12. STEP 14/3
One Beta will collect the rings from each of the Alphas. All five rings are to be brought to the River City train station, and placed in locker #212.
The man stepped back and let me into the apartment. I followed him through to the living room; the TV silently looped the DVD menu of a movie I didn't recognize. A standing lamp dimly lit the low table in the centre of the room, which held several empty beer cans, an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts, and a dinner plate with a small mound of white powder sitting on it. Next to the table was a worn-out couch, which held a skinny young girl until our host tersely ordered her to go for a walk (he'd text her when she should come back).
She must have been used to this, I figured, because she stood to leave without a word. Scratching a non-existent itch on my head, I pushed my knit cap further down over my brow before she passed me on her way out. As the man returned from locking the front door behind her, I pulled up a chair from the adjoining kitchenette. He retrieved two fresh beers from the fridge, handing one to me before sitting back on the couch. One wordless toast and two big swigs later, I decided to get on with the business at hand.
"Let's get this going. Time's a factor, eh." I said to him. He set his beer on the table and narrowed his eyes at me, but didn't say anything. "Show me the ring?" I pressed on, my tone about one quarter pleasant if you'd be so kind, sir and three quarters impatient I don't have all night for your bullshit, bud.
"Let me show you the thing," he said. Whether that was some kind of attempt to be in control of the conversation, or if he was actually oblivious to what I'd just said, I wasn't sure. But he leaned down and took a shoebox from the floor beside the couch, putting it in his lap and opening it. From inside he produced a plain-looking silver ring and placed it on the table, halfway between us.
I didn't move right away. I took a long pull off my beer and eyed the ring suspiciously, then turned my gaze to him. A few more silent moments passed before I said plainly "Show me."
"What?" He rolled his shoulders and stared a hole through me. I did my best to suppress a shiver, but expect he still copped to the nerves. Whatever, let him feel like a tough guy. I'm not here for a fight.
"You're going to use it, no?" I said, trying to keep my voice calm and level. "Show me that it is what it's meant to be?" I killed the last of my beer and set the empty can on the table.
He shook his head at me. "Not how this works, son. You just take it. You know what to do with it."
I played confused. "The instructions I got," I leaned forward and took the paper from my back pocket, "said you'd show me…" I put the sheet on the table, leaning further forward to slide it towards him.
He leaned forward to get a look at the letter, and I put a hole in his head. He slumped back into the couch, blood running through his greasy hair; I tucked my pistol into the back of my pants and pulled my sweater down over it. He was dead, and I needed another beer.
Pretty cold, I know, to shoot a man dirty like that. But I hate these Chaos Insurgency fuckers. I know they've done worse. I've seen it. Hell, if the roles were reversed he'd have done the same to me. And gotten a kick out of doing it, too; no remorse. I did it because I had to. My first housecall tonight nearly ended with a knife in my gut, and I wasn't going to chance it happening again. Call it doing what's needed to complete the mission. Call it payback for all our agents that the CI has done for. Call it righteously purging the world of a vile blight, one piece of human scum at a time. It's damn near heroic when I do it. Though heroes probably don't need clumsy poetic sentiments to justify their actions to themselves…
I scratched another address off the list and scooped up the ring. I dropped it into my pocket, where it clinked against the three similar rings I'd collected tonight. I put in a call to the Site dispatcher, requesting another clean-up crew at yet another location; he started whining an objection, but I hung up on him before he finished.
I stood there a minute, sipping a fresh beer and gazing out the window at the starless night. I thought of the thug I'd found the original scrap of paper on, and how he'd got himself killed rather than taken in by us. I thought of the four creeps I'd put down so far tonight, how all of them had unwaveringly refused to do what wasn't ordered in their own instructions. Then I thought of how it was getting pretty late now.
I glanced around the room, even though I knew I was alone; just an instinctive thing. I dabbed a finger into the white powder on the table and gingerly tasted it. I smirked at my recently deceased host while helping myself to a line of his fine cocaine. After all, there's one more ring to collect tonight; I can't run out of juice just yet.
A shrill, chirping sound harshly interrupted my much-needed sleep. My hand blindly searched the bedside table for my phone, while my head cursed at the damned alarm it shouldn't have even left set to go off this morning. By the time the phone was in my hand my mind recognized it as not the alarm tone, but the ringtone for calls from Site. With a long and aggravated sigh I brought the phone to my ear and grunted some tired approximation of a greeting.
I was notified of a previously unscheduled consultation with my MTF Team Leader this morning. I pulled the phone away to look at what time it was, and then grumbled that I'd be at my office in a couple hours and would call in from there. "I'm afraid not," came the reply. "I've been advised that you're to come down in person for this meeting. As soon as possible." My head uttered a string of profanities, while my mouth said I'd be on my way shortly. My hand was three quarters of the way through hurling the phone against a wall, but instead placed it back on the table. I dragged myself out of bed and set to making myself presentable.
