Fifteen years ago.
“By now you will have seen the marks on your body. The black infection which is slowly creeping through your veins. The signs that set apart the obsolete from those that follow the path.” August Cabaneri’s voice boomed through the hall in which the student body had gathered.
“Had you been a laborer you would start to feel sluggish, unmotivated to try and make something your life. Had you been a merchant you would start seeking release in vice and gambling, insuring your own destruction. However, you’re all different. You are assassins, and that means that the infection will change you.” Eli shuddered, but kept his eyes on the stage August was standing on.
“Within the week you will all feel a need, an unholy hunger. You might be able to ignore it for a while as your veins turn black, but in the end you will succumb. When you do, you will turn into a monster worse than any beast. You will murder anyone and everything, right up until the day the ordained retributor ends you.”
August smiled. “I will not allow that to happen. You are my students, ergo you are my future employees, I must protect my investment. Which is why I have purchased Mercia’s worst to be executed by your hands. Until the day I deem you ready for your first real contract I will keep your feet on the path of the righteous. That will be all, dismissed.” And just like that the man marched off.
For a moment the hall was silent, then everybody started to talk at once. “We’re going to kill someone, today?” Eli almost shouted at Charles, his face white as a sheet. Charles, looking a bit pale himself nodded. “It seems that way, yes.” The other boy mumbled.
Dobber marched onto the stage. “When I call your name follow me. Abbot.” Every ten minutes or so Dobber returned to pick up another student. Once called the students didn’t return to the hall. Far too soon Dobber called Eli’s name. “De Winter, follow me.” Eli swallowed as he walked to Dobber. “Sir, you should wait for w to call on me.” He haphazardly tried. Dobber’s arched eyebrows were his only answer.
They left the hall through a steel door Eli hadn’t seen before. Then again, this was the second time he had entered the hall since he had been recruited. They entered a corridor without windows and a whole lot of doors. They walked past a number of doors before Dobber opened one, ushering Eli inside.
“There is a bucket in the corner if you need to barf. Weapons are on the table, pick the one you’re the most comfortable with. Leave through the other door once it is done.” Dobber turned around and was about to walk away when Eli stopped him. His hand was shaking and he was sweating, struggling to even keep a hold on Dobber’s jacket. “You’re going to leave me?” There was a tremor in his voice he was unfamiliar with.
“Listen kid, you gotta do this. If you don’t the retributor will put you down. If it helps, this is what you’re meant to do. God set your feet on this path for a reason, don’t stray from it.” He slowly untangled Eli’s hand from his arm. “Take as long as you need, we have more than enough room. Remember, the first one is the hardest, after this it will all get easier.” Dobber patted Eli on the shoulder and left, closing the door behind him.
Eli’s legs were unsteady as he looked around the room. There was a curtain between him and the person he was about to kill. His eyes found the bucket in the corner of the room and the table. Like a drunk man he walked towards the table. A thin wire, a knife, a syringe and a pistol were lying on the table. He stared at the four items for what seemed like an eternity. “Hey kid, what’s taking so long?” A voice rasped making Eli jump in surprise.
Het contemplated saying nothing, but a part of him was curious. Slowly he walked towards the curtain and pulled it aside. Eli wasn’t sure what he had expected, maybe an enormous bulky man covered in gang tattoos or something, but it wasn’t anything like that at all. The man he was facing was old and blind in one eye. The man’s other eye was crystal blue, like a frozen lake. “No weapon? Kid, you aren’t going to beat me to death, are you? That is a bad way to go.”
The shaking got worse. There was no way in hell Eli could do this, especially not now he had looked the man in the eye. “Shit.” He whispered. The old man smiled unapologetically. “I am your first.” He stated and Eli nodded. “Your first is important boy. Your first you never forget. It is him who haunts your dreams at night. And although you may increase the amount of ghosts, he’s always there.” There was something tired in his voice. “What’s your name boy?” Eli hesitated, was there something the man could do with his name? “Eli” He swallowed again. “My name is Eli.”
