Check out Work Done For Hire by Joe Haldeman, avaialble January 7th 2014 from Ace Hardcover.
Wounded in combat and honorably discharged nine years ago, Jack Daley still suffers nightmares from when he served his country as a sniper, racking up sixteen confirmed kills. Now a struggling author, Jack accepts an offer to write a near-future novel about a serial killer, based on a Hollywood script outline. It’s an opportunity to build his writing career, and a future with his girlfriend, Kit Majors.
But Jack’s other talent is also in demand. A package arrives on his doorstep containing a sniper rifle, complete with silencer and ammunition—and the first installment of a $100,000 payment to kill a bad man.” The twisted offer is genuine. The people behind it are dangerous. They prove that they have Jack under surveillance. He can’t run. He can’t hide. And if he doesn’t take the job, Kit will be in the crosshairs instead.
A friend called me this morning and asked whether I could go shooting, and I said no, I couldn’t. I made up something about work, but the fact is, I couldn’t.
I was a sniper in the desert, in this war that it seems no one can really stop. I didn’t volunteer for the job, not initially, but I wasn’t smart enough to miss the targets in Basic Training. And “sniper” sounded cool, so I signed up for the school when they offered it.
I count back on all my fingers and it’s been nine years. Sometimes it feels like yesterday, literally. I wake up in grainy grime and shit smell, the slimy cold of the damned plastic suit. Cold until the sun comes up and tries to kill you. That sounds too dramatic, but I’ll leave it. The sun bakes you and broils you and disorients you, and it makes you a target. They have rifles, too. Not so many snipers.
In sixteen months I killed maybe twenty people, sixteen confirmed. What kind of a prick keeps track? Besides, as often as not, you can’t tell. The recoil usually knocks you off the sight picture, and with the scope at maximum power, it takes a second or two to get back. Your spotter will say, “Good shot,” but what’s he going to say? You’re usually shooting at someone who’s peeking out of a window or from behind the edge of a wall, and if an ounce and a half of lead buzzes by his ear at the speed of sound, he’s not about to stand up and shout, “You missed!”
So I don’t know whether I’m going to burn in Hell sixteen times or thirty or forty, or whether they even make you burn in Hell for not being smart enough to miss the god-damned target in Basic Training. I suspect I’ll go wherever the people I killed went. But I don’t expect to meet them.
I had a girlfriend all those sixteen months, and she e-mailed me every afternoon, morning her time, and I wrote back whenever I was near a hot point. We were going to get married.
But I know I’m not as nice in person as I am at the keyboard. That must happen all the time.
She put up with me for three or four months after I got out of the hospital. I think she still loved me for maybe half that time. But how long can you love someone who goes into bars just to beat people up? To get drunk enough to start fights. And then cry in movies. You can cry for Bambi or Meryl Streep, but crying in a zombie movie is a symptom that something is loose in your head.
That sounds so drama queen. I didn’t really get that bad a deal, wounded once and out. The bullet that blew off my left pinkie also smashed a rib and bounced into my left lung, serious enough to get me six weeks in Bethesda and an early honorable discharge. Eighty percent disability pays for the rent and groceries and some of the beer.
For a few years the rest of the beer came out of the GI Bill, while I finished college and got an easy Master’s. When that cow ran dry I did this and that, temp jobs like typing and answering phones. But I don’t take orders well anymore, and tend to raise my voice. So I had lots of jobs, none of them for too long.
I’ve always written poetry, not a fast track to fame and fortune, and started writing stories when I was in the hospital. I actually sold one, for $150, before I was out of rehab. So the idea of doing it for a living was pretty natural. How far could it be from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to the best-seller list?
I still don’t know, but it’s more than nine years.
I wrote a novel and it did about as well as most first novels, which is to say my mother bought ten copies and a few thousand other people must have thought I was a relative. It did get two or three good reviews, and a couple of poisonous ones, notably from the Times. It bothers me to know that I probably got into graduate school because I got reviewed in the Times. They hated the book but evidently thought it was important enough to warn potential readers away.
