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wrote:I, John Anderton, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
Congrats, John. Welcome to the House. Speaker Landry shook his hand for the second time that day. John had already taken the Oath of Office on the House floor, but he was taking it a second time in the corridors of the building for the traditional photo op, where most members brought along family members to pose with them and share the moment. That didnt really apply to John his adoptive parents were too weak and frail to join him, after all.
Thanks, Liz. Hed met Elizabeth Landry a few times before enough times that she recognised him and didnt need a fresh introduction (being the most famous female politician in the country meant she herself required little introduction to anyone with even a passing knowledge of politics, let alone a newly-elected Congressman). When John had been serving as a staffer for Rep. Lois Richards, his predecessor, hed had very brief, professional conversations with her and her staff. When he was running for Congress, hed met her a few times at party fundraisers and functions. And after hed won the election yet before he was sworn in, hed met her a few times at events welcoming the new set of Representatives to the House.
Only standing around for a brief photo with the Speaker to put on his website and in a press release, Anderton soon left the area, leaving the next freshman, Republican Rep. Steve Kowalski, to move up and take his picture. Kowalski was roughly the same age as John, in his mid-thirties, albeit Steve had a full head of hair and a family.
Conrad Jimenez was there to greet him at the door. Conrad had been Richardss Chief of Staff, and hed done a damn good job at it. Hed been working in the corridors of power in Washington, serving the great and good in a variety of staff positions, since before John had been born. When it became clear that John would be elected as Loiss successor, his first decision was to ask Conrad to continue serving him. Conrad had accepted, and had even agreed to help flesh out the rest of Johns staff team, a task he had little time for due to other commitments.
Well, if it isnt Congressman John Anderton, Conrad said, sticking his hand out. There was a look of pride in Conrads eyes, partially because he always liked helping new Representatives get into the world of politics, and partially because hed known John from the day he was an idealistic bright-eyed man in his late twenties seeking to join the staff of Rep. Richards.
Thanks Conrad, John said, slipping out of the room away from the gossiping newly-inaugurated Representatives and their loud-mouthed families and staffers. Conrad followed. Itll take some time to get used to being called that. Congressman John Anderton. Sounds good.
Oh, people will stop it after a while. Theyll go back to calling you John. Or Anderton.
Or balding shithead.
Conrad nodded. That too. I see the job hasnt damaged your sense of humour. Self-deprecation is a rare thing in Washington. Yet very useful.
Yeah, John replied. Ive seen how stuck-up and self-righteous these guys can get. Half of them think the sun shines out of their asses, the other half think the Earth revolves around their ass.
Excellent. Start off expecting the best from your colleagues, Conrad replied, smirking. Going in with a pessimistic attitude will mean youre probably pleasantly surprised. Going in optimistically will mean youre unpleasantly disappointed. Anyway, Congressman, if youll follow me, Ill show you to your office. We have all your staffers there, waiting. Well, most of them. Well, some of them.
Shazia Ahmed and Simon Bancroft were two of the finest detectives working for the Serious Crime Division of the Greater Manchester Police, and they were no stranger to conflict or violence. Theyd both been shot at before, been wounded by stabbings and erratic drivers, dealt with bomb scares and arson attacks, and covered all sorts of horrendous crimes, from busting up a notorious human smuggling ring to arresting a racist serial killer whose violent murders and rapes had installed fear in the entire Manchester community.
Yet theyd never quite handled a case like this before.
James Fletcher, famous footballer for one of Manchesters football clubs and rising star in British sports, killed while alone in the locker rooms during a friendly game with Aston Villa FC. Strangled to death, body dragged into a corner, stuffed out of sight. It took hours to find him after his absence was noted. Forensics experts baffled, sports reporters and gossip magazines in a frenzy, the whole service determined to resolve the murder. Failure to make a breakthrough in the case would be embarrassing surely someone saw something? Surely theres one clue, one fingerprint, one strand of hair or fabric, which is out of the ordinary? Surely there would be obvious motives, obvious suspects, with such a high-profile victim?
No such luck. More false leads than a maze, more red herrings than a fishmonger.
