UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 11/2012
CHRISTIAN RILEY


THE HAND COLLECTOR

         Andrew Gallo collected hands. Hands to look at, to examine the soft wrinkles that folded over bony ridges and outlying tendons. Hands with fingernails short or long, brightly painted trendy colors, or besoiled in earthy tones. Hands that held pens, phones, key chains, shopping lists, money, tits and cocks, little black books and guns and other hands, dead or alive, just like his.

         Andrew was a smart toad of a man. He was a brilliant engineer in the middle of his life. He had no wife or kids to bog him down. No girlfriend or boyfriend to bother him with their needs. Andrew had plenty of free time, which allowed him to collect bloody hands, freshly severed from unsuspecting victims who moved throughout their day amongst a sea of other rushing bodies, pacing sidewalks, dancing under strobe lights, shivering under wet bus stops, that sort of thing. Theirs were premium hands, warm on the inside, never mind the outside. Hands with thoughts. Hands with direction. Hands that waited for their next task, their next move, their next scratch, flick, brush, or rub. Andrew's hands.

         He kept his hands in the basement where they were appreciated.

         "A plump one there, Andy. It's gonna take weeks to dry."

         "Yes, I know, Mother. Truck driver, most likely. I think. Maybe a construction worker of some sort."

         "Careful not to nick the flesh."

         Andrew turned on his rotary tool and gently pushed the grinding wheel into the wedding ring. Seconds later, he dropped the ring into a mason jar. He placed the jar onto a shelf full of other mason jars that were full of other rings, gold and silver. A small fortune indeed, yet simply a byproduct of his real treasure. "Do I ever 'nick the flesh,' Mother?"

         "You are steady, my son... Time for church yet?"

         The basement was also particularly special for the drying of hands. And as much as Andrew loved a fresh hand to squeeze and hold, to ponder and toy with, to do sick things with in the privacy of his bedroom, he was always quick to hang such hands from the wooden support beams under the house, with all the others. Andrew was quick to get those hands up high, where they would dry and add more character to his collection, because shit, there were so many hands in the world, it made Andrew fester with excitement each time he hung another one up.

         "Hang him over there, next to Melissa." The fresh, fat hand brushed against Melissa with her gaunt features, bumping her with its weight, making her sway lightly in the air. "That's right. Not so lonely now, are you girl?"

         "She's dead, Mother. Been dead for three years."

         "I know, son. It's just that...well...she's been up there in that corner by herself all this time. A young, pretty little thing, living alone, so helpless and--"

         "Listen to you. You sound, crazy."

         "I guess it's just comforting to know that Melissa's got somebody to keep her company now. Mother's instinct, you wouldn't understand." "Would you like me to make them embrace? I can squeeze them together with a clamp, and it'd be like they were fucking. Melissa's truck-driving husband, Malcolm, on the road for weeks at a time, home at last to give it to her good and hard."

         "Don't be smart, Andy."

         Malcolm and Melissa. Betty. Horace. Lilith, Josephine, Francine, Paul, Michael, Larry, Bob, Stuart, Myron, Mable, and Annie Mae. And so many more, hanging from the beams by parachute cord. Hands.

***

         Andrew's brilliance as an engineer allowed him to work at home. "They" called him. NASA. The Department of Defense. Even General Electric, on occasion. And between the three-car garage and the basement, Andrew had every tool a guy could ever want. Tools such as metal lathes, band saws, jointers, shapers—everything. Because of this, the entirety of his house was an aromatic mixture of sweet oil and musty wood. Burnt plastic, and various chemicals. Only a hint of rotting flesh easily explained as dead rats in the attic. And if Andrew was the type, had he thought about it, he might have concluded that all those tools, and aromas, came together to form the inspiration for his famous mechanical designs. Perhaps even, for his infamous one.

         Her name was Shelly. Made from titanium carbide with an aluminum casing, Teflon joints, operated and functioned solely by compressed air, Shelly was a miniature pneumatic guillotine. She was Andrew's pride and joy. She used to be a simple machete, back in the day of hacking off kitty paws. But now, Shelly sat comfortably in a glass case in his living room, openly naked for Andrew's few friends to scratch their heads at, wondering what the hell she was all about. Just another one of Andy's cool designs, they supposed. And during his free time, when Andrew pursued his hobby, Shelly sat comfortably in the pocket of his trench coat, waiting.

         "I still think you should forget about the library. Too quiet."

         "Oh, but don't you see? That's exactly why it's perfect, Mother. People read at libraries. They browse. They wander the aisles of favorite books and magazines, captivated by their thoughts. They would never suspect Shelly."

