In his other profession, Robert Fountain was an assassin. A highly skilled and experienced, highly paid and very well-connected killer of important people mostly of political persuasion, but occasionally a high-class criminal or two. At least he thought he was. Lately, he was beginning to wonder if it were still true. This career began long before his academic one when he dropped out of college after a year to join the Army in the heat of the Vietnam War. He was sent to officer candidate school and trained as a Special Forces commando, eventually serving three tours in Vietnam. On his first tour, he was promoted to captain two months before his twenty-first birthday, making him, at the time, the youngest captain in the U.S. Army. He was a major when he got out, also the youngest, a very mercurial rise, until the war ended. His success had been possible because of the colonel, who’d been Robert’s C.O. and mentor, first as commander of the Special Forces training school at Fort Bragg and, later, his C.O. in Vietnam on all three tours.
The colonel’s connections ran deep into the fabric of the Pentagon, where his old West Point roommate, Colonel Neil Routh, had been aide-de-camp and career shadow to Major General Warthan Stonewright, whose connections ran deep into Capitol Hill and the fabric of the eastern establishment elite. It was General Stonewright, along with Colonel Routh, who had started his own contracting firm at war’s end, to offer “special” services to intelligence agencies, both U.S. and U.S.-friendly. For appropriate fees, of course. It was the colonel who’d been the pivot man, the wall between Routh and the “board” of directors and the field force—the talent pool—and it was Robert Fountain first among others whom the colonel had recruited as agents, a number Robert figured to be no more than two dozen when it started.
Though he did not know exact numbers, as everything was need-to-know secret, Robert, as a charter player, had been privy, through the colonel, only to the identities of General Stonewright and Colonel Routh, and that the original board was composed of five influential members, the other three forever unknown to him. Now, with the former two gone, he wouldn’t know any of the remainder, or their numbers. And, except for a few agents he’d worked with in the distant past, no more than eight or nine, he didn’t know who they were, nor, presumably, did they know him.
Six or eight times in a good year, three or four in a slow one, Robert was commissioned to eliminate, or “shortcut” someone, as they referred to it, who stood in the way of American interests, however narrowly or broadly defined. Always it was a political, or politically-inspired, target, he knew that sometimes a well-known figure internationally, but not usually because high profile people brought too much interest and complication. Usually, it was a person known in particular circles, or well-known perhaps only in his own country; a communist or socialist, a despotic third-world dictator or drug lord, a terrorist, or wealthy supporter thereof. People the white hats could kill without losing any sleep over it, people the world would be better off without. Sometimes it was a search and destroy job in which he had to find the guy first, which could take time, other times a walk-in job where intelligence marked the way so all he had to do was the shortcut part. But it was always a risky thing. All assignments were sanctioned hits for which they were given certain protections, not necessarily legal but accepted in darkness, and legitimized income which could be spent above the scrutiny of the I.R.S. And the money was good. Ten-to-twenty-five thousand a job in the earlier years, which allowed him to live a privileged life while pursuing his Ph.D., without the normal struggle associated with it. Lately, his fees were getting much higher and the colonel suggested Robert begin putting his recent commissions into numbered accounts in foreign countries, to avoid the appearance of excessiveness. No matter how legitimate, the colonel explained, the I.R.S. has its limits, then it gets nervous. No use flaunting it. And this situation, too, this suggestion, was part of his problematic equation.
The colonel ran the antique shop. It was his passion. And his cover. It was a good-sized location on a corner, with windows along both sides, and a colonial storefront motif. It was stuffed but well organized with period pieces and accessories; lamps, shiny brass, ancient hardwoods, leather and fabric, a very cozy place with a maze of narrow aisles throughout, a very nice place for coffee and newspaper on these chilly, rainy mornings when, on other days, one could view the streets crowded with cars and people plodding and splashing along on their way to working for a living.
Robert used his own key to get in through the front door and found the colonel at his desk, near the rear side door, with his coffee and the Washington Post.
The colonel looked more the elderly patrician statesman than the soldier, though in his time he’d put in well over thirty years in the Army and had been every bit the capable warrior. He wore dark and expensive hand-sewn three-pieces. His once bull-necked frame was now lean and pale, with thinning grey hair, and he had the look of time catching up with him. He had trouble turning from the neck and tended to turn from the waist and to rely on hand and eye gestures when expressing himself to the sides. A result of an injury his last year in service. He had a crackling, gravelly voice and a demeanor of superiority, and, as his protégé, Robert had always respected, even somewhat feared him, like the distant but loyal uncle he never had. He would never be a general, this colonel, but he would always be the maximum colonel, servant to the stars.
