This is a draft and definitely in need of editing and re-writing in a couple places. Any and all feedback is welcome.
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It comes full circle
"How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it."
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121 AD - 180 AD)
John listened to the drone of the motor as he headed back home.
His work here was done. It had been messy. He didn’t usually think about the job, but this one had put the screws to his head and left him with an uneasy feeling. A man was dead by his hand. There was nothing unusual about that. He had ended the lives of hundreds during his career as a 'man who solved problems' for clients who wished to remain nameless. This job had been different. He had only had this feeling one other time in the years he that he killed for voices on the other end of a phone line...and got paid well to do it, at that. It was more than a year ago that it had happened, this other instance of uneasiness. It was the woman and the little boy. John didn't want to think about this now with the nights job so fresh in his mind. He tried not to think of the woman and the little boy, but the memory would push it's way to the front of his mind on nights that he he laid on the alcohol too much
John had found that alcohol, when taken in moderation, could vanquish most demons, but too much had them pawing on your doorstep with those scratchy sounds that are reserved for nightmares. The really big nightmares that woke you in the middle of the night with a knot in your gut and a lump in your throat. He had never screamed from fear in his life. Clients and “business acquaintances” knew him for his nerve and cold calculating reasoning. Of course, the “business acquaintances” only knew this for a few seconds before their brain functions stopped. He was cold and calculating, but he took no pleasure in making people suffer. They had done their deeds, and when it caught up to them he merely served them their due and proper. No bartering, no begging. Bang, and you’re off to the next world. Except for the woman and the little boy. That had been different. He pushed the thought hastily out of his head and thumbed the radio on. Duke Ellington crooned out "Take The "A" Train".
John liked jazz. Even when the topic was a downer, there was always a sax riff right around the corner to brighten things up. Johns mood lightened a little and that uneasy feeling started to fade. He looked at his watch. 3:45 in the a.m. That's what Nico would have said. How long ago was that? Ten years? Fifteen? John did a quick calculation in his head. Twenty three years. Holy hell, had it been that long? John guessed the math didn't lie. It was a long time ago, if you measured in years. But in more abstract terms, it was not that long ago. Not at all. Those were the days that John had come to think of as his golden years. Just barely a teenager, he was still very young. It was Nico who had defined those years of his life. He had made them good years.
"Johnny, what are you doing up at 3 in the am?" Nico would say in his thick Italian accent if he caught John on a late night fridge raid, or watching some infomercial proclaiming that you too could have six-pack abs for just 5 payments of $79.99. John had noticed that his accent would become deeper to the point of being almost incomprehensible when Nico was either very angry or very tired. "Get your ass to bed now", but the drawl came out git ya ass ta bid naw.
John understood the accent perfectly. After living under the same roof as the old Italian man for years, he had become fluent in what he had come to know as "Italy-speak". It was worst when Nico had a few drinks in him and was pissed off...or perturbed, as Nico called it. At those times, John was the only one who could understand this hybrid form of 'pissed off drunk Italian'. Deciphering this accent would have had linguists confounded for years, but out of necessity and a true admiration of the man he had come to know as 'Pa', John had mastered the alien language to the point of being able to speak to Nico in it as well as understand it. The first time John responded in this language that only he and Nico understood, Nico was so taken aback by it that he had laughed for a good few minutes before he could regain his composure. If you could call a tipsy Italian "composed", that is. After that, they had had a conversation that lasted into the early morning hours, each of them reveling in the new found commonality between them.
Nicolas "Nico" Bianchetti was not John's dad. Not by a long shot. John's biological father had been a drunk, and a mean drunk at that. Nico became "Pa" in John's 15th year on this earth, 5 years after a chance meeting had placed them together for the rest of their lives. Or at least for the rest of Nico's life, which ended up not being as long as John would have liked. But, is there an acceptable time to lose a parent? John didn't think so. Nico had died a good many years before he should have. That fact haunted John in his dreams, but none of it mattered now. Nico was long dead. Right or wrong. For better or worse.
The words that rose to the forefront of John's mind now were the ones that Nico had impressed upon him with a forceful, if not unloving hand.
"You always do right, Johnny", Nico had said, the red flush still in his cheeks and a pink hand-print swelling on the left side of Johns face, on its way to becoming a welt. That side of his face felt hot and there was a dull throb that was beating in time with his heart.
John fought back the tears that wanted to come. Underneath the hot pain in his cheek, he was hurt at being struck by Nico. It was not the first time John had been walloped. It was a regular occurrence in his fathers house, and those had been bona fide beatings. Yes, John had had worse in his life. Much worse. Or was it? Was it worse, or was it...different? John was no stranger to physical pain, but this was something new. The pain in his cheek could be characterized as mild at best by comparison to the beatings that Charles Stryker had given him, always punctuated with a string of yelled curses. In those days, it had been sheer anger that brought the tears to John as he laid in bed and wished he was somewhere else. Wished he was someone else. Nico had never raised a hand to John before that day. The pain that threatened to bring the tears in this case was not physical, nor was it anger. John was hurt because Nico was not happy with him. The one person in the world who cared about him, and the one he cared about most, was angry with him. No, that wasn't quite it. He felt like he had let Nico down, though he did not understand exactly how.
"The things you do always come back to you. It always comes full circle, Johnny. Always." 'Circle' came out as soycal in the heavy accent. Nico leveled an appraising eye at John. The sting was still strong in his hand, so it must still be strong in the boy's face. It hurt Nico a little to strike Johnny, but a there was a lesson to be learned here. To not teach that lesson was to fail as a father. And a father to the boy he had become. He had accepted this responsibility with the absentmindedness of a mathematician doing simple algebra. There was no other way to it at all. The boy had needed a father and his was the doorstep that ten year old John Stryker had chosen on a rainy night in November all those years ago.
