The woman had been at it since the moment Calvin Cantrell was let in the
back door. Coughing. Wheezing. She sounded as if she might break a rib,
she went at it so hard. He never saw her, no, she stayed in the far bedroom
with the door closed, and her husband hadn't let him past the small dining
room just off the side of the kitchen. The place was a mess, and the shades
were drawn, despite it being one in the afternoon.
Tom London must have registered Calvin's interest because, after the
fifth or sixth such outburst of coughing, he dismissed it by saying simply,
"That's my wife. Just ignore it."
"Is she not well?" Calvin asked.
"She'll be fine," he answered. "But let's not get off-topic. I haven't got
Calvin agreed, but the house wasn't that big, so he could hardly get his
mind off the racket in the back. He knew London's wife, Reyna, and
fancied her more social than this. She was a woman about town. She knew
people. What few shindigs still happened in Lake Castor didn't happen
unless she was there, and the editors of the Society pullout in the weekly
paper knew to take her picture. If they didn't, London's restaurant had a
funny way of not running an ad for the next month or so.
So Calvin reckoned it odd, her not bustling about the house in her
heels, serving pitchers of tea or margaritas, fussing over long neglected
houseplants or even tending to the weak and sick German shepherd lying
on a mildewed cushion in the corner. Or perhaps even wiping the tomato
sauce stain from her husband's shirt. He'd figure her anywhere but where
she was: hidden away in the back bedroom of a drafty house desperately in
need of tidying.
"I need you to understand that I'm serious about this," said London.
He made eye contact, but Calvin felt London was sizing him up. Calvin did
what he could to hold his gaze, but after an awkward moment, looked away.
"I wouldn't ask this of just anyone."
"I reckon it's an honor," Calvin said. "You done right by my wife. She's
had nothing but good things to say about you since you took her on at the
restaurant. I appreciate that. I won't let you down."
London nodded. He kept eyes on Calvin a bit longer before patting
him on the shoulder as if they were sport teammates or perhaps drinking
buddies. He led him to a sofa cluttered with greasy toys. London took a seat
without first clearing the way for his guest. Calvin, careful not to break
anything for fear of its cost, gently moved the toys to a different spot on
the couch and squeezed onto a cushion.
The wife coughed again. Calvin jumped in his seat. "Should we talk
outside?" he asked, nodding toward the back room.
"Why?" asked London. "She won't hear anything. And even if she does
hear . . . " He didn't finish. To replace whatever thoughts he may have had,
he picked up one of his son's toys-an action figure-and examined it in
"I can see why you'd want her dead," Calvin said.
"Your wife." Calvin pointed over his shoulder. "I can see why you'd
want her dead."
London looked as if he'd just eaten a piece of bad chicken. "Not her,
you idiot. My ex-wife. I want my ex-wife killed."
Calvin thought it best not to say anything for a while, maybe let
London take the reins of the conversation.
London looked at him a long moment, as if several thoughts flit about
his head, and he wasn't certain which to mind. A man not one to care about
his appearance, he seemed comfortable enough staring with his mouth wide
open. The dog's wheezing behind them was the only sound in the house
until Mrs. London coughed again.
London returned his attention to the action figure. "You remember
these? From when we were kids? Not the garbage they're watching and
playing with now, but the original. The ones we grew up with."
"Sure," Calvin said. "Who doesn't?"
"They'll reboot it every generation. Repackage and retool it, and our
children's children-our grandchildren-will love it and ask their parents to
buy it. Our kids moaning about how it wasn't like it was when they were
little. It won't bear the slightest resemblance to what we once knew. We'll
find it unrecognizable, or forgotten. But they will keep selling it. Making
tons of money."
"It's tragic," Calvin said. "Horrible. Some of my favorite memories
"It's far from tragic," said London. "It's impressive. They'll make
billions. You see, they have it all figured out. They understand that true
value is having your shit copied and sold over and over. No less than a
hundred thousand units. Brass ring."
Calvin rebuked himself for not keeping quiet yet again. He put his
hands in his lap and waited as London lighted a cigarette.
"Money," London said. "You either earned it, or you didn't. Lots of
folk who didn't earn it don't give no mind to taking it from folk who did.
Someone can work their tail off their entire life to save and earn, only to be
a target for some law or loophole they didn't see coming. They get taken for
all their worth. Do you agree with that?"
Calvin did not. "Yeah, I suppose I can see it that way."
