A Popcorn Fiction Selection. A contract killer gets stuck in Dublin after a job in this crime piece from screenwriter Brian Helgeland.
The first round hits the guy higher than I thought I was aiming. In the chin to be precise. I want to blame it on him swiveling over in his chair as he clocks me coming through the door, but the truth is, this one’s on the Jameson. It took three shots of it to get me up here. Guts bolstered at the expense of accuracy. Irish whiskey for Dutch courage here in the heart of Dublin. But don’t mistake me for a mick. Nothing against them, I just happen to be Polish German. Except for maybe my liver; that’s Irish all the way. As far as the Irishman I’m shooting at, his now missing chin is an unfortunate marring of an otherwise remarkable face. It’s also a violation of my contract, an express point of which was I kill him from the neck down. In other words, no head shots, leave him looking whole and pretty for an open casket funeral. So that part of the deal is a wash. And now he’s getting up from that chair, but the Jameson courage is still coursing through me and the stirring words in Latin found on every label: Sine Metu. Without fear. Although fear is about the only thing I feel as I pull the trigger again and the man goes down. Shot through the heart. Ceased to be. Sounds so much better than deceased. Like there’s a difference, huh?
I’m supposed to turn around and walk out the door, but I step to the desk instead. He was writing something when I walked in and that messed up little part of me needs to know. There are notes everywhere. Scribbles over type. But there by his fallen pen, the last words he would ever commit to paper are these: “I have a theory about love and it goes something like this—” As I stare down at the unfinished sentence, I suddenly wish I’d come in twenty seconds later.
So now I’m laying flat on my back in the cheap hotel where I’ve been holed up for the last five days. Still in Dublin, therefore still in the exact place I’m supposed to be long gone from by now. Except a goddamn volcano blew its top in Iceland and now planes can’t fly all of a sudden. Because if the volcano dust gets in the jet engines the heat’ll turn it into glass and the goddamn plane might drop out of the sky. But no one knows. The whole world has gone medieval for a minute. Plus every time they say the name of the volcano it gets longer and longer. Twenty-some-odd letters the last time I tried to count. Whatever. What really matters is there are two hard and fast rules to what I do. The first is leave no witnesses. That I got covered, unless you count me as one which is how I’m feeling more and more these days. Like I’m watching myself. Like I’m not a part of myself. Like I used to be me, but I’m not anymore. Not without the local whiskey at least. Where was I? Oh yeah, hard and fast rules. The second is get out of town. After the job is done you go. Before the heat descends. Even if there is no heat you skedaddle. It does you no good to hang around. Get miles is my motto. Get miles and be smart. Except who could have predicted Iceland?
And so I lay here waiting on word from my unwitting accomplice American Airlines while across the alley, everyday at 3 o’clock, someone a floor up plays the Elvis Costello song Veronica. Everyday at 3 like clockwork. I admit after five days I’m really getting curious as to why, but I’m not sure how you go about learning information like that. And whoever it is always cranks the volume up during the second chorus after the bridge. It’s where Elvis gets really frantic and the song sounds like it’s gonna climb right out the speakers.
Do you suppose, that waiting hands on eyes,
Veronica has gone to hide?
And all the time she laughs at those who shout
her name and steal her clothes.
On day five I go to my window and I yell up, “Hey, who’s playing that up there!?” Not angry, just asking. After a moment a woman’s hand reaches out and oh so gently pulls the window shut on the floor above and across. The music dulls out into a low throb; I start to wish I’d kept my mouth shut. I start counting floors up and windows across. I’ll find the flat and knock on the door, pretend I got lost looking for a friend. It would be the start of a fantastic love affair, one that would bring her out of the shell she retreated to after the death of someone close, and me, well, I would be transmogrified. I decide to go for a drink instead.
