Friday, February 6, 2015

I Was a Zen Hitman by Jonathan Payne

Jonathan Payne writes about a hitman who believes in mindfulness and doing the right thing.

Thursday March 15th

The Honda is spluttering like a geriatric coughing his teeth out. It's becoming an embarrassment. Not to mention a liability. All that noise. It does nothing to preserve my hard-earned reputation for stealth. What a great word. Stealth.

As per usual, I find my spot with a couple of hours to spare. Half the guys at the Office freak out about this. Most of them turn up like ten minutes early and then - Bang! - they're gone again. But two hours is nothing. I can kill two hours without so much as blinking.

In fact it's closer to three hours before Client Andrew shows up. Why can't you be on time, you people? Anyhow, everything else is as per the Statement of Works. He's alone, not even a bag. He parks a good distance away. He takes a look around to see if he's on his own.

Who else is going to be around the back of Costco after midnight on a night like this? Except me, of course.

Once he's sure he's alone - Wrong! - he shimmies over to the big trash cans and starts digging. Digging for gold. I decide to let him go for a minute. Sometimes I get it over with first, but tonight I don't like the angle. Even if I roll down the driver's window the whole way and lean the Sling right out there, it's going to be a stretch.

I give him a minute. He finds nothing but trash, of course, then takes another look around before creeping over to big trash can number two.

Now, that's better. Now I like the angle a whole lot better. Even with the window only half way down, I've got a beautiful line just where I want it.

He's hunched over the edge of the bin. I decide to wait until he straightens up a little. I lean the Sling out the window not too far, nice and comfortable. I get my tension just right. He straightens up, right on cue. I let fly.

If I say so myself, it's a beauty.

The spear sings - actually sings - on the night air, spins just a little towards the end of its flight, and sinks cleanly into the nape of Client Andrew's neck. Instantly I can tell by the depth of the shaft that it's come out of the front cleanly, too. Bullseye.

Client Andrew staggers, grabs the front of the spear with both hands (why do they always do that?), then lurches forward violently, cracking his forehead against the lip of the bin. Apart from that, he doesn't really make any noise, thankfully. He topples backward into the parking lot, landing hard on the wet blacktop.

A few twitches, like a newly-caught fish flapping on a jetty. Then, that's it.

I put the Sling back into the well of the passenger seat and roll up the window. As per Regulations, I give it a few seconds to be sure, but there's no doubt in my mind that this package has been delivered.



Monday March 19th

Back home. First day in the Office following delivery. And that means only one thing: paperwork. Paperwork, expenses, form-filling. Boring but essential. After a couple of months of planning, almost three, you build up a lot of expenses, so it's good to get them in.

Asian wants to know how it went. I'm a pro, for God's sake. How does he think it went?

He puts my teeth on edge. And not only because he's always asking stupid questions. Also because he insists on calling me Harpoon. He knows perfectly well that my Office name is Buddha. The manager of the Office should be upholding Regulations, not bending them.

Most of the other guys are pretty good about it. Generally they call me Buddha, only sometimes Harpoon. I don't know how many times I've told them that it's a Hawaiian Sling, which is not the same thing as a harpoon, which is not the same thing as a speargun, etc, etc. But they don't care.

Mostly the other guys in the Office use firearms. Bambi and Pigpen are hunting rifle kind of guys. God knows why. Big, slow, clumsy contraptions. Social, Antwerp and Eggplant, all handguns. I used to do handguns myself. In the early days. Before I learned to fish, that is.

Asian was also a handgun guy, before he got moved behind the desk.

Social. Even the name gets me going. And it's not even her name! Imagine, if you will, a slim, dark-skinned female professional assassin in tight-fitting pants. Exactly. Why she hangs out with us, I'll never know.

Only Antwerp and Eggplant are around today. Plus Asian, of course. We watch the ballgame for a while. Antwerp insists on chewing sunflower seeds and spitting them into the trash can. Or, just as often, onto the floor near the trash can. I point out, politely, that he must be the only fan in the whole of Major League who eats as many seeds as the players. He seems delighted by this, like a badge of honor.

As usual, Eggplant says nothing.



Friday March 23rd

Back in the Office. Asian wants to talk about B clients.

I should explain the naming system, for the avoidance of doubt. It's like hurricanes. Everyone's first client of the year is called Client A. Like I just did Client Andrew. Bambi had Client Arthur. Et cetera. Always male names in an even year; girls' names in an odd year.

So, whoever I get next, whatever screwed up story comes along with them, the one thing that's for sure is that they will be Client B. Of course, I'll get all their real info in the file. But only I will know it. Plus Asian, of course. Nobody else.

He wants to talk about Client Bernard. We have to go through this rigmarole for every new client, for some reason. In reality, I have no choice. It's a taxi rank. We take the next client that comes along or we risk not working for the next month or two. Still, Regulations are that Asian has to explain the SOW and I have to sign on the line.

