Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - Pusher by Ben Lee
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A man working for shady gamblers pushes people to do risky things in this thrilling story from television writer Ben Lee.

Pusher

For Joe, the worst part of the job was the glasses.  As he sat at the hotel bar, he tried to keep his gaze on Nancy, the anxious housewife next to him, but his glasses kept sliding down his nose.  They were blocky enough to conceal the tiny camera in one corner of the frame, and the other corner was weighted for balance.  His nose was substantial enough to hold them in place most of the time.  But it was a warm night, and Nancy's last-minute threat to call the whole thing off was making him sweat.  Joe used a cocktail napkin to blot his nose and adjusted his glasses.  The Circle demanded a good view of the action, and part of the Pusher's job was to provide it.

Until she ordered her second glass of wine, Joe was pretty sure Nancy would go through with it.  The first was no surprise.  Nancy had confessed to Joe that on the rare night her husband actually wanted to sleep with her, she depended on a glass of wine to warm up for the occasion.  Her husband could not be counted on to help in that regard.  But by the second glass, she was no longer warming up. 

On the twenty-third floor of a nondescript office building in midtown, members of an exclusive club watched the video feed from Joe's glasses on a flatscreen.  In a spacious lounge offering a full bar, passed hors d'oeuvres, and beautiful catering staff, they gambled on how far one human being could push another.  According to the monitor, the odds of Nancy actually sleeping with a man other than her husband that night decreased from 3:1 to 4:1.  The odds were determined by the Queen, a hedge fund manager that nobody acknowledged as Megan Lowell.  Here in the Circle, anonymity was absolute.  The Circle did not rely on masks or nondisclosure agreements.  It relied on the fact that anyone who violated this policy would offend eighty-five of the richest and most powerful men and women in the country.  In twelve years, the Circle never had a single leak.

The Queen was tall and blonde.  Once a second runner-up for Miss Arkansas, she ran a healthcare fund out of Greenwich that managed billions of dollars in assets.  She took over the Circle after its founding king perished climbing Kilimanjaro.  

Most of the other members also worked in finance.  They thrived on calculating risks and took great delight in watching a smart investment pay off as predicted.  But they liked to believe they knew people just as well as they knew business.  As they watched the video feed of Nancy, squirming on her barstool, in her shortest dress and highest heels, each of them liked to think he knew her, the way he knew people in general and the unwritten rules of the universe, in each case better than anyone else in the room.   

"Forget it, she's out - in her head she's already home, watching Bravo," said Timothy Baxter, who wore the same golf shirt and khakis that he wore to work that day.  Suits were for the seven-figure man.  Men of the Circle made eight or nine at their leisure.  

"Doesn't need her head for what she's about to do," said Scott Hooper, Goldman Sachs.  "What does Her Majesty think?"

"Don't underestimate our Pusher," said the Queen.  "This Pusher can close." 

A digital clock counted down the time remaining.  Five minutes, three seconds.  

   

When Nancy reached for her glass again, Joe stopped her with a gentle touch on the back of her hand.  

"It's a beautiful suite," he said.

"I'm sure it is."

"Gorgeous view, city lights."

"Didn't come here for the view, Joe."

"Didn't come here for the wine."  

Joe adjusted his glasses.  "You came all this way.  Your husband won't be back 'til Tuesday, and that dress --"

"What about this dress?"  

"Wasn't meant to be worn this long."

Nancy gave him a sad smile.  "I can't, Joe."


"We have tears," proclaimed Adam Ratzman, independent investor.

"Fucking short sellers," said Geoff Turnbull, Morgan Stanley.  "Go ahead, bet on failure."

"Five to one," said the Queen.  "The time to watch and wait has passed, ladies and gentlemen.  The game is about to end.  If you want to be among the winners, place your bets with Ashley before it's too late." 

Ashley stood at the end of the bar.  She wore a pixie cut and a bustier.  On the laptop in front of her was an Excel spreadsheet listing everyone's position.   

