[November Breaks] BEFORE | 02 | Noah

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WEDNESDAY 4TH FEBRUARY 2015

“NJ?” The voice on the phone is urgency wrapped around forced calm and it drags the most stubborn parts of me out of any remaining ability to sleep. I only ever get to linger at the edge of the void, leaning over, looking in. I always sleep lightly, but I still resent anything that wakes me before I’m ready.

“Yes?” As if it’s going to be anyone else answering my phone in the middle of the night. It’s too late for this, or too early. Either way, I don’t want to be having this conversation. I don’t want to be having any conversation, but I don’t have a choice. This is the downside to my profession, to my purpose.

“It’s Darius. I need you.” He’s walking. There’s an echo in his footsteps, but his whisper is contained. He’s in an open space with bare walls and floor, but he’s holding his hand across his mouth and the phone. I’m the only person meant to hear what he’s saying. That’s often the way when people speak to me.

“What for?” I know what for, but I’m going to make him ask. I always make them tell me why they need me. I make them say it out loud. It keeps things balanced and encourages them to take responsibility for their part. It reminds them they don’t own me.

“We’re at the warehouse,” he says, then his voice drops further, “and there’s trouble. I need it gone. Can you get here fast?”

“To the warehouse? Half an hour.”

“If that’s as fast as you can manage.”

“How much trouble are we talking?” I always have various options ready to go, and I need to know what to lift.

“One, but he’s big, short fuse. Act now, think later. You know the kind.”

“Yeah.” I deal with it all the time.

“When you get here, there’s no time to talk. Through the door and do it, OK? The others’ll get out of your way.”

“Do you want to be clearer who I’m aiming for?” I figure it’ll be obvious, but it never hurts to check. There are some things you don’t want to get wrong.

“Don’t need to be. You’ll know.” Darius always has a lot of confidence in me. So far, it hasn’t been misplaced. His talent lies mainly in knowing who to surround himself with, but tonight seems to reflect a lapse in judgment or I wouldn’t be autopiloting my way out of bed right now. Still, other people’s poor decisions keep me in a job.

“I hope so. Do you have disposal sorted?” I know he hasn’t and I know what he’s going to say, but I’m going to make him ask for that too.

“I was thinking you and me.”

Of course he was, and nothing comes for free. “Fine. Twenty-five per cent of your cut, bagged and ready.”

“How the fuck do I get it bagged and ready before you get here?”

“Not my problem. You’ve got half an hour to figure it out.”

“You drive a hard bargain, NJ.”

“I know, but I’m good.”

“That’s what I over-pay you for.”

He doesn’t overpay me, but people who are accustomed to getting what they want on demand tend to see any payment as being over. “Have you got coffee there?”

“What?” he says, as if he didn’t expect that, as if he doesn’t know me at all.

“Coffee,” I repeat, more slowly.

“I don’t know.”

“Sort that. I need coffee. And no cheap shit.” It’s going to be cheap shit, though. It always is.

“Fuck’s sake, NJ. Are you serious?”

“Deadly. See you in half an hour.”

I could get ready for a short-notice job in the early hours with my eyes closed. That’s one of the benefits of keeping everything neat, orderly, knowing that whatever I might need is exactly where I left it with no-one to disturb it.

The underground car park is silent and my car is fully charged, because it always is. Because you never know. Or because I do. The only sound announcing my departure is the rattle and whine of the shutter rolling up from the exit.

The roads are quiet too, empty, streetlights and city giving way to low, sprawling industrial structures. Everything looks like the opening credits of a film or an advert for something where the product matters less than the aesthetic and the whole thing is an exercise in brand identity.

Parking up and getting out of my quiet dark car in my long dark coat, I, too, might be an exercise in brand identity. I am a cliché holding a gun. I am useful. I am a weapon. I am not really here.

I walk into the warehouse and do what I’m being paid to do. That’s how it goes. There’s no off switch, no reverse gear. Ten seconds and the trouble is face-down on the table. The others did get out of the way, but they don’t seem too calm about the spreading pool of blood. They ought to be used to it, in their line of work. I am.

Torrential rain arrives just after I do, hammering on the roof, and no-one speaks. Darius nods towards the corner of the room. On a slab of chipboard balanced across an upturned plastic crate, there’s a travel-sized kettle covered with dirty hand prints, an empty mug with a chipped rim, a tarnished teaspoon, and a jar of instant coffee.

