My partner is dead.
There, it is possible to complete the thought: My partner is dead. My partner has been dead for...two hours and 48 minutes.
There is nothing there, no pain, just an enormous numbness. I’ve been injured often enough to know that the numbness doesn’t last, that agony is waiting down the long gray corridor of dread. But for now the words mean nothing except the disorientation of unfamiliar details.
The seat beside me is empty; it will stay that way. The cuffs of my shirt are stiff with his blood, and rub irritatingly at my wrists. I take a wrong turn in the one-way maze of downtown Denver streets and no one comments dryly and helps me find my way. There will be no one to celebrate our continued survival with tonight, because this time one of us did not survive.
Well, that’s a pointless list, with no end; if my practical partner were here, he would tell me so.
The Western satellite office lies just ahead, a solemn looking dark brick building set on a rise above the street. “YMCA of the Rocky Mountains” reads the sign next to the door. I find a parking place and get out. The slam of one car door.
Climbing the dozen stairs to the recessed front door, I find myself breathing open-mouthed. The Mile High City. Thin air that robs even athletes of their performance, deadens the muscles, slows reflexes. My partner is dead.
The short-haired young man in a crisply ironed plaid shirt standing behind the small counter is supposed to be one of ours. “Afternoon,” he says. “Room for you?”
“Second floor, if you’ve got it. I hate the stairs,” I say, letting him know who I am. Does he know about my partner? His face doesn’t show it if he does. I am tempted for a moment to tell him. My partner is dead. What would he say, that death is an occupational hazard? Pointless.
Instead, I spread my right hand on the countertop, waiting for my prints to be read. The clerk glances at the indicator light under the counter and nods.
“I’m afraid it will have to be five, but don’t worry, sir. We have an elevator,” he says, completing the exchange for today, everything nice and normal.
I thank him, taking the key that will open a very non-standard door. A kid with a struggling beard and a backpack gets in the elevator with me. The kid smells of marijuana and wood smoke and unwashed clothes, somebody’s runaway boy splurging on the Y so he can have a shower and sleep in a bed for a night. One of the unaware in whose mundane lives we hide. The kid gets out at three.
On five, still alone, I insert my key under the button panel and the elevator rises to the unmarked sixth floor, hidden from the outside inside the steeply pitched roof. The doors open to reveal a desk with a gatekeeper made alert by the events of the day.
“ID,” he snaps and I place my left hand on his desktop panel. A moment later, a green light flashes and he nods me through.
The hallways are busy; a cadre of agents had been gathered from around the country to beef up the small office for today’s mission. Some meet my eyes, some do not and I wonder in each case, Does he know? Does she? My partner is dead.
Romer knows, of course. The Denver operative had been there for all of it the theft of precious plutonium from the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility, the near escape, the chase across the barren plateau that Coloradans consider a prairie, the exchange of gunfire. Romer knows.
But his young, freckled face gives no indication. Easier that way, I suppose. He nods and falls into step beside me.
“Where is he?” I ask. My voice sounds normal, I think.
He hesitates a moment, then jerks his head toward the end of the hallway. “On the right,” he says, then adds, “You know they want him alive.”
“Of course,” I say, giving him a glance that could freeze water. “The mission isn’t over. The plutonium must be found.”
I walk down the long gunmetal hallway. No one tries to stop me. Some people look at me, some don’t. It means nothing.
At the secured door on the right, I place my key against the pad and the door slides open.
It is cluttered for an interrogation room. No doubt it normally serves as an office for one of the local operatives, since there is a battered desk pushed against one wall and file cabinets on the other. A guard eyes me suspiciously from just beside the door as I enter, his rifle out and ready. I nod casually at him and show my ID. “Take a break,” I suggest, and he marches out without hesitation.
Once the door is closed behind him, I pull a few items from the discreet carrying places every good spy figures out, and I set to work on the lock. It isn’t difficult; I was once assigned to install security devices at headquarters when an injury sidelined me for a couple of months, and this lock is standard issue. When I have it disabled no one can come in, no one can leave until I do some more work I turn to the man I have come to see.
He is not what I had imagined. I find instead an innocent face with wary eyes and a body that somehow suggests the still-forming musculature of a teenager. One of the young sharks who have lately joined the game. He is in a heavy wooden chair set in the middle of the room, metal cuffs fastened around his wrists, straps around his ankles and chest. He has already been searched; his feet are bare, his shirt untucked and gaping open over a pale, hairless, boy’s chest. The buttons are in a pile on the desk blotter with his belt and other potential weapons.
