Sunday, January 6, 2013

Killing Me Softly

            She kissed him softly with dry, smooth lips. It was passionless, but he closed his eyes in delight. Her hand came to rest against his exposed throat, and he sighed. Then there was a quick movement of pale fingers, an earsplitting crack, and his head flew off his shoulders and rolled to a rest on the floor. The eyes on the detached face swiveled to watch her with bewildered horror. His mouth opened and closed, trying to speak. Then the light went out of his eyes, and they closed.
She was already walking away. Her hand hung at her side, white and bloodless. In that half instant of time, her hand had been too quick to be stained. Just before she reached the door, she hesitated. Half-in, half-out, her face was of one struggling with a terrible decision. Finally, she spoke. “He couldn’t possibly have loved me.” Her voice was barely above a whisper, yet it carried through the room like a clear wave. Then she leapt from the threshold, blurring down the driveway and into the darkening woods. Behind her, an echo lingered.
            On the third day of her journey, she stopped to eat and rest. Loping silently from behind a towering redwood, she surprised a rabbit and crushed its neck with a quick squeeze. Cooked over a small fire, it was bland but nourishing. She ate quickly and ravenously. Full, grease staining the corners of her mouth, she stared into the crackling flames. His face came into her mind. She sighed. It was inevitable. His name was John, she knew that at least. What had he been? An engineer, a software marketer? Something to do with computers. It didn’t matter. No one would check on him for days. A perfectly ordinary man, living a dull, ordinary life. His only bad luck had been in meeting her.
            It had not been by accident. She didn’t know what he had done to deserve her. A disgruntled spouse, perhaps, with connections higher up. The meeting had been in a crowd, as it always was. She bumped into him, grabbed his chin. Took off her sunglasses. One glimpse of her eyes was enough. He followed her blindly after that, into the nightclub, then to his bed. After a week of meetings in restaurants and clubs, of nightly trysts hushed and fumbling for each other, he would follow her anywhere. Do anything she asked. He handed her the keys to his life without question. The others, she knew, would have run if they knew who she was, would have screamed if they knew what she was capable of. They had that much sense, at least. But she wondered about this one. She wondered if he knew what was going to happen, he would have let her kiss him anyway, and accepted his death with grace.
            The others rose before her then, ghosts forming in the wraithlike smoke. They stared at her with reproaching eyes. Condemning her. John was at the fore, and his eyes were not damning. They were melancholy, regretful. He looked at her, and spoke. “It could have been different.” She watched the flames flicker and dance. Beautiful, ephemeral, they seemed part of an unending rhythm. But the patterns lied. They were not immortal. Flames consumed the wood they lived on, and when the charcoal died to ash so would the fire. Their beauty and brilliance would fade into the void. She watched the flames, and her eyes did not betray the turmoil within them. Her features were stone, cold and unyielding, and averred none of the thousand terrible discussions she was holding with the devils and angels lining her shoulders. Would she barter away her soul, or save it at the price of her life? She stood on the precipice of her decision, hunched and immobile, as night approached and the fire died.
            She wondered if it was brave or foolish that she had decided to jump. There was such a thin line between the two. She hitched her bag higher over her shoulder and walked into the office building, her face grim and wary. It was a dull, ordinary building, constructed of yellowing concrete, the windows dark. It was the kind most wouldn’t take a second glance at. A thousand rats scurried by it every day, each caught in their own maze, knowing only their own troubles, seeing only their destination. No one took an interest in the building. It was a good thing. It saved them from a brutal and obscure death.
            The door swung noiselessly shut behind her. She strode forward in darkness until the lights came on with a click. They revealed a plain white corridor, lined with uniform, unnumbered gray doors. She chose one at random and entered quietly. Raucous, noisy work went on uninterrupted around her. Workers in white uniforms and kid gloves worked bent over a conveyer belt. Passing before them in mechanical spurts were scarlet, pulsing human hearts. They were adjusting wires snaking like veins from the hearts, shouting instructions to each other as they labored. In the far corners of the room, machinery creaked and buzzed. She would never know what went on in these rooms, and she didn’t want to know. The office was what she came for, and she walked briskly towards it now, watching the commotion in her peripheral vision.
            She shut the door with a sigh and sat down at the familiar desk. Across from her was a neatly shaven man in a business suit—her employer, Raoul. He looked up from the papers he was reading and smiled at her. The grin was almost disarming in its geniality, but his eyes remained icy and remote. “Welcome back. You were successful in your mission, I assume?”
            “Of course.” She said, and hesitated. She had never been curious about any of her targets. Her purpose had simply been to lure them in and destroy them. But a question nagged at the back of her mind, like an itch she couldn’t reach. “What, exactly, was his crime?”
            Raoul threw her a sharp glance. This was the first time she had asked a question about a target. It was unusual behavior. Not quite suspicious, but unusual. He decided to humor her. She had followed orders, after all. The surveillance he had on her made him quite sure of that. “He was the only remaining heir of a software company one of our close associates wished to assimilate. He probably wouldn’t have taken the post, but the associate decided he was better safe than sorry.”
            So the only criminal thing about him was his bloodline. She nodded. It was what she had expected. John had never seemed the kind of person to actively provoke trouble. So all the questions were answered, but there remained something for her to do.
            “…we thought it would be an easy assignment for someone of your abilities. What-”
            She interrupted him. “I want to resign.”
            Raoul gazed at her, incredulous. “Excuse me?”
            “You heard me. I want to resign.”
            “What’s the reason behind this? Do you want more pay? We can supply it.”
            “No. I don’t want money. I want to be able to sleep at night, without the voices of the men I’ve killed pointlessly tormenting my dreams. When I first arrived here, I believed in our cause.” She paused, and her voice turned bitter. “I believed in you… I thought we were working for something greater. Now, I realize our organization has become a corporation, motivated by nothing more than profit. This has gone on long enough. I want out.”
            Raoul looks disappointed, but not surprised. “I should have known this would happen. Ever since you let Smith go…”
            He let his voice trail off. She slid a sheet of paper across the desk. “Here are my resignation papers.” She looked into his eyes, and saw how they seemed to shut off. A curtain slid across the depths of his irises, closing them, and she got the sense he was no longer listening.
            She scraped out the chair, stood up, retreated warily to the door. Before opening it, she turned for a last look at the man sitting across the desk. He watched her with eyes as hard and cold as marbles. She nodded slowly, as if deciding something, and left. In the same moment, the man pulled out a gun and shot her in the back.
            She had heard the rasp as he pulled the gun from the holster, a moment before he fired. She turned swiftly, but not fast enough to prevent the bullet from hitting her shoulder with an earsplitting crack. Against her training, she gasped. The huge jolt of pressure had shaken everything else out of her head for a moment. Then she saw the man taking aim for another shot, and her training took over. She lunged for him.

           They went down in a tangle of arms and legs. Her shin hit the desk, and a flare of white-hot pain traveled up her leg. She ignored it. Raoul was scrabbling at her scalp, gouging out chunks of hair. She ignored that too, and went for the gun. Once she had yanked it out of his hand, she loaded it with one hand and pointed it at Raoul. “Back off.” She ordered him quietly.
            Raoul raised his hands in the air and retreated slowly. He knew when he was beaten. She reached behind her with her left hand, trying to find the ventilation shaft. Just as her fingers touched cool metal, there was a crash at the door. Four hulking men, dressed in ordinary  sweats, stood at the threshold, the door swinging crazily off its hinges behind them. The man in the front had an Uzi over his shoulder. Without a moment of hesitation, he leveled it at her and started shooting.
            A spray of sparks danced on the wall; a tumult of noise thundered around her. A bullet grazed her cheek and left a line of fire in its wake. She kicked in the ventilation grate with her foot, crouched, and dived inside.
            She felt, rather than heard, the man with the Uzi striding towards the grate, still firing. There was a stretch of dark metal in front of her; then the tunnel dropped, leading to more of the ventilation system below. She slithered forward frantically, skinning her elbows, and went down the drop just as the man aimed his Uzi inside the grate.
            The shots of the machine gun echoed above her as she fell, growing gradually tinny and distant. It was utterly dark. She considered the dimensions of the building and the room, but she had no way of knowing how far the building extended underground. She could fall miles for all she knew. Just then, her back hit metal, a sucker punch. All the breath whooshed out of her lungs with an oof. As her ribs ached and her shoulder throbbed, she curled into a ball into the darkness. It was a few minutes until the pain, immediate and demanding, faded into a pulsing ache throughout her body. Stiffly, she squatted on her hindquarters, and winced as fresh pain shot through her shoulder. Cautiously, she felt the space around her. There were three vents leading in different directions in front of her. She chose the middle one and started crawling.
            It was an interminable time in the darkness, her shoulder twanging at intervals and fear welling in her heart like acid, before she saw the first faint tendrils of light. She was so relieved she might have wept. Growing in her had been the fear that she was heading in the wrong direction, deeper into the building or into another drop. The relief was not strong enough, however, to overcome caution. She slowed her crawl and squinted into the light to see what fate awaited her.
            Through the thin bars of a grate, she saw a stretch of damp concrete. Wrappers, soggy bits of paper, and beer cans adorned the surface. Beyond that-her heart leapt- the unmistakable bottom of a tree trunk. She advanced further until her face was flush with the grate, and peered to the sides, looking for people. The lot was empty of them. It appeared to be at the back of a building, a lone Ford parked at the far side and a pigeon pecked at a Snickers wrapper. She backed up, turned around, and kicked the grate out onto the concrete. Turning back around, she poked her head carefully through the jagged metal. Now she could look at the exterior of the building. There were several security cameras mounted on the wall, swiveling to watch the dismal lot with glassy black eyes. She waited until they had turned away from her, slithered painfully out of the vent, and ran for it.
            It wasn’t long before her abused body forced her to slow, and then stop. She was four or five blocks away from the building—not as far as she wanted, considering that they were probably searching for her. In the vent, she had bound her shoulder with her jacket in a makeshift tourniquet. Dimly, she noticed that it was soaked through with crimson. She was bleeding from crawling through the vent as well. I’m losing too much blood, she thought wearily. With the last reserves of her strength, she staggered to the nearest doorstep. There, she collapsed.
            When she woke, it was late in the morning. She lay in a clean bed, dressed in unfamiliar white pajamas. She felt the constriction of a bandage over her shoulder. The air smelled of antiseptic. A hospital.

            A soft breeze blew over her face, cooling it. She turned her head and saw a window, a vivid rectangle of blue sky visible through it. The wind came from there, and sunlight, falling warm and golden on her face, like hope. She closed her eyes and luxuriated in the sensation. They stayed shut for another minute and a half, as secrets and resolutions ran through her mind. Then they opened. And Lily Kershaw was born.

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