Hot Iron

1.

Coffee tainted the air with its rich scent through the steam from two-dozen Styrofoam cups. Most were held by uniformed officers, but plain-clothes cops, and suited detectives and admins didn’t escape the fold. Between the coffee, donuts, and field of blue, the room might as well have been a coffee-lover’s convention, or Donuts Anonymous. It hardly seemed like a serious, morning briefing. In fact, only one man appeared to be taking it seriously; he was clothed in pre-vest swat uniform, with “Torres” slapped across the left breast.

Juan Torres was built like a brick shit-house, some might say. Hell, Torres might agree in proper company, but here was no proper company for brevity. Everyone present was his subordinate, at least for this mission. Given he’d learned first-hand the folly coddling those below you, he found himself at odds with an entire room of gun-toting boys. The few men he didn’t include in his pointed, sweeping gazes knew their jobs, and they’d do them to the letter, just like Torres.

He mounted a small lectern at the front of the room, hands behind his back as though still “at-ease” a world away. He began with, “Good morning.” Then with another glancing sweep, he continued, “Some of you know why you’re here. The rest have some clue. I’m going to do this as quickly and painlessly as possible. If you have questions, direct them to your department heads after the brief.”

He nodded to someone and the lights went dark. A 3D projection between Torres and his audience splayed upward, then unfurled. It swiped right from an Neo-Chicago PD logo to large words that read “Operation: Hot Iron.” The words fizzled away, and a man in his late-fifties appeared. His short-cut, graying hair framed vaguely English features. He held a cell-phone to his ear, other hand on the door of a modest sports car meant more to blend in, rather than standing out.

Torres continued behind the image, “Approximately thirty-six hours ago, our undercover officers observed a deal between the local street gang Eighteen-Seven and this man, Kieran Walters. After being identified, the deal was allowed to proceed so our officers might tail Walters while a group of uniforms made the Eighteen-Seven bust.” Torres digressed for a moment. “Some of you are here today, and I want to say congratulations.”

There was a murmur and nodding from heads in the crowd. It was good to show appreciation for a job well done, but a lone sentence and nothing more or you risked inflating egos. Torres knew that folly too, and he wouldn’t repeat past mistakes.

He refocused and the projection shifted again, “What they found was this;” A car’s trunk appeared, loaded with wrapped, white bricks. “Three hundred kilos of pure-white heroin, likely freshly produced. We believed the shipment had come from Colombia, however, we now know differently.”

The projection slid sideways. A fish market appeared in a two-dimensional image. Around it, various harbors and piers made a jig-saw cut of the land that framed the darkened blue of Lake Michigan behind them; a usual scene for Neo-Chicago’s Chinatown.

The image fizzled to a narrower angle, and a warehouse focused. Rusted sheet-metal glared in contrast to the peeling paint of an aluminum sign that bore a large, pink salmon. Chinese script was plastered above the fish, a line of English reading, “Happy Fish Imports.”

“We’ve known for some time of illicit elements operating within Chinatown. However, the local gangs’ hydra-like operations has made going after any, one group a waste of resources. It has always been the policy of NCPD’s Narcotics division to seek the larger fish, if you forgive the pun.” There were a few, muffled chuckles. Torres wasn’t amused. He continued as such, “We know now that the source of drugs, and thus the gangs’ funding, is not local and headed by Walters.”

The projection changed again; this time to a three-quarter view of a 3-D blueprint of the warehouse, pier, and a curious, rectangular structure beneath the water outside them. “At our request, both State and Federal governments ran U-A-V thermal and topographical scans. Combined with satellite readings and local surveillance, we have a general layout of the warehouse and its surroundings. Due to the clandestine nature of this new addition below the water, we’re unable to gain a clear reading on its interior.”

He focused on the freshman, obvious from their clean-shaven faces and spotless uniforms. They were so green they still bore the factory-polish on their dress-shoes. They were utterly useless for anything outside parades.

“SWAT will position to breach while the U-Cs watch entrances from six points around the building. A three-man contingent will be stationed on a cutter off-shore with a SWAT sharpshooter for cover while uniformed officers will patrol the perimeter for any external threats.” Torres now addressed the entire room, heads of departments included, “You will follow SWAT’s lead on this one. We believe the under-water addition is a volatile heroin refinery, which means a probable civilian presence. Check your fire, and make your arrests, but don’t play hero. I want everyone coming back on this one, understood?”

A unanimous din affirmed his words. Then, with a quick dispersal of patrol-men orders, Torres ended the brief. The room cleared out in nearly half the time it had taken to fill, everyone freshly caffeinated and ready for the day ahead. Hot Iron wouldn’t commence for another eight hours, but by then everyone had to be ready.

A department head approached Torres as he keyed off the projection and gathered papers into a leather briefcase. Roberts was nearing retirement, and an asshole to boot. He’d gained more than a paunch over the years, and somehow managed to stuff it into the polyester rags he liberally called a suit every morning. Torres had seen his type a million times over. They were as much burn-outs as the pot-head teens he used to bring in before the M-R-A made pot legal again.

Roberts waddled more than anything, and right up to Torres, “You gotta’ lotta’ nerve pullin’ rank on this one, Torres.”

Juan zipped a pocket on his briefcase closed, “How long you run SWAT again? Twenty-five years? Then they stuck you behind a desk and fattened you up with benefits?”

“The balls on you.”

Torres lifted his case, swiveled to meet Roberts face-to-face, “How many men’d you lose in those twenty-five years? Fifteen? Sixteen? Most in the first ten years, right? ‘Til you got smart, cautious?”

A corner of Roberts’ mouth lifted in a snarl. “What’s your point?”

“Twelve years,” Torres said stiffly. “And not a man lost yet.” Roberts’ face hardened, his eyes ablaze. Torres readied to leave, “Next time you wanna’ blow smoke up someone’s ass, get a hose. I don’t have time for this shit.”

Torres turned and strolled from the room. Roberts’ eyes followed him, “Sonuvabitch.”

2.

Torres laced his boot tight and double-knotted it. He rolled a balaclava down over his face, and slipped on his AR glasses. A HUD flickered on with a boot screen, then splayed along the sides of his vision. He zipped his tac-vest shut over his dragon-skin armor, and rose to face his team from the front of the box-truck. Their call-signs and names appeared over their heads that he minimized with an flitting eye.

He steadied himself on a loop hung from the cargo-area’s ceiling, an MP5 slung across his chest. His free hand rested atop it as the truck lumbered forward, jostled its passengers to and fro. The self-contained driver-section held two undercover officers in Happy Fish jumpsuits. Their gray-blue cotton hid just as much body armor and firepower as Torres sported.

The truck rolled to a stop outside the warehouse, settled into a diesel idle that lasted all of thirty-seconds before Torres keyed his glasses’ in-built comm, “Alpha team at position-one, waiting for Charlie’s confirmation.”

A quarter-mile offshore, SWAT’s sharpshooter swept the building’s exterior with his bolt-action L96. Its digital scope called out a series of markers. He shuffled through them eye-movements, minimized all but the faintest ticks above the other officers. Its view shifted to infrared, outlined the hundred or so bodies shuffling about the pier and warehouse interior. With another eye-movement, he flicked away the officers, focused only on those unidentified bodies carrying weapons. He found none on the building’s exterior.

Charlie’s call-outs appeared in Torres’ glasses as the sharpshooter radioed in, “Charlie team copies, Alpha. You are go for advance to position two.”

Torres was at the van’s doors, his team behind him. He pushed out, followed by a line of fatigue-clad men and women whose only identity was the white “SWAT” across their backs. Torres and another man stuck a breaching charge to a door, stacked up against sheet-metal. A command was shouted.

The door exploded inward. Debris and dust belched from the hole. Torres’ HUD flashed. In a blink, the smoke was nullified. Skeletal lines of bodies rushing about appeared, highlighted, processed those armed and unarmed, minimized those that weren’t.

The team advanced, a dozen voices all shouting at once. The wire-frame bodies dispersed, the warehouse’s innards wide-open. Low-tables covered in fish and chum made for sparse cover across the expanse. Workers fled, screaming. Torres ignored them, powered through the stink of dead-fish. He surged through the crowd like a locomotive, MP5 the cow-pusher.

“Move! Move!” He yelled to his team, “Keep formation. Push through. Don’t break ranks!”

Halfway through the warehouse, Brittany Mendez, shouted, “Contact!”

A second later she was in cover on the near-side tables with the others. Torres’ glasses called out red warnings. A reticle appeared. Muzzle flashes sparked beyond it. The chatter of Russian Kalashnikovs and Toporevs mingled with Sig Sauers and Glocks over workers’ screams. Blood splattered the air from errant rounds, cut down fleeing bodies, mated metal-on-metal behind the SWAT team.

“Charlie team, covering fire!”

The sharpshooter radioed back a “Roger.” He shuffled his digital scope to zero in on red targets carrying weapons. SWAT MP5s and Sig 551s joined the chatter across the warehouse. The last of the workers fled through a door while Gunmen moved in. Suits and military fatigues mingled with muzzle flashes, as if some mercenary-business meeting had been interrupted. New call-outs took cover behind pillars, tables, wall-corners and stacks of ice and fish-filled boxes to spray hopeful gunfire.

A man’s head exploded from a hole in the back wall.

Charlie team called in, “Tag one tango.”

“Bravo team, move in!” Torres ordered.

A double-wide pair of doors split open at the front of the warehouse. A grenade soared inward. The AR lenses blackened. Their comms screeched a painless frequency to muffle external sounds. The grenade hit, erupted with a shock-wave and lightning strike’s flash to anyone sans glasses. Several men across the room scrambled, blind and deaf from the grenade.

Bravo team filtered in from the far-side of the warehouse. Call-signs and names minimized with a blink as Torres and his people rushed the downed aggressors. One tried scurried to aim at Torres. His AR reticle went hot, and his MP5 barked off a round. Other bodies fell, cut down with identical, pinpoint accuracy and another explosive tag by Charlie.

In a moment, the fire fight was over and Bravo team were zip-tying incapacitated gunmen, their call-outs now blue. Torres and Alpha were already down an interior hall, headed for an access shaft and a ladder leading down. Torres advanced along a second hallway beneath the first. It was obvious they were underwater; concrete walls and floors were lined with heavy rubber to seal cracks between pieced-together sections.

The place felt like walking an underwater tomb before being filled, Torres thought. Somehow, he knew, things were about to go completely fucking sideways.

He pushed forward, sickness growing in his gut. No one down here seemed to know of the fire-fight upstairs– or rather, if there was anyone here. The AR lenses were idle, a desolate eeriness in them that tainted the air of the empty hallways. It only strengthened when they stacked up outside the place’s lone door that would lead to the refinery room.

Torres and another member readied a battering ram in place of a breaching charge.

Torres whispered beyond his comm, “Check your fire. There’ll be a lot of explosives in this room. A stray round will bury us all.”

He gave a quiet three-count, and the battering ram collapsed the door inward. It dangled half-off its hinges. The team filed in shouting orders and brandishing weapons. Red, explosive warning call-outs cluttered their vision across an empty room. The team went silent. A hundred or more barrels and industrial chemistry sets formed makeshift divisions of the refinement process across the room, but there was not a person to be found.

Torres’ stomach churned. Bile curdled, forced its way up his throat. He fanned the team out through the room, filed them through to search every nook and cranny. They all came up empty. The team regrouped in the room’s center, Torres ready to call the op a bust.

Their comms screeched. HUDS flickered and flashed with blinding images that Torres couldn’t decipher. The frequencies forced the team to their knees, then the ground, writhing. Torres’ temples throbbed as if about to explode. He jerked away his glasses, yanked out their connected comm, pulled Mendez’s away beside him.

A voice boomed from the air all around them. It shook Torres’ body, stabbed at his chest, “Checkmate, pigs!”

The voice apexed with a shock-wave that sent them rolling like rag dolls. Something bit the air with ozone. Torres’ gut lurched. He threw himself atop Mendez.

Off-shore, the sharpshooter’s lens met the underwater facility. The thermal view flared red-orange. A geyser of water and flame sprayed upward. Debris and water rained along the docks, chatter streaming from the radios. The boat came about, jetted toward the explosion to seek survivors. The sharpshooter had doubts they’d find any.

