By E.A. Sharp and Michael E. Schutz
"Treat your friend as if he might become an enemy."
Andre pulled the old truck up outside a nondescript diner, one of those places that had been done up to look like it was still 1955. The target was sitting at the counter, drinking coffee and looking like his biggest worry was how big a hug to give the kids when he got home. Andre had never gotten to know this one personally, but he knew enough about the guy.
"What are we waitin' for?" Marshall asked from the passenger's seat.
"We're waiting for the right moment," Andre answered, not fazed by Marshall's impatience.
Andre had been doing this since Marshall was still watching cartoons, but he still approached every encounter like it was his first. The most important thing was to get the mood exactly right and wait for the perfect moment. One slip and everything goes straight to hell.
"You and your Zen horse shit," Marshall said, looking out the musty window, watching the target flirt with a waitress.
They were both wearing heavy jackets to keep the cold out, since the truck's heater hadn't worked for years. Andre reached into his and ran his hand down the barrel of his gun, making sure the safety was still off. Marshall looked like he was using his gun to scratch his stubbly cheek. The damn fool didn't even have the safety on. One twitch and he'd be breathing out the top of his head.
Marshall always acted stupid when he was tense, and he was tense a lot. Andre supposed he couldn't blame his partner. Marshall was, after all, more than 10 years his junior and much less seasoned in their line of work. Andre himself had been much the same when he was Marshall's age. That was probably why Andre had been reluctant to work with the other man at first; he'd seen too much of his former self in Marshall-reckless, idealistic and power-starved. Marshall didn't really understand the magnitude of what they were doing.
But he had to give Marshall credit where it was due. Inner-city whites like Marshall tended to be the fall guys for inner-city blacks' righteous anger at Middle America. The fact that he was still alive spoke volumes about him.
"So," Marshall said, "are we taking this one to the boss too?"
"Right," Andre said, fighting down inveterate nervousness. "He's meeting us at the place."
The white man scowled out the window. It was a look he almost always had on his face. He had slid down in his seat, but now he sprung to attention, nudging Andre's arm.
"Hey, the guy's moving."
Andre looked out the window and saw the target paying for his food and turning to walk out of the diner, and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. "All right, you know how this goes. Nobody panics, nobody gets hurt, nobody calls the cops."
Marshall only grunted in response as Andre put the truck in gear. As the target walked out the door, the truck spun around the corner and screeched to a halt right in front of him. Andre leaned out his window and aimed his gun over the top of the car while Marshall jumped out his door and accosted the target.
"Don't move, motherfucker!" Marshall yelled. Andre wanted to roll his eyes; Marshall was doing it all wrong again. Moving was exactly what they wanted the target to do.
The target, who was wearing a brown coat, staggered against the front window of the diner and threw his arms up.
"Get in the truck, right now!" Andre called out over the truck.
"W-w-what do you want?" the target squeaked. He reached into his coat with a shaky hand and held out his wallet. "Take it, just don't sh-shoot me!"
"I said get in the truck!" Andre said.
People inside the diner were starting to get out of their seats and stare, and people across the street were also watching them. This should have been finished and they should have been driving away by now, but the chump was still cowering there and Marshall wasn't doing a thing.
Just then, Marshall took that moment to act, smacking the target's wallet away and pistol-whipping him with his other hand. Hell...even when he did something right he did everything wrong.
"Marsh, dammit! The boss said don't hurt him!"
"I didn't have a choice!"
"Shit, just toss him in the back!"
Marshall hefted the target's body into the bed of the truck, and amidst cries of, "Go! Go!" from Andre, jumped inside himself. Andre stomped on the gas and the truck tore away. He looked in the rearview mirror. Between the skid marks they had left as they fled, he could see one man unholstering a weapon, too late.
The black man rubbed his head, where the hair was starting to recede, and surveyed their handwork. They'd made it to the old garage without any further incident, and the target was tied up and sitting in a blue, plastic elementary school chair. There was a bruise spreading over his right eye, and there was blood in his black hair and on his slacks. He still hadn't regained consciousness.
The boss was late, and Marshall had gotten them some cheap hamburgers. They were still eating when Marshall started talking. He hadn't said much since Andre yelled at him.
"Yo, Andre...you know this guy?" the white man asked, nodding toward their captive.
