He had been blind. He had let the size and prestige of the job affect his judgment. If he would have stopped for one second and thought it through, it would have all been obvious. But he had let his pride and ambition get the better of him. And now he was the target. He looked out on the Strip from the closed curtains on his second floor room at the Sands and saw the dark sedan waiting in the parking lot below. He knew the drill. He also knew how to make it go all wrong. He called for room service.
"Yeah, this is room 212 . . . I'd like a pastrami on rye with a side of potato salad and coffee - black . . . That's right. As soon as possible."
He hung up and got ready. He looked at his watch. In the darkness of the room, the fluorescent dial showed him that it was four-twenty-seven in the afternoon. He opened his small valise on the large bed and pulled out the short blonde haired wig. He went into the bathroom and turned on the light. In the mirror, he adjusted the wig and applied a small amount of glue to the sideburns. It was remarkable what a good wig would do. He went back into the room and pulled his wire garrote from his bag and sat on the edge of the bed, waiting.
It wasn't long before there was a knock on the door and the familiar call.
He looked through the peephole at a young dark haired boy in a Sands' uniform carrying a tray. There was no way to know if the kid was a plant or not. It didn't really matter, as long as he was the right size. He turned on a light by the bed and opened the door.
"C'mon in," he said.
"Afternoon, Sir. Pastrami on rye, potato salad, and coffee black. Right?" said the boy cheerfully, already angling for a big tip.
"That's right. You can put it down over there by the tv."
He watched the waiter cross the room and judged that they were about the same size. As the boy put the tray down on the table, he slipped the garrote around his neck. It was over in seconds. The young man gagged and gurgled and went still. The killer was careful not to let the wire cut too deeply into the flesh. He didn't want any blood on the uniform.
He quickly changed from his clothes into those of the boy and adjusted his wig again in the bedroom mirror. He stuffed his own clothes into a pillow case from the bed. He slipped his Swiss army knife into a front pocket of his pants, and his baretta into the rear waistband. Everything else would have to be left behind. Focus, immediate action, and unpredictability were his allies now. He left the room with the pillow case slung over his shoulder, walked down the hall to the service elevator and took it to the bottom floor. It left him close to the kitchen which he walked through and came out on the loading dock. Looking neither right nor left, he made his way around to the front of the casino and walked out to the Strip where he flagged down a cab and took it downtown. Paying the cabbie and losing himself in the crowd clogging the sidewalks, he walked until he found an enclosed parking garage.
This would be the dangerous part.
He walked up into the second level, and, for the first time, looked around carefully. The lot was almost full, so the pickings would be easy. He just had to wait until he was alone. He didn't have to wait long. A long, lanky cowboy in a brown suit and a pearl gray Stetson nodded as he walked by, slid into his Cadillac, and pulled out. Kneeling down behind a new Bonneville, he took out his army knife and removed its Arizona license plate. He then walked down the row until he found an unlocked, beat-up, white and beige 56 Chevy. Quickly, he switched license plates, climbed in the front seat, and hot wired the Chevy.
He noticed that he was sweating.
He pulled out of the parking garage and headed south, out of town. Once he was out on the open highway, he allowed himself to think. And what he thought was that he had bought the bullshit line he had been fed. They had played him just right. He was part of the team. He was the only one with the talent and the cajones to pull it off. The payoff was enormous. He'd be able to buy his own island in the Bahamas. It was going to be easy street from here on out. Anything he wanted - he just had to ask.
Christ! The only thing that was enormous was his stupidity. Of course, they would come for him as soon as the job was done. He would have planned it the same way. What a fucking idiot!
