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It was Monday afternoon when he drove the white van up the driveway and stopped it at the side door of the house. He pulled his blue baseball cap down securely, leaned to the seat beside him, and picked up the aluminum clipboard with its layers of invoices. As he slid down from the seat to the driveway, he reached into his blue coveralls and retrieved a ballpoint pen. He hadn’t had the time to stop and pick up the perfect tools for this, but what he had would probably do. If not, people often had the right things around the house. He rang the doorbell, listened for footsteps, then rang again.
Heavy footsteps, coming quickly. He could tell from their nearness that the first ring would have been enough. The door swung open. The man was taller than he was, younger and thicker around the chest. The man glowered, and the space between his dark eyebrows and his dark, wavy hair looked very small, pinched and wrinkled with annoyance. "Mr. Delamina?"
"Yeah. What can I do for you?"
"I’ve got a delivery for you."
"I didn’t order anything." He prepared to close the door.
"It looks like a gift." He held up the clipboard. The invoice was filled out in big, clear letters. Under quantity it said "1 ea." Under description it said "Sony Bravia EX500," and under amount it said "$2,199." But below that in big block letters, it said paid.
"Are you sure it’s the right address?" He was a bit suspicious, but he had seen the invoice, and his greed had been stimulated. He was thinking it might be a mistake, but somehow he could still end up with something valuable.
"Yes. You’re Michael Delamina?"
"Right." Delamina’s small eyes moved to the truck then to the invoice, not finding a reason not to be interested.
"Then you got a new high-definition flat screen. I need to take a look at where it goes." He stepped up on the porch, and something about his brusque, hurried manner made Delamina step backward, letting him inside.
It was a large, modern kitchen with black granite counters and a black granite island, with an array of copper pots hanging from a rack above it. He took two steps inward and swerved to go around the island. As he passed it, his free hand plucked one of the black-handled kitchen knives from a slot in the butcher block beside the cutting board. As he had expected from the width of the slot, it was the boning knife. When he was working, the proper tools seemed to find their way to his hand.
He pivoted to the left and brought the knife around so his body added force to the thrust, and the eight-inch blade was lodged to the handle in the space just below Delamina’s rib cage. He stepped forward with it and pushed upward. As he did, he said quietly, "I’m the one you sent people to find. Go join them." Delamina went limp, fell onto the kitchen floor, and lay there, his eyes open and losing focus.
He stood above Delamina for a moment, watching. He was fairly sure that his upward, probing thrust had reached the heart. This was a crude, elementary way of killing a man. It was actually one of the things that prison inmates did to one another. When they pushed a blade upward they tried to move it around a bit, like a driver manipulating a standard transmission, so they called it "running the gears" on someone. But he hadn’t wished to have Delamina’s death look like expert workmanship. That might warn the next one that he had come back to take care of this problem. He stepped to the rack by the sink, took a clean dish towel, and wiped off the handle of the knife. He knelt on the floor for a moment and looked more closely at Delamina.
The heart and the lungs had to be stopped. The human body could take an incredible amount of battering, piercing, even burning, and heal rapidly and go on with undiminished strength for another forty years. For a pro, death had to happen right away with no uncertainty. Before he left, the person had to be dead—not dying, but dead and cooling off. He couldn’t have somebody get up after he was gone. None of his ever had, but it was a concern.
He put his hand on Michael Delamina’s carotid artery to be sure his heart had stopped, then tugged a button from Delamina’s shirt, extracted a few inches of thread, and held the thin, white filament in front of his nostrils. The thread didn’t move. He dropped it on Delamina’s chest with the button, touched the artery one more time, stood, and walked.
He went out the side door of the house and got into the plain white van. He had parked so close to the side door that he only had to take two steps and he was in the driver’s seat behind tinted windows. He had a red shop rag caught in the back door of the van so it hung down to cover the license plate.
He backed out of the driveway, shifted and accelerated to a moderate speed, and proceeded down the street. After he had gone a mile or two, he turned into the parking lot of a supermarket, drove around to the rear of the building, got out, and stuffed the rag, the coveralls, and the clipboard into a bag in the Dumpster. He pulled back onto the road and merged into the traffic again. He drove carefully and lawfully as he always did, and never risked having a cop pull him over. He wore the blue baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses, because he knew that if anyone saw him through the windshield, what they’d remember was a baseball cap and sunglasses. In twenty minutes he was twenty miles away, and in forty he was in another county at the lot where he had rented the van a couple of hours ago. He returned it and drove the rented car he had left on a nearby street toward the airport.
The distinguishing feature of the killing business was its premeditation. Most amateurs got caught because they were too inexperienced to look far enough ahead. They made plans to kill some enemy, but didn’t devote much thought to what they would do with the body. Some of them didn’t even think clearly about their alibis. It was as though the killing itself were a high wall ahead of them. They thought so much about having to climb it that they couldn’t get their eyes to focus on what was beyond it.
