes and confirmed it. Rundown house by the graveyard.

  He turned to the solid oak door and hoped his partner Tyler had picked the lock earlier. He closed his eyes and held his breath as his thumb depressed the latch. He heard a click, let out a breath, opened the door, and stepped inside.

  The house was dark and offered no relief from the chilly evening air. He walked into the living room and threw himself into a chair only to fall through and hit the floor. Stunned and his body screaming in pain, Stephen looked at the chair and realized it was made of cardboard. He got to his knees and pushed against the side table. It was plastic, coated with a wood stain.

  “What the…” he started to say when he heard a noise upstairs. Stephen struggled to his feet and hid behind the wall. He held his breath as someone carefully came down the stairs. He glanced around and saw a tall dark-haired woman step out into the living room. As she stared at the broken chair, Stephen lunged out and grabbed the woman by the throat, forcing his hand under her chin, silencing her.

  “Don’t move or struggle,” Stephen whispered. “I’m not going to hurt you if you behave. Nod if you understand.”

  The woman slowly nodded. As he moved her against the wall, he recognized her from the picture on the sign. She looked scared and despite his pain, Stephen felt a little aroused.

  “What the hell is with the furniture, Rhonda?”

  He released his grip just enough to allow her to speak.

  “I’m trying to sell the house," she said nervously. “I placed fake furniture in here so the prospective buyer can see how it looks furnished. It’s called staging.”

  Stephen glanced at the kitchen and noticed the fridge and stove were cardboard cutouts. He shook his head.

  “You mean there’s nothing real in this place?”

  “Only the bathroom,” Rhonda answered.

  Stephen nodded and jerked his head towards the stairs. Slowly, Rhonda led the way to the second floor with Stephen’s gun pointing at her back. At the top of the stairs, he pushed Rhonda into the bathroom. The old tub had sliding shower door.

  “Get in the tub,” he ordered.

  Rhonda stepped in the tub, and he shut the door behind her.

  “What are you going to do with me?”

  He ignored her and looked in the mirror. It was the first time he took stock of his situation. He didn’t like the look of it.

  Stephen’s reflection was a ghostly white face sweating a river. His arm throbbed and he was wearing some of his stomach contents on his face. He turned on the water and rinsed his face and mouth and dried his face with his jacket sleeve. He picked up his gun and walked out of the bathroom and into the adjacent bedroom to clear his head and think.

  Stephen glanced out the window at the graveyard. The mist still hung over the headstones. The ghostly glow of the lone streetlight reminded him of those old black and white horror movies.

  As he turned away from the window, Stephen swore he saw someone walking amongst the headstones. He walked back to the bathroom and sat down on the toilet. He leaned his head against the wall; the pain was starting to get to him.

  "You’re going into shock, old man," he thought. “There’s no one in the graveyard. Hang tight and keep your head straight. Help is on the way.

  Silence hung in the air.  After a few minutes Rhonda asked, “You robbed the bank, didn’t you?”

  Stephen remained silent.

  “I heard that you shot some people.”

  “So what? Somebody tripped an alarm and suddenly the cops were there. We had no choice," he answered.

  “We? You mean you didn’t do it yourself?”

  “No, my pals Jimmy and Tyler came up from…” Stephen stopped his narrative. “Shut up or I’ll shoot you.”

  “Like you shot that young bank teller and those two police officers?”

  “What? How do you know that?” he asked.

  “Maybe you should confess. I could be your priest,” Rhonda answered. 

  “Screw that.” Stephen wiped his face. He took a couple of deep breaths to steady himself. “We planned this robbery for a week. How could it go wrong?” he thought.

  “I can see your injuries are taking its toll,” Rhonda said, sliding the door open. “You should see a doctor.”

  “Shut up!” Stephen yelled. “I’ve already shot three people today. If you want to be the fourth, just keep talking.”

  “You’re in shock and not thinking properly. Just like when you shot that poor teller. What did she do to deserve that?”

  “I panicked, alright. The gun just went off and I…” Stephen paused. “How do you know any of this?”

  “I just know. Just like I know your cell phone is about to ring.”

  Stephen opened his mouth to speak when the strains of “Breaking the Law” by Judas Priest filled the room. He lay the gun on his lap and pulled out his phone from his jacket pocket. Tyler’s name filled the screen and he hit the answer button.

  “Tyler. Where the hell are you? I’m at the house by the graveyards. Come get me.”

  Silence filled the phone. “Tyler?” Stephen said. Silence.

  “It’s not Tyler, is it?” Rhonda asked.

   Stephen stared at the phone. His hand was shaking.

  “Tyler’s dead. So is Jimmy and the two police officers you shot.” Rhonda continued. “I bet that’s the police confirming you’re still alive. I also bet you didn’t turn off the tracking app on your phone, did you?”

  Stephen dropped the phone and walked to the window in the other bedroom. He saw dozens of ghostly figures in the graveyard walking towards the house. He also heard footsteps on the stairs.

  “I have you as a hostage,” Stephen said, looking out the window, his voice shaking.

  “No, you don’t,” Rhonda said, as she passed through the tub and walked into the bedroom.  As she walked, the house behind her dissolved into a burned-out hulk. “You picked the wrong town to rob. Otterville has a way of balancing out the scales of justice.”

  Stephen turned to see several ghostly figures enter the burned-out room. They were led by the young teller he shot earlier. She wore a blank expression, and, on her shirt, she wore a nametag.

  “Tammy Walker.” He read the name. Something clicked in his mind as he turned to Rhonda. “Walker. She’s…”

  “My daughter,” Rhonda finished his sentence. Her face grew an enormous smile as her body went completely black. “I died in this house last year. Fire.” She paused as she looked around the room and sighed. ‘I’ve been trying to sell this house ever since.”

  Stephen’s face went slack as Tammy walked up to him.

  “You know, Tammy, the staging isn’t working. We may have to try something else. No one is biting,” Rhonda said.

     In his mind, he was trying to grasp what was happening in front of him.

  “They’re not real. She’s not here.” As Tammy leaned in, Stephen’s last act in life was to notice Tammy’s bright green lipstick.

  As Tammy kissed him on the mouth. Stephen’s eyes went wide, and he felt his soul leave his body. His mind screamed in agony.

 

   Two hours later, the coroner’s staff were carrying Stephen’s body out of the house. RCMP Sergeant Lawson watched the men. He stared at the burnt-out house and the realtor’s sign hanging by one of the hinges. It squeaked in the wind.

  “Well?” Lawson asked the coroner, a tall man named Orson, as he walked out of the house.

  “I would say he died of shock from his injuries.” He paused before continuing. “Funny, he was wearing the same colour of lipstick that the young Walker lady used to wear all the time. Neon green or something like that.”

  Lawson nodded as Orson got into his van and drove away. He turned to the graveyard and spotted Rhonda Walker walking amongst the headstones. She turned and gave him a knowing look before vanishing into the mist.

 

 

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