The room was stifling, rank with the scent of tangy sweat. Flies crawled through my blood, biting, sipping, itching my skin, but I couldn’t scratch with my hands tied behind my back.
My lips and nose were swollen from the blows, and it was hard to breathe around the stifling, stinking gag to get air through my mouth.
The goon had his fingernails pressing into a leg wound, and I snarled, muffling through the gag, tensing against the bonds.
The goon pressed harder. I couldn’t help it, and cried out in pain.
He let up, and the relative relief was welcome.
We all sat breathing for a time.
Goon took the gag off, looked in my eyes, and grabbed me by the neck, not squeezing, just holding it in his meaty, sweaty hand like a set of keys.
The thin man sitting in the chair behind him cleaned his glasses on his tie, looking at me.
“I will ask you one more time. Your life is forfeit if you remain silent, and we will find your squad and kill them all the same.”
Somehow, I managed to find a bubble of saliva to help me speak.
“Then why do you need me to tell you?” My voice croaked from my dry throat.
“To save us the time of searching, of course.”
“Go to hell.”
The goon looked in my eyes again, and head butted me.
The stars were beautiful, but the room went dark and I saw them fade like a child’s innocence.
2: When I woke up, the goon and the mastermind were on the floor, surrounded by areolas of blood, and in the chair sat the most lethal, beautiful woman I ever met, trimming her nails, expertly, with the point of a really big knife.
Lliya, at times my nemesis, at others, my lover, and sometimes both simultaneously.
I had no idea which one was going to kill me, and sometimes, I didn’t think I’d care.
The gag was out, but I was still tied up.
“Good morning, handsome.”
“Interesting. I thought you’d say ‘Thank you, gorgeous.’”
She stood, walked over to me. I actually felt a little sliver of fear.
Looking into my eyes, she put her hand with cool fingers and light pressure, capable of anything, on my swollen cheek
“Thank you, gorgeous.”
She slinked behind me, untied my wrists, knelt, untied my ankles, her mouth close to my crotch, a small smile on her lips.
She smiled up at me, undoing the last of the knots. Her smile dazzled, her eyes sparkled with erotic mischief.
“My dear Warr, you know I only keep you alive so I can kill you myself. But not like this. Not sporting, and all that crap.”
She rubbed my wrists, bringing the stinging tingle of circulation back, then I took care of my ankles.
“Get up, darling.”
She wrinkled her nose. “You stink.”
“Yes, but not at my job.”
She looked back at the dead goon and the mastermind, then back at me, the point of her knife slowly twirling at the corner of her smirking mouth.
3: It took some time for the swelling to go down.
Lliya tried to stay, but that was too volatile a situation.
I still remember the kiss she gave me when she left.
Lieutenant Kriley and some of the guys came to see me, debrief me over what the squad accomplished without me, and razzed me hard for getting caught, but praised me for not cracking under the beating I took.
“We’re gonna beat your ass for getting caught, but we’ll wait til you heal.”
“You had to go the bathroom again, didn’t you?”
“Your face still looks like a catcher’s mitt.”
And on it went.
I tried not to laugh, because it hurt my ribs, but they had no mercy.
Soon, Kriley dismissed them all, sat across from me all serious like.
I nodded. “Yeah.”
He sat back, steepled his fingers, “I’m beginning to wonder if we should’ve recruited her instead.”
“Me too. She said I stunk at my job.”
“You did get caught.”
“Just once, Captain.”
He unsteepled his fingers, folded his hands in his lap.
“There’s guys don’t come back from once. You know that. So what should we do now?”
“Let me go after her.”
“What does she know, you need to go after her?”
“Nothing. I like the curve of her backside.”
“You can go all puppy-dog about it on your time. I’m not asking again.”
“She knows who’s behind the killing.”
“And you know this how? She told you?”
“She set it up.”
“And you know this how?”
“The little man in the wide tie told me. Somehow, she knew we were here, tipped him. I was blindsided,” I touched the swelling behind my ear, “and they got me. The rest of the squad went on without me.”
“Your feelings hurt?”
“Captain, I’m just running the facts by you.”
“Sorry. No more busting your chops. But those aren’t facts. Yet.”
“If she knew we were here, how come she didn’t know where we went? She could’ve followed us herself and taken care of it. We never would’ve saw her, or known she was there.”
“Part of the reason I want to go after her.”
“She’s long gone, and we got better things to do.”
He let that sink in, then got up to leave.
“Leave it alone, Warr. She’ll mess you up in the head, if she hasn’t already.”
That ship had sailed a long time ago, but I didn’t bother telling him that.
