an excerpt from the thriller by Shane Kuhn
Federal Bureau of Investigation — National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC), Quantico, Virginia Present day
This is the first day of the rest of your life, I think to myself as I squint under the bright fluorescent lights in a windowless interrogation room.
In the reflection of the yellowy two-way mirror, I look like a bug in a jar, quietly waiting for a mentally disturbed five-year-old to fill it with water and watch me stiffly gallop to a slow and painful death. But my executioner doesn’t come in the form of a bored suburban brat. He comes in the form of Assistant Director Winton Fletcher — a fifty-something FBI poster boy with a scrubbed red face (Ivory soap), machine-precision haircut (Floyd the barber), cheap, ill-fitting suit and prep school knockoff tie (Joseph A. Bank), and high-polish wing tips with skid-proof rubber soles (Florsheim).
“Fletch,” as I like to call him, embodies the clean-cut, red- blooded American values invented by square ad execs and political campaign managers of the 1950s. All of it amounts to an intention- ally colorless persona designed to put even the hardest criminals at ease and seduce a full confession. If I wasn’t an honored guest of Uncle Sam — top hat, tails, orange jumpsuit, maximum-security cuisine, and lethal injection for dessert — I might mistake him for a Lutheran minister or an aluminum siding salesman from Wichita. He saddles up on his high horse across the table from me.
“I’m Assistant Director Fletcher,” he says.
“Hi, I’m Dr. Rosenpenis,” I reply in homage to Fletch, the worst most quotable movie ever made.
He smiles at me, uncertain how to take what I’ve said, but jaded enough not to give a shit. Someone with his tenure in this place has pretty much seen it all . . . until today. He pulls a crisp new yellow legal pad from his briefcase and begins to awkwardly rummage through it, looking for something else.
“Your pen is in your side suit jacket pocket, Fletch,” I offer. “You probably put it there so the guards wouldn’t hassle you about bringing a potentially deadly weapon into a room with a homicidal maniac.”
He smiles again and pulls out the pen.
“I’m impressed,” he says, carefully placing his legal pad on the table next to a thick file folder with my name emblazoned on the tab in institutional block letters: john lago.
“You should be,” I say menacingly.
He doesn’t look at me or react. He’s been trained not to react to any negative fluctuations in emotion, only positive. He’s been trained to keep all exchanges under complete control. Interrogators can never be looked at as people with personal lives and weaknesses. They are like Fletcher, unassuming and understated in every way, well-spoken robots who do their jobs with immaculate precision. On that note we have at least one thing in common.
Fletcher pulls a clear plastic evidence bag from his briefcase and lays it on the table. Inside is a bloodstained composition book with the following title scrawled in Sharpie on the cover:
The Intern’s Handbook.
My original manuscript. First edition. I smile at it like a father would smile at his newborn baby after coming home from a long combat tour. He sees my smile and makes a mental note that I am probably not going to feel any remorse for my sins.
“I’d like to talk about this, John.”
“Have you read it, Fletch?”
“What did you think?”
“Well, I have a lot of questions about — ”
“No, what I meant was, did you like it? Was it a good read? Would it pair well with box wine at your wife’s book club?”
He puts on reading glasses, another disarming tactic. Grandpa wants you to sit on his lap, enjoy a butterscotch candy, and shoot the breeze. Here comes the pedantic grin. The feds are also masters of making you feel like you are sick or abnormal. Why do you think they attempt to look so militantly normal? Because to the criminal mind, they strive to be the foil, the mug shot frame that forces you to look at yourself and ask, What’s wrong with this picture?
“I found it very interesting.”
Interesting is another word for irrelevant in this context. Probably thinks Reader’s Digest and Parade are cultural oracles. I hate him for evading and I hate myself for caring.
“Like I said, I’d like to talk about it,” Fletch reiterates. “What do you want to know?”
“Is it all true?” he asks.
“Every fucking word.”
“You said that you wrote it to help other young people who had been put in the same position as you. Is that the only reason?”
