The killer walked in the grocery store, grabbed a shopping basket, and headed for the bread aisle. He was out of sandwich bread; when he went to make a grilled cheese for lunch, the last pieces had been one moldy slice and the bottom heel. It was with some irritation that he entered the store; he was a man of routines, and he always made one trip a week to the grocery store, on Wednesday nights.
He picked Wednesday evenings because there were no weekend shoppers—no nine to fivers picking up a week’s worth of milk, cereal, and hamburger meat with one kid sitting in the cart and another trotting alongside, dressed for a soccer practice either imminent or just concluded. Those people always moved slowly, balancing requests from whiny kids for corn syrup-laden snacks against their own desire to shop in the same leisurely way they once had, before they defied all reason and self-preservation and procreated.
He came late enough on Wednesday evenings to miss the after-work emergency shoppers—the people who received panicked phone calls from their spouses on the way from work to home telling them that there was no milk for tomorrow’s breakfast, or the kids used the last roll of toilet paper yesterday and didn’t think to tell anyone. Those people moved too erratically, running from the front door to aisle seven or nine and stopping short when they almost ran into people who were taking the more standard progression in strict numerical order. Even now, knowing exactly what he needed and where it was, the killer took each aisle in turn, steadily.
He shopped early enough on Wednesday evenings to miss the post-church crowd, those Baptists and Methodists who had just sat through a mid-week prayer service while their teens hung out with their friends and called it fellowship even as they made weekend plans for parties their parents wouldn’t approve of and gossiped about who was dating whom and how far they were going. The adults always had a vaguely pious air about them. They knew they had done the right thing by stopping midweek to reflect and praise God, as the preacher always admonished them to do, so that they wouldn’t stumble off the righteous path in the treacherous evenings leading up to Sunday morning.
In fact, if he hit his Wednesday evening window just right, everyone else in south Alabama was either sitting down to dinner at home or sitting down in the church fellowship hall.
But this wasn’t Wednesday evening. It was Monday afternoon, an entirely unfamiliar time to shop for groceries.
The midday light coming in through the front windows was glaring; the clerks were different. In the middle of the day, you got the older grocery clerks, the people who had made a career of checking out other folks’ food, running one item at a time over the scanner that beeped the same beep as all the other scanners. The killer often wondered how they knew which beep was theirs. He believed that a lot of items ran over the scanner unscanned, as the clerks heard a beep and assumed it was theirs. It was a system he felt sure supported an unacceptable level of chaos.
The different faces and quality of light didn’t sit well with him. He felt his vigilance activate, the watchfulness that informed his professional life and had kept him alive as a hired killer for nearly three years now. He told himself to calm down; professionals don’t lose their shit because they happen to find themselves in Publix on Monday at 2 instead of Wednesday at 6:45. But he knew he wouldn’t feel right until he had checked out.
He swung through the produce section, rounding the corner where deli changed to fish market. He heard a familiar voice from behind the counter; his brother greeted him. He groaned inwardly; he had forgotten that Jonah would be there, working his 9-5 shift as usual.
“Hey, Toad, man, what’s up? Good to see you. You ain’t been around much. Momma wants to know when you’re gonna come by the house. She mentioned cooking this Sunday. You free?”
His brother had just said more words in ten seconds than the killer had said over the past two days.
The killer’s name wasn’t Toad. That was a nickname his oldest brother, Garret, had pinned on him before he was old enough to talk, hit, or defend himself in any way.
The killer’s given name was Tod. Like Todd, but with only one D. He was the youngest of five brothers. Jonah was number two.
Tod didn’t know why his parents left off the customary second D from his name. He suspected it was a symptom of the creeping nonchalance that greeted children who arrived after the first few. He hadn’t been able to articulate this thought until Zak, a similarly short-named platoon buddy of his, had put his finger on it.
Zak, who was one of four brothers, said it succinctly: “Every kid after number two, they basically start raising each other.”
Parents can’t provide the same level of care and attention to all their kids when they have more than one. People know this, of course—there’s a reason folks indulgently talk about first-time parents and their obsessions with first teeth and first steps and other developmental milestones, checking each one off in a memory book that really only serves to provoke anxiety or relief in the parents, depending on how quickly their offspring hit the goalposts. People say, “Just wait ‘til they have another one; they’ll stop being so silly.”
But most people don’t have more than two kids, or three, max. They don’t know about the diminishing returns, the built-in Darwinism, the Lord of the Flies existence of siblings who come in sets of four or greater.
