FOR SERVICES ALLEGEDLY RENDERED
“You’re going to stiff me?” Sawhorse asked. “Me? The man who killed a trial witness. The man you hired to kill a trial witness?”
“Allegedly,” Lehman Sanders remarked with an apparent calm displayed only by the truly sociopathic. “The man I allegedly hired to kill... someone. Alleged, for that matter, by you—who, I’m guessing, won’t actually allege as much in a verified complaint. And, come to think of it, you only allegedly killed that man. I heard he died after an accident.”
“That’s because I made it look like an accident, you bastard,” the other man hissed. Sanders did not seem intimidated in the least.
“So you say. But, again, are you going to admit to that? Are you going to sue me to recover your fee? Not that I have any idea what you charge for killing a third party. Not that I’ve ever seen you before tonight. Not that I’m even talking to you now.”
The men were seated at a table in the back of a dark and dirty bar, the kind of place Lehman Sanders, an expensive and effective lawyer would never patronize, other than to meet with a contract killer. But he was sure that none of the other patrons present would confirm that he was there that night, with that contract killer or any other.
“What if I did?” Sawhorse asked.
“What if you sued me, you mean? What if you averred that I hired you to commit homicide and then didn’t pay you after you’d done it, reneging on my end of our deal? I’d move to have the case dismissed,” Sanders answered, “and my motion would be granted inside of ninety seconds.”
“But we had a contract.” Sawhorse wasn’t a lawyer, but he knew that when two people made up that each would do something for the other, and one did his part, then the other was expected to do likewise. This hadn’t been Sawhorse’s first job of the kind, though the arrangement had differed in a material way from those he’d taken on previously.
“A contract is a legally enforceable agreement,” Sanders explained. “What you’re describing is at best an agreement, and an agreement concerning an illegal act—which by definition can not be legally enforced. So we did not have a contract, and you do not have a cause of action that would survive a motion to dismiss. The law will not help you. Nor should it,” Sanders added, “because you are a criminal.”
“And you’re a saint? You know what you did as well as I know what you did. And I can see to it that everyone knows it.”
“Can you? How can you do that? By telling all of the people in your office, at the water cooler? Or will you take out an ad in the Times?”
“I could do that.”
“Then I’d sue you for libel. Even if any newspaper would run something so potentially defamatory, you’d never be able to defend a libel suit without revealing what you’ve done. Truth is a defense to libel, but the truth will damn you before it damns me. And I don’t think you’re willing to tell the truth. In fact, I’m sure of it.”
“Then maybe I’ll just have to kill you.”
“Killing me won’t get you...”—Sanders was going to say your money, but he checked himself—“...paid,” he finished the thought. “You’re not in my will. And, besides,” Sanders said, “you’re no murderer.”
“No,” Sanders reminded the contract killer. “Only allegedly. And—for now, anyway—not even that.”
Sanders put twenty dollars on the table. “Drinks are on me,” he said, leaving.
“It’s bullshit,” Sawhorse was explaining. “Total bullshit.”
A friend had put him in touch with a friend of his, who had certain “connections,” and those connections—along with a favor or two redeemed—got Sawhorse half an hour with a disbarred lawyer who still consulted for interested, organized persons from time to time.
“I sympathize,” Childers said. “Too many people think freelancers work for free. Or should, anyway.”
“Yeah,” Sawhorse said. “So what can I do to get my money?”
“Lehman Sanders is a big shot,” Childers stated. This was common knowledge, but Childers thought it should be said.
“Big shots usually have something to hide. Blackmail?”
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Childers said. “Unless you could dig up something on Sanders yourself, you’d have to hire someone to do it for you. And that could be expensive. And that’s what lawyers call throwing good money after bad. You don’t want to spend cash you’ve got to chase money you might never be able to get. But there’s something else that makes blackmailing Lehman Sanders seem like barking up the wrong tree: A man willing to hire someone to kill a witness and then not pay the killer he hired isn't likely to have an otherwise completely clear conscience. In fact, Lehman Sanders would seem to have no conscience at all.”
“So what’s left? Ransom?” Sawhorse proposed.
“Do you already have something of Sanders’s that he’d pay to get back?” Childers asked. “Or would you first have to acquire it. Or him or her?”
“Good point. I don’t need the trouble of first kidnapping anyone, and I don’t even know if Sanders has any family he’d pay to get back. He’d probably just tell me to keep his wife or his kid. He’ll just buy a new one. With my money,” Sawhorse added glumly.
