Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Fiction: The Society of the Worldly Mind

We're trying to get in a few short stories before the end of the season. This one's my take on a murder mystery:


The Society of the Worldly Mind
By: Erin L. Snyder

An hour and a half until I put a bullet through the target’s head. Two, tops. That’s how this night’s going to end. It’s the only way I can imagine, at least.

I glance at my wrist watch. Seven fifty-five. It’s been ten hours since my plane touched down, eight since I paid three times market value for a handgun from some guy an associate put me in touch with, five and change since I arrived at the target’s house, and just an hour since I left. Oh, and four minutes since I stepped into a chalet sitting on top of a mountain in Oregon. In my hand is a folded piece of notebook paper. Not that cheap shit you buy at the drugstore. This is something else. Almost feels like cloth under your fingers, the lines are crisp and dark, and there’s this gold insignia in the top. Where the hell do you even order paper like this?

I’m alone for the moment, but the target should be arriving soon, along with the rest of this bizarre little club. Either that, or a squad of police. But I’d like to think I’m a better judge of character than that. I’d like to think I can tell when someone’s bullshitting me.

The holidays play strange tricks on you, though. Could be I just bought into the strangest story I’ve ever heard. If that’s the case, forget what I said before: there’s a whole other ending coming. Within an hour, I’ll be dragged through the snow in handcuffs while the police are finding the 9mm semiautomatic in the briefcase tucked under the passenger's side seat of the rental car. Then tomorrow, I spend Christmas in jail instead of on a jet plane, which actually might be an improvement. Less enticing is what happens after. I don’t know which of my former employers gets to me first, but I wouldn’t make it to court. Whether it’s a shiv in the yard, a cut throat in the shower, or something that looks like suicide, I’ll be dead by New Years. If I got played, that’s how the rest of this goes. Not even a question.

I knew that when I agreed to this meeting, when I sat in that room, heard what the target had to say and how far the target was willing to go, and - against my better judgment - I nodded my head. The risks were clear as day, but when I heard about this, this thing…. I don’t know. It’s not that I want to die: I’m just not so sure I want to live, either.

Fucking Christmas, right?

When I agreed to fly out here to do a job on Christmas Eve, I didn’t expect there to be snow on the ground. I didn’t expect to drive through a goddamn winter wonderland in the mountains. That kind of thing gets to you this time of year. It’s stupid, of course. I know it’s stupid. Doesn’t change things, though.

Because, assuming this isn’t a trap, there’s only one way this evening can end, and that’s with a gunshot. There might be music playing when I aim the weapon. Maybe Bing Crosby or Ella Fitzgerald or any one of a dozen others singing some old Christmas song or another. I think that’d feel right. Then I’ll look the target in the eye and nod. And the target will nod back. Draw in a deep breath. And maybe the target will ask me to wait a moment. Jitters or some last minute thought. Got one change to make to the will or suddenly wants to use their dying breath to call the ex and say, “I always loved you.” Or just the sudden inescapable weight of what’s about to happen will jump out at them and they’ll want a moment. A final moment to reflect on the ramifications of nonexistence. Nonexistence or worse.

If the target asks, I won’t give it to them. I’ll start to say, “Sure. Take all the time you need,” then put a bullet through their head before I finish the sentence. Wouldn’t be the first time. That’s not me being cruel, either. That’s mercy. That’s the goddamn gift I’ll be giving them. The only one I can afford. People always think another couple of seconds will make it easier. But I learned when I started: when you know you’re about to die, the waiting’s the hard part. And this target… this one’s waited long enough.

There’ll be blood. Blood and brains, bits of bone, skin, muscle, mucus…. Turns out, there’s all kinds of shit that make up a human being, and it all comes spewing out when you blow a hole in one.

These are the kind of festive thoughts going through my mind when I hear a car pull up in the snow, followed by a single door opening and shutting. It doesn’t take a minute for the occupant to reach the building.

The man who steps into the room is wearing a brown coat and a black, brimmed hat. He looks like someone out of an old Christmas movie in that getup, especially with the briefcase at his side. He sees me sitting there and opens his mouth, but I cut him off. “My name is Leandro,” I say, forcefully, before sliding the paper towards him. He looks confused, but I add, “I was invited here. I was told about the fee.” I lift the backpack off the floor and drop it on the table, then I unzip it to display the contents. He glances inside and nods.

