Ted Urban was expecting someone different. Someone taller, for sure, and someone dressed differently. If the person standing before him were a baseball player, the visitor might be listed as five foot, six inches in the press guide. That, as is typically the case with press guide descriptions, would be an exaggeration. The individual was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, white shorts, and light tan sandals. Urban stood up from behind a massive mahogany desk and offered his hand. “Hunter, please take a seat. Make yourself at home. Can I offer you something? Um, cigar?”
Hunter glanced around the office and immediately noticed the pictures. There was one prominently displayed on Urban’s desk. There were photos on every wall, on tables and in the bookcase. Hunter imagined there were photos in Urban’s wallet as well. “You can offer, but I’m not taking.” The voice was shockingly high pitched. “How’d you find me?”
Urban grabbed a stick, meticulously cut the tip with a shiny wedge cutter and lit the cigar, slowly rolling it around in his fingers as the flame jumped in spurts from the stogie’s end. He spoke between puffs. “You know. A friend of a friend of a friend, one of those deals.” Urban put the cigar back in his mouth. His leather chair barked as his massive weight leaned back. “I’ll pay handsomely, Hunter. I want this sonofabitch dead. He took me for a fucking fortune. Now, I’m willing to pay double that fortune for his hide. I was told I could count on you, for, you know, discretion and a clean job.”
Hunter’s ass lifted off the seat. “Not interested.”
Urban removed the cigar and carefully placed it in a large oblong onyx ashtray. “You haven’t even heard my offer. I’m willing to pay you…”
“Do I stutter? Not interested.” Hunter headed for the door.
“Wait!” Urban was out from behind his desk with alacrity that defied his bulk. “Of course I hoped you wouldn’t take the job. I was, you know, just testing you. Well, kind of testing your morals as a killer. Make sense?” Hunter said nothing. “Please, don’t be insulted. Take a seat, again. Please.”
The two returned to their respective positions at Ted Urban’s desk. “Forgive my little game. I just had to be sure, that’s all.” Hunter remained still, so Urban continued. “I’m generally not in the murder business. That’s why I’d like to hire you. What they say about you is true, huh?”
Hunter checked the time on a thick gold watch. “Depends.” The voice sounded like Tiny Tim.
“C’mon, you know. You kill people who’ve killed.”
Hunter was playing a sandals game. The two sandals were propped against each other so that they were standing on their own, forming a perfect equilateral triangle with the plush carpet. Hunter snuck a glance at the newly created work of sandal art. Hunter’s toes dug into the carpet. “I do. There, we’re married. Get to the point.”
Urban puffed furiously at his cigar in an effort to get it going again. “What about potential killers? Do you kill potential killers?” Urban detected a slight break in Hunter’s poker face. “Six thousand dollars, and you’ll be doing society a favor.”
Hunter got up, walked barefoot to the window and peered out of the sixth floor office. A cop was placing a ticket under the windshield wiper of a metallic copper colored vehicle. Turning back, Hunter examined the books lining Urban’s bookcases and lifted a framed photo of a young boy in a little league uniform showing a big smile and a bat on his shoulder. “Does my being here have anything to do with him?” The boy was in all of the photos displayed around the office. Some shots were candid, some posed, sometimes the boy was alone, and in others he was alongside Urban. The boy appeared happy, full of life. Hunter gently replaced the framed photo and sat down.
“That’s Sam. Recognize him?”
“No. Should I?”
Urban rubbed his hands through thick graying hair. “His picture was in all of the papers. He was front-page news for a few days. His fifteen minutes of fame.” Urban removed a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his eyes.
“I don’t read the papers. Too much bad news.”
Urban cleared his throat. “Sam is my son. Was my son, that is. No, is my son. He’ll always be my little guy. Fact of the matter is, he’s dead, killed by a drunk driver. He was on a school bus coming home a little over a year ago, 386 days to be precise. It was Sam’s sixth birthday. He was sitting in the last row of the bus probably thinking about opening up his presents when he got home. This was in the middle of the afternoon. Some drunken bastard in one of those huge SUV’s rammed the back of the bus. My little Sammy had no warning and no chance. He was my life. My wife died of cancer when Sam was three years old. He’s all I had and he was taken from me by a low-life drunk.” Urban pounded a fist on his desk.
Hunter looked down. The standing sandals had fallen. “Sorry. You want me to kill the guy who killed Sam?”