For example, Tod knew that parents stop caring about names after they pick out a few. They labor over that first name—should it be Garret Andrew or Andrew Garret? Should we use your grandfather’s name as a middle name? How will his initials look? By the second kid, they pick a name they’ve always liked. For the third, they pick a name of someone they knew in high school who didn’t turn out to be a complete jerk. By number four, they are likely to pick the same name as the local TV meteorologist who has nice ties. Number five? You get three letters, tops. Better hope they remember to include a vowel.
In Tod’s case, it wasn’t until he joined the Army that he learned that his abbreviated name actually means “death” in German. Zak told him; he said it was pretty badass that his parents had given him such a metal name.
Tod nods back to Jonah at the counter, a “’sup” glance meant to convey affection, from a distance. He says, “I’ll catch you later, bro, I’m on the move right now,” with a smile and keeps walking.
Tod had joined the Army after 9/11, along with what seemed like every other guy under 30. It was a lucky break for him; standards then were really flexible. The Army recruiter, with his quota to make every month, had been happy to work around Tod’s weed busts from high school. Also, the Army recruiter had seemed slightly less psycho than the Marine recruiter. That guy was wound super tight. He was all “professional opportunities and free college” with the parents and then all “in the Marines, you’ll get to whoop ass and kill some ragheads” with the boys he was pursuing.
Tod went Airborne because it sounded fun. He enlisted right after high school graduation in June 2002. He was recycled once in basic training because he got a stress fracture in his foot on the first go round. He finished training just in time for Iraq.
Jonah had joined up, too; three of Tod’s four brothers did. Jonah and Garret had both been bumping around aimlessly for a few years after high school, still living at home. They had gone Marines because they said it was the most badass. Both of them came back from boot camp super thin and so mind-controlled that they wouldn’t sit all the way back in a chair. Tod’s fourth oldest brother, Ken (named after the local meteorologist who did the “Locals Turning 100” segment each week), had gone Navy just to be contrary.
Ken was using the GI Bill to go to college like they all said they would. He was in his third year of college now; going to get a nursing degree from Auburn. Tod thought Ken would make it, too; he had always been the most organized and motivated of the brothers.
Their middle brother, Adam (named after a guy his dad had known in high school), was the oddball. He had done well in school, gone to University of Alabama on a scholarship, and gotten a job in Atlanta as a graphic designer. He rarely visited.
Jonah and Garret returned home after their four-year stints. Both of them picked up where they left off; Jonah started back at the fish counter, and Garret resumed a string of dead-end jobs at various restaurants and pizza joints near the beach. Garret put on 100 pounds within a year of his return but still used his post-boot camp photo on social media, where he looked lean and mean.
Tod had been fine in Iraq. He didn’t mind the assignments too much. When he finished his four-year enlistment, he thought about re-upping but discarded the idea quickly. He was tired of the uniforms and constant ass-kissing required in the military.
He considered a contractor job with a group like Halliburton. But that, too, would have required an unacceptable level of obsequiousness.
In the end, his choice had been easy. Zak reached out to him. He had gotten hooked up, he said, with a great gig that was limited in time requirements and well-compensated. And Tod wouldn’t need to move.
The guy Tod would come to know as Whippet had put together a network of former military willing to put their US government-provided killing skills to use for profit. He had a site on the dark web with a number of ways in for people who were looking to rid themselves of problems.
When Whippet was first building his organization, he assumed he would need people who were willing to work mostly in cities, dealing with drug dealers and lowlifes. He was quickly disabused of this notion when it became apparent that the market for offing people was not exclusively urban. The small-town boys who gravitated to the service and were left at loose ends at the end of four-year enlistments had built-in markets in their hometowns. There was, it seemed, always someone looking to knock off Uncle Elmer or their no-good cousin Billy or that jerk from high school who now worked in the cubicle next to them at the insurance agency.
The thing that separated Whippet’s agency—the defining difference that allowed them to stand apart in a crowded market, as he put it—was his insistence on a motive. He required that all clients of his agency spell out in very clear terms why they wanted someone put down.
The reason was two-fold. First, it provided a type of insurance that protected them from their client getting a guilty conscience. It was a lot less likely that, say, Betty from choir practice would wake up feeling remorseful, call the police, implicate the agency, and try to plead temporary insanity if her hired killers had her on record saying that the specific reason Alice had to die was because she had, for 20 years now, insisted on bringing “her” special butterscotch brownies to church socials when it was, in fact, a recipe that she had borrowed from Betty back in 1985 and claimed as her own. Betty would sound cold-blooded and very, very sane on such a recording, and she knew it. So, Betty needed to be damn sure she wanted to do this and not think about growing a conscience later.
The other reason was equally practical: if the killers knew the reason, they could avoid any adjacency to that activity in the execution of their duties, no pun intended.
