20 minute read

A sharp breeze stirred up the gutter dirt as Danny crossed the otherwise motionless street. It stung his face, both the sandy debris and the cold air. He pulled his collar up around his face in an attempt at comfort.

He was nervous.

His chest itched where they had shaved. “Best way to make the tape stick!” they said. It was a good thing he was wearing a jacket as he was far too self-conscious about the bulk of the wire he now sported.

It was a small post office in a small seaside town. It was early Saturday morning and no one was about. Danny thought it a great opportunity to take a walk, do some errands and clear his head of the previous evening’s indulgences.

The bells atop the door jingled as he entered. Roberta was at the counter, pouring over the local rag, checking the obituaries — presumably for her own entry. Her family had run this small outlet for generations. Given the remoteness of this little town, village really, the post office was the hub, captained by its current matron, a fixture that everyone called Bert.

He was musing that he had no idea the old gal had it in her to be running a side hustle. She interrupted his thoughts with a gravelly voice thick with morning phlegm.

“G’morning Danny! What brings you out-and-about this fine day?”

Danny, not thinking the day fine at all anymore, forced a smile.

“Hey Bert.”

He hesitated, unsure of himself.

“My stamps are looking a bit square these days, if you know what I mean.”

Bert fixed her gaze on him, trying to measure him in some way. Her own smile evaporated as her demeanor cooled to match the weather.

“Marble cheese”, she spat.

“If you please”, Danny returned. He’d been coached well.

She retreated into the backroom and retrieved a small parcel, wrapped neatly in brown paper and unaddressed. Her hands trembled slightly as she placed it on the counter with a heavy thud.

She leaned forward and held a finger to her lips for him to be quiet. She scrawled on a scrap of paper with the pen chained to the counter.

“Play along”, it read. She wrote furiously as she engaged him in a friendly chat about the weather and politics.

She turned the page around for him to read as the topic changed to town gossip and scandal. He read it quickly and his gorge rose.

“I know about the agents out front. Not real. I know about the wire. Time is short. Package is priceless. Take it to Mary. She’ll know what to do. You’re in danger. Back door. Now.”

Danny looked at Bert, tears and panic now in her eyes. He wondered what her granddaughter had to do with all this. He’d always had a boyish crush on Mary in high school. She’d left shortly after graduation — the annual exodus from a small town in decline. He had no idea where to find her.

“Now!” Bert yelled as she saw the men sprinting across the parking lot on the other side of the street. Something had tipped them off. Her bark shocked Danny in to motion. He fled out the back door just as he heard the bells chime and tinkle.

The post office was backed against the inlet. Out back, he stumbled and rolled down the uneven slope covered in the long brown grass of winter. He was at a dead run along the rocky beach when the shots rang out.

The stitch in Danny’s abdomen screamed at him. It’d been a very long time since he sprinted like that. He made it to the within sight of the family home, his home now, but it didn’t look right. He was certain that with the Company’s men behind him, the only thing in front would be the other party crashers to avoid, the Family, likely Harry and Gillis. He was a little too freaked for their bullshit today. He leaned forward with his hands on his knees, the sweat dripping off his nose as the sputtering rain started to blow in.

He really had no business being in the double-agency game, but he saw no other way out. It was really the nature of deep undercover work. The Company had inserted him in Seamus Flannigan’s organization with the expressed purpose of dismantling his circle of trust from within. What they hadn’t foreseen was that Seamus was on to him right from the start. Danny didn’t figure that out until it was too late and he was in too deep. As the Flannigan’s cleaner, he had far too much blood on his hands. In short, he was compromised.

Possible salvation came from the most unlikely of sources. Johnny Paternao was a Company man if there ever was one. Danny’s grandfather mentored both Johnny and Danny before a stroke took him out, leaving the two young men at odds. Danny ended up with the Irish mob assignment and Johnny picked up a career fast-track with the Company’s research arm.

It was hard to ignore the temptation put forth by Johnny. Wear a wire and collect a package. Finish Seamus’ empire and be released from contract with the Company. Seemed simple enough, but it was disconcerting that Research, and the Company for that matter, was loitering in his home town. There was more to this story but he didn’t care at the time. He agreed to play the game again, knowing outright that it was a devil’s bargain.

He looked at the brown-wrapped package that Bert gave him before Old Hell broke loose. The old gal was likely dead for her efforts. Thank you very much for serving your country, Roberta. It was clear that Seamus had declared war. Whatever this package was, both parties wanted it. What didn’t make sense is what Mary’s role was. What kind of trouble was she mixed up in?

Danny felt the barrel of a gun pressed to his back. Harry said, “Danny, you’re getting’ soft.” Shit. Harry accompanied him to a familiar black stretched SUV that approached. They got in and Seamus handed him a towel from across the seat.

“Did you think it would be this easy, Danny-boy?”

