A modest one. Particularly when compared to his last job. His first job.
He did enjoy this one, though. Somehow. Something about those hokey-poke bars so far away from where he had come. That graceful stink of desperation. Or was that just cheap liquor and piss?
It grew hard to tell the difference, after all these years.
Dim lights and dumpy looking leopard print pants. Smoke danced and drifted its way from the cold open door. These folks were still bitter about being forced to fume outside. But the law is the law, after all.
From place to place, each night. Each one different. Each one the same. All hinting at that special air of gloom. Rippled and tattered with glory. No facade to cast illusion. They were all beautiful, each one. Wrinkled. Bearded. Beaten. Broken. Famished and banished. Lonesome and lowly. Sagging features and faded fashion. The dirty snatch of humanity, inviting in its harsh reality.
A deep breath. His soul filled as his feet marched him through the amber glow of the doorway from the white, weightless cold. His hands held the last speaker over his shoulder. He always brought his own gear. House systems were always in notoriously grave disrepair. Besides, he had a rather methodical nature about his stuff.
This is my microphone.
This is my gun.
One is for killing, and so on.
It was a simple set up. Two compact one hundred and fifty watt speakers, a small mixer, the laptop and all its contents. And a durable thirty-two-inch television monitor, for those who might forget a word or two. Or all of them.
And somewhere within all those wires and silicone computing chips, rest thousands upon thousands of arrangements. Everything you could imagine, all patched in through software designed by his own furious fingertips. He had picked that up as a hobby. Software design. One of quite a few in this retirement of his.
He had every tune.
That oldies song your grandmother used to sing to you at night.
That obscure band you thought only you and that one friend of yours knew about.
That tune you heard after your first kiss.
When you lost your virginity.
After your first wife left you.
After you left your second wife.
That song you blasted in the car after the last day of high school. Hours before your friend died in the car crash.
The song sung by that stranger at your father’s wake.
Give him a memory. A feeling. Hum part of the melody. It didn’t matter how vague- if you could paint any kind of picture, he could get you the song.
It payed, but not well. Not even close. He survived, though mostly from what he had saved from his previous employment. His retirement cash. Tucked away. Properly. Professionally. He lived modestly anyway. Hard to detect.
As speakers found their way onto the stands, the hidden gems began mulling about. They looked at him. Hungry. They lived for this. A timidly vicious thirst. Almost patient. Most people would think that sad. He himself could not imagine an emotional aesthetic more grand.
As they say, you have not lived until you have sung your heart out at Jack Golz’s traveling karaoke night.
It was a thing of legend. Appearing out of nowhere a few years back and since has created a culture adored by those in these few scattered mountain towns. The only hope left for these hopeless few.
It was not just drunk nonsense, though that certainly happened at times. It was a passionate performance of peers. Never would anyone believe how some of these folks could sing without feasting your ears on it firsthand. If the night were to be deemed successful, every soul in the place had to have felt something, no matter how recessive, pulled forth by the raw nutrition of another patron’s vocal chords. Either dripping or cascading from souls stained in lime and tonic.
No one can recall a night void of that success.
“I was worried,” croaked a voice, presumably belonging to the hand residing elegantly upon Jack’s shoulder. Something like that used to make him jump. Well, not jump. But certainly react. Most often aggressively. He had been working on being so on edge.
“About what, dear?” He did not need to turn. He knew the voice. Aged so finely in mentholated smoke and quinine.
“That you weren’t coming tonight,” proclaimed Trudy, all ashen over with grace.
“I wouldn’t let you off so easy. You know that.”
Trudy laughed. Jack never looked up from setting up his sound system. He still laughed with her, to not be rude. He was no savage, after all. It’s just there was no time to waste. His people were hungry. They craved that well-balanced output, whilst swaying among the trio of spinning colored lights. It was a stage, no matter what anyone might say.
A glass landed on the table next to his miniature concert hall.
Gin and tonic. End of the line.
Jack’s father used to say that once you started drinking gin, that’s about as far as you can go. This was Jack’s one hundred thousandth gin and tonic, if you can believe it. He didn’t know that, of course. He is not omnipotent, nor keeping track. Only his ex-wife kept track of his drinks.
“There you go, doll,” said a voice, drenched in sweetness.
He didn’t need to look. He knew.
Holly. About five foot, six inches tall. One hundred and twenty-three pounds. Blonde, but towards the darker end of that spectrum. Green eyes, holding slight hints of brown. Around twenty-seven years old. Attractive. Very. Especially compared to the lot around her. An aura of spiced vanilla always hung about her. She was flat footed.
