a short story
by Angus Brownfield
Angus Brownfield on Shakespir
Copyright © 2017 by Angus Brownfield
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this Ebook.
Someone is trying to kill me and I don’t know whether he’s bad at what he does or if he’s torturing me before he delivers the coup de grâce. You would think, given my years of practical experience, I could outsmart a hit man six ways to Sunday. I am, I like to think, the best in that field. But, like some NBA offensive giants who are defensive midgets, I’ve never even thought until now about eluding an assassin bent on whacking me.
It began last year in that time between Thanksgiving and Christmas when life’s tempo quickens as orderliness slips away. It was then I contracted to take out the romantic rival of a Las Vegas mobster. It would have been a routine job except that the contractor insisted on a time specific for the deed to be done. Given enough time I would have performed with my usual finesse, so that neither he nor I would ever fall under suspicion of murder. It is something I have always insisted on, that law enforcement find no convenient handles sticking out of the corpse or the context of the hit that would lead back to me or my client.
The other thing I always insisted on is a guarantee that the object of my lethal attention deserves killing. It’s true that all of us have, at some point beyond the age of innocence, done irredeemable deeds—betrayed, abandoned, misused—like Saint Peter denying Christ. But to merit a trip under a bus’s wheels or a private plane’s nosedive into a mountain spur, the miscreant must be more than the usually callow fellow.
This target barely fit the bill. While he was making lots of money in illegal ways, he was not running prostitutes, he was not bilking little old ladies, he was not selling red eye to the Paiutes. His sin, the thing that got him fingered, was stealing away the girlfriend of a mobster higher up the food chain. This Lothario was not as rich nor as powerful (although he had, in theory, protection from a father himself a boss of bosses) he was just younger, handsomer and jollier. My brief surveillance of the man told me that he was a pretty decent guy doing things that disrespected the penal code but did not terrify nor abase plain folk.
I told the contractor my moral dilemma. He said, “He’s scum. You wouldn’t want your sister to date this guy. His gains are as ill-gotten as yours or mine, and . . . he’s banging my Louisa.”
“I’m sorry, but he doesn’t meet my criteria for a hit. I have my standards.”
The prospective contractor instantly offered me double my usual fee. Now all my adult life I’ve lived fast and loose, with little reason to save. I spend money freely, I have as much business as I can handle (there are lots of persons who deserve killing, believe me) and the cash flow is steady, so under usual circumstances I would have declined the contract even with the hefty bonus. I, however, had come under the spell of my own Louisa (not her real name) and I was thinking of quotidian things like a house in a nice neighborhood, maybe in San Francisco, my favorite city, or in Seattle, where my Louisa lives. So an infusion of extra cash was very tempting.
I told the don I was tempted.
“And ya gotta get it done by Christmas.”
I shook my head. “You want someone to walk into a restaurant and shoot the mark behind the ear while he’s eating his antipasto, you can get lots of D list thugs who will do it for a lot less. I don’t do that kind of thing.”
I think the man felt that hiring an A list hitter indicated the extent to which he despised his romantic rival and loved his Louisa. He upped the ante again, to triple my regular stipend. That was as much money as I needed to live comfortably, if prudently, for a year.
I explained to him that normally I study a target until I learn a weakness, a routine or a predilection that would lead to a death from something other than a bullet behind the ear. “It can take weeks of research to come up with a plan that leaves no handles sticking out.”
He did not go up as much this time, but still he sweetened the pot by a substantial amount.
When I finally caved he said, “Just make sure Louisa doesn’t witness the hit. I do not want her traumatized right before the holidays.”
Stacks of cash have a way of sending endorphins coursing through a man’s veins. Stacks of cash represent the freedom to choose, the freedom to say “fuck everything” and take off for Italy or Spain. And there are the little things, a Krug champagne instead of a Piper-Heidseick, that Lotus Elite you’ve been dying to make your own.