The old man nodded at the table. “Pick the gun Eli. The syringe is a coward’s weapon, the wire is to set an example and the knife,” The man paused, then grimaced. “the knife is for personal matters.” Eli just remains still, staring at the old man, he must be crazy or have a death wish or something. “Come on boy, you know it is the right thing to do. You must follow the path, just like I followed mine.”
Eli’s hand closed around the pistol. It was cold and after two months of training with fire arms also familiar. The old man smiled. “Now, the next part is going to take courage. They don’t tell you this Eli, but you have to be brave to stand in front of a human being and pull the trigger. It is a hard thing to do, especially when you feel you understand the person facing the barrel.” Eli looked at the pistol in his hand and then back at the man.
“Listen Eli, I know this is going to be hard but I’m going to tell you my name.” The old man coughed. “Because if you don’t know it will haunt you for the rest of your life.” With sudden clarity Eli knew that he didn’t want to know. He had no interest in knowing this kind old man’s name, not when he was going to kill him. “It’s Keith Randal and I have taken the lives of more than a hundred men.” The pistol that Eli had raised lowered. “Don’t lower your gun boy, I deserve to die, and you are the one that needs to do it. An ordained assassin, send by God to end my life. Anything less simply won’t do.” Keith grinned. “I don’t want to die by some petty thug’s hand, or at the end of an executioner’s blade, but a man ordered by God to destroy the worst of the worst,” Keith’s smile got wider. “that sounds perfect. Now face me Eli, watch the light drain from my eye! Do it!”
The gun snapped up and fired a 9mm bullet into Keith’s chest. The sound of thunder filled Eli’s ears, but that might have been his own heartbeat. Keith slammed against the back of the chair, a red stain growing on his pristine white shirt. Keith didn’t have any more last words to offer as he bled out quickly. Eli’s aim had been true, a direct hit to the heart.
The pistol fell to the ground and Eli backed away. He had just killed a man, a living breathing human being. A wave of nausea hit him and he ran for the bucket. When he was done puking he tried his very best to avoid looking at Keith’s corpse. He kept his eyes focused on the door, walking straight to it. He opened the door, walked through it and closed it behind him. If he tried very hard he might just be able to pretend this whole thing didn’t happen.
As a ghost he walked through a corridor, it was similar to the one he had walked through on the way to Keith’s execution. “Eli de Winter, this way please.” A kind voice said. Eli looked up and saw a woman wearing a white lab coat. “Before we get started there is something important we must see to first.” She retrieved a wad of red notes from her pocket. “Two hundred Mercian crowns, for a job well done.” Eli took the notes, noticing that his hands were no longer shaking. “Now that that’s behind us I want to begin our session by stating the following; Eli de Winter, you are a good man.”
I sit up. “Aw, shit.” The wounds from my last contract still hurt. It has been a couple of days but the client still hasn’t been informed. I simply haven’t felt up to it. Today however I’m finally going to take care of business. “Jesse, you in?” I hear movement and a few seconds later she appears from the spare bedroom, looking pristine as always.
“I swear to God, if you’re going to insist on doing your own grocery shopping again I’m going to shoot you.” She’s high spirited. “No, that’s not it. Could you set an appointment for later today with Madam Gomez?” I scribble the number on a piece of paper and hand it to Jesse. Her face is a bit red and I wonder why, it’s not like I gave her something precious.
I’m not being fair to her. Jesse took care of me when I couldn’t do so myself and I really should rely on her more. After all, that’s what I pay her for. It is, however more than that, these past few days I’ve seen another side of her. I always considered her to be a bit airheaded and unfocused, but she really came through for me. I’ve caught myself staring at her from time to time, but it is not a line of thought I wish to entertain. I’ve been down roads like those before and in my line of work they seldom end well.
I grimace as I walk towards the shower. The doc said that the whole thing should be over in a couple of weeks. I’m not in a hurry to get back out there again. I have two months, one and a half before symptoms start showing, I intend to make the most of it. Sometimes we need a reminder that it is time to take a holiday, getting stabbed in the stomach is a pretty good one.
A short shower later I’m dressing myself as slowly and painlessly as possible. Jesse knocks and enters without permission just as I’m buttoning my shirt. “You are aware that the point of knocking is to announce your presence so that the other party can make themselves representable?” I ask drily. “Maybe if the other party didn’t bleed all over me I would consider it.” She responds, her lips curling into a very sarcastic smile. “Hand me my jacket, would you?” she complies. “So, madam Gomez, that isn’t a local name.” I shake my head. “She came here when the civil war in the People’s Republic of Navarra started.”
There is surprise on Jesse’s face, I know where it comes from. Most immigrants don’t make it far in Mercia, unless they have a very special ordination. “She’s a teacher, a good one too. They put her to work in one of the better schools. She married up from there, an aristocrat parent I believe.” I’m not willing to tell her more and Jesse doesn’t press, she knows that it is an aspect of the business I don’t like to involve anyone in.
“She will be here in an hour, do you need anything special?” She asks. “Tissues, the matter is rather personal and I couldn’t offer any before.” She nods and walks towards the door. “Oh and Jesse?” She halts. “I greatly appreciate your assistance these last few days. You’ve been a real help when it mattered most, I won’t forget it.” She turns and gives me a beaming smile. “Just doing my job.” For a second I wonder which job that would be, because most secretaries don’t nurse their boss back to health, then she’s gone and I let the matter lie.
Business has been slow the past few weeks. Ever since Victor sold his prime long distance piece the people that have come into the shop only bought boring weapons. Pistols and carbons, it is all everybody seems to be interested in these days. Not the good ones either, just regular cheep merchandise. It has all been terribly boring.
“If this continues I might have to go harass Vlad.” He mutters as he puts an ugly yellow coat in the trash. The bell above the door rings and immediately Victor perks up. With a big smile he steps around a rack of green coats to greet his new victi- clients. “Welcome my friends to Victor’s where prices are as volatile as bullets, how can I help you?”
The people standing in the door opening do not look very friendly. They’re all wearing long coats, gloves and hats. Their faces are covered by green scarfs so that only their eyes are visible. “Karl, this can’t be the place, where would he even hide the merchandise?” A female voice asks, disdain in her voice. Victor, entirely used to this kind of attitude just smiles broadly. “I doubt you’re here for a not so new new coat. Although you could use one. I will bring out my other merchandise, yes?”
The man named Karl steps forwards. “That would be much appreciated.” Victor waggles to the back and flicks the switches. The surprise in the woman’s eyes as the coats disappear, only to be replaced by weapons, is worth suffering the disdain. “Please ladies and gentleman take a look, if you see anything you like shout and I will come, yes?” Karl’s companion spread through the store, but the man himself doesn’t make a move.
“Victor, isn’t it?” Karl asks and Victor smiles and nods. “I’m sure that you’re having trouble making ends meet as it is, don’t you?” Victor’s smile disappears as he hears Karl’s tone. “I can’t complain, in the motherland things were much worse.” Karl nods. “I believe you comrade Victor. Times are hard as they are, which is why I must ask for a favor.” Victor’s eyes narrow. “I want to buy everything you have to offer, truly I do, but payment in full will have to wait.” Karl nonchalantly picks up one of the pistols. “Just until the revolution has been won and the people are back in control. That will be a manner of months, believe me. The cause will be very grateful for your patience, comrade.” Karl’s tone indicates that the discussion is over.
“You know why I fled the motherland, mister Karl?” Victor asks, his voice even. “Enlighten me.” Karl grunts. “Because a man there threatened my family. Not because I was afraid of him you see? Yes he was powerful and he had many friends, but that wasn’t the reason I fled. No, the reason I left was because after I killed his friends, his nephews, his cousins, his daughter and the man himself my pakhan wasn’t willing to pardon me.” Victor grinned. “Now, I suggest you look around for the merchandise you want, comrade, and pay me in full. I would hate to move to another country again, yes?”
This time it was Karl’s eyes that narrowed. “The cause remembers Victor, when the time comes it will settle all debts.” Victor shrugged. “We’ll see, for now we settle your debt to me for these guns in cash, yes?” He offered his hand to the revolutionary. After a few seconds Karl shook the warm sweaty hand. “It is always a pleasure doing business with the cause. Now, you will want these delivered, yes? I want payment beforehand, I will give you my price.”
Outside the dirty coat shop two man are standing in an alley. “We should inform the Bureau.” One says, the other nods, his eyes still glued to the shop’s window, which shows an ugly blue suit. If he had it his way he would be storming inside guns blazing, showing those damned terrorists that the ISB knows exactly who they are and what they are doing. But orders have come from above, he isn't going to have his way any time soon.
Two bloody silver bells were lying on the table between me and madam Gomez. Neither of us had said a word since she came in. “I’ve completed the contract, your daughter can rest easy now that her murderers have been brought to justice.” It isn’t the first revenge hit I’ve executed, but this part stays hard. You never know how the client is going to react to the news. I’ve seen everything, from crying to shouting to one particular instant where a client tried to kiss me. Madam Gomez however remains silent, an empty look in her eyes.
She reaches into her purse and produces several wads of cash. Normally I would insist on a deposit, but I’ve made an exception for madam Gomez. I expected there to be tears, like during our first meeting, but so far they haven’t showed. I take the cash and put it in the safe, which I already opened in preparation for this meeting.
“Isabella was a sweet girl.” Madam Gomez suddenly says. “She was stupid as a bag of bricks, but she was kind.” The woman struggles to light a cigarette, until I light it for her. “Much appreciated.” She mumbles as I light one of my own. “She wasn’t mine, Tiberius already had her when I came into the picture, but she was very young. I taught her, then in time came to love her like one of my own.” I nod understandingly.
“She was going to get married.” The tears start rolling down her cheeks. I offer her a tissue, respectfully keeping my distance. “Hector is such a kind man and he was so very patient with her. So very, very patient with my beautiful girl. They were going to be so happy and now she is scattered across the wind.” Madam Gomez sniffs. “We should have buried her, burning people isn’t proper.” I hand her another tissue and she dabs her eyes.
“I’m sorry mister de Winter, to start blubbering like a fool, it is hardly appropriate.” I wave the apology away. “We all grieve in different ways madam. May I however recommend this counselor.” I hand her a card with a phone number and an address. “He may help sort things out.” I calmly take another drag of my cigarette as madam Gomez looks at the card. “And he is discreet?” I nod. “She’s discreet and very good, I speak from personal experience.” Madam Gomez nods, dabs her eyes again and stands up.
“Thank you so much mister de Winter, poor Isabella can now pass on without further hindrances.” We shake hands. “I’m sure she will find solace in de hands of the Lord.” I respond. Madam Gomez nods and I lead her out of the office. I watch until her car disappears around the corner. My wounds start to sting in the cold so I go back inside.
“That went well.” Jesse remarks as I walk past her desk. “Another happy customer.” I say. “You want a drink?” I ask and Jesse nods and stands up. I nod at the typewriter. “Shouldn’t your finish your sentence? The ink might dry badly.” She shrugs. “The whole thing wasn’t working out anyway.” She follows me into my office, browsing my LP collection. As I pour two drinks a piece of Pergovich starts playing. Soothing piano music fills the room as I hand Jesse her drink. For a brief second my eyes linger on my desk, where two silver bells used to be. “To surviving getting stabbed.” Jesse says as we cling glasses. It’s been a long time since I celebrated finishing a contract with anyone. “To the future.”