It was friday evening, just after seven o’clock, and still bright as noon. In Florida, August is perpetual, relentless, refusing to unclench its fist, and despite the looming sunset it was close to a hundred degrees. The heat settled in my body, dull and enervating, and it accentuated the smell that hung in the air—a stink both tangible and elusive, like the skin of grease on a cold bowl of stew. It was more than a smell, but a thing, heavy enough to weigh like cotton balls shoved into the back of your throat. A putrid miasma whirled and eddied through the streets of the trailer park. I don’t mean hot-garbage-by-the-curb smells—rotting chicken carcasses and old diapers and potato peelings. No such luck. It smelled like a prison camp outhouse. Worse.
I stood there on the spiderwebbed concrete step leading up to the mobile home, propping open the screen door with my shoulder. Sweat trickled down my side and clung to my overworked undershirt. I’d been at it since a little after lunch, and I was in a haze now, an automaton lost in the blankness of ringing doorbells, delivering my pitch, lurching forward again. I glanced left and right at the faded white mobile homes and thought it both amusing and profoundly sad that I couldn’t remember coming down this street.
I wanted nothing more than to make it inside someone’s home, to get out of the heat. The trailer’s window-unit air conditioner hummed and rattled and almost bucked, trickling condensation into an eroded gully of white sand. I was overdressed for the heat, and every few hours I needed a blast of AC, like an antidote, in order to keep up the fight. I’d chosen my attire not for comfort but to look smart and to do business: tan chinos, wrinkles smoothed out by the humidity, a thickly striped blue-and-white shirt, and a square-cut, knit turquoise tie, maybe three inches wide. It was 1985, and I thought the tie looked pretty cool.
I knocked again and then jammed my thumb into the glowing peach navel of the doorbell. No answer. The muted hum of a television or maybe a stereo barely pierced the door, and I saw a slight rustle of the slatted blinds, but still no answer. Not that I blamed them, whoever they were, squatting behind their sofa, pantomiming Shhhh with fingers pressed to lips. I was on their stoop, a teenager in a tie, trying to sell them something, they would think—rightly so—and who needed that? Then again, who needed them? It was a self-selecting system. I’d been doing this for only three months, but I knew that much already. The ones who came to the door were the ones you wanted to come to the door. The ones who let you in were the ones you wanted to let you in.
The heavy brown leather bag, which my stepfather had given me reluctant permission to borrow from its mildewing box in the garage, dug a trench into my shoulder. Touching the thing always made me feel dirty, and it smelled like split-pea soup. He hadn’t used the bag in years, but my stepfather had still thought it important to act put-upon before he reluctantly agreed to let me clean out the mouse droppings and polish it with leather restorer.
I adjusted the strap to lessen the pain and plodded down the steps and along the old walkway that bisected the lawn—really just an ocean of sand peppered with a few islands of crabgrass. At the street I looked in both directions, unsure which way to go, which way I’d come from, but down to my left I saw a flyer flapping lazily against the corner mailbox, affixed with a long swath of dull silver duct tape. The missing cat flyer. I’d seen—what?—two or three of those that day? Maybe twice as many missing dog flyers. Not all the same dog or cat, either, and I was sure I’d passed by this one already. It had a photocopied picture of a white or tan tabby with dark splotches across its face, its mouth open, tongue barely visible. Anyone seeing a plump kitty named Francine should call the number below.
I headed away from the flyer. I was sticking to the same side of the street, passing a vacant lot to get to the next trailer. My legs, defying the demand for pep from my brain, moved slowly, shuffling almost. I looked again at my watch, which hadn’t much budged since just before I rang the bell. At least four hours to go, and I needed to rest. I needed to be able to sit still for a while, but that wasn’t really it. What I needed was relief from thinking about the job, even a good night’s sleep, as if such a thing were possible, but I could give up all hope of sleep. It wouldn’t happen on the road, when I worked all day and half the night. Not at home, on my one day off, when there were errands to run and friends and family to see before the cycle began again. I’d been operating on less than four hours a night for three months now. How long could I do it? Bobby, my crew boss, said he’d been doing it for years, and he seemed okay.
