NOTE: This is Part 21 of the 23 part series, The Cool War. Reading this part first is a very bad idea and will spoil a lot of the story.
16 hartford street come beat the shit out of me or whatever
Ruiz Duchamp stared at the message blankly.
"Carol, can I-"
Ruiz looked up; Carol wasn't behind the counter. Ruiz stood up, walking deliberately back to his studio. He paced past the foyer, entering the room filled with deathtraps. His brother had clearly turned self-destructive; the final phase of his antipsychotic withdrawal. Ruiz opened his medicine cabinet, moving his own antidepressants and multivitamins to the side, reaching to the back. He pulled out a small bottle of Clozapine, shoving it into his right pocket. He moved to his closet, grabbing a heavy brown bomber jacket. He pulled his elastic band pistol from an inner pocket, clenching it tightly in his left hand.
Ruiz sent two texts, then sprinted to Pico's hideout.
16 hartford street I'm all that's left
The Sculptor sat and thought. Snipper was a reckless idiot, but on the other hand, he was an unpredictable one. Snipper had to be removed from the equation.
The Sculptor turned to the wall of clay, rubbing his hands in anticipation.
Agent Tangerine sprinted down the busy road. Every one of his contacts was gone. His cover was unrecoverable, his utility had become negligible. He'd be transferred for sure: back to paperwork, back to normal fieldwork, back to gunning down The Bad Guys… it was all so mind-numbingly simplistic. So boring.
Tangerine saw the gallery in the distance. A few quick phone calls, it turned out, were all that he needed; Ruiz Duchamp's studio hadn't moved in years. Stupidity on their behalf for not doing that in the first place, but then, there was the assumed lack of carelessness on Duchamp's behalf. Tangerine kept running, dodging a man running in the other direction wearing a brown bomber jacket. He gripped his pistol in its holster tightly as he entered the foyer, turning to the help desk. Panting from the run, he blurted out the question:
The man behind the counter gestured further into the gallery. Tangerine turned and walked, slowing his breath. He looked around the corner, finding the room filled with blatant deathtraps. He tapped Green's number into his mobile phone.
"Green, I'm at his studio now. Empty."
"You stay there, we've got a new lead on the Snipper. Call me if anything happens."
Tangerine's phone beeped as the call ended. He sighed, walking through the room, carelessly moving to sit on an available stool.
Then he noticed the fedora sitting on the electric chair.
From: [METADATA CORRUPT]
16 hartford street this is the snipper hello
"Alright, boys. We don't know what's going on, we don't know what this guy looks like, we are going into this as blind as a bat. A particularly blind bat. A blind and deaf bat, with self esteem issues."
Green paused for effect, looking around at Mobile Task Force Upsilon-18.
"Admittedly, we don't know he's in there. It is quite possible, and indeed, almost certain, that this is a trap of some kind. Yes, Alcorn?"
Field Agent Alcorn put down his hand, moderately confused.
"Why are we walking into a trap, sir?"
"Excellent question, Alcorn, with a stupid answer: because we've no better course of action. We've might have the address of a maliciously artistic psychopath, and if he's been stupid enough to throw us a bone, then we can't not bite. Moving out in ten minutes, gentlemen; striking while the iron's hot."
Alcorn begrudgingly trudged to the locker room.
From: The Snipper (Pico Wilson)
shit's gonna hit the fan
The Janitor turned around, emitting a buzzing sigh through its gas mask.
Ruiz finished jogging to the abandoned building. Decrepit and crumbling, errant piles of broken concrete littered the street in front of it. Four stories tall… on the outside, at least. Ruiz roughly forced a pick gun into the front door, pulled the trigger a few times, then twisted the handle open. He edged in slowly, closing the door behind him.
Ruiz shouted out to the cavernous room. Cylindrical concrete pylons were distributed throughout; it looked like an industrial warehouse, despite sitting in a dilapidated residential neighbourhood. Ruiz listened to his own echoing voice, scanning behind the pillars for motion.