I guess every writer who’s been a soldier has to write his war novel. I can’t stand to read the damned thing anymore. Though I hate to think that maybe the Times was right.
Second novels are a hard sell, especially if you don’t have cheerful blurbs from the first. “Puerile,” shouts the New York Times. “A worthwhile journeyman effort,” mumbles Publishers Weekly. My hometown newspaper called it a “good read,” but I went to high school with the reviewer. So my second novel has been to some of the best addresses in New York, according to my agent, but it hasn’t been invited to stay.
The agent, Barb Goldman, probably took me on because she’s a vet, too. Twice my age, she was in the hundred-hour war that started the whole thing. Before 9/11 and Gehenna. When I go up to New York we get drunk together and remember the desert. Old sergeants whom we sincerely hope are dead by now.
Drinking with her, I’ve never felt the crazy urge to fight. Maybe because she’s older than my mother and would die of embarrassment. Maybe because the bars we go to are a little nicer than the ones I frequent in Florida. Get into a fight in the Four Seasons and you might hurt somebody who could buy your book.
So she called and asked whether I’d like to make some easy money doing work for hire, and of course I said, “Who do you think I am?” She knew exactly who I was, and said I could make fifty thousand bucks, writing a sort of “novelization” of a movie by Ron Duquest. I said it sounded like a fun way to pay for the next two thousand cases of beer, and she said that’s good, because she’d already accepted. She knew I liked fantasy and horror, and this was going to be a horror movie.
And that was not all, not by a long shot. Duquest had asked for me specifically. She showed me the note that had come with the request:
If you got this you know my number
I really liked “High Kill,” by your client Jack Daley. Good natural storytelling talent. Could he write a short book for me? We got an idea sounds right up his alley—a sci-fi monster and a returned vet. I can put a little up front: Ten grand to write the book, and he keeps all the book rights. We’ll send another contract if we like the book for a movie: basically $50,000 for an 18-month option against $500,000 if the movie gets made. Make that “start of principal photography.” Don’t want to haggle but I have the check right here if you want it.
(signed) Duke D.
I wasn’t sure quite how to take that. But I’d seen several features by Ron Duquest, and liked his light touch. I asked her what he meant by a “short book,” and she said a novella, between a hundred and two hundred typed pages.
Sort of the opposite of what I normally thought of as a “novelization,” which would be taking an existing movie script and cranking out a novel based on that. This might actually be easier, though. I could probably write a hundred pages of acceptable prose in a couple of weeks. For twice what I got for the last novel.
It would be a “work done for hire” in that Duquest would own the copyright. But since I’d keep the book rights, and also make a small fortune if a movie came out of it, what the hell.
She zapped me the two-page description. Pretty good story; the main character was my age and had gone to my war. He’s a lawyer and a private eye but unsuccessful. I like that in a lawyer.
I spent the morning not writing. I’d never done anything like this, purely commercial stuff, but I had taken a screenwriting course in graduate school, and this was sort of the opposite. So I figured I’d do a diagram first, breaking down the supposed movie into acts and scenes, which I could reassemble into a book narrative.
While I was immersed in that, the phone rang and it was my current pelvic pal, Kit Majors, wondering whether I’d forgotten about lunch. I told her I was on my way out the door, and then I was.
I really should make myself notes. It was normally a ten-minute bike ride to the Irish restaurant, but I made it in five, sweating a little bit.
When I walked in, she signaled the bartender, and he started tapping me a Guinness. I was actually going to get us a nice bottle of wine, to celebrate, but that could come later. Kit liked to be in control, which was usually okay with me.
We kissed. “I got a job.”
“Jesus, you’re kidding. Someone put up a plaque.”
“You peasants may laugh, but in fact it is a real job, real money. I’m gonna be a literary prostitute for fifty large. As much as a half million down the road.”
