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Mike Hughes
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trumpet1.jpg
Art by John and Flo Stanton

For Whom the Trumpet Sounds
 
Mike Hughes

Any spark of joy the Priest felt died before his snicker finished echoing down the dark tunnel.  He had laughed at how the trio resembled the trite opening of a tavern joke.  Have you ever heard the one about the Priest, the Soldier and the Professor who were trapped in an underground bunker?  The joke was short-lived as cold fear, like some phantasm in a dark cloak, returned to smother the light.

The Priest’s meek laugh registered not with his two companions who were grounded in their own agony.  The Soldier sat with his legs extended and back flat against the steel wall.  He wore a severe burn that enshrouded his right leg, from calf to thigh, and he began to treat it with items from a first aid kit he had ripped from his knapsack.  The Soldier gritted his teeth while wrapping the wound tightly, but when he was done, auburn ooze continued to leak through the bandages.  Although much of the intensity had drained from the Soldier’s face since yesterday, he still clenched his M4 Carbine as fervently as the Priest gripped his rosary.  The Priest barely moved his lips in silent prayer, although by rote.  He wondered to whom he prayed and peered down the dark tunnel that had no end, wondering if it led to freedom or damnation.

The Professor was now rolled up in a ball on the floor with eyes closed tight and mouth stretched wide open, as if paralyzed in a silent cry.  Sweat streamed down from the top of the Professor’s balding tan dome and dripped into the grey hairs that encircled it.  The expanding warmth of the tunnels unnerved the Priest, considering it was February and it was Chicago.  The fact they were probably the equivalent of one hundred stories below the earth’s surface could explain the heat, but it wasn’t the heat itself that bothered the Priest as much as its conspicuous escalation.

They rested directly beneath a panel in the ceiling they at first believed to be a potential exit.  However, the Soldier had attempted to open it an hour ago to no avail.  The Soldier had entered a countless combination of numbers into a keypad that was stuck on the panel.  He had tried prying it open with utility tools from his survival pack and he had even surrounded the panel with plastic explosives and detonation wires.  A tactic that did not open the portal but did nearly blow them all to hell.

Yellow beams from the ten foot-high ceiling lit the immediate area.  However, a light at the end of the tunnel they did not see.  Through the gloom the Priest saw nothing but long endless tunnel that was inevitably swallowed by blackness.  The Priest would nervously gaze into the black abyss while his eyes played tricks on him.  One time he noticed a shape form in the distance and then the shape started towards them. He blinked and it vanished.

A humming sound interrupted the Priest’s thoughts and they all fixed their eyes on the Soldier’s knapsack.  The Soldier lurched for the bag and removed a black box that fit into the palm of his hand.  The device vibrated in his hand as he pressed a pea-sized button beneath a miniature screen.

“Shadow from Chalk One,” the Soldier yelled.

There was a signal barometer that went up to five on the right side of the small screen and the first two bars shone bright orange.  A sound like a high-pitched fax machine drowned the hallway and assaulted the Priest’s ears.  The Priest jumped as he heard a voice begin to respond on the other side.

“Chalk One, this is Shirley from SOFCOM, please provide coordinates. Over,” the voice said. 

The man with the call signal “Shirley” sounded as panicked as a child calling 911.

“Trapped in Homeland tunnels in Chicago.  We have to be five or six miles west of downtown,” the Soldier replied.  “Where are you, Shirley? Are you under fire? Over.”

“D.C.,” Shirley said and then there was silence.  A bloody scream was followed by an explosion and then the transmission went dead.

The message on the screen read: “No Network Found.”  The orange bars on the right side of the screen turned a depressing gray.  The first bar flickered momentarily and actually shot into the second level before crashing to the bottom.  The Priest’s eyes did not leave it and he prayed that the orange bar would rise again.  It never did.

Thirty minutes later the Soldier let out an uneasy grunt as he rose, casting a muscled shadow against the wall.  He signaled to his platoon-by-circumstance and resumed his position at the front of the line.  Undaunted by the heat, the Soldier donned his black Kevlar flack vest and slapped the black Special Operations-issued hockey helmet back onto his head.  The Priest gently helped the Professor to his feet.  The Priest held the Professor’s head with both hands, as if a healer, and with solace looked into his shocked eyes.

            “I know it hurts, man.  I pray for her soul.  But we must move on,” the Priest said in his slight Irish brogue, attempting to comfort the man who’d lost his wife.  Sadness welled and drowned the Priest’s words for it was an admonition for them all.  Fear the sorrow for wallowing in it endangered their lives.

Like coal miners lost in some sprawling steel mine shaft, they marched through the hot tin box.  The lights went completely out at times, giving the Priest the impression that they would plod in utter darkness for hours; and just as it became tortuous enough, a beacon of light would appear in the distance to still his heart, as if some evil genius played with his sanity. The air was uncomfortably warm and relief from draft or breeze they felt not. 

