"Maybe that's why so many serial killers work in pairs. It's nice not to feel alone in a world full of victims or enemies."

Chuck Palahniuk

*

You know what's the hardest part about my job? The part that I can never plan for, that no one can predict? Living with it afterward. Bearing up under the weight of what's been done. That's the hardest, even with limitations like mine. I never accept jobs that point me at killing women, children, or any "innocents" just to send a message to someone else.

But still.

You're never the same, afterward.

The people who trained me understood this, so they did the best they could to get me and my kind around this problem. We employed euphemisms: we "engage the enemy" or "take out the target", but we never "kill people." It's the same in all jobs that involve killing—assassin, soldier, butcher, doctor.

We also like distance. Drop a bomb and later you'll sleep like a baby. Bayonet range? Nightmares.

Obscuring features of the target is helpful, too. In firing squad lineups, they put hoods over the heads of the condemned. It's not so that those about to die won't see death coming at them. It's so the riflemen don't have to see their anguished faces after the triggers have been pulled.

It's been a long time since I've been able to employ any of these strategies. I typically work alone, so I don't need to discuss my work using euphemisms. And I normally have to do it from a very close, very personal distance. By the time I'm that close, it's too late to conceal their humanity.

That's all bad enough, even under the usual circumstances. But this time I was watching the target enjoy a Sunday at a mall in Costa Rica with a family that obviously loved him.

Deidara Tsukiyomi was his name. Just "D" to his business associates. He was born in China to a Caucasian mother and father, both missionaries. He was a citizen of the world, though, which meant he traveled much of the year sharing bomb-making expertise with a network of people that put said knowledge to grisly use. Jobs like Deidara's once offered a reasonable amount of in-the-shadows security, but since 9/11 that hasn't been the same. A bomb maker could wind up selling to the wrong people, thus enraging a certain government that shouldn't be enraged.

That was Deidara's case.

"All right, brother, our friend just got here. It's him, the wife and kid, and what's gotta be the ugliest bodyguard I've ever seen outside of the US."

Naruto. He was waiting for them in the lobby. It's been a while since I worked with partners, but Uzumaki had recently proven himself to be a damn good one. I spoke into my coffee cup, "Good. Let me know where they're heading."

"Looks like the escalators. We might get lucky, here."

Naruto has always been a walking contradiction, to me. For one thing he was a talker. A loud one. Those combine to make the type of person I normally avoid at all costs. His constant loud personality had put me off at first, and I'd initially thought of him as nothing but a braggart. But after I'd seen his effectiveness and coolness under fire, I knew I had been wrong. When he settled behind the scope of his rifle, there was almost an eerie transformation, and the blonde American joker would fade away, leaving one of the most focused, deadly men I've ever met.

I didn't understand the opposing forces of nature that combined to create his character.

Then again: I didn't need to.

"Let me know what floor they get off on, and then take the stairs one level higher. You can track them easier from there."

"You're reading my mind."

The mall was typical—a wide ground level with multi-level balconies stacked eight floors high. For a third world country, Costa Rica does have its major city, and San Jose made certain that tourists didn't feel too far from home. I was currently sitting in a Starbucks reading a newspaper, listening to Naruto give me a play-by-play of the target's movements.

The target. See? Nobody's immune to it, not even me.

I had gotten this job thanks to a young Mossad operative named Sakura. We had crossed paths a few months ago on a job, where we both discovered that we were targeting the same man, Gaara, an arms dealer. I was there to kill him, but Sakura needed him alive for the extraction of critical intelligence. We'd managed an uneasy truce at first, and things eventually worked out in the end. Very well, if you counted the month we spent together in Brazil afterward.

She had introduced me to two of her "co-workers," a skinny Caucasian named Lee and an Israeli named Kankuro. They had provided me with the information I would need in order to complete the job, and also what the end results were supposed to look like: preferably an accident—which just so happens to be my area of expertise—but the one critical factor needed would be that it could not be traced back to the Mossad. When I had asked about why they needed this discretion, they revealed that Deidara Tsukiyomi was an asset for the CIA.

At which point I had instantly doubled the price of killing him.

What surprised me was the fact that they agreed to it without a fuss.

"All right, they're on level three, same as you. I'll head on up to the sunglasses hut on four and act as your eye in the sky."

"Try to look like a tourist," I reminded him.

"Professor, I AM a tourist."

"Just don't get noticed." Even as I said it, though, I realized that it was pointless. Naruto was genetically wired to get looks from people. In some ways, I supposed, the tendency could be an asset. In an environment like this one, he came across more as a loud American tourist than an undercover operative. He'd hide in plain sight.

"Hmm, looks like there's a cute trio of chicas over here by my spot."

I fought the urge to roll my eyes. "Then find a new spot."

"Hey, man, you're seriously asking me to disappoint the prettiest girls in the country?"

"The prettiest ones?" I asked, annoyed. "You'd fuck an alligator if it held still long enough."

"Brother, that is not one bit true. Snipers do not engage in congress with reptiles. We prefer, whenever possible, that our partners be mammalian. I'll head down to your level and watch from the opposite side of the mall. Target's heading your way."

I didn't know how he managed to keep up the constant comedy while operational. When I'm in the field, I'm serious, even pessimistic. Naruto seemed to be my polar opposite.

