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August 08, 2022

The Price of Freedom

By Steve Carr

Jerry Straub suddenly appeared in the alleyway as naked as a newborn baby. A black rat scurried out from under a garbage dumpster, saw Jerry lying on the cobblestones, reared up on its hind legs and squeaking frantically, turned and fled down a sewer. Jerry opened his eyes and blinked them hard several times as they adjusted to the glare of the light being cast from a streetlight on the curb at the far end of the alley. He then looked up at the full moon that shone brightly in the star-filled sky. He knew it was called the moon, and the twinkling lights were stars. He knew the names for everything in the alley, and what he saw beyond the alley, the street, the cars going by, the neon sign in the store window on the other side of the street, and retained as much knowledge about each thing he saw as almost any adult individual of average intelligence knew, but he didn't know his own name or where he came from. He sat up and shook his head, trying to clear his brain of what felt like dense fog. He stood up just as a man staggered into the alley.

"Whoa, bud, where's your clothes?" the man asked drunkenly, his speech slurred. He leaned against a wall and fumbled for his pants zipper. "I need to take a leak. I hope you don't mind."

Jerry didn't respond but eyed the man from head to toe, noting the similarity in their sizes. The man was dressed in a disheveled gray suit and green floral tie. Although slightly scuffed, his loafers were a very expensive brand and new.

"You mind giving me a little privacy here, bud?" the man asked as he finally managed to lower the zipper. Swaying back and forth, he faced the wall and began to pee.

Jerry viewed the man, what he was doing, like a scientist observing a specimen in a petri dish. The man's actions, how he moved, how he relieved himself, were like everything else, recalled clearly, but part of an existence he hadn't been part of for some time. On wobbly legs he walked over to the man and tapped him lightly on the shoulder. A spark of static electricity passed from Jerry to the man.

The man gave Jerry a look of surprise and annoyance through his bloodshot eyes. "Hey man, can't you see I ain't done here yet? Go get your own place to take a piss."

"I feel I should know who you are, but my memory is faulty," Jerry answered very slowly and in a monotone voice, as if he was just learning how to speak. "Do you know who I am?"

"A pest or a pervert," the man replied. "If you don't get away from me I'm going to knock your lights out."

Jerry looked up at the bulb in the streetlight. Moths and other flying insects swarmed around it. Then the bulb flickered and went out, leaving the alley full of shadows cast by hazy moonlight.

Jerry firmly grasped the man's shoulder. A current of electricity went through Jerry's hand, into the man's entire body, causing him to convulse wildly until he fell to the ground. The man lay there with his eyes wide open, staring heavenward, drool spilling from his lips, as dead as the bulb in the streetlight.

A few minutes later Jerry walked out of the alley wearing the man's clothes and shoes.

* * *

The green neon sign in the window of O'Shea's bar flickered as Jerry opened the door and entered the bar. The aromas of beer and stale cigarette smoke assaulted his senses, immediately bringing back vague feelings of longing and desperation. The sound of the jukebox playing softly amidst the hushed chatter of the men and women seated at the tables and in the booths was familiar, but like something remembered from a dream. He had been drawn to O'Shea's as soon as he had exited the alley, and walked the five blocks to it, unwavering in his footsteps, knowing it was his preordained destination. He walked up to the bar and sat on a stool as if he had been doing it during all the time that was as lost to him. He called out to the bartender, and ordered a whiskey sour.

A man in his early sixties, the bartender, Harvey Truett, poured the whiskey in a glass and added the lemon juice and sugar without looking to see who had ordered it. When he placed the drink in front of Jerry he studied Jerry's face. "You look very familiar, but I can't place your face" he said. "Have you been in here before?"

"It was a long time ago," Jerry replied, not certain of the amount of time that had passed, or what month or year it was at that moment. He picked up the glass and took a sip of the drink. Trying to regain his use of speech, something that felt foreign but seemed as necessary as breathing since saying the first words to the man in the alley, he asked, "Who is it I remind you of?"

Harvey tilted his head one way and then the other, gazing thoughtfully at Jerry's facial features. "Nah, you can't be him of course, but you look a hell of a lot like a guy who fried in the electric chair about ten years ago."

"What was his name?"

Harvey wiped the bar with a rag, a pensive expression on his bearded face. After several moments, he said, "It doesn't really matter, does it? He lived and died a nobody other than being known as a murderer."