“That was why I started writing it. After a few chapters, I realized I needed to write it more for myself than for anyone else.”
“You needed to get some things off your chest?”
I exhale a sigh heavily laced with annoyance. It’s time to mess with Fletch a bit. He’s too into his routine, and I need to jam the signal. I lean in like a film noir confidant, the devil on his shoulder.
“I’m sure you can relate, Fletch. A man in your position. So many secrets. So many things you wish you could undo. For years you’ve lived in the pressure cooker — but you can’t go home and talk to the missus unless you want to put a target on her back. Let’s face it, you can’t talk to anyone, because what you know is like a plague that needs to be buried or burned with the rest of the bodies. But they don’t stay buried, do they, Fletch? Eventually you just . . . unload, like emptying a full magazine into someone’s face. It’s a bit messy, but undeniably cathartic.”
The consummate professional, Fletch leans in as well, playing off my vibe, showing me he’s a regular guy. It’s like when a pasty executive who’s been clipped by life tries to shoulder up at the airport bar to exchange war stories when he’s never even been in a fistfight.
“Is that why you wanted to talk to me today, John? You have something you need to unload?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“I’m all ears.”
No shit, I think, they’d love those jug handles in my cell block, Opie.
“May I have a cigarette, Fletch?”
“There’s no smoking in here.”
“Okay. Maybe I’ll go back to my cell.” I yawn. “Salisbury steak and potatoes au gratin tonight. After cobbler some of the boys are going to give me a jailhouse tramp stamp.”
He lights me one of his own cigarettes. Marlboro Red — the Budweiser of cancer sticks. I draw on it greedily. The nicotine rush dulls the pain in my head but fires up the maddening itch that I cannot scratch under the plaster cast that covers my leg from ankle to arse. Some of my new cell mates — around eight or ten ’roid-raging lifers who could bench-press two of me — had heard about my former profession and took me for a test-drive my first day inside. I tore most of them shiny new assholes, but they managed to jack up my leg and rearrange my face before the crooked guards stepped in and pretended to give a shit. I try to scratch inside the cast again. No dice. I get all Zen and try to make it go away with my mind but end up looking like I’m having a mild seizure.
“John, do you fully understand your rights and the nature of this interview?” he asks, gently raising a condescending brow.
“No. Where am I again?” I laugh, blowing smoke in his face.
He lights a cigarette of his own to show me he’s just doing his job.
“I need to be sure you’re of sound mind,” he says politely.
I laugh for an awkwardly long time. Just for fun.
“I thought you said you read my book.”
“Then you just proved that there is such a thing as a stupid question.”
He ignores me and writes on his pad like an actor on one of those cheesy legal shows.
“When they brought you in, you had been shot and you had a cocktail of narcotics in your blood that would have been lethal to a man twice your size. On your first day with the general population you assaulted numerous prisoners and two guards before they beat you unconscious and shattered your leg. Quite frankly, John, I can’t believe you’re still breathing, let alone coherent enough to undergo an interview.”
“Is that what you call this? An interview?”
“Yes. What do you call it?”
“A bad joke with a jaw-breaking punch line,” I say and stub the cigarette out in the palm of my hand.
It’s subtle, but I see a slight twitch in his lip, an involuntary reac- tion. He’s beginning to get the picture:
John Lago is in the building.
“That’s the kind of thing that might give me the wrong impression about your mental state,” he says calmly.
“Why is that?”
“Most people use an ashtray.”
“I’m not most people. But you already knew that.”
He writes notes, buying a little time to figure out how to regain control of the exchange, but I’m not about to let him start thinking for himself. I’m here for one reason, and it’s time to cut to the chase. “You’re not going to find any answers on that legal pad, Fletch. If you’re uncomfortable speaking to me, perhaps you should bring in someone with a more expensive tie.”
He leans forward on his elbows. Alpha posturing. He’s angry. I can see that, at one point in his life, he might have been intimidating. He doesn’t realize that he no longer possesses that quality.
