The walls sweated the smell of sulfur. Sterling wiped at his nose even though he had become used to the noxious bite. This abandoned Camden factory had become so familiar it was nearly home.
The worn .45 with the pearl-white handle like bleached bone jutted from his hand toward Sammy Hollinger’s knee. The man twitched against the muzzle. His crotch was soiled with urine and his hands strained against the electrical tape binding his arms to the chair. His spit stained shirt clung to his thin frame. Sterling raised his head to meet Sammy’s sunken eyes.
They both knew it: this life was shit.
The events earlier were hazy. One of those fucking headaches clouded things, a blistering pain that felt like a corrosive acid drip to the crown of Sterling’s head. Another snatch and grab, another man brought here to die in this ruin.
Be what you are, that’s what Charlie always told him. Or was that something Serena cooed to him naked in bed? Either way, no man wanted a visit from Sterling Drake. He’ll have wished he kissed his kids goodbye that morning and was paid up on his life insurance. Sterling remembered something else Charlie told him once, the first time Sterling held a gun to a man’s head, his hands trembling: be as efficient as a slaughterhouse butcher, kid. Don’t focus on the killing, only focus on the job.
"Problems," asked Wally, the fat fuck taped to the other chair. Sterling had completely forgotten about him. Wally had perked up oddly cheerful.
A single bulb dangled over the three of them, casting a twenty foot circle of light into the darkness. Water dripped through jagged holes in the cement above, rust-red rods crosscutting them. Expansive puddles, thin but growing deeper in the sloped parts near the walls, glistened like marble. The sound of that dripping filled a cavernous space, rooms upon rooms that wound through chaotic corridors, a labyrinth of old cement.
“Shut up Big Nuggets,” Sterling answered wearily.Wally’s nickname was either impressive or ridiculous, he thought, depending on how you looked at it.
The day started off with the headachethat had built into a hurricane in his head.He remembered more now. He grabbed Wally first and tossed him in the trunk gagged and bound. Some time later he took Sammy. Those parts were clear, but something wasn’t making sense. Sterling rubbed his temple to try to get at whatever it was, and then growled and shook it off. The gun ached to be used no matter what was going on, and Sterling's index finger twitched at the trigger.
These two poor fuckers, they looked like Laurel and Hardy. Wally was splayed out, his belly nudging a dress shirt haplessly out of his pants, a thin mustache on his lip like a worm; and Sammy was just a skinny stain of a man. Sterling thought Wally all but rolled his eyes at Sammy’s sad angst.
When Sterling bore down on Sammy, his eyes full of menace and the gun shaking with fury against his knee, Sammy pissed himself again. The wet spilled down his jeans and drizzledinto the black water at his feet. Sammy’s words came with such a tremble that the staccato bursts were nearly incomprehensible.
"God. No. Please."
Tears poured down his face, his cheeks red with emotion. It was pathetic. Sterling rapped the muzzle several times against the knee and shook his head. Wally, for his part, looked over with the blase sense of a man who understood these things.
"You fucked another man's wife. You'd best make yourself right with this," Sterling said in an even, cold voice.
"What? Oh my god, there's been a mistake, I didn’t fuck anybody!"
This was obviously not true. Every man fucks somebody. But Sammy was terrified, and Sterling knew the kinds of words that came out when spoken in terror. False words, ones said desperately to make some kind of difference.
"I don't care, the job’s been handed over to me," Sterling said and glared down.
He was reciting lines he had said before. He knew he would put a couple of rounds in Sammy’s knees and then, after drawing it out a little, shoot him in the face. When had that meeting with Peter been about this job? It was all wrapped in noir mist. He tried to keep his focus. The barrel remained pointed at Sammy’s kneecap, but Sterling could feel his cool slipping away.
Sammy kept pleading. Sterling ignored him and watched Wally instead. There was a man who knew what was coming. He had stolen money and knew it. The poor fucker had dug himself a hole and was a cretin, but at leastknew what he was and took it like a man.
Wally laughed. It could have been a cough. Either way it was obvious he found Sterling's work humorous,maybe even embarrassing. It made Sterling's head poundevenmore.
This was drudgery. Lie and steal and fucking kill, then wait for your turn to come. Maybe some men in this life could hold on to die in their sleep as old men, but for most it was all bad karma. Most men ended up like these two, and Sterling felt sorry for them. In less than an hour they’d be dead, but the night would go on and the rain would keep falling. They would take their last breaths and that would be that.
"Please, oh god, I don't deserve this," Sammy whined. His voice had become high-pitched.
