The List – Episode 9: Charity Case

I watched from across the street the woman that didn’t belong.  It wasn’t just her short cut professional hairstyle or the expensive business attire that put her out of place in Old City, it was the way she carried herself, the same air of confidence that wealthy New City citizens usually projected.  But here, that kind of attitude meant you were valuable.  That kind of attitude is what got you kidnapped, brutalized, and ransomed – and usually ended with your body at the bottom of the bay.

I had kept my eye on her for most of the afternoon as she made her way through Old City, the citizens creating a pocket around her, not wanting to get too close, as if she had a deadly disease.  And they had the right idea.  If this person was powerful enough, all they had to do was say the word and you and your family and everybody you ever knew would disappear.

“I think I may have found something that interests you,” Silas had said earlier that day, the barrel of my gun creating a neat imprint on his neck.  He had snuck up on me while I was making rounds through the city.  I didn’t appreciate that.  “It seems a certain woman from New City has made the mistake of wandering into the streets of this town.”

“It happens.  She’ll learn her lesson soon enough.”

“Hear me out, now.  I said this person was interesting.  You’ve heard of Gaia Firms, yes?”

I knew the name, and thought it was stupid.  I grunted in response.

“Well, this woman appears to be the personal assistant to one Nicole Gaia.”

Now that was a name that sparked my interest.  It was interesting enough that it occupied a spot on my list.

“Go on.”

“The girl’s name is Theresa Bryant.  Word is that she’s been asking around about you.  Seems like she’s in trouble with the boss.”

“You think she may have some useful information, I take it.  How high of a chance that this is just a trap?”

“I’d say, oh, about eighty to ninety percent.”

“My kind of odds.  Still, if she does know something, it might not hurt for me to check it out.”

Silas smiled his big toothy smile, the one that triggered the voice in my mind that demanded I punch those teeth out.  “Why don’t you just admit that you wanted an excuse to help another lost soul?  That deep down inside of you, there’s a good person?”

Because you’re wrong, I had thought at the time.

Darkness crept in on the city, and the few street lamps that hadn’t been smashed by previous riots and random vandalism started to flicker on.  A brisk wind blew in from the south like a jet stream through the streets, sending paper trash and debris fluttering up into the air.  I got an odd feeling in my gut as I trailed Theresa.  The flow of the crowd had changed, and not just to accommodate the night.

I picked out five others that had just started to shadow Theresa.  She must have finally noticed them, because she hastened her step and turned down an alley to lose them.  She had no way of knowing that alley was a dead end, and her followers were about to take advantage of that fact.  They sifted through the crowd and circled in on the alley, shifting to cover one another’s blind spots.  It was all a bit too professional for my taste.  They wore gang colors, but they moved with type of efficiency that was a lost art to normal street thugs.

They hadn’t shown any signs of noticing me yet – not that I’d let them notice me.  I slid up behind the one closet to the alley entrance as they whipped out knives and closed in on the target.  Theresa’s eyes caught mine as she clung to the fence that trapped her.  I held a finger up to my mouth, and didn’t wait for any acknowledgement.

I wrapped my arms around the first thug’s neck and stomped the back of his knee, and as he staggered to one side I jerked in the opposite direction.  The rest of the thugs spun as their dead comrade hit the pavement.  They spread around me with their blades at the ready, holding their knives with the pride of seasoned mercenaries.  I did a quick scan to verify that they weren’t packing any heat.  They must have thought this would be an easy kill – just slip in, make it look like a random mugging, then quietly slip back out.  They certainly hadn’t expected to run into me.  I left my Seiver holstered as I stretched my arms out to the sides, and decided to have a little fun.

