The night after Christmas and all through the house, it was colder than fuck.
The home was new, brand-new, with the various smells of paint, plastic and disinfectant you might expect. Even the carpet I was sitting on, next to a window onto the quiet street, had a chemical odor. No Christmas decorations lingered here, because the split-level four-bedroom affair was as empty as the boxes littering curbsides across America.
And this was America, all right—Iowa City, Iowa, the heartland, the street out front not really a street at all, but a former county road recently renamed Country Vista, which was ironic because the builders who’d invaded this stretch of farmland-bordered real estate had nothing so much in mind as blotting out a country vista.
Two houses sat on corners on either side of a brand-new lane that made a T with Country Vista, and I sat in one of those houses, the beige split-level on the left as you faced the renamed county road. This new lane had no name yet, just as its dozen split-levels (so far) had no inhabitants; the waiting dwellings squatted on sloping future lawns—snow-pocked dirt right now—with room for an entire development to develop beyond.
This must have pissed off the people across the way no end. The houses opposite had plenty of breathing room, big yards for little cottages, no two alike—from log to stone to brick—with only three visible from my window, even if I craned my neck either direction. Country Vista had once been quiet, even secluded, with trees and bushes and privacy. Right now it still was, though any non-evergreen trees and bushes were skeletal with clumps of white from last week’s snowfall.
On the other hand, the people in those varied cottages might not have minded as much as you’d think. I knew the cobblestone cottage almost directly across from my split-level was owned by the university and provided as a perk to a visiting professor, and my best guess was the not-too-nearby neighbors were similarly academics making a temporary home of Iowa City. Or anyway five miles from Iowa City, which is what Country Vista was. So the residents of these cottages were just passing through, and people just passing through can only get so indignant.
The house, my split-level, was indeed cold, but I wasn’t, particularly. I’d known that though the electricity was on, the heat wasn’t, and that I dared not turn it on or the lights either, nor was hauling in furniture a good idea. In fact, I wasn’t even sleeping here—I was making use of a Holiday Inn just four miles away. But I had brought in a space heater and that was keeping things nice and toasty. I had thermal underwear from JC Penney and a thermos of hot chocolate filled at a 7-Eleven (coffee is for grown-ups) where I’d also purchased some plastic-wrapped sandwiches, turkey and cheese, ham and cheese.
Not a bad set-up.
I wondered what cops did, when they had to do surveillance this time of year. Maybe in a big city it wouldn’t be a big deal, sitting in a car with the engine going; but in a college town like Iowa City, and particularly on a quiet country lane like Country Vista, you would stick out like some asshole sitting in his car doing surveillance.
As far as Iowa City itself went, I didn’t stick out at all. I certainly didn’t look like a guy who’d come to town to take out a college professor. And by "take out," I don’t mean invite to dinner—I was here to put a bullet in the brain (or heart, my option) of a supposedly fairly well-known writer called K. J. Byron. This was a contract kill, and I was the contract killer, even if I looked like just another college kid.
My hair wasn’t as long as most of the guys in this town, but it was longer than it had been, not so long ago. You see while the kids in Iowa City were going to college, I had gone to Vietnam, where I had unwittingly learned a trade. I’d been a sniper, but this job would require close-up work, which was fine. Dead is dead.
Funny thing, the only kids wearing Army khaki or camouflage were hippies, sometimes painting peace symbols on their back or whatever. Any returning vets going to school on Uncle Sugar wouldn’t be caught dead in military gear, although plenty had been caught wounded in it. Certainly my hair wasn’t long enough to pass as one of the Make Love Not War crowd, so I probably looked more preppie or frat boy in my sweaters and blue jeans and corduroy jacket. Only the heavy boots might have given me away, but in Iowa this time of year, not really.
No one, including you, would have made me for any kind of killer, not even one recently back from Nam. The brown hair, long enough to touch my ears , the baby face, the one-hundred-fifty-five pounds on a five ten frame, were nothing threatening, and mine was a face in the crowd.
Of course there wasn’t much of a crowd in a college town during Christmas break. Only local kids right now, and foreign students, and the handful who for whatever reason hadn’t gone home for mistletoe and holly, by gosh by golly. Older students with apartments might spend a handful of holiday days with Mom and Dad, and would be home soon. But a downtown hopping with bars and boutiques and record stores and head shops that was usually crawling with college kids wasn’t.