When you violate your own moral code, the gods will surely punish you. That was a maxim I learned from my mentor, a man who taught me it was not incongruous to be moral about an immoral act. He was also extremely good at creating accidents that seemed exquisitely accidental. And although I have had to rationalize the rough edges off a couple of hits where the death’s “deserving” was a tad iffy, I have never before allowed myself to be rushed. It takes away my artistry. It makes a brawler out of a man who was heretofore a consummate boxer.
Shame on me. Shame on my greed.
Since shooting is always my last choice of method, I own no collection of cold weapons. Neither am I connected with the type who can offer such for sale. The fewer connections to habitual scofflaws, the less chance of being caught up when a felon turns stoolie to deflect imminent punishment. So it was entering new territory when I delicately probed the seamier side of the city for leads to an untraceable weapon.
Turns out I had no trouble finding an almost perfect handgun. The only problem was, it was a collector’s item, a so-called “lunchbox” pistol assembled by Norwegian resistance fighters from parts secreted from a factory turning out pistols for the Germans in World War II. It didn’t need its serial number removed because it had never had a serial number. It had never passed through the hands of anyone who sought to register it. It was a genuine orphan.
One problem: it cost a small fortune. And since I did not want to purchase it on my own behalf, I had to use an intermediary to effect the deal, and he cost a great deal more than I’d hoped.
I felt like aborting the hit at that point. A fair hunk of the enormous fee was about to go into the means of making the hit. I felt exposed for, though he talked of honor among outlaws, the go-between was a simple soul who could be caught out by any competent police detective.
But I dare not abort. In my line of work you do not enter a contract you do not intend to honor. The only time I had not performed as promised was when the target died of “natural causes” before I died him of unnatural causes. (It occurred to me that another of my profession may have done him in by the cleverest of means: this guy was to vice what Dennis Rodman was to defensive rebounding; a dozen persons must have wished him dead at one time or another.)
It was the time of frantic shopping. It was the time of people setting aside usual routines to buy that last minute gift, or to attend an office party. I stalked my target with the stealth of a Great White Hunter on the trail of a man-eating tiger, but I couldn’t get a fix on him. As the Salvation Army bell ringers became pushier and the department store Santas less believable, I finally learned that the target had a second domicile in the city, why I’m not sure. A safe house? A place to entertain a dolly not the girlfriend du jour? No matter: I’d tailed him there one evening and seen him open the garage door to insert his Mustang convertible.
December twenty-first I followed him to this second house, on a street where I had not observed one dog walker or porch sweeper or kid doing wheelies on his bike, a button-down neighborhood. My intention was to let the man get settled, ring the doorbell and put five or six slugs through the door when I heard him say, “Who is it?”
But before I could get out of my car, another car, with a plastic copula on its roof advertising a chain pizza purveyor, pulled up at the curb opposite.
“Hey.” I hailed the driver, a weird hairdo woman in her twenties.
I held out a fifty dollar bill. “I want to surprise my buddy,” I said. She didn’t care to argue. She looked at the fifty as if it might be a fake, looked at me (smiling a smile I tried not to make smarmy) and, with a shrug and a wink, piled back into her car.
I had the gun out and hidden by the pizza cartons (two extra large, smelling of tomato sauce and pepperoni) and rang the doorbell. I failed to reflect on why even a hungry guy would want two extra large pizzas. There was a reason. Actually, there were four of them.
The man who opened the door wasn’t the target, and three of the four men in the living room behind him, around a table with cards and chips and bottles of beer, weren’t the target. The guy who was about to take the pizzas from me went wide-eyed, having sized me up as someone not likely to be a pizza deliverer. He twisted away from the door, yelling the target’s name in a voice filled with fear. I shot him in the liver.
