APRIL 26TH, 2017
The world's gone to shit, and all I did was stand there and watch. Do you have any idea what that feels like? To believe you could've done more to stop something bad happening, but didn't? It's the worst feeling there is, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.
That was almost a fortnight ago, and since then I've been doing the whole Kung Fu thing—walking the earth, on my own, thinking about shit. Oh, and looking over my shoulder every two minutes, because my paranoia’s working overtime on account of the biggest intelligence agency in the world wanting me dead...
I put my hand to the collar of my shirt and reach inside, touching the flash drive I have around my neck, checking for the billionth time it's still there. It contains all the evidence GlobaTech managed to obtain from the NSA's and CIA's servers, and serves as proof that the CIA doctored intelligence reports to frame both GlobaTech and myself—implicating us in the terrorist attack.
And the best part is, not only were the terrorists actually being used by the CIA to orchestrate the devastating attack, but when you follow the trail of information and money, it all leads back to one man.
The sixth, if you want to be fancy. And yes, if you recognize the name, it's because it’s the same Charles Cunningham currently sitting in the Oval Office of the White House. I'm still not one hundred percent clear why he wanted to blow up half the world, but don't worry—I intend asking the sonofabitch before I kill him.
He's got the whole world fooled into believing he's everyone's savior, but secretly, he still has control of the Cerberus satellite, which he told everyone he had personally decommissioned, on account of a ‘vulnerability’ which allowed it to be hacked by the bad guys, and used to launch all the nukes that caused this shit-storm.
He's still holding us all to ransom, and everyone thinks he's the goddamn hero.
I have had some good news, however. And God knows I’ve been due some. GlobaTech have been able to get their hands on some documents that prove Cunningham is behind all this. Ryan Schultz, my favorite ex-secretary of defense, is running things over there at the moment, and the lucky bastard has Josh by his side. My former partner in crime is doing the heavy lifting for GlobaTech, in terms of their logistics and resources. His most recent pet project was to put together an elite unit that can help me in my fight against Cunningham.
Apparently, some engineer who worked on Cerberus unknowingly had classified paperwork that detailed the requests to add in the hidden extras that allowed 4/17 to happen. And the president put his signature on them. This is great, because now we can prove he knew about the so-called vulnerability inside the satellite all along, which immediately brings into question the speech he gave twenty-four hours after the attack, publicly claiming ignorance of it all. And, if people starting questioning that, they’re more likely to pay attention to the evidence around my neck.
Then, slowly but surely, the walls will come tumbling down...
The president knows I have this information, but as long as the threat of me releasing any of it to the media is there, it should, in theory, stop them trying to kill me. I just need to stay alive long enough to take out Cunningham and undo whatever plans he’s put in motion. I know I can’t exactly un-detonate a nuke, but at least I can stop him doing anything else.
Well, that’s the plan, anyway. But things like this take time. And patience. And diplomacy. None of which I’ve had the good fortune to be blessed with.
I know I'm probably the last person qualified to raise an argument on morality, but Cunningham’s a piece of shit, through and through. He painted me as the enemy. He was the one behind hurting the people I care about. And he masterminded the largest terrorist attack in history...
There are two Berettas at my back, right now, that have something they want to say to him about all that.
But, as I'm sure you can appreciate, this isn't exactly a standard hit. He's the president. He's so well protected, he's the thing people use as a metaphor when they're describing something that's incredibly well protected. And with Josh working his way up the corporate ladder at GlobaTech, he's too visible to risk being seen helping me. He can't afford to be linked in any way to what's about to happen.
I'm on my own. And without his expertise and guidance, I'm literally free to do this however the hell I want.
What could possibly go wrong...?
I’ve had to drop off the grid, as they say, while I put together a plan. Being at the top of the CIA’s hit list isn’t nearly as glamourous as it sounds, and the last thing I need at the moment is those assholes breathing down my neck every five minutes. So, that means very minimal contact with Josh, and absolutely no contact with Tori.
I really miss her.
