Short Story: Reel-Gun Blues

Detective Arnold Foster had been on the force near-on twenty years, but nothing had been like this. He’d done his fair share of high-profile cases and seen enough things to make the average uniform retch, but nothing had ever been so rough. He took off his gray fedora and knelt beside the body, tailored trench-coat falling around him to rest on the floor just beyond the pool of blood.

She lie on her side, arms near one another, left hand clutched half-closed as if sleeping. Everything about her was peaceful, as if lying in her own blood with a gut-wound was just another night of beauty sleep. Even her auburn hair had fallen around her pale-skin like a woman sleeping the greatest sleep of her life. Foster wasn’t sure about that, but it would certainly be the longest.

There was nothing unusual around the scene; no marks on the wrists, no broken glass or furniture askew. Nothing had been thrown, or knocked around. There was just her body and a pool of blood. It was still the most difficult thing Foster’d ever forced himself to witness.

Ali was one of the few friends he had left, alongside the now-primary suspect, her husband. Neither one had ever been the angry type. What had kept Foster on such good terms with them was their glowing love that welcomed him to bask in it. He enjoyed it.

But there was no glow now, just pale skin wrapped around coagulated veins and dead organs.

Foster rose from his stance. He shouldn’t be here, his heart said it, his analytical mind said it. There was nothing to find, and he’d been explicitly barred from the case on grounds of personal attachments. He disagreed with that decision and he doubted the Chief himself could have stopped him from coming.

But the Chief wasn’t there, just a group of uniforms, a few forensics squints, and a few reps from the coroner’s office. Even if there’d been something to find, Foster wouldn’t have needed it. The fact that Sten was missing was enough. He’d been the loving husband that stood by Ali through everything. If he wasn’t here, lying in a pool of his own grief, then he was the one responsible. Foster didn’t need any further proof. The door wasn’t forced, the room wasn’t askew; Ali had known her attacker, hadn’t expected her death. If she had, she’d have run, tripped, fallen, knocked over a lamp– left some sign that it wasn’t the man she loved and trusted.

Foster re-fitted his Fedora, and stepped away from the body. He pushed through some uniforms, passed the ambulance and coroner that helped EMTs to remove the gurney, and headed for his unmarked car. Like him, the Ford Sedan was getting on in years, but remained reliable enough not to be cast out. Its turbo-charged police engine had always gotten him from point A to point B, no matter the situation or urgency.

The Sedan was now the one constant in a world of variables. As he slid in and ignited the engine, it agreed with him. They were a package deal, it seemed to say, two old dogs trying their best to keep up and abreast of all the new tricks. The times had changed enough that technology was often their greatest asset and biggest rival, but today both sensed it was unnecessary. Personally, Foster didn’t need a bold repertoire or an extensive case-history to know where he’d find Sten.

When the Ford rolled up to the edge of the pier, Sten’s pickup was already there. Foster could just see him through the back and front windows of the truck, propped backward against the bumper with his hands in his pockets. For a moment, Foster considered leaving, but Ali’s dead body was too prevalent in his mind. Her supple, vibrant skin was too pale, eyes too closed and dead to let him leave.

Foster checked the reel-gun he’d inherited from his father to ensure it was still loaded. Cleaned, oiled, and fired regularly, it was as near to mint condition as an old thirty-eight could be. Part of him want to aim it through the windows separating him from Sten and pull the trigger. Something about Sten’s refusal to acknowledge his presence made him hesitate. It reminded him of the few times he and Sten had talked office-politics or work-business. Sten was always reserved, quiet, only letting out enough not to defy the NDA’s his software company made him sign. He was always honest, straight as a razor, Foster’d liked him for that.

But now he was jagged, crooked enough to have murdered his own wife then run to the one place he knew he’d be found; Why? Why any of it? Why murder his loving wife? Why make it so obvious? Why stand still when he could run, leave Foster in the dust? The old detective had to know, and there was only one route to the truth.

