He believed that he was king of all that he could remember, grey shades and crumbling orbits. Countless footsteps heard down hallways through so many closed doors, waiting.
He’d resurfaced for her because the offering was generous, and she was outlandish prey. An artist, she claimed, who painted her sins. The boys on the Drive didn’t like it, even though she’d always done right by them.
She’d arrive soon, and then become one more of his remembered things.
He waited, sitting at the window, tracing the outline of a handgun in his lap. One room in a slum hotel. The radio playing quietly—the blue music of insomnia. He’d have ham and eggs and coffee at an all-night diner down the street, after it was over. There was a waitress who worked the counter. They could talk about small things. He could make her laugh.
Nighttime was the best for what he had to do, though some rising-stars preferred the day. Best in the daylight, they alleged, so that the victim saw the killer’s eyes, could see him squeeze the trigger and watch the somehow slow moving slug travel through space. It was a young assassin’s conceit, as though his target hadn’t dreamed the bullet coming long ago, smelled it on the air and seen it in the clouds.
Now he hears a key turn the lock, and the door opens. Hallway light, a silhouette. “You,” she says, seeing him there. Hush. A small bag in her hand, groceries or gin. Sometimes a victim will say You, mildly and without surprise, but not all; some say Get out, foolishly. Others start pleading. Some fumble for a weapon, something purposely placed in an awkward pocket—suicide by hitman. He says nothing. Every killer severs his connection with speech, eventually. Only the essentials words remain. Without rising out of the chair, he holds out his blue .32 and motions her into the room.
She steps in, closes the door and turns on the light. She might have run, but most didn’t in the end. Most were fascinated. Death only came once; it was important to pay attention, important not to complicate one’s own certain extinction.
“I can’t make this right, can I?” she says. “They said that there was time for me to change my ways.”
This was going to be easy, he thinks. And the getaway: Second floor, stairwell clear of obstacles, no desk clerk until 7 a.m. The gun would bark, but most people couldn’t tell a small calibre gunshot from a slammed door. He’d only be a dark sketch moving in the hall to anyone peeking out of their door. Tomorrow he’d park his car at a pre-arranged location, and someone would walk by and toss an envelope onto his shotgun seat through the open window, and he’d drive away.
She’s a tall woman. In a wool overcoat and red dress, both purchased cheaply.
“Well?” she says. “Do you even know why you’re doing this?”
“For the money.”
“And for your reputation, I’d say.”
He pauses a moment and says, “I don’t get it.”
“You don’t have to,” she says, taking off her coat. “No one ever has to get it. Most don’t. The it of things don’t give a damn what you get. Wanna a drink?” She walks over to the dresser, opens a drawer and pulls out a bottle. There are two glasses on top of the dresser near the mirror. She’s turned her back to him, looking at his reflection.
“You’re a cool one,” he says.
There’s a side table next to his chair. The glasses go there. She pours, and drinks hers standing over him.
“I knew a guy once,” she says. “A real mutt. He liked to pull the trigger now and then. He wasn’t in the business, though. He just did it ‘cause it solved some problem in his head. He liked to shoot women mostly. Do you like to shoot women mostly? He said a woman got a certain look in her eye that a fella don’t, when she knew she was gonna die. He said it was better than money, seeing that look. He said that only punks do it for money; that a paid killer lacked refinement. Want some more?” She pours another glass for herself.
He holds out his glass, giving her a tougher gaze. She’s dressed like a school teacher. He knows better, but can’t help looking at her fingers, checking for chalk dust. They’re clean, elegant. One simple ring with a dark stone. Her face isn’t pretty but it’s proud. A proud woman with clean hands and a reputation, living in a shabby hotel room. It occurs to him to ask, “What exactly have you ever done wrong to deserve a bullet?” He asks this sometime, because those who want the killing never tell him why. Only when.
“Who says I deserve it?”
“Maybe you don’t,” he says.
“But maybe you do.”
He thinks about it. A person’s last words could be strange. He’d heard a lot. Confessions and denials. Apologies and remembrances—memories that only come in the end. Prayers like poetry. But maybe you do. Said without spite. Just a statement of possible fact. She had him there.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he says, in spite of it.
“I don’t know. It just came to me. Maybe I’m stalling.” She squeezes the neck of the liquor bottle tight. Her hand wrings it like it’s someone’s throat. “I guess a person’ll do that,” she says. “Stall, I mean.”
“Take your time,” he says. “I got time.”
There’s a quiet half a minute after that. The radio playing a romantic tune. Someone might have called it a moment of connection. And then…
…she swings the bottle like a nightstick. It shatters across his forehead, his nose. He’s stunned and bleeding, as she snatches the gun out of his hand. He tries to get up but can’t. She swings again and slashes him across the cheek with the bottle’s jagged edge. There’s blood in his eyes, tiny shards. And through the smear, he sees her standing back with the revolver in her hand, aiming.