The other four men sat frozen in their chairs, not comprehending what was taking place. A .45 makes a deafening noise fired indoors, and pizza spilling all over the floor and over a man going down in a heap is a rather dramatic visual. One man, not the mark, made an effort to rise. I shot him in the chest. The other three I shot in their heads. As I retreated down the front walk I threw the weapon, smoking and smelling of discharged gunpowder, on the roof of the house. I sprinted to my car, propelled by a mega-dose of adrenalin.
Obviously, the other four men had arrived at the house before the host himself. There were no cars outside, so they must have come via taxi, or taxis, and let themselves in. As I drove away I tried to reconstruct what I’d seen in the room: had there been more than five chairs around the table? Could there have been another player in the john? Was the man at the door, whom I’d shot out of sheer surprise, going to live? I wove my way through the neighborhood until I could mount a freeway onramp and lose myself in the early evening traffic.
I was heartsick. At least four of those men—young, younger than me my imprinted image of them tells me—didn’t deserve what they got, and maybe all five, if I was being honest with myself. I had violated one of my tenets and it had brought death to undeserving souls. I kept reminding myself that they had to go, they could not be left behind to identify me, which would not only get me in trouble with the law, it would get me in trouble with the target’s father and maybe others connected to the family. I tried to tell myself it wasn’t my fault, it was the contractor’s fault, but that wouldn’t wash.
I went home and slipped into a hot bath with a book of Hemingway short stories and a snifter of Rémy Martin. If I still smoked I would have lit a panatela and got clear out of myself—indulged, pampered, rewarded. But the ritual held no charm for me that night: Hemingway’s words wouldn’t make sense to me. I stared at the page until my eyes began to water.
When the bath water turned lukewarm I put on a robe, poured another tot of brandy, but this time tossed it back as if it were cheap whiskey. I thought about eating and drank another shot. About that time I realized what, in my panic, I’d done with the gun. It was likely no one was going to find it until morning, if anyone thought to look. And no one was likely to look on the roof unless the gun gave itself away. As it was dull black and not likely to reflect sunlight, it was only a matter of how much contrast it made with the roofing material.
For the first time in my career I was afraid. Not of Sicilian-style retaliation, not of the ire of the contractor, but of failure. A knot in my stomach throbbed. I looked in the mirror, shaving, and found my face repellent. I watched the television news and my botched hit was the lead story at all hours. And the worst part of it—never mind the police cars and ambulances and coroner’s van shown over and over—one of the men had survived the shooting. I’m not expert on gunshot wounds. But I know I hit three men in the head and a .45 slug is going to send a huge—no doubt unsurvivable—shockwave through the brain. The chest wound to the man who stood at the poker table? Seemed like it was dead center. Bleeding aside, there are lots of things to hit in there: a chamber of the heart, the aorta, the spine. I concluded it was the man who met me at the door who survived. I didn’t know him from Adam, he didn’t know me. I hadn’t made any special effort to disguise myself, but my rather average size and shape, plus nothing like prominent scars, Dumbo ears or distinctive facial hair made me stand out. I sported the protective coloration of ordinariness. Too, I’d worn a billed cap and gloves and a barn coat (December nights are down in the thirties in Las Vegas). I disposed of these the day after the shooting, gloves in a dumpster in Henderson, hat in a dumpster downtown. The barn coat I donated at Goodwill.
The contractor, of course, was furious. Two of the young men I shot were brothers of the target, the others were all connected. I had better not be caught, he warned, because the people to whom the poker players were connected will torture me to find out who contracted for the hit.
“I’ll carry a cyanide pill,” I bluffed.
He said, “That better not be a joke.” He paid me the balance of my fee and warned me to get out of town, never to return. I did not take his warning lightly. With part of my fee I bought a used compact sedan which I drove to Phoenix before getting on a plane to Seattle. Before I left Phoenix I called one of the few persons I would trust with my life, living in Los Angeles, and asked him to retrieve the gun from the roof of the target’s house, if it was still there. This man is the type who could breezily don coveralls and climb a ladder in broad daylight, claiming he was there to clean the rain gutters. Or he might scale the roof—actually a roof segment over the house’s attached garage—from the opposite side in the dead of night and “fish” with a powerful magnet. When he agreed to do it, I crossed my fingers, praying no official would think to look up there before he did. After all, what veteran hitman disposes of a weapon on the roof of his target’s house? Only one who was thoroughly shook up by the shooting of four unintended non-targets.