I walk to the desk to give myself time, feeling his eyes on me all the time. The buttons have been sorted into two piles, exploding and non-exploding. The thin belt is curled up next to its contents a long, thin strip of metal with a jagged edge and rings for gripping at each end a saw. There is a small pair of infrared binoculars, a silver pen, smashed and revealing the complicated components that are based on our original design, a shiny leather shoulder holster and a gun. The gun. I pick it up, my hand slipping easily around the handle, my index finger going for the trigger. I turn smoothly and point it between his eyes.
“Bang,” I murmur. He doesn’t flinch, but I see the muscles of his neck flex as he swallows.
I lower the gun and set it back on the table carefully. There is a wallet, scuffed leather. I almost expect to see the telltale condom ring of a hopeful teenager. There is about $150 in cash in the wallet and a Colorado driver’s license issued to Bill Simpson, 22, of Aurora. I look from the picture to the face in front of me; probably as good a likeness as most drivers’ licenses, a convincing forgery.
“Mr. Simpson,” I say. “Bill may I call you Bill?”
“Bill, or whatever your name is, do you know who I am?”
“Do you know why I’m here?”
His gaze is direct now. “Don’t you?” he asks softly. So he likes to play it that way unexpectedly confrontive. No doubt a technique from their training program, suggested by an instructor who has never been in the field. The sort of trainer I used to be, until my partner found me and cajoled me into the real world.
I decide to let it ride. “Of course, there’s the issue of where you hid the plutonium. My colleagues are most interested in that piece of information. Me, I have another agenda.”
He nods. “Your partner.”
I frown, irrationally angered that he should speak of it.
“One of the guards told me,” he continues, and licks at a split lip. “I killed your partner.” His eyes are locked on mine. He doesn’t say he is sorry and somehow that makes it a little easier to bear.
“You’re new,” I say, changing the subject.
He shrugs. “I’ve been at it for a while.”
“At 22? You must have started young.”
He seems puzzled for a moment and then almost smiles. “You mustn’t rely on the driver’s license.”
“No. Or on looks, apparently.”
“No.” He shifts a bit in the chair, wincing. Somebody lost his temper. Not me. My anger is an ice cold flame. I can take my time, stay in control. Do it my way, when I’m satisfied.
He sees all this in my face and swallows again.
“You said you know who I am,” I continue.
“Your face, at least,” he says. “Your name.”
“And my partner’s.” He doesn’t respond. What could he say? If he knows of one of us, he knows of the other. We are a team. Were. My partner is dead.
I study his face, memorizing it. Pointless. We won’t be meeting again. “And you are...?” I ask.
He nods toward the wallet, the fake identity there. Fine. Let it go. If he wants to die anonymously, why not? No doubt somebody in their organization will miss him eventually.
“You have a partner?” My voice comes out louder than I intended. I pull it under control.
“No. I don’t need one,” he says. “I’m better on my own.”
“Well, you’re certainly on your own now,” I point out. As I am.
“Someone will come,” he says. But there’s a doubt in his eyes. They are still looking, as we are, for where he stashed the plutonium.
“Your shelf-life is limited, my friend,” I say. “As long as the plutonium is out there, there’s a chance you might be worth the trouble of rescuing. Once the plutonium’s found, they’re going to lose interest in you mighty quick. And as far as we’re concerned, it’s only a matter of time until you’re just an inconvenience to be disposed of.”
“But not to you,” he says. He’s trying to hold my interest, keep me engaged, until something else happens. I pick up his gun again. The safety off, the clip is three rounds shy of full. Plenty to do the job. But he’s right; I need something more from him. This isn’t just business for me, and that ironically makes me maybe his best hope to live a little while longer.
“Let’s try a little debriefing,” I say. “Pretend I’m your superior. Tell me what happened out there.” It’s a technique I used to use with my students, to hone their skills in observation and organization.
“I saw him your partner sneak out of Building 204 alone. I thought that was strange so I followed him. There wasn’t anyone else around, and I didn’t want to waste time calling for help.” Oh, he was willing, he was eager, to tell this story. As much detail as I wanted, as long as he could drag it out. Fine.
“So you chased him down.”
He shrugged. “I chased him. I was faster and he didn’t have a chance to lose me or find cover and start shooting. So we just ran into the desert.”
