by J.D. Tuccille
There's an old Italian saying: "Revenge is a dish best served cold." The passing years just make the feast that much tastier.
I flipped Vargas' note over, and scanned the brief lines once again. In the fading light that seeped through the uncovered windows and fell across the linoleum surface of the kitchen table, the paper looked yellow and bare. There was little to read, or even read into.Breaker,
It's time to end the hunt and start our lives fresh. Times have changed, and so have we. Meet me at the First Street Pub, on Tuesday at 6 p.m., and we'll settle the matter between us peacefully.
As sparse as the words were on the page, it was a rather remarkable little note. It was entirely unlike anything I'd come to expect from Vargas, but then again, he'd been quiet recently. I was intrigued, and despite myself, hopeful. Very hopeful.
At 5:30, I pulled on the leather bomber jacket that had been my only steady companion for many years. Then I took the two steps across the room to my bed, and pulled a small, hard object from under the pillow. I jacked the slide halfway to check that a cartridge rested in the chamber -- though I knew it was there -- and nodded at the smooth action of the oiled mechanism. The gun and its many predecessors had become familiar over the years, and felt good in my hand. And it made sense to bring a little insurance. After all, Vargas had spent the last six years trying to pay me back for a brutal death.
Sweat streamed from my forehead as I tore the last strip of duct tape and stretched it between my hands. With my thumbs, I pressed it tight to fasten the metal cylinder in place against the automobile frame. Gravel ground through my t-shirt into my back as I reached to check the rest of the work. Beneath my fingers the fuse coiled tightly around the tail pipe of the target's car where it would ignite from the heat of the metal after several minutes on the road. It was an amateur job, I knew, and the perspiration soaking my clothes had more to do with nerves than with the mild temperatures of summer predawn.
Satisfied, I dragged myself from under the car as soundlessly as possible. I stood slowly, then, as I had been instructed, walked with a facade of confidence down the driveway and into the quiet suburban street. As rehearsed, I moved without concern, as if there were nothing unusual about laboring beneath a stranger's car before dawn.
Some time later, as my partner and I watched through binoculars, lights went on in the house and in the neighboring houses just as on previous weekday mornings in preparation for the ritual of the morning commute. Soon after, the target's car started, as always, by remote control--a basic precaution followed by so many government officials in these troubled times. Then, in a break from pattern, a woman emerged from the house and entered the vehicle. And as she drove down the street, the car's tail pipe heated rapidly.
The First Street Pub was unremarkable: not too loud, not too flashy, but not hidden either. Its clientele wasn't hostile to strangers, but neither were they intrusively friendly. Like so many of the places I'd been in over the years, there was no reason to be there except to not be noticed. In need of a low profile, it had been too long since I'd had a memorable meal, sleep, or fuck.
I sometimes wondered whether such establishments existed solely to meet the needs of people such as Vargas and myself. Perhaps sublime mediocrity was a sure sign of intense passions, clandestine meetings, and revenge plots. Either that, or a lot of people honestly liked warm beer and underseasoned chili.
After years on the road, my money was on the warm beer fans.
Vargas hadn't changed much over the years, and was still recognizable from the old newspaper photos. He'd been a pretty important man, once--though as he'd written, times had changed. It occurred to me as I walked across the lightly populated bar to the booth against the wall that this was the closest I'd ever seen him in person.
He gestured for me to sit. "I wasn't sure you'd come," he said. "I wasn't even sure you'd get the message."
I slid into the booth and placed my back to the wall, giving myself a clear view of the entire bar. "I'm intrigued," I said. "And it's fairly easy to get a message to me. It's not your Christmas cards that I try to avoid."
He nodded as if at a great revelation. "Although I almost had you a few times," he said. A wistful note entered his voice.
"A few times," I allowed, though he hadn't come really close in several years.
In the early morning I left the house for a run along the beach. I'd imposed on an old colleague's hospitality for a week, and wanted to move on before my welcome had worn away. Wherever I ended-up, it was unlikely to have scenery like this, and I took the time for a last long look at the sky, surf, and sand before returning to the house.
The smoke gave it away even before I saw the fire trucks, so I ran by with unbroken stride, like the single-minded body nazi I appeared to be, rubbernecking only casually at the flames that engulfed my recent refuge.
Past the edge of the thin crowd, where I knew he would be, was an unremarkable man and his unmemorable car. He looked at me curiously when I slowed, tapping my wrist as if to ask the time. Nobody noticed when I jabbed the man sharply in the solar plexus, eased him into his car, then stabbed him through the eye with the narrow blade that I always carried. Despite the risk, it was something I felt I owed to my late friend and his family.
Then I ran on casually, measuring my pulse in one wrist with the fingers of the other hand.
