I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I phoned the dispatcher and said I wanted to take a vacation.
“Now, Zé, just now when we’ve got so much work on our hands, you ask to take a vacation?”
“I’m not asking, I’m telling. It’s not the same thing. I don’t think I’m going to be working for you anymore.”
I hung up the phone on him.
Even when I’m on vacation I don’t go unarmed. I feel naked when I’m not packing. Lately I’ve been using a Browning, Belgian with a 13 clip. It’s not the most up-to-date but I like its size. You put that baby in your belt, with the silencer, and you can wear a knit shirt over it without anyone noticing. It has a range of 200 yards. But I don’t need it, I’m not shooting from a trench. The guy I serviced at the longest distance, as best I recall, was less than thirty feet away.
My other habit is looking at people—but looking at them critically, analyzing, understanding. I look at a man or woman and start imagining who that person is, what kind of work he does, his age, the kind of family he has, where he lives, how much he makes. I think it must be a professional vice, this thing of staying alert, seeing a potential threat in anyone who gets close to me. It’s not paranoia, and if it is, it’s thanks to it that twice now I’ve escaped from getting blown away, and one of those times the guy who came after me was dressed as a priest, but I shot the sonofabitch first. I also got the one who ordered the hit, a guy who thought I’d stolen two truckloads of contraband that belonged to him. I told him, with my gun stuck in his nose, Listen here, you fool, I don’t get involved with smuggling, I’m a professional killer, that’s what I do, I don’t do anything else, understand, it’s my sole source of income, understand? He nodded his head. The bullet I fired went up his nose and came out the back of his skull.
One of the things that’s always annoyed me is not knowing how to eat with chopsticks in a Japanese restaurant. I used to have a hot girlfriend, but she didn’t want to eat anything but Japanese, and I didn’t know how to use chopsticks and always made up some excuse for us to go somewhere else. On a certain occasion she told me, If you don’t take me to eat Japanese today, we’re through. She left me, of course.
Then one day I walked by the door of the Japanese restaurant and it was empty, so I went in. Shortly after that a woman, about 30, pretty, came in but didn’t look at me, clutching her cell phone to her ear. Women love cell phones.
When the food arrived, it was the same old horror story. I couldn’t eat with chopsticks. I noticed that the woman with the cell phone was looking at me and must be thinking, That idiot doesn’t know how to use chopsticks. But she manipulated them with extreme skill, using just one hand. Even using both hands I couldn’t manage. I felt like asking for a knife and fork but didn’t. The waiter asked if I’d like him to put a rubber band around the tips of the chopsticks, explaining that lots of customers used that trick. I refused, irritated, and told him I didn’t need to.
I ended up leaving half the food on the plate. I paid and left. The woman with the cell phone looked at me and I looked at her, but there wasn’t any risk. She observed me with a half-smile.
I stopped at the nearest McDonald’s and ordered a burger with fries. Then I went home and turned on the television, but nothing but crap was on, so I picked up a book and went to read in bed. It was some idiotic crime story, but reading, reading of any kind, robs me of my sleep and I ended up reading the entire book. I got up with an aching neck, showered, shaved in the shower—the hot water makes shaving easier—then got dressed and went out.
I can spend a sleepless night with no ill effects. I bought a newspaper and went for breakfast in a bar open at that hour. I always had the same thing, a toasted bun and coffee. While I drank the coffee I read the paper, beginning with the sports page. The world, the country, my city, everything was in deep shit.
As I was walking home a car with windows so dark I couldn’t see who was driving passed slowly by me. I had the sensation that someone inside was watching me. I looked at the license plate and jotted down the number.
When I got home I called a friend who knows everything there is to know about computers and can get into anything, no matter how secure, and asked him to hack into the Department of Motor Vehicles and find out who that plate was registered to; it took five minutes for him to tell me it was in the name of one Eurico Martins. I then asked him to go into the police files to see if the guy had a record. Half an hour later he phoned to say that Eurico Martins had been accused of various crimes but had never been convicted of anything.
I asked for his address, and my friend said that Eurico Martins resided in a very quiet neighborhood.
“Caju Cemetery. The guy’s been there since last year.”
A dead end, for both me and the deceased.
A few days later, I decided to go back to the Japanese restaurant. I told the waiter to put on the rubber band holding the tips of the chopsticks together.
The same woman as before showed up. This time she wasn’t talking on her cell phone. Standing beside my table, she said she wanted to apologize.
“I wasn’t mocking you when I laughed at your difficulty using chopsticks. It took me months to learn. There were times when I got so nervous that I used my hands and got food all over myself.”
