I never wanted to be a hitman. To take lives for money.
Then I met Frank.
It was March. The sun shone outside, but not on me.
I'd known my dad was dying for a long time, thought I'd prepared for the day when it would come, that I was as ready as he was. Then it did. And it broke me. I sat in some murky bar, the smell of burnt wood and vomit burning my throat, still in my black suit, no flower. Still crying when a barkeeper in a torn flannel shirt handed me my fourth pint. The lights in the bar were dim enough to hide the stains on the counter, and the other customers – lonely enough not to want to talk, too lonely to drink at home.
I needed another hit, but I had none left. Took it all that morning and I could barely feel it anymore: my mind was too clear. My breathing slowed. Everything blurred, came back darker, then my vision snapped back.
'You okay?' the barman said. Like it was any of his fucking business.
I said I was. A hand on the bar kept me from falling on my face.
A few seats down a man in a leather jacket looked up from his whiskey long enough to run his gaze over me. What did he see in my eyes? A woman with dyed-red hair walked past in a short red dress and high boots. She looked like a whore who'd gotten lost, smelt like one too as if she thought a dozen cheap perfumes mixed together would cover up her stink. She smiled at the man in leather, gestured for a drink. He ordered her one, then grabbed her wrist. Pulled her close to him. They forced whispers. None of my business so I counted the lights. There were five above the bar, although two were broken. From the corner of my eye, I saw her up in his face. I thought she was going to slap him, then she moved on.
I turned away. My day had enough shit in it already without me piling more on.
The funeral had gone well. The five of us had mourned in silence, a small group of strangers in dark clothes pretending to care about each other. Making small talk and forgetting the question as soon as the answer was given. The second that last spoonful of dirt hit the top of that cheap coffin I ran, ran before one of them could ask why I hadn't bought him a headstone.
'One more,' I said to the barman. He shook his head, sighed, poured a pint anyway. It was dropped so hard onto the sticky bar that the froth ran down the glass.
There were only old receipts and ripped-up photos in my wallet.
Before I could own up to it, the man in leather came over. He took out a bundle of notes and threw one down without a word. That was my first meeting with Frank Kagati. In five minutes I was sat opposite him in a booth, enjoying the smell of sweat from his jacket only because it covered up his sickly-sweet aftershave. The door opened behind me as a man left, and as the blinding light swept across the room, cutting through the blackness, it momentarily lit up Frank's face. A red scar ran across his nose, down his lips. His colourless eyes were fixed on mine and he smiled only when he spoke.
'Need money?' he said.
I downed my pint. His figure wavered opposite me, like a black ship at the bottom of a dark ocean, shimmering and disappearing, then coming back. I nodded.
'What for?' he said.
I told him how my dad had died and I hadn't had the money to pay for his headstone. Blew it all on booze, and drugs. Frank sat up. For some reason, I told him how much I missed my dad.
He nodded. 'Reminds me of my Rex,' he said. 'I'd be heartbroken without him.' I could have punched him. Rex. His fucking dog. He was comparing some little rat with my dad, the man who raised me, the man who worked a shit job to bring me up.
For a while, we sat in silence. If he could see me staring at him, he didn't say anything.
'I've seen you in here before,' he said. 'I know who you are. What you are.' Then, just like that, he offered me a job. Four hundred dollars! That's more than a week's wages for someone like me.
'What would I have to do?'
He told me. I'd have to kill someone. A couple of seconds passed then I stood up. I glared at his blank face. He was serious. In a minute, I was in the toilets, staring at my reflection, wishing it wasn't mine. I couldn't do the job. How could I? The drink, the drugs, it was all to fuck up my brain so much that I didn't have to think about how I'd lost my dad. What kind of sick fuck would I be to do that to somebody else, to make them feel like I did? But then, I thought about my rent, rent arrears, the payment due on loans that I took out to cover last month's bills. The drugs. I was fucked. In two minutes I was back opposite Frank and he told me what I needed to do.
It was easy. That's the problem. When your first hit is easy you think they'll all be like that. Think you'll always be able to creep in at night and shoot them in their sleep.
