A Hitman Jake Story by Preston Pairo

Jake did not like funerals, which Grace kindly told him may have been because he’d caused so many of them.  Which happened when you killed people for a living.  Jake didn’t believe in that particular cause and effect.  But having determined the best course for pre-marital bliss was not to disagree with his most dearly beloved, he kept his opinions to himself as he kissed Grace goodbye and headed out the door of his Baltimore carriage house.

Jake thought funerals were a waste of time and money.  The dead were dead.  No amount of mourning was going to bring them back, nor would a fancy casket or gravesite overlooking a babbling brook.

Jake’s father—shot dead on the streets of Baltimore before such killings became as common as long lines at a Chick-fil-a drive-thru—had been laid out in a cheap rowhouse funeral home for two long afternoons and evenings before being buried in a pine box.  He was eased into the ground in a family plot arranged by a long-ago-dead grandfather who’d fallen for the sappy notion that having the bones of multiple generations of blood relatives in the same proximate sub-earth pile was a cause for eternal peace.  And it all still cost Jake’s mother a small fortune, ensuring additional financial suffering on top of losing her husband’s income.

The only emotion Jake identified with funerals was revenge.  That eye-for-an-eye thing perhaps misquoted from the Bible.  Revenge, Jake could do something about for you—for the right price.

An hour after leaving his home and picking up two passengers, Jake steered his Cadillac sedan into the crowded parking lot of Myercroft Funeral Home and began looking for a space. 

Myercroft, considered a Baltimore institution, was situated on a chunk of prime real estate still reasonably outside the range of city gunfire.  Land developers had been unsuccessfully finagling to buy the property and turn it into apartments and retail for decades. 

In the passenger seat alongside Jake was Loiza Ely, Jake’s tech-loving assistant, who looked at his phone.  In the backseat, Loiza’s mother, Victoria Ely—advertised as Mrs. Victor on her fortune-teller shingle hung in front of her Rosedale home—peered out the window.

It was a pleasant spring evening.

“Big turnout,” Mrs. Victor said, her gravelly voice less melodic than the crunch of Jake’s tires over the loose stones Myercroft had used to unceremoniously extended its parking lot.  “Mog’ll be happy.”

Mog Pratt, surviving spouse of recently deceased William “Bill” Pratt, was not only one of Mrs. Victor’s long-time clients, but someone who had known Jake since he was a little boy.  Mog met Jake when his mother sometimes hauled him with her to the beauty parlor where she did the hair of women who wore expensive jewelry, some of it costume, but Miriam Haskell all the same.

On those days when young Jake was forced to remain near his mother’s side, inhaling Sirocco-like winds of Aqua Net, Mog would often slip Jake a five-dollar bill—a lot of money for a 9-year-old back then.  Mog was the first person Jake had ever heard use the term, “fiver.”  Despite looking very high society, Mog had come up through the financial ranks with husband Bill, who paid for their first house with cash made from fixing horse races.

Over the decades, Mog and Bill had stayed in touch with Jake, following his career with a keen interest that sometimes included availing themselves of his services.  It had been Jake’s fairly recent complaints about the high-tech nature of surveillance making his job more difficult that had caused Mog to suggest he consider an assistant adept at overcoming those obstacles.  She’d made a phone call to her fortune teller, Mrs. Victor, who had such a son.  Which was how Jake had met Loiza.

As Jake’s parking space search took them farther from the funeral home’s columned entrance, he angled his head to see Mrs. Victor in his rearview mirror.  The woman was so short he could only glimpse the cap of her white hair. “Sure you don’t want me to drop you at the door?”

“Walk’ll do me good,” came her hoarse reply.

Turning down another aisle, Jake asked her, “How you feel about this row?”  Seeking her prediction in a mocking tone.

Loiza’s mother was not amused.  “Next you’ll say something clever about Myercroft being so busy people are dying to get in there.”  Which was about as cross as she got at Jake for not believing she could see the future.

