THE HIT MAN - NANCY SWEETLAND
It would be a perfect night for a murder. I suppose not many people would think like that, but then not many people are in my line of work. It never seems like work to me, though; each job is an intriguing challenge. Who? How? Where? And when? And I do so enjoy the outcome: money. Lots of money.
This particular job was going to be especially interesting, my first in a small town. I usually work big cities, where it’s easier to do my deed and disappear.
The Who was somebody’s wife. The How was, of course, up to me. The Where was dictated by her husband, who was going to be anywhere but there. The When was also stated in our contract (verbal, of course, not on paper, can’t have something like that lying around, can we?).
We met in the food court of the Cliffside Mall, where other people, intent on their dinner plates, paid no attention to us. “This Friday,” the husband said decisively. “Between eight and ten.”
It was already late Wednesday afternoon. Not much time to plan. I asked, “You’ll be safely away?”
“Thousands of feet in the air between Vegas and Chicago.”
“And she’ll be where?”
“She leaves the fitness center about eight, drives home over the cliff road. She never varies.”
“Even if she knows you aren’t going to be home?”
“She doesn’t know. I told her I’d be there by about seven, and that I’d bring takeout and wine - she loves wine - so she wouldn’t have to worry about cooking dinner.”
I nodded. He’d done half the work for me already; now all I had to do was finish her off and get out of town. “Got a picture of her for me?” I wouldn’t want to pick off somebody else’s wife.
“Sure.” He handed me a color snapshot.
My heart stopped.
I knew her. Well. Very well. She was - had been - the first love of my life. We’d lost touch over the years, yet I’d have recognized her anywhere. Same wide blue eyes, same tilted nose, flyaway blond hair. Same air of excitement that had thrilled me as a teenager. And that, I realized, could still thrill me now.
I swallowed. “You're sure this is her?” My grammar fails me when I’m flustered. “I mean she?”
He frowned. “Don’t you think I know my own wife?”
“But...but...” I stuttered.
“What’s the matter? Fifty thousand isn’t enough? I’ve got it right here.” He reached for his inner coat pocket.
“No, no.” I swallowed. Hard. “It’s plenty.” Erasing (my preferred terminology) a stranger was one thing, but the girl that had taken my virginity so sweetly in the back seat of my father’s Buick way back when? That was another.
Fifty thousand. Good pay for a couple of day’s work, wouldn't you say? It was more than I usually asked, enough to set me up for some time in a new place, with a new name. Maybe even in a new business, I thought now.
He handed me the packet of bills and we shook hands. I watched him walk away, shoulders straight, a nearly rich man without a care in the world. I could almost hear him humming under his breath.
My own shoulders slumped; I felt the weight of that world on me. Sweet Janie Mason. Not Mason now, I thought. Janie Glidden. Rich Janie Glidden. She’d inherited a bundle from her father’s tech business. Her husband wasn’t into sharing; he wanted it all. And it was my well-paid job to see that he got it.
“Make it look like a mugging gone bad,” he suggested. “Or run her car off the cliff road on her way home, something like that, I don’t care. Just do it.” His voice was cold.
I’d nodded. Sure.
I felt sick. Really, really sick. But before I went back to my motel (small, cheap, the kind of place where the guy at the reception desk was used to not noticing people), I decided to take a drive around town, check out the cliff road Janie’s husband had mentioned. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so bad if I could work out that scenario, if I didn’t have to actually touch her? If she never saw my face?
I tried to think back on my other jobs - there had been more than a dozen in the past couple of years. Had I ever really thought about the mark? About what he or she was really like, had done, or cared about? I closed my eyes, trying to picture faces, places, but nothing stood out. They were just jobs to be done, were done, became history. Get paid, do the work, move on. This one was different and I wasn’t sure how to make it happen.
I spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening at the library, checking over microfiche tapes of the past year’s social events. Janie was all over the papers at one charity event or another, at a soup kitchen, a day care, helping out at a blood drive. In every picture her love of life shone around her like an aura. Her husband, on the other hand, was no more than an escort on a couple of occasions. There was no press on his accomplishments. I assumed there weren’t any, except for marrying well.
