a short story by Elizabeth Leonard
warning : contains adult language
The dance track on her radio was in stark contrast with the scene at the side of the road. The flashing lights of the police cars seemed to occasionally flash in beat with the music, but overall the upbeat nature of the music clashed with the morose sobbing of her victim’s husband. She had always been repulsed by crying men. It was such a disfiguring emotion on their statuesque faces, like someone painting a perfect portrait and then running their fingers through the face while it was still wet. She sat in her car across the street watching the scene unfold, a voyeur on a play she was a part of. She watched as the dinner guests filed out into the rain, to stand around awkwardly, being drenched as the sky cried with them, waiting for the almighty powers at hand to take their information and disseminate them one by one. She watched as her victim’s body, zipped in its plastic wrapper, was wheeled across the governor’s drive and loaded into the ambulance, the only dry body amongst them. She sat and watched until the ambulance pulled away, whisking her victim and her fear chaointe away. Only when the party had dispersed and the police had disappeared, taking her nightclub illuminations with them, did she switch her radio from Skrillex to Scott-Heron, silently pull her tinted Prius out of its parking spot and head to the office.
She arrived at her office, a central, windowless room in a large complex, and parked in the back garage. Long ago they had rigged the security cameras to connect to her smartphone, her little app allowing her to shut them off for seconds, creating virtually no disruption in the feeds except when she passed by them. She always took the stairs, in order to avoid longer feed disruptions, and she only worked at night. Her office door was locked with a genetic scanner that only kept records of the daytime employees so that on the outside the place was totally legit. They were saints in fact. She adored the people who worked the daytime shift, protecting the world from vicious child predators and would-be jihadists, and serial murderers with too big of egos via their computers. A government contracted company, Guardian Spirit Private Investigations, was one of the primary groups of elite hackers contracted to monitor the interwebs for any and all suspicious activities and provide that intel to the almighty DOJ. “Guardian Spirit—the Angel over your shoulder.” She loved them and knew every aspect of what they did, but they knew nothing of her.
She worked for the other side of GSPI, the part that nobody knew about, that was most definitely not contracted by the government. Her branch focused on the poison within. They took care of the problems that would be swept under the rug if they were found by the daylight shift. The nightshift bit the hand that fed the daytime workers, handling the issues that the government could never let see the light of day. The nightshift were the angels of death.
Unlike the dayshift with their multitudes of employees the nightshift had ten. Most nights she worked alone or with only one or two companions. They did things the old fashioned way with typewriters, carbon papers, and film. Digital evidence is too easily hacked, as any daylight worker will tell you, and too easy to replicate. Paper burns, or can, in an emergency be eaten, and ink dissolves. Film is easily destroyed and Polaroids easily ruined. It was a loud place with all of the typing and most of the employees wore headphones while they worked. Most jobs were solo missions, very rarely was a team needed, and as a result she didn’t really know most of her co-workers beyond a name and a nod. She only drank when the job required it and in as small of quantities as possible. She would smoke cigarettes on the occasion, usually as part of the job, and always pocketed her butts to prevent any trace DNA from being left at the scene. She didn’t do drugs, she rarely had sex, and had no other social life to speak of. She was home before the sun came up and out as soon as it set, unless the job required otherwise; a virtual vampire, feeding on the parasitic perpetrators within the host body of our nation.
On this night, only Todd and Jim were in the office when she arrived, everyone else was out on assignment or enjoying a night off. A light on the wall flashed whenever anyone entered the office, silently alerting the workers of the entity. This was for both privacy and propriety purposes as everyone was wearing headphones and the noise of the typewriters could be quite deafening at times. Todd and Jim both looked up, offered her a smile and a wave, and resumed their work. She strolled back to the back office to see if Max was in, but she wasn’t. At her station, an empty desk in the back left corner of the room, she meticulously set up her desk for the evening report. She retrieved her Underwood from the storage closet, her paper from supplies, her carbon paper from the box in the janitor’s closet. She pulled her favorite pen from her satchel, a Conklin Crescent, Mark Twain edition fountain pen with Rome Burning ink. She pulled out her MP3 player and headphones. She pulled out her file and a small legal pad. Lastly she crossed the room and took a small vase of flowers from the desk of one of the daylight workers that had a posy of daisies and dandelions in it, no doubt the work of some small child.
