It isn't a smile, not exactly, because he's straining too hard to display a true smile. Sweat drips from his forehead onto his nose. He lets it slide to the tip and then fall away.
“I don’t know who you think you’re fooling,” the fat man says. “No way you can make this shot.
He doesn’t bother responding. He holds steady, willing his arms not to shake, breathing slowly, regularly. Calming himself so that he can do what he needs to do. It’s a long shot, yes, but he can do it.
One hundred and fifty yards away, a door opens. A perfectly unassuming door, nothing special about it. The coffee clerk steps out—barista, he calls himself, but get real—which is perfectly understandable, as the door belongs to a coffee shop. He takes a step, drops his keys, bends over to pick them up, and then takes another step.
The archer releases, and the arrow speeds toward its mark. One hundred and fifty feet, wind speeds in excess of forty miles per hour, it’s snowing, and there are roughly three hundred people milling around between the archer and his target.
The arrow hits its mark, and the barista staggers backwards, then stumbles forward. He reaches to steady himself, and bumps into a fellow pedestrian. He falls to his knees and looks up into her eyes.
“I’ll be damned,” the fat man says. “I wouldn’t have believed it, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”
“Well, you saw it, so pay up.” He removes a handkerchief and wipes the sweat from his brow. Even with the sweat, he looks like a magazine ad—each move he makes, each angle from which he is viewed, it looks posed and perfect. Everything about him is beautiful, and even the simple task of tucking away his handkerchief looks heroic and amazing.
“How about double or nothin’?”
“I got a job to do here, big guy. I know you live under the impression that you’re the only one who does any work in our organization, but I’ve got a quota to meet.”
“You go around shooting people who piss you off! How is that a job?”
The archer shrugs. “It pays the bills. And they aren’t always people who piss me off.”
“That guy? He didn’t do anything to upset you?”
“Incidentally, yes. He put soy in my coffee. Do I look like the kind of punk-ass bitch who wants soy in my coffee? Sugar? Sure, why not? The extra rush helps, especially after a long night.”
“Of which you have many, from the stories, I’ve heard.”
“They’re true. Not that one with the gerbil, though.”
“What about one that says you have an eleven inch-”
“Totally true. But we’re getting off track, here. I don’t even take milk in my coffee, much less soy. Plus it was some weird chai latte shit, I don’t even know. But that’s not the point.”
“What is the point?”
“The point is I have a job to do, and you tagging along bugging me isn’t making it any easier.”
“Don’t act like you couldn’t use a little extra on the side. So how about it? Double or nothin’?”
“Don’t you have someplace you need to be?”
The fat man looks at his watch. “Not for another ten months.”
The archer sighs, resigned. “Fine. Get in.”
The fat man glances at the Porsche. “It’s so small. How about we take my ride?”
The archer laughs. “Get real, hoss. No way I’d be caught dead in that thing. We take my car or you can just pay me now.”
This one’s tricky. No prep work, and it’s a three and three. Unheard of, and he can’t help thinking the fat man must’ve pulled some serious strings to set this one up.
Sixty-four yards, not counting the height, and the wind’s picking up. Snow isn’t quite as bad in this part of town, and the foot traffic isn’t nearly as heavy. But shit.
He lays the arrows out side by side. Three and three. He takes a couple of practice grabs, spreading his fingers so that he can grab three at a time, and place them perfectly against the bowstring. He glances at his watch and sees that he has about ten seconds.
He and the fat man are on top of a building, looking thirty stories down at the scurrying rush hour mob, huddling around itself while avoiding personal contact. People so close together and so far apart.
“So doesn’t this kind of thing ever freak you out? I mean, you’re kind of like a baby god, right?”
“Does it ever piss you off the way they depict you in the media?”
“You’re here to observe, not to interview.”
“I’m just curious, that’s all.”
“Be curious later.”
And he sees them. The brothers walk around the corner, laughing. Triplets. Two of them seem to be teasing the third, and he is taking their ribbing good naturedly. Unlike most of his victims, he doesn’t recognize them—further proof of the big man’s tampering.
He sweeps the first three arrows from the ledge beside him and nocks them all at the same time. He pulls the bowstring and releases, not watching to see if he has aimed true. Instead, he snags the remaining three arrows and places them against the string. He doesn’t have time to look or wonder—he has to trust the reliability of his information, and have faith in his skills. He releases, and watches the second set of arrows soar towards the group of brothers.
The first three arrows hit the brothers simultaneously, and each of them stagger to the left just enough so that the second set of arrows passes them by, striking the three sisters who have just walked around the corner. Also triplets.
“Six direct hits,” the archer says. “You should probably quit while you’re behind.”
“Double or nothin’.”
“We just did double or nothing. You lost, so now you owe me double.”
“Well double that or nothing, then.”
“Can’t you just go bet on horses or something?”
