by Catherine Lin
The first thing Debbie noticed when Hilaria Wigotsky got into her car, was that she didn’t look like most clients. From the thick, blonde hair elegantly coiled on the back of her head, to the gaudy, golden belt cinching a waistline impressive for Wigotsky’s age, she appeared better suited for hiring a chauffeur than a contract killer. Yet, Debbie waited to hear it straight from the horse’s prettily painted mouth before she shooed good business away. Murder-for-hire wasn’t the most lucrative field to be in, believe it or not.
Debbie pushed the hair from her face, her edginess making her impatient as she did so. The damned hairdresser had given her bangs, and now she looked like a sock puppet. No one would take her seriously now. Sighing, she turned the key in the ignition, pawing at her stubborn hair as it encroached on her field of vision again and listened impassively as the decrepit taxi sputtering to life. The decommissioned cab’s top light was perpetually dark, and the ‘five’ in the 235 embossed on the side had chipped away until it was a backwards ‘C’. In spite of its wear and tear though, it was a meeting place that provided a suitable enough alibi should this woman not be who she said she was. Ms. Wigotsky looked like the most contact she’d had with a taxi was watching them streak down Edgewood’s streets from her penthouse window. And yet, she still got in.
“Where to, ma’am?”
Debbie checked her rearview mirror carefully, before pulling out from between two cars and heading down North Quantock Street. Edgewood bustled at this time of day. There were so many potential witnesses to their secret, little cab that there might as well have been none. Like whispering a confession into a stampede.
Ms. Wigotsky cleared her throat daintily. “5610 Brown’s Hill,” she replied.
It sounded practiced, as if Ms. Wigotsky were reading from a script, and Debbie heavily suspected that there were few things the woman said or did, that wasn’t.
Debbie’s husband devised the passphrase. Being a former Navy cryptographer, he’d been enthusiastic in his creation of it. ‘5610’ referred to May 6th, 2010 – the date he and Debbie had gotten married, while Brown’s Hill had been a juvenile attempt at humor. ‘Brown’s Hill because the target will shit their pants by the time they realize what’s happening,’ Arroyo had said. Debbie thought it stupid even then but laughed anyways. Her targets would never realize what was happening; by the time it would’ve occurred to them that they were being stalked, a bullet would be firmly lodged in their brain. That was a stipulation of marriage though, wasn’t it? To laugh at your husband’s dumb jokes? To love him in spite of them?
“Ms. Wigotsky, what can I do for you?”
“I have a job for you, if you’re interested.”
“I picked you up — ” Debbie’s glanced at Ms. Wigotsky “ — I think it’s safe to say that I’m interested.”
The corner of Hilaria’s mouth twitched, and the human gesture looked strangely wooden, like an old, pulley system was hoisting the muscles in her face up, instead of her own nerves. Debbie wondered if she’d had work done. Debbie had an eye for those types of things; her instincts were sharp even when not behind the scope of her Tango 51 rifle. A woman of Ms. Wigotsky’s standing could probably afford plastic surgeons akin to modern day Michelangelo’s opposed to some butcher with a scalpel. Ms. Wigotsky’s true age had been revealed in the background check Debbie had asked her client liaison to run when she’d originally come to her with the lead. Not much surprised Debbie anymore, but finding out Ms. Wigotsky was approaching the cusp of forty had done it.
“Who’s the job?” Debbie asked, turning right again. One block was usually enough time to get all the pertinent details of a hit.
“A good…friend of mine, shall we say — ” Ms. Wigotsky’s eyes narrowed “ — is trapped in his marriage and it’s causing some trouble for us.”
Debbie raised her eyebrows. “Your friend’s marriage is troublesome for you?”
Ms. Wigotsky studied Debbie for a moment, as if deciding whether or not she was truly so stupid. The implication of her irrelevance to the matter offended her, but the flaccid remark rolled off Ms. Wigotsky’s hairspray-stiff locks like water on duck feathers.