Client Bernard sounds like a douche. Some kind of corporate lawyer type who already gets paid the GDP of a small Central American country but still gets tied up in a massive fraud with a bunch of others, including our Customer, who has decided that Client Bernard is in danger of a burst of honesty that will bring the whole thing crashing down and so must be removed from the scene.

This is completely normal. Most of the case files read like soap operas. The fact that he's a greedy loser only makes the job easier. The fact that he's a big deal corporate type makes it much harder, but there are ways.

I tell Asian that I need two months. He says one. I say I'm only signing the SOW if it's two. He says OK. Why do we have to go through this every time?

I should explain that the Customer is the guy who makes the order and pays the bill. The Client is the guy who receives our services, so to speak. A subtle difference, but important.

Friday night is yoga night. Which is good, because I need to relax. New clients always stress me out. It's not the thought of all that work - God knows I'm grateful for it - it's reading the case file and learning all the new info and having to get involved in the life (what's left of it) of someone that I don't like. In fact, I can't like, even if I want to.

Maddie is on great form tonight. We have candles and the chanting monks of Tibet on CD and, if I'm not mistaken, incense. Incense! This girl is the greatest teacher in history. Tonight we're being even more mellow than normal, which is fine by me. We start and finish in shavasana, my absolute favorite pose: it's just organized lying down. In between a starting shavasana and a closing shavasana we do the usual array of downward-facing dogs and tree poses and the like, but I'm just thinking about lying down again.

I must look stressed out or something because, on the way out, Maddie stops me for a chat and wants to know if I'm more tense than normal. How's work? I love it when people ask that. After all these years, I should have developed a good answer for it. But I still don't have one. At least Maddie's too polite to dig around in what I actually do. I might have told her once that I'm in 'security'. Can't remember. That's what I generally say. In fact, that's what Regulations say the best answer is.



Sunday March 25th

Back again tonight for meditation. My favorite time of the week. Like yoga without moving. But no sign of Maddie. Instead it's Barbara. She's roughly twice Maddie's age and twice her weight. She somehow manages to give a soothing guided meditation in the voice of an angry middle school principal. Still, I appreciate the chance to switch off for a while. Work on Client Bernard starts tomorrow.



Monday March 26th

A day at the Office. Research.

Just me and Asian for a while. A whole day of that and I'd be suicidal. Then Social comes in, and lifts my mood. What an all-round beautiful human she is. Is it possible for some people to be more evolved than others? Apparently so.

Better still, she wants to talk. In fact, she actually wants my advice, on her B client. Still early days in her research, although she's about a week ahead of me.

According to Regulations, she's not supposed to talk to me about her file. She suggests we take a stroll, to get away from Asian. So I spend half the afternoon strolling in the park with a beautiful woman half my age. Plus the sun is shining.

Her client is Client Boris. Where does he get these names from? Russia? Anyhow, it turns out - to my surprise - that Social is worried. Client Boris is apparently a big deal. A politician. She's reluctant to say how big a deal, except that he's city level, not state or national. Even so, if you deliver a package of that size, it makes waves. Newspapers and rolling news channel size waves. This is enough to have Social feeling nervous. I can see why.

I think about it for a while and then I ask why it's her problem. She doesn't follow. I say, if you've got a problem that's too big to handle, break it down into pieces that are small enough to handle. Then figure out which parts are for you and which are for someone else to deal with. She likes the idea, and we spend the rest of the stroll identifying the pieces.

One: she has to do research. In principle it's just the same as for any other job. You have to find patterns of behavior, you have to follow the client without being noticed by anyone, you have to learn everything about them. The last one should actually be easier with a public figure, I point out, trying to be encouraging.

Two: she has to make a plan and get Asian to have it authorized Upstairs. That's no different.

Three: she has to execute the plan. Maximize your chance of success. Minimize your chance of detection. No change there.

Four: she has to get out, undetected, and file a report. This is the part that's bothering her. She's never had a famous client before. She figures that getting out undetected will be a whole lot trickier, given private security, an entourage of hangers-on, press interest, etc, etc.

She has a point. But, I say, go back to step two. Factor in those complications when you make your plan. Sure, it might be trickier than the average getaway. But it's not impossible. Just plan for it. You can do it.

I feel like I'm spouting self-help bullshit, but Social seems encouraged by it. She thanks me. And then she rubs the top of my arm. Which is the first base of physical contact in platonic relationships, where second base is a hug and third base is a kiss on the cheek or forehead. Going all the way must be both a hug and a kiss, I suppose. After that, you're not platonic any more.



Wednesday March 28th

A couple of days into work on Bernard and I'm starting to get a picture of him in my head. Oh boy this guy is a creep. More money than sense, as they say. Also more money than friends, it seems.

The trick generally is to find an Isolator, to give it its technical name. In other words, to find something that will pull the Client away from their regular routine, to leave them vulnerable and isolated, so that we can operate incognito, and the package can be delivered in secret.

Ideally, where possible, we like to deliver the package in such a way that it will not be discovered immediately. Even a day or two makes a big difference. If you want to be popular Upstairs, have the Client lie undiscovered in a pool of their own blood for a while.

