Pennsylvania Avenue entered her apartment. She closed the door behind her, set her keys down on the coffee table, and kicked off her sneakers in one motion. In her socks, she walked softly to her bedroom and flicked on a lamp, setting her backpack down beside her desk. The walls of her bedroom were decorated with several posters depicting stylized wild horses frolicking and galloping across idealized temperate landscapes.
She sat herself gently in the swiveling chair before her desk. Unzipping her backpack, she frowned and thought for a moment. Remembering something, she reached inside and produced three textbooks. She placed them on her desk and switched on her computer. She opened a drawer in the desk and grabbed several pens of different colors.
She then pushed herself away from the desk and walked over to her stereo. She deftly pressed a few buttons. As she returned to her desk, her body swayed to the music. Her brown ponytail bounced as her head bobbed to the rhythm as she sat back down. Now she was ready to do some homework. Consternation swept over her face as she studied her books. She concentrated for almost an hour.
Her telephone must have rung, because she turned down her stereo and picked up the receiver. She held it to her ear and spoke words into it. After a moment, her face lit up and she smiled broadly. She started laughing and leaned way back in her chair. She wore a happy expression, and spoke some more. The tension that had built up in her since she began her homework vanished at the voice of the caller. She began playing with her ponytail with her fingers, giggling all the while. When she had finished the brief conversation, Pennsylvania Avenue hung up her phone, walked to her closet and opened it. Inside was a full-length mirror. She had decided to change her clothes and now looked for a suitable outfit. After a long and arduous mental debate, she selected a plaid skirt and a tight-fitting black sweater, and tossed the items lightly on her bed.
Pennsylvania Avenue walked to her window and stared outside. She looked wistful. She was clearly looking forward to something.
After another half an hour of reading and typing, she decided to put the books away and finally change into the clothes she had earlier picked out. She sat upon her bed and removed her socks. They were decorated with zebra stripes. She tossed them carelessly to the floor and slid out of her pants. She kicked them off of her ankles and they too dropped to the floor. Her legs were long, smooth. Her panties were a tacky leopard print. She walked to the closet and, observing herself in her mirror, struck a seductive pose. She admired herself with a smile.
She began unbuttoning her white blouse, starting from the top. She shrugged the blouse off of her shoulders, allowing it to land on the floor in a heap. Her bra was a white, lacy number. Her breasts were very small, but the bra was doing a good job pressing them up. Reaching behind her back, she unhooked the bra and tossed it behind her. Her breasts bounced loosely to and fro as she did a small half-turn in the mirror, admiring herself some more.
She put on a bra that matched the leopard print of her panties. She then dressed herself in the black sweater and plaid shirt. She disappeared into the bathroom for more than 30 minutes.
I reminded myself that she was an enemy of the regime that I had sworn to protect as I pulled myself away from the collapsible rubber eyepiece of my rifle and replaced the lens cap on the scope. Park Place kept watching through the binoculars.
“Why don’t they just let us ice the bitch so we can go home?” I asked rhetorically. I feigned impatience.
“Fortitude and staying power: these are things you need to learn, Marvin,” was Park’s reply.
Our apartment was plain and empty. White walls. White ceiling. Beige carpet. Fluorescent lights. The tiles in the bathroom were white. So were the tiles in the kitchen. The shower curtain was white, and the countertops were white. The refrigerator was white. We had a few dishes; they were white. Several white papers were neatly stacked upon the white tabletop. There was a calendar. It didn’t have any pictures; the days were white. One by one, the days were being crossed out neatly with a black, felt-tip marker. Everything we did, we did in shifts. We slept, taking turns, on an air mattress. The sheets were white. A white telephone rested beside the window.
There were no unnecessary distractions. No television. No radio. No computer. No magazines. No phonebook. No bible. No deck of cards. No fan. Everything in the room was still. The air was still. Park and I were still. No ice cream either. We drank tap water out of white, plastic cups and ate individually wrapped portions of artificially flavored soy-food. My favorite was the lemon kind. Park liked to eat the ones that looked like they raisins in them.
It was a small apartment, and Park Place and I led a spartan existence there. We had only a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. Our dwelling was on the 32nd floor of a downtown apartment block.
