I woke up to the smell of coffee brewing and an empty apartment. My head ached the ache that only comes form too much champagne. Gina left a note scrawled on the back of a brown paper grocery bag.
To My Favorite Reaper,
Thank you so much for making my last wish come true. Every year on my birthday I sit down and write a list of what I want to do in the next year. Last year was the first year that nothing on my list happened. It was because I had no one with whom to share those things.
Put the food away and made you a pot of coffee—you are probably going to need it after all that champagne we drank last night. Your stories are incredible; you really should write a book. That’s not flattery. Though, I can tell from your face every time I brought it up that you think it is—but you should. You have the makings of a great book waiting inside you. Please, write it.
This was the best New Year’s I’ve had in a long time; thank you so much! I am looking forward to getting my New Year’s gift to myself. Thank you again.
With much fondness and gratitude,
Ahh, Queen Tree, how appropriate, I thought. She was quite queenly—ethereal in a determined way and quite regal.
She was determined enough to decide her own death—and hire me as a contract killer to ensure it. But what a killer to hire? She didn’t hire someone who would shoot her in the head in front of her house one night. No, she hired a cursed killer—for $50,000 someone who would simply spend New Year’s Eve with her, thereby locking in her death in the coming year. Then, when I—the “cursed one”—refused the contract on her life, she showed up anyway on New Year’s, not just welcoming the curse but demanding it, and with entertainment!
Queen Tree had balls—no wonder she was so successful in business. Yet, when I asked her about it, her answer came as a surprise.
“Business is much less like war, as all the management books say, and much more about learning how to say ‘no’ when people ask about things you don’t want to do,” she said. “Think about it. You go into business to make money. You make money two ways: by selling goods or by services. So when people ask you to do something, you want to say ‘yes,’ but you can’t say ‘yes’ to everyone all the time. You will lose yourself and your business. Learning to say ‘no’ is important.”
She sipped her wine and looked at me. “Don’t you ever say ‘no’ to your editors?”
“I tried to say ‘no’ to you,” I pointed out.
“That you did,” she nodded. “Here I am anyway. I had a greater need for this to happen then you did in denying it.”
“You think so?” I asked.
Was it her sense of style? I wondered. Queen Tree had a great sense of personal style—not only did she get her way and spend New Year’s Eve with me, she got her selected killer angel to entertain her by telling stories of her other victims all night long!
I wondered what would happen to Gina. I didn’t really see her as the type to succumb to illness. I knew she wanted it sooner rather than later. She made it clear she wanted death to come before another round of holidays ramped up. Gina scared me; I felt like a deer desperately attempting to evade fate.
“You know I am not scared to die,” she told me several times. She kept pointing out that everyone she loved was gone—a statement which echoed my own heart too much for comfort. She had something I never had. She shared her life with a partner—and man she loved and respected. I longed for that.
“Giving that up must hurt more than losing a kidney,” I said.
“Emptiness does not begin to describe it,” she confirmed. “That would be an improvement over this.”
She asked me once if I was in love. It was one of her famous non-sequiturs that threw me off balance. When I didn’t answer immediately she continued: “Ahh, you are.”
How could she tell? Was it that obvious? Was I blushing like school girl?
“What’s his name?”
“How do you know it’s a he?” I remarked.
She shrugged. “I don’t. Is it?”
I nodded. “His name is Frank.”
“How did you meet?”
“We’ve been friends for years—maybe 20 years? He was in the service at Camp LeJeune. When he got out, he moved down here and has stayed ever since.”
“He teaches social studies at the high school since he retired from the corps.”
“You’ve been in love with him the whole time?”
“Does he know?”
I reflected. “I don’t know. He’s… he’s …”
“Is there someone else?”
“I think he and another friend of mine are falling in love.”
“After 20 years?”
I nodded again.
She looked shocked. “Why have you wasted all this time?”
“Because I can’t be with him!” I exploded.
“Don’t spend New Year’s Eve with him, and you will be fine! What are you talking about? Killing him?”
“Oh, and how am I going to explain what I do every New Year’s Eve?” I asked. “How am I going to explain $50,000 cash just appearing? What kind of relationship is that? Built on lies? Could you sleep comfortably in bed next to a killer every night of your life?”
I heard my voice and realized I was screaming. Years of frustration erupted and couldn’t be expressed in a calm manner.
She was quiet for a while. Finally, her eyes met mine and they filled with tears. “You are right,” she said. “I hadn’t realized what a price you really paid for this.”
She wiped her face with her hand. “I’m sorry. I didn’t really understand before.”
I shook my head. “It’s OK,” I sighed. “No one does. I can’t talk about this with anybody. How could I have a real relationship with someone I respect as much as Frank with a secret like this?”
I put my head in my arms. “I just wish it would go away.”
Gina put her hand on my arm and said quietly, “I bet you do.”
Later, when I was alone and lost in my bathtub, replaying the events of the day, I realized how strange it was that Gina had reacted so strongly to my situation of unrequited love. We both lost our parents, yet when I told her that mine died because of me, she seemed unfazed by it—only curious about how she could anticipate her own situation. But a 20-year unrequited love moved her to tears. Either her husband was a very lucky man or she was a very disturbed woman. Of course, a contract killer calling someone else “disturbed” does take a certain amount of chutzpah, I admit.
I thought of all the possibilities for Gina to die.
I could see her jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, or piercing her heart like Buttercup started to do in “The Princess Bride.” Yet, it would probably come in the form of a car accident, I figured.
Again, I underestimated Gina. She died in a hang-gliding accident on Valentine’s Day.
Ms. Gwenyfar Rohler is the author of “The Contract Killer,” which runs every other week in encore throughout 2013. To catch up on previous chapters, read www.encorepub.com