With her MP3 player to her right, her note pad and file to her left, and her typewriter set and rolled with paper and carbon, she set to the work of writing up tonight’s mission to the sounds of the Kosice Philharmonic, the gentle ticking of her typewriter a mere background noise.
She worked industriously until an app on her phone alerted her that sunrise was 30 minutes away. In just as meticulous a manner as she had set it up, she began deconstruction of the desk in front of her. She took the posy and returned it to the daylight desk, putting it exactly on top of the water ring that had been left where it always stood. She returned her unused paper to supply, her carbon paper to the janitor’s closet for incineration, her Underwood to its dust marked place on the shelf. She put her MP3 player and her fountain pen back in her bag. She gathered up the bits and pieces of the file and tucked them in their manila folder, preparing to deliver them to the back office on her way out. All that remained was to attach the photos of her target to the inside of the folder. One from the beginning of the evening for her to reference throughout the engagement and one of the body, mission complete. She rifled through her satchel finding the final photo stuck in a copy of The Ghost Map by Steve Johnson. She then went to the coat rack where she had hung her Burberry trench to retrieve the before photo she had stuck in her pocket at the beginning of the night. But when she reached for the inner pocket all she found was a flannel handkerchief and a stack of false business cards. She searched the pockets and upon finding nothing she turned out the contents of her satchel onto the now empty desk, frantically searching for the missing Polaroid. She was making such a mess that both Todd and Jim stopped on their way out to offer their help.
“What’s going on?” Todd asked. She noted the concern in his voice, although she couldn’t bring herself to tear her eyes away from the search of her bric-a-brac to make eye contact.
“I am missing one of my photos,” she replied, a hint of panic in her voice.
“Before or after?” Jim asked.
“Before,” she said firmly. She let out a sigh as if saying that she lost it helped her pass some of the magnitude of the loss to them.
“Well, at least is wasn’t the after shot. I’ll go check your car. Give me your keys.” She blindly passed them off as she continued to search, as Todd returned to the coat room to check the floors and search the coat again. After meticulously searching every inch of her bag, her coat, her desk, the floor, she conceded that the photograph was not in the office. She and Todd exited the room as Jim was reaching the top of the stairs. “I didn’t find it in the car.”
“Fuck!” she shouted, stomping her foot and dropping her bag to the floor. She ran her hands through her hair, took a deep breath and reached down to pick up her bag. Todd and Jim stood there, not knowing what to do. They didn’t know her well enough to physically comfort her, so they stood around staring at the floor, fidgeting nervously, waiting for it stop. After she composed herself the three nightshift workers loitered awkwardly in the hallway in one of the camera’s blind spots, unsure how to proceed.
“I would head back to the site,” offered Todd.
“I would report it immediately,” shared Jim.
“Thanks guys,” was all she could say in response. “Thanks for your help. I’ll take it from here. Sleep well. I’ll see you around.” And with that, she dismissed them.
She walked slower than the others to avoid any more conversation, arriving at her vehicle in time to wave as they back out of their parking spots. She climbed into her black, sound-proof, bullet-proof, tinted Toyota Prius, placed her bag on the seat next to her, as she always did, shut her door and had herself a proper tantrum that lasted a full minute, complete with kicking, screaming and punching the steering wheel. Then she brushed the hair back from her face, wiped her eyes, took a deep breath, and put the car into reverse, and headed for home. There would be no sleeping today. Not until the picture was recovered.
She arrived at her flat less than fifteen minutes later, just as the first light began to show on the horizon. She parked her car in her assigned parking spot, directly adjacent to the stairs, as she always did. Once in her apartment she went about her usual decompression routine as if this day was no different than any other. She hung her satchel and her Burberry trench on their respective hooks on the wall next to the door. She went to her bedroom and removed her black heels, placing them back into their original box, and placing the box exactly where it had come from on the shelf. She stripped off her stockings, placing them in a half filled laundry basket. She took off her dress and hung it on a hanger and laid it on her bed. She removed her bra, her panties, her thigh holster, her gun. Everything went to its home; clothing in the hamper, her gun on her nightstand, the holster in the bedside drawer next to her vibrator. She walked through her apartment naked as she took the dress and hung it on the back of the door for a trip to the cleaners, while she walked the hamper to the laundry machine and began the wash cycle. She went to the bathroom and took a shower. She went meticulously through her facial routine, complete with microdermabrasion as she did every day. She slipped into her thin linen robe. She made herself a breakfast of eggs with peppers, onions, mushrooms, and cheese. She ate in silence. Most days she would have done a bit of reading, but this day she was reviewing her evening before. Where could she have dropped the picture? Would it make a difference if it was found?