Hector Sandoval, Lehman Bros., placed a large envelope in front of her.  "Fifteen grand, Pusher closes." 


"Let me ask one question," said Joe.  "How many times has he come home at night with glitter on his suit?"

"I don't want revenge."  She sighed.  "Revenge ends in divorce, and I end up…"

"Like your mother."  Joe knew he was taking a risk bringing up her mother, but time was running out.  "She didn't know what you know."

"And what's that?" she asked.

"That the only one who could ever love you as much as you deserve is you.  Not your husband, not your next husband, not any man.  Not even me."

She looked a little hurt by that, but just the right amount.

"You're the only one who can give yourself what you need.  And you need tonight.  You need it more than food or water.  This night, in this hotel.  You deserve this.  Some people do drugs.  Some people drink.  Some people go to a stripper and forget to dust off the glitter.  You're having a night you will never forget.  And it will keep you going, help you appreciate the things you have and live without the things you don't.  Your mother never had anything like that.  But you will."

"How will I live with myself?" she asked.

"At least you'll be living," said Joe, "which is more than I can say about you now."

Nancy reached for her glass.  Joe allowed it this time.  She took another sip, and turned to him.  "I'm ready."    

"Good," said Joe.  "He's waiting."  He watched her step off the stool, a little wobbly on her heels.  She walked toward the elevator, looking back once to wink at Joe.  But he was gone.


Joe could hear the Circle celebrating his victory when he stepped off the elevator.  Kenji was there to greet him with a lift of his chin.  He was a stocky, Japanese guy with arms as thick as his shaved head.  As he led Joe down a bare hallway, he spoke into an earpiece:  "Pusher's here."  

They stopped at a spacious waiting room with leather chairs.  The Queen entered through a velvet curtain.  

"Nice work tonight."  She handed Joe an envelope and smiled.  

"Your majesty."

"Didn't think she'd ever get off that barstool."

"You didn't bet against me, did you?"

"Do I ever?" she teased.

Joe started to leave.  

"What are you going to do with your winnings?" she asked.  

Joe didn't answer.  

"Stay away from the casinos, Joe.  You want to gamble, do it here."

"Bet's done.  I won."

"I have other bets," she said.  "Other pushers."

"Not as good.  I'll pass."

"Come on.  Numbers on a wheel?  Painted cards?  Dotted cubes?  Boring.  If you want to bet on something, bet on people.  Bet how far they'll go.  Bet on a man's powers of persuasion."

"Or a woman's lack thereof."  He patted Kenji on the shoulder as he left.  


In a loft downtown, Joe walked past the poker tables and the blackjack tables.  Games involving any amount of skill were of no interest to him.  He preferred a game of pure chance.  

"What are you doing here?" hissed the roulette dealer, but she knew the answer.  "Get out before they see you."

Joe pulled out the envelope that the Queen had given him.  "I'd like some chips please."  

"No," she said.  The white ball spun around the roulette wheel.  Landed on red twenty-seven.  Everybody lost.  Everybody but Joe left the table.    

"Fine," said Joe as the dealer picked the chips off the table.  He looked around for something.  There was a half-full shot glass left behind.  He picked it up.  "This represents all the money in that envelope."

He placed the shot glass squarely on eighteen.

The dealer sighed.

"Spin the wheel."    

Joe watched the white ball dance along the spinning spokes.  The image of a car tire came to mind, spinning in vain, searching for a road to tread on.

"Eight…"  The second syllable got caught in the dealer's throat.  "Eighteen!"

The pit boss saw the look on the roulette dealer's face.  He started to approach.  Joe just sat there, stunned.  This had never happened before.  

The dealer panicked.  "I don't know if I even have enough chips to pay that out."

Other bettors gathered around to see what was going on.  One of them was just a kid, a teenager.  He sat next to Joe.

"What are you gonna do?" he asked.  "Cash out?"

