Crooked Houses

Converting to Dataism
December 18, 2018
Productivity
December 18, 2018

Crooked Houses

They always fidget.

I see them from a distance, two at a time usually, huddling like frozen blackbirds on a telephone line. Most of them past middle-aged but always men, always thinking themselves younger and thinner than midlife’s reckoned. No matter how much confidence they exude or the little omens they project—squaring their shoulders up and keeping their heads forward and puffing their chest and fusing that imaginary steel rod to their spine—they always do it. They fidget. Their fingers shake, their eyelids flutter, their nose kicks. Sometimes their lips will twitch out to the side, like an invisible fishhook’s got them and it’s giving a little yank or two just to put a little bit of fear of circumstance in them.

Or maybe it’s Pelham Bay. This part of the park has that effect on people. It’s pristine in a kind of foreboding way, untamed almost. But even at its wildest the whole place is grimly impermanent. The land has this dying quality, creeping away slow and silent into the Hutchinson until nothing’s left of it but a glint of sun on the water. When I meet clients here, it’s like we’re all standing at the edge of the world.

These two now are like all the rest, except this time I recognize them from the nightly news. Strange little curio, that. Still, they look around, they wait, they cough. They fidget.

My approach has been meticulously crafted to get me the upper hand before negotiations even start. I come in from the tree line, not too slow, not too confident. Just a saunter, eyes on the ground like I’m admiring the ryegrass and wildflowers. My sidearm is stowed away on the back of my thigh, so they’re left questioning where the hell it is or if there’s even one at all. Works wonders.

Typically they don’t see me until I’m about halfway through the meadow, and by then it’s too late for them to really size me up. People fixing to do bad things don’t like to be surprised. The quick flash of a body coming their way is all it takes to jolt them out of their shoes.

“Nice morning for a walk,” I’ll always say.

They both jerk their heads towards me, their eyes so white they look peeled. Like I said.

“Are you…?” one of them stutters.

“I am.” I stand with my back to the river, forcing the sun on their eyes.

“How do we know for sure?” the other says. “I want assurances.”

“You got some kind of proof, substantiation?”

“I’m here,” I say. “That’s substantiation in and of itself.”

The two of them look at each other as they ponder whether my bravado is good enough and I, in turn, get a look at them. The first one’s nondescript, even down to his haircut, that boxy, senatorial coif men prefer when they get a little bit of power. The other’s got a Velveeta tan and no hair at all, except for around his ears and bit at his chin. Whether that’s on purpose or not is beside the point; it’s ugly as hell. These meetings have become so perfunctory, it’s all I’ve got to make a little fun.

“Alright,” says man-cut after they’ve reached their silent conclusion, “what do you
need?”

“Everything. On them and on you.”

“That seems unorthodox.”

“So is two marks on one job.”

“You already know who we are, though,” man-tan chimes in. He’s got his one hand in a salute on his forehead, trying desperately to block out the sun and keep the sweat from dripping down into his eyes. It’s not working. His skin resembles liquefying paraffin.

“True. But I’d like to be able to hold it in my hand, as well.”

Man-cut almost laughs, but he’s too miserable for that. “You know, you’re not exactly what I expected.”

“Is that because I’m a woman,” I ask, “or because I’m brown?”

“Neither,” he challenges. “It’s because you’re about an inch taller than my ten-year-old daughter.”

I allow myself a smirk. “Does she think you waste too much time, too?” I don’t let him answer that. “The gun doesn’t care who holds it. Just like I don’t really care what you do. Not really. It’s all just T’s and I’s, gentlemen. We’ve got to cross and dot them. Now—cross and dot.”

But man-tan’s had enough of the game. Probably had enough of it back at the office. He wants out of Pelham as fast as his little hocks will take him, even if he has to vomit up the words to do it.

“Delishcakes and Fulchmann’s require the utmost secrecy on this,” he croaks. “As much as it pains me to give our rivals any equal standing, we are America’s titans of confection. The constant drip-drip in the papers is death by a thousand cuts.”

