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Excerpt for Blackwell Ops 2: Charles Claymore Task by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Blackwell Ops 2:

Charles Claymore Task


Harvey Stanbrough


the Smashwords Edition of

a novel from StoneThread Publishing


This novel is dedicated to Kevin J. Tumlinson, one of the better Thriller writers working today.


To give the reader more of a sample, the front matter appears at the end.

Contents

Chapter 1: My Introduction to Blackwell Ops


This isn’t my fault. I just want to be clear on that. It was precipitated as an unwavering requirement of employment at Blackwell Ops.

Also, Mr. Thomas Jefferson “TJ” Blackwell specifically requested we add to our accounts that the accounts are fictional. But I’m not going to do that, because frankly, readers will believe or not believe what they find here depending on whether or not they’re part of the fraction of 1 percent I’ll talk about a bit later in the book.

Why a man who runs a covert operation management business would want his operatives to give anyone even the slightest hint about what they’re doing is far beyond my pay grade. Or maybe it’s just beyond my ability to comprehend. Or my ability to set aside my own amazed sense of the absurd. Because it really is absurd.

But then, that’s the difference—one of many—between the boss man, Mr. Blackwell, and me.

In the first place, as I learned during the final part of my three-part interview, he reserves the right to rename all his operatives. Well, except me. As it turned out, that was not an unwavering requirement, and it’s the one rule I refused outright. Mine is an assumed name anyway, and once in a lifetime is enough for that silliness. Beside, given just a modicum of thought, it’s an appropriate enough description of who I am and what I do, so what could be better?

Apparently he believed my assertion that if he insisted, I would walk out and he could get along without me.

He was smart to do so.

Possibly the determining factor in his acceptance of my terms was my height, though I really doubt it. I stand 6’2” and weigh in the neighborhood of 190 pounds. That’s compared to his, what, 5’5” or maybe 5’6” and 130 pounds in a heavy downpour? But many of his operatives are larger and more stout than I, though I seriously doubt any have such a determined mind.

So maybe it was that, or maybe it was my staunch posture, my arms folded across my chest and my feet spread shoulder width apart as I stood before him in jeans and my authentic cashmere Burberry overcoat toward the end of our first meeting.

Or maybe it was the steady, determined look in my gaze, which emanated from behind my rose-tinted glasses. Or maybe it was the set of my firmly clenched jaw. It might have even been any of those things.

Then again, it might have been the .22 caliber semiautomatic pistol that dropped into my right hand from the sleeve of my overcoat, which I leveled at his smug, gnarled little face just before I said, “Do we have a deal?”

I wouldn’t have shot him, of course. I was only showing off my abilities. Or capabilities.

But he believed I would shoot him, and that’s well over half the battle. I know he believed because he involuntarily rolled his desk chair back a few inches—it thumped against the wall behind him—and sputtered before he was able to form the words: “How did you get that in here?”

I didn’t smile. I didn’t grimace. I didn’t sneer. None of that is appropriate in a professional business meeting. I said, “Polymer 2. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? The point is, I’m here, you’re here, and this—” I tapped the pistol with the tip of my left index finger. “Is here. Wouldn’t you agree?”

And he smiled. Maybe because he realized, or hoped, it was only a demonstration.

He said, “Yes. Yes, that is the point, isn’t it? And yes, we have a deal, Mr. Task.”

So I retracted the pistol into my sleeve and nodded. “Very well. Then I will work for you.”

“Oh, yes,” he said, and a sneer crept across his decrepit little mouth. “Yes, you’ll work for me. For as long as I want you to.”

“Don’t send anyone after me, Mr. Blackwell. If you want to make use of my abilities, hire me. If you don’t, don’t. In that case we’ll call it a draw. I’ll walk out and you’ll never see me again. But don’t hire me and then send someone after me. I would hate to deplete your assets. And I would deplete them.”

“You really believe you’re that good?”

“Mr. Blackwell, I never lie. I never bluff, and I never joke about serious matters. From the moment the tests began downstairs right up to this moment, you’ve seen only the barest tip of my abilities. I’m asking you, please don’t test me further. I might take it personally.”

“Very well,” he said, but I didn’t really believe him. He gestured toward a lone chair in front of his desk. “Would you have a seat, please?”

I sat.

Over the next hour or so our conversation was amicable, if one-sided. In great detail, he explained how I would be contacted, how much and when and how I would be paid—

I stopped him there. The when and how were fine, but the amount was lacking. “Add half again to the figure,” I said, “and we have a deal.”

He rocked back in his chair. “What makes you think I would do that?”

“I don’t necessarily, Mr. Blackwell, but I know my own worth.”

He eyed me for a long moment, then said, “Perhaps you do. We’ll see. In the meantime, I agree to your terms.” Then he went on to discuss all the other mundane trappings that come along with acquiring gainful employment with any company. The only difference was that there were no forms to sign. Mr. Blackwell doesn’t believe in leaving paper trails, as I do not.

When he was finished, he said, “Do you have any other questions or concerns?”

I had no questions and I never have concerns.

The interview was over, and I showed myself out.

*

I probably should explain a bit about the tests I mentioned above.

Mr. Blackwell presumably creates tests unique to each applicant’s ability and stated skills. Of course, that’s fine. He has an obligation to his own peace of mind to know an asset is as good as advertised.

That being said, I was a bit disappointed in the tests he set up for me.

After the initial interview—during which I basically reiterated and embellished the skills and abilities I told him I had when I first talked with him on the telephone—I accompanied him to the elevator.

There, he pressed a button labeled U-7. It was the last button on the keypad.

