In the Negative Space by J.L. Royce


“This outfit sucks.” Akeesha tugged the hem of the miniskirt an inch closer to her tall boots. “I look ridiculous.”

Would-be director and inveterate schemer, Jerrod was used to cajoling actors. He urged her into the elevator. “You want to be an actress, right? Just play the part, as we discussed.”

“I look like the slutty girlfriend from one of those lame crime thrillers”

Her boyfriend nodded. “Exactly—my uncle’s life. Remember—I’m Max and you’re Heather.” He punched the button.

“And you’re comfortable pretending to be your father?”

He drew in a deep breath. “They owe me. We never learned what happened to Dad—Max.”

The elevator opened, and she wobbled out on her high-heeled boots.

Jerrod interlaced his arm with hers. “You should have practiced your walk more,” he muttered as they eased towards the receptionist.

“Here to see my Uncle Lucius.”

The staffer glanced at Akeesha—Heather—and smirked. “Sure.”

“And he doesn’t like to be kept waiting,” Jerrod added.

“Here for his weekly treatment?” She eyed the woman in front of her and punched her phone, rapping with glossy fingernails.

“Mr. Cattaneo’s nephew is here. With a little friend…” The receptionist chuckled at the reply in her earpiece, then pressed a button. The adjacent door clicked.

“Go through.”

“Thanks,” Jerrod said, and hustled Akeesha along.

The receptionist returned to scrolling her phone.

Seeing the empty hallway, Jerrod said, “Remember: he’s on stage. The props and sets are jumbled. It’s a big, empty negative space and we’ll help him remember his lines.” Jerrod believed he would be a major player in film-making someday—with funding.

Akeesha stared. “So I’m a prop, now.” Her big, dark eyes (her best feature in Jerrod’s opinion) were so expressive.

“No, no…” He dropped his arm around her waist. “You’re a star. You’re feeding him lines, squeezing out his best performance. It’s a great skill to develop, working with these older actors. Makes ‘em feel on top of their game. You think the famous ones are really as good as the directors and editors make them look?”

“What if he remembers your father is…”

“He’s had five years with dementia to forget Max.”

“It sounds disgusting, squeezing out—”

They reached the door, ajar, and Jerrod whispered, “Just follow my lead.”

He swaggered through the doorway, shoulders back. Akeesha trailed behind, gaping at the suite.

It had been refurbished with gaudy wallpaper and filled with some of his uncle’s most luxurious furniture. The private nurse hopped from her perch on a barstool.

“We’ll speak with him alone,” Jerrod said. Her eyes narrowed—past visits had been public and brief—but shrugged and slipped out of the room. He watched her stroll towards the nurses’ station, then closed the door.

“Lucius!” Jerrod bellowed in a resounding Max baritone. “How’s my favorite brother!”

The figure in the easy chair started and turned from the wide-screen television streaming South American kickboxing. He studied his visitors with a shrewd expression.

“Maxie?” Lucius’s eyes narrowed. “Where you been?” He beckoned them over and motioned to an overstuffed couch.

“You remember little Heather, dontcha? From the Club.” Jerrod (Maximilian) slapped Akeesha (Heather) on the ass and propelled her forward. “Dancer—well, she rubs her crotch on the pole!”

Jerrod guffawed (the barking laugh of his father he had practiced reviewing home movies). He glanced at Akeesha, raising his eyebrows, to elicit a tittering giggle from her.

The lips worked, ready to question them, but years of survival instinct told the old man not to reveal confusion, or show weakness.

“Seems like forever. To what do I owe the honor, Maxie?”

Jerrod nudged Akeesha forward. “Thought since you were taking the cure, hiding out here in Wisconsin, we’d bring you a little of the Chicago nightlife. Right, babe?”

Lucius grinned, teeth large and yellow. “Heather! Didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!” He waved her over with a liver-spotted hand. “Come on, don’t be a stranger, climb aboard.”

Akeesha cast a withering glance at Jerrod, but stepped between the old gangster’s legs. “I wouldn’t want to hurt you…” But Jerrod’s eyes urged her on. She gingerly planted herself on one broad armrest and swung a lace-covered leg across Lucius’s lap.

