His was a face that invited suspicion.
No one who met Agent Graves had a positive initial reaction. On first look, he projected a veil of malice, and he did nothing whatsoever to soften the first impression. His black, featureless suit was deliberately evocative of the faceless government agencies that common men and women have come to fear. It was cliché to say that he had snake eyes, but there was definitely a reptilian quality about him.
But such was the nature of his product that his salesmanship was never really of any importance. His customers wanted what he had for sale, or more precisely, what they believed he had for sale: consequence-free vengeance. He merely had to show his wares, and inevitably, the client would overcome their suspicion and revulsion for a chance at what his briefcase offered. It amused him to watch their avarice defeat their instinct for self-protection. It was possible that he could wear Charles Manson’s face and still be successful. Simply put, they needed what he offered:
Freedom from prosecution.
And 100 untraceable bullets.
* * * * *
Michael Whitney Fletcher, weeping, adjusts the noose so that the collar of his very expensive shirt is between the coarse hemp and the skin of his neck. It’s odd to think of his own comfort at such a moment, but Fletcher hates pain. The whole purpose of killing himself was to end such pain. The whole process is made all the more difficult by the fact that he is standing on one of the hotel’s slightly wobbly chairs (in his stocking feet, no less) the entire time.
He is used to comfort, and the last few months, he’s seen precious little of that.
He tugs once more on the noose-not to test his knots. He had not long ago owned a horse ranch and all manner of watercraft. He knew knots. Rather, he is testing the weight-bearing capacity of his suite’s elegant chandelier.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.
FLETCHER: GO AWAY!
Ridiculous. An interruption at this exact moment. Absurd. The maid, no doubt.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.
FLETCHER: I said, GO AWAY!
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.
Fletcher is a born calculator. If the knock is the police, they’ll have him. They’ll see the noose and there will be no release…no time where he isn’t being watched, where he can escape his fate. If it’s someone with a room key, perhaps the concierge for some reason, there is a danger that if he kicked away the chair now, they’d interrupt him before he was dead. They might be able to revive him, maybe with brain damage.
It isn’t worth it. He has to know.
He removes the noose from around his neck and steps off the Hepplewhite copy chair he’s been using as his gallows platform.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK!
FLETCHER: I’m COMING, goddammit!
He opens the door…a silver-haired middle-aged man in a black suit stood grinning on the other side, in the hotel’s too-green hallway.
FLETCHER: Now, who are you, and what the **** do you want?
AGENT GRAVES: Now, Fletcher…you’re being rude. Not interrupting anything, am I?
Something about the way the man asks the question makes Fletcher’s bowels churn…who is this man? What does he know?
AGENT GRAVES: Really, now. Enough gawking at me. Let me in, and we’ll discuss your future like gentlemen. My name is Agent Graves. You are Michael Whitney Michael Fletcher, former CEO of a respected and successful marketing firm, and current fugitive from the law. For Murder, in fact. Two counts.
FLETCHER: Listen, Jesus, you’ve got to believe me. I had nothing to do with that!
AGENT GRAVES: Oh, I know that, Fletcher. It was your wife and her tennis-playing lover who actually pulled the trigger. I have here, in this plain attaché, irrefutable proof. May I come in, or would you like to continue with your previous plan?
FLETCHER: I don’t understand…are you the police?
Puzzled, Fletcher opens the door wider, allowing the strange man entry, after a furtive glance down the hallway to make certain he is alone.
AGENT GRAVES: Thank you. As to who I am, that’s MY business. Your beloved wife, Amelia, and her lover, “Roy,” (not his real name, you might be interested to know), are this very moment having sex in your bedroom, on your bed. They’re laughing. Laughing at YOU, Fletcher. They wanted your money, and you refused to have the heart attack they’d both been praying for.
FLETCHER: I don’t believe this…not Amelia. I won’t listen to this.
AGENT GRAVES: Oh, I assure you, I’m never wrong. Here, see these photographs for yourself.
FLETCHER: Amelia! Good God, WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME, YOU BASTARD!?
AGENT GRAVES: I’m offering you something, Fletcher. They killed your partners and framed you. They’ve been lovers for over three years. In fact, “Roy” has gotten quite tired of the wife you adore so much. He’s laughingly told his friends she’s used up. He said it was like sleeping with a dry sock. He intends to leave for Europe with the contents of her bank account at the first available opportunity, once your money is transferred. Every night, they rut and laugh at you. They LAUGH at you.
Fletcher’s breath hitches, then becomes stormy as he moves from disbelief to full-on sobbing.
FLETCHER: You son of a bitch. Why are you telling me this?
AGENT GRAVES: …In this attaché is all the proof you need of their affair. It won’t help you with the police I’m afraid. Not much, anyway. You may be able to raise enough doubt to escape conviction, but I’m certain that there will be nothing left of your company or your reputation by that time.
Graves opens the attaché on the suite’s cherrywood table. He pushes it directly in front of the still-sobbing Fletcher.
AGENT GRAVES: A gun and 100 bullets, Fletcher. Each completely untraceable. Do with them what you will. If you are arrested after using them, I can ensure that you will not be held accountable…
FLETCHER: ** sniff ** …99, you mean.
AGENT GRAVES: …Excuse me?
FLETCHER: Well, you said 100 bullets. But there’s only 99 here.
AGENT GRAVES (A small muscle in his cheek spasms slightly): That’s impossible.
