Ralph – Series – Part 15 of 15 – The Conclusion

Ralph saw Steve leaving the gym, waving toward the interior on his way out, not paying any attention to his surroundings. Bunz and Gunz was purchased by an investment group after Carl’s death, and while Steve was not charged with anything it was decided that keeping him on was not good for business. They gave him a nice severance and he went gladly on his way. Insulting, Ralph thought, that after everything Steve walks away clean with extra money in his pocket. He felt his temper rise and took a deep breath to calm himself. It wouldn’t do to lose focus now. Steve got into his ostentatious sports car, turned on the headlights, gunned the engine and sped out of the parking lot. Ralph wasn’t too worried about keeping up, he knew where Steve was headed.

Steve pulled up in front of a model home in a new housing development. He exited his vehicle, locking it and then boldly bounding up the front steps, using the code on the lockbox to let himself in. Ralph had taken a different route and arrived at the development ahead of Steve, parking a street over from the house. He had entered the unfinished house facing the model and was watching Steve’s progress from there. He watched the lights in the model come on, one by one, leading upstairs. As the light came on in the upstairs bedroom, Ralph sprinted across the street, following Steve inside.

**********************************************************************************

Lillian opted to follow Steve when he left the gym since Ralph didn’t make an immediate move to do so. Steve drove just like you would expect a guy with a bright yellow Corvette to drive, making it exceedingly difficult to keep up without revealing herself. He whipped into the development well ahead of her and by the time she made the entrance he was nowhere to be found. She turned off her lights and proceeded to creep through the development, hoping she would find him before she ran into Ralph. She was certain he was here somewhere, or on his way. Lillian’s attention turned to movement, a figure darting across a side street. She focused and saw Steve’s parked car.

Lillian stopped where she was and picked up her phone. “Stalker…” she said to herself, seeing the text notifications filling up her screen. She dialed Matt.

“Lillian, look, I…” Matt started.

“Shut up, Matt. Just listen.” Lillian interrupted.

“I…” Matt continued.

“Matt, I don’t have time for this, listen, I think Ralph is about to do something to Steve. I followed him, well, Steve, I followed Steve, but Ralph, I think he’s in there and…” Lillian blurted.

“You did what?” Matt said, alarmed.

“I don’t have time to explain, please, just trust me. I am going in there and I don’t know what I’m going to find, and I could use your help.” Lillian said, her tone resolute.

“You can’t do this Lillian.” Matt said.

“I have to, and I’m going to. Are you going to help me or not?” Lillian asked.

“This is illegal, Lillian. You know that, right? If you go after this guy, it’s your ass. Don’t be stupid.” Matt insisted.

“He could literally be killing someone right now and you’re arguing with me. I am sending you a pin with my location. Come, or don’t.” Lillian said and ended the call.

Lillian sent the pin, ignoring the incoming call from Matt. She checked her weapon, took a deep breath, and exited the vehicle, leaving her phone behind.

Ralph entered the house, making no attempt at stealth. He retrieved his machete from the decorative basket in the console table and bounded up the stairs. He entered the upstairs bedroom and saw Steve kneeling over a body, Francine’s body. He was distracted, muttering her name, and shaking her.

“She won’t wake up.” Ralph said, from the doorway.

Steve whipped his head around and grimaced in confusion. He registered the machete in Ralph’s hand and his expression changed. Steve scrambled over Francine, trying to get distance between himself and Ralph. Steve managed to get to his feet and turned to face Ralph. They locked eyes just as Ralph completed the swing of the machete that separated Steve’s head from his body. Steve crumpled, boneless, coming to rest draped across Francine’s still inert form.

Francine would be collateral damage, like Carl, but she had been sleeping with Steve, so she made her bed, Ralph thought. Her marriage had been ruined by Steve’s story about the couch cushion. It was well known that she blamed Steve, hated him. She certainly had motive and anyone who had seen her lift at the gym knew she was strong enough to take a guy’s head off. A murder-suicide made sense.

It was easy enough to get her here. Francine ran to the gym most days, and today was no different. Ralph kept her well after class, making conversation, pretending to be interested in her devastatingly banal stories. He had her try a new drink recipe and when she started feeling a little lightheaded, he offered to drive her home. The gym was empty, and the cameras weren’t recording, he saw to that. He drove to the new development, to the house Francine wouldn’t shut up about. He unlocked the front door, left it open, then after ensuring that the streets were empty, hustled a now unconscious Francine inside over his shoulder. There was no need to wrap her. She would be out long enough, and he could overpower her if need be.

It was even easier to get Steve here. All Ralph had to do was send a few texts from Francine’s phone, promises to defile yet another couch.

Ralph took a deep breath in, and let it out in a long, slow, whoosh. Just a few more steps and this would all be over with. He could move on to another town and try to start over again. This wasn’t one of his better plans, Ralph thought. It was sloppy because he let himself get too emotional about it, like he did with Brad. But, he thought, he didn’t get caught then either.

Ralph bent over and set about rearranging Francine and Steve into positions that made more sense before administering the ‘self-inflicted’ gunshot to Francine’s head. He cocked his head right and left, as though evaluating the position of a picture on the wall. He stepped back for perspective.

“Stop right there.” Said Lillian, calm but firm.

Ralph stopped in his tracks, standing perfectly still. “Detective Charter. What a surprise” he said.

“Hands up” Lillian demanded.

“Why are you here?” Ralph asked, making no move to comply.

“I said, put your hands up.” Lillian repeated.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to be here, Detective.” Ralph said.

“Are you trying to make me shoot you?” Lillian asked.

“You’re going to shoot me in the back? How’s that going to look?” Ralph asked, patronizing.

“Are you shitting me? You just decapitated a guy, I’m pretty sure no one is going to care where I shoot you.” Lillian replied. “I knew you were a piece of shit, but I didn’t think you were stupid too.”

Ralph flinched slightly. Lillian saw it. Good, she thought. Get mad.

“Ok, ok. You win.” Ralph said, his tone light, amused. He slowly raised his hands, back still turned to Lillian. Then in one sudden motion, he spun to face her and lunged.

Lillian fired, shooting Ralph in the shoulder, causing him to lurch slightly away, but he kept coming, closing the short distance between them in an instant. His mass and momentum caused Lillian to fall backward, landing hard and losing her gun, Ralph’s weight settling on top of her.

Lillian pumped her legs, trying to scoot out from underneath Ralph. She managed to get her upper torso above his head and proceeded to drive her elbows over and over into the back of his head and neck. Ralph bit down hard on Lillian’s belly but she kept striking him, punching him in the ears now. She had shimmied far enough out that now he only had her by the legs, and she was within reaching distance of her gun. She pulled the leg on his wounded side as hard as she could, managed to extricate it and kick him in the face. He clung even tighter to her other leg. She twisted her body away from him and reached again for her gun. Her fingers scrabbled but finally connected and she swung the barrel back toward him, only to be met with a gun pointed at her face.