The GMP, after weeks of humiliation, weeks of having to admit they were constantly being sent back to square one, weeks of ill-informed and counterproductive speculation by tabloids and civilians alike, decided to put the case on the backburner. Available resources were diminishing, with national agencies having done all they could and would do. Interest in the case was slipping away, and with that the hopes of a witness coming forward. Many of the more idealistic members of the force, including Ahmed and Bancroft, were beginning to get frustrated at the disproportionate level of attention and resources committed to the case.
So the case was put on the backburner. And naturally, Ahmed and Bancroft were put in charge of it.
Neither was interested in football. Ahmed was an armchair rugby fan, as well as a fencer with above-average skill and considerable experience, and had associated paraphernalia scattered on her desk as personal items. Bancroft wasnt really into sports, always being the first to volunteer to go on the beat when a big match was on. He exercised, but didnt understand the need for sports to come into it. He also did not give a damn about watching any sports on TV. Perhaps this is why he and Ahmed had bonded. Shazia Ahmed was the only rugby fan at the station, meaning that she too was left out of the sports craziness.
Neither knew whether their assignment to the case was a cruel joke, forcing the two most obvious football haters to spend hours looking into the rules, personalities and history of the game, or whether it was a genius strategy to improve the chances of a breakthrough. They had no knowledge or preconceptions of the game, no biases, no personal stakes, so could probably approach it from a new angle.
Well, whether they planned that or not, thats what had happened.
Their first breakthrough was the unearthing of a possible motive, a major boost for the case considering up until that point theyd been going on a crazy fan or deep dark secret that no-one knows about hypothesis as an assumption. It was just a routine conversation with Fletchers lawyer and executor of his estate. Simon posed an uninteresting question, one that had probably been asked before. Was Fletcher implicated in any ongoing criminal cases? At first, the lawyer hesitated. Bingo. You didnt need to be a master sleuth to know that was a good sign. Eventually, after a few more minutes prodding and some vague legal threats, he cracked.
Turned out Fletcher was, at the time of his death, under investigation by police in Italy. While there, hed gotten accused of a series of crimes from drunk driving (possibly being involved in a fatal accident) to attempted rape. Fletchers lawyer admitted that hed recently discovered the Italian police had met some obstacles, and had given up and moved onto other cases the moment they heard of Fletchers death. There was a series of witnesses and evidence disappearing and Fletchers lawyer had, in cooperation with a couple of Italian lawyers, used loopholes in both Italian and British privacy law to keep it out of the papers. This had kept the case all under wraps and caused the accusations to, much like the case surrounding his murder, grind to a standstill long before he died. That raised a question about why Italian police hadnt provided them with this information immediately after they heard of Fletchers death, but that was a question for another day.
That was their first breakthrough. The second came not soon after.
Shazia was going through the CCTV footage of the corridors of the stadium, looking for anyone irregular or out of place. She had been going through them rigorously, identifying every single individual, from player to janitor, and jotting down when and where she saw them. She and Simon were taking it in turns to perform this excruciatingly boring task, and it was currently Simons break. He was spending it by going over his sons government and politics homework. He was studying US politics, and was doing a project on the new freshmen elected in the last set of elections mostly Democrats riding the Presidents coattails, as his son put it.
Simon Ive found a recurring character here, Shazia said, breaking the silence that had fallen between them. Hes definitely not one of the guys qualified to be wandering around backstage at this point. And well, hes sneaking around, she edged the TV around to show him a still where the suspect was peeking around a corner, and at another point, she fast-forwarded to another frame, before examining his jacket to check her suspicions, yep. Hes probably got a gun in there. Add to that and Im ninety percent sure Ive tracked him going to and from the locker room.
Thats our guy. You got an image?
A few grainy ones, Shazia said, showing him a series of shots where the suspect failed to completely hide his faces features from the camera. They were grainy, and in the low-quality black and white that was, counterproductively, the standard quality of CCTV. But, I think Ive been able to find a better quality picture of the guy as he walked with the crowds. Bingo. Shazia took that picture out, circling the suspect with her finger. Heres our man. Havent found anything in the employment or visitor records yet, but Im still combing through them. She glanced at her watch. Well, youll be starting that in a few minutes.
Simon was looking at the photo. Something about it was familiar. Not I know this guy familiar, but Ive seen this face before familiar. And then it hit him. Hold on a sec Shazia. This is going to sound really stupid but And he walked towards his sons project, picking out the brief summaries hed written on all the freshmen. Shazia had an understandably bemused expression on her face, muttering confused profanities under her breath. Flipping through the papers, eventually Simon found the picture he needed.
