Her assignments were always to kill someone. That’s what a hitman—or hitwoman—is paid to do, and that is what she does. Then comes a surprise assignment—keep someone alive!
She is hired to protect Virginia Martin, the stunning and brilliant chief technology officer of a hot startup with an innovation that will change the world. This new job catches her at a time in her life when she’s hanging on by a thread. Despair and hopelessness—now more intense than she’d felt after the tragic loss of her family—led her to abruptly launch this career. But over time, the life of a hired killer is decimating her spirit and she keeps thinking of ending her life.
She’s confused about the “why” of her new assignment but she addresses her mission as she always does, with skill and stealth, determined to keep this young CTO alive in the midst of the twinned worlds of innovation and high finance.
Some people have to die as she discharges her responsibly to protect this superstar woman amid the crumbling worlds of money and future technical wonders.
The spirit of an assassin—and her nameless dog—permeates this struggle to help a young woman as powerful forces build to deny her.
He proves to be a genial companion. I’d never doubted that he would. Across the table from him in a romantic restaurant, I can see his pale eyes are sparked with amber. Or is it gold? Maybe it depends on your perspective. A trick of the light.
So much of life, I’ve found, are those things: perspective and also light. Or maybe that’s saying exactly the same thing.
He tells me he’s in “finance,” a term that is vague enough to accommodate a whole range of activities. I’ve done some research, though, and I know he is a hedge fund manager; that his apartment in this town is a playpen: weekends only. I know he is based in the City and that he flies down here for the occasional weekend, especially since his divorce, which was messy. He doesn’t say that: “messy.” But when he briefly skates over that episode of his life—the period of time in which “we” became “me” —he makes a face that is unpleasant, like he’s got a bad taste in his mouth. I let it ride. Where we are going, it won’t make a difference.
He tells me funny, self-deprecating stories. I reflect that he is someone I would date—in another lifetime. If I dated. If I still had a heart.
“This is a fun first date,” he says in that moment, as though he has read my mind. His thick dark hair flops over his eye endearingly, and my heart gives a little flutter. I’d try to stop it, but I don’t hate the feeling. That flutter. It feels good, in this moment, to simply feel alive.
“Yesterday, Brett. Wasn’t that our first date?” I ask, more for interaction than anything real. Because, of course, the few moments on a rooftop we shared were not a date by any standard. Especially since I was trying to think how to kill him for part of that time. But he doesn’t know that, so maybe it doesn’t count?
“Nope,” he says firmly. “That was a meeting. This,” he indicates our wine and the delicate nibbles between us, “this is a date.”
“How does it end?” I ask pertly. Knowing the answer. Knowing he doesn’t. Wanting to know what he thinks.
He looks at me searchingly for a moment, then smiles raffishly, a certain boyish charm bubbling through. It’s a practiced look. He’s used that smile before, to good effect, I can tell. He’s probably done that his whole life. I don’t dislike him for any of that. It distresses me slightly that I don’t dislike him at all. It would be beneficial to me if I could find it in myself to dislike him.
“It ends well,” he says. A beat. And then: “It ends as it should.”
There is more conversation, just like that. An ancient dance.
After a while he excuses himself to go to the bathroom.
Once he’s out of sight, I slip a vial out of my purse. It contains a powder I made myself. Oleander flowers, dried, crushed and mixed with salt and a few strong spices, intended to cover the plant’s bitter taste. I don’t know how well those spices mask the taste. It’s not as though I can test it, and none of my customers have ever complained.
I quickly sprinkle some of this concoction judiciously on the food that remains. I do it using natural motions. Anyone watching would think I was eating. A little OCD, maybe, but it wouldn’t look anywhere close to what is true. I mix it quickly into the salsa, the guacamole. I salt the chips with it. Sprinkle it on what is left of the chicken wings. I don’t dust the calamari. I’d noted he hadn’t been eating that. It will give me a safe spot to nibble, not that I plan on needing much time to eat. All of this will happen quickly, my experience tells me that.