“I came prepared.” Ralph smiled defiantly with bloody teeth. Lillian fired into them. Ralph’s gun went off before he collapsed, the noise deafening, pain tearing through the side of Lillian’s head. She worked to free her trapped leg, disgusted by the sensation of Ralph’s warm blood soaking through her jeans. In the distance, she heard a keening. She saw movement and instinctively raised her gun. It was Francine. Lillian sighed with relief and lowered her weapon, sitting still as Francine wailed, grateful momentarily for her deafness.

Matt’s face appeared before her. He was talking but Lillian couldn’t hear him clearly. It looked like he was asking if she was ok. Do I look ok? She thought, wondering what she ever saw in this guy. Lillian touched her face, checking for holes. It was very wet, but intact. She ran her hand up to her ear and winced. That was going to leave a mark. Lillian laughed quietly to herself.

Matt was trying to help her off the floor. She waved him off. “Help Francine” she said. The ringing in her ears was starting to subside. She rolled over onto all fours, then grabbed the stair railing to haul herself up, leaving bloody smears in her wake. Once upright, she was face to face with Francine’s tear-streaked face, a mask of horror, looking from Lillian to the smears and back again. “You’re welcome.” Lillian said, shouldering past Francine as she started to cry again.

Matt was behind Francine, standing at the entrance of the bedroom, waiting for Lillian with outstretched arms. “You’re hurt” he said.

“Really?” Lillian replied, with sarcasm.

“Stop it.” Matt said, dropping his arms. “Can you stop for one second? What happened here?” Matt asked.

“Well, that guy that I told you was a murderer went ahead and murdered someone else. He’s the guy on the floor out there with no face if you want to take it from here.” Lillian said.

“You could have been killed.” Matt said, grabbing her upper arm.

Lillian slowly looked down at his hand, then back at Matt, with exaggerated reproach. “Matt, someone might see.”

Matt’s eyes shone with unshed tears, pulling his hand back.

“Matt, thank you for coming. I do appreciate it. I’ll get a full report done once I get whatever is left of my ear sewn back on, but we are done here.” Lillian said.

She turned and headed down the stairs without a backward glance and with no regrets.

THE END

Ralph – Series – Part 14 of 15

Lillian’s phone vibrated. “Detective Charter.” She answered.

“Where are you?” came Matt’s voice.

Lillian tipped her head back and rolled her eyes, then replied, “I’m at home.”

“No, you’re not.” Matt replied. “I’m trying to surprise you.”

“Maybe I’m just not answering the door, have you considered that possibility?” asked Lillian.

“C’mon Lillian, stop being an asshole. Tell me you’re not still following that guy.” Matt said.

“I’m not following that guy.” Lillan replied, taking a bite of her cheeseburger, and chewing loudly into the phone.

“You’ve got to stop this. You’re off the reservation and you’re wasting your time” Matt said.

Lillian ended the call and continued chewing, contemplatively. She didn’t need to hear any lectures from Matt, not about this, not about anything. The phone buzzed again; she knew who it was but glanced down to confirm and take another bite before accepting the call. Saying nothing, she carried on eating.

“I’m worried about you, Lillian. I miss you. I wanted to see you tonight.” Matt said.

Lillian took an enthusiastic sip of her soda.

“I know you’re mad, but we need to talk.” Matt insisted.

Lillian sighed. “Honestly, Matt. We have nothing to talk about. You and I aren’t even on a case together anymore.”

“This isn’t about work.” Matt said.

“My point exactly. As I said, we have nothing to talk about” Lillian replied.

“I want to be with you, Lillian.” Matt said, his voice serious, cracking.

“Oh?” Lillian said brightly. “What does Leslie think about that?”

Matt was silent.

“Thought so. Fuck off, Matt.” Lillian said, cutting the call.

Why can’t he just leave me alone? Lillian thought, crumpling the remains of her burger in its wrapper, and throwing it into the bag with the fries that had gone cold. She had lost her appetite anyway. Her phone started buzzing again. Texts now. She ignored them and stared out the window of the rental car.

It had been months since the Whispering Pines case had gone cold. They had nothing more to go on, no suspects with any promise. Matt had been reassigned and while the case was still technically open and assigned to Lillian, there had been other homicides, and no one was really expecting much. The public’s attention span was short, and the victims had no close family to speak of, so for all intents and purposes, no one even cared if the case was solved. Lillian had interviewed everyone even remotely connected to the victims, multiple times and came away with nothing. All she was left with was this nagging certainty that Ralph Boucher knew more than he let on; was perhaps even responsible. So, she kept an eye on him.

It was more aggressive at first, and she regretted that. Regretted showing her hand. Once he was aware of her interest he behaved accordingly. Arrogant son of a bitch would even wave to her when she thought she was being stealthy. Over time, she got better at concealing her presence, but there was no apparent payoff. Ralph was nothing if not consistent, and he consistently did nothing to make all the time she spent surveilling him justifiable. The department was fine with her continuing her investigation, but they wouldn’t be covering any further expenses related to this activity. Lillian knew that there was no point in arguing.

Lillian jumped into her other cases; a domestic dispute gone terribly wrong, an armed robbery with casualties, a deceased vagrant that ended up not being a homicide at all. There was nothing much to investigate, nothing interesting at least. She tried to listen to her Lieutenant when he said it was ok to move on; some murders just don’t get solved. She knew as much, but she just couldn’t let this go. So, when she was able, she would go check on Ralph. For some time, nothing changed, but as Lillian’s presence became less consistent, so did Ralph’s behavior.

She watched him now, watching someone else. Watching Steve Roth.

TO BE CONTINUED

Ralph – Series – Part 13 of 15

Ralph knew he had to be careful. They had nothing on him for Claire and Carl, not enough to arrest him and certainly not enough to get any charges to stick. He could always disappear, as he had done in the past. It was nothing for him to move on to a new place, a new identity. He had done it several times before, but he had unfinished business here. Carl’s death was for nothing if Ralph couldn’t make Steve pay.

Ralph thought back, going over it for the hundredth time.

Carl had met Ralph at the storage unit that evening to pick up some equipment for Bunz & Gunz II. Ralph had a drink for Carl, a new recipe for the juice bar he wanted Carl to try. Carl drank it down with enthusiasm, as Ralph knew he would. Carl was a sucker for banana. The GHB Ralph slipped in was only slightly salty, easy to hide.

Ralph and Carl worked together, loading the moving pallet with the necessary items until Carl felt the need to sit down. He was feeling drowsy. Ralph went to his side, asking if he was ok. Carl was having a hard time responding. Minutes later, Carl was slumped over, completely unconscious. Ralph pulled the gloves from his pocket and put them on then moved methodically, laying out the plastic sheeting and dragging Carl on top of it. He wrapped him up carefully, leaving his mouth exposed. His breathing would be shallow, and he did not want him to die. Not like that, not yet. He rolled out some turf and used it to wrap Carl loosely a second time, obscuring him, then loaded the bundle onto the moving pallet, out of the unit and into the bed of the borrowed truck.