Pennsylvania Avenue suddenly sat bolt upright in her bed. She flung the book she had been reading onto her desk and dashed to the mirror to check out her appearance. She scrutinized her face closely, smoothed out her sweater, and patted-down her hair all at once. She then confidently made for her front door.
When she opened it, a good-looking man, perhaps 25 years old, was waiting in the hallway on the other side. He was dressed sharply, though his collar was unbuttoned and his tie was loose. His teeth were straight, his face, chiseled. He had a crew cut. He looked military. He stepped inside onto her floor mat and immediately embraced Pennsylvania Avenue. She returned his hug and he whispered something in her ear. She began laughing. With a smirk, she pretended to push him away and turned her back on him, folding her arms in a mock huff.
The man casually removed his tie and draped it over the couch. He then strode slowly over to Pennsylvania Avenue, looking at her affectionately. He wrapped his arms around her waist from behind and whispered something else in her ear. She smiled, but didn’t turn around to face him. Her arms remained crossed. The older man slowly slid his hands up Pennsylvania Avenue’s belly and made his way up to her breasts, all the while softly nibbling her ear. He gently pulled her arms away from her chest and cupped her breasts.
She held her arms up over her head in cooperation and after a moment, he began pulling up her sweater. She leaned her head back and he began to kiss her neck. She allowed him to pull off her sweater. The man carelessly flung the garment over his shoulder, nearly knocking over a lamp.
Now the girl turned in his arms to face him. Kissing, he unfastened her bra while she began unbuttoning his shirt. She was saying something. When she was finished with the buttons, he rolled his shoulders to shrug off the white shirt, which landed at their feet. His arms and body were muscular. She hopped up and straddled his waist with her legs, pressing her face close to his. With her arms wrapped around his thick neck, their noses were touching. Her weight was no problem for him. He walked her into her bedroom and gently laid her upon the clean sheets. He began to unfasten his pants. She stayed on the bed, an excited smirk filling her face. She unfastened her ponytail, and her hair loosely spread itself over the sheets.
He leaned over her on the bed. They rubbed noses again and kissed deeply. She pulled up her skirt until it was bunched around her slender waist. He pulled away her underwear with deliberate slowness. When the panties were clear, Pennsylvania Avenue spread her legs apart. She was begging him to delay no longer. They were both smiling and laughing with each other. He braced himself over her. The muscles in his arms were powerful.
Abruptly, he entered her. She seemed surprised and gasped in pleasure. His muscular torso pulsed as they developed a mutual rhythm. He stopped biting and licking her breasts in favor of looking into her eyes. Her hands desperately clutched the sheets as her exertions mounted. Her mouth was open but tight. Her neck was straining. She was panting loudly. The boyfriend kept his mouth closed. His nostrils flared like a beast as he ground his teeth, fighting the inevitable.
Her head violently arched backwards, her eyes lost their focus. The man withdrew and collapsed gently onto her. She enfolded the man in her arms, holding him tightly to her. The man propped himself up on his forearms and the pair stared into each other’s faces for minutes.
After a time, the boyfriend excused himself and went into the bathroom. While he was inside, Pennsylvania Avenue pulled a loose-fitting nightgown over herself. It was decorated with small, pink and red valentines. Evidently exhausted, she collapsed back onto her bed and pulled the heavy covers over her. She turned out the light in her room.
When the boyfriend came back out of the bathroom, he found Pennsylvania Avenue laying contentedly under the covers of her bed, apparently already fast asleep, though he had only been gone for a few minutes. He saw his pants still in a heap on the floor. After pulling them on, he retrieved his shirt from the living room. He put it on but didn’t bother buttoning it.
The boyfriend then walked back through the dark bedroom and opened the window. The wind at the 31st floor was stiff, and his unbuttoned and un-tucked white shirt billowed around him for a moment. He reached into the breast pocket and withdrew a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He examined the pack for a moment, swore quietly under his breath, took out his last smoke and tossed the empty pack out of the window. Holding the cigarette loosely in his thin lips, he stooped his head and protected the flame of the lighter with his hand. His face flashed orange for a moment, and was then concealed again in darkness. When he was finished with his cigarette, he collected his shoes and tie and left the apartment, stopping first to tenderly kiss the sleeping girl on her peaceful forehead.