Andre swallowed and looked the target up and down. He was just a man, like any other. "Never met him myself, but..." Andre hesitated. He wasn't sure how Marshall would react if he knew the truth. What the hell, he thought.
"...If he is who we think he is, my Pops trained him," he finished.
Marshall looked at him like he'd just claimed corpses were part of a balanced breakfast. "Your Pops what?!"
"Yeah, Pops and I used to work for the boss's first team," Andre said.
Marshall put his food down and started pacing. "You was...with them?" he asked, his face a mask of disgust and confusion.
"So what? That was before they turned on us. You know, before the, uh...incident."
"Goddamn, man, we been together for what? Two years? And you never told me you was part of the first team? Christ!"
The white man's face was priceless. Andre would have been amused, if Marshall's zealotry and willful ignorance hadn't been such a joke. Besides, he was talking about the past. There was no going back there, and what difference did it make anyway? That was a different time, Andre was a different man. More than anything, his partner's raving just pissed him off.
"Yeah, I was with the first team, but now I'm with the second team," Andre said. "With us, man. That's all that matters."
"It's always reassuring to know where you stand, Andre," said a distinguished voice.
The two men's heads snapped around, and they saw a third man walking through the side door of the garage. An older man, pale-skinned, immaculately dressed and clean-shaven. His suit matched his dark-colored hair, and his tie was impressed with a gold V.
The businessman checked his gold watch. "Sorry I'm late," he said. He wasn't sorry at all.
"Mr. Brady, sir...it's no problem," Marshall said. The punk almost sounded like he thought he should be the one apologizing. Then he brightened up. "We got the target like you said!"
Mr. Brady looked over Marshall's shoulder. He frowned when he saw the bruise on the man's forehead, and Marshall started rubbing the back of his head, chuckling weakly.
Poor idiot, still afraid of the boss, thought Andre. He wasn't worried; if anything he just wanted to get this over with. Mr. Brady seemed to notice.
"Andre," he said, beckoning the black man with his finger.
Andre stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets and walked over. Mr. Brady put an arm around Andre's shoulder and led him over to a corner of the garage. He looked back to check on Marshall, who was pacing around their captive.
"You don't seem like yourself today," Mr. Brady said in a low voice. "Why don't you tell me what's wrong?"
Andre exhaled strongly, hesitating. "Well, y'see, sir..." he looked over his shoulder, "...it's just that you told me I wouldn't have to do this kind of thing anymore. I mean, shit, it's not like I feel sorry for them or nothin'. But, I don't know."
The businessman nodded. "I understand, Andre. I hated to ask you to do it again, but sometimes I have no choice. Besides, it's not like they're not the enemy." He flashed Andre an intense look before jerking his head toward the man in the chair. "Even if this fellow didn't actually take your father's life, he was a part of it, wasn't he? I swore to you that we would make the first team pay for their betrayal, and everything else they've done, and you know I've come through."
"'Course I do."
Mr. Brady nodded again. "I respect that you're not up to this anymore, and I promise you, Andre-" Andre looked his boss in the eyes "-this is the last one. Once we find out where the rest of the first team is, you can get out. The rest of the second team can exterminate them without you."
Andre said nothing; he just closed his eyes.
Mr. Brady patted him on the back. "All right then. When the package wakes up..."
He was interrupted by Marshall and a convenient twist of fate. "Hey yo," Marshall called. "The dude's waking up."
Mr. Brady gave Andre a look, and Andre nodded. Taking another moment to get his concentration, he took leave of his boss. The businessman pulled a cigarette out of his pocket and began smoking.
Marshall and Andre positioned themselves in front of their captive. It took a while for him to realize the two men were standing right in front of him. "Who are you?" he slurred. "What are you doing with me?"
"Shut up!" Marshall shouted.
"Look, Jack," said Andre. "We don't know how you play your game, but you're playing our game now. And that means you play by our rules."
The man's face flushed. He looked like he wasn't sure if they had known his name, or were just using a generic name, like Mac or Buddy or John Doe.
"We know what you are," the white man said. "We know you used to work for the first team!"
"Take it easy, Marshall," the black man said.
"You take it easy, Andre! You want this to go around unchecked on our streets?" he snapped, jerking a thumb in Jack's direction.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Jack said.
"Shut up, motherfucker!" yelled Marshall.
"I said relax, Marsh," Andre repeated. "Let me handle this guy. We don't know he's one of them for sure."