“John, there’s one very important rule I need you to follow if this is going to work.”
“No sex in the champagne room?”
“Don’t fuck with me,” he says, lightly threatening. “I’ve seen a lot of guys like you on that side of the table — all with the same attitude, full of themselves. You might think you’re special because of who you were out there. But in here, you are a man that needs to convince me not to stick a needle in your arm and put you down like the family dog. Am I making myself clear?”
“Let’s not fight,” I say.
He settles back, proud of his steely delivery and strategic deployment of the F word. Probably a Brando fan. Loves the smell of testosterone in the morning.
“I just want to make sure we understand each other,” he says, dialing back the aggression so my anger doesn’t make me shut down. I smile back at him but the light goes down in my eyes and I know that to him I look like a demon in an orange jumpsuit. Intimidation has been my occupation since I hit puberty, and this meat balloon is no different from my other marks. His look of surprise at my sudden change in demeanor is tantamount to a flinch.
“Fletch, if you know anything about me, you know that death is the least of my concerns. Compared to what my enemies are going to do to me, long before I ever make it into a courtroom, your little needle is more like summer vacation with the family dog. Forget about what you think will motivate me because I can pretty much guarantee you I’m nothing like the others that have sat across this table from you. And just so we understand each other, I didn’t ask to speak to you because I feel guilty and want to rock floor seats with Jesus at the resurrection. I’m going down — so far I may never hit bottom — and the only thing I care about is making sure I don’t go alone.”
Now he really is all ears.
“Who do you want to take with you?”
He pauses as a jolt of electricity charges the room.
“You know where she is?”
“I can find her.”
Fletch is drooling. Clyde just offered to drop a dime on Bonnie.
“Do you actually think I’m going to bend over for you without asking for a bit of a reach around?”
“We don’t negotiate, John.”
“Then this conversation is already over.”
He is uncomfortable. This is not going as he planned. I get the impression he swaggered around the firing range earlier this week and bragged to the other mustaches about how he was going to school John Lago at his own game. It’s laughable. So, I laugh.
“I’ll do my best within my authority,” he almost whines. “But I’m not making any promises. What do you want in exchange?”
“I want to see her.”
“It’s pretty simple, Fletch. If I help you bring her in, I want to see her, in the flesh, one last time. Until you can agree to that, we have nothing more to discuss.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
An hour later I’m back in my six-by-six cell reading the fan mail my fellow cons have written on toilet paper, candy bar wrappers, and anything else that will hold ink and slipped under my door. Of course, every celebrity, even a D-lister like me, has to deal with the entire spectrum of the limelight. Sentiments range from guys telling me they’re going to skull fuck me and cut me up into little pieces to guys wanting to pay me to teach them how to skull fuck someone and cut them into little pieces. Then, of course, there are the guys who want to be my bitch or my bride and vice versa.
But unlike most minor celebrities, I’m not delusional enough to think I’m a household name and deserve recognition as such. For those of you who don’t know me, let me smoke the tires a bit and get you up to speed. I am a killer, professional variety, assassin species. Hey, don’t hate the playa. You might have taken this gig too if, like me, you were born with one foot in the grave. But my childhood is a morbidly hilarious story for another day.
Until recently, I was employed by Human Resources, Inc. — a front for one of the most elite contract assassination firms in the world. Our specialty was our cover: the internship. HR, Inc. would place us in companies as interns, the bottom-feeders of the corporate world, and we would use our wallflower anonymity to slither up the corporate ladder like ninja black mambas and smoke heavily guarded, high-value targets — mostly well-heeled Fortune 500 golf zombies who won’t be missed at the church picnic.
It was actually a genius concept and the perfect cover for wet work, if you’re into that sort of thing. To quote Bob, my former and thoroughly dead boss, “Interns are invisible. You can tell executives your name a hundred times and they will never remember it be- cause they have no respect for someone at the bottom of the barrel, working for free. The irony is that they will heap important duties on you with total abandon. The more of these duties you voluntarily accept, the more you will get, simultaneously acquiring trust and access. Ultimately, your target will trust you with his life and that is when you will take it.”