"Maybe it matters to him," Jerry replied.

"Why should it?" Harvey asked. "As I said, he was put to death a long time ago."

Jerry finished his drink and placed the glass on the bar. "What if he came back from the dead?"

"There would be a few people that wouldn't be very happy about that."

"Why?"

"He may have been falsely accused."

"By who?"

"Just some people who shoulda kept their mouths shut."

Jerry rose from the stool. "Are you one of those people?" he asked, his eyes alight like burning embers.

Harvey stared into Jerry's eyes. He suddenly recognized who he was looking at. "Jerry Straub!" he exclaimed. "You're dead!"

"So, that's my name?" Jerry replied, a bit amused that something as simple as his own name had so much importance. It instantly brought back so many other memories. His reason for existing, his purpose, was also immediately seen through the last of the disappearing mental fog. "I've come to collect on the debt I'm owed for all the time I spent in prison and being put to death for crimes I didn't commit."

Harvey backed up against the shelves of liquor behind him. "They said they'd kill me and my wife if I didn't implicate you in the murders," he stammered.

"They who?"

"That City Prosecutor, Larry Metrick, and his pals, a guy named Stanley Belmont, along with Johnny Carlyle and your girlfriend, Miranda" he replied. "They were all in on it."

Calmly, Jerry reached out his hand. "I didn't want to do what I've come back to do without knowing for sure. I'm glad you told me the truth."

"We're okay then, you and I?" Harvey asked, his voice trembling.

"Of course. You've gone a long way toward paying your debt."

Harvey heaved a sigh of relief and reached out and shook Jerry's hand. At the touch of Jerry's hand, the electric current that surged through his body set him on fire. Within seconds his entire body was consumed in flames that spread quickly to the floor and ceiling.

Jerry left the bar as the other patrons rushed for the exits.

* * *

Knowing his own name allowed Jerry to connect some of the dots from his past. It acted like a sign that pointed a specific direction; he now knew with certainty what had to be done. It also cemented together the missing piece of where he had just come from: hell.

He stood at a nearby corner and watched as the bar burned. It was at O'Shea's that his life of crime had begun soon after meeting Miranda and the small-time crook, Johnny Carlyle. Harvey Truett had introduced them to him. He took the wallet from the back pocket of the pants he had taken from the man in the alley, opened it, and smiled when he saw there were hundreds of dollars inside the bills compartment. As fire engines roared by, he hailed a taxi, and rode across town to the Patterson Arms, a third-rate hotel that catered mainly to lowlifes, wanderers, men and women engaging in secret sexual trysts and sleazy and salesmen traveling on very limited expense accounts who in every case had a penchant for alcohol or illicit drugs and prostitutes.

In the hotel he walked up to the check-in desk. The clerk, a wizened old man in a cheap suit stained with spots of mustard, looked up from the guest ledger he was busily erasing names from. "What can I do for you?" the clerk asked, not masking his annoyance at being interrupted with what he was doing.

"I need a room for a couple of nights," Jerry replied.

The clerk placed the ledger in front of Jerry. "Sign there," he said, handing Jerry a pencil and pointing to a line where another name had just been erased.

Jerry started to sign his name, thought about it for a moment, and then took the driver's license out of the wallet and looked at the name on it. Stanley Belmont, the same name mentioned by the bartender. He wrote Stanley's name in the ledger.

The clerk turned the ledger around, stared at the name, and then at Jerry. "Good idea, not using your real name, Jerry Straub," he said. "But it's not really necessary here."

"How do you know my real name?" Jerry replied, genuinely surprised.

"I know the name of everyone who checks in here. It's my job to know," the clerk answered. "This is just a temporary way station on the way to where most of the guests eventually end up."

"And where would that be?" Jerry asked.

"As if you didn't know," the clerk replied with a sinister cackle. "I was familiar with that Stanley Belmont character though. A bad sort that one, even more than most who have stayed here."

Jerry took money out of the wallet and laid it on the counter. "This should cover me for a couple of nights."

The clerk handed Jerry a key. "Room 33, the same one you stayed in the night of the murders," he said. He then bent over the ledger and resumed erasing names.