“I’m Mr. Ruff,” he says, looking somewhat pale. I know who he is, of course. Lyle Ruff, former vice president of Antelope Financial. Barely escaped conviction when the CEO and president were indicted for embezzlement. But I’m glad he said it.

“It’s good to meet you, Mr. Ruff,” I say, as if I’ve never heard of him. Because those are going to be the rules tonight.
“You, as well. Leandro.” He sits down without so much as glancing at my invite. He’s sweating, which isn’t surprising. It must be eighty in here. Somewhere behind him, we hear a pair of cars pull up, followed by two more shutting doors.

“Those will be the others,” Lyle explains.

“The one who invited me said there’d be five in all,” I say. “Six counting me.”

He nods, stoically. I hear the voices outside greet each other. One’s a man, and he has a heavy Russian accent. The other, a woman, has the sort of nondescript but eloquent speech that comes from years with a vocal coach.

“Got into Portland two days ago, and I’ve been trying to see the sights since,” the woman says, her voice carrying through the door. “If I’d known it was going to be raining, I would have waited until tonight. Either that or make plans to stay up here somewhere. Who wants rain at Christmas?”

“Of course it was going to rain. It always rains in the Northwest, except in the mountains,” the Russian says.

“I thought that was just in Seattle,” the woman replies. She’s teasing him, maybe even flirting. I hear the Russian make an exasperated sigh as he steps into the doorway, locks eyes on me, and freezes.

I do the same, and instinctively my hand starts edging toward my suit coat. Because apparently my subconscious mind doesn’t know that I left my 9mm in the car.

Ivan Zherdev, however, has one holstered under his shoulder, and he has it drawn and pointed between my eyes before I can even get my hands face down on the table. The briefcase he’d been holding - almost identical to Lyle’s - lands on the floor and topples over. “The fuck is this?” he demands. “The fuck is he doing here?” And, just like that, I start thinking there might be another way this evening could end.

I met Ivan once years ago. He’s not the kind who normally hires someone like me. He’s got his own people for this type of work, or he does it himself. But this was a special case. Someone with connections and money. Ivan could have taken him out, but not without a chance of having it traced back to him. So he hired me to make it look like an accident.

Now he’s aiming a gun at my face. Needless to say, I hadn’t expected to see him tonight.

Lyle practically falls out of his chair. “Wait! He has an invite!”

“Sit the fuck down!” Ivan shouts to Lyle. “You know who this asshole is? You know what he does?”

“I’m an assassin,” I say calmly to the room. “But this isn’t what it looks like. My invitation is legitimate, and I’m not armed.”

“The fuck you aren’t,” Ivan says.

“It’s true. Go ahead and search me.”

Ivan glances back and forth between Lyle and the woman, Sophia Gravett, heiress to an ammunitions manufacturer - I read an article about her in Newsweek. He settles on Sophia. “You. Check him. Coat, balls, ankle, everywhere. Anything in his pockets goes on the table.”

She slips around Ivan, sets a massive gift bag down on the floor, and approaches me with a wry smile. “What’s all this about, anyway?”

“He thinks I’m here to kill him,” I say without taking my eyes off of Ivan. Sophia pulls out my wallet, keys to the rental, my cell phone, a small, spiral-bound notebook written in code, the wrapper to a snack cake, and a small handful of change. “I told you. No gun.”

“The backpack, as well. Be thorough,” Ivan demands. Sophia goes through it and shrugs. Ivan isn’t done, though. “Step away from the table,” Ivan tells me. I don’t argue. “Look under,” he says to Sophia. “Make sure nothing’s strapped to the underside. Check the chair, too.”

“You want me to cut open the carpet?” Sophia asks. “Unless that’s an exploding wallet, he’s clean.”

“Take the keys. Check his car.”

“She wouldn’t find it, but there’s a handgun in a hidden compartment of a briefcase under the seat.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s all,” I say. “This isn’t what it looks like. I’m here for the same reason you are, I’m guessing.” I gesture to the backpack in the center of the table. There’s a small stack of bills spilling out now.

