“What are the three things that tell you they’re dead?”
Nick is testing me. He wants to make sure I’ve been listening. For Nick, the right answers alone are not enough. Order matters. Speed matters. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention. Maybe I’m not cut out for this.
“Well, what are they?”
“One is that their letterbox hasn’t been emptied.”
“Emptied of what?”
“Mail. Free Newspapers. Anything.”
“Why are newspapers important?”
“They’re bigger. They stick out of the mailbox more. They’re easier to spot.”
I’m guessing. Nick knows it.“Bullshit! A newspaper is important because you know exactly what time some little prick is going to ride past and stick one in the fucking box. And if you’ve been doing your homework you’ll know what time it’s gonna get taken out too.”
For Nick, doing your homework is a full-time job. The first task is to narrow down your reconnaissance zones. Our active zone right now is 20 minutes south of the city, an area about six blocks square. It’s a tired old pocket of post-war immigrants whose chief export right now is death.
That’s where we focus our energy.
“What else you gonna look for?”
“A breach of schedule.”
If you are breaching schedule it means you’ve broken a habit. If you live in the active zone, chances are we know your schedule better than you do. When you go grocery shopping. How long you’ll be gone. Everything. It’s all written down. Please don’t put your bins out late. It makes us nervous.
“What else are you watching?” Nick prompts me.
During reconnaissance, Nick’s all eyes. He’s watching the windows all the windows at once, from every vantage point. That’s why a new zone is the hardest. Venetians, drapes, hollands. Every house. Every window. If you’re elderly and live alone, your life is our soap opera. If you’ve been short-listed we never miss an episode.
- – -
Before Nick taught me the ins and outs of preying on the walking dead we worked on the kill in a chicken plant. It was actually the machines that did all the killing. Mostly. The chickens were hung by the legs on a conveyer, then passed through an electric bath. This wasn’t to kill them. It made their relax their muscles and stop them wriggling. This was so they couldn’t crane their necks out of reach of the blade that took their heads off.
If Nick spotted a wriggler trying to buck the system, he’d wrench it off the line, and personally see to it that it died a memorable death. Nick didn’t like independent thinkers. His favourite trick was to hold the chicken with one hand, and yank out its still-beating heart with the other. As time progressed though, Nick got more creative. In the last year we worked there he’d made a point of showing all the new guys how to shove a chicken’s head all the way up its own arse before it died. If you ever wanted to know how to torture a corn-fed roaster to death so the bruises wouldn’t show, Nick was your man.
- – -
Nick is not the sort of person to follow a trend, but he’s really taken a shine to all these new ways of having coffee. Most mornings this week have begun with us sitting side-by-side in sky-blue Renault sipping frothy lattes. It would never occur to him that two gentlemen drinking expensive coffee in a French car might be more than a little bit gay. Things pretty much stop being gay as soon as Nick decides to do them.
Nick has a clipboard across his knee, and we’ve ticked off all but one of the morning’s houses. After six months of this it’s just another day in the office. Looking at my hands, I’m thinking I should’ve cut my nails this morning. I’m already thinking about lunch. Maybe pizza. Through gaps in the box thorn I’m trying to see if they’ve opened the curtains yet. If they don’t open soon, we won’t be eating lunch.
I finish my coffee. Nick presses his lips together and slams his clipboard shut.
- – -
If I play it all backwards in my mind, right back to when the downhill slide began, I’m standing in the middle of last year in a pair of blood-spattered overalls. It was business as usual. Three thousand chickens an hour, all of them invisible if you’d worked on the kill longer than a week.
Sometimes to liven things up we’d throw a new guy in the blood gutter, but on this day it was the regular crew and we’d been baptised into the Church of the River Red before. I ducked away at what seemed like a good time to have a piss and opened the bathroom door onto Nick, snorting up a fat line of coke of the edge of the sink.
I wish I’d held on a bit longer.
He turned to face me with a look that I had trouble interpreting. Back then I didn’t know quite what to make of Nick, so I always tried to act cool around him.