It was tempting.  Thirty-five to one.  A payout like that could keep him out of trouble for months, maybe a year.

"Take it.  You're done.  That's not gonna happen again…"  Joe was about to get up until the kid said the magic word.  "No chance."

There's always a chance.  He sat back down.  "Forget the chips.  Let it ride."

"All of it?" asked the dealer.

Joe nodded.  Those who had gathered began to walk away.  It was too painful to watch.  The white ball seemed to dance higher this time, catching air, almost leaping out of the wheel.  Joe imagined the wheel freeing itself from the table, spinning out like a discus, floating out the window into the night sky.  


Having lost everything, Joe returned to the Circle the following night.  The next assignment was the most daring one yet, he was told.  Already the pot had grown to the largest one yet.  The Target was a woman named Diane Smalley, a thirty-five-year old children's book editor.

"What's the Task?" he asked.  

"To kill a man.  Or a woman.  Pusher's choice."

Joe smiled at the Queen until he realized she wasn't kidding.  Then he stood up.

"You've got other Pushers."  He started to leave.

"You're the only one who has the slightest chance of succeeding.  And for that, the Circle will pay a premium."

He knew he should keep walking, but he had to know.  "How much more?"


As he drove home that night, his cell phone rang.  It was his friend Eddie.  They had started as first-year associates at the same law firm a decade ago.  He was a partner now.  

"I've got some contract work," he said, trying to sound cheerful, as always.  "If you're looking."  

"I'm not," said Joe.  

"You sure?  It's a great opportunity…"

He put the phone down and let Eddie keep talking.  His thoughts drifted back to the same memory.  

Joe was exhausted that night, ten years ago, from working on a research memo three days straight.  It was the only reason he allowed Alyssa to drive.  He never let anyone touch the wheel of his BMW.  So when the Jeep Cherokee sideswiped his Beemer that night, his first thought wasn't of Alyssa but the dents in the body, the damage to the engine.  Then he realized the car was still drifting off the road.  It was going over the edge, floating for the longest second of his life, wheels whirring in the cold night air.  

The next three to five minutes, he could not have been thinking rationally.  If he had been in his right mind, he would not have unbuckled his seatbelt without even looking at Alyssa.  There was no way he would have swum through the open window alone.  It was beyond reason for him not to think of his wife until he reached the surface of the Hudson River and breathed in all the air he could.  When his own lungs were replenished, reason finally returned.  It took over, which was just as bad.  He started calculating how fast the car was sinking, how much farther down it must be now, how tired and therefore slower he would be swimming back to his drowning wife.  Besides, Alyssa was a better swimmer than he was.  She swam laps at the Y.  What were the odds she was still trapped behind the wheel?  Was there a chance she was still buckled in?  How much time had passed when it finally hit him, while treading in those moonlit waters, that the slightest chance of saving her was worth the absolute certainty he would die trying?  By the time he plunged back down, he could not even see his precious Beemer.  Whatever chance he had was lost.  

Eddie was the one who came to meet him by the edge of the river that night.  They sat silently together, drinking the cold coffee Eddie had brought, while the search and rescue team lit up the Hudson and dove down to its darkest depths.  

Maybe Eddie felt guilty about how much at a loss for words he was that night.  He seemed to be trying to make up for it.  The last ten years, Eddie was always trying to convince him to do something.  Come back to work, try therapy, see an acupuncturist, go out with the cocktail waitress, take a contract assignment --  

"I've got to go, Eddie.  I'll call you later."

Joe hung up.  He called the Queen.  

"I choose the victim?" he asked.  

"It's only fair," she confirmed.  "I chose the killer.  If she is one, that is."


Joe did his usual research and surveillance.  Her name was Diane Smalley, and she lived in a sixth-floor walk-up in Hell's Kitchen.  He waited outside her apartment the next morning and followed her to the subway station.  

