One Slow Trigger Day
D. A. D'Amico & Dean D'Amico
"Turn and draw!" The voice sounded slick, sure and confident. It carried a faint southern accent, Mississippi maybe. I stopped. The drink awaiting me in the saloon would have to wait just a little longer. Slowly, I raised my arms from my sides, like a martyr prepared for the cross. Not another one.
How many did this make? I'd lost count over the years. The faces and the blood, it was all a blur. I sighed, thinking I should find another job.
I turned my palms up and very slowly pivoted my body in the direction of the voice. The man before me didn't distinguish himself in any physical way. He wore faded jeans, a coarse rawhide vest covering a flannel shirt, and a ridiculous five-gallon hat at least two sizes too big for him. He must've dredged up the outfit from an old Western movie. The part that really drew my attention was the revolver he held, a nickel-plated steel 1875 Colt Army Outlaw, sleek and as big as a shovel in the man's small right hand. It was a beautiful gun, and an excellent choice if you wanted to feel like an authentic nineteenth century desperado. Maybe not the best choice for a shootout, but dramatic flair mattered more than practicality to some. "I said draw, or are you a coward? Missy..."
His voice briefly faltered, slim, long-fingered hands fluttered nervously, betraying his pretended confidence. He seemed surprised to see a woman, or maybe just stunned he'd been paired with me. Even the rookies knew who I was.
I rolled my eyes. Why'd they always have to say that? Was there a pamphlet, or a class on bad gunfighter lingo? I didn't enjoy the killing, but it didn't make me a coward.
His young face grimaced into what to him must have been a smile filled with menace. To me, it was just one more sign the boy was out of his league. I'm also no fool, and I know even the most inexperienced greenhorn can get lucky. So I played it cool. If he wanted the dialog, who was I to refuse?
"I'm no coward, boy, but I've no desire to trade lead today. I would much rather buy you a drink at that saloon over yonder and trade stories." I cocked my head in the direction of the Silver Dollar, its worn grey veneer and rusting signpost visible through the early morning dust. Just once I wished one of them would take me up on it.
"Listen, little lady." His smile faded. "Only one of us will be having a drink today, and it's not going to be you. Now draw."
His hand moved with lightning speed. The Colt cleared its holster in a blur, the yawning bore of the barrel orienting on my heart as if steel and lead could sense it beating. The sleepy little street exploded. A sudden rush of dust and thunder enveloped me, and the smell of sulfur filled the air.
The boy's body hit the dirt with hardly a sound. I sighed, blowing smoke from the muzzle of my Smith and Wesson double action .38. The small white plume curled in the noonday sun, sinister, wraithlike. My heart battered my ribcage. My lungs would give me no air. If I'd attempted to walk, my knees would've buckled. It'd been close, too close. The kid had been fast, or maybe it was just me getting slower?
Adrenaline burned through my veins like acid. I felt energetic, excited, and very much alive. This was why I stayed, the ecstasy of almost dying coupled with the joy of being alive. The rush almost compensated for the fact that I'd killed again.
I twirled the Wesson over my trigger finger with a showy flourish, watching the sun glint off the sleek dark metal. A quick flip and turn landed the deadly thing back into the holster on my left. I fixed my hat, sliding my hair out of my eyes and straightening the brim as I sidled off towards the Silver Dollar saloon. I nodded in the direction of the old clock tower where the imaging and transmission hardware was hidden, just enough to let the spectators know I appreciated the support. I could just hear the piano starting to play, its tinny rhythm eerily filling the lonely street.
The wide swinging doors opened to reveal the gloomy interior of what was supposed to be the saloon. Instead, the shadowy outlines of a darkened L-shaped corridor resolved themselves as I entered. Beyond, another door, the arrangement kind of like an airlock, a baffle between the make-believe frontier town and the real world. It made the transition less traumatic, the shimmering fabric of holographic illusion a little less real. I wondered when they'd come up with a buffer that'd make the transition between killer and ordinary citizen easier?