The cool air on the drive out of town helped reduce the sharp pain in my head to a dull ache, and I didn't feel nauseous at all. In short, this hangover ranked as 'pretty bearable'. Which was good, because trying to dig myself out of a hole in the presence of Russell Wallace was bad enough on its own. Russell Wallace essentially acts as handler for me and a handful of other agents on U-MTF Delta-88 that operate in the region. He was a big man with a short fuse; and I'd be walking right into the blast zone. … Again.
I shuffled past the security checkpoints and into the administrative wing of the site. I made my way through the halls until I reached a slate on the wall which read 'MTF Delta-88, TL - R. Wallace'. I knocked on the adjacent door and entered the office. Wallace sat behind his desk with a single file folder closed in front of him. He fixed his steely gaze on me, but didn't say anything until I was seated across from him. Another agent might have taken this to mean things weren't so bad after all. I recognized it as the calm before a storm.
A few more moments of silence passed, then "You worked last night." Wallace had a way of asking questions that sounded more like statements of fact. Which they generally were, but I was meant to answer anyway.
"Yes sir. I was assisting Gamma-19 with picking up a POI for questio-"
"I'm aware of that." He interrupted. "You haven't filed your after-action report on that assignment."
"It was going to be turned in this morning, sir. I was working late on a follow-up to that incident…" I trailed off as his stare intensified. "You're aware of that as well, I'm guessing." A barely perceptible nod confirmed that he was. "Well," I attempted to slip the noose, "I'll get that paperwork to you right away, an-"
"Do you know how I'm aware of that fact, Buggeman?" I wasn't getting away that easily. I turned over the possible answers in my head. An operative from Gamma-19 ratting me out for pocketing the lead and following it up alone? No, I was sure I hadn't been followed to any of the locations. Site dispatch logged the clean-up requests? I told them to keep it off the books, and they'd said they would since they owed me a favour. Or I ended up owing them a favour after the fifth one. Wait, that was after the third. Or was it th-?
I became suddenly aware of the tense silence filling the room. My lack of a response served as admission that I didn't know how he knew. I was legitimately anxious to hear the answer. He opened the folder on his desk and showed me the contents. Sure enough, there was a summary of all five of my after-action support requests. I stared at it for a long while. Longer than necessary, for someone who already knew what it said. Longer than necessary for someone reading it for the first time. When I finally forced myself to look back up and meet Russell Wallace's stern face he asked if I had any explanation to offer.
I cleared my throat nervously. "My after-action report will address the support requests." I'd barely finished before he launched back.
"Will your after-action report address why you consistently act without oversight from your superiors?" he spit viciously. Here comes the rage. "Will your after-action report address why you insist on operating without calling in appropriate backup beforehand?" By now he was red in the face and nearly out of his chair hollering at me. "Will your after-action report address why you seem to think that Foundation resources exist solely to satisfy your deluded fantasy of being some kind of hardboiled detective-story character!?"
To tell the truth, I hadn't considered including any of those points in the paperwork. I wisely chose not to give voice to that truth, making due with uneasily chewing my thumb behind the hand I held to my face. He'd done a thorough job of cowing me down, and we both knew it. I played the card that would hopefully be my deliverance, and placed the bag from my jacket pocket on the desk. Inside that bag were the seperately bagged and labelled silver rings, as well as the scrap of paper detailing one small step in a larger Insurgency scheme. I'd gotten results, at least; but I let that go without saying as well.
Wallace briefly examined the items laid before him, his expression seemed to acknowledge that I did indeed have something to show for my work. If I didn't have the rings, bagged up and ready to turn over right there, Wallace would likely have moved to terminate me. Right there in his office, with his bare hands. "Go home and clean yourself up, Ben," he muttered at me. "Be in your office Monday morning."
As it stood, I was relegated to administrative duties for the foreseeable future. And unless Research Dept. found those rings to be something major, I wouldn't get back in the field for a damned long time. Maybe never…
Hours later I was still thinking about it all. Did I need to completely re-assess my principles? Maybe I was taking my job as an MTF agent for granted, ignoring the seriousness of the position. Though, I could think of clean and sober operatives who couldn't pull off half of what I was capable of doing. Or was I making excuses for choosing personal indulgences over striving to reach my full potential? Shit, I was starting to sound like one of those Medical Dept. psych-doctors. I actually found that amusing. I could be here a long while debating myself like this; I waved over the server from down the bar for another pint.