A Hitman Jake story by Preston Pairo
“What are you doing?” Jake asked.
Loiza, Jake’s decades-younger assistant, was preparing a second piece of toast as he had the first: plucking an entire soft knob of butter from the individual container it came in, smoothly distributing it across a crunchy plain of white bread, adding a sprinkle of salt, then turning the toast over—buttered-side down—to take a bite.
“You mean this?” Handsome Loiza held his lightly-crisped bread slice by one corner, its neat square silhouette now interrupted by the bite he’d taken.
Jake said nothing, as if what else would he have been asking about. In his 52 years, including many mornings spent having breakfast in this very diner, ten miles north of Baltimore City, Jake had never seen anyone eat toast with the buttered side down.
“You should try it,” Loiza suggested. “I read about it on a food blog.”
Jake did not know what a food blog was, but assumed it had something to do with the Internet or technology, about which Jake knew little and Loiza possessed a scary depth of knowledge. Which was why Loiza was Jake’s assistant—something Jake never needed until the omnipresent surveillance of the digital age made killing people so much more complicated than when Jake started out thirty years ago.
“It really intensifies the taste,” Loiza stated, taking another bite. “The butter and salt touch directly on your tongue instead of the roof of your mouth. Try it,” he encouraged again, nodding toward the untouched wheat toast on Jake’s plate, which Jake had no intention of eating.
Jake didn’t like wheat toast and only ordered it because Grace said it was good for him, doing that even though Grace wasn’t there—as if ordering white toast the way he used to before he met her would amount to infidelity.
“It’s really good,” Loiza tempted.
Jake sat back, having finished two fried eggs, including both yolks instead of leaving one yolk uneaten the way Grace used to have him do, having changed her advice after reading an article that said eggs weren’t as bad for you as once thought. Butter, though, according to Grace, was still bad, although not as homicidal as red meat, bacon, sugar, or a long list of other things Jake used to eat without much thought other than how they tasted.
From the window booth where he sat, Jake put aside dietary thoughts and returned his attention to the lawyer at the counter. The crazy lawyer wearing a heavy parka with fake fur around the hood, a down-lined baseball cap with the flaps lowered over his ears, and orange galoshes over wingtips. Hard to tell from the outerwear, but judging from his pants the man’s suit looked expensive, possibly custom-tailored a few years back when he was a revered and detested (depending upon one’s point of view) criminal defense attorney who rang up enormous fees running from courthouse to courthouse, not handling high-profile cases, but many, many, many routine felonies and misdemeanors, and achieving far greater results than most, if not all, of his peers. Until he cracked.
Now, instead of courthouses, the lawyer spent his days (and nights) in a place that would have been called a nuthouse when Jake was growing up, but was now referred to as some type of institution.
Why the lawyer wasn’t in the nuthouse today was unclear. Which was why Jake was watching him. Not because Jake was in the surveillance business, but because he was in the killing business.
The crazy lawyer, Mo (short for Morris), was a concern for one of Jake’s oldest clients, Jack Karupka, a/k/a the Kroop. The Kroop, who was also a lawyer, didn’t say why Mo was a concern, and Jake didn’t care. It didn’t matter why someone wanted someone else dead. It wasn’t a point of discussion any more than why some people liked certain kinds of food others did not—it could be a simple matter of taste, like eating upside-down toast.
So far, watching Mo plow down his pancakes and ham slices, fork-spearing big hunks of food with the relish of a caveman, Jake hadn’t seen any cause for alarm—although Grace would probably have a negative opinion about the fat and empty calories. And Loiza, who had hacked and was monitoring Mo’s cell phone, confirmed Mo was yet to make or receive a single call or text, or initiate any use of his data plan.
The Kroop meanwhile, from his downtown office, was trying to find out why Mo was out of the nuthouse—and it was more a matter of why than how, because Mo was a voluntary patient, which meant he could come and go as he pleased. But for the past nineteen months, Mo had remained inside, claiming he’d sworn off the outside world for good.
