Here is a short story I wrote over 20 years ago, and which was the spark that set off a collection called “24 Exposures.” This was actually the second story after a prologue that set up the idea of a photographer who wandered around L.A., capturing photos of events that appeared in the stories on a single 24-shot roll of 35 mm film. Yeah, like I said… written over 20 years ago.
LET ME TAKE YOU DOWN…
“Got two new jobs in today,” General said. “Not one, but two. Go figure. Shit, it’s been how long since the last one?”
Jones shrugged. “I don’t know, sir. Five years, at least?”
“Nah, if you’re thinking of Pass Key, that wasn’t us.”
“Really, sir? But I thought those girls were — ”
“They were, but they were also crazy. And they didn’t exactly get the job done, did they? Cigar?” General opened a humidor on his desk, pulled out a pair of Cubans.
“No thank you, sir,” Jones answered. “I quit smoking.”
“Oh. Well, good for you, Major.”
Jones stood silently while General went through the whole ritual — tap cigar, snip the end, strike wooden match, slowly torch up while turning the cigar. Jones couldn’t help but think of blowjobs whenever he saw General do this. And he wasn’t “the” General, but just General. Jones didn’t even know his name — there were no name plates on his office door or desk, and no badge on his uniform — but that’s how it was in this particular business. Of course, General knew every last detail about Jones’s life, probably down to the number of times he’d jerked off last week.
The end of the cigar glowed cherry red and General took a long, loving suck, gave a thoughtful look, then blew the smoke into the air. It’s was the very beginning of the 1980s, when smoking seemed to still be required everywhere in America.
General reached into his desk, pulled out two file folders and put them down, turning them around still closed.
“The first one is pretty routine, kind of thing we get all the time, no big surprise.” Jones noticed the outside of the folder was marked “Rawhide” just before General opened it, revealing an eight-by-ten. The president-elect. General continued, “It’s a little unusual that we got the job, but I guess someone just doesn’t want this man’s hot little hands on the red telephone. The other one, though. Took me by surprise.”
General opened the second file folder, revealing another eight-by-ten. Jones looked at the face. It took half a second to register who it was, then he recognized the man and muttered before he had time to think. “Holy fuck.” Jones had startled himself, then looked nervously at General. “Oh. Sorry, sir.”
“No, that’s quite all right, Major. That was pretty much my reaction, too.”
“But who would want — ”
“Take a guess.”
Jones thought about it. He ran all the usual suspects through his head, foreign and domestic. He came up completely blank. Finally, he shrugged. “I can’t imagine who’d want him dead, sir.”
“Well, it’s a doozy,” General answered. “Unfortunately, I can’t tell you. Yeah, it’s a real shame, I know, but we have our job to do. Shit, son, I can think of fifty people in the same business who should get rubbed out. This client is one of the few who shouldn’t, but every so often, you get an assignment that’ll leave a real bad taste in your mouth. I’ve had a couple myself.”
The statement hung in the air with the cigar smoke and Jones bit his tongue to keep from uttering the obvious next question. General smiled. “You know JFK would be around sixty-three now if he were alive?” Before Jones could say anything, General added, “No, I wasn’t at the bureau back then. Something just made me think of him.”
Another puff and blow, then General laughed, shaking his head. “Sad fucking day, I’ll tell you. I was in Okinawa when we got the news. It was like the rug got yanked out from under everything. A lot of people are going to feel the same way after this one.” General stared off thoughtfully, Jones still standing at attention in silence. Then, “So, who have you got?”
Jones smartly snapped the file folders from under his arm and placed them on the desk. General picked them up one at a time, briefly looking at the photos and dossiers. “They’re all our most reliable sleepers, sir,” he explained. “Most of them have been in the program since at least elementary school, all of them have plausible deniability.”
“Shit, all of them look like they have the same goddamn mother, too.”
“That’s part of the process, sir. Developed from psychological profiling. Each one of them fits the description of the typical lone nut exactly.”
“The march of disenfranchised, bitter, young white men goes on.” General laughed, held up two photos. “They could be brothers, look at that.” He glanced at the dossiers. “About the same age, generally non-entities, a lot of anger and self-esteem issues, grew up in very conservative states… Major, your department has been doing an excellent job. Excellent.” He glanced at the names of the two, chuckled. “I bet you’ve got a Matthew and a Luke in here, too, hm?”
“I like these two,” General said, putting the other file folders aside. “Plenty for the press to dig into after the fact. Hell, I bet both of them have lots of neighbors who are going to say, ‘Oh, he was such a nice man. Very quiet, kept to himself…’ How’s Pamela doing, by the way?”
