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Good neighbors


Looking around to make sure no one was watching her, Pauley swirled a finger around her dessert plate, scooping up any remaining pie juice and crust crumbs. Sticking her finger in her mouth up to the last knuckle she slurped off the sticky sweetness, licking her lips, then wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Whatever guided her to Lu’s for dinner, it was the perfect ending to an epically disastrous day.

A job that could be done on auto-pilot, came uncomfortably close to being a failure. Only years of experience and having an innate talent for improvising, saved a high dollar hit. Expectations of a flawless execution were essential to her reputation. Surprises were not good. Making sure those unexpected elements didn’t come back to haunt her needed to addressed.

She wouldn’t classify them as mistakes, simply issues she could not have anticipated, no matter how much she planned. A freak rainstorm, an unexpected companion, and an erratic mark, while distracting, still did not keep her from successfully fulfilling her obligation.

Giving Lu a quick hug on her way out of the diner, Pauley slipped a $20 bill into her apron, knowing she wouldn’t accept an overt tip. A promise was made to return for breakfast soon, along with a sitdown talk about old times.

She replayed the day’s events in her head as she walked back to her apartment. Jolted out of her revery by a sudden vibration in her back jeans pocket, Pauley gave a short snort of laughter over being startled by her cellphone.

Shielding the screen from the bright glare of the street lamps, the caller ID was from her mole in the police department. A call she both dreaded and welcomed. The best case scenario would be an investigation into a fatal shooting that afternoon uncovered no early leads. The longer it took for crime scene reconstruction to find any clues, the better off she was.

Stepping into the shadows of a deserted alley, Pauley looked around to make sure she was alone before answering her phone.

“Talk to me.” Pauley kept her questions short and cryptic just in case someone overheard the conversation.

The caller dispensed with salutations, quickly getting to the information Pauley wanted.

“So far, the case is going nowhere,” an androgynous voice said. “Puddles from the earlier rain contaminated the crime scene, diluting a lot of the evidence and making determining the kill point difficult. The witness couldn’t tell where the shot came from either.”

Pauly closed her eyes, letting out a sigh of relief, not realizing she had been holding her breath. The rain that gave her problems before was now helping cover her tracks.

“Any other eyes?” When she was trapped on the roof, Pauley worried she was too exposed, potentially seen by someone who could identify her.

“No other witnesses were found. All local residents were either at work, or at least away from home. A canvass of the area came up empty. The 911 call came from the mark’s lady friend, and no other calls came in reporting the incident.”

“Best guess.” Her mole was especially valuable predicting case outcome, guessing correctly on every job Pauley worked.

“This one will go cold in a few days. Initial background checks on the deceased have been useless. No huge outstanding debt, no business troubles, unmarried, no kids, no criminal background, no dangerous enemies. He is a nobody and investigators can’t find any reason for this to be any thing other than a random shooting.”

“Good.” Pauley then said a string of five numbers, code for where the mole could access payment for the much appreciated information.

“If there is any change in the case, I’ll be in touch.”

The call ended, Pauley tucked the phone back into her pocket and continued on her way. She planned to meet her contractor next morning to give proof of completion. Pauley wondered if the shooting would even make the evening news.

A hot chai latte in hand, breathing in the spicy steam, Pauley sat on a park bench, legs stretching out, her music playing over earphones, soaking in the morning sunshine. Despite her relaxed posed, she was highly alert, covertly watching other people in the park, waiting for someone she’d never met.

By the time her tea had cooled to drinking temperature, a woman sat on the bench next to Pauley, A small bag of popcorn in hand, she began tossing the fluffy nuggets to the pigeons. Pulling in her legs, Pauley tugged one earbud out so she could talk to her companion.  She waited for the other woman to make first contact.

“After yesterday’s rain, this sunshine is sure welcome,” the other woman continued to toss popcorn, the number of birds growing exponentially with each handful.

“It looks like we’re going to have beautiful day, makes you glad to be alive.” Pauley hoped this was her contractor, or she’d have to start kicking some birds. She hated pigeons.

The other woman stopped feeding the birds to look directly at Pauley. “It makes you glad some people are alive, and others not so much.”

Turning only her head toward her benchmate, Pauley smiled. “It’s done.”

Holding the half empty bag of popcorn over her head, the woman flung the contents in a tight arc on the ground in front of them. Birds swarming the banquet, also kept the two women sheltered from other park visitors.

“I didn’t hear anything on the news.” More of an accusation than a question.

“That’s a good thing. It means it’s going cold fast,” Pauley nudged a particularly bold bird with her boot toe to get it to move further away.

Pauley laid a folded newspaper on the bench, a small item at the bottom of page A6 circled. It reported on a random shooting the day before, the victim, Charles Wallace, pronounced dead at the scene.

The other woman finally allowing herself to relax, reached for the paper. Pauley picked it up before she could touch it. “I need to keep this.”

Nodding, the other woman pulled back her hand, but was obviously relieved.

“I guess you want to know why,” she finally said.

“Nope, I don’t need to know. All I need is to be paid. I don’t care why,” Pauley reached for a second, larger bag of popcorn the woman left on the bench. Inside were three bundles of one hundred non sequential, $100 bills. Picking the kernels from the top, she resumed feeding the birds.

“I don’t understand how you do what you do, I couldn’t do it. But, Charlie deserved to die, I just wish I could have done it myself.” The women spoke softly but clearly.

Pauley shook her head. At this point she knew that the women needed to tell her reasons, and if she tried to leave, chances were she’d get louder. it was safer to simply listen. Despite her mole’s assessment of her mark’s unremarkable life, she expected the woman to relate tales of sexual depravity, or all-consuming avarice ruining good, decent folk financially.

Instead, the woman’s voice took on the quality of a whiny child complaining about the man’s inconsiderate nature as a neighbor. His television was both too loud and on too late. He neglected to remove his hard soled shoes at night, making his nocturnal apartment wanderings sound thunderous. Charlie also apparently had a taste for pungent foods, allowing the overwhelming aroma of curry and cooked cabbage to waft into his neighbors apartments. The more she revealed of her motives, the more Pauley wanted to be far from the park bench. For the first time in her career, she questioned having agreed to a job.

“I left anonymous notes of complaint, I spoke with building management, I even tried to rally my other neighbors into petitioning for his eviction. The only consolation was that the homeowners’ association president was able to get him to agree to turning down his terrible television after 10 p.m.”

Her unrequited discontent had led her to the unsavory conclusion that she would have to arrange for Charlie’s permanent removal.

“With your most excellent talents, I am now able to enjoy my lovely home without the intrusion of Charlie and his unacceptable behavior. If I could have accomplished one more thing, I would have wanted to arrange to move into his apartment immediately upon vacancy. The morning light through his living room windows is so much better for my orchids.”

This story is a continuation of an earlier Indie Ink Challenge, “Soul Food,” about a female assassin.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Kat challenged me with “If I could accomplish one more thing, I would…” and I challenged Leslie with a Mark Twain quote,  “Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination“.

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