Samer Kalaf hung up with his editor and returned attention to the man seated across from him. The limo's tinted windows—coupled with the abysmal weather—darkened the spacious cabin, but the man called Ray kept his eyes hidden behind tortoise-shell wayfarers. Kalaf reflected on the airport pickup with incredulity: for starters, he had almost missed Ray, who stood perhaps five-feet-four; second, the mechanic couldn't weigh more than a buck-thirty soaking wet; and third, the faded jeans and ancient Gator Track & Field t-shirt didn't jive with his dangerous reputation. Still, Ray exuded menacing violence, and his cool demeanor betrayed confidence and years of experience.
"Nice boots," Samer said, eyeing the assassin's shitkickers, "that gator skin?"
"Sure is; I dabble in pest control," Ray countered, staring through Samer. His speech was slow and faintly drawled, but charming and eager nonetheless.
Samer began to ask after this hobby but stopped when Ray reached for a small duffel bag, his singular luggage item. He unzipped the canvas and hunted around until he found what he was looking for: a Colt .45—same as Craggs—and suppressor muzzle. Samer groaned at the sight of the day's second firearm.
"Don't worry," Ray chirped, "this ain't for you."
Samer gasped in relief, "How'd you get that on a plane?"
"I fly as a U.S. Marshall," Ray, matter-of-factly, "friends in Tallahassee and all that." He was so candid and nonchalant that the sportswriter sat agog. Who the hell is this guy? "What's the plan, Sam?" asked Ray.
Samer shook himself to focus. "We're meeting Craggs at a pub. He's our—"
"I know who he is," Ray interrupted chuckling, "today has been a long time coming." He flashed a toothy grin.
Samer was flummoxed but kept composure. "He, uh, wants you to meet someone."
Ray seemed not to have heard. He checked the gun's clip, chambered a round, and stuffed the weapon into his waistband. "Excellent; I love meeting new people."
Barney dropped them off in front of B-Side and the two men shuffled through the door. Upon seeing Ray, the rail of a hostess blinked and frowned. The hatchet man smiled and said "Hi, Miss" as Samer guided him to the back of the room. They descended the stairs in tandem, strode down the hallway, and entered the crowded office.
The scene inside was too much to bear, and for the second time today Samer vomited. Dom and another man were lying supine in the far corner, yet the remains of their faces were turned towards the room, vacant holes where the eyes had been. Violet-red blood smeared the rug and splattered nearby furniture. Newell sat on the floor—opposite the corpses—propped against the wall, knees-to-chest, head-in-hands. Was he crying? Craggs by contrast sat perched on the desk's corner smoking and sipping his flask. Laconicraggs. The editor calmly watched Eifling, who lay half-conscious on the stained couch. A tremendous welt painted the left side of his face, and his starched collar was stained red.
While Samer coughed and choked into the wastebasket, Ray remained stoic at the mess. Craggs lifted his eyes at the pair's arrival and extended a hand to Ray. "Tommy Craggs, I assume?" the assassin asked.
Craggs nodded, "Glad you could make it." The two shook, considered one another, and turned to the business at hand.
"What's the score?" said Ray.
"Two of my guys are dead," Craggs, gesturing at the bodies; he turned to Eifling and continued, "Allow me to introduce you to Sam Eifling, our erstwhile understudy." Contempt tinned his voice. "Fucking turncoat shot 'em in the face. Sean here caught the end of it and managed to subdue him." He spat in Eifling's general direction, and the intern flinched.
"Nnnnnhhh," Sam mumbled.
Ray, expressionless, stared down at Eifling and clicked his teeth. To the editor he said, "And you would like to know why he shot them in the face?"
Craggs, a flicker of a smile in his eyes, "Among other things, yes. Think you can help?"
Ray nodded magnanimously and went for his duffel. He retrieved a small vial, ripped off the cap, and waved it under Eifling's nose. "This is amyl," Ray explained to no one in particular, "it's always a little more fun to have 'em awake and loony while I do this." Eifling's eyes shot open and he went rigid. Ray continued, "When I was drawing checks from the Company, we fed interview subjects LSD and locked 'em in the dark for hours at a time." Eifling was looking around from face to face, confused beyond speech. "Hilarious to watch, sure, but they were an emotional mess after, and the intel was always muddy." Eifling tried to mouth something, but Ray heeled him hard in the stomach. "Amyl is better in situations like this, because it induces panic." He kicked Sam again, who doubled over groaning. "Also, no hallucinations; everything is so damn real on amyl." He grabbed Eifling's hair and jerked back his head. "Would you agree, shitbird?" Sam tried to answer, but the mechanic head-butted him back onto the couch.
From his position near the door, Samer watched the interrogation in silent awe. He's not exactly enjoying himself, Samer reflected, but there's no anger. Just another day at the office.
Ray returned to his duffel. "Story time's over, Sam," Ray lamented and fished a set of needle-nose pliers from the bag. "Now questions." Terror gripped Eifling's face as Ray approached the couch.
"Let's start with some empirical research: thumb or index finger?" Ray, casually, hovering the pliers above Eifling's right hand.
"Index." Sam, weakly.
"Thumb it is then." In a single motion Ray ripped the fingernail clean from Sam's thumb and tossed it aside. Sam wailed in anguish. Over his shoulder Ray asked Samer to shut the door. "This could get kinda loud."
Ray returned to the interview. "Now, that probably hurt like hell, huh? For every question you don't answer to Tommy's satisfaction, you'll lose another. Heard?"
Sam blurted, "Please, no more. What do you want to know?"
Ray straightened up, surprised. "Well, that's easy enough."
Samer had stood up by now and stared at the man called Ray. He sounds almost disappointed, he marveled. Ruthless methods, to be sure, but goddamn were they effective. Kalaf watched Ray shrug, pack the pliers away, retrieve his .45 and empty the clip. Why even carry a gun? Samer shook his head.
"He's all yours, Mr. Editor." Ray set the hollow points on the desk neatly in a row and quickly disassembled the gun. Newell looked on in disbelief, a mirror to Samer's vexation.
Tommy Craggs stepped forward, looking at his mobile and frowning. "Sam, who bought you and Callie Beusman?"