by John Joseph Ryan
The assassin had half-expected the sudden U-turn, the delay before the flashing lights kicked on, the second delay before the siren warmed up to reach his ears. He was already in such a sweat, already running late. Shit! And he was just a block from the house. Damn this job! God damn all these jobs! He slowed, easing the brake pedal down. His intestines seemed to coil around each other in his gut. Easy, easy. He opened the glove box and withdrew an insurance card, then shuffled paper napkins and a car manual around, obscuring the pistol and its detached silencer in the back. The stupid TV phrase license and registration flashed through his mind.
The cruiser came to a shuddering stop behind him while the siren gave a dyspeptic whoop as it cut out. Behind its windshield a police officer with high-and-tight hair and wraparound shades consulted the dashboard laptop. After a few moments the door opened, and a foot emerged, pendant and seeming to search about as though sentient, then slapped down. The cop gripped the door frame and hauled his ass out. It was a considerable ass. The stomach protruded, too, and the face looked round and bland. Really? the assassin thought. As the officer reached full height and arched his shoulders back, the assassin had already figured how to handle him. Better just keep up appearances with such a self-serious fuck.
After a quick swipe of his sweaty face with his handkerchief, the assassin had the window down, a smile affixed, and his hands poised at 10 and 2. He hoped the suit and tie gave him some suction.
“Afternoon, sir. May I see your license and insurance.” The cop stressed the first syllable in “insurance,” turning the question into a lazy imperative. He rested his left palm on the window ledge and fisted his right hand into his waist above a pretty pistol. A Glock, for chrissakes. A pretty cruiser, too, supercharged, sleek, futuristic. Block grant money? Rich tax base? Jesus, the assassin thought, this is ridiculous.
“Got it right here, officer. Uh, was I speeding?”
“This is a 25 zone. I had you at 33. Be with you in a moment.”
The assassin glanced at the dash clock: 12:27. Only minutes left. And now his nerves were tying his bowels in a knot.
“Listen, uh, officer. I just live one street up the way. I, uh, whew, this is kinda embarrassing? But, uh, I was in a rush to hit the john. If you know what I mean.”
There was the slightest quiver in the line of the cop’s mouth. From the circuits visible in the corner of the sunglass frames, the assassin could see his dark lenses were augmented reality-enabled.
“And, uh,” the assassin continued, “that urge hasn’t exactly gone away. Would there be any way you could follow me there? I mean, you got my license in your hand. See the address?”
The cop held the license face up but just stared at the assassin, whose live face was now being 3D modelled and compared against the department’s database.
With no choice, the assassin pushed it. “See? The 1400 block. Right up ahead. I really gotta go.”
The cop took a slow, careful look at the license, then returned his gaze to the man in the car. If just the department database returned results, he might be all right. The assassin tried a grin, but he swallowed nervously.
The cop said, “Hang on a minute,” and walked back to the cruiser. Hang on to what? the assassin thought. My ass? Could the cop be convinced? He eyed the glovebox, thinking he did not want to add another body to the day. He had sweated through his shirt where the seatbelt lay. Good thing I was belted. The unaccustomed suit coat overheated him. In the rearview he saw the cop reach into his cruiser for the radio. He clipped off a few syllables and looked down, bored. The assassin knew the license would draw no priors, maybe not even so much as a parking ticket. At least there was that. The cop grunted something into the radio, nodded to no one, then signed off. He ambled back to the assassin, the wariness of the initial stop loosened from his big frame.
“All right, Councilman Trollope? I’m gonna let you go with a warning this time. But you gotta slow down on these curves here.” He leaned in. “You’re gonna kill somebody sometime.”
“Ha-ha, oh, yes, sir, you bet. Thank you.” The assassin took the license and insurance back. “Thank you, officer. You don’t know what this means to me.”
“Don’t mention it. Be careful. Don’t, uh,” he gave a little confidential snort, “don’t crap your pants.”
“No, sir. Straight home. See?” The assassin smiled and pointed up the street. The cop gave a little salute before returning to his nifty cruiser. The assassin eased the car forward, left-turn signal on, practically idling up to ten miles per, then topped out at a modest twenty. The cop flipped a uey and blasted off in the opposite direction, rolling a stop as he did so.