My friend successfully retrieved the gun. He visited the Santa Monica pier one evening and dropped it into Santa Monica Bay, where only the possibility of an angler accidentally snagging the trigger guard would bring it up again. By June of the next year I could reduce my intake of brandy and antacids to nearly nothing. I could enjoy my “Louisa” again, after being a lousy companion for months. I thought I was home free.
Until one day, driving along I 5, a bullet came through the passenger door window and out the driver door window, missing my head. It was mid-morning, I was breezing along at a tad above the speed limit. If I’d been going slower, the bullet would have passed through my head: the shooter hadn’t led me quite enough.
A good citizen whom I was passing at the time the bullet breached my car contacted the police via mobile phone and I was pulled over before I’d had time to think through this attempt on my life. And I had to explain why I hadn’t called the state patrol myself.
There was an investigation. There had been a freeway sniper incident in Arizona fairly recently and earlier ones in D.C. and Ohio, so it was easy enough to deflect any thought that someone was out to get me specifically. After a couple of interviews with Major Crimes detectives, they left me alone.
I didn’t feel alone, though. Someone was definitely after me, and it was easy enough to conclude it stemmed from my Las Vegas fiasco. There might be any number of angry folk out for my blood—the survivor, the dead men’s kin, even the contractor might wish me dead so I could never implicate him if caught.
I had never told my sweetheart how I made money. I claimed to be a day trader on my income tax return, which was partly true, though I made little money on the market. I was now stuck with making up a whopping lie as to why I had to suddenly depart for Hong Kong. But of course that’s what I told her (hating myself for lying) while in truth I left Hong Kong the next day for Costa Rica. It was going to cost me plenty to atone for my sins, but I wasn’t going to pay Hong Kong prices while atoning. San José wasn’t as assassin-proof, but I didn’t have to stay in the city, I could find a nice little burg down by the Bay of Nicoya or on the Caribbean coast and get lost.
I didn’t need any more evidence I was lousy at defense than another shot that barely missed. It was night, in San José, walking past Banco Nacional, an old-fashioned edifice in sandstone and concrete. It was but one shot, missing my head by not much, because the result was a splatter of sandstone shards that peppered the side of my face, including a fragment the size of a grape seed that struck my eyelid and left a bloody little imprint.
Now running any more was out of the question. And going to the police was not part of my ethic. I had to find the person trying to kill me and—what?—persuade him not to kill me? kill him? The choices didn’t seem good.
I had ducked into the unlit shelter of the bank’s entrance and, as luck would have it, two policemen on foot patrol passed in a moment, though too engrossed in discussing futbol to notice me. I fell in behind them, keeping their leisurely pace. When we came to an area where there were bars I ducked into one and had a guaro and then another. It is a dreadful liqueur, but it’s served, always, with a slice of lime, which kills the blah taste. Out the window and across the street I could see an arcade, and on a hunch there would be a back way out of it, I watched the street from the doorway until I saw cars coming in both directions, when I dashed through the traffic and into the arcade.
I’m sitting in an open air cantina—a palapa bar—on the Nicaragua-facing bank of the Río Frio, on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, drinking a lager, which is all they serve, a beer on a par with Budweiser, bland, rather sweet, when a woman walks up to my table and plops a six pack of Scottish Ale in the middle of it. She startles me, because the background noises surrounding this cantina would muffle the approach of a Harley-Davidson going flat-out. She is nut brown and hirsute, with a low brow, a visible brush of black down across her upper lip, and, between her breasts, where they meet her chest wall, four wiry black hairs. She is hotter than hell and I am instantly alert to this fact. Only after I have imagined I inhaled a nose full of female scent—sun kissed skin and day old antiperspirant—do I notice that the beer bottles are sweating as much as I am, not because they’re as warm as I but the opposite: they’re icy cold.
