“Two hundred thousand dollars?” Robbie Hooper said. He blinked in disbelief, fiddling nervously with the zipper on his hoodie, and the man across the table fixed him with an expressionless stare, rubbing his hand across his nose.
“You’d get it after the deal is done, of course,” he said. “We’d have to make sure it worked.”
Robbie’s beer was going flat but he picked it up and took a drink just for something to do, staring at the table. The guy, a complete stranger, had appeared out of nowhere when Robbie was walking to his car after work. He’d clutched his arm in an iron grip and insisted they go out for a drink. Now he was offering him two hundred thousand dollars to poison someone with a chemical that Robbie worked with. The situation was bizarre and frightening, but still…two hundred thousand dollars.
Robbie drummed his heels on the floor. “Can I think about it?” he asked.
“You have six hours,” the guy said.
Robbie went home and watched Red Dwarf, staring blankly at the TV, nursing another beer and chewing his lip. He was seriously considering doing this thing, but he had reservations.
Poisoning with the chemical in question wasn’t fatal. It was worse than that, and there was no known treatment or cure. Rumor had it that, after a group of postdocs had been exposed, two of them had ended up committing suicide.
It wasn’t the ethical considerations that held Robbie back, although they weren’t insignificant. After all, what if the guy offed himself, like those poor postdocs? But he doused those concerns in beer. Anybody stupid enough to piss off a rival of such twisted brilliance that they’d attempt revenge this way likely deserved every microliter of what they got.
It was just the logistics. How would he pull this off without exposing himself? He’d never considered how to get the stuff out of the lab. It was a daunting project.
But that was at least half the fun. And he could use the money. Who couldn’t?
Robbie put down his beer and turned off the TV. He held his head in his hands, sighing, clutching his hair. Then he sat up and grabbed his phone, scrolled through his call history, and jabbed a button. The guy answered on the second ring.
“I’ll do it for two hundred fifty, fifty up front, two hundred afterwards,” Robbie blurted, trembling like an unbalanced centrifuge.
The guy had to make a few calls, but rang back the next day and said they had a deal. An hour later, Robbie met him in a supermarket parking lot. The guy gave him fifty grand in cash, five bundles of hundreds nestled in a paper lunch sack.
“Good luck,” the guy said, leering and checking Robbie over with rheumy, hard eyes.
Robbie drove home in a jitter of nerves. He couldn’t believe it. He sat on his bed in his apartment, folding and unfolding the money, running his fingers over it, seeing how it looked all in a big pile, sticking his face in it and taking a big whiff.
But the money wasn’t his yet. If he couldn’t pull this off, these people, whoever they were, would want it back. He didn’t like to think about that, or the other potential consequences of his failure.
Late that night at the lab, he filled a syringe with the gas from the vacuum chamber and then very carefully filled a couple of rubber capsules in a glove box. He sealed the capsules, very carefully, and stored them in a tube for transport.
That was the easy part. When it came down to actually delivering his little package, Robbie’s morale started to break, and he had to lie face-down in his pile of money for a while.
He tried not to think about the target as an actual person. He tried to look at this as if he were just planning another experiment back in grad school.
He’d put the capsules in a pair of the guy’s shoes. When he put them on, the pressure of his feet would burst them, and he’d be exposed. Robbie sincerely hoped they wouldn’t leak during transport, though, because then he’d be screwed. If he got poisoned by the stuff it would be enough to get him fired from his industry job, and he had no desire to be an academic.
He’d been given an address, a key, a security code for the alarm system, and had been told where the target’s bedroom was located. He’d been promised that no one would be in the house until late the next day, and that they’d hack in and disable the infrared security cameras. Robbie’s contact had assured him they had a vested interest in this event not being traced back to any culprit at all. He had every right to expect that this information was accurate, but it didn’t stop him from having to pull over twice on the way there to puke his guts up.
He went at three in the morning, when the hipsters would be home from the bars and off the streets, the neighbors not up yet. He drove around looking for a parking spot, shaking and sweating, mumbling to himself. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, he thought. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. You can do this, Robbie.
Finally he found a spot, and had to spend five minutes pulling into it, because his hands were trembling so badly. He turned off the engine and sat with his head resting on the steering wheel for another five minutes, taking deep breaths. Then he clenched his teeth, clutched his stomach around the sour acid that gurgled there, and got out of the car, the little vial carefully nestled in his pocket.
Whoever the target was, he lived in one of those huge houses on top of Capitol Hill where the old money lived, four stories of wooden awnings and cedar shingles, crystal chandeliers and leaded glass windows, the carriage house still in pristine condition. Every time Robbie had driven by those places, on his way to some friend’s modest apartment on Broadway or Thomas Street, he’d peeked in, wondering if real people lived there, if they lived actual, real lives.
Now he knew that real people lived real lives there. And he was about to ruin one of them, at least for a good while.
No one was on the dark streets, but he jumped every time the breeze rustled the leaves of the huge chestnuts along the sidewalk. When he got to the house, it loomed up in front of him, gigantic and imposing. You’re too poor to come in here, Robbie, it seemed to whisper. You’re a foul little nerd and you’ll never be good enough to set foot in a place like this.
