[Normally, I publish personal essays here. This is a bit of fiction I wrote recently. — Amy]
“The son of a gun is a bullet,” he says, cradling the revolver. It’s the first thing he’s said.
He squints down at me, looking for a response. I don’t know what to say. Speaking requires breath. Breath requires effort. I don’t say anything.
“The son. Of a gun. It’s a bullet. Do you understand?”
“A bullet,” I whisper. My throat is so sore. Mouth so dry.
“Exactly.” He turns around. Starts walking away. Stops. Comes back to my chair. He leans down, lips to my ear. Inhales. About to say something. Or do something. I tense.
He changes his mind.
Goes back to the same spot against the wall. Leans his back on the concrete brick, slides down to a sitting position. The gun is on his knee. Still aimed in my direction.
For a long time.
I operate out of a storage facility on the outskirts of Newark, New Jersey. The building is a faceless concrete cube, squeezed between an abandoned factory and an automotive scrapyard. I rent a ten-by-ten-foot bunker, accessed through an overhead steel door. Not very big. You’d be surprised how little space I need. The storage space isn’t zoned for people to run a business out of, but the management and I have a mutually satisfying arrangement.
My box is perfect for my needs. My work requires the utmost concentration. No cell reception. No wi-fi. No windows. Only a shopworn desk facing the blank rear wall. An ancient laptop. A comfortable desk chair. And a set of steel shelves standing against the side wall. A sensory deprivation chamber fashioned of steel girders and cement. I function best in an environment free of distractions. There are no pictures on the walls. No devices for playing music. Even the reference books on the steel shelves are arranged in a bland, uniform order.
All that matters is the quality of my work.
He’s up again. “In films, how many times do you see the hitman talk to his victim before killing him? Explaining what they’re about, giving some long spiel about the Bible or some such thing? Like in Pulp Fiction?”
I try to shrug. “A lot.” I swallow. My throat rasps.
“It doesn’t make sense. A hitman is hired to perform a task. Presumably without calling attention to himself or his client. Why prolong the event? Why waste time on chat?”
He waits for my response. What am I supposed to say? He prods me: “Am I right?”
I nod. “Right.”
“Wrong!” His voice rings like a bell. “Wrong! It’s a soliloquy. He’s not talking to the victim, he’s talking to himself. He’s justifying the violence, because deep in his soul, he feels remorse. His soul grieves the loss of life he’s about to cause. But he can’t admit he’s wrong. He can’t take responsibility. He can’t stop himself. Not now.”
I look down. I can’t see my shoes. If I try to stand, I’ll fall face down onto the concrete. My ass is numb from hours in the chair.
He’s doing something, fumbling with the revolver. I gasp, and nearly pass out from the pain of exerting my windpipe. His hand in my face, shoving a small object at me.
“Can you smell it? Smell it. Good.” He presses it against my cheek, and I wince. “Feel it? Yes? Cold, isn’t it?” He pulls it away. The object is a bullet. He presses it to his lips, blesses it. “Behold the Son.”
He replaces the sacrament in its vessel. Returns to his spot against the wall.
I keep the steel door partially rolled up when I’m working. Even with temperature control, it gets stuffy. When the door is up, it gets loud in the bunker. People move things in and out of the facility all the time. You can even hear the guys working in the automotive scrapyard next door. I wear noise-canceling headphones to block out the ambient noise. No distractions. Focus.
It was an ordinary day. I was hunched over my laptop, solving a logistical problem, when I heard the door roll closed behind me. I gave it no thought. It does that sometimes of its own accord. The chain it’s attached to isn’t weighted properly. Concentrate. A plausible solution exists, if I think hard enough. I blinked — something flashed in front of my eyes. A cord — slipped over my head — pulled tight around my neck. I fought. The cord nearly pulled me out of my chair. I clutched at the cord, cutting my fingers. The pain was unbearable. Everything went black.
He’s still sitting on the floor. Still holding the gun. “A hitman can be a sadist. Torture their victims. The target’s not going to live, anyway. He’s dead the minute we lay eyes on him. He’s a toy now. It’s okay to have a little fun. That’s how they justify it.”
I can’t look at him. And yet, I can’t not look. I don’t recognize him. Even if I’ve seen him before, he’s unmemorable in a calculated way. Colorless hair. Medium white skin. Pale eyes that fade into his face. His clothing is bland. Navy windbreaker, blue jeans, brown oxfords. Still watching me, cradling the revolver. Caressing it. He’s noticed my assessment, but doesn’t seem to care if I memorize his face. If he doesn’t care, then it’s unlikely I will survive this encounter.
“You said the son of a gun is a bullet,” I remember. “What did you mean?”
He considers me. Weighs his words. “Most people believe gun is phallic. The shaft of the barrel. The ejaculation of the bullets. But reverse it. Think about it in another way. What if the gun is a birth canal?”
“In that light, the son is a newborn seed. A gift. It changes everything, Draper.”
Draper. He knows my name. This man who doesn’t care if I can identify him is not a random individual with a gun. He knew my name and where to find me.
There is a school of thought that the victim of a hostage or kidnapping situation should humanize themselves, using their own name, telling their captor items of personal significance, and speaking empathetically to the person holding the gun. Is it too late to start?
I smile. It’s a feeble attempt. “Nobody calls me Draper. Call me Charlie.”
At first, I thought I was paralyzed. I’d been tied to my desk chair. My arms bound to the respective arms of the chair. My legs tethered to the corresponding legs. Were my limbs confined by lengths of the same cord that choked me earlier?
Pain. It circled my throat and throbbed in my head. My lips were crusty, parched. Licking them did no good. My tongue was too dry and cracked to provide moisture.
