The Last Choice
I’ll tell you how I got here, how it all started. It may not be pretty, but it’s the truth. I have no possible reason to lie anymore.
It was fall in the city, and it was one of those nights.
One of those nights where. . . . Will you know what I mean if I tell you it was one of those nights where the rain was coming down so hard that it pooled on the brim of my hat before spilling off the edge, so that when it fell at my feet it splashed up on my best shoes?
It was well into the evening, and I was in the heart of the dark city. It was a troubled heart, I’ll say, a damaged and old heart, beating irregularly and pumping miserable floods of weary traffic in an out carelessly through its veins of streets.
But if the city had a bad heart condition, I was not the man to be its doctor. Not by a long shot. I knew that the city was in bad shape, but I had little enough idea what was specifically wrong with it, although some of that I would learn before my time there was over. I didn’t have any pretensions at mass psychology or criminology either. I was just a washed out veteran. I had gotten honorably discharged after a grenade took of half my left arm in Germany. All the idealism I had during the ecstatic mess leading up to D-Day had faded out pretty quickly then. The Nazis were on the ropes soon enough, but I was stuck sitting at home, reading about it in black print on white paper, efficiently shorn of the lofty idea I had once cherished that I could make a difference in any of it. It was just one giant machine fighting another, and sure, we would all be better off if American won the big fight, but there wasn’t really a blasted thing we could do about it, not individually. Thinking back on it, even my commanding officers had been confused. I remember the Sergeant leaning against a storage crate with one hand splayed out on the wood, holding up his weight, and the other just scratching and scratching his head, like he had no idea what to make of it all, or why we were even there. I sometimes wondered if even our generals might be just as mixed up as he was. Well, it worked out all right, for guys like the Sergeant at least, who lived through it all, and got a medal I think, and for guys like me, who still had the use of eighty percent of their bodies at least.
It was my soul that had suffered, really, because I couldn’t consider myself useful anymore. I went back to my parents’ farm briefly, but with only one functional arm, there was not a whole lot I could do. My younger brothers were suddenly better at all the chores, and when I would try to help, my mother would just cluck at me to sit down, to not exert myself, and bring me over a glass of water with ice, like I was her patient, at my own grand family hospital of one. So I didn’t stay.
I came back to the city, drawn perhaps by the memory of the random girl who had kissed me on VE Day, probably thinking I had just gotten back. But I had come to see the first ship loads of victorious returning soldiers, the real soldiers, just like she had. It rang false, but it was a kiss all the same. Maybe that will give you some sense of the poverty of my social connections. Most of my friends were still in the service, one way or another, and those who weren’t seemed uneasy talking to an injured veteran, a walking casualty.
The city had changed since I had left. More smokestacks had cropped up, and were pouring out black smoke to mingle with the clouds, that were rolling in like puffy tanks, grumbling with thunder. More big, smiling billboards too, or was I imagining it? Maybe I had just never noticed them before. Now they seemed jarringly out of place, much too cheerful, though with a shallow and phony cheerfulness, for this kind of town. We would all be better served, I had often thought, if they had just read: “Buy it. Because face it, you need it now, whether you like it or not.”
Yes, the city had changed, in so many other small ways too, like some beast shedding its skin to reveal a different coat beneath. But I had not been the there for the metamorphosis, and now I felt like a stranger. I wandered around the city, on nights like this wondering if all these dimly lit side streets had always been here. I used to imagine what kinds of people lived on streets I passed; now I just imagine how many have gotten mugged there. I shake my head to myself sometimes. I don’t understand it, this change both in the city and in myself.
But that night, the night I met Lucy, the rain was coming down hard, too hard, and I couldn’t afford myself the luxury of standing around in it too long thinking, so I stepped over my own reflection in a large puddle and walked through the inviting arched doorway of the nearest public building.
It was a jazz club, as things turned out, a slightly seedy one, that had obviously seen its better days, but still clung to the vestiges of taste and good repute. It also clung desperately to the underside of the rather disreputable name of “The Last Choice,” under which someone had added helpfully, “DRINKS!” Nevertheless, it was dry, and relatively warm, a nice contrast to the wind and rain out on the street, and as I dripped down on the slightly tilted floor, I was grateful enough. A singer in a dark green dress was up on the little stage against the back wall, caressing a microphone as her low voice droned out into the room. A small band, clearly diminished, consisting of just a piano player and drummer, carried on in a bored fashion behind her. They were missing a saxophonist at least, it seemed to me. The place was mostly empty, and the few odd souls around seemed to be paying no attention whatsoever to the musicians, or to each other. I ordered a drink and sat down on the right side of the room. I always prefer the right sides of rooms, don’t ask me why. I deserve at least one peculiarity which I don’t have to explain.
My drink had hardly arrived when a woman approached me.
She put a hand on the chair across the table from me. “Excuse me, is this chair taken?” She was a tall, slender blond, with a plain black dress which showed off her form quietly, without offering it cheaply. Small silver earrings glittered in her ears, and her blue eyes slid nervously across the room before she sat down.
I was surprised, but flattered. “No, not all, ma’am,” I said. I was about to get up to pull it out for her, but she did so herself and sat down at once.
“You’re a soldier, aren’t you?” she asked, putting both her smooth, bare elbows on the table and leaning toward me. When she was finished with the question, she let her ruby lips hang open still just a little, as if she were used to having a cigarette between them, and had forgotten quite how to close them all the way.
“Was,” I said, and glanced at my stump of a left arm. “What gave it a way?”
She smiled slightly, and her long lashes went down over her eyes.
“Why do you ask?” I pursued.
“Well, it’s just. . . .” Her hands fidgeted. “I don’t know exactly how to begin. There doesn’t seem to be any really decent or normal way of saying this. I suppose there isn’t much of a form for . . . my kind of request.”
I laughed a little. “Has anyone ever accused you of getting right to the point, Miss—”
She bit her lip. “Mrs.,” she said. I resisted an audible sigh of disappointment. All the girls I knew before the war were married now too. “Mrs. Gina Holloway.”
I extended my hand. “Pleased to meet you,” I said as she took it. “James North. Now what kind of request were you talking about that is so difficult to discuss properly?”
Again her eyes went down, as if searching in the dark wood of the table’s surface for her answer. “I have a very specific need,” she said. “And I would not ask a stranger about it except that I know I have absolutely no other choice.” Her eyes widened as she said these words, and with every moment I was taking her more seriously. Those eyes could not joke around, could not lie.
I smiled to reassure her. “You don’t have to worry about anything, Mrs. Holloway,” I said. “I’ve heard enough strange things in my life to befuddle anyone. You won’t shock me. What is it that you need?”
She looked directly at me, with those deep, deep blue eyes, eyes a fish could drown in, and put her hand on mine. “I need you to kill someone for me.”