“Wow. Room in that bed for another one?” Kit was a poet as well as a mathematician.
“You wouldn’t want to do it. Novelization of a horror movie.”
“Ew. People who go to those things read books?”
“Big words and all. This one’s by Ron Duquest.”
“I’m supposed to know who that is?”
“He did the Bradbury remake you liked, Dandelion Wine.”
“That wasn’t horror.”
“Depends on what scares you.” The bartender brought the beer and took our food order, a steak for her and a Cobb salad for me.
“You’re gonna waste away.”
“Not for a while.” I’ve always been what they call “big-boned,” but had never had to watch my diet, until the past year or so. I had to admit I was getting paunchy.
“Your mother called.”
“What, she called you?”
She gave me a look. “No, she called the bartender. I couldn’t help but overhear.”
“All right. She always calls my cell. But I turn it off when I’m working.”
“She said you promised to fix the porch, once it stopped raining.”
“Oh, shit. Of course I’m gonna fix the god-damn porch. It’s not like I had to write a book or something.”
“I could come help.”
“Nothing to it, really. Replace a step and stain it. But yeah, I could use the company. Talk to Mom, distract her.”
“Tell her about our sex life?”
“No. She snores. You drive over?”
“What, you biked?”
“Two hundred calories. And the guy in the screenplay bikes. We could swing by Hawkeye’s and pick up a plank and some stain. Then go surprise the old lady.”
“You pay for lunch?”
“I’m a big Hollywood guy now. We always pay for lunch.”
“Yeah, but you get blow jobs.”
I rolled my eyes at her. “Everything has a price in this sorry world.”
He was so big that people couldn’t help staring at him. If you guessed his weight, you might say four hundred pounds, but it was more like five. A relatively large head with small features pinched in the middle. Straggly long hair and no eyebrows. Ugly as hell. If he were on a television show he’d have a sweet disposition. In real life he was quite otherwise.
On police blotters in four states he was called Hunter. He was a monster, so far uncatchable, unobserved.
He hid his windowless van in a cul-de-sac and labored up a hill to a location he’d scouted out earlier. A jogging trail that had thick brush for cover, but by moving a couple of steps to the left and right, he could see a hundred yards or more in both directions.
He could hear for a mile. There was no one coming.
He tied a length of monofilament fishing line to a sapling and laid it across the path. It was almost invisible.
He hid in the bush and quickly applied military camouflage makeup to his face and hands, matching the green camouflage suit he’d made out of a tent. He snapped the wire up a couple of times, testing. It would do, catching the runner midway between ankle and knee.
The first jogger down the trail was a beautiful teenaged girl, blond hair streaming out behind her, breasts bouncing softly, her scarlet silken outfit clinging with sweat. He salivated at her beauty but let her pass. He was doing boy-girl-boy-girl and didn’t want to confuse the police analysts. Not yet.
The next one was a boy, but he was too close behind, probably striving to catch up with the girl. If he made a noise, she might hear. If she saw the fat man at work, she would call 9-1-1. That would make things too complicated.
They both were well out of sight, though, when the next one came up, clearly exhausted, almost shuffling, a man of about forty. That was all right. He yanked on the monofilament and the man fell flat on his face.
He was up on his hands and knees by the time Hunter had lumbered out to the trail. He punched him once in the back of the head with a fist the size of a bowling ball, knocking him flat. He picked him up like a sleeping child and carried him back to the van.
The rear door was open. He laid the man out and wiped the blood away from his mouth, then slapped duct tape over it. Then he bound his hands and feet with tape, working quickly for one so fat, and handcuffed him to an eyebolt on the side, then quietly eased the door shut. The whole process took less than a minute.
He got a gallon jug of water out of the front seat and cleaned off the camo makeup. Then he took off the outfit; he had regular shorts and a tee underneath. Then he carried the water back up to the trail, made sure no one was coming, and rinsed away the spatter of blood the man’s face had left. He thumbed open the large folding knife he always carried, severed the monofilament, and wrapped it around the jug as he walked back down to the van.
