Death plus One

Martin M. Clark

"Death comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes."
John Donne

I followed Three Witches down the side street, keeping to the shadows. It was one of those damp nights where street lighting served merely to define the darkness rather than provide illumination - which suited me just fine. They disappeared into the side entrance of the Cologne Club and as the door opened I caught a brief burst of the Halloween revels within. Franco Jacoby ran all the major nightclub action in the Lower East Side and his seasonal-themed parties were legendary. Tonight, for whatever reason, he’d gone for armed security over his regular door-minder muscle, contracting out the deal via a range of intermediaries. So there I was; armed and definitely dangerous, in fancy dress.

A black cat paused in the process of crossing my path to give me the full hiss-and-glare treatment. Some wise sage once said cats can see what lies behind your eyes, so felines really have a downer on me - but I’m used to it by now. It stood its ground so I ducked under a ladder propped against the side of Dobson’s Depository, knowing it wouldn’t follow. You may think all this comes under the heading of ‘Old Wives Tales’ but, trust me, it all depends on which old wife you listen to.

The young woman on the door looked tasty; all ankle-length coat, cropped black hair and inset mirrored shades. Light rain made her black leather shimmer like liquid glass under the neon ‘CC’ sign. I recognised her as Amy Chandler – but then again, I know everyone.

Amy stiffened as I stepped into a pool of light, so I slid back my hood to give her a clear look at my face. Her stance relaxed slightly and she laughed. “Stevens? I heard you were dead. I know you can never have too much firepower but this is getting ridiculous.” She eyed my hoodie and cargo pants, shaking her head, “What have you come as anyway? A modern take on Little Jack Horner?”

I held my arms out at shoulder height and gave her a slow pirouette. “Justin Timberlake, actually. In full-blown slasher movie mode, circa Cry Me A River. Anyway, you’re one to talk with this whole Matrix thing you’ve got going.”

Amy came over all mock-huffy. “It’s a William Gibson homage, actually. You know, Molly from Neuromancer?”

“Whatever. Look, doll, who else is in on this? The details I have are a bit sketchy and they said you’d fill me in. All I know is it’s a bodyguard gig.”

“Well, more a kind of private army. We’ve got Suzy-Sue and Grumman round front, Bain and Akira inside as close protection.”

“Christ, that’s some serious talent! Who’s this guy afraid of? Godzilla?”

Amy pursed her lips. “Death.”

I blinked. Twice. “Excuse me?”

“Franco Jacoby thinks there’s someone coming to kill him, and they’re gonna’ come dressed as Death.”

I shook my head. “So why not just cancel the party? A refund has to work out cheaper than hiring our little band of desperados.”

She shook her head. “Naw, it’s a machismo thing. Nobody tries to muscle-in on Jacoby ‘cos he’s our own little Keyser Soze - a real shark amongst sharks. No way can he afford to appear scared or it would be like blood in the water. Luckily for us he’s paranoid about being betrayed by a member of his own crew, so we got the gig.”

“But why just tonight? If there’s a contract out then I don’t see how delaying the hit for a few hours will matter any.”

Amy frowned. “To tell you the truth this whole thing may be a complete waste of time. Apparently Jacoby gets like this every Halloween, like it’s some kind of family ritual. Talk about inherited superstition, his father must have been a real weirdo.”

I wiped slick rain from my face. “So what you’re telling me, and feel free to jump right in anytime if I’ve gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick, is that we’re standing here to stop an imaginary assassin killing a vicious crime lord who’s jumping at shadows?”

She nodded. ”Pretty much. To tell you the truth, Stevens, Jacoby must be off his head. If he didn’t have such a reputation I’d have stayed at home in front of the TV. As it stands he’s not someone I want to piss off.”

I took up position beside her. “No lie.” She fished a spare earpiece and lapel microphone from her coat and handed them over. Just as well I had lapels. I plugged in and squeezed the mic to open the channel. “Radio check. You all hearing me?” Amy nodded.

