Forfeit, by DL Shirey
The Rolling Stones fade to silence. I tap my earpiece to answer the call, "Yes."
"The Stooge is leaving the office." Client 352 has a raspy, smoker's voice.
Stooge is my word, not his. I insist on using it instead of target or mark when I'm not sure if the phone call is snooped. Which means I use the word constantly.
"Leaving his office or leaving the building?" I ask.
"The office. Second floor."
"Yes," 352 says, "and his car is on the top deck of the parking structure next door, 4242 South B Street."
I had scouted the locations. I knew the addresses. I knew the Stooge's reserved space was on P5. "Got it."
"And I'm supposed to wait by the phone for your call when it's over?"
"No. My handler should have been clear about this. You will be on the phone when the job takes place. During, not after."
"Yes. Right. I forgot." His voice wavers. "That is what Ellen told me."
"I'll call you when the Stooge is in view," I said. "You don't answer by the third ring, the job is forfeit."
A pause on the other end, then the snick sound of a cigarette lighter. "I'll be here." A coughing fit strangles his last word and the call ends.
My playlist kicks in again, but I turn off the music. No distractions now. From my vantage point on the adjacent rooftop I have an unobstructed view. It's late on a weeknight, most restaurants have closed, and just a scattering of cars are parked in the downtown office district. There are only two other cars on P5.
ETA six minutes. The Stooge will take the office stairs down, the carpark elevator up, and unlock his car as soon as he sees it. Subaru Forester, white, cargo box on roof rack.
I consider phoning Ellen concerning 352's confusion about his participation, but the question will answer itself if he doesn't pick up my call.
Client involvement is something I demand. I don't know how other freelancers work—it's not like we have union meetings or social clubs where notes are compared—but in my experience, shit and fan rarely meet when the client has skin in the game.
The Stooge I know from photos, but the client I do not. I've never met 352. That's Ellen's job. She's my middleman, I mean handler. Ellen hates the word middleman so I don't use it around her. I think misgendering Ellen's occupation should be the least of her concerns since she sets up assassinations and makes sure my clients are legit.
I screw up her pronouns too, but she gets twenty percent of my fee for putting up with stuff like that.
I like Ellen. We've worked together for a long time. She's usually rock-solid in terms of fielding clients, background checks and money transfers. She's been distracted by a family matter recently, so her ducks might not be perfectly rowed. We'll discuss it at the debrief and I'll get her impression of 352 after the fact. We already have half his payment, forfeit or not.
I redial 352. After one ring he picks up and speaks. "He's not up there yet. He's just getting on the elevator."
"You're following him?" I ask, almost a growl.
"Yeah, to make sure no one else is around. No one to get in the way or get hurt."
"Let me worry about that. You just back off." Another thing to talk to Ellen about. "Stay where you are and stay on the line; it's time to start the process."
"Process? What process? I already—"
"You and Ellen did the business part. This is the me part, where you convince me that you're serious about this assignment."
"This is a joke, right?" He sounds nervous.
"Ellen didn't tell you about this?"
"She did. But given the circumstances—"
"Whatever got you here is not my concern. The only thing that matters is how you answer my questions," I say. "Two questions. And if you don't answer by the time the Stooge gets to his car, the job is forfeit."
On the other end the phone muffles and clicks silent. I look at my phone to see if the call ended. Still connected. I hear the phone click on again.
"Did you just put me on hold?"
"Sorry," 352 says, "I wanted to make sure I was alone."
This job was starting to feel a little hinky, but I've gone through this before. Some clients are dead calm, some freak out. It's the very reason I ask them questions.
The elevator doors on P5 open and a man walks out. I pull the scope to my eye and verify the target. He's on the phone, so his face is half hidden. He's got a skinny build, like the photos, and the hair's right. Got to be the right guy because 352 watched him leave the office.
"He just exited the elevator," I say, "Time is short. Two questions."
"Go ahead," 352 replies.
"Number one, how long you know him?"
"The Stooge, how many years you know him?"
