The composite stock felt cool despite the warm breeze. Nancy peered down her scope. The target appeared exactly at 10:00 PM on his terrace. He lit a cigarette. Nancy pulled the trigger.
“You told me it was hot,”‘
I saw myself, aiming down and pulling the trigger. The bullet cut through the night, piercing the smoke of his cigarette.
“Then what happened, Nancy?” the therapist asked.
“Same thing that always happens, Gretchen,” I answered wryly, belying my discomfort.
“You told me you have killed before,”
Nancy had come back to her squalid apartment after a late night. The city and thus the apartment was already hot. Although it was a Sunday morning, the city was already loud.
All Nancy had was a mattress in the old low plastered ceiling apartment. It sagged and drooped after years of water and neglect. Even with the spartan conditions, the city outside seemed to intrude. Nancy laid back on the dirty bed after showering. Sleep had eluded her.
The actual assassination the night before had been uneventful, but Nancy had been keyed up, surveilling the target for days. It was a professor. In her scope, Nancy saw him sit on the toilet. The professor had kidnapped a colleague’s daughter. Nancy locked on the infra-sight and breathed out.
All this for credit on a paper, she thought. The bullet ripped through the building. The man froze and then fell. Nancy could swear she heard the seizing thump of the dead body. What kind of person kidnaps a kid in the first place, Nancy thought in disgust when she broke down her SiegK rail rifle.
“You know I have to report any crime,” Gretchen reminded me.
“There is no evidence that it was me,” I said slyly.
“Yes, I read the news, too,” Gretchen pulled a blind to the setting sun.
“You don’t think I did it?”
“Do you think you did?” Gretchen asked with a raised brow.
I didn’t know what to say. I had been there, I thought, suddenly recalling the smell of the rose garden I was hiding in. I remembered powering on the coils. I felt my finger pulling the trigger. I tried not to look helpless at this new doubt.
Gretchen gave me a comforting smile, “You have had delusions before, Nancy,”
Nancy always had a million thoughts after a hit. The cacophony in her head could be as loud as the crowding city around her. Nancy tried to focus on something other than the rage in her head.
For a moment she dozed, dreaming of a quiet beach. A place away from the crowds and heat. The heat woke her again, her sweat adding to her already smelly mattress. Nancy sat up with a sigh. Maybe another job would help, Nancy thought.
Connecting to the under-net, she browsed over to Udarak, the assassin’s gig site. That’s when she first saw him. Mark Fiachat had made a lot of people angry.
Nancy put in a bid for her services. The crowdfunded site had the right job. They weren’t biting at a twelve-million bid. Nancy did have a good reputation, and she was efficient. If they really wanted him dead, then they could afford ten million for Nancy’s services.
It was still less than the heavy hitters got. It was the kind of job right up Nancy’s alley. The investors that wanted Mark Fiachat dead didn’t have a lot of money, but they had enough for Nancy. The bid was accepted.
Ten-million dollars. The kind of money that would buy you a small island. Ten-million dollars. The people had spoken. Mark Fiachat must die.
“Ten million dollars is a lot of money,”
“Yes, it is,” I conceded.
“Why was it Mark Fiachat?”
The folio for Mark Fiachat came through. He was a CEO. His company had poisoned several towns in South America. Then he embezzled the cleanup funds.
Pictures of bodies face down and livestock frozen in place by a viscous yellow muck. She looked in distaste at the videos from helicopters flying low over towns stained yellow, cars, and people struggling through toxic mud.
It was the bodies that particularly affected Nancy. Dead families, in the hazardous waste, having not been able to escape the horror that Mark Fiachat had unleashed on them. A lot of people had good reason to want Mark Fiachat dead.
The composite stock felt cool despite the warm breeze. Nancy peered down her scope. The target appeared exactly at 10:00 PM on his terrace. He lit a cigarette. Nancy pulled the trigger.
“Then what happened?” Gretchen asked, seemingly letting me talk in circles.