When the doors opened, a hallway stretched away before us. On either side were three open doorways. Dim light emanated from each doorway into the hall. No doorway was directly opposite another.

He looked up at me. “Proceed along the center of the hallway. Peer into each room. If a room is not empty, what lies within is a target. Your orders are to terminate with prejudice.”

Well, that was simple enough. If I was to terminate something, that something had to be alive in the first place.

The nearest room, on the left, held nothing obvious other than a small night light plugged into the center of the back wall near the floor. Still, I walked in, scanned the floor, the ceiling, the walls and all eight corners.

The room held nothing.

I crossed to the first room on the right.

In the center of the room was a man in a metal chair with an angle-iron frame, facing away. He was silhouetted against the same dim light. He appeared to be Caucasian. From his skin tone, I thought he was in his late teenage years or early twenties. The chair was metal with an angle-iron frame.

I toed my loafers off silently and moved into the room.

His hair was dark and scraggly. His hands were tied behind his back and his ankles were bound to the legs of the chair, which was bolted to the floor. His head, shoulders, torso and feet were bare. He was wearing only a pair of jeans. In the far right corner of the room was a rumpled sweatshirt, a pair of tennis shoes and a pair of socks.

As I approached him from the back, he twisted his shoulders and turned his head to the right in an attempt to look behind him. In a fearful voice, he said, “Who’s there?” There was a faint echo of his voice in the otherwise silent room.

His right eye was swollen shut, and the right side of his forehead was cut open. A dark line of blood had coagulated from the cut down to his shoulder.

I grasped his chin with my right hand, the back of his head with my left and jerked. Hard. Twice. Then I released him, slowly.

He sagged slightly forward in the chair, and his head lolled forward almost to his chest.

I moved out of the room, slipped into my loafers and continued to the next room on the left.

In that room was a small child—a girl—mostly naked on a mattress in a shadow in the far corner. A thin blanket covered her from mid-torso down over her feet.

Again I slipped off my loafers and crept into the room.

I crouched at about the center of the room and made my way toward her.

I reached for the side of her face with my left hand and her throat with my right. The plan was to cover her mouth and nose with one hand as I crushed her larynx with the other.

But she was cool and firm to the touch in a way that human skin usually is not. At first, I thought she was already dead. Then I realized she was a manikin.

Nothing to terminate.

Good. I didn’t relish the idea of terminating a child. I never had before.

For some reason, I experienced a brief urge to pull the blanket up to cover her right shoulder, but that was silly. She was only a manikin. I rose, returned to the hallway, and slipped on my shoes again.

A quick inspection proved the next room on the right was empty, as was the third room on the left.

In the last room on the right the night light revealed a large woman, black as coal and wide-eyed. She wore a loose dress that hung on her despite her size, was barefoot, and had pressed herself into the far corner.

When I stepped into the room in my sock feet, she reached out with her hands, feeling for my presence. Her voice, too, was filled with fear. “I kin smell you. Who’s there?”

I took a couple more steps.

“Who is it?”

In as kind and quiet a voice as I could muster, I said, “I am Gabriel. Are you blind, mother?”

“Yes. I cain’t see nothin’. You come to take me away?”

“I came to take you away,” I said quietly. “Here. Come to me.”

She smiled and leaned into a step, her hands still reaching. “I knowed one’a these days, I was gonna meet Je—”

I grabbed her head, my thumbs gouging deep into her eyes, and slammed her head back against the wall as hard as I could.

It made only a muffled thump, and she sagged, sound asleep.

I caught her, turned her, grabbed her head and twisted. At the soft, meaty snap, I lowered her to the floor. Then I left the room, slipped on my shoes and returned along the center of the hall to the elevator, my thumbs tucked into my hip pockets.

Mr. Blackwell was still there, waiting inside. From what I could tell, he hadn’t moved.

He glanced down at his watch. “Impressive,” he said quietly. “Not quite a minute and a half.”

I shrugged. “There were only two.” And I stepped past him.

He pushed a button on the panel. As the doors closed, he looked up at me. “Why didn’t you go directly down the center of the hall?”

“It didn’t make sense. The rooms were staggered. I adjusted.”

“Is it up to you to determine what makes sense and what doesn’t?”

“As I’m the person on the scene and at risk, yes, it is.”

He nodded and fell silent.

As U-4 lit up on the panel, he said, “And your shoes. I wasn’t surprised that you took them off, but why did you keep putting them back on?”

“Sometimes they’re an asset. Sometimes they aren’t.”

He nodded. As the car passed the lobby, without looking up again, he said, “Do you have any questions?”

I stared straight ahead. I wanted to ask whether we might get something to eat. I hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning. But I only said, “No.”

Finally, as the car slowed, he said, “You didn’t ask whether the victims or their families had been compensated.”

I glanced down at him. “That isn’t my concern, is it?”

He looked up at me, but I was looking at the wall again. “What does concern you?”

I shrugged. “Completing the job. Otherwise, nothing.”

Then the elevator doors opened and we went back into his office.

*

After the second half of the interview, when the elevator doors opened onto the lobby, James—the massive gentleman who had initially let me in and sent me up to meet Mr. Blackwell—was standing squarely in front of the door, flexing his muscles.

Above his left eye was a blotchy, puffy pink scar that looked like a small manhole cover. It wasn’t quite an inch across. His broad shoulders and barrel chest filled the width and depth of his unbuttoned blue sports jacket, which hung open over a blue t-shirt. Below that were jeans supported by a smooth brown belt, and brown short-heeled round-toed western boots.