He slid from the sedan and sidled between the bumpers, reel-gun in hand, to approach Sten from the truck’s right.

“You don’t need the gun, old man,” Sten said as he approached. “I’m still the same man you’ve always called a friend.”

Foster stopped just out of arm’s reach, near the front-right fender, “My friends don’t murder people in cold blood, let alone their loving wives.”

“If you think that, you don’t know your friends too well.”

“What the hell’re you talking about, Sten? You killed Ali, your wife, and all you can do’s be a smart-ass about it? What in the hell’s happened to you?”

Sten finally moved, but only his head and neck. It still made Foster tense, just in case his so-called friend had any designs in mind. “Jumpy today,” Sten said blankly. “Why don’t you come over her, take a load off with me?”

Foster’s mouth half-snarled, “You son of a bitch, you think I’m gonna’ risk my neck for–”

“I think,” he interrupted. “You should hear me out. You wanna’ take me in after, fine. You wanna’ blow my brains out on the gravel, fine, but hear me out. You owe me that.”

Foster remained still, it was enough of a sign for Sten, whom turned his head back to the ocean. He was lost in thought for a long moment before he began with a distant vacancy, “Just before you and I met, I was writing software for a government agency connected to DARPA. Someone in the CIA contacted me asking for a meeting. Two months later, I was field-rated and on my first op. Nine months after that, I met Ali. She’d passed all of our screenings, and she believed every word of my lies. Or at least, I thought so.”

He slipped a hand into his inner-jacket pocket. Foster tensed up again. The hand withdrew, clutching a printed, digital photograph between its fingers. A small memory card had been taped to a bottom corner. He set the photo on the hood of his truck, slid it at Foster, and re-pocketed his hand.

Foster craned his neck to eye it and Sten continued, “That photo was taken two-days ago outside the Villa-Nova hotel. You’ll notice Ali meeting a bald man.”

Foster’s eyes confirmed as much, “This going somewhere?”

“Twelve hours ago the CIA informed me that Ali’s file had been forwarded from a contact in Moscow. Her real name is Ivana Kurleynko, an SVR agent sent to spy on the CIA through me. A contract hit was put out on her by the agency, but I got there first.” He finally met Foster’s eyes, his own sharpened by pain. “I… couldn’t let someone else kill the woman I loved. So I came in, and she saw me, smiled her smile, and blinked. I shot her once and left. I’ve been here ever since.”

They were quiet for a moment, only the ocean and distant gulls willing to force themselves on the scene. They created a background of white-noise that infected Foster’s heart.

He swallowed hard, “How’m I supposed to believe this?”

“All the information you need is on that card, Arnold.”

“You understand I need to take you in ’til this can be verified,” he said, only half believing him.

“Just make sure they don’t try to take retribution on me, you know?”

Unfortunately, Foster did. Wife killers were second only to child molesters when it came to inmate hatred.

“I’ll do what I can,” Foster said, still not sure what he believed.

Sten stepped around the truck. Foster’s followed, pocketing the photo. The two men stopped at either of the front doors and their eyes met again.

“You know,” Sten said. “I guess it’s true what they say, “You never really know someone.”

Foster thought about it, but Sten slipped into the Sedan and took the thought with. He ended up in a mired confusion… just another day of reel-gun blues.

Short Story: The Secret Keeper

My hands are covered in blood, black and blue with bruises so I wipe them like an auto-mechanic with a shop towel. That metaphor feels the most apt, especially given I just worked the sunuvabitch over like a mechanic works a rust-bucket. He’s tied to a chair, jogging pants and wife-beater splattered with wide trails of blood. Between the sheen of sweat that covers his body like a greased hog, and the swollen-red bits of flesh beneath it, he has that same worn-out, beat-up look of a decades-old Ford that’s worked one too many days.

I don’t care why he’s tied to the chair. I never do. I just do my job.

