Joyland

The Midwest |

Our Assassin

by Alex Coates

Dear Mom, It’s been a while since I wrote, I know, but there hasn’t been much to tell. We had a late bit of frost last week. The weatherman gave us warning (the one you like to watch when you visit, Chuck something, with the round nose and the laugh) and so I got the plants all covered up. No real damage, though I forgot the rose bush out back, which disappointed Margaret. Sarah is enjoying her second year of college. She came out of Fall semester with a 3.2, which we’re very proud of even though we’re encouraging her to kick it up to a 3.5. I know she can do it. She probably would have, in fact, except for the car accident. Her leg is out of the cast now, I don’t know if I’ve told you. I try to call, but you so seldom answer the phone. I wish you’d let us hire someone. I worry. Cassie, meanwhile, is on track for a scholarship, if her softball coach knows anything. Coach seems to think Cassie could get a full ride at the right university. We’re thinking something small and private. Sarah is happy enough at the state school, but every time we drive through campus I can’t help worrying at how large it is, that whole sea of bodies flooding the sidewalks and streets. I think I’d feel safer with our youngest someplace smaller. I never recognize Sarah’s friends when we visit her. With that many students, everyone becomes interchangeable. Our assassin, Jim, is still here. I haven’t told Cassie yet that we’re looking to get rid of him. Sometime soon I’ll have to sit her down and explain we found him some other country to live in, some place with lax firearm restrictions and an abundance of warring families to work for, a place he can be happy. Although there might be a way to keep him nearby, close enough to visit without having him in the house, but I’ll get to that later. To be honest, I suppose I’d used Cassie as an excuse to keep him after that first hit. She’s come out of her shell so much this last year. For a while she’d been going out with her teammates, going out on dates, out until curfew. Sometimes she even breaks curfew, if you can imagine. I punish her for it, but it’s a strange thing. I never felt proud of Sarah when she showed up at one in the morning, dropped off by some boy who didn’t bother getting out of his car. But with Cassie it’s different. I’m glad she’s staying out late. I’m glad she’s having fun. Has it always been true for parents, do you think, that we try to fold our children inside out like this? Sarah we wanted to keep home. Cassie we want to push out. I’d like to think there’s some happy medium that we’re trying to reach, some equilibrium of teen socialization to which we’re anchoring the girls, but that might be a little optimistic. Maybe the parental instinct is simply antagonistic. Still, after the first couple of times Cassie showed up late I started to worry. We’d already hired the assassin by then, of course. Cassie’s new social life sprang up in just the last year, while we hired the assassin right before she started high school. That was the summer we paid for the roof we never got, if you remember, only to discover the roofer himself had taken our money and fled the state. Truth be told we were really looking for a collection agent, just to get our money back, but Jim had a summer sale going and, well, one thing led to another. So we knew the assassin by then, and I phoned and asked him if he might be interested in some other work. This was a pretty common question. I liked his work, but very rarely had anyone to kill. I could never guess which side jobs he would take, though, and which he’d turn down. When Sarah needed a ride to the movies, for instance, the assassin was happy enough to drive and escort her into the theater. He agreed to the same service for Margaret when she needed a ride to the grocery store. But remove Margaret from the equation and suddenly I’m asking too much. The assassin wasn’t at all interested in buying groceries himself, even after I presented him with the paper envelope of coupons and a shopping list. I told him, it’s not like you have to plan the meals or spend your own money. But I guess he felt it was beneath him. I joked with Margaret that it probably wasn’t a very cool job to brag about at the annual Assassin’s Retreat. We laughed pretty hard at that, though I never said it to Jim. We never really connected on that level except for one quiet conversation in the garage, but it wasn’t the sort of friendship where you tell jokes. Still, I had a pretty good feeling when I asked him about Cassie that he’d say yes. I guess there’s a fair amount of overlap in his industry and that of bodyguards. And I told him once, that same night in the garage, right before it all went sour, that in fact I thought he was a better bodyguard than anything else. I wasn’t trying to insult him. I wanted him to feel needed, to feel welcome around our family even if there was nobody who needed to die. Cassie was a little embarrassed to start. The first time the two of them went anywhere together it was to the mall. We’d given her a little pocket money to buy some new clothes – specifically a winter coat, as hers had seams coming loose at the shoulders. The assassin drove. You think the man does a professional job escorting a client’s wife, you should have seen him with my daughter. He got out of his jeep with his boots polished, his bandana ironed and his flack-jacket lint rolled. When I got close I could even smell the fresh gun oil on his weapons, a Colt .45 sidearm and a Sturmgewehr 57, which he’d only just bought on a trip to Switzerland. Cassie came downstairs in