PL8ES

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PL8ES

by David-Jack Fletcher

A returned soldier with PTSD finds himself working as a driver for an old army friend. His first shift doesn’t go to plan when he starts to see signs. Signs in the license plates, orders meant just for him. And he’ll do anything for the mission...

   “All I see is death.”

   I stared at the small woman scratching words into her notepad. Notes about me. About my thoughts. I waited for her to finish writing, willing the pad to flip out of her lap so I could see.

   When she realised that I had stopped talking, she peered up at me over her square glasses. Blue eyes. Cold. So cold.

   The death of the little boy?” she asked in a monotonous voice. This was just business for her. She didn’t care. Why would she? She had never taken a life. She didn’t understand the gravity of squeezing your hands around someone’s fate, watching it fade.

   There were others,” I whispered. “So many others.”

   She cleared her throat and put down the notepad. Giving me her attention. About time.

   And you feel…” she let the sentence hang, hoping I’d fill the silence. I didn’t. “Shame? Guilt?”

   I nodded. “All those words, I feel them all.”

   She was squeamish, this one. She’d never get by in Iraq or Afghanistan. Hell, she’d never make it through the mall without a shopping list. This is what I fought for, though. Freedom. The freedom to be weak. Weakness was something I had never been able to afford.

   Now she was frowning, turning her face upside down to feign compassion. I recognised the expression, but on her it seemed like a mask. With the money she was getting for my mental issues, the least she could do was pretend to give a shit.

   How’s the medication working for you?” she asked. “Are you sleeping better?”

   I didn’t tell her I wasn’t taking it. Instead, I laughed. “Hell, doc, I’m the only one who’s not sleeping.”

   She tilted her head. A dog with curiosity.

   Look around.” I walked to the window of the fifth story office. Peered through the winter fog at the people crossing the street, sipping their pumpkin-spiced lattes, waving goodbye to their friends. Ants. All of them, ants. I could be a shooter aiming at them through my scope. They’d have no idea. They wouldn’t notice if I wiped out a city block.

   What do you see down there?” The doctor asked, poising the pen for more notes.

   Everyone is asleep, doc,” I grimaced. “It’s no wonder the terrorists are winning.”

   I heard the pen rushing across the page. She was like an author, inspired by my misery. Just another ant.

   We talked a bit more about my sleeping patterns and the tossing and turning night after night. The voices were gone for the most part. But I was always jittery. Anything could set me off, take me right back to Iraq. And all she wanted to know is how I sleep.

   The session went on, me droning on about my C.O.’s face, bloodied and half gone after an insurgent had given him two barrels’ worth of hatred. Davies, his name was. He’d spoken his last words to me. The last thing he’d ever said. The message.

   Someone will contact you.

   I left that part out. She wouldn’t understand.

   Any job prospects this week?” the doc had been working her way down a list, I could tell. Every week it was the same. Sleep, work, friends, all the safe topics. Nobody wanted to talk about the real stuff. The children burned alive in a gutter. Their parents kneeling with guns in the backs of their heads. Those same people coming back as war heroes, planted across the front page like symbols of what we all ought to strive for.

   The bureaucrats still won’t pay out a pension.” I held up my right hand. “Even with the obvious injuries.”

   She nodded again, frowned. The eyes were still cold.

   I thought about driving.”

   Deliveries?” she queried.

   Something like that,” I smirked. “Those driving services. Like a taxi, but not. Get a few night shifts, take my mind away from trying to sleep.”

   The doc scrawled something else, traces of a smile appearing in the corners of her lips. Dimples. I hadn’t noticed them before. Cute.

   Having convinced the doc that my PTSD was under control and my meds were still staving off the voices, I left her and her dimples to write up more notes on my case. She would be reporting back to the bureaucrats that my medical retirement, and the end of my military career, were still valid.

   By the time I got home, avoiding puddles from the non-stop drizzle, I’d been contacted by an old dog I’d served with. That’s what we called ourselves – the dog squad. Nipping at the heels of terrorists and biting when we had the say so. The old dog, Tanner, rang me.

   Someone will be in contact.

   He ran a driving service. Said he had work for me. As much as I wanted. It couldn’t be a coincidence. This was fate. I put the thought into the world, and it came back with an answer.

   But Tanner, of all people? Fate was a twisted mistress. Me and him had history. Too much to yap on about, but the bottom line was that he owed me. Even after giving me a job, he’d always owe me, and he knew it.