As usual they brought me in after they’d nabbed the poor bastard in the night. They’d given him just about every other type of treatment known short of the MK Ultra-style drug and plug, and he’d still kept his mouth shut. That’s why I got the call. That’s always why I get the call. You know the one. It goes something like this: There’s a click as I thumb my burner-phone, half clothed in a towel and wet from a still-running shower or some other, mundane bullshit task of life. Then, there’s a deep, male voice– or maybe it’s high and feminine. Either way there’s a voice and it says; “we have a problem.”

That’s it. The phone clicks off. I finish my shower, lunch, or whatever, and leave. I toss the burner in a dumpster down the street during my walk to the pick-up point. It’s always the corner of eighth and Main. I picked it ’cause most days I can watch the petite book-shop owner across the street shuffle back and forth at the counter. She’s always leading with her left foot, but writing with her right hand.

It used to be I’d just stare at her ass, watch it buck left and right with those supple hips. Now though, I try to imagine what’s on her mind. Is it something good, bad? Maybe heartbreaking or even arousing? I’m never quite sure. Must be a sign of getting older and mellowing out. You think less about pussy and instead the person around it. There’s a lotta’ pussies in the world, half as many as there are bodies, but people are rarer. I’m not talking about a human creature. There’s more than enough of those to go around. No, I mean people– personalities and thoughts and dreams worth a god damn.

I always snuff my cigarette out with my left foot as the black sedan rolls up to the crosswalk. I never do it like that anywhere else, only when I’m watching her. The brakes on the sedan squeak as I give her frosted, platinum blonde hair a final look, then angle down into the car’s back-seat.

From there, each call’s a little different. Some days its a car-ride across town to an abandoned warehouse, or maybe a dry-docked tanker in for repairs at the harbor. Hell, we even used a hotel room once; rented out the whole damn floor so no-one would here the guy’s screams. What a waste of cash. He cracked like a damn egg and I’d barely touched him!

Sometimes though, when the situation calls for it, I get to really enjoy myself. Not in the torture, though in my line of work you find ways to enjoy what you do. Why live and work– and do your job well at that– if you can’t enjoy yourself? I mean I get to enjoy the life that accompanies the really swanky places they put me up in. We’re talking billionaire, yacht-club, coke from a G-an-hour stripper’s tit-crack level of swank. It’s the kind of shit you think only exists in movies ’til your numb face is between her plastic tits and shes pumpin’ you on the suite couch.

I’ve seen all of those types of places too. Not the places themselves. I’m not needed that often. But I’ve seen all their types; the tit-job, coked-out party places, the tea and crumpets, dusty-muff-stink places. Hell, even the ones where people address you as sir– because they know slavery’s still alive and well, and black, white, brown or flaming red, they’re whipped into sucking you off and thanking you for the privilege.

It’s the life to live when you’re young. You’ll never see anything like it unless you’re working for the black-box government-types like me, or get in deep with the hardcore mafioso like my bloody friend there. Let me tell you, take the former; the latter, always, always gets busted eventually. Even if they don’t– even if they’re one of the infinitesimally small numbers that slip through our fingers ’cause they’re greasier than a whore in tub of petroleum jelly– they still die younger than us. They spend half their lives looking over their shoulders for guys like me, hoping their time doesn’t come sooner than its planned to.

As for the poor fuck tied to the chair? Like I said, I don’t care why he’s here. Sure, I am too, but I just do the rough stuff. They ask the questions. Who are they? Pray you never find out, ’cause you’re either gonna’ be the one being asked, pissing yourself– oh yeah, a lot of ’em do that too, trust me– or you’re gonna’ be the one asking. There’s no two ways about it unless you hear about “them” and never more than that.

There’s a lot of people, mostly those bleeding-hearts who like to pretend their shit don’t stink. They “object” to my methods and line of work. Funny, they’re usually the ones begging us most to do this shit when their asses are on the line. I digress.

I do what I do because I’m good at it, and I’m good at it ’cause I like to push a person’s limits. It’s freeing. Something you can only understand after unleashing hell on a guy– or a chick, hey I don’t discriminate blood’s blood– and finding out his face is harder than you thought, and ending up with lacerated knuckles or torn tendons.

