2. The Easy Part
A Hitman Jake story by Preston Pairo
“It’s got to be in the city.”
The two men could have been discussing real estate, standing in another of those desolate sections of Baltimore in need of private enterprise to salvage what the city had let fall to ruin, their expensive shoes crunching shards of broken glass and crumbling chips of macadam.
The shorter man, Aldous, dressed in a conservative hand-tailored suit and striped club tie, had the same compact frame as when he’d been a successful wrestler, first at a prestigious local prep school, then at an even more prestigious Ivy League university. In nearly five decades since, Aldous had made a fortune—some would say a killing—as what used to be called a stockbroker but was now marketed as a “wealth manager.”
The man standing alongside Aldous, Jake Burton, made his less-prosperous living killing people.
“It has to be in the city…” Aldous considered what he understood to be Jake’s rule. “So here…?” Aldous pointed to the section of decrepit parking lot beneath his wingtips, land within the legal boundaries of Baltimore City. “Not over there?” He pointed down Patapsco Avenue, where the dual-lane road, riddled with potholes the size of elephants’ feet, spanned the unimpressive gurgle of a river of the same name. Across that spittoon waterway was Baltimore County.
“Has to be in the city,” Jake confirmed. It didn’t really have to be in the city. Jake had killed people all over the country. But getting started with Aldous, it was best to keep it simple.
“All right, my friend,” Aldous accepted, thinking.
It was a cold, grey day, with a chance of snow in the afternoon. Postcard Baltimore in January. Traffic was light on the street. The morning rush hour was over and most of the felons and misdemeanants who provided the city with its dangerous reputation were yet to stir. Still, opportunistic eyeballs considered Jake’s late-model Cadillac sedan and Aldous’ Bentley Continental.
The men’s cars sat side by side near the abandoned fast-food restaurant that had begun as a prominent franchise, deteriorated to a lesser name, then continued downward through a spiral of private fried chicken and fish businesses funded by ill-conceived grants, loans, and other financial now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t ploys, the bottom line equivalent of which was dumping piles of cash into a fiery blaze.
Jake, a barrel-chested man of 52 with no neck to speak of and suspiciously all-black hair neatly-barbered and combed straight back, pointed at his feet which stood within city lines. “Here,” he advised, his voice somber and low, “the numbers speak for themselves. Anyone sees anything they’ll assume it’s drug- or gang-related and be too scared to talk to the police. Not to mention rumors of an overwhelmed police force and lousy morale in the prosecutors’ office—rumors, mind you. But it’s gotten bad enough I used to rule out killing anyone in Ruxton or Homewood or any of those other swanky places, but I’m more open to that now.”
“Sorry to hear that, my friend,” Aldous replied. Aldous lived in Ruxton.
Jake provided additional explanation. “The city has a five-year average of 240 murders per year—although in 2015 the number was 344. In Baltimore County, it’s around twenty-five, and usually seems like a couple smudges shooting someone in a parking lot who get picked up in about half an hour.”
“What’s a smudge?” Aldous asked.
Jake explained, “I used to say thug, but Grace says that sounds racist—that thug means black. But when I was growing up, thug was what we called the big guy who collected for the bookie down the block—and I’m pretty sure he was Italian.”
“Smudge still sounds racist,” Aldous offered.
“I’ll tell Grace.”
“How is she by the way?”
“Real good. We took a trip over the holidays as soon as she got out. She’s put on some weight and letting her hair grow.”
Jake’s girlfriend was only months released from what was supposed to have been a longer sentence for manslaughter—having killed her abusive ex, which Jake would have gladly done for her, only she didn’t want to impose and hadn’t told Jake how bad the ex really was.
“So Baltimore County is definitely out?” Aldous needed to make sure.
“Yeah. And Howard—which averages five murders a year. Plus, half the county’s ultra liberal, people who watched The Wire and now think all inner-city drug dealers have hearts of gold and are socially misunderstood. Not to mention a police force and prosecutors I get the feeling are just waiting for a murder to sink their teeth into, like vultures looking for road kill. Rumor is the only time someone accused of murder got acquitted out there is because they actually didn’t do it.”
