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The Balance

Contents

Copyright

Dedication

St. Petersburg <$p>

Chapter One – St. Petersburg

Chapter Two – Chicago

Chapter Three – Lumnin

Chapter Four – Haley

Chapter Five – Circumstance

Chapter Six – Why

Chapter Seven – Dinner

Chapter Eight – Lumnin’s Finest

Chapter Nine – True Intentions

Chapter Ten – Deadline

Chapter Eleven – Max

Chapter Twelve – Verdict

Thank you!

About the Author

 

Copyright © 2017 Phoenix Ward

All rights reserved.

Also by Phoenix

A Guardian Angel (Complete Collection)

[* *]

Forty-Ton Angel (A Guardian Angel Book 2)

Knights of the Proletariat (A Guardian Angel Book 3)

Harbinger (A Guardian Angel Book 4)

Alfred Arnold’s Great Adventure (Alfred Arnold Book 1)

Explorers of Serdame (Alfred Arnold Book 2)

Timeglass (Timeglass Book 1)

Oneironaut

The Man With Two Bodies (Installed Intelligence Prologue)

 

 

 

 

 

To those with hard choices.

 

St. Petersburg

Chicago

Lumnin

Haley

Circumstance

Why

Dinner

Lumnin’s Finest

True Intentions

Deadline

Max

Verdict

Chapter One – St. Petersburg

Andy couldn’t ignore the large fist that battered against his jaw. Andy kept his hands moving toward their task rather than leaping up and rubbing the center of throbbing pain over his mouth. Blood dribbled from his lax lips as he tightened his fingers, folding them tighter over Marchel Shivolinrid’s throat. It was a beefy throat at that and needed Andy’s concentration were he to close it. His only desire was to prevent further flow of air into the man’s lungs. The defining task of his trade.

Shivolinrid was by no means a man of weak stature. He towered a full head above Andy and swung with melon sized fists at his attacker. Another decent blow to the side of Andy’s head sent him tumbling off of the Siberian. The situation dangled out of his control and he found himself in far more danger than he preferred. The defining problem of his trade.

Porcelain stopped Andy from hitting the floor. It cracked and made a sharp rattle which the ringing in his ears drowned out in an instant. Despite the sheer shock of pain and the graduating ebb of clarity and darkness in his eyes, Andy rose on one knee. Shivolinrid got up now, grunting as he tried to regain his breath.

In all the places for a noisy exchange, a public bathroom? This public bathroom?

Andy snapped to his senses and charged his shoulder into the rising hulk, throwing him off his balance and into one of the stall doors. It opened inwards and Shivolinrid fell back through it, thrashing his arms out in front of him in order to strike or grab at Andy. Most of the incoming fingers were deflected, but two still grasped onto the attacker’s wrist and dragged him into the stall after the Siberian.

It would have been another sharp meeting with porcelain if Andy’s tuned reflexes didn’t send out his leg first. He stepped onto the rim of the toilet and used his other leg to ram straight into the man’s face. Too soft of a blow. The gigantic man’s resistance still gathered strength. Andy kicked again, but Shivolinrid clutched onto the offending leg so he could not retract it. Andy bit his lower lip to stifle a yelp as sharp pain radiated from his calf. The bastard! He thought. He’s biting me!

He rammed his knee into the biting Siberian’s mouth, further and further. He interpreted every crunch and every snap as a painful lesson that Shivolinrid learned about biting others. The slobbery cloth of his trousers muffled the screams coming from the large man.

Good, Andy thought. Be silent.

As if hearing his thoughts, Shivolinrid’s internal fight-or-flight meter screamed toward “Fight!” and his fists shot upwards into the assailant’s stomach and groin. With the increasing combat came increasing volume. Noise worried Andy more than the violently retaliating behemoth on the floor did.

Perspiring, Andy looked to the door. Any second someone could come in and ruin everything. There was no more time to waste. Deciding that the fight endured longer than he liked, the customary fifteen seconds, he retracted and rammed his knee into Shivolinrid’s nose again, hopped onto both feet, drew his silenced three-eighty auto and emptied the chamber.

He looked up from the body to the door of the restaurant. The music being played in the lobby reached a brief pause in between songs. The clatters and clangs of dishes and silverware bled its way through the space beneath the door.

Any second now, Andy thought. Hurry.

He tried his best to prop up the corpse against the wall as he concealed his firearm. He secured the stall door behind him, delaying the inevitable detection of Shivolinrid’s body. It wasn’t the form itself that he could conceal, just its lack of vitality. Not that the Siberian was a warm man, thought Andy, but he was hardly a candidate for one now.

He dispatched him in an ideal location, the assailant noted. As bad as it had gone, a silver lining existed. He didn’t have the time to over think it, though. He had to act without hesitation. He snatched a paper towel from the dispenser, covered his face, then burst out the door into the restaurant.

“I’ve been assaulted!” he wailed in Russian. “There’s a thug in the bathroom! He’s in a rage!” He let one hand trail behind him as an indication back toward the restroom.

The entire room bustled with overconfident men excusing themselves from wide-eyed women as a crowd assembled around the bathroom. From this crowd peeled Andy, out of the restaurant and down the street.

He hesitated before removing the paper towels clutched over his face. He couldn’t be sure he was far enough away. He winced as he peeled them off his wounded features.

Andy had been in the city for five days straight. Each and every day he waited for long hours at a seat besides the window. He wore different outfits each day, making sure no one noticed his continued presence. Until the fifth day, Andy found himself in an uncomfortable cycle of acting like he was completely oblivious while paying sharp attention to everything around him. His target possessed only a name and a face. He knew little about why his corpse was a valued product. He cared little, as well. Andy meant only to produce as expected.

They had discovered his body by now, he noted. He had no doubt. Someone must have gotten too close, too curious as to why the large man “in a rage” wasn’t responding to him. Someone spotted the gunshot wound. It wasn’t a gory mess like most head shots, but there was a curious pool of blood by now. Andy felt sorry for whoever truly discovered the dead man in the bathroom.

All over the restaurant, people were looking for him. “Do you see him? Do you see the man who just came out?” they would ask each other. “What did he look like?” one might ask back. The first one would be stumped. “All I remember is paper towels,” he’d say and shrug.

No one in this country would know that Andy Winter killed Marchel Shivolinrid.

Andy sighed as he tapped on a cut on his face and straightened out his tie. The walk home was always the best part.

Chapter Two – Chicago

“Is that the last one in St. Petersburg?” Andy asked as soon as he boarded the small private aircraft with his employer and trusted staff. The middle-aged man in the seat across from him gave a quiet chuckle before nodding in reply.

“Good,” Andy commented. “Too cold for Hitler, too cold for me.”

Again the man laughed.

“It’s nice to see you in such a good mood,” he said as he and Andy both accepted thick, pungent bourbons from the on board stewardess. He watched Andy drink. “How did you appreciate the accommodations?”

Andy recalled the lavish hotel at which he had stayed for the last five days. Large platters of hand prepared entrees were brought up to him but he found it difficult to touch after spending dozens of hours in a diner. Instead, he packaged it and brought the leftovers with him. Most of the food came in from international markets, Andy less than a fan of Russian cuisine. The one thing he did consume locally was the vodka from a distillery two miles from his hotel.

The sheets were woven of fine, decorative thread and the blankets were thick and soft. The beds were tucked and made for tourists to burrow up in and forget exactly how cold the city was. One joke he’d always make to his Russian-native housekeeper as she took the dirty sheets and replaced them with clean ones was, “It’s a good thing you change your Lenins this often,” which he only made for his own benefit. She couldn’t speak English.

Along with the rooming, his food and his transportation were complimentary. That ended up being a godsend as no moment in St. Petersburg was enjoyable to the warm-blooded American when spent outside. Nothing fancy, but it didn’t need to be. He was a hit man, not a celebrity. As long as he was as warm as his employer wanted his gun to be, he was content.

The huge piles of money accumulating in his bank account helped, as well.

“I find it very interesting that people build up their lives, going in and out of education to make some sort of decent pittance. To put a roof over their head and feed their children and purchase whatever they imagine happiness to be. All the while, I am compensated so well, performing a task so simple that it is as old as Man himself.” With that, Andy emptied his glass. It was filled again.

“Things did not go so well with Marchel?” the man asked after taking a drink from his own glass. He indicated Andy’s healing wounds.

Andy felt them himself. “I took over eighteen seconds,” he paused as he observed his employer. “I thought the firearm wouldn’t be necessary, that I could make it look like a mugging—”

“It did look like a mugging,” the elder man interrupted. “That’s what police reports say.”

“Still, bullets leave questions,” Andy commented. “I could have been better.”

“Stop worrying,” his boss commanded in a warm voice. “Nothing went wrong that can’t be fixed.”

Andy stopped his commenting to stare out the window. He sipped from his drink.

After a moment of silence, his employer asked him, “Eighteen seconds?”

“Yes sir.”

The man chuckled. “That must be a record for your worst,” he commented. Andy agreed.

Andy finished his second drink and stopped the stewardess from refilling it again. “I do not want to be sent here again,” he said once he was rid of his glass.

“St. Petersburg?”

“Russia.”

“Your need in this part of the world is gone,” his employer stated. “Should it resume again, I can assure you, I will not call.”

“Thank you.”

Again, he stared out of the window in silence, rubbing the cut next to his left eye where he had hit the urinal.

“Are you getting that looked at in Chicago?” his boss asked. He had watched him.

“Treated?” Andy asked, then scoffed.

His employer continued to watch him as he resumed his gaze out of the porthole.

“We’ll need you again,” he said to Andy. “Very soon.”

“How soon?”

“Two weeks. At the latest.”

Andy looked back over from the window. “So you already have the next one picked out?” He buzzed for the stewardess. “I didn’t realize my work was so popular. It should get its own department like marketing.”

His employer laughed.

“I’ve often wondered who’s work is seedier; yours or mine,” he replied.

The stewardess appeared. “Yes, sir?” she asked Andy.

“Another bourbon, please?”

  • * *

He stepped off the jet to find the customary arrangement: a taxi with his luggage waiting for him on the runway. The driver had instructions to take him anywhere he needed to go with a blank check waiting for him. Wow, Andy thought, I know the man runs a corporation, but he’ll run out of money one day. Andy smirked. Hopefully on me, he concluded.

Andy owned a studio apartment in the south side of Chicago, a small thing that had four walls and kept him off the streets. He hated the streets. It reminded him of why he could do what he did, year after year. Before he allowed the taxi to take him there, he ordered the driver to drop him off and wait at Rosehill Cemetery.

With the end of every mission, he came here. He had purchased a large bouquet of flowers from a florist just a block away. Twelve yellow tulips. He had brought them to a slab of stone off in the eastern corner of the graveyard for the last ten years. The tombstone that he visited had carved into it falling tulips, just like the ones he brought. It was one of those bulky gravestones, unlike the thin readings and carved statues the rest of the cemetery was filled with.

A couple of women walked by on the path behind him, sobbing. No doubt they came from a recent funeral. He felt sorry for them. Coping with recent death is a much harder and delicate skill than the type of mourning he did here, at this particular grave. The corpse in it had last been seen ten years ago. Almost exactly, Andy noted. Watching a fresh body be buried is so much different. So very unnerving. The body without the soul, how strange it looked. Yet it seemed so bizarre not to see them sit up and say something to you. That must be what the Shivolinrids felt about now.

No, Andy thought, it was too soon for a funeral. However, they no doubt knew by now that their fellow brother, son, maybe even father was gone. And they had no idea who to blame.

He turned back to the grave. Maxwell Shepard. An old friend. A childhood friend. A dead friend.

This is important, he told himself. This is necessary in order to keep doing what I do. Without Max, there would be no me. Although his memory stung his eyes to think about, it gave him fuel. Kept him going.

  • * *

A memory came to Andy as he studied the etching in the stone once again. A scene from his childhood. Something that always came to mind when he thought of his departed friend Max. In the memory, the sun hung high in the tight blue covering above. The rocky outcroppings along the wilderness sharp and bold against the monotone sky. The two boys struggled to climb over the very last ledge before stepping out onto a clearing. They peered down in exhaustion at the height they had just ascended. They were thirteen.

“We’re above so much,” Andy said. He gazed out over his quiet neighborhood. The sun started the tinge to a darker orange as it made contact with the opposite horizon.

Max started walking to the trees before Andy felt he had caught his breath. The rough earthen floor gave way to a much softer, vibrant grass. Trees of diverse heights towered from exposed roots. The two boys felt a rush of wonder wash over them as if they had discovered rain for the first time. Max slipped his red and purple backpack off of his shoulders. He dropped it to the ground with the white stitching of a peace symbol facing out to the sun. He always carried that backpack, even on walks to the corner store. Max took off his shoes and stretched his toes. The sensation of the grass in between his toes overjoyed Max. Andy recalled the familiar sight from a thousand memories. Max never wore shoes on grass. He wore them as seldom as possible. Perhaps, something about the gesture symbolized freedom. Other times, Andy believed that Max only wanted to stand out in a sea of shoe-wearing squares.

Andy hung back while his friend ventured deeper into the woods. Max turned with a puzzled demeanor. “What’s the matter, guy?” Max asked.

“Max, our parents are going to be really mad,” Andy replied.

Max waved. “They’re not gonna know where we were,” he said.

“How do you know?”

“‘Cause we’re smart,” Max said. He pointed to his head. “Being calm makes you smarter.”

“Yeah,” Andy replied, peering back behind him as if expecting his mother to catch him.

Max could still sense the uneasiness in his companion. “Don’t you wanna check it out?” he asked. He stopped walking and faced the timid boy.

“Aren’t you afraid?” Andy asked. His eyes darted across the hillside, back to the trees. He worried that Max would make fun of him, or at the very least make it embarrassing for him. The only emotion Max showed though was confusion.

“Of what?” Max asked. He looked about. “Your mom will just think you’re at my house.”

Andy’s eyes dropped to the pebbles at his feet. He kicked at them. “It’s not that. Aren’t you afraid of the woods? Or getting lost, or something?”

Max nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Isn’t that the fun part?” He turned back around and walked in between the first clump of tree trunks. Andy wanted him to wait for him, wanted him to soothe him some and tell him there was nothing to be afraid of. Instead he walked on, and because of that, Andy followed.

When they had picked their way in a single direction through the thick of the forest for almost a mile, they came out into a clearing. The tree line ended just before the foot of a small, steep hill. No trees grew from its slope as it jutted up toward the heavens like a rocky beacon. The soft sloshing of water drifted through the trees as the children squeezed past them. A deep and luscious pond swirled at the heart of the clearing. A thin stream ran to the opposite side of the water from a source high behind the hill. While foaming bubbles churned in the young current, the light blues mixed with the darker ones. Wind played like dancing hummingbirds through the leaves of the trees. The rustle was low, the trickle was high.

The children beamed. Their faces pointed outward as they tried to absorb the scene. “This is really beautiful, isn’t it, guy?” Max said.

“It is,” Andy replied.

“Are you still scared?”

“I don’t know.”

“Kinda?” Max asked.

“Yeah. Kinda.”

  • * *

The memory faded there.

He dipped down low into a bow before resting the tulips where the stone met the grass. He stayed down there for a moment, almost wishing he could sink down into the ground and be reunited with the most important person in his life. This didn’t last long before he snapped back up and looked at the grave. It looked nice now with the yellow tulips detracting from the overabundance of gray. It looked like something Max could sigh to, a final sigh before he was truly at peace.

Max may be at peace, Andy thought, but I am not. For that, he took one of the tulips for himself.

Softly did his feet tread as he walked away from the sight, the tulip held in between his loose fingertips. The cab driver waited for him and for that Andy handed him a crisp new fifty-dollar bill when he climbed in the back. He directed the taxi home, a good hour away. He wrote the check for fifty dollars over the fare and took himself and his luggage up to his apartment.

Andy’s apartment sported style, sacrificing space for class at the same price of both. A spacious loft above a boutique on the corner of the block, it had already been furnished before he ever set eyes on the brass door handles. The entire interior seared whiteness, as if to point out every speck of grime or layer of dust that accumulated in his frequent absences. A decorative waterfall trickled from its spot in the hallway wall. It made him anxious, but he cared too little to remove it. The lamps were very decorative; the tall metal ones bended in strange angles so they seemed more unique. The shorter ones were made of stained glass. The type of stuff that ruins your day when it breaks.

