By Steve Oliver
When Don woke in the middle of the night he didn’t know where he was. Or, perhaps, he knew where he was but couldn’t understand how he got there. The room, in bright twilight was clearly in a hospital. He was in a hospital bed. He could feel the annoying constriction of an oxygen tube in his nose. He was wearing the usual hospital gown and was half-sitting in his motorized bed of pain. He reached with his left hand for the pack of cigarettes he expected would be there, but was disappointed. When he looked at the bedside table he found only a plastic cup with a straw. He inspected it and found it contained only water.
He wondered if he should call a nurse, but he wondered what he would say. She would expect him to know why he was in a hospital bed. It occurred to him that he was not only without cigarettes—he was also without a gun. Even though there seemed no immediate threat, that made him nervous. He always had a gun on hand—a small .38 to fit his small hands, a Smith and Wesson hammerless revolver. He wondered where it was. In the drawer next to his bed in his now empty apartment he imagined.
What should he do? Go back to sleep? He was too keyed up for that. He removed the oxygen line and crawled out of the bed. As he found his way to the antiseptic, institutional bathroom he noticed that he had a neighbor, an old man who was also sleeping on his back, half-sitting and snoring.
He took care of business and felt a little better. He wondered again why he was in the hospital. He felt fine, even without the oxygen.
But then he looked in the mirror and got a shock. He was about ten years older than he expected to be. What had happened? He struggled to bring things into focus, but could not.
He got back into bed and leaned against his pillow. He thought about his childhood. He could remember that—growing up on a farm in Eastern Washington. His mother was a widow and he an only child. That memory was reassuring, but it didn’t explain the present. According to his recent memory he should be living in an apartment in North Seattle. His memory told him he was fifty, a stark contrast to the face in the mirror. He spent his time drinking, gambling and playing golf when he wasn’t working. His memory about work was clear enough—he was a killer. He had been a killer for a long time. He couldn’t remember how he had made the decision to be a killer. Had he met someone when he was young? Had he been hard up for work? Several of the people he had killed were clear in his memory. The work seemed routine and yet tawdry as he remembered the people he had killed. His territory was the Northwest. He was available to a select list of loan sharks, bar owners, drug dealers and gamblers—people who operated outside of the law or at its boundaries. He took care of witnesses and debtors and sometimes just a guy nobody liked. He didn’t mind the work and it afforded him a lot of leisure time, allowed him to drink and gamble and be a night owl—he had always been a night owl.
Perhaps that was why he was awake in the middle of the night.
How old was he? he wondered. He looked closer to sixty than fifty. And he was cadaverous—as though he hadn’t been eating or exercising properly, perhaps the result of the hospitalization.
He got out of bed again and looked in the closet. A herringbone sports jacket, white shirt and slacks hung loosely from hooks. At the bottom of the wardrobe was pair of wing-tip shoes, small in size. He was a small man apparently and for some reason that surprised him. He felt like a large, powerful man. He touched his bicep which belied this impression—his fingers encircled the muscle without difficulty.
He went back to bed and lay there thinking.
It occurred to him that he was ravenously hungry. He recoiled at the idea of hospital food as a remedy. He had to get out. The impulse was suddenly very strong. He had to get out.
He rose again and dressed quickly. He was disgusted as he had to put his slacks on without underwear—he had found none in the wardrobe or dresser drawers. He had found socks—stuffed into the shoes.
He looked in the drawer of a nightstand and found a few items, apparently his, that had been stored there—a pair of glasses, a lighter, a large money clip, a ring of keys, a belt. His wallet was missing—they had probably put it in an envelope with his money and put them into a safe. His driver’s license was in the drawer. He picked up the belt, unrolled it and bent the buckle back to reveal a zipper pull. Using the pull he opened the compartment in the belt that held several hundred-dollar bills.
For the first time since waking in a strange place he smiled. He had clothes, an ID and three hundred dollars. That meant he was in control, free and could get breakfast somewhere outside of this hospital.
Dressed in civilian clothes Don made his way through the hallways of the hospital to the elevator. He encountered a couple of staff on the way and merely smiled and waved in greeting.
On the ground floor he walked out the hospital doors and knocked on the window of a half-sleeping taxi driver. He gave the address of an all-night pancake house in North Seattle.
He ate a breakfast of sausage, eggs and pancakes as he read the morning newspaper. He was feeling pretty good. Whatever had been wrong with him didn’t seem to be affecting him now. That was the way he saw medical matters—if you felt bad you went to the doctor. If you felt good you went on with your life.
