THE FAVOR - J.F. JUZWIK
Originally published in Suspense Magazine in 2008
He started to come around, the pain in the back of his neck getting stronger. I was mugged, he thought. Boy, if it wasn't for bad luck... He struggled to open his eyes, but felt groggy, as if he had been medicated. Not dazed from being knocked out cold. Focusing was an effort, but he was finally able to lift his head.
“Trina!” He was barely able to get that out. My God, he thought, what happened to Trina? She had come to his apartment to meet him for dinner. He had opened the door, and then... And then?
Trina was the lady he had been dating for the past eight months, and what a lady she was indeed. He had met her in the park on one sunny Saturday afternoon, and they had just hit it off right away. He was not accustomed to picking up women in the park, and she, obviously, was not accustomed to being picked up in the park.
Classy. Well traveled. Well read. Worked in a dress shop, but had some kind of a part-time job that required her to travel from time to time. Whatever it was, it must have paid very well. She lived in a condo, drove a flashy car, dressed to the nines. Didn’t talk much about the part-time job, though. Just said it was something she enjoyed doing, and was good at. Oh well, that was cool with Bert. It created a sense of mystery about her that he found tremendously exciting.
She never talked about her past. Didn’t really get too hung up on the future either. Live for the now, she would say. Bert thought that was perhaps a bit '60-ish', but that's what made her Trina. Besides, Bert had enjoyed the ’60s. No one really considered him odd or out of place in those days. Everyone was odd back then, so Bert kind of just blended. She was so many wonderful things though, all rolled into one. The most exciting lady he had ever met. Well, maybe not really the most exciting lady he had ever met, but the most exciting lady he had ever met that was willing to go out with him anyway.
Slowly, his head began to clear, and he realized that he was in what appeared to be a large warehouse, seated on a sort of bench, which was up against a steel pole that went from floor to ceiling. He tried to get up, and realized his feet were shackled together, and there were handcuffs on his hands, looped through a chain around the steel pole behind him.
Oh, no, he thought, it’s not a mugging. I’ve been kidnapped or something. Wait a minute! He began to grin in spite of himself. Who would kidnap me anyway? And why? Then, he remembered Trina again, and looked around in the dim light and saw only shadows. He prayed that she had somehow escaped whatever this was and wasn't hurt. Then again, if she did escape unhurt, she was probably going to notify the authorities, who would be arriving any minute to get him out of this. Whatever this turned out to be.
Bert saw light spilling in from the left and heard a door close, and clicking on the floor. He was going to yell for help, then decided against it. What if it’s them, he thought. That’s all I need--to make a lot of noise. Kidnappers don’t like noise. They'd want to come and make me shut up. He decided to wait and see what was up. He wouldn’t have to wait much longer though; the clicking was getting closer.
Trina stepped out of the shadows, with a thermos in her hand. She was wearing low heels that clicked, clicked, clicked on the floor when she walked. She smiled at Bert, and pulled a chair from behind one of the shelves and sat across from him to the side of a small table. She opened the thermos, and poured herself a cup of something hot. Bert could see the steam, and thought it smelled like hot chocolate, but that was insane, wasn’t it? Unless they did get her after all, and threatened to do something to her if she made a fuss. But to give her a thermos with hot chocolate?
“Trina,” Bert whispered, “they got you too, huh? Well, I don’t want you to worry, because somehow, I will get out of these handcuffs, and I’ll get us both out of here.”
Trina took a long sip from the cup and placed it on the small table to her right. She sighed deeply and said, “Who, Bert? Who are 'they'?”
Bert said quickly, “You know. The people who kidnapped us and brought us here. They didn’t do anything to you, did they? I feel really peculiar, like I’ve been drugged or something, but my head is starting to clear, so they’d better watch out. I don't know if I’ve ever told you this, but I sometimes work out at the Y.”
Trina slowly shook her head and said quietly, “There is no they, Bert. I brought you here myself. It’s true, you have been drugged. I am sorry about that, but it was the only way I could get you over here without attracting any attention, or involving anyone else. You staggered a bit, but it looked like you just had a little too much to drink, that’s all, and no one really paid us much attention. You'll have a slight headache for awhile, but it won’t last.”
Bert couldn’t believe his ears. What was she saying? What was she talking about? This had to be some sort of a prank. Someone at the office was trying to mess with his mind. A demented practical joke. He couldn’t believe she would allow herself to get involved with something like this, but she didn’t know the people he worked with very well. She had only met them a couple of times at some after-hours office get-togethers. But, somebody convinced her this would be funny. Wait until he got back to the...
