Back to my own short stories, or rather, short stories written under my own name. This story is derived from one of the novels in my Blackwell Ops series of books.
Six stories below me, right on time, Federico Parizzi is making his way casually through the crowds that always choke the modern but narrow sidewalk in the late morning.
The sight is a contrast in ages. The sidewalk is teeming with shoppers and business people as in any major city in late-morning. But this sidewalk is bordered on one side by ancient buildings, and on the other by a cobblestone street. The street itself is filled with exhaust fumes and cars and trucks, mostly edging along, mostly bumper to bumper. Occasionally a light tap on a horn, occasionally a quiet squeal from a lightly touched brake.
A million quiet snippets of conversation filter up from the cars and from the people on the sidewalk. Now and then the undercurrent is punctuated from the street with a frustrated universal, “Hey!” or an Italian exclamation that I suspect is the equivalent of, “What the hell?”
The buildings are mostly stone, with a worn red brick one thrown in now and then. But brick or stone, they all abut one against the next, a block-long series of façades. Each is marked with a plate-glass window and a plate-glass door framed in chipped and peeling paint of one color or another, mostly faded blues and greens.
And the people. Of the women, there are more housewives in dresses or skirts and blouses than professional women in smart slacks and jackets and carrying folders or briefcases. But there are far more men in suits and walking with purposeful strides than men in jeans and shirts. Of the latter, hands in their pockets, they’re milling about or accompanying their wives.
Despite the early August heat, a light-cream colored overcoat is draped over Mr. Parizzi’s shoulders like a mantle of rank. That’s how much he likes to stand out. The overcoat practically glistens in the sun as it sways with his easy gait. And unlike the others in the crowd, he doesn’t stop or sidestep to avoid running into others. They’re only too eager to make the adjustment themselves, parting like water around a grand yacht out for a leisurely morning cruise. Their automatic deference makes him stand out even more.
Good. Makes my job easier.
As do the four men who accompany him, two a short distance ahead and two behind. They keep any unwary citizens at a distance. They wear polished brown or black Italian leather shoes. They wear crisply pressed slacks and shirts and suitcoats, and each wears a fedora that matches his suit. They look like businessmen pretty much everywhere, except for the swagger. Well, and maybe the fedoras.
The bodyguards are easy enough to spot when you know what you’re looking for. But the citizens pretend not to notice them. Men like that take being noticed as an insult. Let your gaze linger for an instant longer than necessary, and quick as a rat you’ll be pressed back against the nearest wall, a forearm against your throat. The assailant won’t speak, but his eyes will say, Who’re you to tell me I ain’t doin’ my job, eh?
The best reaction is one of immediate self-subordination, marked by a quick aversion of the eyes. Then, maybe, he’ll let you go with a quick shove and a muttered, “Go on, get outta here.”
React in any other way and he’ll press his forearm a little harder into your throat and hold it for a few seconds to be sure you got the message.
Or he’ll kill you outright with a crushed larynx and a quick elbow to the chin that slaps your head back against the wall. Before you drop to the sidewalk, he’ll be a few steps away. And nobody will have seen anything.
Just during this morning’s session, I witnessed one of the former—I call it trap and release—and one of the latter. The first was three blocks and maybe ten minutes earlier, not long after the man in the cream-colored overcoat and his entourage first came into view. The last was maybe two minutes ago, just past the corner of the block they’re on now.
I just looked. The unfortunate man involved in the latter event is still slumped there in the corner formed by the stone wall and the sidewalk. It’s a typically busy morning. Probably a hundred citizens have passed within a few feet of him in both directions in that two or three minutes. And so far nobody’s paid him the slightest bit of attention. From what I saw during earlier surveillances, probably the meat wagon will pick him up within an hour of the big man in the cream overcoat entering his building a few blocks away.
Well, if he was going to enter his building.
But he isn’t. Not today. Not ever again.
This is my fourth and final day on the job.
Five days ago I was in my penthouse in Manhattan. I was naked in the hallway, a fresh towel in my hand. I was just about to go into the bathroom to get a shower when my VaporStream device emitted a quiet tone.
I stopped, looked back into the living room where the device lay on the table next to my recliner. I was really looking forward to taking in a Broadway show tonight. Not that I’m big on the social scene, but I saw an announcement for Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and it struck a chord. Sometimes it’s as if the creator of a play spent some time living in your mind.
As I considered whether to even look at the message on the device, it emitted the soft tone again.
“All right,” I said as if it could hear me, and walked back into the living room. I live alone. I guess that’s why I sometimes talk to inanimate objects.
I dropped the towel in my chair, plopped down on top of it and picked up the device.
