You may think, reading this one, that I’ve gone soft. Let me assure you that the only time I go soft is after fucking. Then I suffer an understandable physical reaction as well as a sleepy emotional affection for the female, whoever she might be, that lasts a good thirty seconds.
Now soft in the head, that’s another matter altogether. For me to take on a contract like the one the Broker proposed to me at my A-frame on Paradise Lake that crisp fall evening, I had to be stupid or half-nuts or maybe completely greedy since it did, after all, involve a lot of dough.
In my defense, I was fairly new to the game. I had been killing people for money for less than two years, so maybe my relative inexperience played a role. Of course, really I’d been killing people for money a number of years longer than that, if you counted Vietnam; but the targets were "gooks," as we used to inelegantly put it, and the employer was Uncle Whiskers, not the Broker, who paid better—much better, in this instance.
With his rich man’s tan and perfectly coiffed white hair with matching mustache—and his blue-plaid sportcoat, white pointed-collar sportshirt, navy slacks, and blue-toed white loafers—the Broker might have been a bank president or the dean of a small college on his day off. But he wasn’t. Not a banker or a dean or on his day off, either.
This was a business call. And this distinguished-looking man’s business was brokering contract killings, serving as the buffer between the respectable people who wanted someone dead and the disreputable types who made them that way. For money.
I might have been a college kid—grad student maybe—in my gray long-sleeve WISCONSIN sweatshirt, blue jeans and sneakers, though I’d never been to college (including the University of Wisconsin). What I really was was one of those disreputable types I mentioned above.
The Broker’s age I could only guess at—forty? Fifty? As for me, I was in my twenties with thirty still seeming abstract, a fairly average-looking guy at five ten and one-hundred-sixty pounds, fit from frequent swims at the Lake Geneva YMCA, with brown hair longer than it used to be. But that was true of Broker’s generation, too, wasn’t it? Parents were wearing hair that they’d abhorred on their kids just a few years ago.
Having the Broker inside my A-frame home was unusual—during the years I worked with him (which would eventually total five and change) he had done that maybe three or four times. More normally we met at the hotel he co-owned in Davenport, on his home turf of the Iowa/Illinois Quad Cities. Or we met at some out-of-the-way spot halfway or so between here and there, a truckstop on an Interstate or a bar in some city or town.
But right now we were sitting each on his own side of a dark brown overstuffed modular couch that made an L arranged around a metal fireplace in the midst of my living-room, itself part of a big open area overseen by a loft and shared with a kitchenette. Only a few lights were on.
It was evening and a fire was going. The Broker had enough angles in a face out of a Playboy liquor ad that the flicker of flames turned him into a good subject for a charcoal sketch, if I were a fucking artist, which I’m not.
"Quarry," he said, resting his bottle of Coors on a coaster on the low-slung glass-topped table between him and the fire, "I want you to understand that you are free to take a pass on this one. No harm, no foul, as they say in the sporting world. But if you do say yes, keep in mind: volenti non fit injuria."
"Yeah," I said, "I was just thinking that."
Quarry was, by the way, the name the Broker had tagged me with—all of us in his network of mostly war-bred assassins had what I considered cutesy monikers. According to the Broker—who as you’ve already seen was one pretentious son of a bitch —mine signified that I was hollowed out "as if from rock." As for my real name, you don’t need it.
"Decline this opportunity," he said, with a magnanimous gesture, flames turning his tan orange, "and it will in no way reflect badly upon you."
"Wouldn’t want it on my permanent record." My legs, crossed at the ankles, were on an ottoman. My bottle of Coke was on the little table. I am not a heavy drinker, even if I had been on a bender when the Broker first looked me up.
My guest lifted two palms toward me. "I would completely understand were you to say no. This assignment—strictly volunteer—is quite outside our usual methodology."
He used words like "methodology" a lot. I wasn’t kidding when I said he was pretentious. Also pompous, if there’s a difference.
