2. Scissors and Thread

Nick Rosen stared at the door in the apartment complex’s dim hallway. He could feel his heart thudding against his ribs, his hands shaking as they gripped the handgun, he had pointed at the ground. It was time to admit it: he wasn’t cut out for this.
    But at least it would pay the bills.
    Taking a deep breath, Nick tried the doorknob. Locked. He gritted his teeth and kicked it, trying to do it just like in the movies. The door rattled. He kicked two more times, each time harder than before.
    Nick yelled, frustrated and tense, and kicked it a fourth time, this time as hard as he could. The door didn’t fall off its hinges like in the movies, but it did swing open. Nick rushed inside, holding the gun out in front of him.
    The apartment was as dim as the hall. There was a lamp in each corner of the room and no other light to see by. Not that Nick wanted to see more than he did; most of the carpet was littered with old food wrappers, clothes, and beer bottles, and the parts of the carpet that were visible were stained, reminding him of his family’s house. To his left was the kitchen, which looked as though someone had gone grocery shopping and dumped the food on the floor, and a door that led into a bedroom.
    This barely registered with Nick, however. His eyes had snapped onto the person in the living room.
    This was the man he had come for based on the picture his boss had shown him: Malcolm Barrett. Nick held the gun in both hands, gripping it hard and pointing it at him. Barrett fell off the couch when the door flew open and now appeared to be hiding in the corner of the wall. He was overweight, smelly, blond-haired, and tall, none of which helped him appear inconspicuous.
    “Oh my God! What the fuck? What the fuck is going on?” he bellowed, squirming up against the corner. Nick closed the door with his foot and walked toward Barrett slowly, trying to appear more in control than he was.
    “You know exactly what’s going on!” Despite his efforts, Nick’s voice shook. His hair was dripping sweat into his eyes. He wiped it away quickly and put his hand back on the gun. “Get on your knees and put your hands up!”
    Barrett looked like he was about to cry, but did as he was told. His fat belly jiggled as he dropped. His lower lip trembled.
    “So tell me, Malcolm Barrett,” Nick said, “why did you steal from Choler? Huh?”
    Nick jerked the gun in Barrett’s direction, making the large man jump. “I-I didn’t! I didn’t steal-”
    “Don’t fucking lie to me! You stole Choler’s product! Where is it?”
    “I didn’t steal the stuff, you’ve gotta believe me!” Barrett whined. His fat made him look like an overgrown baby; it was horrible watching his face turn red and his eyes squint when the tears leaked out.
    “You’re a lying piece of shit,” Nick said. He didn’t want to listen to whatever story Barrett had made up. He wanted Barrett to be a lying thief. In fact, he regretted having started a conversation with him. He should have just shot the guy and picked up his paycheck.
    Nick took another step closer, trying to gauge how far he should be from Barrett. He didn’t want his bullet to miss, but he also wanted Barrett out of reach. “You were given the meth. You were told to deliver it to Choler’s client. The client never got it. Where the fuck is it if you didn’t steal it?”
    “It was stolen from me!” Barrett started to full-on cry now. His big shoulders shook and snot ran down his face. “I tried to get it there, I was doing my job!”
    “It was stolen?” Nick said this more to himself than Barrett. He suspected that the sobbing man was making this up, but all the same, he had taken the job assuming that Vincent Choler, his boss, knew all the facts, never considering that it might not have been Barrett’s fault.
    “Yes, stolen!” Barrett said quickly. “By some guys in ski masks, I think they were from the west side of town! They were on our turf, we should go kick their ass-”
    “Then why didn’t you tell Choler that immediately?”
    Nick watched Barrett’s reaction, trying to determine the truth, but all that changed in his expression was that he shut his eyes tight, crying harder than ever.
    “I thought he’d yell at me or maybe even k-kill me!” he said. “And that’s exactly what he decided to do! I knew it was only a matter of time!”
    “Why didn’t you leave, then?” Nick said. His grip on the gun was becoming painful, the metal digging into his palms.
    “I didn’t know he knew where I l-lived!” Barrett wailed. “I thought I’d be safe here! I’ve been hiding here all week!”
    Nick blinked. If Barrett had indeed been hiding here for a week, terrified that someone was going to burst through his door and shoot him, that would explain the mess.
