John came to the conclusion that every person he got to know was not worth killing. The corollary being that strangers were expendable. The paradox was that John had to get to know someone in order to know if they were worth killing. He hadn’t met anyone deserving the hollow points in his illegal thirty-eight, but like any decent skeptic John kept his hopes up.
The thirty-eight caliber revolver rested on his hip in a tactical holster made for concealed carrying. John bought the revolver at a gun shop with a shooting gallery where he tried out ten guns. He liked the thirty-eight best for its compact size and reliability. It was also the only gun he hit the target with and fortunately the law said nothing about accuracy requirements for purchasing firearms. John only had to demonstrate safety and respect for the weapon and pass a background check that seemed less intrusive than the one conducted for his minimum wage job. He also had to show proof of California residency, which he did using an old utility bill he grabbed from his recycling bin. John was able to take home his brand new revolver registered in his name after ten days.
John had to erase his identity from the gun. John would have to get rid of the gun without any way to trace it back to him. A Google search told him exactly where to look on his gun’s make and model.
The serial number on the barrel he wore away with muriatic acid from the hardware store he worked at, one of those big box stores that are either blue or orange. The store sold the acid to clean cement stains and smooth out metal. John was given a raise for discovering a leak in one of the acid barrels. He neglected to inform the store manager that he had made the leak with a defective screwdriver and hammer. He used eye protection, industrial rubber gloves, and a returned respirator to protect himself while he filled a glass tube made for testing pool water with the acid. At home, John used the tube’s rubber cap to spread the acid in a thin film over the serial number. He repeated the acid stripping on the inside of the handle after removing the grips where a second serial number was etched into the metal curve of the handle. The last thing John did was shred his firearm license and buy his concealing holster off Amazon.
For a week, John clipped the holster to his belt and left the gun at home. He got used to the feel of wearing the holster and moving with it. No one was the wiser on the subway or at work. John was too scared to carry the gun right away. He practiced with the gun in the holster while in his apartment. The first day he wore the gun concealed in public he didn’t even know it. It had become a part of his body.
During that first week and into the second John watched people. He eavesdropped. He talked to his friends about the troubles they were having and overheard their complaints. He formed a mental list of possible victims ranging from the homeless to celebrities. People complained about other people all of the time, even wished total strangers to die for stupid reasons. Towards the end of the last week, John thought he had found a person who needed to be killed. She had cheated on a coworker of his and he found this out by overhearing the boyfriend’s enraged tirade against his now ex-girlfriend.
For three days John stalked the young woman. She was pretty in a bouncy, spritely way. Her new beau was equally attractive. Seeing them together was like watching unicorns romp around east L.A. They brunched Downtown at Eggslut. They fell asleep to Netflix in her apartment. She embraced him outside his place getting on her tippy toes to wrap her skinny arms around his thick neck. John was weak at the knees watching them in love. John could not kill this woman or her new boyfriend. Their existence was not harming anyone. Even if their love was ruining the world, John was hit with the sudden agony of having to decide what his rules were for murder. The responsibility gave the gun at his side an ice cold aura. John didn’t realize that the natural world would not provide him with a clear agenda. John decided to focus on harm and actions that deprived people of their own rights and freedoms.
For the next three days John stalked the coworker who had wished his ex-girlfriend was dead.
The young man was a mess. When he wasn’t partying with his friends he was failing at picking up women. When he was alone he screamed at his Xbox and drank alone. He cried himself to sleep most nights. He came into work sloppy and stinking of Simpler Times. When the coworker was fired, John girded his loins and loaded his revolver. He’d put the sad boy out of his misery. John waited outside the coworker’s apartment and as he waited he realized the coworker was pathetic, but did not deserve to die. His existence, while less thrilling and more selfish than his ex-girlfriend’s, still was not a burden on anyone.
John spotted a homeless man trucking a shopping cart full of recyclables. John followed at a distance. He got closer. The other two would-be victims he had gotten to know from a distance. Maybe he had to get personal to really know if someone needed to be murdered. John jogged to the homeless man, who eyed him with intense suspicion.
“What’s up?” John blurted with what he hoped was a friendly smile.
“Qué?” The man responded and stopped beside an overflowing trashcan. He placed the trashcan between himself and John while he spilled the contents looking for glass and plastic. John looked at the trash toppling over the sidewalk. The noise of bottles clinking and clacking and plastic popping made John angry. Not only was this man littering, but the noise was sure to wake people up. John cooled his gun hand and his flaring temper because these misdemeanors were not worthy of capital punishment. John asked himself why a person would hunt for recycling. Pushing the heavy cart loaded with garbage was not an easy life. The man was trying to make ends meet in a city that ended people daily. The man’s existence was annoying, but no threat to anyone. Even if the man was buying drugs and sleeping in cardboard he didn’t deserve to be shot like a rapist or murderer.