The VaporStream looks a little like a small cellphone. It has a small screen, maybe two-by-three inches, and two buttons. The small On button enables you to view the message, which presents in light-green text on a dark background, like computers before they came into their own. The Send button is a little larger. You press it within 5 minutes to acknowledge receipt, which also means you’ve accepted the assignment. The 5 minutes gives you plenty of time to read and re-read the message and commit it to memory. Once you press Send, the message disappears forever from everywhere. Like vapor. Hence VaporStream.
I pressed the On button.
As always, TJ’s instructions were brief. Eight short lines.
On the first line, a name. On the second, the name of a city followed by a date (that’s a kill-by date). The third line held a route: Bank 47th at Viale Marcello to Home at 54th. Then the rest of the message:
Easy-in, easy-out. Target walks
same route 10:15 to 10:45. No
variations in pace or in stops along
the way. Recommend 2-day surveil.
Personal attention not required.
That last line— Personal attention not required. Good. So I don’t have to make a point of prolonging anything. I don’t even have to let the guy know he’s about to die. He never has to see my face.
I looked at the name again. Federico Parizzi. It meant nothing to me. Good again. I don’t take jobs on people I know even in passing. Too much room for screw-ups.
The city was a place I’ve never been, which adds a level of excitement, though I won’t see much more than the airport and the hotel. But that’s up to me too. I’ll be there a few days in advance, so maybe I’ll poke around a little if I notice something that seems worthwhile. But not much fits that bill for me.
I looked at the third line again.
Parizzi comes out of a bank seven blocks east and walks home, both of which are on Viale Marcello.
I skipped down to the body of the message again. No variations in route or pace, so he’s confident of his safety. So he probably has bodyguards. No variations in stops along the way. There it is.
I grinned. You say stops. I say opportunities.
Like the man said, easy-in, easy-out. Easy-peasy. Not that a difficult presentation would make a difference in the result.
I pressed the Send button, then laid the device on the table again. I phoned the airline and bought a round-trip ticket, with the return flight five days later. TJ recommended a two-day surveillance, but he won’t be there. I will.
I’d be on the red-eye flight going out. If I’m going to do something, I want to jump right in.
My flights arranged, I went to take my shower. Afterward I’d have three hours to pack, get a cab to the airport, and catch my flight. Perfect.
I can attend Betrayal another time. Or not.
I doubt the play can teach me anything I don’t already know about the topic anyway.
My hotel was only a few blocks from the target location, and it was nice enough, a place where a lot of well-heeled tourists stay. Most are like me, in their 30s, and generally of the beautiful-people set. If I looked around the restaurant and ignored the help, I might have still been in Manhattan. Or any other big city filled mostly with affluent young to middle-aged white people. If I included the help, I might have been in Lower Manhattan.
The following morning I dressed in well-worn Nikes, fashionably faded jeans, a nondescript t-shirt and a ball cap. Then I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and fit right in with all the other tourists as I left the hotel.
It’s hard to see how anyone gets around this city without walking. Every street was as packed with cars and trucks, as I later found Viale Marcello to be.
Soon enough I found 47th street and followed it north to Viale Marcello, where it terminated. So the latter was a terminal street, a destination. The nearest cross traffic was two blocks east at 45th. It looked like a river crossing a stream, but the traffic there too was barely moving.
I turned west and started along the route, following Viale Marcello toward 54th. Up ahead, 55th street crossed the avenue and continued north.
I strolled casually, as any tourist might. The sidewalk was crowded, as it would be in any major city at mid-morning. The street was populated in the same way as the ones nearer the hotel, cars and trucks inching along, accompanied by exhaust fumes and the occasional light squeal of brakes.
When I finally reached 54th Street I checked my watch and found I’d covered the route in 23 minutes. And that’s with me having to engage in the jostling dance with other citizens that occurs on any overcrowded sidewalk. So Mr. Parizzi must stroll more casually than I. Good.
At 54th Street I also found three large, obviously residential buildings. They were all red brick, two on my left and one across the street, and any of them might have been Mr. Parizzi’s home. Then again, it didn’t really matter which it was. He would finish the walk only a few more times.
With the route firmly in mind, I thought about taking the rest of the day off. Instead, I walked back the way I’d come, studying the buildings across the street. After all, the only way to look like a tourist is to be a tourist.
Besides, I would need a nest. Well, first a surveillance point, and later a nest. Probably better to find those now even if I wouldn’t need them until tomorrow morning.
The façades were the same on the north side of the road as on this side, mostly mortared white stone. Where those abutted each other, they shared a common wall. Some red brick buildings were thrown in here and there. Occasionally a narrow alley separated a brick building from a stone building. Two men abreast or a narrow car—a smaller Citröen, perhaps, and surely one of those LeCar things—might get through without scraping the sides.
Some of the buildings were three or four stories, but most were six. The whole thing looked a little like an unfinished game of Tetris, locked in time. Though occasionally a false front rose above the roof line. On some of those it looked as if the Tetris player had dropped a triangle on top of the blocks.
