|Outrunning the Storm|
|The Tooth Fairy War and Other Tales|
|The Wizard's House|
|Louisville's Silent Guardians|
The production manager drew his finger across his throat, indicating the end of the broadcast. The calm, professional smile vanished from James Paladin's face and his customary off-camera glower reasserted itself. He dropped the blank pages he had been shuffling during the credits and pushed back from the news desk.
"Another teleprompter fuck-up! Is that bitch sleeping with someone in Human Resources or is she related to the network president?" He yanked the lapel mike off his suit coat, ignoring the martyred expression on the face of the approaching sound guy and dumping the battery unit on the desk. The young woman sitting at the teleprompter console near the news desk dropped her head, hiding her face behind the curtain of her curly brown hair. A careful observer might have seen her eyes glistening with unshed tears as she rose clumsily from her seat and walked towards a darker part of the studio.
"Geez, James, that was pretty rough. She's just a kid," said Bruno, the production manager. "You didn't need to make her cry."
"That's Mr. Paladin to you, smartass. Are you sleeping with her too?"
Bruno backed down, hands raised in surrender as Paladin pushed past the shorter man and walked towards his dressing room. He felt tired, old and used, but he had a meeting to get to. "Me, Raoul, and a few double gins", he thought.
"Hey, Mr. Paladin! A standard?"
"It's a doubles night, Raoul." Paladin slipped onto the stool in his favorite corner of Bailey's, an action that had become habit lately. He had found this little place about six months ago and had spent many evenings since in the dark corner he preferred, close to the bar but not easy for others to recognize him.
Raoul delivered a frosty lowball tumbler of gin and tonic with a thick slice of lime floating atop two ice cubes. He gestured to the TV above the other end of the bar. "Good show tonight, eh?" Raoul had an eye for the main chance and Paladin tipped in larger denominations than any other patron of the bar.
"Another shitty night, another shitty episode," He lifted the heavy tumbler, the coaster sticking to the bottom.
"That fag McDevitt and Truth of the Matter are rising in ratings and we're not." He sucked a mouthful down, feeling the gin hit the back of his throat. "Ahh, that's the ticket. Keep 'em coming, Raoul."
"Sure thing, boss." Secure in the knowledge that greater inebriation would lead to greater generosity, Raoul loaded another large double into a fresh tumbler. Paladin reached for the glass.
...conscious. Felt his eyelashes rasp against some sort of cloth, heard the tiny scraping noise of each lash skipping up the warp of the rough muslin. Came to the realization that it was dark, really dark. Eyes open, eyes closed, no difference – no light. The silence was incredible, dense, cloaking him. The smell of urine wrinkled his nostrils.
He reached to uncover his eyes and found his hands bound firmly behind his back. He tested his legs and came to understand that he was sitting on a chair made of some sort of thin metal, bound hand and foot to it. He started into full consciousness in a vertiginous rush of memory and terror as if waking from a nightmare, the chair tipping backwards under him. A hand clapped down on his shoulder, saving him from falling backwards. He flinched, an involuntary squeak escaping his lips as he leaned forward as far as his bound hands would let him.
"Relax," the voice was...nondescript, "there's nowhere to go and I'm not going to injure you."
He found his voice and demanded, "Where am I? What the fuck is going on? Let me go!" He tasted the too many gin and tonics at the back of his throat and swallowed down hard, not sure if he had anything left to puke.
"You are about to be in on the scoop of the century, Mr. Paladin. I'm sorry that I had to put you down so hard earlier. You weren't cooperating with me and I found myself forced to act before we were interrupted."
Vague memories of being accosted by some guy in Bailey's found their way to the surface of his mind. On the way to the bathroom, ferchrissake. He'd waved a hand at the guy, smiled his trademark smile, "thanks for watching," but the mug wouldn't leave it be. Paladin had pushed past the guy, not annoyed but impatient, needing to get some cold air into his lungs before he heaved overpriced drinks onto the floor. He'd rushed past the johns and out into the service alley, sucking deep lungfuls of cold night air to calm his rebellious gut. The guy appeared in his face again, still talking about a career-topping story, couldn't anyone just have a minute alone? And suddenly his arm was trapped and he was walking (being walked) by this average nobody-looking guy who he topped head and shoulders. He made to shrug the little weed off and down, college football reflexes still there, but somehow he was still walking on tiptoes wondering if his shoulder would dislocate. Still walking (being walked), out towards the street, real fear sparking in place of annoyance as he realized this guy wanted him, not his wallet or a job.