Andy threw the tulip into a vase on his nightstand and rested his luggage at the foot of his bed. From it he retrieved his deep purple bathrobe and slipped out of his clothes. He had received a large gash along his upper left arm that he didn’t notice until now as it screamed pain at him when he deftly tossed his shirt off. Not too deep, Andy observed. No stitches.

Water rolled off of him as if it preferred not to be on him for too long. However, it still soothed as he showered. He needed to wash off every bit of St. Petersburg that made the trip with him. How he loathed that city. And how he just wanted to weep. No one would be able to hear him. He might as well have just done it and gotten over with it, but he felt unable to cry. His eyes felt dried and his heart just felt cold. Try though he might, he couldn’t shed a tear. He was a killer. Not a philosopher.

He clicked on the television before seeing the news channel and turning it off again. Escape was impossible within reality. His fingers danced over his collection of movies until he found a favorable Mel Brooks film, to which he fell asleep in the late morning.

  • * *

Andy was dreaming. He felt that fact nagging at him in the back of his head, but he dismissed it and continued his walk down the dark, snowy streets. The night sent pleasant shudders down his spine, warm but hollow, like a crystalline dreamscape. He needed the burgundy suit he wore so well, but it didn’t warm him up too much either so there was little sacrifice in looking this good. He carried with him a box of chocolates, the really good kind that you can’t even find in a department store.

His feet led the way, taking him someplace that he remembered, yet he couldn’t imagine. Where ever it is, he thought, I hope it has much less snow. He didn’t want to ruin his jet black cowboy boots.

A door. That’s where he finally arrived, cleared his throat, and then knocked. A beautiful woman threw open the door, dressed even more extravagantly than Andy himself.

“Andy!” she cried before embracing him.

“Hi,” he said. “I got these for you.” He indicated the chocolates.

She beamed at him. “For me?” she asked.

“For us,” he answered before allowing himself into the house.

She helped him peel off his jacket before taking the chocolates and kissing him. She disappeared into another room. He followed her in and leaned against the doorway as she pulled out a large tray of some sort of odd pastry. “Spanakopita!” she announced. “I felt Greek tonight.”

Andy beamed in response, then rushed over to help her light a couple of candles.

The small dish ignited Andy’s taste, a man not often for spinach. The woman’s company felt like a familiar presence. She smiled at him, her eyes fertile with love and trust. She shared casual facts about her day and romantic plans for the future. Plans that almost tore him up. None of this came off as strange to Andy, though. It was common. He knew this feeling.

Suddenly he remembered the ring in his pocket. Tonight he planned to propose.

The night slipped by them as quickly as the wine drained from the large bottle she had brought out in a decorative ice bucket. He felt himself getting drunk. Such a peculiar sensation, getting drunk within a dream. He felt light as a feather. He didn’t get his typical wave of nausea that he had to bear once the alcohol decided to intoxicate him.

Proposing didn’t seem like such a great idea on such a great evening with such a great buzz going on. It wouldn’t seem as genuine. So at the end of the night, thumbing the ring in his pocket, he said his goodbyes and called a cab.

He stopped the driver at the large park that they passed along their ride home. He paid him and climbed out of the taxi. It might have been the wine, but Andy didn’t want to end the night in his apartment alone, so he went for a stroll through the park. He made his way knowingly toward a large pond that sat hidden in a cluster of trees within the park. Kind of a walk to get to, but his favorite place to dream. He hadn’t sobered up so he walked along the edge of the water until all that filled him was a desire to dip his toes into the cool pond. He labored over his nice black cowboy boots, trying to coax them off of his drunken feet in an aloud manner. He looked up at the sole street lamp that sat at the edge of the pond bright faced as he struggled. He managed to pull them and his socks off and sat on the edge of the pond, breathing in the cool night air and staring into the infinite blackness between the stars. Never had he felt so peaceful.

That’s when the bullet hit him, knocking him into the lake and back into consciousness.

  • * *

Dreams always came that way to Andy. Cryptic and incomplete. Andy thought nothing more of it. He had many dreams with similar themes and he paid none of them much thought. They all ended the same way, and none of them were more significant than another.

He tried his best to not know what it meant.

Andy climbed out of his bed and slipped into a casual attire. Instead of his customary suit and classic style, he threw on some jeans, a peace-sign t-shirt and a blue hoodie. Less than he’d need in wintertime Chicago, but he wouldn’t be out long. He grabbed his bag and slipped out of the door.

Here walked a man enshrouded in strange, home brewed superstition. This man here, the murderer wearing a peace-sign shirt. Andy, of course, realized the irony of that being his favorite symbol, the only one he could wear on a shirt if there be any symbol at all. Perhaps he wanted to avoid all the brand-named merchandise that corporations just like the one that employed him peddled out. He had no clue what company it he worked for these last ten years, no tangible names by which he could identify the faces that represented that company. But that wasn’t quite it. The most probable explanation of all is that there is a balance to things and Andy felt very strongly about upsetting it. If you paint it black, you need to paint some white. If you sing a little high, you must sing a little low.

If you take a life, you must help one to grow.

He walked with that purpose in mind. Andy admitted it to himself without hesitation; he wasn’t driven by the generosity in his heart but by the guilt of his crimes that pushed him on into the downtrodden neighborhood of Chicago’s local homeless population.

They were a misshapen group. Skittish, they almost seemed, like a deer in a yard. They peered over at the wealthier man who just joined them. At least that’s what the more alert of the crowd did. Others stared off into space like mannequins, ignoring anything the outside world would try to communicate to them. Drugged, Andy determined. Or perhaps they were broken.

He made his way through the sea of the impoverished until he came to a bearded black man. He was about the same age as Andy but misfortune had aged him faster than he should look. He looked up from the conversation he was having with an old white man, who stopped talking and started reading the papers that covered him like a blanket.

“Hello,” the black man said with a genuine, human smile. His warmth came across without effort.

“Homer, hi,” Andy greeted.

His friend grinned, exposing yellowing teeth. They must have received little maintenance since he left last. “How are you?” he asked.

“I’m well,” Andy started, drifting off. He stared up and down the road at all the faces. He noticed himself coming off as distant, so he returned the question. He dropped the bag from his shoulder on the street and sat beside Homer.

They exchanged surface pleasantries as Andy pulled out the bag with his leftovers in it. “This is for you,” he said as he handed the food over to his friend. Homer accepted, thanking him. Andy grabbed the envelop he had stuffed in his bag and set it in his lap as Homer looked over and smelled the steak sandwich and potatoes that Andy gave him. The food steamed. Andy heated it up before leaving his apartment.

“Man, these other people are going to start realizing why you visit so often and then you’ll never get any peace of mind when you come back,” Homer joked. Andy cracked the slightest smile and laughed himself.

“I’d love to help them all,” he started, looking at the lot of them. “It’s not right to pick favorites, but Homer, you are indeed mine.”

“Why’s that?” Homer asked.

Andy’s eyes smiled at Homer. “You helped me. For no other reason than you could,” he explained.

The black man nodded but the expression on his face was not convinced. “You know I love the help, Andy,” he started. “I love getting to see you and all, but maybe you should take a lesson from that and don’t pick favorites.”

It was something to consider. Random generosity to help his fellow man just because he could. However, Andy did not see the point in the philosophy. He felt he could never make a dent if he spread all of his resources over the random population. He would much rather support his friend than people who never gave a damn about him. Then it came to Andy that perhaps Homer didn’t refer to food and money, but just basic human compassion.

“You’re an endangered species, Homer.” Andy commented.

Homer brightened up again after a brief pause of conversation when he asked, “So where’d you go this time?”

“Russia,” Andy replied, trying not to convey his dislike of the country through his face. He failed according to the way Homer looked at him. He looked down into his lap and thumbed through the money in the envelop as they talked, double checking its quantity.

“What’s wrong with Russia?” the black man asked.

Andy handed the envelope with the money in it to Homer, who tried his best to seem like he did not want to accept it. He took the thing after a moment of hesitation, at a loss for what to say. There was nothing left to say soon as Andy stood up from the road, looking down at his kind friend. “It was cold,” he answered.

  • * *

Andy awoke a handful of uneventful days later to find that the tulip had withered and died overnight. With its death came the call from his employer, and his next assignment.

Chapter Three – Lumnin

A small plane waited for him on the runway, just as it had dropped him off. He said his farewells to Homer, leaving just a sheet of mystery over the whole occasion. Despite his friend’s curiosity, he couldn’t say where he would be flown to next because he never knew himself until he was seated across from the middle-aged man on the expensive jet. Like he was now.

His employer had started growing out a beard during Andy’s holiday, which he played with through most of their discussion. “Good to see you,” he greeted the hit man.

“You as well,” Andy replied, strained by the force of the take-off.

“We’re flying now to Lumnin, a city about three hours drive from New York City,” the man told him with no dulling of the twinkle in his eye.

“Lumnin?” Andy said the name of the city, let it try to get comfortable in his mouth. “That would be my first assignment in the country since — ”

“Merely coincidental,” his employer interrupted, leaving out none of the significance. “Interest has found itself in America.”

“What is this interest’s name?”

The man smirked. “Flynn,” he answered. “For reasons that don’t concern you, we’d like to offer a hundred-and-fifty percent your normal salary to rid this burden from my mind.”

“First name?”

“Haley.”

“Why is she a problem?” Andy asked. A valid question, but he saw his error as soon as he made it. You never ask for a reason. Every other question should float through his head, when, where, how, but never why. “Forgive me.”

The man nodded once in response.

“This one requires a very tasteful touch, Winter, but I think that you’re up for it,” his boss started. “You’re on American soil. A lot is invested in this run, and your expertise is crucial. Any mistakes, anything that could be traced back to us would be cataclysmic.”

“There will be no mistakes,” Andy said very straight faced. His skill for murder was no joke for him. He had no pride for it.

The man smiled. “I don’t expect you to fail us. The key element to this whole thing is that you ensure it looks like an accident. Any thorough investigation, any suspicion that something might have been orchestrated will be complete failure. Nothing can go wrong,” he said. “You can’t take an extra three seconds with this one. Too much is at risk.”

Andy nodded. “I’ll do nothing less than extraordinary,” he promised.

“Because of the delicateness and sheer difficulty of the task,” the man started again, giving Andy some strange horrifying feeling, “you won’t be alone in Lumnin. You’ll be staying and working with one of our most talented data collectors. His name is Amidon.”

“A data collector?” Andy asked.

“Please take this as no offense,” the elder man replied. “As capable as you are, Amidon is skilled at gathering information about a topic. The most thorough of his kind available. The catch, however, is that he is unaware of some crucial details.”

“What doesn’t he know?” Andy interrupted.

His boss let it slide. “That Flynn is to die. He believes this to be an illegal slander operation. We’ve informed him that you represent media that we have hired to ‘dig up dirt’ on Flynn. He believes that you mean to discredit her,” he explained.

“So I’m supposed to be a reporter or something?” Andy asked for clarification.

“A writer, yes,” was the answer he received. “Anyway, it is also very vital that Amidon not be aware to your true purpose. If he gets nervous or scared, we may have to have another loose end cut. I’d prefer not to have that happen.”

“How will he be ignorant once I kill her?” Andy asked. “His job is to study her. Won’t he realize what’s been happening when she turns up dead?”

“No, he won’t,” the man replied. “That is how convincing this accident must be. Even the man working as the informant for her assassination must not know that she was killed. Only that she died. Then we win some brownie points by releasing a statement saying that we had discovered controversial information about the dead girl, but out of respect, will not release it.”

Andy smiled only because the skin of his face crawled in that direction. Truly despicable. That’s what he must become to do this. He believed he was prepared.

“Salt in the wounds, if I may say,” Andy commented.

“Pain,” his employer explained, “is a reminder to intelligent beings to know their place and a harbinger to those too dumb to obey.”

  • * *

When Andy landed this time, he didn’t say anything to the cab driver before the taxi lurched forward onto the streets of Lumnin, darkening as the sun had begun setting. He couldn’t discern where he was going and wouldn’t be able to recognize it even if he did. It was an unfamiliar city. Even though it was labeled as a city, Andy could see it much more as a college town. A large town. However, there was no campus as Andy learned while they drove down the cobblestone street that served as the city’s main vein. Instead, it seemed that the city was built around an ancient and now abandoned soda factory that rested on the bank of a small river. Andy had no idea which river it was.

Andy could only make out the dead shell of a building in the distance from the small stretch of freeway that wound through the outskirts of town. The sun made a remarkable twinkle as it began sinking behind the dilapidated form. Shortly following, they exited onto a thriving avenue that contained tower-like apartment buildings and large houses. It was a very young neighborhood. Through it prowled hipsters and naive trend followers. Ambitious people with no talent. Your local pot dealer.

He almost believed that the taxi driver wanted to pick up a sack once he stopped the car in a dingy part of the neighborhood, but he only collected the blank check Andy was left with, helped him with his luggage and then departed, leaving him in front of a strange house. He walked up to the front stoop and rang the doorbell. After a minute of waiting, he looked around to make sure that this was the house he had to go to before ringing it again. Now he heard movement.

The door was unlocked and pulled in, and from behind it a very young, lanky man peered. Sweat clung to his short, rough beard.

“Amidon?” Andy asked.

“Summers?” the thin man asked in response, trying to stay on top of his domain.

Andy smirked at the lack of creativity his boss possessed. “Andy,” he simply introduced before pushing past the skittish man into the living room.

“Steven,” his host replied.

The place was a stereotypical description of the term “man-cave.” Plates and silverware occupied more area on the surfaces of tables, desks, and trays than anything, but still their numbers failed in comparison to the quantity of cups littered about, several of which still had ample amounts of liquid in them. Curtains were placed over all of the windows to prevent any sunlight from contaminating the otherwise bleak atmosphere of the room. Or perhaps it was to prevent any glares on the television screen which, from the position of the furniture, got a lot of attention.

“I guess they told you that I’m a man,” Andy commented, noting the lack of any attempt to tidy up for his visit.

“You guess?” Steven returned to the original discussion. “Are you the guy from the tabloids?”

Again Andy smirked to himself about his boss’s lies. He nodded. “Here about Haley Flynn,” he said.

Steven sighed in relief, concerned that he had just let a random stranger into his room. Andy was still a stranger, but at least he was an expected stranger. “I’ve already begun collecting information about Miss Flynn,” he began. “I’ll be honest, we’re going to have to be very lucky to expose any dirt on her. She seems to have no skeletons in her closet, so to speak.”

“Dig more and we’ll find them,” Andy said. “What do you know about her now?”

Steven was a little startled for some reason. Perhaps he hardly exposed himself to conversations. He looked as if he had been put on the spot. Still, his reputation did tone a true color as he replied through awkward delivery. “She’s twenty-six years old, born and raised in Montreal –”

“She’s not American?” Andy asked with interest.

“She wasn’t until she got her citizenship two summers ago,” Steven was quick to answer. “She graduated high school with alright grades but flourished at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She got her bachelor’s in humanities and began volunteering in Denver at several homeless shelters. From there, she was offered a position in human services in New York City, which she stayed at until about two months ago, when she arrived here. Her step brother Jacob lives here and she’s been staying with him while investigating rumors of illegal – and immoral – economic practices being used on local resources. She’s caught a whiff of something big, something worth exposing.”

Andy hummed as he thought it all over. “So she’s a saint?”

Steven nodded.

Andy turned back around to hang his coat by the door. “Then we will have to dig deep,” he reiterated.

Chapter Four – Haley

Andy discovered that Steven lived the life of a hermit on his second day in the house. Little Andy did would interest him as he sat in his recliner, scribbling away in a journal as the television blared at him. Andy would try to engage him in conversation, but Steven would only reply to his questioning as closed-ended as he could before turning back to his preoccupations. He sipped on cheap white wine that he poured from a box into a mug. He sat in the glow of the screen, drunk.

Andy began having his doubts about his data collector after the second day during which Steven didn’t leave his locked bedroom until the late afternoon. Dishes piled up while Andy agreed to wash them in exchange for the roof above his head. He felt that even that was a sour deal on his behalf. It was on this second evening that he sprung into motion, dressing in the privacy of his guest room into a casual suit. Brown, without a tie and patches on the elbows. Like a college professor.

