Discover more from The Boneyard
An Iron Age Media Image Prompt
You’ve never met a man like me. That isn’t because there aren’t many, many men like me, but because we have the privilege of choosing whether or not to be met, and we invariably decline the pleasure. For some, it’s merely self-preservation. For others, it’s that last, lingering shred of humanity that our employers have failed to completely excise, giving us the capacity to feel something adjacent to guilt or shame for the atrocities we commit with all the emotional investment of a gardener pulling weeds from a flower bed. Men like me serve one specific purpose; to ensure, by whatever means we have at our disposal, with the use of resources that border on limitless, that the whims of our masters become the reality you inhabit.
Spook. G-man. Agent. Suit. You and those like you have called me and those like me by a number of names. A man once asked me, before I struck him dead with a casual backhanded slap, how valuable I was to whoever it was that held my leash. Without meaning to, he’d called me what I am deep down; a dog on a leash.
I’ve made the mistake of biting the hand that feeds, and the missive I hold communicates in no uncertain terms that I’m about to be taken behind the shed for it.
I lean back in my chair and sweep my eyes over the saloon. As watering holes go, it’s quaint. Blue pipe smoke threads between the bodies as they come and go, hanging in a haze that mirrors the mist of gin dampening my thoughts. Dim orange light contrasts it, cast from inverted glass domes suspended on chains anchored to the ceiling. My surroundings are a painting, drawn from a palette of brick, stone, iron, and glass. This is the first and last time I’ll see this place, but I’ve already intimated myself with it. Each point of ingress or egress, the distance between each immovable fixture, the angles a rifleman could find to send a quiet bullet through the glass to peel my scalp off… knowing all of that, from the moment I walk through the door, is more of a habit than a skill.
I look down to the paper in my hands and read the words again; carefully-spaced, professional, sterile and distant.
“Charge: Insubordination resulting in the damage and/or destruction of government property.”
There’s no mention of the restitution to be paid, because the price is implicit. When an attack dog attacks the wrong target, he’s no longer an asset, but a liability. Something to be put down. I chuckle mirthlessly at the sentiment, thinking of how many dogs I’ve put down myself, and how hypocritical of me it’d be to snarl and snap as the farmer levels his rifle and rests his finger on the trigger. Some of us walk this road until we grow gray and long in the tooth. When we’re done our tour of duty, we’re rewarded with cushy cabinet positions, or quietly retired to a little townhouse in the country. Some just disappear without a trace. We either further the agendas of our handlers using political violence in place of actual violence, or we sit on a shelf to collect dust until the reaper comes for us. But if something in us snaps, if it reminds us of who we were before the potter took fresh clay in his hands and molded us into silent nightmares…
“This seat taken?”
A woman addresses me, or at least someone that’ll be a woman soon. I take a moment to observe my assassin.
She’s a lean, spry kind of thing. Her hair’s blond, cropped close to her head in a neat bob of platinum. Pert nose, full lips, girlish face, but it’s the eyes that are most striking. I imagine in my youth, mine weren’t too unlike hers. A sharp, crisp blue, like pure spring water beneath a frozen creek. They’re empty, in a way that suggests that if the eyes are the window to the soul, these windows give you a view into a nothingness so pronounced it defies understanding. She’s living clay, molded into something that’ll fall from on high and take my head from my neck with all the conscience and mechanical precision of a guillotine.
I stand, approach, and pull the chair out for her, as any gentleman should. She smiles, tips a gracious nod to me, and slips daintily into it.
“Do you prefer names, or numbers?” she asks.
“Names,” I say, easing back into my chair. I toss the letter to the table between us and retrieve my lighter. With a casual snap of the wrist, the top opens, the flint crunches, and a brief shower of sparks coaxes the oil-wet wick to life. I touch it to the corner of the paper, which furls in on itself in a flash of orange and a puff of smoke. “Mine’s Arthur.”