“Stevens, you little shit, that really you? Heard you was lying low for the foreseeable. Heard you had a serious beef with Danny O for screwing his kid sister.”

I recognised the gravel-throated growl of Donald Bain (who never got the joke). “I love you too, Don. Let’s just say me and Danny came to a resolution he’s happy with.”

Suzy-Sue laughed. “If this means wedding bells then I just got to be there. Your side of the church will be packing more firepower than Omaha Beach.”

“Enough already! Everyone get back on the clock.” That was Grumman. The guy must be fifty if he’s a day and always comes over like he’s in charge whenever gunmen get together.

Amy arched an eyebrow, which made her wince. “You making an honest woman of Tina O'Shaughnessy, Tony? Say it ain’t so.”

I shrugged and had the good grace to look semi-uncomfortable. “It’s not what you think.”

“It never is.” She smiled and shifted her stance slightly. Her foot brushed against a small bag I hadn’t noticed before, producing the soft clink of glass.

“Boozing on the job, Amy? Or when we knock-off don’t you fancy paying bar prices inside?”

She glanced down. “Naw, it’s a broken mirror. Didn’t you get one through the mail from Jacoby? The rest of us did.”

“A broken mirror? What the hell are you on about now?”

“As in seven years bad luck for the poor schmuck who originally broke it? But luck is like, you know, air – there’s only so much to go around. So to screw with the intended the mirror has to suck in bad luck from those in the immediate vicinity. Loads of gamblers and gunmen carry glass. Don’t you know anything?”

I grinned and shook my head. “Apparently not. Well, our Franco sounds like he’s a few aces short of a pack.”

Amy snorted. “Yeah, well, you can laugh but there’s a space reserved for us in Fresh Kills if we fuck this up, so I for one will take any help going.”

“I hear ya, doll, I hear ya. But ending up as Staten Island landfill wasn’t what I had in mind for this body, if it’s all the same to you.”

We stood like mismatched statues on either side of the entrance to a particular tatty tomb. As nothing was happening in the street I took a quick look around. “Why is there a line of white powder across the doorway?”

“Salt. There’s a shaker in the corner should we need to re-establish the barrier if it gets scuffed.”


“You know, its proof against, against…” Her voice trailed away in obvious embarrassment, “It was on the sheet.”

“Along with the broken mirror that I didn’t get?”

“Screw you.”

An awkward silence descended. We stood. I cleared my throat. “Those mirror shades, they stuck on?”

She sounded relieved to discuss something other than our situation. “Yeah, not my best idea. They itch like a bitch.”

There was another silence. The rain continued to fall. I hitched up my pants as the twin .38 revolvers in the thigh pockets were hanging heavy. A dispute broke out amongst some crows nesting in the Depository clock tower. Maybe they were jumping about on the mechanism but it suddenly chimed once, although everyone knew it got busted years ago. The domestic spilled out in a flurry of wings and bad-tempered cawing. A cluster of six crows swept down and along the street, passing close enough I could have reached out and snagged one. The avian shouting match faded away into the gloom.

Amy fished something out of her coat pocket and started fiddling with it. She looked twitchy. “Six crows. That’s bad luck. Means someone is for the chop.”

I laughed. “Only if we do our job right. What is that you’ve got anyway?”

“An acorn. Brings good luck.”

“Say what? You’re not superstitious.”

“Tonight I am.” She crammed the nut back into her pocket. “Just leave it, OK?”

We stood some more. Way in the distance a dog howled. I got bored. For something to do I turned and checked the guest list on a clipboard hanging inside the recessed doorway. “Amy, you looked at this?”

“Not as such. It’s only for those who turn up without tickets, and they generally make a grand entrance round front.” A wary note crept into her voice. “Why?”

“Its here, right down at the bottom - ‘Death plus one’. A hand-written addition.”

Amy licked her lips in what I knew to be an uncharacteristic display of nervousness. “Bullshit. Is this your idea of a joke?”

I held out the clipboard. “See for yourself.”

She leaned forward. “It’s still bullshit. I’m telling ya, Tony, Jacoby is loony-tunes paranoid tonight and the club is like Fort Knox. Every window has been bricked up, every chimney sealed. The only way in is through one of us.”

Movement further down the street caught my attention. I pointed, she looked. There were two figures approaching, briefly illuminated by each street light as they walked towards us. One looked like a tall dude, basketball tall, in a long robe with cowl, face hidden, carrying a scythe over his shoulder. Beside him was a pale-skinned girl in a blood-soaked wedding dress, her throat slashed wide open.

Amy shook her head. “Death and The Maiden? You have got to be kidding me.”

As we watched the couple paused briefly then The Maiden headed off down an alleyway in the direction of Regency. Death watched her go then started towards us again. It was just an optical illusion but it looked like the rain parted and fell either side of the scythe blade, as if it were keen enough to cleave the very air itself.

I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Okey-dokey. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Say she’s gone to score an ATM or liquor store while he heads inside to get in line for the buffet. Hell, they might not even be guests at this particular party.”

“You really think that, Tony? Really?” My partner squared her shoulders. “I say we take no chances. I say we off him, no questions asked.”

“No way. This has to be a guest.”

“Yes way, bro. Jacoby holds this party every Halloween, never missed a year since ever, and the invites stipulate absolutely no Death costumes. Anything else you might fancy, but not that.”

“Shit, you can’t just kill someone for not reading the small print. Anyway, I figure this dude is on the guest list.” I tossed the clipboard aside and stepped out in front of the Grim Reaper, hands raised. “Excuse me, pal, but-”

The scythe went one way, a glittering distraction, Death another. He spun, robes flying wide, and kicked me in the chest. A solid hit, one that sent me sprawling on my back, hands clawing at the thigh pockets of my cargo pants. He leapt into the air, paused in a slo-mo moment, and came down - his heel aimed at my throat.

I tore both .38’s free and started firing, nailing him multiple times in the chest. The impacts seemed to dissipate his momentum and he dropped short, landing at my feet, taking hit after hit without reaction.

Both my revolvers clicked empty.

Death shook himself and a cluster of spent rounds dropped to the ground. He laughed; not a dry-as-dust cackle, but a rich, basso profundo chuckle that somehow sounded more unsettling. I scrabbled in the dirt, trying to push myself away, but my shoulders came up against a wheeled trash bin and I was trapped. He towered over me, the very picture of inhuman fatality.

“Hey, dickhead.” Amy sounded wired, brittle, high on violence.

He half turned towards the voice.

“Eat this!”

A shotgun roared, real loud in the narrow street, echoing off the walls. Death took it full in the face. His cowl vanished in a blizzard of shredded cloth and blood. He fell back in a bloody sprawl and lay still.

My saviour stepped up, her long coat now flapping open, holding a pump-action Mossberg 500 with pistol grip. Amy kept the prone figure covered while I got to my feet and peered down at what remained of the body. I frowned. “He had a face? How can Death have a face? Isn’t he supposed to be, you know, just bones?”

Amy shrugged. “Beats me, bro. Here, hold this while I finish things off.” She tossed me the shotgun which I managed to catch and not drop. Fishing inside her vest top she produced a big medallion, with five spiky corners, slipping the chain over her head.

I laughed, sounding nervous. “Didn’t know you were into that kind of mojo, doll.”

She crouched down and started scratching out a pentagram around the body, the medallion leaving deep lines in the tarmac. “Doesn’t matter what I believe, bro. According to our employer this will keep him safe for another year and I’m not going to argue.”

I kept watch while she shuffled around the body, completing the occult symbol. None of the other hired help came to our aid and I didn’t expect them to. They’d keep station in case the gunfire was just a diversion. The club soundproofing was primo so the revellers would be none the wiser about our little fracas.

Amy sat back on her haunches. “There, done. Now I place this whatever-it-is on his chest and we can make tracks. Don’t sweat about the police showing up, Jacoby has paid them to stay well away tonight.” She tossed the medallion onto the corpse which landed with a metallic click.

