Prologue – Memento Mori

The first murder is always the hardest. Like asking a girl on a date: the first time you do it changes you, and you never forget it, you get nervous just at the memory, even if it turns out to be a total car crash of a relationship a few months later. I’m not saying murder is like dating, obviously. That would be messed up. I’m just saying it’s the sort of thing where scoring that first notch in the belt takes an unhealthy mix of emotion and stupidity.

Which is good, on the one hand, because otherwise our species wouldn’t have gotten very far.

For example, I used to take my dog to the Boston Common, not far from my apartment. It was all fun and games nine times out of ten. His favorite game was Fuck You Fetch Your Own Ball and he liked eating greasy hotdogs and licking faces (in that order). One time out of ten though, he’d sniff the wrong butt or lick the wrong dog’s face and BAM. Game. Over. All teeth and snarl. Poor little guy picked up a few scars over the years, including this real nasty one right on the edge of his nose. I ate nothing but Maruchan ramen and rice for a month just to afford the vet bills from that one, but he was worth it. He hadn’t done anything to deserve it either, hadn’t even come close enough to sniff the dog’s butt.

People aren’t like that. We don’t reach for violence instinctively, not most of us, not once we get to middle school. We’re trained to fear it. Not just the consequences, the pain, but the idea of violence itself. It’s something that was drilled into us as we grew up in a civilized world. Worse, we’re taught to feel guilt when we get hit. Even when it’s not our fault, it still feels like it is. Your parents only hit you when you’ve done something wrong, right? That’s what they tell you, anyway. Schools punish the bully and the victim both the same – zero tolerance policy. Nothing gives you the right to hit another person. Nothing. You’re better than that. You’re a good person.

Better people – good people – learn it’s their job not to provoke fights with those they know will fight, even if they’re in the right, even if it means backing down. Good people just get along with each other, and I always tried to be a good person. That’s called civilization and don’t think I’m knocking it, it’s got some perks: we’ve come a long way from sticks and stones.

But as far as civilization is concerned, the game has to be rigged to give that first time a high activation energy, to make sure it’s extra special, otherwise the whole thing falls apart. And I can even understand why the second murder comes a lot easier: if you’re the sort of person who overcame all the messiness of that virgin murder, well, maybe your life isn’t so great and you deserve a break.

I’m talking about regular people and ignoring the psychopaths and sociopaths here because they hardly generate any fees. The average psycho-slash-sociopath will have one little mess up early in life and then BAM. Game Over. Lacking proper restraint, barely even human, certainly not civilized. What would be the point of working with that?

No, we only work with the mentally healthy – that’s where the big money is. Well, mentally close-to-the-center-of-the-bell-curve, anyway. If you dig deep enough, we are none of us mentally healthy or else I’d be out of a job.

Which brings me to the other hand, in which my advancement within the Firm is being frustrated by Caesar’s refusal to stop thinking for just five seconds, leverage the raw emotions I’m juicing him with, and stab his damn girlfriend.

Caesar isn’t his real name, of course, but we have to use code names for our high-profile clients otherwise a competitor might sniff the deal out first while we do our diligence.

And in Caesar’s case, I have done my diligence. Months of work have gone into this guy. It took weeks to settle on a stabbing – most people have a natural reticence when it comes to putting a pointy object into another living creature, human or not. But this guy loves cooking his own meals every night and so it really wasn’t that hard to give him a little thrill every time he picked his big carving knife up, get him really liking the feeling of pushing it into the meat. Not cutting, because cutting takes too much time, gives too much feedback along the shaft, requires a steady hand and a steadier mind.

Much less impulsive.

The team felt Caesar wasn’t likely to be that cold-blooded. I agreed.

You’d have thought the rich and famous would hire people to do their cooking for them, but what do I know, I’m just a Vice President at the Firm, high-earning, but not rich yet. I’m not even supposed to be here in-spirit, closing the deal myself – Caesar is way above my pay grade. I’m supposed to be cranking in my cubicle all day and on through the night, eyes seared red by blue LCD screens, skin grey from lack of contact with both other humans and the hazy orange sunlight, belly filled with red meat that satisfies less the more it’s been cooked. I’m supposed to be building a multi-case model of our client’s behavior, guiding the deal team to the precise moments to inject the perfect emotions, targeted to extract maximum value, all for the big payoff, that moment when the natural course of events is changed and all expectations subverted.

