Ben Bryan had been afraid to get out of es car, despite being in the middle of nowhere. There hadn't been a single person in sight, and that frightened em: in es line of business, it's what one doesn't know that gets em killed, and e was all too aware of how little e knew. It was a new experience for Ben, and e didn't care for it. The winds offered no consolation, whistling just loud enough to keep em from concentrating es thoughts. E remained content to remain ducked down out of sight until Mike's car appeared. Mike, as usual, lets little escape es notice:
"Were you just hiding when I arrived?"
"Yes. I feel better now, though, since you're here."
"Whoa. That's not like you. At all."
"I know. Or more correctly, I don't know, and that's the problem."
"...Should I be calling the kind gentlemen in the white coats?"
"...Hello to you too, asshole."
"Sorry. But you're starting to get me worried."
"Sam is 'here', so to speak, right?"
"Yeah, of course. E always is, you know that."
Ben unleashes an enormous sigh of relief. "Thank you. Then I'm not worried. At least, not while I'm here."
"You think someone is after you?"
"I know someone is after me. Unfortunately, that's about all I know. Something very serious is brewing, and some major puppetry is at work. Mike... I've been fired."
Mike is rarely at a loss for words. Es "job", for lack of a better term, is mostly negotiation and thinking on es feet. Es advance plans often find themselves crumbling, but e always finds an alternative, and the good guys ultimately live to run away. Being shocked, or stuck without anything to say, is the worst condition Mike could possibly be in.
Mike is shocked, and stuck without anything to say. Ben was Mike's connection to the feds. Mike would get the signal message on es cell; they would meet in this secluded plain, flat and featureless, during a bright morning hour; Ben would present the fifty-thousand-dollar under-the-counter salary and explain the mission; Mike would rarely decline, with e and Sam splitting the money and doing their thing. Ben was always extremely thorough in es descriptions and meticulous in es plans, and had an air of confidence about em Mike found admirable. Mike looked up to Ben, and did es best to emulate em; e saw Ben not just as a boss, but also a mentor... and even a friend. Mike could picture Zhuge Liang's star falling in es mind's eye...
"I don't blame you if you want to pass on this one. I know I'll be telling you a lot less than-"
"Talk to me." Mike spends the next two seconds mentally searching emself to see if any part of em regretted saying that; e finds no unconditional objections, but one slightly uneasy feeling.
"Thank you so much!"
"No promises, but I'm listening." That makes em feel much better.
"Since I can't give you mission details, I'll give you the background instead. A piece of paper went by my desk recently, titled 'The Mycroft Initiative'."
Mike no longer feels better. In fact, e feels like the dirtiest shit that was ever dumped on the planet. Es mind begins to race.
"About three-quarters of it was obfuscated. What they did let me read was about this secret factory where they're manufacturing some kind of power source."
What the fuck have I done, Mike thinks to emself, taking great care to not let Ben - or Sam - read anything out of place on es face. At least e has something in abundance e typically lacks - time to think - and a simple tactic e usually can't afford but now can't afford not using: playing dumb.
"My supervisor fed me the usual governmental crap: revolutionize society, better place to live, science fiction into reality, you know how it goes. Only that sort of thing tends to be proudly advertised across the land. It doesn't come with a censored summary. There's something about it they don't want anyone knowing, including me."
Be glad you don't, you poor bastard.
"But they wanted someone outside the project to keep a proverbial eye on the place, and they said I was the best man for the job, what with my connections and my finger on the pulse."
"They're right about that one." I am SO sorry, Ben... I had no idea you were involved...
"I thought so too. But the place was raided two nights ago. Nobody was supposed to know where this place even was, much less what was in it, but some two-bit group of thugs broke in, went straight for the prototypes, and got out of there before anyone knew they were gone. By the time we tracked them down, it was the following afternoon. Did you hear about that freak warehouse explosion last night?"
"Of course, it was all over the news." I can't let you be killed... it just isn't right...
"It wasn't an old gas main, and the criminals didn't have a munitions stockpile. It wasn't terrorism thwarted by dumb luck. Props to the spin doctors for that one - great story. Shame it isn't true. I was there. I tracked the thieves to that warehouse, and the whole damn building blew up right in front of me. Idiot squad drivers freaked and crashed up my car. Good thing I'm friends with the pool mechanic and got it repaired that night before they canned me."
