JJ hesitated at the door. He could hear a voice in the room and
stopped to listen but realized after just a few seconds that
Bostridge was talking to a prostitute. He was talking his way
through putting on a condom, the strange reassuring tones
middle-aged men seem to fall into when they were in bed with young
women, all guilt, and denial and embarrassment.
So much for the information. Viner had stressed one thing above
all about Bostridge, that he was a real family man, never played
away from home, that he’d definitely be on his own at that
time of the evening. And Viner of all people should have known
better, the messy unpredictable ways people went about getting
He eased the lock and walked in—a large room running to
darkness at the edges, pockets of light, one of them around the
bed. Bostridge was kissing her on the neck and shoulder like it was
something he’d seen in some “better lovemaking”
video. He clearly hadn’t heard JJ come in. She saw him
straight away though, and moved awkwardly, at first earning more
misplaced reassurance before Bostridge too realized there was
someone else with them.
He glanced across the room and saw JJ and then sprang away from
her, almost comically, as if trying to suggest the two of them were
just sharing the bed. It was typical of men like him, to move
instinctively away from the one thing he might have used as a
shield against the bullets. Not that it would have made any
difference in this case.
JJ put one through his heart, another in his head, the silencer
producing two concentrated little sneezes that seemed to stop the
clocks. For a while the three of them were suspended there in the
cozy fabric-light of the table lamps, like a tableau in a wax
museum, the moment captured for people to speculate on what might
have happened before or after, and on the characters: the heartless
killer, hapless victim, the girl between.
It was the girl who moved first, sliding calmly from the bed
without looking at either of them. He was taken aback by how young
she looked, easily still in her teens, corn blond hair cut boyish,
loose limbs, pale skin, almost painfully beautiful. No wonder
Bostridge had been embarrassed.
He was waiting for her to grab her clothes and leave while she
could, like any other prostitute would have done, knowing the
ropes, knowing that to stay around or get hysterical or look like
anything but a prostitute was to ask for a bullet. For whatever
reason though, this one didn’t know the ropes, and instead
got down on the floor and ran her hand under the edge of the bed,
as if looking for an earring or some other piece of lost jewelry.
He stared at her, transfixed, not sure whether she was in shock,
oblivious to any danger, even to the fact that he was still there,
watching, unable to take his eyes off her easy nakedness. He was
hooked now anyway, wanting to know what she was looking for.
Finding nothing with her hand, she put the side of her face to
the floor and looked underneath the bed, then got up and walked
around to the other side. She seemed unhurried, completely
unruffled by the death she’d just witnessed, a death that
filled the room now with a visceral charge that was hard to
But Bostridge could have been sleeping it off for the complete
disregard she was showing him as she moved around his corpse, as if
she’d been in on the kill, as though she’s merely been
biding her time in his grasp, waiting for the hit-man so that she
could get on with her part of the job. She hadn’t been in on
it though, and continued to ignore JJ too, like he didn’t
matter, like the two of them were in different dimensions, ghosts
to each other.
This time she found what she was looking for, visible relief on
her face as she pulled it from under the bed, something large and
flat, a book or picture tied up in heavy cloth. She held it tight
against her chest, lifted her clothes from one chair, her furs from
another, shoes from the floor, never once easing her hold on it,
clutching it against her breasts like she was suddenly trying to
cover up her nudity.
He wanted to see what was inside it but felt powerless to ask
because of how absorbed she was, because of the air of total
privacy that surrounded her. And in truth it had nothing to do with
him anyway, and better to keep out of other people’s
Finally she left, still without looking at him or at the man
behind her on the bed. She looked content, or perhaps more, like
she was trying to conceal her elation at having found the package.
And despite the bewitching surface calm he could see now that her
nerves were only just holding it together, that perhaps she
didn’t know how it was and wasn’t convinced yet of
making it out of there alive.
As she walked past him he drew in the stirred air, catching the
smell of her perfume and a deeper musk that made him turn and stare
after the last glimpse of her as she closed the door. The spell was
broken then, leaving him alone with his work and a question mark
over what could have been so important, what threat or promise had
made her so determined that she would have that package.
Intrigued by association, he did a quick sweep on who Bostridge
was, something he often did anyway if he had time, for his own
benefit, keeping ahead of the game. There wasn’t much among
the business cards and receipts though. His wallet contained a
picture of him with his wife and two kids, an attractive family,
part of the illusion.
