Leon felt a smidgen empathetic for the woman he was assigned to kill today. How the hell an antiquities dealer living in the remote fishing settlement of Glenn’s Landing could be a target was completely beyond him. However, he couldn’t be sympathetic. Not now, at least. Becoming a hired gun came with responsibilities, and one of them was to get the job done and not let cumbersome emotions cloud the path between the tip of his silencer and the forehead of his target.

His fellow associates had a clever phrase for it: No emotion, no commotion.

Stopping at the recently wiped-down window of a bait shop by the wharf, Leon inspected his ensemble in the reflection. Not one for a common fedora like the rest of his new “family”, he casually combed back a few stubborn strands of auburn hair with his fingertips, perfecting his slicked-back cut. He then lowered his gaze past thin eyebrows, bright green eyes, a slightly pointed nose and goatee-adorned lips. He looked slightly worn for thirty-six, his face aged from stress and perhaps a tequila too many.

Leon fumbled around inside the coat, ensuring his nine-millimetre pistol was secure and holstered, and that the silencer wasn’t forgotten at home on his nightstand like for the last job he performed. It was unlikely that he’d ever forget having to improvise and cleave the target’s head open with a fire axe while they slept. Not exactly the cleanest method, he remembered, but there were no repercussions — the paper was legit and the spending even more so. He smiled at the memory of Marie’s overjoyed face when he waved that fat wad of cash in her face and took the kids out for dinner.

Realizing that he was wasting time, Leon left memory lane and continued up the still, ramshackle street. He could hear the wind from the North Atlantic skipping across the rooftops. After weaving through burly fishermen and gangly ne’er-do-wells, he found his destination — a long, lonely alley tucked between a boarded-up warehouse and a rather quiet diner. still as nearly everything else in this seaside hovel. The area looked run-down and uncared for. The alley could easily be used to cut between streets, yet nobody bordering either end seemed to notice or care that it even existed — it was like a whole different world to them. Heading down the alley, Leon happened upon a two-story antique shop that was so timeworn and forsaken that he was surprised it hadn’t collapsed since the last time he saw it when planning the hit. He figured it was set up in such a strange spot for protection against the bipolar weather that appeared to torture this part of the coast for most of the year.

The place was essentially a section of blackened wood on one side of the alley. It was peppered with a few filthy, yellowing windows and a matching door. As Leon turned the rusty knob and the door creaked open, a brass bell clanged loudly above, ushering him into an abyss of mystery and intrigue. Another world within another world.

Before him stood a long, dimly lit cavern of towering piles of miscellanea. There were mountains of old, worn furniture, several knick-knacks and oddities, and skyscrapers of tattered, old books that touched the blackened wooden ceiling. The piles of antiques were split into three aisles, with Leon meandering down the centre one. Pistol drawn, he maneuvered down the cramped aisle slowly, dust crunching under his feet. It was eerily quiet and foul-smelling. More nervous with each step, he made use of a little self-discipline.

Stop being a pussy. Do this, go home and pay the damn bills with it… unless you want Marie and the kids to starve.

Suddenly, a woman’s voice called out from the back of the shop, echoing through the void of ancient goods.

“You can look, but you can’t touch,” Her rough, cigarette-laced voice echoed through the teetering forest of antiquities.

Maybe she expected me.

Raising his aim a little higher, he continued down the aisle to the back of the store, arriving at an old mahogany desk. Behind it stood a tall, slender woman with greying black hair. She had her back turned, but he could make out that she was speedily rifling through an old box of papers on a table at the back of the store.

“Well, what do you want? I have other things to do,” The woman hoarsely snapped without turning to see who had arrived.

Leon cocked his pistol, poised to shoot, which caused her to whirl around in fright.

“You Viola, the owner?” He asked roughly. A bit of concern showed itself in the woman’s slightly wrinkled face. She had a pair of steel-rimmed glasses and inquisitive blue eyes. She looked like a librarian or teacher with a smoking problem but appeared too nervous to speak.

“Did I stutter? Or do I need to make you a new mouth-hole?” Leon spat.

“Yes… I mean, that’s me. Look, if it’s about the box I already told you — ”

“I don’t give the slightest damn about that box of scribbled papers you were just rifling through. Do I seem interested in writing a letter?” Leon interjected, moving to the left side of the desk and directing the aim of his pistol at Viola’s forehead.

She winced, but not quite enough for this to be her first rodeo, he thought.

