An ill-fitting door flecked with chipped paint and marked "303" popped open to an infinite void. Muscle memory kicked in and I flipped a switch on the wall to the right. A single overhead fixture flickered to life, revealing the sparsely decorated room. A loveseat, coffee table and television were stuffed into the back of the room in front of me, and in the foreground a breakfast nook, bookshelf and desk sat against the wall nearest me. I closed the door with my heel while lighting up a cigarette, taking a deep drag before tossing my jacket onto the smaller table.
Several keystrokes later, I found myself in my email inbox. Anna's name was the first and only sender of any unread mail. Just as she'd said, she had a package for me.
The contract was at first glance no different than the few dozen or so I'd done before. Buyer didn't much care for method, just wanted a body cleaned up. My guess was that he probably pissed off a guy who he owed a lot of money, then stiffed the son of a bitch. Mob bankers are many things, but stupid isn't one of them. They're also not kind to people who try to steal from them, and I don't blame them for it. People start walking away with your money, it's bad for business.
Speaking of business, cleaning was mine. Not my only service provided, but I had a specialized skill set for it. Naturally, cleaning is a dirty business, but I had ways to make it less so. My first and really only set rule was that I didn't take jobs involving civilians. Contrary to popular belief, more than nine out of ten guys who get referred to a service like mine are on the wrong side of the law to begin with. How the bad guys police themselves, in a sense. You don't just go to your local bookie and buy somebody to take another man's head off. Contracts from or involving civilians usually got messy quickly, have motive written all over them, and more often than not they change their mind before the job's done. By proxy that means I did very few jobs on women, and children were off limits.
The only other so-called rules of the game that I kept to heart were ones I picked up from the first guy I worked with in the business, an Australian national who I only knew as Jack. His rules were to always be polite unless absolutely necessary, work efficiently, and have a plan to kill every single person you meet. People don't realize how much effort that last one takes, but it did come in handy once or twice.
Details were absorbed almost by osmosis, absentmindedly, until I came across the name. The target's name was Calvin Archer, and those two words in that order almost made me choke on my cigarette. Not a name I'd heard in a while, and certainly not one I intended to hear again. How they had come up with details on this name in particular was beyond me, but I intended to find out. Not five seconds later, my phone was out of its holster and dialing. The voice on the other end of the line was groggy, and was probably asleep beforehand.
"What the hell do you want?"
"I'm sorry, Anna, did I wake you up?" I asked, my diction dripping with mock care.
"Yeah, jackass, you did."
"When did you send me this file?"
She paused, cursing under her breath. "Six hours ago. Why?"
"And did you read this file before you sent it to me?" I said dryly.
"Of course I did, you patronizing ass."
"You sent me the file on a dead man."
"That's not possible."
"Calvin Archer died in 1996. Did it myself."
"Tell Reagan I'm going to see the Priest today."
"He's not going to like that."
"I don't really give a shit."
There was another pause.
"Yeah. Now get back to sleep, eh?"
"No thanks to you."
I placed my phone on the desk, then rested my face in my hands. What remained of the night wasn't going to yield much sleep, and morning creeped closer, as did many unanswered questions.
Saint Mary's Shrine was not a building easily lost among its neighbors. The shrine proper wore an imposing visage of stone and stained glass several stories high, two identical towers facing the rising sun proudly as if defying time itself. A crucifix stood watch to greet me, carved in relief into the archway before the entrance. Its eyes seemed just as much part of the security as the three cameras I counted on my way from the sidewalk.
Stepping into the shrine did little to diminish the stature of the building. A vaulted ceiling was framed on three sides by yet more depictions of Biblical personae in stained glass between marble walls. Pews stretched the length of the room, broken at even intervals by a series of stout support columns, carved in a neoclassical style, also marble. At the far end of the room sat the altar, framed by a wall of organ pipes. The confessional booths were off to one side of the altar.
Leaning on a column near the confessional waiting for me was a graying, burly man in his fifties. His stature combined with his full-length black robe made him look less like a man and more like a refrigerator box moonlighting as a man of the cloth. His steely gaze tracked me from across the room – the Priest was one of those rare men whose eyes had a tactile quality about them. Those cobalt blue eyes softened once we exchanged a handshake. His face crinkled as a slight smile showed itself.
"It's been a while, Clifford. I take it you've been well?"
"I do the work of the Lord, son. I'm always doing well, even when I'm not," he mused. "But when you called, you didn't sound like you wanted to say a few Hail Mary's and be on with your life. Business, perhaps?"
"You could say that."
"In a manner of speaking?"
"Let's finish our business in the booth first."
"As you say."
The confessional booth was more like a closet than a separate room. Two small seating areas conjoined with an opaque grille in the center, one side with a kneeling bench. I chose to sit.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been just under ten months since my last confession."
"And what have been your sins, my son?"
"I'll give you the Reader's Digest version so you're not here all afternoon. Since my last time here I've killed men, assaulted more, not counting the handful or so that were in self-defense. I've stolen property of varied degrees of value, none of it from people I knew. At least, not for very long. Drank to excess, fornicated, took the Lord's name in vain and failed to uphold his Sabbath day."
"Reagan and his people have kept you nice and busy, then."
"Tell me, how old are you now? You've been cleaning a lot longer than a lot of people, at this point."
"Thirty-eight as of last month."
"You ever think about why you're still in this business? Or at least why you haven't got yourself a nice desk in the office that's been paying your bills since, when was it?"
"Ninety-eight. And not really."