There's always a pause. Admittedly, it's a weird question to throw at a client at a time like this, but it accomplishes two things. First, it makes the client think about his relationship with the Stooge. Second, I'm curious if the pattern holds true; a longer pause usually means a longer relationship.
352 is quick with a response. Not with an answer, but with a question I hear more often than not, "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Means nothing to no one but me." The headlights flash on the Forester and I hear the distant beep. "He's unlocked the car. Answer the question."
I can hear 352 breathing: labored, nervous, wheezy. He still doesn't answer, which probably means a longer, more complex relationship. 352 might even be doing a little soul-search while he's counting back the years. But time's tight, the Stooge is halfway to his car.
"Answer or forfeit. He's almost there and I still have another question.
"Okay, okay. I've known him all my life."
Sounds sincere. All his life, could mean it's family. No wonder 352 is struggling. This is the very reason I ask these questions. I want clients to have second thoughts before I complete the contract. I want any feelings of guilt, remorse or regret to surface now. Festered emotion can lead to vengeance and payback. I look over my shoulder enough as it is.
"Question two." I usually pause for dramatic effect, but there's no time. "Do you still want the job completed?"
No pause. "Yes."
I still can't see the Stooge's face because of that damn phone. I wonder if he's making a business call, wrapping up loose ends on an upcoming deal. Or maybe it's a call home, letting the wife know he'll be stopping at the store. I'll give the Stooge two seconds to finish the call or I'll finish it for him. I target the phone's camera and the man's temple behind it.
"The next sound you hear is your completed contract," I tell the client. Without moving my trigger finger, I thumb the safety button off.
"Wait," came a reply. A different voice on my phone.
My aim does not vary but my concentration breaks. I'm confused, I never patched her in. The client must have done it. The Stooge reaches the car and opens the door.
"Russell, wait," Ellen says, "I'm here.
I pull away the scope and scan the rooftop. A woman emerges from the stairwell next to the elevator. The Stooge pivots around, looking for her, finding her.
"Where are you?" Russell asks.
I press the scope back to my eye. Ellen, all four-foot nine of her, is waving, fast walking on her tiny legs. Sweatsuit and tennies, quite a departure from the usual skirt and jacket. Her black hair is pulled back so I can see her earpiece. She taps it and disconnects from the call.
Ellen and Russell embrace. She pushes away, gripping his cardigan just below the shoulders. The Stooge drops his hands to Ellen's hips. He's still holding the phone and I hear it rub against her clothes. Their conversation is muffled, so I can't make out what they say. Russell looks up to the sky, tries to free himself from Ellen's grip, but she holds tight.
Finally, he nods and they embrace again. She steps back and he hands her his phone. Ellen turns around, walks two paces and pulls Russell's phone to her ear
"Go ahead," Ellen says to me, "Client 352 is now on the line as requested. Same Stooge, same contract."
"Ellen? What the hell."
"Please," she whispers, "My brother's dead in a few weeks anyway. He wants to go out on his terms, while he still has strength."
"This is not what I signed up for."
"Sure it is." Ellen pauses. "Here are the answers to your questions: I've known him since I was two, and I'm sure he wants to go now. To spare himself and the family from the next few, horrible weeks."
I hear a violent bout of coughing. I nudge the scope toward Russell; he is bent over, holding on to the Forester's door for support. The coughing continues for a few moments, then he stands up again, wiping his mouth and eyes with a handkerchief.
"Treat it as another job," she says, "as a favor to me."
I move the scope back to Ellen's profile, her back still toward her brother. She raises her head and straightens her spine.
"Please. Don't forfeit," she says, "Russell wants it this way and so do I."
Without hesitation, I put the scope back on target. Russell is facing me now, still leaning on the open door of the Forester. A sad smile crosses his face and he closes his eyes. My thumb slips up to the safety button but it's already off.
I take a breath and hold it.
DL Shirey lives in Portland, Oregon under skies the color of bruises. Occasionally he lightens up, but his dark fiction can be found in Confingo, Zetetic, Liquid Imagination and in anthologies from Truth Serum Press and Literary Hatchet. Short of listing them all, visit www.dlshirey.com and @dlshirey on Twitter.
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