The Gentle Assassin by Ryan David Jahn – Extract

The Gentle Assassin

Excerpt from ‘A Study of Assassination’, a CIA pamphlet distributed to agents

Assassination is a term thought to be derived from ‘hashish’, a drug similar to marijuana, said to have been used by Hasan-ibn-Sabah to induce motivation in his followers, who were assigned to carry out political and other murders, usually at the cost of their lives.

It is here used to describe the planned killing of a person who is not under the legal jurisdiction of the killer, who is not physically in the hands of the killer, who has been selected by a resistance organization or person for death, and whose death provides positive advantages to that organization or person.

Assassination is an extreme measure not normally used in clandestine operations. It should be assumed that it will never be ordered or authorized by any U.S. Headquarters, though the latter may in rare instances agree to its execution by members of an associated foreign service. This reticence is partly due to the necessity for committing communications to paper. No assassination instructions should ever be written or recorded. Consequently, the decision to employ this technique must nearly always be reached in the field, at the area where the act will take place. Decision and instructions should be confined to an absolute minimum of persons. Ideally, only one person will be involved. No report may be made, but usually the act will be properly covered by normal news services, whose output is available to all concerned.

Murder is not morally justifiable. Self-defense may be argued if the victim has knowledge which may destroy the resistance organization or person if divulged. Assassination of persons responsible for atrocities or reprisals may be regarded as just punishment. Killing a political leader whose burgeoning career is a clear and present danger to the cause of freedom may be held necessary.

But assassination can seldom be employed with a clear conscience. Persons who are morally squeamish should not attempt it.

PART ONE

SHED

To most men the death of his father is a new lease of life.
Samuel Butler

THEN:

He pulls the 1963 Chevy Impala to the curb and kills the engine before looking toward the rearview mirror. A police car grows larger there, filling the reflective glass, then spreading beyond its borders. He noticed it almost a mile back when there were three other vehicles between it and him but still isn’t sure he’s being tailed. There’s no reason he should be. The previous owner of the car he’s driving wouldn’t have called the police.

He’s a dead man.

Then again, he doesn’t yet know he’s dead. His death is only now about to catch up with him, as it catches up with everyone eventually.

Not that the man would call the police in any case; for some folks police are the enemy, the mere presence of a blue uniform makes them twitchy, and this car’s previous owner has been on the wrong side of the law for years.

So he and the police are hardly on friendly terms.

And anyway, can you really steal from a corpse? So this one is a walking corpse. He’ll be stilled soon enough, silenced soon enough. And wherever it is the dead go, they go naked, taking nothing with them. Even love they leave behind. And maybe that’s wise. Possessions – and relationships – can be a burden. They bring responsibility with them, and responsibility is always heavy, even when accepted with grace. You feel it pressing down on you even when you don’t realize it, like the weight of the atmosphere.

He’s about to do this man a favor. He’s about to lighten his load.

He sets fire to a cigarette and blows a stream of smoke out his open window.

The police car rolls by. The uniformed cop behind the wheel glances toward him, nods.

He touches the edge of his fedora with a leather-gloved hand, realizing too late that the cop might think it strange that his hands are covered in late May. But there’s no double-take – the cop doesn’t seem to register the glove at all, nor the recently broken nose, bent and swollen and pink with wiped-away blood, nor the gashed side of his head matted with the same – there’s no reaction at all, the vehicle simply rolls by, so he steps into the bright suburban morning, sweating beneath his brown suit, the cotton fabric of his underclothes sticking to his skin.

A chain of nearly identical houses stretches along the street beneath a white Dallas sun like a hole punched in the blue to let the light in. Lawns that look as if the green’s been applied with a brush. Porch swings creaking in the breeze. Fading hopscotch squares chalked across the sidewalk. Welcome mats that mean it.

The perfect hiding place for a career criminal. No one would ever suspect.

He glances right, watches the police car disappear around a corner, goodbye trouble, then walks to the trunk and keys it open. He flicks his cigarette to the street. Inside the trunk, a two-gallon gas can. He picks it up.

Gasoline sloshes within the can, which is about half full.