“Steven,” he addressed his host as he slid up behind the chair unnoticed. The half-aware, half-sober man jumped but was interrupted before he could protest the surprise. “How did you get that information about Flynn?”

“I,” Steven started.

“Did you just find it on the Internet?” Andy asked.

Steven started making exasperated giggles, signifying his offense. Then he clammed up for a moment and confessed, “For starters.”

“Do you even know where she lives?” Andy interrogated.

“Yes, of course,” Steven replied. “Her brother has an apartment in the Five Points community on Elite Street.”

“Which apartment?”

“Well I — I don’t know that yet — ”

“Why not?”

Steven jumped on the defensive. “The apartment number isn’t listed, just his P.O. box number. The phone book doesn’t list — ”

Andy was upset. “You used the phone book?” he demanded. “The phone book!”

He turned away, stamping in his jet black polished dress shoes to the door. He fumed inside his head, cursing the man on the plane for his apparent insult. He had thought himself more professional than this amateur performance. He needed someone with experience. Someone motivated. Smart.

“Where are you going?” Steven asked as he watched Andy reach for the door handle.

“I’m going to go do some research on Flynn,” Andy stated.

Again, Steven’s face was constricted in offense. “I’m the data collector,” he commented.

Stepping away from the door, Andy turned to face the man, tightening the muscles in his face to terrify. To show the killer inside. It was a grimace to make little schoolgirls out of warriors. Steven shook.

“If that’s what you call it,” Andy started, releasing each word through his hissing teeth, “then I demand you do it.” He lurched forward which set Steven in a defensive pose. “You will waste neither my time, my patience, nor any more of our employer’s finances sitting about on your ass. Otherwise, I’ll walk out this door.”

Steven’s eyes darted around for something to defend himself with. Andy could see the fear and discomfort in his pupils. He tried to speak. Fear shook his voice. “If you do that,” he started, failing to maintain calm in his tone, “I’ll tell Mr. Graves.”

This stopped Andy in his menacing thoughts. His face fell soft of the violent intent he displayed and into true surprise. “That’s his name?” he asked.

Something frightened Steven about the man’s sudden change of mood than the previous rage directed at him. He said, “The man with the plane?” He relaxed when Andy nodded. “Yes. Leroy Graves.”

Andy was impressed. He had worked for the man on the plane for almost nine years and never before had heard his name. When he dared to ask it once, Graves replied that knowing it jeopardized their work together. Yet this amateur, as he referred to Steven before, figured it out.

“How long have you worked for him?” Andy asked. Curiosity drove his tone instead of dominance.

“Five months,” Steven replied. He seemed unsure what Andy was getting at.

Again, Andy was impressed.

“I even know where he lives,” Steven chimed in, realizing that he lifted off the bad foot that they had started out on. “The name of his wife. His mistress, where she lives. What kind of car he drives. His favorite restaurant.”

“Do you know what company he represents?” Andy interrupted, seeing now an opportunity.

“Yes.”

“Which?”

“I can’t say,” Steven said, repositioning himself defensively. He really did not want to piss off his guest again.

“Why not?” Andy was getting upset again.

“Orders,” Steven replied. “In fact, I’ve said too much. Please, Mr. Summers, don’t put me in any worse of a position than I am already in. Knowing only makes this harder.”

Andy sighed. He knew that he couldn’t get any more from the man. He paused at the door. “How did you find all of this out?” he asked.

“Most of that, actually, was Google,” Steven replied. “I get one lead and I keep pulling and pulling until all the roots are torn from the dirt. Every stone unturned reveals what the world under it looks like. I will collect every drop of information I can find about a subject before I can make any assumptions about it. Yes, yes, I know what I can see with my eyes, but I want to know what a witness has to say about Haley Flynn. What the Internet has to say. Phone books. That is where I have to start.”

Again, Andy sighed. Too quick to anger, he judged himself. Steven proved himself full of surprises, at least, on this evening. He was right, considering they dealt with such a sensitive case as this. If he planned to kill this woman without anyone, even Steven, knowing she had been murdered, he needed every detail about her that he could pull together. Something could give himself away without ever thinking about it if it weren’t for the expertise Steven had to offer him. Something like that could mean the death of him, the only fitting punishment for a failed killer.

Steven is going to save my life, he decided.

“Come on,” he said, nodding his head to the door. “Let’s research.”

  • * *

Andy found himself thankful to have Steven with him as they drove through the city, creeping toward the Five Points apartment complex along the bleak and misnamed Elite Street. Steven had a car. He hadn’t thought it through, but Andy would have to sit in a tree or something to stake out the building. In New England. In the winter.

It wasn’t exactly a ghetto, but Elite Street wore it share of dilapidation. Several buildings were boarded up and closed to future activity. Groups of young tattooed men, few white people among them, chatted around in loose, warm clothing. Gang bangers. Or so Andy could only assume. He almost scolded himself on being too quick to judge. But he was an assassin. He had to be quick on everything.

Good killer, not so good man, he thought.

Steven pulled the car up by the Five Star apartments, taking care to look inconspicuous and empty. The car could not be left running so they had brought blankets. Steven had to point this out to Andy, in a way crushing his excitement about the car’s heater.

“You do this often?” Andy asked with the first sign of humor he had allowed to slip through to Steven.

“Often enough,” Steven answered.

For a moment they sat in silence, anticipating any change that could take place. Every bit of movement or color attracted Andy’s attention. Everything seemed to be much more interesting than it was in reality. That feeling dissolved as they waited in the dark, hoping it had not been too late to catch her. The clock read only five in the evening. Either way, they must wait. Hopefully they would catch her coming home from her day of activities, but they would be patient until she came back out if that’s what they had to do. Andy sighed to himself when he realized how restless the whole ordeal made him. Not often did his assignments require this much care. He had even a few jobs that were, “this is what he looks like, here’s a gun, now go at it”.

“So this is her brother’s place?” Andy asked as the silence drug on.

Steven nodded, chewing on some gum he had brought. “One of these,” he gestured.

“What does he do?” Andy continued.

“Oh, well he’s a cop,” Steven answered. “One of the head lieutenants of the LPD.”

Andy nodded as he leaned back in his seat and looked at the building, wondering which of the doors they were waiting to see open.

He felt the true weight of his dedication when Steven shook him awake some time after.

“Hey, stop snoring,” Steven said, shaking the hit man’s shoulder. “You’re making my thoughts too loud to hear.”

“Has she come out?” Andy asked, pulling himself back into the shape of the seat and wiping away a trace bit of drool from his lips.

Steven pursed his own together and shook his head, displaying that even he became impatient with the situation. Andy didn’t know how much time had gone by. Darkness swirled outside the car, so he hadn’t slept the entire night. In fact, it could have only been a few minutes. He had no idea when he had fallen asleep. It was two in the morning now.

“Is it possible that she knows we’re here?” Andy asked, putting all of his tone to the task of making it sound like a hypothetical question and not his immediate assumption.

“No,” Steven replied. Andy knew that that was the answer. Nothing provided evidence behind that, only that he knew Steven to be a professional.

Several hours passed with Andy fighting a losing battle against unconsciousness. Steven jostled methodically in his seat, shaking the car as they sat in complete silence. The sun rose. Andy felt worn and much older than he had the night before.

Then Steven’s posture piqued Andy’s interest, saving him from falling asleep again. The data collector sat straight up, sitting on his knuckles and holding his mouth open as if he was about to speak. Andy sat forward as well and peered out the windshield at the Five Points.

A door opened and a woman slipped from behind it.

“There she is,” Steven whispered. It was no less exciting for him as it was for Andy. He always loved remembering that he had the perseverance of a hunter. Along with that also came the obsession with his prey.

A brunette woman, petite in stature and girlish in fashion, emerged from apartment one with a red and purple backpack strapped over each shoulder. When she bent over a bike at a rack and began working on a lock, Andy could see a bright white peace symbol stitched into the backpack. He sat forward on impulse, jolted like a man experiencing Déjà vu. It left him with the feeling that something waited on the tip of his tongue. But it had fled him.

She bikes, Andy noted. Perhaps an accident?

He couldn’t make out any distinctive features about her other than her size and the abundance of bright colors she wore. Knowing that she biked made her easy to keep track of as they began to tail her, but it became difficult to do in Steven’s car without drawing attention. Andy did not want to lose her trail.

They had to pull over after passing her once so that they did not get too far ahead of her. Andy looked over at Steven as the nervous young man poured scribbles into a notepad with furious precision. He hesitated to speak, worried he might derail Steven’s train of thought. As the data collector wrote, Andy saw Haley pedal right past the car through his window. She turned and caught a brief look into the man’s eyes. Andy froze as she rode by. Steven did not look up.

“Let’s follow her,” Andy suggested once he saw a break in the writing.

“Not in this,” Steven replied in a tone that hinted that Andy would agree, which he did. Still, he wanted to know how they would keep up with her. Steven looked around outside as if he hadn’t seen it in quite a while, which was likely true with the concentration he put into his writing. He started the car and then eased it onto the road. He took the same course as Flynn. They drove right past her a second time. She glanced back over at the car and Andy tried to cover his eyes but moved too slow. He did his best to be unrecognizable. It wasn’t so much about being dressed or posed inconspicuous as much as it was about being boring. There should be no reason to remember their faces.

They pulled into the parking lot of a laundromat a few blocks away. Steven grabbed every bit of clothing that he could find within the vehicle, handing what he couldn’t carry to Andy. He didn’t quite follow the rouse, but still entered the building after the stalker. Steven went to a machine in the right corner, closest to the window. He started jamming the clothes and blankets into the device and then rummaged through his pocket for coins. He pulled out an insignificant looking pile and asked Andy if he had any change. He thanked him once two quarters dropped into his palm and then began working the machine.

“She’ll pass by in about a minute, give or take,” Steven said. “Here, take this and go outside.” He handed Andy a Camel filter.

“I don’t smoke,” Andy told him.

Steven smiled a tight smile at him, like a parent preparing to explain the rules. “Well then, find something worth doing outside so you can get a view of where she’s going,” he said. “Come on, you don’t have to inhale, just puff it.” He turned back to the machine, checking the settings. “Or act like you’re doing something illegal.”

Andy did smoke. It wasn’t a fact that he was proud of, but neither was his job and like this, his job was no body’s business. He was in the process of quitting when he arrived in Lumnin but he knew that one cigarette was a small sacrifice to make. Still, he felt awkward as he smoked. Like someone who didn’t really know what he was doing.

Then the bike rode by. It was a townie, the wide seated sit-on-this-and-you’ll-get-somewhere type of bicycle. The frame was slathered in flower decals, the whites of the daisies blending with the neon blue of the metal. It was a distinctive vehicle.

The woman who rode such a distinctive bike was a small structured white girl. She did not resembled an adult other than her curves and her mature eyes. Her cheeks softened against the bone unlike the pillow-like cheek of a baby so many women strove to keep. Lochs of shimmering brown hair framed her features in the early morning breeze. She looked like she should have been a model of some kind, the eyeliner and mascara applied to draw out the crystal blue hue of her irises. Those eyes burned into Andy’s as she looked at him for a third time. He ignored her as much as he could, the image of her face still on the inside of his eyelids. He watched her take a sudden right about a block down and dismount from her bike. Andy flicked his cherried Camel into the parking lot and slipped back into the laundromat through the flimsy glass doors.

“Did she go by?” Steven asked, perched upon the edge of the machine he used.

Andy nodded. “She parked her bike just a block down.”

“Good, I was a little worried she had turned,” Steven commented. He jumped off of the shaking device. “Alright, so I need you to stay here and look like we didn’t abandon my laundry. I am going to tail her on foot.”

“Why don’t I tail her?” Andy asked.

Steven made a face like he was about to say something that Andy wouldn’t like and that he didn’t much like thinking about it. “To be honest, I’m worried you won’t know what you’re doing,” he replied.

Andy felt like replying that he had killed more men than Steven ever shook hands with, but he bit his tongue.

“Once a face is seen, it is stored in a person’s short term memory. Like the history on an Internet browser,” Steven started explaining. “When that same face is seen again, it resurfaces in their mind and they suddenly focus on it. It becomes more interesting than we’d want to be. It only draws attention.”

It made sense. “Okay,” Andy said, a little late to interrupt like he wanted. “Go.”

  • * *

Thirty minutes passed while Andy finished the laundry and then waited around the idle machine, hoping Steven would return at any point. Once it had become obvious that he couldn’t stay in the laundromat any longer, he pulled out his cell phone and called the contact labeled “Data.”

“What?” Steven answered the phone.

“I can’t stay here. The laundry is done,” Andy explained.

“Get in the car. It’s unlocked. You’ll find the key behind the brake,” Steven directed, wind ripping past him and into his speaker. “I’m going to keep at this for a while. Drive home.”

Andy didn’t like it, but he eventually agreed. Grabbing the pile of warm linen off the top of the drier, he pushed out the glass door and drove back to Steven’s house with a little luck. He fell asleep.

Chapter Five – Circumstance

“How did it go?” Andy asked several hours later when Steven arrived back at the house.

“Really well,” Steven said. “I’m starting to learn about Flynn’s routine at the least, but I can’t be certain from just one observation. I want to try again tomorrow morning. Same time as she left today.”

“Alright,” Andy said, and asked no more of him. Steven was no doubt exhausted by now and he could find out what information he had collected after a well-deserved nap.

  • * *

Again, he dreamed. This time he was looking at his own face in the mirror. The features had been sanded off, nothing about him more distinctive than anybody else. He even had trouble recognizing himself. All he could really see were his eyes and the black rings that had begun to develop around them.

Rolling waves of sadness hit him, one succeeding after the other. Each one hurt worse than the last until he forced himself away from the reflection that he hated so much. From there he started walking down an elongated red carpet that stretched from the bathroom, down the hall, and into a large cathedral-like chamber. The carpet became more worn and hideous as he got nearer and nearer to its end. Once he found himself there, before him sat a large wooden throne.

The throne was Gothic in appearance, the arms raised up on twisted and gnarled looking sticks, designed by nature to be despised. The wood itself looked deader and darker than any wood he had ever seen. He knew that it had not been finished that way either; it was crafted by the divine just for him. He took a seat at it and felt all the horrible feelings that lived in the arms crawl up onto him and burrow into his skin. He felt worse than when he was staring at his reflection.

Upon his touch, the seat lowered a crown onto his head. Its material seeped down on his hair and suffocated his nostrils. It was made of excrement, the only fitting crown for him. It felt familiar and he welcomed it even though he hated it as well. It only reminded him of his sadness and justified it all for him. There was no pity he felt for himself; only punishment.

A photo of the young Haley Flynn was smashed and defiled at his feet. He dared to look at it and it stole him. Upon his gaze, the woman in the photograph started losing all of her color. As her hair began falling out in clumps, her skin began to rot and she twisted into an unrecognizable corpse. That killed him. There he broke down, sobbing for the first time he could remember.

He cried over the jet black suit that he wore, staining it with the crimson blood that flowed from his eyes. Every drop changed the tone of the material and soon he was sitting in a suit of dripping blood. His uniform of evil.

He couldn’t take it any longer.

Slipping his bare feet into the most evil looking pair of boots he had ever seen, he fled from the chamber. Fled from the carpet. Fled from the throne. As he ran, he tore off his crown of shit, increasing in speed until he was in a full blown sprint. He rushed out of a door and came out into a courtyard.

In the middle of this vibrant lawn sat a crystal blue pond. On the shore nearest to him was a lamp post, illuminating the night time ripples that ran so elegant through the otherwise still waters.

This was it, he decided.

Off slipped his boots by the shore as he tested the water. It was cool, feeling as relieving as aloe on a burn. The burn that was his accursed existence. At that moment he decided that he would drown himself in the pond. No more would he sit on his throne or wear his crown. That was not who he wanted to become. He would much rather die.

However, he noticed, the farther he waded into the waters, the better he felt. Years of anguish were washing off of him like grime. He felt happy.

Something hit him hard in the back and he was thrown face forward into the water. His body was held in shock, just as his mind was as he watched his own blood seep out of him and into the water. Finally, he thought. Finally, it’s over. Finally I can die.

  • * *

Steven woke Andy up.

“Do you want to come with me today?” Steven asked.

