Neil stepped in close. “Do I make you nervous?” he said, puffing rancid cigarette smoke into Jessie’s face. “You’ve never spent much time around ex-cons have you?”
“No.” Jessie had never spent much time in dark alleys either.
“So do you have a job for me or what?”
The guy certainly didn’t look like a cop. But Jessie would be careful, just in case. “Yes. Friday night at my business partner’s house. His wife is throwing him a big surprise birthday party. I want to give him a little surprise of my own—right in front of all his friends and family.”
“Sounds like fun.” He lit up another cigarette. “I’ll need ten thousand in small bills.”
“That’s a lot of money.”
Neil offered a sly grin. “Hey, if you’d rather hire somebody else, be my guest. But it could really spoil the party if they don’t know what they’re doing. Things could get…messy.”
He thought for a moment. “No—I can’t take that chance. It’s got to be done right.”
Jessie reached into his suit coat pocket and took out a folded piece of paper. “Here’s the address. Come at around eight. I’ll be there, of course. Nobody will ever suspect that I’m the one who hired you.”
“But he’s got two young kids, so be careful. Actually, they’re my kids…and my wife.”
“The son of bitch stole your family?”
“Yeah. And now he’s trying to force me out of the company. We built that business together. Screw him!”
“Sounds like you’ve got anger issues, Man.”
“Maybe you should surprise him yourself.”
“I’m not really a hands-on kind of guy.”
“Good. I need the work.”
“I can see that—which is why I think you’ll be happy to lower your price to five thousand.”
Neil raised his right hand.
Even in the dim lighting of the alley Jessie could see the shiny six-inch blade. Before he could react, Neil pinned him to the wall with his left arm.
“You whiny little bitch. No wonder your wife left you. How about I cut your giblets out and feed them to the rats?”
Jessie couldn’t speak. He couldn’t feel anything—except the warm urine gushing down his leg.
“You’ve hired me to do a job, and the job’s gonna get done. There’s no turning back now. No price reductions. So shut the hell up.”
“Tomorrow night at 10:00, you’re gonna come back here with the money. And Friday night, your partner is gonna get an amazing surprise.”
Neil punched Jessie in the stomach and walked away.
Jessie sipped his punch. “This is a great party, Cathy.”
“Only the best for my Jack.”
His smile nearly cracked. If he was half a man, he would tell her off. “I don’t think he suspected a thing.”
“Yeah, it’s amazing that nobody let it slip.”
“Hey, was that the doorbell?”
Cathy went to the front door.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said, walking into the house. “Now, where’s our birthday boy?”
Cathy followed him. “Sir, I think you’ve got the wrong house. I didn’t hire a clown.”
Ignoring Cathy, he addressed the crowded room of adults, who were standing around chatting, drinking punch, and eating cake. “Okay now kiddies, where’s Jack?”
One of the men laughed and said, “Can’t you tell? He’s the one over there, wearing the purple party hat.”
The clown reached into one of his huge pockets as he walked toward Jack.
Jessie moved in for a better view.
The clown whipped out something—a red balloon. He blew it up and twisted it in just the right places to form a hat. With the second balloon, a yellow one, he added a gold band. “A crown for the king—I mean the birthday boy,” he said, placing it on Jack’s head.
Cathy surveyed the room of guests, and seemed to wondering who had hired him.
The clown leaned in to Jack, thrusting out his chest, positioning the fake flower on his lapel directly in front of Jack’s face.
Then Jessie realized it was Neil—the ex-con he’d hired for ten-thousand dollars.
The clown squeezed the little red ball in his hand, and water sprayed out of the fake flower into Jack’s face.
The crowd roared with laughter.
After creating balloon toys for the two children and various hats and necklaces for the adults, the clown made a grand exit, waving goodbye with all the gusto of St. Nick. Jessie almost expected to hear: Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight.
Then he was gone—even more quickly than he had appeared.
Jessie kept his eye on Jack. Perhaps Neil had spiked the flower water with acid or some other deadly liquid. Soon it would begin to take its toll on poor old Jack.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Jack appeared to be just fine. He had another piece of cake and a cup of coffee.
Jessie excused himself and left the party.
Jessie threw back another shot of whiskey. “Keep them coming,” he said to the bartender.
A familiar voice from behind him said, “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”
Jessie spun around and nearly fell off his stool. “You bastard,” he slurred.
Neil sat down beside him. “What’s your problem?”
“I paid you a lot of money to do that job.”
“And I did it well, don’t you think? They loved me.”
“Sure. You were a great clown. The balloon art was amazing. Just fabulous, you son of a bitch.”
“What are you so upset about? You paid a premium price for a premium job. You could not have found a better party clown. Admit it.”
Jessie stood up, dizzy from the alcohol. “I didn’t pay you to be a frigging party clown.”
“You know damn well I didn’t.”
“Then exactly what did you expect me to do for that money?”
“Obviously I don’t.”
“Don’t give me that. I hired you to give Jack a big surprise. We both knew what we were really talking about. I mean, come on—you’re an ex-con.”
“So, instead of my clown act, you were expecting me to…”
“Yes. I was expecting you to kill him. I wanted to see you blow that bastard away—right in front of everybody.”
“So the money you paid me was not for entertainment. You were hiring me to kill your business partner.”
“How could you be so stupid. Of course that’s what I was doing. Idiot.”
Neil got off of his stool. “Jessie, you have the right to remain silent. If you give up that right—”
“—wait. What’s happening?”
Neil took out his cuffs.
“You’re a cop?”
“Anything you say can, and will, be used against you in a—”
“—son of a bitch!”
“Now who’s the clown?”