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The Way I Died
I’m sitting in an Italian restaurant in Santiago, eating pizza. It doesn’t taste any more Italian than pizza in the US or Sweden or Tonga- or, for that matter, anywhere that’s not actually Italy.
The dining area is oldish but clean. Nobody else is in here, and the single waiter is somewhere in the back. I’m alone. It’s a sunny day today, early afternoon, and light is slanting through the windows that look across the street. I’m sitting by one of them, soaking in the warmth, glad that I’m here in January and not June.
And then suddenly I can’t feel the sun. The door swings open and in marches a familiar face- too familiar. I knew he’d show up sooner or later- I’d been hoping for later but it seems I’m sunk. Carson crosses the room quickly and without invitation drops into the seat across from me. He smiles innocently enough.
“Hola. Having a nice day?” His accent is faintly Canadian- faked. Last time I met him it was Swedish. Brown hair, a round face, and gray eyes that never have any feeling (no matter what the rest of his face is doing).
“Until you walked in,” I say. Maybe he’ll get the hint and leave- but I’m deluding myself. No amount of incivility will make him go. He’s on a mission.
“You could be a little nicer, Kyras,” he replies, unfazed. “I’m only asking about your well-being.”
“I’m on vacation,” I answer irritably. “If I really wanted to do anything I would have asked you, not the other way around.”
“Is it safe to talk?” he asks, more quietly but still friendly.
I nod. Of course I checked for bugs. Does he think I’m stupid?
He becomes more serious and looks me directly in the eye. “We have a proposition for you.”
“I knew you would. And I’m not biting.”
He ignores me. “There’s three fifty-seven involved. K.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I say. “The answer is still no.”
“You said no last time,” he says with a small smile. “Did it anyway.”
“I meant no last time, too,” I snap. “Look where I ended up.”
“Well,” he admits, “granted, there were some inconveniences…”
“I said no to Rome,” I begin impatiently. “But somehow Rome happened anyway. I said no to Bangkok, and ended up in Bangkok anyway. I said no to Dubai, and I did the Dubai job anyway. I-”
He blinks. “We’ve never sent you to Dubai.”
Oops. I keep my face smooth and don’t respond.
“…Been doing a little work on the side, have we?” he asks. Doesn’t sound dangerous so much as interested.
“What’s it to you?” I say hotly.
He shrugs. “Just curious. Who set you to it?”
MI6. But I’m not telling him that. I raise an eyebrow.
“Come on. Was it CIA? MI6? MSS?” The Chinese. As if.
“That information is classified,” I inform him firmly.
Carson almost laughs. “Classified? Really?”
I don’t smile.
“I never thought I’d see loyalty from a mercenary,” he chuckles, shaking his head slightly. “Who was it?”
“It’s not loyalty,” I say stiffly, “as much as a promise. I said I’d keep my mouth shut.”
“Oh,” he says sarcastically. “It’s not a mercenary’s loyalty, it’s a spy’s promise. While we’re at it, let’s ask for honor among thieves.”
“I’ve found that one to be true, more often than not,” I retort. “As for a spy’s promise, I’m not talking. Besides, you should be grateful- they asked me for details on you people, and I refused them too.”
“Okay,” he says, letting it drop. I can sense he’s still curious, but doesn’t press- it wouldn’t do to alienate me.
Whoops- too late.
“So,” Carson says after a slight pause. “This job. Two weeks, at most. Three hundred fifty seven thousand payoff- euros. We need you to get into the US embassy in Jerusalem-”
“No,” I said instantly. “I am not getting into Israel. Especially with the US involved. I can say from here it’ll end in disaster.”
“It’s easy work. Minimal risk-”
I snarl. “You said the same thing about Jakarta. And I also most empathetically said no to Jakarta-”
He cuts me off. “Look, we’ve apologized for that. Profusely. I assure you it was never our intention-”
“It happened whether you intended it to or not,” I spit. “The issue here is that I was promised you would support me and quite obviously that didn’t happen. I had to spend six weeks in an Indonesian prison before I could finally break myself out! You people were just going to let me rot there-”
“We had a rescue mission ready and waiting, there were just some…obstacles, that’s all.” He’s lying. I know it.
