Grabbing my keys I headed for the door, pausing briefly in front of the hall mirror. Would this be it? Would I be able to stop myself? I pulled the door shut and made for the car. Who does she think she is? I said I loved her, not that she could dictate my life. The engine roared to life and I backed out of the drive almost instinctively, almost without looking.
My job is my life. My identity. Could I change who I am because of one girl? Did I want to?
The streets were a blur. The same streets I’ve driven everyday for almost a decade. Could I stay here if I stop doing what I love? This small town accepted me, accepted my peculiar ways. I have friends but no one questions my absences too deeply.
“Work,” I tell them, sighing as if it’s a chore. “Keeps me busy, keeps me away longer than I’d like.” Without work I’d have no excuse for missing the barbeques and christenings. I’d need a new elusive job. I turned the last corner that took me out of my little town, took me into the unknown. I grabbed my phone, replayed the last voice message.
“Joe, its Sally. I know we haven’t spoken in a while. After what you told me I,” a brief pause, I could hear the slight nervous tremor in her breathing. “Well I didn’t know what to think. I needed some time. And now, if you can promise me that one was the last one, the last job, I can move on. We could start fresh.” Another pause. I know her; knew she was weighing up what to say next. “Call me,” was all she said. The phone beeped, a mechanical voice said “End of message. To delete message, press one. To save it, press two.” I pressed two hastily.
After my last work trip I had come home, tired, achy, battered and bruised. My clothes were torn and all I wanted was a hot shower. I was so tired that I had forgotten about showing Sally where I kept the spare key. ‘Only for emergencies’ I’d told her. She’d agreed. She had decided to surprise me on my return home. Not a good idea. Waiting in a darkened room almost put her life in danger. Once I had pinned my girlfriend against the wall with a blade to her neck I knew I had to explain my ‘business trips’ to her.
She had sat in silence as I explained my line of work to her. Explained how it was mercenary, almost necessary really. That was a month ago. She had walked out, seemingly calm and collected, and I hadn’t heard from her again until last night. And her timing was impeccable, as usual. She called just after I’d received word from my boss.
“Joe. Jack. Tomorrow. Same place. Five o’clock.” End of message. I checked the clock, ten to five. I was going to be early. I slowed the car and eased into the almost empty lot. We’d been using this car park as a meeting place for a few years now. For someone who had to be almost invisible, being a creature of habit was actually a good thing. I spotted Jacks car pulling into the lot behind me.
In the movies, it’s always black cars and guys in suits and sunglasses. The reality is much different. I mean I understand the suits thing, no one stands out. No remarkable features. But realistically, and in this heat, a suit would only draw attention. I stepped out of the car and was alongside Jack’s door before he had stopped.
“Jack,” I nodded in greeting.
“Joe.” He opened the door, grabbed something from the passenger seat and stood to meet me. We shook hands. I had never known him as anything other than Jack. Nor did I want to. The less we knew about each other the better. Though, after all this time, I barely remembered what my own name was, before.
Jack held a file under his arm.
“That it?” I asked. The question more a formality, more a ritual than anything else.
“Yup.” Jack handed it over. I didn’t open it. Not here. No need.
“Anything I need to know?”
“This one has a flair for the dramatics. Give ‘em a real show!” A smirk appeared on Jacks lips.
“Always do Jack, always do.” Most of this conversation was habit, formed over years of repetition. Jack moved to open the car door, the formalities – and his job – complete.
“Jack,” I stopped him. “Can I ask you something?” If he seemed surprised at the break from our usual script he didn’t show it.
“Ever known anyone to get out of the business and survive?”
“Depends on your definition of survival.”
“You know, marriage, kids, normal job, all that stuff.”
“That’s what I thought you meant.” Jack opened a stick of gum and began to chew, staring at the space behind me, not looking directly at me. He almost looked sad.
“Well, have you? Known anyone to do it?”
“Not in my lifetime. You can get out of the game but live a ‘normal’ life? Ain’t gonna happen. People like us can’t live a normal life. You’ll always be looking behind you, wondering if someone suspects; wondering if someone recognises you. And as for the tools of the trade? Do you really think you could give those up? Trust me, there will always be something lingering in wait in the boot of your car, just in case.”
I had never heard him say more than a handful of words at any one time. This was a shock.
“I know why you’re asking. It’s a girl, correct?” I nodded feebly. “If you love her, really love her, and if you’re willing to spend the rest of your life – and I do mean until the day you die – protecting her, looking out for her and keeping her safe, then I say try. If you can do all that equally as well as you tackle what’s in each file I give you, then run. That’s what life should be all about.”
“Thanks Jack.” I shook his hand, he held onto mine with both of his hands, large and scarred.