His lips pressed together in a grim smile as he cracked his knuckles. “Did you really think you’d just walk out of here after pulling a gun on TJ?”

He had close-cropped white hair and overly bushy eyebrows. His harsh blue eyes were attentive and wary. He probably thought he had seen hell first-hand sometime in the past. He might have even thought it was his personal domain.

But it wasn’t. It was mine.

This wasn’t a business meeting. I smirked. Then I moved my hands away from my waist, turning them palms up, and shrugged.

He charged.

I sidestepped him, hit him in the solar plexus, and slammed his flat-top into the back of the elevator.

He dropped face-down to the thin green carpet on the floor. He shook his head as if clearing a bad memory.

As he moved his hands up under his shoulders as if to push himself up, I turned and hit the button for the 3rd floor, which I had just left.

As the doors closed and the elevator lurched slightly to begin its ascent, I straddled him, one knee on either side of his abdomen, put my hands on his shoulders and leaned forward. When my mouth was next to his right ear, and said, “I really wish you hadn’t done that.”

I put my left hand firmly on the back of his head to press his face against the carpet, then leaned a little farther forward and bit his ear off.

Not his earlobe—he didn’t have one—but his entire ear. All he had left on that side was the little nub of gristle protruding between his ear-hole and his jaw.

He screamed, but I’m not sure why. It was a clean bite. I didn’t have to tear at it at all.

When I straightened and stepped away, he clapped his right hand tightly over the place where his ear had been. I chewed for a moment as I watched him, then spat his ear onto his back.

The elevator slowed, then stopped. The doors sluiced open.

“Get out, James,” I said, and stood aside. I was in a good mood, so after I hit the button for the lobby, I put my left hand on the door to keep it from closing

He got to his knees, swayed a bit, then reached with his left hand for the horizontal bar on the back of the elevator and pulled himself up. When he turned around, his right hand still firmly over the hole in the side of his head, he tried to glare at me, but he really didn’t have a good glare left.

Like a security guard directing traffic at a county fair, I pointed toward the door with my right hand. “Tell your friend that was his one chance if he’s smart. After this I start depleting assets. He’ll know what I mean.”

He staggered past me and out.

Just before the doors closed, he was raising his left fist to bang on the door labeled C-4. Thomas Jefferson Tidwell’s office.

The elevator descended to the lobby and I left without further controversy.

Contents


Chapter 2: One More Test


First, a brief explanation. My particular skill set as recognized by people like Mr. Blackwell goes to killing people, but that’s only the mechanics. Anyone can learn the mechanics, especially if they have a talent in that direction.

In that regard, I’m only one of many.

Many of Mr. Blackwell’s other operatives terminate specific people as assigned. Others specialize in taking out military objectives, blowing up equipment or buildings, or taking down other organizations or even, occasionally, whole governments. Still others are adept at cyber-things, things for which I have little use.

But even among the relatively small group of assassins, I am unique. In addition to the mechanics, I also have the ability to read people physically right down to a muscle twitch. And I have the ability to read them mentally, even to the point of anticipating their thoughts and reactions.

That is my underlying nature, and I’m convinced it’s something with which you are either born or you are not. And even if you were born with that ability, it may or may not be developed. The development comes as a result of using and honing those abilities, usually through a series of what some call “rough times.”

I experienced plenty of those, some of which are documented in a book titled Confessions of a Professional Psychopath, primarily during my childhood and my adolescence. As a result, my own abilities are very finely honed.

Without those abilities, I would be much more limited as to what I can contribute to Mr. Blackwell’s organization. And frankly, without those abilities, I probably would have been killed long ago. Few, likewise, respond intelligently to any imminent threat. Instead, they respond according to instinct, as directed by their base reptilian mind.

Finally, I’m also a keen observer of the overall human condition. The fact is, most humans are both ignorant and ill-equipped for anything beyond breathing and other automatic reflexes. Most of them can recognize an original thought, but few have ever uttered one.

All but the most careful and sentient humans—and that group comprises a very small fraction of 1 percent of the population—are basically ignorant of their surroundings, their homes and workplaces, and even of their own bodies and minds. And they’re stupid in that they invariably latch onto the most recent information they receive and take it as gospel, at least if it suits their “cause” or their current mood. For me, that knowledge is invaluable.

It’s why, if I put a smile on my face, I can walk straight up to an armed, would-be assailant and take his life before he realizes what’s happening. A direct approach is never anticipated, so it goes against what the victim expects. It results in confusion every time, so it gives the attacker—me—the advantage.

It’s a lesson I learned from a cat. Time is precious. The less time you spend successfully completing an attack, the more time you have later for leisure. Negotiation is for those who believe, erroneously, that they can put off the inevitable.

What makes my job easy is that most human beings have neither the desire nor the ability to react physically in real time to a physical threat. Nor do they have the ability to react mentally, which frankly makes my job pleasing. The ability to help thin the shallow end of the gene pool is at once my privilege and my gift to humanity.

Make no mistake, it is not the “bad” people who walk among us who are watering down the human race. It isn’t the man or woman who made millions or billions of dollars in illegal or legal activities. What’s making us less viable than a truly advanced species—say, cockroaches—is the vast majority of “normal” people who are seemingly unable to truly learn, which is to process, absorb and apply information quickly and decisively.

When I weakened a few years ago and mentioned to a friend, who is similarly blessed, that I often wish I were ignorant—that life would be much easier if I were ignorant—he said something that turned my life around: “But don’t you understand, Charlie, that we are the fortunate ones?”