We looked at each other. I shrugged. She frowned and reached forward to move a fold of robe aside. “Body armour? What the hell does Death need with body armour?”

I chambered another round, the rak-rak sounding harsh - and final. Amy jumped to her feet, hand clawing for the Glock on her hip, and I shot her square in the chest. The short-range impact spun her around before she collapsed in an ungainly heap.

There was a silence as if the world held its breath.

Franco Jacoby was seriously twisted, and then some. Every Halloween he took out an anonymous contract on himself, stipulating it had to take place at the Cologne Club. You pay enough money and even a hardened killer will wear a pink tutu and whistle ‘Dixie’ while blowing someone away.

Or in this case, turn up dressed like the Grim Reaper, complete with scythe.

The hit man had to have a proven track record; he had to be someone who’d killed multiple times before. Same went for the bodyguards Jacoby hired – all people on first-name terms with Death. Every Halloween someone died, and every Halloween a clean-up crew made it like nothing happened.

This year, though, was different. Jacoby’s daughter had just turned 21 and now needed ‘protection’ as well. Well, that’s what her father believed and you can’t argue with a sick mind. So I was the ringer brought in to ensure that two corpses ended up in the pentagram, by any means necessary.

I heard high-heels and turned to face The Maiden – a.k.a. the love of my life, Tina O'Shaughnessy. She stared at the faceless Death for a moment, then spat on the corpse. “Bastard. I hope you rot in Hell, Danny.”

As epitaphs go maybe her brother deserved better, but I’ve learned never to get between family. Except, of course, on this occasion I had; Danny O had a downer on me and Tina from the get-go, end of story. I couldn’t do nothing as he was a Made Man with the Scharlach family - and even if we’d just skipped town it wouldn’t have ended there.

So I got him the Jacoby gig, moonlighting as Death, with Amy as the designated target. Now, OK, I’d planned to pop him once he dropped her, but his double-cross still hurt, man. Seriously. It’s a sad reflection on society when you can’t trust a hired killer.

I pressed my lapel mic. “Splash one Zero…and one friendly. We’re clear.” Nobody answered; everybody knew the risks that came with a gig like this. I handed Tina the shotgun. “This won’t take a minute, doll, then we’re free and clear.”

Tina had grown up in the life and this wasn’t her first multiple murder. She chambered a fresh round and stood, hand on hip, as I dragged Amy on top of the other body. From an inside pocket I took a hip flask and poured the contents onto the scored tarmac. It flowed more like thick oil than regular booze and smelled like cinnamon. Jacoby had supplied it and no way was I taking a sip to find out if it was actually alcoholic. It took almost a minute to mark out the pentagram with lines that shimmered like quicksilver under the halogen streetlight.

I stepped back, fished out a book of matches, struck one and tossed it. Pale blue flames flared up, burned for less than five seconds, and were gone like someone turned the gas off. I stood back and wiped rain from my face.

Tina sniffed. “We cool?”

“We’re cool. Some unknown guy shows up and gets the drop on Amy. I open fire but he’s wearing body armour, the real deal. But the impacts make him stagger back, he drops the shotgun. I get to it first and…”

“Goodnight, Vienna.” She nodded. “You never saw his face, you never realised who it was.”

I grinned. “Nope. No idea.”

She kissed me, careful not to get fake blood on my clothes, and handed back the Mossberg. “Call me.”

I watched as she faded into the shadows; trying for a bit of bump-and-grind but she doesn’t have the hips for it. Then I switched the microphone to channel 2. “Mister Jacoby? This is Stevens. You can send in that clean-up crew anytime now.”

A rasping drawl. “It’s done? Two bodies?”

“Yes, sir-” The Depository bell tolled twice, making me pause. I cleared my throat.

“Death plus one.”

© Martin M. Clark 2017 All Rights Reserved
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Date and time of last update 19:11 Wed 22 Feb 2017
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