I excused myself, explained to Park that I needed to use the bathroom. I walked in and switched on the light. It flickered for a moment, and then lit the small bathroom with its white fluorescence. The bathroom was clean. Everything seemed to take on a tint of metallic blue. My eyes adjusted to the brightness. Closing the door softly behind me, I turned on the fan.
With my pants and underwear around my ankles, I put down the lid of the toilet and sat. I thought about Pennsylvania Avenue. The image of her floated into my mind. Her shoulder-length hair framed her face. I traced the outline of her profile; I had it memorized. Every feature, beautiful yet unassuming. It wasn’t a pretentious or self-conscious beauty. It bordered on plain. But it was so familiar. So ingratiating in its warmth. A good girl. A good person.
I wished that the two of us could have met under different circumstances; perhaps at a coffee shop or a bookstore. Any situation would do; any situation in which her name did not have to be Pennsylvania Avenue and my name did not have to be Marvin Gardens.
I imaged that I was the boyfriend. This time, I was the one who leaned over her naked body as she begged me to put out the fire and sooth her, console her, and complete her. It was not a question of my strength to her weakness. We would do it together. She took a more active role. This way, we submitted to one another in unison. Partners. Compatriots.
She was panting feverishly. I breathed heavily. Her eyes were clamped shut and she gasped as I entered her receptive body. I felt her wet heat. She felt mine. Both of us, so human and frail; equal. We were both so human. Together, we had one pulse. We responded to each other’s needs; nothing and no one else mattered.
We perfectly complimented each other in every important way. We fulfilled each other. Together, we found smooth unity and cohesion. Together we found a rhythm. Together, we shared in every good thing.
Afterwards, I would not have simply smoked a cigarette and left. I would have remained with her. I would have lain beside her, totally transparent, totally open. We would have spoken truth to each other. No masks, no interests to protect, no agendas to further. We would have been honest. Serene. We could form a nation of two. In concert we would become one self-contained entity, united in thought as well as body. Complete. A perfect antidote to loneliness.
When it was over, I looked at my face in the mirror and wondered what the hell I thought I was doing here. My eyes were black with lack of sleep. I hadn’t shaved for a few days. My hair was oily. Trying to play soldier, little boy? You’re only 20 years old! And you might be ordered to KILL this girl! I splashed cold water from the tap onto my face.
Can’t think about it like that. Just can’t.
I exited the bathroom as inconspicuously as I could and walked back to Park, who was now sitting at the table. I suspected that he knew what I had just done. My face was flushed. My pulse was still rapid. I tried to find comradeship with Park.
“You know this is my first mission. I mean, I knew I’d see some action, but uh...” Park said nothing. “I didn’t expect to see any, you know...real action.” I chuckled at my pun. “I mean, man. That’s like, the last thing I expected to see.”
Park spoke. “You’d be surprised the kind of things you see on a mission like this.” He said nothing more. But as someone with experience, his words carried enormous weight with me.
“So who was the boyfriend? He looked like an older fellow. Isn’t the girl just 18? Don’t you think that guy was maybe kinda, you know, too old to be going out with a high-schooler?” I hastily added: “Uh, no offence.” I remembered that Park was in his 30’s. “I just mean, well,” I said lamely, “just...that he wasn’t in the dossier.”
“Hurry up and make your call; it’s almost time.”
Every day, I placed a single telephone call. I had the telephone number memorized. I made this report at 1800 hours every evening. Not one minute before, nor one minute after. I left my reports on an automated voice-recorder. I can hear it now; the voice had a strong south-English accent. “Hello. You have reached St. James Place. No one is here to answer your call. Please leave a message after the tone.” Beep. I heard the same message every day, right at 1800.
I included in my verbal reports only one item of information. That item of information invariably was that the situation remained unchanged. I reported in as “Short Line,” which was the designation by which Park Place and I were collectively known by our superiors.
I quickly lost count of the number of times I said “Short Line reporting in. Situation: Normal.” Each time I did my best not to sound bored. Following the brief message, I would place the receiver back on its cradle.
I gradually began to assume that other teams were also working secretly in the operation.
One of the first things that I had done on the first day of the operation was to assemble the rifle. It included a silencer and tripod mount. It was a task that I could do blindfolded. It me took 13 minutes to assemble and calibrate the weapon for the proper distance and elevation.
