So this was it, I told myself. Just the four of us, alone and secluded at last in Billy's swish pad, a straight angle of approach to the target.
I raised my hand to the pistol that had been tucked inside my jacket pocket since we'd left the truck stop at Sedona. Took a deep breath and a step closer to Billy across the terracotta-tiled kitchen floor, fingers grazing the rubberized hand grip.
"Actually," Steff said, wafting aloft her glass of Prosecco. "I think I might wanna take a dip in that Jacuzzi outside."
She twisted round into my line of fire, dragging Carl with her as he had an arm around her waist, both of them giggling. I whipped my hand back out from my jacket, lent it against the granite worktop. All nonchalant.
"You mean right now?" Carl said.
"Well, it sure ain't gonna rain," Billy said, peering through the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the back porch of his isolated cabin, the scorching crimson desert in the distance. His cabin was rather stretching it—it was the latest place he'd been given by the authorities to live in. As far as I could garner from what little Carl had told me, this was at least the third different home Billy had been allotted since entering the program. And by far the grandest, I assumed.
The Jacuzzi was fitted within the right-hand corner of the decking. Billy stepped closer to the windows so he could see it, Steff and Carl following.
"Will the water be warm enough?" she asked.
"Sure," Billy said. "Just flick the switch on the wall out there and give it a minute. Carl told you to pack a swimsuit, right?"
Steff squealed with delight and bolted from the room to go upstairs and unpack her suitcase.
"You've landed on your feet big time with this place, huh?" Carl said, nudging an elbow into his brother's ribs.
A sheepish look swept across Billy's face. "Ah, you know."
"No, I don't."
"They trust me. It's been a few years, after all."
"Yeah, but still—this place," Carl said, spreading his arms wide to indicate the spacious and spotless kitchen, the gleaming white surfaces, the expensive digital appliances. "What are you doing with these guys to get all this?"
Billy chuckled, but I sensed a nervous edge to it. He pulled a sideways glance in my direction, acknowledging me for the first time since we'd shaken hands on meeting at the front driveway after Carl, Steff and myself had arrived in the rented Toyota Land Cruiser fifteen minutes ago. He looked back at Carl.
"Well, let's just say the boss has grown to like me."
Carl looked over his brother's shoulder at me, pointed his eyes in my direction. "Now don't go worrying about Michael over there. You know I've told you all about him."
"Sure you have," Billy shrugged, slipping his hands inside the hip pockets of his jeans. His demeanor was a lot less gregarious than Carl had suggested it would be.
"So what's going on here?" Carl said, looking across the open-plan ground floor layout, the large sitting room adorned with white leather sofas ahead of him. "I mean, this is a hell of an upgrade from the last place they put you in."
"I guess the boss and me both have a lot to give each other."
"You mean stuff about the old crew?"
"Say, let's get a refill," Billy said, turning away and walking towards the fridge. "More Prosecco there, Michael?"
"Wouldn't say no," I said, a cheery tone to my voice. "Although I hear from a very reliable source that you have a golf course running along the back of this place."
"Ha, it's only a pitch and putt," Billy said, smiling at his brother for exaggerating the case. Billy fetched the bottle from the fridge, came over and refilled my glass.
I winked at him. "Five handicap," I said.
"Fancy a little round out there, the three of us?" I looked at Carl. "Could sure do with shaking that long drive out of my legs, don't know about you buddy."
Carl twisted his face. "Was thinking of joining Steff in that Jacuzzi."
I nodded. "Probably best. I haven't played in a while so I reckon I'll be damn rusty."
The brothers shared a look across the room. The challenge of beating an apparently solid player lighting up both sets of eyes.
"You got spare sets of clubs?" Carl asked Billy.
Eight months earlier
The optician's practice was smaller than I'd imagined. After scanning what I could see from just inside the door, I walked up to the front desk and gave my name to the pretty receptionist. Sat and waited on one of three comfy chairs, only two of which were from the same blue fabric set.
It was Steff who came to collect me, which surprised me a little. I knew from my research that she was, officially at least, a joint owner of the business—thanks in large to her parents' financial contribution when setting the practice up—but Carl ran things day-to-day.
"Michael Peterson?" she said, bending down, clutching a clipboard close to her chest.
"That's me," I said, getting up and giving her a wide smile. "Sure is nice to meet you, Stephanie."
She raised her eyebrows as we shook hands. "Someone's done his homework."
"Aw now, it'd be an insult not too, wouldn't it?" I said, cranking up the jaunty vibe.
"Well it's nice to meet you too—and please, it's just Steff." She gestured in the direction she'd came. "Shall we?"
I followed her to the rear of the premises, where a small corridor led to three further rooms. She opened one of the doors without knocking. "So this is Carl," she said.
He was sitting behind a large oak desk, glasses perched halfway down his nose, engrossed in my resume laid out in front of him. Although they were both in their early thirties, he'd aged more. Deep lines were visible in the skin under his eyes, and his jawline was losing its definition. He got up when he saw me heading straight round the desk to greet him, my hand out wide and early.
"How the devil are you, Carl? A real pleasure."
