The main house sat back off the country road about fifty yards. A horseshoe driveway curled in front flanked on both sides by high hedges; a few Juniper trees stood directly mid-center. Off to the sides of the house were more bushes and trees. Two men with guns, one at the front door and the other in the backyard watched, a little too casually, he observed. These were not military types, more like street punks who thought they were tough guys because of what they were doing. Nonetheless, he knew they were not to be underestimated. He'd learned that long ago. Overconfidence has killed more people than anything else. What they lacked in discipline and training they probably made up for in bravado and fear of looking bad in the eyes of their comrades.
That morning he prepared a huge breakfast: eggs, bacon, potatoes, toast, and coffee, lots of coffee. This was religiously followed by a tall glass of orange juice with a vitamin pill and two pain pills. In the old days he used to quaff a shot of Jack Daniels before leaving, but now that he was growing old, he'd dropped that habit. One time, a few years ago, he had a shot and fell into a maudlin reverie which caused him to forgo the job at hand and sit around getting drunk and brooding. He had a hell of a time explaining that fiasco and almost became a mark himself over it. After breakfast he took a hot shower, carefully washing his long red hair, long on the sides only; his top-knot was a barren expanse. Then he dressed in loose-fitting jeans, a red plaid cotton shirt, sneekers, his lucky denim jacket, and a baseball cap from his collection. He had already prepared a traveling lunch the previous evening; it sat in the refrigerator in a brown paper bag. He called time to set his watch.
He went into the den, a room he built special, right square in the center of the house bordered on all sides by hallways. It was soundproof and had walls thick enough to withstand 12-gauge slugs. He angled Origin of Species out from the bookcase and the four-foot wide sheathing masquerading as a wall next to it slid sideways into the corner. Behind it was a floor to ceiling rack of every sort of weapon he might need. He grabbed a 9-millimeter Taurus, a silencer; a sawed-off shotgun, 12-gauge; and a 25-auto with snap-on holster to click onto his belt at the small of his back. He threw them all into a large canvas bag complete with plenty of ammo and pushed the book back in place. When he left the den, he locked its door and purposefully strode through the back of the house out into the yard.
Many years ago, when he finally saved enough to buy a decent home in the country, saying good-bye to this private sanctum had become part of the ritual; it gave him strength and inspiration. He loved working in his garden, weeding and pruning for hours on end, listening to the birds and the bees on warm summer nights. A large plum tree stood smack in the center, its twisted and angular branches defying utility. The garden was enclosed by a six-foot cedar fence that blended nicely with the surrounding woods. It kept the deer from eating his flowers, although more than once he found them in his yard. He'd open the back gate and chase them out, always marveling at their jumping ability.
It was the first time he'd ever had a place of his own. When he moved into the two-story house, which he was slowly repairing by himself, he would often sit upstairs in the back room gazing out the window at the brambles and ferns growing wildly; its one saving grace at that time was the plum tree. One day he saw an ad pinned to the bulletin board of the post office where he collected his mail -- he had a P.O. box under an assumed name -- offering to do landscaping work at reasonable rates. He told the man, a cranky old fart with a loud raspy voice who surprisingly minded his own business, what he wanted, insisting on paying under the table. He helped with the labor, making several trips to the landfill with a pick-up he rented. In less than a month, the ground was completely cleared, roots pulled and sturdy fence built.
After that he got into designing the garden, using the drafting table he bought at a garage sale, choosing all the flowers from mail-order catalogues. He paved paths with flat ceramic stoneware; they ran along the outside next to the fence and then weaved through the several rows, meeting at the plum tree. He purchased a gazebo kit: the posts, decking and roof sections were delivered and stacked neatly in the backyard, the hardware in boxes dropped on the porch. It was pentagonal, two steps bounded it on all sides. With enthusiasm he'd never known for such things, he put it together in only a few days. The backyard became his favorite place to be, spending many hours tending and caring for his friends, as he thought of the flowers and tree.
There was something about sectioning off a piece of the woods, enclosing it and reshaping the interior according to his own desires that gave him a very special feeling. He would sit in his garden at all seasons of the year, in the hot summer, or in the midst of snow, safe above it all in his gazebo. Spring time and autumn were the most exciting. He worked feverishly in the spring, lovingly clearing and churning the earth; and in the fall, every leaf that covered his domain like a blanket was a welcome sight, and watching them fall and glide in from the woods was a constant delight. His garden gave him a sense of security and home he hadn't known since a child, and even then it was hard to hold onto or remember. It made him feel human, as little else did.
He went into the garage and after removing a few pieces of split firewood, pulled the leather pouch from its home and placed it gingerly in the canvas bag. Now, he was ready.
His '67 Chevy Impala -- shiny black with cleaned whitewalls -- sat in the driveway facing out. It was his pride and joy. Little else in his lonely life had quite the same meaning. He threw the bag in the trunk, burying it under a false floor covered by a greasy rug, spare tire, tool-boxes, a jack and other miscellaneous crap. He glanced around. His nearest neighbor was 200 yards on the downside of the narrow road, trees blocked sight of the house and drive. On the upside was nothing but more trees and brush, empty of domiciles as far as he could see. Quiet. Peaceful. Laidback. Of course, he wasn't just taking in the view, although that's how he wanted it to seem. In spite of his circumspect secretiveness and solitudinous lifestyle, he knew that some day he'd be found out by relatives or friends or business associates of those he's killed. Just a matter of time for which, being the man he was, he had a contingency plan all set up and waiting.