Joe sat on the bench behind her as they waited for the next train.  She stood at the yellow line and craned her neck, looking for the train's lights.  Running late, apparently.  She wore a thrift-store librarian's dress.  Tied her red hair in a bun, revealing a ballerina's neck as pale as a vampire's.  She pulled a CVS bottle from her purse and tapped out a pill into her palm.  Swallowed it without water.  As she started to put the bottle away, she changed her mind.  Popped one more into her mouth.  

She had been working at the same publishing house for six years, but had been promoted only once.  Her office had a window, but she rarely looked outside.  Joe found an unoccupied office across the street.  Pretending to be a writer in need of a desk and some quiet, he bribed the office manager to let him use it for a couple days.  He shut the door and unpacked his binoculars.  

Diane edited books with cute illustrations.  She ate pretzels with mustard for breakfast.  Spent five minutes every hour on Facebook.  She had an eHarmony account.  Twice she brought a coworker in to laugh together at a potential suitor's private message.  For lunch she ate a Chinese chicken salad at her desk and took another pill from her bottle.  She started reading something on her computer with a black-and-white photo of naked women kissing.  Two pages in, she got up to close the door.  Leaned back in her chair.  To Joe's disappointment, all she did was read.  

After work, Diane went to a Japanese restaurant down the street from her apartment.  The hostess of Sho-me Shoyu greeted her warmly.  Diane ordered without looking at the menu.  While she waited for her gyoza dumplings, she sat at the bar and drank a vodka tonic with two limes.  When her food arrived, she gulped down the remainder of her drink and left, saying "see you tomorrow."

    

Joe climbed to the roof of the building next to hers.  Her apartment was on the top floor, and her bedroom window looked out into the alley.  Diane opened it and ate her dumplings at a coffee table while watching Millionaire Matchmaker on an old and boxy TV.  She picked up her phone and made a call.  Nobody seemed to pick up, so she dialed the number again.  Through his binoculars, Joe looked around for a cat and was surprised to find none.  Finally, someone picked up the line.

"Hey, it's me," she said with a smile, which she quickly suppressed.  Her voice carried across the quiet alley.  Whatever the guy said in reply hurt her immediately.  "I know we did, but there's a good reason - Yes, there is!"  She took the bottle of pills and swallowed another.  Joe zoomed in on the label and wrote down the prescription number.  "You took my pot.  I'm entitled to half, and I want it.  Now."  Joe put the binoculars down but kept watching her.  "No, you can't put it in the mail!"  She tried to laugh, but it came out weird.  "Fine, send me the money.  Throw money at the problem, like you always do.  Yes, I will take my drug money in the form of a check, thank you!"

She hung up.  Burst out crying for five seconds and no more.  Stifled it by making a series of strange facial expressions, as if she were picking her teeth with her tongue.  It was an odd thing to witness, especially when she was going for the molars, but it seemed to work.  The tears stopped.  She raised the volume on the TV and watched the rest of Millionaire Matchmaker.

Joe called CVS for a refill of Diane's prescription.  When the pharmacist answered, he asked if he could get a stronger dosage this time.  The pharmacist informed Joe that he's already getting the strongest dosage that Xanax comes in. 

As Joe walked back downstairs, he pulled out his phone and called the Queen. 

"What do you think of our friend Diane?" she asked.

"I think I need to back out."

"No, you don't.  There's more money on the line than we've ever had.  Your cut would increase by an order of magnitude."  

"You think I do this for the money?"

The Queen's response was measured.  "I think you do it because nobody believes you stand a chance."  


The following night, Joe called the Sho-me Shoyu Restaurant and placed a take-out order.  He arrived at the restaurant at six-thirty, and although his order was ready to go, he instructed the hostess not to bring out his food until Diane arrived.  The hostess, a sixty-year-old Chinese woman with a warm smile, laughed at him.  "You love her."  

Joe just nodded and took a seat at the bar.      