a skirt and a tank top. The skirt was to her knees, but the tank top was a little showy and I sent her back upstairs. Well she didn’t like that, of course. And that fight turned into one about our assassin, and finally I had to put my foot down and tell her she could either go to the mall with Jim or she could stay at home with me. Tagging along on subsequent trips has given me a pretty good idea what likely happened their first time out together. There’s not a lot that gets a young man’s attention like a Sturmgewehr 57. Pretty soon the two of them are being followed by a gaggle of enamored young men, awed by the piece of hardware that has manifested in the food court. My friends and I used to joke that if we could rent a baby for a couple hours we could pick up all the girls we wanted. Cassie found herself living our fantasy, but with the wrinkle that from my point of view it was an ideal situation. Right off the bat these guys knew to treat my daughter with respect. I think our assassin caught on pretty quick, too. When they got home he attached a bayonet to the end of his rifle. Even though I don’t think she’d admit it, the situation had some advantages for Cassie. I told you she was shy. But now our assassin gave her an excuse for certain limitations. She could pretend to resent his presence while using it to her full advantage, never having to be alone with a boy until she was ready. She didn’t have to sit unaccompanied in a dark theater with some kid trying to unhook her bra. She didn’t have to worry that the car she was in was going to run out of gas on a lonely road, or that the open can of soda a boy handed her contained illegal pharmaceuticals. Cassie could relax, could just be herself, and start to realize what an amazing young woman she is. It wasn’t long before one boy stood out from the others. With our assassin’s assurance that this boy knew all the ways his life could be ended I gave Cassie permission to go out, alone, on a date. At first the dates ended up on time. Cassie didn’t start showing up late until he began taking her to parties. She never came in drunk, thank god, but by the third or fourth time she broke curfew my excitement at her social blossoming finally gave way to worry, and our assassin stood in wait with me in the driveway. He stood leaning on his rifle. I leaned on a nine iron. When they finally pulled up they just sat in the car a while, staring. After a moment or two the bounty hunter pointed one long finger at the front of the car, and Cassie’s boyfriend snapped off the lights. It took another second for them to get out. Instead of abandoning her in the driveway, the kid made a point of stepping out, opening her door, and then apologizing to us, both of us, for their tardiness. Don’t let it happen again, I told him. He said he wouldn’t, then said it again to our assassin. Jim wouldn’t look at him, instead kept his eyes on me the whole time. It was great. That one gesture told the kid who was in charge. Our assassin might blow his brains out, but I’d be the guy who signed the check. After Cassie was in the house I invited Jim to sit with me in the garage. It was a nice night out. Warm. Clear sky, lots of crickets chirping, that kind of thing. It wasn’t the first time I’d invited him to take a load off, but it was the first time he accepted. The thing about having a wife and two daughters is that they become your life. And I love them all to death, would do anything for them, but sometimes a man wants another man around. I wouldn’t trade my daughters for the world, but sometimes I do wonder what it would be like to have a son. There’s a mini-fridge in the garage, a leftover from Sarah’s freshman year at college. She decided she didn’t want it after one semester. Worried about the freshman fifteen, she said, and it didn’t help to have a fridge around. At least she had to walk to the dining halls, which was a little exercise. So now it’s in the garage, and I opened it to grab a couple beers and we set up camp chairs and just sat staring at the street. Now and then a car would roll by. After maybe fifteen minutes the bounty hunter let out this long, long sigh, like a breath he’d been holding since the day we hired him. Need anybody eliminated, is what he asked me. I laughed, but caught myself. It was one of those things where you forget sometimes about how a person sees himself, and how it’s different than maybe you might. No, I said, and maybe it’s just the half-a-beer talking, but I think you make a better body guard. I wanted to build him back up, something I got from you, Mom. I think our assassin is the sensitive type, deep down. He’d have to be. If you’re the kind of guy who carries and cleans a restored medieval crossbow, you have to be aware how people see you. I mean, a shotgun kills a person just as dead, right? He didn’t say anything, just tipped back the beer and set the empty bottle on the ground, carefully, like he was afraid it would break, or maybe just to hear that pretty sound of glass on concrete. Then he got up, tipped his bandana to me and went back inside. I was going to finish my beer and join him but the night was so warm, and even sitting I was within arm’s reach of the fridge. I helped myself to another and breathed the air, watched the cars and listened to the bugs. A couple weeks later our assassin left. He said he was taking a little vacation. I thought about Cassie and her boyfriend, but wasn’t too worried. We didn’t have to stand out there and scare the boy every single time. And there was no reason to spook them anyway now that they followed curfew. That’s about the time we finally caved in and