   Tanner gave me a time and location, in the middle of the city. My first drive was tonight. Remember to be friendly, he’d said, and for Pete’s sake, smile. I ground my teeth on the bus ride over, breathing fog onto the windows. The winter air didn’t understand boundaries or the laws of physics. It drifted through the metal and the glass of the bus, sank into every fibre of my body.

   I wondered how to make chit-chat with people whose lives were so small they couldn’t even imagine pointing a gun at someone. Let alone pulling the trigger. What would I talk about? Based on the news cycle blaring through my headphones, it’d be today’s western-washed topics. The weather was turning cold, football season was about to start, some local thug got done for dealing drugs to kids. At least those kids were alive, not burned to ash in an anonymous grave in the Middle East. I thought about ringing up the station, blowing the lid on the whole thing. The next news segment changed my mind. Celebrity gossip took the primetime spot at seven p.m. It reminded me of the uselessness of war.

   I saw Tanner down the alley, shivering in the cold. I stashed my headphones into my pocket, gave a slight nod. The dog squad greeting. Tanner waved at me as I approached. He’d changed. Maybe for the better.

   Good to see you, brother,” we clasped ice-cold hands and he pulled me in for a quick hug. Slapping my back with his open palm like I’d swallowed my tongue. “Your face looks a lot better.”

   Thanks for the job,” I said, ignoring the critique.

   He took me into the garage, showed me around. The old boy had done well for himself. A fleet of seven cars, polished and sparkling under the industrial lighting. Each one stamped with the company name on both sides. It would have cost a small fortune.

   How’d you do all this?” I asked, impressed.

   When they refused to give me my military pension,” his words were angry, “I hit my mum up for a loan. Started with one car, worked myself to the bone til I paid every cent back. It’s taken a few years, but man, I’m living the dream.”

   The system had failed him, too, but he’d found a way. Maybe his meds were better than mine. Maybe he was taking his. Or maybe he’d be like me if he didn’t have any family. I’d have asked my mum for a loan, too, except she’d walked off a bridge one night, straight into the harbour. In the middle of winter. She’d been my only relative. Never did get that suicide letter.

   Tanner threw me a set of keys, jolting me back to the present. Gave me a petrol card and a phone. Showed me the ropes, so to speak. When someone wanted a ride, they’d ping the number. All I had to do was click ‘Accept’ and the job was mine.

   Don’t take jobs that are too far away,” Tanner said as I got into the car. Leaned in the window. Stale cigarette breath on my face. “Cost of petrol versus time it takes to get there, it won’t be worth it. We want to maximise profits.”

   I nodded. Tanner the businessman. Who would have thought the guy that spit shined my boots would build an empire and give me a job? My sense of pride had been buried a long time ago, I had no issue taking this guy’s money. Like I said, he owed me.

   Each car had a starting spot in the city. The drivers would be spread out. Move across one city block each hour, on the hour. Maximise our visibility, don’t give the appearance of sitting in the same spot all night. People needed to think we were busy.

   My first hour was spent outside a kebab shop, drooling at the smell of meat wafting into the street. A few people glanced at the car, took a step forward. Glanced at me. Stepped back. Maybe the burn scars on my face put them off. Maybe it was my eyes.

   The clock ticked over. The first hour was up. I shifted the car into drive and headed to my next spot. The phone pinged as I ran a red light. Someone was just around the corner. I tapped Accept and headed over, practicing my smile as Tanner had suggested.

   A woman. Cute. Long brown hair, hazel eyes. Looked like she worked out. She climbed into the back, a silver locket dangling between her breasts. I’m not a pervert, so I looked away. Cleared my throat to say hello.

   Hi there,” she beat me to it. Snuggled into her winter jacket. A long grey thing with buttons all the way down and a sharp collar folded up around her neck.

   Evening,” I tried my friendliest voice. Sounded forced. “Where you headed?”

   She gave me the address and I punched it into my GPS, conscious that she could see the scarred fingers on my hand as I did so.

   I drove in silence, looking at her in the rear view. Aside from the doc, she was the only woman I’d been alone with in years. She busied herself on her phone, thumbing the screen as she typed a message. A boyfriend, I guessed. Telling him about the freak she’d jumped into a car with.

   Sorry about that,” she said with a smile, slipping her phone into her purse. A small, red thing with long straps. Ugly.

   About what?” I replied.