"Shhhhhhhhh. Keep your voice down, brother."
Ruiz twisted to his left, aiming at the sound's source down the wooden sights of his gun. Pico's distorted voice came from a small handheld radio; clearly modified from a children's walkie-talkie, given that it was pink with white flowers on. Ruiz picked it up, pushing the talk button in.
"Pill delivery service, this is Ruiz speaking, how may I help you?"
"I'm fine without them. They'd kill me."
"No. No, that's definitely not a thing that's true. You are saying not true things, and are also stupid."
"Allow me to clarify, then: I just consumed ten pills apiece of escitalopram and topiramate. I down a single clozapine pill, my heart will pretty much explode."
"Anyway. Get up to the top level. Snip snip."
Ruiz pocketed the radio, static still buzzing from its speaker, and walked over to the rough concrete staircase. Cement powder spiralled from the ground with his every step, staining his shoes grey. He jogged up the stairs to the second floor, then the third, and finally reached the fourth. The final floor, unlike all the rest, was almost spotlessly clean. The ground, while still concrete, had been polished and shined to almost flawless levels of reflection. The pillars, while still cylindrical, rose and descended into decoratively carved ends, in effective mimicry of ancient Greek architecture. And then, sitting comfortably upon a pile of corpses, Pico Wilson stared apathetically at his brother.
"Ruiz. Long time no see."
Ruiz levelled his wooden gun at his brother's smirking face.
"Pico. Why'd you kill him?"
Pico reached into the pile, pulling out an errant hand.
"You know who I mean."
"What, so you don't care why I killed this guy?"
"No love at all for Donovan Stilward? You don't want to know why? Really?"
"I don't think there was a reason."
"He kidnapped, raped, and killed three children."
"You heard me."
"You're lying. You're an indiscriminate murderer."
"I never lie, brother. Only art lies, and it's a lie that makes us realize the truth. And the truth is this: the only truth is in art’s lies."
"Stop it. Why did you kill The Critic?"
"Do I need a reason?"
"Tell me why."
"So, just to clarify, you think that I killed the big man for a reason, but not good old kiddie-fucking Donovan Stilward?"
Pico waved the corpse's hand for emphasis.
"Ruiz, your problem is the same as mine: incoherence. Well, that and a drastically exaggerated sense of self-importance. Not everything happens for a reason, brother."
Pico jumped off his pile and started walking towards Ruiz, gesticulating wildly, Ruiz never taking the aim of his gun from his brother's head.
"See, the only difference between you and me, Ruiz, is I don't lie about it. You want to know why I killed Critic? You think it had anything to do with you at all? No, brother, no. Nothing of the sort. As much as you would like to be, brother, you are not the prime mover here, and it's getting under your skin."
Pico flipped a butterfly knife from his pocket and started to play with it. Ruiz steeled his expression.
"Sometimes, Ruiz, things just… happen. And it's not because of any reason, or any cause. People like to pretend there was a cause, right? They like to pretend that there's always a reason. They like to pretend that there was something that could have been done, and think about all of the little things that would have made it turn out any other way. And they sit there tossing and turning, trying to reverse-engineer the world, as though finding a solution would retroactively change things. But it doesn't matter. Those are things that have already happened, and thinking about it wastes more time, more things will keep happening, and then it all just fizzles away into meaninglessly masturbatory hypotheticals."
Pico took the knife and ran it across his chin, scraping errant facial hairs without cutting his skin.
"Sometimes, Ruiz, things just… I don't know how to say. Perhaps I would call it… 'reversion'. Sometimes things revert, have you noticed? It's as though we were living on the edge of a coin. A knife, even. Sometimes things revert and the world feels horribly different. Can you feel it? You've felt it, haven't you?"
Ruiz continued staring down his gun. Pico, having scraped his chin free of hair, started making incisions on the back of his hand.