None of them ate, saw, or smelled a morsel in nearly a day. The Soldier continued to believe somewhere in this labyrinth they would find a relief station and communication center.  The little the Soldier spoke informed them the complex was built for homeland security preparedness.  The government constructed the state of the art fortress as refuge from terrorist strikes or nuclear holocaust.

They rested again and the Priest dropped to the floor, burying his head in his hands and for the first time, tried to recreate the events in his mind.

 

The museum was crowded when it had happened.  The Priest led his grade school students into the Rome Exhibit and began to speak after halting near an Emperor’s statue, where he first saw the Professor and his wife. 

Athe Priest resumed his lecture, one of the second graders raised his blond head.  The child's eyes seemed to unlock a portal to a pure, unbound soul, which warmed the Priest's heart.  Moments like these validated the Priest's purpose.  Where there is darkness, let me bring light.

Sensing a presence behind him, the Priest turned to see a young man step directly in front of the statue between his group and the Professor.  Curly hair and a red bandana adorned his head and a purple shirt with a peace symbol covered his lanky frame, and thin rimmed green shaded spectacles hid his eyes.  He wore a small brown leathery pouch at his side that seemed out of place, like some artifact from antiquity. 

The modern day hippie dropped to his knees before the ten foot tall Roman idol.  The hippie rose and looked at the Priest.  For some reason, the young man's unprovoked grin alarmed him.  The hippie produced a red amulet and wrapped it around the neck of the stone statue.  The Priest noticed that the plaque at the foot of the statue read:  Nero Claudius Caesar Germanicus (37 – 68 A.D.). 

In the next instant, the Special Forces detachment appeared from the right side of the gallery bearing arms at chest level.  The soldiers raced across the room and raised their guns directly at the hippie, who still held a broad smile.

 

The Priest’s recollection was interrupted by an ear piercing blare, and he was brought back to the present.  The blare rattled the tunnel and knocked the Priest and the Professor to the floor.  It continued inexorably for five minutes and finally faded.

“A trumpet,” the Priest said.

“What was that?” asked the soldier.

“Bloody trumpets,” the Priest replied.

The Soldier furrowed his brow, wearing a look that seemed to say: “And what do you know about this, Priest?”

And that’s when the screeching started. 

The Priest couldn’t determine if it came from the tunnel or from above.  The Soldier waved them to follow him as he broke into a dead sprint.  The Professor sprang to his feet, alive with trepidation, and jetted after the Soldier.  The Priest ran faster than he had in ages as the lights faltered above him and the tunnel faded to pitch black. 

They ran blindly for twenty minutes and halted. 

The Soldier pointed through the gloom to an outline of a door where the tunnel turned at a right angle.  The Soldier grabbed the door handle and tried to slide it.  The Priest froze when he saw the door wouldn’t budge.  The Soldier placed his foot on the wall for leverage and pulled strenuously.  They held their collective breath and the door finally tore open.

The Soldier flipped on the lights, which uncovered a twenty-by-twenty foot room with another door etched into the far wall.  They threw open cabinets containing canned goods, powdered meals, power bars, warm Gatorade and bottled water.  The Soldier found more antiseptics to treat his wound.  He removed the sopping rags and unveiled the wound which had turned an unnatural ashen color.

“W-What is it?  Radiation poisoning?” the Soldier asked, in a shrill voice.

The Soldier’s shrieking voice unsettled the Priest.

“I’m no doctor but I fear that’s no earthly burn,” the Priest said.

“What do you know?” the Soldier yelled.

“Why don’t you tell us?” the Priest asked.  “What the bloody hell is a special forces outfit doing in a museum?”

 “I can’t explain all of this,” the Soldier said.  The Priest stared without budging, and the Soldier finally acquiesced and began his story.

The Soldier told them a covert government agency specializing in paranormal activity had been tracking a demonic cult for years.  They suspected this group was involved in dozens of ritualistic killings across the country over the past decade.  Recently, they had intercepted intelligence that the cult was going to try and pull off a mass killing, and the Soldier’s detachment was assigned to stop it.

“They called themselves the ‘Ring of Nero,’” the Soldier said.

The Priest’s mind flashed to when the detachment had approached the hippie.  The man had uttered some Latin phrase and the Priest winced, trying to remember the phrase in order to translate it, and the words suddenly came to him.

“ ‘What an artist the world loses in me’,” the Priest said in a monotonous voice.  The Professor caught the Priest’s eyes and held them in wonder.

“Nero’s last words,” the Professor said.  “His last words before he committed suicide.”

The Priest and Soldier looked with shock upon the Professor because it was the first time he uttered a word.

 “I’m a Professor of Ancient History, but I’m guessing you also know the significance of all of this,” the Professor said to the Priest.

