A darkly compelling debut of an unusual bond between two killers—and the destruction left in their wake.
A cold-blooded killer-for-hire, Edison North drifts across America from city to city, crime scene to crime scene, leaving behind a world in flames. But during a seemingly random stop at a fast food restaurant, Edison meets Christian, a young girl who mirrors his own sense of isolation and stink of "other." Though it's been a long time since he felt anything resembling a human connection, something about this desperately lonely child calls to him like a fallen nestling. Edison feels certain she deserves better. And while he is not convinced that he can give her that, he can teach her to fly on her own. So he takes her.
Thus begin the chronicles of Edison North—and his protégé. Weaving together past and present, Edison begins Christian's strange apprenticeship as Christian looks back upon her fractured upbringing and the training that made her into the killer she's become. What emerges is a savage—and ultimately tender—exploration of the unlikely bond between two outsiders: a fledgling assassin and the man who took her under his wing.
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)|
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Of Fate, Free Will, & Anaphylactic Hypersensitivity
I see her while waiting in line at one of those cookie-cutter burger joints, the ubiquitous sort with sticky plastic chairs, sticky plastic floors, and bathrooms you wouldn't wash a dog in. And of course there's the smell, the sweet reek of grease-steeped everything: burgers, fries, shakes, employees — one big drippy clot of wrong. Necessarily this includes me as well, but then life occasionally demands sacrifice, and I would sacrifice many things for french fries. And have.
But I digress.
I am patiently waiting my turn when a gaggle of tweenage girls squall in through the door, dragging a wave of piss-hot air into the lobby. I wrinkle my nose and clench my teeth but there is no avoiding them — they are instantly everywhere, like maggots on a rotting corpse. They seem to move as one mass, each dressed in a matching red bathing suit, a damp towel wrapped around slender shoulders or a slightly too-plump waist. Hideous fat toes wriggle from within a mass of green and pink sandals, slippery with wet; a scant few wear sneakers instead, water from their legs dampening what socks are present, saturating the canvas and ruining the floor with kidney-shaped prints rank with chlorine.
I nearly dismiss them all in this one lump sum, but then I catch a glimpse of bare feet and follow them up too-thin legs, past hand-me-down shorts, and on to their owner.
And there she is.
She is the second-shortest of her group, perhaps eight years old, with matte blue-gray eyes — steely, scared, and sad — peering through thin curtains of pooldamp blonde hair, half of it smashed crudely behind her ears, licking her neck. Ripening bruises purple her thin, pale arms, giving her the appearance of a fallen nestling, thin and floppy, not even worth a cat's time. Or a trapped bird, stuck in a house, banging against the windows, not dead yet but dying to get out.
The girls jockey for position as they queue for soft serve and french fries, doing their part to contribute to the obesity epidemic. But she just sets herself in place, sliding in without a word or an elbow, neither first nor last. On the surface she looks just like them but I can clearly see she is not. What they are is a neighborhood swim team or club of some sort, and she is not a team person. She is "take your sister with you." And she is "but Mom." And she is "no more buts, you take your little sister with you or so help me." And she is ignored, here and everywhere, yet content in her moments, and in this moment she is simply and wholly in line for an ice cream cone, just as I am in line for my dinner, and I know her.
I know her.
A void opens near the counter, and I instinctively step forward, filling the space to keep things whole. While I patiently wait my turn, I am as always trying to monitor my surroundings, watching for threats, but my attention keeps getting drawn back to this noisy horde of girls, their pudgy fingers fumbling with fistfuls of paper and silver, unable to decide what they want.
I have already decided.
The cool air sends chills down my sweat-soaked spine, raising gooseflesh in anticipation of something that has not fully hit me yet. The back of my mind is still putting it together, spinning, measuring, cutting as I watch the girl, alone in this crowd just like me. She does not want to be here. She wants to be else: somewhere else, someone else. She seeks focus, calm amidst the storm, and finds it by staring at the coins in her tiny palm. She fails to notice me watching her, sees nothing at all but the coins, the coins, the coins she got from daddy.
She drops them when I take her.
* * *
"He's not so tall," was my first thought.
It seems odd to think that now, because back then everything seemed tall, surrounding. Even him, at first glance. But somehow I could tell it was an act, a lie. Beneath the trappings, the posturing, he was just average: average height, average build, a body built from more flight than fight. Average looks too, although I think I thought he was just a little bit handsome back then, even if he was clearly headed towards the low end of the spectrum as middle age dug its claws in. Gray hair hung like feathers in his face, peppered with bits of black where the dye didn't wash out; it was the longest he'd ever worn it and the longest he ever would. His eyes were brown and warm that day, flecked with just enough green to pry the word "hazel" from witnesses' lips. Intentional, as was everything: the scuffed black boots, the thrift store trench, the dirty baseball cap, even the months-old beard, scratchy and uncomfortable and completely atypical for him.
He wasn't someone you would notice on the street, or on a subway, or in line for fast food. He was a nobody. And that, of course, is why he was what he was.
Some people claim we are in total control of our lives. They say we have the power to change our present and our future just by making a series of small choices from the menu of life, slowly building up the story of who we are, and who we wish to be.
