Chapter 1: Memoirs of a reluctant reaper
Dear Jude, I know you thought it was a joke. I know you probably never thought about it again after that night. So, it must shock you to know that over the last two decades the “joke” has haunted and controlled me. So many tiny and insignificant things we fail to notice or pay attention to have rippling effects in our lives and the lives of others.
Obviously, if you are reading, you have gotten it out of the safe-deposit box. Hopefully, I am dead and not in police custody or hospitalized. Thank you for doing that. I guess I feel a need to write to you as a confessional of sorts—to clear my soul, though I haven’t actually done anything. Except accepted money to knowingly spend time with people. People whom other people wanted dead. Again, I didn’t really do anything.
The reason I wanted to write you is because, really, it was your idea. I was content to go along and continue hiding with my “New Year’s Curse,” as I sometimes call it. But, you, you had a better idea. Human nature being what it is, eventually, I acted upon it. So, I want you to know what you have brought about: I can’t live with this secret alone anymore.
You probably don’t remember, but almost 20 years ago, we were having dinner at Caffe Phoenix the day before New Year’s. I was trying desperately to make sure I left before the clock struck midnight; I didn’t want to endanger you in any way by spending one second of New Year’s Eve together. It had been an eventful night, and we each had a couple of glasses of wine when someone, I don’t remember if it was you or me, made a joke about hiring me out as a contract killer.
I do remember saying, “It is the completely un-prosecutable crime … I mean it’s not illegal to spend time with someone, and it’s not like I actually pull the trigger or stab anyone—they just happen to drop dead during the next year.”
We were both laughing and you kept egging me on. “You should totally do it! OH. MY. GOD! What a great idea!”
I left the restaurant at 11:30 p.m. on December 30th with plenty of time to get away from people I knew and loved. I planned to hide over the next 24 hours in a hotel. As you know, a few years before I had started to hide as far from humanity as I could.
But your suggestion got me thinking. I had never thought of myself as a killer in spite of the mounting evidence to the contrary:
Gareth, dead of a heart attack in 1972.
Edith, dead on the operating table in 1975.
Jim, dead in a car accident in 1979.
Harry, killed in a plane hi-jacking in 1983.
Thelma, killed by robbers in 1985.
Barry, dead from a boating accident in 1987.
Earl, dead of diabetic complications in 1990.
Liz, dead from a medicine mix-up in the hospital in 1991.
Sam, allergic reaction to tuna fish—declared dead on arrival by the EMTs in Wallace Park in 1992.
Worst of all, Sparky, that sweet dog. I thought it would be safe to hide out with my dog on New Year’s Eve. Apparently, no one, two- or four-legged, is exempt from the curse.
Have I ever told you what happened to Sparky? He bled in my arms, heaving, gasping with short howls of pain as his breath gave out, unable to sustain the note before that crazy man who hit him said, “I’m sorry, but we should put him out of his misery. I really am so sorry.”
The world had exploded with dog flesh and noise. Blood and fur flew and retracted; the man pulled out a hand gun, aimed and shot Sparky while I was still holding him.
Jude, that was the worst—the break! That was why I started hiding every New Year’s Eve. The months of agony which followed led me to another option. If I had this curse, then shouldn’t I try to control it? Use it for good, rather than have it control me?
Ahh, but your idea: The Contract Killer. To hire myself out for one night a year—well, theoretically, how would anyone advertise this service? I mean, what would a contract for something like this look like? I wouldn’t promise to kill anyone on New Year’s Eve, but they would die some time within the following year whether in my presence or not. The statistics were there, proving the likelihood based on my experiences with everyone else who had spent New Year’s Eve with me.
What would the going rate for something like this be? I mean how does one value human life? I assume it would cost more money to be hired for a Supreme Court Justice than Joe Schmuckatelli from down the street, right?
I thought about this for a long time. One day, while having coffee with an ex-special forces agent, Frank, at Folks Café, I baited him for insight. “Do you remember the story in the paper a couple of years ago about the person who was stabbed to death in Bladen County over $9 and some change?”
Frank wiped the whipped cream from his blonde mustache with the back of his hand. “Yeah, that was terrible.”
I nodded and pushed hair out of my eyes. “But a big part of why it was so shocking for everyone was that the killing was over such a small sum of money. Obviously, it was about something more than just $9, but…”
“Yeah, you just hope that human life has a higher price tag than $9,” Frank nodded and sipped his mocha.
“So, what sort of price would you put on it?” I asked as nonchalantly as I could.
“In Somalia or Marin County, California?”
“No, this isn’t a political question,” I noted. “I mean if you were going to hire someone to kill a person, how much would you expect to pay?”
Frank’s jaw dropped “Ahhh, is there a reason you are asking me this?”
I shrugged my shoulders and stared at my coffee. “Well, I’ve just been thinking about it. I mean if we are so shocked that someone would kill for $9, at what price would we not be shocked?”
“So this is a theoretical discussion?” Frank visibly relaxed when I nodded. He leaned back in his chair, hands on his thighs and flexed his back. “Well, I don’t know. There was that case in Raleigh for $5,000 apiece last year… Maybe $10,000?”
“That still sounds really low to me. Or am I overvaluing this?”
“Do you value human life that much?”
“I value guilt and conscience and consequences that much. I mean you have to live with having done this for the rest of your life.”
Frank looked at me with a pitying glance which seemed to express concern over my naïvete. Slowly he said, “Somehow, I don’t think it bothers people who are willing to do it that much.”
“Really, you don’t think they feel guilt?”
Frank shook his head. “Not everyone is like you.”