"Why hasn't anybody shot him? Is his skull cast in iron?" Grigori asked.
The dozen men sitting around the table shrugged like schoolboys who hadn't read the assignment. Except for one who sat behind a veil of cheap cigar smoke that reeked of burnt leaves. He coughed. A bare bulb overhead showed weak zephyrs disrupt the cloud.
"Anatoly raises a good point. All of our assassins have failed. And the government agents have increased security around our friend John the Witness. There's only one who can penetrate that protective shell, and only one who would be willing to do so," said Iosif.
Anatoly coughed again.
"Anatoly says-" Iosif began, but was cut off by Anatoly himself. He leaned through the obfuscating cloud. His face was a mess of scar tissue and decrepifying plastic surgery. A set of jagged scars stood out against his throat like the fingers of a dead man.
"We...call...Yaroslav," Anatoly rasped.
"Are you sure?" Grigori asked. "After what he did to you?"
"Business is business," Anatoly said, wincing in pain.
"That man is the antichrist," Iosif said.
Anatoly shook his head. "Just...a man...with...a gift."
"A gift like Pandora's Box! Father, he should be left well enough alone!"
Anatoly stared at his son, who dropped his gaze and nodded.
"Then we must draw straws to see who contacts Yaroslav," Grigori said. "It is for nobody but God to determine whose soul is tainted by that monster." They all pinched their thumb, index and middle fingers together and crossed themselves.
The next day Grigori walked up the path to Yaroslav's house, as he'd been quite screwed by the straws.
Yaroslav's house was small, neat, and devoid without of the horror contained within.
Grigori knocked on the door. He shivered despite the sun.
A bored man answered the door.
"Hello? Oh, hi, Grigori. Who do you want me to kill this time?" the man asked.
"Yaroslav!" Grigori yelled to try to stop the neighbor's from hearing the man's question. "A pleasure to see you! May I come in?"
"Sure, sure," Yaroslav said. He moved out of the way and admitted Grigori. Grigori had only been here once before, and his limbs had shaken the entire time. Now he kept his hands stuffed deep into his pockets as he walked into the living room. The normalcy of the house added to his unease.
Yaroslav sat down in a large, overstuffed chair. Grigori sat on the couch opposite, and sweated.
Grigori tried not to look at the pictures lining the walls. They were Yaroslav's past victims. One of them was Girgori's brother. That's not what upset Grigori. What upset Grigori was that each picture had a bullet hole right in the middle of the victim's face. There was nothing on top of their shoulders but a hole. Each body had a face of cheap wood paneling.
"I know you want me to kill again. Why else would you be here?"
"Perhaps I wanted to see my friend Yaroslav!"
Yaroslav sat forward, and his face brightened. "Really? Do you want to get lunch?"
"I'm sorry, I just had lunch, maybe another time. Look, we do have a job for you."
Yaroslav deflated back into the embrace of the chair.
"That's what I thought."
"No, no, it's not killing. His name is John Hanks and he knows some secrets of our organization that will bring it crashing down around us once he hits that witness box and gives his testimony," Grigori said.
"And I don't have to kill him?"
"No, no, of course not. You could just maim him, or cut out his windpipe, or something like that."
Yaroslav shook his head.
"You pedant. You play with definitions to make it easier to sleep at night. I am a killer. But I am also a father. I am comfortable with ambivalence, why aren't you?"
"You have kids?"
"Yes, of course. Why else do you think that I would do your dirty work? They go to a very expensive school. Kids! Get in here!"
Four fluffy dogs came rounding the corner and started licking Grigori.
"They're all in top-flight agility training. You know, dog athletes. No. Dog olympians. The school is expensive, let alone all the food and travel and event registration fees. It adds up."
Grigori threw a bag with half of the money on the couch.
"The rest when we see the news report," Grigori said, getting up to leave.
"Come by for dinner some time," Yaroslav yelled after Grigori.
The Moral: it is only lifestyle hitmen who live in charred citadels of death, the rest of them have a healthy work/life balance.