She seemed a little nervous as she told me this. I looked at her well-kept hands, at her teeth when she smiled, and at her eyes. Something in her eyes was beyond my understanding; there was something about her eyes. Her face was pretty.
I replied by saying I hadn’t been bothered when I saw her laughing at me. I asked if she would like to join me. She thanked me and sat down across from me.
“I think it’s a good idea to use the rubber bands,” she said. “May I help?”
She showed me how to position my hand and fingers on the chopsticks.
“The Japanese name for chopsticks is hashi,” she said. “It seems the consumption of wood for making hashis is immense, and the conservationists are advocating reusable plastic hashis to protect the forests that are being destroyed. But the connoisseurs of Japanese cuisine prefer wooden chopsticks. I would hate using plastic chopsticks. I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Olivia. In school, because I was so skinny, they called me Olive Oyl.”
“Olive Oyl was Popeye’s girlfriend, remember? He was an old cartoon character, but my father had a videotape and used to play it for the children.”
She couldn’t stop talking. Nervous. Why?
We were sitting at a table in front of an enormous upholstered bench, with a backrest, that took up the entire wall. Olivia had sat down on the bench, as I was already occupying the chair. She had placed her purse beside her and was constantly touching it as if to make sure it hadn’t disappeared. I wondered what her profession was. She was probably a little past thirty. Education? Maybe college. Major: communications, journalism? Middle class. Native of Rio.
“I sell computer products,” I said. I usually carry around a briefcase full of brochures with photos of desktops, notebooks, monitors, PDAs, printers, scanners. “Can I ask what you do?”
“Social communications. I work with a girlfriend. We do media consultation, public relations, things like that.”
“Where did you go to college?”
She hesitated. “Minas Gerais.”
“You’re from Minas?”
“But your accent is pure Rio.”
“I worked very hard to acquire this accent. It was harder than learning to use hashis.”
Olivia, despite being thin and deserving the epithet Olive Oyl, was an attractive woman, but before I get involved with a woman I have to find out everything about her. I knew I could bed her after the third meeting, in other words, after one more lunch at the Japanese restaurant, but she wasn’t ready yet. I was a bit impatient, because I can’t go without a woman for long, and the one I used to have had dumped me, as I mentioned, because of those damned hashis.
But I had to control my libido. With me it was complicated, I didn’t enjoy screwing whores or jerking off. I liked believing in lies like the one that claimed working hard and screwing hard were incompatible, weakened the brain. But whenever I’m with a woman who really turns me on and I screw all day, my head gets better. I think Dr. Freud agrees with me.
I asked Olivia for her phone number. She gave me the number of her cell. It was one of those prepaid types. So was mine, but doubtless for different reasons than hers—I didn’t want my identity discovered through my cell phone.
At our third meeting Olivia was still tense. But I was used to that by now. She must know what my intentions were, and in such cases women were always nervous, thinking that if the thing doesn’t work out it’s their fault, but in reality it’s never their fault—it’s always ours. The guy can’t get it up in bed and the woman holds herself responsible for it, either for not having been able to seduce the man or because of looking ugly naked, or who knows what other reasons poor unhappy women conjure up.
Olivia still had her nervous tic of constantly touching the purse beside her on the bench.
“Where’s your office?” she asked.
“Avenida Rio Branco.”
“I’d like to visit sometime.”
“The area is going downhill and we’re moving to a location in the South Zone. Once we’re set up, I’ll invite you for coffee. We have an Italian espresso machine. Our coffee is wonderful; at least that’s what all our customers tell us.”
I got up from my chair and sat down beside her on the bench. “I want to make love to you,” I said.
“What?” She seemed surprised.
“I want to fuck you. Let’s get out of here and go to a motel.”
“I need to make a phone call first. Excuse me,” she said, taking the cell phone from her purse.
After tapping several keys, she said, “It’s not picking up here. I’m going over by the window.”
While Olivia was at the window with her back to me, I opened her purse and looked inside.
“I told my coworker that I wouldn’t be back this afternoon. Let’s go.”
Now Olivia couldn’t conceal her nervousness any longer. We got a taxi and went to a motel. The only advantage of motels in the city is that you don’t need to show ID to rent a room.
When we went in, we stood there looking at each other. She held her purse tightly against her chest. I went up to her and snatched it from her hands.
Olivia sat down in an armchair.
“How did you find out?” she said, dispirited.
That was when I made a mistake. I should have said that I knew all along and that way gotten important information out of her, names, the people behind it, etc. But I stupidly said that while she was on the phone with her back to me I opened her purse and saw the gun inside. In other words, I handed her on a silver platter the information that I didn’t know shit, only that she carried a pistol in her purse.