He crosses the now-empty street, walking toward one of the houses. Then up three concrete steps. He stops before a blue-painted front door. He grabs the doorknob and turns it. It unlatches. But it wouldn’t have mattered if it hadn’t; he has a set of keys – though he did leave them in the car. He pulls a large revolver from his waistband and steps lightly into the tiled foyer, looking around, cautious, gun at the ready. But it’s quiet inside, peaceful. He closes his eyes and absorbs the quiet, lets it fill him. He projects a word in large white letters onto the interior wall of his otherwise dark skull: SILENCE.

Then to his left, at the other end of a long hallway, a sound.

He rubs his gloved thumb back and forth across the revolver’s hammer spur, then heads in the direction from which the noise came.

The carpeted floor is nearly silent beneath his feet, merely whispering softly as the heels of his alligator-skin boots drag across the nap.

A closed door to his left. He pushes it open. Empty but for furniture: two wing-back chairs and a coffee table in the middle of a book-lined room, a finger-printed scotch glass resting empty on the table beside a bottle of Glenfiddich.

An open door to his right revealing a bathroom, the corners dark with shadows.

His own reflection in the mirror above the sink startles him for a moment, but he recognizes himself almost instantly, so his gun hand barely twitches.

He continues to the end of the hallway, where a third door stands open.

I choose door number three. Okay, sir, let’s see what you win!

More noise issues from the room on the other side – drawers opening and closing, a baby crying, frantic conversation about hurry it up, we don’t have much time.

A true fact: they have no time at all. He steps into the doorway.

A man and woman hurriedly pack a suitcase which is laid out across a large unmade bed. Beside the suitcase lies a black briefcase. In a crib in the corner a baby sits red-eyed, snot running from its nose, its little fists clenched tight in fury.

He simply stands there, waiting to be noticed.

Soon enough he is. The man looks up, sees him, moves for a gun on a night table to his right – an automatic pistol – but the man’s hand doesn’t come within a foot of it.

Because he quickly raises his own gun, his revolver, thumbs back the hammer, and squeezes the trigger.

The man’s head kicks hard to the right, like he was whacked with an invisible baseball bat – home run, motherfucker – and blood trickles down from within the hairline behind the temple, along his cheek at the front of his sideburn, and drips onto the left shoulder of a white shirt.

The man collapses.

The woman begins to scream.

He shoots her next, sending a piece of lead through her forehead at about a thousand feet per second. Her head kicks back hard, as if she were a PEZ dispenser – have some candy, kid – and the screaming stops.

He tosses the revolver to the floor, its purpose served, and walks to the bed. He opens the briefcase and looks inside, smiling at what he finds there. He latches the briefcase once more and lifts it, then begins dousing the place with gasoline, the fumes from the liquid making his eyes water. The smell is strong and hot in his nostrils.

The baby continues to wail as he pours gasoline onto the carpet.

He ignores it, tries to ignore it, and backs his way toward the front door, emptying the can – the last of the liquid swimming with flakes of rust – and after he’s done he tosses it aside. It hits the floor and rings out hollow, like a cracked bell. He lights a match and watches it burn. The flame turns the blond wood black. He drops it to the floor before the flame reaches his nicotine-stained fingertips. The gasoline ignites with a whoosh, lighting up the place.

He steps back out into the sun with the briefcase in hand, the sound of the baby’s cries echoing in his skull, and makes his way across the street to the Chevy Impala.

Behind him, the house continues to burn.

He tries to shove aside thoughts of the screaming baby within, an innocent too young to be a problem, but he can hear its cries even now echoing within his skull.

He tries not to look over his shoulder. But of course he does look.

For a moment he watches orange flames flicker behind the glass of the bedroom window, as if it were a giant jack-olantern, then he once more walks toward the house. He feels very strongly that he will regret this decision, but he can’t stop himself. Despite what he is there’s something soft inside him, something that cannot tolerate the innocent wails of a child too young to speak.

Especially since he believes the child is his own.

NOW:

1

Andrew stepped into the warm air of the fading day and pulled the front door closed behind him. He could still hear the muffled sound of Melissa’s angry voice coming from inside, but he ignored her curses and walked down the concrete steps to the parking lot which sat behind their apartment building. By the time he reached his car, a twenty-two-year-old MGB GT which had rolled off the lot the same year Nixon was elected to his first term, she’d been silenced by the distance between them. He fell in behind the steering wheel, turned the key in the ignition, pumped the gas pedal. The engine roared to life.

