by Bix Skahill
“I don’t know nothing about Mr. Pedersen’s truck.”
“You don’t know anything about Mr. Pedersen’s truck.”
“That’s what I said.”
Glaring down at the man kneeling and shaking on the abandoned warehouse floor, Muller sighed and shifted the bloody, bulky textbook to his left hand, then back. “What you said was a double negative, which really pisses me off. Just like when people lie to me. Now, tell me what happened to Mr. Pedersen’s truck before I get angry and go all textbook on your ass.”
The huddled man, Kramer, looked up at Muller. His thin face was thick with tears.
Kramer had good reason to be scared shitless. It was a well-known fact that Muller was the most dangerous (and best read) hitman in all of Keokuk, Iowa.
“But I swear, I didn’t have nothing, I mean, I didn’t have anything to do with Mr. Pedersen’s truck going missing. Me and Clams was playing poker all night.”
“Clams and I, we were playing poker all night.”
“No, that ain’t true, Clams was with me.”
Muller rubbed the back of his neck. “I was simply correcting… forget it. Also, please keep in mind that ‘ain’t’ isn’t a word in our language. I should know, I used to teach English at Our Mother of Peace High School.”
It was a surprisingly lateral move from high school teacher to hitman. Just a few years prior Muller was Mr. Muller, textbook English teacher: thick glasses, thin corduroys, empty wallet. Then, one fateful afternoon, Michael Bradley, a student in his language arts class, came swaggering into his classroom after the final bell had tolled. The young man came to complain about the grade he’d received on his Ethan Frome paper, which, although he couldn’t prove this, Mr. Muller was fairly certain someone else had penned. Though he kept that opinion to himself. He also kept to himself the fact that he violently despised Michael Bradley. The boy was everything Mr. Muller wasn’t as a teen. Popular and muscular with tons of shiny white teeth and shiny blonde hair. He wore a letter jacket overburdened with accolades and his sole form of locomotion was to swagger. But the most egregious thing about Bradley was the woeful way in which he treated the English language. He communicated exclusively with grunts, shrugs, acyrologia, mumbling, malapropisms, spoonerisms, slang, and the occasional snarl.
For a few minutes Mr. Muller sat there and listened to the boy carp about his grade (while butchering the Mother Tongue) when, finally, Mr. Muller simply snapped. He stood, screamed Here’s a gift from Noah Webster, and struck Bradley across the forehead with a handy copy of the class textbook Language Arts Today!
A ballet of blood sprayed as the moronic jock crumpled, dead before he hit the floor. As the teacher surveyed the carnage at his feet, instinct sat down in Mr. Muller’s driver’s seat. He felt no panic, no rush of fear. He knew exactly what had to be done and he did it. After mopping up the copious blood with the boy’s letter jacket, he dragged the body through the vacant halls of the school and down to the janitor’s “office”. He folded the corpse into the massive furnace and turned up the heat. Watching the body burn, burn.
Not only did Mr. Muller get away with the crime scot-free; he wasn’t even questioned in connection to the boy’s disappearance.
Realizing that he had a talent for this killing thing (and tired of trying to make ends meet on a teacher’s salary), Mr. Muller contacted his cousin Rocco, who had some ties to the vast and violent Keokuk underworld. Within weeks, the teacher became a gun for hire, though he never used a gun.
Waving his arms above his head as if he were fighting off an invasion of invisible bats, Kramer said, “Sorry, sorry, I’ll never use the word ‘ain’t’ again.”
“That’s more like it. So, let us return to your alibi.”
“Yeah, sure, like I said, Clams and I were playing poker in the back room at Manelli’s.”
“And if I were to call Manelli and inquire about this supposed poker game, he’d corroborate your story?”
“Well, sure, but irregardless of what he says, it’s the truth.”
“’Regardless’ means ‘despite the prevailing circumstances,’ you clod. When you use the word ‘irregardless,’ you’re basically saying ‘despite despite the prevailing circumstances.”
Shifting his weight from foot to foot, Muller sighed heavily. He thumbed the pages of his bloodstained copy of Language Arts Today! The pages fell like paper guillotines. Some killers were knife lovers, some gun nuts, but Muller strongly believed in the power of the word. It was a well-whispered secret in the Keokuk underworld that that bloodied, battered textbook had ended fourteen lives, Michael Bradley having just been the first.
“Okay, okay, Jesus, Muller, you’re a tough grader.”
The killer let out a mirthless laugh, which echoed around the abandoned warehouse; the same thing had been said about him back in his distant Our Mother of Peace days.
Kramer continued, “Yes, if you ask Manelli, he should corroborate the fuck out of my story. But, despite the prevailing circumstances, if he don’t–.”
“Right, right. If he doesn’t, then he’s the one lying, not me.”
“So, all these rumors I’ve been hearing about you switching sides and going to work for Tommy Cho, those are all lies too?”
“Yeah! I ain’t working, I mean, I’m not working for that dirty chink. Regardless of what anyone says, Mr. Pedersen is my penultimate boss.”
Muller literally growled. “Oh Kramer, you’ve just made another very common but annoying mistake. ‘Penultimate’ doesn’t mean the last one, it means the second to the last one. The word you’re looking for, I believe, is ‘ultimate’.”
“No, teach, I ain’t wrong, I got the right word.”
Somehow, Kramer suddenly had a gun in his hand. Small, dark, deadly. Before Muller could even raise Language Arts Today! in defense, Kramer fired. Light filled the darkened warehouse, pigeons in the rafters took flight.
The bullet, unconcerned by avian reaction, ripped through the textbook and still had the audacity to tear into Muller’s stomach.
The killer, gravely wounded, stumbled backward. Punched and shocked. He so wanted to criticize Kramer for using ‘ain’t’ although he had specifically told him not to, but found that he’d lost the ability, and perhaps even the will, to speak.
Now smiling a crooked smile, Kramer stood. The gun, cooling, floated before him.
“You don’t even remember me, do you, Mr. Muller?”
The former teacher studied the man who’d shot him but there was not much light left in his eyes.
Kramer continued, “Kramer ain’t my real name, it’s Sealing, Kenny Sealing. I was in your homeroom. I had braces, real bad acne. I idolized Michael Bradley, he was my first crush. I even wrote his Ethan Frome paper. That’s why I was just outside your room when you done him in with that damned textbook. I was fucking devastated to say the least. But I decided to not go to the cops cause I wanted to take care of you myself. And now, after all these years of the long con, I’ve finally got revenge for the love of my life.”
Using the last of his strength, Muller looked down and saw that his stomach and beloved, murderous textbook were soaked with his own blood. “I ain’t… I ain’t gonna make it.”
“No, you ain’t. This here is for Michael Bradley!”
And with the howl, Kramer put one in Muller’s brain. A textbook killing.
Bix Skahill got shot in the face in Fargo. He wrote a book called Babes in Gangland, which is a title he evidently appropriated from the Penthouse Hot Talk Magazine, January /February 1990 issue. He also has great hair.
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