“Aye,” the Priest said.

The Priest rewound the mental tape of the hellacious scene.   Before the special ops detachment could react, the man whipped out a dagger and slit both of his wrists.  The statue exploded, emitting a glowing red light that wiped out nearly every living thing in the museum.              The Priest was knocked to the ground and couldn’t believe he was still alive.  The entire museum began to shake and large pieces of ceiling crashed around him.  He saw the Professor on his knees near the remains of the statue and the remains of his wife. 

The Soldier scooped up the Professor and slung him over his shoulder.  The Soldier pushed the Priest towards the back of the museum.  The Soldier dove to the ground, found a handle on what looked like a sewer cap, flung it open and all three of them disappeared into the hole.  The Priest followed the Soldier and Professor down a hallway and an elevator door opened in the darkness.  They filed in the elevator and dropped into the bowels of the earth.

 

 

The Professor grew silent and, with an ominous voice and unblinking eyes, said:

“ ‘Here is wisdom.  Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; six hundred threescore and six’.  Isn’t that right Father?”

“Aye.” The Priest acknowledged the Professor’s quote.

“In Hebrew, where letters are used for numbers, the total value of the letters that form the title 'Caesar Nero' sums to 666.  And the peace symbol on the man’s shirt,” the Professor continued his lecture as he pulled out a document from his satchel and showed them a picture of the symbol.  “Ironically its origins have nothing to do with peace or nuclear disarmament.  It was originally called the ‘Cross of Nero’.  It’s an upside-down cross with arms extended towards Hell, mocking Christ’s crucifixion.  It symbolizes the opposite of Christ, hence…”

“Hence, the Anti-Christ,” the Priest said, finishing the Professor’s point.

“The trumpets?” the Soldier asked.

“The Book of Revelations in the Bible prophesizes the end of the world,” the Priest said.  “It states that the Apocalypse will be set in motion by seven angels who shall sound seven trumpets.”

The Soldier was silent contemplating this, and suddenly a confession sprang out of him: “I’ve killed hundreds of men, Father, since I joined the army back in the first Gulf War.  I was recruited into Special Forces because I was good at killing.  They said I was probably psychotic, but an asset, as long as I was on the side of the, well, good guys.  I wouldn’t say I enjoy killing but I don’t have a real emotional reaction either way.  But the reality is, in my line of work, it’s kill or be killed.”

 

Beg for forgiveness, the soldier did not.  ‘Kill them all and let God figure it out, eh?’ the Priest thought.  But the Priest also thought he shall not cast a stone this day, as if he were without sin.  What about the sin of lost faith?  What defiance this?  Did you only accept what’s agreeable to you?  Yes, God is cruel.  Perhaps even the Lord himself shouldn’t cast stones.  These last blasphemous thoughts made him quiver.  Despite his fear of eternal damnation, a quote from St. Augustine crept into his mind:  “If we are deceived, Lord, it is by Thee.”

The next trumpet sounded and the room rumbled.  The Soldier jumped to his feet, grabbed the door handle and led them into the next room.  They stood on a balcony overlooking a high tech surveillance and communications room that resembled a NASA control center.

The Priest cast his eyes on a Cineplex-sized screen that hung from the far wall.  The Soldier tried to turn it on and tune it in while green and purple lines zigzagged across the screen. Next to the control panel was a LAN line.  The Soldier grabbed the phone.

“I’ll dial my ex-wife,” he said and stopped and looked as if he amazed himself.  He began dialing frantically.

 “It’s ringing!” the Soldier screamed as his face lit up and he put it on speakerphone.

On the fifth ring they heard a click.  They heard a woman’s voice but to their disappointment, it was voice mail.  The Soldier hung up and dialed again.  He finally left a long message, pleading for help.  He picked up the receiver and said, “I love you.”  He collapsed to the ground in tears.

Enraged, the Soldier jumped to his feet and tried dialing the operator. Then he tried dialing information.  He tried every member of the military.  He called his father, his brother, and his sister.  He called everyone he knew, and the result was nil. 

The Professor rescued the phone and held it to his ear and went through the same routine with the same outcome.

They sat silently and stared at the fuzzy big screen.  The Priest nearly nodded off.  He was exhausted because they had not slept in nearly two days, but his eyes snapped open when the screen began to flicker.  It came into focus and they had a picture and they had sound.

The sun was setting on the horizon above barren flatlands, the sky glowing red-orange.  The picture resembled an Arizona desert rather than a Midwestern urban area.  There were no skyscrapers and no people. 

The Priest jumped up as he saw it.  It was the top half of the Sears Tower lying in the flatlands at an angle.  It looked like some giant had torn the top half of the skyscraper right off, and jammed it into the sandy dunes.