Before he returns, I have this moment of absolute indecision. I very nearly call out to a nearby server; have her clear the table. I’m not even super sure why I don’t. All of this is going well. Textbook. And yet, I have qualms. Why? He’s lovely of course, there’s that. But beyond the way he looks or how he looks at me. Not long ago, things had happened that had made me resolve to do my life in a different way. Then I’d gotten an assignment and instinct had more or less kicked in. And it was easy to reason around it and to rationalize: if not me, then someone else, right? There would always be some other person ready to do the job. Viewed in that light, there was no earthly reason for me not to do what I do.
I don’t call a server. And the moment passes.
He comes back looking refreshed, like he’s maybe splashed water on his face or combed his hair, which is behaving for now. Not, for the moment, flopping into his eyes. I figure he probably did both—splashed and combed. He looks good.
He smiles when his eyes meet mine. A 24-karat smile that lights his whole face. My heart gives a little bump. “Fuck,” I say. But it isn’t out loud.
He takes his seat and starts talking again, picking up where we left off. He is easy. Comfortable. But I’m having trouble tracking the conversation; my mind is elsewhere. I’m thinking about what my next steps will be. After. And does it matter what he says right now? Really? If it does, it won’t matter for long.
I try not to follow his actions. Try instead to listen to what he is saying. These words will be his last ones, I know that. And part of me thinks I should do him that courtesy. At least. The courtesy of attention. But it’s difficult to follow his words now. I watch one corn chip as he picks it up, dips it into salsa. I watch him consume it, and it feels like all of it is happening in slow motion. All the while I am listening to his words—I am! —participating in the conversation, not wanting to miss any cues. And wanting to honor the small amount of time he has left. It’s all I can do.
The chip is consumed. I detect no reaction to the bitterness, so that’s a plus. He picks up a chicken wing, swirls it in the blue cheese dip, which makes me realize that, in my haste, I’d missed an opportunity by skipping doctoring the dip. He consumes the wing while we talk; a slight sucking, the meat peeling gently off the bone, all the while, the words flow, though it doesn’t come off as rude. He seems adept at eating and talking so everything stays and sounds as it should.
I listen closely, interjecting as appropriate when I think it’s necessary, all the while watching for . . . signs. I detect nothing until another wing and several chips later. His eyes are suddenly glassy. Sweat stands on his forehead. His hands shake.
“Brett, are you all right?” I ask, but it is pure form. I know he is far from all right. All right no longer exists for him.
“I don’t know. I’ve never . . . never felt like this before.”
I give it another minute. A little less than that. I know it’s all we’ve got. I make the right sounds, the correct motions of my hand. Even when no one is watching, people are watching. Physically, I am unremarkable. A middle-aged woman, so some would say I am invisible, certainly there is nothing about my appearance that makes me stand out. But there will be a future, when questions are asked and people are perhaps looking for clues. I don’t want them to be looking for me.
When he collapses, face directly into salsa, I scream, as one does. Not bone chilling, but an alarmed scream. Our server trots over, clearly distressed. The manager is on her heels. All as expected: it’s pretty terrible for business when customers collapse into their food.
“My date . . . he’s . . . taken ill . . . I don’t know what to do” etcetera. All as one would expect. I don’t deviate from the script.
An ambulance is called. Paramedics arrive quickly. The manager has already pulled Brett from the salsa, but it’s clear he is not all right. They take him away, one of the paramedics offering to let me ride in the ambulance. I decline.
“I’ll follow you,” I say, heading for my rental. And I start out following, but a few blocks from the restaurant I make the turn I know will lead me to the freeway and then the airport. My bag is in the trunk and it’s all mapped out: I am ready to go.
With this moment in mind, I’d left a ballcap on the passenger seat before I entered the restaurant. It is emblazoned with the logo of a local team. While I drive, I push my hair into the cap and wiggle out of the jacket I know I’ll leave behind. These are simple changes—hat on, jacket off—but it will change my appearance enough. I don’t anticipate anyone will be looking for me, but I like to think forward. Just in case.
I have no way of knowing for sure what will happen to him, but I can guess. From the amount of food I watched him consume, I figure he’ll probably have a heart attack before he reaches the hospital and will likely arrive DOA. And at the age and heft of him, and with a high stress job, they will probably not test for poison. And the woman with him at the restaurant? I figure no one will be looking for a girl who doesn’t follow up on the date that ended in hell.