"We're doing the same thing, always. Alluding to change, but it's not real. It's all static, it's fake, it's FAKE! Don't you see, brother? We're just playing at… at being gods. What do gods do when they live forever? I'll tell you, brother. They just keep hammering each other on the back. They tell each other that there is meaning, when it's all just easily coined bullshit. And, if they're lucky, brother, some gods even get to forget. There's only one truth, Ruiz. Do you get me?"
"No, I'm incoherent, there's a difference. Sanity is arbitrary, brother. The consensus of stupid people."
"WHY DID YOU KILL THE CRITIC?"
"I guess… because… I could?"
Ruiz pulled the trigger, sending a supersonic elastic band into his brother's chest. Pico fell, winded.
"You really want to know?"
"Look behind you."
Ruiz spun in place, then saw his eyes reflected in the dark glass of The Janitor's mask.
"This still feels like a stupid idea, sir."
Field Agent Alcorn was sitting across from Agent Green inside of the white, unmarked Foundation van. The nine-man squad (with the addition of Green) was awkwardly squeezed in just one vehicle. Every turn pushed or pulled the agents around the vehicle as the hurtled towards 16 Hartford Street.
"You know you're disposable, don't you Alcorn?"
Alcorn frowned angrily at Green, who appraised him apathetically.
"Don't take that personally. I'm disposable too. We're paid to be disposable. If you weren't, you wouldn't be in the field."
Green rubbed the ridge of his nose, then continued.
"There are numerous methodologies that would be safer. We could have brought more personnel. We could have gotten some snipers, we could have tried to lock the place down. Those would cost more, in exchange for lower risk. But we are disposable. And as much as we like to pretend otherwise, the men in suits aren't made of money."
Green leaned over and spoke into Alcorn's ear.
"As bad as it sounds, Alcorn, we are going with the stupidest idea because it is the cheapest."
The van screeched to a halt. Green unholstered his pistol; Alcorn gripped his rifle, then pushed open the van's back door, covering his squad as they moved to the entrance. Green sprinted to the entrance, then scanned the pillars inside. He entered, pistol still aimed at eye-level, scanning corners as the members of Upsilon 18 slowly fanned inside.
Ruiz stared at The Janitor, stunned like a deer in the headlights. Pico slowly got to his feet, laughing lightly.
"There you are, you beautiful thing. Over here."
The Janitor turned, making its way over to The Snipper. It kneeled in front of him; Pico patted it softly on the head. Ruiz was stunned into silence.
"See, The Janitor here's basically… well, 'god' is a bit much. Demigod, do you think?"
The Janitor raised its face up to its master.
"I am not divine."
"Oh, but you are divine, my dear, you are. What do you think, Ruiz? I'm not sure what we'll do for a wedding dress; white on black would be fantastic, though."
Ruiz recovered, again returning his aim to The Snipper's head. Pico simply laughed.
"You're threatening me with elastic bands, Ruiz. You're threatening me with stationary."
"Why do any of this? What's your endgame?"
"Why do you think there's an endgame? Hell, what was yours? Kill the Critic, then what?"
"Things would change."
"Nothing ever changes. Even now, nothing's changed. Everyone just changed places, but it's all the same. They're playing a game of musical chairs, you stopped the music, but forgot to remove a seat."
"You're wrong. I cut him out, I sliced him out like a cancer. His side-jobs had replacements, but I don't care about them. There is no Critic."
Pico Wilson spread his arms wide.
"Of course there is. You're talking to him."
"We secure, Alcorn?"
"This floor is, at least. We going up?"
"Perkins, Dorfman, with me. Everyone else, keep this floor locked down. Nobody in, nobody out."
Perkins and Dorfman joined Alcorn and Green at the base of the stairs.
"You first, Green."
They swept carefully upwards to the second floor, spreading out to search.
"You're not The Critic."
"Of course I am. I emptied the seat, I get to take it."
"HE WOULD HAVE KILLED HIMSELF."
"The keyword being 'would'. I got him first. Mine to claim in his absence. Didn't you realise that?"
"So then… if I kill you?"