“It’s for my own protection,” she said. “This is a dangerous city. Criminals everywhere. I’ve been robbed several times. That’s when I armed myself.”
“Enough bullshit. Who hired you for the job?”
“Getting rid of me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I opened her purse and took out the cell phone. I redialed the last number she’d called. A man’s voice answered. “Let me speak to Olivia,” I said.
“Nobody here by that name,” the guy said, and hung up. I called back. An operator came on and said the number I was calling had been disconnected or was out of service.
“You’re not going to tell me who hired you?”
She raised her hand to her head, arranging her hair.
“It’s better that you do. Was it the Dispatcher?”
“I know you’re not going to torture me to get the information. Everybody knows that’s not your style.”
How did she know? The Dispatcher always criticized me for that.
“But you are going to kill me, aren’t you?” she said.
She was new to the game, but she knew the rules.
“Yes. As a sign, a warning. It’s necessary, you understand, don’t you, Olivia?”
I phoned the Dispatcher.
“You sent a girl to do the job? You sent a virgin to face off against an old whore?”
“I was counting on your weakness for women.”
“It didn’t work.”
“She’s very pretty.”
“Was. I had to sacrifice the girl, you sonofabitch.”
“I made a mistake. It happens. Zé, Zé, don’t take it the wrong way, but you’ve become a problem.”
“Shit, what kind of problem?”
“You can’t give up the business, you know too much.”
“You clown, they knocked my teeth out in the Glock case, but did I do the job? They tortured me, I’m crippled in one hand, but did I do the job?”
“They got the wrong hand. They didn’t know you’re a leftie. But look, Zé, we gotta do what we gotta do. Rules of the game. You know who gives the orders.”
“I don’t fucking know about anybody ordering anything.”
“You said it yourself, not too long ago, that by knowing the victim you know who ordered it. Remember?”
I did say that. Fuck.
I hung up the phone.
This was my situation: The Dispatcher had put out a contract on me and thought that a pretty girl could get to me, but he screwed up and now he was sending The Man after me. I’d always thought I was The Man, and I’m sure I’m right, but there must be others. The problem was that I didn’t know where to find the Dispatcher; he was the one who set up the meetings. He’d call and say, We’re going to meet at such-and-such restaurant, a different one each time, and he paid in cash. Every week he got a new prepaid cell phone and threw the old one away.
I rented a place at another apartment hotel using a fake ID and passport. They knew my real name. I was thinking of the Dispatcher and the ones who were after me as they, a sign my paranoia was increasing. Fuck.
I started wearing loose-fitting shirts and carrying two pistols, one under my right armpit and the other in my belt. I let my beard grow and dyed the hairs that were gray a light brown. In my family we go gray early. I bought a pair of glasses with clear lenses from a street vendor. I inspected myself in the mirror. It didn’t look like a disguise; my face is so common that it goes with everything.
I went on paying for the old apartment hotel and left my car in the garage. I wanted them to think I still lived there. Under my false name, Manoel de Oliveira, I rented an apartment on the same floor. The doormen didn’t recognize me with my brown hair, beard, glasses, and Portuguese accent. Besides that, my apartment hotel was constantly changing its personnel. And doormen at apartment hotels by the water only look at the women, preferably at their asses in bathing suits as they head for the beach.
I was in luck. The peephole in my new apartment allowed me to see the door of the old one where I used to live and which for all intents and purposes was still my address.
I spent all day looking through the peephole. My neck ached, but I knew that one day someone would show up, and this time it wouldn’t be some beginner of a girl.
The woman was wearing the uniform of the restaurant on the ground floor and had a tray in her hand. She rang the doorbell of my old apartment.
The Dispatcher must’ve thought, Zé will never suspect I’d sent another woman.
I came out from where I was, calmly. The woman with the tray gave me a perfunctory glance—she must know me only from an old photograph—and rang the bell again. I went up to her, stuck the pistol in her ribs, and put the key to the apartment in her free hand.
“Open the door,” I said.
She opened the door and we went inside.
“Put the tray on the table,” I said, “and lie down on the floor with your hands behind you.”
She lay down and I handcuffed her. I removed the napkin covering the tray; on it was a cheese sandwich, a Coca-Cola, and a Luger Parabellum, 9mm, with silencer.
I like cheese sandwiches. While I ate the sandwich I asked, “Where’d you get this piece? It’s a collector’s item. I’m honored you chose such a tool to do me.”
“Are you Zé?” she asked.
“I am. What’s your arrangement with the Dispatcher?”
“A shot in the head.”
“Nine millimeter … Gray matter all over the wall. What’s your name?”
“Xania? You’re The Man? A woman?”
The Man is what the Dispatcher’s best operator was called.
