Those assembled in the living room, sitting and drinking their coffee, heard a key in the lock. They looked to the door, and the knob turned. The door opened, and in walked Mick. "Hello, all," he said. "Dear, is there a cup for me? Decaf I hope; we're up too late as it is."

"You delivered the packet, as I asked?" inquired Tarantino.

"Of course."

"You've been gone a bit longer than I expected."

Mick glanced at his watch. "It's only been fifty minutes or so. You said I should be back within an hour, and I am."

Tarantino stood, and Tara followed suit. She walked to stand next to her husband. "I was perhaps being a tad generous in my estimate. The diner's about ten minutes away. Ten minutes there, ten minutes back, granting another ten to get inside, make the delivery, maybe use the facilities.... That's thirty minutes. I'll be extra generous and give you another ten. That makes forty. Did you hit more traffic than is common for this hour?"

"Uh... no, I... I was actually feeling a bit peckish, and I figured as long as I was at the diner, I might as well try one of those sandwiches your friend likes so much."

"Oh? And did you ask him to recommend one for you?"

"Um... no, well, I mean I was thinking of it, but I decided I already know what kinds of sandwiches I like. I just ordered a BLT. Anyway, I didn't want to disturb his meal, or anything."

"I see."

Mick glanced around at Tarantino and his associates. Suddenly he realized someone was missing. Nervously, he asked, "Where's Bart?"

"Oh, a little while after you left, I remembered something else I was meaning to do tonight. I sent him out to take care of it. He should be back soon. Then I will pay you, we can say goodbye, and my associates and I shall leave."

Tara was holding her husband, and looked up at him with a worried expression on her face. He kissed her, then stepped away and again faced Tarantino. "Well, that seems fine." He turned back to Tara. "Honey, about that coffee?" He walked back to the couch and stood for a moment, waiting for the others to sit. They did, and he followed their lead. Tara went into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee for Mick.

Just as she was bringing it in, the door opened again. Bart walked in. Tara froze where she was, halfway to the couch. She, and everyone sitting on the couches, turned to face Bart.

"Well," asked Tarantino, standing, "did you take care of it?"

"I did, boss." He reached into his pocket, pulled out the packet Tarantino had given Mick earlier, and tossed it across the room to his employer.

Mick's gaze followed the packet. When Tarantino tucked it away in his pocket, Mick said, "I don't understand...?"

Tarantino motioned for his other associates to rise. They did so, and one of them moved toward the door. While he leaned back against it, the other associate moved to stand just to Mick's right, after Mick had gotten up himself and backed toward the far wall of the apartment. Bart motioned for Tara to put the cup down. She stepped back into the kitchen and set it on a counter. Then Bart escorted her to stand to her husband's left, right beside him. Tarantino stood to the left of both of them, while Bart stood directly in front of them, on Tarantino's left.

"Mick, Mick, Mick," said Tarantino. "You're a good man. Do you take me for a stupid man?"

"Of course not, Mr. Tarantino."

"Well, it seems pretty obvious to me that you know perfectly well what kind of work I'm in. And good men like yourself don't generally associate with men like me. Do they?"

"Well, I really didn't have much choice. I mean, I need to get out of this town. It's just not a safe place anymore. There was no way I'd ever afford to get out, though. Not the way things are for me. So... you know, I had to compromise a little. I haven't done anything wrong, though. People work for people all the time who they don't fully agree with, people and corporations, and all. People need money, after all. It's an imperfect world."

"But of course, you'd never do anything directly opposed to your own principles."

"Well, no."

"Still, I make it a point never to fully trust decent, honest men. In fact, I never fully trust anyone. The good ones'll turn on you just because they're good. The bad ones'll turn on you just because they're bad."

"That's probably wise, Mr. Tarantino. But I never-"

Tarantino turned to Bart. "There was something that needed tending to, wasn't there? You said you took care of it."

"There was, and I did. You got the packet, don't you?"

Tarantino turned back to Mick. "That's true, Mick. I do have it. I take it my friend didn't ever stir it into his milk?" His associates laughed a little at that. "Didn't you give it to him? Maybe he already had a packet of his own? His memory working, tonight?"

"I... I...."


"He stopped at a phone booth on the way to the diner. Then he got back in his car and continued on his way. He went to the diner, but he met a different guy there. Guy wearin' plain clothes, but not so plain as the rest of us, y'know?" He cracked a smile. "Not as fancy as yours, though, boss."

"Go on," said Tarantino. Mick and Tara were now holding each other tightly.

Bart continued. "Two of 'em sat down in a corner booth for awhile and talked kinda hushed. Mick here handed the other guy the packet and the photo. Then the other guy got up and went over to your 'friend.' He sat down and said Armande sent him, just like Mick was supposed ta do, and set the packet on the table between them. Your friend reaches out to take it, then looks up at the other guy, and... he gets a funny look in his eyes, like he thinks maybe something's up. He asks the guy if he knows what's in the packet. The other guy says 'chocolate powder, right?' Then your friend says, 'Right.' And he just sits there, staring at the other guy, with his hand still sitting on top of the packet, in the middle of the table. He doesn't move.

"Then the other guy says, 'Aren't you going to put it in your milk?' And your friend just looks down at his glass. After a little while he looks up again at the other guy and says, 'My wife thinks the chocolate is counter-productive. Thinks it negates the effects of the milk, she says. Wants me to try to get used to drinkin' the stuff plain.' So the other guy grins and says, 'Well, your wife's not here right now, is she? I won't tell if you won't. Just this one time. If you like, I'll tell Armande he can stop sending delivery boys like me to bring you your powder.'

"So your friend just sits there staring at the other guy again, not doin' nothin'. Finally, after a minute or two, he pushes his chair back. He says, 'Actually, I'm afraid I've been dawdling. My wife'll be gettin' worried. I really should be gettin' back...' He starts to draw the packet toward him, but the other guy reaches out and puts his hand over your friend's. 'Your sandwich is only half finished, and you've hardly touched your milk. A little indulgence now and then is one thing, but I wouldn't feel right about letting a friend of Armande's seriously neglect his health,' the guy says. Then your friend says, 'It's okay, I had a big lunch, drank two glasses of plain milk. I really gotta get goin', but tell Armande thank you.' Then the other guy says, 'Well, I hate to see good food go to waste. Mind if I finish it, seeing as it's already here, and if neither of us finishes it, they'll just throw it out?' Your friend looks at his sandwich and back to the guy and says, 'Be my guest.' He tries to pull his hand away. But the other guy says, 'Y'know, I never much cared for plain milk, either. Mind if I keep the packet for myself, if you're not gonna be using it?' Your friend licks his lips, clearly nervous, trying to think of a way out. 'One for the road?' he practically begs. 'I mean, I'll use this later... the last one, before I kick the habit, for good.'

"The other guy's still holding your friend's hand down with one hand, and with the other he slightly opens his coat to show something to your friend. From my perspective I couldn't see what it was, But I'm pretty sure we can all guess. Your friend just licks his lips nervously again, then says, 'Keep it.' The other guy closes his coat again, and lifts his hand from your friend's. Your friend lifts his hand, the packet still on the table, and the other guy takes hold of the packet and pulls it toward himself, and stuffs it in his pocket. Then he says, 'You should listen to your wife. You really would be better off without this stuff. But then, you may soon find it a little harder to come by.'

"Your friend says, 'Sure, real hard I bet.' He stands up quickly, practically knocking his chair over, and scurries out of the diner real quick-like. Then the other guy gets up and heads back over to the booth where Mick's still sitting. They talk for awhile longer, then part company. Mick gets back in his car and heads back here."

"And what might they have been talking about, Mick and this other fellow? You needn't be so precise."


Mick interrupted, "Yeah, how the hell can he be so precise? Clearly he's making all this up!"

"Bart," said Tarantino, "has what they call a photographic memory. Do go on, Bart."

"Well, your 'friend' obviously provided this other guy with your first name. I hardly think that'd be enough to stick anything to. What it sounded like to me is Mick here was gonna provide your last name. Official-like, when the time came."

"But the time isn't going to come, is it, Bart?"

"Like I said before, you've got the packet, ain'tcha?"

"And no one's going to come looking for it?"

"No living soul I'm aware of."

