The Job by Scott Blankenship
He comes into the park right on cue. We’re the same age — early fifties — and dressed almost alike. White athletic shoes, tan shorts, tan short-sleeved cotton shirt, Titleist cap. The only difference is that under my shirt, tucked into my shorts, is a gun with a silencer. I emerge from a stand of apricot mallow bushes, but before I reach the path, my foot sinks into a muddy patch created by a broken sprinkler head.
He’s busy trying to marshal some dog shit into one of those blue bags. I assume it’s a blue bag. I see those fucking blue bags everywhere. It’s twilight, so I can’t really tell.He hasn’t even seen me yet. I don’t want to leave any footprints, so I kick off my muddy sneaker and try to carry it casually as I walk down the paved trail. There’s a golf course on one side and open desert preserve on the other. Nice neighborhood. The spot where we’ll cross paths is not in the sight line of any houses. If somebody does see, it’s no big deal. They won’t be able to describe me in any useful way. “A middle-aged white guy who looks a lot like the victim” won’t be much help. My right meniscus is suddenly flaring up, and, along with having only one shoe on, is causing me to limp slightly. I must have wrenched my knee a little when I stepped into the muddy spot. It doesn’t take much, these days.
The weather no longer seems perfect. It feels too warm, and my face feels flush. My heart is starting to pound. He’s fifty feet away and now aware of my presence. I put on a big smile. Everything goes into slow motion these last few steps. Twenty years ago, this sensation would come on as soon as I saw the target. Now it’s just the last few steps. I shrug when he notices that I’m carrying my shoe.
“Evening,” he says.
“Evening,” I say. “Beautiful weather, isn’t it?” That’s all I have time for. I reach for my waist nonchalantly. Like I’m going to scratch my belly. We’re only three feet apart. The gun, despite its extra long barrel, comes out in an easy fluid motion. I don’t think it even registers for him.
The bullet enters his forehead, an inch above the bridge of his nose. His face is expressionless, his brain scrambled, and he makes a barely audible sound, the huff of a short, quick exhale as he drops to his knees and then topples over. His little dog stares at his master, then looks up at me, confused. Like his master, he’s quiet.
I shoot my doppelganger twice more in the side of the head. I have to make sure he doesn’t have a miraculous recovery. I leave the dog sniffing around.
I cut off the paved path and, after shoving the gun back into my waistband, slip my muddy shoe back on. Taking the shoe off was probably just paranoia, not much the cops could do with a muddy sneaker print. They could narrow their suspect list to size eleven Nike wearers. The thought makes me chuckle. I walk down into the little wash. It takes me only thirty seconds to find my gym bag. As I walk, I open the bag and place the gun inside. I take off my cap and put it in the bag, as well. The shirt comes next shirt I stop for five seconds to pull a clean shirt out of the bag and put it on. I close up the bag and walk out into the desert — still no sirens.
If I’m going to get caught, this is when it will be. The first few times I did this job, this part was such a rush. Now, it’s more like an out-of-body experience — my movements are almost robotic. I walk through the desert at a nice slow pace. I probably shouldn’t be huffing, puffing and sweaty when I get to the parking lot where I left my car. Once I’m in the car, I’ll be clear.
“It’s just a job,” the old man said. “Think of it like any other job.” I slipped the knife into the fish’s anus and pulled steadily toward its head. The sound was muffled ... hollow. Splitting the fish was like cutting a drumhead. I was seven or eight. “Now stick your finger in and pull out the guts,” he said. “Go ahead. It’s just a job like any other job. You know how your mother loves trout.”
My car is parked directly across a large undeveloped lot — about seven minutes away. I might get there a little quicker with the adrenaline pumping. It’s in a strip mall with a Whole Foods, a pet store called Puppy Passion, and some cheap, storefront day spa. My car is a 2006 Scion xA. It looks like a metallic baby shoe. I bought it from a college student for cash, and I’ll sell it for cash before I leave. Good little car. Dependable.