It was still dark when Ralph arrived at the development, far too late for anyone to be moving about even if there had been residents to consider, which there were not. He made a stop near the community center, removing the turf wrapping and disposing of it in the dumpster there, where it would be unnoticed amidst the debris of the mini-golf course that was under construction. Carl remained still.

He drove on, arriving at the model home. Ralph used the lockbox code, easily overheard on one of Francine’s many loud phone conversations, to open the front door. He paused in the foyer, closing the door behind him. Ralph dropped Steve’s duffle and pulled coveralls from the trash bag, removing his shoes before putting the coveralls on. The hood remained down, but Ralph wore his hat with the brim pulled low as he left the house to retrieve Carl, looking like no more than a rolled-up rug.  

Ralph brought Carl upstairs and lay him on the floor, face up. He was still out, but it was only a matter of time now before he began to wake. Ralph hurried back downstairs and moved the truck a few lots down, then walked back to the house. Ralph left his hat with his shoes in the foyer, grabbed the bags he had deposited there, and headed back upstairs. From the trash bag he pulled some extra plastic sheeting, tape, a sheathed machete, and Carl’s phone.

He turned the phone on and called Claire.

Claire answered the phone, saying “Carl! Where the hell are you? I’ve been worried sick!”

Ralph made no effort to disguise his voice. “Carl is in trouble, Claire. If you ever cared about him, you better come now. He’s running out of time.”

“What the fuck? Who is this? Where’s Carl! Is this some kind of joke?” Claire asked, with anger and annoyance in her voice.

“You’ll find him at the model home at Whispering Pines.” Ralph said.

“Whispering Pines? Seriously? Who is this? This isn’t funny.” Claire said, panic rising.

“If you’d rather be with Steve, I can just kill Carl now. It will kill him when he finds out anyway…” Ralph said with a sigh.

“Wait, what? Steve? What are you talking about? Claire said. “I’m calling the police, you psycho.”

“Go ahead. Carl will be dead long before they arrive. Only you can save him, Claire.” Ralph said ending the call, turning off the phone and dropping it into the trash bag.

She wouldn’t call the police; he was sure of it. A call to the police meant telling the truth, at least part of it and he knew she wasn’t ready for that. Her guilty conscience would drive her here.  

He set about wrapping Carl’s head in the extra wrap, not too tight, he needed time. He was sure to leave a hole as well. If Carl stayed calm and didn’t move too much, he would be ok. The drugs would hopefully keep him sedate and alive while they waited for Claire.

He clearly remembered the moment he heard her burst through the door, calling Carl’s name. She spent more time downstairs that he had expected, and Carl had regained consciousness, beginning to squirm. Ralph retreated to the closet in the corner of the bedroom, raised the hood of his coveralls, unsheathed the machete, and waited.

He did feel bad about Carl after it was all said and done, he had really liked the guy, but he knew that living a life without Claire, or worse, knowing how Claire had betrayed him, would have been unbearable for him. It was a mercy, and a means for Steve to meet his justice but now it was all falling apart.

Ralph couldn’t afford any more mistakes. Not with Lillian watching, and he knew she was watching.   

TO BE CONTINUED

Ralph – Series – Part 12 of 15

Ralph watched Steve walk through the front door of the gym, then turn toward the juice bar. Toward him.

“Hey asshole.” Steve said.

“Excuse me?” Ralph replied

“You heard me. I don’t know what your deal is, but you better watch your ass.” Steve smirked.

“Ok Steve. Thanks for stopping by.” Ralph said, dismissing him.

“You know I can have you fired, right?” threatened Steve.

“If you feel so inclined….” Ralph said, with a gracious gesture toward Steve.

Steve made a disgusted face and a noise to match and turned away from him, heading back to the gym floor, hugging female patrons along the way.

Ralph was drying the blender jar, watching him, thinking, Steve has to die.

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“I have no idea where we go from here.” Matt said to Lillian.

“So, I guess Steve’s alibi checked out after all?” Lillian asked.

“Yeah. Francine spilled her guts after we threatened her with obstruction. Although I don’t know if that was entirely her motivation, she was furious about that cushion, if you could have seen her face…” Matt laughed. “Her husband is pissed, but this seems like one thing in a long list of problems with them. The joys of marriage, am I right?” Matt said, his face falling after he realized what he said.

“I wouldn’t know.” Said Lillian, deadpan, sipping her coffee and flipping through the file, refusing to look at him.

Matt cleared his throat and changed the subject. “So, this Ralph guy. We checked him out and got nothing. No spouse, no girlfriend. No boyfriend even, which honestly my money was on.”

“Did you check out his alibi?” Lillian asked, still not looking up.

“He didn’t have one. Just said he was home, reading, alone.” Matt replied.

“Damn.” Lillian said, closing the file. “I was hoping he’d give us something to check out at least. Something to poke holes in. I don’t believe for a second that he wasn’t involved.”

Matt blew out a breath. “I wish that mattered for shit.”

Lillian looked up at him sharply.

“Whoa…” Matt said, holding up both hands. “I don’t mean it that way, I just mean that we don’t have anything to go on to connect him. No physical evidence at the scene and there is nothing to support a deeper relationship with either of the victims than employer/employee. Sure, we have Steve’s account of what, a crush, he had on Claire? It’s not enough to do anything with and you know it.”

“The alternative is to what? Shrug my shoulders and just accept that two people died, and move on?” Lillian asked.

“That’s not what I’m suggesting….” Matt said.

Lillian interrupted, “what are you suggesting then?”

“I’m just saying I don’t know.” Matt said.

“You’ve been a great help, Matt. Thanks as always for your keen insight.” Lillian said, closing the file and getting up from her desk.

“What are you going to do?” Matt asked.

“My job.” said Lillian.

She turned and walked away, frustrated. Matt wasn’t even trying. She wondered why she was surprised, given how little effort he seemed to put into things these days. She shook her head, clearing her thoughts, regaining focus.

I’m coming for you, Ralph. She thought.

TO BE CONTINUED

Ralph – Series – Part 11 of 15

Lillian sat in the small, bright room, not wanting to touch anything. She wished she had thought to bring some sanitizing wipes with her. Jail is so gross, she thought. She busied herself with the contents of the file in front of her. Size thirteen shoe prints found at the scene match shoes found at the suspect’s residence. Suspect’s hair found at scene. Suspect’s phone at scene. Suspected sexual relationship with female victim.

The door opened and Steve was escorted into the room.

“Get your hands off me.” Steve said to his escort, though making no move to pull away. Lillian suspected he knew better than that.

“We’re good.” Lillian said to the officer, who nodded and went out the way he came. She shifted her attention to Steve, saying “Mr. Roth, please have a seat.”

Steve sat down hard then said “How much longer are you people planning to keep me here? I didn’t do anything!”

“Mr. Roth, you’ve been read your rights and you have declined to have an attorney present, is that correct?” asked Lillian.