Too young. She would be his son’s age, if he had one. He might have. He had never heard, but it was certainly possible. In his former line of work. Being all over the world.
“Thank you,” Jack managed as he stood up, turning on switches as he ascended. Lights of green and yellow and red, began to fill tiny bulbs littered about the equipment. The computer began to boot. The TV screen clicked to life. To light.
“Test. Test. One, two,” Jack said to one microphone.
“Test. Testing. One. Two. Three,” Jack said to the other mic.
Both nearly identical. Same brand, same color, both without wires. The only difference was the color of electrical tape wrapped just below the screen.
Some folks would huddle close. Other kept themselves in the shadows, only to emerge for their song and disappear again. Every face he could see had become so familiar. Almost every face.
Jack finished his drink and pressed play. First song was always his.
The instrumental introduction was just long enough for him to head up to Jerry and get another round. He went with a slow song this evening. An old love standard. A glass filled with gin. Tonic was lightly splashed on top. And a lime. Jerry, like all great bartenders, had a rather heavy hand.
Jack sipped. The intro built and built and built. He placed his glass down. Crescendo. Sforzando. Piano. The microphone from his back pocket was already hanging about below his face. He began.
As he sang, Jack Golz wondered about love. What it would have been like to have known love. Been in love. Young love. Stupid. Love. If there was even such a thing. The sunken and drunken eyes about him, absorbed his voice. A timid putz about the tables. Eyes never going far from the microphone.
No one had known he was much of a singer until he became Jack Golz. He hadn’t even known himself. There was not much to sing about in those days. He strode back over to his theater. The table left of the right speaker featured a clipboard. That clipboard had the signup sheet. Already filling up. Jack picked it up as he finished out the second chorus.
Then came the bridge.
“Ladies and gentleman,” Jack proclaimed. “Welcome this evening to Juliet’s Pub on this frigid Tuesday evening. I’m very glad to see all of you here tonight, hopefully here to give it a shot up on stage.”
The regulars clapped. Adoringly.
“I see many familiar faces,” he said looking out at those who applauded.
“And I see some new comers,” he aimed exactly at the gentleman sitting in the poorly lit southwest corner table.
A high top with a single chair. Right near the side exit, opposite the kitchen. No windows for five feet on either side. The man sitting there was dressed in a black, casual suit. Six foot, two inches. Black hair, though it may have been dyed. At least two hundred and fifty pounds, but not unfit. Large hands, wrapped around a sweating glass of ice water. With lemon. His tan suggested that he was not from around here. Because he was not from around here. Drinking water was a concerning choice.
Jack looked at him. He looked at Jack. Jack looked at the microphone and finished the ballad.
“The goal this evening is to bend time with song and take you somewhere else,” Jack pulled the clipboard up, and scanned the names. “First up tonight, we have Kevin singing that 1959 summer hit. You know which one.”
Kevin staggered his way up to Jack. He hugged Jack, as expected. He burped halfway through his first word. As expected. The music began. Kevin suddenly was overcome with the cool.
Kevin had come every Tuesday for three years. It was nine years ago that his daughter had gone missing. She was six years old then. She’d be fifteen now, but more likely worm food.
He had crumbled. Broke, drunk and alone, he found his way to Juliet’s. Things are far from good. But for Kevin, they’ve gotten better. You never forget. You just keep living.
So he sang and poured sweat. A mild rumble of applause followed.
Next up was Trudy.
At an uncomfortable and uneven five feet tall, Trudy was unlikely to sing how she did. Her speaking voice was beaten with a lead pipe and left to die in the sun. The furious desert west of the very mountains in which she sang. Yet when she sang, the rich vibrations bellowing from her soul could transform her back into that young girl of years far gone. So long ago, right before she moved out to New York. Before failure upon failure. Tryout after tryout and not a single gig. Not even a chorus girl job. Right before the world chewed up a hopeful young woman and spat out a bitter, befallen soul.
She was the last hold out for women who used to be sexy. Close your eyes, and her old flesh was traded out and the young woman returned. Doe eyed. Full of life. Doped on hope, as beautiful young women often are.
She always held the last note longer than the musical track went. Slowly losing steam as her cracked and faded lungs pushed out for as long as they could, as though they hoped her last breath be used to finish the tune. Not hoping her dead. Still knowing she would deserve a death so glorious. Righteous. Eloquent. She sighed and handed the mic back. Trudy hadn’t cried in years. Tonight was no exception. She was quite certain there was nothing left to cry about.