"Are we good, Rachael?" Mike Mannon, my handler, greeted me from behind a grey Lucite desk.
"Yeah, we're good." I tossed my hat across the room, shedding the last vestiges of the Western illusion. "What about the boy?"
Mike gave me a look that asked why I did this to myself every time. I'd seen that look a hundred times, maybe more, and still had no answer. Maybe he was right, and I was getting too old for this job. He was worried about my standings, my worth on the market. One loss, one slow trigger day, and my value would plummet.
I knew he wasn't alone in his thinking. The corporate boys kept checking, and who could blame them? I'd been on top for over a decade, the only woman to be so in this highly competitive, gender-biased profession. How much longer could it last?
He swiveled the display on his desk. It showed an operating theater, and the bloody body of a young man. A team of surgeons in transparent gowns moved purposefully, doing things with fantastic glowing instruments. They didn't seem rushed. That was good.
"Just a reconstruction?" I sighed, relieved.
"You do good work, Rachael. The bullet pierced his heart, but did very little damage otherwise. It'll be a clean replace." Mike pulled the panel back around. "The kid'll be on his feet again and bragging to his friends by midnight."
I shook my head. How did I ever get into this line of work?
A thin sheet of water covered the streets as I walked slowly home. A couple passed, their laughter a mechanical tinkling as it seeped from their shared sensory hood, each woman clinging to the other with talon-like silver fingernails. The odor of roasting fish swirled from the pressed carbon grating along the gutters of the narrow street. Sparks flared in slender puffs, floating embers of dried blood into the air. Pale blue reflections glittered in the puddles. Lights from the stacked-box condos wavered, making them look like ice cubes and reminding me how much I needed a drink.
The night's rain would vanish with the rising sun, leaving the city cleansed and renewed. Sometimes, I wished it would rain in my head. That's why I chose to walk home, that and other more mundane reasons. I'd give anything to wash away the killing and death.
It hadn't been bad today, just the one cowboy. Some nights I'd have to plow through them like a farmer scythes through wheat. I grimaced as I realized how in character the comparison had been. Maybe I really should look into another line of work, something with fewer casualties.
I'd never intended to be an entertainer. As a young girl I'd wanted to be a teacher, and then as I grew older, a writer. All my hobbies were passive. I'd never liked the spotlight, and have always been uncomfortable in crowds. My Shootist career had come about quite by accident. What was supposed to be a one-time job to help out a friend had turned into over a decade and a half of long nights, and my other goals seemed forgotten.
Was I too lazy to switch jobs? Was it too late to go back, finish that degree, and find a nice little teaching gig outside the city? Yosef would like that. He hated the Shootist, hated the killer in me, although he hadn't once complained about the apartment in the city, the fast cars, and the expensive gifts. I could tell he was jealous though. In a profession dominated by men, I was the best. That must've hurt a bit, especially since he'd never learned to shoot, and he was out of work again.
I turned the corner, finally reaching Belcher Street and my apartment. It was late. Maybe he'd be asleep. Maybe I'd get lucky and not have to hear the arguments.
But I'd used up all my luck earlier that day.
Yosef lay sprawled in a heap on the oversized futon just inside the door. His eyes were open, and his dark features carried the same grimace of disappointment he always wore on a work night. By the expression on his face, you'd think I killed puppies for a living, and not people who paid good money for the chance to die.
"Rough day at work?" he asked as he rearranged himself on the overstuffed cushion. His manner had gotten a little hopeful, eyebrows up in a questioning glance. Did he think I'd give up if the killing became too much?
"Just one today," I said. "A young man who wanted to be Billy the Kid. He wasn't."
His expression soured again. "Kill him?"
"Yup, quick as lightning." I couldn't keep the anger from my voice. When I glanced down I could see my hands shaking, and wondered why I always let him do this to me.
