I was chopping wood, which was about as physical as my life got these days. The lake was placid and blue, surrounded by trees painted in golds and yellows and browns; the water reflected a soothing Indian summer sun. You could almost understand why somebody, long ago, chose to name the lake Paradise. There weren’t even any mosquitoes this time of year.

I swung the axe in my two hands, building a rhythm, liking the pull on my muscles, enjoying the sweat I was working up, feeling alive. Wood chips flew and logs became firewood. When Linda got back from her yoga class at Twin Lakes, I’d prepare supper (still had a microwave) and the wine would be chilled and we’d sit before the fireplace and be "toasty warm" (as she put it) together. We would also undoubtedly have great sex, one of the major reasons I kept the ditsy little dish around.

Feeling winded but good, I sat out on the deck and unzipped my down jacket and relaxed with a cup of coffee. I was watching the lake when a cloud covered the sun and the gravel in my driveway stirred.

A chocolate BMW pulled abruptly up, making a little dust storm. I did not recognize the car—other than as the pointless and drab status symbol it was. I stood. My shoulders tensed and it had nothing to do with chopping wood.

From the edge of the deck I noticed two things: the driver of the car, a slightly heavyset man of about fifty in a London Fog raincoat; and the front license plate of the BMW, which was covered with mud. There hadn’t been any rain in the Midwest for several weeks.

He saw me perched above him on the deck. My expression must have been hostile because he smiled tightly, defensively, and put both hands out, palms forward, in a stop motion.

"Just a few minutes of your time," he said, "that’s all I ask."

He had a mellow, radio-announcer’s voice and a conventionally handsome, well-lined face, a Marlboro man who rode a desk.

"Whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying."

His smile twitched nervously. "I’m not a salesman, but I am here on business."

I motioned off toward the highway. "Talk to Charley up at the Inn. If he can’t handle it, make an appointment to see me, there, later. I don’t do business at home."

"This doesn’t have anything to do with the restaurant business, Mr. Quarry."

I said nothing. A bird cawed across the lake. My sentiments exactly.

"I, uh, realize that isn’t the name you’re using around here..."

"Explain yourself."

The outstretched hands went palms up, supplicatingly. "Please. There’s no reason to get your back up. There’s no obligation..."

"You sound like a salesman."

"Your wife won’t be home for another hour. I didn’t want to bother you while she was here..."

Mention of Linda made me wince; this guy, whoever the fuck he was, knew entirely too much about me. He didn’t know how close he was to spending eternity at the bottom of one of the area’s scenic gravel pits.

"Come up here and have a seat," I said.

He smiled tightly again, nodded, and came around and up the stairs.

I sat in one of the lounge-style deck chairs, legs stretched out, and he took one of the director-style chairs and pulled it up near me. His salt-and-pepper hair was heavy on the salt and thinning a little, though some fancy styling minimized it; you could buy a week’s groceries for what he spent on that haircut. He smelled of cologne—some expensive fragrance, strong enough to blot out that of the pines around us.

"May I smoke?" he asked.

"It’s your lungs."

He lit up—something unfiltered from a flat silver case drawn out from under the London Fog; I had a glimpse of dark, vested, well-tailored suit with blue striped silk tie.

"I know this is an intrusion," he said, deferential as all hell, "but I think, when everything is said and done, you’ll be pleased. This is the opportunity of a lifetime."

"Does this have anything to do with Amway?"

A short, harsh, nervous laugh preceded his response: "Hardly, Mr. Quarry. This is more on the order of... Publishers Clearing House." The constant if slight smile turned wry, smug. "Mr. Quarry, I’m in a position to make you a very wealthy man."

"Drop the name, all right? I haven’t used that in almost ten years."

He made a small open-hand gesture. "A man known as the Broker gave it to you, a long time ago."

"That’s right." I looked at him, locked his eyes. They were gray, like his cigarette smoke. "What else do you know about me?"

His smile faded, and he shrugged facially. "I know that you were a hero. That you served your country honorably and well."

"Yeah, right. Is there more?"

"I known that you were married once before. You returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam to discover your wife had been untrue."

"Untrue? I found her in bed sitting on a guy’s dick."

"You killed him."