The weapon was a beautiful PSG1; the balance was perfect. It weighed only 8.18 kilograms. One of the nice things about the PSG1 was that it was semi-automatic. Body movement while operating a bolt-action weapon increases the possibility of detection by the enemy, and the greater amount of time the loading activity takes relative to a semi-automatic makes it difficult to engage multiple targets rapidly. Muzzle blast and rearward movement are often contributors to near misses. But the recoil of the PSG1 is negligible, if like me, you know what to expect. It isn’t difficult to keep the gun on-target. It was even easier since I was using a tripod mount for the weapon, which gave me the added benefit of being able to swivel laterally with ease, if necessary. I set it up on the sturdy card table, far back from the window.
I had been issued one magazine containing eight .308 caliber rounds. They were made for killing people. I never forgot that.
“So what in the world did this little criminal bitch ever to do deserve this?” I chuckled, half-heartedly, but tried to sound like I was hoping I would get a chance to shoot. I was already beginning to think about how hard it would be to pull the trigger when I didn’t even know what she’d done wrong. Maybe I even doubted that I could do it at all. I think Park understood the way I felt. He had experience. Yet he remained silent.
“You do know what she did, right?” I waited: nothing. “Yeah, you must,” I trailed off, nodding to myself. “She’s probably a hacker.” I tried to say it with conviction when I realized he wasn’t going to tell me anything, even if he did know. That was that; I guessed the case was closed. Licking my lips, I thought about getting another Citrus Soy-Bar to chew on. I had given up trying to pry anything out of Park.
“Nothing,” he said quietly.
I looked at him. “What?”
“Nothing,” he repeated.
“You don’t know what she did?”
“No: she didn’t do anything.”
“What do you mean, ‘she didn’t do anything?’ We’re sitting here ready to shoot an innocent teenager?” I smiled, suspecting a joke. “So she’s just some little girl, who never did anything wrong? Come on, man.”
“That is exactly the situation.” He said it without emotion.
I shook my head. “She must have done something.”
“It’s not what she did.”
I was missing something. I was missing his humor.
“Her father. Jesus Christ. It’s what her father did.”
My smile in anticipation of a punch line began to fade with the realization that nothing about what Park was saying was funny. He exploded.
“You dumb kid! You think one little teenage girl, alone, is a sufficient threat to warrant our being here? Think about it, man. Fuck. This stupid girl doesn’t have a fucking clue. She’s a fucking bargaining chip! I’ve been on missions like this one before. Her dad probably got himself into some trouble with the higher-ups. You know the routine, man. Her dad got himself into a bad position, a real bad position, and, you know, somebody in the government wants to make sure he does the right thing.” He shrugged. “If we’re here holding a gun to his daughter, he’s more liable to straighten up. Now if he’s smart and does whatever they tell him, we’ll never have to shoot.”
It sunk in after a moment.
“We’re hostage takers?”
“Hey man, whatever happened to ‘why don’t they just let us ice the bitch so we can go home?’”
“That was before - “
“Relax. We probably won’t have to shoot. And just supposing we do have to shoot, then look at it this way: she’ll never know what the fuck hit her.” I waited, aghast. Stunned.
“And if you disagree: too bad!” Park shouted, pre-empting any protest. “You stupid fucking kid.” Park shook his head. “Don’t you understand? Bad things happen. It’s like anything else. You do the thing and you move on.”
“But this is different. Hostage takers – “
“I knew I shouldn’t have fuckin’ told you. I had you figured for a weakling.”
“I don’t...I don’t know if I can do it...”
“You will. You have to.”
I looked at him. The color had drained from my face.
“You will do it.”
We lived by the clock. We had a routine.
During the day wan sunbeams filtered through the plate-glass windows. The smog from the city colored everything in the apartment with a hideous brown tint. But then, even though the sunlight was tainted by pollution, at least the alarm clock seemed innocuous. It was blissfully easy to forget that it was even there. The hours ran together as time slowly passed for Park and I.
But by imperceptible degrees, the sunlight, such as it was, inevitably yielded to the unceasing glow of the clock. When night fell upon the city, with all of the shadowy solitude that it held for me, the clock always made me rethink my role in this whole bloody affair. My eyes gradually adjusted to the red glow of the clock, as it was the only thing illuminating the room, and everything, by degrees, eventually became red. Red was everywhere. Oppressively dominant. It soaked everything.
