And He said: ‘Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’
Genesis, Chapter 22:2
The father extended his arm shaft-straight, a mallet head of fingers bunched around the pistol grip. He lowered it thirty degrees, no flinching. Ancient muscle memory inhabited his tempered limbs, a genetic legacy handed down from a procession of nomads and exiles, herdsmen and hard men, disappearing into the murk of time. Never mind the nature of the assignment. He was chosen; a trusty tool. He would continue the line.
The boy raised his eyes, frowning, looking past the snout of the gun. Out on the mesa and miles from the city, the report would explode from the muzzle, charge down the cliff, and spend itself across the prairie, absorbed into the expanse of overheated air rushing heavenward. The boy folded his smooth hands one into the other and raised them like an offering. He looked up through dampened eyes, past the gun sight. He searched his father’s impassive face. There was no cover to be found in that featureless shroud. In the sheen of the old man’s aviator glasses he saw only his own beseeching image, the sere yellow of the plains stretching out behind him.
The scene was familiar, though reversed. A nonsensical pastiche like a sweaty, breathless dream that can’t be straightened out no matter how often it is replayed. The boy had accompanied his father on these jobs scores of times, as part of his apprenticeship, learning the family business. Just minutes earlier, he had been pressing the old man, who is it today, Pa? The reply was typical. He will provide. The father was hardly talkative, even at the best of times. The boy had nodded; it was nothing – a day’s work. Now his panicked brain struggled to make sense of the operation from this perspective. That he, blameless and unsuspecting… he was the target… that his father, a man for whom nothing is more sacred than family, could blithely execute his only son… none of it could be conceived. Still, there he was, bent and bewildered, kneeling under the business end of a pistol.
“That was the last time I looked him in the eye.”
Decades later Chuck sat with his own son, telling the story for the first time.
“Maybe the last time you looked anyone in the eye,” Jake said.
“Cataracts!” Chuck cried, gaveling his fist on the heavy, oak desk. “Caused by staring into the sun that day, I’m sure of it.”
Chuck swiveled toward the deflated figure of Ham, his father, slumped in a wheelchair parked against the wall. A beeping contraption wheezed oxygenated air into his antique lungs, expanding him slightly with each compression. On the up stroke, air leaked out with a soft hiss. Doubled over, Ham’s prodigious white whiskers stretched well past his cinched belt, as though he was receding into nothing but beard. The men of his family suffered from an extraordinary longevity.
Chuck turned back to the indistinct shape of his son.
“Do you understand why I’m telling you this? Red?”
Jake sniffed at the mention of his twin, Red, older by twelve minutes. He didn’t correct his father.
“Sure Pop,” he said.
Chuck’s features relaxed. Jake propped his steel-toed boots on the desktop, one over the other.
“Red, I want you to know…”
Ham gurgled again. Chuck sighed, got to his feet, and felt his way across the room to his father’s mechanical lung. He tapped the gauge. He slapped the top of the machine and listened a while to its noise. He felt for the bulky plug and he pulled it out, halfway. The machine shuddered to a stop. As its wheezing receded, Ham’s percolations began in earnest.
Chuck could have ended his father’s chapter many times. He might have dialed back the oxygen ratio by mistake or slipped too much sedative into the drip. Countless other ways. Ham had schooled him well – he knew how to end a man’s striving.
Chuck sensed Red watching him. He shoved the plug back into the outlet and the ventilator whirred back to life.
“…I could never…”
“I just want you to know what really happened.”
Everyone knew. Only two generations and it was already legend. Ham – tribal chief, respected elder. Patriarch. Known to associates and enemies alike as The Hammer. Taken to the badlands to soak the thirsty ground with the blood of his only child. It was an ordered hit. After all, Ham was just an underling himself. The hammer doesn’t choose the nail; the craftsman decides. The command had been given in that very office, with its crystal decanters, unused billiard table, and faux old-world masters. Whispered at Ham, gently, like a breeze soughing unbidden through ruffled leaves.
Sacrifice your son.
Chuck fished a Cohiba from its cedar box, caressed its length, ran it back and forth beneath his nostrils, then, recalling his doctor’s admonitions, broke it in half.
“They said I was out of control. Dangerously independent.”
“I know, pa.”
“They called me a traitor.”
“Uh huh. That’s what they said.”
Jake dropped his boots from the desk, leaned across to grab a fistful of the cigars, clipped one, jammed it between his teeth, and lit it. He shoved the rest into the breast pocket of his shirt.
“None of it true, I want you to know.”
“If it will make you feel better.”
“Red! What’s wrong with you? I’m trying to explain to you what this family is capable of.”
Chuck reached for the tumbler of iced tea, perspiring next to its coaster.
