Writer for Hire
A short story
I was sipping an espresso and intermittently tapping out my novel when a large man sat beside me at the long, wooden communal table and said, "The Rays are coming to kill you, Lucas."
He didn’t have a laptop, a required accessory for Nimbus Coffee. He did, however, sport a bulge under his ill-fitting blue jacket, which showed the unambiguous contours of a gun. The Old Spice that wafted off him battled the cafe’s nutty and herbaceous coffee aromas.
“Today.” He took my espresso and downed it. The cup vanished in his expansive hand. “You need to leave town.”
“What are you talking about?”
He placed his hand firmly over mine, trapping it in what felt like the gravity well of a neutron star.
The thought, “uh oh,” quickly morphed from a smoldering ember of concern into a roaring fire of fear. I knew why. It wasn’t a complicated equation to solve. “Who are you?” I whispered.
“I work for Mike.” The man’s lips remained straight as if they’d never once in his life curled into a smile. The multiple scars on his face resembled hieroglyphics, and his left earlobe was missing.
“Mike,” I repeated. A short name, but I was breathless after uttering it.
“Yeah, you wrote the story for him.”
I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to acknowledge that, but I said, “Yes.”
“Mike’s eternally grateful, so he sent me to warn you.” He removed a fat envelope from his pocket and passed it to me. “Don’t open it now. It’s ten grand to help you get away and start a new life.”
“Is this necessary? Won’t this just blow over?” Whatever it is.
He said, “Thanks for the espresso, Lucas,” and walked away.
Thea rested her beer on the barstool table and leaned forward, her eyes sparkling like a turquoise sea. “So that’s how you ended up in Oslo. You were fleeing a mobster.” She spoke in hushed tones, barely audible over the many overlapping conversations. “You came here because you had to.”
“I first thought about self-exile in Buenos Aires, but I didn’t want to turn into a cliché. I also considered Paris, but it’s way too expensive, and I’d probably get fat fast on all those pastries and wine. I considered an isolated town somewhere in the United States, but they would have tracked me down no matter where. The Rays are a drug gang, and there’s almost no place in America untouched by drugs. Norway was a random pick.” I raised my glass. “Here’s to random chance.”
I looked out the bar’s window. Light snow fell, white flakes swirling around the streetlight.
“Because of a novel you wrote?” Thea’s face glowed; her breathing was slow and steady. She took my story in stride, like it was just another day.
I glanced at my beer glass. My distorted reflection made me look like a Mary Shelley creation.
“It wasn’t just a ghost-written novel. It was a manual on how to kill a specific person. I didn’t know that until later, but that’s how my client used my work.” I waved to the waiter and ordered another beer. “I should have stuck to my own rule: no murders.”
The out-of-focus look in Thea’s eyes told me, “But if you had, we wouldn’t have met.” She reached across the table and touched my fingertips with hers. “What did your advertisement say?”
I quoted it by heart.
Writer for hire.
Are you haunted by an obnoxious co-worker, an always-yelling boss, a busy buddy relative, a cheating spouse, or a car salesman who ripped you off? I will write your nemesis into a story and subject them to unpleasantness and woe. They’ll lose their house, wake up naked in the middle of Main Street, suffer unrelenting bouts of head lice, be arrested and sent to prison—all manner of bad luck and ill fortune. (I won’t have anyone killed.)
You’ll relish reading about their misery. Your chakra will be cleansed.
Extract revenge in the most satisfying and legal way. Short story, $1,500; novel, $15,000.
“And you made a living that way?”
I nodded. “A comfortable one, too. The number of people itching for revenge is limitless. All my clients needed to do was answer a questionnaire about the person they wanted in the revenge novel: Habits, hobbies, school, employer, where they live, physical description—that sort of thing.”
“And Mike, he offered you $50,000 to write a novel in which Alberto Ray, a real-life mobster, gets murdered?”