The assassin reached his destination and tried to get his wits about him. He looked up the driveway and glanced nervously around. Nobody was out on the street. A typical exurban neighborhood, it shielded itself from signs of moving, breathing life in an orderly pattern of vacant manicured lawns rolled out before putty-colored two-story houses cynics dubbed Vinyl Victorians. He rolled up the drive towards the opening garage door, the practical front entrance to one of those very architectural confections. As the door shut, he pulled the .40 from the glove box and hastily screwed on its silencer. He leapt out to enter the house. No one was home. Good. Maybe there was just enough time. He trotted in mincing steps through the kitchen. Oh, God. He looked at his watch. 12:32. Dammit. Gotta be now!
He hadn’t been sure he was really going to carry out the day’s mission. Its reality had waited outside the caged door of his consciousness, breathing steadily and patiently. He had bargained with himself for days. Maybe the excursion in the car was his way of “accidentally” getting caught. He would almost prefer to deal with those consequences instead. At least in custody he might have one more chance at tricking his way out of his present obligation.
A minute later he heard scratching from the front of the house, then a dead bolt slide back, then the front door swing wide to thump the cheap dry wall. The assassin shuffled into view of the door, clenching his sphincter, and leveled the pistol at the front door. The real Mr. Trollope stood in the front foyer, head craning down to look at the mail in his hands, sweating in his biking kit. He must have felt the assassin’s eyes because he looked up and right at him — then dropped the mail in shock at beholding his suit-and-tie doppelganger.
It was now.
Mr. Trollope’s assassin sighted along the silenced barrel and fired three shots, two to the chest, one to the head after he had fallen.
What surprised the assassin was how unchanged the atmosphere was. The domestic scene of this upper-middle-class house appeared undisturbed. One moment its owner, following some healthy exercise, examined the typical mid-week mail, and the next he lay face-up, still and dead, the house not registering that fact outside the charge of cordite in its temperature-controlled air.
That particular aroma in unaccustomed surroundings brought the assassin back to a lovely spring morning when he was just a fourteen-year-old boy named Roy and a former student from his high school returned unannounced and began shooting at anyone in sight. Because Roy’s freshman physics teacher had zealously participated in the intruder drills they regularly conducted, she briskly assembled—with students who weren’t disabled by fear—a sizable barricade before the locked classroom door. As Roy and his classmates crouched on a far wall, out of view of the door, muted screams punctuated by shots filled the hallway. A few moments later they heard someone try the handle of the classroom door, then a pause, then something heavy slam into the door, then more silence. A chair perched at the top of the pile of obstacles leaned in slow motion before clattering down the furniture stack and banging a few times on the tile floor. The boy next to Roy began sobbing out loud. Roy was fixated on the gaudy encouragements carried by posters his physics teacher had hung on the classroom walls: You can do anything you put your mind to! Be excellent at what you do! Don’t let any obstacles stop you from your goal! Perhaps a minute later they heard more shooting from further down the hall. In five more minutes it was all over, the shooter dead by his own hand. That very week, two larger mass shootings had already dominated headlines and social media feeds, and his school’s relatively miniscule count of eight students and three teachers dead — plus the shooter — merited only a contribution to the year’s tally. The national media didn’t even show.
Roy realized he was now standing over the prostrate Trollope, lost in a memory, sweating and breathing heavily, nearly in view of the street out front. Bending down to pull Trollope further in and close the door, he felt something warm inside his boxer briefs. “For fuck’s sake!” he cried out. He kicked Trollope, glanced hurriedly up and down the street, and slammed the door. According to plan, he withdrew Trollope’s wallet (from his own trousers, not part of the plan), took out and pocketed the money and credit cards, then dropped the wallet onto Trollope’s reddening chest. Two identical static faces looked up at him: one grinning from the driver’s license photo, the other staring with the surprised look of the newly dead.
