Use It Skillfully, Joyously

Richard Reese


I was in the war.  Knifing Germans.  A paratrooper with the 101st.   I saw combat between Normandy and the Elbe by the time us and the Russkies shook hands at Torgau in April 1945; pretty much ending Hitler and his crummy ‘Third Reich’.

Now I am home.   If you can call Queens “home”.  You see, my folks were hardworking stiffs.  Pop was a longshoreman.  Ma–until she had me her last kid out of seven–used to scrub floors and take in wash, when she was in between childbirths.

Christ, I was seventeen when the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor.   I signed up right after I turned 18 in March of 1942.  My older brothers, Eddie and Ricky, joined the Navy together, and sailed right up the Pacific to Iwo Jima. They were shipboard in time to help drop the ‘Big One’ on Hiroshima, just for fun before the Japs saw Nagasaki become ‘Saki’ from another atomic hit.

Now I ride the subways between Queens and Manhattan.  Some days I ride Queens to Brooklyn, from the Bronx, the Battery, or even Flushing, before getting into Manhattan.

You see, on those days when I am sitting home and staring at the walls, I miss the kills I made.  I got a job with Old Man Brubaker, a nice Jew if there ever was one.  I pretend when I am cutting meat, that I am back in France and Germany doing the same thing to meat of a different sort.  For your information, I am going to night school to pick up a class here and there, so someday I might become a surgeon.   You learn a lot about meat either in war or in a store.   Especially, about all sorts of knives, and cuts knives can do.   I know my previous education and experience will come in handy in med school.   Don’t you?

My training to be a paratrooper came in handy in more ways than one.  Cutting throats, or stabbing a kraut’s rib cage from the back or in front, taught me two things.  One, a man is hard to kill with the knives the Army issued us.  Second, you got to know where and when to stab an alert target.  One instructor told us that when you sleep–really deep sleep–everything relaxes.  The muscles between the ribs sort of loosen a tad.   That’s the best time to slip a blade through ribs four and five without too much resistance, rather than when a guy is awake, and those ribs are tight.

Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you that right after the war ended in Europe, I got some ‘R & R’ in Italy for 30 days before I reported to be shipped home.  Saw Venice (Boy, that city is an open sewer!); Florence (Wow! Great food, good art, and easy girls!); and, of course, Rome (Man, those folks once had a great empire which fell apart when real Romans became wussy ItaliansCapisce?).  The day before I left for the States, I was in a brothel.  There was this commotion in the hallway just as I and my “Madonna” were about to settle on a price.  I got up and peeked out the door in time to see this guy stick it into some other guy, and I’m not talking about his privates either.  A flash of thin steel was enough for me.  I closed the door and pretended nothing happened.  I told what I saw, and she shrugged her shoulders like nothing happened and we got down to business.  An hour later, I left.  Funny.  No body.  No blood.  No police.

The Italians also were pretty good with knives, too.

In some museum on my last day in Rome, I saw daggers that were something else.  Around that museum there were some shops that sold cutlery for every occasion, every purpose.   In one of these little holes in the walls, there was a window displaying stilettoes of every length and hand grip.

I walked in.  The place looked real swanky.  Cases around the room were filled with brand-new knives.  On the side walls swords of all sizes and shapes hung under track lights.  The guy behind the counter ignored me for a few minutes.  I dunno.  Maybe he was thinking about this American who had no business in his shop.  I sensed he was looking me over from the corner of his eye.  After I approached the counter to inspect, gosh, some dozen stilettoes on each glass shelf inside, he finally stubbed out his cigarette, and looked right at me.

Signore!  What do you want here?”  In almost perfect American lingo, too!

“Well, pal, I’d like to look at some of your needle blades.  What you call ‘stilettoes’.”