Gene was next. And what a mess he was.
Plump and profusely red faced, his hair had migrated from the top of his skull to poke out of the back collar of his shirt. And his ears. He had a gimp which made being drunk even more difficult for transportation.
Gene always sang tunes that were originally done by women. His breath stunk of roadkill. His voice moved as a slug on sandpaper. A man seemingly so unfortunately, you could get angry at Gene for existing.
The music started. Expectations were set.
At first, it was hard to hear him. Timidly weaving in and out of the microphone, a man without a spine stands and proclaims all he’s got left to muster. What started as a grumbled whimper, dives into the infinite mess of confidence, boasting and expressing skill without its consent. In an octave you would think only dogs could hear, he poured all the chemicals mixed up in his blood out as golden sewn silk.
He always had a tear on the tune’s last bar. He tried to hide it but always failed. Unlike Trudy, he thought there was still plenty in life to cry about. He followed up that moment of humanity with a crude joke. So Jack took the microphone back.
He called off the names and each soul showed what it had to be seen. Person after person each had something to offer, if you were willing to listen. Everyone but the man in the corner. He did not move. He was not there to sing. It would seem he was only there to watch his glass sweat.
Before Holly had another chance, Jack went up to the bar himself while Terry sang that showtune. You know, the one from that musical. About that thing. Love, I think they called it.
He walked towards the western part. Once his elbows found rest upon the not so smoothly stained counter, a chair was heard moving across the hardwood floor to the south. The sound of steps grew closer. Must be expensive shoes, thought Jack. Such a waste.
The stranger stood next to Jack.
Jack did not turn. He instead looked at Jerry, who looked back at Jack. He grabbed a bottle. Brown bottle. The label was falling off and the cork was cracked a bit on top.
“One for the stranger, as well,” Jack said.
Jerry nodded. Two glasses.
Jack did not turn. The man stood just behind, and slightly to the left. About two and a half feet back. Close rage. On Jack’s blindside.
Looks like this guy at least tried to do some research.
“Give it up, Grant,” muttered a voice just behind, and slightly to the left.
The showtune played on. Jack spun his glass, gradually. Left hand.
“I’m afraid you are misled, friend. My name is Jack,” said Jack void of hesitation. “Don’t know that other fellow.”
Another quarter turn on the glass. Brown liquid rippled. Choppy circles.
“Don’t start with that. You know you can’t just walk away. It may have taken years, but I’m bringing you back. They want to talk with you.”
Jack said nothing.
Jerry only poured the second glass.
All quiet on the western counter. Spare the melodic glug of very well aged scotch.
The emptiness of the glasses had been replaced with the emptiness of alcohol.
The stranger put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. A poor decision.
“If I am who you seem to think I am, then you know I can do whatever I damn well please,” Jack threatened prophetically. “His drink is on me, Jer.”
“Ice water doesn’t cost anything,” said the stranger, removing his hand.
“Well you drink scotch now,” Jack slid the glass. “Right, Marcello?”
Void of any words, Marcello the stranger took the glass. Jerry walked to the eastern front of the bar.
“I’m flattered that you felt the need to stay totally sharp and sober coming out here to see me,” Jack gulped. “But it wouldn’t matter. I’ve laid waste to hundreds of your kind. You would have been better off getting loaded and singing a song like everyone else. I would have let you go. Like I said, poor old Jack doesn’t want to hurt a soul.”
The stranger’s glass landed back on the bar. Marcello grunted. From the sound, you could tell his nostrils had flared.
Jack laughed, ever so subtly. Must be a vodka soda drinker, he thought. Damn kids. Too worried about flat stomachs to realize how it didn’t really seem to matter.
“I took what was mine.”
“You weren’t told you could leave.”
“I was never going to be told. None of you are. There is no permission to walk away alive. But you’re too far beyond stupid to understand that.”
Marcello sat in his own silence.
The rest of the room listened to Lucille sing that Rhythm and Blues song, nowhere near her vocal range.
“He’ll let you come back,” he broke. “You can keep the money. You just have to come back east and finish work.”
Jack gazed upon what used to be his finger print, stained upon the glass. All cut up and burned specifically beyond recognition. Strangely, he thought about love again. Holding his nose just above, he filled with the stench of poetic poison. What it might have been like. In another life.
“You are even more dumb than I remember you being kid,” Jack finished the glass. “Go home. Tell them you didn’t find me.”