“Don’t drink that swill, Mr. Lansing, all it will do is make you want to pee. Have one of mine.”
Scottish Ale may be an old recipe, but it has a modern twist-off cap. She pops one and sets it on the table in front of me.
“It can’t be my movie star looks, Ms. . . .”
“—Cotticelli. You may call me Yolanda, though.”
“And what brings you to my table, if it’s not my good looks, Yolanda?”
“I’m going to kill you, Mr. Lansing.”
A light bulb appears above my head. “Well, you’ve finally got close enough you can’t miss.”
She smiles impishly. “I didn’t do badly for a girl, though, did I?”
I take a long pull on the bottle. It’s not overpowering, malty and not over-hopped, and I look at the label to see that it’s made right here in Costa Rica. Progress, in the form of microbreweries, is everywhere.
“You didn’t lead me enough on the freeway, and you led me too much up in San José.”
“Well, it’s not my profession, so I can be forgiven a rookie mistake or two.”
I say, “If you’d hit me the first time it would have cost a lot less. All this chasing around.”
“It’s an opportunity for me. I’ve never gone any place like this in the course of my housewifely existence. Did you take the jungle boat trip?”
“I did. And you should know, I have handgun pointed at your belly. It’s only a .22, but what can you expect in a country where the police don’t wear guns?”
She says, “I have a gun pointed at your belly too, a Desert Eagle, the baby one, only forty-five cals.”
“I’ll get six off to your one,” I say.
“What if I should shoot you in the head?”
“Then I’ll get ten in you before you clear the table. But that’s the limit. However, why can’t we be friends?”
She says, “Because you killed my brother.”
“He was the guy who answered the door.”
“Whose name was Nucci, the paper said. And I thought he was the one who survived.”
She holds up the hand not under the table to show a wedding ring guarded by a big diamond engagement ring. “Nope. The one with the chest wound survived. You ripped up my brother’s liver, you bastard.”
I sigh. “I deserve to die, I suppose. I entered a contract I should have turned down. But you are playing against a stacked deck. If I don’t kill you, the courts here will put you away for thirty years.”
“Just minor considerations, when revenge is on the table.”
“I have an idea,” I say. “Let me make love to you and I’ll let you do it in the middle of the jungle. You’ll have a chance to get away clean.”
Her laughter shows movie star teeth. “What a bizarre idea. It’s almost ghoulish, making love with the man who killed my brother.”
I say, “But it’s so Sicilian—you’re Sicilian, aren’t you?”
“You’re crazy,” she says, “demente.”
“Com’on, Yolanda. Your honor will be served and you’ll not end up dead or behind bars. And I think you’re hotter than Salma Hyek. Despite my ordinary Joe looks, I’m a very passionate man. I would die happy if I satisfied you.”
She laughs and looks away. She’s blushing when I shoot her. The timing is perfect: howler monkeys have set up a chorus and the pistol, though of small caliber, has a suppressor attached. Yolanda’s eyes go wide and then she slumps forward. I leave the gun and the banana leaf it was wrapped in in a tote bag under the table.
A jealous mobster approaches a hitman—regarded as the best in his line of work—to eliminate a rival for his lady love’s affections. The project violates several of the hitman’s self-imposed rules, but when he declines, the mobster showers him with an irresistible increase in his usual fee. The project has a time constraint and this constraint limits his ability to plan adequately, causing him to botch the job. As a consequence, someone affected by the hit comes after him, intent on assassinating the assassin. After two close calls, his nemesis catches up with the hitman in Costa Rica, where the odds are no better than fifty-fifty he will survive.