“Prairie,” I corrected, absent-mindedly slipping into teacher mode again. I had seen them, the figure in front more familiar than my own, clutching the lead-lined box, the legs still pumping, dodging sagebrush, jumping over prairie dog holes, but slowing with exhaustion and age. And behind, another figure with younger, stronger legs, closing in. I started after them, knowing it was hopeless. They were too far away for me to bring down the pursuer with a bullet, let alone catch up. There was no one to call for help; our side and theirs and the plant’s confused security guards were busily engaged in a chaotic battle over a prize that my partner, as he had done so often before, had slipped away with unnoticed. Almost.
As I raced behind, willing strength and breath to my partner, I lost sight of them over a slight rise. I didn’t hear the shot that did it. There were shots all around. By the time I staggered to the top of the rise, my chest heaving in the thin air of the high plains, they had disappeared. Then I saw a splash of red, the only color in that drab landscape, and I found the body of my best friend, my partner. It had been clean, at least, one shot through the chest. From the front, so he must have turned at the end. Well, he would, that final act of bravado. His gun lay in the dirt several feet away, the metal worn to a dull gray by all those years of practice and of use. He hadn’t even had time to fire.
I’ve seen a lot of bodies, of course, enough to know that the stereotypes are seldom true the look of amazement on the dead face, or the illusion of peaceful slumber. Like so many I had seen, my partner looked simply...absent. Gone.
I did what was necessary notified the rest of the team of what had happened, directed them to the area to search, carried the limp body back to our waiting vehicles and laid it in the back of a van without too much care because it was no longer anyone I knew. By then, they’d found this boy, this killer and I followed them back here to finish what I needed to do.
The killer’s eyes are watching me.
I straighten self-consciously. “So, you chased him down and killed him. My partner.”
“He turned and drew his gun. I didn’t have much choice,” he says. Still no apology. Good.
He shifts again, twisting fitfully against the metal bands.
“Uncomfortable?” I inquire politely. “Don’t worry, it won’t be much longer.”
“Until what?” he asks. Nervy again, asking the question that might prod me to action, the miscalculation of inexperience.
“Until I get bored and kill you, or your friends rush in to rescue you,” I say. “Oh, I forgot. You don’t have friends.”
“I didn’t say I don’t have friends,” he says. “I said I don’t have a partner.”
“Neither do I.”
We stare at each other for a long moment. There is a series of mechanical clicks as someone tries the door. When it doesn’t open, they start banging, but the sound is muffled by the heavy metal. It won’t interrupt us. When my communicator begins an impatient beeping, I take out the battery and it goes quiet.
I lay it on the desk next to a wrapped sandwich, pastrami by the smell. “Are you hungry?” I ask, peeling away the greasy paper and holding half the sandwich toward the killer. He shakes his head, looking worried. Apparently I am acting a little strange. I take a bite of the pink meat, my partner’s favorite, tearing at it with my teeth, and suddenly feel queasy. I get that bite down and set the sandwich aside.
“Eat, shit and sleep whenever you have a chance,” I say. “My partner taught me that.”
“Did he have family?” he asks.
“So, just the two of you.” And that look; Christ, I’ve seen that look a hundred times. Well what do they all expect? You can’t have a family and be an agent; everyone knows that. It’s just that most agents die or burn out young enough that it doesn’t get noticed. We survived too long, that’s all, the two of us making up a universe of our own where nobody else fit. I was ready to quit a long time ago, no longer thrilled by the chase, no longer able to pump up the intensity. Just tired. But my partner wasn’t there yet, couldn’t give it up yet. And I couldn’t send him out into the field alone.
Except, of course, that that’s where he ended up at the last. Literally.
“Finish your story,” I order.
He is more than ready to continue. “When I got close, I yelled for him to put the box down. He stopped and turned around. We both had our guns out, so it was a standoff.”
I can picture it, can see my partner turn slowly, can see his eyes. His mad-dog-with-a-bone look, he called it. It had been pretty effective in the past.
“He gave me an peculiar look. Then I saw him start to pull the trigger and I shot first. That’s all.”
Boom. One shot. Through the heart. That’s all.
I clear my throat. “Did he say anything?”
He is watching me and I’m aware that he is prepared to lie if he can only decipher what I want him to say.
“The truth,” I insist. “Did he say anything?”
“He said, ‘Stupid.’ That’s all. I don’t know what he meant.”
“And then you took off with the box. Was he still alive?”
“I think so. His eyes were open.”
