The Shining Knight
First Published in the anthology THESE GUNS FOR HIRE
An action. A little scare, nothing more. New for me. I usually scare people, but that’s because I’m killing them. So this is a first. How hard can it be?
Probably not that hard, but I’m off to a bad start, spending thirty minutes standing on this isolated corner downtown. A couple of cabs drive by but they’re occupied and drive past. This isn’t the best street to look for cabs, because I’m standing near a stop for the elevated train; most people at this intersection are taking mass transit, and the cabbies know it.
The action will take place twenty-six blocks north of where I’m now standing. That’s three and a quarter miles. Timing is, shall we say, rather critical here. I check my watch, shake my head, pick up my briefcase and walk over to the stairs to the elevated train platform. Doesn’t hurt that there’s a woman arriving at the staircase just before me, a few stairs above. Doesn’t hurt that she has long, athletic legs, either. I’d climb a lot more than a dozen grimy, stained, cracked concrete steps to follow her.
I slide my pass through the automatic register and head up the next flight of stairs, the princess still ahead of me.
I check my watch again. Quarter past nine. On the train platform, the humidity in the July air has mixed the odors of urine and garbage and refined them into a wretched smell.
The woman sits on the yellow bench in the glass canopy, looking meek and innocent, her leather workbag between her feet, a small purse over her shoulder. Dressed professionally in a jacket and skirt and low heels. Blond hair pulled back off her face. Delicate features. Looks to be early thirties. No wedding band. Above her is a billboard for the latest sitcom with dreadfully thin women and average-looking guys, having lots of zany fun. All of their features have been altered with magic marker, none of the changes flattering and one obscene.
Besides the beauty queen and me, the only person up here is a tough-looking kid in a muscle tee, pacing around as he talks on a cell phone. I lean against a pole and wait for the train, my eyes naturally moving in the direction of the woman. That’s how it works with men, the eye always latching onto the most attractive female form. She’s the only one in this case, but she’d do in most circumstances.
You look without looking. If you keep your head still as you stare, she’ll eventually notice—that sixth sense, combined with peripheral vision, that tells you someone’s watching. The key is to keep yourself moving—check your watch, clear your throat, adjust your position, whatever—while you ogle.
I keep my eye on the young kid, too, but not because he’s black. White people are unrealistically fearful of African Americans. He says something into the phone and closes it. He looks at me just as my eyes move off him.
Over five minutes of nothing passes. My stare carries beyond the platform to the elevated tracks. Death all around us. I could throw either one of these people onto the third rail. I could push them onto the tracks, third rail aside, and leave them for a train. I could snap either of their necks. It’s an honors system, really, the whole thing. But it’s right there, if you’re looking for the invisible.
The headlight of the elevated train appears on the horizon of the track. The lady on the bench looks up, which means she looks in my direction, but I’ve already moved my eyes off her, pulling down my tie and opening the collar of my dress shirt. She makes me for a professional working late, like she is. In a way, she’s right.
The train stops with a heavy sigh and the doors on the cabins part in sync. There are a few people in each of the cars. The woman pauses a moment, then gets in the closest one. I notice her glance over at the black kid on the platform, wondering if he’s going to move in her direction, but he doesn’t. Must be taking a different train, she’s figuring. I get in the same car as the woman.
Musical chairs now. The seats in the train car face in different directions. Some face north or south, others east or west. Cinderella takes one of the seats against the wall, facing east, and I sit across from her. There are two women, a couple of older Hispanic ladies, down the way. Funny how we do that. We give each other as much space as possible. We spend hours together sometimes, on airplanes or buses or trains, without saying a single word to each other. We do our very best to avoid interaction.
Wait. Another guy in the corner. Homeless guy, wearing at least three shirts, though none of them covers his belly as he lies across two seats in the corner. He is coming to, smacking his lips and moaning softly. The beauty queen hears him and watches him struggle out of his coma. Then her eyes hit mine. I give her that universal, non-threatening smile, tucking in my lips, which is closer to a grimace than a grin, especially on me. She seems disarmed by the brief contact and casts her eyes downward. I get that a lot.
The doors close, the train exhales as it starts up again.
