I sat with my back to the wall farthest away from the door. I knew she was close. I could smell her flowery perfume a mile away. When you expect the hit, you make sure as hell you can see it coming. Some say it’s best not to look. To just finish your last supper and wait, staring at the wall. They say the stress ruins your dinner, like a lamb led visibly to slaughter. Food never tastes good when stressed but judging by the selections in the menu gently placed on my table, I figure the food here tastes the same… dead.
Keeping my eyes peeled on the front door, I tell the waitress to bring me a coffee and a jug of water. The coffee’s for me. The water’s just for looking at, before being flushed straight down the toilet – back where it came from. Maybe I’m being too hard on the place, but if looks are to go by, this greasy spoon of a diner should have been condemned a long time ago. Hell, I bet every one of these people in here are either hiding from someone, down on their luck, or health inspectors waiting for their weekly payoff.
I scan the booths. She’s hiding. I know it. For a morning rush, the room is depressingly lit. Some of the bulbs hanging over the booths look like they’ve never seen a duster – let alone an electrician. Some are not even working. Others, bordering on the final flickers of their filaments. It’s the perfect environment - if you don’t wanna be recognised. I can’t make out some of the faces in the darkened room, but I know she’s here. A sweet smelling rose petal aroma just like hers, is filling my nostrils, making me relive painful goodbyes on an empty stomach.
“Look after yourself,” she echoed through my most inner thoughts. “We had a good thing going,” were the lamenting words on that final day.
When you’re in love, your stomach is the last thing wanting attention. Not today. Love is a fond memory, and my stomach has no time for reminiscing. That’s the head’s job, but even the past visions of the goddess Aphrodite are starting to fade into the background.
“I don’t have any photos of you to remember you by,” I told her on that last day.
“Best you don’t,” she advised. “They catch you, then they’ll have the visual reference they need to find me.”
I slowly inhaled a deep sniff of the air. Perhaps, the water jug had an earlier use as a vase. The aroma has certainly rubbed off on the waitress, as every time she passes my booth, I catch the lingering fragrance wisping by. To be honest, I don’t know where it’s coming from, but it’s serving up a plate of melancholy and interfering with my appetite.
Scanning the menu, I pick out the obvious choice. Without looking up at the waitress, I quickly tell her what I want.
“I’ll have the Grand Slam Breakfast,” I politely demand. “Gotta love an all-day breakfast joint, don’t ya.” She doesn’t reply. Not even a dismissive grunt as she shuffles off.
“Sunny side up or over-easy,” my Petal would often ask at breakfast time in our wooded hideaway.
To me, it don’t matter what time of day it is. I swear by breakfast. Whatever the position of the sun in the sky, it’s gotta be my first meal of the day, and it’s gotta have eggs in it. However, today… breakfast may be my last meal, so I’ve gone for everything the cook can throw at me. No matter what the condition of this dump, no-one can fuck up fried eggs, hashbrowns, tomatoes, and toast, can they?
With my waitress back in the kitchen, my narrowing eyes scrutinise a female figure seated by the window. It’s a tactical position as the light streaming through the glass has silhouetted her, and from her position, the light would most definitely help her pick me out from the crowd. The ray of sun in my eyes has me at a slight disadvantage, causing me to feel edgy while I wait for something to happen. A dropped water glass shattered loudly against the hard floor, drawing my attention away from the figure in the window. When I look back, she’s gone. False alarm, I tell myself. Maintain your vigil.
“Who’s the better shot?” A question that Petal would tease me with. I knew I was more accurate, because I’d been in this business longer than her, but it didn’t mean anything then.
“You are, my love,” I would tell her.
I ain’t proud of my past. I confess, it was done for the money. A great deal of money. Word would come from the Broker and the targets would become instant memories in a flash of gunpowder. Admittedly, some deserved their comeuppance; however, others were just misfortunate souls unwilling to bow to bullies, or low-life pond scum making bad matters worse through narcotics and gambling. Whatever they did was not relayed to me. They were demons that needed eliminating.
“You ever wonder what they did?” Petal would ask.
“It ain’t my business to know.” I would swipe the thought away like I was swatting at a fly. “Knowing would cause hesitation, and that can get you killed or worse.”
I never asked why they deserved what they got. I just carried out the assignments. Loan sharks, cheating spouses, jealous co-workers, and the recurring organised crime hits made up most of my highly paid work. I never missed and I never took long to take them out. Someone else did the clean-up. The Broker saw to that. Each hit was carried out to the highest of professional standards. I want to make it perfectly clear that what I did was a profession. Yeah, it had no benefits like paid vacation or pension schemes. That would be psychopathic. Retirement in my line of work, meant six feet under in a wooden coffin, but it was legit work – in its own right.