The two lane slipped by outside the windows as the sun started going down on his right. He had to get out of the country right away. That much was obvious from the top. But he had to be invisible. They'd be on his trail within minutes. He'd have to stay to secondary roads. He turned on the radio in the car and turned the dial until he heard the news. He listened for a long while, and, then disgusted, turned the radio to a country music station. He and the Impala ate up the flat ugly desert road until he went over the Hoover Dam and made it to the Arizona border. In Kingman, he stopped for gas and changed back into his clothes in the gas station's men's room. The same clothes that he had worn for the hit. Slightly tattered - very nondescript. He threw the kid's uniform in a garbage can outside, climbed back into the car and took off. He turned east on 66 and carefully increased his speed. He couldn't afford to be on this very public highway for long, but, at the same time, he couldn't afford to be stopped for speeding. After a couple of hours, he turned south on 69 and headed toward Prescott. It was getting dark now which let him relax somewhat. It was always easier to hide in the dark.
Just before Prescott, he turned east on 89 and headed up over Mingus Mountain. He was used to being on his own. He had been since he was fifteen. Even after he had been recruited, he always worked solo. He liked it that way. It was cleaner, neater - safer. But now - this was different. Now he was truly alone. There was no one he could trust.
He would have to dump this car. Even though the plates were changed, the description of this particular Chevy would be all over the police radios. He couldn't afford to take it much further. He snaked through the tight mountain curves as he thought over his possibilities. Plastic surgery in Mexico City. If he made it that far. He should be safe once he was over the border, but you never knew. His wallet was full of cash - part of his fee - so he should be able to grease the appropriate palms if things got sticky.
He should be able to this. He should be able to do that. Jesus.
He came around a curve and suddenly found himself in a small town. It was a surprise. He was still high up on the mountain. He could see a few lights a couple of thousand feet below in a valley. The town seemed to be built on stilts. What was the first floor of a house on his right was the third floor of the same house from the street below. All the houses were unlit. There were no cars parked along the street. The town seemed to be deserted. It was dark now and the temperature was dropping quickly. He realized that the town was truly empty. He had never seen anything like it. Judging by the number of houses and larger buildings that he passed, he concluded that it must have been home to thousands of people in its heyday.
He came around a sharp right hand hair pin and saw a light down the street. He made it out immediately. A neon beer sign. He pulled over, stopped, and cut his engine. He saw a couple of cars parked down by the bar. People here probably felt so safe and trusting that they left their keys in their cars. Should be easy pickings. He rolled down his window and listened. There was nothing. It was quiet as a tomb. He looked up and down the street. This might be a good place to switch cars. Hide the Chevy behind one of these old buildings, grab another ride, and head for the border.
He turned the engine back on, made a u-turn, and headed back toward the darker part of town. About a block up, he came to a small driveway that veed off to the right. He took it. It led him past a couple of large structures, one that appeared to be a two story home - and a larger boxy three story stucco building. He was about to park the car behind the larger building when he saw it. Further up the dirt drive was a building that seemed out of place. It was much larger that anything else he had seen yet in the town. Four or five stories tall, it stood by itself, higher up on the mountain. It dominated the landscape like a castle. A large chunk of the mountain had been cut away to make room for the building. It loomed over the town, its dark, unlit, windows looking down on the deserted homes.
He kept driving toward it.
As he climbed the hill, he realized that there was something familiar about it. Something about the way it was built. As he got up next to it, it came to him. The large windows on the top floor, facing north, were the windows of an operating room. The hulking behemoth was a hospital. A closed and deserted hospital. The driveway led around to the back of the hospital to a small dirt parking area. It looked like a perfect place to ditch the car.
He stopped, turned off the engine, got out, and looked around. The town was laid out below him. Streets and streets of unlit, empty homes and businesses stepped silently down the mountain. He stretched, rolled his neck on his shoulders, and realized how tired he was. It had been a long four days, and, as he finally admitted his fatigue, it got worse. What little energy he had left seemed to rush out of him like a long sigh. He sat down on a set of stairs that led up into the back of the hospital and hung his head with exhaustion. He was depleted and he knew it. He had to get some rest. Just a couple of hours sleep and he could get going again. He could sleep in the car, but the air around him was getting colder by the minute. It came to him that it was almost winter. December was just a couple of days away. Up here, in this altitude it was already winter. The trees were bare. The entire rocky landscape around him was icy and lifeless.
He looked up at the hospital. Hospitals had beds. Maybe blankets.