After eating he managed to bum a cigarette from the busboy. He was annoyed that there was some regulation that forced him to smoke it outside—what had happened during his brief hospital stay? Still, the smoke was wonderful. Afterward, he went back inside and sipped coffee. He felt more himself now. He could face the world. He had taken a toothpick from the cash register counter and now set about cleaning the gaps in his teeth. There was nothing so satisfying as performing this kind of task of personal hygiene—it meant that your duties in the world were not pressing against you.
Yet as he satisfied himself that his mouth held no unwanted pockets of food something was nagging at him, something as yet unidentified. He walked through a list of things that were bothering him to see if he could locate the one that was bothering him the most. He still couldn’t figure out why he seemed older than he should have been. He didn’t know if he still lived at the location that was listed on his driver’s license—an apartment on Westlake overlooking Lake Union. But those concerns didn’t explain the nagging worry that hounded him. He let his mind wander, remembering girlfriends he had known, cheap girls, sweet girls, the pleasure of their bodies and their silly affections. He remembered a few of his contracts, reviewing in his mind the looks on their faces as he shot them—the ones that were facing him when he fired. One couple had been shot in the back of their heads, never aware of his presence.
The contract memories seemed connected with his nagging worry. He supposed that any killing that anyone had committed would be high on any list of worries, but that still didn’t satisfy the concern that haunted him. He wasn’t all that worried about the dead so long as no one knew he was the killer. What was it?
Then it came to him. One of his contracts was still alive. He had not killed someone he had been contracted to kill. He didn’t know how he knew that a contract had gone unfulfilled, but he was sure it was the case. Now, for some reason, he was frightened. Up to now everything in his mind had caused at the most anxiety, but the notion that he had left a client unsatisfied was frightening. He felt an urgency to fix the problem, as he had felt urgency to leave the hospital. Clients were very serious about their contracts. If someone was supposed to be dead it was for a very good reason. Failure could result in serious consequences to both client and hit man.
Don looked at his wrist which didn’t give him the time because he no longer had a watch. He wondered where it was—a solid gold Seiko he had bought in Japan. He looked at the clock over the cash register. It wasn’t yet seven. Perhaps he would get a taxi to drive by his apartment to see if his car was there.
Who was he supposed to kill? It was in there somewhere—he would have to find it. It was a man, not a woman, he was sure of that. Did he know the man? He didn’t always know the target. He had half a dozen regular clients, but he didn’t know their organizations well enough to know many targets. Still, it seemed the person who had been missed was someone he knew. And he didn’t like him. Who was he? Who was the client?
He paid his bill then counted his remaining money. He was okay for now, but it wasn’t enough to live on. He had no place to live, he had no transportation and he had no income. He thought for a moment about going back to the hospital. It was an unpleasant idea—he had no desire to be helpless and in a hospital unless it was really necessary. Perhaps it was the only way to learn what had happened to him. Then he realized he had not bothered to identify the hospital before leaving. There was no way back.
He asked the cashier to call a taxi then waited in the vestibule for it to arrive. He gave his home address and sat in the back watching the lights of the city and the traffic as they headed to his uncertain future. The driver was foreign—he had no idea of the nationality—or he might have shared some of his concerns. In the old days drivers had often been old white guys like him. If it turned out he had no place to live and no money what would he do? Turn himself over to the police? He didn’t like that idea.
The target’s name came to him then—Henry. The target was a guy named Henry. He hated Henry, had hated him for a long time. What was his last name? Where did he live? Who had contracted the hit? How did he know Henry?
Another piece of information came to him as the cab drove south on Aurora Avenue. He spotted a Bank of America sign and remembered that he had a Certificate of Deposit for more than a hundred thousand dollars in a downtown branch. He had a driver’s license—that would suffice for ID if he wanted to get some of the money. He was hopeful that he could get money now, though he was still anxious because his memory was so unreliable.
He pulled the set of keys from his pocket. There were several keys. Two looked like door keys. Two were keys to his Cadillac.
“This it?” asked the cab driver. He shoved the gear lever into the PARK position. He pointed toward a building. It was just becoming light but the porch light was still on at his old place. Don shivered at seeing home. Maybe he could walk inside and this nightmare would be over.
“Yes,” he said. He handed a twenty to the driver then realized the bill was more than twenty. He added some bills to add enough for a tip. Indonesian? Indian? He still couldn’t identify the driver’s nationality. He climbed out of the cab.
