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Read an extract from A Quiet Man by Tom Wood

 

 

 

A quiet man is a patient man.

He chooses his words with care and speaks only when there is something worth saying.

He is a watcher, a listener.

He pays attention without seeking it and knows far more about you than you do him.

That quiet man is a dangerous man.

 

ONE

 

The casket alone cost more than most cars. It had an inner structure of stainless steel covered in a shell of hand- carved ebony. Hand- polished to be impervious to the elements. Fittings of brass and gold. All air, all moisture, removed via expert methods and replaced with inert gas so that the atmosphere inside was pure and would remain so after the casket was hermetically sealed. Resting on soft, white velvet, the embalmed body within this embrace would not decompose, would never diminish. That was most important to them. The ebony, the gold, they were not what mattered. These were trappings, no more. There had to be no doubt that who lay inside would lie there for eternity, until the world, the solar system, ended in some impossibly distant, unimaginable future.

Even that was too soon.

They had no such concerns for themselves. They had no desire for their mortal forms to remain unsullied after death. This gave them much comfort, for it proved they cared more for another than they did for themselves. Despite all other evidence to the contrary, they were in fact good people, selfless people.

Sat in the cavernous cathedral, they thought much about selflessness, about charity.

It was impossible not to do so when surrounded by effigies and murals, crucifixes and candles. So many candles.

They thought much about destiny and legacy too.

Such thoughts were not new, although they were recent when compared with their long lives, and those thoughts had become more frequent of late. With each noticeable week, with each obvious pound of weight lost, with each additional hour needed in bed, they had watched and thought and discussed what should be done.

Not an easy idea even to voice, given that once they had laughed at such a suggestion, had been disgusted by the very thought of it, the implicit insult. They had argued back and forth, and they never argued.

Everything had changed.

Now, what choice did they really have?

Sometimes the only option was the least palatable one.

‘I know we have reservations,’ he said in a careful tone. ‘But I think we should do it. I want to. Only if you agree with me, of course. It must be both our decisions. What do you think?’

She said, ‘I’ve already made the call.’

 

TWO

 

A lone guy on a fishing trip would likely have a couple of beers at the local bar in the evening, so that’s what Victor had been doing. After returning to the motel from the lake he bathed in the too- small tub, changed, then took the short mile- long walk along the highway to the bar. He could drive his truck, of course, but he didn’t want to get stopped on his way back by local law enforcement. Even if two beers were nowhere near enough to affect his ability to drive or do anything else. Because those who didn’t drink stood out in all sorts of social situations, a high tolerance for alcohol was a necessity for a man of his profession. Although a drunk could, in theory, do what Victor did. After all, alcohol acted as a catalyst for many killers. Albeit without the same considerable remuneration.

‘A beer,’ Victor said when the barman asked what he wanted.

This barman was French, Parisian by his accent, and about thirty years old. He had been working each of the previous nights too. On the surface, a civilian. But he had certain features that hummed on Victor’s threat radar. The Frenchman was the right age: not too old and not too young; the right structure: strong and trim; he even had the right kind of haircut: no real style yet too short for an assailant to grab hold of. It was also the kind of cut Victor often had after completing a job as a quick and effective way of altering his appearance. The barman’s clothes were loose enough so as not to restrict movement yet had a minimum of excess that could catch on protrusions or be grasped in a fist.

Victor had dismissed him as a potential enemy within seconds of first meeting him. It was the way the barman moved. Too slow. He had a stiffness in his back, little mobility in his shoulders. No limberness meant no threat. A professional so impeded would retire or be retired. Which meant the clothes were just clothes. The fit was just comfortable. It meant the similarity in haircut was coincidence. Probably short and forgoing fashion for convenience; simpler to maintain, less time spent in front of the mirror, short enough to be out of the front door straight after towelling post- shower. Nothing to do with the practicalities of either combat or disguise.

Just a barman.

Who looked tired, although the bar wasn’t busy. Aside from Victor there were only five other customers. And all drank slowly enough for the Frenchman to spend most of his time doing little actual work. But Victor supposed he could have been on his feet all day after a night when he hadn’t slept too much. Black under his fingernails suggested some manual work before his shift at the bar. Maybe fixing up a car. Perhaps digging in a yard.

Draught beer was always better than bottled in Victor’s  experience yet a glass’s only effectiveness as an improvised weapon was after it had first been broken. A broken glass could kill if thrust at the neck but it was almost useless in any other attack against a target with even a tiny amount of knowhow. A bottle could be broken too and would make an even better stabbing weapon – thicker and more robust – but it could also be used whole as a cosh. A bottle swung at the temple or brainstem could kill, and it could knock someone out if hit on the chin or jaw. It could be used to parry a knife or hit that attacker’s wrist or hand so hard they dropped their blade. A bottle could also be thrown as a missile if necessary, although Victor had never yet needed to do so.

No contest.

‘I’ll take the import,’ Victor had said that first night when he was offered the choice.

‘Have one yourself,’ Victor told him now.

‘Merci,’ the Frenchman said. ‘I shall.’

He scooped two bottles from a cooler, using one hand: two fingers wrapped around one bottle neck and two around the other. He used his other hand to twist off the caps and set one of the beers down on the bar surface for Victor.

‘Cheers.’

No clink of glass but a raise of bottles.