He walked over to the car, opened the passenger door, and flipped open the glove compartment. For once, blind luck was with him. He pulled out a metal flashlight and hit the switch. A bright beam of light jumped around the parking lot. He turned it off immediately and walked over to where he had been sitting. The stairs ran up to a small landing on the second floor where there was a steel door. He tried the knob, but it was locked tight. He walked back down the steps and noticed a small double hung window. He dug his fingers under the bottom sash and pulled up. The window rose a couple of inches and jammed. He leaned over, got his elbows into the action for leverage, and slowly, bit by bit, worked the window open. It was just large enough for him to wiggle through into a small room.
As he swept the flashlight around the room, he saw that he was in a small utility apartment, one that would serve for the full time janitor or caretaker. It was deserted. Everything covered in dust and cobwebs. An old ice-box door hung open to his left next to a counter and sink. There was a small bathroom off to his right. An open door just ahead of him led into a large boiler room. He followed a catwalk along the right side of the huge boiler and through another open steel door that led him into a lobby. On his right were the double doors that must have served as the main entrance to the hospital. On his left was an empty elevator shaft, and, next to that, a set of stairs leading up to the second floor. He went up the stairs and began a thorough exploration of the building. From room to room, from floor to floor, he toured the abandoned hospital. He found a large kitchen and dining room, administrative offices, patient rooms, and large tiled bathrooms. He increased his pace as he made his way up onto the top floor. The cold was starting to get to him.
At the end of the hallway on the top floor, he saw the large north facing windows of the operating room. As he approached, he saw a gray wool blanket wadded up on the floor of an open closet. He grabbed it and wrapped it around his shoulders. A used prophylactic fell out and onto the floor. He started to take the blanket off and could feel the hardened spot where someone's bodily fluids had dried. But it was too cold without it, so he recoiled a little in disgust, and wrapped the warm wool around him tighter.
He stepped into the white tiled operating room. It was in the shape of a square twenty feet across. The ceiling was a good fourteen feet high. What light there was outside flooded onto the floor through the tall north-facing windows. An antique operating table on wheels stood in the middle of the room at an oblique, discarded angle. He turned and saw a gray shadowed figure turning toward him. He jumped and reached for the gun in his waistband. He had the gun out before he realized that he was looking at his own distorted reflection on the door of a stainless steel cabinet. Adrenaline shot through his system and left a fatiguing aftertaste down his backbone. He heaved a long exhausted sigh and looked out of the windows to the town and valley below.
He wondered what had happened here. This was more than just a ghost town. This was more like a ghost city. Thousands of people must have lived here in its glory days. He had been through small ghost towns in Nevada. One street. A few abandoned buildings. Enough to give it all a certain wild west romance. Make it a little spooky. This place, however, was just down right creepy. It was like something on the Twilight Zone. He imagined that in some of the empty houses below there were dining rooms with the tables set and old dried steaks in the broilers. Clothes laid out in the bedrooms. Beds turned back waiting for a familiar body to lie down. It was as if the entire population had been mysteriously abducted. He half expected to see smoke rising from the chimneys of the empty houses.
He found his teeth starting to grind because of the cold. He wrapped blanket more tightly around his chest and shoulders.
And - then - suddenly - out of nowhere - it all hit him like a sledge hammer.
His exhaustion and the fact that he had been betrayed by the very people who had convinced him of the rightness of the job, combined to destroy whatever psychological defenses he might have been able to mount against the blow. He wasn't ready for the moral confrontation. The enormity of what he had done stunned him. It was an emotional blow that made him physically weak. It made him stagger backwards until he hit the wall and then forced him down, his back sliding down the slick tile, until he was hugging his knees and starting to slowly rock back and forth, a low moaning growl escaping his lips. He knew he was in real trouble. He was losing control.