"You think it was what they stole that caused it to explode?" Everything I care about... everything you taught me...
"I know it was. I didn't have the fucking radio on like the rest of the dumbasses there; I heard a gunshot just before the explosion. From outside. The front door was wide open. The bodies inside were practically melted, but I know a shootout when I see one. They didn't die in the blast. They were all shot in advance, and then the building was set off from outside. Any doubt I would have had about that was dispelled by when - and how - the forensic team was called off. I know a cover-up when I see one; they must have already known that shit was a major explosive."
"I remember you telling me why you joined: so that you can keep them honest. You're the only reason I was ever willing to do their work to begin with. I believe you. What else can you tell me?" How can I get you through this...
"Only the painfully obvious to an old gumshoe: that one of the criminals was hip to the project. E knew where Superbomb was and what it would do. From there, I have no idea. E could be in on the whole thing or went renegade against it, I can't say. I wasn't given the chance to even try to find out. I was canned and kicked out the building far too quickly."
"You've been with them too long for that sort of farewell." How can you remain both safe and ignorant...
"They must think I know too much, whoever 'they' are. And that's what I'd like you and Sam to do for me: find out who 'they' are and expose them. I may never be able to get my job back, but I want my life back."
THAT'S IT! OF COURSE! "Ben, I promise you, I'll see to it that you'll be safe and they'll be brought to justice."
"You have NO idea how much that means to me. I have your fifty-kay in the car. It's out of my own pocket. It's all I have, but it-"
"Keep it, Ben. I don't need your money. You do. You'll need it to survive. I'll pay Sam myself if I have to."
"If you insist-"
"I do. It's part of my plan."
"You have a plan already?"
"Absolutely. But if I'm to implement it, I need to know more, starting with how you know someone is after you."
"I know because my car took a bullet on the way here."
Mike gasps despite emself. Even e isn't sure if it was facade or not.
"Irony is, if some retard didn't try to cut me off right in front of the tunnel and make me slam on the brakes, the bullet might have hit me instead. Come around the side here and I'll show you."
Mike reaches into es pocket and presses a button on a communicator within. "Sure."
Sam Colbert hates it when Mike changes position, especially when it involves going behind something. Sam's rifle isn't a rail gun, and Sam doesn't have x-ray vision, despite popular belief. Other superpowers Sam lacks include super hearing, telepathy, and magical divination, so not only is e blind to where Mike is, but deaf to what's going on as well. And so far, this encounter has NOT been going the way it normally does. E should have seen the money by now. Any and all doubts e may have, however, are assuaged by the green light that appears on Sam's communicator. As always, e just has to trust that Mike knows what e's doing.
Trusting Mike comes easy for Sam, and e certainly doesn't need to be reminded of why. The past can stay there as far as e's concerned. Sure, so e's now a contract killer, and a legendary one at that, but e's one of the good guys. They get missions from the feds, and sometimes take missions for the feds without the feds even knowing. Why, just yesterday, e and Mike managed to stop a terrorist threat, destroying the stolen prototypes for a new kind of miniature bomb. Which reminds em: e needs to get over that little fear of shooting at explosives - that hesitation could have gotten a fed blown up. As it was, it caused a big crash. Mike may have congratulated em on the drama afterward, but e knows that's really not a good thing.
It's a shame the news had to hide the truth behind the explosion, but why freak the populace, right? It's also a shame Mike wasn't able to salvage any of the bombs - Sam knew that would have been a better result. Perhaps they could have been reverse-engineered and the technology used for something beneficial - you know, they really did look like batteries... oh well. Sam's instructions were simple: either Mike's walking out with the box or running out without it, and if the latter, protect the feds by setting off the bombs early.
Between Mike's great connections and negotiation and Sam's incredible skill, there's almost nothing that they cannot do together. They're like a pair of guardian angels for the country, and when Ben is involved, that's exactly what they're needed for. And so Sam patiently waits, watching, scanning the area for... things just like that. No automatic-fire heavy weapons, so there's no immediate threat, but it may be carrying a sniper. Sam wastes no time in getting the shot lined up. If it stops, it drops....
Mike examines the bullet hole in the car frame, right on the support section between the windshield and the front driver's-side window, with a pocket flashlight. The tail end of the bullet is visible within. E doesn't like what e sees - at first. "This is a sniper's round." Which means this just got a lot tougher to deal with. Unless e's dumb enough to...
