I send Doc out for a burner phone. When he returns we say our reasonably polite goodbye. He’s going to ground for a while until things cool down. He’ll be fine. Kate is mostly pleased just to have us out of the garage and to get back to the business of animal healing, not stitching up battered assassins. She’ll be fine too.
If I tell myself that enough, maybe it will be true.
That burner makes a call to Ronnie, who comes to get us in what I can only describe as the rustiest and ugliest pickup truck I have ever seen. How it even stays together is a mystery and miracle all wrapped up in one. I assume the secret is wishes and duct tape.
Ronnie is ageless. She’s always been about fifty-five in my mind and I’ve known her for at least twenty years. She’s lean from a life of country living, her hair is kinda sorta gray, and she crosses her arms and stares at me. I wonder how she leans against that truck without just crashing through the rusted panel.
“So, this is what shit creek looks like?” She says.
Everyone in my life is a smart-ass comedian. How is that even possible? I need new friends.
I get the back seat for the drive out to the hideout. My secret clubhouse, if you will. Nova and Ronnie strike up a conversation and I find myself drifting away on the pain pills, carried away on a river of my own thoughts. That’s dangerous. Me and thoughts have a rough history.
With that sizable bounty there won’t be many friends, not in my world. Ronnie, Doc, and Kate are just one-offs. There’s an exception to every rule and self-preservation helps that along. Once we’re out into the rural areas we have more time to figure this out.
We made it out of Philly already, Doc and Nova having dragged my unconscious ass to Kate’s place in rural New York State. That’s the good news. The bad news is we can’t hide forever. Eventually we’ll make a mistake. Or someone will get lucky. Or we’ll just get tired of hiding.
Baby steps. You eat the elephant one bite at a time and just try to dodge the feet.
I let my thoughts continue to wander until someone pokes my forehead. I open my eyes and go for a handgun that I don’t have.
“Chill. We’re here.”
Nova disappears, having been hanging over me from the passenger seat. I see the sun from outside and it’s so much better than waking up to surgery lights. Also, unless something happened while I was passed out, I don’t think I have new wounds. That’s a plus. I have enough holes in my body as is, and there’s already three more than average.
Ronnie helps me out of the truck and I feel sheepish for a professional killer, hobbling along. I can accept that though. Sometimes pain and reality overtake the image you want to portray of bad-ass killer. More like moderate-ass invalid, it just doesn’t have the flow.
My hideout is a run down church. White boards cover the exterior, the paint peeling from years of neglect. The windows are all broken and boarded up with an eclectic mix of plywood and scrap wood pieces. The steeple used to have a bell but that was long ago stolen by some scrap fiend. Attached to the back is a small living space for the pastor. When there was one. The place has been abandoned for years on a sizable plot of private property where Ronnie lives and keeps folks away. Ronnie’s alter ego owns a shell company that owns a shell company that owns the property. It’s almost untraceable. Considering that Ronnie is supposed to be dead. Our industry is filled with ghosts.
“Gross.” Nova offers as observation. Ronnie chuckles.
“Ungrateful kid,” is the best I can manage as I lean on Ronnie to get up the front steps.
The doors creak open to reveal a dirty sanctuary with worn and chewed wooden pews. Pages of hymnals are strewn on the floor and it smells like animals. Home, sweet home.
Or something like that.
“Don’t worry kid, it’s better than it looks. Trust me.” Ronnie says. She walks to a pew close to the altar, where a preacher might have once given a fire and brimstone style speech to a completely engaged congregation and uses her hips to push it about three feet. I had the thing put on stealthy tracks once we’d figured out what the hell we were going to do with this place. Doesn’t leave unsightly grooves or drag marks that way. I’ve seen Columbo and Scooby-Doo, drag marks give these things away.
There’s a thick steel hatch underneath a nicely worn in section of wood flooring. Ronnie pulls that up on the hydraulic pins and reveals a staircase.
“That looks like a murder hole.” Nova says. “Like where you murder people.”
“I’ve never had to really consider the aesthetics of my hideout, OK?” I also say something that makes me feel old, ‘kids these days’, maybe. Ronnie helps me down the steps into the sprawling, furnished hideout. There’s an entryway with another heavy door, just in case you decide you’d rather die inside a vault. Might be preferable to the alternative if you’re being chased by…I don’t know…a Chairman? The walls of the entryway are lined with claymores. To say hello.
“Welcome to the hideout.” Ronnie takes one for the team, drops me off on the couch, and gives the tour. I don’t argue. It fucking hurts to live. A tour might kill me. If I can offer some life advice; don’t get shot.
And what valuable, rare life advice it is, right?
