by Matt Mayr
Copyright © 2015 by Matt Mayr
Prologue Ė Agents of Nature
Eli Baxter was unmistakable. Six foot five and lean, broad shoulders, angular features, and crystal blue eyes that surveyed the street like a vulture. With long, calculated strides, a man in slow motion, confident the world could wait, he walked down the west-end street sidestepping a gutted Honda, its rusted frame stripped of anything remotely useful.
Travis Parker wasnít as confident. They were only two, and they were out of their element, a long way from the city across the river. But Eli had convinced him: this was their chance. A void needed filling and who better than the two of them. Travis was a foot shorter than Eli and gaunt, his youthful metabolism a liability when food was scarce. As long as Travis could remember, he figured his size could be interpreted as weakness, and he compensated with a viciousness few could match, or that they expected. He touched the cold steel of the forty-five tucked in his waistband and felt bigger, stronger. He kept pace behind Eli, watching the deep corners.
Nobody was on the street, but Travis knew the people were there, watching from behind their boarded-up windows and pockmarked doorways. They passed a bisected oil barrel turned on its side and charred black, still radiating heat. It was dusk and the bright moon was rising at their backs. No candles would be needed tonight.
Marcielloís bungalow was at the end of the cul-de-sac. The porch was dark, but Travis made out a faint silhouette to the left of the door. Travis slowed when he saw Marciello there, and looked over his shoulder, the thought of an ambush darting through his mind. He gripped the handle of his gun and stared into the stillness of the street, looking and listening for movement, but there was none. His heart pounded against his ribs. They were in the open and could be taken out. Eli took too many chances.
Eli stopped at the threshold of the driveway, their long shadows obvious in the low moonlight. Travis thought they might as well be glowing.
"Marciello," Eli said.
Marciello coughed, but didnít speak. "Marciello," Eli said again, "you know why weíre here."
Marciello struck a match, loud in the night air. He raised it to his dark, bearded complexion, and lit a small cigar. This was the face Travis remembered from that night one month ago, the face of the man who had taken them in when they were tired and famished, with barely a question asked. Marciello had fed them and given them shelter. He had been their savior, and now they were here to kill him. Travis cocked the hammer of his gun; the click echoed down the street. Then, Marciello spoke. "I knew it was only a matter of time before men like you showed up."
Eli smiled. "Men like what?"
"Men like you," Marciello answered in a Spanish accent. "I know who you are."
"Yes, I do," Marciello said firmly. He had made up his mind then, and there would be no changing it no matter what Eli said.
Eliís smile faded. Heíd told Travis how Marciello would react, and heíd been right. It was one of the things about Eli that Travis could never fully grasp ó his ability to read people, to manipulate them. Marciello was doing exactly what Eli wanted, oblivious to the fact that he was doing so. Travis kept watch, but he knew now that there would be no other men, there would only be Marciello; he was too proud.
"So tell me, what kind of men are we?"
Marciello took a puff on his cigar. "I donít need to tell you that. You already know, donít you?"
"Maybe," Eli said. "But could be your interpretation is all wrong. Setting is everything, after all."
A cold breeze came up and Travis buried his chin. He had never killed anyone before because Eli had always done the killing. Now Eli said it was Travisís turn, said it was an important part of his growth. And because Eli had taken them this far ó across the river and still alive ó and promised to take them even farther, Travis would obey.
"Whatever we are to you is beside the point. Weíre here to make you an offer," Eli said.
"An offer?" Marciello laughed. He rose from the wicker chair that Travis couldnít see but knew was there. "Thereís nothing you could give me Eli, and I have nothing for you. You canít stay in this town any longer."
"But just think of how far we could go together, you and me. With your industriousness, and my way with people."
"I see. Iím sorry to hear you say that." Eli looked at Travis. It was a look Travis knew well, something Eli did with his eyes whenever they were in the midst of a job, a flash of playfulness. They were at the point of no return, and the knot in Travisís stomach began to untie. Like every job he did with Eli, he felt better once it was underway. It was the anticipation that killed him. He didnít mind the idea of killing, that was just a mechanical action, and at the moment when the thing needed to be done, he would become a machine, no longer a person. Travis had seen enough death to rationalize what he was about to do. He had seen enough people killed by Eli to know how to do it right. It was Travisís turn to pull the trigger. Them or us, Eli always said.
