I’ve lived in New York City for all my career, which is somewhere between seven years and eternity. It’s hard to get a decent grasp on time in the city that never sleeps, but what I do know is that my days in the city has been a grind. A grind that blunts your bones as much as your spirits. Working at a newspaper was never for me, but everyone told me it was the best way to get my foot in the door. Who doesn’t want to work for the Times? Then before you know it, an entry job becomes a series of long nights and menial raises ending in a stagnant career where your skin pales from the dark wintry weeks and any dreams of starting a family are trounced by the worker bees rushing by on their way to nowhere. And then here I am, Teddy Filmore, covering the latest on rodent attacks or potential alligators in the sewers or the annual hotdog eating contest in my ‘entry level job’ approaching 30 years-old. I had finally found the man who didn’t want to work at the Times and he turned out to be more familiar than I’d imagined.
It’s time for a change, and a substantial one at that. In the middle of an interview with a woman claiming her child is part alien I handed my notepad to my associate, loosened my tie and walked out. I’m tired of being tired, delaying my dreams, settling for this monotonous, lonely existence. I packed the essentials and said goodbye to the few friends who weren’t too tied up in their careers to lift their noses and flew out the next week. Stepping on that plane was frightening of course, but overwhelmingly liberating. The dread of a regretful future and a lifetime of mediocrity lifted off along with that 737. The moment the seatbelt light switched off I felt a strange relation to it – as if the seatbelt on my life had finally been released. I’d miss my friends, but I wouldn’t miss the New York culture. You either rocketed your way toward greatness or fell by the perpetual wayside with the rest of us. It was nothing but a sea of superficial relationships and plans trounced by the skyscraper shadows.
I didn’t know too many people in the City of Angels aside from a couple of loose LinkedIn contacts I’d accrued over the years. One worked at Facebook and another was starting his own hemp business. I decided against reaching out to either. I didn’t hold high hopes for either knowing any A List contacts I was looking to make. It was time to redirect my skills to a more creative pursuit, my dream career: screenwriting. Along with the glamour and fortune, I wanted to make something that mattered, something that would cement my creative mark in the cultural history books. All I would need is my cross-country move, a few like-minded contacts and a pinch of luck.
That luck came faster than I thought possible. After I checked into my hotel I’d stay in until the apartment was available in a couple weeks, I headed down to a bar called Tom Bergin’s. It looked the quaint style I was in the mood for: brick floors, dark wooden countertops, and a copious amount of shamrocks pasted to every square inch of the ceiling and walls. They varied in size and detail, but each had a different name on it, most likely those that had finished some kind of drinking challenge I might put myself up to one day. I briefly scanned the wooden pillar beside me, looking for any names I’d recognize. The bartender welcomed me over with a wave and said, “Can I get you anything?”
My mind whirred in brief unprepared panic. “Um, nothing yet. Still looking.”
He nodded and slid a menu across the bar and winked. “We don’t post our drink menu on the walls around here.” The bartender dashed away to the other end of the bar before I could respond. A man sat hunched over his drink and seemed to pick up on my bewilderment with only a slight turn of his head. He smirked and turned back towards the television perched high above the cluttered assortment of alcohol. I sat beside him and craned my neck up at the television with him. “Dodgers and Atlanta, huh,” I said, as if I knew the first thing about baseball.
“Arizona,” he corrected just before taking a large gulp of his Irish coffee.
“Ah,” I remarked, nodding my head. “Hey how’s your drink, any good?”
He turned towards me, his whole face showing for the first time. His eyes darted up and down before me. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“You got me,” I cackled unnecessarily. “I actually just flew in from New York not a few hours ago.”
“No, not exactly. I’ll be staying in LA. I’m looking to make quite the career change.”
He took another sip and wiggled his lips. “Yeah you and every other New Yawker I meet. Trying to work in the industry?”
I wasn’t quite sure what he meant at first and only deciphered his lingo about halfway through answering. “No not really. Well I’m looking to work in Hollywood and start exploring the creative side of my writing. I’ve been a reporter for way too long.”