After that meeting a week or so ago at GlobaTech’s headquarters, I said my goodbyes and disappeared. Even Josh doesn’t know where I am. I’ve communicated with him once since then, and that was just so he could tell me about the new information he’s uncovered.
Sheriff Raynor took Tori back to Devil’s Spring, and I asked her to get The Ferryman back up and running for me while I was gone. She has all the money she needs to do it, and she practically ran the place anyway, so it shouldn’t be much of stretch for her. Plus, it’ll keep her occupied, so she doesn’t drive herself crazy thinking about me and what I’m doing.
She was sad when I left, and I tried to comfort her by saying it would all be okay, and I’d be back before she knew it.
I hate lying to her.
I’m about to kill the president of the United States. The leader of the free world. That isn’t the kind of job you come back from. I know it. Josh knows it. Hell, I reckon even Tori knows it, deep down. But my words of comfort were what she needed to hear, and I left her safe in the knowledge we wouldn’t be apart for long, which was what I wanted.
As for me, I’ve worked my way slowly across the country, and I’m currently basking in the somewhat uncharacteristic heat of Bangor, Maine. Apart from my Berettas and my necklace of evidence, I have only my shoulder bag with me, which contains my favorite leather jacket, some ammo, and a burner phone.
I’ve headed to Maine because even I know going after the president on my own is stupid. Usually, Josh and I would take on anyone and everyone together, without hesitation. But Josh isn’t here. Not this time. And this contract is big. It’ll be my magnum opus. I guess it could also be my swan song. If working with Josh all these years has taught me one thing, it’s not to let pride get in the way of a good kill.
So I’m here, looking for help.
As time passes, you get to know the people in your line of work. Josh has an entire network of facilitators, all of whom manage the contracts for at least one person like me. But while he knows the guys behind the guys with guns, I know a few of the guys with guns. I don’t mean to sound elitist, but I’ve made a point over the years to establish and maintain, at the very least, a courteous relationship with a few assassins who, either by my own reckoning or their justified reputation, I figure will be around for a while. I’m not the only one who thinks I’m the best of the best. I guess you could say my little black book contains the best of the rest.
One guy in particular lives here in Bangor, and last I heard he was working exclusively for a local mob boss. Like me, this guy would probably be classed as an old-timer. In our line of work, you get that title one of two ways—by being good, or by being smart. You rarely get both. Look at me. I’m not smart—that’s what Josh was for. This guy’s a decent professional, but has purposefully kept himself low-key, small time. He’s never really had his skills tested, so he’s never had cause to evolve or hone his craft.
But... the guy is smart. He’s never taken risks, he’s never splashed any cash, and where possible, he’s opted for exclusivity, which gives him security and protection.
No, I don’t expect this guy to help me. But I reckon he’s a good place to start if I want to find someone who will.
I’m walking down Broadway. It’s pushing seventy degrees, despite the noticeable wind. The sun’s navigating the gaps between the scattered clouds overhead. I’m comfortable without my jacket. I picked up some clothes from a discount store back in Indiana somewhere. I know I could probably buy the entire store, but I’m living off the cash in my pocket, and I survived off a limited budget for years.
I’m wearing a red and blue flannel shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to just above my elbows, and a couple of buttons unfastened at the top. It’s not what I would normally wear, but when you’re on the run, you don’t exactly want to look like you normally do.
My hair’s grown a little, too. I have more beard than stubble at the moment, which is irritating the shit out of me, and my hair’s thicker on top. I walk past a furniture store, and happen to glance in the window and catch my reflection. I’m unrecognizable, even to myself.
And now I have The Streets of Philadelphia by Bruce Springsteen in my head...
The last known address of the guy I’m here to see is a restaurant he used to work at between contracts. Now he works for the local mob, I don’t know if he’ll still be here, but it’s the only starting point I have.
After a few minutes, I see the place across the street. The parking lot out front looks pretty empty. I cross over and head for the main entrance, push the door open and step inside.
