In the winter, the woods were bare and exposed. With all their leaves brown and damp on the ground, the trees were little more than clusters of bare, dead branches. Light shone through during the day, and the cold wash of moonlight at night. I loved the cold; I hated the exposure.
The woods were a quarter-mile wide tract of undeveloped wilderness between Abigail Adams High School and the Thurston Oaks neighborhood. It had a paved, disused recreational trail that ran the length, and a creek that ran loosely parallel.
In the middle of the woods, maybe two hundred feet off the trail, there was a clearing on the bank of the creek where its thin band broadened into a small, muddy pond. The water there was so dense with grime that you couldn’t really tell if it was ten inches or ten feet to the bottom.
There was a grove of evergreens in a small circle within sight of the clearing. That grove provided the only dense cover during the winter, and it was where I liked to sit and watch.
The clearing was popular for whatever illicit desires my classmates at Abigail Adams sought to indulge. I’d watched Jessica Medina loose her virginity there. I’d seen kids you’d have thought were straight-arrow smokin’ it up. I’d seen some things you just wouldn’t believe.
You can learn a lot about people by just watching them. I don’t mean like how you’d normally watch somebody, I mean really watching them. Staring at them. Examining them.
Take Jessica Medina, for example. The jock that she bedded down in that clearing didn’t really have a clue what was going on. He didn’t see how her brow turned downward when she realized she had made a big mistake, or that quick shift to cold complacency when she realized it was too late to change her mind. There was a whole sorry progression of emotions right there under that quarterback’s sweaty exuberance, and he didn’t see a bit of it. I’m the only one who saw it. Even Jessica, who obviously felt it for herself, didn’t get to see what it looked like from the outside.
I watched people everywhere, and that’s how I learned most everything I know about them. I know what drives them. I know what pleases them. I know what hurts them. And most importantly, I know that they do their best work when they think that nobody is watching.
I had seen Robbie Gugino a lot lately in the woods with three or four of his friends. They came late in the afternoons to share some pot that Robbie had bought, borrowed, or stolen. It was usually around five-thirty, when the winter daylight was already muted and fading.
His friends were decent people—socially inept, sure, but reasonably polite and nonintrusive. I got along with them fine. Robbie, however, was a conceited, obnoxious prick who considered himself to be the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. It wasn’t just the world revolving around Robbie, it was the whole f###ing galaxy.
He and I both had Mrs. DeMayer’s seventh-period English class—the last period before dismissal. The classroom was cold and drafty that winter day, but I was sweating. God, I was so worried that somebody would notice, but I, of all people, should have known how little attention people really pay to one another.
In the mad rush of book-closing and bag-packing that overruns the last few minutes of a school day, I nonchalantly walked over to Robbie’s seat. Under my breath I said, “I hear you have some pot.”
“Yeah,” he replied confidently and much louder than I had hoped he would.
“You willing to sell?”
“Depends on the price.” He lowered his voice to a slightly less frightening level and plastered on his standard ‘I’m so clever’ grin. “How much you got?”
His grin turned incredulous. “You s###tin’ me?”
“No,” I said, trying to look grim and serious. It seemed to convince him.
He pursed his lips. “Okay, meet me in the woods, right over there,” he motioned in their general direction out the window, “right after school.”
“I’ll be there,” I said as the dismissal bell rang. “Don’t tell anybody you’re meeting me; come alone.”
“S###, what kind of businessman you think I am?”
“I’m serious. I could get in deep s### for this.” I wasn’t lying.
He gave a kind of half-shrug and walked out into the hall toward his locker. He’d taken the bait, and I only had a few minutes to get ready.
I had known that Robbie would propose meeting in the woods. I had known that he’d come alone. I also knew that Robbie would take about five minutes at his locker before leaving to meet me.
I went directly to the woods, slipping away from the crowds that gathered to board their busses home. That morning I had borrowed an old Sony BetaCam camcorder that my parents had left abandoned in our basement, wrapped it in plastic (in case it rained), and set it on a tripod in my little grove of evergreens. I left a four-inch boot knife sitting beneath the camera. I put three concrete blocks and about fifteen feet of rope on the muddy bank of the creek where they would not be noticed.
As soon as I made it to the evergreens, I unwrapped the camera, checked the angles, adjusted the zoom, and pressed record. Then I placed the knife in my coat pocket and walked out to the clearing to wait for Robbie. I stood on the edge of the creek, near the deep pool of muddy water, and waited.
He came after only a minute, but in my restrained nervousness the wait seemed to last for days.
“Hey, asshole,” he said as he walked toward me. It was one of his favorite greetings.
I held my tongue until he was close. “Let’s see the stuff.”
“Let me see the fifty first.”
I pulled the bill out of my pocket and held it up for him to see. He looked satisfied; that ‘I’m so clever’ grin spread again across his face. He glanced carefully around to be sure that nobody was nearby—as did I, just to be safe—and pulled out a small Ziploc bag with a few grams of dark green marijuana leaves inside.
“Here it is.”
“Let me see it,” I said.
“No way. Give me the fifty first.”
The wind was blowing in just the right direction, so I feigned to hand him the bill and released it to the wind.
“S###, man!” Robbie said as he lunged for it. My foot intercepted his leg, tripping him face-down into the grimy creek. Before he could lift himself out, I was on him. I held his head under water with my right hand, and grasped the boot knife—just in case—with my left. Luckily, I didn’t need it. After a minute of struggle, his body tensed in a quick, frantic, last-ditch attempt to get up, then went completely limp. No blood. It was a nice, clean job.
I held him down for another minute, just to be sure.
I felt myself starting to get shaky, so I had to remind myself that most people who do this kind of thing get caught because they lose their cool. I forced myself to stay calm, to stay rational, and to do a good job. It took some effort, but less than an hour later it was done. Robbie—with his hands tied behind his back, a bag of pot in his front jeans pocket, and three concrete blocks holding him down—sat peacefully underneath the opaque waters of the creek in the woods between Abigail Adams High School and the Thurston Oaks neighborhood.
They found him eventually, when the water level dropped during a drought, but they never figured out who had done it or why. I’d like to tell them—I hate that they don’t know— but I’m not dumb enough to give them a lead. I’ve done so many jobs since then, and I have so many more to look forward to. I can’t risk an interruption.
I’ve watched that tape endless times, examining every last spasm and realization. But what I remember most from my first time—the thing that keeps me going—is something that I saw in the days and weeks after. Beneath my classmates’ masks of worry and fear, when they managed to overcome the guilt and shame, they were happy to be rid of him. Yes, they were relieved . . . when they thought that nobody was watching.