I had no plans of doing it for years. Just one year, that was all, and that was plenty. I was pretty good at the job—more than pretty good—and I made money, but there I was, seventeen years old, and I could feel myself aging, feel soreness accumulating in my joints, feel a beleaguered rounding in my shoulders. My eyes didn’t seem to work as well, my memory had begun to frazzle, my bathroom habits were irregular. It was the lifestyle. I’d gone to sleep at home, just outside Ft. Lauderdale, the night before. The alarm had jerked me out of bed at six so I could get to the local office by eight, where I’d sat in pep meetings until we all hopped in the car and headed out to the Jacksonville area, checked into a motel, and got to work. Another standard weekend gets under way.
Tires rumbled behind me, and I instinctively veered over toward the empty lot, careful to avoid the nests of fire ants and the prickly weeds that would find their way to my dark gray gym socks, which only a seventeen-year-old could convince himself passed for respectable as long as no one saw the sporty stripes.
Keeping over to the side was the smart thing in places like this. Locals wouldn’t have to look at me twice to see that I was way out of my element. They would throw mostly empty beer cans or swerve at me, half-playful and half-homicidal. They would shout things, and I thought it a pretty good guess they were withering insults, insults that would sting like salt in my eyes if I could hear them, but they’d be garbled against the whoosh of a speeding truck and the crackling speakers blasting 38 Special. I didn’t know if the other guys had to put up with the same crap, but I doubted it.
A dark blue Ford pickup rolled to a stop. It looked freshly washed, and its paint glistened like a tar pit in the glare of the almost setting sun. The passenger-side window lurched down, and the driver, a guy in his thirties with a black T-shirt, learned over toward the window. He looked handsome in an odd way, like the debonair guy in a cartoon out to steal the hero’s girl, but like a cartoon character, he was oddly distorted. He was puffy. Not fat or heavy or anything. Just puffy, like a corpse beginning decomposition or a man suffering from an allergic reaction.
The puffiness was weird, sure, but what I mostly noticed was his hair. He kept it sheared to almost a military cut, but in the back it came down in a straight fan to his shoulders. Today they call this style a mullet. In 1985 I’d never seen a mullet before, had no idea what a mullet was, what it was called, or why someone might choose to endure such a thing except for the simple thrifty pleasure that comes from having two haircuts on one head. All I knew was that it looked monumentally stupid.
“Where you going?” the guy asked. His voice buckled under the weight of his syrupy accent, uniquely Florida. Half pecan pie, half key lime. We were about thirty miles outside of Jacksonville, and heavy accents were par for the course.
I’d lived in Florida since the third grade and had long been afraid of just about everyone outside a major urban center. In no way did I consider this cowardice, but common sense. Despite the popular belief that big cities like Ft. Lauderdale and Jacksonville and Miami were nothing but suburbs of New York or Boston, they were, in reality, dense with longtime Florida natives, a vocal minority of whom included Confederate flag wavers, “Dixie” hummers, and cross burners. These cities were also full of transplants from all over the country, so things balanced out reasonably well. Step out to the boonies, and the flavor became considerably less cosmopolitan.
I now stood, as far as I was concerned, in the boonies, which meant that the iridescent kick my jew ass sign on my forehead, visible only to those who preferred Hank Williams Jr. to Sr., began to throb and fire off sparks. I conjured a polite smile for the pickup driver, but the smile turned out badly, crooked and sheepish.
For an instant, I considered giving the guy my line, about how I was in the neighborhood to speak with parents about education, but I knew instantly it was a bad idea. Puffy Guy with his weird hair and his pampered pickup radiated a low tolerance for bullshit. My crew boss, Bobby, could probably get away with the pitch. Hell, Bobby would probably score off the guy, but I was not Bobby. I was good, maybe the best guy in Bobby’s crew—maybe the best guy Bobby had found in a long while. But I wasn’t Bobby.