"This is important, Johnny. The things you do, good and bad, they always come back to you. The good comes back and you own those good things. But the bad things, boy," He fixed John again with those stern blue eyes. "Those end up owning you, if you're not careful," he reached out to touch the boy's cheek and felt a pang of guilt when he recoiled from the hand. "No," he said. "don't fret, Johnny. I ain't happy having to lay one on ya, but it needed to be done and now it's over" The heavy accent was draining out of his voice and the flush was leaving his cheeks. John heard a softness in his voice that wasn't there before. Nico had a voice that was best defined as gravelly, probably due to years of abuse from whiskey and cigarettes. The gravel was still there, but it had softened somehow. Likewise, the hard, stern look in his blue eyes had warmed. He reached out again to touch the cheek he had smacked. John allowed it to touch his hurt cheek. The feel of the old mans skin was like the leather of a well used baseball glove. It was rough, but also pliant and had an unusual, almost undefinable softness to it. He couldn't hold the tears back any more. He let out one sob and a tear rolled down his cheek and onto Nico's hand. He did not remove his hand at this, as John half expected him to.
"I'm sorry, Pa," He managed finally, in a husky voice. It took him a moment to realize that he had not used Nico's name, but had said 'Pa'. This was perplexing to John. He had never called anyone by that name before. Not his dad. Not his grandfather. No one. Ever. He realized now that it was the name that he had come to use to himself when he thought of Nico. He had done it unconsciously, not even realizing it until he spoke the word out loud just a moment ago. He raised his head and looked at Nico, unsure of how he would respond, or if he had even taken notice. The look in his eyes told John that he had.
"You can call me Pa if you want to," He said. "I never had a son. It pained me from time to time in years pass'd. Can't say that I've felt that regret in the last 5 years, though." Five years ago was when John had hesitantly knocked on Nico's door, the rain a steady downpour, his clothes drenched and cold and clinging to his body.
John tried on a smile and was not sure if it made it all the way to his lips. "OK," He said, simply. And from that day Nico became his Pa. Nico gave a nod, produced a large handkerchief and handed it to John. John began to dry his eyes, already feeling the knot in his throat beginning to loosen. Nico gave another approving nod and stood up.
"You can call me," John began before he realized that he meant to speak. Nico turned back to him, an inquisitive look in his eyes. "uh. whatever you want," He finished awkwardly. He felt a different kind of flush in his cheeks now.
"OK, son," Nico said. "OK."
John stole a sideways glance at the clock on the dashboard of the Jaguar. 4:03am. Time was crawling by too damn slow. He brushed the memories of Nico aside and went over the events of the evening.
It had started with the phone call. He did not recognize the voice on the other end of the line, but that was nothing unusual. Most of the jobs he did started and ended with an anonymous voice on the other end of the phone line. On rare occasion, it was a voice speaking from the shadows on some isolated road or in a vacant parking garage. In this business, anonymity was king and Rule Number 1.
"I have a job for you," the voice on phone said. "it's a rush job, to be done this evening."
"Who's asking for this job?" John inquired. You can never be too careful of a setup in this business. Caution was Rule Number 2.
A slight pause on the other end, then "Mr. Smith. He says to send your family his regards." There was no sincerity in the voice. There was no Mr. Smith and John hadn't had a family since Nico. Mr. Smith was his biggest client. Who Mr. Smith was, John had no idea. It was best that way. Rule Number 1. The family remark was this month's random catch phrase to be used to verify the validity of the job. The phrase was changed by John on the first of every month through an encrypted e-mail. "OK, where, when, and how do I identify?" Another precaution. You never say "who" or give a name. Even a bullshit name. Rule Number 2.
"Avenue H and 205th east. Male. The only marker is a burned out car. You'll know when you get there. 3:37am. Don't be late"
Avenue H and 205th east. that was certainly secluded enough and at 3:37 in the morning on a Tuesday, it would be a quiet stretch of road, but how could there be a target there? Could be tied up on the side of the road, John supposed. He had been called in to finish jobs before. Mostly, he did jobs in private residences or apartments and he had as much time as he needed to set up the job. A rush job was inherently more risky, so the price of a rush job was tripled. This was the same across the board. No exceptions.
"I must remind Mr. Smith of the monetary concerns with a rush job." John reminded the voice, though he knew he didn't need to.
"Yes, understood and agreed." came the reply, then "Mr. Smith wants this one to go with the taste of blood in his mouth."
"Knife?" John asked. The formalities and precautions had been enough to ease John's mind. There was still an amount of risk in using this kind of language in a deal, but every deal had risk. That was part of the job.
"Yes," the voice said "A gun is OK if necessary for purposes of...restraint, but it ends with a blade."
"I understand." John said.
"Goodbye." said the voice, then came a small click and it was gone.
John hung up the phone and began preparing for the job.
The voice on the other end of the phone had been right about the time and place. Sometimes John would have paid a cool thousand to find out how his clients always seemed to have such reliable information. He didn't know how Mr. Smith knew that the opportune time would be at exactly 3:37am and no later. He had learned not to question such specific information from clients for two reasons. First, the information was always right. Always. Second, the more precise information he had about the job, the easier it was for him to do the job. His clients paid him well for his services, and if you're paying that kind of money, you want to be sure that you have everything set up right.