But Bernard is weird. He has no wife, no kids, not even a girlfriend that I can find. He seems not to belong to anything outside of work or do anything recreational at all. He lives in a high-end apartment block and commutes a short distance downtown to his office every day. I'll be damned if I can find any evidence of him ever doing anything else.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: OK, so why not just knock on the guy's front door and ram one of your little spears into his jugular?

Well, first of all, I admire your spirit. I really do.

But it's not as simple as that. Think about the cop who happens to be outside the apartment block as I go in. Think about the security guy in the lobby. Think about the neighbor who just happens to appear in the corridor at the wrong time. Think about what the neighbors will do if Bernard screams. Even if he doesn't scream, think about what the neighbors will do if his blood starts spilling out under the door or dripping through the light fitting into the apartment below.

You see, it's tougher than you think. Even in the case of a loner, you need to find an Isolator. Which is why I'm heading out there tomorrow. To take a look around.

I was going to tell you where Bernard lives, but I've decided against it. It's better that you don't know.



Friday March 30th

Travel day yesterday. Long and boring, but that goes with the territory.

The only good leads I have are office and commute, so let's start there. I find a coffee place just south of Bernard's apartment. In all the research so far, not so much as a parking pass or even a train ticket. I figure he walks to the office.

I'm well into my second coffee when Client Bernard saunters past the window, as cool as you like in a sharp, gray suit, just after 7:30. There's already enough cash on the table for two coffees and a generous tip. Which allows me to send a quick wave of thanks to the barista and duck out the door in no time. Because I'm a pro. You would have still been fishing around looking for change as he got away. It's easier if you just admit it.

He goes to work, he goes home again. This guy has no life.



Sunday April 1st

Client Bernard spots me in the street and comes after me with a big hammer. April fool!

He's nowhere to be seen. I get bored and find a yoga class that takes out-of-shape middle-aged dudes visiting from out of town. The sign doesn't say it in those words, but that's the gist.

Maybe it's a big city thing, but Helena works us a hell of a lot harder than good old Maddie. She's a slave driver, this one. We break the North American record for the number of downward-facing dogs in a one hour period. Worse still, the dogs are interspersed with a bunch of things I hate, including chair pose, which is designed to set your legs on fire. They might come across as mellow, these yogis, but actually they're a bunch of sadistic bastards.



Wednesday April 4th

Finally a breakthrough, via an unexpected stroke of luck.

I've now got a nice circuit of places that are within sight of the front door of Bernard's office block. They are, in descending order of preference, a coffee place with tall stools against a long bar set into the window, a bookshop next door with a psychology section next to the first floor window (I spend a long time pretending to be interested in behavioral neuroscience), a sandwich place with a few small tables out front, the lobby of a huge multi-tenant office block (a bit like Bernard's and exactly opposite) with lots of comings and goings and places to sit.

It's late morning and I'm in the window of the coffee place setting a new record for the length of time taken to drink an americano. I notice a sharp suit emerging from the revolving doors opposite. Looks like Bernard. It seems like he's heading over to my side of the road, so I get ready to move.

As Bernard waits for the pedestrian crossing, I notice a thin, formal-looking brunette in a dark suit perched at a table outside the sandwich place. The other tables are empty. The brunette is every inch a corporate lawyer. I wonder.

Sure enough, as Bernard walks over, the brunette half stands up and accepts a peck on the cheek. Not warm, really, more business-like. She has nothing in front of her except a glass of water. Bernard waves to attract the attention of the waiter. Apparently an early lunch is in order, both for Bernard and friend, and for me, too.

I saunter out into the street and stroll along, as nonchalantly as possible, pretending to choose a lunch place. I duck into the sandwich bar just as Bernard is ordering for himself and friend. I choose a table near to them, but not too near. They're talking quite openly, and I can hear every word. I sit facing away from them and study the menu.

Once the waiter leaves them, the initial conversation is small talk: how's work, blah, blah. By the time the waiter gets to me, they're speaking more seriously and in slightly hushed tones. I order quickly so as not to miss too much of it.

As far as I can make out, she's telling him about a meeting coming up. Except she keeps using the word rendezvous, which makes me think it might be something, shall we say, extra-curricular.

Then the sort of breakthrough that we in the business dream about but rarely experience in practice. She tells him to write something down and gives him the details of the time and place for the rendezvous. The roof of the Courtyard Hotel - the roof! - 10pm on Saturday. She'll meet him in the bar at nine, to make sure everything is in order. Their visitors, unspecified, will meet them on the roof at 10. I have an idea.

I eat slowly to give them time to finish and leave. Then I go back to the bookshop, but not the psychology section this time. I buy a map and take it back to the coffee bar. The guy looks at me with an expression that says don't you have nowhere better to go? I do not.

As I suspected, the Courtyard looks to be a shitty hotel in a shitty part of town. Excellent. High end hotels are basically no-go areas in terms of delivering packages; you can't move for an army of shiny blazers enquiring about whether you are in need of anything. But cheap hotels are a totally different kettle of fish. You can go for days without so much as spying a member of staff. Antwerp once delivered a package that remained undiscovered in a motel for almost a week. You can't buy that sort of inattention.

