How do you cut rose bushes, why do you cut them? What am I doing? These questions ran through my mind as I pretended to know what I was doing. As long as I did my my boss left me alone. This was my third consecutive week as being a gardener/handyman for Arthur DeMarco, and since it was either this or prison I figured it was an easier job than counting days.

I was caught on a burglary rap, and was out on good behaviour. My first real felony and out within six months. Looking back it really wasn’t my fault. I was moving from street to street, and had ended up working out a small-time gig with a friend of mine, Jackson. He was not adept at sneaking, and had the calmness of a bull on acid. Somehow that wasn’t enough of a red flag for me because I’d decided to bring him along to a large estate we’d been casing for a few days as a driver.

That spell ended with both of us getting a year, but while Jackson had ended up tripping off some alarm, and collapsing into some freestanding portrait (why he didn’t stay in the car is beyond me) I’d managed to escape and was a mile away when the cops had picked me up. The irony being that the place I’d looted was only a few streets away from where I now resided, gardening, for some rich, pompous fool.

Cassidy DeMarco, his daughter, was something I didn’t imagine being thrown into the pot. I’d looked at this job as a way of rehabilitation, but sooner or later I imagined I’d be back inside. Straight-living wasn’t exactly getting me anywhere except a one-bedroom apartment and a clock I was counting down until I decided to just stop breathing. That had been until I’d met Cassidy—slim, blond, but more between her ears than I’d expected at a first glance. She was enticing to me if not for obvious reasons.

She’d approached me in the garden on my third day here. I imagined I just struck accord with her because I was tall, had tattoos, and was the last person her father wanted her to be near. I wasn’t exactly sure which part of that interested her most, but then again, I didn’t understand women who were younger than me, or older, or the same age for that fact.

“So where’d you serve?”

“I’m sorry?” I asked, looking over a bush—it was green, that’s all I knew.

“Where. Did. You. Serve? It’s a simple question, dude,” she replied, coyly twirling a strand of her hair.

“I don’t know what you mean. I’m just the gardener.”

“Dad likes hiring ex-convicts. He says that they’re a misunderstood lot. Some will reoffend, others won’t. He likes you. Says you’ve got the right attitude. Me? I don’t know.”

“Look, I’m working. Can you beat it?”

“Oh, sure. I’ll just have to go look over my dad’s safe-room.”

“Huh?”

“Yeah, his safe room,” she said with a sigh. “Big ol’ room filled with safes. Tonnes of cash, jewellery, and bonds. Enough for somebody with a reputation to steal.”

Her smile reminded me of Jaws. At the time I knew she was just trying to get a rise out of me, that’s how it had started. I lied to myself, pretending I was staying on the straight and narrow. It only took three more conversations before she defeated me and we were enjoying each other.
I was in the large garden shed cleaning up some of the tools I’d used to add compost to a flowerbed, and I’d done a terrible job of it. She’d stepped in wearing nothing but a black bikini, sunglasses, and her hair all tied up in a bun.

“Daddy’s not home,” she’d said.

That was all I needed to hear. For the last three months we’d waited until daddy DeMarco left in his expensive car, and we’d screw each other in the shed, in her bed, and practically everywhere we could. It wasn’t supposed to be anything but mindless fun, her words not mine. The same words she’d say every time I rolled over, and somehow I think she was telling it more to herself than me. God knows I didn’t need to be persuaded otherwise.

I was fond of her. I liked her, but her father would most likely kill me if he found out she was sleeping with an ex-con, hell, an ex-con who was treading a fine line of reoffending. Although Cassidy had more to do with that. The more time we spent together the more she’d crack and spill open every can of beans—from her father, to safe combinations, to family history.

As I got dressed after another greatly spent afternoon, she crawled up to the sheets and said “He’s got a lot of stuff in those safes. You know, we could take a bunch of it and he wouldn’t even notice. And then we could just go somewhere.”

“Somewhere?” I asked, annoyed.

“Anywhere.”

“What, like Mexico?”

“Maybe, yeah. You don’t like the sound of that?”

“Not really. I like America—I like it here. I don’t want to run.”

“You’d rather sit here and stare at bushes all day, huh?”

It was too late. She was already annoyed. “Yeah. I’ve gotta go stare at one now,” I said as I stepped out the door, barely missing a shoe she’d launched at me.

But the thoughts had already set in. Another month down the line and I was finding myself casing the place over, examining all escape routes. At first it was just a harmless exercise to not drive myself crazy with boredom, but the more I thought about it, the more Cassidy explained it, the more we had decided on a simple plan. Arthur DeMarco was an isolated kind of guy anyway so it didn’t have to be on par with anything short of a robbery. We’d wait until he slept, tie him up, and then I’d threaten to hurt his daughter—it was all an act of course. I wasn’t a violent man.