So don’t feel bad for the targets described in this book. If you must feel an emotion at all, be happy. With each target that I or others remove, the human race is improved a little.

But I digress.

*

I’d been with the organization for eight months when I came to learn that James—the large gentleman who minds the door at Blackwell Ops and whose physical appearance I altered the last time I saw him—was none other than James Earl Blackwell, the slightly younger brother of the boss.

Apparently my rearranging James’ appearance was both a success and a failure. It succeeded in getting me out of the building without being harmed, but apparently it failed as a final test of my abilities for Mr. Blackwell.

And it led to me learning that he had little regard for my word.

I was between assignments for Blackwell Ops and relaxing in my penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side when I received a message on the device Mr. Blackwell had given me during the second part of my interview.

The device itself resembles a very small smart phone. I think of it as a tricked-out pager. It has only an On button, a slightly larger Send button, which is a misnomer, and a small screen that will hold maybe 8 or 9 lines of text. But the communication is strictly one-way. You can’t really “send” anything other than acknowledgement that you’ve received the message and accepted the mission. And you must press the Send button within five minutes of their having sent it, so it’s important to keep the thing close.

I turned off the television, picked up the pager from the table next to my recliner and hit the On button.

For security reasons, messages—which is to say assignments—always came via VaporStream, a very reliable service that leaves no trace of metadata. Once you’ve read the message on the pager and pressed the Send button to acknowledge your receipt and acceptance, the message disappears. Everywhere. Forever. Hence “vapor” stream.

I mentioned James earlier. The message itself had nothing to do with James. As usual, it was a bit of terse instructions. Usually my instructions read Drive to or Train to or Fly to a particular location. That was followed by Terminate and the target’s name or Meet and a contact’s name. In the case of the latter, the contact would provide additional information and-or equipment and-or further instructions.

But this one was a little different. There was no real travel involved:


Go to your car.

Await instructions.


I glanced at the clock. It was 8:17.

I wasn’t fully dressed, but that was all right. I had five minutes to press the Send button, so I had until 8:22. I liked to be ready to go before I pressed the button. So I got up and padded toward the bedroom in my sock feet.

There was no hint in the message where I might end up. Probably right here in town, given the brevity of the message. As I passed by a window framing a less-important part of the New York skyline, I noticed it was dark, so I would dress appropriately. Everything else I might need for later was in my go-bag.

In the bedroom I got undressed to my underwear, then pulled on a pair of thick black socks. I selected black trousers, a black sweatshirt and a black balaclava with openings for my eyes and mouth. Then I pulled on and laced up a pair of heavy combat boots and stretched the legs of the trousers down over the uppers.

I slipped my Kimber .45 semiautomatic into my right front trouser pocket, grabbed my go-bag and pressed the Send button. I left the apartment via the elevator that emptied into my living room. It would take me to any floor in the building. I pressed U-1 for the first level of the underground garage. My car, a midnight blue Bugatti Chiron, was parked directly across from the elevator in the garage.

When the elevator doors sluiced open, I was already lying down. The garage was dimly lighted, but well enough that I could see most of it. I peered under the car to be sure there were no extra bulges or dangling wires—there weren’t—then stood and looked carefully around the garage.

I saw no one.

Of course, my contact might be hiding anywhere. Behind another car or perhaps behind one of the thick concrete uprights. Probably he wouldn’t show himself until I was in the car. Then again, the home office might send further instructions via VaporStream, though I thought not. It wouldn’t make sense.

I stepped out of the elevator, my go-bag in my left hand, and took a step toward my car. But I sensed a presence. More than one. Something wasn’t right.

A shadow, a silhouette, suddenly appeared, protruding above the concrete wall between the back of my car and the driveway to the exit of the garage. He was maybe thirty feet away, slightly to my right front.

The shoulders of the silhouette twitched, and I dropped.

There was an explosion, and a bullet thudded into the elevator.

I heard the click of a bolt being worked. He should’ve brought a semiautomatic.

I rolled once to my right, brought my Kimber pistol to bear and fired.

The silhouette disappeared just as another shadow appeared to my left. A second assailant was racing toward me, maybe ten feet away. Apparently he didn’t have a gun. In my right periphery, some distance farther away, was a third assailant.

No way could I bring the Kimber around in time to pop the second one, so I pressed my palms against the concrete floor, left the Kimber there, and violently twisted my body, scissoring my legs.

As the assailant swung a kick at where I was an instant ago, I caught the knee of his planted leg with the heel of my boot. Something snapped. He went down on his back, and I continued my motion to step through him and get to my feet.

I was still bent and turning as he rolled onto his belly and began dragging himself back the way he’d come.

I thought of my Kimber, but it was somewhere behind me and I the third assailant must be only steps away.

But I’d seen him. He was in the vicinity of six feet tall, lithe, and leaning forward slightly as he charged.

Still not fully upright, I twisted hard back to my right as I continued to rise. I flung my elbow on a flat plane behind me. I should hit his face, throat or chest. If my elbow didn’t connect I’d continue around with my forearm and fist.

But it did.

My elbow struck him solidly—I pictured it catching the top of his head—and a solid jolt of pain fired up through my arm to my shoulder.

My momentum carried me around so the second assailant, still crawling away, was behind me. But he shouldn’t be a concern. I hoped.

And the third assailant, the new one, should have been right there in front of me.

But he wasn’t.

The blow had stopped and staggered him. He’d moved back a few feet and was on the verge of catching himself.

I took a step and swiveled, turning my left side to him and leveraging my weight off the ball of my right foot. I drove the sole of my heavy left boot into his abdomen. As he bent forward, I brought my left boot back and down, planted it, and brought my right boot up in a snap-kick, like a punter with a football. I put the toe of that boot directly under his nose.