It’s a Chinese bar and restaurant, and the décor as I enter very much summarizes the westernized idea of traditional, oriental culture—there’s a large sculpture of a red and gold dragon in front of me, with detailed lanterns hanging overhead to conceal the actual light fixtures. The entrance is on the left of the building, and the interior stretches away both in front of me and to the right, with the dining area in the former and the bar in the latter.
I catch the eye of a waitress behind the counter and walk over. I see booths lining both the side by the window, and along a red wall opposite, with various hand-drawn images of dragons and swords hanging on it. There are seven people seated. I’ve got a young couple on my left, one guy sitting alone in the middle, and a group of four men in one of the booths by the window.
I take a seat at the bar, resting my bag against the stool by my feet. The waitress comes over and smiles. She’s Caucasian, can’t be older than twenty-five, with shoulder-length, dark hair and a nice smile.
“Will you be eating with us today, sir?” she asks.
I smile. “No, thanks. I’m actually looking for an old friend. He used to work here—I don’t know if he still does.”
“I can ask around in the back for you, if you want? What’s your friend’s name?”
The split-second flash of concern on her face tells me everything I need to know. She momentarily glances over at the table of four men, which I notice, but ignore for now. She recovers quickly.
“Oh, Ashton… Yeah, he... ah... he doesn’t work here anymore,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
“Uh-huh... when did he leave?”
“Oh, it was a while ago now... I think.”
I can only assume she’s being vague because she doesn’t know how much contact I’ve had with him, or how recently. I’ve said I’m an old friend, which suggests we do speak, but she doesn’t want to commit to a timeframe in case I realize she’s lying.
I’ll play it cool for now. I don’t want to push things.
“Okay, not to worry. D’you think I could get a drink while I’m here?”
She smiles again, relaxing. “Sure thing. What would you like?”
I glance behind her and spot a row of Bud in one of the fridges. I gesture to them with a nod. “I’ll have a bottle, please.”
She turns and crouches, grabbing a beer. I smile at the welcome hiss as she unscrews the top and drops it in a metal container beside the cash register.
She slides it across the counter to me. “That’ll be three-fifty.”
I take out a five dollar bill and hand it to her. “Keep the change.”
She smiles, and I take a much-needed swig of the drink. I catch her gaze flick over to the table of four again. I’m leaning against the bar, facing the seating area, with the window booths away to my right. I see the hushed mutterings among the men, and the discreet looks I’m getting, which aren’t actually as discreet as they might think.
They’re getting ready to make their move. I should probably address this issue now, to see if I can stop it from getting out of hand...
I look at the waitress and smile, trying to appear sympathetic. “Look, I’m not here to cause trouble, I promise. I know who Ashton works for, and I know what he does for a living. I also know he worked here on occasion. I’m genuinely an old acquaintance, and if he is here, I just wanna talk to him—no fuss.”
The waitress sighs, shifting uncomfortably on the spot, looking unsure. I understand her dilemma. On the one hand, she probably believes me, which she has every reason to do, as I’m not lying. On the other hand, she’s probably been told to deny all knowledge if anyone asks about him, and to inform him, or his boss, of any inquiries.
I’m looking at her, but see movement to my right. I turn my head slightly and watch the men stand, organize themselves, straighten their clothes, and walk slowly toward me, fanning into a line as they approach the bar.
The waitress looks afraid, which gives me yet more unspoken information. She knows Case is probably in the back, watching this on a security feed. My guess is she alerted him to my presence when she opened my beer, by pressing a silent alarm hidden behind the bar or something.
The four guys now in front of me are a laughable attempt at contract muscle—further proof this place is owned by the mob. And I’m guessing the waitress is reasonably new, because she looks scared. She probably knows what this place is like, but hasn’t worked here long enough to actually see it with her own eyes. She doesn’t have the tired confidence people exposed to this life usually have—that almost reluctant feeling of security. The belief you’re untouchable because of who you work for.
I look at the line of ass-clowns for a moment, deciphering the silent messages their bodies are sending me. The guy on the far right, for example, is slightly favoring his right leg. Judging by the size of his waist, which is far from thin, I’m guessing... a weak knee.