He was old and wouldn’t put up much of a fight, always sporting business-suits and acting like any cliché rich guy would, but Cassidy said he hadn’t worked for years since he’d quit being a lawyer—leaving his work in the hands of younger men. I asked about her mother but she said she’d moved away with her new fiancé a year ago and she hadn’t heard anything besides a few letters disowning her and her father. There was sadness in her eyes when she spoke about it but I told myself to not try and care too much, I end up caring and then things end up crashing down. Another lie I told myself. I was already growing attached enough to her. I didn’t want to see her inside. Poor girl like her, sheltered? She wouldn’t last a week.

A few days had passed but Cassidy hadn’t bothered to meet up with me for one of our sessions in all that time. It was probably paranoia but I’d noticed Arthur watching me a lot more as I tended to the garden. It was a big open area the size of a football field so all I had to do was look busy and he would normally end up walking away. It was like being loomed over. You could always tell when he watched you, his eyes boring a hole in your back.

By the third day of no Cassidy I’d begun to worry. But I couldn’t ask Arthur if he’d seen her. The last time I’d seen her we’d not ended on good terms. One rainy day she had come to the shed, crying. Her eyes were red and as she spoke I felt like I wasn’t seeing that tough rich girl act for the first time. We’d stayed in the shed as the rain poured and I’d made her a coffee and put a blanket around her.

“I’m sorry—I’ve had a bad week and this seems to be the only thing that makes me feel better. Me and dad were arguing, I snapped at him. I just prodded him for fun, you know? Said I’d run away with you but it was all just poison. You know how you get when you’re angry, you just wanna hurt people.”

“That was very stupid of you,” I said as I leaned on the doorway. “That was stupid.”

“I’m sorry, Jon,” she pleaded. “I didn’t mean to—“

I raised my hand. “I need some time alone, alright? You father might end up firing me. I might go back to jail because of this. The plan’s definitely off now.”

“You won’t,” she said as she stood up. I promise you. I’ll talk to him.”

“I think you’ve talked enough,” I shot back. “What a fool I was to get involved in this madness. I wasn’t even sure if I was gonna do it. Who knows what he’s got in those safes—I don’t want to know.”

“He has a big one—a huge one in there but I never saw what he had.”

“It doesn’t matter now does it? Just go,” I said.

I remembered watching her go, vividly in my mind as I stood and looked up at the empty window now. “Jonathan,” said somebody next to me. I caught the yell of surprise quick. DeMarco was outside, walking towards me with a cigarette in his mouth. He was dressed like a sailor; his grey-peppered hair and botox-face was lit up in all its detailed glory.

“Come in, sport. I’ve got us a couple of drinks. I think you’ve earned them—the garden is looking swell.”

“Well thank you,” I said as I took off my gloves and followed him into the house I so rarely entered.

He led me upstairs, muttering about the history of the house, about Cassidy, his wife. In all these things I nodded and tried to keep the conversation to a minimum as I looked over the expensive antiques and portraits that lined the halls. There was a strong smell of peppermint and in the distance there was the haunting, echoing chime of some kind of classical music. Being as common as I was it was either Beethoven or Mozart. That’s all I knew.

Arthur stepped into a large lounge where there was a bottle of Black Label and a bucket of ice laid out on a small glass table between two chairs.

“Take a seat, son,” he said with his arm outstretched to one of the chairs. I obliged as he set about pouring two glasses. “Ice, Jonathan?”

“Uh, sure,” I said. “Are you celebrating?”

“Well, it’s funny you mention that. Because it is a little bit of a thing. Today I celebrate my independence.”

“Okay.” From what?

He slumped down onto the other chair opposite me and took a long, hard sip of his drink without any ice. When he’d finished it he held it up and examined it as he spoke:

“How long have you been sleeping with my daughter?”

It was a simple question, and one I didn’t expect for him to ask. Here we were; two men sitting across from each other with drinks in our hands, shooting the breeze, and this landed on the table. “Is this a joke?” I asked.

Arthur DeMarco was not a man of jokes and I could see this question was lacking a punchline. I watched the surprisingly small amount of wrinkles on his face and set my drink down. I guess now was about time I stopped with all of the lies, about Cassidy, about my plans. Or maybe he was just quizzing me? Feeling his way through and seeing if I was full of it.

“I don’t necessarily think that’s important, Mister DeMarco—“

“Don’t play coy with me, Jon. You and my daughter wanted to gag me, right?”

Damn it. Had Cassidy told him everything? That was women for you—they couldn’t keep their mouths shut when you wanted them to, and would clam up when you didn’t. I bit the inside of my cheek and put my glass down on the table.