The closest one came at me with an overhead strike, his knife aiming for the nerves in my shoulder.  I stepped into the attack and his forearm brushed harmlessly down my arm as I slammed my forehead into his nose, and his face gushed with blood as I pulled back.  I locked my arm around his so that his knife dangled helplessly as I turned to my other opponents.  Two of the thugs decided to pounce at the same time.  The thug I was holding cried out as I shifted my weight, snapping his elbow at the joint, and I sent him tumbling into my attackers.  They dodged around him without breaking a sweat, but I used the extra split second they took to evade the body and grabbed hold of the man on the right’s arm.  Momentum did all the hard work as I gently redirected the point of his knife into the face of my other attacker.  As he stared in horror at what he had just done, I backhanded him in throat, collapsing his trachea.

Theresa let out a scream as the last thug darted towards her.  I rolled to the ground, snatching up one of the dropped knives, and whipped it through the air as I came out of the roll.  The man seemed to trip over his own feet as the blade sunk into the top of his neck, and he landed like a slab of rotten meat an inch in front of Theresa’s red designer heels.

“Just what the hell do you think you are doing here?” I asked.

“I…I had no other choice,” she said.  She had maintained her composure even after the attack, but was starting to show fear through the cracks in her façade.  “I’m looking for Levi Cole.  You’re him, aren’t you?”

“You got the wrong guy,” I said, turning away.  “Get back to your city where you belong.”

“Please, you have to help me,” she said.  “Those guys were after me, and I don’t just mean after my money – or body, even.  Gaia sent them after me, I know that she did.  I just wanted to do what’s right.  I didn’t want any of this.”

I tongued the inside of my cheek for a few seconds, considering my options.  I could put a bullet in her, and end both of our suffering.  I could just leave her to fend for herself, which would end with the same result, the only difference being maybe an hour more of life.  The third option involved eating up my time and probably even more of my bullets.  I didn’t have anything else planned for the night, so I figured, what the hell.

“Those guys were trained mercenaries, though they could have used more training.  Why were they after you?”

“I work for Gaia Firms…I’ve worked my way up from intern to VP.  I turned a blind eye to most of the things Gaia has done, but I couldn’t do it any longer.  I…took something and fled.”

I cocked an eyebrow at her until she spit it out.  “Data documents containing records that could hurt the company if they went public.”

“And you came seeking me out.  Why?”

“I don’t know.  I thought you could help me.”

“You’re mistaken.  That data won’t do you any good.  The company may lose some earnings, and have to plow through some extra paper work and legalistic bull, but in the long run the outcome will be the same.”

Her face twisted, as if I had just broken it with my fist.  The expression reminded me of something, hidden deep inside my blocked memories.  I didn’t need this charity case.  On top of that, I didn’t quite buy her story.  So why can’t I just leave this be?

“I’ll tell you what.  I’ll make sure you get out of this city alive.  And I’ll personally visit Gaia, so don’t worry about that.”

“You’re not going to kill her, are you?”

“Don’t look so surprised.  You know what I do.  That’s why you really came to me, isn’t it?”

She shook her head, but the determination on her face told a different story.

“I can’t guarantee that will solve your problem, but it won’t hurt,” I said as I started back out to the street.  “Well, you coming or not?”

To my surprise, the walk to the train station was uneventful.  I had expected the whole thing to be a trap in the first place, and kept my guard up even though there were no signs of a trail.  Theresa had spoken maybe ten words on the trip, unsure about what her future held.

“You know how to make it back from here,” I said as we climbed the stairs to the platform, avoiding the piles of trash and puddles of what might be vomit and urine.  The train station itself was rundown, located where Old City and New City butted up against one another, and neither city took much responsibility in maintaining it.  This was the only stop in Old City for the train, and was the location that those from New City with a bit of cash and an empty well in their souls went when they needed to fulfill their more questionable urges.  The signs denoting the train schedule had long since been spray painted over and beat in, but everyone in the city knew the train’s routine by heart.

The train screeched in on time, and Theresa shuffled up to the doors as they slid open.  My nerves were on edge, boiling up from a feeling in my gut.  I was about to turn and walk away when I caught sight of the passengers waiting in the train car Theresa was about to hop in.