He sat motionless, both hands gripping the steering wheel. He stared through the windshield at nothing in particular. He exhaled.

A mere two weeks ago he’d have thought this impossible. Now it was happening, it was reality, and all because of an old man’s heart attack and a stack of envelopes left in a dresser drawer. He almost wished he hadn’t found it – his life and his emotional state had been in turmoil since he innocently picked up that rubber-banded bundle – but he had, and the envelopes’ contents could not be ignored. Not by him. There were too many questions that he needed answered. Questions he’d been asking for years.

He backed his car out of the parking spot and pulled out into the street. He listened to the radio while he drove and thought about nothing at all, and when he got where he was going fifteen minutes later he remembered not even so much as a single moment from the drive over. Had he stopped at red lights? He didn’t know. Had he liked the songs that played on the radio? He couldn’t even remember what they had been. Where the drive should have been in his memory was emptiness, a dark gap.

But this was nothing new: his entire history was a shelf of empty books. Take one out and flip through it, you’d only find blank pages one after the other forward to the end.

He pulled to the curb and killed the engine. He looked through the passenger window to the dilapidated facade of the Thirsty Fish. Someone who didn’t know better might assume the place had gone bust several years ago – the windows painted black, the door closed, the neon sign unlighted – but he did know better, so he stepped with dirty Converse into the street, hopped up onto the gum-dotted sidewalk, made his way inside.

Any other bar he’d have been carded as soon as he pushed through the door – if you passed him on the street you’d see a skinny kid of maybe sixteen or seventeen in tattered Levi’s and a T-shirt, with a bird’s nest of choppy Supercuts-trimmed blond hair, sharp blue eyes, and acne scars still pink on his cheeks – but they knew him here, which meant they knew he wasn’t exactly what he appeared to be. Skinny he was, five seven and a hundred and twenty pounds, but also a full decade older than he looked.

He stood in the doorway squinting at the other patrons as his eyes adjusted to the light in the room, or the lack thereof, darker by far than the early evening sidewalk out front, and the faces came into focus, rose out of the darkness like surfacing sea creatures pale and round, but not one of them the face he wanted to see.

He glanced at his calculator watch and saw he was about ten minutes early. He ordered a beer and walked to an empty table in the corner. The table’s surface was streaked and damp and had the musty stink of a days-in-use bar towel. He took a sip of his beer and set it down, wiped the moisture off his lip with the palm of his hand, then wiped the palm of his hand on his Levi’s. He watched the door and felt sick to his stomach.

It wasn’t every day you had the chance to track down the man who’d killed your mother.

And in his case that man was also his father.

He’d been in the room when it happened, but had also been a mere eighteen months old, far too young for memories to form – except he thought he could remember it. But maybe he was fooling himself. He knew he had at least one false memory, and it was as clear in his mind as the room which now surrounded him. Time had neither decayed nor rusted it.

A seven-year-old boy opens his eyes to find himself floating several feet above his bed, sheets and blankets hanging off him, as if off a high tree branch. He pushes them from his body and lets gravity take them. They fall in a pile to the mattress below. The ceiling is very close, only a foot or so from his face. He can see the texture so clearly, the fine cracks in the plaster. He pushes off the surface and swims through the air, pushes his way out of his bedroom, floats down the hallway. The air is cool and crisp and dark, but not so dark that he can’t see. He can see everything as he floats into the dining room, over the dining table and the bowl of fruit which rests there. Everything is sharp with color, vibrant. If he wanted to, he could reach down and pluck an apple from the bowl, but he doesn’t want to. Instead, he pushes himself off the walls in the room, and laughs as he bounces from one to another, moving effortlessly and with grace. He feels wonderful and free and full of joy.

It was, in fact, the only time he could remember feeling that way – absolutely without burden – but the memory wasn’t real and couldn’t be, for it was filled with impossibilities. He knew it wasn’t real despite the persistent feeling that it absolutely had to be. It had to be because it felt like a memory – not a dream, not a fantasy, but a memory – and people did not remember things that hadn’t happened.