He'd walked (been walked) out of the alley and turned down the path, away from the expensive, exclusive frontage of the bar and the public and the lights he'd been so keen to get away from. Along the street on tiptoes, into the darkness where expensive terraced houses mixed with the surgeries of dentists and plastic surgeons with their little brass plates on the low brick walls fencing the pocket front yards in from the pavement.
He'd drawn a deep breath – the doorman from Bailey's would hear him, come for him, and call the cops. His yell had emerged as a retching grunt - the guy (the walker the walker how the fuck is he walking me) had done something blindingly fast and struck the breath from him. The gin came straight up after the last of his air, shooting out of his mouth and nose, stinging, sour upon sour mixed with the taste of his bile. As he'd fought for breath he was suddenly ass over, flipped over the little brick wall and into the front porch of a terrace, a weight driving him to the ground and something squeezing against his throat as he'd tried to stay up, stay alive, stay...
"Your hands are tied and your eyes bound to remind you that I am in command of this situation. I don't begrudge you your struggles as you regained consciousness, but if you prove difficult I will apply additional restraining measures as required. I have followed your career with interest and I know that you can be a reasonable man". The inflection was calm, measured, the tone that of a man accustomed to being obeyed without question. A judge, he pronounced sentence. "Are you going to be reasonable?" The hand on his shoulder might have pressed just a little harder.
"OK, OK, no problem, no need to do anything rash. I haven't even seen your face, you can walk away, just let me go and we all forget this happened," he rasped, an unintentional parody of his normally smooth tones as his fear threaded tension through his larynx.
"We spoke in Bailey's and you saw my face then. You haven't been listening to me. It's very important that you listen – I will give you instructions only once and you will need to understand them immediately". The hand on his shoulder did something at the junction of his neck and he screamed, seeing stars and knowing his spine was going to snap. "I promised you a scoop, an exclusive to form the pinnacle of your career. You will have it, and all you have to do is survive the experience with your health and your sanity intact," the man (the walker, Walker, his mind looped again and again) continued, no evidence of strain in his voice, sounding like he was reciting lines from a book or a play, admonishing a small child. The pressure eased and the agony vanished, leaving the strange sense of well-being that can follow the cessation of severe pain. "I am about to provide you with experiences that will give you perspective unmatched by any other correspondent. It is important that you listen to and comply with the instructions that I will provide you with. Failure to comply with my direction will result in death for you as well as any other personnel involved in the situation. This is not something you want, and it is not something I want, but the inconvenience for you will be somewhat greater."
...conscious. He felt the press of earth against his cheek and raised his head. He found himself out of the city, in light scrub on the side of a hill. The earth smelled damp, as if it had rained recently. He realized that he was lying on his stomach under some sort of military camouflage net. A huge rifle with a telescopic sight rested on a bipod in front of him. The sound of the walker's voice intruded, seemingly beside him until he realized he was hearing the voice through an earpiece like the one he wore behind the anchor desk.
"Mr. Paladin, I see you are awake. Listen carefully to your instructions. You will note the sniper rifle in front of you and the fact that your hands are unrestricted. Move forward and look through the sight; find the small group of huts further down the slope."
Paladin glanced around, trying to see where the guy was, looking for a way out. He lifted a knee up under his body, confirming preparing to rise as he confirmed that his ankles were free.
"Lie down behind the rifle. I will not warn you again."
The instruction was punctuated by the hiss-thud of something flying past Paladin's head and striking the soft dirt in front of him. "I have you in my sights and I have several means of ensuring that you comply. You have just observed the impact of a subsonic point two two caliber metal jacket bullet. If I deem it to be required I will cripple you with another bullet to prevent any unauthorized movement by you. Look through the sight."