London nodded. "I know you do," he said. "That's why I brought you
here. I saw how hard you worked on Judge Menkin's campaign. I was
proud to know you."
Calvin studied his shoes. The Menkin campaign was still a touchy
subject. "I was only a volunteer," he mumbled. "And I didn't stay on for
the entire thing. I was-I left before the end."
"Your wife told me about some of that mess," London said, nodding.
He exhaled blue smoke, adding to the cloud already forming and hanging in
a thick haze about the room. "That's too bad. You had real spirit on that
campaign. You can't translate spirit like that."
Calvin said nothing. The German shepherd whimpered and tried to
stand, but, as though thinking better of it, lay back down on the pallet,
whining sweet and pathetic.
"There are two kinds of people in this world," London said, changing
the subject. "Those who earn money, and those who don't. My ex-wife falls
into the second group. She'd rather feed off what somebody else earns.
Bottom-feeding. The only thing she's ever contributed to this world is my
"She was Jason's mother?"
As if he'd been slapped on the nose, London made a sour face. A small
rage slipped into him. "She gave birth to him," he said. "She's not his
As if to answer, Reyna coughed again, this time so violently that she
damn near rattled the walls.
"She's a junkie," London said. "I've exhausted every legal resource.
Lawyer bills are getting me. I'm trying to run a restaurant. You know how
hard that is in this economy? Not just here in Southern Virginia, but it's
London continued: "I don't have time for it. I don't have the money.
And she's coming after my son now. The junkie wants custody." He took a
deep breath, exhaled slowly. He did his level best to calm himself. "The
only thing I care about is my son." He turned the action figure around in
his hand, then realized the cigarette between his lips had burned too long.
He tried carefully to maneuver it to a soda can without toppling the ashes,
but failed. A long finger of ash fell to the carpet, and he stared after it a
moment longer than Calvin thought necessary. Finally, he rubbed it into the
carpet with his foot until nothing remained but a grey smudge.
"No one comes between me and my son."
"Of course," Calvin said.
"She went to Dallas." London sat straighter. "She's in a rehab. That's
how I got custody of Jason. And now, for some reason, she thinks she
can-" He stopped again. He put his head in his hands.
"If it's too difficult-"
"This will be easy," London said. "Easiest money you'll ever make.
Don't overthink it."
His wife coughed, gagged a little.
London went on: "You drive to Texas. Don't fly. You get there, you
find her, and you kill her. Take her stuff, her wallet. Make it look like a
robbery. A drug deal gone bad. Leave drugs lying around. Cops won't
investigate a junkie's murder. Let's not give them reason to."
"Not a problem," Calvin said. The dog's collar jingled behind him and,
surprisingly, the German shepherd leaned and wobbled, eyeballing him.
Calvin stuck out his hand, but the dog couldn't care less.
"He's blind in one eye, part-blind in the other," London said. "And he
lost his sense of smell a couple years back. I'd have him put to sleep, but
my son loves him."
"Any particular way you want her killed?" Calvin asked.
"How would you like her killed?"
London looked around his house incredulously. "What does it matter?
I want her killed dead, that's how. Shoot her, stab her . . . run her over with
a car. I don't care. I just want her dead. The kind of dead that don't wake
up. What does it matter?"
"It matters quite a bit," Calvin said. "The Green River Killer liked to
strangle women with fishing wire. Son of Sam shot them with a gun. There
are all kinds of ways to do it, and since I haven't chosen how I would do it,
I reckon I'll allow you to offer a suggestion."
London's eyes squinted to slits. He took a half-breath and held it. He
dropped the cigarette into the soda can. "Why do you say things like that?"
"I don't understand."
"Level with me." London leaned forward on the sofa. Brought himself
close enough to Calvin so he could whisper. "Tell me you ain't crazy. I
heard lots of talk, but I want you to settle it for me right here and now."
"I ain't crazy," Calvin said. His face burned a mess of fire. He rubbed
his cheek. "I just aim to make something of myself, that's all. There's little
else to do since the mill closed, and whatever there is, I reckon to be the
best at it. One day I found myself in deep hatred of a fella, then another
day, there was another fella. Pretty soon I realized I hated more people than
I cared to admit, and maybe hating was something I was good at. Now I
aim to see if there's a living to be made of it."
London looked like a man stuck. His jaw taut, but his mouth agape. He
hemmed and hawed but in the end, pressed onward.
