THE RENO WAY - JACK BATES
In another life, Cliff Hardin was a hero. He had been part of an elite group of sailors trained by the Navy to partake in covert operations along the African coast. Once, in Algiers, he and his team had assassinated a Nazi general in charge of German covert operations in the continent. While the rest of the world held its collective breath for news from the European theatre and the war in the Pacific, Cliff Hardin felt that the balance of the conflict was taking place right there in northwestern Africa. The efforts of the secretive group secured an Allied victory.
And even though it had only been three years since the war ended, that life was an eternity ago. He had spent a year in the reserves waiting to be called back to duty, but it never came. Hardin tried his hand at various jobs, but no one understood his restlessness. No job fulfilled him like the one he had during the war. He drifted, taking odd jobs when he needed money to move. It finally occurred to him while riding in the back of a rusty pick-up from one small town to the next that the only thing that he wanted to do was kill.
It couldn’t just be a random killing. He wanted it to be like it had been for him with the guys. He wanted a target, not a victim. He wanted a dossier. He wanted to be assigned a mission. If he had a mission, it wouldn’t make it seem so cold-blooded. By the time the truck slowed at a lone traffic light in the latest small town he was dropping stakes in for a while, Hardin knew what he needed to do.
His life as a hired killer was born.
He remembered his first post-war kill. The ones in between that one and his latest assignment began to blur. None of those mattered. It wasn’t as if one mission was part of a bigger picture. These were what one of the guys in the unit had called a ‘pop’. He popped in, did the job, and popped out. It was why Gregory Dashell hired him to kill his wife.
“I’m sending my wife to Reno, Mr. Hardin,” Dashell told him. “Do you know why?”
“She only has to show six weeks residency there for a divorce.”
He smiled. His fat lips opened over his thick teeth. “Correct. So why not just get the divorce, right?”
Hardin shrugged. “Alimony? Property?”
Dashell waved a plump hand. “I could care less. I have money. A lot of money. No. I want her taken care of because she has it coming to her.”
Hardin nodded. “I thought after I took care of her lover you were just going to divorce her? What changed your mind?”
“Spite,” Dashell said. The smile on his face was dark.
“I want double,” Hardin said. “And I want expenses up front. How long has she been in Reno?”
“Two weeks,” Dashell said. He giggled.
“I’ll take the train. Give her time to immerse herself with the others. Where did you say she was at?”
Dashell leaned in closer. His breath smelled of cheap wine and garlic. “A dude ranch. It’s like a resort for gay divorcees. Everyone just hanging around waiting for the day they can go to the courthouse and file. It only takes one spouse. Everything there is ex parte.”
Three days later, Hardin rolled into Reno and caught a bus to the Happy Day Ranch where he checked in as Bradley Clark. Dinners were served each night from seven until nine, although the saloon served sandwiches until eleven. If he wanted to go on one of the horse trails with the groups, he needed to be at breakfast by six. Lunch would be on the trail.
The ranch was really just one big swingers club with a bunch of soon-to-be divorced people enjoying the pleasures of one another’s company. Hardin sat at the bar where he could keep an eye on the sunken dining room four feet below the rail he looked over. He knew Jean Dashell from the first half of the assignment when he killed her lover, a tennis pro from a Hamptons’ club. She wasn’t there the night he put two bullets in the young man’s face and one in his heart and then took the body up into Montauk and dumped it into Fort Pond Bay.
Jean sat at a table of women but stood out from the pack. A platinum blonde, she wore it pulled back with a red scarf tied neatly around a pony tail. It matched the wide red belt she wore with her tan slacks pulled up over her slender hips. A sleeveless cotton blouse clung to her, the undone top two buttons revealed her tender cleavage.
He watched her laugh with the girls at her table, watched as she flirted mercilessly with some of the divorce-seeking men and ranch hands. One cowboy lingered longer than the others, longer than the ones she had called over then rebuffed. He drank his beer from the bottle and tipped the brim of his hat back with it. He was a rugged man with sundried face creases and natural muscles.
When the party at her table started to break up, Jean Dashell shifted uncomfortably in her wooden chair. She was losing her safety net and the cowboy didn’t seem likely to leave any time soon. Hardin wasn’t sure why this irked him. Hardin never felt any affinity for any of his targets before. One of the first things the Navy did was desensitize the men in his group. In a dark room filled with cigarette and cigar smoke, a single slide projector put up images of known villains of the day. The men had to say if they could kill the target or not. The faces became less familiar from a war perspective. Still, they had to assume these faces represented targets bent on destroying the American way. Face after face went past: young, old, male, female, white, non-whites. Hardin thought that without a doubt he could kill anyone.
Then he saw a picture of his grandmother.