What had he thought about, my partner, staring up at the endless blue bowl of Colorado sky in the few minutes it took me to reach him and the fewer minutes it took him to die? “Stupid.” What had he meant? That it was stupid to die for a metal box of ore? That he was stupid for sticking it out in the field until he was bound to meet someone younger and faster? Was it a message for me one of his joking put-downs. Too stupid to figure out what was going on in time to be at his back. Maybe he was talking to this kid, warning him that he was a fool for thinking it was all a game that he could win.
Hell of a eulogy.
I must have said that aloud, because the kid says, “That’s your job, isn’t it? The eulogy?”
“Yeah.” I am very tired, wanting to walk away from it all.
There is a faint hissing sound from outside and the smell of hot metal. No worry, it will take them half an hour to get through that door. We both ignore it. I stare past the killer, the kid, at the window. None of those famous views of the Rocky Mountain Front Range for the mundanes and the agents who inhabit this building, just the rising walls of surrounding skyscrapers. A scrap of paper flutters past in a fitful gust of wind.
“He was a little old for this sort of thing.” The careless cruelty of youth. He doesn’t say anything about me, but he doesn’t have to. We were a team, we were both a little old for this sort of thing.
“So why keep on?” He has noticed my hand resting again on his gun. He wants to keep me talking. Well, why not, for a little while? Where do I have to go?
“My partner was a little addicted to it,” I say. “He loved it, right from the start the risk, the rush. Winning. Losing, and figuring out how we were going to come out on top next time. The aliveness of it, pushing himself as far as he could go, as fast as he could go. Beating the odds. Me, I was there because somebody had to watch his back.” And that, I thought, might be all the eulogy either of us ever got.
I straighten. Time to end this. “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me where the plutonium is?” Tidying up loose ends. He is wide-eyed with fear now, knowing what’s coming, but he doesn’t say anything.
It’s ironic really. I’m not angry any more. I don’t need to do this for myself after all. But, I’ve made a promise to my partner and I’ve got to keep it. I raise the gun. It has a nice feel to it, for a new gun.
Suddenly, I’m lying on my back, staring up at blue sky. Just like my partner. My ears hum. I am buffeted by wind. I turn my head slightly and see the belly of a helicopter overhead, beyond the tattered edges of the corner wall. A figure in black slides down from the helicopter like a spider on a silver thread. He swings into what’s left of the room and points a gun at me. My fingers scrabble desperately for the kid’s gun but before I can feel it, he fires. Numbness spreads through my chest, down my arms, a great lassitude. I lift my head enough to see the feathered tail of a dart before my head drops, dead weight. I’m still conscious, but movement is apparently out of the question. Something new from their labs. I’ll have to report on it. If I live.
The man in black, his hair buffeted by the wind from the blades, steps to my side but he’s not looking at me. I turn my eyes and see the kid, and the chair, lying on the floor next to me.
“Dr. Kuryakin, I presume?” the man in black says, and the kid nods warily. “Napoleon Solo, from the New York office,” the man continues. “Hold still.” He sticks wads of some kind of putty on the metal cuffs and pretty soon there’s enough smoke to make my eyes water. I feel tears sliding down my cheeks. The kid, Kuryakin, hisses with pain but struggles free of the ruined cuffs. He unbuckles the straps and scrambles to his feet. He sways a bit but I don’t see any new blood.
Solo leans close to shout above the thunder of the helicopter blades. His words float down to me. “You OK?”
“I am all right,” the kid says stiffly. “The plutonium?”
“All safe and sound, back in the vault with a newly vigilant security force guarding it. Thrush’s dreams of entering the nuclear age foiled again.” He gives me a smug look.
“One of our team stumbled on the hieroglyphics you scratched in the dirt,” he continues. “Fortunately, I read a little Russian.”
“Fortunately,” Kuryakin echoes, looking at Solo with more interest.
“We’re wanted at the Boulder office p.d.q.,” Solo says. “Apparently, we’re going to be finishing this thing up together. Do you think you’re going to need much rescuing? I just like to plan ahead.”
Kuryakin’s hand brushes mine as he retrieves his gun, shoving it into the waist of his pants. “I am quite able to care for myself,” he says, stiffer than ever. Then, “Thanks,” he adds a little sheepishly.
“My pleasure.” Solo gestures at the gun. “Better keep that out. It may be rough getting out of here.” As if to emphasize his words, there is the sound of bullets pinging off the belly of the helicopter.
The kid rests his hand on the gun. “Don’t worry,” he says, glancing at me, “I’ll watch your back if you watch mine.”