This has been the worst year of my life.
In January, my erstwhile friend Arthur succumbed to a cancer that, by all accounts, he’d never seriously resisted. Even though we’d been estranged for years, it still felt like the final severing of a link to my old life, and it made me sad.
But that was just the beginning.
In April, my poor old dad somehow slipped out of the nursing home I was paying a fortune to look after him, in the middle of the night. They found him at the bottom of the ornamental pond he’d always liked. How’s that for irony? His cruel illness had already stripped away so much of his memory that he’d long since forgotten who I, or my sister, Rose, were. But he never seemed to forget that he liked sitting on the bench by that pond, especially on a sunny day. It had seemed to calm him when he was agitated. When Rose and I visited on days like that, and sat there with him, he seemed happy enough and we even fancied that at least he knew we were acquainted in some way.
The home, and the investigation that followed his death, concluded that he must have had a hankering to visit his favourite spot on the one night when some fool had managed to leave a door open. Whether ranks had closed, or whether it was genuinely impossible to say who’d made the mistake, I never knew for sure. If I‘d known who was to blame, I would have taken steps.
Rose and I were both devastated, of course. Mum died when we were young, and Dad raised us as best he could, on his own. The three of us were very close, especially Rose, who’d never married and had looked after him until she could no longer cope. Still, I didn’t know how hard his death had hit my big sis until that day in June when I went round to see why she wasn’t picking up the phone. I had a key and, when she didn’t answer the door, I let myself in. She was on the bed, surrounded by booze bottles and pill packets.
I might have found comfort in the thought that she and Dad were together again, if only I believed that stuff.
July, and it was my best friend, Sonny, simply disappeared without trace after he got separated from friends in fog on a moor down in Devon; a beautifully desolate landscape that harboured all manner of traps for the unwary.
August saw Anna, the woman I’d led something of a double life with for years, fall under a Newcastle Metro train. I couldn’t even go to the funeral. There was too much risk of people wondering who I was and word getting back to my wife, Terri. And, even though I was cheating, she and the kids meant the world to me.
I wasn’t to know that, just six weeks on, Terri, Luke and Sasha would be dead too, a terrible house fire while I was away at a conference that was part of my legend.
Sorry, yes. Legend. This whole lucrative import and export business I’m supposed to have, a business that everyone thinks made me my fortune, was a sham for years. Convincing enough for anyone who doesn’t have reason to dig too deep, and I’ve always paid my taxes to the last penny.
No one suspects that for years my real living came from killing people.
It sort of started after the army, when settling back into ‘normal’ life was a challenge, after the things I’d seen and done. I met people who were also back in civilian life, people who knew people, and my slide across to the dark side was so gradual that I hardly noticed the transition myself.
It was like one minute I was helping out with things that were maybe a bit dodgy, the next I was part of a murder squad and then, before you knew it, I was a killer for hire anywhere in the world, charging an obscene amount of money per hit and always able to stay under the radar. No one – not my dad, not Rose, or Anna, or even Terri – knew the truth.
I suppose the change started twenty five years or so ago, with the Eastley family. George Eastley was an up and coming gang boss on the north east coast, and the hit was supposed to send a huge ‘hands off’ message about the turf he was trying to muscle in on. Taking out a whole family had never been my style, but the bonus on offer was too attractive to turn down, and I thought I could handle it.
I really couldn’t.
It was the kids that made me sick to my stomach, especially the little boy, Ben. Two years old. My hand shook as I looked at his bewildered little face. I like to think at least I made it quick and clean.
A family of five and two henchmen. Gone.
I sent Arthur and his clean up team in afterwards. Arthur was always efficient, discreet and touchingly anguished about the corpses he disposed of for me. Really inventive, too. He made George Eastley’s yacht disappear too, and the assumption was that they’d all gone out in conveniently rough weather, and were now somewhere at the bottom of the sea.
Local gang bosses seemed to take the hint though. To this day, no one else has made a move on that particular territory, nor on George’s old patch, which subsequently fell under control of the people who let the contract.
I know that watery grave will give up its secrets one day, and the truth of their deaths will come out. But they’ll never be connected to me.
Still, I can’t pretend it wasn’t a bad business.
I’d always thought there was something awry with my humanity; that there was an ingredient missing from my makeup that allowed me to kill without compunction or conscience. I found out that day that I wasn’t quite as cold as I thought.
Since then, my dreams have often been haunted by those children, especially the boy.
And it affected me in other ways too. Arthur refused to work for me again, saying the three kids had broken his heart. I found a new clean up team, but it wasn’t the same.
Worst still, I found I lost my taste for the work, and some of my touch, some of my sharpness too. I made a couple of mistakes: tiny ones, nothing I thought would come back to bite me, but you have to know when the writing is on the wall. I retired, made import/export a real business instead of just a cover, and became boring and ordinary for over twenty years.
I knew a kind of peace, if not fulfilment.
Now, in less than a year, everyone I cared about is dead.
And now, in a sense, my bloody past has caught up with me. Someone wants somebody out of the way and it seems that Arthur, of all people, recommended me to them if they ever needed a professional hit.
My instincts when I got the call were first, to insist the caller had got the wrong man, then to be angry that Arthur had spoken out of turn, and finally to admit my curiosity.
One last job?
I don’t know. Since Terri and the kids died, my life has just been shuffling by without point or purpose. I’ve been wondering what it’s all about. And, somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that, up until the Eastleys, my old profession had given me a satisfaction, even a buzz. Maybe recapturing something of that buzz is exactly what I need.
