"I will look," Marcella said, "like a blueberry. This is me begging you, Debi. What's wrong with basic black?"
Martin finished cleaning the gunsight and started putting it back in its case. He had less call to use it these days, but he wasn't the type to let his equipment decay.
"You're letting the men wear black," Marcella said, with the air of a woman who'd found a decisive argument.
Martin put the case back under the table and considered whether he needed to take out the knives. He could use some target practice, but that might best wait until Marcella had left for the day. Even after all this time, it still made her nervous to have him throwing near her. Plus she always referred to that accident with the Zapatistas and the watermelon, and he wasn't yet well-adjusted enough to want to tolerate a rehash of that, though he had his hopes.
"No, then I'd look like a penguin. Penguin is no better than blueberry. A nice, fifties black dress with a full skirt and some fabric roses, that's all I'm asking you for."
He waved to Marcella on the way out, not wanting to interrupt her conversation. She could be very cutting when he interrupted her.
Debi put her hands behind her back and stretched, which Martin enjoyed watching. "The thing is, Martin, I'm not sure the florist fully comprehended what you meant when you said that you didn't care who you had to kill to make sure the wedding was perfect."
"Why doesn't anyone believe me when I tell them the truth?" Martin wondered, flipping through the book of centerpieces to see if anything caught his eye. "I thought we were in the age of full exposure, the information age, and yet communication—true communication—seems more difficult than ever. Is that a tragedy, or simply an irony?"
Debi sighed and came around the table so that she could get behind him, crossing her arms over his chest in a near-hug. Her curls brushed against his ear, and he could smell her honey shampoo. "It's a profound and yet useless insight, because she says she's already committed the orchids to another wedding that weekend—and no, you may not take action against the happy couple."
"I could just incapacitate one of them," he suggested, mostly unserious. "Delay rather than destroy."
She pulled away and flicked his ear with her finger. "Not a chance, trigger-happy boy."
"Your resume says you were trained as a sniper," the actress said. "So, snipe."
"First of all," Martin told her, not moving from his observation point by the window, "who says that? Okay, technically, I guess you can use the verb to describe the activity of being a sniper, but it's really archaic. Most people only know it as the term for complaining, or carping, or whining, which is more like what you're doing than what I do. And second—" he put up a hand to deflect her outraged reaction—"you do understand that a photographer selects when to take pictures by looking through his viewfinder. Which means that if I did fire and destroy the camera, I'd also be firing a bullet into his brain. And I don't do that kind of thing any more. Well, not without a better reason than your dislike of the paparazzi. Not for what you're paying me. Also then no one would want to take pictures of you for fear of getting iced, and I'd be out of a job because you wouldn't need protection from the nonexistent photographers."
There was a pause as the actress, who tended to run hot and cold on the question of photographers, considered her options. "Okay," she sighed. "Then can you go over and tell him that if he takes any pictures of me without my makeup on you'll break his face?"
Martin considered how Debi was always saying that compromise was the secret to a successful relationship. And he did need the cash—honeymooning in Paris wasn't cheap. "All right," he said, and pulled the curtain down.
"Who are all these people?" Debi asked, looking at the seating chart in dismay.
Bart got out of his chair and peered over her shoulder. "Business associates, old friends, a couple of second cousins once removed—"
"They're not my associates or friends," Debi pointed out. "Martin—"
"Oh, no no no," Martin said, putting up his hands. "I agreed to do anything you and Bart wanted, which is already haunting me with the cummerbund. I did not agree to mediate."
"Honey," Bart said, "your mother and I dreamed of this day. Debi eloped with the last idiot and we didn't get a wedding. So maybe we didn't dream the involvement of an ex-assassin, but, sweetheart, your mother at least didn't much care who the guy was as long as it was a church wedding. Point being: this is my daughter's wedding and I am going to celebrate it lavishly and in style, and all those dickwads with their hundred thousand dollar country club weddings are going to bow down in awe to me."
Debi looked at Martin. Martin looked right back, telling her with only his eyebrows that he was her father and that this was therefore her battle, and also that the only thing he wanted was to get married, such that he didn't care whether he jumped a broom or got carried to the event in a magically transformed pumpkin. Debi told him with her frown that while this was a theoretically sweet sentiment, she didn't want to have to deal with four hundred guests on this very special day, and that furthermore she was going to expect, once they were married, a lot more than neutrality from him: whatever Martin might think he owed Bart for having been hired to kill him (and schtupping his daughter), Martin was going to be her husband, which meant that he would be required to back her up.
"You two are adorable," Bart said and wandered off.
Debi sighed, putting down her pencil. "I guess it's too late to disinvite them now," she said.
"We'll put Marcella in charge," Martin said, sidling up to her so that his hip was nudging her shoulder. "She was born to organize a wedding, plus I think she's better with the suppliers, and then she'll be so busy threatening and cajoling that she won't have time to complain about her dress."