Jake did not believe in precognition, mind reading, palm reading, ghosts, UFO’s, or heaven or hell—at least not as described by cults, orders, governments, or organizations big and small.  He figured if there was any explanation for life on earth other than random cosmic accident, it fell well outside the realm of human comprehension.  

Unguided by Mrs. Victor’s claimed ESP, Jake found a spot, parked, and the three of them put on Covid-masks, becoming used to the practice.

Loiza opened his mother’s door and offered his arm to help her out.  Standing side-by-side, it was difficult to imagine mother and son shared a single thread of DNA.  Loiza was tall, dark, and near-universally found—even by those not usually attracted to Eastern Europeans—to be quite good looking, if not romance-novel-cover handsome.  Mrs. Victor, on the other hand, was rather round and short, the top of her head barely in line with her son’s chest.  With her long white hair tied in a ghostly loose ponytail as if still in elementary school, she looked more like Jake, with his bulldog shape, than slender Loiza. 

Aiming her eyeline just above the funeral home’s steeply pitched roof, Mrs. Victor said, “Getting cloudy.”

“Cataracts,” Loiza countered with a poorly suppressed sigh bordering on impatience.  Because the weather was clear, and his mother needed to have the surgery.  She was waiting for Medicare, though, still two years away although she looked every bit of 75—rumpled, wrinkled, and a little scary in the wrong light, with a piercing expression that made it seem likely she could see into other dimensions, cataracts notwithstanding.

For Bill Pratt’s viewing, Mrs. Victor wore a black long-sleeve peasant dress accented by a ruffled collar and bands of off-white trim that rung her shoulders, waist, hips, and ankles like a series of lace doughnuts.  As she walked holding Loiza’s arm, countless bracelets and necklaces concealed beneath her dress jangled loudly.

Approaching the funeral home’s dozen front steps—an impediment often considered as a means for Myercroft to drum up more business given the advanced age of many of its visitors—Mrs. Victor’s breathing became dramatically labored.  Her feet shuffled.  Her clutched hold of Loiza’s arm bordered on desperate.

When Loiza whispered, “Easy, Mom,” the line of mostly-Covid-masked people ahead of them gave way and a polite series of After-you’s followed Mrs. Victor, Loiza, and Jake up the steps and into the ornate foyer.

There wasn’t anything wrong with Mrs. Victor’s health.  She just didn’t like to wait.

Myercroft’s interior was arranged like a less-garishly decorated entertainment wing of a large Las Vegas hotel, with one big space for the top-tier act and three smaller rooms for everyday dead people—the equivalent to show business types whose name might not be recognizable but whose face would stir half-asleep memories of a 90-second appearance on Fallen.

Bill Pratt was laid out in the main room, where a jungle of flower arrangements that looked somber yet colorful lined two walls.  Mourners stood shoulder to shoulder, the din of their respectful conversation mostly covering up the death melody piped in through a mumbled sound system that had been outdated when installed two decades ago.  Trace whiffs of formaldehyde were hard to pick out behind olfactory tidal waves of grandmotherly perfume, heavy with notes of rose and cardamom.

Faced with another long line—50-plus waiting to repeat the mantra, Sorry for your loss—Mrs. Victor’s medical act took on a cough which would have cleared a room pre-pandemic.  In modern catastrophic medical times, it sounded as if very large cat was choking up spooled lengths of barbed wire.  In no time, Mrs. Victor, Loiza, and Jake were paying their respects.

“Oh, Vikky…” A teary Mog Pratt leaned down to hug her much-shorter fortune-teller friend.  “I’m so glad you’re here.  And gorgeous Loiza.  And Jake—my old friend Jake.”

“Damned shame about Bill,” Mrs. Victor scratched out.  “Damned shame.”

“I know.  And so unnecessary.  So unnecessary.  He was stolen from me.”  An elegant woman who had enjoyed far fewer misfortunes than most, loss did not sit well with Mog Pratt.  “Fifty-seven years of marriage snatched away.  Like that.”  She snapped her long fingers.  “It’s not right.  It’s just not right.”  She was clearly devastated.  Tears streamed anew down her face, taking lines of mascara with it.