3.

Kennedy Hart, a full-time nurse at Neo-Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, had seen just about everything someone in her occupation could. Between the ICU and ER units in a metropolis, she’d tended to her share of GSWs, horrendous accident victims, every type illness and infection known, and more than an abundance of O-Ds. In short, she wasn’t the squeamish type and had the chops to back it up.

She fast-walked toward the E-R doors in teal scrubs. Her brunette locks were wound up in a bun under an elastic band that bobbed from the half-nod she gave the receptionists. The sea of non-emergency admissions were fixated phones, tablets, and the large flat-screens inlaid into the walls, there to steal attention from those unlucky saps that deserved it more. Comprising more than half the ER’s visitors in the night, it left the unit short-staffed, rushed, and half its patients unstable and spilling over into ICU when they should’ve still been in the ER.

As usual, Kennedy would have to deal with it. She shoved her way through double doors as a buzzer unlocked them at her approach. The RFID chip in her hospital I-D, and its readers stationed around the facility, were probably the most useless, advanced form of technology they had. Funds had been appropriated from various, other places to install the readers. In the process, short-staffed units got overtime when they should’ve gotten new staff. Such was the way of the “industry” these days.

Kennedy emerged from a long hallway for the nurse’s station. Station was a liberal term. It was a desk stacked with black-screen charting tablets, and a pair of flat-screen monitors. Behind it on the wall was a second pair, massive in comparison, and probably costing more then Kennedy’s car. Subdivisions of vitals read out the two-dozen patients’ states networked in from their rooms. From here, a nurse could watch and chart the various EEGs, heart and O-2 monitors before shooting off and up the hall. There, she’d draw meds, pass them out, then double chart and check the patients again for “posterity’s” sake– in other words, to keep from losing her job to a network error.

Given her enormous school debts, the amount of time it had taken to attain her RN status, and the general ire of those she worked with, she found it difficult to believe anyone walking into her field was sane. She certainly didn’t feel like it anymore.

She grabbed a charting tablet off the desk, engaged its screen to thumb at it. Two, equally over-worked, and underpaid women watched with general disapproval. She was too young, too inexperienced to be in charge, or so they felt, anyway. Evidently, their superior felt otherwise. Kennedy loathed her for that.

“Two new admits?” She asked the older, grayer of the two women.

“Mhmm.” Her fingers tapped information into a digital form. “Man and a woman.”

“Severe Burns?” Kennedy said, flipping through the pages. “Who the hell sent us burn patients?” The woman only shrugged. “Christ, clocked in five minutes and already screwing me over.”

“That surprise you?” The less-gray woman asked.

“No, it pisses me off.”

She rounded for the patient rooms, tablet in-hand as she skipped through the last few hours of charts. The new admits had been stuck across from one another, nothing unusual, but certainly not something she’d expected. According to the information, they’d been admitted at the same time, moved from the ER, and into the ICU with orders to treat as burn-ward patients. That was impossible, especially on an understaffed ICU.

She rounded the hallway for their rooms. A line of police officers speaking in hushed tones were clustered through-out the hall between the patients’ rooms. They were packed densely enough Kennedy had to force her way through with a command. She sidled past badges and body-cameras, pushed her way into the first room.

According to her charts, the woman had been placed in a medical coma due to the severity of the 3rd degree burns on her back and side. Kennedy couldn’t see them directly, but the bandage wrapped along her side, back, and angled forward over her shoulder and chest, left no doubt of the severity of her state. The bandages would have to be changed every four hours, the wounds scrubbed, and the anesthetic drip replenished.

Kennedy fumed. There was no way in hell they were equipped to handle a burn victim of this magnitude. They barely had enough people to administer meds on schedule. The kind of intimate care required for a lone burn victim was extensive. Several people and powerful meds were needed to keep them stable, even to clean and re-bandage the wounds. Caring for two was going to be impossible.

Kennedy growled futility, checked the woman’s vitals as quickly as possible, and entered the information into the tablet. She noted the name “Mendez,” under the time, then pushed out and through the crowd for the other room.

The man was considerably worse off– in a way that stung Kennedy’s usually hardened heart. The whole right-half of his face was hidden under bandages, the left side streaked with debris wounds that reddened his olive skin. Little else on him was visible, save random, small bits of unaffected skin between bandages.

Kennedy swallowed hard, felt her chest tighten, then lifted the chart to read “Torres.” Her knees turned to rubber from sickness curdling in her gut. A shaking index finger trembled against the tablet to scroll through the information: Torres’ entire right-side and back had been scorched extensively, it said. The images accompanying the report were grisly. Freshly charred skin mingled with the burned impressions left by super-heated armor plates. According to the O-R report, he’d been operated on for four hours to extricate melted fabric and plastic from his wounds. It was a wonder he was alive, to say the least, but what the hell happened to him, and when? The report was days old.

She ran her quick check, then returned to the nurse’s station to make a call to a superior. When the woman answered she was quick to tell Kennedy someone was already headed down to explain things. The call ended immediately after.

Kennedy was dumbstruck, put off by a finality in the woman’s tone that held something more beneath. The only thing she could place it as was fear, but what scared a burnt-out nurse in one of the busiest hospitals, in one of the largest cities in the world? Kennedy wasn’t sure, but it couldn’t be good.

She turned for the hall and straight into a man with a suit cut sharp it made her eyes bleed. She was stunned. He pulled out a bi-fold wallet, flashed a badge that vaguely registered as FBI.

“Missus Hart?”

“Miss,” she corrected habitually. “Yes? Can I help you?”

“Miss Hart, would you come with me please?”

Kennedy glanced at the other nurses behind the station. They stared up, open-mouthed. Kennedy cleared her throat, stammered out a reply, then followed with a curious amble. The FBI man directed her into a room with other suited men and women, extended a hand to a offer her a seat, and shut the door behind him.

Kennedy eased into her seat, and the room sat together. A man at the head of table examined her for a long moment. Then, with a lean, he interlocked his fingers on the table, “Everything you’re about to hear is a matter of National Security, should any of this be repeated outside this room, you will be jailed and tried for high-treason. Do you understand?”

Kennedy stared.

4.

There was a literal, full minute of silence before Kennedy’s mouth shut and she stammered out a response, “Wh-what’s this all about?”

The man at the head of the table, his face cloaked in dim shadow, cleared a gravelly throat. Someone flipped a switch below the table, and a projection appeared in the middle of it. Two images, side-by-side, were repeated in four places, like a three dimensional cube connected at its vertical faces with the table forming their base. Judging from the ID-like images, and the obvious collars of NCPD uniforms, the two people projected were her patients.

She almost didn’t recognize Torres. It only worsened her gut-sickness. Combined with the clandestine feeling of the dark room, its air, and the people in it, she guessed things wouldn’t be getting better anytime soon.

The gravel-throated man all but confirmed her hunch as he began to speak. “The two patients currently occupying your ward are members of NCPD’s SWAT team. Several days ago, Officer Juan Torres conducted a raid on a suspected heroin refinery. The exact location is classified. We’ve been fortunate to retain media black-out, but several officers were killed in the explosion. It is our hope that we may work together to ensure these two officers do not suffer the same fate.”

A woman down the table, whose only identity lay in the overt confidence of her tone, continued from there, “Miss Hart, we believe these patients may be targeted for retribution by certain suspects or their associates. Given their states, and the care required, it is necessary to reallocate them, as well as their care-givers, to your ward from others units across the campus.”

“Both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency hope you will accommodate us in this matter,” the man at the head of the table added. It sounded more like a casually veiled threat than anything.

The room settled back into a ringing silence. Kennedy still stared. She wasn’t sure what the hell was going on. Everything beyond “retribution” had been lost on her. Who the hell sought retribution against cops for something like this? And why’d she have to be worried about it? Moreover, why the hell did they choose the ICU of all places?

The questions kept coming. With no answers in sight, her mouth finally shut. She readied to reply as formally as possible, the situation evidently hinged less on her compliance than her job did. She let out a short breath, “I will, of course, do whatever I can to ensure the safety of my patients. But I’m charge-nurse… for tonight. My job, for tonight, is to act as liaison for the unit’s nurses and our superior. I don’t really have any power.”

“From here on out,” a man said nearer to her. His features were dark, eyes unyielding. He slid over a micro SD card, “You will act as liaison between us and those assigned to these patients. The staff directly in charge of them will take your word as ours. Your other duties are suspended until such time as the two officers make a full-recovery.”

Kennedy drew the tablet over with a hand, slotted the card to access it. A pair of folders appeared with patient ID numbers as the names. Those numbers were the same as the ones used by the various machines reporting their vitals and meds through the hospital’s network. Kennedy could ID both of the patients by them alone.

She gave an outward look to no-one in particular, “I can offer compliance in my case– I certainly can’t refuse anyway, but I have questions.” A resonant pause ushered her onward. “First of all, why have you assigned these patients here, instead of the burn-ward?”

A woman with slightly less confidence than the last explained, “We believe anyone seeking retribution will know to check N-C’s burn-wards. We hope placing them here will better obscure their presence and still allow for the care they require.”

The dark man nearer her added, “Upon closer inspection, you’ll see those files have been doctored. Their real names do not appear anywhere.”

She took his word for it, “Okay. Then my next question–”

The man at the head of the room anticipated her, “We believe the person, or persons, targeting these patients have access to internal NCPD and FBI intelligence. In order to draw them out, and ensure the officers’ survival, we must allow all agencies involved to believe both Torres and Mendez are dead.”

Her eyes widened, “There are thirty cops in the hallway, and you think you can contain this?”

Another man spoke, one that hadn’t yet. From his air of superiority and vernacular she suspected him a doctor, a veteran one at that. “That is why, once your team is in place, you will simulate a cardiac incident on both patients. We will prepare everything externally necessary. Otherwise, you will receive further instructions soon. For all intents and purposes, it will appear as if your patients have died.”

Kennedy’s eyes narrowed skeptically, her tongue sharp– the same way she was when she dealt with her ex that’d left her a week before their wedding. “You want me to fake their deaths!?” Another resonant silence. Awkwardness underlined it this time. Kennedy felt herself squirm involuntarily. She swallowed hard, “I… don’t see how I can refuse, but I’d like it noted I have reservations.”

“Duly noted, Miss Kennedy,” someone said.

She didn’t see them speak, was too busy wrapped in her thoughts. Losing not one, but two patients would look bad on her record. She could lose her job. More importantly, she could lose any hope of getting another if this assembly decided to take charade the next step and “investigate” her. If the media ever did get wind of it, she’d be black-balled faster than she could click a pen.

She spoke to this effect, “I can do what you request, but it will take time. More importantly, I can’t allow this to permanently affect my license. When this is over, any public knowledge must be officially retracted so my livelihood isn’t lost.”

The man at the head of the table replied firmly, “Your livelihood will not be permanently affected, but you may have to follow through with things. We will brief you in time on what that may require.”

With that, the projected image dissolved and the table rose together, save Kennedy. She was stuck in place for another, full-minute before she rose snatched up her tablet and followed after them. She stepped into the hall to find they’d disappeared. The one, confident woman remained behind to speak to an officer. Her hair was fine, golden threads in the lights that reflected off it in a wet-like sheen and gave her a glow that modestly accented tanned skin.

Clearly whatever she did officially allowed for more fun in the sun than being stuck in an ICU all day or night. Kennedy envied her for that alone.

She returned to the empty nurse’s station just as the uniformed officers began to disperse. Two men and women remained to stand guard on either side of the patients’ doors. The blonde woman clicked and clacked her way past along the hall, her face fixed with indifference, and her mind consumed by her work. Her heels sounded her progress past, then disappeared into a stairwell beyond a heavy, closing door.

The grayer of the two nurses appeared, snapping bright-orange, nicotine gum in her jaws, “S’that all about?”

Kennedy shrugged, checked her watch, “Hell if I know.”

5.

It was roughly 4 AM when Kennedy finally shoved her way into her apartment. She’d had nothing but complications through-out her shift, most related to establishing the team for her two, new patients. When she finally fell into bed an hour later, the sun was just beginning to rise behind her blacked out windows. Working the night shift had forced more than a few, anti-day behaviors on her, and covering her windows with blankets was hardly the most offensive of them.