“How much did she tell you?” I asked with a sigh.

“My daughter? Hmm,” he folded his leg over his other one and tapped his cheek. “Well, let’s air this all out shall we?” His eyes squinted, his words seeped with venom. “You came here, Jon, with my word to the judge that you were a fine gardener. You were rehabilitated.”

I didn’t respond.

“And you’ve done a fine job of plucking everything worth of value in that garden, nay I say, all my gardens.”

I didn’t respond.

“And here you sit before me—pretending to be a friend, pretending to care about anything other than the contents behind that door,” he said as he looked over to the black door. He wasn’t wrong, not entirely.

“Well,” I said. “What else is there more to say? You’ve got it all figured out.”

I was expecting to hear the sudden distant sounds of sirens but only silence followed as he looked out at the window, listening to the distant muffled sound of birds. I clenched my fists and thought of the escape plan; I could run, I could sprint out of here and never look back. Forget Cassidy, she had made this so much more complicated. I could just run and leave. Mexico was always the first place to go, but damn I hated the heat.

“I wouldn’t run,” said DeMarco. “That’s the last thing I’d want you to do, Jon.”

“So what do you want? You gonna call the cops on me, or is this just some kind of sick thing you enjoy? Doesn’t matter what I say.”

“I do enjoy catching thieves but this is an interesting situation, and I’ve got a better idea.”

I watched him reach into his tweed jacket and clenched. He’s going to shoot me, Jesus Christ. His thin hand raised as he saw me twitch and I held my breath in my throat. When his hand slipped back out there was a thin, silver key between his fingers. I took a second to unclench and he watched me with a sly smile on his face.

“Nervous, Jon?”

“If you’re going to shoot me, at least have the decency to tell me first,” I said.

“Oh I wouldn’t dream of something so easy. So let’s go take a look in that safe you’ve been so obsessed with,” he said as he stood up. “Come now, chop chop.”

I slowly got up and he stepped past me towards the door. The door behind me almost whistled at me. “How far do you think you’ll get?” I heard him say as he put the key into the lock. “Once I call the police and tell them you assaulted me, and did worse to Cassidy?”

“Okay, I get it. Don’t run.”

“Capital. In we go.”

“Why bother?”

“To show you how much time you’ve wasted—your whole life has been a waste, Jon. All you’ve ever done is go in and out of prison, played people, stolen from good, hard-working folk like me. It’s almost like you’ve become addicted to being confined, like it is your only passion. Lord knows there’s none where my daughter is concerned, wouldn’t you agree?”

He was smart but not too much. Cassidy was a sweet girl, and was the one thing I hadn’t expected to grow a rapport with, so how much was I really willing to go through with? A part of me wanted to rob Arthur and run away with her, but another part of me, I assumed the survivalist, wanted nothing to do with her. After this I couldn’t trust her anyway.

“In you go, Jon,” he said and beckoned me in with an arm.

I sighed and stepped into the darkness. When I was fully in the door slammed behind me and I jumped. It was pitch black in here and that just set off my heart again.

“H—hey—what are you—“

“I am in here too,” he said. “Don’t get scared yet.”

“Jesus,” I whispered.

“Feeling stressed? I wouldn’t blame you.”

“Just—“

Lights flickered on overhead, humming with anticipation. In front of me was a thin, small room much more like a hallway. On either side of it were eight safes opposite each other, four by four and at the end was another large, gold and black one with an electronic-lock. I’d seen it before, a Martha 9000—nigh uncrackable. So that’s what Cassidy was talking about. A burglars worst nightmare turned heated dream for me since I’d opened one before.

“Welcome to the inner sanctum, Jon. All my riches are in this room,” said DeMarco as he walked towards the Martha. “Come now. This is all you’ve worked towards, so let’s see what it was all worth, hmm? You’re the only person to step into this genesis of my wealth, just like my father before me.”

I slowly edged forward. I had gotten this far, so what exactly was the problem with going a little further? DeMarco wasn’t the most physically intimidating person, and while I was a little on the thin side I was sure I could easily overpower him if it came to it. DeMarco watched me step forward and then proceeded to type in the code on the safe’s keypad: 12121957.

“My wife. It was her birthday,” he said, a tone of sadness in his voice. “She was the best thing that ever happened to me, and it was such a shame that she did what she did. It’s not every day you come home to realize your wife is having an affair. Of course, Cassidy never knew that. She always thought her mother had just up and ran off. It’s been a hard year for us.”