Pico tilted his head back, cackling madly.
"Go ahead and try, brother. Janitor. Clean up the mess."
The Janitor stood, turning around to face Ruiz. It walked towards him, hands raised. Ruiz began to grin.
The Janitor spun around, tackling Pico to the ground, sending his butterfly knife clattering into a distant corner. The Snipper struggled, trying to escape the masked figure's grip. He wildly clawed at the mask with dirty fingernails, until getting his fingers underneath and pulling it cleanly off.
The Director sat comatose in her bed. Ruiz Duchamp stood next to her, poking her cheek with his finger.
"Come on, Sandy. You might have fooled them, but you can't fool me."
The Director opened one of her eyes, whispering through her oxygen mask.
"Bugger off, Ruiz."
"I've got the cameras on loop, and the door's locked. Take off the mask."
Sandra Paulson pulled it off, then yanked several fake IV drips from her arm.
"Damn it, Ruiz, what do you want?"
"Well, for starters, I want to know why you're pretending to be unconscious."
Sandra rubbed the back of her head.
"Suits got me. Drugged me up, not that it had any effect, of course."
"Fed them some bullshit about you leaking the play to me as well. Watch out for that."
"Hey, calm down. First name that popped into my head, man. You shouldn't have turned up last night."
"I needed to warn you!"
"You seriously think I wouldn't know about the Hanged King? That's old-school stuff, everyone knows about it. Hell, I wrote a pilot for a sitcom adaptation. 'Hanging with The King', I think it was."
"Then why the hell were you running the show?"
"I was being watched. Did you really think I'd turned into a stupid, crotchety old lady? I was an actress before a director."
Ruiz frowned, thinking on her words.
"So… who gave it to you?"
"The Sculptor. That asshole's trying to kill us all."
The phone sitting on The Director's bedside table started to ring. She picked it up, placing it to the side of her head.
"Sandy, I need some help. I can't be in two places at once, and Felix is watching me."
"Wait, you've been talking to Felix?"
"Yeah, we… started hanging out, or something. Still not sure if I can trust him."
"He's harmless. What do you want?"
"I need you to tail my brother. Figure out where he lives."
"Do you know where he is right now?"
"No, but I know where he's going to be tonight. 27 Rokan Avenue. The whole gang's meeting up for tea and cookies."
"Tea and cookies?"
"Sorry, I mean in order to plan their attack at an exhibition that I'm not even going to be attending while The Sculptor insists on using my name as the motivation behind a witch hunt. I'm not sure how I got those two mixed up. Can you do that for me?"
"Sure. Any luck with The Sculptor?"
"One problem at a time, Sandy."
The Director placed her phone on the bedside table. She pulled an inflatable doll from underneath her bed, stuck it under her covers, then changed into plainclothes. She locked her door (fortunately, she had her own room), then carefully lowered herself outside onto the window. They'd never notice she was gone.
Ruiz's phone buzzed in his pocket. He flipped it out, pushing it to his ear.
"Ruiz. I've got an address. 16 Hartford Street. Big abandoned building."
"He has also met The Janitor."
"Tall guy. Gas mask."
"I have no idea who you're talking about."
Sandra's phone buzzed in her pocket. She'd not actually returned to the hospital after her first escape. The nurses still hadn't noticed.
"Oh. It worked then?"
"Nope. Pico killed him."
"Indeed. Keep an eye on him for me."
"What are we doing about The Sculptor?"
"I'm working on it. Don't worry."
Ruiz's phone started ringing.
"I just had an idea. You know how I'm really good at acting?"
can you get the janitor to meet me at my studio? need to ask something
Felix glanced at his phone, tapped at a few keys, then returned it to his pocket.
From: The Snipper (Pico Wilson)
shit's gonna hit the fan
The Janitor turned around, emitting a buzzing sigh through its gas mask. Its phone beeped again.
From: The Clipper (Felix Cori)
Ruiz Duchamp's asking for you at his studio.
The Janitor examined the screen, thinking about the messages.