“What’s the most you were offered to not complete your work?”
Petal had been soul searching herself to see if there was a price that she would accept to walk away. Even when offered opportunities to not complete my mission, I never wavered. It would not be accepted by the Broker.
“I once was offered the deeds to a 12-room mansion in the swankiest neighbourhood high above the city,” I explained. “As I said to them right before I plugged them, ‘What would I do with such a castle, anyway?’ I’d just be a nervous mess every night, worrying about them repossessing their little camelot in my sleep.”
No, I couldn’t accept any compromise and I told her many times that faltering on the job would get our names added to the list. Hell, the Broker may even pit us against each other, and that would be tragic.
“You’re a straight shooter,” she would tell me. “Conventional… That’s one of the things I love about you,” she would add.
Indeed, I was. That’s how I played it. Straight down the line. Do the job with no questions asked, and no second-guessing. That was the expectation, and that’s how it should remain. However, it was because of her that I bent that straight line and ended up in this tense situation. Petal’s name and reputation was widely known amongst her peers. Like me, she never asked questions. She just went about her deadly business, always leaving several rose petals behind to remind the clean-up crew that each grisly scenario needed to be left sterile and fresh.
“Even the slightest of smells can leave clues,” she would explain to me. “Clues can lead to suspicion, which leads to accusations, and accusations can lead to wherever they want to be led.”
She considered that as gospel, so a clean scene was a godly scene. Even though no-one knew what she looked like, her perfume lingered in a room like a grieving dead memory. It was her calling card, but after the job was done, the scene needed a fresh new scent.
She was good; however, with her career in full flow, she faltered one night when the young daughter of an intended hit unexpectedly interrupted her work. Whatever went through her head at that moment, ended her job prospects and put her on the list. That’s how I met her. Surprisingly easy to track down, she waited like she had resigned herself to her fate.
“The sight of the young girl’s eyes piercing her soul,” she would explain later, “was a wake-up call to get up and get out.”
Perhaps, it wasn’t the world she really wanted to live in at the time, or maybe she had accepted her mistake, just waiting for the inevitable consequence that punishes those in our business who go soft. Whatever the reason for making herself an easy target, had no bearing on my task at hand. I didn’t know her then, so there was no reason for me to ponder over the why and what if. I had a job to do and a valid target to hit. Until I looked directly into her eyes…
“You weren’t expecting someone like me,” she knowingly stated.
“I ain’t never whacked a girl before,” I blurted out.
“Well, the night is young and I’m not going anywhere,” she teased. “There’s always a first time for everything.”
Her calmness unnerved me. Most marks would be pleading for their lives in that type of situation, but she wasn’t. Calmly pouring us both a whiskey, she offered a glass up to me. Our fingers touched, causing my body to tremble. It wasn’t her calmness that made me tingle. It was her. Immediately, we both felt the chemistry between us. The charged air particles zinging around our besotted bodies, drew us face to face. For a brief heart murmur, I thought it was just the prequel to a why-don’t-you-look-the-other-way-while-I-disappear kind of deal about to be offered. But, as the smell of her Rose perfume wafted up into my nose, causing my eyes to swirl, we both surrendered to impulse, and our lips met in an electrical current of passionate desire. Yes, you guessed it. I faltered. To me, it was the right kind of falter with no reversing out, just full speed ahead. The only good decision in a lifetime of regretful ones. Afterwards, I got added to the list of targets, so we absconded like a couple of lovestruck, smitten teenagers, to the middle of nowhere.
“Make an honest woman out of me,” she joked.
I did, but it was more a case of her making an honest man out of me. So, we got hitched and lived as Mr and Mrs Smith. Two recently licensed real estate salespeople in a one house town. I had never experienced love the way it was with her. She was caring, gentle, and understanding when the demons of past horrors haunted me. In turn, I devoted my every breath to her happiness.
“Forever in my heart, never a thought apart,” she would write in birthday and Christmas cards. It was a promise to always love each other – no matter what. Every waking minute, love blossomed between us, growing stronger each day. We planned our lives as one entity, mapping out our journeyed paths amongst the sweeping vistas of our future. We felt like the happiest couple in the world celebrating an endless honeymoon.