“I pulled the trigger,” I answered, sort of meekly.
“Why did you pull the trigger?”
“I was doing my job,” I leaned back with my arms crossed.
The hot summer sun was setting but still spilled through the blinds. It cast shadows across Gretchen’s face. I faltered and then paused. I was again above myself. Across the way was Mark Fiachat.
“And that is the only reason?”
“A lot of people wanted him dead. He was a very bad man,” I muttered.
“Is that why you pulled the trigger?”
Nancy knew that there was any number of cameras that had seen her. Until she had proof of completion, though, anyone could take credit. Nancy left her rifle and strapped herself into a rope over the edge of the building.
Five or six minutes, she told herself, rappelling down the side of the building. That was all she had, as she dropped into the shadow on the edge of the sidewalk. The crowds impeded her, so Nancy made a break and jaywalked to the other side of the street.
Around back, Nancy broke the fire exit lock and charged up the steps. With each step she ran, her muscles screamed. Nancy pressed on. She had trained for this.
She reached the twentieth floor and kicked open the penthouse door. Mark Fiachat was still on the terrace. Nancy ran to him. When she reached him, Nancy was met by the dull thud of slugs hitting the wall Mark Fiachat was cowering behind.
Grimacing as another volley chunked from the slug thrower, Nancy ducked and pulled out a grenade. She turned up her nose as Mark Fiachat shit his pants. The home-built robot hovered as if trying to figure out what to do. It sprayed another volley, trying to flush them out.
The grenade clicked after being activated and Nancy started to count down. Mark Fiachat’s eyes got wider the longer Nancy held it. The robot stopped and Nancy popped up, heaving the grenade. It exploded close enough to scramble the robot. It crashed onto the terrace.
Nancy looked at Mark Fiachat, “Twenty-million?” she asked him.
Mark Fiachat looked up helplessly, “I… I…,”
“I fake your death? Twenty-million?”
“I… I…,” Mark Fiachat struggled up.
“I can shoot you now and get ten million,” Nancy bargained.
“I… I… Yes,” Mark finally got out.
“You have the funds?”
“You didn’t kill him?” Gretchen said with slight surprise.
“It was an awful lot of money,” I confessed.
Gretchen leaned forward, “but he was a bad man,”
I thought about it. Mark Fiachat had been right there, cowering, waiting to die. The reason was hazy even then. I was angry that I couldn’t remember why I was angry. I stood over him and offered my hand.
“He was a very bad man,” I said in slow agreement.
Mark stood, suddenly looking vaguely defiant under his fear, “Yes, I have the money. Can I change?” he asked looking at his shit-covered pajamas.
Nancy jerked her thumb at the heap on the terrace, “There are more like that coming, so, Mark Fiachat, keep your shit to yourself,”
Nancy threw a pool towel she had grabbed over Mark’s head and forced him into a crouch. There were too many cameras linked to bounty scanning image recognition AIs. Nancy weaved through the sidewalk, head down.
It was Mark Fiachat’s crowd. Angel-funded lottery winners. Lots of money and willingness to spend it. The two of them looked pretty ragged and most people gave them a wide berth. One woman came close, as if in recognition, but turned up her nose when drawing close.
On a side street, Nancy had left her car. Cringing at the thought of Mark’s feces-stained pajamas on her upholstery, Nancy saw the slug hit, before she heard the whoosh. The car’s armored windshield caught the bullet. Another shot hit, bowing the glass in.
The third shot would break it. A slug buried in the sidewalk next to Mark, who shit his pants again. Nancy pulled out her rail rifle. The rifle hummed as Nancy flipped the cooling trigger.
Resting the bi-pod on the roof of her car, Nancy quickly found the shooter. Whoever it was, they were erratic. The shooter fired again, the bullet crashing through her window. The attacker’s head glowed red through the cooling suit.