"What's wrong with her dress?" Debi asked, wounded, and Martin winced. "She said—"
"I'm sure she's perfectly happy with it now!" Martin hurried to clarify. "What I mean is that Marcella needs something to worry about. Paradoxically, happiness for Marcella is the absence of contentment, if you see what I mean."
She looked up at him with that little twist to her mouth that meant that she loved him. "I think I recognize the phenomenon from somewhere."
Marcella did the worried lip-pursing thing when Martin gave her the new assignment, but she'd come around, Martin was confident. She'd taken so well to negotiating the contracts with the new clients, despite the fact that she could no longer threaten to rip their spines out and use their finger bones for jewelry. ("Jewelry?" he'd asked once. "I was thinking a nice brooch, possibly a set of earrings," she'd told him. He hadn't questioned further. You saw stranger things on the streets of New York.)
In fact, Marcella got along very well with a certain type of Hollywood agent, so well that he'd already had three of them ask him for tips on how to secure her affections. One job he was pretty sure he'd been hired only for that purpose, since the star in question was vacationing on a nearly unpopulated island for the entire week. Martin hadn't liked it, because he was away from Debi and because he had very sensitive skin that burned easily. So he'd told Marcella that the star's agent had insulted her business acumen.
In any event, Marcella took over the wedding planning with the air of a frustrated parent who'd watched her children struggle too long to make pictures with macaroni and tempera paint, and who'd swept the table clean to start again. In this analogy, she favored impasto. By the end of the week she had five different binders and signed contracts with a jazz band.
When Debi found out that Marcella had changed the seating chart based on her research into the various business deals in which the participants had been involved, she laughed so hard she fell down. Martin had to give her a hand up, which he parlayed into a full-body hug, because he was allowed to touch her now, and it was all very good.
"Camellias, not gardenias!" Marcella barked into her headset. "It's a completely different genus! No, we agreed--I don't care if you have to flap your arms and fly down to South America to provide precisely the level of service promised in the contract. Yes. Yes," mollified now. "And don't forget the boutonnieres!"
She smiled, strained but somehow genuine, as Bart hurried by, fiddling with his bowtie. He examined both Marcella and Martin with the air of a man forced to work with inferior materials but willing to brazen it out anyway. "Late for the fitting!" he barked as he went past.
The military had been comforting because, for all its arcane rituals, there was an order about it, a regularity, that Martin had found highly comforting, when the rest of the world seemed so random. He'd often wondered whether there was some set of invisible, inaudible signals that other people received that allowed them to make sense of it all. He was beginning to think, though, that it was the same for everyone, and that you just learned to tolerate the zigs and zags or you didn't survive at all.
There was no rehearsal dinner because Debi flat-out refused, so Martin and Paul went out and drank on the golf course while Debi and Marcella did something that Martin hoped involved lingerie. But only on Debi's part. He wasn't sure who'd do worse damage to him if he thought about Marcella in a lingerie-related capacity, and he had no inclination to find out.
When he was helping Paul back to his car, possibly a little tipsy himself, they saw another couple of guys in the parking lot. Because the golf course was closed, Martin found that a trifle odd.
"Martin Blank!" one of the guys yelled, raising a gun.
"Shit!" Martin said and shoved Paul to the ground, then darted around the bulk of his car. With only the yellowish lights from the clubhouse, a good hundred feet away, he could see just enough to know he didn't have other cover.
"We have a wedding present for you!"
Martin pulled out his own weapon. "That's the best you could do?" he called out. "How about 'at least you won't be leaving behind a widow!' Or—"
Martin rolled away from the blast of fire rather than finish the quip. He thought he could hear Paul whimpering; the gravel of the parking lot grated against his knees.
They'd be flanking him, one on each side. He looked around and saw nothing reachable for cover, so he slid underneath his car, trusting in the near-darkness to make his motions harder to see. Paul's body—still moving, still vomiting in fact—was next to the car.
He saw feet approach the trunk and shot straight through the bumper, trusting the thinness of the steel not to deflect the bullet too much, and sure enough there was a howl of agony as he wriggled on his elbows towards his target, away from the other shooter. He fired once more into the jerking body on the ground, then rolled himself over it.
They were about the same height. His conscious mind shut off, and he grabbed the dead man by the waist and slung him upright, putting the body between himself and the likeliest position of the other shooter.
"George!" the other one yelled, and Martin reached around the corpse and put two bullets into him.
He dropped the body and then went to his knees, the exertion catching up to him, plus Paul was still vomiting and the sound was starting to make him want to join in.
He considered his alternatives as he fought with his gorge. Nobody had seen them come in—Paul was still pretty good at that kind of thing. If he took active disposal measures, he probably wouldn't be back in time to get his suit on, and Debi would think he'd disappeared again. Astonishing the local cops wasn't ideal, but he'd have to chance it.