“I could, but it isn’t nearly as exciting.”
“You’re screwing up my groove. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m used to working solo.”
“Oh, I’ve noticed. I’ve noticed that while the rest of us stick to working our times, you’re all over the place. I’ve noticed that you don’t play by the rules. I’ve noticed that you’re allowed to indiscriminately shoot those arrows at anyone you want.”
“Geez, man. Is the part where you tell me that I’m a loose canon, and threaten to take away my badge?”
“You have a badge?”
“Oh. Well…where was I?”
“You were telling me about the things you’ve noticed.”
“I’ve noticed you’re a loose canon, is what I’ve noticed.”
“I like you—you know this.”
“That’s sweet. I like you, too, big guy.”
“But the fact of the matter is, you’re starting to worry people. Important people. They’re thinking maybe you’re getting a little too big for your britches. Speaking of which, what happened to the old outfit?”
“Gave it to that guy Mike.”
“That kid who works the new year?”
“Yep. I didn’t need it, once I found out about custom-tailored suits.”
“See, that’s what I’m talking about. Why do you need two thousand dollar suits?”
“This suit was four thousand dollars.”
“Come on, chief. Look at me. I look good. And look at you.”
“What’s wrong with me?”
“Nothing, for what you do. You look like the jolly old grandpa who everyone loves and loves to be loved by. I can’t be doin’ that shit, man. I gotta be sexy. Smooth. I gotta be hot.”
“It’s a new day, whether you want to admit it or not. I don’t change with the times, I’m obsolete. You? You’re eternal. You don’t have to worry about this. But I’m fighting tooth and nail. Do you unders- Son of a bitch! You made me miss my mark.”
No time for thought, no time for planning. He knows where his victims are going to be, knows where they are, but so much depended on timing.
He jumps over the side of the building, taking just enough time to grab his quiver full of arrows and his bow. The fall takes less than a second, and the impact is enough to make him curse his bones. But no time to waste. He can be sore and broken later—right now, he has a job to do.
He tucks the bow around to his back and pulls a handful of arrows from the quiver. The first mark is less than two feet away, and the archer stabs him in the stomach with an arrow, not waiting to witness the result. He moves through the crowd like a ghost, dodging some people and impaling others. He jumps on top of a passing taxi, and brings his bow back around. His hands are a blur as he fires into the crowd.
When he has successfully hit everyone he was supposed to, he makes his way back to his car, sprinting, in hopes that he will be able to lose the fat man.
When he arrives, he realizes his hopes were in vain. The fat man is leaning on the Porsche, smoking his pipe. “Impressive job. I really didn’t think you were gonna be able to pull that off. And that jump? Hell, I’ve made some pretty impressive jumps in my time, but I never could’a pulled that one off.”
“You’re lying. I learned how to do that by watching tapes of you. Time to pay up.”
“How about if we raise the stakes a bit? I mean, I’m sure those suits don’t pay for themselves, right?”
And so the night goes, the fat man proposing outlandish bets, the archer accepting and winning them. Finally, it is midnight.
“I’m going to grab a coffee before I call it a day,” the archer says. “You’re welcome to join me.”
The fat man checks his watch. “Why not?”
The Porsche pulls into a parking space just as another car pulls away. “You arrange that?” The fat man asks.
The archer shrugs, and steps out of the car.
“I didn’t know you could do stuff like that.”
“It’s not that I do it. It’s that I know what’s going to happen. Kind of have to, this line of business.” He pushes the door open and holds it for the fat man. They order their coffee and sit down. The fat man notices the couple sitting a few tables away, and lifts his chin in their direction.
The archer glances over, unsurprised at what he sees. It’s the coffee clerk, and his new love. “They’ll be happy together,” he tells the fat man. “A few years down the road, they’ll have to fight their way through some stuff, but they’ll get it worked out.”
“Everyone you tag ends up happily ever after?”
The archer takes a drink of his coffee, and shakes his head sadly. “Nope. Not even close, these days. People don’t want to work on it. They’re junkies, man. They want that initial spark, but they don’t want to work at keeping the fire stoked. Hollywood has ruined it for everyone, making people think that if it isn’t magical each and every day, it’s not true love. Everyone’s so materialistic these days. Hell, when I first started this, a handwritten note and some flowers picked from a random field would be enough to keep people trying for years. These days, what do you have? Diamonds, cars, hundred-dollar chocolates. And if you can’t do that, if you can’t spend the money, it must mean that your partner doesn’t love you as much as your neighbor’s does. It’s ridiculous.”
The fat man laughs. “Listen to you: ‘back in my day, kids knew what it meant to love.’ You sound older than I look.”
“Yeah, let’s talk again in December, when you’re questioning where a kid gets off asking for a five-hundred dollar game console.”