When I got halfway along the route—so in the middle of the block between 50th Street and 51st—I stopped and checked my watch again. It was 9:45. The day was already growing warm. Maybe upper 80s to low 90s. And I’m sure the squealing, gridlocked traffic didn’t help.
Still, any rooftop nest would be hotter. Hazards of the job. Then again, there would probably be a breeze up there. No breeze down on the street, but that’s a good thing, especially for a shooter using low-velocity ammunition.
I looked across the street again. Halfway would be the ideal place for a nest. I could work outward from there.
The building directly across from me was white stone, a six-story building. Good as any other as a place to start. I stepped off the modern, concrete curb, raised my left hand against the barely moving traffic, and crossed the cobblestone street accompanied by various Italian curses.
The door in the building was glass, framed in faded lime-green wood, and off-set in the right side of the wall. The paint was peeling badly in places, with shades of red and blue showing through here and there.
The rest of the wall was taken up with a broad picture window. In the display, two sets of wooden shelves—they looked like poplar, maybe—formed a shallow V that pointed in toward the store. Most of the shelf space was covered with generously spaced men’s felt and straw hats of different varieties: wide- and narrow-brimmed fedoras, bowlers, and others. Only the bottom two shelves on the left side contained women’s hats. One was black wool or felt and the others were a finely woven cloth.
I opened the door and stepped in, ready to be approached by a salesperson.
But I was in a small entryway, still separate of the actual store. It wasn’t appreciably cooler. The smell was of fabric and dust.
To my left, another green wood-framed glass door led to the store itself. I glanced through. Apparently the store was only the one story. Upstairs, maybe apartments or maybe hat storage. No customers about yet, and it was mid-morning. For that matter, I didn’t see any employees either. So maybe not the most viable business. Maybe it was one old hat maker in a curtained-off room in the back.
In front of me was a set of stairs. To my right, only a couple of feet away, was the mortared, white-stone wall this building shared with the next.
The only light was coming from behind me through the door to the street. The staircase climbed into relative darkness to a narrow landing, then turned back on itself. A narrow banister, polished by thousands of hands, ran the length of it.
I started up the stairs.
At the landing, an apparently burned-out bulb filled a white porcelain wall sconce. To the left of that was a fire extinguisher in a bracket. It was typically long, round and red, and the black hose leading from the chrome handle on the top was dry rotted. A hallway led off to the left, and there were two doors on either side. So maybe it was apartments, but I didn’t hear any signs of life.
Still, if the building housed apartments, maybe there were also fire escapes on the back. I made a mental note. Any good nest needs at least two routes of egress.
I turned right and continued up the stairs, happy to note the light at the second landing was working. It was dim, but at least I could see the stairs. At the top was another fire extinguisher bracket, but no extinguisher. It was the same at the third, fourth and fifth landings, and a narrow hallway led away from each with two doors on either side. Still no sounds of life. A ghost building except for the probably failing hat shop on the first floor.
There were no more stairs, but a narrow, ancient wooden ladder had been affixed to one wall. I climbed it, and at the top I pushed open a trapdoor. Dust sifted down on me, dancing and shining in the light that spilled through.
I climbed through, then closed the trapdoor quietly behind me.
As I thought it might be, the roof was considerably warmer than the street despite a thick layer of some spongy white substance. Then again, there was a slight breeze. Somehow, pea gravel was scattered here and there too. Not enough that it had been put here intentionally. One of life’s little mysteries.
There was no shade and no clouds in the sky that I could see.
A chipped and worn concrete parapet, maybe a little over a foot tall, went around the whole roof. It marked even where one building stopped and the next began.
I moved to the back of the building and looked over the side. There were two fire escapes, black metal and probably rusted in place. Still, they were better than nothing. Maybe. In a pinch.
When I turned around again I realized my stone building was one of those with a red brick false front. It rose in a stepped triangle to maybe six feet in the center. There were three spaces where four bricks—two end to end, one above and one below—had been kept out to create a diamond pattern. The diamonds were maybe a foot wide and a half-foot tall. The diamonds at the sides of the pyramid were a few feet from the edge and maybe two feet up from the base. The one in the center was about four feet from the base.
To the east two more buildings were joined to this one—no false front on either of those—and then a short gap where a narrow alley went through.
I moved closer to the leading edge of my building, centered myself behind the false front, and looked down at Viale Marcello through the center diamond.
And decided to stay where I was for the time being. I could see the entire route clearly enough, from 47th Street and beyond on the east to 54th Street and beyond on the west. And nobody from the street could see me.
Easy-peasy indeed. This would do for surveillance, and I might have found my nest.
That thought pulled me deeper into my reason for being here in the first place. I glanced at my watch. It was 10:12.
I shifted to the left, swept a few bits of gravel away with my shoe, then settled in behind the lower diamond on that side and looked east.