“Why?”  This goombah said to me.   Just looking at his dark eyes gave me the willies.   They were black pools of death.  So, help me!  I wanted to cross myself a couple of times to ward off the ‘evil eye’, you know.  This guy had two evil eyes, believe me.   Father Francis back at St Ignatius’s would want to do an exorcism on this creep.  Being raised Catholic, I heard stories about people being ‘possessed’, and doing all kinds of shitty things to other people.

This guy definitely could do shitty things.  Call it a gut feeling, but as we looked at one another warily, he sensed I could take him on in a fist fight.  On the other fist, however, he could probably carve me up like a chicken with one of those stilettoes in the case–if given half a chance–or for no real reason at all.

He rose from the stool he was perched on behind the case, like some kind of snake out of a fakir’s basket.  I could see through the glass case his feet touch the floor, his legs stiffen as he stood up.   Then, one of his hands went to the glass top.  The other hand slowly moved like a magician’s before a finger pointed to one stiletto near the center of the top shelf.   I noticed something on that hand.  He had on a ring with a tiny skull and empty eye sockets.  So, what?  Well, the skull seemed to look right at me, almost smiling!

Signore. Per Favore!  I see you have an interest in my stilettoes.”  I just nodded and looked at the one his finger was hovering over.  “Yeah, I heard about these when I was a kid back in New York.”

“Oh?” He purred, sort of like a cat.  “What do you know about the stiletto?”

“That you can slip it between a victim’s ribs, and kill him before he knows it.  With a clean stroke, like the bullfighters do with their sharp little swords, a bull can drop dead, before it knows it’s dead.   Same with a guy, if the circumstances are just right.”

The man behind the counter let a small, greasy smile happen on his face when he heard my explanation.

“Look,” he said.  “The stiletto is the knife of choice for, how you say, ‘assassinare’–‘to assassinate’one’s enemy.  It is the instrument of choice for a man to settle a vendetta, eh?  You want to see his eyes meet yours.  His life sees death in them.  You feel satisfaction as the stiletto slips smoothly into his body.  No?”

I got the creepy crawlies just listening to, and looking at, this guy.   I knew in my head that he knew what he was talking about.   I mean, I just know, he spoke of whereof he used a stiletto sometime on someone, before we ever met, on some poor asshole he particularly had it in for.

Interrupting my reverie, if you could say that, he reached into the case and took out the stiletto of his choice, and laid it on a velvet pad like some precious jewelry at Tiffany’s.

Signore.  I hold in my hand your weapon of choice.   None other of my offerings will do.”  He lifted the stiletto by its hilt, turned the blade to himself, and then with a precise motion passed the stiletto toward me.   I reached for it.   It felt alive, or something, in my right hand as I grasped the handle.

He just stared at me with those black eyes.  I was busy taking in the fine workmanship between the handle, hilt, and blade.  When I balanced it on the edge of my hand with my thumb side turned up, the stiletto seemed to find its own center of gravity.   Uncanny.

Minutes passed between us as I passed the stiletto from hand to hand like a juggler ready to do his next toss upwards.  The shop owner stood still, like a statue you see in a fancy cemetery some rich guy had cut out of dark marble for someone he cared about–or not.

Finally, I asked, “How much?”  But my voice sounded like a croak.   I had a dry throat, for some reason.  And I repeated myself again, once I swallowed some spit down.

“For you, Signore, one of your American dollars.”

I was stunned.  This knife was worth hundreds of dollars, and millions of lire in Italian.

“You gotta to be kidding me!”

“No, Signore, I am not, as you say, ‘kidding me’.  Ah, ‘perdoni’, my bad English.”

Yeah, sure.  He spoke ‘bad English’ like an American from Chicago, or somewhere in the Midwest where “you’se” ain’t exactly part of their vernacular.   It should have struck me there and then, “Why doesn’t this guy have an ‘Italian’ accent, or what?”   But it didn’t.   I was too busy thinking there must be some gimmick here I missed.  “Why for a buck?  What’s his angle?  Maybe it’s a piece of crap that will break if you stick in a block of cheap cheese or what?”