The fat man sighs. “Yeah, you’ve got a point.” He glances over at the barista and his new girlfriend. “But it’ll work out for them?”
“What about the triplets?”
“One couple will. The oldest. The middle, that guy’ll get plowed down by a truck this spring. The youngest, they just don’t have the character to try to work things out. They’ll call it quits in a couple years.”
“Damn. That ever bother you, knowing how it’ll end?”
“Nah. Comes with the territory. Besides, I usually pick winners. I mean, you think I pick the barista because he pissed me off-”
“You admitted it.”
“I did. But him and his girl are going to be together a lot longer than the two sets of triplets you picked who—although they’d look great in a romantic comedy—won’t last.”
“You say you usually pick winners. So why are so many people always getting heart-broken?”
The archer scoffs. “Most of the time, that’s not heart-break. Not true heartbreak, anyway. What that is, is lies and self-deception. You can tell yourself you’re in love with anyone, if you want to be in love with them bad enough. And when you lose them, you can convince yourself that it’s heartbreak. But that’s like saying Diet Dr. Pepper is the same as regular Dr. Pepper. Sure, it’s sweet, and you might really enjoy it. But it isn’t the same.”
The fat man laughs again. “One more question before I go? If you don’t mind.”
The archer looks down into his cup. “I have a couple more drinks left—knock yourself out.”
“You only pick people who piss you off. Why is that? You’re spreading love, my friend. The greatest gift of all. Why give it only to people who anger or irritate you?”
It’s the archer’s turn to laugh. “You’re in love, aren’t you big guy?”
“You know I am.”
“It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?”
“It is. One of the most beautiful things in all of creation.”
“Well…I wouldn’t go so far as to say easy.”
“Be honest—remember who you’re talking to. Every time you want to do something, you must consider not only your own feelings, but hers. Every decision you make, you make it for the both of you. Every thought you have, she is involved. Whether you know it or not, you’re not even your own person any longer. She is a part of you just as you are a part of her. And as great as it is, it’s terribly unnatural. It wreaks havoc on our minds and on our souls, and if it didn’t feel so amazing, it would be considered the most devious curse.
“Love is a wild beast, my friend. While it may be majestic, it is also dangerous, and it doesn’t settle itself with simply hurting. When it turns on you, it is hateful and destructive, and leaves you a shell of your former self.”
The fat man stares down into his coffee. When he looks up, he asks, “So what did I do to piss you off?”
The archer laughs. “No, old friend, I wouldn’t have ever done that to you. Your love has been around since before I existed. You have no one to blame but yourself.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“Some advice, though.”
“You don’t get your wife workout DVDs for Valentines. Throw that stuff out on the way home, get her some perfume, some chocolates, and some flowers. Sometimes cliché is the best way to go.”
“But she has been saying she wanted to get in sha-”
“Doesn’t matter. Trust me.”
The fat man nods his head. He stands from the table. “I guess I should be going. Thank you for your…insight.”
“Any time—it was nice having you along, despite the problems you cause. By the way—what will you be telling the council?”
The fat man looks surprised, then guilty. “So you knew?”
“Then why don’t you know what I’ll tell the council?”
“I can’t see what goes on behind their doors. You know that.”
“I will tell the council that although you do wield an incredible amount of power and knowledge, I think it’s okay. I will tell them that there is no one else in the world I would trust with it more.”
The archer smiles and nods. “Thank you.”
The fat man nods back, and walks to the door. “So perfume, eh?”
“It’ll drive her wild.”
The fat man blushes. He leaves the coffee shop and walks around the corner, where his sleigh awaits. The reindeer look restless—they don’t usually get out this time of the year, and don’t want to spend the occasion sitting by the curb. Pedestrians pass them without noticing, and cars give the sled a wide berth.
He climbs into the sleigh and throws the bag of exercise DVDs out onto the sidewalk. He clears his throat and shouts, “Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen!”
The archer finishes his coffee and leaves the coffee shop. As he opens the door, he bumps into a passing man.
“Hey, asshole, why’owncha watch where you’re goin’!”
He put in a full day, and really just wants to get home. He almost lets it slide. But he can’t be getting soft. He reaches into his car and removes his bow and a single arrow. He hits the walker in the ass, and the man hops around a bit before reaching down to a non-existent wound.
When he looks up, he locks eyes with a passing woman. He shakes his head, as if trying to clear his mind, and then turns to follow her. He catches up to her by the end of the block, and reaches for her arm.
“Get away from me, creep!” She cries, and pulls out her pepper spray.
“But I…I love you.”
She’s a celebrity—usually stars in those romantic comedies, ironically. The guy works in a warehouse, stacking crates of hot dogs. It’ll never work out. Hell, the guy’ll be lucky if he ever even sees her in person again.
And the woman is already in love with someone else.
The archer smirks, and climbs into his car.