"Stop it Sammy," Sterling said, his voice all smooth concern. "It's going to be okay."
"What? My name's not Sammy!"
"Listen friend, all of this, it's just a figment of my imagination. I'm the only thing that's real. It will all be over soon."
Sammy's mouth hung wide. The basement was quiet, except for those drips in the darkness. It was serene in a way, like meditation. One could draw down to the most base senses: a small circle of light; men's quiet, desperate breaths; the smell of decay; the stark feeling of cold on the skin.
"I don't understand," Sammy stammered.
"I know you," Wally said, and Sterling looked over, sort of admiring that he would interrupt. "You're the Bull."
Sterling hatedthenickname. He wasn't a fucking bull. He had a goddamn IQ over 140, if those online tests could be believed.As if he was some dark-hided, barrel-chested beast. He was mean and fucking dangerous, for sure. But he was not some animal.
"Do you know how I got that name," Sterling asked, turning his head toward Wally, but leaving the gun rested on Sammy’s kneecap. Maybe he was stalling, he wasn't sure, but he felt compelled to answer Wally.
"No idea," Wally said, looking too comfortable, relaxed, as a man tanning on his beach chair. No doubt he thought he was manipulating Sterling.
Those early days with Charlie were so long ago. He wanted to tell Wally all of it for some reason, but the words got caught in his throat as he first tried to speak them.
“When, when I was a kid, this guy took me under his wing after my mother died: Charlie DuPont. He brought me into the life, you know? He told me early on I had this crazy streak he admired.”
“DuPont? Like the paint family,” Wally asked. His eagerness irritated Sterling.
“What? Fuck no,” Starling said, “he was a black guy like me. The fucking paint family? Anyway, he taught me everything. When I was fifteen he said I needed a woman to calm my mind, like all guys do. So he took me to this whore and sat in the corner and took out a pack of cigarettes and watched me fuck her over and over. Afterward, they both laughed about it, about my stamina. He finished that whole pack before I was done.”
Sterling gave a quick glance to Sammy. The man’s head trembled as if in seizure. “I need to shut the fuck up,” Sterling mumbled.
“No,” Wally blurted out, then stammered, “I can’t believe he watched you.”
Sterling bit his lip hard. “He was not some goddamn pervert, if that’s what you’re trying to say. It wasn’t a big deal. I fucked her, he watched. Don’t make more of it than it was.”
He drifted from the conversation. There was business at hand and the idea that Wally was playing him now burned in his chest.
“Sorry,” Wally muttered. “Your nickname though, you were talking about your nickname.”
“Oh fuck it! Fine, yes,” Sterling barked. Wally recoiled, his reclined head adding more folds to his chins.
“You want to hear it then? Alright, so when the guys heard about me and the whore, they laughed about it and said, ‘That boy fucks like a bull.’ Walking down the street, the guys would shout out, ‘Hey look! There goes the fucking Bull!’ But I was a teenager then, shit like that was cool. It’s not so fucking cool anymore. Now I slaughter men like fucking sheep and they call me the Bull for a different reason.”
Sterling took a step toward Wally, causing his body to stretch out as the gun hand stayed in place. It made him look even bigger than he was.
“Do you get it now,” Sterling screamed. “Do you need any more fucking information?”
"No," Sammy stammered, even though he wasn't the one who had brought it up. Sterling still glared over at Wally, who shook his head and looked uncomfortable for the first time.
"Fuck it guys, let's get this over with," Sterling said and took a step back.
Sterling shot Sammy through one kneecap, then the other. The bangs echoed crisply, each a heavy thud mixed with a high pitched chirp, overlapping wave upon wave. That sound, the thud and mixed chirp, reminded Sterling of a job out on the Maryland eastern shore years back at one of the chicken farms. It was ugly business and he only stayed a few weeks. It turned out to be too much even for him. The man he worked with was a paranoid meth freak who had the area by the balls. He would laugh when he dumped the grisly leftovers into the feed grinder.
This was something Sterling learned about the chicken business: the used up ones and useless male newborns were ground up into the feed for the rest. The machine that did this thudded incessantly,like a devil's drum,and mixed in were the high-pitched, terrified chirps as the chicks were dragged into the metal teeth. It drowned out all other sound, especially the screams that came from below. Sterling never really got the point of it all, other than the guy thought everyone was out to get him and was a sadist besides. He was one of those men who could hold a man’s intestines with a smile.When he savaged and ground up a couple of runaway teenage girls, Sterling walked away. He told his Newark crew at the time what happened and was allowed to return a month later to put an end to it. Sterling thought about the guy every time he had chicken.