She slept roughly two hours before her cell-phone vibrated beside her bed. It buzzed loud enough to echo through the wood. She slapped a hand for it, put it to her face, “What?”

A voice sounded, “Kennedy?”

She hated that voice. Everything about it. Especially now. He’d been gone a month with his new slut. Whatever he needed could wait.

“Kevin, I worked all night. Call me when you’re dying. Maybe then we’ll talk.”

“Kennedy don’t!” he pled.

“I’m hanging up now,” she griped.

“I just wanna’ get my–”

The phone cut out. She checked her watch, realized she was still dressed for work, then moaned.

He wanted his stuff back. The problem was, it was probably somewhere in Indiana by now, shoved into a landfill by garbage trucks and bulldozers. The same place he belonged. She managed to sleep a few more hours, and as usual, dreamed of him. Or rather, dreamed about him.

They’d been together for years, a decade almost. They’d finally decided to tie the knot one night, high on something Jamaican and more naked than not. She’d been entangled in sheets, coursing with fresh ecstasy when booze or grass made him finally pop the question. It was six months before they set the date. Another year after that and here they were.

Like before, she dreamed about saying no. Somehow seeing the future, she rejected the drunk, stoned proposal. The reality was, she’d said yes, then climbed atop him to pump their brains out. At least that part was good, anyhow. The rest was a nightmare– an even worse nightmare than the near-nightly dreams about being unneeded at work, only to come home and find him pumping someone else’s brains out on the kitchen counter. He was just lucky she didn’t own a gun. For that matter, so was the slut.

She tossed and turned while various incarnations of the “no” path of life melded with everything else the human brain could concoct. When she awoke, she’d only remembered a feeling of dread. The rest would settle with the hallucination-inducing chemicals common to sleep, if that’s what she could call it, anyway. She never felt rested anymore.

The same morning routine that followed Kevin’s departure from her life began her day; a quick shower, a few tears, coffee at the table, and an open laptop to surf the latest waves sweeping social media.

The first hints that something big had happened came from forums she frequented. The posts were days old by now, but that had only given the armchair detectives more time to work. Such was the nature of the internet that anyone with even a scrap of confidence and an ISP thought themselves an expert. Most of the time, this showed up in places where arguments were most easily driven by opinion– who was the latest, most popular celebrity, who’d win the next Stanley Cup, or whether well-done steak was truly an affront to the Gods. They were innocuous, harmless things.

This was different though. It was always easy to tell the speculation from the evidence-bearing news. When it was real, a site’s admins often got involved, usually pinning the post to the site’s front page for all to see. In some cases, even live RSS feeds would be linked to act as aggregates for all information on a given topic. Mostly those were reserved for dire situations still unfolding as posted. Everything from natural disasters to terrorist attacks were covered, and now it was obvious something had recently occurred.

The pinned post and dead RSS feed at the top of one of her frequent favorites was posted as someone posing a question: “Just heard an explosion outside work. Neo-C piers. Nothing obvious yet. Anyone?” The thread had been up forty hours. She must have missed it during her last, morning net-scour, but it was one of the big ones now. Hundreds of thousands of comments, millions of views; the sort of thing referred to as viral.

To scroll through the comments, she’d have had to miss the giant blotter comprising the first, full-page of the post. Bullet points with random times from the last two days broke up the otherwise mile-long wall of text. They were cold, hard facts, corroborated by a dozens of blue, external links.

She skimmed them, then read them over in depth. Together, a picture formed that became clearer when combined with her last shift: Something had happened on a pier, somewhere in new-Chinatown. The place had been established as a shipping port, then gravitated to for its open, bazaar-like qualities. Sometime in the evening hours two nights prior, an minor tremor registered on seismographs. The lone incident was inexplicably isolated to a small part of northern Chicago, and the armchair detectives had seized it as an opportunity to jump into action. Various private and public satellite and instrumentation sites confirmed some type of explosion with thermal, seismic, and eyewitness data.

The end picture was obvious; something had exploded underwater at the “Happy Fish” imports pier. Eyewitness reports had been suppressed on-scene by police and emergency crews, but a few had made it out. It was enough to tell of rumors of a SWAT raid. Men and women in riot gear had breached a facility, covered by a sharpshooter inside a police perimeter on the water, but nothing else tangible had been concluded.

Kennedy didn’t need years of med-school training to add two and two. All she needed was her two patients and the rumors. Only she could confirm what most suspected. While no-one on the net knew for sure what had happened, Kennedy did. She thought to post, then remembered she’d been bound by the NSA and FBI’s suits to keep her mouth shut. More importantly, HIPAA ensured if she opened her mouth she’d lose her license as well as end up in jail– probably for high-treason.

There was a certain, ominous tone to that thought. She liked it even less than she admitted. Whether from intuition or pure logic, she sensed things had only begun to go sideways.

6.

Melissa Fannon, formerly Melissa Torres, was Juan Torres’ only sibling. His elderly sister by only a pair of years, she’d weathered time better than he’d managed to. She was a bombshell of Hispanic descent with something vaguely Italian mixed in. She held herself to the highest standard of beauty, spending upwards of three hours each day carefully primping, preening, and making-up her face. To any onlookers, she was Miss Universe without the plastic and a heavier head.

Which is why, when she entered to find her brother covered in bandages, her cries shattered the hearts of all those around. A feeling akin to a porcelain doll shattering on a floor swept through the ICU. There and then, the four guard-officers exchanged looks, fidgeted from the shrill cries emitting from Torres’ room.

Kennedy was already inside, standing at the bed, and watching the shattered doll’s make-up run. She swallowed acid to place a lone hand on Melissa’s shoulder as she wept. To the woman’s credit, her tears didn’t last long, but it felt like an eternity to Kennedy. She was frozen in place, too human to leave, too professional to cry. It wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever seen, but it ranked, and learning to compartmentalize work and emotions was the only thing that kept her in one piece.

Emotions were a good thing for a nurse dealing with the elderly, children, or clinical-work. In an ICU, ER, or Burn unit, emotions were a good way of killing someone. Most medical work was exact, a science of numbers requiring as much logic as clear-headedness. Emotion was its antithesis. A misplaced thought might incur a slight over-dose of a medication that turned lethal when combined with others. Anything more was a certain mistake to come. Being angry and misreading a chart could kill as easily as putting a gun to someone’s head. Kennedy didn’t like that fact, but she held herself all the more rigidly to its truth.

She retained her composure long enough to let Melissa ease out of her own grief, then pointed her toward a washroom. When she was certain the woman had gone, she exhaled a heavy sigh and choked down her emotions to keep focused. She gave herself a full minute to straighten out, then reset her face into its usual passiveness.

She and Kevin had fought about that for years; being been able to turn her emotions off and on meant she often did it without realizing it. Being in her line of work didn’t help. Perhaps it was the frequency with which she was required to do so that it so autonomous at times. Whatever the cause, he’d often insulted her as being “Robotic” and “Cold.” The truth was, when they fought, she flipped the mental switch and compartmentalized. Most times, she did become cold, logical, and right.

Kevin hated that, had never been able to accept being wrong, and was the type of person confirmation bias had been discovered from. He was always trying to find or twist facts to his point, able to turn a perfectly normal debate into a colossal argument when proven wrong. He was thick-headed, stupid to a fault, and narrow-minded. What else could he be if he expected to pound some whore in her kitchen without her finding out?

Kennedy hated him for that. She hated him for a lot of things. Most of all, she hated that he continued to creep into every facet of her mind.

She went about checking vitals as she considered it. The motions were autonomous, robotic in a way. That was the point; learn your job well, and be able to do it in your sleep. Problem was, it gave her time to think. Time to think meant revealing the roots of their relationship burrowed through-out her life as if some disgusting parasite. Its countless arms and small feelers extended and inlaid over the folds of her brain and life, attached via hooks that held on past death. She’d managed to cut away the beast itself by throwing Kevin out on his ass, but every now and then, disgorged feelers appeared, hidden in places she wasn’t even aware had existed.

I’ll still be finding ’em when he’s dead. Bastard.

The thought gave way to a check of the time as she thumbed Torres’ vitals into a charting tablet. The soft steps of heels clicked a syncopated rhythm over her thumbs as they made their way into the room. Kennedy was momentarily fascinated by Melissa’s recovery. She’d managed to reverse from nuclear fallout to bombshell with astounding quickness. Aesthetically, she looked better now than before.

Melissa sat in a chair beside the bed, held Juan’s hand in hers, “I’m sorry for my outburst.”

Kennedy feigned sympathy, an unfortunate necessity of having to compartmentalize, “I understand. Has the doctor spoken to you?”

She gave a small nod, “I know he’s being kept in a coma. You’re worried about some sort of shock?”

Kennedy was professional again, “Injuries of this nature require we keep the nervous system stable and unresponsive to the pain. At this stage, it would send him into shock and his vitals would go hay-wire. It’s safer this way.”

Melissa gave another small nod, eyes on her brother’s hand, “The doctor said as much. How long will he have to be like this?”

Kennedy’s mouth pulled into a half-grimace, “I honestly can’t say. We can keep a coma going as long as necessary. In his case, a few weeks, maybe longer. He’ll require skin grafts and other surgeries before he can be resuscitated.”

Melissa kissed Juan’s hand, then set it on the bed. She patted it, “I’ve been told to act as his legal proxy while he’s… like this. Will that be a problem?”

Kennedy considered it, “He has no spouse or other family?” Melissa shook her head. “Then no. I’ll be leading the team that sees to his needs, so if you need anything, it’s my job to help.”

She seemed to consider the question. There was a resigned look away that most would have taken for their signal to leave. Kennedy knew better. It was usually what family or patients did immediately before asking or relaying something vital.

Melissa suddenly met her eyes again, “Do you know– they won’t tell me– what happened?”

Kennedy swallowed hard. The words “National Security” came to mind. What did that mean in this instance? Melissa wouldn’t wait for her to figure it out. The longer she stayed silent, the more guilty she looked. She cleared her throat, did her best to evade saying anything specific, “The term is, “injured in the line of duty.” I can’t say more than that. I would like to, for your sake, but until I’m certain… I can’t risk my job. I’m sorry.”

Melissa frowned, “In the line of duty.” That’s more than I knew before. Thank you.”

Kennedy promised to return and offer any information Melissa might need then. She left the room, shut the door, then nearly doubled over with guilt. A stuttered breath made its way through her lips as she choked back tears.

7.

Kennedy was pulled from Mendez’s room by one of the police officers and directed back into the conference room. She found herself face to face with another suit so sharp it cut her retinas. The man gestured her to sit. Unlike before, half the room’s lights were on. She’d been unable to pin down many of the first group’s features, but this was different, more personal.

He looked a little older than her, a slight gray in his hair, but evidently premature given his youthful features. His posture and stance indicated a formal training. Military, she guessed, or something government. He was clearly a subordinate though, his tone said as much.

“Miss Hart,” he said around the table’s corner from her. He slid forward a tablet computer and something that looked like a cell phone. After thumbing it a few times, he straight to business. “Melissa Fannon is not allowed to know of the true nature of her brother’s injuries. Were it to leak, it might jeopardize ongoing operations by the NCPD, FBI, and NSA.”

Kennedy was flabbergasted, “Uhm, okay. But do you really expect to contain this? I mean, the net’s already flared up.”

He cleared his throat, “We know. But net outrage lasts the length of a news cycle. In two or three days, they’ll have something else to be up in arms about. They’ll focus on that, and this will be forgotten by the general public.”

“But people already know.”

He put up a dismissive hand, “They think they do. What they have are thin corroborations by other net users that could just as easily be a lie.”

“And the satellite photos? The seismographs? What about those? Isn’t that evidence?”

He sighed and rubbed his forehead, “Miss Hart, please, this isn’t why we’re here.”

“It’s why I’m here,” she countered coldly. “I have a patient whose family is now his legal proxy. She needs to be fully aware of his injuries and their cause to act as that proxy.”

He fingered the tablet to a text file, slid it over, “My superiors have anticipated as much. This is your cover story. It’s as close to the truth as can be allowed to better facilitate the ruse.”

She took the tablet with a hint of scorn, “So why is this necessary?”