It knew what had happened.
It exhaled another deep, buzzing sigh.
Then it removed its mask, and became the person beneath the mask.
The person beneath started walking to a coffee shop.
AND BACK TO THE PRESENT
"Miss The Director. I see. I SEE."
Sandra, free of the stifling gas mask, easily reasserted her full-body pin. The Snipper began to laugh loudly.
"HAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA… Oh, Little Miss The Director. How Would You Like To Play?"
The Director switched to a stranglehold, trying to block Pico's airways.
"no i don't think that will work here. Not on us, you know? NOT ON US."
The Snipper twisted, tearing his shirt off and using the leeway to escape The Director's hold. His emaciated ribcage rose and fell as he panted madly.
"We Aren't Going To Go Down As Easily As That Miss The Director. and we haven't forgotten you either RUIZ."
Ruiz shot two elastic bands at his brother's head. The first grazed Pico's ear; the second snapped into his eye. He recoiled, covering his face with his hands.
"no you see this is not how it goes down. We Can Just Restart. We can just… restart, you know? It's not real. It can't be. IT CAN'T BE."
Pico ran manically to his pile of corpses, diving amongst his collected bodies.
"There Is No Control. It's an illusion, you understand? It's all just a dream, it has to be a dream. we cannot live in a world where the world is lived in."
Ruiz sprinted to the heap; Sandra pulled a hypodermic needle from within her black trenchcoat.
"THERE IS NO VALID RESPONSE TO A WORLD THAT DOES NOT OBEY THE RULES BUT NOT TO OBEY ITS RULES. i just help the people leave through the most obvious exit, am i some kind of reaper? Perchance A Psychopomp, Hm?"
Ruiz reached past the severed limbs, latching onto the only one with a pulse.
"I always wanted to pretend as though I was important. I fooled a couple of people. this isn't how it was meant to end. I WAS SUPPOSED TO WIN. Do Not Let Me Die Here. You Are Better Than This. You Can Be Better Than This."
Ruiz yanked his brother from the pile, Pico kicking and screaming all the while.
"wasn't there something better than this? DO YOU HATE ME THAT MUCH, BROTHER? Our Jesus Taught Us Better Than This; Our Adam Knew Us More."
Sandra pulled the cap from the needle, readying it for insertion.
"THIS IS NOT MADNESS, BROTHER. Sanity Is As Arbitrary As Sinfulness. I committed no crimes here. you have no right to judge me."
Ruiz nodded, holding his spasming sibling in place. Sandra plunged the needle into Pico's chest, pushing the sedatives into his bloodstream.
"WE ARE GODS, YOU AND I, BROTHER! Gods Among A Stupid And Negligent Populous!"
The Snipper struggled shirtlessly.
"We aren't supposed to live like this. We're all creators here. The world exists for us."
Pico's eyes drooped.
"we can't afford coherence."
Ruiz dropped his limp, unconscious brother to the floor.
Agent Green turned to the far wall, startled by the noise.
"Alcorn. With me."
Alcorn joined Green; the pair of them moved towards the stairwell. They carefully started moving upwards, hearing muffled yelling through the thick concrete floors. Halfway to the third floor, Alcorn's radio crackled with a message from his men on the ground.
"Sir, we've detained a man trying to get into the premises. Callin' himself The Sculptor."
Green turned, holding his hand out expectantly. Alcorn sighed, handing his radio over. Green talked into the microphone.
"How much resistance did he put up?"
"None at all, sir. Held out his hands for the cuffs while grinnin' like a lunatic."
"Don't take your eyes off him. That man is considered a high-importance person of interest."
"We're moving him to the van now, sir."
"Good. Keep someone with him; you have permission to terminate if he tries anything. Over."
Alcorn took the radio back, clipping it to his belt. He started talking as he followed Green up the stairs.
"You think this guy's backup for Snipper?"
"Not after what happened last Friday. He's probably got-"
"WE ARE GODS, YOU AND I, BROTHER!"
