Glass flew everywhere with the first volley of gunfire, then three more bursts blew plaster all over my kitchen. Whatever kind of gun the shooter was firing, it was semi-automatic and I’d stake my life it was military issue. The Whisper held me to the floor, then faded out of sight. I could still feel his glove over my mouth.
Silence followed. I imagined that the sniper was waiting for the dust to clear before shooting again. I hadn’t even turned the lights on when I came home, so I didn’t understand how he knew I was there. Then I remembered that strange red dot that I’d walked right in front of.
“M4 Carbine with laser sight,” the Whisper said. “They’ve gone way off-era for you, sugar. Stay on the floor. I’m going to see how many of them are out there.”
I started to ask what he meant by how many until it clicked. Instead of one assassin, there might be a whole hit squad. Mystery man’s orders or not, damned if I was going to stay put, but I did stay on the floor. My bedroom didn’t have any windows facing the sniper’s line of fire, so I crawled on my elbows across the glass-strewn kitchen to what I hoped was a safer location.
Besides, I had a clue what the killer was after and I meant to get to it first.
Thank God for basic training and coat sleeves. I made it to the bedroom without doing worse than ruining my rented suit. Once it was safe to get to my knees, I crawled to where I’d hidden Hugo’s reel of tape. Keeping it had probably been a stupid thing to do, but I didn’t want anyone at the Street to get caught with it if the Feds came snooping around again. Being shot at in my home was something I hadn’t envisioned, but like an idiot I’d assumed that the bad guys didn’t know I had it.
At least I hadn’t left it on my night stand. I pried a loose board from under my bed where I usually kept my spare cash. There were forty bucks and change; I grabbed the money and squeezed the tape into my right jacket pocket.
There was a pok from my bedroom wall. Still crouching, I looked over my shoulder. There it was again: a faint pok and a sound of crumbling mortar. The sniper was doing what… testing the strength of his bullets against the building’s brick wall? There came another sound like a cable pulling taught, and my gut screamed to get the hell out of there. There was an old fire escape out the back window. I shoved my bed out of the way so I could get it open.
The damned frame was painted shut.
Somewhere below me, a door slammed. Shouts trickled up through the floorboards. So did a gunshot. Closer to home, there was that sound of a cable again. I froze, unable to decide if I should hide under my mattress or in the closet.
A man in black emerged through the wall like a ghost. He hung in the air for a moment as if he’d swung in like Tarzan, then landed on the floor with a well-practiced crouch. His huge black gun was as much like my old service rifle as a battleship to a rowboat. A needle of red like a science fiction death ray extended from what should have been the targeting sight. He swung the weapon around until it shone in my eyes, and squeezed.
Someone grabbed my ankles and the world exploded on full automatic. I felt each bullet pass through me like a hiccup and the chest of drawers behind me flew apart in the barrage, but there was no pain, no blood, no holes in my body. Was I already dead? I could feel myself getting lighter. Then I realized I couldn’t breathe.
I gasped like a fish as my lungs shrank in. The assassin cursed and reached for a knob on his belt. On pure reflex I reached out, gasping for help, but the hands that gripped my ankles yanked me down through the floor.
It was like sliding on ice. One moment the room around me flew upward, and the next I was in the apartment below. The Whisper fell with me, more solid than I’d ever seen him. Beneath the white coat was a black belt with knobs and dials just like my upstairs assailant. He let go of me and I slammed to the floor, suddenly solid as a rock. I took in a desperate breath, my lungs working again and thirsty for air. I pulled myself to my knees, and for the first time I truly looked the Whisper in the face.
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The Whisper’s skin glistened like black oil. His eyes were bulging black domes three inches across. His mouth was a gaping maw filled with quivering black worms. A red light blinked from between those terrible eyes, the same shade as the beam of death from the assassin’s gun upstairs.
“Quiet!” His voice no longer a hoarse whisper, it was still garbled and muffled. But how could that coiling horror of a mouth emulate human speech?
We weren’t alone in the room. The mother of the family who lived below me looked at the both of us and shrieked. Two children we’d almost landed on darted away and cowered behind her.
