Within the Heart of Man
Short Story by: Barney Wilde
A man, with his head down, attempted to block out the world and as such be blocked out by the world. In front of him, a couple, in a loving embrace, but still wary of their dark surroundings. In front of them another man, also with his head down, but his eyes dancing around his surroundings, ever aware. Another man in front of him, dark, brooding, evil. Then in the front of all, a woman, a lone woman, out later than she ever would willingly be, trying to get to the safety of her home as quickly as possible.
It is with this woman that our story begins and ends; begins and ends with fateful shortcut down a dismal alley.
As the woman enters the alley, the brooding man follows without any effort of disguising the intent of his actions. The woman’s pace quickens, but there is no hope of escaping in time. Within seconds the man pulls out a gun and grabs the woman’s dress, but he is halted by a noise from behind. It is the next man, standing at the entrance of the alley, with a street lamp backlighting him, making his face undistinguishable, the couple and the first man hurry past, none to eager to be involved. Without a word the rapist pulls his gun and fires three times, but the uninvited guest does not even flinch. Though this is not to say that the shots missed. Much to the shock and fear of the assailant, the man began his approach, with a gaping hole in his head, one in his shoulder, and the third in his chest, beams from the street lamp shining through.
"What the hell?" the man exclaims.
He didn’t quite get the answer he wanted. The gunman gets the strange figure, approaching him quickly, the holes in his body closing up, and the beams of light fading, ending with the gun clattering away and a fleshy crunch. His blood curdling scream was heard for miles.
"I saw him," Cynthia said. They were five friends who had known each other for the better part of a decade. Cynthia sat facing the window spinning her cigarette box in her fingers. Rand sat to her left reading a fashion magazine, out of habit he pulls out his lighter, lights the cigarette that Cynthia had just pulled out, flips the cap shut, and puts it back in his pocket. Next was Terry, the outgoing party-boy photographer who took still shots at the studio they all worked at. Then there was Michael, listening to the intense conversation that Joey was going on about. The subject eluded him, something about log cabins. And last but not least, Terry, who was doodling on his napkin.
"Abe Lincoln?" Terry asked, not having a clue what was going on, thinking she had been listening to their conversation.
"What?...No!...I saw...HIM." There were still no signs of understanding. "Never mind." She rolled her eyes. The rest of the meal was finished much as it started, with only Terry talking.
"The Guardian, that’s what they call him right. He was who you were talking about, at the diner." Rand was sitting with Cynthia in her office.
"You mean you knew what I was talking about and you let me look like an idiot?" She pulled out another cigarette, even though it wasn’t allowed inside.
"Yep," he lit her cigarette, closed his lighter, and put it back in his pocket, "but were you really expecting an intellectual discussion?"
"Whatever..." She took a drag and swallowed it.
"Where’d you see him?" Rand asked.
She leaned in close to whisper, "Going into the back entrance of ‘A’ Building." She leaned back.
His eyes shot to hers and he, in a louder than necessary voice, said, "You mean our ‘A’ Building?" Cynthia hushed him...He continued in a whisper, "Next door?"
"Yeah, I bet whoever he really is, like his ‘cape off, suit and glasses alter ego’, works here."
"At a fashion magazine?" Rand countered with a hint of doubt.
"Why not, I mean yeah, it’s not exactly the criminal info center that a newspaper would be, but that would be a little to much of a cliche, wouldn’t it."
A week passed, and nothing more was mentioned about their conversation, until... "Rand!" Cynthia waved him into the corner where she wouldn’t be overheard. "Look at this." Her tone was excited, and this time she didn’t bother to whisper. She held out a stack of photos.
"Yeah, what are they?" He wasn’t impressed.
"They’re pictures!" Rand rolled his eyes to indicate that he was perfectly aware that they were pictures, it was the subject of the picture he meant to indicate. "Of him." She continued, this time returning her tone to a whisper.
"Are you sure?" He took another look, and sure enough, it was the Guardian. "Where the hell did you get these?"
"I messed with the security cameras on the building across the street, then I bribed the security guard for a copy of the tape."
Rand didn’t raise his head, but he trained his eyes on her.
"What?!" she said, "So I threatened his weekly drag queen charades, big deal! Besides, this is the only way I could get anything solid. You know they never release any details from the police reports."
"Didn’t he have another ‘performance’ across the street last night?" He pointed at the badly angled still shots, "So technically you would have gotten better footage if you’d left them alone."
"Yeah, I noticed," she said, not bothering to hide the fact that he had poked her on a sore spot. "And it sucks, but I didn’t know he’d be over their. I mean, what are the odds, but I did know he’d be back here. So at least I got something."