Finally JJ came back to the man himself. What had he been doing
there? JJ was guessing the package was art or religious plunder, so
either he was a trader who did agency work on the side or he was an
agency guy playing the black market. Either way, he’d somehow
managed to take a hit from both lines of work in the same evening,
JJ and the girl both sent there to do a job, both pulling it off
Probably for a while there Bostridge had thought he was
somebody; maybe that had been his problem, the way it was for a lot
of Westerners doing business in Russia. And now he had been reduced
back to the brutal truth, all pretense done with, transactions
over, a flabby American with thinning hair, wearing only a yellow
condom and a torn veil of blood across his face and chest.
When JJ left he found her sitting on one of the chairs facing
the elevators, dressing slowly as if she’d been hit by
fatigue, the package on the floor under the seat. She still looked
beautiful under the harsher light out there, her skin flawless. He
looked at her, hoping she’d glance up, but her eyes remained
downcast as she worked through the thought-free movements of
He even turned to face her in the elevator before pressing to go
down, starting at her again. She was buttoning her blouse, simple
and white, expensive; not the kind of girl that got picked up on
the street or in any old bar. Maybe Bostridge had been a family man
after all, but whoever had sent this girl had chosen a bait he
wouldn’t have been able to resist.
She reached the top button as the doors began to close, and for
the first time she looked up, gray eyes fixing him with a gaze too
expressive to read, of youth and premature wisdom and a plaintive
yearning, something out of reach. Without thinking about it, his
hand lifted and pressed the control panel, the doors stopping in
their tracks and opening again.
They held each other’s gaze for thirty seconds more. He
wanted to speak to her, to say something, anything, but what was
there to say? She was a teenage girl who’d just seen him kill
a man, a girl he should have killed too but who’d captivated
him because of the way she’d behaved and because he’d
seen her naked and she was beautiful. There was no other bond
between them, no other unspoken territories to explore. He let the
doors close the second time, let her disappear, her eyes on him
till the last.
He couldn’t let her out of his thoughts though. In the cab
on the way back to his own hotel he stared out the window, a heavy
sleet falling, lights and shadows from the passing traffic, and he
kept seeing her face and the way she’d looked at him. And in
the back of his mind he was telling the driver to turn around and
calculating whether it was too late to catch her before she
disappeared into the city darkness.
He knew he’d regret not doing it. There’d been
something about her, something different, a secret locked away and
communicated to him in ode with that one acknowledgement of his
presence. He knew if he didn’t go back he’d be haunted
by her. Even now he was regretting that he hadn’t spoken,
hadn’t asked her name or where she lived, hadn’t asked
what was in the package, what could be so precious that she’d
been willing to risk her life for it.
Whether or not, he remained silent, the driver continued on his
way, the girl on hers. He wanted to go back, but it was easier not
to. He closed his eyes, listening to the background hum of the
engine, the rhythmic squeaking of the wipers, the surface water
hissing under the tires. He switched off and let himself be lulled
and though of nothing. It was one of his weaknesses; sometimes he
thought too much.
The weather had worsened the following day, an icy sleet driven
horizontal by the wind. The plane sat on the tarmac longer than
expected, and when it finally began to taxi there was an
uncomfortable silence. JJ was uneasy with the whole thing but
bemused too that no one was saying out loud what they were all
thinking: that it was crazy to take off in these conditions, that
the plane would crash.
The silence became breathable as the plane built speed, as the
nose lifted, the stomach-tugging pull away from the ground. They
were climbing steeply but it felt like they weren’t doing
fast enough and then for a moment the wind seemed to buffet them,
knocking the plane to one side with a judder, throwing the engines
into a sickening whine. Still the other passengers remained quiet,
but he could feel them clenching their armrests just as hard as he
Within a few minutes it was all over. The plane continued
climbing but less steeply, its course smoothened, the cabin slowly
returning to the business of flying. People began to speak,
conversations and laughter spilling out as they let off steam. The
middle-aged guy next to him was polishing his glasses frantically
and said in JJ’s direction, “Makes you count your
blessings, doesn’t it?”
He smiled but didn’t say anything. He wasn’t sure
what his blessings were—that he was a twenty-eight-year-old
history graduate who’d somehow managed to end up killing
people for a living, that he was alive himself for the time being,
that in some small intangible way he was beginning to fall through
the cracks. Maybe it would have been a blessing if the plane had
The guy finally put his glasses on and said, “My wife
won’t fly at all; she was in a plane crash once.” JJ
turned to look at him, showing interest. “Oh, not a serious
one. The plane overshot the runway into a field. Not a crash
really, an incident, but one of the passengers was killed.
