La Paz, Bolivia: 1998
In his thirty years as an assassin Klaus had traveled the world, seeing many strange and terrible things. But, as far as he could remember, this was the first time he had stared into the black, bulging eyes of a dried llama fetus.
He was in the back seat of a hired car in the old quarter of La Paz known as Mercado de las Brujas, the Witches’ Market, where traffic snaked slowly through the crowded, narrow lanes. As the car crept along Calle Sagarnaga, the driver noticed Klaus studying the native women in their bowler hats and vivid dresses as they hawked the heads of boa constrictors, goat testicles, and toad talismans.
“They are witches,” the driver said. “They sell these things for the rituals.”
Klaus said nothing.
The driver looked in the mirror hoping to catch Klaus’ eyes. “The peasants still make offerings to Pachamama. They burn these things as offerings in exchange for luck, health, prosperity.” He put his arm on the seat back and turned to face Klaus, more serious than he had been. “Few outsiders have seen these rituals.” Here he lowered his voice and continued, “But if you are interested, I could arrange for you to see. For a price.”
Klaus said nothing. This was obviously a con of some sort, a clip joint operation. The driver steering wealthy, thrill-seeking foreigners into the hands of associates who would take them into the mountains with the promise of perverse entertainment then trade them a shallow grave for whatever was in their wallet. Klaus’ silence gave the driver another idea. He said, “Or perhaps you are the type of man who prefers a more sophisticated type of diversion.”
Klaus fixed a grim stare into the mirror and said, “Or perhaps I am the type of man who prefers that you shut up and drive.” And that was that. The driver took a left out of the market and zig-zagged south and east until he was dodging stray dogs and children scavenging for the same food in the shadows of the snow capped Illimani.
It was dark by the time the car stopped outside a vast, gated estate set into the mountainside. Klaus took his attaché case and told the driver to wait. While armed guards searched the car, others led Klaus into the compound, patting him down and inspecting the case before letting him continue.
Klaus followed the footlights illuminating the stone path through the lush subtropical landscape. The green canopy throbbed with singing samba and red-skirted tree frogs, their long, trilling croaks competing with the stridulating organs of ten thousand insects.
Klaus thought of his new friend and the room filled with assassin bugs in the basement of his house—well, his former house. His former bugs. What a waste they had to be destroyed. But, at the same time, what a brilliant idea. The first part of their great gamble.
And now it was time for the second part.
Klaus paused to examine an orchid, vivid purple with a yellow stripe like a tongue sticking out of a child’s mouth after a lemon candy. Continuing up the path, Klaus noticed something out of the corner of his eye, flying at him. A gray blur, an irregular flight pattern. His first thought was bats. There was no time to react. The thing was on him, grabbing. Klaus looked down at his shirt. A giant Brazillian cockroach (Blaberus giganteus), nearly four inches of mottled translucence, the odd oval head covering, and the twitching antennae frisking him impolitely.
Klaus choked back a girlish scream before it could escape his throat. He dropped his attaché case and did an embarrassing dance on the pathway while trying to brush the twitchy cockroach off his shirt. But the sharply spined tarsii held fast to the fabric. Finally, with great trepidation, Klaus grabbed the thing and tossed it back into the flora, wiping his hands feverishly on his pants. He shivered and took a moment to compose himself before continuing up the path.
Only when he emerged from the jungled landscaping could Klaus see where he was going. He had to tilt his head back to take in the enormity of the place. Too big to call a house, wrong architecture to call a mansion or a palace, more like a fortress. Klaus guessed it was forty thousand square feet built into the side of a mountain. It was the estate of Miguel DeJesus Riviera, the man who put a ten-million-dollar contract on the head of an assassin known to him as the Exterminator.
As a result, a dozen of the world’s best killers swarmed into New York, where the Exterminator was living at the time. But none of them succeeded at their task. Indeed, none of them left the city alive, let alone did they make the trip to Bolivia to collect the reward.
Klaus was the only one to get that stamp on his passport.
