Chapter One: Make Them Suffer

(illustrated above: Frank / Bardos)

I wiped blood from my eyes, turned on the bathroom faucet and washed my hands. I heard muffled cries from the woman Diane was stabbing in the bedroom at the other end of the hall and I thought, This has to be the last one. But the thought echoed in me and receded, like the distant notes from a hunter’s horn, heard over hills.

I went back into the bedroom.

Adam James had my knife shoved into his stomach, a gag buried in his mouth, his arms and legs were tied to the posts of his king-size bed, and he was finally dead. I picked up the black bag I had set on the floor, popped open the latches (Mack said that zippers made too much noise or got stuck) and pulled on new gloves. I took out bleach and small towels and wiped down anything I might have touched; I didn’t need to, but old habits endure. Mack had told us that no one involved with these people wanted cops crawling around, so Diane and I didn’t have to worry about leaving clues. Mack wanted a message sent, and left specific instructions in a small note placed on my Dodge’s right front tire: Make them suffer.

“You done in here?” Diane asked. She leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed over her chest.

“He is.” I used too much bleach on the dresser and had to turn my head away from the smell.

“I see that,” Diane said, and grinned. She was almost as tall as I was, a few inches under six feet, but you didn’t notice her height when you looked at her. Diane must have weighed…two fifty, maybe three hundred pounds. I remember when Mack introduced us and I thought, She doesn’t exactly blend in. Diane was, in every way, big and loud: wild blonde hair, large laugh, shouted when she told a story, gestured wildly when she spoke. I can spend an entire day lost in my own mind, but Diane demands attention, which is the opposite of what you’d want in our line of work. But I realized pretty quickly why Mack liked her; Diane was a presence, but a presence like a dropping bomb. What she touched died.

“This looks like it took a while,” she commented.

“A while is what Mack wanted.”

“Wouldn’t it suck if this ended up being the wrong house?”

I looked at her.

“Come on,” Diane said. “There’s no way it’s the wrong house. But it’d be funny.”

I kept looking at her.

“You never get my sense of humor.” Diane sighed. “Well, I’m done in there. Want to see it?”

“Not really.”

“Then let’s go.”

Diane and I headed downstairs and I stepped into the kitchen, where I had gated their lumbering sheepdog. I didn’t know when the bodies we had left behind would be found, so I put out a bowl of food. The dog ran to the dish and ate hungrily.

*          *

I’m not a serial killer.

I stared out the passenger window as Diane drove our van back toward Towson, leaving Bethesda behind. I’m not a serial killer. The words had become my mantra recently, buzzing through my mind. We turned onto I-95 and slowed. Traffic was as thick as smoke.

I’m not a serial killer.

“I hate hate hate leaving a messy job behind,” Diane said, as she downshifted and the van glided to a stop. “I know Mack wanted to send a message, but he ought to send someone to clean up.”

“Mack doesn’t set all the rules.”

“But this feels reckless.”

“A little.”

“Thank God for gloves,” she said. “And guns. By the way, nice job forgetting yours.”

I’m not a serial killer.

“Seriously,” Diane said, and she peered at her side mirror and swerved into the next lane. “That’s a mess back there. At least she was. I made sure I didn’t leave a hair behind, no matter what Mack said, but it was tough to dig through her blood and guts. We need to talk to him about that. We need to tell him…”

Half of me listened to Diane, but the other half thought about my gun, sitting on my bed where I had left it. I could still taste the metal in my mouth from a week ago, the awkward sensation of having my thumb over the trigger.

Something about my life had started to bother me.

I didn’t feel remorse for what I did. I didn’t need to rationalize it. Mack gave us a job and Diane and I, or others who work for him, carry it out. Some of the people we killed had done terrible things. Others were innocent. All of them had families, people that love and miss them. They just pissed someone off a little too much.