Nancy pulled the trigger and put her rifle back in the trunk. The dull thud of the body hitting the pavement made Mark jump. Nancy waved him into the car. Gagging a little from the smell, Nancy keyed in her destination and the car slipped away into the night traffic.
“So you got away?”
“I thought so,” I answered.
“Why do you think that?”
I was discomfited by my inability to answer. It was like I wasn’t in the room, when I blurted out, “I don’t know,”
Nancy was slightly dozing in her stuffy apartment after abandoning her car. Mark Fiachat roused her with a shake of his chain. The heavy metal chain wrapped around an ancient, never used, radiator. His look was less scared and more disdainful.
“Can I clean up now?”
Nancy looked him over, “The chain will stretch to the bathroom,”
Mark pointed to his waist, “How do I take this off with the chain on my ankle,”
Nancy flipped open a butterfly knife and expertly cut his pajama bottoms off. “You figure out the rest,” she told him, wiping the excrement-covered blade on his face.
“You took him home?”
I was tired. I couldn’t remember the last time I had slept. Why did I take him home? Thinking back, all I remembered was how sticky I felt. It was hot. It felt so relentless.
“I was… I was… I needed to figure out what to do,”
Gretchen folded her hands on her desk, “But, it seems like you always know what to do,”
“I am good at my job,” I suddenly said as if by rote.
“Why Mark Fiachat?”
“His money spends as good as anyone’s,” I answered as simply as I could.
Phone above at arm’s length, Nancy looked for herself on the under-net. A group of micro-investors was chattering about Nancy not completing the hit. It was still taken as a rumor, but there were a lot of cameras out there. Mark Fiachat was bound to be seen sooner or later.
Exhausted, Nancy nodded off. Even though her mattress was grungy, Nancy dreamed she was on a beach. No people. Just her and a gentle trade wind. The smell of tropical vegetation seemed almost real. The sound of lapping waves filled her head. Nancy felt relaxed.
When you sleep, do you dream?” Gretchen asked me, flipping on a desk lamp.
“It was too hot to dream,” I lied.
Nancy’s eyes snapped awake. Mark Fiachat stood naked at the foot of her bed. Nonplussed, Nancy pointed at two piles of clothes, “Left is dirty, right is clean,”
Mark started delicately picking through the pile, “This is VendMart crap,”
She ignored him, “What do you want me to do now?” Nancy asked impatiently.
“Take me to my yacht,” he said offhand, holding up some sweatpants, “really?” he asked sarcastically.
Nancy glared, “You can get dressed or I can drag you across town naked,”
Nancy flipped up her mattress and started grabbing what she could carry. Mark leaned over her shoulder to look at the array of weaponry, “Wow, I feel better,”
“You might want to wait on that,” Nancy said as an aside, grabbing an X512 launch platform and a duo-clip.
After unchaining Mark, Nancy froze. There was a thump, followed by a scratchy, skittering sound. The cracked plaster ceiling started to vibrate. Chunks and dust fell to the floor and four shock-bots dropped down. They skittered about, arcs of power crackling between their eight-legged frames.
Nancy got her boot under one, kicking it into the wall. It fell, then scrambled back up. Nancy threw her butterfly knife, impaling it in the middle. Before it could spark to a stop, Nancy pulled her knife out. Reaching from behind, Nancy produced two throwing knives. The first hit another bot in stride.
The other buried into the floor, the spider-legged robot skipping away. Nancy dashed for the knife and the little arcing spider gave her a painful shock. She stood and shook her numb hand as she grabbed the knife and stood. Flipping the knife in her hand, she snapped her wrist. The robot froze in place, skewered by the knife.
Mark Fiachat was being menaced by the last one. He was again trembling. Nancy upended the robot with her heavy boots and gored it with her butterfly knife.
From here she grabbed a street-sweeper from her cache and headed for the door.
She looked at Mark and commented flatly, “If you shit your pants, I’m leaving you here,”
“I don’t have anything left,” Mark muttered, following Nancy out.