Sometimes I looked at Park Place. His face was illuminated as he slumbered untroubled under the ruddy glow. His skin absorbed its bloody radiance. He even looked more alive than usual. He had no trouble with his conscience. He was an avowed killer. And now I was starting to feel like a murderer myself.
Firmly rooted and unmoving, the rifle sat resolutely upon the table, standing indomitably upon its tripod. It stubbornly attracted my attention. The trigger glinted in the crimson light. My eyes were drawn to the long, smooth barrel of the weapon as it slowly assumed a scarlet hue in lieu of the auburn sunshine. I examined the red magazine, filled with death waiting for its chance to get out. The scope seemed smeared with gore.
The walls too, seemed to be steeped in blood, and all I could think about was not going mad before morning, when the brown sun would rise again and soak the apartment with its own festering light of human decay. But anything was preferable to the red: the blood red of the alarm clock. I was drowning in it. I was submerged in the red; I was submerged in blood. I could feel myself choking on it.
Worst of all, the alarm clock stained my hands red. It was a red that couldn’t be washed off. No innocence was to be found anywhere I looked. No innocence, that is, unless I looked across the street to the apartment of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Pennsylvania Avenue was writing in her diary again, as she did faithfully every evening. She filled the pages with her private concerns, hopes, and enthusiasms.
Surely I would never be ordered to murder this beautiful, kind creature. It was inconceivable that the regime would command it.
All the sudden, she walked to her telephone and picked it up. Immediately, she smiled. She gazed out of her window. To her, all was well with the world.
Once you’ve been more-or-less remaining completely inert for fortnight, with no contact of any kind with the outside world, save what you can glimpse through telescopic lenses, something as seemingly simple and mundane as a ringing telephone in the late afternoon can electrify you. Especially if you have been secretly awaiting it with ever-increasing dread.
I recognized the voice on the other end from when I had left my reports on the answering machine at St. James Place. It was that same English voice as on the recording. “Marvin, this is St. James Place calling. The subject is talking with her father. It is imperative that you terminate the subject immediately.” A pause. He spoke very clearly. “Remember your creed, and execute your orders urgently.” Click.
Of course I remembered the creed. All members of the Special Armed Forces Ministry had to swear it back in the good old days when they only took volunteers. Nowadays, the creed was reserved for the elite. I remember reciting it in a cavernous auditorium with 4,000 other initiates. It was impressive: a great genderless and emotionless voice filled the space between each of us.
“The soldier is a doomed man. The soldier has no interests, no affairs, no feelings, no attachments, of his own. Everything in the soldier is absorbed by one sole, exclusive interest: Defend the State. The soldier must train to stand torture and be ready to die. The laws, the conventions, the moral code of civilized society have no meaning for the soldier. To the soldier, whatever promotes the triumph of the State is moral, whatever hinders it is criminal.”
Even innocent schoolgirls.
I remembered the creed and I thought I was prepared to do it.
I had to keep reminding myself: I’m just the guy that does the thing. This is what I had been trained for.
Images swirled before my eyes as I sought Pennsylvania Avenue’s window. A rapid blur. Finding her bedroom, I settled on it and calibrated the scope for the precise distance. The tiny knob on the scope ticked as I turning it with my fingers. The image came into focus by degrees. I noticed that my hands were sweaty. I blinked as sweat trickled into my eye. It stung.
I’m just the guy that does the thing.
Pennsylvania Avenue had turned to face her bedroom window. She seemed to be looking outside. She looked wistful. What was she talking about with her father? Was she telling him about her boyfriend? Her schoolwork? I struggled not to think as she ran a hand through her flowing blonde hair and stretched her back. She was smiling warmly at her father’s voice and at the city spread out beneath her window. She seemed happy.
“Do it.” I flinched at the tone of Park’s voice. He stood rigidly at my side and was watching Pennsylvania Avenue through the binoculars. I slowly slid the bolt back and a bullet from the magazine popped into the chamber. I released the bolt. It slammed into place and the weapon was loaded.
