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At Its Core

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           Russell Southwell still wasn’t entirely sure how he had gone from an average high school student doing nothing more than walking home from school one day to a CIA Agent getting shoved over the edge of a cliff by his partner, but he was equally unsure as to whether or not he was actually complaining. It was raining very heavily on that evening in May, which was somewhat unexpected for the season, and when Russell woke up that morning, he would never have guessed that by nighttime he would end up completely drenched from rain and an unexpected high dive into a river, sitting in the back of a police cruiser with a measly towel draped over his trembling shoulders.

           “You okay?” Asked the police officer driving the cruiser that he sat in.

           It was obvious to Russell that the officer was of Mexican descent, and something in the back of his head told him that he was a rookie. However, this changed little of how he decided to interact with the man. “Yeah,” Russell responded to the question after a pause that lasted just a little bit too long.

           The officer mumbled, “I haven’t named myself yet, have I?”

           “I don’t think so.”

           “My name’s Feliz Florence.” He announced the name with pride, but after a period of silence, a subtle change in mood suggested to Russell that he wasn’t really as proud of his name as he had sounded. “Yours?” Feliz finally asked.

           “Russell Southwell,” Russell meekly answered.

           “Where do you work, if you don’t mind me asking?” Florence nosed. “Or are you just a student?”

           “I work for IBM.” Russell replied, keeping his answer brief and vague. In truth, he didn’t work for IBM at all. He just happened to work for a department of the Central Intelligence Agency that worked mostly with computers, though he was more or less a field agent. “But it’s only part-time. I’m still in school.”

           Apart from a vaguely-interested hum, Feliz was quiet, so Russell reached into the pocket of his coat. Though everything he wore was soaked down to his skin, the contents of his bulky, waterproof wallet had been more or less unharmed, which was good, because it had protected a USB jump drive that contained very important files, such as those of an artificial intelligence of his own making named Carmine, which was able to hold deep conversations and even perform common, rudimentary hacking techniques that were stored within its code.

           Russell thought about the last words his partner, Field Agent Terrence Lyndon, had said to him.

           “Take this,” Terrence had ordered, handing him his jump drive as he inched him closer to the cliff, “and keep it safe. You have no idea what you’ve made or how much those bastards want it. Don’t scream. I need you to run. Run like your life depends on it, because it probably does. I swear, I’ll catch up.”

           “I don’t understand,” Russell had stammered as he obediently tucked the drive into his wallet. “What are you talking about? I’m not leaving you behind!”

           “Don’t scream. Keep your body loose. Run!” With that, Terrence had shoved him backwards over the cliff—at least a three storey drop, if not more—into the river that he was lucky to escape from.

           Palming the drive in his right hand, Russell squeezed his eyes shut. He wondered what had happened to Terrence. They had been chased to that cliff by people that presumably worked for an anti-CIA group known as The Underwater Railroad; they had guns, and they wanted something… but what was it? Was it the jump drive? Was it Carmine? Russell didn’t understand how things went so wrong so quickly.

           “Where are we right now?” Russell suddenly asked, shooting his green eyes up to look at Feliz in the rearview mirror, as he was sitting behind him.

           “What do you mean, mang?” The officer responded with a question of his own.

           “What city is this?”

           “Well, we started in Minneapolis…” As he revealed this, Feliz turned on the cruiser’s sirens in order to drive faster.

           Russell thought. Just how far had he run? All he knew was that he had to go back to Minnesota State Highway 95. He had started in Wisconsin, or at least, right near its border to Minnesota, and had thumbed a ride on Route 61 to, apparently, Minneapolis. But where would he go from Highway 95?

           The young man shook his head in a mix of exhaustion and exasperation. “What a day…”


           As the cruiser, sirens still on, sped between the trees along Minnesota State Highway 97, Russell began to wonder why Feliz was willing to go out of his way to drive so far from Minneapolis. What made the rookie officer believe his story about a group of people containing a childhood friend of his that were on their way to possible death? It took him a couple of minutes to muster up the courage to say anything.