Of course I never stay in a place like that. I'm lucky enough to have a generous expense package and I use to it my full advantage. Regulations are clear that operational effectiveness and avoiding detection are paramount; cost is not to be an obstacle. Of course, it helps that we're in a lucrative business. Mostly I stay in the best hotels and I dress for business. Put those two together and you can get away with more or less anything.

I scour the map for other hotels near the Courtyard. On one side is an apartment block, which is best avoided. But directly behind is the Excelsior hotel. The Excelsior! You've got to love the aspiration of it. A visit to the Excelsior is in order.

I thank my barista friend and start strolling further downtown. Only ten or twelve blocks to the Excelsior.

From outward appearances, the Excelsior is even more of a godforsaken shithole than the Courtyard, which is saying something. I avoid the front steps and turn into a narrow alleyway that runs between the two shitholes. Sure enough, each has a service entrance at the back and, just inside the service entrance to the Excelsior, a service elevator. Jackpot.

There's no one around, so I take the elevator all the way to the roof. All the usual stuff: a huge HVAC unit and a water tank. The latter overlooks the alley at the back, closest to the Courtyard; could be useful.

I stroll over to the water tank and survey the scene. The alley is narrow. Someone standing on the near side of the Courtyard's roof would be very close. You could have a conversation across there without raising your voice too much, I would think. Someone standing in the middle of the Courtyard's roof would be a slightly trickier prospect, but not impossible.

I've seen enough and return to the service elevator. It opens and a young Hispanic guy in overalls steps out, looking very surprised to see me. I smile and say something inane about having gotten in the wrong elevator. Apparently he doesn't speak much English. He smiles and shows me the button for the first floor.



Thursday April 5th

I call the Office. I'm expecting to get Asian, but it's Bambi who picks up. He's the elder statesman of the Office, you might say. Still makes no sense to me that Asian is behind the desk and not him. Bambi is serious and distinguished, with a streak of silver hair down the middle that reminds me of a stallion. He's got more experience than anyone outside of Upstairs. He'll probably end up there one day.

Bambi tells me that Asian is in a meeting with Upstairs, and he's looking after the shop. I tell him that I need a decision. I'm on reconnaissance for my B client, but an opportunity has presented itself that could lead to early delivery, this weekend. What does he think?

Bambi is a classy guy. He asks me a bunch of questions designed to test the idea, without revealing anything to anyone, in the unlikely event that someone - the Chinese or the Russians or Client Bernard - is listening in. What is the chance of effective delivery? What is the chance of undetected withdrawal? What is the chance of a public spectacle? What is the chance of collateral damage? The last question means: am I likely to deliver any unwanted packages by mistake?

I answer all this honestly. When I've finished, he asks what my gut feeling is. I say I think I should go for it. He tells me to go for it.



Saturday April 7th

I sneak up to the roof of the Excelsior by early evening and go through my usual routine. Familiarization (with the surroundings and likely location of the target), cleaning (of the Hawaiian Sling and spears), meditation, readiness. Depending on the circumstances in each case, I usually try to get at least a half hour meditation session in advance of each delivery.

Of course, most of the guys in the Office think this is ridiculous. In fact, to be accurate, all the guys think it's ridiculous. The only person who ever took it seriously was Social, who once asked why meditation is so important to me. I explained to her about mindfulness, being completely focused on the present moment and nothing else. In our line of work, how could you afford to be anything other than entirely focused on the moment? Social seemed to get it. She wanted to know what I think about when I meditate. I explained that the idea is to think less. To focus on your own body and breathing, and so enter into the present moment with no distractions. Social said she was rather taken with this idea and would look into it. Whether she ever did, I don't know.

With a couple of hours to go, it's already dark. But both roofs are illuminated a little by streetlights, plus the lights in the higher apartments in the block over to my right. Not ideal, but just about doable.

I find that there's enough space to sit between the water tank and the low wall that runs around the edge of the roof. So I have a beautiful view across the roof of the Courtyard, but someone emerging from the Excelsior's service elevator is not going to see me, unless they take a walk around the side of the water tank. I'm going to assume that this won't happen. If it does, I will make a decision on the spot about whether some collateral damage is required. It's happened before and it will happen again.

I have opted for dark clothing and a dark hat pulled down low over my head. All of it close to the dirty gray of the water tank. This should be enough to make me almost invisible to anyone on the roof of the Courtyard. If I'm wrong about that, I'll deal with it at the time. After all, I have a bag full of spears.

A little before ten o'clock, Client Bernard and his brunette friend arrive on the roof of the Courtyard looking nervous. Bernard is holding a large bag. He looks awkward in slacks and a heavy jacket. Here is a man who was born to wear a suit.

They hover in the middle of the roof, whispering furtively. I can't hear a word, but it doesn't matter. At one point the brunette wanders over in my direction to the edge of the roof and takes a look down into the alley. Apparently I'm not visible.