“And you can give me your word that’s all you’re here for? That you’re not working a contract?”

I swallow. “I can give you my word I’m not here for you.”

He tilts his head, and his jaw clenches. “Not good enough.”

“If you kill him, the group won’t ever meet again,” Lyle says.

“He’s right,” Sophia adds. “You shoot him in here, Ernie and Eula will freak.”

“Think I give a fuck?”

“If you didn’t care,” Sophia shrugs, “you wouldn’t even be here.”

“I’m not dying for this shit,” Ivan says.

“I already told you. I’m not here to kill you. I’m not stupid enough to take a job like that,” I say, though right now I’m honestly a little unclear just how stupid I am.

“You’re here for someone.”

“I’m in Oregon for a job, but I’m in this room because I heard about this group. Because it made sense.”

“Who’s your damn target?” Ivan demands. I can see the muscles on his hand clench the handle of the gun.

“I can’t answer that,” I reply. “You know I can’t.”

“Make a fucking exception, or they’ll find you thawing in May.” Behind him, through the open door, another car arrives, and a man steps out. I recognize him from here: Ernest Sheldon, political strategist. He sees the commotion and hurries over. When he sees me sitting here, his mouth drops open.

“What’s going on here?” he asks, standing behind Ivan.

“This man, this fucker, he’s an assassin. He’s here to kill one of us.”

“My name is Leandro. I’m here because I heard about this group and wanted to take part. My money and invitation are on the table.”

“Who is he here to kill?” Earnest asks, glancing between me and Lyle.

Ivan tilts his head but doesn’t turn it. His eyes never leave me, nor does his gun. “Won’t say. If there wasn’t a lady present, I’d shoot out his kneecaps and see if he got more cooperative.”

“To hell with that,” Earnest says. “Kill him. Kill him, and be done with it.”

“That’s not what we do here,” Lyle objects. “Someone invited him.”

“Who was it?” Earnest demands.

I shake my head. “I can’t say.”

“Then how do we even know the invite is genuine?” Earnest demands. “For all we know, he killed Eula and stole her invite. Why are we even discussing this?”

“Because some of us believe in sticking to the rules,” Sophia says, taking a seat beside me. “I say we let him stay. He gives this whole affair a sense of excitement. I’m willing to gamble on being the target. Shot dead on Christmas Eve trying to seek atonement for my sins - it’s poetic. Honestly, I’m almost hoping I am the target.”

“How do we know you didn’t hire him to kill the rest of us?” Earnest asks.

“That’s absurd,” Lyle interjects. “She’s got no reason to want any of us dead.”

“Actually, Lyle, I lost something like forty million when Antelope tanked, so I definitely have a reason for being pissed at you. Not that I’m confessing to anything, though.” She smiles, far too playfully for my taste. I wonder whether she doesn’t think Ivan will pull the trigger or if she simply doesn’t care.

“He’s here for the money,” Earnest says. “Think about it. Five million in cash. Hell, Sophia’s right - there is a poetry to it. Our deaths become the gift. The last meeting of the Society of the Worldly Mind.”

I look Ivan in the eyes. “You know that’s bull,” I say.

“Do I?”

“Would I come after you like this? Unarmed?”

“No. But you were surprised to see me. Maybe you did kill Eula. Maybe she mentioned this gathering, but didn’t give names. So you dropped by to check it out. Thought it’d just be a bunch of bankers or something.” Behind him, one last car pulls in and parks. Its headlights shine against Ivan’s back for a moment before going dark.

“Unless I miss my guess, that’s your friend now,” I say. “I told you, I’m not trying to pull anything. My invitation was legitimate.”

Ivan considers this and steps in to clear the passageway. He keeps the gun trailed on me the whole time. Behind him, I see a middle-aged woman wearing a fur coat approach the door. Oh, that Eula. Eula Duncan is an oil tycoon. Not the best known, but she’s got a tendency of showing up in the papers. She’s the kind of person you’d see, squint your eyes, and wonder where you know them from. Me - I’ve got a good memory for faces. Kind of a prerequisite for the job.

“What is this?” she demands, authoritatively, laying a silver case down flat on the table.