Keeping a lookout on the escalators, I managed to spot when the happy family arrived. Mother, father, and son, all enjoying a happy day at the mall with an accompanying "friend," the bodyguard. Naruto was right. He was pretty big. A head taller than Deidara, he made the woman and boy look like dwarves. Happy, innocent little people who were glad to see the man in their lives was friendly enough to bring buddies along.

I thought of the bombs that Deidara made that allowed him to finance these shopping trips. If he were to die in an accident today, there was no question that many innocent lives would be saved.

But I also knew that his death would leave this boy without a father. Crucify him with grief and loneliness.

Believe me. I know.

I shook my head, confused. I've been at this for more years than I care to remember, and I'd never been troubled this way before. It bothers you later, but not like this. Not during the mission. It's the family, I told myself. You never wanted to see that the target has one. Perfectly normal reaction. It will pass, like it always does. Focus on the job. That's the one thing you can rely on.

I took a deep breath through my nostrils.

Right. The job.

Deidara pointed over at the food court area where I was sitting, mentioned something, and the three of them headed over to a nearby McDonald's stand. Watching them place their orders, I felt an idea come to me.

"Hey."

"Yeah?"

"There's a men's room on this floor. I'm going to wait inside of it."

"You got a feeling our friend's gonna pay you a visit after lunch?"

"With any luck, he'll come alone."

"All right, I'll watch your back. Let you know what they do."

Restrooms are nice because they're one of the last urban places where you won't find security cameras. I would wait inside, come up behind him, break his neck, and be out the door before he hit the floor. There were no cameras in the vicinity of the restroom, so my entrance and exit would go unrecorded. No one would check on him for at least two minutes—more like five—giving Naruto and I plenty of time to get out and go.

Not quite the level of naturalness that I'm known for, but I knew it would do. Restroom floors are always slippery. The police can be as lazy as anyone else—a broken neck would be easier to file under "Slip and fall" than would a bullet hole in the forehead. The main thing was that no one would be able to attribute it to my client.

I got up from my table and walked away, tossing the empty coffee cup and newspaper into the trash can. I didn't know if the bodyguard was watching me, but I kept my head bowed and posture humble—your typical Japanese tourist. If the bodyguard was any good at his job, he'd watch me go and take my exit as further confirmation that I was out of the picture, out of sight, out of mind.

But at the end of the food court, with a couple food stands in between us, I ducked into the restrooms. Five urinals along one wall, three toilet stalls. Two teenagers were zipping up when I came in and left a moment later. I went into the corner stall and closed the door.

"I'm in position. Tell me if we're about to get lucky."

"Copy that."

I waited. I imagined Deidara's family, waiting for him to return. Two minutes becomes three, then four. Someone makes a joke about how Daddy must've gotten lost, or fallen in. The woman goes to the door and calls for him. There's no answer. She feels odd, possibly a little concerned. She pokes her head inside and sees Deidara on the floor, his head at an impossible angle. She screams. The boy comes running. He stops at his mother's leg and looks through the door she's holding open. The image carves itself into his brain like a laser and never, never leaves him.

"They're getting up. Looks like he's saying good-bye to the woman and the boy. Yeah, they're heading down the escalator. Bodyguard's staying with him, though, no surprise there."

No. No surprise.

"Looks like your hunch is good. Our friend's heading over."

I felt an adrenaline wave wash over me.

The shit was about to get real.

"Is the bodyguard with him?"

"No, Brutus is hanging back. Ten more seconds and you'll have your company."

I heard the bathroom door open. I took a deep breath, then slowly exhaled all of it through my mouth, its passage smooth and silent in contrast to the thudding of my heart. I looked through the gap alongside the stall door and saw Deidara. He walked over to a urinal. His back was to me.

I opened the stall door. Took two silent paces forward.

"Shit, the woman and the kid are back. The boy's heading towards your position. Must've told his mom he needs to take a leak."

Fuck. Fuck.

I started backing up into the stall. I heard no sound, but adrenaline was closing down my hearing and there must have been some noise of which I was unaware, because Deidara turned his head and looked at me.

In the moment before the kill, you never look at the target's face. My gaze tends to focus on the torso, the movement of shoulders and hips. Doing so offers the advantage of spotting defensive movement, and you avoid seeing his eyes, his fear, his fucking humanity.

But this time I looked. Our eyes met. In his I saw earnestness, perhaps some surprise. No real worry. Not yet any fear.

The door opened. It was the boy.

And then I froze.

There's no other way to put it. My thoughts were clear. Likewise, my perception. But I couldn't move my body. I was rooted, even though my brain screamed at me to Move! Move!

Nothing happened.

Deidara looked at me, his surprise fading into concern then to fear, then to resolution. His right hand dipped into his front pants pocket. The thought of knife! flashed in my mind, but still my limbs were locked.

But it must've been some sort of panic button, not a weapon. His hand did not withdraw. A second later I heard a voice in my ear, "Shit, man, something's up. The bodyguard's heading in your way fast."

I couldn't answer.

"You there, man? Say something!"

I could not, for the life of me, do a single thing.

"Fuck it. I don't know if you can hear me, but I guess you can't answer. All right, I'm hauling ass to come and get you."