FRIDAY 15TH MAY 2015

I snap on the light in Vince Harker’s kitchen the moment he walks through the door. Time is not on his side today, and neither am I.

He nearly jumps out of his spray-tan when he sees me. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Darius sent me.” It’s not exactly an answer, but it’s what he’s getting. It’s more information that I’d usually give, but the brief contained some very specific instructions. Vince has to know who sent me. It doesn’t matter who I am, only what I’m here to do and who set that in motion. I am irrelevant beyond the completion of a set of tasks.

“He’s sending his friends round now?” There’s an arrogance in Vince’s tone that I have minimal tolerance for, but the smirk on his leathery face isn’t going to be there for long.

“I’m not his friend.” Darius is a client, a regular client, but a client all the same. I came highly recommended. My skills matched his requirements. I make things happen. I make people go away. Nothing deeper. Nothing more.

Vince’s eyes dart from me to the door and back to me. “You let yourself in?”

That doesn’t need an answer. I take a step forward and he takes a step back.

A dark cloud crosses his face and casts a shadow of realisation. “I told Darius. I promised. I’m going to—”

“I don’t care.” I really don’t. “Sit.”

“No. You can’t make—”

“I can, but I’d rather not have to.”

He says he has a gun, which I know because I’ve already moved it. His voice is shaking, bravado fading and giving way to fear. He reaches into a space under the counter, but comes up with nothing.

“Let’s try again.” I’m holding my patience, for now. “Please sit down.” I draw my own gun.

The severity of the situation sinks in. He sits at the table and starts to apologise, but it doesn’t sound like he means it yet. There’s a hint of anger in his voice. A flare fired from a sinking ship. “I’m sorry, OK? I can pay you and—”

“Darius is already paying me, or I wouldn’t be here.”

“I’ll double whatever you’re getting from him.”

I almost laugh. “You’re already doubling it. Your accounts are being drained as we speak and when I’m finished with you, my associates will arrive and pack a bag with your belongings. One of them will lock the door with your keys and drive away in your car. It will look very much like you chose to leave voluntarily.” Technically, they’re Darius’ associates, not mine. I’m more discerning about who I associate with.

“But I’m not doing any of this voluntarily!”

I level my gun at his forehead. He’s on the verge of tears and either it’s very convincing or it’s real. Even if I could feel pity, I wouldn’t feel it for him. Pity deserves better. Vince has been on borrowed time for weeks and he’s starting to realise it. 

It seems counterintuitive to take so long over this, to give him so much information. Another specification of the brief, but I want to move things along. I want to be done here. “Put your hands on the table.”

“What?”

“Put. Your hands. On. The table.”

There’s a huge mezzaluna on the wall. Either he takes pizza very seriously or the blade is well accustomed to what I’m about to use it for. I would have killed him and taken his hands afterwards, but Darius is paying the cleaners and this is what he wants. It’s none of my business what other people choose to throw their money at or why.

The blood drains from Vince’s face, leaving his skin looking even more artificial than it did we he arrived. “What are you going to do?”

“First of all, I’m going to make you put your hands on the table.”

“You can’t.”

“I can.”

He puts his hands behind his back, as if that’s going to prevent anything. “No.”

I didn’t really expect him to do what he was told, but I hoped he would. Walking behind him, the gun against the back of his skull to keep him facing straight ahead, I lift an ugly gingham cushion from the seat next to him. It slightly muffles the sound when I shoot him through one shoulder and then the other in quick succession. More importantly, it stops the blood from touching me. This is a new coat and I don’t want any stains on it.

Vince screams and slumps forward, shock setting in. Screaming never did anything for me. It still doesn’t. It’s convenient that he lives so far out of town, though. He can scream all he wants and no-one will hear a thing.

With the gun pointed at his head again, I pull him back in the seat. His arms dangle uselessly by his sides until I lift them by the sleeves and set his hands on the table in front of him. He vomits into his chest hair and the smell is repulsive. There are many reasons I prefer not to prolong these situations. This is one of them.

I set my gun frustratingly close to him because I’m not entirely without a sense of humour and lift the mezzaluna down from the wall. “Don’t worry, I’ve done this before.” I’m not sure how much of a reassurance that is, given the circumstances. And, to be fair, I’ve never used this particular tool.

