Monday, 17 May 2010

three : santa claus, the easter bunny and the queen of hearts

SO HERE I am, walking along fifth avenue, chatting on my cell phone to my intended. She says nice things to me, I say nice things to her. She tells me she loves me. I tell her I love her. She means it. I mean it. So why do I feel there's movie credits appearing in the air around me as I walk along? 'Starring Mike Shepard as The Fool Getting Married, Special Guest Star - Ernest Borgnine'.

I mean, I love Emily. I proposed to her and I can't wait to get married to her. And yet, I can't shake two really overpowering feelings;

a - This doesn't seem real.

b - Somehow, this is a really bad idea.

Mr. Cold Blooded Assassin and the fair English Maiden have only been in each others lives for two weeks shy of eighteen months. Is it too soon to be getting married? Maybe that's it. Simple cold feet. I'm used to being a bachelor; a footloose, fancy free, not-a-care-in-the-world killing machine. And now I'm getting married. I'm sure it's completely the same as every other man in the world on the brink of 'you may now kiss the bride' has to contend with.

And yet, on that night we first met, the thought of spending the rest of my life with Emily Coleman was all I wanted to do.

Okay, let’s go back eighteen months. Just for a minute.

I'm standing there on the steps of the Roosevelt Hotel on sixth avenue, round the corner from the Empire State Building, thinking that being an assassin is a job with dignity and style. And then I sigh as I realise my giant, pink rabbit suit is riding up my ass again.

“Are you sure you got an invite in there somewhere, Bugs?”

“Bugs?” I repeat, my giant rabbit head looking up at the doorman.

“Bugs Bunny.”

“Bugs Bunny isn't pink, Jer, he's grey,” the lady doorman next to him says.

“So, what the hell you supposed to be, then?” the guy doorman asks me.

I stop rifling through concealed pockets and hold up my basket of chocolate eggs, covered in multicoloured foil wrappers, “I'm the Easter Bunny, dude.”

“Okay, so are you sure you got an invite in there somewhere, Easter Bunny?”

“I got your invite right here,” I hand over a small piece of paper; a small piece of paper that I appropriated along with the suit from a guy even now sleeping off a chloroform hangover back in his apartment.

“So is it okay, or do I have to go back to the subway and let that homeless guy carry on peein' on me?”

The guy doorman hands me back my invite, “Have a ball, Mr. Hall.”

Tweedledum and Tweedledame open the doors and I saunter on in, soon finding myself in the lavish lobby of the Roosevelt, hotel to the rich and richer of New York. Businessmen on crucial dinners entertaining their Japanese investors, international dignitaries on UN business in New York, celebrities taking advantage of the excellent restaurant while shooting a movie in town. Just a few of the groups of people who look up in bemusement at the six foot, pink rabbit striding through their midst.

It doesn't take me long to find the Damocles Suite and the Fancy Dress Christmas Party for the clients and employees of Pickard, Stayton and Steel, Attorneys at Law.

It's typical Christmas party décor - tinsel, holly and mistletoe everywhere. Loud, cheesy Christmas music, drunk employees dancing, drunk employees drinking and drunk employees making out. And still only 8 p.m.

I scan the room, looking for the man I'm here to kill. I don't know what he's done or who he's annoyed. That's because I never read that section of the brief. Don't see the point. When the man comes out to your house to fix the washing machine, you don't tell him why you bought that leather jacket. You just tell him that the leather jacket has jammed up the machine. He removes it. You pay him. He goes. The fact you were trying to relive your youth as a rocker is none of his business, nor does it enable him to do the job any better.

So, somewhere in here, is a man dressed as Santa Claus who has done something that annoyed someone enough that they contacted the Agency to have him killed. The Agency gave me the brief, since the job fits my skills and psyche profile, and I read the relevant parts. I know his face, his name, his comings and goings, his address, the name of his wife, kids, dogs, fish, his social security number, his job, his car licence plate number, his favourite holiday retreat, what foods make him sick, what books he reads, what music he loves, the name of his mistress, where he goes to drink, what football team he supports and whether or not ET made him cry.

But I don't know why someone wants him dead. And I don't - in case you hadn't got this yet - care.

“Hey, killer suit, man!”

I turn around and see The Matrix’s very own Neo and Trinity. They wish.

“Nice suit yourselves,” I say, “Hey, can you really dodge bullets?”

They laugh and say something but I don't really catch it because I've just spotted something. My man? No. Something altogether different.