"Ok, I didn’t exactly know, but now I do." She poked the photo. "Now we finally have something to go off of." They went into Cynthia’s office and shut the door.
"So what do we know already?" She laid out the pictures on her desk. Rand simply shrugged his shoulders when she looked at him. She rolled her eyes and began to answer her own question. "Here," she pointed at one of the photos, "look at his shoulders, they’re slouched, and his head is hung low. Everything about this pictures shouts sadness. Either sadness over what he has done, or why he had to do it. I’d guess why he had to do it."
Out of the corner of his eye, something broke Rand’s attention. He gestured out Cynthia’s window. At that moment, Michael walked up to the office door and knocked. Cynthia told him to come in.
"Oh, sorry," he stammered. "I didn’t realize you were busy." He was prodding his shoulder with his fingers as he stuttered on, "I, uhm...I was just wondering if maybe if it was alright if I headed home a little early, I uhm hurt my shoulder last night, and it’s killing me, but I’ll stay if you need me to."
"No, it’s alright Michael. You can head out early if you need to."
"Th-thanks," he turned around quickly and headed down the hall.
"Did you buy that?" Rand asked with a curious look on his face.
"What do you mean?" and Rand showed her what he meant. In one of the photos, the Guardian was holding his right shoulder, and in another one you could just make out a tattered exit wound where something, possibly a bullet, had torn it’s way out of the back of his jacket.
"No," Cynthia exclaimed.
"Why not," Rand countered.
"Are you kidding, that’s just a coincidence. Michael is the most paranoid person I know. You could sneeze in the next room and it would startle him."
"Are you sure, I mean think about it. It’d be the perfect cover. Who would suspect him knowing how paranoid he is. It could be just an act." She looked at him doubtfully. "Ok, so it’d be an Oscar worthy act, but...hey, you’re the one who got me interested in this. It’s your fault if I start jumping to conclusions."
"Whatever," she slid over a picture that almost showed the Guardians face, "I’m going to take this to a guy I know who does photo enhancement. See if I can get anything out of it."
Later that day Rand and Cynthia were sitting in the diner, drinking coffee, when they got a call from Terry, "Hello." Cynthia answered her phone.
"Cynthia! Are you alright?"
"What are you talking about?"
Rand watched her, unsure of exactly what was being said on the other end.
"Are you serious?" She continued.
"Was anybody hurt?" She waited and her expression relaxed.
"Well that’s good." She shut her phone and looked at Rand, "There was a fire at our building."
Rand sat up in his chair.
"Our whole floor was torched." She pulled out a cigarette and put it between her lips, "All my pictures are ruined now." Rand leaned forward, lit her cigarette, and put his lighter back in his pocket. "I knew I should have kept them on me!"
Rand put in, "Aren’t you even a little bit concerned about our real work? I know I don’t have any of my files backed up from my computer. I’m screwed!"
"How can you even think about that right now? Don’t you get it?"
"He set the fire!"
"Are you kidding me? That’s ridiculous."
"Only our floor was hit. And just coincidentally the same day I get pictures of him." She put out the butt of her cigarette in the ash tray.
"I don’t know," Rand drained the rest of his coffee. "I gotta go home and redo the budget reports. Work doesn’t stop for anything, even fires and super-heroes. See you later."
Three days later there had been no more sightings. The reality of the fact that Cynthia had lost the best lead she had on discovering who the Guardian really was had finally started to kick in. She began to think that she might never get that close again. If she only knew.
She was on her way back to her office. She had just sat in on an interview with a model that their magazine was considering using. It was the middle of the day and the last thing on her mind was what was lurking around the corner. As she passed an alley, she saw a man hunched over coughing violently.
She ran to him thinking it may have been something serious, but as soon as she was near him the man stood up and whispered, "You want to give me your purse, don’t ya?"
She could feel the barrel of his gun pressed against her stomach. The sound of the hammer being pulled back made her flinch.
"That’s what I thought," he said as he ripped the purse from her hands. Then, instead of running off with her purse, he dropped it and raised the gun to her head. She was about to die, and had barely lived, but gun wasn’t aimed at her. It was aimed past her. And he fired.
The powder blast burned in Cynthia’s eyes. She fell to the ground. She could barely see, but she could just make out the gunman backing away as a dark figure closed in on him. As the Guardian walked passed her, through the haze that kept her so far away even though she was closer than she had ever been, she noticed something odd. A red streak growing beneath his left eye. It almost looked like a tear, but she couldn’t be sure.
