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Jim Daly
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timetobecruel.jpg
Art by John and Flo Stanton

Time to be Cruel

 

 

Jim Daly

 

 

 (1)

 

 

          Joe eased himself out of bed by installments, stretched out his knotted-up back, and reached for his cigarettes on the bedside table. Once he’d drawn the nicotine into his lungs, his coughing eased up and his mind cleared a little.

 

          He had important business today. He had to kill someone. There was a few thousand in it. Enough to keep him in cigarettes and stop him having to get out of bed this early for a while.

 

          This job worried him, though.

 

          When Marco had told him about it, he’d said he wanted a little time to think about it. On the spot Marco offered him more, nearly double, but he had to say yes right away—no thinking about it.

 

          He took the job.

 

          Most of his work came from guys like Marco, who wanted other gangsters taken out. Joe never hesitated. If he didn’t do it, somebody else would, and pocket the dough, so why not?

 

          This was different, though . . . but he needed the money.

 

          For over a month, he’d watched her every day. You had to know the habits of your target as well as you knew your own. You had to learn the perfect time to do the hit, and what to do if there were problems. He was good. You had to be when you were killing people, if you wanted to walk away from it.

 

          Mainly, you had to know when you could rely on the target being alone.

 

          This girl was always alone.

 

          He had been hesitating for days now, putting it off; but today was the last day of the month. Marco had told him he needed it done by the end of the month.

 

          The trouble was, he couldn’t get a handle on why they wanted her dead. She wasn’t somebody’s cheating wife or girlfriend. She didn’t seem to be working for any rivals, scamming anybody, or getting up to anything at all.

 

          Day after day he had watched her. Pale, thin, and bespectacled, terminally shy, with flickering, darting eyes, afraid of her own shadow. All she seemed to do with her life was go to the public library and study. At around five, bleary-eyed, she would pack away the books, and pick up a ready meal on the way back to her crummy rented digs.

 

          When she wasn’t doing that, she attended college but she didn’t seem to mix with any of the other kids in her class. He tried not to, but he couldn’t help feeling bad about this. She was just a kid studying at college and doing nobody any harm.

 

          And there was something else. Her shyness and awkward ways reminded him a lot of Ella.  Watching her, images of Ella came readily to mind, images that he had tried to banish from his memory. The way she kept her head bowed when she passed people; that long curtain of honey-brown hair cascading over her eyes. The pale, waif-like body that he’d adored.

 

          Half the battle with wooing Ella had been to get her to say something, anything; then it had been a case of convincing her that anybody could find her attractive. This skinny kid reminded him so much of her. She even had, like Ella, a hairline crack in one of the lenses of her lop-sided spectacles.

 

          He had phoned Marco a few days ago, to double-check.

 

          “That’s her.” was all Marco would say, after his careful description.

 

          “You sure about this?”

 

          “I’m sure.”

 

          “But—”

 

          “Just kill her. You know how it works, Joe—you’ve taken the money up front. You don’t ask questions. Don’t phone again until it’s done.”

 

          Today he would spend the morning carefully running through his plan. In all other respects, he’d gone to seed a long time ago, but when it came to a hit he was still able to focus.

 

          Later in the day he would check out of his room. He never stayed long in the same place. One thing this job had taught him, it was harder to hit a moving target.

 

 

(2)

 

 

          In the hallway of her flat, he could hear the noise of the TV from the living room. No footsteps, no noises of her moving around.

 

          He knew her routine as well as she did. She would be folded up on the sofa now, with her legs curled up under her, watching TV. Maybe she would have treated herself to a packet of Nachos or some other snack. There would be a can of diet coke propped on the arm of the sofa. A sitting duck. He would burst through the door, she would look up, like a rabbit caught in the headlights, and he would put a bullet through her head before she had time to scream.

 

          In and out, nice and easy. A nice, easy job.

 

          He was getting flash-images of Ella again. When he was young, he had been hard-drinking and wild. He’d thrown away his chances with Ella. It hit him hard when she left, but he had been arrogant enough to think that one day she would come back.

 

          He was wrong. Ella found someone else and the expected reconciliation never happened.

 

          For a long time afterwards he did a pretty good job of fooling himself that he was better off without her. There were lots of other women out there and he had his share; but the more of them he had, the more he was haunted by Ella.

 

          He cursed at himself for drifting off into memories. This was no time for reminiscence.

 

          He edged close enough to the living room door to kick it open. The thought crossed his mind that he might ask her what she had done—but then he pushed it away. Get in there, pull the trigger. It was time to bolt the door against pity. Time to be cruel.