The truth was, I’d been hired by a gold-digging nothing to erase not only a beautiful but a worthy person. It made my stomach ache, and I headed back to my motel to brood. Maybe something would come to me in my sleep. I’d heard about the subconscious working out solutions that way.
It didn’t happen.
The next morning I got into my rental sedan, a nothing special model that wouldn’t be remembered by anyone unless they had reason to notice me, and drove to the east side of town where the road climbed steeply up a rock cliff overlooking a swiftly-flowing river. A vehicle pushed over the edge would tumble over a few outcroppings before hitting the water. The current looked strong enough to push the car well away from the site where it went over the embankment. But there was a problem to the cliff scenario: the drop off was protected by a sturdy rock and cement wall almost three feet high. No way would a car break through that.
I headed back into town, considering and discarding possibilities that ran through my mind, oblivious to my surroundings until, at a stoplight, the Lexus that pulled up beside me honked. My light was still red, so what was the beef? I turned to give the driver a scowl that changed to astonishment as the window toward me slid down and a smiling woman waved.
This couldn’t happen. I thought about gunning the motor and disappearing. I thought about pretending I hadn’t noticed. I thought about Buicks and yesterdays and rolled my own window down.
“Janie!” I called. “What a surprise!”
“Pull over,” she said.
Later, much later, over drinks and dinner at a nondescript bar and grill I would bet had never been graced with Janie Glidden’s presence before, we were still catching up. We laughed and reminisced. I fabricated a job in Chicago (advertising) and a reason for being in Cliffside (just passing through, going north to check on some vacation property). She was honest about what she did (I knew most of it already) but hesitant to talk about her husband. I was pretty sure she didn’t like him much.
“Are you married, Tom?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Never found the girl that could measure up to my memories of you,” I answered, surprised to realize that was probably true. I raised my glass of wine.
She blushed, and I remembered how easily the color came over her face. “Silly,” she said, and impulsively reached out to take my hand. “It’s so good to see you. Won’t you stay over and have dinner with us tomorrow night? Alec will be home, and I know he’d be pleased to meet you.”
“I can’t,” I said. “I have an appointment up at Tomahawk.”
“Oh.” She really was disappointed.
“But I could have lunch before I leave town,” I suggested. “If you’re free.”
She smiled, the old sparkle in those wide blue eyes. “I’d love to,” she said, and we parted. I didn’t kiss her, but I wanted to.
I couldn’t wait until the next day, just to be with Janie again. I was smitten. And I felt awful.
I couldn’t sleep. My stomach churned every time I thought about the job I had to do. I’d already been paid for it. I had never backed out on a contract. And what if I did? That wouldn’t save Janie. Alec, the jerk, would just find another hit man to erase her. This old world would keep on turning, as the song goes, but without Janie’s special light. Without her good works. Without her smile.
It was beginning to get light before I fell asleep, and that didn’t last long. But it’s true, your subconscious can solve problems for you. When I woke up, I knew exactly what to do.
Janie and I had a wonderful lunch in the restaurant on the top of the highest building in Cliffside, five whole stories up overlooking that swiftly-moving river. By the time we left, the restaurant was almost empty, and I knew it was time for me to leave town to make my fictitious appointment in Tomahawk.
“You will come back, won’t you, Tom?” she pleaded as she got into her Lexus. “I really want to see you again.”
“Oh, yes, I will,” I said. “I promise. I want to meet Alec.”
And meet him I did, as he strode through O’Hare on the way to come home, fully prepared to act his way through the horrible disaster of his wife’s demise. I met him in passing, with a stiletto so thin hardly any blood spotted his white shirt. I was yards away through the crowd before he sank without a sound to the marble floor.
As I said before, it was a perfect night for a murder. I’ll wait a while, then I’ll return to Cliffside. After all, I promised Jamie I’d come back.
BIO: Nancy Sweetland has sold over 350 feature articles, 62 adult short stories; poems to both adult and juvenile magazines, 40+ children’s magazine stories, seven picture books and an adult romance, “The Door to Love.” She’s been awarded 60 regional and national awards in adult and juvenile fiction and poetry, essays, commercial copy writing and outdoor writing. She lives and works in Green Bay, WI.
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