The Obliviist

They were crossing the bridge, on the way to meet the client, and the boy wouldn’t stop talking about Zen.

The hotel where the client wanted to meet was just ahead. Anagnostakis liked to walk whenever possible, to avoid the cameras in parking garages. This was one of the many things the boy had taken a very long time in understanding; in his mind there was still too much television, too many stories, too much of customized briefcases filled with ten-thousand-dollar trick guns, bulletproof cars, ridiculous gadgets that cost as much as a house and did one thing. Even now, before the meet, he’d had to be convinced to wear a suit.

It was one of the pan-gray Chicago days where the sun could barely be convinced to push through the rain haze. Anagnostakis anticipated nothing unusual from the meeting, but as they walked along, the cuffs of their slacks splashed from footfalls, mist speckling around their collars like sweat, he’d tried to explain that it was important to cultivate a sort of passive observation of one’s surroundings, an unfocused mental state where anything that didn’t feel right would blare out like a siren against the background noise of the ordinary. That was when the boy started talking about Zen.

“It’s like what?”, he’d asked.

“Like Zen, you know,” the boy had responded. “That Buddhist thing. The mind of no-mind.”

“I have no idea what that is, but this thing I am trying to do, you’re disrupting it, with all this talk about Zen.”

It wasn’t that the boy didn’t like wearing suits; when Anagnostakis had taken him on, he’d wanted to wear tuxedos all the time, or Italian suits, all black and silk and show. “I thought we all dressed like this,” he’d said.

Anagnostakias had told him first to drop the ‘we’: the profession was nothing to which the boy had earned the right to claim allegiance. The important thing, he’d said, is to not be seen, to look as if you belong wherever you are – to cultivate an appearance that is completely unremarkable to your time and space. This means when you are going someplace where everyone wears a tuxedo, you wear a tuxedo; when you are going someplace where everyone wears sweats and ballcaps, then you wear that. You never give anyone reason for a second look.

Where they were now, a new building in a part of the south Loop that Anagnostakis remembered as being all transient hotels and abandoned warehouses before the developers laid claim to it a few years ago, everyone was wearing suits. They looked exactly at home, down to their wet shoes, which were polished but not to a distracting shine. He’d sent the boy here a few days earlier to watch people going in and out, to see how they walked, what kind of bags they carried, what they talked about on their cell phones.

“So, he’s not going to freak out when you show up with me?”, the boy had asked.

“No, of course not,” Anagnostakis had replied. “I told him in advance you were coming. The last thing you ever want to do with a client is surprise him.”

“No, but, I mean, he doesn’t mind that I’ll be there?”

“Apparently not.”

The boy did well once they entered the hotel; he said nothing important, but neither was he silent, talking as much as he should have about nothing anyone would notice or remember. Waiting for the elevator to take them to the fifth floor, they could have been anyone, anyone: a father and son in town for a wedding, a businessman and his assistant, an agent and his client. Anyone.

***

The problem with the boy, and it had been Anagnostakis’ problem too until his old man taught him different just as he was trying to teach the boy different, was that he thought the job was all about killing. The job wasn’t about killing at all. “Anyone can hit someone,” he’d said when the boy had first approached him, two summers past. “There are good ways to do it and bad ways to do it, and I’ll teach you about those ways. But that’s not the job. If the job was just hitting, you could give it to anyone with the will to pull a trigger. Prison is full of people who thought it was just about being able to kill. The job is not being caught. That’s what gets you into places you need to be; that’s what gets you the trust of the client; that’s what gives you repeat business, what makes your reputation. That’s what you can never lose, the ability to not be caught.”

Not many people could live with what the work required. You had to learn how to drink, because not drinking would sometimes make you stand out, but you could never drink too much. You had to be at home in any kind of clothing, in any kind of place, with any kind of people: you had to completely rid yourself of any mental image of what you ‘really’ looked like. You had to speak well and you had to be a good businessman. You had to know what to do if you were arrested, but maintain utter and unshakable confidence that you would never go to prison. You had to be very, very good with money – you had to be able to manage huge amounts of cash in a way that would draw no attention, and you had to be very financially disciplined so that your spending habits wouldn’t raise anyone’s curiosity. You had to remember hundreds of little details. You had to get used to waiting for hours, months, days at a time, and you had to force yourself not to do what you were assigned to do until every single factor was right. You had to not mind spending enormous amounts of preparation on a plan that was very likely to be abandoned. He thought the boy could learn all these things, but he had to shed him of this most basic misconception.

The job wasn’t really about killing at all. Killing was the least of it.

***

“I want you to understand,” said Mr. Hedges, “that this isn’t easy for me.”

The man’s name wasn’t really Mr. Hedges. It was just the name they’d settled on to make conversation easier. People liked it when you called them by a name, even if it wasn’t theirs. They knew his real name, of course; they knew just enough about him to know that he wasn’t police or anyone else looking to put them out of the business. But Mr. Hedges he was to them, a tall and rather striking man in his mid-forties, with a lean and angular look and a slight southern drawl. He dressed like a man who can afford very expensive suits but can’t quite afford not to wear them. His room was a suite, but not a corner, the kind of room an assistant picks out. He hadn’t offered the boy a drink, and seemed amused when Anagnostakis turned one down.