“I know what you are thinking, Signore.  Why such a fine stiletto at a ridiculous price?  One far, far below its true value?  Eh?”

“Yeah.  You got it, pal.  What’s the catch?”

“There is no ‘catch’ as you like to say.  This stiletto is made for you.  But I cannot give it to you as a gift outright.  I must take something for it in return.  One US dollar will be enough.   An exchange, if you will, between gentlemen.”

I reached for my wallet in the back pocket, pulled out a buck and handed it over to him.   He took it deftly with his left hand like a tiny bird snatching at a worm before its beak.   With his right hand, he gently grasped the blade between his fingers and palm towards him.   As it left my hand, I noticed a drop of blood hit the glass counter.

He ignored my astonishment.  Then he proceeded to slip the stiletto in a leather sleeve.   Sheath does not quite explain it for some reason.  It was like the blade and the sleeve were suddenly one, like a bone inside the muscles of your forearm.

When he handed me the stiletto and pocketed the dollar bill, I noticed there was no slit or cut on the palm where a drop of blood fell from.  When I looked at the spot where blood fell, it was already blackish.  Must be a trick of the florescent lighting underneath that the case had. Something else was strange about him.  While he was talking and showing the knife, I had a crazy idea this guy smelled like something freshly killed and cut open, like at Brubaker’s Meat and Fish backroom.

Then the guy carefully wrapped my purchase in some fine pinkish-yellow paper.  Taped it.  And with a small flourish, handed me the stiletto.   It was his parting words that bothered me before I headed out the door.

“Use it skillfully, joyously!”

Not even “Grazie!”, or “Arrivedercie!”

As soon as I was outside, I took a gulp of fresh air to clear my head.   When I looked back from the sidewalk at the shop where I got my stiletto, the street window black and grimy, and if you pressed to look inside, the store looked abandoned and decrepit for years.

Go figure.

Now, two years later from the end of the war and the stiletto entering my life, I started killing people on the subway.

Sure, I dreamed about those Germans I whacked using an Army blade.  Unlike a lot of guys who woke up with the cold sweats from seeing those faces they were killing in the name of Uncle Sam, I got wet dreams instead.   Living at home, I washed my sheets with the laundry, so Ma wouldn’t think I was jacking off from tell-tale stains.   Hey, I did that when I was a juvvie, lots of times.  E very guy does, right?  Even the queers, who do it by the hour, I hear.

Well, one night I had this crazy dream.  I was in that shop with this creep who sold me the stiletto for one buck.  He took me by the hand and led me to one of the subway stations; then down the stairs where lots of people were waiting for their train.  When a train came, and people streamed in and out, he sort of pushed me in one of the cars.   When I tried to tell ask him, “How can you be here and there–meaning the shop and showing me his stilettoes–at the same time?”   He just ignored me.   His eyes were smoky and spooky-like, let me tell you.

As I was jostled by bodies on some hot June or July afternoon.   I fingered the stiletto somehow.  The next thing I remember was sliding it into some lady clutching a Macy’s bag, and holding a huge purse on her other arm.  She let out a little gasp.  When the doors opened at the next stop, I joined the herd exiting.  When I was on the platform with everybody scattering about every which way, I heard passengers screaming over the lady’ body.  Just as I headed for the hills myself, I heard the shopkeeper’s voice over the PA by the turn styles, laughingly shrieking, “Use it skillfully, joyfully!”

Then I woke up with jizm on the front of my shorts.

Sometimes I would take the stiletto out of my bureau drawer at night.  I would feel that leather sleeve, and get goose bumps.  When the stiletto slid out of it like a tongue from a whore’s mouth, I got an erection.   Me and the two blades, if you will, in front of the bureau mirror.  I twirled one, and stroked the other.  I know.  I sound sick.

Anyway, there came a morning sometime in October of 1945.

I made my first kill with the stiletto on a subway train crowded with people heading into Manhattan.