It came from the horizon, at first a speck.  The speck seemed to sprout wings as it soared through the blood-red sky.  Within minutes massive wings began to fill the screen. 

The Priest ran down the steps and dropped to his knees in front of the screen.

His life entire passed before his eyes.  That primal human instinct to survive cried out from within.  He was not ready.

Were these trumpets heralding a new Kingdom or were they simply sounding the Death Nell?

He let out a bloodcurdling cry, for he could not divine whether the winged creature was angel or beast.  

And the trumpet sounded again.                         

 

 

taurinesoul.jpg
Art by John and Flo Stanton

Taurine Soul

 

Mike Hughes

 

 

          The sun glared off the shiny silver label of the vodka bottle and six-pack of Red Bull.  His eyes darted from the bottle to the .45 automatic on the bed, and back to the bottle.  The sliding glass door exposed a fortieth floor view of Tokyo's skyline; he had checked into the Imperial Hotel in the Ginza district, not far from the Imperial Palace, two days ago, right after the showdown in Jizan, a small town on the Red Sea coast in southwest Saudi Arabia.

          The extemporaneous notion to procure the raw materials of the explosive concoction hit Russ, like someone smashing him in the face with a shovel.  He strolled into the quickie-mart mindlessly and grabbed the goods and exchanged money with the Japanese proprietor who looked at him with a smile, as if thinking: gaijin get drunk before noon.  He probably thought Russ was an unemployed English teacher and not an ex-special forces/special agent/nearly retired assassin.  Retiring as in checking out for good.

          Before that pivotal moment, he had wandered through Tokyo’s backstreets for two days, a son of Tennessee a long way from home.  His best friend’s death—or murder—, classifications of such in his line of work were a bit tenuous— had been the tipping point.

          Without prior calculation nor recollection of the destructive past, a mere fancy, a whim—a red bull and vodka sounded divine, figuring it’d be a real rush tasting what the kids were drinking these days.  It had been ten years since his last drink, but he knew “Old Reliable” would ease the pain.

          But now the right side of his brain kicked into logical overdrive, laying out cause and effect.  In the final analysis, all routes through the decision tree led to death or insanity.

          He soaked in the sun’s red orange rays that bounced off skyscrapers—steel giants in the land of the rising sun.  By sunset, the self-executioner would pick his poison.

          The cell phone hummed, disrupting his sick serenity.  He thought he’d let it hum unanswered, but decided there was nothing to lose.

          “Yup,” Russ answered.

          “Russ.” He heard Platt’s timid voice.  “I think you should come in, w-we can work it all out.”

          “I know they’re comin’, Platt. If they’ve already broken through the scrambler on this phone, they’ll probably be here in thirty minutes,” he said, although unsure if any agents were even stationed in the area, but accepting the fact it was just a matter of time.  Cool hand Russ felt no fear, an old veteran of the game, tired more than anything; to Russ it was simply a matter of whether or not the blood would be on their hands or his own. 

          “You know how these things work themselves out, Russ,” Platt had lied.  Platt was as good as dead regardless, Russ thought.

          “I’d tell you to ’Git outta Dodge yourself, but won’t matter none, son.  We’re both good as gone.  Reckon ya best start tryin’ to save your own ass.  Over.”

          “N-No, b-but Russ—,” Platt said and Russ clicked the cell phone off.

          Poor bastard, Russ thought. Platt was trying to save his own skin by bringing Russ’s ass out in the open.  Every man for himself.  Platt was a rook, Russ thought––he didn’t understand the game.  The cogs were in motion, and some invisible hand would push events to an inevitable climax.

          The scene in Jizan ripped through his mind painfully, everything happened so fast.  He and Logan were assigned to take out Mullah Al Zakri, leader of Adl, the latest Al Qaeda splinter group.  They had as many permutations as the U.S. Special Forces and intelligence community, Russ thought.  It was impossible to keep track of who the good guys were, anymore, on his own side, and sometimes he thought, maybe there weren't any.  Adl meant "To serve justice to all" in Arabic, and the group had beheaded an ambassador two months ago, an incident broadcast all over Al Jazeera and CNN.

          They’d played the roles of reporters from Time Magazine, setting up the interview with fake credentials.  The plan was to isolate Al Zakri in his estate and take him out.  Once they’d entered the building, the ambush was on.  Russ sensed it with his uncanny cognitive ability to read such situations, and his gun was out and two bullets were lodged into Al Zakri's head before anyone could take another breath.

          Unfortunately, his partner's body was riddled with machine gun fire from the balcony before Logan could drop the camera.  He’ll never forget the shock in Logan’s eyes.  He had realized immediately his clandestine outfit had partnered with Adl, and it was time to clean house.  It was time to get rid of the holy rollers like Russ and Logan who didn't want to work with terrorists. 