FLETCHER: No, I’m certain. I’m sort of a genius with numbers. There’s only 99 bullets here. You’re missing one. Look at the box, see?
AGENT GRAVES: That can’t be right. Count them again.
FLETCHER: Hey, there’s only 99 bullets, okay? What ****ing DIFFERENCE does it make, anyway? I won’t need 100 bullets to kill two people, right?
AGENT GRAVES: I said, COUNT THEM AGAIN!
FLETCHER: Hey, are you feeling all right? You’re all sweaty and pale…you look like you’re about to pass out!
(Panicked, Graves drops to his knees and begins counting the bullets with trembling hands…
AGENT GRAVES: ONE BULLET.…TWO BULLETS…THREE BULLETS…
FLETCHER: Hey, are you all right?
AGENT GRAVES: YOU MADE ME MESS UP!!! Now I have to count AGAIN!!!
FLETCHER: Now, look…what difference does it make if there are only 99 bullets?
AGENT GRAVES: STOP SAYING THAT! QUIT SAYING THAT! I know there’s a hundred bullets here! You’re BAD! You’re LYING about how many bullets! You’re a big fat STUPID!
AGENT GRAVES: There HAS to be 100 bullets! I get up in the morning, I wash my hands, I go pee, I wash my hands, I brush each tooth for 35 seconds, I wash my hands and then I PACK THE BULLETS and then I wash my hands and there’s ALWAYS 100 BULLETS, you big JERK! I HATE you!!! SHUT UP! I HATE YOU I HATE YOU!
FLETCHER: Listen, maybe we should call another agent, or something?
AGENT GRAVES: YOU’RE NOT MY FRIEND! ONE BULLET…TWO BULLETS…
FLETCHER: Seriously, I think maybe you have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder…
AGENT GRAVES (Putting his hands over his ears…): I AM NOT LISTENING TO MR. BIG FAT LIAR MAN! I AM NOT LISTENING, TRA LA LA, LA LA LA LA, ONE BANANA, TWO BANANA, THREE BANANA, FOUR, 100 BULLETS MAKE A BUNCH AND SO DO MANY MORE!
FLETCHER: You’re just some nutball, aren’t you? Or some kind of idiot, maybe?
AGENT GRAVES: You can’t even COUNT, DUMMY-HEAD! SHUT UP! I HATE YOU!
FLETCHER: I’m going to take these pictures of my wife and “Roy” to our lawyer. If I get a jump on them, the police might be able to find some evidence.
AGENT GRAVES: You think 99 equals 100, but it DOESN’T! EVERYONE knows that! There’s a hole in the ammo box, but maybe this is one of those boxes of ammo that holds 101 shells! Did you ever think of THAT, Garbage Can Head?
FLETCHER: Okay, you know…whatever. I don’t care, because I’m not using the gun. Whatever you say…if you say there’s 100 bullets there, then fine. There’s 100 bullets there.
AGENT GRAVES (Snapping to himself…): Oh. Yes, well, very good. My apologies, Mr. Fletcher. You see, I have an insufficient amount of the chemical serotonin in my brain, along with several severe related disorders. I tried cognitive behavior therapy, but…
FLETCHER: I lied. There’s only 99 bullets.
AGENT GRAVES: I HATE YOU! You POOPY-DOODY! YOU SLOOPY DIPPY GGNNNAAHAHHH!HH!H!
FLETCHER: Oh, wait…here’s the other bullet…it rolled onto the carpet.
AGENT GRAVES: …Well, to be blunt, the treatment wasn’t successful. So I now take Anafranil, which is a serotonin reuptake inhibitor…Not as bad as being cuckolded, but still quite unpleasant…
FLETCHER: Hey! This isn’t a bullet, it’s a Life-Saver!
AGENT GRAVES: NDDDAGHGGAAAAH!!!! HATE YOU! HATE AAAAAA! STUPID CAN’T COUNT STUPID HATE AHGHGHHAHAAAAA!
FLETCHER: Hey! I forgot to count the bullet in the chamber of the gun! That makes an even 100!
AGENT GRAVES: … It’s been quite a struggle, I assure you. I spend up to seventeen hours a day washing my hands. Now about your slut wife and her tanned, blond boyfriend…
FLETCHER: Nope! Chamber’s empty! Hey, why don’t you show me some more dirty pictures of my wife, Mr. Spooky?
Agent Graves begins banging his head on the table, screeching out unintelligible gibberish.
AGENT GRAVES: GNUH. HATE. FUH. CAH. SUH. CAN’. BE. 99. BAD. HATE. OW. OW. OW. OW. OW.
FLETCHER (Fidgeting around in his empty pocket, smiling broadly…): Hey! I just happened to find a bullet in my pocket! ….Nope, I was wrong. Just my key ring! HEY! Here’s the missing bullet…it’s stuck in the lining! ….No, sorry, wrong again, it’s just a penlight. Hey! Here it is! It fell out on the floor! …Nope, that’s another Life-Saver! Silly me! Hey! What’s this next to the ashtray? Why, I’ll just BET it’s that PESKY ****ING BULLET. No, no…I’m wrong…my bad! Hey! I think I see a bullet by your shoe…
NEXT WEEK: DIZZY RETURNS, AND AGENT GRAVES GOES AWAY FOR A WHILE…LET’S ALL WISH HIM LUCK, SHALL WE?