By Bob DeRosa
Image from Pixabay, user TheDigitalArtist
We had the resort to ourselves for as long as I could remember until the beady-eyed bald man showed up and ruined everything. Before then, it was just Meg and I. And the staff, but they were quiet and kind, practically invisible.
We had one of the private villas on the beach. It was a beautiful one bedroom with a small kitchen and a living room. The French doors opened to a covered deck with comfortable lounge chairs overlooking the water. Meg and I slept out there some nights when it wasn’t too hot. We’d push the chairs together, pull a light blanket over us, and listen to the water gently moving against the sand.
The night before the bald man arrived we were on the deck, enjoying the last drinks of the day. Our butler Shay had come unannounced with two glasses, bourbon for me, gin with a slice of lime for Meg. Shay was a slim Korean woman with warm eyes, barely out of her twenties, and she always knew what we wanted before we knew ourselves.
Meg and I sipped our drinks and laid together, her long, tan leg draped across mine, when she said, “Do you think you’ll ever get tired of this?”
“I don’t know. Maybe not. What about you?”
“I think about going to the mountains, sometimes,” she said. “ I miss mountains.”
“Me too,” I said, but I don’t really know if I meant it or not. Mountains were beautiful, but I was never much of a hiker. I preferred swimming. I had the body for it, long and lean with muscles that just needed the occasional swim to stay strong. The weather was almost always nice here, and when it rained, we’d sit on the deck and read books or make love and that was just fine.
“Do you think we’d be happy here?” she asked. “If we never left?”
I didn’t really know what she meant. It never occurred to me that we would leave. It wasn’t about being happy here, this was just the place where we were. And most days were the same, and perhaps the sameness would have driven some people mad, but not me. I was enamored with the peaceful sounds of the water and the brush of Meg’s hand on my skin and it all felt as right as anything ever could. Sometimes we’d run out of things to talk about, but that never bothered me. I hope it didn’t bother her.
“As long as we’re together, I’m happy wherever,” I said, and I really meant it. There was something behind her smile, something sad, so I kissed her, the taste of lime in her mouth as I pulled her atop me.
The next morning, Meg was still asleep when I put on a shirt and my sandals and wandered down the path to the main building. I passed the pool and the outdoor bar, where a server was standing, a tray under his arm. He was a young Indian man, relatively new to the resort. My memory isn’t very good, so I’d usually wait until someone was here for a month or so before I’d bother learning their name. They never seemed to mind.
“Morning,” I said.
“Good morning, sir. Would you like a drink or some breakfast?”
“I’m going to get some fruit from the buffet.”
“I can bring it to you. Or alert your butler.”
“No, that’s okay,” I said.
He nodded. “Did the plane wake you?”
“What plane?” I asked. He pointed, and I looked over and saw a seaplane on the far edge of the resort, bobbing in the water at the edge of the dock where they kept the kayaks and snorkeling gear. It had some sort of logo on its side, a deep blue swishing symbol that was faintly familiar.
I moved through the main doors at the rear of the resort that took me into the lobby. Diego was behind the front desk as usual, tall and dark skinned, with a smile that never wavered.
“Good morning, sir,” he said.
“Diego. What’s with the plane?”
“I haven’t seen a new guest in…how long has it been?”
“Quite some time,” said Diego. The vagueness of his answer annoyed me, mainly because I couldn’t remember a guest ever being here. Others had to come through here from time to time, but try as I might, I couldn’t picture their faces.
I heard footsteps then, dress shoes on the marble floor, and the beady-eyed bald man strolled out of the hallway that led to the restrooms. He was smaller than me, thick around the middle, with no tan to speak of. He had a black overnight bag slung over his shoulder and was drying his hands on his linen slacks.
“We can put a man on Mars, but we still can’t invent a hand dryer that does the job,” he said with a broad smile, moving past me toward Diego. “I’ve got a reservation.”
“Of course,” said Diego as he tapped at a portable tablet. “Just one night?”
“Unfortunately,” he said, looking back at me. “No rest for the weary, am I right?”
I realized he was talking to me. Was I so out of practice in speaking to strangers?
“You must have come a long way for just one night,” I said.