"Hey, Paul?" he called out. "You think you can finish up?"
Paul coughed, then spit. "Yeah. Hey, what the hell just happened?"
"Honestly? I have no idea."
"Is this going to be, like, a regular feature every time you have a major life event? Because I'm not sure I can handle that."
Martin rested his hands on his knees and looked at his gun. "I really hope not. I really, really hope not." He had a flash of a time when this would have felt—not enjoyable exactly, but more real than anything else. That was kind of sick, to need somebody else's blood to know he was alive. If you thought about it, he'd been kind of a vampire. And he didn't even have the satisfaction of knowing exactly what job had brought these guys to him. He guessed it didn't matter much; their bullets all fired the same no matter whether it was the kroner or the dollar behind them.
Paul sighed. "Your car still work?"
"I don't think I hit anything vital." He'd probably even be able to tie some ribbons through the hole and pretend it was a wedding prank gone a little overboard.
"Well, then, let's get you married."
In the morning, Martin felt much perkier. Above all, he was going to marry Debi, which meant that the only important thing was going right. Eventually his remaining enemies would get sick of sending killers after him. It just wasn't good business; 'if at first you don't succeed, try again' was not a productive adage in the assassin trade, as the CIA had reason to know with its attempts on Castro. With luck, this latest failure would discourage the rest, or at least make the next contract on him prohibitively expensive.
The church was old: dark wood everywhere, built when people thought that God didn't need advertising except in stained glass. No megachurches for the Newberrys. Martin didn't think there was a God, or if there was, His work was seriously defective (see: Martin himself), but Debi could have told him they were getting married in a supersized tuba and he would have nodded.
He was going to sneak into the room where Debi was getting dressed to surprise her, but Marcella was standing guard. He gave her his best pleading look. She gave him her best unyielding look. Hers was better.
"Don't whine at me, all right? It's tradition. Don't defy tradition."
"I've known Debi for years, and I'm including biblically, so I don't see why—"
Marcella held up a cautionary finger, and Martin shut up. She saw his defeat in the set of his shoulders. "C'mere," she said, and he thought she'd changed her mind once he acknowledged her supremacy, but when he stepped forward she pulled him into a hug. "This is the smartest thing you've ever done," she told him. "Don't fuck it up."
"You don't look anything like a blueberry," Martin said and went to stand at the church door, sweating slightly in his rented tux as he shook the hands of Bart's friends and neighbors.
Paul, occasionally groaning and grabbing his head like a man in the throes of a stroke, was right behind him supervising the arrival and seating. At least fifteen people asked which one of them was the groom, and Martin was reasonably sure that they were only a fraction of those uncertain, so he started introducing himself--"Martin Blank. The groom"--even though that was awkward too.
"Don't worry about sides," Paul kept saying. "The groom doesn't have a side."
That would make a good motto, Martin thought.
".... And accept children as God gives them to you," the priest said.
Accept? There were a lot of things Martin accepted. He accepted that his mother wasn't here because she wouldn't understand what was going on, even though he and Debi had visited her yesterday to let her know. He accepted that he'd killed a bunch of people, most of whom had done something wrong, but there were millions of other people in the world who probably had done, or would do if given the opportunity, equally wrong things and hadn't gotten Martin at their door, so that really was no excuse unless Martin wanted to declare himself God in the absence of other contenders, which he didn't. So he accepted that he'd caused suffering and that suffering would continue. But the thought of accepting children, like they were disfiguring boils, as an alternative to using readily available and entirely safe forms of birth control--
Martin couldn't help it. He sniggered. Not loud, but the priest heard, and his face went scarlet with anger.
"I will stop this wedding right now if you aren't capable of showing some respect for your faith!" the priest said in a vicious whisper, shoving his Bible towards Martin like it was some sort of weapon.
Martin reached out and caught his wrist. "No, you won't," he said, pressing his thumb right into a nerve cluster.
The priest's mouth formed a nearly perfect O of agony and outrage.
"Martin!" Debi managed to pack a lot of warning into such a low-decibel word.
Martin leaned forward so that he could speak directly into the priest's ear. "No disrespect, Father Coughlin, but I have been through a lot to get to this point. I have changed my life for this woman, I have taken extreme measures to ensure that this event goes as planned, and if you even attempt to delay the moment at which I am joined in holy matrimony to the love of my life you'll end up performing the rest of the ceremony with ten broken fingers."
For once, something in Martin's eyes seemed to communicate his sincerity, or perhaps priests were just extra sensitive to the mysteries of the human heart, because Father Coughlin went white and nodded.
"Give me the ring!" he squeaked, and Paul, whose blown pupils and general air of wonderment suggested that he'd done far more than sneak the communion wine, fumbled in his jacket pocket for an agonizing thirty seconds before producing it with a wide grin. The priest stared at him in horror for a moment, then snatched the ring from Paul's grasp and said the fastest blessing Martin had heard since that one time in Istanbul. He shoved the ring into Martin's hand.
