Ralph was a simple guy. All he wanted was a life without stress, which is why he left a lucrative teaching position in the pressure cooker that was Stanford University to become a baker in his home town. Not even a master baker; no, Ralph punched his card as a simple apprentice breadmaker. He found the simplicity and order deeply satisfying.

But it wasn’t to last. One day, while hauling stale bread to the dumpsters in the staff parking lot behind his bakery, Ralph witnessed a violent murder. A long, low, black car drove up to an older pedestrian, dropped its windows, and blasted the latter with automatic gunfire.

Instinctively, Ralph ran in the other direction. He hadn’t gotten a good look at the man, and the assailant hadn’t been visible, but it was clear as Ralph’s car turned over that he had been spotted. Flooring the gas and scrambling to remember where the police station was, Ralph’s car fishtailed out of the baker’s back lot with the dark car in hot pursuit. It was faster, the driver was less panicked, and in short order Ralph found himself sideswiped into a sign, a mailbox, and a parked car. Worse, he’d tried to cut across a back alley; no one was watching.

The airbags deployed. Dazed, Ralph bumbled with his seatbelt and crawled from the wreckage of his car. Something hot was oozing from his thinning hairline; he figured it was blood. The other car was still running but the doors were open and it was empty. He limped toward it, hoping to escape through the alley on the other side.

There was a click behind him, the unmistakable sound of the hammer being drawn back on a firearm. Ralph’s shoulders sagged.

“You’re going to shoot me, aren’t you?”

“Well, wouldn’t you?” a very reasonable voice–a boy’s voice–replied. It was soft but strangely familiar. “Witnesses, especially witnesses that get into wrecks like that, are never a good thing.”

“I suppose, but…” Ralph’s thoughts flashed to the comfortable stress-free existence of the last few months. “Nevermind. Get it over with.”

“Dying men get last requests sometimes. What were you going to say?”

“Well, it’s just that…I’ve been living and working as a baker. It’s a life I’ve grown to love…I’d hate to lose it.”

“Oh, that’s awfully boring,” said the voice. “Pleading for your miserable life. You aren’t always that uninteresting, or I wouldn’t be here.”

“…thanks?” Ralph struggled to place the voice. Clearly it was someone he knew, or who knew him, but it just wasn’t clicking. “I could think of a more interesting last request if I knew who you were,” he said.

“You already know. You’ve always known. But you won’t be sure until your last breath is rattling in your throat.”

“Just get it over with.” Ralph’s throat was dry, but really, was this any different than the heart attack that would have felled him back at Stanford? So much for his dreams of working in a bakery. He squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the end.

Instead, he heard the whistle of a gun butt in the air, the crack of metal against bone, and knew nothing but darkness for some time.

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Sedena Vorobyova, assassin-for-hire, glared over the sights of her high-powered rifle. “You should be terrified,” she intoned evenly in her butter-thick but comprehensible Gorky accent. “It’s not every day that someone takes out a contract on your life, least of all goes to the trouble of hiring one from another story.”

“Oh, I’m terrified, I assure you, ma’am.” Priscilla “Prissy” Deerton said. Her elaborately embroidered duster was spotless over fine silk trousers and a matching blouse, with a glistening broach and a pair of fine hard leather boots to match–the benefits of being the daughter of the town haberdasher. “I will endeavor to keep Reynard calm, though I must warn you that, while terrified, I am not so much so as I’d be were you a spider.”

The assassin’s workaday cargo pants and combat jacket were certainly no match for Prissy’s finery–the drawbacks of being the daughter of a long dead Soviet apparatchik who’d drank himself to death. “Reynard?” said she, cocking her head. “Spider?”

“Where? Where?” Prissy shrieked. She undid the button on what looked like a small bulging at the bottom of her coat, revealing a fancy rat with a vaguely cow-like pattern of splotches. “Reynard! Spiders! Go to Pattern Delta!”

Her rat obligingly scurried up one of Prissy’s trouser legs, and Sedena incredulously followed the resulting rat-shaped bulge with her telescopic sight until it emerged above its owner’s starched collar to perch on her shoulder.

Reaching into her pants, Prissy produced a pair of small-caliber derringers—.32 caliber Sharps Pepperboxes by the look of them—and scanned nearby nooks and crannies for eight-legged interlopers.

“It was a question,” Sedena growled. “I didn’t actually see a spider.”

“Oh,” Prissy said. “Don’t scare me like that.”