“Hmm?” Andy hummed in response, his mind fogged by the haze of half-sleep.

“Today,” Steven started, “do you want to come? You don’t need to. I stalk best by myself.”

Andy rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “At least you’re honest about what you do,” he grunted. Then he looked up at his partner who still expected an answer. “No. You go.”

“Okay, then I will be back in time for dinner, which I would like you to make.”

“What?”

“I’ve left thirty dollars on the TV stand,” Steven continued. “Go shop for something delicious. Buy yourself a beer. Get to know the city.”

“I don’t want to know it.”

Steven shrugged. “Fine. Don’t do it,” he said in response before vanishing from Andy’s room. “Remember, I’m allergic to nuts!” Andy could hear the front door open, then close, then lock.

He scoffed before falling back asleep.

When he awoke from a dreamless slumber, he remembered Steven’s request. Worried, he checked the time. It was only noon.

He stumbled into the living room and actually found that it had been cleaned and organized. The invading dishes had been eradicated and the general layout of the room was tidied. The carpet had also been vacuumed. And, as Steven had said, a twenty and ten dollar bill rested on the television stand. Andy stared at them for a moment before making up his mind. He stuffed them into his pocket and slipped out the door.

To Andy’s surprise, Steven had left his car in the driveway. He had either decided to follow Flynn on foot, got a bicycle, or took a taxi. Either way, the car was intended for Andy’s use, as the giant “drive me” written in dust in the rear window demanded.

He climbed into the car, noticing how strange it was that it was left unlocked. He never saw something like that. In an instant, he realized that he did not have the keys, but the worry passed as he remembered the spot behind the brake pedal. There they were. He grinned as he remembered that his purpose was of leisure. No work was expected of him.

Most cities Andy had ever been in confused him. Seldom could he get to a specified destination without directions. There were never any lucky shots in the dark. Lumnin was not such a city. In fact, the alphabetically ordered streets would require some skill to get lost among. The restaurants were next to the entertainment venues and the department stores were near banks. It all made sense.

Seeing the whole city shouldn’t be done on such an empty stomach, Andy decided, so he pulled into a family owned grocery store. The car eased into the spot and he walked from it to the store with no worry at all that he had to have his trigger finger poised. Instead he came as a normal American shopper. My true freedom, Andy thought for a moment. How relieving it was.

Something unique had to be cooked, as long as he could remember a recipe or learn one in time. He stopped by the meat cooler, and after careful comparison, left with a large pack of pork chops, off to some other section of the store for sides. Eggs. He picked up eggs. Sunny-side-up pork chop sandwiches was a delightful recipe that Max had invented one day and shared with him.

A few other things found their way into Andy’s basket. A bottle of tequila, two dozen donuts and a block of smoked cheddar. Luxuries that he dug into his own wallet for, dismissing Steven’s thirty as nice but not needed. He made sure he had as much paper as he needed as he slid past a woman at check stand four and made it to the front of check stand three, which ran parallel.

“Excuse me?” the woman from check stand four said, tapping him on the shoulder and provoking him to face her.

Andy’s heart dropped to his gut and it was there that it chose to sizzle in acid.

“We’ve met, haven’t we?” Haley Flynn asked.

Little could have prepared him for this. Nothing could spare him now other than his tuned control over every aspect of his appearance. “I’m sorry?” he asked, continuing to bag his groceries.

“You look so familiar,” she replied. She traced across his face with her icy blue eyes. “What’s your name?”

Even her voice sounded fragile. Like the highest note on a grand piano. Threatening to break but singing so bright until it would, which it never did. Like nothing had ever touched that voice. Andy couldn’t help but let his eyes swim for a mere second. In the corner of his eye he could see Steven waving at him from the drink coolers on check stand one. A pained expression was etched into his features, similar to the one Andy felt himself get when he recalled embarrassing memories. Steven drug his hands through his black hair with a speed that threatened to rip it all out. Andy looked back to Haley.

“Andy,” he answered her, trying his best to seem bothered. Perhaps she would get bored and leave if he failed to engage her. He purposely forgot to ask Haley for her own name as he continued operating the check stand.

“My name’s Haley,” she introduced herself. She looked into his eyes. It unnerved Andy. She almost seemed stoned. [Maybe she _]was[ stoned,] Andy hoped. Then he became afraid. [_Maybe _]I’m[ stoned._]

“Haley,” Andy said the name, flipping it over in his mouth and testing how it felt. It felt lighter than mist but heavier than rain. No, he thought. No. “Look, I’m kind of busy — ”

“I don’t mean to come off as strange, but you wouldn’t be interested in getting to know each other, would you?” Haley started asking. She pulled on a long length of hair and moved it out of her face and hooked it behind her ear. She bit her lower lip. There was no possibility that he could endure. “What do you think about drinks and a meal sometime?”

You’re married, Andy lied to himself. Shit, no ring. She would definitely notice that. You have a girlfriend, he demanded to himself. You do. Say it.

“Or a walk?” she continued, allowing Andy to think. The look on her face was of dreamy nervousness. As if she was back in grade school. “It’s starting to warm up.”

You’re gay, he screamed to himself inside his thoughts. Tell her that. Lie to her!

Then it struck him. “Yeah,” he said. “That sounds nice.”

Haley smiled with relieved joy and pure compassion. “Yes?” she wanted to clarify.

Andy nodded. She grinned a touched smile that showed off her beautiful straight teeth. She rummaged through her purse until she found a scrap piece of paper, upon which she scribbled numbers. With happy eyes, she extended the note to Andy.

“Call me,” she told him before accepting her receipt from her respective check stand. Then she walked away, feet so sturdy on the ground and curved frame too fragile to even make a mean face at without fear of breaking it.

A stressed groan came from his left side, low at first but almost on the verge of erupting once it arrived at his ear. Andy saw Steven out of the corner of his eye, but he did not dare to draw his eyes from Haley in fear that it might be the last time he ever saw her.

“This is not good,” Steven hissed through clenched teeth.

“She has no idea that we know each other,” Andy said, trying to get a better look as Haley walked out of the door. He turned to the data collector. “I got rid of her and that’s it.”

“You can’t do surveillance anymore. She’ll recognize you without a doubt,” Steven said as if Andy had meant to run into Haley Flynn and must now be punished. “If you aren’t able to get dirt on her, what good are you here?”

Andy looked back out to the parking lot. A neon blue bike darted by.

“Get a hold of Mr. Graves,” Andy instructed. “I need to talk to him.”

Chapter Six – Why

“Hello?” Steven said with clammed words into the receiver of the phone. “Yes, I know, but Summers requested it. Requested. Of course. Okay, thank you. Goodbye.” He hung the phone up and looked over at Andy. Genuine fear was stamped above his eyes.

“Thank you,” Andy offered. He was grateful that he could get Leroy Graves’ number in the first place, let alone that Steven himself would offer to call him and arrange his own meeting. At this point, he was upset by his roommate’s distress. “I’ll be back. I want to ask him ‘why.’”

“Why what?” Steven demanded.

Andy almost replied “why must Flynn die,” but he caught himself; once he did say that, there was no return. And this man that he had lived with for the last two days would know that he had been deceived.

“Why her,” he settled with.

“I hope the answer is worth it.”

Andy sighed as he turned the door knob, hesitating only a moment before disappearing from the house to meet Mr. Graves.

  • * *

The plane sat on the runway like a cat sunbathing. How Andy had started to hate Mr. Graves’ customary method of meeting with people like him. It seemed cowardly. However, it was a little convenient for him. He got Steven to secure him a flight from here to Chicago so he could visit for the rest of the day. Mr. Graves believed that Andy was feeling homesick and just needed a rest in order to complete the job.

“Mr. Winter!” Leroy Graves addressed the assassin as he climbed up the stairs and entered the jet.

Andy took a seat as the plane took off. “Sir,” he called his employer.

“Now what was it you wanted to talk about? Mr. Graves asked, then added, “Scotch?”

“No, thanks,” Andy said, dismissing the stewardess who had just appeared by his side. “I wanted to talk to you about Haley Flynn.”

“Why?” Leroy asked.

Andy swallowed. He knew how the words would sound once he let them hiss out. They needed to sound like they came from a confident man. He formed his words. “Why does she need to die?” he asked.

Leroy Graves sat up in his seat with a startled expression. “Why?” he echoed the word. “Did you just ask ‘why?’” He did not wait for an answer. “Only I can ask that. Therefore, I ask you why you must know.”

There was nothing to be said. Nothing that would please Mr. Graves. Or Leroy; however it was the rest of the world knew him. Perhaps he was just the nameless man. He had no idea what to call him in his thoughts. “She is a fragile woman,” Andy started. He chose his words with as much care as he could manage. “I don’t think I will be able to kill her, to perform to best of my abilities unless I could calm my conscience. I need motivation.” He begged for a reason.

“Motivation?” Mr. Graves started. “You should realize how compromising it would be if you did not perform as instructed. Not only would you never see a dime of your own money, but an eradication of your knowledge would be put in place. Do you understand what I mean? There is nothing I can tell you about Miss Flynn. Remove the concern from your mind.”

Andy squeezed his eyes shut in a wild attempt to wake up. Only now did he feel stupid for his inquiries. He should have stayed in Lumnin and done as he was told. Or just stayed. Or, Andy thought now, ran. Anything besides telling the man who hired him to perform severe criminal offenses that he had to pussy out. That he wanted to pussy out.

“Forgive me, Mr. Graves,” Andy began. “I will proceed — ” He realized his mistake as he bit his tongue.

Leroy Graves jumped to his feet and drew a small six-shooter, aiming it at Andy’s heart. The hit man did little to react other and loosening his face in instant regret.

“What did you call me?” Mr. Graves asked. His face was far more serious than Andy had ever seen it before.

God damn it, he screamed in his head. God damn it to hell. He let his knowledge of his name slip out, effectively killing himself. There was no possible escape. He was cornered.

“How do you know my name?” Mr. Graves asked, pulling back the hammer on the gun. His face had hardened from shock to malice.

“I,” Andy stuttered. For the first time, he couldn’t respond. He was terrified. Every instinct he had ever used in his line of work screamed at him to break Mr. Graves’ arm, steal the gun and kill him, but there would be no walking away alive if he did it.

The bearded man thought hard. Andy could see the new layer of glistening perspiration that had built up on the man’s brow. This decision was crucial.

“Do you know what this means?” Mr. Graves asked him, lowering his gun. Andy did not trust it. “You must kill Haley Flynn. Whether you feel up to it or not. If you fail to, I promise that I will kill you.”

Andy kept silent.

“And we will find Homer,” Mr. Graves added. He smiled when he saw the shocked expression appear on the assassin’s face. “Don’t think that I don’t have eyes watching you in Chicago. I know everything.”

Andy struggled for words. His face crumpled into defeat.

“I’m a fair man. Consider your original payment as the fee I will pay you to keep silent about anything you know,” Mr. Graves said. “About everything.”

He beckoned to the stewardess who had walked in on the scene froze in uncomfortable horror. When she found the courage to approach him, she was ordered to grab the weapons Andy had concealed on his person. After hesitating, she obliged. Her face was apologetic as she frisked the hit man. She had no idea what she was doing, but nonetheless she discovered and removed Andy’s handgun. She bowed and handed the weapon to Mr. Graves, holding it like it was a dead fish.

Leroy stared into Andy’s eyes. The indent just beside his lips conveyed the whole message of the situation to the perceptive assassin. Mr. Graves was in control.

“You have twenty-four hours in Chicago. If you’re late to the runway…” His voice trailed off.

“I understand,” Andy said.

“Good.”

  • * *

As soon as he got in his apartment, Andy began to pace. Anxiety was paramount and he wanted nothing more than to get outside and run free. Perhaps just sprint in one direction and never turn around. He didn’t even remove his jacket before stepping back out of the apartment and onto the snowy streets. He could see his breath as he walked.

Never before had he had the desire to own a vehicle, seeing them as cumbersome and imprisoning. He would just take advantage of the public transportation that the city had to offer. This time, however, he desired nothing more than to be alone. He didn’t want anyone to speak to him, no one to acknowledge his existence. He just watched their bleak faces as he walked to his bank.

Paranoid, the hit man glanced over his shoulder. Every face, every slowing vehicle drew his gaze. Any one of them could be on Graves’ payroll, just following him and recording everything he did. If only he could figure out who it was, he could lose them. Shake free of his tail and go find Homer. But there were so many people. Hundreds, all just as suspicious as the next, shuffling in gigantic herds on the sidewalks. Even the traffic light cameras worried Andy. Could Graves be watching him from them? He stared at one before slipping into his bank and walking up to the shortest line.

He withdrew as much money as he could. Andy’s bank account had been set up with special permissions to allow for tremendous withdrawals in the case of an emergency. The thick plastic briefcases with the combination lock that he paid extra for felt heavy. That much money was a strain to carry.

Andy had no doubt in his mind that Leroy Graves and his associates were aware of every step he took. It wasn’t paranoia anymore; it was acceptance. He wondered what the man thought. If he worried to see Andy withdraw such a large sum of money or rather was confused to its purpose. Maybe he thought nothing of it, assuming that Andy intended to purchase something expensive for himself to quell his sorrows. He cared little as he arrived back at his apartment.

His own home felt like a prison. The more he thought about it, the more it creeped him out. He had never picked out or purchased any of his furniture. In fact, he had never even moved any of his pieces in or arranged them about. It was all as it was now when he had walked into the apartment the first time. Any of them could be recording him. He was not alone.

His plan had been to shake his tail and deliver the money straight to Homer. That’s who Andy wanted to have it. To take it all off of his hands and build for himself the life he deserves. He had the idea many times in the last ten years since he had begun his lucrative work. There were plenty of selfish reasons that kept him from doing it, but plenty of rational ones as well. He worried that the money would get Homer in trouble. Perhaps that he couldn’t be trusted with such a large amount, but it was more of the fact that in order to give him the money he would have to confess what he was to the only one who had been there for him. He couldn’t risk it. Any slip of information would put Homer in danger.

Now, however, there was no coming back. No matter what choice he made, he would be a fugitive. Graves would not leave him alone once he completed his task. Once Haley was dead, he would still be a slave or he would become a corpse. He would never see his friend again. He wouldn’t even get to say goodbye. There was only one way to deliver his message. He fetched a notepad from one of his drawers and uncapped a pen. With misty eyes, he wrote.

“Addressing the person or persons who discover this message. This paper shall serve as the final will and testament of Andrew Walter Winter. I leave behind the rights to my studio apartment and the contents of the included locked briefcase to Mr. Homer Nour, my oldest friend. Only he will know the combination. Think about the date we spoke about ten years ago. This is not an admission of guilt or a confession of any kind. Please respect my wishes.”

He stopped, thinking. He brought the notepad out into the hall of his apartment building and knocked on the door of his neighbor across the hall. A woman just a few years older than Andy himself opened the door. Her boyfriend could be seen peering at the doorway from the couch in the living room.

“Hello,” Andy greeted her. “My name is Andy, I live just across the hall here.” He offered his hand.

She shook it, confused. “Oh, hi Andy. I’m Trish,” she introduced herself. “How can I help you?”

“Well, see, I’ve just whipped myself up a pretty nice will and I need two witnesses to sign it as I do,” Andy explained. He laid on the charm now. “Might I ask you and your boyfriend to fill in the role for me? It would be very much appreciated.”

She looked at him with hesitation. A look in her eye relayed that she thought he might be yanking her chain, but his unwavering and positive demeanor proved to remove it. “Are you serious?” she asked.

“Dead serious,” Andy replied.

The woman looked back inside at her partner who heard every word. He shrugged at her look for support. She turned back to Andy. “Yeah, I guess so,” she replied. “Are you okay?”

“You could say that,” Andy responded as he walked into Trish’s apartment and got the business done with.

He returned to his own apartment across the hall with the signed will. He attached it to the briefcase which he stowed underneath his bed. He went to the sink to wash his hands. As he dried them, he addressed the entire room, empty though it seemed. “I’ll do it,” he said aloud. “Don’t worry.”

  • * *

Max’s grave was cast over in the shadow of the storm clouds that had crept over Rosehill. Andy placed his bouquet of twelve yellow tulips on the dirt next to the eleven that had already withered like the skeleton they were for.

This time, he left all twelve as he walked away from the grave for the last time.