Kind of makes you think twice about fucking with the little people, right?
I’m sure you’re wondering why the hell someone would choose such a vocation. And if you aren’t, then you’ve got serious problems. But I like to say that this is the kind of work that chooses you. Just like with money-grubbing religious cults and the Malaysian sex trade, the trolls of the world are always cruising the gutter for disenfranchised youth, such as yours truly. They know you’ve got no options. They also know you’ve got no outside support in the form of parents or even a half-assed state-assigned guardian. When you’re on your own as a youngster, you’re fresh meat and there’s a line of cannibals just waiting to fire up the grill. So, instead of becoming a drug mule or getting sold as a chicken dinner for pedophile conventioneers, I got recruited into the highly unglamorous yet hella lucrative world of contract killing. I have half a brain and I’m fairly athletic, so they applied my talents to the job, scrubbed away any pesky human emotions or empathy that might get in the way, and put a gun in my hand before I had even figured out how to find my dick with it. I was twelve years old when HR, Inc. got its hooks in me and I stayed there for thirteen years.
Three years ago, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, I was about to retire. Bob’s philosophy was that anyone accepting an internship past that age would be labeled a slacker by established employees and draw the kind of attention that could jeopardize assignments. Which was fine with me. I was happy to wash my hands of the whole affair, but before I could ride off into the sunset, I had one last job. I should have known not to take it because one last job in the movies is always the first step to total annihilation. Always. In the film Seven, Morgan Freeman takes one last case and ends up in the seventh circle of Hell. Or how about Harrison Ford in Blade Runner? Guy comes out of retirement to bag one last skin job and finds out he’s a skin job! Jesus, I should have seen this coming!
Anyway, all I wanted was to move on and try to live something other than a kid-on-a-milk-carton life. I wanted baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and fucking Chevrolet. God knows I earned it! You know the mortality stats for someone in my line of work? Nearly 100 per- cent. It doesn’t matter how deadly you are because, unless you’re the Terminator, eventually one of those bullets coming down like cool November rain is going to find you and paint the world with your insides.
It’s only a matter of time.
And I had done my time . . . in spades. I should have bounced when I had the chance. Of course I didn’t. Instead of getting my gold retirement watch and landing on my feet with a white picket fence and a satellite dish, I ended up base-jumping from the kettle into the fire. All because of one last job. But what’s done is done. If you’re interested, you can read about the whole hot mess in The Intern’s Handbook. You won’t find it at Barnes & Noble, but I hear the feds have a few copies lying around, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you could download it for free on Russian iTunes. I’m told it’s an excellent beach/airplane/bathroom/killing-time-after-a-motel-tryst read.
But that was then and this is now. I’m twenty-eight years young and I’ve ripened like nightshade berries or pungent French cheese. Since having my ass handed to me three years ago, I tried valiantly to leave my foul-mouthed, trigger-happy alter ego behind. Greener pastures were my original destination, but there truly is no rest for the wicked (despite our infectious charms), and I ended up being railroaded into a collision course with, you guessed it, Act Two of my tragic life story. I thought I’d nearly seen it all, but this not only takes the cake, it kidnaps, tortures, and dismembers the pastry chef. So Kumbaya your asses round the campfire for a little prison bedtime story. If you’re already a member of the John Lago fan club, then none of what I’m about to tell you will come as a shock. After The Intern’s Handbook, you’re used to being bound, horse- whipped, and hung from the nearest tree by the prodigious yarns I’m apt to spin. In fact, if this were a movie sequel, it would be The Godfather, Part II — better than the original. For all you John Lago virgins, welcome to the party — a raucous affair where they dose your wine cooler with angel dust at the door and you wake up playing a supporting role in a ritual killing somewhere in a swamp outside Tampa.
