Tom Gets His Assignment

As Tom entered the house, Judith held out an envelope to him.

“Tom, here's something for you. It must be from the Justice Cooperative. The return address is a phony.”

Instead of the usual letter, this was a bulky package. He placed it on the kitchen table and opened it. Out came a stack of photocopies of newspaper articles, and copies of police and court records. They all concerned someone named Tim Bartlett. Tom scanned them slowly.

“My God! This guy must be one of the most rotten creeps ever born. Look at this! Rape, plea bargained down to Gross Sexual Imposition. Sentenced to time already served. Assault and battery, plea bargained down to simple assault. Sentenced to 30 days and six months probation. Jail time reduced to time already served. Armed robbery, plea bargained down so the gun charge didn't stick. Murder, plea bargained down to manslaughter. Served one year before parole. It just goes on and on like that. Since he was in his 'teens, this guy has robbed, beaten, and killed right and left, yet he's served less than two years in jail for all of it. And now he's out free.”

“Why are they sending you this information?”

Tom reached the bottom of the stack, found a letter typed on the familiar faded dot matrix printer, and started reading it.

“This is the guy they want me to execute. I've got to let them know if I'll do it.”


“What d'you mean? If I don't execute this guy, I'll have to execute Grubbs myself. It's one or the other.”

“That's just it, Tom. If Grubbs comes in here, you're justified in killing him. The prosecutor might not even press charges.”

“But I don't want him in here. I want him killed before he comes after us again.”

“That's just the point. If you went out and killed him before he came after us, I'd agree it'd be right, even if it would be against the law. The way he's stalking us, you could probably even convince a jury it was right.

“But this really scares me. Look, Tom, it’s all well and good to say we have no choice. But we do have a choice. This Bartlett never did us any harm. You can't just go out and kill someone who's no threat to us. That's just plain wrong.”

“Hangmen kill people who aren't threatening them. How is this different?”

“That's because the government sentenced someone to death. The hangman is carrying out the sentence. He knows what the criminal did. Here you don't even know this man.”

“What's knowing him got to do with it? Soldiers kill people they don't even know. I don't have to know this guy personally to execute him. In fact I'd rather I didn't.”

“But a soldier only kills people who threaten him and his country.”

“When your father went to Vietnam, he killed people who were no threat to us here at home. They were a threat to him only because he was sent there. If he'd stayed home, they wouldn't have been a threat to him either.”

“They were a threat to the South Vietnamese people. I've heard him tell about the terrible things the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong did.”

“Your dad didn't know any of those people he was defending. They were total strangers, just like the ones he killed.”

“He didn't have to know them. The government sent him there to help our friends. The enemy there was a threat to our allies.”

“Then what's wrong with my helping someone I don't know, through the Justice Cooperative?”

“The Justice Cooperative isn't the government.”

“The government! The government!” He was shouting now. “What's all this about the government? Look, dammit! The government isn't doing its job. I can't put it in fancy words like your lawyer friends could, but what's a government anyway but people getting together to defend themselves? You don't lose your right to defend yourself just because there's a government. When the government doesn't do its job, we don't have to sit here and take it. We have a right to defend ourselves.”

“But this is lynch law. You might make a mistake. The Justice Cooperative might make a mistake. The reason for having a government is to have laws and courts. If you accuse someone of some crime, your story is heard by people who aren't involved, and who can look at the facts without being prejudiced for either side.”

Tom paused a moment, then continued in a calmer voice. “This guy was tried in court. He was turned loose again, time after time. That's not justice. And when we can't get justice from the government, we have a right to get it for ourselves. We have a right to get together with other people to defend ourselves. I'd be simply helping out a neighbor who's in trouble. Helping out a neighbor is just as American as a barn-raising. You ought to understand that.”

Judith waited a long moment, then continued in a low voice. “Tom, let's move. Let's get away from here and from Harry Grubbs. Then you won't have to kill this Bartlett person.”

“Where would we go? Your father said crime was going up even in your home town. There's no way to get away from it. We'd just be going from crooks we know about to crooks we don't know about.

“And if we moved, what kind of a job could I get? I've worked hard to get the promotion I just got. If we move, I'll have to start all over at the bottom. Maybe even in a different kind of job.”

“That would be a lot better than being convicted of murder. That's what'd happen if they caught you.”

“No, Judy. No. This is my home town. I grew up here. My folks are buried here. I'm not going to let some crook chase me out of here.

“Besides, what’s to say that if we move, Grubbs won’t just come after us? He’s made up his mind to get us. We’d be giving up everything we have, and still not escaping him. We don’t need to run away, we need to get justice. And since the government won't give me justice, I'll get it for myself, and I'll take the help of anyone who'll help me.

“Look, Judy. Do you think I like the idea of killing somebody? I don't even like the idea of killing Harry Grubbs. I'd do it just like I'd kill a mad dog, to keep him from hurting somebody else. I'm doing this because I don't have any choice. And I'm doing it as much for you as for me. I'm not going to have you thinking I can't protect you, and I'm not going to have your father thinking I'm not a good husband for you.

“Now, are you going to support me, or am I on my own?”

She started to speak, then bit her lip. She turned away and walked to the stairs. He heard the slap-slap-slap of her sandals as she climbed the stairs. There was a long moment of silence, then he heard their bedroom door slam.

He stood silently, hands balled into fists at his side. Finally he slammed a fist into an open palm, then strode to the kitchen table. He pulled out two pictures of Bartlett, burned the rest of the papers, and flushed the ashes down the garbage disposal.

He pulled on a light jacket, stuck his gun in his pocket, and opened the front door. He hesitated briefly as he looked at the stairway, then closed the door and set the burglar alarm.

He walked to a pay phone and called the number in the message, then gave the password.

“I'm ready to take on the job.”

“What tools do you want to use?”

The code for rifle was “chainsaw;” for a handgun it was “hammer.”

“I think I'd prefer to use a hammer.”

“Do you want us to provide you with a birdhouse, or will you make one?”

That was the code word for a silencer. He'd decided he could make one. It would be cheaper than having them provide one. They were charging him enough for the gun as it was.

“I'll make it myself.”

“Very well, we will send you the plans along with the tools. You will receive instructions by parcel delivery.”

There was a click as the speaker hung up. Glumly, Tom headed back for his house.

He disarmed the alarm, unlocked the door, and stepped inside.

Now what? Do I sleep on the couch? No, dammit. Not unless she tells me to. Sharing a bed with her isn't like it's supposed to be, but at least we can touch each other. I don't want for us to end up just living in the same house like a couple of strangers who're only sharing expenses.

He took off his shoes and tiptoed up the steps. One of the steps squeaked under his foot.

Damn. I forgot about that squeaky step. I've got to get that fixed. I wonder if the noise woke her.

He hesitated outside the bedroom door, then turned the knob. He slid his feet to avoid tripping over anything as he groped his way into the pitch-black room.

“I'm awake, Tom. You can turn the light on.”

He reached behind him and flipped the switch. He saw she was lying on her back, arms under her head. Apparently she'd been staring at the ceiling in the dark.

“I couldn't sleep, Tom. Not after walking away from you like that.

“Look, Tom. I know you're doing this for me. But I'm scared. I'm scared of what'll happen if you don't go ahead with it, and I'm scared of what'll happen if you do. But I'll support you whatever you do. It just isn't right that we should have to make a choice like this.”

“Thanks, Judy. I told 'em I'd go ahead with it. But I'd sure hate to lose you over something I did mostly for you.”

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Copyright © 2004, Joseph P. Martino
Revised: 04:03:12