Except apparently they did.

So maybe what he remembered of his mother’s murder was false as well. Maybe his memory was only of his visualization of descriptions in newspaper articles he’d read years later while huddled before a microfilm reader in the public library.

Even if the event had been so traumatic as to burn itself into his brain, as to brand itself upon his brain, there was no reason to believe his recollection was accurate. He’d heard once while listening to public radio that every time you remembered an event you were only recalling your last recollection, not the memory itself. The person who’d explained this, a scientist discussing his research, had compared the mind to an old VHS tape. Each time you remembered something, he’d said, you were in effect making a new recording of the event, taping over your last memory even as you recalled it, and with each new recording the quality was poorer. New errors entered the memory, false information. Your current state of mind affected how you perceived it and could even change events. Blue cars became green cars. Grass became asphalt. Good weather became poor.

So it was possible that his recollection of his mother’s murder was false, but he didn’t think so. He knew his memory of flying was not genuine because it was filled with impossible things – and because it was so clear. None of his actual memories from his childhood were nearly so vivid. They were each nothing but a length of grainy footage full of scratches and unlighted corners. His memory of his mother’s murder was the same.

Which made him believe it was real.

He took another swallow of his beer and stared at the wall, onto which he saw projected his own past, his first and oldest memory.

He sits in a wooden crib wearing nothing but a cloth diaper. One of the safety pins has come unsnapped and is digging into his leg. He cries for his mother, wants her to make it feel better, wants her to pick him up and hold him. But she does none of those things. Instead, she hurriedly packs a suitcase. A man who isn’t Daddy helps her. He says something to her, but Andrew doesn’t understand most of his words. All he understands is that something is wrong. This man feels panicked and his mother feels panicked as well. He can sense that much even without understanding what they’re saying. Then Daddy steps into the doorway. He stands there for a long time – and why won’t Mommy pick him up? He cries and cries, but she won’t pick him up. Then Daddy raises his arm and in his hand is a strange metal thing, large and black. There’s a loud bang. The thing in Daddy’s hand makes the sound, and Daddy’s hand kicks back. The man who isn’t Daddy falls to the ground. Mommy screams. She screams loudly. Maybe the bang scared her, he doesn’t know, but it scared him, and her screaming scares him too, crazy and out of control, and it makes him cry even louder. Then there’s another bang and Mommy stops screaming. She falls to the ground. Daddy pours something onto the carpet. It smells bad and it makes it hard to breathe. He can feel the fumes from it in the back of his nose. His eyes water. Daddy backs out of the room. Several moments later the flames come. They come rushing in on the carpet. They come rushing in through the door. They burn hot and terrible all around him. He’s never felt such heat, never been so scared. Why doesn’t Mommy get up? Why doesn’t she get up and come to him? Why doesn’t she pick him up and take him away from here? She shouldn’t be sleeping now. He cries for her, cries loudly, shaking his tiny fists, but she doesn’t move. Then Daddy returns. He walks through the flames and the smoke and picks him up. He carries him through the flames, through black smoke and the stink of things burning that were never meant to burn. He carries him through the front door and into daylight bright and hot and clean. The sky is very blue. A summer breeze blows warm against his skin.

That was where the memory ended – the one memory his father had left him with – with the bright sun shining down on him. Then the screen of his mind went black and did not light up again until he was three, maybe four, and living with his grandparents, his mother dead, his father missing and probably dead as well.

He was glad the man had come back for him, it meant he’d not been completely heartless despite what he’d done, but he couldn’t forgive him. Neither for that nor for what he’d left behind: a son who made people think of a cold-blooded killer. It was in the way he walked, his love of history, the way he closed his eyes when angry; it was even in the rhythm and tone of his speech: people who’d known the man – Andrew’s grandparents, his uncle Burt – said he was very much his father’s son. It made him feel responsible for a murder he’d had no part in, and it made him hate himself a little bit. For wasn’t he a replica of this man he despised?

