The moon was a skull in the sky, dark clouds laying over it like a torn curtain. The man sat in a black SUV, the engine off and the window partially down. Fog rolled off of the graveyard hilltop on which he was parked, his cigarette smoke blending into it. The graveyard was small and old, overtopping a rural road rarely visited by anyone except raccoons, opossums, and the occasional deer. The loved ones who once knew those buried here were by now buried too, but elsewhere, in more modern graveyards where flowers were still arranged in futile gestures of love and longing. The road was as dead as the hilltop. No one passed here at this time. It had been raining all week, ceasing just after midnight, and the fog rose like ghosts from the burial plots.
The man in the driver’s seat preferred backroads and scenic routes when driving to a job. He smoked his cigarette and stared out into the darkness absently. He would eventually take a nap, if he could, shrouded in the anonymous murk of this backwoods county.
The man was as unremarkable as his SUV. He did not wear a black suit like they often did in the movies. He wore a white T-shirt, blue jeans, and a John Deere hat over his bald head. Tomorrow, when he would arrive in Florida, he would shed this outfit for a button-up shirt, khakis, and maybe sandals— if the weather permitted. What he wore changed drastically from day to day. Shoes, shirts, pants, glasses, wigs. Sometimes he would actually wear a black suit, if the nature of the job required it. Sometimes he wore a white suit. When a job was completed he often wore three different styles of clothes from day to day, and bought some clothes along the way— paid in cash only—to improvise according to what was needed to safely cross state lines without drawing attention to himself. He kept his clothes within the hidden floorboard of his SUV, alongside the other tools of his trade.
His type of cigarettes changed, too. It was his only addiction because he knew that addictions, in his profession, could be deadly. The deadliest addiction was the one known as complacency. Living day to day caused complacency. Not dying caused complacency. People were so successful in living day to day— in waking up alive for the majority of their lives—that they were often surprised when they suddenly failed at it. Life was a gamble, from moment to moment, and the man in the driver’s seat knew that truth better than most since he was something of an assistant to the debt collector at the end of everyone’s gamble. It was a rigged gamble, much like in any casino. Everyone eventually lost the bet. That was why he was not addicted to his complacency. People risked everything, from moment to moment, and risked it all…with or without their consent. The universe did not care about consent, and never would. The cosmos were a cannibal mother, birthing and then devouring its young over the duration of a lifetime, particle by particle, memory by memory, until each child was once again but electrons conjoined in the nebulous expanse of Void. Ash to ash, dust to dust.
The man in the driver’s seat tapped the ashes into his ash tray, then took a pensive drag on the half-burnt cigarette. His eyes were not reptilian or empty of what some people generically labeled a “soul”. He could emote. He could do Shakespeare with such rapturous expression that Hamlet’s father would have clapped as if brought back to life by the riveting performance. Emoting was one of his many talents; one of his many skills in his needful toolbox required by his jobs. Not only could he slip in and out of his disguises like a chameleon its colors, but he could color that plain face of his with whatever tangential expression suited his circumstantial disguise. And it was all genuine, too, as he ingratiated himself or made banter or courted hearts— genuine until the moment when the lights were flipped off of that grand production and the curtains were closed.
Yes, every instant was a gamble and a game. Whether it was cosmic debris colliding with earth or the microbes in a man’s body destroying him with disease from within, the gamble played out without favorites, and with utter disregard for mankind’s delusion of importance. Even a man’s own genes foretold that he was doomed, breeding cancer to devour him with the very cells that manifested him. It was inevitable. The stage would be silenced and the spotlights extinguished. For most people there would not even come the forethought of taking a bow before the end.
“Yes,” said his passenger. “But why did you have to help it along? Why did you have to shoot me in the back of the head while I was taking a piss?”
It had been the right tactic, and the right pay. Leo Romanoff. Age 53. 5’10”. 198 lbs. Money launderer for a Russian oligarch. Went into a public restroom while his two bodyguards stood watch. Pistol and silencer for the two bodyguards, then Romanoff himself. His two bodyguards sat in the backseats of the SUV, their faces veiled in shadow just like Romanoff himself.
“You could have talked first,” Romanoff said. “We could have come to a financial arrangement. But you didn’t. You didn’t want to talk. You just had a job to do, didn’t you?”
The man in the driver’s seat never wanted to talk. He never spoke to them when they came to him like this. He would have never listened to them at all if their voices did not seem to come from inside his head. They acted like the job was personal. But the job was never personal.
“Even when you loved me?” she said, sitting in the passenger seat. Her blonde hair was luminous like moonlight, but her face was black within the halo; a solar eclipse. “You cried when you killed me in our bed. Why so many tears for a job that was not personal?”
Natalya Heidmann. Age 34. 5′ 9″. 120 lbs. Wealthy widow of a hedge fund manager. Her husband’s daughter resented the money her deceased father had willed to his third wife. She wanted Natalya to love the man who killed her, so he comforted the widow and slowly seduced her over the course of a few months. Three months into their relationship stepdaughter told him to kill Natalya. So he kissed her upon her lips and slit her throat while her eyes were closed. A jealous ex-boyfriend was used as the patsy. But it was not personal. Nothing was personal.