Satisfied, he circled the car, checking the tires, then got in, carefully closing the heavy door. He turned the key and after a few attempts, the 327 cubic inch V-8 four-barreled engine jumped to life. My, how he loved that sound. He sat reminiscing over the road trip through Nevada, Colorado, and Northern California he'd taken last year. Camping out under the broad night sky in the flatlands, and witnessing meteor showers in the mountains had been a genuine high, but what he remembered most was cruising down the hot dry roads of Nevada, listening to rock and roll music cranked to the max, while drinking tequilla and grapefruit juice out of a coffe can. That was the best. He was free and loose and wild.
Breaking from his reverie, he checked his watch; it was time to go. But just as he was about to gently prod the gear-shifter into drive, he heard a strange clunking noise. His heart sank as he quickly turned his baby off. At first, he sat very still, not wanting to believe anything could be wrong, but eventually he had to face it. He steeled himself, got out, came around to the front, popped the hood, and stared. His heart beating strongly, fear channeling his attention, he narrowed his eyes to examine every part and connection, every wire and hose, moving like a chimp to look from every possible angle, all angles, hoping against hope. Did someone sneak up during the night and wire my car with an explosive that somehow failed to go off when I started up? he asked himself. Or was it designed to explode when I shifted gear? He dropped to the ground to survey all the obvious places, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Shortly, he spotted it. Water dripping under the main shaft from the fan to the engine. Water sputtering and falling to the ground. Water escaping the engine block where it was needed to keep the beast cool. Water abandoning its all-important role in the overall workings of order and life.
Relieved that it wasn't a bomb, he nonetheless almost cried as he stared incredulously at the water dripping, faster now, onto the grassy ground of his driveway, puddling ever so indifferently, carelessly, unaware of its own significance. He had to face it: the water pump was leaking, shot to hell, without which he could drive only as far as the closest mechanic. The man he'd been hired to kill would live out this day, and maybe even tomorrow, depending on how busy the mechanic was. In any event, the sense of urgency drained from him like the water from his car. He shook his head and walked despondently into the house to call his employer's contact.
Before he got too sidetracked, he returned to the car to retrieve the satchel from the trunk. It wouldn't do any good for an overly curious or downright thieving mechanic to accidentally find it. He wouldn't have any reason to look in the trunk, of course, but you can't be too careful. Once it was out there on its own, who knows what might happen. Circumspection in the extreme accounted for the fact he was still alive, he believed firmly.
Prior to putting the weapons back in their respective places, he removed the pouch containing his amethyst cat totem and layed it on the bartop in the den. It was a moon totem. Several years ago in South Dakota, when visiting with an indian friend he knew from the war, he traded his ivory-handled knife for it. At his cabin in the bush, far from any town, he'd stayed for a few days drinking mezcal, smoking pot and reminiscing, catching-up. Neither one thought they'd ever see each other again, so the night before parting company, outside in the dry heat, under a full moon, the sky filled with stars, they traded. It had been one of those coincidences. On his way there, driving his Impala, the idea came to him to find a spiritual object as a keepsake or symbol, something shamanistic, and not merely a good-luck charm or souvenir. The thought may have been influenced by the atmosphere of the black hills, he didn't know; he was just following his feelings at the time.
He'd considered other possible totems or talismans, but happenstances like this gift from his bud had to be acknowledged as more than they appeared on the surface. And once his friend had described the cat's symbolic significance, things like secretiveness, courage, fearlessness, and especially that of guardian of the home, it was obvious he was meant to have it. The fact that cats were said to have nine lives and could get themselves out of dangerous predicaments wasn't bad either. He took the totem with him whenever he left home on trips, or jobs, but otherwise kept it out in the garage, hidden. He wasn't sure why.
Trying to think of a reason not to get drunk on this fine summer morn, he failed. Rummaging through the liquor cabinet, a crusty voice from deep within said, I don't need you anymore. Holding the bottle of choice by the neck, he froze. He hadn't heard the voice for a long time. In the past, it preceded an abandonment of someone dear, someone he loved. But now he had no one, so he didn't know what to make of it. Its hollow, cold, otherworldy tone unnerved him. It seemed an alien from a dimension out of his control, a stranger with a history of sabotaging his happiness. But that was in the distant past; he was a different person now. And besides that, he'd be on his guard, he learned from his mistakes; the voice had tipped its hand. But, who was it referring to? He put the enigma on the back burner, letting his mind work on it independently; a habit he'd gotten into years ago with some success.
Confused and saddened by memories of its portent, he ambled out into the garden. The car can wait till tomorrow, he decided, and if Escalido wants to hire somebody else for the job, that's fine too.
"Water pump," he muttered, as he filled a glass of ice with coca-cola and whiskey and leaned back in his well-worn easy chair in the gazebo. The first taste went directly to his muscles and bones, thawing the tension concealing the easy nature he'd come to know since living here. Withdrawing his mind into the garden, he listened to the chirping and singing of the birds, the odd melodious call of the red-tail squirrel who lived nearby, and the buzzing of the busy bees. The plum tree held fruit already, bright reddish-blue, early this year. He considered when to pick them, none had fallen yet. To a city boy like him, it was all too magical. He took another pull on his drink, and pushed back into his chair, kicking the foot-rest up.
As the vortex of fragrant light enwrapped him and drew him down through time and space to the center of the universe, he entered the wellspring of his existence. A line from an old dog-eared book he found half-a-life ago abruptly revealed itself like a face in the clouds: Get out of your own way, and let the world dissolve into the dreamland that it is. He took another swig, and smiled.
Postscript: Impatient and annoyed, the Escalido gang canceled the contract and hired another hit man. A week later, a friend he hadn't heard from for some time phoned. He had a message. It seems the man he was supposed to kill had been aware of what was going down and was prepared with a reception committee. The gunman Escalido hired was shot dead as soon as he entered the compound, and Escalido was on the run.
Lin Bu, Chinese poet and recluse
black & white version