The edifice of his various justifications completely and utterly collapsed around him like the empty intellectual palace that it was. Before the act, it glittered and shone with the diamond hard strength and purity of ultimate belief. Now, even the dark light filtering through the windows threw an accusing and harsh spotlight on his flimsy excuses and hollow rationalizations. He had committed one of the supreme sins. It was not only murder for hire. It was a chickenshit ambush by a sleazy killer who shot from the shadows and ran away. There was no honor in it. No glory. How had he convinced himself that it was for the greater good? How could he have listened to the others with their jingoistic mad dog rhetoric? It was a pathetic and cheap act of a morally bankrupt assassin.
There were no extenuating circumstances. No explanations that would lessen the guilt. Could he fall back on the reasoning that he was a professional doing what he had been trained to do - simply following the orders of his superiors? Could he take pride in the fact that it was a perfect head shot? A textbook hit? Could he feel good about the fact that he was able to stay rock solid calm during the whole procedure behind that fence on the grassy knoll, squeezing off the single shot that entered through the right temple and took off the back of the man's head. He had watched through the sites as the head exploded and bone and blood and brain matter splattered across the trunk of the black limo. He had not stayed to see the mark's wife start to crawl back onto the trunk to pick up bloody pieces of her already dead husband. He saw that on the television later.
It didn't help.
He wanted to puke up the guilt and shame and self hate, but they all kept growing with every breath he took. Every bit of self worth disappeared. It was a complete psychological collapse. A psychotic break. He was a body walking around without a soul. He didn't deserve to live.
It came to him that there was only one thing to do.
The truth of the realization was complete and total. A voice in his head told him to end it. Take himself out. Be his own judge and jury. Who was more capable of making that judgment? There was no question that he deserved to die. And that it should be he, himself, who carried out the execution.
He looked down and realized that he was still holding the Baretta in his hand. The metal had warmed from his touch. He snorted and smiled a smile that was a grimace. Here was his one last dependable friend. A gun. How pathetic.
As he looked at the gun, the voice in his head became louder and surer and more insistent. Take the gun. Put it to your head. Pull the trigger. You're a worthless piece of shit. The world will be better off without you. Go ahead. Do it. What are you waiting for? Afraid? Chicken shit? Be a man. Taking yourself out will be the only honorable thing you can do. No one's going to miss you. There's no one out there waiting for you to come home. You're just a selfish solitary self absorbed cocksucker. Do what's right. Save the government the expense of a trial. You know you're guilty. Do the right thing. Go ahead.
As he raised the gun to his right temple, it was as if he could actually hear the voice.
"That's it. Now, put it right against your temple so you can't miss. There you go. Now. Just squeeze it off. One simple round. Now!"
He pulled the trigger and his head exploded. Blood splattered across the while tile wall in a wide splash. The sound of the shot echoed through the empty hospital. As his body slumped to the left and hit the floor, he kept going, and slid out across the slippery tile until he was completely out of his body. He seemed to float into an upright position as he watched the blood drain out of his head and spread out across the floor in slow motion. The flashlight had fallen out of his left hand, rolled a foot away, and lit up a strip of floor directly under him. The scene of his bloody, dead body was fascinating. It held him there with a mindless morbidity.
"See. That wasn't that hard." It was the voice again.
He looked up and saw a man looking back at him. The man was tall, thin, in his mid-thirties, dark short hair, dressed in clothes that went out of fashion decades ago. He realized that it would be more accurate to say that he was looking through the man.
His mind went blank and he just stared at the apparition.
"Don't worry," it said, "It will all make sense pretty quick. I know it's a shock. Especially when you're trying to put an end to everything. But, well, who knew? I felt the same way myself. So . . . let me help you. Now listen carefully." The man turned toward his dead body. "You are dead. No doubt. You are now officially a ghost. After all the blabbering about death that the living do, now you really know what's on the other side. It's this." The specter gestured around him. "This is your new home."
He didn't know what to say - what to do. He was in shock. He stared at the ghost with his mouth open.
"You should have seen me after I had put my head in the empty elevator shaft and pushed the down button. The elevator took my head clean off. Took me awhile to reassemble a head on this body. It's weird here. Different laws. Different rules. You can do some pretty neat stuff. But you'll learn all that. I'm just glad you came by. I was getting pretty lonely here . . . It's been . . . God, I don't know . . . years. What year is it by the way? Ahh . . . doesn't matter. Anyway, I was starting to go crazy, not being able to talk to anybody. You know, you try to talk to the people that sneak in here. You know, the kids wanting to drink and get laid. The ransackers looking for valuable antiques. But you just end up scaring the shit out of them. It's kind of funny sometimes."