          "Kennedy once said you have to compromise your own principles for the greater cause, Russ," Colonel Crenshaw had told him once, in his gravelly voice, wincing as he bit into a short cigar.

          Russ understood that point well, but didn't think they'd stoop this low.  Crenshaw knew Russ and Logan would never get it.  Time to purge the past.  "No offense Russ, just business, right?" he could hear Crenshaw's voice in his head.

          His former group was called Tarot—a bunch of ex-renegade Delta operators and C.I.A., an organization that ninety-nine percent of the military establishment itself never even knew existed.

          The crash-bang of the door busting open cut off his reminiscing.  The normally dexterous operative froze, struck breathless by the sight of her:

          Melinda.

          She certainly lived up to one of her aliases: Medusa, as the legend itself turned him to stone. Quite frankly, he couldn’t believe he was still alive.  Part of the legend was that once a target looked into her eyes, his or her life expired within minutes.  He couldn’t believe they’d sent her after him.

          They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity; he got lost in her light grey, cold, beautiful eyes.  And it was true about her lips, painted with dark purple lipstick matching dark purple leather gloves that gripped the M4 Carbine rifle now trained on Russ's face.  The curvaceous lips never formed a smile, but remained a grave line that betrayed no emotion.  She stood tall and athletic in a tight black Delta force outfit, blonde hair flowing just beneath her shoulders.  Perhaps the world's sexiest killer, he thought.

          He had studied her dossier, and never forgot seeing one of the only known pictures of her.  A free spirit, she worked for no one directly, joined groups based either on her beliefs at the time, or the highest bidder.

          There'd been a report of one target—a traitor selling government secrets—that had looked into her eyes and lived to tell about it.  He lived to tell about it for about six months.  She went off the grid on her own, hunting him down like game.  She found him, a sniper called Carmichael, alias “Deathray,” in a small resort town on the Mediterranean with his fiancÚ.  Dressed in all black, Melinda sat at a table next to them in a restaurant, with a menu over her face.  She removed her dark sunglasses when Carmichael caught a glimpse of her.  Before he could react, she’d produced a pistol with a silencer and tapped two bullets square between his eyes, and one in his chest.  She didn't even get paid for that one.  Some of these stories she leaked herself within the clandestine community, to maintain and grow the legend, finding that fear worked to her advantage.

          “Do I need to bother?  Or are you going to off yourself?” Melinda asked in a flat voice, shifting her eyes, and Russ understood she was referring to the booze and not the gun.

          “My God,” he’d mouthed the words inaudibly, gasping when she spoke.  She was supposed to be the silent killer, said so in her file. 

          Of course she read his dossier, she was a pro.  And he knew it would say he quit drinking ten years ago, stopped going to meetings three years ago, and that alcohol had nearly ruined his life.  She had a look on her face that said:  “I know every little insecurity, you fraud.”

          He didn’t know what game she was playing.  Should he try to stall her, and for what?  What the hell was he going to do? At some point, he would have to make some type of move, or did he?  Should he just take it in the chest and call it a life?  The survival instinct sprang from the depths, from nowhere it screamed, “I want to live!”  Russ, the bred killer, looked death in the face and was frightened like any civilian.  He was human after all.

          “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t flattered.  And Momma didn’t raise no liar,” he said in a cavalier fashion, but Cool Hand Russ would also be lying if he said he wasn’t scared shitless.

          As she jerked the rifle to her shoulders, aimed, and fired, he closed his eyes and screamed.  He heard crashing glass behind him, and realized she had aimed high.  But she stared, wide-eyed, out the window as if tracing the flight of the round through the stratosphere, and he slowly looked behind him.  An agent hung from a rope, with holes in his torso that dripped dark-red blood.  It looked like someone had massacred a window washer.  Were they after her, too?  Who was she working for? 

          And then the unexpected happened.

          “Let’s go! Move!” she yelled, with crosshairs still on his head.

          She bound his hands tightly with a cord, put a black bag over his head and threw him into the trunk of the black speedster. 

          He felt the car screeching through the streets of Tokyo at full throttle as he rolled around helplessly in the darkness.

 

####

 

 

          The darkness became light, and he found himself bound to a chair in a bare room with stainless steel walls. 

          And then he entered, and now Russ knew it was over. 

          Elizondo puffed on a stubby cigar that jutted out of the tan five o’clock shadow.  Tall, barrel-chested, slicked-back hair, dark, long sideburns.  He was the leader of Spirit, an underground movement based on pure principle, fighting to eliminate all adversaries that opposed democracy worldwide. And they despised terrorists.

          Elizondo would lie to him, tell Russ they’d have a great position for him, and then kill him once Russ spewed his guts.  As soon as Elizondo discovered the coordinates of Tarot and Crenshaw, Russ would be laid to rest.  Elizondo wasn't going to take any chances.  Another clandestine civil war had erupted, and Russ would be one of its first casualties.