“And it’s not like you haven’t given Sanders everything he asked you for,” Childers commented. “The job’s done, I mean. It isn’t like building a house, where there’s always some extra work that needs to be done that you could refuse to do until you got paid for what’s complete.” Childers had practiced some construction law, a very useful area to be comfortable in when one advised the kinds of people he now sometimes advised. Construction projects are singular opportunities to clean money, as it happens. “Wait,” Childers told Sawhorse. “Something doesn’t add up.
“You say Sanders hired you to kill a man who was going to testify at a trial. Did Sanders say that?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“Did Sanders say that it was a trial involving a client of his?”
“He didn’t say. What difference does it make?”
“Maybe none,” Childers said. “But here’s the thing: A party might have a witness—a potential witness, that is—killed before trial to prevent that witness from testifying. Giving testimony at the trial, I mean. But having a witness eliminated... made unavailable for trial, I should say, isn’t the solution to the party’s problem it’s been made out to be in fiction. Because the unavailability of a witness means, in most cases, that the witness’s deposition testimony will be admissible as evidence at the trial, whereas it wouldn’t have been otherwise. So a party’s better tactic is to let his lawyer impeach the witness’s testimony on the stand through cross-examination. And Lehman Sanders knows this. In fact, Lehman Sanders would have relished the thought of cross-examining a hostile witness and destroying his credibility. It’s better than having him killed. It’s perfectly legal, and Lehman himself would get the credit, not to mention whatever his client is paying him.”
“So,” Childers told Sawhorse, “Sanders would not have wanted this witness to be unavailable to testify if the witness had already given testimony at a deposition, which is almost certainly the case. Are you sure Sanders told you that he was hiring you to kill a witness.”
“No,” Sawhorse said. “I guess I just assumed that if a lawyer was hiring me...”
“But lawyers are people too,” Childers said. “It might have been Sanders the man hiring you, not Sanders the lawyer...”
“He just gave me a name and an address.”
“You have the man’s address?”
“I know where he lives, sure. Where he lived,” Sawhorse corrected himself.
“Can you get into his home?”
“I did it once already.”
“But it would be much harder this time,” Childers realized. “It’s probably still a crime scene. And you never want to return to the scene of a crime.”
“If I did get caught,” Sawhorse said, musing, “at least then I’d have no reason not to finger Sanders as the one who put me up to the job. I might even be able to take a plea if I agreed to testify against Sanders.”
Childers joked, “And then Sanders would hire someone to kill you...”
Abruptly, Childers wasn’t joking any more. Sawhorse was still a step behind, though.
“Maybe he’s not killing trial witnesses,” Childers said. “Maybe he’s killing killers. Or, rather, he’s hiring killers to kill killers.”
“That’s messed up,” Sawhorse remarked.
“It’s kind of brilliant,” Childers said. “But you have to wonder what got him started on this path.”
Sawhorse in fact did not have to wonder as much. Sawhorse didn’t care about Lehman Sanders’s past. He cared about his own future. “So I'm next, then? He's going to take out a contract on me? Then refuse to pay whoever rubs me out? How long can he keep doing this?”
“As long as there's someone willing to murder for money,” Childers suggested. “And as long as there's someone willing to get paid only after the job is done. Seriously, why didn't you at least ask for half of your fee up front?”
“I did. He wouldn't budge. Told me I could trust that he was good for it.”
And then Sawhorse’s time with Childers was up. Any further consultation and he’d have to pay for it.
It was nearly a week before Sawhorse could get Lehman Sanders to meet him again at the dive bar.
“I should be charging you for these meetings,” Sanders joked. Sawhorse didn’t laugh.
“You think you’re pretty smart,” the hitman said to the lawyer.
“I am very smart,” the lawyer responded.
“Maybe. Maybe not. But I’m not as dumb as you think I am.”
“Prove it,” Sanders challenged Sawhorse.
“I went back to the house.”
“Did you?” But Sanders didn’t seem surprised.
“I had a feeling that you didn’t want this guy... made unavailable to testify at a trial. No, you wanted him taken out for more personal reasons.”
“And if I did?”
“Then there might be something to tie you to him, and that something could turn into a noose around your neck.”
“And you want to put a noose around my neck?” Sanders asked.
“I don’t care if you hang. I just want my money. And I figure you might pay to avoid hanging, even if you won’t pay for services rendered.”
“So it’s to be blackmail?” Sanders said.
“That’s up to you,” Sawhorse said.
“The problem with blackmail, though, is that there are only two ways to deal with a blackmailer: You can pay him to keep quiet, but there’s no guarantee that he will, even when he has your money. He might even ask for more money. And more money. So the way to avoid that—the other way to deal with a blackmailer—is to nip it in the bud and kill him,” Sanders said. “Or have him killed.”