Klaus was taken to a room. It was a vast space with a decorative stratagem whose theme was, at best, evasive. A garish Caucasus Mountain kilim was draped on a wall near a Peruvian corner cabinet of questionable design. Off to the side, Miguel’s two young sons were sprawled across an overstuffed French lambskin sofa staring slack-jawed at a fifty-inch high-def wall-mounted plasma screen as it played A Bug’s Life.
At the far end of the room, Miguel sat behind an antique Victorian desk. As Klaus approached, Miguel sized him up. Mediterranean features and a tailored suit that didn’t hide how fit the man was. Gray at the temples and thin crows feet put him around sixty, but not a man to be toyed with. Miguel leaned back in his chair. “Ahh, the infamous Klaus,” he said. “Your reputation precedes you.”
Klaus smiled, but not politely. “I trust that will speed matters,” he said in an accent that hinted at Europe. He handed over a slip of paper, a ten digit number printed on it. He sat opposite Miguel, in an African chieftain’s chair made from zebra skin and elephant tusk.
Miguel looked at the paper then smoothed it onto the desk top and said, “I give up. Lottery picks?”
“One of my accounts.”
“Ah.” Miguel looked at the slip of paper again. “And this is a gift? For me?”
“I have a better idea. A transfer. Ten million, U.S.” Klaus pulled a cell phone from his attaché case. “When the amount clears, my banker will call and I will be on my way.”
Miguel feigned surprise. “Why would I give you ten million dollars?”
“For killing the Exterminator.” “You killed him?”
“Has anyone else claimed the hit?”
“Anyone else?” Miguel gestured toward the hallway. “I’m surprised you didn’t trip over some of the assholes on your way in. They’ve been traipsing through here like it was an Easter Egg hunt.” He shook his head. “Anyone else. That’s rich.”
“But did they claim it?” “Claimed it? Yes. Proved it? No.”
Klaus pulled a file from the attaché and tossed it onto the desk. Miguel opened the file and saw several newspaper clippings about a house in Queens, New York that blew up with several people inside. Police were quoted as saying it appeared to be the residents, one Bob Dillon, his wife Mary, their daughter, Katy, and a fourth man, later identified as CIA agent Mike Wolfe. Also killed in the explosion was a man who lived across the street, identified by his wife as one Dick Pratt. “I have seen the papers,” Miguel said, pushing the file back toward Klaus. “I heard he was dead. Of course I also heard you died with him.”
“You saw this in one of the newspapers?” He shook his head. “I have other sources.”
Klaus reached into his case again. He held out his closed hand, turned it over and dropped two items onto the desk.
“Let me guess, their wedding rings?” Klaus gave a nod.
“Oh, please.” Miguel slapped the desk, making the rings jump. “Vete a otro perro con ese hueso!”
Klaus hesitated, unable to translate Miguel’s Spanish ejacula- tion. “Sorry?”
“It’s an idiom,” he said. “Means go see another dog with that bone.” He waved dismissively at the jewelry. “For all I know, you picked these up in town.”
Klaus nodded then said, “The French also have an idiom. Voir jaune. It means you are seeing things yellow, with a jaundiced eye.”
“Perhaps.” Miguel looked past Klaus and pointed at the television. “Oh, this is great,” he said. “The scene where the grasshoppers show up looking for the food. The big one is Kevin Spacey. Did you see him as Bobby Darin?” Miguel began snapping his fingers and singing “Mack the Knife” until he noticed Klaus staring unpleasantly at him. “Oh, sorry. You were saying?” Klaus reached into his satchel and pulled out another file, a series of photographs. He dealt them onto the desk top, one at a time. “This is his house just before…during…and after the explosion. Notice the time code. The only person who could know exactly when to take these photos would be the man who set the bomb’s timer, no?”
“Sure,” Miguel said. He pointed at the first one. “But this could be any house, anywhere. I can’t give you ten million of my dollars just for taking these pictures, even if they are quite spectacular.” He pointed at the second one. “Especially this one. Though I think you should have cropped this part but, hey, have you considered entering these in any contests?”
“Pity,” Miguel said. “Perhaps you could win the ten million that way.” He smiled and pushed the photos back toward Klaus. “In any event, this is inadequate.”
“Yes, well, I would have brought the man’s head,” Klaus said. “But they are rather difficult to get through customs.”
