Melvin tucked the newspaper into his rucksack. Within its pages were details of the man he needed to kill.
He felt the coordinator's eyes searching his face. Her voice was calm and barely audible above the sound of frying eggs, the pinging microwave, workmen ploughing through English breakfasts, and the TV. "Are you sure you're ready, Melvin?" She paused. "What happened the last time wasn't your fault."
Melvin met the coordinator's composed stare. He had arrived two hours earlier and chosen the table furthest from the door where he could see every customer as they entered. His revolver was resting on his lap under his jacket. But the coordinator would expect this. Still. Its weight offered comfort.
She took a sip from her instant coffee. "You've been away a long time. Why did you come back?"
Melvin forced a casual shrug and replied, "I needed the money."
This was true. Since the accident, Melvin had lived off intermittent labouring jobs and stayed in cheap, rundown flats. Everything in cash and always moving. Hiding. Until this moment.
Now, everything was different.
The coordinator cocked her head. She hadn't blinked once. Or removed her stare from the man facing her. "Why did you stay away for so long, Melvin? We've always looked after you." Her tone was flat.
He had ignored all the company's attempts to contact him through the usual channels. He locked onto her grey eyes and replied, "You are an ethical agency, and after what happened…" He left the sentence unfinished. The schoolgirl's broken body flashed into his mind. He swallowed. His hands were trembling in his lap.
He glanced at the TV screen. A clown was bouncing up and down on a bull's back. He felt hot and faint. He thought, "Shit, it's happening again." He tried to focus on his breathing and lifted his shaking hand to block out the image. For a moment, his vision became blurry, and the coordinator's voice was slipping away. "Breathe, Melvin. Breathe." He didn't know if the words were inside his mind or those of the grey-eyed woman monitoring him. He lowered his head and waited for the panic to subside.
The coordinator called over a server and asked her to change the channel. The young girl peered at Melvin's mumbling form, rushed back with some water, and scurried across to the TV. The image changed to what looked like celebrities heaping wood onto a fire.
Melvin scrabbled inside his rucksack for the pills, swilled two back with the water, and felt control creeping back. He once more looked at the coordinator. "Sorry, it's a phobia. I've had it since I was a kid." She nodded and smiled, but her stare never wavered.
Folded inside the newspaper pages were a photo, a name, and an address. Nothing more. It wasn't company protocol to offer what it deemed extraneous details, but Melvin needed to know. Since the accident, he had lost any desire to kill again. His principal raison d'être had been survival. He had expected agency retribution for his error, but none had arrived. Only their repeated job offers. If he was going to work for them, he had to believe in the contract. He asked, "Why?"
The coordinator pursed her lips and then sighed. She shifted her attention to the TV. The celebrities were still dropping logs onto the fire. Someone called Charles was leaving the camp. She turned back to Melvin and sighed. "You know it's not agency regulations but under the circumstances, I'll make an allowance. You've shown trust in returning to the fold so I will tell you this." She paused to sip her cold coffee. Her dark purple lipstick left no stain on the foam cup. "He's a real scumbag, Melvin. The worst kind. Let's just say he spends a lot of time with children."
Melvin studied the photograph in his hands. They were shaking again. The person grinning back at him was called Dougie Raymond. The soft features and kind eyes in the picture undermined Melvin's stereotypical image of a child predator. But maybe that was how Raymond had lured so many children to their fates. He had evaded conviction. The agency specialised in the liquidation of offenders who had gone unpunished.
He sipped his whisky and picked up a second photo. He looked at his smiling mother. Her pale face was hollow, and her wasted frame was hunched, but her eyes maintained their defiant vigour. She needed the operation, and it was only possible in America.
Melvin shrugged on his coat and slipped the revolver into his pocket.
He had two reasons to kill Dougie Raymond.
Hands in pockets, Melvin approached the bungalow. He had circled the building once the day before and had sat in the playground opposite the man's home for the last hour. As he had sneaked glimpses at Raymond's place, he had felt anger rising. He couldn't believe a pedophile had had the audacity to rent somewhere next to a play area.
This made the job easier. Much easier.
As Melvin rapped twice on the door, he noticed a TV glowing through the yellowed net curtains.
An ice cream van drove past, tinny music blaring through the children's whoops on the swings and roundabouts. He lowered his head and gripped the sweaty revolver in his pocket. He heard a bicycle bell as an old woman swerved to avoid a teenager glued to his mobile phone. Oblivious, the greasy adolescent plodded across the road.
Melvin knocked three more times. His t-shirt was sticking to his back. A voice replied from inside and he heard hurried footsteps.
His knuckles whitened as they tightened around the concealed gun. He stared straight ahead as a deadbolt snapped back.
The door began to open. Every muscle tensed.
After this job, the world would be a little safer. And his mother would have a fighting chance at recovery.
One last kill.
The door swung inward, and Melvin's scream strangled in his throat.
A mass of blazing green hair, smeared blood-red lips, blinding white cheeks, and smudged black tears lumbered out from the bungalow. The cackling clown wrapped the man on the step in its garish, jingling, jangling arms, hugged him tight, and screeched, "It's plaaaaaaay tiiiiiiime!"
Two children on the playground turned, pointed, and giggled. A gaping toddler dropped her ice cream and tugged at her mother's arm. A small boy snapped his head up as he raced down the slide, zipped off the end, and bounced onto his bottom.
Dougie Raymond clung to Melvin's heaving, breathless body as his feeble arms clawed to be free and struggled for air. Wide-eyed and panting, Melvin felt his vision fading as he was dragged over the threshold into the clown's lair.
He heard the door slam shut and lay helpless on the crusty carpet as his prey knelt beside him. Face so close, he could feel Dougie Raymond's garlic breath on his forehead.
As Melvin began to slip away, he wheezed one question, "Why?"
The clown's words were the last he ever heard. "We're an ethical agency, Melvin."