Something fell from a luggage locker and hit him.”
JJ nodded. “Some people die really easily.”
“That’s true. Yet some seem to survive almost
He nodded again and let it drop, but that was true as well; some
people did take a lot of killing.
Farther up the plane one of the flight attendants was crouching
talking to a passenger. He could hear her say, “The plane
really wasn’t in any danger.” Her voice was familiar.
When she stood and turned, smiling, he blanked for a second but
then remembered where he knew her from. As she walked toward him he
caught her eye. She smiled back, not recognizing him.
“Hello, Aurianne.” Her smile faltered, looking
puzzled at the edges. He laughed, adding, “We met skiing one
weekend last winter.”
She grinned with the explanation and said, “I don’t
believe it! JJ, I didn’t recognize you.”
“No. Different environment.”
She looked, her eyes mischievous. “Why didn’t we
He shrugged his shoulders, and she answered herself, “I
thought we were bound to run into each other in Geneva. It’s
strange how we haven’t isn’t it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. We both seem to travel a
Someone called her further down the aisle. Aurianne looked away,
saying, “I’ll be back.” After she’d gone,
he could sense the guy next to him itching to say something, but JJ
didn’t turn, didn’t give him license.
He was thinking about the weekend they’d spent, how
they’d hit it off, how they’d kissed late on the
Saturday night but only kissed, a sure sign they’d expected
to see more of each other. He couldn’t remember why they
hadn’t. Possibly he’d taken for granted too that they
would bump into each other again, or perhaps nine months before the
need hadn’t been strong enough.
It was a while before Aurianne got back to him, but she threw
him knowing glances every time she passed. She was pretty. He liked
her mouth and her eyes—dark laughing eyes, full of fun. He
even liked the way she looked on duty, her hair pulled back, her
uniform offsetting hunts of what lay beneath.
When she eventually came back it was only to apologize for being
so busy. Then she said, “Do you have plans for dinner
“I feel I’m about to.”
She grinned again. “Good. Speak to you later.”
Still aware of the guy next to him, JJ leaned back in his seat
and closed his eyes, not wanting to speak inanities.
He thought about the trip which, when it all stacked up,
hadn’t been that bad. There’d been a couple of
inconveniences, the usual things around the periphery, but the job
itself had gone smoothly, and now there was thing, bumping into
Aurianne. He’d still hassle Viner about the information
though, partly for the hell of it but partly to keep him on his
toes, because this time it had been a prostitute but the next it
would be a bodyguard and then a whole militia.
Paris, September, two years later
Naked, he’d been gagged, had his feet bound and his hands
tied behind his back; that much he undoubtedly paid for. He’d
probably paid for the knife too, something heavy-duty and symbolic,
and they’d have been a good way into it before he’d
realized he was getting more than he’d asked for, the subtle
transition from client to victim.
At some point, as the bruising had bitten deeper and the blade
had begun easing into flesh, he’d have known, and then some
point later he’d have stopped whining and crying, begging
through his gag, and then one or more times he’d have passed
out, from the pain and eventually the loss of blood. He’d
been dead, or as good as, long before the final burst of violence
had hacked through his neck.
So that was it for Viner. The collection of eighteenth-century
furniture would be auctioned off, some of it after restoration, and
likewise his library. His other library would be confiscated by the
authorities, destroyed or mislaid. The apartment would go on the
market, but people would know what had happened there so it would
probably be another foreigner who bought it. And at some stage in
the cleaning process, someone else would come too and sweep the
place, mopping up any last fragments of his professional life.
After that, there’d be nothing.
The phone was by the windows which were open, so when JJ sat
down the pervasive smell in the room was held back by the street
air. The body too was obscured by the furniture, but from where he
sat he could see the raggedly separated head lying on its side
under the chair, eyes open, staring, carpet-level toward the door
when he’d come in.
It didn’t look like a hit. Viner had gone in for rough
with street kids—a cheap explanation but probably close. It
definitely didn’t look like a hit; that was the only thing
that mattered. He’d call London, sort out a new handler, and
then he’d be back to business as usual. It was a shame
though, Viner had been okay.
As okay as people got, anyway. His material could be as
off-target as anyone else’s, and when it came down to the
wire he’d have sold people. But it had never come down to the
wire and for the most part he’d been sound, sick in the
sexual department but one of the few when it came to business.