Marcello said nothing. He just tapped the bottom edge of his glass upon the splintering wood, twice, before pouring the remaining contents down.
“Yes,” Jack went on. “I remember you. You were hardly past making deliveries when I left. Go for you, making it to the big pond.”
The divinely drunk audience clapped again. Lucille had finished her song. Jack was upset that he had missed it.
“Your next one is still on me,” Jack said as he walked away. “Don’t be rude. Have another.”
Next up was Philo. After him was Edie. Then Jim. Grace. Trudy again. And Jerry himself.
Marcello was no longer sitting at the table. Jack did not believe that he was gone.
The night went on. Eventually, even Holly got up there. A voice elegant in its modesty. A lovely girl. If only she could get out of this nowhere town. Get out there in the world, see it all, so she could realize for herself that paradise turned out to be this little nowhere town.
As the night progressed, Jack found himself drunk. More drunk than usual, that is. He wasn’t sure why he did that. It could easily be a very bad idea. It was a bad idea.
One by one. Minute by minute. Hour by hour, the bar began to empty. Last call. Gene was still at the bar, asleep. Jerry had gone into the back to count the revenue of the evening. Jack decided to sing another song himself. It was a big band tune, written before even old Jerry was born. He sang to only two people, as they were the two left paying attention. Trudy swayed with the music. Holly whispered along as she picked up the empty glasses. Wiped the tables. Untucked her shirt.
Jack closed his eyes and traveled to another life.
It was fifteen years ago. Today, strangely enough.
His last job.
He was called Grant Jackson in those days. His head count was at one thousand four hundred and sixty-two before this job. Michael C. Feldman was to be number one thousand four hundred and sixty-three. Aged fourty-seven years. Six foot, even. Grey hair. Brown eyes. Notable birthmark below his left eye, commonly called a wine stain. Blood type B negative. Occupation, head of some world banking organization. It was an acronym of some sort.
Grant was to find him in Prague and neutralize him. He was told why this needed to be done, but he didn’t remember. He didn’t remember because he didn’t care. Everything had started to taste like road salt by this point in his life.
So Michael C. Feldman was found.
Michael C. Feldman was shot from two thousand yards away.
Grant watched him drop. He watched the people scramble, having no idea no one else was to be shot. They had no idea Grant would never kill another person as long as he’d live.
It wasn’t that Michael C. Feldman was a good man. He was not. He deserved to die. He was responsible for hundreds of dead bodies, though no court in the world would ever be able to prove it. Knowingly providing poisoned drinking water in several developing nations. Among other things.
Michael C. Feldman was an evil bastard. A now dead, evil bastard.
But Grant Jackson was no longer going to be the one making evil humans, or any others dead anymore. He picked up the shell with his leather gloved hand. He broke down his weapon and packed it up for the last time. Her name was Monica. He walked from the building, many blocks away from where Michael C. Feldman’s lifeless corpse lay. As he walked along the Vitana river, he thought of all the faces of men he made dead. Mostly men of no particular innocence. Not always. Sometimes not even close.
They all flashed before him, in the form of the four by six photographs that were featured in each folder he had been given to introduce each job.
In seconds, that list ended with the face of Michael C. Feldman. It held there, for a moment. Then the weight in his right hand grew immense. He looked down and saw the case. That’s where Monica had been living all these years. With her help, he had made one thousand, four hundred and sixty-three corpses. And now, not one more.
Grant mumbled something to the gun. He had drunk a bottle on the way over. Then with all the fury he had left to muster, Grant threw the case into the river.
She sank in silence. Never to be seen again.
He got on the plane. The plane returned from where he had come. He then exited the aircraft through the designated area. He collected his allowance from the job. An act of regularity. To keep things seeming normal. Everyone was only given a portion of the total job pay each time. The rest was held by his employer. To keep it safe, he would say. To keep them enslaved, was the truth.
That night, he broke into the facility that held the remainder of what was owed. He did not kill any of the guards. He did not need to. He had trained them all. He had designed the security. Within twenty minutes, Grant Jackson emerged with his pay and disappeared from the face of the earth.
Three months later, Jack Golz showed up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains looking for purpose.
And yes, it really was that easy for him. He really was, that good. He spent most of his life not existing. A phantom since he was fourteen.
He opened his eyes and saw it. An near empty bar filled only now with honest souls. So Jack finished the tune. Trudy clapped. Holly had stepped outside.
“Thank you, love,” Jack told Trudy.
Trudy only smiled.