• • •
When Hillary, the girl at the coffee shop with the spiked red Mohawk and impossible facial piercings, asked what I do for a living, I said I was semi-retired — that I do a little investing work from home. She said it must be nice. Hillary scowled at me the first time I came in. Maybe I reminded her of her father or some other authority figure. She’s gotta be rebelling against someone or something. Her look is more than a fashion statement. Eventually see seemed to sense that her first impression was a little off base. That or she likes my generous tips. I’m not sure why I care what the twenty-year-old coffee girl thinks about me. When I think about how much I look forward to seeing her, I feel old and pathetic, and it scares me a little.
• • •
I drive home without incident. What a terrible, difficult job the cops have. What does a Phoenix detective make? Seventy-five grand tops. They do a pretty good job. The taxpayers get their money’s worth, I think. They’ll catch about thirty percent of gang bangers that off a rival. They do pretty well on the domestic stuff, too. But a hit like this? They might solve one every few years, but they’re batting way, way below the Mendoza line.
I carry my bag into the apartment and throw it in the closet. I’ll deal with it in the morning. I grab a beer to drink while I take a cool shower. It’s hard not go over the details. I’m positive no one saw me. And I remind myself that it probably wouldn’t matter if they did.
• • •
The light streams into my apartment, waking me up. Phoenix doesn’t have much, but sunlight it has. I drag myself out of bed and turn on the computer. I bring up the local paper’s website. The headline reads, Local Businessman Found Dead on Scottsdale Jogging Path. I skim the story. The police don’t release much information. Found dead on the path by his worried wife. Apparent gunshot victim. What I’m able glean from this story is: No witnesses. No motive. No clue.
I have to field strip the gun. It’s a Ruger Mark III, 22/45 — I’ve used this model twice before. I pop out the bolt stop pin, pull out the bolt, pop off the barrel — even though I haven’t stripped one in two or three years, it takes me only five minutes. I take a tungsten carbide drill bit from my little tool kit and scar the inside of the barrel, just for good measure. The gun breaks down into six pieces (including the silencer and clip). I wipe down each piece and drop them into six small, generic, brown paper bags. Bags that I’ve made sure not to leave my prints on. I’ll drop the bags in random trashcans along my circuitous round-trip to the little mining town of Globe. It’s a six and a half hour drive through five counties, and five different law enforcement jurisdictions. Easy. The three shells I used to do the job were all I had. I got rid of the rest of the box weeks ago.
The silencer, more accurately referred to as a sound suppressor, changes the gun’s “bang” to a quieter but still fairly loud “thwap” — a good bit louder than in James Bond movies. It’s useful because witnesses don’t think gunshot when they hear the “thwap,” and city gunshot locator systems can’t pick up the sound. The silencer made the Ruger kind of long and unwieldy, but its benefits outweighed the inconvenience. When the cops found the .22 long rifle casings next to the body — no need to pick them up — they probably figured some ghetto kid from the south side tried to rob the guy.
It’s late April and Phoenix is supposed to hit ninety-five degrees. It won’t stay this hot through the spring, but everybody knows the nice weather is coming to an end. I’ll be happy to get out of this hillbilly hotbox. The job will be buttoned up in two or three days, but, exercising an abundance of caution, I’ll hang around till my lease runs out in the fall. I rarely do more than one job a year, so I’m not in any big hurry. I’m not greedy. Once the brutal heat starts, probably mid-May, I’ll spend as much time as I can in San Diego or up in Sedona.
I walk down to the coffee shop. Hillary glances up, “Large iced coffee?”
“Yep,” I say.
She takes a break from her barista duties and asks, “Everything okay?”
It takes me by surprise. “Great.” I say. “Why?”
“I don’t know. You seem kinda subdued or low-energy or something.”
“Hmm,” I shrug. “Nope. Everything’s fine.”
