When you get to the point of losing track of how many people you’ve killed, you might want to take a moment and reevaluate.

That’s where my head was at, on the drive from my A-frame in Wisconsin on Paradise Lake to Naperville, Illinois, where someone I didn’t know stood a good chance of being on the wrong end of my nine-millimeter Browning automatic.

But if I said I felt compelled to stop using murder as a tool of my trade, I would be lying. And guilt or remorse had nothing to do with it, either. It was everything else that went with my work that was bringing me down—the business shit, like explaining to somebody they’ve been targeted for death. And the boring parts, like when the background gets laid in, in a book.

For example, do I really have to tell you any more about myself besides I did two tours in Vietnam? Maybe that I was a Marine sniper would help. Or that Reagan was in his second term as president when the things I’m about to share happened. That should do it, right? From that, you can guesstimate how old I was when all this went down, and around what year it did. Even I can do that math.

What else.

I was five ten, one-hundred-seventy pounds, light brown hair, dark brown eyes. Or maybe dark brown hair and dark blue eyes. Telling you exactly what I looked like would be like sharing my real name with you, which I’m not about to. I was just a guy in a restaurant at the next table or on the bar stool beside you; a glance and a smile and a nod. Pleasant-looking, boyish, fuckable, at Last Call anyway (ladies only, please).

Leave it at that.

Not enough? Well, usually I went by Jack Something. Not always. Think of me as Quarry, which is what the Broker called me.

Broker had these supposedly clever code-type names for his entire stable of contract killers—I was Quarry, "empty and carved out of rock." My partner, dead by the time this takes place, was "Boyd"—a gay guy who "boyed." Get it? The Broker’s dead, too, and maybe you already figured out who made that happen.

Or maybe you’ve read one or more of the memoirs of mine that preceded this one, in which case I’m fine with you skimming a while. For those who haven’t....

After I came home from the Nam (yes, we put "the" in front of it, don’t ask me why) and killed my wife’s boyfriend, I attracted some attention in the papers. Not nationwide—southern California, near San Diego where I’d done my basic training and met the girl. Anyway, I had medals and they decided not to prosecute. I was arraigned, but that’s as far as it went.

Somehow the Broker found out about me. There had been outraged editorials when I was arrested, and outraged editorials when they cut me loose. Maybe some of that got picked up by a wire service. Maybe Broker had a clipping service. He must have had some kind of feelers out, for soldiers prone to not fitting back in.

He was a country club type, prematurely white hair with a skimpy matching mustache, slender and handsome in an executive kind of way, well-dressed but not flashy. Leisure suits, mostly. He asked me if I wanted to kill people for good money, having killed plenty for chump change.

I was interested.

For five years or so, I carried out contracts with a partner, the one whose corny code-name was Boyd. Broker’s method was to have one of us go in to a location a few weeks or so early to research the target, get the pattern down, look for...windows of opportunity. This was done by the passive half of the duo. The active half would roll in a few days before the hit was set to go down, the passive partner filling in his active half, there to do the deed.

I much preferred active, and that was fine with Boyd, who liked the passive role. A catcher at heart, not a pitcher. But at the Broker’s insistence, we switched it up now and then. Sometimes it was my turn to be on the bottom. Just to keep our skills honed.

Anyway, I was Broker’s fair-haired boy until I wasn’t, and he double-crossed me. So pretty soon he was dead and I came to have his list. What list, you ask? Well, today they would call it a database, but this was definitely analog days. Not even analog—we’re talking pen-and-ink or typewriter.

The list had the names and addresses and fairly detailed info on everybody in the Broker’s stable, including photos. I put it that way before, stable, like we were all sharing a barn or something. Really, other than the handful of others we worked with, none of us knew each other.

That meant the list’s fifty-plus hitmen, to use the TV term, were mostly unknown to me. Again, except for any potential partners I’d been put with early on, the Broker looking for a good fit. Once he was satisfied with the mix, the Broker liked to keep a team together over the long haul.

So unless you didn’t get along with who you’d been assigned—or that partner got killed and needed replacing—you knew jack shit about the others in that "stable" of Broker’s. Just thumbing through the list, mostly men and a handful of females, I saw almost exclusively former military. Vietnam was a terrific breeding ground for psychos and sociopaths. How I managed to come out of there as grounded as I did, I’ll never know.

Earlier, just trying to get your attention, I mentioned having to explain to somebody that he or she had been targeted for death. But you may have taken that wrong. Actually, I kind of meant for you to.

When I was carrying out contracts, I never explained to the marks why they were about to die. Instead, I tried to make it as quick and painless as possible, for both of us. Only a psycho would have done otherwise. I took no pleasure in killing. Pride, yes, as a professional. But, really, not a whole lot of that, either.

For me, killing was just a living.

How explaining to a guy that he’s been marked for death comes into it is this: the list. I figured there must be some way to use that list to my benefit, to take advantage of what these days they call a skill set.

