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I’m not allowed to tell you my name. The people who know it just call me “witness” now. They told me my new name, but it doesn’t feel right. It feels like someone else should have it, someone who might appreciate it more. I have a new job, I live in a new town, everything is new, and nothing is me. I need to tell you my story because it’s the only piece of me I have left. I don’t know what your response might be, but I have to get it out.
I was a budding film director in the greater Atlanta area. Or at least, that’s what it said on my resume. I had never actually directed anything. I had dozens of ideas for films, full length features and short films, but I never got the opportunity to shoot any of them. I mostly did camera work here and there. It wasn’t glamorous, but it paid the bills and it introduced me to people who I could have worked with more, if things had turned out differently.
It started with a newspaper ad shoved in between an ad for a nanny service and someone trying to sell their old boat. It read “Camera operators needed. $20 per hour”. Below that it listed a phone number and the name “Smash Cut”. Of course I called right away, twenty dollars per hour was an insane rate for camera work. The woman who answered the phone was... odd. She wouldn’t tell me anything about the company or the film, and she refused to give me an address to send my resume to. She just asked me about my prior experience, but didn’t seem very interested in it. At the end of the call she said that someone would come to pick me up the next day to take me to the set, and she hung up.
Let me pause here and say that I know what you’re thinking, but I had no filter on jobs I would do back then. I was scrounging just to keep my electricity turned on. I didn’t question what the job was, or whether I should do it, or who the man was that came to pick me up the next morning. He drove a perfectly normal, white sedan. There was nothing creepy or old about it, it didn’t smell bad or have any strange stains on the seats. It was just a man and it was just a car.
We drove for almost an hour, farther out from the city than I had been in a long time. For the last mile, we turned off the main road onto a dirt road that went back into a dense forest. At the end of the road was an old, rusted gate. The man driving me got out of the car, unlocked it, and pushed it open. We drove through and he stopped again to close the gate and re-lock it. We drove for almost another ten minutes before arriving at a wooden shack. The shack looked like it couldn’t have been more than a hundred square feet, but beside it were a dozen cars parked haphazardly between the trees. We walked inside and the man opened a hatch in the floor that led to a tiny wooden ladder. He climbed down and I followed.
Beneath the shack was something I would have never expected. Four hallways went out in all directions from the ladder. They looked like they went on for miles, and I could hear sounds echoing through them. Not good sounds, not sounds of directors shouting instructions and actors reading lines, sounds of screaming. The man gave me a challenging look, and I began to feel fear creep up my spine. I stared back at him, not daring to speak, and he turned and walked down the hallway in front of us. The third door in the hall was cracked open and some light was spilling out across the damp and dusty floor. I followed the man into the room and my heart began to calm down. On one side of the room was a camera set up on a fixed stand, and on the other side was what looked like an unfinished set. Even to this day I don’t know why the camera was a relaxing sight to me, but something about it made me feel at peace, like I was in my element.
“Stand over there,” the man said, pointing towards the camera. I gladly obliged and began to fiddle with the camera, making sure it was focused and set up the way I like it. As I was wiping off the lens, I heard muffled shouts, as if a fight had broken out in the hallway. I turned to look and a very large man dragged another man with a bag on his head through the doorway. The man with the bag on his head was flailing and kicking at the larger man to no avail. A few of the other people in the room helped sit the man down on a chair in the middle of the set and tied his arms and legs down. The man who had brought me there looked me squarely in the eyes as he pulled a handgun out of his pants and shot the man in the chair directly in the stomach. He started to shout and thrash around in the chair, almost knocking it over. I stopped breathing while my body caught up with what my eyes were seeing. This wasn’t fake, the camera wasn’t even on.
“Start filming,” the other man said, his gun now pointed at me. I lifted my hands in the air and stepped back behind the camera, turned it on, and started to film. I could see blood pouring out of the man through the viewfinder, and my stomach started to churn. I focused on the frame, setting it around the man and adjusting the white balance, doing anything I could to not think about my subject.
“Is it going?” the man asked. I nodded my head, not moving my eye from the viewfinder. The man stepped into the frame and looked at the camera.
“This is David Lanning. David has problems staying faithful to his wife, so she called us,” he said. He continued looking at the camera for a few seconds before whipping around and shooting David point blank in the head. The struggling and moaning immediately stopped, and the man motioned to me to stop filming. I stepped back from the camera, looking at the wall behind me, too afraid to turn back to the scene that had just unfolded, when a hand rested on my shoulder.
“You did well,” the man said. “Most people can’t even stay on their feet for their first time, and you didn’t puke all over the camera, you did well.”
He said it as if it was some sort of test, like I had somehow passed where others had failed. What happened to the ones who failed? The thought flit across my mind, but I shoved it away. The man was pulling on my arm, and I followed him back down the hallway and up to the surface. A few men and women were waiting, leaning against their cars, when we came out the front of the shack. The man closest to us smiled at me and nodded his head, flicking his cigarette into the dirt. It was as though this non-verbal gesture was a sign to the rest of them, as they all got into their cars immediately. We walked back to the white sedan and followed the others as they drove out.
My hands were shaking as we drove back out to the main road. I had no idea what was happening or where we were going. Last time we were in this car I was wondering how they would pay me, now I was just wondering if I would make it out alive.
They took me to a small town whose name I can’t even remember. They had booked several motel rooms where we stayed the night. No one told me anything, but they joked amongst themselves about “the hunt”. The next day we woke up very early in the morning and I was ushered out back into the car. I hadn’t slept at all, so I wasn’t much bothered by getting up early. The man who was driving me, however, looked exhausted. I had watched him drink several bottles of some sort of brown liquor the night before, and it didn’t seem to be sitting well with him.
When we got outside, there were two police cars waiting. I know now that they had been trailing the organization for weeks, waiting for the best time to bring them down. Four policemen got out of the cars, guns raised, shouting at us to get on the ground. I started to kneel down when my driver pulled out his gun and started shooting. Everyone else who was with us bolted. They scattered in all different directions like they had done this before while the man kept shooting at the police. The police started shooting back and I was stuck in the crossfire. I laid down with my hands over my head, scooting myself behind a nearby car. When I looked back out I saw that, amazingly, two of the police men were down. The other two were calling for backup and looking scared. This man, completely hungover, was taking them on like it was a game, and he was winning.
I don’t know what moved me to do what I did next, I’ve thought about it almost every night since then, but I don’t know why I did it, and I don’t think I would ever be able to do it again. I reached out and grabbed the man’s leg. He paused for just a second to look down at me, and I yanked his leg out from under him. He hit the ground hard and his gun fell out of his hand. He looked at me right before one of the remaining policemen shot him in the chest, and I’ll never forget that look. I’ve never seen so much rage in someone’s eyes. It wasn’t all rage though, a part of him seemed almost happy. For a week after that, I woke up every night to that face staring at me. I would spin my head around the room looking for him, but he was never there. It would take me a few minutes to calm down before I realized that it was just a dream.
I suppose I haven’t really told you why I am in witness protection yet. The police showed me the website where Smash Cut took their orders. Smash Cut was a two sided business, people would hire them as hit men, and then Smash Cut would sell the footage. The site was designed like any other production company website, happy pictures of people smiling at the camera with elaborate sets and actors in costume behind them. They took the site down after what happened, but a few weeks ago I got an email with no subject and a link to a new site. The new site is a copy of the old site, but with a new page called “Up and Coming Projects”. On that page is nothing except a picture of me, standing behind a camera in a damp, dusty, underground room, with a gun pointed at my head.