He went to the door of his apartment and tried the keys. Both of them seemed to fit, but would not turn the lock. He tried several times without luck. He felt a sob come to his chest. It hit him that he did not have a home. He looked around the property. His apartment was one of a four-plex and with it came numerous parking spots. Four were assigned to the apartments and four were extras. One of the four extra spots contained a car that was familiar—his Cadillac. It was dirty as though it had been sitting for a long time. Hopeful again he walked toward it. As he walked to the car he remembered where Henry lived—Ravenna. Ravenna was an upscale neighborhood east of the University of Washington. Henry lived in a large Tudor-style house surrounded by lots and lots of shrubbery. What was Henry’s last name?
Don pulled out his keys as he approached the car. He couldn’t remember which key was the trunk key, which the ignition key, but there were only two so he tried both. The second key opened the door. He breathed a sigh of relief.
He got into the driver’s seat and prayed as he put the key in the lock. He turned the ignition and was rewarded as the engine slowly turned over. It didn’t hit the first time so he stopped and waited a moment. He pumped the gas pedal. It seemed it needed gas starting on a cold morning so he wanted to be sure to give it some. He tried again and it started. He closed the door and sat in the car feeling finally that he had a home.
The car began to warm up and with the heater on Don began to warm with it. He opened the glove compartment and was rewarded with a pack of Salems. No matter how old they were familiar friends. He opened the pack and lit one with the car lighter. Now things were beginning to come together. He was less panicked, less afraid, even less alone. He had a car with a half a tank of gas. He had cigarettes and he was not hungry. He would need to find a room so he could rest and bathe, but that could wait a bit.
He thought about Henry. That would be something that could not wait forever. The job was already late and someone—who was it?—would already be impatient. Who was Henry? He could remember his name and he could remember more or less where he lived, but a face did not come to his mind.
He suddenly reached under the dash and felt around until he located the compartment. He felt the gun handle and pulled to release it from the clips that held it in place. It made him feel good to hold the small gun in his hand again, the small .38 that fit like a glove. He smiled. If he’d had a room and the phone number of a girlfriend his life would be complete.
It was after ten when he visited his bank and found that the account he remembered did exist. It was larger than he remembered—more than two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The banker looked doleful as he handed Don a thousand dollars cash and a cashier’s check for the remainder. “That’s a lot of money,” he remarked. “What are you going to do with it now?”
“None of your business,” said Don with a cruel tone. “I’ll find a home for it.” They shook hands and Don left the bank. He had decided that whatever happened to him he had to leave Seattle. It was so damned cold here. He had been freezing all morning. He wanted a warmer climate. He was going to head south after he took care of Henry—start over. For some reason he felt he would be safer too. Everything he had been through during the course of this day made him feel that his life was threatened in some way. It would be best to make a clean break.
He had another meal, then took a nap in the car. He didn’t feel bad at all considering that he had started the day in a hospital bed. He found a department store and bought some underwear and a few shirts and socks. Then he drove north to a truck stop plaza where he rented a shower. Afterward, fed and refreshed, he sat in his car and smoked, listened to the radio, and cleaned his gun with a kit he had stored in the trunk. He only had the six bullets that had been in the gun when retrieved from under the dash, but that would be enough.
He felt good about working. He had always liked gambling and drinking, but his first love was work and the money it produced. He still couldn’t remember who had hired him for this job, but he wasn’t worried about that. He knew that he hated Henry as much as anyone so doing the job would result in good deed being done. He would leave town with a clean slate and it didn’t matter if he was paid or not.
After the gun was cleaned he checked the time on the car clock. It was after six. Henry would probably be home by now. As Don recalled—he didn’t know how he knew this—Henry lived alone. Don would be cautious, but if he was right there would be no problem because he would be alone and would be easy to handle.
It took Don more than an hour to drive to Ravenna and locate Henry’s house. Locating the house took half of that time as he had no address and had to rely upon his instincts as to where the house was located and what it looked like. He finally spotted it, a large Tudor, cloistered, as he had recalled, by foliage. He parked on the street and walked past the house a few times trying to catch a glimpse of the occupant. The house lights were on and a large BMW was parked in the driveway. Finally he walked up to the door and rang the doorbell. He held the small pistol in his right hand inside his sports jacket pocket.
Don immediately recognized the large man who answered the door. It was Henry, all six-foot-two of him. He was well-dressed and arrogant. He remembered he had always hated Henry, but he wasn’t sure why and it didn’t matter anyway. He had a contract and Henry was the target.
“Don Hergert. What are you doing here?” Henry said with an unpleasant tone. He backed up to allow Don to enter, but didn’t seem happy to see him.