“Sitting room, he doesn’t much like TV so there’s lots of books to choose from. Kitchen is attached, fully stocked with fresh and canned food. As long as you’re here I’ll be helping out because that one can’t cook an egg without setting off the fire system.”
I flip Ronnie off from my spot on the couch and she ignores it.
“Bathroom, hot water and a shower. Not much else to it. Bedrooms, two. I live on the property up there but if someone shows up, then we’ll work out space. Down there is the gym and armory. And that’s about it. Why don’t you get set up in the room on the left there? We’ll get you some new clothes and things tomorrow.”
I listen to Ronnie’s footsteps and then she settles into one of the two chairs in the room, leaving me sprawled on the couch and wondering if I can take another pain pill yet.
“Avery…what the hell?”
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?”
Ronnie doesn’t laugh. Or smile. Just leans forward with her elbows on her knees and the knife edge of her hands pressed to her lips. Waiting.
“I couldn’t leave her back there. I’d already stepped in it.”
“So, you decided to take a nice leisurely swim in shit creek instead of just paddling through it?” She says it quietly, watching that hallway leading to the bedrooms. “You playing at some sort of hero? They don’t give out medals to hired killers, you know that, right?”
I scowl at her.
“I seem to remember a scared kid who’d lost everyone a few years ago. I also remember someone taking him in and giving him a life. Or something like a life.”
“Not the same, you know that. I still hear rumors, Avery. Eleven dead killers. Eleven! She’s dangerous. I took you in because of your dad. You are taking in the most dangerous mark the Agency ever had. Why? Because you felt bad? You stop to think that the Agency had a reason to put a hit out on her? Why she’s moved cities and families so often? Or did you just see yourself and get all weepy over it? What about what comes now? They are going to pour boxes of bullets and pallets of cash into getting rid of the two of you. Just because they think I’m dead doesn’t mean they won’t find this place eventually.”
I rest my head on the couch and close my eyes.
“Ronnie. If you want out, then go. Or you can be here when the sun comes up tomorrow and we’ll start training her. I might be taking a swim in the creek, but I can’t just let her drown in it.”
I hear the chair shift as she stands. Her footsteps disappear to the entry, then to the church and then I don’t hear them anymore.
“Thanks.” Nova says.
I don’t open my eyes still. I just lay there, mind racing and heart pounding. I like being alive. A lot.
I don’t think I’ll be enjoying it for too long.
I think I’m already under the shit creek water and I’m just too stupid to know I’ve already drowned.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but I do remember waking up.
It was the cold sweat and the feel of a gun barrel shoved under my chin that did it. It wasn’t real, I was just dreaming about it. Didn’t make it feel any less real at the time. The Chairman had his big goons holding my arms behind me, I struggled but they have about six hundred pounds on me so that was futile.
The Chairman leaned in with his perfect teeth and grinned at me, tucking the cool barrel of a forty-five under my chin and pushing up so hard that the metal cut into my flesh. My teeth clamped together, and he leaned in towards my ear, his breath hot on my skin.
“I always win.” He whispered.
And then he squeezed the trigger.
That’s when I woke up. Screaming and sweating and swatting away the gun that wasn’t there. Since my head was intact, thankfully, I stumbled to the kitchen and filled a glass with water. Then I downed two pain pills and the water. Then two more pills.
I didn’t see her standing there, watching. Concerned.
I just fell back on the couch and hoped the pills would do exactly what they did.
They held out their arms of a deep black sleep and I fell right into them.
I didn’t wake up screaming this time, instead I was pulled from the pitch black of sleep by the smell of coffee and toast. So, naturally, I assumed I was having a stroke and said as much.
“Idiot.” Ronnie said, dropping a plate of food on the sitting area table and helping me to a sitting position. She just gave me a nod and I didn’t ask or say anything. Her being here is enough.
I ate like a starved man, an accurate description. Nova was watching me, and I caught her eye a few times.
“What?” I said. Sort of. My mouth was full of coffee-soaked toast and a half bite of eggs. She didn’t say anything, just picked up her own plate and brought it to the kitchen. I watched her go and refused to admit how grumpy I am. She seems to be moving well for all the bruising she has.
That’s a good thing.
I lift my shirt and poke at the bandage, only to find I am indeed well and truly Swiss-i-fied as the cheese itself. I am not moving well.
She sniggers and cover it with a cough as fast as anyone I’ve ever known. Little shit.
“Fine. If you’re in such fighting form, then training starts today. Ronnie! My comfy pants!”
“Get them yourself, asshole.”
“Right! Avery.” Of course, I am referring to myself. “My comfy pants! Snappy now!”