Jerry took the elevator to the third floor, walked down a long dimly lit hallway, and went into room 33. It was dusty and dreary, painted and decorated in different hues of ochre and yellow. He kicked off the loafers, stretched out on the bed, and listened to the sounds of violent sex going on in the next room until he drifted off to sleep.

He awoke in the middle of the night to loud banging on his door. He arose from the bed, went to the door, and looked through the peep hole. Astonished, he saw a beautiful young woman standing there. Hesitantly he opened the door. "Jacqueline Mayfield, what are you doing here?" he asked. "You're supposed to be dead."

"We have that in common, don't we?" she asked. She brushed her long honey-colored hair back from her face. "May I come in?"

He stepped back from the door. "Yes, but not before I tell you I'm sorry you were murdered."

"Thank you," she said, and then walked in. "Despite the accusations, I know you had nothing to do with it."

He closed the door. "I'm glad to hear that," he said. "I was allowed to return to get the debt owed me for the ten years I spent in prison and then the electrocution. What are you doing back here?"

She wearily sat on the edge of the bed. "The same as you. I was allowed to return also to collect the debt owed to me, but you've ruined it for me."

"I don't understand," he said.

"You killed Stanley Belmont. He's the man who murdered me and my friends."

Jerry sat down next to her. "I thought I remembered him from somewhere but had no idea who he really was. My killing him was an accident."

"Nothing happens by accident in the afterlife," she said. "When the hotel clerk told me you had arrived here I had to come and warn you before I'm taken back to hell that you're being set up. You could lose your soul for all of eternity if you make a mistake and take a life not owed to you. One of the three you've come to collect debts from wasn't ..."

In that moment, the bedroom filled with acrid smoke and heat. She suddenly vanished.

Jerry picked up his shoes and ran from the room.

* * *

On Sutton Avenue, Jerry stood on the sidewalk and stared up at the darkened windows of the apartment he had once shared with Miranda. They had met at O'Shea's where she worked as a barmaid when she wasn't busy selling heroin to addicts in the city's back alleys and from inside abandoned warehouses along the waterfront. He had gone AWOL from the Army and while he didn't like that she was a drug dealer, he loved her. Besides, he was broke and she always had wads of cash on hand. They lived cheaply, but not because they had to. Their friends were much like they were, young, involved in criminal enterprises of one kind or another, and on the fringe of society. Jacqueline Mayfield and her friends ran in that same circle.

"You a bounty hunter of some kind?" a gravelly voice said from behind him.

Jerry whirled about. In the orb of light being cast by the streetlamp stood a man who from the rags he was wearing and the dirty duffle bag he carried on his shoulder appeared homeless.

"Why did you ask me that?" Jerry replied, unnerved by the man's piercing stare.

"Lighten up," the man replied. "It was a joke. I've been watching you gazing up at that window for a while now and you look like you're on the hunt for something."

"I lived in that apartment a long time ago," Jerry replied, pointing up at the window.

The man looked up at the window and then back at Jerry's face. "You don't look old enough for anything to be that long ago. That entire building has been empty for years."

Jerry suddenly remembered. He was put to death when he was twenty-nine and hadn't aged a day in appearance since then. "I was just a kid when I lived here," he lied.

The man looked down at Jerry's feet. "Nice shoes. You must be doing okay for yourself."

"I do okay. You look like you might have had a run in or two with the legal system. Tell me, do you know who Larry Metrick is?"

The man coughed up a wad of phlegm and angrily spat it near the tips of Jerry's shoes. "The mayor of this city? I hope he rots in hell some day. He does everything he can to make my life even more miserable than it is while he lives high on the hog in that gated community off of Stanhope Boulevard."

"The mayor," Jerry mused aloud. He took out his wallet and took a hundred dollar bill out and handed it to the man. "I owe you."

"I'd rather have the shoes."

* * *

Jerry jiggled the electrified gate with his bare hands, pushed it open, and walked through. Large ornately designed mansions surrounded by manicured lawns sat back from the street. The scent of hothouse flowers hung in the air. His instincts led him to the driveway leading to the mayor's mansion, the only mansion on the block with a red facade, recalling that Larry Metrick once had a fondness for the color red. Every tie Larry Metrick wore when he was the prosecutor was the color of blood. Jerry followed the winding walkway to the front door of the mansion where he stood for several moments before ringing the bell.

When the door opened slightly, a butler wearing a dark blue bathrobe peered out. "The mayor didn't inform me he was expecting such an early visitor. He's still in bed."

