[November Breaks] BEFORE | 04 | Noah

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TUESDAY 16TH FEBRUARY 2016

“You know I hate these things. Why do I have to be here?” The food’s good, but I can get good food anywhere. I can make it myself and eat it in peace without having to deal with lectures about things that hold no appeal. I stopped listening before anyone even started talking.

“Because,” says Max, “you should start taking some level of personal responsibility for, or at least interest in, your finances.”

“What do I pay you for if I have to come to these things and try to stay awake while people in suits talk about money?” Conversation at the tables has risen from a controlled hush punctuated by an occasional whisper to a sweeping rumble of relief while the speaker takes a break.

“You’re a person in a suit.”

“I know, but I’m not talking about money.” The green and white signs marking the fire exits glow out of place among red velvet and dark wood. I can’t stop looking for ways out.

“You should be. Or you should be drinking that extremely good wine so you can tolerate other people talking about it.”

“Are you trying to get me drunk?”

“I’m trying to get you to stop complaining.”

“Fascinating that you think wine has that power, but I can’t drink tonight. I have somewhere to be after this.”

“Work?”

“Yeah.”

“Fair enough. Listen, you’ve got another half hour to get through, then you can leave, OK? Please?”

“Say please again. Just like that. Go on.” I raise an eyebrow and it’s met with a frustrated glare, so I sit back and try not to seem like I’m fighting sleep.

“Excuse me, gentlemen.” It’s another person in a suit, because of course it is, but this one’s on a mission. He has that look about him.

Max introduces us. “Andrew Alexander Anderson, this is NJ Thurston. NJ, Drew is another client of mine.”

I get a good feeling from him when I shake his hand. Maybe good’s the wrong word, but there’s definitely a feeling. He’s not to be fucked with. We tend to find each other, people who aren’t to be fucked with.

“Mr Thurston, I believe you know an associate of mine. Darius Avery?” Andrew Alexander Anderson does not look like someone who would have reason to deal with Darius.

But then neither do I, hopefully. “Yes, I did some work for him before he moved.”

“I’m looking for a security consultant to assist with some rather urgent business and he suggested you would be a good person to speak to.”

Max is starting to twitch because he knows exactly what rather urgent business refers to. “This may not be an ideal situation in which to discuss it,” he says through gritted teeth with a pointed glance towards the exit. Not the fire door, though. The regular door that people leave through to deal with different kinds of emergencies.

“Of course,” says Anderson, but he gives me a this-can’t-wait look. “Would you care to step outside for a moment? I’d like to get the ball rolling tonight.”

“Now?” Blessed escape. “Sure. Let’s go.”

He leads the way out of the restaurant and I follow, grateful to be anywhere but sitting at that table, listening to those people. We get in a lift and he presses the button for the ground floor. “I take it you enjoy these events almost as much as I do?”

“They’re a necessary evil.”

“All evil is necessary to someone.”

I approve of his perspective. “So, this urgent business, are you personally at risk?”

“To an extent, but it’s not the first time. I’m more concerned for my family. Audrey can handle herself well enough, probably better than I can, but young Alex is somewhat cavalier in his attitude. I’d prefer to eliminate the risks.” He talks the talk all right.

We arrive at the ground floor and the foyer isn’t busy, but it isn’t empty either, so we walk out the side door and stand a short way down the street. I offer him a cigarette and light one for myself.

“Did Darius give you details of my experience and services?” I’m already pretty sure what he’s going to say.

“He did.”

“Have you worked with a security consultant before?”

“Not directly. I’ve had other people handle that side of things for me, but I’m no longer comfortable with such a degree of separation.”

“Wise choice. I assume you’re aware this won’t be a simple case of giving me a name and sending me on my way?”

“Yes. Darius said you were thorough. That’s why I’m talking to you. Also, full disclosure, this may lead to an offer of an ongoing contract, if things work out.”

“Is this a test?” I do not appreciate anyone trying to test me.

“No,” he says. “This is a genuinely urgent situation, but since I’m dealing with security first-hand now, I want you to know where I stand. You come very highly recommended.”

“I know.”

“I would say your reputation precedes you, but very little precedes you or follows you. You’re a ghost, Mr Thurston. Darius and I share some contacts who were able to vouch for your efficiency, but there was a labyrinth between your name and anyone admitting to knowing it.”

“That’s not an accident.”