“Yes, exactly. Mike told me that Ray was his uncle and had stolen his parents’ life savings. He said his angst could only be undone by a story in which his uncle was murdered. He gave me enough details about Ray, including that he was a competitive bowler, without revealing his true identity, for me to write a customized novel. He never even hinted that Ray was the head of a rival gang.
“Fifty thousand dollars was hard to pass up. Sure, I hesitated, but in the end, I thought it was a book Mike would read and draw satisfaction from. It’s just fiction. Murder mysteries are popular, and nobody takes them literally, so I figured I could break my rule this one time.”
“But he used your novel as a how-to.”
“Yes.” I scanned the bar, pausing a fraction of a second to take in each face. Oslo was a long way from New York City, and while I couldn’t imagine the Ray Gang finding me here, I’d be a fool to underestimate them. The half-filled pub seated about fifty people, mostly couples and small groups. Relief filled me when I saw nobody with long scars, acid burns, or pinkies missing their tips. “Somehow, the Ray Gang made the connection between their boss’ murder and me.”
"How do you feel about it? You were paid to concoct a murder. Even though you couldn’t know your ideas would be the instrument of another's death, you are connected to that death." Thea took a pack of cigarettes from her bag and placed it on the table. I quit smoking over five years ago, but she nodded when I eyed the Borkum Riff. Thea lit the cigarette in my mouth, then lit one for herself.
“Mobster murders are always big news in the States. When I saw the news, I knew instantly that my story was the blueprint for his assassination. The police investigation found his bowling ball had been tampered with. Needles were glued with ricin on their tips inside the three holes, just as I had written it. All three had pierced his fingertips. Ray was well protected, but nobody guarded his bowling ball in the novel or in real life.
My sigh was the loudest sound in the pub. “My plan killed him.”
“Why didn’t you go to the police?”
I shrugged. “On one level, it would have been the right thing to do. But I’ve read enough about police procedures and prosecutors to also know that chances were high that I'd be arrested and charged as a co-conspirator in Angelo Ray's death. Innocent people go to prison all the time. And that’s if I was lucky. Odds were better than fifty-fifty that Ray had a cop or few on the payroll, and I would never have made it to trial. Visions of being killed in jail with a handmade shank rolled through my brain.”
Cigarette smoke hovered between us, pausing to form a cloud that looked like a gun before dissipating. I shivered.
She leaned back and inhaled a long drag. I filled the silence with one more thought. “I feel gratitude toward Mike. He could have had me offed. After all, I was a potential witness against him. I still am. Instead, he saved my life.” I shook my head. “It’s creepy, strange, and scary all at the same time. I am a part of the story now. The whole episode is deeply unsatisfying as well because, unlike novels, this story has no conclusion.”
“You like conclusions?”
“Every story has to end. Readers rarely remember how a novel begins, but they always remember the endings. So the ending had better be good.”
Thea nodded and opened her Fendi bag. I saw a pistol. “No!”
My heart galloped. I felt an ocean of tears welling in my eyes. I looked toward the bar’s exit, where I saw two wrestler-sized men standing, silent, deadly sentinels.
I held my breath as she reached into her bag. I glanced at the two men by the door, whose hands were clasped in front of them. The Siren, Thea, would do the deed. They were just here to make sure it got done.
“Are you going to kill me here?” My voice cracked. I sounded like a thirteen-year-old boy in the throes of puberty.
“Kill you? We want to hire you.” She offered a wry smile. "Kill, yes, but not you and not here."
Wait. What did she say? We? “Who’s we?”
I gulped when she reached into her bag. Thea said she wouldn’t kill me—but her hands revealed her lie. I shut my eyes. My story was going to have its ending after all.
“Lucas, would you please open your eyes?” Moments ago, I was in love with Thea’s accent, but now it had become death’s song.
I opened my eyes and blinked at the identification she held: Thea Nilsen, Agent, Etterretningstjenesten.
The Norwegian Secret Service. What have I become?
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