“Get out!” I shouted. Above us, the hit man in black descended through the ceiling feet-first. The Whisper faded partially out of sight, erasing that monstrous face. He pulled out a handgun as black as the assassin’s own rifle, aimed, and opened fire. The blast struck our attacker in the chest and blew him backward through the undamaged wall.
I didn’t wait around to see if more were coming. Instead, I jumped to my feet and yanked the apartment door open. “Lady, get your kids out of here.” They almost tripped over themselves rushing out, then a man in a stained tee shirt stomped in from the next room and roared.
“Who the hell is in my—”
The assassin clubbed him from behind and shoved him out of the way as he fell. The shooter didn’t even bother to aim; he just held his gun low like in a gangster movie and sprayed the room with bullets. The last thing I heard was a whine like a Gatling gun. The Whisper tackled me, and everything went black.
We fell through vacuum. Once again I couldn’t breathe. Gray rooms, gray walls, and gray earth passed by. My insides shriveled and my skin grew tight as my blood tried to boil its way out of my body. There was nothing, nothing in this empty black space except me and the Whisper. I could see my reflection like Munch’s “Scream” in his giant, black eyes.
He gripped my shirt and tie and held me close though I tried to struggle away. With his other hand he holstered his gun and pulled something out of his pocket that looked like a fistful of snakes. I flailed and tried to smack him away, but without any leverage my blows were weak. He backhanded my face, and while I was stunned he shoved the writhing mass into my mouth.
My lungs reinflated and the pain that wracked my body narrowed to a piercing throb in my temple. The Whisper held a finger where his mouth should have been to shush me, then made a gesture for me to wait. He pointed to a dial on his bandolier, the one that seemed to control when he faded in and out of reality. I took several deep breaths, then nodded that I’d calmed down.
He turned the knob and the world solidified around us. We’d fallen all the way to the basement, where the only light was a faint glow from the furnace. When once again the weight of terra firma pressed beneath us, the Whisper let me go and dialed slightly out of existence.
“You can take the breather out,” he said.
I spat the ball of tubes into my hand and wiped them off on my coat. Now that I could think straight, I saw that it was made of some kind of rubber.
“What is this?”
“When you phase out, everything passes through you, not just solid matter. My mask filters the air back into phase so I can breathe. Breathing comes in handy. That thing in your hand is a replacement filter.”
“So that’s not your real face?”
He cackled. “What, did you think I’m some kind of Martian?”
“That, or you’ve got two squids having sex for a head.”
He held up a hand, then pulled out his gun. Someone walked slowly on the floor above us.
“They must not have known which apartment was yours. Otherwise they would have waited inside to kill you when you got home.”
“That’s nice.” I spoke as quietly as I could. “How many are there?”
The Whisper took aim at the ceiling. “It was a two man team. There’s just the one now. I took care of the other on the stairs.”
And now that there was a dead body in my building not a whole day after having my car shot up, there was no way the cops wouldn’t drag me in for questioning.
“Who are they?” I said. “Bordani’s security firm?”
“They’re JANUS. Probably not actual members, though. Hired mercenaries using JANUS equipment.”
“Like yours, you mean.” It was pretty obvious that the Whisper and the bad guys shopped at the same hardware store. My friend didn’t answer at first.
“It’s a little more complicated.”
“I’m sure it is.”
The footsteps continued overhead. They would stop for a moment, then pace four or five steps.
Someone was hunting.
“Are you JANUS? Or ex-JANUS, maybe? You got some personal vendetta against your old buddies?”
“Do you really want to fend for yourself?” he countered. “Because if you don’t want my help, I’ll leave you to it.”
“I’m just asking questions. I’m a reporter. We hate cryptic.”
“You were a soldier too, right?” Without waiting for an answer, the Whisper dialed fully back into view, reached behind his belt, and pulled out a second gun. He flipped it around and passed it to me hilt-first. It was shaped vaguely like my old Army Colt, but it was solid black, an inch shorter, only half as heavy, and apparently made of some kind of plastic.
“Is this a toy?”