“I’m sure it’s not.”

“And since you also know my financial advisor, you’ll be aware of how insistent he is on having all contracts above board and accounted for, whether one-offs or recurring payments?”

“I am. Max is also very thorough, in my experience.” He winces at the word thorough and we share a knowing smile. “If you give me your card, I’ll have my assistant call you tomorrow morning to set up a meeting.”

“Make it tomorrow afternoon. I’m working late after this ordeal’s over.” I won’t get to bed until four o’clock. Then I’ll get up at nine, providing nothing wakes me earlier, and go down to the gym for an hour before breakfast. My meal plan has mushroom and mixed herb omelette listed for tomorrow. Then admin. Another necessary evil. I hand a business card to Anderson.

He reads both sides, as if there’s going to be new information there. “Noah James. Darius called you NJ. Max introduced you as NJ. I didn’t think about what it stood for.”

“I’ll wait for my midlife crisis to hit before I start going by Noah, but it looks better on a card.”

“I’m sure you’re a long way off a midlife crisis,” he says, with a deep sigh that suggests he isn’t.

“It depends.”

“On what?”

“On how long you think I’m going to live.”

Something about this feels like the beginning of the end. Or a beginning of an end. His or mine. I’m not sure.

SUNDAY 9TH OCTOBER 2016

“What the fuck, NJ? You can’t leave that here!”

“I can. And don’t refer to him as that. It’s disrespectful.” This kid wouldn’t know respect if it snapped his neck. He is the polar opposite of his father, and that connection is the only reason I’m tolerating him. This is not covered by my retainer.

“What are you talking about, disrespect? You killed him.”

“And you paid me to kill him. Neither of us has the moral high ground.” My patience is waning. It’s one of those nights and I want it to be over.

“I don’t care. Move the body. Now.”

“I’ll move him when the rest of the money’s through. So far, you’ve paid for half the job, so I’ve done half the job.” I have no time for anyone who thinks they’re a special case. Transactions are agreed in advance. No-one’s exempt, no matter how much they think they deserve to be.

“I don’t have it yet and—”

“That’s not my problem.” I step over the body and stand closer to Alex, looking down at him.

He squares his shoulders, but it’s all posturing. “It’ll be your problem when I—”

“When you what? Think very carefully about the next thing to come out of your mouth.” I could happily shatter his teeth with my gun, but it wouldn’t be worth the mess I’d have to clean up. I’m so close to being done cleaning up messes, even my own.

“OK, please, I thought I’d have it sorted by now, but I don’t.”

“I’ll wait.”

“Fuck, all right. I’ll get it.”

I tap my watch, a gift from a satisfied client and a small reminder that time can be a cruel but elegant companion. “Tick tock, young Alex. Tick tock.”

“You’re an unfeeling shit, you know that?”

“You get what you pay for. Now go and beg the parental bank for the rest of the money or I’ll call them and tell them why you owe me, and you’ll be disposing of our friend here yourself.”

I light a cigarette with the vintage silver lighter I’m kind of attached to, another gift from another satisfied client, and settle onto the top step of the porch. Watching my phone screen, I wait for the notification to tell me the transfer is complete, but I don’t particularly care if it doesn’t come. My part of the process is untraceable, even if I walk away now. And I don’t need the money.

I nudge the plastic-wrapped corpse with my foot. “I don’t know what you did to him to end up here, but you should have known better.” I take a long draw from my cigarette, flick ash onto the ground and poke the body with my toe again. “Maybe it’s time I pack all this in and consider a drastic career change. What do you reckon?”

Another draw from the cigarette. Another flick of ash. “I could take a break and figure it out. Grow my hair, get some tattoos, learn what it feels like not to run on a maximum of five hours’ sleep. If I’d thought of this earlier, your wife might not be coming home to an empty house tonight.” Another draw. Another flick. A long exhale. A carcinogenic sigh. “There but for the grace of god, my recently deceased acquaintance. Or the grace of someone, anyway.”

“It’s there, NJ. The money. It’s there.” Anderson Junior looks like he’s about to throw up.

I wake my phone screen, and it lights up with a cold glow of confirmation. “You’re lucky, kid.”

“And you’re still an unfeeling shit.”

“So I’ve been told.” I stub out my cigarette on the toe of his shoe, stand up, hoist the corpse over my shoulder and walk back to the car, thinking about my future. 