John pulled off of Avenue H onto a dirt road a full mile before 205th Street East. The road appeared to go nowhere but into the desert. He killed the lights and the engine, then sat there in the dark waiting for his night vision. After fifteen minutes, John popped the trunk and got out to go over the plan again and get his gun and the large kitchen knife out of the trunk. He put the 9mm glock in his shoulder holster after checking that he had a full magazine. It was not necessary to check to see if the magazine was full. He had loaded two clips at home while preparing for the job, but he could not get past the habit of always checking to make sure that his gun was loaded before he entered a situation that he would potentially have to use it in. It would certainly be an embarrassing last few moments of his life if he showed up to what turned out to be a gun fight with a gun that had no bullets. Fate favors the prepared. He pulled a black trench coat out of the trunk and put it on, placing the kitchen knife in the right pocket.
His eyes were adjusted to the dark now and he could easily make out the time on the dial of his watch by the light of the moon, which was almost full. 2:21am. Plenty of time. John started walking. He stayed about fifty feet from the edge of the road, watching the ground for holes. The ground was thick with scrub brush, Juniper trees, Yuccas and Joshua trees, the latter of which John had to continually detour around. It was slow going, but by 3:10am, John was standing behind a small stand of Joshua trees looking at the burned out hulk of a car. John guessed the distance from the car at around twenty feet. He walked a few feet towards the car, doing his best to survey the ground for any objects that could hinder his progress as he moved or make noise at an inopportune time and give away his presence. When he was as sure as he could be of his path to the target, he went back to his stand of Joshua trees and dropped down to one knee. By moving his head a few inches to his left, he had a clear view of the car. He looked at his watch again. 3:23. Not long now. John waited and listened.
Several minutes later, he heard the sound of a car in the distance. He checked his watch. 3:36. Goddamn, how the hell did clients do that? No time to wonder about it now. It was show time. John crouched behind the Joshua trees listening intently as the car drew nearer. The car never slowed as it passed John and for a moment he thought that the client had finally been wrong about something. Then the brake lights of the car flashed and the car came to a shuddering sideways halt, tires squealing in protest, white smoke pluming out from the wheel wells. His latest "business acquaintance" pulled the car off to the side of the road and got out. John glanced at his watch again. 3:37. Mr. Smith, I must buy you a beer sometime, John thought as he pulled the glock from the shoulder holster and the knife from pocket of the trench coat.
The shape of a man was running from where he had haphazardly parked toward the burned out car. The moon was setting and at the man's back. John could not make out any features of his face, and he reminded himself that his own face would be very visible. This has to go off perfectly. John thought. No fuck ups. The man was coming from the east. John was just to the west of the car and at least twenty feet south of the road. The man approached the car and dropped to his knees scouring the sand on the right side of the car with his hands. He located something and pulled it up. A shower of sand and small rocks flew into the air as the man lifted a tarp out of the sand. He stood for a moment looking at the tarp, then threw it aside and began digging through the sand again. John could hear him mumbling incoherent words as he worked. The man was facing west, toward the rear of the car and if he had looked a little to the left at the wrong time, he would have spotted John peering out from behind the Joshua tree. John couldn't afford to wait. He would have to get as close as possible before his presence was noticed. He just hoped that the man he thought of as 'the target' stayed intent upon his treasure hunt.
John stepped out from behind his shelter and started toward the target. He made it ten feet and stopped. The man by the car had stopped digging in the sand and was looking around, searching the landscape. His gaze swept past John and into the desert. John remained motionless, hoping that he had not been spotted. He was a damn good shot, but shooting in the dark at a man ten feet away that you were not allowed to kill with a gun was no easy task. He would have to hit a leg if he was going to avoid a chase and maybe a fight. The man's head was swinging back in his direction, but more slowly and deliberately this time and John knew he had been found out. He raised the glock. The man froze. John could not see his face, but he could sense the fear on him.
"Sorry chief, you're number's been called." John said. It was something that hundreds of people had heard him say in his career and it always had the same effect. The man screamed and stumbled to his feet so fast that John barely had time to react before the poor sap could dive behind the car. As the man turned away John squeezed off a single shot, not bothering to aim down the site of the gun. He was always best when he relied on his reflexes. The bullet kicked up a puff of sand in front of the shadow of a man and for one miserable second he thought he had missed, then the man collapsed forward grasping at his left leg. John made the distance between them with three quick steps and grabbed a handful of hair just as the man got his knees under him. The glock had been placed back in the shoulder holster as efficiently as John had raised it and fired. John yanked the head up and back toward him and raised the blade of the knife Moon light glinted off the blade and drew white ripples in the sand in front of the man. He started screaming again and John drew the knife in a quick left to right motion across his neck. The screaming stopped immediately and was replaced by a choked gurgling sound. The man's hands went up to his throat in that instinctive gesture to cover a wound. To somehow apply healing. Not this time, chief. John thought.
The man's movements were slowing now as a pool of blood spread out in front of him. The blood looked black in the moonlight. John released the handful of hair and the body slumped forward then sprawled out on the ground. One last twitch of the legs and it was done. John grabbed the tarp that the man had ripped out of the sand and threw it over the body. he threw a couple large stones on it to keep the wind from carrying it away. It probably didn't matter. The body could very well be a skeleton by the time anyone stopped to see what was behind that burned out shell of a car. John wiped the blade of the knife off on the tarp and turned to head back to the car.
As he walked, a feeling of dread began to descend over him. He was continually looking over his shoulder, making sure he wasn't being followed. A jackrabbit scared off by John's footsteps was enough for him to have yanked the glock and fired a shot before he could stop himself. There was no one following him, not on this deserted stretch of desert road. There were only two people out here, and one of them was recently deceased. But a feeling of despair seemed to be following him, nipping at his heels and sending ripples of goose flesh up his arms and the nape of his neck. When he reached the car he opened the trunk and threw the gun, knife and trench coat in, then slammed the trunk and went around to the driver side door. His hands were shaking as he tried to fit the key into the lock and the keys tumbled from his hand and hit the dirt with a muffled jingle. He dropped to a knee to pick them up. Something was not right. He couldn't get that feeling out of his head. There was something very wrong about this job. His hand finally found the keys. He forced himself to slow down and take a couple breaths before he tried the door again. The key slid in easily this time and he heard a faint click as the tumblers turned inside the lock and the small knob inside the driver side door panel popped up.