“Wait. Please, just wait for a damn minute,” She quickly pleaded back. “That’s not what I meant. I know what your bosses want, and I do want to give it to them. But I can’t. That’s why they’ve sent you, I’m guessing. But if you’ll just look at what I’ve hidden, you’ll understand better. I know it’s strange, but just do it… For both our sakes,” She finished, pointing at the box of papers on the back table.

Despite wanting to simply perform the job as intended, Leon could sense a great deal of honesty in Viola’s eyes, as if she truly meant every word that had left her lips. He hesitated to trust her for a moment, jamming the gun barrel into her temple aggressively. Then, noticing that the look in her eyes hadn’t changed, he paused and gently pulled away.

“Stay right where you are, and shut your mouth,” He quipped, maneuvering around to the back table, his aim fixed firmly between Viola’s eyes. Arriving at the box of shuffled paperwork, he dug his free hand in, still aiming. Feeling something small, square and heavy, he fished it out. In his hand was an old-looking wooden box, engraved with elaborate swirling designs and several odd symbols that appeared to belong to another language.

The box had a thick iron lock, and it was firmly sealed shut. It seemed that nobody had opened it, as he could feel something heavy thumping and rolling around inside.

“Open it,” He harped, tossing the box to Viola, who shot out in desperation to catch it before it hit the floor. Grabbing it awkwardly as the weight in the box shifted from one side to another, she looked petrified once again.

“I can’t. That’s the problem. Look, just let me explain the whole thing, and then make up your mind about what you’ll do with me after. Clearly, I’m not going anywhere,” She responded. Frustrated with the time this was taking, Leon could still feel that she was being careful and honest with her words.

Fine. You have thirty seconds,” He shot back, yet aiming a bit lower. Maybe it wouldn’t be necessary to kill her. Probably would be paid more for the box anyway.

“Another man working with your… organization… came in three days ago, asking about this damn box. I pay each month for protection, but it wasn’t enough I suppose — but that’s not the issue, I swear,” She said, detecting a hint of displeasure on Leon’s face. “Anyway, he came in, demanding the box, saying that it’s vital to the organization’s cause. He was even willing to lower my protection payments, but it never came with a key to open it. He must have thought I was bluffing, but honestly, I have no clue where the thing came from,” She explained.

“And then I showed up this morning because they wanted you rubbed out. Are you being honest with me, though? Because believe me, I’m the last person you want to lie to,” Leon replied, albeit with a more understanding tone.

“Yes. I swear. I don’t want it, but nobody will take it without the key,” Viola responded. Suddenly, the sounds of heavy footsteps emanated from the shop entrance. A man was halfway up the long centre aisle. He wore a black fedora, which partially hid his rugged features in the dim lighting. He was dressed in a dark grey trench coat, which matched Leon’s identically. The man stopped near the end of the aisle, aiming directly for Viola with a nine-millimetre silenced pistol.

“Martin, she’s mine. I’m taking care of it,” Leon called out.

“Oh, really?” Martin spoke in a gravelly voice. “Because it looks to me like you’re having a fucking tea party. I don’t see a hole in her head or the box in your hand. Do enlighten me… maybe I missed something?”

Leon moved closer to Viola. Suddenly, he felt her step on his foot to get his attention. Glancing at her sideways, he noticed Viola directing her eyes towards a teetering tower of heavy books, perched precariously near Martin. Leon noticed a thick rope tied around a small bundle of books in the pile, which was fed under a gap at the bottom of the mahogany desk, out of view.

You clever bitch.

“We figured you were too spineless to do it, so the guys up top figured I should join your little sewing circle here,” Martin continued. “Plus, I can collect this lying bitch’s payment for the month as well as the key. A fee for my services — our little secret, of course.”

He winked at Viola, inching forward.

Without skipping a beat, Viola pretended to have a nervous breakdown and cry — it was just the sort of act that Leon was used to, but too cleverly dramatized for Martin to catch. It was excellent acting — Leon’s children would have been proud.

Alright, alright! Please, there’s no problem. Just let me get the money out of the safe,” Viola said, pretending to hold back alligator tears. She turned and handed Leon the box, sneaking a wink at him. He watched Viola as she disappeared behind a stack of clutter to get a strong grip on the rope.

“What the fuck is taking so long? Hand over the cash, and the box. Move it!” Martin boomed hoarsely. Leon glanced up at him.

“Relax. She’s gonna give you everything. No strings attached,” He replied, looking back over at Viola.“Give him everything you’ve got.”

She smirked, yanking on the rope with all of her strength.

It worked. The pillar of heavy books cantilevered over the central aisle of the shop. Martin had barely time to register what was happening as he was trapped under the immense weight of hundreds of law books and reference texts. He began firing shots blindly throughout the shop, hurling expletives alongside each round.