The muscles in my right arm bulged as I caressed the rubber grip. My fingers wrapped around it, adjusting to its contours. It all felt so familiar. But this time it was for real. This was real life, a blameless life. All the same, I flicked off the safety switch with my thumb.
The butt of the rifle pressed securely against my shoulder. I planted my eye firmly in the cradle of the solid-contact rubber eyepiece. My neck and shoulders were taut, aching, but I settled in. Everything felt snug.
I’m just the guy that does the thing.
Slowly, I brought the crosshairs to rest at a point right between her collarbones when I noticed that she was wearing her favorite spaghetti-strap nightgown; it was the one with little valentines all over it. They were pink and red. Only the barest possible amount of cleavage was visible on the girl, though the nightgown was low-cut. I watched her chest rise and fall delicately with her light breath.
I’m just the guy that does the thing.
It was such a sadly easy shot. She was so pitifully vulnerable and innocent, totally unaware that the crosshairs of an assassin had lighted upon her carefree heart. Her life, virtue, happiness, dreams, disappointments, sorrows, and joys, were all about to end. And her father would hear the death of his little girl over the passionless wires of the telephone.
I’m just the guy that does the thing.
It required only slight pressure on the trigger to discharge the weapon, but enough to demand the determination of the shooter. My index finger trembled and wouldn’t move.
“DO IT,” said a grim, passionless voice. Did I say that, or was it Park? Was it in my mind? I tried not to think about what I was doing, but I was confused. I couldn’t shoot. I was torn by memories, choices. But I had to hurry: I couldn’t miss my chance. Execute orders urgently! No time to think!
I exhaled, and everything left me with that final breath. Everything that had been me was gone in one meek, wisp of vapor; gone in a single moment. When it cleared, I stopped thinking entirely and didn’t know who I was. I became a new person. No - I wasn’t a person at all. I became nobody. It was like a baptism, but without the part where you’re supposed to get reborn. I was submerged in the water, but knew that I would never come out again. Blank. Empty. Full of ice water. I stopped thinking. Everything was hushed. Absolute silence. Nothing existed outside the view of my scope. Even I no longer existed. I held dead on.
Like a hammer and a nail.
I’m just the guy that does the thing.
The bullet obediently traveled along its trajectory to the precise point to which I had skillfully directed it. Pennsylvania Avenue’s whole window suddenly became an opaque spider-web of smashed safety glass. The center imploded. Tiny fragments burst outwards in all directions, each piece catching the silver light from the city below. The dazzling circular cascade of rippling gossamer immediately obscured my view of the girl. But I was able to see enough to tell me that the deed was done. No details. The girl’s body was flung backwards. The telephone flew out of her hand. She collapsed soundlessly to the floor. That was all; it was over. Done.
I opened my hand and let the rifle fall out of my grasp as I slowly sat up. My eyes clamped shut. Shallow breathing. Clammy skin. Rapid pulse. The room felt chilly. I was perversely relieved that it was over.
“You did good, kid.” He lowered the binoculars. “That’s what I like to see.”
I don’t remember leaving the apartment, or walking across the street. Nor do I recall passing through the lobby or ascending with Park to the 31st floor of Pennsylvania Avenue’s apartment building. I felt somehow anesthetized. My peripheral vision was dim; objects seemed ill defined, outlines were fuzzy. I seemed to float behind Park as he led the way. He seemed to recognize the place, like he had been there before.
The door opened. I stepped into Pennsylvania Avenue’s apartment in a daze. I recognized all of the objects inside, though I never thought that I would ever be close enough to touch them. I stepped onto the floor mat. There was the lamp.
I couldn’t help but walk to the unbroken window of the living room and look out across the street. I scanned the building across the way to find the window from which I had taken the shot. But every window looked identical. The face of the building was as blank as I felt. It told me nothing.
Park led me into the bedroom. It was surreal.
At the first sight of the murdered girl laying dead on the floor of her bedroom, my head began to clear. I saw the telephone sitting on the bed where it had evidently landed. I thought about her father, a man I had never seen, a man who I didn’t know. I was rudely reminded of the magnitude of my action. My responsibility. It was heavy. I felt like I had just run 4 miles in full pack. I averted my eyes, and only got a glimpse of her legs. I again noticed her nightgown with the red and pink valentines. A man was stooped down beside her. He otherwise blocked my victim from view. Staring down at the carpet between my feet, I thought I might throw up. I felt light-headed. Dizzy. Clenching my teeth, I felt jets of saliva fill my mouth. It suddenly became very hot in the room. I was sure I was going to vomit.