Paladin laid himself flat behind the rifle, his heart racing. He applied his eye to the sight, seeing a village of grass huts like something out of a safari movie spring into focus. Small children scurried half clothed around the huts, intent in a game of some sort. Near the centre of his field of view was a tall, thin man with high cheekbones, tightly curled black hair and ebony skin. He stood in front of the closest hut, dressed in western clothes. Sweat beaded his forehead, clearly visible through the 'scope. The man stood as if rooted to the spot, although he looked around continuously as Paladin watched. Around his waist was a broad canvas belt with a number of shiny cylinders attached to it.
"Orders, Mr. Paladin," spoke the voice in his ear, "the man in front of you is a terrorist. He is about to detonate an explosive device of sufficient yield to kill or maim most of the residents of the village. Your mission is to kill him in order to prevent him from committing this act." Paladin jerked his head back from the scope as the words registered.
"You're sick! This is some kind of sick prank," he sputtered, "I'm not some psycho killer!"
"No, Mr. Paladin, you're a soldier. If you do it right, you're also the man who saves those children, but if not then you are to blame for their deaths. Your orders continue: your mission is to save the lives of the innocents in the village by killing the terrorist. You have a choice of two firing locations, but you have no discretion with regard to the mission outcome. You will fire at the terrorist and kill him, or you will watch the children die as a result of your failure."
Paladin squeezed his eyes shut, mind racing, random hostage negotiator movie lines popping into his head. "So assuming that I go along with this, what's the difference at the other location?"
"The other location is closer to the terrorist – within the lethal radius of the explosive device, so if you do not kill him instantly he will kill you when he detonates the device. That position does, however, allow you to fire at the target without the risk of having your shot pass through the village behind him. You have two minutes. If he detects you or you fail to complete the mission within the allocated time, the village will be destroyed and the occupants will die. Should you decide to use the alternate firing location, you will need to move quickly."
"You're insane! Just let me go, we can deal! I've got –"
"One minute and thirty seconds," the pronouncement cut over Paladin's objection.
His breathing ragged, Paladin returned his eye to the sight and fumbled to find the pistol grip of the weapon.
"Identify the safety catch, a small lever on the left of the weapon in front of the butt. Rotate the lever to point to the red dot. Pull the weapon tightly into your shoulder to stop the recoil from breaking your collar bone," the instructions continued, sounding almost sing-song as if the man were reciting a mantra. Paladin complied numbly, struggling to accept the reality of the situation.
"Place the crosshairs over the centre of the visible part of the target."
Trembling, Paladin fought to keep the sights on the chest of the (Terrorist? Victim? Target?). He dropped his head away from the sight as tears welled in his eyes. "You can't do this, you don't have the right to choose who lives and dies," he sobbed.
"I am not choosing, Mr. Paladin. You are. You are here as a soldier and you must make these decisions again and again. Pull the trigger or refrain. Kill or die, kill one or allow the deaths of many. Four seconds."
"I can't fucking do this, just stop, please stop, for Christ's sake let me go and I'll give you anything you want –"
The scrubby trees and the camouflage net around him shuddered as he heard and felt a WHUMP, a dull deep sound of stunning power. Disoriented, he raised his tear-stained face to see a cloud of dust or smoke enveloping the area of the village, as bits of debris started to rain down on his position. Some of them landed with horrible, wet sounds.
His earpiece crackled to life. "You have chosen to kill twenty-three innocents rather than take the necessary action to protect them. The rehabilitation of your perspective has commenced. When this is over you will have to look at yourself in the mirror and relive this choice for the rest of your life. It won't be easy to do."
Paladin tried to form a reply, to defend himself. Instead, a roaring darkness enveloped him before he could open his mouth.
...conscious. He was surrounded by darkness again, but not the same drowning blackness as when he had first woken into his nightmare. He retched as memory came flooding back, the horrible rain of meat as the echoes of the explosion rolled over the valley.