• • •
The young woman from the escort service has milky white skin. I want to ask her how she stays so white in this climate, but she’d probably take it the wrong way. She’s pretty and very thin. Pleasant enough to look at, but I’m not overly attracted to her, which is good. She says her name is Ruth, not Satin or Jasmine or Diamond, which is also good, though I’m not sure why. Ruth says I seem tense. She looks at my room-service Irish coffee and says that maybe I need to cut down on my caffeine and alcohol consumption. I ask her why I’d want to live without caffeine and alcohol consumption. She thinks I’m joking, and I don’t bother to correct her. She thinks I should get a hobby. I tell her that alcohol and caffeine consumption are my hobbies. Then I say that I used to fish, but I don’t like cleaning them. I tell her what my old man used to say, about it just being a job, and there is an awkward silence between us.
“Just throw ‘em back.” Ruth says quietly.
• • •
It’s been more than a week, and the story has faded from the headlines. Yesterday, there was a plea from the cops, you know, call the Police Department or the Silent Witness program at 555-WITNESS. I’m planning to drive to San Diego in a couple days. The only thing left to do is to pick up the cash and close out my account at the mailbox place. The money will be in two shoebox-sized packages, mixed denominations, twenties, fifties, and hundreds — a hundred and twenty-five grand. I head out for my iced coffee.
Hillary greets me as I enter the shop. “Hi Robert ... ugh ... sorry, I mean John. Large iced coffee?”
“Sounds good,” I say. Hillary seems to feel bad about calling me by the wrong name. Funny thing. Robert is my real name. Not that much of a coincidence. They’re both very common names. Hearing my actual name makes me think of my mother.
I was eleven the last time we spoke. The Little League coach had a sick wife and cancelled practice. I got home just as my mom was getting into her car. A 1963 Mercury Comet. She got it new the same year she had me. She seemed shocked to see me. “I love you, Robbie,” she said as she closed the door. She looked like she’d been crying. I waved at her, but she wouldn’t look my direction. She just drove away. The old man said she didn’t love me. The old man said if she loved me, she wouldn’t have left. When I try to picture my mother, that’s what I see — her getting into that goddamn Comet.
• • •
The mole on Ruth’s back is a little island in a vast, white sea. I’m lying on the bed, and she’s draped across my waist, trying to get a condom on my stubbornly flaccid penis.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
“Can we just talk, tonight?” I ask.
“You want a twelve hundred dollar conversation?”
“I guess I do.”
“It’s your money,” Ruth says. “You’re not getting weird on me, are you? Not falling in love or some shit.”
“No,” I say.
“I have a boyfriend,” she says.
“I’m not in love with you. I just want to talk.”
Ruth sits up and tosses the condom across the room. “So talk,” she says.
I get dressed and sit on the edge of the bed. I’m having a hard time thinking of anything to say. Ruth gets dressed too. She stands next to the bed with her arms crossed.
“Are you happy? Do you enjoy your life?”
“I think I better go,” Ruth says.
“No ... I’m not judging.”
“My life’s okay,” Ruth says. “Day jobs don’t work for me. I’m not an early riser. How ‘bout you? Do you enjoy your life?”
“No,” I say, “I’m ready for a change.” I lie back onto the bed with my legs still dangling off the edge.
“Midlife crisis? What do you do for a living, anyway?”
I stare at the ceiling. Finally, I say, “I kill people.”
“Yeah, right.” Ruth laughs. “You’re probably an accountant.”
“I’m not an early riser either.”
I lift my head to look at Ruth. She’s no longer laughing. I tell her not to worry. She can leave if she wants. She stays. I haven’t paid her yet.
“Like a mob hit man or something?” Ruth laughs. “Aren’t you too old for that?”
“I’m an independent contractor. I have a guy. You can think of him as an agent. He doesn’t even know me — just how to get in touch with me. The guy before him knew who I was. He died of lung cancer. Set me up with the new guy before he checked out.”