“Anyways, everything you need to know is all in here,” Ms. Wigotsky said as she unclasped her purse – snakeskin, Debbie would venture – and procured an envelope. “Name and address. Those are all you need, correct?”
“A picture would’ve been helpful,” Debbie replied, her voice sharp. Thankfully, the customer was almost never right in her field of work. “And I’ll be taking my seven-thousand up front.” She pulled into the drop off lane of the Vertex Baron Luxury Apartments. With lavish, gold carvings around the entrance and gaudy, vintage lights, the drop off area itself was so dazzling, no one would bother sneaking a peek at the envelope’s contents as Debbie unfurled it in her hands.
“I think you’ll find that a picture isn’t needed in this particular case,” Ms. Wigotsky said with an edge to her voice.
“Payment is, though.”
“Certainly.” Ms. Wigotsky smiled curtly before dipping a manicured hand back into her bag.
Debbie scanned the stationary in her hands. It felt thinner than computer paper and had ‘Hilaria C. Wigotsky’ stamped front and center, in prominent, shimmering letters. The pencil scrawled across looked bizarre in its jagged plainness.
“Hang on, this address is the old distillery — ” Debbie cocked an eyebrow “ — Ms. Wigotsky, did you lure the target there?”
“Does that matter?”
Debbie frowned. Maybe you should just do the job yourself then.
“It does to me,” Debbie explained. “If the target has already been lured, then I have to act right away. Not to mention, if you’ve lured them to a place that’ll appear suspicious to investigators, and I’m traced back to said place, I’m already as good as caught.”
“Why do tomorrow what you can do today? Carpe diem,” Ms. Wigotsky replied, flippantly.
“And what about being traced back to the distillery?”
A car honked behind them, but neither women paid it any mind.
“Well now, that seems like it should be of your concern, rather than mine, but let’s say — ” Ms. Wigotsky tipped her handbag forwards, so it fell open for Debbie to see. It reminded her of a certain fantastical nanny’s bag; looking at the stacks of cash bound inside, Debbie could hardly believe it could hold so much. “An additional thousand for the added risk?”
Debbie sighed, exasperated.
“You’re just like my husband – you don’t seem to take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Ms. Wigotsky’s smile was wooden.
“With all due respect, I’m not terribly interested in your personal life. Take it or leave it,” she said, and Debbie felt an abrupt cold front hit her.
Tossing a look over her shoulder, Debbie scanned the windowpanes for wandering eyes. A car honked again, louder this time, and Debbie noticed the doorman look in their direction.
“Sure, fine. Just… get it out of sight, will you?” Debbie hissed.
“Don’t worry Mrs. Pinto, I’m a careful woman,” Ms. Wigotsky reassured.
Debbie caught the tail end of Ms. Wigotsky’s serpentine smile, before the woman opened the passenger side door, and stepped out. Debbie watched Ms. Wigotsky’s form disappear behind the large brass doors. Blood, like ice water, coursed through Debbie’s veins. Through the churning, dense flow, Ms. Wigotsky’s voice cut through the slap of water and into her brain with the precision of an ice pick.
Dusana knew better than to use Debbie’s real name when hunting for clientele, and in the past twelve years she’d been at it, never had a client learned her name before. Shaking off ice chips, Debbie put the cab into drive, and flicked on her blinker again. This time, she’d continue straight down Quantock and onto the main expressway heading towards the northmost edge of town.
Clenching the steering wheel like she had talons instead of hands, her knuckles were bone white as she thought of how Ms. Wigotsky had gotten her name. It was sort of like in the exorcism movies, where a demon was expelled using its name – hitmen worked much the same way. Knowing her name meant a potential prosecution. Debbie would have to finish the job today, and then look into moving again. Arroyo would be surly; he hated moving, given how extensive the process was for them in their line of work. New names, new social securities, even a new face in her husband’s case. Their relocation guy wasn’t cheap, and if she were being honest, both Arroyo and Debbie were rather fond of his current visage. A strong brow, nose, and jaw, with prominent cheekbones carved out in the warm brown of his skin. Admittedly, he was more handsome than when Debbie had married him. While Arroyo himself would never admit it; his pride would be bruised to part with that winning smile.