But I had no desire to use the names to become the new Broker. Just didn’t suit me, booking gigs for guys with guns, playing daddy to a bunch of damaged goods. Wasn’t long, though, before I came up with a plan.

You know the kind—like in the movies or on the tube (Christ, that dates me), when somebody says, "This is so crazy, it just might work!"

And it did work.

I would pick a name in the murder business from the Broker’s list, go to wherever that subject was living his fake life, and set up surveillance. Which was the worst part, admittedly. Because suddenly I was in the passive role.

Which sometimes required great patience—people in the murder business don’t work steady, after all. You don’t punch a clock, you punch the mark. Me, I used to do maybe four or five jobs a year. Tops.

So in my new role, surveillance could last a fuck of an open-ended long time.But eventually my subject would lead me to the mark. This would require some detective work on my part. For example, what if I’d followed somebody whose role was the passive one?


More surveillance!

More often, though, I’d drawn the active half. That was partly luck, but also the list sometimes specified a preference. Active would check in with passive, and you didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to get a fix on who was being staked out and targeted.

That’s where having people skills comes in handy.

I would approach the target. Yes, you’re ahead of me. This is indeed where I would explain to somebody that he or she had been marked for murder. How I did this varied from sticking a gun in a guy’s ribs to just cornering him in a public place.

Sorry about putting you through all this boring background. I wish I could tell you that skipping it is fine, but you rookies better not. Some basics are coming.

Let’s start with why somebody who grew up in Ohio (if it was Ohio) in a quietly middle-class neighborhood (that much is true) turned into a killer for hire. Obviously, Vietnam played a role. And coming home to find my wife in bed fucking another guy probably should be factored in, too.

Now I’m repeating myself, but I never claimed to be a writer, and anyway the point is—Uncle Sugar developed in me certain skills. Skill set, remember? I learned about firearms, and as a sniper, I learned to kill without compassion and at a distance. That "at a distance" idea is both literal and figurative.

What the Broker explained to me, when he recruited my services, was that people who have been selected for murder usually have it coming. That’s glib, I realize; but there’s often truth in it—the marks have stolen from employers or cheated on spouses or diddled business partners, or otherwise put themselves in the position of the world around them being better off without them in it.

They may even have killed people themselves, got away with it, and now really have it coming.

Circumstances have dictated that, due to the illegal nature of a mob-tied business, say, going to the cops isn’t a good option. Or consulting a divorce lawyer isn’t either, because a pre-nup or religion or some stupid damn thing gets in the way.

Which means not every victim deserves it, no matter what the Broker said. Not everybody in the crosshairs put themselves there by their own wayward actions. That’s just a recruiter’s trick, like telling you you’re making the world safe for democracy when some poor little yellow (not in the cowardly way) bastard is just trying to keep invaders off his pathetic little piece of rice paddy.

Plenty of people get quietly killed because their favorite uncle left his fortune to his favorite niece, and the nephew nobody liked, especially the uncle, has another idea. Some young wives have old husbands who stubbornly refuse to die of natural causes, and the death of said spouse is preferable to divorce. And some crooked businessmen have honest partners who just get to be a pain in the ass.

Yet even if they don’t deserve it, any mark has managed to come between someone and what that someone wants...enough so for that someone to hire the mark’s fucking death. And that is a decision made a long time before an asshole like me came along with a way to make that happen.

Such a death has already been decided. Once the down payment has been made, the intended target is just an obituary walking around, waiting to go to press. You don’t have to have big money to hire somebody dead. Fifty bucks in the right dive can swing it.

But if you wind up giving money to a middleman like the Broker, you’ve got coin all right. You’re rich or close to it. And specialty murders, like accidents or frame-ups, are on the menu. Not my specialty, though. In that rarefied climate, I was neither fine dining nor fast food—more like an old-fashioned steak house. Nothing fancy. Just a bullet in a steer’s brain. And, in the case of a "suicide," a baked potato with all the trimmings on the side.

Now I know I referred to this as "the murder business," but it isn’t really. That’s just words. Me? I was no more a murderer than a gun or a bullet is. Firearms and ammunition and yours truly, we’re just about the mechanics of the matter.

You see, murder is personal, like when I kicked the jack out and crushed my wife’s lover under that little sportscar. Killing, however, is a fait accompli, as the French said when they left Vietnam.

So if you’re thinking I was some kind of contract-killing Robin Hood, exorcizing my guilt and remorse by warning the potential victims of other contract killers, well, think again. I was a businessman charging for a service. Like a lube job or fries with that. As for informing the victim that death was coming for him, that was complimentary.

Like the drug dealers say, first one’s free....

But taking out the contract killers—preventing the immediate threat to somebody’s ability to breathe—that’ll cost you. And it costs you more if I can determine—and remove—who took the contract out on you.

I had been doing that for almost ten years—quite successfully—when I picked a name off the Broker’s list and set out for Naperville to try to save another life.

I’m just that kind of guy.

Copyright © 2019 by Max Allan Collins.

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