A scooter tore up the street below; early evening, the city
quiet, a time for teenagers to tear up streets on scooters, the
whole night ahead, possibilities. It was a great time of day out
there in the city, disjointed sounds playing out the bottom of the
lull. He found himself distracted by it, drawn way into some
indistinct memory, then pulled back again by the smell lapping
toward him at the faltering of the breeze.
It made some people sick, the different ways death smelled, but
it was a skill worth having, to be able to smell a corpse and know
it. And the smell here wasn’t the worst; Viner had soiled
himself but he was still fresh, had probably been there only a few
hours, an early-afternoon rendezvous turned sour.
JJ tapped out the numbers on the phone and waited, then let the
alarm tone sink in and the automated telecom voice repeating
itself. Please try again. He tapped them out again and listened,
put the handset down and stared at it, puzzled. Numbers like that
didn’t change, didn’t stop being available; it
didn’t make any sense. He tapped it out a third time,
carefully, more deliberately, got the same result, and put the
Another number reeled itself off in his head, but he held off
using it. Something was badly wrong; for the contact number not to
be working, there had to be a mess somewhere. He still
couldn’t quite believe the scene in front of him was wrapped
up with it, but suddenly he was uncomfortable, no longer certain it
was a good idea to get in touch.
It hardly seemed necessary, but he tapped out a random number to
cover his tracks, putting the phone down as soon as it rang. It was
reassuring somehow to imagine some early-evening apartment, thrown
into a moment’s suspended animation by that single ring of
the phone, its occupants yanked by the leash and then released
again to speculate on who might have called.
And the thought of another apartment made him look once more at
Viner’s. It was too tidy, a couple of things knocked around
near the body but the rest of the place untouched, or else turned
over by someone who knew what he was doing. If a rent boy had done
it he would have ransacked the place. The way it looked just
didn’t square with the way the man had been killed.
JJ glanced back at the phone and then stared at the door,
listening; quiet footsteps outside. He moved his hand inside his
jacket but let it fall away again as whoever it was knocked
tentatively. It was instinct, a sense that the person on the other
side of that knock wouldn’t know where to begin being a
threat to him.
Things were getting interesting though. And it was like it was
nothing to do with him, like he was just a spectator, cut off from
the whole little drama by the stench rising off of Viner’s
body. He was on the edge of it, more a part of evening in the city
than a part of what was happening in front of him. Because of the
telephone. The telephone had cut him loose, and as long as
he’d spoke to no one he’d stay that way.
There was another knock, and a few seconds later the door
opened, hesitantly, almost apologetically. Battered red Converse,
that’s what Viner would have seen from down there under his
chair, and maybe that would have been enough to recognize him. He
certainly had the look of one of Viner’s boys—jeans,
T-shirt, scruffy black hair, young face, lean.
The only thing that didn’t fit was his nationality. He
looked like a French kid, but as he bridled against the smell of
the room he muttered some curse or other. An American. That was
wrong. French and Arab boys JJ had seen there plenty of times but
never American, and not just because of supply. It was a language
thing; Viner never liked sex with boys who spoke his own
The kid was carrying a sports bag and reached into it now,
holding his breath, and pulled out what was inside. For the first
time he saw JJ sitting there and stood frozen for a second, not
breathing, his face straining at the building up of pressure.
A police siren sifted toward them, a few blocks away or even
farther on calm streets, homing in on some accident or domestic
somewhere. And the two of them stared at each other and then the
American looked at the machete in his own hands and laughed, the
breath bursting out of him. “Jesus, this must look weird, but
then you must know about it, right? I was told to leave it here, or
give it to you I guess.”
“Not me. Him maybe.”
The kid looked confused, then stared at the mess of furniture
for a while before making out the body. The machete fell to the
floor with a muffled clunk. The police siren hovered in the middle
distance, apparently going nowhere. The kid doubled over and looked
set to empty his stomach.
JJ jumped out of the chair towards him. “Don’t be
sick. Stand up.” He lifted the kid by the shoulders so they
were face-to-face, the kid’s suddenly like a drunk’s,
pasty and unfocused. “Don’t be sick, okay? Control it,
just control it. Breathe.” He nodded like he understood, made
a conscious effort to get his lungs working. “Did you know
Viner?” He shook his head, still fighting the need to vomit.
Now that JJ looked at him, he could see the kid was older, nineteen
or twenty, much too old to have been one of Viner’s boys.
“Have you been here before?”
Again, no, and this time he spoke, his voice high and shaky.
