The El Cortez Apartments

It wasn’t home. But it was a place to live. He didn’t intend to stay long. He never did. If you’d seen one two-bit town, you’d seen them all. His only aim was to get through the task at hand, and this would prove no different than all the others: ingratiate himself into the routine of day-to-day existence so as to become as invisible–as “background”–as everyone else. Once he was just as anonymous (which was never a feat considering most people’s self-involvement), he would make his move.

He never asked his various employers why they sent him where they did or what, exactly, these people had done to invoke their unknowing death sentence. Though surely, somewhere in the back of his various targets’ minds, they must have been aware. Been at least vaguely cognizant of the risk they had put themselves in by crossing the wrong person. Try as one might to ignore the severity of a situation as a means to “make it go away.” But Mr. Z’s employers could never be evaded, no matter how extensive one’s layer of denial. And no, Mr. Z was not originally intended as some covert code name–it was merely that “Mr. Zefirelli” was not as easily pronounceable, did not quite roll off the tongue. Particularly when the very nature of his profession required the sort of discretion that only brevity can accommodate. And Mr. Z was nothing if not accommodating, especially when it came to new and unique ways to “neutralize” someone. For there could be no link between any of the sudden “disappearances.”

The abrupt erasures of people who had already gone a great length to blot themselves out (usually via the Witness Protection Program, though sometimes through more creative means) would be too suspect if not handled with Mr. Z’s level of care and attention to detail. Which was precisely why his decision to rent a $1,600 a month “efficiency” apartment at the El Cortez was not without its calculatedness. Having done his research, he was able to secure the unit located next to one, Mr. Robert Gunzetti. Gunzetti who had sealed his destiny by choosing to live in a “complex” that, upon further investigation, was easy to ascertain it was rife for a gas leak-related explosion.

Making him even more assured in his decision regarding how Mr. Gunzetti would be leaving this planet, a bit of stakeout reconnaissance confirmed Mr. Gunzetti’s fervor for cooking. Most notably baked ziti and lasagna. Hence, a decidedly bulbous shape. One that momentarily mesmerized Mr. Z until the building he was crouched in’s own bulbous (and flickering) light shattered without explanation. If Mr. Z didn’t know any better, he would say it was a gunshot that did it (a Gunzetti shot?). But that was impossible. He had been meticulous about not being followed, taking every precaution to cloak himself in invisibility (aided by his signature uniform of all-black) as he crawled into the shaftway to sneak into the crumbling edifice across from the perhaps equally crumbling El Cortez. Was he losing his razor-sharp instincts? Getting too decrepit to perceive when someone might detect his sinister presence?

Maybe he ought to just take up residence right here on this floor and pocket some of the “per diem expenses” he was claiming in addition to his normal fee. But no, taking up residence in that other infernal building was the key to his success. To cementing the done deal essence of his profession. A profession he often had too much time to reflect upon during his periods of “repose” amid stalking his prey. If someone were to tell him, when he was something like ten years old, that he was going to be a hitman, he would’ve merely guffawed, told them his plans were to open his own business (something soulless at first, like real estate, but then after enough financial gains, maybe something like an art supplies store). One supposes opening his own business is what he did… in his special way. Just not quite as he had originally envisioned it.

He knew there was always a chance that, in his neighborhood and with his heritage, he might fall in somehow with the wrong crowd. Accidentally owe the wrong guy a favor. Like Benny Bootstrap, the first capo to commission (by way of force) Mr. Z for a hit. And all because he had unknowingly parked in Benny’s tacitly reserved spot at the Chandelier Club, preventing Benny from getting to it, therefore causing him great shame. A shame that would, he vowed, be rectified. Meanwhile, Mr. Z had only gone there for a self-consoling drink after being fired from his job as a server at a nearby restaurant down the road. He supposed he was instantly hired for a new job that very night on account of his fateful faux pas.

So here he was drinking cheap beer from Rodney’s Cigar & Liquor Store. Though Rite Aid, also close, might have had a better selection, he preferred not to be on corporate cameras if and when it could be avoided. He liked walking into the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament along the way. It made him feel, at the very least, repentant. Although he knew, in his line of work, God’s blessing or forgiveness was irrelevant. All that mattered was the capo’s. And this one wanted Mr. Gunzetti dead by sundown of next Friday. Mr. Z couldn’t say why there was a need for such a Jewish flair, but maybe the deadline, when phrased that way, in his mind, lent a more ominous overtone. Whatever the reason behind it, Mr. Z would do what he was told. So he swigged on his subpar beer and bided his time.

Mr. Gunzetti had been rather social these past few days, which could arguably work to Mr. Z’s advantage if he was willing to allow someone else–some innocent party–to expire in the fallout. Someone forced to check out early merely as a result of the sin of knowing Mr. Gunzetti. Tonight, it looked as though it could be a woman, equitably proportioned in girth to Mr. Gunzetti, named Julie. That she walked in wearing what looked like a fuchsia prom dress purchased from the fledgling Macy’s nearby only made Mr. Z experience further guilt for what he was about to do. He couldn’t even say why, finally, it was this particular town or these particular people that made him feel so awful about everything. Not just what he did for a living but the generally sad and uneventful lives of these types.

Arguably the greatest thrill of any of the marks he was hired to kill was the very encounter with a mafioso that would be their undoing. That would tip the scales of premature death in their favor. Mr. Z had crept into the apartment that afternoon to intensify the gas leak that Mr. Gunzetti had already foolishly chosen to ignore. That was the thing about the El Cortez: it smelling like the stench of carbon monoxide was completely normal. He would leave it all to chance now. If Mr. Gunzetti turned the stove on, and the whole place went kabluey, he would continue pursuing this purgatory-like existence. If the place didn’t go up into a blaze, he would find a way to start all over again doing something else.

And as Mr. Gunzetti ignited the stove to heat the pan for a pasta al forno, nothing happened. Mr. Z suddenly felt an incredible relief, a great weight lifted from his shoulders. He grinned as he watched Mr. Gunzetti pour Julie what was surely some disgusting red wine. They had both been spared. Then, in an instant, it all went up in smoke. A pasta al forno all at once replaced with roasted marshmallows.

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