“Have something to eat, Robert,” the colonel said, not looking up. “The Danish is good. Coffee there.”
Robert passed on the Danish. He removed his coat and took a seat to the side, a few feet from the window. He was not interested in the Danish or how well the Redskins, or whoever, would do in this weather—the colonel was a football nut—or conveying his ongoing happiness with the university.
The colonel sensed his mood and moved directly to business. Without looking up from the Post, he reached in the desk drawer and extracted the manila envelope and handed it to Robert. It contained, as usual, the necessary information for the assignment, or at least the start; directions, in code, to where he would find his operating kit for keys, I.D.s. licenses, if any, disguises if needed, maps, and specified weapon, including details on his victim, all to be returned afterward to an appointed place for inspection and accounting, then proper disposal by another agent, unknown.
“A banker,” the colonel said in his unhurried way, still reading. “Long Island. East Hamptons. Small chain in New York, New England. Laundering drug money. God knows what else. Former brother-in-law, from his first marriage, a major player from Colombia. His partners discovered all this, makes them very nervous. They want him out, except his current wife who’s estranged from him. She has no knowledge of this or us. She did leave him, in part, because of his activities, though. He’s also gumming up our negotiations with the Colombian government. He won’t budge. On top of being a criminal and a nuisance, he’s jeopardizing everyone else in his business. They can’t go to the authorities, of course, in the formal sense, because they’re scared. Their business would be ruined, they might be implicated. The people he’s involved with might even have them killed. So, they’ve asked for technical assistance, through channels, and we’re supplying it. Very high authorization. DEA, especially, will love us for this one. He’ll be alone for the holiday weekend. Domestic staff is off till Monday morning. They’ll find him. Minimum security, nothing difficult for you. Your fee is–.”
“Colonel,” Robert said, interrupting, “I’d like to pass on this one if it’s all right.”
“As I was saying, your fee is a hundred thousand.”
“I’d still like to pass.”
The colonel lowered the Post and turned slightly to the side. “You passed on the last one. This some kind of mid-life crisis condition?”
“I just feel uneasy about it is all. I can’t work my best this way.”
“That’s precisely why the board feels you should be the one to handle this one. They don’t want you getting rusty.”
Robert looked over his shoulder with a smirk. “Board? What board? Half of them are dead. You mean what’s left of them.”
“We discussed this briefly at the funeral. It’s a board problem best left to it. It’s not our concern.”
Robert turned and faced him, cautious as he could be not to evoke the ire of this man. “And you don’t think it’s just a little bit suspicious that both Stonewright and Routh died a month apart the way they did?”
“I think it’s coincidental. I do not think it’s suspicious.”
“A man like General Stonewright shoots himself for no apparent reason, and a caution freak like Colonel Routh drives himself into a canal and drowns at two o’clock in the morning?”
“General Stonewright was a very important and complicated man with a lot on his mind. Very distraught since the death of his wife. Colonel Routh was unfortunate. No one’s more sorry for his death than I am. He was my closest friend. But these things happen in life independent of one another.” He folded the Post and dropped it on his desk. “Read the obituaries. They’re full of coincidences every day. You think no two of these people knew one another?”
Yes, Robert thought, he was your closest friend going all the way back to your Plebe year at the Point. And, as everyone who knew the two of you also knew, he was your chief rival for the affections of the girl both of you loved and pursued and who eventually threw you over for Routh, with whom she married and raised a family, while you witnessed in pain and envy over the years the love and family that might have been yours as it grew before your eyes, so distracting you never fell in love with anyone else and never married. How the two of you had this uneasy, competitive, though amiable, alliance you refer to as friendship; how you held up so well at the funeral and hovered over the widow so admirably. Yes, I know well your love for the deceased, Colonel.
Robert turned back to the window. “I think there’s just as good a chance as there being something to it as not. And that’s enough for us to be concerned.”
“Us?” the colonel said. “It’s not an us thing, Robert, it’s a they thing. And it’s certainly not a you thing. You need to concern yourself with your side of the operation and let Command manage if you don’t mind.”
