Ben Williams found himself in the chilly darkness of an unfamiliar city, off of the main drag, the street dimly lit and the buildings mostly darkened warehouses with empty loading docks dotted with fresh puddles. The night air was heavy. He could smell the salty odor of decay and dampness, like it had just finished raining, but that had happened before, before he found himself in the strange city. In the distance he heard a siren ringing, and he knew with an unmistakable certainty that he was being pursued, that he was in danger, but he had no idea why, or who would be after him, or where he was or how he had ended up there.
He thought he heard the sound of footsteps on the pavement behind him, getting closer. He found the unmarked door to a darkened building and tried opening it; to his surprise it was unlocked. He stepped inside to an empty theatre. It was dark except for the yellow floor lights that lit the aisles that sloped down to the stage. The stage was dark and empty, as were all the seats. It struck him that this was the perfect place to get off the street for a while, to get his bearings. He sat down in a seat in the back row, furthest from the stage, closest to the door he came in through.
He sat there, thinking hard, trying to find clues that would help him determine where he was, how he got there, and who was pursuing him, but nothing came to mind. At least it was warm in the theatre. He was wearing a t-shirt that was inadequate outside in the cool night air.
Ten minutes passed and nothing came to him; at the same time, nobody else entered the theatre. I must have thrown them off track, he thought, I’m safe in here. Then a single spot light beamed out of the dark and lit a small circle on the stage. An elderly man, wearing an expensive looking suit and a black fedora, stepped out of the dark into its glow. Ben ducked down in his seat and started crawling towards the aisle, afraid that the man on stage would see him, when the man stared speaking.
“Billy didn’t know where he was,” the man said. “But inside the small auditorium he felt safe. Outside the police were looking for him. They’d found the woman’s body, in an alleyway, carved up and bloodied to the point of being unidentifiable.”
Then the entire stage lit up and the man was gone. It was empty, there was no set, no props, just two empty kitchen chairs on the far right edge of the stage. A man and a woman entered from the left side of the stage, the man about thirty, thin and muscular, wearing a shirt and tie and dress slacks. The woman was beautiful, with feathered red hair and piercing blue eyes, wearing a sleeveless blue sweater and tight pants that hugged her hourglass figure.
“Thank God that’s over,” the man said.
“It wasn’t so bad,” the woman said. “I actually had fun.”
“Sure, you did. Flirting with the entire faculty.”
“I wasn’t flirting,” she replied, and Ben realized that he was watching the performance of a play. He was certain the actors couldn’t see him, crouched down low in his seat in the back row. If they couldn’t see him, then they were playing to what they had to think was an empty theatre.
“You’re just too hung up to have a little fun, to have a good time,” she said. “It was nice getting out of the house for a change.”
Then the man had a huge knife, a machete, in his hands. He raised it high. The woman screamed, and the man brought it down on her shoulder, gashing it deep, blood flowing bright and red from the wound. The man took the knife and slit the woman’s throat, ripping apart her jugular vein, blood erupting from her neck and spraying all over the stage, all over the man. She collapsed in a lifeless heap on the floor, but the man didn’t stop, he continued swinging the machete, cutting her up until she was unrecognizable. The lights went down. The amount of blood on the stage was staggering.
And it was all real. He’d just witnessed, crouched down low in between the last two rows of seats in the auditorium, a brutal murder.
Then the spotlight came on again, and the elderly man in the fedora returned. He said, “Billy’s really done it now, hasn’t he? Now, let’s enjoy the comedy of Assault and Battery.”
The sound of canned applause echoed through the auditorium as two men, in old gray vaudeville suits and bow ties, entered from stage right and took their places behind two microphone stands. The first one said, “Hello, I’m Assault.”
“And I’m Battery,” the second man said. The man claiming to be Battery was the same actor who’d murdered the woman. A pool of her blood was visible on the stage behind the pair.
“Say, Battery,” Assault smiled. He was wearing a black top hat that made Ben think of Fred Astaire.
“Yes, Assault?” Battery replied.
“Who was that lady I saw you with last night?”
“That was no lady,” Battery answered, smiling broadly. “That was my no good slut of a wife.” Canned laughter played through the theatre’s speakers.
“Women,” Assault began. “You can’t live with ‘em …”
“…so you might as well kill ‘em,” Battery inserted with perfect timing. The laugh track played again.
Suddenly Ben felt the presence of someone, some thing, in the seat next to him. He looked and in the dim light from the stage he could see a man sitting next to him, not moving, stiller than still. He remembered the tiny flashlight he had on the key chain in his pocket, he took it out and shined it in the face of the man next to him. It was the face of a corpse, white and colorless, and he could tell that the theatre, which had been empty just a moment before, was now filled, with every seat except his occupied by a silent and unmoving corpse. They didn’t move as Assault and Battery droned on, the rhythm of their act punctuated by the occasional playing of the laugh track.
Ben ran to the aisle and turned toward the exit when he heard the voice of the old man in the fedora, from the stage, say, “Don’t forget, Billy, the police are outside. It’s not safe for you out there. They’ve found the body and they know you did it.”
“I’m not Billy,” Ben said, turning to face the old man. He was standing on the stage again, alone in the spotlight. Assault and Battery were nowhere to be seen.
“Sure you’re not,” the old man smiled.
“And I didn’t kill anybody.”
Then the overhead lights came on, lighting up the entire theatre, momentarily blinding Ben. When his vision recovered he could see the empty stage and the empty seats, and he saw the first police officer enter, his gun drawn and pointed at Ben.
“Freeze,” the office said.
Ben knew that running would be pointless, so he put his arms in the air, and in his mind he saw, he remembered, her in the alleyway in the rain, red and crumpled beneath him, the knife cold and wet in his hand.