I’m in the pub looking over the bottles of Jameson lined up like willing confederates when I decide to go for a Guinness instead. An acquaintance of mine once described Guinness as “beer soup.” Possessing all the qualities of a fine beer, but with the nutritional value of a hearty bowl of soup. I’d forgotten how it takes several minutes to get from the keg to the pint glass. Foam must settle, glasses must be topped. I suppose that’s one of the things that makes it worth it, or at least makes you think it’s worth it. But it tastes pretty good and I’m near ground zero of the Guinness Brewery. That’s another thing my acquaintance told me about Guinness; there’s a direct correlation between its taste and its distance from Dublin. It’s then I notice the news report on the pub widescreen. The goddamn unpronounceable volcano is still belching glass dust, but forget that, it’s the next story that hits closer to home. The guy I killed, they’re carrying his coffin into a cemetery. That’s how long I’ve been here. They had time to autopsy him and now put him in the ground. That’s how overdue I am to get the Hell out of Dodge. The pallbearers look appropriately grim and, hang on, there’s Bono holding up his end of the bargain. I know for a fact that U2’s on tour, I saw them in Miami, but here he is. They must’ve put the tour on hold. Who the hell does he think I killed? The guy was just a writer.
I tune out most of the report except for the part at the end when the Irish anchor says, “Due to travel restrictions across the continent, police have reason to believe the killer may still be locally at large.” Wonderful. A goddamn volcano. Who knew? Lawyers, that’s who. They think of everything. They put that stuff in contracts. Just in case God gets involved. What do they call it? Force majeure. As always they give it a name so you don’t know what it means. Hey, I got your force majeure right here.
There’s nothing to do now but play tourist. I can’t stay in the room much longer. That can’t look good. “Guy hasn’t left his room, officer, since that other guy got whacked.” So I look through a brochure. I briefly consider a literary tour of Dublin, then decide against it. Way too depressing. But I always liked a good Catholic Church. I’ve been in 100s of them all around the world. Not during services, just in those quiet in between times. I’ve seen some beautiful things in Catholic Churches: the mosaics in Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, the sunlight hitting Vasco da Gama’s eternally praying hands in the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon, not to mention the Altar of Forgiveness down in the Mexico City Cathedral. That one was rich. Forgiveness. I lasted about two minutes before I stumbled out of there and threw up in a gutter. Mexico City was always too easy.
Christ Church Dublin. It’s big enough, but I’m not particularly impressed. Until I get near the back. Sometimes it’s the little things. In a muzzle-sized iron cage mounted to the stone wall they got the heart of some saint. Or at least the cage is holding a wooden, heart-shaped cask. The heart’s inside that. Imprisoned twice. That’s a guy you don’t want to be stuck talking to on an airplane. You’d be praying for that glass in the engines. Still, it’s a metaphor for sure. Maybe I’ll write a short story: The Twice Imprisoned Heart. Maybe not. I tried to write once, if you can believe that. It was brutal. My muse used to sit behind me in a dirty red dress firing rounds from a .38 into the back of my head. She was a real slut. Dressed like one, talked like one, inspired like one. Every time I finished a page, the blood from the exit wound would wash the words away. Believe me, writing’s way harder than it looks. And by the way, there was no “at least you tried” at the end of that dark rainbow. Just a kick in the balls and the knowledge that I better stick to my day job.
I’m on my way out when I come across the real attraction. Only the Irish, man. It’s a glass case holding the mummified remains of a cat and a rat. It says they were found dead inside one of the church organ’s pipes. Years and years after the cat apparently chased the rat inside. I guess on subsequent Sunday mornings the whole place, priests and parishioners, were all too hungover to hear the difference. And now here the two little fuckers are like they mean something. But I guess they kind of do. In fact, a little note says that the 10th degree black belt of Irish writers, James Joyce, used the cat and the rat in Finnegan’s Wake when he describes someone as being, “As stuck as that cat to that mouse in that tube of that Christchurch organ.” Now besides the fact I know enough to know that’s a simile not a metaphor, I also know I’m at the center of some kind of weird nexus: me, Joyce, cats hunting rats, a Catholic Church. But then some moron tourist behind me breaks the spell.
“Look, that cat is chasing that rat for eternity.”
I turn around, see a guy fumbling with his camera. He’s about as wide as he is tall. What I want to say is, “First of all, what the fuck would you know about chasing anything but a cheeseburger? Second, how the fuck do you know it wasn’t the rat chasing the cat?” Third, in what fucking world do you think you have the right to use the word eternity in a sentence? Huh, mutherfucker?!” Instead, I just head for the door. He might be working for Interpol for all I know. I gotta get out of here. For one brief moment, I think of going back to the hotel to wait for 3 o’clock and Veronica. But somehow I know she’s not going to play it again. At least not for me. Regardless, I need to get miles. If I can’t get out of Ireland, at least I can get out of Dublin.