“My commissions are getting exorbitant. I’m asked to open foreign accounts. Assignments are getting more local, less foreign, and they’re more economic, less political. My last assignment was supposed to clear up a problem with Cuba. According to both governments, including people in the community, he was just a businessman, a family man with no political involvement,” he said, “community” meaning the intelligence and mercenary world. “And now I’m going to Long Island to shortcut a banker. You tell me what I should think, Colonel.” He looked back over his shoulder for a reply.
The colonel was now leaning back in his chair and looking across his flexing fingertips at his insolent protégé.
“I don’t have to tell you how governments operate in these cases, Robert,” the colonel said. “Our enemies don’t necessarily have the same faces anymore. There’s no Soviet Union now, you know. We can’t point a finger at big, bad Russia as the villain behind all evils. Our enemies take on other faces, wear new clothes. We have to be microscopic in our view. But they’re still there, the same old nemeses, and we have to rely on the experts to identify and ferret them out so we can go on doing our work. That’s the system. And we must trust the right people. Above all, we must trust one another, Robert, if we’re to survive. And we survive quite well, I might remind you.
“You know,” the colonel continued, “I really don’t understand your recent show of anxiety, your hostility to the hand that feeds you, Robert. We’re moving with the times. Our work conditions are improving. Assignments are getting easier, less risk involved, compensation much better. And you’re complaining. You’re in the best of all possible worlds now. Better learn to enjoy it, it’s all finite. You know that you teach death for a living.”
Robert stared back into the street, humiliated at this schoolboy reprimand. “There’s more to life than what we do,” he said. “A lot more.”
“And you’re doing it, you’re teaching. You have a wonderful career at one of the finest universities in the world. You write books, you go on talk shows. Women love you.”
“I have two careers, both reminding me how brief life is.”
“Conscience,” the colonel said, now more worried than puzzled. “It’s your conscience and not a concern for security. Well, now, that just puts a whole new perspective on things. Doesn’t it?” He got up and went to the secretary behind him and re-poured the coffee they didn’t need, which Robert refused. “Drink it anyway,” he said, and Robert obliged, still looking out the window.
“Conscience is a tricky thing,” the colonel said. “It can be dangerous in our line of work. If you are, in fact, contracting this disease of the conscience, we’d better resolve it now. How on earth would you live with it as it grew and consumed you? How would it affect things here?”
“If we didn’t cross over and invade the territory of the conscience, it wouldn’t.”
“Cute. You worry too much. Tell me, what happens when you no longer feel like the professional you are, when you begin to feel like a member of a low-bred realm, a common murderer?
“No, Robert, I’m afraid this line of thinking is not for you. You’ve passed the point at which you can be judged like the rest of the world. You’re special and you can never be anything else. No, the conscience is a thing to be controlled. Best leave that for the masses, for maintaining order, et cetera, et cetera, not to restrict and handicap the function and mission of the special few. Do you want to be just another drop of water in the ocean or a seagull who flies above it all?”
“So, we’re seagulls now.” Great metaphor. How artistic.
“Well, we’re not common criminals,” he said, angry. He caught and composed himself. “We’re special people, Robert, because of our experiences, our skills. We have a special place in society. Always have been people like us. We provide a special and needed service, and we’re rewarded handsomely for it, even offered impunity, license, in cases, certain protections. We deal only with the best of people, the crème de la crème. Both the clients and the assignments. No going into the ghetto for us, chasing some poor gutter rat for nickels and dimes, risking life and limb in the process. That’s the beauty of it.
“Conscience?” the colonel continued. “For whom? The assignments? Don’t be a bleeding heart. They’re all players, hardballers, matadors, if you will, in the rings with the bulls. They know the risks are high, just like the stakes. If it were the other way around, either one of them would kill you in an instant and you know it. None of them are innocents.”
“And have all of them been deserving of our visits? Every single one of them? No mistakes?”
“And what do you do if any of them haven’t been? Isn’t that the real question?”
Yes. Yes, Robert thought, it is. And this reality put so bluntly by the colonel, overcame him because it carried its own implications, which knotted in his gut.
Robert sat in his chair, subdued, holding the coffee, not drinking it, thoughts and emotions colliding. The colonel was right. No matter whose fault, by design or error, what do you do—what do you really do—if you discover you’ve murdered someone and not merely assassinated him?