They watch with amusement, I presume, as I struggle to get my feet on the floor and swing myself into a sitting position on the couch. More barely contained laughter as I get to my feet and shuffle like a man sixty-eight times my age to the bedroom I didn’t bother sleeping in. The sad thing is I sort of feel better than I did the night before. Sort of.
“Laugh at me, will you.” I say to myself. “Not for long.”
I pull on the sweat pants and struggle back to the sitting area where Nova waits. I’ll put her through the ringer for laughing at me. Also, and more importantly, it’s because that’s the only way we might manage to get out of this alive. Might.
“Alright, kid. You want to get them off your back?”
She nods with all the seriousness that she can muster. Good.
“To the gym then!” I point and take a slightly stronger step. And I grin at her. “Training montage!”
Of course, that doesn’t happen. That’s stupid.
Our reality is far more boring and requires effort and work. It’s two weeks of cardio workouts, weights, firearms training and knife work. I teach her proper form with a rifle. Slight bend in the knees, sink it into your shoulder and move. Maintain good center of gravity. I have her clear one of the houses on the property, maintained just for that purpose. Room by room, taking out plywood targets. I teach her to break down her rifle and clean it. She carries one with her all the time, she needs to be comfortable with it.
About a week into that I ditch the rifle. She is good with it but she’s better with handguns and knives. I have her carry one of those on her thigh and it’s a better choice. She moves better without the weight.
She can run like no one’s business, something about buoying herself with the wind. I have her work on running without using her powers, it only stands to reason that the more effective you are without any powers or whatever, then they’ll be that much better when you do.
That’s my theory.
I can’t be sure because I’ve never been a mentor, let alone a mentor of someone with magic abilities. I’m not Professor X.
I hate calling it magic but there’s nothing else it can be.
By the end of two weeks she’s competent in a lot of areas that a twelve year shouldn’t be. She uses a handgun like she was born to and I can’t help but wonder if she wasn’t. It’s also at the end of two weeks that I start feeling a bit better. Enough that I’m not an invalid killer, just a slower than average one.
One morning, about three weeks in, I carry my ass on out to the house, before anyone else is awake. I put up a few plywood targets of people in the rooms with a little cover here and there. I strap on my homemade tactical rig, holds two handguns and ten magazines. I roll out my shoulder and feel the pull of the three holes, but I suck it up. Sit around too long and you’ll get rusty, not to mention I hate feeling like the kid is outpacing me at my own game.
Twenty-nine and I’m about to be made obsolete as a middling assassin. Wait, that’s not right is it. Thirty and I’m about to obsolete. I hum happy birthday as I work. It is today after all. Of course, it would be today, right?
I take up a starting position and let my breathing even out. I feel the wind blow through the windows, listen to the birds and the sounds of life outside. The rustling of leaves or the rustling of a squirrel or some other woodland beast. Brutish things that pretend to move well but it’s a lie. I know it’s a lie because I move well. They are nothing but heavy footed cretins.
I feel the nylon of the vest rubbing my t-shirt and the slightest pinch of a roll in my sock, tucked into the black boot. I am a middling assassin, I’m not the quietest or the strongest. I’m by no means the smartest or the most technically capable. I’m not great with big machine guns and I don’t much like explosives, they’re so messy. I’m not the best driver or pilot. I’m not great with languages. What I do is different than all that.
What I do, it’s a dance. It’s graceful and quick and goddamn, I do it well.
My gift is speed. I take a final breath and I do what I do best. I move.
I lash out with the first handgun, snapping off a round that is unpleasantly left of center on the plywood dummy’s head. Correct on the move. I move forward and drop to my knees, sliding through a false doorway and firing through what would be a knee. There’s no such thing as overkill in this business so I spin, pumping out three more rounds. Knee, thigh, chest, head.
Headshot, tumble through a doorway. Up to a shooting stance and a double tap to the chest. Move forward still, shoulder through a door and a neck shot to a hiding target. Move forward, reload, take down two more.
Come through a door.
Ronnie stands there, arms crossed, between four targets she’s moved. It doesn’t matter, move forward. I tuck and roll and come up and fire off four snapshots. I am rewarded with four thunks of plywood splintering.
Ronnie slow claps for me. I take a bow.
“You thought about using her?”
“Excuse me?” I stop checking the slide of my second handgun when she says it. She rolls her eyes.
“No, moron. She can manipulate air, right?” I nod. “So…let’s try to use our big boy brain now, think it through.”
I stare at her. I think I smell smoke from how hard the wheel is turning, it’s going to throw that hamster right off unless I figure out what the hell she’s talking about. She rubs her eyes, dragging down the bottom lids in a grotesque display of eye anatomy.
“You made your money moving fast. She can help. What if you could draw or snapshot faster? Reload faster? Any of this getting through?”