I’d seen enough to know there isn’t a god who cares for everyone, and nothing like karma or fate or anything else giving out justice. You die and you pretty much become a plant. It’s science or math or something. Happens to everyone.

I’m not a serial killer.

But, lately…this unhappiness. Like I’d been pushed out to sea, alone, with nowhere to anchor.

“…And then I told her,” Diane was still talking, “you can’t expect me to always stay in touch. Right? I told her…”

I’m not a serial killer.

I had an odd thought, and I knew it didn’t make sense, but maybe there was some type of balance that needed to be preserved. It had felt natural to place my gun in my mouth last week. I had killed thirteen people in my lifetime, and maybe it was time for me to die. But I never did and, I knew it was weird, but I wondered if I ever would.

The idea scared me.

"...and then, carrots." Diane finished her story and looked at me smugly.

I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.

Diane grinned and slapped me on the leg. "Right?"

"Carrots," I said, agreeably, and Diane cackled and my phone buzzed. I pulled it out of my pocket and glanced at the text:

Need 2CU

“Mack?” Diane asked.

I shook my head.

Diane grimaced; she knew who it was. She let out an annoyed sigh and said, “I’ll drop you off at your car. Idiot.”

*          *

I watched Diane drive away, turned to my Dodge and stopped, surprised by my reflection in the window.

I looked a lot older than twenty-five. My straggly hair was even stragglier than usual, and my face was pale, sickly, too thin. I prided myself on not being memorable, but it would have been hard not to notice a walking skeleton. I climbed into my car and slouched down in the driver’s seat.

Maybe I needed rest.

Rest would probably help, but it was hard to imagine me on a beach chair on some island, dressed in black, squinting at beachgoers as they walked by, a gun tucked in my trunks.

I started the Dodge and headed to Baltimore, where Nicole lived.

The last time I had seen Nicole, a couple of months ago, I casually told her after we undressed:

“I think I want a kid.”

“Now?”

“Nine months from now. How does that make you feel?”

“Bad?”

“Well,” I told her, defensively, “I didn’t say with you.”

Nicole laughed. “You found someone else?”

“No,” I said, honestly. “I…I think it would help.” I lay on my back and looked at the ceiling.

“Help what?”

I didn’t want to tell Nicole about my sadness. “It would just be nice.”

“I’m still not ready,” she said.

“I figured.”

One of her hands poked out of the covers and rubbed my chest, slowly. The sensation was nice. I closed my eyes.

“We’re not going to have sex, are we?” she asked.

“Why wouldn’t we have sex?”

“Because you’re sad?”

“Yeah. Sure. But we should still have sex.”

But we rolled to opposite sides of the bed and started getting dressed. I watched Nicole do a quick bend to pick up her underwear, and she looked up and smiled, her eyes wet.

We dropped our clothes and climbed back onto the bed.

I parked across the street from Nicole’s house in Baltimore, looked at myself in the visor mirror and frowned. I reached into the backseat for my baseball cap, put it on and pulled it down low. I opened the glove compartment, fished out a condom, considered it, and then left it in the car.

I could always hope Nicole had changed her mind.

The night was cold, not as cold as it usually was in October, but cold enough for me to jam my hands in my pockets as I headed across the street. Nicole lived in Waverly, in a tough but beaten Baltimore neighborhood that stood in the memories of Memorial Stadium. I followed a curved chain of small red-brick houses with green-shingled roofs until I reached hers.

I couldn’t shake the feeling, and I’d had it since Diane and I left Bethesda, that I was being watched. I’d kept an eye on the rearview mirror, taken side streets, even jotted down a couple of license plates in case I saw the same suspicious cars later. But I was alone.

I was about to climb up the steps to Nicole’s house when the front door opened and Megan, Nicole’s nine-year old niece, emerged and solemnly stared at me.

“Hey Frank,” she said.

