Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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The Game

by N. J. Kailhofer

As I look out at the gray world through the rain-spattered window, I watch the tiny rivulets of water travel in a confused path across the glass as the updrafts swirl the streams into watery circles. Rain today seems strangely fitting, as if nature was trying to hide what it had created, as if it was ashamed of the day.

She walks in, late as usual. Her hangover must be as bad as mine.

"Where," she asks me tersely, "is the damn evaluation form?"

I push it forward. "Right here. I thought you'd want to see it before the interview."

"Don't assume, and unless you want to go back to working in the zombie room you'd better not push your luck here, either."

I swallow hard. "My transfer is not your decision."

"You think Ralph is going to take your word over mine?"

The subject clears his throat loudly. "Excuse me. I hate to interrupt your little bitch break here, but I'm the nut. Remember me?"

I look back at his warped grin and swallow the bitter coffee. I ask him if he wants a cup.

"No thanks. It makes me jittery," he replies.

"Are we all comfy?" she asks him, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

He smiles. "As a matter of fact, I feel better than I have in a long time."

She gives him a puzzled look from the other side of the round, white table. She is the Head Psychologist, so I sit next to her. The subject sits across the table from her, handcuffed in place.

"You know, Doc, you don't need these. I've never killed anybody for asking questions."

The cuffs are standard policy when a subject walks in off the street and declares that he is a mass murderer. The subject is immediately handcuffed by our security guards, patted down for weapons, and then fingerprinted. We send the fingerprints to the police, and they send us a copy of any record they can find.

While we wait, we put the subject in a room and ask him a long list of questions to help determine his current mental state. Then he sits there alone until we get his file and analyze it when compared to his questionnaire results. This completed, we have our initial interview.

This is what we are doing now.

Following this, we will either process him or turn him loose. While only a disturbed individual declares himself a murderer, these days it is not enough to get a padded room.

He smiles at her. "I just wanted you to know that these cuffs wouldn't help. I've already picked the lock."

She regards him patronizingly. "Right. Sure you have."

I notice that he has a manner that makes people edgy.

She continues, "If you've picked the lock, why don't you take the cuffs off and prove it?"

He smiles a sly smile. "I wouldn't want to make you feel nervous, now would I?"

"Mr. Davidson--" she begins.

"--Jack," he interrupts. "Call me Jack. Only my victims call me Mr. Davidson."

"Jack," she corrects herself, "why do you think that you killed these people?"

"I didn't imagine killing them. They're really dead."

She scowls. "Ok, then. How many people have you killed?"

He thinks for a minute and then looks at us crookedly. "What day is it? Some of them might not be dead yet."


He appears to lose himself in thought.

Her face chisels into a mask of sarcasm. "Round it to the nearest hundred, Jack."

"Hmm... nine women so far, but that should soon go up."

She regards him with her patronizing smile. "Nine?"


"Don't you think that's a lot of people to claim to have killed?"

He smirks. "It's not world record, but I'm trying."

"Why only women, Jack?"

He laughs a deep, husky laugh. "Well, that's equal rights for ya."

She pauses to write in his file. "Jack, don't you think that the police would have caught you if you killed nine people?"

He laughs loudly for a long time. "No way, Doc. They couldn't catch me unless I wanted them to."

I lean forward. "Isn't that what you're doing, Mr. Davidson? Letting them catch you, I mean."

He measures me with his eyes. "We'll see, Doc. You're a lot different than the cops."

She resumes. "How did you kill them, Jack?"


She pours another cup of coffee. "Why poison?"

He clicks his fingernails together. "If you use poison, you don't get blood under your fingernails. I hate that."

"What kind of poison?"

"Why?" he asks suspiciously. "Are you making something for the Girl Scout bake sale, too?"

She makes a few more notes on the subject's evaluation form. "What exactly are you trying to say?"

His eyes water with delight. "I'm not saying anything at all."

"Oh, come on, Jack. Impress me. Tell me what you did."

"Let's just say I broke up the monotony a little."

She taps her ballpoint pen on the table. "Did you poison some children?"

He scratches his day-old stubble. "Well, I didn't think the little pre-pubers were having fun anyway. It's a school night."

She takes a long drink of coffee. "Jack, you have to tell us what poison you used so we can get them an antidote."


"What do you mean, no?"

He smiles his crooked little smile. "Which part of the word are you having trouble with? The 'n' or the 'o'?"

She stands and walks slowly around the table. "If you don't tell us the truth and someone dies, they'll put you on trial for murder. You could go to prison. You know what they do there to guys who kill little girls?"

He stares at her as if he had never thought of the idea and then roars a confident, daring laugh. "You have to find the bodies, first."

She pauses for a moment and heads for the door. "I'm getting a drink down the hall." She looks at me. "Think you can handle it while I'm gone?"

"Yes," I reply. This is my first interview.

She leaves, her hand over her stomach. I think she is too tightly strung for her position of authority. She certainly drinks a lot of coffee, anyway.

He turns to me. "So, I guess it's you and me for a little man-to-man."

I do not reply.

"You know, this room needs something. Did you ever think about painting it sky blue with little white clouds? I always liked little white clouds."

I raise an eyebrow. "You mention the sky. Why?"

He smiles a pleasant smile. "I mentioned the sky because it's pretty. Haven't you ever noticed, Doc?"

"Of course I noticed," I reply, a trifle edgy. "Why do you think you killed all of these people, Mr. Davidson? There is no evidence."

"There isn't any because I didn't want there to be any. It's all part of the game, Doc."

"Mr. Davidson, I do not believe you. You seem reasonable, soft in speech, and slow to anger. This is not the usual profile of a mass murderer."