The earpiece again: "Orders, Mr. Paladin. You are in an ambush position, sited to cover a trail that is regularly used by enemy soldiers for resupply and personnel movement. You are to identify and kill a pair of soldiers who will approach from your right, moving along the trail on foot. You must engage them using the machine gun that is set up to your front. If you fail to kill them with the first burst or if they detect you they will open fire on you."
"They are well trained marksmen and if they see you or your muzzle flash then they will pour accurate fire into your position until either they or you are dead or incapacitated. Therefore, I recommend that you kill both of them with your first burst and do so before they have the chance to spot you. You will know the targets because they will be carrying assault rifles. If you fail to engage the targets by the time they are level with you then you will be illuminated by a pyrotechnic device that is set up near you and you will be detected and killed."
Paladin lay where he had awoken, reaching out for the dimly seen butt of the general purpose machine gun in front of him. He vaguely registered trees and undergrowth around him and a foot trail to his front. "I'm dreaming, that's it, I'm fucking dreaming. Fucking Raoul, little prick's been slipping me cheap gin in a Bombay Sapphire bottle, it's a fucking hallucination. I'll smack the little prick into next week when I wake up, so help me God," he muttered, as sweat broke out on his forehead despite the cool night air.
"Be quiet, Mr. Paladin, or you will compromise your position," the voice said in his ear.
"Ungrateful little prick, I give him more in tips than he earns in wages and he pours moonshine. I'll give him moonshine, little bastard. Green card my ass." Paladin's voice rose, carrying in the quiet night, as he blustered. A chatter of voices speaking a foreign language arose from down the track.
Snapped out of denial by the unexpected intrusion, Paladin grabbed the butt of the unfamiliar machine gun. He saw two figures silhouetted against the starlight as they moved quickly down the path towards him, long objects over their shoulders. Panicking, he fumbled with the weapon as a high, girlish scream sounded. The weapon fired, incredibly loud in the night, a flower-shaped tongue of flame erupting from the flash suppressor as he held the trigger down. Tracer bullets flew into the night, swarming through the air and ricocheting off a distant, invisible hill before flying up into the sky. He realized that the screaming was coming from him, and stopped. So did the weapon – he'd either let go of the trigger, or it was out of ammunition.
His ears still ringing, he blinked furiously, completely night-blind from the spectacular muzzle flash of the machine gun. As the afterimages slowly diminished, he could make out two huddled shapes on the path.
"Hah! How do you like that, you freak? You wanted to tell me what to do, but I did it my way and there you go. Let me go, I've done what you asked!" He struggled upright, tripping over undergrowth as he advanced on the bodies.
"Have you, Mr. Paladin?" The tone of voice was almost sympathetic. Or perhaps just tired.
Paladin stood over the corpses, then started to back off rapidly as he caught the smell of blood and shredded organs. Not before he saw the long hoes that the soldiers (farmers they were just farmers oh no oh God) had been carrying. "It appears that you have murdered two unarmed field workers, without cause or reason," the voice carried on, the fatigue of a moment ago vanished. "That is certainly not what you were asked to do. You were allocated valid targets in accordance with the laws of armed conflict. You chose to ignore instructions and then killed two civilians with a machine gun. I know you want me to let you go, but sadly you cannot blackmail me by killing innocents. Try to do better next time."
"Next time? What do you mean, next...?" Paladin staggered and fell as a wave of deeper black roared over him, insensible before his face hit the runnels of fluid draining from the bodies.
...conscious. Slumped in a chair, he found himself looking at some sort of Hessian bags piled up in front of his face. Paladin tried to gather himself. He overcame his daze to realize he was sitting in some sort of sandbagged position on the side of a road. An assault rifle, something like the M-16 in all of the Vietnam War movies he'd watched as a young man, was propped against the sandbags.
"Mr. Paladin, welcome to your post. Orders: This is the sole route into the town behind you. You are to man this check point. No vehicle or pedestrian traffic is to be permitted through into the town without a pass such as the one on the example page in front of you," the voice in his ear said.
Paladin looked and saw a laminated piece of paper hanging from a piece of string on the inside of the sandbag wall. It had some sort of sticker or card and some typed information on it.