US Representative-elect John Anderton. Simon showed her the profile, his finger pointing at the photo. Newly elected. Young. Pretty boring background, former aid worker in Yugoslavia, former congressional researcher, came from nowhere to win an election no-one better-known ran for. Now lets not jump to conclusions here but
Christ. Its definitely the same guy.
Far from being a breakthrough, this was just a major stressor. It would have been a lot easier to just place the case in the unsolved murder of a complete dick pile then work out how to get a strong enough case to accuse a politician on the other side of the pond with no plausible motive of a murder the victim of which they had no connection with.
So they just went home for the day.
Unfortunately for them, someone else had worked out where they were going with this case.
Mason Fraser. 56 years old. Scottish accent. Fondness for cheap business suits and slightly less cheap trench coats. Worked as what is known as a handler in the assassination industry. His job was to keep an eye on the actual assassins, relay the jobs to them, provide them with the tools and intel they needed, and sometimes engage in the more subtle clean-up tasks. He had, for as long as John Anderton could remember, been Johns handler, linking him up with hits, providing him with the tools and info needed, and guiding him on the training programs.
And that was why he was heading to Manchester. They hadnt told anyone they knew about their suspicions, but it only took a bit of minor espionage for Mason to discover that John had fallen into their horizon a few bugs here, hacking into the CCTV files there. No-one would believe their claims at first, but even one person making a serious suggestion that John was an assassin that would carry big risks, and hamper his ability to carry out his tasks as a Congressman and, more importantly, his duties as an international assassin.
So Mason was going to stop this situation from escalating before it got any worse. Hed already made the easy decision to cease giving Anderton further contracts in most of Western Europe and North America to deal with his colleagues new level of (relative) fame and risk of public recognition, on top of his employers long-running ban on most assassins taking jobs within their countries of residence. The Manchester football hit was a difficult job, and Mason felt his superiors had made a mistake in requesting it to be assigned to John it was neither his specialty nor particularly suitable for his skill-set and by that point John was already a Congressional candidate. John hadnt been on best form that day, and Mason was taking an even bigger interest than usual in ensuring the clean-up crews and anti-detection teams made sure their tracks were covered.
Hed arranged a meeting with Simon, under the alias of a private detective named Carl Foster. Theyd arranged to meet at Simons house, and Simon had all his evidence on hand. Unbeknownst to Simon, of all the pieces of evidence hed built up suggesting Anderton was a suspect, the copies Simon held in his hands or had stored in his house were the only copies left. Mason had made sure that all the copies of the tapes at the station had been wiped, and that the stadium had conveniently lost its own CCTV footage of the days events. Hed found mentions of John Anderton in the copies of Simons sons A-level project intact wiping that out would be too obvious, not helpful to covering his tracks at all, and needlessly cruel to be a boy who might be going through a massive family tragedy very soon. He didnt know how the project had factored into Bancrofts reasoning anyway, a question he had to ask about.
Within a couple of hours, Simon Bancroft would no longer threaten Andertons identity. He would no longer threaten Masons livelihood, or his reputation as a watertight handler.
Mason knocked on Simons door. It was a few seconds before Simon opened. A few inches shorter and a few years younger than Mason, Mason stuck his hand out to introduce himself. Simon took it. Carl Foster, private investigator. I believe we talked on the phone about the Fletcher murder.
Simon nodded. Ah, yes. Been expecting you. Come into the living room, got all the evidence and stuff there. Simon walked away from the door, allowing Mason to walk in. He wiped his shoes on the mat. Familys out for the day. Can I get you a tea or coffee or anything, Carl?
No thank you, Simon. Mason wasnt that big a fan of caffeine anyway, and only really drank tea or coffee when he was sleep-deprived and needed to stay awake to get work done or make sure he didnt fuck up his sleeping cycle. There was also the more pragmatic reason; getting his DNA all over a mug would probably not be a problem, but it MIGHT be. Mason walked into the house, keeping his coat on, noticing that Simon was quite proud of his achievements. Inside a massive cabinet stationed in his hallway, there were a variety of photos and memorabilia from a series of cases. Scanning them over, he called over to Simon, who was in the kitchen messing around with kettles and mugs. So, Simon, I see you and Shazia have had quite a successful partnership.