So here I am, in a clearing in a wood on the outskirts of Northumberland National Park. It’s November and I’m wrapped up warm. The leaves make a gorgeous carpet of many colours under my feet. It’s slightly damp and there’s a hint of mist in the air. But what I can see of the sky is blue and it’s a day that once I would have taken pleasure in. Now I only appreciate it in an academic way.
It gets dark early here at this time of year, and the light is already fading, along with the day’s little remaining warmth. Neutral ground where no one is likely to disturb or overhear our conversation.
I hear the brittle crunch of twigs and dead leaves, an indication that someone is approaching. He steps into the clearing, a man who is difficult to nail an age upon. He could be anything from mid twenties to late thirties. There’s a woolly hat jammed over his ears. He stops, standing a few feet away, and nods an awkward greeting.
We’re going to have to go through a slightly silly ritual now. It’s like something out of a bad spy film, but essential to ensure neither of us is the wrong person. I don’t want to blunder into a comedy conversation about murder with some bewildered passer-by.
“Not bad for the time of year,” he says, shoving his hands deeper into the pockets of his padded jacket.
I give him the agreed response. “I wonder if we’ll have snow this year.”
He lets out the breath he’s been holding, his exhalation misting in the chilly air.
“You brought what I need?” I check – a discreet reference to the fifty per cent up front required for the job, along with details of the target.
He moves closer. “Let’s talk first.”
I feel a stirring of unease. It was sometimes like this, I remember. Like they had to explain what the job was about, why they needed this person – or these people – dead. I was never interested. They didn’t have to justify themselves. Sometimes, like with the Eastleys, I could work it out for myself. But the less personal it is, the better I like it.
“Don’t get me wrong,” I say, “and no offence. But we’re not here to talk. We’re here to transact business.”
He gives another barely imperceptible nod. “Sure. I just wanted to say something about our mutual friend. Arthur Cooper?”
I feel curiosity stirring. The recommendation was certainly a surprise after the way things had been left between Arthur and me. He’d made it clear he didn’t want any more to do with me or my work. Yet this client was here because of him.
“I was sorry to hear he died,” I say.
“Me too. He’d become a good family friend. I was with him when he died. There was a lot he wanted to get off his chest.”
I’m not sure where this is going, so I say, “Uh huh.”
He raises one hand and removes his hat. Uses the other to push back a lock of hair. The scar above his left temple is quite something.
“Can you guess where I got that from?”
I don’t want to engage. So he wants to take out the person who gave him that scar. So what? I just want the target’s details and my up front payment. I tell him so as he replaces the hat and shoves his hands back in his pockets.
He smiles then. “Oh,” he says, “there’ll be no money. There’s a target, but I’ll be doing the job myself.”
He pulls his right hand out of his pocket and it holds a gun. He points it at my head.
“Arthur thought you weren’t as stone cold a killer as you thought you were,” he says. “He thought you were so squeamish about shooting a little boy that your aim must have been off. And you were so keen to get away that you didn’t make sure you’d done the job properly.” He smiles. “And here I am, with nothing but a scar to mark your failure.”
I stare at him, remembering the wide eyes, my shaking hand, trying to recognise the child I’d left for dead.
“You’re Ben Eastley?”
“Arthur found a conscience that day he found me still alive. He took me to an uncle of mine, who got me fixed up by a dodgy doctor and then raised me as if I was his own. He kept it quiet that I’d survived, so no one came after me again. I don’t remember any of it, of course. I actually thought my uncle was my dad until he told me the truth when I was eighteen.”
“So this is revenge?” I sigh. “You do know that I just pulled the trigger? If it hadn’t been me, it would have been somebody else.”
He laughs hollowly.
“I’m not stupid. I know who gave the orders, and they’ll pay too, some day soon. But I didn’t know who carried out the contract until Arthur decided to cleanse his soul. I’ve been planning this for a while.”
I search his face. “Planning is one thing. Taking a human life… are you sure you can do that?”
He smiles. “I’ve already taken everyone you loved. All those tragic accidents…”
I stare at him, a sudden anger sparking and blooming into flame. “That was you?”
“Guilty. And a crueller man might have left you grieving longer. Think of this as a mercy. Twenty five years on, and it’s just you and me again. But I wanted you to know why, before I kill you. What comes around, comes around, don’t you think?”
“You’re right,” I say, pushing my hands deeper into my pockets.
And he is right. I failed to kill him when he was a helpless child. Now he’s a grown man. And he’s come for me. It’s like a circle has closed.
The single shot scares dozens of birds into the sky, its echo mingling with their cries.
I look down at my coat, at the hole in the fabric, slightly singed where the bullet passed through.
I look Ben Eastley in the eyes and see that child at last.
“You talk too much,” I say. I remove the still-smoking gun from my pocket and shoot him again.
His lips move and then his eyes glaze. His own gun falls from his hand. He collapses like a puppet without strings.
I feel like a burden has been lifted from my shoulders. There is none of the guilt and horror I felt when I thought I’d killed his child-self. This time, it had been him or me. And, if he’d only wanted revenge on me, maybe I’d have let him.
But he had to bring my loved ones into it.
I wonder if his uncle knew what Arthur had told him. What Ben intended to do about it. If so, then maybe others will come after me. Maybe I’ll spend the rest of my time on earth looking over my shoulder.
I find that I’m okay with that. It’s a purpose in life, of sorts. Maybe the constant sense of threat will make me feel alive.
And there’s another thing. What I’d imagined was my last job wasn’t exactly what I expected, but it’s shown me I’ve still got it. Killing people is what I was born to do.
I’ve still got contacts. People who know people, but who can be very discreet.
Maybe I’ll put the word out that I’m back in business.
© Dave Sivers 2020