           “Um,” he began with hesitance, “thank you for driving me out here, but… Why are you helping me?”

           Feliz seemed confused by the question. He answered, “Well, I’m a cop. Aren’t I supposed to help?”

           “Yes, but most cops wouldn’t go this far.”

           “I know.” Feliz responded. He sounded humble, yet also ashamed. “Cops aren’t often the best people in the world. But I know a few good guys, and I want to be like them. I don’t want to be a typical ‘bad cop’.”

           “You’re doing a pretty good job of being a good cop.” Russell assured, trying not to sound awkward but failing miserably. He’d never been very good at making conversation or complimenting others.

           “Thanks.”

           Russell gazed out of the window as Feliz took a left, finally driving on State Highway 95. On said highway, while running as Terrence had instructed, Russell had made it to the road just in time to see a van go by—a van that he recognized as belonging to Autumnwolf Film Productions, an Indie film group led by Collin Locklear and his sister, Lizabeth. It just so happened that, despite an age gap, Collin and Lizabeth were childhood friends of his, and they were still close. He didn’t know what to do for a moment, but then remembered that Collin usually drove with the driver side window down.

           “Collin!” Russell screamed, running out onto the road behind the van. “Collin!!”

           The van drove a few feet further before pulling to an abrupt stop. Fatigued, Russell practically limped toward the van. He could already hear Lizabeth’s high pitched shrieks demanding to know why they’d stopped so quickly, and then she began shouting about where Collin was going. The driver side door nearly flew open, and out stepped Collin Locklear. His black hair was slicked back messily as usual, and the rainy winds swept the tail of his black scarf, with a red stripe along its top, over his shoulder.

           “Russell?” He hollered. His eyes caught sight of Russell, who was understandably difficult to see, what with his wet, equally-black hair plastered to his face, and the fact that everything he wore besides his sweater—his coat and his pants, and even his shoes—were black. His sweater was grey, and had been soaked to the point where it might as well have been black as well. Even so, he managed to spot his friend, and he was noticeably surprised. “Holy shit! What the hell are you doing out here?!” He shouted as he rushed forward, holding his own coat shut over his chest as the rain pelted his shoulders.

           “Where are you going?” Russell panted, gasping for air.

           Collin shook his head from confusion, but answered regardless. “We’re headed to Shafer.” He practically had to shout over the heavy rain. “To an abandoned hotel or some shit. We thought it’d make a good location for a homage to The Shining. Why?”

           The abandoned hotel! He and Terrence had been sent to find an abandoned hotel. The hotel had apparently been used in the early 1900s to recreate a chemical that supposedly caused a genocide in 1846, and as a result, everyone who worked there died, since the resulting product had gone airborne and poisoned them all. The hotel was sealed off, permanently quarantined since no one could extract the chemicals, which were so powerful that even from the basement, they were still able to affect people on the upper floors, who suffered various side effects before death. But, of course, Collin Locklear and the rest of Autumnwolf would not be deterred by this. They often found abandoned, spooky locations to shoot their movies at. That was how they had, coincidentally with Russell’s assistance, managed to cast a new actor, who they had discovered in one of said abandoned locations.

           Russell and Terrence had not been able to find the location of the hotel, since no one was entirely sure of its location. But the fact that they had been sent to look near the border of Minnesota, and the fact that Collin had discovered an abandoned hotel near that border… It was coincidental, yes, but it made sense.

           Russell snapped from his thoughts when the police cruiser came to a gentle stop. He again looked at Feliz in the rearview mirror.

           “Where to?” Inquired the officer.

           “What are the options?”

           “Forward,” Feliz responded, looking at the GPS on the car’s dashboard, “continuing down State Highway 95, right onto State Highway 243, or left onto 260th Street.”

           It was a long shot, Russell figured, but it didn’t make too much sense to him for a hotel like the one he was searching for to be off of a highway. “Left, then.”

           “How far?”

           “Until you see a hotel through the trees.”