Jerry forcefully pushed the door open all the way, lightly tapped the butler on the chest with his finger tips, sending a small jolt of electricity into him, knocking the butler backwards onto the floor. "If you value your life you'll stay there until I leave," he said and then stepped over the butler, walked across the foyer and up a flight of marble steps to the second floor. He opened the door to three bedrooms, each one empty of occupants, until he opened the door to the mayor's bedroom.

"I've come to collect a debt," Jerry announced loudly as he walked in.

The mayor sat bolt upright in his bed, quickly yanking a sleep mask away from his eyes. He glared at Jerry in the dim light. "Who let you in here?" he growled.

"Remember me, Prosecutor?"

It took the mayor a moment before he realized who was standing at the foot of his bed. "It can't be!" he exclaimed. "You're dead!"

"Not so much that you would notice at the moment," Jerry replied. "Seems that everyone in hell and on Earth knew it's because of you I went to the chair. You ginned up fake evidence and bribed, coerced or threatened the bartender and my friends to lie about the murders. You knew it was Stanley Belmont who committed them. I have only one question before I collect the debt you owe. Why?"

The lights to the bedroom suddenly came on. Standing in the doorway in a silk silver negligee was Miranda. "Jerry!" she screamed and then fainted.

The mayor took that moment when Jerry was briefly distracted to lean over and push the emergency call button on his night stand. Seeing this, Jerry leapt on the bed and pinned the mayor down. His face inches away from the mayor's, Jerry said, grinning malevolently, "Enjoy hell, Mister Prosecutor. You've paid your debt to me." Electric currents passed through Jerry's body and into Larry's, turning the former prosecutor into a charred piece of meat.

Hearing the sirens of quickly approaching police vehicles, Jerry jumped from the bed, ran down the stairs and out of the house.

* * *

"You carry your name with you from birth to death," the desk clerk said as he brushed away the remnants of the eraser left on the ledger after erasing a name, "so it's practically the most meaningful thing you take with you to the afterlife."

Jerry stared at Stanley Belmont's signature scribbled on Stanley's driver's license. "And it's the first thing taken from you as soon as you get there," he said. He put the wallet back into his pants pocket. "I think Jacqueline Mayfield was about to tell me that one of the people I've come back to collect a debt from was innocent."

The desk clerk guffawed. "In life she sold heroin to teenagers," he said. "Even in death she's hardly a reliable source of the truth. The first thing pure evil does is sow seeds of doubt."

Jerry turned from the desk and started toward the elevator. "I'll be going out again tonight in search of Johnny Carlyle."

"Just look under any rock," the clerk replied with a chuckle. "The last time he was here he gave the prostitute he was with syphilis. How's that for turning the tables?"

Jerry got into the elevator and rode to his floor and was just about to get out when the elevator doors slammed shut. The elevator fell at an incredible speed, not stopping until it had reached a cavernous room filled with sulfuric smoke. The floor of the room was spotted with pools of boiling oil. Flames arose from crevices that stretched from one rocky wall to the next.

Coiled on a stalagmite that oozed molten lava was the devil, his snake-like body covered with fleshy scales glowing with blood-red iridescence. "You forgot to collect a debt," he said as he twirled a pitchfork.

"Do you mean Miranda?" Jerry replied. "I didn't forget. She was passed out on the floor."

"Why should that matter? It only takes one of your hands placed on someone and they die just as you did, electrocuted." He flicked his long, pointed tongue and ran his webbed fingers over his pointy horns that arose from the top of his forehead. "You know the price of freedom from hell. You collect the debts owed to you and I get their souls."

"I wanted to talk to her first," Jerry said.

"Talk is cheap," the devil bellowed. The walls and floor of the cave shook. "Unless you plan on joining Stanley, Jacqueline, Larry and that idiot bartender in the lake of fire for the rest of eternity, I suggest you get back up there and collect the remaining debts owed to you and the souls that are owed to me."

"And if I do collect the debts, then I get what we agreed on?"

"Of course. I never go back on a promise," he replied with an evil grin.

Instantly, Jerry found himself back in Room 33. It took him a moment to remember his name. He kicked off his shoes and as morning sunlight streamed through the dirty window he crawled onto the bed and went to sleep.

