Chapter 1: Canaries
The driver looked dubious as he leaned forward to gaze out the windshield. He had followed the GPS directions to the letter, yet his passenger - sitting straight-backed in an expensive-looking wool coat with his gloved hands folded loosely on his lap - didn’t match the modest townhome that was marked on his phone map. In fact, it seemed like the entirely wrong end of the city for his passenger’s destination. Surely it had been a mistake.
“Here.” The passenger confirmed, and placed a fan of $20 bills on top of the taxi meter. He leaned back to take his duffel bag from the backseat, and climbed out of the car. “Thank you,” he added, then swung the door closed behind him and made his way up the sidewalk to the house.
The driver re-locked the door as soon as it closed, and watched as the man felt in his pocket for keys, then let himself inside. The driver shrugged, put the car in gear, and left. Not his job to wonder why people lived where they did, just to get them home from the airport.
47 closed the front door behind him with a soft click, and toed his shoes off into the boot tray. His gloves were removed and pushed into the pockets of the coat, which was hung in the hall closet. That done, he slung the duffel across his back and moved silently up the staircase.
At the first landing he paused, letting his senses run through the house for any sign of danger. There was a bar of flickering light below the door to his left, no doubt from the television. Ava, the woman who owned the home in which he was renting a room often fell asleep with it on, a fact he had filed away in his mind in case it ever became necessary to kill her. A movie with gunshots and explosions provided decent cover for the real thing in a pinch. The soft murmur of recorded voices told him it had gone to infomercials, selling a detergent that would get grass, wine, and blood stains out of white shirts. He had tried the product before, though - it did nothing for blood, though it did a passable job on wine.
The rest of the house was dark, quiet. Empty - as it should be. There were no other boarders or residents, which suited him well. Less people to ask difficult questions. He turned up the next set of stairs to the attic room, where he put down the duffel bag. Unpacking could wait until morning, after he had recovered from a tense mission and a too-long flight from Copenhagen.
First things first. He made a brief sweep of the room - no land phone line to check for listening devices (an advantage over staying at a hotel), but he checked the mattress, window and door moulding, floorboards, and closet for any unexpected bits of wiring or microphones that might have appeared since he left a few weeks ago. Finally, he pulled a chair to the middle of the room to thoroughly check the ceiling fan. Satisfied that his safehouse was as safe as he had left it, he returned the chair to the corner, draped his discarded clothes over it, and turned down the bed for sleep.
Morning announced itself with a shaft of light streaking through the window blinds and into 47’s eyes. He grunted with irritation as he pushed back the warm blankets and rose to tighten the blinds. Not as much sleep as he would have liked, but more than he expected. Before he could return to the warm nest of the bed though, the sounds and smells of breakfast and fresh coffee reached him. His stomach growled at the thought - when had he last eaten? At the airport in Brazil, probably. Too long ago.
Downstairs, he could hear the sizzle of eggs frying in a pan, and the morning news reporting on a recent spate of carjackings. He listened a few moments for anything relevant to him, then moved back to his bed to make up the sheets, smoothing down the edges. Next was the closet, to put on a black shirt and pants. No messages from Diana on his phone.
Below him, he heard the door open then close and lock. It seemed Ava was continuing her morning routine. He moved to the window to watch her go, recognizing the pattern. It must be 7 a.m. She woke at 6:30 a.m., ate eggs and toast for breakfast. 7 a.m., morning jog in the nearby forest preserve. She would be gone an hour, returning to shower, dress in scrubs, and go to work at Forestview Animal Hospital, ten blocks away, to clock in at 9 a.m. In the snow, she took the 173 bus to get there.
All of this was recorded in the rolodex of 47’s well-honed mind, the small habits that make up a person. The little opportunities that may someday come in handy if she got too curious.
Per her pattern, she had left the coffee pot warming with a mug beside it for him, and a plate covered with a tea towel to keep in the heat and moisture. He lifted the towel - eggs, bacon, and toast. He took the mug and plate to the table, and settled in to eat.
It had been one of the selling points of setting up this location as a regular safehouse - the ready breakfasts. Ava had explained it away with a shrug, saying she had been used to cooking for two for several years before she began leasing the room in the attic, so it was no trouble for her to keep doing it now.
He hadn’t asked who she had been cooking for before, and she hadn’t volunteered the information. He got the impression that neither of them thought it was any business of his.
The phone in his pocket buzzed - a text alert from Diana, giving an all-clear. No contracts today. Good - he could use some rest. He scooped the last of breakfast into his mouth, drained the mug, and sat back. Thirty minutes until she returned. Enough time to unpack his gear from last night without fielding uncomfortable questions.
“Attic room to let: quiet, smoke-free, prefer male. Monthly rate.”
There was nothing flashy about the ad in the newspaper. Simple and to the point. It wouldn’t draw the attention of most readers - but 47 was not looking for an airy, open-plan penthouse with a good view of the lake. While he felt the allure of floor-to-ceiling windows and exotic, bustling locales, those things went against the premise of a good safehouse. He needed a quiet neighborhood. No kids to get in the way or ask questions adults knew better than to say out loud. Small windows, preferably with an alley view and no hiding points for snipers. Close to international airports. Good cell phone reception. Blackout curtains.
He stood on the porch, assessing the location as he waited for his knock to be answered. So far, it seemed to tick all the boxes. Anyone who had passed as he walked up had been looking at their phones or into the distance, no attempts to smile and greet the newcomer.
A woman, early 30s, answered the door - deadbolt, lock, secure but not insurmountable. She gave a tentative smile. “Can I help you?”
“I emailed you this morning,” he said, holding up his phone as some kind of proof. “Is the room still available?”
“It is,” she said, and stepped aside to let him come into the house. “Sorry, I’m Ava. I placed the ad. The room I’m renting out is up top… not afraid of heights, are you?”
“Not at all.”
As she turned to lead him deeper into the house, he took stock of his surroundings. Kitchen to the right - knife block on the counter, good brands. Laptop open on the table. To the left, a staircase. Solid wood railings, too sturdy for a fatal accident to be believable. Ahead, a short hallway leading-
“Good, come on up then.” She said, and began up the stairs. “What did you say your name was, again?”
47 watched her walk about halfway up before following her. Short brown hair, just past her ears - no ponytail to grip in a fight. Post earrings. T-shirt and jeans. Barefoot, unable to run quickly outside if attacked.
“Tobias Rieper,” he said, somewhat distracted by the cold calculus that had been ingrained into every strand of his DNA. Average height and size, easy to overpower. Neck relatively slim, jugular vein accessible.
“German? ‘Rieper’ sounds like it, somehow.” At the landing she pointed out each door in turn. “My bedroom is there, bathroom there.”
That put her bedroom over the front of the house. Clear shot from the opposing building, probably. Check later.
“And up here…” she climbed the stairs to the small third floor, “is the room. It comes furnished, everything you see here. Feel free to look around.”
47 walked past her, scanning the room with a practiced eye. Iron bed frame, heavy. Solid. Good looking mattress. Window over a roof awning, good for a quick escape. Closet large enough to hide weapons among the clothes. A body, if it came to that. He flicked his gaze up to the ceiling, which angled up toward the roof peak. Ceiling fan. Good for summer heat, but also for stashed listening devices. He would need a chair to check.
“Do you have any questions?” Ava asked, after what seemed like more than enough time to look at the space.
“Is anything between this ceiling and the roof?” He asked abruptly. “Crawl spaces?”
“Not that I’m aware. Should just be some insulation and wiring for the electrics in this room. Why?”
A pause. “You know how squirrels can get in this weather. Looking for any nook to make a nest.” The excuse came easily, naturally, leaving little time for her to wonder why a crawl space might sway his decision.
“Oh.” She laughed. “I’ve been there before, pain in the ass to get them back out. Don’t worry, everything’s tight as a drum.” Then, when he didn’t comment, she added “It wasn’t this house, anyway, but a place I was renting a few years ago… I called a humane removal service, of course, the whole nest was moved to some wildlife refuge area or something. I didn’t need a bunch of dead baby squirrels on my conscience, what would my clients think?”
“Clients?” He turned to look at her, interest piqued.
“Hm? Ah, I’m a veterinarian. Dogs, cats, exotics… I try to avoid killing anything I don’t have to, but it’s a hazard of the trade…” She trailed off, suspecting he’d stopped listening two sentences ago.
“I know the feeling,” he said absently, moving to the window to look out at the street. Sparse trees, nothing to climb up to reach the window. Few hiding places.
She was certain he’d stopped listening now. “So… what do you think?”
A brief pause, his expression turning to that of a person adding up an entire checkbook in his head at once, then, “Yes. I’ll take it.”
A knot of tension she hadn’t realized was there released in her chest. Good. It wouldn’t hurt to have an intimidating-looking man coming in and out of the place. “Oh! Good. Any other questions before we sign some not-legally-binding paperwork?”
A thought popped into his head, bypassing his reason filter and coming out of his mouth without permission from any other faculty. “What do you think of birds?”
A knock on the handrail at the bottom of the staircase broke 47’s concentration. He placed the cleaned rifle back into its pelican case and clicked the locks.
“I’m here,” he called down as he pushed the case under the bed and stood. “Come on up.”
Ava climbed the stairs slowly, balancing the base of the wire cage with both hands. The canary inside flapped furiously as it tried to keep its balance on the perch, chirping bitterly at the treatment. “I think he missed you,” she said, putting the cage gently on the top of the dresser. “He goes off his seed a little when you’re gone for a long time.”
47 moved to the dresser, turning a critical eye to the bird. Feathers smooth. No signs of stress. “He doesn’t miss me. He misses the window.”
“I can’t,” she said, retreading a well-worn path of conversation. “If I leave him up here, I’m afraid I’ll forget he’s here and never feed him…” she shook her head, eyes closed. “I can’t.”
“You wouldn’t,” he said, voice somehow more relaxed than before. “You wouldn’t forget.” He took a bottle of water off the window sill and splashed it into the dish inside the birdcage.
The canary hopped to it to bathe itself.
“Besides,” she said, eager to change the topic, “I like the singing. It’s nice to hear while I’m getting ready for work.”
47 gave a slight hum in response, watching the bird clean its feathers. “Thank you again. For taking care of him, I mean. I know it was last minute…”
“It always is.” She gave a short laugh. “You always seem to get called to a conference at the last second. You really should talk to your boss about that, it can’t be legal.”
“A flicker of a smile. “It’s the nature of a career in sales, Ava. A new contract needs to be closed, someone has to jump on it.”
“Mm. I guess.” She looked around, suddenly self-conscious. “Sorry. You’re probably busy…”
“I’m not,” he said, lifting the cage door to run a finger down the bird’s back. The bird flapped its wings and bounced foot to foot in delight.
“Oh.” She wasn’t sure how to interpret that response. Improvisation seemed necessary. “In that case, I was thinking I’d open a bottle of wine and watch a movie or something, if you…?” her voice trailed off, uncertain.
47 closed and carefully latched the birdcage, taking the moment to consider the branching options ahead of him. Blend in, that was the brief. Always act as you are expected to, until you must do otherwise.
“Yes,” he said with finality. “That would be nice.”
“Red, white, or pink?” She led the way back to the stairs, beginning down them without looking back. “I have a nice red. It’s nothing expensive, but it tastes nice.”
“That sounds- ah,” his phone was buzzing. He didn’t have to look at the screen to know who was calling. “I have to take this,” he said, and turned away from the stairs. "Save it for another time."
“Sure,” she said, deflating slightly.
“Thank you.” He answered the call, retreating into his room as he put it to his ear. “Diana?” The rest of the conversation faded out of Ava’s hearing range into murmurs.
Ava paused. Ah. Well then. That explained quite a lot, actually. She descended to the kitchen to begin pouring one glass. Well, she thought, it’s better to know early, before I thought of doing something foolish.
Her mood somewhat soured, she took the glass to the couch and placed it on the coffee table at either end. She pulled a blanket up around her, snuggling down into it as she pulled up Netflix to find something worth watching.
Chapter 2: The train job
The snowfall was going to affect his shot, 47 thought grimly as the first flakes landed on his coat’s lapel. Nothing he couldn’t handle, of course, but it would need to be accounted for.
Ahead was the compound, sprawling across the rolling desert like a lazy spider waiting for a moth to touch its web. It appeared to be a flat, single-story building, but 47 knew better than that. He had had plenty of time to examine the blueprints on his way here. The compound was built like a tooth, its roots deep into the ground to prevent this from happening. To prevent someone like him from coming to visit.
47 gently put his case on the ground and knelt to open the latches. The brief from Diana had been simple - keep your distance, get one clean shot on the drug lord holed up inside, and get out before anyone started looking for a source. However, now that he had the mission in his sights, it seemed that improvisation was going to be necessary. The drug lord with a big enough price on his head to warrant 47’s attention wouldn’t leave by the exposed front door. Even though the blueprints in his intel packet didn’t indicate the presence of escape tunnels, there was simply no other explanation. The rifle would be no good in close quarters - this would require close-up work. Fiber wire. Remote explosive. Stiletto knife. Nothing to leave behind. Poison? He might as well bring it…
His phone buzzed, and he paused his train of thought to wonder at it. It couldn’t be Diana, she was in his earpiece. He pocketed the weapons and took out the phone. An image had been sent to it.
“Diana, did you send something to my phone?” He asked, then pulled his glove off with his teeth to use the fingerprint unlock pad.
“What?” Her voice sounded confused, both at the question, and its placement during a quite delicate procedure. “Why would I be texting you at a time like this?”
“That’s why I asked.” He unlocked the phone and swiped the screen to bring up the message. A photograph of the canary, huddled up in its nest basket with its eyes squeezed shut, preparing to sleep. Overlaid on the image was a bar with text - ‘See? I told you he missed you. :)’
Diana cleared her throat pointedly when she could tell he hadn’t moved from his location for longer than seemed necessary. This drug lord wasn’t going to eliminate himself. “47? Is everything all right?”
“It’s not important,” he said, quickly sending back ‘This means nothing’ before standing and putting the phone back in his pocket. “I’m going to have to go in. There’s no way he would come out here on his own, there’s only one entrance and it’s completely exposed.”
“Do you think that’s wise?”
“I don’t have a choice.”
The phone buzzed again, but received no attention. 47’s focus was narrowing, discarding nonvital stimulus as he prepared for the job at hand. Eyes on the compound ahead, he began to make his way down the hill. His best chance, he thought, would be to cause a panic and send his target into the escape tunnels. But where would that be?
He scanned the horizon as he walked. In the distance, train tracks. The tracks ran past the compound at enough of a distance to appear unrelated to someone driving past. Maybe they usually were. Sometimes, he speculated, they were very related. He followed the lines of the rails to a tunnel under a highway overpass.
That would be where the getaway train would be, at least. A switch in the rails, a set leading down into the hill to meet the escape route somewhere below. There, he would capture his fleeing prey.
His steps sped up as he neared the gate, though not out of anxiety. The agency had provided a uniform that matched the security team roaming the compound, as well as a list of shift changes. The last change had occurred approximately five minutes ago. The gate guard would still be resetting the chair height and checking his email, if luck was on 47’s side.
“Can’t stop, I’m running late,” 47 panted, looking to all the world like a man who had sprinted from the parking lot and was now hoping to get to his post before the bosses noticed he was late again. He held up the counterfeit staff badge, putting his head down to gasp for air and obscure his face. “C’mon, I hit traffic!”
“No traffic this far out,” the guard said, not looking up from the computer’s log-in screen. “You’re lucky if I don’t turn you in for fuckin’ around.”
“But I /am/ lucky, right?” 47 put the badge back into his coat and straightened. The man didn’t look up as he pressed the gate open button.
“This time you are,” he said, attempting an ominous tone.
47 nodded by way of thanks, and hurried past the gate. Never underestimate the hunger of a man given a crumb of power, he thought idly as the gate closed behind him. Ask him to do you a favor just this once, and he will happily oblige.
Safely inside the gate, he adopted the stroll of a guard with nowhere particular to go for the next eight hours. Few people looked up from their work, and fewer still showed sustained interest. Only the other security guards looked puzzled at his presence, but he made sure to quickly leave their line of sight before they could formulate an entire suspicion. Eventually, he came across a bathroom. Perfect. He slipped inside, making his way to the end stall and locking it behind him. He removed the remote explosive from its pocket and secured it to the stall wall. A tiny LED indicated it was armed and ready.
Now, to find the tunnel. He crawled out of the stall beneath the locked door, smoothed his jacket, and went on his way unobserved.
The train tracks had been to the north, therefore the escape route would be as well. The first basement level seemed reasonable - too deep would have raised many questions about the need for it, off-the-books workers or not.
47 made his way down a staircase, pausing at a door midway between the first and second basements. Surely it couldn’t be so easy? The door was locked, with a large sign reading “UTILITY TUNNEL, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.” This looked like the place. He tried the knob - locked. No matter, that was what lockpicks were for.
Once the door was unlocked, he opened it a crack to look for guards. None. Good. The tunnel stretched out ahead of him long enough that he couldn’t see the end. What he could see, however, was a train.
The blast shook the walls of the compound, shattering office windows. The drug lord slammed the panic button under his desk, and staggered into the hallway to meet his personal bodyguards. Around them, the manufacturing staff was scattering in all directions.
“What was that?” he demanded as the two guards flanked him to escort him to the escape tunnel’s entrance. “What happened?”
“We don’t know,” one of the men said, “but it was up top. The path should be clear for us here.”
“Good. I want the exit guarded, nobody leaves.”
“Already done,” the guard affirmed, unlocking the tunnel door and hustling the drug lord inside.
“Good.” The drug lord climbed the steps into his private car, waving the bodyguards away. “Go up front, get us out of here.”
There were no visible obstructions on the tracks. The bodyguards moved to the controls and started up the speedy little passenger train. Once they came out of the tunnel and onto the public rail, it would be a smooth ride to the next city. Then they could lie low, count losses, and return when the time was right.
The drug lord poured himself a glass of whiskey from the built-in bar table. He swirled the liquid in the glass as he walked to his chair and reclined to wait out the trip. As he lifted the glass for a triumphant sip, he felt the fiber wire slip around his neck and tighten until his vision went black.
Once the death was confirmed, 47 leaned forward to pluck the whiskey glass out of the man’s limp hand, then pushed him out of the chair to a heap on the floor. He re-coiled the fiber wire and slipped it back into his jacket as he moved to sit in the now vacated chair. It was at least fifteen minutes to the next station, no rush to jump out of a moving luxury car.
He took his phone from his pocket and unlocked it. The same photo from before of the nesting canary, but the frame pulled back to show the full birdcage, and the attic window behind it. A new bar of text across the image.
Ava: What about this?
47 sipped the whiskey as he looked at the image, at a loss for a response. Finally, he pulled up the keyboard panel to begin typing.
47: You think you’re very clever, don’t you?
Ava: Like a velociraptor ambushing a sniper.
A moment of mild panic as he thought of the rifle he’d been storing under his bed, then confusion.
Ava: OMG you’ve never seen Jurassic Park?
Ava: I’m going to remedy that. When will you be back in town?’
47 finished the whiskey, then made his way to the emergency exit of the train car and wrenched the door open. He glanced back to be sure he hadn’t left anything other than the corpse, then leapt into the tall grass alongside the tracks, tucking his head and rolling to burn the momentum of the train. Once he had stopped, and was certain he had been unseen, he pulled his phone back out and typed.
Chapter 3: Jurassic Park
47 closed the cab door and picked up his bags to carry up to the house. There was a light on in the kitchen - unusual for this time of night. His steps slowed, shifting the gun case to his left hand and slowly putting his right into his jacket to touch the fiber wire. It was probably nothing, but that was what every security guard he'd ever eliminated had said as well.
He unlocked the door and opened it a crack, listening for movement. There was an odd humming sound he couldn't place, and an irregular popping. Otherwise, silence. He shouldered the door open, muscles tensed and ready to strike if necessary. “Ava?” He asked, listening closely for any sound of struggle.