I’m not what you’d call a people person, so that didn’t bother me, other than wishing I had additional nonentities around to blend in with. I could have used more hair on my face—these hirsute hippies at least had an excuse in this cold—but if I stopped in for a beer and a burger somewhere, I fit in fine. A university is big enough that nobody, not even a bartender, wonders why they haven’t seen you before.
I had arrived this morning, having flown into Cedar Rapids where I rented a car, a little dark blue Ford Maverick. Iowa City was a half hour drive. I’d checked into the Holiday Inn and had purchased a few things, including the space heater, at a nearby Kmart. I already knew I’d be squatting in that split-level; I even had a key to the place.
Parking in the driveway or pulling into the garage might have aroused suspicion, right across from the target’s residence. The Broker—more about him later—had provided me with a second set of keys that had allowed me to park in the garage of the empty finished home behind mine. I’d been told I could risk camping out in either house, if I didn’t mind the cold. Well, I minded the cold; even a Holiday Inn is preferable to cold.
But I did find it interesting that the Broker had all these keys. He knew things, all sorts of things, and my surveillance was only designed for the most basic fact-finding—specifically, what pattern did Professor Byron maintain over the Christmas break.
Establishing the pattern of a target is key, particularly if collateral damage is undesirable, and let me be frank: collateral damage is where I draw the line. I was willing to protect myself with the death of an innocent bystander, if my survival was at stake; but going around killing people willy-nilly was for psychopaths, not professionals.
Collateral Damage, oddly enough, was the name of a book Professor Byron had written, a so-called nonfiction novel about death by friendly fire in Vietnam. I hadn’t read the book or heard of it, either, but the Broker said it was a bestseller and a pretty big deal. Supposedly the professor had written several critically acclaimed novels that had stiffed but was now making a new name for himself with this nonfiction novel dodge, and I say dodge because I never went to college but I know novels aren’t nonfiction.
Before I had taken this job—not the job of taking out the prof, but the job itself, of killing people for money—I had done a certain amount of soul searching. I had learned to kill in the jungle of Vietnam and figured I could kill in the zoo of America just as easily. When you take somebody out with a sniper scope, though, or you return fire in a rice paddy fire fight, that’s self-defense, even if a sniper represents a preemptive kind of self-defense.
A professional killer taking out a target isn’t self-defense, obviously; but I didn’t figure killing somebody who was already dead was anything I couldn’t live with. Because anybody that somebody else had decided needed to be killed was already dead, at least when that somebody else was powerful enough and determined enough to go the extra yard and hire a killer.
And yet I wouldn’t be the killer, not really. I’d just be the mechanism. The killer had hired the job. And if it wasn’t me, it would be somebody else getting paid. And fuck somebody else, anyway.
Now the Broker had provided the target’s pattern. Somebody had been in before me to do surveillance, and had taken it all down, and I’d been provided with the data. But it was pretty worthless—the Broker knew that—and I’d been told I’d have to basically start from scratch. The hope was that the prof’s life during the uncharted territory of his Christmas break would be leisurely. Maybe he’d burrow in and write a book or something.
No such luck.
I had taken a chance and got started at dusk, parking the Maverick in the garage of the split-level behind my surveillance post (as per instruction), and I had barely settled in at the window, my thermos nearby, a little portable radio quietly playing an FM station that mixed hits with album cuts, when the first female showed up at the cobblestone cottage.
She was driving a little red Fiat and was small and fair and pretty in a Breck Girl kind of way. I took her for a blonde but truth be told she had on a rabbit-fur hat that looked like a beehive hairdo gone wacky (wackier) and I couldn’t see any hair except for dark eyebrows. Her coat was light green corduroy with a rabbit collar like the hat and she had similarly fur-trimmed tan suede boots with heels. Her legs were black, or that is, her leggings were.
I shut off the radio and cranked the window open enough to let in the cold and some outside sound.
The way she slammed the car door, you just knew she was pissed off. Then she tromped up the graduated cement sidewalk with similar irritated determination; up on the little stoop, she opened the storm door and then her tan-gloved right fist hammered the dark wood of the front door like she was driving a nail. There was a brass knocker, but she apparently preferred hammering.
She paused, waited for ten seconds, then hammered some more.