“But maybe another time,” Jake said. “I gotta go. Meeting with the big boss.”
Except, Jake didn’t use the words big boss. He used the proper name.
The slick tumbler slipped from Chuck’s hand. It struck the side of the coaster at an angle, pirouetted twice, fell, and rolled. Cubes and liquid spread across the desktop.
No-one referred to the boss by name. Maybe Ham. Once or twice. But Ham was from an earlier generation, the one on speaking terms. The big boss had never spoken directly with Chuck. Assignments were always received through an intermediary. Could it be possible the boss had been meeting with his son? Had he been passed over entirely?
It defied belief. The boss didn’t get named. He did the naming. It was he who had anointed The Hammer, knowing that he, above all, could be relied on. Chuck was first known as Chuckles because of how he grinned as he slid joyfully from the womb. First and last time I ever smiled, he always said. The boss had named the twins Jake and Red. Due to her apparent barrenness, he’d dubbed Ham’s wife Eggs, which was doubly cruel.
Tea pattered onto the carpet. Neither father nor son moved.
Unable to bear it any longer, Chuck rose halfway from his chair and dabbed ineffectually at the mess with a folded newspaper.
“Leave it,” Jake said, without modulation. “Leave it for the maid.”
Chuck fell back into the padded leather of the chair. The interview was going even worse than he had feared. Surely this handing over the reins, his hope of an orderly handover of power to the good son, the one he could trust, this could be the one act taken without interference.
“Red, come here,” Chuck said, extending his arms across the desk, dipping his elbows into the pool of tea. “Hold my hand.”
Jake dropped his boots and straightened in his chair.
“Pop,” he said, laughing nervously, almost giggling, “what are you talking about? Let me get you another drink.”
Chuck thought he could hear shuffling outside the door. The boy’s mother?
“We’re family. I have something important to tell you. Come closer.”
“Can I get you something to eat? A BLT? A schnitzel?”
“Damn it Red!” Chuck thrust his arm across the desk. “I can’t see you. Hold your father’s hand.”
Jake parked his Cohiba in the ashtray, moved around the desk and clasped Chuck’s right hand with his own. Chuck put his left hand over top and paused.
“Why are you wearing gloves?”
Jake didn’t answer immediately. There was more scuffling at the door.
“Pa!” Jake said finally. “Stop busting me. Doc says I need to wear ‘em all day. So the cream stays on.”
Red had suffered from skin conditions from an early age. But that’s not how he got his nickname. He’d been called Red because of his addiction to liquorice. Once, as a youth, he had traded his treasured bike to Jake for a single Twizzler. Over the years, from childhood, Red had ceded just about everything he owned to his twin brother, through lopsided swaps and long shot bets. He was an uncomplicated boy, a child in a man’s body, with a full moustache and beard at thirteen, ruled by his appetites and his fondness for the outdoors, naïve enough to be freshly surprised at each of his sibling’s successive deceptions. Which is why Chuck loved the boy. In Red he saw himself. And he was perfectly within his right to choose him as his successor. He was the eldest after all. It wasn’t the most popular choice, not with the boys’ mother, probably not with the boss. But what point is there in being patriarch if you can’t make your own decisions once in a while?
Eczema. It must be Red. Chuck chided himself for being paranoid. He liked to joke that his daily massage therapy was only necessary because he was always looking over his shoulder. He didn’t go in for any other kind of therapy. He already knew what the head shrinkers would have to say about his inability to trust. Everyone blames their parents.
“Red? Is it really you?”
Jake squeezed his father’s hand a little tighter. His left hand slid into the top of his boot. It dealt out a snub-nosed thirty-eight. He moved with the self-assurance of a croupier, safe in the knowledge that the house always wins. He aimed the pistol at his father’s head.
Jake’s aligned the barrel with the old man’s temple. His trigger finger wavered. For long seconds, only the beeping of the breathing apparatus could be heard.
Then Ham, snuffling in his wheelchair, emitted a long, low, baritone rumble. He putted and popped like a jalopy for what seemed like a half a minute. Just like that, the spell was broken.
“Of course,” Jake said, laughing, pulling his hand free. He re-holstered the pistol.
“It’s me! I’m just pulling your leg. Why you so serious all the time?”
Jake slapped his father’s back, retrieved his smouldering cigar, and huffed it, reawakening the ember.
Chuck’s suspicion receded in the wake of Ham’s ancient fart. While he didn’t exactly smile, his frown relaxed.
“Sit, my boy. I’ve called you in because I want to go over the succession.”
“You’re still going strong Pop.”
“I want you to take over when I’m gone. I want to give you the blessing box now, so you are prepared to lead when it is time.”
