As Black as the Sky
It’s not the killing, that’s not the thing. Gotta watch, monitor, think, a lot, and—come the time—carve into the void. That’s it. Carve into the void. Find a way to make the universe shrink, to make it shrink till it’s condensed into the barrel of the gun or the point of the knife. That’s all. Don’t ask any questions, don’t be driven by anger, choose the protocol, and proceed methodically. Blake can do all that, and he’s been doing it so long he can’t remember when he started. Once you have it, the rest just falls into place.
Blake builds his life on other people’s deaths. No moralizing, please. If anyone wants to talk ethics, he’s happy to reply with statistics. Because—and Blake apologizes—when a health minister makes cuts in the budget, culling a scanner here, a doctor there, and an ICU bed somewhere else, that minister knows that he or she’s appreciably shortening the lives of thousands of strangers. Responsible but not answerable, we’ve all heard that tune. With Blake it’s the other way around. And anyway, he doesn’t need to justify himself, he couldn’t give a damn.
Killing isn’t a vocation, it’s a leaning. A state of mind, if that makes more sense. Blake is eleven years old, and his name isn’t Blake. He’s in the Peugeot with his mother on a minor route near Bordeaux. They’re not traveling especially fast, a dog crosses the road, the impact barely alters their course, his mother screams, brakes, too hard, the car zigzags, and the engine stalls. Stay in the car, honey, my God, you be sure to stay in the car. Blake doesn’t do as he’s told, he follows his mother. It’s a gray collie, the collision has crushed its chest, blood is oozing onto the tufts of grass by the roadside, but the dog isn’t dead, it whimpers, sounding like a mewling baby. Blake’s mother runs in every direction, panicking, she covers
Blake’s eyes with her hand, stammers incoherently, she wants to call an ambulance, But, Mom, it’s a mutt, it’s just a mutt. The collie sputters on the fissured asphalt, its broken, twisted body contorts at a strange angle, wracked with gradually diminishing twitches, dying right in front of Blake’s eyes, and Blake watches inquisitively as the life drains out of the animal. It’s over. The boy puts on a cursory show of sadness, well, what he imagines sadness is, to avoid disconcerting his mother, but he feels nothing. His mother stays by the little body, frozen to the spot, Blake’s had enough, he pulls at her sleeve, Come on, Mom, there’s no point staying here, he’s dead, let’s go, I’m gonna be late for the game.
Killing is also about skill. Blake finds that he has all the requirements the day his uncle Charles takes him hunting. Three shots, three hares, a kind of gift. He aims swiftly and accurately, he can adapt to the crummiest old rifles, the most misaligned shotguns. Girls drag him to fairgrounds, Hey, please, I want the giraffe, the elephant, the Game Boy, yes, go on, again! And Blake hands out soft toys and games consoles, he becomes the dread of shooting galleries, before opting for a little more discretion. Blake also enjoys the things Uncle Charles teaches him, gutting deer and jointing rabbits. Let’s be clear on this: he derives no pleasure from killing, from finishing off an injured animal. He’s not depraved. No, what he likes is the specialized action, the fail-safe routine that gels with frequent repetition.
Blake is twenty, and using his oh-so French name—Lipowski, Farsati, or Martin—he’s enrolled at a hospitality school in a small town in the Alps. Don’t go thinking there were no other options, he could have done anything, he was keen on electronics too, programming, he was a gifted linguist, take English, for example, all it took was a three-month course at Lang’s in London and he could speak it almost without an accent. But what Blake likes more than anything else is cooking, because of those idle moments spent writing a recipe, the time that trickles slowly by, even in the feverish activity of a kitchen, and the long, unhurried seconds spent watching butter melt in the pan, white onions reduce, a soufflé rise. He likes the smells and the spices, enjoys arranging combinations of colors and flavors on a plate. He could have been the most brilliant student at hotel school, but Seriously, fuck, Lipowski (or Farsati or Martin), if only you could show some courtesy to the clientele, it wouldn’t do any harm. This is a service industry, service, do you understand, Lipowski (or Farsati or Martin)?
One evening in a bar, a—very drunk—man tells him he wants to have someone killed. The guy probably has a good reason, a work thing, a woman thing, but that doesn’t matter to Blake.
“Would you do it, would you, for money?”