She returns to Bernard in the middle of the roof when the door swings open and three guys in suits appear. They begin to engage Bernard and friend, all in whispers. It's a quiet night, but the burr of traffic below is enough to obscure what's being said.

A small guy is doing all the talking, mostly with Bernard. The two larger guys say nothing; maybe they're his close protection. After a couple of minutes, Bernard hands over the bag and they shake hands.

Clearly it's all going to be over quickly. I need to take a gamble that Bernard and the brunette will leave last, or I need to go for it when everyone is still there. I sense - and it's nothing more than intuition - that a little chaos at the Courtyard might be a good thing, given that I'm leaving from the Excelsior. For that reason alone, I decide that the package is best delivered while all five of them are still on the roof.

I load a spear into the Sling and train it on Bernard, who is still talking to the guy holding the bag. They're standing not right at the edge, but better than the middle. In the scheme of things, I'm very close to them. They're side-on to me, so that I'm looking at Bernard's left ear and the other guy's right ear.

The time has come. I take a deep breath and clear my mind. Just a moment. I check my aim, and let it fly.

It's good, but not perfect. In terms of a baseball strike zone, I'm a little high and away. I'm about to regret this when I realize it's had a remarkable effect.

As far as I can see, the spear slices into the front of Bernard's throat, passes clean through and keeps going out the other side. He makes a very brief gasping noise and then collapses, but not before spraying an explosion of his blood into the face of the guy with the bag.

The guy grabs his face, the brunette screams, the two heavies pull out huge handguns and start galloping around the rooftop. It's clear that none of them has any idea what's going on.

The brunette is now on the ground with Bernard and screaming something indecipherable. The heavies head over to the apartments, scouring the windows for a sign of activity. Most of the apartments have lights on. People start to appear at their windows to check what all the screaming is about.

I pack my bag, very quietly.

The heavies, apparently suspicious of the apartments, begin to shout at one of the residents who is looking out his window. One of them takes a shot, missing the guy but smashing the window. More screams.

I get into the service elevator, head down to the first floor, and emerge into the alley. A siren rings out, but some distance away. I take a left and head back uptown, being careful to stick to a regular walking pace.

I realize that I am a little outside of Regulations, in that I wasn't able to stick around to verify delivery. But the point of entry, plus the amount of blood flying around, suggests to me that Client Bernard is going to bleed out inside a minute, two at most. Unless the brunette can do something instantly to stop the blood loss, which seems very unlikely, the package will be delivered long before the police or medics arrive.



Monday April 9th

Back in the Office. Delivery report, paperwork, expenses.

Asian is going on incessantly about how it was possible to deliver so quickly. Why didn't I tell him? Why did I predict two months? Blah, blah. I tell him I got lucky. He ignores this answer and goes through all his stupid questions again.

A quick check of the newspapers tells me that the police are investigating an incident at the Courtyard Hotel in which shots were fired. One person is believed dead. No names yet released. That's about as good an outcome as I could have reasonably expected. I print a copy and stick it in the file.

Antwerp is being loud and obnoxious. Asian does nothing, as per usual. Bambi comes in and Antwerp shuts up.



Tuesday April 10th

Need to unwind a little after the weekend's excitement. I take a trip to see Maddie. I like her daytime classes because it's all young moms and pensioners. I'm the only male of working age anywhere to be seen. They smile at me with kind expressions that say either nice that you're so dedicated or sorry you don't have a job, maybe both.



Thursday April 12th

Asian wants to talk about a C client. I say I just delivered B weeks early and I'd like to take some time off before C. He says get your ass in here, it's important.

I'm seriously pissed on the way to the Office. My mood lifts a little when I arrive to find Bambi, Pigpen and Social all in today, on research. No sign of Antwerp or Eggplant.

Asian is in a shifty mood. He wants to use the meeting room. I ask what's wrong with his office. He doesn't answer and instead ushers me into the meeting room. There are two thick files awaiting us on the table. He pushes one across to me.

Unusually for Asian, he starts making small talk, beating around the bush. It takes me a minute to realize that he's nervous. I ask if we can talk about client C now.

Asian says it's a difficult one. He's only choosing me because of all my experience, blah, blah. We both know this is bullshit. He's using me because I'm the only one who's available.

Finally, he gets to the point. Client Charlie is young. When I ask how young, he hesitates, then says twelve. I say Fuck you! a little more aggressively than I intended. Then he says and she's a girl. I don't know any curses bad enough for how I feel. So I say nothing and instead get up and walk around the room.

Asian waits for a minute. He wants to bring coffee and have me read the file. He's bringing me coffee! I say that I'll read it, but I'm promising nothing.

Asian brings coffee and hovers around nervously as I read. It's the most fucked up file I ever saw in twenty years. I tell him so. Plus, I'm not doing it. He says you've never refused a job. I say I have now. He says you know this will go down very badly Upstairs. I say fuck Upstairs.

We sit in silence for a while. It occurs to me that Asian is stuck in a corner just as much as I am.

I have an idea. I suggest that he gives it to Social. It should be a woman that does it. I don't know why, it just feels right. OK, not right, just slightly less fucked up.