“Man I don’t know how you can afford that shit on what we earn here…”
Nick approached me. I watched Nick approach.
“You think I live on what I earn here?”
He was standing close enough that I could see flecks of white powder in his moustache. He whipped out his right hand, grabbed my testicles and squeezed.
“You like working dirty fucking chickens?”
I couldn’t get my throat to make a noise. I couldn’t even swallow. I nodded. It seemed like the right thing to do.
“You want some real money? You want a real life?” He squeezed harder.
I felt a tear leak from my eye. Nick watched it trickle down my cheek and drip onto my overalls. That seemed to satisfy him and he gave my balls back.
I collapsed against the wall under the hand dryer for what seemed like a long time. Nick lit a cigarette, took a couple of drags, then flipped it over and held it out to me. We’ve been friends ever since.
- – -
Nick was a fan of on-the-job training. On our first job he told me about how old people put money in the strangest places. He took me into each room and pointed out all the places to look. In the wardrobe he rifled through the pockets of cardigans and shirts. He pulled odour eaters out of shoes. In the bathroom, he took the lids off the shampoo and unscrewed pill bottles.
A cluster of tinfoil parcels in the fridge yielded us half a sausage, two fish fingers and $500 in a neatly folded stack of bills.
Nick had me stack the larger items near the door for later. I can’t remember the brand of television it was during that first job, but it wasn’t even that old.
“Don’t forget the remote”
I looked to where Nick was pointing. A withered hand curled around the tv remote rigor-mortised by death and channel surfing. Nick was never a big fan of delay so I did what had to be done. I pinched the head of the remote and gave it a tug. I was surprised at the resistance. Stiff fingers defied me, but the idea of touching them – prying them open – made me feel ill. So I clamped the meaty forearm of a dead man to the arm of the chair and yanked hard, freeing the remote from his leathery paw. Then I puked all over the couch.
“I don’t know if I’m cut out for this Nick.”
“Grab the watch as well.”
Then there was a knock at the door.
“Shit!” I panicked, but Nick didn’t even flinch.
“It’s okay. They’re here to see me.”
Nick ducked out of room, leaving me puzzling as to why he’d invite people over, during a burglary. The two guys that shuffled into the room didn’t look like friends of Nick. One wore a turtleneck. The other had a camera; the kind with the big flash that whines like a kicked Chihuahua between shots. Nick looked at me and jabbed his thumb towards the door. I stood out in the hallway, biting my lip and picking at the wallpaper. Nick joined me in the hall, and shut the door gently behind him.
“What the hell’s going on Nick?”
" Did you think we were doing this for tee-vees and microwave ovens?”
“Nick I’m serious. What are those men doing in there?”
“I don’t know. I don’t need to know. Why do people buy magazines filled with photos of people pissing all over each other? Why do people turn up to hospital emergency rooms with light bulbs stuck inside them? Really, I have no fucking idea what those they’re doing in there to our recently departed friend. But later on the man with the camera will develop pictures in his private darkroom, and the pictures will be of another man doing things to that corpse that would turn your stomach. But the money they’re paying us, it’s the kind of money where you just sit tight and you do not ask questions”
Muffled grunts came from the next room, punctuated by the sound of a flash recharging.
I sat tight. I didn’t ask questions.
- – -
The person from the chicken factory is not me. The person that sat sweating against the wall under the hand-dryer with achy balls and a coat-hanger feeling in his guts, it’s not me. He’s a much nicer guy. There’s no way he’d back a furniture truck all the way up to a dead man’s house and steal his whitegoods. That would take a lot of front. The guy from the chicken plant would never kick a dead man’s door off the hinges. He’d never, ever have helped a pencil-necked albino he’d just met shift a slumped corpse from a kitchen chair to the settee.
But for me, it’s all in a day’s work.
Today’s door is kicked in by courtesy of a pair of taupe suede Birkenstocks which are surprisingly well suited to the task. On the other side we’re greeted by a pair of writhing, hungry cats. When we find pets Nick insists that we get them fed as a priority. He says you never know when they last ate. So while I’m checking foils in the fridge, he’s peeling the lids of single-serves of Fancy Feast.