As if on cue, Mike's right hip pocket begins to shudder.
"I KNEW it! What'd I tell you? They want me dead!"
It has to be. Sam will know for certain, and know what to do. Mike casually reaches into es pocket and presses the other button on the vibrating communicator. "We may be able to use this to our advantage."
"I don't follow."
"I bet the sniper will, though. Follow, that is. Follow you. Here. To the killing grou-"
The sound of a moderately distant crash interrupts Mike. Ben, however, heard something just prior.
"Way to go, Sam. Let's check it out."
"Did I hear a gunshot from the south?"
"You heard Sam. Few get to do that and live - consider yourself lucky. I suggest we go north and see what we can learn from your pursuer."
Ben is still looking south. "I can't see anyone there! How far away is e?"
"E just saved your life - don't make em kill you now. This is one thing you're just going to have to trust me on."
"Good. Let's take our cars."
A few moments later, the twisted wreckage of a fallen helicopter stood before Mike and Ben. It had apparently simply plummeted, its pilot absent and its stability claimed by the winds. A short distance away, they find the missing pilot, with a gunshot wound to the neck.
"That's the most amazing shot I've ever seen!"
"Sam never misses. No matter the distance."
"Sam a robot or something?"
"DON'T ask questions about my partner. Ever again."
"Fine! Excuse me for living! Fuck!"
I wish e didn't have such a potty-mouth. That's probably where I got it from. "Anyway..." Mike turns the face-down corpse over. "...this anyone you know?"
"...Oh, shit. Oh, fuck. Yes, it is. It's Terrence Whitehall. E's the best sniper we had!"
"E's a fed?" Dirty lying bastards said they didn't have any insiders.
"Yeah. Well, that clinches it, the feds are definitely - wait, no, e's not in uniform... e wouldn't be hiding es identity if I were declared an enemy of the state."
"E must have been in on this secret project. Which means e came after you alone, and isn't reporting to the feds." Whoever was holding this dog's leash is a dead man. "That means we have time, but not much. Okay, listen good, cause I have to make this quick." Mike produces a business card and a pen from es pocket and quickly scribbles 'TRUST ME, COPPERFIELD' on the back, then hands the card to Ben. "Take this to the Chinese laundromat on 14th Street and ask for Gong. Bring the cash. E's the best fader in the business. Nobody stalks 'dead' people."
Ben is stunned. "A fader?! In my city?! ...That YOU KNOW?!"
It pains Mike knowing e can't explain right now. "Hopefully you'll forgive me when it's over. I trust Gong with my life, and e trusts me - that card will get you in, even if you were a fed. But you have to promise me you'll lay low. I know you'll be encountering some people you'd rather see behind bars, but you're going to have to stay hidden if you want to survive this. Don't ask anyone questions, or they'll be liable to off you themselves."
"Are you fucking serious about this?"
"Deathly. But I promise it's only temporary. And I promise you'll be able to walk the streets without fear, with your real identity, when we're done. This guy's ID is enough of a lead for me to go on. I'll get to the bottom of this, and keep you informed along the way."
"I guess I have no choice but to trust you on this."
"I get that a lot - and haven't let one down yet. Now go 'die' before some other conspirator figures out their sniper failed."
Ben hustles back into es car. "Thank you for everything!"
"Thank you, Ben. I'll carry your torch, I promise!"