The city exploded in all its noise, clutter, and humanity when Nancy and Mark stepped out on the street. Nancy steered Mark to a bus stop.
Why did you get on the bus? Haven’t you stolen cars before,”
Why didn’t I steal a car? In my mind, I stood beside myself on the busy street. It was just me, the city receding from my memory. I looked confused. I didn’t have a plan. Why didn’t I have a plan?
“It seemed safer,” I answered noncommittally.
Nancy knew she stood out with her full-length black jacket. Not that the other riders hadn’t seen weirder. Nancy wanted to take it off, the plastic jacket adding to the cruel heat. Still, it was better to be too hot than to flash the arsenal Nancy was carrying.
Nancy kept watching while Mark sprawled on the bench. The bus grew more crowded and Nancy tried not to be buffeted by the mass of people surrounding her. A very large arm reached and snatched Mark from where he was lolling.
Nancy reached under her jacket and slipped forward. A large muscular man held Mark up. Nancy tensed. The man glared, then released Mark. Watching the man wave for a pregnant woman to sit, Nancy let out an internal sigh.
The bus started to fill. Mark crowded up close to Nancy. Feeling constricted, Nancy gritted her teeth. She could feel herself getting dehydrated, the sweat dripping inside the jacket. Twenty million, Nancy reminded herself. Twenty million would get her out of that overheated city and the overwhelming wretchedness.
Nancy watched a man slipping forward towards Mark. There was a bulge in the man’s light coat. Inside her jacket, Nancy palmed her thumper. The hyper hydraulic piston pulled into position. As the man came closer, Nancy inched forward towards him.
The bus hit a bump, and Nancy activated the thumper. The noise of the crowded bus muffled the sound of heavy metal weight thumping into the sternum of the man. There was a wet crack and the man fell limp, held up by the other bus riders. The thumper had expended its energy, stopping the man’s heart.
Nancy had to get off the bus. Pushing Mark forward, Nancy dropped the thumper onto the floor. It was soon lost under the feet of the passengers. Even the hot air outside the bus was a relief. Twenty-million dollars and she could leave this foul place that she had just made worse.
The man on the bus? How did you know he was going to kill?” Gretchen asked.
How did I know he was going to kill Mark? “You just know I guess,”
“But you really don’t know, do you, Nancy?”
Mark eagerly ate one of two street vendor hotdogs. Nancy had already had one bottle of water and was picking at a large pretzel. It had felt as if it had been days since she had eaten, even the small bites making her stomach rumble. Nancy started the third bottle of water.
Nancy gazed over the large marble plaza. It was filled with thousands of people milling about and queuing up. Any one of them could be a danger. Nancy took another bite of a stale pretzel. The carbs would supplement her still coursing neural chemicals. Somehow she knew it would be a long day.
“I saw what you did on the bus,” Mark said through a mouthful.
“Yeah?” Nancy asked.
“You killed that guy,” he whispered conspiratorially.
“I am a merchant of death,” Nancy told him dangerously.
Nancy went through a mental checklist of what she had. Her eight-shot X518 launch platform had four slugs and four variable charge rockets in the clip. Strapped against her thigh was a short-barreled ARc ‘street sweeper’.
That was all she had to get Mark Fiachat to the pier. It was clear that everyone had figured it out. A lot of people wanted Mark Fiachat dead. Nancy went over her armaments again, inventorying everything she had to stop him from being killed.
Nancy walked Mark down the street while she decided on her next move. Cameras were everywhere and soon a small drone buzzed alongside Mark. Another joined it and still more joined. The angry drones swarmed around Mark, snapping propellers against his face.
Mark started waving his arms around and whimpering as small chunks of flesh were taken from his skin. Nancy muscled him and the following drones onto a side street. Swatting the drones away, Nancy pulled her X518 and flipped over to a light rocket charge.