He readjusted himself, lifted a briefcase form the floor, and fished out a few pieces of paper, “That is the other reason I am here. Apart from that information, which you should defer to when asked specific questions, there is this.”

He slid over an NDA sheet, similar to HIPAA form. Beneath it, an “X” was marked beside “Signature.” Half the document was legalese so foreign she couldn’t pronounce it. The other half was clear enough to say, “sign here, say nothing, or lose your job.”

She forced back actual anger, “I don’t know who you think you are Mister–”

“Barnet,” he said. “Garrett Barnet.”

“Mister Barnet,” she fumed. “And I don’t know who you work for, but I’m not about to compromise my ethics until I am told, in plain English, what the hell’s going on.”

“Sign the form, and I can tell you everything you want to know. Otherwise, my superiors may have to assign someone else to the job. Given what you already know, they may pursue legal action against you.”

She was dumbstruck, “But I don’t know anything.”

His professionalism fell away. “May I make a suggestion?” She was stunned by the shift, silent. “Sign the form. The US Government is an immovable brick wall of bureaucracy, but it also has the power here. If you don’t sign that sheet, it will drown you in legal trouble so thick and deep you may never get out.”

She stared at him. There was no malice in his words. Rather, it seemed as if he truly empathized with her. All the same, his eyes confirmed what he said as truth. If she chose not to sign, the legal headache would crush her brain until it oozed out her ears. She didn’t need it. She already had her patients, coworkers, and ex doing that well enough.

She finally gave in with a sigh, dug a pen from her pocket, “How is this not extortion?”

Barnet grimaced, “When it’s the government doing it, we call it patriotism.”

She scowled, scratched a signature, then shoved the page forward, “I want it noted I’m not doing this of my free-will but to keep my job.”

“Noted.” He slipped the page back into the folder, closed it, then looked to the tablet before her, “You’ll note the file before you contains “Eyes only” information. Things even I am not privy to. Understand that it means you will not be allowed to repeat anything not directly highlighted or notated. Is that clear enough?”

Again, she scowled, “I know how to read, Mr. Barnet.”

“Agent, actually,” he produced a badge that read “NSA.” “I’m with the NSA. I will act as liaison between you and the NSC, who is directing this operation.”

NSA? NSC? Operation?What the hell’s really going on here?

She didn’t exactly have a degree in acronym agencies, nor did she care to know much of them. She knew, however, that the NSA and NSC were the National Security Agency and Council respectively. Supposedly the NSC was the secret court always referred to by tabloids and net conspiracy theorists when blaming “them.” The NSA, on the other hand, was an agency responsible for protecting America– sort of like the CIA, but acting internally as opposed to externally.

At least, that was how she’d learned it. This made no sense though. In fact, the more she learned, the less sense it made. Why bring her in? Why involve her at all? Wasn’t she just another liability? Another possible leak in an otherwise frail pipeline of information? Moreover, if the NSA and NSC were involved, why not take her patients elsewhere? Rush may have been one of the top institutes in the nation, but there were others, with people who’d already been trained to deal with these things.

She saw he was waiting for her mind to finish working. She cleared her throat uncomfortably, “Uhm, okay… what operation?”

He checked his watch with the pointed gesture of an older man, “Have you eaten lunch, yet?”

“Huh?”

He rose, folder in hand, “Come on, my treat.”

Her eyes widened in confusion, her mouth once more agape in speechlessness.

8.

Before Kennedy knew what was happening, her body was propelling her mind toward an elevator. Barnet led the way with a sort of saunter, like a man with no place better to be and no cares in the world. That this was actually the opposite of truth neither showed nor stirred resentment in him. He was well-trained, personality crafted so that despite having a million other things on his mind and to be doing, he appeared content in taking the nurse to the cafe for lunch.

Presently they sat with trays of food, sequestered to a quiet corner of the cafe. The place was closing up after the dinner rush. Only a few people were left in it to clean, though at least one or two would be on duty through the night to ring up food for anyone wandering in.

Barnet sat with a tuna-salad sandwich in his hands, Kennedy across from him with a Reuben. He took careful bites to avoid losing any food on himself or elsewhere. Kennedy watched with fascination; he somehow managed to negotiate even the messiest of foods into complying with his particular brand of cleanliness. Meanwhile, she shoveled food in like a person who might have only moments to do so.

She finished first, sat digesting while Barnet made progress through his sandwich. He paused to suck soda through a straw, then spoke casually between bites, “You know, I never get what people say when they talk about hospital food tasting bad. This is probably one of the best sandwiches I’ve had.”

Kennedy threw back a gulp of water to wet her throat, “Maybe you need to get out more.”

He gave laugh, smiled charmingly, “Trust me, I’ve been out. It’s all the same. In or out.”

“Can we just get to the point? I don’t mean to be rude, but I have a lot of work to do.”

He finished the sandwich with a quick pair of bites, then washed it down. He tossed a crumple napkin into the center of his plastic plate. “I understand your frustration. You’re worried, being worked over by the government, and you’re afraid your job’s on the line.”

“Isn’t it?”

His head tilted sideways in affirmation, “That’s not really my point.”

She pinched at the corners of her eyes, “I just want to know what’s really going on here.”

He pulled the cell-phone like device from his pocket, thumbed it for a moment, “Alright, it’s safe to talk.” He set it aside and Kennedy saw something running; an oscilloscope with spiking waves and various numbers along its side.

Barnet pushed his tray aside, leaned in attentively, “In 2020 the CIA infiltrated a group of European revolutionaries. This group was run mostly by former IRA members–”

“IRA?”

He nodded, “Irish Republican Army. These weren’t soldiers though, more… militant extremists. They’d terrorized London and most of the UK through the 80s and 90s. Their children were raised to do the same. The CIA knew this. So it sent in agents to infiltrate a new IRA-like organization that had been formed. The idea was to turn possible leadership into lethal, freedom fighters. In other words, take those most feasible for it, and use them as external contractors directed by the CIA.”

“When you say–” she looked around, lowered her voice. “Contractors, you mean killers, right?”

He winced, “Think James Bond killers, not Jack the Ripper killers.” She didn’t see much of a distinction, but knew what he meant. “The idea was to use these assets for complete deniability. By doing so, the CIA could ensure two things: First, that the group disbanded; neutralized without a shot fired, and second; that they could continue counter-terrorist work in Europe without the threat of discovery.”

Kennedy wasn’t much for spy games, but she saw the logic Barnet was suggesting, “And since Extremists are well-known as such, they’d have been better cover than say, a CIA agent with a forged background.”

Barnet was impressed. It showed through in a small smile that fell away to speech. “Exactly. The problem was, as is usual, free-agents are generally just that… free. However carefully monitored, they’re also out of control by their very nature. What the CIA had done was taken rabid dogs and turned their sights onto meat they’d gain from in feeding to them. No one in the agency ever had delusions. They knew even in the beginning that no-one would hold the free-agents’ leashes. But that was the point. Turn a clandestine system inward, and let it tear itself apart.

“Did it work?” Kennedy asked out of curiosity.

Another tilt of his head, and a twinging grimace, “Yes and no. Eventually, all those free-agents did their jobs. Once finished with them, the CIA’s director of operations ordered hits on all of them. Bear in mind, this was twenty years ago, we were both just out of diapers.” She raised a brow at him, but he continued unimpeded, “Only one of those free-agents eluded the CIA, and continues to do so.”

Kennedy’s face went blank. Time seemed to pause. Her mind worked through everything she’d learned to separate fact from absurdity. It was all absurd, although that didn’t necessarily mean it was lies as well. When she was younger, the NSA had nearly imploded from information leaks. Whistle-blowers revealed massive amounts of intelligence to the world. Everything from agent dossiers to country-wide surveillance monitoring informed people just how much trust their governments had in them. It turned out “zero” was the answer.

Nonetheless she had difficulty seeing his story’s relevance, let alone its connection to her patients. Something of this confusion must have etched into her face, because Barnet watched her closely, then answered as if she’d asked him the question.

“How this relates to your patients,” he said pointedly. “Is simple. Officers Torres and Mendez were injured in Operation Hot Iron: a raid on a heroin manufacturing facility. That operation, as it turns out, was a sting set up by myself and several of my superiors in the hopes of finding the last, remaining free-agent.” The puzzle piece that fell into place homed Kennedy’s eyes on Barnet’s. “We believed, like the NCPD, that the free-agent would be found in the facility that was raided. Instead, several mercenaries from across Europe and America were arrested, or killed along with Mendez and Torres’ SWAT team.”

Kennedy re-wet her mouth with another drink. “I’m guessing the story doesn’t end there.”

He nodded in affirmation, “None of the arrests, as of yet, have given us anything useful on our target. However, we believe the SWAT team was deliberately targeted. Why and how are still a mystery, but we believe the only way anyone could have known the raid was coming was through a mole. In that case, they would have known both Mendez and Torres would be present. If, in fact, the free-agent hopes to exact revenge on the two officers, he will have to send someone here or come himself. The NSA and CIA both doubt the latter. Instead, we hope to intercept whoever comes on his behalf and follow them back to him.”

Kennedy was beginning to see how she fit in. “And the best way to draw them out is to make them think the officers are dead. Then they can send someone to confirm it.” Barnet nodded, impressed by her insight. She shook her head, “What I don’t understand, is why you think either of them would be worth targeting for retribution.”

He rose casually from his seat, motioned her along to clear their trays of trash, set them atop bins. “Torres was a solider, Army Ranger regiment. What most people don’t know about the last war in the Middle East is that it’s still being waged. Thirty years later, we’re still running ops in the region. Torres was involved in one after the formal end of the war.”

They turned for the cafeteria entrance, passed the table as Barnett retrieved his cell-phone, slid it in his pocket with the app still active.

They pushed through double doors into a drab, off-white hall, “Torres’ squad was ordered to clear a compound. The Free-agent’s partner– in more ways than one– was killed during the fighting. We believe this to be one of the causes of the NCPD being targeted for infiltration.”

They reached the elevator and rode it upward. Just before it deposited them at the ICU, Barnet pulled the emergency stop, produced the cell-phone and checked it. Reassured the app was still running, he produced a folded photograph from his pocket.

He presented it to Kennedy with a grave look, “Kieran Walters. Burn this image into your mind.”

She stared at the man; in his late-fifties, with short-cut, graying hair and something definitively European about him. He almost sneered at the camera, but she suspected he had no reason to. It appeared to be an enlarged passport photo. Were she not commanded to study his features so intently, she’d have forgotten what he looked like almost immediately.

When Barnet felt certain the image had been imprinted, he pocketed it. “You are the only one to know what this man looks like. From here on out, you are to screen everyone that visits both officers.” He produced a second cell-phone, handed it over. “It’s not a phone. It’s a scanner designed to look like one. It will perform a 3-D Infrared scan of a room and its occupants, as well as hack any nearby devices– cell-phones, computers, etcetera. Keep it charged, and pull it out to check it, then press the side button to scan any visitors.”

She eyed the scanner, then Barnet. He was preoccupied returning the elevator to service. It started up again, let out a moment later onto the ICU. He let her step out, then held the door open with a hand. The other reached into his pocket for a business card with a series of dots and dashes on it,.

“If something happens, press and hold the phone’s button in this pattern. It’s Morse-code for SOS. The device will automatically connect you to me. I’ll already be on my way. Please use it only for emergencies.”

He stepped back. She called quickly, “What if it’s not an emergency?”

He grinned and the doors slid shut.

9.

Kennedy peeked past the charting tablet in her hand at the half-mangled body of the comatose woman. An explosion had done this. She’d suspected as much, but now knew it as fact. She felt better somehow, more confident in treating her. They were burn victims, but also victims of attempted murder. Knowing the cause kept her from wondering, let her focus on the task at-hand.

Unfortunately, knowing what she did now required lying to Mendez or Torres’ visitors. While Melissa Fannon had already been cleared and green-lit for visitation, she wasn’t allowed to know the whole truth. Despite expecting the contrary, that didn’t make Kennedy’s job easier. The eyes-only files she’d been given had included a few pages of Q and A responses for anyone inquiring about their injuries, and eventually, their deaths.