John helped the man load garbage bags with glass bottles and plastic containers for the rest of the night. They didn’t speak. John wanted to see more of this man’s life just to be sure he could not kill him. John wondered if some non-violent offenders deserved to die, but he had no basis to go on. He was making up the rules as he researched.
At daybreak, both of them were filthy from pilfering California Redemption Values. The homeless man was like a dung beetle or other scavenging insects who dispose of the waste of larger animals. They took the grocery cart to the Ralph’s on La Brea where a recycling center was located out back. There, John saw men and women in a line with loads of recycling just like theirs. The stench of whatever was left to curdle and vaporize in the recycled containers combined with the sour sweat and grime of a crowd of people digging for glass and plastic under the sun exercised John’s gag reflex. No one else noticed the smell. After helping sort plastic, paper, and glass the homeless man was paid seventy-five bucks for the trash.
“Now what?” John asked the man. The man looked at the cash in his hand with a sheepish smile. John held up his hands in refusal.
“Gracias, amigo.” The man folded the money and placed it into a worn bi-fold. John caught a glimpse of family photos. Two school portraits of girls and one wedding photo. The girls, the man’s kids, were new photos, the wedding photo was no older than 1999. This was how the man supported his family. The thirty-eight felt heavy on John’s side. He waved goodbye and scanned the crowd for someone who could lighten his pay load of hollow points. Even if these people weren’t supporting a meager income and family they were doing no harm. John walked away.
There were people who needed to die. To say that everyone had worth was a lie just like saying everyone had to go was a lie. The scales of nature were not prejudiced. John wished the scales of social justice were as neutral. John looked at the few pedestrians on the sidewalks, he scanned drivers stopped at intersections stiff with impatience in their cars. The odds of him stumbling on a person committing a violent crime were slim. He knew he wouldn’t stumble on such an event any time soon. John also hoped he wouldn’t because he didn’t know that even witnessing violence was enough to pass judgement on someone he did not know.
John also did not have access to any warlords or dictators. No way to plug a member of such-and-such terrorist cell. He had to find a normal, everyday person who’s existence was more burden than boon. This was an enormous undertaking. The media made him believe that anyone he met would meet the criteria he was searching for in murder. But that was why he started in the first place. Proving his theory one way or the other would allow John to see the real world as it was, not as it was veiled by pop-culture and labels. Speaking of which, there was no way John could stick his gun in the face of the latest sycophantic socialite and scatter his or her brains over some red carpet somewhere. Celebrity was just as poisonous as terrorism because it pacified people into living their dreams vicariously.
And on that note, John didn’t even want to think about religion.
John had to settle for normal, everyday people for a few reasons. One, he didn’t have the networking skills to get close to celebrities/politicians/clergy. Two, even if he had the social clout to climb the classist ladders he wouldn’t because John wanted to get away with murder. Three, proving even just one average person was worth killing or saving would speak more for humanity as a whole than chasing down someone who wasn’t anonymous. While he hadn’t found anyone worth killing he also hadn’t found anyone worth saving.
The next day, John called out of work. He took apart the thirty-eight by watching instructive Youtube videos. He cleaned it, then put it all back together. He even wiped the shells down so his fingerprints could not be taken from the spent casings. He wrapped friction tape around the handle, hammer, and hair trigger for two reasons. One, he wanted a sure grip, and two, he didn’t want to leave his prints on the gun or waste time rubbing them off when he needed to drop it and run.
John realized he was taking all of these precautions for when he killed someone, but he suspected he wouldn’t find that special someone. He wouldn’t find that someone because no one deserved to die once you knew them beyond social labels and personal judgements. John strapped the thirty-eight to his side out of habit.
At work the next day, John readjusted the pool chemical shelves. Between hammering shelves out and back into place with a rubber mallet he watched customers and coworkers. John felt ashamed that he believed he was justified in dealing out capital punishment. Experiencing a few moments in another person’s shoes was enough to stay his hand. What was most frustrating was he still believed there were people who did not deserve to live. Then the obvious hit him as he watched a high school kid lift a bottle of soda from a refrigerator and stuff it down his pants. John had to reverse his theory. He had to get to know someone after the stranger committed a crime.
John followed the teen through Home & Garden into Hardware. Here, the kid swiped a utility knife, slipping it from the shelf and into his sock. John snuck up behind him and pretended to face a shelf of drywall screws. He cleared his throat and the kid tensed up with a slow look over his shoulder. John made eye contact.
“Can I help you?” The teen shook his head and walked on towards the exit. John followed. The teenager was getting nervous and the soda sloshed inside his pants, the knife bounced inside his sock. John picked up the pace and stomped behind the teen. The kid broke into a sprint and went exactly where John needed him to go, out the emergency exit.
The exit lead to the back lot where no one was this time of day. Even with the fire alarm going off from the teen rushing through the door, John knew they would have some time alone. Enough time for murder. John drew the thirty-eight.
“Stop!” The teen looked over his shoulder with confidence until he saw John catching up to him with the gun leading his line of sight. The teen whirled around, hands up. John slapped a hand over the teen’s mouth before he could scream.