He met my firm grip, returned my beaming smile. I knew all about reciprocal behavior, had studied it to a tee long before this assignment.
"I'm doing just fine, I guess," he said.
"A lot finer once you get this deal over the line, am I right?" I laughed, slapping him on the shoulder and releasing his hand. I turned back and took the seat on the opposite side of the desk. Steff had already taken hers next to her husband.
"Well, it is a rather … challenging time," he said.
"Pivotal, I'd say," Steff said. "A rather pivotal time, honey."
"Sure, exactly, we've never—"
"This is the first time you've had to seek funding of this sort?" I cut in. "Sure, I get it."
"We've had a few applicants," Steff said.
"But you wanna make sure you get the right one, huh? The one that feels right."
"Exactly," she said.
"The business is at a crossroads," Carl said. "Searching for a new partner to come and work with us here, it's not been as straightforward as we hoped it might."
"I think I know what you mean. It must take a lot out of you guys, taking you away from why you set up a fine establishment like this in the first place." I leaned closer to them. "The sooner you get back to spending quality time with your patients the better, right?"
They looked at each other and smiled.
I nodded at the paperwork on Steff's clipboard. "Now I'm sure you've got a ton of questions there waiting for me, and I can't wait for us to get stuck into those, but I tell you what. I've been doing some thorough research into this practice and I gotta tell you both, I've got some really exciting ideas—particularly on the marketing side—about how we can get this place back on its feet and drive it forward."
"That's great," Carl said. "Cos, we're not looking for a silent partner here."
"I hear you. And as you can see from my certificates, I'm a clinician first and foremost—I wanna be providing thorough eye tests for the good people of Phoenix, that's the top line. But I've also taken a few vocational courses in marketing and business development. In fact, I've had a fair bit of success in this area, hence the funds I have available to invest. I'm really excited about taking that expertise and injecting it into a sound business like this that has good principles at heart. I want to help you guys really modernize this place, you know? Future-proof it. I'm just bursting to tell you my ideas, if you'll allow?"
I started the following Monday.
It's amazing how far some rudimentary online research can go to making you look like the man with all the answers. A Google search of "Successful marketing tips and techniques for opticians practices" got me all the pointers I needed to blag that part of the interview. And as for qualification certificates? Please. All you needed was some basic Photoshop skills and a quality printer.
Learning how to carry out the eye tests and all that clinical stuff had taken more work. I lent on an old contact I'd once gotten out of trouble (big trouble, as it happened) whose cousin was an optician in my native Chicago. I met the guy a few times in his practice after hours, asked the right questions, listened hard to the answers—that's always the key, the part most people overlook. Paid attention to how he talked about certain procedures, how he moved effortlessly amongst his equipment. Got him to show me how to use a tonometer, a phoropter, a retinoscope, a retinal camera. For the rest, I relied on my intuition. Now that's way easier than it appears. Think about Frank Abagnale, the real-life fraudster who they'd made a film about starring Leonardo DiCaprio. That guy impersonated a chief resident paediatrician in a Georgia hospital for eleven months despite having no formal medical training. If you get the terminology and the body language right, and you control the premise of every conversation, you're working the part as well as posing it.
No matter what the industry, each business has its own habits, its own ways of treating customers, its own ways of organising appointments and filling out forms, its own culture; once I figured out how Carl and Steff liked or expected things to be done, I simply toed the line. I made a show of chatting and jibing with them whenever I could, preferably together, knowing I'd need both of them on side for what I wanted. They responded quickly. I opened up my backstory to them, they reciprocated in kind. I got to know their history, their quirks, their hopes, their fears, and tweaked my manner and conversations accordingly.
Five weeks in, they invited me to their home for dinner. Steff cooked a chicken casserole while the three of us shared animated chatter over wine in the kitchen. I let it drop that I'd been a keen kart racer in my younger days.
"You're kidding?" Steff said. "Carl used to race for a club here in town, didn't you babe?"
Carl smiled shyly.
"Well, we'll both have to rekindle that old flame," I said. I'd been practising my go-karting, of course. We made a habit of going to the track every Tuesday after work, heading back to theirs afterwards and the three of us sharing a home-cooked meal. Steff wasn't a great cook by any means, but I made comments about what dishes she was better at, made sure my remarks remained specific and consistent. It gave her confidence, and Carl liked that.
Everyone needs validation for something—their cooking, their looks, their choice of clothes, their shiny new car, their career, their lifestyle choices. Once you hooked into that, once you knew what they needed, the oxygen they needed to breathe, you fed them it to get them to warm to you.
Carl was renewing his passion for karting, Steff was becoming more confident in her personality at home and work. They were becoming better people for knowing me, and they were both sensing it.
Six months after becoming a partner in the practice, Carl and I were enjoying a quick drink in the bar over the road from the karting club, as had become our habit after an hour of letting ourselves loose on the track. We shared a joke about the owner of a rival practice in town who had an odd speech impediment. I made a particularly biting—not to mention cruel—comment about the guy and Carl chuckled loudly, was nearly at the point of wiping tears from his eyes.
"Jeez, my brother would love meeting you."
I shrugged. "Bring him along next Tuesday."
