Authors: Parnell Hall
For /im and Fra,nry
"I'M A HITMAN."
I sprang from my desk chair, waved my arras. "No, no, no! You
didn't say that, I didn't hear that, let's start the conversation again.
I'm not an attorney, I'm a private investigator. What you tell me is
not a privileged communication. If you confess to a crime, I have
to tell the cops."
"I'm not confessing to a crime."
"You just told me you're a hitman."
"That's not a crime. It's a profession."
"I don't care if it's a breakfast cereal. It's a word I don't want
uttered in my office. At least not following the phrase, `I'm a."'
"Hit man is two words. And `I'm a' isn't a phrase, it's a fragment."
"What are you, a linguist?"
"I'm an English teacher"
"I thought you were a hitman."
"Yeah, but you didn't want to hear that. I teach public school
at Harmon High on West Ninety-second."
I sat back in my desk chair, sized up my prospective client. Did
Martin Kessler look more like a schoolteacher or a contract killer?
It was hard to tell. He was wearing a blue blazer with a white shirt,
open at the neck. The jacket was loose, could have concealed a
shoulder holster or a pocket of pens. His hair was dark, curly, but
not greasy-I chided myself for the stereotype. He couldn't have
been more than forty, forty-five.
What had brought him to the Stanley Hastings Detective Agency
was hard to imagine. It's a small agency, and I'm it. I have one client,
Richard Rosenberg of Rosenberg and Stone, whose TV ads bring
in more trip-and-falls than you can shake a private eye at. I am the
private eye most often shaken, the old pro, the go-to guy, the longest
on the job. Or, as my wife, Alice, puts it, the one without the
gumption to get out. (Alice doesn't really put it that way, she's
actually very supportive; it's just I can tell that's how she feels. A
good therapist could get rich off me, if I could afford a good
It was the wrong time for such ruminations. I had a hitman in
my office. Without admitting the fact, I had to find out why.
"Okay," I said. "You can either leave right now, in which case
we have no problem. Or you can tell me what you want, in which
case we either have no problem or we have a very big one.
Depending on what you say."
"You mean I can't talk about the people I kill?"
I put my teeth together, smiled the fakest smile. "I don't seem
to be getting through to you. I not only don't want you to mention such things, I don't want you to allude to such things. I don't
want you to tell me you're not talking about such things, I want
you to simply not do it."
The guy had twinkling eyes for a hitman. I wondered if he
really was. "That would make for an awfully tame conversation."
"I can live with that."
"Okay, here's the deal. I've gotten tired of my current occupation, and I'd like to retire."
"What's stopping you?"
"You understand I'm not talking about my position at Harmon
"That's for real?"
"What, you think I could live off the other thing? I assure you
"We're not talking about the other thing."
"I know, I know. We're not talking about anything important.
Anything that matters. So, how do you like them Yanks?"
I squinted at him. "Am I being punked? Is some cop laughing
himself sick just now?"
"Not about this" Martin Kessler took a breath. "Let me try to
explain in terms that don't freak you out. I have two jobs. One is
as a schoolteacher. One isn't. I would like to keep my teaching job
and quit my part-time one. Are you with me so far?"
I wouldn't exactly phrase it that way, but I get the picture."
"Here's the problem. My part-time job is not the kind you just
up and quit. That is the type of thing that makes an employer
unhappy. An unhappy employer is a very bad thing in my parttime job."
"Thank god. Only a moron could fail to, and I'd hate to hire a
"You want to hire me?"
"Oh, god, you are a moron. No, I came in here looking for lawn
"All right. Of course you want to hire me." I frowned. "That's
not the way I'd phrase it either. I mean of course that's the reason
you're here. Why you'd want to hire me I couldn't begin to
"Aren't you a private eye?"
"In the loosest sense. I chase ambulances for a negligence
lawyer. I take pictures of cracks in the sidewalk and help people sue
the City of NewYork"
"Yeah, yeah. I don't really care. Look, here's the deal. I've been
given a job. I don't want to do it. But I can't get out of it. It is, and
it pains me to say it, an offer I can't refuse. So I can't turn it down.
But I got a little time. I don't have to go rushing into it."
"What do you want from me?"
"I want help. I want you to help me not do this job.You're not
the bad guy. You're the hero, saving the day. Can you live with
I frowned. Against all odds, Martin Kessler had managed to
place the concept of working for a hitman in a context that was
damn near acceptable.
"What would I have to do?"
"Not much. Follow me around. Watch my back. See if anyone's
taking an interest in me."
"Why would they?"
Kessler's smile was pained. "You're unusually slow, aren't you?
Of course you compound it by insisting I talk around the subject.
Let's just say when a particular name fails to appear on the obituary page, certain people will want to know why"
"So? Do you want the job, or don't you?"
I had one question. After the tenor of our conversation, I felt
more than a little embarrassed to ask it.
"How much does it pay?"
RICHARD ROSENBERG HAD A HABIT of ridiculing anything I
did. In particular, anything I did outside his private practice. This
was generally a ploy to keep me in his private practice; still, Richard
always seemed to get a kick out of it, almost as if he were sharpening his jaws for court. It didn't matter how sound, sane, or
rational a project of mine might be, Richard would manage to
poke a hole in it. The full force of his sarcasm and irony could be
unleashed at a moment's notice without the slightest provocation.