One month before
The bright red rubber ball squeaks as I release it, watching it sail far across my yard. Duke, my loyal black lab, turns and chases the ball as fast as he can, tearing up the grass in pursuit.
I smile to myself, looking out across the property. I like the seclusion and privacy of living outside of the city, and I was able to construct a home with everything I could need. I bought the place more for the land than for anything else. I’d be happy living in a fucking trailer if it meant I could do whatever I damn well please, but fortunately I get paid a lot of money to do what I do.
“You know we can’t turn this down.”
I glance at my father at the sound of his voice. He stands impatiently against a nearby tree, puffing one of the short, dark cigars he prefers. His receding white hair makes him look ten years older than he is. He's wearing his usual outfit, a blue dress shirt tucked into jeans with a brown work jacket over top and oversized brown boots that are nearly falling apart. He looks like a construction worker, or something blue collar like that.
He sure as hell works with his hands, but he’s no fucking construction worker.
“You know that if we do it, the consequences could be extensive,” I answer, feeling a chill run down my shoulders.
Duke grabs the ball and heads back, his tail held high in the air. My father huffs, shaking his head and then inhales deeply, looking past me.
His voice is low as he responds, “I understand your concerns, but this is beyond us.”
“Exactly. It’s too big to control,” I answer, not bothering to look at him.
“Control?” He laughs. “There’s no control in our line of work.”
“Maybe the way you operate. But that’s not how I do things.”
He pushes off the tree and walks toward me just as Duke drops the ball at my feet. I pick it up and launch it again, sending the dog running. The smell of the cigar gets stronger as he walks closer.
“Listen, son. You know how much this means to me.”
Guilt threatens to take over. The only man I owe shit to is my father. But he’s falling for a trap. They’ll never give him what he wants. “I know what it could mean, at least.”
“We’ve been outsiders our whole fucking lives.” His voice rises, letting his emotions come through.
“I know,” I say, jaw tense.
“They think we’re garbage and trash,” he says, nearly spitting the words. “But this is our chance to show them that we’re dependable. That we belong.”
I grunt and watch the dog sprint off in the distance. My father’s right, even though his motives are pretty fucking skewed. He’s lived his entire life on the outskirts of the Romano familia, wishing he could be a part of them, but unable to join. He’s only half Italian; his disgraced father ran off and fucked some Irish girl years and years ago. It doesn’t matter to me, but my father never got over the fact that his full Italian Romano cousins were allowed into the familia, while he was kept at a distance.
That’s probably why my father entered into this profession and trained me to work alongside him. Being hitmen means we’re allowed to exist on the fringe of the familia. We've even earned some respect, though fear may be the better word for it. Over the years my father gathered a particular set of skills and passed them down to me, continuing the family tradition.
I don’t give a shit about my inbred, shitheel cousins. I could kill them one by one if I wanted and never lose a wink of sleep. Blood means nothing to me.
I don’t give a fuck about the familia like my father does. He has this chip on his shoulder and acts like all of our problems are due to the familia rejecting him. He can’t see past his own petty need to be accepted by them.
Being an outsider suits me. I like my life outside of the city, and outside of the familia. I take their money and do their jobs because that’s the life I know, but I don’t want to be a part of their politics and their bullshit.
Taking this job offer though would destroy any semblance of outsider status and shove us right into the high-stakes world of mafia power plays. I don’t fucking want that. I’m not interested.
“Think of the money,” he tries to persuade me. “I know you don’t care about the familia like I do.” There’s a hint of bitterness in his tone, and it makes my body tense. “But think of the money they’re offering.”
He has a good point. They’re offering to pay us triple our normal rate, which is significant already. The target is difficult to get to and very important, but the money is absurdly good.
A man could possibly retire with that kind of cash.
“If we do this, our lives will change,” I say, meeting his cold gaze.
“Exactly.” My father smiles, his yellowed teeth showing for only a moment before he takes another puff of his cigar.
I shake my head. “You see it as a good thing, but to me this would destroy everything we’ve built.”
His boots are heavy and his steps quick as he tosses the cigar aside. He walks up to me and suddenly grabs my jacket by the collar, bunching the fabric up in his fists. My hands clench into fists, but I wait. I’m used to this. I grew up with it.