Diane arrived at six-forty.  As Joe watched her cross the street and enter the restaurant, he worked up the emotions he needed.  He wasn't a natural actor; he worked at it.

The hostess welcomed Diane as she always did.  Diane ordered her usual with a vodka tonic and sat two seats down from Joe at the bar.  He smiled at her but quickly looked away.    

When the hostess brought his order out, Joe looked at the receipt and pretended to see something wrong.  

"I called ahead and canceled the gyoza."

"You ordered.  You did not cancel," the hostess corrected him.  The smile was gone now.

"You don't understand.  My date backed out.  She wanted the gyoza, not me."

"Too late to cancel now."

"Great," said Joe.  "What am I going to do with all this extra gyoza?"  He turned to Diane.  She was already looking at him, amused.  He looked at her for as long as he could stand without speaking.  It would help, he realized, if she thought she took his breath away at this moment.    

"I just ordered some myself," said Diane.  

"Cancel her order," said Joe.  "It's not too late for that now, is it?"  

The hostess grumbled and went in the kitchen.  Joe moved down to Diane's side and started to unpack his take-out bag.  "I'm Joe."

"Diane," she said, offering her hand.  He made sure that everyone watching through the frame of his glasses got a good look at her smile.    


"Let the side bets begin," said Kent LaBoeuf, Tiger Asset Management.  "Ten grand says he gets in her pants by morning."

"No way, I know her type.  No sex, just whips and paddles.  She's got S&M written all over her," said Reggie Washington, SAC Capital.

Several of the members of the Circle spoke knowledgeably about Diane's sexual predilections, though none had actually met her.  When they grew too loud to hear the video feed, the Queen threatened to throw them out.

"The Task at hand is not sex," she reminded them.  "Keep your head in the game, or you might as well hand over your wallet on your way out."


Joe and Diane sat for an hour and a half at the Sho-me Shoyu.  They went through three orders of dumplings, a plate of pan-fried noodles, several vodka tonics, and some mochi ice cream for dessert.  

Joe told her that he worked in accounting.  Diane talked about growing up in suburban New Jersey, hanging out at the bowling alley, the mall, and the tenplex.  She talked about how depressed she was at Cornell until she met the man who would later become her husband.  She talked about writing a novel one day for adults, not children.  Joe listened, nodded, and made all the right empathetic sounds.  Then he suggested they go some place.  He didn't want to be presumptuous, but he wondered if she might be interested in what many considered to be the finest weed in the tri-state area.


They opened the window in Diane's bedroom.  While Joe lit the joint, Diane put on some music.  Breathy female vocals over a melancholy piano.  He looked around again for a cat.  She came back to the window, and they passed the joint back and forth.  The music, the joint, the drowsy look in her eyes:  Joe knew what was coming next.  The eyes in the corner of his glasses were waiting for this moment.  Diane moved closer to him, eyes closed, lips parted.  Joe didn't pull away, but he looked down.  Not what Diane expected.

"Let's take it slow," he said.


"Fuck slow," said Sumeer Patel, Soros Asset Management.

"It's all part of the Pusher's strategy," the Queen reminded him.  "First, he establishes physical attraction.  Then, the more he pushes her away physically and engages with her emotionally, the more attracted she grows.  And the more interested she becomes in doing what he suggests." 

"Attraction, suppressed by friendship, sublimated into action," said Winston Yang, KKR.  

"Fucking quant," said Harold Mykonos, Citibank.   


"I need to tell you something," Joe said to Diane.  "I'm not really an accountant."  He explained that he had served some time in the Marines.  He used the phrase "covert operations," and her eyes grew wide.  He tried to explain, as delicately as he could, that since he left the military, he has applied those skills on a commercial, mercenary level. 

"Are you telling me you're a hitman?" she asked.  She started giggling and couldn't stop.  They smoked some more.  He asked her, hypothetically speaking, whether she ever wanted to kill someone.  Again, hypothetically, without getting caught.  What if the person deserved it?  Isn't it possible that a man could deserve to be killed?