Ava’s head popped around the kitchen entrance, a broad smile on her face. “Movie night!”
47 relaxed, letting his hand slip from the garrote. “You're up late.”
“What can I say, I love Jurassic Park.” She ducked back into the kitchen. “Does red or white wine go better with popcorn? I can never keep them straight…”
“White with fish,” he began to recite, putting down his luggage, “red with beef,” shoes in the boot tray, “and bourbon with popcorn.”
“Was that humor?” She looked back at him as he followed her into the kitchen.
“Consider it more of an offer.”
“An offer I can’t refuse, Godfather?”
“Oh my God, you’re useless.” She put away the wine glasses and hunted around for some glasses suitable for bourbon.
Skipping over the conversation that had lost him completely, 47 forged ahead. “I have a bottle of 25-year Macallan, if you’re interested. Opened, but stored well.”
She paused in the middle of wiping the dust off of a tumbler with a dishrag, working through his statement. “If… you’re interested, then yes,” she said slowly, suddenly unsure if she was being tested. “Otherwise, I guess red.”
47 turned without a word, and went up to his room to get the bottle out of the closet.
Ava waited for his footsteps to fade, then unlocked her phone and typed the name he had said into the Binny’s website. Yes, that was what she had thought. She put the phone away and looked at the tumbler in her hand. Her $10 bottle of wine may as well have been cat urine next to that, even if it had been stored in a dumpster for 10 years. She should raise his rent, she reflected, if he can afford $1700 bottles of bourbon.
The voice came from directly behind her, much closer than seemed possible without hearing footsteps. She jolted - hadn’t he been two floors away a second ago? - and dropped the glass from her hands. In a flash, he had caught the glass in his free hand and offered it back to her. When she didn’t take it, still shaken, he opened the bourbon and poured a measure into the glass, then offered it again.
She took the glass with shaky fingers, and gripped it tight in both hands to avoid dropping the same thing twice. “Woah,” she said, duly impressed. “That was… really cool.”
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said softly as he poured the second glass for himself.
“It’s not your fault. I guess I wasn’t paying attention.” The microwave beeped, and she opened the door to take out the bag, shaking it to distribute the salt and butter. “Okay, time to party,” she said, and walked to the TV room to curl up on the couch.
Blend in. Maintain cover. Raise no questions. 47 took his glass and the bottle of bourbon, and followed to sit on the remaining couch space. Between them was a mixing bowl, into which she poured the hot popcorn. “Ready?”
“As ready as I ever will be,” he said honestly.
“Good.” She pressed play, then took a handful of popcorn to begin munching piece by piece. “Watch and be enriched.”
Not long into the viewing, Ava began to feel that, somehow, she had made the wrong decision in putting on the movie.
Don’t you see the danger, John, inherent in what you’re doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun.
Beside her, from the corner of her vision Ava could see her boarder’s jaw clenching, muscles working up the side of his face. His expression was otherwise unreadable.
Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think of they should.
Ava had stopped watching the movie. She quietly licked popcorn out of her cupped hand, watching 47 with curiosity. She had never seen someone have this kind of reaction to Jurassic Park.
You have plants in this building that are poisonous. You picked them because they look good, but these are aggressive living things that have no idea what century they’re in, and they’ll defend themselves, violently if necessary.
47 stood abruptly, nearly upturning the popcorn bowl. “Ice,” he said, by way of explanation when he caught her expression. “Do you want ice for your drink?”
“Sure,” she said slowly, and let him take the glass from her. She watched him go to the kitchen, wondering what she’d done wrong. Had she done something wrong, or was she just imagining it?
47 stood at the freezer, drawing a deep, slow breath. She didn’t know. She couldn’t know. He had been so careful, his cover had been perfect. And yet… yet here they were, watching people act out an indictment of everything he had been raised to believe. Born to believe. Made to believe. He splashed two ice cubes into his glass, swirled the liquid, then drank it down. The smoky bourbon felt bitter on his tongue.
Ava was leaning her shoulder against the entrance to the kitchen, empty glass in one hand. Her face was a picture of pure, undisguised concern. Behind her, the movie had been paused. “Are you okay?”
“It’s nothing,” he said, and took two more cubes from the ice tray to drop into her extended glass.
“Geez, I’d hate to see what ‘something’ looks like, then.” She gave a slight smile, not sure what else to do. “Do you want to talk about-”
“No,” he interrupted sharply.
Her smile dropped, and she turned back to the TV room, walking toward the couch. “Come on back, then. You haven’t even seen the dinosaurs yet.”
Reluctantly, he followed.
Ava unpaused the movie, then held out her glass for a refill. “Can I…?”
47 refilled the glass.
They watched in silence, broken only by the sound of Ava crunching popcorn. The characters reached the hatchery, where the baby velociraptor was busy being born. It was too much. All of it was too much.
“It’s just,” he began, deciding that if he started speaking, he could get it over with more quickly. It would be more suspicious to leave it as it was - who knew what she thought when she saw him in the kitchen? His cover needed to stay intact.
“Just…?” she prompted softly, looking across at him.
47 cleared his throat. This was difficult terrain to tread, a minefield to navigate. Luckily, he was an accomplished navigator. His explanation didn’t have to flow seamlessly, it just had to hold together at the edges. “My parents…” No, that was the wrong wording, but he was in it now. “They were scientists. They worked on genetics all my life.”
Ava uncurled into a more attentive position, and paused the movie. Somehow, she felt that this deserved her full attention. “...dinosaur genetics?”
“Human.” The mines were closer now, nearly touching as he traversed them. “Early CRISPR work, cutting genes together to cure… humanity.” Again, the wrong wording. Too close. But she didn’t seem to notice.
“Cancer,” she said, then went on when he gave her an odd look. “Nowadays they use it to fight cancer. But… you probably knew that.”
“They worked in embryos,” he said smoothly, feeling more acquainted with his explanation. “They wanted to skip the cure phase, they were trying to… perfect the species.” He noticed he was fidgeting with a piece of popcorn, and put it down. “Anyway, it didn’t work,” he said breezily, feeling the end of the minefield nearing. “I was just… thinking about them is all.” There. He was out.
“Oh.” Ava nodded slowly, turning the conversation over in her mind as her hand drifted to the remote to unpause the movie. Her finger hovered over the button. “Should we watch something else?”
47 considered the options, and chose what seemed to be the least suspicious, though most painful. “No. Just. Something different next time.”
Ava unpaused the movie and curled back up under her blankets, hiding a slight smile at the admission. Next time. Cool.
“I don’t think that’s what chaos theory is.”
“They’re not talking about chaos theory,” Ava said with a slight laugh. “I mean, they are, but they aren’t.”
47 topped off her glass. He had been carefully making sure she was at least a glass ahead of him. Losing faculties was never part of the plan. “I don’t follow.”
“Mm. Okay.” She sat up and put her glass on the table, feeling very sorry for Diana if he didn’t understand what she was getting at. “So, his voice is talking chaos theory, right?” She held out her hands, gesturing for his. “Come on. Nothing weird, I promise, strictly for demonstrative purposes.”
47 reluctantly offered his hand, which she took. “Dr. Malcolm is talking about chaos theory, yes?” She said again, and lifted her free hand to dip a fingertip into his glass of bourbon, drawing out a droplet. “But he’s doing this,” she said, meeting his eyes as she let the droplet fall onto his knuckle and run down the back of his hand to soak into his sleeve. “And as he’s demonstrating that the next droplet won’t fall he same way, he’s doing this.” She cupped her hand under his, bringing the other up to lightly trace an oval on the back of the hand, drawing the remains of the bourbon across his skin.
“And he’s describing,” she said, her voice lowering almost to a whisper and slowing to illustrate her point, “how her skin… and her blood vessels… and the tiny variations they have… affect everything around them in different ways.”
Her eyes were strange, 47 thought. Not drunk, but different. Something new. Something he wasn’t prepared for. The thought of an unknown disturbed him, and he pulled his hand away from hers. In his life in his line of work, there were not supposed to be unknowns. “And?”
Ava sat back, picking up her glass and toasting toward the movie. “And that,” she said, feeling even sorrier for poor Diana, “is flirtation. Which both is and is not chaos theory, if you ask me. And you did, kind of.”
The outline she had traced on his hand seemed to inexplicably burn, like the bourbon had been poured into an open wound. He rubbed it away.
The DVD stopped, and switched back to the menu screen. 47 glanced across the couch at Ava, who was curled up under a pile of blankets, sleeping quietly. At some point during the movie, she had wedged her toes under his leg for warmth. Her eyelids fluttered slightly as she, presumably, dreamed. He leaned over her, holding his breath to not disturb her, and took the remote from the arm of the couch to turn off the TV.
“Mm…” she smiled softly as he brushed against her side, then tucked her limbs more tightly against her body. “Bedtime?”
A strange sensation fluttered down his spine, and he straightened up. “The movie’s over. I'm going upstairs.”
She hummed softly. “G'night.”
47 put the glasses and empty popcorn bowl in the sink. He picked up the bottle of bourbon, looking meditatively at Ava’s sleeping form. He turned the bottle in his hands, watching her ribcage slowly rise and fall under the blanket. Complications, he mused. Complications were not acceptable. And yet…
He looked away. He had been awake for too long. Needed to recharge.
Chapter 4: Are you... texting?
“Be careful, 47,” Diana warned, fairly needlessly. “This one isn’t going to be easy.”
“I know.” He swiped his entry ticket at the turnstile and passed through it, past the bored college students manning the entrance. “Client requests accident, no collateral, target is heavily guarded,” he summarized. He glanced at nearby clusters of parents with children - none seemed particularly interested in anything around them. “This place is ripe for an accident,” he added.
Ahead, the centerpiece of the park was a carousel slowly rotating beside a reflecting pond. A roller coaster roared by, spinning its riders into a corkscrew, and zoomed away. A wheel of swings at the ends of long chains picked up speed, making its riders scream and stretch out their hands to each other. “I think it would be more difficult to make it look intentional.”
His pocket buzzed, and he fished out the phone to swipe it open. A photo of a table, with a bottle of wine posed next to a filled glass. Overlaid were three words - ‘You have competition.’ He frowned at the image, zooming in on the glass at the other end of the table, and the decidedly masculine hands holding it.
‘Where are you?’ he typed back, and didn’t have the chance to put the phone away before the answer came.
Hm. He returned to the photo, examining the scene with a careful eye. The hands were smooth, the nails clean. Desk job. A french cuff was just visible, with a smart silver cufflink. Expensive desk job. Ava’s place setting had three forks, plus a bread plate. Fancy restaurant. He released the zoom, scanning the background. Yes, he knew the restaurant. His thumb hovered over the response bar, hesitating a moment before responding.
‘Order the cherry quail. You won’t regret it.’
“47?” Diana’s voice in his ear cut through his concentration. He realized with a pang of guilt that he hadn’t been listening to her intel brief.
“I’m here,” he said, putting the phone quickly away and forcing himself to focus on the mission at hand.
“Did I just hear you…” she paused, trying to find the most dignified way of asking the question she needed to have answered. “47,” she started again, “are you… texting?”
“It’s only… well, I heard a phone text alert, and that ticky tapping noise the keyboard makes.”
“I was not texting.”
Silence at the other end of the earpiece for a moment, then, “of course. There must be some kind of line interference. I will have it looked into immediately.”
“Good.” 47 said, and began his sweep of the park for his target.
“Who are you texting?”
“Oops, Sorry.” Ava dropped the phone into her purse and focused her attention on her date. Derek was handsome - brown hair swept across his forehead over hazel eyes, a smooth, easygoing face. “I was just trying to make a friend jealous. He’s at some stuffy trade conference right now, I couldn’t resist.”
“Ah.” He held his wine glass to his lips for a sip. “Did it work?”
“I think so. He must have been here before, I got an entree recommendation.”
“It sounds like you’re very close,” Derek responded, a note of distaste in his voice.”
“Oh,” she said, realizing how it sounded. “It’s not like that, sorry. He’s seeing someone.”
“Ah.” Derek relaxed, smiling brightly. “Good.”
The target was indeed well guarded. Throughout the park, he was flanked by two guards that had only left his side when he had been securely on a ride, and they picked him up at the exit platform to continue to the next ride. They waited in every line, like any other visitor, though they were uncommonly short due to the cold weather.
It would have to be done on one of the rides.
47 blended into the line behind his target, looking away as if watching for the rest of his group to arrive. So far so good. His phone buzzed again, and he swiped it open, welcoming the small distraction from his waiting game.
A photo of a dessert menu, surrounded by scribbled red question marks.
47: Tiramisu. It’s the best in the city.
Ava: Thx. ;-*
He stared at the response, trying to parse the symbols. At a loss for meaning, he entered them into the search bar, finding an emoticon dictionary entry. Oh. He switched screens back to the conversation with Ava. The bottle of wine in the background of the last photo looked nearly empty. That explained it.
47: Consider switching to water
At a loss for a better response, he put the phone away. No more distractions.
They were at the front of the line now, a roller coaster that secured passengers with a seatbelt instead of a shoulder harness. This would do. The ride operator motioned them forward, and 47 slipped into the seat beside his target, buckling and unbuckling the seatbelt a few times to get a feel for it. Easy, like an airplane belt. One pull, and it would open.
The roller coaster jolted to a start, and began to climb the first hill. The cars were two seats across, which 47 had carefully managed to make contain him and his target. This would be much easier without having to reach between seats.
“I love these fucking things,” his target said conversationally. “Can’t get enough of them.”
“Adrenaline junkie, eh?” 47 responded, falling into his role.
“Been to every park in the country. Couple of em over and over. Nothing beats a wooden coaster like this girl, though.”
“Oh?” They were halfway up the hill.
“Yep. They don’t go upside down, but they’re the originals. You get a good look at the world from the top. This one’s tall, too, you can see everything. The structure it takes to build these is amazing.
“You can only see the distant hills, I’d imagine,” 47 said conversationally. “You can’t see below you without leaning.”
“Everyone says to keep your arms and legs inside the car, but right before you go over the hill you can lean over and get a good look at everything below you. It’s a hell of a rush, give it a shot. And that’s coming from an expert,” the man said, jerking his thumb at himself.
“I see,” 47 said, feeling the coaster beginning to crest the hill. “Now?”
“Now,” the man affirmed, stretching over the side of the car to look down at the tracks. He continued talking about the construction, pointing, but it was no longer important. 47 caught the lever of his seatbelt, pulling it loose just as they hit the top of the hill and began freefall. Catching the man’s arm, he lifted him easily and helped him over the side of the coaster. The target shrieked and flailed, trying to catch at the wooden beams as he cartwheeled down, crashing against the supports until he came to a crushing landing on the ground below.
The man had very good timing.
Ava stopped on the sidewalk outside her house, smiling up at Derek. “Well. This is me.”
“I can see that,” he said, and put a hand on her waist, drawing her closer to him. “It looks nice. All yours?”
“All mine. I mean, partly the bank’s, since I’m still paying the mortgage… but you know what I mean.” She rested her hands on his chest, biting her lip lightly. “I’m going to go inside now,” she said, in a firm tone. “But I would like to see you again. Some other time.”
Derek looked disappointed for a moment, then masked it with a nod and a smile as he released her. “Of course. I’ll text you, we’ll set something up.”
“Okay.” She turned, walking up to the house. “G’night,” she said over her shoulder.
“See you soon.” He said, not moving.
Ava slipped inside and locked the door behind her. He was still out there as she drew the window shades on the way to the kitchen to put away her leftovers. By the time she’d gotten upstairs to shower and get into pajamas, he had gone.
Chapter 5: Strategic pancakes
“Did you watch the news this morning?” the technician asked as she opened Ava's surgical packs.
“No, what did I miss?” Ava adjusted the fit of her gloves, then took the instruments from the technician.
“Some big time engineer threw himself off one of the oldest roller coasters in the country.”
“Geez. What happened?”
“They didn't have a lot of details, but apparently from the security camera footage he was leaning out of the car like a dumbass and lost his balance as they went over the first hill. Smashed his shit on everything on the way down, too.”
“Can I get a 10 blade?” Ava asked, and took the blade from the offered packet. “Crazy what people do… never heard of keeping all arms and legs inside the car, I guess.”
“Yeah. The park was almost brought up in negligence charges, but the camera at the loading platform shows them checking his seatbelt, everything was secure.”
“Strange.” Ava began her incision. “Seems stupid for an engineer to take off his seatbelt, he had to know the risk.”
The technician shrugged, peeking under the drape to check the dog’s color. “Sounds like he'd done it before and it never went wrong before. Just got cocky.”
“I guess.” Ava said, letting the dog’s intestine run through her fingers. There was a blockage somewhere, she knew it. She just had to find the spot… aha. A squishy bulge between her fingers. “There you are, you little bastard,” she said triumphantly. “Let's get you out of there.”
“Maybe it was suicide. He wanted to die in a way that his wife could collect the life insurance.”
“Or she took out a hit on him for the same reason.” Ava opened the intestine, and drew out a red, lacy thong with a pair of forceps. “Ooh la la.”
“Speaking of wives, hopefully this pup’s mom is missing these, otherwise there's going to be some explaining to do.” The technician held out a bowl to accept the item.
“Yeah, save it to show them. You never know. 3-ought PDS please.”
“Got it. You think the wife took out a hit?”
“Oh, c’mon, we’re not living in a film noir.” Ava said, suturing quickly. “Occam’s razor. The dude was an idiot and fell out of the car. End of news item.”
Ava finished closing, humming lightly to herself. “There. Let's get this pup back on his feet, and see if his parents are getting a divorce.”
The sound of splashing water drew 47 down the stairs earlier than usual. It sounded like an otter trapped in a washtub, but that seemed unlikely. He peeked into each room before coming to the kitchen, which looked like a bakery had exploded.
Ava stood at the sink washing dishes, her hair clipped back from her face. She wore pajama pants, which were lightly dusted with white powder handprints, and a tank top shirt. Her feet were bare.
47 felt a strange, hollow echo of a life that wasn't his. He shook it off. “What's going on in here?”
“Oh!” She looked up with a smile, and offered a mug of coffee to him. “I couldn't sleep, and I don't work today, so…”
“So…?” He promoted, taking the mug and inhaling the hot steam as he raised it for a sip.
“I thought… pancakes?” She said, the word upturned as though she were asking his opinion.
His gaze traveled past her to the table. A syrup bottle, along with a can of Redi-Whip and a bowl of blueberries were in the middle, separating two place settings. He took another slow drink of the coffee, taking the time to dissect the scene. Her eyes didn't waver from his.
“I haven't eaten pancakes in a very long time,” he said, remembering the mixed lessons from the asylum. A good and correct kill, rewarded by pancakes. An admonishment to stick to the script in the future, and a promise of more rewards if he did. Carrot, stick.
“Not since I left… the…” Careful, he reminded himself. “Since I left home.”
“Home?” She caught the hesitation in his voice.
“Romania,” he supplied, sitting at the table and beginning to pour the syrup. “I grew up in Romania.”
“Are your parents still there?” She asked, trying to tread lightly. He had never mentioned them, and her curiosity was beginning to overtake her discretion. She had begun to think he had sprung, fully formed, from a cave somewhere.
“Ah, no. My parents are deceased. I grew up in an orphanage.” Careful. Keep cover. Control the dialogue. Ask questions to avoid having to answer them. “Yours?”
Ava’s phone buzzed, and she glanced at it before answering. “Deceased. Mom early, when I was five or six. Too young to really know what was happening.”
“And your father?”
“When I was in undergrad, he got sick with some kind of infection that moved really quickly. The doctors said it was a lung thing, but God only knows… he was a career military man, so he'd been to a lot of nasty places to do nasty things in his day. Could have picked up anything.” She waved her fork to dismiss the memory. “Buried with military honors, flag on the casket, the whole bit.”
Ava's phone buzzed again, and she picked it up to read the messages.
Derek: Good morning sunshine :)
Derek: Have you had breakfast yet?