“I don’t need a lawyer; I didn’t do anything.” Steve replied, crossing his arms, and repeating “how much longer are you keeping me here?”

“Mr. Roth, there is evidence tying you to the scene of a double homicide. You should consider yourself fortunate that you are only being held at this juncture. Or would you prefer we go ahead with the murder charge?” Lillian asked.

“Look lady…” Steve said.

“Detective.” Lillian interrupted.

Steve rolled his eyes and continued, “Look Detective, I know what you think you found, but it’s bullshit. I have an alibi; I told the other guy that. Have you talked to Francine? She can tell you.”

“As a matter of fact, yes, we did talk to Francine. She denied spending any time with you outside of your personal training arrangement.” Lillian replied.

“I was with her, ok? Her husband was out of town, and I stayed over. She and I left her house at the same time, right before she went to that showing and found… what she found.” Steve said.

“Are there any witnesses to your version of events?” Lillian asked.

“Francine!! Francine is a fucking witness!” Steve exploded.

“That does not align with her recollection.” Lillian said, shrugging.

“God damn it. I can’t believe she’s doing this to me.” Steve muttered.

“Doing what?” Lillian asked.

“She’s doing this to get back at me. She’s pissed about Claire, and Tara, and I don’t know who else…” Steve said. “Look” he continued, focusing on Lillian. “I was always discreet. It may sound bad, I get that, but no one was getting hurt. They were using me too.” 

“Are you referring to the other women you were sleeping with? Lillian inquired.

“Yes” Steve snapped, irritated. “None of them knew about each other before all this. Seriously, you people have ruined my life and now I’m in jail for murder for fuck’s sake and I didn’t do anything! So what I slept with a few women? They were willing! They came after me!

“Have you considered that they may not have been as eager to get involved with you had you not been lying to all of them? Do you think Claire would have slept with you if she knew about Tara? Would Francine? Oh wait… according to Francine, that never happened.” Lillian asked. She felt the heat rising in her, this scenario hitting a little too close to home.

“Look lady…” Steve said.

“Detective.” Lillian reminded him again.

Steve slammed his hands down on the table between them. “Lady, Detective, whatever, I don’t give a shit. Get me out of here, I didn’t kill anybody!”

Lillian was unfazed by his theatrics. She knew his type, all bluster. He was shitting his pants and rightfully so. She calmy asked, “let’s say I believe you. How do you explain your phone being found at the scene?”

“Someone stole my gym bag; my phone was in there.” Steve said.

“Were your shoes in there as well?” Lillian asked.

“No. I was wearing my shoes when the bag went missing, but… I did misplace a pair of shoes at another gym property earlier. At the yoga place, they make you take them off.” Steve replied.

“Ok, so you were a victim of theft not once, but twice and at two different locations, and the items that were stolen re-appeared in some fashion at a bloody crime scene. Is that what you’re telling me?” Lillian asked, a hint of sarcasm creeping into her voice.

“I know how it sounds, but it’s true. I don’t know why anyone would want to do this to me, but I am a victim here. Maybe you should ask Francine. Maybe she had something to do with it. Maybe she found out about those other girls before and this is her revenge.” Steve said, his eyes lighting up.

“If Francine was with you until she left for that showing, there’s no way she could have been involved. So, was she with you? Or was she busy framing you for murder?” Lillian asked.

Steve stared at Lillian, eyes narrowing. She could tell he hated her. She didn’t care.

“There’s still the matter of the hair we found. Did someone steal that too?” Lillian asked.

“If you look really hard, you’ll probably find more than my hair in that house.” Steve said, crossing his arms again and leaning back in his chair. “Francine and I spent time there as well.”

Lillian’s interest was piqued. She knew Steve was a piece of shit, but she didn’t think he was a murderer. Of course, her feelings were irrelevant in light of the current evidence. However, if she could find some proof of relations between Francine and Steve at the scene, it would call into question the veracity of Francine’s account of their relationship. She might be his alibi after all.

“Where, exactly, did you spend time?” Lillian asked, adding air quotes to the euphemism.

“The kitchen, the living room, dining room. We were all over that place.” Steve said, with a note of braggadocio.

Lillian fought the urge to roll her eyes before asking, “Did you have any recent favorite spots? Any place where evidence might be… more evident?”

Steve finally understood what Lillian was asking him. He sat forward with excitement, thinking hard. “Yes! The big white couch in the living room… there was a spot. I saw it while Francine was in the bathroom, and I just flipped the cushion before she got back.”

Lillian made a note, grimacing slightly.  She said, “Steve, may I call you Steve?” Steve nodded. “Steve, I want to believe you. I want to help you get out of here, but I need you to help me. I need you to help me understand how you got here.”

Steve looked confused and said “I don’t know how I got here!! That’s your job!”

“Steve.” Lillian said again. “You’re asking me to believe that someone has enough beef with you kill two whole human beings, and then try to frame you for their murder, right?” she asked.

Steve nodded.

Lillian continued, “but you haven’t told me who that person might be. You’ve given us exactly zero idea of who to look at, and without that, the only person we see is you. You have to help me help you.”

Steve’s face crumpled. “I’m innocent! You know I am! I don’t know why someone would do this to me. Everyone loves me, really! Ask around, I mean, I’m a good guy…. I mean…” Steve trailed off and seemed lost in thought for a moment.

Lillian waited.

“There is this one guy, he works at the gym. I know he had a thing for Claire, and I know one time he caught us together, nothing crazy, just a kiss in the back office, but he saw, and he looked at me weird after that” Steve said.

“He ‘looked at you weird’? Lillian said, incredulity on her face.

“I know, but…  he’s fucking weird and he’s the only person I can think of. You asked me for something and that’s all I’ve got, so go fucking figure it out. Steve said, with desperation.

“His name?” Lillian asked.

“Ralph. Ralph Boucher, he’s at Bunz and Gunz most days.” Steve said. Lillian made another note, swallowing hard. Weird indeed.

TO BE CONTINUED

Ralph – Series – Part 10 of 15

Ralph lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking of Claire. He hated her, but he missed her. He missed the sound of her voice, the smell of her when she would sweep casually by. His hand drifted down his pants and he closed his eyes. He could picture her still, the way she would smile at him, touch his arm as she spoke, embrace him in greeting. He visualized the swell of her breasts, the dark cavern between them. He thought of kissing her there. He imagined her looking up at him while he fucked her, looking at him the way she never actually did.

Anger rose in him, and his visions changed. She was still looking up at him, but she was pleading, crying, begging, his hands tightening around her throat. He shut his eyes hard as he came, seeing nothing but red.

He cried a little afterward, thinking now of Brittany. Sweet, sweet Brittany. Claire had reminded him of her, which was what had drawn him to her, but really, they were nothing alike.

Brittany was kind and gentle, and she loved Ralph. He knew she could never love him quite the way he loved her, they were cousins, after all. She often reminded him of this when he became overly affectionate. She never dismissed him though, not even when she started seeing Brad.

