The Slab

Michael R. Collings

Chapter One


It was a day made for death.

Brittle shards from the slanting October sunset stabbed at the quiet street. Brassy gold stained shaggy lawns a murky, coppery brown. The dying light fingered naked limbs of rain-blackened elms and fruitless mulberries and peaches and skeletal jacarandas. It rested heavily on the drooping branches of the occasional valley oaks that had survived construction of the subdivision two years earlier. It tinted vibrant stucco walls not yet faded to earth-mud brown by interminable summers of suns, not yet hidden behind luxuriant passion vines or junipers or the creeping jasmine so popular in this part of Southern California.

In the odd, quirky light, the Charter Oaks subdivision became an enigma of striated shadows, dead black pinioned against muted October color in the late evening of a day that had been more cloud-ridden than otherwise.

Ace McCall squinted. The sun sliced through a bank of clouds low over the horizon, as if day were pleading for one last chance at life before giving up and dying painfully into night. Blinking and cursing under his breath, McCall slapped the sun visor down. This place was bad enough in the summer, he grunted to himself, when the sun would sear a man’s naked eyeballs in their sockets like eggs frying on a hot garbage can lid in the hundred degree heat, especially when the glare billowed in waves off the glistening white finish of his year-old Lincoln Mark VII. But you’d think that by this time of year, the damn sun would let up.

He blinked a couple more times, the movement of his eyes unconsciously echoing the rhythm of his turn- signal indicators as he swung off Mariposa Way onto Oleander Place. He didn’t stop, even though the intersection was clearly marked with the standard red octagon. Almost as an afterthought, he slowed just enough to scan the cross street. A California rolling-stop came as close as anything to describing the maneuver-illegal by any account, but Ace McCall didn’t give a damn. There wouldn’t be any cop cars on watch, not here in the middle of Charter Oaks. And there wasn’t any cross traffic, anyway. He wasn’t dumb enough to just pull in front of some snot-nosed kid’s dilapidated Beetle and get sideswiped. There wasn’t a nick on the Linc anywhere, and he’d been driving it for over a year. Even into LA two or three times a month.

If he could survive that cannibalistic traffic, this piddling street counted for less than nothing.

He knew how to handle machines. He straightened the wheel and followed the gentle arc of Oleander Place as it rose gradually to crest the tallest of the small hills that dotted Tamarind Valley. The top marked one of the boundaries of Charter Oaks. The end of Ace McCall’s responsibility.


He grimaced. He was beginning to hate that word. He glanced at the passenger seat beside him. An issue of the Tamarind Valley Times lay open, accusing him with a white-eyed, blank stare. He caught the edge of a headline and tore his eyes from the roadway just long enough to register three words-“ Construction Fraud Charged ”-before he crumpled the top page and tossed it over his shoulder and returned his eyes to the road.

There was a flicker of movement. McCall glanced sideways, across the lane to one of the tract houses. A solitary ghost stood forlornly in a recently landscaped front yard. It gazed wistfully at the street and clutched a white bag decorated with silhouetted black cats and witches in its sheet-draped hand. Clutched it as tight as death itself.

You’re gonna have to wait kid, McCall thought glumly, oddly touched by the sight. Sorry, kid, no spooks for two more days.



He clenched his teeth in anger.

The day he had to turn over his books to the shyster that paraded as his attorney. The sleazy bastard had offered him a day’s grace. Out of the goodness of his heart. His cast-iron heart that had no more human warmth in it than a lump of rotting, frozen graveyard-clay.

“But they’d better be on my desk by noon Saturday,” Alberts had intoned officiously over the phone in his best intimidation voice. “I’ll wait for you in my office. And I’m going to have to make a special trip to pick them up, so you damn well better be on time.”

McCall grunted. It was pretty rough when your own side started figuring you for a cheat and a thief.

He crumpled another leaf from the Times, tossing it over his shoulder into the back seat as well.


He glanced in the rear-view mirror. The ghost was gone. For the moment, the shadowed length of Oleander Place was deserted. Cut-outs of bats and pumpkins and witches dangled here and there, construction-paper corpses that festooned door frames and window sills. Scattered clumps of drying leaves whispered beneath bare trees. But he saw no other movement, no people.

Where is everyone? McCall thought. He glanced at his watch.

Dinner time.

He pulled the Lincoln to the curb and jammed the shift into park. The engine roared, then settled into an uncomfortable idle. Everyone was inside-Momma, Poppa, the statistically proper two and a third kiddies-all tucked away from the crisp October wind and the crisp October darkness, shut safely away from the outside world in their safe new homes. Homes he had maneuvered and finagled. Homes he had busted his ass to get approved by the County board. Homes he had built. Homes he sweat for and bled for and even…

He twisted in his seat. Now they were trying to get him, trying to take away everything he had worked for, just because he had cut a few corners, made the places a little cheaper than he should have. Hell, in fifteen or twenty years, nobody would even remember his little scams…or so he had figured two years before.

And even now-even after it had all come out and the County was dogging him, slobbering for a head-in a decade the shoddiest house in all of Charter Oaks would still probably sell for at least two hundred thou-twice what they were going for now. He crumpled another sheet of newspaper and pulled away from the curb.

He drove slowly now. He studied the houses as he passed, remembering each one, recalling a sticky problem with the plumbing in that one, a shattered plate glass window in this one. In each, he saw the glow of lights behind closed draperies echoing the sheen of the dying sun.

He felt alone. Miserable and alone.

Slug-like, the pale Lincoln crawled up Oleander Place. To the top of the hill.

And stopped.

In front of 1066 Oleander Place.

The last house.


Even a cursory glance showed that 1066 differed from the rest. It was dark, for one thing, inside and out. No lights gleamed warmly through draped windows or reflected on a tidy, well-tended lawn. Its shadowed stucco was scarred and pitted in half a dozen places from peltings with rocks and sticks. A necklace of broken glass circled the foundations where hot-rodders had tossed their beer bottles on Saturday nights. The lawn was a lawn in name only-instead of grass, dusky grey-green weeds that looked jaundiced in the fading light clustered in harsh knots and hillocks. Even the weeds were scrawny and half-dead from lack of care.

1066 Oleander Place.

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