The universe did not care about love, family, society, ideals. Such things were as inconsequential as dew upon a headstone, and as meaningless as a headstone upon a mass grave. The worms worked their magic regardless of human pretenses, recycling flesh into forgetful soil. The mindless earth rolled on, like a ball on a roulette wheel. Eventually its luck would run out. It was a mirthless game where everybody eventually lost. It was the only game in town.
“I liked games,” the little girl said to the man in the driver’s seat. “I used to, I mean. And you played them with me when you were our butler. I would play hide and seek with you a lot, until the night you were no longer playing. You found me and I didn’t even scream for help. Who could have helped me?”
Anna Maria Gurlukovich. Age 7. 4’3″. 54 lbs. Daughter to an Pro-Russian politician in Ukraine. He had poisoned her parents’ tea and then strangled her when she tried to hide. It was a politically-related job. Afterwards he was relocated to the United States with the help of the CIA.
“You treated me like I was your daughter,” she said. “And then you killed me.”
So, too, did the universe. He may have been the man in the driver’s seat, but he was also a passenger. He did not drive any of them to their final destinations. He was not the arbiter. He was just another puppet upon a string. He chose nothing. Their deaths were never his to decide, nor the particulars. He had been chosen, but anything else could have easily accomplished the same result, and would have, given time.
He shifted in the driver’s seat, trying to make himself comfortable for a nap. He snuffed the cigarette butt in the ash tray, then tried to extinguish himself with sleep for a while. His brain did not obey, however. It began to wander. The passengers in the SUV murmured in discontentment. He did not know what else they could want. More time? What good would it have done them? The same result; nothing more. He had scoured the philosophies of the world— from Greek Rationalists to the Asian Harmonialists to the German Mechanists and the French Absurdists—and he could only confidently summarize the meaning of Life as thus: Shit happened and then you died.
His eyelids began to close, drawing themselves down so that the outer night would be welcomed inward. But then he saw a herd of deer pass through the graveyard. His eyelids jerked open and he roused, sighing. He watched the deer. Their ears sensed him, lifting alertly, but their empty, imbecilic eyes skimmed over him without further concern. Occasionally they hopped along, as if ready to flee, only to stop and graze once more upon the grass, steadfast in their own complacency. He could have shot any of them and they would have tumbled over, surprised by Death as if it had not been staring them in the face all along.
Fireflies drew his attention from the deer. They blinked in and out of the darkness. People blinked in and out of that darkness, too. The darkness did not care. One moment they were alive, the next moment they were not. Nor did he think himself a spider capturing the fireflies, like so many in his profession did. If he was a spider then he was a spider trapped in the same web as the fireflies. He held no pretenses sacred— only the moment that followed the previous. And he knew it was only sacred to him because it was all that he had…until he lost the ongoing gamble. All he could hope for in life was the occasional contentment of small, temporary victories because all humans were engaged in an existential war for which they would inevitably suffer a final defeat, given time.
It was time to move again. He had dawdled too long. Movement was crucial for his job. Always be moving and never be restless. Movement meant peace of mind and relaxation. It was only when he stopped to rest that he became restless and fretful and was visited. He could settle down when he was dead, and that was inevitable. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but eventually. Until then there was no rest for the wicked. And so the world never rested, because it never stopped its one-sided gamble, no matter how many it raised and buried from moment to moment to fleeting moment.
He obeyed all rules of the road, as he obeyed all rules within society. Except for the one, and that was because a greater Law held precedence over that arbitrary one. Obeying the other rules helped him serve that greater Law. After all, that one Law trumped all others. The rules of civilization bowed to it as well, civilization itself made manifest from the fear of that Law, and the promise of that Law, and thus was never immune to it. That Law was Death, and everyone obeyed it. When his time came the man in the driver’s seat would bow his head in resignation to it. There had been times when Death taunted him. He had scars to attest to the playfulness of Death. A scar just above his heart. A scar along his left temple. Several scars from knives up and down his back. But they were mere reminders of the Law, and so he saw them as heralds of things inevitable; post-it notes he could not throw away.
He came to a bridge, and the bridge was closed. Headlights flashed back at him from the orange sign that warned against attempting the bridge. It began to rain again. It was a downpour. Through the heavy hammering he could hear his fellow passengers murmuring with unrest. When lightning flashed he could see them in his rearview, though their faces were still eclipsed by Death. When your life centered on the end of other lives you were keenly aware of the destination. It was easily traversed, but never returned from. There were no refunds for the ferryman’s crossing. The river could not be forded but one way.
The rain had filled the river to teeming, the overflow flooding out his planned route. It might delay his job for a few days— maybe even a few weeks. No matter. Everything in its own time. He turned around and followed Fate’s path, as he had always done. However it determined him to go, he went. The particulars did not matter. The end result was the same.