She agreed, yes, it was totally possible.

Joe had done some research the night before.  There was a man who had been convicted of running a child pornography ring.  He had filmed himself with children as young as five years old.  After serving only four years in prison, he got out last month on a technicality.  He was living in Hoboken.  Surely, as a woman who works on children's books, she believed that he deserved worse?

She agreed tentatively.  The man was certainly a scumbag.  "But if I had to kill somebody," she said, "it wouldn't be him."  She finished the last of the joint.  "It would have to be personal."  

Joe tried to steer her back to his line of thinking.  "There's a difference between deserving to die and deserving the wrath of Diane Smalley."

"Perhaps," said Diane.  "But if I had my wish, there wouldn't be."

It was unexpected, but Joe convinced himself this was fine.  The Target had her own Victim in mind.  So what if it wasn't the Victim that Joe had in mind?  If anything, it made the Task easier.  But he had to know more.  He had to know why.

"What did he do, break your heart?"

"For one thing, he raped me," she said.    

She and Patrick had been fighting one night.  About what, she had no idea.  You never remember what started it.  She told him to leave, but he wouldn't.  He said he wasn't finished talking.  She told him to spit it out, and he spit it out, all right, right in her face.  She went after him, clawing his face and neck.  She remembered how delicately he brought his fingers to the wounds on his cheek.  There was something so hatefully feminine about it.  Worse, the expression on his face when he saw blood.  Maybe he could see the contempt she felt.  Maybe that's why he felt the need to correct any impression that he was feminine, by doing the most masculine thing he could think of.

"I thought you wanted to get back together with this guy," Joe said, trying to make sense of what she was saying.  

"What makes you think that?" 

Joe was careful not to admit he witnessed her phone call the other night.  "Just the way you talk about him."

"Maybe I do.  Maybe I did.  Doesn't mean he shouldn't die."  She smiled at the concern on his face.  Laughed out loud.  "You had no idea I was this fucked up, did you?"  


He didn't remember when they fell asleep.  Joe awoke lying in Diane's bed, on top of the covers.  She was sitting up, smoking a cigarette.  It was almost light out.

"You know I was kidding last night, right?" she asked.

"If you say so," he said.  "But if you weren't, that'd be okay, too."  

"If we really did this…" she started to ask.  

Joe grabbed her cigarette and took a puff.

"Not we.  You.  I won't do it for you," he told her.  Those were the rules.  He couldn't perform the Task or even assist.  He couldn't lie, either, about anything but himself.  "But I can talk you through it," he said.  


The next day, texts from Diane trickled in.  Each one appeared simultaneously on the monitors at the Circle.  In every other message, she called the whole thing off.  She could never handle a gun, so forget it.  Joe suggested something quieter, stealthier.  A knife?  She couldn't possibly.  Too much blood.  A hammer?  She remembered the phrase "blunt force trauma" from a TV show.  Too gross, they agreed.  Joe said he knew just the thing:  poison.    

"Or is that too girly?" Diane asked.  

"It's clean, it's safe, it's the smart way to go," Joe typed.  He was starting to believe that he knew what he was talking about.  

She would need an alibi, of course.  Joe asked if there was anything work-related she could be doing.  Something with witnesses who could later testify that she was somewhere far from the victim's house at the time of the crime.  

"He is not the victim," she reminded Joe.  "I am."

They decided she would register for a conference for aspiring children's book authors and illustrators.  She would attend in the morning, right afterward, and nobody would suspect a thing.  


The next morning, they drove to New Jersey in Joe's car.  Patrick lived in a split-level house in Harrington Park.  He had bought it long before he met Diane, and never really made her feel at home in it.  Everything had to be just so.  He was a management consultant with a degree from Wharton.  Handsome and dapper, he was proud of the fact that he was often mistaken for gay.  After he split with Diane, he began seeing a realtor named Claudia.  She moved in two weeks ago.