I headed out of the living room and into the kitchen. The lights came on as I entered. Yosef followed.
"Did they have to Process him?" His voice dripped with concern. Sometimes I wished he'd show as much feeling when he asked if it'd been me who'd been killed.
"No, just a heart replacement and some minor body work. Nothing drastic."
"Too bad, huh?" He said it sarcastically.
I made the refrigerator show me what it could prepare. Pictures of a dozen uninteresting choices scrolled by, and I could see Yosef's reflection in the curved glass. "I never shoot that way anymore. You'd know that if you bothered to listen."
"But it happens," he said. "You're not perfect."
There was a time when he thought I was perfect, but that had been before he'd lost his job.
"Stealing a part of someone's life..."
To Process a client meant subjecting him or her to a severe form of death, one that couldn't be shrugged off with a little reparative surgery. To be Processed meant having a new body grown, and having your mind recorded. My Process recording was only three months old, because my job paid for it. A quarterly Process recording was both a benefit and a requirement in my line of work.
Unless you were swimming in cash, your average Process recording wasn't nearly as recent. I knew Yosef hadn't had a recording since before I'd met him. So, on those occasions when I didn't shoot as cleanly as I'd have liked and reconstruction was not an option, my opponent lost several months of subjective time.
Some people wanted it that way. I could see relief in their eyes in the last seconds before the life drained out of them and their bodies hit the ground. They wanted to forget, and thought being Processed into an earlier recording would solve what haunted them. Others, I think, came because they couldn't understand death, couldn't make it something real and inevitable. I showed them. The final few were the hot shots, rich kids who practiced at being gunslingers in their VR cubes. They were the most dangerous, because some actually had talent. None had bested me yet, but it was only a matter of time.
I'd promised Yosef I'd give up this business and move on if I ever got killed. Part of me wanted it. Another part was too proud, too unwilling to accept defeat, too scared to taste death.
"Have you given it any more thought?" Yosef asked out of nowhere, pulling me back from my reverie.
Yosef's brother Fergus had offered me work developing some kind of VR training manual. It'd mean giving up the Shootist, but it was something Yosef had been trying to get me to do since we'd first moved in together six months earlier.
"Still thinking." I headed for the bedroom, my quest for something to eat forgotten.
He followed me. "Fergus won't hold the offer forever. Other people are interested."
"I know." I slipped into some sweats and a loose cotton shirt. He dropped onto the bed, arms hanging limply by his side like a rag doll dumped carelessly into a corner. I could almost smell his disappointment. We'd gone over this many times, and the words just got shorter and tenser.
I also knew it wasn't over, not tonight. Some nights I'd come home and his macho would be all bent out of shape by an unfruitful job search, and he'd try to take it out on me. He'd tell me girls weren't supposed to be killers. I'd explain it wasn't really murder, but he already knew that. By making me argue he'd already won.
Other nights I'd return to him wallowing in self-pity. The depression, the sighs, and flopping around were only stage one. The shouting and the anger came next. Sometimes, I wondered if it was worth it. I could give up the Shootist, take Yosef's brother's job, and probably lead an okay life--until something else bothered him and we started all over again. Or I could take the easy way out and end up alone.
"But why?" His voice grated like sandpaper running across my brain.
"We've gone over this..." I started.
"You know you don't really like what you're doing. You've said so."
Did I? I might have. The constant killing took its toll, and some nights I felt as drained as if I'd swum for miles through thick molasses. Emotionally, it was tough work. Even though I knew it wasn't permanent, murder was still an upsetting business.
"Look, I'm tired," I said. "I'll come to a decision tomorrow, I promise. Now, let's go to bed."
I tried to sound seductive but my heart wasn't in it.
He grunted once more, trying to work up steam to keep the argument going, but I'd derailed him with the promise of my body, and a promise of a decision. Still, he faced away from me as I crawled into bed. I guess if I wasn't going to give him an answer, then I wasn't worth anything else.