Ralph hated Brad. Not just because he was a distraction for Brittany, but because he was an asshole; walking around in his Starter jacket and backwards cap, smoking weed and thinking he was the coolest guy in town. Brad enjoyed tormenting Ralph when Brittany wasn’t around. They were all almost the same age, but Ralph was quiet and awkward, so Brad would slap him in the back of the head, call him a pussy and tease him about what it felt like to fuck his cousin.

Ralph never came right out and told Brittany what he thought of Brad. He knew it would drive a wedge between them and he would rather keep her close. He needed to be there for her when it all eventually fell apart. He thought, when it came to that, she might even forget that they were closely related and see that he could take care of her like no one else could.

Brad made a lot of promises to Brittany and kept none of them. When she ended up pregnant, he didn’t just leave her; he denied paternity, called her a whore, and told her he had already been seeing another girl. Brittany was destroyed. Ralph remembered trying to comfort her but being powerless to do so. After a time, she stopped crying, but the light was gone from her eyes.

Ralph came to check on her one day a few weeks after Brad left and found her asleep in her room. He sat on the mattress beside her, but she didn’t stir. She was turned away from him, her hair partially covering her face. He reached out and moved it away. He touched her shoulder and shook her gently. When she still didn’t move, he shook her more vigorously. “Brittany, wake up.” Ralph said, taking a stern tone. Nothing. Ralph stood up and walked around to the other side of the bed. Brittany’s mouth hung open. Her eyes were not quite closed, she looked… gray. Ralph backed away and called out in a panic for his aunt, Brittany’s mother.

“What is going on?!” Aunt Margaret said, huffing from her trip up the stairs. Ralph looked stricken and pointed at Brittany. Aunt Margaret furrowed her brow, confused, approaching Brittany. “Brit, honey? You feeling ok?” She made it to the other side of the bed and gasped. She paused for only a beat before she threw the blankets back to get a better look at her daughter. “Ralph” she said, “Call 911.” Ralph hesitated. “Go! Now!” she yelled. Ralph nodded and ran downstairs to the phone on the wall in the kitchen. He hadn’t finished dialing yet when the wailing began.

Brittany was gone. He was told that she died in her sleep from a heart condition. He knew that was a lie. He knew she took her own life, and he knew why. Ralph decided then and there that he was going to make Brad pay.

It took him weeks to plan it, but it was time well spent.

Ralph called Brad. “Hey Brad, it’s Ralph.”

“The fuck you want?” Brad replied.

“I was going through Brit’s stuff, and she left something for you.” Ralph lied.

“Oh yeah? What is it? Any of those pills left over?” Brad laughed.

 “Fuck you, Brad.” Ralph said. “It’s that shitty Tupac album you love so much. I’m happy to throw it in the trash, but I’m trying to honor Brittany’s wishes, because I actually gave a shit about her.”

“Aw, hell yeah!” Brad said, excited. “You can bring it over.”

“I’m going fishing in the creek back behind your mom’s. You can get it from me there.” Ralph said.

“Man, just bring it, I’m playing Super Mario. I’ll even let you play.” Brad insisted.

“I can just leave it in the creek.” Ralph replied.

“If you make me come out there, I’m gonna kick your ass.” threatened Brad.

Ralph hung up the phone and smiled. He grabbed his backpack and his fishing knife and headed to the creek.  

Ralph was sitting on the bank when he heard Brad approaching. He stood and brushed the debris from the seat of his pants, still facing the water.

“Hey pussy.” Brad called out. Ralph did not turn around, but he removed the fishing knife from its sheath. He breathed calmly.

“Heeeeey PUSSY! You deaf? Where’s my CD?” Brad asked, closing the distance between them.

Ralph felt Brad’s hand on his shoulder. Ralph turned to face him, locking eyes and thrusting the knife into Brad’s gut in one fluid motion.

“Wha…” was all Brad managed to get out. Ralph grabbed Brad’s shoulder to keep him close and jerked the knife upwards.

“This is for Brittany; you piece of shit.” Ralph whispered. He gave the knife a hard twist to the right and yanked it out, pushing Brad backward.

Brad lay on the ground, clutching his belly, crying. “You stabbed me, man!”

Ralph rolled his eyes. “You think?”

“It wasn’t my fault! I didn’t kill her! Dumb bitch offed herself!” Brad cried.

Ralph looked at Brad, then back out at the water.

“HELP! HELP! Somebody help me!!!” Brad yelled, writhing in pain. “Come on man…” he said to Ralph, “come on, don’t do this.”

“It’s already done. You’ll be dead in a few minutes, then you’ll be dinner for the gators and crayfish.” Ralph said calmly.

“You’re fucking crazy! You’re gonna go to jail you fucking psycho! People are going to come looking for me!!” said Brad, groaning in pain.

“Maybe” said Ralph “but I don’t think so. Not for a few days at least. Your mom used to complain to Brittany all the time about how you’d just disappear for days on end. Not even a phone call. She had really hoped Brit would be a good influence on you.”

“MOM!!!!!!!! HEEEEllllllppppp!!!!” Brad screamed, trailing off toward the end, strength flowing out of him.

“She can’t hear you out here, Brad. No one can. You know that.” Ralph said, patronizing. He approached Brad, knife in hand. Brad tried to scramble backward but Ralph moved in quickly, reaching down and slicing Brad’s thigh, the razor-sharp knife sliding easily through his jeans. Brad shrieked, sounding almost feminine.

 “That should speed things along.” Said Ralph.

Brad shifted his attention from his ruined belly to his leg, which was now gushing blood in time with his slowing heartbeat. “Please Ralph, help me…”

Ralph sat back down on the ground and waited. After a few minutes, there was no sound, not even a rustle of leaves. He turned around to look at Brad, who did not look peaceful at all. Good. Ralph thought.

Ralph got up and approached the body. He removed Brad’s shoes and socks and pulled off his shirt with some difficulty. He checked front pockets of Brad’s jeans, then flipped him over to grab his wallet out of the back. He threw each item into a tidy pile. He dragged the body close to the bank then rolled it over the edge, watching as it splashed down into the dark, tannic water a few feet below, throwing the knife in after him.

He’s so white. Ralph thought, as he watched the body undulate in the current, bumping against fallen branches and debris. Before long, he was sunken enough so as not to be terribly noticeable, and no one was likely to come out this way for a while.

************************************************************************************************************************

Ralph sat up in bed, laughing to himself. He had been so sloppy. It was truly a stroke of luck that the bag of bloody clothes, his and Brad’s in the same bag, wasn’t discovered. Ralph shook his head at the memory. Of course, that was long gone now, as was Brad’s body. There was a small-scale investigation, if you could even call it that. Everyone just assumed Brad had run off or was in trouble. Even his mom seemed relieved that he was gone, though she’d never have admitted it. Ralph checked in on her from time to time and she was always glad to see him.