“Feel better,” he said, and walked out.
Maybe I should start at the beginning.
I remember glass breaking and the sound of copters, keen and fast, flying low over the neighborhood, and the sound of rapid shooting.
My wife ran to the window to see what was happening.
In an instant she became a pile of molten skin, boiling blood, and bone shards, her head plopping on the bed beside me, looking at me with a question in her bloody, sightless eyes.
Men in black uniforms and helmets with black visors hitting me with sticks and boots and fists.
They carried me out, but as I was losing consciousness, I registered it all.
People were screaming and running. The confusion was deliberate, and unnecessary. I would have gone quietly had they knocked.
Women and children were lying prone in the streets, bleeding out, their husbands’ bodies vainly over them in a futile gesture of protection, family blood mingling in eternal rivulets of unison.
Tubes in and out, fluids flowing to and fro, in me, out of me, cycling through again, and men in white robes, outside of the plexiglass tank that contained me, talking in hushed tones about what I was to become.
I heard them. Every word, but I never told them.
Tests, chemicals, more tests, more chemicals, straining against tight bonds, pushing, pushing, until they ripped free, and more men in black with sticks came for me. They say seven of them died before they found the tranquilizer that saw me behind thicker plexiglass.
I had no idea where I was, or why.
I had no clue why they wanted to turn me into a killing machine, but in the end now, it doesn’t matter.
Now, they are the ones I hunt.
I’d lived in a quiet neighborhood, with good neighbors (mostly), and a good wife. We had no children, because I was mostly on the move, and never knew if I was coming home.
I wouldn’t have liked it if Candace left, but I would have understood.
She didn’t, and I loved her all the more for it.
We often went to the countryside on weekends, to a cabin I’d built there for us, our little hideaway, where we let ourselves air out the tensions of the week, and left our inhibitions in the car.
I liked the mountains that took the sunset into their valleys, liked the silent, circling hawks, majestic in their flying, lethal in their descent.
I liked the way the grass rippled like green water when the wind blew across it.
I liked that Candace wanted to share it with me.
I liked to think that we were happy, before she died.
And then, I didn’t think anymore, about anything that wasn’t my mission: find the insufferable bastards that blew her head off, or die trying.
Back on the job, still a little bruised up, but I was gonna hurt someone if I didn’t get out of that hospital bed.
It was nothing a ballerina couldn’t endure.
I was debriefed: we did not find what we were looking for, so we had to keep looking, except now it would involve traveling, which we all hated, so everyone was gonna have an attitude about finding it.
I suspected that Lliya tipped them off, but I knew it wasn’t the kind of thing she’d do, even though she lived to destroy us. Sometimes, even your enemies had codes of honor they wouldn’t break.
And that meant that it was someone here, on the squad, working close, with access to plans and supplies, maps and computers, spy equipment, and weaponry. What I'd told Kriley was to throw him off, but I never knew if anything ever got by him.
It was shaping up to be a fun time.
I sighed, sipped coffee, looked at the clock, put the double frame pictures of Candace in the top drawer, sipped some more coffee, watched the clock some more, turning it over.
Who could it be?
Why would they do it? Money? Too simple, but simple may have been enough.
Revenge? Ambition? Jealousy?
Too many questions would lead to me getting paranoid and shifty, and if someone else was thinking about this, I might be the one under scrutiny.
I breathed deep to slow everything down, and reviewed what I knew of these guys in my head:
Kriley was by the book, and only by the book. His frustration with the job we did was mostly tied to the fact that everyone else, me included, was only loosely affiliated with the book.
We cut corners and took shortcuts and risks, even when it came back to bite us.
There wasn’t always time for the book, though Captain Kriley always insisted there was.
Colanto was stand-up too, but too eager to get home to his live-in girlfriend. If she was hoping for wife-hood, she’d be waiting forever. He tended to ditch overtime though, and wouldn’t volunteer or take on extra if it wasn’t a direct order.
But he was a great shot, and you could rely on him to take it when he needed to, and sometimes when he didn’t, just to expedite things.
He was the obvious choice, and in this job, you never overlook the obvious, because very often, that’s what they wanted you to overlook.
Arlo was older, more settled, had seen his share of firefights, and knew what it took to survive. He was still rugged and broad, if a little more gray, but that only gave him more of an aura of authority, which he was not shy about wielding. I would be the most disappointed if it was Arlo who leaked.
Duncan, “Dark Horse” we called him, the quiet one, was the least likely. He never said much, didn’t seem to have a blink reflex, and had an unnerving ability to become absolutely still, settling in like a big cat on the hunt, seemingly lifeless, blending in, until he was ready to strike.