I look at the woman without looking, because she is even more attractive in better lighting, and it’s either her or the obnoxious advertisements for drug-addiction hotlines and AIDS awareness that run along a top shelf of the train. She has blond hair and soft green eyes that move across the page of the Cosmopolitan magazine she’s fetched from her bag. She doesn’t wear much makeup but her skin is tanned and healthy. She wouldn’t be confused with a supermodel but she has my attention, though she doesn’t indicate, in any way, that she wants it. She blinks once and looks in my direction, probably aware, as people are, that she is being ogled. Soon she returns to her magazine as I pretend not to stare. But stare I do. I make her for an athlete, for a timid woman who doesn’t seem overly occupied with her looks. The type I would normally go for. Pretty but unaware of it.
I need a girlfriend, I decide. But I have no illusions about this woman.
The rear door of the car pops open. Two young black men walk through, coming over from the adjoining car, holding onto seats as the train rocks and buckles. You hear about this sometimes, gangbangers patrolling the cars, looking for prey. They are laughing about something I can’t make out.
“Ho, now,” one of them says, his tone less spirited.
I work the car clockwise. The homeless guy seems entirely unaware. The two Latina women, hearing the punks at the other end, look at the floor, take each other’s hands. The lady across from me freezes, but her eyes come off the magazine with intensity. She’s pretty sure the kid’s reference was to her.
We rock as the train turns a corner, crossing the river and moving to the near-north side of the city. Now the sound of hands clapping.
“My, my, my.” He’s a skinny African American with a healthy stalk of hair, slapping his large hands together in exaggerated fashion. “Look-at-the-pretty-lady.” He says it like a song.
That confirms it—he isn’t admiring me.
His friend is shorter, stockier, actually a little meaner. Younger, too, looks like. Not the leader. You always identify the leader.
I peek at the woman, suddenly focusing on the zipper of her leather bag at her feet. She has just crossed her legs but now she adjusts, placing them together, her knees hugging each other, a defensive position.
“Ho!” the kid calls out. “Wha’s yo’ name, girlfrien’?”
I turn and look at the guy, make a point of holding my stare until he notices. The woman does, too—I see her look up at me from my peripheral vision. Looking without looking.
“Aw, c’mon, I’s just askin’ yo’ name, pretty girl.”
The woman’s eyes dart across mine. She is, essentially, holding her breath now. Waiting it out. Hoping she can hold these bozos off until her stop.
I look over at the homeless guy, who is stirring, but he doesn’t seem like he’ll be much help. Then I glance back over at the kid, who is standing up again, holding one of the vertical poles as the train rocks forward again, the overhead speaker calling out the next stop.
“Tell me yo’ name, pretty woman.” The kid cups his mouth with a hand, like he’s calling across a canyon to her, when in fact he’s only about ten feet away.
“Ya got yo-self a player, lady?” Punk Number Two, the younger, stockier one, calls out. He’s wearing a wife-beater tee and baggy jeans. “Ya want yo-self a boy-friend?”
The two of them enjoy that for a moment, menacing laughs, pushing each other. The young woman can hardly pretend not to notice now. Her eyes are intense, boring holes in the floor, darting about as her knuckles turn white gripping her magazine. She is calculating, no doubt. A non-response could be as escalating as the wrong response. But if her mind is racing, it doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere, the paralysis of fear.
The train stops. No one gets off, no one gets on. I half expected her to exit here, even though it’s not her stop, just to be rid of these idiots. But they might follow her, and she wouldn’t even be near her house. She’s probably made the safe move, in her mind.
“Now come on.” Number One advances, followed by Number Two, gripping a pole close to her as the train starts up again. He could almost reach out and touch her now. The woman’s chest heaves, her eyes blinking rapidly. She continues to look away from the morons, until her eyes catch mine.
I clear my throat. The punks are aware of me but don’t show it.
“What’s your name?” I ask Number One.
The kid, facing the young lady, turns his head so I can see his profile, moving his head slowly like I’m being a nuisance. “What-choo sayin’, guy?”
“I want to know your name.” I get to my feet, holding a pole lest I fall over as the train rocks along the track. I doubt I threaten too many people but I’m over six feet, wide-shouldered, and credible enough.
