The More Dangerous Game
Part Two of Three
The thriller that began in Issue 16 continues…
Melissa stared at the severed tip of Scott’s pinky finger as she held it up to eye level. She was trying very hard to maintain control of herself, and was actually a little scared of what losing control might mean for her at a moment like this. Would she giggle? Cry?
At the sound of metal-on-metal her focus snapped back to Scott. His injured left hand clutched a dishtowel that was already saturated with bright blood. His right hand had grabbed a large carving knife out of the dish rack by the sink. Ah, there we go, Melissa thought. Not running, not crying for help, but reaching for a weapon. A Rainsford, all right.
Scott blinked away the tears of pain. He had been hurt badly exactly three times in his life: a compound fracture of his leg when he was eight (swingset accident), a bad blow to his head in college that had broken his jaw and several teeth and sent tiny fractures up into his occipital bone (car crash), and just now, when this dark-haired, spooky girl—with whom he had hoped he was making some progress romantically—had said, out of the blue, “I’m afraid it just wouldn’t work out between us, Scott,” and cut off the tip of his finger.
They had met at the coffee shop a few blocks away. Scott went there most Saturday mornings to caffeinate, read the paper, and do the crossword. She had leaned over his shoulder and said, “Six down, ‘Exile Island’? It’s Elba. You know, the place they stuck Napoleon.”
It was what they called in the movies a “meet cute.” Meeting a girl in the coffee shop was something Scott always had in the back of his mind when he went there—or a bar, or a bookstore. And she was pretty, slim with straight black hair. The sort of girl, he thought, who didn’t need to go up to a strange man and start a conversation.
But she had, and she’d made the conversation easy on him. She had steered it toward history and was delighted – delighted! – to discover it had been his major in college. She had laughed at his jokes and once, when he had said something about Tallyrand, she had touched his arm lightly as she nodded her head in agreement.
She had an alertness, a quickness about her. And she carried herself like a queen. He could tell from the way she sat in her chair, from the way she held her coffee cup, from a thousand little things that she’d been brought up in a house where manners were taken very seriously.
Before he knew it he had a date for that night. He spent the next several hours running errands and puttering around his apartment, happy and excited. Later, as he got ready, he said those things to himself that people say to keep from getting their hopes up. It won’t go anywhere. She’s gotta be on the rebound from another relationship. With my luck, she has to be some sort of psycho.
That last one gave him the briefest moment’s pause…
Scott’s last long-term relationship had ended more than a year ago. Since then he had dated only five women, most of them only once, none of them more than four or five times—never so long that the break-up required anything more than the most cursory motions to complete.
Three of those encounters could only be called disasters—gnaw-your-own-arm-off-to-get-away-from-the-person-type disasters. But the funny thing, Scott thought to himself as he shaved, was that the disasters rested easier in his memory than the other two. His times with those two women had been awkward, stammering things that had finally spiraled down into excruciating silences. The disasters he could blame on a specific defect, either in himself or the other person. But the other two, those left him wondering if a meaningful connection with a woman was even possible.
They met back at the coffee shop and walked to the restaurant.
“Have you lived in the city long?” Scott asked.
Melissa shook her head. “I just got here.”
“Wow,” said Scott, who thought he had heard faint traces of a foreign accent in a few of her long vowels. “Were you born there?”
“Nah,” she smiled. “I was born in the Bahamas, but I did my growing up all over.”
“Family in the military?”
Her eyes fairly sparkled. “You could say that,” she replied, after a beat or two passed that made Scott wonder if he hadn’t asked a somehow sensitive question.
They had Italian, and for the duration of the meal Scott avoided mentioning families or the military. They talked books and movies, touched on politics, and then by some effortless alchemy of the moment found themselves in an easy back-and-forth conversation that meandered from topic to topic without any set expectations—the sort of conversation that for Scott normally took weeks, if not years, of getting to know someone:
“…the hippos were always my favorite animal at the zoo…”
“…no, the line is ‘the quality of mercy is not strained,’ not ‘stained’…”
“…and the bartender says, ‘What is this? A joke?’…”
“…then you just drizzle the melted gorgonzola all over the spinach…”
How, Scott wondered, could it be so easy? The answer, obviously, was sitting across the table from him. She seemed so open, so direct, and so genuinely interested in him, Scott. In fact, she had hardly broken eye contact for the entire meal. And once or twice she had given him a smoldering look he thought could only be a come-on.