He stood up. Looking out further, he saw that he was at one end of an ancient single lane bridge, his little bunker anchoring a boom gate which he could control by pulling or releasing a rope. A red dirt road appeared out of the bright green jungle about half a kilometer away and wound its way up to the bridge, following a slight ridgeline between two tributary creeks of the river behind him. On the opposite bank of the deep, fast-flowing river was a high mud brick wall with a gap for the road. The low buildings of the town were visible through the gap.
"What's your game this time? Why are you doing this to me? I don't even know what to call you, but jeezus man, you're killing people! God, please make it stop!"
"Mr. Paladin, you are the man who has been killing people. The tally is growing. I note, though, that you are starting to understand the pressures that soldiers face – you have confirmed an old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes." A chuckle, a laugh, sounded down the earpiece, turning into a hacking cough before cutting off.
"Sir, please stop this. I have a great deal of money stashed away, I can –"
"Take up your weapon and do your job. You have a customer"
Paladin looked up, hearing a car engine. "Protect the town or accept the consequences, Mr. Paladin."
"What consequences, what are you going to do? For God's sake, just stop it. What do you want?"
"Stop the vehicle or face the consequences. I have you covered."
Paladin grabbed the M-16, found the safety selector and rotated it to 'fire', cringing from an imagined shot. He saw a battered old Toyota sedan emerge from the jungle, moving quite slowly. Squinting against the afternoon sun, he could make out a splash of color at the bottom of the car's windscreen. Realizing that he couldn't remember what to look for, he snatched up the laminated page and studied the example pass. As the car approached, he could make out something that looked like the pass in the windscreen. The driver stopped a few meters short of the boom gate and sat there, engine idling.
Paladin peered into the car. It appeared that the driver, a small dark-skinned man with tightly curled black hair, was the only occupant of the vehicle. The driver took one hand off the steering wheel and pointed to the pass on his windscreen, moving slowly, apparently accustomed to dealing with armed sentries.
"What do you want me to do," asked Paladin, half under his breath.
"Follow your orders, Mr. Paladin. I will not repeat them," replied the voice in his ear. Again, the driver slowly pointed to the pass on his windscreen, venturing a tentative smile.
As far as Paladin could tell, the pass was like the example. He shrugged to himself, thinking that this was an improvement over the last two situations he'd been forced into. He unhooked the rope on the boom gate and allowed the counterweight to raise the boom. The driver inched forward and drove slowly over the bridge and into the town, giving Paladin a wide smile and a few incomprehensible syllables as he passed.
"Probably means 'thanks for not slaughtering me, white man'", thought Paladin, watching the car disappear behind the wall on the far bank.
He realized that he'd left the boom gate up and turned to pull on the rope and lower it. As he did so a further movement drew his eye and he saw another man emerge from the jungle, walking rapidly along the road towards the checkpoint. Paladin hooked the rope onto a nail that held the boom gate closed and held his M-16 in both hands. Again, the late afternoon sun shone into Paladin's eyes and made it difficult for him to see clearly as the man approached, his pace undiminished. Soon, though, it was clear that the man was carrying a large machete or some sort of similar weapon, the sun's last rays striking fire from the blade as the shadow of the jungle pursued him across the clearing towards the checkpoint. Paladin gripped his rifle more tightly and shouted, "Stop! Show me your pass!"
The approaching man slowed for a moment, then resumed his rapid stride. Although of similar appearance he was much bigger than the driver had been and his movements held a fluid power that made Paladin feel intimidated. He raised his rifle and shouted again, "Stop or I'll shoot," an edge of desperation in his voice. Here it comes, he thought. This monster wasn't going to stop, he had to be seven and a half foot tall, bigger than anyone he'd played football with, better not miss this one, it's him or me. He yelled, wordless, a scream of fear and anger, and pulled the trigger as the giant came within thirty feet or so.
A bright spray of fluid shot upwards from the man's head, catching the last rays of sunlight like a macabre sort of rainbow. The man dropped, folding into an untidy pile as the machete dropped from nerveless fingers. A scream sounded from the other side of the bridge and an elderly woman ran past Paladin, moving with surprising speed to the fallen giant, wailing with incredible volume. Paladin looked around to see people starting to emerge from the town behind him, many of the men armed with rifles, the women carrying machetes, an incongruous mix of Maglite torches and firebrands being produced as the light faded. Paladin concentrated on trying to think, trying to calm himself.
