I’ve made a lot of dumb decisions in my life.
Case in point: I’m lying in wait on a deer stand about twenty feet up a chestnut oak in the middle of Nowheresville, Kentucky, with a major crick in my neck from holding this rifle so long. I’m here to shoot some rich redneck by the name of Jensen Wilkes. He’s the fella dead in my rifle sights. Wide as he is tall. Beady, black eyes. Has a neat beard that rests comfortably at chest level. The grey stands out against his orange safety vest. There’s an ever-present cigar clenched between his teeth.
Alright, so maybe the bad decision here is being a contract killer. Then again, a 50K payday — minimum — isn’t easy to come by when my skillset consists of shooting guns and making a mean shepherd’s pie. This is my second ‘professional’ hit — as if the rest were Junior Varsity.
Based on what I researched, Jensen makes his money off thoroughbred horses and lumber — legally. He also has a habit of popping up in tabloids every now and then with a recently shamed beauty queen. Clearly, he has all the hallmarks of success. My handler, Paulie, mentioned the client wouldn’t hate if this looked like an accident, but Jensen’s not alone. A guy this flush with cash owns meat shields by the dozen and the one with him this morning looks to be worth three.
That stings. An ‘accident’ pays 75K. A two-person party means they both take a permanent nap, and if you don’t have the means to stage a very impressive and convincing scene, accidental becomes impossible. A bad staging turns into obvious then turns into evidence; which tends to be measured in increments of 25 years in some places.
These two are stalking deer among the white oaks. Can’t say if they’re having much luck. I’m a New York guy, trees and animals aren’t my scene. Neither is this cold. It’s in the high 20’s and I’m a little underdressed, but I should be able to deal with it. I shift my shoulders and think about the sun. Maybe after this mess I’ll head to Florida or somewhere out in the Caribbean. I take my eyes from the sight and take a long sip of coffee from an oversized thermos I found on Amazon last week. According to reviews, most of what I’m packing for this trip is supposed to be the very best for these parts.
All I know is expenses better be covered for this mess. Dropped way too much cash on prepping for this crap—hunting license included.
Back to watching Jensen. I scan a few meters from where he was standing and all I see is his bodyguard. Damn it. He must have gone off for a potty break. Would have been a perfect time to send a bullet between his eyes. Orange vest or not, a man pops a squat and you can’t blame another hunter for thinking that movement in the brush was a buck or a rabbit. Whatever the hell these guys like shooting.
I keep an eye on Lurch for a minute or two. Keep scanning the area in case Jensen went elsewhere.
“You’re downwind of them, you know.” A voice from below — Jensen. Watched a few of his TV interviews during my two days of research. That drawl’s hard to forget.
I lower my gun slow and look down. “Really?” Time to play the idiot—rookie hunter. Shouldn’t be too tough. I have the fortune of being both of those things. “No wonder I haven’t spotted a damn thing in over two hours.”
Jensen smiles. His teeth stained from that cigar of his. I can smell it from here and wonder if that’s what’s keeping the deer away. Can’t imagine the smoke is inviting. “I take it this is your first time out?”
Well, this went to hell. I brace my rifle against the edge of my stand and climb down from my perch. Extend a hand with a wide smile. “My wife calls it a mid-life crisis thing. Bryan Walsh.” I give him my real name. He’s seen my face, so it’s no concern. Either way, before the end of the day he won’t be telling anyone about this meeting again.
Jensen takes my hand and shakes it. He’s got a vice grip, like he’s making a point, taking the lead. “Jensen Wilkes.” He leans in and holds that grip. “Northerner? Got yourself a thick accent there. Irish last name too. Second or third generation?”
How familiar of him. “New York City. Third generation, which means I’m as Irish as sauerkraut.” I pull away from our handshake. Ignore the sharp ache at either side of my palm. “I’m guessing you’re local?”
Jensen walks to an oak and leans against it. “Louisville born and bred.” He pulls the stub of his cigar from his mouth and points the red cherry at me. Can’t tell if it’s more smoke or his breath escaping as he speaks. “Now what’s a yank rookie doing out in these parts hunting white-tail?”