I knew the prof was in there—I’d seen him moving around through the front room windows, whose curtains were open.
Then the girl—and she was a girl, maybe nineteen—noticed those windows herself and came down off the stoop to tippy-toe at the evergreen bushes to peek in. She seemed to see nothing. Then she strode across the front yard, arms pistoning, pretty little jaw firm, stopped to look in a window of the little free-standing cobblestone garage where the prof kept his Volvo, then disappeared around the house.
I heard some more hammering. I took a bite of turkey and Swiss—pretty bad. Thin slices of would-be meat and processed cheese that took more chewing than cheese really should. I swigged at a Coke—I’d brought a few cans along, for the caffeine, and they stayed cold outside of space heater range—and let its sweetness wash away the bad sandwich. Some more hammering.
Then she came marching around the house on the other side, looking like a soldier in a high school operetta with that high furry hat—you could thank Doctor Zhivago for this shit, I supposed—and she made her way up onto the porch.
She did not hammer.
She screamed: "I know you’re in there, you prick!"
I smiled to myself. Nibbled some more sandwich. With a show to watch, it went down better.
"You fucking, cock-sucking prick!"
I laughed a little. I liked her. But I had a feeling she wasn’t a major player in the melodrama I’d just been inserted into. This was the tail end of her performance, I figured, based upon the surveillance info the Broker gave me.
I was right.
"You mother-fucking, dick-licking son of a fucking bitch!"
I recalled how much trouble a girl I’d known in junior high had got into when she told a friend of hers, who’d moved in on her guy, to go to hell between classes. A week of detention, and lucky not to be expelled. Things had changed in a very few years in this country.
The door opened, not at all tentatively, in fact with a suddenness that showed the novelist had a nonfictional way of making a point. He was tall and he was skinny, a handsome Ichabod Crane, his face narrow and well-carved with a hawkish nose the dominant feature, his hair dark blonde and shaggy but not hippie-length, his eyebrows unruly. He was wearing a maroon terrycloth bathrobe, belt knotted at the waist, with a white t-shirt peeking out at his chest, and his legs were bare, his feet in slippers.
He looked side to side, perhaps to see if any neighbors were observing this little scene, but his neighbors were well away from him and of course he had no idea I was spying.
He said, "Is this really necessary, Alice? Haven’t we said our goodbyes?"
I think that was what he said. He was speaking at a normal level, and I was across the street, but the clear cold air carried well, and he had a lecture-room baritone.
"You bastard!" she said, and she started pounding on his chest with both gloved fists, at least as hard as she’d hammered the door.
He took her by the shoulders and held her out away from him like an archeologist appraising a find. His arms were long and she was petite. She was screaming at him, no words, not even obscenities, and he shook her, hard, the way you might a child, if you were a sucky parent, anyway.
Turned out I was right, she was a blonde: he shook that rabbit-fur hat right off her head. She had lots of blonde hair, long and flowing, and from my perch she seemed a real doll. But from my perch I knew the prof had already moved on: advance surveillance info indicated Byron’s latest conquest as being a brunette on the tall side, specifically a grad student in his creative writing class name of Annette Girard.
"What we did I’ll never forget," he told her, clasping her by the arms, working in compassion and regret the way a cook might sprinkle paprika. "But I’m a married man and twice your age. Let’s cherish what we have, and go back to our lives."
She said something that I couldn’t quite make out; more a whimper than speech, really, but I got the feeling she said she wanted to come in.
That was her best card—she had to play it. If she could get the prof inside that house, then inside her, she was back in the game. I wondered if she knew about the brunette.
"What do you see in that cunt, anyway? She’s a stick! She’s a skinny fucking stick!"
Apparently she knew about the brunette.
"I’m Annette’s faculty advisor," he said, "and her teacher. She is also my teaching assistant. What we had, you and I, Alice...was special. Unique. My relationship with Annette is strictly...teacher/pupil."
"Right! Cocksucking 101!"
"That’s enough." He took her by the arm and he marched her down the stoop’s stairs and the sidewalk, practically dragging her, his bathrobe flapping, belt coming undone, skinny bare legs showing. Her eyes were like a raccoon’s, black-ringed hysteria, the mascara wet and running. Her lips were trembling.
Now she was saying, "I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you," how many times I lost count.
