Excerpt – The Taskmasters
The bar fight was over. Matt staggered to his feet. The loudmouth was down and he wasn’t getting back up without assistance. None of the barflies volunteered to help him, even though they closed in to examine Matt’s handiwork. Matt ran the back of his hand across his mouth, leaving it blood streaked.
Police sirens wailed in the distance. Matt’s heart rate quickened just as it had started to slow down. He couldn’t afford to be busted again. The spectators swarmed for the exit. This wasn’t one of those trendy downtown bars, where management called 911 at the sound of a raised voice. Everyone was a little cop shy at The Dive. The Dive lived up to its name–literally and figuratively. It was a basement place, part of Seattle’s subterranean past. An underground bar for underground people.
Matt went to follow the crush out the door, but someone held him back. He shook off the hand gripping his shoulder and whirled around with a readied fist to face his new challenger. The middle-aged guy held up his hands in surrender. He had six inches and fifty pounds of muscle on Matt.
“Easy, pal,” he said. “I’m not trying to stop you. Back door, before the cops get here. You kinda stick out in your current condition.”
Matt glanced himself in the mirror behind the bar. Ripped clothes. The red blooms of burgeoning bruises. The sirens intensified. Matt didn’t argue and followed the man out the fire exit. It opened up into an unlit stairwell. The man burst through the door, casting streetlight onto Matt’s escape. He clambered up the stairs and into the service alley.
“C’mon, this way,” the man urged.
The alley ran from Cherry to Columbia. He jogged down the alley away from The Dive’s entrance on Cherry, sidestepping busted trash bags and puddles containing more than just water. Matt followed the man uphill on Columbia a couple of blocks, then into another alley lit by a thumbnail moon.
“We’ll hang here until things are cool,” he said.
Matt didn’t reply. His guardian angel didn’t sit well in his stomach. He didn’t trust him. He didn’t trust anyone.
Late for the party, two cop cars roared down 2nd towards The Dive, spraying red and blue light. Matt’s stomach clenched. They’d start combing the surrounding streets for someone matching his description soon. He needed to get moving.
“Get into a lot of fights, don’t you?”
The sudden question jolted Matt from his thoughts. “What makes you say that?”
“The way you handled yourself in there. You didn’t learn those moves in a boxing ring or a dojo. You’ve had a street education. Besides, I recognize a bottle scar when I see one.”
Instinctively, Matt touched the thin scar beneath his left eye with his thumb. Although it was faint after so many years, he remembered the fight like it was yesterday. He’d been eighteen and it had been over a girl. Frank Tremaine hadn’t liked the idea of losing his Susie. Matt thought it would be easily settled, but he hadn’t expected Frank to go for him with a bottle of Bud. He nearly lost his eye that night. There’d been a lot of Frank Tremaines over the years and a lot of fights over lesser reasons than Susie. Tonight was no exception.
“Have you done time?” the man asked.
“Carry on like you’re going and it’s easily going to be twice.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“Harry Sharpe.” He thrust out a hand.
Matt looked at the hand warily. This attempt at an introduction could be a stunt to take him down. He ignored the handshake and said, “Matt Crozier.”
Harry let his hand drop without showing any signs of being insulted. “Good to meet you, Matt.”
“What do you want? Why are you helping me?”
Matt backed up a step. He’d rather take a chance with the cops than this guy if something went down. At least he knew what to expect with the cops.
“I represent a group that helps young and wayward men like yourself. We try to turn their skills towards more positive outlets and keep them out of trouble.”
Matt was already shaking his head. He knew where this was going. A dark alley, a sensitive older man and a young misguided youth, a cry for attention and a sympathetic ear, leading to a tender moment. It was pathetic really.
“Sorry, dude, you’ve dialed the wrong number. I don’t answer those sorts of calls.”
“I’m not trying to pick you up,” Harry snapped. “I’m trying to keep you out of trouble.”
Matt backed up toward the street. “Okay, whatever you say, Reverend.”
Harry lunged and snared Matt’s arm. Matt took a swing. Harry blocked it and slammed Matt up against a dumpster.