Sophia cuts in before either me or Ivan can summarize. “Meet Leandro. He’s a hired killer who wants to join the group. He says someone here invited him, but he won’t say who. Also, we think he’s supposed to murder one of us. For some reason, Ivan and Earnest want to kill him first.”

“Well?” she demands, staring directly at me.

“I’m not here on business,” I say. “My interest is genuine.”

“He brought this,” Lyle says, picking up the handwritten invitation I brought with me. He hands it over to Eula, who reads over the series of numbers and letters - the code they use to communicate where the group’s meeting, and - in what I’m realizing are very rare circumstances - to verify new members were referred by existing ones.

“Whose handwriting is this?” she demands.

“The writing’s mine. My sponsor wanted to remain anonymous, and I gave my word.”

“Sponsor. That means the one who hired him,” Earnest says. I glance at him but say nothing. If it weren’t for Ivan, I could just tell them. Screw my honor and code: the truth would straighten this shit out. But I’ve done work for Ivan. I’m carrying a secret that could put him away for life or get him killed. He can stand there and threaten me all day, but if he reaches the conclusion I’m not a man of my word, that there’s any chance I’d squeal on him one day, he’ll unload his clip into my face. Problem is, he might do that either way.

“Is that true, Leandro?” Eula asks.

“I told you, my sponsor asked for anonymity. I can’t say more than that.”

“So one of you hired him to come here and kill one of us,” Earnest says. “That’s what he’s saying.”

“Could have been you,” Sophia points out. She’s still far too amused by all of this for my comfort.

“Fine!” Earnest barks. “Any one of us could have hired this man to come here and kill one or all of the rest of us. So why in God’s name is he still alive?”

“Because his invitation is valid,” Eula replies calmly. “We could vote, but it would be three to two, unless Lyle or Sophia changes their minds. Someone shut the door. It’s freezing in here.”

“You do not tell me what to do,” Ivan says. “If I decide he dies, he dies. And until I know I’m safe, I am not lowering my gun. This isn’t a fucking democracy.”

“Is it alright if I sit down?” I ask him. He nods once, and I take my seat. The contents of my pockets are still spread out over the mahogany table in front of me. I leave them there, not wanting to test whether Ivan trusts I don’t have an exploding wallet, like Sophia joked, or some other kind of high tech gadget.

“We still don’t know who’s trying to kill who,” Sophia points out.

“You’re the one keeping us from finding out,” Earnest reminds her. “Ivan could make him talk.” I’d like to claim I’ve got too much willpower for that, but - frankly - I don’t know whether that’s true.

“It might still come to that,” Ivan says, sitting opposite to me, gun still pointing right at me. “I’ll respect the Society’s wishes for now, but after, we have things to settle. Assuming you live that long. If you try anything - sudden move or an accomplice appears - that’s that.”

“So until then we’re just going to let him join in?” Earnest asks. “Pretend he’s part of the gang? He’s a common assassin!”

“I’ve got the money,” I remind him, nodding at the backpack on the table. “As for my profession, I thought this group was for people like me. The worst of the worst, trying to make amends.”

Eula chuckles sarcastically and takes a seat. “He’s not concerned you’re too bad for this club. He’s wondering if you’re bad enough. You kill what, fifty people a year?”

I shrug, noncommittally. I don’t know what movies she’s been watching, but I haven’t killed that many people since starting this work. I don’t know anyone who has.

She continues, “There’s no way to maintain precise figures on the actual damage my company causes. I’ve lobbied for wars and invested to keep governments unstable. I’m only a part of the problem, of course. There are other companies involved, including arms manufactures.” She glances quickly at Sophia, who stops smiling for the briefest of seconds. “And we could never have done any of it without political support. I will always be grateful for Mr. Sheldon’s assistance.” At the mention of his name, Earnest glances away for the first time since setting eyes on me. “It seems you already know Mr. Zherdev. He moves drugs, guns, and god knows what else. Multiple orders of magnitude separate you from the rest of us. My colleagues and I profit off the world’s suffering, and - when profits are down - we find ways to turn things around. So, to correct your quaint assessment, we are not trying to make amends for what we’ve done. This would not even qualify as interest.” As she says this, she opens the silver briefcase to display the stacks of money.