At her car, he looked to his right but not to his left—this I took not to be checking on the neighbors but seeing if anybody was coming from the main drag half a mile or so down. I got the impression this scene with Alice was not one he would like Annette to come in on.
Then it occurred to me that Alice and Annette were both A’s, and were in alphabetical order, at that. Maybe Professor Hefner was working his way through his female students. If so, he was using the second semester list, and starting over. This stud would have covered more ground in the first semester than just a couple of damn A’s.
He deposited her in the car, though the driver’s side door remained open. "Can you drive?"
She responded, behind the wheel, but I couldn’t hear it.
"I tell you what. At the end of the school year, when you’ve graduated, when seeing each other would be more appropriate...we’ll talk again."
Her body straightened as hope sprung. This I could hear: "Really? Really, my darling?"
My darling motherfucking, dick-licking son of a fucking bitch?
"Yes. It will be hard for us..."
Right. This prick was always hard.
"...but we’ll wait, until you’re twenty-one, and a college graduate. And if you go on for your MFA? Perhaps I’ll need a new teaching assistant...."
This seemed to please her, and he leaned in and gave her a kiss. At least I think that’s what he did—couldn’t quite make it out, though it lasted a while and was not just a peck. I could only wonder why Alice hadn’t realized he was tacitly admitting that he boinked his teaching assistants, but logic was never that big in Wonderland.
He shut her in the little red car and she drove off, and he watched, and waved, and smiled, and then the smile drooped and he shivered, not with the cold I didn’t think, and he stooped his shoulders and trod back up and inside his cobblestone cottage.
Killing this fucker wouldn’t lose me any sleep. I finished my Coke and leaned back against the rolled-up sleeping bag I’d brought with me. Like I said, I didn’t figure to spend any of the nights here, but that option was good to have and, anyway, the sleeping bag rolled up made a nice soft object to rest against.
Twilight turned to honest-to-shit night and a couple of street lamps—well-spaced—came on. Though I sat in a split-level, the world across the way was woodsy and rustic with those quaint-looking cottages like something out of another era.
Around seven, "American Woman" was on the radio, throbbing despite the low volume, when the white Corvette pulled up. I turned the sound down to zero and watched, impressed, as the tall brunette unfolded from a vehicle that should have been splashed with winter grue but was showroom shiny. She’d taken time to run it through a car wash, I’d bet, as careful with her wheels as with her own appearance.
And she was careful with her appearance, all right. Her coat was white leather with a white fur collar, her long legs in black-and-white geometrically patterned bell bottoms, her boots white leather with heels. Her long dark hair went halfway down her back, straight as a waterfall, the mane of a lanky lioness. Her complexion was olive, almost tan, whether from some vacation she’d grabbed or just her natural state, I couldn’t say.
Alice had been cute, perky, if psychotic. Annette was a different animal, and not the short, plump Italian Mouseketeer Frankie Avalon had tried to beach ball. This was a fashion-model type, her oval face, her full dark-lipsticked mouth, her big brown eyes, her well-shaped dark eyebrows, a study in symmetry.
Teaching assistant my ass.
He came down out of the cottage to meet her, and the bathrobe had been replaced by a tan leisure suit with a brown shirt with one of those collars that could put an eye out. Both eyes.
He came down, his breath pluming in the cold—the temperature had dropped some—and slipped an arm around her shoulders and led her up and inside. She had a little brown briefcase with her, so perhaps they were just going to work.
Three hours later they were still in there.
I probably shouldn’t have done it, but I was getting bored. Surveillance was not what I’d bargained for, though the Broker had made it clear sitting watch would come into play from time to time in this line of work. Anyway, I was getting bored and itchy and frankly curious.
So I stuffed the nine millimeter in my waistband, zipped the cord jacket over it, and went out the back way and cut through some undeveloped wooded property until I could cross the street a quarter of a mile away, and come up behind the cobblestone house and peek in a window or two.
Which is exactly what I did.
They were in a small room that I would best describe as a study—lots of books on shelves, and a big rolltop desk littered with more books and manuscript pages and a typewriter with a ream of white typing paper next to it. That’s where he was sitting.
So maybe they were working, right?
Well, she was anyway. She was in pink panties on her knees, blowing the guy, his leisure suit pants around his ankles.
Fuck, I would have killed this lucky prick for free.
Copyright © 2008 by Max Allan Collins.