I shrug. Imitate his posture against the tree where my stand is set up. Keep my right hand near where my P229 is holstered. Say a prayer of thanks that I had the presence of mind to screw the suppressor on the damn thing—even if it made wearing it uncomfortable. “Like I said; started reading up about excursions like this. Decided to say, ‘screw it’ and actually act on it. None of my friends were interested, but I didn’t want to let that stop me.”
Jensen nods. “I hear that. Plenty of folk’ll do that to a man, huh? Just crap all over what we want. Takes a strong will to say to hell with ‘em and move forward alone. I can admire that.”
There’s a rustle of leaves to my left and Jensen’s bodyguard appears. He seems bigger than life—a sour frown on his gray face. “Mister Wilkes, you were gone too long.” Russian accent. Explains a lot. Maybe this guy is a trained and shaved polar bear. “Please call if you are delayed.” The bear turns to me and looks me up and down. Doesn’t offer a hand or say hello, Not that I’d expect him to. He’s got all the hallmarks of ex-military. Clean-cut, well-built. Has a stance that seems ready to leap into action — a man on a hair-trigger. I’ve got half a mind to can this operation and demand some more from whoever’s bankrolling this hit. I signed up to get rid of a rich idiot, not a rich idiot and a guy big enough to slap me against a tree by the legs before I can think to reach for my gun.
“Sorry about that, son. Got wrapped up in chatting with Mister Walsh here.” Jensen nods to his bodyguard. “This here is my hunting companion, Dom. See, I don’t have the luxury of being able to do that call of the wild thing on my own.” He snorts. “No sir, too many folks invested in my well-being and all.” The way he eyes me, I can tell he wants me to either realize who he is or ask why he’s so important.
That’s a tough one. I can lay my cards on the table and admit I’ve heard of him, but a guy alone chancing upon a fairly important man like Jensen Wilkes is hard to swallow. The safe route is perking up and feigning ignorance.
“You’re some kind of vee-eye-pee?” I raise my eyebrows. Keep my gaze away from Dom. Don’t need him to pay any more attention to me than he’s already pretending not to. Damn certain a guy with Jensen’s money can afford a guard who knows I’m packing a hidden piece. Even more certain he’s working out why the hell I was perched in a tree and facing towards where they were wandering around in the brush. I move my hand a little farther away from easy access to the gun and I can see his shoulders relax a little. Smart man. Bad luck for me.
Jensen walks towards Dom and pats his shoulder. Dom produces a book of matches and Jensen goes about relighting the cherry on his cigar. “I’ve got a little sway in this world.” He hands the matches back to Dom. “Thank you, son.”
Dom slips the matches into his jacket. I can tell he’s not fond of being treated like a servant. The guy’s probably seen more action than Schwarzenegger and here he is in the same spot I am — feeling like an idiot in a forest with a man I want to shoot in the face.
The subject needs changing. I’m not big on pissing contests. “You have any luck out here? I figure you’re a hell of a lot more familiar with the area and the hunting than I am.”
Jensen snuffs his match between fingers. Puffs life back into his cigar and talks into smoke. “I tagged three yesterday. Today was just looking for icing on the cake, to be honest.” He jabs a thumb behind him. “Got two more days, but more than enough meat to divvy up. You ever have a venison steak?”
And my day’s gone from crap to great. What an opening. “Only once before, trip with family in Pennsylvania.”
“Pennsylvania? Please, boy, it would be remiss of me to not introduce you to a properly prepared hunter’s dinner. Got some rabbit and mourning dove too, I think.” Jensen turns to Dom. “We got mourning dove too, right?”
Dom looks confused. “The bird?”
Jensen rolls his eyes. “English as a god damned second language, yes, yah idiot — the bird”, he imitates Dom—not a bad impression.
Dom shrugs. “I remember chicken in freezer.” There’s hate in his eyes. Then again, my experience with Russians from the motherland dictates that’s sort of the default for guys like him.
Jensen dismisses him with a stubby paw. “Whatever, we got it and I got a cook in-house that’ll wreck your taste buds.” He begins walking away. “Dom will give you the details. Come by around seven. Bring something to drink.”
I smile and nod. “I appreciate the offer, Mister Wilkes, but I wouldn’t want to impose.”
Jensen keeps walking. “See you at seven, Walsh. Dom, give him what he’ll need.”