Schlotsky. Milton Schlotsky. That’s who it was. The new guy hired to train with him in the advertising department. What an eight-ball he was. Couldn’t write an ad or sell a presentation if his life depended on it. And always playing practical jokes around the office. God, Bert hated practical jokes. And Milton Schlotsky.
He finally put a bug in the ear of the Advertising VP about him; how he was disrupting the department, undermining Bert’s authority by making jokes about him to the other staff, going on about how Schlotsky just didn’t seem like a team player, and so on. Bert could see Mr. Flond’s blood presssure going up right then and there as he spoke. He knew Schlotsky would get his. And really soon, too. Mr. Flond was not one to pussyfoot around if something needed to be done. Especially, when it came to something, or someone, throwing a monkey wrench into the works of the company. Mr. Flond was a real company man through and through. People said it was because he was the President’s brother-in-law. But Bert knew that wasn’t so. Because Bert was a company man through and through too, and he wasn’t anybody’s brother-in-law.
Bert knew he would never be able to get in to see the company President. He was way too busy to have any time to spend with the staff. Bert thought he had actually seen Mr. Schwind once or twice in the parking lot, but he wasn’t sure. The man was in his office all day long with his secretary with the door closed. Bert knew the life of a company president was no stroll down the lane, but Bert felt sorry for him in a way. The man never came out of his office, just stayed in there day after day with his secretary. Bert never saw her turn on her typewriter to do any of her letters, but maybe she came in on the weekends and did the typing, because there was just no time during the week, what with taking dictation all day. Poor kid.
But he knew he could get in to see Mr. Flond if he just mentioned to his secretary that there was a problem in the Advetising Department that could cause trouble with the clients. That got his attention, and Bert was summoned.
Of course, Schlotsky took it badly. Came back to the Department mumbling to himself about 'some people being jealous' and 'some people who didn't know what it meant to be loyal to their co-workers' and all that nonsense. Loyal? Bert was in charge of the Department and Schlotsky acted as if he was trying to come in and just take over. Well, Bert thought, over my dead body, you crumb. Not a minute sooner.
I guess he didn't learn his lesson, because here he was playing another one of his sick practical jokes. Only this time, he got Bert's new lady friend involved. That was too much. This time, he had gone way too far, and Bert would really get him for this one. And Trina? He’d have to have a long talk with her about this kind of thing. He didn’t like jokes, practical or otherwise, and he would just have to ask her to understand and respect that.
“Look,” Bert began, “I’ve figured this out, Trina, so you can go back and tell Schlotsky that it all went really well, and it was really funny, and I hope he gets a good laugh over this, because it will be his last at my expense. Unless he’s here? Schlotsky? You hiding in the shadows watching all this, you worm? Come on out and face me like a man, if you're there, even though you’re not a man, you bum!”
Trina just sat and slowly shook her head again.
“Bert,” she said, “no one else is here. I’ve already told you, I brought you here myself, but not for the reason you're thinking. Let me explain. Normally, I do not explain anything to my marks, I just do what I need to do and move on. But, I really like you, Bert, and I thought maybe it would make it easier on you if I explained how things are.”
Bert was totally confused. “Explained what to me? Marks? What are you talking about? What is it that you do?”
“Well,” she began, “it’s my part-time job, you see. People hire me to kill other people.”
Bert felt as if he’d been hit with a brick. He stared at Trina, who was taking another long sip of her hot chocolate. I have some sort of tumor, he thought, and it’s giving me these hallucinations. I’m probably already in a hospital ward, tied to a bed, and doctors and nurses are standing around me shaking their heads and saying 'my, my, and he's so young, too'. He decided maybe he could snap himself out of this thing he was in by playing along and just riding it out.
“You get hired to kill people?” he asked.
“Yes,” Trina answered.
“You’re a hit ma... I mean, hit wom... Well, hit person, then?” Bert continued.
Trina just smiled. “You watch too much TV,” she said softly. “I'm not a hit anything. I just get hired to kill people. The money is good, and I'm good at it. I like designing clothes more though, so I do that full-time. The killing people thing--that’s just my part-time job.”
Bert knew then he had crossed over into Peter Pan land. He thought he just heard Trina say that killing people for money was her part-time job. But, what would that have to do with him anyhow? Why was she telling him all this? She had said she wanted to explain to make it easier on him. Make what easier? Oh God.
“You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?” he gasped.
“Yes,” she responded, in that lilting voice of hers. “I thought you understood that.”