“If you’ll excuse my competitor’s mixed metaphors,” man-cut adds, “we just want this to go away. I manage three subsidiaries.”

“Two,” man-tan corrects.

“Three.”

“You’ve got Sweetpuppy Pops and Zoozoo Gaboo Taffy.”

“Yes. And Blorch Striped Chewing Gum. Convenient you left off the one that just
leapfrogged Chiclets in market share—”

“Enough,” I decide. “So what, you want me to off a couple of candymakers? Is that it?”

They share a long, dark look. And for the next half-hour, I’m given a crash-course on just how low two all-American snack companies have stooped into the sugar-coated gutter.

In 1919, something by the name of the Great Molasses Flood came down over early-century Boston like a sticky Exodus plague. That’s what man-tan claims, anyway. I was never one for the history trivia.

“Imagine,” he says, licking his sweaty lips, “a tide of magmatic sugar bursting forth from its distilling tanks and rolling down the streets, fast as a motorcar, scalding everything it touches. Can you?”

“Not really,” I admit.

“Nearly two dozen people were killed by that wild black treacle,” he says, as if that’ll get me to change my answer.

“Okay.”

Man-cut shakes his perfectly-trimmed head. “The point is, this business has always been dangerous.”

“And tragic,” man-tan adds. “Stygian and tragic.”

“Tragic, yes—tragic too. It’s a cursed line of work, the sugar industry. Violence predates the Delishcakes-Fulchmann’s rivalry, no matter what stories you’ve heard about Houstus.”

“Houstus?” I ask.

Man-cut is coolly surprised. “I thought you did your homework?”

I have no right answer for that.

“Houstus Fulchmann,” man-tan explains, dabbing at his high collar. “One of our founding fathers. He was associate vice-president of the Frugal Mother Persuasion Department until 1936.”

“What’d he do?” I kid. “Mix addresses up on the monthly lollipop coupons?”

Neither are amused.

“He challenged one of the Delishcakes board directors to a duel,” man-cut pipes in, “despite the practice having fallen out of favor a century earlier. Speared his man with an authentic Shinshinto-period katana. Wiped it clean with its own tassel and left a Fulchmann starlight mint on the corpse, too.”

Man-tan lifts one of his cornichon-sized fingers. “Supposedly screamed ‘Fuck Alf Landon and his mother’s teats!’ as the cops dragged him away, as well, though that’s unsubstantiated.” He blinks at me. “My apologies for the profanity.”

“What does this have to do with the marks?” I remind them hurriedly.

“It’s a scale,” man-cut answers. “You trace it up, year by year. Since Houstus, there’s been larceny, poisonings, kidnappings, rapes, murders—every line’s been crossed and summarily re-crossed. Over a dozen assassination attempts alone.”

“We’ve made Stalingrad look like Candyland,” man-tan adds with some pride.

“The point,” man-cut continues, “is that these things used to be handled by contract muscle. Sometimes even the mob. Everything was meticulously planned so that the brain trust was insulated from any sort of fallout. There’s countless examples. Like the sales manager who fell off the Delishcakes dispensary roof in Bay Shore in 1959.”

“Or ’71,” man-tan inserts, “don’t forget ’71.” He turns to me, fumbling one hand over the other. “One of our executives choked on a Roly Poly. That’s Fulchmann’s classic butterscotch-flavored treat. We planted reports that the Roly Poly caused anal leakage and other unfortunate misrepresentations to divert unwanted attention. Had to shut the whole product line down because of it.”

“When really…?” I ask.

“When really,” he says, almost tittering, “it’d been dosed liberally with arsenic and bleach.”

It’s the kind of thing a man who hasn’t seen death up-close says.

“Get to it, then—what killed the street war?”

“Economics caught up,” man-cut answers. “The Sugar Shortage was especially brutal. Quashed any sort of escalation outright. All clandestine activities were forced to come under one position.”

“Both companies decided this?”

“We thought it fair,” man-tan says, wiping his face. “Did it suddenly get very hot out? Cursed sun.”

“Fair, affordable,” man-cut adds. “Take your pick. Either way, we each had a shiny new Brand Strategy Consultant.”

“Semantics,” man-tan laughs. He does that a lot, a sort of nervous ellipsis he brackets around his answers. It sounds like there’s a cat trying to claw its way up his esophagus.

“Assassins, then,” I guess.

“Both excellent riflemen,” man-cut confirms. He leans down suddenly, dipping his one hand into the pensive Hutchinson waters and slicking his hair back with whatever comes up. “Officially on the payroll since 1982. So, what’s that, seventeen? Seventeen years now, if my math is right.”

“Eighteen,” says man-tan.

“Whatever. Twenty years, let’s say.”

“Like two corporate wraiths stirring up carnage wherever they go.”

It clicked about ten minutes ago, but it was helpful to see them talk themselves out a little—never hurts to observe, even the inanities.

“So you’re ready to get them off the payroll now.”

Man-tan nods eagerly. Man-cut just listens with a fissured stone face.

“Which is where I come in.”

“Both Delishcakes and Fulchmann’s have stink on them now,” man-cut adds, “but that’s nothing compared to what’s underneath. Stink we can get off, however long it takes. Blood? Blood doesn’t wash.”

Blood washes, sir. It washes. But I’ll let you think that, if it gets me on my way, gets me paid, gets me to where I’m comfortable, behind the stock. I’ve got a long-overdue vacation on my mind.

“It’s the curse of the flood,” man-tan says.

“Superstitions aside, is there anything else I should know?”

“Nothing you’d want to hear,” man-cut says. He hands over a clean, smartly-labeled binder that looks like it was put together this morning by an eager intern. “All pertinent information is contained within. Names, addresses, family, allergies. Even how many times they take a shit each day.”

I run a cursory glance over the first few pages. “Rate is double,” I tell them.

Man-tan nearly croaks. “Double?”

“One is a veteran,” I explain reasonably, “and together they have about a hundred years’ worth of experience with firearms.”

Man-cut doesn’t hesitate. “Fair enough. Double it is.”

Man-tan dithers. I don’t know whether to be annoyed or impressed that he’s finally shown some spine. And dropped the laughing.

“You have to get the old man first,” he instructs, “then the younger one the next day. Return here on the third.”

“You telling me how to do my job?”

“It’s imperative,” he insists. “The timing is very important.”

“Why?” I demand.

“They’re… very in tune with each other,” he explains delicately. “Best not to give them too much time to figure it out. More than a day and the whole thing’s shot—no pun intended.”

I cross my arms. I don’t need to intimidate him, but it feels good anyway.

“Triple,” I say.

They both convey a sharp look, all white eyes and strained jaws. Hiring an assassin to kill two employees might be business, but overbudgeting is the true sin.

“Think of it as commensurate pay,” I assure them, “like the bonuses you give to the guys working with vats of hot sugar on the factory floor.”

They both shake on it eventually, though I’m sure a nickel-and-dime show will come after the fact. Truth be told, I’d rather deal with mob bosses than corporate bootlickers. The former will end your misery with one shot. But with the latter, it’s always death by a thousand fucking cuts.

I don’t bother with aliases or disguises anymore. I’ve learned that when you come to kill, you come as you are, reasonable-like. The mark will be more interested in trying to cut a deal that way. Subterfuge only serves to get the blood rushing. And rushing blood almost always turns messy.

The Delishcakes man is first on the list. He goes by Lieu, for Lieutenant. The kind of fellow who wears his old vet gear proudly, I’d guess, hats and pins and sashes and so on, hanging like funeral shrouds. I imagine Patton in a Cadillac.

But as I find out, he’s no warrior anymore. Just a grizzled old turkey roosting in a flat, desolate Florida trailer park. It’s so hot down here, the land is colorless, like the sun-bleached side of the moon. A shock of blue tunic on the St. Francis statue lodged in his stone garden is the only thing that stands out in the blistering midday light. No other feature is worth describing except that his is a double-wide. It speaks to someone’s character when there’s small or big and, even on a fixed income, they still go big. Just another in a million domiciles plopped down on America’s ragged phallus.

Lieu himself is just as pocked. He’s standing behind his screen door when I arrive but doesn’t make any effort to come out. Just waits, beer in hand, bent as a buzzard. Wants to watch me as I make my way up—get the cut of me, as they say. A bit of a leer in his eye, too. I don’t like it, but I understand it.

Even from behind the dark crosshatch of the screen I can see he’s covered from head to toe in age spots and clam-shaped freckles. The skin underneath is that bilious yellow. Something wrong with his liver. The bottom of his eyes is the color of soggy, smoked-up cigarettes wasting away in a gutter. Not so off from his daily habits, something tells me.

As I come up a set of small, misshapen steps to face him he gives me one of those scornful man-with-no-name smiles. The teeth barely lurk beneath the lips.

“We’re rowers in the same canoe,” he says.

“Oh?”

“Yeah.” He lifts his leg up and scratches his foot with the edge of his beer can, digging into those classic black dress socks with the gold toe detail. Those, a white tee, and the smallest, most senile pair of basketball shorts are all he’s wearing. “We have this walk about us. Unassuming-like.”

I smile. “Is that what it’s called?”

He comes out from the porch, revealing two bright, spectral eyes, then stops dead to beckon me in with his beer. A half-drunk can of Keystone Light.

The walls of his double-wide are blank. No nail holes, even. Nothing’s ever hung there and nothing ever will. He offers me a beer and then crumples into his puke-brown La-Z-Boy, sighing like it’s the first time he’s ever taken a seat. I stay just inside the door, the beer can numbing my palm.

He doesn’t tell me to sit. He cuts straight to the story. Not any story, no excuse or wiggle routine, but the story, the one that stands as the rusty old tabernacle for who he is. In that tetchy cadence he hums through it all—his life in three wars, four if you count the Battle of Bulge, which he claims was his birthplace. Naturally, he expounds on that without me asking.

“Mam was a war nurse,” is the yarn he hoots out. “Preggers during the Ardennes. She went into labor right in the middle of a firefight. Had to squirt me right out into no-man’s-land.”

Of course. But what she didn’t know, what she couldn’t know, was that she was squatting over an anti-tank blast mine.

“Why wasn’t little-tiny-baby-me blown to smithereens?” Lieu asks toothily. “I’ll tell you. You wanna hear it? I’ll tell if you wanna.”

I nod. I take two sips of the Keystone, pretending it’s not straight horse piss.

“Alright, good, listen, no shitting you: Placenta disarmed it. Goddamn, right? All that goo dripped down into the arming mechanism, corroded it maybe, maybe gunked it up to such a degree that it couldn’t do its devil work. Goddamn placenta.”

He laughs. I suddenly regret doing what I’ve come to do.

Old, knowing Lieu tells his stories anyway.

“I was in California for a candy convention once,” he recalls, knocking back the rest of his Keystone. “Had to be my third job for Delishcakes. Fourth? Fourth. Don’t hold me to that.” He says it like I’m interviewing him for The Atlantic or something. “But I do remember following that mark for three whole goddamn days. It was good to get it done, I’ll tell you. Shot him from the top of the Oakland Coliseum as he was leaving the floor.” He shakes the beer can to make sure it’s empty. “Company spared no expense those days.”

I ask him what that means.

Here Lieu puts his pointer and thumb together like he’s jerking off an invisible drinking straw. “They’d given me a prototype dart rifle,” he says, “had a watch-you-call plasticine micro barrel that could detach into various parts. All lightweight, mind. But the kicker here, darling, the real hook of this thing, was the quill. Retractable.” He cackles, smacking the arm of his La-Z-Boy. “Just a few millimeters across. They had it rigged to this microfiber line so you could pull it back afterward. Nothing left. Wish you had that, didn’t you? Goddamn, what a hell of a week.” He settles himself down, pursing his lips as his eyes squint with pride. “You ask Aloy if he’s ever done anything like that when you see him.”

“I don’t know who that is,” I lie. I have a Kahr P380, barrel no longer than three inches, taped to the inside of my wrist. It’s aimed right at the old assassin’s lustrous bald head. I like him, but that makes no difference to the trigger. It’s gonna be pulled as sure as the sun comes up. A body exerting force on an object. The only question is when.

Lieu clucks his tongue, still smiling. “You’ll see him. I’m betting on it, actually, ‘cuz I need you to tell him something for me. You’ll do that, right? One cleaner to another.”

“What do you want me to say, Lieu?”

“Tell Aloy it’s not the will to win that matters, but the will to prepare. Paul Bryant said that. Great man. Great coach. Over two decades at Alabama. He won’t know who the hell that is, the goddamn queer, but tell him for me anyway. That’s all I ask. You’re getting paid enough to do one small favor, ain’t you?”

“Sure, Lieu.”

He makes a pleased face, sweeping some invisible crumbs from the arm of his recliner. “I’m glad I’m getting done by a pretty thing like you. Appreciate them sending a sweet little redbone rather than some steroid goon.”

“Thanks, Lieu.”

He nods and shakes the beer can one more time for good measure. Not a drop left. He looks at mine, momentarily jealous. For a second I think he’s gonna ask me if he can finish it. He makes peace with it, though. The last thing he needs to.

“Good. Pull your little trigger, then.”

On the way to Virginia I’ve got time to read up on Fulchmann’s man. The road is flat and straight, with little highlighter-yellow shacks every quarter-mile telling me via decrepit, hand-written billboards it’s my last chance to get—in this exact combination—hams, cigarettes, fireworks and peanuts for cheap. Forgettable shit. That night in a shameful motel I remember nothing from either side of the highway or what little Podunk I’ve driven through. The only things that stick are where I’m going and the trivia in man-cut’s dossier on Mr. Aloysius Fields.

Fields is more at home with a book or a paintbrush than a rifle, though perfectly lethal with all three. I admire a man who wears his passions on his sleeve. They’re all in here, pages of them: his kill counts first, followed by his favorite composer (Salieri), game (Backgammon) and a dozen other insanely specific details—moisturizer preferences (unrefined coconut lipids and jojoba oil), common guest lecturing locations (Loyola), auction purchases (antique snifters), and finally, home décor (a bust of Cincinnatus in his den, a goddamn Theremin, the list goes on.)

Digging deeper into his files makes it easy to pull the stuffing from the seams. Fields is a kind of self-trained savant, propelling himself from Maryland backcountry boy to east coast academic through sheer force of will. Man-cut’s folder paints a figure who’s spent his life trying to wash the stink of poor off him. Something I know a thing or two about. He grew up somewhere west of Federalsburg, learning how to eat blue crab the right way, how to fish the Chesapeake, how to shoot a gun in the backwoods. Essential life shit for some, liabilities all in the invisibly-gated institutions he worked so hard to join.

But in Aloy’s nimble hands, those liabilities were blueprints. He learned to trade in his cheap rifle for some refurbished 18th-century relic, his Natty Boh for aged brandy, the blue-claw tales for Borges quotes. Some people are born with bootstraps, others have to rig up the rope. Aloy’s the latter.

I’ve slipped in through the side window of his Alexandrian home, admiring the oak floors, the elaborate cornices, the mazelike opulence that’s just a little too perfect not to be a tad tongue-in-cheek. A soap opera mansion through and through.

It’s got the chill of a mausoleum, though. Silence cakes the place like dust, and when there is sound, whether it’s a hardwood creak or a pipe swell or just one of the house’s many internal sighs, it bleats on in a perpetual echo.

Sure enough, as I come to the den, I find my prize has already been won. Here, flattened like a dead cat against his mid-century chesterfield, is Aloy himself, complete with his salt-and-pepper beard and an exquisitely-shaped manbun perched on top like a crown.

The blood is everywhere, jammed up like cherry. Two shots through the temple have dug perfect horn-holes on either side of his forehead. He’s clutching the newest issue of Bon Appetit in his stiff hand like a rolled-up divining rod. Dead for almost a week, I’d guess. Fulchmann’s deadly bon vivant, left to age same as his beloved brandies.

I’ve no doubt these were Lieu’s bullets, though whether they were invited or not I’ll never know. What were the old codger’s last words again? The will to prepare.

It takes me a few moments of philosophical reflection before I notice the note pinned to Aloy’s corpse. Though, befitting the late Mr. Fields, it’s not so much pinned as it is lovingly tied, bound around his chest in baker’s twine with a bay leaf perched between the knot. The paper is wide and thick and cream-colored, but carries only a brief message:
Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made – Kant

Another quote, prepared just like the first: by a dead man, for a dead man. Fitting that one chose a NCAA legend and the other a classic Prussian idealist. They played their roles to the end. Standing here looking down on Aloy’s body, reading it over and over and feeling the ungodly chill of this giant house on my neck, it’s becoming more and more clear that these two had their exit plan long-arranged.

Realizing this, I crack a smile. A true-blue, goddamn smile, ear to ear. You don’t enter this line of work with any doubts about how it’ll eventually finish. Us loose strings can only dangle in the wind so long. In the end, Lieu and Aloy must’ve figured that, if a hitman can’t choose the what, he can at least choose the how.

They’re not fidgeting today. I am.

I’ve been running a fever since getting back from Virginia, swigging ibuprofen all the way up 95. Car engines sound like circular saws on ceramic tile, horns like pit orchestras. Filling up the gas tank is Sisyphean. Too much travel, too many jobs. After this next haul—triple—I’ll be good for that extended break.

Ever since I crossed the New York state line the sky’s been roiling like a ball of warm clay, but there’s been no rain. Just wind. When I finally return to Pelham my flu seems to’ve left my body and spread to the rest of the park. I sit cow-eyed for a few minutes, staring out the windshield at the debris gusting in and around the river, the walkers and children holding their heads as they flee for shelter, the sun dozing in and out, its bursts perfectly timed between each angry squall.

My benefactors are already out there. They stand fastened up in their three-piece suits, staring at the surface of the Hutchinson like they’ve taken a dreamy breather from their Sunday stroll. No fidgets, like I said, even as the rest of their surroundings, from the dead leaves to the river itself, twist and moan at the coming storm.

I calm my juddering hand and make a beeline towards them. Sick or no, it’s time. Excitement’s been building in my gut like a rolling wave since I slipped back out the window at Aloy’s place. It’s not too often I get to tell the cretins who hire me that their dark little plans have gone all pear-shaped. This is the first, actually. I’m finding that there’s a perverse joy in the idea of getting paid to kill for some sweaty, holier-than-thou shills, barely having to lift a finger, and still picking their pocket when all’s said and done. The look on man-tan’s sallow face when I tell him old Lieu and Aloy were one step ahead will be especially gratifying.

They seem almost eager as I approach, almost heaving, parting their lips like dogs in heat. This’ll be beautiful.

“Thank you for respecting the time constraints,” man-tan says, meekly excited.

Man-cut’s more business, but even he’s got some thrill showing through. His gums poke out all tight and glistening as he speaks. “Well?”

“First the money,” I state plainly. “Then details.”

“And if we don’t pay?” man-cut asks playfully, reaching into his jacket.

“You won’t ever see me again.”

His smile fades. “I’m assuming that doesn’t mean what I think it means.”

Smart boy. He forks over three unremarkable envelopes, each numbered and bound with a strip of electrical tape. They feel heavy as I take them.

“Well?” he asks again.

“They saw it coming a mile away,” I answer, not without some enthusiasm. Whatever sun is left is glaring suddenly, the air thicker. I’m having trouble focusing.

“They got away?” man-tan blurts.

Not in the way you think it means,” I mock. I shield my eyes with the stack of envelopes. They feel like the heaviest things I’ve ever lifted. My mouth’s been drained of all its spit. “Seems you didn’t give them enough credit. Old Lieu welcomed me into his home—”

“And Mr. Fields?”