“Theresa, stop!” I said, not waiting for her reaction as I snatched her by the back of her suit coat and slung her behind me.  With Theresa in tow, I pushed off the platform and towards the stairs as a bullet punched into my left kidney, the blow dampened by the material of my jacket but still splashing buckets of pain across my back.  Without looking I twitched a shot off behind me, planting a bullet into my assailant’s forehead.  More men poured out of train and metal rained down on us, pinging off the rusted railings and cement steps but unable to get a good angle on us.  I waited until one of the men poked his face over the ledge and I put a shot between his eyes.  I ignored his body as it tumbled over and landed at our feet.  I stole a glance of the platform as the last man swaggered off the train, possibly the leader of the merc group by the way he held himself, as if this was just a game, something for him to kill time with.  He packed a rather nasty looking assault rifle on the strap across his chest.

In the background, the train signaled that it was about to depart.  Besides the leader, there were four other guys still holding the platform.  When it came to a gunfight, they wouldn’t have been any problem if I didn’t have to worry about collateral damage on my end.  But I did, so I decided to end it as quickly as possible.  I launched a frag grenade up over my shoulder and pushed Theresa to the ground.  The explosion shook the platform and bits of shrapnel buried themselves in the wood.  The platform groaned for a few moments, as if debating between whether it should collapse in on itself or not.  Not waiting for the dust to clear, I swept the pockmarked platform with my gun.  Four were down, or at least what was left of them.  The train lurched forward, the side of the cars burnt black and dimpled with metal fragments, and through the busted out side window the leader smiled.  The train shot down the tracks, and he was gone.

✓✓✓✓✓✓✓✓

I kept watch from the third floor of a crumbling office building that had been abandoned due to its workers becoming obsolete after the construction of New City.  After kicking out the vagrants and druggies and wading through years of litter we set up near the windows that faced the street.

“They’re not going to stop,” Theresa said, her knees pulled up to her chest and her back in the corner.

“You must have taken something pretty important,” I said without taking my eyes off the street.  I wasn’t as worried about the back entrance to our room.  It was a large open space, previously a conference room, and there would be plenty of cover from the pillars that shot up through the floors and into the ceilings.  And if the lead mercenary managed to make it up through my traps unharmed, he certainly wouldn’t be able to do it without alerting us.

“I understand that.  I knew there was a good chance this would happen if I did it.  I’m mostly worried about my little brother.  He lived with me in the city, but I sent him to be with some relatives out in the west before this all blew up.”

“Good call.  They wouldn’t have hesitated to use him if he was still here.  If it comes down to it, they still might.”

Theresa’s eyes dropped to the floor at my response and she squeezed her legs in closer.

“I’m sure it won’t come to that, though,” I said, not able to come up with a more comforting statement.

Theresa wiped her face and smiled at me.  “You’re really not the bad guy they make you out to be, are you?”

I shrugged.  “I kill people.  Make of that what you will.”

“But you don’t kill people that don’t deserve it, right?”

“I certainly enjoy it more if they do, but that’s never stopped me before.”

“Is that so…” she said, tapping her lips with her index finger.  She went silent for a while, and I continued to analyze the streets below.  “I’m sure you had a family.  You kind of remind me of my father.”

Her statement triggered a flood of false memories that blasted me in the face like a wrenched open fire hydrant.  Places I’d never been, with a woman I never knew, but the feelings were more intense this time, and the nostalgia clawed its way out of my stomach and scurried up my throat, choking me up.

“Your father?” I said, barely managing to shake off the foreign sensation.  “Just how old do you think I am?”

Theresa let out a snicker.  “Okay, okay, maybe I meant my father – when he was younger.”

“That’s better,” I said, hoping that was the end of our little heart to heart.  I got my wish not a second later as the dim overhead lights cut out. “Hide, now!” I yelled to Theresa as I unholstered my Seiver and adrenaline pumped through my veins.  I hadn’t seen anything on the street, which meant the merc was coming in from the rear.  I heard the faint blast of gunfire a couple of floors down, and then the building rumbled as my traps went off.  Smart.  Whoever this guy was, he wasn’t a novice.

