Kelly steered the BMW towards the little grey blip on the windscreen GPS, gliding along an empty desert road under the bloody pre-dawn sky. The map displayed the name of a town and the location of a designated safehouse. The place seemed deserted at this hour in the morning but already this town welcomed them a hell of a lot more than Anton Harrell’s nightmare compound. Kelly’s brain replayed the events of the previous twenty-four hours, like her mind was stuck on a loop that she couldn’t turn off. Her knuckles whitened on the steering wheel.
“This is it,” said Dunstan.
They reached the safehouse, an antique of a building, easily pre-twentieth century. Kelly imagined the place in its prime, in the days of the old west — the shanty saloon on the ground floor, the rooms for weary travellers upstairs. The bar was well-stocked, the tables were all empty, especially at this time in the morning. Above the bar, displayed in a glass case almost like a trophy, was a set of 1892 Colt army revolvers that Kelly stopped and admired. The weapons seemed to be surprisingly in pristine condition.
“My great-grandfather’s pride and joy,” said Dunstan, when he noticed Kelly eyeing the revolvers. “This hotel used to belong to my family but my parents sold the place after the blackout. When Agent Connors started his investigation of the Harrell cult he bought the place to use as a base of operations.” With his left hand he poured himself a glass of whiskey. “Which means the drinks are on him.”
Kelly’s mind was growing foggy but she wasn’t ready to space out just yet. She grabbed the bottle and poured the sweet golden whiskey into her glass. She had used the first aid kit in the car to treat Dunstan’s severed finger as best she could. Sticky blood had congealed on her hands and gone cold, and now she rubbed at them with a damp napkin.
“This Agent Santiago, he was a field medic right?” Kelly said, looking at Dunstan’s bloodied bandaged stub.
“Right,” said Dunstan, “but maybe a doctor—”
“We should stay off the records,” Kelly intervened. “As much as we can.”
Dunstan’s phone buzzed. “Well, he’s on his way.” He leaned over the bar and said to Kelly, “We’re going to get payback, right Lieutenant?”
Kelly sipped her whiskey. “It’s not about payback, Dunstan, we have orders.”
“It’s not right, what they did to the people in that town. And what about Harrell’s son? The kid’s a psychopath.”
“I’ll agree things didn’t go as expected, which is why I need you to find a way to reach Agent Connors.”
Dunstan moved around the bar and sat on the stool next to Kelly. She only just realised how much his hands were shaking.
“I can’t get it out of my head,” he said quietly. “I was down there… I thought I was going to die. I thought I’d do anything to escape. I wanted… I swear if I see Johnathan Harrell again I’m going to—”
“Do what?” said Kelly. “I know you Dunstan, which is why the next time you see Johnathan Harrell you leave it to me.”
“Trying to save my soul?”
“I’ve taken three lives, alright, three confirmed kills. All the preparation the army gives you, I knew exactly what to expect when I pulled the trigger, but it didn’t make it any easier. Thing is, I know guys who have clocked more than forty confirmed kills. For them, killing is all part of the job, it’s their duty.”
“How do you do it?”
Kelly shrugged. “I tell myself that it’s not me pulling the trigger. It’s the enemy who picked up a gun that ended his own life, or it’s Captain Miller who issued to the order. But I’ll tell you what, don’t even think about getting your hands dirty because mine already are. Now Agent Connors is going to review what we now know about Anton Harrell and he’s going to declare him too dangerous to be left alive, and if that’s the case I’m not going to hesitate to take him out. This is the life I chose, and I’m good at it, and the world will be a better place with one less terrorist causing trouble.”
Dunstan stared at his drink and rolled the glass between his fingers. “Look at me, I spent a day locked up in a basement and I’m already losing my shit. You’re made of tough stuff, Lieutenant, I know you’ll make the right calls.” He was silent for a moment. “You know my grandfather was in the military. He used to talk about all the traumatic shit that happened to him out there in the field, never going easy on the gory details even though I was just a little kid.” He breathed a laugh. “So I asked him once how he survived and he told me that he almost didn’t — a once in six chance, he called it.”
“One in six?” Kelly asked.