“You can’t. He’s already dead.” Now, it was Urban’s turn. He picked up and stared at the desk photo of Sam. He wiped away a thin layer of dust with his handkerchief. “Frank Fink. Hell of a name, huh? Hell of a name for a hell of a human being. He’s dead, too. He died in the accident as well. I’m hiring you to kill someone who hasn’t killed anyone. Yet. I want you for the first time to kill someone who has never killed another person. A potential killer.”
“Someone in particular you have in mind?”
“Nope. I simply want you to prevent a killing by eliminating someone. I don’t know whom. I don’t really care whom. I want to prevent another parent from experiencing the living hell in which I currently reside.”
“Look, Urban, I don’t…”
“I’m hiring you to sit in a bar or a restaurant or a strip joint or a hotel, wherever the hell people drink, and watch. I want you to watch closely at who drinks too much. Let’s say the magic number is six. Ha! Fuck the number six.” Urban started to get up but thought better of it. “Watch for anyone who has more than six drinks. Then, I want you to follow them to see if they get into a car or truck or whatever to drive. Then, do what you have to do and remove them from this earth. Make it nice and clean. I hate violence, and by the looks of you and what I’ve heard about you, it doesn’t appear that violence is your forte, anyway. Do away with whomever you select, as long as he or she meet the criteria. Look at it this way; you’ll be preventing a murder of who knows how many innocent people by killing one potential killer. I’ll give you half of the six thousand dollars now and the remaining half when you come back after the job is done. Do we have a deal?”
Hunter ran a salmon-pink tongue across small front teeth. The two shook hands. With three thousand dollars stuffed into the front pocket of the Hawaiian shirt, Hunter, who had a son once long ago, took one last glance at a photo of little Sam Urban and headed out.
The Driftwood Tavern was crowded and dark. A typical neighborhood bar that catered to mostly guys looking to down a few after work or after a weekend softball game. Hunter selected the Driftwood based solely on its old style neon sign which cast a depressing bluish light into the night’s air and because it wasn’t too far from home. It was a Tuesday evening. Hunter sat at a corner table near the restroom. Every time someone opened the men’s room door to take a leak, Hunter got a whiff of a sickening sweet bathroom air freshener, the kind that clung to clothing. The stench could be smelled all night. There were two bartenders, both overweight, slick backed black hair and wearing aprons. Hunter thought they could be brothers. One had a thin moustache just above his upper lip. He reminded Hunter of a 1940’s actor who had been in hundreds of movies but his name was a mystery. Both had probably been at the Driftwood since it’s opening. There was a pool table seeing action, a dartboard on the wall that was being ignored at the moment, and a large screen television. Hunter couldn’t see which teams were playing, but the volume was set loud enough so that the crowd cheers were heard over the din of the tavern. The third base coach was waving two runners home. Hunter nursed a beer and ate salted peanuts. Everything tasted like cheap bathroom air freshener. From this vantage point, Hunter could see almost everyone seated at the bar and at the tables. There was a constant flow of patrons coming and going, but Hunter focused on a table at the far end of the place occupied by three guys in their mid thirties wearing suits with their ties undone. Hunter had already counted six pitchers of beer, and now a seventh one was being delivered by the mustachioed barkeep. Two of the three guys were drinking heavily. The third was eating popcorn and sipping water through a bent straw. A lemon wedge hung precariously from the edge of his glass. Every now and then, they’d look up at the television screen when the crowd noise increased. Hunter figured that they were discussing their jobs and how miserable their lives were, or perhaps talking about some hot young thing that they had been seeing on the side. More likely, wished they were seeing.
Hunter looked at the clock behind the bar. It had been more than three hours since the guys had been drinking. The ballgame was over. Hunter looked up and saw highlight replays of the game interspersed with a couple of the game’s announcers moving their lips and shaking their heads upward and downward. No one was playing billiards. The two bartenders were doing more cleaning of the bar than serving drinks. Hunter watched closely as the three men stood up. The two drinkers were on unsteady legs. The hairs on the back of Hunter’s neck tingled with excitement. The feel of the handcuffs bulge was reassuring. The men were having a somewhat heated discussion. The non-drinker had his arm around the shoulder of one of the guys, and these two seemed unhappy with what the third person was saying. Hunter didn’t want to get too close. Finally, the three men headed for the exit door. One of the bartenders waived his rag, said “goodnight, drive safely,” and continued drying glasses. Outside, the three men hugged and fist bumped each other. “I’m fine. Really. Thanks.” The tallest of the three was walking away from the other two. Hunter watched. Two of the men, one of whom wasn’t drinking, headed together toward a white Nissan Maxima. The non-drinker helped the other into the passenger seat, then walked around the car and got behind the wheel. He was the designated driver. Hunter turned toward the tallest of the three who staggered near one of the light posts. Hunter heard a loud belch and then watched as the drunk dropped his pants and urinated in the parking lot. The man began singing an old Four Seasons song as he walked toward a Honda Accord, began fumbling with his keys, and then dropped them. Hunter approached. “Here, let me help you with that,” picking the keys up off the pavement.