Neo says, “Awesome that you came as Bugs Bunny, man, that is so retro!” My attention clicks back into his west coast drone.

“Seriously, can you dodge bullets?”

Their laughter isn't quite as hearty this time and I walk away from them. The reason I picked Gareth Hall to knock out and replace was because several days of surveillance of PSS employees had revealed that he was keeping his costume secret. That meant I could turn up as him and no-one would know who I was. Funny thing is, I'm finding myself feeling indignant on his behalf - he'd clearly gone to a lot of trouble picking his suit and people just aren't getting it. Bugs frickin' Bunny. My ass.

I walk over to the thing that had caught my attention so completely. A group of four people stood by the buffet table, halfway between the punch and the sandwiches. Zorro's talking to Darth Maul and another guy I don't recognise. He's wearing a regular suit and an eye patch. Really pushed the boat out. Probably management. But it's the fourth member of the group that has my little bunny heart racing. The Queen of Hearts. She looks just like the ranting, raving, beheading woman from the Alice in Wonderland cartoon - but with a much shorter dress, much better legs and a much, much prettier face.

I don't want to sound like some giddy teenager, but this feeling really has never happened to me before. I don't know the woman, I can't even hear her speaking. And yet, I feel like I have to be near her, like all the time I've been alive has been a waste because I haven't spent any of it with her.

Well, at least I'm not sounding like a giddy teenager.

“Can we help you?”

The manager in the eye patch is looking at me. They're all looking at me. I realise I'm stood with them, looking at her. I point to the table.

“You're blocking the punch.”

They move aside, shaking their heads, saying something about employees draining the company dry and I go to the table and start ladling out some punch. The initial shock of seeing the Queen of Hearts has passed and I'm feeling something else altogether now. Anger. At myself. How could I lose the plot like that, even for a second? It's never happened before and it will damn well never happen again. The quickest way to get killed in this game is to stop concentrating. You can never -

“Can I get a glass of that? This party is boring the pants off me,” the Queen is by my side. I don't know whether the slightly light-headed feeling I'm getting is because she's suddenly there and talking to me or because she's suddenly there and she could have been anyone, including Santa Claus with a loaded .22.

“Have mine,” I give her the glass I just poured, “I don't even like punch.”


“You're English.”

“You're a rabbit.”

“Well spotted.”

“Likewise. Cheers again,” she raises her plastic glass before taking a dainty, woman-like sip. Followed by a manly, down-in-one gulp that drains the entire thing, “Actually, that's some good punch.”

“Thanks, I made it myself. Here, have some more.”

She takes the refilled glass but doesn't drink it. She just holds it and looks at me. I have to remind myself why I'm here.

“Aren't you going to get back to Zorro and those guys?”

“No,” she shakes her head, “They're talking shop. They were boring me so badly, I decided to come and talk to a six foot, pink rabbit.”

“Lawyers, huh? Can't live with 'em, can't shoot 'em unless someone's paying you.”

“If my well trained ears aren't mistaken,” she says suddenly, with this look in her eye like she's just figured out something, “I'm not the only Limey at the punch bowl.”

“Damn, you saw through my disguise. I'm impressed.”

“Well, it was the ears,” she smiles, “That and the fact you noticed I was English but didn't ask which part of London I was from.”

“Well, if my well trained ears aren't mistaken, you're from somewhere down South. Kent, maybe?”


“Ah, wrong end of the country altogether. Not so well trained ears, obviously.”

“I lived in Kent ever since I finished University there, though. I only moved here a few months ago.”

“And the rabbit's ears win again,” I smile beneath my mask, “You had me doubting myself there, for a second.”

“You sound like you've been here for a while, though.”

“Since I was a kid.”

“Ooh, now there's a story I want to hear. What could possibly have brought a kid from…?”


“…to New York when he was a child and then had the bad taste to leave him here?”

“My parents died. I came to live with my Uncle. Then he died.”

“Oh…” she looks really embarrassed, “…I'm so sorry. I have a tendency to lead with my mouth. I feel a complete arse.”

“Hey, don't worry about it. Was all a long time ago, now. Different life.”

She's looking at me, now, as though she can see through my mask. It makes me uncomfortable.

“Y'know,” I continue, “Before I became a rabbit.”

She laughs. It's a beautiful sound. Seriously, you gotta be vomiting by now, right?

“So which are you, client or lawyer?” she asks.

