The professional assassin known as By the Books crouches with his gloved finger on the trigger. A trickle of perspiration tickles the small of his back, but he ignores any urge to move or react. He’s waiting for his target to leave her townhouse and step out onto the sidewalk. When the woman makes her appearance, just as she’s done at this time every day this week, he squeezes the trigger. Through the scope he sees what looks like a poppy blossom on her kneecap. She staggers and collapses. People instinctively clear away from her. They know who she is, what she has done. Already they realize what’s happening.
The woman turns and begins to crawl — painfully, he hopes — up the steps toward her door. He gives her time, allows her a glimmer of hope. Then he centers the crosshairs on the back of her rotten melon head. He clears his mind of past jobs. Forgets all the other lives he’s claimed. The slate is wiped clean. By the Books conjures up a single image: a baby boy.
He’s never met this innocent. But he knows his story. This baby’s drunken mother put him in her oven and cooked her baby like one would a roast turkey, only with less care and preparation. This woman, according to prosecutors, wanted to get back at her estranged husband for saying he would take her to court for custody of their child. Her defense in the courtroom came down to blackout drunkenness. She had no recollection of the events of that evening. Reasonable doubt, her attorney said. Someone else could have broken in to her townhouse and done the deed. This woman’s attorney told the jury there was no indisputable proof, and certainly no mother would do that to her child. His client went free just in time for happy hour.
This same woman now reaches for her doorknob.
The passersby have mostly stopped, but no one steps forward to help. A faint breeze carries the tantalizing odor of curried beef to his nostrils. By the Books decides he’ll have Indian for dinner at the same moment he squeezes the trigger a second time. The woman who cooked her baby collapses in a puddle of her own tainted brain matter. Her shooter sees fragments of bone, blood, and hair slide down her still-closed door. He hears fragments of scattered applause as he disassembles his charcoal-colored tool of justice.
He knows the police and paramedics won’t break any records with their arrival time. This movement that he is a part of has spread like wildfire. By the Books will be at least three miles away by the time the first paramedic kneels at the dead woman’s side. A police officer will ask questions, seek witnesses. No one will speak.
By the Books has received payment for more hits than he’d care to remember, but he won’t see a penny for this job. It’s a freebie, a service in the interest of the public.
Bless the Idea Man, By the Books thinks.
Four Weeks Ago
“You look like James Garner. Anybody ever tell you that?” The Wild Card mixes himself another whiskey sour and flops back down in a hardwood deck chair.
“Quite often, but that was decades ago.” His host’s lips twitch into a smile, perhaps remembering happier days. “And what may have happened between me and any of the women who thought this is certainly none of your business and not the topic we’re here to discuss.” The Idea Man mixes himself a gin and tonic and turns back to his guest. “Have you given my proposal any further consideration?”
The Wild Card runs his fingers through the thicket of hair on the top of his head. He wants to play it cool with The Idea Man. The spirits are top-shelf. The furniture is top of the line. The house is perched at the top of the hill. He looks west and ponders the Spaghetti Western sunset.
The Idea Man wasn’t always referred to as such. In fact, only a precious few recently started using that moniker. The Idea Man is a retired crime lord. A kingpin, one might say. He’s amassed his fortune outside the law. Never a cruel man, if the stories were true, but he was not one to be bothered by niceties either. He’d used the services of killers-for-hire on a number of occasions. There were casualties, but it was never personal.
Then one ill-fated evening about six months ago, his daughter and granddaughter were struck and killed four feet into the crosswalk of an intersection. The driver who hit them told police his portable music player had jostled loose of its dock and had fallen. He’d been leaning over, trying to retrieve the device from the floor mat. He didn’t even see them. There were casualties, but it wasn’t personal.
The Idea Man took it hard. But he also knew he’d be a hypocrite to kill the driver of the pickup truck. Instead, he read the papers — an array of local and national rags — with a keen eye.
