The Messenger

“Close your mouth, Newt. You look stupid,” Albert says. In light-blue light, Albert sits in the driver’s seat and faces Newt, who faces forward. Their squarish vehicle looks like it will get them from A to B and presumably back to A, but it remains stationary. Its black-leather interior and dull exterior colors—ocher, tarnished silver, and rust—make the car a nearly inconspicuous cover.

“How long was I sleeping?” Newt asks. Yawning, he flips up the brim of his gray felt fedora. Then he turns to register Albert’s light blue, flat, almost featureless face.

Albert takes a gold pocket watch from a pocket inside his gray cashmere overcoat. “Couple of hours,” he says.

“That’s a nice watch,” Newt says, grabbing Albert’s wrist.

“Yeah. Watch it!” Albert yanks back the timepiece and returns it to the pocket. “Don’t touch the merchandise.”

Newt turns away and scans the alley. A mass of concrete blocks, old bricks, plywood boards, metal sheets, poles, and coils, point B is a dead end. Barricades cover even the slim openings in the three- and four-story buildings that line the street, but one otherwise nondescript doorway is clear. Newt concentrates his attention there, though encroaching evening makes it difficult for him to distinguish features of the cityscape. At this hour, streetlights should be clicking on, but broken glass and twisted steel testify to the violent deaths of all the lights along this stunted straightaway.

Now the place is dark and colorless. No moon has risen in the sun’s stead. From out of nowhere, three sleek beasts, like wild dogs or wolves but worse, surround the car. Their bared fangs and steely eyes glow in the dark. Albert opens his window a crack and shouts, “Get away, you mutts!” When they move closer, he reaches inside his overcat and pulls out a revolver. He rolls down his window and shoots the closest animal between the eyes. Before it drops, the others have scattered.

“You do a lot of this?” Newt asks.

“Some.”

“Less more than more, though?”

“I’ve done other things.”

“I wasn’t suggesting otherwise.” There is a long silence. “But what if this was it?”

“Was what?”

“Your main means of employment.”

“Which it is not.”

“But hypothetically.”

“It most definitely is not.”

“For the sake of argument, say your other endeavors fail for some reason. Suppose the powers that be make this your permanent position.”

“They never would.”

“But suppose they did. Maybe you piss them off, you screw up something, I don’t know. For whatever reason, they reduce you to full-time goon.”

“I’d turn it down.”

“No, you couldn’t refuse. You know that, Albert. Some thanks, don’t you think, for however many years of dedicated service. That’s the hooker. You have no job security. One day you’re home watching TV, you’re throwing a party, you’re spending a quiet evening with the family, you’re playing Parcheesi. You’re looking forward to semiretirement, lulled into a false complacency.”

“A what?”

“The messenger arrives. The company mouthpiece. Typical wiseguy. Young, full of spunk, never at a loss, the way you were once maybe.

“‘Here’s the deal,’ he says. You can tell from his tone it’s serious. ‘Execute this thing at such and such a time.’ ‘And then?’ ‘Then keep on executing.’ With his voice of reason he’s letting you know you have no choice, Al. ‘We’ll tell you when to quit,’ he says. ‘Any idea when that might be?’ you ask. Your wife has just brought in the coffee. And his answer is, ‘When enough is enough.’”
Newt and Albert exchange glances that flash like searchlights across barriers.

Newt flicks open the glove compartment and reaches inside. “Gloves,” he says.

“So?” Albert fidgets, then fishes out his pocket watch.

“So I’ve never found gloves in other glove compartments. So. Is this your car?”

“Company loaner.”

“I mean have you used it before.”

“Sure.”

“How recently?”

“Day before yesterday.”

“And the day before that? Are these your gloves?”

Albert coughs up a mass of phlegm. It makes a smacking sound when he spits it in the street.

“Albert, why are we doing this?”

“Orders.”

“But for what purpose?”

“Part of the business.”

“But whose part? Whose business? Have you thought about that? Say what you will, what you mean is, Not ours. None of this is ours, except the gloves.”

“Including the gloves.”

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

“Not at all.”

“Because you have a job to do, unlike some people. Which is what matters to you. Which is all you know.”

“You’d be surprised what I know.”

“For instance, Al. What can you tell me about the company? What can you tell me about the company business? What can you tell me about this guy?” Newt nods his hatted head toward the open doorway. “What part does he play?”

“All right, all right, I’ll tell you something. I know he’s a problem for them. They know who he is and what he did. Which was no good. So they put us on him. So whoever he is, I know he’s vermin. So keep quiet. And keep an eye out.”

With his good hand, Albert tilts forward his gray felt fedora and tilts back his head. Newt nods. He waits and watches.

It is pinkish-gray dawn when Newt says, “Albert.” Albert tunes in to see a slim figure, wearing a gray cashmere overcoat and a gray felt fedora, peer around the doorframe.

“He knows,” Albert says.

“But we’ve got him,” Newt answers. He and Albert exchange gazes that reach past A and B: unknown territory. Neither man moves as the figure across the way makes a run for it.