“Don't you recognise my voice?”

She shakes her head, “Should I? Oh, wait, Lou, is that you?”


“Oh,” she looks disappointed. Maybe a little too disappointed for my liking, “That was a stupid guess, anyway. Lou's not English, different life or no.”

“Who's Lou?”

“This guy in Procurement. You clearly don't work in Procurement if you have to ask who Lou is.”

“Oh, that Lou,” I say, “The good looking one, so the women never get sick of saying.”

“So you do know him.”

“I do if you're talking about Louis Taylor, Group Procurement Division, worked there eight years, favourite song 'Black Dog' by Led Zeppelin, ET made him cry.”

She looks a little bewildered, “What are you, his stalker?”

“No, but I do know he came as Santa Claus tonight. Inspired Lou, as I like to call him.”

“Oh, so he did come then?” she starts looking around the menagerie of movie, cartoon, cultural and fantasy characters that pack the ballroom.

“Why are we talking about Lou?” I ask, a little miffed to tell you the truth.

“You sound jealous,” she smiles a cheeky smile.

“I thought you were trying to guess who I was.”

“I don't think we've ever met before,” she says, “And even if we had, you're wearing a mask so how am I ever expected to know who you really are?”

She steps a little closer, my heart rate gets a little quicker, “Why don't you show me your face? You never know, that might start ringing bells with me.”

With her free hand, she starts to reach up to my mask. Now, keeping my face hidden is not a cast-iron requirement for this hit, depending on how I decide to take out my guy. For instance, if I do the tried and trusted poison thing, no problems. However, if I end up having to shoot him, investigators'll be combing through the CCTV footage and eventually they'll spot a guy who nobody recognises and who, it'll turn out, was never invited. Bad joo-joos. So professionally, in order to keep all my options open, I really need to keep my mask on.

But I really want her to see my face.

“Emily Coleman, as I live and breathe, if you want my head, you can damn well have it,” says the most rugged, good-looking Santa Claus I've ever seen as he whips the Queen of Hearts toward him with a single, fluid motion. Emily - as it turns out she's called - smiles up at him. I might be imagining it, but the smile doesn't seem as warm as the one she used for me.

“Speak of the devil, we were just talking about you!”

I'm mad. Again, at myself. Because this time, Santa Claus - aka Louis Taylor - really did manage to get the drop on me. Luckily for me, he didn't have a .22 in his arms. Instead, he has the Queen of Hearts in his arms and the fact that I can't tell if I'm madder about that or about losing focus again makes me mad. I'm just all kinds of mad.

“I think it's time the Queen of Hearts had a slow dance with old Santy Claus, don't you?” Lou starts to lead Emily away but she stands firm.

“Lou, I'd like you to meet…” and she looks at me with this twinkle in her eyes as if to say, 'Ha! Gotcha!'

It feels like we're still having our little conversation even with Lou present and that feels good so I smile, extend my hand and say, “Derek. Derek Sturge.”

“Uh huh,” is all he says, sparing me the briefest glance before going back to Emily, “So, come on, that dance…”

“Actually,” Emily bristles, presumably at Lou's bad manners, “I'm just having a drink. I'm afraid I'll have to take a rain check.”

Lou doesn't seem pleased at the knock back. Guy that good looking probably isn't used to getting them too often, “Well, those checks are only good for about fifteen minutes so finish up your drink and I'll be back to cash it in.” He gives Emily a predatory smile and she suddenly looks really shocked, her eyes open wide. It takes a second or two before I realise that he just copped a feel of some royal ass.

“'scuse me, Bugs,” he pushes past me and saunters off into a crowd of oompah-loompahs.

“Prick,” she says.

I look at her, “Emily Coleman, huh? Pleased to meet you.”

She looks at me and her annoyed pout disappears and an annoyed smile takes its place, “Pleased to meet you, Derek Sturge.”

“That's not my name.”

“It's too late now, the game's up. I know you.”

“Seriously? Derek Sturge? What am I, a porn actor? C’mon, I made it up.”


“I never like to give up too much on the first date.”

Emily raises her eyebrows, “Oh, so this is a date, is it?”

“I've had dates like this,” I nod my big rabbit head.

“I see,” Emily takes a sip of her punch as 'Paradise by the Dashboard Light' by Meatloaf ends and 'Santa Baby' by Madonna starts, “Well, as dates with rabbits go, this one isn't all that bad.”