“Fucking bitch!” he shouts, hands to face.
“That’s my privilege,” she says.
“I’ll tear you apart.”
“Nah, you’ll just sit there because you’re stunned and all cut up bad. In a minute, your eyes’ll be swelling shut. You’ll be blind, then what?”
He leans back in the chair. “Fucking bitch.”
“Question is,” she says, “how’s a guy like you live so long when he lets someone like me get in such close proximity? When you get all conversational, like we met in a bar? It’s ‘cause I’m a woman, ain’t it? You’re just old and careless, and you’ve got a soft spot for a dame living in a dump wearing a dime store dress.”
“Just give me the gun,” he says.
“Yeah. You don’t know what you got there. Women aren’t so good with guns. You’re gonna hurt yourself.”
He’s grasps the arms of the chair, blood and gore drying on his face and clotting round his eyes. She sees him thinking. Arithmetic. Adding up the possibilities and dividing by the risks. She knows that equation. She’s done her own sums more than once.
“Just stay in your seat,” she says. Then, “What’s it you figure they do to an over-the-hill torpedo like you, huh? I mean, shouldn’t a fella like you know no one retires from this job? A guy like you who knows where all the ghosts are hiding? No, you don’t get outta this occupation alive unless you’re real smart. And you ain’t that smart, are you?”
“So, they sent a woman to kill me? And you pulled the reversal.”
“Sure. A real kick in the pants, huh. You should know, though, that I got respect and mercy. I know about you. You’re kind of a legend, and I figured you shouldn’t die in no alley. Sneaking up on a guy like you’s all wrong. So, I said I’d work it out. You think I actually live here, in this hole? What a sap. Now stand up real easy.”
“No, you can shoot me here. You’re right, I’m old and I don’t give a shit.”
“Nah, you’re gonna go lie down on the bed. I think you should die in bed. You’ve earned it. That’s what they couldn’t figure out, but I did. It’ll be sort of elegant. Respect and mercy, get it?”
He remains seated. More arithmetic, she guesses.
“Get up old man. I’m doing you a favour.”
“Fuck you,” he says.
“The bed, move. It’s your chance to die pretty. An angel with a hole in his head.”
“The boys on the Drive said you’d pull something like this,” he says. “That you like it fancy—that’s your problem. You’re an artist, like your pal who says you and me lack refinement. Yeah, I’ve heard about you too. Everything’s a gimmick. They don’t like it on the Drive, you know, too messy, too much evidence. They’ve had it with you. So pull the trigger, and see what they got to say about your little show.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that this is your night, not mine.”
“Stop playing the con,” she says, with a little less strut in her voice. “You ain’t in no position. Get up and over to the bed.”
“Kiss my ass.”
“Fine,” she shrugs. “We’ll do it your way, but it could’ve been beautiful. You pray to anything?”
“No, and I don’t gotta. Not this time, anyway.”
She’s not sure what Not this time means under the circumstance. More dead man tricks, but she doesn’t care. If that’s how he wants it, okay. She takes aim at the centre of his chest. A bullet to the heart, then she’ll put one in his head. Then have an early breakfast. She squeezes the trigger. Nothing. Just a click, louder to her ear, in that moment, than a live round.
He laughs short and quiet.
She squeezes again. Click. “What the….” Click, click, click and click.
“They said you liked drama,” he says, and pulls a revolver from his jacket pocket.
She was right, his eyes have swollen shut. His plan hadn’t taken this into account, but she’d been straight ahead last he saw. He squeezes the trigger, and his .32 shouts bluntly once and then again. A body is heard stumbling, falling.
Now he’s up and working blind, but he’d sat in the dark room for an hour before she arrived. He knows the terrain well enough, and he hears a gasp near where he stands. Taking to his knees, he finds her on her back with his hands, running one up and over her belly that still rises and falls. The hand finds a wet pulpy hole in her breast. Then it roves up the throat to her face, and over her proud chin. His fingers touch her mouth, nose and eyes and for a brief moment trace her tears, and then his hand arrives at her forehead where he plants the muzzle of his gun.
“Respect and mercy always kills the killer,” he says. “Your night, not mine.” And allowing her one last deep breath….
The envelope with the dirty bills inside wasn’t dropped through the window of his car at the curb. It was slid across a café counter. In the end the shards from the broken bottle had mostly blinded him. He’d sell the Chrysler, take taxis.
“So no more work for you, eh?” came a voice across from him.
“Retirement,” he agreed.
“That’s good,” said the voice. “You sit back and listen to the radio. Have a drink now and then. Look at the ladies—oh shit, sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said, knowing that he ruled over all of his memories regadless. “The last woman I ever saw wasn’t hard to look at, and it’s what a man my age remembers what counts.”