“Jane,” she says. “Jane Doe.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“I’d believe you, if you said yours was John Smith.”
She rests her elbows on the table, braids her fingers together, and props her narrow chin on her knuckles. Jane says, “Because it doesn’t really matter, with how this is going to end.”
“Purely for the sake of curiosity, what’s your number?”
Wet behind the ears, then. Our numbers demarcate generations. Individuals with skill sets as specialized as ours are relatively rare, and only one hundred are active at any given time. Once the one-hundred-and-first is ready to graduate to the field, number one hundred has to go. Sometimes peaceably, sometimes violently. It’s likely she’s already killed one of the most seasoned agents our bureau has at its disposal merely as a rite of passage. Absently, I wonder what protocol he broke to have this puppy set after him, rather than be given a quiet retirement somewhere remote and uninteresting.
She asks, “Yours?”
“Eighty-three,” I answer. “Though we both know you were aware of that before you walked through the door.”
“You’ll forgive a girl for preserving a bit of ceremony,” she shrugs. “You believe in it, don’t you? The rituals that bring a little tact into the equation?”
I smile, then beckon one of the saloon’s girls with the flicking of two fingers. She’s plump and pretty, and greets me with a smile. I request a gin for myself, then defer to the lady sharing my table and pay for her drink as well. She likes bourbon, neat.
“I believe age and experience cast the world in a different light,” I reply. “Before you came here, did you give some thought? Did you imagine sitting where I am now, while some youngster eyes you from across the table and calculates the most efficient way to take you off the books?”
“I did,” she says. “Can I let you in on a little secret?”
Our girl returns, presents our drinks, and asks if we’ll have anything else. I ask for a cigar, and she shuffles off to fetch that as well.
“Part of me’s hesitant to let you air it out,” I admit. “Secrets have value, even if you’re telling them to a dead man. They shouldn’t be given away for nothing.”
Her smile widens. She says, “You’re the reason I’m here now, and who I am now. I got an early glimpse of it, when the Pinkertons killed my dad.” She lifts her glass, sips at the bourbon, and scrunches her face up cutely. “It was the first time I saw the machine for what it is. I wanted to know what made the cogs turn. What made him a disposable man, and why other men got to decide he was.”
I grimace at the name. I remember the way it felt when my fist touched a Pinkerton’s face, and his brain puffed out through the back of a splintered skull in a fine pink mist.
“Truth is,” she goes on, “We’re all disposable. It just comes down to how willing you are to accept it, and whether or not you want to be the one doing the disposing. After a little while, I decided I did. Then they found me. Once I was trained up and had the free time, I scoured the archives, hoping I’d find the man who sent the Pinkertons after my family.” She takes a longer pull from her glass. “Never found him, but I did find you. The perfect agent with a flawless record.”
“Until recently, I suppose.”
I’ve had a few drinks, enough to blunt my sense of time passing. I don’t remember when our girl came back, I just realize I’ve got a cigar in hand, and I’m exhaling the same blue smoke and contributing to the haze between us.
“Did you retire anyone to be number one?” I ask.
She nods. “It was boring. I think tonight will be different.”
“Just a feeling,” she says. “And if it goes the other way, I’ll consider it an honor to be ‘taken off the books’ by number eighty-three.”
“You sound like a girl with a heart full of sappy nonsense.”
“Maybe I am.”
I think of my wife. I remember the sight of her tied to a chair. I remember being told that I had to kill her to take this position. I remember pointing the barrel of the snub-nose they handed me at her head, pulling the trigger, and hearing an empty click.
I draw on the cigar and say, “Truth be told, I was just going to let you have this one. Now, I feel it’d be downright ungentlemanly of me if I didn’t make you work for it.”
Her smile’s a grin now. Not a feral, thirsty one. Not the twisted rictus of someone who takes more joy in killing than making love, but a girlish expression like you might see after passing a bouquet to the dame you want to court.
“Here, then?” she asks, “Or should we go somewhere quieter?”