“So, you have no further proof?”
“Proof.” Klaus scoffed as he rooted through his attaché case. “Do you recall the original intelligence photograph of The Exterminator, the one originating with the CIA?”
“Recall?” Miguel opened a drawer, pulled out a grainy fax of a dangerous looking man wearing a red and black baseball cap with “Exterminator” emblazoned across the front. He stared at it for a moment. “He has the eyes of a killer,” Miguel said, thumping the fax with a finger. “Like yours, remorseless.”
“Yes, keep that in mind.” Klaus produced another photo. It was the same man, wearing the same hat, only now the hat had a bullet hole in it and blood was oozing down the front onto the floor where the man was sprawled. Klaus tossed it onto the desk. Miguel seemed impressed. “Well, now we’re getting somewhere.” He peered over the front of his desk and said, “How many more rabbits are you going to pull from there?”
Klaus reached into the case then tossed the hat itself onto the table, crusty with dried blood. “How’s that?”
Miguel made a squeamish face and poked at the hat with his pen. “I don’t know…maybe.”
Klaus’ patience was running thin. He wanted to get this over with. He turned and gestured at the boys on the sofa. “These are your sons? Fine looking young men.”
Miguel seemed please by this. “Yes, yes. The first of many,” he bragged. “Boys! Come here.” They didn’t flinch, hypnotized as they were by the colorful images on the huge screen. Miguel threw his pen, grazing the older boy’s head. “I said come here! Say hello to our guest.” As the boys dragged themselves off the sofa and shuffled across the room, Miguel pointed and said, “This is Francisco and his younger brother, Ronaldo, named for his late uncle.”
They approached Klaus and limply shook his hand. “Oh, this one has a firm grip,” Klaus said, referring to Francisco. He pulled the boy to his side and put an arm around him while speaking to Miguel. “As you know, the Exterminator had a child as well. A daughter.” He paused to let that sink in. “Of course I didn’t think it wise to leave any loose ends.” With his free hand, Klaus reached into the case and pulled out a sealed envelope, tossing it onto the desk. “The wife was particularly troublesome.” Klaus nodded at the envelope, prompting Miguel to open it. “She made quite a fuss about the whole thing, especially when I killed her husband.”
Miguel was beginning to get a queasy feeling. He opened the envelope and recoiled at the photo of a woman, covered in blood, on the floor, one leg twisted at a terrible angle. “I gave her the choice of watching her child die or having her child see her death. She struggled of course, but, well…” As Miguel looked at the final photograph, the daughter, face down on the carpet, three dark stains on her back, one hand reaching for her parents, Klaus said, “When I killed the child, the mother wilted.”
“Stop it!” Miguel shouted. “Let go of my son!”
Klaus fixed his remorseless eyes on Miguel and shook his head. “I have proved my claim,” he said, nodding at his phone. “I will not leave here alive without the money. And I will not die without taking someone with me.”
“Whatever you want. Just do not hurt the boy.” “It is up to you.”
Miguel snatched the slip of paper. He turned to his computer and logged on to his bank’s website. He navigated to the fund transfer page. After a few moments he hit the “send” button, then looked at Klaus. “You are inhuman,” he said. “You have the soul of a dog. You are a malignancy on mankind!”
“Yes. And you are the one who hired me,” Klaus said. “So what does that make you?”
Miguel didn’t respond. He just stared at Klaus’ cell phone, waiting to get his son back. There was a long silence as they waited. The only sound came from an animated grasshopper saying something about how it was a bug-eat-bug world out there. When the phone chirped, Miguel flinched. Klaus, still holding Francisco, answered. “Yes?” A pause, then a hint of a smile. “Good.” He flipped the phone shut, tousled Francisco’s hair, and stood. “Sorry to leave so suddenly, but I have a car waiting.” Klaus was halfway across the room when he stopped, turning to face Miguel. “If you announce this to the press, do me a favor. Tell them Klaus has retired. I am through.”
Klaus returned to the waiting car and disappeared into the Bolivian darkness. After that, as far as anyone could tell, Klaus disappeared from the face of the earth.