It took several slides to go by before he realized who it was. Even after it sunk in, he realized that for the good of the country, if that’s what it took to save America, he couldn’t stop to think about who the target was. His superiors had been surprised by this and asked him about it.
“The goal of the session was to desensitize us from feelings, sir!” Hardin had barked. His superiors had smiled.
For Hardin to be bothered by the cowboy’s lingering around Jean Dashell gave him pause. He pushed away the glass of beer he had been drinking. He asked for a glass of water. Hardin finished his meal and dropped a ten dollar bill on the bar, telling the bartender to keep the change. Instead of leaving out the saloon door, Hardin went down the five steps to the main dining room floor and strode past Jean’s table, turning when he was past the cowboy and catching her eye. She stared back, a hint of an invite twinkling in her look. The cowboy looked over his shoulder and, in that glance, both men sized up the other.
Hardin watched the dining hall from a plank board bench with rusty wagon wheels for arm rests. He was in no hurry to go back to the bunkhouse he shared with four other soon-to-be single men. The men pretty much sat around discussing how their marriages went sour.
The bench sat outside a wooden fence near a grazing yard. A moon as big and full as the desert gave off shadowy light but to the untrained eye, Hardin was near invisible. He waited, his gun with the silencer on it sitting next to his right hand on the bench. He’d wait until she was upon him and then he’d shoot her in the back of the head as she passed him. One shot. He’d stash her body in the horse barn under some hay. He shifted on the wooden planks under him. He was beginning to think Jean Dashell had gone out through the saloon or was letting the cowboy buy her a drink when he heard her talking in an aggravated voice.
“I’ve asked you to leave me alone,” she said.
“That ain’t what you said two nights ago,” the cowboy replied.
“That was two nights ago.”
“And now you don’t want nothing to do with me?”
“No wonder your husband sent you out here. You’re nothing but a two-bit whore.”Hardin heard the slap. There were some more heated words. Jean tried to scream but her cry was muffled by the thick hand of the cowboy.
“You bitch,” the cowboy said. “Maybe your sugar daddy back in New York will put up with that but I’ll show you how we break your kind out here.”
Hardin slipped back around the side of the barn. He watched the cowboy pull the struggling Jean. He waited until he was sure they were inside and then he slipped in behind them. The Navy had trained him to adjust ears as well as eyes in the dark. It took him no more than a few seconds to locate them. He moved like a shadow and the cowboy never knew what hit him. Hardin helped the cowboy to fall away from Jean instead of on top of her. In the silvery moonlight cutting inside they could read each other’s faces. Hardin held out his hand and Jean took it.
They hurried from the barn but not before Hardin closed it and dropped a board over the braces. She waited for him and he took her hand to lead her back to her bunkhouse but she held tight and pulled him in a different direction. He pulled back for only a moment but when he looked into her wild moonlit eyes, he knew he was going to follow her wherever she was going to take him.
A cabin no bigger than a one room shed waited down by a small gurgling creek. She wiggled the door knob and when no one said to go away, she pushed the door open with her hip and pulled him inside. A straw mattress on a wooden slat frame was wedged in the corner, a single window to its left. The whole room smelled of wet mold and musk but once he smelled her skin and tasted her mouth, it all melted away. Their naked bodies slid and rolled over one another and he knew, he knew he would never be able to complete this mission.
Later they lay naked on top of the dry mattress sharing a single cigarette. There was no blanket and he liked the way the moon cast shadows over her breasts and belly. She tickled him below with her long fingernails.
“So are you just passing through?” she asked.
“It’s what the workers here say about guests who come looking for only a night or two looking to get lucky.”
“Oh. No. I’m here because I want a divorce.”
“Fell out of love, huh?” She kissed his chest.
He took a drag on the cigarette. She took it from between his fingers. “You don’t have to tell me, lover.” The smoke she let out curled under his nose. “I owe you for what you did to Hank.”
“Is his name really Hank?” He took the cigarette back and pinched the hot end between his fingers.
“It really is. But he ain’t no cowpoke. He’s a retired cop from Des Moines.”
They laughed like it was some inside joke they had always shared. It was funny the way she had said it, the way she had rolled her eyes into the corners and raised her eyebrows. Hardin couldn’t put his finger on it but Jean was different. He felt his hand tighten on her bare shoulder and she pulled closer against him. He looked down into her dark eyes then kissed her deeply. She slid on top of him, the skin on her back cool in the Nevada night but the skin between her and him was deliciously warm. They made love like that and then he spooned her, kissing her neck.
“So are you passing through?” he asked.
Her head shook. Her hair tickled his nose and mouth. “No.” She rolled over and her face was so close to his it startled him that they weren’t touching. “I cheated on my husband and he caught me. You want to know a secret? I think he had my lover killed.”