As the he passed her and grew hazy as the distance between them increased, the blur of the Guardian approached the blur of it’s prey. A sudden motion, and the sound of braking bones, and she blacked out.
When Cynthia woke up, her eyesight had nearly fully returned. She could see Rand, looking at her intently, Michael, looking like he had just woken up, Terry, looking at the nurse and winking, and Joey, looking like he was trying to hide in the back. She was in a hospital bed, and they were standing beside it.
"You okay?" Terry asked.
"What happened?" She didn’t mean to imply that she couldn’t remember what had taken place, but it was the first time she had been through something that made her black out.
"You don’t remember?" Michael asked.
At first she didn’t respond. Her focus was fixed on Joey, who was standing in the back, avoiding making eye contact.
Later that day Rand was sitting with Cynthia in her apartment. "Did see Joey?"
"Of course, he was right there with us."
"No, I mean did you see how he wouldn’t make eye contact with me?"
"I don’t know, I wasn’t really paying attention."
"The guardian walked right by me. He looked right at me. I could barely see because of the powder burns on my eyes. I’m don’t think he knew I could barely see him. Joey thinks I could see him."
"Now look who’s taking a leap to conclusion-ville?" Rand mocked softly.
"Why else wouldn’t he look at me?" She shot back.
"Hey," Rand raised his hands, "don’t bite my head off. I’m not saying your wrong, I’m just saying this, can you imagine Joey viciously breaking somebody’s arm?"
Cynthia’s expression was one of only partial consent. "You’ve still got to figure in the possibility of evasion."
"What?" Rand didn’t seem to understand.
"In public, he makes an effort not to seem like it could possibly be him. Who would suspect a calm, quiet, shy person to be an arm breaking vigilante?"
"Or perhaps he is someone who simply lives his life however he lives it. Have you even considered looking at people who actually might be him?"
Cynthia paused absent mindedly. If she had heard Rand she didn’t noticeably acknowledge him. "There’s something else."
Rand decided not to verbally tell her to continue but instead just look at her and wait.
"I could barely make out any detail when I say him, but I noticed one thing." She paused and pulled out a cigarette. Rand leaned forward, lit it, leaned back, closed his lighter, and put it in his pocket. "A bloody tear falling from his eye."
Rand didn’t respond immediately, but when he did he appeared confused, "A bloody tear? Don’t you mean a splatter of blood on his face?"
"I mean what I said," she took a long drag on her cigarette. "I saw it as it formed. It happened after he was shot. And I don’t think he can get hurt. I saw flesh through the whole in his shirt. It was definitely a bloody tear. Don’t you see what that means."
Rand didn’t seem to understand, "Glandular dysfunction."
"Oh, that’s funny." Cynthia wasn’t amused. "It’s obvious that this person is passionate about what he does. He has the mind-over-matter ability to take a bullet to the head and not even slow down. In one swift motion he can snap both of the bones in a mans arm," she put out the cigarette in the ash tray on the coffee table, "the idea that a human being can be so insensitive to his or her fellow human beings that the stress of that thought actually causes the blood to seep out of the veins and mix with his tears, causing him shed tears of blood. Joey is quiet and shy, which are two things that often go hand in hand with hidden passion. Passion that could be let out, say, by fight the people that make the world a horrible place to live in."
Rand wasn’t looking at her any more, but she continued, "I even double checked it. I went back to the alley he was at last week. I found tiny drops of blood that started a few feet outside of the alley and led into it."
"I still say it’s a stretch." He looked out the window. "I think maybe you’re just putting too much hope into this. Reading in to things to make the Guardian more real"
"Well you can think what you want," she smiled a not entirely fake smile. "As for me, I’ll keep my high hopes."
Two days later every news station was in a flurry. Arial footage was being broadcast on every channel. A bank robbery turned mass homicide had the guardian chasing the killers into an open field. If their had been any doubt about the Guardian’s ability to heal himself it had been extinguished. Each of the assailants unloaded every round they had into him without missing a single shot. While the Guardian did falter from time to time, he never stopped. He couldn’t stop.
The scene was grisly. When one of the men tried to run for a child who had wandered into the mayhem and use him as a shield, the Guardian picked up a stray stone and threw it as hard as he could shattering the pathetic creatures spine, just below his neck. The rest of the altercation would later be described as indescribable. The three of the five men who survived it would later say that they did not remember it as though it happened. It was more of a nightmare that they could neither deny nor accept as reality.