After locating a suitable car, Nancy backed up to it, still shaking off the drones. In her pocket, Nancy started the CarCrack fob. The door popped open and Nancy pushed Mark in. Nancy set the charge and fired the rocket at the swarm. After the explosion, the remaining drones tumbled from the other exploding drones.
Nancy hurriedly got in the car, drones still in pursuit. Even after she had closed the car door, a drone chased her inside. The propellers nicked her hands when she grabbed them out of the air. Nancy crushed it.
After starting the car, Nancy turned the AC to full blast. She entered the address for the pier. Mark leaned his chair back and promptly fell asleep. Twenty-million dollars.
“So you did steal a car?” Gretchen pointed out my inconsistency.
“I’m good at my job,”
“And what job is that?”
“I am a merchant of death,”
A snort from a sleeping Mark Fiachat brought Nancy abruptly alert. The city was streaming past, thousands of heads bobbing just above the thousands of low-slung cars. There were too many people.
Nancy shivered, the air conditioner feeling even colder against her sweaty body. Mark grunted again. Annoyed, Nancy looked over at him, her eyes freezing on the console. The GPS had re-routed them.
If someone had taken control of the car, there wasn’t much Nancy could do. Still, she tried vainly to wrest control back. Swearing and ripping underneath the console, the car came to a halt.
Nancy looked up.
Nancy saw a woman standing with an RPG. Nancy one-handed the ARc and pushed Mark out of the car. The stout little gun pumped out its clip while Nancy sprayed in the general direction of the RPG launcher.
Mark grunted and Nancy pulled at him. The grenade went straight up when the person’s knees were cut out from under. Nancy cursed again. After going straight up, the grenade reached its apogee. Nancy urged Mark forward. The grenade landed flat on the roof and exploded.
“The car exploded?” Gretchen asked skeptically.
Even then, it was like a slow-motion holo, the camera craning around in a cinematic sweep. I was frozen in the middle of the tableau, batteries going up in flames behind me. The car had exploded?
Shrapnel and flames nipped at Nancy and Mark. A large piece was embedded in Nancy’s leg.
A roar masked Nancy yelling, “Keep going!”
They collapsed in a doorway along a busy highway. Nancy tore off her jacket and grabbed the hot piece of shrapnel. Nancy’s scream was still silent over the ringing in her ears.
She mouthed, “Are you okay?” at Mark, who reluctantly nodded yes.
Not caring about appearances, Nancy stalked down the street, Mark in tow, X518 out. Cars didn’t seem to notice or care when Nancy found a pedestrian overpass. The concrete ramp curled up, the lack of a clear line of sight making Nancy uncomfortable
They reached a car park. Nancy moaned. The garage was full of cars, any one of which could attack. Across the concrete structure were the stairs down to the street. Then it was just a block to the pier. Nancy gripped her pistol with two hands.
Trying to move quietly, their steps still echoed across the car park. Nancy stopped and two headlights popped on. The capacitor on the hood started to glow yellow as it charged up. The front wheels of the overpowered car started squealing.
Nancy pushed Mark and followed as the car started for them. Nancy knew the car was sure to be armored. She hoped it wasn’t everywhere, sliding a rocket underneath the car. The car hit the concrete ceiling with a crash after Nancy triggered the rocket’s full charge.
Nancy grimly observed the powered-up explosive ignite the batteries on the car. She thumbed another rocket into place, charging it up, too. Another car rounded the corner. Before Nancy could react, the car clipped her leg sending her reeling to the concrete with a painful thump.
Without thinking, Nancy rolled and skipped the rocket under the careening car. Nancy got up and kicked open the door and started down without stopping despite the screaming heat from her twice injured leg.
”And you did all of this for money? For a ‘bad man’?”
“Do you think I had other reasons to subject myself to that abuse?”
“You tell me,” Gretchen told me.
