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Michael rolled on top of her. "What phone calls?"
J. R. "Bud" Montgomery had three jobs to go to before he could call it a night. Then there was his mother, who had called demanding he come over to her house to clean up the trash some dogs had knocked out of her cans and scattered all over her side yard. The last thing he needed to do was waste his time giving an estimate to some hotshot interested in renovating a private grotto. Yet here he was, following a rich man he'd met outside a bar into someone's backyard.
Bud couldn't figure out exactly how the guy had convinced him to check out the job, but he'd certainly been persuasive.
"It was created by an itinerant artist," the potential client told him as he led Bud through a gate and onto the expansive lawn behind the large white house. Beyond the grass ran the charcoal-dark waters of the Intracoastal Waterway. "His granddaughter inherited it but she only comes to Florida in the winter. Over the years I fear she has sadly neglected it."
Bud wasn't even sure he knew what a grotto was. "My men renovate the insides of homes and businesses, Mr…" He stopped when he realized the other man had never mentioned his name.
"Mr. Hughes." He scanned the yard, which was crowded with odd-looking plaster statues surrounding a pond. "Is this grotto some sort of shed, or what?"
"It is one man's homage to the Word and the Light," Hughes said. "Come, I will show you what this gifted pilgrim did in the name of God." He moved toward the pool.
Another wacky religious fanatic. Probably a Jehovah's Witness, Bud thought as he checked his watch. His mother would start calling his cell phone to bitch at him at any second, and she wouldn't stop until he pulled into her driveway. He hated going to her house; hated the stink and the way her neighbors stared at him. Then there was the daily hour of cleaning up after the cats.
Baker, the neighbor with the dogs, had already threatened to report Nancy Montgomery as an animal hoarder. Bud knew Baker was right—his mother had been compulsively collecting cats ever since his father had died—but as long as she didn't abuse them, he didn't see the problem. So she had thirty-some-odd cats living with her. She kept them inside; they didn't run wild around the neighborhood. He just wished that she weren't so cheap, and that she'd clean up after the damn things herself. He hated scooping out the shit boxes just to save the stinking litter.
He needed to get to his mother's, but he couldn't walk off after he'd promised the rich guy he'd take a look. With a heavy sigh he trudged across the neatly mowed grass to the pool.
The stink of stagnant water reached Bud before he saw that the pool was filled with weeds and black, algae-scummed water. "Hey, they need to clean this out right off," he told Hughes. "Open untreated water like this is a breeding pit for mosquitoes."
"I will suggest it to the family," Hughes said. "What else do you see here, Jason?"
The statues were all of naked men and women. Bud smirked when he saw how small the male statues' cocks were. "Bunch of Roman stuff, right?"
"Actually they are copies of many famous Grecian sculptures. See how cleverly the artist used real objects to adorn the statues? Take this sword." Hughes removed a long, rusty blade from the hand of a naked, blank-eyed warrior. "Go ahead; you can't hurt it. Take it."
Bud didn't want to touch the grody old thing, but found himself holding the handle of the sword, which felt heavy enough to be made of concrete. Uneasy, he held it away from his body. "Cut yourself with this baby, you're gonna need a tetanus booster," he tried to joke.
"True men always carried swords in ancient times," Hughes said. "When they confronted evil, they cut off its head. Unfortunately there were always those who thought they could escape justice. That is the odd thing about justice, Jason. It always catches up to you."
The sword wasn't all that rusty, Bud thought, examining it a little closer. A good scrub with some steel wool, a minute or two on the bench grinder, and the blade would shine like silver. And were those jewels around the handle? Damn if they weren't.
"Yeah, I guess." His cell phone rang, startling him, but the noise faded out almost immediately. "I've got to get going soon." He reached down absently to switch his phone to silent and looked around the quiet little pool. "So what do you need done here, Mr. Hughes? You can have a landscaper clean the pool and scrub up these statues, you know."
"It is so much more than that. You see, I want the ghosts of neglect and cruelty banished forever." A shadow passed over Hughes's handsome face before he smiled again. "You know about ghosts, Jason. Unless you do something about them, they never leave you."