Yet here he was. Dressed as if heading to court during a blizzard even though there wasn’t a cloud in the February sky, the air was still, and the outdoor temperature—at 10:15 a.m.—was a balmy Baltimore 40 degrees. Not to mention, the temperature inside the diner was pleasant. Jake was perfectly comfortable in his black turtleneck and Jos. A. Bank’s trousers, his cashmere overcoat folded neatly on the bench seat alongside him.
“Youz all want anything else?” their waitress asked.
The gaudy Valentine’s Day heart pinned to her uniform blouse reminded Jake he had five days to figure something special for Grace this weekend, seeing as she’d been in prison last year at this time.
“I think we’re good,” Jake told the waitress.
The lady’s eyes lingered on Loiza a few moments before she moved onto her next table. It sometimes troubled Jake how women of all ages—the waitress was in her 50’s—took a liking to Loiza and would probably be able to picture him a month from now. Which went against Jake’s practice of not being noticed. Then again, if someone’s focus was magnetized to Loiza, they probably weren’t paying any attention to him and if ever shown his picture by the police would likely honestly say they’d never seen Jake in their life.
As Loiza was finishing his toast, Jake’s phone vibrated against his belt. He saw the Kroop’s number, answered, “Yeah.”
The Kroop, not mentioning Mo by name, spoke with his usual calm: “Word is he started acting agitated after reading the newspaper yesterday. He’s not supposed to read the newspaper. They’re supposed to keep it away from him. But apparently a visitor of another patient left it where he could see it. And before they could get it away from him, he’d devoured it front to back.”
“He’s got a folded up newspaper on the counter now,” Jake reported. “But he’s not reading it. Not unless he’s got eyes in his elbows.”
“He doesn’t read while he eats. He’d’ve read it before he ever sat down. Probably standing alongside the paper box before you got there.”
“We were here twenty minutes after you called.”
“He reads fast,” the Kroop reported. “Tell me, is he eating now?”
“Yeah. Like he hasn’t seen food in months.”
“That’s not good. When he—”
“Hold on a second,” Jake interrupted.
Jake made a hand gesture to Loiza, alerting his dashing assistant to the dodgy guy—early 30’s, with meth teeth, rumpled London Fog overcoat, and tight hipster jeans—who’d just entered the diner and was making a line for Mo. “Got out of that,” Jake told Loiza, nodding outside to a jet-black Mustang 5.0 with tinted windows.
Loiza noted the car’s license tag and started entering data into his phone.
“Friend’s got a visitor,” Jake reported to the Kroop as the new arrival sat alongside Mo at the counter.
Loiza fiddled with his phone like any other tech-obsessed millennial, streaming an image of Mo and whoever was now seated beside him to the Kroop.
“Don’t know him,” the Kroop reported after a few moments.
Loiza—able to hear the Kroop and Jake’s conversation through his earpiece—killed the streaming image, then sent the Kroop a text of the name the MVA had on record as being the Mustang’s registered owner.
“Still a no,” the Kroop responded.
Loiza ran the Mustang owner’s name through the state judiciary website—every criminal case against him—and quickly hit half a dozen times he’d been represented by Mo, most of those ending in acquittal or dismissal, including robbery with a handgun that would have carried a mandatory five-year sentence had he been convicted.
Jake said, “You’d think he’d be happier to see him—guy who kept him out of jail.”
So far, Mustang Meth hadn’t said a word to Mo. Then he reached inside his overcoat.
“Gun,” Jake reported to the Kroop, watching MM place a small handgun in Mo’s lap, which the crazy lawyer took and slipped into his own pocket without pausing his culinary attack on a second plate of pancakes.
Delivery made, Mustang Meth headed for the door, got back in his car fitted with the purposefully noisy exhaust system, and drove away.
Mo wolfed down the rest of his pancakes, set a twenty on the counter, and went out to his own car—a spotlessly-clean three-year-old white Maserati Ghibli. Half an hour ago, when Jake and Loiza had arrived at the diner, the expensive sedan had been dripping water from its exhaust and wheels, likely remains from the car wash down the street where, according to Mo’s credit card activity Loiza was tapped into, Mo had paid for the deluxe service.
