Killing people is so easy that the iron laws of supply and demand make it hard to earn a decent living doing it. As a result, murder for hire is almost always a sideline, and the people who engage in it are by and large stupid losers, quickly caught, and quicker still to rat out the idiots who hired them. The very few real professionals in the business are careful never to meet their clients. Instead, they deal through people like Mr. Ballantine. Mr. Ballantine is sitting in the driver's seat of his Mercedes sedan at the corner of Gansevoort and Washington Streets at 7 P.M. on a Sunday evening, about the loneliest place you can be on the island of Manhattan. This is the old meatpacking district, deserted at this hour, except for the occasional street person. It's early summer, the sky is the dull color of galvanized metal and seems to reflect the heat of the day down upon the City. Although the river is close by, there is no breath of air. The bits of trash on the street do not stir. Mr. Ballantine has the air-conditioning on high. He is listening to a Frank Sinatra CD. Frank is singing "Fly Me to the Moon."
A white car goes by, brakes at the end of the street, and does a clumsy U-turn. Its driver parks behind the Mercedes and gets out and, as he has been instructed to do, enters the rear seat. Mr. Ballantine does not turn around. His dark eyes meet the watery blue ones of the other in the rearview mirror.
"That's right. Did you bring the money?"
"I can get it. I wanted to discuss the details."
Ballantine allows himself a small sigh and glances at the dashboard clock. He had hoped that this would go smoothly, as he has an appointment downtown, but obviously he was wrong. He studies what he can see of the man in the mirror. A pale disk of face, late forties, running a little to fat. Stiff sandy hair, sideburns somewhat longer than the current fashion in New York, a dark suit jacket with a gold pin of some fraternal order in the lapel, a thick tie with a heavy, mixed pattern. An out-of-towner, a hick. A little cornpone in the voice, too. A Southerner? That would be unusual. Southerners usually did it themselves.
"No, we don't discuss the details," Mr. Ballantine says. "You give me twenty-five now and it gets done and you give me twenty-five again. That's it, end of discussion."
"I don't know. That's a lot of money, you know. Just to hand over to someone you never seen before."
Not Southern; a hillbilly of some kind. Mr. Ballantine is tempted to cut it off right there, tell the hick to get lost, but he has already invested some time and money. He has paid the bartender who picked up the job, and the guy the bartender told, who told him and set up the meeting. He could write that off as overhead, but still...
"Look," says Mr. Ballantine, "you never did this before, am I right?"
"I've done it a lot, which tells you something. That I know what I'm doing. Because, you know, this is illegal."
A short bark of a laugh from the rear seat.
"Right, and I'm still here, on the outside. Also, think about it for a minute: I'm dealing all the time with people who want to get rid of other people, they're not going to sit down for getting ripped off. I wouldn't be in business if I did that. This is the way it has to be. No questions. I don't know you, you don't know me. You don't know who I'm going to get to do the job. He doesn't know you. Me, I'm just a voice on the phone and an envelope full of cash in his post office box as far as he's concerned. Everyone is sealed off from everyone else, you understand? Seal-off is the main thing. That and the professional job, experienced personnel, guaranteed operation, and so forth. Now, I'm not saying there's not cheaper ways to go."
Copyright © 2002 by Robert K. Tanenbaum.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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