Roy slid his trousers midway down, groaned at what he saw, then pulled them loosely back up and rebuckled his belt. With a sour feeling, he knocked over a table, pulled a picture down, and wrenched a kitchen drawer out and dumped it on the floor. That would have to do. No time to go upstairs and rifle around in the bureaus and closets. Jesus, what a job. He swiped his handkerchief across all the knobs he’d touched, then jogged out to the garage to do the steering wheel of Trollope’s car, the seatbelt buckle, the glove box latch, the handles on either side of the driver’s door. He hit the garage door opener with his elbow, waited till the door hurdled open, hit it again so the door would close behind him, then scooted under. Nobody around. Everyone hidden away from each other behind their big goddamn garages or gone to work. He straightened his tie, then casually cut through the front yard to the sidewalk. As he put houses between himself and his victim, a sudden thought disturbed him: Had he left prints somehow on Trollope? No, he just kicked him, no touch. But hadn’t he pulled his legs? Yeah, but he had grabbed him around the socks, right? Oh, but the fuckin’ wallet!
The assassin became conscious of the openness of the street. The trees were still young enough to be staked to grow upright. No real cover. The sunshine spotlighted him while the houses seemed to regard him with dark, devouring eyes. He imagined the garages opening simultaneously, spitting out identical replicas of the cop who had pulled him over, a jiggling army of self-serious, flat-topped drones, their pretty Glocks aimed at his forsaken head.
This would not do. He would have to go back.
In all his rehearsals of the hit, returning to the scene had not been an option. He had become decent at kidnappings because of his discretion, fair price, and thorough absorption of his victim’s habits before the final act. In no case had he needed to terminate a victim. In the past, had there been doubt about the success of an operation, he would have delayed until the timing was perfect. But today’s performance might have fouled his reputation, and his masters were exacting, devoted to all terms of a contract. For the good payout Roy expected even for a low-level politico like Trollope, they might renege if this kill resulted in exposure, and there was nothing he could do against their imperturbable power.
Roy considered the day so far. Not even on his first kidnapping job had his bowels seized up so. But his stupid, adolescent penchant for joy riding had resurfaced and overwhelmed his leaned methodical ways. After a simple B&E of the cheap cellar door late that morning, finding Trollope’s wallet and car key resting on the kitchen counter had made the ride inevitable. Thinking himself clever, he had taken Trollope’s car out for a spin and as a purposeful excursion to case the neighborhood some more while hiding in plain sight. Weeks ago he had already ascertained that Trollope was away for his routine late-morning workout and that he would return punctually for lunch at 12:30 p.m. With the prosthetics giving Roy an uncanny resemblance to a somewhat younger Trollope, Roy felt comfortable easing the car around the exurban curves where no one walked and no children played. He even waved at a woman fetching a drone-delivered package from her front porch, just because he could. Yeah, he was the man. Gutsy. Confident. Experienced. And a complete dumbshit. Roy may have resembled Trollope as a younger man, but he definitely did not want to resemble Trollope in his current state now.
The law had had a good look at him, too, even if they thought he was Trollope at the time. And with Trollope dead in his foyer in what looked like an amateur burglary gone awry, people smarter than that cop would start asking tough questions. For instance, how was it Trollope was wearing a suit and driving his car one minute, then lying dead in spandex five minutes later, his bike learning against a pillar on the front stoop? A.I. would analyze the recording from the cop’s augmented glasses and find the discrepancies in appearance between Roy’s prosthetics and Trollope’s true physiognomy. And then they would look for chin, jaw, and ear-shape matches in the national database.
Roy reached the house again, sour, worried. Yet he strolled past the front walk and up the newly-sealed asphalt driveway with what he hoped looked like an aura of comfortable propriety, passed through the side yard behind some burning bushes, and only then raced down the concrete steps that led to the unlocked cellar door.