What the client got in return for this information was an assurance that the killing would be as painless as possible and would, to the extent feasible, not appear to be murder.
Take Mrs. Balder, for example. Tod just now nodded civilly to her as they passed on the soup aisle, but he felt himself inadvertently cringe away slightly. Mrs. Balder had hired Whippet’s agency to kill her husband of 35 years, Mr. Balder, because he had developed an online gambling problem and was eating through their retirement savings. Knowing this motive allowed Whippet, and by extension, Tod, to avoid any connection to gambling that might have tipped off law enforcement that there was foul play.
Instead, the plan had been simple: Mrs. Balder went to visit her sister up in Luverne for two weeks, as she did every spring. Tod planned the killing for a Tuesday evening when he knew Mr. Balder would be home gambling because he always gambled on Tuesdays. On Wednesdays, after he got home from prayer service, he always felt too guilty to gamble, but Tuesdays, it was on. Tod used the key he was given by Mrs. Balder, snuck in at 3 a.m., and placed a pillow over Mr. Balder’s face. The sleeping pill Mr. Balder always took kept him docile, and his heart condition did the rest. The police, faced with elderly, unhealthy corpse, were quick to assign blame to an apparent heart attack in an old man with heart problems. There wasn’t even an autopsy. Mrs. Balder was able to live comfortably off their retirement, life insurance, and Social Security.
Tod’s regular day job was with a landscaping company, keeping all the hotel grounds down by the beach in resort shape. He lived a quiet life, using his semi-regular windfalls from Whippet’s jobs in ways that were invisible to his family, who were never invited over to his small house to see the variety of electronic toys and metal-working tools he accumulated and enjoyed.
Tod’s mother, a chaos-Muppet-type woman with a head of crazy gray and brown curls, was a nurse at the local hospital. She was a practical nurse, not a registered nurse, a fact that she never failed to blame on Garret, who had the misfortune to be conceived before Mom finished college. She had worked constantly changing shifts throughout their childhoods.
Mom was kind but clueless, the kind of mother who arrived at your school play late, came right down to the front row, asked someone else to move over so that she and Dad could get seats together, and then cheered too loudly when her progeny emerged for their walk-on roles as trees, or townspeople, or rocks.
Mom also spent money like she could print her own, which she unfortunately could not. This was the main source of friction between her and Dad, a high school English teacher and massively frustrated writer who ate his feelings for 30 years or so and now weighed 300 pounds.
Dad had bad sleep apnea, and he snored so loudly that friends of Tod’s had sometimes mistaken the sound for a motorcycle on the highway just on the other side of their front yard. He slept in every weekend, saying that he was exhausted after a week of training young minds. Dad’s favorite movie was Dead Poet’s Society; he fancied himself the type of life-changing teacher who would live in his students’ memories for the rest of their lives. The truth was that the smartest of his students found him to be a bit of a blowhard.
Why Mom and Dad had five kids was a question that had troubled Tod for many years. As the youngest, he had seen how the diminishing set of resources—financial, emotional, mental—played out to the fullest degree. His dad was Catholic; Tod supposed the Catholic thing, which his dad played up or down depending on his mood, was the reason given for both the quickie marriage and the large family. But he suspected it had more to do with Dad’s idea of himself as a real character, someone larger than life, a patriarch. Like Don Corleone or the dad from Cheaper by the Dozen or Barbara Stanwyck in The Big Valley.
As Tod headed down the bread aisle, finally, he found himself face to face with Fern Davis, who had been in Ken’s class in school.
Fern smiled and said, “Hey, there, stranger. Ain’t seen you in a dog’s age.”
Tod smiled back—he had always liked Fern—and replied, “Keepin’ busy, Fern. Just ran in for some loaf bread.”
She paused in the aisle. Tod tried not to look impatient.
“Guess you heard about Albie, huh?”
“Yeah, Fern, I was real sorry to hear about him. How’s your mama takin’ it?”
“Well, you know, she’s tore up. But I think it was probably for the best. I know that sounds terrible. But he gave her a rough few years. At least now, she can get some peace.”
Tod nodded. “Yep, it’s good to have some peace about it. Albie was a good guy back in the day. I’ll remember him like that.”
Fern looked like she might cry, then straightened up and forced a smile. “Well, it’s good to see you, Tod. Don’t be a stranger, ok?”
“Sure thing, Fern. You take care.”
Tod kept walking toward the bread. Fern had paid Whippet’s agency ten grand to take out her brother. Albie had been a druggie for years, but the final straw was when he broke into their mama’s house and stole some of her jewelry. He was picked up trying to pawn it, but their mama had refused to press charges; said Albie had her permission to take the jewelry.