With one heavy roll of the blade, I separate Vince from his hands and he loses consciousness. I pull two tea towels from a rail on the wall to cover the wounds on his shoulders and tie a bin liner from the drawer under the sink around my sleeve to avoid contact with the vomit. My coat has stayed clean so far and I’m determined to keep it that way. Then I wrap an arm around his neck and the last sound he makes is a loud crack from just below the base of his skull.

It’s still early enough when I leave that I’ll have time to go down to the gym during the late afternoon lull before it fills with people. People who work in offices and haven’t been measuring their day by its body count. People who charge their cars next to mine, who have their shopping delivered, who meal plan and work out and store their clothes on broad-shouldered rosewood hangers. We are almost the same. I am almost not who I am.

The drive home begins with stripes and flashes of green and brown, then commuter belt villages and finally the rise and climb of the city. I have no more decisions to make today and the windscreen wipers sweep to life, greeting a sudden downpour that washes grey from the sky into the gutters at the side of the road.

THURSDAY 8TH OCTOBER 2015

I drive around the block twice and park a street over, keeping some distance between my car and where I’m headed. On foot, I pass a couple of men in overalls, a few children playing football on the road, and a middle-aged woman smoking a cigarette and wheeling a sleeping baby in a pram with glass bottles in carrier bags hanging from the handles. They all get out of my way.

The bar is a pit. The windows are small, high and covered with cages. The steel door has a keyhole and three bolts, but no handle on the outside. It’s open a crack. This is one of those places you don’t go into unless you know someone who’s already there. According to my research, the staff are well versed in turning a blind eye to just about everything that goes on and they have notoriously bad memories when it comes to faces and names.

At the beginning of my career I would’ve come here armed to the teeth, but that’s not where I’m at anymore. It’s a bar. The place is filled with glass, wood, and metal. Anything in the wrong hands is a weapon, and my hands have never been anything but wrong.

I walk in and it’s empty apart from Darius. I never exactly look forward to seeing him, but his requirements and expectations are familiar, and I feel no more or less personal attachment to him than to anyone else who commissions my services.

 “Darius.” I hold out a hand.

 “NJ.” He shakes it, too firmly. He’s one of those people who uses a handshake as an intimidation tool. Or tries to. It doesn’t have the desired effect on me. I’m tempted to crush his knuckles in my grip to prove a point, but I don’t.

I take a seat across from him at a table textured with years of stabs and scores, some deeper and angrier than others. I ask what he’s drinking, and he holds up a hand and nods to the bartender. He orders cognac, and I ask for a double espresso. It’s a workday.

The bartender gives me a confused look, as if no-one’s ever come in here and asked for coffee, even though they have a high-end machine behind the bar. It’s probably worth more than every other appliance and piece of furniture in here, and it’s best not to enquire too deeply about where it came from. There are some people you don’t ask about things unless you really want to know the answer.

Darius looks me up and down. “You’re overdressed.”

I’d be overdressed for this place in anything more than a sweat-stained string vest and a tracksuit. “I don’t own any clothes appropriate for somewhere that’s one step above having sawdust on the floor.” I glance down to check, in case my assumption was too kind. No sawdust. That’s something.

“That’s why I like you,” he says.

I don’t think he actually likes me, or his definition of liking someone isn’t the same as other people’s. It doesn’t matter. We aren’t friends. “Why are we here? This place, I mean.” Why would anyone ever choose to be here?

“I bought it.” He looks oddly pleased with himself.

“You paid money for this?”

“This and three others, so far. I’ve made a big decision. It’s time to retire. The missus and I will be leaving for sunnier shores, so I’m setting up some revenue streams to keep us in the manner to which we’re accustomed.”

I find it hard to believe this hole in the ground could ever fall into that category, but maybe it’s a front for the actual revenue streams, whatever those are. There’s more to it than he’s admitting. “What does it have to do with me?”

The bartender appears before an answer does. He sets down the cognac in front of Darius and looks like he’s taking his life in his hands when he turns to me. “I’m sorry, man. I can’t work the coffee machine. Casey can do it, but she’s not here and… sorry. Can I get you anything else? Or we have instant coffee?”

Instant. God, no. “I can work the machine. All right if I make my own?”

