LIFE AND DEATH IN THE CROSSHAIRS
by Michael Price
Got the call a couple weeks ago. As soon as possible—that’s what the guy said. That’s always the way they want it, as soon as possible.
The good news is that I’m really good at my job. That’s why they call.
The bad news is that I’m really good at my job.
It’s not as appealing as it used to be–my work, my job–that’s for sure. Developing a conscience is not the best thing if you’re a hired gun. And I prefer the somewhat archaic term ‘hired gun’ because, over the years, I’ve grown to greatly dislike the term ‘hit man’—it’s become much too personal for my taste—but that’s what I am. It’s what I do.
I’ll never forget my first, my first living, breathing human being–July 25th, 1984. Johnny Louisiana. Pretty bad dude, I guess. In Shreveport, coincidentally, that’s the funny thing. Johnny Louisiana, in Shreveport—go figure. It still tickles me when I think about it.
I remember when I got home, I looked up the word ‘exhilarating’ in the dictionary. Worked for me. I didn’t sleep for three days.
It was like that those first few years, even better than that. Internally glamorous; that’s what it was, internally glamorous. Couldn’t tell anyone, of course, but there was something very warm and fuzzy happening every time. Very cool, the secret part. Very James Bond, flip-side. Knowing that danger was
very near, and I was always in control. The money was fabulous, of course… but I guess everybody knows that part.
Get the call, do a little research for a week or two, enjoy the hell out of the local cuisine in the in-between times, scout out the wheres and whens, prep the weapon, and…
Wait for the right moment.
Raise the weapon, target in the crosshairs, deep breath, then…
Actually, this is kinda funny. Aimed and steady, just before I squeeze the trigger, I always whisper to the target,
Say goodnight, Gracie.
Burns and Allen, right? Been doin’ it for years. It amuses me, if nothing else.
They never answer back, of course–the targets, I mean. It would be pretty damned extraordinary if they did, because, a) there’s absolutely no way they could possibly hear me from such a distance, and, b) I never miss. Ever. At any distance.
Thank you, U.S. Army, for your excellent training.
I met Joanne at my cousin’s wedding, April of ’88. Cuzz’s new wife was in her second trimester already so, technically, I suppose you could say it was a shotgun wedding, a factoid in which I also find a modicum of humor. Joanne was one of the bridesmaids. Beautiful girl, picked her out of the line-up right away, and there wasn’t a dog in the lot. Tall. Redhead. Curves over curves. Good hands, too; she caught the bouquet one-handed.
We were married less than a year later.
Bought a beautiful three-level Victorian in the country, away from the bustle of humanity, buried in a thicket of oak, and started a family right away that first year. Son, daughter, daughter, son–in that order–all before the turn of the century. In addition to her other amazing attributes Joanne turned out to be a natural at mommyhood, much to my delight and good fortune. Warm, patient, fair, involved… when they were doling out ideal qualities for the perfect mother and wife, Joanne helped herself to seconds.
She also didn’t ask many questions, which turned out to be an excellent personal quality when it came time to explain the family bank account. She was the very definition of unconditional trust.
I worked for a C.I.A.-involved company doing undercover reconnaissance, wherever and whenever it was needed. Mostly in China.
Which, of course, was a lie.
But I spoke Chinese fairly fluently (another army sponsored life skill) so it was a relatively easy lie to pull off, as really big, underworldly whoppers go.
It was during this time—starting in the mid to late ’90’s—that I started becoming increasingly disenchanted with the whole ‘hired gun’ thing. The work wasn’t at all difficult, I never really felt endangered in any way–the value of good research in my line of work is immeasurable–and, like I said, I never missed, so the money was there. My services were always in demand.
But I was happiest at home and–if this is even possible–felt myself getting happier every day. The kids were growing… well, they were growing up to be people–living, breathing human beings with distinct personalities, each displaying uniquely idiosyncratic behavior, which was so very cool. The concept of school, of education, became truly enjoyable for the first time in my life, experienced vicariously through them. Sports and music, practices and rehearsals, games and concerts, were family experiences I never wanted to miss. My job, my profession, had become tedious, in the way.
Add Joanne to the mix—my wonderful, marvelous Joanne—and…
Tedious, and sinking fast.
The rapidly increasing level of disenchantment with my job was in proportion to the weed-like growth of the kids in the early and mid-2000’s. I couldn’t quit with the killing for pay and I knew it; Lord knows I would have loved to. The money was simply too good, we needed it to live and, to be honest, there was still a small part of me—in a very weak moment, at that–that still craved the excitement, the potential danger that might be lurking around the corner, and my utter dominance over it. But by the summer of 2009 the internal glamor of the work had worn paper thin, and the end of every job could never come soon enough to suit me.
The fire took place in the wee hours of January 6th, 2010. Police investigators concluded that, without question, it was intentionally set, most likely in the basement, with ample evidence of accelerant on the bottom two floors as well as around the outside of the building. The house predated the use of sprinklers (I had been meaning to have them installed for years, but never got around to it) and the alarm had been disabled prior to the fire, an out-of-control blaze which spread like a flash throughout the house. By the time the fire department arrived on the scene, nothing could be done by way of a rescue. The house was a total loss.
There were no survivors.
I was in Detroit that morning, working. James “Big Body” Harrison. I couldn’t have cared less that I didn’t miss Mr. Harrison.
I returned home the next day, so to speak; indeed, there was no home. A few days later I buried my family. Stayed with the neighbors for a few weeks, until I figured out my next move: what to do, where to go, what and where my work would next take me, etc.
Which brings me to today, now, the perfect moment, and yet another job to do.
Target set. No need to wait this time. Not from this distance.
Raise weapon. Aim. Deep breath.
Say goodnight, Gracie.
Steady, now. You’ve never missed yet.
Widely published in literary journals, Michael Price has been writing fiction for over 30 years. He earned his BA in Theater from the University of Minnesota in 1980 and performed his own one-man one-act play “No Change of Address” to considerable acclaim at the 2011 MN Fringe Festival.