“I hate that. It’s the oldest therapist trick in the book,”
“The other old trick is the patient who doesn’t cooperate,”
Nancy held up a hand, stopping at a landing without a clear camera view. There were four slugs and one rocket in her pistol. Nancy tried to catch her breath despite the surging adrenaline.
“I need to rest,” Mark complained.
“One minute,” Nancy said, jumping a little when she heard a door slam. It echoed down the stairwell. So much so that she couldn’t tell which way it came from. Dropping her shoulders, Nancy started down the next flight.
“Maybe less than a minute,” she growled.
“Weren’t you tired?” Gretchen looked at me thoughtfully.
“I was a little too busy to notice,” I told her even while wondering why I wasn’t tired.
Was it because I decided to protect a very bad man?
“It seems like you were willing to go to any lengths,” Gretchen quietly noted, her eyes strangely piercing my own, “were you willing to do anything to escape?”
I paused and picked my next words carefully, “As I said, things were a little hectic,”
They got down two flights when three people jumped them. Before the first one could reach her, Nancy thumbed over to her slugs and struck them in the middle of the head. The attacker rolled to a stop at Nancy’s feet.
One jumped past Nancy wrapping Mark up by his neck. Nancy threw an elbow, striking the man in the head. The third assailant tried a frontal attack. Nancy shot her in the chest and spun to the one holding Mark. The pistol lashed out another slug that cut into the head of the assassin.
“Keep going,” Nancy urged, seeing Mark tiring.
One slug, one rocket, five more flights of stairs, Nancy made a checklist. The next attacker swung from the stairs in front of her. The force of the booted feet knocked Nancy’s gun from her hands. It clattered across the metal landing.
A woman landed her palm directly on Nancy’s nose. It crunched as Nancy felt it break, blood instantly running free. Nancy reached out and grabbed the charging woman’s throat. Nancy got ready to wrap her up and snap her neck. A slug whizzed past her ear, striking the woman between the eyes.
Nancy let her go, sending the body tumbling down the stairs. Turning to Mark, she asked, “Have you ever done that before?”
Mark looked at the heap at the bottom of the landing and stammered, “I… I…,” and handed her the pistol.
“You nearly killed yourself for this man?”
I was starting to get angry, “What do you want me to say? He paid well?”
“I think you needed to escape, didn’t you?” Gretchen pressed.
“That was the general plan, Gretchen?” I said snidely.
“What were you running from?”
“You tell me,” I challenged her.
They started down the last flight. A great pounding of feet on metal stairs echoed down. The sound bounced off the concrete like a million people in pursuit. Nancy looked up and could see them drawing close.
She muscled Mark to the railing. Right before she pushed him over she stared into his eyes, “Hit and roll,”
Mark was falling before he could say anything. The rocket whizzed from the pistol, Nancy tumbling behind Mark. The rocket exploded, bringing down the landing and two people above her.
Nancy hit and rolled, the two bodies splatting just as she stood. Nancy grabbed a shaken Mark Fiachat and charged out the door. The staircase crashed behind them. Just one more block.
“Did he make it?”
”I am very good at my job,” I answered, still feeling upset.
“Even if a lot of people die?” Gretchen asked, her eyes catching mine.
The bodies piled up in my memories. Had there been that many? I could feel the unreal, glassy eyes.
“I thought I wanted the money,” I whispered with emphasis.
“From a bad man?”
“Bad men pay like everybody else,”
The composite stock felt cool despite the warm breeze. Nancy peered down her scope. The target appeared at exactly 10:00 PM on his terrace. He lit a cigarette. Nancy pulled the trigger.
I got up to leave and Gretchen looked at me with genuine interest, “So, what happened?”
I just shrugged and turned to the person waiting at the door, “Mark Fiachat was a very bad man,”
Nancy rolled over, a cool wind followed the warm downdraft. Mark Fiachat’s body fell onto his patio table. The crunch of safe-glass cracking was followed by a pitcher of sangria crashing down. It quieted. The sound of lapping waves filled her head. Nancy felt relaxed.