Sometimes it just made more sense for bad people to die. Ralph thought. People that hurt people. People that that take advantage of the good people that love them.

TO BE CONTINUED

Ralph – Series – Part 9 of 15

Lillian lay in bed, lost in thought, finally saying aloud, “There was something weird about that guy.”

Matt looked up at her, his face above the spot on her thigh still wet from the kiss just placed there. “Now?” he said. “We’re talking about this now?”

Lillian refocused on Matt. “I’m so sorry, I’m just super distracted” she said.

“Clearly.” Matt replied, annoyed. He raised up on all fours and crawled back to the head of the bed, arranging himself in a sitting position and pulling the sheet over his naked lap. “Let’s talk then.”

Lillian looked up at him. She understood his frustration, but she made it clear before all of this started that she wasn’t really in the mood. His habit of just showing up and expecting sex was getting old. She pushed her burgeoning annoyance down. He was willing to talk, so let’s talk, she thought, and pushed herself up into a sitting position as well. “There was something off, Matt. I can’t put my finger on it exactly. He was nice, extremely so, but also smart. Too smart to behave the way he did. Or says he did.” Lillian said.

“You talking about the juice bar guy? Matt asked.

“Yeah” Lillian replied.

“He seemed normal enough to me when I talked to him and no one else had much to say about him at all. He’s like a background dude. At least that’s the impression I got. Part of the scenery, but no one would much miss him if he wasn’t there.” Matt said.

“I mean, I guess, but I’m saying that feels sort of contrived. Intentional almost.” Lillian continued.

Matt blew out a sigh. “I don’t understand why you’re giving this so much energy when you haven’t even talked to Steve yet. His phone was at the scene, Lillian, and yes…” he said, holding up a hand, “before you say anything, I know that you think that was sketchy too, but it’s actual evidence. Not some feeling that you can’t even properly describe. What is weird? What is anyone supposed to do with that?”

Lillian rolled her eyes. “I am well aware that weird isn’t enough. That’s why I’m talking to you. I don’t know why you have to be such an asshole.” She got out of bed and threw on a t-shirt and some shorts, now self-conscious of her nakedness. “I’m going to grab another glass of wine.” She said as she left the room.

“Aww, c’mon, don’t be like that!” Matt said to her back.

Lillian pulled the chilled cabernet out of the fridge and refilled her glass. This was her third. She was only going to have two tonight, but Matt had to go and ruin everything by being a dismissive piece of shit, as usual, she thought. Why couldn’t he ever just hear her out? Not here, and not at work. She wasn’t sure which one was worse. She heard him approaching and stiffened.

“Lillian, come on, seriously. I’m sorry. I’ll listen. Tell me more, I’m all ears.” Matt said, patronizing, running his hand over her ass.

“Fuck off, Matt. Why don’t you get dressed and go on home? You’ve been here, what, a whole hour? I’m sure Leslie is wondering where you are.” Lillian snapped, twisting her body away from him, spilling wine on herself in the process. “God damn it.” She muttered and headed to the sink.

“That’s not fair, Lillian.” Matt said.

“Not fair? To whom Matt? To her? Me? Or just to you? You’re the only one whose feelings seem to matter in this little thing we have going on.” Lillian fumed, angrily patting her shirt with a wet towel.

“You know how hard this is for me. You know…” Matt said before Lillian cut him off.

“Don’t finish that sentence, Matt. If I hear one more motherfucking time about how much you’re suffering in all of this while both me and your wife sit around and wait for you to make up your mind, I swear I’ll make it up for you, once and for all. Honestly, I don’t even know what I’m waiting for.” Lillian said, staring daggers into his face.

Matt started to cry.

“Seriously Matt? Seriously?” Lillian said and walked back to the bedroom to change her shirt.

Matt followed her, saying, “you know I love you. I want to be with you. I’m going to give her the papers soon, it’s just… I know how much this is going to hurt her.”

“And what about me, Matt? Huh? What about how much you’re hurting me while this drags on? How do you think it hurts her any less to know that you’ve been unfaithful, are actively being unfaithful, while giving her hope? Or does she even know? Have you been lying to her too? Telling her that you’re going to end it with me? Who does she think you’re fucking if it’s not her?” Lillian said, crying now, despite her best attempts not to.

“Well… I… I mean, Lillian, she is my wife, and we…” Matt stammered out.

Lillian froze, then said “You’re still fucking her?”

“What am I supposed to do?” Matt pleaded with her.

“Get out. Get the fuck out of my house.” Lillian said calmly.

Matt got dressed, attempting to talk to Lillian as he did. She ignored him, drinking what she hadn’t spilled from the third glass in a gulp, grimacing, and pouring a fourth, intent on keeping her back to Matt. If she saw him leaving, she would break. She would ask him to stay. She heard the door open.

“I’ll call you later.” Matt said as he left, sounding penitent, closing the door behind him.

Lillian stood at the kitchen counter, sobbing into her wine.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Ralph – Series – Part 8 of 15

Ralph watched the interaction between Francine and Lillian unfold, casually of course, maintaining steady conversation with the juice bar patrons. He knew for certain what Francine would say, but he was curious about the detective. She was a surprise. His interaction with the other guy, Matt, was easy enough but she made him nervous somehow. He didn’t think she suspected anything, how could she? He thought. He had been so careful.

“Ralph?” came a voice. Shit, Ralph thought, I can’t drift off like that. Not here. He snapped to attention, eyes focusing on the tiny blonde smiling at him. Which one was she? Kirsten? Kristen? Keirsten? He gave her his warmest smile and said, “on the house, great work today.” She accepted the proffered beverage with an open-mouthed gasp.

“You noticed! Oh, mah, gawd, I’ve been workin’ so haard!” the woman replied with a thick accent. “This is gluten free, right?” Except ‘right’ came out sounding like ‘rat’. Ralph nodded and giggled to himself a little, thinking of a menu that included Gluten Free Rat, and wasn’t rat naturally gluten free? She took the drink and her giant bag and shimmied out the door. That was the last of them, for a while at least.

Ralph watched as the detective handed something to Francine, her card, he assumed, and then excused herself. He continued to watch as she made a call, standing just outside the plate glass window. She was still hard to read, appearing calm, but he was sure she knew about Steve and Claire now and was probably sharing the information. He shifted his attention to the approaching figure.

“Hey Francine.” Ralph said. “How are you doing? Any word on when you’re getting the house back?”

“Not yet, I honestly forgot to ask.” Francine said. “Ralph, um, so don’t be mad. I know I wasn’t supposed to say anything, but it slipped out.”

“Say anything about what?” Ralph replied.

“You know, the thing?” Francine countered.

Ralph widened his eyes, raising his eyebrows and shoulders, indicating that he had no idea what she was talking about.

“The thing! The thing about Steve!” Francine was frustrated and Ralph was amused.