The colonel felt the control coming back to him. He was sitting, flexing his fingers again, confident, even a bit empathetic toward this man he’d produced. “It’s something else,” he said. “We’ve had missions before we both worried about. You’ve never reacted like this. What is it? Age? I don’t think so. A woman, perhaps?”
Robert was staring down at the floor. His silence gave him away.
“Ah, yes,” the colonel said. “So that’s it—a woman. Yes, the humanizing factor. Well, now we’re getting somewhere.”
“There are complications in life, Colonel. There are things of consequence and pleasure worthy of indulgence, in spite of their brevity and tenuousness.”
“Yes, smelling the roses. As long as they don’t intoxicate you. I suggest you think this thing out. Life’s little pleasures are fine tidbits which can make our journey more comfortable. But they’re not an end in themselves, not for us anyway. No rose garden here.”
“There is more to life than money and things and killing for country, or whomever.”
“Things? I’ll tell you about things, Robert. Take a look around,” he said with a sweeping gesture. “These are all things. And every one of them are older than both of us together. In better condition and more desirable, I might add. People don’t fare as well as things, don’t have the staying power as a quality piece of, say, furniture. It outlives us all, is more respected and cared for. No one gives a damn, for instance, or even knows anything about old Uncle Simon who left it, or how he felt, or even that he died. But they love his old desk or clock, will kill for it.
“Face it, Robert, the world is a things place. We like things, even envy them because they outlive us. Oh, sure, we’d like to go right on with them through the ages, but we can’t, so we revere them for their longevity, their associations. They’ve been there and we haven’t. Only they don’t have knowledge, abilities, feelings. It’s kind of like a relationship of sorts. Isn’t it, Robert? The piece is simply what it is, unassuming, unpretentious, undemanding—completely vulnerable—and we love it for its innocent unselfishness, inability to hurt us. Love of the simplest and purist kind, without pain.
“No, Robert, we humans can’t be that loveable. We’re too complicated with self-interest. Best forget the love business. You can find all the love you want in the fine old relics, the things. You can, as you indicate, smell the roses on occasions. We are sensuous creatures, after all. But you can’t live in the rose garden. No rose garden, Robert. It’s a mirage.”
So damned eloquent, Robert thought. The master of the big picture, always in control. I’m a grown man and he’s still telling me how I should live and feel. Well, how’s this grab you? “I want out.” Robert got up and went to the window again. “I want to retire from all this.”
The colonel thought for a moment. “Retire. Now there’s a charming word.”
“I think it’s time, Colonel.”
“Your timing is off.”
“You can do this for me. You can cut me loose. Just don’t give me any more assignments.”
“It’s not entirely my decision.”
“Then why don’t you talk to the board while they’re still alive.”
“Funny.” The colonel got up, stiffly, and went to the secretary and set his cup down and got a pill to chase down with the coffee. “You know,” he said, swallowing the pill, then the coffee, “I’ve always thought of you as the one most likely to take over the antique business, most suited for it.”
“I don’t know anything about antiques. I have a job.”
“There’s something I’ve got to tell you. This wasn’t the time for it. But since you need a shot of something, I’ll go ahead and tell you in hopes it’ll ease your anxiety. I’m moving up to the board–.” Bingo. Robert’s head snapped around, then back again, quickly. Don’t give the thought away. A rush of fear went through him.—“to take over Colonel Routh’s duties. That means other tasks, time away from here, that sort of thing. I’ve recommended you as my replacement, caretaker. They concur. It’s a great opportunity for you.”
Robert couldn’t believe it. “I’m talking about getting out, you’re talking about getting me in deeper.”
“I’m talking about making it easier for you. Safer, more lucrative. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“I’m not interested in the antiques business or moving here.”
“You don’t have to quit teaching. This business runs itself, a capable staff. All you’d have to do is come by once a week or so, make a showing. Issue your assignments from here, of course. And answer to me, personally. That doesn’t change.” He walked over to the window and stood next to him. “This is your last assignment in the field as a technician. After this, it’s strictly supervision, Robert, greener pastures. You deserve it.”
“I don’t like the way things are moving, Colonel.”
“Things are moving quite well.”
“Who’s on the board?”
“You know better than ask me that. I’m the only one you need to know at this juncture.”
“This is a blind kill, isn’t it?” Robert said, insinuating the colonel didn’t really know or even care about, the victim’s background or whether or not he was a legitimate political or criminal assignment, or shortcut.
