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.
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.
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.
He heard Platt’s timid voice. “I think you should come in, w-we can
work it all out.”
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.
how these things work themselves out, Russ,” Platt had lied. Platt was
as good as dead regardless, Russ thought.
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.”
Russ—,” Platt said and Russ clicked the cell phone off.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
of the door busting open cut off his reminiscing. The normally dexterous operative
froze, struck breathless by the sight of her:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
make this easier on all of us,” Elizondo said in a raspy voice, like a Mexican Clint Eastwood.
reckon I could,” Russ said.
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.”
why Crenshaw teamed with terrorists?”
his teeth, visibly upset at Crenshaw’s betrayal.
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.”
Medusa here find me?” Russ asked.
“Were y’all stationed in Asia, I got that bad of luck?”
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
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.
you doin’ this for the love or for the money?” Russ asked.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
understand?” she asked.
He raised his
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.
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.”
experience in this area?”
father—,” she caught herself, looking at him, crossly. “Oh,
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
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
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
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.