“You bastards!” He roared at them through shelves of mismatched chairs and porcelain kittens. Leon and Viola darted around to a side aisle, plumes of dust exploding through stacks of books and antiques as Martin unloaded clip after clip. Suddenly, the vibrations created by the cascading books had caused a domino effect. The entire inventory was rumbling to life. Leon and Viola bolted towards the front of the store as fast as they could, dodging shards of glass and jagged chunks of heavy debris as they went. Unable to break free from the pile of books, Martin continued to fire from where he remained. Upon reaching the entrance, they heard his screams of frantic dismay. Following Viola out the door, Leon glanced back to see the heavy antiques brutalizing, burying and crushing Martin to an agonizing death.

Arriving back in the alley, they took a moment to stop for a breather behind a few long-neglected trashcans. Leon plopped down and rested against one of them, completely uncaring of the rancid smell it emanated. Leaning against a brick wall, Viola ran her fingers through her long, dark hair and closed her eyes, short of breath.

“Wasn’t expecting that,” She panted. “I don’t know who you are, but still… thanks, nonetheless.” Opening her eyes again, she peered around. Silence. It was as if nary a soul in this dead-end fishing town even noticed the struggle that had unfolded within the dark, lonely alley. Typical.

“Just don’t open another goddamn antique shop. Please,” Leon muttered, rubbing his shoulder where a stack of encyclopedias had smacked into him on the way out.

“No, no. I’ve got other plans,” Violet laughed halfheartedly, giving the same smirk as when she pulled the rope back in the shop. Leon closed his eyes, relieved. There had to be a better way of feeding Marie and the children, he thought.

This has to stop sometime.

Gotta settle down and clear away the bullshit.

Suddenly, there was a sharp, searing pain through his stomach, unlike anything he had ever felt before.

Unable to even scream due to the intensity of the agony, Leon looked up to see Viola tossing an old, incredibly sharp silver steak knife into the trashcan he was propped up against. She calmly lowered herself to his eye level, peering down to watch blood pooling beneath him at an alarming rate. Still smirking, she adjusted her glasses delicately, leaving a bloody fingerprint smeared on one lens and placing a hand on Leon’s knee.

“Did you really think I was gonna give any of you mob bastards the box? You’ve been in this game too long,” She whispered, a hint of maniacal greed resonating in her smoky voice.

Leon tried to speak, but could only cough up blood. It tasted of death. Her smirk became a Cheshire cat that he wanted to mercilessly beat into oblivion, but his strength was fading quickly.

“Thanks for getting me a ticket out of here, though,” Violet pandered on. “You made it look as if I was crushed to death in my own shitty little shop — the perfect cover-up. By the time they find out that I’m not the one compressed into the floorboards, I’ll be on the next ship out of the country,” She cooed, reaching into several pockets of Leon’s coat. He pushed with all of his remaining strength, but she calmly placed his arms back at their sides as if he were made of feathers, emerging with his wallet. “Oh, calm yourself. I’ll let you keep the picture of your family.”

Eyeing the bills lining his wallet, she laughed for real this time.

“I think I’ll travel first classLovely surprise, come to think of it.”

All Leon could do was struggle to move and stare hopelessly at Viola as she rose to stand, looking down pitifully at the bloodied, helpless mess he had become. He began to wonder if he really was as pathetic as she implied.

“Of course, I had the perfect reason for using you,” She continued.

From her pocket, Violet then revealed an ornate, engraved iron key. She noticed the surprise and white-hot fury etched on Leon’s face.

“Oh, did you really believe that I was so clueless as to not have a key to something this important? The world will be better off without someone as simple as you. I’ve been searching for this little treasure for years. Speaking of which, I’ll just be taking that off your hands now.”

She then pried the box from Leon’s weakening grasp without much difficulty. He felt absolutely useless, slumping to the right and nearly laying on the ground.

“Wouldn’t want to forget the most important piece of the puzzle, right?” She spoke sweetly, rising to her blood-spattered feet.

Leon could feel there were only a few precious moments of life left for him, as he felt consciousness begin to slip away. Viola looked down at him and smiled with sickening warmth. She then inserted the key into the box, savouring every moment of his suffering. There was a heavy click, and as she opened the box at last, Viola turned away.

“Thanks again,” She cooed, walking away from him towards the far end of the alley and out into the crowd that continued to bustle past without a single glance. Leon watched her elegantly sweep around the corner as all feeling left him.

Thinking of Marie and his children, tears ran down his face as the world around him faded to white.

The hunter had become the hunted.