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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

"The Ghost": A 1974 Short Story by Thornton P. Knowles

                                            The Ghost
                                     Thornton P. Knowles

       I kill people for money. I've been doing it for years and it never gets old. I like to think I'm not your ordinary hitman. I'm not a drug-addled dimwit, an amateur who gets caught. I'm imaginative and approach my work as a professional. If I may be so bold, I'm a master in the art of murder-for-hire. You won't see my work in a museum or an art gallery, you'll find it in the files of unsolved homicide cases. If I have anything to do with it, my art will remain anonymous.

     My "clients" are rich guys who cheated on their wives and find themselves up to their eyeballs in divorce attorneys. Some of these men are desperate to protect their wealth from women they consider greedy and undeserving, wives they have come to hate and fear. They entertain thoughts of violent death. A few of them harbor fantasies of torture and humiliation. They are consumed by hate and are easy to manipulate. These larger-than-life sociopaths, men who had attracted their wives with their wealth and bravado, are no longer in control of their fates or their emotions.

     My clients don't find me. I find them. I get leads from newspaper gossip columns and stories in the tabloids. Each job is different, so I use various ploys and techniques to enter my future client's life. This is where I have to be careful. I make sure I'm not photographed with the guy, always use a fake name, and employ a variety of disguises. Fingerprints are not a problem because I've never been arrested. I also try to stay clear of my target's friends and associates. When I'm with him, usually in private, I never bring up the subject of his wife or the divorce. At least not directly. I wait for him to suggest what I hope he'll suggest, and act a little shocked when he does."Okay, I'll do it," I say. "I'll take the risk, but it won't be cheap."

     My demands are simple and firm: his wife's death will cost fifty thousand, upfront and in cash. The response is usually the same: "That's too much, no way!" I expect this reaction, these men didn't get rich by being generous. I don't budge, and remind Mr. Moneybags that if he doesn't cough-up the dough, he'll lose half his estate. Take it or leave it. He usually takes it. Nothing is put on paper. I tell him I don't want hand-drawn maps, phone numbers, descriptions, license plate number, things like that. In this business, contracts are oral, and there can be no physical evidence.

     At a remote spot of my choosing, we sit in his car. He hands me the bills, often in a paper bag. Before he asks: "When are you going to do it? Will you make it look like an accident?" I shoot a bullet into his ear. Always the head because there's little bleeding. I don't like blood. For the gun, a piece once owned by a deceased mugger--a story for another time--I find a river or a lake. Like I say, no physical evidence.

    I kill the man who hired me because it makes no sense to kill his wife. If I kill her, the police will suspect him, and he could roll over on me. Sometimes, the cops actually suspect the wife of having my client killed. The investigation, of course, dies on the vine, and the murder disappears into the books as unsolved. By then, I'm working on my next project.

     By definition I'm a "serial killer," but I don't see myself in that light. Those men are psychopaths. I don't take a person's life for sex, excitement, or some kind of psychological compulsion. I do it for a reason--money. I don't have to kill, I chose to. Rather than a psychopathic killer, I'm a professional killer. That's a big difference, at least in my mind.

     I limit myself to one or two jobs a year. Once I had a dry spell and went two years without killing anyone. I don't need much money. I'm single, lease a cheap car, wear J.C. Penny clothes, and rent small apartments in working class neighborhoods. Occasionally, when I'm impersonating a businessman, I'll spring for a couple of relatively expensive suits. I once bought a briefcase. I don't live in one place too long and stay out of trouble. I avoid booze, don't, gamble, use drugs or have romantic relationships with demanding or unstable women. I don't patronize banks or use credit cards. I'm tight-lipped, keep to myself, and spend a lot of time in the public library reading newspapers and the tabloids. I like the tabloids. Scandal journalists know how to find dirt on people. They have no shame, and are good writers. I spend a lot of time in libraries because these places are quiet, and no one pays any attention to you.

    In a way, I don't exist. The murder cops don't have a chance because they're chasing a ghost.


     I don't require myself to hate the men I kill. I'm indifferent. But Bradford Littlesmith, a former carpet salesman who somehow made it big in real estate, was different. I didn't like him. He reminded me of the kid in high school who bullied me until I decided I'd had enough. Come graduation day, the cops were still looking for the kid. They never found him. After that, I didn't need the career counselor to guide me into my future profession, although, on my vocational aptitude test, I scored high as a police officer.

     Eventually Mr. Littlesmith came around to discussing his wife's untimely, or for him, timely, demise. While at that point he was probably fantasizing more than planning, I informed him that there was no such thing as a professional contract killer. These men only existed in movies and in books. In real life, so-called hitmen were drug-addled amateurs who got caught and immediately implicated the people who hired them. I also pointed out that hitmen didn't advertise in the yellow pages. Murder-for-hire masterminds also exposed themselves when they solicited people for the hit, and often ended up contracting with an undercover cop. Littlesmith asked me how I came to know so much about murder-for-hire. I told him I spent a few years in federal prison for a white collar crime, and it was there I met men who would do anything for money. I think he bought my story.