         "Still...it seems risky. There'll be cameras, you know?"

         A disguise of face and body is the simplest of creations for someone who designs remote controlled reaching tools harbored on the starboard side of the space shuttle. Andrew never worried about cameras. And he was correct: the library was perfect. When he brushed against mentally absorbed patrons, squeezing past through aisles carrying books, clumsily dropping books while said patrons dropped hands to offer assistance, Shelly reached out and snatched those hands right off. Plucked and dropped into her aluminum casing they went, as Andrew then swept away for the nearest exit. Always, he'd be halfway out the building before the scream came.

         "I guess I shouldn't underestimate you, Son. You've been doing this for quite some time."

         "That's right, Mother." Andrew hung another hand next to Melissa, opposite side. "There now. Every girl's fantasy—a threesome. Two guys to plug her up from both ends like she was a—"

         "Shut your mouth, Andrew Gallo...! Do I need to get the bar of soap?"

***

         Over the years, Andrew had grown much bolder, and more creative with the places he chose to collect his hands. For in the beginning, it was only sleeping hands. Hands cuddled in blankets, safe in bed, deep in the night, as another effortless task for someone as smart as Andrew was the breaking of an entry. Apartment complexes were always his favorite, since they offered up so many suspects—a comical reflection for Andrew when he observed the many doors on his way out toward the street, or alley way. Yet now it was libraries. Bus stops and dance floors. Crowded walkways in the middle of Downtown's bright and sunny day—a simple challenge of where to collect his next hand.

         "I think you're just bored, that's what this is."

         "Still doubting me, Mother?"

         "The library is one thing, but the county courthouse? They've been looking for you for years, Andy. Every person in that building knows about you."

         "Every person in this county. And in Sedgwick. Homer and Fenton. Brisbane and a few others, I suppose. But I'm heading for Tanner County, next state over, Mother. Don't think I've collected any hands from that place, have I?"

         "Doesn't ring a bell."

         Time and distance was an equation for complacency in the hordes of wandering hands of the world. Andrew Gallo understood this, of course, which was one reason for his indomitable success in capturing his victims unaware. Wait a few weeks, even months. Drive far from home, enjoy the ride. Pay cash, park the car, drink coffee, chew gum, read a book or two, stare out from the windshield and observe; simple as pie, and effective too.

         "Excuse me sir, can you tell me where the restroom is?"

         "Right over there, down the hall. Second door to your left."

         "Hey, you're that judge who put away that gang of bank robbers, aren't you?"

         "Who, me? No, I'm just a—"

         "Good to have guys like you around." Andrew reached out for a handshake, man reciprocated, (natural response), they shook hands, nodded and smiled, his teeth were pearly white with pink gums, Andrew's teeth were stained yellow, gums that bled wantonly from lack of care, and it's amazing, thought Andrew, how a person flattered from mistaken identity could become so defenseless with a false ego, so complacent, and so completely unaware.

         "Where was that bathroom again?" Andrew stared down the hall. Man reciprocated stare, (natural response). Shelly swept forward and grasped the shaking hand. Titanium carbide teeth severed flesh bone and sinew. Job finished.

         "Just down there, second door to the—"

***

         THE HAND COLLECTOR STRIKES AGAIN.

         That's how the papers printed it, actually, finally, and it made Andrew laugh with joy. Pure, unadulterated validation.

         "You should've seen his face, Mother."

         "And he wasn't a judge?"

         "No, not at all. Just some random guy. Had money though, that's for sure." Andrew dropped a ring into a mason jar. "Princeton Alumni. First one of those."

         "Perhaps you should start a new collection, Son."

         A pause.

         "What could be better than hands, Mother?"

***

         To his credit, Andrew wasn't a killer. Wasn't even a full-fledged maimer, in that others of his craft might have sought the greedy path by attempting to leave their victims without any hands at all. Andrew wasn't even that greedy back in the day when Shelly was a machete. The reason for this was that he enjoyed watching cats get around the neighborhood on three paws. Andrew appreciated his work. He took pride in it, studied it, and observed it. And so, every once in a while, Andrew took a vacation from his hobby to do just that.

         "Let's go see Melissa again. See how she's doing."

         Every once in a while, Andrew observed his past victims doing ordinary things in ordinary places.

         "I wonder if she has a boyfriend yet. Pretty little thing, I do feel sorry for her."

         And every once in a while, Andrew could be nothing but the nicest guy around.

         "Let me give you a hand loading those bags, Miss."

