Wednesday, 1 August 2012

STRANGERS by Joseph Clifford

Joe Clifford opens our doors this August with a story that thrills and chills. Do join us in welcoming Joe back to TK'n'C with...


Will wasn’t the kind of guy who usually stopped for strangers.  Especially not strangers on desolate, detour roads in the middle of a foreign country after midnight.  But when he passed the flashing hazards in a culvert, something inside made him slow and break from his routine.  This was a test.

He’d been on his way back to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris after three months backpacking, a post graduation gift from his father.  Although the old man would’ve gladly footed the bill for five-star accommodations, Will opted for bunking in hostels and riding third class rail instead, mixing with townsfolk and locals to cultivate a more authentic experience.  Mostly this entailed getting drunk and feeling up girls who spoke little English.  Not that it made any difference what language they spoke.  Everyone in Europe was so goddamn friendly.  Like Devlin, the guy he met on the ferry to Corfu’s Pink Palace, the final stop on his journey.  Really cool dude from…actually, Will couldn’t recall.  He’d been pretty wasted.

Originally majoring in Women’s Studies only as a way to meet girls (and piss off the old man who wanted him in pre-law), Will had been pleasantly surprised to discover the terrific conversation starters and cocktail fodder his course work yielded. 

He’d been holding council with a pack of fellow travelers on the boat, passing a flask and reciting stats about how most acts of violence were actually perpetuated by people you know, as opposed to don’t know, evidence one needn’t have stranger anxiety, when his diatribe caught the attention of the dark, brooding Devlin. 

“Quite a speech,” Devlin said as the ferry docked.  

“I like meeting new people,” said Will.  “Back home they aren’t always so receptive.  Wish I’d studied here.  Folks are a lot nicer.”

“Where’d you get your degree?”


Devlin chuckled.  “I was just reading the New York Times.  Unsolved murders, serial killers, women vivisected and videotaped while still alive.”  He swept the greasy black hair from his forehead.  “Perhaps you are picking the wrong city to use an example.” 

“It’s not just New York,” said Will.  “I grew up in Bucketville, Tennessee. Population 1,280.  You know what they say about the South being friendly?  Bullshit.  It’s no safer.  When I was boy, there was a sicko going around strangling little girls.  And we’re talking white-picket, God-fearing, everyone-knows-his-neighbor USA.”

“All the more reason to be cautious,” Devlin said.

 “No, that’s what I’m telling you.  It’s because Americans are so scared of the other that they create this climate of paranoia and hostility.”

“Self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Exactly,” Will said.  “Everyone is so suspicious of the unknown, the pent-up rage and resentment eventually makes it impossible to connect in a way other than antagonistic.”

The two men stepped off the dock as the fat orange sun sank into the Mediterranean.  Bouncing behinds, shrink-wrapped in teeny shorts and bikini bottoms, raced along the dusty trail to the Pink Palace.

“Interesting theory,” Devlin said.  “But there are bad people everywhere.”  He gestured over hill and harbor.  “Even here.  You can’t be too trusting.” 

“Trusting isn’t the same as gullible.”

Devlin’s face washed grave.  “Oh, shit,” he said, patting down his pockets.  “You have €40?  I’ll give it right back to you.”

Without hesitation, Will opened his fanny pack, passing along two bills.

Devlin snatched the money, waving it high.  “See?  You just handed over money to a stranger!”

“But you’re not a stranger anymore!” Will said, flinging an arm around him. “We’re friends!”   
It had been a crazy drug- and alcohol-fueled three days and nights at the Palace. Palladium pumping electronica, sweaty, promiscuous girls with pierced tongues popping pills, ready to party.  Shots of ouzo and jelly wrestling, everyone half naked come dawn. Will would never forget it.  At least the parts he could still remember.  The only negative, sometime during the festivities, he’d lost track of Devlin.  Didn’t even know the guy’s last name to look him up on Facebook later.