The results were always lethal, and none of it fazed him. If it was him, he’d give me the most trouble, only because he was such an ex factor.
Lastly there was Eberdine, affectionately called Ed, the lone female on the squad. She had cinnamon skin, sea-green eyes, and a body that promised heaven, and could send you there in a heartbeat with a blow, a bullet, or a blade.
She was the smallest, and perhaps, skill for skill, the most covert among us, hiding in places you wouldn’t think to look, coming back to you with information you swore was confidential, and you knew there were no witnesses. Visible ones anyway. She remembered conversations verbatim.
She enjoyed it. “Keeps me sharp,” she always said.
If she was the leak, I was going to have a hard time catching her, and who knew how long that would take.
Tonight, He said, one of you will betray me.
I learned that somewhere. It was heavy with foreshadow, simple and fearful, with a heartfelt agony of broken trust behind it, a sense of inevitability, and unmatched bravery in the way the victim stayed the course, knowing what he knew.
The conference room was big, manfully appointed, and too cold from the canned air that blew threw the inconspicuous vents overhead.
The large monitor in the front of the room held the image of man with his face in deep shadow, track lighting glinting off the silver letters on the marbled black granite wall behind him:
“Were we compromised?” Shadow-face asked.
“No sir,” Kriley answered. “Commander Warren didn’t break, but we didn’t find what we were looking for.”
He didn’t exactly throw me under the bus, he just kind of tossed me underhand.
“Commander Warren. What have you to say for yourself?”
The squad chuckled, but Shadow-face wasn’t amused.
“Yes,” he said, “you are.” That brought an even bigger chuckle; first Lliya, now Shadow-face. I had to learn not to set myself up.
“The mission, sir?” Kriley said, mercifully switching the conversation back to its original purpose.
Shadow-face sat silently for a moment or two.
“You will proceed to Nanjasi, sans Commander Warren.”
“He is suspended, effective immediately. He compromised the safety of the squad, and has become a liability.”
“But sir,” said Kriley, “he’s one of our best all around tactics operatives; I could really use him in the field. Would you reconsider, sir?”
“I already have,” said Shadow-face. “I was going to fire him, effective immediately. Meeting adjourned, Captain. You and the rest of the squad will leave for Nanjasi first light. Sans Commander Warren.
“Am I clear?”
Kriley’s jaw twitched with the unsaid. “Crystal, sir.”
The monitor winked out.
He looked at me. “You’re on vacation. Where will you go?”
“I’ve always wanted to see…Nanjasi.”
“You think this guy was born yesterday? He’s probably already got tails on you.”
Kriley was right.
“And no,” he said, “you will not spot them, and no again, you will not shake them.”
“You done with your vote of confidence?”
I left, but I didn’t go home. Not right away. Not for awhile.
I went to find Lliya, but I didn’t go after her. Not directly.
“Ed, where would a woman go if she didn’t want to be found?”
“Well, certainly not the bedroom.”
I flashed a phony smile, nodded. “Good. Now where?”
“Shopping, a chick flick, lesbo book store, feminist AA meeting. Why do you wanna know?”
“I’m looking for a woman.”
“Not in that way.”
“Well, now I’m insulted.”
"You said not the bedroom..."
She arched a playful eyebrow. "It's not the only room..."
I chuckled in spite of myself. “Come on, now,” I pleaded.
“Okay, okay,” she was smiling herself. “She doesn’t want to be found?”
“Women don’t disappear not to be found; they wouldn’t go off to a cabin somewhere in East Loserville to get away from the Mister.
“They go somewhere to think, to calm down, to get past the emotions.”
“Where would that be?”
“A park, a coffee shop, somewhere public where she could be alone among people, because she’s afraid she’ll act out if she’s wrong upstairs. So there’s someone there to call for help.
“Indeed,” she said. “Glad to hear it. Know where to start?”
I thought about it.
“No. I don't know if emotions would apply to Lliya."
"Warr, don't be stupid. She's had more than one opportunity to kill you, and you've certainly given her...access. I don't know about motive.
“Should I come with? I’ll ditch you when we’ve found her.”
“Sure. Thanks. Why’s your name so damn weird?”
“I changed it to Eberdine. It was actually weirder.”
She laughed at my expression as she got her coat.
“Let’s go find your killer girlfriend.”
“Well, when you put it that way…”
We walked, arm in arm, off to start my vacation, looking for a woman who didn’t want to be found.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
March 3rd 2014
All rights reserved