“Thank you, though, for revealing to me where you kept your weapons,” Sedena added coldly. “On the ground, please.” The .32 caliber blackpowder bullets wouldn’t even make it to her position a short distance down the road, let alone pierce her ballistic vest, but it was always better to be thorough with a mark.

“Spiders are ruthless, you know,” Prissy continued, lowering the hammers on her Pepperboxes and placing them neatly on the ground. “Vicious, remorseless killers…not unlike you in that regard, but where you face my enemies down and kill them honest-like with bullets, spiders sneak around and use venom and poison like assassins in the Crusades.”

“I’m sure they do,” said Sedena, rolling her eyes. “I’m beginning to wonder if all the characters from your story are crazy or at least mildly imbalanced.”

“Don’t you know that aranea mactans, the black widow spider, has a bite that can cause premature birth, heart attacks, false death, actual death, agonizing pain, and pain like unto a thousand suns? They’re tiny, they wait for you under the bed or in the privy, always in wait, and the little red hourglass on their butts gets redder as the hour of your death approaches!”

“Then they must be awfully red right now,” Sedena said grimly.

Prissy, looking for a moment of distraction to dip down and scoop up her oft-abused Pepperboxes, saw something moving in the sand near Sedena—a very large, very brown camel spider. Her eyes widened.

“So where are the rest of your compatriots?” Sedena continued. “I’ve a contract to fulfill and if they’re as weak and pitiable as you, it should be the easiest I’ve ever had. I might even be able to claim a double bounty for bringing you all in alive.”

The camel spider began a leisurely scuttle up Sedena’s boot; for her part, Prissy had gone ashen-colored and could be heard hyperventilating, but with the assassin’s M14 trained on her more carefully than ever, she couldn’t cry out to Reynard to go to Pattern Delta.

“You’re right to be scared, but that’s not going to keep me from learning what I need to learn.”

Reaching the top of Sedena’s boot, the spider continued onto her cargo trousers, oblivious in the way that only arthropods can be that its presence was on the verge of shattering Prissy’s mind.

“I said-” Sedena began. Then she noticed the camel spider herself. The resulting scream echoed off the canyon walls, audible for miles around.

Prissy retrieved her fallen guns and aimed one at the rapidly diminishing silhouette of the assassin. “That’s right!” she cried. “You’d better run!”

The camel spider, flung far closer to Prissy by Sedena’s sudden retreat, began to scuttle towards the only remaining victim possible. Prissy, her face hard, blasted it with her other Pepperbox, flinching only when it seemed like the resulting spray of goo might splatter on her finery.

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This post is part of the October 2012 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s prompt is “NaMoReMo (National Mock Review Month)”.

The Accountant and the Assassin
Altos Wexan
421 pages, hardcover
First Edition (August 21, 20XX)
ISBN-10: 223405857-X
ISBN-13: 942-449758221-X
Retrograde Triton Press (domestic printing)
Kyoto Processed Ricepaper Concerns Press (international printings)

There’s definitely no false advertising in this yarn, out earlier this year from Retrograde Triton. Wexan’s book dutifully serves up the collision between a staid accountant and a high-stakes assassin in an Manhattan-in-all-but-name metropolis. One might feel from such a title that the broad outlines of such a tale are obvious, but Wexan is able to lob a few inventive curveballs.

His accountant, for example, is a sunshiny eternal optimist to the point that his oily, more accountant-like cohorts call him “Pollyanna” to his face and heap their worst clients (like a young Paris Hilton soundalike) on his desk. The collision between this bumbling, upbeat character and the dour world of professional contract killing provides the majority of the book’s humor (which is frequent enough, especially near the beginning, that the book could almost be called a comedy).

The comedic pratfalls, including a daft inversion of the usual action movie car chase, are where the book is at its best. Attempts to wring tension out of the basic setup, as in an apartment standoff involving multiple identities and double-crosses, fall flat and are enough of a tonal mismatch that the book at times seems schizophrenic. The titular assassin, a few mild twists aside, is a stock character and despite some teases she and the accountant never seem to click. The villain, a psychotic assassin “competitor,” is written with gusto but seems to lack any real motivation.

Wexan has succeeded in writing a yarn that satisfies some of the old action cliches and inverts or plays with others. But his inability to reconcile the disparate characters and tones keeps the book from being anything more than a well-executed, enjoyable beach read. Recommended, but with reservations.

-Phil “Stonewall” Pixa, The Hopewell Review.