I shrugged. "Not on the spot. I came back the next day, after I cooled off, and he was under his sporty little car, making some minor repairs. I made one, too."

"You kicked the jack out."

I shrugged again. "He called me a ‘bunghole.’ What would you do?"

"You were arrested."

"But not tried, except in the papers."

"The unwritten law."

"There are two times society puts up with murder."

"War is one," he said, nodding.

"Finding somebody fucking your wife is the other."

He gestured with cigarette in hand. "Nonetheless, you were looked down upon in certain quarters."

"I had trouble finding work. I was a Vietnam vet, remember? We were all assumed to be unreliable dope addicts. And I was a ‘disturbed Viet vet’ before it was fashionable. Before it was a cliche even."

I killed a guy, after all. Nobody minded the numerous yellow people I killed for no good reason. The one white asshole I killed for a good reason got people bent out of shape.

"Shortly after that," he said, carefully, quietly, the gray eyes studying me but pretending not to, through a haze of cigarette smoke, "you met the Broker."

"Did I?"

"I don’t know the circumstances, but you began taking contracts. Working as part of a team."

Did I mention I had brought the axe up on the porch with me? Well, I had. It was leaned up against the front of the house, near the door. Not far away at all.

"Are you sure," I said, with a gentle smile, "that you want to keep this line of conversation going?"

"I just want you to know that I’m familiar with your background."

"Why?"

"Because I have a contract for you."

"I’m not in that line of work anymore."

"Mr. Quarry, you are an assassin. It’s not something you can leave behind."

I nodded. "Well, I’m willing to kill again, under certain circumstances."

"Such as?"

"Assholes coming around fucking in my life."

He smiled again, another tight nervous twitch, and he said, "I’m not here to make trouble in your life. I’m here to improve your life."

"Say it. Whatever it is you’ve got to say, say it."

"Mr. Quarry, this isn’t something one can..."

"Say it. I sat through ‘This Is Your Life’ patiently enough, but now the show’s over. Cut to the commercial."

He cleared his throat, as if about to make a speech. Maybe he was. "You are said to have been the best at what you do. But you dropped out."

"I dropped out. My partner bought it, the Broker bought it, and I dropped out. Say what you came to say."

He let the cigarette fall to the deck and ground it out with his heel.

Then he said: "One million dollars."

There’s only one thing you can say when somebody says that, and I said it: "What?"

"One million dollars," he repeated.

"In regard to what?" I asked, dumbfounded and a little annoyed.

"One contract."

"A million-dollar contract."

He nodded, his smile confident now, not nervous at all. "One hundred thousand down. In cash. Unmarked twenties. It can be delivered to you in twenty-four hours."

"I’m...retired."

"I noticed you hesitate before saying so."

"Anybody would hesitate, offered a million bucks."

"You could go anywhere in the world. You and your wife. Nothing could touch you."

"Don’t mention my wife again."

"No offense meant."

"Don’t mention her. Don’t speak of her. Or I’ll cut your fucking heart out."

He swallowed and nodded. He’d noticed the axe.

"I just wanted to emphasize what a rosy future you could paint for yourself with that kind of money."

"I don’t believe in the future, and I don’t give a fuck about the past. And my present is rosy as fucking hell. So why don’t you just go away."

"Mr. Quarry, it’s a million dollars."

"I know it is. But...I’m retired. What do I need with it?"

"One job. One simple job."

"I doubt it would be simple."

"You’d be surprised."

I stood. I walked to the edge of the deck and looked out at the lake. The sun was still under a cloud and a light breeze was blowing in. The water looked gray. I was going to have a son, or a daughter, before long. With my past, maybe it would be a good thing to get out of this country. With a million bucks you could live like a king in Mexico or South America. Maybe on a beach, the ocean your front yard. A protected life. A safe life for me and mine. In a year, I would be forty years old.

I turned and looked at him. "What’s the contract?"

"Have you heard of Preston Freed?"

"I’ve heard the name...he’s some sort of right-wing loon, isn’t he?"

His face cracked with the first of his many smiles to reveal teeth; too white and too perfect to be real.

He rose and walked over to me. "That’s exactly what he is," he said, folding his arms, seeming at ease with me for the first time. I’d have to do something about that. "He is the founder and leader of the Democratic Action Party."