On the first floor, the real Trollope lay unchanged, the same surprised look now a permanent feature. The head shot had passed through the back of his cranium above the ears. The blood that had not drained from the bullet holes was sunk down in his body, and the flesh of his face had taken on the yellow-beige look of a white-man corpse. Roy fetched the wallet off Trollope’s chest, wiping it as he did in order to prevent any blood from dripping off. Can you dust prints off leather? Does leather even hold prints? He stood uncertainly, sweating all over again, then became pensive. The day’s misadventure had boosted his adrenaline and with it a spike in serotonin. He giggled to himself. Despite his dangerous overconfidence and shoddy execution, he realized how he would get away.
He let the ridiculous thought blossom until it seemed less ridiculous and more like inspiration from some muse of dark deeds. Yes, maybe so. Roy fetched the money and cards he had pilfered and returned them to the wallet, which he set down on the kitchen counter. He took the stairs up to Trollope’s bedroom. Acting quickly but calmly, he undressed. With some disgust he wadded up his underpants and rolled them in with his trousers. He opened Trollope’s closet using a handkerchief and selected a suit. They all had such nice cuts that it was easy to choose one. Roy smiled. After putting the suit on and knotting a tie, he pulled the duvet off Trollope’s bed, grabbed his bundle of worn clothes, and headed back downstairs.
Roy found a black trash bag under the sink. He threw his old clothes in and then carried the bag over to Trollope’s body. He shook out the duvet over the body, then struggled to wrap it fairly snugly within. He gripped the hemmed edge and dragged the body back through the kitchen and into the garage. This new idea made him feel light, manic, lucid. He popped the trunk of Trollope’s sedan and heaved the body in, panting for a moment. He returned to the kitchen to look for floor cleaner. He found some, and a mop and bucket in the pantry, and set about scrubbing the foyer floor. Didn’t have to be perfect, just not obvious someone had bled out there.
Roy poured the bloody water down the stainless kitchen sink and sprayed it generously with hot water until it ran clean and the metal nearly shined. He grabbed the trash bag, the mop, the empty bucket, and the floor cleaner, and threw them in the trunk with the body. He closed the lid. He went back in to wipe down any surfaces he might have touched. In fact, he had taken real care this time to mark where he had touched, just like his training had taught him. He picked up Trollope’s wallet from the counter top. It lay open to Trollope’s driver’s license photo.
“Hello, I’m Tony Trollope,” Roy tried out. “Tony Trollope, good to know ya. Mucho gusto, Antonio Trolopé.” He walked into the bathroom and tried out some greetings on the mirror, too.
He laughed at himself. There would be plenty of time for that. And the hell with hiding in some redneck paradise like the Lake of the Ozarks. Where the muse of dark deeds was telling him to go, nobody would care too much how he introduced himself or how heavily accented his Spanish was. Just that he had sufficient pesos and kept his nose clean.
He returned to the garage and hit the opener with his elbow again. He got into the car and dialed a number on a burner cell phone. Someone picked up but did not speak. Roy uttered a simple code — a numerical emblem of the job’s completion — giddy now, then waited to hear the F# tone of confirmation on the other end before hanging up. He calculated the quickest route to the drop, where he would pick up the balance of his fee, available, according to plan, within fifteen minutes of the call. After that, he would have enough time to switch cars and shed the prosthetics. And after that, assuming somebody in Trollope’s world would notice him missing, Roy would likely still have a few hours. By then he felt certain he would be hablando español and sipping mezcal en route to Baja.
And so, for however long he might last, Roy Jr. backed the car down the driveway, pulled onto the street, and drove steadily away, just under the speed limit. He was so cool about it, so confident, that he never noticed a curtain slide hurriedly back into place in the front window of a house he passed a few doors down. Inside, a female hand punched an identical phone number into a similar burner phone. When someone picked up and did not speak, the woman spoke a different code in a clear, certain voice.
John Joseph Ryan’s unusual tales, verse noir, and crime fiction have appeared in River Styx, McSweeney’s, Akashic Books’ crime and science fiction flash series, Mystery Weekly, Suspense Magazine, and in international anthologies such as Grievous Bodily Harm and A-Z of Horror: ‘L’ is for Lycans. John’s collaborative noir short, “Hothouse by the River,” was published by the University of Iowa Center for the Book. His debut novel, A Bullet Apiece, became a bestseller for Amphorae Publishing Group.
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