Leaving Corfu, Will felt like the dragging hindquarters of a dog, and by the time he made Rome he couldn’t take another minute on crowded, smelly public transportation.  He was going to switch his departing flight to the da Vinci Airport but then decided to rent a car instead and drive to France.  He wasn’t exactly itching to get back home.  Once there, he’d start work in the old man’s firm.  More and more he suspected law wasn’t for him. 

Zipping along the Autostrada in a Mercedes E 200, Will made good time to Genoa, but crossing the Apennines at night, a landslide forced a detour, and Will soon found himself on a winding country road to the nexus of nowhere, which is when he encountered the stranded motorist, forcing Will to face an ugly truth.  For all his big talk, Will rarely took a chance on a stranger.  A friendly hello or bar banter, sure, but how often did he make himself truly vulnerable?  It was time to put his money where his mouth was.

A little after two a.m., he hadn’t seen another car on the dark one-lane for hours. Will checked his iPhone.  No service.  If he didn’t stop, poor bastard could be out there all night in the cold.

He popped the car in reverse, figuring if it was some scary dude, he’d have plenty of time to punch it and go, but when he caught sight of the soft blonde curls, he realized the Universe was immediately paying dividends on his newfound altruism.

The girl acted surprised to see anyone out that time of night.  

Will showed his hands, then dumbly pointed at his chest, and in his best Me Tarzan You Jane said, “Americano.  Studente universitari.”

The girl relaxed.  “It’s OK.  I speak English.”  

What was that accent?  Austrian?  Swiss?  Very slight.  Sexy as hell.  This whole trip he hadn’t had a girl from either country.  How great would it be to cap this adventure with that notch on his belt?

“What happened?” he asked.

“Don’t know.  Just start losing power.  I push accelerator, no go.”

“Pop the hood.”  It sounded like something a man was supposed to say, even though Will hadn’t the first clue what to look for.  Using his cell for light, he studied an engine full of oily gears, feebly wiggling plugs and hoses, poking nuts.  He had her try starting it again.  Couple dry clicks, nothing more.  He slammed the hood.

“Do you want me to call someone?” he asked.

The girl extracted her own phone from her tight jeans.  “No service,” she said, presenting it as evidence.

“Can I give you a lift into town?”  Will paused.  “That is, if you know where a town might be.”

She giggled.  “Lost?”
“A little.”

“Varese is about sixty kilometers.”  She bit her lip.  “I was on my way to my friend’s.  She lives not far from here.  You come?  You like her.  People say we look like sisters.”
Pia reclined on her haunches beside Will on the antique sofa, her friend, Joelle, in a soft, worn leather chair opposite them.  Nylon folk crackled from an old record player and candles flickered dimly in sconces, bathing the cozy quarters in comforting, buttery hues. Secluded in the heavy black forest, the cottage resembled something ripped from a Grimm Fairy Tale.  The only thing missing was the peppermint windmills and gumdrop stairs.  And cackling old witch.  Pia hadn’t been lying, either.  The two could pass for sisters, alabaster skin and lithe little bodies, hair so light it was almost white. 

“Lawyer?” Pia repeated, refilling everyone’s port, their second bottle.

“Not exactly,” said Will.  “My father is an attorney.  I’d still have to go to law school, pass the bar.  Not sure I’d love it.  I mean, that’s the secret, right?  Do what you love?”

Pia leaned closer.  He could see down her shirt that she wasn’t wearing a bra, rosebud nipples hard as a new pencil’s eraser. 

“What do you love?” she asked, placing a hand on his thigh, turning coyly to Joelle, who took her cue and pounced, curling like a cat on the couch, sandwiching Will between them.

“I certainly love this,” he said. 

The two girls giggled. 

“What is this place?” he asked.  “It’s so off the map.”

“It was my father’s childhood home,” Joelle said. 

Will felt his heart drop.  “Are your parents…here?”

Pia and Joelle exchanged another look.  Will didn’t like that.  It made him feel like he was missing the joke.

“Did I say something funny?”

“No,” said Pia, taking his hand and stroking it like a pet.  “We are alone.”

“Is my house now,” Joelle said.  “My father give it to me.”  She gave Will’s knee a gentle squeeze.  “Is romantic out here, no?”

Pia moved in and kissed his neck.  On the other side, Joelle did the same.

“We’ll be right back,” cooed Pia, hopping up.

Joelle joined her, nodding toward the fireplace, where sat a cord of wood and pile of old newspapers.  “You start fire?”

Hands clasped, the girls ran from the room.

Will arose and crouched before the fireplace, removed the screen and carefully began stacking logs.  He reached into his hip pocket, pulling out a matchbook along with a pair of crumpled, red-stained Euros.  He struck a head and the fire caught.  With the poker, he stoked the flames.  How lucky could one guy get?

He almost didn’t hear the girls come in until they were looming behind him.

Two for the price of one.

Will gripped the poker tighter, then spun and swung.

Even after he’d finished tying and tightening, setting up the camera, adjusting the lighting, Pia and Joelle still hadn’t stirred.  Sometimes Will didn’t know his own strength.  It had always been like that.  Even as a boy in Tennessee.  He’d never meant to harm those girls.  He only wanted to touch them, explore their naked, alien bodies.  But when they’d cry, he’d have to make them stop.  When his father discovered what he’d done, he took great pains to ensure no one else would.  Couldn’t have his good name sullied, after all. He uprooted the family to New York, hired a full-time nanny, got Will the help he needed. Sure, he did.  Pathogens don’t stand out in the big city.  Not when they can blend in with the disease.

Will heard one of the girls struggle with her restraints.  He couldn’t tell which one since he taped their mouths and placed bags over their heads, and without clothes their bodies were remarkably similar, right down to cup size and shaved pubic region. 

He laid his tools on the old wood table. 

“I normally don’t do this,” Will said, both girls now whimpering behind potato sacks, “take the time out and talk.  Always thought it would make it too hard.  Wanted to keep it clinical, not get emotional.  That was a mistake.”

Will switched on the video recorder and a red light blinked. 

“I’m glad we got acquainted first.  Makes this whole process feel more…intimate.”  Will unfolded the canvas pouch.  The cutlery and scalpels glimmered in the candlelight.  “We are not strangers anymore.  We are friends.” 

He extracted a long carving knife from its sheath. 

“I suppose that’s the thing,” Will said, continuing their conversation from earlier as though no time had passed.  “Don’t think I’m cut out for law.” 

Will double fisted the knife, raising it high above his head. 

“I think I'd make a better doctor.”


Bio: Joe Clifford is the producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA.

His work has appeared in Big Bridge, the Bryant Review, the Connecticut ReviewDrunken BoatFringeOpiumThuglitWord Riot, and Underground Voices, among others. 

Joe’s writing can be found at

He has been to jail, but never prison.


  1. I was thrilled, chilled, and the story killed. Nice job, Joe.

  2. Great twist, Joe. Never saw it coming. Total misdirection -- except for the subtle hints. Like saying "most violence is perpetuated bu people you know" then letting us know all about Will there by making him "someone we know." Like I said, great twist. Cool.

  3. The best stories are the ones that leave you feeling terrible. I too never saw that coming. Smooth narrative, good way to pepper in clues. Bravo.

  4. Thanks, guys. I think this one scared my wife (and, no, not in the good way).

  5. Awesome chiller, Joe. I thought maybe Will had met his match with the girls...but then Will got his hands on the poker and took us all by surprise.

    A cool wrap-up re: Devlin when Will "...reached into his hip pocket, pulling out a matchbook along with a pair of crumpled, red-stained Euros."

    I can see why this thriller tale scared your wife!

  6. Jeebus H! I plot development. I was surprised. I thought that girls would pull a trick, not the main dude. I knew things would go awry...that was a given.