Time slows to a halt, and I draw on the power of my suit. To outward appearances, it’s a neat, top-to-bottom arrangement of black and white; loafers, slacks, belt, snow-white undershirt, and pitch-black coat. My tie is a line of shadow, bisecting my upper body. The suit is an image and a symbol, the uniform of the interchangeable G-man. In reality, there’s a kind of sorcery that went into making it, a dark art that predates civilized times. As the world grinds to a halt, I meet Jane’s eye and exhale through my nose.
I sense it when she draws on hers. She met me in a neat skirt, one that left a little more of her legs showing than I personally think is proper, but I can sense the magic woven into her hose. Like me, she wears a coat, but in place of a tie, she’s got a neat tie tab that breaks away from its knot in sharp, opposing angles. The sleeves are creased sharply, and I note the deformation of the fabric as she kicks away from the table and falls toward the floor. It indicates the movement of her arms, and that preemptive observation prolongs my life for a few more minutes.
She produces a pistol, trains the barrel to my head, and squeezes the trigger. It’s no regular sidearm, and the kinetic force of the discharge is funned into her body, propelling it backward along the floor until she slides up to the bar. She vaults over with a neat backflip and vanishes behind it. I’m left to decide how best to avoid the bullet spinning toward my skull.
I manage to raise an arm in time, and the lead pellet impacts my sleeve. The suit’s threads absorb the impact and disperse it over my entire body. Rather than burning through cloth, piercing flesh, and cracking bone, the bullet vanishes into a cloud of particulates. This has all happened in about a tenth of a second. None of the other patrons have reacted yet.
I take my pistol in hand, but even if the specialized cartridges produce a projectile that would tunnel through an elephant’s skull and out his ass, I refrain from firing. Unless I hit her in the head, I can’t kill her in one shot, so there’s no point in putting shots through the bar and hoping I get lucky. Her suit’s as bulletproof as mine. Instead, I plant my foot on the table, draw supernatural strength from the fiber, and shove. It flips forward and impacts the bar, and the two annihilate each other. A storm of splinters blasts outward, carried by a wave of force that shatters all the bottles behind her. Spirits mist the scene of the carnage. With my free hand, I fetch my lighter, snap it open, and ignite them.
The dull orange of the lamps overhead is drowned out in a violent explosion that engulfs the bar, sucks all of the oxygen out of it, then collapses on itself. The windows blow outward, then the pressure differential sucks the glass back in as a glittering storm of shrapnel. I hear rapid footsteps, and Jane appears from somewhere to my left.
Glass cuts my cheek at the same time she emerges from the flames, blue eyes shining with focus and purpose. I hate to admit it, but I’m impressed by that. My bureau prioritizes the recruitment of psychopaths, the kind that revel in violence, and to whom empathy is a foreign concept. This girl operates with a professionalism I can admire.
Three more shots come my way, but I’m already rolling to the side. I feel one strike my belly, one dissipate against my knee, and the final one glance an ankle. It feels like being punched through a pillow. The force is there, but the impact is blunted. I return fire, doing my best to lead her and predict her movements.
She dances like a ballerina, picking nimbly over debris and obstructions on the points of her toes. Each pirouette turns another bullet away, and after closing the distance, she discards her firearm. That much catches me by surprise, as does the quick punch she throws at my jaw. If I was careless enough to let her touch me, my brains would be dripping from the ceiling.
The way she’s moving, I’m not sure where she learned to fight or what techniques she’s picked up. This isn’t bureau-standard close-quarters combat. It’s like she’s got eight limbs; every time I parry a strike aimed at pulping my skull, two more connect with my body. Her fists and feet beat against the enchanted fiber. Each time a blow lands, it’s accompanied by a clap of discharged energy and a flash of blue light. About two seconds have passed since we started dancing. I smell burned hair and blood. I hear the beginnings of a chorus of shocked screams.