“Here!” The teen said and kicked loose the utility knife from his sock. He stuffed his hands down his pants to get the soda, but he got his hands trapped down there. The teen shook from raw nerves that were used to video games, weed, and porn. John thought the kid was going to have a heart attack.
“Why?” John said and cracked the hammer back. It was a satisfying sound and the hair trigger jolting behind his trigger finger was charged with sexual tension.
“I don’t know! Just let me go!” The teen shook so bad that his teeth chattered. John had to make his decision now. The teen wasn’t going to say anything intelligent and security would be on the way any second. It was a school day. The teen had skipped to spend his day shoplifting items he could either buy without a second thought or never use in his shallow life. John’s theory was based on harm to others. He didn’t care what people did to themselves, or to corporations for that matter. And he also wondered about Law itself. Some things were legal and others not. Odds of this teenager doing something good for humanity were slim, but John was conflicted because he didn’t know if he had the authority to judge an unknown future.
The soda in the kid’s pants burst from his nervous quaking. Bright orange carbonation exploded between his hands and doused both his shirt and skinny pants.
John relaxed the hammer and holstered his thirty-eight.
John let the teen scamper away, too fast for two security guards and the store manager when they crashed through the emergency exit. John leaned against the cold cement wall and pretended to be out of breath. John pointed at the utility knife that was still in its packaging on the ground.
“Fucking kids.” The store manager said, scooping up the knife. “His parents should consider a post-natal abortion.” They all went back inside. One hour later John finished reorganizing the pool chemicals and clocked out for lunch. The store manager called him to his office over the public address system. John was followed by a cop and, upon entering the manager’s office, a second officer grabbed John by the neck and flung him over the manager’s desk. The cop frisked him and found the thirty-eight.
“Jesus. That kid saved us all!” The cop exclaimed and turned to his partner in disbelief. He held the thirty-eight between thumb and forefinger. He took the store manager’s paper lunch bag, dumped the lunch inside, and dropped the gun into he bag. He held it at arm’s length to his partner. They both regarded the bag like it was a stool sample. You take it! No, you keep it! The second cop set it on the desk.
“I’m gonna give his parents some store credit, their kid’s a hero!” The manager said and tried to get out of his office. The first cop stopped him. He needed an official statement and John’s employee records. The manager gulped and got to work with the first cop, the second officer grabbed his cuffs and tightened them around John wrists. He lifted John up and pressed him into the wall. John heard his Miranda Rights from far away. If only I told the kid what was going on! John thought, If he knew me this wouldn’t be happening!
“Listen.” John said.
“Shut the fuck up.” The cop told John.
“It’s not how it looks.” John tried to turn around and look the cop in the eyes. The cop smacked the back of John’s head and his face bounced off the wall.
“Shut the fuck up and stay still.” The cop growled in John’s ear. When the first officer got John’s employee folder they took him in handcuffs on to the sales floor. The store manager lead the way like he was a four-star general with Hitler in-tow. The cashiers stalled on customer transactions. Customers gawked. John looked around for someone who knew him, but of course no one did. He opened his mouth to speak but the cop prodded John’s spine with his baton.
Outside in the parking lot stood the teenager with his mother and father. A third cop consoled the kid and asked him a question.
“Yes! That’s him! He stuck a gun in my face and dumped the soda on me when I wouldn’t take it!” The kid said and tried to get tears to well up and roll down his bony face. None came and none were needed to get sympathy freely from his parents. The officer who made a show of standing in front of the teenager while John was ushered to a waiting police cruiser. I should’ve shot him, John thought.
The police station was buzzing with rumors that had sprung from the teenager’s testimony. John was charged with attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, conspiracy, planning a terrorist act, molestation of a minor, possession of an illegal firearm, and John blanked out from there. No one gave him a chance to speak. It was as if his fate had been decided once the cuffs wrapped around his wrists. John was willing to pay the price for what he had done now that he was caught, but no one was interested in truth. No one wanted to know his side of the story. What they learned of John they got from his credit score, his employee records, and his laptop computer. They interviewed ex-girlfriends, friends, and his parents. No one was able to say anything to help him out because no one really knew him. The detectives interviewed him once before his arraignment. His court-appointed lawyer talked to him about plea bargains. No one official or unofficial bothered to listen to his own pleas. Life was easier when dealing with the anonymous and John sympathized. His own life had been a breeze when he kept to himself and didn’t try getting to know anyone.
John’s speedy trial shipped him to San Quentin on a twenty-five to life sentence. His possessions were placed in a box and he was given a prison jumpsuit and nondescript shoes to wear. He looked like everyone else. John’s tether to humanity had always been slack, but now he had been cut free.
The other convicts acted like they already knew him, just as the cops, lawyers, and judge had before them. John looked into eyes that no longer contained identity except for what was provided by the Department of Corrections. John’s only hope was to make himself known beyond the label given to him in the pursuit of justice.