Others say our lives are predetermined, that we're simply living out a set of instructions like a character in a video game. Just a bunch of pixels pretending to have free will, controlled by a bit of code that determines everything: hunger, thirst, fear, and fury.
When I was eight years old, I was abducted from a fast food restaurant by a man who took me, in all likelihood, because of a small splotch of mayonnaise on his hamburger. And so I believe in neither free will nor predetermination.
I believe in condiments.
* * *
The conversation before me ends, another customer served, so I step forward to place my order. Described literally, it is as follows: a large box of greasy starch sticks steeped in sugar and salt; a sandwich containing four ounces of low-grade, rancid beef scraped out of a drain, seared for ninety seconds before being placed into an unnaturally soft sesame seed roll (plain, absolutely no mayo); and a small cup containing a tiny amount of sugar-free cola-flavored syrup, a large quantity of ice, and some fizzy water for good measure. Large fries, plain burger, small Diet Coke. Simple.
"You want the combo, then?" The countersheep speaks in a thick, indeterminate accent. I swallow hard, silently wishing he had chosen a different career path. "If you get the combo you can get a large drink for less —"
"The large is bigger than my bladder. No one should consume so much liquid at one sitting."
"But it —"
"I do not want the combo." Luck is being pressed here, instead of buttons.
"Okay ..." He breaks off into mumbles, and before he can even think to ask me about dessert, I toss some cash on the counter. He seems confused that I have given him exact change, but eventually he hits the right buttons to make the drawer splat out, then turns to assemble my order.
I sneak a glance at the little barefoot girl, still in line. Her friends are off in a distant corner of the lobby, laughs mingling with piped-in hip-hop, a whitewash of spine-grating irritation. She looks so alone, yet not unhappy.
To his credit, and my honest surprise, the countersheep shoves a tray of food into my elbows, derailing my thoughts. Shocked by his efficiency, I wordlessly step aside to let the next person order but find no one behind me. My little white dove is two places back, and her friends are enjoying their ice cream. This is not a difficult decision.
I turn and stoop to her level, mentally daring the people in front of her to defy my wishes.
"Come over here," I say. "This line is shorter."
She looks startled, confused, but nods dully and steps up to the counter, eyes barely high enough to see over the top. She reaches up to drop a handful of coins, the last few sticking to her moist palm for a half-second before peeling away to join the rest.
My good deed for the decade done, I walk to the so-called self-service station, because they no longer see fit to give me napkins, straws, and condiments at the counter. I collect what I need, squirt some ketchup into a cup, and put it all on the tray, just so. But just as I turn to head for my usual corner booth, I get that feeling in my gut that something is not right, so I set the tray back down and unwrap my sandwich. And of course, of fucking course, it's not plain at all. It's wrong. It has pickles and cheese and onions and horrible, filthy mayonnaise all over it.
I spin, furious, and bring the tray back to the counter, only to discover to my chagrin that the barefoot girl is still there. The sheep looms over her from behind the counter, clearly being anything but helpful.
"No shoes, no service," he says. And then he reaches out, puts his hand on the counter and — I cannot believe he actually does this — he pushes her coins off the edge. I am aghast at the pointless brutality of his action, and yet for some reason I'm unsurprised by it.
"Can I help you?" he asks, looking me in the eye as coolly as if the coin thing hadn't just happened. And though they still dance underfoot, I too forget the coins for the moment. As they say, in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, you put your own oxygen mask on first.
"I cannot eat this," I say, slamming the tray down. "It has mayo on it. I said no mayo."
And at this point he should take it back, apologize, and make a new one. That's how this works. Instead, he for some reason decides it's not worth his time to play nice.
"Can't you just scrip it off?" His accent seems thicker, and it takes me a moment to interpret. I don't know how to respond. The suggestion I just scrape mayo off anything is appalling. But his dismissive tone is what pushes me towards the edge. What about "the customer is always right?" The doting sycophancy that was company policy for so long? Fuck, right now I'd settle for mere civility.
Deep breath. Hold it. Exhale.
"I can't just scrape it off. I am allergic to eggs."
"There's no icks on our burgers."
"No, but there is mayo," I say, unfolding the burger to demonstrate. "Which contains eggs."
"There's no icks on there, dude."
I'm frothing at this point.
"Eggs, you dumb fuck. Eggs. Not icks. Speak the fucking language. Any language. Just pick one. English, Spanish, fucking Esperanto. Just make sense, you piece of shit."
"Would you like me to get the manager?" he asks.
People are beginning to watch. The grill cooks are staring out from under the heat lamp. About the only person who hasn't noticed is the manager.
"No," I say. "I simply need you to grasp this one simple fucking concept: I cannot eat eggs, and mayonnaise contains eggs. In fact, it's nothing but eggs. Eggs and oil. And therefore it cannot be consumed by me."
Something hits me in the shin. I look down to find the girl on hands and knees, picking up her scattered coins. She peers up at me and tries to smile. Tries.