"Ah, wish I could."
I said nothing, waited for him to expand. This wouldn't work by me prompting. It had to come from him. I took a swig from my beer bottle.
"We, erm, we only get to talk in snatches these days," he said. "On burner phones."
I frowned. "What do you mean?"
"We can't see each other. Officially at least."
"No shit? Sounds serious."
"Well, yeah, it kind of is." He looked around, made sure none of the other patrons were within earshot of our booth. "He's in the witness protection program," Carl said, his voice dropping several octaves.
I scoffed, as if I thought he was joking. Straightened my face when I saw his reaction. "Shit, sorry, bud. Thought you were yanking my chain."
"Billy got into the wrong crowd when he was younger," Carl said, nodding gravely to himself. "I mean, a real wrong crowd. The local mob, nasty bastards. They own a lot of businesses—hell, probably this place."
I swallowed hard. "Right."
"So anyway, something went down, something big, I can't really talk about it."
I nodded but kept quiet. Needed him to say whatever he was comfortable with.
"And, well, Billy was caught. Along with a couple of other lackeys. They were all facing a long sentence."
"That's a damn shame, Carl."
"Yeah, so anyway the cops gave Billy a chance to cut his sentence. Not sure if the others took it, probably not from what I heard, but basically Billy did. He talked."
"Yeah, you know, about the guys he worked with. Gave them names, the structure of the organisation, where they did collection drop-offs, a few details like that."
"Wow. So that's why he's in the witness protect thing you mentioned?"
Carl nodded. "One of the conditions is that he has no contact with anyone from his old life. Including me."
"Man, that must be terrible."
"But we talk on the phone now and again, like I said. And every few months, providing the timing's right and he can get away with it, we make arrangements to meet up. He's based way up to the north-east of the state, past the canyon. It's hell without him, you know?"
"Sure. I mean, he's your brother."
"We were close growing up, real close. Less than a year between us. Steff comes with me to see him. She's great. She knows how much I need this."
"Yeah, I can see that."
"He likes a good laugh, Billy. It's important to keep his spirits up. You're someone he'll connect with, I know it. He'll get you straight off the bat."
"I'm glad you think so. Means a lot."
"So," he said, running a hand over the varnished table top in our booth. "Next time we go out there to see him, I'm thinking … you wanna tag along?"
Action was looming, the sense of anticipation coursing through my bones, the smell of murder hanging thick in the air.
Smatterings of red dust from the mountains in the distance blew across the course now and again. I could see speckles of crimson glittering amongst the fairways.
There was also the whiff of pay day. The bounty for this job was huge, way more than the initial—and still significant—payment I'd made to Carl and Steff as part of my investment. The bounty was huge because the mob needed this guy finding and whacked, needed to send a message. No one crossed them to the law and got away with it—no matter how deep they were hidden.
I'd surreptitiously transferred the pistol from my jacket to the bag of clubs while we prepared to hit the course. It was a nine-hole job. We were approaching the fifth green, verging closer to each other as we descended an incline. The cabin out of view.
"You've hit every dancefloor so far, you tiger," I chirped at Billy. He threw some banter back my way as each of us bent down to our respective bags to fetch our putters. My hands went instead to the zipped section containing spare balls, markers, and the gun. I waited until both of the guys were within range and lifted out the pistol.
I stood, still wearing that broad smile. Fired two rapid rounds into Billy's chest. He slumped to the ground as I turned to Carl, whose face was a picture of shock and confusion.
"What the hell—"
He rocked back at the impact of the shot tearing through his chest. Landed on the trimmed grass with a thud. I walked up slowly, put another in his head. Went over and did the same to Billy. Then got out my phone, stood over his prone body and took a snap that the mob boss would want as proof. I took a landscape shot as well as a portrait.
As I walked briskly back to the cabin, I let my face drop flat. Realized how much fake smiling hurt.
Steff was sat in the Jacuzzi in her sunglasses, facing out towards the golf course, her arms spread out either side of her over the top of the tub. I could see the red straps of her bikini top.
"What rules were you playing, last man standing?" she said as I approached.
"Something like that." I had my hands by my sides. Something about her laidback posture made me wait until I'd move for the gun in the back of my waistband.
I walked closer, within close range now. Her relaxed face turned into a smile.
"Well, well, well—seems you've beaten me to it," she said.
Her right arm that was stretched behind her twitched, as if gathering something quickly, then jutted forward, holding a small pistol. She pointed it at my heart before I had a chance to reach for the small of my back.
"Put those hands up. Now!"
I raised them. "What's going on?"
I couldn't see her eyes but her face pulled an Oh, please, expression.
"I've been working longer than you to get this bounty, Michael. And I'm not one for sharing."
Copyright © 2020 Paul Gadsby.
Paul Gadsby is the author of two novels, the noir thriller Back Door to Hell, published by Fahrenheit Press in 2019, and Chasing the Game, a fictional portrayal of the real-life theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1960s London, published in 2014. He has also had short stories published in several journals, webzines and anthologies, including Fahrenheit's Noirville collection, Close to the Bone and Rock and a Hard Place magazine.