           Ironically, though Russ wouldn’t mind Elizondo avenging Logan’s death, the sooner Russ helped Elizondo, the sooner Russ would be dead.  And, with his training, if Russ didn’t want to give up the information, they’d probably have to torture him to near-death before they got it, if they got anything.

          “You can make this easier on all of us,” Elizondo said in a raspy voice, like a Mexican Clint Eastwood.

          “Yup, I reckon I could,” Russ said.

          “They killed your best friend.  It’s time to strike back.  And we could use a guy like you on the front line.”

          “Got a few questions myself—bit curious ’bout a few things.”

          “Shoot.”

          “Any idea why Crenshaw teamed with terrorists?”

          Elizondo ground his teeth, visibly upset at Crenshaw’s betrayal.

          “Someone in Defense thinks dependence on oil and the Saudi ruling class is the real cancer in the world.  The fastest, easiest way to eliminate them, some believe, would be through Adl.  Just another means to an ends.  Our contact in Defense begs to differ, and authorized us to shut down Tarot.”

          “How’d Medusa here find me?”  Russ asked.  “Were y’all stationed in Asia, I got that bad of luck?”

          “Nope,” Elizondo said, smiling.  “Medusa was in Canada when I called her.  She really wanted a piece of your ass.”  As he said this, Melinda rolled her eyes, and Russ read it as: “Nope, business as usual.  Silly men.”

          Elizondo told Russ to be reasonable and think about it for a couple hours, and he could avoid torture.

          “Keep an eye on him, will you?” Elizondo told Melinda.

          As Elizondo left, she shot him a spiteful look, worse than any of the hateful looks she’d given Russ so far, that day.  She sighed and sat down on the floor with her back against the wall.

          “So, darlin’, you doin’ this for the love or for the money?” Russ asked.

          “Shut up,” Melinda said sharply, probably annoyed he was still breathing and annoyed in general with his hickish mouth that spewed quaint good old boy bullshit that assaulted her Protestant ears. She pulled a book out of a knapsack and started reading.

          “Whaddya got there? A little Harry Potter?” Russ asked in his John Wayne voice.

          Agitated at first, her brow furrowed, but he could have sworn she suppressed a smile.

          Again Russ faced death, but this time it felt more real than ever.  Clouds of old memories that made him smile yet haunted him at the same time suddenly swam through his mind.  He stared, wide-eyed, like a zombie and uttered his dreams aloud as if he were sitting in the reclining chair at some shrink’s office.

          “Pops always told me: ‘Russ, keep yer goddamn eye on the ball.’  I remember one of the first times he said that to me, I missed his first pitch badly.  Standin’ in my folks’ yard with an aluminum bat . . . had to be about no older than ten,” Russ said.

          He took a deep breath, shook his head, and scanned Melinda’s face, but she was pretending not to listen.

          “Well, that second pitch he lobbed, I parked that sumbitch over the backyard fence into Old Man Dwyer’s yard.  And I ran around them bases, and my pops shouted: ‘Atta boy!’  I think I enjoyed hearin’ that more—,” Russ paused, struck with emotion.  “I enjoyed his praise more than the act itself.”  He stared straight ahead in silence and felt tears beginning to well in his eyes.

          He detected Melinda looking up at him for a second, and then she lowered her head, back to her book.  But he stared straight ahead and wasn’t thinking about Melinda.

          He thought about how he’d chased his father’s approval until the day the old boy died.  He remembered being buddies with his dad at one point, innocent conversations about why the sky was blue.  Then, at some point, Russ had wanted everything.  When had that happened?  Not only his father’s approval, he’d wanted every need satisfied at once, wanted his ego filled to the rim.  He wanted sex, money, power, fulfillment.  He crawled after it, and found power in the killing streets of Baghdad.  And found power in the companionship of killers in Delta and then Tarot.  And it was the drink that gave him the most power, it made him feel whole, but when that went away, his occupation did the trick.

          “Well darlin’—,” he said.

          She raised the gun towards his head and said:

          “If I hear that word out of your filthy mouth again, I’ll blow chunks of your head into the back wall.” She glared at him.  “The only thing I want to hear from you is you spilling your guts about Tarot.  End of story.”  She stood, walked over to him, and jammed the gun into his forehead.

          “Do you understand?” she asked.

          He raised his eyes up.

          “I hear ya loud and clear,” Russ said, and she began to slowly walk away.

           A few minutes passed, and Russ refused to quit his probing questioning, figuring he had not a thing to lose.

          “How’d you know I was fixin’ to end it?” Russ altered his voice to a more serious tone.

          She stopped, her back to him. Then she sighed, shook her head, and spun around, placing a hand on her hip. 

          “I did my homework,” she said, smirking. “I know alcoholics.  I know what happens when they don’t do what they’re supposed to do.”