Melissa did find him fascinating. She couldn’t help looking for answers to her big questions. Just how fast might he be? Just how strong? How ruthless? What tolerance did he have for pain or despair?
And once or twice Melissa shifted her grip on her steak knife and focused all her attention on the side of Scott’s neck where the thought she could just make out the pulsing of his carotid artery. I could do it—she found herself thinking—I could do it from right here and be halfway to the door before a single person in this place could open their mouth to scream.
After dinner there was coffee and small glasses of grappa, then a leisurely walk, heavy with food, buzzing with excitement, during which they brushed occasionally against one another as they walked. Somehow they ended up back at Scott’s apartment building, and then in Scott’s apartment. Scott worked up his nerve and made his move, slipping a hand around her waist.
“So,” he asked. “Where do you see tonight going?”
Melissa had smiled then. He was just so sweet. “I’m afraid it just wouldn’t work out between us, Scott,” she said. Melissa had pulled a stiletto from her handbag while he had been distracted with her waist, and, just as puzzled disappointment over her answer registered on Scott’s face, she neatly sliced off his pinky finger.
“Fucking crazy bitch!” Scott screamed in pain and disbelief. “What the fuck did you do?”
“What I was born to do Scott,” said Melissa, “what we were born to do.”
“Out!” Scott said, brandishing the carving knife. “Get the fuck out now or so help me—”
“If I leave now,” Melissa purred, “you’ll never know what your great-grandfather Sanger said to your father, Ed, over the grave of your grandfather, Lt. Aaron Rainsford.”
Scott’s brain tripped and stumbled trying to catch up. “How?…How do you know about that?”
“Well,” said Melissa as she moved to keep the kitchen table between them, “partly I know because my father was in the crowd at your grandfather’s funeral that day and wrote about it in his diary. August 4, 1968. A Tuesday.”
Scott began to feel very cold.
“But mostly,” Melissa continued, “I know because I’ve been tapping your phone the last couple of days. I heard you talking with your mom.”
“Why have you been doing that?” asked Scott, the words dropping hollow from his mouth.
“The same reason my father went to your grandfather’s funeral, all those years ago. The same reason my grandfather once spent two days torturing an army supply clerk who was in the same platoon as your grandfather at Anzio. Because my family has a long-standing interest in your family.”
“The bullet,” Scott said dumbly, as much to himself as to her, “you’re the one who left the bullet.”
Scott had grabbed the knife to keep Melissa at bay. Now he wondered if he would actually be able to use it. To kill her with it. He outweighed her by perhaps 30, 40 pounds… but there was something about the way she was standing, like a ballerina poised to move, that made him think twice about trying. So he tried to keep her talking.
“Sanger. It started with Sanger, didn’t it?” Scott asked.
“Yes. With him and with my great-grandfather, General Alexis Orgulovitch Zaroff. They had a happenstance meeting in 1927, and they ended up playing a game together. And our two families have played it ever since.”
“Why is this the first I’m hearing of it?”
“Because your father wouldn’t listen to his grandfather, probably. Because he thought it was the demented raving of a very old man at the death of his only son. He probably didn’t believe himself until the very end.”
“What did he tell my father that day?”
Melissa smiled and ignored the question. “The rules are simple. For the next three days you hide, and I seek. First day has to be hands-on. A knife, or some such.” She carved a brief arc out of the air in front of her. “Second day is medium-range. Handgun, maybe crossbow if I’m in the mood.”
“What. Did he tell. My father.” Scott practically spat the words.
“Third day is anything goes,” Melissa finished brightly. “If I kill you I win. If you live you win. Simple?”
Scott tried a lunge towards her, but hesitated at just the last second. Melissa took a dancer’s step backwards and tossed his fingertip back to him in a lazy, graceful arc. His injured hand caught up in the towel, Scott by reflex dropped the knife to grab his missing chunk of flesh out of the air. The knife clattered on the floor, and Scott felt sick with dread at having lost his only weapon.
Melissa gave a light, musical laugh and headed for the door. “We start at dawn. Go to the cops, tell anyone, and I’ll just kill that sister of yours instead. Oh, and by the way,” she said, turning back for a moment, “I wanted to thank you for a wonderful evening. I can only hope the next 72 hours are as much fun.”
She put her hand back on the knob to go. From his knees on the kitchen floor, Scott asked one more time, “What did Sanger tell him?” He was startled at the desperation in his voice.
“He said, ‘They’ll come for you too,’” said Melissa, and she shut the door behind her.
To be concluded…