Diane admitted this wasn't the first time she had parked outside Patrick's house and watched them.  She rented a car just for that purpose.  A couple of times, she admitted.  She was starting to enjoy being able to share her secret psycho side with Joe.  

"What do you get out of it?" asked Joe.

"There's something soothing about it, almost reassuring.  To know she fixes her hair constantly, even when nobody is around.  That she gets her nails done, but never her toes.  She paints her own toes.  I'm thinking her feet are gnarly.  Plus, the one time I saw them have sex, I never saw her on top.  And that was Patrick's favorite position!  I don't think she's in touch with her body.  It's kinda sad, really.  She's got serious issues, don't you think?"

She showed Joe a few photos that she took of Claudia, very casually, as if they were photos of her child or a family pet.  Here's Claudia with her gnarly feet.  Here she is fixing her hair again.  Here, clearly no fun in bed.  

Claudia finally came downstairs, dressed for work.  She went over to the coffeemaker, which looked rather high-tech.  Pulled out a small, pre-packaged, single-serving cup of ground coffee from a carousel rack.  "K-cups," Diane called them.  Within a minute, she filled a travel mug and handed it to Patrick.  They gave each other a quick kiss and rushed to their respective cars.  

When they were gone, Diane sat still in the passenger seat.  

"Say something," she told Joe.

"We don't have to do this," he said.  He thought about stopping there, but the Circle was watching.  "I'll turn the car around, and we can go back to the city.  To the police.  And you can tell them that a man raped you… some time ago.  There's no evidence, no witnesses.  By the way, the man is a white guy from Wharton with no criminal record.  Who dumped you for a hot blonde with bad feet.  Gave you every reason to want to hurt him back."

"If you're saying I made this up to get back at him--"

"I would never say such a thing," Joe told her.  "And I would never rely on the police to give this guy what he deserves."

Diane sat quietly for a moment.  Cursed under her breath and got out of the car.  She went in through the front door.  Still had her old key, and Patrick never got around to changing the locks.  Joe watched through the window as Diane went to the kitchen.  The carousel rack of K-cups was about half full, and it was apparent that they pulled the cups out in order, from top to bottom.  Diane switched out the next K-cup with one that she had in her pocket.  Hers was injected with arsenic.  She didn't say how she got it, only that it's a pretty rad shade of green.  When she came back to the car, having completed her task, she was so excited she kissed Joe on the lips.

"Easy, killer," said Joe as he gently pushed her away.  


The next morning they parked in the same spot and waited again for Claudia and Patrick to come downstairs.  Diane was nervous and punchy.  She kept wishing she had brought popcorn, hoping each time it would make Joe laugh.  He tuned her out and watched.  Claudia came down first, dressed for work, just as she did the day before.  She took a travel mug from the cabinet.  Then another.

"Wait," said Joe, turning to Diane.  "I thought she didn't drink coffee."  

"She doesn't always," said Diane, who didn't seem nearly disturbed enough by this development.  "Only when she's super tired."

"Which one of those mugs is hers?" he asked.

"Hell if I know," she said, growing irritated by his tone.  "I'm not here every day, you know."

Joe watched as Claudia filled both mugs with coffee.  He kept his eye on the first one, the one laced with arsenic, the blue one with fish on it.  Claudia pulled a carton of soy creamer from the fridge.

"She's using creamer!" he said.

"But Patrick takes his black --"

Claudia opened the carton of creamer and started to pour it into the aquarium-themed coffee mug.

"The creamer's for her," he said, starting to panic now.  "She's taking the poisoned one!"

"Would you relax?" shouted Diane.  "I've got it covered."

"What does that mean, you got it covered?" Joe shouted back.

"I switched out the whole top row," she said, rather proud of herself.    

Joe felt a wave of nausea and with it, a sudden sharpness in his vision.  Every wisp of every cloud in the sky came into focus.  Every twig on every tree branch.  He knew he couldn't sit in the car a second longer.  