  • * *

This was the first time that Andy had ever seen the two very serious looking men in suits who frisked him as he got out on the airstrip. Both of Mr. Graves’s bodyguards, the white man and the Hispanic, were bald. Andy observed his own reflection in the white man’s tanned scalp as his ankles were searched for weapons. They found the three-eighty auto that he kept holstered around his shoulder in no time at all.

“I’m a hit man, guys,” he explained when they confiscated it. “Duh, I have a gun.”

“Do you have any others?” the Hispanic man asked.

“Yes, a Smith and Wesson six-nine-six in the back of my pants,” he answered, “a Derringer in my left shoe, and a kris dagger strapped to my genitals.”

The white guard began searching Andy’s shoes when he pushed him over with his bare foot. “Idiot,” Andy spat at him.

A gun appeared in the Hispanic man’s hand, pointed at Andy’s head. The white man had drawn one too from where he lay on the ground when Leroy Graves appeared on the ramp of the plane.

“He’s kidding,” he told his men, gesturing at them to stow away their firearms. “Come on, Mr. Winter. You’ve got a job to do.”

The flight was uncomfortable and awkward, silent in nature and malicious in feeling. The only thing Andy said to his employer was his promise to kill Haley Flynn. Mr. Graves said even less, only humming in response. Once they had landed, he only needed to gesture at his guards before they tossed Andy off of the plane.

There was no taxi waiting for him on the runway this time. Instead, he phoned Steven who got lost on one of the turns along the way. He picked Andy up an hour and a half later.

“How did it go?” was the the first thing Steven said to the assassin when he climbed into his car.

“The plan is the same,” Andy replied, showing more of his anguish than he intended to. Steven picked up on it.

“What did he say?” he asked.

“That the plan is the same,” Andy said, and with that Steven asked nothing more of him and they drove back to the house in silence.

“I want to join you on surveillance,” Andy said once he had taken his coat off and hung it by the door. There was a desperate tone in his voice.

“Andy, you know she’s already seen you,” Steven replied. “It’s risky. If she were to see you — ”

“Please,” Andy interrupted. Steven was silenced by the look on Andy’s face. “Steven, please.”

The data collector sighed as he peered into his new friend’s eyes. “Okay,” Steven said. Then he gave a warm smile, something that Andy didn’t expect due to his own rotten mood. “I’ll be glad to have you.”

  • * *

Andy didn’t hear Steven when he spoke. Or rather, he didn’t listen. Every word was loud enough but none of them made it to his brain because he was too busy staring out of the window, through the apartment’s glass door, at Haley Flynn.

“Andy!” Steven said, raising his volume to a level that he felt uncomfortable with. Andy looked over at him. The data collector waited for recognition in Andy’s eyes. “What kind of dirt do you even imagine we’ll ever find on her?” he repeated.

He forgot that this was what Steven thought the two of them were doing in the first place. “Probably nothing,” he answered. He was being honest. There was nothing he could ever imagine them finding out about her that would do anything to put a dent into her perfect reputation. “Graves will probably end up having me make up some bullshit that could be confirmed by our vague details. Like that man there,” he pointed out the man Haley now hugged in front of the glass. “At first glance, it looks like there might be some sort of scandalous relationship going on here, if you knew nothing about her. That’s the kind of stories writers like me go off on.”

“Yeah, but like I said, that’s her brother,” Steven said.

“Exactly. We know that because we’ve gone the extra mile and investigated. But if you were to capture this scene and omit that information, what else would you see?” Andy explained. “Assumptions are always wrong,” he looked to his friend. “One way or another.”

“We need something much more substantial to give Graves,” Steven was quick to answer. “Come on, don’t you care?” He didn’t like his task simplified so much.

An idea hit Andy as a memory returned to him at the moment. “She gave me her number,” he started. “She asked me for a date.”

Steven was skeptical. “She what?” he mumbled.

Andy retrieved the indicated note and showed Steven. “Number. Date. I’m going to call her,” Andy decided.

“Why didn’t you mention this before?” Steven sat up in his car seat, staring at his new friend. He seemed to consider him, pondering something about him that he seemed to like as he started the car. “Okay,” he broke the silence with a little sparkle in his eyes. “Have her tell you everything herself.”

Chapter Seven – Dinner

Haley Flynn was beautiful. She had slipped into an exquisite ruby dress that hugged at her curves but left most of her more intimate features a mystery. Small silver flames dangled from her ears, a unique earring Andy had never seen before. She was dressed up in a gorgeous outfit, which Andy used as an icebreaker.

“I was beginning to think you would never call,” she said in response. She grabbed her bag from behind the door and then stepped out into the brisk air, closing it behind her. “I’m glad you did.”

“Me too,” Andy said, leading her over to Steven’s car. It had to be cleaned out, a grueling task that he was more than glad he performed at this point. She had to be impressed.

“This is my brother’s apartment,” she said through the passenger window. “I’d introduce you, but he’s out on duty right now.” She climbed into the car after receiving a smile in response. “Where did you have in mind?” she asked. Her scent filled the car.

“A small restaurant with a lot of Italian food,” Andy said. He did well as a flirt, finding little trouble in pretending to be what he was not. “Hopefully with a lack of crying children.” Steven had picked the place.

“Ooh,” she hummed, impressed. “That’s a perfect balance. You are a good first date.” They smiled at each other and drove off into the young Lumnin night.

“I have to ask,” Andy said, doing his best to exercise his grasp on the art of conversing, “what made you ask me out?”

Haley smiled with her beautiful-without-lipstick lips, a comfortable sign. Andy was surprised by her warmth toward him. Her ignorant trust. “You’re cute and you’re intelligent,” she explained. “It’s a vibe I get. They haven’t been wrong yet, so don’t be the first.”

They laughed. “Trust me,” Andy said, feeling evil, “I certainly won’t try to be.”

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Chicago,” Andy replied, glancing over at her. “Since I was born.”

“You don’t have a Chicago accent,” Haley commented.

Andy looked over at her. He had not lied, but she was right. “I travel a lot. I guess I don’t hear it enough.” This was true.

“Is this it here?” she asked, pointing out the red canopy that sheltered the entrance to Pastafaria. He nodded in response and parked the car in one of the several better spots. Good, he thought, it’ll be quiet.

Romance is regulated.

“Two?” the hostess asked. She was an older red-haired woman with warm vitality. A happy employee.

“Yes please,” Andy said. “Corner table, if you can.”

“Sure thing,” was her answer, then she lead them through the green-carpeted room with two menus cradled in her arm.

The place was dead with only three other tables occupied out of the two dozen. She brought them to a half-sized table draped in a deep purple cloth and decorated with an already lit candle. She set the menus down and said that she would be back to take their drink orders personally. They thanked her and opened up their menus.

“Get anything delicious that you want,” he said.

“What if I wanted a bag of rocks?” she replied. “Something not delicious.”

“Well then you clearly can’t have it,” Andy replied. “Although, it depends on the kind of bag.”

She laughed. He smiled at that.

“You’re a bit of a weirdo,” Haley commented, getting her silverware oriented. “I like that.”

Andy only had a shrug to reply with as he began looking more attentively at his menu. “I’m thinking that I’ll have some hash-browns smothered in green chili with a side of,” he turned the page, “macaroni.”

“Hash browns for dinner?” Haley echoed, flipping through the menu. “Where do you even see that?”

He didn’t. Steven had told him that it was an off-menu dish that they offered and gave it a raving review. He didn’t much fancy pasta as it was. “Nowhere,” he answered. “I’m just going to tell the waitress that that is what I want and hope I get something along those lines.”

Haley’s eyes glistened as she chuckled. Everything about her face seemed to smile at once as she peered into his eyes dreamily. He couldn’t keep himself from getting lost in them as they smiled. Such beautiful eyes.

“This is really nice, Andy,” she thanked him. “Thank you so much. I’m already having fun.” Her white teeth were seemingly perfect, shining through her lips as she spoke.

“Is your job fun?” Andy transitioned.

She scoffed. “I wouldn’t say that it’s fun,” she replied. “But it’s good work.”

“What do you do?”

Haley seemed to search for the words. “I’m a journalist. I do a lot of snooping around and expose bad people doing bad stuff,” she answered. She was distracted by movement behind Andy.

The hostess arrived back at their table. “Can I get you any drinks?” she asked, a notepad absent from her hands. She could undoubtedly remember their order being that they were the only ones that she was serving. There was one other waiter who seemed to have the others under control. Andy was certain that she may be the manager as well. We should feel honored, he thought.

“A glass of the house red please,” Haley requested.

The hostess turned to Andy. “Champagne?” He semi-asked, having not looked at the menu to see if they served it.

He was in luck. “Certainly,” the hostess beamed and then disappeared.

“How about you?” Haley asked. Andy had half forgotten what they were talking about. “What do you do?”

Andy didn’t take too long to come up with his story. “Well, I guess you could say I’m a journalist, too,” he began. “Well, not really, more of a columnist.”

“Ooh, are you any good?” Haley asked, leaning over her folded arms.

Andy laughed. “No,” he joked. “I don’t really know, but I don’t make much doing that. Fortunately, I don’t need much.” Even he was impressed by his lies.

“Why does that bring you to Lumnin?” Haley asked. The interest in her eyes was strong.

Andy smiled as he thought. “It doesn’t really. I wanted a quiet place to write my novel.”

She was in awe. He felt rather ashamed that none of it was true. Could she be this interested in him if she knew who he really was? If she knew why he was really here? He tried not to think about it. He just tried to enjoy the evening.

“What’s your novel about?” she asked.

“It’s a romantic war story,” Andy explained out of thin air. “A soldier goes AWOL in the desert to protect a civilian he has fallen in love with from a foreign squad. It’s a lot of just cheesy, convenient action.”

Her eyes lit up. She believed every word. “I think that sounds wonderful! I would love to read that when you finish it,” she encouraged. Her voice was as beautiful as her face. The slightest thing could scar a face like that, like footprints through virgin snow.

He chuckled, placing his elbows on the table. His posture began to relax. “You’re very kind,” he replied. A moment of silence passed as they beamed into each others eyes. “So tell me, what does work bring you here for?”

Haley leaned back. The drinks had come fast. She took a sip from her glass. The hostess took their meal orders before departing again. The young woman seated across from Andy wiped her lips delicately on her napkin. “Have you ever heard of Decree?” she asked.

“Decree?” Andy repeated with confusion.

“Yeah, it’s a penitentiary company founded by Michael Kree. They specialize in building brand new privatized prisons in isolated pockets of rural America.”

All of this was alien to Andy. Nothing she said rang a bell. “Privatized prisons?” Andy echoed.

“Since the early eighties. Recently, they’ve built a new prison about ten miles outside of town. The very first privatized super-max penitentiary. Those are the places where the judicial system stuffs all of the most violent criminals in the U.S. This is where people like Ted Bundy and Charlie Manson go.”

“Ah,” Andy responded, acting like he was starting to understand.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to bore you with this,” Haley stopped herself. Andy made a shooing gesture at her to signify that it was no bother. “Sometimes when I get started, I can rant about these bastards.”

Andy nodded. “What is exactly so bad about Decree?” he asked. He hoped the question did not offend her.

It didn’t. Her intense passion about the subject drove her to want to inform rather than argue. Andy meant not to derail her momentum one bit. She was spilling the secrets he was paid so much to exploit. “This new prison is super hush-hush. They don’t like visitors or people snooping about. With some help and a bit of luck, though, I found out that this super-max is housing some pretty average criminals. Drug offenders, thieves, sexual deviants and civil disruptors. Not violent criminals. Decree covers this up by fudging their records and hiring lawyers to overemphasize how dangerous some of the defendants are. There is a rumor that they even stage violent outbreaks in lower-level prisons so that they can come in and say, ‘Your jails are unsafe. You need to use ours.’”

Andy thought he was beginning to see. He nodded to indicate that he was paying attention. That he was in fact hanging on her every word.

Haley sipped again from her wine and Andy did the same with his own glass. “It’s only rumors at this point. We could have more of a lead if Decree didn’t have such a cold method of firing former employees. We’ve had people turning up dead all over the world before they can testify one word against those monsters.”

St. Petersburg, Andy thought.

“Supposedly, the big bad secret that they have is that they have been performing some pretty advanced medical research. Not normal stuff, either. They are hammering hard at some pretty major cures and inoculations,” Haley explained. Her energy was remarkable and attractive to Andy. His attention was forthright. “The methods they use go against some pretty basic human rights, so that’s why they keep it within the unwatched walls of Decree prisons. So no one can look in and see that they are infecting their prisoners with the AIDS virus and exposing them to high levels of carcinogens just so they have plenty of sick people to work on.”

“Wow,” Andy said, relaying only a small amount of his true shock. Could it all really be true? Something must be misinformation, Andy thought. They couldn’t hide that much.

“Now if you think about it, you could understand the high mortality rates in their prisons better,” Haley continued. Andy was doing well at appearing appalled. He didn’t have to try very hard. “So they have to do something to keep their prisons filled. A lot of the time they will doctor some of the paperwork on lower threat criminals, or even load their trials. Recently, however, I got a very wild lead that they have even begun seizing control of local police departments. That’s why I’m here. I believe that the Lumnin PD is the first one they’re trying to buy.”

“How could they possibly buy the police?” Andy asked. He was toeing on the line of exposing his professional interest in the subject. Still, he did not falter. She was excited to see his interest.

“Bribe them,” Haley started after a genuine smile. “Have their own employees enter the department, something along those lines. I’m a little vague on all of the details, but you know, that’s why I’m here. To find the details.”

So much money, Andy contemplated. Wealth was Graves’ greatest weapon and his ammunition was boundless.

“How do you know so much?” Andy was curious. He finished his drink.

Haley smiled, trying to pull off a humble demeanor. “Well, I mean, I am pretty good at my job,” she explained. Andy waited for further elaboration, but she said nothing about her brother in the police department. Good, he thought. Andy had become worried at how much she was willing to reveal to him.

In as much of a joking tone as he could pull off, Andy commented, “I’m surprised they haven’t tried to kill you yet.” It tasted bitter on his tongue.

Haley laughed with modest volume in response. “To be honest, so am I,” she joked back. “No, actually I do my best not to tread on any toes. I keep pretty quiet and I’m sure I’ll go by unnoticed until I can finish my report and have it published. By then, I’m sure I’ll be in a much safer position.”

Just then the food arrived, a good excuse for them to turn merry instead of worrying about such evil things. It was a delicious, meal, during which Andy learned about Haley’s brother, Jacob, from her own lips. Andy could focus more on the date after getting so overcome by crucial information. His mind ground its gears in thought as he contemplated it all. It became hard to focus, but he managed. She explained her love of her bicycle and how she used to want to be a long distance cyclist. Her bike was named Douglas after her favorite writer. It had been a gift to her from her now dead uncle who she spoke fondly about.

With the meal depleted, they left the restaurant and stepped outside in the cool Lumnin air. It had chilled a lot while they were inside.

“You’re not ready to go back home, are you?” Haley asked Andy. She noticed him checking his watch.

With a startled look, Andy replied, “No.”

“Good,” she grinned. Her eyes squinted from the upward motion of her cheek muscles. “I’m having too good of a time to end it now.”

Andy looked down the street, circles of light burning down from the lamps to break the monotonous dark. “How about a walk?” he suggested. Haley nodded with her enthusiastic, childish manner.

They talked about so much as they strolled down the sidewalk. They laughed about an Italian couple who emerged from a cafe shouting at each other in their native language. Together, they bought a homeless man a sandwich and some soup and left him twenty dollars. It was something Andy knew he should do every time, something to make a habit of, but it just never crossed his mind until Haley bent down and started speaking to the homeless man. A light drizzle of rain began once they passed a drunk falling over his friends, and Andy made the offer to take her home.

“You afraid of a little rain, Andy?” she asked with a smart tone.

“No, just, you know,” Andy said, not sure if he knew what his point was. “If it’s gonna rain.”

“If it’s gonna rain, then I guess we’re gonna get wet,” Haley said. “Come on.”

She grabbed onto the front of his jacket and pulled him across the street to a little park. It had a tiny creek somewhere along the edge of it and trees of all sorts. The little lamps staked into the grass looked like warm beacons in a dark black sea. Haley kicked off her shoes and carried them as they walked.