   You must have thought I was pretty rude, texting like that. I hate that,” the woman looked at my reflection in the rear view. “Love the one you’re with, isn’t that the old saying?”

   Indeed,” I replied, staring at the median strip.

   Emily,” she placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. Squeezed. “Lovely to meet you.”

   I introduced myself, trying to loosen my body from all the tension I’d been carrying. The sessions with the doc always made me tense. Emily worked the night shift, like me. She loved the night air, the frost on the telegraph poles, the way the puddles as black as midnight could still reflect a face. She loved the eerie quietness that followed her towards the office.

   There’s something spooky about it,” she giggled. “Don’t you just love it?”

   She was charming, more than I’d ever been. Customer service was her game, always chatting to someone about insurance or something. The way she said insurance was strange. A hushed word amongst a stream of noise. I blinked the thought away. I was losing interest in the conversation when Emily bit her lip and said, “I feel like everyone is asleep.”

   My eyes shifted in the mirror, focusing on her as she fiddled with the locket around her neck. Clicked it open. Clicked it shut. Opened it again. Stared at something inside.

   What do you mean?” I asked, my voice as quiet as the night was dark.

   Emily looked at me. I couldn’t read the expression on her face, half-hidden in shadow. “You know what I mean.”

   I pulled up outside her office building, the streetlamps humming nearby. The city was dead at this time of night. Safe for a clandestine meeting. I turned around as Emily tapped her card on the reader and said a pleasant goodnight.

   Hope to see you again,” she waved through the window and walked inside.

   As her form was enveloped by the yellow lighting of the building’s lobby, I watched to see if Emily turned around. She’d started to give me a message but hadn’t finished it.

   Everyone is asleep.

   She waited at the elevator, thumbing her phone once more. Telling someone she’d made contact. Given me the message. The up arrow glowed white, and Emily walked into the elevator. She didn’t look back.

   I took a deep breath, running my burned and scarred fingers through my hair. It couldn’t be coincidence that of all the people in the city, I’d picked her up. Of all the taxis and ubers, and whatever other cars were around, that she’d landed in mine. Emily, who talked about everyone being asleep on the same day I’d said that to the doc. Emily, who conveniently worked night shift and lived around the corner from my dedicated position on the street. Emily, who I’d met on my first shift.

   Emily.

   A car pulled up in front of me. A Bentley. Not new, but still in good condition. Probably expensive. The windows were tinted the same black as the car. I looked around. No other cars in the area. This was it, the last half of the message. In a city afflicted by sleep and dreams, the only people awake had found each other. Someone was looking for me.

   The engine kept running, releasing smog into the city’s cool night air. The exhaust pipe vibrated under the strain of the engine. Someone was in the car, why weren’t they getting out?

   Are they waiting for me? I squinted through my windshield, hoping to catch a glimpse of the person inside the Bentley. A shadow, some movement. Anything.

   A light came on in the cabin. I saw the silhouette of a figure. Too broad shouldered to be female. He was holding something, shaking it in his hands. Threw it to the footwell in the passenger side of the car.

   In the next instant, the Bentley tore away from the curb, screeching up the street without indicating. The license plate read F11 WM3.

   Follow me.

   This was it. The mission C.O. Davies told me about. I spun the wheel, shifted the car into drive, and followed the Bentley.

   I followed the car for ten minutes, conscious that Tanner wouldn’t be happy about the petrol I was wasting. The driver raced through the streets like he knew someone was in tow. I kept my distance, just as my training had taught me. It was second nature now. Stay back, and when the car turns a corner, wait a few seconds before following. Lots of people make the mistake of turning their lights off or not blinking for the turns. People notice that kind of thing. Any training manual will tell you to act as normal as possible.

   So that’s what I did.

   After the Bentley turned, I waited at the lights until I couldn’t see it, anymore.

   Stay back.

   A hundred metres between us. I waited until it was two. Turned. Ignored the ping of another potential customer. Wiped the fog from the inside of my windshield and turned the heat on. Wisps of thick fog drifted up from the sewer below, like ghosts on the prowl. Waiting for someone to rattle. This winter was going to be cold.

   The Bentley pulled up, a woman got out, headed into the wintry night. I hadn’t seen her silhouette earlier. Where’d she come from? The driver’s window slid down, a mass of hot breath escaping into the night air. He flicked a cigarette into the street, threw a matchbox after it. The window went up. The Bentley disappeared down the street.