Yep, Simon replied, walking over with his own cup of tea in hand. He was quite proud of how good a team he and Shazia had made. She has a great eye for detail, and really good at getting into how criminals think. Thats harder than you think, you know.
Oh, Im sure it is, Mason replied. It wasnt exactly difficult for him, yknow, seeing as he was what one could call a professional criminal, but Simon didnt need to know that. What case are you proudest of?
Well, its not up there, but we did once catch out a cell of Irish republicans, who were planning on pulling off a terrorist attack in the city centre. Just a few months after another IRA bombing in the city centre. This one was a lot better planned though, could have he paused to sip from his tea. Could have killed a lot of people.
Urgh. Terrorist attacks are so cruel. Pointless. Mason shook his head his disgust of terrorist tactics and indiscriminate murder was legitimate, and not just a part of his act as Carl Foster. He didnt share the same disgust for murder-for-hire, however. He wasnt a hypocrite. I mean, I dont care one way or another whether Northern Ireland stays in the UK or not, and I know fuck all about the delicate internal politics, but those issues should be sorted out at the ballot box, not by killing kids or innocent civilians.
Oh, I agree. But the whole politics of it are messy and all. Simon paused, clicking his tongue. So, what about Scotland? Do you think that should stay as part of the UK? I mean, Im guessing you know more about that.
Noticed the accent, hey? Mason chuckled. He could have hidden the accent, but had decided not to. His natural Scottish tongue didnt stand out too much in Manchester. People were not taken aback by the thought of someone from over the border. Well, I think Scotland should stay within the UK. Partially because its better for the economy, partially because I cant trust you English wankers to go off on your own. Without us Scots, you might as well move the centre of government to Eton today, cut out the middle men. Simon grinned, clearly not a fan of Old Etonians just as Masons research had predicted, and Mason continued. Then again, truth be told, I spend more time in England these days anyway.
So, Mason said before Simon could respond, walking into Simons front room, which was as predicted covered with evidence scattered on every table, lets get down to business. Enough chit-chat.
Thats a good plan, Simon concurred, walking into the room, and sitting down on the sofa. Mason sat down next to him. For the next few minutes, Simon walked him through every little detail of the case. The CCTV footage. The revelation of potential motives for killing Fletcher. The unexplained fingerprints and forensic evidence. All these clues pointed to a surprise suspect, one that no-one suspected, and recently-elected Congressman John Anderton is a surprise suspect if there ever was one.
After his explanation, Mason paused. On the one hand, he hadnt stumbled across anything too conclusive. Nothing beyond the forensic stuff and the CCTV footage, and hed clearly searched up Andertons name online and found nothing interesting there. On the other hand, this guy and his partner were clearly skilled detectives. They posed a massive threat to Andertons identity. Even if they went forward with no evidence and just began yelling about how some Nevadan politician killed a British footballer, theyd be assumed to be crackpots, but suspicions would be raised, questions would be asked, and it just wasnt a risk worth taking. Hed have to deal with Shazia later, but for now, he had a few more things to find out about Simon.
So howd you find out about Anderton? Mason asked, crossing his arms, being careful not to get too many fingerprints over the Bancroft family sofa.
My sons doing a politics project. For his A-Levels. His exam is going to include some questions on US politics, so his teacher was like get a list of all the new freshmen in this Congress. I mean, I know fuck all about American politics, beyond the fact that that Baldacci guy is going to be the next President, but I had to help him anyway
Mason breathed an internal sigh of relief. So it wasnt a tip-off or anything. No secret government file, no-one higher up than those two Detective Inspectors. According to Masons good friend Paul Lyon, who had arranged the meeting between Bancroft and Fraser, Bancroft and Ahmed were looking for a private investigator to strengthen their case. Neither wanted to go and request further resources with such an outlandish theory. That meant there was a good hope they hadnt informed anyone else yet.
Mason was brought back down from his thoughts when Simon asked him a question. What do you think of that Baldacci guy?
Oh, hes alright. Nice guy. Should make a good change from that sodding Texan pillock, you know? Mason chuckled, but he was on a schedule. He couldnt chat all day, despite how much of a nice guy Simon Bancroft was being. He stood up.
If you need the toilet, its just past the kitchen, small room right next to the garden door, Simon said, clearly thinking nothing of how his guest purposely climbed to his feet.