“Mr. Fields decided not to even bother waiting. Feel like I owe them both a little cut.” Something’s wrong. The words are coming, the weather clearing, but it’s wrong. All wrong. I need to get back to the car. “Either way, the contract’s finished. If you need me again, you know where to find me.”

“We’re not finished yet,” man-tan pipes in delicately.

A part of me is thankful for the interruption. I don’t think I can make the walk back without falling on my face.

“Let me guess,” I slur, turning to face him. “You want me to take up the cause, right?” I try to cross my arms but they slip against each other, flopping lamely. “Why hire two cleaners when you can get one to do the work? I guess even wetworks aren’t immune to downsizing.”

“Aconite,” man-tan says.

My vision swims in drunken goldfish laps. He’s not a bald suit anymore, but a Dali sculpture, pink clay melting over a colorless pedestal. Each time I blink he twists more and more into a corkscrew.

“What?”

“Also known as wolf’s bane.”

“It’s got lots of names,” man-cut points out casually. “Queen of all poisons is a personal favorite, if we’re choosing. Sort of reminds me of you.”

“A precise measurement will prove lethal about two days after ingestion,” man-tan continues. “Untraceable, too.” He looks up at me, eyes hard and veined. Or maybe perfectly normal. There’s no telling now. “It doesn’t take much—a few drops rubbed on the tab of a beer can, for example.”

I swallow, but my throat doesn’t move. It feels stuck with old cement, cracking and grating along the walls of my esophagus. I’m dying, of course. Two sips of an old veteran’s poisoned hospitality.

“Did he know?” I breathe.

“You mean Lieu? Of course. It was his idea, my dear.”

The park has become very quiet suddenly, even the water. The wind lashes at me silently, the clouds move like figures stuttering through a silent film. Storm’s coming back. The men’s two voices are the only sounds in the universe.

“Of course, you’re probably thinking, why not just get him to do it all? You know, convince them to off themselves quietly? We thought of that, believe me.”

“We did,” man-cut chimes.

“We did. It was our first suggestion, in fact. But Lieu and Aloy had a code of honor, and—well, you met them.”

“Technically, she only met Lieu.”

“Right, just Lieu. Being finished off by the best is right in his wheelhouse, don’t you agree? So we got the best, just like he requested. We got you.”

The rain is finally here, pattering one or two delicate drops at a time. I won’t live to see the downpour.

“It’s not always about the dollars and cents. You don’t get good in business, any business—”

“Even convenience store confections.”

“—yes of course, even convenience store confections, with ruthlessness alone. Sometimes you have to make people happy.” I can hear the smile in man-tan’s needling voice. “And when you’re really good, you can do both.”

“We’ll tie up the loose ends ourselves, when required,” man-cut explains, “but letting an end have the privilege to tie itself is even better.”

On my knees now. Pelham’s soil is as hard and cold as a glacier, chilling me bone-deep. There’s not enough air in the world to fill my lungs. Each rain drop feels like a needle poking into my skin.

“Your line of work, I feel like you can understand that. Old Lieu has a family, and he prefers his moonlighting to remain…in the moonlight, if you will. They can never know. Thankfully, we were able to oblige each other.”

“Brand loyalty played a role, as well. Don’t forget that. Always important.”

“Of course, yes. Both were excellent consumers.”

As my final breath runs out and floats down the bank over the Hutchinson, I remember what Aloy had written, a quote from one of his beloved philosophers. Don’t recall the name, not in this state. Something about humanity, about crooked timber. The memory clicks into place as death does the same.

“Anyway, time is money. I’d hate to rush off and leave you here in the park like this, but at least they’ll find you whole, right? No wounds. No blood, even.”

“Right. I’d call that a win.”

“Definitely a win. Clean and easy.”

“We’ve come a long way since Houstus, friend.”

Darkness now, soundlessness, neither warm nor cold. Alone with the last vestiges of conscious thought. Some real gems in here, things I didn’t or wouldn’t think about while alive. Like how there are Lieus and Aloys all around us, cut from that same swath, that bent tree to which we’re all a part. Bad from the root, to the leaves, to the fruit. Me too. Crooked timber for crooked houses.