“I’m not a priest. I’m trying to teach you something. If you want to end up dead or serving a life sentence, then carry on doing what you’re doing, because believe me, you will overstep the boundary of a bar brawl to manslaughter one of these days. But if you want to change that, learn something, make yourself a better man, call me.”
Harry released Matt and jammed a business card in his palm. Matt watched him leave and turn the corner. Once he felt Harry wasn’t coming back and the police weren’t waiting for him, he stepped out into the street. He examined Harry’s card under the streetlight. It had no information other than: TASKMASTERS, followed by a local telephone number.
Matt spent the following day mulling over what Harry Sharpe had said. He didn’t need some do-gooder telling him where his life was heading. He knew already. He couldn’t keep from getting into fights. He wasn’t a kid anymore. At twenty-eight, he was fast approaching thirty with nothing to show for it except calluses and scar tissue. He’d eventually cross the line and it would end his life one way or another. Harry had handed him a timely reality check. This was certainly the time to wise up.
He hadn’t heard of the Taskmasters and neither had anybody else he asked at the oil changers where he worked. The consensus was they were something like the Toastmasters or the Rotary Club. He took some shit from the guys about not being Rotarian material. More concerned about who exactly the Taskmasters were the jibes bounced off him. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but a public speaking group wasn’t it. Harry didn’t seem the type to sit around over a pleasant meal, challenging others to speak on a subject suggested by one of the other Taskmasters. How this would make him a better person he couldn’t imagine, but he’d heard they were connected with the business community and helped members find jobs. He could do with a boost in that direction. He’d go–just this once.
He dialed the number. Harry picked up on the first ring.
“It’s Matt, from the bar last night.”
“I remember you. I wasn’t sure you’d call, but I’m glad you did. You want to join, then?”
“I thought I’d check it out.”
“Good. We’ll pick you up at nine. What’s your address?”
Matt waited outside his apartment block so that Harry couldn’t see the hole he called a home. Not that standing outside helped. It wouldn’t be hard for him to work it out from the address. The five-story converted residential hotel the wrong side of I-5 looked as bad from the outside as it did on the inside.
A horn tooted and a blue-black SUV pulled up in front of him. Harry was driving, but he wasn’t alone. Three other men were in the vehicle with him. Matt wandered over and the guy in the back flung open a passenger door. Matt got in.
“Guys, this is Matt,” Harry said. “Okay, quick introductions. Riding shotgun with me is Brett Chalmers. Sitting next to you is Frank Tripplehorn. And taking up too much room in back there is John Stein.”
The Taskmasters smiled and nodded. Matt tried to do the same, but they were nothing like he’d imagined. Matt had taken the trouble to dress up, nothing too fancy, but then again, he didn’t have anything too fancy. Irrespective of his effort, he was the overdressed one. Everyone else was in jeans, polo shirts and windbreakers. They all had Harry’s muscular build, except John Stein, who was another X-size up. His head scraped the underside of the SUV’s roof.
Introductions over, Harry turned the car around and took Madison over the freeway and into downtown. The Taskmasters bantered with one another, talking about nothing much. Matt interrupted them.
“Where are we going?” He hadn’t intended the level of fear in his voice. It didn’t go unnoticed by the others.
“We have a clubhouse where we meet,” Tripplehorn said.
“Is there anything else you’d like to know?” Chalmers asked.
The jagged edge Chalmers placed on his question didn’t invite further questioning. Matt shook his head and the Taskmasters returned to their conversations.
The clubhouse was an exaggeration of mammoth proportions. Before Matt had called Harry’s number, rich Corinthian leather and dark mahogany had sprung to mind. All that went out the window when Harry drew up in front of a nameless looking part of Yesler Way. By day, this area was home to the court and city workers. By night, it was nothing. Matt was checking out the restaurants dotted along the streets when Harry pointed across the road at a derelict building. Graffiti strewn boards covered long since busted out windows.
“Home sweet home,” Stein said, sliding out of the SUV.
Harry popped open on a giant padlock on a security shutter protecting the entrance from bums and thieves and slid it back. He unlocked and opened the dark wood doors with amber-colored, leaded glass insets.