He didn’t go down immediately, but he was knocked back a step. Two. Then his hands slapped up to his face and he fell to his back. He was probably dead before he hit the floor, the bridge of his nose snapped off and driven hard into his brain.

I turned again, located my Kimber, grabbed it and walked toward the second assailant. He’d gone only about ten feet.

I moved up alongside him, kicked him hard in the right side.

He huffed and rolled onto his back.

I knelt next to him, drew the hammer back on the Kimber—it made a plaintive click—and pressed it against his left temple. I recognized him. Calmly, I said, “You are going to die tonight. But if you don’t tell me who sent you, your wife and that cute one year old of yours will die too. I guarantee it. Talk.”

He stared up at me, searching my eyes, but there was no emotion in his. Just a factual searching. Finally he said, “But—but we don’t know each other. Do we? I mean, I don’t know you, so—”

I nodded. “You’re the doorman at the Chesterton. Wife Cynthia. Daughter—” I paused for a moment. “Let’s see... Alice?” Then I remembered. “No. Alicia.”

I guess that did it for him. He realized I wasn’t making an empty threat. “Black—” He grimaced with pain, swallowed it, and said, “Blackwell Ops.” He grimaced again. “James Blackwell.”

I felt myself frown. “You mean TJ?”

He gritted his teeth as he shook his head. “No, his brother. The guy on the door. You were supposed to be my final test.” He grimaced again. “My knee. I guess I failed.”

“You passed the tests TJ gave you?”

He nodded, pain in his eyes. Then he frowned. “At least I thought so.”

I just looked at him. He passed the tests. He was hired. Then James had sent him after me.

I said, “Was this your first assignment?”

He nodded.

“How did James contact you?”

“Phone.”

The guy was a moron. Mr. Blackwell told every operative their assignments would come only via VaporStream on the device he gave them. But I wanted to be sure.

I said, “TJ gave you the VaporStream device, right? Told you how to use it?”

He nodded, then realization cross his face. “Oh god. This wasn’t a legit assignment?”

I shook my head. Then I put a calmer look on my face. I stood up and said, “Here, get to your feet.”

“I can’t. I really can’t.”

“Sure you can. You have one good leg.” I stepped past his head, lowered the hammer on my Kimber and slipped it into my pocket, then bent and grabbed his shirt above his shoulders and pulled him upright.

Still facing away from me, he said, “Thanks, man. I appreciate—”

“They will come to no harm,” I said quietly. As he flinched, I broke his neck.

I dragged him over and laid him next to a wall, then went to get the other guy and laid him alongside the first.

I turned and walked to where I’d seen the silhouette.

He’d dropped straight down into some brush between the driveway and the wall. His rifle lay across his body.

I crossed the garage again, picked up my go-bag and stepped into the elevator. I swiped my card, then pressed the button for the penthouse.

When the doors opened in my apartment, I dropped the go-bag on my couch and went straight to the phone. I dialed the same number I’d dialed nine months earlier when I’d first answered the Blackwell Ops ad.

A gruff voice said, “Hello?”

I recognized it. “James, you screwed up. Tell his nibs I’m still here. Tell him he shouldn’t have tested me again. But you need to understand, I know it wasn’t him.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“They didn’t all die at once, moron. The last one told me. I know it was you.”

Silence.

“I suggest you admit your mistake to your brother. Tell him to send a two-line message the usual way. The first line will read ‘All is well.’ The second will contain something about my defiance. Something only he and I know. If those two lines appear on my device, I’ll consider myself still employed. If I don’t, you and he will be my next target. He has five minutes.”

Then I hung up.

I looked at the clock. It was 8:35.

I went into the bedroom and took off my boots and socks. Then I removed the sweats and balaclava, dropped them on the boots, and put on my bathrobe.

As I walked back into the living room, the pager sounded.

I picked it up, pressed the On button and read the message that flashed on the screen:


All is well.

Please don’t pull a gun on me again.


“Damn right all is well,” I said, then clicked Send. I carried the pager into the bedroom and put in on the night stand.

It wasn’t right, his brother “testing” those three men by having them hunt me. If he hadn’t done that, Mr. Blackwell would have had three new capable assassins. But that wasn’t my problem.

I had a feeling there might be a new door guard at Blackwell Ops by morning.

A hot shower. That’s what I needed. A hot shower and a good rest.

Contents


Chapter 3: My First Assignment with Blackwell Ops, Part 1


It just dawned on me that this account might seem a little disjointed, say compared to telling the story beginning at A and proceeding smoothly along to Z. But this is how I have to do it. My hope is that any confusion caused by my apparent rambling will be offset by the knowledge gained into my psyche. After all, my psyche is both central to the story and the reason it’s a bit tangled.

After I left the Blackwell Ops building that afternoon eight months ago, less than a week passed before my VaporStream pager went off.

I was on the treadmill in my apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan when it sounded. I try to keep it close at all times, so it was lying before me in a dip in the control panel.

When it dinged, I kept up my walking pace, picked up the pager and pressed the On button.


Proceed to Montreal.

Use Mr. Zimmer to gain access.

TWP Michel Z. O’Malley.

You are special. Pain is our friend.


It was my first assignment so I read it twice, looking for any hidden meanings. Over time, I came to understand the messages were always terse but the last line often held special instructions that weren’t written out in full.