Sammy shrieked so fiercely, and Sterling had gotten so lost in thought, that his hand spasmed and he put a bullet through Sammy's neck. Blood spurted in silence until Sammy began shaking side-to-side and his criesrose up in some ungodly song. The chair fell over with a splash, Sammy's mouth half hidden in water.
"My god," Wally yelled, his eyes wide as eggs.
"Shut the fuck up Wally!"
Sterling said this with a sneer, but understood what Wally meant. He was right, this was not how a professional handled his business. Sterling was three fucking feet away and instead of a clean shot to the forehead, he clipped him through the fucking neck? And now what was he doing? Just fucking standing there, watching the guy roll around in a panic.
In quiet moments, ones not like this, Sterling knew there was something seriously wrong with him. It was not the morality of it, or lack of, that bothered him. It was the demanding toll on his psyche. Killing was a tough business, even if one took pride in his work, and there was no pride right now ashe looked down at the crimson slick spreading around Sammy's head. Any idiot could pull a trigger. Brutality, day in and day out: that was what wore a man down.A man did not just get numb to killing, he got numb to living. Sterling, in those quiet moments, wanted some normalcy, to come home to a loving woman, to hold a baby in his arms, to mow the fucking lawn.
He knew he did not have a normal reaction to killing, and that he compartmentalized these atrocities into safe, little boxes to keep his psyche placated. By making it about the work, about it being a business, he could rationalize just about anything. It’s what he had been taught, first by Charlie and later by Manny.
Sterling wondered about his eventual end, expecting it to be like this, at the hands of some sociopath like himself. It’s what he deserved. All he could hope was that the guy was a professional. The guys on the receiving end had a choice too, tied down and asking themselves, “How am I going to go out?” Wally, he was not one to spend his last few minutes in frenzied fear. But poor Sammy, there he was bleeding and writhing, squawking like one of those chicks in the metal teeth.
He thought about what Charlie had come to. Was that a way to go out? No, but it was not entirely Charlie’s fault. Sterling played his part in that fiasco, though he wasn’t even old enough to buy beer yet. He brushed the thoughts away. It was not a time to grieve over the past.
More important was how would he would handle it when his time came. Fuck them all, he thought, I’ll charge into it like an angry bull, live up to my name. He pictured it, his head down, his massive hornsstained red with gore. The idea made him laugh and it went on until he was bent over, hand on knee. His sides hurt as the giggles came unfettered, and the gun waved randomly through the air.
"Oh my god," Wally repeated, his chestaching against the layers of duct tape.Sterling caught his breath and stared at first at Wally, then at Sammy. The laughter stopped. Wally was absolutely right.
Sterling put an end to Sammy with two shots to the head, and then turned to Wally, who finally had concern on his face. It disappointed Sterling. Wally might have been masking his fear the whole time, which would ruin Sterling's impression of him; or maybe Wally had no confidence Sterling could do the job right, that he couldn’t handle his business after all.
"You may be wondering what I'm thinking right now," Sterling said, brushing his sleeves and making sure his shirt was tucked in. Sammy's lifeless body looked strange, his face foreign. "You know, whether I'm going to get skittish, or do what you know I was told to do. To assuage your fears, let me tell you what's going to happen."
Wally’s eyes spread wide and his mouth turning up in an almost inquisitive way. This was coupled with a noticeable gulp in his throat.
"I’m embarrassed I fucked that up and that you had to see it. In your case, I can see you’re a cultivated man. You," Sterling said, sliding the gun into the holster under his left arm and pulling a knife from its sheath under his right, "don't get the gun. I'm not in the mood for this taking a long time though. I won't cut you up bad until after. I like you, you take things like a man."
"But I will be slicing you open,” he continued. “I'm thinking when I cut your neck, I’ll do it slow. I'll be taking those big nuggets too. Wally, you stole and maybe what happens to you tonight will save someone else from this kind of madness. Do you have anything to ask me? Unless I was misunderstanding your reaction, do you have any more concerns?"
Wally's lips trembled. Sterling sighed and sliced through his dress shirt and then undershirt. Pants and underwear came next.
Wally blurted, "I'll tell you where the money is."
Funny, Sterling thought, he had expected this to come later, at least until after the first cuts. He had not been asked to find out where the money was though. It had bothered him when he accepted the job. With this kind of cash involved, people got antsy.