Dom nods and reaches into his coat. Pulls out a small card and pen. “Where are you staying?”
“Oh, uh, I rented a cottage for the week.” I reach for the pen and paper. “I can write it down for you.” I give him the location of an empty lodge clear across the park from where I’m staying. If things go wrong, I don’t need anyone knowing where I’d scramble to pick up my credentials and cash. Hand the card back to Dom.
He scans it and shoves it into his pocket. “We will have car sent at half past six.” He turns and walks off. His boots crunch into the dead leaves scattered on the forest floor.
Behind me, I hear the same sound. Turn around in time to see a deer sprinting off from the brush only a few yards away. I laugh a moment and then I realize I need to climb up that damn tree again.
“He saw you?” My handler, Paulie, has not taken news about my dinner plans well. “And you decide to have a full-blown conversation instead of doing your job? You that hard up for a decent meal?”
I’m straightening my tie. Not trying to impress anyone, but I figure a guy with this kind of money, you dress the part. “Listen, Paulie, I got this. Besides, getting into his house might even help.”
A few beats of silence. I hear him muttering something to someone else. “How does it help? Wait, this is your burner phone, right?”
I click my teeth. “Why would I use my personal phone to talk business with you?”
“Well, you’re going on dinner dates with contracts, so I figure you’ve up and gone completely stupid on me. You got any emails detailing why you’re out there you wanna send me while you’re at it?” Paulie sighs. “I knew it was a bad call giving you this gig. Got a handful of guys that could have done this — familiar back-country types.”
“Ha, ha. I’ll own the screw up, but don’t go insulting me by saying I’m doing a worse job than a redneck would.” I grunt and undo my Windsor knot. Have a thing about getting it right. “Sure, this isn’t my element, man. You get me a gig in Queens or hell, Yonkers, that’s where I shine. Need me to work a contract with a drinking problem that spends all day in dive bars, I’m your man.” I get the knot right this time. Make sure the knot dimples on each side. “This is all new. Good ol’ boys and frigging trees.”
“Look, I get that you needed this payday,” Paulie says, “but I don’t see a need for you to go putting your back against the wall. We got trees up here and you’re talking like you’re on another planet.”
“Yeah, but it’s different. It’s like a whole other world out here. Half expect a dragon or something to pop out of nowhere.” I slip on my suit jacket.
“Christ, Bryan, it isn’t like you haven’t traveled before.”
“True.” I pace the small area in front of my bed. “I don’t know man. Something about this place makes me feel off. Reminds me of Ireland for some reason.”
“I’ll take your word for it, though I can’t imagine Kentucky and Ireland being that similar.”
“Well, not outright, just gives me the same uneasiness is all.”
“Whatever you say, man. Look, get things sorted and get out of there ay-es-ay-pee, you got me? If this doesn’t end tonight, I want you back here. This is getting too risky.”
“Maybe.” The eagerness to get me to can the job doesn’t sit well with me. Paulie’s greasy, always looking to cover his own butt, but this sudden care for my well-being scares me more than Dom. “What’s the rush?”
“Our clients got antsy. They may have hired out to other contractors.”
Damn it. That gets me steamed. “I thought I told you we only take exclusives from now on. I don’t need a repeat of that Canarsie business.”
“And I thought this was an exclusive gig, but like I said, antsy.”
“Fine, fine. You’d think this guy killed a family member of theirs, but no, sell a bum legged horse and it’s all-out war.” I check my watch. 6:00. I need time to get to the cottage I told Dom I was renting. “Okay, Paulie. I gotta head out. I’ll check in later.”
“Be careful.” Paulie’s serious. Wonder if he has a track on who else might be out here.
“I’m trying.” I disconnect the call. No point in grilling him about the competition. Dig through my bag and pull a backup .22, slip it into a holster on my ankle. I’ve already got the P229 under my suit jacket. I figure Dom will pat me down, but I’m banking on Jensen being too gracious of a host to let him give me a full-on groping, so the .22 might pass undetected. I should pack the suppressor, but if Dom were to find that, my intentions would be pretty damn exposed.
I give myself another once-over in the mirror. Try to ignore the lines around my eyes and mouth that won’t go away anymore. One of these days, I’m either going to eat a bullet during one of these gigs or I need to fade away. I shake the thoughts out of my head. There’ll be time for that after this gig.