          “You have experience in this area?”

          “Yes, my father—,” she caught herself, looking at him, crossly.  “Oh, never mind.”

          In the dossier, there was nothing about her family or where she was even born.  All it said was she’d graduated Princeton undergrad, MIT for grad school.  Enlisted and fought in the first Gulf War.  Joined Black Delta, an elite faction within Delta Force.  Then joined Tarot for a time, a very short time.  Then went indy.

          “I want to know,” Russ said sternly. “I want to know what makes us click.  Why we are who we are.  We ain’t normal dar—ahem, sorry.  We ain’t like other folks—we kill people, and we may not enjoy it, but we don’t really have a lot of sympathy for the deceased, either.”

          Melinda looked at him, perplexed, as if she detected another layer to this Tennessee hick.

          “Why the hell would I tell you anything?” she asked.

          ”Cause ya ain’t got nothin’ to lose.  I guarantee I won’t be flappin’ my gums, cause I’m gonna be dead within less than two hours.  Elizondo’s gonna wink and you’re gonna lace two into my cranium, whether I spill my guts or not.”

          The room was consumed by silence.  Russ’s heart felt eclipsed with not fear, but gloom.  The end was near.  What had he done with his life but go about his real father’s business, his father being the U.S. government.  Now, the U.S. government, or some twisted derivative of it, would be the cause of his lonely death.  Dead in some godforsaken underground labyrinth, never to be found.  The deathbed surrender leaked slowly from his lips, uncaring, as he bared his soul to some cold woman who saw him as a wee bitty fly she could snuff out with the bottom of her heel.

          “I drank ’cause it filled all the holes,” Russ continued with a thousand-yard stare. “I felt one with the universe after sucking down six beers and some Jack Daniels.  Sad thing is, I never had a real problem in my life that wasn’t self-manufactured.  Great parents, always had a roof over my head, money in my pocket.  But I always seemed detached from the world.   Alone in a dark fuckin’ forest, a dark forest I alone created.”

          Melinda looked annoyed, but the white hatred for Russ seemed sapped from her face, replaced by a moderate hatred. He continued his existential meandering.

          “Part of the problem is, I never had a God in my life. . . ,” Russ paused, as a sense of understanding overcame him.  “. . . .But the real problem is, I feel like a God when I drink.  Funny, as I’m sittin’ here.  I been preparin’ to die for the previous two days, and I never thought about it for this long.  I never really thought about God for more than two minutes.”

          “There is no God.  And if there is, he isn’t paying particularly close attention to you.  He’s not thinking about you, no reason for you to start thinking about him,” she said.

          And depression set in, suddenly.  What comes after this?  Russ thought. The not knowing part was the scariest of all, he thought.

          “What makes ya happy, Melinda?” he asked, gently, and his tone caught her by surprise.

          “What is happy?  Who knows?”

          He saw uncharacteristic doubt in the deadly killer’s eyes.

          “Sorry to get all Freudian on yer ass,” Russ said.

          And it blossomed: a smile curled on her mouth very slowly and she fought it back.  She looked down, appearing deep in thought.

          “Aren’t you afraid of dying?” she asked.

          “Scared shitless, darlin’,” he said in a whispery voice, and he could feel the sadness in his own eyes.

          He couldn’t place the look, but for a split second, it seemed there was concern in her eyes.

          “They bred us to be killers, Melinda, but weren’t we already killers?  Ain’t it in our nature?”

          Another pensive look eclipsed her face, as she stared at the ceiling.

          “I was born to kill.  So were you,” she said, now sitting with legs crossed on the floor, staring past him with glassy eyes.  “And the United States military complex took born killers and manufactured assets.  Secret weapons,” she said.

          “Or monsters.  And what has that got us?” he asked.  His question made him feel lonely, and his life seemed to flash before his eyes. 

          It appeared she was experiencing something similar.  Her mouth was ajar, as if she’d seen a vision.

          Russ had no intention of sweet-talking her or attempting stall tactics.  He simply wanted to sort things out before he departed.  He wanted to make some sense out of the world and his life.

          “Never married, were you?  Ever have a man?” he asked.

          “That’s enough,” she said, shaking her head. 

          Dumb question, idiot, Russ thought. 

          Ignoring him again, Melinda stood up and walked around the room.  Her long legs were toned; he thought she could pass for a runway model.  How could something so beautiful be so deadly?

          She went back to reading her book; they said nothing to each other for another hour.  He flashbacked to a high school football game, the ball flying in the air on a Friday night, him crashing into an opponent, and breaking a kid’s helmet.  Put the kid in the hospital with a concussion.  His father screaming in the stands.  He got such an indescribable rush out of that moment; he lived for the sound of that crack, it was almost spiritual.  He used to think he once had God in his life.  He once thought he had it all together when he was about sixteen.  Well-balanced, loving, caring.  Now, reaching forty, he was a shell of a man. 