“You’re not gonna wear your shoes?” Andy asked.

“No,” Haley answered. “The wet grass, the little pitter patter of rain on the top of your feet. It’s all kind of like being free, you know?”

Andy perked his head up a bit. He felt like he was having Déjà vu. “Free?” he echoed.

“Yeah,” Haley said. “Kind of like walking around naked in the sun. Or making a fool of yourself and not giving a damn. Freedom.”

Andy supposed he never really thought about freedom and where it comes from. Haley seemed to suggest that it was something we all were born with, and even in the worst of oppression, there were ways to express it. Like with bare feet. Is that what this is? Andy wondered. Is being with Haley my freedom? Can I have this forever?

The look Haley gave him set his heart aflutter. In all his life, he couldn’t recall anyone looking at him that way, with daring, squinted eyes that gleamed like the pearl white smile below. That loving gaze. He could feel it warming in his chest. Why was she so beautiful?

When they finally emerged from the trees, Haley supported her head on Andy’s shoulder, and he rested his on top of hers. It was almost like hugging and walking at the same time, knotted up together in impractical style. He held onto her hand and she squeezed it like a pulse. When Steven’s car came into view, the two of them sighed. They stopped and stared deep into each other’s eyes in silence. Minutes bled on.

Haley offered, “Would you want to come to my place?”

More than anything in the world, Andy thought. But reluctantly, he said, “I can’t.” He couldn’t endure anymore of this feeling he had. Of wanting to stay with her and run away from the rest of the world. To ignore death knocking on the door. She looked disappointed. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she said with genuine warmth. She looked up at him with her crystalline eyes, stepping close. “Call me.”

“I will,” Andy promised.

She kissed him.

Chapter Eight – Lumnin’s Finest

Dreams swam through Andy’s mind as he lay asleep, disheartened. This time Andy was on stage, playing guitar and singing Baba O’Rielly to a crowd of featureless faces. He wasn’t doing too bad. Once the song concluded, he stepped off of the wooden platform and headed through the club rather than back through the bowels of the backstage labyrinth. Many people congratulated him on his performance, some requesting signatures and photographs, others throwing out their affection for him. He must have been a big deal.

You must be a big deal, Andy thought to himself, in order to wear an overzealous red suit like he did. His custom made black leather cowboy boots were the only thing breaking his entire red attire. He looked and felt like hot shit. That was only reinforced by the multitudes of unfamiliar faces appreciating him aloud.

He walked past them all and stepped outside into the empty streets, eager to leave his fans behind and get on with his night. He wanted to be alone. His performance had lacked in his opinion despite what anyone else told him. He hated doing covers.

“Hi,” a fragile voice came from the side of the door. Andy was surprised by it and turned fast to see a small nine-year-old girl sitting passively on a green metal bench.

“Hello there,” he said in hope that that was going to be the end of the conversation. It wasn’t.

“I’m your biggest fan,” she told him. Her tone, however, seemed unexcited upon meeting him.

“Oh really?” he said, sounding interested. “Well, what’s your name?”

“Haley Flynn,” she told him with apathy.

“Well, Haley,” Andy started, walking over to her and getting down on one knee so that his gaze was level with hers. “I’m your biggest fan.”

She smiled, overjoyed. Andy felt proud of himself as he patted her head and turned away. He started to walk to the park across the street.

“Please don’t kill me,” she said.

He stopped for a moment and looked back at her. Nothing came to mind when he searched for a response. She just stared at him indifferently as if nothing had happened, and after a moment, he turned away and continued his stroll.

Nothing gave peace to his darkened heart quite like the park at night. It seemed empty, almost as if it only existed for him at that moment, waiting for him to visit and welcoming him with warmth when he did. The trees assembled in gnarled attention for him. He almost wanted to offer them to be at ease, but he knew nothing could change their respect for him. It was returned.

But it wasn’t the trees he came to see. There was a small pond hidden off of a trail near a tiny pedestrian bridge that was his favorite place to slip away from the world and reflect on himself as a human being. And finally he had found it.

As he slipped off his boots, he stared into the water’s surface. He saw stars in the reflection. He watched the moon dance in the delicate waves. Only here could he see all of the universe and feel like the only one in it. Like he was lost to the rest of existence and no one could come find him, even if they wanted to. He was glad no one wanted to. It gave him comfort rather than made he feel lonely. It rebalanced him so that he could eventually go back out into the sea of gibbering idiots.

He dipped a toe in and was shot in the back. He witnessed the bullet exit his chest in horror. There was nothing that he could do now except fall into the water, never to resurface.

  • * *

Steven had drunken himself into a minor coma by the time Andy had awoken in the late afternoon. Andy did nothing to wake him and instead left with his car. The keys were in their usual spot.

He pulled up in the alley beside Jacob Flynn’s house and shut off the engine. He sat, pondering in the dull silence of the driver’s seat, wondering why he had come here. He had all of the information he could get at surface value. Anything that could be inferred from observation, from lurking in the shadows like he did now. It was all at his disposal. All he had to do now was call her. No, he admitted, he knew he wasn’t taking notes while he was here. There was nothing he wanted other than to see Haley Flynn. All he needed was to know what she was still okay.

It was a while before he saw her in the bedroom with the large, exposed windows. She was wearing a girlish blue collar shirt over a pink tank top, carrying a suitcase that she tossed out of view. She then disappeared behind the wall after it, leaving Andy by himself.

He pulled out his cell phone and dialed her number by memory. It rang twice before he could see her pop back into view with her phone to her head. Her lips moved out of sync with the words, off by just a fraction of a second. “Andy! How are you?” she greeted.

“I’m good, how are you?” he replied. He kept an eye on her just as she slipped back out of view from the window.

“Great,” she breathed. “I’ve made such a breakthrough with work. Do you want to go out tonight?”

“I’d love to,” Andy said quite honestly, “but I have work to do.” He wasn’t lying.

“Oh, man,” Haley groaned. “Because I’m flying out to deliver my report in like literally a few hours.”

Andy could feel the warmth in his flesh decrease. Raising an eyebrow, he began to feel dread. “Really?” he said.

“Yeah, Andy, I’m so sorry,” she answered. “I was able to finish up my report and I need to bring along some of the evidence I’ve gathered. I won’t be coming back.”

Then he felt it. Crushed into the corner he felt he could not escape from. The light of hope had ceased even being small beams that broke the darkness. There was nothing but fear now as his realization carved into his brain. It etched like the chiseling of a tombstone. Either he or Haley Flynn’s fate will be sealed tonight. One of them must die. There were no words, nothing he could manage to say, nothing that could blink onto his consciousness so he hung up the phone and then turned it off. He pulled out of the alley and fled, scaring himself half to death when he accidentally cut off a police cruiser.

He sped up to give it room when the siren flared up and the lights started flashing. Andy pulled over to the right in front of someone’s yard. The cop car pulled in behind him and then sat there. It laid still for quite a while, its siren silent but the lights loudly danced through his back window. Finally, an officer stepped out.

He rapped on the driver side window. Andy let it down.

“Officer, I’m sorry for cutting — ” Andy began.

“Do you know how fast you were going?” the officer interrupted. He was a strong-jawed white man with a furry black caterpillar asleep above his lips. Or so it looked.

“When? When I sped up so we didn’t collide or the rest of the time?” Andy let slip out.

“Do you want trouble?”

“No, sir.”

“Then watch your mouth. Don’t get smart with me.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Please step out of the vehicle,” the officer ordered. He seemed to be chewing on a piece of gum or something.

Andy obeyed with reluctance, moving so that he wouldn’t upset this volatile representation of the law. He was instructed to close his door behind him, which he did.

“Sir, please turn around and place your hands on the hood of your car,” the officer instructed.

“Why?” Andy asked.

“Sir, please do as you’re — ”

“Am I being arrested?” Andy asked, gesturing to the car. “For cutting you off?”

“Do not interrupt me!” the police officer bellowed at him, drawing his handgun and pointing it at the hit man. “Hands on the hood!”

Fine, Andy thought sourly as he did what he was told. The anger was clear upon his brow. He jumped when he began getting frisked. “Hey!” he wormed around. “What the hell?”

“Shut up!” the officer shouted in his ear. He rested the barrel of his gun on the back of Andy’s head. “No sudden movements.”

“It’s pretty messed up to go around finding attractive males like myself and trying to shove your hand down their pants,” Andy breathed.

Blinding pain knocked every color out of his eyes. All that was left was white. There was a ringing that deafened him as he fell to the ground. His hand shot up to his head and he felt blood trickling through the broken skin. The police officer had just slammed the butt of his gun into his head.

“I’ve got a suspect resisting arrest,” the officer said into the small radio on his shoulder. “Backup is requested at the corner of Elite and Marble.”

Andy groaned and clutched at his wound while the officer stepped over to him and pointed his gun in his face.

“Get up!” he commanded.

Fight or flight. That’s all that ran through Andy’s mind at that movement. One unfavorable movement, however, and Andy had no doubt that this upholder of peace and justice would unload his magazine on him, slaying him in the street for cutting him off in traffic. Then cracking jokes. Seemed such a powerful insult to impotent jar heads, Andy mused. Although he suspected something greater at play.

He had his three-eighty auto. Silenced. He could kill this man without him even knowing. But then what? A dead police officer and half-finished reports that describe him and the car he drove. The call for backup, as well. If I really want to die, Andy concluded, I’ll cross this man again.

“Get UP!” the officer yelled.

Andy managed his way into a standing position and then put his hands down on the hood of Steven’s car like he was told. The officer was a little taken aback by Andy’s sudden obedience. He hesitated before searching the assassin again. Once he started, it was a small matter of time before he found the silenced pistol holstered on his shoulder.

“Suspect is armed,” the officer murmured into his radio. He removed the pistol from Andy’s holster and threw it into the street.

“Hey,” Andy started to protest, “I do have a license for that.”

“I don’t see a license,” the officer retorted.

“Of course not,” Andy said, moving with the officer’s nudges to turn around. “See, you normally would ask for one and I would show it to you. See, it’s right here — ” Andy pulled out his wallet.

“Don’t fucking move!” the officer screamed at him. “You are under arrest for hitting a police vehicle, resisting arrest, assault of a police officer, and concealing an unlicensed firearm.” The cop started handcuffing Andy.

“Are you serious?” Andy said, losing his cynical grasp of humor and coming close to blinding psychotic anger.

“Get in the back,” the cop demanded as he drug him to the undamaged police cruiser and opened the door.

Andy obeyed, but before the door closed, said, “I hope you die painfully and unnaturally.”

A kick to the head. Elegant practice of the law.

“Do you need any help making your stupid fake wounds look real?” Andy called from inside the car once he recovered. “I’d love to help! I’ll beat your ass to death!”

A second police car pulled up and the arresting officer and his backup talked together for a moment. The corrupt mustachio chatted on and on while the other officer listened patiently, nodding. They both seemed to come to some sort of mutual agreement and Andy’s least favorite cop in the world climbed into the driver’s seat. Neither of them spoke to each other as the car flared up and drove them down to the Lumnin Police Department, further up Elite Street.

He was pulled from the back of the vehicle and led in through the offices until he was placed in a small interrogation room with an Asian officer in round glasses. The arresting officer closed the door behind him and leaned up against the wall.

“Andy Winter, is that right?” the Asian officer asked him.

“No,” Andy replied. “It’s Summers. Where did you get Winter from?”

“Can I see his ID?” the interrogator asked the arresting officer.

The volatile man produced Andy’s wallet and threw it onto the table. He stared at the back of Andy’s head.

“Is he going to stay in here?” Andy asked the Asian man. “His advances toward me are starting to make me uncomfortable. Flattered though I am.”

The arresting officer roared some sort of bestial noise and jerked forward, but was stopped by the Asian officer’s gesture to calm. “Please speak only when spoken to, Mr. Winter,” he said. The white officer pouted and reclaimed his unprofessional lean on the wall.

“It says Summers,” Andy repeated.

“I know what it says,” the cop replied.

Andy sat back in his seat, realization washing over him. His minor inklings had grown into confirmed suspicions. The more he understood, the more he seethed with hatred. The less attacking these corrupt pigs seemed like a bad idea to him. His fate seemed to be sealed. The Asian officer produced Andy’s three-eighty auto and set it on the table.

“Is this your firearm?” he asked. His eyes were piercing.

Andy gritted his teeth, almost ready to clam up and say nothing more. To become immovable. “How’s Leroy Graves?” he asked.

“I’m sorry?” the interrogating officer replied, glancing up to the arresting officer. He had put his hand on his holster but hesitated.

Andy sat forward. “You can tell him that the deadline is not up,” he started through clenched teeth.

“Flynn has finished her report,” the police officer replied. “It’s no doubt already been sent.”

“But she has physical evidence that she’s bringing in person,” Andy explained. “Something important.” The man seated across from him said nothing. He just watched him coldly. Andy was half angry and half scared. He pleaded. “I have yet to act for or against Decree — ”

The Asian officer slapped him. Andy had little expectation of this and even the arresting officer seemed surprised. “Do not say anything that will get you in any more trouble than you are already in,” he ordered.

There was silence. “What are you going to do to me?” Andy asked, his voice hissing.

“That’s not up to us,” the arresting officer said from behind him.

There was a sudden knock on the door.

The person on the other side of it didn’t wait for them to answer before opening it wide and stepping through. He was just a few years older than Andy himself but had some light graying at the roots of his hair. His goatee was groomed and his hair combed back with gel. This man drew the attention of everyone in the room.

“What’s going on?” he asked both of the officers. “What are you doing?”

“We’re processing an arrest,” the white officer told him.

“An arrest?” the bearded man echoed. “For what?”

“You want to see the charges?” the Asian officer asked him, offering the papers that had been sitting before him. The new officer accepted it while the arresting officer rolled his eyes.

His lips moved as he read. “Threatening an officer with a firearm?” he hollered once he was done reading. “Are you serious? How god damn stupid are you?”

“This man is a criminal!” the arresting officer whined.

“I just watched the recording off of your cruiser. You are an idiot. It’s clear there is no crime you can charge him with,” the domineering cop ordered to the mustached man.

“You must have seen the speeding,” the arresting officer pleaded.

“Shut up,” the senior officer demanded. “You’re fired. I plan to encourage this man to press assault charges on you. Mihn, you’re on suspension. I only just started my shift today and I didn’t expect to start it cleaning up after you pissants. Get your act together and figure out who you’re really working for or you’re going to be the one processed.” With that he left the room, slamming the door.

The white officer’s mouth hung agape in elusive protest. Words failed him as he looked to Mihn who had bowed his head in shame. Then he looked to Andy. As quietly as he could, he said, “You’ll wish it was us who caught you.”

“The deadline isn’t up yet. Tell Graves. I have until tomorrow.”

“I’m not saying shit,” the white man who used to be a police officer said. He nudged into Andy as he left the room.

“I’ll do what I can,” Mihn said, not raising his gaze. “You must deliver.”

“I will,” Andy said. Then he left the room.

As he walked out, the senior officer with the beard approached him with his confiscated possessions. He even returned his firearm with its respective license. At this proximity, Andy could finally make out the name on the badge. “Flynn,” he read aloud.

The man smiled in response before leading him through the maze of offices until they were out of a door on the side. He had one of the other cops retrieve Steven’s vehicle from the impound, handing the keys over to Andy. The hit man thanked him as he climbed into the car.

“You know, you can’t own all of the people all of the time,” Officer Flynn said before shutting Andy’s door behind him.

Chapter Nine – True Intentions

Andy pulled Steven’s car into its driveway while losing his nerve. He was somewhere between wanting to drink himself to death and kill everyone he saw. Luckily, he was only in between.

He stumbled up the stairs, onto the front porch, and against the door. It was unlocked and Steven was in the shower. Andy made his way to the fridge and poured himself a glass of cheap wine before slumping into the armchair. He left everything turned off and just listened to the water running in the bathroom.

Someone had to go in just a few short hours. He would have to kill Haley Flynn or forever watch over his shoulder for Leroy Graves and the men of Decree. He could run, but where? For how long? With as much ease as squashing a bug, Graves could turn Andy into an international fugitive. He killed so many men, done so many horrible things around the globe. Decree had their ways to dissociate themselves with his actions and leave him facing the law on his own. He had no alibi. He only hoped not to be asked.