Dunstan nodded. “Grandpa was a good devout Christian but even God couldn’t save him from all the junk in his head. He’d sit up all night drinking, and he’d stare at his revolver for hours, let it just sit there on the table. Until one night he made a deal with the man upstairs. One bullet. A one in six chance. He put his life and his luck in God’s hands. Luckily for me the old man made it, or else I wouldn’t have been born. Pretty sure he started a family not long after that. He used to say we were the best thing that ever happened to him.”
Together Kelly and Dunstan took in the dawn silence.
“Your grandfather was a brave man,” Kelly said.
Just then a girl no older than ten strolled into the room. Her long chestnut hair fell down to her shoulders, and her eyes were a spectacular shade of brown, bright enough to bring out the olive colour in her skin. She was in no way lost because she didn’t look around when she stepped up towards the bar, and she stared at Kelly, who gripped her whiskey glass uncomfortably.
“You’re pretty,” the girl said.
Kelly looked at Dunstan, perplexed, then back at the girl.
“Thanks?” she smiled awkwardly.
“Penelope,” said a voice from the doorway. “Ah, there you are.”
The voice belong to who Kelly assumed was Agent Santiago, the quartermaster. He had tan skin and a kind face with a thin moustache. He was lean but not too athletic and he dressed casually, loose trousers and a button shirt to accommodate for the heat. He took Penelope’s hand.
“My daughter,” Santiago explained. “She loves making new friends, even when she knows they look like they’ve had a tough night.”
Santiago introduced himself and Kelly found that his hands were scarred and calloused – rough with boxer’s break. Fighter’s hands.
“I don’t know what you went through,” Santiago turned his attention to Dunstan’s severed finger. “Looks to me like you went through hell.”
“Tell me about it,” Dunstan groaned.
“Luckily for you we’re well equipped. Agent Connors spared no expense. Let’s go now. Penelope, Mr. Riley is going to need your help, can you do that?” He led Dunstan out of the bar, little Penelope dawdling along behind, then he stopped at the door and turned to Kelly. “If you need anything — weapons, equipment, information — just ask.”
When they were gone Kelly found herself enveloped in a bleak and lonely silence, the kind that feels substantial, like you could wade through it if you were desperate enough to hear another person’s voice. That girl… there was something frightfully innocent about her, thrown in contrast against the grotesque nature of their conversation with Johnathan Harrell.
When Kelly had confirmed her first kill she had faced the dark reality that her life was never going to be the same, that in an instant as quick as a muzzle flash all hopes of ever being normal were gone forever. But it could be done. Dunstan’s grandfather had bounced back, made a life for himself, a family. Kelly had made a lifelong decision when she chose to pull the gloves off, but part of her still hoped that a life was waiting for her on the other side.
She finished her drink.
“A brave man.”
She took out her phone, stared at the contacts list for five minutes, her thumb hovering over the screen until it’s colour dulled and threatened to go blank. She called Agent Connors and issued her report. Her voice was cold and flat, and she wondered, when she had finished, if it was even her own voice at all.
“So what you’re telling me, Lieutenant, is that you don’t know where Anton’s stolen data is located?” said Connors.
“No, sir, I know exactly where it is, however the situation has become a little more complicated. He’s installed some kind of augment, I don’t exactly what it does, but the stolen data isn’t stored on any computerised system. I think the augment is designed to significantly boost his memory.”
Connors sighed. “I was afraid of that. What you’re describing is a Neural Implant, one of Harrell’s illegal designs. The purpose of the device is to significantly enhance cognitive function and establish and flawless interface with supporting tech. When Anton was still alive his board of directors shut the project down because it caused madness in all their test subjects — voices and all that.”
“So what’s our play?” Kelly asked. “Are you sending us out?”
“Negative, Lieutenant, we have reason to suspect that the data in Anton’s possession is more dangerous that we first thought — need to know basis — which is why it’s been marked for deletion.”
“That information is hardwired into Anton’s brain, sir.”
“Exactly.” Agent Connors’ voice was cold and to-the-point. “This is a kill order, Lieutenant.”
Kelly hesitated, though not long enough to be noticeable, then replied: “Understood, sir.”
She hung up, tossed the phone onto the bar top, then poured herself another drink. Kill order. Of course it is.ns126.96.36.199da2