A Short Story
What you need,’ The Fat Man said, gesturing with a twirl of his yolk-dripping knife ‘What you need is to learn how to enjoy yourself, get a little pleasure into your life. Get a girl. You got a girl, right?’
Across the table Smith gave a near imperceptible shoulder shrug, the gesture saying ‘maybe I do, maybe I don’t.’
‘I mean Lord knows I pay you enough, right? You can’t be hurting for money. Go out and spend a little, go for a drink, meet someone. Go to a whore for Christ sake, if the getting it the normal way ain’t your forte. Do something at least.
‘I do okay.’ Smith said, more bored than irritated.
‘And maybe you do, you dark horse ya.’ The Fat Man wagged a finger at Smith, the jewel on his pinkie ring catching the too-bright light that hung above their booth. The Fat Man was the one who filled the envelopes and so The Fat Man got to choose the location of the meet ups. Invariably some cheap diner or working men’s cafe, maybe a mid-tier steakhouse on the rare occasions that the meet had to be in the evening hours. Anywhere where the portions were large and the coffee refills were infinite.
The Fat Man wore custom made suits that cost more than what one of the waitresses would earn in half a year, watches and a Cuban link bracelet that cost more than a decent car, but still he was drawn to places with breakfast specials and all the warmed coffee you can stomach thrown in gratis.
Smith took a sip of coffee.
‘You sure you don’t want nothing,’ The Fat Man said through a mouthful of bacon. ‘Food here’s tremendous. I can get you whatever ya want.’
‘You’ve gotta learn to savour things, my friend. Life without good food, good company ain’t a life much worth living you ask me. Otherwise wadda we do all this for, huh? To make life better for ourselves, am I right?’ The Fat Man speared the remains of a bacon rasher, dipped it in yolk, chewed it and pondered for a second. ‘Even if in the process we have to make life a little worse for some other poor fuck.’ The Fat Man laughed, a head-back extroverted boom with an undertone of radio static crackle from the decades of cigar-sucking and scotch sipping. He wiped away a laughter-tear with the the back of his index finger, the digit about the same thickness as one of the breakfast special sausages.
‘So.’ Smith said.
‘Alright, alright, you wanna get down to it, fine. Brass tacks. What I have is a double.’
‘Double costs double.’
The Fat Man leaned in closer, he dropped his voice to a rasp- an attempt at a whisper that brought no reduction in volume. It was lucky the diner was in the middle of the lunch rush. The Fat Man was many things, but subtle he was not. Smith pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers. He was starting to get a headache.
‘You wanna coupla aspirin or somethin, kid?’ And then back to the whisper-rasp ‘I was saying, I’m not gonna haggle on price with ya. You do good work. Double job, double pay. No skin off my nose.’
‘You got the details?’
‘Well not on me. You think I’m gonna carry that around on the street?’
Smith’s face shifted from anger back to a default bored but alert neutrality in a half second. ‘So why- ’
‘Shit, you never eat lunch alone, you never heard of that expression? Wanted to see how you were holding up after last time. It’s been a while. You’re looking okay, friend. Face like a fucking statue, and your usual sparkling conversation, which tells me that all is right in the world.’
‘So a double.’
‘Yeah, there’s some nuances to it so I want you to read the file close. This ain’t quite your standard job. But you’re a professional man, I don’t gotta tell you how to do your work. You still using the same place?’
‘Alright. So whadda ya want, Chinese, Indian, Thai?’
‘Couple of cheeseburgers will do it. Fries. Don’t worry about the drink.’
Smith stood and zipped up his hoodie. He took a black beanie out of the pocket and adjusted it onto his head. He pulled the hood on top, the rain outside the row of open-blinded windows coming down straight and heavy, the clouds as black as the percolated coffee.
‘I thought it was supposed to be summer.’ Smith said.
Smith put down two bills from his elastic-banded bankroll. The Fat Man and his kind were all about these little gestures of respect.