   It was the kind of obscure thing the dog squad might have done back in the day. Do something nobody would blink at. Except those in the know.

   A message.

   I pulled up next to the matchbox, letting the engine ride on idle as I picked it up. Empty. Flipped it over. The picture on the back was a code. A luxury hotel, right in the middle of the city. A few blocks away. The slogan read, “With beds so comfortable you won’t want to sleep.”

   Sleep.

   It had to be a message. The mission was revealing itself. I looked around for the woman. Whoever she was, she was long gone. It didn’t matter. I had what I needed.

   I drove to the hotel. Not what I would call luxury, myself. More like a roach motel. Didn’t look anything like the picture. I checked the address to make sure I hadn’t made a mistake. The lone car parked across the street changed my mind. The license plate read 1N5 1D3.

   Inside.

   The Dandelion Motel looked out of place for the middle of the city. An old four-storey building, maybe from the nineteen-fifties, encased on either side by fresh high-rises. Long rectangular windows facing the street, a graffitied sign above the door. The motel was right next to an alley, the dumpster overflowing with dirty towels, empty beer bottles, used condoms. Syringes dripping the last of whatever drug had been in them. A rusty fire escape led up to the second storey. I saw a bleak yellow light emanating from a window up there. No shadows. Maybe someone had left it on.

   I leaned into one of the windows, rubbed a circle to see inside. A dim lamp in reception washed a glare across the wall of keys behind it. Not a soul in sight. I tried the door. It swung open with a creak as I entered the motel.

   Hello?” I called into the pale light. Shadows crept up the walls, taking odd shapes. I twisted around. Eyes scanned the reception. A bronze and rusted service bell gave a low chime as I pressed it.

   Is anyone there?” I called again.

   This had to be part of the mission. I couldn’t fathom how the grimy motel still had customers. I doubted even the hookers would lay here, not even a whore on her deathbed. Yet the Dandelion still manufactured matchboxes and advertised as a luxury hotel. It didn’t add up.

   Sorry, sir, I didn’t hear the bell,” an old man appeared out of the shadows. I hadn’t heard him come in, couldn’t see where he came from.

   I need somewhere to sleep,” I said, emphasising sleep. Saying it slow, drawing out the syllable. Flashed the matchbox.

   The old man took a step back as he took in my burned form. Took a second to compose himself and nodded, reached for something under the reception desk. A thick green book. He flipped it to an empty page.

   How many hours?” he licked the tip of a pen and poised above the page.

   What?”

   The old man looked behind me, searching. “Where is she?”

   Who?”

   He searched the room again, peering into the darkness. “Never mind.” He cleared his throat and said he was going to assume I’d be here all night. He threw me a room key, avoiding my gaze and mumbled the room number.

   It’s upstairs,” he pointed in the general direction I was expected to travel.

   I headed to the room, turning the key over in my hands. Travelling the hallway, I heard subdued moans and groans, and the occasional thump. Wood against plaster. The place left a bad taste in my mouth. I hoped that once I got to my room, I’d receive the next message.

   The room hadn’t been cleaned for a long time. Mould on the curtains. Mould on the carpet. Damp. Dank. A beam of red filtered through the curtains from a nearby traffic light. Red, like the sun sinking over the sandy hills. The night sky illuminating the fire. I could smell the bodies again and pinched my nose. Tried to shake the memory, my chest heaving. Thunder rumbled in the heavens outside.

   The light switched over, covering the room in a dull green glow. Green, like my parents’ farm. My breathing settled. Now wasn’t the time for flashbacks. I needed to focus on the mission.

   A desk in the corner. It seemed out of place, given the rooms were rented by the hour. I opened a desk drawer, found a Bible. Flipped through the pages. Threw the Christian dogma over my back to see if anything else was inside the drawer. I remembered the license plate.

   Inside.

   There was something in here. I swallowed my growing frustration and looked around. Bedside tables. A notepad and pen by the phone. A card with the number for reception. The bedside tables didn’t have drawers. I went to the wardrobe across the room. An old stand-alone thing, planted in a dark corner.

   Traffic lights changed again. The room went red. I hated that colour. The stench of charred bodies filled the room. Thunder rumbled again, lightning struck. My eyes started to ache, my heart burned. I wished for green. Got rain padding against the windows.

   The wardrobe was empty. The whole room was empty. I slammed my fists against the wardrobe doors, rubbed my eyes. My vision was starting to blur.