Danny didn’t answer. He knew the old man well enough that the question was rhetorical. He vigorously dried his hair. Harry handed the package to his father, then shouldered his sidearm. It wouldn’t be needed at the moment. This was a time for palaver. Or sermon, depending upon Seamus’ current disposition.

Danny looked at his watch. It was not even mid-morning and already shaping up to be one long day. He let out a huff of breath that he didn’t realize he was holding and relaxed his shoulders. He waited.

Mary wasn’t a big fan of waiting either. She paced the concrete floor of the rail supply shed at the abandoned container dock. The side of the shed was open to the elements, so while she was dry, the rain teemed and mixed with the salt spray of the small, deep harbor. Seamus instructed her to wait here, but he’d been gone for more than an hour.

As the sky darkened with the strengthening storm, Mary felt the temperature drop. She folded her arms, thankful for the thick hoodie she wore, but chastised herself for forgetting her shell. She was accustomed to being better prepared than this. It could be worse, she almost opted for more feminine attire. Jeans and sneaks were the better call.

She stopped wearing a path through the cement, stood at the waterside edge of the shelter and regarded the sea absently. The scent of petroleum and creosote mixed with the briny air that was not altogether unpleasant. It was the smell of growing up and desperately escaping in this dying town. Even though she’d been gone for nearly a decade, there would always be a draw.

It was a week since she left the package with Grammie Bert, its contents only temporarily safe, or so she thought. The Company still pursued her since she lifted her prize from Research. Johnny was probably furious with betrayal, the pretense of their illicit relationship laid bare for the sham it was. She didn’t stick around to witness the fallout. She had her own pursuits, and so did her employer. Time was in short supply. She flushed briefly with anger and self-loathing.

Seamus’ gaudy ride pulled up with a soft squeal of wet brakes. The family idiots, Harry and Gillis, stepped out and hauled another man out of the vehicle. Seamus came last in his quiet way of confident grandeur. Mary’s focus rested on the one person she wasn’t expecting, a shine of recognition lit her eyes. This did not go unnoticed by Seamus.

“Danny?” she said, not quite believing that he was real. She knew he worked for the Company. Frantic to keep control, she pieced together what was happening. They sent Danny to find her and recover their property. Seamus got wind from an anonymous call that they were making a play at the post office. Her grandmother was in danger, so she pleaded with Seamus to interfere. He was only too happy to oblige. She should have known better.

“Bert’s dead, Mary.” Danny broke free of the brothers’ grip as she stumbled. Seamus steadied Harry’s free hand from reaching his clutch. Let them have their moment.

Danny caught her and held her by the shoulders. He lowered his head to make eye contact with her, looking for a sense of her emotional state. She surprised him with her resilience. He let her go and took a half-step back.

“I’m ok, “she said. “I think I already knew. I felt it.” She pressed a fist to her stomach. “Was it Johnny?”

“I think so. What’s going on, Mary? What do you and Seamus need with Company research? What kind of game are you playing, girl?”

“This is no game, Danny.”

“Okay, kids. Hugs and kisses another time” said Seamus. “Open the case, Mary.”

Mary squeezed Danny’s hand and broke their moment of closeness. She shivered reflexively. Danny also felt the loss of heat as the rain washed away her scent. Danny stayed in place under the wary glare of Harry and Gillis. Neither man had drawn their weapons, but he didn’t feel comfortable with challenging them unarmed.

Seamus carefully unwrapped the brown-wrapped package and handed the graphite alloy lockbox to Mary. Plain in appearance, it was heavier than it looked due to a lead lining. Seamus surmised that the latch under the combination lock could easily be snapped, but risking its contents warranted a softer approach.

“Open it, Mary. Johnny and the gang won’t be far off.”

Danny’s mind raced, his blood hot with tension. He knew this wasn’t going to go as planned. There were about to be at least six guns and as many hotheads here at any moment. Seamus had filled him in on what was at stake, and the pretense of his double-loyalties evaporated. The Company simply could not be permitted to recover their research. Mary was given a death sentence by poor genetics. So was Seamus. He was an old man, she was not. That made Danny’s priorities easy to calculate.

Mary’s hands grasped three of the six vials from the medical transport container. The glass was thick and tempered, but the slightly bluish compound inside warmed her hands. Mary allowed herself a brief, thin smile. She was a gifted nuclear biochemist. The Company eagerly recruited her to develop their so-called “super soldier” serum. She had diagnosed her condition long before she uncovered the secret love of Seamus and Bert. It wasn’t much of a stretch. Any immune advantage would give her more time. This was perfect. This was a cure. She embraced her grandfather. “Thank you. Good luck.”

“So little time,” said Seamus, his meaning as mixed as his emotions. “You need to go, maid. Flee.”