“Yeah, but I heard it’s worth it. Five stars all the way. Villas right on the water, what can get nicer than that?”
I bristled at this, the thought of a stranger sleeping so close to Meg and I. But my unease faded when Diego said, “I’m sorry, sir, there are no villas available.”
“Really?” said the bald man, his eyes narrowing. “Doesn’t seem very crowded.”
“I can offer you an ocean view suite here on the fourth floor.”
The bald man swished his lips around, as if considering all the ways he could give Diego a piece of his mind. But a thin smile creased his face and he said, “Guess that’ll have to do.”
Diego presented a small biometric scanner, and the bald man touched his fingers to it. “You’re all checked into suite 401. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to make your stay more comfortable.”
The bald man turned my way again and asked, “How’s the food?”
“Very good,” I said.
“Why don’t you let me buy you dinner?”
“No, thank you. I have plans.”
“C’mon,” he insisted. “I hate eating alone, don’t you?”
“I eat with my companion,” I said.
“Really?” said the bald man, his thin smile turning oily. “Bring her along. Or him. I’m not one to judge people’s tastes.”
“I’d have to ask her.”
“I’m sure it’ll be okay. How about six o’clock?”
Before I could answer, the bald man walked off toward the elevators. After he was gone, I looked at Diego and said, “Thank you. For what you said about the villas.”
Diego nodded. “I knew you’d resent the intrusion.”
“I guess Meg and I have a date for dinner.”
“It would appear so, sir.”
“You don’t have to call me sir, Diego. Not every time.”
“Very kind of you,” said Diego, who followed it up with a little bow.
I went straight back to the villa and explained what happened to Meg. She listened, nodding often. I expected questions but there were none. Finally she said, “We have time for a swim, don’t we?”
We took off our clothes and moved into the calm ocean water outside our villa. I worried for a moment that the bald man might see us from his room, but Meg wrapped her arms around my neck and as we floated together, I stopped caring much about anything at all.
After our swim, we took showers and napped. A light knock on our front door woke us. It was Shay, carrying two garment bags.
“Excuse me, sir. I thought you two might need some clothes for dinner this evening.” She was right, of course. All I had were a few pairs of linen shorts and some T-shirts. She brought me a nice short-sleeve button-down and a cocktail dress for Meg. We thanked her and dressed in silence.
I held Meg’s hand as we walked back towards the main building. The sun was setting, splashing colors of crimson and gold across the sky. As I held the door for her, she turned and looked at the view. She inhaled deeply, as if breathing it in.
“The sunsets are so beautiful here,” she said.
“We’ll see another one tomorrow,” I said.
She nodded hesitantly. Then we went inside and took the elevator to the third floor. It opened up to the foyer of the nicest restaurant in the resort. The lone waiter was an older Italian man with white hair named Lorenzo. Only Diego had worked here longer. He escorted us to our table where the bald man was already working his way though a bottle of red wine. We took our seats as Lorenzo filled our glasses.
“I can’t get over this place,” said the bald man as he looked out the window at the coming night. “Perfect weather. Sunset’s flawless. Heaven on Earth, really.”
“This is Meg,” I said, and the bald man quickly offered his hand.
“What a jerk I am. Nice to meet you, Meg. I’m Winston.”
Meg said, “Pleased to meet you.” She put her hand in his and he pumped it repeatedly until it seemed like he was never going to let go. Finally, Meg pulled her hand away to take a drink of her wine.
“Appreciate you letting me join you for dinner,” he said. I was about to point out that he really hadn’t given us much of a choice, but Meg assured him it was our pleasure.
“We don’t get much company around here,” she said.
“Yeah, I noticed that,” he said, and at this point, I really couldn’t think of him as someone named Winston. To me, he was still the bald man, and always would be.
“How long you been here?” he asked.
“A while,” I said.
“How long’s that? Weeks? Months?”
I hesitated. “Years,” I said. “At least two or three. I’ve lost count. ”
“Can’t imagine your bill,” said the bald man. “What kinda work did you do? Before coming here?”
“I worked in the city,” I said.
I blinked. I wanted to remember the name, but I couldn’t.
“What kind of work?” he asked, but that too escaped me.
“Sorry, but I’m not very good at conversation.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” said Meg.