“That’s right!” he cackled, slipping an emaciated arm around her.

His hand scrabbled under her fake-fur vest. “On a diet?”

Heather straightened and leaned away, gently pulling his hand out. “No…baby, I’m all there….”

Max stretched and yawned, smiled, and said, “Say, Lucius…”


“With you laid up, some of the boys are worried about getting paid on time…their share from the last job. The Federated heist.”

The unsolved robbery had netted two million dollars, unaccounted for—like Jerrod’s father, Max.

The retired crime boss tore his eyes away from Heather. “Getting antsy? Have I ever welched on my crowd?” His face reddened.

“No! Not at all.” Max waved his hands. “Lemme know where you stashed the take, so I can give ‘em a down-payment—from you—enough to shut ‘em up.”

The would-be director took a deep breath. “Say…a hundred thou each?”

Lucius grabbed Heather by the hip and urged her into his lap. “That’s what I’m talking about!” he exclaimed, stroking the tight miniskirt. Though he acted unconcerned, the old man’s eyes glowed with old cunning.

Max assumed a stony expression. “Of course, if you don’t trust your own brother…”

“No, no, no…you’re family, Maxie; business is all about trust.”

His hand drifted up from Heather’s waist, and she gently pulled it down again.

“Okay.” Lucius peered at him. “Remember Miz Mathis? From back in the day? Those barbeques at her place? She had a rack—get it?” He cackled to himself.

“Sure.” Jerrod recalled a pleasant, middle-aged woman from his childhood. “Quite a looker.”

“Go pay her a courtesy call.” Lucius stretched his scrawny neck forward and said in a stage whisper. “Tell her ‘Lucius says it’s payday’. Got it? Exactly. Arabella will know what to do.”

Jerrod glanced at Akeesha, who winked at Lucius and squirmed. “You’re such a sweetie!”

Lucius laughed, then coughed into Akeesha’s hair, causing her to cringe. His nurse reappeared, shaking her head with a disapproving glance at the girl. Akeesha kissed the old man on the cheek.

“Time to go!” She bounced up and wobbled away.

“Ciao,” Jerrod said, grinning, and followed her.

“Good luck,” Lucius said.

He stared at the empty doorway. “And good riddance.”


The suburban home was much as Jerrod remembered it. The family gatherings in the backyard were replete with the smell of barbeque, the squeals of children playing, and the well-lubricated laughter of adults. Unremarkable—except that this family’s gathering came with stolid heavies eyeing the street. The old men—old as Lucius now—would play bocce ball on the carefully groomed lawn, but opine on the business between pitches. The younger generation would posture and flirt and drink. And the middle generation, the managers, would do deals over the grill.

And it all went on under the benign eye of Missus Mathis.

The woman who answered the door immediately smiled. “Jerry! How lovely—it’s been too many years.”

She greeted Akeesha, in a summer dress and flats, with a twinkling smile. “And you are…”

“Akeesha, Miz Mathis.”

“A lovely name…you must call me Arabella.” She nodded. “Has Jerry ensnared you with his charms?”

Akeesha laughed. “I suppose you could say that.” Her eyes darted to Jerrod.

“A fine young man he’s become!” She studied Jerrod. “You’re the image of Max. Such a shame…”

She gripped his shoulder, and said, “Well, college hasn’t turned him soft, I see.”

“All grown up, indeed…now come, we’ll sit and chat.” Arabella gestured down a flagstone path.

The backyard had changed, with much of the empty expanse now covered in well-organized flower beds. The couple took the chairs Arabella offered. She arranged tall glasses with ice before them.

“I’ve a pitcher of iced tea,” said their hostess. “Straight, or can I offer you a Long Island?”

“Don’t trouble yourself,” Akeesha said. “If you’ll just show us—”

Jerrod cut her off. “Sounds great, thanks!”

Arabella drifted back to the house.

“What?” Akeesha whispered.

“Don’t act pushy, we don’t want her to get any ideas!” Jerrod said. “She probably doesn’t know what she’s giving us—or what it’s worth.”

Akeesha rolled her eyes but sat back, crossed leg bouncing. Arabella reappeared, bearing a tray laden with liquor bottles.