As the story went, they’d been raiding a drug-den when stray fire ignited a propane tank. The resulting explosion mangled them, killing all responsible parties. Lies muddled the truth, of course, but given what Barnet had said it seemed necessary. Kennedy wasn’t one for lies though– Kevin’s constant pestering was proof enough of that– and it was difficult to produce even the most white of lies. The only thing comparable in her repertoire was a series of high-school drama classes so murky she wasn’t sure they’d existed. Eight-years of med school, in addition to the usual fog of age, had nearly ensured she’d forgotten them.

Nonetheless, she was expected to keep the story straight and screen anyone that came to visit. In time, she’d also carry out her patients’ arranged deaths and be forced to inform their families. That was going to be the hardest part. Lying was one thing, lying about their deaths upturned her stomach and wrenched her heart.

A man appeared in the doorway to Mendez’s room. Kennedy caught sight of him; he was tall, steel-haired, with baggy, wrinkled skin of olive complexion. He moved to speak, but his eyes swept the room. A quiet gasp escaped him as his face hit a brick-wall of reality. He inched in toward Mendez, fell to his knees beside her bed.

“Brittany,” he said breathlessly.

Kennedy watched the man carefully, jotted a note on the tablet, then pulled a cell-phone from her pocket. The scanner was easy cover, no-one would think twice about someone looking at a phone for a split second here or there. She eyed it while a progress bar sprinted forward. Its silent, invisible calculations, and sensor readings compiled. It flashed a “complete” message, instantly relaying the information to Barnet’s agency. A second later, another bar appeared. She’d been able to deduce its sifting of nearby electronic devices as it singled out new ones and scanned them for sensitive information. When it finished, a message vibrated the scanner, “Subject clear.”

The whole process took about five seconds. Enough time for Kennedy to slip the phone from her pocket, thumb the activator, eye it once or twice, then replace it. It was fast, efficient, and utterly heart stopping. So far, only two people had been scanned, Melissa and this man, and both had come back clean. What happened when they didn’t?

She shuddered at the thought, pulled a paper chart from the foot of the bed, marked it in a few places, then hung it back there. She took up a silent post beside the man. He wept as only a father might. The scanner might have confirmed their relationship had she bothered to check, but Kennedy had been a nurse– and a daughter, for that matter– long enough to sense the bond whose grief tainted the air.

She stood sentinel while his tears flowed. He knelt, half-hunched over the bed, and clenched one of Mendez’s hands in his. Kennedy thought to turn away, leave, but there was something to the man’s grief that asked her to stay. He seemed less afraid of grieving in front of her than being alone with his grief. The state lasted long enough that Kennedy felt no awkwardness nor compulsion to rectify it. When he finally wiped his eyes, pulled a tissue from a box beside the bed, he let out a chest shaking sigh.

“Thank you for staying. I know it’s rough watching… this”

Kennedy gave a weak smile, “It’s okay. I’m trained to handle it.”

He sank into the chair beside Mendez’s bed, eyes lingering on her, “I have been too, but until you’re on the other end, you don’t realize how difficult it is to keep composed.”

Kennedy understood with a look, “You’re an MD, then?”

“Retired Army Medic and surgeon.” His chest heaved with a sharp breath at the thought.

“You look young to be retired,” she admitted.

“Early retirement,” he corrected. He held out a level hand that shook uncontrollably, “Tremors, brought on by years of stress-triggered PTSD from the war.” She apologized, as people often do when at a loss and feeling empathy. He waved the hand off. “I get more money now than I did working– and that was a lot– and all I have to do’s sit on my ass and sign some paperwork once a week. I’m still active in the medical community, mind you, I just can’t perform surgery anymore.”

“And you’re Brittany’s father?” He nodded. “Then you know she was injured—”

“I know the bullshit cover-story they gave you. I was in the army– Green Beret, Ranger, whatever they call it nowadays,” he said dismissively once more. Despite it, he retained his emotions enough that he did not appear outwardly hostile. “I don’t care how she was hurt, just that she receives the best treatment and recovers.”

She gave a small nod, “I promise my team will do its utmost best to ensure her health.”

He extended a hand to shake it, “Sorry, my mind’s… elsewhere. Roger Mendez.”

Kennedy shook it, repeated her name with “R-N” attached. Roger turned in his seat to watch his daughter breathe. Her banana-bags of fluids and meds were fresh, full, dripping their steady doses of anesthetics, antibiotics, and painkillers.

He surveyed the scene with professional detachment, “When Brit was six, she had a bout of leukemia. She was like this for a year straight. She’s been in remission ever since. I promised myself I’d never let her end up like this again…. a young fool’s dream, you know? To eradicate pain, evil, to be righteous and true.” He snorted a sarcastic breath. “All I care about now’s that she pulls through.”

Kennedy did her best to comfort him, “She’ll be fine in time, Dr. Mendez. I promise that. I imagine you know it’s standard protocol for a burn victim to be sedated with wounds this bad.”

He turned to look her full-on, “I assume you also know that nothing about these injuries are standard protocol– or you should, anyway.” She eyed him with confusion. “It’s never been standard protocol for Nurses to falsify medical information about patients.”

Kennedy winced, “Dr. Mendez–”

“Roger,” he interjected. “And please, I’m not going to ask you why. I just want to know one thing.” She gave a small, downward tilt of her head to allow it. “Is it the government making you do it? FBI, DOJ, that sort of thing?”

Kennedy wondered if she could be tried for treason for saying anything. She decided not to. Instead, gave only the slightest, smallest nod she could manage.

He sank backward in his chair, “I just hope the situation’s rectified sooner rather than later– for your sake, as well as my daughter’s.”

10.

The moment had come. It had been only days since Kennedy had been pulled off normal duty and forced to run the special-burn team. Torres and Mendez’s rosters were ready. Barnet was on-hand, hidden somewhere out of sight on the ward, to await the final stages of the plan. Kennedy was forced to do it herself. She would have to kill both of her patients, then inform their families that they would be taken to a morgue.

He’d given her four, filled syringes; two for each patient. One for now, to kill them. One for later, to hopefully revive them. She wasn’t sure why it needed to be done. Even in all of the legalese of her briefings, she still hadn’t gotten anything near a straight answer. Barnet had boiled it down as best he could; they needed the bad guy, “killing” the cops would bring out the bad guy, he’d intercept them.

She’d known as much to begin with, but it hardly answered the deeper question; why did she have to do it? The answer was even simpler than she wanted to accept, because no one would expect her to. An autopsy might reveal the cause later, but seeing as how things would never get that far, it didn’t matter.

She stood beside Mendez’s bed first, the room empty of all but its patient. She uncapped a syringe with a deep breath, stuck it in the IV, and pressed the plunger. It would take time, long enough for her to stroll across the hall, complete the process on Torres, and move away before kicking in. She left one room, entered the other. Before she could reach the conference room, nurse’s station alarms began to scream. They echoed down the hall, rending her heart and forcing her through the door.

As soon as the code went out, two NSA-teams disguised as crash response were dispatched to perform resuscitation. They acted it out until eventually calling time of death while Kennedy was forced to stand among one, panicking and working as though it were a real incident. She rifled and dug for meds in a cart they’d brought in, each one a benign placebo to keep up appearances without use.

The whole thing was a whirlwind of movement and sickness rising in her gut over unassailable guilt. When the time was finally called, she fell against a hallway wall between the two rooms and nearly full-on wept. Her tears were real, however manufactured the situation was, and everyone around felt them– just as they had Melissa Fannon’s, maybe more-so.

She took the long void between the rooms and the nurse’s station, eyes down and heart in her throat. The NSA had assured her no-one would suspect anything, but she doubted their grasp of reality. Having one patient die, who’d been otherwise stable, was one thing. Two looked like neglect, or malevolent intent. She kept her eyes averted, called Fannon, then Roger Mendez. Their voices equally cracked, their hearts broken, Kennedy’s with them.

Before being allowed to flee the hospital, she signed off on a form to transport them to a morgue across town via ambulance and police escort. After the families viewed the bodies, they would be transferred to an NSA safe-house. As Kennedy “left work early,” Barnet would meet her in the parking lot, delivered her to the safe-house to administer the second round of injections.

The experience was surreal. From the moment Kennedy administered Torres’ injection, reality became a sort of swirling abyss of terror. Contrary to what she’d expected, knowing it was a farce only made things worse. She was forced to lie, betray, and flee where she might otherwise stand and fight.

Barnet met her in the parking lot, consoled her along the drive. His words were muffled by phantom fluid around her head, her ears still ringing from the dual-monitors that reported the patients’ afflicted vitals. The city spun for an eternity until she half-slumped in the car-seat, edging on vomit. Barnet offered her a bottle of water from the back seat. She took it mindlessly, sipped it slow.

Everything had been simulated perfectly, as real as it could be. Kennedy feared it might have been. Paranoia took over, made her question if Barnet hadn’t been the man she should have feared– the person working for the free-agent, or maybe even the free agent himself. The only thing that kept her grounded was the reality of the image he’d shown her, and the hope that their ride would truly end with the officers’ revival.

Neo-Chicago was a blur of evening light and neon that reflected off glass and plexiglass surfaces. The electric palette of signs and billboards burned her eyes beneath fear that kept anything else from focusing. Nothing more of the city registered. Dirty asphalt and the mixed, historic-modern skyline of N-C’s concrete jungle were merely footnotes on unfocused eyes.

They came to a stop in something resembling a strip-mall on the city’s north-end. The place was as nondescript and bland as the rest of the upper-class looking buildings around it. Their seas of concrete and asphalt were broken up by expensive, precisely placed landscaping that added just enough green to confuse the brain. It was clear the idea had been to fool oneself into thinking they were no longer in Neo-Chicago’s infested metropolis. It was a poor illusion, Kennedy felt, especially given the inner-city skyline expressly visible to the south.

Barnet led her from the car, into a building whose upper and lower floors were divided between two offices. She ambled past a dentist’s office and up a short staircase. Barnet explained something about it being good cover, and that the two patients would be brought in the “back-way” to minimize gawkers. Kennedy wasn’t listening. She’d become hyper-focused on the two syringes in her pocket and ensuring they reached their destination unharmed.

Barnet opened the heavy, frosted-glass door that read “Williams Exports” in black vinyl on it. They entered to a typical office-scene; a reception area, a desk, and a blonde woman sitting there. If Kennedy would’ve had the mind to look, she’d have recognized the same, fine, golden hair she’d seen when everything had begun. Instead, she kept her eyes on the floor, hand sweating in her pocket as she rolled the syringes between her fingers.

The woman gave Barnet a sort of nod, as much a spook as he was, and returned her eyes to the computer screen before her. More surreality infected Kennedy, but she couldn’t dwell. She was led to an office behind the reception desk and the facade was put into its final stages.

She and Barnet entered a wide, deep room with patient beds clustered near one another in a corner. Monitors and machines were already prepared beside banana bags and I-Vs. Apart from the obvious venue-change, the set-up was identical to the hospital. Barnet resigned himself to silence as Kennedy took a seat near a bed to wait. Time passed in mental ticks and tocs that she counted to keep composed.

When the door finally opened again, Kennedy almost burst into tears from the relief she felt. Instead, she was instantly up, moving away to let the two, faux-teams of crash-respondents through. They paid her no mind, rushed the patients passed, and laid them over the beds. Two of them hurried the gurneys away, and the rest filed out behind them.

“Kennedy?” Barnet said, returning reality to her. “You’re on.”

She acted mechanically, moved to insert I-Vs, slap on monitor probes, and inject each of the patients with their death-antagonists. Once finished, she stood back to view them both, eyes seemingly unfocused, but actually taking in both heart monitors’ noiseless, flat-lines.

She held her breath, grit her teeth. Torres’ respiration spiked. A visible rise appeared on a line. It strengthened, spiked higher. Kennedy’s knuckles were white. Mendez’s respiration returned next. Torres’ pulse became rhythmic, erratic. Then, Mendez’s was spiking. A moment that Kennedy was certain she’d pass out in saw the heart monitors suddenly settle into regular, healthy rhythms.

She exhaled a breath that could’ve blown down weaker walls. Barnet patted her on a shoulder. She turned to look at him, face drained of color, “Bathroom?”

He pointed back at a door. She sprinted for it, fell through it to her knees, and vomited.