"Let me take care of it."
Marshall seethed. This game of good-cop-bad-cop they always played with their targets was so easily suited to Andre's and his respective personalities that sometimes it was hard to tell where the game stopped and reality began. Andre knew this was a good way of getting information out of people, but sometimes he wondered why they should go roundabout on whether or not the target was one of them. They knew he was. But this was how the boss said it should be done, and it almost always seemed to work.
Sometimes Andre wondered how Mr. Brady found time to learn psychology so well.
"Man, you better start talking," Marshall threatened, pulling out his gun and leveling it at Jack's chest. "I swear to God, I will murder the fuck out of you. I'll put a hole in you so big you could shove a basketball through it!"
"Give me that!" Andre yelled, snatching the gun out of his partner's hands. "Take five, Marsh, you're hyped."
The white man kicked the air and sauntered away. The black man put the gun in his jacket pocket. The businessman still stood there, smoking, as if he noticed everything but cared about nothing. He was content to let his underlings handle the entire situation.
"Sorry, Jack," said Andre, still giving no clue as to whether they knew if that really was his name. "My friend over there gets pretty passionate about his work sometimes."
Jack gave the appearance of a man who was still barely conscious. His head swung limply on his neck, weighed down by his disoriented state. He couldn't possibly mount a reply. It was hard enough for Andre to tell if his words had even registered.
"But anyway, you don't look like such a bad guy. And I'm guessing you ain't exactly happy with the situation here. Hell, neither am I. I'm sure what we both want is to get through this with no problems. Now we can drag this out and be as cruel as we have to, but I don't want it to come to that. I bet you don't want it to either, do you? Do you?"
Jack shook his head as if he'd been wearing a fish bowl full of water.
"OK, then the best way to do that is to do what we say when we say it. Then we'll let you go, you'll never see us again, and you can get back to your life. That sound good?"
The captive nodded. At least he was getting the idea.
"Good. Now, pay attention, because I'm only going to ask each question once, and I expect you to tell me the truth."
"He's one of them first team fuckers!" yelled Marshall from several feet away. "Don't try to deny it, you dirty shit. We know what you are!"
"Shut up, Marsh."
"Piss off, Andre. Look at him, you can tell he's one of them. We know you're one of them, motherfucker! You better fess up to it right now!"
Marshall ran up and started to push Jack over in his chair, but Andre grabbed him in mid-shove and threw him back. Jack teetered on the chair's thin, metal rear legs for several seconds before landing back on all four.
"Sorry, he's kind of uptight right now," Andre apologized.
"What?" Jack heaved with considerable effort, though he looked like he was coming back to his senses.
"What? What's the first team?"
"A bunch of mercenary ex-cons? Hired to help stop crime, only they couldn't quit starting it? Sold out one of their own guys and killed his ass? Old black man who looked kinda like me? You know what I'm talking about."
"I don't know what you're talking about!"
"Relax, you ain't thinkin' straight. It wouldn't be smart to rush into an answer."
"He's one of them!"
"What? One of what?!"
"Look at him, trying to get out of it! You can tell he's one of them!"
"Shut up, Marsh."
"What are you talking about?"
"He's denying it. Tryin' to weasel his way out of it like a gutless little shit!"
"Give him a chance, man. We still don't know if he's the guy."
"Man, didn't you used to be on the first team? Didn't you?"
"No! I swear to God I don't know what you're talking about!"
"Back off, Marsh, you'll drive him nuts."
"Fuck you! Man, he's one of them! We should just put a slug in his head right now."
"Dammit, Marsh, you're going way too far!"
"I'm not one of them! Leave me alone! Get me out of here! What did I do?"
"Bullshit!" Marshall yelled, pushing away Andre, who was trying to restrain him. He thrust his hand into Andre's jacket pocket and pulled out the gun Andre had taken from him earlier. Andre, still off balance, only stumbled. Mr. Brady was still smoking. No one could stop Marshall from firing the gun.
The sound exploded out of the barrel almost before the bullet. The small, metallic room was filled with a decimating wave of sound that slammed into the walls and ricocheted back and forth. The pressure seemed to increase tenfold; it was almost like filling the room with water.