"Who said that I did them in mass? I don't go to church."

"Very funny, Mr. Davidson."

His eyes narrow. "I'm not a mass murderer--I'm a serial killer. We're much better company at parties."

"Tell me one person's name. Then tell me how you killed him. I'll check to see if you are telling the truth."


"Why won't you tell me?"

"That'd be cheating, wouldn't it?"

"All right," I decide, figuring to apply some of the psychology I studied for all those years, "we'll assume you killed them. Why did you kill them?"

"Well, Doc, everybody needs a hobby."

"Come now, Mr. Davidson, there's got to be more to it than that."

"Well, didn't you ever want to kill somebody, Doc?"

"Of course not," I reply. "Decent citizens do not kill people."

He appears annoyed at my response.

"You disappoint me," he says, shaking his head. "You know, Doc, that boss of yours has got a one hell of a great body, but you already knew that, didn't you?"

He stares at me and I offer no reply.

"You know much about her, Doc? I bet you don't. Well, let me tell you. She's divorced, Doc, but only for a couple of months. She isn't over him, so she isn't into other guys yet. But you, like an idiot, took her out last night, didn't you? You didn't know about her, and you tried to get her drunk. You both drank a lot of margaritas. It didn't work, and now you want to wring the little bitch's neck, don't you?"

I pause. "What makes you think she's divorced?"

His eyes sparkle with an inner joy. "It's the day after and you still didn't know." He leans forward. "I could see where the ring used to be on her finger."

"And the margaritas?"

He laughs. "Funny thing about tequila, Doc. You can smell it in your sweat for two days."

He leans back. "So you see, Doc, even decent citizens like you, Dr. Morally Upstanding, would like to kill somebody. Everybody's got somebody they want dead. You, me... everybody. And the hell of it is that I have the balls to do it and you don't."

I am wrong about Davidson. He is not a street bum peddling for attention and a room. This man can reason well and has observational skills that allow him to notice small details. I must be careful not to reinforce any of his behaviors until we know if he is a killer or not.

The part that frightens me right down to the marrow of my bones is that we will not know until they find a body. Until that happens, he is just someone who says he is crazy. He could walk right out of this room a free man.

"How do you think the game's going so far, Doc?"


"It's all a game, Doc, like chess, and I'm about to take your queen."

"This is not a contest, Mr. Davidson. This is a psychological evaluation."

"It's a game, Doc. I'm winning."

"Winning what, Mr. Davidson?"

"The way I see it, you're gonna declare me crazy, and I get free room and board the rest of my life."

I smile at him. He is just a street bum. This is a scam. "Really? Why should we do that?"

"I don't like it out there, Doc. The world doesn't make sense to me anymore. Stamps cost 41. If you put in 50, it gives you nine pennies back. What the hell are you supposed to do with all those goddamn pennies?"

I meet his eye and hold it. "You're saying that you're going to kill young girls because the post office hasn't raised the cost of stamps to a more even amount?"

"I used to write people all the time, Doc, but now it's too much of a hassle. There are pennies all over my apartment, and I can't stand the noise they make when they're sucked into the vacuum cleaner. It sets my teeth on edge. That's why I want to check into your little establishment. I don't want to deal with it anymore."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Davidson. That is not good enough. You're going to have to try to be more crazy than that."

He shrugs. "Well, I could try being nice to people. They hate that. Or... I could put something in their coffee."

"Coffee? What would you do to their coffee?"

He smiles that same crooked smile. "Where's your boss, Doc? Shouldn't she be back by now?"

Actually, she should be. Whatever is taking her so long, I hope she hurries back. I could use a drink of water myself. My stomach feels queasy. And it is cold in here, too.

I decide to indulge this fantasy of his. "What are the rules to this game we're playing?"

"Rules, Doc? There's only one rule: Only the best man is gonna live."


He rolled his eyes. "Jesus, Doc, I already gave you a hint. Do I have to spell it out for you?"

"What was the hint?"

"Your boss isn't coming back, Doc."

"Well, of course she is, Jack."

"My name is Mr. Davidson, Doc. Use it."

What the hell is he getting at, and where is she? I will just have to go and find her. I do not know what I am supposed to do next.

"You stay seated where you are, Mr. Davidson," I order, standing up. "I'll be back in a minute."

He smiles at me again. "Sure, Doc. I'll stay where I am. The game's over anyway."

I am lightheaded as I stand up. I open the door and look at the guard seated in a folding chair across from the doorway. He looks dead asleep. In his lap is a half-empty cup of coffee.

I look back in at Davidson.

He is laughing and rocking on the back two legs of his chair. It makes a strange, metallic noise each time the front two legs touch the floor. "How did you like the coffee, Doc? A little bitter maybe?"

I turn and begin to lurch my way unsteadily down the hallway. As I close the door to the Evaluation Room behind me, I hear the sound of metal hitting concrete.

I stop, paralyzed with fear.

Was that his chair moving, or his handcuffs hitting the floor?


© 2008 N. J. Kailhofer

Bio: By day, Nate is a plant manager & estimator for a small print shop in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. By night, he lurks the forum, seeking ways to be the bane of the Short Story Editor... ;-). He's been published in AlienSkin, Planet, and of course here at Aphelion, where he runs the monthly Flash Fiction Challenge. He's been writing stories for nearly 25 years. Among Nate's notable Aphelion appearances are Another Sarah (June, 2005), Alligator Tears (August, 2005), and the Nightwatch mindbender Tinsel Rime (November, 2005).

E-mail: N. J. Kailhofer

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