Cynthia and Michael watched the whole thing from the television mounted on the far wall of their downtown offices. Their floor was still under massive reconstruction because of the fire. As the broadcast ended Rand burst through the door and headed straight for them, "Did you see that?" he shouted. He had been on his lunch break when it happened.
"We just saw," Michael pointed up at the screen. "Did you see what he did? He tore those guys apart!"
"I’d never seen anything like that in my life." Rand ran his hand through his hair. Though his neatly pressed shirt was in perfect condition, the run to the office drenched him in sweat. "I was walking past a electronics shop when I saw it on TV through the window. I ran up hear as fast as I could. Is Terry alright?"
"What are you talking about?" Michael asked.
"He was at the bank wasn’t he?" Rand asked.
"Oh my god! You’re right." Cynthia gasped. "He had gone to drop off a deposit. He should have been back half an hour ago!"
"You don’t think..." Rand didn’t dare finish.
The look in his eyes that went to Cynthia showed him that the meaning of what he said was meant to sound different to her than it did to Michael.
Michael got up. "I’ll be right back," he ran out the door, and Rand sat next to Cynthia.
"We have two possibilities here." Rand whispered.
"Terry was at the bank, so he either was victim or a savior." Cynthia expanded on the thought. "We know it’s someone we work with, and I doubt it’s a coincidence that the Guardian was in the same bank that Terry was at the time of a crime."
At that very moment Terry walked in the door. His eyes were red, and he looked nervous. Michael walked in behind him.
"Are you okay?" Cynthia and Rand asked simultaneously.
"Uhm, yeah," Terry’s voice faltered. "I was lucky."
Cynthia glanced at Rand and Rand glanced back. She was sure she new what he was thinking, and he knew what she was thinking.
It was dark. Rand was about to walk around the corner onto the next street when Cynthia, who he hadn’t known was following him, spoke, "You left a gap."
Rand stopped, but he did not turn around.
"It was almost flawless," she continued, "but you didn’t have time to buy a new one."
When Rand still didn’t turn around she simply continued. "At the time I didn’t realize what was unusual about that day. Like every other day, we went to drink coffee. Like every other day you lit my cigarette. Unlike every other day, you didn’t close your lighter. You didn’t close your lighter because didn’t have your lighter. You used a cheap disposable because you had rigged your lighter to set fire to our building after we left on break because the pictures could have given you away. Once I realized that, I realized that you had perpetuated every wrong idea that I had. After that the light shined on everything else.
"Do you mind?" she asked.
He nodded slightly.
"It probably wasn’t likely that I would get anything out of the pictures, but you also couldn’t take the risk."
He again nodded.
" As for Michael’s should, I’m guessing that was just a convenient coincidence, seeing that you can’t get hurt."
Rand spoke for the first time, "Believe me, it hurts like hell at first, but you’re right."
Cynthia continued, "That day in the alley, you couldn’t have know for sure that I hadn’t see you. You had to go on the hopes that the close proximity gun-blast had temporarily blinded me, but that still doesn’t explain Joey."
"Joey’s been in love with you for three years. He threw up when he heard you were in the hospital. He was afraid you’d see weakness in his eyes. That is why he couldn’t look at you."
"The day at the bank was more complicated wasn’t it. You had to take out that whole mob and still get back fast enough not to raise suspicion. When you got back to the office, you were sweating, but you shirt was in perfect condition. You changed shirts because they had torn the other to pieces."
He still didn’t turn around. Cynthia continued, "Is he a split personality?"
Rand spoke this time in a voice that, to Cynthia, sounded like a different person, "No, he is me..."
"And if I took out a gun, and shot you right now...?"
"I would die, a painful death..."
"But if I was a rapist, caught in the act, and shot you...?"
"Within seconds the wound would heal, and I would destroy the part of you that you used to destroy another."
Rand’s head lowered slightly, "If I can’t be left in peace, I can’t continue, and I can’t help anyone."
Cynthia nodded. Even though Rand never turned around and couldn’t see her, he gave a nod of acknowledgment to her silent promise .
Without another word, Rand continued around the corner. Behind him there was a couple and a man. In front of him another man, and in front of all, a woman.
And here our story ends, in the same place it began. The woman enters the alley, followed by the man.
I shed these tears of blood...
Rand stops at the entrance of the alley and watches. The couple and the other man hurry past.
With sorrow through and through...
As the assailant pulls his gun, a single red tear falls to the ground.
For all the world has spit upon...
The couple glances back and sees the Guardian step into the alley.
I shed these tears for you...
© Copyright 2017 Barney Wilde. All rights reserved.