   There has to be something. The old man –

   The old man. The way he’d looked at me. Avoided my eyes. He’d asked where ‘she’ was. Who was she? He knew something.

   Green again.

   I composed myself as best I could. Made my way to the door, ignoring the squeaking bed and the muffled groans of pleasure from the next room. My eyes didn’t ache so much now, but the smell remained.

   The stairs creaked as I descended to the reception once more. The old man looked at me. Looked away.

   What’s he hiding?

   Where is she?” I asked over the pounding rain. “That’s what you asked me before.”

   He held up a hand, stepped away from the desk. “I didn’t mean to –”

   Who is she?” I raised my voice. Felt the anger in my hands. “Is it Emily? Is that who you’re talking about?”

   The old man shook his head, started to say something. I leaned over the desk, grabbed his shirt.

   What’s Emily got to do with all this?” I spat.

   I pulled the old man towards me, saw the tear escaping his eye, but paid no attention to his fear. He should be scared.

   I don’t know an Emily,” he stuttered, turning his face from me. “Please don’t hurt me.”

   My heart was in my throat now, the rage bubbling through my skin. Seeping out of the burns on my face. The storm outside matched my anger, the motel windows shaking in the fierce winds.

   I raised my fist to the old man, barked at him to tell me what he knew. He shrunk before me, cried that he didn’t know anything about anything and didn’t know an Emily and he was sorry for any misunderstanding.

   Misunderstanding, huh?” I screamed and slammed the matchbox onto the reception desk. “What’s this, then?”

   The old man swallowed hard. Shook his head again. He was holding something back. I’d broken stronger men than him in my time. I’d break him, too. I climbed over the desk, pushed the old man into the wall of keys. Ignored the metal clanging against his back. Wedged my forearm under his neck.

   Don’t lie to me, old man,” I said through gritted teeth.

   I swear,” he choked.

   I threw the old man over the desk, watched him fall to the floor with a pained cry. As I climbed the desk and lunged towards him, he got to his feet. Held his left arm. His old bones were frail.

   He ran from the motel, disappearing into the storm. I ran after the old man, caught him as he turned into the alley. I lunged at him, tackled him to the road. He screamed and begged for help, but we both knew at this hour, and with the raging storm, nobody would hear a thing.

   Tell me what I need to know.” I banged his head into the tarmac, pressing into his skull until I saw blood mix with the puddles beneath him.

   Help!” he cried again.

   I slammed his head into the tarmac again. The old man would break soon enough. He would tell me what I needed to know. About the mission. About Emily. About everything. I slammed again and again, telling him it could all end if he would just give me the information I needed.

   The old man stopped crying. Blood framed his head like a halo. My eyes ached from the colour. I stood up, angry at myself for going too hard at the old man. He lay in the puddle of his own blood, unmoving.

   Huffing and panting, I poked at him with a foot. No response. I stepped back, shaking, wiping rain from my face. Wondered where I’d gone wrong. The mission had led me here. The codes, the Bentley, the matchbox, the license plates. Emily, Tanner, my psychologist. They’d all led me here tonight. The message in the plate – Inside – had meant something.

   Lightning struck somewhere in the distance, the crack drawing me from my thoughts. I went back to the car, held the steering wheel with my shaking hands. The storm pounded at my windows as I turned the key in the ignition. Water and blood dripped into the carpet.

   The phone pinged. A new customer. Before I turned away from the curb, I picked up the phone. Five missed calls from Tanner. I hit redial. He had some explaining to do.

   Hey, man,” he answered quick. Too quick.

   What’s going on?” My breaths were still heavy. I tried to calm down, to stop shaking.

   Where have you been?” Tanner sounded worried.

   I’ve been at the motel,” I answered. “The Dandelion.”

   Why?”

   I didn’t answer.

   Are you okay, you don’t sound good,” Tanner’s voice was soft.

   We need to talk,” I said and hung up.

   Swerving into the road, I headed back to the garage. Back to see Tanner. To figure out what was going on.

   He greeted me at the door, another wave. I waved back, but my eyes betrayed me. Tanner knew me well enough to see that I was angry. His brow was furrowed in concern when I stepped out of the car and slammed the door.

   What’s wrong?” he asked. He saw my bloody fists, caught the look on my face. Took a step back. People were always doing that to me.

   You need to tell me what’s going on,” I tried to hold back the rage.

   Tanner shrugged and stepped forward. Put a hand on my arm. I shook him off me.