There’s always time for those thoughts after a gig.
I thank my driver as I step out of the Escalade Jensen sent to pick me up. I had hoped Dom was driving. I could have popped him once when we got here and taken care of the rest on the spot, but luck isn’t on my side. The car pulls away and heads back the way it came. I get a sense of relief that I won’t have a third body on my hands tonight, but I also don’t see another car anywhere near me. Here’s hoping there’s a garage around back.
I’d rather not wander around this forest in the dead of night with a suit on and peashooters that would do little more than really piss off a bear before it took my head off.
No time for wildlife massacre paranoia. Ring the fancy doorbell, but I don’t hear any music. The place looks rustic on the outside, but there are enough motion-activated lights to shatter the illusion. The wood that built this place is probably the only thing old about it.
Jensen opens the door with that ever present cigar hiding a bit of his yellow smile. “Glad to see yah again.” He’s wearing a suit worth ten of mine. I made a good call.
I grin and shake his hand. Put a little extra mustard on it this time. “Same here.” I raise a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle — a pricey bourbon outside of Kentucky. “I brought a treat.”
Jensen take the bottle and gives it a once over. “That’s fine taste for a northerner.” He motions for me to follow him inside. The house is huge, but barebones. All wood—like something Abe Lincoln from the future would have been born in. There are a few paintings of horses hanging up, a nice couch and loveseat combo in a recessed den area. There’s a dining room area set up for four by a nice, comfy looking fire. If it was the two of us, I’d wager Jensen was looking to win me over, but he strikes me as the kind of guy whose focus is only on cash. Those are always the types to make enemies like he has.
“I may be a northerner, but I spent a lot of time overseas.” I take in my surroundings. Stairs leading to the second floor on my left. There’s sliding glass doors leading outside to a backyard patio and fire pit. The rest of the place is wide open. A little too clean looking—like a picture in a magazine. The only door I see on this level of the house has a lopsided sign on it reads, ‘Outhouse’. I’ll guess that’s the bathroom — hopefully.
“You travel on business?”
“On and off. Did my bid with the Marine Corps during Desert Storm back in the nineties. Spent some time as a contractor afterwards. Usual stuff.”
“And what do you do now?” Jensen walks over to a liquor tray and cracks open the bottle of Pappy. Pours four fingers into two tumblers. He offers one to me.
I take the drink and smile a thanks. “Tiling, if you can believe it.”
“Interesting. I dabble in lumber myself.” Jensen motions to Dom and back over to me. “Hope you don’t mind. I’ve got to keep up appearances.”
Dom walks over. “Please lift arms.”
I was hoping I’d gotten away with this. He pats me down, finds the P229 immediately. Slips it out of the holster and shows it to Jensen. I grimace. “Protection and all. Woods make me paranoid.”
Jensen takes the piece from Dom and inspects it. Produces a smith and Wesson M&P40 from inside his jacket. “I prefer this beauty. She’s easy to handle and the stopping power is worth it.”
The amount of thoughts I have over the next four heartbeats nearly put me in a seizure. Does he trust me? Am I about to take a slug to the gut? This all can’t be blissful ignorance. No job comes that easy. Could Jensen feel so safe and secure that he’d invite a potential murderer over for a nice dinner in a fancy cabin only to flaunt his bravery or power? That’s some next level hubris. All those thoughts and all I can do is nod. “Can’t say I’ve ever handled the forty, but I have a nine back home. I think it’s a little lighter and the caliber is obviously smaller, but they both get the job done close range.”
Jensen’s eyes light up at my words. “You kill anyone out there?”
His lack of specificity makes me wonder if he means in the war or elsewhere. Let’s go with option one. “Can’t say I had the misfortune of notching my belt, sir. I didn’t see much action, to be honest. Worst of it were the spiders.” I raise a hand out and show him my palm. “Twice as big as my hand. You could ride them like the horses you got in these paintings.” I nod to a mural-sized painting of a horse running on a race track.
Jensen hands my gun to Dom, who pockets it, and slips his own back into its holster. “Ah, yes. Golden Glory. He made me a lot of money.”