* * *

The room was dark when Jerry awoke. He sat up and stretched, feeling more rested than he could remember ever being. The smell of sulfur and smoke still clung to his clothes and there was a burnt spot on the green tie left behind by a flying ember. He sat on the edge of the bed, straightened his tie and slipped his feet into the loafers that were coated with a dusting of gray ash. He brushed them off with his hands, stood up, and turned on the lights.

Johnny Carlyle was sitting in a chair in the corner. An unlit cigarette dangled from his lower lip. "You're a heavy sleeper," he said.

"How did you know I was here?" Jerry asked, feeling the same repulsion he felt for Johnny that he always felt, although they had once hung out together all the time.

"Miranda called me and told me what you did to her husband," he replied. "I figured that if you've come back from the dead, this would be the only place you would be. The clerk let me into your room."

"How do you know about the dead coming back?"

Johnny took the cigarette from his mouth and put it in his shirt pocket. "You think you're the first guy wanting to collect a debt from me?"

"Why did you do it?" Jerry asked.

"Lie about you, about the murders?" he asked. "The prosecutor was in cahoots with Stanley Belmont in murdering Jacqueline Mayfield and the others. Larry Metrick had his hands deep in the pockets of drug dealers, taking a cut of almost every drug deal that went down in this city. Jacqueline was going to expose Metrick so he had her and her friends snuffed out by Belmont. Miranda and I were next on the list if we said a peep about it. We were told to lie, so we did. You were simply the fall guy."

"So, you all knew what you were doing after all," Jerry muttered. "Jacqueline Mayfield was lying just as the clerk said she was."

"She hanging around here too?"

"Not anymore," Jerry replied. "What you did cost me ten years of my life and being sent to the chair. I have one last question before I collect the debt you owe me. Why was Miranda with Larry Metrick?"

"She never had a choice one way or another about it. He forced her to marry him." He glanced towards the window, and as if suddenly remembering, said, "She's waiting in my car parked outside the hotel and wants to ask your forgiveness."

"Forgiving won't be easy."

Johnny looked down at Jerry's shoes and grinned. "Nice shoes for a man just returned from hell."

* * *

The church was full on the morning of the mayor's funeral, although there were very few tears shed among the mourners. Dennis Powell sat in a pew near the back of the church barely listening to the eulogies given by the mayor's attorney and the City Auditor. During the sermon given by the minister, Dennis casually flipped through the pages of a hymnal. Beside him sat a curvaceous blond with diamond jewelry dripping from her ears, hanging around her neck and dangling from her wrists. She repeatedly tapped his leg with hers, uttering polite murmurs of apology each time, offered with seductive glances. When the church choir stood to sing, she leaned over and whispering in his ear, asked, "Are you new in town? I've not seen you at any of the social gatherings."

"Yes, I am," he replied, "but I'm an old friend of the mayor's and his wife."

"I didn't think he had any actual friends," she said with a slight giggle. She crossed her legs, hiking her black tight-fitting dress a few inches higher above her knee in the process. The scent of her expensive perfume wafted in the air with every move she made. "How awful and strange that poor Miranda was found burned to death in that car less than twenty-four hours after Larry died in a similar way in his own bed, isn't it?"

"Yes it is," he answered. "Whatever they did to deserve that type of death was paid for."

"Paid for?"

"A debt of sorts," he answered with a secretive grin. "Excuse me, tying everything to debts of some kind is an occupational hazard with me." He reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a business card, and handed it to her.

"Dennis Powell, Bounty Hunter Debt Collection Service," she read aloud.

"There must be a lot of money in this sort of thing," she said as she snuggled up against him. "I couldn't help but notice your expensive loafers."

He raised his left foot, showing off the sheen of the freshly polished shoe. "Nothing worth having comes cheaply," he said. "I know of a man who was given a whole new life, a new identity, but the price of it was the debts he collected from others. It was the only way he gained his freedom."

"Freedom from what?"

"Hell," he replied.






Article © Steve Carr. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-05-17
Image(s) are public domain.
3 Reader Comments
Tim
05/18/2021
02:07:29 AM
A dark tale full of twists and turns. Wow, what a thrill ride!
Anonymous
05/19/2021
06:45:46 AM
Good read , very suspenseful.
Joan Herr
06/15/2021
11:44:20 PM
Full of thrills and the unexpected. I enjoyed reading the story so much.
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