I pressed my back against one of the pillars, facing away from the entrance to the room.  I peered out, and the merc was already waiting there, rifle up to his shoulder.  I yanked my head back as a spray of bullets blew out chunks of the pillar.  I hadn’t even heard him come in through the door, which I had to admit was impressive.  From my position I could see his image reflected in the windows across from me.  He was out in the open with no cover, but he had the advantage when it came to a showdown of bullets.  If I had to bet, I would have placed money on him having trained to hold that sort of position for days on end, just waiting for his prey to slip up.  If I even stuck the tip of my Seiver out it would be blown away in an instant.

It would be a simple manner of just using the beam blade to cut through the pillar and straight into him, but there wouldn’t be any fun in that.  I slowed my breathing and meditated on another tactic, keeping Theresa in the corner of my vision the whole time. She was trembling, hands clutching the pillar she hid behind, but it looked like she was gathering up the courage to do something stupid.  I was going to gamble on that.

She waited a few more minutes, then jumped out from her cover, her hands raised to the sky.  I didn’t have time to aim, I just swung my gun around the corner as the merc snapped his sights over to Theresa.  Both guns fired at what seemed like the same time, the blasts echoing off each other in the large room.  The merc’s eye socket caved in as his head jerked back in a violent fashion.  My bullet had found its mark.

I rushed over to Theresa’s prostrate body to see if the merc’s bullet had done the same.  I grabbed her by the shoulder to pull her to her back, and my hand was met by the wet stickiness of the blood that had started to soak into her blouse.  As I turned her over to examine the wound, she stirred, and her eyes fluttered.

“What…what happened?” she asked as she struggled to sit up.

“His bullet grazed your shoulder.  You’ll survive it.”  I gestured over to the merc’s body with my head.  “I can’t say the same for him.”

“You saved me, again.”

“Yeah, but now it’s time for you to answer my questions.”  I placed the barrel of my Seiver an inch from her torso.

“What are you doing?”

“I’ve had my fun, and you have too.  It’s over now, Nicole Gaia.”

A delirious smile spread across her face.  “You can’t be serious?”

“Read my thoughts.  See if I’m bluffing.  That’s one of your powers, isn’t it?”

She stared at me for a moment, trying to lock onto my mind like I knew she would.  Like she did when she asked me about my family.  And the only thing she would find would be the urge to kill.  Her head snapped back, and she tried to move away, but froze in place when I pressed the gun firmly to her belly.

“So you were able to tell?” she sneered.

I smiled.  “Not completely.  But it was a good guess, wasn’t it?”

“You know, that’s not the only power I have.” She lowered her face so that it was covered in shadow.  For a second it seemed like she was weeping, but then she popped her head back up.  At first, my eyes didn’t pick up the details in the shadow.  The pieces fell into place as my eyes adjusted, and I was soon staring at an exact copy of the woman from my memories.  A shape shifter.

“You wouldn’t shoot your lover, would you?” she asked, emulating the same soft voice I knew only from my memories.  She rested both of her hands gently on the top of my gun.  She leaned in close, bringing her lips to my ear.  “Levi.  We can be together again.  You don’t need to do this anymore,” she whispered.  “I’m here for you.”

“Are you?” I pulled the trigger and punched a hole through her midsection.

She hunched over the gun, her face still next to mine.  Blood gushed out of her mouth in pints and poured down my neck.  “How could you…your own lover’s face!”

“I guess it won’t hurt to let you in on a secret of mine.  Those were fake memories you saw.  Implanted to throw telepaths like yourself down the wrong trail.”

“That’s sick,” she said, her voice growing weaker with each raspy breathe.  “You’re…you are inhuman!” she managed to cough out before death took her.

Yes, I thought.  You’re absolutely right.  And it made me smile.