As TJ had said in his instructions, the target came around the corner of 47th Street right at 10:15. Apparently he used a door on 47th Street, but there was no mistaking him.
I didn’t spot his bodyguards at first, but in his showy garb, Federico Parizzi was easy to spot.
I experienced the same sensation I experience at the beginning of every surveillance—I wanted to know everything right now—but I also had expected that sensation, so I calmed myself.
TJ had recommended surveilling him twice, but I was more careful than that. I would watch him make the full trip at least three times before I did the job. I’d be watching a fourth time too and maybe a fifth if I noticed any glitches. But the last time I watched he wouldn’t finish the trip.
I put looking for the bodyguards out of my mind and focused on Parizzi.
He reminded me a bit of the fat Sicilian in the first Godfather movie. Well, except Parizzi didn’t have the bushy little moustache. But otherwise he was the original Don Fanucci, complete with the swagger, the easy laughter and expansive hand gestures. Especially when he saw someone he thought he recognized, or more importantly to his ego, someone who recognized him and showed the proper deference.
He was clean shaven with round, ruddy cheeks, at least two chins, and thick, bushy black eyebrows that made him look a little like a caricature. His little pig eyes grew large and round only in concert with sounds of faux joy coming out his mouth.
And that cream-colored overcoat, even on a warm morning in August— Like Fanucci, he definitely enjoyed the attention.
When I was down there walking along the sidewalk, I was occasionally jostled by a passerby.
Parizzi wasn’t jostled. Not even once. The teeming crowd flowed past him like water separating before a speeding boat.
Just before he reached 48th Street he stopped for the first time. It was a barber shop where the barber, a wisp of a man in glasses, with no hair of his own, and dressed in dark slacks and a faded orange smock, had apparently come out to witness the man’s passing.
That’s when I first noticed the two lead bodyguards. When Parizzi stopped, two hefty looking men stopped a few feet ahead of him.
One glanced into a shop window before redirecting his attention up the sidewalk again.
The other sidled nearer the street and watched along the sidewalk the whole time.
But both of them focused their attention to the west. So there must be at least one bodyguard behind Parizzi too.
The barber said something I couldn’t make out.
Parizzi leaned slightly toward him and, said, “Eh?” just as if the barber didn’t ask the same question or make the same offer every day.
The barber smiled and gestured with both hands as only a supplicant might. Again he said something, but again I couldn’t make it out. Parizzi shook his head and laughed. My Italian is rusty at best, but I think he said, “Not today, my friend, but soon. Very soon.” Then he gave the guy a regal queen’s wave, his left arm twisting side to side from his elbow to his hand, and moved on.
The barber remained where he was for a long moment, watching respectfully as Parizzi receded. Then I lost him as he was eclipsed by a massive man in a dark suit—another bodyguard. When that man and another passed, also in a dark suit but nearer the street, the barber quickly receded back into his shop. He didn’t appear to be disappointed. Relieved, maybe, but not disappointed.
Parizzi stopped again soon after he crossed 49th Street. This time he pulled open an old wood-frame screen door and stepped inside. The sign above the window read Gelateria. Ice cream parlor.
The bodyguards stopped too. Two of them took up positions on either side of the door. The other two stationed themselves a little farther away but still next to the building.
Citizens flowed around them. All averted their eyes, and not even one so much as slowed down.
Then a 30-something male tourist in faded jeans, fashionable lace-up boots, and a red t-shirt appeared from the west. He glanced up at the wooden sign dangling over the window, nodded at the large man standing next to the building on the west, then angled toward the door, reaching with his left hand.
The bodyguard said nothing that I could hear. But he shook his head as he slid his right foot farther to the right. His thick, bear-like arm shot across the screen door.
The tourist stopped and looked up at the man. He moved his head as if he was about to say something, but I assume he caught a look in the bodyguard’s eyes and thought better of it. He took a half-step back as his head swiveled left to look at the other large man stationed to the east of the door. Then he took another half-step back, looked down at the sidewalk and continued off to the east with an odd, jerky gait.
It was all I could do not to laugh.
The big man retracted his arm and resumed his earlier stance, his hands folded in front of him at his waist.
A moment later, Parizzi emerged with an ice cream cone. He held it up, displaying it for his entourage and grinned broadly. Then he ran his tongue up one side of it, cone to top, laughed and flicked it into the gutter along the sidewalk.
The act seemed to be a signal. All five men set off down the street, each in his correct position.
The third stop was longer.
It was also directly below me and across the street.
I stood and shifted to the right to observe through the center diamond.
I could shoot offhand from here. The bottom of the diamond would make a perfect rest for the rifle.
Parizzi stopped and turned his back on me to gaze through a wide plate-glass window. The building was twice as wide as any of the others on that side of the street, and three times as wide as the building I was perched on. His shadow on the window cut the glare just enough that I could make out what appeared to be a rifle on a display stand.