She was in her twenties, blonde. 'Fucked another guy,' Frank said, and that was all he said. I found her wrapped in her duvet, feet like a doll poking out the bottom. I crept down a corridor in her tiny apartment like some shit cartoon character, but really I could have stomped every step. The room smelt of vodka and an empty glass sat close by, with half a joint and scattered pills. She was out of it. Which is good, because I stood at her bedside for five minutes trying to work up the courage to pull the trigger.
I couldn't. What would my dad think, and what if she had a family? I turned to get out then saw a blank, dirty wall, and the thought struck me: my dad wouldn't like it but so what? He's dead. If she had a family then I didn't know them. It didn't matter. Nothing did. Fuck 'em.
I pulled the trigger and turned her pillows red. She slumped sideways, one lifeless hand thrown up against the wall. The sound echoed. Everything but my heartbeat was still.
Then I ran.
Outside, I pressed my back against the wall. Vomit rose in my throat. I wanted, needed, to hide. But… I had a feeling inside like I'd taken two grams all at once and I couldn't escape the touch and I didn't want to because this time there were no side-effects.
The next night, Frank paid me and I now had the money to get the headstone, but it wasn't enough. It's never enough. Now I wanted a bigger headstone, maybe some flowers. I could pay my rent. I swore to myself that I wouldn't blow it on coke.
'Do you want another job?' Frank whispered. We were sat in that same booth in the bar. The barman brought us both drinks. He could linger and look at us both all he wanted but I waited until he'd gone to answer.
'Yeah,' I said. The money was heavy in my trembling hand.
Frank loomed forward, like a shadow in the darkening room. His breath, hot on my face, smelt like rotten meat.
'Same fee?' I said before he could speak.
'Same fee.' He showed his teeth in what was almost a smile.
A black outline fell over him as the redhead stepped up. 'What you doing these days, Frankie?' she said. She had the grating voice of an addict. I would know.
'Fuck off, Lily,' Frank said. He looked at me. 'Do you want another?'
'I'd love — ' I said.
'I'd love one too,' the woman said.
'Lily,' Frank said. 'I told you to fuck off.'
She folded her thin arms over her chest and looked at him, defiant. Then she turned to me. 'Stay away from this one, honey,' she said. 'He's up to no good.'
'Fuck off,' he said, louder this time. He stood up, shoved her away. She fell back, eyes wide. Her breasts rose in waves as her hurried breath forced its way out.
I stayed out of it.
My second hit was worse. By now I'd convinced myself that I could go in at midnight, shoot them in their sleep, and walk back out like the first one. Easy money. I'd get dad's headstone and, in a messed up way, I'd get my respect back by sacrificing any I had for myself. Except, this one, a woman called Vera, wasn't asleep.
The plan was to get there at midnight. I staggered through her door gone two. The taste of cocaine burned my throat. I wanted to throw up but couldn't. Nothing to bring up and I just choked on air. I closed the door behind me. The orange glow of a streetlight outside revealed the outline of half of the blackened room. Everything else wavered as if out of focus. In ten seconds I was upstairs, stood in the doorway of her bedroom, a wall of framed photos behind me. Shaking, like a scared dog, I pulled out my gun. I thought I'd find her laid in bed asleep, some old dear wrapped up in a tatty blanket who nobody would miss.
She sat on the edge of a bed covered in syringes and baby wipes, pulling boots onto her thin ankles. She was naked, with skin like an orange, discoloured and bumpy. A bulb swung above her. There was no time to think. No time to worry about the family who'd mourn her. I had to pull the trigger before she saw me. Then the room tilted. My vision blurred, and the swinging bulb seemed to give out blackness instead of light.
Someone screamed. Something hit me and my back struck the wall. My head rattled, and the colour came back. Vera rushed down the corridor. The rough carpet beneath my cheek smelt of dust. I could feel her steps through it. In that moment I wondered what would happen when she got away. They'd find out what I'd done. Everyone would.
I shot her in the back.
She fell and I scrambled over. Blood seeped through her fingers as she squeezed her side. Her breathing was worse than mine.
'Please,' she said. 'Don't do it. What did I do to you?' The gun was aimed at her bloodshot eyes. 'No,' she said. 'Please. Please no. What did I do? I have a — '
I blew her head apart. 'You have a what?' I asked. I sat on the floor with her for ten minutes and she never answered me. What if it was family? Someone that needed her? There was no rush this time, not even when the cold hit me as I sprinted away.