Smith headed for the door, hands in pouch, blandly anonymous in his dark sportswear. Another guy on the street, a working man, a ghost.
The Fat Man snorted a single laugh and shook his head. He napkinned away a dot of yolk from his cheek and then snapped his fat fingers for a refill.
Smith lay on top of his bedsheet fully clothed, his legs crossed at the ankles and an ashtray on his chest and a Marlboro between his fingers, waiting. He looked at the corner of the room where two walls and the ceiling met and where a cobweb had been spun. He watched the housespider further tie up the trapped and frantic and doomed housefly. He watched.
A loud buzzer over the background turntable jazz. Smith didn’t flinch, didn’t react at all. He stubbed out his cigarette after a second and placed the ashtray on top of the bedside cabinet, next to the travel clock that read 20:05. He crossed the small and immaculate studio room, dialling the turntable volume down to near silence as he passed it. He thumbed the intercom button and said ‘third floor’ into the speaker and then held down the button with a picture of a key on it. He waited.
A knock on the door after a slow minute, a dripping wet courier in matching coloured helmet and windbreaker and outdoor trousers all garish and logo’d with the delivery apps symbol and its childish Silicon Valley name. You saw these poor delivery guys with their bicycles and their giant square backpacks of restaurant food everywhere now, huffing and peddling.
‘Delivery for a Mr. Smith.’
‘Yes.’ Smith said. It wasn’t his real name, anyway.
‘Well there you are. Enjoy your meal.’
Smith peeled off a bill from his roll.
‘The tip has already been included in the order sir.’
‘Just take the money.’
‘Well thank you very much. That’s really k-’ Smith had already closed the door.
He set the paper bag down on the dining table. In the bag were three smaller paper bags. One with two cheeseburger. One with a side of fries. One buried underneath- an unusually flat and smooth and rectangular one- held a thin manila folder.
Smith plated his food and sat and ate with his left hand while he flipped through pages with his right.
There were two targets, one male, one female. Both seemed unimportant, unremarkable, unconnected. But Smith’s job was to act, not to question why.
He read on.
From the description he could see that the female was SARAH LOUISE FOLEY, age: 31, hair: blonde/brown, eyes: hazel, height: five feet four inches, build: medium, distinguishing marks: unknown.
From the long-lens photographs he could see that she had two modes of living. Number one was the pencil-skirted and medium-heeled work life which she endured in spite of the lack of comfort. The included job description and the unsure gait in the required work outfit told the tale. In all of the work hours shots she looked worried, pre-occupied, annoyed, wistful. The same as any other 9-5er. In some she carried a cardboard four pack of tall takeout coffees, in others she had an iPhone to her ear and a look of contrition on her face. Mode number two- on the other hand- was the off-hours life and this was all athletic wear and headphones and running. Either running to get to something or running to get away from something, he couldn’t tell. Laps of parks and edge of city trails, long circuits through neighbourhoods nicer than the one she lived in. No family of her own, no photographs of a social life either, though these folders were normally the product of just a week or two of recon so it could’ve just been a dry spell for Ms Foley.
Still she didn’t seem worth Smith’s fee. Strange. He took a bite out of burger number two. It was very, very good. The Fat Man must have a stake in the junk-food-but-gourmet place that had just sprung up in that rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood by the docks.
Smith turned the page.
Target number two was DAVID MICHAEL LEONARD- maybe having three first names was the reason this guy was in the crosshairs- age: 35, hair: black, eyes: brown, height: five feet eleven inches, build: medium, distinguishing marks: unknown. Another riveting page-turner of a life this guy had. Long-lens shots of him walking in and out of the same boring and grey car and in and out of the same boring and grey office building. The same boring and grey apartment building, the neighbourhood nice enough, the job description nice enough, the pay packet nice enough. More shots, more maps, more supplementary details. This guy David had no woman, no family either. His life was the same circuit of activities- the same bar every Friday, the same low buy-in card game every Saturday, the same broadsheet and chain-coffee place every Sunday.