Green raised a finger to his lips, remaining silent as they reached the third floor.
Ruiz frisked Pico for any concealed weapons; his pockets were empty, barring an old mobile phone. He picked it up and navigated through the screens, moving to sent texts.
16 hartford street I'm all that's left
To: the fuckwad brigade
16 hartford street this is the snipper hello
Sandy turned to Ruiz, having pulled Pico's body up onto her shoulder.
"Suits and The Sculptor inbound."
"My thoughts exactly. Battle plan?"
"Leave before they get here."
Alcorn's radio crackled again; he immediately deferred it to Green.
"Sir, we've apprehended another person."
"Have they identified?"
"Well, sir… they're saying they're The Sculptor."
Green looked at Alcorn, concerned.
"Is the person previously identifying as The Sculptor still in custody?"
"Do they look the same?"
"Terminate both immediately. Keep a look out for more."
"Understood, sir. We've… wait, sir, we have another Sculptor attempting to… wait, five… seven! SHIT! Sculptors closing from all angles!"
"Open fire; aim for the head! Everyone to the lobby!"
Green and Alcorn started sprinting back down to the second floor as gunfire echoed through the building.
Sandra slowly moved to the stairwell, Pico's body still slung over her shoulder. Ruiz moved down the stairs, aiming his elastic band shooter around each turn.
"I think we're alone."
The end of Ruiz's sentence was punctuated by echoing gunfire. The Director massaged her temples in exasperation. They moved down to the third floor, looking out a window and surveying the scene below. Hundreds of Sculptors were running through every street, swarming to the base of the building. Three of the Suits' Agents were shooting wildly at the horde, barely thinning the ranks. One of them threw a fragmentation grenade into the crowd; metal pellets ripped through the swarm, breaking the illusion of flesh and bone and sending streaks of clay across the ground. Ruiz looked at his small wooden gun, suddenly feeling profoundly inadequate.
Agent Green ran down to the first floor, Agent Alcorn trailing behind. The members of MTF Upsilon-18 shot in short, controlled bursts at the horde of angry clay artists; one of them had blocked the front door with a metal pipe. Green saw one of the Sculptors attempting to crawl through a window. He lined up the shot and pulled the trigger, leaving the clay body blocking the entrance. He appraised his pistol; a less than ideal weapon for the current situation. Green shouted over the gunfire.
"ALCORN! DO WE HAVE A SPARE RIFLE?"
Alcorn shook his head; Green swore an unheard oath. The two of them moved to join the rest of the squad, taking cover behind the messy piles of broken concrete slabs. Every shot meant one less angry artist; at the same time, it meant one less bullet. They were equipped for an in-and-out raid, not a prolonged siege. The Sculptors screamed warcries as they broke through windows, trying to crawl in over their fallen duplicates.
"THIS IS ALL THAT THIS IS ALL THAT THIS IS ALL THAT THIS IS ALL THAT THIS IS ALL THAT THIS IS-"
The synchronous chorus chimed through the building, barely audible over the sounds of firing bullets.
Ruiz turned to Sandra, who had already pulled her phone from her pocket.
"Who are you calling?"
"The real Janitor. Sculptor's directly tried to kill me. He's broken the rules, his protection is void; mine, however, is still intact."
The Director tapped the screen, then put it to her ear. Ruiz looked out the window again. The crowd was thick, but no further duplicates were forthcoming. Ruiz pulled a stick of chalk from his pocket, then grabbed a piece of concrete debris. He wrote the phrase "ceci n'est pas une bombe" onto it, then hurled it out into the horde. He grinned as it burst into a ball of flames, splattering Sculptors across the ground.
The person beneath the mask received a call. The person beneath the mask answered, muffling their voice with their hand.
"Director. You've dropped your façade."
"Yeah, about that. Sculptor's the one who hospitalised me."
"16 Hartford Street."
The person beneath the mask pulled the mask back over their face.
The Janitor sped across the rooftops as though skating on ice.