He loosened his grip on his beer and finally broke away from the television just as the ball had smacked off an Arizona bat and whizzed past the second basemen’s head. “I’ll take that as a yes. What genre you into?”
“I like realism, examinations of the human condition, psychological thrillers, but you know I’d take pretty much anything I can get.”
He nodded and smiled. “So you came to be creative and you’re into realism?”
“Yeah,” I answered, attempting to keep my confidence as he dismantled my motives. What was I doing in LA? For a moment I considered pulling my phone out and booking a flight back home. But at the time I was glad I didn’t – I was about to land my first gig. Even then I thought it was too good to be true.
“My name’s Vance Diamond and I’m a small-time director around here. It’s a long story, but I kind of got thrown out of the industry recently because realism doesn’t sell anymore.” He extended a hand and I grabbed it firmly. “And your name?”
“Teddy. Teddy Filmore,” I replied. My arm shook violently against his swings. “Is that so? Realism isn’t selling?”
He scoffed. “Think about it, kid. What do we get these days? It’s all wizards and witchcraft and superheroes and twelve-year-olds saving the planet and all that happily-ever-after bullshit.”
I thought for a moment. “Yeah I suppose you’re right.”
“You’re goddamn right I’m right,” his mouth foamed in a mixture of anger, passion, and un-swallowed creamy whiskey. “It’s all fantasy. Nobody wants the truth anymore. Nobody is interested in reality because it’s too fucked up for them to process. The audience wants illusions of grandeur. They want to leave thinking they’re Wonder Woman or Harry Potter or whoever pops their bottle.” He paused for a moment to cool down, then shrugged. “But let’s face it Ted, it’s not helpful the realism thing hasn’t been done right in years.”
“What do you mean?” I’d found my creative match, only moments into my LA residence. To say the least I was at the edge of my seat, willing to ride off a cliff with Vance. I could already picture our names gliding by in white lettering.
“Well you see some of the foreigners get it down well, the Italians are damn near obsessed with it. But when was the last time you saw good old American realism churned out? I can’t think of one. I mean how are these Hollywood nuts supposed to make anything akin to realism from their perches in the hills? They don’t know the first thing about it.” Just then, his face lit up against the dark-wooded bar top. He nearly slapped his drink off the counter in a stupor of wilding thought, excitement, and perhaps a hint of inebriation. “What do you say, Ted, you and me…what do you say we do it?”
“Realism?” I couldn’t help but smile in the vicinity of his childlike enthusiasm.
“Hell yeah. Think about it, we’d be rich. We’d revolutionize the whole industry. We could send those elitists running with their pants down and all we need is genuine human emotion and reaction. We don’t even need a big budget. We just have to show the people what they really need out of film: reality. Vance Diamond and Teddy – what was it?”
“Right. Vance and Teddy revolutionize Hollywood.” Vance motioned in the air in front of him, writing out his own headlines. “So, what do you say?”
He seemed like just the right mixture between ambitious and realistic. Vance might have been down on his luck, but he had the connections we needed. He was my perfect match to slip myself into the film industry, to really make a name for myself. I shook his hand vigorously and said, “I’m in.” It was all meant to be. Or so I thought.
The next day I found myself quite lost in on the docks of LA, turning every which way to orient myself towards the warehouse Vance Diamond told me he rented out. It was to be the revolutionary breeding ground for the film industry…if only I could find the entrance. The warehouse didn’t quite stand out. There were at least 20 side-by-side, nearly identical buildings standing in a row. The ocean waves spattered against the docks and seagulls cawed above while I fumed at vague scribbles on a napkin Vance had drawn out. A few 18-wheelers rolled by, but other than that I was completely alone. I couldn’t tell if any of the warehouses along those docks had been used for anything but storing foreign shipments and dead bodies for years. Finally, I found a wet and faded sign that read ‘17’, the warehouse I was searching for. The door was unlocked so I made my way inside. As soon as the door shut behind me I couldn’t bring my thousand-dollar ‘technological marvel’ to send a single text message. It was old fashioned investigation from there on out. “Hello?” I called out into the darkness. “Vance?” I felt around for a light switch along the wall. I found one and flicked it a few times, but it didn’t work. I sighed aloud. But I was feeling more than impatient: I was more nervous than I’d felt in a long time. “Vance?” I yelled louder. That time my calls echoed off the steel warehouse walls, but no I received no response.