Maybe this David got a bank loan, approached The Fat Man and paid for this work himself. Put himself out of his own misery while adding a bit of mystery and intrigue for the people in the block and the office that he’d leave behind.
But Smith’s job was to act and not question why. It made no difference anyway. It was what it was.
He turned the page.
Smith ate the last bite of the last burger and leaned back in full-stomached contentment. He read the brief, the job itself.
There’re some nuances to it.
As Smith read his eyes grew a little wider.
13:20, the end of her lunch break. Ten minutes and she’s be back at the front desk, all smiles and telephone voice while her eyes screamed out for help. Just kill me now. She made her way to a bench and sat, the little toe on each foot a rose red throb underneath the leather. You didn’t have to wear the shoes, but you had to wear the shoes. Everything was implied, was between the lines, was unspoken but understood. Nothing you could go to HR with, no easily discernible and provable thing that you could point your finger at or start to catalogue and build a case about.
And what would be the point anyway? The upper floor pricks, the shoulder-hoverers, the leerers, were all Teflon. Good schools, good families, wives as expensive and ornamental and upgradable as their wristwatches. And with their little gestures, their little double-meaning whispers, with the smirking, sneaky vagueness of it all, what could you do?
This was life, all painful shoes and freedom-restricting clothes and mounting bills and daily expenses brought about by the job you work to try to pay off your daily expenses. The salmon salad that she could still taste and the Flat White to keep the headache and the afternoon crash away had already eaten up over an hour of what she would earn during another eight hours of fake smiling and fake sincerity and showing fake interest in the fake small talk of fake people similarly faking their way through a fake life.
She took off her shoe and rubbed her aching foot and then the other. The toe seams of her tights stopped her from seeing the extent of the soreness and the blistering but from the throb she could tell it wasn’t too good. Both little toes burned and were warm to the touch.
She just wanted to be somewhere green, wearing something she could move freely in, something where she could breathe and not feel straightjacketed and vulnerable and on display. Where she could just be. With shoes where she could be light on her feet and sprint at full pace if the spirit moved her.
She put her stupid work shoes back on and exhaled and began the self-talk of telling herself that the day would be done soon, that the weekend was getting closer, that she would figure something out.
She looked across the street and saw the sign of the independent cafe whose prices she couldn’t justify to herself. Le Pain Quotidien. Her growing resolve sank back to where it had welled up from. She swallowed, not wanting her emotions to spoil the makeup that ate up a good half an hour each morning. Time from the hourglass that she would never get back.
She inhaled. And then the breath left her as she felt the jolt of the bullet and the blood, so much blood.
His job was to act, not question why. The why was someone else’s business, as was the who and invariably the when. Sometimes you had carte blanche as to the how, but usually not. ‘I don’t give a fuck, just get in done’, you might hear or ‘just make it look like an accident’ was another, but more often than not the guy with the envelope or the go-between for the shadowy guy in question would have requirements, suggestions, ideas.
You hire someone with a proven track record and then you start getting particular and unorthodox. It made no sense. But money is money.
A light southwest breeze side-parted his hair. Smith looked down at the anemometer screen in his right hand and then he lay the thing down on the right hand side of his set-up, belly down up there on the cold rooftop. He did a quick calculation and adjusted the windage to the left. It still didn’t feel right.
Smith would have liked to be able to use a fluttering flag as a more accurate gauge but there wasn’t time. No time to scan the whole city in his scope in the hope of finding some government building with a flag flying proud. So he made do with his own windage and elevation calculations, with the arithmetic that ran and re-ran through his mind, checking and checking again.
It wasn’t a hard shot, this, but he liked to take his time. A luxury he didn’t have today.