The colonel was further angered by the question. “Who in hell do you think you are, questioning me like this? Let me tell you something, Mister. You’ve got an assignment to carry out. You don’t drop the ball on me at the eleventh hour. You hear me?” He nodded to the envelope in the chair. “I suggest you go do it.”
“I want you to look me in the eye, Colonel, and tell me this is the right thing, that what you’re asking me to do is justified, that the assignment deserves to die. I want you to assure me of it. You owe me that much.”
It was all the colonel could do to control himself, but he remained poised if boiling under his collar. “How pathetic. A man your age, your education, stature. Your deeds, for Christ sake, pleading for assurances.” He breathed himself down to a calmer state. “I’ve never asked you, or any of you, to do anything I haven’t already done, myself, or wouldn’t do. Isn’t that good enough for you? You really disgust me.”
Robert glanced at the envelope, wanting to obey but wanting to refuse. “What if I don’t? What if I say no, Colonel?”
The colonel’s eyebrow rose. He looked at Robert’s reflection in the window next to his. He knew he was holding all the cards in the game and spoke accordingly. “You don’t have a choice. You’re standing in the middle of a minefield with me. It’s dark and I’m the only one who knows the way out. I can’t make it much plainer than that.”
So, there it was, the threat. Veiled but plain enough, the thing he dreaded to hear, but needed to hear, to verify his worst suspicions. After all these years, his close association with the colonel, the war, the friendship, the laughter—and there was a time when there was laughter—the pain, the blood, and memories only those in the clutches of death together can share without speaking; the trust–all of it reduced to this moment, as if none of it had ever happened, had meant nothing. That and an overwhelming feeling of abandonment. All of it coming down to this one truth: He would be killed if he did not go kill the banker, whose life was already bought and paid for.
So. They were moving over into the private commercial sector, hiring themselves out for large fees as a killing machine, and General Stonewright and Colonel Routh were actually murdered. The widow Routh, coincidentally, was also now available for wooing. Now the colonel, himself, was standing in the middle of this whole arrangement, the perennial middle man around whom everything evolved, always had, Mr. Fixit, now the renegade. And Robert old boy was left with the only conclusion which made any sense of the entire affair—the colonel was a mad man. And good old Robert would be dead if he made his break now.
There was no choice but to do the assignment and try as hard as possible to tuck it away in its little compartment and live with it as one lives with a growth or a scar until a way out was found or he was freed from it. Just this one last time or he would be someone else’s assignment, pro bono.
The clouds broke and the sun sprayed the streets. Water and glass glistened.
Reluctantly, Robert picked up the envelope and his coat, the obedient servant.
The colonel smiled at the brightness outside. “Washington over Philadelphia by twelve,” he said, satisfied. “What do you think, Robert?”
“Huh? What?” Robert was stupefied by the question.
“A great day for football, after all,” the colonel said. “The great American game of life. Somebody wins, somebody loses.”
But nobody dies, you idiot. You truly are mad.
Robert started for the door.
“Robert,” the colonel said, still gazing outside, and Robert stopped in his tracks. “I’ve always liked you as a person, and respected you as a professional. I think you know that. You’ve never let me down, nor disappointed me. You’re a fine soldier. I envy you for your abilities, skills. Nobody ever did what we do better than you, not in Asia, and not here. I admire you for your service, am grateful for your loyalty. I’d go to the wall for you.” He turned and faced him with a look of utter contempt, perhaps even a trace of hurt of his own. “But don’t you ever question my integrity again, nor challenge my authority. Don’t you ever do it.” He turned back to the window. “I’ll expect your call no later than Sunday morning,” he said, moving it up a notch.
Robert walked to the front and let himself out, but could not move quickly enough. He had known fear before, but it had always been tempered with adrenaline. This was a different fear, a lonely fear, like that of a man walking to a guillotine.
End of Chapter 2. To be continued.
Dan Coleman is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, drama, and commentary, the author of the murder novel FOUL SHOT, a Wray Larrick Mystery, and is a native of Virginia living in the Carolinas, North & South, for almost thirty years. Most of his fiction is related to the Tidewater, Virginia, and South Carolina regions and/or the Marine Corps/military environment. His Facebook page D.L. Coleman discusses books, authors, and the writing life, in general, and is open to commentary from readers. Dan’s work was featured previously on Fictional Café in 2017.