Mike pulls out es cell as Ben speeds away. "...Gong, please. Tell em it's Hartford. ...Hey, Gong, I have an emergency special for you coming your way. Temporary fade, about a week I figure. Vee-eye-pee, you follow? ...Yes, I need open communication. ...Fifty-kay. ...Yes, e is. I have only three friends in this life, and e and you are two of them. Treat em like you'd treat me. ...Of course I know you treat everyone impeccably, that's why I send business your way. But do me a favor: don't ask em any questions. You'll only regret it. Oh, and I know this isn't always possible, but try to keep em away from other fadees. It's for es own good. ...Technically, former fed - it's complicated. ...Calm down - it won't be an issue, promise. For that kind of money, I'm sure you can handle it. Besides, if e gets ungrateful, let me know and I'll deal with it, promise. ...I know I make a lot of promises, but I always keep them. ...I know that you know I do. Card says 'TRUST ME, COPPERFIELD', got that? ...Awesome. Now look, I know you hate custom jobs, but you're getting this one on a silver platter: E took a sniper's bullet in the eastern plain. E's arriving by car; use it. It even comes pre-installed with an extra bullet hole. Easy-peasy. Mark my current GP, but you'll know the spot - there's a downed chopper here with the dead sniper near it. Here's the fun part - the sniper's a fed, too, but I don't want you to cover that up. I want it to look like they were both hit by a third party. ...Yeah, I'd think the feds have better things to shoot at than each other, too. Here's the clincher - I want you to seed the press first when you're ready. I actually want the feds caught with their pants down by this. ...Crikey indeed. Enjoy the lulz. ...Yeah, you'll have to work fast, but you're the best. ...Thank you very much. ...Catch you later."
Mike takes a deep breath as e returns the cell to es pocket. Okay. So far, so good. The feds are going to be spazzing out over this, giving me the perfect opportunity to find the mole before tonight's meeting. It's rare I get everything wrapped up so nice and ne- E suddenly realizes e's left a glaring loose end. SHIT! Sam's so much like a ghost sometimes, I forget about em! E surely saw me turn down the money - who knows what e's going to think. E'll be expecting a briefing just to find out if we have a mission, and... oh, no... NO... if I haven't explained this before it gets plastered all over the news that TWO feds died on the plain, Sam will be ripshit! I need to figure out what to tell em, and fast... Actually, it shouldn't be too hard. ...Yeah, I got this. I know what to say to em. And I definitely know what I'm telling the council tonight. One of those dickwads is going to pay, and pay dearly. Nobody breaks a promise to me, and nobody - NOBODY - hurts my friends. ...Shit, Ben, why did it have to be you? Well, what you don't know won't hurt you. Not if I can help it. And believe me, Ben, I can, and how.
My story is not hard to read. Here, I'll prove it to you:
Twenty/Zero:"There's Always One" in MP3 format (about 11 minutes and 5MB)
[EDIT: presently not available for download, but will be emailed on request]
Now before someone asks, no, I didn't do this because I like the sound of my own voice. This was an experiment, essentially - in that regard, much like, well, everything else I've created for my journal. Yes, that's my voice for the entire reading, and yes, my accents are pathethic. I didn't get every line the way I'd want to hear it in, say, a movie - I didn't rehearse, and it pretty much shows - but for the most part, I'm happy with the result. I'd love to be a voice actor; I happen to think I'm pretty good for someone with no formal acting experience or voice training. (Feel free to tell me otherwise, natch.)
The vast majority of this was done in one take; interrupting myself with different voices was interesting, to say the least. My brother the audio guru didn't have much post-recording work to do; I would have left it as it was were it not for me messing up one word. Since I needed to re-record that line to fix it, I re-recorded some others as well, and a few odd swallowing pauses were removed (I'm not used to talking for eleven minutes straight - I'm not used to talking for two minutes straight). ...Okay, so I messed up two words, and due to my not being the only one working on this, it wasn't fixed. Maybe you won't notice.
It's not perfect, but for a one-night job, I'm rather pleased with it. Your mileage may of course vary; let me know what you think of this, and be specific. - ZM
Mike Hartford was used to staring down multiple gun barrels by now. They were usually pointed at em before e even introduced emself, and today is no exception. E doesn't blame them, really, given their line of work - it's a survival instinct, and a necessary one for thieves. Mike, on the other hand, is unarmed, not to mention that e's intentionally suppressing about a dozen other survival instincts having walked into a warehouse full of thugs without so much as a toothpick for defense... at least, not on es person. E remains perfectly calm and simply starts talking es usual spiel:
"Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Mike Hartford, and I'm Sam Colbert's partner."
There were ten pistols aimed at Mike; after about three seconds, there are only four, accompanied by two looks of apprehension, three looks of defeat, and one "Aw, SHIT.".
"I see some of you have heard of us. I'm honored. But there is no cause for-"
"WHY HASN'T ANYONE SHO-"
"SHUT YOUR STUP-"
"Can we please keep the volume down?"
"Yes sir, Mr. Hartford. My apologies."
"Boss, what are you DOING!? Who IS this retard?"