   I don’t know what you mean,” his voice was soft, comforting. Sounded genuine. He motioned towards his office. “Sit down, man, tell me what happened.”

   The mission,” I whispered and looked around. “What’s the mission?”

   Tanner looked at me, curious. Looked at my hands again. Said something about calling someone, walked to his office. I followed him, stood in the doorway of his office. White walls. Plain, bare. An oak desk, black chairs. Simple. Laptop closed on the desk. He saw me eyeing the laptop as he dialled a number. Smiled at me.

   Put the phone down,” I said, rubbing my hands.

   Tanner put the phone on the desk, pressed the red hang up button. I didn’t catch the number he was calling.

   I sat down in one of the black chairs, ran my fingers through my wet hair. Tanner sat on the other side of the desk. Clasped his hands together in full view. He knew that was important. He didn’t want to make me any more jittery.

   There is no mission,” Tanner said. His quiet voice echoed against the white walls. Echoed in my ears. He was lying to me. To my face.

   I looked away, rubbed my temples. My eyes ached again. A voice called out in the back of my brain. One of the many I’d been holding back. Tanner kept talking, but I couldn’t hear him. His lips moved, his face expressed concern and worry, but all I heard was the ringing in my ears. The voice screaming in my brain. The doc always told me to breathe through it, like breathing was a magical cure for every pang of anxiety. But I couldn’t breathe this time. I couldn’t wish it away. Didn’t want to. Instead, I listened.

   Lies, it screamed over and over. Lies, lies, lies.

   That’s when I saw the drops of sweat sliding down Tanner’s face. Sweat on a night like this, with a storm and a frost that sank into the bones. He wasn’t sweating from the heat. He was sweating because he knew something. He put me in that car. He put me on that corner. He sent Emily to me.

   I stood up, cutting Tanner off from whatever bullshit he was spouting.

   Out of respect for what we went through over there,” my words were slow, purposeful. “I will ask you one more time.”

   Tanner got to his feet, looked defensive.

   What’s the mission?” I pressed.

   At the first sign of Tanner shaking his head, I raced around the desk to him. He reached into the desk drawer and pulled out a Glock 17. I swiped his arm to the side and planted my burned hand around his throat. Grabbed the gun from him.

   The mission!” I yelled at him.

   Do it, do it, do it, the voice chanted.

   Tanner’s last words were, “I don’t know.”

   My finger squeezed the trigger. I watched his forehead split open and the white walls splash with red and pink, and shards of skull. I let go of Tanner’s throat and he fell to the ground with a thud. The mess of blood and brain matter slid down the wall. I watched it, fighting the memories banging at the door.

   My friend. Dead.

   Liar. The voice reminded me.

   The gun felt heavy in my hand, the barrel smoking with guilt and pleasure at its last kill. I searched the desk, throwing papers and photos of his family to the ground. Rummaged through files on his laptop. Browser history was mostly business sites, e-conferences on building your empire. One site buried in the previous week’s history caught my attention. A car site. Bentley. What was Tanner doing looking at Bentleys?

   Looking down at my friend one last time, I stared into his eyes, left open in the wake of the bullet’s speed. Green. Not calming, not like my parents’ farm. Empty.

   I tucked the gun into my belt and walked back to my car, ignoring the pain in my eyes. It was spreading to my head now, a dull ache that throbbed with each step. I had to find that Bentley.

   Sitting behind the wheel, I put the car in reverse. Stopped when I saw the license plate of another of Tanner’s fleet. 7H3 M15N.

   I studied the license plate. 7H3. THE. M15N. MIS’N. The mis’n. The missing?

   The mission.

   Nothing so far had been coincidence, this wasn’t either. It couldn’t be. I stopped the car, walked to 7H3’s driver side. Tried the handle. Locked. Part of me felt that time was running out, too much time had been wasted with the old man and now with Tanner. I didn’t know what was waiting for me, or how much time I had left. Just that feeling in my bones that I didn’t have long.

   With that thought rushing through me, I smashed the driver’s window and unlocked the car. Right there on the front passenger seat. A phone. The same issue as the one Tanner had given me. That couldn’t be a coincidence, either. I reached for the phone, checked the notifications. A few customers waiting to be picked up. I scrolled through the list of locations, sensing I would know what I was looking for when I found it. All close by, but nothing jumped out at me. I took the phone and got back in my car, shrugging off remnants of guilt about Tanner.