John slid into the drivers seat, closed the door, and sat there with the keys in his shaking hand thinking, Something is wrong. Wrong. Something is very wrong. It was the same feeling after...after the woman and the little boy, only he knew what was wrong in that situation. He should not have followed the rules on that occasion. Rule Number 3. He should not have followed it. But he couldn't, for the life of him, figure this out. The job had gone off without a hitch. So what was the problem? You're just spooked. said a rational voice inside of him. It happens. You did the job. You'll get paid, and the sorry sack of shit under that tarp must have had it coming.
Whatever that feeling had been, it had faded now, but not left completely. Charlie Parker was on the radio now, playing "Dizzy Atmosphere". Finally home. John pulled the car into the garage. He got the glock, knife and trench coat out of the trunk and headed into the house. First things first. He went into kitchen and washed the blade of the knife , then he inspected the trench coat. He couldn't see any blood, but it was black and that would make it hard to spot any stains, so he threw it into the washing machine and started the wash cycle. Lastly, he pulled his cleaning kit out of the closet and started breaking down and cleaning the glock.
These final chores completed, he made himself a drink, sat down on the couch, and turned on the TV. He flipped through the channels. Early morning news reports and re-runs of shows from the golden days of television. Mr. Ed, Green Acres, Bewitched, The Andy Griffith Show. Hundreds of cable channels and not one had anything worth watching at this hour. John checked his watch. 5:21. Dim light was beginning to creep in around the edges of the blinds. Dawn was here. Suddenly John felt very tired. It had been a long night and he needed to sleep. He thumbed the power button on the remote, cutting off Mr. Ed in mid sentence. "Sorry, Ed. Bedtime," he muttered. John went upstairs leaving his drink, still full, sitting on the table beside the couch. He collapsed onto the bed in the master bedroom and was asleep almost immediately.
"I shout down the line but could not get through
Cause the telephone never rings when you want it to
Now you're wide awake in dreamland"
-Pat Benatar, Wide Awake In Dreamland
It was not a normal dream. This one never was. Most dreams have a certain surrealistic quality to them. Things are familiar, but not quite normal. Images, people, circumstances, places and feelings come and go as quickly as smoke in air that has been churned by a fan. This dream was different. John had the dream often, and it never changed. It never had that surreal, not really happening, feel to it. It replayed events just as they had happened, as if it was recorded on a tape in his head. It was the woman and the little boy. It was Rule Number 3.
John stepped into the living room of the house at 337 Arminta Street. It was the house of Milton Arlington. Good old Milt had pissed off the wrong people, thus, becoming John's next job. Milton was an attorney, and a good one, it seemed. He had been defending one of the many in Mr. Smith's employ, but he had stepped over a line when he started questioning the legitimacy of his clients innocence. Milton had spoken to a judge about the apparent corruption that may just go all the way to the top of the corporation that his client represented. Milton had been right about the corruption, but had underestimated the extent of it, which went all the way to the local police department and court system. It was just by luck, good for Mr. Smith and bad for Milton, that soon to be deceased Milton Arlington had chosen the wrong judge to confide in.
It was just after 1:00am. That was the time that the house was dark and everyone would be sleeping. In researching the job, John had noted that Milton had a proclivity for nodding off on the couch until around 4:00am. It looked like this was going to be an easy job. It was of some concern to John that Milt had a wife and 5 year old son who would undoubtedly be in the house when the job was done. John didn't want to have to deal with them. Three quick shots with a silencer on the gun and a pillow to further muffle the shots, and he would be out of the house before the woman and the kid stirred. The plan died now as he stood in the family room, lit only by the light from the TV, looking at the conspicuously empty couch.
"Shit," he whispered to himself. In all these years, he had never had to bother with Rule Number 3. Either through dumb luck, or careful planning, he had never had to observe that rule. It was not his rule, after all, but a rule that was invariably insisted upon by his clients. It was strangely similar to both Rule Number 1 and Rule Number 2...a way of ensuring both of those rules, in fact. John did not like the rule and always insisted to himself that he would not honor that rule, though a part of him always knew what the outcome would be were it brought to task. His clients were powerful and-
John felt a sudden certainty. It happened from time to time in his career, and he always followed what it told him. It had never let him down. This certainty was a feeling of something that was happening, but had not quite happened yet. John didn't believe in mysticism, destiny, angels, demons, psychics, ghosts, or any of that nonsense. The only word that fit this feeling was 'premonition', but since John didn't believe in such things, he called it a gut feeling. The gut feeling in this case told him to duck to his left and turn around...and fast. He did as this feeling urged him to do as soon as he felt it. As he stepped to the left, he felt something hard come down on his right shoulder and heard the sound of breaking glass. A stitch of fire laced down his right arm as something tore through his coat and cut his bicep. He whirled around to his left, instinctively swinging the glock in a circle at head level. The butt of the pistol smashed into the side of Milton's head ripping a gash in his scalp and sending him sprawling onto a glass coffee table. The table shattered under his weight and he let out a little scream as several glass shards cut into him under the weight of his body.
Milton was laying in the middle of what remained of the coffee table. The mahogany colored wood legs had fallen outwards in a pattern that looked as if they were carefully laid there by an art student working on some abstract centerpiece. And here, we have 'Broken Coffee Table'. Note the symmetry of the legs in contrast with the broken glass.. Milton was lying in the middle of this centerpiece holding his hands out to John, palms out, in a warding off motion. His hands were cut in several places and blood dripped down his palms and traced red lines down his forearms.