I rent a car which is no big deal. I’ve worked in the UK before; I know how to drive on the wrong side of the road. I use my Canadian passport for an ID. I like that one; the picture makes me look almost decent. Plus I have a destination in mind. It isn’t long before I’m on my way, headed dead west from Dublin, cutting the Emerald Isle in half as I make my way to Omey Island. It’s really more like one big sandspit than anything else and you can drive out to it at low tide from the mainland.
In another life as you may have gathered, one with distinctly different aspirations, I was something of a poetry aficionado. In fact, I’m out here on Omey because I always loved the poem The Archaeology of Love by Richard Murphy, a relatively recent entrant in the long line of mick poets. The fuckers can sure write when they’re not busy drinking or kicking the crap out of each other. Anyhow, Murphy lived on Omey for a while, lived and wrote, but as I get out of the car I’m having trouble figuring how he did it. This place is about two feet above sea level and desolate. Probably perfect for a poet, what do I know?
I go for a hike, heading toward the higher ground south. Maybe about a half mile in, I find an old stone tower. Unless he slept on the ground, this has to be the place Murphy lived. I climb up inside for a look around. Judging by the trash, it’s now strictly a destination for drinking Tennents and smoking cigarettes. I light one up myself as I run Murphy’s poem through my head. When I get to my last and favorite line, I speak it out loud: “You have brought the dead to a grove of suns.”
And for a moment I remember a girl who did the same for me. Then I grind out the smoke trying to grind out the memory with it. Memory’s a funny thing, a true double-edged sword. As if to prove the point, all of a sudden, Veronica is back in my head. That frantically sung chorus again. About how she’s gone to hide while they shout her name and then I remember hearing how Costello wrote the song about someone with Alzheimer’s. His grandmother or someone old like that. Someone named Veronica even if she didn’t remember her own name. Yeah, that’s it, not being able to remember. I mean, once you get over the initial horror of it, what a blessing really. Like a clean start that never has to begin again. Just clean. Starting line clean. Like the dead going to a grove of suns. Wait, not going, someone brought them there. Must have been an angel. Maybe Veronica was an angel, too. But are you still an angel if you can’t remember who you are? And is the reverse true as well? Are you still a devil if—Aw, listen to me. I feel like throwing up. What right do I have to analyze, infer or come to conclusions about anything?
It’s right then I realize the island’s starting to get smaller. The ocean is encroaching. It’s time to get back to the car. I think about that Icelandic volcano and I wonder when it’s going to forget it’s a volcano and go back to being a mountain. How it’s strange that while little Omey Island was getting smaller, Iceland was getting bigger. I took a helicopter once down into Kilauea in Hawaii. The pilot explained that the lava had been flowing for 20 odd years, how Hawaii was getting bigger all the time as that hot shit hissed into the ocean. That’s what memories are I guess. They flow out of you till they cool down enough to become some part of you, the crust of you. An accumulation that crowds against itself, breaking and grinding, until some sections heave up closer to the surface, while others get buried lower. Like strata, like some weird geology of the mind. The Geology of Memory. There you go. I was a poet and didn’t know it.
As I crest the rise I see my car. The incoming tide is just starting to pour through the open driver’s side window. A moment ago I was thinking I was almost there, that I didn’t have far to go. But I guess that’s what Sisyphus thinks at the end of every day, too. Anyhow, the sun is getting low and the tide decidedly high. The sky’s going a crazy crimson through all the volcanic ash and I have a decision to make: Should I spend the night in Richard Murphy’s Tower or should I swim for shore? It’s a true no-brainer. Turns out I can walk most of the way. Sloshing through thigh-deep and then waist-deep water before finally having to swim the last hundred feet or so. It’s a metaphor for something, too, maybe everything, but as long as I don’t drown, I can’t be bothered figuring it out.