“Two guys paid me a thousand francs to deliver the blade, no
questions asked. They gave me the address, told me what to
“What were they like? The two guys, what were they like?
He was shaking his head as if to everything. “I don’t
know. They were just … they were your guys, you
“What do you mean, mine?”
“They were British. You’re English,
Like his ears were stacking up for him, JJ became aware of the
siren again. It had jumped closer, much closer, turning the corner
maybe, the end of the street. “You’ve been set up! Get
the machete and the bag—follow me.”
“What? What’s happening?” The kid was still
dazed, but he could hear the siren now, his eyes darting to the
windows and back.
“Do you want to end up like him?” JJ pointed to the
naked body, lacerated and stained. “Then get the machete and
the bag and follow me.” This time the American moved, urgency
taking him over, and with the siren’s wail increasingly
smothered, JJ was leading him out the back way and through the
broken pathways he’d mapped a few years before, an escape
route, one which would give him some distance in the event of
something like this happening.
Not that he knew what had happened. The kid quickly getting out
of breath behind him, his lungs beginning to rasp like they were
bleeding, he was the one who’d been set up. JJ had just
stumbled in there by mistake. But he’d stumbled in on
something; it was just a question of finding out how big and how he
stood in the middle of it.
For one thing, Viner had clearly been hit after all, and dressed
up like voodoo for whatever reason. They’d set the kid up,
British guys, probably arranged it with the police. And then there
was that failed number. If the two were connected then perhaps JJ
really was cut loose.
They were descending flights of stairs, their steps producing no
noise, the American’s painful breathing grating through the
quiet though, and the sports bad finding obstacles in the walls and
banisters. The police siren was gone, silence in the building
around them, no televisions, no arguments, nothing to suggest they
were passing through people’s lives.
And a few minutes later they were in a back courtyard, darkness
already falling among the surrounding walls, the visible street
empty. JJ stood looking at the kid, bent double again, coughing up
heavy phlegm, drooling. They hadn’t run hard or far, so
either he was ill or it was nerves.
Then perhaps he had a right to be nervous. Fifteen minutes
before he probably felt like the luckiest loser in town, money in
his pocket for running some mindless errand, and now he was just
scared of dying too soon or being locked up or even hurt. JJ would
have been scared too at that age. Not anymore though; at some point
in the years between he’d had most of his nerves
They were tingling now for all the wrong reasons. It was the
thought of what must have happened. If London had shut down the
channels there must have been a mother security breach, and if
Viner being killed was part of it then there was some sort of purge
or turf war going on. It was that possibility that excited him. He
wasn’t sure why but the idea of the system suddenly spinning
out of control appealed to him.
The American had recovered enough to stop coughing, but he was
still leaning over, hands on knees, muttering curses. JJ
wasn’t certain why he’d brought him. He was caught in
the middle of some other train of thought and had wanted to help
the kid out of a fix. Possibly, given longer to think, he’d
have left him there.
As it was, he supposed he could give him a few thousand francs,
tell him to lose the weapon, get out of Paris. He had the look
about him anyway of someone who just wanted to get out of Paris,
out of Europe, back home to wherever it was he’d wanted to
escape from in the first place. There was no real risk of him
It crossed JJ’s mind to ask him again about the men
who’d paid him, but even if the kid knew anything, it was
hardly information JJ could use. And if things had shut down it
would be only temporary; it wasn’t like he’d be out of
business for good. For all his flights of fancy, the chances were
within a few days everything would be back to normal. The only
thing he needed to know for sure was that it was actually
happening. After that it was a question of keeping out of the way
till things had calmed down.
Collecting his thoughts, JJ pulled his gun and shot the kid
twice, first through the side of the ribs, then in the head just
above the ear, the second shot after he’d slumped to the
ground. He went quietly, still drooling, and thinking about it JJ
didn’t know why he’d ever considered any other option.
After all, what kind of person took money from strangers? A
desperate person maybe, a kid, still not somebody he wanted walking
around the streets with an imprint of his face.
The kid looked quite graceful now on the hard stone floor, like
the kill in a hunt, like a leopard or cheetah. It didn’t
matter how pathetic or otherwise his life had been, he was
beautiful now, composed. And within a few days he’d probably
make the papers and move people here and there in the suburbs of
America, and it would seem quite exotic, that he had gone to Paris
and been killed there.
Excerpted from PEOPLE DIE © Copyright 2011 by Kevin
Wignall. Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights