IT CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR - ROBERT MEADE
Slappy Joe hated December jobs because his feet froze. Standing on roof tops at midnight or staking out a corner all day gave him near-frostbite. Nothing helped. Extra socks. Vaseline. Foam liners. Battery-powered heat socks. The blood refused to flow south. He’d kick a wall or slam his feet against the pavement. Nothing.
Normally he would gut it out, but tonight it was so cold he was getting the shakes. He was perched atop a brownstone on 51st Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, looking down at the front of Sacred Heart Church. He was supposed to shoot the Pastor when he came out of the rectory and headed over to church for Midnight Mass. Why? He didn’t know. It was just a job. A job that came straight from the top, though, and was a way back for him, into the good graces of those that mattered. He didn’t ask any questions.
Slappy leaned against the chimney stack, absorbing whatever heat he could, balancing the rifle on a metal bracket sticking out of the bricks. He sighted through the scope at the oak door of the rectory. Nothing was moving, except the scope’s crosshairs, which jittered in sympathy with his shaking.
“Damn!” He stood the rifle against the bricks and clapped his gloved hands against his overcoat, up and down his body. He stamped his numb feet. A night like this got him into trouble. Now he might not get back out.
Roddy McCain was a nice guy. He wasn’t connected to the muscle end of the family. But a year ago that didn’t stop someone from putting a .22 pistol behind his right ear and pulling the trigger. Slappy Joe was supposed to be Roddy’s bodyguard that night, but when he went to take a leak they got Roddy between the appetizer and the main course.
In the weeks that followed, there was talk that maybe Roddy wasn’t done in by Slappy’s weak bladder. Maybe Slappy gave him up, was in on the hit. But Slappy eventually cleared his name. He explained the new car and clothes and all the finery as stuff he bought with money he won in Atlantic City.
Still, for the better part of a year, he was pretty much on the fringe, not getting much action. Then this job came along. It meant that the bosses trusted him again. It could lead to bigger and better jobs. He had to deliver. If he blew it this time, he might as well pack up and move to Albany.
He peered over the façade. People below straggled into church. The organ rumbled to life and the choir tuned up. Their wheezy voices came to him, thin and brittle, on the cold air.
Slappy yanked his wrist up to his face and pulled back the coat sleeve. Twenty to twelve. Slappy smiled. The old man had to waddle out of the rectory soon. Twenty minutes and Slappy could say good bye to eleven months of bad food and even worse whiskey.
Each minute ticking by was an eternity made longer by the sharp tooth of his longing. Why doesn’t this man come out? Slappy wondered. Doesn’t he know I have a job to do?
Slappy heard the rectory door creak. He yanked off his gloves and grabbed up the rifle and positioned it on bracket. He jammed his right eye into the back of the sight. Nothing yet. Wait! The door shivered as someone pulled it back. A final tug and on the top step stood the Pastor, all in black with a biretta perched on his white head. Slappy put the crosshairs right on his nose.
The choir groaned out its song about peace on earth, good will toward men. Slappy focused on the red veins of the Pastor’s nose and put his finger through the guard, readying his shot. He held his breath and counted slowly, feeling the trigger. One. Two. He exhaled and squeezed the trigger.
An explosion of white and yellow and red clouded his eyes. His head jerked back towards the crippling blow from behind. The rifle fell to the rooftop and strong hands grabbed him under the arms on either side and rushed him to the edge of the roof. He tried to dig his feet in, but he couldn’t feel them.
“This is for Roddy,” a voice growled. They pitched him over the roof. He plunged in a cart-wheeling kaleidoscope of sound and light, feeling the night air rush over his face and down his neck into his groin.
He smashed into the street like a pumpkin. The churchgoers still outside screamed and the Pastor ran over and picked up one of Slappy’s hands, whispering into his ear while making the sign of the cross above him.
Inside, the choir sang about angels and kings, prophets and peace. On the street, Slappy Joe’s blank eyes stared at the asphalt as the blood pooled beneath him in a pinwheel of steaming red.
The police came and put a blanket over him. He never felt the neighborhood urchin removing his shoes to take them home to his alcoholic father.
BIO: Robert Meade is a transplanted Bostonian now firmly rooted in Mohegan Lake, in Westchester County, NY, with his wife and three children. He teaches at Loyola School in Manhattan. A published author of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, his work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, The New Flesh, Microhorror, Angels on Earth, Guideposts and Apollo’s Lyre.