Smith looked at the target, made a tiny adjustment to the parallax, David Michael Leonard now in perfect focus in the crosshairs. There he was in an ordinary charcoal grey single-breasted coat with an ordinary shirt and an ordinary necktie underneath, the kind that comes in a Christmas morning three pack and signals the end of being young.
Smith took a slow nasal breath, and out. And again, slower still.
A bird landed by his side, unseen but sensed. It scratched around on the rooftop there on what sounded like a mangled and deformed claw. A city pigeon, confirmed by its soft rhythmic pecking on the rooftop concrete and a single steady coo.
Smith threatened it from the side of its mouth, saying it would catch a bullet first if it didn’t fuck off, and the bird seemingly understanding took flight.
Smith glanced at his wristwatch with the eye that wasn’t pressed to the scope. 13:01. Shit. A nasal breath, another, his heart rate now as slow and even as an athlete at rest.
David Michael Leonard stood there, where the horizontal line met the vertical, tapping out a smartphone message in his usual lunchtime spot, oblivious. A little quiet area off the main thoroughfare where he could eat and think in peace and quiet.
Smith held the man in his scope and aimed where he had been told to aim and he exhaled and then he fired.
Smith entered the bar.
The decor alluded to the areas waterfront past, black and white vintage photographs of strongjawed and moustachioed and bearded workingmen loading and unloading ships hung from the walls and there was a knowing and ironic nod to what would have been those same men’s off-shift recreations- neon pissbeer signs glowed from behind the bar and there was an index-cards-and-45s jukebox over by where a group of college kids were playing an amateurish game of pool.
Monochrome men loading and unloading ships but no stevedore or docker could ever afford to drink here. Not that there were many of them left anymore.
Smith rested two hands on the bar and the flannel-and-castaway-bearded barman approached from the other side of the wood. Smith leaned forward and the barman leaned in too, a reflex, though it was the afternoon dead-time and the jukebox’s ironic outlaw country song was playing as quiet as elevator music.
‘The Fat Man here?’
‘There’s a lot of fat men in the world today, friend.’
Smug hipster prick.
‘The Fat Man. Definite article.’
‘Never heard of him.’
‘Yes you have.’ Smith’s voice was his standard bored neutrality, but his half-hooded eyes held the promise of efficient and experienced violence.
‘Look, I know the Fat Man is all over. Probably doesn’t get around here to check in much. You think you’re doing the right thing by acting like you don’t know who I’m talking about. You’re not. So when you see him, tell him the double went down smooth.’
‘You want me to thank him for you for a drink he bought you?’
‘You tell him exactly what I just said. You wouldn’t want it to get back to him later that you didn’t. You can trust me on that score.’
Smith shouldered the age-faded gym bag that he always used to carry his set-up on jobs and he left the bar. As he palmed the door open he saw the hipster put the corded bar phone to his ear and dial.
Jesus, this was the weirdest job he had ever done. Fucking Fat Man and those ideas of his.
‘I’m going to the bar, can I get you anything?’ David Michael Leonard said with a smile.
‘Sure.’ Sarah said ‘A gin and tonic would be good.’
David slow-shuffled across the just-mopped floor in his hospital-issue slippers and gown his right hand clutched around the squeaky wheel rig that held this IV bag and the machine where which it wended through on the way to his cannulated arm.
‘Well’ He said as he reached the metal table-on-wheels with its cardboard cups and its sugar sachets and its too-small milk portions and its instant coffee and hot water urn.
‘Well, I can get you a coffee if you like.’
‘That’d be nice thanks. Milk, one sugar please.’
‘Same way I take it.’ David said.
He made the drinks and then delivered them in two journeys. First hers to her bedside table and then his also to the same table. He shuffled and winced and Sarah asked was he sure he was okay and he said yes.
The bullet had grazed him and left a flesh wound but the shirt fabric had gotten in it and infection had set in. Twenty minutes after he was shot, Sarah took her own bullet, same calibre, same weapon, same graze to the same area of the body, far from the brain or the major organs.