At this Sawhorse laughed. “You know, there was a moment when I thought that’s what you were doing already. Hiring killers to kill previous hired killers.”
“That sounds like an awful lot of work,” Sanders said. “But what convinced you that I’m up to something different?”
“I wasn’t entirely convinced until I went back into the guy’s house. I’ll admit to that. But now I’m convinced.”
“Because I found this there.” Sawhorse reached for something he’d had next to him in the booth, something Lehman Sanders hadn’t noticed. He held it up for Sanders to see it. Sawhorse looked at Sanders as Sanders looked at the framed photograph. Of two men. Sanders himself, some two decades—two hard decades—younger, and the man Sanders had hired Sawhorse to kill, likewise younger. The men were smiling for the camera, clasping each other around the shoulders. It was difficult to tell, but they might have been on a fishing boat, or a pier, or maybe just a beach. They might have been brothers. But of course they had different last names.
But a man could change his last name...
And was Lehman Sanders tearing up?
“He’s your brother,” Sawhorse ventured. “You hired me to kill your own brother.”
“I hired you to make my brother believe that his life was in danger.”
“It was. I killed him.”
“It was,” Sanders countered, “but you didn’t. Do you remember telling me how you planned to kill my brother? Do you remember explaining to me the way you planned to create a dangerous... no, a fatal situation that would kill my brother and then look like an accident he’d caused himself? I made sure that my brother knew that this was going to happen.”
“You called your brother and told him you’d hired someone to kill him?”
“I haven’t spoken to my brother in twenty years. Not since shortly after this picture was taken. We had a falling out over something I’m sure neither of us could recall today. No, I didn’t call my brother, but I made sure word got to him. I haven’t spoken to him in twenty years, but I’ve kept track of him. I’ve never not known where he is, and that he’s okay,” Sanders said. “But he recently got into some trouble, with some people who take these things all too seriously. More seriously than my brother himself would. Unless he believed that his life was in imminent danger, he’d never have sought help. Or protection. And he’d have gotten killed. By these people he ran afoul of. People you’re nothing like. People who get the job done.”
“You’re saying I didn’t get the job done?” Sawhorse asked.
“I’m saying exactly that. My brother is alive, and he’s safe. But I might never see him again, now, and not because we’re not speaking. Because he might have to stay hidden for the rest of his life.”
“You hired me to get him to disappear.”
“Yes. You’re not a killer,” Sanders said. “I told you that.”
“I’d told you otherwise,” Sawhorse said.
“You weren’t the first hitman I spoke to. You have to know that. But you were the first one willing to get paid after the job was done. That told me you’re not a professional hitman. You’re a man who’s down on his luck and needs money, desperately. I was going to pay you. You should know that, too. But when I realized that I might never again see my brother, even though I’d probably just saved his life, I remembered that when we first fell out, I destroyed everything I had connecting me to my brother. I burned every letter and every picture. I changed my name. I could not imagine ever having any use for him again. But still, I kept tabs on him.
“So I knew if I was ever going to see him again, even if just in a photograph, I had to get it from his home. Or, rather, I had to have you get it. Because I couldn’t break into a crime scene. I’m no criminal,” Sanders said, with a small laugh. “So I told you I wasn’t going to pay you. And not because the job wasn’t done. Again: You did the job I’d actually hired you to do, even if you didn’t know it. But I needed you to go back to the scene of the crime. Because all but the very best criminals will always think he needs to go back for some reason or other. And, as we’ve established, you are not the best of criminals.”
“So you’ll pay for the photograph?” Sawhorse asked.
“I will. And the... other job. The services rendered.”
“Yeah,” Sanders said. “I’m not going to stiff a working man. I got just what I asked for. And just what I wanted. I even brought you a check.” Lehman Sanders reached into his jacket for his wallet.
“Cash,” Sawhorse said. “If you don’t mind.”
“Now you’re learning,” Sanders responded, leaving his wallet where it was and reaching to the floor for a briefcase, which he handed over to the other man. Sawhorse opened the case, looked at the contents, then closed the case again with a smile. Their business was complete. Sawhorse rose to leave.
“What made you think it was someone I knew,” Sanders asked him. Sanders wasn’t looking up at Sawhorse, though. He was looking at the framed photograph that Sawhorse had taken from a wall in the home of his “victim,” after he’d scoured the place for nearly two hours, looking for anything to connect the man with Sanders, finally finding something almost impossibly simple, and in such a seemingly improbably visible location. “What made you suspect it wasn’t just someone scheduled to testify against the interests of a client of mine?”
Sawhorse tucked his briefcase full of money under his arm and said, simply, “I talked to another lawyer.”