“Francine!” Ralph scolded. “You should not have repeated that. That was just a rumor, I can’t even remember where that came from. Do you have any idea what kind of trouble that could cause?” Of course, Ralph knew exactly what kind of trouble it would cause.

“Don’t be mad! I didn’t mean to, I swear.” Francine pleaded. “I think she already knew; she was asking all these questions and she just got it out of me!”

“Well, I hope you didn’t say you heard it from me. I don’t want any part of this mess.” Ralph said.

“Absolutely not. I would NEVER betray your trust like that!” Francine was insistent, failing to recognize that she was apologizing for just such a betrayal.

“You know I can’t stay mad at you anyway.” Ralph smiled at her, came around the counter and gave her a congenial, platonic, side-hug. Francine cooed and accepted with gratitude.

“I just love you but I gotta go. Can you believe I’ve got another showing at that development? And here I thought the whole place would end up cursed. Thank you, Jesus!” Francine threw prayer hands up, then gathered her things and swept out the door, almost crashing into the detective who was on her way back in.

 Lillian twisted sideways to avoid a collision with Francine, who apologized profusely while walking away. She recovered herself and proceeded inside to continue her conversation with Ralph.

“What do you have that doesn’t have anything green in it?” Lillian asked Ralph.

“The green stuff is the best stuff, you’re missing out.” Laughed Ralph. “I can get pretty creative back here though. What do you like? Banana? Pineapple?”

“How close can you get to a chocolate milkshake?” Lillian asked.

“Pretty close.” Ralph smiled and set about preparing the drink.

“So, what do you know about an affair between Claire and Steve? Lillian asked.

Ralph’s back was to Lillian, but he craned his neck to look at her, saying “you get right to it, huh?”

“Carpe diem, right?” Lillian replied.

Ralph nodded and walked to the blender. “I can tell you that there were rumors, but that’s all I know.” He started the machine and stood there, smiling slightly, maintaining eye contact with Lillian, only occasionally looking at the blender to inspect the contents and give it a light shake. It was understood that any additional questions would have to wait.

Satisfied with his product, Ralph poured the contents of the blender into a plastic cup, shaking it a few times to ensure that every bit of the thick, frosty drink made its way in. “Whip?” he asked.

“Naturally.” Lillian replied.

“I never get to use this stuff.” Ralph said, pressing the nozzle on the canister and dispensing an artful swirl of whipped cream on the top, followed by a generous shot into his own mouth. “Don’t tell.” He said, with a wink, handing the drink across the counter.

Lillian crossed her heart and accepted the drink, pushing a straw through the tower of cream and taking a sip. “Not bad.” She said, looking up at Ralph with genuine surprise. He gave a little bow.

“Any other rumors I should know about?” Lillian asked, taking Ralph by surprise.

“Um, no. Not that I can think of. I don’t really pay much attention to that stuff.” Ralph said.

“Talk of your co-worker… or… was he your boss?” Lillian asked but continued before Ralph could reply. “Talk of your boss sleeping with your other boss’s wife, I mean… seems like something you might mention given that two-thirds of the people in that scenario were murdered.” Ralph was taken aback. Bitch. He thought.

TO BE CONTINUED

Ralph – Series – Part 7 of 15

Lillian pulled up to the strip mall where Bunz and Gunz was located, sandwiched between a childcare center and an Asian fusion restaurant. It was an upscale area, with pristine landscaping and nary a scuff on the curb. The development was so new the weeds had not yet managed to find their way through the sidewalk cracks. She parked her ten-year-old SUV next to a brand new, bright yellow Tesla. She thought briefly about opening her door hard and wide enough to mar its perfectly hideous paintjob but thought better of it. She had work to do. “Maybe on the way out” she thought, letting a puff of air out through her nose, grinning slightly.

She got out of her vehicle, carefully, and walked toward the gym. She could hear the ‘n-tss,n-tss,n-tss’ rhythm of EDM music well before she opened the door. When she entered, the music crashed over her like a wave. How the hell was she supposed to talk to anyone in here? The front desk was unmanned so she walked through to the gym floor, following an amplified voice to the swath of artificial turf covering the back of the space.

“Let’s GOOOOO!” came the disembodied voice. “Last round! Give it everything you’ve got! It’s all mental now! I see you Karen, get that booty down!!”

Lillian stood back, watching as a woman, presumably Karen, in bright pink leggings and a matching sports bra dropped her ass into a straighter plank. She was trembling and Lillian felt sorry for her. There were two more women planking, surrounded by even more women and two men engaging in various strenuous activities. She didn’t know what half this shit was, but she was certain it all looked terrible.

“Ten-seconds left! GO HARD!!” came the voice again. Lillian saw a very fit looking man stalking the floor wearing a headset with a little boom microphone. He moved from person to person, correcting, encouraging, engaging in some way. There was something about this guy that made her want to impress him. Lillian was surprised about the weird competitive impulse that rose in her. She looked around and spotted an older lady, clearly out of shape, and thought that she could outrun her. Maybe.

“That’s TIIIIME! Great job everybody!” Said the trainer, snapping Lillian back to reality. The volume of the music dropped to background level. “Don’t forget to stretch! The 90 Day Transformation Challenge starts in two weeks, if you haven’t signed up already, you know what to do! Make that change! Invest in yourself!” As the class participants were milling around, catching their breath, chatting, stretching, the trainer was giving out high fives and thumbs up before he spotted Lillian.

They locked eyes. Lillian smiled and raised her hand in a little wave, he waved back and broke into a light trot, quickly closing the distance between them. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you there. We were just finishing up” he smiled, motioning to the activity behind him. “Are you here about the challenge? We’ve still got spots left.”

“No, I’m here about Carl and Claire.” Lillian said. The trainer’s smile faltered. “And you are?” she asked.

“Ah, yes… so tragic… I’m Ralph. Carl hired me himself, great guy. I’m still in shock about it; we all are really. We are like family here.” Ralph replied, his face somber, his gaze direct. “How can I help? I’ve already given a statement to, to uh.. uh…” he said, searching, looking up and snapping his fingers lightly.

“Detective Haskell?” Lillian asked, already knowing the answer.

“Yes!” he exclaimed with relief. “That’s it. Detective Haskell. Matt, right? That’s his name?”

“That’s the one.” Lillian confirmed.

“Yeah, nice guy. So, yeah, how can I help?” Ralph asked again.

“I wanted to come down and see the place for myself, to get a feel for it and to chat with some of your members, more informally, if that’s ok with you.” Lillian said.

“I’m fine with it, but I’m not the boss.” Ralph looked to his right and left, conspiratorially, “but he’s not around, so…” he gave a half smirk and shrugged, palms facing the sky.

Just then they were approached by a tall woman with a mass of brunette curls piled high atop her head, adding to her stature. “So sorry to intrude but I couldn’t help overhearing. You’re with the police?” the woman asked Lillian.

“Detective Lillian Charter,” Lillian said, “and you are?”

“Oh my. I’m just a mess over all of this! A mess!! I mean, who could do such a thing? And the house! That beautiful house, ruined.” The woman started to cry.