She put the phone back down.
“Nope. The only child of two only children. The closest thing was my dad’s service buddies. A pack of gruff old men teaching an eleven year old girl how to fire a shotgun. Not sure Mom would have approved, but to Dad it was an important skill.” She picked at her food, trailing her fork in the syrup. “I was totally on my own for bra shopping, but I was an ace at skeet shooting. God, that was a long time ago.”
Derek: There's a place on the north side we could try.
“Not anymore?” 47 asked, filing all of this intel away for later. No family ties. Able to shoot.
“Wouldn't know where to go, and I sold all of his guns when he died. Needed the money for vet school. Someday I'll go again, dust off the old reflexes.”
47 fell silent, thoughts nagging at his mind. “Why did you make these?”
“The… pancakes?” Her fork hovered over the next piece, uncertain. “Do I need a reason? I like pancakes, and had the time to make them today. You came downstairs, so I invited you to have some too.” She speared the chunk of syrupy cake. “They’re just pancakes. Don't read too far into it or anything.”
That was all, then. No motive. Some part of 47 that had been holding its breath slowly eased. He knew he was on edge at the house lately, his insides feeling like an animal pacing its cage. It was foreign and unpleasant.
As if on cue, his phone rang.
“Thank you for breakfast. Excuse me,” he said, pushing his chair back and heading to the staircase before answering. “Diana.” He began, fading out of Ava's earshot as he went.
Ava stood, gathering their plates and taking to them to the sink to wash. She unlocked her phone, skimming the messages from Derek.
Ava: Sorry, got to get some stuff done.
Derek: Are you off work?
Ava: Yes but busy.
Derek: Oh, ok.
Derek: What about tonight?
She put the phone down and continued cleaning. The messages could wait until later.
She heard sliding, shuffling noises upstairs, the telltale sounds of 47 getting ready to leave again. Why there were so many scraping sounds was a mystery, but one that felt somewhat above her pay grade. She did her best to avoid the attic except to dust and vacuum - it seemed like an invasion of privacy to do otherwise.
By the time she had dried and put away the dishes, he was at the bottom of the stairs, duffel bag across his back, long pelican case in one hand, and the canary cage balanced easily in the other.
“I have to go,” he said, as if that wasn't obvious.
“Put him on the coffee table,” she said, wiping her hands on a towel to dry them. “ That was sudden.”
“Something came up.”
Ava waited for him to elaborate, then moved on. “Any idea how long this time?”
“No.” He paused, then added “A few days.”
“Okay. Then I'm going to change sheets and stuff, if that's okay with you…?”
“Of course.” He put down the bird cage and went to the door, pausing with his hand on the knob. “I’ll… see you soon.” Before she could answer, he left.
Ava moved to the couch, watching the bird flit around in the cage. She unlocked her phone and scanned through her missed messages.
Ava: I'm free tonight.
Derek: Great. Movie?
Ava: Sounds good.
Chapter 6: Domino
Ava looked into the cat carrier at her current patient. The rabbit gazed back at her, noisily blowing snot bubbles from its left nostril. She looked past the carrier, at the young couple who had brought it in, and now stood nervously on the other side of the exam table. “Well,” she began, looking back to the rabbit. “I'm pretty sure we both know this little guy has a respiratory infection, right?”
The female owner nodded. “It just started this morning. Do you think…?”
“If it started this morning, I think we have a good chance. He's going to need a lot of close care for the next month or so, though. Antibiotics, Bene-bac, fluid therapy, the whole thing.”
“That's the problem,” the woman said, chewing her lip. “We're going out of the country for Christmas, to visit his aunt,” here she gestured to the male owner, who looked equally nervous, “so I'm… not sure what we can do.”
Ava looked through the rabbit’s medical record. Fairly young, otherwise healthy. Owners had brought it in for regular check-ups. Good owners, she decided, who weren't trying to get out of caring for this animal. “Nobody you can leave her with…?”
“Nobody we could trust.” The woman sounded close to tears now.
“What about a 24-hour hospital?”
“I'm… we’re going to be gone for two weeks, I don't think we can afford it.”
“Look…” Ava said, regretting the decision immediately. “If you trust me, we can board her here so she's monitored during the day, and I'll take her home at night for the overnight care. It'll still cost a lot, but much less than an ER would charge you.”
The pair looked at each other, then at the rabbit. “Would you do that?”
“Sure,” Ava said, wanting to kick herself for taking that stupid oath at graduation. “Just once. Don't go telling your friends or anything.”
The grateful couple said their goodbyes to the rabbit, who sneezed on them. Ava moved the carrier to the treatment room and opened the door to get a better look at her new housemate.
The rabbit was an overfed buck named Domino, owing to its all white fur with black patches around its eyes.
“You are so lucky,” she grumbled as she began to pull up a syringe of antibiotic. “You had just better hope your new upstairs neighbor isn't allergic to you.” She gave the injection into its thigh, then rubbed the muscle to reduce the pain. “And that you get through this, because I don't need your parents thinking I killed you.”
The rabbit blew a snot bubble and ground its teeth together.
Ava put him back in his carrier, then went to the break room to cut a slice from the apple she had brought for lunch and returned to put it in front of him. Domino licked the apple thoughtfully, then began nibbling his treat.
Good. At least she wasn't going to have to tube feed him just yet.
47 moved easily through the gala, unnoticed by the partygoers. Their eyes were on each other, or on the paintings newly on display at the gallery. His target would arrive soon, one of the artists being displayed tonight. The paintings were remarkable, and would surely go up in value after the artist’s untimely demise.
Each painting depicted a dark landscape, which to most angles looked like a solid black canvas. In the right lighting, at the right angle, leviathans in charcoal grey became visible, their eyes pits of darkness behind their jaws. Sea creatures, the artist's statement claimed, imagined after a series of diving trips, deeper than almost anyone else had gone. Creatures coming out of the darkness from all sides, ready to consume the intruder.
It was a shame the man had to die.
47 loitered by the bar, scanning the guests. He slipped his phone from his pocket, surprised to see several missed messages.
Ava: Are you allergic to anything?
Ava: I ask because I have to bring a patient home for overnight care, but if it's going to be a problem then I'll find someone else to take him.
47: I don't have any allergies.
A multimedia message loaded next, a photo of a frightened looking rabbit. 47 felt a tightness in his throat, but forced it away.
Ava: Just two weeks. I'll keep him out of your way, he's going in my room.
47 watched the cursor flash for longer than felt comfortable before he replied.
A murmur ran through the crowd of guests as the painter was announced, and applause as he appeared at the door and began greeting the guests.
47: What's wrong with it?
Ava: Pasteurellosis. Rabbit disease, fatal if not treated quickly, etc. Etc. Two weeks. I promise.
“47, are you listening?” Diana's voice in his ear, sounding more amused than usual.
“What did I just say, then?”
“As I suspected.” Her voice was smug. “Now, when are you going to introduce me?”
“To whoever it is that is more interesting than mission briefs.”
“I think this battery is going out, I'll have to get it replaced on my way back to Chicago,” he said, and removed the earpiece to turn it off and put it in his jacket pocket.
The artist was reaching the crescendo of his speech now, raising a glass into the air to call for a toast. 47 moved away from the bar, making his way quietly to the nearest men’s bathroom. Behind him, everyone cheered and drank.
Not long after, the artist stumbled into the bathroom, leaning over the sink to vomit. For a moment he saw a shape behind him in the mirror, then the garrote tightened and he ceased to think about anything at all.
Chapter 7: Rabbits and rescues
Ava sat at the end of the bed, Domino in her lap. She tented the skin of his scruff and inserted the needle, then rolled the valve on the IV line open. The saline began its slow drip into the dehydrated rabbit. She gently stroked the growing pocket of saline under the skin, soothing the nervous animal.
“Shhhh,” she hissed through her teeth, which were clenched on the top of the saline bag to act as an impromptu IV pole. “S’okay.”
There was a light knock at the door.
“C’min,” she said around the bag.
The doorknob turned, and 47 peeked into the room. “Ava?”
“Mm. Ca’ oo 'old 'is?” She asked, nodding down at the rabbit.
He entered the room, looking warily at the sight in front of him. Doctor. Rabbits. Needles. After a moment of hesitation, he sat down next to her on the bed and took the IV bag from her teeth. “What are you doing?”
“He isn't drinking, so I'm giving him some subcutaneous fluids. It looks weird, but it works great. Hold that up, gravity helps.”
47 raised his arm as instructed. “Ah.”
“I hope he comes out of this okay,” she said softly. “First I've got to get him drinking and eating on his own, though.” She looked up at 47 with a bit of a smile. “You make a good IV pole. The height helps.”
“Thank you,” he said, glancing at her, then away.
“Rabbits are probably my least favorite species, you know?” Ava looked back down at the rabbit. “You look at them funny and they fall over dead.”
“Then why did you bring it here?”
“What, and just let it die at home? No thanks. I'm trying to keep from killing anything that doesn't need to die. Even if it is a rabbit.”
Domino looked sidelong at 47, then sneezed a fan of snot onto the leg of his pants.
“Oh, geez,” Ava closed the IV line, then removed and recapped the needle. “I'm so sorry, hang on.” She picked up the rabbit and put him back in his pen, then grabbed a tissue from her bedside table to clean up the rabbit snot rocket.
“It's… it's fine,” he said, trying to take the tissue from her so she would stop touching him. “I have it.”
She relinquished the tissue and went back to the rabbit's cage to put a few cubes of Timothy hay inside. “Eat those,” she said sternly to Domino. “Doctor's orders, okay?”
Domino twitched his nose at her.
She looked back at 47, who crumpled the tissue and lofted it expertly into a nearby trashcan. “Good throw.”
“Hm?” He looked up at her, unaware of what he had done of note.
“Since you're here…” she said slowly, fiddling with the cage latch. “I have to give him an injection at about 8 o’clock if you'll be around…?”
“I will be.”
“I promise I'll point him toward me next time. I just need someone to hold him still for me. Have you held a rabbit before?”
“That'll make it even easier.” She smiled at 47, lightly touching his shoulder a moment as she moved to sit on the bed again. “Thank you. I don't know what I'd do without you.”
“You'd find someone else,” he said, then suspected that was the wrong answer from the way her expression changed, the smile fading.
“Well,” she said and got up to leave the bedroom. “Since I do have you, do you want to watch a movie?”
“My choice this time,” he bargained, following her to the hallway.
“That's fair. What are we watching?”
47 considered it a moment, flicking through his mental catalogue. “Have you seen The Third Man?”
In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
Ava squeaked and curled her limbs closer to herself, watching the screen with rapt attention. The popcorn had been forgotten as the plot of the film had gained traction. She tucked the blanket up under her chin, full of anxious energy as the movie’s climactic chase began.
The doorbell rang. Ava did not glance up.
“Oh my God,” she whispered, bouncing slightly in place. “Oh my God, why have I never seen this movie before.”
“It’s pretty old,” 47 said, glancing at her. “And nothing like Jurassic Park.”
The doorbell rang again, more insistently. The person on the other side of it was not giving up.
Finally, 47 reached across the couch and pressed pause on the remote. “The doorbell,” he said when she shot him a look.
“Oh.” Ava unfolded herself from the blanket mound and made her way to the door, which was now being knocked on furiously. “Hang on, hang on…” she muttered as she undid the locks and opened the door. “...Derek?”
He stood on the porch, hand raised to continue knocking if she didn’t answer. “His expression was one of concern mixed with anger. “You weren’t answering my texts,” he said accusingly.
“I… what?” she began, feeling her own irritation beginning to rise.
“I was texting you,” he went on, “and you weren’t responding.”
“I’m watching a movie! My phone is muted. Besides, it’s not like we had plans tonight that I missed, why are you here?”
“I was worried.”
“Thanks, but I’m an adult. I don’t need to be checked up on like a child.”
“I was worried. ” He said again, as though that explained everything. “And then I got here and the lights were all off, so I tried the bell but you weren’t answering…”
Ava put up a hand to stop him, opening her mouth to respond. Derek grabbed her wrist and twisted her arm up, pulling her onto the porch with him.
“Derek,” she said, speaking evenly, “Let go of me.”
“Why are you mad? I thought something might have happened to you. I was worried, Ava. You should want someone who worries about you when you don’t call them back.”
“I asked you once,” she said, and dispensed with the pleasantries. She caught his pinky finger with her free hand, pulling it back until she heard a pop as he let go of her wrist. He swore, then pushed his hands against her shoulders to shove her backward, away from him.
Ava felt herself falling, aware that there was nothing close enough to her to grab onto for balance. Then, just as she’d made her peace with either a broken wrist from landing badly or brain damage, an arm caught around her shoulders. She looked up.
Derek’s expression told her everything she needed to know. His eyes had gone wide, but still full of anger as he looked above her.
She felt 47’s other arm slip around her waist, pulling her upright and drawing her back into the house and against his side, shielding her from her attacker.
The two men stared at each other for a moment as Derek weighed his options.
“Leave.” 47 said. “I won’t ask again.”
Derek complied, storming down the front path and back to his car.
The arm around Ava’s waist loosened and released her. 47 stepped away, turning to return to the TV room without a word.
“I… w-wait,” Ava said, closing and locking the door before following after him. “Hey hang on.”
47 turned to look at her. “What?”
She moved close, wrapping her arms around him and pressing her cheek to his chest. Her hands lay flat on the backs of his shoulders. 47 froze, finding no precedent in his memory for how to handle this. After just a moment, Ava released him and stepped back. “Thank you. That’s all I wanted to say.”
“You’re… welcome,” he said awkwardly, not sure if he was allowed to go back to the movie yet.
“Okay.” She ran a hand through her hair, trying to push away the adrenaline that was still making her tremble. “Now, let’s finish the movie.”
They returned to the couch and unpaused the DVD. Ava stretched out on her half of the couch, snuggling up under her pile of blankets again. After a few minutes, she slid her feet against his side to tuck her toes under his leg. He glanced down at them, then back to the movie. His hand moved to draw the blanket around her feet, tucking it in at the sides.
This was all wrong, he thought. His mind, accustomed as it was to connecting behaviors and memories like links in a steel chain, agreed. First it had been the rabbit at the asylum, then the mouse, and the first canary. Personal interest leads to death. Then Father Vittorio. Personal interest leads to others’ pain. Proximity breeds familiarity, which breeds tragedy.
Despite this compelling argument to himself, he didn’t move. Even when the closing credits had ended and the DVD defaulted to the title screen, he and he was certain Ava had fallen asleep from the change in her breathing pattern. 47 tilted his head back against the couch cushion, closing his eyes. He had slept in worse positions, he reasoned, and drifted off until finally she stirred.
“Mm,” Ava felt her phone buzzing against her side. “Time for rabbit meds.” She rolled sideways off the couch and tossed the blankets back onto it.
47 nodded and stood. “Okay. Let me know what you need.”
She led him back to her bedroom, opening a small tackle box next to Domino's cage. “He has to get an injection in the muscle, right about here,” she said, demonstrating by pointing at her own back. “In his epaxial muscles. So all I need you to do…” she removed the rabbit from his pen, demonstrating the way to hold him properly. “You tuck his head between your side and elbow so he can't see, and squeeze him against you so he can't kick when I stick him. Clear?”
“Clear.” He took the rabbit, looking into its eyes a moment before sticking its head under his arm. “Like this.”
“Perfect.” Ava opened a sterile syringe and cracked an ampule to draw the liquid inside into the syringe. She tossed the broken ampule into the garbage, and turned the syringe needle-up to tap the air out of the barrel. “Now talk to him, something soothing.”
“I'm not talking to him,” 47 said, but stroked the rabbit as well as he could as she pulled the needle cap off with her teeth and chewed on it as she felt for the correct injection site.
“C’mon, it helps,” she said, finding her mark and inserting the needle to begin injecting.
“Everything's fine, it's almost over.” He said, fairly certain it didn't sound soothing at all. However, the rabbit didn't move.
“Annnd done.” She finished injecting and removed the needle. “Good boy, Domino,” she said, rubbing the injection site as she leaned to drop the syringe into a small red sharps container. “Good boy.”
47 relaxed his grip on the rabbit, which began kicking almost immediately. He put it back into the pen and latched the door.
“That wasn't hard,” he said, watching as the rabbit began grooming all the spots a filthy human had touched.
“I didn't say it was hard,” Ava defended, “it's just easier with two people doing it.”
“He didn't move at all.”
“Which one of us has an advanced degree in rabbits, hmm?” Ava began putting the injection supplies back into the tackle box.
“Are you… teasing me?” She asked, looking a bit surprised when the thought clicked together in her mind. “You're teasing me.”
“No more than you deserve.”
“Mean.” She gave a slight pout, then turned to look back into the rabbit pen. “Well, you are relieved of duty until tomorrow. Hopefully he eats, or tomorrow he's getting a tube down his nose.”
“Why a tube?”
“A rabbit that doesn't eat is a rabbit that's going to die. They can go into gut stasis really quickly. He ate a piece of apple at work yesterday, but that was all. Gotta get more into him to keep his guts working.
47 nodded, and moved to leave. “Good night then, Ava,” he said, and closed her door behind him. He could still feel the rabbit in his arms, its heart going much too quickly and its bones far too thin. Not a very well evolved species, and yet here they were.
He went up to his room, undressing and laying his clothes over the chair. He pulled back the bedsheets and climbed under them to sleep.
Chapter 8: Unexpected skill
47 was awoken by light tapping on the handrail at the bottom of the stairs. At first it seemed like part of a dream, but after a moment it started again. Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap. He sat up, slowly reaching for the handguns tucked behind the bed.
“Ava?” he asked, closing his fingers around a handgrip. “Is that you?”
“Yes.” she said, sounding a bit embarrassed. “Um… Did I wake you?”
He released the gun, pushing it back into place behind the bed. “Yes. What do you need?”
She paused, then, “I can’t sleep. I just keep thinking of… it’s stupid. Sorry. I’ll go back to bed.”
“No,” he said, climbing out of bed and going to the top of the stairs to look down at her. She was wrapped in blankets, and clutching two pillows under her arm. The pieces fell together in his mind - that, after the earlier events, every shadow in her room felt like it was hiding an intruder - and he motioned her upstairs. “Come on up.”
She nodded, lifting the blankets to climb the staircase. “Thanks,” she said. “Just tonight. I promise.” She tossed the pillows down, then the blankets, making a makeshift bed on the floor. Finally, she wrapped herself in the remaining blanket and lay down, curled up to the pillows.
“You don’t have to sleep down there,” he said, still watching her from the top of the stairs. “You can sleep on the bed if it would make you more comfortable.
“I’m okay here,” she said, already beginning to drop off to sleep. “Don’t want to make Diana jealous,” she said softly, eyes fluttering closed.
47 stared, wondering if he had misheard her. What did she know? How did she know? Surely he had misheard her. He moved to the bed to get back in, laying on his side to look at her sleeping on the floor. He had been careful. She must have already been asleep, dreaming something strange.
Yes. That seemed the most reasonable explanation. He turned onto his back, looking up at the peaked ceiling. It wasn’t possible for it to be anything else. Slowly, sleep returned to him.
Ava awoke with a brief moment of panic, not recognizing her location. She lifted her head, looking around the room. By the window, the canary was singing his morning routine. The bed against the wall was carefully made, looking as though it had never been slept in at all. She pushed herself upright, feeling the aches and crackles that accompanied sleeping on a wood floor.
The anxiety of last night had passed, luckily. The way Derek had looked as he left had made her convinced he was going to come back, though she had no idea why. If he hadn't come back yet, though, she was in the clear.
She climbed to her feet, gathering up her bedding to bring back downstairs. Domino was going to need his morning coercion soon, she remembered, and her own stomach was beginning to rumble.
Ava made her way down the stairs to the landing, and paused. Her bedroom door was closed. It had not been closed last night when she left it. She gently put down the bundle of blankets and moved to the door to listen.
She turned the doorknob slowly, pushing the door open and entering as quietly as she could.