"The reason I'd be willing to kill you if you don't shut up, that's who e is!"
"Now now, there's no need for any killing today. Sam certainly doesn't need the practice, and I certainly don't need the paperwork."
Only one gun is still pointing at Mike. There always seems to be one left. Mike isn't worried in the slightest about this; once there's only one left, that's when e knows e's perfectly safe. That's when e knows Sam only has one target.
"First of all, don't worry about your sentry - e's alive. The feds are having a chat with em. Secondly, don't worry about me - I'm unarmed. So with those out of the way, shall we get to business? I think you know why I'm here."
"Boss" knew there'd be heat. E knew somebody would care about those weird "high-energy power cells" e heisted; after all, buyers don't offer twenty-five grand each for AA's. Whatever these batteries operated had to be pretty impressive, and e had just opened a box of seventeen of them. This was es gang's ticket to the bigtime.
E knew there could be a fight. E felt it was worth it, even if e lost some men in the process - hey, fewer hirelings to pay, and with the money e could hire some useful heavies. But e never expected to be in Sam's sights. Not over this. E knows e's made. E knows that e's losing either es loot or es life any moment now. If only e had more time to think... but e knows e doesn't.
"I surrender. I suppose I should be honored - guess I made the bigtime after all, given I got your attention."
"That's... one way to think about it, I guess. Thanks."
"CAN it, Spencer."
"I said CAN IT!"
"What the fu-"
Boss grabs Spencer by the shirt collar and pulls es face right up next to es, marking the first time Mike isn't covered by a firearm. "Listen to me, you useless punk. I intend to-"
"'Useless'? Who do you think got you that box of supercells?"
"I intend to walk out of here alive, you hear me? I'll do the bloody time. I'll print license plates for a few years. You, on the other hand, are probably the first one Sam would shoot."
"E is.", Mike says colloquially.
Boss releases Spencer, who promptly looks back at Mike with a facial expression of complete lack of comprehension.
"You are.", Mike says equally colloquially.
It apparently didn't help.
Yep - there's always one. Mike adopts an instructional tone. "Sam is a sniper, and you're in es sights right now."
"A 'sniper'? That's the word you use to call the planet's deadliest mercenary?"
"I was trying to keep it simple."
Spencer takes a quick look around, but up at an angle. E doesn't find what e's looking for. Es ears come up empty as well. "Wait a minute. We're in a warehouse. The only windows are along the ceiling, and we're all in the center! I don't hear any planes or copters, so how could a sniper be on us?"
Crap, Mike thinks to emself, given e's been trying to wean emself off of "crude language". E was hoping Spencer is stupid through and through. No such luck - this guy is just smart enough to get emself in trouble. Just when it seemed like the day would be bloodless...
"Doesn't even matter, man. Ol' Rockhead was in es bloody fortress, surrounded by five dozen men, and Sam dropped em. With one shot."
"You're telling me you believe that fairy tale? That fogey was shot by one of es own men. Bastard had it coming, too. 'No one saw where the shot came from' my testicles."
Boss has to admit e thought the same thing emself from time to time, but e knows better - or at least, isn't willing to wager es life on it. "I'm telling you it's true. Sam's a damn magician or something. Shoots through walls, through other people, without leaving a scratch. No one's even SEEN Sam - no one knows what e looks like. E could be anybody, anywhere."
"I can't believe you buy into that! Any of you other assholes goin' for any of this?"
Fuck, Mike thinks to emself, having something far more compelling on es mind than weaning emself off of "crude language". The situation just went from stable to possible open war. For the first time today, Mike is scared.
"Think about it. This guy walks in here unarmed and expects us to just give em the box?"
Yes, please talk some sense into em...
"No man is that dumb, not even you."
Shit! An insult is the last thing you should say...
"E's bluffing, and you're gonna let em get away with it! You're ALL gonna let em get away with it! What kind of a boss are you, Trevor?"
If Mike Hartford and Boss Trevor had a contest to see who is more afraid right now, the judge would have a hard time deciding a winner. They both realize what's about to happen, and now there's nothing they can do about it except to try to correctly time when to duck.
"If there's really a sniper on us, then why aren't we all dead already? Why does that fool have to walk in here like e owns the place, much less with you kissing es arse like a damn dog? I'm the boss now. We're gonna split the profits of this job, guys - ALL the profits."