“And Anne Arundel?” Aldous asked, interested in learning more. He’d known Jake a long time and this subject had never come up—then again, wanting someone killed was new to Aldous’ repertoire.
Jake said, “Anne Arundel’s out. They only get about a murder a month, plus it’s the governor’s back yard.”
“Same low murder rate as Howard—not to mention: a stray bullet hits a Ripken happens to be driving by…?”
“I’m not sure any of that family still lives out there.”
“Even so,” Jake replied, “it’s county.”
“How about P.G.?”
“I see where you’d think that,” Jake appreciated, brushing something off the collar of his cashmere overcoat, “seeing it gets about 70 murders a year, and being it’s so close to D.C. But it’s like the other counties where I feel like all those serious felony guys can’t wait to put on their homicide pants.”
“Since you mentioned D.C…” Aldous suggested.
“No way. Too many feds. And cameras everywhere—ones that work. Unlike these.” Jake gestured over his shoulder to the shell of a surveillance camera, the working innards to which had been pulled out the first night after it was installed.
“So for you to kill this guy,” Aldous accepted, “he’s got to set foot in Baltimore City?”
“Both feet preferably—so there’s no dispute about which jurisdiction’s going to handle the investigation.”
“This is going to be a problem then” Aldous sighed. “Because this guy thinks Baltimore City is a crime-infested hellhole. I asked his wife if there was any reason he’d come into the city and she couldn’t think of a single one.”
“The wife is who wants him dead,” Jake assumed.
Jake thought a moment, then suggested, “Orioles’ game?” Even though opening day was months away.
“She says her husband hates the team. And that overpaying Chris Davis is just the latest debacle since they traded for Glenn Davis.”
Jake didn’t know who either of those Davis people were, not being a follower of professional sports.
Aldous continued, “And no matter how good any restaurant is, he says no meal is worth being mugged.”
“He realizes,” Jake countered, “most people who come to the city don’t get mugged.”
“It’s a perception issue.”
“How about a stroll around Fort McHenry? Can she appeal to his patriotic side.”
“I could ask, but he doesn’t strike me as someone who does much walking.”
“So what’s his favorite thing to do?” Jake asked, trying to be helpful.
“She says he mostly sits in his chair and watches CNN.”
Jake nodded, then asked the question he usually didn’t: “Why does she want him killed?”
“Because she’s convinced he won’t die otherwise. And she’s tired of cleaning up cracker crumbs and cheese bits from under his recliner. She says it’s some sort of horribly-smelly cheese, too, which you wouldn’t think would be so expensive from the smell.”
“So the guy likes cheese?”
“This particular kind at least.”
“He have an email address?” Jake asked.
The question—being tech-related—surprised Aldous, because Jake was not into tech. Jake barely put up with tech.
“I’m thinking Loiza might be able to help,” Jake explained.
“Ah,” Aldous appreciated, “the protégé.”
“More of a helper at this point.”
“How’s he doing?”
“Tall, dark, and handsome according to Grace and every other woman sets eyes on him.”
“And young,” Aldous added.
“Like we were once.”
“You maybe,” Jake said. “How are your boys, by the way?”
“Good.” Aldous smiled proudly. “All in the business now. Investment advisors.”
“But not all in the business,” Jake presumed.
“They don’t go in the back room,” Aldous confirmed.
“Probably better that way.”
“Someday, maybe. But not now. Maybe one day, like me, they’ll get to the point they really want to do something to help someone, and I’ll think about bringing them in.”
That was how Aldous viewed brokering hits: being able to help someone in a very direct way, something you had more control over than worrying about some clown running the company you just invested in for the billion-dollar retirement plan you handle being linked to some bonehead decision or statement or sexual indiscretion that caused the stock to tank 20% and made your clients wonder why you didn’t have a crystal ball to warn about that.
Aldous said, “I’ll get you that email address.”
“And the name of the cheese,” Jake requested.
With that, the two men shook hands, returned to their cars, and drove away—Aldous going back to his massive corner office with a top-floor view of the harbor and Jake to his restored carriage house where Grace fixed him lunch.
By the time Jake finished his shrimp salad sandwich seasoned with liberal amounts of Old Bay, a bike messenger arrived at his door to verbally provide an email address and a name of cheese. Grace wrote the information down. The messenger pedaled away.
Over the following week, Jake’s helper, Loiza, tall, dark, handsome, and scary tech savvy, created a website for a cheese shop that did not exist, at an address in Baltimore City that did exist, set up a phone number for the nonexistent cheese shop that came into his cell phone, and posted dozens of rave reviews about the shop’s exclusive line of Rendinspire cheese—which not at all coincidentally was the cheese of favor of the man whose wife wanted him dead (one of many men whose wives wanted them dead, actually, but this particular man was the one Jake would be paid to kill).
Loiza created elaborate emails that started hitting the soon-to-be-dead man’s inbox. Subject lines of: Grand Opening; Unbelievable Prices; Superior taste—as if you milked the goat yourself.
Jake wasn’t sure about the goat reference, but that was the one that did the trick.
Loiza had been monitoring visits to the website—some of which he recognized as coming from hacker bots of his friends, acquaintances, and enemies from the darker parts of Europe and Asia, always looking for something to mine for fun, profit, or perversion. But among those visiting IP addresses was the one belonging to the man the site had been designed to entice.
Not long thereafter, Loiza’s cell phone rang. It was the man—their target. He wanted to know if the cheese shop delivered. Maybe mail order. Or FedEx.
Loiza acted aghast, stating he would not entrust his cheese to just anyone. He would not let it leave his hands unless going the person who would consume it.
“Like I milked the goat myself,” the man mused with whetted appetite.
“Although you realize,” Loiza said, speaking as he imagined an old, finicky cheese maker would, “the only person I actually permit to milk the goats is Sabine.”
The man did not ask who Sabine was, but seemed to understand the demands of his fellow dairy-product aficionado. “The thing is,” the man reported, “I don’t like coming into the city.”
“I understand,” Loiza replied, then tapped a key on one of the many laptops set up around him in the basement of his fortune teller mother’s bungalow in Rosedale—his single-digit motion causing a sound to play like the sort of cowbell a cheese shop might affix to its front door to alert of an arriving customer. “If you change your mind,” Loiza informed the man, “I am here. But demand is high and I have only a limited supply of Rendinspire. I’ll probably be out by the end of the week, and that will be all until Ratchengrass season.”
After a brief pause, the man asked, “What time do you open in the morning?”
Loiza said, “Ten-thirty.” He and Jake had put much thought into the time of day to kill the man, thinking their target might prefer making the dreaded trip into the city amidst the rush-hour throng, perhaps being a believer in relative safety in numbers—albeit underestimating the odds of an incapacitating auto accident were greater (although perhaps not by as wide a margin as other major cities) as death by miscreant.
But even in Baltimore City, certain precautions were necessary (although perhaps not as much as in other major cities). Which was why they’d decided on the later opening time, because once the man’s car was safely within the city line, Jake was going to pull alongside and shoot him. And rush-hour’s crowded streets would complicate Jake’s getaway, unless of course Jake happened to speed off on one of those mini-motorcycles the city (according to rumor) had ordered its law enforcement personnel not to chase at high speed. But Jake’s 52 years, five-nine height, and two hundred pounds did not exactly make for the mini-scooter type.
The following morning, the man’s very unsecure cell phone—courtesy of an app (which sounded so much less evil than virus) Loiza had installed (which sounded so much less evil than hacked) from the comfort of his mother’s basement—indicated the man had moved from his recliner and was proceeding at a rate of speed corresponding with motorized travel. The man turned onto Baltimore National Pike, a/k/a Route 40 West, which became Edmondson Ave. At the fork in the road, the man steered onto Franklin Street, which became Mulberry Street at the point where Franklin Street was only one way west out of downtown.