Living carefree in the land of Cupid’s fantasy, softened us further, causing us to drop our guard when property developers came to our small but desirable town and hired us to land-grab for them. Their financiers turned out to be the shady type. You know, ones that would sell their own mother’s grave to build a high rise on it. Inevitably, we were recognised by some associates of theirs. In the subsequent fallout, we barely got out of town alive. That last view of our little ponderosa going up in flames brought us thudding back down to the reality we had tried so hard to escape. The hitmen that had been sent to kill us ended up as smouldering ashes in the flames, but our happy-ever-after plans were eternally seared beyond recognition by the heat bearing down on us. The love-in was over.
“We can’t survive this together,” she sadly pointed out. “I need to go one way and you need to go in the opposite direction,” was her devastating opinion.
She never looked back to see the tears cascading down my cheeks as she walked out of my life, leaving me to grieve alone for what would have been and what should have become. A bullet to the heart would have been less deadly to me. We both knew any form of contact was out of the question. If they found one of us, then they would find both of us, leaving none to love and none to grieve.
It was simple math, but a complex decision to go dark. I decided it was better for me to hide in plain sight. I wanted to see them coming. It would be a chance to look them in the eyes before I ended them, or they ended me. But I never anticipated they would be sending her to do the dirty work. Through the underground grapevine, I heard that six months after we parted ways, an accepted offer of amnesty dragged her back into doing what she did best. The rose petals were once again being left for the clean-up crews. When we had semi-retired, I guess it left a void of quality contractors and a growing backlog of work for the Broker, so it created a one-time only air of forgiveness on his part. I didn’t blame her. She was smart to accept the deal. That way, she remained alive without having to look over her shoulder all the time. I, on the other hand, could never go back. Love softened me. It gave me a conscience, and it gave me remorse. Then, the nightmares began and the faces of all those people I killed, flooded my guilt-ridden dreams. I had reached my limits of emotional despair. I was ready to welcome her with an open, unarmed gesture of capitulation, but scanning the diner in anticipation of her springing a surprise on me, turned up nothing but the bustle of short order table service amid the scent of that rose perfume.
During my trip down memory lane, the silhouette in the window returned, causing my all-day breakfast to rise back up my throat. Trying to wash it back down with a topped-up mug of coffee, I tried to relax while waiting for her to spring up and point death at me. If anyone was going to best me, I wanted it to be her. At least I’d get a final look into those beautiful green eyes of hers and tell her it’s okay. I’m ready. I can’t think of another day without you. I can’t live with the memories anymore.
A thin folder set slowly down onto my table distracted me again. It was followed by a gentle, appreciative caress of my shoulder. Ah, yes. I thought. Must pay the bill first and leave a generous tip for my waitress. It would be rude not to. Tips are her lifeline to basic-wage survival. She had been scooting around in a blur all this time, waiting on most of the tables, while I had been scanning the room awaiting my eventuality.
Pulling out a wad of cash from my coat pocket, I opened the folder to slip it in. The cost of the meal was of no importance. I just wanted to make her day. Maybe her month. Ah, to hell with it. I’ll make it her year. Something pink in colour caught my eye. Several things in pink – as a matter of fact. Inside the folder, there were two rose petals and a hand-written note. I looked around the room but couldn’t see who had placed them so casually in front of me. My waitress had vanished. When I saw a different server pouring coffee refills at a nearby booth, I thought maybe her shift was over and she’d slinked off for a deserved rest. Picking up a petal, I held it to my nose and inhaled its flowery scent. It was hers. There was no doubting that. I’d know that scent anywhere. A fleeting question passed through my mind, querying why I was still a breathing part of life. Without realising, I had been in her sights all this time, but she just walked away. The audacity to still defy the Broker’s orders made me love her even more than before – if that was possible.
As I examined the note, I quickly understood the answer to my inward question of my continued existence.
“My darling,” it read. “Forever in my heart, never a thought apart. Until I rid us of all obstacles in our way, please remain hidden. It’s safer for both of us. Yours always… Petal.”
Anguish immediately turned into hope. It was as if suddenly the whole restaurant lit up with a blinding glow of energy warming my frozen heart. The woman in the window had once again vanished, allowing additional light to permeate the darkened room. I took it as a sign that our love’s fire had not gone out. I wanted to help fan its flames, but she was right. Too many cooks would spoil the broth of our simmering salvation. The best thing I could do was to stay alive until we could be together again. Only then, could we move on to the redemption part of our lives. It may be a long road ahead, but together we will try to repair the damage… You know, the menu wasn’t that bad after all. Ya gotta love an all-day breakfast, don’t ya…