The bullet hit Jack directly above his collarbone and went right through his neck. He couldn't even scream, as blood flew out of his mouth, splattering a foot or two from the gunman's shoes. His breathing became loud and ragged, and his head hung to the right, threatening to throw him off balance. His eyes flickered, desperate for something to focus on, but it looked like he was already having trouble seeing.
Andre had steadied himself, but he was too late. A year might have passed between now and when Marshall fired, for all the good it would have done. The idiot had screwed everything up. Still raging, Andre stormed over to his partner.
"You stupid fuck!" Andre said.
"What? Hey, what?" Marshall replied stupidly.
"Now look what you've done! He'll never talk now. Gimme that!" Andre said, and ripped his own gun from inside his jacket.
He brought the barrel up and took slow, deliberate aim. Jack's eyes flew open and he gave a rough gasp, aspirating flecks of bone. As the shot rang out, he suffered a coughing fit that threw his head forward to meet another bullet, which pushed his left eye aside as it entered his brain. But the captive ended not with a bang but a whimper, crying out pitifully as his body was thrown backward. He was dead before he tipped over in his chair.
Marshall could only stare, until pain erupted on the left side of his face.
"You shit-for-brains son of a bitch!" Andre said, smashing Marshall's jaw with the butt of the gun. "You made it impossible for us to get anything out of him!"
"Ahem," said Mr. Brady from the wall.
"I'm real sorry, Mr. Brady," Andre said. "I tried to stop him but I couldn't get there in time. This dumbass here had to do things his own way!"
The businessman dropped his cigarette and crushed it with his polished shoes. He walked between his accomplices and stood at the edge of the small pool of blood that was forming. The dead man was lying there in a heap, smoke still coming from his head.
"It doesn't matter now," said Mr. Brady. "Whether he was really going to talk or not, he was still one of the first team, and we still had to kill him. There's more of them out there. Eventually we'll get all of them."
He walked over to where Marshall was lying on his back, rubbing his jaw from where he had been pistol-whipped.
"But Andre is right. You handled that abominably. You will shape up."
"Yes, sir," Marshall said, looking like he was afraid of being shot himself.
Mr. Brady rolled up the sleeve of his suit and looked at his watch. "I'm sorry, Andre, I have a conference to get ready for. I'll be back tonight. I'm afraid you'll need to get another one of them, since this one wasn't any use. But after that, if you want to be done with this, you will be."
"Yeah, I know," said Andre, shaking his head. "It was our fault anyway. So...who's the next target?"
Mr. Brady pulled a notebook out of his pocket and started flipping though it. After a few seconds his face lit up, and he ripped out a page. He handed it to the black man.
"That's the next one. Name, address, everything is there. Have this one here by six o'clock. Oh, and dispose of that mess in the landfill." He gestured toward Jack's body. "Keep the new one here until I return, and wait for me. I'll expect you to do this right at that time, Marshall."
"Yes, sir," Marshall grunted.
Mr. Brady gestured for Andre to lean down so he could whisper something to the black man. "Remember," Mr. Brady said quietly, "they were corrupt. They betrayed me, and they betrayed your father when he wanted to get out, Andre. They deserve to die."
Andre nodded, and the satisfied-looking Mr. Brady left. Marshall and Andre sat the dead man up in his chair.
"Sorry, Jack, looks like the party's over for you," Andre said. "What Pops would've said if he could see me now..."
"What do we do now?" Marshall asked.
"Get some towels and clean up the blood. I'm gonna find a garbage bag or something."
The truck pulled up outside the local landfill. Marshall and Andre exited and grabbed a large, black bag out of the bed. They swung it a few times to gain momentum, then tossed it over the fence. It landed in a huge pile of God-knows-what.
"Smells like my old neighborhood," Marshall said, screwing up his face.
"Yeah, well we wouldn't even have to be here if you hadn't gone stone cold crazy on that poor sucker," Andre shot back. "Goin' off about them like that, Jesus Christ."
"Come on, man! The boss hired them to clean this place up, and they stabbed him in the back! It's our damn job to give 'em what they deserve."
"I'm not goin' there," Andre said, and climbed back into the truck. Marshall followed. "All I'm sayin' is that you're way too into the whole thing."
Andre put the car in gear and they started driving away.
"Don't you hate them?" Marshall asked. "They're the enemy!"
"Man, I'll tell you something about the enemy," Andre said. He would have continued, but he saw something in his rear-view mirror that made him hit the brakes as hard as he could.