Ralph looked at Lillian and widened his eyes as if to say, “you good?” Lillian nodded and Ralph gestured toward the juice bar and retreated in that direction. A group had begun to gather there, and Lillian assumed he had work to do. She’d catch up with him later, she had her hands full here.

Lillian turned her full attention back to the sobbing woman. She had to crane her neck slightly to look into her face, which made her uneasy. She was standing too close, she realized. Lillian backed up a full step and said, “Ma’am, I know that this is a difficult situation. Can you tell me your name?”

“Oh. Oh, My. Where is my head at? This has been so hard for me.” The woman continued.

“Your name?” Lillian asked again, trying to keep the irritation she was feeling from creeping into her voice.

The woman sniffled a few more times and collected herself. “I’m Francine” she said. “Francine Dubois.”

Lillian knew that name. Why did she know that name?

“I found them; you know. Well, not exactly, but I was the one who called.” Francine said.

That’s it, thought Lillian. The realtor. Matt had mentioned her. Francine had arrived at the scene to prepare for an open house when she discovered the footprints at the front door. Thankfully she had the presence of mind to go no further, calling the police immediately. She was inconsolable at the scene, though by all accounts, her grief had more to do with lost commission than lost lives.

“I’ll never be able to sell that house, not for what it’s worth, you know.” Francine said, almost to herself. Then, realizing how she must sound, “but oh poor Claire! Who would do such a thing?” her question trailed off in a high-pitched squeak, her face scrunched up into fake misery.

Lillian’s face stayed impassive as she said, “I was hoping you could help me figure that out.” It was difficult not to focus on Francine’s right eye, where the corner of her false eyelash had come unglued.

“I already made a statement, you know, but, you know, I mean, I’m not one to gossip, but I think you should talk to Steve.” Francine said with an air of disdain.

“Steve who?” Asked Lillian, again, already knowing the answer.

“He works here, he manages the place, I think. This one and the others. I mean, Carl owns it, or owned it… you know what I mean, but Steve was running back and forth between this place and the others. He knows everybody, apparently.” Francine said, frankly hostile.

“Steven Roth, the general manager?” Lillian clarified.

“That’s him. Yeah” Francine said. Crossing her arms.

“And why him, in particular?” Lillian asked.

Francine leaned in, dissolving the space that Lillian had recently created between them, whispering “he was sleeping with Claire.”

TO BE CONTINUED

Ralph – Series – Part 6 of 15

Carl was walking Ralph through the facility on his first day, showing off the state-of-the-art equipment, rightfully proud of all he had accomplished. He met Ralph at a recent fitness expo and has been impressed with his knowledge and drive. He recognized himself in Ralph and wanted to make him a part of what he was building.

He was preparing for the grand opening of Bunz and Gunz II, located only a few miles away from the original. Word of mouth spread amongst the wealthy stay-at-home moms in the area and there was more than enough interest to support a second location. Sure, they could pack up their Range Rovers and drive a few miles, but they far preferred arriving with their jogging strollers.

“Over here we have free weights, squat racks and the Smith machine. I have the cable machine on the opposite wall here, so there is plenty of room to work. We had them set up too close at BG1 and people kept backing into each other. We had some good laughs, but of course it’s a hazard… don’t tell the insurance guy I said that” Carl said to Ralph, with a friendly clap on the back. “Of course, we will move it eventually, but you know what a pain in the ass that will be.” Ralph nodded in agreement.

“Over here you’ve got the spin room, and down that hall we’ve got the locker rooms. Both sets have three full shower stalls, but the ladies’ room also has a wall of vanities with excellent lighting, built in hair dryers, flat irons, curlers, and some other stuff I’m sure I’m forgetting. It’s all meaningless to me but Claire insisted and so far, the female clientele has collectively lost their minds over it. She has also partnered with a local vendor to provide skin and hair care samples. It’s like a freakin’ spa back there.” Carl said, rolling his eyes. “I tell you all of this because I will need you to pop in there when it’s slow to restock those items. These ladies love their free stuff, so it goes quickly.” Ralph nodded.

“Here I am running off at the mouth and haven’t let you get a word in; do you have any questions for me?” Carl asked Ralph.

“I just need to confirm when you need me here. I’ve got the PT contracts and system access, which I’ve tested. I’m familiar with the equipment, though I’ve never had it so new,” Ralph said, and Carl beamed. “How often does the GM come through?” Ralph asked.

“Since things are just starting up here, you should expect to see Steve here almost every day for a few hours at least until we can be sure all of the kinks are worked out. Afterward he should spend more time at BG1 and you’ll only see him maybe once or twice a week. The trainers will run the show for the most part. I only hire people I feel like I can trust, and I feel like I can trust you.” Carl said, clapping Ralph on the back again.  

A chime sounded indicating that the front door opened. Both Carl and Ralph turned to see who it was.

“There she is!” exclaimed Carl. He gestured to Ralph to come along and together they walked back toward the front door.

“Hey babe, come help me with this.” Claire said.

“Coming dear!” Carl said with exaggerated compliance, picking up his speed. Ralph matched his pace and moved to assist Claire with the load of bags and packages she was wrestling.

Ralph ran his arm through a set of bag handles currently occupied by Claire’s arm. When their skin touched, he felt electric. She was so warm and smelled like something familiar but exotic at the same time. Like a fresh baked pie made with fruit he’d never tasted before but was dying to try. He pulled his arm back toward himself, bringing the bag with him.

“Thanks, hun!! Claire said to him, making confident eye contact. Ralph smiled sheepishly and offered up his free arm for the last package she was carrying. “You’re an angel” she said with a sigh of relief, as she unburdened herself.

Carl was taking his load of packages into the adjacent juice bar and Ralph followed, wanting to turn back to see whether Claire was behind him, but resisting the urge.

As he was unloading, Carl said “Ralph, I’d like to introduce you to my better half, my beautiful wife, Claire.”

Ralph straightened to see Carl standing with his arm around Claire. Making a show of wiping his hands on his pants, his palms were sweating profusely, he walked toward them and extended his hand in greeting, saying “it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Claire made a ‘pfft’ noise and waved his hand away. “I’m a hugger!” she said and extended her arms toward him. He had to lean down to accept her tiny frame into his embrace. He felt her rock-hard implants pressing against his chest and he felt his jeans get a little tighter. He kept his arms loose and gave her an awkward little pat on the back. Still, she stayed longer than was comfortable. She broke the embrace but ran her hands down both of his arms, assessing him. “Oh, the ladies are going to loooove you!” she said, with a little sideways grin.  

“Hey, hey, calm down, I’m right here!” Carl said good naturedly. Claire giggled in response, returning to Carl’s side.

She looked up at him, “Babe, you know you’re the only one for me!” Claire stood on her tip toes and gave Carl a chaste kiss on the cheek.

They stood there together for a moment, just looking at each other and Ralph felt like he should be anywhere but here.