The kid chuckles, like he’s impressed with my cojones but I’m nothing but a pest.
“I ain’t talkin’ to you, man,” he sings in a threatening melody, like he’s already lost patience with me. He swings around on the pole to box me out from the young woman.
“Why don’t you and I talk,” I say. I suppose if I were looking for something snappy, I missed, but I have a deep voice and I say it like I mean it.
Generally speaking, people looking to make trouble want easy marks. Low resistance. There’s nothing personal to it whatsoever. The problem is, this isn’t a purse-snatching. This is the very definition of personal.
“Don’t make me turn around,” Number One says. Punk Number Two hasn’t spoken for a while, studying me.
Number One says, “Am I botherin’ you, pretty lady? Huh? Now I’m talkin’ to you.” He snatches the magazine out of her hand.
Contact. An escalation. Now is the time.
“You’re bothering her, pal,” I say. “And you’re bothering me.”
“Pal?” Number One switches hands on the pole, shifts his feet and opens himself up so he’s facing me.
The play here is to throw water on the fire, not gasoline. Chesting up to this kid might make him want to leave, but he wouldn’t want to lose face. He’d probably want to mess up mine first. That’s how anyone would look at it, anyway.
“Go back to your seat,” I say. “Keep the magazine.”
“Maybe my seat’s right here.” He nods in the direction of the young lady while his expression grows cold. The second kid moves to his left, like he’s getting a better angle on me.
“I don’t remember it that way,” I say.
Our conversation is reaching new lows.
“Listen, kid. I’ve got somewhere I gotta be, and I really don’t need your blood all over my suit. So do me a favor—run along.” I gesture with my head.
The kid pauses, blinks away our eye contact. The woman, still seated, is watching our conversation with interest, sizing me up to see if I’d be able to handle myself. To look at me, you might not think so. To know me, that’s another story.
The kid makes a point of seeming unaffected, rolling his tongue against his cheek as he chuckles. Looking to save face. There’s two ways he can do that. One of them is take me on.
“You might mess me up,” I allow. “Wanna find out?”
The other is to gain some small victory, a minor concession from me.
He takes the latter option, predictably. “Damn right I could mess you up.” He leans forward until his forehead almost touches against mine, then he’s on his way back to his seat, Number Two close behind, after giving me a steely glare.
I look again at the woman, who is deflating with relief. I take my briefcase and sit next to her, her personal bodyguard.
“Thank you so much,” she whispers.
I lean into her. “I’m not really a tough guy,” I said. “But I play one on subways.”
The kid strolls to the end of the car, by the door connecting to the next car over, and kicks an empty soda can hard, the woman next to me flinching at the echo of the aluminum colliding against the rear door.
“He’s harmless,” I say quietly, but evenly, to this woman. “I’m Scott,” I add.
She looks at me briefly, a sweet smile. Kings have sent armies into battle, I imagine, for smiles not as endearing as this one. She shakes my hand without offering her own name, which is smart of her.
The kid is on the cell phone now, talking to one of his buddies in his own private lingo, but I’ve spent enough time around gangbangers to catch a few choice words, most of which describe parts of the female anatomy.
The lights inside the train make it hard to see out, leaving me with a collage of my own reflection in the window and the passing shapes outside, the sides of brick buildings and the tops of trees and billboards advertising for home equity loans and cellular phones, as the train moves on in clunky fashion. We hit another stop, the doors open and close with no one getting on or off, including the punks sulking in the corner.
“The next stop is mine.” I say it like it’s an apology—her Knight in Shining Armor is getting off the train.
“Mine, too,” she says. I can see she’s still tense, still trying to keep an eye on the punks through her peripheral vision. She has not, apparently, found them to be so harmless.
I check my watch and sigh. “Would you like me to walk you home?” I ask, quietly, looking over at the kid who is watching us with a hard stare.
“Oh.” The woman looks at me again. “I don’t want to be a bother.”
I raise a hand. “No bother.”
