“MAKING THE CUT”
Wayne C. Rogers
Hank Watson threw the mouse angrily at the monitor, knocking everything off the kitchen table with the force of the blow. They fell to the floor and busted into several pieces, but he didn’t give a shit.
He was fuming.
The previous short story was the eighth one he’d sent to Midnight Express magazine during the past two years, and, though it was good, he still hadn’t made the cut. The image of the email with his rejection in it still filled his blazing eyes. Sometimes he just didn’t know what an editor
was looking for. It didn’t matter if he read the magazine or not. The whole thing was reflected on whatever mood the editor happened to be in when he or she read the submission.
But, that was okay.
He had the hard copy of his newest story lying on the table in front of him. He was going to drive over to Dr. Dwight McIntyre’s house on the west side of town so he could deliver it personally to the man. This way he could also ask the owner and editor of Midnight Express why his latest story hadn’t been accepted.
Yeah, kill two birds with one stone.
Getting up from the kitchen table, Hank walked into the bathroom, stepping on pieces of the broken mouse with his old Brogans and crushing them. He switched on the light above the sink and opened the cabinet. Taking out his medication, he removed the lid to the small plastic container and popped two pills, swallowing them dry without water. It usually took fifteen minutes for the medication to calm him down after one of his unexpected rages.
Hank needed to be relaxed if he was going to confront McIntyre with the new story and ask him questions he probably wouldn’t like the answers to.
Straightening his black horn-rimmed glasses that had scotch tape holding them together, Watson gazed at his twenty-five-year-old face with curiosity. People said he favored the writer Stephen King, especially since he wrote horror fiction, too. He couldn’t see the resemblance. Sure he was tall and gangly looking with a mop of black hair on his head that desperately needed cutting, but he couldn’t see what the others evidently did.
Maybe it was his smile.
He had an easy-going smile that allowed people to lower their guards and let him into their lives. That had paid off in more ways than one and had given him fodder for his countless stories of fiction.
Yeah, he was the poor-man’s Stephen King, barely cranking out a living in a used bookstore and struggling to make it as a horror writer. Maybe, just maybe, his bright, cheerful smile would get him inside the house to see the editor. If that happened, the rest would be history, at least in his mind.
Leaving the bathroom, Watson went into the bedroom’s closet and got his long black overcoat. He slipped into it, grabbed his wallet and car keys from the top of the dresser bureau, and then entered the kitchen where his tattered leather briefcase was sitting next to the round kitchen table. He ignored the pieces of computer on the floor. Putting his new story, Making the Cut, into the briefcase, along with another special goodie, he shut it and left the apartment.
His ancient, green Volkswagen Beetle was sitting in its parking space, waiting for a new adventure. Hank climbed into the automobile and prayed it would start as he stuck the lonely key into its ignition and turned it. It took three tries, but the Beetle eventually came to life, its engine coughing sporadically like a tired old man.
The wind was blowing and the evening was chilly on this dark night in February. The wind sent a whistle through the windows of the Beetle as Hank Watson drove over to the east side of town where McIntyre lived. He made it in less than twenty minutes. Even though he wasn’t a college student, Watson knew everything there was to know about the professor of quantum physics at the University of Las Vegas. He’d studied the man for two years, finding out that the professor was definitely loved by his students for making a difficult subject easy to understand. He was admired by the administration for his bestselling books on the Universe and was a long-time fan of horror fiction, being somewhat of an expert on Stephen King.
McIntyre had started publishing Midnight Express several years before and had turned it into one of the country’s best slicked magazines on horror and crime-noir fiction. That was an accomplishment in this day and age of the Internet and e-books. The man had done the impossible, though the magazine barely broke even with each quarterly appearance. McIntyre had kept the magazine going from his own royalties and paid top dollar for fiction, articles, and art work. If a horror writer wanted to see his name on the best publication around, then this was the magazine to do it with. The only problem was that everyone wanted to be in it from the professional writers like King and Koontz, and to the novices just starting out.
Watson had been trying for two solid years to get a short story accepted by the magazine, but all he’d ever received for his trouble was the standard email that said, “Sorry, you didn’t make the cut.”
Well, he was determined to make the cut tonight one way or another.