"If I did, I'd have even more problems with sleep than I already do. Got a feeling that it might be catching up to me, though. Picked up a contract for a dead man last night, and one I did myself. He's been buried for sixteen years, and whoever sent me this... They didn't have a job for me. They wanted to rattle my cage."
"I was hoping you had an ear to the ground. Usually this sort of thing doesn't fly under the radar of people who notice things."
"Yes, trying to take out known cleaners is messy."
"But no, kid, I've got nothing for you. If anything comes my way, I'll be in touch."
I cursed under my breath. "Thanks for the help in advance, Father."
"No problem at all. Now where were we? Oh, yes. God the father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his son, has reconciled himself to the world and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins through the ministry of the Church. May God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. And I can't let you leave without having you say your favorite pair of sentences, so say two Hail Mary's. May God watch over you, son. It sounds like you're going to need it."
"Thank you, Father."
I sat for a few moments longer, reciting the liturgy under my breath. Worried wasn't the right way to describe my state of mind. But the Priest not knowing anything about what was tantamount to a contract on me wasn't good, and it wasn't his usual fare not to know this sort of thing. He hadn't earned a reputation as an information broker for no good reason, after all. This meant that the people behind the so-called job were very subtle, fucking with my head, or probably both. I was going to assume both until proven otherwise.
On the far side of the room a screen illuminated the walls around it, then retreated the light into itself schizophrenically. Talking heads conversed, arguing over the latest piece of news. Another murder scene on the Cigar City strip. The screen panned between the animated heads and photos of some unremarkable apartment. Why was I watching the news? Background noise, maybe. Pretty sure that's the reason I'd come up with some four or five hours ago. Just then I heard a police siren on the street below, but it had gone on as hastily as it had arrived. Background noise? I could have just opened the window.
I added another cigarette butt to the small mountain beginning to form on my coffee table. Reaching over to the laptop seated next to me, I drummed my fingers on it for a moment. I flipped it open once more and decided to revisit what had been keeping me so preoccupied most of the day. This was no doubt some compulsive part of my personality in play, I thought. Did I honestly believe that another reading of the email I'd been sent would yield some sort of epiphany? Could there be some detail, some patently obvious little tell, to reveal itself since I'd read over it one last time? Not probably, but that was hardly going to deter me.
Sixteen years. That's how long it had been since the man named Calvin Archer had died by my hand. Shot him in the back of the head, point blank range. Single nine-millimeter round. The man was dead before he hit the ground. He was just some nobody who got behind on his bills to the wrong guy, so far as I know. Archer didn't have any friends in places higher than his own, else they'd have looked into the incident. Sending me a contract with his name on it didn't add up. My identity, who they gave that job to, is about as confidential as information comes for my employer.
What's worse, really, is that I hardly had any clues as to who or why this was going on. My friends and colleagues in the industry would dismiss me as being my paranoid self. Relax, they said. Just because somebody looked at you funny doesn't mean they're trying to kill you, they said. I never replied, but I always thought to myself that it doesn't mean they're not.
My free hand found the remote and the television went dark. When someone lets you know that they've put a mark on your head, the last thing you want to hear about is the stat line of the latest baseball game. Or maybe you do. Not me. That guy is a much better fan than I. No, I didn't care to hear much of anything right now, unless it was wisdom gleaned from the bottom of a rocks glass.
With that said, I poured two fingers of rye into one of several that were sitting upside-down on a cutting board in my kitchen. Hopefully the drink could help me rein in my thought process a little bit.
Throwing out the Archer job as the key piece of data connecting me to anything is the first step to any sort of logical conclusion. Anybody who wanted me to know they knew about me wouldn't give me a direct link to how they knew so easily. It's just establishing credibility, really. It's not so much misdirection as much as it is a slap in the face letting me know they are serious, whomever "they" may be.
Which would lead me to ask which of the contracts I've taken out, if any, lend themselves to motive. That's usually not how this sort of thing works, I thought. But there was one job that had stuck with me a bit more than I'd cared for. High-profile target. Something to be avoided, if possible. High-profile targets usually had friends equally as much so, and their attitudes about having their people killed are no different than anyone else's. Which is to say, of course, that they didn't much care for it. And, in some cases, that may be putting it a little mildly.
I stared into what remained of the amber liquid, pensive. One job I'd taken fit the bill. Was it finally coming back to bite me? That remained to be seen. Only a handful of people knew that it was me who'd taken the Abramov job in early 2009, hot on the heels of speculation about his associates being flipped by the feds. Whether the Russians had him killed because he himself was a possible witness or just because he was reckless, I didn't care. The contract paid more for one head than I made in a good couple of years, so I took it.
Alexei Abramov spent most of his time in Bay City's various high-end clubs and casinos abusing women and doing enough cocaine to have sinus issues in his next life. The fact that he was the younger brother of one of the city's biggest names in organized crime was just icing on the cake. It had a bit of a personal bent, this job. I didn't much care for guys who got coked up and beat women, then threw money at anybody who tried to stop them. Reminded me too much of my father for my tastes. We'll say I enjoyed this one a bit more than usual fare.
His death was a very clear message to his people, in no small part because I made it that way. Shot him three times in the head through the window of his limousine. When they found him, he was covered in blood and champagne, and didn't have much of a face left to identify. I didn't have time to congratulate myself then, but I didn't lose a lot of sleep over having buried that guy, in particular.
That said, since the number of people who supposedly knew any connection between me and Abramov's untimely end could be counted on one hand, a course of action became very clear. The people who knew needed to be asked difficult questions, perhaps by difficult means. Between the lot of them, some sense of the facts would become more apparent.