   The Bentley. Find the Bentley. The voice knew what I had to do. The voice was my only friend now.

   The digital display in the car read 3:33am. The storm had retreated sometime in the previous fifteen minutes. The roads were still drenched, water cascading down drains. Rushing to get away from me as I sped through the city streets, hunting. The night sky had started to clear with the inevitability of daylight. A dusk glow struggled to breach the cloud line as the sun began its slow ascent.

   I couldn’t rely on finding the Bentley without another message, the city was just too big. It could be hidden in an alley or an underground parking garage, or at someone’s house. It could be anywhere. As I sped through the city streets, conscious that people were waking up and heading to work, I searched every license plate I could see. Most were random letters and numbers. I searched until the clock struck 4:00am and the phone pinged. The location was familiar.

   Emily’s building.

   I tapped Accept. Placing the phone into the centre console, I looked back to the road in front of me. A car approached from behind. The license plate’s message was clear, but it confused me. L0C K3T.

   Locket.

   Emily had a locket. She’d twisted it in her hands, clicked it open and shut. What had she been looking at when she opened it? Had that been the mission all along? Emily’s locket. As fate had it, I was on my way to her now.

   Turning into the street I saw Emily waiting by a streetlamp, taking comfort and mild warmth from the dim light. Slowing down to a traffic light, my eyes ached again at the red glow. The car slowed to a stop, the brake lights of the car in front illuminating the license plate. The message sunk into my aching eyes. K1L H3R.

   Kill her.

   I swallowed. She’d been nice to me. I didn’t want to hurt her. Maybe I could take the locket and let her go. The thought had just formed when the car beeped its horn, revved. Kill her beeped again. Emphasising the message. I knew what I had to do.

   Emily had to die.

   The orders raced through my mind. The messages I’d received throughout the night. The matchbox, the motel, the license plates. The reason for the orders remained unknown, but I gathered it had something to do with the locket. Following orders was always a leap of faith. It was a leap I’d taken many times before. And I’d leap again.

   Emily recognised my face. Hard not to. She waved me down with twinkling fingers and a smile. Climbed into the back of the car with a heavy sigh and a tired hello. I mumbled a response as she settled into the seat. Strapped in. Grabbed her locket. Her ugly red purse was nowhere in sight.

   She tried to make small talk, but I could tell she wasn’t in it. She’d had a hard shift with whatever she did in there. Insurance, was it? Reached for her phone, announced she was checking some missed calls from her mother. With that thought in my mind, I pressed the lock button on my door. All the doors clamped with a subtle click. Emily didn’t blink. Hadn’t noticed. Too busy texting.

   The Dandelion motel looked the same in the early morning as it did late at night. The only real difference was the dead body in the alleyway. Except as I pulled up to the motel, the alley was clear. No dead old man, no blood. No police tape. He was just gone.

   Someone is watching over us, said the voice in my head.

   Emily looked up from her phone, sensing that we weren’t where we were supposed to be. She peered out the window, eyes filling with fear.

   What are we doing here?” she asked, trying to stay casual.

   I turned in my seat, reached for the gun in my belt and held it in front of her. Emily’s eyes fell onto the Glock, and she screamed.

   Stop screaming,” I said. Calm. Quiet. “Give me your phone.” She handed me the phone, keeping her eyes on the gun.

   I heard her begging, but the voice in my head was louder. Reassuring me. Telling me I was only following orders. It had to be done. I was doing a good job.

   Please,” she said, clutching the locket. “You don’t have to do this.”

   I think we both know that I do,” I shrugged, shaking off the stench of dead children. Tried not to imagine Emily in that gutter, along with the rest of them.

   I got out of the car, keeping the gun pointed at Emily as I did so. Ordered her out of the car. She complied, obeyed my instruction to move to the alley. In silence. The sun was starting to peak over the high-rises, casting an orange-yellow light into the alley.

   Like fire.

   The stench returned, my nostrils burning at the memory. Emily walked, her back facing me, just as the children had. Walking to their deaths. Crying, pleading, not understanding what was happening. Why they had to die.

   You’re doing the right thing. The voice said. It had said the same thing then, too.

   I didn’t want a long, drawn out scene in the alley. I just wanted to get it done and go home. Emily obeyed the order to get to her knees. I didn’t know why I bothered with that tired demand. Just seemed appropriate in the moment. She fell to her knees, begging for me to reconsider. Offered money. Offered sex. I didn’t care about either. I cared about my orders.