Jake offered a spotless handkerchief, slid from the hip pocket of black trousers.

Mog sniffled and dabbed her eyes.  “Oh, now I look like an old fool.”

“You’re alright, kitten.”  Mrs. Victor patted her friend’s arm.  “It’s just gonna take time.”

“You know he caught it on the plane.  Covid.  From that awful man two rows in front of us—in Twelve-B—who kept his mask pulled down under his chin like some kind of costume beard.  And the stewardess was afraid to tell him to pull his mask up, even though I asked her to.  And you know why?  Because the man had slave printed in big letters on his mask.  Can you imagine?  S-L-A-V-E.  And this isn’t a racial thing.  You know how Bill felt.  Always saying he had no idea what it would have been like to be born black, but if he had he imagined he’d have been the most militant bastard on the planet.  So there we are, February fifteenth, the day after Valentine’s Day, five hours on a plane from Phoenix with that man exhaling deadly germs.  And we’d had such a lovely time in Scottsdale.  You know Bill loved it there so.  We both did.  Now, I don’t know if I’ll ever want to go there again.  I don’t know how I’ll ever go anywhere.”

“I know, kitten.  I know,” Mrs. Victor’s solace sounded as if grinding sheets of medieval chain mail in a garbage disposal.

“Do you know, Jake?” Mog looked at him directly with intense blue eyes.

Jake nodded.  He didn’t need Mrs. Victor’s mind-reading prowess.  He knew what Mog wanted.

Loiza, looking at his phone, asked Mog, “Was that a Southern Skyways flight?”

By the time Jake, Loiza, and Mrs. Victor were walking back to Jake’s Cadillac, Loiza had Southern Skyway’s February 15th Phoenix-to-Baltimore flight manifest, provided by a dark web friend.  Loiza could have gotten into the airline’s servers easily enough, but sometimes delegating was quicker, even if it meant being a little crypto out of pocket.  “Flight was pretty full,” Loiza reported to Jake.  “A hundred seventy-three passengers.  And Southern Skyways doesn’t have assigned seating.  This could take a while to go through.”

Mrs. Victor held out her hand for Loiza’s phone, telling her son, “Give me that,” as if taking a youngster’s forbidden toy.

Loiza complied.

As the first stars of dusk twinkled in the darkening sky, Mrs. Victor thumbed the screen with surprising dexterity, causing lines of text to whirl like a chuck-a-luck wheel at the county fairs she hustled as a young girl with her traveler parents.  Closing her eyes, she poked the screen with a fingertip slightly bent by arthritis and the digital image stilled on a single name.  “Desmond LeCroix,” she read aloud, then gave Jake a witchy glare, daring him to disagree with her.

Airport surveillance video and TSA records confirmed that, indeed, the smartly outfitted man wearing a blue felt fedora with a red feather in the band and a mask imprinted with the word SLAVE in all-white caps was Desmond LeCroix.

One in a 173 chance, Jake was tempted to say as to Mrs. Victor having picked that single name off the flight manifest, but instead he let it pass, chalk it up to another of life’s unexplained Bermuda-Triangle-like episodes.

Three weeks after Bill Pratt’s funeral, just after midnight on a Tuesday, Jake had Loiza in the passenger seat of his Cadillac, driving south on the BW Parkway through a chilly spring rain.  Conscious of their surroundings, Loiza set down his phone as a measure of respect.

Coming up on their right was every serious hacker’s most prized conquest: NSA—the puzzle palace.  Forget the worldwide financial traffic that ran over Swift’s networks and White House web protector, the DOD’s Defense Information Systems Agency.  Get inside NSA and it was game over.

Loiza believed he knew a few tricks NSA didn’t … but then maybe they did.  Those cyber spooks were crafty that way.

A few miles later, Loiza’s concentration returned to the purpose of their trip, heading to Upper Marlboro, Maryland, former tobacco country that was now a distant D.C. suburb.  And home to Desmond LeCroix.