“This is new,” said Jerrod, gesturing at the rows of flowers.

Arabella poured generously from the vodka, rum, and tequila, adding a splash of tea, lemon juice, and cola. “I’ve been laboring in my garden for years. Lucius suggested it.”

Jerrod blinked. “He did?”

“Oh yes, he thought it would be a fine hobby. I’ve really taken to it.”

“We’ve just been to see him,” said Akeesha.

“Oh?” She shook her head. “Poor man. Was he…”

Jerrod and Akeesha exchanged a glance. He sipped his cocktail, then said “Still full of…mischief. He sent us to see you, in fact.”

“Did he?”

“An errand.” Jerrod steadied himself. “’Lucius says, it’s payday’.”

Arabella blinked. “Did he?” She nodded. “Well…Drink up—you’re in for some thirsty work.”

Their hostess leaned forward and whispered, “When you’ve had your drink, I’ll show you where the shovel is. Put those muscles to work!”

Akeesha hunched her shoulders into a bodybuilder pose, then sat back to sip her cocktail.


Jerrod stood shirtless and sweaty in the hole, now waist-deep.

“Good job, Jerry!” Akeesha clapped where she sat drinking with Arabella.

“Find anything yet?” Arabella asked. “No? Odd. Keep going; perhaps a little farther towards the hedge…”

The two women whispered and giggled.

Jerrod leaned on the shovel a moment and wiped his arm across his forehead. The hole was a yard wide and four feet long. “Are you sure…”

“C’mon, Muscles,” called Akeesha. “You’re wasting daylight.”

Arabella tsked. “Must I dig it up myself?” She mixed another Long Island and brought it to him.

“Here; you must be parched.”

He slammed the shovel into the dirt and accepted the glass, draining the sweet, strong cocktail greedily.

Jerrod noticed Akeesha, sprawled back in her lawn chair.

“Napping? Really? Maybe you’d like to grab a shovel.”

“Poor thing,” said Arabella. “The sun and the alcohol must have put her right to sleep.”

Jerrod blinked at the bright sky and swayed. “Yeah…”

“Rest a moment.” She took the empty glass, and Jerrod slumped to the edge of the hole.

Miss Mathis studied the excavation. “Very nice work; you’ve saved me a lot of effort. I’m not getting any younger!” Arabella planted the shovel on the crumbling end of the hole and pushed. She worked slowly but steadily, glancing occasionally at her companion.

Jerrod felt a pleasant breeze and mumbled, “Money?”

“Oh yes,” she said, “Money. It’s always about money, isn’t it? Or a woman. You know, it’s been years since I last expanded my garden. I was quite surprised when Lucius called; you were always one of his favorites.”


“There.” Arabella tossed a final spadeful of dirt to the side. “I’m thinking…marigolds. Here a season, then gone; but perhaps they’ll seed. A bright yellow? Orange?”

She gestured across the yard. “Your father Max always liked the pretty blue of the Forget-Me-Nots; you can see where I planted them over there, in the shade.”

Arabella gingerly stepped out of the hole. “It’s nice and cool down there, Jerry; why don’t you just take a nap?” She coaxed him down into the fresh-turned dirt.

“Just right. Now—your friend, Akeesha.” Arabella paused. “Does she like marigolds? Here a season, then gone; but they may reseed. Oh, I suppose it doesn’t matter.”

Jerrod stared into the limitless sky, framed like a painting by the rim of dirt.

She smiled. “That’s right,” said Arabella, “you relax.”

Arabella slapped the dirt from her hands. “I’ll bring your friend over, and you can nap together. Don’t you worry about money. You’ll be together; that’s what matters, isn’t it?”

His eyes drifted shut.


J. L. Royce is an author of science fiction, the macabre, and whatever else strikes him. He lives in the northern reaches of the American Midwest, exploring the wilderness without and within. His work appears in Allegory, Fifth Di, Fireside, GhostlightLove Letters to Poe, Lovecraftiana, Mysterion, parABnormalSci Phi, Strange Aeon, Utopia, Wyldblood, etc. He is a member of HWA and GLAHW. Some of his anthologized stories may be found at:

Published 10/27/22

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