"Well," I said with a shrug, "the job in Biloxi wasn’t usual. But it paid well. Does this?"
He nodded. "Very well indeed. And there are similarities to that assignment, although you would not be on your own this go-round—rather, you’d be working with Boyd, as is the norm."
I’d been partnered with Boyd for some months now. He generally worked the passive side, going in early and collecting intel on the target, while I handled the active role, coming in a week or so before the hit and carrying it out. The passive role sometimes included providing back-up and escape support.
"For the moment I must remain vague about our subject," he said. He meant the poor bastard I’d be killing. "That’s requisite, because should you say no to this, it’s best for all concerned—yourself included—that you remain blessed with the bliss that is ignorance."
Christ, this guy.
"How much?" I asked. Usually I cleared about five thousand.
"Twenty-five thousand," he said.
My eyebrows went up. I didn’t send them in that direction—it was entirely their own idea.
I said, "How much of that is my end?"
"That is your end."
I squinted at him. "If this is political—"
"It has a political aspect," he admitted, lifting one palm this time, and firelight flickered there like a silent movie gone out of focus, "but we’re not talking about a political assassination per se."
"Per what then?"
"As I said, we can’t talk about the identity of the subject until we discuss a…broader outline, and if that outline suits you, then we will move on to specifics."
"Is the target bigger than a breadbox?"
"It’s not a politician, either in or out of office. But it is a public figure—the kind of public figure who is well insulated and, at public appearances, well guarded by local police and occasionally by those higher up the law-enforcement food chain."
"So shooting from a rooftop or a high window might not be practical." I’d been a sniper in Vietnam and I preferred it that way. Anonymous, impersonal.
"No. Unless you consider Lee Harvey Oswald or James Earl Ray suitable role models."
I kicked the ottoman away and put my feet on the floor. Some wind was rattling the glass doors onto the deck and howling through the skeletal trees surrounding the lake—nature could be so fucking corny sometimes.
Leaning forward, my hands clasped between my legs, I said, "Fill it in some. That outline of yours."
He leaned forward, too, swiveling toward me as I had him. "Like the Biloxi job, this will require you going undercover. Joining the subject’s organization—not an overtly criminal one, by the by. This should be easily accomplished. Once in, you will study the landscape, seeking a window."
"Landscapes don’t have windows."
"My apologies for the mixed metaphor," he said, just a tad testily, "but what I’m saying is that you will need to do your own fact-finding beyond what your partner will do from his perch. Boyd is on this job, with or without you, already. He is stationed across the way from the subject’s organizational headquarters."
How could this fucker provide so much information without giving me anything, really? "Sounds like," I said, "we already have a window. A literal one. Just pop him from ‘across the way.’ "
He shook his head and, I swear, a finger. "The subject both arrives and exits through an alley behind his headquarters. He has bodyguards, and I doubt the idea of conducting a fire fight in an alley would hold much appeal to you."
"Not much," I said. "What about the target’s residence?"
"Difficulties there as well. But you are welcome to find a way to make that work for you. En route from home to work and back again might also suggest a possibility. Still, I believe you’ll need inside access to accomplish that, due to the specific exigencies."
I had no idea what an exigency was, specific or non-specific.
He was saying, "You’ll have a literal deadline—the end of the month. This must be done before the last weekend in October. Before a big outdoor event on Saturday of that weekend."
"Not at the ‘big outdoor event?’ "
"No. For the reasons previously cited."
But by now I well understood that this wasn’t just any killing—not the usual cheating spouse or troublesome business partner, nor the occasional mob hit we carried out to keep suspicion off the local bent-nose who hired it.
Not when the Broker shows up on my turf to present this job with the delicacy of asking a father from the old country for his daughter’s hand. Not when he comes alone, minus one of his usual driver/bodyguards at the wheel of his Caddie.
And he had.
"Doesn’t hold office," I said.
"Isn’t running for office."
"You realize I do not like getting next to a target. It’s dangerous in every way there is."