It took Jones half a second to hear the question. “Uh… oh, she’s doing fine, sir. Expecting our first child soon.” Of course, Jones knew General knew that. He also half suspected that General knew who the real father of the child was, knew everything about the arrangement between Jones and his wife, knew everything about the Navy boy from Annapolis who was a frequent house guest whenever Pamela wasn’t around. But at twenty-eight, Jones was already a professional in this business. He knew how to protect himself against blackmail, how to create cover stories. He knew all about plausible deniability. It was just one soldier doing a favor for another, and there were children in the marriage, not like some of the other officers Jones knew.
Unless General could read Jones’s thoughts — and the Major wasn’t at all sure that wasn’t possible.
“Sorry, sir?” Dammit, he’d drifted off into his thoughts and missed the question.
“I asked you who you’d recommend for which job here, Major.”
“Ah. Well, sir, that depends, I suppose, on how you plan to do each one.”
“Handguns, Major. Just guns, close range, nothing fancy.”
“Not rifles, sir?”
“No, we can get both our guys right in there, we don’t need anything high-caliber. Besides, anonymous snipers always leave so many questions, and we don’t need that.”
“President Kennedy, sir?”
“Yeah, him. And Martin Luther King. People are still trying to figure out who did them, but when was the last time you heard anybody wondering who killed Bobby Kennedy?”
“Point well-taken, sir.”
“So, it’s up to you. Match the shooter to the target here, make me proud.”
Jones looked at the four open folders on the desk. General was right. The two agents looked like brothers. Soft and flabby despite their youth, the kind of guys who’d be left behind when their friends — if any — got lucky at the local bar. Both of them had something behind their eyes. Incipient anger, a mistrust of the world, probably a feeling that life treated them unfairly at every turn. Both of them had strong sociopathic tendencies. And yet, despite the similarities, there were differences. One of them seemed to have had the ideal childhood. The other had parents who were fighting every other moment. One of them was just a security guard. The other was trying to have a career as a songwriter.
Jones’s eyes darted to the photos of their clients. He hadn’t voted for this president-elect, hadn’t really liked him at all. Jones grew up in California, so he remembered. He didn’t like the man. Jones’s older brother had been in college when they called out the National Guard. Soldiers, guns aimed at civilians. At children, really. And here was a photo of the man who’d done it without a second thought. Of course, Jones’s brother had gone to Canada when his number came up. Jones didn’t. The end result was that he became one of the soldiers, did his time in ‘Nam, and was standing here trying to make this decision now.
But the other “client.” The other victim… Jones couldn’t think of a single motive, a single reason anybody would want him dead. Except maybe that he’d been one of the very public voices of the children who’d had those guns pointed at them. But that was a long time ago, and the man wasn’t doing any of that now. He’d apparently retired, withdrawn from the world. He wasn’t a danger to anybody.
“Not an easy choice, is it, son?”
General’s question snapped Jones out of it. He shook his head, muttered, “No, sir.” He hoped General couldn’t read his thoughts, because they were talking about two different difficult decisions here. And the General wanted an answer right now, Jones could tell. Great moments in history were often the sad result of snap decisions.
“I see both our boys have read ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’” Jones said, stalling.
“Who the hell hasn’t?” General laughed. “That’s part of the whole plan, after all. You’ve read it, right?”
Jones nodded, even though he never had.
“Your office isn’t the only one to have used psychological profiling to create a sleeper. Too bad the liberals are catching on. They’ll manage to get it banned eventually.” General sighed.
“Lucky for us that book got written, isn’t it, sir?”
General laughed hard and loud, took another hit on the cigar, then pointed the glowing end at Jones. “Let me ask you, did you ever wonder why J.D. Salinger has never been seen or photographed?”
“You mean, sir…?”
“Now stop stalling and match ‘em up, I’ve got a golf game with an ex-president in half an hour.”
And the four faces became Jones’s entire world. Two victims, two killers, but he would give anything to save one of those lives right now. The question was how. Their people were too well indoctrinated, too well created. When their assignments came, they succeeded, always. But there had to be some shred of hope to hang onto, something.
And there was. It was a small chance, really, but anything was better than nothing. One of the killers, the one codenamed Junior, was definitely insane. The other one, codenamed Peach for reasons Jones couldn’t figure, was not insane. That was good. That was something. Crazy people didn’t back out when they’d committed to killing. Sometimes, however rarely, sane people did.