“Why do you think that?”
She shrugged. “Just have a feeling. It’s the kind of man Gregory is. He’s not an attractive man; he’s not a gallant man. He’s a man who made up for his shortcomings by making a lot of money in the market. I married him for his money. He knew it. Everyone on Park Avenue knew it. But guess what, lover? The money wasn’t enough for me. I needed something I couldn’t get from him.”
“Attention? That would have meant I was alive. To him, I was just another acquisition. I wasn’t even a person in his eyes. How can you be a human being but not see other people as human?”
Hardin stroked her face. She purred and curled up next to him. “You never said why you thought your lover was dead.” he whispered in her ear.
“He disappeared. Oh, we swang, baby, me and my tennis pro. Then Millicent Potter, that bitch, found me and Tony in her pool house at one of her ridiculous afternoon cocktail parties. She threw them all the time for all of us Wall Street widows, as she called us. She was jealous. I know she ratted me out to Gregory. It wasn’t long after that day that Tony didn’t show up to give lessons at the club.”
“Did you love Tony?”
Jean laughed again. “Please, honey. I was just doing what every other wife in the Hamptons was doing. Gregory didn’t love me; he just loved showing me off. I was his trophy. Tony was mine.” Her laugh was dark and wicked. Hardin began to understand why he felt the way he did about her.
“No man likes being the cuckold.”
“Kind of like stealing the trophy instead of earning it, is that what you’re getting at? Once the word got out, all of our friends and all of the people he worked with knew the marriage was a sham. Honestly, I’m surprised he didn’t try to kill me. I thought for a while that Hank had been sent here to find me. I thought he was going to kill me in that horse barn tonight. If you hadn’t come along...” She shivered.
What he said next went against everything he had trained for during the war. He was about to empathize with his intended target. “It wasn’t your fault you found Tony. A woman as beautiful as you deserves a man who sees her for who she is.”
“And who am I?” she asked. Her eyes grew large and soft. They offered the same invitation as they had in passing back in the dining room. It was crazy, he knew. He was supposed to be killing her, not holding her. Hardin blinked to clear his head. He reached over the side of the low frame bed and felt the gun inside his pants pocket without taking it out.
Jean’s hand slid across his chest and caught his arm. She pulled it up across her and wiggled her way over him until both of his arms wrapped around her. Never had sleep been so warm and restful.
When morning came, Hardin lifted his pants and then stopped. His gun was not in his pants pocket. After cold cocking Hank in the barn, he had slipped it inside his front pocket. It was not there now. He kicked a shoe under the bed and then dropped down making to get it back but actually looking for the gun.
“Looking for this, Lancelot?”
Hardin raised up. Jean leaned against the door frame, the morning sunlight streaming in around her. She had a killer silhouette, his gun in her hand as she held it up. She reached out and dropped the gun on the mattress. The silencer was still screwed on.
“I got up to use the little girl’s tree last night and stubbed my toe on your toy,” she said.
“And you didn’t kill me?” Hardin asked.
“You didn’t kill me.”
Their eyes met.
The next instant, they both reached for the pistol.
Only, he was closer and he was quicker.
A half an hour later, he was in the lobby of the main house on the phone talking long distance to New York. Gregory Dashell wheezed happily on the other end. “I decided not to wait. I saw an opportunity and I took it,” Hardin said.
“Excellent. I’ll have your fee waiting for you at the agreed upon location.”
“I want you to wire it to the Weston Holdings Company in Los Angeles. Send it ‘Attention Bradley Clark.’ Did you get the name?”
“Yes. Bradley Clark. Weston Holdings.”
“I’ll expect it there in a day otherwise the New York police department will receive some confidential information regarding the story of Jean Dashell.”
“I understand, Hardin.” Dashell laughed on his end of the line. It made Hardin uncomfortable. “Going to do some sightseeing?”
“I like the weather out here.” Hardin gave him the address. He hung up the phone and stepped out into the bright morning light, squinting as he looked at the small red convertible sports car parked across the way.
Jean tied a red scarf over her hair and waved happily to him. He smiled back and went to the car. They drove out of the ranch, passing the horse barn as ranch hands removed the board from the braces. A pissed-off and groggy Hank pushed open the swinging doors and watched the two of them drive away.
BIO: Jack Bates is the author of the Harry Landers, PI series with Mind Wings Audio (mindwingsaudio.com). He was also the head writer for Zeke's on the Levee, a web series with Duke Fire and CFCC Productions. In 2007, he optioned a horror screenplay co-written with his friend Tony Lucchi to Triboro Pictures in New York. Look for his stories in Thug Lit Issue #32 and an upcoming anthology of dark and twisted tales about Oz.