His ice-blue eyes reflected dancing flames. "I know, Quarry. But a twenty-five-thousand-dollar payday requires a certain sacrifice."
"Getting my head blown off isn’t my idea of a ‘certain sacrifice.’ Neither is spending the rest of my life in prison. Death Row isn’t on a lake."
He gave up an elaborate shrug and said, "Granted."
"God fucking damnit," I said, tossing a hand. "Who is it? But if it’s the guy who plays Archie Bunker, I’m not interested."
He frowned. "Who?"
"It was a joke, Broker. My life’s ambition is making you crack a smile."
"You may be disappointed."
That made me crack a smile. He was one up on me.
"So, then. Are you on board, Quarry?"
"Yeah," I said, and it was a sigh. "Holding onto the railing, hoping the ship doesn’t hit an iceberg, but yeah."
Then he smiled faintly—not at my weak humor but in satisfaction for having lured me in—and reached for the manila envelope beside him on the couch. Handed it across to me.
The close-up photo on top of the paper-clipped documents was from the AP wire service; so were a few others, taken at speaking events. Still others were surveillance shots. The latter had various individuals circled and identified, obviously people on the target’s staff. He had the kind of handsome, well-carved features you find on an African tribal mask or the hero of a blaxploitation flick. No major Afro or sideburns, though, and no flashy threads—dark suit, dark tie, like an undertaker.
Or a preacher.
"I’ve seen this guy," I said, "on the news. Don’t remember his name."
"The Reverend Raymond Wesley Lloyd," the Broker said, enunciating each word as if I were taking notes. Mentally I was.
"Civil rights activist," I said, in a thinking-out-loud way. "Kind of getting to be a big deal."
"Many think he’s the next Martin Luther King," the Broker said, nodding, smiling again, pleased that his slow student had some smidgen of knowledge. "But Reverend Lloyd stays unaffiliated with any major activist groups, whether traditional like the NAACP or the more radical SNCC. He’s his own man with his own organization."
I flipped through some materials that provided background well beyond what Boyd might have gathered; this was clearly a job that had been in the planning stages long before either Boyd or I had been brought in.
The Broker sat quietly, sipping his beer, while I skimmed the materials, which included magazine and newspaper clippings. All I knew going in was what I’d picked up from the nightly newscast, when it happened to be on while I ate a TV dinner or something. I vaguely remembered that Lloyd had come up through the St. Louis slums and been involved in drug dealing, but had got religion in prison.
Upon his release, he became pastor of a small church in St. Louis and built a following; after the church was burned to the ground, Lloyd did not rebuild, at least not the church itself. Instead he struck out as an activist leader.
According to a Time magazine piece, former dealer Lloyd of all the black leaders of our day was the one who spoke out most forcefully against illegal narcotics on ghetto streets. They were "genocide," he said. Heroin was "a plague upon our people."
I put the materials back in the envelope, and tossed it back on the little table.
I said, "I know I pressured you into revealing who the subject was…but this isn’t for me."
His expression was placid. "Why is that?"
"It’s just not what I signed on for. You made it clear in our very first meeting, going on two years now, that by the time I’d be called in on a job, the person targeted was already dead, in a way. That when somebody is willing to pay good money to have somebody else taken out, well, out that second somebody goes."
He’d begun nodding before I finished. "That’s correct. Another way to look at it is that if you don’t take a job, someone else will. The subject will die, whether you are the means or not."
One actor refuses a role, he’d said in that first meeting, and another steps in. Because the show must go on.
I gestured to the manila envelope. "But you also said that any target in my crosshairs would be there as a result of their own actions. They screwed somebody’s wife, they embezzled money, they were criminals who got on the bad side of other criminals. Not…not somebody decent, for Christ’s sake."
He grinned. I finally made him smile. Really smile. In a coochy-coo of a voice he said, "Why, is that a sense of moral outrage I detect, Quarry?"