I closed my eyes, opened them, focused.
Yes, it was a rifle. So the building must be a gun shop, but a very large one.
Parizzi stood there for a long moment, but nobody came out to talk with him.
Finally he turned away to continue his stroll, but he gestured back toward the window, pointing with the index finger of his left hand. In Italian, he muttered, “Mebbe someday, eh?”
One bodyguard nodded.
Parizzi laughed and they moved on down the street.
For the first time, my curiosity was piqued. Would he pose in exactly the same way every time he passed the window?
As the man moved on I checked my watch. It was 10:36. So at his casual pace, maybe time for one more stop before he continued to 54th Street and his home.
But I’d seen enough for one day. And I was excited.
If he stopped to gaze through that window every day… well, for one thing I couldn’t ask for a better angle. And there was no breeze to account for on the street. And his bodyguards stayed off to the sides. And the crowd took a wide berth around him. And the rumbling of the traffic would mask the slight sound of the shot, and my rifle was fitted with a sound suppressor anyway.
It was all good.
I made my way to the back of the roof again and looked over.
To use the fire escape, I’d have to drop about six feet. I could do that, but I’d prefer not to have to. After the hit, if I was on my way down the stairs and met angry people coming up, then maybe I’d risk the fire escape. Otherwise, no.
I returned to the trap door, opened it and lowered myself to the ladder, then exited the building the way I’d come in.
I encountered nobody in the building, angry or otherwise, and on the street, nobody looked at me twice.
The second and third days went much the same. The sidewalk was as crowded if not more so. Still the bodyguards aided my field of vision as they created an invisible pocket around Parizzi. And as TJ said in the original instructions, there was no variation in Parizzi’s pace or in the stops he made.
The first stop was with the diminutive barber. Both times, the barber watched respectfully as Parizzi receded until the bodyguards in the back passed him by.
The second stop was for ice cream, which Parizzi licked once and tossed away. A true creature of habit and control.
Even the third and most important stop on the second and third day were identical to the same stop on the first day. I could set my watch by this guy. And best of all, I didn’t like him.
The more I watched Parizzi and the reactions of those with whom he interacted, the happier I was that I had taken this job.
So here I am on the roof five stories above the hat shop on day four. I’m a little early, but that’s the only way to do this job. I’m convinced, even if Parizzi comes out of the bank a little earlier than usual, his walk will still be the same duration and he’ll stop in the same places for the same length of time.
I thought about bringing my rifle up with me yesterday. I could have popped the guy, then either caught an earlier flight back or spent the balance of the trip maybe exploring.
But the one time I nearly botched a job, it was because I rushed my original plan.
That was in Barcelona, just a few months ago and a hop, skip and a jump away from here.
And it was different.
I mean, all the norms were in place. It was still a target and someone still thought it was necessary and it was still someone I didn’t know. But it was also a female.
Not that I have a gender bias for most targets.
But this female was exceptional.
The situation was even eerily similar, though her schedule and my assignment didn’t involve her walking. Both pivoted only on her parking her car in a certain location at the same time each day. My instructions said she would pull up, open the car door and get out. Then she would turn away and look down at her remote keyless entry system as she locked the car. Finally she would walk around the front of the car, step up onto the sidewalk and disappear into a building.
She did all of that both times I surveilled her. She never glanced toward me.
What the instructions didn’t say was that she was absolutely stunning. Nor should they. Physical appearance has no bearing on a hit. And even if the instructions had mentioned her physical attributes, they couldn’t have addressed my reality in the moment as I beheld her.
On the first day, I caught only a glimpse as she stepped out of the car and turned away. Even then I was struck by her beauty, though I saw her face for only a split second.
Her long, raven hair framed a perfectly oval face above a trim, athletic body that seemed poured into a dark-brown, blue-pinstriped skirt suit. Under the waistcoat she wore a soft white blouse, probably silk.
And yes, I’m aware that description would suit many young, attractive women. But beyond the physical— Well, beyond the physical was something more. And that became my reality in the crucial moment.
Even in only that split second, the woman was stunning in a way that far transcended the physical. I thought my heart would lurch out of my chest.
It was as if my spirit knew hers, recognized hers, and reached for her, yearning to be reunited.
In the first instant after she exited her car, I suddenly realized I actually hoped she would turn and look across the street. I hoped she would look up to the third-story window in which I was framed. I hoped she would deign to notice me.
Of course, she didn’t.
If she had, that might have ended my mission.
And if she had so much as smiled at me or rippled the fingers of one hand in my direction in a flirtatious wave, it probably would have ended my life. I probably would have passed out and fallen 30 feet to the street below. And I wouldn’t have cared. To die as a result of such a magnanimous gesture on her part would have been well worthwhile. I would have died happy, even smiling if I were able.
But she didn’t. Not the first day, and not the second.