47 was sitting cross-legged on the bed, Domino wrapped in a towel on his lap. He looked up as she came in, trying not to move too quickly and startle the animal. “You slept through your alarm.”
“Oh.” She took in the sight before her. 47 was holding a section of banana, which the rabbit was eagerly eating. His other hand was resting on the rabbit's back, holding the towel tightly around it like a straightjacket.
“I turned it off, you looked tired.” He looked back down at the rabbit, uncomfortable with the look on her face. “But the alert said 'Feed Domino.’”
“... banana?” She asked, unable to form a more complete question.
“Rabbits like banana.”
“How did you…?”
“You've never given a rabbit banana?”
“I… no, of course not.”
“You should. It goes over well.” Domino had finished the treat and was licking the remaining morsels off of his muzzle. “And they like to be secure.” He added, motioning to the towel.
“I know that,” she protested. “I have a degree in knowing that.”
47 gave her an even look for a moment, as if to ask why she hadn't done it first, then.
“...look,” she said, moving to sit next to him. “I'm grateful, I promise. Really. I'm just so, so angry at you for thinking of it first.” She gave a slight laugh. “And stunned that you did.”
“I had a pet rabbit for a while,” he said, thinking each word over as he spoke. “At the orphanage.”
“Mm. What was its name?”
“I didn't name it.”
“Oh. Didn't have it very long?”
“And you didn't name it?”
“Why would I give it a name? What benefit would there be?” He asked, a bit irritably, then reined himself back in. She didn't know she was probing a deep wound, like a dental drill into an unanesthetized nerve root.
Ava drew back her hand from the animal, looking up at him. “Okay, I feel like I've missed something important here, are we in a fight about something I wasn't here for?”
47 looked back at her a moment, then away. “It had escaped from the genetic testing lab, so it had an ID number tattooed on its ear instead of a name. I don't remember the number. I found it wandering outside and took care of it in my room.”
“It escaped from the genetics lab… at your orphanage?” She asked slowly, making sure she had all of the words correct.
“Yes.” He said tersely, his jaw tightening. He needed a reason to leave. If the building could catch fire at this moment, he thought, it would be a relief. Short of such divine intervention, he wished Diana would call with a new job in Morocco, Siberia, or anywhere other than this house at this moment. Neither opportunity revealed itself.
Genetics lab at an orphanage? Was it just the rabbits, or was there more to it? From the stony expression on his face, she suspected she knew the answer to that one. If that was the case… she remembered his reaction to Jurassic Park with a stab of guilt. Oh God. It made so much more sense.
“I had a hamster when I was five,” she said, looking carefully at only the rabbit. “I named him Prince Terrian. I can't remember why. Anyway, he had some kind of seizure disorder and died after about 6 months.” she trailed off, not sure this was helping. “Caring for a pet by yourself for two years is good for a kid. Hell, two years is good for most adults in my experience.” She patted Domino's side lightly. “We should all hope to be so well cared for, eh?”
The knot of tension began to release in 47’s chest. The room no longer seemed to be folding in around him, choking off escape. He stroked the rabbit's head lightly with his thumb. “I agree.”
“Rabbits especially. You sneeze in their presence and they fall over dead.”
“I imagine.” He stood to return the rabbit to its pen, latching the cage door.
Ave gently took the towel from his hand to put in a nearby laundry basket. “Thank you for all of this,” she said, gently touching his arm. “Really.”
“But now I need breakfast.” She smiled. “Do you want something?”
“Yes, I think so.” He followed her downstairs, the remainder of the tension fading. “I haven't eaten yet either.”
“Good. Sit.” She pointed at the kitchen table as she passed it. “I'll cook, you sit.”
47 sat obediently. His mind was running like grains of sand through a sieve. He watched her move around the room, gathering ingredients to make french toast.
“Who were you cooking for before?” He asked, noting the change in her demeanor at the question. Her shoulders tensed, hand tightening on the spatula.
“I had a dog that was very sick,” she said, and began to mix the batter. “She was my dad's before he passed, a big shepherd named Lady. She was allergic to just about everything, so I had to cook special food for her. Every morning and night.”
She dropped the first slice onto the griddle, which made a satisfying sizzle. “She passed a couple of months before you started renting, and it felt wrong to knock around here alone.” She flipped the slice of toast. “I felt safe with her barking at anyone who came to the door, but without her… hence the ad in the paper.”
47 nodded, mulling that over. “I see.”
“So, that’s me.” she smiled a bit, placing a plate of french toast in front of him. “And you’re my replacement German shepherd.”
Against all expectation of himself, he found himself warming to the metaphor.
Chapter 9: Don't do this
“Your next patient is in room 3,” the technician said, holding out a clipboard.
Ava took it and began flipping through the cat’s medical history. “I can't see this patient. You're going to have to give it to someone else.”
“The owner requested you as his doctor, said he'd gotten a referral.”
“I'm sure he did request me, but I'm not going in that room.” Ava said, voice rising as anxiety set in. She pushed the clipboard back into the tech’s hand.
“Okay…” the tech said, confused. “Want to tell me what's going on?”
“I… may have broken the owner's pinky finger about a week ago.”
“Not for sure, it just… popped a little.” Ava mimed stretching a finger backward.
“Look. I went on two dates with him, he made it super creepy and showed up on my porch when I didn't answer his texts fast enough, and he kind of grabbed me and I kind of may have broken his finger.”
“I'll get Dr. Davis to see his cat.”
“Thank you. Oh, and see if his left pinky is splinted.”
The tech nodded and hurried off. Ava sat back down at her desk, drumming her fingers as she waited for the anxiety to leave again. After a week, she'd thought she was rid of him. After how he had left, she'd been certain of it. Now here he was, knowing where she worked. Could find out her work hours. Could wait until she was walking to her car.
Finally, she picked up her phone.
Ava: You're a terrible German Shepherd.
47 glanced at the phone as it buzzed beside him, then back down the scope of his rifle. Focus on the mission, he reminded himself. It had never been difficult to do before, and there was no reason it should be difficult now. He waited for his target to appear. The car should be coming up the path any minute now, if the intel was correct. It usually was.
“Your mysterious lady friend?” Diana asked, her voice teasing.
47 didn't respond.
Ava stood in the treatment room as Derek paid for his cat’s exam at the front desk. She was out of his view, but almost anywhere in the county would be too close for comfort right now. The technician had updated her on the situation after the exam had finished - he had been disappointed to see Dr. Davis, but understood that Ava had been busy and said he would catch up with her another time. Fuck.
She moved to the exotics ward to check on Domino, who had been eating things other than bananas for a few days now. His case of snuffles was much less snuffly than when he had first come into her custody, which was also good. The little guy looked like he was going to make it after all.
“Hey buddy,” she said, opening the cage door to pet his nose. “How're you feeling? Good? Ready to see your mama and daddy on Friday?”
Domino twitched his nose at her in response, then thumped his leg.
Ava drew back in deference to his anxious thumping. “See, this is why I don't like rabbits,” she complained to him. “You're all fluffy and chubby and cute, but you don't want anyone touching you. That's not a pet, that's an… an angry pregnant woman.”
Apparently offended by this, Domino hopped to his litter tray to urinate.
“Same to you, then.” She scooped some alfalfa pellets into his bowl, which he moved eagerly to eat. On a whim, she took out her phone and snapped a picture of him, face in the bowl. She sent it to his owners with an excited caption about his progress. Almost immediately, they responded with equal enthusiasm.
Another text came through not long after.
Ava: Never mind. Look who's feeling better.
She sent the photo of Domino.
47 was packing up the rifle when the photo arrived, and he swiped it open, then quickly closed again, as though he might be caught looking at a photo of a rabbit. In the next building there was chaos as the target was discovered dead, slumped over his desk.
“I've had another contract come through for you, 47,” Diana said in his earpiece. “A bit of excitement, actually.”
“Excitement?” He echoed, closing the pelican case and locking the latches.
“Yes. This Saturday, a man named Eric Armstrong and a woman named Elizabeth Hanson will be attending a play…” she was looking through the contract as she spoke. “Ah, at the Chicago Theater. The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, very precious of our dear client.”
“Both of them?”
“Yes. Mr. Armstrong's wife was very clear about that. Ah, Ms. Hanson is to be eliminated first, and ideally Mr. Armstrong will discover Ms. Hanson's body before he is eliminated.” Diana paused. “Though she was willing to bend on the order if it becomes necessary.”
“This Saturday?” He confirmed as he made his way out of the partially constructed office building and into an alley.
“Yes. Your ticket to the show will be waiting at the Will Call booth, the name will be- oh, how embarrassing, I've ordered two tickets instead of one, damn this new computer.”
“I don't need two.” he stopped at the mouth of the alley. Suddenly he had the feeling of someone lazing on a surfboard who has just spotted a fin cutting through the waves.
“It's done now,” she said breezily. “I suppose you'll have to find someone for the other ticket, it would look strange to pick up two and only use one.”
“Don't do this.”
The line went dead.
Chapter 10: Replacement German Shepherd
47 paid the driver and took his luggage from the trunk, then made his way up the front steps to unlock the door. He could hear Ava inside, and the various clangs and thumps that indicated she was trying to decide what she wanted for dinner based on the contents of the fridge and the most accessible vessels. Still, he opened the door a crack to confirm it was her by her “welcome back” call from the kitchen, then entered the house and locked the door behind him.
Shoes in the tray. Suitcases upstairs. He put the bags down on the bed and began the now-familiar circuit of looking for changes in the room. Corners. Window frames. Above, below, and behind every stick of furniture. Finally, he pulled the chair to the middle of the room to closely examine the fan.
“I just dusted up there yesterday,” Ava said from the top step, rubbing her hands in a washcloth. “Pinky promise.”
“Ah, I wasn’t-” he began, slightly startled, but realized he had no less-suspicious motive for what he was doing than looking for dust accumulation. Instead, being reasonably certain everything was as he’d left it, he stepped down from the chair and moved it back to its spot by the bed. “I can see that.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to spook you,” she said, staying where she was. “I was just coming up to tell you there will be shrimp risotto in the kitchen in about an hour if you haven’t eaten yet.”
“Of course. Thank you.”
She nodded and headed back downstairs.
Once she was safely out of sight and busy elsewhere, he turned back to his security rituals and preparation for the mission on Saturday. The Chicago Theater. Two targets, presumably together in a private mezzanine box. The woman was to die first, the man once he knew what had happened to his mistress. Once the cheater felt the loss of the one he loved - or said he did. Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned , he mused, reviewing his information from Diana. Sometimes poets were more correct than they knew.
The tickets. He remembered them in a flash, and they complications Diana had tied them up in. 47 resented the implication that he needed further cover than he could already provide for himself, though he could hear the justification already. Nobody goes to a musical alone, or at least nobody that isn’t up to something peculiar. As a person who was indeed up to something peculiar, he didn’t need to risk drawing that kind of attention. It might go fine, unobserved. But his absence from a single seat would be more obvious than his absence as part of a pair. If she wasn’t suspicious, their neighbors wouldn’t be, either.
She? He surprised himself at his own choice of wording. Was he not even going to consider other options, few and far between as they might be? Very few, he reminded himself, short of quickly hiring a friendly contact and flying them to Chicago for three hours. A logistical nightmare, and he knew Diana knew that as well. It was decided, then, he thought grimly, before he had even accepted the contract. There was no way around it, he was going to have to invite Ava.
Plates and cutlery were being moved around downstairs, and the scent of risotto had reached him. Hunger began to draw his attention away from his preparations and he rose to make his way down to the kitchen.
Ava held out a plate to him. “Successful conference?”
“Thank you. Yes. Everything went as smoothly as could be expected.” He began loading his plate. “Though one unusual thing did happen,” he said, forcing the words out before they could escape.
“Oh?” She sat at the table with her food and a glass of water, watching him with interest.
“A client offered me a pair of theater tickets for Saturday night.” He glanced at her as he said it, waiting for some sign of suspicion to appear.
“Sweeney Todd, at the Chicago Theater. First balcony, I believe.”
“I'm jealous!” She said, looking up from her plate. “That was one of the first shows I wanted to see. Before the Johnny Depp movie came out, mind. You're going to love it.”
“I was actually…” he was in the home stretch now, all that was left was the hardest part. “Wondering if you wanted to accompany me. I have two tickets, after all.”
She stared at him a moment, long enough that he began to wonder if he'd said something wrong. Then, “I mean, I guess it's not my business but why aren't you taking Diana?”
“Diana?” He asked sharply, tension rising. “What do you mean?”
“She's your girlfriend, isn't she?” Ava asked meekly, now also convinced she'd made a misstep.
47 eased. Ah. Puzzle pieces fell into place in his mind. That was what she had meant before. “Oh, no, she's my administrative assistant,” he said, the words coming much more easily now. “I can see why you may have thought…”
“Oh my God, I'm so embarrassed,” she said, clasping her hands over her face as she gave a nervous laugh. “I'm so sorry, you're just always on the phone with her…”
“No, no, I understand completely. We've worked together for years, but there's nothing like… that.” The mere idea was inconceivable.
“I feel ridiculous now.”
“Then I suppose you'll have to make it up to me,” he said, spotting his opportunity. “By accompanying me to the theater on Saturday.”
“I… can do that,” she said, embarrassment still burning through her. “Dress and heels, I assume?”
“Cool. I don’t get many opportunities to dress up, it’ll be nice. Oh, before I forget - Domino’s owners are coming home on Friday, and will be picking him up from work. So, say any goodbyes you want to say before I leave for work with him Friday morning.”
“Has it already been two weeks?”
“Yep. Time flies when you’re not tube feeding every four hours. Cute little bastard is going home to piss off his rightful owners now.” She glanced up at him. “They’re very grateful to you for getting him to start eating on his own.”
“I didn’t do anything special.”
“His owners and I respectfully disagree. Though now they know he likes bananas, in case he has another flare up.”
“You did all of the medical care.”
“Can you please just take the compliment?” She laughed, picking up her plate to take to the sink and wash. “You’re impossible to please, I swear.”
47 went quiet, finishing eating and getting up to do the same. “Then… you’re welcome.” He said finally, taking a dish towel to dry the plates as she put them in the strainer.
They fell into silence as they washed the dishes. 47’s mind drifted back to the upcoming mission - preparations would be complicated. With the addition of Ava-as-liability, he had to be certain that everything went as planned. Getting into unexpected combat with security guards or his targets would be difficult to explain away afterward, as well as finding a reason to not go to the hospital to treat any injuries he sustained. He would heal fine, of course, genetics would take care of that, but how could he explain that to a panicked civilian? There was no reason to involve her any more than Diana already had, and he sought to keep it that way.
The targets would be in a box in the mezzanine, allegedly by themselves. Too early in the show and they would be discovered before the end - normally not a problem, but he doubted he could convince Ava to leave at intermission if something went wrong. She might do it, but it would be suspicious. Too late in the show and he risked missing them entirely - a professional failure that he couldn’t allow.
“Are you expecting someone?” he asked abruptly, focusing on the street outside the window.
“What?” she handed him the next utensil.
“The car across the street.” He nodded at the window. “Your… admirer from last week.”
Ava looked up, her veins suddenly full of ice. “What?”
“What was his name… Derek? That’s his car.”
“It… it could be anyone’s.”
“Anyone with the same license plate number and scrape mark on the driver’s side door, certainly.”
“Oh, shit,” she hissed, leaning on the edge of the sink. “I… He came into my work this morning with his cat, requested to see me specifically…”
“You didn’t see him, did you?”
“Of course not, I’m not stupid, I had one of the other vets take the appointment and I hid in the treatment room with Domino. But…” she paused, debating on how much to say.
“But…?” he prompted, voice softer, more curious than usual to draw out the story.
“He told the technician to tell me he’d catch up with me later.” She admitted. “I had someone walk me to my car and make sure I got out safely, all the things they teach you to do… but I didn’t think he was serious about it, not really.”
“Not until he parked across the street, where he appears to have been for some time.”
47 dropped the dish towel onto the counter and stepped back. “I’ll take care of it.”
“What? No!” She turned to him, looking panicked.
“You could be hurt! I don’t know what he’s here for, or what he’s capable of… he might have a weapon or something, I don’t know.”
“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
“That’s what people say two minutes before they get stabbed in the fucking chest.”
“He’s not going to stab anyone. I’ll make sure of that.”
She searched his expression for any hint as to what was about to happen, and came up empty. She relented. “Okay, but… be careful, yeah?”
“Of course.” He went to the front hall to take his coat and gloves, buttoning up for the cold wind outside. “I’ll just be a minute.”
Ava nodded, and moved back to the kitchen window to peek outside. She held her phone in her hand, ready to call the police if something went badly. She watched as 47 made his way calmly down the path, in no hurry to get anywhere. He crossed the street, making his way to Derek’s car and rapping his knuckles on the closed window. The window rolled down, and the two men appeared to speak intensely for the longest minute Ava had ever experienced. At the end, 47 nodded, looking pleased, and tapped the roof of the car in a casual goodbye before turning to walk back up to the house. What little she could see of Derek’s face inside the car looked stunned and angry. He rolled the window back up, started the car, and drove away.
“What did you say to him?” she asked, once 47 had come back inside and taken off his coat.
“I… explained that you weren’t interested,” he said, choosing to leave the majority of the conversation unsaid for now. “And I suggested he find somewhere else to park his car tonight.” There was no reason to tell her the various locations he had offered to help Derek park it, most of them under either water or a construction site. “I believe he understood, and chose to leave quietly. That was all.”
Ava smiled slightly, feeling fairly capable of filling in the gaps in the conversation on her own. “Well. I guess you make a decent German Shepherd after all.”
“If he thinks my bark is bad…” 47 began, feeling strangely pleased with himself.
“Hopefully he’s never going to find out. I certainly wouldn’t.” She stepped back, turning back to the kitchen. “Now I’m going to finish the dishes, then go make sure my dress still fits. I hope I don’t have to get a new one before Saturday.”
“If you do, let me know.”
She gave him a sidelong look, not sure exactly what that meant. Was he offering to purchase? Was he going to take back his offer? She hoped she wouldn’t have to find out - either option seemed uncomfortable. “I will.”
“Good.” 47 nodded, then looked at the staircase. “I’m going to finish unpacking. Thank you for dinner.”
“Thank you for chasing away that creeper.”
“Bark bark.” he said, then began up the steps to his room.
Chapter 11: Swing your razor high
47 tied his classic red tie without a mirror, so practiced that he knew it looked correct without a reference. This was the easy thing about missions at fancy parties and exotic venues - a suit fit in without question at any of them. Contracts found at beach vacation resorts and ski lodges, those were more difficult to prepare.
Dressed and well-creased, he descended the stairs to the landing, and knocked on Ava’s bedroom door. “We should leave soon. Are you ready?”
“Just a minute. Meet you downstairs.”
He went down to the coat closet, grateful for the moment to examine his gear, and make sure he had everything he would need for this contract. No ballistics. This would have to be all close-up magic. Fiber wire, poisons, knife in case things get difficult. That was all.
“Okay.” her voice came from behind him, and he tucked the last item into the pocket before turning to look at her. He tipped his head slightly to one side, taking in her changed appearance. She wore a red dress, closely tailored in the bodice and flaring into a full knee-length skirt at the waist. Her hair had been pinned back behind her ears and her facial expression was nervous, shy. She absently spun the bracelet on her wrist - not diamond, but enough shine to make up the difference.
“Tell me I look pretty,” she blurted, then looked embarrassed at the request.
“You look pretty,” he echoed reflexively, stepping closer as his eye for style took over. He lightly lifted the black shawl from her bare shoulder, sweeping his gaze across the red fabric. “This isn’t off a rack, is it?” It wasn’t a question, he knew the answer already.
“No,” she said, turning her head to watch him as he examined her. His expression had barely changed, but she could see the interest growing there. “It was for an event about a year ago, I couldn’t find anything that looked right on me, so… I went custom.” Part of her assumed he was making sure she looked well enough to accompany him - after all, he dressed smartly every day, and she was usually either in surgical scrubs or pajama sets.