The Kroop didn’t care how clean Mo’s car was. “He comes into the city,” the Kroop instructed Jake, “X-O.”
X-O was Kroop-code for kill, a throwback reference to the Kroop’s youth working at a golf driving range where the dimpled balls were retail rejects stamped with a series of X’s over the logo. Commonly referred to as X-outs.
Jake and Loiza slid out of their booth and headed for the exit.
The waitress called after them, “Thanks, hon,” picking up the nice tip Jake left on the table.
As Mo drove away from the diner, he kept his Italian car at the speed limit, a course of conduct he likely would have recommended to any client in illegal possession of a firearm, as opposed to peeling out in a revved-up Mustang with a roaring hey-look-at-me exhaust system sure to draw police attention.
After a few lawful turns, it became evident Mo was not heading toward Baltimore City. Nor did he appear headed back to the nuthouse.
When Jake reported to the Kroop that Mo had exited I-83 onto Warren Road, the Kroop thought of the Office of Administrative Hearings, a bland, some would say soulless, state building where a wide variety of judicial hearings, including involuntary psychiatric commitments, were conducted before an administrative law judge in any of a dozen tiny windowless rooms with fluorescent lights and no view of the outside world.
But Mo didn’t take the turn onto Beaver Dam Road, and even if he’d forgotten exactly how to get to the building in which he’d represented hundreds of clients over the years, Mo was soon so far off course to that state structure—and continuing without the hesitation of someone who had lost his way—the Kroop assumed the crazy lawyer was headed somewhere else.
Turning north on York Road, Mo proceeded into the county’s rolling hills, past the big UPS complex, the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, and the Milton Inn, then onto scenic country roads that wound deep into the new hunt country.
Million-dollar houses sat on enough acreage to have once been referred to as gentleman’s farms and the financially-spoiled lived on land they considered unspoiled despite having erected 8,000 square feet of living space on what had been a meadow since the beginning of time.
When Mo turned onto the driveway of an impressive ranch-style house, the Kroop still had no idea why Mo was there. The downtown lawyer had been over yesterday’s paper front to back for any news item that might have set Mo off.
What the Kroop never considered, or would have had reason to consider, was that the newspaper Mo had been seen reading wasn’t yesterday’s paper, but last year’s paper, used to wrap Valentine’s decorations to put away for storage at the institution and left crumpled in boxes when those decorations were unwrapped to be set back up yesterday.
Checking last year’s headlines would have made very clear why Mo had asked a former client to bring him a gun.
Last year, the story that made headlines for a month was about a former county police officer who had run for county commission and won, only to be removed from office five years later for his involvement in a rudimentary but profitable kickback scheme involving county road projects, and lying to state investigators.
That county commissioner, back when he was on the police force, had arrested dozens of people who would become Mo’s clients. A man Mo despised like no other—and had viciously cross-examined over his career, using every reference he could think of to call a liar without actually using the word. Testilying was as close as Mo ever came.
Jake and Loiza found Mo spray-painting a form of that very term—Testiliar—on the ex-cop’s living room wall. To get inside the house, they’d needed to step over the former officer’s dead body on the slate floor in the foyer.
Mo had shot the man so fast the fallen officer hadn’t had time to register surprise during the split second that passed between the time he opened his front door and Mo pulled the trigger. Jake had been surprised himself, watching from his Cadillac at the end of the driveway, and Loiza had actually jumped in the passenger seat from the gunshot.
Once having shot his nemesis straight through the heart, Mo had dropped his gun on the quickly-dead man’s body and gone inside, the can of spray paint he was now using apparently having been in a pocket of his parka.
That Mo appeared unconcerned about witnesses or anyone else being inside the house may have been the result of excellent planning or his wobbly mental condition.
Then again, the setting was secluded: twelve thickly-wooded acres, including an oak tree under assault by a pileated woodpecker rapping Gatlin-gun-like at its trunk. Across the country lane, a picturesque dairy farm sat at the end of a half-mile stone driveway. Other than the wood-pecking bird and hissing spray of Mo’s paint can, the winter morning was still and quiet.
