This is a short story that I wrote for a contest in 2013.

Manny Barton was happy for a day when he didn’t have to kill anybody.

 

Don’t misunderstand—Manny loved his job.  And he was very good at it too, having successfully cleaned up many messes for the Kepler family.  The patriarch, Andrew Kepler, had dubbed Manny their “problem solver,” and that was a title Manny had taken happily and very seriously.

 

That being said, even killing people got old eventually.

 

The Kepler family had been working for quite some time to gain a foothold in the white-collar crime world, and they had made great strides in the past year.  They had even finally secured a friend in the Senate who could get things for them that they couldn’t have obtained otherwise.  Things were really looking up for the family, and everyone was very optimistic about their future. 

 

Manny was very well trusted and liked within the family, so much so that he had recently been gifted with the key to the Kepler family safe, which held a great deal of funds and valuables from some of their more shady dealings.  This was a very risky and magnanimous gesture, but the Keplers had nothing to fear from Manny—he already appreciated the fact that he was paid very handsomely and didn’t need anything more than what he already had.  Besides, the Keplers had literally taken him off the street, and he owed his loyalty and his life to them.

 

When Manny had received an invitation that morning to a reception hosted by the Keplers for later that evening, he was very excited.  The youngest Kepler son, Terrance, had just married the daughter of another prestigious family, and the two families were celebrating their consolidation of power.  The family didn’t throw parties very often, and even though this gathering would be more upscale than Manny was used to, he was still looking forward to an evening of enjoying himself. 

 

Manny stood outside the great, Victorian-style mansion where the party was taking place.  There were a few well-dressed people outside, talking and laughing and enjoying themselves.  Manny didn’t recognize any of them, and he didn’t expect to.

 

The people didn’t pay any attention to him as he walked through the great double doors and almost into an old man wearing a tuxedo. 

 

“Your invitation, sir?”  The man asked.

 

Manny pulled it out of the inside of his jacket pocket and gave it to the man, who nodded and gestured toward the party inside.  Manny strolled in, marveling at the large, elegant house that was filled to capacity with people very formally dressed, with servants ducking through or around groups of people with trays of snacks and refreshments.  Manny had never seen anything like this before, and he couldn’t believe he was a part of it.

 

He saw the guests of honor up on a high balcony, surrounded by all kinds of important-looking people.  It was going to be near-impossible for Manny to get close enough to greet them, but Terrance saw him down below and waved in greeting.  Manny smiled and waved back.

 

Manny then went on about his business, but it didn’t take very long for Manny to grow bored—it wasn’t his crowd, it wasn’t his type of entertainment.  He turned around to leave and suddenly found himself face-to-face with a very pretty serving girl.

 

“Champagne, sir?” 

 

Why not?  Manny thought to himself.  Something has to liven this party up.

 

Manny accepted the wine glass gratefully and downed it in one gulp.  It tasted kind of funny, but champagne and wine wasn’t his style anyway … he was a beer kind of man.

 

But just a few short moments later, he began to feel like he was getting a buzz … and a mighty one.

 

“Wow … I’m gonna have to start drinking more champagne,” Manny muttered to himself.

 

A minute or two later, Manny was approached by another old man in a tux.  “Sir, there’s a message for you.”

 

Somewhat taken aback at this (and beginning to feel a bit dizzy), Manny took the folded piece of paper and read the message.  It contained only five words:

“You’re not leaving here alive.”

 

At first, Manny thought it was a joke, but then as he began to get more and more loopy, as his vision began to blur further, he started to get paranoid.

 

“Did they spike that champagne?”  Manny wondered to himself.

 

Why would they do this to me?  Manny tried to think of one instance where he had disappointed the family, but nothing came to mind.  I’ve always done anything they asked of me … I’ve been loyal to them for so long.  Why?  Why would the family do this?

 

Just then, someone walking by happened to bump into him, nearly knocking him down.  Manny turned to tell the guy to watch where he was going, but he was too dizzy to see clearly.  But after that, the only thing Manny could see were the faces staring back at him.

 

Are they in on it?  Manny thought to himself.  Do they know?

 

Through the misty haze of his brain, Manny could still remember the words of the letter.  “To hell with that,” he growled. 

 

Manny wasn’t one to be considered bright, but he was smart enough to know when he was defeated.  “I’ll show them—I’ll leave here right now.”

 

But it wasn’t to be—Manny found the exit blocked by two large men who stood with their arms crossed. 

 

“Let me out,” Manny commanded.

 

The two men didn’t say anything … one of them just shook his head.

 

Manny tried to barge past them, but the two men just shoved him back in.

 

Now Manny was angry.  The family wanted him knocked off, and for no reason. 

 

“Where are you?”  Manny screamed, struggling to stay on his feet.  “Where are you at, Kepler?  You want to kill me?  Do it face-to-face, you coward!”

 

But all he saw were faces staring back at him, some in wonder, others in disgust.

 

That pissed Manny off even more—the fact that he was being humiliated. 

 

What did I do to deserve this?

 

Manny stormed—or staggered, rather—back into the main room and glared up at Terrence.  “Did you set this up?  Where is your father?  Why don’t you all come down here and settle this, or—” he pulled the gun out from the holster he wore under his overcoat—“I will kill every single person in this building!”

 

Screams erupted from the crowd, and a few of the people tried to run, but found there was nowhere to go.

 

“Alright, Kepler,” Manny said when he got no response, “have it your—”

 

Bam bam bam!

 

For a moment, Manny was confused, as he was sure he didn’t pull the trigger. 

 

Then he noticed that he couldn’t breathe.

 

Suddenly gasping for air, Manny looked down at his chest, where blood was blossoming from three gunshot wounds.  For some reason, Manny didn’t feel quite as much pain as he thought he would, but one thing he did know is that the life was leaving his body.  As he collapsed to the ground, only one thought looped over and over …

 

Why … why …

 

Before he knew it, there were two cops crouching over him.  Though his mind was getting foggier and foggier, Manny was still angry that he had been set up.

 

“Pocket,” he gasped to the policeman.  “Note …”

 

He could feel the cops carefully rummaging through his pockets.  Finally, they stopped and looked down at him.

 

“There’s no note in your pocket, sir.  Hang on … the paramedics are coming.”

 

No note?  But what—

 

And then it hit him.

 

The man who bumped into me … classic pickpocket technique …

 

That only made him more angry, but he didn’t have the strength to express it.

 

One last time, he wondered why they had done this to him, and then Manny Barton thought no more.

 

**********

 

Joel Richardson joined his brother, Harold, in his study some time later.

 

“Sorry I missed the party,” Joel said apologetically.  “How did it go?”

 

Harold’s smile beamed across the room.  “A stunning success.”

 

“I did hear their hired hand is dead,” Joel commented.

 

“Indeed … he died before the parametics even showed up.  That was unintentional, really … I doped his champagne with some painkillers, enough to make him pretty loopy.  He got paranoid and pulled his gun, and my men had no choice but to shoot him.”

 

“Thank God no one was hurt,” Joel said. 

 

“It went perfectly,” Harold beamed, rubbing his hands together.  “The letter we delivered, the drugs.  Our imposters looked every bit like young Terrance and his lovely bride.  And the best part of all … our pickpocket grabbed something more than the message we gave him.”

 

“Really?”  Joel asked curiously.

 

“Yes, he did.  He was only supposed to grab the threat message, so Mr. Barton would have no evidence, but he also grabbed a key—and it sure ain’t the key to his car.”

 

“What does it go to then?”  Joel wonder aloud.

 

Harold smirked.  “I have reason to believe that it belongs to a vault in the Kepler house.”