           Feliz turned left and continued to drive. “A hotel? All this way, for a hotel?”

           “I’m telling you, something terrible is going to happen there.” Russell’s heart sank as he added, “If it hasn’t happened already…”

           “Look, mang, I’m sure your friends are fine.”

           They drove a little ways before Feliz stopped the car again. Russell looked outside and saw a path that led into the trees. Before the path was a gate with a sign on it, but with the rain still pouring outside, it was hard to read what it said. Before their eyes, the wind blew the gate open before slamming it shut again.

           “Goddammit, Collin…” Russell grumbled, then insisted, “There. Down that trail, that’s where they went.”

           Feliz didn’t move. “Are you sure?”

           “Yes, I’m one-hundred percent sure.”

           With a reluctant, deep breath, Feliz prepared himself. “If you say so.”

           Driving through the gate, pushing it open with the front of the car with relative ease, the police cruiser drove over the old gravel path for no more than a minute before coming up at a long-deserted building, in front of which Feliz turned off the sirens, though he kept the characteristic red and blue lights going. Parked outside of the desolate structure was Autumnwolf’s van, and seeing it caused Russell’s already-weary heart to sink.

           “Wait here.” Feliz commanded, drawing his gun as he left the cruiser. While he jogged toward the front doors of the hotel, Russell slapped down the towel around his neck and stepped out of the car as well, stepping back out into the rain, which had calmed only slightly.

           “Stay in the car!” Feliz shouted, but Russell shook his head as he hurried closer. The van was empty—he didn’t even have to check it to realize that. Feliz seemed noticeably displeased by Russell’s refusal to comply with his request, but at the same time appeared to accept and perhaps even admire his bravery. He understood that there was no time to fight over it. Testing the doorknob, and finding it unlocked, Feliz nodded at Russell, who returned the gesture.

           The door swung open, and Russell heard Feliz, who went in first, scream after only a second of hesitation, “Freeze! Drop your weapon!”

           Weapon? Someone had a weapon? Russell rushed in behind Feliz, and was shaken to the core by horror.

           Standing in the middle of the room was Collin, who had a distraught girl in a headlock, holding a gun against her right temple. The girl was Apryl Knowlton, a girl from Russell’s school that he just so happened to have a huge crush on. He could only wonder why she was there. Collin had a wild look in his eyes, one of madness, unpredictability, and… deep sorrow, maybe even grief?

           “Don’t come any closer!” He warned with an unstable voice. “I’ll kill this bitch… I’ll kill her for what she did!”

           “Put the gun down!” Feliz demanded. “Drop it, now!!

           “Let her go, Collin!” Russell shouted. He was confused. Nothing made sense. What could Apryl possibly have done to warrant this? What had happened?

           “Stay the fuck out of this, Russell!” Collin snarled, shooting Russell a glare filled with contempt. “You don’t know what she did!”

           “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Apryl cried as Collin jabbed the gun into her scalp.

           “Shut up,” he screeched, “Just shut the fuck up!!”

           “Drop the gun!!” Feliz roared.

           Everybody’s shouts seemed to mix into incoherent nonsense, and just as quickly as the chaos began, Collin escalated it by turned the gun on Feliz and Russell, and firing wildly. Feliz ducked, trying to pull Russell back, but the CIA Agent was too shocked to move. There was a sharp stab of pain in some part of his body as he fell back.

           “¡Joder!” Feliz cursed. Russell could hear Apryl’s cries get further away, but could see only the ceiling. Was Collin running with her? He figured so, since the next thing he heard were gunshots from Feliz’s Beretta, and then the officer was running off as well.

           Russell just laid there on the cold floor for what felt like an eternity, with his eyes pinched shut. All he could hear was his heart beating loudly in his ears, and even that sound was fading away. He was falling unconscious quickly. The pain was intense, but where did it radiate from? He wasn’t sure. Maybe the wound was fatal. Before long, it hurt too much to keep thinking, and Russell reluctantly allowed himself to slip into the comfort of the darkness.