The buzzer on her washing machine sounded. She moved the wet garments to the dryer. She started the drying cycle. Had this been any other day she would head to her room, slip between her 800 thread count, Egyptian cotton sheets, either read or masturbated for approximately 15 minutes, and then gone to sleep. But today was not going to be an ordinary day. This day she went to her dresser, picked out a navy blue sports bra, a neon yellow tank top, a matching neon long sleeve running top, and a pair of navy blue running pants. She dressed in silence. She went to her closet and pulled out a pair of navy blue minimalist running shoes with neon yellow laces and reflectors. She did not like to wear socks with these shoes. She took them under her arm and padded silently across the room to the bench beside the door. She sat down on the bench and put them on; first the right foot then the left. She stood up and rifled through her satchel to find her MP3 player, her wallet, her phone, her keys. She left her apartment, locked it behind her and returned to her car. Still dazed by her mistake she didn’t listen to anything on her drive.
She arrived shortly after 8:00 in the morning. She parked her black Prius silently in a small lot next to a public trail. She methodically got out of the car, adjusted her laces and spent approximately 10 minutes on the trail until she found an opening in the guardrail that allowed her exit to the road. She crossed. She entered the neighborhood on the side-walk at a curb ramp. She jogged at a steady pace, approximately 1.5 blocks per 5 minutes. She reached her mission block at 8:25 am. Scriabin was on her MP3 player. In less than 5 minutes she would arrive at the gate to her target’s home. As she jogged habitually up the street her MP3 player shifted tracks, from Scriabin to Skrillex. She smiled softly to herself, hoping this was kismet. That the photo lay just around the bend. She turned the corner. She soldiered on. The mission was not lost yet. She crossed the street, away from the target’s home. As she approached the spot where her Prius had been parked, she spotted something unusual on the ground. A Polaroid photo. A sense of triumph welled in her stomach as she reached down to retrieve the photo. She refrained from celebration, in order to not attract attention. She stuck the photo in the front pocket of her running shirt. She continued her run, energized by the exultation of her retrieval.
The crunch of gravel on the newly tar and chipped road gave the car away. Damn that tar and chip; the Prius is silent under 5 miles an hour and the silencer all but diminished the sound of the 357 Magnum. But the tar and chip is a dead giveaway. He had wanted it to be swift and painless, but that last minute sound, the crunch of the gravel, had given him away. She had turned, just before the shot, and looked him dead in the eye. She knew it was him that pulled the trigger. But Todd did his best to feel nothing. After all, he barely knew the girl beyond a name and a nod. After the job was done, he silently parked his car. He stepped meticulously out, dressed in full runner’s regalia. He approached her body in a calm and methodical manner. Someone would be by soon. He reached into his right pocket and he removed his phone. He carefully dialed 911. When the operator answered, he replied in a flat, mechanical, shell-shocked voice. “I have discover a body on the side of the road. She is a white female, approximately 33-years-old. She is wearing a neon yellow and navy blue running suit and appears to have a bullet wound to the head.” He was reassured that help was on the way and that he should remain on the line. Sadly, the call was disconnected. He knew, from experience that it would take approximately 5.8 minutes for the police to arrive. He searched the body. He removed all potentially incriminating evidence; her phone, her keys, the Polaroid, her MP3 player. Before returning to his car, he removed a small Polaroid camera from his left pocket. He snapped a picture of the body. He retrieved the snapshot from the dispenser and clamped it tightly between his teeth. He would not be letting the photo out of his sight. He crossed the street and reentered his car. Silently he drove away.
As he got onto the on ramp of the highway he became aware that there was music still coming from her MP3 player, carelessly tossed onto the front seat. He didn’t mind. As he merged onto the beltway the music shifted from Skrillex to Scriabin and he noted that her music was distinctly out of alphabetical order as he headed for home.