The overhead speaker blares out the name of her stop, and I stand with indifference, grab my briefcase and offer the young lady a hand. Quite the gallant nobleman, am I. She takes my hand and smiles. She sees what I’m doing, not looking nervous, and tries to follow suit. We walk over by the door and wait for the stop. The kid watches us, and I make a point of watching him. I whisper a joke to my female companion, again to look not the least bit unraveled.
The car doors open and we step out. “I’ll be right with you,” I say to the woman, and I turn back to the door I’ve just passed through, looking dead-on at the kid, Punk Number One. He gets up quickly, like he might move toward the door. He shouts something at me, then the doors close between us and he slams his hand hard on the window, pressing his face against the glass.
My back to the woman, I blow the kid a kiss. He winks at me, then forms his hand into a pistol and shoots it at me.
That’s Charlie Watts for you. Always taking a risk. At least he got on the train in time—after getting the call from his colleague, the black kid who was waiting on the train platform for the blonde beauty and me. I assume the woman—whose name is Emily Taylor—wasn’t looking his way when he gestured toward me just now. Charlie always likes to have a little fun, but he’s never blown a job.
Way I heard it, Emily Taylor was a prostitute with a nice, clean-cut suburban white girl’s name. Only Emily wasn’t suburban and wasn’t so clean-cut. She worked as a secretary at a law firm during the day but spent a few evenings a week as a high-class escort, her only client being Victor Cappeletti. You gotta know Victor. He talks. He brags. Especially with the ladies. Point being, he told her things she’s not supposed to know. Things about what he does for a living. Details, too.
They told him—hell, I told him—there are plenty of girls who’d fuck a mobster, stay away from the escorts, the girls who get paid. They’re easier to flip. Emily Taylor was no exception. That’s what the Boss told me, anyway, three weeks ago.
“Feebies got her,” he’d told me. “Probably raided the escort service.”
“How sure are you?” My question had surprised the Boss. That kind of thing usually didn’t matter to me. But they didn’t usually ask me to kill a woman.
When he didn’t convince me, I’d told him, “No, thanks,” and got up and left.
He’d stared at me then, incredulous, maybe offended, too. “No thanks?”
He had someone call me again, two weeks later. “It wasn’t the feds, after all,” the Boss told me, in person, same booth, same restaurant. “It’s the Patanos.”
That changed things. A rival crime family. That meant the woman hadn’t been flipped, hadn’t been forced to work for the government. She’d probably gone to the Patanos, not the other way around, looking to play both sides into a nice payday.
“I don’t want her dead,” the Boss told me. “Just a little action. Put a scare in her.”
That made sense. If she had been working for the G, she could testify at some point and would need to be adiosed. If the Patanos were using her, that wasn’t an issue. An action would be enough.
“You don’t want her dead,” I said. “But you want me?”
“Nobody knows you.” He sat back in the booth. He looked unhappy, having to explain himself. He was the Boss, what he said was the word. But he wasn’t my boss. I flew solo. And that, I realized, was his reasoning. If the Patano family figured out who came down on Emily Taylor, they might come looking for that person. But nobody knew me. Nobody would find me.
“I’ll tell our friend Emily that we know,” I told the Boss, feeling a wave of relief. I wasn’t sure if his decision to scare her, not kill her, was because of my earlier reluctance. I thought that was possible. But I wasn’t sure.
Either way, I was glad.
The Shining Knight felt like the right call. Emily Taylor lived in one of the gigantic apartment buildings on the near-north side, so forcing my way into her place wasn’t an option. And with the Knight, we would let her know how well we knew her routine, how easily we could invade her world.
But the thing I liked most, it kept my options open.
I told the Boss I’d use Charlie Watts. I trusted him, and he knew how to play it.
The woman and I walk side by side from the train. She keeps looking behind her, for Charlie and his friend. I keep telling her, the punks aren’t following.
“I really can’t thank you enough.” The woman sighs with relief. “It’s just—something like this happened to me before. I really thought it was going to happen again.”
I don’t follow that up, because I assume that if she wants to elaborate on her history, she will.
“I’ll say this,” she adds. “That’s the last time I take the train.”
She may be right about that. I haven’t decided yet.
“Look, I’ll walk you home, no problem. The guy spooked you. It happens. No need to explain.”
