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Words Without Borders "stands as a monument to international collaboration and a shared belief in artistic possibility." — 2018 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize Citation
from the January 2010 issue


Normal people fantasize a lot about our work, which is really pretty routine and not at all like what you see in the movies. Our first jobs are perhaps the most memorable. Contrary to popular belief, those of us who are experienced refuse jobs that are uncomfortable, difficult, or unpleasant. These fall, naturally, to the beginners. You can always find a needy kid who’s willing to strangle an old man for a hundred dollars.

I was just a beginner when I sat down in front of my first client, Mrs. Mercedes de Ulloa. I was nervous. Sure, I’d killed before, but always during armed robberies or gang fights. I had one important advantage getting into the profession: I’d never been caught.

I met the lady at night, in her house. Clients hate to deal with us directly, but in this digital age nothing leaves less of a trace than a face-to-face meeting.  Absolutely no one could see me enter. She’d leave the door open for me so I wouldn’t have to ring the bell.

The house was full of pictures telling the story of a couple. In them, everyone looked happy. Mercedes was in her study, in the shadows, behind a large walnut desk. She looked old, swollen, blotchy, and she smelled bad, but she was recognizably the woman in the pictures. The whole room had a sickly sweet smell to it. I couldn’t believe anyone would pay money to smell like that. She didn’t waste time. She had half the money right there on the desk.

“I want you to kill my husband. Drown him in the bathtub. An eye for an eye.”

I interrupted her. Her motives didn’t matter.

“Okay,” I said. “In the next couple days . . .”

“Right now. There’s the bathroom.”

This woman’s crazy, I thought. And besides . . . killing someone in a bathtub is a dirty, hard job. You grab them by the ankles and lift up as hard as you can. Usually they can’t hold on and their head goes under. It is true that a drowning person kicks like crazy. But the man was old and I was cocky. Without thinking too hard about it, with the money burning a hole in my pocket, I went into the bathroom. In spite of my misgivings, it was a piece of cake.

My clothes were soaked when I came out. The rest of my money was on the desk. I looked everywhere for my client, but she was gone. Maybe she didn’t want to hear the noises coming from the bathroom. 

The old man’s death was easily ruled an accident. Nothing to interest the newspapers. Still, several days later, there was a brief note saying that an old man had had an accident in his bathtub. Alerted by his absence, the neighbors called the police, who found the decaying corpse. The man was a widower and had no children.

No wonder Mrs. Ulloa smelled so bad.

Read more from the January 2010 issue
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