“That was nice of him ... I guess,” Ruth says. She doesn’t believe me. She gives me that, Whatever, you’re a freak, look. It makes her look like a snotty teenager.
I pretend not to notice the attitude. “Do you believe in fate?” I ask.
“I don’t believe in shit. You got any weed?”
“My mom didn’t like trout that much,” I say. “She pretended to like it because it pleased the old man.”
“What? Look dude, I’m not your shrink. I don’t know what you want from me. Most guys aren’t interested in a lot of conversation.”
“I told you. You know, about how my old man made me clean the fish.”
Ruth looks at her watch and then sits on the opposite end of the bed from me. “Yeah,” she says with a mixture of exasperation and resignation. “ ... I kinda remember something. I have to leave by eleven. I’m still getting the twelve hundred, right?”
“I got a flat on the way to Globe.”
“You are fucking random, dude,” she says.
“I took the gun apart and while I was driving around ditching the pieces, I got a fucking flat. What a pain in the ass. My little Scion doesn’t have a regular tire for a spare. I had to limp to a tire shop on one of those ridiculous little tires. If there was any room in the trunk, I’d replace that fucking thing with a real tire. I didn’t get home until after ten.”
“Tough day at the office.” She rolls her eyes, but she no longer seems convinced I’m lying.
“Every job has ‘em, I guess.”
She tilts her head toward me, furrowing her brow. “Ya think?” We both laugh.
“Problem is,” I say, “that’s what it’s become. A job like any other job.”
Ruth seems to consider this for a moment. “Yeah ... yeah, that’s what happens.”
“I thought I’d bucked the system — operated outside of it, but now I can’t see any difference between my job and any other unpleasant, pain-in-the-ass job. I’m just as much a part of the system as anyone. I just made myself an untouchable. A fucking ghost.”
“I feel you, brother,” Ruth said.
“Do you know where the Majestic Coffee Shop is?” I ask.
“Downtown? Yeah, I know where it is,” Ruth says.
“I don’t believe in fate either,” I say, “but people do get lucky sometimes.”
Ruth shrugs. “Some people do, I guess ... other people.”
“How would you like to make sixty grand for a couple of hour’s work?” I ask.
“Doing what?” she asks.
“It’s for a delivery.” I say.
“Drugs?” she asks.
“Money,” I say.
“I don’t know,” Ruth says. “Why don’t you deliver it yourself and save sixty grand? Too dangerous? Get some stupid call-girl to do it for you?”
“Naw, it’s not like that,” I say. “This wouldn’t involve any risk.”
“This I gotta hear,” she says.
She’ll do it. Changing the subject, I say, “I’m about to turn the big five-o. Fifty years old, can you believe it?”
“Yeah, I can believe it ... you’re still going to pay me for tonight, right?”
I count out twelve c-notes and hand them to her. I’m surprised to see her hand trembling as she reaches for them, but once she has the money, she asks, “So how does this delivery thing work?”
• • •
I type a short note for the cops and print two copies at the business center in my building.
I’m an assassin. I was born in 1963 in Sacramento, California. My first victim was Dr. Kyle Thompson. I killed him the summer of 1987 in San Francisco. My last victim was Mark Bodner of Scottsdale. I killed him on April 24th. Mr. Bodner got one shot to the forehead, two to the temple from a .22 caliber Ruger pistol. I left his little dog unharmed. I don’t know who hired me or why they wanted Mr. Bodner dead. I was pretty busy between Dr. Thompson and Mr. Bodner, but someone will have to figure all that out. I’ll kill again if you don’t stop me. You have six months or so. Good luck.
• • •
The letter’s so cheesy. Hopefully it will get the FBI’s attention. I leave the car in the apartment parking lot — in its usual spot. The cops will never connect me to it. No chance. The lame property manager will clean out the apartment in a couple of months when she figures out I’ve stopped paying rent. The car will get towed eventually. When the tires go flat. The bar where I’m meeting Ruth is a fifteen-minute walk and I’m grinning ear-to-ear as I stroll down the sun-baked sidewalks.