Everyone knew that guys tried to buy their way out when they were strapped to the chair. So why hadn't Sterling been asked to find the fucking money? Maybe they didn’t care. But that was not true. Sterling knew this was Peter’s cash, that Wally was one of Peter’s guys and had been skimming for years. Peter would damn sure want his money back.
No, likely this was Manny not wanting to put Sterling in a bad spot and ordering Peter to leave it alone. No matter the loyalty, the temptation would be there and better to leave Sterling out of it altogether. But Peter would get funny. He had burned for years trying to get to the bottom of who was skimming. That he wouldn’t find out now would burn him even more. It all put Sterling in a bad spot.
There was no good way to get at it. His guess was that Wally had stashed away several hundred thousand over the years, which was impressive, considering the bookkeeping that went on. The guy had some fucking balls on him. It's why he was getting the knife.
The money would definitely get Sterling and Serena out. It was tempting. These problems he had been having with the headaches, the shit his mind dredged up: he knew something bad was wrong.
"How much," Sterling asked.
Wally straightened. "About six hundred."
The more Sterling thought about it, the more he was sure he was fucked with Peter either way.
"Who else knows where it is," Sterling asked.
"One person. The account is in her name. That's it."
"You sure about that? No one knows about her?"
"No, I swear."
"You know you're still dead?"
Wally slumped. "Might we skip that foreplay though?" Wally shivered, his belly quivering and causing ripples to speed away from the chair legs.
Sterling nodded. "I could do that. I’d slit your throat still and skip the rest until after."
Wally fretted, his lips writhing around like two snakes. Men in his situation thought in strange ways and Sterling understood this. The slightest delay of the inevitable was always worth great deliberation. Men clung to life with tenacity.
Wally kept glancing up. The gears were grinding in that brain of his. Sterling could see it in his face as he mulled over ways to bargain out of this altogether. He tried to put it out of his mind, because if he thought about it too much, it would cloud his judgment. You can never want something too badly.
"Listen," Wally said with narrowed eyes and a hushed voice. "I can tell you where it is. Let me live and we can split it. Okay?”
Sterling had to make a snap decision. He desperately wanted out, but having anything to do with this money would bring brutal retribution. It was too risky.
"Sorry, I don't think so Wally," he said and stood tall, the knife pointed up.
"Listen, okay, the woman's name is Madison —," Wally blurted out.
"No," Sterling said as he flicked the knife into his left hand and drew the gun, and shot Wally twice in the face, once through his left cheek and the other just above his right eye.
Humans were amazing things. Even with two new holes in his head, Wally stared back for a good five seconds, judgment and surprise oozing from those black dots. Then the fat man slumped down, straining the chair as his weight went limp.
"Sorry brother," Sterling said, then slid the both the gun and the knife back into their holsters. Wally had uttered a name after all. The money was out there, a name would now fester into his memory.
There was always a coldness when he was alone with them after, that chill through and through. Bent down on one knee, he plucked Sammy's wallet from his back trouser pocket and lifted it out of the greasy water.
Fuck. The name on the license was true as day, and Sterling knew him. Mikey was a low level cocksucker that worked south Philly. The real Sammy was six months dead. Sterling choked on his own breath, stifling an urge to sob. His hand raised to his mouth instinctively. This made no sense, except that today’s headache had been of the blackout variety and those always got dicey. He stumbled in a circle for a few seconds. He slammed his fist against his leg. It was done now, and done was done.
It took about twenty minutes to get things squared away, the bodies slogged off, and the chairs setup again. There was a rickety wheelchair off in the dark that he needed to drag back topside with him. All of it would likely get used again soon. When he felt everything was in place, his tension eased a little. It was almost like when an actor left the stage and breathed relief in the wings. The performance had not been solid, but it was over.
He took the three levels of stairs back up to the main level, the wheelchair bouncing noisily behind him. As he climbed, he pored over it all. Sammy was done and gone. It was these goddamn headaches, and the blackouts. Then there was the whole issue of the money and what he would do about that.
Topside, he pushed the wheelchair into a spot against the rusting wall and climbed into his car. The Lexus’s engine kicked to life. He pulled out of the factory and stopped, and then jogged back in the rain to yank on the pull-down garage door. After, he climbed back in the car and tore off along the muddy road, turning left at the end past the factory’s sign. It had gotten so cold the rain was nearly freezing by the time it hit. He cranked up Charlie Parker. He might actually be able to get a decent night’s sleep and have a nice breakfast, then figure out what the fuck he was going to do.