He wanted to find his father, to face him. He didn’t know why, didn’t know what he might get out of it, didn’t know what he would do once he was face-to-face with the man, but he knew it was something he needed to do. Yet for years it seemed impossible. The man had vanished. There was a public record – in 1955 his father had been charged with and found not guilty of conspiracy to commit murder; in 1957 he’d gone to prison for assaulting a police officer; between 1960 and 1963 there were several newspaper articles mentioning that he had ties to organized crime in the southwest and was suspected of being involved in various homicides – but after the day his mother was killed, twenty-six years ago now, Harry Combs had ceased to exist, had simply vanished off the face of the earth, air filling in the space he’d once displaced.

Maybe he was rotting in an unmarked grave somewhere. He’d certainly lived that kind of life. But Andrew wanted to know with certainty, and that didn’t seem possible.

But as he made a life for himself he thought of his father less. He spent three years majoring in American History at California State University, Long Beach, then dropped out and got work in construction, which he liked far more than he’d expected he would. There was a sense of pride he got from it that he didn’t get from intellectual pursuits. He felt like he’d actually done something when he drove by a house he’d helped to build: there was the proof, taking up space in the world. He met a girl named Melissa and they moved in together. He bought a fifty-dollar ring from K-Mart and proposed. She said yes and despite their use of birth control almost immediately got pregnant. But they weren’t ready for that – together they barely made enough money to cover the bills; if she had to quit her job to take care of a child they’d go under – so after hours of late-night discussions she’d had an abortion. It was difficult, and she’d cried about it afterwards (she wanted a child yet knew better than to have one now), but it hadn’t hurt their relationship. They continued to live together and love each other, and they continued their engagement without worrying about when they might actually get married.

His life wasn’t the one he’d imagined as a child, it was none of the lives he’d imagined as a child, but it was a good life nonetheless, a life he felt comfortable in.

Then last week his grandfather had a heart attack and everything changed.

He’d grown up in Buena Park, California, with his paternal grandparents looking after him. He didn’t know the story of how he ended up there – neither of them talked much, particularly when it came to painful matters (when he was ten, rather than tell him a cousin had died in a car accident, they told him to put on his church suit and simply drove him to the funeral) – but they were the only close family he had, his mother’s parents being dead, so when his grandmother called him from the hospital and told him what had happened and asked him to go to their house and pack some clothes and other items into a duffel bag, he’d said of course, grandma, and headed out the door immediately.

His grandfather died while he was packing the duffel bag, but he didn’t find that out until his arrival at the hospital later, at which point he went into the nearest bathroom, punched the walls, tore the paper towel dispenser down, stared at himself in the mirror and cried. He thought about the only man in his life being dead, thought about the man who had raised him being dead, and he thought about what he had found in the man’s dresser which proved, finally, that his father, whom he’d suspected dead for years, was in fact alive.

For it was while he was loading up that duffel bag that he found the bundle of envelopes. It was tucked into one of the dresser drawers, hidden behind several pairs of rolled socks.

Without thinking about what he was doing he pulled the rubber band away and examined the envelopes. None of them bore a return address but each was postmarked either Clarksville or New Albany, Indiana. There were twenty-five in all. The earliest was from 1964, the most recent from last year. He opened the earliest and pulled from within a time-yellowed typewritten letter.

Dear Mom and Dad,

I hope you’re both well. Andy’s second birthday is right around the corner.

Thinking about it makes me miss him. I wish I could see his face, but we all know that isn’t possible. I’m sending some money for you to buy him a birthday present, and to buy baby food and other necessities as well. Whatever you need. I hope it’s enough. I know expenses add up.

H

He rubbed his thumb across the handwritten ‘H’ at the bottom of the letter, feeling the grooves in the paper left by his father’s pen, for it was his father who had sent this letter and all the others, and as he did he wondered what the man was doing in that same moment. Was he sitting on a couch somewhere watching television? Was he grocery shopping? Was he pressing the barrel of a gun against the back of someone’s head?

This was the closest he’d ever gotten to him, the only indication he’d ever had that the man was still alive, but if his grandfather had not died on the same day he found the letters he might have been able to leave it alone. Probably not – but maybe.

Either way, it was only later, in the hospital bathroom, while thinking of his dead grandfather, his knuckles bloody and bruised, that he knew he was going to track his father down. Something within him demanded they meet.