He could sympathize with the rich man on that score. Bud had been living under the grinding weight of his father's ghost for twenty years. "Well, if it's haunted, maybe you should get a priest over here, you know, to bless the place. Then call the landscaper."
Hughes shook his head and sat down on a bird-shit-spattered marble bench. "I think it's better to make a clean break with the past. Demolish it instead of patching and fixing it the way you do."
"Hey, my father started this business," Bud told him, feeling a little defensive now. "I just inherited it and kept it going to make my mother happy." He wondered if he could take the sword with him. His cousin Juana was a jeweler; she could pry out the dark stones and replace them with glass. "I really don't see any work that I can do for you, but let me take this blade to a friend of mine and see what he thinks."
"I can't do that, because you're a thief, Jason," Hughes said. "How many years have you been cheating your customers? Doing substandard work with inferior materials while you charge them for the best grade? How often have you cheated your employees by shorting their paychecks, and firing them if they protested?"
Every word hit him like a fist. How could he have known?
"It was my father that did it." Bud felt tears of anger and frustration stream down his round cheeks. "I've been working night and day since I was sixteen, trying to keep the business from going under, cleaning up his mess."
"You wished to keep your mother in comfort as your father had," Hughes said. "All of those cats of hers cost a great deal. You liked the money as well."
"I'm a fair businessman. There are worse guys out there than me. Why shouldn't my mother have some pets? She's old. She needs the company." Bud wiped the snot from his nose onto the back of his hand. "I'm not a bad guy. I've never had a job flagged for code violation. Not once."
"You are a bad man, a thief. You run a dishonest business to pay for luxuries for a mother who has never loved you the way she loved your father." Hughes rose to his feet. "Your father, who thought you were weak and useless. Your customers know what you have done to them, Jason. They are going to take everything you own and put you in prison."
Panic filled him in a hot, loose flood. "No. That'll kill my mother. They can't."
"God has been waiting for your prayers, Jason. He wishes to forgive you your sins. Why haven't you prayed?"
He was sobbing now. He could hear himself doing it, like a little girl. Quit your squalling, his father used to scream at him. I'm not raising a fucking little girl. "I don't know. I don't know how." The glowing sword in his hand made him squint. "Help me."
Hughes put his hands on Bud's shoulders. " 'And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched.' "
Bud looked into Hughes's kind eyes. The man was a total stranger, and yet he had revealed so much to him. "That's it? That's all?"
Hughes nodded and led him over to the marble bench. "Here, my friend." He guided Bud to his knees and placed his empty hand on the flat marble surface. "Remove that which has done sin, and rid yourself of the ghosts of your past."
The sword was heavy as Bud lifted it, but he knew that would help make it fast and clean. When Hughes stepped out of the way, he brought it down with a quick chop.
Bud screamed as he watched the sword and his severed hand roll off the marble bench to fall into the grass. "My hand. Oh Jesus oh God no my hand, my hand." He seized his wrist and howled as the skin shifted around the raw, spurting stump.
"You have cut off what has offended thee, Jason." Hughes sounded proud. "Now you can renew yourself and your soul, and ask God to wash away your sins." He gestured toward the filthy pool.
"Shut up, you hear me? Just shut up." Bud panted through the pain as he jerked off his tie and used it to make a tourniquet. "How did you do this to me? I swear to God, I'm gonna take that pigsticker and cut your fucking heart out."
"You will not humble yourself before the Almighty." Hughes stepped out of reach. "You might have purified your soul, but now the evil spills from your very lips."
Bud felt the strange, dragging sadness come over him again. "No."
Hughes picked up the sword and wedged it horizontally between two of the statues. "You know what you must do now."
Blood still dripping from his wrist stump, Bud unwillingly rose to his feet. "No. Cut it out." Something inside him made his legs move backward, putting distance between him and the glittering, beautiful sword. "Why are you doing this to me?" he shrieked just before he began to run toward the blade.
"He did this to you," Hughes said, watching as Bud ran past him.
The blade didn't hurt Bud. He had run into it too fast, and the edge was too sharp. It hurt for only a moment, as it cut into the front of his neck.
Bud didn't think much in that last instant. He only felt relief, and a small amount of satisfaction in knowing that from now on his mother would have to clean up after the damn cats.