[Author’s Note: This is The Contract, but redone and lengthened, while several inconsistencies have been edited out.]
Los Angeles, Concourse Hotel, Friday 6am
Alek ran the block once before returning to his hotel room, swiftly unlocking the door and resetting the alarm fitted to the door jam. He took one .45 Colt into the bathroom and lay it on the counter beside the sink before he ducked beneath the steaming hot spray. He shaved his head two days ago, and the peachy fuzz that came up felt rough underneath his fingertips. Knots of tension could not be swayed to loosen, but it helped him feel clear-headed.
He was wide awake, and preparations needed to be finished before ten-o’-clock if he was going to execute this hit without much problem. He stood in front of the sink, shaved, toweled dry and walked barefoot into the room to the closet, where he had recently hung his dry-cleaned suit.
It was the same routine as usual; wake up at the same time, jog, shower, breakfast, work. Today’s catch of the day was unusually depraved; Alek had seen his type before, however, and he would die like the rest.
At twelve-thirty this afternoon, the target would be enjoying a small party on his yacht in the harbor. This was a simple and clean assassination. He preferred the distance between himself and people - not only for his profession’s sake but for personal comfort.
He disliked the brush of limbs, perfume and sweat, the crush of bodies as they bumped and slid against his clothes. He had come to learn to use the crowd to his advantage - blend in, to vanish, to hunt like a wolf among the sheep.
Except his prey was always another predator. Like him, they disappeared out of necessity. They kept their predations and proclivities under the radar until eventually they will make the mistake of letting their sins become known, documented, proven, and it was then that the contract was given out and picked up by one of Alek’s many contacts. Many clients were glad to have him - if they could afford him.
He never met anyone face to face. Money was handled through a trusted third-party. He received payments virtually, without hassle, without signage.
Bad people did bad things, until the bolt of justice came in the shape of a bullet to tear a hole through the beating heart of the scum of the earth.
It was hardly anything to brag about. It was good that Alek had no one to brag to. It was simply all he knew how to do, what he knew he should do. Justice was a big word, and he considered his work nothing short of self-indulgence.
At twelve-forty-five, he disassembled the rifle, abandoned each constituent piece in separate garbage bins throughout a drive through downtown, and sank the stock in a drainage ditch before heading back to the hotel to pack what little he had brought along. He reached the woman Luciana once he was in his rented Kia driving back to the hotel.
“Objective confirmed: the target is dead. Good work again today, Alek.”
Luciana was an old contact; he’d never met her but she had been one of his more consistent contacts in the last four years. Their relationship had been a happy accident; she was in protective custody with the government, technically dead, living under a false name, but she used her history to dig in and find him work. The American government did not so much as sanction this activity as turn a blind eye. As long as he operated within the parameters of America’s interests, he wasn’t going to be stopped. He did not exist.
She came back through the earpiece. “What is it?”
“I might be taking some time off.”
“I’ll let you know.”
“Somethin’ the matter?”
“Well... Keep in touch, don’t be a stranger.” Her concern was a baffling comfort.
“I always do.”
The balcony was several stories up, offering a view not unlike the vista one would expect on a postcard of L.A.
Alek remained for a minute longer, as a salty breeze soughed in the California palms, rippled the crystalline water of the pool below where a single jovial couple swam and laughed. He watched from his perch, as distant to them as Mars. His eyes half-lidded, unfocused, until the distant street lights doubled. He retreated back into the dark hotel room and closed the sliding door. The hitman shut the large curtain with harsh finality.
He hadn’t changed yet, but he’d hardly needed to. His job was done. He was free to go as he pleased. The sun went to bed against the distant black and smoggy bosom of the earth, with only the satin sea for comfort. He couldn’t bring himself to leave just yet.
He usually ignored the phantom urge, long ignored, to go down into the bar and quietly nurse something dark and amber-colored while listening to people talk. It was an ancient pastime that had given him no greater insight to people as a species than reading ancient hieroglyphs. He knew enough about people to get around them, to move and distract them. Call it professional interest. Trained and raised in clinical isolation did not give him much room for people skills.
He had no true desire to be close to them. Hearing conversations, watching from a distance - that was all the intimacy he required. Vicariously living through others, trying to understand the complex mayhem of their busy lives, enduring problems and experiences and hardships and joys from which he must ever set himself apart. People complicated things.