The subsequent investigation and media storm drew nothing. Though the calibre of the bullets and thus the rifle used suggested a serious marksman, a War on Terror veteran type, a specialist, both shots had been virtual misses, average at best given the weather report on the day and the presumed spot where the shots were taken from.
The gunman must’ve been a lone PTSD veteran who snapped and went on to a rooftop and fired off a few rounds but was fortunately too drunk or shook up to do anyone any permanent harm.
‘This isn’t too bad.’ Sarah said as she sipped the coffee.
‘You mind if I join you?’ David said and once her saw her half smile he lay on the vacant bed next to her and used the corded bedside handset to fold the bed up to a near chair shape, the same as hers. They both laughed softly at the painfully slow amount of time it took.
‘Comfortable?’ Sarah said.
‘I’m getting there. They said anything about your discharge.’
‘Soon they say. You?’
‘Yeah, hopefully pretty soon. I feel okay. Under the circumstances. So cheers to that.’
They tapped their cardboatd cups together and took a sip.
‘Can you turn to face me a second.’ David said.
Sarah did so.
‘Let me see.’ David set his cup down on the bedside table and reached over to her and gently held her wrist. He pulled it closer to him, rotating it slowly and holding it up near to his eyes he read the date of birth on her white wristband.
‘You look younger.’ He said.
‘So flattery is the angle is it.’ She said, not sounding annoyed at all.
‘They say it’ll get you everywhere.’
Old Benny in his camel coat and leather gloves and scarf approached the back room card table with his shoulders hunched. His nose and cheeks were as red as the stacks of chips on the green felt.
‘When the fuck is spring gonna spring huh?’ He said.
The other three card players agreed and commiserated and reminisced with their own one-upmanship stories of freezing childhood winter while Old Benny shook himself out of his coat and handed it to the errand boy kid to go and put on a hook somewhere. The old man took a seat.
Across the table The Fat Man relit a half-smoked cigar and waved for the errand boy to go and fetch everyone a cup of coffee. Getting sleepy with how slow these old men are to raise, he said. A little good-natured back and forth between the cardplayers and then Fat Man asking if anyone wanted a real drink. The table concluded it was too early in the day.
The errand boy brought the coffees, the tray rattling with nervousness and he set them down next to each players chip pile and The Fat Man peeled a tip from his money clip and the errand boy said thank you sir before making himself scarce.
‘You’re a good boy.’ The Fat Man said.
The cards were dealt, the blinds paid, the pocket cards peeled back and considered. The flop was turned and Nicky, the paunchy and balding-but-in-denial player to The Fat Man’s left said ‘fuck this’ and folded.
A call from Old Benny then a call from Albert, the player to The Fat Man’s right.
The Fat Man considered the flop then snuck a look at the corner of his own two cards. Then he gazed off at the space above and beyond old Benny’s head.
‘Hey kid!’ He shouted after a second. The errand boy jogged into the room all nerves and concern.
‘Kid, turn that up a second would you.’
The errand boy reached up to the wall mounted television screen and tapped at the side button until the volume bar scrolled up from mute to half way.
‘We’re in the middle of a game here, Paul, wha-’
The Fat Man shushed him and waved away his concerns with a gold ringed hand.
‘… In other news, the man and woman who were victims to a bizarre double shooting last summer were today married at Saint Catherine’s church. The happy couple seen here met when they were both admitted into the same ward of University Hospital following the shooting. Removing his very fetching waistcoat and showing his bullet scar for the waiting press the bridegroom Mr Leonard said that this was the mark left by Cupid’s arrow.’
The newsreader with her gleaming white teeth turned to her silver-haired male co-host and they awkwardly ad-libbed about how nice it all was.
‘Don’t that make you feel all warm on a cold day?’ The Fat Man said and the cigar stuck out from his crinkle eyed smile as he decided how he was going to play the hand he had been dealt.
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