Don was between Grand Central and Greenwich when he heard the guy behind him jabbering into a cell phone. “I got till Friday to decide, but I’m gonna do it,” the young man’s voice cracked with excitement. “I’ll hafta work my ass off, but it’s gonna be worth it. You won’t believe what they’re paying me. In a few years I’ll have it made.”
Don resisted the urge to look over his shoulder. But when the kid got off the train at Rye, still yapping on his cell, Don’s eyes followed him down the platform. The kid was scrawny and freckled and looked all of twenty, sweaty in his cheap suit. His hair was orange, like Don’s had been before he’d gone prematurely grey. A word of advice, kid, he wanted to say, even though the train was moving again and there was no point worrying about a kid. Get out before you get in. Don tried to remember if he’d been that young and trusting once. Sure, he had to have been. How else would he have gotten where he was now?
He stood up, belting his overcoat and pulling up his collar as he got to his stop. The rain had started, a drizzle that matched his mood as he exited the station. His tools were safely wrapped in garbage bags, but the duffle bag itself was canvas and it was getting soaked. He glanced at it with disgust. All these years, and he was still using a canvas bag. It was as unremarkable as his entire appearance needed to be, but it nagged at Don that it was the same kind of bag he’d used when he’d started this job eighteen years ago. He should have upgraded by now. He should have been upgraded by now.
That was the problem, he thought, as he trudged through dark streets and then, after the sidewalk gave out, muddy paths. You show you’ve got a talent for something, a job no one wants, and you get stuck with it. Nobody lets you move up because then they’ve got a hole in the organization and nobody to fill it. You’ve got to stay on, doing the same crummy job day in, day out. It just wasn’t what Don had pictured for himself when he was still learning the ropes. He’d had shadowy visions of what he thought of as the trappings of a normal life – nice family, nice car, nice house – nothing too showy, but enough to make clear that he was somebody. Instead, he was a professional nobody, a guy no one wanted to think about until they were past desperate and had nowhere else to turn.
He got to what he thought was the right house, a Tudor-style monstrosity hidden from the street by a thick hedge. Don had a cell phone with him, but contact by phone was off-limits after the initial three-minute call that afternoon. He checked the house out, front and back. No lights, just two candles in the front window and two in the kitchen. Big, stupid and stagey – it was the place. He double-checked that he was out of view from the street and went to the front door, ringing the bell. He heard loud footsteps. A man opened the door a crack, then pulled it back.
“You the guy?” he asked. Don nodded and stepped inside, stopping in the foyer to take off his shoes. The man looked like he’d played football a long time ago. Since then, he’d piled on weight, and after he’d hit forty his muscle had morphed into flab. His dark blue shirt was wrinkled and his belly sagged over his belt. His blond hair stuck out in tufts and he smelled like sweat. “You’ve got to hurry up. We don’t have long,” he said.
That was the way it always went, Don thought. Nobody offered him so much as a glass of tap water when he appeared. Get in, do the job, get out. The money was practically thrown after him.
“Where are your kids?” Don asked.
“The girls are at a sleepover. They won’t be home till tomorrow. But my son – I don’t know, he’s out somewhere. He could be back anytime.” The man shifted his bulk from one foot to the other and wrung his hands together.
“How old is your son?”
“Okay.” Don looked at his watch. “Your son is not coming home at 8:30 on a Friday night. You’ve got other things to worry about. I don’t clean up the mess.”
“Frank told me. I was working on that.”
Don sighed and unbelted his coat, handing it to the husband. “Put that somewhere to dry. Then go get yourself an alibi.”
“What – what will you do?”
Don unzipped his duffle bag. “I’ll be here an hour. After that I will lock up your house and get into your car – one your wife would normally drive. Tomorrow you’ll read in the paper about the car getting pulled out of the water. That’s your cue to call the police. Now, where are the keys?”
The pudgy man pulled two sets out of his pocket. “This is for the house. And this is for the Mercedes SUV.”
“Good,” said Don. He pulled one garbage bag out of the duffle and handed it to the man.
“What’s that?” the man asked, holding it at arm’s length.
“It’s my change of clothes,” Don said patiently. “Put it with my coat.”
The man stood silently, shifting from one foot to the other.