         "Ah...excuse me?"

         "Oh, I'm terribly sorry. Poor choice of words," Andrew shook his head. "I can be such an idiot sometimes."

         "Oh, that's okay. And, thank you."

         "Please, don't mention it. My wife lost her feet to diabetes, young and early. Real shame, tore her up something awful... But we manage. We know how it is."

         "I'm so sorry to hear that. That's terrible."

         "Ah, it's nothing, really. Is what it is, as they say. But I've gotta ask ya; how in the world do you drive this car?"

         "Um, well, I've got an attachment on the steering wheel."

         "Really...? I wonder if they make something like that for people with no feet? Mind if I take a look?"

         "Ah, well, sure. Okay, I guess."

         "How 'bout that. That's a handy little gadget, ain't it? Well, gotta be going now. You have yourself a nice day, Miss."

         "You too. And, ah, thank you."

         Nothing but the nicest guy around.

***

         An explanation of criminal justice in a nutshell: Victims of predators are often the voters. When incidents of crime violate enough of these voters, they tend to speak out, depending upon the political demographics of the assaulted region, (statistics indicate that liberals are often more passive to crime than their hard-nosed brothers). If their voices are loud enough, local politicians reliant upon such voters shake, rattle, and roll. The police chief might then receive a phone call from Jerry-the-Mayor: "Get your goons out on the street to bust some balls!"

         However, when the wave of violence bypasses the masses completely, ascending the hill to somebody like a state senator, that phone call goes something like this: "Hello Jerry, this is Fred Walker, senator... Yeah, yeah, cut the crap. Listen...last night my son got his hand cut off by that wacko of yours... I said cut the crap, Jerry. And don't even think to argue, 'cause we all know this guy is from your jurisdiction. So here's the deal; I'm gonna keep things simple by saying, if you don't find the bastard who cut off my son's hand, you're gonna learn what it really means to have a dragon breathe down your neck. You think everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas? Think again, Jerry-boy... Yeah, that's right. So make some calls and find this asshole!"

         And of course, Jerry knows a lot of people, Federal people, who also know people, and since Jerry also knows what happened in Vegas, and that photographs never lie, he picks up the phone and calls these people. And before long, there are much more than local detectives sniffing the neighborhoods of Jerry's jurisdiction.

***

         Three weeks later, they busted Andrew's door down, and the first thing they found was Shelly sitting in that glass display case. She had been buffed to such brilliance, it seemed as if the tool smiled in mockery at the police officers, the detectives, and the forensic lab rats. They found everything in Andrew's house as it was, hands and all; twenty years' worth of baffling crimes closed in a single day. They even found the box of kitty paws up in the attic. They found everything they needed to solve the riddle of 'The Hand Collector,' except, of course, for Andy himself. For Andrew Gallo really was one smart toad of a man. First sign of a federal agent knocking at his door—recorded and alerted by hidden camera stashed in the eaves—and Andy turned into Larry who was out the backdoor on his way to a motel room fifty miles away near his storage unit that kept a small stash of old, personal belongings, packed and ready to go.

         "Oh, I sure do miss the gang. Especially Melissa."

         Old, personal belongings included an old identity.

         "I miss Shelly."

         Old identity included a passport, foreign bank account, and open airline tickets.

         "You would miss her, Andy."

         And in Greece, on the small island of Nisos Samothraki, commonly referred to as Nisos, was Larry's hundred-year old villa, bought and paid for with cash.

         "Call me Larry, Mother. I'm Larry now, remember? Larry Christakos."

         "Oh, whatever, Son. Could you put me up there near the window overlooking the sea? Those Aegean sunsets were always my favorite."

         "Listen to you, Mother. Sounding crazy again." Through that window, Larry observed an orange tabby gracefully walk along a brick wall. A smile crossed his face as he went downstairs into the basement, carrying a mason jar. Now at a table that held a variety of old, rusty tools, Larry brought the mason jar to his lips; a jar filled not with rings, gold and silver, but with pink liquid, and one bright and juicy hand. "Now that," he chuckled, "would be too risky."

With forty story acceptances in less than two years, as well as a recent "Honorable Mention" at L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future Contest, Chris sees no end to his addiction to writing. His stories have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Midwest Literary Magazine, Short Story.Me, Bete Noire, The Absent Willow Review, Underground Voices, Residential Aliens, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and the widely acclaimed anthology from The Horror Zine, A Feast of Frights. You can reach him at chakalives@gmail.com, or at his rather static blog, frombehindthebluedoor.wordpress.com.







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