Stepping inside, Matt remembered this place. It was going to be some fancy five star restaurant headed by some TV chef and financed by a dotcom millionaire. When the dotcom bubble burst, it took the millionaire and his restaurant dreams with it. The place had been festering ever since. It was a shame. The turn of the century brick structure gave the place class, but only when it was in tiptop condition. In its current condition, the heavy brick construction turned the place into a dungeon. The place was rainproof, but the brick held the damp and didn’t let go. Someone had gotten into the building at some point. Graffiti covered the walls and either the contractor or opportunists had made off with anything that had salvage value. Someone at sometime had urinated in the building. A startled rat scuttled across the floor to hide in a darkened corner.
Harry closed the doors and locked them. The sound of the deadbolt sounded like a gunshot and echoed off the walls.
If the Taskmasters owned this place, they had a lot of work to do. But Matt knew these guys didn’t own the place. Something was very wrong and Matt started planning how he was going get out of this. He knew when he was out of his league. Harry and Co. weren’t the kind of guys he could punch his way past. He wondered if the Taskmasters were connected to someone he’d hurt, but couldn’t think of anyone with that kind of muscle on tap. Harry dropped a heavy hand on Matt’s shoulder and guided him towards a circle of raggedy looking La-Z-Boys.
“Don’t be put off by the surroundings. Take a load off and have a beer.”
Tripplehorn carried over the cooler he’d retrieved from the SUV’s trunk and deposited it at the center of the circle. He flipped open the cooler and tossed Matt an MGD. “You’re in good company.”
Matt did as he was told and sat down.
Harry took a beer from Tripplehorn and flopped into a chair next to Matt. “I declare this meeting of the Taskmasters is now in session.”
Harry raised his bottle and so did the other Taskmasters. Matt shifted in his seat.
“Only two items of new business tonight,” Harry said. “The first being our new member, Matt.”
“Good to have you, Matt,” Stein said and raised his bottle to him.
“I think Matt can be an asset,” Harry said. “I believe he has a good heart, but he’s a little misdirected. I hope becoming a Taskmaster will straighten him out and put him on the right track.”
Matt didn’t like Harry’s character assessment. He found it embarrassing. It made him feel like a kid at parents-teacher’s night forced to listen to his teacher give a report about him. He hid his embarrassment behind his beer, drinking it too fast.
“I don’t know if Harry has explained what we do here at the Taskmasters,” Tripplehorn said.
“Not really,” Matt said.
“Well, once a month, we challenge each other.”
“One person from the group is given a specific task chosen by the others,” Chalmers added.
“Which must be completed by the next month,” Stein added.
“Which brings us nicely to our second piece of new business,” Harry said. “This month’s challenge.”
Tripplehorn fished out a pack of playing cards from his pocket, but Harry stopped him.
“No low card winner this time.” He looked at Matt. “Taskmaster rules state that the new Taskmaster member is automatically assigned the challenge.”
Tripplehorn nodded and put the cards away. Stein and Chalmers grinned at each other. An invisible noose tightened around Matt’s throat and he shrank into the damp smelling La-Z-Boy.
“Harry, you’re right. I forgot the rules.” Tripplehorn did nothing to hide his smirk. “Matt, you’re this month’s automatic low card winner.”
“Don’t let these goofballs scare you, Matt,” Harry said. “There’s nothing to worry about. As fellow Taskmasters, we’ll make sure that everything goes smoothly.”
“What do I do?” Matt said, his fear bubbling to the surface.
“Didn’t I tell you Matt is a born Taskmaster?” Harry asked.
“You guys give speeches, right?” Matt said, answering his own question. “Like Toastmasters do, right?”
He knew his assumption was wrong. This was no conventional organization. They were something else and their burst of raucous laughter confirmed the fact.
“I think you need another beer,” Chalmers said and tossed another bottle at Matt.
“No,” Harry said. “We do things a little differently. Stein, why don’t you tell Matt here what you did for the Taskmasters last month.”
“Surely.” Stein reseated himself, making himself comfy. “I killed a no good pimp. Put a bullet,” Stein put finger to his own forehead and made a popping sound, “right between his eyes.”