"GREEN, WE'VE GOT TO FALL BACK!"
The squad continued firing at the now-open door as artists continued to flood through. One of the duplicates had overpowered one of the Agents, throwing his screaming body outside to be dealt with by his brethren. Alcorn gestured for his squadmates to retreat up the stairs to the second floor. Green emptied the last of his pistol's clip into the clay skull of the closest Sculptor, then threw the useless firearm to the side. He followed Alcorn back up the stairs, stopping to grab a length of steel pipe lying halfway up. Green shouted to the closest troops over the continued chanting.
"BLOCK THE STAIRWELL!"
As the last of the squad ascended the stairs, Green helped push a nearby pile of concrete down, squishing two overzealous Sculptors below its weight. Another tried to climb over the blockade; Green brought down his pipe on its head, hearing a satisfying BONG as its head deformed and it dropped lifelessly to the ground.
Sandy pushed her phone back into her pocket, joining Ruiz at the window. Pico snorted as Sandra readjusted her grip on him.
"Janitor's on its way. We've got to last until then."
"You have anything useful?"
The Director pulled a grappling hook gun from one of the inner pockets of her coat.
"Great, let's get out of here."
"It won't carry all of us."
Ruiz looked out the window, then pointed out an adjacent rooftop.
"Can you get there, drop Pico off, then come back for me?"
"Takes a while to reload this thing."
"Best plan we've got."
"Okay then. See you in a bit."
Sandra shot the grappling gun at the building, pushed a button on the side, and was pulled out the window. Ruiz looked as she climbed to the rooftop, then started to respool the projectile.
"UNIDENTIFIED PERSON ON THE NEXT LEVEL UP, OPENING FIRE!"
Ruiz spun around, barely having time to duck behind a concrete pylon before being shot at by one of the Suits. He aimed around his cover and loosed a pair of elastic bands towards his assailant. Ruiz yelled incredulously.
"EXCUSE ME, PLEASE DON'T SHOOT, THANK YOU."
The Janitor jumped from rooftop to rooftop, finally reaching 16 Hartford Street. It jumped to the ground, sending Sculptors scattering. It waved its hand towards a nearby duplicate, dispelling the anomalous and reducing it to raw clay. Nearby copies were struck immobile from a combination of awe and fear. The Janitor buzzed a comment from inside its gas mask.
"You have broken protocol. This was a poor decision."
The duplicates ran screaming from The Janitor, each of them seizing suddenly before crumbling into dust. It walked fluidly through the building's front door, sending the Sculptors fleeing up the semi-blocked stairwell.
The Suit continued to fire at the concrete pylon, preventing Ruiz from escaping. Ruiz took another pot shot in his general direction.
"SANDY, NEED SOME HELP!"
The Director came barrelling through the window, joining Ruiz behind the pylon.
"Alright, alright, no need to shout. Grab on."
Ruiz grabbed Sandra's shoulders tightly. She pulled a small ball from inside her trenchcoat, throwing it hard against the ground; it exploded into a small cloud of smoke. Sandy ran to the window, jumping out and aiming at the opposite rooftop. For a split second, Ruiz felt his heart stop as they started entering freefall into the crowd of ravenous Sculptors below; then, the hook shot out, securing them to the opposite rooftop and pulling them slowly upwards. They pulled themselves up onto the rooftop, both panting heavily from overexertion. Ruiz stood up, dusted himself off, then looked around, confused.
Sandy looked around, confused.
"Shit. Doesn't matter, we're getting out of here. He can look after himself."
Ruiz swore colourfully under his breath, joining Sandra in their rooftop escape.
Agent Green had fallen back from the front lines; the squad was concentrating their fire on the stairwell below, and close-quarters combat and high-speed bullets make a poor mix. The Sculptors surged through the hole, pushing aside the concrete scraps and swarming around the closest Agents. Two of them fell and were trampled by the stampede. Alcorn pulled a grenade from his belt, pulling the pin and counting down.
"FIRE IN THE HOLE!"