But it’s freeing for the mark, too. You have any idea what it’s like to keep secrets that’ll have you murdered if you tell them? No. How could you? Having that shit hanging over your head isn’t healthy. Eventually you reach a point where you’re helping ’em more than you’re hurting ’em. Which, even I know is a lot, but think how much better they’ll feel once they heal up in Witness Relocation and their conscience is clear. Not all of them make it there, but the doesn’t change facts. If they choose to give up what they’ve got, I get to free them of that burden.

I’m a secret-keeper; a sort of new-age sin-eater that swallows up all of these fuckers’ pain, bleeds it out the knuckles while I’m hammerin’ on ’em. In a way, I’m the one that suffers most for knowing what I do. Thank fuck for worker’s-comp and mandatory psych-evals. Maybe one day they’ll straighten me out enough to cover up my recurring wounds, then I can ask that cute minx out at the bookstore. I thought about saying I was a boxer once, but then realized I’d have to keep that cover by actually boxing. What fun is it when the other guy hits back?

There I go, digressing again. Anyway, that’s what I do. I beat the piss out of people for ol’ Uncle Sam, free them from their burdens, even help make the world a little safer in the process. I guess whatever my real title is, I’ll always just be the secret-keeper. Who knows, maybe even the minx has some secrets to tell.

Short Story: The True Patriot

His fingers flew over the keys with pointed urgency in place of agility. Normally, he might take his time, savor each string of code written or command entered. Today, he was only concerned with finishing before the clock hit ten-to-five. If it did, the entire plan would be shot, and he’d have to return to his handlers with nothing, forced to slog through one more day where his ruse might falter.

His name was Shane Yates; a nobody, low-level programmer working for the largest tech firm in the known world. Arc Systems was the number one creator and distributor of mobility and security software for cybernetic augments and prosthetics. Shane had written code for them on everything from Optical HUD augs to bionic-limb movements. Most every major augment on the market had some of strings of his work in them. All the same, he lived on minimum wage, ate day old leftovers, and showered in cold water with the lights off.

Such was the nature of the US after the Corporate Take-over displaced the Government as the country’s overseer. Unlike London or Paris, where silent or violent revolutions were taking place, the US had willingly allowed the take-over. The population had been pacified by a bolstered economy that allowed higher-wages, lowered cost of living, and faster, freer internet porn. Even to those that were awake, aware, the revelation that the Corps were taking over was nothing new. Most didn’t care. Those that did, found themselves as an extreme minority.

All of that changed with the Corporate Accountability Act; a ratification to the US Constitution that gave corporations all the rights of individual people with none of the responsibilities nor– contrary to its name– legal accountability of the people. In essence, the CAA allowed Corporations the right to do anything a person could without fear of reprisal. In America, that meant espionage, sabotage, and the lobbying of political figures for one purpose or another. It wasn’t long before the government’s power was almost wholly transferred to the few, corporate boards that already controlled its economy.

Shortly after, the US militaries were absorbed into local branches of Corps whose headquarters were scattered around the globe. A few, smaller businesses still remained here and there, but only through the laziness of the thirteen, global corporations that couldn’t be bothered with things like dry-cleaning or pizza delivery.

Shane was one of the “lucky” few who managed to keep their job when that American Dream turned into a seedy nightmare. The Corps’ lobbying power was unmatched, their only concerns their competition with one another. Their money lined the pockets of every politician until they nearly drowned in a sea of their own materialism. Then, once sated by the glitz of the money offered, they blindly ratified new bills and laws so filled with legalese even lawyers couldn’t properly discern them.

Everything changed then; the CAA led to power for the Corps whom corrupted the government until it was, quite literally, useless. All the same, a few, minor acronym agencies managed to survive the obsolescence of their governing system. One of those few, was the CIA.