She returned back to Danny and handed him the vials to put in his jacket. Her hoody wouldn’t work. Dammit. She spoke quietly to him. “Can you ride?” indicating her motorcycle.

He nodded and laced his hands around the back of her waist and kissed her. “I always wanted to do that”, he whispered. For the second time amid the chaos of the moment she smiled. Danny idled the bike as Mary climbed behind him. It was her turn to embrace as gunfire erupted with a deafening roar. The Company arrived on the scene without any hint of subtlety.

There was no time for helmets as Danny revved the engine and took flight. They hadn’t gained more than a few kilometers when he felt Mary’s grip slacken and her bodyweight shift. He struggled, but couldn’t keep the bike up.

“Mary!” he shouted as the world rotated and tumbled in a spray of mud and rock.

Danny fumbled for his keys in the dark shadow of his front door. He couldn’t control his shaking, his heart pounding in his throat like a frantic war drum. He nearly fell as he gained entry to the safety and quiet of the house.

He listened to the hiss of passing cars on the wet street outside, listening for the wail of sirens to announce their crescendo. He was rewarded with silence.

Confident in the peace of the moment, stolen though it was, he leaned back against the door, closed his eyes and ran his battered fingers through his hair.

“Hey Gramp”, he said to the photo on the telephone table at the foot of the stairs. “We need to talk”.

Danny stood forward and walked cautiously to the kitchen, making mental note of the stiffness and aches that accompanied each step. He’d be sore in the morning — if he made it that long. There was so much yet to do.

He ran the water tepid and gingerly washed the dirt from his hands, careful to not open the rips and cuts of the evening’s exertions. The blood and mud swirled around the porcelain sink that his grandmother spent so many years tending.

Without warning, he took to coughing violently, feeling the sharp pain of something terribly wrong in his abdomen. Dammit. Time was running short.

He spat in the sink, the blackish fluid joining the bright crimson in its stew. It was hard to look at. Quickly, he rinsed the threatening slurry away and turned the water cold. The icy shock on his face brought him back to alertness.

Tearing several sheets of paper towel, he patted himself dry.

Making his way to the sitting room, he scooped up his grandfather’s photo. The grizzled figure was of a robust man no longer in his prime but still quite vibrant. A little boy was at his side and a wooded lake-shore stood vividly at their back. Rods, reels and the trappings of weekend anglers were strewn about a one-night camp.

Danny tucked the frame under his arm, a tight smile of fond memory forming on his lips. He made his way to the liquor cabinet and poured an old rye into a thick crystal tumbler. It felt heavy and comfortable in his hand, like an old friend too long absent.

He sat down on the couch, the room still dark, but brightening with the morning dawn in a plodding way. The glow of the day’s onslaught brought little solace to Danny.

He took a pull of courage and placed the photo on the coffee table in front of him. He felt his mentor’s regard of him pierce his heart with steely judgement.

Danny needed his counsel now more than ever, his world in shambles.

“What would you have done, old man”?

Mary stared up at the night sky that peeked through the canopy of the glade. The stars were out. The storm had passed. She heard shouts and saw the beams of flash-lights wagging back and forth, searching her out.

“Seamus!” she croaked. Not loud enough. Every part of her body hurt. She couldn’t feel her legs. Where was Danny? “Seamus!” This time she managed a little more volume.

“Mary! Where are you?” Seamus voice was frantic.

“Over here.”

The gutter’s underbrush shook as he thrashed through the tangled growth. The warm glow of the light shone on her face. Mary winced.

“Harry, I found her! She’s here!” Seamus smile was a welcome sight to the battered girl. He checked her over for injury. His smile evaporated. Harry joined him. He looked at her with the same fatal concern.

“What is it? I can’t feel my legs. Where’s Danny? Gillis?”

“Gillis is dead.” Harry’s voice wavered a bit as he pronounced the fate of his brother. “Those Company bastards got him.”

Seamus stood up and put a gentle hand on his nephew’s chest. “We’ll get him, Harry.” He turned back to Mary. “I don’t know where Danny is. We saw him on the road stumbling back towards us after the firefight and waved us down. He looked a wreck. He told us where to find you, then he took off.”

Mary nodded as her memory flooded back. Danny was doing what she begged him to do. She tried to sit up. Her arms flamed with pain but still worked. She managed to look down at her mangled legs. There were bits of melted plastic and scorched metal sticking out of her left thigh and calf. She couldn’t see her right leg at all. For all she could tell, it wasn’t even there. Blood, her blood, was everywhere. About ten feet away was the rest of the bike. This sight of the wreck tipped her over the edge. She yelled a primal scream of rage and pain, heedless of the burning in her chest. When she stopped, she began a coughing fit. The men waited for her to settle, wary of the commotion.

Mary looked up at her grandfather. “Don’t sweeten it, Seamus. I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”

“Aye, maid. You’re in rough shape. We can’t move you. We can’t risk taking you to the hospital either. Johnny’s men are already there, I expect. As always, the Company is never far away.”