“Listen to me Joe. If you have the slightest doubt about her, or about leaving all this behind, don’t do it. Those fears will eat you alive. And that will be worse than spending your life wondering what if.”
He dropped my hand and got into his car. I walked to mine and sat in the drivers’ seat as Jack pulled away. I put the file on the passenger seat, unopened. This time I wanted to know as little as possible. I started the car and left the lot, taking a meandering route back to town. Less than half way back I pulled over. I couldn’t concentrate. The papers next to me were taunting me. Part of me wanted to tear the papers in half, scatter them along the roadside like paper petals. My hand rested on top of the file, my fingers tucked under the cover, prised to flip it open. Prepared to tear. But something in me wouldn’t listen. The part of me that loved my job wanted to know what the next hit would be. I had always gained a certain satisfaction from a job well done and now that the file was sitting there, teasing me, I had to know. I flipped the lid and glanced at the photo. Female, black hair, pretty enough. I checked the location.
“Really?” I yelled at the empty car. “Really Jack? My own town? Come on!” I bashed the steering wheel, blaring the horn. A feeble attempt to vent my frustration. My jobs had always taken me out of town, away from the people I knew, and despite my best efforts, even cared for. I checked the address. Knew the neighbourhood instantly. Kicking the car into life I headed back towards town, the windows down, the wind blowing through the car, causing the paper file to dance on the seat next to me. I pulled my phone and dialled Sally. Voicemail.
“Sally, I’m sorry. We need to talk. I’ll see you tonight. I’ll cook.” I spun the car into the lot of the department store. I needed to find something. Something special.
I scanned the aisles until an array of colours were lined up before me. Reds; pinks; greens; blues. But this had to be perfect. Red is traditional I guess, but it just didn’t seem appropriate. There were patterns too, but polka dots or mushrooms just wouldn’t work. Not for Sally.
Sally is a classy girl. Always looks well turned out, always dressed smartly. The kind of girl that wears work out clothes just to work out.
Purple? The colour of royals the world over. Would it show that I was serious in my intentions? It was a possibility. Girlie but not sickly like pink or magenta.
I scanned the rows, discounting the browns and blacks. For my surprise I needed something that would shimmer and sparkle; something that would glint in the moonlight.
The last night I took her to dinner, as we were walking home, Sally looked like a star that had fallen to earth. Her dress shimmered, sequins glinting, but I couldn’t recall their exact colour, just that her bright blue eyes reflected the starlight back at me.
Would blue do? I fingered the different rolls of blue. Light and dark; thin and thick; striped and spotted; but none of them would do justice to the colour and shine seen only in her eyes. I could lose myself in those eyes.
But right now I was lost amongst a sea of colour and texture. Who knew there was so much choice when it came to this? But for full effect the ribbon had to be perfect. I always believed that the small details matter and it might be only a ribbon but without it the whole plan would fall apart.
Checking the time, I knew I didn’t have long before I had to start proceedings for the evening. My watch caught the shine from the fluorescent strips above me, showering the ribbons with a flash of light. A golden ribbon shone under the new light. Picking it up, I could feel the silkiness of it against my fingers, how smooth it was, how it glinted. I could almost see it catching the starlight on its sleek surface. Perfect.
Having bought the ribbon, I rushed to Sally’s. She was still at work, so I knew I had about an hour to get everything in place. Sally being Sally, the place was immaculate. I put my supplies in the kitchen and made a start on dinner, but my mind was elsewhere the entire time. I was counting the minutes until I knew she’d be home. With dinner almost ready, I started emptying my bag of tricks. Unrolling the ribbon, I couldn’t help letting it slip through my fingers, enjoying the silky texture.
Checking the time, I knew Sally was less than 5 minutes away. I got myself ready. Lights off; doors closed. I wanted the full element of surprise as she walked through the door.
I could hear keys rattling. My heart began pounding in my chest. The key turned in the lock. My hands tightened. Her slender form stepped into the darkness, closing the door behind her. I stretched the ribbon taut between my hands, and in one swift movement wrapped the silky golden ribbon around her neck. Pulling it tight, I watched as the gold glinted in the moonlight streaming through the window. Her keys clattered to the ground, clinking against the wooden floor. Her hands went to her neck, attempting to loosen my grip. Nothing could deter me. Even scared for her life, her eyes were glittering in the dark room. I watched and held tight until they began to turn dark.
I laid her on the floor of the sitting room, a blanket draped over her still warm body, the gold ribbon still wrapped around her neck. I watched the colour slowly drain from her face as I tucked into a bowl of chilli. There was enough for two, but I could only manage my own. I put the remains in a box in the fridge, did the washing up and gathered my things.
Looking at Sally, taking her in one final time, I could just see the bow around her neck, glinting like a present under the tree on Christmas morning.