Jake imagined the man’s palms were sweaty with nerves even on a cloudy 45-degree day, his eyes likely darting from boarded-over doorway to ramshackle porch for potential sources of peril shaped by his concepts (which sounded better than prejudices) about this section of the world.
Loiza kept Jake updated on the man’s whereabouts by cell phone, reporting from his mother’s basement, seated before enough computer screens to make a NASA engineer envious.
Jake—who had only recently become comfortable using the hands-free option on his phone—was driving a route his grandfather would have called Round-the-Block-Charlie, waiting for the man to travel deeply enough inside city lines to make the sound of gunfire completely unremarkable.
That the man ultimately opted to veer off Mulberry onto the bypass was expected as the somewhat puzzling 10 or so blocks of freeway, beginning in the middle of low-income housing and ending inside blocks of low-rise commercial properties, sported a 45-mph speed limit and was free of stop lights, pedestrians, and only the occasional hard object thrown from overpasses. It was a span of road that, 45 years ago, was rumored to start a freeway-like connection between Baltimore City and Howard County, but had completely failed to consider all the necessary developed property that would take until the sun burned out to acquire by eminent domain.
Timing his route perfectly, Jake pulled in behind the man’s Lexus 350 at the first traffic light at the end of the bypass, the red color of which he imagined the man was cursing.
The plan was that, within the next couple blocks, Jake would come alongside the man, shoot him, and be at Aldous’ office in time for lunch.
Only life often did not go as planned.
With the traffic light remaining red, out of the shadows and advancing like a rabid wildebeest came a member of the unofficial Baltimore Welcoming Committee, a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I poor-soul of a man reduced to savage existence beyond the reach and help of the most well-intended but-mismanaged and borderline-corrupt government agencies, his one leg dragging behind him, his coarse grey hair standing on end as if arrested by an ungrounded electric wire, pushing a metal cart filled with tetanus-level possessions, the cart’s bare axle where once was a fourth wheel grating over chipped asphalt like long fingernails on a chalkboard.
Losing his balance as he stormed toward the Lexus, the beast man half hurled himself toward the sedan’s driver’s door. He landed face first on the side window, his fists not far behind, pounding glass through streaks of his own drool, making demands in a language unique to his lack of responsibility for criminal conduct.
Jake feared the man he was supposed to kill would speed off in panic and head back across the county line where the local police force had a lesser burden of crime to deal with and generally corralled homeless types away from the gentrified taxpayers.
But the cheese-loving man in the Lexus did the most astonishing thing. He powered down his window part way and, with a nervous hand, offered a dollar bill with such efficiency Jake imagined he must have had the money at ready, anticipating this type of roadway extortion would require payment the same way the state set up toll booths on bridges.
The wild man snatched the money, made a frantic gesture that appeared to convey thanks, then stabbed the driver with what Jake would later determine to be some type of homemade knife caked with rust.
Three hours later, Jake was enjoying a bourbon old fashioned—his drink of choice—with Aldous at the private club to which Aldous’ belonged. Jake told Aldous about the mentally-challenged man with the rusty shiv.
“I think in this case you could call him a lunatic,” Aldous offered.
“I’ll ask Grace,” Jake replied, taking another sip of his smooth cocktail.
The two men were seated in a private corner of the wood-paneled room.
Jake continued his report in a low voice. “So after the guy with the cart stabbed the cheese man, I ran up, chased the guy away, and stabbed the cheese man a few more times to make sure he was dead. Because that first wound was only superficial.”
Aldous was very pleased—more so than that Christmas, so many years ago now, when he’d received his first six-figure bonus check. Because this felt like real work. “Well done, Jake.”
The hitman set his heavy crystal glass on the luxurious tablecloth. “Who’d have thought getting someone to come into the city would be the hard part.”