“You have to let me pay you back,” she insists. “I have to give you something.”
We take the steps down off the platform. I say, “You could give me your name.”
The woman eases up a bit, smiles at me tentatively. “Emily,” she says. “Emily Taylor.”
So we’re getting closer on the trust thing.
Diamond Street is all high-rises and taverns, one big agonizing traffic jam of a neighborhood when it’s busy. It’s a Tuesday night so the nightlife is a little slower than usual, but there is still plenty of animation tickling out of the places we pass. Bars are advertising drink specials on stand-up chalkboards or enormous signs across their windows. Some live music blares out of one place, some heavy guitar and a white kid trying to rap. What the hell is a white kid going to rap about? Some ho at the shopping mall who didn’t put enough sprinkles on his frozen yogurt?
“What do you do?” I ask.
“Oh, I work at a law firm.”
“Oh, so that explains why you’re working so late,” I say. “You’re a lawyer.”
She doesn’t answer. A natural reaction, from her perspective. She just got spooked by a couple of strangers, and now here’s another stranger—albeit her Knight In Shining Armor—asking personal questions.
The shoe-shine patrol is out in force, black kids who throw some polish on your wingtips before you even know it, then charge you five bucks to spread it evenly over your shoes. I sweep my foot away at the last second, avoiding him, and the kid decides I’m not a pushover.
“I’m a lawyer, too,” I say, looking the part in my suit and briefcase. “Walker, Price. You know it?”
Law firms have their own phone directory, to which virtually every law firm subscribes. I did a check and found no law firm named Walker, Price in this city, or anywhere in the state. I stopped counting the number of law firms in this city at five hundred, most of them small, so she shouldn’t be surprised she hasn’t heard of the name.
“We’re small,” I say. “Just ten of us.”
“I’m sorry.” She looks over at me. “I haven’t heard of it.”
“Where do you work?” I ask, knowing that the answer is Addison, Bell and Myers. A firm of thirty-five lawyers practicing commercial litigation, occupying the nineteenth floor of Bentley Tower.
“Addison, Bell and Myers,” she tells me. “Actually, I’m only a secretary. My boss is starting a trial next week.”
“Who’s your boss?” I ask, because it seems like the natural thing to ask.
So my research was right. David Rosencrantz was listed as a partner at the firm, and his secretary is Emily Taylor.
“Don’t know him,” I say. “I don’t do much trial work, but I hear you about the late hours.” The only trial work I’ve done is when I was a defendant, and that was twenty-one years ago. One witness had an unfortunate accident, the other a change of memory.
I think about my conversation with the Boss. Just a little action, he’d said. Put a scare in her.
I’d agreed with him then, as he knew I would. He could probably see the relief on my face. I don’t live by too many rules in my profession, and I’ve never set any for my clients. But if I don’t want to do something, I just don’t do it. I’ve never killed a woman and I don’t want to start now. But if what the Boss tells me is true, then this one is bad news. She must have gone to the Patanos, looking for a nice lump of cash in exchange for critical information of some sort. Play in mud, you get muddy.
On the other hand, nothing is black and white. The whole fucking world is gray. I knew a guy with ice in his blood, over a hundred hits to his name, who cried like a baby when his dog had a leg amputated. Tell me that guy was all bad. This one, Emily Taylor, seems nice enough. She had a hand, she played it. It’s not like she was two-timing the Pope. Vic Cappeletti is a mouth-breathing, blood-sucking swine.
But I still haven’t decided what I’m going to do here.
“Oh wait—Addison, Bell, and Myers,” I say, like something just registered. “Jody Franzen works over there. I never met her, but we traded some nasty letters over an employment contract. Boy, she sure was a piece of work. She was tough as nails. How is she to work with?”
Now she should have no doubt about me being a lawyer. Anyone could say that he’s a lawyer. Anyone could make up a phony law-firm name. But who would know a lawyer who works in her law firm?
If she’d asked—which she hasn’t—I’d tell her my name is Scott Conrad. I’ve worked at Walker, Price for the last eleven years. The case I had with Jody Franzen was a potential dispute where I represented a company—I’d rather not say which, thank you—that fired a woman who was friends with Jody Franzen. Jody helped her out as a favor. We avoided litigation by agreeing to a buy-out with a confidentiality clause.