Suddenly, something wisped behind me through the darkness – a hint of concentrated and quick warm air and a shuffle against the concrete flooring. “Hello?” I called out again. Still nothing but echoes. I spun around as if I’d catch anything and predictably saw nothing but darkness aside from the door’s outline from where I entered. I slowly stepped backward, my heart pounding and forehead running cold. On my third step back, my shoe landed in something wet making an eerie soft splashing noise. It reeked of death, making me wonder if my initial sarcastic assessment of the warehouses was as inaccurate as I wanted it to be. “Hello?” I called out for the last time. Before I could finish closing my lips again, a gloved hand sprung from the darkness and spun me around. Within a dazed moment my hands were bound behind my back and my notebook splattered onto the wet floor. The laces of a strong boot banged into my legs from behind, two husky hands grasped my shoulders, and before I knew it I was sat down in a wooden. I heaved with greater fear than I knew a man could feel. Then the florescent lights kicked on, flickering into action one after the other in a row down the warehouse ceiling starting from behind me. Warm blood dripped from my panting nose. I managed to pick my head up just as the last couple lights switched on. Directly in front of me sat a man in a similar position: bound with thick rope to a wooden chair bolted to the ground. “Help me,” he squealed. A streak of blood dripped from his damp hairline.
A loudspeaker coming from seemingly everywhere hissed on. “Welcome, Ted Flintstone, so glad you could make it.” Vance’s voice.
“What the fuck is this, Vance?” my voice cracked when I tried to sound stern.
“Oh, come on Ted,” the loudspeaker pleaded. “Realism, of course. That’s what the fuck this is. We need genuine reaction, pizzazz. It needs to be believable. And you’re going to help me with that. Isn’t that what you came here for?”
“You’re a psychopath,” I cried out. “We were supposed to be partners, Vance. Let me go.”
“Patience, patience please. We are partners Ted. Art is about the creative process,” Vance continued. “the diligence, the craft. The great Zhang Huan allowed flies to chew on his live flesh for an hour in a bathroom stall, Tehching Hsieh locked himself in a cage and spent a year there, Marina Abramovic lit herself on fire and cut all her nails and hair off and tossed them into the flame, passed out and then said she wanted to push herself harder. You need to entrench yourself in your work, feel the craft, broaden your experiences to understand true human emotion, reaction,” he ominously paused and then said, “pain.”
I rocked the chair back and forth with my free legs and tried to wiggle out of the ropes binding my wrists to no avail. “You’re insane,” I called out through gritted teeth.
Vance just laughed, bellowing through the speakers. “I like to call it genius, but you know, semantics. Here’s what you’re going to do for me. My associate is going to hack the man in front of you into little pieces and all you have to do is write about what you saw. Deal?”
I rocked the chair harder. “I’m not writing shit for you.”
He laughed again. “Okay Teddy so here’s the other option. You and Charlie over here can switch roles. He’s not the best writer but I need my genuine reactions. So, you take your pick. Who is going to see their name sparkling in pearly lights and who’s going in Sparky’s dinner bowl tonight? Oh, and Teddy, don’t make me give that decision to good old Charlie.”
As the words dripped off Vance’s forked tongue and hissed over the loudspeaker, Charlie squirmed in his chair like a wolf with its paw stuck deep in a trap, snarling at me in desperation. I saw the fear in his eyes, fear and eagerness. I knew if I waited one moment too long, the meat cubes of my flesh would be spread out everywhere from warehouse 17 to Death Valley.
“Alright Teddy, I’ll count to three. One –”
“Fine, I’ll do it,” I relented. As soon as the words escaped my lips and Charlie withered in sobbing horror I felt the rush of guilt overtake me – an overwhelming feeling that I had locked the pearly gates forever due to my callous decision. If not him, it would have been me.