“He retired?” I haven’t a clue what the term is for a retired racehorse. I can only pretend to know so much and my brain’s already jammed with random hunting facts. If the need arises, I can at least fall back on that.
“I recently sold him to someone interested in running him in some lower stakes races as he ages.” Jensen clicks his teeth. “Stressful stuff.”
“How so?” I ask.
“Ah, it’s a stupid business, horses. Some buyers are finicky, even when you’ve told them everything they needed to know.” He sucks on his cigar and wanders over to the dining room table. “That’s what I got lumber for — nice and boring.”
“Like tiles. I get that.” I take a sip of the bourbon and pretend not to hate it. I’m an Irish whiskey man to the core. “Is this entire place the same kind of wood?” Weird question, but hey, what the hell do I know about lumber?
Jensen looks up at the ceiling. “Good eye. All Kentucky Chestnut Oak. I prefer stained, but even au natural, it’s gorgeous. Hell, you can eat the acorns right off the tree. Can’t do that with other oaks.”
“That a fact?” What a completely, horrifyingly boring thing to know. I like the guy, but I can see Jensen being the type who lives a supremely unsatisfying life. That’s what leads a man down the dark paths. I’ve seen at both ends of the gun. Complacency and too much money make for spectacularly bad decisions.
“I do a lot of business out of County Kildare — in Ireland — big horse racing town.” Jensen sips his bourbon and looks at the glass like a lost lover.
“I’m unfamiliar with the area. Only spent time out in Kilkenney as a kid.”
“You ever get a shot, visit Kildare. Gorgeous place. Funny enough, the name means ‘church of the oak’ in Irish.” He points a finger up and rotates it. “This here is my church, I guess.”
I nod. Grasp onto a random fact from my childhood. “That makes sense. Their word for oak is ‘doire’. I have family from Derry.”
We enter a nice silence, not so much uncomfortable as it is necessary. There’s a spread of bite-sized appetizers on the table — what looks to be the rabbit and doves. I hear dishes clink behind me and spot an older woman busy in the kitchen. “That’s our chef tonight?” I point to her. She looks up and smiles at me. I smile back.
“Yes sir, Doris is a magician. Lucky man I am to have scooped her up from an old rival a few weeks back.” Jensen blows her a kiss and Doris smirks and continues to work. “Have a seat, Bryan. Eat. Drink. Tell me about that wife you’re running away from.”
I laugh. “Be more than happy to chat, but first, if you don’t mind, I could use the bathroom. I was running late and didn’t want to hold up your driver. I take it the door marked ‘Outhouse’ is the right spot? I’d hate to leave a mess on someone’s bed.”
Jensen chuckles. “Go on.” He slides a seat out next to him. “Dom, come on. Take a load off. It’s back to work in less than a day.”
I haul myself over to the bathroom and lock the door behind me. Brace my left leg on the lip of a surprisingly cheap-looking sink and pull my .22. There’s a little guilt at having to finish the cook—I hate collateral. An accident stage is out of the question, but with three dead bodies, I can light this fire trap up and at least leave some poor deputy with a cold case that’ll haunt him into his retirement years. I place my piece on the lip of the sink and reach over to the toilet and flush it to keep the con going.
Now, most guys in my business use suppressors. There’s a reason why we call them suppressors and not silencers. You can’t quiet down when that bullet breaks the sound barrier. Doesn’t matter what the movies show. There’s still a very familiar noise. So, imagine my surprise when I hear three shots — quick and definitely from a pistol. I’m not good enough to say whether it was Jensen’s piece or mine, though.
I reach over and unlock the door — pulling away as if the knob was a live wire. Don’t need to get myself shot yet. Lean over towards the sink and turn on the faucet for a little distraction. Paulie warned me. This is all on me now. Should have ended it quick and picked up the fifty instead of banking for twenty thousand more. That’s what I get for being greedy.
But that doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is getting out of here in one piece. What matters is tucking into the corner of this half bathroom when the door starts exploding from the gunshots sent my way. Holes open up across the surface of the door and stay tight. No movement. Let this idiot shoot the tile and toilet all he wants. Not my property. I count off the shots. Around 16 it stops. They’re reloading, which means they’re using Jensen’s gun. My P229 only has a clip capacity of 13.