“Fine. You’re shittier than I am. You want me to sit at a kiddy table?”

“Are we really going to keep bickering over this,” Lyle says, clearing his throat. He looks uncomfortable. “We should get to the matter at hand.”

“What’s the hurry?” Earnest asks, sarcastically.

“I have an appointment after this,” Lyle snaps back. “Besides, I have some thoughts on what should be done with the money.”

“Your sponsor explained to you, I take it,” Ivan asks me, interrupting the spat.

“The money goes to a worthy cause. You meet here to debate which one.”

“That’s right,” Ivan says. “A Christmas present to the world. A chance for the worst of us to give something back.”

“And perhaps spend a few minutes as ourselves,” Sophia adds. “Not pretend we’re innocent or trying to make the world a better place.” Her gaze settles on Earnest.

“Don’t give me that,” he replies. “I know damn well I’m a monster. I came to peace with that a long time ago. And don’t pretend you’re one of us.”

Sophia chuckles. “See, Leandro. You’re not alone: he doesn’t think I belong here, either.”

“Don’t put words in my mouth.” Earnest is flustered. The stress is getting to him. “Your father was a co-founder. You have every right to carry on his legacy.”

“I’m not here for his legacy,” Sophia says, leaning back in her chair. “I was raised on blood money. My father left me controlling interest in his company: that’s my legacy. Whatever the rest of you toiled to become, that’s how I was born.”

“Very dramatic,” Earnest replies. “But, frankly, I really don’t care.”

Eula clears her throat loudly. “I believe Lyle was about to offer a suggestion.”

“Yes. Yes, thank you. There’s a program in Vermont. They take care of the homeless. Veterans, runaways, that kind of thing. I have some documents on them, if you’d like to take a look.” He opens his briefcase and pulls out a handful of folders, which he had resting on top of the stacks of money. He tries passing these around the table, but no one’s jumping to page through.

“Just give me the name,” Sophia replies, pulling out her phone.

“It’s the Gabriella Forrester Home,” Lyle says, and Sophia types it in her search bar. “They do good work, and need the money.”

Ivan leaves his folder closed in front of him, and I do the same. Earnest flips his open, glances at the first sheet, then turns his attention back to me and Lyle. After waiting for a moment, Eula actually starts looking through the paperwork.

“This is idiotic,” Earnest says. “A homeless shelter. Really. Why not some a home for lost puppies? Or were there no orphans in need of blankets? I want my money going somewhere that achieves results.”

“They’re not just a shelter,” Lyle explains. “They offer rehab, therapy, counseling… they’re good people. And they’re going to go under.”

“Without five million dollars? What kind of shelter needs that much money?”

“They… they have several locations, and they’re going bankrupt. In fact--”

“Here it is,” Sophia interrupts. “The Gabriella Forrester Homes. There’s a news story about them, and - oh. Oh, this is good. They really are about to go out of business. But you’ll never guess why. Seems they trusted their endowment to a company called Antelope Financial. Now where do I know that name from?” She grins smugly.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Earnest says. “If you’re feeling guilty about shitting on these people, foot the bill yourself.”

“I can’t afford it,” Lyle replies. “If I had eight million left, I’d give it to them.”

“Eight million?” Eula asks. “Why are you even bringing them to the group if they need more than the pot?”

“I was hoping some of you would put in a little more,” Lyle says.

Earnest laughs uneasily. “This is… this is rich. You’ve got some nerve to even ask that.”

“Christ, Earnest. What’s got you so damn uptight?” Sophia asks.

“He does!” He points a finger at me. “The damned assassin’s got me on edge!” And the fact Lyle fucked all of us with Antelope, and now he’s try to exhort more from us. I don’t know why the rest of you are even entertaining this bull.”

“We never said we were,” Eula states, plainly, still looking through the file.

“Well, I’m not handing a cent over to him for this.”

“Earnest, please. Just look at the documentation, at their success stories. They’re not going to make it.”

“So? Things die. People die. We’re not here to play superhero or pretend we’re some kind of saints. That’s never been what the Society’s about.”