Much of what Loiza had learned about LeCroix he’d found online without having to test his skills.  LeCroix was very active on social media.  And from that very political online presence, Loiza determined that Desmond LeCroix considered the following as self-evident truths, which Loiza provided to Jake in somber bullet-point fashion:

“He’s 57.  A direct descendent of Virginia slaves.  A failure to make slavery reparations is a continuing inhumanity.  He was called racial slurs every day growing up in Newport News and is still subjected to that treatment today.  All white people are racists.  Asians are worse when it comes to treatment of blacks, especially inner-city Asian shop owners.  Any business that claims to promote racial equality and social justice is full of shit and merely doing marketing.  Capitalizing the word black in newspaper articles when describing a race of people is a meaningless way to rectify racism, the same as when Maryland gave numerical classifications to races on drivers’ licenses and assigned the number one to blacks and two to whites.  He hates black sports announcers who talk like white people.  And women football sideline reporters are an abomination.  O.J. Simpson and Marion Barry were framed.  He got into an extended debate with someone about whether once-prosperous white areas that are now rundown got that way because blacks ruined them or whites let them get rundown and failed to support them after a few black families started living there.  This argument ended when the other person began referring to Desmond as DFN and Desmond dared the man to spell out what that meant.”  Loiza stopped reading and looked out the window into the darkness.

After a quiet moment, the Cadillac’s wipers clearing raindrops off the windshield, Loiza said, “It’s sad, don’t you think?”  When Jake didn’t respond, Loiza added, “What this man’s gone through.”  Loiza’s ancestors, as recently as two generations ago, faced persecution in Eastern Europe and were called “dirty gypsies” after immigrating to the United States.

Jake remained quiet.

Loiza went back to his phone.  “Married and divorced twice.  Three children from the first marriage—all grown and spread across the country. Daughter’s an RN in Charleston, South Carolina. Another daughter works for a school system in Birmingham, Alabama. Son in the navy who lives in base housing outside San Diego.  No kids from the second marriage which only lasted seven months.  He represented himself in that divorce case and got held in contempt and put in jail for ten days—doesn’t say why except that the judge was old and white.  He drives a 2015 Mercedes-Benz C250 he bought used from a small independent dealer six months ago with just under 50,000 miles on it and paid $22,000, financed with ten-percent down.  He’s dating a woman who lives in District Heights.  She’s 39.  They met online.  He liked her t-shirt she had on in her profile because it had, No You Can’t Touch My Hair screen-printed on the front.”

“Do I want to know what that means?”  Like so many slogans, Jake assumed it might be offensively sexual.

“How white people think black people’s hair would be fun to touch,” Loiza explained.  “Like it’s a novelty.”

In dim light off the Cadillac’s dash panel, Jake looked doubtful.

“It’s real,” Loiza responded.  “I’ve seen it.”

“Okay…” Jake used his blinker and changed lanes.  “What else?”

“He says Covid came from a Chinese biological weapons lab—intended to reduce the minority population, especially in Africa and the United States.  The CIA knew about it.  And the United States’ poor response has been purposefully intended to cause blacks to die at a far greater percentage than whites.  That Covid vaccines have been designed to cause greater fatal side effects in blacks than whites.  And being made to wear a mask is an act of enslavement intended to,” Loiza read LeCroix’s social media post verbatim, “’force an already repressed population into further acts of subjection, obedience, and capitulation.’”

“Okay…”  Jake nodded.  Then asked what he most needed to know: “Is he still starting his next shift at two a.m.?”

Desmond LeCroix worked as a delivery route supervisor for a small, minority-owned medical supply company.

Loiza nodded in the dark, as if hesitant to confirm LeCroix’s schedule, then said, “Yes.”

Jake kept driving.

A few miles later, Loiza said, “There’s no way his not wearing a mask on that flight caused Mrs. Pratt’s husband to get sick.”

Jake didn’t want to get into this.  Discussion was one of the main problems with having—needing—an assistant.