I walked up the brick stairs and bent down to give her a hug. I felt Megan’s thin arms around me and her small nose tickled my neck and something stretched over my mind, a memory from childhood, when I was once outdoors on a brisk October evening like this one. The recollection receded. I let it go.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“Your aunt asked me to come over.”

“I’m glad. I miss seeing you.”

“I’ve missed you too.”

Megan stared up at me and then I looked away. A moment longer and something sad would have risen.

 “Come on inside,” Megan said, and she grabbed my hand and led me through the door. I glanced up and down the street again and closed and locked the door behind me.

“Where’s your mom?” I asked. Monica, Nicole’s sister, didn’t like me.

“Working.” Monica waited tables at some restaurant in the harbor, and her daughter Megan was almost always here. Megan was tall for her age, and skinny. Gawky. She was the type of kid who always had a book in her hand, who was going to go through rough stages in her teens but would end up making a good adult. I liked her.

“Hey Frank,” Nicole said, as she emerged from the kitchen.

“Hi.”

“Thanks for coming over.”

“Sure.” I was still holding hands with Megan and I felt her fingers tense; the stress of being around two people she had seen fight.

“Megan,” Nicole asked, “can you run upstairs and get ready for bed?”

“You want to talk to Frank…alone?” Megan teased.

Nicole smiled and, inside me, something broke.

“Okay.” Megan released my hand and ran to the stairs and bounced up them.

Nicole and I watched Megan and then turned toward each other. A small smile disappeared from Nicole’s face. She looked away. I did too. It was hard to see Nicole; it was always hard to see her. Something about her light-brown eyes contrasted with her black skin mesmerized me, haunted me. She wore a long t-shirt and black sweatpants and her braids were rubber-banded behind her head.

Seeing Nicole never got easier.

“How’s work?” she asked.

I shrugged.

She watched me, her stare steady. Nicole didn’t know what I did for a living, but she had known enough about it to leave me. She suspected it was something under the table, but had no idea how far under.

If she did, I’d never see her again.

“Work’s fine,” I said. “How about for you?”

Nicole worked for a dentist as an assistant, or a hygienist. I don’t know. Something with teeth.

“Busy,” she said. “People want to use their Flex money before the year ends.”

I nodded like I knew what that meant.

“You look good,” I told her. “Really pretty.”

She frowned. “You don’t. Are you on drugs?”

“No.”

“Have you been eating right?”

“It’s been a rough couple of weeks,” I admitted. “Lots of McDonalds and grocery-brand soft drinks. Food on sticks. Stuff like that.”

Nicole’s frown stayed.

“I’m glad you called,” I said, and walked over and embraced her. Her hands reached around me, her head briefly rested on my shoulder.

I let go and stepped back.

“You sure you’re not on drugs?” she asked.

“Why?”

“You’re not exactly the hugging type.”

“I am with you.”

Nicole smiled. “I know that’s not true.”

“Come on. Shut up. Let me be affectionate.”

The door opened behind me. I turned and the first things I saw were his uniform and badge; a dark blue uniform and faded gold badge.  Then the belt with the nightstick on one side and gun on the other.

I took a quick step back.

“You okay?” the cop asked. He was short and portly with parted brown hair and a surprisingly deep voice. He looked at me suspiciously.

“Who are you?”

“This is Alan,” Nicole said, and then told him, guiltily. “Alan, I didn’t know you were coming over tonight.”

“Is this Frank?” Alan asked.

I nodded.

“Frank,” Nicole said, and she was flushed. “Alan and I are together. We’re…moving to San Diego. I wanted to tell you. Tonight.”

A moment passed. They looked at me expectantly.

“In California?” I asked.

Nicole and Alan traded a glance.

“Yes,” she said.

“Great!” I exclaimed. “I’ll be right back!” And I headed out to my car to get my gun.

End of Chapter One

Nicole lived in Waverly, a beaten but tough neighborhood that stood in the memories and shadows of Memorial Stadium. I followed a curved chain of small red-brick houses with green-shingled roofs until I reached hers.

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