"Please," Milton said, abjectly "Please...no. There's money in my wallet over on...on.." Milton seemed to have lost the location of his wallet for a moment, then in a voice that was almost triumphant. "On the kitchen counter. It's on the kitchen counter. There's at least eight hundred dollars in it. Take it...and anything else you want. Just don't hurt my family."
John lifted the glock and pointed it at Milton's chest. Two in the chest and one in the head, just like usual.
That was when the lights came on. John blinked in the light, assessing this new situation. To his left, where the hallway led to the bedrooms, there stood a woman and a boy. Milton's wife and son. The woman wore a white nightgown, and the boy a pair of brightly colored pajamas adorned with Spongebob Square Pants in various stages of cartoon antics. One of the woman's hands was clutched between her breasts, the other to the boys hand. The boy was not looking at John. He was looking at Milton. Milton, laying there in a pile of glass, with blood streaming down his outstretched hands and the side of his head.
"No loose strings." The voice on the phone had said. That was Rule Number 3. Loose strings were bad for clients. What was bad for clients was bad for John.
It happened quickly. "Sorry chief, your number's been called," John heard himself say, as if from a great distance. He shot Milton twice in the chest and once in the head. The woman had only enough time to draw in a breath to scream before John turned the gun on her. The gun roared thunder and flame into the room again. Two neat holes opened up in her chest and one in her head. The force of it threw her back against the wall. She hit hard and seemed to pause for a moment. The two holes in her white nightgown turned red around the edges and merged into one large red stain that kept growing. Her mouth worked as she tried to form words and a small trickle of blood ran out of the corner of her mouth and down to the line of her jaw. As she let out her last breath, the word on it was just a barely audible whisper, "Johnny," she slumped down to one side, her eyes staring blankly forward. A smear of blood followed the wall down to where her body came to rest, now motionless.
The boy had fallen to his knees by the woman, her hand still clutched in his. He was crying, the sobs muffled as he held her hand to his face. The sound of those sobs made this nightmare horrible, but what brought the terror was what the woman had said with her dying breath. "Johnny" John was sure that it was the kids name. But as she said it, her eyes already beginning to glaze, her eyes focused on John for a moment and the brief emotion that registered in an instant and was gone he knew all too well. Hate. The word she spoke, his name, the name that Nico had called him, felt like an accusation. No. A condemnation. It was what Nico had called him all those years ago when everything was ok. And there was the warning that Nico had given. "It always comes full circle, Johnny. Always"
The boy stood, turned to face John, and looked directly into his eyes. He said nothing, only stood there looking at John. The feel of those eyes on him was horrible. They looked through him and laid open what used to be his soul. There was no anger in those eyes. No pain. No fear. Only a question. Why?
John raised the gun slowly. As he did, the boy's eyes did not shift from John's. The question was still in his eyes, unanswered. They held John with the question, and would not let go. There was only one way to break their hold on him, for the question could never be answered. The gun thundered again.
Time Slip-Sliding Away
I am the bullet in the gun
I am the truth from which you run
I am the silencing machine
I am the end of all your dreams
-Nine Inch Nails, Mr. Self Destruct
John sat up in bed, his clothes wet with sweat, the scream clenched in his throat. His mind, still somewhere between sleeping and waking, played the sobs of the boy on some infinite loop and he could almost smell the room where he had killed them. The sulfurous smell of spent gun powder and the coppery smell of blood. The smells of the job. The smells of death. John forced himself to take a couple deep breaths. His hands were shaking and his chest felt like a goddamned elephant was on it. More deep breaths, big guy, He told himself. It was just a dream. He ran a shaking hand through his wet hair.
It wasn't just a dream. John knew it. It had happened, and everything down to the last infinitesimal detail was imprinted on his mind. Even now, as the dream faded, he remembered that the woman's wedding ring had fallen half way off her finger as she slid down the wall. The drop of blood that had come from the corner of her mouth to trace the line of her jaw had fallen onto the front of the nightgown, leaving a tear shaped maroon stain.
The boy was tow headed and probably due for a haircut, maybe in the next day or two. John remembered that the boy wasn't quite right. He wasn't slow. Not retarded. He seemed like he was introverted, all alone in himself, but also smart. Very smart. Maybe autism, John thought. He had heard of autistic people being able to handle the most complex math formulas or name off all of the prime numbers between one and one million as quick as a second grader can spew out the alphabet. Any kind of social interaction, however, was alien to them. They stayed in their heads, crunching numbers, working out the problems that no one else could solve. It could be that they were curing cancer or solving the mysteries of quantum physics as easily one would flip on a light switch in a dark room, but the answers and revelations were not allowed outside the walls of the prison that contained them. The amazing things that made it to the outside world were most likely just the overflow. A controlled spill through the flood gates to make room for the really important things. Just so much spilled cream for the world to lap up. The boy was also left handed. John had no idea how he knew this, but he was certain of it. He was very good at picking up on the smallest subtleties that could give him an edge in a situation. The boy's eyes were silvery blue with green flecks dispersed throughout the irises. John remembered that best. For a very long moment he had been held hostage by those eyes and the question they contained. It was not just a dream, but lying to himself about it made him feel better anyway.
After a few more deep breaths, Johns heart finally started to slow and the tremors in his hands began to lessen. He looked at the clock on the dresser and his stomach did an uncomfortable little back flip. He looked from the clock to the window where the light of early afternoon should have been flooding in around the edges of the vertical blinds. The window was dark. The only light in the room was the light from the hallway. He had forgotten to turn it off on the way to his room. In fact, he couldn't even remember going up the stairs and down the hall to his bedroom.