Mary gingerly laid flat on her back with her arms above her head. It made it easier for her to breathe. “I’m screwed. All this cloak and dagger bullshit, and it’s not the disease that takes me out.”

Seamus crouched beside his grand-daughter and talked low. “There’s still one play to make.”

“No,” she said. “Those three are yours.”

“There isn’t time. You have to take mine. I’ll catch up with Danny later.” They both knew there was no guaranteed. There was nothing more to say. He turned his head over his shoulder and called for Harry. “Fetch me the case from the car.”

Harry returned with the case and handed it to Seamus. He opened it up and inspected the vials. Good. He drew the first injection and put into Mary’s forearm. A diabetic, the old man was pretty comfortable around needles. The second dose went in to her backside. Mary moaned in pain at the manipulation of her battered body.

Seamus was holding up the third vial to the light that Harry was holding, when his story came to an abrupt end. A spray of automatic weapons fire peppered the small clearing dusting up leaves and forest litter into a cloud that rained upon the three souls. Harry flailed as he took the initial volley from standing. Seamus was hit next, as was the vial he was holding. He fell atop Mary dead. The remains of the bluish serum sprayed her face as she stared at the dead man’s gaze. She yelped as more bullets pelted her torso. Then the sky went dark and quiet again.

Danny woke with a start. He didn’t mean to doze off and cursed himself as he sat forward. The coffee table was littered with towels and gauze. The dish of peroxide no longer fizzed. He picked up the bowl and looked at the glass fragments floating in the bloody soup. It had taken him quite some time to pick the broken vials’ shards from his belly and chest. The tumble from the bike crushed them in his pocket. The precious fluid soaked through his shirt. It stung every cut as the serum came in contact with the thin lacerations. He wondered how much of the compound was in him now and what it would do to him. The vials themselves were completely obliterated. There was nothing left. Mary’s share was gone. He failed her. Danny repeatedly clenched and released his hands in uncertainty and worry. Why the hell had he listened to her? She begged him to see this through, to see it finished. Dammit! Why the hell did he leave her?

He pounded his fists on the table and stood up. Danny shook the fog from his head as he made his way to the bathroom. While there, he pulled peeled back the bandages from his abdomen where the worst of the cuts were… gone. Gone? He looked as his hands and arms. Healed. What the bloody blazes was going on? His ribs didn’t hurt. Whatever was going on in his gut was absent. Now that he was up and moving, he acknowledged the truth of it. He was whole. Better than whole really. He felt strong. This wasn’t right.

Mary’s serum. The elixir was supposed to save her and the old bastard from their weird genetic thing. The Company wanted it for, what, ‘field medic in a bottle’? It was more than that, wasn’t it? Some super-soldier crap. And now, Danny had a full dose or more in him. Seamus said it was untested. No one knew it would work. Well, Mary did, he surmised. This was her mission. It was Danny’s mission now too.

He had to go back to the dockyard road and see what was left. He needed to make sure that Seamus found Mary. Seamus was supposed to call him to let him know it was safe. He checked his cell. Nothing. Danny looked at the kitchen clock. The mechanical cat’s tail wagged back and forth. His grandmother loved that stupid thing. Four hours were chewed up and not a word.

Danny went to his grandfather’s lockbox and opened it up. He put on the old man’s leather docker’s clutch and selected a pair of handguns, both Glocks. Finally, he stuffed his pockets with ammunition. He felt the adrenaline course through him as he prepared to leave the house. With one last look at the old photo of softer days, he stepped out and closed door.

He remembered that he had no wheels and was on foot. Danny started off at a loping jog but soon found himself running at a pace that a day ago had been unimaginable. He’d always been fit. That came with the job, but he was never a runner. How did this serum work? It was a so-called cure, were its effects were permanent. What did that mean?

It wasn’t long before he smelled the acrid smoke of burning plastic, gas and roasting meat. His stomach growled and then heaved. It’d been a while since it received attention but this was no garden barbeque. Danny forced his mind elsewhere as he recognized the scene for what it was when it came in view. There was the bike, amid a pile of deadfall, creating a makeshift pyre. Upon it were what he took to be three bodies.

Danny held his sleeve against his face as he approached the fire. The heat was shimmering the air, but the smoke chimneyed up through the clearing into the clear sky. It wouldn’t be long before this place was full of lights, sirens, people and questions. Nothing would be left. He should know. This was a cleaner’s specialty. Seamus had him. The Company had Johnny. Danny picked his way closer to try and dope out who was here. His heart thumped in his chest as his fears were confirmed. Seamus. Harry. And finally, Gillis.

Where was Mary? Danny fell to his knees. It wasn’t grief that rose in him. It wasn’t anguish. It was fury.