Tarantino turned back to Mick. "Mick, do you know what the first rule is when playing both ends against the middle? Make sure you're not the middle." A couple of his associates thought that expression didn't apply quite perfectly to what Mick had been doing, but they didn't say anything.

"Mr. Tarantino, I... I mean, you don't trust any of your associates that much, do you? Including Bart? You said you don't trust anybody. How do you know he's not making this up?"

"What would he stand to gain? The thrill of killing you?"

"Believe me," said Bart, "I've never found killing anyone particularly thrilling. It's a living, that's all. Like you said before, Mick, we all gotta make some money somehow. We do what we have to. Very few people in life are thrilled with their jobs, and I'm no exception. But some of us are willing to go a little farther than others. Doesn't mean we wouldn't rather be doing something else. I just figure, in for a penny, in for a pound. Y'know?"

"You see? He has no reason to make up lies about you. He gets paid by the week, you know. It's not like he gets bonuses for this kind of thing. Now, if he'd told me you'd done just what you were supposed to do, you'd have gotten your money and never seen any of us again. You'd have moved someplace you like better than this. I'd have made a tidy little profit. Bart would make the same money either way, and I'm sure he'd really prefer not to kill you. He'd be happy, I'd be happy, you and your wife would be happy. My friend would be really happy right about now." The associates grinned at this. "No losers, only winners. Come to think of it, that cop would still be alive, too."

"Please, Mr. Tarantino. I'm sorry. Just... just don't hurt us. We'll never say anything to anyone, and you get to keep the money you were going to give me. Let's just make the best of a bad situation, okay? Please? What would it serve you to kill anyone now?"

"I'm sorry, Mick. We make our choices. If we choose correctly, we reap the benefits. If we choose incorrectly, we must suffer the consequences. Bart?" He turned back to his associate. "Finish tying up the loose ends, would you?"

"No!" screamed Tara as Bart pulled out a pistol. But Tarantino held her, and the other associate held Mick. Bart shoved his pistol right up against each of their chests in turn before pulling the trigger. They died instantly. The two men released the bodies, which slumped to the floor.

"You see?" said Tarantino. "I didn't hurt you. You didn't have time to feel anything. As for saving my money..." He took an envelope out of his coat's inside pocket, opened it, and let the bills fall over the bodies. "...I don't really care. It might've changed your life dramatically, but it's of no real consequence to me. Someone else will do your job now. They'll live better than you ever did, and I'll keep on living a hundred times better than them. As for what I get out of it... as I said, I can't trust anyone. You could still talk. But even if you wouldn't... well, Bart may not like to kill, but I kinda like to watch." Turning to his associates, he said, "Well, let's get going. In this neighborhood I doubt anyone would bother reporting her scream, but you never can be too careful."

Then he noticed Bart had gone up to the associate who'd been standing guard at the door, and pulled a camera from his grasp. Holding it out before him, he turned again to Tarantino and asked, "What the hell is this, boss? A souvenir?"

"Insurance, Bart. I always take steps to ensure the loyalty of all my employees, one way or another. I now have photographs of you committing a double-homicide."

"But you're in those pictures, too!"

"Ever heard of scissors, Bart?"

Bart growled under his breath. "Why? I understand a lack of absolute faith, but this? It's crazy!"

"Do you think I don't know why you left your last job? Why you ran all the way to Gotham City to get away from it? I always learn all I can about potential employees before hiring them. I know what happened in Metropolis, Bart. I think your track record gives me particular reason for a lack of faith in your abiding loyalty. I took a risk hiring you at all. But, before your career back there came to an unfortunate end, you were very good at what you did. Do just as good a job for me as you did before you turned on your last employer, and you'll be very happy working for me. No worries. We may even become fast friends. Or not, if you don't want to. All I ask is you perform your duties to the best of your abilities, and you'll be well rewarded. If you attempt a repeat of Metropolis... Well, like I said, we make our choices. Now let's go, already!"

And so they all departed. No one reported a scream or muffled gunshots. A call to the police would have to wait until a boy came home half an hour later to find a few dozen fifty-dollar bills stuck to his parents' bloody bodies like tar and feathers....

part 7