The inside of the elite retirement home boasted the sort of wood-meets-marble-meets-money look that rich retirees and Bohemian Grovers drooled over. Judging by the level of comfort and the contented demeanor of its occupants, the casual observer would never think that the mighty USA was suffering outside. This was a port from the storm, an oasis of calm in the surrounding scorched earth.
Garin shuffled along the blond wood floor past patients, nurses and doctors, keeping his face hidden under his sailor hat, until he came close to the door he wanted. Checking to make sure no one was watching, he silently let himself in.
Inside, the room’s single, white male occupant – a man in his mid-80s – was sleeping lightly, snoring under the blankets, his nose making a whistling noise.
Looking at him, he seemed like just another old coot . . . hardly the man behind one of the 20th century’s most terrible crimes.
Garin recalled images he’d seen of his suspect: first as a vital young Turk, then as a middle-aged powerbroker with his face blacked out in secret photos, and finally as he was today, thinned out, face like sandpaper. Yes, it was him. Eyeball confirmation. Target is green.
The colonel pulled a chair from the corner and brought it near the bed, the chair complaining with a squeaking noise. As he moved closer, Garin looked at the cross above the patient’s bed. He smiled a wry smile, briefly remembering his own holier-than-thou youth. It had been a long time since he had heard His voice. And he probably never would again . . . regularly coveting his neighbor’s ass was the least of his trespasses against the 10 Commandments.
Meanwhile, the asshole in the bed kept snoring.
Garin grabbed the vase, threw out the flowers and tossed its water into the man’s face. A second or two later he spluttered. Joe Patient’s eyes came to life.
“It’s time for your sponge bath, sir,” said Garin merrily.
“Who are you?” said the other man, eyes blinking rapidly. “What are you doing in here?”
“What, you’re not buying the sponge bath story?” said Garin conversationally, removing his hat, folding his legs and taking a seat. “Anyway, who am I is classified. I could tell you who I am, but then I’d have to kill you.”
The patient stared at Garin warily. “I don’t know you. Get the fuck out of here.”
“And here I thought all men were brothers.”
“To hell with this,” said the patient, reaching out for the control with the “nurse” button on it. Garin gently removed it from his liver-spotted grasp.
“Ah, ah. Don’t be naughty.”
“If you want money there’s some in the drawer,” said the man, now afraid.
“It’s not about money.”
“Then what do you want? Get to the point, then get out,” said the man in the bed, pointing his eyes at the door.
“No foreplay? Fine. Why am I here? JFK.” Three letters that hung in the air like an accusation. An accusation that travelled through the decades of history, begging for an answer that never came.
The man opposite looked like he’d just seen a ghost.
“JFK?” he croaked.
“Yes, John F. Kennedy, former President of the United States of America. Someone you know only too well.”
There was another long, fraught pause, interrupted only by the sound of the humming air-conditioner.
“Everybody knew JFK,” came the weak reply.
“Some better than others. Like you. Even if your name never came up during the Warren Commission. Even if your finger wasn’t on the trigger that day in Dallas.” Garin leaned in. “Only the rest are now horse glue. You’re the last. And I’m not about to let you get away clean.”
Garin then said the man’s real name. The patient made a strange, choked-off noise, as if he hadn’t heard those unfamiliar words in a long time. His hands shook. If it were another man, Garin might have placed a gentle hand on his to calm him. Yet he didn’t. Instead, he said: “You’re at the end of the road. So why not bare your soul?”
The man’s eyes lit up in panic again. Then, a certain acceptance came over them. Then calculation.
“You open the kimono first,” he said slowly. “Who are you?”
“My name is Colonel Garin. Lover, fighter, retweeter.”
“I’ve heard of you. What was it, special forces? SOCOM?” SOCOM being short for United States Special Operations Command.
“And Homeland Security, among other things.”
The patient fixed Garin with a malevolent look. “Are you like one of those assholes who never got over Vietnam?”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, colonel, but don’t you have better things to be doing right now? Have you looked outside the window? The country is godforsaken. FUBAR, even.”