"This is very simple," he said slowly. "You kill her however you see fit.
I don't need to know about it. When you get back to Lake Castor, don't
come to the restaurant. Not even to see your wife. Got it? When she turns
up dead, they'll have some questions, and I don't want us linked. As soon as
it's safe, I'll get you your money. Hear me?"
"And don't go getting paranoid about the money," said London. "I got
asshole food suppliers up to here who go out of their way to squeeze me,
say I owe them money. I bounce one check, and everybody loses their
minds. Threatening to cut me off, stop deliveries and whatnot. I need you
to keep your head. When the coast is clear, we'll settle up."
"This won't be a problem, Tom," Calvin said. London recoiled as if
goosed, and Calvin immediately realized his mistake. "No problem at all,
"Here's seven hundred dollars," London said, leaning sideways on the
sofa to reach into his pocket. He pulled wrinkled bills from his wallet and
counted them out. "Use it for travel and expenses. I'll take it against what
I'll be paying you." London handed over the cash, then looked at it before
pulling a bill from the stack. "Make that six-hundred fifty dollars. I forgot I
have to stop at the store to pick up mushrooms and coconuts for service
tonight. This goes against the total."
"Of course," Calvin said. The dog's hair came off its neck into his
fingers. He wiped it against the couch. The dog didn't seem to notice, as if
his fur falling out were something natural, like rain or the setting sun. "I
"This will be the last time we see each other for a while," London said.
"The less we're seen together, the better. If you have questions about
anything, ask them now."
Calvin said nothing.
London handed him an envelope. "This is the return address from the
last correspondence we had. It's from a methadone clinic south of Dallas.
Probably the place you're most likely to find her. She's got family up there,
so . . . "
"I'll find her." Calvin looked him straight in the eye. "Don't worry
about a thing."
"Just do me one favor," Calvin said.
London arched his eyebrows. "Yes?"
"Be sure to tell all your rich friends about what I done for you."
"Beg pardon?" London rubbed at something that may or may not have
been in his ear. "Come again?"
"Your rich friends," Calvin repeated. "You know, in case they ever
need something taken care of in the future. Make sure you recommend me,
London's mouth dropped even further. He stood from the couch and
crossed his arms.
"Will there be anything else?" London asked.
Calvin wanted a glass of water. Cigarette smoke bothered him and
made him thirsty, and he'd run dry since London lighted up the first time.
But he sensed the urgency in the room and thought it best to dismiss
himself, rather to buy a bottled water or soda at the convenience store up
the road. He stood and thought for a moment he heard the dog growl.
"Nothing I can think of," he said.
"Tom?" came a dry, withered voice behind them.
Calvin turned and drew a breath, one he wasn't quick to exhale. Reyna
London stood in the hallway, her hair askew and asunder, makeup not
removed from the night previous, and a luxurious yet tattered bathrobe
barely held together by a satin belt. Her face bloated and pale, rendering her
nearly unrecognizable. She didn't appear to see past two feet in front of her.
"Tom, is someone there?"
"Go back to bed, honey," he answered. "We're almost done."
"What are you doing?" she croaked. Calvin had never seen her like this.
He was more accustomed to her in too-small pencil skirts and hair pulled
into a tight bun, quickly and efficiently directing her daily duties, whatever
they may be. He would refer to her as a shadow of her former self, had she not
suddenly seemed thirty pounds heavier than he remembered.
"Go back to bed," London told her. "I'll be finished in a minute."
She turned and faced the bedroom, but didn't move, just wavered there
a moment. Calvin figured everyone else fancied things fine enough and
moved to dismiss himself.
"Remember," London said, "don't overthink it. You ain't reinventing
the wheel. Easy money. You'll be doing me a big favor."
Calvin nodded. He wanted to say more. He still wasn't sure about
Reyna and what she would or wouldn't hear. He extended his hand to shake
London's, but he'd already set about lighting another cigarette and couldn't
be bothered. Calvin put his hand in the pocket that held all the money and
waved with the other, then set about letting himself out the door.
"Who was that?" Reyna called from the hallway. "Who's here?"
"Nobody," her husband said. "Nobody you need to worry about."
Once returned to his car, Calvin yanked the money from his pocket. It
was more than he'd seen in quite some time, all there in one place. His
fingers fumbled a bit as he counted it, which he did three times, and all
three times found it to only come to six hundred twenty-five dollars.