Q&A: How Not to Hire a Specialist

How do normal non-criminal characters hire hit men? I wanted my normal character to get mixed up with the mafia but I’m not sure to write my character contacting/meeting the right people in a way that is believable but not so difficult as to take up the whole story. Criminals for hire (hackers, hit men, etc) must have a way to be contacted but I can’t think of how a person with no criminal past and no government connections would do it.

They go to Craigslist. Then they get arrested.

I mean, you’ve heard the advice, “write what you know.” You don’t know how to hire a professional killer. That’s not a personal failure, that’s what a lot of people face. They may want to hire a professional hitter, but they don’t know how or where. Simply put, they can’t.

If you’re professional criminal, sticking your name and number out there to be cold called is a huge liability.  You don’t know who’s on the other end of that line. It could be a job that won’t pay enough to justify the risk. It could be the cops. It could be someone you pissed off, a family member of one of your victims, or someone who you’re currently contracted to kill. Lots of people have reason to want you dead, or in prison. So, probably best not to list your name in the yellow pages.

Police, shadowy government agencies, and professional criminals pull from separate talent pools. There’s some crossover, and someone could potentially be on the radar for all three.

Police have access to professionals. They’re not going to be hiring assassins, though a dirty cop may avail themselves of the criminal talent pool for special situations. Ex-military is a nice background, but for the most part, they’re going to be working internally, or pulling people from the normal job market. You want to work for the cops? It’s as simple as filling out a job application for an open position. Police hire for support positions, without putting someone through full police training. You’ll be expected to follow the law, so no off-the-books hacking for fun, but there’s pay and benefits. This is for things like forensics.

There’s a related group, with lawyers hiring computer forensics experts to assist in court cases (usually civil, though it may be a defense attorney.) The guys do get picked out of the phone book. They’re not going to engage in criminal activity, but they may help you track down evidence of criminal tampering. Some of these guys have history working the police, in computer forensics, but it’s not necessary.

Intelligence Agencies like to recruit directly. They’ll show up at job fairs at major technical schools, sometimes they’ll put ads in the paper. Ex-military is very nice. In some cases, like the NSA, the agency itself is military. This creates an alternate path, where people will come out directly out of special forces programs, into working for that agency. Possibly, working for them while they still served, and then transitioning over after mustering out. Needless to say, you’re not going to be hiring these guys for an off-the-books kill.

When we’re talking about criminals, it’s a little fuzzier. How does a mob boss know who to call when they need a freelance contractor? References and people inside their organization. These may include ex-military or ex-intelligence officers. It’s a way to make money, and there’s not a lot of use in the civil sector for being able to put a .338 Lapua Magnum through someone’s head at over a kilometer. In fact, some criminal enterprises, including drug cartels, actively court ex-special forces for use as training instructors and in wetwork.

If these all sound like closed systems, it’s because they are. There’s no real access from someone who doesn’t have the connections to find a specialist. As I mentioned, this is deliberate. It’s a safety consideration; an unknown individual coming through your door is a major risk.

So, you may have a civilian who has criminal ties and can hire someone. The connections are already there, so they know who to call. In some ways this is a cheat, because, while it’s real and it does happen, it looks more like a contrivance.

People who don’t have those connections, which is most of the population, tend to do stupid things when they’re looking for a hitman or a hacker. This includes the Craigslist ads I mentioned earlier, and that does happen. There are more than a few situations where someone tried to hire a hitman or hacker for some bit of petty revenge and instead ended up talking to a cop. Because, turns out, if you start asking friends and family for how to hire an assassin, someone’s going to call the cops. Then your dream assassin will call you up on a tapped line, meet with you wearing a wire, and arrest you. This happens. If there’s one takeaway from this: Amateur criminals are dumb. Really dumb.

The thing is, generating those connections is doable. It doesn’t even need to take up your entire story. It does require your character to take some time, and commit some resources, into cultivating them though. The danger here is that cops and criminals share most of the same social circles. Meaning, someone staggering in from the outside may very well run into the police, rather than finding a professional hitter, even if they do things, “properly.”

One of the advantages of prose is that you can glaze over some details. You can compact significant amounts of time into a few paragraphs. The exact process your character goes through to cultivate access to the criminal underworld can be covered in a few pages, punctuated by individual moments. Now, obviously, this can run up against stylistic choices. But, if you need to cover a drawn out, complex process, compacting it down is an option. Particularly one that will take months.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the issue is strictly a time issue. If you’re planning to have your character find an assassin in a couple hours, that’s not happening in any realistic context. Cultivating a network of criminal contacts that can put you in touch with an assassin takes time.

Hackers are a slightly different different story, but again, it’s a different set of connections. Probably not something your character could set up during an all nighter trolling forums. That said, some simple exploits which will work against non-hardened targets could be within your character’s grasp. Basic social engineering and script kiddie stuff is already out there. So, it kinda depends on what you’re expecting a hacker to be capable of. To be fair, there’s also a kind of approach to hackers as techno-sorcery that I’m honestly not fond of, so, again, looking at what’s possible as opposed to having an all seeing auger is probably a good idea.

Remember, whatever your character does to cultivate their network will, probably, show up when the cops start investigating. So, if your character suddenly started fishing around for a hitman, that’s probably going to come up.

When it comes to creating a character, having access to specific kinds of specialists is the kind of thing you need to “buy into” with their background. If they don’t have the connections to do it, then they don’t, and that’s simply not an option for them. If your plot needs this, then you need to change who they were before things got started. Otherwise, the simple answer is, “they can’t.”


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