Oh. But there were those two girls, who’d tried to kill President Ford. They were definitely insane, and they had both missed. That was something to consider, and Jones’s head swam back and forth, thinking. No, wait, that’s right. Those two girls hadn’t been theirs, General said so. They may have been crazy, but they were also not trained. Professional crazy people would have succeeded.
Anyway, crazy people never got caught ahead of time. They were always too paranoid. It was the sane people who made stupid mistakes, stood out, got arrested far from their target. And their crazy assassin was in the same line of work as the man Jones wanted to save. There was always the resentment factor to consider. A bitter failure would be far more likely to take revenge against the wild success.
He pushed Junior’s file folder forward.
“This one, sir. This one should do the Rawhide job.”
General picked up Junior’s folder, smiled. “Good work, son,” he said. He put Junior’s folder with the president elect’s and put both of them in a red folder marked “Eyes Only.” Then he picked up the other two and did the same.
“Sir, if I may ask, what’s our timeframe here?”
“Well, we have to wait until after the inauguration on this one, give it a month or two. Too much constitutional chaos if we do it before he’s in office, not a good idea with all that trouble right now in the Middle East. The other one, I think we can proceed immediately. How long do you think it’ll take to get your guy to go to New York?’
“Probably a few days, sir,” Jones said. “He already owns the gun.”
“Perfect. Then proceed with that part of the operation, my fellows will get on the rest of it right away.” General stood, gathering up the red folders. Jones saluted, his hand trembling slightly. They started for the door.
“Sir,” Jones said. General stopped.
“I am curious, though. The election was two days ago, why would anyone want him dead so soon?”
“Cui Bono, Major,” General said. “But better not to ask those questions. Not in this profession. Dismissed.”
Jones nodded. General opened the door and the Major walked out into the anonymous gray hallway. The door closed behind him and locked with several loud clicks. Jones thought to himself, “Jacta alea est.” Nothing to do but wait. He walked away, hoping his gamble would pay off, hoping that things would go the way he wanted. He’d picked the assassin most likely to back out of or screw up the first assignment. Only time would tell.
* * *
A week later, while Pamela was out of town, the phone rang late at night. Jones grabbed it on the second ring. Farley, the Navy boy, was asleep beside him and didn’t stir. Still, Jones walked the phone into the bathroom and shut the door.
“Major, we have a problem.”
“Sir — what’s wrong?”
“Your boy backed out, that’s what’s wrong.”
“What do you mean sir?” Jones tried not to sound elated as he asked the question.
“Oh, he went to New York, had his gun with him, wandered around the city for a couple of days.”
“But he didn’t complete the assignment, sir?”
“Hell no. He just got on a plane back to Hawaii.”
“So how do we proceed, sir?”
“Get his ass back there pronto, soldier.”
“I’ll do what I can, sir.”
“You’ll do what I tell you, Major. Son of a bitch didn’t even come within ten blocks of the place. Next time, I want him right in front of the door and no backing out. Understand?”
The line went dead. Jones hung up, opened the bathroom door and snagged the phone cord under it. He muttered “dammit” to himself, untangled the thing and brought the phone back. Farley was sitting up in bed, smiling.
“Who was that?”
“Business, nothing important, really.”
“Good.” Farley stretched, pushing the covers off with his feet, revealing his naked body. Jones just stared at him. God, was he gorgeous, but the Major just couldn’t be less in the mood right now. Farley held out his hands, gestured. Jones went to the bed and lay down in his arms, closed his eyes, tried not to start crying. He thought a failed attempt would end the job, but he was wrong. Their killer hadn’t failed well enough. If only he’d gotten to the door with the gun, or taken a shot and missed. Something to reveal himself to the world, and thereby neutralize his potential. Unfortunately, by now, the boys upstairs had analyzed his previous actions, knew exactly what it was that kept him away and would take steps to make sure it didn’t happen again.
“What’s wrong, hon?” Farley asked.
“Nothing, nothing,” Jones said. “It’s nothing.”
“Well, I’ve got something…” Farley said teasingly, pulling Jones’s hand down to his crotch.
“Don’t you always?” Jones said. And it was all he could do to bury himself in the crotch at hand, try to forget everything else, try to tell himself he wasn’t guilty, it was just a job, it was his own self-preservation that would lead to the death of others. That’s what soldiers were trained for, after all. To break things and kill people. Break things and kill people, never to love them and sometimes he wished his relationship with Farley would come out in the open just so he could be done with the whole game.
But it was too late, really. He knew that the boys upstairs were good at their work and that, next time, their killer would end up in the right place, gun in hand, waiting and waiting for the right moment in the cold December air outside a building in New York called the Dakota.