Onshore, I wring out my clothes and put them back on, leaving my socks hanging over the sign reading: ‘Road Floods With Tide’. They’re meant as a harbinger not a metaphor as I trudge away into the approaching twilight. I haven’t gotten far when I hear a car puttering up from behind. It’s one of those Smart Cars, except this one’s beat to crap with a spare tire tied down to the front grill. But a potential ride’s a potential ride. I step respectfully to the side, but wave my hands overhead at the same time.
I just get a glimpse that a girl is driving. I see a flash of bright orange hair and then she’s gone past me. Shit. Except now she’s pulling over to the side. A beat and her hand reaches out, adjusts the mirror to get a look at me. Somehow it’s a more elegant hand than you’d think someone who dyed her hair orange had a right to. She’s obviously looking me over and I’m hoping she doesn’t see something she doesn’t like. I try on my best Canadian passport face as I approach.
From this new angle her eyes are in the shadows. All I can see is her nose and mouth. As she smiles, I see her top lip is pierced a bunch of times. All the same her voice has that great Irish lilt. “Sorry for the once over, fella, just checkin’ if you were a knacker.”
“A pikey. A gypsy, you know?”
“My car broke down,” is all I offer back.
“Get in, take the weight off your legs.”
I’m walking around even as she reaches across and shoves open the door for me. I’ve barely sat before she’s gunning it up the road.
“It’s your lucky day.”
I nod, “Luck of the Irish I guess.”
“Bite your tongue and consider our history. If you really had Irish luck, you’d wish you were dead.”
I don’t tell her, but I kind of do. Wish that.
“Take the wheel,” she tells me. Before waiting to see if I will, she lets go to light a cigarette. The flame off the lighter shows she’s got two black eyes, one darker than the other. Even as I look, I think about how tired I am of judging people, of assigning value and dismissing potential and ignoring ability or, in this case, kindness.
“You were wondering about my eyes. Irish sunglasses we call ’em.” She babbles on about her boyfriend and how she gave him a second chance and how this is what she got in return for that gesture. She asks me if I believe in second chances.
“Not only don’t I believe in them, I don’t think people deserve them either. In fact, I’m not sure people even deserve the one chance they get. I don’t, didn’t, don’t.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that.”
“Yeah? Why’s that?”
She never answers as she realizes something, “Did you know your clothes are all wet?”
“Yeah, I know,” I smile, “There are lots of gaps in my self-awareness, but I’m kind of real clear on that.”
That makes her laugh. It’s a beautiful laugh, not like her at all. And then all of a sudden she stops the car. Right in the middle of the road. She looks at me an odd beat. Just long enough for me to realize she (and her boyfriend) are trying very hard to hide that she is quite pretty after all. Fetching, is that what they say? I’m pondering this just as she says, “I’ve got to take a pee.”
“Hey. Do what you gotta do.”
Her smile now cockeyed as she gets out of the car. Her feet crunch across the gravel and then she’s gone back behind the bushes somewhere. As I picture her back there squatting down, it suddenly occurs to me that this might be some kind of weird invitation. Is she waiting in there for me? Shit, I don’t know. I never was good with innuendo. Lots of times it’s days later when I figure out what a girl really meant when she said something to me. Still, showing up in the bushes with a hard-on when someone just needs to go is a bigger chance than I want to take. And so I sit. And as I sit, I notice the car stereo. The CD player is on pause, a little light flashing. The readout says it’s the first track: 1 minute and 42 seconds in. Now I don’t believe in destiny or prescience or any of that crap, but suddenly I know and even as my finger reaches out, I can already almost hear the song before I press play.
Immediately Declan Patrick MacManus, such a better name than Elvis, belts out the chorus: “Do you suppose that waiting hands on eyes Veronica has gone to hide and—”
When I was younger and really serious about what I did, do, did, I had a kind of 6th sense. My hackles is what I used to call it. But they’d stopped working a few years back. They passed the torch off to the whiskey I guess. Although I hadn’t touched a drop of it today. Whatever the reason, I never heard her coming up behind me. And as I ever so briefly felt the barrel of the .38 on the base of my skull, well, it was kind of a relief to be honest. At that moment I was either without fear or finally without hope. Like there’s a difference, huh?