Unnecessary social interaction was not something Victor often partook in – but he wasn’t Victor. He was rarely ever Victor. Only in work, in violence, was he that person. Right now he was a salesman from Las Vegas who loved to fish far away from home. That man was on vacation, albeit a trip that had extended well beyond the original plan. That man bought the occasional beer for another. He didn’t make friends but he could be friendly. He was quiet but he was not silent.

Silence was Victor.

The beer was fine in the same way he found most bottled beer to be fine. One golden brew of hops tasted pretty much like any other. Differences were small in Victor’s experience. Variations minor. He much preferred a bourbon or a vodka. Still, the Frenchman seemed to enjoy it enough to suggest it was his favoured brand of favoured beverage. Victor had figured him for a wine man given his heritage and didn’t like it that his assumption had proved incorrect. He should be more accurate with his judgement. He needed to be more accurate.

His life depended on it.

The Frenchman whispered something between sips, using his native tongue: ‘Bien trop bonne pour les lèvres mortelles.

Not meant to be heard by Victor, not meant to be understood, but he spoke French. While he had not had cause to speak it in recent times and knew his fluency would have waned, he understood the words.

Too good for mortal lips.

For an instant, he felt like responding in French and flexing his linguistic muscles with a native speaker. He could imagine the Frenchman’s surprise, for although French speakers were not uncommon in Canada, they were far more common in Quebec than here at the border. Victor could imagine that after the surprise the barman would smile and respond in kind, equally pleased at the chance to converse in French. Already Victor was rehearsing what he might say when questioned about how he came to learn the language. A reflex, almost, because he had answered many such questions over the years because he spoke many languages. The salesman from Las Vegas might have lived in Provence for three months one summer long ago. Perhaps he had backpacked across Normandy as a student. Or he had once cohabited with a girlfriend from Marseille for a time and she had spoken little English.

On occasion, if he was feeling mischievous at that moment, Victor would answer such questions by telling people he had to travel a lot for work, which was the truth and hence protocol forbade it. In similar moments he might refer to himself as a salesman who sold something no one wanted, or say that he was in the removals business, a waste management professional or something equally immature. Sometimes the only fun he could have was found in risk and in taking chances. Ironic, of course, because he spent all other waking moments trying to mitigate every conceivable danger.

For a man so careful to stay alive you sometimes act as though you have a death wish, an old associate had said to him.

I don’t like to take risks, he had told someone he’d slept with despite knowing she intended to kill him, but every once in a while I’ll roll the dice so I can feel alive.

The barman was just a barman. Whereas Victor had been wrong to assume his preference for alcoholic beverages, he knew the Frenchman was a civilian. No risk. No danger. It would cost Victor nothing to exchange a few words in French with him, but Victor remained silent.

Perhaps because he was waiting.

Or there could be more to it than that, he thought. Maybe he was tired of lying more than simply speaking, fatigued by the mental exertion of managing a mountain of untruths that was ever growing as every lie was built upon the previous lie.

Could that be it? Could he have finally exceeded his tolerance for deception?

In recent memory he had been injected with a truth serum and he had never known an exhaustion like it. The compulsion to speak honestly had been overwhelming. He had resisted it somehow. Such resistance had only been needed for a short period, although he doubted now whether he could have held out much longer. Did that drug irrecoverably alter his brain chemistry? Did it flip a switch in his consciousness that could not be reset?

He knew what he was doing. He knew he was engaging in self- preservation, perhaps even denial.

He was so tired of lying he was lying to himself about the reason. About why.

He was staying in character, at least. He was a lone man in a bar spending too much time dwelling in self- reflection. Which was a cardinal sin for Victor, against the protocols he had spent years perfecting, the protocols that had kept him alive years longer than he once thought it possible for him to survive. When he had finally understood he had spent too long in the game and had delved too deeply into the life ever to leave his profession, he had reached a peace with it, with himself. All existence was finite. All life temporary. His was no different. Most people died of age- related conditions, some of unfortunate diseases, or accidents, and a few even succumbed to violence. Did it matter how he died? Did it matter that he was certain to be murdered long before he reached an age when heart disease became a risk or when a stroke might occur? The end result was the same.

He wouldn’t make it easy for them, however. He was no defeatist and no quitter. When that final shot rang out his killer would have worked hard for it. That murderer would deserve his glory.

‘What are you waiting for?’ he found himself saying aloud.

The barman didn’t hear, of course. Even the mistake of voicing genuine thought was tempered by an unceasing commitment to remaining unnoticed. The barman was watching the wall- mounted television. The news was playing and a reporter was talking to camera, although there was no sound coming through the set. The news item had the Frenchman’s attention because there were flashing emergency service lights behind the reporter, who had a grave, serious face. The programme cut to a location shot showing the Chicago skyline and then to B- roll footage of police officers and paramedics.

The Frenchman glanced around the bar, brow furrowed. Frustrated. Looking.

He was searching for the remote. He wanted to crank up the volume so he could hear what the reporter was saying. Chicago was close, only forty miles south.

It took half a minute for the barman to locate the remote, which had been hiding beneath a rag he used to wipe up spills, but it was too late by then. The news item had ended.

Merde,’ the Frenchman hissed, disappointed. He turned to Victor. ‘Do you know what happened?’

Victor, tired of lying, nodded.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘There was a murder.’