I guess the best place to begin is with Alice — the beautiful and charming love of my life who deceived me in every conceivable way, beat me senseless, shot me, ripped my heart out and stomped it to bits, and burned everything important to me to the ground. Some of you know about her and can’t wait to get your fingers in the dirt, of which there is a veritable truckload. For those who don’t, she’s just like me — a killer who thought she was heartless but found out the hard way she wasn’t when Cupid, that fat, cheeky bastard, shot a 600-grain carbon fiber arrow with a bone-splitting broadhead right through her love muscle, and life as she knew it bled out onto the floor.
When Bukowski said, “If there are junk yards in hell, love is the dog that guards the gates,” he wasn’t kidding.
Everyone knows that the best part of any great love story is the beginning. The middle is like driving across the United States — flat, predictable, and offering little more than fast-food culture and rest stop romance. In what other context do men and women live under the same roof and go weeks without sex? The end of a love story is either a catastrophic tragedy or an anticlimactic whimper. And it’s the end, so unless it’s Jerry Springer–worthy, who even cares? But the bliss of ignorance that comes in the beginning is a drug we all wish we could cook, shoot, and ride till the wheels come off.
When people ask about relationships, they always say, “How did you guys meet?” Not, “OMG, tell me all about your third year!” And when a relationship is in trouble, the desperate couple is always trying to recapture the magic of when they first met. The real tragedy is that, without time travel or amnesia, it’s impossible to ever get back there. Which is why, to most people, marriage is about as magical as watching David Copperfield make Claudia Schiffer disappear.
The beginning of the love story between Alice and me was a bit more complicated than most. When we first met three years ago, we were mortal enemies, predators lurking in the woodwork of a prestigious Manhattan law firm. I had been sent there as an “intern” to exterminate one of the partners. And Alice, well let’s just say she’d been sent there to exterminate me. Hilarity ensued! Despite our impossible circumstances, and the fact that we were interacting with each other using cover identities, we still managed to fall in love in our own twisted way. Predictably, the whole thing ended badly, mainly due to the fact that Alice had been paid to have it end that way. But I was smitten nonetheless, almost literally, and have never been able to shake it.
What’s interesting is that our relationship was the perfect metaphor for all relationships. Love is the stepchild of pain and suffering, born of conflict and genetically predisposed to failure. Animals don’t love anything but their next meal, and guess what we are and have been for millions of years? Basically, this whole love thing is like a new ingredient added to the primordial soup. So, while we are wining and dining that special someone, buying them flowers and performing feats of strength and wonder in the orgasm circus, we are fighting back our inherently violent opposition to the opposite sex.
A lifetime of living in an emotional black hole, observing people from the outside looking in, made me realize all of this. Knowing I could never have what normal people had allowed me to disconnect from the world and see it through the microscope of reason, unmolested by emotion. But guess what? Eventually, I wanted what they had. I wanted it so bad I was like a wolf stalking a blood trail. The way I saw it at the time was that I needed to find love so that I could exist. Relativity is about context. I had no context other than HR, Inc., and that came to an end. Everything else in the normal world seemed like it would drive me to continue killing, but love . . . that was the only thing in life that seemed worth dying for. I felt it with Alice. And I got what I wanted. Ish.
But love is filled with conflict and volatility — especially new love. Of course, when you’re dealing with two “normal” people, the result of this conflict and volatility is what you might expect in a burgeoning relationship. You’re hot, then cold, fucking, then fighting, making plans, then burning bridges, and so on. Alice and I are about as far from normal as you can get. In fact, she and I are like the two compounds your chemistry teacher told you never to mix. We’re professional killers! That’s taking conflict and volatility to a whole new level. With normal couples, someone might get thrown out of the house after a fight. With us, someone is liable to get thrown out a window.
An excerpt from Hostile Takeover by Shane Kuhn, reprinted with the permission of the author and Simon & Schuster. For more information, or to purchase a copy, visit Simon & Schuster, or visit ShaneKuhn.com.