Don walked into the room in a cold and deliberate fashion, not interested in explaining anything to his nemesis, not even interested in the reasons for his being a nemesis. This was work. This was business. He walked toward the interior of the house reasoning that Henry would follow. He wanted to get as far inside as possible to help mute the noise the gun would make.
Henry seemed bothered by Don’s assured moves toward the interior. “Don, I asked you what you’re doing here? I’ve got nothing against you, but I know you don’t like me and I have no reason to welcome you.”
Don said, “Why don’t you come over here? I have something to show you.”
Henry had a look of apprehension, but he moved in Don’s direction. “What do you mean you have something to show me?”
Don pulled the gun from his pocket and pointed it at Henry.
Henry’s reaction was one of scorn. “Now just what the hell do you think you’re going to do with that?”
Don felt panic rising and wondered if he had lost his nerve. The thought almost seemed to come from someone else and he rebelled against it. It was as if Henry had spoken and Don answered, “Lost my nerve, eh? I’ll show you,” and with that he shot Henry twice in the head with the little gun. Henry was stunned by the bullets, stared at Don, perhaps in disbelief, then tipped over like a statue being toppled after the fall of a dictator.
Don began walking toward the door, but stopped at a bookcase when he saw the picture of Patty. He looked at her for a moment trying to remember. He knew that he loved her, that she had been with Henry and that he was heartbroken over it, but he could remember no more. No love scenes with Patty came to mind, no kisses, no fights, only the abstract longing and pain. He continued to the door, opened it with the sleeve of his coat, walked out, and shoved it shut with his foot.
He looked around as he walked to his car, but there was no activity. Either no one had heard the shot or had taken it as an explainable anomaly. He got into his car and drove away quickly.
He got onto the freeway and headed south.
Detectives Woods and Reynolds processed the scene of the murder of Henry Bergstrom. The cause of death was not mysterious as the two bullet wounds in the victim’s head indicated. The motive and perpetrator were not so obvious. They went through the scene by the book and finished the basics of the investigation in about four hours at which time they still had no leads other than the subject’s girlfriend who had called the murder in. She said she had arrived at he boyfriend’s house and when he didn’t answer let herself in to find him dead on the floor. She waited on the stoop until officers arrived, then waited in a police car until the detectives arrived to interview her.
Since there seemed no evidence of burglary or forced entry of any kind the detectives assumed that the victim knew his killer. They tested the girlfriend for gunshot residue and found nothing. They questioned her for more than an hour without discovering anything amiss. She said she only knew one person who really hated Bergstrom and he couldn’t have done it.
As they reviewed her interview later Woods said, “Now why was it that her old boyfriend couldn’t have done this?”
“He had a stroke. He’s in a hospital, or long-term care, something like that—we’ll check it out, but it would be physically impossible for him to get here.”
“Besides, according to her the old boyfriend was an art teacher.”
Reynolds smiled. “You know, I thought she seemed a little relieved that Bergstrom was dead.”
“Yeah. I talked to her a little about that,” said Woods. “I think he abused her in some way. I’m going to see if there are any reports.”
“Maybe she hired somebody.”
“Could be. Still, he had an ex-wife. That would be my guess.”
“By the way, we need to stop by…” Reynolds looked at his notepad, “a Westlake Avenue address on the way back.”
“Favor for missing persons. An old guy walked away from a long-term care facility this morning. No family. No friends. Only lead we have is his previous address. We need to see if he showed up there. He may be confused, might think he still lives there.”
“Okay.” Reynolds started the engine. “No family, no friends. Boy, I’d hate to think I’d end up that way.”
“For sure. But he’s not our concern—we’ve got a murder.”
“Yeah, I know. Tick Tock.”
Don sat on the veranda at his apartment in Torrance smoking a Salem and sipping a Cutty Sark. He was watching the Sunset and the way the colors changed as it went lower on the horizon. It would be interesting to capture that in a painting, he thought. How about that, he thought, an old killer turning into a painter. You never could tell. Tomorrow he would find an art store and get some supplies. His life had been so violent, a waste. He didn’t know what had been wrong with him that had put him in a hospital, but he had felt pretty good since. He’d have to find a cash doctor somewhere to keep track of him. Maybe he needed medicine or something. Whatever time he had left he would end his days living a quieter life. Still, he wouldn’t want to quit drinking and gambling—you had to have a little excitement. Tomorrow he would visit Gardena, see if the casinos there were worth his trouble.