The body’s in the main room facing the television. I’m looking for the remote when I notice something’s not right. A bottle of pills is open in her lap – half spilled – but there’s something else. I have that uneasy feeling that I’m being watched. She’s smiling at me. A big car-salesman grin. All teeth.
“Nick, you have to see this.”
For the first time ever, Nick look rattled. ”What the fuck is wrong with her face?"
All of a sudden I figure it out. “Dude, she’s got no lips.”
Nick doesn’t speak for a long time. When he’s quiet like this it means he’s thinking hard. He’s looking for a clue. The pills on her lap, there’s nothing out of the ordinary there. We see this a lot. When the writing’s on the wall some people will hasten things along with a handful of valium or xanax. Then he looks at me.
“Shit! The cats!”
“The cats. They got hungry… see! They’ve chewed her fucking lips off!”
Nick dances back and forth on the spot a bit, pleased with himself for figuring it out.
“But…..what are we gonna do?”
Nick reapplies his business face and starts poking for his mobile. “Beggars can’t be choosers.”
- – -
The guest de jour is a solid man carrying a camera on a tripod. He’s wearing baggy shorts and boat shoes. It’s like he was cleaning the pool when he got the call saying his corpse was ready, and could he come by and feel it up. Nick doesn’t call these people directly. He doesn’t even know their names. There’s a guy – a middle man – named Maurice. I wonder, where does Maurice find these people? How many guys does he have on stand by? It doesn’t pay to think about these things for too long.
I’m looking for cash behind the lint filter in the dryer when I hear an angry scream. Not Nick’s though. I’m looking for a weapon. Something heavy. I’ve got nothing. Out of desperation I yank the mop from a bucket of filthy water and head towards the noise. I can hear Nick’s raised voice. I’m picking up speed and the mop’s making rhythmic slapping noises, coughing grey water onto the walls every time I take a step. In the main room, boat shoe guy is all red in the face. Nick’s looking more surprised than ever. That’s when I notice our body is, well, moaning. She’s moaning and her eyes are moving. She’s pushing one hand against the arm of the chair trying to sit up. The other hand reaches up towards her face. Towards her mouth. That’s when all hell breaks loose.
Boat shoe man tackles Nick, pushing him back into the kitchen. Then things really start going to shit. He’s a big guy, and he’s holding Nick’s head to the floor with one hand and punching him in the side of face with the other. Nick’s trying to wriggle his hips out but it’s no good. So I reach the mop handle around this guy’s neck, and I grab either side – and pull. It’s hard against his throat but he’s not letting go. Then without warning, his head whips back, smashing me in the face.
Nick’s got his head free, I can hear him screaming. Then just when I think my face can’t hurt any more I’m hit again. He’s smashed the back of his head into my face and now he’s reaching up, grabbing at my ear, my hair. I know if I let that mop handle off his throat it’s all over. I’m leaning back further and further, peeling him off Nick by degrees when and all of a sudden, Nick is free. Covered in blood he looms above us. He’s got the toolbox and he’s swinging it like a battering ram towards this guy’s face. There’s a heavy slap, then it’s over.
I’m laying on the floor just trying to get my breath. The big guy’s laying on my arm. Dead still. My nose doesn’t feel right. I can taste blood. Nick’s t-shirt is more red than white but he doesn’t seem to care. He’s got the phone against his ear.
“Yep, Maurice? Nick. Change of plan…..Don’t ask….. Yes. Sure. One, male. Big guy. Face is a bit fucked up, but he’s young. Hasn’t been dead long…Yep. Same price. No more questions Maurice. Just send a guy.”
The lady without lips is crawling down the hallway. I ease my arm out from under the big guy and sit up. The lady who spoilt my day because she couldn’t fucking kill herself properly has just crawled into the bathroom. My nose is pissing blood down the front of my shirt. I hear the bathroom lock snap shut. Nick hears it too and turns towards it. I’m hoping Nick doesn’t try and stick her head up her own arse.
I run my tongue around my mouth. I think I’ve chipped a tooth.