Debi glared at Martin in a way that suggested that the honeymoon was already over, but she smiled brightly for the benefit of the photographer as Martin slid the ring on her finger.
Martin didn't feel different, didn't feel married. He did feel good though. Maybe he'd been married to Debi in his mind for years, maybe that was part of never having gotten over her. He decided that was likely, because the one thing he was sure he wasn't feeling was let down.
Debi was glowing, and he could tell that she'd agree to keep the dress on the first time they did it as husband and wife. He was looking forward to that part. In fact he'd undergone everything else to get to that part. He doubted that anything could bring him down, but there wasn't much that was even trying. The chicken had been almost edible, and Martin had fended off the cake-in-face suggestions by pointing out that he was trying very hard to renounce violence, even symbolic violence, which he didn't think was terribly appropriate for a wedding anyway.
After that, fewer of Bart's friends came up and offered marital advice, which was an extra benefit of Martin's little speech.
He was thinking about finding Debi and sneaking away when he noticed two figures at the back of the reception hall, each about twenty years younger than the average guests. They had the air of men who knew where all the exits were.
"How's about we take a little recreational break in the handicapped bathroom?" Debi said into his ear.
"Hold that thought," Martin advised and started making his way through the crowd.
They saw him coming, but neither of them went for a weapon. Two guys, above average in attractiveness (people were always nicer to the good-looking ones, cut them slack, accepted their excuses for being in strange places—that was what the recruiter had told him, and even if it had been flattery Martin's experience had been that it was also true, at least in the US services). One average height, one a couple of inches taller. Brown hair and brown eyes, though Martin wouldn't swear that those features were natural.
"Hey," Martin said as he approached. A couple of Bart's engineer friends looked over, then cringed away.
"Hey," the shorter one said.
"Mind if we have this conversation in the hallway?"
"Works for us," the taller one said. Martin nodded and followed them out.
"So if this is about Boudreaux—" Martin began, then had to duck the introductory punch thrown by the shorter one. He grabbed the man's arm and tugged him across the floor, sending him staggering away—these old churches, the floors were like glass; in a serious fight they'd all end up on their asses.
"This is about solidarity," the taller one said, catching Martin with a kick high on the thigh (Debi was going to be pissed about the mark on the suit).
"Solidarity?" Martin asked, scissor-kicking and then diving into a roll to avoid the shorter one.
"We don't appreciate anti-union activism," the taller one continued, catching him on the shoulder.
Martin thought about going for his gun, but there was a certain flavor to a non-weaponized fight that made one-on-two a better bet for him without bullets, and if they weren't drawing on him yet, then there was the possibility of conversation. He used the slippery floor to his advantage, sliding under the taller one's attempted clothesline move. "So you went ahead and formed a union anyway."
"You can kill a man, you can't kill a movement," the shorter one said. "Anyway Grocer was kind of an asshole." Martin nodded acknowledgment.
"I just don't see," he said, kicking and twisting and ending up with his back to the wall, "what any of that has to do with me."
"We don't like scabs." Block, kick, block. Back kick, right cross, shoulder down—
"I'm not a scab!" He ducked. "I retired! I do private security now, without the euphemism!"
They paused, panting. "Really?" the taller one asked.
"I think there's a shot of me in last week's Enquirer," Martin said. "I'm the one putting his hand over the lens?"
"So, you're not going to undercut our prices? Or otherwise aid in management's exploitation of labor?" The taller one seemed to be the more committed in principle, Martin thought. At least he had the vocabulary down.
"I don't know about that last part," Martin said, leaning over and trying not to feel the bruises. "I'm not what you call loyal to any ideology. I distrust unions on general principle, just as much as I distrust every other institution. But if you guys don't branch out into the regular personal security industry, I can pretty much guarantee you that I don't care enough to interfere."
The two assassins—unionized assassins—looked at each other. After a moment, the shorter one nodded. "Fine. But if we hear about you getting back in the game—"
Martin glared at them. "Let's be clear, I'm going to defend myself and my clients. But that's it."
"Okay," the shorter one said. "Shake on it?"
Martin thought about that, then shook his head.
"You know, you're kind of an asshole too," the shorter one said thoughtfully. "Congratulations, by the way."
They turned as one and started heading out of the building. Martin watched them go, wondering what the union bylaws were like. Then he shrugged. That kind of question was why he wouldn't have joined the union even if he'd stayed in the business.
"Hey," Debi said, opening the door to the reception hall. "Married guy. Come have sex with me."
He turned to her, looking kind of like a wedding cake herself in the big poofy dress. He smiled, at peace with the world and with himself. "That's the best idea I've heard all day."