I made a sound in my throat that wasn’t quite a laugh. "Just another one of these homegrown would-be Hitlers."

He shook his head no. "He’s not a Nazi. His politics are a grab-bag mixture of extreme right and extreme left, but he’s relatively young and genuinely charismatic, a Kennedy of the lunatic fringe if you will...and he’s gathering real momentum for his movement. Do you follow the political scene in the papers?"

"I catch it on TV. But, look..."

He raised a hand in a gentle stop motion. "Freed has several key issues that have rallied conservatives around him—he’s strongly anti-abortion and pro-school prayer, for instance. That’s all some people need to hear."

"I suppose, but..."

"You don’t have to know much about politics to understand that the coming presidential election will be a volatile one. We have a once popular, now somewhat tarnished president ending his two terms in office. Supposedly a conservative, this man has raised the national debt to a record high."

"Politics don’t interest me."

"Even so, we are coming into a fascinating election year. The two parties—depending upon whom they choose as their standard bearers of course—should be in for a real battle. Think of it: the highest office in the land up for grabs...we could have a true conservative in the White House, or our most liberal president in years..."

"What does this have to do with anything? If this contract is political, you can really forget it."

His gray eyes pleaded with me, his brow knitting a goddamn sock. "Mr. Quarry, Preston Freed is a presidential ‘spoiler’ in the truest sense. The way his movement, his ‘party,’ is gathering steam, he will throw the entire election off kilter."

"Yeah, I suppose. I don’t know much about it, and I don’t want to, either."

"At this point, it is hard to say whether the Democrats or the Republicans would suffer the most, but..."

"I think you should leave. This is a civics lesson that I just don’t want to hear."

"I represent a certain group of private citizens, responsible, powerful, patriotic citizens, who want Preston Freed stopped. Who want the natural order of our political system restored, and this madman—this potential American Hitler, as you aptly described him—destroyed like the rabid animal he is."

"That’s very colorful, but I don’t do politicals. I don’t do any contracts anymore, as I tried to make clear...and I shouldn’t have let you get into this at all."

"Mr. Quarry..."

"I don’t do windows, and I don’t do politicals."

"Why not?"

"You can offer me two million and I’d turn you down."

He was astounded; shaking his head. "Why, do you think it would be difficult to get near the candidate? True, Freed is somewhat reclusive, but with the first ¬≠primary in January, there’ll be plenty of opportunities, starting with a major press conference next month, which..."

"Stop. It’s not hard to kill a politician. It’s the easiest thing there is. You got a public figure, an egomaniac who thinks he’s immortal, going out kissing babies and shaking hands and it’s the easiest hit in the world."

"Then what is your objection?"

"I wouldn’t live to spend the money."

"Are you implying that..."

"That you would have me killed? Why, I don’t know what got into me. You and your concerned patriotic citizens wouldn’t think of being party to murder, now would you?"

"Mr. Quarry, we are men of honor."

"Sure. I’d be an instant loose end, pal. You don’t get away with shooting presidents or even would-be presidents. Oh, the guys who hire you can get away with it. In fact they always do. That’s ’cause the poor bastard who squeezed the trigger is either dead or locked in a cell and written off as a madman."

"I assure you..."

"I’m retired. I don’t want to get back in the business, not even once, not even for your big bucks. This is a real good place to call a halt to this conversation...I still don’t know your name, and that’s how I like it."

"You won’t reconsider?"

"No. And I don’t want to see you again. You know far too much about me. I ought to kill you on general principles."

He sucked breath in, hard; till now, talk of death had seemed abstract to him, I’m sure. "But...but you won’t."

"Not unless I see you again."

He nodded, sighed, extended his hand for me to shake. I ignored it.

Withdrawing the hand, he smiled gently and said, "No hard feelings, Mr. Quarry. It’s too bad. I think you’d have been the right man for the job."

I didn’t say anything.

His smile disappeared and, shortly, so did he, in a cloud of gravel dust; the BMW’s back license plate was covered with mud as well.

I went inside and started a fire.

I sat before the glow of it, by the metal conical fireplace in one corner of the A-frame’s living room, and waited for Linda, wondering if I should’ve killed the son of a bitch.


Copyright © 1987 by Max Allan Collins.

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