Asian says Social is still busy on Boris. I say let me finish Boris in exchange for Charlie. Social is worried about Boris, so she might just agree to it.

He wants to know how I know she's worried about it. I say, I'm psychic. Just ask her.

Asian thinks about this. He asks me to wait in the meeting room while he goes to talk to Social.

I have a bad feeling about this. Never in all my years have I seen a file like that. It makes me nauseous. What is going on Upstairs? We have quality control people. We have processes. This file should never have got anywhere near the Office.

I pace up and down, sipping the dregs of my coffee.

Asian returns. He thinks she'll do it. But only if I commit to a handover process with Social on Boris. She's done weeks of work on it and she doesn't want it wasted. I say fine. Plus she wants to split the commission on Boris, fifty-fifty. I say fine.

I'd do Boris for nothing to get out of Charlie. But apparently I don't need to go that far, so I keep quiet.



Friday April 13th

I wake up in the early hours feeling like shit. I'm sweating.

I get up, make coffee, meditate. The only time I've ever meditated at three in the morning, as far as I can remember.

Then it comes to me, mid meditation. Switching with Social is just avoiding the real issue. Something is seriously wrong Upstairs. It needs to be fixed. If I'm honest with myself, I know what needs to be done.

I sit in the window of the apartment and watch flies dancing around the streetlight out front. A lone taxi creeps along the street. Otherwise, it's quiet out. I determine to do the right thing, instead of the easy thing.

I want to tell someone else, as though putting my decision out there will somehow make it stick, make it real. But there's no one to tell, so I just tell myself.

It's Friday the 13th, which makes me laugh. Hopefully not a bad day to make a life-changing decision.



Monday April 16th

I can't face the Office today. I take a 'field research' day and set off to yoga.

Maddie is on great form today, and talkative. I see the opportunity for a second opinion.

After class, I ask if she would give me some advice, in exchange for coffee. She jokes about whether it's a date. I laugh and say no, just a chat. She knows that I know she's married to a giant football player. Of course she doesn't know what I really do for a living, but let's not go there.

We meet up again at one of my favorite downtown coffee places. I buy. I tell her the issue is confidential so I can't mention details. But I'd like her opinion in principle. She asks why I'm asking her in particular. I say that I want the view of someone who gets mindfulness. This is partly true, but also I have no one else to ask.

I explain that I have a dilemma at work. A serious issue. I could turn a blind eye and it would go away. But I don't think I could live with myself. Alternatively, I could do something about it, but that would have serious consequences.

She asks how serious. I say I'll definitely lose my job, maybe worse. I refuse to expand on worse.

Maddie is a smart girl. She ponders it and then asks if I could carry on working there, if I choose to do nothing. Good question. No, I don't think I could. Well, she says, in that case you've already left.



Tuesday April 17th

First meeting with Social on Client Boris. She comes into the meeting room with several files in a pile. She pushes the top one over to me. She's apologetic about needing to take a phone call. Could I start reading the Boris file until she gets back? I say fine.

As soon as Social goes out, I check out the other files she's left on the table. The top two look to be copy Boris files: one for Asian and one for Upstairs. I push them to one side. Underneath are three identical files all marked 'Client Charlie'.

I don't have long. I take out the first two pages from the first Charlie file. Page one is 'Customer information' and page two is 'Client information'. I check that the coast is clear, then jog down to the photocopier. I make a copy of each and jog back to the meeting room.

Still no sign of Social. I fold up the two copies as small as I can and bury them in the inside pocket of my jacket.

I take a quick look at the Charlie file. She's already been working on it. From her notes, it's going to be quick. She's not hanging around. Charlie walks to and from school every day. They live in a quiet neighborhood. Technically, this looks like the easiest job ever. I need to move quickly.

I tidy up the papers and pretend to read the Boris file.

Social returns and we talk about Boris. She's done most of the work already. I suggest a couple of changes to make the plan more friendly to a Hawaiian Sling. She's happy with the changes. She signs the files and hands them over.

I thank her for making the switch. She says no problem. I ask how she feels about the Charlie job. She doesn't want to talk about it. Maybe I'm imagining it, but I detect a sense of shame around Social's beautiful, dark eyes.



Thursday April 19th

A couple of days of research. Of course I'm logging Boris research, but actually I'm doing Charlie research. I figure that, to be safe, a couple of days will have to be enough.

I'm getting nervous and stressed. Am I doing the right thing? How do you know? I set off for late night meditation.

A pleasant surprise is that Maddie is there as a participant, not the teacher. I take a spot on the floor near Maddie and she flashes me a smile.

At the end of the class, Maddie comes over to talk. Have I dealt with my work dilemma yet? I say no but I'm planning to fix it tomorrow. She says OK, good luck, let me know how it goes.

Sure, I say, I'll let you know. Then it hits me that, even in the best case scenario, I'll probably never see Maddie again.



Friday April 20th

A very early start. I fix up the apartment like when I'm going on vacation. Maybe I am going on vacation. Who knows?