“But first I have to finish my story. Your brother will probably take the news of your blessing poorly, he’ll try to trick you, threaten you, or worse. You need to know what can happen.”
“Sure, sure. Can I have the blessing box first?”
“Damn it Red! Why are you so impatient? This is important. It could save your life.”
Chuck wouldn’t admit that it was more important for him to tell it than it was for his son to hear it. Only he and Ham knew what really happened out on the mesa. Ham had never divulged a word. And nowadays he was mostly unintelligible. There was Los Angeles Mike, he had been there for some of it, but he’d disappeared, presumably back to the coast. Chuck hadn’t told anyone, not even his wife. The memory of it had been lodged deep inside and festered.
“I’m just excited,” Jake said, scanning the desk. “You know I want to listen. How about we do the blessing first, get it over with.”
Chuck stood and crossed the room so quickly he was out of breath when he arrived. He pushed aside one of the rococo reproductions. He opened the wall safe behind it, listening for the tell-tale clicks. From the safe he pulled a package and rushed it back to the desk. He slammed it down. He hurriedly removed the blue silk wrapping to expose a wood-paneled box the colour of deeply tanned leather, inlaid with gold. It smelled faintly of patchouli.
“There it is. The blessing.”
Jake picked it up and tried to pry it open.
“Bank account numbers, usernames and passwords, addresses and phone numbers of our contacts around the world, safe combinations, keys for the safety deposit boxes in New York and Zurich, lists of who can be called in for a favour and why and, of course, the signet ring. It’s all there.”
“Is it booby trapped?”
“You need the key.”
Chuck slouched into his chair, weary from his brief, irritated exertion. He felt for a hidden compartment within the cavity of the desk and produced a small, brass key. He paused a moment. Then he slid it across the lacquered surface so that it spun into Jake’s outstretched hand.
“Bueno Pops.” Jake pocketed the key and ran his hand over the pistol shaped bulge at the top of his boot. “It’s best this way.”
“Let me finish my damn story. Sit down.”
As Chuck began again, Ham started gasping and clapping his toothless gums together, as though he’d bit into a scotch bonnet. Chuck shook his head. He got to his feet, went to his father and, by feel, he adjusted the settings of the machinery as he had done so many times. Ham settled.
Chuck re-took his chair. He inhaled deeply and returned himself to that scorching afternoon on the mesa.
Los Angeles Mike stood in such a way that he was framed by the disk of the dipping sun. A blinding aura, like an eclipse, surrounded his head of golden curls. He arrived from the coast via shuttle flight and rented car but, to the boy, he’d materialized from the aether. One minute it was just father and son. The next, a celestial shimmered over them. To Chuck, Los Angeles Mike had always seemed a little miraculous; forever radiating that luxurious West Coast blondness, smelling vaguely of cool surf and warm sand, with his sparkling teeth, caramel-coloured skin, his flawlessly proportioned body fitted smoothly into a fresh, pastel polo shirt and a pair of neatly pressed, wrinkle-free slacks. Perfect.
“It’s over Ham.”
Chuck could see Mike’s starry smile in his father’s sunglasses.
“The loyalty test.”
The old man didn’t budge.
Mike’s hand was on the pistol now, wrenching it free.
“You’re the one. The Hammer. The boss’ right hand.”
Now Mike had the pistol and he was emptying its cartridge. He pointed north-west across the mesa toward the congealing sunset.
“Johnny Ramos in Reno. Skimming the take. He’s next.”
Ham hardly heard him.
“Tonight, you can go home.”
Father and son retained their awful pose, eyes locked, mediated only by the two mirrored ovals. Gently, Mike separated them.
Ham pulled a knife from a sheath at his hip and lunged. If Mike hadn’t kicked it from his hand, the flickering six-inch blade would have sunk hilt-deep into Chuck’s carotid. Still, Ham’s momentum carried him forward so that he dropped to his knees and clinched his arms around the boy to avoid a complete fall. A hug, of sorts.
Mike’s smile grew impossibly wider.
“That’s the spirit.”
Ham’s lips were so close to Chuck’s ear he could have kissed the lobe. Instead, he whispered:
You’re not mine. I shoot blanks.
The boy shivered, despite the thick heat.
The boss promised Eggs a child. You’re his.
His story finished, Chuck waited for some response. There was none. He listened hard. Only the whirring of Ham’s machine could be heard. The room was empty. Jake had slipped away with the blessing box under the cover of Ham’s gasping fit.
Red, the real Red, returned from his errand, rushed through the door.
“What have I missed?”
Ham made another noise, a high-pitched whimper. Red took it for weeping. His father knew it was laughter.