From the coffin-sized cooler in the back, he took out two quart bottles of Budweiser. Then he got in the driver’s seat, the van dipping to the left in spite of its custom springs.
A lot of people drink beer while they’re driving in Alabama. He decided to not take the chance. He drank both quarts sitting there, and finished off two bags of hot peanuts and a bag of bacon rinds. Life was good.
He put the empties and wrappers in a plastic bag and washed his hands and face. He ignored the faint sounds from the back and headed for the interstate.
After I finished that little chapter, I checked the e-mail and lo, there was an $8,500 PayPal deposit from my agent, Duquest’s down payment minus her fifteen percent. I actually clapped my hands together.
Duquest sent an e-mail, too, all lower case: “good so far.” Hey, don’t give me a swelled head.
Of course once the novella was in Duquest’s hands, he could screw it up any way he wanted. But hell, he was paying for the privilege. I didn’t much like surrendering control, even if it is a work done for hire. But I wrote HALF A MILLION BUCKS on a three-by-five card and taped it over the computer, in case I start to get depressed.
I decided to go buy a nice bike, like the private eye does in the story. Maybe I’ll go buy a pistol, too; see how a 9-mm feels. But if somebody calls and tries to hire me to find a fat guy who kills joggers, I’m so outta here.
I printed out the first chapter and quit to clean house. Kit said her parents wanted to meet me, and I had ignored the voice inside, screaming “Ah-ooga! Ah-ooga! Dive! Dive!” and invited them over for dinner. So I had to weigh my options: good impression or self-defense food poisoning. I opted for the former, but took the chicken out of the fridge a tad early. Let the gods decide.
Maybe it’s odd that I haven’t met them, since they’re only like ten miles away and I’ve been seeing Kit for almost a year. The first couple of months you wouldn’t have wanted to take me home to Mother; some asshole decked me with a Jack Daniels bottle, which broke my nose and knocked out a tooth under a split lip. The VA fixed me up, but it took a while.
That was a good bar, but I don’t go there anymore. The bartender turned out to be the owner. He bitched about the damage, and I sort of picked up the broken bottle and offered him a colonoscopy. He went for the phone and I decided to go bleed somewhere else.
Kit met me about a week later at a branch of the library, where I was giving a reading from my second novel, which I think I will retitle The Fucking Albatross. It had to be the worst reading in the history of literary indecent exposure. I sounded exactly like a guy with a nose full of cotton, and with the temporary cap on my front tooth, I whistled every time I tried to pronounce “s” or “th.” We had a beer afterwards and she took me home for a mercy fuck that turned out to be a yearlong hobby, maybe more.
So now to meet her parents. Shave, clean shirt, find some socks. Hide the porn. I left my desk a random hellhole—I probably couldn’t find anything if I neatened it—but closed the office door.
Kit once asked me why male writers had offices and female ones had studios or writing rooms. Maybe it’s so we can pretend we’re working.
I clicked “random classical” on the living room pod and made a salad and put it in the fridge. Dumped some coals in the grill and soaked them with starter fluid and waited. Normally, I’d make a drink at five, but that might not be a good idea. Wait and offer them one. I had a wild impulse to roll a joint; they’d be almost old enough to be hippies. No, that was the sixties and seventies. They were probably just born. Besides, Kit didn’t smoke, so her parents probably didn’t either. The family that smokes together croaks together.
They were exactly on time, and of course dressed down, for a picnic. Her father, Morrie, was wearing a T-shirt that half exposed a Marine Corps anchor tattoo on his beefy bicep. But it was a Princeton crew shirt, a little cognitive dissonance. Her mother, Trish, was delicate and quiet. Quietly observant.