 

          He took several deep breaths and then he kicked open the door.

 

          The first surprise was that she wasn’t on the sofa, watching TV, as she should have been.

 

          Through the half-opened door of the bedroom, he could see her sitting on the bed naked, combing wet hair. 

 

          She gasped as she saw him rushing towards her with his gun held high.

 

          “Don’t look at me!” she screamed. “Take anything! But don’t look at me!”

 

          “What?”

 

          “Don’t look at me!” she whimpered, “I can’t stand it.”

 

          “That’s the least of your worries.” He aimed the gun at the middle of her forehead.

 

          “Oh, my God! Why?”

 

          “Don’t know. Don’t care.”

 

          “I haven’t done anything! You wouldn’t kill me for nothing!”

          His finger squeezed the trigger.

 

          “Wait a minute!” She burst into tears and looked up at him pleadingly. “Make love to me first?”

 

          “What!”

 

          “But with the lights out, so that you can’t see my body.”

 

          Even in the state he was in, it had been impossible not to notice her body: thin, fragile, and perfect, like a young colt’s.

 

          Looking over her, he was frozen to the spot, unable to move. Suddenly she was no longer on the bed, but embracing him, her damp hair sweeping across his chest.

 

          Panicking, he thrust her away, sending her sprawling to the floor; somehow though, she kept a grip on him with one hand as she fell. He fell with her and on top of her, the gun falling out of his hand. She wrapped herself round him again and held him.

 

          Freeing his arm, he slapped her hard in the face and wrenched himself away.

 

          Getting back to his feet, he picked up his gun and aimed it at her.

 

          “Stay where you damn well are.”

 

          She looked up at him desperately, tears pooling in her eyes.

 

          “Please! Turn the lights off and do me, any way you want. Isn’t that what a man like you would like? A fantasy even? Fuck me and then kill me. Make me feel this body isn’t a worthless piece of shit!”

 

          He slumped into the sofa, and lowered his gun, hardly able to believe what was happening.

 

          “Why the hell would you say something like that?”

 

          She could scarcely get the words out between the racking sobs. “I’ve never done it. Look at me! Nobody has ever wanted this. Look at—”

 

           “Shut up!” His brain was reeling—half of it was screaming at him to raise the gun and fire, and the other half was seeing Ella.

 

          “Look, it was just bad luck. You would have attracted plenty of men.” What the hell was he doing? He was having a conversation with the hit!

 

          “You’re wrong,” she snivelled, swiping the tears from her cheeks. “When you’re as ugly as I am—.”

 

          “You’re not.”

 

          She looked up at him. In her face he could see both scepticism and a desperate desire to believe.

 

          “Do you like me?”

 

          He turned his gaze away.

 

          “Tell me if you do. Even though you’re going to kill me, you don’t look like a cruel man. Your eyes . . . are kind.”

 

          “Jesus!”

 

          She got up from the floor and with halting steps moved towards him, as if afraid of another rebuff.  She lowered herself down onto his lap and then by slow degrees inclined her head until it came to rest on his shoulder. “Hold me, just for a minute. Then do what you have to do.”

 

          With her hair drooping over her chest like the branches of a willow tree, and the tears glazing her cheeks, she seemed to be turning into Ella right in front of him. His beloved Ella; but twenty years of hurt later, this time he wanted to take away the pain, not add to it.

 

          “What’s your name?” he asked.

 

          “Faith.”

 

          Letting the gun fall to the floor, his arms encircled her slender frame and he held her.

 

 

(3)

 

 

          He woke early in the morning and for a few moments was confused by the unfamiliar room. Then he heard the soft breathing beside him and he turned around. She was lying on her side, uncovered by the sheets. Unfathomable, long-lost emotions stirred in him as he looked at her naked body. He allowed the moment to lengthen and kiss all of his senses. It stretched out into the best part of an hour and he wanted it to last longer; yearned for a whole day of dawn in which to look at her.

 

          The future was mapped out for him now in one respect. He would settle down with—he stopped himself from calling her “Ella.” He would settle down with Faith,  somewhere, anywhere, get a job and have kids—lots of kids. It was all there for him— suddenly out of nowhere, he had a second chance to live a life worth living.

 

          How they’d manage it was the big question. It wouldn’t be long before Marco would come after them. They needed to get far away, fast, or they wouldn’t be together long.

 

          But in spite of this, he felt serene. He felt the calmness you only feel on those few occasions in life when you know exactly what you want. He was right next to it and could hear her stirring.