bough Cassie a car, so she was happy. Without our assassin to drive her around we couldn’t think of a good reason not to, and besides that the last time I took her driving she slipped into traffic like a cat through a fence. Fearless, that girl. I think it’s her athleticism. Now and then it shows itself, and I’m caught off guard how ferocious she can be. I think it was a Friday that Cassie and Margaret decided they needed a girl’s night out. What about me, I joked. No boy’s night out? Cassie shrugged. Margaret said I could have a boy’s night in, and kissed me on the cheek. I put in a movie while they were out, but I didn’t finish it. One of Margaret’s tapes, a dumb romance where two unlikable people fall in love. Well good for them, I thought. I was in the kitchen making myself a sandwich when it happened. Two little sounds - pink! followed right after by another, spak! The first sounded like that empty bottle tapping the concrete. The second I couldn’t place, except that I saw the result right there in front of me, a clean hole in the kitchen wall. I turned to see another hole in the kitchen window. I didn’t understand what was happening, exactly. The glass wasn’t shattered. And that’s the thing, if somebody’s shooting at you you expect it to be like the movies, to blow out some windows. I guess that goes to show my movies are pretty dumb too. Not knowing what else to do, I wound up taking my sandwich with me outside. I thought maybe I’d find something out there in the dusk. And I guess I did. Our assassin was standing there in my back yard, waiting. He was in a black tee shirt which he’d tucked into matching black cargo pants. He also wore a pair of black leather gloves. In one of his hands was a pistol with a long, long barrel. Silencer, he explained. So you wouldn’t hear the shot. Even then, Mom, it took me a second. I’d seen the bullet holes, probably seen the bullet whiz past for that matter, and now I saw the gun, but still I couldn’t put the pieces together. Some things are incomprehensible even as they happen. Did you shoot at me, I asked. Yes, he said, and I missed on purpose. I told him I believed him. It was a crazy thought to have, but suddenly I was embarrassed to be holding a sandwich. It was tuna fish, and I didn’t know what to do with it. I kind of put my hand around behind my back, and the whole time I stood there, wondering if this guy’s going to kill me, I also wondered if I could slip that sandwich into my back pocket without him noticing. Stupid, huh? I’m telling you, Mom, the stuff that goes through a guy’s head, and at the worst times, too… I asked, why? Why miss me on purpose? And he says it’s because we’ve been good to him, and he thought I should get the chance to make a counter offer. On what, I ask. On the guy who paid to have you shot, he says. It was all a little much. A man can only absorb a few things at a time, and I was well past my limit. Are you telling me, I asked, that someone hired you, our own assassin, to have me killed in my own house? He nodded. He wasn’t wearing his sunglasses, but it was getting dark, so it was hard to read the expression in those jet black eyes of his, assuming there even was one. How much, I asked him. He told me. It wasn’t very much, Mom. It wasn’t very much at all. You’d shoot me for that, I asked him. You get paid better to take Cassie to the mall. He shrugged again, and said he’d reassessed a few things, refocused. Which meant more making bodies and less guarding them. That was his joke. Our assassin never made jokes before. It scared me more than the bullet, I think. Okay, I told him, I’ll pay you. Kill the other guy. It didn’t seem real, to be honest. I’d never seen him kill anybody. It was hard to imagine. This was someone I trusted with my daughter, a big teddy bear with an assault rifle. But a couple days later he pulled me into the garage and held out his hand. I put out my palm to catch it. It was a button, shiny and black, with two raggedy threads dangling from the holes. Souvenir, he told me. Plucked from the target’s coat. I tried not to think about it. I shoved the button in my pocket and asked him a question. Now what? Now, the assassin told me, you give me another job, or leave me a free agent. Free to do what, I asked him, try to kill me again? Possible, he said. Well I didn’t want that. You can see the bind. I had no idea who’d hired him in the first place. Was it someone acting alone? It’s hard enough to imagine that one person wanted me dead, much less that some conspiracy might exist, some cabal so sinister they would hire my own assassin to use against me. But how could I be sure? I tried to ask him. Anyone else try to hire you? Maybe, he said. Can you believe that? ‘Maybe.’ Like I haven’t employed him for two years. Like he hasn’t practically been a member of the family! Then he added, it’s confidential. Well can you tell me, at least, if there’s a conspiracy against me? No, said our bounty hunter. But you still work for me, I said. And as long as I’m paying you to kill people, you can’t kill me. That’s bad business, right? He nodded, and we had an understanding. Mom, I’m telling you, it’s hard to get a hit list started, but once the ball’s rolling the sky’s the limit. And really the first couple were pretty obvious. The drunk who hit Sarah was at the top of the list. Then there was our old neighbor, back from when we lived in Pucketsville, the one who shot our cat and threw the body on our porch. He’s dead. And remember when Margaret worked for that insurance office, and they fired her when she was pregnant over some B. S. customer complaints that probably never