Fuck you, house, Robbie thought. With renewed determination, he scrambled around the side of the place, finding the back door.
The key slipped in his sweaty hand, but when he finally got it in the lock and turned it, it worked. The lock clicked and the door opened, and Robbie stood blinking in disbelief. He’d half expected the key wouldn’t fit, that this was all some joke. Then he heard the beeping of the alarm system, needing its code so that it wouldn’t go off, and scuttled inside.
The alarm panel was right next to the back door. The first time he entered the code, his finger slipped and he put in the wrong one. The panel started beeping faster, telling him his time was running out, and he cursed and entered it again, his pits dripping sweat. There was a sickening moment after he’d punched in the numbers when he thought it wouldn’t work, when the thing kept going beep, beep and Robbie was sure the cops were already on their way. The police would ditch the scene of a gang rape in progress in order to respond to a break-in in a house like this.
Then he heard a voice, and he jumped a foot, thinking someone was speaking to him out of the darkness, that someone was home and he’d been discovered. But no, it was a robotic female voice coming from the panel. “System disarmed,” it said. “Ready to arm.”
Robbie let out the breath he’d been holding, his legs trembling. He was almost done. Almost there. Then he could go home and get some drunk.
He crept through the dark mansion, peering around him. The place was crammed with antique furniture and Persian carpets and smelled like a wonderful old house full of decades and decades of secrets. He headed to the front foyer and tiptoed silently up the winding, mahogany staircase. An unlit chandelier hung from the carved ceiling above, the crystals glimmering in the light from the front windows. Robbie wished he could stay. He wished he lived here. But he wouldn’t trade places with the poor guy who did live here, not for any amount of money. Not after he’d finished this errand.
The room he was looking for was on the third floor. It was huge, with thick carpets and a window seat. Robbie stood a moment, looking out through the chestnut branches onto the city below, the Space Needle rising up in front like a weird micropipette. There was a Black Keys poster on the wall. The target was some uber-rich hipster kid, then, and Robbie grinned gleefully, rubbing his hands together. Then his smile faded as hot wave of guilt bubbled up from his guts, and he had to push it aside to focus on the task at hand.
A pair of tennis shoes sat beside the neatly-made bed, and they looked well-worn. Exactly what he was looking for. As he bent over towards the shoes, he heard a loud crack. He jumped, his heart pounding so loud he couldn’t hear anything else. He stood as still as the furniture, his hands clenched into sweaty fists, thinking Ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck. But, after a horrible moment, he realized it had been the house creaking, all on its own. Just an old house shrugging its shoulders. He let out his breath, starting to wheeze, his throat tightening up with tension.
Quickly, he took the tube out of his pocket, unsealed it, and emptied its contents into the toe of one of the shoes. Then he sprinted from the room as fast as he could.
When he was halfway down the stairs, he risked sniffing the air.
Nothing but old-house smell.
Oh, thank God. He would be able to smell it from here, he was sure, if the capsules were leaking. Oh, thank serious fuck.
He ran for the back door. He entered the code into the panel. “System arming, exit now,” the girl-robot voice said. He jumped out the back door, locked it like a maniac freak, and went rushing around the side of the house, looking up and down the sidewalk to see if anyone was watching before darting across the street.
He had the fantastic luck to reach his car without seeing anyone, and jumped in.
As he was driving away, his voice raised up in a wordless yodel of triumph. He laughed. “OH MY FUCKING GOD.” He wound through the dark, narrow streets and onto Denny, quiet now in the early morning. “I JUST DID THAT SHIT.”
He went home, drank heavily and watched Mystery Science Theater, calling in sick to work once the sun was up. By the afternoon, though, he wished he’d gone in, because he was just sitting around waiting: waiting to hear if it had worked, waiting for the cops to arrive. Waiting.
It was two hellish days later when his cellphone rang. He was at his desk, doing paperwork, and hand slipped, his pen skidding across the page in a line of ink, as he grabbed to answer it.
“Good work, Mr. Hooper,” the voice said, and Robbie’s heart did all sorts of weird things. “It worked perfectly, and no one is the wiser. I’ll have your money today at two.”
Robbie put his head down on his desk after he’d hung up, his shoulders shaking with giddy laughter. I did it. I did it.
Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, plus the knowledge that he was a serious badass.
Grinning and whistling to himself, he got up and headed into the lab.
A thousand miles away, The Boss had his assistant send flowers to the Senator’s son. Rumor had it he was quarantined with a mysterious malady.
The Boss was sure the doctors were completely stumped as to the cause of the boy’s strange condition, as none of them would ever have seen a case of tellurium poisoning before. Exposure to even the smallest amount of the chemical caused victims to exhale the smell of a rotting, garlicky corpse for a period of six months or more. Perhaps permanently.
Magdalene, he was sure, hadn’t really liked the boy. But he’d made certain she’d be free of his advances for a good long while.