I can see the anger in his eyes, the intense fury that dwells deep inside. It’s a darkness that eats away at him, and I know that he drinks more than he should to try and keep it at bay.
I have the same darkness inside of me. It comes out in different ways, but it’s there, slowly rotting me from the inside. I hate my father in this moment because I see myself in him, and it disgusts me. My knuckles go white and adrenaline pumps hard in my blood, but I keep it down, waiting for him to get out whatever’s on his mind.
He better do it quick, 'cause I don’t have time for this shit.
“You can’t fuck this up for me,” he growls. His face is close to mine, but I don’t move. I don’t give him the opportunity to see me weak. “The familia’s denied me for far too long. This is our chance to make things right for our family.”
Duke returns without the ball and growls at my father. It’s low and rough, from somewhere deep down in his throat.
“I’d let me go if I were you,” I say softly, cocking a brow and looking my father in the eye. Duke doesn’t have the type of control I do. But he’ll always wait for my command.
“What, you gonna send that fucking dog after me?” He scoffs, but it’s quick and panic is barely hidden beneath it.
“No,” I say, staring him down. “You know I don’t need his help.”
There’s a strained moment between us. I can see my father doing the math in his head, wondering if he could take me in a fair fight now that I’m older. We’ve come close to fighting in the past, though we've never actually traded blows. But we both know I have youth and experience on my side, and so he slowly releases me and takes a deep breath.
He picks up the cigar he dropped on the ground and takes a long puff, looking away as he walks back to the oak tree, ignoring everything that just happened. That’s what he does. Thickheaded, thin-skinned and hot-tempered. That’s the Romano in him.
I walk across the yard and bend down, picking up the ball Duke left, and throw it. Duke darts after it as if nothing happened.
“Just think about it,” he finally says, forcing me to look over my shoulder and face him. “If we kill this fucker, we can be rolling in it for a long time.”
“If we kill this fucker, we can start a war.” I bite out my words. That’s the real reason I don’t want in on this.
He shrugs, rubbing out his cigar on the tree and letting out a deep exhalation of smoke. “Let’s just wait and see what they have to say.” He glances at me, a look of determination on his face, and then heads off back toward his truck.
I don’t watch him go. I know he’s pissed, and I understand that. Fuck, I can’t even blame him, not really. Joining the familia is his lifelong dream, and if someone got in the way of what I wanted, well, I’d fucking kill them.
Too bad the old bastard needs me. The sound of his truck starting fills the chilly air as Duke comes back to me.
I’m his rightful successor. He’s getting old, too old to go on hits, and for the last two years I’ve been taking on more and more of the load. In fact, he hasn’t actually killed in nearly six months, which is strange for a man who makes his living in death.
He raised me to be a killer and to be the fucking best at what I do. From a young age I remember going to shooting ranges, and practicing knife skills. My childhood was almost exclusively learning to fight, learning to stalk, and learning how to kill efficiently and quietly. My father trained me to be a hitman, and I quickly found out that I was damn good at it.
And I like it. I like tracking down my victims and taking their lives. They all deserve it. They have it coming to them. As far as I’m concerned, I’m doing the world a favor. I like the power and respect I get for being a skilled and in-demand assassin. Nobody fucks with me because they know who I am, and what I’m capable of. No one can push me around. They wouldn’t fucking dare.
But I can’t deny that it fucked me up. That it changed me. I can remember the way I was back when I was still a kid, back before killing became my life. The darkness wasn’t there back then. I wasn’t born with it. It was created.
As I pitch the ball across the yard again, I remember the day my father brought me completely into this life and forced me to kill a man for the first time.
My father stands over me in the cellar. My breath comes in ragged, short gasps.
“Don’t be a pussy,” he says to me, his voice barely above a whisper as he grips my shoulders. “You fucking afraid?”
“No,” I say, but I’m lying. I’m terrified. I’m ten years old and I’ve never seen a man die before. Not in real life.
The old man’s tied to a chair with a gag in his mouth, muffling his screams and pleas. I don’t know him. His eyes are wide and brown. His hair is receding and he’s probably fifty years old, but I didn’t really know that back then. I was just a kid. I didn’t know anything.