“Thank you,” I realise I'm still holding the ladle so I put it back in the bowl, “This stuff goes straight through me, I have to go visit the little bunnys’ room. Will you promise to still be here when I get back?”

She nods and raises her plastic cup to me, “Trying to guess who you really are.”

I smile to myself as I walk across the dance floor and through a crowd of gyrating Elvis Presleys. I’ve done this whole thing before many times and no doubt will again in the future; leave someone holding a drink while I excuse myself to go to the bathroom. Except usually, their drink’s spiked and I’m going across the room to watch them and make sure they die. So the reason I’m smiling is that this time I’m actually going to the bathroom and coming back to talk to her rather than going to watch her die. Which is nice.

As I go on my quest, though, I can still see her in my mind's eye; stood by the punch bowl and saying 'hello' and 'how do you do' to any passing work colleagues in her very English accent, sipping her punch and - most of all - thinking of me. I'm a good reader of character, you have to be in this game, so I know we're hitting it off and she's not just being polite.

Part of me is worried, though, about the effect she has on me, on my focus, on my professionalism. I mean, I'm actually on a job tonight! I've never, in eighteen years in this vocation, ever been on a job and spoken a single word to someone that wasn't specifically designed to help me accomplish my task or been part of some fake persona. Tonight is the first time my real self and my 'job' self have even touched let alone overlapped. That's a scary thought.

But then I see her smile.

“That was quick,” she says.

“Well, I didn't really go to relieve myself,” I reply, “I followed Louis to the bathroom where I know the CCTV cameras aren't working at the moment. Then I waited until we were alone, snapped his neck and left him locked in one of the cubicles. Anyone going in will assume he's passed out drunk. By the time anyone realises he's dead, I'll be well away from here. More punch?”

Okay, okay, I didn't actually say it.

“I didn't want to risk you getting bored and leaving without saying goodbye. More punch?”

I think that's much more likely to progress this relationship.

“Don't worry,” I say, “I washed my paws.”

“I figured out your name,” she says, in a kind of conspiratorial, hushed voice.


“Yep. Keyser Sozé .”

My brain ticks a few cycles, then, “Oh, ‘The Usual Suspects’?”

“No one really knew who he was, either.”

I smile, “I can see I need to give you a helping hand. One second.”

I squeeze through the crowded hall, which seems to have gotten a lot more busy since I came in, and go over to the DJ desk where he keeps all his slips for people to write their requests on. I write something on one of the slips but I don't leave it with the DJ, I bring it back over to the punch table, my brain screaming at me the whole time. I hand it to a bewildered looking Emily.

“Is this what I think it is?”

“I've got to go,” I say, “But if you want to find out any more about me, then use it. If not, I'll try to recover from the rejection without reverting back to my previous orphanage-induced alcoholism. But, y’know, no pressure.”

“I haven't had a man's telephone number in a long time,” she smiles, “It's been even longer since I had a rabbit's.”

I salute her as I step back, memorising her features one last time in case I never see them again.

She salutes me back, “See you around, Easter Bunny.”

It certainly was a night to remember, that one. Nearly eighteen months on and I can safely say she knows my name now. And since she knows my name and I know her name, there didn't seem like anything else to do but get married.

As good an idea as that seemed at the time, though, it came with a pretty obvious problem. One hand; single male, no personal or emotional ties to the world. Other hand; married male, devoted to his wife. Which one of these works better if your occupation is 'hired killer'?

When your intended thinks you met at a party and you actually met at the scene of an assassination you were carrying out, it kind of makes a mockery of the concept of an honest relationship.

As I enter the lobby of Pickard, Stayton and Steel, I think I've hit the nail on the head regarding my cold feet. Being a husband is going to diminish my ability to be a secret killer and being a secret killer is going to diminish my ability to be a husband. Ouch, my head hurts already.

If I had any sense, I'd run for the hills but for two very good reasons; one - I do love her and, more importantly, two - her mother has already started planning this wedding and she is a force only a fool would oppose.

“She on her way down?”

I hear a voice from behind me, “I'm already here.”

I turn away from the receptionist to the sight of my beautiful lawyer fiancée getting up from one of those huge, oversize lobby sofas and I think - I'll figure it out.

“So,” I say, “there's only one rule and it's a simple one. Anything over five hundred dollars is out. No wedding ring is worth more than that.”

“Dear, dear, Michael,” she says, hugging my arm with a huge grin, “you just don't know me at all.”

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