Slowly entering the neighborhood where McIntyre lived off of Eastern Avenue, Watson passed numerous houses with their lights on. It was a nice neighborhood of one-story homes built with a Spanish motif and arches. The houses probably now sold for a half million or more. He knew the professor, or Doc as he liked to be called, had purchased his home nearly forty years before when the neighborhood was being developed. It had proven to be a sound investment for the professor.
Hank saw McIntyre’s house number and turned into the driveway, parking next to a relatively new Lexus. The car had probably been purchased with his royalties. He knew the professor
couldn’t afford a Lexus, even without a family, and especially on a salary that the university paid to its faculty members. Switching off the engine and getting out of the Beetle with his briefcase, Watson followed the walkway up to the bricked stoop in front of the door.
Ringing the doorbell, Watson waited a few moments and noticed the curtain in the front window moving a little as if someone had been peeking out at him. He pushed the doorbell again and waited another minute. The young writer had just pushed it a third time when he heard a faint voice erupting from inside the house.
“Hold your horses!” a man shouted. “I’m coming.”
The front porch light came on and the thick, wooden door was eased open. A man in his early sixties with his blondish-white hair standing out to the sides, wearing a bathrobe and bedroom slippers, stood there with his body partially covered by the door. He stared silently at Watson through the metal gate.
“Dr. McIntyre?” Watson asked.
“What do you want?” McIntyre said, nodding.
“I wanted to talk to you about the short story you rejected earlier this evening,” Watson said. “I also wanted to give you the hardcopy on my newest story.”
McIntyre sneezed and then pulled out a wad of Kleenexes from the left side of his bathrobe. He blew his already red nose with a loud honking sound that brought an instant smile to Watson’s face.
“Listen, I have the flu,” McIntyre said, ignoring the smile. “I’m not up for entertaining visitors. Besides, if your story was rejected for Midnight Express, it was because I didn’t think it was good enough. I’m sorry to have to say that, but it’s the truth. Now, please go home whoever you are.”
“My name’s Hank Watson,” the writer said. “All I need is fifteen minutes of your time.”
“Did you not hear anything I just said?” McIntyre asked, sneezing again and blowing his nose. This time the noise sounded like a fog horn going off in a deep-water channel. “I’m sick, Mr. Watson, and I don’t feel like seeing anyone.”
Hank gave the professor his Stephen King smile and said once again, “Just fifteen minutes, Dr. McIntyre. That’s all I’m asking for.”
Titling his head to the side as if he was viewing a newly discovered species, McIntyre gazed steadily at the young man with sudden interest. His eyes gradually widened a bit as he unexpectedly realized something.
“You look an awful lot like Stephen King,” he said. “Has anyone ever told you that?”
“Yes, a few times.”
“Okay, I’m going to give you fifteen minutes,” the physics professor said.
“Thank you, Dr. McIntyre.” Watson watched as the professor opened the gated door for him. He then stepped into the foyer and waited for McIntyre to shut both doors and relock them. “I appreciate what you’re doing.”
“Call me Doc,” the professor said, leading the way into the warm living room.
There was a flat screen television on the wall that faced the front of the house. A relatively new episode of The Walking Dead was playing as Darryl shot an arrow from his crossbow into a zombie’s forehead. McIntyre sat down on the couch behind a coffee table that had several copies of Midnight Express on top of it. Then, lifting up a bowl of what appeared to be chicken noodle soup, he spooned some of its contents into his mouth as he watched Rick shoot three zombies with his Colt Python revolver.
“Are you a fan of The Walking Dead?” Watson asked as he strolled over to the bookcases lining the wall on the left side of the couch. “That’s one of my favorite programs.”
“Yes, I record The Walking Dead and then watch the shows during breaks in my schedule,” McIntyre said, sipping more soup. “Right now I’m home with the flu and have few days off. So, I’m catching up on it.”
Watson examined the hundreds of books on the shelves, leaning his head to the side so he could easily read the titles. The first bookcase seemed to hold nothing but horror novels by authors such as King, Robert McCammon, Dean Koontz, Joe Lansdale, and Dan Simmons. There were other authors like Mick Garris and John Everson and Bently Little. Some Watson recognized; some he didn’t.
“Are these first editions?” he asked.
The professor turned around on the couch and stared at Watson.
“Yes, they are,” he stated.
“Most of them have been signed by their authors.”
