The Freak Assassin
A wise woman once said: “I believe there is a curse put on the head of anyone who tries to fix up their friends.”
That woman was me, in 1998, after I set Miranda up on a date with a grown man named Skipper, who would be in and out of our lives for two years before disappearing entirely. I must not have learned my lesson, because in 1999 I once again set Miranda up on a date, this time with a guy who turned out to be the biggest freak in all of Manhattan.
Luke was a friend of Ben, the fellow journalist I met-cute in front of Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. Ben unceremoniously dumped me when, in pursuit of the freakish truth, I ransacked his studio apartment and uncovered a wooden box containing his childhood collection of merit badges. Ever the boy scout, Ben got in touch again recently to share some strange goings-on.
“I wanted to reach out to you because you’re the only person I ever introduced to Luke,” Ben said over the phone. Intrigued, I arranged to meet Ben back at the carousel where we last saw Luke. The double-date had taken a turn for the worse somewhere around the Häagen-Dazs cart, and even though a guy buying her junk food was usually on the expressway to Miranda’s heart, she evoked our “I have to feed my cat” bad-date code. When I selfishly tried to argue, she reiterated that she was leaving to feed Fatty, and Luke uttered, “Cat people: all freaks.”
“The man hasn’t left Manhattan in a decade,” Miranda hissed at me. “And by the way, if Luke’s a freak, Ben is bound to be a freak too.” Then off she went to feed Fatty, eating her frozen consolation prize and once again regretting that she had allowed me to set her up.
“The thing is, she was right,” Ben said as we retread our brief history together over those same Häagen-Dazs bars in the park. “Luke is more than a freak—he is a freaking ghost!”
“Excuse me?” I shouted, startling the children on the merry-go-round.
As Ben explained it, he only knew Luke from the park, where Luke liked to heckle Ben’s weekend soccer team. “We were really bad,” Ben admitted, “but this jackass in a black leather jacket would just mock us from the sidelines.”
“He never wanted to play?”
“He was always wearing that jacket,” Ben shook his head. “Anyway, it never occurred to me that I only knew this guy within the confines of the park, and I thought nothing of it when he suggested we meet here for our double date.”
“So when he said he hadn’t left Manhattan in over ten years…”
“It was a promise he had made to his mother, that he would never go back to Jersey and get mixed up in his father’s business. His father was a guy named Donato Paduana, who used to do murders for hire in the 80s until someone got the jump on him. Anyway, little Luca kept his promise and moved here after college.”
“And he didn’t leave for ten whole years?”
“Not until a friend of his father’s offered him a crazy amount of money to kill some guy real high up.”
“Like, this guy was nephew of the acting boss at the time.”
“Who ordered the hit?” I was quite pleased with my mastery of mob-talk, but Ben looked scared.
“The acting boss himself, the uncle, plus—get this—the guy’s own mother wanted him popped.”
“So the guy you and I know as Luke is actually little Luca Donato Paduana. He went by Donnie back in Jersey where everyone knew his dad, Donato, and even though Donnie promised his mother to never try to fill his father’s cement shoes, he took the assignment. He was going to do this one job, just one, and even tried to farm it out to some subcontractors, but everything got snarled. So he caught a bus to Jersey, got lost driving around Newark in his old Pontiac from high school—because he hadn’t left the island or driven a car in ten years—and got himself shot in the head.”
“When was this?”
“March of 1999.”
“But we went on our double-date like three months after that.” I had done my due diligence and checked my past columns to verify dates.
“Right, and I had known him almost three months when I introduced him to you and Miranda. But he was already dead! I finally put two and two together when I realized the dude had never aged…or changed clothes.”
“At least a black leather jacket is a timeless style choice.”
“Donnie, aka Little Luca, promised his mother he would stay out of the family business while they were having lunch at Tavern on the Green, so now he’s doomed to wander Central Park forever with his unfinished business.”
“He’s still here?” I yelped again.
“He was supposed to shoot that mafia boss.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“I know. Nobody can. That’s why I am here, Carrie, to make sure you remember him and can vouch that I am not losing my mind.”
“Ben, you were one of the sanest guys I have ever dated.”
“Do you think Miranda would verify that she saw him too?”
“Please, Carrie, you know the Times requires two independent sources to fact-check.”
“Oh, you’re at The New York Times now?”
“Well, yeah—I’m a real journalist. I was editing that hip political magazine when we met, remember?”
“I’m remembering why we broke up…you’re kind of smug.”
“We were a non-couple, so we couldn’t break up. You turned into a freak right after we slept together.”
“And now you’re asking me to call my friend Miranda to meet a ghost for ice cream so you can write about it in the paper of record? I was wrong Ben; you are a freak!” I stomped off holding the Häagen-Dazs bar he had bought me as a bribe.
I couldn’t help but wonder: if a journalist from The New York Times was asking me to call up my friend so we could all wait for the ghost of bad dates past in Central Park, was journalism well and truly dead? If even the stately Gray Lady of newspapers has to resort to cheap parlor tricks and stories about the occult to resuscitate circulation rates, maybe my unfinished business would be the stories I would never get to write when my newspaper folded.
She already believed any date I set her up on was cursed, so I never mentioned anything to Miranda about Luke’s curse. I suppose she can just read about it here, in my lowly sex column, like everyone else.
And just like that, I scooped The New York Times.