Vance’s assistant reemerged from behind me. Charlie’s squeals only grew louder, his face and eyes reddened in tragedy. “Please, no, please stop. I’m begging you, please. Is it money you want? Money? Come on my parents are rich, they’ll take care of everything, please. Please stop, no.”
But the masked man didn’t falter. The eyeholes of that black fabric were small enough I couldn’t tell if a pin would fit through. The mask’s disjointed nostrils and circular mouth hole made him look like the most horrifying Halloween ghost I’d ever seen. Despite the pleading, he only grew closer to Charlie. “Excellent choice, Teddy. I knew you had it in you.” I said nothing. I could only watch as Charlie mercilessly pleaded, staring into my cold eyes. I’d never seen a dead man in the moments before his finale. I made sure to account for the lights in his eyes to see if the rumors were true.
“Stop please, I have a family, please. You won’t get away with this, you can’t.” His pleading was soon drowned out by his own sobbing. He choked on his own tear ducts drowning out his eye sockets and throat.
“My, my,” Vance said. “we haven’t even begun.”
With all my attention fixated on Charlie and the task at hand, I didn’t allow myself time to process much of my own emotion. What it must have looked like to him: a man with his frazzled black hair pasted to his sweaty forehead staring at you with deep brown eyes after harshly deciding your fate only moments before. His mouth lay relaxed, but jaw clenched. Pure focus and not a hint of remorse. Sure, I was terrified, but I knew I had no right to be as terrified as Charlie.
“But we shall now,” Vance said. This time Charlie didn’t react at all, not even an extra flinch. His head just hung and shook like an abandoned swing set. “Start with the fingers. And Teddy: I want you to watch his skin split, listen to the bones crack, capture every sight, sound, smell. I need that genuine reaction.” Vance’s elation grew with each word he spat.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” I said sternly.
“Pish posh, of course it does,” Vance quickly replied. “Oh, and Charlie,” Charlie stopped to listen. “Break a leg.”
The masked assistant quickly exposed a mallet from his black robe and dipped down to swing at Charlie’s left shin. It began with a thwack and then a solid break, reminding me of firewood splitting on a cold night’s camping trip. His skin didn’t quite crack, but his voice did just that. Charlie’s head cocked and he squawked towards the skies. “Son of a bitch,” he managed to gurgle through gritted teeth. As the initial pain set in his head dropped back to its original position. He was still sobbing and heaving, but his eyes were already emptied.
“Excellent,” Vance calmly commented. “Did you get all that?”
“Stop this now,” I called out.
Vance swiftly ignored me. “Brilliant. I really felt we captured the element of surprise there telling him the fingers would go first. Anyway, let’s proceed.”
Standing behind Charlie, in one motion the assistant dropped his mallet, allowing the red rubber head to bounce into the floor, then yanked a filet knife from his toolbelt beneath his jacket. It was at that moment I realized this was all choreographed. Vance’s instructions were too incomplete to follow with such confidence. They’d rehearsed these horrific acts countless times before.
The assistant grabbed one of Charlie’s wrists from behind the chair and set it free from the ropes, if only momentarily. He then grasped tightly around Charlie’s hand so all his fingers were firmly together. Charlie’s forearm muscles wiggled in chaotic desperation. His energy was too spent for a real fight.
“Please,” Charlie whimpered. That would be the last coherent word I’d hear him utter.
The assistant quickly raised his armed hand to Charlie’s whitening fingers, then carefully lined the shining blade just below the second knuckle of his pinky finger. This time, he used a fraction of the strength he exerted on Charlie’s shin to cleanly glide through the finger. It was alarming how easily the knife split his finger in two – it didn’t take more effort than chopping a carrot. But what surprised me more was Charlie’s reaction or…lack thereof. His head still hung and swayed, but he let out nothing more than a slight whimper. And his reaction didn’t come when the knife sliced his finger, but rather when it slapped against the wet concrete floor, reddening from the dripping blood. Nothing remained of his crying besides deep crackling moans.