“It’s a Glock. I’ll show you how to field strip it later. The safeties disengage automatically when you pull the trigger, so just point and shoot. The magazine holds seventeen rounds.”
“Shhh.” The Whisper waved me to the far corner of the room, then faded himself back to half-transparency. He took aim at the ceiling again and fired four shots. The bullets passed through the floor above without leaving a mark.
The muffled thunder of a machine gun followed. There was no damage below, but the Whisper quickly backpedaled away from the spot where he’d been standing. I guess I was out of the equation. For the moment, these two with their super-weapons and comic book powers were only gunning for each other.
The hit man dropped through the floor and landed in a crouch. This time I looked at him and not his gun. He wore a form-fitted black outfit that covered his whole body, even his head. His face was obscured behind solid, black glass with a protruding shield around his jaw (and presumably his “breather”). There was a dimple in his chest where the Whisper had shot him before. He must have been wearing some kind of bulletproof vest.
The Whisper opened fire. The man in black shot back; the burst was deafening in the tiny basement. I had him at a different angle, so with the Glock and put three bullets in his side.
They passed right through.
He swiveled around to face me, and once again I stared down that futuristic barrel of death. A shot rang out from the Whisper, this time tearing off the dials on the assassin’s “phasing” belt. Caught between the two of us, our assailant glanced down at his ruined equipment. He was now completely solid.
I took a step forward and shot him in the face.
His head snapped back and he crumpled to the ground. I ran to the body and kicked his rifle away. His mask was still on, and though the glass was shattered it was merely impacted – my shot had bounced off. I stuffed the Glock in my pants and lifted the man’s mask off. He had blond hair, a square jaw, and a freshly broken, bloody nose. Otherwise, he was still breathing.
At point blank range, the Whisper pointed his gun at the man’s unprotected head. He hesitated just long enough for me to register what he was going to do, and I shoved his hand away just as he pulled the trigger. The blast so close deafened me on that side.
“What the hell? You’re going to kill him?”
“He’s as good as dead already. JANUS won’t let one of its agents be captured.”
“We can question him. We can turn him over to the police. We can… Do you smell that?”
I doubt whether he could smell anything through that horror show of a gas mask. But I knew what it was: too much gunfire in a dangerous room for bullets.
“Gas! This place is gonna blow!”
The Whisper grabbed me for the third time that night, and we phased out just as the heater exploded.
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In Korea, the closest I ever got to the action was once when a stray mortar set fire to a village that my convoy had stopped at for the night. We set up a bucket brigade while our radio officer called in the enemy’s position, but the most we were able to do was slow the flames long enough for the villagers and their animals to get out before their homes were consumed.
That was a world away. This was here and now.
The Whisper and I watched from behind a dumpster in an alley across the street. The fire department was surprisingly fast to arrive, but even then all they could do was to keep the blaze from spreading to other buildings. From the shouts of the woman who lived below me, I gathered that everyone had escaped except her husband, the guy my assassin had clubbed unconscious. It was all I could do to keep from throwing up. For all I knew, it was my bullet that ruptured the gas line. Granted, most of the shooting had been done by the guy trying to kill me, but he wouldn’t have even been there – and my neighbor would still be alive – if I hadn’t gotten involved in this mess.
The Whisper became solid enough to put a hand on my shoulder. A temptation to drink myself silly presented itself for consideration, but I rejected it. There was too much rage. It boiled so much that I shook.
Who were these bastards who would burn several families’ home to the ground? Who were these worthless sons of bitches who believed that their own petty schemes were worth this kind of suffering? Who were these scumbags with so little humanity that they would wreck peoples’ lives just for their own gratification?
The Whisper knew.
“Tell me about JANUS,” I said. “God fucking damn it, tell me now.”
“You’re not ready to hear it. I’m sorry to hold back, but that’s the honest truth. I think you’d believe me, but I don’t think you could take it if I told you where they came from and why. All this…” He gestured at my home, now engulfed in smoke and fire. “…you, your friend Harvey, the thing with Aranjuez, it’s just the barest tip of their operation, one small wheel in a giant machine that’s been running longer than… Longer than JANUS even knows.”