Except one passenger never arrived alive past the last station going into Manhattan.

I really did that shopkeeper in Rome proud.  I did use the stiletto “skillfully, joyously” on that ride and day.

When I got home that evening, I ate a quick supper with Ma and Pop.  Shirley, my spinster sister (who really should be a nun since none of the neighborhood guys would even poke her), picked up the dishes from the dinner table as our parents went into the living room to listen to the radio.  As she started for the kitchen, she waggled a free finger at me to follow.

“Charlie, what did you do with yourself today?  Your boss at the meat store called, asking, where were you?  I told him you were sick, and I was going to take you to see a doctor.  He told me you better come in tomorrow, or you need to look for another job.  What the hell is going on here?  Mr. Brubaker always liked you.  Why would he get mad enough to want to fire you?  Huh?”

“Shirley!  Shirley!  Lay off, will you?”  I shot back.  “I will go in tomorrow morning, and square it with Brubaker, okay?  Just don’t let Ma and Pop know, okay?”

“What’s going on, Charlie?  Sometimes I can hear you when everyone else is asleep.  Are you playing with yourself, Charlie?  You know that is a sin.  You’ll burn in Purgatory, unless you confess to Father Francis next Saturday.   I can make an appointment for you.”

Now, you might wonder why my sister would volunteer to make an “appointment” with Father Francis, of all people.   Sometimes I think Shirley plays with herself, and then runs to confession almost every day of the week.  I know Ma knows something is wrong with Shirley.  No boys, no dates, no engagements, no nothing.   Pop could care less.  So long as Shirley helps with the cooking and cleaning around the house, brings him his beers and cigars like a lapdog, why should he give a shit what she does to herself in her boudoir?

Anyway, I promised my spinster sister that I would go to confession. I gave her some bullshit about nightmares from the war, blah, blah.  At first, she believed it, and defended me when Pop and Ma nosed around asking why aren’t I getting a job like in the post office as a vet, or using the GI Bill to get some education.  Then a couple of times, I think, she caught me playing with both blades.  My backside to her when she peeked from my bedroom door slightly cracked, and from then on, Shirley made it her mission to try and send me to confession with Father Francis.

I never went then, at least not for that reason.

I waited until January of 1946 before I made my next stabbing.

I got on the subway from the Battery Station heading into Manhattan.  Did some strolling around and off Broadway to check out the sites.  Then grabbed another train heading by Columbia University.  On the way back from 115th Street, the inbound train was full of college types, you know, students and professors.  I picked one of the older, distinguished looking guys and slipped him the business.

Same story at the next stop.  I got off, heard people yelling, and some woman fainted when she saw how much blood was on her coat from the stiff.  In the TIMES the day after, I read I snuffed some big shot law professor.  Good riddance.  This stabbing removed another lawyer, and teacher of more lawyers.  I got to return there sometime next fall, and off another parasite professor-type.

The police started to put two and two together and come up with zilch.  The papers nicknamed me ‘The Stiletto Surgeon’ because of my clean, incisive pokes every time between the fourth and fifth ribs.  Sure, there is a lung in the way.  By the time my stiletto hits the heart, the victim is drowning.  Most of the time the pain must be excruciating, because most die without a sound.   A gasp, maybe.  But the shock and intense pain works to my advantage.  I know.  I read up on it.   Amazing, what you can find in the New York Public Library.   Also, I had paratroop training.   Those reflexes come in handy.   Just like bicycle riding: once you get good on it, the reflexes come up when needed.

Still, I got a thrill reading about how the cops were going around and around in circles.  All they had was a dead customer, confused witnesses, and pressure from the mayor and commissioner to “make an imminent arrest”.   What a laugh.

Anyway, I got a bad kill in late April.  For some reason, when I slipped the blade, it hit something on the way in.  The guy screamed like a stuck pig.  I slipped my stiletto out, and, man, blood spread even on me!

Naturally, I figured something like this might happen.