That night I hid in my bedroom, slept in the corner so that nobody could creep up on me. At one point I heard a noise and got so scared I put the duvet over my head. It took a gram of cocaine to get me to sleep.
The next day, I stood above Frank, panting, my lungs so tight and so cold it was like they were full of ice. I breathed consciously, forcing the air in. 'I'm out,' I said. The bar was darker than I remembered. I couldn't make out customers, just black shapes lurking by the bar. There were whispers, probably about me. They knew what I'd done. Only Frank's words got through. Everything else was white noise.
'Sit down,' he said. He took a sip of whiskey.
'Pay me. I'm out. I need my money then I'm gone. Outta here. Pay me.' Every beat of my heart reminded me of the thudding of Vera's footsteps that I'd felt through the floor.
'I've got one more job for you,' he said. He was different, focused but not angry, almost smiling. Maybe he was high. I wished I was.
'I can't. Please. I just… I can't.'
He took out a bundle of notes and pushed them across the table. I rushed off. She had a family. She must have done. I should have looked at the pictures on the wall. If I'd seen her with kids I'd never have shot her, would I? Dad would hate me. I hate myself. Maybe one more gram would make me forget it. I had the money.
'Four grand,' Frank said. I stopped. 'For one job,' he said.
Maybe if I asked him he'd share the drugs with me. Maybe she was going to say a dog. That's not too bad. Better than her having children.
I turned around. 'You have a dog, don't you? Rex or something. Is he like a kid to you?'
Frank blinked. Two sips of whiskey and he said, slowly so that it would seep in, 'four grand.'
With four grand I could get dad everything he needed. With four grand I could run away. I could get high for a month.
'Who?' I said. I stopped him with a raised hand. 'No details. Just a name. I don't want to know.'
'Her.' He nodded to the redhead at the bar. 'Lily.'
The blur at the bar became sharper until it grew a red dress, hooker boots, and gave me a lipstick smile before sipping its drink.
I stood in front of her. I don't know how I got there. The journey from him to her is missing.
'What do you want?' she said. One of us smelt of vomit.
She had dark eyes. 'I don't remember,' I said.
I drank something. It was dark and cloudy and burned my throat and I shouldn't have touched it.
Everything faded. The hum of the room was now heard through the sound of rushing water, with words barely distinct. My heart fluttered and shapes wavered around me. I fell from my stool into warm arms. I remember images, scenes with no connections.
Being helped to my feet by a woman while a crowd of open-mouthed drunks circled me. The woman smelt of perfume. She had a red dress on and a tattoo on her arm said Frank.
The taste of orange juice down my stinging throat. My chest crushed. Country music playing on a distant jukebox then fading away.
Snorting cocaine from the top of a dirty toilet seat with Lily next to me. Rough toilet paper in my hands, then rubbing it on my nose. It scratched me.
'He's using you,' Lily said. It felt like her words came from nowhere. Her mouth didn't even move. Suddenly we're sat in the corner of the bar. A light shines on the table but everywhere else is black. Through a half-open window, I see the moon hanging low above a dirty roof. Almost morning and I didn't know where the night went. 'Honey,' she said, 'buy me a drink.' I did.
'Who's using me?' I asked. The barman placed a drink in front of her. She stroked his hairy forearm by way of a thank you. He vanished through the darkness.
'Frank,' she said.
'He paid me.'
'Honey, he's taking advantage,' she said. Her lipstick frowned. Her face barely moved. For two minutes we sat in silence. She never took her dark eyes off me. I kept mine on the table. 'How much did he offer you to kill me?' she asked. I wondered how she knew. Maybe I told her when I blacked out.
My eyes drooped shut. I bolted upright. I took a drink just to regain some sense of what was happening. Fucking orange juice. 'Four grand,' I said. Where was I?
'What an arsehole,' she said. 'Hey, you want some of this?' She took from her purse a small bag of white powder. I snatched at it but she pulled it away. 'Nuh-uh,' she said. 'I'll give you this when you do something for me.'
'What is it?'
'Say you'll do anything.'
I needed it. My skin itched from the inside and I couldn't breathe, not properly, not right. My chest tightened.