          Out of nowhere, she asked him a question:

          “What about you?  Ever married?”

          Now she had shocked him.

          “Why do you care?” He wasn’t being mean, he was dead serious.  It was a very important question.  Why would she care about a man she was going to execute?  Was she a sicko?

          “Never mind,” she said. Exasperated, she put her head in her hand.

          Another fifteen minutes of silence passed.

          “I got myself a trophy wife after the war,” he said suddenly.  “Not sure if I ever loved her, to tell ya the truth.  But like you said ‘bout happiness.  What the hell’s love anyway?  Now there’s a goddamn question.”

          Eyebrows raised, she looked up.

          “But I drank that relationship into the ground, just like nearly everything else in my life.  Nearly drank myself homeless.  I quit drinkin’ not cause I was ‘fraid of dyin’.  ‘Cause I didn’t want to be walkin’ the streets of Jackson, Tennessee, beggin’ for crack money.

          “Other than that, I bounced in and out of a few bad relationships—tough to even have one when you’re in a different part of the world seventy percent of the time—and you can’t tell them where you are or what you really do.  You get married to this game, to the unit.  Married to my M4 carbine.”

          Melinda wore an expression of understanding, as if suddenly on the same page.

          “I had one boyfriend.  That lasted about six months,” she began. “I was on furlough.  I nearly became a civilian.  It was after my first few missions with Black Delta.  He got hammered one night and grabbed me by the arm in a bar, and I beat the daylights out of him.  One of his buddies actually came over and I had to beat him to a bloody pulp as well.”

          Russ started laughing, thinking: some dumb bastard messing with the prettiest thing ya ever did see, that happens to be a master in three forms of martial arts, and can kill you with her bare hands on a whim.

          She actually laughed, too.  And she looked so good doing it, Russ thought.

          “What made you go after Carmichael like that?”

          And she didn’t look offended, but wore a big smile, showing all of her stark white teeth.

          “Some targets deserve to die,” she said with a maniacal grin, and he regretted asking her because she’d transformed into Medusa.

          “Like me?” he asked.

          Her smile became a deep frown.

          “You know—,” she said.

          “Yea, I do.  ‘Each life taken saves a million.’  Bullshit.  We’re killin’ each other, not sure who that’s savin’.  Killin’ each other while the ‘bad guys’ are tearing up this world.”

          She hung her head, a sign of acquiescence.  But then she snapped it back up and glared at him.

          “What are you talking about, as if you’re above the fray?  Those in glass houses . . .”

          She had him.     

 

####

 

          An hour later, Elizondo returned.  Russ thought the struggle futile, decided to roll the dice to see if Elizondo might spare him; and then he provided Elizondo with everything he needed.

          “I want to avenge his death, let me in,” Russ said with a spark of hope.

          Elizondo looked at him grimly and slowly shook his head, and Russ wondered if this sick bastard was enjoying this.

          “All right, finish him off,” he said gruffly.

          Melinda stood, rifle in hand, as if eager to end Russ’s life.

          She held the rifle on him, a red laser dotting the middle of his forehead, and the cloak of fear covered his heart.

          Elizondo was marching towards the door, when the back of his head exploded. 

          Bloody pieces of skull splattered the walls.  He dropped his cigar, fell to his knees, and slammed against the bottom of the door.  Melinda, of course, put two more rounds into his upper back.

          She locked eyes with Russ, for a moment his destiny unknown.

          “Keep your mouth shut,” she hissed, as she untied him.

 

####

 

          The speed boat crashed through the waves of Tokyo Bay at a hundred miles an hour. The wind whipped through Russ’s hair, as he sat shotgun next to the navigator, Melinda.

          She looked at him with those cold eyes, as if back to business, back to psychotic killer, and then her eyes softened. 

          She put the boat on auto cruise and walked to the back, opening a cooler, producing two shiny cans.  She handed him the Red Bull and sat down and popped it open, as did he.  She raised her can, awaiting his to join it, and they clinked the aluminum together, as if in a toast.  She took a slow sip of the golden liquid from the lip of the skinny can.

          "I like it straight,” she said.  And her purple lips turned upward, forming an inviting smile.

Mike Hughes is a management consultant by day and a scribe by night, spinning tales of horror and adventure from the bowels of the South Side of Chicago.  Mike's short fiction has appeared in Astonishing Adventures Magazine and award-wining horror ezine Yellow Mama.  Mike is a political journalist for The Huffington Post which ran his special feature series about campaign ads during the run-up to the 2008 Presidential election.  He is also the editor of online political journal www.CrossPolemics.com  and does freelance commercial writing, with two articles about the manufacturing sector due to appear in the Canadian Executive Quarterly in the beginning of 2009.

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