Steven popped open the bathroom door, buttoning up a green collar shirt. “Andy!” he exclaimed. “You’re back. How — ” He looked at his sunken friend who looked like he was trying his hardest to drown in wine. Steven paused for a second, absorbing the scene. “What’s wrong?”

“I’ve duped you,” Andy said, sniffling. Steven stood in the living room looking concerned. “I’m not who you think I am.”

“What do you mean?” Steven chuckled. He was very off ease. “You’re not Andy Summers?”

“No,” Andy slurred. “Not exactly. My real name is Andy Winter.”

“Are you being serious?” Steven laughed. He was certain that his leg was being pulled. “That’s not even funny.”

“I’m not joking,” Andy stated. “Haley Flynn? Why I’m here?” He waited for Steven to nod, and gulped. “I’m here to kill her.”

Steven chuckled, cutting the noise off awkwardly once Andy’s solemn silence highlighted the laughter and revealed its inappropriateness. The color started seeping away from the data collector’s face. “Really?” he asked.

Andy drew his gun and tossed it onto the coffee table with a fling. Steven’s eyes bulged out of his head at its appearance. Andy could almost hear the man sweating as his opinion of him was rapidly thrown into question. “Every bit of information you and I have been collecting has been for the sole purpose of finding some believable way to murder her so that it looks like an accident,” Andy explained, finding it hard to keep his voice level.

“Are you serious?” Steven repeated.

“I’m a hit man, Steven,” Andy said after a moment of silence. “A murderer.”

“You’ve killed people?” Steven asked, having a very violent internal battle between seriousness and humor. Both sides were taking heavy losses.

“Yes.”

Terror took over the man. “Jesus Christ!” He began pacing. “Why, Andy? What the hell are you doing, man?”

Andy looked up at him, his tear-filled eyes squinted in confusion. He had no response. Some part of him wished so much that Steven would hit him. That he’d kick him into the street and spit on him. Steven stood in grief. Horrible news had been delivered and he felt like someone who had just been told someone they loved passed, incapable of exhaling.

“What was my role?” Steven asked.

Andy thought about the wording. “I’ve said. You helped me find her weakness.”

“And what was that?”

“Traffic,” Andy replied. He had only just now thought of it, but he had contemplated his options over and over. Every night, he fell asleep thinking of how to kill Haley Flynn, right down to removing his own element entirely. Making the scene devoid of evidence. It was his nature.

“What?” Steven breathed. Andy could no longer tell if the man was furious or afraid. Or, perhaps, interested.

“We have a lot of evidence that points to her not being the most capable of drivers,” Andy began. The way he spoke scared Steven. He seemed to be thinking aloud. “Didn’t you ever see her drive around?”

Still through disgust, Steven thought. “Once,” he replied. “That was only because she had to go out of town and her brother insisted. I’ve picked up that he has some weird thing about buses. He hates them.”

Andy brightened up. This seemed to unnerve his friend. “Well, see?” Andy started to explain. “She’s driving to the airport tomorrow — in just a couple hours.”

“How do you know that?” Steven asked. He was creeped out by his own interest. “Why wouldn’t her brother drive her?”

“No, he’s working,” Andy replied. “His shift just began.”

Steven’s eyes asked questions that Andy never answered. “So what are you saying?” Steven asked. “What is supposed to happen to me, Andy? Is this Graves’ plot?”

The hit man ignored him. Perhaps it was the calming buzz of the alcohol but something soothed him and allowed him to think. It kept the horror at bay while he prepared for it. Beckoned it inward.

“Andy?” Steven shouted. He was shaking in place. “Am I supposed to be killed, too? I know too much. I don’t want to die, Andy!”

“You were supposed to stay ignorant.” The assassin took another sip.

“Well good damn work making sure that happened!” Steven cried. Then he became even more pale than he already was. He raised his hands to his mouth, his eyes wide. He started backing away from Andy. “You haven’t?” his voice quavered. He stopped and looked down at his feet, unsure of himself. “I mean, you didn’t just — did you?”

“She’s alive,” Andy started, taking another gigantic gulp. He looked up at his only friend in the city of Lumnin who peered at him like he was a monster. “Can’t you see what this means? Can you?” he pleaded.

“Yeah, as far as I see,” Steven spat, “you’ve gotten me killed. What have you — ”

“I am going to die tomorrow,” Andy said, allowing the heavy tear that had piled up on his cornea to fall off and into his glass. “Me or her. One of us will be killed.”

“Are you still going to do it?” Steven asked. “How? I thought you liked her — ”

“I do like her!” he cried. “But if I don’t do it, someone else will. She has to die!” He threw his glass at the wall. It cracked anticlimactically and crumpled to the floor by the television. He turned and walked away. He couldn’t seem to be able to look at the rest of the room. Once he had collected himself, he went over and began cleaning up the shattered glass. “It should be me,” Andy demanded.

“What about me?” Steven started. “If they come looking for you or her, they’re going to come looking for me! What am I supposed to do? Pretend I didn’t know?”

“Yes,” Andy hissed. “Like your life depends on it.”

Steven scoffed at the joke. “Andy, I don’t know if I can handle this, buddy,” he said. He paced. “I’m not a bad guy, you know. I’m really not. I’m a lot nosier than I ought to be, perhaps a pervert, but I can’t deal with killing someone.”

Andy sympathized as much as he could. “Can you deal with dying?” he asked. “That may be your only choice otherwise.”

Steven sat down on the couch and cradled his forehead in his hands. After a silent pause, he asked. “Can you really do it?” He looked over at his new friend, the man who had deceived him. The man he couldn’t label as either a companion or an enemy. Would he be safe if it weren’t Andy he had to work with? Wouldn’t it just be another hit man? Perhaps Andy was the best person for this moment. “Can you really kill Haley and make it look like an accident?”

Andy sighed. He didn’t know that himself. He wished there was some way that the problem would go away from him and there would be no lifeless bodies to see anymore. Nothing horrible to hear about and nothing to regret.

No more funerals for Max.

“Give me your notes,” Andy said.

“Sorry?” Steven blinked.

“Your notes on Haley,” Andy elaborated. “Let me look over them.”

With a long pause of hesitation, Steven went back into his room and rummaged around for something. He came back with a crumpled notebook. It was furled around the edges from constant use. Andy took it in silence and then read over the contents. It seemed like hours before he spoke again, startling Steven.

“Cut the brake line,” Andy said. “That’s what I’ll do. She won’t last long on the freeway.” He closed his eyes in pain.

“That’s working on sheer chance,” Steven pointed out.

“That’s all I can do,” Andy offered, his eyes moist. He rushed to the kitchen and searched the junk drawer until he found a box cutter. He started moving toward the door.

“Andy!” Steven called to him. The assassin turned. “You’re too drunk. I’ll drive.”

Grateful, Andy nodded his head. He cocked it to the side. “Why help me from here?” he asked.

“Well, to be honest I’m in a lot of trouble,” Steven started. “We’re in a lot of trouble. All I know for sure is that I’m glad you are on my side.”

Chapter Ten – Deadline

For the final time, they pulled into the alley behind the Five Point apartments. It was still, the lights in the window that belonged to Haley were on but dim. No movement could be seen. Silence settled in the car before Steven broke it.

“Are you really ready for this?” he asked. He looked over at the apartments like a startled rabbit. It seemed as though he expected an ambush. His nerves didn’t comfort Andy. The hitman ignored him as he slipped out of the vehicle. Steven pulled the car away to find a better place to hide while Andy made his way through the dark areas of the back yard until he came to the garage. The door was locked, as it should be, so he made use his of long-learned skills of lock picking to pry his way in.

The only thing in the entire garage was an older brown Subaru. It sat in slumber on the concrete floor with worn wheels. Andy made his way over to its side and rested his kit of things on the cold concrete floor. He found that the car was unlocked when he tried the handle. This would be too easy, Andy thought.

He worked to turn the front wheels of the car all the way without making a racket, then slipped back out and located the brake line. He noticed the door leading toward the rest of the apartment was cracked open. Every instinct told him to walk away from it, to go back to the brake line and slash it with haste. But for whatever reason, something drew him toward it. He cracked the door more and peeked into the building.

It was dark and dormant. No one stirred, but Andy waited in silence to make sure. The last thing he wanted now was to get caught, to have the choice he had to make taken away from him. He didn’t want to lose control but he couldn’t leave. He could feel his heart beat.

He tiptoed into the apartment, observing everything in detail and doing his best not to disturb a thing. There were signs of a recent shower, the mist still in the air. Still, there was no movement. The entire apartment seemed like a dead, decaying version of itself in the dark night. Like all of the things left in it were abandoned by the previous residents.

Andy made his way to the stairs with soft steps when breathing drew him away from them. Carefully, he cracked open a door to a room by the first landing. A dull light bled through the doorway as he opened it. He was terrified, certain that someone was watching him. The snoring put him at minor ease. As he looked in, nothing could be discerned. The fragile and feminine tone of the breathing heap on the bed became unmistakable.

Haley Flynn looked gorgeous, even in the dull light of the lamp on the nightstand. She held her expressions in a lazy way as she slept. She must have fallen asleep right after showering, waiting for the time of her departure to arrive. She laid with her pillow as if it were a lover, a comforting friend that had no doubt been cried into dozens of times. Snoring wasn’t the term Andy would use to describe the noise coming from her, but more of a childlike purring.

She was dreaming.

For a moment, Andy wondered where her mind was taking her now. If it was showing her a marvelous scene of joy or whether it clung onto her high hopes and brought them down in despair. Perhaps, wherever it was that she dreamed of, it was her place to go and hide from the rest of the world. In her investigations she no doubt had evil things creep into her head. Bad things that she did not put there herself.

I wonder what a nightmare is for Haley Flynn, Andy thought. Was it a world in which people stabbed each other in the back the moment they’re turned just to insure that the same isn’t done to them? If so, then she’s going to wake up in a nightmare, Andy decided. A world where people die without knowing it. Without ever facing their killers. Without knowing why.

[_I could do it right here, _]Andy thought. Cover her mouth and make sure that another breath never escaped. He knew that she would wake up. She would kick and try to scream, all the while staring some strange uncharacteristic stare of horror straight into his eyes. The man she fancied. Killing her. Because it’s his job.

[That’s not what it’s about anymore, though, _]Andy added. _It’s me or her. If Leroy Graves doesn’t have Haley’s body, he will go to extraordinary lengths to get his. And she still wouldn’t be safe. She would be hunted to the ends of the earth. That’s the kind of man Graves is. He will not let this go. And I can’t protect her if I’m dead, he thought.

With the movement of a cat burglar, Andy lifted a pillow from the chair by the door. Smother her, he thought. She wouldn’t even have to see him do it. She wouldn’t even have to know what was happening.

At that moment, there was a cough from upstairs. A woman’s voice. Haley rolled over onto her side and faced Andy. His heart pounded to the pace he wanted to flee the house in. Her eyes remained sealed.

My God. That was all Andy could think when he truly took a long look into Haley’s face. My God.

Andy retreated from the room, setting the pillow back in its chair. As he slipped out of the door, he blew Haley’s sleeping form a kiss.

He would die for Haley Flynn.

Chapter Eleven – Max

“I’m going to report my car as stolen,” Steven told Andy the next morning. Andy was not able to sleep at all during the night. He had just sat in the armchair until Steven awoke to find him there. “Nobody knows that you’ve been here except for Graves himself. Just drive it to the airport and abandon it there.”

Andy looked up at his friend. “Thank you,” he said quietly.

“Take this,” Steven offered up an identification card. The photo inside it was of Andy himself but the name on it said Franklin Bottomer. “It’s a card I would use when I did some of my less glamorous stalks.”

Andy accepted it and bowed his head. He felt so trapped.

“Also, this.” Steven handed him the notebook filled with details about Haley. “You need to take this for my sake.”

Andy accepted that as well, nodding in agreement. Steven needed to get rid of anything connecting him to the whole ordeal.

“Look at me,” Steven demanded. Andy obliged. “They aren’t going to find you.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Andy said, his voice strained with fatigue. “Just make sure Haley is safe.”

“I’ll be watching her,” Steven promised. He choked up as he spoke.

“Thank you,” Andy said again. He produced another item from inside his jacket. An envelope.

“What’s that?” Steven asked.

“For you,” Andy said, handing it over. He turned to the door with his luggage and reached for the knob.

“If this works,” Steven started, staring down at the envelope in his hands, “come see me.”

“I will,” Andy swore. Then he walked out of the door.

Steven slid open the envelope and poured out a couple hundred paper bills with an identical portrait of Benjamin Franklin on them.

  • * *

As Andy drove, starting to pull out onto the freeway, he remembered Max.

  • * *

Maxwell Shepard was, to say the least, a troubled child. He witnessed countless occasions of domestic abuse between his parents who were far too wrapped up in hating each other to care much about him. So, by those means, he found it easy to slip away from home and find time with himself.

He tried hard not to become a cynic, to believe that good preceded bad in the order of life. That in order to get anywhere worth getting, you had to be decent and kind. Curiosity, however, got him into uncomfortable trouble. His first criminal offense was the shoplifting of a movie tape. He had hoped that it could calm down the household long enough for him and his parents to be distracted by the adventures of Marty McFly. He did finally get attention in the form of harsh words and constricting punishments.

He never explained where his bruises came from, but Andy always knew.

The two of them were inseparable. Together, they escaped every reality thrown at them and lived the lives their dreams only dared to touch. In their imaginations, they had conquered foes that make things like shitty parents seem minuscule. Beasts that threatened everything. Nothing could stop them.

When high school ended, the two of them chose separate paths. Andy had ambitions and the hard work he had put into academics to support him. Max had nothing and was left behind.

Max found one true talent of his, however, and moved to his cousin’s place in Chicago shortly after. He lived the life of a confidence man. He had over a dozen false names that he was well-known under. Nobody ever knew the man that lived so remarkably as Maxwell Shepard. He was able to steal quite a lavish lifestyle from society, moving out on his own. He was damn proud of his work.

It was a random encounter by a local schoolyard that introduced him to Justine Cladas. She was a young teacher, naïve to the spoiled and selfish nature of children and full of faith in humanity. This faith was most heavily placed in Max.

She knew him as Louis Thompson, the identity he used to pick up women. Louis was a successful sound engineer who claimed that he was working with Trent Reznor. She didn’t recognize the name, but that detracted little from his charm. She brought him to her house only once, where he instantly fell in love with her.

Her home was littered in Jesus paraphernalia and toys for her dog, a small chihuahua named Hamilton. They had dinner together. Max wanted to impress her, so he wore an attention-stealing red suit he had stolen along with his grandfather’s cowboy boots. She wore a magnificent lavender dinner dress. During the conversation, she brought up her rusting Volkswagen that sat dormant in her garage, never to run again.

Max was interested, absorbing her passion about the vehicle. It was the particular paint job that must have brought some sort of hazy happiness to her as it was the most frequented detail. Had Max any of the huge sums of money that his character Louis had, he would have gone out and bought her a new one that night. Still, he left her home ambitious. And for the first time in his life, youthful. He had always seemed so much older than any of his peers in spirit, aged by sadness. He was like a war veteran, disconnected from the trivial concerns of his fellows. Like he had seen so much more than them. He most likely had.

He tread through the warm night, walking because he never owned a car. He was a careful man, deliberate in his actions. Everything he had ever stolen he found means that justified it and a process that eliminated himself as a suspect. He forged credit cards, primarily, and then abandoned them after having them rejected. His purpose of making worthless credit cards that would never complete a transaction was to give him an identity to the cashier. That way when their supervisors asked them who the man sneaking away with a stereo was, they would say “Mario DeBruin,” his suspect identity.

Wine did not allow for consideration and tact. That’s why when he stumbled across a Volkswagen Bug that had an identical paint job to Justine’s, he hot wired it and drove off, drunk. He took it home and parked it in his garage, planning to surprise Justine with it the next day.

He awoke the next morning to police rapping on his door. Memories of the previous night flooded back to him like a nightmare that just couldn’t be true. No! he thought. He couldn’t have been so stupid.

That’s what he kept chanting to himself as he sat before the judge. All of the evidence of every crime he had committed since hitting puberty was laid before him and the jury. When he was found guilty, he was sentenced to five years minimum.