The Chairman won’t pay for anything less.

Which is precisely why I’m here. Now. Subverting expectations, while my MD wastes his time trying to sleep with my girlfriend. Poor guy, he’s far too old for her. 

It’s not easy getting promoted in Hell, and if there’s the faint aftertaste of something personal to this case, well. There are no prohibitions about mixing business and pleasure down here.

As first murders go, the impulsive cases have an especially high activation energy, which is why we’d been working so hard on this one. For instance: Caesar’s girlfriend of two years has been seeing another man behind his back for a few months now. Not just any other man though, oh no, she picked his fucking brother.

That was my suggestion and a real stroke of genius, I think. Not just a run-of-the-mill Third-Partying. Despite all his high achieving in life, Caesar had ended up with quite the little brother complex and this one was really hitting him where it hurt.

There’s a lot more to it than that, a lot of little insecurities that had to be stroked just right, comments that we needed Caesar’s employees and investors and friends to make, events we needed him not invited to, all so that when the moment came we could count on our boy to deliver.

And so when she spun back round to shout at Caesar, face contorted in a condescending sneer-

I’m right there inside, reminding her that this isn’t her fault.

“Well maybe if you showed some fucking emotion around me once in a fucking year I wouldn’t have had to fucking fuck your fucking brother!” She shouted, going on the offensive because that’s what people do when you challenge them. Repeating the same profanity because the animal in charge cared only about venom, not precision.

I pretend I’m not the animal.

“Had!? You had to?” Caesar stopped to take a breath, try and calm down. His heart was pounding now, stomach taut. The tension was exquisite.

And yet. The collective inaction was too strong. Caesar wasn’t going to make the first move, he couldn’t. He wouldn’t.

The strength of his discipline shocked me. I worried my analysis had been wrong, my preparations too shallow, this whole thing too rushed. If she walked out that door and out of Caesar’s life, I was going to be raked over the coals for screwing this up-

“Fuck you then.” She said. “You deserve to be alone anyway.”

I felt a pang of respect, from one master manipulator to another, as she cut at his secret fear in a way that had never occurred to me. I felt it wash over him, dragging him down towards my tender caresses. I felt him crumble inside because he knew it was true, because he’d always known he didn’t deserve to be happy, to be loved…

She had a real gift, this one, and the knife-edge corners of her smile said she knew the hurt she was causing, knew the cold shock that froze Caesar’s gut. The tingling numbness that raced down his spine, across his arms, right down to his shins. The little hairs that stood on end. The halogen lights seemed to pulse, colors of the kitchen washing in and out.

The smile said she liked it.

I might have been the poison, but at the very end she found the vein.

She didn’t know about me. They never do.

I almost felt a pang of regret. Even me, even here, even with all this planning, even after all the others, even with everything I had riding on the deal. That’s how hard murder can be. If this had been my first, I might have even-

She turned her body away from him, pixie blonde hair framing her face, glorying in Caesar’s debasement, loath to drag her eyes from his. She reached for the door. The marks on the back of her hand that weren’t quite wrinkles but marked their coming, time’s mortal reminder, creased as she gripped the handle.

They stood out further still as Caesar gripped her other arm and twisted.

He almost missed her heart.

After all that work, he almost missed.

He wasn’t thinking, he couldn’t think, he was too far gone and our plan was too well executed. But some little instincts inside him had fought for her, even as she crushed his ego, his spirit, his pride.

Before I left the office that evening, I stopped by recruiting to file a letter of recommendation. We’d collect on Caesar’s soul, of course, that had always been part of the deal, but his girlfriend was something else. Something I’d missed. The venom, the precision, and the execution, all wrapped up in such an unassuming package. She could really do some damage, that one. It’d be a crime to let her waste away in some other line of business.

Say that I’m disgusting.

Say that I’m evil.

But give the devil his due, and say I’m good at what I do.

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