"Joe, wake up."
The voice that penetrated his sleeping mind was one that was all too familiar to him. As he struggled towards consciousness, he realized he couldn't remember a time when that voice had not been present in his life. Although his wife's husky tones rang with familiarity, the tight feeling across his throat, like the edge of a knife blade, did not. Joe's eyes fluttered open to see a face come into focus only inches from his own. It grinned at him, and not in a friendly manner. The strange man opened his mouth, his breath reeking and foul.
"It would be in your best interests not to move. I might accidentally slit your throat."
Joe slid his eyes to the right, searching out his wife. Joan sat with covers pulled up to hide her body, her face white in the dimly lit room, eyes round and large.
"What's going on here?" Joe demanded, but he didn't move. His mind coming alert at last, he began to realize the implications.
"Nothing much at the moment," said the stranger. "But now that you're awake, I think you and I should have a little talk."
The outside streetlight shone meagerly inside the room through the side window, but it was enough to give Joe a clear look at the man. There was cruelty in those eyes, eyes that shifted in a triangular, narrow cheeked face. A sneer curled on the thin almost colorless lips, and when he saw Joe studying him, the lips parted into a wicked grin that revealed smoke-stained teeth.
"Won't do you any good to try to memorize my face, Joe. Once I get what I want, I'm out of here. Hell, you wouldn't find me in a million police mug books." He shifted the knife away from Joe's neck, and satisfied that he had complete attention, pulled back just a little to give Joe room to sit up.
"This is taking too long. I could have just killed you both while you slept and ransacked the place. But that wouldn't get me anything. I don't want to have to fence."
"What do you want, then?" asked Joe.
"Open the safe."
Joe immediately shook his head. Instantly, the knife was back at his throat.
"Joe, we can do this the hard way or the easy way." The man shifted his gaze to Joan, then back to the knife he held against Joe's throat. His right eyebrow slid up a notch. "Understand?"
Joan slid farther to her side of the bed, her back pressed hard against the headboard.
Joe nodded slowly, and again the knife was withdrawn.
"You see, Joe, it's like this." The man spoke in slow quiet tones, drawling the words as someone would with a speech impediment. "I'm a quiet little guy, with no money. Never had any. Always had to get what I wanted by hook or by crook. This guy moves into town, name of Joseph D. Baleau. Has money coming out of his ears. Now, you really won't miss just a little bit of that."
"I worked hard for that money," said Joe.
"I work hard for any money I get," growled the stranger. "You want to see how hard? Like I said, you can go one way or the other. What would you like to do, Joe?"
"Joe, give him what he wants," Joan said quietly. "After all, it's only money."
Again, the knife was pulled away. Joe, on the verge of giving in to the demand, saw a grin of satisfaction slide across the burglar's face. His resolve returned, and he turned to Joan for a split second, giving her a look he knew only she would understand.
Joan's response was a whisper. "Joe, please. Don't."
Moving as fast as he could, Joe grabbed the thief's knife arm and sprang from the bed. Now, standing toe to toe with the stranger, Joe felt more on equal footing. But the astonishment that had caused the burglar to hesitate quickly faded, and he forced the knife towards Joe. The blade came closer and closer, the edge barely visible in the darkened room.
Grunting with the strain of keeping the weapon at bay, Joe spoke to his wife. "Joan, you know I have to do this."
"Please, Joe, stop it!"
"It's not the money, Joan," Joe gasped. "It's the invasion of privacy, the unwanted intrusion. And it won't stop with us. He'll just prey on others once he gets what he wants out of here. Do you understand, Joan? I have to do this."
The burglar was much stronger than Joe had realized. He could no longer keep the knife away, and it crept closer and closer to his flesh.
"Joan?" He cast a quick glance at her. She now stood on the other side of the bed, watching their struggle, her face an agonized mask of indecisiveness. "There's not much time, love."
"All right. I guess there is no other choice," came her reply.
The knife touched Joe's pajama top. Joe looked directly into the crook's eyes, and smiled.
Joe closed the bedroom door silently behind him and hurried to the children's room. Jill stood just inside the door, clutching her favorite doll, her face worried. John, her older brother, held his baseball bat cautiously in front of him.
"It's okay, kids," soothed Joe. "It's all over."
"We heard noises, daddy," said John. "Like someone was fighting with you in your room."
"Someone was, John," said Joe. "Son, did you set the security system tonight? It was your turn."
John's face fell. He looked to the floor and his voice got very small. "I forgot."
"John, it's okay." Joe took a gentle hand and turned his son's face up to him. "I'm all right. But it could have been bad. Let's just not forget in the future. Okay?"
John returned a smile. "Who was it, Dad?"
"A burglar, son. Luckily, he came to our room first. We had a fight, but I was able to beat him."
John's eyes lit up with pride. "What did you do to him, dad?"
Joe chuckled, leaned toward his children and gnashed his teeth together. "I ate him," he growled.
Jill giggled. "Oh, daddy," she said.
John just laughed.
"Okay. You know where you're supposed to be. I've got to set the alarms and get back to bed. Your mother is alone right now. Get some sleep. No more excitement for tonight." Joe closed the door and could hear their "good nights" come faintly through.
Downstairs, he located the security panel and flipped the switches. Then he quietly returned to his bedroom. Joan had already returned to bed and lay there silently. Joe crawled in beside her, but did not touch her. He knew better.
"Are the children all right?" she asked, her voice quiet.
"Yes. They were frightened, but I calmed them down."
"What did you tell them?"
Joe chuckled. "I told them I ate him."
"Joe! You know how impressionable the kids are. Now they'll think it's okay to go around eating people."
Joe couldn't help but grin wryly. "They may be impressionable, sweetheart, but they aren't stupid." Joe sighed. "You know we only have six months left."
"I know. And I can't wait. The next time you want to vacation, Joe, pick someplace else." Her voice gurgled in the dark.
Joe turned towards his wife and kissed her on the cheek. "How long will it take you, dear?"
"This one was small. Should be done by morning light," came the answer.
"Okay," he yawned. "I'll puddle with you and share. I'm feeling a little peckish tonight, after all." Joe relaxed and let his body structure collapse. Then he sent an amoebic tendril towards his wife and joined with her membrane. Together, merged as one being, they consumed the remains of the burglar.
How about the Andromeda Galaxy next time? came a pulse thought from his wife. Sure, Joe responded. Actually, the food there might be more palatable.