The sound of an angry crowd was one that Paladin was familiar with from his many years in journalism and he was hearing it now. An ugly, low murmur was building, swelling as the horrible possibility of a mistake dawned in Paladin's mind. The old woman was cradling the ruined head of the giant, rocking back and forth and wailing. Fingers began to point towards Paladin as the crowd swelled around the woman. Paladin looked towards the jungle and considered running for it before remembering the warning in his ear. "If you want me alive, buddy, I think you'd better do something," he muttered, "or I'm going to be picking the jungle over the lynch mob."
The body and the woman were suddenly lit brightly, and Paladin realized that there was a camera crew filming. He wondered for a moment if this was some sort of movie scene before he realized that it was a news crew. The journalist spoke briefly to the old woman before looking over to him. The light switched off, drawing a veil of night over the carnage. Ten seconds later Paladin was lit and being recorded, wanting to put his M-16 down but not wanting to lose it.
The journalist held a microphone to his face and spoke in a South African or Zambian accent. "What can you tell me about the events here tonight?"
"No comment," said Paladin, trying to keep his face low.
"Why did you shoot that man?"
"Did he attack you? Did you have a grudge against him?"
Paladin's shoulder blades were itching. He desperately wanted to spill everything to this guy, but he could almost feel the gaze of the unseen Walker weighing on him. "No comment, now fuck off!"
The reporter drew his finger across his throat, and the cameraman extinguished the light, lowered the camera and lit a cigarette. The reporter leaned in and spoke, quietly, to Paladin, his Afrikaner accent broader now. "Friend, you've got two options here. You can tell your side of the story or I can make some shit up. I need to sell this to my boss, so the made up version will be even less pretty than the reality." The cameraman offered the reporter a cigarette, which he took and lit without breaking eye contact with Paladin.
"You know he was a retard, right? Got a job clearing jungle a bit west of here, but he was only about five years old mentally. His mum was waiting for him, had told him to get back to town by sunset every night, and he was running late. Not as late as after you blew his brains out, though. This is going to make my career and get me back to Jo'burg, out of this shithole. The only question is do I do that by telling his story or by telling yours. If you won't give me anything I'll just report on your lynching for the murder or the miraculous arrival of your company," he pointed to the earpiece taped to Paladin's ear, "to save your backside. They're all great stories. Human tragedy at the hands of the unfeeling mercenary, bloody brilliant." He took a deep drag on his cigarette. "So, what's it going to be my friend?"
Paladin kept his head down, deciding that if the crowd started to move towards him he'd jump into the river and try to get out again downstream. The reporter shrugged, butting his cigarette out on the sandbags and turning to his cameraman. "If that's how you want to play it. Perc, did you get enough on the wound? The mum and his head in shot?"
"Yeah, I got it. The blood and bits on her dress too." They turned and walked back towards the crowd, then the reporter paused and turned back.
"You should know I'm going to tell those people you're an old school apartheid supporter. Nothing personal, it just sells the story better. You should leave while you still can." He turned again and walked away.
Paladin stood rooted for a moment, then snatched his rifle up to his shoulder and fired at the reporter. His haste caused the first round to go wide of the mark, and he dragged the weapon down against the recoil as the men dived off to the left and right. As he struggled to align the sights on the reporter, the night dimmed to a darker shade of black and the report of the weapon stretched into a roaring silence.
...conscious. Paladin raised his head and saw a man sitting on a cheap metal chair, about ten feet away. He was in some sort of industrial building, a high ceiling held up by massive concrete pillars, a couple of tables holding equipment on one side of the room and a desk with a laptop computer on the other. That's the guy, he thought, the psycho who grabbed me out back of Bailey's.
"Welcome back, Mr. Paladin", Walker said as recognition flowed like a cold wind down Paladin's spine at the sound of the voice.
"Christ, you're the same guy! You're the guy in the earpiece too!"