All at once, John felt as if time had ceased to go forward and was somehow slipping sideways, the very fabric of it straining under the pressure of going in a direction that it was not made for. For just a second or less, the room and everything in it shimmered as if he was looking at it through a crystal clear lake that has had the surface broken by a rock. Waves rippled through the walls, across the doorway to the hall and down the hallway. The ripples continued on the other side of the doorway and moved through his dresser, and over the door of the bathroom. They spread across the far wall of the room up to the ceiling and fanned out across the ceiling. The ripples reached the window by his bed and the entire window frame, blinds and all, waved briefly. Then it was gone and the room was back to normal.
Everything was back to normal except the window. John had been looking at the window and the vertical blinds as the waves flowed over it. No, through it, John corrected himself. The vertical blinds were swaying. He was sure they had not been before, but now they were slowly swaying back and forth in the window frame as if a breeze had been blown into the room. The window was not open. John didn't have to check to know that. As soon as he entered the house after a job, he always checked all of the windows and doors to make sure they were closed and locked. There was no wind flowing in from the outside to disturb the blinds. It was the ripples in the wall, John thought then pushed the thought aside, not quick enough to keep his stomach from doing another one of those undulating back flips.
The clock on the dresser said 2:27. It was a cheap lcd alarm clock picked up at the local electronics store. There was no am/pm indicator anywhere on it and John didn't see the point in it anyway. If it's daytime, it's light. If it's night time, it's dark. If it's an in-between time, you can figure it out fast enough. John realized what the problem was. He had assumed that the clock was telling him that it was 2:27pm. The fact was that the correct time was 2:27am. A glance at his watch confirmed it. He had slept through the entire day and night and into the morning hours. He let out a deep breath. He was relieved, but he had no idea why. Time did another little sidestep and John's stomach responded with its acrobatics. No ripples this time, but that awful feeling of time being somehow out of joint and sliding sideways did not go away as it had before.
John forced himself to get out of bed and go downstairs. After a moment of contemplation, he picked up the drink he had left on the table and downed it in a few swallows. He knew that drinking when you wake up was a sure sign of becoming a raging alcoholic, but after last night he figured he was due a little indulgence. Justifying why you need a drink is also a sign of becoming a raging alcoholic, John mused as he went to the fridge for ice. Screw it. He didn't really care if it made him an alter-boy molesting priest. He needed to settle his nerves. John poured himself another whiskey & coke and after brief consideration, tilted the bottle of Jack Daniels to his mouth and took a couple swallows for good measure. He was starting to feel better now. The warmth in his stomach was spreading out to the rest of his body. It was just a job gone wrong. It was bound to happen sooner or later in his years as a hired gun.
The wind was kicking up outside. John could hear the house creaking and groaning with each gust of wind. The branches of the peach tree on the side of the house tapped random Morse code on the downstairs bathroom window. Wind whistled around the eves of the house. John walked to the window over the kitchen sink and opened the blinds. Yep, mother nature was wailing up a hell of a bitch fest. Over the neighbors house, he could see thunderheads in the distance lit by the moon, which was as bright a moon as John had ever seen.
"Storm heading this way," He said to himself and his stomach rolled again. It brought the feeling back again. That feeling of something being wrong, of something out of place, of time slipping off it's tracks and threating to derail and blow reality away like so many leaves on a fall breeze. Goose flesh crept up John's arms making all of the hair stand up. Cut it out, he told himself. You're getting all worked up over nothing. Show some goddamn backbone.
The feeling passed and John took in a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly. He turned away from the window to head for the living room. Probably nothing on TV, but what else was there to do at 2:30 in the morning. "I'm getting too old for this shit," he mumbled and froze. He was looking at the knife block on the kitchen counter. There were five knife handles poking out from the wood block, each in it's own slot. What froze John in his tracks and made his blood feel like it had been iced down was the empty slot. It was the one that was supposed to have the knife he used for last night's job in it.
John was a creature of habit. It's the only way he managed to survive in this business. After a job, all evidence of the job was taken care of. The gun was cleaned, any blood was washed off his hands and clothes. After this job the kitchen knife was cleaned, first with soap and water, then with bleach and water, and put back into the knife block on the counter. There was absolutely no way John had not put the knife back in it's slot in the block. A quick reference to his memory and he confirmed it. He remembered drying the knife off on the kitchen towel that hung from a fabric loop on the handle of the oven door, then putting the knife back in it's slot. Then he put the bottle of bleach away under the sink and went to get the cleaning kit for the gun. This was not possible. The knife had to be there.
"What the fu-," John started and was interrupted by three loud bangs
BANG! BANG! BANG!
He turned toward the sound, dropping his drink in the process as his fingers spasmed along with the rest of the muscles in his body. The glass hit the tile floor and exploded. Johns bare feet were showered with Jack & Coke, ice cubes, and shards of glass. This time he was able to finish the sentence, "What the fuck?" It sounded like it was the front door, but who the hell would be at his door at this hour. Shit, who would be trying to break down his door at this hour.
BANG! BANG! BANG!BANG! BANG! BANG!BANG! BANG! BANG!
This time the banging on the door did not stop. John started toward the hall leading to the entry way then stopped, grabbed a knife from the block, and started toward the hall again. He didn't know who would be stupid enough to bang on his door, but he meant to teach the dumb fuck a lesson. He reached the hallway and peered around the corner toward the entryway and the front door. The door was shaking in its frame with every strike. It wouldn't hold for long. John crossed the entry way, being careful to stay against the wall so a shift in the light coming through the eye hole wouldn't alert Mr bang-a-fucking-drum to his presence. He reached the door and paused. John realized he was scared shitless. He didn't want to know what was on the other side of the door. As if this thought were heard by the person outside, the bangs increased in speed. Now there was no pause at all between strikes. John tightened his grip on the knife in his left hand and reached out to the door knob with his right. He tensed his body and grabbed the knob. The banging stopped the moment he touched the knob. The silence was immediate, expansive, and choking, as if the sudden stop of the noise had left a void which was forcefully filled with silence in a great rush. John placed his head against the door and listened. Nothing. Then he heard sobs coming from the other side of the door. At first he thought that his mind had decided, quite against his will and at the worst possible moment, to start that infinite loop of the boys sobs. John took his ear off the door and the sound of the sobs faded a little. That sound was definitely coming from the other side of the door. His mind, attuned to catch every detail in any situation assured him that these were the sounds from his dream of the woman and the little boy. It was an exact match.
