Nothing to fear.

‘There’s nothing to fear. Just keep calm and stick to the instructions and you’ll be fine’.

This was, more or less verbatim, the first thing I always said to the new guys, the ones I was tasked with vetting for suitability following recommendation by one of our associates.

I’m not sure how I ended up becoming the mentor here, the bloody pedagogue. Never in my life had anyone ever wanted to learn anything from me, or given me the opportunity to pass on whatever knowledge I’d been in possession of. But there I was, holding the new candidates’ hands through their initial trial phase, hoping they won’t fuck things up or worse, wind up dead.

I get it. The first couple of jobs can be difficult, particularly if you haven’t been in this kind of business before. But I guess the moment you commit to this line of work you should at least have an understanding of its psychophysical repercussions. Or at least the purely physical ones. But no. How many candidates turn up to my inductions unprepared, amateurish, weak, or just plain inadequate? I have lost count, I swear.  

For the most part they soon redeem themselves, which is great. If not, they quickly end up meeting the Redeemer himself, which is also fine by me.

‘You are way too harsh with them’ the Boss keeps saying, but I disagree. 

We’re not in the business of emotions here. We take people’s lives in exchange for money. Either you exercise self-control from the off, or it’s six feet of soil. 

It’s a very simple equation.

Business has been flourishing of late, so we’ve had to take in a few new recruits, all of which I had to take on that fateful first job, hoping they would quickly learn to fend for themselves.  

The set-up is pretty straightforward. The prospect would shadow me on an easy assignment, I would engage with the target, incapacitate him, then ask the pupil to finish the job and tidy up after himself. 

Amusingly, things aren’t always as linear as this.

At times some new guy would hesitate, frozen by some divine force of conscience (or by abject cowardice) and chicken out, committing the First Cardinal Sin, and leaving me with the inane task of cleaning up two dead bodies; some other times they would descend into a blind rage, the type of unchecked madness that makes you shoot a whole magazine into a poor devil’s head, wasting bullets and turning the subsequent clean-up job into a scoop-up. And I hate that.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that neither zeal nor coyness are appropriate for this kind of enterprise, and that sourcing good, reliable staff was getting harder and harder. 

Until he turned up.

For a start, he looked presentable. Clean shaven, hair slicked into a side parting, and a black suit, freshly pressed and laid over a tie-less, pristine-white shirt. Secondly, he seemed to be exuding some sort of calm confidence: no twitching, fiddling or double-taking and a faint, humble smile on his face. The image of self-assuredness.

I proceeded with my usual intimidating stare routine.

‘What’s with the puny briefcase?’

‘My tool, Sir.’

‘What is it?’

‘9 millimetre. Beretta, Sir. And short  silencer, of course.’

As first impressions go, I was blown away.

‘Do you have a name?’

‘Yes Sir. Tommy.’

‘Very good, Tommy. And enough already with the Sir. Just call me Dunn.’

Though he was a little too skinny for a squaddie, he must’ve had some military-style training. He seemed too slick for a novice. I couldn’t wait. I had to put him through his paces straightaway. I tossed him the keys and jumped in.

‘You drive! I’ll brief you on the way’.

***

‘Easy one, kid. The target lives alone and is probably unarmed. Nothing to sweat about, OK?’ 

‘Sure’, Tommy says, as we approach our destination, ready to dispense Death on a poor, but probably well-deserving sod. We park around the block and make our way to the house on foot, inconspicuous as anything. 

I get my picks out ready to outwit the front door but, before I can even step in, the newbie is there, jigging, tensing and turning until we are in without so much as a screech. 

I draw my muzzled Glock and start to sweep the downstairs perimeter. 

Storeroom to the left: empty.

Downstairs toilet: also. 

I signal Tommy to check the upper levels while I advance towards the front room. He nods, draws his Beretta and feathers up the stairs like a mime artist. Good chap. Did I say I liked him? 

I inch down the corridor towards the living room as the sexy, nasty sound of post-watershed TV advises me our target may be too engrossed in serial narrative fiction to notice Vengeance creeping inexorably towards him. 

The door is wide open. A step forward and a quick left-right, to make sure no-one’s there to blind-side me. I look over to the other end of the room, towards the large TV hanging on the far wall and… 

There. He. Is. 

Our mark. Sofa-bound.

He STILL hasn’t heard a thing. Sucker.

I slither up close from behind and WHACK, spark him out cold with the butt of my gun. Game over. Tommy, having finished his upstairs reconnaissance, joins me in the lounge, eager to carry out my next order.

 ‘Go on kid, do your thing!’.

Tommy turns around to face Sleeping Beauty.

Then, without a flinch, he takes aim and puts one in his chest. 

He takes a step closer, aims and puts another one, the finisher, in the middle of his dead forehead. A signature, just like a seasoned sicario. I chuckle. 

Bravo. Full marks. 

Ten minutes later, body bagged and house murderlessly clean, we are out, as planned, on track to the Disposal Centre, the magical place where death becomes the the building blocks of life.

It was a textbook hit, no hiccups, no fuss. The recruit had passed the test, like I suspected he would. I looked forward to see him grow and develop professionally with us. 

‘Welcome to the Firm, kid.’