Three other thugs redraw, all aiming at their apparently former employer. One by one, five others follow suit.
"You've just killed us all."
Spencer laughs. "No, just two of us."
Mike lets out a small cough.
Spencer draws as e turns around to face Mike. "Em first."
The sound of a shot echoes through the warehouse.
Seconds later, Spencer's corpse collapses to the floor, quickly followed by Mike and Trevor hitting the deck. Mike knows the thugs will have seen where Sam fired from and more shots are due; Trevor knows it's killing time, and with es mutineers distracted, this is es only chance.
The other thugs shout the things thugs say, trying to communicate with each other, trying to pin down the shadow hiding in the back corner of the warehouse, but the bottom line is that one gunman with cover is more than a match for eight without, especially when that one is Sam Colbert. Within a quarter-minute, Sam fires eight more shots with eight more kills - it's all over.
The warehouse is quiet for a few moments. Mike looks up to witness the carnage. E risks lifting emself up to make a count: yes, nine bodies and ten guns. How wise of Trevor to discard es gun. E does get to live today.
Mike walks over to Trevor, who is still lying prone. "You can get up now. It's over."
Trevor takes some deep breaths after standing to try to calm emself. "E got all of them?"
"Every single one."
"Useless shits." E takes another breath. "I can't believe Sam was in the building the whole time. How'd e get IN here?"
"E snuck in during the heist. That's what happens with small-time outfits: they figure they have nothing worth defending when out on a job, so they never leave enough sentries. Sam's been there all night, waiting for me to show up. Shall we get back to business, then?"
"Wait - how'd you know about the heist? How'd you know when we'd do it?"
Mike smiles. "Because I'm the one who hired you to do it."
Trevor looks shocked at first, but it quickly gives way to admiration."Wow, you set me up damn good. I'm surprised I was worth the effort."
"What can I say, I needed a small-time outfit and yours fit the bill. Now I believe there's a box of special batteries you were planning to sell. I'm afraid I'll only be buying one."
"...Hunh? You're not working for the feds? You really did hire me?"
"It's complicated, and I get the feeling there'll be issues - for all three of us - if we don't get a move on here. I have twenty-five thousand-dollar bills here. It's legit and clean. That'll be one Lumicell, please."
"Um, okay. Sure. One 'Lumicell' it is. Say, what are these things for, anyway?"
"That's also complicated. I'm also afraid that the rest of them will need to be-"
Three knocks emanate from just outside the front door.
"Shit. Change in plans."
"Who is that?"
"That was Sam, and we've got to get out of here, now. Leave the box, and leave the outside door open." Mike starts to bolt.
"When did Sam leave? I didn't see-"
Mike stops only long enough to turn around and spit out "You value your life, so RUN!" before heading out the door at top speed.
Trevor doesn't understand what's going on, but e knows this much: when Mike Hartford tells em to RUN, e RUNS. E runs right out of es former headquarters as fast as es legs can manage, barely keeping up with Mike. There is a hill a short distance from the warehouse; Mike stops after reaching the top, then lays down, looking back at the warehouse. Trevor catches up, and not having a better idea of what to do with emself, lays down next to Mike.
"Check this out. It'll be cool. And hey, you'll be in the clear. No evidence. Least we could do, really."
"Elsewhere, but also staring back. Should be only another moment or so. E's probably waiting for the authorities to actually show up before firing. It'll generate less questions if they actually witness the explosion."
In the near distance, the sound of a siren starts to wail. Moments later there are police cars and black vans visible heading down the street to the warehouse. Just before they arrive, however, a bullet is fired from the rifle of Sam Colbert, striking the box of Lumicells. The entire warehouse suddenly detonates, a massive plume of flame shooting out of the open doorway. A seven-car fender-bender results.
"I suggest you sneak out of here, like, now. I'm certainly leaving now." Mike gets up and heads down the back of the hill; Trevor follows. Stopping just outside a wooded area not far from the bottom, Mike turns to Trevor: "I'm heading in - you head back to town. Don't try to follow me, and hey - best of luck. Pleasure doing business with you, and maybe we'll meet again some time if you keep yourself alive."
Trevor is not about to start arguing now. "I'll do my best. Hey, think maybe I could meet Sam some day?"
"Heh. There's always one." Mike vanishes into the wood without another word.