“She’s right,” said the bald man. “Isn’t that what places like this are for? Leaving behind all the crap from before and living in the moment.”
I nodded and squeezed Meg’s hand. I could see she was upset but trying to hide it. I wanted to whisper to her, tell her it was all okay, but Lorenzo arrived with small plates of prosciutto and olives. Meg and I began to eat while the bald man just picked up an olive and rolled it between his fingers.
“I envy you both,” he said. “I come to a place like this and don’t even have time to enjoy it. There’s work to be done. Always work. You see the plane I came in on?” He directed the question at me, and I nodded. “You recognize the logo on the side?”
I shook my head. He laughed, and I instantly felt defensive. “What’s so funny?”
“They’re just one of the biggest companies in the world,” he said. “Everyone knows that. Almost everyone, I guess. They invented that plane. It flew me here all by itself, no pilot needed. Amazing, right? That’s what they do, make amazing things.”
He waited for me to say something, perhaps indicate I was impressed. But I wasn’t, so we sat in silence for a moment before he shrugged and continued.
“Course there are other big companies out there doing just as many amazing things. They’re all in a race to out-do each other. And to do that you need talent. Not just scientists or big thinkers. You need employees willing to do the nasty stuff. The stuff no one wants to talk about.”
“Is that what you do?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I’m not cut out for that sort of thing. I mainly run errands. Move assets from point A to point B, you know how it is.”
I nodded, but I had no idea what he was talking about. He studied me for a moment, as if I was a painting and he was considering every brush stroke before making his opinion known. When his eyes met mine again, he seemed positively bemused. “You really don’t know, do you?”
Before I could answer, Meg reached for her water and the glass slipped between her fingers, falling loudly on the table. The tablecloth soaked up the ice water, and Lorenzo was over in a flash, using a towel to mop up the excess moisture. He offered to move us to another table, but the bald man simply waved him off without a word as Meg looked at me with the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen.
“Maybe we should talk about something else,” she said.
“Of course,” said the bald man. “We’ve got all night.” He popped the olive into his mouth and chewed it noisily as he picked up the wine bottle and refilled all our glasses. “What about you, Meg? What’s your line of work? What do you do?” There was something about the way he stretched out the vowel sound in “do” that made my skin crawl.
“Nothing that would interest you,” she said.
“How do you know? I’m interested in lots of things. From the completely thrilling to the positively mundane. For instance, there are people who get up every morning and go to work, do the same thing, day in and day out, for only a paycheck. One they never have time to properly spend. Why they would do such a thing…that fascinates me.”
“Maybe they like their work,” she said.
“Could be. There’s pride in being a craftsman, in doing a damn fine job. But that only gets you so far. Eventually you have to step back and think, what have I done with my life? What have I built?”
“And moving assets around,” she said. “What does that build?”
The bald man laughed. “Well, I was speaking to the hypothetical. But if you want to get personal, we can do that. I’d love to do that.”
Meg lifted her wine glass, took a taste. The bald man waited. Something was happening here, but I couldn’t see it. Like a play that had begun even though the stagehands had forgotten to open the curtain.
“Maybe we could change the subject,” I said
“We could, but what fun is that?” said the bald man. “I believe the question before me is why I do what I do. What satisfaction does my work bring me? And the answer is this: I love telling people what to do. Weak people, powerful people. It doesn’t matter. Asserting my will is a turn-on.” His eyes turn to me, flashing. “What turns you on, friend? Besides her.”
“That’s enough,” I said. “You’re being rude, and I won’t stand for it.”
The bald man’s face cracked like I had told him a funny joke. “Please. Your job is to stand. Or to hunt. Or to hurt. To do what you’re told. And the most hilarious part is you like it. You just don’t remember liking it. But you will.”
“You don’t know me.”
“You’re right, for the most part. We’re strangers. But I’ve known men like you. Men that were conditioned and trained to follow orders with ruthless certainty. Men cracked and broken by all the horrible things they’ve done. Memories can be erased, that much we know, but the stains on a man’s soul…that’s a different story. It affects the work, even work of the wettest kind. So men like these are sent someplace where their souls can be washed clean. Someplace like this. But even a place as nice as this starts to feel lonely. Unless there’s someone to keep them company.”
