“A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps” releases in all formats May 12 (and I’ve heard that some people who pre-ordered the paperback from Amazon have already received their copies). As we head toward Release Day, I decided to post a chapter from early in the book, just to give you a taste of its gonzo noir. Enjoy!
I’ve always hated the word “killer.”
And don’t get me started on “hitman.”
A few months before we divorced, my now ex-wife asked how I could live with myself. How I could fire a bullet, or press a button, or toss a radio into a bathtub, and end somebody’s existence.
If not me, I told her, then something else would have terminated those people: a heart attack, or cancer, or maybe a nice fiery car crash. I’m just the vessel, a way for the natural order of things to express itself. “I don’t worry whether I’m a bad man,” I added, “any more than a hurricane worries about the damage it causes.”
I would have added a little something about the ultimate meaninglessness of existence, except I noticed she’d already fallen asleep. The story of our marriage, in one priceless interaction.
In those corny action movies that play on cable in the wee hours, the killers dress in black suits and carry violin cases heavy with rifle parts. I always preferred to look as messy and forgettable as possible when out on a job, meaning a standard uniform of faded baggy jeans, a flannel button-down over an old t-shirt with a funny but inoffensive slogan, and a pair of thick glasses. I let my hair grow long, but not rocker-long: just a couple of scraggly inches to suggest a total lack of care.
“If you were interested at all in preserving our marriage,” my wife said, toward the end, “you’d spend more time looking presentable. And would it kill you to work out a bit?”
I had spent the previous night in The Hole, dealing with one of my employer’s accountants. The man wanted to live, but I had other ideas. Even after I pumped four bullets in his back, he kept crawling through the weeds, as if he had a chance of reaching the road at the end of the field. My fifth bullet won that race.
“Hey, I get exercise,” I told her.
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right. You do reps with a vodka bottle, is how you exercise.”
A week later, she left me. One of my colleagues joked about finishing her off (“How do hitmen get divorced?” he asked, slapping my back. “With a hacksaw!”), but I had no intention of finishing her existence on this miserable rock. What was the point? If she told the world what I did to make ends meet, she would need to explain how she lived with me for so many years without running to the police, and that would make every Thanksgiving really, really awkward for the rest of her life.
I took her departure hard. On a recent morning, while cleaning my guns in the garage, I shoved my newly reassembled .44-caliber revolver in my mouth, loaded, just to see how the barrel tasted as it rubbed against my palate. The gunmetal thick on my tongue, I felt a little tingle of fear in my gut, and that was good. It meant I wanted to live, rather than practice Russian Roulette after breakfast every morning.
As I pulled the pistol out of my mouth, my phone rang. I placed the weapon on the bench beside me and answered it. “Yeah?”
The voice was rocky as ten miles of dirt road: “You available for some tax work?”
“Not for another two months,” I said.
“Sorry, wrong number.” Click.
I put away my gun-cleaning kit and drove over to Long Island City, at the edge of the East River, where the industrial yards and ratty Irish bars of my youth had given way to gleaming glass condos and overpriced gastro-hubs. I headed into the Pot O’ Gold, the last true bit of scum on this particular toilet bowl, and found a seat across from the Dean, dressed as usual in one of his natty three-piece suits. On the table sat a large plate of shucked oysters, half of them already eaten. I had to hand it to the man: why bother trying to prove your courage in a shootout when you can order the shellfish in an establishment where the cockroaches are big enough to work an NFL defensive line?
“How goes it?” The Dean always sounded like he swallowed a wad of sandpaper every morning, his syllables rough yet velvety.
“Oh, you know, divorced, drinking too much, can’t sleep. The usual.”
The Dean was not in a joking mood. “Are you becoming a problem?”
“Just to myself,” I said. “So what’s next? Jimmy’s settled.”
His eyebrows arched. “Um, Bill’s still drawing breath, when last I checked.”
“I prefer if you used someone else for that one,” I said, and meant it. I’d always admired Bill’s disregard for keeping a low profile. You needed a pair of shiny brass ones to go out the door every morning and rip people off while dressed like a magazine model.
The Dean shrugged. “Jimmy tell you what they did?”
“All Jimmy said to me was ‘no’ and ‘I don’t want to die.’ Like he had a choice. From what you told me before, I know they took some money.”
“Oh, they did more than that.” The Dean’s face reddened. “The last time I met with dear Bill, he had the phenomenal cheek to pickpocket me, like some rube on the street. Specifically, he removed my black titanium credit card, the one with the infinite credit limit. And do you know what he did with that credit card, before taking millions from us?”
“Blew it on hookers who take plastic?”
The Dean paused to slurp down a new oyster, his eyes blazing with rage. “Worse. He donated a hundred thousand dollars online to an organization that helps children with cancer. He knows how much I hate moral quandaries, despite my chosen profession. It’s not exactly the sort of sum you can take back, at least without looking like a total scumbag.”
“So what did you do?”
“What do you think? I took the money back. Sent the organization a very nice note. Blamed it on the accountant, which is true, in a certain way.” Another oyster down the hatch. “But our friend Bill wasn’t done yet, no sir. Having donated to cure childhood cancer in our lifetimes, he further abused my poor, suffering credit card by taking Jimmy to lunch at the Caviar Room in Midtown, where they ordered a Balthazar of Château Margaux 2009 for the low, low price of fifty thousand dollars, along with their three-hundred-dollar meals.”
“There were a lot of French words in there I didn’t understand.”
“Château Margaux is a very expensive bottle of red wine, you idiot. Try to keep up.”
Although I refused to take crap from just about anyone on the street, I always made an exception for my employer, in light of the enormous amount of money he paid me every few weeks. Not that the cash stopped me from spending a few lovely moments imagining an alligator tearing the Dean apart limb from well-tailored limb.
Turning my head, I flagged the joint’s lone waiter, a sad sack of middle-aged flesh named Ivan. I needed my morning alcohol something fierce. “So he took your card, and then…”
“Their very satisfying meal completed, they proceeded across the street to one of our banks, to try and screw us thoroughly.” The Dean sighed. “Jimmy could access too many accounts. If the banker hadn’t called me right after they left, the money would have been on a round-the-world laundering tour, never to be seen again. Pop is so pissed, we had to give him a shot so he’d calm down.”
“Speaking of shots, I need a beer,” I told the waiter, who had drifted into our orbit.
“Kinda beer?” Ivan asked.
“Guinness, if you haven’t already watered down the keg too much.” Once he lurched away, I returned my attention to the Dean, offering up the obvious: “Bill’s probably out of the country by now. He’s too smart to stick around.”
“He was dumb enough to trust in Jimmy’s so-called intelligence. We already have two people on his trail, but I haven’t heard from them in two days.” He shrugged, as if losing a pair of trained assassins was a daily occurrence. Maybe it was, in his life. “So now I send you in. You’re my backup. And I expect you to make Bill regret what he did.”
“If it’s an out-of-town job, I’ll need more money.”
The Dean smiled wide, exposing his perfect teeth as he went for the kill: “Of course. You need a great divorce attorney, no?”
A day later I found myself on the road, halfway between Who Knows and Who Cares, listening to my ex-wife’s Cat Power albums and trying not to cry as I thought about our best moments, like the time she overcame her weak stomach to help me dissolve a mob informant in a bathtub full of acid. Go ahead, call me a wimp: I can kill you thirteen different ways with a penknife.