     Not long after the subject of his wife's sudden passing came up, my future client and I were having a drink at the bar in a fancy downtown hotel. I could tell he was well known there. I was posing as a potential investor in one of his real estate ventures. As I was about to steer the conversation to his wife Rita, she entered the bar. This I had not expected. Littlesmith saw her coming and said, "Oh boy, here we go." From the look on Rita's face, it was obvious she had not come for friendly drink with her husband. Rita looked angry and she made no effort to hide it.

     Rita was a lot younger than her husband, and even though she had gained a few pounds since her glory days, she wasn't bad looking. I think she was his second or third wife. They had been married three years and were childless. He had a son from a previous marriage. I think Rita had worked for him before they got hitched.

     Rita had one hell of a temper, and a colorful vocabulary to match. The thought crossed my mind that she might kill Littlesmith before I had the chance. This was the kind of out-of-control situation I tried to avoid. Yet there I was, right in the middle of a domestic dispute, carried out in public. Climbing off the stool, I overheard the bartender talking on the phone to a police dispatcher. Just as I approached the door, Rita screamed, "You son-of-a-bitch, I'm gonna kill you!" Everyone else in the bar heard it, too. This was not good.

     The next day I checked the papers and found no news of the hotel bar dustup. Fortunately, no one went to jail. But dozens of people heard Rita Littlesmith threaten to kill her estranged husband, the man I planned to murder. I worried that her inability to control herself might end up causing her trouble. After I took out her husband, Rita could end up under suspicion for his murder. Homicide cops weren't particular in picking their suspects. And once they had someone they liked, they weren't bothered by petty things such as exculpatory evidence.

     Anger had made Rita temporarily stupid, and maybe I was too with my determination to go forward with the hit. But I'd invested too much time to back out now. I had always been lucky. Had my luck ran out? If if had, I'd have to reconsider my future in this business. But for now, I had a job to do.

     A few days after the bar scene, I called Littlesmith from a payphone. "We gotta talk," he said.

     We met later that day in a K-Mart parking lot. I've often wondered how many murders are plotted outside K-Mart. Littlesmith sat behind the wheel of his Cadillac and looked rattled. "She's gotta go," he said. "That bitch threatened to kill me. She just might do it! Do you know someone? You know, like we talked about. Give me a name."

     "I'll do it."


     "I'll kill her."

     "You? I thought you were in real estate."

     "Do you want this done or not?"

     "Okay, but how much?"

     "Fifty thousand."

     "You gotta be kidding. I'm not paying that."

     "Then do it yourself. And if you do, you better hope I keep my mouth shut."

     Littlesmith's face suddenly lost some of its color. "Who in the hell are you?"

     "I'm the guy who can solve your problem--for fifty thousand."

     "I'll give you five up-front and the rest after."

     "If you want it done you'll give me fifty. I don't believe in down payments."

     "No deal."

     I reached for the door handle, "Good luck."

     "Wait! Give me a name."

     "Can't help you there. Say hello to Rita for me."

     "You bastard. Alright. But you better not screw this up. When will you do this?"

     "Tomorrow." We agreed to meet at a secluded spot, a place not far from a lake. "I expect cash, fifty thousand or no deal."

     He agreed and we parted.

     The next day, when I climbed into Littlesmith's Caddy he seemed upbeat, almost excited, over the prospect of his wife's impending death. He wanted to chat but I didn't. I just wanted his money. He handed me the bag and I counted it. All there. I distracted him, slipped in a pair of ear plugs, and bang, job done. After tossing the revolver into the lake, I drove home. Normally at this point I felt relieved and satisfied. But this time I wasn't feeling that. I was thinking about Rita and the possibility that Bradford Littlesmith's murder might not slip quietly into the unsolved files.


     A week after I dispatched Mr. Littlesmith, I got some bad news. It was in all the papers. A spokesperson with the district attorney's office held a press conference on the steps of the courthouse to announce that Rita Littlesmith had been charged with the murder of her estranged husband. She was currently incarcerated in the city lockup. Because she was a flight risk, the judge had denied her bail.

     When pressed by reporters to lay out the case against Rita, the prosecution's mouthpiece admitted they had no confession, no eyewitness to the crime, no physical evidence connecting her to the murder, and, as of yet, no murder weapon. But she had motive, and a few days prior to allegedly firing a .38-caliber slug into her husband's right ear, she had threatened to kill him. But they had more, evidence that would send her away for life. Rita had confided to her cellmate that she had lured her husband to the place of his death under the pretext she would consent to the divorce for a small fraction of his estate. After she shot him, she tossed the gun out of her car window somewhere in the city. By now it was probably in the hands of a street thug.

     I was't surprised. When a prosecutor has a good murder suspect, but not enough evidence to convict, the jailhouse snitch comes slithering out of the woodwork. Rita's informant, in return for her lie, probably received a get-out-of-jail card and a bag of evidence-room crack. Rita was in trouble, and maybe I was, too. The moment Rita came storming into the hotel bar I should have walked away from the job. Maybe I had lost my touch.