I looked at Meg, but her eyes were averted. “What is he talking about?” I asked.
Meg opened her mouth, searching for the right words, but they wouldn’t come.
The bald man laughed, and said, “Really? After all this time, you didn’t once think about what you’d say when he asked you that question?”
Meg looked at him, her eyes blazing. “I hate you.”
“Or,” he continued, his teeth bared like a big cat about to take down a wounded gazelle, “maybe you do know what to say. But you don’t want to say it to him. I wonder why. What makes him so special?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Or maybe I just don’t care,” he said.
I eye the bald man. “I think it’s time for you to leave.”
He shifted his attention to me. “Is that your big move here? Puff out your chest and act the hero, when you’re sitting right next to the person who can answer all the questions rattling around in that thick skull of yours. Ask her why your memory’s for shit. Ask her why you like the beach more than the mountains. Ask her why she doesn’t get bored, even when there’s nothing to talk about because nothing ever changes around here. Go on, ask her.”
I looked at her then, but none of those questions seemed to matter right now. Instead, I asked her the only question that seemed to matter to me in this moment: “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
Her voice was soft, fragile. “I wanted to. But I couldn’t.”
I looked around at this beautiful, empty paradise, which was feeling more and more like a prison every moment. I looked helplessly at Meg. “All these years together and you never once…”
“We met two months ago,” said Meg. “The day you got here.”
I felt my stomach drop, a hollow pain that emanated up through my chest. It was getting hard to breath. I’d never had a panic attack before, at least none that I’d remembered, but I imagined it felt a lot like this.
“I hate to break it to you,” said the bald man. “She’s not your companion. Or your friend. She’s a very expensive babysitter. Her job’s keeping you happy. Washing your sins away with long swims and longer nights. Until it’s time to go back to work.”
“He’s not ready,” said Meg.
“I think he is,” said the bald man, taking a gulp of wine. “I’m getting on that plane first thing tomorrow morning. And he’s coming with me.”
“And what about me?” said Meg.
“You’re going to stay here and wait for another assignment. Some other loser will be in your bed before long, don’t you worry.”
She looked at me then, her face falling, as if there was nothing left to say. My breathing was steady now, and I really didn’t care to hear the bald man’s voice ever again. All I wanted to do was ask Meg one final question: “Was it all a lie?”
Before she could answer, the bald man stood up and said, “Yes, it was.” He finished his wine and dropped his napkin on the table. “Plane leaves at dawn. Be on it.”
“And if I’m not?” I said.
He leaned in close enough for me to smell the wine on his breath. “You don’t get it. Me being here is them asking nicely. You don’t come back with me, they’ll send a gunship filled with men who’ll slaughter everyone in this place. Including her.” He looked at Meg. “Do your job. Make sure he’s there.”
The bald man stumbled away toward the foyer as Lorenzo arrived with three shallow bowls filled with risotto. He placed two in front of Meg and I, and held the third, looking confused.
“Is he coming back, sir?” said Lorenzo.
“No,” I said. “Why don’t you have that one, Lorenzo.”
He nodded gratefully and went back into the kitchen, leaving Meg and I alone.
“It wasn’t a lie,” she said, tears in her eyes.
“How am I supposed to believe that now?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. You don’t have any reason to trust me.”
I glanced over my shoulder, across the foyer, as the bald man stabbed the elevator call button. He waited, swaying under the influence of the wine.
“The moment I saw him, I knew something was wrong,” I said. “I felt it.”
“That’s the part of you they can’t erase. The part of you that knows what’s right. And what’s true.”
Maybe she was telling me what I wanted to hear. That I was still my own man and no one owned me. Maybe she had told this to others before me. But all I knew for certain is that this place wasn’t my home. She was. At least, that’s what I felt to be true. And maybe that would be enough.
I heard the bell of the arriving elevator. I pushed back my chair and stood up. I moved faster than I thought I could and made it to the elevator just in time to stop the door from closing. The bald man looked at me, his beady eyes blinking.
“I said tomorrow, you idiot. Enjoy your last night. She’s bought and paid for.”