"Sorry," she says. Voice like rain, like feathers, a soft mumble. "I just wanted ice cream —"
"No," interrupts the countersheep, who has no place in this moment. The rest of his flock back in the kitchen are egging him on, laughing. And he feeds off it, pushes his luck over the edge. "No shoes. No service. No ice crim and no icks. Now you both need to leave."
The girl starts to cry. I look up and around, scanning the room to see if anyone cares. No. Not friends, not family, not strangers. No one.
"Go," the countersheep says. "Go or I will call the police."
I cannot help but smile.
"Oh, please," I say. "Please do."
* * *
"Close your eyes," he said.
A whisper, meant just for me.
The gun was for them.
* * *
My ears ring, my eyes tear, my nostrils burn, yet all my senses seem clear, never clearer, as I look back down at her, my smile genuine for once.
"Open your eyes," I say. But she cannot hear me clearly, fists pressed against her ears, trying to rub away the noise. I kneel and take her chin in my free hand as she blinks tears down a face spattered in red. I retrieve a napkin from the floor, lick one of the cleaner corners, and gently wipe her cheek. Some of it comes off, but some things will never be clean again.
What am I doing? Run, I think. Always run. But I cannot leave her here. Not now. Standing, I reach down blindly, searching about until I finally connect with her hand, a sudden jolt as her fingers close around my thumb. Her hand is cold and wet and her hair smells like chlorine. I can nearly taste it, and forever after she will be that smell to me: clean and caustic. Deadly.
I try to pull her along, but she cannot or will not stand on her own, so I bend over and grab her up in one motion as we head for the door. She struggles and slips, the coins tumbling from her hands as she leans her head against my neck, surprisingly warm tears creasing my salty back.
And for a moment, a tiny one, all is right with a world full of wrong.
* * *
Hell, I thought. Either I was in it, or he was dragging me there. I cried, of course. I always cried easily, especially then. The more I rubbed my ears, the worse the ringing got, and the more I rubbed my eyes, the worse they hurt. I put my head against his shoulder and crammed my eyes closed tight as I could, thinking that maybe I would wake up and it would all be gone. Or maybe just me. But the steel wool of his beard, scouring my face away layer by layer, made sure I knew there was no hiding from this.
And then I slipped, and I was suddenly afraid of him leaving me behind there in that sudden mass grave. I grabbed for his shoulder with my free hand, the other still holding the last of my father's coins. But I couldn't hold both at once. I would have to let go of something.
So I let go.
I still dream about how the coins hit the floor behind us and began to dance in the blood, circles in circles. Heads I win, tails I lose.
To this day, I wonder which way that last coin fell.CHAPTER 2
I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream
Twenty-four rounds, twelve injured, maybe nine dead. Or something like that; I neglected to take a head count on the way out the door, having been in something of a rush to get into the car and on the road. I am certain about the heroes who pulled their phones out and the little shits behind the counter. As for the others? I can get the numbers later on the news.
I never did like guns, in part because of the uncertainty. Is someone alive? Dead? Is the wound fatal or not? Too confusing. In all the chaos, I am impressed I remembered to save a few rounds: always one for myself, as there are worse things than death, and an extra for my guest, because there are worse things a little girl can encounter, too. I know some by name.
She is very quiet in the back seat, or so I assume. Right now she could be singing the national anthem and it would not get past the ringing in my ears — every time I do something like this, it gets a little worse, takes longer to go away. Another reason I hate guns: they're loud. This is to say nothing of the mess they cause. People spatter a bit at close range, and my coat is filthy with blowback: blood and other bits I would rather not think about too much, including the sticky goo they pass off as a soft drink. Luckily, my little captive audience of one has avoided most of it, but there are things in her hair she does not need to see.
When we get home, first thing that happens is I get rid of the mess.
Assuming we make it home.
The key to any successful escape is focusing on where you are going and where your pursuers are coming from; everything else is mere distraction. The cat pounces, the bird flies away. There is no time for thought, just instinct. Just reflex. Fly home. If pursued, fly to a new home. Just fly.
Flying blind is unwise, so I turn my scanner on to listen for signs that police are in pursuit of a vehicle heading west on 66 at seventy miles per hour. They are not. In large part, this is because I know how to blend in. For starters, I am driving a common car; this month I have a Camry, of which there are over ten million on the road. Also, obeying the unwritten rules of the road goes a long way. Unwritten being the key — technically the speed limit is fifty-five miles per hour here, but at nearly nine at night, fifteen over the limit means barely keeping up with the flow of traffic.
I know the getaway was clean — I have been eating at that place every other day for a few weeks now, so I knew the layout, where to park, and so on. But really, my odds of escape have less to do with my own ability, and more to do with the ineptitude of others. The police are probably still outside the restaurant, positioning snipers and negotiating with a ghost. If the cameras were even recording, all they have is maybe ten or fifteen seconds that shows nothing useful. What I look like now, I never will again. All the bystanders outside saw as we fled was a white man in a baseball cap, carrying a child from danger. I will barely even register in short-term memory. Eyewitnesses? I shot two with phones and the rest ate the floor; anything they have to say is going to be mixed and contradictory. It always is.
"What did he look like?"
"Tall, but on the average side."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Blackbird"
Copyright © 2017 Michael Fiegel.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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