“He could have picked it up anywhere,” Loiza argued in his understated manner.  “And even if by some extreme chance he got it on the plane, the entire plane should have been infected.  Mrs. Pratt, sitting right next to her husband, would have been infected.  I mean, she did test positive, but had no symptoms.”

Jake asked, “What’s your friend Desmond have to say about Covid tests?”

“Um…”  Loiza scanned through notes on his phone.  “Unreliable.  And a fraud.”

Jake’s silence was the equivalent of saying, So there you go then.

Loiza shook his head.  “This just doesn’t feel right.”

After a moment, Jake said, “Here’s the problem with opinions you don’t keep to yourself—walking around all day doing stuff that challenges anyone to disagree with you.  It’s a form of hostility.  Print a protest message on the mask you don’t want to wear.  Walk into stores that have a big sign on the front door asking you to wear a mask, but you don’t wear a mask.  Eventually, you’re going to cross paths with someone like Mog Pratt.  And Mog doesn’t have it printed on a t-shirt, but if she did, it would say: I Tried Reason.  Now I’m sending Jake.”   

Loiza looked at his phone, generationally conditioned to search there for life’s answers.  “Hasn’t this guy suffered enough?”

“Maybe,” Jake conceded.  “But so far, no matter what he’s had to slug through, what he’s had to put up with, what he’s had to endure … no one’s killed him.  Right?”

Loiza didn’t need his mother’s crystal ball to see where this was going.

“That streak,” Jake said, “ends tonight.”

Hours later, home, showered, and getting into bed with Grace, who stirred when his weight shifted the mattress and asked Jake how it went, Jake answered, “No problems.  Outside his back door, there was a little overhang kept me out of the rain.  I stood there ten, fifteen minutes.  Loiza took care of the security light the guy kept aimed toward his Mercedes, so it was dark.  Guy opened the inside door, about to leave for work.  I shot him through the screen.  Done.”

Grace gave him a sleepy kiss.  “Good for you.”

On his back, Jake closed his eyes.  But didn’t fall to sleep.

He’d left out telling Grace part of what happened.  How once Desmond LeCroix appeared in the doorframe, presenting a clear target through the flimsy screen, he’d glared defiantly at Jake, as if having expected that confrontation his entire life.  And how Jake, who when killing someone, never, never, never says anything—just pulls the trigger and walks away—said to Desmond LeCroix, “Where’s your slave mask?”  Or might have said, “Where’s your mask, slave?”  Or maybe didn’t say either of those versions, just had that thought in his head.  Adrenaline often made an exact memory of killing someone imprecise.

And then he’d shot LeCroix three times in the chest, then twice more in the head after the man fell back into the small kitchen, then Jake had retreated from the cottage LeCroix had been renting for five years, a nice place at the end of a street that backed up to a section of unkempt woods.

Still awake an hour later, Jake continued to wonder why he’d said what he’d said to LeCroix (or had thought those words if he hadn’t actually spoken them).  Telling himself it wasn’t so much self-analysis—that Grace and Loiza hadn’t rubbed off on him to that extent—but he was critiquing his work.  Because that sort of hesitation, that sort of distraction, that sort of delay in pulling the trigger, was a mistake.

In that process, Jake found himself thinking about the guys who’d robbed his father on the street, shot him, killed him.  Those guys had been black.  So now decades later, never thinking of himself as racist, never thinking he bore any grudges against any one race more than any other, telling himself he disliked all people the same, and having been paid to kill a few black guys over the years and it had never felt any different than killing anyone else.  But now it occurred to Jake maybe he was living support of at least one of Desmond LeCroix’s self-evident truths: that white people were racist.

Two hours later, Jake was still unable to fall asleep when his phone pinged.  Without waking Grace, he checked it.

It was a message from Loiza, who was up in the middle of the night as he often was, the hours Jake’s assistant referred to as Hacker Playtime.  He wanted Jake to know that payment from Mog Pratt was in their account.

With that information, Jake set down his phone.  Comforted by the reminder of currency serving as humanity’s most singular unifying force, he rolled over and fell fast asleep.