There’s a bone saw on the wall behind Grotto that somehow reflects the absence of light in this dark cellar. A hint to the countless other dismembering tools at his disposal.
There’s a man on his knees, crying and pissing himself. Grotto really does empathize with them, but he acts like he doesn’t. I’m here to help him keep that illusion. Even though he hits them around with a pistol and even stabs them or cuts pieces of them off, Grotto never kills them. He always feels bad doing it. Instead, he gives me a signal and I shoot them in the back of the head.
“As inconvenient as you would be to me dead, you’re worse than useless to me alive.” The man chokes up a bit and vomits acid and phlegm.
I ready myself behind the sobbing sad-sack.
“Seriously, Morrows, you are like a gnat. The only service you provide is seeking out mounds of shit.” Grotto might be all talk, but his talk is good. “But I’ve got more important things to do.”
I see it happen before Grotto realizes he’s rusted out. That bastard, white goatee flashing upwards, flicks his gun up for a head shot and clips my shoulder as I dodge. He should have aimed for my gut. Would have taken hours to die as I bled out on his cellar floor, but it was a shorter distance from Morrows’ head to my gut than to my head.
I pump a bullet that hits Morrow in the back of the neck. Bullet rips straight through and hits a wall. Grotto escapes through a trick wall that seals up right as I reach it. Gas starts to fill the dark brick-walled room. Morrows is wailing on the ground, blood spurting from both sides of his neck. I put him out of his misery.
Now the only sound is the gas filling the room, the cinematic hssss. Gas means vents. I take a small light out of my pocket and shine it around. Room hasn’t filled too much yet, and through a haze I find a small vent in the top corner. Big enough for what I need to do.
Holding my breath, I grab the chair Morrows was once propped up on and stand on it to reach the vent, running my fingers along the edges. Still holding my breath. Really want air. I feel a screw. The Swiss army knife clipped to my belt transforms into a screw driver. I know that asshole is looking on the security feed, trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing.
The little vent comes off and from my vest I grab a silver cylinder and jam it into the vent, clogging up the gas. That isn’t what I’m using it for, though. The little ring tugs as I pull on it. I drop to the ground and roll to the wall, grabbing Morrows’ body as I do, getting blood, piss, and vomit all over me.
The grenade explodes just as I get into position with Morrows on top of me. Morrows’ head splits in half from a bit of concrete impaling it that just misses me. Smoke everywhere. I risk a breath and it burns a little. But there’s a huge gaping hole in the wall and ceiling that I climb out of and into Grotto’s lovely dining room that now has the aesthetic touch of bomb debris. The blast took out the windows, and I’m already out onto the street running at full speed and ignoring the sting in my shoulder. Grotto wants me dead. I’m fucked.
My name is Samson.
I crudely patch my shoulder and hop on a bus to Austin. It’s the furthest city from Grotto on the soonest bus for the cheapest price. I’ve had to run before; reestablish my life in cities from Tel Aviv to Anchorage. Working for Grotto was a good gig but I never fool myself into thinking any job is a permanent one. But I do only expect to be murdered by half of them. I thought Grotto and I had a good thing going. I was wrong. Been wrong before. I bring with me four changes of clothing and a sack full of books. Everything else I own I burn along with the small house I rented.
It’s a long drive to Austin. I don’t sleep. I read Kipling, Chandler, Dostoevsky, Conrad, Mahfouz, Austen, Lahiri, and Claremont. Every time I pull out another book, the little old lady seated next t me gives me a quizzical look like I shouldn’t reading whatever happens to be in my hand. We get into a discussion about CS Lewis. She quotes him trying to convert me to Christianity. I quote him to explain my reasoning for not being a Christian. She’s taken aback by the way I speak. When she explains the ramifications of not choosing Christ—eternal fire and all that—I remind her that Lewis didn’t believe that anyone went to hell, regardless of religion. She stops talking to me.
When I get to Austin, I go straight to this jazz club called The Elephant Room. There’s a contact here who will pass me jobs for a cut of the profit. I’ll check into the Driskill Hotel later. I’m a preferred guest. I’m always a preferred guest, each hotel with a different alias. At the Driskill I’m Adam Ulrich.
Alcàntara sits at a table complaining to another man about the out-of-tune guitar that the performer is attempting a solo on. I sit at the bar and order Chimay. A moment later a gentle hand grasps my shoulder and Alcàntara sits in the stool next to me. I think he wedged someone off to do so, but there’s no confrontation.
“Ah, it’s been some time since I’ve seen that beautifully chiseled jaw around here.” Alcàntara claims to be a Spaniard. Depending on his mood, his hometown can be Gibraltar, Zaragoza, Càdiz, or Madrid. I’ve actually worked in all four cities and no one has ever heard of this apparent native. There’s also the issue that he doesn’t fake being Spanish, he fakes being French. And the little issue that he doesn’t actually know any Spanish. When someone happens to say something to him in his pretend native tongue, Alcàntara smiles and informs them that he only conducts business in English because “it keeps my mind separated from my heart.”
“How’s your boyfriend?” I ask him.
“Ah, I believe when you were here last I was with a dashing young man named Carl. He…left on some foreign affairs. But that strapping younger man over there is my new favorite. He’s going to the University of Texas on a football scholarship. He’s got a mighty fine grip.” Alcàntara smiles at his new playmate, who looks awkward in this setting. A small town football star who moved to Texas’s one liberal city.
“What’s the gossip around this area?”
Still smiling at the boy, Alcàntara converses with me. “Never a lack of work anywhere in the world. The recession does wonders for our kind, doesn’t it? Everyone needs some protection, someone missing, someone found. What kind of job does the Winter Saint desire?”
The Winter Saint. I think the only person alive who knows my real name is my vegetative-state mother. Most people don’t even get a proper alias. I got the nickname “Winter Saint” during my time with the French Foreign Legion. I was barely old enough to drink. We were doing a black ops job in Siberia that went to shit. Lots of my team died in the cold. I kept moving. When we lost count of days, we stumbled onto our targets. Without food or rest, ammo or weapons, I killed them all in silence with a little length of jet wire I never care to see again. To this day, I’m not sure how I did it, but the name stuck.
“Something with as little contact with other people as possible.”
Alcàntara finally looks back at me. “Who is it you are running from, dark eyes?”
“In our line of work, who are we ever not running from?”
He smiles and nods. “I take it you’re staying at the Driskill. I can never remember your alias—”
“Of course, Mr. Ulrich. I will deliver a package to you tomorrow evening. Say around dessert time? Would you also like some…companionship for your time in Austin?”
“No, just a job.”
“Then best of luck to you, Winter Saint. I think I’m going to eat my desert now.” Alcàntara slips off the chair and walks back to the boy, whispering in his ear. The boy blushes and follows him out of the bar. I continue drinking my Chimay as the guitarist attempts turning Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor of Opera Three into a smooth jazz riff.
I leave before I finish my drink.
When I get to the hotel, I look up the names of the local cosmetic surgeons. I’m going to have new scars to get rid of. A lot of guys in my field like to leave the scars. The ugly gashes across their faces, bullet wounds, all the marks of one of us. But the problem with scars is that they’re recognizable. So once we really start making money, we make the scars go away. Being big and ugly might be intimidating, but it’s also memorable. It’s better to be forgetfully handsome. It’s also a much better option with women. The scary guys tend not to get any action. I do.
After I find their names, I take the cheap computer I bought from Wal-Mart and connect to the free Wi-Fi offered by the Driskill. I send a few e-mails out, all with different names attached. After I’m done with that, I sleep.
In my dream, I trace my entire relationship with Grotto. When I was hired, about fourteen months back, each person I beat to a pulp, each drop off I oversaw. Each person I silently killed. I still can’t see the angle to it. Can’t figure out why he’s turned the gun on me or even think it necessary to use the gas—something he complained about being too costly. I’m flattered that I’m important enough to kill that he’d be willing to spend so much money doing so, but I still can’t figure out why. And I’m good at piecing things together.
The only people I killed were on his lists. So, I couldn’t have erased one of his loved ones. The only girls I’ve fucked were hook-ups at bars or bookstores, and I hadn’t had one of those in a few weeks. So, it’s not like I slept with his wife, whichever number he was on, or daughter or niece or some other female relation—if he even had any. I never stole any money from him. Never sold him out to a rival. It’s not even easy to piss him off that much. Grotto is a very kind soul. Morrows tried to steal half-a-million dollars from him and Grotto wondered if we should even bring him into the cellar. It wasn’t until Morrows flirted with his new twenty-one year old redheaded pogo stick that Grotto decided to do anything about it. And even in the cellar, he’s only killed one person. He always has me do it and never watches. His signal that I mentioned? He turns his face to the wall and covers his ears. He’s the Barney Rubble of the mob world.
So what the hell did I do to make him want to kill me himself? Violent men are less dangerous. You can expect them to be violent. But a peaceful man? You never know how they’ll react when their emotions are stirred. They can curl up in the fetal position, or they can try and shoot you in the face and gas the room trying to kill you.
Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter anymore. Grotto would have hired a dozen men to chase me down when I ran. My house blowing up would mean one of them succeeded. They’ll all try and get the reward for my death. Like I said, I’ve started over before. The Grotto chapter in my life is over.
And sometimes, a new beginning is what men in my field need.
I look at the contract and back at Alcàntara. “Shadowed protection? Really? That’s the best job out there?
The faux-Spaniard-Frenchman shrugs. “Not a lot of action in this town. At least not at the moment. I’m not sure what the Festerman family does to earn such wonderful living accommodations, but it seems young Percy Festerman is a bit of a loose cannon. So, follow him for a few days, make sure he stays out of trouble. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind his nightly crusades to strip clubs aptly named Chicas! Chicas! Chicas!” He really lays on the French accent for the actual Spanish words. “And Live Nudes Twenty-Four Hours.”
“Actually, Al, that’s the kind of places I hate going to.”
He frowns like a Saturday morning cartoon. “Tisk, Saint. All those girls want is a few meager dollars between their thong straps.”
I sigh. “Nothing else?”
Alcàntara shakes his head. “Unless you want to take one of the many contracts I receive to kill your African-American President for what’s not even worth the hundred million being asked, then you’re Percy Festerman’s new shadow.”
The pay is decent. Enough to let me live quite comfortably for a few weeks here. “Fine, I’ll take it. But the second you have a better job, let me know.”
He smiles. “Saint, you will be my top priority…” he loses focus, drifting to a waiter in the hotel restaurant. “Speaking of loose cannons, I think I need to excuse myself now. Have a nice night.”
I leave money on the table and head back to my room, the sounds of Alcàntara sweet-talking another young man behind me.
Percy drives a silver BMW—what red was to the nineties, silver is of the new millennia. I follow him to the strip club dressed down in jeans and a collared button down. As Alcàntara predicted, the little bastard goes to Chicas! Chicas! Chicas! with a few other buddies. All of them have money, but they’re young enough where they’d rather go to a cheap joint instead of the ritzy ones their fathers go to.
The stripper on stage is a sore sight for clean eyes. A caesarian scar on her stomach. Stiff legs that don’t allow her to dance much. I’m fairly certain one of her fingers is prosthetic. The only guys who would enjoy these kinds of strippers have to be so stone cold drunk…and Percy and his friends order two towers of beer.
After they settle at a table, I go to the bar. The bartender is a little Mexican guy with neatly combed hair and a nice moustache. He’s more Spaniard than Alcàntara will ever be.
“Can I help you?” Just a touch of accent. He seems too sophisticated for a place like this, but I’ve come to expect these oddities from time to time.
“Ginger ale, please.” I take out my wallet. “And I’ll start a tab.”
The bartender gives me a quizzical look. “Really?” He looks at the ugly branch dancing on stage. She winks at him with her lazy eye. “Sure you don’t want something really strong?”
I shake my head. “Just ginger ale.”
He pours the glass and I sit in a lounge chair in the back of the club where I can keep an eye on Percy and pretend to watch the stage. His friends do nothing but drink and holler at the girls.
This is going to be a really boring job.