MONDAY 3RD APRIL 2017

“It’s perfect.” I’d last seen the design as a rough sketch, but now it’s complete and I’m genuinely impressed. I rarely presume perfection from anyone’s work other than my own, but Greg also comes highly recommended.

“You get what you pay for,” he says. “I know you said you were fine to do it in two sittings, but we can spread it over more if you change your mind. We’ll have plenty of time for the outline today, but if it gets to feeling like too much, there’s no shame in stopping and coming back to finish it, then booking more sessions for the rest later.”

“Are you trying to put me off?”

“Not at all, but it’s your first, right?”

“Yeah.”

“A lot of people who go for something big their first time want it done quickly, but that’s not always how it works out. I’m just letting you know you have options.”

“Thanks. I’m not out to prove anything. I’ll take it as it comes.”

“OK, well, there are no badges of honour here, that’s all.” He hands me a clipboard.

I don’t rush with the papers because I never put my name to anything I haven’t fully read and understood. No contract should be taken lightly. I hand it back to him and he scans the page.

“Dude! Happy birthday. Any celebrations planned?”

“This. I’ve had a lot of birthdays with no tattoos, so it’s time for a change.” This whole environment feels refreshingly unfamiliar, apart from the music. It’s loud and heavy, and it reminds me more of driving along dark, empty roads in recent years than it does of the time decades ago when I first started listening to it.

“Never too late to start, man. It’s addictive though.” He nods towards a chair and tells me to take off my shirt and sit down so he can position the stencil.

“So I’ve heard. As addictions go, this is one I can live with.”

“It’s one of the better ones,” he says, with a wry smile that implies he was, at some point, intimate with a few that were less creatively focused.

I don’t remember the last time I took off my shirt and had to think about where to put it. I also don’t remember the last time I undressed, even halfway, in front of someone outside of a medical setting and they didn’t show any interest in what they were seeing. It’s unexpectedly comforting. Liberating, even. I fold my shirt and set it on a shelf behind me. My appearance is irrelevant here, beyond the task at hand. I am a blank canvas.

Greg shaves the top of my arm and prepares the stencil for my skin. “Sit really steady for this.”

I drop into a stillness that feels like suspended animation, made for waiting. There’s a skill to it. Time stretches and crawls.

He waves a hand in front of my eyes. “Dude. Breathe.”

“I am.”

“Only people I’ve known who could sit that kind of still were cops and soldiers. You one of those?” He glances at the scar on my shoulder. It’s not an obstruction to the placement of the tattoo, but no-one who encounters it ever manages to completely ignore it. He doesn’t mention it, but I know the look. He’s making assumptions, imagining connections. He’s wrong.

“Police. Long time ago. Very long time.” That isn’t where I developed this skill. Or where I got the scar.

He doesn’t ask anything else about it. When he’s finished placing the stencil, he says, “Stand up and have a look at it from different angles. Take your time and tell me what you think. Be honest. If anything isn’t exactly the way you want it, it’s not too late to make changes.”

I stand and look at my reflection in three mirrors arranged to give a comprehensive view. I still have moments these days when I don’t recognise myself, but the pattern of waves on my right arm, from elbow to shoulder, makes me feel more like whoever I am. “It’s exactly what I wanted.”

“You ready to go?”

I sit back down. “Do it.” From the moment the needle touches my skin, I understand why people who get tattoos rarely stop at one.

A few minutes pass, and he pauses. “You all right, man?”

I open my eyes slowly, one at a time, pulling myself back. “I’m good. It’s good.”

“Two types of people.” He grins.

“Yeah?”

“There are the ones who tolerate the pain because they want the finished article. Then there are the other ones.”

“The other ones enjoy it?”

He catches my eye in the centre mirror and we repeat in the panes on either side. “The other ones would get the needle without the ink, just for the way it feels.”

I defocus and watch the kaleidoscope of our reflections for a while, then close my eyes again and try to build a picture of myself that makes sense. I accepted a long time ago that I’ll never feel guilty, even though I am, endlessly and without moral justification. I’ll never wake up in a cold sweat over every life I’ve stopped in its tracks or the sense of rest it gave me. This is who I am and I’m far beyond picking apart all the reasons I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel about it.

It’s easy to believe life’s short when you’ve spent years shortening lives, but it’s all a matter of perspective. Life is the longest thing we have.