“Have you changed your mind?” asked Don.
“No!” said the man, face pale and aghast.
“What is it?” asked Don, trying to be patient.
“I don’t know. I just feel like there’s something I should be doing.” He stared at his feet.
“There is. Get out of here and into a public place. Don’t go to your girlfriend’s.” Don saw the man’s eyes dart towards him, then down again. They were all the same, these losers. “Go to a bar. Watch the game. Act like an idiot so people will remember you.” Shouldn’t be hard for you, Don added silently.
“Right,” said the man, looking unconvinced.
“Just don’t forget my money before you go.”
“It’s in the kitchen.”
Don followed the man down a long hallway and into a modern chrome-and-glass monstrosity of a kitchen. It was as ugly in its own way as the Tudor exterior. What was wrong with people with money, Don wondered. Did taste go out the window with their morals? The man gestured at a plastic shopping bag on the oval dining table. Don opened it and flicked through the wad of bills.
“You think it looks okay in here?” the man interrupted him. Don looked up, then went back to counting without answering. When he was done, he said, “It’s pristine. Good job.” As if he cared. He slid the plastic bag into the side of his duffle bag. “You ready?”
The flabby man nodded nervously. Don followed him back through the hallway and up the circular staircase in his sock feet. The second floor looked like a pink cyclone had hit. There were dolls and tutus and mirrored hairbrushes scattered over the floor.
“How old are your girls?” asked Don.
“Seven. They’re twins, actually. Boy, they sure know how to make a mess of the place.” The man looked at the hallway as if he’d never seen it before. He bent over, breathing hard, and picked up a jar of glittery lip gloss and set in on a carved wooden console.
“Which door?” asked Don.
“That’s the one. The bathroom, like you said,” answered the man, pointing.
Don reached for the knob and opened the door. He paused and suddenly turned back. “Son’s from your first marriage?”
“How did you know?”
“Big age gap.” Don nodded to himself and turned the bathroom light on. It always went that way. Second wives had the worst luck. He spotted her foot, with its pink-shellacked nails, hanging over the raised white tile of the shower. The glass door was wide open. As he got closer he saw that she was lying face-up, her blue eyes wide open and the front of her white blouse red and gooey. Her blonde hair was splayed around her head like a fractured halo.
“Wait,” said the man, just behind his shoulder. “She’s still wearing her ring.”
Don looked at her left hand and saw a platinum band with diamonds twinkling on it. “That her wedding band? Leave it alone.”
“But it cost a fortune!” the man blurted out, his jowly face reddening.
“Let’s make sure you understand this,” said Don. “You can’t give the ring to your girlfriend. You can’t sell it. No fence will do business with you. You’re going to forget about the ring.” Cheap bastard, he thought. Some guys he felt for. Others he would have liked to make disappear, just for fun. The man stood there, wringing his hands. Don set his bag on the floor and unwrapped his saw. Deep down, he felt that no matter how high his fee – plus whatever diamond-studded bonuses fell into his glove – he would never be fairly paid for what he did.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” said the man, and he started to cry.
Don sighed and put the saw down. “Come on. Pull yourself together.” He put his hand on the man’s shoulder, though doing so made him queasy. He knew he was touching fabric, but unconsciously he felt blood and tissue and muscle and sinew, knit together in bonds that Don knew the easiest places to break. “You’ve got to go out and act like you don’t have a care in the world.”
The man nodded miserably. “I know.” He wiped his nose on his shirtsleeve and took a deep breath. “Thanks for… for this. Frank said you were the best.”
“I am,” said Don, patting his shoulder and pulling back. That was how he’d gotten into this rut. Just try to find somebody else who could take a body apart like a butcher with a side of beef, hide the parts so that dogs couldn’t sniff them out, and play father confessor to the guilty. He picked up his saw. “You should go now,” he said. “You don’t want to see the rest of this.”
Hilary Davidson has published 16 nonfiction books, as well as fiction in Thuglit and Crimespree. Her short story “Anniversary” appears in the anthology A Prisoner of Memory and 24 of the Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories (Pegasus, 2008).
Her debut crime novel, THE DAMAGE DONE, will be published in October 2010 by Forge.
Visit her online at www.hilarydavidson.com.