Debbie glimpsed the instructions scrawled onto Ms. Wigotsky’s note once more before she shoved it into her jacket pocket. She could burn it later, along with the purse — after she’d dealt with the cash. She pulled into a vacant, unpaved lot at the address. Despite the nondescript vacancy of the desolate location, the distillery was somewhat of an urban legend in Edgewood. An age-old tale of another fat cat Icarus who flew too close to a gold sun that shone over the most exquisite of island vacations, and plummeted into bankruptcy. The distillery slumped along Ann Causeway in decay like roadkill rotting in the gutter. She left the taxi parked haphazardly in the corner of the empty lot and gravel crunched underfoot as she made her way to the old Pear Systems Distillery. It sat like a large, concrete, skull staring blankly out from its long forgotten grave. The building loomed large and square before Debbie, with tin and concrete for cartilage. There were but two windows spaced out like eyes at where she’d guessed the second floor would be. The entrance and its shut doors made the building look as if it were baring its teeth at her, and graffiti tattooed where Debbie imagined the left cheek and temple might’ve been. She met its stare readily as she approached the entrance. By the looks of it, the padlock on the front door either rusted off, or had been smashed off by vandals, long ago.
Debbie unholstered her Glock 19, having opted to leave her Tango in the trunk, and stepped through the front entrance. One good thing about Wigotsky’s ‘ingenious’ plan to lure the target to a desolate location was; there was no need for the usual setup. No other structures in the vicinity were ideal for sniping. Just as well. There was no one but a few grazing cows to hear the gunshots.
She held the gun at the ready, with both hands wrapped firmly around the handle. Broken glass skittered softly across the ground, upturned by the rubber soles of her boots. Debbie paused every few steps and listened intently for other movements, her thumb nudging the safety off. The open main area of the distillery was barren, save for the crumbling concrete, and scrap metal that was deemed useless by even the most innovative of scavengers.
First order of business: clear the floors. Debbie knew her target should be somewhere in the building, presumably on the third floor, according to Wigotsky’s elegant script. Debbie couldn’t take any chances, especially when she was following someone else’s plan. She drew in a slow, deliberate, breath and held it tight, her body taut like whipcord despite the fluidity with which she moved. Careful to sidestep out of the light slanting through some high windows, Debbie kept to the shadows and tried not to cast her own. Another potential announcement of her arrival, and yet without a means to engage in any potential opponents.
Debbie cleared the foreman’s office and two closets when unease prickled in her gut. Her gaze swept the surrounding area and Debbie sighed in relief when the search yielded nothing of interest. She waited a few moments in expectant quiet before the distillery caught up to her heightened vigilance. The last unchecked closet tucked opposite of the foreman’s office held flutters on the inside; Debbie could hear them as they rustled in the dark.
Debbie pressed herself close to the wall beside the door and took a deep breath. In one smooth motion, she kicked the door open, flooding the cramped space with light. The rustling exploded into a squealing cloud of brown-black, flapping viciously, like a vengeful autumn wind stirring up withered leaves. Adrenaline, coursing hot and cold through Debbie, had her wrapping her arms around her face for meager protection. She stood terse and blinded for a few trailing moments after the bats had vacated the area. When Debbie’s own timpani heartbeat quieted, the icy fear that locked her joints thawed. She eased herself forward with a sharp mental kick – here’s hoping she hadn’t potentially alerted the target of her presence, in her panic.
When Debbie told Arroyo about it later that night, he’d probably claim it was a ‘bad omen’. Perhaps she could use it to appeal to his superstitious side and coax a willingness to move from him.