He wanted to look this man in the eyes and – and what? He didn’t know. He simply felt it would offer some kind of understanding.

For his grandfather was dead and could offer none himself. Not that he would have had he been alive. Everything the man had said to him in the twenty-six years Andrew had known him could easily fit on one side of a Post-it note.

What he knew from his grandfather was what he could learn from the man’s behavior, and what he learned was that while the man might love him there was hatred there as well. His quiet grandfather hated him for walking like Harry Combs, for talking like him, for having a temper like him and a capacity for violence.

Andrew’s grandfather hated him for the same reasons Andrew hated himself.

Andrew had to confront his father. He had to.

It was something he needed to do in order that he might shed his father’s skin and become himself.

And wasn’t that what it meant to be a man?

He hired a private detective to help find him – he didn’t know where to begin himself but knew a man could not spend a quarter century anywhere without leaving evidence of himself behind – and earlier today that detective had phoned him saying they should meet.

That could mean only one thing.

He told Melissa what he was doing as he was getting ready to leave, and she told him he was an idiot, told him that stirring up the mud of his past could never offer clarity, told him she loved him and didn’t want to see him get hurt, told him he should stop this before it went any further. He told her mind your own fucking business and it became a fight. They were a couple and had been for some time, which meant his business was her business. If he didn’t understand that, maybe they should call off the whole thing. He said maybe we should, you meddlesome cunt, though he didn’t mean it, and after watching her wither and feeling a coldness wash over him stepped out into the fading daylight, pulling the front door closed behind him. He walked down the concrete steps that led to the parking lot and got into his car. He drove to a dive bar about fifteen minutes from his Long Beach apartment, and he now sat at a table there, drinking a beer and watching the door.

She didn’t understand. She came from a family which was whole. She had a mother and a father and two older brothers. They ate together during the holidays and laughed. They talked on the phone. There was no absence in her life like a missing tooth the tongue kept going to. That wasn’t her fault, of course, but the fact remained: she didn’t understand emptiness; she didn’t understand the aching hollow of absence.

The door swung open and a heavy-set man in a white linen suit squeezed his way into the bar, pulling off a straw fedora and fanning his sweating red face with it. In his other hand he held a manila envelope and a purple folder. There was no mistaking him. It was Francis Martin, the private detective Andrew had hired.

Andrew raised a hand and after a moment Martin spotted him, nodded, and shuffled over, breathing heavily from the twenty steps it took to get from the door to the table. Andrew noticed for the first time that despite the suit the man was wearing sneakers, and slits had been cut into them to give his feet room. The socked flesh squeezed through the slits like bread dough.

‘Mr Combs,’ he said, settling into one of the wooden chairs, its legs creaking under his weight. He started to put his hat onto the table, but hesitated, seeming not to like the look of the dirty surface, and after a moment decided simply to set it back on his head.

‘Did you want something to drink?’

‘No, thank you. Gluttony is my vice.’

Andrew nodded. ‘Did you find him?’

‘First, the matter of money.’

Andrew stiffened. ‘I paid you.’

‘You paid something, yes, but it didn’t quite cover my expenses despite my working very hard to do the job within those financial confines. There were long-distance telephone calls, fuel charges, and I had to coordinate with a southern private detective who cost a hundred and fifty dollars a day for his two days of work. It adds up, you see, and in the end that other fellow is still making more money than I am, though you employed me to handle this affair.’

‘What do you claim I owe you?’ ‘It isn’t much.’

He opened the purple folder, removed a sheet of paper, and attempted to slide it across the table. But the moisture on the table’s surface put a stop to any movement.

Andrew reached out and picked it up, glanced down at it, read the itemized expenses less the five hundred dollars he’d already paid the man, and saw that, according to the invoice, he owed another forty-three.

He relaxed some. ‘I have forty on me.’

Martin nodded. ‘That will suffice.’

Andrew leaned left, pulled his canvas wallet from his right hip pocket, peeled back the Velcro, slid out two twenties, set them on the table.

Martin plucked them up gingerly, folded them in half, slid them into his pocket.

‘Very well.’