No, Im fine, Mason replied, waving his hands dismissively. Got a few questions and need to stretch my legs. You told anyone else about your theory yet?
Simon paused for a second, and shook his head. Nope. Aside from your friend, the guy who linked us up to your services.
That was good. That meant just Paul knew. Mason decided now was as good a time as any to drop the friendly, cooperative façade of the private investigator who loved making political small-talk and was determined to help achieve justice.
Simon. Youre going to drop the case, Mason said, matter-of-factly. Simon was not expecting this. His only response was that confused look; that expression on his face that simultaneously protested the order, yet wanted to know the reasoning behind it. Mason owed him that much, so he began to explain. Youre about to piss off a very powerful organisation. Youre about to make a very powerful and very fucking ruthless enemy. My employer. You dont know what youre getting into here, and I would step back.
I dont understand, Simon said, trying to piece together a rational response, his brain clearly trying to frantically find an explanation for this sudden turn of events, the sudden change in the private investigators attitude towards the case. I mean you said you were freelance, your friend said you were just a freelance independent private investigator
Simon, Mason cut him off, his voice firm, yet trying to adopt a reassuring and quiet tone that would keep things civil. Hed done his research beforehand, and done a brief spot-check of the house for thin walls or bugging devices, and he was pretty sure no nosy neighbour was eavesdropping or even able to eavesdrop. However, he didnt want to risk it. My employer is an organisation that, to be blunt, specialises in providing very precise and accurate and efficient terminations of any lives that our clients want to see terminated. To put it in simple English, we operate using an assassination-based business model. To put it in even simpler English, we fucking kill people for money.
Simons facial expression was one of horror, disgust, and fear. He was sitting perfectly still, yet his eyes were jumping all over the place, trying to find a weapon and a phone for if things were to kick off. Mason continued with the explanation. So Ive got a habit of following the police cases of all the murders my subordinates are involved in. So, naturally, Ive been following your case develop from a very powerful vantage point. And before you ask and before I go any further, the Carl Foster thing that was a lie. Sorry, I hate to admit it, but not a shred of truth in all that.
Simon used the pause in Masons explanation for a meek interruption. Whats your real name, then?
Simon, youre smarter than that. You know I wont answer. Worth a shot, of course. Mason chuckled. But in a way, youre lucky I found you. My organisation has whole teams devoted to crushing anyone who threatens to unravel even a tiny part of our operations. They would have killed you. They would have burnt down your house, family in it or not. They would have wiped out any of your colleagues you were working with.
Simon paused. His response was to try and put on a brave face. Why should I believe you?
I havent got any evidence, thats true. But I have a gun in my pocket. Just in case you act up. Mason revealed a small lump hidden in his long coat, one that even an untrained eye could recognise as a pistol. Additionally, I have the equipment and expertise necessary to destroy your house, killing you and eliminating any evidence, while disguising it as a hit by some vengeful Irish republican extremist nutjobs wanting to take you out as some kind of fucking sick twisted revenge plot for getting their buddies locked up.
Simon gulped. So, are you here to kill me?
No. As I said, youre bloody lucky I found you. I dont believe in gratuitous murder. Either morally or as a business strategy. And those explosives are fucking expensive. Mason paused, scratching his stubble. He needed a shave, but that wasnt relevant right now. So, Im here to make you a proposition. You stop pursuing your current path of investigation. Right now. Finish it. Fucking abort it. Youll end up making some powerful enemies if you continue sticking your bloody nose into things, and I cant guarantee the safety of you, Ahmed or even your family if you continue barking up that tree.
And, he added, standing over Simon. Continuing your investigation as it is going is not really much of an option. You can pick it, by all means, but youd be a fucking stupid wanker to do so. Is this all your evidence? he asked, waving his fingers over the pile amassed on Simons desk. Simon nodded. Its the only copy of your evidence left in existence. Ive already destroyed the others, the CCTV tapes at the stadium and the station, and no matter what shitty answer you give me, I will take all of this fucking bollocks, and I will destroy it. Kaput. All your evidence gone.