“But you’re one of them, right? You’re one of the assholes who did this. You have to be.”
“I’m NOT.” His fury crackled through the static of his voice. “Don’t even think that. I’m not, I will not be a part of this. At most I’m a… No, not even that. No, there are things in life you can’t help, and there are things you can. And what I can help is that I am not JANUS and I never will be.”
He was babbling, and protesting a little too much, methinks. Nevertheless, there was passion there, and hatred, and thank God it was on my side.
“Hey, it’s okay. I’m sorry. I’m upset too, right? And I thought, well, since you and the other guy can both walk through walls…”
“No, you’re right. I do have a connection to JANUS, but it’s not what you’re probably thinking. I’m not an ex-henchman, or enemy defector, or anything. But yeah, I stole some of their gear when I had the chance. A prototype phase belt – the only one that can turn you invisible, by the way – and weapons. Lots of weapons.”
“Like this?” I held up the gun he’d given me.
“Hang on to it. I don’t have another clip on me, but you should have plenty of rounds left. If we’re very, very lucky, JANUS might think you’re dead, at least for the rest of the night. Have you got any cash?”
“Then hole up somewhere cheap and shady. I’ll be in touch when I can.”
“What about Leslie and Farnsworth? Will JANUS be gunning for them too?” I’m ashamed to say that it didn’t cross my mind until then that they might be in danger.
“I don’t know. I’ll check and make sure they’re safe. You better take care of yourself before you faint.”
“Hey Whisper. What’s really going on with this Aranjuez thing? Could you at least tell me that?”
“I honestly don’t know. I don’t know their plans, Allan. I only know what they’ve done already. And believe you me, that’s bad enough.”
With that, he disappeared.
I found a cash-only dive on U Street. A narrow flight of stairs between a pawn shop and a second hand clothes boutique led to three stories of tiny rooms, rickety beds, and questionable light bulbs. The place was so sleazy there was a fair chance I might be mugged while going to the bathroom, but I doubted that anyone looking for me would go there until they turned over every other rat hole in the District of Columbia.
Rooms were a dollar a night. I gave the hefty, unshaven clerk a fiver and asked him not to bother me for a while. Halfway down the hall, I turned and went back.
“Hey, buddy,” I said. “You got a typewriter anywhere? And paper?”
He stared like I’d spoken Russian, then lifted his sagging bulk and lumbered to a storage closet. There came a knock, and a bang, and a scrape, then he heaved himself back to the counter and dropped a scuffed up, twenty year old Royal on a stack of crinkled pages.
“Five dollars,” he said.
Like I said, mugged on the way to the bathroom. Damned if I was going to ask this guy if he had a toothbrush. I flattened the pages against my jacket and cradled the typewriter under my arm.
My room had a stool and a school desk next to the bed. I set down the typewriter and went over to the window. There weren’t any blinds or curtains, but at least all the panes were in place. Across the street a theater marquis advertised a new Gary Cooper western. Below it was a boarded up newsstand. In about five hours, it would open with new editions of the Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the New York Times. The Washington Street would be going to press for a Tuesday sale date. The deadline for the next issue was Friday morning.
If this JANUS group was scared enough to come gunning into my home, it could only be for one reason. The Glock wouldn’t do me much good, but there was a real weapon at my disposal, and I’d bought it for $5 from the scummiest hotel clerk in the nation’s capital.
I fed the first sheet into the Royal and started typing.
LAWYER DEAD IN CONSPIRACY COVER-UP Hollywood attorney Hugo Harvey met his end on Friday, October 10, in or around a tavern named Happy Jack’s in Arlington, Virginia, after crossing the country from his native Los Angeles. He came to D.C. on a personal mission to uncover secrets he had learned regarding the actions of a mysterious cabal with apparent connections to both organized crime and officials in our own government. Before his demise he delivered to this reporter an audio recording of a conversation in which two men discuss the impending murder of a foreign dignitary, President Diego Aranjuez of San Magin. The purpose of this assassination, and what these conspirators hope to gain by it, were unknown to Mr. Harvey and have yet to be revealed.
To Be Continued
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