Though its funding had been cut, and its duties merged with that of the maligned and poorly perceived NSA, it still largely functioned as intended. In an era where Corporate-Security was both police and national defense, surveillance was more invasive than even most, high-level Corp employees knew. With its coverage, the CIA remained powerful enough to act as the last investigative body and line of defense against any threats, internal or otherwise, to America’s sovereignty.

With that in mind, it was of the utmost importance they procure the work passed off to Shane; next-generation augment-software that controlled small, embedded magnetic fields and cameras to create true-to-life invisibility. With the magnetic field capable of masking both thermal and motion-sensors, as well as deceiving both human and electronic eyes, there was no end to the possible applications– whether for a national spy agency or a rogue, terrorist force. More importantly though, Shane wanted out, and the CIA knew that.

Shane had always been a simple person. After graduating from College, he’d been happy just to get a job. The nature of the world was soon revealed to him though. He began to slave away each day for less pay than he was worth. The bolstered economy showed its true face then. It was little more than a facade to keep the people in-line, give them enough to live on but not to become overly roused by passions or pass-times.

Unlike most other countries, whose digital currencies were still worth something, the US’ digital dollar was mostly useless outside a few, non-corporate shops. Otherwise, everything was calculated in terms of debt. What had once been credit-card balances became life-debts; the amount owed to any corporation by an individual that had “charged” anything. When first introduced, the idea was meant to help repay a surplus National Debt from decades of war, but like everything else, it too became yet another collar and chain around the peoples’ necks.

The CIA approached Shane on a park bench. It was one of the gray-afternoons he’d come to expect of his rare days off. He sat alone, staring, with hazel eyes glazed over by the ferocity of his exhaustion. A man sat next to him with mirrored, wrap-around sunglasses.

“Don’t get up,” he instructed. “Don’t make eye-contact. We’re being surveilled, but I’ve managed to deploy a net to interfere with any audio devices. We have two minutes.”

Shane’s mind was dulled, but intrigued. He kept his eyes forward, “Who are you?”

“Who I am isn’t important,” the man replied over a gust of cold wind. A casual glance swept the the park ahead as he continued, “What I want is simple; your employers have something you will receive. I need you to copy it, then corrupt everything they have on it.”

Shane’s eyes widened, his neck locked against turns for fear of reprisal, “Are you insane? Why would I do that? I’ll lose my job, and Corp-Sec will murder me.”

“My people have been watching you,” the man explained quietly. “Like many others, you’re not happy with the state of the country. You can decide, here and now, whether you’ll be one of the few that does something about it.”

Shane swallowed hard, “What’s my incentive?”

The man checked his wrist-watch, replied, “Let’s just say, our government still has enough support that you can choose to start fresh anywhere you want, as whomever you want.” He rose to button his long coat, readied to walk away, “If you choose to help, we’ll contact you.”

“How will you know?”

He began to walk away, “We’ll know.”

And so he sat, one week to the day later, at his desk. His eyes darted between the clock and the progress bar on his screen. It crawled forward as it copied the gigs of data the software represented. The seconds ticked away. At ten to five he was expected to be up, ready to clock out with all of the other wage-slaves like him. The progress bar jumped to completion. He sighed relief, exchanged the USB drive for another, and shut off the screen to his computer.

A few minutes later Shane was in the street, waiting for the bus. About now, the auto-injection computer virus contained on the second flash-drive had finished uploading. It would be unfurling its corruption through Arc Systems’ servers.

A man in a fedora and black overcoat appeared. He walked toward Shane with mirrored sunglasses and a hand stiff at his side. Shane palmed the flash-drive in his right hand. The man brushed past him and with a sleight of hand, took the drive from Shane to disappear into the crowd.

The large, electric bus rolled quietly into place. Shane Yates entered the bus for the last time that afternoon. Who he had been was gone, and who he was to become hadn’t been decided yet. In time though, the CIA would repay the man that had turned against his masters, helped ensure the sovereignty of his homeland. No matter what the Corps would call him, he was a true patriot, willing to cross the line, give up everything when his country asked him to.