The fire felt hot on my face. "I don’t know that I want to kill somebody because a client doesn’t like black people. Somebody in my crosshairs because they’re the wrong color? Not my deal. Even for twenty-five k."
The smile was fading but lingered; he leaned toward me. "That’s something I like about you, Quarry. Unlike most of the Vietnam veterans I work with, you returned home with some semblance of humanity buried inside there."
"I thought I was carved out of rock."
He flipped a hand. "My first impression. Now I realize that you have standards. Perhaps even a code of sorts. In a world without meaning, that can come in handy. But it can also get in the way."
I raised both hands as if in surrender. "I’m not going to rat you out or anything, Broker. I just want to take a pass. No harm, no foul, remember?"
He did something then that he had never done before. He called me by my real name, which let’s say is John, which it isn’t.
"John," he said. "I respectfully request that you set aside any compunctions about the killing of a good man. Raymond Wesley Lloyd is not a good man."
Why was it that assassins and their victims so often had three names?
"Well, he looks pretty goddamn good to me," I said, nodding toward the envelope. "Kill him if you want, just leave me out of it."
Maybe I wouldn’t have been so quick to turn down that kind of money if I hadn’t had a particularly good year. Biloxi had paid off very well, in ways the Broker wasn’t wholly aware of.
Then something crawled up my spine.
"Or," I said, "have I just made myself a loose end? This is political, Broker. You fucking lied to me!"
He shook his head and his voice turned calming. "No, I said there was a political aspect. I made that point quite clearly. Anyway, Reverend Lloyd may present himself as the logical replacement for Martin Luther King…and that the public currently perceives him as such certainly complicates matters…but I assure you he is made of more common clay than Reverend King."
At least the Broker didn’t add "may he rest in peace" after that.
I was studying him. "How common a clay are we talking about?"
A one-shoulder shrug. "His strident condemnations of drug use amongst the poorest of the black populace fall into the area of ‘methinks he doth protest too much.’ "
"He retains connections, shall we say, to his roots—he is largely funded by white gangsters who run dope in the city that is his home base, St. Louis, Missouri. It’s a hypocritical front, yes, albeit a rather brilliant one—who would suspect when Raymond Wesley Lloyd takes his anti-drug message on the road, a core group within his organization is moving caches of the poison?"
I was frowning. "So this is a mob hit?"
The Broker recoiled. "Quarry, you know I can’t confirm or deny that. This may be an unusual job, but we must retain the compartmentalization that makes all of us safe."
"Yeah. Sorry. Okay."
One eyebrow went up. "Okay? Does that mean you accept the assignment?"
He clapped once, like a pasha summoning a slave. "You’ve viewed the background material. Questions?"
"Mostly just one," I said. "What makes you think a white boy like me can just wander into a black activist HQ and pull up a chair? Blackface went out with Eddie Cantor."
He was shaking his head again. "You won’t be the only white face in the room. Civil Rights activism has always attracted young guilty liberals, particularly right now."
"Why right now?"
Another smile. "Reverend Lloyd is in the midst of a tour of college campuses, working to get out the vote for George McGovern in the presidential race."
I opened my mouth but no words came out. Even a non-political type like me, who only caught the occasional newscast, was aware that Nixon was slaughtering McGovern in the polls, with the election just a few weeks away.
He could tell what I was thinking and said, "Democrats and assorted left-wing rabble are holding out hope that the polls are wrong, or at least can be made to be wrong."
He frowned. "Do you ever read a paper, Quarry? This is the first year that the under twenty-ones can vote. Right now various famous bleeding hearts—politicians, movie stars, folk singers, rock and rollers—are beating the campus bushes, hoping the anti-war youth will create a November surprise."
"And Lloyd is part of that."
"Yes. But he won’t be part of any November surprise."
"Probably not. Nixon’s the one."
"That’s not what I refer to, Quarry."
"What do you refer to?"
"The October surprise you’ll give him."
Copyright © 2016 by Max Allan Collins.