The man was examining the girl. He had a roll of aluminum measuring-tape and was clinically recording observations about the entrance wound in a clipboard. He looked like an expert; this clearly was not the first time he performed such a grisly task. The air in the room had a biting, acrid tinge to it, like hot lead or melted plastic.
He looked up. “Marvin!” He sounded jovial. The man put down the measuring tape and stood. Bits of broken safety glass crunched beneath his boots. Numbly, I recognized his face as that of the boyfriend. But he spoke with an accent - his voice sounded like the man who called me on the telephone and ordered me to shoot. He held out his hand. “I’m James. Damned pleased to meet you.” He looked at me. After a moment, I realized he expected me to shake his hand. I was dimly aware that I was extending my hand to him. He grasped it firmly. My grip was feeble. “Your training is finally complete.”
I scarcely heard him. I was looking over his shoulder at the dead girl. Where was all the blood? There should have been lots of blood. Somewhere in the distance, the boyfriend, the man called St. James, the man who had given the order to shoot over the telephone, complimented me on the shot.
Pennsylvania Avenue was still smiling just as serenely as she had been when I had depressed the trigger. Oddly, she seemed frozen in the exact position in which she had been standing when I shot her at the window.
She was laying in a pool of broken safety glass. Interspersed amongst the crunching pieces of glass were a variety of tiny pieces of metal. Minute springs, like those you’d find inside any given pen, and little gears and cogs were mixed with the glass. There were also small slivers of skin-colored plastic scattered everywhere. So too were tiny fragments of melted metal that had cooled and solidified long before I had arrived at Pennsylvania Avenue’s apartment. The little blobs dotted the floor. The floor was peppered with tiny scorch marks where the superheated metal globules had burned it.
The entrance wound was exactly in the middle of her chest, right between the collarbones. Exactly where I had aimed. James saw where I was looking. “16.8 millimeter diameter entry point,” he explained. Her skin was cracked all to hell in the region surrounding the injury. It was also blackened and coated with tiny bubbles of melted plastic. The bullet had bored through her almost completely, but it didn’t have enough force to punch completely out of her because of the small caliber of my weapon. The bullet was still rattling around loose in there somewhere. I peered into the cavity in the robot that the super-sonic projectile had created. In its wake it left melted metal. A confused jumble of wiring was protruding from the entrance wound. Beyond it, there was only a charred profusion of damaged electronics.
Her smile seemed to imply that she had knowledge that although she was the one who had been shot, and in effect, killed, I was the real victim. Her smile was cynical. She had the last laugh.
“She was a decoy, man! She was just a dummy all along!” Park Place laughed and looked at me with evident mirth. It was a fantastic joke.
“I didn’t...” I felt woozy. I had to sit down.
“No shit you didn’t know. That’s the whole point!” Did he expect me to be relieved? He didn’t comprehend what was actually troubling me. The organization was guilty of fabricating the situation and of fabricating her body. In my weakness, I was guilty of fabricating her identity. I had developed an attachment.
I realized that she wasn’t even a she. She was an it. And it was just another control factor; it was just another part of the set-up. I was the only uncertain element in the equation, and had been from the moment the ‘operation’ began. I wasn’t detailed to the surveillance of it. Park Place and St. James, the established organization, they, were detailed to the surveillance of me. I was the one who was being observed the entire time. I was betrayed.
“She was real when I took the shot...” I said pathetically. I sank onto the bed. It was too much. I had prayed not to have to destroy her innocent life.
“She seemed real, to you. That’s what’s important.”
I looked up at him balefully. When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers. Who was I now? What was it all for?
He understood. “It proves that when push comes to shove, you know where your loyalties lay. It proves that you have it in you; when it comes down to the wire, you have what it takes.”
St. James Place, the boyfriend, the actor, the real phony, sauntered over to me. Evidently, he was most pleased by his performance in the act. He was beaming as he sat beside and put his arm around me in the comradeship of bandits.
“Congratulations: you’re one of us now.”
The worst was that I knew it was true. I was.