He slid open the door to the Martha and I gagged. I felt the corrosive stench spread out and then realized I was staring at something I’d never seen before. It was somebody, it used to be somebody—their corpse was a putrid mess of blackened skin, but still enough detail to look almost human. It reminded me of those mummies they’d find in digs in Egypt. Thin silky veils of hair clung to the brown scalp, and the face was contorted in a huge, distorted scream. The walls inside were filled with darkened scratches as if they’d tried to claw their way out, ultimately failing.

I felt the vomit slide up and caught it as I covered my mouth and bent over. Hacking coughs escaped me as I heard DeMarco sigh and tut. “My wife. She was beautiful. Now look at her.”

“You’re sick,” I screamed through breaths. “Let me out. I want out now.”

“But we’re not done here, Jon. You wanted to know what was in these safes, so here you are!” The door to the Martha slammed shut and snapped my attention back to him. The smell subsided briefly and I sucked in more air.

“Just let me go, you sick fu—“

Language, Jon. Now pay attention.”

“Oh Jesus,” I replied, feeling my stomach burning—that lingering rotten smell reminded me of the time I’d eaten two day old chicken salad when I was at Sing Sing and thrown up my guts for another two.

“Here, Jon. The riches of my youth,” said DeMarco as he approached the smaller safe. “I’ve something to show you here.”

I gagged and slowly stumbled to him. He looked at me and then typed in another code in this one: 14101989. With a sly smile he locked his eyes onto mine. “Cassidy’s birthday.”

“No,” I whispered and shoved him back away from the door.

My hands clasped onto the handle and yanked it open. I begged and pleaded it wasn’t her. Please, oh God, don’t let it be true. But when I pulled the door all the way I saw that all the terrors I’d never wanted to see were staring back with cold, lifeless eyes.

Cassidy’s face was twisted and stained with fresh tears. Her blonde hair was caked in crimson from her bloody nails that she’d scratched off trying to escape her confined prison. She hadn’t been gone long, but no air rose in her chest. I stumbled back and let out a faint cry as the wall behind me welcomed me to slide down it.

“She wanted to run away with you, with my money—I could not have that. It seems I’m just surrounded by thieves and liars and always have been. No matter.”

My heart was beating and I could hear it like a heavy drumming thud. My ears felt hot and a tightness went around my head. I couldn’t breathe in here, I couldn’t get out. I saw DeMarco talking with that same shark smile but no noise came as the vomit flowed out of me, and air returned. What kind of sick place had I come to? What kind of man was this? You’re in danger. You have to get out.

I scrambled to my feet in terror and ran for the door. “Come now, Jon.” My hand gripped at the handle but it wouldn’t turn. I jangled it fiercely and then put my shoulder against it. “It’s reinforced. You’ve no chance.”

I turned my back against it and pointed at DeMarco. “You sick bastard. You’re sick. Just let me go.”

“No more sick than you or my wife, or my daughter. I’m the sick one? Me? You disgust me, Jon.”

“Just let me go and I won’t tell anybody, I swear,” I whispered, feeling my head swimming. “Please, just let me go and I won’t.” My stomach burnt and the room had begun to swirl. My vision turned into a funhouse mirror as an elongated DeMarco approached me, and then there was nothing but the welcoming darkness, and the tinny words of a monster who looked just like him.

“Sleep peacefully, Jonathan.”

When my eyes opened for the briefest of moments I believed it had all been a dream, some horrific beast built up in my own mind. But then the muffled words came through.

“Jonathan?”

DeMarco.

“Jonathan, can you hear me in there?”

My head still swam in darkness and I was unsure. He’d locked me in the damn safe-room—he’d—wait. My eyes shot open and my hands felt around in the darkness. I wasn’t in a room, it was too small, too warm with my own condensed breath. I screamed out and then slammed my legs. He’s locked me in. I’m stuck.

“Bitter irony, Jon, my boy. It seems your need for confinement has come to fruition.”

“Please, let me out, please. I’m sorry—I’m so sorry.”

“If sorry was water you’d be an ocean, Jon. Do not struggle. It will take the small air you have left.”

I screamed wildly; begging and pleading to the muffled sounds of his laughter, and then there was nothing but the sudden shortness of air. My heart raced, exhausted, desperately clawing for one more breath to the distant echo of a lock twisting, and then finally my eyelids lowered. I felt the final dot of oxygen slip away and then struggled, choking on the carbon dioxide. My eyes lowered, my heart raced.

I wanted to push, to feel my legs and arms stretch out. But the safe moved around me, encircling me and holding me down like an alligator. My legs went numb, my arms followed. Darkness was all that was left to see as the last thing that came into my mind was the last time I’d seen Cassidy, and the sun. How I missed the sun in those few moments before oblivion sucked me down. They went slowly, and then I was gone.