Then there’s the guy second from the left—the tallest of the group, but probably no bigger than me. He’s practically laughing. He thinks he’s the big dick around here. The leader of the pack. Maybe he thinks his height makes him more important than the others. He’s the prick I’m going to hit first.
I look back at the waitress. “Alright, this was obviously a bad idea. You should probably take yourself someplace else for a moment or two. I promise I’ll keep the damage to a minimum. I don’t want you getting in trouble or anything with your boss.”
She furrows her brow with confusion. Like, why am I talking like I’ll be causing damage when I’m outnumbered four to one?
I pick up my bottle and take another sip of beer as I plan my first five moves.
I doubt I’ll need more than five.
Fighting is like chess, you see—plan ahead, and you’ve won before you even start.
The tall one inches forward. “You need to leave. You’re in the wrong place, asshole.”
“Actually, Princess, the fact you four are threatening me kinda says I’m in the right place, and you just want me to leave. Which isn’t happening. Just save yourselves a lot of time and suffering, and get Ashton Case for me. I’m here as a friend—got my little white flag and everything... There’s no need for this. I’ve got enough on my plate without having to waste my energy on the Four Horsemen of the Apothecary.”
The guy frowns.
I sigh. “Apothecary... it’s like a drug store.”
I pause to give him chance to work it out, but he’s not getting it.
I shake my head, like I’m addressing a child who doesn’t understand why they’re being told off. “I’m insinuating you’re not threatening...”
He continues to stare at me, a blank, vacant expression on his face as he focuses on nothing except trying to look intimidating.
I sigh again. “Okay, never mind.”
I push myself off my stool, thrusting my forehead into the nose of the guy in front of me, shattering the cartilage. The crack, and subsequent squelch of exploding blood, is audible... and a little gross.
As he’s falling backward, I bring my leg up slightly, then whip it straight out, hitting the man on my far right on the side of his knee. He drops to the floor and rolls around, clutching at it.
I flip the beer bottle in my hand, spilling its contents on the floor as I grab it by the neck. I look at the guy second from the right and quickly smash it down like a hammer on the top of his head. The glass shatters on impact, and he drops to the floor.
It’s not like in the movies, either, where they use that thin, fake shit—this is thick, heavy, real glass, and it requires a ridiculous amount of force to actually break it. And doing so over someone’s skull will leave them feeling unhappy for a good while.
I spin counter-clockwise, raising my arm in anticipation of the remaining guy on the far left engaging his brain and deciding he should maybe do something. I block his inevitable punch, deflecting it with my forearm. As part of the spin, my right arm is already coming round, fist clenched. It flies through the gap caused by the deflection and connects firmly with his jaw. He falls away, bouncing off the surface of the bar and hitting the floor.
Using my momentum to keep the turn going, I bring my left elbow up and whip it backward, connecting with the first guy, who’s just getting to his feet and thinking about doing something silly. It catches him on the cheekbone, and puts him back down, hard.
“I thought it was you,” I hear a voice say behind me.
I turn around to see Ashton Case standing at the side of the bar near the entrance, with the waitress next to him. He’s a tall man with broad shoulders. A little chubbier than I remember, but then again, I haven’t seen him in a long time. He’s clean-shaven with a rough face and dark eyes. His voice is gravelly in the way only smoking forty-a-day can achieve.
“Didn’t recognize you at first with the beard,” he continues, gesturing to his own face as he looks at me. “How you been, Adrian?”
I smile and shrug. “Been better, I’ll be honest.” I gesture to the pile of bodies on the floor with my thumb. “These guys with you?”
He waves his hand dismissively. “Nah, we all work for the same man, but those assholes are nothin’ to do with me.”
I walk over to him and we shake hands.
“Whatever it is must be bad if you’ve come here,” he says. “Drink?”
“Please. I dropped my last one...”
He smiles. “Yeah, I saw. Come on, we’ll go in the back.” He looks at the waitress. “Naomi, sweetheart, would you mind bringing me and my friend a couple of cold ones? I’ll be in my office.”