"Joe!"  Diane tried to stop him, but she was too late.  He walked toward the house.  Ran.

He knocked on the door and rang the bell at the same time.  Patrick answered, no coffee in hand.  Claudia looked up from the kitchen, screwing the lid onto her mug.  The fish on it were orange and gold.  

"Can I help you?" asked Patrick.

"Yes, as a matter of fact," said Joe.  As he started to introduce himself, he watched Claudia pick up the coffee mug.  She raised it to her lips.  Joe couldn't stand by any longer.  He took a breath and held it.  Now, he told himself.  He pushed Patrick aside, rushed into the kitchen, and knocked the mug out of Claudia's hand.  Her coffee spilled all over the tile floor.  

"What is wrong with you?" demanded Claudia.  

Patrick caught up with Joe and shoved him in the chest.  "Get out of my house, you freak!"  

Joe glanced at the other coffee mug and the rack of K-cups.  He considered grabbing them all before he left.  He was taking too long with this thought.  Patrick cocked his fist.

Before the punch could land, a gunshot rang out.  Patrick slumped against the refrigerator door, looking confused.

Claudia screamed and rushed to Patrick's side.  The second gunshot shut her up.  She fell on top of Patrick.  

Joe saw a woman standing in the foyer.  It took a few seconds to recognize her as Diane.  Something about her had changed.  More than the smoking pistol in her gloved hands.  She looked at Joe for a second, with none of the excitement or irritation he saw moments before.  Her expression was apologetic.  She dropped the gun on the floor and ran out the back door.

Joe started to chase after her, but she was surprisingly fast.  She leapt over a fence and ran across a neighbor's yard, to a black car parked in the distance.  Diane jumped in, and the car sped off.

Bewildered, Joe returned to Patrick's house.  He looked out the front door and saw a neighbor looking at him through her window.  Another neighbor was standing in her driveway, holding a newspaper in her hand, staring at him.  Joe realized he needed to get out of there.  He ran to his car and got in.  Turned the key.  The engine churned and churned and churned.  On the passenger seat, he saw Diane's photos of Claudia in various private moments.  The neighbors were now holding phones to their ears.


None of the neighbors saw Diane, according to the police who interrogated Joe.  They examined the K-cups and found no trace of arsenic or any other foreign substance.  Patrick denied ever being married to Diane; he's never been married at all.  The police did find Diane Smalley, the children's book editor.  She was a fifty-five-year-old woman from Staten Island who had never met Joe before.  The police also went to the address that Joe gave them for the Circle.  The current tenant was installing sinks for a new hair salon.  

Joe sat alone in a jail cell that night.  Eddie visited him and tried to put on a confident face.  He was a good friend, and Joe regretted never spending time with him anymore.  When a guard came to his cell later that night and handed him a small envelope, Joe assumed it was from Eddie.  He sat on his cot and opened it.  Inside was a small, plastic vial filled with a liquid that was green.  A pretty rad shade of green.  

Joe laughed softly to himself.  No wonder so many bets were being placed.  How much fun was the Circle having now?  How much did the Queen enjoy seeing the Pusher become the Target?  He held up the vial against the light.

"This won't do at all," Joe said to the guard.  "Not nearly enough to drown in."

The guard didn't say a word.  She didn't leave either.  As Joe flipped the lid off the vial, he looked once more at the guard.  A long strand of red hair fell over her pale face, and she wore thick, black eyeglasses.  In one corner of the frame, the light from the cell reflected off a tiny lens.  Joe took a breath and held it.  Now.

About the Author

Ben Lee is a television writer currently working on The Firm.  After graduating from Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he worked as a corporate attorney in New York and Los Angeles.  He is an alumnus of the Warner Bros. Writers' Workshop and has written for Fairly Legal and Eleventh Hour.  He occasionally tweets as @benl33.