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
Ralph Pines
bmadsen
dolores haze
SRHowen
Angyl78
writingismypassion
meowzbark
pyrosama
randi.lee
wonderactivist

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Easy money.

An artillery shell slammed into one of the adobe buildings across the compound. The defenders within, who had been returning fire with small arms, went out as a fine mist.

Easy money. That’s what Campbell had said.

The first line of skirmishers arrived, disembarking from a BMP. Most of them were killed or wounded, but there was far less, and far less accurate, fire from the rebel positions than there had been moments ago.

Easy money. A tottering autocratic regime, enthusiastic rebels rising up all over the country. Only a few firefights and then cash and poontang from grateful locals.

A second BMP–or, rather, a Chinese-made copy bought and paid for not three weeks ago–disgorged its squad. Bull raked them with heavy machine gun fire, but these weren’t the militia they’d fought earlier. They were disciplined, organized, took cover, laid suppressing fire. Polymer helmets, gas masks, and Chinese kevlar.

Easy money.

“Every one of them?” the apprentice asked.

“Every last one down to the pets.” Katalya shrugged. “You did not expect the company’s best fixer to be so bloodthirsty? We are not delivering flowers, Manya, but death.”

“Yes but…suppose they have children? What’s the harm in letting them live?”

“Banish all such thoughts. They are unbecoming of our profession, where one must have a chip of ice where one’s heart ought to be,” Katalya said. “My mentor, Andrei Nagant, once let a 12-year-old girl survive a job because she reminded him of his own daughter. Do you know how he was repaid for his kindness?”

“A somewhat shorter stay in purgatory?” the apprentice said.

“Cute,” Katalya said. “No, he was killed fifteen years later. Shot in the back in Maputo by that very same girl he’d spared. She had devoted her entire life to finding him and avenging her parents. Andrei’s stupidity and sentimentality caught him in the end. That is why I say every last one down to the pets, Manya. If that is disquieting to you, perhaps you are in the wrong line of work.”

Sarcosi examined the equipment, lined up and labeled on a table. “Amateurish. You would think that someone with the audacity to steal from me would be better armed and trained.”

“Tell us, for the class, what it is that makes this man an amateur,” Hodgkin said. “Enlighten them while showing that you are not to be trifled with.”

Sarcosi hefted the mercenary’s pistol, a Desert Eagle. “Take this sidearm. A ridiculous toy, nearly three kilograms heavy when fully loaded. It is loud, it cannot be concealed properly, and cannot be drawn quickly. Won’t take a proper suppressor. Fires heavy, bulky rifle ammunition.”

The students nodded murmuring among themselves.

“Quite right,” Hodgkin said. “This man has forgotten our maxim: the right tool for the right job. A pistol should be small, easily concealed, and used as a backup weapon or close-in wetwork tool only. Anything else ought to be done with a proper rifle from a distance.”

“This man has evidently seen too many Hollywood movies, where men carry this weapon because it looks impressive,” Sarcosi added. “The appearance of a weapon is irrelevent. Anti-material rifles are ugly to a one but nothing is better suited to taking out a target in an armored and bombproof limousine. Furthermore, by allowing himself to be influenced by fantasy, this man has revealed himself to be an amateur who only deludes himself into thinking he’s a professional.”

“You heard the man,” Hodgkin said to the students. “Release this amateur into the live-fire range.”

Benedict was seated on an ammo crate, feet up. The tropical sun reflected off his Ray-Bans and the foil highlights on the Metallica shirt that peeked out from under his body armor.

“I don’t get it. The sunglasses, the t-shirt, the sneakers,” Cameron said. “You’re a professional. Why don’t you dress like one?”

“Does it really matter what I wear as long as they’re dead?” said Benedict. Seeing that wasn’t going to satisfy Cameron, he continued. “There are exactly two kinds of fighters out there. Those that’re intimidated by a uniform, and those that aren’t.”

“I…don’t follow.” Cameron said.

“I’m not here to intimidate anyone. You want to pay me for intimidation, fine. I’ll pour myself into a uniform, but it won’t come cheap. Otherwise, it’s better for my peace of mind and your bottom line if you let me dress however I please.” The sneer on Benedict’s face said that he’d given that speech before, and enjoyed it.

Cameron swallowed. “Point taken.”

“You think Lassiter’s out there wearing some itchy uniform instead of fighting comfortably?” Benedict said. He picked up a nearby magazine and began filling it with 9mm rounds. “Not bloody likely.”