Marciello stepped out of the shadow of the overhanging porch and onto the top step. He stood in the moonlight, the thin cigar hanging from his mouth, glowing like smoldering coal. A shotgun poked out from under a coarse burgundy afghan, aimed at Eliís chest. "Now you have to go."
"Well, thatís the problem. We like it here. When you see what else is out there, what youíve done is remarkable. You have no idea of the potential, of what we could do together." Eli took a step forward, palms outstretched. "Iím unarmed."
"Sorry Eli, I was never too ambitious. We have enough to take care of ourselves, donít need any more. And we donít need you, so go on."
"What will you do when someone tries to take it from you? Will you defend it? Where are your soldiers? I see only you and that twelve-gauge. What if bad people come, what will you do then?"
"Iíll turn them away, same as you."
"A powerful man needs soldiers," Eli said. "Last chance."
Marciello raised the shotgun to his chin, fixed his eye behind the bead.
"Very well," Eli said. He turned. Travis squeezed the butt of his forty-five, the metal now warm in his hand. Stubborn Marciello, he thought. Too stuck in his ways to see the new reality, the one that was banging down his door right now, the one that was coming like a storm cloud, like darkness. The rules were different, and Marciello was an extinct creature, he just didnít know it yet.
Marciello lowered his shotgun, figuring the confrontation was over. As Travis watched him, he realized what Eli was telling him all along ó that Marciello was too weak to even defend what was his. He was letting his guard down already. He didnít have the stomach to run this place. Travis despised him and everything heíd accomplished on borrowed time, but suppressed his anger, forcing emotion from his mind. Travisís pulse was even now, and to his surprise he felt invigorated by the moment. They were righting a wrong. They were agents of nature, men who would not tolerate weakness.
Eliís eyes bored into him; do it now, they said. Travis made as if to leave, taking a step back. He waited until Marcielloís back was turned, afghan swaying like stiff canvas, no give. Thin wisps of cigar smoke rose above the roof of the porch, illuminated by the perfect moon.
Travis brought the gun level in an action heíd made a thousand times before. This time it was different, but not that different. Marciello was just a target, and Travis was a marksman. All powerful animals are ruthless.
Travis blinked slowly and exhaled.
Then he was a machine.
Fifteen years later.
"Bottom," said Simon Gray. "One from the bottom."
The old man bent near double to reach the apples at the bottom of the pushcart. He rummaged through the beaten-up produce selecting, then carefully discarding, until he picked one that wasnít too bad and reached up to Simonís outstretched hand. He winced as if in pain, but Simon knew the old manís tricks. Simon paid with an uneven silver coin with rough edges and thickness twice that of a quarter. The old man eyed the coin suspiciously, then dropped it in the pocket of his tattered wool cardigan. He brushed off his knees with the palms of his hands and continued down an asphalt road covered in a fine layer of taupe dust that lifted with the slightest breeze and sifted into any gap in clothing, any crevice.
Simon took a bite of the apple. It was better than anything heíd tasted in a long time. His stomach grumbled as the soft, white flesh slid down his throat. He hadnít eaten a decent meal in a couple of days, and felt the nourishment in his body almost instantly. He walked between the worn buildings, feeling the metal in the pocket of his blue jeans. He only had a few coins left, maybe enough to last until the end of the week, which was why he was going to see Harry. In the old days, he could have pick-pocketed anyone on the street, but not these days. Money was kept close, prized. It was easier to do on contract what he did best and get paid for it. But that was before his conscience had gotten to him.
It was early morning and there were few people out. The vendors were just beginning to set up in the tunnel ó a stretch of thin roadway about one hundred meters long where the buildings reached straight up for a few stories. In about an hour the pushcarts and wooden tables would line both sides of the street, offering food for sale. The vendors reminded Simon of his own parents, who had grown vegetables and sold them at the Kochi market. Sometimes the similarities to the past were as striking to Simon as the differences.
