All Curtis Gray wanted to do was smoke a cigarette. Wishfully thinking, he drew in a raspy breath and held it, hoping that if he held on long enough he would eventually blow out smoke. But he had no such luck. He still exhaled only carbon dioxide. Picking at the psoriasis scabbing over his fingers to keep himself preoccupied, he looked up to survey the rest of the company he would be keeping on his flight to Florida, everybody around him waiting anxiously to board the plane grounded at gate B18; its current delay time now forty-five minutes. He hated when business brought him to Florida, figuring it was the state’s humidity that attributed to most of his animosity. The Florida Summers were brutal for a man Curtis's size. Armed to the teeth in tropical attire, he was determined to beat the heat this time. He wore a white brimmed panama hat to keep the sun out of his eyes, a red XXL Hawaiian button down with no undershirt; decorated with squawking parrots and tufts of escaping grey chest hair, a pair of thin white khaki shorts so his crotch could breathe and flip-flops instead of closed toe shoes. He looked ridiculous, but felt fantastic.
When the flight was delayed for a second time and picking at his scabs was no longer an adequate means of distraction from his nicotine cravings, Curtis had tried starting a conversation with the woman sitting next to him. She was elderly, probably in her early seventies, he thought, wrinkled to all hell like a grape that had sat out in the sun too long. She passed the time knitting and would occasionally burst into broken hymns. He would listen as she carried on, a range of mild variations to absurd interpretations of the lyrics. She would then dim to a mild hum before re-erupting with the correct words, an endless crescendo of the forgotten and the remembered. Curtis, who had grown tired of her sporadic hymnal misrepresentations, tried to distract her with conversation.
“Remember when you used to be able to smoke in these things?” He nudged her.
“Come again?” She replied, her focus ever vigilant on her cross-hatching.
“Remember when airports used to letchya smoke in ‘em?” He repeated louder, with deliberation.
“Oh no,” She said, eyes still locked on what appeared to be a scarf, which would ultimately prove useless in the summer. “I don’t have a cigarette. You’re not allowed to smoke in airports anymore.” She then proceeded to quietly sing "Danny Boy," replacing "Danny," with "Johnny."
Curtis, upon receiving this information on which he was already well acquainted, surrendered the conversation. “Bitch.” He mumbled.
Waiting with nothing to do, Curtis stared blankly past the terminal walkway as it kept busy with the sounds of hurried feet. The hall echoed with clapping heels, rolling suitcases and the congregation of voices that if listened to with closed eyes, combined to form one dull murmur. By doing this, Curtis was able to pinpoint certain conversations amongst the endless tunnels of marching people and would reopen his eyes when something piqued his interest. He listened to a man's voice describe a sex change operation. When he looked up to see who was talking, he saw a woman with a five o’clock shadow having a conversation on a cell phone - in a man’s voice. As soon as he/she hung up the phone, a voice that was unmistakably female propositioned a short bald man for something that cost twenty dollars in the bathroom. He listened as a drunken man stumbled and slurred, announcing to no one in particular that he had a flight to catch. When Curtis opened his eyes, he saw that the man was a pilot. No sooner after the drunken pilot had been carted away he heard a woman crying, her high heels clicking loudly on the tile as she ran past, sobbing, excuse me, excuse me, as she bumped through the crowd. Curtis looked up just in time to see a fit young man in a thong rushing after her, yelling, wait, wait, I can explain everything, whilst he himself was pursued by a small cluster of manic security guards; all waving stun guns wildly into the air. Curtis smiled at this. Across from him sat a handsome black man. Curtis had sworn he'd seen him in a movie once. If that were true though this man probably would have taken a private jet and not flown commercial, but maybe even a movie star couldn’t afford to fly privately these days. After all, these were troubling economic times. His new boss certainly seemed to think so.
“We can’t afford to keep you employed here if you aren’t going to do the work Mr.Gray.” Richard William Poxley Jr. had said to Curtis, in regards to his refusal to carry out his previous two assignments.
“It went against my better judgment Dick.” Curtis explained looking down, even then picking at his psoriasis to pass the time.
“Well if you’d read the files ahead of time, like all the other employees seem to have no trouble doing,” Jr. stressed. “We could have saved quite a bit of money on the travel expenses, or at least spent them on somebody who would have actually done the job.”
“And if you had read my file, Dick, you’d know that I don’t look at a file until right before I’m supposed to do the job.”
“And why is that?” Jr. asked, reclining so far back in his chair that he almost disappeared entirely behind the bulk of the mammoth steel desk. His frame did not quite fill it the way his fathers had.