“What did he do?” I ask tentatively, and my voice cracks. My heart is beating so loudly I can hardly hear anything else.
My father whirls on me. “You fucking know not to ask questions.” The anger in his voice makes me flinch. Ever since Mom died, it’s been different between us. He takes his rage out on me. It’s my fault.
“I know,” I say, looking away from him. I expect him to hit me, and I wait for it… but he doesn’t. My body is so hot. I feel like I can’t even breathe.
“It doesn’t matter what he did. All that matters is we get paid. These guys, they’re all shit. You have to understand that.” The man screams again behind his gag, but whatever he’s saying is dampened. I wish I knew.
“I understand.” I look at the man as my father walks over to him. He takes the man by what hair he has left and pulls his head back.
“Look at him, Gio,” my father says. “Look at this man. Are you looking?”
“Yes, father,” I say, staring at the man.
“This is our prey. He’s our victim. He’s nothing.” My father releases him. “Are you a fucking pussy?”
“No,” I say and step toward the man. My nerves are shaken, but I have to do this.
“Good. Very good, Gio.”
The man struggles and tries to say something. He’s panicking and trying to move again like he knows it’s his last chance. My father backhands him across the face and his head droops. He’s dazed, but not unconscious.
“What now?” I ask my father. I’ve been training for this since I was very young. I know how to shoot and how to fight and how to hunt, but this is the first time my father is making me watch.
Except watching isn't what he has planned. He holds his gun out to me, grip first. “Take it,” he says.
I stare at him, shocked. “Why?” I ask.
“Do as I say.”
Afraid, I take the gun. I expect him to hit me again for not following orders right away, but he doesn’t. My hands shake.
I know something irreversible is happening. But I don’t understand what, not yet.
“Press it against his head,” my father orders.
I stand so close to the man I can feel the heat and desperation roiling off of him. His eyes are wide and pleading, staring at me, practically looking through me. He squirms against the restraints. I press the gun against his head. My throat is so tight, I can’t swallow. I watch as the man begins to cry, deep heaving sobs. I hold the gun there, the cold steel feeling hotter as my hand starts to sweat, and I look at my father.
“Look back at him,” my father commands. I try to swallow again, but I fail miserably. I stare at the man, but only at his temple where the gun is pointed. I can’t look him in the eyes. “Are you ready, Gio?”
It comes to me in that moment, what my father wants. It’s the reason he’s not hitting me. Because he knows I’m about to do something important. I don’t want to though. I don’t want this. I hold the gun tightly, then grip it with two hands.
“I- I-” I stammer. I can’t do this. I’m not like him.
“You will do it, or I’ll untie him and let him beat you to death,” my father sneers. My blood runs cold, and I finally swallow the spiked lump that has formed in my throat.
“I’m ready,” I say in a voice I don’t recognize.
Ten years old. My father puts a hand on my shoulder. His fingers dig in as he squeezes.
“Do it,” he says.
I pull the trigger without thinking anything more. Bang! The man’s skull explodes in a shower of blood. The sound, the feel, and the sight of the man, hung over and limp in the chair haunted me for years. But not the next man, or the next that my father had me kill. I don’t even remember them.
I hate him for what he made me, but at the same time, I’m also glad for what he made me. I can take lives so easily now. They mean nothing to me. That first time was difficult, but it was also surprisingly easy.
One pull of the trigger, and it all ends. I’m safe, and the world is rid of a man who needed to die. The darkness inside of me needs this. It craves the rush and the thrill of a hunt and a kill, and if I go too long without a job I find that darkness coming up to the surface in the form of memories. Too much of my past still haunts me. I just need to focus on the present. On the next kill.
Duke returns with the ball. I crouch down and pat his shoulder, just now noticing how the sky has darkened and the air has turned bitter cold. “Good boy,” I say softly. I relax as Duke nudges me, bringing me back to the present. “Next time, just rip off his nuts.”
Duke licks my hand as I grin, pick up the ball, and throw it. He barks as he runs off, leaving me alone with the dilemma at hand.
My father wants me to at least hear what they have to say, and I can do that. I’ll listen, because I owe him that much. But I can’t imagine how they could change my mind on this one. Not when this hit could spark the largest mafia war in the history of the whole fucking city.