As the instructions said she would, on both days she turned to face her car, glanced down at the device in her hand to make sure she hit the right button—I found that adorable—then walked around the front of her car, stepped up onto the curb and headed for the door.
But the second day was worse in one way: a man happened to be exiting the building as she was going in. He stopped, stepped to one side and held the door open for her.
She looked up at him and plainly said, “Thank you” around a huge, authentic smile. The most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen, even though I could see only a quarter of it from the side.
Still, I felt a pang of jealousy.
The man smiled and nodded quickly, released the door after she entered, and walked across the street to get into his own car.
It was almost like she was the second shift and was arriving just in time to relieve him or something. But no matter. I hated him.
I usually surveil my targets a minimum of three days and no more than five, including the day of the hit.
But the rush of emotion that had assailed me as she stepped out of her car on that second day— And the depth of emotion that saturated every fiber of my being as I watched her step up onto the curb and cross the sidewalk— And the surge of jealousy that struck as that man appeared and received her smile—
All of those things conspired to convince me I’d better hit her the next day and be done with it.
Or I could just walk away with the memory of her disappearing into the building and out of my life forever.
That thought pulled me back on track.
I suddenly remembered why I was there.
My job, the job I’d hired on to do, was to initiate that lovely woman’s transition into Forever.
Nausea wracked through me.
So on that second day, I stepped back from the window and sagged into the lightly padded wooden chair I’d moved earlier from the desk to near the foot of the bed.
And I sat right there for a horrific half-hour, gripping the sides of the seat with white-knuckled hands, my arms tense and trembling as the thought of her shuddered its way through my body. From what I remember from watching films about crazy people in asylums, I was probably rocking back and forth too.
As it turned out, only my extreme discipline enabled me to do my job at all.
I had to let the scenario play out in my addled mind, of course. You can’t allow something like that to hang around without dealing with it and seeing it through to the end.
I didn’t dare rise from the chair until the dream ran its course. That chair was my only anchor on reality.
While I was in that chair in Barcelona, my every urge was to race across the street, catch the remarkable woman coming out of the building, and plant myself on my knees in front of her. I saw it all just as if it were actually happening.
I reached up to take one of her dainty hands in both of mine. I kissed it as if it might break, then looked up at her with a heavily wrinkled brow.
In a rush, I explained to her as fervently as I could that her life was in danger. That I myself had been hired to kill her, and that if they’d found me they would find another. I begged her to marry me, to let me take her away from all this and protect her. After all, I knew how to evade them.
And I told her I loved her, that I had loved her since time immemorial. That her death would be an unpardonable sin, a crime against humanity, even if she lived to be 100 and died only of worn-out cells. But her death would be particularly grievous if it occurred at the hands of any human being because all of them—all of us—were sorely lacking in comparison to her.
Only I didn’t do any of that.
When I was finally able to release the dream and push myself out of the chair, I raced out of the room. I stumbled and fell twice before I was able to get out of the building. As I crashed through the door onto the street, I averted my gaze. I didn’t want to risk seeing her come out. I hurried back to my hotel room.
And I spent the next 22 hours going over all the ways that particular woman was despicable, all the reasons she deserved to die, and at my hand. I made up stories of all the times she’d driven men insane, ending with the man at the door, whom I was certain harbored a strong desire for her. How could he not? How could any man not? She was obviously an angel.
No. She wasn’t an angel at all. She was a devil. And all those men she drove insane, she hung around so she could laugh as they were hauled away in straightjackets. Of course she did. Because she was just that terrible. She was just that much of a blight on the earth. That much and worse.
I thought of all the wings she’d pulled off helpless flies. Of all the small animals that had endured torture at her hand. All the terrible things she did at night with and to other men as the rest of the world lay innocently sleeping.
Surely she was a dealer in drugs to pre-teens. And she was the worst kind of sadist. She had crept into the rooms of sleeping babies at night, stood over them smiling, lopping shears in her hands as she hungered to free them of their limbs. She had received and retained her looks only as the devil’s part of the bargain for having sold her soul at a bargain rate. She couldn’t even experience orgasm because her own body reviled her. And on and on.
And finally, during the first half of the 23rd hour, I assembled my rifle, made sure it was working perfectly, then disassembled it and made ready to leave.
By the time I assumed my nest, I was calm. And I was ready.
I would take her out, relieving the world of her evil presence.
I would do it quickly, with one quick bullet to medulla oblongata, that place at the back of the head where the spinal cord meets the brain.
Because I’m a good and merciful person at my core (my mind sang, And because I’m hopelessly in love with her) I would take mercy on her worthless wasteland of a soul and turn her off like a light switch. No matter all the hell she had caused everyone else.
Because she had. Hadn’t she?
She must have.
That was almost enough to get me through. Almost.
Then her car pulled up, right on time, thank God, since I hadn’t bothered to surveil her arrival more than twice.