From there it all goes like it’s being managed by a metronome: tick tock, tick tock. Arrive at airport. Drop off rental car. Get through security. Get to plane while they’re boarding. Claim aisle seat at the back of the plane. Keep my eyes peeled for both watchers or people who might recognize me from the airport. But everything goes exactly as it should. No watchers this time. No one looking at me in ways I don’t understand. In fact, everything is perfect. Everything is exactly as it should be. Except.
I had not planned on killing again. That is, it wasn’t in the plan. That’s not to say it was an accident. You don’t arrive for a date with a poison in your pocket unless you’re preparing to do some bodily harm. But, as I said, that hadn’t been the plan. Not before.
When the call came, I had been eyeballing my gun again. A darkness of spirit. A feeling I can’t fight or name.
For a while I had spent a lot of time wondering why I kept bothering at all. In recent weeks, there had been darkness all around me. Times that, if it wasn’t for the dog, I wouldn’t bother hanging around.
At times I wonder why I am still showing up every morning. For life, I mean. What’s the big appeal? What is the motivating factor? Is there a mirror beyond the darkness? A pool; some reprieve. I don’t know. Here’s the thing, though: at this point, I’m less convinced that I need to hang around to find out. It’s a battle I wage every day.
Before the call comes, there are times it takes me a while to get out of bed. This is new. And when I do get out of bed, it takes a while longer still to orient. Motivating factor, that’s the question. Is there one? What is supposed to be motivating me? I don’t know for sure. So I wait it out.
And the call doesn’t come right away. First, and for a long while, everything is very silent. And not a churchlike silence. The sort one dreads when pieces fly together. First there was this and this and it all made sense. Then we added that other thing and we’re done.
I don’t know. I can’t figure it out. I mostly don’t bother anymore.
Why would one even bother anymore?
It wasn’t always like this.
Let’s put it that way.
There was a time when I didn’t live alone.
There was a time when someone loved me.
Several people loved me.
I don’t remember that time anymore. Not exactly. I’m like a ghost looking back at her memories from a previous lifetime. They are my memories, but they might as well belong to someone else.
Let me tell you this as I try to bring you up to speed.
I live at the forest’s edge. My house is small and simple. It is all I need. My garden is incomplete, though it is occasionally vibrant. I am alone but for the company of a golden dog.
I am alone.
These are the things I think about. Vibrant gardens. Forest’s edge. Seasons in motion. The padding about of golden feet. I don’t dwell on the past. I try not to dwell on the past. For the most part, I have released everything that has happened. It no longer has a hold on me.
I have tried a lot of things to bring some sort of meaning to my life. Attempted. For instance, recently I have begun to keep a gratitude journal. It is a practice I read about somewhere. I try very hard to begin every day with that notebook, pen in hand. In gratitude. It changes the heart, I’m told. It changes the mind.
I have charged myself with finding five things every day for which I am grateful. It’s like an affirmation.
It is an affirmation.
Some days it is easy. Five things to affirm. How hard can that be? I have air. Sufficient food. There is a roof over my head. The beautiful golden dog. Some days there is rain. On others, sun. Both of those are things to be grateful for. The air is clean. The ground is firm. All reasons to give thanks. Most of the time.
On other days it is more difficult. On those days I sit there, stare at the blank page. Maybe a tear falls. Or more than one. Sometimes I begin to write and then stop; picking up and putting down my pen. The past is closer on those days, I guess. The past is nipping at my heels; my heart. On days like that I am filled with that unnamable darkness.
It is unnamed, but I recognize some of the contents. Guilt. Remorse. Regret. And variations on all of those things that incorporate measures of each. I don’t believe in regret, and yet there it is. Regret does not bother checking in with me about my beliefs.
Excerpt from Exit Strategy by Linda L. Richards. Copyright 2022 by Linda L. Richards. Reproduced with permission from Linda L. Richards. All rights reserved.
Linda L. Richards is a journalist, photographer and the author of 15 books, including three series of novels featuring strong female protagonists. She is the former publisher of Self-Counsel Press and the founder and publisher of January Magazine. Linda’s 2021 novel, ENDINGS, was recently optioned by a major studio for series production.