 

          She smiled drowsily.

 

          “Sleep good?”

 

          He smiled back at her. “Like a baby.”

 

          They held each other’s gaze for a few moments.

 

          “Are you going to kill me now?

 

          He grinned broadly and stroked her hair.

 

          “That was a different guy. But the men who . . .”

 

          “What?”

 

          He shrugged. “Never mind, we’ll worry about that later.”

 

          Normally by now he would have reached for the cigarettes, but this morning he felt like something he hadn’t had in years . . .

 

          She rested her head on his chest.  “What do you say to some freshly-squeezed orange juice?”  It was as if she’d read his mind.

 

          “I’d say I’m in heaven!”

 

          “Coming up.”

 

          The first mouthful of orange juice delivered a sharp cleansing of his palate. The second mouthful was even better. Could orange juice really taste this good?

 

          “Just let me take a shower, and I’ll do you my special scrambled eggs.”

 

          “Can’t wait!”

 

          He sipped the orange juice and reluctantly turned his thoughts from contemplating Faith to thinking about their get-away. He suddenly remembered his gun. He’d better have it handy; it wouldn’t be long before Marco’s men were looking for them.

 

          It wasn’t on the bedside table, or on the floor where he had dropped it. He got out of bed, went to the dressing table, and opened the first drawer. No sign of the gun, but there were lots of photographs.

 

          He flicked through them. One of them looked like a house where he had lived a while ago. He flicked through others. One was a photo of the flat where he had been staying until yesterday. Then his heart seemed to stop. There were photos of Ella there too, old school photos, and photos that only he had. He kept them in an old scrapbook that never left his room. More and more photographs in the other drawers, written notes about him, about Ella, about his whole life.

 

          He staggered backwards towards the bed, as if he had been shot.

 

          He needed a cigarette now, and he lit one up quickly with shaking hands. After a few deep inhalations, his thoughts became clearer. It was all a set-up. He was like someone standing at a precipice, thinking he’d been invited to look at the beautiful view, when he was there to be pushed over the edge. Tears started to wet his cheeks. He tried to make himself angry but the anger wouldn’t come, all he felt was total devastation. A few moments ago he had never been happier. He drew deeply on the cigarette again. All a set-up.

 

          As he slumped back into a sitting position on the bed, he realised his legs were becoming numb. He glanced at the half-finished glass of orange juice…

 

          Faith came out of the shower and back into the bedroom, the morning sunshine highlighting the droplets of water on her taut, invigorated skin.

 

          Her glance fell on the opened drawers of the dressing table and then returned to him. “Enjoy your orange juice, Joe?”

 

          Something about her had changed. She looked different now, older and more assured. She stood erect and held his eyes in a confident stare.

 

          “I’ve known for months they were going to pick you to do the hit on me, Joe, so I had even more time than usual to do my research. I’m thorough, just like you. I have to say, that the more I got to know you, the more I admired the way you go about your work. We use different methods, but we have a lot in common.

 

          “The hardest part was losing the weight to give me that “Ella” look. You’ve been chasing after that vibe ever since, haven’t you? Like them young and skinny. Then there was the whole submissive, gawky teenager thing. That took a bit of practice, but I like a challenge, and I reckon I did a pretty good job. What do you think?”

 

          The numbness was creeping over the upper half of his body now.

 

          She looked at him with just a hint of irritation.

 

          “Mmm. But you know, sometimes I wonder if all that research and acting is just a big waste of time. Be honest, Joe—when you saw me lying naked on the bed, was there ever any chance that you were going to shoot?”

 

          He was silent and motionless. He tried to take the cigarette out of his mouth to answer her, but his arm wouldn’t move.

 

          She sighed. “Thought so. I couldn’t have been safer if I’d been wearing bullet-proof body armour.  Men are so obvious.”

 

          He felt consciousness slipping away from him now. He knew he didn’t have long.

 

          She draped that enticing body over him, still wet from the shower. With a little “tut, tut”, and an eyebrow raised in admonition, she gently prised the cigarette from his numbed lips, shaking her head and smiling sweetly.

 

          “Really, Joe, you mustn’t. These things will kill you.”

 

 

 

 

Jim Daly lives in that epicentre of British literary life, Hainault, with his partner and three year-old daughter. He gives good VLE (a sort of educational website) during the day-time at a local college.  He heartily enjoys the questionable business of scaring people for fun and practices the dark art whenever he can, with occasional forays into other genres.  His work has been featured in Nanobison and SNM Horror Magazine.

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