The elevator brought him down to the bar and grill restaurant. It was there he selected a seat within sight of every exit with his back to the wall. He took whiskey in a simple glass tumbler, the bartender polite and asking few questions. That was good. He was merely another tired traveler, a businessman making his living during an overnight business trip.
There must have been some event hosted tonight. He hadn’t foreseen that when booking his travel plans. A graduation party, or so it seemed. Young women laughed together at a distant table, catered upon by the restaurant itself. All of them were primarily white, lovely, tanned and beautiful, all natural curves. Alek had long decided his life had no room for intimacy, no matter how much his body longed for it. It also legitimately gave him some apprehension.
Nevertheless, he refocused his attention on a second group. An older couple. Clearly on a trip together; he read much about people based on the details - individually, they said nothing and everything. Taken together, however, the story could unfold. They were married. Their wedding bands, however, did not necessarily match. Either one had to get a replacement, or they were not married to each other.
“It’s great to come out here sometimes. Get away from the house chores for once. I keep saying we should hire a maid--”
“You know we can’t afford that. Especially after what you did with your ring!”
A burst of activity from the girl’s table. A trio stood up and walked to the bathroom with one friend between them.
The couple’s’ conversation continued.
“Honey, it’s not like I meant to lose it in the garbage! I didn’t know it was gone until it was - y’know--”
The three girls went into the bathroom, and the husband said, “I’d love to hear how the hell you explained away that shit to Don.”
“Michael! I don’t like how you talk about him like that.”
Alek had become rather pulled into the story about Don, Michael and the wife who lost her ring. He began to think perhaps she had lost her wedding band while being with Michael, and Don was her true husband. Assuming that they were two old friends simply having dinner, armed with the knowledge that this was a restaurant open to all and not just hotel residents, he couldn’t assume that they were cheating on each other’s significant other.
The discussion continued in a hushed, heated way, but eventually it lowered to a volume which simmered beneath his hearing.
The girls came out of the bathroom.
“Lissa’s not feeling good,” said the short brunette on the right of the pale, listless blonde in the middle.
“She puked.” The willowy raven-haired girl supplied.
“Damn girl, can’t you hold a drink?” The two remaining at the table tittered.
Alek sipped his whiskey, frowning at the wall of mirrored glass. Flickers of his own reflection peeked at him from behind the arrayed army of multiple tinted bottles. Sharp, high cheekbones, angular face, hawkish nose. He couldn’t imagine himself being either party - one of those happy graduates, a group of boys nearby of the same class - or the (un)happily married couple. He saw only himself - the deep frown lines of his face, unsmiling, clean-shaven. He wasn’t certain whether he was handsome, unsavory, or simply forgettable.
He was nothing and no one.
I don’t belong with any of them.
He finished his first glass, and on the second refill, he noticed he was no longer alone.
It was the small brunette; she wore a hip-cut halter dress, her layered bangs consistently falling across one eye, and a small glossy black purse, thin strap, and anxious amber eyes. Staring at him.
What do I say?
What does she want from me?
In a handful of seconds, he considered many things: pretend he hadn’t noticed her, get up and make good his escape, or sit and squarely face his adversary without backing down.
She was ten years younger at least.
He stared resolutely into his drink, and she did not go away.
She shifted her weight to her left hip, her center of balance precarious in her kitten heels.
“I was just wondering--”
No, I’m not interested. I’m not single. I’m not a good person. I’m drunk. You’re drunk. Go away. Go away.
“--are you Lissa’s brother?”
He stared at her.
“We called him when she was in the bathroom.”
“Oh.” Now it was her turn to feel completely out of sorts. She hadn’t had as much to drink, he thought, the longer he looked at her.
“Does she need a cab?”
He hesitated for a second. The girl clearly could see he was anxious to get back to his loneliness. Still, he found himself replying, “I can call one.”
“Really?” Her eyes lit up, her interest renewed, and her relief considerable.
Alek reached for his phone, and dialed the only number he remembered seeing on the sides of the cabbies in town this afternoon. He had an exquisite memory. He informed them of the address and where to pick up the girl.
He left twenty dollars on the bar and slowly pushed it in her direction. “For the cab.”