By five o'clock I'm on the road. I focus on the moment. No regrets about the past. No worries about the future. The best chance of a good outcome rests on being absolutely present in this moment. Whatever happens, happens.

By seven I'm in position. I park up and lean against the car. Just as expected, it's a fancy neighborhood and very quiet. A few kids walking to school, but not many.

Right on cue, just after 7:15, I see her strolling towards me, with a huge backpack over her shoulder. Apparently you need muscles to be in middle school these days.

She's small for her age, I would think, but somehow her face is more mature. Like she's already seen a lot in her short life. One thing's for sure: she's never seen anything like what's just about to happen.

I take a deep breath. Everything hinges on the next few seconds. If she's smart and serious and switched on, we might be fine. If she's not, she's toast.

I have been working on what to say. I try to sound urgent but friendly at the same time.

I say hello. Are you Amy? I'm looking for Amy Parker. It's very important.

She doesn't answer right away, but asks who I am. Good start. I show her my drivers' licence, God knows why. I don't exactly have business cards. I say my name's Buddha. She looks at me funny. Fair enough. I say I'm a security guy and I work for her dad. OK, the second part is a white lie, but in a sense it's true.

She wants to know why she should believe me. I like this girl. She's smart.

I ask if she's ever heard of a Mr Templeton, Francis Templeton. Now I have her attention. She says yes. But screws up her face.

I ask what she knows about him. She says he's the guy who's been trying to get money out of her dad.

I ask if her dad knows that she knows this. She says no, with a sneer, like I'm an idiot for asking. Maybe so.

Amy is distracted by a friend approaching along the sidewalk. She asks if we can talk in the car. I can't believe it! The toughest and creepiest part of the whole thing was always going to be getting her to come with me. Now she's asking for permission.

We get in the car and talk. I tell her that Mr Templeton is sending someone to kill her. Her first reaction is Shut up! Shut up! Kids these days speak their own language.

She wants to know how I know. I take out the folded pages from the file and hand them over. She skims over them, and pauses on Client information, which includes her name several times.

She wants to know how she knows these papers are real. I say you don't. But if they are, you'll be dead before school's out on Monday. Apparently she believes me.

She wants to know if we can tell her dad. I say we can't tell him now, we have to tell him after.

After what? I say after I've dealt with Mr Templeton.

Of course she wants to know what I'm going to do to him. I say I'm going to shoot a spear into his neck. She says Shut up! again. This time she slaps the dashboard.

We take a walk around the back of the car and I open the bag, so she can see the Hawaiian Sling and spears. To my amazement, she swings her backpack off her shoulder and drops it into the trunk, next to my bag.

Then she asks me when I'm doing the deed. I say this morning, right after I've dropped her off. Of course she wants to know where we're going and I say I have a safe house, at the beach. She can spend the day there. There's food in the fridge.

To my amazement, she picks up her bag again, like a threat. She says I want to see.

At first I don't understand. See what?

She wants to see me do Templeton. She doesn't want to go to the safe house. She wants to see me do it. I say no, I never take anyone along. It's impossible.

As cool as you like, she swings the bag back on her shoulder and says OK, bye and starts to walk towards school. Talk about being stuck in a corner.

I try to focus. There's no option. So I call out and say fine. You can come along. But you have to do exactly as I say. It's going to be dangerous. She says sure, of course, I'm very good at following instructions. She comes back to the car, throws her bag in the trunk and marches off to get in the passenger seat.

As we drive, I'm seriously worried that I've bitten off more than I can chew. A couple of weeks of research crammed into two days. And now a passenger in tow as well.

I think about something that weird old Barbara sometimes says during meditation. A problem is just an opportunity in disguise. In this case, the disguise is pretty convincing.

I ask Amy if she'd like to help, not just watch. She says yeah, sure, with no hesitation. I explain that I have a job for her. But she needs to follow my instructions exactly. She says fine. I explain the plan as we drive out of town. I hope I'm not going to regret this.

We arrive at Templeton's farmhouse a little before eight. I was planning to hang out until he leaves for a meeting late morning. But the amended plan can be put into action immediately.

I leave the Honda out of sight and take my position behind the barn that stands opposite the house. Amy winks at me - winks! - and continues strolling up the driveway, like she doesn't have a care in the world. Talk about being in the moment. This kid is a master.

I'm close enough to hear. She knocks on the door and asks to speak to Mr Templeton. Whoever had answered the door asks her to wait there.

My heart is racing like a freight train. But I swear I can hear Amy singing a song to herself as she waits.

It's a couple of minutes before Templeton arrives. I hear the big wooden front door close behind him. I'll never forget the conversation that follows. And bear in mind that I never gave Amy a script of any sort. I just told her to talk to him politely, and sooner rather than later to use the codeword Buddha. That's it.

Here's how the conversation goes.

"Hello," says Templeton.

"Hello," says Amy, "are you Mr Templeton?"

"I am."

"Oh, nice to meet you."

"Nice to meet you, I'm sure."

"My name's Amy Parker. I hear you want to have me killed."