“You’re running out of time, Mr. Watson. I know you didn’t drive over here to talk about my book collection. I now remember the rejection I sent you this afternoon. You live on the west side of town, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do,” Watson said.
“If I remember the title of your story correctly, it was The Hunt.”
“I actually enjoyed the story. It had a nice little twist at the end that made me laugh.”
“Then why didn’t you buy it?” Watson asked.
“Because the story wasn’t a right fit for the magazine,” McIntyre said. “You’re a good writer, and your stories are getting better.”
Setting his briefcase down, Watson opened it and took out the clipped pages of his new story. He carried it over to the professor and held it out to him like an offering.
“Please,” he said. “Could you read it and tell me what you think?”
“This is rather unusual.”
“I know, but the story’s only eleven pages long.”
McIntyre glanced at the pages in Watson’s hand and slowly shook his head. “I can’t,” he said. “Send me the story the next time Midnight Express opens up for submissions, and I’ll read it then.”
“Please,” Watson begged.
“I really want to finish watching The Walking Dead.”
“You can get back to it in a couple of minutes.”
McIntyre suddenly noticed that Watson’s eyes were filling up with tears. Against his better judgment, he took the offered pages. He turned back around on the couch and picked up the remote from the coffee table, clicking off the television with an audible sigh of frustration. Getting as comfortable as possible on the couch, he glanced back at the young man.
“This had better be damn good,” he said.
Removing the paperclip, Dr. McIntyre began to quietly read the first page of the story.
While the professor worked his way through the page and then the next one, Watson stepped back over to his briefcase and removed his special goodie. He kept the object down by his leg as he returned to the couch. Eyeing McIntyre’s back, he wondered if he should wait until the story was finished, or give the professor his unique gift now.
Decisions…decisions, he thought.
“I like it,” McIntyre said. “One suggestion.”
“I would kill off the editor in the final scene.”
“Really?” Watson asked.
“Absolutely,” the professor said as he stood up and stared at the manuscript. “That would be a twist the reader wouldn’t see coming. Do that and I’ll publish your story in the summer issue of Midnight Express.”
“You serious, aren’t you?”
“As serious as a heart attack,” McIntyre said, raising his head to look at the young man. He saw the butcher’s knife in Watson’s right hand and smiled. “What do you plan on doing with that?”
“I’m going to put your idea to the test and see if it works.”
“You’re going to kill me?”
“When I’m getting ready to accept your newest story?” McIntyre asked.
“Well, you know that old saying, don’t you?”
“Never bring a knife to a gun fight,” the professor said as he pulled out a small Smith & Wesson Chief Special from his bathrobe’s right pocket. He cocked the hammer back on the .38 and then stared nonchalantly at the writer. “I knew you were trouble the moment I laid eyes upon you from the window. Jesus, you look as crazy as a goddamn ding bat.”
“I’m not crazy,” Watson said.
“Of course you are.,” McIntyre said with a chuckle. “Sometimes it takes one crazy person to recognize another.”
“Are you crazy?”
“I’m as nutty as a fruit cake, son.”
Watson didn’t know what to say.
“Drop the knife and step over to the bookcase closest to the entertainment center.”
For a moment it looked as though Watson was going to hop the couch and make a play for Dr. McIntyre’s handgun. He measured the distance to the professor in his mind and figured it would take less than three seconds to reach him.
“You won’t make it,” McIntyre said calmly.
Watson had to admit the UNLV professor was probably right. He dropped the knife to the floor. Then, turning around, he walked over to the bookcase, wondering what McIntyre was up to.
“At least I got to see your book collection,” he said.
Dr. McIntyre ignored the statement and said. “I want you to tilt the top of the novel, Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, towards you.”
Watson found the book on the fifth shelf down, at the beginning. Tilting the top of it forward, he heard a grinding noise as the left side of the heavy bookcase rotated outward on a hidden axis. It eventually stopped to reveal a secret passageway in the wall.
“There’s a light switch inside the entrance,” McIntyre continued.
Watson reached in and flipped the light on. He saw a flight of stone steps leading down to the basement.
“Go on and don’t try anything funny. I’ll be right behind you.”
