Julia noticed the cashier noticing her chocolate milk.
“Just put a fucking cooler in your trunk, babe,” Liam had said. “Because it’s weird, you buying that stuff.” His chin bobbed in her direction. “You know, someone like you.”
Liam was Julia’s handler, the go-between for her, the Agency, and the clients. He was also the biggest asshole she’d ever met.
“I am a professional murderer,” she’d replied, ignoring his implied insult. “Trunk space is at a premium.”
Catching the ball he’d been bouncing against the alley wall, Liam let out an annoyed grunt. Like most working for the Agency, he disliked Julia’s unwillingness to use proper euphemisms on the job. It was the main reason, she thought, that he insisted on meeting in dirty back alleys as if she were a soliciting streetwalker.
He handed her a folder. “Your next target.”
She flipped it open and scanned the contents by the light of her phone. “He’s just a kid,” she muttered. He couldn’t be out of college yet, and someone had put up the money to end his life. Liam did the surveillance, knew exactly what he was giving her. That explained his buoyant mood.
Liam was already walking away, and his reply came in a harsh stage whisper: “You don’t ask questions, remember?”
A large, brown cat knocked over a pile of cardboard next to a nearby dumpster. Then it squeaked like a rat. Julia grimaced, then turned and walked back to her car.
The job itself could have been smooth. As smooth as that sort of thing gets. A knock on the kid’s off-campus apartment’s door, wait for the series of locks disengaging on the other side. Lower pressure sucks a thick cloud of marijuana smoke into the hall as the door cracks. No chain. Julia had him in a sleeper hold–careful to only knock him unconscious–before his slack nerves could register her movement. That was good. No need to make it worse than it had to be. An arm reached up, a gentle pat on her shoulder, and his red eyes closed.
Then something unexpected happened, like it always did, because she had all the luck of a bombed-out mirror warehouse. A fat grey cat came careening out of the apartment, knocking into her shins, before stumbling down the corridor with a pugnacious mew. Of course Liam hadn’t mentioned a pet. “Dirtbag,” she breathed, then dropped the limp body across the threshold and made a break for the fleeing animal. A missing cat was a loose end she didn’t need.
It was waddling up the hall. Could cats get high? She slowed anyway, not wanting to spook it. There was enough smoke in that apartment she worried about a contact high of her own, and a lingering smell. She’d probably have to burn everything she wore.
The elevator at the far end of the hall dinged as the doors opened. Another college kid stepped. He held a bag of groceries in one hand while the other fumbled in a jacket pocket. The jangle of keys. If she lucky, he wouldn’t look up.
She grabbed the cat and held it in front of her while she backed toward the open door. It wasn’t far. She could make it.
The cat hissed.
The kid looked up, his eyes sliding right past her and the cat until they settled on something behind her. She looked back, saw an arm sticking out of the open apartment into the hall. Not moving. He was still out.
Julia looked at the kid with the grocery bag. He looked back. Their eyes locked.
She mimed drinking from a bottle, shrugged in the direction of the arm, then threw the cat into the apartment, pulled the body clear, and slammed the door. She finished the rest of her work quickly, ears open for sirens, but they never came. She left the building without anyone else seeing her, then removed her disguise–a wig of dark curls, non-prescription glasses, a grey jacket–and stuffed them into a plastic bag. She changed the rest of what she wore in her car, then found an isolated spot under an overpass to burn it all, along with the folder.
Six months later, she stood outside a rundown gas station at the edge of the city waiting for Liam. The pretense this time, she assumed, was for her to look like a lot lizard. If she wanted to drink some chocolate milk while she waited, then she would drink some chocolate milk while she waited.
Which is when she noticed the cashier noticing her.
Julia figured she was due for some luck by now. Everyone gets a break eventually. She placed the carton of chocolate milk and a packet of gum on the counter, then asked for a scratch card.
The cashier put the lottery ticket onto the counter, then rang up the milk and gum, “Pump?” he asked.
Julia looked at the cashier. The cashier looked at her. Their eyes locked.
They made the connection at the same time. She was wearing a new wig, this time of straight, auburn hair, and no glasses, and he was wearing the gas station’s drab olive uniform and cap, but they recognized each other from that apartment hallway. Julia knew that this guy knew that she had been the last person with the target before he turned up dead. Which was just her luck.
“Jason didn’t OD,” said the cashier after a drawn-out silence. “He wasn’t even a junkie.”
“That’s not what the police reports say,” said Julia, a little bit edge in her voice. She’d made the job look like an accident, which was a fairly common request, but not universal. Sometimes a death was a message as well, and sometimes it was merely the most efficient means to an end. Any street thug could perpetrate a home invasion that went wrong, and they might even keep their mouths shut while in custody, or during their jail time. Then again, they might not. Discreet reliability was the reason Julia made as much as she did.
The cashier stared at her while keeping completely still. “Do you have a gun?”
In the blink of an eye she was holding a 9mm pistol, pointing it in his general direction. He flinched.