Debbie resumed her guarded stance, gun at the ready as she listened intently. Dirt and pebbles skipped across the floor, as a bone-dry wind whistled through the hollow carcass of the building. No heaving breaths or pounding footsteps. Still though, Debbie was on a job. Ideally, she wasn’t alone, and she wasn’t referring to the bats.
With the first floor cleared, Debbie began her careful ascent up the set of steep, concrete stairs tucked in a narrow hallway. The shoddy, wooden railing had long since fallen off, and it lay across the stairs like it was hoping for someone to mourn it. Debbie stepped deliberately over it. The second level was as derelict as the first floor, albeit, less open. Light fought through the caked grime on the windows and broke against looming shadows cast by narrow corridors and hideaway offices. Like the ice cap pictures Debbie had seen on National Geographic; brilliant, jigsaw-pieces of ice chunking across the inky expanse of water.
Debbie weaved in and out of the offices, peeking in just enough to reassure herself there were no witnesses before moving on to the next one. With each office that passed with no incident, Debbie’s heart rate normalized, until another creak of wood or rustle of debris leapfrogged it into a stuttering run.
Another door, shoved agape by crumbled slabs of concrete, housed a flutter of color that waved at her from her peripheral vision. Stomach swooping as the last of her steel nerves jumped ship, Debbie spun on her heel and aimed the barrel of her gun at the motion’s source. Her finger tensed at the trigger; a hint of a squeeze without the commitment.
Hot adrenaline turned cold and the vigilant tension that held her taut seeped away, leaving Debbie feeling like rubber. Caught on the splintered backend of what had been a chair, was a colorful piece of fabric. It danced enthusiastically in the draft, rags with the vain hopes of being a flag one day, instead of a gunman waiting for Debbie in the dark. She should’ve felt foolish – she wished she had. Instead, she tasted sawdust and felt the bite of her nails around the gun handle.
Upon closer inspection, it was a scarf; teal silk with red flowers embroidered onto it. Debbie found herself transfixed as she ran the crook of her finger along the soft garment. It reminded her of the one Arroyo gave her a couple of years back. The same color, same softness – it wasn’t her style at all. Too loud for someone trying to live under the radar, and too distinctive for someone whose livelihood depended on remaining unnoticed. Butterflies stirred in the pit of her stomach and she brushed the cobwebs off her timeworn affections for her husband, all the same. Debbie bunched the fabric between her fingers once more before she left it to fall gently to the ground. Perhaps this sort of scarf was destined to be abandoned.
Even as she left it in the old, dilapidated office, Debbie wondered who’d left the scarf. For her, leaving it unworn in its immaculate, ribbon clad box, meant allowing the dust to settle on her marriage again. The days felt shorter and the nights stretched long when there were no greater mysteries in the man miles away on the other side of the bed, than what he’d eaten for lunch that day. Debbie wanted to speak to the woman who’d left the scarf, and for one fleeting moment, she wondered if it could’ve been Ms. Wigotsky. Hilaria must have been to the distillery before she deemed it the perfect killing room, had to have worked her way up to the third floor, just as Debbie had. Although she liked to think Hilaria did so with a bit more apprehension.
If Debbie recalled correctly, Hilaria wasn’t married. However, she also struggled to reconcile her client’s exquisiteness with being a spinster. The kill Hilaria hired Debbie for was one born of envy; that much was clear. But what of the woman who coveted what Hilaria wanted so desperately that she’d hire someone to kill for it?
How long had Debbie been with her own husband? The thought was as intrusive as the intent behind it was poisonous. How long until it had begun to feel more like a life sentence than a partnership. Debbie craved the knowledge that she wasn’t alone in this loneliness, as contractually binding as the jobs she took. To know that the woman who’d left this scarf, had done so because her marriage was strong enough to not rely on tawdry gifts to bridge the distance that had formed through years of routine and increasingly lukewarm anniversaries. Maybe it was Hilaria, the man would be leaving, and not his wife. Debbie tasted the lie in her mouth, though she hadn’t spoken it aloud.