“You’re nuts,” Blake replies. “Completely nuts.”
“I’d pay you, a lot.”
The figure he offers has three zeros. Blake laughs.
“No. Are you kidding?”
Blake sips his drink, slowly, takes his time. The man’s collapsed onto the bar. Blake shakes him.
“Listen, I know someone who’ll do it. For twice that. I never met him. Tomorrow I’ll tell you how to contact him, but after that, you never mention him to me again, okay?” And that night Blake invents Blake. For William Blake, whom he read after having seen the film Red Dragon with Anthony Hopkins, and because he likes one of the poems: “Into the dangerous world I leapt: / Helpless, naked, piping loud; / Like a fiend hid in a cloud.” And the word “Blake” itself, lake but with a hint of black, yeah, it was on the right track.
The next day a North American service provider registers the email address of one blake.mick.22, set up in an internet café in Geneva. Blake pays cash to a stranger for a secondhand laptop, buys an old Nokia and a prepaid card, a camera, and a telephoto lens. Once he has his equipment, the apprentice chef gives the guy from the bar the contact details for this Blake, “but there’s no guarantee the address is still valid,” and he waits. Three days later the man sends Blake a convoluted message that makes it clear he’s being cautious. Questioning. Looking for the chink in the armor. Sometimes leaving a couple of days between messages. Blake refers to the target, to logistics and delivery times, and his precautions succeed in reassuring the man. They reach an agreement, and Blake asks for half the fee in advance: that alone is four zeros. When the man explains that he wants it to look like “natural causes,” Blake doubles the sum and insists on having a month. Now convinced that he’s dealing with a professional, the man accepts all the conditions.
It’s the first time, and Blake is making this up. He’s already extremely meticulous, cautious, and imaginative. He’s watched so many films—no one realizes how much hit men owe to Hollywood scriptwriters. From the start of his career, he arranges to receive the fee and contract information in a plastic bag left in a place chosen by him, a bus, a fast-food outlet, a building site, a garbage can, a park. He’ll avoid anywhere too remote, where he’d be the only person visible, and anywhere too public, where he wouldn’t be able to identify anyone. He’ll be there hours ahead of time, scanning the area. He’ll wear gloves, a hood, a hat, and glasses; he’ll dye his hair, learn to fit a wig, to hollow his cheeks, or puff them out; he’ll have license plates by the dozen, from every country. With time, Blake will take up knife throwing, half spins and full spins depending on the distance; he’ll take up bomb making, and extracting undetectable poison from jellyfish; he’ll know how to dismantle and reassemble a Browning 9 mm and a Glock 43 in a few seconds; he’ll be paid and will buy his weapons in bitcoin, a cryptocurrency whose movements can’t be traced. He’ll set up his site on the dark web, which will come to feel like a game to him. Because there are tutorials for absolutely everything on the internet. Just have to search.
So, his target is a man of about fifty. Blake has his photo and his name but decides to call him Ken. Yes, like Barbie’s husband. A good choice: “Ken” doesn’t grant him a full existence.
Ken lives alone, and that’s a good start, Blake thinks to himself, because he can’t see how he’d find the opportunity with a married man with three children. The problem remains that at Ken’s sort of age, a natural death doesn’t leave many options: car crash, gas leak, heart attack, accidental fall. Period. Blake doesn’t yet have the skill set for sabotaging brakes or tampering with steering, any more than he knows how to get hold of potassium chloride to trigger a heart attack; as for gas asphyxiation, that doesn’t smell right either. Let’s go with a fall. Ten thousand deaths a year. Particularly the elderly, but he’ll work with it. And even though Ken’s no athlete, a fight is out of the question.
Ken lives in a two-bedroom apartment on the first floor of a detached house near Annemasse. For three whole weeks Blake just watches and puts together his plan. With the advance, he’s bought himself an old Renault panel truck, fitted it out with rudimentary trappings—a seat, a mattress, extra batteries for lighting—and he’s chosen a spot in a deserted parking lot that overlooks the house. He has a bird’s-eye view into the apartment. Ken leaves home at about 8:30 every day, crosses the Swiss border, and then returns from work around seven o’clock. On the weekend he’s sometimes joined by a woman, a French teacher from Bonneville, ten kilometers away. Tuesday is his most predictable day, with the strictest routine: he comes home earlier, goes straight back out to head to the gym, returns two hours later, spends about twenty minutes in the bathroom, then eats in front of the TV, dawdles on his computer for a while, and goes to bed. Let’s go for Tuesday evening. Blake sends his client a message, using their code: “Monday, 8 pm?” One day earlier, two hours earlier. The client will have an alibi for Tuesday at 10 pm.