Kit had brought the ingredients for sangria and took over the kitchen to make a pitcher. So I dumped a bag of potato chips in a bowl and escorted her parents out to the patio. That made things a little awkward, with no mediator. I braced myself for the usual “so you’re a writer” excruciation.
It was worse. “Kitty says you were a sniper in the war,” Morrie said. “In the army, was it?”
“Guard unit, actually.”
“Same same.” Not a good sign when a civilian uses military slang. “How long did they keep you over there?”
“Not fair.” He shook his head. “Ain’t it a bitch, as we used to say.” He glanced at his wife, and she gave him a tiny nod. “It would’ve been less if you’d gone RA.”
“That was often a topic of discussion.”
He smiled a kind of Princeton smile. “I can well imagine.”
“Morrie was in the Marines,” Trish said, somewhat unnecessarily.
“Just a grunt,” he said. “We didn’t get along with the snipers too well.”
“We heard about that. They had a high opinion of themselves. Their school was a lot harder than ours, though.”
“Yes. No question it was a difficult job. A lot of lying in wait.”
“Like an alligator,” I said.
“I used to spend a lot of time watching them, down in Florida. They lie still for hours, until all the other animals accept them as part of the landscape. One gets too close and they strike, fast, like a rattlesnake.”
“Have you seen that?” Trish asked.
“Once. He got a big blue heron.”
“I like alligators,” she said. Why was I not surprised?
“Did you watch him for hours?” he said.
“Yes, I did. With a camera. But it happened too fast. All I got was a picture of his tail, sticking out of the water.”
“Drowning the bird?”
“That’s what they do.”
“Are you guys talking about the war?” Kit brought out a tray with the pitcher of sangria. Three glasses with the wine punch and one of ice water. Her father took that one. “Two vets get together—”
“Not the war,” I said. “Alligators.”
She handed me a glass. “That’s good. Some of my favorite people are cold-blooded animals.”
“You even vote for one every now and then,” her father said.
“Sorry. No politics.”
“I’ll get the coals going.” I escaped to the lawn and squirted some fresh starter on the charcoal, then lit the pile in several places.
Nobody said anything until I came back. I picked up the drink and sipped it; extra brandy. “Thanks, sweetheart.”
“Kitty says you write books, Jack,” her mother said.
“I’ve written two and a half. Taking time off right now to do a purely commercial one, a kind of novelization.”
To their blank look Kit said, “That’s normally when they make a book out of a movie. In this case, Jack’s writing the book first.”
Her father tilted his head. “I would’ve thought that was the usual way.”
“Kind of. Nobody seems eager to make a movie out of one of my books. But this isn’t actually a movie yet; just a pitch.”
Her mother shook her head slightly, with a blank look. “A pitch is a sales job,” her father supplied.
“My literary agent actually came up with the deal,” Jack said. “She was talking with a producer/director, Duke Duquest, and my name came up. He had a vague idea about doing a horror movie with its roots in present-day war. My war novel had just come out, with good reviews.”
“It has a sort of horror angle,” Kit said.
“Well, I’d call it fantasy. This one is real horror, though, a monster who hunts people.”
“Like you,” her mother said.
“Isn’t that what you did?” She looked honest and sincere and not judgmental. “Like a hunter after deer? With a rifle?”
“I suppose it is.”
“If the deer had guns,” her father said.
“It’s good money,” Kit said. “As much as a thousand dollars a page.”
“My word. How many pages can you write a day?”
“Four or five, on a good day. Two or three’s more common.”
“Still damned good pay,” her father said.
“I was lucky to get it.” I decided not to mention that it would only be fifty pages. Kit said nothing to disillusion them, either, so the rest of the evening passed convivially, the Majors mistakenly thinking that their daughter was dating a budding millionaire rather than a starving artist. After they left, Kit rewarded me with a night of uncharacteristically inventive sex.
I didn’t sleep well. Dreams about hunting.
Work Done For Hire © Joe Haldeman, 2014