11.

Kennedy’d felt foolish about her state the moment it was gone. She knew why it had been there, even that it was foolish at the time, but it had overwhelmed her. Paranoia and professional fears were the obvious roots of things; fearing the NSA was betraying her was overwhelmed by the fear of going against them. That was, of course, to say nothing of the ethical lapse required to do what she’d done. She’d be unable to compartmentalize for once, do her job as expected.

Kevin would’ve thought it a win, but it was a loss no matter what way Kennedy looked at it. Her emotions had overwhelmed her to the point of physical illness. She’d lost total control, become a subject to the whims of her own self-involvement. She didn’t like it. Emotions could help to heal people, but when they got in the way, they killed. It was one thing to have a bed-side manner, it was another to let it override everything she’d worked to become and trained for.

Stuck in evening traffic on Michigan Avenue, she had no choice but to consider it. The start-stop pace was enough to make anyone painfully introspective– or outright hostile– and she was merely another of its victims. She watched the left lane creep by as someone in a new, sleek BMW head-banged to metal older than him. Even from the angle she could see the glow of the windscreen’s in-built HUD that was even more excessive and unnecessary than the slick chrome and LEDs lights glowing in its sockets and undercarriage.

She rolled her eyes and let her beater idle forward. Reaching the north end of Neo-chicago these days wasn’t easy, especially when night-shifts immersed her the combo traffic of eager, homeward bound commuters and booze-thirsty tourists and clubbers. She could’ve taken any number electric, public shuttles or elevated light-rails, but traffic was the only procrastination a governmental body still allowed. That, and there was no telling when she might get to work and suddenly find she wasn’t needed and was sent home.

How she’d gotten where she was remained a puzzle. At least in regards to Barnet and the NSA’s requirements. The only satisfactory answer Kennedy had managed to suss out of things was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. How many other people could say the same for their jobs? Then again, how many of them were being extorted by the NSA to do as requested or end up jobless and charged for treason? She was certain the answer was low enough there couldn’t even be a support group for them. These days, that was saying something.

It was another half-hour before traffic crept along far enough for her to break away onto another, high-traffic avenue. Thankfully, this one was less crowded, allowing for a low speed cruise to take the place of inching forward between stop lights.

She accelerated through one intersection for another, the road almost completely empty. Scattered headlights in the oncoming lanes ensured she wasn’t, in fact, dreaming. The NSA safe-house was only minutes away. No doubt when she arrived she’d be just in time to catch the meeting with the NSA’s specialized med-staff she was now in charge of.

A check of her watch said she was later than expected. She revved up through a yellow light. A horn wailed. Her head turned right. An SUV’s headlights bore down on her. Her passenger-side crumpled, T-boned. Her belt lashed tight, whipped her back and forth. She had the vague notion of spinning before her head hit the steering wheel and everything went black.

Time passed in gaps, flashes. Black SUVs and masked figures encircled her. Her head swayed, feet heavy. She absently clutched the cell-phone scanner. An unmasked face appeared with familiar, darting eyes. Commands were issued, orders shouted. Gun barrels rose. Kennedy’s finger tapped at the scanner. Kieran Walters raised a weapon. A burst of blue light engulfed her. Her body seized, and she lost consciousness. Walters’ men pulled her from the car, shoved her into the backseat of his SUV.

Across town, Barnet was standing before Torres and Mendez, looking down with something akin to sympathy. Except, he wasn’t sure it was sympathy. There was the definite twinge of pain, like a paper cut, but a sickened bile beneath it said he felt less for them than something else. Hopefully, it would reveal itself before–

“Hart’s scanner just went off. Signal’s Incomplete.” The blonde woman said suddenly from beside him.

She handed a tablet over, incomprehensible Morse code scrawled over it. “What do we know?”

“Police scanners are going haywire,” she led him for a computer hooked across the room. Above it, a large, flat-screen television flared on and mirrored her actions. “I pulled sat-images from the phone’s last GPS hit.”

“Jesus Christ.”

Barnet was staring at a bird’s eye view of the crash scene. A fleet of black SUVs had encircled another buried in the passenger-side of a small four-door sedan. The sat images honed to a high-resolution, and Barnet left all doubt behind. Kennedy’s blue Taurus was totaled, the driver’s door still open. Between it and another SUV, two figures were pulling a third, limp figure away to stuff it into an SUV.

Barnet tossed the tablet, felt for his gun at his hip, and began back-stepping from the room, “Call NCPD; tell them to shut down all roads out of the city. Get the FBI to shut down the back roads. And have our ground units sweeping. I want choppers in the air now!”

“I got it. go!”

He sprinted from the office, bounded along the stairs, then burst out the front door for his sedan. Its tires squealed from the parking lot.

He dialed his phone to speak to the woman remotely, “Sarah, I need an address.”

A pair of black choppers suddenly whizzed past, nav-lights blinking blue and red and under-belly spotlights flaring on to swivel about beside their nightvision cameras. NSA sharpshooters sat before each open door.

Their low flight nearly drowned out Sarah’s reply, but he caught enough to know where to head. His car slipped and squealed around corners, screamed through lights, wound and weaved through traffic with a whining supercharger. His phone rang as he approached the scene; a dozen police cars and a fleet of ambulances and fire-trucks had already cordoned off the intersection to re-direct traffic.

“Barnet,” he answered.

“NCPD has a location on one of the fleet vehicles. It’s in an alley not far from you, West–” His car screeched a 180 for the location. “Air units believe it’s abandoned, but advise to approach with caution. The FBI’s already sending in a team.”

“Sarah, tell them to hold position. I want bomb-sniffers out before anyone gets near it.”

She affirmed his order. He fish-tailed around a corner, accelerated for the nearby alleyway. A few unmarked box-trucks were already in position on one side of it. Barnet skidded to a stop, jumped out with the car still running.

He flashed his badge, “Who’s in charge.”

A man in a full tac-gear hung back as his team advanced on the alley, “That’d be me. Special Agent Roy Cullen, HRT.”

Barnet saw men moving through the alley. “Pull them back. Pull them back now!

“I’m going to have to ask–”

“There may be a proximity armed bomb in that vehicle. Tell your team to–”

Barnet’s next words were lost. A fireball lit the air with a blinding flash. The truck’s panels and windows erupted outward with it. The shock wave blew Barnet and Cullen sideways. Glass from shattered windows along the street rained amid pulverized brick-dust and crumbling debris. Car alarms whined blocks away.

Barnet landed more than a dozen feet from where he’d stood. Cullen lie ahead of him, a few feet away, unconscious from the blast’s concussion. Several of the box-trucks had overturned, mounds of gathering rubble piling atop them and Barnet’s car. A section of building came loose from above, landed with a crush of metal and a burst of dust. The dust engulfed his vision and he passed out.

12.

Kennedy eased back to consciousness, tried to reach for her head, but found her arms cuffed behind her. Sharp pains stabbed at all of her nerve-endings, forced her to cry out. Her lips pulled tight against duct tape slapped over them.

Light suddenly flared through tar-thick darkness, made her eyes leak tears. She was blind for a full minute, her breath in ragged bursts from her nose as heavy steps approached her with angry breaths. She blinked away water, focused her eyes against the light. A silhouette appeared before her, the floodlight redirected to reveal it properly.

Familiar, short-cut, graying hair and an unmistakably European-something face appeared atop a tall body clad in a leather riding jacket and t-shirt and jeans. Kennedy’s eyes widened, her face white. If she hadn’t been gagged, she might have vomited in pure terror. Instead, she merely squeaked, panted through her nose above the tape.

Kieran Walters leaned forward at nose-length, “You know who I am.”

It was a statement. She knew that. She also gathered he was aware of her association with the NSA. She swallowed hard. Then, with a solemn nod, reaffirmed his statement. A lightning hand gripped either side of her face. It squeezed at her upper jaw, directed her eyes to his.

“Then we’ll skip the small-talk.” His grip tightened. She squeaked terror again, afraid her teeth would crack. He spoke slowly, enunciated each word to inflect more intimidation and malice than Kennedy thought a human could. “Where. is. Juan. Torres?

She shuddered, shook. The stabbing nerve-endings sent shocks through her body. Knives stuck into her heart and lungs, made each breath like swallowing razor blades. He released her face, tore the tape away with a loud riiip! She sobbed incomprehensibly, vaguely saying she didn’t know. Walters balled a fist, hit her like a Mack truck. Bruising was instant. The tight pull of swelling said it would last. She tasted blood from her a split lip. It leaked from along her chin, hot, wet.

Her stomach lurched, and her face involuntarily stiffened up. She needed to remain collected, calm, wait to get the upper hand, and stay alive long enough for Barnet to find her. Neither panic nor hysteria would help her. She did her best to still her trembling limbs against the lingering effects of the stunner’s charge and the bruised wounds Walters had caused.

She sniffled away the last of her tears, “I’ll n-need a p-pen… and a free hand.”

Walters nodded at someone in the room’s darkened recesses. A man stepped forward with a pen and pad of paper. Walters took it, knelt to undo her cuffs and freed both of her hands. She rubbed her sore wrists as he stepped back. With a deft hand she wrote in miniature script, then handed over the pad and kept the pen.

He squinted at it, “Three-Thirty-one fukyerself la—”

She lunged, pen out, aimed for his jugular. It speared his neck to a stream of blood, but no spurt. Kennedy internally panicked. She’d missed.

Walters stumbled back, “Fuck!”

The man in the shadows sprinted over, his rifle on her. She spit at their feet, “Go to hell, asshole!”

Walters tore the pen from his neck with a grunt, “Bitch!”

Blood leaked through his tense fingers, kept pressure on the wound. He stepped forward, hit her hard enough to knock her unconscious again.

Barnet eased up from a cot in a mobile relief-center; a tent on the edge of the explosion zone. He checked himself to ensure he was intact, found only minor scratches and a thick coat of soot and dust. He stumbled for a tent flap ahead, passed sedated and burned FBI agents and others groaning in pain and shock. He stepped out to find fresh, morning sun streaming down on a new day.

The tent was an eye of order in an otherwise chaotic storm. It had been setup across the street from the initial explosion, in the mouth of the opposite alley from where the truck had been. Fire-trucks lined the whole city block, still soaking smoldering ruins and fires that seemed to want to flare up or spread incessantly. The din of countless uniformed officers, plain-clothes and suited FBI agents, and a myriad of EMTs, doctors, and fire-fighters criss-crossed the open spaces between emergency vehicles and tents.

Barnet paused in the thick of things to get his bearings; Kennedy needed to be found, sooner rather than later.

“Garret!” Sarah jogged up, dressed in a sharp suit and looking more masculine than usual. Her tie flapped behind her, “Garret, you’re alright!”

He felt himself over again to make sure, “No holes, anyway.”

She breathed relief, “Thank Christ. Listen, we’ve got Intel on the fleet Walters was using.” His senses honed enough for him to take in the information. “They’re registered to a local rental company operating out of the city’s East-side.”

His mind lagged to see her point, “It would’ve been easy to falsify the information to rent the vehicles, Sarah. I don’t think–”

She waved him off, “Right, but the owner’s an ex-con with prior felonies. He’s on his lat strike. More than likely, he’d have been given big money to keep his mouth shut. But if we squeeze him, he might give us something.”

His mind sputtered to work as he watched fire-fighters flood the ruined block with ultra-jets of water. His eyes met Sarah’s. “It’s our only lead?” She gave a nod. “Then you drive. I’m… not sure what they gave me, but I feel like I’m back in high-school.”

She led him through the sea of people to her car, “Are you sure you want to do this? I can deal with one ex-con.”

He thought of Kennedy at Walters’ mercy and gave a resolute shake of his head. “No. I won’t let this go unanswered. It happened on my watch. If it weren’t for me, Kennedy wouldn’t even be a target. She shouldn’t have ever been a part of this in the first place. The agency made a mistake with the way this was handled. I aim to see she doesn’t pay for it and gets back in one piece.”

They slid into Sarah’s black sedan. She started the car, hesitated with a long look to Barnet. Emotions played over her face for a moment. When she finally spoke, it was with a grave reservation at her own words. “Garret, you may have to accept…” Bile scorched her throat. It was almost unbearable to think her own thoughts, let alone speak them. “Walters might’ve already killed her.”