• • •
Ruth is sitting in the bar when I walk in. She seems nervous, but smiles when I sit next to her. I order a Crown over. “Make it a double,” I say to the bartender. He raps the bar like an old hand, but he looks like a teenager. I give Ruth Google directions to Mail Ego in Chandler and the mailbox key. I tell her to give one package to Hillary and keep the other. She’s to tell Hillary the package is a gift from Iced Coffee John. I hand Ruth an envelope containing the two copies of the confession and instructions for Hillary — one note to the cops and the other to the Phoenix Republic. She should tell the cops about everything. Everything she can remember about me — except that I gave her the money. Unless she’s an idiot, it’ll be easy for her to spend an extra sixty-five grand undetected. Hillary’s a smart girl. Ruth’s been spending ill-gotten gains for years. I’m excited for the first time in years. I feel like I’m going on vacation.
“Why are you doing this?” Ruth asks. “Why even involve me and Coffee Girl? Just mail your letters and keep your money.” She’s still a little suspicious, but also accustomed to taking risks for a big payday.
“I’m not sure,” I answer truthfully. “Because I want my physical presence felt.”
“Do you want to get caught? You feel guilty about ... you know?”
Ruth whispers into her club soda, “They deserved it, right?”
“Beats me,” I say. “Odds are some of them didn’t deserve it.”
“Why’d you pick me?”
“I didn’t really. The escort service sent you.”
“I mean to tell about your life, and to make the delivery.”
“You were there when I got the idea and I know you’re not averse to making a little illicit cash,” I say.
“Makes sense,” Ruth says. She glances at her watch signaling that she’s ready to go. “Do you even like me?”
“You’re okay,” I say.
Ruth nudges me with her elbow, “What about Coffee Girl? Why you givin’ her the cash? You fancy her?”
“She treats me like a regular.” I sip the whiskey. “She might be silly enough to give the money to the cops, but that’s her cross to bear.” I take a bigger sip. “I’ll be watching. If you take Hillary’s share, I’ll take something of much greater value from you.” I toss back the rest of the crown. “Your kid — boy or girl? I’m guessing boy.”
Ruth looks away and takes a deep breath. “Don’t... How do you... ?”
“You seem... I don’t know... like a mom.”
“Don’t go there, John. We have a deal. I’ll do my part.”
I’m playacting. I’ve never really gotten to play the badass. I’ve been invisible. “I know you will.” I give Ruth a friendly pat on the wrist and have to suppress a sudden urge to keep touching her alabaster skin. “I don’t want to be a lonely ol’ ghost anymore. I’d rather be a boogeyman.”
Ruth nods. “Yeah, I get it.”
I think she really does get it. Gets me. Maybe I should have just given her all the money. I have to remind myself that pretending to “get” men is how Ruth makes her living.
“You’ll still be fifty, boogeyman or not,” she says without a trace of smile. “Prison or not. You’ll still be alone.”
• • •
I pick up the Amtrak shuttle a few blocks from the bar. The Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles stops in Flagstaff. That tells you something about Phoenix — there isn’t even a proper train station. I sit next to a skinny, surly, old drunk with impossibly bad breath for two and a half hours and when we get there, Flagstaff’s cool, pine-scented air is like heaven. I’m a little on edge. I’ve relinquished control for the first time in decades. In all likelihood, Ruth and Hillary will screw something up, but all this feels like poetry. The ticket agent says the train should only be a half hour late tonight, but it’s not even scheduled for a couple hours. I’ve got some time.
© 2014 Scott Blankenship
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Scott Blankenship - Scott Blankenship received his MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside. He lives in foggy Aptos, California with his wife, Cynthia, and their cat, Milo. In addition to writing short stories, Scott is hard at work on his first novel.