'Fine,' I said. 'Anything.'
'Kill him. Kill Frank.'
'The drugs, and four grand.' Her voice was hard and cold, like steel.
I wanted to ask what would happen to Rex, but didn't in case she changed her mind about the drugs.
Close to dawn, I climbed through Frank's window into a living room decorated in dark blue. Shadows from streetlights fell across his couch, painted his white carpet with dark lines. All I had to do was shoot Frank then I'd get what I needed. Easy. Then I was out. No more of that shit. I'd have the money to fix everything.
I stumbled upstairs. There were no barks, no signs of a dog. Where was Rex? I kept my boot ready to kick the little shit away but I didn't need it.
Frank lay in bed, wrapped up in the security of a thick green duvet. My breath wheezed as I forced it out. He didn't wake up. My gun trembled as I raised it towards him.
I shot him.
Flecks of red spattered everywhere, my heart raced so that I thought I was dying, and the sound of the gunshot bounced from every wall, seemed to shake the room, to shake me until I could barely stand and I thought I'd vomit or pass out and just when I tried to sit down and sleep the echoes faded, the shaking slowed, and I heard a sound, a lonely sound in a world now silent. The sound of a child crying.
The next room glowed red from a nightlight and I made out blue walls, one with dark indistinct squares all over it. A small boy screamed from inside a cot.
The word Rex was stitched above his heart.
Everything stops. The world is motionless apart from this child crying and I don't know what to do. I would run but my feet are too heavy. They're as useless as my hands and I drop the gun. Everything is tinged with red.
This boy, this scared, crying, tiny boy, doesn't even know that he's screaming for somebody who won't come pick him up again. He's just like me.
'You want your dad?' I say. He doesn't respond. I don't think he's even listening. A tear hangs on the end of my nose for a moment, tickling, then falls onto the poor boy's forehead. 'I want my dad too,' I say.
Every second the drugs drain from my system. Feels like my blood is running out. I'm cold, but my mind is clear for the first time in I don't know how long. The tightness in my chest releases and I can breathe again. I notice my heart beating softly again only now that it's stopped pounding.
I've killed three people. Wherever my dad is, he wouldn't condone that, even if I did it for him. And now Rex is just like me: a lonely boy with no dad. Maybe he'll turn to drugs to cope too. Maybe he'll be stronger than I am.
The room brightens as my eyes refocus. My shaking stops. The wall by the door is covered in photos, a hundred or more. The first one is Frank in a suit, shaking hands with some other rich fuck while they smile like they run the world. I rip it into pieces and throw it into the air to fall like red-tinted snow. I tear up three more of him in suits until I reach the middle. The suits end. He's in a t-shirt and jeans now, in a room with a buffet table and a banner across the ceiling. I push the photo to my nose to read the banner. Addiction Therapy. There's more like it. The same hall with its wooden floor. The same table of food. Next to him is Vera. In a different photo, the first woman I killed is hugging him from behind while he sits in a circle of chairs. Lily is in the background, crying into her hands.
The photos fall from my hand as I realise. Frank had me kill them because he didn't want them around his son. He didn't want addiction to hurt his son like it hurt him.
I wipe away tears as I pull the last photo off the wall: Frank and Lily holding a baby boy. Lily is in the same red dress. In all the pictures of her, she's wearing that same dress. The one she wore every time I saw her. She never even bought her own drinks.
She was never going to pay me.
I'm numb now. The screaming fades and all I can feel are my fingertips tingling. I run them over the wood of the cot. It's smooth. The boy's mouth opens like a suffocating fish but doesn't make a sound. The stench of urine, the fear in his dark eyes, the emptiness in my chest, and the loneliness I feel, all remind me of my dad during his final hours.
I need to leave.
'I'm sorry,' I say.
I'll walk into a police station. The man at the desk will look me up and down, and when he sees the blood on my dirty clothes he'll come around the counter and arrest me. I'll tell them everything. I'll stand before a judge and admit to what I did and maybe that will give me some respect. Maybe.
Or maybe I won't. Maybe I'll leave this place and run and hide somewhere where I won't be found. Maybe I'll kill Lily so that Rex never finds out what I did, can never hate me like I hate myself.