Marshall started complaining, but Andre jerked around in his seat and looked out the back of the car. There were two police cars with their lights flashing pulling up to the spot they had been in only minutes before. The cops were piling out of their cars and starting to examine the scene.
"Christ, man, you think they saw us?" Marshall asked, panicked.
"Nah," Andre said. "If they had they'd be coming after us. But they definitely know something's down there...how the hell did they find out?"
Marshall didn't even have a shrug to offer in response, only a blank and stupid expression.
It was about six o'clock when Andre made it back to the garage. He looked around to make sure no one was watching, and stepped inside. Marshall was sitting there, watching a comedy show on an old TV.
"Here, dinner is served," Andre said, tossing Marshall a bag of take-out. He looked at the TV Marshall was watching. "Where'd you get that?"
"Lifted it." Andre didn't want to know.
Marshall took the food and began to eat, ignoring the muffled noises coming from the rear of the station. He was laughing at the TV. Marshall's mad-scientist laugh was very unnerving. He switched the TV to the news.
"What the hell?" Marshall said with a mouthful. "I was watching that!"
"Shut up," Andre said. "The boss is on the tube."
He turned up the volume, and they noticed that the picture on the screen was apparently some kind of political forum. A man was sitting there behind a table, holding up a pack of papers and speaking into several microphones.
"...From today's speech by Mayor Matthew Brady," said the telecaster. When her voice stopped, they could hear their boss' voice.
"This poor man was obviously tortured by very sick individuals," said Mr. Brady. "His body was cut up, stuffed into a garbage bag, and tossed into the dump like yesterday's garbage. And as we speak, the criminals who murdered him could be in your neighborhood. Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot allow this in our fair city! I cannot stress this enough. And as part of my new, tougher stance on crime, I will be creating a special task force to confront this problem in our city."
"Is he talking about us?" Marshall asked his companion.
Andre, however, did not respond. His gaze was fixed, unblinking and unreadable, on the two-dimensional image of his superior. A bomb had gone off inside his brain, and it took him a long time to notice that Marshall was yelling at him and waving his arms.
"I said, 'Is the boss talking about us?'" Marshall yelled.
Andre grimaced. "Yeah."
"Well, what the hell?"
Andre didn't say anything for a while. All he could think about was that day he'd come to Mr. Brady, his father's blood still all over his hands...the day Mr. Brady had started the second team. The only thing he could say to his partner was:
"My Pops wanted off the first team and ended up dead. That was when he started the second team. Then I wanted off the second team...he's startin' the third team!"
Marshall looked at him sidelong for a few seconds, then frowned. He threw his food across the near-empty room and kicked the stand the TV was on, sending it crashing to the floor. Andre watched with detached curiosity.
The first team didn't betray Pops, Andre thought. It was the boss...he told them to! And then he had me start cleanin' up the evidence. Well, son of a bitch...
Marshall was rubbing his forehead, like he had a headache or something. Even though the white man hadn't been on the second team for very long, if the third team was anything like the second, he knew what that meant.
"Well, fuck, now what do we do?" Marshall said.
Andre shrugged. "Fuck him. We ditch. If he shows up, we ain't here, that's the end of it."
Marshall seemed to be doing math stupidly in his head, and finally registered a look of acceptance. Then he turned to his partner and gestured over his shoulder with his gun.
"And what about her?"
Andre looked in the direction Marshall had pointed. There was a woman bound and gagged, tied to the blue chair. Her cheeks were broken and soaked with tears, her neck was bruised, and she continued to squirm and whine.
"You want I should-?" Marshall waved his gun at her.
Andre looked from the gun to the woman to the bloodstain on the floor where the last poor bastard had landed, and back to the gun again.
"Nah, put that shit away."
He strolled over to their captive, pulling out a pocketknife. She squealed in fear even as he cut her ropes and pulled the handkerchief out of her mouth.
"Now get the fuck out of here," he said, waving his knife at the woman. "Don't come back."
"But she's the enemy..."
Wordlessly, the woman ran out and was gone.
Andre had to flash a sardonic grin as he watched her go. Marshall would have to learn. "There's plenty of enemies to go around. You don't need to kill them all."
Soon their truck was lost among a sea of headlights. It was about the only thing they had left, but it would be good enough. After all, if you couldn't expect loyalty from a truck, who could you expect it from?