In this one, certainly the first three lines were easily decipherable. I was to travel to Montreal. The mode of travel was my own to choose since the instructions didn’t specify. Use Mr. Zimmer to gain access meant the target lived in a gated or otherwise guarded community and mentioning Zimmer’s name in the appropriate way would get me in. TWP, as it always does, meant terminate with prejudice.

The first half of the fourth line, I decided, meant I’d been picked for this mission specifically because I possess capabilities most operatives do not. The second half, without saying so, pinpointed which of those capabilities would be required for this mission. I was to inflict pain on the target, and they knew I could do so without emotion getting in the way.

I pressed the Send button, then went into my master suite to get ready for the trip.

After I showered and shaved, I went into the back of my closet, withdrew a packet from among several I’d prepared for special occasions, and added it to my go-bag.

Since I would be crossing an international border, I left my Kimber .45 and my other firearms at home, save the all-plastic piece I’d pulled on Mr. Blackwell during the second part of my interview.

Not quite an hour after I’d received and acknowledged the message, I was in my car and pulling out of the garage. Three hours after that, on Interstate 87, Albany was fading in my rear-view mirror.

In Montreal, I found a phone book at a small combination gas station and convenience store. I searched for Michel O’Malley and was surprised to find two pages of O’Malley’s, many named Michel or simply M.

But there was only one entry with the middle initial Z. I memorized the address—he lived in the affluent Westmount neighborhood—then flipped to the Hotels section of the yellow pages and found the Hotel Place d'Armes in the same vicinity. Place d'Armes just seemed appropriate.

After I checked in, I drove to the airport, parked my baby in the long-term lot and rented a car that wouldn’t stand out so much but still looked nice. For my initial visit to his house, I didn’t want to stand out at all. I chose a slate-grey Buick LaCrosse.

The following morning about sunrise, I dressed in jeans and sneakers, a padded black tanker jacket and a black ball cap. I dug my field glasses and a few power bars out of my go-bag and drove to MZ O’Malley’s neighborhood. It was cool enough that I was glad the heater on the car worked. It didn’t take long to find his address. It was just light enough to make out the house numbers painted on the gently sloping curve that ran along the peaceful, winding streets.

Many of the houses in the area were mansions made of stone or brick and with at least three stories. A few of the rock houses looked like legitimate European or Moorish castles, especially in the sharply slanted early morning light, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. The brick ones were red or yellow brick and looked similar to institutions I’ve seen over the years. Most of the houses also were fenced or walled-in and gated. Glimpses through gates showed closely manicured lawns, towering deciduous trees and evergreens. I could almost smell the freshly cut grass.

Fortunately for me, MZ O’Malley’s place was neither a mansion—at least by the standards set by his neighbors—nor gated.

On the first pass, the target’s house was still huge, but only two stories tall and covered with white stucco in the Mediterranean style, complete with black wrought-iron railings on faux balconies below the second-story windows. It set back off the road beyond a hundred feet or so of well-manicured lawn, a smooth concrete driveway on the right leading to a detached two-car garage in the same style as the house.

There was a low, formal garden along the front, interrupted only by a narrow opening through which the sidewalk was connected to the front porch by another, narrower sidewalk. A similar garden ran along both sides of the lawn. Centered between them, a massive white-marble Winged Mercury statue, leaning slightly forward as if about to run, spat water from its mouth into a matching pool below. The pool was all above ground and curved. It looked like a giant white version of the pink marble bowl that served as a sink in my master suite at home. The sidewalk from the street split into two, circled it and continued toward the house.

I drove on past, continued along the street a few blocks, then turned around and drove back toward the house. I stopped at an angle across the street so the full front of the house was to my left front. The needle on the gas gauge showed almost full, so I decided to let the car—and the heater—run awhile.

I picked up the field glasses from the passenger seat and looked through the driver’s side window. It was tinted, but not enough to obstruct a clear view.

There was a broad front porch of poured concrete but no roof over it. So no access to the second-story windows without a ladder, which of course I didn’t have. Then again, I expected to be invited inside. Past the right side of the house, I could just make out the right corner of the garage and half of the garage door.

The massive front double doors looked like some kind of expensive, polished, reddish-brown wood. I could almost make out the grain, but not quite. Maybe oak with a cherry stain, or maybe cherry wood. The doors were heavily carved with geometric designs, mostly squares and long rectangles. In the center of each door was a circle with a hammered-brass door knob.

To either side of the doors was a series of three windows, each probably six feet tall and two feet wide. Each was covered with what looked like a pair of narrow sheer curtains, but they hung well. The windows weren’t the kind that can be opened. No hinges and no latches.

But again, I expected to be invited inside when I mentioned Mr. Zinner.

That didn’t sound right.

But I knew it began with a Z, like Michel’s middle initial. And I knew the center was a repeated hard consonant.

I started through them.

Zibber? Zidder? Ziffer?

Ziffer? This is ridiculous. I’d figure it out. I had time. Or it would come to me when it was time.

At the moment I only wanted to scope the place out, maybe get a handle on the schedule of those inside.

I double checked the number painted on the curb to be sure it was right.

It was.

*

Maybe a half-hour later, an older pickup came slowly along the street toward me.

I raised the field glasses and checked it out.

The driver was a man, maybe early middle-aged, wearing a beret and a plaid shirt under a suit coat that was hanging open. On the other side, seemingly scrunched up against the passenger door, was a young man, maybe a middle teenager, maybe a little older.

As I watched, he leaned a bit farther toward the passenger door, then transferred something from his left hand to his right. A moment later, he flipped it out through the open window.

After the truck passed, I made it out. A fat newspaper. They were delivering newspapers. I’d forgotten there still were such things.