“I know how you think of me.” My tone is disgusted. “Just hired labor. Minimal loss, you know? Great experience, highly skilled, but still not worth it to go after if you lose me since I’m not actually one of you. And then you start taking what I do for granted, assuming that you alone can use my services at any time and any place you want.” I shake my head. “And that’s why I’m not doing anything with you. period.”
“Kyras, please. I know you’re a little annoyed, but I’m sure we can work something out…”
“We’re done here,” I snap, and stand up. “Senor camarero, el dinero es encima de la mesa.” There’s movement in the back in response to my call.
I drop my pesos on the table. “Don’t try and follow me.”
I storm out of the restaurant.
Six hours later. My hotel room. It’s dark outside- not that it makes a difference, since I have the heavy blackout curtains drawn. The three lamps are yellow.
I’m holding a cell, debating inwardly. I really do not want to do this. There’s a hundred things I’d rather... but I know I have no choice.
I make a face, thinking of working for Carson and his group again. In Israel. After all they haven’t done for me. Three hundred fifty seven thousand euros…
I dial the number. It only rings twice.
“I need a favor,” I reply.
Ten in the morning: as soon as I step out the hotel’s front door I feel it. I have a tail. Someone following me.
Probably watched the hotel all night, just waiting for me to leave. He stays back a good quarter mile. I make no effort to lose him.
A while later, I end up in a small park near the foot of the mountains. Three sides have residential buildings, two stories each and quiet. The fourth edge presses up against the woods on the mountains. There’s a swingset and slide (empty. The children are all in school) some grass and a few healthy trees. I lean against one and wait.
He shows up six minutes later. Carson. He’s in a black suit with no tie and sunglasses. Honestly, can he get more clichéd? A t-shirt and jeans are good enough for me.
“Hey,” he says nicely. Still has a Canadian accent.
I don’t acknowledge him.
He waits a moment. “Have you…thought anymore? About our offer?”
All night long. I sigh. “You just don’t quit, do you.”
“Kyras, I know that you’re a little annoyed. But this…it’s imperative that we get someone to do the job. And HQ thought that you were most qualified…”
“You have,” I say coolly, “an entire %$#@ agency at your disposal… and you honestly expect me to believe that I’m the only one capable of doing whatever you want me to do?”
“Yes,” he answers quietly. Flattery.
I don’t reply. He elaborates. “You have the most experience in infiltrations like these, and we know that you can be entrusted with this job…” Carson trails off. Silence.
“You have no idea how tough prison was,” I say finally. “Especially in Indonesia. I really wish you guys would have done something.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, still soft. “I swear to you that we never meant that to happen. And we were literally on our way when you contacted us with the news you’d broken out.”
“Israel.” I drop the word like a bunch of bricks. “US relations with Israel.”
“Well, admittedly, it has potential to turn out badly,” he concedes. “But you’re a professional. Things won’t go wrong, I know it- especially with you on the case.”
I sigh and turn around, resting my head against the tree. He doesn’t move. “Three hundred fifty seven k?”
“Three hundred fifty seven k,” he confirms. “Euros.”
“Cash,” I demand.
“Okay. I can do that.”
I take a breath. This is going to be heck.
“I’ll do it,” I sigh, still not looking at him.
“Thank you.” There’s false gratitude deep in there.
I step away from the tree to the side- in front of him but not facing him. “This does not mean that you can-”
A sudden movement on top of one of the buildings across the street. There’s a simultaneous soft pop- and before my brain catches up, before I can dodge, the left half of my chest explodes with pain.
Right over the heart. My heart.
It’s excruciating. Almost immediately I fall, my legs turned to string. I catch a glimpse of Carson’s face- he looks shocked, very scared, and not remotely sorry that I’m dying at his feet.