Even the ones who bothered to construct alibis often made foolish mistakes. They would go to a movie and pay with a credit card, sneak out in the middle of the film to do the killing, and then get caught on a security camera driving back into the parking lot. Or they’d kill their wives and then call their girlfriends on their cell phones, and the phone company would have a record of which repeater tower picked up the signal.
When they didn’t make mistakes, they still had trouble. The truth was, if you were the police department’s favorite suspect, almost any set of precautions you took would be inadequate. If there was no real evidence of guilt, the police would start finding fibers in your car or house that were "not inconsistent" with the fibers in the dead man’s clothes or carpets. A pro was never the cops’ favorite suspect, because he had no clear connection with the victim.
He knew a lot about the business because he had been raised in it. His parents had been killed in a car crash when he was ten. His nearest relative was his mother’s younger sister, who was in college in California and barely made it to the funeral. She had no room in her schedule for raising anybody’s ten-year-old child. But a neighborhood man named Eddie Mastrewski had volunteered to take the boy in, teach him some values and the habit of work. Eddie was the local butcher, a man who drove a good car, lived in a good house, and had a reputation for honest weights and fresh meat.
In those days in a working-class neighborhood, no one thought much about it. There was a boy who needed a home for a few years, and Eddie had one. In later years, the boy suspected that the reason nobody had worried that this lifetime bachelor might be a child molester was the neighborhood’s whispered knowledge that Eddie regularly made home deliveries of special cuts of meat to a few particularly attractive housewives.
Eddie Mastrewski did exactly as he had promised—provided a safe, happy home and taught the boy his trade. The part that the neighbors didn’t know was that Eddie the Butcher wasn’t just a butcher. He was a professional killer.
The boy had been a good learner. As a teenager he had a photograph on his wall taken by a news photographer in Vietnam. In the foreground there was a procession of people at some sort of religious festival. They were walking along, some beating drums, some with their mouths open wide singing, some with their heads bent in prayer. But behind them was a glaring bright-orange-and-crimson explosion spreading into the air like a monstrous flower blooming.
He knew from Eddie that the photograph must have been taken during the two-tenths of a second after the bomb’s initiator had ignited the explosive, but before the minds of any of the paraders could apprehend the change. The bomb had already gone off, but none of these people had yet heard, felt, or seen anything happen. That was still in their future.
The boy had spent a great deal of time over the next few years thinking about those two-tenths of a second. If he could deliver a disabling blow in those two-tenths of a second, the adversary would literally never see it coming, never know what happened to him until he was down.
Eddie made sure the boy was proficient with knives, shotguns, rifles, and pistols of the common brands and calibers. When the boy was fifteen, Eddie began to take him out on weekend jobs. When he turned sixteen, he quit school and worked with Eddie full-time. That was when he had advanced from apprentice to journeyman.
Killing was mostly a mental business. It required thinking clearly, not quickly. Picking the time and place long before he went out to do a job gave him the chance to study the way it should be done, to find the best shooting angle, and become familiar with all of the entrances and exits. Before the time came, a professional killer could arrange almost everything in his favor. He could come through like a gust of wind—there unexpectedly, then gone—and after he disappeared, leave an impression rather than a memory.
Eddie had taught him that "It’s the passion that’s missing, and that protects you. You kill somebody because someone else hates him. The only time you have to feel anything is if you make a mistake and he gets the chance to fight back. Then he’s your enemy and your adrenaline flows until he’s dead."
Amateurs were all passion. Amateurs would plan the killing up to the moment when their enemies died and then turn stupid. They thought it would end then, that they’ll toss the knife or gun away, go back to their houses, take a shower, and stuff their clothes in the washing machine.
Amateurs didn’t think about the fact that as soon as the body was found, they had potent new enemies, the cops. And cops looked for connections between victims and their killers. Nine out of ten murders were done by somebody the victim knew. How many people could the average person know? The average person could only hold five hundred faces in his memory. So at the moment when the victim hit the ground, the world’s six billion people narrowed down to only five hundred suspects. The police would look at how the killing was done. If it required a lot of strength, the killer was a man; about two hundred and fifty of the five hundred were eliminated. Two-thirds of the remaining two hundred and fifty would have good alibis. Make that eighty suspects. A quarter of them were too young or too old. Make that sixty suspects. By now the amateur was beginning to feel a little sick. The pro would already have counted his money and be on the way to his next job. He was one of the six billion who had already been eliminated.
He turned into the car-rental return outside La Guardia, returned his car, and rode the shuttle bus to the terminal. The people who saw him noticed only another middle-aged man with brown hair graying a bit at the temples, who wore the nearly universal travel uniform of such men—a dark-colored sport coat with gray or beige pants, a blue shirt without a tie, and rubber-soled shoes. There was no reason to look at him closely, nor did he look at them. Everyone on a shuttle bus to an airport was on the way to somewhere else, and thinking well ahead into a different time and place.