Death by Inches

Jack was sitting at his coffee table stripping down his double-action revolver. Gin was lounging on his couch behind him, a tablet in her hands and a leg flopped over an armrest. Apart from the blank TV set into the front wall and a small nightstand next to the door, the apartment was barren.

Gin glanced down from her screen. “Why do you carry that old thing?” She asked. “Do they even make guns like that anymore?”

“No and that’s why I carry it. New firearms are all electronic. This can’t be stopped by an EMP.” He detached the cylinder and set it aside, picked up a small brush, and started cleaning out the gun barrel.

“Seems like a lot of work.”

“It’s worth the effort.” He glanced back at her. “It must be hard to understand for someone who can steal millions with a few keystrokes.”

“Shut up.” She put her bare feet on his back and gave him a shove. “You know I spend weeks on my cracks. Plus I have to analyze markets, keep up with security, all kinds of stuff. And that money is keeping you in business too, you know.”

“I know.” Jack set the gun down and returned to the cylinder. The whisk of the stiff brush on metal filled the room.

Gin made a face and pushed on his back harder, but he didn’t react to that either. “Jerk.” She returned to her screen. He never seemed to react to anything she did to him or anything at all for that matter. If she hadn’t known his history, she’d have thought he was an android. Even his voice was monotone. But Gin knew firsthand what he was capable of.

“Do you ever think what you’re doing is wrong?” he asked suddenly.

“Huh? What kind of question is that?”

“Do you ever feel guilty?”

“Said the assassin to the thief. Are you serious?”

“Yes.”

Gin made a noise that was as much groan as sigh. “No, I don’t, at least not really. I only hit the same kind of shitheads you do, the ones who have no qualms destroying other peoples’ lives for a bigger bottom line.”

“So it’s justice?”

“More like revenge, but that’s more your thing. C’mon, what’s this really about?”

“I was thinking about something a man asked me years ago. He said, ‘Is it better to let someone suffer a large pain a short time or a small pain a long time?’ I decided the former was better.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s over quickly. You don’t have to focus on the pain.” Jack had taken apart the gun’s inner workings and was now oiling the parts.

“So, what, you’re saying robbing them blind is the same as killing them by inches?”

“It could be. Without their fortunes they lose their house, possessions, status, everything. How many of your marks have been driven to drugs or suicide because they couldn’t handle it?”

“The hell? You fucking kill people! How is that any different from some guy killing himself? At least he made the choice to do it.”

“You can’t push aside your will to live on a whim. There is no stronger instinct. It has to be worn down piece by piece until there’s nothing left.”

“And you think killing someone just takes it away? What about their family? They’ll suffer in his place. Or do you think they’re going to go on about their business like nothing happened? ”

“This isn’t about family, it’s about the individual, and robbing someone of their livelihood would damage their family just as much as killing them.”

“Not fucking likely. Friends and family could step in while the guy recovered. They could become the reason he doesn’t end up killing himself. It’s not like suicide is some inevitable outcome. Maybe they see the light and become a better person, I don’t know.”

“But it remains a choice. People who devote their lives to money have conditioned themselves to notice little else. It’s just as likely any attempts by friends or family to console the target will be ignored. Collateral damage is unavoidable.”

“I suppose your wife and daughter were just collateral then.”

Jack stiffened. He set his gun down with a clink that sounded more like the hammer of a gavel in the silence of the room. Gin backed away from him.

She said, “Hey, look, I’m sorry. That was out of bounds.”

“You’re wrong.”

“Jack–”

He cut her off, his voice suddenly hoarse. “You’re wrong. They didn’t die for money and they weren’t the collateral damage. I was.”

“You were…?” Gin put a hand to her mouth. “This isn’t about me at all, is it?”

“That’s irrelevant.”

“It’s not irrelevant!” She put her hand on his shoulder. He was trembling. “Jack, you can’t keep beating yourself up like this. It’s not your fault. You had no way of knowing–”

He shrugged her off and bowed his head. After a moment, he took a deep breath and then started reassembling his handgun again. In his usual monotone he said, “You should go.”

“Jack–”

“Please leave.”

She started to reach for him again, stopped, and then stood. When she got to the door, Gin turned to him and said, “You don’t have to do it alone. We’re partners, friends. Don’t forget that, okay? If you want me, just call.”

He didn’t respond. Gin opened the door and left.

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