A week before the appointed day, Blake arranges for a pizza to be delivered to Ken’s apartment. The delivery man rings the bell, Ken opens the door without a moment’s hesitation and looks baffled as he talks to the pizza man, who leaves again, still holding his box. Blake doesn’t need to see any more.
The following Tuesday, he personally pitches up carrying a pizza box. He studies the empty street for a moment, puts on anti-skid overshoes, checks his gloves and then waits awhile so that he can ring the bell just as Ken’s coming out of the shower. Ken opens the door, wearing his robe, and sighs when he sees the pizza box in the delivery guy’s hands. But before he has time to say anything the empty box falls to the ground and Blake jams the ends of two stun batons into his chest. The shock knocks Ken to his knees, Blake drops down with him and keeps up the pressure for ten seconds, until Ken stops moving. The manufacturers promised eight million volts: Blake tried out just one baton on himself and nearly passed out. He drags a dribbling, moaning Ken to the bathroom, gives him another zap for good measure, then in one horrifyingly violent move—that he’s practiced ten times on coconuts—he grasps Ken’s head between his hands, holding it by the temples and raising it up, then hurls it back with all his might: Ken’s skull shatters against the side of the tub, and a diamond-shaped floor tile cracks from the force of the impact. Blood immediately starts to spread, viscous and scarlet as nail varnish, complete with its pleasant smell of hot rust. Ken’s mouth stays open, inanely, his eyes wide, staring at the ceiling. Blake half opens his robe: the electric shocks have left no trace. He arranges the body as best he can to fit the hypothetical trajectory that gravity would have dictated following a tragic slip.
And just then, as he stands up and admires his work, he has a sudden, overwhelming urge to pee. It would never have occurred to him. Let’s face it, assassins in films don’t pee. It’s so urgent that he even contemplates relieving himself in the toilet, at the expense of having to clean the whole thing thoroughly afterward. But if the cops take it into their heads to be just a teeny bit intelligent, or simply thorough, methodically following procedure, they’d find some DNA. Bound to. At least that’s what Blake assumes. So, despite his pleading bladder, he continues with his plan, grimacing in agony. He picks up the soap, rubs it firmly against Ken’s heel, crushes a trail of it onto the floor and throws it in line with the assumed slide: the soap ricochets and gets stuck behind the toilet. Perfect. Finding it will make the investigator’s day, thrilled to have solved the enigma. Blake sets the shower to its highest temperature, turns it on, and—avoiding all contact with the steaming water—swivels the showerhead toward Ken’s face and chest, then he leaves the bathroom.
He runs to the window, closes the curtains, and checks over the room one last time. There’s nothing to suggest that a body was dragged for several meters, and pinkish water has started flooding over the floorboards. The computer is on, and images of English lawns and bloom-filled flower beds glide across the screen. Ken had a green thumb. Blake leaves the building, removes his gloves, and strolls over to his scooter, which is parked two hundred meters away. He starts it up, covers a good kilometer and then, finally, stops to pee. Shit, he’s still wearing his black cotton overshoes.
Two days later an anxious colleague will contact the police, who will discover the accidental death of Samuel Tadler. Blake receives the outstanding balance the very same day.
All this happened a long, long time ago, and since then Blake has devised two lives for himself. In one he is invisible, has twenty surnames and as many first names, with corresponding passports of every nationality, but with genuine biometrics, yes, it’s easier than you’d think. In the other he goes by the name Joe, and from a fair distance, runs a delightful Paris-based company that does home deliveries of vegetarian meals, with subsidiaries in Bordeaux, Lyon, and now Berlin and New York. His business partner, Flora, who is also his wife, and his two children complain that he travels too much and is sometimes away too long.
Which is true.
Originally published in French as L’Anomalie in 2020 by Éditions Gallimard, Paris
Copyright ©2020 Éditions Gallimard
English translation copyright ©2021 Other Press