The Curmudgeon


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Taking Down

An extract

After Gates, and again after Morton, there had been any number of contracts: some large, most small, none particularly notable. Even the few that went wrong, that resulted in a fight or in Cromer having to get him out of jail, made little impression on Solosy's memory except in the most general way. Incidents occurred and then faded into murk, building up the anonymous bulk of his past like bodies rotting into loam. A few he recalled: the fossilised imprint of Portman, who had thrown money at him to distract his eye; the protruding bones of Layton, who had hidden behind one of his girls and suffered a fatal loss of aim when she trod on his foot with a stiletto heel; the discreet mound covering Earles, who had died repeating "no hard feelings" like an incantation.

Morton's death had been simpler than any of these. Unlike Randall and Gates, he had not been a personal acquaintance; and, again unlike Randall and Gates, he had barely had time to register his danger before Solosy killed him. There was little or no reason that Solosy could see why Morton, a minor journalist with muckraking aspirations whose removal was partly a favour to one of Cromer's friends and partly an example to other crusaders, should have joined Randall and Gates in haunting him permanently.

Morton wasn't even a professional milestone to the extent of being the first assignment he received from Cromer personally. Greeley had introduced him to Cromer a month after the death of Gates, and Cromer had made time for them to meet alone on several occasions after that. Cromer had asked him how he liked working for Greeley, how it compared with life in the institute, and how his health was bearing up. After a couple of these talks, Cromer had given him names and locations and told him to keep an eye out whenever he had the time or happened to be in the neighbourhood. Every so often, Cromer would ask what might happen if one of the people Solosy was watching should chance to disappear, or to appear one day with holes in him; and later some of those people were indeed removed or perforated, although Solosy was not assigned to the work. "You don't send a qualified surgeon to clear out the dustbins," Cromer said.

Morton was a reporter for a local newspaper which had caused one of Cromer's friends a degree of inconvenience by insinuating that his financial dealings were not entirely above board. Since Cromer's friend's largesse had won him a prominent place among the favourites of various political climbers, Cromer's friend did not care for the possibility that their embarrassment might affect the value of his investments. Morton's editor received a friendly warning which he passed on to Morton, and Morton and two of his colleagues resigned from the local newspaper and took their story to a national one. Cromer's friend received a short but acutely embarrassing prison sentence, and requested Cromer to ensure, for the sake of everyone's future prosperity, that his friendly warnings had not been issued in vain.

A number of options came under consideration. Faking a suicide would be relatively easy but would lack the force of example; blowing up Morton's office, or even having him executed there, might cause undue repercussions in the national press; having him dredged up from a river-bed with no fingernails would involve rather more risk and effort than Cromer's generosity could encompass. Eventually Cromer decided on a simple drive-by shooting: Morton was going abroad on holiday, would be among strangers in unfamiliar surroundings, and those for whom his example was intended would be able to draw the appropriate lessons.
Hence, two weeks later Solosy found himself dispatched to a warmer climate, following Morton's car in the company of a driver and guide who had been watching Morton for three days and who seemed to have developed a fascination with him that went slightly beyond the professional.

Waiting at Morton's hotel, the driver provided Solosy with almost an hour's worth of what he apparently considered vital background information about Morton's movements during the past seventy-two hours (sluggish), his command of the local language (rudimentary), his sleeping schedule (irregular), his eating habits (regular), drinking habits (regular and copious), the sights he had seen and the manifold disadvantages of the make and model of car he had rented for his demise.
"Is this relevant?" asked Solosy when he could get a word in.
"You never know," said the driver. "If something goes wrong and I get killed, you never know what you might need to finish the job."
"If something goes wrong and you get killed, I'll let him drive off into the sunset until I'm sure it's safe to try again. That's the only information I need. Whether it's safe to try."
"Couldn't be safer," the driver said cheerily. "He's driving out of town today in that crapmobile of his to see some ruins on a hill. There's plenty of empty road between here and there."

Morton came out of the hotel, accompanied by a girl. Both of them were carrying bags, and Morton was lugging what looked like a good-sized food hamper.
"Going for a picnic," the driver imparted.
"Who's the girl?"
"Just a body he picked up. I've seen him with her before."
"You never mentioned it."
"I didn't know she'd be coming along today, did I?" Morton and the girl got into their car, and Solosy's driver started his engine. "Anyway, what difference does it make? Her being there might even help. A screaming, blood-covered witness can give a certain kind of warning no end of credibility."
"Shut up," Solosy said.

The drive was long and warm. The car's air conditioning was as voluble as the driver and nearly as productive of air that wasn't cool. They followed Morton's car at a respectable distance, three or four cars back while they were in town and further away as the traffic decreased. From the driver's chronicle of his behaviour it did not appear that Morton suspected anything, unless his heavy drinking were an emotional rather than an occupational symptom. Nevertheless, Solosy's driver proceeded with due caution: by the time the road had emptied almost completely, Morton's car was barely more than an intermittent glint on the horizon.

On both sides of the road were jagged hills, dusty weeds and trees bowed with exhaustion. The only visible signs of civilisation were the pylons and the barrier, which changed constantly between rusted metal and painted wood and seemed to contain a disconcerting number of breaks, though they were travelling too fast to see whether the breaks were planned or not.

The road began to curve gently, and Solosy's driver accelerated so as not to lose sight of the target. "Where is this place he's going to?" Solosy asked.
"It's just a pile of rocks on one of those hills," the driver said. "Used to be a castle, they say, but there isn't enough left of it to attract many tourists."
"I asked where it is, not what it is."
The driver sighed. "At the rate he's going, it's about half an hour's drive followed by another half hour's fairly bracing walk. But we'll catch up to him before then."

The road acquired more curves and an uphill gradient which the driver used to his advantage, maintaining speed as Morton slowed and gradually catching up while staying discreetly behind the latest bend. In the space of perhaps ten minutes two vehicles, a car and a small truck laden with fruit, passed them in the opposite direction.

"All clear," the driver said when the road straightened out again. By the time Solosy had picked up the shotgun from the floor in front of him and checked the load and taken off the safety, they were close enough to read the number plate on Morton's car. Solosy wound his window all the way down. Except for his hands, he felt cold.
"Now," he said.

The driver accelerated. Solosy aimed out of the window. The car's reflection, centred on the black hole of the shotgun barrel, slid along the rear of Morton's car, flexing like a tentacle. Morton's window was down. He was wearing sunglasses and a shapeless white hat; he had a round face with a blunt nose and dark stubble on the cheeks and chin. Solosy could see the girl's profile next to him.

Morton turned his head towards Solosy, and Solosy waited about three fifths of a second so he'd know and then fired the shotgun into Morton's face. He had a momentary, probably part imagined, image of the face exploding into fragments of red and grey and the girl blinking and gasping and starting to turn and see, and then Solosy's driver accelerated again and overtook. Solosy watched Morton's car in the mirror as it bumped against the barrier and gradually scraped itself to a stop, and then they were away.

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