A suitable replacement for his vengeance presented himself when, just two states away, a sobbing woman burst into a police station to report the death of her kindergarten-age daughter. It had been, according to her, at the hands of the little girl’s grandfather, who’d been visiting. She couldn’t understand it, she said; when her father came into her bedroom when she was a girl, it hurt sometimes, but she’d never bled as much as her daughter had. The newspapers carried all the sordid, horrifying allegations. But allegations were all they amounted to. The man was questioned, but never arrested. It seemed no physical evidence or DNA samples implicated him. Instead, the man’s daughter was arrested and charged for the crime. The Idea Man didn’t like how this was playing out at all. He had looked at their pictures and had known instantly that the older man was guilty. The Idea Man had seen all sorts during his career. He’d gotten to know the different faces of evil and could read people just by looking in their eyes. He recognized guilt the way other folks recognized mold on rotten fruit. And this man, The Idea Man knew, was rotten to the core.
The Idea Man had a thought. It germinated into the grand initiative that gave him his fitting epithet. He thought to himself, Justice is not being served. Why sit idly by, when I have the capability and resources to right this wrong?
He booked a flight.
Three days later, just past three o’clock in the afternoon, the Idea Man strolled up the sidewalk in front of the rotten man’s home. He noticed the unmarked police car parked halfway down the block on the opposite side of the street, and decided the local authorities felt justice wasn’t being served either. But the Idea Man didn’t have the patience to wait for the wheels of justice to grind; slow, fine, or otherwise. He rounded the corner and then cut back through the alley, crunching across the gravel toward the rear of his intended target’s house. The Idea Man noted that no children played in the adjacent yards. He heard no girlish laughter, no shouts of boyish excitement. He wasn’t surprised. In their hearts, the people in this community knew the truth as well.
The Idea Man pulled on a pair of gloves and opened the gate. He strode up the sidewalk to the man’s back door. Forty-five seconds of work with a torsion wrench and hook pick and he was past the lock.
Once inside, The Idea Man slipped from room to room. He paused in a kitchen that smelled of burnt coffee and selected two straight-edge knives from the cutlery block on the counter. Before long he found his target lounging like Caesar in a leather recliner, one hand down his pants, eyes glued to a scantily-clad pop princess grinding her hips and lip-synching on the 51-inch flat screen affixed to the opposite wall.
The Idea Man was practical. He harbored no delusions of being an action hero or costumed vigilante. He was just a guy with an idea. So he eased up behind the child-murderer and visualized the young girl he’d seen pictured in the paper. The little moppet with auburn curls and outrageous dimples, who would never see another sunny day, would never again jump in a puddle, or blow out candles on a birthday cake. Images of the atrocities she’d endured at the hands of a man she loved and trusted loomed in the Idea Man’s mind. He reached over the back of the recliner and crossed the knives in front of the man’s throat. When the murderer lunged from his seat in surprise, he did most of the damage himself.
The Idea Man watched his prey stagger around the living room. Now it was a dying room. The rotten man tottered forward and, amazingly, fumbled with the power button on the side of the television. The Idea Man watched the pop music Lolita blink out of existence, and then returned his gaze to his victim. He looked on with quiet excitement as the other man collapsed and bled out.
“Not just anyone can do this, of course,” The Idea Man says, resuming his pitch. “This is a task for professionals. It’s a new calling.”
“What about public perception? What about law enforcement?”
“We and the latter will continue to coexist as we always have. And public opinion, whether actually expressed publicly or not, will side with us.” The Idea Man leans forward in his chair. “These are trying times. We are divided as a nation. Why not choose a tangible target for our growing discontent? Why not champion a cause we can all agree upon?”
“That was quite the speech.” The Wild Card says dryly.
“You and I both know there’s truth in what I’ve said.”
“So you contacted me, invited me here, to pitch me. Are you asking me to join your band of merry men?” The Wild Card grins at his silver-haired host. He hopes he doesn’t look too sardonic.
“I prefer to think of it as recruiting a small, select group of men and women to ‘give something back,’ as the saying goes. I’ve been extremely selective, contacting only a handful of others via the Deep Web. It’s the best course of action. Thanks to the layers of encryption in the TOR software, I can use the same method people use to hire our services to post potential candidates for elimination. As with a regular job, our identities aren’t divulged to any Web servers or routers. Our aliases remain intact, our bases of operations unknown. Bear in mind, these are not hits to pad our wallets. These hits would make the world a better place. I don’t expect everyone to be on board. I’m sure only a few will even consider it. I hope you will take all the time you need to give the matter careful consideration.”
“Count me in.” The Wild Card says after only a moment’s pause.
Three Weeks Ago
The Introvert keeps his head down and hurries across the street. A motorist — apparently angered at having to wait the eight seconds this takes — honks and flips him the bird. The Introvert hunches his shoulders, but does not respond.
Inside the prison, The Introvert produces his identification at the guest check-in desk and waits to be escorted to his client. He perches on the edge of a dirty plastic chair and adjusts his metal frame glasses. The Introvert smiles at the prisoner as he is brought into the room. The prisoner is shackled and clad in a bright orange jumper. The Introvert knows this designates the severity of his client’s crimes. The newcomer throws his weight onto the chair as if he wants to crush it. “You ain’t my lawyer. Where’s Blackberg?”
“He’s fallen ill. Not to worry; he should be fine in a day or two. I’m here in his place.”
The prisoner scowls. “You know what’s going on? What I want?”
The Introvert waits for the guard to leave the room before he speaks.
“I strongly advise against making the request you contacted Blackberg regarding.”
“Of course you would, but I don’t care.” The prisoner sneers. “You tell the judge we want to play the videos. Right there in court.”
The Introvert shakes his head, adjusts his glasses again. He’s not used to them and they pinch his nose. “If it’s self-recorded camcorder footage of you raping those women, we definitely do not want that shown to the jury.”
“But I wanna watch the videos.” The prisoner leans forward to make his point. “This might be the last time I get to see them. I want those broads to have to watch themselves. I want their families to watch what I did. I want the jury, the judge, every damn person in that courtroom to watch me — ”
The Introvert, pretending to nervously fiddle with his glasses, withdraws the four-inch needle from its hiding place against the arm piece, and his hand flies across the table. For a fraction of a second, it looks as if The Introvert might slap his client. Instead he plunges the needle into the convict’s brain through his ear.
The prisoner gapes. The Introvert sees a fine red mist darken the white of the other man’s left eye. He extracts the needle and deftly returns it to its hiding place. He waits out a slow mental ten count as the serial rapist shudders and tumbles from his chair. While he counts, he thinks about rock climbing, playing guitar, and all the other innocuous activities he engages in to keep his hands strong.
Not many people can do what I do, The Introvert thinks. He stands.
“Guard? Hey, guard! There’s something wrong with my client. I think he’s having a stroke or something.”
After he gives a statement, The Introvert pauses on the prison steps long enough to check his current prepaid cell phone. One missed call. He dials the number and listens.
Someone has a lucrative job for him. The Introvert flushes with pleasure. Instant karma.
At the same time, The Wild Card strolls along a street in a city that he is only passing through. He is anonymous, instantly forgettable. And yet, for one terrifying moment, something in a shop window draws him back to his past. His stomach tightens at the sight of fishing tackle in the display window of a sporting goods store. For one terrible moment, The Wild Card is a helpless kid again.
“I’ll tell you the secret,” his father said. He leaned closer, as if fish lurking nearby might overhear. “Soak each piece of corn in vanilla extract before you slide it onto the hook.” His father drew back and picked up his own rod again. “Fish like the taste so much they get a case of the stupids. Can’t help themselves. They know they should leave it be, but they go for it anyway.”
The boy who was not yet The Wild Card watched his father for some sign that the older man was joshing him but saw none. His father made his cast and then settled back. Frogs sang their bellicose song from the reeds. A pair of ducks paddled together at the far end of the pond.
The boy baited his own hook and cast his lure into the calm green-black water. Father sat nearer the bow facing the port side of the little dinghy, son sat near the tiller, facing the starboard side. Far overhead the contrails of jets intersected in the sky and dissipated at roughly the same speed that grass grew or paint dried; the perfect pace for an afternoon spent fishing.
His father fidgeted in his seat. Coughed. Just as the boy turned to look at his father, the older man’s hand shot out, knocking his rod and reel into the water. The boy, not understanding what was happening, stood, and leaned over the gunwale for the gear but it drifted out of his reach and sank from view into the murky depths.
His father writhed on the bottom boards like a fish deprived of oxygen. The boy knew the Heimlich maneuver but his father hadn’t been eating anything. He didn’t think it was heatstroke. Was it a real stroke? A heart attack? The boy found himself at a complete loss, utterly helpless. He cried for help but there was no one nearby. This was in the days before cell phones. The boy watched as a silent, invisible assassin took his father’s life.
It took him thirty-three minutes to row to shore and load his father — now dead though the boy would not admit as much — into their pickup truck. He was one year shy of getting his learner’s permit but he drove to the nearest town like a seasoned race car driver. In the end it didn’t matter. A doctor determined the cause of death, a “massive coronary failure.”
This marked an ending and a new beginning for the boy who would become The Wild Card. The event planted a seed that eventually bloomed into his present career. Alone in the garish fluorescent-lit hospital waiting room, the boy had vowed to be never again helpless in the face of death. He would control it, make it work for him. If Death rode on a pale horse, The Wild Card wanted to be the stagecoach driver cracking the whip and telling it where to go.
Two Weeks Ago
Lady Justice takes less than ten seconds to get past the catch on the motel room door. She pockets a pliable rectangle of plastic — one of many tools of her trade — and closes the door behind her. She scans the dingy interior, missing nothing. Her jaw and stomach tighten at the sight of the laptop lying atop the cheap, floral-pattern polyester bedspread. She knows what types of photos and videos are contained in encrypted folders on the computer’s hard drive.
Lady Justice walks silently to a bathroom that is two decades overdue for new fixtures and stands in semi-darkness behind the warped door. She keeps her knees slightly bent, staying loose. Her arms hang relaxed at her sides. She closes her eyes and thinks about the motel room’s temporary resident.
According to the information she received in an email from The Idea Man on her encrypted Deep Web account, her target runs a mobile roofing business. He travels from town to town, chasing hailstorms, passing out fliers. He gets jobs putting new shingles on houses by undercutting the local guys. But it’s all a front.
The man currently possessing a key to this room also peddles child porn. What started as a vice had escalated into a full-time career once he got in with the right circle of like-minded individuals. Now it’s all he can do to insure that the supply keeps up with the demand. He’s made a small fortune. Lady Justice has read all the notes The Idea Man emailed her. She verified all the information supplied and then made arrangements.
Now she smiles. Her keen ears have picked up the sound of approaching footfalls. She hears a key being inserted in the flimsy lock. The door squeaks as it is opened and the latch clicks when the door closes. Lady Justice slows her breathing and remains still, a poisonous spider patiently awaiting prey. The fly has returned, unaware that a newcomer has converted the bathroom into the proverbial parlor. The squeaking floorboards beneath the threadbare carpet betray his approach. The light switch clicks on, and the man’s trousers drop with a swish around his ankles. He empties his bladder into the toilet bowl.
Lady Justice finally opens her eyes and takes advantage of the sound of the stream hitting the water to ease out from behind the door. As he’s shaking loose the last drops, she speaks: “Umm, excuse me mister …”
The man with a hard drive full of graphic depravity turns, gaping at her. With his pants still dropped around his ankles — and pants of a different sort escaping his open mouth — he takes in her petite frame and schoolgirl skirt and blouse and his eyes glaze. He undergoes an immediate transformation into a leering beast.
“Can you help me? I’m lost.”
She looks down between his legs and eases into a crouch. A quick glance back up at his eyes shows that he’s mistaking her intentions. She knows he believes — irrational as it may be — that she’s about to pleasure him. Her target is nearly a foot taller and outweighs her by at least one hundred pounds; she’s simply creating leverage and momentum for her first strike.
Lady Justice drives her body upward, leading with her closed left fist. Every muscle in her body uncoils, pushing the punch, increasing its force. When her blow connects under the man’s chin, his teeth clack together like exploding firecrackers. His head jerks back and he staggers. Lady Justice drives her right fist into his solar plexus, and follows it up with a chop across his windpipe to silence him. His face reddens and he tries to rush her, his enormous hands pawing the air on either side of her. Lady Justice drops again, visualizing a rattlesnake about to strike. She drives the meat of her palm into the glaring man’s nose, and bone and cartilage retreat straight into his brain. He crumples, a fleshy pinball ricocheting off the sink, toilet, and tub in the small confines of the room.
Lady Justice leaves the motel room and strolls the four blocks to her waiting rental car. An R&B classic by Jean Knight greets her from the radio speakers when she turns the ignition. She guides her so-nondescript-it-is-invisible rental into traffic and sings along with the deliciously appropriate chorus. “Who do ya think ya arrrre?” Lady Justice rides her endorphin high for as long as she can.
This method of operation is new to her. Her previous hit had been a small-town mayor who’d threatened to blow the whistle on a corrupt city councilman. Ending the mayor’s life hadn’t been personal. None of her jobs ever were. But when The Idea Man had contacted her, she’d felt intrigued by his proposition. It made sense on multiple levels. She knew of another contract killer who volunteered at homeless shelters and retirement homes in an effort to alleviate his mounting guilt. Lady Justice wasn’t that softhearted. But the opportunity to make a positive impact while staying in practice appealed to her a great deal. Inspired by the concept of balancing the scales, she changed her name and her outlook. The rechristened Lady Justice responded to the Idea Man mere hours after he first initiated contact.
“Make every tenth hit a freebie and insure that it’s one that makes the world a better place,” The Idea Man had said. “Or perhaps, every fifth hit, if you feel inclined.”
Lady Justice bites her bottom lip as she changes lanes. She wonders if The Idea Man might scold her for being too active. To balance the scales, Lady Justice has decided to make every other hit a public service assassination. She wonders if they’ll all feel as good as this one.
The man who refers to himself as TapTap on the message boards of the Deep Web jogs along a sidewalk that skirts a municipal park in a midsize city on the Great Plains. There’s still a chilly bite to the early morning air and, for the moment, he’s alone. He contemplates the message he received from The Idea Man the previous evening.
The Idea Man is a stranger to TapTap, and yet he somehow knew about TapTap’s past, because he introduced his idea of charity assassinations as a way to atone for past mistakes. People didn’t understand how grueling life as a cop could be. It had quickly become apparent to TapTap that fighting the good fight would be a never-ending — and all-too-often losing — battle. It wasn’t long before he was on the take, turning a blind eye to certain activities and transactions. Sometimes not all of the evidence seized at crime scenes made its way to the evidence room. He made extra cash on the side with the resale of these items. And he’d been smart enough to leave the force the moment he felt the noose tightening around his neck. He relocated and now supplemented his income by drawing on skills from his past. He’d received several commendation bars for his marksmanship, and kept the same cool detachment he had at target practice when the targets were moving and shooting back.
Hits paid well, or well enough, for him to live comfortably despite his minimum wage job. The Idea Man wanted pros to assume the added travel expenses and additional time needed to plan a hit. And for what? To satisfy the bloodthirsty unwashed masses? To quell their own guilty consciences?
Another man rounded the bend and came jogging toward him. TapTap did not slow his pace, but only glanced back as they neared. The sidewalk remained clear. TapTap and the approaching man had crossed paths jogging on three consecutive mornings.
When fifteen feet separated the men, TapTap reached behind his back with his left hand. He drew his .22 and emptied the clip into the other jogger’s chest at point-blank range. Then he increased his pace, leaving both the dead man and any further consideration of The Idea Man’s plan behind.
Across the nation, other professional killers, a few master hit men whom The Idea Man had reached out to directly and the journeymen who read his message board proposal, came to the same conclusion — this idealistic and unworkable idea was not for them.
“Have you given my proposal any further consideration?”
The Wild Card shakes off a feeling of déjà vu and swallows the last of the scotch in his tumbler. The liquid sears his throat and his stomach feels like a pit of writhing snakes. He runs his fingers through his tangled hair and ponders another sunset. This is a similar location, but a different situation.
The drinks are top-shelf. The furniture is immaculate. This house also perches at the top of a hill. But this is not The Idea Man; this is The Devil’s Advocate. How he located The Wild Card has not been divulged. But he has contacted him to set up this clandestine meeting. Other professionals would be content to exchange information on the Deep Web, but The Devil’s Advocate knows that The Wild Card insists on doing business face-to-face. He’s contacted The Wild Card and he’s offered a counterproposal.
“I’m torn. I see his side of it, and I see yours.”
The Devil’s Advocate leans forward, strong hands gripping the armrests of his Lodgepole Pine throne. “His idea is idiotic; a pipe dream. Contract killers doing charity work? Conscience plays no part of this! Who’s he trying to fool?”
The Wild Card says nothing. He fingers the rim of his tumbler and waits for his host to continue. “Anyone misguided enough to follow through on his crazy notions risks exposing themselves to law enforcement, and worse, public scrutiny. They draw back the veil. We’re all exposed.” The Devil’s Advocate stabs the air between them with a meaty finger as if picking his guest out of a lineup.
The Wild Card takes this as his cue. “He’s only spoken to a few of us. Maybe his idea will fail to gain any traction and the movement will fizzle.”
The Devil’s Advocate bares his teeth in a snarl. “The fact that you just referred to it as a ‘movement’ tells me that we need to nip this in the bud. And we need to do it now.”
“Are you putting a price on his head?”
“How many zeros are we talking about for the hit? No money in an escrow account either; I only take cash.”
The Devil’s Advocate gives him a number. The Wild Card decides it is enough.
By the Books squeezes the trigger from his rooftop perch. The cannibalistic old man, who’d been found not guilty by reason of insanity, drops to the sidewalk like a sack of rotten produce. By the Books knows everyone in the city will sleep better.
Three hundred eighty miles south, Lady Justice snaps the neck of a celebrity who had been accused of beheading his live-in girlfriend. In a case that divided the nation, the celebrity went free. Now, at last, justice has been served.
The next day, in Los Angeles, The Introvert serves a hazelnut and strychnine café latte to an aspiring actress who has delivered her junkie roommate into the hands of a producer of snuff films.
The Wild Card knocks on the door of his intended victim. His heart hammers in his chest while he waits. The Idea Man opens the door and The Wild Card shoots him five times; one slug through each eye socket and three more slugs into his heart.
It is nightfall.
“I see you took care of our mutual problem. Quick and effective, but headline-grabbing,” The Devil’s Advocate frowns. “You risked too much publicity.”
“I carried out a hit.” The Wild Card says, gazing at his host. “You never specified what method I should use. The subject you wanted eliminated is out of the equation, and I appreciate your prompt payment.”
The Devil’s Advocate sighs. “It was reckless, but it’s done. Still, I think it would be for the best if we were to never meet again.”
“I agree.” The Wild Card draws his weapon and once again pulls the trigger. This time it’s a single shot to the temple. He wipes his prints from the gun, and places it in the other man’s hand. He leaves The Devil’s Advocate in a growing puddle of blood.
The Wild Card hopes the right people find out about The Idea Man’s murder. He hopes they will spread the word about his idea with the fervent zeal of religious converts. If the average citizen, fed up with all the injustices and loopholes of the legal system, begins to condone these public service assassinations, the entire justice system could change.
“Let the revolution begin,” The Wild Card whispers, and disappears into the darkness.