He did the time. In fact, prison only brought him and his new love Justine closer because she sympathized rather than condemned him. She cared for him and told him every time that she could manage to visit that he was a good person and that once he was freed he would be a new man. Jesus forgave, she explained, and so shall she. Not even finding out his real name discouraged that.

Justine kept him hopeful.

One day, the guards escorted him to one of the solitary confinement cells in the bowels of the prison. No amount of prying brought any answers. No shrieks of protest changed a thing. They kept telling him that he was losing his grip of things, demanded that Justine was not a real person. They continued threatening a mental hospital transfer to him, but the warden pulled a few strings to keep him from such a grim prospect. In fact, just a week after he was moved, the warden paid Max a visit.

“Hello, Mr. Shepard,” he said, acting as if they had many conversations together.

“Get me out of here,” Max demanded. “I’m not insane. I’m not violent. I don’t belong here.”

“You’re right,” the warden insisted. He had an ugly sneer on his face, as if Max was a piece of shit. “You belong rather to State Mental, you do — ”

“I don’t!” Max screamed back.

“You do!” the warden matched his volume. “You do and you know it!” He cleared his throat, beginning a new approach. “You don’t have to, however. We can keep you here, even move you back to your old cell, but you need to submit to medical treatment.”

“Medical treatment?” Max echoed. He was confused.

“Your psychosis is dangerous,” the warden explained. “We need to treat you so you can become rational. This is the only way to get back to your cell, Maxwell.”

“What do you mean?” Max started.

“You need to take pharmaceuticals. Drugs,” the warden offered. “Things that will help calm you and suppress your violence. And we’re going to start today.”

Max decided to agree for the sake of getting back to where he could be visited by Justine.

  • * *

“This is going to pinch just a little. Keep your eyes on me,” the doctor told Max. Max was a hard man to give injections to.

“Needles?” he yelled at the warden who watched from the corner of the room.

“It’s how we administer the drug,” the doctor insisted.

“I thought you meant pills!” Max protested, still addressing the warden. The warden and his stupid smirk.

The needle went in without pain but it still terrified Max. He had been afraid of needles ever since he had walked in on his mother using them when he was a child. “There,” the doctor said.

Max observed the pin-sized hole in his shoulder, struggling to get a good view. “What is this anyway?” he asked.

He received no answer.

  • * *

Max was dying. There was no doubt of that in his mind. Ever since they had begun the medical trials, he thought, I’ve only gotten sicker and sicker. He must have been allergic or the needle must have been contaminated. If only he knew what drug they were giving him.

This is the last time I’d allow them to stick me full of needles, he decided as he walked into the prison’s clinic. The warden was waiting for him there with the doctor, a sight he hadn’t seen since they had begun giving him the drugs, months back. This piqued his interest.

“Maxwell, good news,” the warden said. He waited for a reply from the inmate, but got none. “This is your last injection.”

“It’s a follow-up drug,” the doctor explained. “A one-time shot that will rinse out all of your negative symptoms. You’ll feel good as new by morning.”

Max made his way over to the chair where he had gotten so many injections during his sentence. “One more,” he said. “I’ll give you one more.”

“Excellent!” the warden declared. “Today, you’ll go back to your old cell. You seem to be recovering.”

“Really?” Max asked. He had started feeling a little clearer in thought, even though his body screamed in agony. Perhaps it was just a minor thing.

“Absolutely,” the warden promised as they began the procedure. “Take good care of him,” he pointed out to the doctor.

“Of course, Mr. Graves,” the doctor replied.

  • * *

On Andy’s twenty-second birthday, he ate two slices of toasts made from expired bread. He celebrated by himself in a dark apartment. The electricity had been shut off due to delinquent bills. An eviction notice still hung onto his front door. He couldn’t bring himself to take it down and put it inside. His stomach gurgled, unhappy and malnourished.

It was his second year in Chicago and he was dying. Slow, of course, but he assumed he would be dead within the week. He ate one meal every other day, and it was always tasteless and stale. His ribs were defined through his thin flesh, visible in any position. He had no money left and no one to turn to. His parents would not give him a “handout,” as they called it. He vowed to never speak to them again and took it upon himself.

He had already been evicted twice, and one of those times he had to live on the street for three weeks before convincing a landlord to ignore his bad credit and let him have an apartment. The paneling on the walls had long since peeled out, and the toilet was just a bucket. If he had anything to cook, he did so on a little barbeque in his kitchen and he disconnected the fire alarms. Heating was nonexistent and instead he huddled in bundles of blankets throughout the winter.

At night, he often cried to himself as he tried to remember the taste of fresh fruit, or the sensation of being hugged. No one in his life knew how he struggled and because of that he felt abandoned. He would remember his teachers’ praise in high school, and how much faith they had in his talents. They said he would make a great actor, and at one point he attempted it, joining his school’s drama club. Now look at me, he thought. His heart wrenched at the sound of his own lamenting. What would they say now? He reckoned they wouldn’t even recognize him. If they ever saw him laying drunk in the gutter some day, they would look right past him and beam about whatever new pupil inspired them. Forgotten. Alone in a sea of people like a piece of debris among the stars. Floating and wishing for any alternative. His only solace came in sweet dreams at night. His only blessing.

Almost every job turned him down. His failure to stay enrolled in school and obtain a degree was a mistake he cursed each morning that he woke up nauseous from hunger. He needed either experience or a certification, neither of which he had. He worked for only a few months as a grocer, but when the management neglected his paycheck, he quit in a rage. Another mistake he regretted. If only I had just smiled and took it, he wallowed. Then I would be happy.

It was only by the grace of some unseen luck that Andy finally got a job as a bouncer at a local bar. It was a pisshole, but the owner was nice and sympathetic. She was an alcoholic with easy access, and though she struggled with her own finances, she gave what she could. Many times she invited Andy over for a home-cooked meal. Every bite would be like an orgasm. Even though he suspected she only did this because she was interested in him, he was grateful.

Still, he struggled. Even with his paycheck, he couldn’t afford the apartment. He was going to be homeless again, and in the winter, he would likely die. Something needed to change.

  • * *

Max made his way through the prison by guard escort to his cell, as he had been promised. Though he suffered through the night, every ailment that plagued his body showed no symptoms in the morning.

Less than a week later, a letter came in from his cousin. It was short and formal but it explained that his cousin had pulled some strings for him so that his friend, a senator, could write him a pardon letter. It was late coming, his cousin apologized for, but he explained that his friend was a busy man and this was a remarkable favor he was doing for them. He would be coming to pick Max up the following week, once the pardon was processed.

The pardon processed that week and Max was a free man. He left the prison in the same burgundy suit and cowboy boots that he was in during his arrest.

  • * *

A funny looking short man with curly hair like Gene Wilder approached Andy at the bar doors.

“You don’t look like a bouncer,” the man told Andy.

Andy peered down at the man. There was a look on his face as if he smelled something foul. Perhaps it was the vomit in the corner that he was procrastinating cleaning. Maybe it was the life he had that made him scowl. He chose to ignore the funny man and resume his hawk-like watch of the dance floor.

A wad of money appeared in the funny man’s hand. He looked up at Andy with a stern face, twinkle in his eye nonetheless. “Care to make twenty-five-thousand dollars?” he asked.

  • * *

Max and his cousin drove to the apartment they were to share in the city. It looked much different than Max remembered seeing it, as if his cousin now had a woman living in the house. Maybe his styles just changed. He was grateful, though. His cousin gave him a spacious room in the house, where he stood listlessly.

“I know it’s been a while,” his cousin started. “I know it’s hard, but we have to start somewhere.”

“No,” Max said, trying to put his cousin’s mind at ease. “It’s great. I owe you everything.”

There was a pause.

“There was a note waiting for you when we arrived. It said to have you meet someone at the pond as soon as you got here. Looks like a woman’s handwriting,” his cousin smiled at him. Happiness was on his face as he watched Max realize what that meant. He knew where to go.

“Thanks,” Max replied, dismissing his duty of unpacking for a later time. “Thank you so much.”

  • * *

Max jogged through the streets. Nothing could fill his heart more than his desire to be back in Justine’s arms. She had waited for him. She was the reason he was able to continue. The reason he still dreamed of freedom every night of agony within that prison. He let his feet lead him like hounds, sure of where they were going. He didn’t even need to think about where he was walking. It was in his soul. He walked to his favorite little park in the city, a place he and Justine had made their own. It wasn’t far from his cousin’s home, devoid of all other people.

The pond that this park was home to was an old friend of his. Many of the first confused nights within the city were spent here, wondering if he could be great even though his parents didn’t think he could. He would come here and stare at the still waters. It was a meditation for him, the only way he could ever pacify his internal battles and silence the shouting thoughts. Put his heart to ease.

Here, the blade that the whole world was scarred by balanced perfectly. It could not harm here.

Max slipped out of his cowboy boots and felt the sensation of lush summer grass under his feet as he walked to the edge of the water. He looked around in the dark, watching for Justine’s appearance. He dipped a toe into the water. He smiled to himself as the feeling of the cool waters reminded him of peace. It flashed back all the horrible memories he had locked inside of himself, kissed him on the head, and reminded him that all things were small in comparison to this feeling. A free man. At last.

A shot rang out through the night and Max fell forward into the pond. The bullet had tunneled clean through his chest, draining his matter into the warm waters.

Still, his last thought echoed in his head, I am at peace.

  • * *

One shot was all it took for Andy Winter to become a killer. It dropped the man he was hired to kill like a bird from a nest. With his task complete, he felt no need to stick around. He fled the scene fast, disappearing into the night.

  • * *

Andy discovered the name of his target the next morning on the local news channel. “Local Maxwell Shepard was shot and killed late last night during what witnesses say was a mugging-gone-wrong.” Andy clicked the television set off in horror, bringing his hand up to his mouth. He trembled as he absorbed the news. He broke down and cried, his body heaving violently. There was no word that Max was found at the park and no evidence existed that Andy was involved. But he knew. He knew what he had done.

He had killed Max. He had killed his best friend.

Chapter Twelve – Verdict

The past decade played in Andy’s head like a montage. When he first learned of Max’s death and his role in it, he had sunk into catastrophic depression. Every day following the news felt surreal and scripted, as though the hallucinations of a degenerating mind. He didn’t leave his bed for anything but food and bathroom breaks, but even then he ate so little. Guilt tore down his appetite and made every bite taste like ashes. My best friend is dead, he reminded himself in the mornings. He’s dead and I killed him.

He couldn’t believe it was true. The concept blurred in his head and he felt dumb and confused if he thought about it for too long. After months of lamenting, the fact became unlearned for him. It always lingered in the back of his skull, of course, but soon the bills were due again and the memory of Max had been trained out of him. He was ready for another job.

Andy almost refused to call his shady employers back when they first contacted him after Max’s death. He thought on it for over a week. He meditated on the moral implications. But something about him had changed. As if a spring in his machine of reason had broken and would no longer hold tension. He knew what his job was, but his logic stopped there. He never asked why, never wanted to know anything more than he needed. If he thought too much about it, he figured, he could never live with himself. And that’s all he could do now. A prisoner of his own.

Killing overseas felt like playing a part in an act. He wasn’t Andy Winter anymore but this heartless, calculating murderer. Unflinching in the face of violence. Uncaring. But was this a mask anymore or was it now his true face?

What have I become? Andy asked himself.

He snapped out of it just a few seconds after going into it in the first place. Tears flooded his eyes as all he wished was to join Max. Maybe, in some vague life-after-death, he could beg Max for forgiveness. And at that moment, all he would have wanted Max to do was spit on him. To confirm his deep brooding suspicion that he was, indeed, evil.

“I am an evil man,” Andy said aloud, through gritted teeth. He needed to say it. He needed to tell the truth. If ever there lived evil in every person’s heart, Andy truly felt as though he were Lucifer. Tainted beyond his own understanding. A depressive curse.

Anger coursed through his body. It ebbed in his veins and it burned through his mind. He wanted something to strike out at. He wanted to be anyone else sitting beside himself, just so he could give himself the beating of a lifetime. Something no mortal body heals from.

He could never heal from Max’s death. He could never forgive himself.

Then he saw it. The brown dingy Subaru he had neglected to sabotage. Haley Flynn was passing in the opposite lane.

He could do it. He knew it. Only his desire to be with Max could lead his hand now. The tears were blinding. He shut his eyes tight.

He pulled hard on the wheel. He felt every fraction of a second go by, ticking like a countdown timer until the shrieking was deafening. Metal scraped on metal, screaming their protest out into the atmosphere as Andy lurched in all sorts of different directions, ribs snapping under the seat belt. His breathing ceased, grasped by his lungs as if they whispered to the air, “Shh! Don’t leave me.” He felt himself be lifted up and then slammed back into his seat.

The universe seemed to explode at that moment. If he had the breath or time to, he would have hummed to himself as he felt the collision take its full course. Everything around him was breaking. Mirrors, windows, doors. All of them failed to stand strong at the impact with Haley’s car. Everything was falling apart, being torn asunder and returning to something much more fundamental. Much simpler. That was Andy’s desire. To simplify himself.

All the noises stopped. No more screeching, no more squealing, no more shattering, and no more screaming. Just silence as the cars became still.

He had done it. He was finally dead. He had killed Haley Flynn like he had been paid to and ended his torment in one swift motion.

But no, something was wrong.

He could see! He looked down at his bloodied hands and saw them still clutched on to the steering wheel. He saw the cracked windshield, the shattered passenger window. He saw the brown Subaru. And from it stepped Haley, shaken but unscathed.

“What the — ” she started, but distracted herself from the swear by staring at the damage to her brother’s car. “Holy shit,” she murmured. She turned back toward the sick looking woman in the car. She seemed dazed, but she was fine as well. She managed to look around, but when she did, she spotted the offending driver crawling from his wreckage. “Andy?”

Andy sprang into action, leaping away from his car and up onto the street. Haley watched him with wide, staring eyes as he balanced himself and started rummaging through Steven’s totaled car. He pulled out the notebook with all of Steven’s notes in it and turned to the woman. At that moment, he noticed the bald woman who was climbing out of Haley’s passenger seat. Andy shoved the notebook into Haley’s hands as she looked him over in confusion, then he started limping away.

“Deliver your evidence,” Andy instructed back over his shoulder.

“Andy!” she called after him, perplexed. “What is this?”

“It’s everything we learned about you,” Andy yelled in response. “Evidence. Decree hired me to kill you. This is proof. Deliver it.”

“Where are you going?” she cried, overwhelmed by so many emotions.

He had disappeared in the distance.

Thank you!

Thank you for reading the first book in A Guardian Angel!

 

Start reading the next installment, FORTY-TON ANGEL, now!

 

I would love to hear what you thought about the book, so please consider leaving me a review. It would help a budding self-publisher immensely.

 

Also, join my mailing list if you haven’t already to stay informed about future book releases. Thanks again, and see you in the next one.

 

OTHER WORKS

A Guardian Angel (Complete Collection)

[* *]

Forty-Ton Angel (A Guardian Angel Book 2)

Knights of the Proletariat (A Guardian Angel Book 3)

Harbinger (A Guardian Angel Book 4)

 

Alfred Arnold’s Great Adventure (Alfred Arnold Book 1)

Explorers of Serdame (Alfred Arnold Book 2)

 

Timeglass (Timeglass Book 1)

 

Oneironaut

 

The Man With Two Bodies (Installed Intelligence Prologue)

 

 

AUTHOR BLOG

www.PhoenixWard.Wordpress.com

 

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About the Author

Phoenix Ward is the author of thought-provoking science fiction and dark thrillers. The inventive mind behind [A Guardian Angel, Oneironaut, _]the _Alfred Arnold Saga, and the Installed Intelligence series, Phoenix captures the bizarre eccentricities that make reading unique.

 

When he’s not writing foreboding tales of futures-to-be, Phoenix is an avid gamer. In fact, he is the owner and primary contributor for a video game blog called Ham Goblin Gaming.

Phoenix wears pajama pants under his jeans in the winter and has a ham tattooed on his chest. He draws inspiration from such science fiction legends as Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov. He currently resides in Fort Collins, Colorado, USA.


The Balance

  • Author: Phoenix Williams
  • Published: 2017-05-04 02:35:13
  • Words: 28536
The Balance The Balance