“Well that was disappointing,” Vance exclaimed. “Don’t pass out on me Charlie, we’ve still plenty to do! Charlie? God damnit.” Charlie shivered, his spine hung limp. The assistant released his remaining fingers, allowing the arm to fall limp at his side. “Alright we haven’t got much left in this one. Change of plans – onto his head.”
My eyes lost their stagnant focus and I called back to Vance, wherever he might be. “Just let him go, you got what you need. I’ve seen enough, I can improvise. It’ll be just as accurate as you need.”
“Improvise?” Vance chuckled as if he’d never heard the term. “Improvise? Please Teddy, do you hear yourself? We’re on the verge of rebirthing a renaissance of realism and you want me to improvise?”
“This is sick, Vance. Look at him.” I watched his spine shrivel and neck jolt. Blood dripped like a leaking faucet from his severed finger.
“Onto his head. Don’t make me say it again.”
The assistant carelessly wiped the filet knife on his jacket, leaving a red-stained drag mark, then sheathed it on his toolbelt. He turned around and reached deep into his right front pocket. Following his black glove was a meat cleaver. It sported a light wooden handle with three screws perfectly spaced from each other along the shaft and a curved stainless-steel blade measuring about a foot in length.
My head started to sway, mirroring Charlie’s. For a moment I felt his pain, but not in a physical sense. I felt the little life I knew about him flash across my mind and realize it was over. It would end in darkness in a manner not he nor anyone deserved. Not a soul would ever see him again. And then his name would be forgotten as the surged police department and their canine units went home and the case went cold. if he was lucky he’d appear on a true crime podcast only a handful of people ever listened to.
The assistant raised the cleaver above his head, unnecessarily gripping it with both hands. I couldn’t see his face, but I heard a muted grimace beneath that mask in the form of a large breath followed by a slight grunt as he concentrated all strength available in his triceps.
The assistant spread his legs shoulder-width apart, leaned back slightly more, then swung downward with speed and acute precision, centered down Charlie’s back. The blade stopped short as it pierced Charlie’s neck. His head jolted upwards, eyes widened enough for me to see they were blue. After a second or two more, blood seeped from his closed lips. His eyelids sputtered, head swayed, then collapsed forward like a sack of potatoes. I expected the room’s smell to be of death and rancor, but instead it was coppery. It continued to drip from his finger stumps, and now his mouth followed suit.
Then I felt someone’s hands fiddling with mine behind me. For a moment I thought I’d still be the next victim. I thought maybe I was lied to all along. One of Vance’s distinct, burly hands wrapped around my shoulder and the other pointed forwards, at the masked assistant. His hot breath cascaded over my neck. He heaved down my neck like he’d just finished running. Then he whispered, “Be thankful you didn’t get his job.” The rope fell to the floor in a hurry. By the time I was able to turn around, he was gone. The warehouse door was ajar, allowing a glimmer of moonlight reflecting off the Pacific Ocean to sneak into the building. I ran as fast as I could. I couldn’t believe it – I was free.
I filed a police report soon after the incident, but as I suspected, nothing came of it. There was no such person named “Vance Diamond”, and there was no matching description, no similar murders in or around LA. He freed me because he knew he wouldn’t be caught even after I saw his face. When the police got to the warehouse, there was no sign anybody had been there – no sign they’d been there for years. Cobwebs still strung from every nook and corner of the building. Mushrooms sprouted from the damp floors. But no Vance, no Charlie, no masked man. It was so spotless that I took a second glance at the exterior to make sure the sign was still there and it was: Warehouse 17.
Since the police report, nobody has ever believed me. I was even moments from being charged with filing a false police report, and I would have been if I didn’t offer myself for a polygraph. But I know it happened, and you do too. I watched that man die, and wrote each excruciating detail down for my captor. There are a fair number of LA loonies, but I am not one of them. Each time I drive down the Santa Monica Freeway and pass under the shining billboards displaying the latest horror movies I wonder, if only for a moment, if it’d be the mysterious dawn of “realism”.