A man was watching me from across the room. He held a revolver.
“Charlie.” Swallowing, wincing at the pain. “Please call me Charlie, Mister…?” No response. No name.
He pushes himself up from the floor, kneels beside my chair. I can smell him, a desperate aroma. His voice is low, urgent: “There’s beauty in it, Draper.”
Is he going to rape me? Has he already, while I was unconscious? No. I don’t feel sexually violated. Physically violated, but not sexually. “Beauty in what?”
“Birth. The planting of a seed. It’s… it’s sacred.”
“It seemed like a sacrament,” I croak. “Earlier, when you kissed it. I thought it was a blessing.”
He shakes his head. “There’s no beauty in it for you. Plant the seed of death. Life ceases. No more beauty, no ugliness, no sorrow. Nothing.”
I don’t follow. I can’t follow, because there’s nothing to follow. He’s just rambling. He’s a crazy person, and he’s targeted me.
Or a hitman. “Who hired you?”
As though he doesn’t hear me: “Or put it another way. A gun is an intention.”
An intention? I tense against the cords. He notices and says, “Relax, Draper.”
“I don’t understand. Who hired you?”
He strokes the barrel. Smiles sadly. “I’m self-employed.”
Why? Why have I been choked, bound, threatened? Who is this guy? A disgruntled fan? How did found me? I write under a pseudonym and use my initials for personal matters. Anonymity is my hallmark. No book tours, lectures, or photos on my dust jackets. I work out of a concrete bunker, for god’s sake.
My books are gruesome bestsellers featuring serial killers. I’ve written nothing about hitmen, which he appears to be.
Why, then, I wonder. Who is he?
I run a dry tongue over cracked lips. “Tell me something.” He ignores me. Try again: “Tell me how you found me.”
“I looked under the garage door. There you were.”
“But you know who I am.”
“Of course. I was looking for you, Draper.”
“Charlie. Call me Charlie.” Try to shift in the chair. My ass tingles from lack of circulation. “What should I call you?”
“Call me whatever you want. It won’t matter in a few minutes.”
“The son of a gun is a bullet.”
“I’m an author. Have you read any of my books?”
The man laughs. His laugh is hollow. Unearthly. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
The man pulls a tattered paperback from the pocket of his windbreaker. The pages are dogeared. Binding is wearing away. Without releasing the gun, he flips to a page. “The son of a gun is a bullet,” he reads. “The gun births the seeds of death and destruction. The gun is merely an extension of Geller’s hand, his arm, his flesh. Geller and the gun are one. Plant the seed of death. Life ceases. No more beauty, no ugliness, no sorrow. Nothing.” He tosses the book onto the floor. “It’s like you know me.”
I can’t help but glance down at the discarded paperback. “I didn’t write that.”
Another hollow laugh. “I’ve read everything you’ve ever written, Draper. Every word of it.”
The author’s name on what’s left of the paperback is Charlene M. Draper. I know her, of course. Overwrought, melodramatic short stories about a Mafia hitman named Geller.
“I told you to call me Charlie — ”
“ — because Charlie is short for Charlotte.”
He isn’t listening.
“I can see how you made the mistake. My name is Charlotte Mills Draper. All my checks and credit cards are listed under C.M. Draper.”
“Your name is in the rental records for this building.”
“Yes. C.M. Draper. But I write under a pen name. Z.M. Drodz. You made a mistake. I did not write those stories.”
He returns to his spot on the floor against the wall. Gun on his knee. Aimed in my direction. Slack jaw. Staring through me.
“Listen to me. Look at the books on the shelves. Up top are all reference books, but the bottom shelf is all my books. Or look at my laptop. There’s a file open. That’s the book I’m working on.”
His eyes are fixed on a spot somewhere past my head. His lips don’t move.
“Look in the bottom left drawer of the desk. It’s got all my correspondence.” I remember something else. “My wallet! It’s in my handbag under the desk. Check my driver’s license.” No response. What can I do? What do I have left to prove my identity?
He doesn’t move. Doesn’t speak. Is he even breathing?
“I’ve killed people.” It’s the first time he’s spoken in hours. “Two men. For money.”
“My name is Charlotte. Please don’t kill me.”
“I’m a killer.”
“My name is Charlotte. Please don’t kill me.”
“The son of a gun.”
He stands up. Walks over. Slowly. Puts the gun on the cement next to the desk. Takes something from the pocket of his windbreaker. A boxcutter. Walks behind me. I can’t breathe.
“Please don’t hurt me.”
There’s a clicking sound. The blade being thumbed from the boxcutter.
I strain to turn my head to see what he’s doing. An odd sensation around my chest. A tingling, jangling feeling. My torso is freed from the chair. The cord falls into my lap. He leans forward and cuts the cord holding my left hand. Places the boxcutter on the desk in front of me. “Don’t reach for it yet.”
My arm feels light after being restrained for so long. I can see my watch. It’s not even 8:00 p.m.
He walks around the desk and picks up the gun. “Don’t look,” he advises.
I blink. How can I not look?
Deafening noise. Blood is spattered all over me. He’s on the floor. The right side of his head is missing. My ears are ringing. The gun is loose in his hand.
I am not left-handed, and my fingers have lost sensation from being bound so long. It takes a quarter hour to free myself. My knees are weak. I can barely stand. I gulp from the water bottle on my desk. It’s dotted with droplets of blood, but I drink anyway. After a while, I find the strength to raise the door. Stagger into the corridor.
Outside the building, where there’s a signal, my cell phone buzzes with unanswered messages. All from my cousin. I press a button and call.
“Charlene? It’s Charlie.”