"I want to apologize," I said, after a moment of silence, "for the death of your wife. I've never had the chance to do that before."
"I never gave you the chance," Vargas said. "I know you didn't mean to kill her."
"No. Honestly, we meant to kill you. It was political, you understand."
Vargas grimaced a bit, and fiddled with a glass of something pale. The ice cubes clinked. "Of course. But it went wrong."
"Yes. It did."
I rapped my knuckles on the table to break the tension. "I was a courier. I had never done anything like that before. I didn't know what I was doing."
"We were running out of professionals. I got stuck with the job."
"Ah, I see. I wasn't important enough for one of the real assassins."
There was a long moment of silence.
"I loved her very much, you know. I was devastated when she died. I would have preferred if you had killed me as you planned."
I couldn't think of an appropriate response. I just remembered the look of shame that my old partner gave me when the noise of the explosion echoed through the streets.
"Why did you bother? You had lost. That last spasm of deaths didn't accomplish anything."
I shrugged and scanned the bar again, looking for the tell-tales of danger that had haunted my sleep for years. "Well . . . it did."
The man's eyebrows rose.
"Look. We had lost, as you said, but we hadn't surrendered yet. We needed to make your side want a quick end more than revenge and unconditional surrender."
Vargas nodded with what seemed to be admiration. His right hand rose from the table and slipped into his jacket past the lapel, then froze in place. Our eyes met for a long moment. With his free hand he peeled back the jacket so I could watch as he extracted a pack of cigarettes.
We both smiled, and I accepted a smoke.
"Yes, you did accomplish something. Your people got off with amnesty or exile."
"Except for me."
"Yes. I made sure of that."
We were all jubilant when the news was announced. Amnesty! All we had to do was surrender our weapons, then swear allegiance to our former enemies. It was a result we would have once killed to avoid, but which we had recently killed to achieve.
The cell leader pulled me aside. "Except for you, Breaker."
"I don't understand."
"Your partner on the Vargas job is dead, and Vargas is coming after you. He has enough pull to make sure that you'll never enjoy the peace."
"But it's over," I protested.
The man, a middle aged former, and perhaps future, banker, shook his head. Then he pulled a thick envelope from his pocket. "Not for you."
The envelope contained a thick wad of money, and a passport with my picture, but an unfamiliar name.
"Get out of the country. Go someplace sunny where you can tell war stories and get laid."
I put the envelope in my jacket.
"It would have been easier for you if you'd gone into exile with your leaders, you know. It would have been more difficult for my people to track you overseas."
I looked away. "I was advised to leave. But I did a fair job of staying alive here. My instincts work best in familiar surroundings. Besides, every time I thought of leaving for exile, it felt like I was leaving unfinished business behind."
Vargas smiled. "I think I know the feeling."
"So, why now?" I asked. "Are you tired of the hunt?"
"Yes, and I want my life back." He paused and sipped at his drink.
I sucked at my cigarette and waited for him to continue.
"I gave up a lot to chase you. My obsession alienated friends, embarassed my colleagues, and ended my career."
I nodded. It seemed appropriate.
"For all that you took from me, Mr. Breaker, I gave up more. Perhaps even my sanity. I could no longer work with people who considered you and your friends a fit concern only for historians. I associated myself with people who, like me, could not forget."
He sipped at his drink, and looked around the bar. His gaze was a bit unfocused, and I wondered how long he had sat there, and how many drinks he'd had before I arrived.
"I started thinking, first. Thinking about the things that gave me pleasure before the death of my wife. Then I started talking to old friends, and making new ones. I even regained a little influence."
"The road to recovery," I said.
"One step at a time," he answered. "I recently remarried, and I love her as much as I loved the woman you killed."
Something seemed to occur to him, and he looked at me.
"Did you ever marry," he asked.
"It didn't seem like a good idea."
"No, I suppose not."
"So it's over," I asked. "You're done chasing me?"
Vargas' unfocused eyes looked through me, and he nodded.
"So why call me in? Why the face-to-face meeting?"
"To tell you that you could stop running. And also, to say something very important."
"I forgive you for the death of my wife," he said.
I smiled, touched more than I expected after all of these years. The words should have sounded banal, but so much had passed between us that they couldn't be dismissed.
"Thank you," I said
Then I rose from the table and drew my right hand from my jacket pocket. It was clenched tight around the flat, black pistol.
"But as I told you, I was supposed to kill you."
The smile left Vargas' face just before the .22 bullet struck him between the eyes, leaving a small hole but little mess.
I turned amidst the stunned silence of the bar with my ears ringing from the harsh CRACK of the gun. Then, as I'd learned so many years before, I casually walked across the room and out the door.
Well, they always said that politics was a bloody-minded business! Why not take it literally?