    “How do I know you’re not lying to me?” Nick said. “What exactly happened?”
    “I don’t know! It just happened so fast, I was just driving the van to the destination and I stopped to get some food-”
    “Oh, you stopped to get some food, did you? You were supposed to go straight to the destination, dumb ass!” Nick bellowed. “That was your first mistake!” It had to be Barrett’s fault.
    “I know! I was just hungry, and I knew I was ahead of schedule!”
    “You know damn well that’s not how this works!” Nick said. “You do as Choler tells you when you work for him, or you’re as good as dead!” Nick cocked the handgun.
    “I know!” Barrett said, sheer panic in his voice. “I’m sorry! It won’t happen again, just please, don’t kill me!”
    Nick was breathing hard. His hands were shaking so badly that it was a miracle he hadn’t dropped the gun. It was difficult to think straight. He tried to calm down, but Barrett could be innocent, and Nick needed to pay the bills.
    “Look, it doesn’t matter if you stole it or if you’re making shit up. One way or another, you fucked up and you can’t be allowed to keep working for Choler. He’s pissed at you anyway.”
    “That’s okay! I won’t work for him anymore, he can fire me, he’ll never see me again! Please just let me go!” Barrett said, his words tumbling out so fast that they were hard to understand.
    “I can’t do that,” Nick said. “You know too much. You could tell the cops or kill Choler yourself if you have the balls to try. Not that I think you do,” he added, noticing how much Barrett was quivering. It was a miracle he was still upright. “Either way, I can’t let that happen. Then I’ll be the one with a gun in my face.”
    Barrett’s head drooped, his chin resting on his chest. He sobbed harder. “I’ll run away. I’ll leave town, change my name if you like. It’ll be like I never existed. Please… Please…”
    Nick bit his lip. The gun was still cocked, loaded, pointed at Barrett’s face. Nick had never actually met Barrett before; Choler liked to keep his employees as separate as possible. All he knew was that Malcolm Barrett was in charge of delivering drugs around the city for Choler because Barrett already worked as a truck driver. It was simple: Barrett could just toss a couple of unmarked bags in the back of the truck, drop them off where he was told to, and be paid for his trouble. He supposedly knew all the ins and outs of the city, so he was able to do it in a time that satisfied both Choler and his boss from the truck driving business. To the rest of the world, he was nothing more than a handsomely paid truck driver.
    “Why does Choler think you stole it?” Nick said. “Why didn’t he assume a mistake was made? Why wouldn’t he trust you?”
    “I don’t know! Maybe there have been some turf wars, maybe he doesn’t know who to trust! The guy is always nervous about this shit, I can’t say!”
    Nick nodded before he could stop himself. Choler was overly cautious about every little detail of their operation, but to be fair, they had never been caught by the cops, not even once. That meant that Barrett could be telling the truth. The story added up. And if he did what he said and disappeared, there would be no consequences. Nick wouldn’t have to kill anyone and he’d still get paid.
    …But then, if Barrett was lying and he did go to the cops, it would be Nick’s fault that Vincent Choler, drug lord of New Kairos, had been discovered for the first time. The headline “Owner of local taxi company turns out to be meth dealer” would be on the front of every newspaper, and Choler’s employees at the taxi service, like Nick himself, would fare no better. In short, if Nick didn’t kill Barrett, he could get arrested, or killed before that even happened.
    Or, he could eliminate the threat. There would be no danger, no risk to his life or the business. He’d have blood on his hands, the blood of a man who might be innocent… But he’d be paid.
    Barrett’s facial expression had changed slightly at Nick’s nod. He looked somewhat hopeful, perhaps wondering if he had a chance to survive this encounter. Still, the gun was cocked and loaded between them.
    “Come on man,” Barrett said. “You know how Choler is. He just wants to eliminate any threats to him. I won’t be a problem, I’ll just disappear.”
    Nick eyed Barrett for a moment. They both trembled.
    Then Nick lowered the gun.
    Barrett took a huge sigh of relief. “You’re going to let me go?”
    “I… I don’t know,” Nick mumbled. “It’s a good story…”
    “You won’t have to kill anyone. You don’t want to kill anyone, do you?” Barrett asked.
    “No,” Nick admitted. “I just want to get paid and get this over with.”