I snuck out of the apartment the next day before he awoke, anxious to escape the inevitable. I know I'd told him I would come to a decision, but it wasn't something I was prepared to deal with before a morning cup of coffee. Besides, I didn't enjoy being cornered at any time of the day.
I'd almost gotten through that first cup of coffee, too, before the calls began. I'd gone straight to my dressing room, finding a measure of peace in the cream-colored walls. A rack of period clothing, hats and duster jackets, antique dungarees, and even a frilly dress or two crowded fully one half of the room. A utilitarian metal case occupied the opposite wall. I ran my hand along its glass doors, staring in at my collection of weapons.
I had just about every handgun that'd won the West, and a few that nearly lost it. My go-to, the Smith and Wesson, rested beside a Cooper Pocket double action, a Lindsay Model 1860, a Confederate LeMat Grape Shot revolver, and an authentic Colt Single Action Army, the "Peacemaker". These were the tools of my trade.
The button phone on my earlobe went nuts, whispering Yosef's name repeatedly as he left a stream of messages. I told the phone to ignore him, and that worked for a while. Eventually he realized what I'd done and called using a different number. I almost fell for it. Instead, I instructed the phone to keep quiet no matter who called. I'd pay for that later.
Mike Mannon showed up an hour later carrying another hot cup of coffee and a dossier with this night's workload.
"How many?" I hoped for a low number, maybe something below zero. This business with Yosef had me on edge.
"Just one," he said. "A special call in. The client had me pull your whole lineup, over a dozen shoots."
I rolled my eyes. Specials were people who absolutely had to have it now. They paid more, lots more, to have my schedule cleared to accommodate them. Some people were in far too much of a hurry to die.
"You sure you're up for this?" Mike huffed his words out in careful little bites, speaking so slowly I had to glance up.
"And just what do you mean by that?" I used the same slow tone, suspicious.
His expression told me he desperately wanted to talk, but I wasn't in the mood for games. "What?"
He struggled for words, and started to say something several times before giving up. Finally, he sighed. "Nothing."
Whatever... I let it drop. Mike sometimes got a bit too involved with my work. He worried more than I did about me losing my standing, about Yosef finally luring me away from the Shootist altogether, about corporate, about everything.
He sat me down after I'd gotten my gear together, and we went over the usual psych questions. Government regulations required me to have a stable personality, or reasonably stable. I got checked before every shooting day for sudden homicidal tendencies, hidden proclivities that might carry over into the real world once I left the controlled fantasy of the Western set. They didn't want me to like the killing too much.
"No, I haven't tortured any small animals since last night," I replied to his final question.
"Since the last time we took this test?"
"I'm not trying to use semantics on you. I did mean since our last meeting. What's up, Mike? What's going on?"
He dropped his gaze. Emotion played across his face, but I couldn't be sure what. "Nothing, Rachael. Just take it slow today. Think before you shoot."
I stared hard at him again. His advice was impossible considering the visceral nature of my job. Now I knew something was up. I almost sat back down, but I knew Mike. He wanted to tell me something, but couldn't put it into words for some reason. The way he twitched, I knew he'd end up stalling all afternoon before finally spitting it out. I just wanted to get the shoot over with first. Maybe he'd be more inclined to speak after I'd finished the Western fantasy. Whatever... I had bigger things on my mind.
"Smith and Wesson again?" he asked.
"No." I smiled. "I got a hankering for something different. Let me have a Colt, an Outlaw 75 like the kid carried yesterday."
"You're not getting nostalgic on me are you?" Mike said with a crooked look on his face.
"Just shut up and get me the gun," I snapped and headed for the transition room.