“If you’re asking if I’m the best, if I handled the most complicated cases, yeah, I’m The Man.”
“You think my name is odd? There’s a TV character named Xania, but my parents chose the name of a city on the island of Crete. I think in Portuguese it’s spelled with Ch, but they thought it was more interesting with X.”
“Xania, I have a proposition for you. Here it is. By the rules I ought to eliminate you. But I want the Dispatcher, understand? I want peace and quiet, to go somewhere and raise chickens. The Dispatcher won’t let me.”
“You want to raise chickens?”
“It’s a metaphor. I’m tired of this work. I kill you and the Dispatcher will send somebody else, I think he’ll send a man next time, and I’ll go on killing people, something I don’t want to do anymore, especially when it doesn’t pay me a cent. I want you to tell me where I can find the Dispatcher, the address where he lives.”
“I don’t know. I meet him in a restaurant, never the same one twice; every time he sets it up in a different one.”
“Did he already pay you for the job? How much?”
“He gave me half.”
Xania told me the amount.
“You make more than I do.”
“I’m The Man,” she said, laughing.
“What about the other half?”
“He’s going to give it to me when I … I mean, was going to give it to me—”
“Let’s agree on something. You call him and say the job’s done. Ask him to set a time and place to pay you the rest.”
“I’m running the risk of death if he learns I’m ratting him out.”
“You’re already at risk of death, immediate death right here. Besides which, I’m going to eliminate the sonofabitch, don’t worry about that. Go on, Xania, make the call.”
I stuck the pistol against the back of her neck.
“I’ll count to three. One, two—”
“Wait, wait,” said Xania, taking the cell phone from her purse.
It took a while, at least that was my impression, for the Dispatcher to answer. With my pistol in Xania’s neck I leaned my body so close to hers that I could feel her ass against my groin.
“The job’s done,” Xania said. I heard the Dispatcher’s voice asking if I’d given her a hard time.
“Not at all. He thought I was the waitress. What now?”
“Put another bullet in his head,” I heard the Dispatcher say.
I took the Parabellum from the tray and fired. I gestured for Xania to continue the conversation.
“Done. There’s brains splattered all over the floor.”
“In an hour, come to Niraki, the Japanese restaurant,” I heard the Dispatcher say. “Know where it is?”
Goddamn, the Japanese restaurant where Olive Oyl tried to teach me how to use chopsticks. What was the Japanese name for them? For chopsticks?
Xania and I got a taxi.
“You go in first. Sit down with the Dispatcher, if he’s already there. If not, wait for him. I’m only going to shoot the sonofabitch after he pays you the other half.”
The restaurant was surrounded by glass, and from the street I could see what was going on inside. It was 6:00 PM and beginning to get dark. The Niraki was empty. The Dispatcher hadn’t arrived yet. Xania sat down at a table.
It crossed my mind that the Dispatcher might not show up. After I’d waited for 15 minutes that seemed like 15 hours, he finally showed up. He arrived in a large chauffeur-driven car and went into the Niraki.
The Dispatcher sat down at Xania’s table and after they exchanged a few words he handed her an envelope. I entered quickly and shot him twice in the head. I’ve already said that I always shoot for the head. The fucker had his back to me and never even saw me.
I looked at Xania, who looked back at me and saw what was going to happen. I felt bad and hesitated a little, but I did what had to be done. She collapsed on top of him.
The Dispatcher had made me kill two women, and I hate killing women. I pressed the pistol against his face and opened a large hole where his nose had been. The fucker would need to have a closed-coffin funeral.
The waiters stared at me in horror.
I left, went to the Dispatcher’s car and knocked on the window. The driver opened the glass and I put two bullets in him, in the head like always.
Afterward, I went to the apartment I’d just rented, shaved off my beard, threw the glasses into the trash. The Portuguese tenant was no more.
I put on a beret and went back to my old place. The Luger and the tray were still on the table. I needed to make plans for a trip, but I was tired and it could wait till the next day. I lay down and slept badly.
It was a relief when day began to dawn.
Translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.
Clifford E. Landers has translated from Brazilian Portuguese novels by Rubem Fonseca, Jorge Amado, João Ubaldo Ribeiro, Patrícia Melo, Jô Soares, Chico Buarque, Marcos Rey, Tereza Âlbues, and José de Alencar and shorter fiction by Lima Barreto, Rachel de Queiroz, Osman Lins, and Moacyr Scliar. Landers received the Mario Ferreira Award in 1999 and a Prose Translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for 2004. His Literary Translation: A Practical Guide was published by Multilingual Matters Ltd. in 2001. A professor emeritus at New Jersey City University, Landers lives in Naples, Fla.
Originally published in
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee