The Startle Response

12/22/21

“I don’t try to offend people,” said Jack. “I just don’t notice when I do.”

He turned on his side to face Diana. Another man might have reached out to stroke the curve of her naked hip, but he was done with her body until their next motel date.

“You don’t seem to mind. As near as I can tell, anyway.”

“That’s part of what I get paid for. Letting stuff like that roll off.”

“I don’t suppose you’d marry me.”

Was that a joke? With him she never knew where she was. She made a mental note to laugh at herself later, because he was giving her a dose of her own medicine.

“It wouldn’t work,” she said. “On my own time I’m like anybody else. And when I’m on the clock, you can’t tell what goes on behind the smile.”

She put her face close to his and demonstrated.

“I could be plotting to kill you, and you’d never know. Because no guy can read my mind.”

“I can’t read anybody’s mind. That’s why we’re a good match.”

“You’re a psychopath.”

“Probably.”

“Which doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person. It depends on what you do.”

“How’d you know?”

“I put a whole bunch of little things together.”

“Like what?”

“You don’t have a startle response. Anybody else would jump a mile in the air, but you just look bored.”

Now he showed real interest.

“Give me an example.”

“Remember last week, when that girl screamed in the parking lot?”

“No,” he said after a moment. “Can’t say I do.”

Diana replayed the memory of the dreadful noise sawing through the air. It still sounded like murder.

“I was on my feet before I knew it,” she said. “Ready to fight. You acted like you didn’t even hear it.”

“Why would you care? Nothing to do with you.”

“Well, most people hear somebody in trouble, and they want to help.”

“Why?”

He meant it.

“I guess we evolved that way, back when a scream could mean a saber tooth tiger.”

In fact, the scream had resulted from a hooker fight over fifty dollars that Mary Alice thought Heather owed her for a referral. Heather disagreed. Diana ended up refereeing and not getting a cent out of it.

Which, when she thought about it, kind of supported Jack’s point. That made her want to double down on her own point.

“Ever wonder what you’re missing?”

He thought so long that she thought she had lost him.

“I guess.”

More silence.

“I still wonder why my ex walked out.”

“Okay, I’m going to give you a homework assignment.”

She had an ulterior motive—getting him to come back next week with a topic of conversation. He was one of the few men whose silence made her want to babble.

“I want you to keep your eyes open for a situation where somebody needs help. You don’t have to do anything. This time, anyway. Just remember it and tell me about it.”

“I think I can do that.”

***

The story made the Newark Star-Ledger three days later.

“Man Foils Bank Robbery.”

And of course it was Jack. Diana read the witness accounts and visualized the action like a movie scene. Jack performed a Marine Corps silent sentry kill on the first armed man and then held the body up to absorb the shotgun blast from the other robber. The second man tried to cut his losses and run, but Jack laid him out next to his partner. She pictured him looking bored the whole time. He certainly did in the newspaper photo.

“Normally we don’t advise civilians to intervene,” said a police spokesman, “but we can’t argue with the results.”

Diana found what she was looking for in the second-to-last paragraph, which quoted a young woman witness.

“I screamed. I couldn’t help it.”

***

Diana reached out and stroked his back.

“You know, there are screams and there are screams. If a girl cuts loose on a scary ride at the amusement park, you don’t have to break her boyfriend’s neck.”

“I could just go back to being me,” said Jack.

“That works, I guess.”

~ fin ~

Albert Tucher_headshot_Color2018

Albert Tucher is the creator of sex worker Diana Andrews, who has appeared in more than one hundred stories in venues including SHOTGUN HONEY and the anthology THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2010. Her first longer case, the novella THE SAME MISTAKE TWICE, was published in 2013. In 2017 Albert Tucher launched a second series set on the Big Island of Hawaii, in which BLOOD LIKE RAIN is the most recent entry. He lives in New Jersey, and he loves NJ Turnpike jokes.