Benefit of the Doubt – Fiction

Holy crapsticks I’m on a roll.  Two posts in two days, both of which are fiction?  Satan must be ice skating down there in hell, cos I sure didn’t plan for this to happen.  Hell, it almost didn’t happen: I’ve had kids crawling over me all day, cable techs drilling holes in my walls, babies who need attention, twitters to tweet and housework to do.  The last thing I wanted to do was write.

Then I saw this Flash Fiction Friday #29 thing — I always come to these things late, as yesterday’s Free Gisch contest will, well, attest — and a story started taking shape in my head. After many stops and starts, and wanting to alternate between killing my kids and killing myself, here it is.  I suppose I failed the challenge; I didn’t post it before 9am PST.  But in the end, I don’t care.  I finished the challenge, and that’s more important to me. 🙂

I’m not entirely sure I like it, and I didn’t read through it as heavily as I do my other bits of flash… the huge number of stops and starts on this thing saw to that.  But done is done, written is written, and garbage is only garbage if you consider it so.

Call it a writing exercise, and be done with it.  I am.

(( *** STORY BEGINS *** ))

BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT

“I said that you don’t have to believe me, and I certainly wouldn’t…if I were in your shoes.”

Cassandra said that every Friday morning at nine sharp. That was when we met to go over the List for the following week. Someone once told me she was obsessive-compulsive, but I’ve never heard about anyone with the disorder who only needed one repetition once a week. I dunno, I’m no expert. But it seems a bit far-fetched to me. It could be true, I suppose. Cassandra’s a strange one. You never know how she’s going to act or how she’s going to be dressed when she shows up to the weekly meetings.

Today, she’s gone with 50s housewife chic: hair sprayed into place with some shellac-type fixer, one prominent curl on her forehead. Fire-engine red dress, with short sleeves and tiny white polka dots. Her shoes match her lipstick, and her lipstick matches her dress. She’s even wearing a frilly white apron and thick rubber gloves. All that’s missing are the scrub brush and oven in need of cleaning.

Someone, one of the recruits finally allowed access to these meetings, asks her what we won’t believe. The veterans, myself included, all roll our eyes. You’re not supposed to encourage Cassandra. Let her take contracts, yes. Tolerate her presence, yes. Encourage her, no.

“I can teleport to anywhere in the world,” she says with an impish smile. The recruit looks startled, glances sideways to the guy who obviously mentors him; the guy shakes his head slightly and the recruit looks away. That’s why we don’t encourage her.

The ancient printer we’re gathered around spits and crackles and hums into life. Vito, eldest of us all, has the privilege of removing the List from the tray. He clears his throat, rustles the pages and all conversation ceases. We wait in respectful silence for him to start calling out the contracts.

“Contract for the CFO of Aztech Incorporated,” he says. “Half a million.”

“Time?” someone in the back asks.

“Up to two weeks.”

“I’ll take it,” two people say at once, and immediately begin arguing heatedly. One has a pregnant wife who needs a C-section; he needs the cash. The other already has three kids with three different women and he has to pay child support; he needs the cash. The first punch is thrown almost before initial arguments are done.

Gather a group like us together every week, with our line of work and the amounts of cash thrown around; events like this are more common than you’d think.

Vito waits for a moment to see if anyone else will toss in a desire for the contract. When no one does, he waves a hand and the brawling duo are herded to the side to work it out in private. He speaks another name, another deadline, and another amount. There are no fist fights over this one.

Contracts continue to be picked up. Eventually the two brawlers have decided which of them is getting the half a mil one. The winner collects the file folder and his blank passport. The loser, nursing a broken nose and a black eye, takes a contract for a lesser amount, and doesn’t look happy to be doing so.

He’ll get over it, or he’ll kill his competition. Our kind play for keeps.

Vito says “Archibald Sniever, head of Rombach Pharmautechnologies.” Then he hesitates. “Retracted,” he continues before anyone asks what’s wrong. “This contract will pass to our Western European branch.”

Cassandra bounces up beside me, her curls bobbing by my shoulder. “Why?” she asks.

Vito turns his infamous Medusa stare on her – the kind so powerful it can turn someone to stone – but Cassandra proves immune. Vito sighs. “It’s for a target in Paris. The deadline is midnight.”

I nod. Paris is at least a ten hour flight, and it’s already noon. Better that it go to someone who can get the job done. We’re ragtag, but we do have a reputation to maintain.