"Well done, that was some of your finest investigative journalism. I note that you have identified the futility of talking about not having seen me. You most certainly have heard me; in fact I'd say we've had quite a rare experience together." The man's voice was genial, almost chatty. His face, creased from years outdoors, might almost have shown a gentle smile.
Paladin sat shaking his head.
"A rare...", he trailed off, the noise of city traffic registering as he tried to figure out what he was thinking and how to get out.
"I told you that I'd give you the sort of experience that it took to gain a unique perspective, one that other reporters couldn't match. I've come through for you," he said, "perhaps exceeded even my own aims in this exercise."
"What are you talk...? Sir, I just want to get out of here alive, I just want to live. Please don't hurt me", Paladin implored him.
"Don't worry Mr. Paladin; your physical wellbeing is in no danger from me. It's merely your reputation and your legal status that I may yet need to put at risk."
"What do you mean?"
The man leaned back, suddenly reminding Paladin of a judge again. "You have committed several murders in the past week. Some were through negligent inaction, such as the women and children of the village we first visited. Others were cold-blooded, deliberate murder. The two farmers you shot on the trail, and the man you killed at the checkpoint. You also tried to kill the journalist at the checkpoint – I had to tranquilize you rather quickly to prevent the situation getting out of hand."
Paladin shook his head numbly "I was scared! They were gonna discover me, they had things that looked like guns, that big guy had a machete, I thought they were going to kill me! There's got to be something you want, something you need, I can get things for you, I'm a rich man and I have influence. What do you want, what do you need, so you won't talk about this stuff?"
Walker laughed softly. "And so we come to the crux. Legal precedent exists for each of the things you did, precedent which was driven by public opinion. Trial by media, and convictions of murder. Not manslaughter, not wrongful death, first degree murder. What I want, Mr. Paladin," he stood, flushed, swaying slightly, "what I WANT, is for you fucking people, you journalists to understand what you do when you condemn young soldiers for doing their best under horrendous pressure. They make decisions, their best guesses, to try and do their JOBS and keep their buddies from DYING." He sat abruptly, a vein pulsing in his forehead, and coughed harshly, wetly. It sounded like he was trying to cough up a lung. Paladin shifted in his chair and a small, businesslike handgun appeared in the man's right fist. Unlike him, it did not appear unsteady.
Recovering from the coughing fit, he continued. "What I need, neither you nor modern medicine can give me. I am terminally ill, Mr. Paladin, and nothing you can offer me will sway me from my chosen course. PFC Jason Savige, Mr. Paladin. Do you know the name?"
Paladin shook his head mutely.
"You killed him, Mr. Paladin. You murdered him and many of his friends just like you killed those farmers and the young man. He killed himself three months after returning from his first tour in Iraq in 2003 because you people and your 'investigative reporting' hounded him to his death over his part in an incident that you didn't understand and didn't care about. He was my son. He followed me into the Army, he survived all of the threats in Iraq that I survived in other places that you've never even heard of, but he couldn't survive the betrayal you rewarded him with once he came home."
Paladin continued to shake his head, drew breath to protest, but stopped as the gun was raised.
"Well, sir, you win. I have nothing left to live for and not long left at any rate. I hope that you remember what you have learned these last few days. Thing hard on the consequences that you have handed out to our finest young men and women without having the decency to look into their eyes as you killed them." Again showing the eerie dexterity that Paladin had observed previously, the man made a loaded syringe appear in his left hand, seemingly from nowhere.
"No, wait, we can -"
"NOT for you, Mr. Paladin, now just be quiet. I don't want your voice in my ears," said Walker, flicking the cap off the needle with his thumb and jabbing it into a vein on the inside of his elbow. He looked at Paladin, inscrutable, and depressed the plunger. His gun hand swung downwards to the floor, his whole body suddenly limp, and he rolled off the chair and hit the concrete like a sack full of rags. A long, audible exhalation followed.
Paladin, frozen in shock, smelled the sharp tang of urine and watched a puddle spread from underneath the body. He stood slowly, the legs of his chair scraping across the concrete, half expecting some further deception or shock, mocking laughter or gunfire.