Entering the passage, Watson went down the stairs, taking in the bright-lit, sterile-looking room below. He saw an expensive Barcalounger in the center, next to a lovely wooden end table. On the right side of the room was a handcrafted, antique bureau with two drawers, resting on high curvy legs. Countless framed photographs of beautiful women were on the left, center, and right walls of the room. In fact, as Watson stepped down into the basement and walked over to the back of the Barcalounger, he saw that all of the women had black silk stockings tied tightly around their necks and appeared to be dead.
“Who are you?” he asked, glancing at Dr. McIntyre.
The professor walked over to where he was standing and smiled. “I’m a person of many talents,” McIntyre said.
“What are you going to do?”
Instead of answering the question, McIntyre moved over to the left wall and twisted the first photograph slightly to the right. “My mother,” he said with pride. The wall opened inward, revealing another hidden passage. The professor reached inside the opening and turned on the inner light. “This way, please.”
“What if I don’t want to go in there,” Watson said.
“If I’m going to be your mentor, then you have to trust me and do as I say. To do otherwise is to insure we get caught sooner or later.”
“My mentor?” the young man asked.
“Yes,” McIntyre said. “What did you think I was going to do…kill you?”
Watson nodded, noticing how dry his mouth felt.
“This is why you need to be taught the intricacies of murder,” he said. “If I was going to kill you, Mr. Watson, I’d simply put a bullet between your eyes and drag your body into the other room.”
Thinking about what the professor had just said, Watson could see the logic in the statement. He nodded his understanding and made his way over to the opened wall.
“It takes years of training to learn to trust your gut instincts,” McIntyre said as he waited for the man to enter the hidden space. “Right now, I need to show you something that’s very important to not being caught by the authorities.”
“You don’t need the handgun,” Watson said.
“Sure I do, until I know I can trust you.”
Watson shook his head and stepped into the underground cavern. His eyes took in the surrounding rock walls and the old metal grate in the center of the floor that was about two feet by two feet in diameter. He could vaguely hear the sound of rushing water coming from below and wondered what that was about.
“Lift up the grate, Mr. Watson. It isn’t heavy. I want you to see what’s below.”
Stepping over to the grate with curiosity, Watson bent down, grabbed two of its metal bars. He lifted it up, grunting from the effort. The grate was heavy, but he still managed to turn around and set it gently on the rock floor.
“Now, look into the hole and tell me what you see,” McIntyre said.
Watson got down on one knee and glanced into the dark hole. It took several seconds for his eyes to adjust. When they did, he saw a river twenty feet down. The water was running fast.
“That’s one of the underground washes below Las Vegas,” the professor said as he walked over to where Watson was kneeling. “It’s why I originally purchased the house. I used most of my inheritance to build the basement and to drill a large enough hole through the rock to the flowing river below ground. This is the perfect way to get rid of unwanted bodies.”
The young man looked up at McIntyre to ask him a question and felt the revolver strike him hard in the face, breaking his nose and cheek bone.
McIntyre hit him four more times, making sure the lad was unconscious before nudging the body into the hole with his foot. When the sound of a loud splash reached his ears, he bent over and dragged the grate back into place over the hole.
“Never trust what a person says, especially when he’s holding a gun on you,” McIntyre said with a smile. Placing the revolver into the pocket of his bathrobe, he stepped back into his shrine of victims and closed the wall so that the opening was perfectly hidden from prying eyes. The professor then crossed the titled floor and made his way casually up the stairs. Just before he reached the top, he looked down into the room and laughed.
“I guess Mr. Watson finally made the cut after all,” he said.
Later, after Dr. McIntyre had dressed and driven the Volkswagen Beetle over to the MGM’s parking garage with Watson’s briefcase, he left the vehicle with the keys in the ignition, and then walked over to the Tropicana Hotel across the street where he caught a taxicab that delivered him to the front of his house. Once inside, he poured himself a class of white wine, started playing
the music to Bolero on his entertainment center and went down into his hidden basement. He took a seat in the Barcalounger and sat there for an hour, sipping the wine.
The kill had made him feel vibrate and full of energy, like he could do anything within his grasp. It had been too long since his last victim. Maybe he would pay closer attention to the new creative writing teacher on campus. Of course, he’d have to break one of his primary rules if he went after her.
Still, it might be worth it.
He continued to listen to the music as the album drifted in to him from the sound speakers fastened into each upper corner of the room. Gradually, he closed his eyes and hummed the tune to himself, smiling with joy.