John took his hand off the polished brass door knob and moved to look into the eye hole in the door. He closed his left eye and focused on the little dot of light that would be a fish eye image of his front porch when his eye was in the correct position. The sobs stopped. Goose flesh rippled up his arms and the nape of his neck and John felt an instant chill as the temperature in the room dropped a few degrees. Time slip-slided further off its tracks. The porch was empty, but that didn't bother John as much as the gut feeling that was telling him to turn around.
John had no choice in the matter. He had learned to react to situations and sort out the details later. It was so strongly ingrained in his makeup now that he could not have stopped himself from reacting to a gut feeling even if he knew the result would be his death. John turned around and was face to face with the boy.
An icy fist wrapped itself around his heart and squeezed. The knife fell out of his hand and landed on the hardwood floor with a dull thud as the handle hit, then a muffled clang as the blade followed suit. There was a hole in the center of the boy's forehead. Even in killing a child, Johns focus had been unwavering. His hand had not even trembled in the slightest as he fired the shot that ended the boy's life. A thin red line of blood trailed down his forehead, then on to his right cheek and down to the neck of the pajamas. The pajamas were a blood stained mess above the middle of his chest. The boys eyes regarded him as they had before. They were steady, unflinching. They showed no signs of anger or fear and they still asked their horrible question. There was something new in the eyes that held him again as they had in so many dreams since that night more than a year ago. It was unmistakable, which set a stone solidly on Johns stomach and made the fist around his heart clench tighter. It was pity.
The boy spoke, though his mouth never moved. John heard the words as if they were spoken directly into his head and he knew with a dreadful certainty that had the boy had a chance to speak before John's final judgment on him, this was the voice that would have spoken. "I know your fate," the boy said.
John couldn't move. He couldn't speak. The eyes had their hold on him and he was powerless against them. Time continued to derail around John as he was pulled into those eyes. He wouldn't fight it. He couldn't fight it. The boys eyes asked their question, proclaimed their pity, and pulled and pulled and pulled. John let himself be pulled toward the eyes, to the boy, to the judgment that he knew he deserved. He took no conscious notice of the action when he stepped forward toward the boy
Then the hold on him was gone. The wind gusted outside and the house creaked all around them. The boy disintegrated like he was made of nothing more than dry winter leaves. As the pieces of the boy flew through the wall at the other side of the room and were swept off by the wind, the boy spoke again. "Ring ring ring," then he was gone. John was still frozen in place trying to assimilate what had just happened when the phone started ringing. For the first time in his life and not the last time in this night, John screamed.
John picked the knife up off the floor with a shaking hand and walked to the living room. The phone was on the end table by the couch, ringing away in it's monotone electronically generated ring. It rang four times then John heard his voice coming from the answering machine upstairs in his bedroom. "Leave a message." beeeep. Then came a small click as the caller hung up without leaving a message. John walked over to the phone and picked up the handset. He checked the caller ID on the phone for the last phone number that had called. The word "UNKNOWN" appeared on the display briefly and was gone. The phone rang again and John jumped so violently that the phone fell out of his hand, hit the corner of the end table and skidded across the kitchen floor. It bounced off the far wall of the kitchen and came to rest on the kitchen tile, still ringing. John walked over to the phone, picked it up, and pushed the "Talk" button before he had a chance to talk himself out of it.
"Hello," John waited for a response. The clock hanging on the kitchen wall above the sink marked off time in seconds. tick, tick, tick
"The job is not done," A voice on the other end of the line said. John had been sure that he would hear the boys voice echoing down the phone line telling him about his fate. John couldn't speak as his mind tried to place the voice. It was a man's voice, no doubt about that, but John did not recognize it.
"Who is this?" John said. He waited for the response as the kitchen clock dutifully counted off seconds.
"This is Mr. Smith." said the voice.
For a moment the name sounded completely alien to John, then he remembered the job. John put on his business voice. "Mr. Smith, I assure you, the job was done and it was done exactly to your specifications. I-"
"You don't assure me of anything, Mr. Stryker," Mr. Smith broke in. "My information is always right. I should think you would have learned that by now." There was an edge in the voice and John detected a slight British accent.
John was about to respond again with his best assurances that he always completed a job when he realized that Mr. Smith had called him by name. "How did you know my name?" Now Johns voice had an edge in it. He did not like this. Not at all.
"My information is always right." Mr. Smith said, simply. His voice had a tone that a parent would use to explain to a child why the sky is blue. "The job needs to be finished, and I suggest you make haste, Mr. Stryker." The voice took on a sharp edge again. "My patience has worn quite thin. Timing is very important. I suggest you leave immediately so things can be put to rights."
This was starting to sound like a setup to John. He knew he had killed the target. There is no way that someone can live more than a few minutes when they are bleeding out through two severed jugulars. John decided to play along for now. "Ok," John said. "I'll finish the job, Mr. Smith." John paused. He wanted this next statement to be heard loud and clear. "If this ends up being a setup, I am going to track you down and kill you. Then I am going to kill your family, your dog, your mailman, your maid. I'll wipe all knowledge of your existence off the face of the planet if I find out that you've sold me out."