     As long as Bradford Littlesmith's murder remained an open case, I couldn't move forward, put the hit behind me. Without the jailhouse informant, the prosecutor didn't have a case. That meant this snitch, whoever she was, would have to go. I still had work to do.

     Once I cleaned up the Littlesmith mess, I'd retire. This was not a business for a guy who'd run out of luck and self-confidence. Before I contemplated my new life, I'd identify the snitch and take care of the problem.


     Good thing I read the tabloids because there it was: HOOKER WITNESS IN LITTLESMITH MURDER! The reporter must have slipped the jailer a few bucks, found the informant, and bought her story. Some of these tabloid guys were better detectives than the detectives. A lot better.

     The photograph showed a tall, slender back woman in her forties. The bright yellow hair and the rose tattoo on her neck would make her easy to spot. She called herself Beverly, probably a trick name, and lived in a downtown flophouse called The Regis Arms Hotel. Her husband, a former track star, had run off. That's when she took to the streets--to survive. All these gals had a sad story, it helped in court.

     The tabloid reporter had done most of my work. I'd cruise around The Regis Arms until I found a black, stick of a woman with bleached hair. The sooner I got her into my car the better because the cops would not be happy about their snitch going public. They'd want to reel her in before Rita's attorney got ahold of her and offered a better deal.


     It didn't take me long to roll up on Beverly. There she was, by herself, leaning against the front of a closed tattoo shop, her yellow hair glistening under the streetlight. I pulled up alongside the curb and rolled down my front passenger window. She saw me but didn't move. Maybe she thought I was a cop. She finally dropped her cigarette, straightened off the wall, and walked stiffly toward the car with her high-heels clicking on the pavement. No one was around and traffic was light. Lucky for me, unlucky for her.

     Beverly bent over and looked in. The headlights from an approaching car lit up her face. This woman was already dead, I would be just making it official. "What can mamma do for you?" she asked, without a trace of humanity. Her phony smile revealed a chipped front tooth.

     "Get in," I said, trying to make it sound more like an invitation than a demand. I returned her fake smile with one of my own.

     "Slow down," she said, "this girl needs to see some money."

     "How much?"

     "Depends on what you want?"

     "Just the mouth."

     "Fifty--just for you."

     I held up a a bundle of bills and she climbed in. "Where we going?" she asked.

     "Not far."


      I had planned to take a train to Miami, but at the last minute decided to fly even though I hated the inside a plane full of sweaty people in a hurry to get somewhere. Being trapped in a plane felt like being swallowed by a snake. To make it bearable, I bought a first-class ticket. In first class, they were paid to treat you a little better than the luggage. I wore my J.C. Penny sports coat and one of the two trousers that came with it. When the stewardess asked if I wanted anything to drink, I ordered a Coke to go along with the peanuts.

     Everything I owned fit into a pair of suitcases. I had my life savings--$150,000--packed inside a money belt. Not much for fifteen years of professional killing, but enough for a new start.

     The moment I walked out of the terminal, I was hit by a blast of oppressive heat. I heard someone yelling, and when my eyes adjusted to the sun, I saw an elderly woman bawling out a Hispanic cab driver who looked bewildered. The chunky, bluish-haired lady in the yellow leisure suit was giving the poor taxi driver all kinds of hell. Her husband, a pot-bellied man stuffed into a pink pull-over shirt, and wearing a white acorn cap and lime green trousers flared at the bottom, looked embarrassed. The little fellow stood next to a giant golf bag. I couldn't imagine this man hitting a golf ball. Actually, I couldn't imagine him doing anything but standing in the boiling sun watching his wife make a fool of herself. He and the misses had probably returned from visiting their children up north. I sure the kids were happy that mom and dad were back in Florida.

     Right off I sensed there was something profoundly wrong with this place. I couldn't put my finger on it other than it didn't feel right. I didn't belong here. What would I do in this heat, play golf with old guys in pink shirts and bellbottom pants? What was I thinking? Five minutes later I was at the ticket counter buying a first-class flight back to reality.

     I took a seat in the boarding area and opened my airport-purchased tabloid, and there it was: WIFE GLUES HUBBY TO TOILET SEAT! There you go, a future client.

    The ghost was back.


  1. “The Ghost” is a short story. Somehow the whole process of “using plots and techniques” to enter the future client’s life and passively getting the future client to suggest a murder for hire could make the story a novel.

  2. Lovely holiday present! Thank you!
    Oh... do you want the Word Police, or Keyword Kops, to interfere? Those dreary fellows.
    If so...
    "an elderly woman balling out a Hispanic cab driver"-
    "balling" should be bawling.
    If not, ignore me and continue...

    1. There now. I finally get to say that I had a hand in one of my pal Thornie's stories!

  3. That was a trip! Would love to see what a Swedish or British serial writer could do with it. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the story.