Debbie thought of her own husband; it was funny, really. Arroyo used to get his face ‘tuned’ every five years or so, back when he was mixed up with The Pseudonymous, and Debbie had found her closest confidant in every single one. Now he’d been with the same face for almost seven years, and as another one came and went, he became more of a stranger.
When Debbie ascended the final stairwell, she vaguely noted how her heart seemed to slow, rather than race. Her blood felt viscous, like it was hesitant to flow, her chest tightened and burned with the breath she detained. Her footsteps were nearly soundless – either that or she couldn’t hear themit over the static screaming in her ears. When she rounded the corner, her entire body seemed to resonate with a note of finality. Hell, if this was to be her last job as Debbie Pinto, then maybe she could make it her last job, period. She used to think she and Death were good friends; like she’d been able to give him gifts few others could afford. Now it felt like his company had overstayed its welcome. It made her stomach churn.
The static roared in trepidation as her eyes swept around the empty room. She scanned the cracks in the wall and the broken glass lining the lone window in the room, like the layers of teeth in a parasite’s mouth. Debbie pivoted in a shaky three-sixty, a piss-poor pirouette. But the room was silent and unfeeling. With no one there to stare into the quivering barrel of her gun, Debbie unwrapped one hand from her weapon, and reached it into her jacket pocket. The folded paper softened in her sweat-dampened grasp.
Shaking it open, one hand still holding the gun even, her eyes ceased searching for a target, and turned instead to Hilaria’s instructions for guidance.
Go to 973 Ann Causeway
Target will be on the third floor
Take her out
In their vagueness, the words left both little margin for error, and giant question marks bubbling in Debbie’s thoughts. ‘Take her out’. Take who out exactly? Debbie’s eyes circled the room again, this time more frantically. The target may have caught on to the hunt and had used the time Debbie spent consulting her client’s directions to take to the hunt herself. But Debbie was still alone in the room – the singular room without a crack or crevice for anything larger than a flea to steal away to. A room, empty save for debris so weathered, Debbie couldn’t make out its original form, and a mirror propped up against the wall.
Her attention jerked to the mirror as if it had reached out to grab it on its own. It was full length, and very out of place as Debbie stepped out in front of it, her entirety contained within it at her current distance. The golden frame was unscratched, undinged – mysteriously new in the disarray of the abandoned distillery. Debbie was drawn to this outlying detail. Who had put it there? How recently?
She could only think of two people other than herself.
Debbie whipped around, her heart vaulting at a pace that left her breath floundering to catch up, as if she expected her unseen target to be stalking her. There was no one else in the room but her.
She looked back to the mirror now and edged closer.
Hilaria’s instructions felt white hot in her feverish hold.
Take her out.
The woman in the mirror looked blanched, her eyes bugged out and eyebrows cinched together like a caricature of fear. Debbie barely recognized her.
Take her out.
Her memory retreated safely back a few years, spinning a safe haven from that damned scarf she’d found. The Debbie from two years back curled up on their living room’s loveseat in the now-Debbie’s mind. Arroyo leaned in to press a chaste kiss to her cheek as he passed her a navy-blue box, the silky red ribbon shining softly in the light. The old Debbie lifted the lid and tossed it carelessly aside. She looked more excited than Debbie recalled feeling as she gathered the fabric gently in her hands, her eyes coveting the intricate stitching of each red petal.
“It’s lovely,” she’d murmured, bunching it in her hands.
“I’m glad you think so, I had it custom made.”
The real Debbie’s stomach dropped, scattering the memory into dust that collected at the fibers of the crumpled scarf, where it lay just one floor below. The one-of-a-kind scarf that Debbie had left in her drawer to collect that dust. When Debbie looked to the mirror again, her gaze was splintered with shock.
Take her out. Take her out. Take her out.