"OK, Pally, you can get through this. Almost done now," he said to himself. Finding reassurance in the sound of his own voice, he spoke more loudly. "Hah, fucking coward, killed yourself. You've had it all over me for this last week or whatever it's been, but all you've done is given me a license to print money!"
He walked over to the body and kicked the pistol away from it, just like in the cop movies. "Little weasel, who's gonna tell your story? Not me, weasel, not me. Teach you to fuckin treat me like that!" He kicked the man in the midriff, hearing ribs break. The corpse rolled, sightless eyes staring calmly upwards. Paladin jeered at him, "and you thought I'd take the rap for those shitheads. I'm the one telling the story, loser! I can make it happen any way I like, so I'm thinking that you killed them because, erm, because," he paused then clapped his hands together, "YES! Because you were fucking them for money, you dirty little sex tourist faggot. They tried to blackmail you and you offed them, you little puke. You think there was shame for your soldier-boy son, it's nothing to what your name will be, you piece of shit."
He delivered another savage kick to the corpse. It rolled again, onto one side before an arm became trapped and held it there. The man's wallet protruded slightly from his pants pocket. "So who are you, sex tourist, and how much money have you got so I can figure out where I am and get home for my triumphant comeback?" Paladin leaned over the puddle of urine but overbalanced slightly as he retrieved the wallet. Under the wet cloth of the man's shirt as he pushed off to regain his balance he felt something hard and square. He ignored it for a moment while he checked the wallet – EU passport in the name of Iain Banks with visas for Uganda, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, fifty bucks US and a California driver's license in the name of William Savige.
He tossed the damp wallet behind him and pocketed the fifty and the license. Leaning over again, he lifted the shirt. A wireless microphone sender unit was clipped to the man's belt. Paladin had put the same brand of microphone on every day on the show. His mood dropped sharply as he recognized it. "Fuck..." he muttered. He tore the shirt open, revealing cables secured to the man's skin with micro pore tape and not one but two devices secreted inside the man's shirt.
Apart from the wireless mike, he made out an old friend from his days as an investigative reporter – a lipstick camera. Urgently he traced the cable back to the sender unit on the other side of the man's belt, seeing what he had most feared. Three green LEDs shone steadily, indicating an active link. He fumbled for the switch and deactivated the device. "Oh god oh god oh god, just find the recording device, he's not a reporter, he doesn't have a satellite truck, it's got to be recorded for someone to find later," he muttered to himself, casting his eyes around the large room.
He strode over to the desk with the laptop, tapping urgently on the space bar. The screen lit up, but before he could do anything else he heard Dire Straits tinnily singing the chorus to 'Brothers in Arms'. He saw a mobile phone traveling across the desk as it vibrated and sang in parody of Knopfler's guitar. He grabbed it. The calling number was blocked.
Any information I can get is worth it, he thought, pressing the answer button.
"William Savige," he said, doing his best to imitate the man's colorless, neutral tones. The voice on the other end of the line was, unexpectedly, familiar to him.
"James Paladin? This is Oscar McDevitt from Truth of the Matter. Can you confirm that you've recently been involved in a number of killings in Africa? Mr. Paladin? I think you owe your viewers an explanation. Is it true that you murdered a retarded boy in front of his mother..." the voice became indistinct as Paladin lowered the handset, staring back at the body on the floor, at the gun he'd kicked away. He realized that there was a sticky note attached over the mouthpiece of the phone, and glanced down to read it as he walked towards the weapon.
In a neat, fussy hand, the note proclaimed, "http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j93QXXX4Yjs. You've been scooped. Welcome to the life of a victim of the media."
The phone clattered to the floor as he reached for the pistol.
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fucking awsome bro, you got talent! brett
Good story, but it gets a little bit too preachy before the ending. It might work a little better to cut some of that and let the ending unfold. It pretty much does the job of what the bereaved father says. Still, really good.
Thanks for the feedback TB, I will consider other ways to cast the story.
I lost interest. Hero too obnoxious to care about.
Absolutely fantastic story! Great job.
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