   I raised the weapon. Took a breath. This was the leap of faith. No turning back. As I aimed the Glock at the back of her head, I heard the sound of glass bottles rolling against the tarmac. A whack on the side of my head sent fireworks through my vision.

   Run, girl!” a voice shouted from behind me.

   I spun to see a vagrant, holding an empty beer bottle. Threw it at my feet. Emily took the distraction, ran to the fire escape. Clawed up the stairs. Desperate screams for help. The vagrant tried to tell me I didn’t have to hurt anyone. They were his last words. The recoil was smooth on the weapon, I barely felt it as I pulled the trigger and buried two bullets in his chest.

   Emily screamed again, halfway up the fire escape. I raced after her, stepping around broken bottles and shards of glass. Shot in her direction. She didn’t stop. The girl had a fighting spirit. I admired her for that. But orders were orders. I climbed the rusty metallic stairs, calling Emily’s name.

   She climbed fast, but my training had made me stronger. Faster. I caught her at the landing of the third storey. Grabbed at her coat. Spun her around, grabbed the locket. She didn’t seem to care. Just screamed for help.

   Please, why are you doing this?” She begged for a reason. Tears cascaded down her cheeks as she repeated the question a thousand times.

   I like you Emily,” I said with regret. “But I have my orders.”

   I took aim, raising the gun to her temple. As I moved to squeeze the trigger, Emily thrust forward, pushing me over the railing of the fire escape. Falling backwards, I clutched the locket in my fist, knowing I had one last task before I completed the mission. I aimed again. The gun went off. I missed.

   Emily watched me fall back to the earth, leaned over the railing to take in the glory of her victory. I saw the whisper of a relieved smile form on her lips. Fired again. Watched Emily lose her balance. She followed me over the railing, a trail of blood glistening in the sun, marking her trajectory to the road.

   I landed on my back with a thud, heard a crack. Felt a splinter of pain in the back of my head. Emily landed next to me, eyes dilated. Lifeless. C.O. Davies had always said I was a good shot. The voice in my head told me I’d done a good job. Told me not to worry about the life I’d taken.

   Just another ant.

   I tried to sit up but choked down some blood instead. The splinter in my head throbbed and I moved my fingers around to the back of my head.

   Wet.

   Blood.

   Felt like glass. I’d landed on a broken bottle, the sharp edges lodged in my head. Gripping the glass, I pulled the shank and let the stream of blood pool around me. As the sun rose into the sky, clearing the storm from the night before, I fought to stay conscious. Clung to the locket, hoping it was worth the life I’d taken.

   The locket slipped from my fingers as the morning frost dug into my fingers. Crawled into my body. Ushered in sleep.

   Finally, sleep.

* * *

   Police tape hung limp across the alley, detectives kneeling over the three bodies. The gun had been seized already, the ownership traced. They’d soon find Tanner and put two and two together. They’d write the story everyone was expecting to read. Ex-soldier, mentally unbalanced from serving in the war. People would feel sorry for him, start pointing the finger at the broken medical system. Nobody would ask too many questions. Just as planned. His psychologist stood just beyond the police barrier, huddled beneath an umbrella as she spoke with detectives. Her business card had been found in his pants pocket. A local reporter fixed his make-up before addressing the camera.

   And so it began.

   Davies watched the scene from a run-down Bentley across the street, fumbling with the locket. He clicked it open, smiled. The computer chip was intact. He removed the chip, pocketed it, discarded the locket out the window.

   He dialled the only number in his phone and waited. Someone answered but didn’t speak. Protocol.

   Package received. Asset terminated,” Davies said and hung up.

   He looked back at his old friend for a moment before driving away from the scene. His guilt was forgotten by the time he reached the traffic lights at the end of the street. There was no time for guilt. There was too much to do.

David-Jack Fletcher

David-Jack Fletcher is an emerging writer from Maitland, NSW, Australia. He has worked as an academic for the past decade and recently published his first book, titled Age as Disease: Anti-Aging Technologies, Sites, Practices with Palgrave Macmillan. His interests are primarily in horror and psychological/crime thrillers, however he also writes memoir, with a piece for Grief Awareness Month recently published in Grief Narratives. David-Jack writes socially and culturally aware pieces that speak to broad, contemporary issues impacting people across the globe. Most of his current work focuses on showcasing the lived experiences of characters existing across the full spectrum of LGBTQI+.

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