I wasn’t sure what to do, but my hands remembered. I stepped in and touched the button that held the elevator. When he opened his mouth to complain, I crushed his larynx. It was easy as sliding into the water for a nighttime swim. I watched him crumble to the floor of the elevator, trying to find his breath. He never did. After he was gone, his eyes remained open, wide with shock and dare I say surprise.
I left him there, and came out to find Meg waiting for me.
“He came alone, right?” I said.
“I don’t know.”
I took her by the hand, and we hurried down the stairwell. We paused at the door that opened to the lobby. “Follow me. We’re going for the plane. If anyone else is out there, if I stop for any reason, keep going.”
“Wait,” she said, but I opened the door and exited, pulling her behind me.
The lobby was empty.
I looked at her and risked a smile. “I don’t know if I like mountains or not. But I’m ready to find out.”
“Then let’s go,” she said.
I took her by the hand and pulled her quickly across the lobby, when I heard Diego’s voice from behind the check-in desk. “Was dinner not to your liking, sir?”
Meg gasped, and I turned as Diego came around the desk, a gun in his hand.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Diego.”
He fired twice. I moved quickly, felt the red-hot pain of a bullet kissing my left shoulder. His expression didn’t change when I smacked the gun from his hand. I went for his throat, but he got his hands up just in time. As we fought, the sound of our shoes on the marble floor echoed through the empty lobby. He was fast, but I was faster. After a few moments, I hit him hard in the temple. He staggered to the side, blood dripping down the side of his face. I believe he bowed then, as well as he could, before he fell to his knees. I hit him again, and he was dead before he hit the floor.
I turned back to Meg and said, “I told you to keep going.”
But she too was lying on the floor. I approached her slowly, saw the red spot on her dress just below her sternum. Her eyes were closed. She looked as peaceful as I’ve ever seen her.
I put Diego’s gun in my pocket and picked her up with both arms. I carried her out back, past the pool in the darkness. My shoulder stung, but the pain in my chest was worse. I could feel the hollow ache of missing her, of being alone, all of it welling up but I didn’t want to face it yet. Not out in the open.
I saw no one else as I carried Meg around our villa and out toward the water. I crumbled into the sand and held her close to me and wept. I had no memories of ever crying before, so this could have been the first time. I imagine it would be my last.
I sat with her for a little while until I heard small feet in the sand behind me. They stopped at a safe distance.
“Are you here to kill me, Shay?”
“No, sir. Only Diego was trained to contain you in case of emergency. I hope you don’t take it personally, but it was his job to try.”
“I understand,” I said.
“The rest of us are leaving on the plane. You should come too.”
“Everything I have to live for is here.”
“They’ll be here sometime tomorrow,” she said. “And when they see what you’ve done, they’ll kill you.”
“They’ll certainly try.”
And this kind woman who brought me so many things just when I needed them, all she had for me at the end was three words. “Good luck, sir.”
I didn’t look back as Shay walked off. A half hour later, I heard the plane start up. It cruised out into the shallows until it picked up enough speed to take to the air and then it was gone, leaving me alone at the resort.
I stepped into the surf and put Meg in the water. I stood there until the current took her out. Then I returned to the beach and sat in the sand. My plan was simple. Spend the night on the beach. Watch the sun rise one final time. Then await the gunship filled with men who believed their weapons would protect them from me. They sent me here to wash away my sins, but forgot that I was still the man who committed them. I would relish the looks on their faces when they realize their mistake.
Let them come.
About the author: Where Bob DeRosa comes from, nice guys finish first. His screenwriting credits include Killers, The Air I Breathe, White Collar, 20 Seconds To Live, and Video Palace, the first original podcast from SHUDDER. His short fiction has been featured in Escape Pod, Dark Moon Digest, and the Simon & Schuster horror anthology Video Palace: In Search of the Eyeless Man. When he’s not writing, Bob studies Kenpo karate and keeps his Little Free Library filled with good stuff. He’s @thembob on Twitter so come on by and say hi anytime.
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I like the texture of this story. It feels familiar, until it no longer does. A vacation from atrocity. I’m left with two questions, why does the plane leave early, and what happened to the bald man? A few story adjustments would answer these. Overall however, a pleasant read.