“I can tell,” he said appreciatively, fingertips feather-light as they trailed up the concealed zipper between her shoulder blades. A very good tailor had done it, perhaps one in one of the more expensive districts of the city. He would have to find out later where she had gotten it done,and if they did men’s suits as well…
The other part of Ava, the part that tingled pleasantly at his touch, had begun to suspect he was flirting with her. Very inexpertly flirting, she conceded, but you couldn’t have everything. As he came around her other side she looked up at him, unsure what she should say to him. Had she been missing signals since she had thought he was taken, or were they new? Impossible to tell now.
“It fits you well,” he concluded. “Very nice.”
“Thank you,” she said, not knowing what else she could possibly say at this point. “We… should probably get going.”
“Of course.” He took her car keys off the hook by the door. “Do you trust me to drive?”
“Yes.” She picked up her phone and wallet, putting them in nearly invisible pockets on either side of the dress. “Let’s go.”
They drove mostly in quiet, Ava with her head tipped against the window, watching the city lights pass, and 47 planning the contracts in his mind. He knew the venue, had examined the blueprints. The mezzanine was readily accessible, and would not be guarded by ushers once the performance was underway. Once everyone was settled, there would be no tickets to check or seats to point out. He could slip away, under the guise of visiting the bar, or the bathroom, and find his quarries unobserved. He could find an usher outfit to arouse even less suspicion, if necessary. It would be dark - nobody would look too closely at his face if he had the right clothes. Two kills confirmed, then back to his suit, and his seat, and he could finish the performance much richer and without any connection to the deaths. They would be found when the ushers were cleaning up after the performance, dead in their box seats. Easy. Clean. Simple.
At some point, he realized Ava had been asking him a question. “Hm? Sorry, I was on autopilot.”
“I was just wondering why your client gave you tickets to the show. It seems like an odd gift.”
“She was planning to use them herself, along with her husband, but there were some… unexpected complications in their plans and they had to cancel. They happened to know I also live in Chicago, and would be more than happy to take the tickets off their hands.”
“Thank your client for me when you see her next.” She put her head back against the window. “I told everyone at work I was coming, they’re all jealous.”
“Yeah. We may have sung a round of ‘God That’s Good’ during surgery, but I would deny it in a court of law.”
“Not ‘A Little Priest’?”
“Not when I’m wrist-deep in a dog’s guts. Seems insensitive somehow.” She pointed out the windshield. “There’s the parking garage. I can pay for parking since I’m freeloading on the tickets.”
“Nonsense.” He took the ticket from the machine and pulled into the garage to find a spot. “Interesting surgery, being wrist-deep in a dog’s guts?”
“Exploratory. He was acting funny and there was a strange shape on his x-ray film.” She held up a hand, index finger and thumb a few inches apart. “He had a Matchbox car stuck right in the duodenum, blocking most of his food from getting down. Once it was out, he was feeling much better.”
“...what kind of car?”
“Police cruiser. Would have been funnier if it was the ambulance, but labradors have no sense of irony.”
“A shame.” He parked and turned the car off.
“I know.” She got out, adjusting her dress once she was standing and pulling her shawl a bit closer around her shoulders. “Brr. Let’s get inside.”
47 placed a hand on her low back, guiding her out and to the front of the theater. “Our tickets should be at the will-call station,” he said, directing her toward it. “Is this shantung?”
“You cannot possibly know what fabric this dress is made of. I don’t even remember what this dress is made of.”
“It’s shantung,” he informed her. “You should know in case it needs alterations.”
“Fine, it’s shantung.” She smiled a bit as he stepped away from her to speak to the cashier and receive their tickets.
He returned, giving her a ticket and leading her to the entrance to the theater, where their tickets were checked and they were directed to their seats.
“Thank your client twice for me,” she said as she settled into her seat, peering over the railing at the people below. “First balcony is nice.”
“It’s better than the floor seating, in my opinion. Of course, not to someone with a fear of heights.”
“Can imagine. Hell of a drop, you’d probably break every bone in your body at the bottom.”
“It would put a dent in the performance, at least.” He looked around them, counting ushers and exits. “Very unfortunate.”
“Once someone noticed, at least. There’s a lot of screaming in this play, not sure it’d be spotted right away.”
“Indeed.” A similar thought had crossed his mind as well. “Steamship whistles, too.”
“This is a dark conversation.”
“We can talk about something else.”
“I wasn’t complaining.” She smiled at him. “I kinda started it, after all.”
“Good. Would you like something to drink?” He stood, looking at the people around them, assessing how easily he could get in and out of their row. Only a few people to his left, shouldn’t be difficult.
“Sure. One of whatever you’re going to get.”
“Back soon,” he said, and made his way to the aisle, and out to the hallway. The mezzanine was half a level below them, currently guarded by ushers ensuring nobody entered a box that hadn’t paid for it. One of the ushers looked about his size, his uniform a close enough match that it wouldn’t be noticed. That would be his first target, when the time came for disguising. From there, he found the bathrooms - always a nicely secluded option if one was needed - and made his way down to the main floor to look for his targets in the mezzanine boxes above. He knew which one they were supposed to be occupying, but proper field work required proof - the client wouldn’t know if they’d switched boxes at the last moment for a better view, or had both come down with the flu and stayed home altogether. They were there, matching their photographs, laughing and chatting in their assigned box. Perfect. Finally, he found the bar area. The stock was lacking in options, mostly bottom shelf beers, so he settled for two bottles of water. The house lights flashed, then dimmed. He paid for the water and made his way back to his seat to wait for the right timing to present itself.
At intermission, Ava stood and stretched. “I’m going to go look at the merchandise table, are you interested?”
“No, enjoy.” 47 stood to let her out of the aisle, watching her go.
“How’s the play, 47?” Diana asked in his ear. “The casting is supposed to be excellent.”
“It is,” he said under his breath as he sat back down. The theatergoers seated around him had left, leaving him to seemingly talk to the air in peace. “Very well done.”
“Your guest is very well cast as well,” she added, lightly teasing. “I approve.”
He looked around, then remembered the security cameras in the lobby. “You should. You forced my hand.”
“Come now, you can’t put the blame on me. You’ve been… distracted lately, I thought this might keep your mind on the work at hand.”
“The work has been going off as planned,” he defended. He had to concede that he had been somewhat less focused recently, though his proficiency at his job more than made up for any lack of attention.
“No question about it. I suspect we could blindfold you and tape your hands together and still get the same results for our clients.” Diana paused. “Your targets are returning to their box, 47. I would recommend moving soon.”
47 stood and made his way to the hall, scanning the moving crowd for the usher he’d noticed before. Not at his post. Perhaps on break? He walked toward the employee bathrooms to slip inside and look for his usher. There, at the sink, washing his hands. The usher spotted the intruder and began to tell him that this bathroom was employees-only, but a swift strike to the neck stopped him from raising the alarm. 47 dragged him to a supply cabinet and tucked him inside among the cleaning supplies, along with his neatly folded suit. The usher uniform fit well enough for the short time it would be needed.
The lights dimmed and rose, indicating the intermission was drawing to an end. Move quickly. Be silent. He left the employee bathroom, making his way out to the mezzanine boxes. A glance through the curtain told him that he was in luck - the mistress was alone, sipping a glass of something bubbly and waiting for the return of her beau. Her attention was on the stage, waiting for the play to continue.
“The show is about to-” she began, turning as she heard the curtain move. “Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else… But while you’re here, can I get another one of these?” She lifted the now-empty glass toward him.
“Of course.” He took it from her, bringing it to the bartender. “Box N wants another round,” he said. “I assume they’re running a tab.”
“Yep. Getting to be a big one, too.” The bartender refilled the glass and returned it. “Must be nice, eh?”
“Must be,” he echoed, and made his way back toward the box with the glass, deftly tipping a lethal measure of poison into it along the way and swirling the liquid until it blended. Odorless. Colorless. Quick acting. He presented the glass to the mistress, who drank it down easily. He moved outside the curtain, standing guard. After a moment, he heard the telltale soft gags of the poison taking effect, then a sigh as the last threads of life broke and her body slumped into the chair.
Ahead, his second target was approaching with two glasses, moving quickly to get back to his seat as the music had begun rising in the orchestra pit. 47 stepped aside, gesturing the man into the box and listening as he tried to rouse his date to take her drink.
47 stepped through the curtain, watching dispassionately as the man attempted to find a pulse on the dead woman. Panic was beginning to take hold, much more of this and he would start screaming. Time to act. A syringe of poison into the left cephalic vein did the job quickly, leaving the man swaying dreamily for a moment before he slipped to the ground in a heap. 47 lifted him into his seat, arranging them as naturally as possible. As a final touch, he tucked the remainder of the oral poison into the man’s coat pocket, and left the syringe, uncapped, loosely in the man’s right hand. He was right handed, 47 knew from the briefing notes, and would thus inject with it. A murder suicide, of lovers about to be discovered by a jealous wife. The little touches that earned him his price.
He checked for pulses and breath on each - kills confirmed. Job done, he slipped out of the box and back to the employee bathroom to return the uniform to the usher, pose him in a stall, and return, smartly dressed in his suit, to his seat to continue the second half of the play.
Ava looked up as he made his way into their aisle to sit. “Thought you’d died out there or something,” she whispered. “Maybe you took our talk about falling off the balcony too seriously.”
“Just a long line for the bar,” he said, offering her one of the glasses of bubbly champagne that his targets were no longer going to need. Shame to waste them.
She took the glass. “You’re a sweetheart. Thanks.”
“Mm.” It would not have been his choice of words, but there was something pleasant in them anyway. “Did you buy anything?”
“No, mostly just wanted to look. Boring stuff, t-shirts and posters, nothing eye-catching like a commemorative silver-handled straight razor or a copy of Mrs. Lovett’s cookbook.”
The stage lights came up, and the performance continued.
The house lights came up, and the audience began to gather their coats and bags to leave.
“What did you think?” 47 asked as they made their way down the aisle to leave.
“Amazing.” She said, wrapping her shawl around her shoulders. “I mean, she was no Angela Lansbury, but who could compare to that?”
“No one.” He put his hand on her low back again, keeping her close to his side as they moved through the press of people trying to leave. “I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it. Would be a shame if you didn’t.”
“Mm. Oh, drama,” she said, catching sight of paramedics rushing past them, going up the stairs to the mezzanine. “I wonder what happened?”
“No idea.” He said, moving her along as she tried to turn to see where they were going. “Hopefully everyone is okay.”
“Yeah.” She yawned, putting a hand over her mouth to cover it. “Sorry, it’s well past my bedtime, and I haven’t been sleeping very well lately. I’m ready to take a hot shower and get into bed.”
47 unlocked the car, opening her door to usher her inside. She climbed in, pulling her skirt out of the way of the door closing again. He started the car, and drove them home.
Ava dozed against the window on the way home, leaving him time to process the mission in peace. A success, despite Diana’s meddling. Two targets, in the desired order, no alarm raised until well after it would do any good. The performance had been nice as well. And the accompaniment… He looked over at Ava, silhouetted against the city lights outside the car. The accompaniment had also been adequate. More than adequate, if he was completely honest with himself. He had no desire to be so honest, so looked back at the highway. Keep moving. Don’t get close to anyone. That had been the advice when he joined the ICA. But now… Diana had been encouraging it, hadn’t she? Teasing him like a schoolchild, knowing full well where all of it would lead in the end.
He parked the car on the street and looked at the sleeping passenger. The pin in her hair had come loose, and he lifted his hand toward it to fix it before stopping himself, and instead putting his hand on her shoulder. “Ava. Time to wake up.”
“Mm. Okay.” She gave the hand a light squeeze, then unbuckled her seatbelt and pushed the door open to make her way up to the front door. 47 followed, glancing each way down the street. No sign of Derek - good. Maybe he had learned his lesson after all.
Ava closed and locked the door behind them, glancing out the peephole. “I hate this feeling.”
“This feeling of looking over my shoulder every time I walk into the house. Expecting someone to be following me.”
“He isn’t following you.”
“I know, I just... “ She shook her head, sitting on the stairs to remove her shoes. “Never mind. I’m going to go to bed. Thanks for a lovely evening.”
She stood, barefoot, and began up the stairs. “Don’t wait so long to ask me out again, huh?”
Ava went into her bedroom, closing the door before unzipping her dress and stepping out of it. She put it on its hanger in the closet, then shed the rest of her clothes on the way to the attached bathroom to step into the shower, letting the hot water run over her skin. She knew Derek wasn’t following her, not now. He would wait until she began to forget, to stop checking out every window as she passed, to stop jumping every time a text came through on her phone. He would wait until she was alone and unprepared, and he would try again.
Alone. Unprepared. Her mind drifted back to her childhood, to her father pressing the shotgun into her hands with some ceremony as he explained why he had brought her to the gun club with him that day. You are my only daughter, he had told her, and someday I won’t be around to make sure nobody fucks with you. I’m going to give this to you, and show you how to make it do what you tell it, and you’re going to be the most un-fuck-with-able woman in the world.
Hm. She turned off the water, opening the curtain to grab her towel and wrap it around herself. This was the second time in as many months that she had thought about the gun range of her youth. A sign? Maybe.
She put on a nightgown and climbed into bed, turning the TV on low for some white noise to help her sleep. She could think more about it later.
“Tragedy struck at the Chicago Theater last Saturday, when a murder-suicide was uncovered after the final curtain - and not the one you’d expect. Millionaire Eric Armstrong and an unnamed woman were found dead in a theater box at the end of the performance of Sweeney Todd. Police have stated that it appears she died by drinking poison, which was found in Armstrong’s pocket, after which Armstrong killed himself by injection. Mrs. Armstrong, speaking at her husband’s funeral, said-”
Ava changed the channel to cartoons, and pulled the blankets back over her head to try to sleep. It was not coming easily lately.
“Do you have a FOID card?”
“Hm?” 47 looked up from the book he was reading, placing a finger on the page to save his spot. Ava was standing at the top of the stairs, one hand on the railing.
“I said… do you have a FOID card? Firearm owner’s identification?”
“That’s a strange thing to ask.” He closed the book, putting it aside and motioning her to sit on the bed with him. “Sit. You look like something’s on your mind.”
She did, picking at her cuticle as she spoke. “You know how I said I used to go skeet shooting with my dad and his friends when I was a kid? I was thinking about it again, what with… everything going on lately.”
He nodded, understanding slowly resolving in his mind. “You want to remember how to shoot.”
“Yes,” she said, relieved he’d said it first - and not in a horrified tone. “I mean, maybe a handgun, something you don’t have to lean up against the wall when you’re not using it. I haven’t used one of those before.”
“I have.” He said, trying to tread lightly around the implied question while being acutely aware that the more mainstream pieces of his armory were in locked cases beneath the bed on which they were currently sitting. Did she know? Had she seen it? “I can teach you, if you’d like. There’s a firing range in the western suburbs we can visit. I’ve been there a few times.”
She smiled, inwardly pleased that her assessment of him had been correct. Ex-military, she could spot it a mile off. “Okay. Cool. So um. When do you want to go?”
“Tomorrow? I’ll make sure there’s room for us around dinner time, unless you’re working late…?”
“No, just in the morning.” She felt lighter already, the weight of helplessness beginning to dissipate. “I should be back by four o’clock.”
“Four o’clock, then.”
“It’s a date. Sort of. Well, um. I’ll leave you to your reading,” she said, suddenly aware that she might have intruded on something important, and stood to leave.
“You don’t have to,” he said, surprised at himself even as he spoke the words. “Unless you want to.”
She bit her lip, unwilling to tell him that she didn’t want to go. Didn’t want to go back downstairs and risk a knock at the door, a face at the window, a car idling at the end of the sidewalk. Didn’t want to go back to checking the locks and worrying herself. “Okay,” she said, giving a slight smile. “Then I’ll stay.”
47 moved back to sit against the metal headboard again, reopening the book he’d been reading and stretching his legs out on one half of the bed. After a moment, Ava crawled up next to him, laying down on her side and closing her eyes. In a moment, she was asleep.
Ava blinked awake some time later, disoriented. At some point during her sleep, a blanket from the couch downstairs had been put over her and tucked in under her feet. She drew the blanket up under her chin, snuggling into its warmth. 47 appeared to be asleep beside her, though he was facing away so could have been staring off into space for all she could tell.
She shifted slightly onto her side to face him, taking the opportunity to get a closer look at the tattoo she hadn't felt comfortable enough to ask about just yet.
A barcode and, under it, 640509-040147. Odd. She imagined there was some personal meaning to it, some sense to the numbers, but none she could fathom without asking. Maybe it was dark humor, the old sentiment of soldiers being mass produced for war. She had heard it before. Maybe it was something else entirely. In any case, it seemed like a particularly painful location to choose, so close to skull and spine and bundles of important nerves.
He surely had his reasons, and she was certain they were none of her business.
As quietly as she could, she pushed herself up on the bed and slid to the end to climb off without disturbing him. She wrapped herself in the blanket like a toga, then made her way down the stairs to the kitchen to begin the coffee pot. It was close enough to the time she should be waking up anyway that it wasn't worth trying to fall asleep again.
They arrived at the gun range, signed all the paperwork, and received a briefing on range safety before being turned loose on the target booths.
“I think I've been here before,” Ava said once the safety officer had moved on to other groups. “Long time ago, though.”
“With your father?”
“Right. I was too young to shoot, though so I just watched them firing.”
47 nodded, unlatching the case he’d brought along with them. The concept of 'too young to shoot’ was foreign to him, but he knew better than to mention it. He took out one of the twin silverballers, examining it briefly before offering the grip end to her. “This one is for you.”
“Thanks.” She took it, running her fingers along the slide, lingering a moment on the zig-zaggy emblem etched into it. Interesting. “So, come here often? I noticed you didn't get as much of a speech as I did about safety.”
“A few times. Not recently.” He looked over the second gun, then opened the box of ammo to begin the lesson. He walked her through putting the bullets into the magazine, seating it correctly, and loading the chamber, demonstrating his technique at each step. Ava was a good student, picking up the basics fairly quickly. It was clear she had at least watched it done before, even if she hadn’t done it herself.
Once they were loaded, he put his down on the case and stepped behind her to direct. “It won’t bite back like a shotgun, but it’s not as forgiving. Aiming takes more practice.” As she lifted the gun, he gently touched her arm to guide it more centrally, estimating her aiming point based on his. “Try that.”
She squeezed the trigger, letting off a shot downrange. It tore through the edge of the paper target. “Hell, that was nowhere near it.”
“I’ve seen worse first shots.”
“Yours?” She glanced up with a slight smile.
47 ignored the question, moving back to his station to fire off a few rounds. “I don’t remember mine.”
“Thought the saying went that you never forget your first?”
“It was a long time ago.” He fired off the rest of the magazine into the target.
Ava peered down the range at his target as he reloaded. “So… I have a question.”
“Did you miss 7 of those shots?”
“No.” He put the magazine back into place.
She looked back at the target, perfectly unblemished except for one hole torn through the center ring, then back to him. “Do it again.”
“Pay attention this time,” he said, and fired off three rounds through the same spot. “See?”
“...that is so cool.” She turned her focus back to her own target, aiming carefully and firing a few shots through the outer rings. “So… ex-military?”
He looked slightly startled at the question, recovering quickly. “Excuse me?”
“You. Ex-military? You’ve never said it, but that’s the shooting of someone who knows what he’s doing. You’re either a SEAL or into some Blackwater shit, and you’re not going to admit to Blackwater if that’s what it is.” Her gaze flicked to him a moment, then back at her target. “Hell, Dad wouldn’t even talk about the legit stuff sometimes.”
“No?” He asked, glad for the opportunity to talk about someone other than himself.
