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In his bedroom, one of seven in the sprawling suburban Chicago mansion, Henry Farcas perched on a stool in front of an easel. A copy of Rembrandt’s “The Stoning of St. Stephen” sat propped on a table just beyond the easel, and Henry’s eyes moved from it to his canvas, back and forth, again and again, trying to steady a shaky hand, duplicating every detail in the intricate scene of the masterpiece.

The sound of someone turning the knob of the locked door sent his heart racing. The angry pounding that followed stole his breath.

Henry! Open this door!” More pounding. “Henry!”

Struggling to breathe, Henry did the relaxation exercises the doctor taught him, sucking in the deepest breath he could through pursed lips, pushing it out fast. “Malachi, what do you want?”

I think you know very well what I want! Now open this door!”

Henry slid from his stool and stepped uneasily to the door where he turned the lock and felt it burst open, knocking him backward. Malachi’s anger showed in his blazing eyes and his finger poking his brother’s chest hard enough to push him backward several more steps. “Don’t you ever lock me out of any room in my house again, you understand?”

Henry nodded and hurried to his stool, then had a troubling thought. “What about the bathroom? Can I still lock the bathroom, Malachi?”

His brother raised his eyes to the ceiling. “God, give me strength. Yes, Henry, you can still lock the bathroom.”

Henry hopped up onto his stool and touched his brush to the palette. Malachi objected. “No, no, no, put down that brush and listen to me.”

Henry did.

A man just delivered this.” Malachi waved a piece of paper in his younger brother’s face. “You knew it was coming. That’s why you locked yourself in here, isn’t it?”

Henry managed a timid nod.

Who is this Red fellow? Phillips says he was a rather large oafish-looking person.”

Henry took in a deep breath and pushed it out. “No, that’s his friend Jake.”

Then, who is Red?”

He’s a man I met in line at the grocery store.”

I mean, what does he do?”

I believe he calls himself a booker.”

You don’t mean bookie.”

Henry nodded vigorously. “That’s it. Bookie.”

Malachi sighed, eyes on the letter’s childish-looking printing. “Well, that explains the vagueness of this thing. Nothing incriminating.” He returned his eyes to his brother, feeling the usual blend of disappointment and irritation. “So you’re gambling?”

I guess so.”

Oh, for God’s sake, Henry.” Malachi threw himself into a nearby chair. In contrast to his brother’s slight build and meek nature, Malachi cut a portly figure. The only things the brothers had in common appearance-wise were their aging faces and gray hair, Henry’s full, Malachi’s thin. “It says you owe him over two thousand dollars. Is this true?”

Henry shrugged. “I didn’t really keep track.” He wanted badly to pick up his brush but when he reached for it Malachi shouted at him.

Pay attention to me! So you very well could owe this guy over two thousand dollars?”

Henry nodded.

What were you gambling on?”

Well, you pick a number and if it comes up the day you pick it, you win. It has to be three digits, like nine-three-nine or five-two-six--”

I know what three digits means, Henry.”

I was confused at first, but Red told me to use things like my birthday, or a number I might see during the day on TV, or on a sign, or something.”

How long have you been doing this?”

Two weeks.”

Malachi’s face flushed, but anger only caused Henry to retreat into a shell. He counted to ten. “Two weeks. Two thousand dollars in two weeks?”

Looking much like a fish, Henry sucked in another deep breath and replied, “You’d be surprised how many numbers you see in a day, Malachi, if you look for them.”

I’m sure.” He sighed again. “And how did you decide how much to bet?”

Red helped me with that. I couldn’t decide.”

Malachi leaned forward in the chair, bending his head down to meet his knees for a few seconds. “Honestly, Henry,” he said after straightening up, “I just don’t know what to expect from you next. I give you a good home here. A good allowance--although we may have to revisit that--and you repay me with this kind of stuff.”

Loathing confrontation, Henry did his breathing exercise and listened. He wanted Malachi to leave, so he could get on with his painting. From experience, he knew listening worked. Listening and agreeing.

OK, Malachi. It’ll stop.”

Yes, it will. As will your habit of striking up conversations with every Tom, Dick and Harry. This Red fellow saw what you were, Henry, and took advantage of you. The world is full of people who will take advantage of you.”

I’m just looking for friends, Malachi. People never talk to me, so I have to talk to them.”

Malachi stood and approached his brother. “Well, you think you’d learnt by now. You remember your homeless friend who stole all your watches? And your friend on the bus who you trusted to carry your packages for you and then ran off with them.”

And now this particular friend says he’s holding me responsible for your debt.” He thrust the sheet in front of Henry’s face and pointed to the capital letters: “YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE!”

I told them I didn’t have that amount of money.”

And what about this PS. ‘Pay by this time tomorrow. Ask your brother what will happen to you if you don’t.’ So, Henry, tell me what will happen to me?”

Henry thought for a second then shook his head. Not worth mentioning, it could delay Malachi’s leaving. “I don’t know, Malachi.”

Well, it doesn’t matter because he’s getting no money out of me. I’ll go to the police if he tries anything.”

Malachi started for the door and paused to eye Henry’s work. “God didn’t give you much, Henry, but he sure did give you a marvelous artistic talent. I still say you should quit copying things, and do some of your own.”

It wouldn’t feel right, Malachi,” Henry said. “I’d be nervous. This gets my mind off things.”

Henry watched his older brother’s stout frame disappear through the ornate door, pulling it closed behind him. Filling his brush with fresh paint from the palette, Henry resumed his work, thankful it was over, able to breathe easily again. He would have told his brother what Red intended to do if he didn’t pay, but Red was sort of a small man. How hard could he possibly whack someone?



Award-winning fiction writer

Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition (2019) Honorable Mention

88th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition (2019) Honorable Mention, Short Story

A former newspaper journalist now freelancing, I have had several nonfiction stories bought for publication, posted or accepted for distribution by news services.


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