He threw it into the swarm, thinning their numbers substantially. Green shouted out to the remainder of the squad.
"WE NEED TO MAINTAIN A CHOKE POINT! EVERYONE UPSTAIRS!"
The second floor was flooded with Sculptors as the remaining seven agents retreated up to the third floor.
The Janitor walked briskly through the first floor, tapping Sculptors on the shoulder and reducing them to piles of ash. It waved its hands, tearing the illusions from the clay. Its mask buzzed as it breathed slowly, calmly eradicating the plague. One of the duplicates turned, jumping towards the tall, dark figure; it impacted onto The Janitor's shoes, the clay hardening as it cooked solid from internal heat. It scanned the room for movement, nodding when satisfied it had cleared the area.
The Janitor moved slowly up the staircase to the second floor.
Alcorn shot the last of his clip, watching the last tracer round exiting its barrel. He threw the useless rifle to the side, picked up a stick of rebar from the ground, and stabbed it through the nearest Sculptor's head. Green forced his pipe into the chest of a duplicate, spun around, then struck its head cleanly off its neck. The rest of the squad had resorted to close-combat weaponry, their firearms spent; Dorfman spun like a dancer, slicing through clay with his combat knife, while Perkins had taken to simply grabbing heads and smashing them into the walls and pylons.
The Janitor moved up to the second floor. Hordes of Sculptors surrounded it, refusing to go out without a fight. They moved in towards it, trying to tear off its trenchcoat, remove its boots, yank off its mask; they desperately struggled to avoid their imminent demise. They screamed in chorus:
"ALL THAT THIS IS ALL THAT THIS IS ALL THAT THIS IS ALL THAT THIS IS ALL THAT THIS IS-"
The Janitor clicked its fingers, and the assailants turned inside-out.
Agent Green stood panting heavily, staring at the piles of clay that littered the room. Dorfman flicked the last of the stuff from his knife, Perkins squished a final skull beneath his feet. Alcorn walked over to Green, patting him on the shoulder while grinning from the adrenaline.
"Still alive. Okay. Alright. Still need to check the top floor before we-"
Green stopped mid-sentence, readying his pipe as a tall figure wearing a black gas mask ascended the stairs. The Janitor looked around at the Agents beneath it, kicking some errant clay from its boots. It walked towards Agent Green; Green readied his pipe for an attack. The Janitor stopped, then bowed deeply, kneeling upon the ground.
"Deepest apologies for the inconvenience. It will not happen again."
The Janitor stood, walked briskly to the window, and jumped to the ground with a resounding thud. Green looked to Alcorn, then at the open third-floor window. Green calmly reached into his pocket, pulled out a cigarette, then lit it. He inhaled deeply, breathing out with exhaustion.
"I have no idea what the fuck's going on any more."
Ruiz walked dejectedly through the gallery lobby. Sandra had gone off to search for the real Sculptor; having lost Pico, there were no leads left.
"Mister Duchamp, a guy came through here looking for you before."
"Who was it?"
"I… sorry, Mister Duchamp, I've forgotten."
Ruiz sighed. Incompetent fools, the lot of them. He turned the corner into his studio.
A red-headed man wearing a Hawaiian shirt was sitting on the electric chair.
The man was wearing a grey fedora.
The grey fedora.
Ruiz massaged his temples.
"God fucking damn it."
The new Nobody laughed, then clicked his fingers, sending Ruiz into a dreamless sleep.
Agent Green and Agent Alcorn returned to the battered van, having thoroughly searched every level of 16 Hartford Street. As they were about to get into the vehicle, Green's phone rang. He flipped it open, looking at the caller:
Green tapped the screen of his phone.
He put the phone to his ear.
"Who is this? How did you get this number?"
"Ruiz Duchamp is lying unconscious in the Genossenschaft Gallery of Contemporary Art. Pick him up at your leisure."
"Who are you?"
"A forgotten friend."
Green flipped his phone shut, confused about the anonymous tip.