Mason continued, presenting Simon, who was sitting there silently, as pale and disorientated as if hed just walked in on his wife having an affair with a ghost, with the other option. But, if you do abort your investigation, and stop threatening my employers secrecy and the continued success of my employers agents, youre probably thinking but what about the Fletcher case? My pride and hubris doesnt allow me to just end it! Mason saw the look on Simons face, and decided that wasnt the case. Well, youre probably more concerned about your family and your friends not going hurt, which I can sympathise with, but Ive done some work for you. He produced a binder from his pocket, packed with papers and photos. Ive built up a convincing, watertight case linking that serial killer to the Fletcher case. I mean, you know hes a serial killer, but you havent been able to grab him on anything solid yet. But this can be that solid bit of evidence you need. He slapped the binder down on the coffee table.
Simon stared at the binder. Eventually, he slowly reached over to it and began thumbing through the pages. Finally, he replied. Its better than just letting the case go, and we have been looking for a solid case to grab that serial killer on The serial killer in question was almost certainly behind the murder of five young people in the Greater Manchester area, and had a whole list of minor crimes and suspected major crimes to his name, yet hed been excellent at avoiding legal prosecution. They might be able to nab him with this. But its falsifying evidence. I cant do that.
Fine. Ill leave the binder there. If you want to kill two birds with one stone, wrap up the Fletcher murder while keeping that crazy serial killer off the streets, be my guest. Mason didnt mention the binder for the rest of his time there, yet Simon couldnt resist flicking through it, at all the doctored photographs, well-researched motives and methods, and other elements of the case Mason had had constructed. Mason continued speaking as Simon looked through. So, its your choice. You can agree to drop the case. Not pursue it any further.
Before Simon could respond, Mason had one last disclaimer. Oh, and if you say youll drop the case, yet continue working on it, Ill know. And I wont be nice enough to visit you and give you a second chance. I cant afford the luxury of sorting out our differences with a nice bit of fucking chit-chat a second time. Ill just fucking kill you, snap you like a fucking twig. And dont ask how Ill know. I found out about you starting this case, itd be a damn sight easier to find out if you pick it up again. So, with that in mind, will you accept my offer?
Simon had no real choice. With only a moments reluctance, he nodded. Yes. What about-?
Shazia? Mason shrugged. Ill have a talk with her. You wont have to explain the situation. Now, I think youll agree Ive overstayed my welcome. Scooping up all the evidence into a black bin-bag he produced from his pockets, Mason left, leaving the binder on the table.
wrote:Yeah, the cleanup work was fucking annoying as always. Had to deal with a pretentious crappy police officer or two, some football-obsessed stadium wankers, the normal bullshit. Hate cleanup work, to be honest. One of the worst things about being an assassin.
If you cant handle cleaning up the shit, you shouldnt eat the curry.
I can see why you didnt get a job as a fortune cookie writer.
I can see why you didnt get a job as a professional driver, Mason. Eyes on the fucking road.
Oh shit! With a swerve, Mason avoided running over an elderly farmer, oblivious to his surroundings, transporting a wheelbarrow of goods across the road.
Qiang was sitting in the front passenger seat of Masons car. The Scottish man had agreed to help Tseon Qiang in finding a new property for training purposes. Mason Fraser had had a dramatically reduced workload of late, and Qiang had seen the exact opposite happen to his. While retired from most frontline work, he was still kept on-call as a sniper for delicate jobs where a long-range sniper kill would be appropriate, and had also been assigned a group of new, eager recruits to train into skilled and heartless assassins.
Easy, but boring.
Mason was driving him through a stretch of desolate countryside in Pennsylvania. Most of the other occupants of the road were Amish locals riding horse-drawn carriages. Masons response to them was to feign an attempt to ram them off the road, stopping at the last second, enough to scare them shit-less and provoke a few shouts and screams without risking any property or personal damage, but otherwise not saying a word about the outdated hicks holding up traffic. Qiangs response was to swear under his breath, and spend the whole car journey pondering humorous religious groups.
Which to him, was pretty much every religious group.
He liked telling people that hed killed countless missionaries and preachers coming to his door, from Jehovahs Witnesses to Baptists preaching fire and brimstone, yet it was a lie. Gave people a good sense of his character, though. Unlike some of the other people in the assassination industry, he didnt try and hide behind his flaws or justify his actions with religious mumbo-jumbo, pointless and time-wasting rituals and prayers, and false acts of meaningless charity.