He threw another, then another, then another—that one at the target house—then drove on past me. The driver didn’t glance at me.

The newspaper landed at the intersection of the sidewalk and the break in the front garden. It rolled a couple of times, but stayed on the concrete. Maybe I’d get a look at my guy.

Sure enough, maybe ten minutes later—the clock on the dashboard read 6:15—the door opened and a man stepped out.

I turned off the engine. The air outside was still probably cool enough that he might notice a car idling even across the street. I raised the binoculars to my eyes again.

He was portly, to put it kindly, around 5’10” and probably 230 or 240 pounds. Maybe 40, 45. He was mostly bald with a few wisps on top and a plain brown fringe around the sides. No grey. He was dressed—if you want to call it dressed—in dark grey slacks and brown leather house slippers, a white undershirt and a thick brown robe that hung open. Like it had a choice.

I already didn’t like him. The guy has all this and he doesn’t have even a passing relationship with a treadmill or a Stairmaster. Ridiculous. What a knuckle-dragger. Mr. Zimmer probably hates him in real life too.

Zimmer! That’s it!

The guy waddled along the path, his feet turned out, went around the fountain on the right side, and continued to the sidewalk where he bent and picked up the paper. My window was still up, so I couldn’t hear, but I’ll bet he huffed when he picked up the newspaper. Probably the next to the last newspaper he’d ever read. If he’d even read it. Probably he paid someone read it to him.

If I’d thought to bring my pistol with me, I might’ve rolled down the window and popped his fat ass right there. Say two rounds to the top of the dome.

But that wouldn’t be right. I remembered the fourth line of my instructions again: You are special. Pain is our friend. Mr. Blackwell wanted him to feel it. Well, he’d feel it.

I watched without the binoculars as he headed back up to the house, this time going around the fountain on the other side. Probably the only variety he had in his daily life other than slime-balling around, cheating on the probably classy mother of his children.

Well, if he even had a wife and children. Why would any woman want to be with a guy like that? Anyway, if he did have a wife, I was about to do her a major favor, and she’d never even know it was me.

He went inside and closed the door.

By then the cold was seeping through the window of the car, so I turned on the engine again. The heat felt good blowing on my sneaker-clad feet and my face.

*

A couple hours later—the clock read 8:10—the front door opened again.

A woman, pretty, with short blond hair, maybe 5’3”, trim build. Like I thought, classy, at least to look at. Now I didn’t like the guy even more. The rock apes always get the good-looking women, especially when the rock apes are filthy rich.

And women—at least that woman—had zero scruples, playing wife to a guy like that. If she heard me say that, she would protest that love means everything. That love enables, even requires, her to overlook her husband’s faults.

And it’s all bullshit. It’s code. If she said, “love” it would be code for “money.”

She was wearing dark pumps, light tan slacks, a dark, long-sleeved top, maybe silk from the way it hung. No jacket or coat. Maybe it wasn’t as cold outside as I thought. Or maybe she was used to it. She was standing outside but facing the open door. She was saying something to someone and gesturing impatiently. Then she leaned down a little and gestured again.

So she was talking to children, probably trying to coax them out of the house sooner rather than later.

Sure enough, a moment later two little ones came out, a boy and a girl. They looked to be around 8 or 9 years old, and they were both pretty much dragging their feet. Time for school maybe.

The door closed and she used her hands to guide the children along to the detached garage. The garage door on the right, the only one I could see from my current location, opened as she approached, and she and the kids went inside.

I shifted the glasses back to the house, hoping to get another glimpse of my target, but the doors were still closed.

A moment later, a red Cadillac Escalade backed out of the garage and to the right into a short turnaround, then edged forward and proceeded down the driveway. At the street, she turned left. She was in sight for three blocks. Then she made a right turn and disappeared.

I shifted the glasses back to the house and watched.

After a few minutes, I laid the binoculars on the passenger seat. No one else had come out.

A little after 3 p.m., a white Toyota van pulled up at the curb. A young woman was driving, though I couldn’t tell much about her. Behind her, I counted at least four heads, but they were moving around excitedly. Kids.

A moment later, the door on the far side slid open and closed. As the van pulled away from the curb, the driver glanced around toward the house and waved.

With the van gone, I could see the same boy and girl I’d seen earlier. This time they were running up the walk toward the house. Dad could take a lesson from them.

That posed a bit of a problem, though it really wasn’t my problem. If I had my choice, I wouldn’t want the kids to be the first ones to find Dad, but Mom wasn’t home yet. I wondered whether they had a key to the front door in case Dad couldn’t let them in either. Well, I’d figure something out.

If Mom found him, she might recognize that someone had done her a favor.

But the children wouldn’t. Most children are strange about things like that.

Contents


Chapter 4: A Short Digression


I was ten years old when I saw my first dead body. Well, human body.

I’d seen roadkill before, and gutted deer and even both halves of a little ground squirrel my father had killed for fun with his .357 magnum. I was only five then.

The two halves of the poor little thing were hanging together by a thin strip of skin and fur. I guess maybe the little guy turned at the last instant. Anyway, the old man made me go get the squirrel and bring it to him like some kind of damn retriever. And I did, even though I was crying and screaming and protesting at the top of my then-5 year old little lungs. But I did it anyway because I thought he might do the same to me if I didn’t.

When I got back to him he told me to let that be a lesson. Then he turned around and walked through the back door of the house and slammed the door.

I still haven’t figured out what the lesson was supposed to be.

A few hours later, he came back out.

I was still sitting on the back stoop, a three-step concrete thing next to an asphalt-shingled house.