The ghost laughed. But there was something very wrong with his laughter.
"Anyway, it's good to have some company. You're the first one I've talked into coming over, but I bet we'll be able to bring some more over. Maybe get enough for a poker game. What do you think?"
The shooter on the grassy knoll looked over to the tall ghost, turned and raced down the hall, down the stairs, through the boiler room, into the janitor's apartment, and over to the still open window. When he tried to go through the window, he couldn't. It was like running in a dream and getting nowhere. He simply couldn't go through the window. He was trapped. An animal panic surged up and overwhelmed him.
The tall ghost drifted up next to him.
"No, this is it. We're stuck here. Tried a million ways to get out. It's one of those weird rules I told you about. But at least now we have each other. I'll be a good friend. I promise."
He realized that he was looking in the eyes of a psychotic - a dead mad man. The assassin snapped and started screaming. There was nothing else he could do.
Duke was in a funk that morning. The President's assassination, a little over a week ago, had affected him more deeply than he first let on. It seemed that something else had been destroyed that afternoon in Dallas. Something fundamental in the country he had fought for in two wars. That an American President could be assassinated in this day and age - in his own country - was beyond belief. It frightened him. It said without a doubt that evil was alive in the land. The kind of evil that in had fought in Europe. The kind of evil that threatened the country from Moscow. The fact that this same evil was walking abroad in America was sickening.
He tried to shake off his depression and get back to the job at hand. He looked in the boiler room and the old janitor's quarters. He closed the open window and latched it, knowing it really wouldn't do much good. For some reason, the hospital seemed to be the one building that tourists and teenagers liked to break into. It was the one building in town that people swore was haunted. There was the legend of the guy back in the twenties who had put his head in the open shaft on the first floor and then hit the down button on the elevator which was on the third floor. They say it took his head off and that he was still running around the hospital trying to put it back on. The local kids loved that story. They said that if you had the guts to spend the night in the hospital you would hear the elevator going up and down even though the electricity to the building had been turned off long ago. They would come up from the valley with their girlfriends and try to scare the pants off of them. Literally. They usually snuck in the small window around back. He had nailed it shut, but they continued to break the glass or pry it open. When he had noticed the Chevy in the parking lot and that the window was open again, he knew that he would have to do a more complete inspection than usual. It wasn't as if the kids could really damage the place, the real concern was that some hobo or tramp would set up camp inside the old place.
He quickly made his way through the floors of the building until he reached the operating room on the top floor. By the time he hit the second floor he had already detected the smell. Having been through both WWII and the Korean War he knew what the smell was. There was no mistaking it. So when he got to the operating room and found the body, he was not surprised. He was surprised that the man had shot himself. He had never understood suicide. It seemed like the coward's way out. He didn't dwell on it, however. The man was obviously down on his luck. He could tell by his tattered clothes. The gun was odd though. It was an expensive Baretta. Probably stolen, he thought. Along with the car probably. He would have to have one of the cops come up from Cottonwood and take care of this.
He looked at the body and wondered. What had brought the man here? What had caused him to sink so low that he shot himself? Would anybody miss him? A mother? An ex-wife? Children? Friends? He would probably never know, and it probably didn't matter. He looked like just another homeless tramp.
He was glad someone had finally found his body and would take it away, because he was sick of looking at it.
It was at that moment that his despair became complete and absolute. There was nothing to relieve it. He was a cursed spirit doomed to eternal regret. It sounded so archaic and biblical. But there was no other way to say it. He was dumbfounded. How could he have ever known? He had always seen religion as a device used to control the masses. A fairy tale gone bad. He had always held all believers in a laughable contempt. Saw them as weak, deluded, and naive. He had never believed in heaven or hell or god or any of it.
But now he knew that at least hell was real.
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