Garin’s eyes were drawn to the window in the room, then back towards the patient. “I do have better things to do. But I thought you didn’t deserve to die peacefully in your sleep. You and your friends robbed the US of a great President.”
The patient shifted under the sheets. “Didn’t you hear? Oswald did it.”
“Very funny. But I do the jokes here.”
“Who sent you? I can’t imagine anyone giving you clearance for this.”
Garin laughed. “You’re the first person I ever met who hoped that red tape would save them. No, I sent myself. One of the benefits of giving orders. Occasionally you can give one to yourself.”
“You still can’t do this. This is America.”
“This was America.”
Garin’s target exhaled as the weight of a great secret left him. “I always wondered if someone like you was going to turn up on my door one day. For years, I used to check underneath my car for bombs. I watched for strange cars in the driver mirror. I woke up in the middle of the night, covered in sweat, expecting to find a hitman in the bedroom.”
Garin nodded. “Guilty conscience, eh?”
“But after so many decades, I realized no one was coming. So, I got on with living my life. A rich, full life I may add, asshole.” Garin didn’t react to the barb. “Now I suppose you want to know why. Like every other dime-store detective out there.”
The patient sneered. “Why is a child’s question. You already know why. Because it had to be done. JFK was soft on Communism. Hell, he let the Beard install nuclear weapons on Cuba. On our very doorstep!”
“Permit me to ‘Greedo’ you here . . .”
“’Greedo’. It’s Star Wars speak for violently cutting someone off. Which is what I’m doing over your claim that the Commies unilaterally installed nukes in our backyard. Because we had our own Jupiter missiles in Turkey. Right on the USSR’s doorstep. So it was natural for the Russkies to respond by putting theirs in Cuba.”
The patient was unimpressed. “So what? That doesn’t mean Kennedy shouldn’t have backed our boys during the Bay of Pigs. JFK was losing the Cold War. The arrogant bastard was threatening our interests all over the world. He was going to splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces. If we’d left it to him he would have cut off our balls and handed them to the Russians.
“So . . . we did what needed to be done. We acted. With the help of our friends.”
“Your friends . . . I know all about those ‘goodfellas’ of yours,” Garin said with disdain.
“You hypocrite,” spat the patient. “Are your hands clean? What have you done for God and country?”
Garin nodded his head slowly, finally agreeing with the cur on something. “You’re right. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of. But I’ve never had a President assassinated.”
“The world is full of sin,” came the reply. “Is this what you’ve been reduced to . . . avenging one sin at a time?”
Garin carefully considered this surprising riposte. Eventually he said: “In the end, every man draws a circle around himself and says, ‘Everything inside this circle, I accept. Everything outside this circle, I cannot accept.’” Garin pointed his finger at the other man. “And you, I cannot accept.” Garin then stood up, reached over and removed the man’s pillow from under his head. “Anyway, you seem uncomfortable. Let me fluff up your pillow.”
The JFK conspirator knew what was coming. In Garin’s experience, men could be divided into two categories at this point: those that attempted to beg, plead or rationalise at the end; and those that said “fuck you” in the face of oblivion.
The JFK conspirator was the latter.
“Damn you to hell!” he shouted. “It was 50 years ago! No one cares any more!”
“I care,” said Garin sadly.
“Who do you think you are, some kind of hero? Who will ever know what you’ve done here?”
“I’ll know. And in some strange way, history will know.”
The prone figure laughed bitterly. “History won’t know dick.” He laughed again, then shook his head. “Whacking a senior citizen in a retirement village . . . they’ll give you the Medal of Honor for sure!”
“Hush now.” Garin loomed over him, holding the pillow above the man’s head. “Incidentally, the pillow’s not for your benefit. It’s for the maid’s.”
“I regret nothing!” yelled the conspirator with his last ounce of strength. “I’m a patriot! I did my duty!”
“I’m doing my duty, too.” Garin bunched up the pillow, feeling feathers in his fingers and the rush that always came before the kill. “JFK sends his regards.”
The pillow descended.