“Nope.” She put down the emptied gun and held out her cupped hand to him for more bullets to reload. “Sometimes he’d come home from a trip overseas and everything would be sunshine, sometimes he’d look like hell and lock himself in his room for a day or two before he’d talk to me. He wouldn’t tell me why, but... I could tell something had happened. Reminded me a little of a sinner performing ablutions before entering a church. Like he didn’t feel right being around me after… whatever had happened.”
47 realized he’d been listening intently for too long, and gave her the next magazine’s worth of bullets. “You never asked him about it?”
“Hell, what am I supposed to ask?” She began reloading. “Hey Dad, I saw this thing on the news about a village of innocents being slaughtered in some war-torn country, were you pulling the trigger on any of them?”
“Anyway, you’re avoiding the question.”
He considered it, replaying their conversation in his mind to find the question that had sparked it. “Yes,” he said carefully. “I have gone through extensive combat training.”
“I knew it.” She smiled, pleased with herself.
“You check exits. You look for security cameras, and keep your face away from them. You open the front door every time you come home like you expect someone with a rifle to be behind it.” She cast a knowing look at him. “Nobody notices, right? I wouldn’t, either, except Dad would do it for a little while after he got back from a trip overseas.”
47 turned back to the range, raising the handgun to fire again. “Does that bother you?”
“Not really. You can’t help the way you’re made, or what you’ve had to do in the line of duty. He said the work was just, and seemed to believe it. Beyond that…” Ava shrugged. “Beyond that, it’s not my call to make.”
“It’s your call on whether to associate with such people. Is knowing the mission is a just one enough?”
“For someone I care about? You bet your ass.”
That was that, he thought, falling silent to concentrate on his firing pattern. They were arguing about something neither of them had said, the conversation behind the conversation. He asked himself again, for what seemed like the hundredth time, how much she really knew. How much she cared to know. How much he would tell her, if she ever asked. Would it bring relief or suffering?
“When did you join up?” She asked finally, once the silence had stretched out too long.
“Right after I left the orphanage,” he said automatically. “I wanted to find a purpose.”
Ava nodded, absorbing that. It wasn’t an unexpected answer. “When did you leave?” she ventured, pushing her luck a bit further still.
“You’ll never get better at your aim if you keep talking.”
She hesitated a moment before raising the handgun again, focusing on each shot. That was the line, then. Recent history was apparently not up for discussion. Another time, then.
Author’s notes: I debated on changing 47’s ID number to fit with the age I’m imagining for him (mid-30s) but it just felt wrong… so I’m leaving it, even though it kind of messes up my timeline. Oh, and I’ve never used a handgun, so blame Wikipedia if my info is wrong. I tried!
“I have a contract for you, 47.” Diana said, skipping pleasantries. “It sounds like it will be scenic.”
“Have you ever been to Navy Pier?”
“A few times. Why?”
“There is a fireworks show off the pier on Saturday, according to our client. The targets will be having dinner at one of the restaurants, then taking a chartered boat out into the lake to enjoy the festivities.”
Plans began to formulate in 47’s mind. He moved to the closet to begin assessing his weapon options. Remote explosive? Once he found out which boat was being chartered, sabotage would be simple. Poison? Dinners or drinks could be poisoned almost unobserved if he had the right timing. Fiber wire? He could get aboard the boat and choose his moment, but it would be risky to get back out without being spotted. The pier only had one main entrance area, it could be locked down quickly once a body was found on a boat. Fireworks… fireworks made it interesting, too.
“I thought you might like that. The target has a dinner reservation at Riva, shall I make one for you at the same time?”
“Yes, that's a good idea.” He could find them at the restaurant, size up the options. Make a decision in the moment as to the path he would take to complete the contract.
“I’ll give you more information as soon as I receive it.” Diana said, and clicked off the line.
He picked a few items to put aside for later consideration, then closed the door and made his way downstairs. Ava was stretched out on the couch on her side, half-watching the History Channel.
“Hey.” She smiled a bit and pulled her legs in to give him space to sit, then tucked her feet under his leg.
“What are you watching?”
“Modern Marvels. They're talking about marine salvage operations. Kind of interesting.”
“Ah.” he adjusted the blanket over her legs, smoothing it out.
“So what are you up to today? You have a look of contemplation about you.”
“Do I?” The restaurant was relatively expensive, he knew, not the kind of place people went to eat alone on a Saturday night. The kind of place that expected couples and families. Keep cover. Blend in.
“Mhm. Like you're doing long calculus equations in your head. Sort of way off somewhere else.” she turned onto her back, boosting herself up on her elbows to look at him. “So?”
“I was… wondering if you wanted to go to dinner on Saturday.” He said, thoughts turning as he spoke. He would have to ask Diana to make the reservation for two. “There's a restaurant I want to try at Navy Pier. It's called Riva. Seafood, that kind of thing.”
“Mm, I think I could clear my schedule.” She smiled a bit. “What's the occasion?”
“No occasion. Does there need to be an occasion?”
“Nope. Just curious. What time?”
“I haven't called for a reservation yet. In fact… I should do that now then.”
“Go forth. I look forward to it.” Ava watched him go, then stretched back out on the couch, picking up the TV remote to look for something else to watch. She wouldn't have pegged him for a tourist attraction kind of guy, but wasn't planning to complain about the selection. She liked Navy Pier - the waves on the lake were nice, and she hadn't been on the new Ferris wheel yet. Not to mention dinner. Yep. Not going to complain.
“I haven't been here in ages,” Ava said as they left the parking garage. “They've done a lot of renovation since then, so it'll be nice to see what's changed.”
47 nodded slightly, scanning the area for his quarry. They would be here somewhere, shopping or walking around while they waited for their reservation time.
Ava veered away from him to admire a jewelry kiosk, slipping a large rhinestone cocktail ring onto her middle finger. “Ooh, look at these. Shiny.” She waggled her fingers under a spotlight to make the rhinestones sparkle.
“Those aren't real stones, it's all glass,” he said, looking over her shoulder at the ring.
“Of course it's glass, that's why they're selling it for three dollars and put it on an adjustable band. If it was diamonds, I would have been tackled before I could get it on my finger.” she took off the ring and put it back on the display, then nudged him with her elbow. “Spoilsport.”
“It's a waste of money is all I meant.”
“When you start offering to buy me diamonds and rubies, we can talk about whether or not rhinestones are a waste of money. Until that day, though, I’m going to keep buying rhinestones.”
“I will.” She moved to the next side of the kiosk, running a hand down a gauzy linen scarf. “I can't wear rings at work anyway.”
“We should get to the restaurant, our reservation should be coming up soon.”
“Fine, fine.” She released the scarf and turned to follow him. “Lead the way.”
He put his hand on her middle back to guide her along beside him as they walked, still scanning the crowd for the targets. As they got closer to the restaurant he began to worry they had rescheduled and he would miss them completely.
They reached the hostess table and gave the name Rieper, which she accepted and led them to a table for two.
Ava opened the menu to begin reading. “Everything sounds good,” she said once she'd gotten halfway down the page. “Though it had better be delicious when they're selling $38 crab cakes.”
47 wasn't paying attention. The targets had been seated early and were at the other end of the restaurant, already midway through their entrees. The main target was a man in his fifties, who, according to the briefing, worked for a pharmaceutical company that was engaged in what could only be called questionable business practices to remove competition. The competition was now biting back. He was surrounded by his sales team, attractive men and women who did the dirtiest work on his behalf. The client had requested a full elimination, leaving no one to carry on his legacy of creative legal interpretation.
They all had their entrees - the chance to end this cleanly with some well placed poison had passed.
“...put in an appetizer or drinks?” The waiter was saying. Ava was looking at 47 expectantly.
“Ah,” he skimmed the wine list quickly. “Chardonnay?” Ava nodded in agreement. “Good. Whichever bottle is the best,” he said to the waiter, offering the wine list back. The waiter nodded and left.
Ava glanced over her shoulder, spotting the cluster of targets. “Admiring the view?” She teased, nodding toward the several female sales reps.
“I was… thinking about something, not looking anywhere particular.”
“Mhm.” She smiled a bit, pleased to have flustered him a bit. “So… not looking at the blond who looks like she got sewn into the white bodycon dress over there. Got it.”
“Hey, no shame in it.”
“I wasn't.” he said again, more severely. This was a strange argument, utterly foreign to his experience and training, but he felt innately that he should defend himself on this point. A subject change was required. “What are you going to order?”
“Mm. Fine.” She let the subject drop as the waiter returned to uncork their wine, pouring two glasses. “There’s sea bass which sounds good, but there's also cheese agnolotti, which sounds like carbs wrapped in carbs and I do like that sound of that, too.”
“Both good choices. I think I'm going to get the cioppino.”
“That looks good, too, except for the lobster.”
“You don't like lobster?”
“I used to, but then someone told me they're related to cockroaches. Never able to eat them after I learned that. Blech.”
“Shouldn't that make you want to eat cockroaches, then? Lots of cultures eat insects.”
“I'll wait for the apocalypse to start eating vermin, thanks.” She took a sip of the wine. “Our waiter made a good selection.”
“They usually do.” His attention drifted back to the table of sales reps. They were receiving their desserts and a carafe of coffee. The opportunity had officially expired. Thankfully, there would be more.
“The view of the lake is gorgeous from here,” Ava said, resting her chin in her hand while she looked out the window beside their table. “Might as well be the ocean.”
“Mm. Would you like to stay for the fireworks tonight? It's a few hours from now so we would have to find something to occupy ourselves until then, but if you're interested…”
Ava's eyes lit up. “I am! And I have a great idea for how to pass the time.”
“Do I get to know what it is?”
“Eventually. For now it's my secret.”
Secrets were worrying, especially when 47 wasn't the one knowing them. So far she hadn't given him cause for concern, though, so he decided to not push for an answer now. He would find out soon enough. In the meantime, the targets had finished their desserts and were gathering their bags and coats to leave. He would have to locate them again, though the thought didn't worry him. He had tracked much more elusive targets before, and these were going to be in the immediate area for hours. There was plenty of time.
Ava stopped in front of a sign and gestured up at it like a car show presenter. “Ta da!”
“You don't sound as excited as you should be. Have you never played laser tag?” She slipped her arm through his to lead him inside.
“Not to my knowledge.”
“It's like paintball for people who don't like getting massive welts on their backs.” Ava pulled him to the registration desk to sign them up for the next round. A display of security camera feeds behind the counter showed clusters of people running and hiding from each other as they tried to score the most points and ruin the most friendships.
“Okay, you get to pick a code name now, so you can see your results later. Pick something cool. Mine is Shadow.” She offered 47 the keyboard to type in his player information.
He considered a moment, then began typing and submitted the form.
“Agent 47,” she read off the screen, peeking around him. “Sounds dangerous. I like it.”
They were given ID tags, briefed on the safety rules, and sent to the preparation room to put on the target sensor vests and scan the ID tag into the guns to link their codenames to the scoreboard outside.
Ava leaned on the wall, hefting the laser gun against her shoulder. “Have you really never done laser tag?”
“Should I have?” he pointed the gun around the room, sighting down it.
“It's just a staple of childhood. Sad that you missed it.”
“I had larger concerns at the time,” he said, examining the gun and testing the trigger.
“I guess. You'll pick it up quickly though, it's not hard once you get a feel for it. Oh, and if you get hit, your vest lights up and you can't fire for five seconds.”
The preparation room began to fill with other players, mostly college aged men with other demographics sprinkled throughout. An employee clapped for attention and explained the rules, which sounded to Ava like all the stupid things previous groups had done that were now officially banned by the company. Finally, the employee unlocked the door to the arena and bid them good hunting.
47 caught Ava's arm, holding her back as the other players flooded into the arena. “Watch,” he said under his breath to her as she started to protest. He nodded at the retreating players, who were spreading out into hiding spots before the vests activated. “Observe, then act.” Once the group had passed, he released her and started through the door.
Ava trailed behind him, debating the merits of firing on him. It would be an easy point on her scorecard, but seemed like a betrayal of trust. It was just laser tag, she reminded herself, but lowered her gun.
The speakers counted down from five, then the vests and guns activated. 47 put his back to a wall, looking around the side of it for the other players. Ahead, a player was still working his way up the spiral stairs to the second floor. The unfortunate player’s vest lit up as 47 pulled the trigger, a red flash at the shoulder to indicate which sensor had activated.
“Aiming is off,” he muttered, looking down at the gun as though it could explain itself. He had been aiming for the sensor on the chest. No matter - he was used to compensating for shoddy workmanship. It wouldn’t happen again.
He glanced at Ava, and motioned her forward. She took the hint and climbed over a barrier wall, checking the grates that might allow someone on the second floor to fire down at them. She stopped and fired up through a grate, ducking out of the way as the person began firing back. The other player swore as his vest lit up, and he darted away. 47 advanced past her, getting to the bottom of the stairwell and pointing the gun up it for a moment before passing it by. After a moment, she followed. If she wasn’t going to shoot him, she decided, she might as well enjoy the benefit of his skills - whatever they may be. His demeanor had changed the moment they had put on their gear, and she was dimly aware that she should probably wonder a little harder about that.
They pushed forward into the arena, firing at opponents as they came across them. As they moved into an open area, there was a flash of motion to their right. 47 turned, raising the gun and squeezing the trigger just as his shoulder sensor lit up. No firing for 5 seconds. The attacker would go unpunished. Instinctively, he caught Ava’s wrist and pulled her close to sight down her gun instead, wrapping his hand over hers to catch the trigger. The retreating attacker’s vest lit up across his back as he darted around a corner and away. He released her and dropped behind cover to wait out the remaining seconds until his weapon reactivated.
Ava pressed against the wall next to him, less for cover and more to disguise the swooning feeling that was currently distracting her from the game. When 47’s gun bleeped to indicate it was ready again, he emerged from cover to seek out the next shot. She took a deep breath, then followed.
They made their way up the stairs to the second level, which was designed like a mirror maze. 47 motioned her ahead, and she worked her way around corners, looking for signs of other players. She paused, hearing a noise behind them, and turned. “Watch out!” she hissed, and swung her gun up to fire at one of the mirrors on the wall behind them. Her shot banked off the mirror and struck the player’s chest sensor. The player fled.
A bell sounded the end of the round and the arena lights brightened so they could find their way back out to the preparation room.
“Not bad for your first round,” Ava teased, reaching up to unbuckle his vest for him and pull it off his shoulders.
“Not bad?” He shrugged out of the vest and put the gun back on its charging dock.
“I mean, you did get shot.” She hung up her own vest beside his.
“Once. You got shot five or six times.”
“Yeah, but I don't have military training.”
“Neither do-” he caught himself.
She paused, looking up at him with curiosity for a moment. He could almost hear the gears turning in her mind. He looked away.
“Then I take it back. Only one hit is damn impressive.” She slipped her arm back through his, giving it a slight reassuring pat. “Come on. I want to walk along the pier a little before it gets dark.”
Midway through their walk along the Pier’s edge, Ava announced she wanted something warm to drink, and let go of 47’s arm. “I'm going to go to the Starbucks inside, do you want anything?”
“I'm fine. Meet back here?”
“Sure. Line’s probably a mile long, so wish me luck.” She turned and walked to the enclosed shopping area to get in line.
“Can we trust her?” Diana wasted no time in her questioning once Ava had gone.
“I hope so,” he said absently.
“Hope isn't enough, 47.”
“I know that.” He turned and made his way back to the transient boat launches, looking for the right name on the right boat for his targets.
“Then I'll ask you again. Can we trust her?”
“I believe we can. And if we can't, I will take full responsibility for… correcting the oversight.” He silently hoped it never came to that. There was no reason it should - it would have happened by now. She didn't have the full picture, but she had enough of the edge pieces that she would know whether or not she wanted to continue putting the puzzle together or not.
“Good.” The answer seemed to satisfy Diana for the time being. He knew she would ask again eventually, and want a better answer. For now, she was moving on to mission developments. “Now then,” she said, shuffling papers. “Your targets are enjoying the bar at Margaritaville, so the way is clear for whatever you have planned next.”
“The boat. They haven't changed reservations, have they?” He walked down the row of private vessels, all of them small and sporty.
“Not that I've found. There is a bank transfer from our man’s account to the owner of the Lady of the Lake. It should be near the end of the docking area.”
He read off the hull identification number, which Diana confirmed. The boat was small, just the right size for about ten people to relax comfortably without any extraneous hired crew.
“Good.” He glanced around, then climbed aboard to examine the console. There was a space beneath it that was unlikely to be examined before they took the boat out to watch the fireworks. It would be dark, too, and from the looks of the group at dinner they were not the type to check nooks. He planted a remote explosive device under the console, and a second under one of the benches at the opposite end of the boat. That should be enough to do the job no matter where they stood to watch the show.
He climbed back to the dock, and walked back toward the main portion of Navy Pier. He returned to the meeting place, pleased to see that she was only just returning.
“Longest line I've ever stood in for overpriced hot chocolate,” she said, hands wrapped around the cup as she sipped. “They're lucky I wasn't in a hurry. Sorry if you got bored waiting for me.”
“I kept myself busy. Where to now?”
“Find a spot for the fireworks? They should be starting soon.”
“Lead the way. Maybe at the far end of the pier…?” He pointed away from the transient boat docking area. The remote detonator had plenty of range, no reason to end up dodging shrapnel.
“Sounds good to me. Oh, hey, I got an update from Domino's owners. Hold this.” She handed her cocoa to him, then dug in her coat for her phone. She scrolled through her messages, then brought up the photo. “See? It was his birthday a couple days ago.”
The photo was of Domino chewing a mouthful of lettuce, a paper party hat taped to his head.
“He's looking well.”
“Right? His owners keep updating me on how well he's doing. They seem very happy.” She put away the phone and took her cocoa back. “Thought you'd like to know.”
47 nodded, looking toward the transient dock. He couldn't see the Lady of the Lake from here, but the targets should be boarding soon. Readying the boat to go out on the lake to watch the fireworks show. He could imagine them bringing bottles of champagne, playing music. Continuing the party unaware of their fate.
Ava moved closer to him for warmth, tucking herself against his side. “Thank you for all of this. I'm having a great time.”
47 moved his arm around her, resting his hand lightly on the back of her coat. “Cold?”
“Here.” He motioned her to the railing, then unzipped his coat to draw her back into the warmth of it as well as he could. There wasn't a large amount of space to share, but she seemed happy to accept it. Her back pressed against his chest, her head turned slightly against the angle of his neck. “Any better?”
“Little bit.” She crossed her arms to hold the edges of his coat around her. “How about you?”
“Fine.” He said, wrapping his arms around her to get at the pocket with the detonator. He palmed it, working it into his sleeve for the moment. The last thing he needed was for her to find it and start asking questions so soon after assuring Diana that it wouldn't be an issue. He felt her settle into the embrace a bit, taking the gesture at face value.
Ava released one side of the coat to pick up her cocoa off the railing and take another drink. “So.” She said, with no follow up.
There were too many questions spinning in her mind, every dropped thread of conversation that she wanted to ask about. Everything she knew she didn't really want answered, because she knew it wouldn't help anyone. But now she had started to speak, and now she had to go on.
“Do you think we'll do this again sometime?” She asked finally, lifting her head slightly to try to catch his expression - such as it was.
47 considered this, rolling the detonator in his hand as he worked the question over in his mind. “Navy Pier?”
“No, silly, I mean…” she searched for a non-terrifying way to phrase it. “Go somewhere again sometime. I don't mean tomorrow or anything. Just... This. Sometime. You know?”
“I do.” He gave a slight nod, unable to commit further. He wanted to say yes, again, every day if that's what she wanted. And he wanted to say no, that she didn't know what she was asking. That, one way or another, it would end in blood.
The loudspeakers around them crackled to life, announcing a countdown to the start of the fireworks display. Showtime. 47 began scanning the boats on the lake, looking for his target. It was there, out behind the fireworks barge, its lights dimmed to not detract from the coming display. He could just make out the cluster of well dressed sales reps onboard.