‘Thanks, Dunn’. 

For the first time that day Tommy’s killer mask slipped, in an accidental display of humanity, as he smiled a child’s smile.

***

There have been quite a few instances in my career, mostly at the beginning, when my professional relation with other associates had developed into a friendship, quite a genuine and real one at times. But because of the hazardous nature of the job, it often ended up with me grieving over a dead pal. 

Of course, we all know things may screw up, but it’s never easy to process a friend’s untimely departure. So you end up putting safety mechanisms in place, detaching, severing social ties around you if you like.

But there was something about him, from the very beginning, that called out to me. Something that pointed directly to a side of me I’d long been trying to forget, a part of me that I had carefully tourniqueted, hoping it would shrivel up and fall away. That instinct, that fostering drive I thought I had dispatched the day I buried Ross. My unabated paternal nature had reappeared from the shadows. 

Creeping, like killers do.

So as time passed, armed with the inexorable intent of a contract hit, and among the sharp, bleeding drudgery of my own work affairs, I made time to follow Tommy’s steep rise through the Organisation’s ranks. It was quite a sight. I witnessed it with hidden pride and muffled enthusiasm, of course, just like a lone gunman should. 

I even offered support at times, but in subtle, covert ways. A few words of praise after a tightly-executed job, a casual suggestion for the next tricky gig, or an offer to help out if shit ever got too sticky to handle, knowing that it wasn’t likely to be needed. 

Then, as it would, one day it became needed.

‘Hey Dunn, I could do with some backup. Tonight’.

‘Sure thing. What time?’.

‘Eleven? Usual place, fully loaded’.

‘Fully loaded’ was the not particularly veiled code-word for ‘bring the heavy machinery’. I thought ‘Great. Shit storm here I come’.

I arrived at the safehouse just before 11.00pm. Tommy was already there, pacing. Without preambles, he began to brief me. It turned out our mark was a big shot with a small army guarding him, and he knew there was a contract out on his head. Not the easiest of tasks. 

‘It’ll be fun’, I said, for some light relief.

‘There’s a security blind spot’, Tommy continued, ‘At the back of the compound. We climb in from there and move towards the main building. That’s where we are going to meet resistance. Six men, maybe more. Heavily armed. We must pick them off quietly and get to the mark before he can call for backup.’

Tommy’s precise, methodic action plan reassured me a little, and I must say, I was starting to look forward to a bit of old-school action. 

***

So here we are, wearing the balaclava of the special occasions, ready for an evening of explosive entertainment. We climb the outer wall. One, two, and we’re in. Tommy makes for the right of the compound, I bear left. As I draw nearer to the building, past the trees, I see two heavies, one guarding a door, the other moving in my general direction while swinging a torchlight about the place. I get my blade out and lie in the shadows, breathless, ready to start the game. He is closer now. Seconds away. Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve done this, I still get a buzz every time. 

My life-capturing trap springs into action. As the knife blade cuts through his neck, I shove his last words back into his mouth and lie him on the fresh lawn, bonemeal. Goon number one, gone.

I take his torch and baseball cap and bumble towards the compound’s door and  goon number two, who thinks I’m his gun-toting, torch-bearing mate. Big mistake. The moment he realises I’m not, he’s a goner. I blind him with torchlight, extend towards him and put two quiet ones in his chest. Goodnight, baby. 

I dive straight in through the door and look for signs of our mark. Nothing. The building is a large, high-ceiling block, probably used as a warehouse of some kind. Stacks of boxes lie on pallets, in neat rows. I peer across, through the dimly lit corridor between stacked crates. There’s a small room in the distance. Light spills out from underneath the door-frame. I move closer, silently hoping to have hit jackpot. The door opens suddenly and some Goliath-sized goon walks out, brandishing a huge assault rifle, probably en route to the mess Tommy must’ve made with his other friends. He is in fact so worried about getting where he needs to get, that he doesn’t see me standing but a few feet away from him. You gotta pay attention to these things. As quickly as he’s exited that door, he now exits life.  Ta-ta, Mountain Man!

 I’m now thinking ‘Where’s tommy? I’m doing all the work here’.

As I turn towards the open door, I see an instant flash of white light, followed by a deafening bang. I hit the deck, stunned.

A sharp, throbbing twinge radiates from my now exposed abdomen. I touch it, jolting at the excruciating wave of pain. Fuck, I’m hit. The goddamn target’s got me. As I reel, looking at my blood-drenched hands, metallic spit in my mouth, he walk towards me, all tooled up. Scrawny little fuck.

He points his tool at me, ready to go, and I’m like, ‘It’s over, folks’, when out of nowhere, a sudden beautiful volley of pink fireworks bursts out from the side of his head. That was a bit too close. 

Tommy, still holding aim from the other side of the warehouse, looks on, his Beretta’s barrel still smoking. 

‘Can’t leave you alone for a minute, old man, and you go and get yourself killed.

‘Ah ah, that’s funny’. Laughter and pain blend strangely well together. 

‘Job done?’

‘Done’.

‘Then get me to a doctor, before I bleed to death’.

‘You better not’, Tommy retorts, while picking my broken body off the floor.

‘Who’s gonna look after those stinking newbies?’