I was feeling pretty good about my story. I’d given it some thought. If I said Jody represented the company, Emily might have asked which one? Companies usually have the same lawyers for years. Emily would expect to recognize the name. So I said I represented the company, and Jody Franzen represented the individual, a friend. The confidentiality clause, too—kept me from sharing details and showing my ignorance.
Hell, I even went so far as to call Jody Franzen, whose phone number was listed in the directory, just to make sure—hanging up, of course, as soon as the lawyer answered the phone.
The wind lifts the hair off my forehead, carries the smell of a barbeque grill. We are getting close to Dillard Street now. Emily Taylor lives at 2459 North Dillard, Apartment 8B. Usually this is when my heart goes cold, because it has to, but this time it escalates, kicking against my shirt.
Emily Taylor has one half of one city block to convince me she should live.
“I don’t know Jody very well,” Emily says to me. “She seems okay, I guess. I live up here.”
“Sure.” My pulse is at full throttle as we turn up Dillard, the frivolous sounds from the bars growing fainter now, the relative darkness of the residential block shrouding us. I work the corner so that when we turn, she’s to my left. While I’m at it, I remove the nine-millimeter, with a silencer, from the back of my belt with my right hand and keep it to my side.
“What would you have done?” she asks me. “If they hadn’t backed down back there?”
“I would have had to defend your honor,” I answer. “I know jujitsu, karate, and a lot of other Asian words.”
She should laugh, but she doesn’t. Maybe she’s still spooked. Maybe I’m not much of a comedian. Wouldn’t be the first time someone told me so.
“I’m over here,” she says, pointing to the brick high-rise near the northeast corner, about twenty floors of condos with a four-stair walk-up and green awning. God, they pack a lot of people into the north side.
We’ve been walking north. Emily Taylor stops at the gate to her building, facing me, as I clasp my hands behind my back. “I’m wondering,” she says. “Maybe you could call me some time.”
I almost laugh. To my right, two guys wearing baseball caps, each holding an open beer can, appear in the doorway of Emily’s apartment building, laughing as they push the door open.
“Great,” I say to Emily, turning a quarter to my right, so the guys coming out don’t know what I have behind my back. I switch the gun to my left hand, tucking my finger behind the trigger.
“Let me give you my card.” Emily reaches into her purse but it spills out of her hands, toppling over on its way to the ground. She squats down as the two guys come out of the building. One guy’s telling the other a joke as they bounce down the steps.
I start with them. I raise the nine-millimeter, with the silencer, and put one between the first guy’s eyes. I kick Emily, who is hunched down, in her shoulder, sending her to the sidewalk. The second guy pulls the same gun as mine out of his jacket but I drop him, too, before he can raise it.
And I’m not even left-handed.
“Stand up,” I tell Emily, the name she’s using. She’s hardly had the chance to react and realizes that any time she had is gone. “And don’t make me nervous with those hands.”
She complies, showing me her palms as she rises. She’s not the shooter, anyway. That’s why she was ducking.
I move close to her face. “Tell me your name, and don’t lie.”
“Bridget,” she says quickly.
“I’m going to let you live, Bridget. You understand? But I want you to tell the Boss a few things. Ready?”
She nods, and says, tentatively, “Ready.”
“One: I turn down any job I want to turn down.”
She says, “You turn down any job you want to turn down,” using the same emphasis, with a little more strength in her voice now. She seems to understand that the messenger gets to breathe.
“Two: Even when I’m putting a scare in someone, I still bring my gun.”
She nods again, repeating it back to me.
“Three,” I say. “Now he’s made me mad.”
“I can tell.”
I stare at her, then laugh. “Good, Bridget.”
She appraises me, the caution gone from her eyes. “So you’re the man,” she says.
My reputation has preceded me. I imagine she was getting a decent nickel for this job, even as the set-up.
“I’m a man,” I answer. “And so is Jody Franzen.”
I leave her, heading north, wasting no further time. But I swear I see the trace of a smile cross her face before I start running.
The Shining Knight © 2005 by David Ellis