existed? Wiped out. Then the pizza guy was late last month. I don’t mean a little late, like maybe traffic was bad or he had to stop for gas. I mean really late, an hour and a half late, to where we’re trying to call the pizzeria just to cancel the order but they don’t understand or they aren’t listening or god knows what. When this kid shows up he’s a real turd about it too, pardon my language. He shoved the pizza at me and makes some smart comment when I ask for change. I couldn’t believe it. He thinks I’m giving him a tip? He’s lucky I’m paying at all! Still, I’d probably have left it at that if he hadn’t backed into my mailbox on his way back down the driveway. The bounty hunter knew before I even had to say anything. He took a slice of lukewarm pizza in one hand, his Colt .45 in the other, and jogged out to his jeep. It doesn’t cost as much as you’d think. No more than a trustworthy maid, really, if you ignore some of the supply costs, things like gas and ammunition. Very few assassins expect you to pay for their weapons. Ours certainly didn’t expect reimbursement for his Polonium-210, and though he’ll happily talk about the next weapon he’s saving for (an HK69A1 grenade launcher which, frankly, continues to strike me as a little impractical) there’s never been the hint of expectation that I might buy it for him. It’s all very affordable. I tried explaining to Cassie what a good deal we’re getting. I sat her down because I’d been running out of people to add to my hit list. I thought she might have a few names. She didn’t get it at first. I kept naming people she went to school with, and she kept thinking I was asking whether or not they needed a bodyguard. Not a bodyguard, I said, death. Death! Do they need to die? It was like beating my head against a wall, and then finally she got it. You mean he kills people now, she said. He’s always killed people, I told her. That’s why he carries an assault rifle into a shopping mall. That’s what that means. She had a hard time adjusting. I’d been so caught up in not getting assassinated that I guess I never stopped to think how I might help her make the transition. And you know how it is with daughters sometimes. My best efforts made things worse. The three of us, Cassie, the assassin and I, went to meet a few of her friends at the movies. Like usual the assassin was swarmed by young men, keeping their distance as if he was a blast furnace. I realized, looking at them, that they couldn’t all be friends of Cassie’s. Simple odds. These were boys from town, boys she’d grown up with. In that time lines were crossed, ugly words said, bad actions taken. Cassie is a sweet girl, too sweet to treat any one of them poorly, but I knew that among their ranks was someone who deserved to die. While the assassin was busy at the ticket window I gave Cassie a little nudge. Pick one, I said, squinting down the barrel of an imaginary sniper’s rifle so she’d know what I meant. No, said Cassie. Kill two birds, I told her. Keep daddy alive and your enemies dead. I don’t have enemies, she told me. You never really know, I said. Not to scare her, but to relieve her of not knowing. I never wanted her to feel as foolish as I did in the backyard with the assassin and the sandwich. It never sank in. I’m still waiting for a name. I’ve tried to be subtle when I drop hints, but she can tell. That pitcher really beaned you, I might say after a game, or, that umpire never should have called it a strike. Cassie just sits in silence until we get home. I don’t know when it ended, but it must have. The boy who was bringing her home late doesn’t bring her home at all anymore. I tried to ask why. I asked because she’s my daughter and because I love her, but she refused to understand. I don’t want him killed, Dad, she said. I tried to convince her that wasn’t why I asked but she wouldn’t listen. She’s reached that age, I think. Sarah was the same way before she left for college. You have to make a break. You have to be able to say goodbye to your parents without looking back, and I guess sometimes the way to do that is to pick at some little flaw until it seems enormous. I get that. I’m sure I did the same thing to you and Dad when I was her age. Doesn’t make it any easier, though. Still, we’re in a time of transition, and I guess, finally, that’s why I’m writing. Cassie will be gone soon, and I’m down to my last name on the hit list – my old high school geography teacher, living out his retirement in a condo on Key West. I’d like to be able to wish our assassin good luck, but I’m still a little worried he’ll show up again one day with my name on a piece of paper. You can try to kill all your enemies, but you never know who you’ve missed. Grudges are so one-sided, and I think you hurt more people through negligence than malice – meaning the people I’ve really hurt are the ones I’d probably never suspect. So I’ve worked out a way to keep him busy. This is why I’m writing, Mom. How does this strike you, – you take him. You hire our assassin. I know you have enemies. He doesn’t just kill people, either. That dog that keeps tearing up your garden? Toast. And I really would feel so much better knowing there was someone else with you. Please think about it. If you could answer sooner than later, I’d appreciate it. I’m down to just the one name. To be completely honest, it’s getting urgent. I would try to call, but you so seldom answer the phone. An assassin could do that for you, in between hits. You could tend the tomatoes and he could screen your calls. Think it over. I think it would be good for you, and you know how I worry, being that I am, as ever, Your Son.