“Umm, we don’t really let people, I mean, no-one’s ever asked—”

“Let him get his own coffee, Andrei.” Darius can even make hot drinks sound vaguely threatening.

Andrei visibly shrinks and leads me behind the bar, then watches in awe as I make a double espresso. “How do you know how to do that?”

“I have a similar machine at home. It’s smaller, but they work the same way.”

“You have one of these at home?”

“Yeah.”

“You must really like coffee.”

“I do.” I knock out the spent grounds and wash the portafilter and basket in the sink behind the bar.

“You don’t have to do that.”

“But I should. People should clean up after themselves.” I take my coffee back to the table.

Darius is smirking. “You looked very comfortable doing that.”

“It’s meditative.”

“And I bet you have a few grand’s worth of coffee machine in your kitchen at home.”

I do, but it’s irrelevant. “So, we know why you’re here. Why am I here?”

“I have a business opportunity for you.”

“Which is?”

“The bars aren’t my only source of income, as you know. Leaving the country means I’m not going to be as actively involved in the other aspects of my business, and I need a particular kind of person to ensure that any trouble arising from those ventures is dealt with. You’re one of a few I’m talking to, but you’re top of the list.”

“Call the next name on the list. I’m not that kind of person.”

“You’re exactly that kind of person.”

“I’m not sure what part of our acquaintance gave you the impression that I work well with others, but I don’t.”

“You wouldn’t be working with others. Others would be working for you.”

“Same thing. I don’t take orders and I don’t give them.”

“You take orders when you do a contract.”

“A contract is an agreement, a mutually informed decision. And you don’t know how many I’ve turned down, or why.”

“Are you playing hard to get? Because we haven’t even talked about money yet.”

“I’m not playing anything and I don’t want to talk about money. Consider this a final and unwavering rejection.”

“Don’t you at least want to know why I asked you?” He sounds like he still thinks he’s going to change my mind.

“It won’t make any difference.” I genuinely could not care less, and I don’t want to stay here for any longer than strictly necessary. It’s making my skin crawl and I want to burn everything I’m wearing.

“I’m going to tell you anyway, since you’re sitting in my bar and drinking my coffee.” This doesn’t come as a surprise. Darius isn’t used to people saying no to him.

“Fine. Go ahead.”

“You have no conscience at all.”

“Unlike everyone else you’ve paid to kill people?”

“Maybe conscience is the wrong word. You have no emotions about it. I’ve worked with plenty of vicious bastards who’ve done all sorts of fucked up shit to all sorts of people, but generally the more vicious the bastard, the more they enjoy doing the fucked up shit. It’s not like that with you.”

“And what?” I’m bored with his armchair psychology. I finish my coffee.

“If someone gets off on listening to the screams, they’re going to find plenty of excuses to get people screaming. It can be useful, for obvious reasons, but it makes them difficult to manage because you’re always competing with their personal motivations.” That’s surprisingly eloquent for Darius, as if he’s been practicing using long words, trying to sound less like himself for the next chapter in his life.

“So..?”

“So you’re not like that. You just do the job.”

“And that makes me easy to manage?”

“That makes you not need managed, hence my offer.”

Hence. Jesus. “Listen. I do what I do, the way I do it. I don’t want to work for you and I don’t want anyone working for me. It would not go as well as you think. I have as little patience as you do for people who get their kicks making someone scream through their last breath, except I don’t find them useful in the slightest and I don’t keep company with them.”

He looks confused, like everything’s sinking in and it’s going down like a cup of cold sick. “Well, OK.” He doesn’t even seem annoyed about it.

I will never understand him, not that I have any reason to try. The conversation is over. “I’m going. Good luck with the retirement.” I take out a twenty and set it on the table.

“Coffee’s on the house, even though you wasted my time.”

He wasted my time, but I don’t argue the point. “That’s to pay whoever Casey is to come in early one day and teach Andrei how to make coffee.” At least then he’ll have some transferable skills that might help him get a job somewhere less disgusting.

I leave Darius, Andrei, and the definitely stolen espresso machine behind, and light a cigarette for the walk back to the car. I don’t want to get in wearing clothes that touched the seat in that place, so I take off my coat and fold it in on itself. I can stop at the dry cleaner on my way home.

The children who were playing football earlier run after the car until I turn the corner and leave them behind. I don’t think they were really trying to catch up. They were just chasing something because it moved.