“I want you to know,” he continued, “that his was a very, very hard decision.”

His money was right: it sat heavy in the boy’s briefcase, weighty packets of hundreds alongside a few legal pads and some paperwork that would give them a good reason to be carrying around so much cash in case of a police search. The first thing he’d asked, as did almost every client, had been whether or not they were armed; he’d seemed surprised, as was almost every client, to learn that they weren’t. And now, like almost every client, he was trying to explain why he wanted someone hit.

“It’s just that, well, you have to understand, Martin is like family,” he continued, in a frustratingly fleeting accent that had at least been to England once or twice. “He is family, in fact, to one of the more prominent members of our board of directors. But his behavior has, it’s putting in jeopardy – ”

“Mr. Hedges,” Anagnostakis interrupted as politely as possible.

“I’m sorry. It’s just that, I don’t want you to think…I want you to know that the reason I’m doing this is…” His voice trailed off as Anagnostakis shook his head with a slight, easy smile.

“We really don’t care why you want it done, Mr. Hedges,” he explained. “It doesn’t make any difference to how we do the job.”

Hedges swallowed hard, chasing Scotch with heartburn and nerves. “I only wanted you to know, this isn’t undertaken lightly.”

Anagnostakis smiled again, a practiced smile that held no content, only comfort. “I don’t really need you to tell me that, Mr. Hedges,” he said. “The money tells me that.”

The client ran his hands down the red silk tie and gave up his own smile, a tension-releasing wide grin meant to make friends. Anagnostakis didn’t want any more friends, but he appreciated the effort just the same. “I suppose it does,” he replied with a laughing exhalation. “I suppose I must be making a fool of myself in front of the young man.”

At this, the boy smiled himself, a smile Anagnostakis was pleased to see was as disarming as when he’d first seen it himself. “Not at all, Mr. Hedges,” he said. “We’re quite used to this sort of thing.”

This was neatly done, Anagnostakis thought to himself. The boy was used to nothing: he’d never seen a client before, never run a job before, never seen the way they always need to explain hiring a hitter to themselves in the guise of explaining it to the hitter. But the fact that the meeting was virgin territory for the boy as well as for Mr. Hedges was one of many things the client simply didn’t need to know, and Anagnostakis was pleased that he’d played it right.

They explained the only information they needed was the target’s name, address, and phone number; where he worked, how many people lived in the house with him, and if he had any physical or psychological infirmities; and if there was a specific deadline for when the job needed to be done. This information they wrote down in pencil, in a small spiral notepad which would be burned once the particulars were committed to memory; everything else they needed to know, they would find out themselves. It was at the last question that Mr. Hedges grew uncomfortable again.

“I’d need you to, to do this before he…” He swallowed another hot gulp of Scotch and looked out his window, as if expecting help saying what he needed to say would fly through it. “It’s hard to know how to phrase this, without telling you why I want it done. Martin has a, a habit. It is a habit of which I am afraid he cannot be broken. And I would very much like the job completed before he has a chance to indulge this habit again.”

For the first time since they’d been together, Anagnostakis let a worried look cross his face in front of the boy. This was unexpected, and he didn’t want anything unexpected at the boy’s first client meet. “Is this habit,” he asked, “without getting too much into the particulars, something which is likely to attract the attention of the police? I mean to say, not in general, but in specific – is it likely that the police are already paying him an unusual degree of attention? Because that would make our job more difficult.”

“I am certain,” Mr. Hedges answered, “that he has not got their attention yet. Which is why it’s all the more important for this to be done before he busies himself at this, er, hobby again.”

He paused to drain his glass, the ice loosening and crashing around the tilted edge as he tossed back the Scotch. “Martin,” he concluded, “does very bad things.”

***

Back home at Anagnostakis’ unassuming Oak Park house, he made travel arrangements to Los Angeles on line while the boy paced the study, chewing gum. He’d picked up the habit when Anagnostakis made him stop smoking. “What do you think he meant,” the boy asked, “bad things?”

“It’s probably nothing important,” Anagnostakis replied as he printed the confirmation slips for their flight. The boy had been surprised at first that he made all his travel arrangements himself, but it was only information about the client or the target that don’t get put in a computer or in any paper you keep. Everyone travels on business, he’d said, and not using a travel agent means one less person who sees you or hears your voice. “People like this, I know how he made it sound, but it’s probably either embezzlement or some kind of tax dodge, in which case even if some law is watching him they won’t be looking for anyone to come after him, or it’s a sex thing. It’s probably a sex thing.”

“What if it’s not, though?” the boy asked. “What if it’s something worse?”

Anagnostakis put his credit card away and turned to the boy. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “The work is the work.”

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