The man was briefly startled. “Who da hell are you? The tooth fairy?” The man began laughing. Hunter pulled out a wallet and flashed a badge. “A cop? You? A midget cop with a fairy voice, hell I must be dreaming. Right?” Again, the man laughed. “You can help me sing, ‘Sherry Baby!’ You got the voice for it. Let’s try it.” The man was loud. He started singing again.
Hunter opened the car’s door. “Sir, you’re intoxicated. I can not permit you to drive yourself home in this condition.”
“I’m not drivin anywhere. Shit, you smell like a bathroom…”
Hunter cut him off. “That’s right. I’ll drive you home. It’s my duty and obligation.”
“Hell no, you see I…”
“Shut up. Shut your goddamned mouth right now!” Despite the size differential, Hunter manhandled the drunk into the passenger’s seat of the vehicle. “Just keep your mouth shut and I’ll drive you home.” Hunter gunned the car in gear and headed east on the main drag.
“Where in hell you taking me? I don’t live this way. Shit. Jeez, I gotta pee. Pull over.”
Hunter ignored him and blasted the radio to drown out the man’s bitching. After a five-minute drive, Hunter pulled into the driveway of a secluded split-level house. HUNTER was printed in block letters on the mailbox. Hunter got out of the car, opened the garage door, and drove in. The man was still screaming.
“What the hell you doing? Where the hell are we? I gotta pee so goddamned bad. Listen, my wife is com…”
Hunter pulled the cuffs and secured the drunkard to the steering wheel, then opened all the windows in the vehicle and left the car engine running. When the garage door was shut Hunter entered the house via the front door, disconnected the carbon monoxide detector and walked back out.
In the morning, Hunter opened the garage door, let things air out for a few minutes, and then poured gasoline from a spare lawnmower tank into the Accord. Hunter undid the handcuffs and moved the stiff over toward the passenger’s seat, turned on the ignition and drove back to the Driftwood Tavern. No cars were in the parking lot. Hunter parked and placed the dead man behind the wheel of the Honda and disappeared.
Hunter took his now familiar seat at the desk across from Urban. “You know why I’m here. Three thousand dollars.” Hunter looked at freshly manicured fingernails.
“Does the name William, or Bill Stickney mean anything to you, Hunter?”
“Not a thing. Should it?”
Urban pulled a folded newspaper from the top right-hand drawer. “Maybe, maybe not.” He opened the newspaper and flattened it against the desk. “He’s been in the news of late.”
Hunter pulled at a toothpick. “I told you I don’t read newspapers, Urban. The news is always bad. I make it my business to avoid bad news.”
Urban stared at Hunter. “He’s dead. He died sometime Tuesday night of carbon monoxide poisoning. The cops found him and his car parked at the Driftwood Tavern, not far from here. Know the place?”
Hunter showed no emotion. “That’s all very nice, Urban. I’m here to collect my money.”
“Thing about it is, the cops are saying he was murdered. See, this Stickney guy had been drinking all night at the Driftwood with a couple of buddies. He had had much too much to drink, so he sent a text message to his wife asking her to pick him up at the bar. He texted that he was in no condition to drive, but when the wife got there, Stickney and his car were gone. Vanished. Next thing anyone knows, the fucker is back at the bar the following morning, in his car, but he’s dead. Murdered.”
Hunter’s pulse increased. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying, that if you had anything to do with killing this man, well, he was no killer and from the story, he was no potential killer, either. Hunter, you killed a drunken but very innocent man that didn’t need killing.”
The reality overcame Hunter and felt like an iodine injection flowing through swollen allergic veins. With a full tank of gas, Hunter parked in the garage, shut the garage door, and sat in the car with the engine running and with windows open. The carbon monoxide detector was again disconnected. She didn’t need handcuffs.