“You didn’t call the cops,” she said, then after reading his name tag, added, “Nathan. That’s why you’re still alive.” Her tone was definite, and the way his pupils were dilating told her he got the message. She knew his name, where he worked, and where he lived.
Nathan’s eyes fixated on the barrel of the gun now. “You really are a hit . . . woman?” With a noticeable effort, he moved his eyes back to her. “That’s pretty cool.”
“Professional murdered,” she corrected automatically, then: “What?”
“Jason was a piece of shit anyway,” said the cashier with a slight shrug. “Fucking dirty pothead, too. I’m glad you did it. Seriously. Not even Hitler listened to jungle music at 4am, or smelt as bad.”
Before Julia could say anything else, a bell chimed as another car pulled up to the pumps outside. Nathan looked toward the sound. Julia grabbed the lottery ticket and vaulted the counter, sliding down to crouch behind it on the other side. Nathan looked down at her, then at the counter top. “Your stuff,” he said. She kept the gun on him and waved her other hand. He gave her the gum and the chocolate milk just in time for the door to open as someone entered the shop.
Julia fished in her pocket for a coin, then thought better of it. That would require both hands.
“Give me the bathroom key,” demanded a familiar man’s voice.
“Washrooms are for customers only,” said Nathan.
“I’m pumping gas, you little shit.”
Nathan took the key from a hook near Julia’s head and handed it across the counter. There was a grunt of acceptance, followed by footsteps and the door opening as the man went back outside.
“Take this,” said Julia, holding the lottery ticket out. Nathan did, and he mimed for him to scratch it as well. Which he also did, eyes widening with each pass of the coin. He held the ticket up, showing her the play area. “How much?”
He looked the ticket over. “About fifteen thousand.”
Julia thought about that. Was her luck actually changing? After a few heartbeats, she made a decision and pulled out the revolver strapped to her right shin. Liam had made a joke about her not being able to wear any of the stylish cuts because she insisted on that hidden weapon, but she knew that with her luck she would eventually need something extra in her corner. She flipped the gun deftly in her hand so that she held it by the barrel, then offered it up to Nathan, still pointing her pistol at him with her other hand.
“You can keep all the money if you shoot that man when he comes back in,” she said.
The cashier’s mouth hung open. “I can’t do that,” he said, but after another second of balking he took the weapon anyway.
The door banged open again, and heavy footsteps approached the counter. Nathan held the gun loose in his left hand, hanging low underneath the counter, as if he was unwilling to get a proper grip on it. The key clattered onto the counter, and the man laughed. “Looks like you’ve got some cleaning up to do in there, buddy. This is literally a shit job.” He laughed again at his own joke. “You know that, right?”
Nathan’s fingers tightened around the revolver’s grip.
“Should have stayed in school, moron.”
Nathan raised his arm and fired until the gun clicked empty.
“I can really keep this? I guess I’ll need it now. I’m going to lose this job.” Nathan was babbling again. It was kind of cute. “I’m going to lose this job and then go to prison. Unless a 15k lawyer can get me off. Do you know any good lawyers?” He was still clenching his left hand around the gun. His knuckles had long turned white with the strain. “Why the fuck did I do that?”
Julia checked the dead body and pulled Liam’s gun out of its shoulder holster, confirming that he’d been armed. She held the gun up so that Nathan could see it, but he didn’t seem to register it as anything more than a hunk of metal. It might still make the experience easier for him. It had for her, when she’d first started. “Do you have access to the security tapes?”
“What? Yes. I’m the manager. I mean, I don’t actually manage anyone here, but it saves them from having to pay me overtime. I have all the keys. You think we can George Lucas them or something? Maybe if you stand in the right spot and shoot over my head, But then I’d have to shoot you, too–.”
“Calm down,” said Julia, and he shut up. “You’re not going to prison.”
“Still,” he said. “My job. This won’t look good on my CV.” He seemed to remember that he was holding the gun, and he dropped it onto the counter with a look of revulsion.
“I knew this guy,” said Julia. “I worked with him. Nobody will miss him, nobody will even look for him.” She bent and grabbed Liam’s arms. “Fact is, I would have killed him myself a long time ago, except I’m not allowed to do that sort of thing. If he gets himself shot by some kid, though? Like I said, nobody’s going to miss him.”
“Are you sure?”
Julia decided to press her luck a little further. “If you’re worried about your job, well, my company seems to have an opening. Consider that ticket your advance.”
Nathan looked thoughtful for a while. His took in the gas station in all its over-lit, dilapidated glory. He looked at the winning lottery ticket in his right hand, the smoking gun on the counter, the body on the floor. He sighed, stuffed the gun and the lottery ticket into his pockets, then came out from behind the counter to grab Liam’s legs.
Julia knew she would have a lot of explaining to do, and that Nathan would become her responsibility, but chances were pretty good that he had a clean record, and that would count in his favour. He was even willing to do some of the work, she told herself, as she sipped her chocolate milk and watched Nathan dig a hole for the body. She looked into the sky and watched a shooting star pass overhead. She considered making a wish, but she felt she’d had enough luck to hold her over for a while.