Yet they had not encountered any obnoxious Amish Luddites, as Qiang called them, for a considerable stretch of time. They had not encountered anyone, or anything. The livestock that had once clustered in the fields around the roads had disappeared. The birds flying overhead were drying up. Even the plant life was slowly fading away, with trees becoming weaker and sparser, the grass becoming duller and shorter. Weeds were the sole exception. The roads were now little more than dirt-tracks, with token patches of tarmac scattered throughout, like pools of water on an empty city street on a rainy day. A good environment for weeds to grow.
Eventually, they pulled up to a modest stereotypical suburban house, that looked like itd been plucked right out of a cookie-cutter suburb from Staten Island or Orange County, with all the features, such as the well-kempt garden and patio, intact. Even the car parked in the driveway, a first generation Ford Granada with a silver paintjob, looked superbly maintained and exquisitely repaired. It couldnt look more unlike its surroundings an island of bland middle-class America in a sea of rural, lifeless Pennsylvania wasteland.
Mason got out of his car, and opened the door for Qiang. Masons car was a second-hand one, and the previous owner had apparently been the head of a family with small children, for the child safety locks were on permanently, Mason never learning how to turn them off. Qiang couldnt help but tease Mason about it. You know, if Adelina or any of the other higher-ups get word youre using a car with a child-lock, theyll probably accuse you of having a secret family.
Mason, who was searching his briefcase for his keys, chuckled in response. Oh come on, Qiang, you know I obey that fucking no-raising a family rule as much as you do. Unless you violate it, in which case, I guess I obey it more than you. The no-family rule imposed on most handlers and other medium-level employees in Clearwater Solutions was an infamous one, one punished with death, no exceptions. The only question was whose death.
Qiang was always slow to climb out of cars, or sit up from seats. His increasing lethargy was a fairly recent phenomenon, one caused by changes in his diet or substance intakes most likely, yet poor reflexes and a lazy attitude was not a fatal flaw with assassin trainers. When hed been younger, including his days as an assassin, he had possessed enviable stamina. Now, it took him around thirty seconds to work up the energy to leave his seat, a few more to stretch, and even then he went to sit down as soon as possible.
Do you remember Gerald Odell? Qiang asked, sitting on the bonnet as Mason finally produced the keys, and chucked his briefcase back onto his seat. From the quizzical look on Masons face, it was clear he did not. Old guy, American, dark tan, fuzzy beard. Mason still shook his head, doing that annoying glare at Qiang as if to say what the fuck are you talking about. So Qiang continued. Killed that Canadian singer on her doorstep. Was the guy who assassinated the Governor of Kentucky, and killed those three Senators and their families in that bombing attack. You know, made Clearwater force assassins to only take hits abroad, helped get the no meddling in superpower politics rules implemented?
That was when Mason remembered, and his face lit up with realisation. Ah, yes, him. Havent seen him in a fucking long time, but yeah, hes bloody great at his job. He just never showed his face, and mostly used fake names, but yes, of course I Mason put two and two together, and within a split second his grin had turned into a look of horror as he realised why Qiang had brought him up in a conversation about the no-family rule. So well, I guess I should say he was bloody great at his job, then.
Nope. He still is great at it. They gave him the choice. I was there. Him or his family. He chose to stay in the game, Qiang explained, using an unusual euphemism for he chose to kill his family instead of letting himself be killed. All of them. His infant twins, his two preteen daughters, his teenage son, his wife. Depressing stuff. Not nice to dwell on it. Qiang was, as his line of work demanded, neither queasy nor sensitive about death, but that didnt mean he liked to think about seeing a sobbing father slit the throats of his loved ones more than was necessary.
Qiang decided to change the topic. So, this a Clearwater Solutions property?
Mason was only too happy to comply with the topic change. Mhm. Was constructed in the 80s. Most of our hits take place in peoples homes, you know, killing the fuckers in their sleep or as they make a goddamn sandwich or as they have a fucking shit, so its a bloody good practice ground. Based it on a hit I did at the turn of the decade. Mason unlocked the door with a set of old, rusty, finicky keys he produced from his pocket, but instead of popping the door open, a small compartment opened up on the side of the garage, revealing a keypad and a retina scanner. Been using it ever since. Trained John using it, for example. This security system is one of the few adjustments Ive had made to the original house layout, aside from adding a wee bit of customisation potential to the training simulations. Having unlocked the door and made it clear he was not an intruder, Mason went in, motioning for Qiang to follow him. After a sigh, and a pause to wipe his runny nose with the back of his hand, he followed.