The crowd counted down from 10 to zero, and the first volleys of fireworks went up. His thumb hovered over the detonation button, focused on the barge. The finale would be the best moment - who could tell if one of the shells had gone wild when there were fifteen going off at once? It would be too bright to know what had happened until long after it didn't matter anymore.
The fireworks reached a crescendo, lighting up the sky with explosions of color. The finale. 47 pressed the detonator and let it fall back into his pocket, flinching back with affected surprise as the Lady of the Lake joined the finale in a fireball of explosives and burning fuel. There was first applause at the novel display, then chaos as the audience realized it had not been a planned event.
“Oh, shit,” Ava gasped, clasping her hands over her mouth. “What the fuck was that? Did they get too close to the barge?”
“I don't know.” 47 searched the glaring firelight, counting bodies. The fire department boat was already approaching the wreckage, calling out for survivors. No responses, just the steady crackle of fire and the gentle drift of bodies on the lake. The contract thus confirmed and closed, 47 took Ava's arm to draw her into the press of fleeing people. “Come on, they're telling us to clear the area in case something else catches the flames.”
Ava followed weakly, looking back over her shoulder at the wreckage.
“Don't,” he said when he noticed, stepping into her line of sight to block the view back. “You don't want that in your head. It won't help them or you.”
“I know.” She bit her lip, but let him pull her along toward the parking garage with the rest of the crowd.
We realized long after we'd come up with this idea that there isn't actually laser tag at Navy Pier. There should be, and I suggest a petition.
Chapter 14: Repeat client
“You seem to have gained an admirer, 47.” Diana said at their next contact. “A new one, that is.”
“The client from your recent Navy Pier job has made another request. A marine biologist at the Shedd Aquarium, working on some kind of fish disease research. A lot of technical jargon here, let's see…”
“Shedd Aquarium. Another Chicago contract,” 47 murmured.
“Yes. We seem to be doing someone's housekeeping for them. The payments are still clearing, though.”
“I know. It just makes me wonder where it's all leading.”
“Wondering will get you in trouble in this line of work,” Diana teased.
“Not wondering will get you a knife in the back.”
“Fair enough. I'll send the relevant files to you and leave you to your preparations.” The line went dead.
The aquarium. Not far at all from Navy Pier, nor from the Chicago Theater. The contracts moved north of the theater, then south. Diana didn't seem to see a pattern emerging, but 47’s life had been devoted to finding and exploiting them. There was something there, but not close enough to tell what it was - or what it meant. Two data points could not yet make a theory, did not prove anything at all. He had no reason to disbelieve their client, nor to refuse the contract. Concerns for another time, then.
Downstairs, Ava was coming home from work. It was later than usual, 47 thought as he glanced at the clock on the computer. An emergency at work, an after hours surgery. That was usually the case.
He could hear her in the kitchen, filling and turning on the electric kettle, then making her way up the stairs to her bedroom. A minute later, the sound of the shower coming on, then off some time after that.
He examined the files from Diana, moved them onto an IronKey, then removed the drive from the computer and stood to go intercept her before he could talk himself out of it.
He found her in the kitchen, pouring hot water into a mug for tea. Her hair was wet and sticking to her neck and face in tendrils, her skin flushed from the hot shower. She didn’t seem to have heard him approach. “Ava,” he said, once she’d put down the kettle.
“Oh, hey.” She turned toward him with a smile. “Thought you were out when I got home, don’t know why.”
“I’ve been here,” he said, moving out of the way for her to walk past him to the couch.
She put her mug down on a coaster, and started searching the couch for the TV remote. “Up for a movie? My turn to pick.”
“I actually wanted to talk to you. About… the other night.”
Ava paused in her search for the remote and straightened, turning to look at him. “Oh?”
“Well, go on then.” she said, looking at him expectantly.
“You asked me a question, and I realized later that I didn’t really answer.”
“Took you long enough.” She gave a slight laugh. “I was starting to think awkward silence was the only answer I was going to get.”
“No, that… wasn’t my intention.”
“Good. Because that would be a dick move.”
“I swear it wasn’t.”
“Good. So…?” she prompted.
“So, I was thinking,” he said, choosing each word carefully, “that if you’re not busy tomorrow, there’s a behind-the-scenes tour at the Shedd Aquarium that I’ve heard is very interesting.”
“Me and you?” she asked, just to be sure she’d understood that this was an offer for a date and not just a suggestion to fill her evening on her own.
“Tomorrow.” She said, and nodded. “Yes. I would like that.”
“Good.” He said and, task completed, began to turn to go back upstairs.
“Hey, wait.” She sat on the couch, patting the spot next to her. “Come on. My turn to pick the movie.”
After a moment of hesitation he relented, moving to sit beside her on the couch. “Which one did you have in mind?”
“Hmm, well since you seem to like old Hollywood based on your last pick…” She moved closer to him, resting her weight against his shoulder. “Double Indemnity?”
“A good choice.” He took the remote from her to search Netflix for the movie, and slid his arm around her waist to keep it from going numb from her leaning. After a moment, he felt her fingers snake up to touch his hand, tentative, like they might be broken for the offense. His hand flinched away before he could stop it, then relaxed again, fingertips spreading to interlace with hers.
“D’you want popcorn or anything?” She asked softly once the opening credits were rolling. “I can go get movie snacks.”
He could feel her smile against his shoulder, and was mildly surprised to realize he had caused it. A rarity in his experience.
This Dietrichson business. It's murder. And murders don't come any neater. As fancy a piece of homicide as anyone ever ran into. Smart, tricky, almost perfect.
“When’s the thing tomorrow? The tour?” Ava asked, voice beginning to blur with tiredness.
“3 o’clock. Are you falling asleep?”
“Can't help it,” she said, drawing a deep inhale against his shirt. “You have that effect on me.”
“Am I boring you?”
“Mm. Opposite.” she lifted her head slightly to look up at him.
He looked down at her a moment, sensing she was waiting for something to happen, then turned his attention back to the movie. She lowered her head back to his shoulder, closing her eyes to drift off again.
Chapter 15: Better than Xanax
Ava hummed along to the music on her phone as she flipped through the well-creased cookbook. Flour. Sugar. Butter. Chocolate chips. She put the butter and sugar into the mixer and turned it on to cream together. The increasingly-familiar slight change in air pressure told her that her housemate had come into the room
“Hey.” She glanced over her shoulder at him. “Not bothering you, am I?”
“No, I was on my way down already.” He went to the fridge, looking through for something to eat. “What are you making?”
“Chocolate chip cookies.”
He closed the fridge door and moved closer to look over her shoulder. “Oh?”
“Not for you.” She waved her spatula threateningly at him. “These are a gift.”
“Uncle Grant. His birthday is this week, and I always send him a batch.”
“I thought your parents were only children?”
“Oh, yeah, sorry. Uncle in air quotes. One of my dad's buddies from way back, he kind of helped raise me after my mom passed.” She stopped the mixer and scraped down the sides. “Hand me the eggs?”
47 took the egg carton from the refrigerator and offered them to her.
“Thanks.” She began cracking eggs into the bowl, smiling slightly. “It’s my mom’s recipe, too, so I think of her whenever I make them.”
“You have anything like that? I mean, I’ve never seen you cook, but something you do that reminds you of home?”
“Can I get you any other ingredients?”
“Sure, whatever I haven’t gotten out yet.” She tapped the ingredients list on the recipe page. “If you’d be so kind.”
He busied himself with locating the rest of the ingredients and putting them out on the counter for her.
“Thanks for the help. Extra set of hands makes the whole process go faster.” She reached for a container, then paused. “Oh, baking soda, not powder.”
“There’s a difference?” He asked, swapping it for the correct canister.
“Yes.” She paused. “Don’t ask me what it is. I knew at one point, but it’s completely out of my brain now. All I know is that they’re totally not the same thing, even though they look about the same. I think baking powder has more stuff in it? Like how flour and self-rising flour aren’t the same thing.”
He looked at her, baffled.
“Okay, so regular flour is just flour, that’s all. Self-rising flour has leavening in it already, so you don’t have to add it. Don’t ask me which one, probably baking powder.” She scraped down the mixing bowl again. “Baking’s all science and math. Fun stuff.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Good, that makes it easier.” She mixed the chocolate chips into the dough, then offered him a spoonful. “Here. Tell me if I need salt.”
47 accepted the dough, taking on a slight thoughtful air. “Enough salt. Tastes fine.”
“Perfect. Now you have to help me scoop. Wash your hands, then I’ll show you how big to make them.”
He obeyed, washing and drying his hands before taking a clean spoon from her. She scooped up some dough, then rolled the ball between her hands and put it on a cookie sheet. “About that big. Too big and the edges burn while the middles are mushy, too small and it’ll take ten years to cook all of them. Your turn.”
Ava watched as he followed her instructions, nodding encouragement. “Good. You’re not terrible at this.”
“Mhm. See, they're getting steadily bigger as you go, but I’ve seen worse.” She stole one of the larger dough balls from the tray to pop into her mouth. “Not terrible.”
“I usually get much better grades on assignments,” he said, focusing more on the size of the cookies he was scooping, and trying to ignore the fact that she was eating more dough than she was putting on the cookie sheet.
“Nobody can be a straight-A student on the first try.”
“You can’t, maybe.”
She caught his wrist, bringing his hand to her mouth to try to steal the dough ball from his fingers. “Ahhhh- hey!” He tossed the cookie dough onto the sheet before she could get to it. “That was mine.”
“I thought these were for your uncle?”
“Only the ones that actually make it into the oven. Until they’re baked, they’re free game.” She took the filled sheets and put them in the oven, then moved to the sink to wash her hands. “Now we get a 15 minute break while they cook.”
“Then do the whole thing over again?”
“Now you’re getting it.” She dried her hands on a towel, then offered it to him to do the same. “You do what you want, but I'm going to sit down for a minute.”
“I'll come with you,” he said, and followed her to the couch to sit. “So. This uncle of yours. Local?”
“No, way across the country in San Diego. I don't see him in person much, just phone calls and cookies, really. We keep in touch.” She put her back against the arm of the couch, stretching out to press her feet against his leg.
“Ah.” His hand moved down automatically to rest on her ankles. “Any of them local anymore?”
“Nope. I mean, I moved away from them. Not on purpose, I just got a job offer. They didn't like it, but what were they going to do? Tell me no?”
“They might have.” He absently rubbed his thumb back and forth over her ankle bone.
“They knew me better than that.” she moved her foot a bit, trying to encourage a proper foot rub without having to ask for it outright. “If they told me I had to stay, I'd have probably moved all the way to the other coast.”
“Not very nice.” He took the hint, hand beginning to work its way down her foot, stretching and pressing the right pressure points.
“You're one to talk.” She said, flexing the arch of her foot against his hand encouragingly. “You ran all the way to another continent.”
His hand stilled. “That wasn't for spite.”
“That was necessity.”
She sat up straighter to look at him, sensing unexplored depths opening beneath them. “...want to talk about it?”
“No.” A pause. “My leaving was not… amicable. It seemed best to get as far away as possible. Putting an ocean between me and them seemed adequate.”
“The d-” he caught himself before the word 'doctors’ could escape, amending his thought. “The people running the orphanage.”
“Oh.” Her voice was soft, full of sympathy as she slid across the couch toward him, raising a hand to lightly touch his shoulder. “I'm sorry you went through that.”
“It's been 17 minutes.”
“Oh shit.” She hopped up, hurrying back to the kitchen to get the cookies out of the oven. “Good call, they're not burned yet. We're good here.” She looked up as he came into the kitchen behind her. “Want to put these on the cooling rack or roll the next batch?”
“You roll this time.” He took the turner from her to begin transferring the cookies. “Since I'm merely not terrible at it.”
“You're not going to let me forget that, are you?”
“You know what will make you feel better?”
She offered one of the balls of cookie dough. “Eat this. Better than Xanax, I promise.”
He gave a skeptical look, then took it to eat. She wasn't far off. “Thank you.”
“If it still hurts, you can have another. Doctor's orders.” She smiled a bit at him. “After this batch is in, how about TV?”
He nodded, putting the last of the cookies on the cooling rack and taking another chunk of cookie dough to eat. “Good idea.”
Chapter 16: The Aquarium Assignment
There were cameras watching every corner. Volunteer tour guides circulating between groups. Families crowding the great hall, creating variable after variable that had to be controlled. And, of course, the variable at his side, scanning the museum map and talking about all of the exhibits they could visit.
“We have some time before the tour starts, so maybe we could see the penguins and sharks before we have to meet up with the tour group.” She tapped the map. “I think the sharks are closest, so may as well go there first, eh?” She hooked his index finger with hers, pulling him along toward the reef exhibit.
The sharks were a possibility. His target was, as Diana had said, researching “fish diseases.” Further investigation on the man’s name revealed it was research into shark immune systems, with apparent implication for human health. The research was in collaboration with a state university, funded through the NIH. Public records and the right journal subscriptions were a marvel in this business.
The lighting changed as they reached the reef exhibit, dimming to reduce the glare on the tank glass. “Here we are,” she said, slowing her pace as they approached the massive tanks. “Sharks.”
47 moved toward the glass, pulling her along by their linked fingers. “Incredible creatures, aren't they?”
“They're pretty cool.” She lightly bumped him with her shoulder. “For fish.”
“They’re apex predators,” he said, looking slightly offended on the sharks’ behalf. “They hunt without fear of being hunted themselves.”
“So are lappet-faced vultures, but people don't line up to walk through a tunnel of them,” she teased. “But I know what you're saying. They are born ideal for their purpose, and they're great at it. Most species can't say that.”
“Vultures eat what others kill.” 47 leaned toward the glass, looking up to the surface. The sharks were being fed, fresh meat tossed into the water from the caretakers. The shark feeding tour would have been interesting, but wouldn't have taken him anywhere near his quarry.
“Silly me, picking such a shameful example. You're right, that endangered species deserves to die out. Fuck lappet-faced vultures.”
“That's not what I-” he began, then saw her amused expression and gave up. “You know what I meant.”
“Yes,” she said, following his gaze as two bonnethead sharks glided past them. “You were admiring your reflection in the glass.”
“Very funny. Let's keep moving.”
Ava followed him down the tunnel through the reef tank, watching the sharks and schools of fish cut through the water overhead. “Ever think about how horrible it would be if the glass cracked?” She asked suddenly, once they had reached the midpoint of the tunnel. “Like, catastrophic failure, water and glass and sharks everywhere.”
“There are safety measures. Glass thickness calculations, bracing… a bullet couldn't bring down that glass.”
“Speaking from experience?”
“Speaking as someone who has been on aquarium tours before where they mentioned it. It's fairly common knowledge.”
“What? You're very uncommon.”
Ava considered the statement from several angles and decided to accept it as the odd, unpracticed compliment it probably was. She slipped her hand into his, linking their fingers and giving a light squeeze. “Well, thanks. I think.”
“Any time. We should get back to the great hall for the tour.”
“Yeah, probably. Lead the way.”
47 defaulted back into his mission mode as they moved through the tunnel, tracking their distance from the shark feeding pier as they went. It might be useful later.
The two made their way back to the great hall, where they were to meet their tour group. 47 presented the tickets to the tour guide - slim, male, probably a college student doing an internship. Wouldn't be deeply attentive to what his tour group was doing. Perfect.
The rest of the group arrived, and the tour began.
“Our first stop on the tour is our microbiology lab,” the guide said, motioning around the room. “Here is where we do water sampling, looking for any changes in our biome. The table over there is for cytology. All of our specimens are screened for disease before they are allowed onto exhibit, including blood, fin scrapes, and other materials.”
47 ran his free hand over the cytology table, palming a blood vial off a test tube rocker and slipping it into a pocket as they moved to the next area.
The tour moved through several more laboratory spaces, then stopped at a door. “This is a very special part of our lab space,” the tour guide said, turning back to face the group. “We are working in collaboration with a few other institutions on a project in our shark colony. I can't go into detail, due to the nature of the work, but we're all looking forward to what it's going to produce.”
47 released Ava's hand, moving along the edge of the tour group to scan the room. She glanced at him curiously, then looked back to the tour guide. There had to be some kind of proof here to indicate this was where he could find his target. A stack of notes on the edge of the desk. He shifted the papers slightly, looking for a name. A topic. There. Notes on the metabolic rate of tiger sharks in different temperatures and salinity. On the desk, beside the phone, a photo of his target water skiing somewhere exotic and tropical. He had confirmation of the target, now the next steps could be taken. He moved back into the group, taking Ava's hand again, as before. She looked up with a slight smile.
“Here is our staging area,” the guide said, unlocking the door to the next room and swinging it open. “This is where our team gears up to go into the tanks. Keeping it in this room prevents cross contamination in the lab spaces.” Wetsuits and air tanks hung on both sides of the room, embroidered with the names of the employees. 47 thumbed the cap off the blood tube in his pocket as he read the names on the wetsuits, leaning on the wall beside the one labeled for his target and tipping the blood into a zippered pocket of the wetsuit. Sharks. Blood. Water. Sometimes the mission itinerary wrote itself. He put the emptied tube back into his pocket and stepped forward again, refocusing his attention on the tour guide. The door they'd initially come through opened, and a man stopped through.
“Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't know you had a tour in here. I can wait until you're done to get my samples.” He closed the door again and returned to his desk to wait for the end of the tour, straightening the scattered notes on his desk.
“Well. Where shall we go next?” Ava asked at the end of the tour. “Penguins?”
“Back down the tunnel?”
“We're going to have to look at something other than sharks at some point today.”
“...in order to get to the penguins you wanted to see, which are on the other side of the tunnel from us.”
“Uh huh.” She said, but relented and followed toward the reef exhibit. “Good cover.”
“Look.” She stopped, catching his arm to stop him as well. “I get it.”
“Get what?” He asked, keeping the twinge of panic carefully out of his voice.
“I get that you don't like penguins.”
“Ah.” Relief replaced the panic.
“So here's what I'm thinking.” She stepped toward him, putting one hand lightly on his chest and looking up at him. “You go look at the sharks. I'll go look at the penguins. And in, say…” her free hand caught his wrist to lift it in front of her to check his watch, “twenty minutes, we meet by the touch tank to poke the sea cucumbers. Fair?”
“Good.” She smiled and stepped away, turning to go find the penguin exhibit.
47 watched her go, then started for the shark exhibit again to make sure the contract was completed.
“Incredible.” Diana's voice as he put in the earpiece and switched it on. “Just incredible.”
“You. I don't know if it's luck or skill, but it seems to be working.”
“Skill. Though the tour simplified things.”
“Not the - never mind. The target is on his way to the shark enclosure.”
47 reached the tunnel, tracking back to the launching site for the laboratory area. Flippers were visible at the water’s edge as the diver eased into the water, putting his breathing mask on before submerging to begin searching for his subject. It was not long before the sharks caught the scent of the planted blood on his wetsuit and began to circle. The scientist noticed the change in behavior and began to kick back toward the exit ladder, but it was too late. The sharks descended.
Ava leaned over the edge of the touch tank, gently poking the spines of a sea urchin. She felt a hand slide up her back, and glanced up. “Hey.”
“Those are good in sushi,” 47 said, looking at the urchins.
“Never had it.” She straightened, smiling a bit. “We’ll have to amend that sometime.”
“Were the sharks everything you hoped for?”
47 considered this, then nodded. “Yes, they were. How were the penguins?”
“Adorable. Hopping around on their little silly legs, wiggling their little silly tails… they’re like the opposite of sharks, they don’t look perfectly made for much of anything. But they’re cute and that’s what’s important. Like that sea cucumber,” she said, pointing into the tank. “Want to touch the sea cucumber? It feels like wet mochi.”
“Interesting. I’ll pass.”
Sirens began blaring outside, getting louder. Ava frowned a little, looking around. Nobody seemed particularly worried about it. She took her hand out of the water and moved to a hand sanitizer dispenser to clean her hands. “Okay. I think I’m ready to move on. I’ve touched everything the sea has to offer.”