While I yelled “what the hell?” like hell.  So, did some riders around us.  I had practiced making the blade invisible for every time I did a poke.  This time, I almost slipped.  Some woman shoved me back and forth, and I almost dropped the blade.  I pushed the stiletto through my pant leg, careful not to nick myself with some other guy’s blood and get infected, or whatever.  When the trainman struggled through the crowd to see what the commotion was about, I moved closer to the body still standing and shouted, “Over here.  There’s someone sick here.”  People packed more tightly making the conductor slow down.  Finally, we reached an emergency platform.  Everybody, but the body, milled and scattered.  By the time the line fuzz and cops got to this car, only a couple of dope heads and a drunk were still in their seats to be questioned.

I was long gone.

But it was a close one.

I stopped killing until October.

Sometimes, I imagined the stiletto talked to me.  Not with a human voice, or anything.  Remember when I first held it back in that shop?  Well, now I know it was trying to talk to me.  It gave me a feeling of intimacy.  The kind you get when you climax.  I would feel a deep sensation in my chest.  Then the groin.  Finally, I would get almost ‘high’ as blood rushed to my head, or something.

One stifling night in August, I was tossing and turning.  I couldn’t sleep.  My bed felt like a sweaty sauna.   Outside the street lamp burned at me like a sick sun, but at two or three in the morning.   I got a hard on.  As I pulled my shorts off to stroke, the stiletto happened to be on my bed stand.   I picked it up and touched my cock with the stiletto’s shaft.  Cool met hot.  I gently stroked both shafts up and down against me, careful not to cut myself.   When I came, I thought I would explode.  Afterwards, I put the stiletto away.  Luckily, there was a box of Kleenex by me, so the sheets were okay.  I remember the blade seemed to vibrate on its own as it warmed up on me.  When I came, the handle seemed to shake by itself.  So, it seemed.  Anyway, I made it a regular routine when I got horny.   And that was almost always in my room when I’m alone, and nobody can bother me.

Never nicked myself–even once.

I did a dozen more killings between late 1946 and early 1949.

Then things got boring.

The papers still carried me as front page whenever I struck (“stuck”?) another subway rider.      I knew the cops had plainclothes on every line where an attack happened.  I would look around me, and it seemed like the stiletto knew we were in danger.  A couple of three times I felt it vibrate in my overcoat or suit jacket inside pocket.  Like it was saying, “Not now.  This is not safe.”

I listened.

I never got arrested.

I stopped on New Year’s Eve, 1949.

The cops never figured out who was the “Stiletto Surgeon”.   Between me and my stiletto, I slipped some thirteen men and women into oblivion.  Almost got caught one time.   Not bad for a serial killer.    You probably wonder how I turned out all this time.  It’s been twenty years since me and the stiletto worked together.  Today, I like to sit in Central Park, and watch people go by.   Nobody knows that they are within inches of dying unexpectedly.  It’s like I’m invisible.  Just like Death.

But I am a nice guy.

I told Father Francis what I did after my final kill on the very last night of 1949, when I saw     him for confession on New Year’s Day 1950.

He absolved me of all my sins.

My sister Shirley would have been pleased.

Yeah, she got in the Poor Sisters of the Carmelite Order.   She still spins her beads daily for me.   But not for the reason you and I know.   She still thinks I whack off when nobody is looking.   And that her prayers will keep me out of Purgatory.

What a sad joke!

As for the stiletto, I still carry it.   Before I ever get mugged by some of these street jerks, I will remember what that Italian knife merchant told me.

His voice still murmurs to me, even after all these years of never stiffing stiffs again.

“Use It Skillfully, Joyously!”

I will–on a real criminal.

You know what I’m saying?


Richard Reese is a full-time scribbler of short stories ranging from horror to SF, and is now finishing his first novel about the Middle East.  In his previous life, Rick taught college history, worked retail management, spent a few years working DMV for a county government, and got married somewhere in between.