She got out of the car.
It was time.
I sat in the chair, steadied my rifle on a pillow on the window sill.
She closed the car door.
I gripped the stock.
I eased my finger along the trigger well.
She turned away and bowed her head (as if to pray?) as she looked at the remote in her hand.
I’d forgotten how endearing that simple motion was. And when I remembered, I shook my head to deny it. It was just another trick of the demon.
I squeezed the trigger slowly. I would rid the world of this demon. Of this terrible—
But in the last instant, she flicked a stray strand of hair from her left cheek.
And in that instant I imagined my own fingertips brushing her cheek before I cupped her chin, turned her face up so I could kiss her luscious lips and—
And my finger trembled on the trigger.
The bullet slapped into the roof of her car just above the driver’s side door and just past the right side of her head.
And she didn’t scream or duck or run.
She turned around.
She looked straight across the street, a frown on her face—her beautiful, cream-complexion face—and then raised her chin. Her gaze went from the first-story window to the second, then up to the third.
She looked straight at me.
And the demon vanished.
Miraculously, the lines on her forehead smoothed out as if she recognized me.
Or as if her spirit recognized mine.
Her blue eyes glistened.
Her lips began to stretch in a smile.
Her right arm started to come up. Was she going to wave to me?
It was all I could do to squeeze the trigger a second time.
A small dot appeared directly between her beautiful eyes and just above the ridge of her eyebrows. Her right hand slapped across her forehead as if she’d forgotten something.
Or maybe to hide that offensive mark from the man who loved her so very much.
I turned away on rubber legs before she fell.
I did remember, somehow, to wipe down the rifle. I’m a true credit to my profession.
I dropped the rifle on the bed and walked quickly from the room, my legs jerking and jittery, and down the stairs and back to my hotel room.
In a trance, I packed.
Somehow I got to the airport. I don’t remember my flight being called.
But sometime later I was in a first-class seat and the plane was lifting off.
All during the flight, I was twisted with doubt.
I prayed the woman was the right target.
And I prayed she wasn’t.
But which would be easier to live with?
The next morning, I accessed my Swiss bank account. The payment was there, which meant the job was successful, which meant she was the right target.
Somehow I wasn’t relieved.
As I was about to turn off the computer, a report from a news agency scrolled across the bottom of the screen.
A report from Barcelona.
I reached for the mouse, my hand trembling, and clicked on the message.
A photo of a woman accompanied a short article. I lingered on the photo for a long moment, seemingly unable to avert my gaze. When I finally could, I read the very brief article closely.
Empirita Sanchez de Uvalde was assassinated from hiding yesterday on a major street in Barcelona as she exited her car. Ms. Sanchez was beloved in Barcelona, a respected attorney and a champion and defender of children. She was an only child, and is survived by her parents. She was 28, unmarried and had no children of her own. According to her mother, she was waiting for the right man.
Well, I guess she found him.
When I signed on with Blackwell Ops, TJ told me he deals only in deserving targets.
What he didn’t tell me was the criteria that determines whether a target is deserving. As it turns out, the only criterion is a payment from a client.
It’s day four, and all is well.
I’m in my nest.
My rifle is leaning up against the red brick false front. My handkerchief is draped over the barrel. I have nothing against the ant who might climb down it or the fly who might want to land on top. I’m sitting cross-legged behind the false front and the rifle, centering my chi.
As I checked my watch, it clicked over to 10:14.
I stood, moved into position. I shifted the rifle slightly to the right. No need to pick it up just yet. I watched the corner of 47th and Viale Marcello. And I waited.
The sidewalk and the street were just as crowded as they were the last three days. Right on time, the two bodyguards came around the corner. The crowd recognized them maybe before I did, flowed smoothly away from the store fronts, surging toward the curb, making room for what I’ve come to think of as Parizzi’s Bubble.
One passerby, a middle-aged woman in a blue floral-print dress, stumbled off the curb and a car honked. A man in jeans and a grey work shirt grabbed her hand and pulled her back up.
Parizzi himself appeared a few seconds after his bodyguards came around the corner. He was followed shortly thereafter by the other two fat boys.
Behind those two, the crowd relaxed again and expanded to fill the available space on the sidewalk.
I shifted my focus back to Parizzi. How did he not think to have one of the fat boys walk alongside him?
Right on time, he stopped and chatted with the little barber, who said the same thing he always said and received the same response. I couldn’t hear even Parizzi’s “Eh?” or his follow-up statement over the noise of the traffic and the quiet roaring in my ears, but the actions of both men seemed to come from muscle memory.
A long moment later, as before, Parizzi proceeded west.
A few minutes after that and over a block away, he stopped, opened the screen door and disappeared inside. He exited a moment later, displayed his trophy, and licked it grandiosely with his fat tongue. Then he laughed and tossed the whole thing aside.