A stunned silence. Perhaps not surprisingly. I wish I could have seen his face.

Then Amy says, a little more loudly for my benefit, "May I introduce my friend, Buddha?"

I pop out from behind the barn, the Sling out to my right. As expected, Templeton is roughly twice Amy's height, so there's plenty of clearance.

As instructed, Amy stands dead still, facing straight ahead, looking at Templeton's midriff. He looks around, obviously confused, trying to see where this Buddha guy is.

By the time he clocks me, the spear is half way there. After an uncharacteristic slip on the roof of the Courtyard Hotel, I'm pleased to say that this one is right in the strike zone.

The spear enters at Templeton's Adam's apple, with such force that it knocks him backwards and pins him to the door. I hear the satisfying thud! as it sinks into the wood, like an archer's arrow hitting the target.

I know I've hit an artery when blood starts to spurt out in the rhythm of his heartbeat. Despite being sprayed, Amy, as good as gold, follows instructions exactly. She stands dead still until told otherwise. Templeton is making gurgling noises and twitching, his body suspended from the spear.

I hiss at Amy to get over here quick. She spins on her heel and runs back to me. We're down at the car before anyone has so much as emerged from the house.

We take off at speed back towards the city. Once we're a few miles away, I stop by the side of the road to retrieve a towel from my bag. I toss it at Amy so she can clean the blood off herself.

I'm worried that she hasn't spoken since we left Templeton's.

I ask if she's OK. Yeah, she's fine. She thanks me for letting her help. No problem, I say, you did a great job. So did you, that was awesome, she says. Awesome. I love this kid.

She stares out the window, apparently unfazed.

A few miles on, I ask her if we can go see her dad now, tell him what's going on. Up to you, she says, you work for him. I admit that part's not true. She looks at me sideways for a moment, without moving her head. Who do you work for, then? I say I'm kind of a freelance security guy, as of today.

Amy ponders this for a while, and then she asks if she's safe now. I say she's safe with me, not otherwise.

She asks if I have any cash. Yes, I have cash.

Amy says, "Great, let's go for ice cream."

20 comments:

  1. this is such a great read and, I would imagine, the perfect character for something longer or at least more short stories. excellent style of writing
    dry and effortless, draws you in to the story, which really delivers!
    well done!

    Mike McC

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    1. Hi Mike. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. This one was a lot of fun to write.

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  2. I agree with Mike 100%. I almost passed on this story, but couldn't stop once I'd started. Love the voice and the style of the writing - an "effortless" read (to once again quote Mike). It does lend itself well to a follow-up or longer version. Nicely done.

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  3. Hi Jim. Thanks for your comments; much appreciated.

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  4. Ooh! Loved it! Scary thing is, I could almost imagine this being true. More please.

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    1. Hi. Thanks! This character was so much fun to write, I'm thinking about expanding him into a novel. But have 2 other novels on the go just now, so it's a matter of time.

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  5. That was a good Sunday morning read. I think Amy is a bit creepy, but you have to love a kid with nerves of steel! Well done.

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    1. Hi Jon. Thanks; glad you enjoyed it. I rather like Amy, but she's not to be messed with!

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  6. Hooked right at the beginning, and pulled all the way through to the end. Great piece!

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  7. I enjoyed the structure of the diary entries as this added to the effect of a countdown to the next hit. a good read in a gripping way, however I am not sure how he is going to explain to the office why he killed a paying client instead. I agree with his decision but alas will it jeopardize his future employment? Just thinking out loud, great story.

    James.

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    1. Hi James. Thanks for your comments; glad you enjoyed it. He's not going back to the Office for exactly the reason you say! If I write more on this (in a follow up or novel) it will include what Buddha does next.

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  8. I kept saying to myself this appears totally unrealistically, and simultaneously that realistic wouldn't be interesting. I suspect that most hitmen are stupid people who use guns and there are not many organized hit organizations that look like a fortune 500 company, but I could be wrong. If there are any hitmen reading the story, maybe you could anonymously enlighten me. With the plethora of cinematic fascinating hitmen, I wonder if there is any life copying art or vice versa.

    As a little old man I sympathized with Harpoon about the pain of yoga.

    I liked the level of detail.

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    1. Hi Doug; thanks. I agree that the reality is probably not as much fun as this. My starting point for the story was: wouldn't it be interesting if professional assassins had to go into the office and file their expenses like everyone else?

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  9. This is superb, Jonathan. The characters are beautifully drawn and fully human, even as they operate as monsters. Good pacing throughout, excellent ending.

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  10. Hi Jeff. Thanks so much for your comments; much appreciated. I was certainly aiming for characters who are more complex than simply good or bad.

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  11. This is brilliant, have you thought of making it into a series? I got right to the end and wanted more!

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    1. Hi Caroline; thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. I'm hoping to do more with Buddha, both pre and post Amy. Maybe a serialization or a novel, or both. I'll post news at jonpayne.org.

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  12. Great voice and the your style feels fresh. Great read.

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    1. Hi Suzanne. Thanks for your comments. Much appreciated.

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