The ‘her’ that was married to Hilaria’s “friend”. Her, the ‘other woman’ to Hilaria’s other woman. The her who was supposed to be waiting in a place where the custom-made scarf Debbie’s husband had gifted her was also waiting. Her.
The lead in Debbie’s stomach felt too heavy paired with the light-headed spell that had suddenly overtaken her. She felt as if it were tearing through paper tissue, muscle, and bone. News with this magnitude had a warpath, and that path was currently ripping through Debbie as the synapses in her brain fizzled and popped her understanding of what was happening. Years of marriage and an unknown number of them shared with Hilaria Wigotsky in secret, shattered like glass, the shards eviscerating her. She felt all of this with exceptional rawness but was still startled by the realness of the crash and trailing tinkling sound of glass fractals scattering to concrete.
Debbie blinked at her empty fingers, dazed – a resounding echo to the hollowness that gnawed on her bones like a junkyard dog on a mealy carcass. She had hurled her gun at the mirror. She felt stupid, although no one had witnessed the act. And small, as if everyone had witnessed the sham that was her marriage. Maybe Debbie hadn’t broken a mirror at all, but a one-way window. She waited for the vultures to emerge out of the emptying frame to pick her bones.
Bile welled inside Debbie, chewing at her from the inside out. Arroyo —that rat bastard.
Rage swept through her, white-hot. When the burn settled in a few moments later, it came to her.
The venomous, green-eyed basilisk thrived off Debbie’s inadvertent pull on her husband despite his betrayal. She supposed that was another stipulation of marriage – she was his, and he was hers, even most despicably. When the basilisk passed through Debbie’s throbbing veins, like blood beneath a bruise, her own hallowed voice came pounding from inside her skull. What about me? Even when the butterflies in her stomach withered away, and her nerves stopped electrifying the moment she stepped into the same room as Arroyo, Debbie never forsake him.
It was done. Her marriage was done. And through it all, laughably, the job was not yet done. Take her out. The wife. Debbie didn’t much mind the idea of killing the wife, she might be putting the poor, stupid thing out of her misery. It was supposed to feel new, but all Debbie had really done was finally acknowledge the gangrenous limb as it rotted her. She thought back to one of those late-night specials she had been addicted to in her twenties. There had been one about mountaineers getting lost in the frigid wastes tucked in the summits of mountains – closer to the unfeeling sky than she was in that distillery. When the climbers had been found and brought back to civilization – if they had – their ice crusted gloves were removed to reveal grotesquely engorged appendages, more charcoal stick than finger where the frost had bitten them black. The rest of the episode was about how the fingers were lopped off; the doctors amputated dead limbs.
Regardless of the fact that Debbie would relish it, she had a duty to kill the wife.
She slunk over to the mirror, where her handgun lay dusted in glass crumbs. Plucking it up with two fingers, she ignored the sharp pricks at the pads of her fingers. Most of the glass fell from it in a light snow as she holstered the gun again.
From this point on, the wife was dead. Debbie Pinto would be dead – first she’d have to contact her relocation guy again to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. The ‘fresh start’ fee would be no trouble; so long as she didn’t confront Arroyo about his affair, their accounts would remain joined and he’d be none the wiser until she was long gone. The last time she’d moved, she hadn’t changed her face – vanity was more of her husband’s vice, the pretty man that he was. She might perhaps invest in a new haircut though. Whoever she was to be next, she wanted to start without any deadweight. Perhaps in Europe somewhere? Or Asia. Anywhere that put an ocean between her and her husband.
Debbie descended the stairs again, leaving the wife in a grave of glass shards and dirty concrete. Taking a detour through the second floor, she didn’t leave the distillery until she had a pocket full of silken, red flowers tucked safely in her jacket.
About the Author:
Currently working towards her BA in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Catherine Lin intends to pursue her PhD in the same course of studies. She daylights as a tour guide at the Willis Tower’s Skydeck attraction, while working on her novel and short stories in her spare time.