“No,” he reasoned firmly. “If Walters had wanted her dead, he’d have killed her on the road. He needed her alive. He wants something from her.”

She put the car in gear, “I sincerely hope you’re right.”

13.

The guy was built like one of those Harley thugs from street-gang movies. In other-words, a brick shit-house that might’ve given Juan Torres a run for his money. That is, until he was slammed backward against a wall of shelves by the tiny, blonde NSA agent. Barnet watched with an almost sick satisfaction, smirking at the debilitated pain in the guy’s face. Sarah pressed a gun to his head with one hand, twisted his testicles with the other.

“Kieran Walters, asshole! Where is he?”

“Bitch, I… don’t know who you’re… talking about,” he said an octave higher than expected.

She gave an angry twist, “Tell me, or I rip ’em off!

Barnet was leaned against a car a few feet away, its hood open. He crossed his arms, casually, “You might wanna’ do what she says. I’m not sure she can do it, but personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing her try.”

“Sick fucks, both of–” A twist and a sharp inhale cut him off. His voice was even higher, “Alright, alright.” Sarah released him enough to speak. “I seen him come in here. He wanted a fleet of SUVs. Yah. And when I asked him to sign the paperwork, he dropped a briefcase full’a money on the table.”

Barnet moseyed over, “We’ve found the fleet, all twelve of ’em.”

He spoke through curled, nicotine-stained lip, “What about the last one? Thirteen?”

Sarah readied to squeeze again, glanced back at Barnet, “What d’you think?”

“Walters seems like the type to account for this.”

They exchanged a glance and looked back to the guy for an explanation. He shrank away as best he could. “The guy… Walters… didn’t know, but I had trackers in the trucks. Just in case… something happened.”

He grit his teeth, fearful of another twist. The two agents had a silent conversation of tilted and raised facial features. Finally, Sarah looked back, “Give us the tracker’s I-D frequency, we pretend this little infraction never happened. We’ll even keep your parole officer from hearing about it.”

“Yeah?” She raised an eyebrow. “And I can keep the money?”

Barnet shook his head pitifully, “The NSA doesn’t give a shit about Walters’ money, or yours, just quit jerking us around.”

The guy swallowed hard, nodded. Sarah released him, but kept her gun up. It followed his half-limp around and into a nearby office. He sat behind a desk, nursed himself with a gentle hand and typed with the other.

“Fuckin’ bruised ’em, I think.”

“Poor baby.”

He switched out hands to scribble down a series of letters and numbers on a memo pad, then tore off the page for Barnet. He went back to cradling himself, with both hands this time, “That’s it. Feed it into any GPS monitor and it’ll show up the next time the truck starts.”

“Why the wait?” Barnet asked.

He shrugged, breathed carefully, “I dunno. That’s just always how the system’s worked…. I’d say I wish I could offer more help, but we’d all know it’s a lie.”

Sarah safetied her pistol, slid it into her hip-holster, and stepped away. Barnet moved to leave, nodded at the guy, “Best to get some ice on ’em before too long.”

“Yeah. Right. I’ll do that.” The door to the office shut. “Asshole.”

A bucket of ice water splashed Kennedy’s face and torso. She choked and coughed, gasping for air and spitting out inhaled water. Walters’ fingers nursed his wounded neck as she shook water from her face, opened her eyes to see him lean in at nose-length again.

“That wasn’t very smart. Try some it again, I’ll strip you naked and feed you to my men.”

Her eyes burned with hatred. Her emotional control had returned in full-force, and was currently tempering her fear into active hatred and undeniable logic. “No. You won’t. Not if you ever hope to get anything out of me. My guess is, until then, you’ll keep me as safe and sane as possible. Otherwise, you. Are. fucked.

Walters straightened from his lean and began to laugh. He looked back at one of his men, “Maybe I was wrong about this one. Maybe she is a smart girl.”

Walters nodded to the man. He stepped to a nearby door and threw it open with one hand, the other clasped around a Kalashnikov. Someone was thrown toward him. He dragged them in, forced them forward at rifle-point. The person stumbled, hands bound with rope and mouth gagged with a swath of cloth.

Kennedy’s eyes widened at Melissa Fannon. Juan Torres’ bombshell sister looked like hell. She’d passed the point where any amount of time could make her look whole again, no matter her skill with make-up.

Walters smiled with a sadistic satisfaction, “Now, my bows, they’ve already had their way with this one. I figure though, you’re a… medical professional, took an oath to “do no harm–” He felt at his neck with a sickly wince. “And my guess is, that extends to this–” He knelt down, grabbed Melissa by the back of the head, “this poor, cowering creature here.” He threw her head forward, stood up, and pulled a gun from his hip. He stopped between Kennedy and Melissa, gun aimed at the latter, “Now, she doesn’t know where they’re holding her brother, but you do. You can see where this is going, I imagine. In case you don’t, let me just say, I have no problem killing her to get you to talk.”

“What if I don’t?” Kennedy asked, eyes locked on Walters’.

He cocked the pistol’s hammer, “Maybe we should find out.”

Kennedy grit her teeth. Walters hesitated. Melissa’s eyes were stuck in a traumatized stare. She’d clearly been through something. Kennedy hoped, whatever it was, Walters was lying about it. All the same, she was at a loss. If she gave them the information, they’d have no use for her anymore, and they’d kill her. Then, they’d kill Melissa, raid the NSA Safe-house, kill Mendez, Torres, and whomever else got in the way.

She looked up at Walters, “How do I know you won’t kill us afterward just for the fun of it?”

Walter’s head tilted in agreement. He knelt to match his height to hers, eyes boring holes into her own, “Well, I suppose, that’s just the risk you take.”

Kennedy inhaled a sharp breath. Her stomach churned. “Alright. No games.”

She took a breath, and relayed an address. Walters immediately ordered his men to ready up over a two-way radio, put the man in the room on guard and left. It was only a matter of time before he realized the address was a fake. With any luck, the real NSA safe-house next door would intervene.

14.

Sarah’s sedan pulled into a space a few places down from the Dentist’s car. He’d been and gone since lunch, and was currently inside working on one of his patients. Barnet and Sarah eased from the car, neither much in the mood for talking. They still had to get upstairs, begin monitoring the GPS signal, and hope, when it registered again, it would lead to Kennedy… and that she’d still be alive.

They pushed into the building as a vehicle rolled up behind them. They ignored a shout as four doors opened. The building door shut, and Barnet’s mind blocked it out. He was too focused on finding Kennedy. Upstairs, they had only the vaguest sense that something was off. A loud crash sounded, but given the place below was a bar, it was neither uncommon nor alarming.

Sarah took a place at her laptop, keyed in the GPS ID the ex-con had given them. Barnet stood before the two, scarred patients with his arms crossed. His thoughts were only of Kennedy and an undeniable guilt at involving her. She’d only been gone a few hours, but she could be dead by now, maybe worse. In his line of work, death was quick, simple, with no time for undue suffering. More often than not though, guys like Walters excelled in make suffering a deranged art. He didn’t want to admit any of it to Sarah, as her hope kept him going, but his own was a facade that could easily disintegrate if not careful.

Kennedy Hart. She shouldn’t be here. She was a nurse, not an agent. Hell, she hardly had a life outside work. To think it might be over so young, so needlessly, wounded him. He may not have put the gun to her head, but he’d damned sure put her in position for Walters to. He and the Agency– the NSA, that was prepared to disavow Barnet’s entire operation if things went sideways and the wrong people found out what was going on. Barnet wasn’t even sure anymore, not really.

He’d sussed out what he could from what he hadn’t known. Hot Iron had never been solely about locating and eliminating Walters. That was the one thing he’d lied about. The NSA was intent on taking Walters in, interrogating him with prejudice, and getting everything from him they could. They’d charge him in a secret court, and shove him in a cell so deep underground he’d be dead a decade before anyone learned he’d been caught. In the meantime, they and the other acronym agencies would use whatever they’d learned to forward their own, particular agendas.

It made him sick to think of it. Half truths and white-lies. That was what he’d given to Kennedy. There was no way to avoid the guilt. He’d been as honest as he could be, told her enough to know to keep herself safe, protect her job from the people holding it hostage. It wasn’t enough. It never could’ve been. He doubted full-fledged field-training would’ve put her in the right place to take on Walters. The man was a trained, ex-mercenary on a warpath. The entire CIA hadn’t been able to keep him leashed, even then the NSA hadn’t been able to catch him. What hope could Kennedy have in his hands?

It was on Barnet’s watch that Kennedy had been hit and captured. Her T-boned Taurus was still being combed for clues at the crash-site. What a waste of effort and time. It could’ve been better directed elsewhere, at finding her, at squeezing every last resource the agency had to do so.

“It’s in,” Sarah said.

Barnet nodded. Another crash sounded below. Four doors slammed shut outside. An SUV ground to a start.

“Hold on, we’re getting something,” Sarah said, the screen before her triangulating with a progress bar.

Barnet heard doors slam and suddenly knew.

“It’s–”

“Here.”

His pistol was out, legs pumping for the building’s entrance. He threw himself through the office-door, bounded down the steps, then crashed through the building’s entrance. Tires squealed as he burst outside. His pistol rose, barked rounds. The SUV’s rear-window shattered. A tail-light burst. Sarah was out behind him, diving into the car. Barnet aimed one last shot, blew out a rear-tire on the SUV. It fish-tailed away over metal grating asphalt. Three tires screeched, whipped it around a corner. Sarah threw the car through a reverse 180, door open. Barnet reloaded as he jumped in. Rubber burned and peeled away after the SUV, the force slamming the doors shut.

They blazed through an intersection. Sirens blared and began to scream along behind them. They galloped forward, engine whining, pursuing the wounded truck. Barnet leaned from his window, fired wildly into the rear of the truck. Blood sprayed a window and someone in a rear-seat slumped sideways, dead from a stray round. Another person turned around.

“Down!” Barnet yelled.

He shoved Sarah beneath the dash. She fought to keep the car straight, blind. A Kalashnikov chattered, and spit ammunition and shell casings out the back window. Divots danced across Sarah’s hood and windshield. A double triplet of fire shattered the window over them. The sedan chirped and barked, weaved to dodge more fire. It died for a reload.

Barnet was up, “Keep it steady!”

He took a deep breath, aimed at the figure in the backseat. It fumbled with a new magazine. Timed slowed. Barnet breathed, squeezed. Blood and brain splattered from an exit wound. It spit across seat-backs and the windshield, threw the SUV into a frenzy as the driver struggled to wipe it away.

Time resumed. Screaming sirens and the squeal of sparking metal sounded over the bark of Barnet’s gunfire. The truck threw itself around corners, used its fish-tails to dodge the shots. A helicopter thumped into view overhead. Squad cars behind them suddenly surged forward to come even with them– the cops would have run their plates, deduced what was happening. The day’s earlier events assured everyone knew the NSA and FBI were hunting someone. The chopper pulled ahead with a bloodthirsty vengeance above, then sank like a stone to cut off Walters’ SUV.

The chase diverted into an alley, rocketed out the other-side into heavy traffic.

Walters ducked in the front seat, phone to his ear, “Kill them. Line them up and kill them both.”

The man in the room before Kennedy thumbed his phone, shoved it into a pocket. He advanced with his rifle on her. A hand grabbed Melissa, threw her at the far wall across from Kennedy. She knew what was about to happen, had only one chance to stop it. She was a nurse, knew human anatomy better than most. She’d have to put it to the test. But how? Could she? She was sworn to help people, but this was different, wasn’t it?

The man unlocked her first cuff. She had to wait until she was up. She couldn’t risk not having full leverage. There were a million ways to kill a person, probably more. Most of them she’d seen, either as attempts, or eventual successes. They all required both hands.

“Beside her, now!” Her second hand came free and he pulled her up.

Nothing mattered now except survival.

She straightened to step forward. His rifle was low, its butt even with his diaphragm. It wouldn’t take much. She moved to step. A fast grip and heavy jolt; the rifle-butt slammed his diaphragm. He fell back, breathless. She wrestled the rifle away. A heavy jerk broke it free. A moment later the butt crushed his throat. A crunch, and he was dead, spinal cord severed.