In these surroundings, the single crack of Mo’s gun hadn’t sounded out of the ordinary. Even outside of hunting season farmers were freely granted permits to shoot animals deemed a threat to their crops or livestock.
Mo could have calculated all that. Or maybe he was just plain nuts. Jake was leaning toward nuts.
Mo, still in his parka and lined baseball cap with the ear flaps down, stood on the sofa, his galoshed feet keeping him balanced on soft cushions as he spray-painted his way along the wall that had become his editorial canvas. When his aim reached Jake and Loiza’s reflection in an antique mirror, Mo didn’t flinch, but spoke with the same passion with which he had addressed judges and juries during closing arguments.
“He was a liar,” Mo announced, finally free to use that phrase with which he’d so often wanted to malign the dead cop. “He was not an ‘impartial investigator.’ He was not a ‘trained observer.’ That’s what judges always used to say when a case came down to his word against my client. That he had no motivation to lie.”
Mo stepped off the sofa and began spraying Testiliar a second time, painting directly onto the antique mirror without taking it down as he had the large oil painting behind the sofa. Only the mirror proved a less receptive surface. Red paint ran down the reflective glass. Mo didn’t care.
Mo also didn’t seem to care that Jake and Loiza were watching him, which Jake at first considered lunacy, then contributed to ego—that Mo was like a lot of trial attorneys Jake had met over the years, so flush with ego as if to expect the world to depend its rotation on their next words—expecting admiration and approval for the cause they championed, which in this case, just happened to be murder.
“He was nothing but motivations to lie,” Mo proclaimed from his perceived mountaintop. “It’s all he did. He was an abusive bully. I compiled a database of every traffic citation he ever wrote. Took me years before a judge would grant my subpoena for those records. Even then they only produced a thousand citations, but that was enough. How he mostly made traffic stops of women and teenagers and foreigners.
“But I knew that would be the case because that was primarily who came to court to fight his tickets. Or tried to fight them. No judge ever believed it when they said they weren’t speeding—judge would tell them how peoples’ minds drift while they’re driving. They lose track of their speed. Maybe are in a hurry. When the officer—a trained observer—is concentrating on the radar readout.”
Mo’s voice raised, “But who ever corroborates that radar readout! Who’s the check-and-balance to make sure he even turned on the radar, much less reported the accurate speed? That was supposed to be you, judge! You were supposed to see what was so obvious! Only you didn’t want to see it, because that would mean the police won’t like you, and you ever want to make circuit court—or run for reelection if you’re already sitting there—you need the police union to endorse you!”
Jake glanced at Loiza, who had been electronically checking the house for a security system, and was also: looking for outgoing cellular or landline signals; monitoring police communications; and streaming Mo’s rant to the Kroop, which Mo continued without obvious need to take a breath—the Kenny G of orators, circular breathing through his rage.
“Same with his drug arrests and DUI’s. Now granted,” Mo conceded, “some of those breathalyzer results bore him out, but look at all the breath-test refusals he had, people who swore to me he either never asked them to take the test or who said they’d take it and he never took them to have it administered. Then had them sign paperwork that confirmed they’d refused the test without telling them what they were signing—all this tiny print at the bottom of a page with over a thousand words on it. Advice to rights—what a crock of shit. Nothing more than ammunition from those legislative boneheads in Annapolis for trained observers to abuse. Unbiased observers. Hah! Testiliars, you mean!” Mo became even more agitated as he started spraying the word a third time, asking Jake and Loiza: “You know what that comes from? Testilying? It’s the testimony of a liar. Every sworn-to-tell-the-truth word from his mouth.” Mo gestured violently toward the foyer, where the dead former-cop was on the floor.
Jake had to give Mo credit for how fast he’d killed the guy. Given all the crazy lawyer’s pent-up vitriol—so much perceived justice deferred—Jake would have expected Mo to pontificate before shooting. Or maybe Mo had assumed that would have been futile.
The crazy lawyer shook his paint can, rattling ball bearings, summoning what was left inside. “Now this kick-back scheme! He resigned, but got to keep his pensions! Wasn’t even charged with any crime! But the worst of it: no one’s going to go back and reopen those old cases where he lied! All those innocent people aren’t ever going to get justice! They’re all going to stay screwed! Not a single judge is going to take back those trained observer statements!”
Mo mocked the phrase like a sadistic mina bird: “Trained observer! Trained observer!! Trained observer!!!” Then roared Godlike: “No! Testiliar!!!!” He hurled the emptied paint can against the wall, where it dented drywall before landing on the oak floor and rolling beneath an ornate arm chair.
His graffiti editorializing completed, Mo bent over and gripped the knees of his pants as if having just run a marathon. He took a few breaths, which slightly eased his delirium. “That’s what did it, you know. People think I went crazy from the guilt of putting criminals back on the street. It wasn’t that. It was every time I heard a judge call a lying cop a trained observer that chipped away at my sanity. Over and over and over. Trained observer… Trained observer…” His voice gradually weakened each time he repeated the dreaded phrase. “Trained observer….”
Loiza showed Jake the text he’d just received from the Kroop. XO.
Jake went back to the foyer to get the gun Mo left on top the dead man.
The next day, Loiza asked Jake if he’d read the newspaper article that reported the incident as a murder/suicide. How a mentally unstable former attorney had killed a retired veteran police officer with whom he was obsessed, then turned his gun on himself and pulled the trigger.
The article’s next-to-last paragraph made unclear reference to the police officer’s involvement in a county highway kickback scheme. No form of the term “testiliar” appeared in the article. Numerous sources, including two judges soon to be up for re-election, referred to the dead cop as a respected member of the law enforcement community.
The best anyone would say about Mo was that he was a dedicated, but troubled attorney. None of Mo’s clients’ comments about him being the only person who believed them when they said they were telling the truth were published.
By asking if he’d read the article, Jake realized Loiza was coming to him the way a child might approach a parent, seeking explanation. Wanting to know why the Kroop had them kill Mo.
These were the moments Jake wished he didn’t need an assistant. Jake was comfortable living life without explanation, without analyzing anything that went into killing someone beyond pulling the trigger, not getting caught, and getting paid. He could have just shrugged and told Loiza it wasn’t their concern—the way he used to respond when Loiza asked questions like this.
But even the Kroop had felt the need to tell Jake why Mo had to die. The Kroop did more of that lately, maybe because killing people was a lonely profession and the Kroop was getting on in years—in his early 70’s now, Jake imagined—and maybe needed to run his thoughts by a friend now and then to make sure his thinking remained sound.
“It’s like this,” Jake began. He wasn’t the best of talkers, but was getting better—or so Grace said—and tried to explain to Loiza what the Kroop had told him. “The world depends on beliefs. But these beliefs are actually just made-up. And these made-up beliefs are only as good as people’s faith in them. Money is made-up. But you trust the dollar bill in your hand will be accepted by the cashier at the store if you want to buy something.” Jake paused, unsure if that was the best example to offer someone of Loiza’s generation, who seemed to consider cash as an antiquated concept and were enchanted by something called Bitcoin. But Loiza seemed to be following him.
“The court system’s something else made-up people have to believe in,” Jake continued. “You tear it down too much, give people reason to stop believing, there will be chaos. The Kroop says Mo used to understand that.”
Loiza shook his head. Not that he didn’t understand what Jake was saying, but how those words could have come from the Kroop—someone whose own frustrations with the legal system had led to him hiring Jake—and others—to kill people for over 20 years now. Settling out of court with bullets, so to speak. Or was the difference that the Kroop kept quiet about it? Didn’t try to tear down the institution, just ordered hits within its orderly walls.
Jake had a slightly different interpretation. “I think with the Kroop you have to read between the lines sometimes. I think maybe what he’s saying is you can’t just run off and kill every social injustice.”
Loiza considered that, then asked, “Because there’s not enough hours in the day?”
Jake nodded. “That, too.”