“I’m selling,” I said with a startling realization, like the flip of a switch, that I wasn’t merely uneasy, I was afraid. Even in all that heat, I felt cold, and my muscles had begun to tense. “Door-to-door,” I added. I took the bag off my shoulder and set it down between my black dress sneakers.
The man leaned a little farther toward me and grinned a mouth full of haphazardly arranged teeth. The two front ones, in particular, were long like a rabbit’s, but widely spaced and moving in opposite directions. Their crookedness stood out all the more for their unusual, even radiant, whiteness. I wished I hadn’t seen them, because now I had to try not to stare.
“You got a permit for that?” He yanked at something between his legs and came up with a nearly full bottle of Yoo-hoo, which he put to his lips for a good ten seconds. When he set it down again, the bottle was now more than half-empty. I suppose an optimist would say it was half-full.
A permit. I’d never heard of such a thing. Did I need a permit? Bobby hadn’t said anything about it; he’d merely dropped me off and told me to hit the trailer park hard. Bobby loved trailer parks.
I had to stay focused, act confident, presume this guy wouldn’t try anything too crazy, not in the middle of the street, albeit a sinisterly deserted street. “My boss told me to sell here,” I said, looking at the pavement rather than his teeth.
“I didn’t ask who told you to do nothing,” the guy said, shaking his head with sadness at the poor state of things. “I asked if you had a permit.”
I tried to tell myself I shouldn’t be so afraid. Nervous, sure. Anxious, guarded, alert—you bet. But this was like being ten years old again, caught in the nasty neighbor’s yard or messing around with your friend’s father’s power tools. “Do I need one?”
The guy in the pickup fixed his gaze on me. He curled his upper lip into a half pucker, half scowl. “Answer the question, boy. You stupid?”
I shook my head, partly in disbelief and partly in answer to his question. “I don’t have a permit,” I said. I tried to look away again, but his eyes were bearing down on me.
Then the redneck burst into a huge, crooked-tooth grin. “Well, it’s a good thing you don’t need one, then, ain’t it?”
It took me a minute to understand what had happened, and then I forced a nervous attempt at an I’m-a-good-sport laugh. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
“You listen up. You best stay out of trouble. You know what happens to people caught breaking the law round here?”
“They’re asked to squeal like pigs?” I tried to keep it from coming out, but despite my fear it slipped through my grasp and got away from me. It could happen to anyone.
The redneck’s dark eyes went narrow over his long nose. “You being a smart-ass?”
What the hell kind of question was that? Could there be any explanation for what I’d said other than smart-assedness? I decided not to point that out.
When people say that they had the metallic taste of fear in their mouth, that metal is generally copper. My mouth tasted like copper. “Just keeping things light,” I managed, along with a forced expression of calm and affability.
“What’s a smart-ass like you doing out here, anyhow? Why ain’t you in your college?”
“I’m trying to earn money for college,” I told him, hoping my industry would impress him.
It didn’t. “Ain’t you something, college boy? Am I going to have to come out of here and smack you in the pussy?”
There was, of course, no dignified way to answer that question. Maybe Bobby would be able to shrug it off, crack some self-effacing joke to make the guy in the pickup like him. Next thing you know, they’d be laughing like old friends. Not me. The only thing I could think of was groveling—or to imagine an alternate universe version of me, the Lem who would walk over to the open window and pound the guy in the face until his nose burst and his stupid haircut was matted with blood. The Lem in this universe didn’t do that sort of thing, but it always seemed to me that if I could do it once, if I could be the sort of person who might beat the living shit out of a jerk giving me a hard time, then that fact would be written on my body, my face, in my walk, and I wouldn’t be, once again, under the thumb of a bully high on his own power over me.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Ethical Assassin by David Liss. Copyright © 2006 by David Liss. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.