“Oh my-- Wow. You’re like, incredibly nice.” Her eyes remained bright, her earnest smile strangely warming. No one had ever smiled at him with good intentions.
Today was a day of firsts, it seemed.
He nodded with nothing more to say, paid for the whiskey. He was being pulled into the tide, even as he tried to keep away from the shore - the wet sand refused to release its hold on his feet.
He turned as if to stand up.
The girl refused to go, but she didn’t touch him.
“--what’s your name?”
He didn’t hesitate, reaching for knowledge close at hand. One twist, and “Ron” smiled a little. “Ron.”
The girl had come to approach him with good intentions. And yet she lingered. He saw her body language shift from shy girl to nubile temptress, though she was so new at it, it felt contrived and awkward. She was eighteen, polite, cute. Not old enough to drink and not old enough to be asking sex from men she didn’t know.
Her eyes scanned his face. Searching him for possibility, for acknowledgment.
“Well... we’re gonna stay here, so maybe I was just thinking-- maybe you could party with us a little?” So small, so needy. Hungry for validation from an older adult male.
He pushed away from the bar. “Sorry. I have to go.”
And he made a direct line to the elevators. He didn’t look back.
“Prick,” he heard her whisper, wounded.
On the flight to San Antonio, he received another contract offer. Luciana Rowe initiated the information via the usual encrypted connection, text only, with additional photographs, via an unknown client. He spent time studying them rather than sleeping, even though he had been lucky enough to enjoy an empty seat beside him. He nursed a glass of ice water, chewed the ice, eyes scanning each black-and-white, pixelated photograph.
It was a multiple target job. A big one. Money would come with each head slain, and then a final payday once the contract was closed with the last kill. It surrounded one group of individuals of ill repute, varying from drug manufacturing to illegally selling personal information to prostitution rings of underage people.
Apparently they had connections rooted deeply in the past - old friends, small time crimes which grew to grocery store robberies which proceeded to bank robberies. Arms distribution, selling to Mexico, drugs-- the usual filthy habits.
With the wealth they had amassed, they garnered enough money to begin their own individual illicit corporations. One had even gone overseas and began his prostitution empire - stealing tourist women, attracting them out of airports by promising to be their tour guides for a minimal fee.
Old friends; all of them connected to a common source of power - a man whose identity remained carefully guarded. That was the final hit - but only if Alek could recover enough evidence to put a name and a face to this individual.
“Do you accept? Y or N”
The blinking vivid green cursor burned into his retina. He hadn’t decided. He might have been in a better mind to decide if he had
waited and slept instead. But ever since the bizarre encounter at the Concourse, he was unable to shut his eyes.
He clicked Y, and waited for the data to finish loading to his firewalled files, then closed his laptop. Memory nagged at him.
An earnest young girl’s face. She had so many friends. She could have had any young man she pleased her own age. And yet she locked onto him for some psychological reason, subliminal or obvious, and why?
It was his stunning fear of desire for her that was upsetting.
He had no contracts, nothing to worry about, no planning ahead, nothing but time. Work was over.
I’m not like any of you.
He did not imagine silken skin and liquid eyes, knee socks or short skirts when he was alone at night. He found comfort in the symmetry of a bullet, the geometry of a good triangulation, the invisible one-hundred-and-eighty degree angle of fiber wire strung taut and unseen between his hands. Enjoyed the simple zen of repetitive motion: sharpening a blade, loading magazines, cleaning his equipment.
He was raised to desire little else than perfection in death. Forsake intimacy, lust, love.
He barely scraped by at friendship. Even that was an unnecessary risk. All that mattered was finding the one objective. The one kill that would end it - whatever it was. That nagging, haunting ghost that evaded identity or logic.
Travelers rubbed their tired eyes and blinked into another timezone as they filed together off of the plane. He melted into the throng, suitcase gripped in a leather-gloved hand, his jacket folded over the opposite forearm. He put it on when he stepped aside in the thoroughfare. Voices buzzing, music playing from someone’s iPhone too loudly.
He got one plain pretzel twist and a cup of black coffee before calling a cab to get a taxi. It was wickedly humid, and he felt a primordial sense of doom as he considered his next contract.
This job was going to consume the next several weeks.