“But why?” he asked. He began to feel himself coming apart at the seams. “Somebody hired you to kill me? Who?”
“Oh,” she said, “I couldn’t possibly tell you that, Bert. I always keep my clients’ identities confidential. If I were to violate their confidentiality, why, I wouldn’t be worthy of their trust, now, would I?”
Bert was beginning to get dizzy. “Trina, I don’t understand any of this. I thought we had something between us. I thought I knew you. I even thought I loved you. You know, I was thinking of asking you to marry me. There’s a laugh for you and Schlotsky, right?”
Trina took another long sip of hot chocolate and sighed again. “Who? No, Bert,” she said. “It’s not a laugh. It’s very sweet. You know, if you had asked me to marry you, I would have accepted. I love you, too, Bert.”
Bert’s mind was racing. “You don’t have to keep doing this then,” he said. “You can put all this behind you, and we will never talk about it again. As far as I’m concerned, none of this ever happened. What do you say, Treen?”
“Oh, Bert,” she said, “that’s not possible. I’ve been hired to do a job and if I don’t go through with this, I’ll lose my credibility.”
Credibility? Bert just knew he was going to throw up on his shoes. “If you planned to kill me all along because someone hired you to do it, why would you drug me up and bring me here and tell me about it? Don’t you know anything about this? That’s not how it’s done! There was a movie on TV last night about this guy who was paid one million dollars to go up on the roof of this...”
Trina slammed the cup down on the table.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve telling me how to do my job, Bert. I really care about you, and that’s why I did something I’ve never done before. Of course, seeing how you’re acting, I won’t do it again, that’s for sure. But, all I wanted to do was to be decent about all this. I didn’t want to just do it from a distance so you’d never know what was coming. I mean, that’s all right if the mark is a stranger, but Bert, we had something. A real relationship. I couldn’t treat you that way.”
Bert hoped that those doctors and nurses standing around his hospital bed shaking their heads all had a syringe full of something potent to give him to send him permanently on a cruise to Sesame Street Bay. He didn’t like it here anymore. This was just too nuts.
Bert could feel his face getting red. He didn’t really think the timing was right, but he was actually beginning to get upset with her.
“We had a real relationship, and you couldn’t treat me that way?” he began. “No. You’d rather do the decent thing, and tell me you’re going to kill me. Well, I don't know about anybody else, missy, but the way I look at it, if you really had any sense of decency, you would have just put a bullet between my eyes from across the street and walked away. That’s what I think.”
Bert regretted saying that as soon as he was saying it, but he couldn’t stop himself. What kind of a person tells you she's going to kill you before she kills you? If a person is going to kill a person, then they should just kill that person and be done with it, not discuss it. What was he thinking? My God, she’s really going to kill me! I am in a warehouse with a lady who is going to kill me! He could feel the sweat pouring down his face and neck. He considered asking her for a napkin or something, but decided against it. He really hated it when he perspired though. What little hair he had left went every which way, and didn’t stay neatly all on the one side the way he combed it. He envisioned being found here later, with all his hair in a little ball on top of his head.
Photographs. Newspapers. Oh, please, God, he could feel the tears welling up in his eyes. Please.
Trina wiped the cup out with a tissue and screwed it back onto the thermos. As she left the building, she hummed to herself to blot out Bert’s crying. When she got up to leave, he began whining and pleading, making her all kinds of promises. He just didn’t understand. Evidently, his good name and reputation didn’t mean one-tenth to him what hers meant to her. Well, she thought, that went badly. If that’s how he acts now, like a child, what would it have been like if she had married him?
When she got to what she believed was a safe distance from the building, she pressed the button on the remote control she had been holding, and the building exploded into flames. As she walked to her car, she remembered Bert’s comments and how ungrateful he was, and felt truly betrayed. It’s true that she had gone against her better judgment by trying to do the right thing, and explain everything. But, at the very least, she thought he would at least have had the decency to exhibit some measure of appreciation. But, considering Bert’s wretched attitude toward this whole situation, she came to the conclusion that he was probably right.
She made up her mind that if this situation ever came up again, a quick bullet between the eyes from across the street probably was the way to go after all.
BIO: J. F. Juzwik has had a crime fiction novel, a horror short, and several crime shorts published. Her thriller will soon be appearing in an anthology. She is a member of several writers' networks and maintains a blog for both writers and readers at J F Juzwik's Blog. Information on all her projects can be found on her website at J. F. Juzwik - Author - Published Novels.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
11 hours ago