Of course he’s not, is my last irritable thought.
My hearing, touch, smell, and vision all blink out. So does the pain. Last to go, half a second later, is my consciousness.
I’m lying on something soft but firm. And it’s loose, I feel between my fingers. Smells like…dirt. I force my eyes open- they seem glued shut- and find that that’s because it is dirt.
I’m among trees. Wild trees, not the carefully manicured ones of a town. There’s almost no underbrush.
Suddenly the pain receptors kick in and my chest explodes a second time. It’s a deep, throbbing ache, with a tiny bit of stinging too. It’s the type of pain that makes you feel like moving is impossible but it’s not if you try.
I moan as quietly as I can. Who knows who’s hanging around.
A pair of boots move into my field of vision. “It’s okay,” says a voice with a slight Arabic accent. “We’re alone.”
I let myself moan a little louder- and realize that moaning hurts more than it’s worth. My chest is bandaged- but my shirt and vest are gone.
The man I know only as Arrow squats down next to me. “How are you feeling?”
“Like crap,” I mumble, trying out my tongue.
He shakes his head sympathetically. “Sorry.”
“How do I look?” I ask.
“Well,” he says, glancing at the bandages, “I either cracked or broke your fourth rib. Not sure without an x-ray. But either way, it hasn’t come loose, it’s still in place. So I bandaged you up. Should be healed in five weeks or so. Just try to keep still until then and you’ll be fine.”
I turn my head to the other side- my vest is hanging on a tree. I can see a very large dent over the heart- with a flattened bullet lodged in the Kevlar. Though it stopped the bullet, it didn’t stop the force of a bullet going nine hundred miles an hour- I had to absorb it.
“You know you’re talking aloud, right?”
“What?” I blink and realize he’s right. “Oh.”
My brain is a little fuzzy.
“It’s a good thing, too,” Arrow says. “About you taking the force of it. Otherwise you wouldn’t have passed out. And if you hadn’t passed out, I doubt you would have fooled Carson. The heartbeat slowing down must have done it.”
“Carson,” I repeat. “What did he do?”
“Well, as soon as you went down, he ducked. Kicked you and you rolled into some bushes (so none really saw anything suspicious). Then I let off another shot that barely missed him- on purpose- and he took off. That was brilliant, by the way, you stepping in front of him. I think he’s convinced that the bullet was meant for him.”
“So he thinks I’m dead and some assassin is after him,” I summarize with satisfaction. “Great. Hopefully word will spread to other agencies. You-” I wince, “wouldn’t happen to have any meds, would you?”
He hands me five small ibuprofen. “That’s it?”
He shrugs sympathetically and hands me a water bottle. “Sorry. I ran out of Oxycontin just last week and morphine is just about impossible to get now days- legally or not.”
It’ll have to do. I swallow the pills and will them to kick in quick.
“Thanks,” I tell him, “for the favor. We’re even now.”
“You’re welcome. So,” he says, sitting cross legged. “What’s next for you?”
“Get a ticket out of South America and find some place to heal in peace,” I say, staring at the sky.
“And after that?”
“Get a face job, hire a hacker to make sure that I’m officially dead, and find papers that make me a citizen of South Korea. Lie low for a year or two, and then get back to business.”
“You want to go back? I thought you ‘died’ because you wanted out.”
“Well, my work isn’t so bad for the first few years. It’s after they start feeling entitled that it begins to stink. I just wanted a fresh start. Things’ll be different this time- they won’t connect me with Kyras.”
“Oh yeah. I know what I’m doing.” I smile. “For being called ‘intelligence agencies’, some of them really aren’t that smart.”
He smiles too. “What’ll your contact info be?”
“I probably shouldn’t tell you. When I think it’s safe, I’ll be in contact.”
“You could at least tell me your name,” Arrow says cajolingly.
Gingerly, I sit up and glance around the woods. “I was thinking Xian has a nice ring to it.”