Cassandra doesn’t seem to care. She just says, “I’ll take it.”

Vito doesn’t blink. He just goes onto the next contract.

Louder. “I said I’ll take it!”

Vito ignores her, hands out another file folder.

“I’ll take it, Vito.”

I sigh. She does this every so often; she wants something she can’t have, and she’ll only get louder until Vito has her tossed out on her ear. “Cassandra, it’s an impossible contract,” I say. “Let a local take care of it. You’d never make it there in time.”

She stares at me, then gives me a Betty Paige smile, bright and cheerful and slightly sinister. “Nothing’s impossible,” she says, then turns and flounces away.

I take a local contract for thirty grand. It’s low-key, low-grade, but I’m not feeling all that adventurous lately. The wife’s had her gallbladder out, and she needs me around the house. And it’s not like we’re hurting for cash. I had that big operation down in Sao Paolo a couple of months back; still lots left over from that payday.

I don’t see Cassandra again, but then, I’m not really looking for her.

* * *

On Tuesday, my weekend copy of Le Monde arrives. The wife doesn’t understand my obsession with world news; I have subscriptions from everywhere. Of course, I can’t really tell her why I want them. She thinks I’m in diplomacy – in a weird way, I guess I am. Just not the way she’d think of it.

I’m in my office looking for mentions of my colleagues’ exploits when a “Local News” column catches my eye:

PHARMACEUTICAL CEO ASSASSINATED

Revolutionary cancer drug trials suspended until replacement rep arrives

The article is brief, details very little, only that one Archibald Sniever, Chief Executive Officer of Rombach Pharmatechnologies was shot and killed at close range during a meeting to discuss human trials on a new cancer drug some French doctor patented. In the ensuing panic and inevitable stampede towards the door, the assassin got away.

I glance at the picture accompanying the article; it looks like it had been taken just after Mr. Sniever hit the ground. I can’t see the body, but there are people panicking and screaming and running. If I squint just right, I can almost see the high velocity spatter on the woman beside the empty chair.

Something else catches my eye, and I blink at the paper. The image is grainy and blurry and hard to make out, but there, in the front row, is a face I recognize very easily. 50s housewife bob, puffy sleeves and frilly apron. I haul the magnifying glass I confiscated from my son after I caught him burning ants out of my desk drawer and look again.

I said that you don’t have to believe me, and I certainly wouldn’t… if I were in your shoes.

Jesus Christ. That’s Cassandra.

I can teleport anywhere in the world.

What the fuck?

* * *

Friday rolls around again, and brings with it another gathering. I still have an active contract and it’s bad form to take another before the first one’s complete. But I can’t help myself. I have to know if Cassandra is going to show up, and what she’ll say if she does.

I hunch into my sheepskin jacket, waiting for the printer to spew out its List for the week. There are new faces here today, and some old ones are missing, even taking into account those out on active contracts. Such is the way of things. Such is the way.

Vito has an announcement before the printer starts hissing. “We did not complete a contract,” he says, and there’s an immediate rumble of discord that disappears when he raises a hand to stymie it. “A rival beat us to it; our European brothers report that their assigned member was found unconscious in his hotel room.”

And just like that, Cassandra’s bouncing at my shoulder again. She waves above her head a file folder, a used passport, and the probable murder weapon.  “I took care of it for you, Vito, just like I said I would.”

Nobody who was here last week knows what to say to that. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen Vito completely flabbergasted. But he does what he’s supposed to do and he takes the items she’s handing him, placing them in the box with all the other bits of incriminating evidence. “Thanks,” he says, and he sounds uncertain.

She giggles.  No one can sound that much like a child without being a little unhinged.  Then again, no one ever suspected Cassandra of being sane.

In the silence that follows, Cassandra speaks her expected line. This time, it isn’t a raw, wide-eyed recruit who asks her what she means, what wouldn’t we believe.

It’s me.

She turns to me, wide-eyed at my daring at first, but then with a Betty Page smile and another coy giggle.  She bounces on her toes, and her curls bounce with her. “I can kill people with only my mind,” she says with an impish grin.

Someone laughs. Another person snorts. A third says, “Yeah right.” But me? I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt.

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6 thoughts on “Benefit of the Doubt – Fiction

  1. Apologies, I am notoriously late in leaving comments. Right…I really enjoyed your story, Maggie and you shouldn’t be so dismissive of it. Welcome to a great bunch at FFF, and I look forward to reading more of your work.

    Regards, David.

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