“You know, I might be willing to go with this,” Sophia says.

“To spite me? Why am I not surprised?” Earnest is practically shouting.

“What about you?” Sophia asks me.

“I’d rather vote last or even abstain. I wouldn’t want any of you reading too much into whatever I say.”

“I can’t be the only one who sees this,” Earnest says. “He’s with Lyle. He’s playing with our heads.”

“You’re not making sense,” Ivan says.

“Forget it,” Earnest says. “But I’m not giving a penny to this thing. If the group votes with Lyle, I walk.”

Eula closes her folder. “You’re being unreasonable.”

“Like hell I am! He’s working for Lyle!” He turns to Ivan. “Just kill the assassin and make Lyle talk. That’s why he can’t afford to bail out his thing: he used the money to hire his killer.”

Lyle buries his head in his hands. When he looks up, he’s smiling sadly. “I didn’t hire him,” he tells Earnest. “I didn’t understand it before. But I get it now.”

Finally. I have to concentrate to keep myself from breathing a sigh of relief.

“He’s lying,” Earnest tells the others. “He brought the killer here to kill us. Think about it. They were sitting together when we got here. They arrived together.”

“There are six cars outside,” Eula says. “Why are you so sure Lyle invited him?”

Earnest is bright red and sweating. “Fine. Fine. You want the truth. I know Lyle hired him, because I hired him first. I paid Leandro to kill Lyle, but not here. It was supposed to happen in his home. I was clear on that point.”

“Maybe not clear enough,” Ivan says.

“I told him Lyle would be gone in the evening. Said to do him in before or after. But he must have made a counteroffer, brought him here to off me. Maybe the rest of the you, too. My guess is the five mil really is part of the payoff.”

Lyle shakes his head. “I didn’t buy him off. He’s not here as an assassin. He’s here for the same reason we all are. Trying to make some sense of the holiday. To reconcile it with what we are. I’d pulled together an extra million, planned to make a case for the charity: I give two million, and everyone else ponies up an extra five hundred thousand. It was just about all I had left, and when Leandro showed up… I don’t know. I gave him the million to get in, but it wasn’t to kill anyone. It was just to be part of this.”

“Then why the secrecy?” Earnest demands, looking right at me. I don’t even return his gaze.

Ivan lowers his gun for the first time. “Well?” he asks me. “There’s no reason to keep quiet.” When I don’t alter my expression, he turns to the other two men. “Tell him he can talk. Tell him he can reveal the truth.”

“Why didn’t we all just do that earlier?” Sophia asks.

“Because he’d have had to assume the one who hired him was lying,” Ivan replies. “Now, there’s nothing left to hide.”

“Of course,” Lyle says. “Tell them everything.”

“I don’t care,” Earnest adds. “I’ve got nothing left to hide.”

“Lyle’s right,” I say at once to Earnest. “I’m still working for you. I never broke the terms of our arrangement.”

“Then why are you here?” he demands. “You were supposed to kill him at his house.”

“You’re really lecturing him on that, after that crap you pulled earlier,” Sophia says. “Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the excitement, but I don’t think you’re in a position to demand explanations.”

“He is,” I say. “I took Earnest’s money to do a job. The job is being done. When Lyle told me about this meeting… I don’t know. The idea spoke to me. So we came to an arrangement that would ensure the contract was fulfilled but allowed him to come here and make his case. I didn’t know you’d be here, and he didn’t know you hired me. Not until you told him.”

Lyle’s been staring at Earnest for the last twenty or thirty seconds. “I think I deserve to know why,” he says.

“Because of Antelope, obviously. I was pissed. Associates were pissed. It was also such a fiasco. It seemed like everyone involved but you had to pay. I’m not saying it was right, but what is?”

Lyle nodded. “I understand. I forgive you. But I have a favor to ask.” He glances down at the file on the table. “This is the last thing I can do in this life. My legacy, it’s….” He shakes his head anxiously. “You know what people like us leave behind. But I don’t want my last real act to be getting them shut down. All this will do is strike out one horrible act among hundreds. But I’d rather it end like that.”

Earnest smiles and shakes his head. “I made a mistake. Look, I don’t really need....” He looks at me and says, “You can keep the money I gave you, no bad blood or nothing. You don’t have to go through with it.”