“Where to now?” 47 offered his arm to her, which she took, and started back toward the main part of the aquarium.
“The mammals? The dolphin show is whatever, since nobody's allowed to go into the water with deadly deadly animals after Blackfish, but there's an underwater viewing area that's really pretty.”
“Mammals it is.”
The sirens had stopped now, and there was no sign of emergency services in the public areas they passed. There was, however, an employee stationed at the entrance to the tropical reef telling guests that there were some repairs being done in the tunnel and to come back in an hour or so. Ava didn't seem to notice.
They reached the underwater viewing area, and Ava moved to sit on one of the benches. Around them, parents and children pressed against the railing to watch the animals swim past.
“So,” Ava said after some time watching the dolphins, “I believe you mentioned something about a sushi date?”
“Something like that.”
“Where? When? Have you been there before? Is the menu online?”
“A bit over eager, aren't you?”
“What can I say, I like a lot of foreplay.” She nudged him with her shoulder. “Well? Answer my questions, it’s not very nice to leave a lady begging.”
“You have a strange way with words.”
“You don’t like it?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Good.” She smiled a bit and reached for his hand, linking her index finger with his. “I’m still not hearing answers.”
“The restaurant I had in mind is called Momotaro. You pick the day. Yes, I’ve been there. The menu is probably online.”
“What’s good there?”
“Bad question, it’s all good.”
“Describe your favorite plate.”
“I’m not doing that.”
“You’re no fun.” she said, pouting.
He looked at her, trying to decide if she was teasing him. “You’ll see what they have when we get there. For now, look at the fish.”
“Fine, keep your secrets.” She scooted closer, snuggling against his side. After a moment, he tipped his head against hers.
Chapter 17: Momotaro
“What’s this one?”
“Hamachi. It’s amberjack, try it.”
“What’s an amberjack?”
“Big ocean fish. Try it.”
Ava picked up the nigiri and took a tentative nibble. “Ish hard to bite.”
“You’re supposed to put the whole thing in your mouth at once. Have you never eaten sushi?”
“None that didn’t either rotate on a conveyor belt or arrive with the little plastic grass on the side.” She put the nigiri in her cheek to chew thoughtfully. “That’s really good.”
She nodded, looking down at her plate. “Okay, what’s this one that looks like a tongue?”
“Tongue?” He leaned closer to look. “Oh. That’s the sea urchin. Uni.”
She picked it up, giving it a curious look. “Looks like a tongue.”
“You don't have to eat it.” He said, reaching for it. “Here, give it to me.”
“Split? We can Lady and the Tramp it.” She offered the other end, then realized he wasn't looking at her anymore. “Everything okay?”
“I'll be back in a minute.” He said, and got up from the table, scanning the restaurant. A table in the corner was watching them, he was sure of it.
Two men, the look of a business meeting. Eating miso soup, not sushi. Who would come to a sushi restaurant and only order miso soup? He moved to the bar, examining the drinks list. The server brought the table their check, which they paid on a credit card and left without looking up. 47 made his way back to his table.
“What was that?” Ava asked once he'd settled again.
“I don't-” he began to lie, then relented. “There was a table that kept watching us, I was concerned they were tracking us.”
“They're probably just horrified that you wanted me to eat sea urchin.” She offered the other half of the nigiri. “It tastes like the ocean smells.”
“More for me.” He took the piece from her.
“Why would someone be tracking us, anyway? We're not on a bank heist or something. Are we on a bank heist?”
“That reminds me… you haven't seen your friend Derek again, have you?”
“God, don't say his name or he might appear.” She sighed. “I haven't seen him again, but he keeps emailing me because he thinks I blocked his phone number.”
“You haven't blocked his email address?”
“I would but I'm kind of worried that if I do, he's going to show up on the porch again or something. I don't need that. Creeper emails I can handle.”
“If he does try something again…”
“You'll be the first to know.”
The server brought the check to the table. Ava reached for it, but 47 was faster. “Oh come on, my turn.”
“No.” He looked at the bill, adding it up silently to be sure it was correct.
“Just let me just see it.”
“No.” He passed it back to the server with a credit card.
“But I feel guilty.”
“You're welcome.” He signed the slip and put the card away. “Ready?”
She stood and followed him out of the restaurant. “I saw that.”
“We're not being followed. You were checking behind us when we walked out.” She caught his hand, giving it a squeeze. “Relax. You're not at work.”
“Work?” He asked, glancing down at her.
“Or wherever you've been that made you so paranoid all the time.” She gave him a slight smile. “Please. For me?”
He nodded, trying to shake the strange feeling. First the string of local jobs, now this. Something felt off, and he had to believe it wasn't him - dull instincts were bad for business. “It's not that easy.”
“I know.” They stopped at the car, and she turned to look at him straight on. “I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked that. I know better.”
He raised a hand to brush her hair back from her cheek, tucking it behind her ear. “I can try though.”
“Thanks.” She smiled a bit, leaning into the touch, then reached for the car door to get in. “Let's get home.”
Once they'd driven off, the men who had been sitting at the corner table started their car to leave.
Chapter 18: Staying frosty
“47. Your next target is a biochemist named Madeline Christiansen. She can be found at the University of Chicago main campus where it appears she is working in a laboratory.”
“You're well ahead of me, aren't you?’
“Dr. Christiansen appears to have an interest in gene therapy. We have unearthed some speculative editorials under her name about its use in fish embryos to correct genetic disorders. Some controversy regarding the implications for - well. You can imagine.”
47 made a slight noise of agreement.
“The client further requests that Dr. Christiansen's research is destroyed by whatever means are necessary to do so. I assume she has cloud storage, backup drives… anything you can find.”
“Tying up more loose ends.”
“Seems to be the case. I'll leave you to prepare.”
Ava pulled off her surgical gloves, putting them in the trash outside the OR. “Can you recover him without me? I was supposed to leave half an hour ago.”
“Got somewhere to be?” The technician asked, untying the cat from the table to take to the recovery cage.
“If you must know…” Ava pulled a brush out of her desk to run through her hair.
“I have a date.”
“Oh yeah?” the technician put the cat in the recovery cage, watching it closely.
“You’ve got to stop calling him that, it sounds like he's a vampire or something.”
47 passed through the revolving door, glancing around the lobby. A security station to one side. A gift shop. A staircase up to the elevators. He moved forward, showing a mock-up hospital ID to the security guards as he passed them. Third floor, that was her office. If she wasn't in the office, she would be in the chemistry building. Room 109.
He pressed the button for the elevator and watched the numbers change as it descended. So far so unnoticed.
“What should I call him, then?”
“His name is Tobias.”
“Right? Sounds wrong, doesn't it?”
The elevator opened on the third floor, and 47 stepped out into the hallway. Several white-coated doctors brushed past him. He checked a map on the wall, and made for Dr. Christiansen's office.
Ava stepped out of the bathroom, smoothing her shirt and giving a twirl. “Well?”
“You look nice, and your patient is swallowing on his own.”
“Excellent.” Ava peered into the cage, where the cat was lifting his head and licking the air. “Good kitty.”
47 knocked on the door marked Dr. Madeline Christiansen, and waited a moment. No response. He tried the knob. Unlocked. He pushed the door open, slipping inside. The light was on but the office was empty. His target must have stepped out for a moment. He would have to move quickly. He moved behind the desk, tapping the computer's spacebar to wake up the monitor. Not logged in, he would need a password.
“I have Dr. Christiansen on a camera in the cafeteria,” Diana announced. “Not moving yet.”
“Good.” 47 stretched his hands over the keyboard, thinking. “I need a password.”
“Have you tried 'password’?”
“Just passing the time,” she said, typing rapidly. “The password is Charlie Romeo India Sierra Papa Romeo zero nine eight one.”
Ava scratched the cat on the head. “Give him food and water once he can walk around on his own, okay? I'm going to write up his chart quick and get out of here.”
“Tell Attic Guy I say hi.”
Deleting the cloud storage was easy enough after a few more passwords, and the back up hard drive was in an unlocked desk drawer. That should be all of it. 47 checked the time on the desktop. “Where is the target?”
“Still in the cafeteria. Long line for the register.”
“She needs to move soon… I've been here too long.”
“You were unobserved on the way in, I don't think anyone is keeping track.”
“I have… somewhere to be soon.”
“Tell me when she's leaving the cafeteria.”
“It might be a while. Where do you have to be?”
“I'm meeting someone.”
“I gathered that much. I haven't placed any reservations lately, though, have I been cut from the loop?”
“Never.” He stood from the desk, looking around the office for inspiration. “It's nothing so…”
“Date-like?” She supplied.
“Significant.” He finished.
“Okay. His record is updated. Pain meds onboard, and he has some for tonight and tomorrow morning. Drugs are locked up. Is that everything?”
“Sounds like it.”
“Perfect. Text me if you need me, but Dr. Beran is on call.”
“Go, you're going to be late.”
Madeline Christiansen put her styrofoam take out container on the desk and flipped it open. The cafeteria had recently gotten a new supplier, and the quality had definitely suffered. The macaroni was nothing short of gluey. Disappointed but hungry, she dug into her lunch. Once she finished, she would head over to the lab to check on her experiments.
As she ate, she logged into her computer and opened the cloud storage client. She was confronted with a log-in screen. Odd. She typed in her password. The client denied her access. Had she changed her password recently? Was one of her students accessing the storage system from the lab?
Madeline finished her lunch and threw away the container, then stood and put her lab coat back on to head to the lab space.
Ava stepped out of the car, locking it behind her. She pushed her hands into her pockets as she glanced around her, then started toward the ice rink.
It was a chilly but sunny day, and she had been concerned the rink would be closed. Instead, groups of people were zipping around the rink, laughing and singing along to the music piped through the speakers overhead. Kids clung to one another as they staggered onto the ice.
She scanned the crowd, but didn't recognize anyone. She had gotten here first, it seemed.
Madeline opened the door to the lab and flicked on the light. “Anyone in here?” She asked, closing the door behind her. At the other end of the room, the computer monitor was lit up on the log in screen. That must have been it - a student accessing files had locked her out. She walked to the computer to shut it down.
There was a rustle of fabric behind her.
Ava went into the heated building where skates were rented. She smiled at the bored student who stood behind the counter, doing homework. “Hi, I'd like to rent some skates?”
47 closed the lid of the chest freezer, pressing down on it to make sure it sealed firmly. He then sat down at the desk and began feeding notebook pages into the paper shredder beside it. Once the last post-it had been fed through the machine, he removed the garbage bag from the shredder, tied it, and hefted it over his shoulder to take to a dumpster outside.
“Very good timing, 47.”
“Your non-significant next appointment seems to be commencing nearby.”
Slight confusion, then clarity. Of course. Ava must have run her credit card for the skate rental. Records easily pulled with ICA resources. “I don't appreciate you flagging her accounts.”
“I didn't think it was wise to wait for her to vanish with a briefcase full of secrets before beginning surveillance,” she defended. “It's well within my job description.”
47 dropped the bag of shredded research into a residential dumpster a few streets from the lab. He couldn't argue with that. It was, objectively, a sensible decision that he would have encouraged if it was someone else.
“Besides,” she added. “I was curious.”
“I'm signing off now.” He said, and put the earpiece in his pocket as he approached the ice rink.
Ava was seated on a bench, lacing up her skates. She glanced up as he sat beside her. “Hey, you made it. I was starting to think you'd forgotten.”
“I just got held up with some work things.” He took the second pair of skates from her and began lacing. “All squared away now though.”
“Good. Everything go smoothly?”
She stood, getting her balance for a moment before offering a hand to him. “Good. Come skate with me.”
He took the hand as he stood. “Were you waiting very long?”
“No, I got held up with work too. We're quite a pair, aren't we?” She stepped onto the ice tentatively. “I had an emergency surgery that couldn't wait for the next shift, so I had to stay late. Sweet little kitty who ate about two feet of ribbon a couple days ago. He lost a foot of small intestine, but I think he's going to be okay.”
“How did he eat two feet of ribbon?”
“I don't know. I mean, I always imagine it's like slurping up a long ramen noodle.” She pushed off from the wall to begin skating. “I don't think I've been ice skating since middle school.”
47 didn't respond. He was fairly certain he had done it at some point, probably as some kind of strength and spatial awareness training, but couldn't pinpoint a time. There was no grade levels to denote each year, nor birthdays to mark ages passing.
Ava made a lazy loop on the ice when she realized he hadn’t followed her, skating back toward him. “Come on. Skate with me.”
He pushed off from the wall to glide after her. “You haven’t fallen down yet, must not have been too long ago.”
“You just wait, it’ll happen.” She glided close to him, catching his hand. “I’m going to expect you to catch me when I do fall, by the way.”
“I can do that.”
They made a few circuits of the rink in comfortable silence, finding a pace that suited both of them.
“Oh, so remember those alarms at the aquarium?”
“A client told me this morning that the Shedd had to close the shark exhibit temporarily. A guy fell in and cracked his head or something and the sharks tore him apart.”
“Unfortunate. He was doing fairly dangerous research, though, that kind of thing seems inevitable.”
“Like Steve Irwin being killed by a stingray.”
“Never mind. Can you imagine, though? You study sharks for years, then you cut yourself on a piece of coral or something and boom. Shark food. It's like a bad sci fi movie. Killed by your own creation and all that Frankenstein stuff.”
“Mm. I'm sure someone out there says it's how he would have wanted to go.”
“Probably.” He held out his free hand to take hers, then pulled her along as he scraped to a stop by the wall. She stumbled, careening into the wall beside him.
“Owww…” she whined, rubbing her shoulder. “Warn me next time you're going to do that.”
“Sorry.” He drew her closer, looking down at her. “Didn't hurt you, did I?”
“I'll survive,” she said, smiling up at him and resting a hand lightly on his shoulder. “Hi there.”
“Glad to hear it.” She slid her hand up to his shoulder, straightening his coat collar slightly. “We done skating?”
“We can keep going if you want.”
“Maybe later.” She looked down at her feet. “Can you do me a favor?”
“Make sure I don't fall on my ass in the next five seconds, okay?”
“Okay.” He moved his hands to her sides to steady her, counting off seconds. “One… two… th-”
Ava pushed up onto the toe picks of her skates, pulling him down by his collar to catch him somewhere in the middle for a light kiss. She released him and dropped back down onto the blades of the skates. “There.”
“What was that for?” He asked, unable to think of something more clever. The well-honed gears of his mind had hit a momentary stutter before returning to smooth motion. Strange sensation.
“I got tired of waiting for you to do it.” She looked suddenly nervous. “Did I misread the situation?”
“Good.” She relaxed a bit. “Was kind of worried.”
47 shook his head, looking past her. Keep cover. Keep moving. Don't get close to anyone. Those had been the instructions he had been given, and had been ignoring more and more as of late. Diana hadn't seemed to mind though, he reminded himself. Diana had personally encouraged it, even.
He realized Ava was speaking, and refocused.
“I think I'm ready to start skating again now, if you want.” She said, moving away from him to turn back toward the flow of traffic on the rink.
47 nodded, and followed as she pushed off back into the crowd. He could worry later.
Chapter 19: Chekhov's Cookies
Ava knocked on the handrail as she made her way up the stairs, pausing when she heard the rustling and sliding of something being moved in the attic room. She waited until the sounds had ceased, then asked “Can I come up?”
“Yes, come on up.”
She continued up the stairs, shifting the pile of bedding in her arms to hold the handrail. “Sorry if I interrupted anything. I'm off work today so everything is getting cleaned.” She dropped the bedsheets on the dresser. “I can come back later if you want, though.”
“No need.” He moved a few things off of the bed to give her space to work. “Here, I can help.”
“Damn right you can.” She shook a pillow out of its case and threw it at him.
He caught it with one hand and dropped it onto the floor, then caught the second one just as easily. “Hey,” he began, then dropped that pillow too when she tossed the balled-up top sheet at him. “I said I'd help.”
“You're helping by bringing this down to the washing machine for me.” She knelt on the bed to pull the fitted sheet up next. “Incoming,” she said, and tossed it to him.
He picked up the old bedding and took it down to drop into the washing machine.
Ava unfurled the new set of sheets and climbed onto the bed again to tuck the corners into place. Next were the pillows, shaking each one into its case. A hand touching her back told her 47 had returned. “Did you start the wash?”
“No. Should I have?”
“I’ll get it, don't worry.” she turned to face him, then freefell back onto the finished bed with her arms stretched out. “Ahh… nothing like clean sheets.”
He moved to sit beside her, arranging the pillows as he wanted them. “You don't have to do this, you know.”
“Sheets. Dusting. All of that.”
“I don't mind. Besides, I'm the one on the mortgage and ultimately responsible for the upkeep. You could move out tomorrow for all I know, and then where would I be?”
He looked down at her, sensing the tinge of uncertainty in her voice. “I'm not moving out.”
She reached up to lightly rub her hand back and forth over his back, looking contemplative. “No?”
“No plans to do so. Why, did someone say I was leaving?”
She shook her head slightly. “No. I just…” she trailed off, unable to find the right word. Don't want you to go? Worry you’ll leave me? She wasn't even sure he knew how she felt, this was no time to show her weaknesses.
“Like you being here.” She said finally, not sure if she hoped he did or didn't pick up on her meaning.
He lay down next to her to be at eye level. “I like being here as well.”
“Because the rent is cheap as hell?” She gave a slight smile, giving him an out if he needed it to escape the conversation.
“Because you're here.”
Ava nodded, thinking that over. “Even better.”
Her phone buzzed, and she sat up to dig it out of her back pocket. “Uncle Grant!” She said as she answered the call. Then, taking the phone away from her ear, she looked back at 47. “I'm going to go start that laundry. Back in a flash.”
“Happy birthday, Uncle Grant,” she said into the phone, descending the stairs. “Did you get the care package?”
“Just as good as your mom's, kiddo.”
“Flatterer. I had help this year though.”
“Dough is all mine and mom’s, but I roped him into scooping.”
“Oh, sorry. I’m renting out the attic room.”She said, and put the phone on speaker as she loaded the washer the rest of the way.
“Him?” Grant repeated, for emphasis.
Ava sighed, picking up the question this time. “Yes, the renter is a man. Don't worry, though, he's not rapey.”
“I know, I know… it's your job to worry.”
“Because I'm out here on my own.”
“And your father-”
“Would lose his shit if he were alive to hear this conversation.”
“See, I knew you knew better. Is it money? You know you can always ask if you're short on loan payments.”
“It’s not the money. I just didn't like living alone after Lady died.”
“Could've gotten another dog. Big shepherd to keep you company. Gotten a boy if you wanted a man in the house.”
“Okay, okay. Tell me about this guy so I can sleep tonight.”
She took the phone off speaker and put it back to her ear. “His name is Tobias Rieper.”
“What is that, German?”
“Romanian, apparently. He works in sales for some corporation, I can't remember the name of it. Goes on a lot of business trips to go to big trade conferences.”
“I'll bet. Spell that for me?”
“Romeo India Echo Papa Echo Romeo.”
“Any time. Are you Googling him?”
“Not Google. So how long's this been going on?”
“He moved in last fall, answered an ad I put in the paper. Nice guy, pays in cash, never had a problem. Oh, and he has a canary.”
“Tell me you ran a background check on him before giving him your house key.”
“You know what those cost?”
“Look.” She lowered her voice, glancing out of the laundry room door to be sure she wasn't heard, then closing it. “I know. I just… have a good feeling about him. Call it intuition. He hasn't given me any reason to doubt it.”
Grant sighed. What good was logic against intuition? “Okay, okay. I know I can't stop you. But I'm going to do some asking around, and don't tell me not to because your dad's gonna haunt me if I don't. Deal?”
“Take care, kiddo. Thanks again for the cookies.”
“You too, Uncle Grant. My love to everyone.” She ended the call and put the phone back in her pocket, then left the laundry room to go back upstairs.
47 stepped back from the top of the staircase when he heard the laundry room door open, busying himself with smoothing the bedsheets and definitely not eavesdropping.