She smiles. “Sure thing, Ash.” She looks at me apologetically. “Sorry about before. I wasn’t sure—”
I hold my hand up, cutting her off. “No need to apologize to me. You did good.”
She heads back behind the bar, and I retrieve my bag from over by my stool before following Case through a door just to the side of where the restaurant seating area starts.
We walk up some stairs and through another door, which leads to a studio apartment. It’s a basic layout, but exquisitely furnished. There’s a large, leather sofa with its back to the door, facing a flat screen TV mounted on the opposite wall. Over to the left is a four-poster bed, with closets on either side. Across from that, by the window, is an office area, filled with computer equipment and smaller screens. Next to the door, on the near wall, is a bathroom.
“Nice place,” I say, impressed.
Case shrugs. “It’s minimal, but effective. I eat downstairs when I’m hungry. When I’m here, I either sleep or shit. What more do you need, right?”
We walk across the room, both taking a seat on the sofa.
“So, what brings you here, Adrian?”
I fix him with a look with my tired eyes. I take a deep breath, scratch the hair on my throat, and proceed to tell him everything that’s happened in the last couple of weeks.
That took a while. And three beers a piece. But he’s all caught up now.
“So, that’s about it,” I say. “What do you think?”
Case is sitting in front of me, staring at the wall, his jaw slack and eyes wide. I watch him for a moment, waiting for some kind of response, but nothing is forthcoming.
I know that feeling.
I smile. “Yeah... welcome to my life.”
He looks at me. “How the fuck did you wind up in the middle of all that?”
I shrug. “Like I say, a whole lot of bad luck, mostly. End of the day, we might try to leave the life, but the life rarely leaves us, Ash.”
“No kiddin’... So, all of what you just said is on the level?”
I nod. “I’m afraid so. 4/17 was tragic, and I had a front row seat for it. But the damage the attacks caused isn’t limited to the physical fallout. The half of the world not decimated is still in danger from being corrupted and... cleansed, almost... by Cunningham’s master plan.”
Case shakes his head slowly with disbelief. “And you’re sure the president is behind this?”
I pull the flash drive from inside my shirt and show it to him. “Got it all here. My next move is to stop him, so people like GlobaTech Industries can focus on fixing the world and getting things back to the way they were. Or better. You never know...”
Case stands, pacing across the room with his hands in his pockets, staring at the floor. “And how exactly do you intend doing that?” he asks. “I mean, it’s the president of the United fucking States, Adrian... what’re you gonna do?” He scoffs. “Kill him?”
I fix him with an unblinking stare, but say nothing.
“Holy shit... you’re gonna try to kill him, aren’t you?”
I nod. “There’s no other way. He’s too powerful. He’s got the CIA running interference for him, and he’s got all three branches of the military at his disposal, should another country get any ideas. Not to mention he still has control of Cerberus. No, the only way to end this is to put him down.”
“But, Adrian, I mean... that’s an impossible shot, even for you!”
I shrug. “Booth and Oswald managed it.”
“Yeah, but they didn’t have the obstacles we face today—the security, the technology... you won’t get within fifty miles of the guy if you have a weapon. Christ, in your situation, you’ll be lucky if you get within a hundred miles!”
I take a deep breath and sip my beer. “I know. You’re right. Which is why I’m here. I need help, Ash.”
He shakes his head and sits back down. “Uh-uh... no way are you dragging me into this shit, you crazy bastard!”
“Heh, relax—I’m not here for that. I figured you were either too smart or too much of a pussy to sign on for this.”
He shakes his head and smiles. “Hey, fuck you, alright?”
I hold my hands up. “Okay, so you’re too smart. But... I did kinda hope you’d know a few people who maybe aren’t as smart, who might be interested?”
He strokes his chin thoughtfully. “Hmmm. What kind of payday are we talkin’ here?”
I shrug. “Honestly? I hadn’t thought about it. But if we pull it off... Let’s say twenty million for whoever survives.”
“Jesus! Where are you gonna get that kind of money?”
“You let me worry about that. I had a pretty big payday a couple of years back. I’m good for it. Can you point me in the right direction, Ash?”