He shut down the sound system. In the correct order. Not breaking method.
When he got to the point of coiling the speaker cables, the door outside burst open. It slammed against the wall that held it and a rush of arctic air fought to consume the warmth of Juliet’s innards. Trudy screamed. Gene fell from his bar stool and hit the ground. There he stayed, too drunk to be awake.
“Grant,” bellowed Marcello.
Jack stood slowly and turned towards the source of disturbance. There Marcello stood, back towards the enveloping darkness of the high altitude night. In his right hand was a pistol. In his left, a fistful of Holly’s nearly not blonde hair. Still attached to her head now running with tear smudged makeup. With a shove, Marcello brought Holly to her knees. His right hand fixed upon Jack’s heart. Grant thought about the faces.
“You’re coming with me,” he attempted to demand. “And I would rather you be alive for it.”
The only sound to follow was roar of the sharp mountain wind.
Li Wei Wong. Age 57. Beijing. Pierre Vellioux. 34. St. Martin. Vincent Cantor. 40. Miami.
“Grant!” Marcello’s hand shook. Holly sobbed as softly as she could.
Just the wind.
Abdul Awwal Basara. 16. Fallujah. Margaret Theodore. 54. Belfast.
Minato Tanaka. 24. Tokyo.
“Close the door,” Jack hardly mumbled.
Dakarai Nguesso. 29. Pointe-Noire.
Abigale Blake. 17. New York.
Sweet girl. Just a young hooker who accidentally knew too much.
Poor Abigale. He wanted to do it before she knew he was there. Her apartment had a terribly creaky floor though. Real shitty part of town. She turned and faced him before he had gotten close enough.
She begged him. Please. Don’t. I won’t tell. I’m not stupid she said.
Tears elegantly poured from her crisp blues eyes. The mascara began to trail down her cheeks. Grant could only apologize. Then he did what he did not want to do. What he was told he had to do.
It’s tough being a teenager, he thought when he pulled the trigger.
Grant cried for the last time that night. Horrible way for a man to spend his fifteenth birthday.
Jack closed his eyes. They felt blue.
“I said close the goddamn door!”
No one present had ever heard Jack yell before. Not even Jack.
“You’re letting all the cold in, you stupid bastard.”
For a moment, he did nothing. So Jack glared. Marcello then staggered a few steps back and closed the door with his foot. His eyes never left Jack. His pistol never lost its aim.
“I didn’t want to do this,” Marcello pleaded. “You left me no choice.”
“You always have a choice. Your choice now is whether you’re going to keep that poor girl involved in our troubles.”
Marcello’s eyes drifted down toward Holly. His pistol still stared at Jack. Holly’s lip trembled. There was water pooled below her. It could have been melted snow. Or the poor girl may have pissed herself. He looked back towards Jack. After holding for a moment, his fist unclenched and Holly’s hair fell back upon her shoulders. She scurried across the floor to Trudy, who held her head in her breast.
“Who is that?” Gene mumbled. “Steven Segal?”
Gene laughed to himself. No one else laughed with him.
“He said if I had to force you, there were to be consequences.”
“I’m sure he did.”
“Don’t make me do this, Grant.”
“I’m not,” he watched the shake begin mildly in his shooting hand. He was afraid. Still a delivery boy at heart.
Jack thought fear would have been reasonable, if he were still Grant Jackson.
“Will you not leave these people be, unless I come with you?”
Marcello nodded. His pistol’s aim grew less steady with each passing moment.
Jack thought about killing him. He could do it. Easily. He get close enough to squeeze the last bit of life from his useless body with his own calloused hands. He was capable of it. He had done it before. Not since Hertz, who died about three hundred before Michael C. Feldman.
Jack put his hands up. His left foot raised up from the floor and moved towards his soon to be captor.
As that foot landed one even step closer towards Marcello, there was a flash. Then a bang. Sound travels slower than light. That obscure band you thought only you and that one friend of yours knew about. In this world, at least.
Marcello was blown back against the wall. On his ass, he grabbed at the blood pouring from under his shirt. His pistol had hit the ground where he used to be standing.
Jack did not turn. He only put his hands back at his side.
“I’m sorry you have to keep doing this,” Jack confessed.
“It’s fine,” Jerry said, placing a modest stack of cash on the bar. “This is for tonight.”
“We need you around here. No one can really say why, but we all know we do.”
“What the fuck?” became Marcello’s last words.
Jerry lifted his very heavy, very silver revolver back up and painted the walls. This piece was called Marcello’s brain matter.