And proceeded west.
Maybe he’s on a diet. Maybe a taste is all he wants. Or can handle.
Maybe he’s cheating on his wife with ice cream.
Maybe he pays his slugs extra not to tell.
I could almost hear his shoes clacking on the sidewalk as his cream-colored overcoat glistened softly in the sun and swayed around him with the rhythm of his gait.
Right heel, toe. Left heel, toe, Right heel, toe. It was almost mesmerizing.
The look on his face. That certainty that everything in his world was right. The cocky, arrogant confidence of the man fully within himself.
I began to hate him.
It’s always this way. The hatred releases just the right amount of adrenaline, brings me to a point of hyper awareness but without the nerves.
The world slows down. Everything narrows to a finer focus.
Right heel, toe. Left heel, toe, Right heel, toe. One after the other. One after the other.
I took the draped handkerchief from the barrel of my rifle and stuffed it into my right front jeans pocket. I moved a half-step to the right and brought the rifle up. I fixed the front sight blade on the man’s temple and followed him.
A seeming eternity later, he slowed as he finally neared the broad picture window.
Left. Heel. Toe.
Right. Heel. Toe.
He raised his arms as if surrendering to the glass.
He took a step with his left foot, brought his right up alongside it, and put his hands on the glass like he was going to reenact the old Mervyn’s television commercial.
The man is a joke. A disgusting, filthy joke.
He leaned his head. Just. Slightly. Forward. To look again at the rifle on the rack in the center display.
What a child he is! What a despicable show-off! What a worthless, unconscionable slug!
I took a breath, slowly released half of it. Adjusted my grip on the rifle. Moved the front sight blade from the back of his right ear to that place where his brain and his spinal cord meet.
And squeezed. Squeezed, squeezed.
Pfft. Pfft, pfft.
Three low-velocity .25 caliber bullets exited the barrel via the sound suppressor. Some eighty feet away a split-split second later they entered Parizzi’s medulla oblongata.
I retracted the rifle, but this time I didn’t turn away.
This time, the rifle dangling from my right hand, I watched the light go out. Light to dark, just like that. Living to not living.
I watched as Parizzi dropped. He landed facing to the right.
A red pool began to form on the sidewalk to the left of his fat, ugly head. His fedora lay between him and the wall beneath the glass.
One bodyguard, the one closer to the wall and to the west of Parizzi, watched too. He gaped. He moved his fat, rubbery, purple lips. One word. One syllable. It looked like he said, “Boss?”
In my mind, I heard it with the W, Brooklyn gangster style: “Bwoss?”
The other three hadn’t moved yet.
The first one took a step, bent his left knee, began to crouch.
The one behind him stared, made suddenly aware by his partner’s broad, crouching back that there was some kind of problem. Then he turned around and spread his arms to keep anyone from getting close.
The two fat boys to the east did the same—gaped, then turned, but faced east. Though the one closest to the wall looked longingly at the rifle in the window for a split-second longer first.
Probably that fat boy was the reason Parizzi gestured back toward the window on the previous three days. Probably teasing him with it. Probably that fat boy was the one who really wanted the rifle. Probably he had pointed it out to Parizzi in the first place. Probably now he would never get it, at least not as a gift.
I grinned. You’re welcome, fat boy. The bastard won’t tease anybody anymore.
I watched a moment longer, waiting for—what?
Ah. A reaction from the public.
Screams. There were no screams.
In fact there was no real excitement on the street below.
The bodyguards were posed as if poured in concrete, abutments in the river of pedestrians flowing past them.
Cars and trucks continued to pass, albeit slowly, inches and feet at a time, almost bumper to bumper. I couldn’t see the occupants, but I’d bet none of them so much as glanced at the still form in the cream-colored overcoat lying face-down on the sidewalk.
Only the crowd of pedestrians continued to flow past as always, their path altered only slightly by the fat boys and their extended arms. Nobody even glanced toward the body as they passed. The fear Parizzi instilled in the citizens eventually bought him this: a lack of notoriety. Not only did nobody care, they didn’t even notice. As Parizzi himself had trained them to do.
I shook my head. Show’s over, folks.
I took a step back, wiped down the rifle with my handkerchief, and laid it gently on the roof. Now the ants can have it if they want. I hope the barrel has cooled. I have nothing against the ants.
I moved to the trapdoor, opened it, lowered myself through it.
A few minutes later, I’d made my way down to the first landing.
Just for grins, I grabbed the burned-out light bulb in the white sconce, turned it slightly.
Nope. No light. I guess it really was burned out.
At the bottom of the stair I paused, tempted to stop and shop for a hat as a way of anonymously saying thanks.
But I don’t wear hats. Not like those.
On the sidewalk, nobody noticed me.
As I walked away, the meat wagon passed going the other direction.
No need to wait anymore I guess.