Stein handed around half a dozen Polaroids of a stick-thin Hispanic lying dead in a gutter with a small hole in his face. He went on to describe how he’d stalked the pimp, some guy named Hernandez, and finally, lured him to his death with the promise of a big score. The Taskmasters laughed and joked with each other as Stein walked them through the story. Matt didn’t laugh. He was too busy trying to hold it together. His worst fears struck him with freight train intensity. He’d guessed the Taskmasters weren’t on the up and up when they’d picked him up. Philanthropic tendencies were the last thing he felt from them. He remembered Harry’s words in the alley. When he’d said that he could help Matt turn his life around, Matt had thought he would help him straighten up his act, not teach him how to hone his violent tendencies.
Chalmers fished out a letter-sized manila envelope from inside his jacket and tossed it over to Matt. Matt opened it, failing to hide his trembling hands. The Taskmasters glanced at each other, exchanging naughty schoolboy smiles. Matt scanned the details on the plain typed sheet and the handful of photographs.
“That’s Terrance Robinson,” Chalmers said, confirming the details Matt had in his hands. “He’s a hit ‘n’ run driver. Killed a little girl six months ago.”
Matt examined a surveillance picture of Robinson crossing 1st with Pike Place Market behind him. He was twenty or thirty pounds overweight. According to the Cliff notes, he was the same age as Matt, but his extra bulk aged him a good ten years.
“Why haven’t the police arrested him?” He hated how his fear brought the formal out in him.
Stein snorted. “A friend is giving him a bogus alibi.”
“So what do you want me to do? Get him to confess?”
Harry laughed at Matt’s suggestion. “We don’t give anyone a shot at redemption.”
“We don’t solve problems,” Chalmers said. “We eradicate them.”
“You’re going to kill this guy,” Tripplehorn said.
It wasn’t a shock. When this went south, he knew it was going all the way to China, but it still left him cold. He was glad the poor lighting hid his expression.
“Don’t worry about the cops. We’ve got it covered,” Harry said.
Stein handed Matt a small semi-automatic. “It’s untraceable. Just use it and lose it.”
Harry went into fine detail about how Matt should stalk and kill his prey. Matt nodded, taking in the words, but he was too numb to comprehend the A-B-C’s of killing a complete stranger. When Harry finished his speech, the Taskmasters drank and joked about themselves for awhile. Matt drank but didn’t join in the hilarity. He waited for them to have their fun and take him home.
They dropped Matt off first. Harry followed him to his apartment block’s entrance, under the watchful gaze of the other Taskmasters. He stuck out a hand for Matt to shake.
“Now, you’re cool with this, right?” Harry asked.
“Yeah, of course.”
“You went a little quiet on us.”
“Well, you know.”
“Yeah,” Harry said, nodding. “It’s a big step up from bar brawls every other night, but this will be good for you. This will put some meaning in your life. Look, don’t worry, son. It’ll go great. You’ll see.”
Matt attempted a confirming laugh. “Yeah.”
“Remember, this guy isn’t innocent. He’s as guilty as hell. You’re just doing what the law can’t. You just have to keep telling yourself that.”
“That helps. Thanks.”
“So the Taskmasters can trust you? There’s no going back after tonight.”
“You can trust me.”
Matt sat at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee in his hands, watching the dawn creep up on the city. Daylight spilled over the skyline, casting fingers of light between the gaps between the buildings. Sleep hadn’t come easy, not while a loaded gun and a picture of the person he was meant to kill sat out on the kitchen table. This was way beyond bar brawls. He had to kill a man. If he failed to follow through, his imagination didn’t have to wander too far to know what the Taskmasters would do to him.
He’d made such a hash of his life. The really embarrassing thing about it was he didn’t know how he’d achieved the feat. There were no excuses for his predicament. He wasn’t a total idiot. He was reasonably smart. His parents had been good people who’d only wanted the best for him. So how come he couldn’t hold down a job or go for a drink without bruising his knuckles on someone’s face? Questions without answers, he thought–or not ones he could answer, at least. He picked up the gun and examined it.
“Time to answer some of those questions.”