I yank the bathroom door open and pop off two shots ahead of me. Make a mad dash to that big, comfy couch in the living room. Roadie walk to the other side and hear that click of the clip. The genius lets five shots off back where I was before. I peer around the corner and spot Doris on the floor near the dining room table in a pool of her own blood. Then I spot Jensen’s leg. The expensive pants are a giveaway. Take aim and pop off another two shots. The grunt that follows lets me know my aim’s not gone yet. I stand up, gun ready—down sight. Send another shot into the bastard’s back.
He drops to the floor and sighs. Crawls over to where Dom’s seated — a few feet away from the table with a bullet between his eyes. There are four dinner plates set, all housing the largest steaks I’ve ever seen. The food’s still steaming. Jensen sits up against the wall and grimaces. “God damn that hurts.” He chuckles. “Didn’t peg you for that good a shot. The hunting rifle you were using before was for beginners.”
What do you know; the man’s smarter than I gave him credit for. I make my way to Doris keeping the gun trained on Jensen. Squat down and check her pulse. She’s gone. Notice there’s a bulge at her back. I draw back her apron and there’s a heater right in the band of her jeans. What the hell, does everyone down here have a gun?
“Why not use my gun?” I ask Jensen.
Jensen leans his head against the wall and laughs. “You didn’t give me a suppressor for it. Besides, three birds, one stone. Those sons of bitches paid three of you and I killed two.” His eyes are glassy.
Three? I stand back up. “The cook and the bodyguard? That doesn’t make sense.” I point to the front door. “What about your driver?”
“Doris there came by two days ago on a recommendation. This idiot…” Jensen points to Dom with the M&P40. “Started asking all sorts of new questions last week. There’s a reason he was a bodyguard and not something that requires a brain cell to spare — like a hit man.” He smiles at me. “The driver’s a separate contract. I tried to play it a little smarter than the rest of you.”
I shrug. “Hey, we all do what we need to do.”
“What’s the going rate for me?” Jensen clears his throat.
“Does it matter?”
Jensen scoffs. “Of course it matters. Can’t measure my worth in good deeds.” He coughs. I see a bloom of red begin to grow on the floor. I caught him good. He’s bleeding out.
“A hundred and fifty.” Figure I give a dying man a gift.
“Third generation Irish indeed. You’re a terrible liar.”
I almost laugh at that one. “Fine, seventy.”
“At least you got a free vacation out of it, huh?” Jensen smirks.
I shrug. “Tell you the truth; I sort of hate it here.” I give him a joyless smile. “Reminds me too much of Ireland — all trees and old men past their prime.”
Jensen frowns. Raises the gun towards me, but he can barely lift the thing. Might as well weigh a thousand pounds. He coughs and drops his hand onto his lap.
I end it there. Single shot between the eyes.
Jensen’s neck goes limp. His chin dives into his chest and he deflates. Looks nearly half the size of the big southern bastard I met earlier in the day.
I make my way to Doris. Spot some anti-bacterial wipes on the kitchen counter, wipe my .22 clean, and slip the gun into her hand. Pull my burner phone and snap a few pictures for proof of kill. Message those to Paulie’s burner and tear my phone apart. I wander into the kitchen to check if the oven is connected to a gas line — no dice. Better yet, it uses two propane tanks. I yank those boys out and stop myself from cracking them open.
There’s time to kill and I’m hungry. Head over to the dining room table and scoop up an untouched plate along with the bottle of bourbon I brought. I still hadn’t tried venison and it would be shameful to let that expensive bottle of bourbon go to waste. I cut a nice, thick piece of steak and take a bite.
It’s delicious. “Well damn, sir, you were right. This is a little piece of heaven right here.” Continue picking apart my steak and savor every bite. I raise my bottle to Jensen with a nod. Silently thank him for the pay-day, the meal, and about a million reasons to never find my way back to Kentucky ever again.
Angel Luis Colon is the author of The Fury of Blacky Jaguar, the upcoming No Happy Endings, and the in progress Meat City on Fire and Other Assorted Debacles. He’s an editor for Shotgun Honey, has been nominated for the Derringer, and has been published in multiple web and print pubs such as Thuglit, Literary Orphans, All Due Respect, and The LA Review of Books.