Tod had done the job; made it look like an overdose, which wasn’t that big of a stretch. Fern, of course, never knew it was him.
As Tod made his way through the check-out line, he nodded to Jimmy Knott, who had paid Whippet’s agency to get rid of the man who was screwing his wife. That one had been messier than Tod liked, but a car accident was the most believable way to go for a healthy man in his early 40s.
He was taking his two bags to his truck when his phone vibrated. He glanced at it and saw a secure message from Whippet. He passed Bart Northam, who was working as a bag boy while finishing up high school. His grandma had paid for a suicide; she was living in a nursing home and had advanced Parkinson’s. She didn’t want all her savings going to the nursing home people; she wanted it for Bart so he could go to the university in Tuscaloosa. Tod had taken care of that for her and made sure it didn’t hurt at all.
When he got back to the house, he put away his groceries and went to his comms station in the dining room. Whippet had a satellite set-up that guaranteed untraceable calls; Tod logged on now and signaled Whippet that he was available.
Whippet’s reedy voice came on immediately.
“What’s up, man?” Tod hadn’t spoken directly to Whippet in months.
“Got a bit of a situation I need you to weigh in on.”
Well, now, this was unusual. Tod had never been asked for his opinion before.
“Job came in. Little unusual.”
“Yeah, how’s that?”
It was very unlike Whippet to sound so uncertain. He sounded, if Tod was honest, almost sad.
Whippet continued. “Job is on someone you know. One of your brothers. Garret.”
Tod knew his oldest brother was an asshole. But he was surprised that someone would spend money to take out such a useless individual.
“The thing is, Tod, man, the client is…” Whippet cleared his throat. “It’s your mom, man.”
Tod said nothing.
Whippet rushed ahead. “Ordinarily, as you know, a job’s a job, man, but you’ve been a good guy, you know, and it’s your family, man, and I just wanted to run this one by you…” He trailed off again.
Tod finally spoke. “Can I hear it?” They required all their clients to record the motive.
“Sure, man.” Tod could hear Whippet fumbling on the other end. He had never been so discombobulated in Tod’s experience.
Tod’s mother’s voice came on. She had a high voice, like Minnie Mouse, with a light Alabama lilt.
“The other morning, I came in after working the overnight shift at the hospital. Garret was asleep in his room. The door was open, and I could see clothes and dirty dishes all over the room. I had done some laundry the day before and left it out on the sofa in the living room for someone to fold and put away. It had all been dumped on the floor and scattered everywhere, like someone was rooting through for a particular item and couldn’t be bothered to neaten up once they found it.
“He was snoring just like his daddy. I knew he was going to keep me awake. I went in there and said his name a couple of times, as nice as I could. He said, ‘what the hell, Mom? I got in late and just got to sleep a couple hours ago’. I said did you work late? And he said no, he had just been out with Justin and what business was it of mine. I told him it was time for him to get up and fold that laundry.
“He cursed at me. Me, his momma, who dropped out of college to stay home and wipe his butt and who is still washing his dirty drawers thirty-some-odd years later. And I had just had it. It’s beyond time for that boy to grow up, but he won’t. If I don’t do something, I’ll be waiting on him until I’m in the grave. It’s him or me. This time, I’m going with me.”
There was a pause as Whippet stopped the recording. He came back on the line and said, “So, Tod, man, here’s the deal. If you want me to, I’ll turn down the job. It’s not unheard of. I can do that. I can’t promise she won’t find someone else—hell, she found me—but at least you’ll know it wasn’t us.”
Tod thought about his oldest brother. Thought about him coining the name Toad, always tripping him when he walked by, stealing his toys and breaking them even when Garret was way too old for them. Thought about him talking about his time in Iraq with a gleam in his eyes. Thought about his fat ass taking up space in the house whenever Tod decided to visit Mom.
Tod finally answered. “It’s o.k., man. Just get Zak to do it. And keep it painless.”
“Always, man. You know that’s our thing.”
“Listen, Whippet, I appreciate your stretching your own professional code and reaching out to me. It’s a nice thing.”
“No problem, Tod; like I said, you’re a valuable person to the organization and a good guy. You take care.”
Tod hung up and went into the kitchen. He finally made his grilled cheese and sat down to eat it with a Coke while he started a new book. After a few pages, he gave up and put down the book. He stared out the window for a few minutes, and finally shook his head. As he rinsed off his plate, he thought, whatever else happens, I’m never going grocery shopping on Monday afternoon again, that’s for damn sure. Messes up the whole week.
Kay Summers is an emerging fiction author with a 20+ year career in communications. She’s written on behalf of others for so long that she started writing fiction to make sure she still had a voice. She does.