The road curved left and came to an abrupt opening at a small plaza. Simonís tall frame and blond good looks stood out in the gloomy street. He was thirty-two, and there was something about his still-youthful, clean-shaven face and kind eyes that people trusted. And when he began to speak in the confident, diplomatic voice he had cultivated over the years, they liked him even more. Simon had mastered the nuances of expression and tone just as he had the mechanics of the art itself.
A good thief is like a best friend who one day simply disappears.
On the east side of the road was a massive gothic cathedral with a huge stone faÁade and tower that almost pierced the morning cloud cover. The church was centuries old, yet in better repair than every building around it and most other buildings on the whole west side of the river.
A lineup had begun to form on the steps leading to the cathedralís faÁade. Simon looked at the people, in their tattered rags, unkempt hair and hopelessness, and the signs of sickness that marked them: the malnutrition common among the poorest, and the impetigo that was beginning to spread through the community. Those already carrying the bacteria were considered untouchable, and the spread was slowed by segregation, the worst affected forced to stay indoors except to procure food at the cathedral first thing in the morning. Whole families were now on the steps. Simon often wondered what would happen if suddenly the priests locked the doors to them. The cathedral was their lifeline, and Simon felt for the fathers who were unable to provide for their families, forced to live on the handouts of the priests.
He walked down a narrow alleyway to the side of the cathedral. The entrance was different than he remembered it from a few days ago, now it had a newer steel door retrofitted with thick iron bars running horizontally into the old stone of the cathedral. The bolts disappeared into the doorframe and there were no locks or keyholes; the door would only open from the inside. There was a small black button dead center, and above that a peephole. Simon wondered where Harry got the good metal for this upgrade. He pressed the buzzer, then touched his ribs where his handgun usually sat in its leather holster, feeling vulnerable without it.
Simon couldnít hear any sounds coming from inside the cathedral. During the daily masses, the booming reverberations of the congregation were audible, but the footsteps of a man were lost behind the thick stone. Simon looked into the peephole, and suddenly the bolts slid open.
Harryís Hawaiian shirt was open to the third button, revealing his thick chest and the gold chain around his neck. He thrust out a fleshy hand and grabbed Simonís arm.
"Whatís this?" Simon asked, nodding at the door. "Not planning on getting out, ever?"
"What the hell for?" Harry grumbled, ushering him into the dark entryway and slamming the door shut. He slid the bolt across sharply, the noise echoing off the walls and deep into the bowels of the cathedral.
"Looks like some good work, welded even. Where did you get the steel?"
"Baxter." Harry led the way down a narrow passage lit by broad, stubby candles set into notches in the stone. He spoke over his shoulder. "Scouted a job for him awhile back in the north. Fisher."
"So itís true, then."
"But you didnít hear that from me."
"I never do."
He moved a few mechanical-looking items off a crowded oak dining chair, and Simon sat down.
"Coffee?" he asked. Simon nodded.
The room was cavernous. At one point it had been part of the side chapel, until Harry had leased it from the priests and blocked it off from the north transept with a brick wall. Two windows high up on the north wall let in a small amount of light. The room was always damp, and Harry had a fire going, a stack of split wood beside the iron stove.
Harry poured coffee from an aluminum percolator. "Perfect timing," he said, his brow permanently furrowed from years of anxiety. "Do you know how long itís taken me to get the flavor just right? Itís not easy with these old pots."
"This is the only place I can get coffee, Harry. Thatís the only reason I keep coming back to this dungeon."
Harry smiled. "Too strong and it tastes like piss. Too weak, it tastes like shit. Itís a goddamn tightrope."
The combination of smells in the room reminded Simon of the long winters at the cabin with his parents, who also heated their coffee in an aluminum pot on a wood stove. Their home wasnít much different, either, in its simplicity.
"Not easy to get anymore, not at all. But Iíd pay an arm for it," Harry said. "So, what do you need?"
"Iím broke Harry. I need work."
Harry nodded solemnly. "I see, come to me when you need me eh?"
"You know how I feel about it."
"One shouldnít deny their natural God-given gifts. But Iíve got work for you, plenty of it. All you need to do is ask."
"Iím asking now."
"You look like you need a good meal."
"Itís not that bad. Iíve got a few coins left, but Iím about near the end." Simon shook his head. "How do you do it, Harry? Manage jobs for Eli. Youíre a good man. Iíve known you long enough to know that."
Harry shrugged. "What do you want me to say? I disassociate, like everybody else. You used to be able to do that."
"Maybe I donít have the stomach for it anymore."
"I hope thatís not true. I just had a new job thrown my way a few days ago. I knew youíd be due, so I held it for you."
Fact was, Simon knew, nobody else in Harryís circle had Simonís skill set. The job would have been Simonís one way or another. "Youíre a gentleman," Simon said. "Whatís the job?"
"North Town. Thatís where itís at these days. Baxter must be up to something big. Reconnaissance mainly, right now, but Iím sure it will lead to a follow up. Thatís why I want you. Itís not the type of job youíre used to, but I have a feeling. Go now, and youíll already know the terrain by heart. Youíll have walked it. Why send someone else just so they can forward the information to you? Too much gets lost in the translation, it always does. No, youíll go."
The north was intriguing to Simon, and in ways that had nothing to do with Baxter or even Harry. "When?"
"Same as last time. When the job is done, like always. So, you want it?"
"I need it."
"Good. I was beginning to think I was going to have to chase you down for this one. Youíre my best guy, Simon. I couldnít give it to anyone else, no way. Nobody else has your creativity, your presence of mind."
"Stop it, Harry, youíll make me blush."
"Itís true. And with all the activity coming from Eli, thereís going to be more. But the next job will pay better, if Iím right about this. And then you can disappear again, until you need me." The porcelain coffee mug met Harryís grizzled face, and the drink seemed to relax him a bit.
"You arenít wrong often, my friend. Just look around you." Simon gestured at the vast cathedral room, which contained many comforts and luxuries.
"Means nothing," Harry said, shaking his head.
"The hell it doesnít." A noise was coming from the church on the other side of the brick wall. People were filing in now in the orderly, masochistic way the priests demanded. "And your rate?" Simon asked.
"Up again. Goddamn priests have no heart."
"They know how well you do. Still the best location in town. And if you ever gave it up ó "
"Not likely," Harry grumbled. "I said they rip me off, I didnít say I was a fool." He was getting irritable, his usual sneer beginning to form, the muscles on his neck tensing up.
"One more thing," Simon said.
Harry raised an eyebrow.
"Send a runner to your guard at the wall. Tell him Iím coming through tomorrow. Noon. Iíd do it myself, but its short notice. You can take it out of my pay."
"Alright. Anything else?"
Simon nodded. "Rounds," he said. "Iím out of ammunition."
# # #
The tunnel was busy with people pressed shoulder to shoulder, squeezed into the bottleneck of a road. Simon needed food for his excursion to North Town, something that would keep. At the far end were the meat vendors, and he looked for a certain type, someone young and inexperienced.
He found his mark at a table with strips of dried game tied into small bundles. The vendor, maybe twenty, looked well built under his black pea coat, and no doubt had a gun in his pocket ó Simon looked for the telltale hard edge under the black wool. The vendor, however, lacked attention to detail. In the time Simon waited, he watched him drop a customerís change, and look away while another made his selection. Simon moved ahead in the line as seamlessly as possible, while he shifted all his money, parceled in pieces of cotton to keep them quiet, into his left pocket, leaving his right pocket empty except for one half-coin. In his hand, he held another coin.
When he reached the front of the line, he pointed out two bundles. The price was four for a coin, two for a half-coin. He fumbled in his pockets. "I know Iíve got a half in here somewhere, just give me a second."
The vendor frowned impatiently.
"Damn," Simon said. "Mustíve spent it last night. Can you change a coin?"
Like most vendors in the tunnel, his cash box was on a ledge under the table. He put the coin on the table while he searched for change, and in one swift motion, Simon picked up his two bundles, slipped the coin back into his pocket, and presented the half-coin.
"Here we are," he said, handing it to the vendor. "Can I get my coin back now?"
The vendor took the half coin, dropping it in the cash box and handed another coin back. Simon took it, and walked easily away, the vendor already dealing with the next person in line.