He glared down at me and yelled, “What the hell is wrong with you? Go bury the g-d damned thing!”

I started crying again and looked up at him. “I don’t want to, Daddy,” I said quietly, and figured that might be the end of me.

“Well g-d damn it! Give me the g-ddamned thing!” And he stuck out his left hand.

I handed it up to him, gently, with both hands cupped around the tiny creature.

He raised his arm and threw it like a baseball, back toward the old elm tree where the squirrel was standing when he shot it. Then he glared down at me. “You’re a major g-ddamned disappointment, boy. Get the hell inside and wash your hands. Your mama’s got supper almost ready.” Under his breath, he said, “Or she damned well better have.”

I rose and edged past him, then ran through the door, past Mama and through the living room to go wash my hands.

She looked at me as I went by, but she didn’t say anything. And I didn’t blame her. She was as scared of him as I was.

But I rectified all of that—all of it—when I was twelve. I rectified it once and for all with an old Owl .32 caliber pistol I found in a cabinet behind his recliner. While he was conveniently sitting in it.

Anyway, that time when I was five, sitting alone on the back porch of that little house, holding that little squirrel in my cupped hands—I’m pretty sure that was the moment I lost all feeling for human beings. They truly are the most despicable creatures on Earth. And the only ones who deserve to be hunted down and killed.

I figure about 5 percent are filthy-rich, mean, and just annoying. Like that worthless former Nazi asshole Zolos. Those kind deserve to be put out of our collective misery.

Then there are the politicians. There should be an open season on pretty much all of them.

And don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean the regular good people who run for office to try to help the rest of us. I mean the ones who spend their entire life preparing to be politicians for their own personal gain. Hey, screw them.

And then there are another 20 percent or so who are the real lowlifes, the scum of society. They’re the ones who by and large are stupid and mean. They prey on society, whether dealing drugs on a street corner, mugging people, or raising children who become psychopaths as a result.

As for those regular good people, the drones, I hadn’t begun thinking about them yet.

So when I was five, that’s when I started thinking about the mean people. All of them. How they were divvied up into mean rich people and mean politicians and mean lowlifes who could be regular people if they wanted to.

Like my old man.

*

And then when I was ten, I saw my first dead human body. My best buddy, Randy Smith, and I were walking along the highway out near the drive-in movie when we saw a car on the side of the road. It was a convertible and, from a distance, it looked like a sleek little Cobra sports car.

We started running toward it.

When we arrived, we found it was indeed a Cobra. As we circled the apparently abandoned car, thrilled just to be touching it and gawking at it up close, Randy yelled, “Hey!” He was on passenger side. I was leaning over the driver’s side door, marveling at the stick shift and the dials and gauges on the dashboard.

I looked up. “What?”

“A dead guy. I think.” Then he looked down and kicked at something.

I ran around the front of the car and almost tripped over a jack handle. I stopped and bent over, my hands on my knees, and looked under the car. The handle led to a hydraulic bottle jack. But the jack lay on its side, the handle still attached but protruding at an odd angle, and the front tire on the passenger side was deflated.

And there, beyond the jack, was the rumpled edge of something.

I got down on my hands and knees, then lowered myself to my belly peered under the front bumper.

It was a shoulder, clad in a short-sleeved blue work shirt. The “dead guy” Randy had mentioned.

I yelled, “Help me! The car fell on this guy!”

Randy came around to the front as I fished the bottle jack from beneath the car. I wasn’t familiar with the workings of hydraulic jacks at the time, but Randy was.

When I pulled it out, he picked it up, turned a small plug on the side of it, then lay down and stuck it under the car somewhere. He reached back and found the end of the jack handle, which I was still holding.

“Let go!” he said and tugged, and I let go. Then he attached his end of the handle to the jack and traced his hand back along it carefully—I suppose so it wouldn’t come loose—and said, “Okay, now start turning it clockwise.”

I did, and the jack turned over again.

Randy set it back up. “Go slow at first. Don’t jerk on it.”

So bit by bit the car began to rise.

Randy slipped out and went back around the passenger side, where the man’s lower legs and boots were protruding. He said, “I’ll tell you when to stop.”

I kept turning the handle. It wasn’t easy. But after another minute or so, Randy said, “Okay, that’s good. Come help me.”

And together, Randy gripping one boot and me gripping the other, we pulled the guy out from under the car.

Before we had him fully out, Randy laughed and pointed. “The guy pissed his pants!”

That’s about the time the smells of feces and urine hit us, but we kept pulling, though we both leaned back a little.

We finally got him out.

He was youngish, maybe in his twenties, in jeans, that blue work shirt, and he had a thick mop of sandy brown hair. His head was turned toward the front of the car. There were flecks of oily black dirt in his hair and on his forehead and face. His eyes and mouth were open, his right arm palm-down at his side. The fingertips and part of the hand were dusty from digging in as we pulled him out. His left arm was extended as if he was reaching toward the front of the car.

“Wow,” I said.

Randy just nodded, his mouth hanging open.

The man was all there, of course, but he had a few-inches deep trench across his chest just above his solar plexus and below where his nipples were beneath his shirt. The blue shirt itself was blackish in that trench, and there was another line of blackish stuff running from the left corner of his mouth.

I pointed. “Is that blood?”

Randy nodded again. “Frame must’ve caught him there. Squished him.” He paused. “I’ll bet it’s blood, but I don’t know.”

“We’ve got to tell someone,” I said.

The drive-in movie was about a quarter-mile back the way we’d come. The family who owned it lived on a house at the back of the property.


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