The house was like a typical welcoming 70s house the only thing that was missing was a towel with the words Home Sweet Home embroidered on it. Qiang hated those towels. He made a personal note of stealing every one he saw, and throwing it in a bonfire at the first opportunity. That may have been because his parents had owned such a towel, and his parents had been borderline abusive, but Qiang hated getting into bullshit Freudian mumbo-jumbo.
Qiang hated Freud. Hed studied psychology once, and Freuds theories were kind of like a religion no evidence, no proof, yet a lot of people lapped them up. Qiang had seen a lot of peoples brains smashed against a wall, leaking out of a bullet-wound, cut in half by a sword and hed never seen a part marked the id or the superego.
Just because Freud had gone through that Oedipal bullshit didnt mean everyone else had.
Nope, Qiang believed what his senses reported, no more, no less.
That was why he and Mason had got on. Their first conversation not related to work had been about how theyd both hated organised religion, how they both had cynical views of human nature, all that nihilistic good stuff. Very typical world-view in the assassination industry, youd think. But that was not the case. One of Clearwaters competitors tried to present itself as an ethical business, ruled by workers democracy, a co-operative family more than a business. Another organisation required its members to donate to charity or do good for the community.
Qiang didnt have a problem with charity. In fact, hed donated to a charity tackling neglected tropical diseases after seeing an appeal on YouTube that touched his heart, and had donated a substantial sum of money to historical preservation in his native China, and providing vital surgeries to victims of deformities and burn wounds. He had the money to spare, and from the point of view of evading the taxman eager for untraceable sums of money, donating to charity was a low-risk, innocent-looking investment. He had quite an impressive charity portfolio.
But what he did have a problem with was those in the industry who thought that their good acts, their religious faith, their charitable nature, their good manners, somehow washed away the inherently immoral status of their profession. It didnt. Qiang admitted that. Mason admitted that. And that gave them a self-awareness of their moral failings that few of their contemporaries possessed.
But donating to charity, while it didnt wash away Qiangs bad, did give him a feeling he was compensating for his negative acts, minimising the damage he caused. He felt there was an important distinction between trying to wash away all his bad deeds with charity, and trying to create a net positive impact on the world with charity, as he was doing.
This train of thought had reminded him of a piece of gossip he needed to share with Mason, who at that moment was showing Qiang a fake target hed set up in the childs room, an adult woman with a gun, that the trainee assassin would have to kill, with a camera hidden in the cot so the handlers could observe their performance.
You know Joachim? Qiang asked, out of breath from climbing the steps. Joachim Samaras was one of the most successful assassins in Clearwater Solutions, a dissenter from another organisation in the Assassin Wars of the late 1980s whod built up a reputation as a skilled assassin and an even better handler.
Of course I fucking do. Of course Mason knew him. Mason was an expert on the politics of the assassination industry, and you didnt need to be an expert to recognise Joachims name. It inspired envy in his rivals, fear in his enemies, anger in his former colleagues at his former employers, and idolisation from many younger assassins.
Hes retired now.
Has he? Good for him, he deserves a rest after all the shit hes been through. Its a rare assassin who makes it to retirement without having to drop out of work because of some fucking injury or some butt-ugly scar they get in the field- Mason trailed off, his hand hovering over his right cheek, as if to mime a burn scar. Mason knew hed gone into sensitive territory, and hastily went back onto the subject. But yeah, most are left unable to continue their work. He deserves a good retirement.
You know Mount Athos? That island full of monks where they dont allow women?
Hes retired there.
As a fucking monk?
Joachim? A fucking monk? On an island with no women? Joachim? Willingly giving up sex? Well, fuck me sideways, thats the biggest pile of shite Ive ever heard. Mason faintly laughed in disbelief, before turning back to Qiang, still shaking his head from the news. Qiang shrugged, to confirm that the news was true. Mason sighed, before he stated If I ever become a fucking monk, kill me.
Ill do it personally, you have my word.
Means a lot. So, how many trainee assassins you got to teach? Mason said, making to leave the house, passing Qiang a spare set of keys and an unprofessional-looking, thick instruction handbook about the various gadgets and gizmos built into the house.
Three. Ill be meeting them in a few days.