The sun rode high in a sky filled with picture-perfect fluffy clouds the color of fine cotton balls. The wide door I'd just stepped out of closed on the facing of a small, white-washed country church, not the usual saloon. A small path meandered through a meadow filled with wildflowers of every hue and description, some in colors I knew nature had never thought of. It was one of the most beautiful settings I'd ever seen. My client must have seriously conflicted feelings about today's shoot.
I jumped and spun. The Colt leapt into my hand without conscious thought, an extension of my arm. My heart threatened to tear through my rib cage. Adrenaline flooded my system. My hands went numb, and my jaw dropped like a startled cartoon character.
"How'd you get in here?" I stammered, suddenly out of breath. I knew how.
He stood in the dappled sunlight, wearing a tuxedo, his black hair slicked back, combed for a change, tears in his large hazel eyes--gripping the largest shotgun I'd ever seen in his shaky hands. He wasn't a weak man, but I could tell he was having trouble holding it up. The determined glint in his eyes told me as much as the gun itself.
"What do you plan on doing with that?" I asked.
A signal ping chimed in my right ear, and a smooth synthesized voice whispered, "The shoot will commence in ten seconds."
In a normal scenario we'd be trading banter, squaring off, flexing our gun hands in anticipation. I'd never been up against someone who didn't follow the rules.
I stepped back, lowering my revolver. "Put it down. If you shoot it like that you'll probably break both your arms."
"I needed to do something!" he howled.
"What? Kill me?"
"I don't know what else. You obviously love being this character more than you love me. You can't let it go."
I started to protest, but he talked right over me.
"Fergus had to give the job away this morning, not that you cared. No job is good enough, pays enough, or is the right fit--whatever that means. You tell me you hate the killing, but then you come back again and again. You need help, Rachael."
"Your holding an elephant gun on me is the way to help?" I asked. A double ping in my ear told me we were live. I could shoot him at any time, but I didn't move.
The way he waved that gun around scared the hell out of me. I was half afraid he'd actually do it. If he pulled the trigger at this range, even with a shaky hand and poor aim, he'd still tear half my body to shreds. No reconstruction. No redemption. They'd have to Process me, and then I'd be out three months of my life. Maybe it'd be for the best if I'd just let him shoot. We could start all over again, live the first couple of months of our relationship over.
Yosef might even feel different about the Shootist. If he shot me he'd get a sense of the tingle and lure that made this more than just a job. He'd taste the rush of a fast trigger day, and it'd be a new bond between us. He'd understand.
"I love you, Rachael," he cried. "We don't have to do this. We can just go home. We'll talk about things. You'll find some other line of work, I know you will. Let's go to the saloon and have a drink, talk a little. You're smart, talented, and pretty. You can do anything you want."
I was doing what I wanted.
The realization hit me like the threatened shotgun pellets. I wanted to live, and I wanted to live my way. Yosef pleaded. He whined. I sighed. Even with a gun aimed at me, he used the same tired old lines.
"You know what'll happen if you pull that trigger?" I asked. "They'll Process me. My recording is a few months old. We'll lose all of that, have to start over from the beginning. I don't want to do this all over again."
"Maybe starting over wouldn't be the most horrible thing that could happen." He lifted the big gun slightly, painfully raising the ponderous weight of it. Time seemed to slow. I watched as his long thick fingers found and then caressed the dull metal trigger, his slow motion tug, and then the sunny meadow exploded in a sudden rush of thunder.
Doves leapt into the air from perches in the church rafters. The rumble reverberated from the surrounding hillside like an advancing cavalry charge. The smell of gunpowder overpowered the sweet fragrance of wildflowers. The gun jumped from his fingers and tumbled end over end into the grass. His look was pure surprise as he turned.
I fired again. Then I emptied the cylinder.
With every shot I destroyed a bit of our time together, a bit of our history. They wouldn't be able to repair him, not now. He'd be Processed. He'd lose over a year of his life. That was something I was sorry I had to take from him, but I'd be giving him peace in return. He wouldn't need me. He wouldn't even remember me.
But I would always remember him.