“Makes my job easier I suppose.” Curtis said, staring over the desk and focusing loosely on the blinds closed behind him.
“Funny thing about that Mr. Gray is that you haven’t been doing your job. I’m not trying to be unreasonable here, just economical.”
“Well, gimme someone who deserves to shot and I’ll shoot ‘em, Mr.Dick.” Curtis said, raising his arms dramatically over his head and letting them plop down loudly on the seat of the leather chair he reclined in, refocusing his gaze onto his new and frustrated young boss.
“How did my father never fire you Mr. Gray?” Jr. seemed to plead; leaning forward in hopes that the closer he was to Curtis the deeper his words would sink in.
“He liked my dirty jokes.” Curtis shrugged. Being more than twice Jr.’s age, Curtis found it difficult to feign respect for the young man. Jr. only smirked at this remark and receded back out of Curtis’s line of sight behind the desk. When Richard William Poxley Sr. had employed Curtis, his job had meant something.
Richard William Poxely Sr. had always joked that, if you were going to play the hand of God, you might as well act like you know what you’re doing. There were rules when Sr. was in charge and Curtis like that. There were never any jobs on women, never any jobs on second or third parties and never any jobs on anyone that didn’t seem to deserve it. Most of the marks being brought into the company deserved to be shot. “If Poxley & Co. put a bullet in you, then you probably had it coming,” was the long time running slogan and it made the clients feel better about their decisions to have somebody killed. It even made the employees feel better about having to kill someone. Morale was high and business was good. However, when Sr. had died of a heart attack earlier that spring, Richard William Poxley Jr. (or, Dick as Curtis liked to call him) had taken over the business. The first thing to go when Jr. took over was the moral code of conduct. According to him, they could no longer afford to be selective about the work they received. He simply wiped the slate clean and changed the rates. The new motto might as well have rang, “If Poxley & Co. put a bullet in you, then somebody must have payed us a shit load of money.” Curtis had refused to pull the trigger on his last two jobs because they went against his higher moral standing. The first job was a second party member, (A hit designed to bring grief to the deserving party) and the second, had been a woman. Curtis wasn’t about to kill somebody whose only crime was knowing the person who deserved to be shot and as a gentleman, he would never shoot a lady. Dick had argued that if Curtis had just looked at the file when it was handed to him, he could have saved company money on air travel, room and board, and rifle transport. But as Curtis had explained, (and like it said in his file) he would only look at a profile right before he pulled the trigger. The less he knew about a job the easier it was to do it. When he tried to explain to Dick the importance of his father’s mantra, Dick had simply brushed it off as though he were selling used cars.
“You know Dick,” he explained. “Your father always said, that if you’re going to play the hand of God – ”
“I’m not here to play the hand of God, Mr. Gray.” Dick interrupted. “I’m just here to make some money.”
And so, Richard William Poxley Jr. leaned forward and slid a sealed yellow envelope towards Curtis from his desk, peeling his lips back for a straight white smile. “Mr. Gray,” he seemed to coo in delight. “I am elated to inform you that you will never have to worry about your better moral judgement ever again. Because what I have right here in front of you is your last job.”
“So you’re firing me?” Curtis asked. For the first time ever, Jr. held his attention.
“Think of it as early retirement.” Jr. replied. “You were a friend of my fathers and although you may not seem to think so, I respect that. However, you do not seem to appreciate the direction in which I am taking this company. So, here is what I’m thinking. You carry out this last assignment under my employment and I will let you keep your benefits, your 401(k), your retirement package – the whole shebang really. All you have to do is take our ‘friend’ here,” he said, drilling the envelope twice with his pointer finger so that it made a loud popping sound. “And see that he doesn’t live past the weekend.”
“And if I say no?” Curtis drawled, still registering Jr.’s proposition.
“Mr. Gray you’ve been here long enough to know how this company works,” Jr. said, shifting his weight in his father’s old chair as if trying to physically occupy more space in it. “If you continue to act against the company’s best interest then you will be labeled a liability. And we all know what happens to liabilities within the company.”
“You would really have me knocked off? After thirty eight years on the job?” Curtis stared into Jr. until his gaze broke. Jr. cleared his throat and looked down to readjust his tie.
“Come on now Mr. Gray,” Jr. breathed. “We prefer to use the term terminated. It’s more professional. And it’s nothing personal; just protocol.”
Curtis slid back into his seat facing Richard William Poxley Jr., who so crudely occupied the space behind Richard William Poxley Sr.'s old desk. Curtis didn’t need to think very long about his predicament. One job and he would be granted two and a half years early retirement. The alternative to this was being shot, stabbed, poisoned or blown up. Curtis wasn’t fond of the idea of being blown up. He knew he had to take the assignment. He knew there had to be a catch to Jr.’s ultimatum. He knew that it was going to be listed in the sealed yellow envelope. He knew that all of this was going to go against his better judgment.
“What’s the catch?” Curtis asked, sinking into his seat.
“No catch.” Jr. said softly, looking up. “One more job and I’m out of your hair, you out of mine. I’d say we have a pretty sweet deal, wouldn’t you Mr. Gray?” Jr. intertwined his fingers and propped his elbows on his desk before allowing his chin to rest atop his knuckles. He stared at Curtis with an infantile disposition. Jr. was almost thirty, but had somehow managed to crossover a spoiled, childlike demeanor into adulthood. “You can always take a look at the file now and pick another assignment.” He said, sliding back into his chair and gazing intently into Curtis. "But then my offer is off the table and going forward you will work following our office policies, not your own, 'Moral code of conduct,' if you can call it that." Curtis sat with his hands gripping the armrest, grinding his teeth at Jr.'s proposal.
They sat there staring. Curtis at the file, Jr. at Curtis, each waiting for the other to make a move or make a decision. After what felt like an hour of holding his breath, Curtis exhaled and moved to stand up. Jr. bounced the tips of his fingers off each other and waited for Curtis’s answer.
“Well, what’s it going to be Mr. Gray?” Jr. asked.
Standing up, Curtis towered over the seated Jr., who leaned backwards in his chair behind his father’s desk looking up. He took two shuffling steps forward and placed his hand on the file, grunting in displeasure. “Where’s the job?” he asked.
“Florida.” Jr. said, peeling back another smile.
“Ughh,” Curtis snorted. “I hate Florida.” Turning around to grab his briefcase, he picked it up and placed it on his chair, spinning the numbers under the handle to unlock it. When it opened, he turned around to claim the file and tossed it in, closing it shut and spinning the numbers so it locked again.
“Aren’t you going to look at your file?” Jr. sneered.
“I’ve done this job for thirty-eight years without ever looking at a file early. Why start getting attached now?” Curtis grumbled.
“Wonderful. Your plane leaves in two hours,” Jr. said, leaning over in his desk to open a drawer, retrieving another envelope with Curtis’s plane tickets, different forms of fake identification and traveler’s checks. “Here you go Mr. Gray,” he said, sliding the envelope towards the end of the desk. “Better hurry up and pack. Wouldn’t want you to miss your flight.”
“Two hours?” Curtis asked, reaching out tentatively for the envelope.
“I had a hunch you wouldn’t be able to resist a trip to the sunshine state,” Jr. chuckled.
Curtis grabbed the envelope and shuffled off towards the door. He stopped when he reached out to leave, his hand sticking to the handle as though he didn’t have the strength to turn it. Something didn’t feel right. Something didn’t fit. None of this made any sense.
“Dick,” Curtis asked, suspicious, his hand still frozen on the handle. “How did you know I was going to take the job? I mean really, how did you know I wouldn’t look at the file?”
“Because not only did I read your file, Mr. Gray,” Jr. started. “ But because you’re a stubborn old man.” He rolled his chair back from his desk and stood up, walking over to the first of four sets of blinds drawn over the windows behind his desk. “And like most stubborn old men,” Whhhhippsk! Went the sound of the first set being zipped up, as he pulled down hard on its string. The light flooding through the window had illuminated Jr. so brilliantly that for a moment he existed only as a silhouette, outlined by the dust particles snowing from the shutters. “You’ll always do things your own way.” Whhhhippsk! “Just to prove a point.” Whhhhippsk! “Even if being in your own way gets you killed.” Whhhhippsk! Curtis flinched at the sound of the blinds being pulled, his eyes slow to adjust to the light. He’d hoped that Jr. had not seen him wince, or felt his rising uneasiness. When Jr. turned around to face him, Curtis was unable to make out any discernable features. He was chilled to discover that Jr. had been smiling at him.
“Hey Dick.” Curtis said; hand still stuck to the handle.
“Yes mister Gray?” Jr. asked, crossing his arms.
“How does James Bond like his pussy?”
Jr. forced out a single guttural, “Ha!”
“I don’t know Mr. Gray. How does he like it?”
“Shaven. Not furred.”
Jr. forced a rough chuckle before clearing his throat.“You know what Mr. Gray?” He said. “I have a hard time believing that anybody finds you funny.”
“Oh yea?” Curtis replied. “Well, fuck you.” And this seemed to do the trick. With relative ease Curtis turned the handle and made his exit, leaving Jr. to observe glittering specks of falling dust, alone.