He falls silent, and I give him time to think. It’s a lot to ask, I know that. I stand, beer in hand, and pace around the apartment, occasionally glancing out the windows.
“You got any ideas as to how you intend doing it?” he asks me.
I look back at him from across the room. “You’re probably best off not knowing all that much about it. Plausible deniability an’ all that... You gotta know, Ash, if I do this, at some point somebody’s gonna trace things back to this conversation. The less you know, the better. I just need a few names, then you’ll never see me again.”
Case nods. “Alright. I reckon I know a couple of people who might be interested...” He moves over to the desk, opens a drawer, and takes out a pad and pen. He leans over and scribbles down some information. After a minute, he tears off the page, walks over and hands it to me. “There you go. Four names.”
I look at the list. I’ve heard of one of them.
I glance up at him and frown. “Are these newbies? I don’t recognize any of these names, except The European—and he’s a bit of a prick, if I’m honest.”
He chuckles. “Yeah, he can be. But he’s a damn good killer with very few morals. As for the other three... no, they’re not new to the game. They’re exceptionally talented, in their own... unique way. But I should warn you, Adrian, some of these folks are a little... eccentric, shall we say. That last name, especially. Maybe use ’em as plan B, okay?”
I stare at the name. “Jesus... they even sound a little crazy.”
“Ha! A little? Let me tell you, Adrian—they haven’t just roamed off the reservation... they’ve left the goddamn planet! But I figured you might find use for someone who thinks outside the box, y’know.”
He smiles and I laugh with him. “Yeah, it might come in handy. Listen, thanks for this, Ash. I make it through this, I owe you.”
“Hey, you owe me whether you make it through or not. I ain’t gonna forget this.”
We shake hands and I fold the paper up, tucking it into my pocket.
Well, this is a step forward. I have a few names who might be up for helping me out. The next step is to—
There’s a very urgent knocking on the door. We exchange a glance and I instinctively move my hand behind me, feeling the cold reassurance of my Beretta on my fingertips.
“Who is it?” asks Case.
“I-it’s Naomi,” comes the flustered reply.
He moves quickly to the door, opening it wide. The waitress from downstairs is standing there, looking very concerned.
“What is it?”
She glances at me before replying. “There are some men downstairs, asking for him.” She points at me.
“What do they look like?” I ask her.
She shrugs. “Just normal guys. Black suits, sunglasses... three of them. Big, black SUV parked out front too.”
“Ash, that’s the CIA,” I fight to keep any panic from my voice. “I don’t know how they’ve found me, but I need a way out of here, now!”
After what I’ve just told him, I can see he understands how bad this is. He turns, quickly looking around his apartment, before his eyes settle on the far corner, by the computers.
“The window,” he points. “Directly below it is the canopy over the entrance.”
I move over to the window and glance down. The canopy is maybe seven feet below, and it’s a good eight feet from the ground.
This is going to hurt, isn’t it?
Well, never mind that. Focus, Adrian, come on!
Right, I’m going to need a ride...
I look back over my shoulder, intending to ask, and see a set of keys flying toward me. I react fast, flinching slightly as I catch them. I stare at them, then back at Case.
“It’s an Audi, black, parked ’round back,” he says. “Scratch it, and I’ll shoot you. Return it first chance you get.”
I smile. “Thanks, Ash. For everything.”
He nods. “Now get the hell out of here, you crazy sonofabitch.”
I stuff the keys in my pocket, hook my bag over both shoulders, and slide the window up. The warm breeze hits me as I poke my head outside. I grab the frame and climb out, one leg at a time, resting my weight on the wall. With one last look at Case, I drop down. I land on the canopy, which is made of a thick, plastic sheet material, and bounce off it again, like a trampoline. I spin around as I fall and hit the ground face down, like I’m doing a push-up.
I grunt from the impact, but I can’t allow myself time to recover. I spring to my feet and dash around the side of the restaurant to the parking lot. There’s only a handful of cars here, so it’s not hard to find Case’s Audi. It’s a convertible TT, and the top’s already down.