Kennedy’s chest heaved from the effort, mind still reeling. A flit from Melissa forced her into action. In a flash, she was beside her, rifle in hand, fighting knotted rope at her wrists. She freed the gag from Melissa.

“Y-you k-killed him,” she said, traumatized.

She fought the rope, “These knots. The rope’s too tight.”

“He h-has a kn-knife,” Melissa said, eyeing the body.

Kennedy hurried over to search him, found a pistol and a large survival knife. She slid the pistol into the waistband of her scrubs, then sliced through the binds on Melissa’s wrist.

“Ready?” Melissa nodded. “Stay behind me. We’ll get out of here. I promise.”

15.

Walters’ SUV careened around a corner. Barnet and Sarah followed, tires screaming. Pistol fire barked and flashed beneath the droning helicopters above. Every few seconds divots appeared in new places as an NCPD SWAT sharpshooter took pot-shots from a chopper. Sirens wailed and echoed to catch up from a side-street. Squad cars ramped downward to glide, level, with the sedan. More shots rattled off from the SUV. A squad car, swerved, side-swiped the sedan. It rebounded sideways, slammed a pole, and disappeared behind them.

“Shit!” Barnet said, glancing backward. “This has gotta’ stop.”

He slapped a new magazine into his pistol and the sedan ramped over a bridge’s apex, caught air, crashed down with a chirp of and groaning metal. A cruiser pulled ahead to PIT the SUV.

“No! Damn it! No!” Barnet yelled futilely. “We need to follow–” He dialed his phone, “Connect me with your supervisor immediately!

“This is bad,” Sarah said. She spun around a corner. The Squad car easily bridged the distance between her and the SUV. “If he PITs that truck we’ll never find Kennedy.”

Barnet wasn’t listening. He spoke a mile a minute, each word as important and urgent as the next or last. “This is Special Agent Garret Barnet with the NSA. I am currently in pursuit of a black Suburban headed South-West through the city. Your people are following. Tell them to back off. Follow but do not intervene! The suspect is holding an agent hostage and we need to–”

“Garret!”

The cop’s car lurched forward. It nudged for the SUV, hit air instead, almost spun out of control. Sarah jerked left to compensate. The squad car recovered, pulled ahead again. It edged up against the blown out rear-tire of the SUV.

Barnet muttered, “Oh shit,” ceaselessly.

When it came, they were too shocked, stunned. The call never went through. The PIT did: the squad car surged forward with a vengeance. Its supercharger whinnied with high RPMs beside the scraping metal and asphalt that cut a path through the city. With a seething hatred, the squad car lurched again. Barnet was conscious of a sustained “no!” chorusing from he and Sarah. The panel above the mangled steel rim depressed. Sparks vomited sideways. The mangled rim sheered in half, threw Walters into a fish-tail. The cop followed through.

Walters’ SUV three-sixtied through traffic. It smashed and bounced off cars that swerved to avoid it. The impacts threw it back around, shifted its gravity with reckless abandon. The gnarled rim caught a pot-hole, deformed. The truck’s gravity shifted. In a blink, it was on its side. A fountain of sparks formed along the sides of the vehicle as it slid along its roof. It smashed a parked car, momentum still strong. A moment later it was flipping up, over, and down the parked car. It finally came to a stop, upside down, in front of the car, its wheels still spinning but its body inert.

Sarah skidded to a stop before it. She and Barnet were out, flashing their badges at the dozen uniforms emerging from the fleet of police cars around them. They ordered the cops to stay back, rushed the overturned vehicle with their pistols drawn. Walters clawed his way out, bleeding and bruised. A gun in one of his hands scraped the ground for leverage, his other hand clawed forward.

Barnet kicked Walters’ pistol away, yanked the dazed man up, “Where is she, you asshole!?”

Walters swayed, reality spinning around him. Barnet straightened his face, put his gun to his head. Walters began a slow rise to laughter, his head shaking, “You aren’t getting shit from me.”

Barnet sneered, “We’ll see about that.”

With a single move, he pistol whipped Walters unconscious.

Kennedy sensed something had changed. The last two hallways were empty. Something had to have cleared them. Some sort of event had taken place, and as far as she could tell, had taken Walters’ goons with it. She led Melissa, carefully, along cheap, wood-paneled corridors. The place felt like a trailer-home from the seventies; only a step above being homeless with décor more a begrudging obligation than a luxury.

They moved deeper through the place and windows appeared beside a staircase that lead downward. With an outward look, Kennedy suddenly understood why the place seemed so odd. It was a large warehouse, not unlike the one she’d read had exploded, save it didn’t smell of fish. According to the mostly-vacant parking lot outside, and the thriving, industrial landscape around it, she guessed the building wasn’t used for anything official.

She crept down the stairs ahead of Melissa, voices uttering low words from behind a sheet-metal wall. One said something about a car-chase on TV. Melissa panted terror. Kennedy moved her into hiding behind a stack of thick-wood crates. Behind them, a maze of corridors and rooms were constructed from sheet-metal dividers. Ahead, just past the packed storage area, light shined from an open, roll-door.

She could almost feel the waning sunlight. Still, where would she go from there? She couldn’t risk waiting for Barnet or the cops, nor hot-wire a nearby car– that hadn’t been on the med-school curriculum, unfortunately. She’d have to flag someone down for a ride, or find a place to hide and call Barnet. Any waiting would expose her though, and there was no assurance against encountering one of Walters’ goons while hitch-hiking.

No, even if she made it past the two voices ahead, she needed something immediate. Mobility, certainty, something to ensure she and Melissa could go as fast and far as possible to get away. That left only one option, whether or not it was possible remained to be seen.

She knelt beside Melissa, handed over the pistol from her waist-band, “Melissa, I need you to help me. I know you’re scared, but we’ve to gotta’ get out of here. If we stay, they’ll kill us.”

Melissa nodded, took the gun with trembling hands, “I’ve never fired a gun in my life.”

Kennedy frowned, tested the weight of the AK in her hands, “Neither have I, but maybe we won’t have to.”

“What do I do?”

Kennedy peered around the stack of boxes at the sunlight, “Just stay hidden. If I get in trouble, help me. Can you do that?”

Melissa pulled herself together, swallowed hard, “Y-yeah. I can do that.”

Kennedy breathed, then started forward. She advanced through the storage area for the sheet-metal dividing wall and the double-wide opening between her and it. She flattened up against the wall, leaned out to peer around it; two men sat just beyond it in an office on either side of a desk. They faced away from the door to stare at a wall-mounted TV as a news report showed footage of an ongoing police chase. She saw the black SUV, instantly knew it was Walters. She scanned the two men, spotted a carabiner of keys latched to one’s belt loop. They dangled through his chair above a black car-remote.

Her confidence peaked. She moved like wind, quiet, fast. Her rifle butt rose, slammed the man with the keys in the back of the head. The other turned to pull a pistol. She turned the AK on him.

Slow. Left hand,” she ordered. He pulled the gun out backwards. “On the floor.” He tossed the gun over. “I swear if you make one move I’ll murder–”

A click sounded behind her.

“Someone’s outta’ their cage,” a voice said. “Put it down.”

She didn’t budge. Her rifle was trained on the man. The keys were in reach. She could end this if it weren’t for–

“I said put it down!” He ordered with a fast step forward.

A pistol barked. Blood sprayed from his torso. The other man dove for his gun. The AK sputtered and recoiled. More pistol rounds echoed through the small area over the AK. At point blank, Kennedy littered the man with enough ammunition to carve a large hole out of his body. Melissa was suddenly behind Kennedy, her nerve regained.

She breathed exhilaration, “Are you alright?”

Kennedy fished for the keys, fought them off the last man’s pants as he stirred, “Yeah. Let’s go.”

They sprinted outside, hit the panic button. A Civic in the parking lot honked and flashed its lights. The pairs sprinted to the car, dove in just as distant rifle rounds began to chatter after them. The car fish-tailed from the parking, rear-window exploding. A man chased it to the edge of the lot, but tore away at break-neck speed, careened around a corner, and disappeared; Kennedy and Melissa with it.

16.

Barnet and Sarah returned from a local holding area run by the NSA. Walters was in custody, and so far, not talking. He would though, the NSA interrogator would make sure of it. By the end of it, Barnet would know where Kennedy was being held, and the NSA would know everything Walters did– including his underwear size, if they desired.

Neither of the agents thought much of the Civic parked in the Dentist’s usual spot as they entered the building. They’d missed the shattered window, too preoccupied with plotting their next move. They ascended the stairs to the safe-house, moved through it, but stopped, dumbstruck to find Kennedy tending to Melissa’s bruised and cut face. She sat beside her brother, his hand in hers. She didn’t even flinch when Kennedy swabbed alcohol at her wounds. Melissa was just glad to yet live.

Barnet involuntarily rushed and hugged Kennedy; a grievous breach of protocol. Sarah was quick to redirect his shame before protocol took precedent, “We picked up Walters and were trying to get your location from him.”

Kennedy replied distantly, “We made it during the chase. I saw it on the news.”

There was a long silence. Barnet finally broke it, “I’m glad you’re alright.”

Kenned shrugged. That was the end of it.

She did eventually retell of the warehouse and the events there, but that was as far as she’d go. The job wasn’t over yet, not by a long-shot. She still had two patients to care for, one in better shape than the other, near ready to come out of her induced coma. The other though, had days of work and monitoring left before he could even be considered for it.

A week after the short-lived kidnapping, Kennedy arrived at the safe-house to find the others yet to make it in. Mendez was still drugged too heavily to do much more than sleep and sip water. Currently, she was occupied with the former. Kennedy did her level-best to remain quiet, wishing not to disturb the injured, young woman.

She went about her usual routine of checking vitals, charting, and rehanging banana bags. Once finished, she whirled around to find a stocky, balding man had sneaked in behind her. He seemed to want to make his presence known though, given his bearing. He wore polyester rags, liberally called a suit, his face was pinched in a perpetual scowl. Kennedy didn’t need med-school to tell her he was an asshole.

“Can I help you?”

He flashed an NCPD badge, “I’m Matthew Roberts with NCPD’s Internal Affairs division.”

“That supposed to mean something?” She asked combatively, certain he wasn’t allowed in.

He waddled over, “I’m here to check on Officers Mendez and Torres to ensure they’ll be ready to face indictment for their botched operation.”

Kennedy’s eyes narrowed. Unlike Roberts, she was aware of two, crucial things; one, at its heart, Hot Iron was meant to suss out a mole; and two, no-one in the NCPD was supposed to know either of the two officers were alive.

She faked out the cop. It was too obvious. She needed to act, and fast.

She stiffened up as if suddenly fearing his authority, “Okay. S-sorry. We just aren’t supposed to have anyone in here.”

She moved for a drawer across the room. He stepped before the two officers, surveyed them with a wide sweep of his eyes. He made casual conversation more forced than it should’ve been, “And how are they, doctor?”

She almost corrected him, didn’t. It was all the more evidence he present for something impersonal. She stepped beside him, drew out a large dose of something in a syringe.

He eyed it, “Everything alright.”

“Oh yes,” Kennedy lied. “Just a little something for the pain.”

He nodded. She turned, jabbed the needle into his neck, and flooded his veins with sedative. He was awake long enough to fumble for his gun. She forced it away, snapped his wrist with an expert move. The gun fell to the floor. Roberts went with it, hit harder, louder.

***

Kennedy sat in bed, reading a Scientific American about psychology and burn patients. She’d gotten authorization to awaken Torres soon. If Barnet had been truthful– and considering they were now sleeping together, she doubted he’d lie– it wouldn’t be more than a few days before both officers were moved back to the ICU. With them, any black marks would be removed from her license, and more thank likely, she’d be commended for capturing Roberts. That was, again, if Barent’s sentiments had been sincere, and again, she doubted he’d lie.

Her phone vibrated along the table beside her. She answered it habitually, “Hello?”

It was Kevin. “Kennedy, don’t hang up!”
She rolled her eyes, “What d’you want?”

“I just wanna’ get my stuff back,” he said quickly.

She sighed, “Kevin you left your shit here and I threw it out. Call here again, and it’ll be the least of your problems.”

She hung up the phone and returned to reading.

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