He handed Andrew the manila envelope.

Andrew straightened the bent metal clasp and unfolded the top. He pulled out two photographs and a short typewritten report. His father looked old and tired in the pictures, which surprised him. His hair was brittle and gray, his face lined with wrinkles. He had spent so many hours looking at a single photograph from 1962 – a photograph in which his father stood grinning with his arm wrapped around Andrew’s very pregnant mother – that he’d expected to see the young man his father had been rather than the old one he’d become. For some reason it hadn’t occurred to him that though he’d vanished his father had continued to live and breathe and age in the real world. It didn’t seem right somehow.

This was somebody he barely recognized.

He set the pictures down and looked over the report. His father, who had changed his last name to White, lived not in Clarksville or New Albany, Indiana, but in Louisville, Kentucky. He’d married a local woman in 1968 and the marriage continued. He ran a new-and-used bookshop on Bardstown Road and lived in a brick Cape Cod in the Highlands. He was a respectable and respected middle-class gentleman whom everyone knew and liked.

Andrew stared down at the report silently for some time before looking up.

‘I guess we’re done here,’ he said.

He put the photographs and the report back into the manila envelope in which they’d been delivered, fastened the clasp, got to his feet. He walked to the door and through it. If asked he wouldn’t have been able to describe his emotional state; it was simply a strange, slightly confused numbness. But despite this he knew what he was next going to do. He supposed it had never been in question.

He unlocked his car and slipped in behind the wheel.

***

The morning light splashed in through the window bright and hot. Normally he didn’t like that the bedroom window caught the sunrise, it made sleeping in impossible, and when he had a day off he didn’t like to be up before noon, but, despite it being Sunday, he was up and showered by six o’clock this morning, and had waited that long only because he wanted to put off his inevitable fight with Melissa for as long as possible. Most of the night he’d lain awake, staring at the ceiling, waiting for sunlight to hit his window shade.

His turning mind would not allow sleep. He wanted to get on the road.

He leaned down and pulled his suitcase out from under the bed. He’d bought it for a trip to San Francisco four years ago and hadn’t used it since. He set it on the mattress and opened it, discovering a pair of underwear he’d long thought lost and a tube of toothpaste. He wondered if toothpaste went bad, but didn’t think so, and when he searched for an expiration date failed to find one, though he didn’t look hard and could have missed it. It didn’t matter. He tucked it into one of the inside pockets, and went about packing, aware of but trying to ignore Melissa as she stood in the doorway with her arms crossed, glaring at him with both tight-lipped fury and something like fear.

‘I can’t believe you’re doing this.’

‘I don’t think I’ll be gone long. I just have to see him.’

‘Why?’

He looked up at her, opened his mouth to speak, but had nothing to say. The why was a feeling in the pit of his stomach, something like dread but not dread, and he couldn’t tell her that. It wouldn’t mean anything. He knew she deserved an answer – he owed her an answer – but he had no answer to give her. So he merely stood silent and looked across the room at her. She was beautiful. Even angry she was beautiful. Maybe more beautiful for her anger. It put a fire into her eyes. He thought briefly of asking her to come with him but knew that could never work. What he had to do he had to do alone.

This was his thing, whatever it was, and she’d only get in the way. She’d only spend their time together trying to talk him into turning his car around.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

She shook her head. ‘I don’t care about that. I care about you. Can’t you see you’re making a mistake? This can’t end well. Just – just leave it alone, Andy.’

She didn’t understand emptiness like a missing tooth the tongue could not leave be.

‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘If I could I would, but I can’t.’

He finished packing. When he was done he closed the suitcase and latched it. He hefted it off the mattress and carried it toward the bedroom door. He stopped and looked at Melissa. She looked back.

‘I’m leaving,’ he said.

She nodded, but said nothing.

He kissed the corner of her mouth – she did not kiss him back – and then walked past her to the front door, once more feeling a coldness wash over him. She could burst into flames in this moment and he would feel nothing.

He pulled it open and stepped into the cool morning sunlight.

He had a long drive ahead of him.


Excerpted from The Gentle Assassin by Ryan David Jahn. Copyright © 2014 by Ryan David Jahn.
First published 2014 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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