    “You can say you killed me,” Barrett blurted out. “Choler will never see me again, so he’ll believe you did. You could… You could say I fought back, and you snapped my neck or something, and that’s why you didn’t shoot me!”
    Nick frowned. It was a possibility. And for all his shaking, for all his nervousness, Barrett seemed to be telling the truth. He had a reason to lie, of course, but his story was perfectly possible.
    “You’ll still have done your job in Choler’s eyes. You’ll still get paid! I’ll be long gone, I swear.”
    “Still get paid…” Nick muttered.
    Barrett eyed Nick. “Are you low on cash or something?”
    Nick nodded. “I’m paid pretty well, but… Yeah. Funds are tight.” He didn’t know why he was telling Barrett this, but in the heat of the moment he could barely think straight. Getting to know the man he was trying to kill couldn’t possibly help.
    “Why?”
    “My sister has cancer… Breast cancer,” Nick murmured.
    Barrett’s shoulders drooped. “I’m sorry… I didn’t know.”
    Nick raised the gun again.
    “You know too much,” Nick whispered. “You could go to the cops. You could let something slip. Then it’ll be my fault that we’re caught.”
    Barrett’s eyes widened. “No… Please, please don’t!”
    Nick looked down the sight of the gun.
    “You’re going to kill an innocent man to pay for your sister’s medical bills?” Barrett asked.
    Nick looked away. He couldn’t bear looking at that face anymore… That blubbering, desperate face, that face that, for all he knew, was telling him the truth. Barrett had had no reason to say he had stopped for food, after all. He could have said someone broke into the truck, made it look like it wasn’t his fault, but instead he had taken the blame.
    “I can’t leave any room for error like you did,” Nick said.
    “But you can get your money without doing this,” Barrett said weakly.     “You can help your sister and not have to kill anyone. Please…”
    “You did mess up,” Nick said, still not looking at Barrett.
    “I know…” Barrett said. “I didn’t mean to, I really didn’t. But I didn’t steal from him. I didn’t do it on purpose. Choler’s not going to get caught.” He was pleading now, practically begging.
    Nick tried to think, despite the fact that his brain seemed to have been filled with battery acid. He could take Barrett at his word, trust him with all the information he had. Maybe it would all go away…
    Or he could blow the man’s brains out in this shitty, rundown apartment, and there would be no risk. No room for error.
    Nick turned to face Barrett again. “Does Choler know the truth? Does he know you were stolen from?”
    “I don’t think so,” Barrett said. “I think he just… just assumed that I stole it.”
    “No… No, that’s not it,” Nick said. “He doesn’t care if it was your fault or not, does he? He just cares about the risk. That’s all that matters to him, the risk.”
    “No! No!” Barrett waved his arms frantically. “I told you, I’ll leave, I won’t tell anyone anything, please!”
    Nick put his index finger against the trigger. “There can’t be any risk. I can’t help my sister if I’m dead.”
    “Please, stop!” Barrett wailed.
    “Choler will want proof…” Nick muttered. He looked down the sight of the gun, double checking to make sure it was cocked.
    “I’ll pretend I’m dead! We could make it look like I’m really dead, send him a picture or something!” Barrett said. “C’mon man, please! You don’t want to do this!”
    Barrett was right about that. Nick’s finger wavered on the trigger.
    “You know too much,” Nick repeated.
    “PLEASE, PLEASE DON’T!”
    Nick aimed for the spot between Barrett’s eyebrows.
    “And… I need to get paid,” Nick muttered.
    “I’M INNOCENT, I SWEAR, PLEASE-”
    Nick pulled the trigger.
    The bullet blasted through Barrett’s skull with a roar, spraying blood against the wall. For a terrifying moment, Nick could see through Barrett’s head to the bullet hole in the wall. Then the body dropped to the floor, the truck driver’s cheek squished against the stained carpet, his arms splayed out to his sides—just like in the movies.
    Nick stepped forward and, without thinking, without even knowing why he did it, he kept shooting. Five more bullets flew through Malcolm Barrett’s brain, leaving gaping holes squirting blood into the carpet, resounding like thunder cracks when they met the floor.
    Nick stood there, still pulling the trigger, but the gun was empty. The conversation, Barrett’s life, and the moment of finality that had made it all worthless could not be recalled, but there was no room for error, and he would most certainly be paid.