There was a short laugh on the other end, then "It's not me that you need to be concerned about." He sounded amused. "Just finish the job. You have nothing to fear from me." There was a small click on the other end of the line. John hung up the phone. He did not like this. Not at all.
He went upstairs to get dressed. After he put on some pants and a shirt he went to the closet to get his shoes and the glock. The shoes were just inside the large walk in closet on the right, the gun along with shoulder holster, hanging on a nail on the left side of the doorway. The shoes were there. The gun was not. John stood there for several minutes looking at the place where the gun should have been and remembering the empty slot in the knife block. Something was not right. He tried to reason it out, and found that it defied reason. It was not possible. But this had not exactly been a normal evening. Time sliding sideways, the gun and knife, the boy...and the job. His mind told him that it was all related; that it made perfect sense if you looked at it from the right angle. The answer was just a tickle in the back of his brain that he could not coax out of the shadows. John only knew that he didn't like the answer, even though he did not know what it was. Time slipped again and it was almost a physical thing this time. Earlier, it had been a tremor that seemed to ripple through the entire room. This was like the dull thud that hits you seconds after an explosion. The concussion wave. Time had not moved around him this time. It had actually moved him. The hair on the nape of his neck stood up on end and he shivered. The answer hid in the back of his brain, nothing more than a pair of red eyes, and held onto its secret for now. John realized that he had to know who the man was that he killed last night. It was a piece of this puzzle that he couldn't figure out. Not just a piece of the puzzle. It was the main piece of the puzzle. All of the other pieces were connected to it. To understand what was happening, he had to go find that piece of the puzzle. He had to know who was under that tarp behind the burned out car. John slipped his shoes on, grabbed the keys to the Jaguar, and headed for the garage.
John pushed the Jaguar to 120 as he headed up Avenue H. The street signs rose in the front window, then passed in a blur. John had barely enough time to read each sign before it was gone and the next one was growing large in the window. 170th, 180th, 190th. John slowed to 70 when he passed 200th Street East. The burned out car would not be easy to spot. It rested on a slight slope that went down away from the road. John saw the car flash by as he passed it.
"Shit!" John said, as he laid on the brakes hard. The car came to a shuddering halt. He pulled off the road and killed the lights and engine. John wished for a brief moment that he had grabbed another knife out of the block on the kitchen counter, then got out of the car and started toward the body and the burned out car. After a few paces, he realized that he couldn't see the body. It would have been visible from this angle, and the moon was still very bright in the early morning sky. John broke into a run as the answer in the back of his brain came closer to the surface. He reached the car, and the body wasn't there. There was no body, no blood, and no tarp. Then he saw a weathered and frayed edge fluttering around just underneath the car. He grabbed it and pulled it out of the sand. A shower of sand and pebbles flew in the air, some of them coming down on the car and bouncing off of the rusted hulk with little tinking sounds. There was nothing underneath the tarp. No body, no blood. No sign of it at all. The answer at the back of his brain stirred and began moving out of the shadows. John got down on his knees and began scouring the sand with his hands for any sign of the body that had been here. A drop of blood, a ring, a lock of hair. Anything. Anything at all that could make the dreadful answer stop in it's tracks and retreat back into the shadows of his mind to be forgotten.
Johns mind, the thorough and logical machine that it was, gave him the answer that he feared. The summation. The final piece of the puzzle falling into place. It was not possible, but his mind insisted that it was happening. The facts in this matter did not lie.
John scanned the desert, looking for the answer that he knew was going to be there. His eyes came to rest on a figure standing ten feet away. John did not have to wonder how the figure had gotten there. He knew the answer to that question already. The black trench coat fluttered in the wind and the knife caught the moonlight on it's blade. The figure raised the gun and spoke the words that he knew all too well. "Sorry chief, your numbers been called," the figure said, only it was Johns voice and over the barrel of the glock that was now aimed at him, John saw himself as so many people had seen him before. It was the face that the woman and the little boy had seen. There was no feeling in those eyes. No expression at all. They looked dead.
John screamed and scrambled to his feet as he turned to run, knowing what was going to happen next. He heard the gunshot, saw a puff of sand in front of him kicked up by the bullet, and felt white hot pain in his leg where the bullet had torn through his thigh. He fell forward, his mind still reeling in disbelief. This can't be happening, this can't be happening, this can't be happening, His mind insisted. He moved to get his legs under himself again and felt fingers lace through his hair and grab tight. John was pulled up, his head craned back and his neck exposed. This can't be happening, this can't be happening, this can't be- John saw a ripple of moonlight dance on the sand in front of him and he knew what came next. John started screaming.
John felt white hot pain in his throat. He tried to continue screaming, but could only make a choked gurgling sound. He felt a warm liquid running down to his chest, then to his waist. John raised his hands to his throat which was now a gaping hole, knowing that the other version of himself was thinking Not this time, chief. John was beginning to feel cold. The sensations in his body seemed far away and unimportant. His mind, fading now but still alert, pulled back the memory of Nico and what he had said. "It always comes full circle Johnny. Always."
There was a far away feeling of falling as John was pushed forward. Laying on the desert sand with his head to the side, he could see under the burned out car. The desert breeze rustled a discarded gum wrapper in front of him, then the tarp covered his field of vision and he heard the sounds of rocks being thrown on the tarp to keep if from blowing away in the wind. All of it was very far away. There was no light, and sounds echoed from light years in the distance. It's over now, John thought as the sounds faded and he fell into a darkness that was black and complete. His mind, ever vigilant when it came to the facts, said, No, it's not, and John died.
John wiped the blade of the knife off on the tarp and turned to head back to the car, the feelings of dread and despair already nipping at his heels.
Copywright 2007 Daniel Pochmara