Jane gets a little over-eager, and it gives me a moment to breathe. She goes to touch my head again, and when I duck under the blow, her balance is off for how much she put into the strike. I angle my shoulder with her collarbone and spear her, and it’s almost comical the way her legs go up when her shoulders hit the floor. I stomp down for her head, but all I feel is stone cracking beneath my heel.
She rolls backward, but I’m on her. We meet again in a rapid dance, exchanging blows that don’t matter as we test each other’s techniques. I try to force her back, but she holds her ground with a petulant kind of stubbornness. Blood’s running along her brow from where the glittering storm of glass cut her, but she pays it no mind. Her eyes are locked to mine.
The stalemate ends when I get inattentive, and she steps inside my guard to hook one of my ankles with the back of one of hers. She tugs, I slip backward, and she moves in for the kill. A flick of her wrist produces a blade, and it’s licking at my throat a split-second later. I consider letting it end here. Jane Doe wanted to play her games and claim her trophy, and by now I think she has. It’s instinct, some unbidden impulse, that causes me to jerk my head to the side. I feel steel bite into the meat of my neck.
I curl my left hand into a fist and drive it into her liver. Her suit might keep my preternatural strength from turning her organs to soup, but she still feels the impact. Her legs buckle, and it gives me enough time to retract a leg, then fire off a kick that impacts her gut and folds her body double around the limb. She careens backwards, spiking into the opposite wall and slumping against it breathlessly.
Jane Doe raises her head just in time to see me fetch my sidearm, draw a bead, and squeeze the trigger. Her body spasms sharply, then the tension is released from her limbs. Blood runs like warm wax from the hole between her eyes. It disturbs me that those pools of ice-blue don’t look any deader now than they did before I turned her noodle into a Jackson Pollock painting on the wall behind her.
I can hear the screams now, but it’s likely these are superficial injuries. Lacerations, burns, maybe a broken bone or two from the debris the explosion sent flying every which way. I don’t stick around to admire my handiwork. This isn’t the first time bystanders have gotten caught up in my business, but it is the first time I feel a sharp stab of guilt for it. The plump serving girl lays crumpled against an overturned table. She has a cigar crushed in her fist. I wonder if she’d still be conscious and unharmed if she hadn’t thought to bring another out for me, and only heard the ruckus from the kitchen instead of getting half her scalp burned off.
I stumble out into the street, hand pressed to my neck to stymie the bleeding. I can feel it coming in spurts, then I feel something else. The cut burns. My heartbeat would normally have slowed by now, but it’s hammering in my chest like it’s trying to punch through my sternum and run down the road on its own. My visions blurred, and my limbs are sluggish.
Jane Doe fought like a man, so I suppose that made it easy to forget that historically speaking, poison’s normally how dames went about this kind of work.
I make my way into the darkness as coppers swarm the scene and stumble into an alleyway. I make it halfway down before slumping against a wall, then sliding down into a sit. My limbs are too numb to even hold a hand to the cut, and I suppose that’s just as well. Blood loss, poison, either one is a more dignified end than I deserve.
As the lights dim, I notice a raggedy tom approaching from behind a stack of wooden crates. He threads over the pile of refuse, drawn to the stink of blood and death. I lose sight of him, because I lose sight of everything, but it’s not long before I feel something tugging at my ankle. It feels like having a dentist poke around in your mouth after numbing it with Novacane. The circle of life, I guess.
I think about Jane Doe. I wonder if there’s a hell, and if we can reconvene there to discuss how pointless and destructive our lives really were. The end brings a kind of clarity, and it sends regrets you’ve been trained not to feel screaming back into reality.
Devoid of sight, stripped of sense, cold and alone, I open my eyes one last time and see the reaper standing over me. He’s in a nice suit, and he’s considerate enough to lean down, put a cigarette in my mouth, and light it.
I’m halfway done with it when I hear the bark of his pistol.
This short story is a submission for the Iron Age Media image prompt. Please consider checking out the other entries as well.