“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “It’s not that simple.”

“Fuck your code,” Ivan says. “You really going to tell us you’re obligated to finish a job? After all this?”

“It’s not about any code,” I say. “When I agreed to this, it was under specific terms. I had to make sure, no matter what, the terms of the contract were met. No matter if he went to the cops or ran off or what.”

“I don’t understand,” Earnest says.

“He already killed me,” Lyle replies. “I’m like… I’m like the Ghost of Christmas Past right now or something. I don’t have much time left.”

“Poison?” Ivan reasons.

“Methanol. Four hours ago,” I say.

“So we get him to an ambulance,” Earnest says, while Sophia starts Googling.

Ivan shakes his head. “It’s too late for that.”

“Any other day, I’d never have even agreed to that. I don’t make deals or offer stays of execution. But….” I trail off.

“But it’s Christmas,” Ivan says, nodding. “I understand. We all do.” He glances down at his gun. “But this isn’t going be an easy way to go.”

“The methanol was the insurance,” I tell him. “When we’re done here, I’ll take care of it.”

“That was our arrangement,” Lyle adds, stoically. Ivan just nods and returns his gun to his holster.

“Lyle,” Earnest says, “I’m sorry. Really, I’m so sorry.”

Lyle puts a hand on Earnest’s shoulder. “I get it. And it’s not like I don’t deserve it. But… you can make it up to me.” He glances down to the files on the table.

“Yeah. Yeah, of course. Money goes to the Shelter. I’ll cover the rest of the eight million.”

“Thank you,” Lyle says, smiling uneasily.

After that, there’s some clerical stuff I don’t really understand. They decide who will handle the actual transaction, what anonymous name they’ll donate the cash under, and the like. Sophia produces a bottle of brandy and passes it around, but I don’t take any.

“It’s time, isn’t it?” Lyle asks me, when the room gets quiet.

“I’m sorry. I’ve got a schedule to keep. Besides, we want to wrap this up before you start exhibiting any symptoms.” I stand and finally gather my belongings from the table.

“I will stay,” Ivan tells the others. “There will be work after.”

For Lyle’s sake, he doesn’t go into details. We’ll need to dismember the body, conceal the pieces, make it as hard as possible to trace back to this cabin and this night. “You don’t have to do that,” I tell him. “This is my responsibility.”

“It’s Christmas,” he reminds me, and I thank him.

“Was this a one time thing?” Sophia asks me. “If not, we’ll need to know where to send you instructions for next time.”

“I’m not sure I have a right to come here after this,” I say.

“If I do, you do,” Earnest says.

“You have a place here,” Eula adds. “If you want it. But you have to understand, it’s not about the world. Not really. None of us has a right to think we’re balancing any scales. This is about us, what we need to do to get through the season. A million dollars a year is a hefty price for that.”

I laugh uneasily. “Honestly. Right now, it sounds like a bargain. Yeah, I’ll join.” I jot an email address down on the back of the invitation I came with and slide it to Sophia.

“I’ll teach him the code,” Ivan says.

The others leave, while I recover my gun from the rented car. Ivan follows me, and I leave the backseat door open. “There are some tools,” I tell him quietly, not wanting Lyle to hear. “I’ll take him into the woods. Maybe two hundred yards.”

“I’ll wait until I hear the shot,” Ivan says.

I thank him again then wave to Lyle, who’s watching us through a window. He comes out, looking pale, which is to be expected. “What now,” he asks, teeth chattering in the cold.

I motion towards the woods behind the chalet. “We need to go for a walk. Not far. But we can’t do this right here. There’d be too much evidence.”

You couldn’t ask for a better night than this. Cold, dry. Clear sky, which I’m told is rare in Oregon in December. But you can see the stars between the branches of evergreen trees, and there’s snow crunching beneath our boots. I can’t imagine a more picturesque Christmas Eve. He’s not saying anything, but I think Lyle appreciates it, too.

“That’s far enough,” I say.

Lyle looks up at the sky and breathes in deeply. “Yes. Yes, all right. Could I have just a moment? To look around.”

“Of course. Take all the time you need,” I start to say.

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