This article, K21 - Weary Sojourn, is still being written by its owner StrangerThings. They apologise for the inconvenience.
“Will you being staying long, sir?” Says the customs agent in that sickly sweet, slightly condescending tone indicative of desk-bound officers and receptionists the world over.
“Maybe a few weeks.” I reply. “Just wanna take in all the sights before the holiday season’s over, y’know?”
The agent nods absentmindedly, having paid attention to about half of what I said, and looks over my passport once again. His scrutiny is all for show, of course, my identity was already verified a dozen times over from the moment I stepped off the landing strip; such is life within a surveillance state. But he can’t just let me off easy. After all, I’m a dirty foreigner daring to set my filthy boots upon sovereign European soil. So he checks my papers again. And again.
“Well, everything seems to be in order.” He finally concludes, stamping my twelve-month visa and sliding it and my passport to me from behind a sheet of bulletproof glass. “Welcome to Paris, Mr. Ben-Levitz.”
I graciously accept my expertly forged documents and repress a sigh at my latest alias. One of these days, I’m going to snap, sit down Event Horizon’s IT staff at gunpoint, and have a long conversation with them about the key differences between Israeli and Yiddish naming conventions.
Until then, I continue my day job, and make my way out of the airport. The brisk Parisian climate hits me like a fist to the gut as the automatic doors close behind me. The smoke-scented air practically hums with activity, from the foot traffic, the blaring of the Eurowolf vidscreens, and the barely-audible electronic buzz of enough hidden cameras to make George Orwell turn over in his grave. Neo-Renaissance style high rises crowd the skyline, shiny new facades to cover up the rotting husk that once was a majestic city.
Not that I’m one to judge. It’s said rotting husk that’s going to ensure my success.
I catch a rail tram and mull over my latest assignment. My target’s name is Clayton Argider, age fifty-five, caucasian, standing at five foot eleven, just shy of one-hundred and sixty pounds. According to the dossier I read on the plane ride (private jet; EHSC payroll does has some benefits), Argider’s an executive of the Euro Zone branch of Calypso Industries, or at least he was, until he pissed off the wrong people. Apparently he’d been involved in quite a bit of corporate espionage, selling secrets to NODE, DhanaTech, and of course, Event Horizon, in order to line his own pockets for years on end. As you can imagine once all his girlfriends found out about each other, they all wanted his head on a platter, but Argider was smarter than the average rat. He spent a considerable amount of his ill-gotten gains in order to go to ground in his native Sector, and no one’s seen him since.
That is until someone matching his description was caught on camera strolling through Paris’ Beta Zone not three days ago. EH commtechs swiped the footage off the Euro Affairs Intelligence’s database and soon after the Boss gave me a call. Now, here I am. All I need now is to get dressed for the occasion.
A automated voice crackles through ancient speakers as the tram slows to a halt. “Now arriving. Mind the gap.”
The Paris I step out into now is markedly different than the one presented to all the wealthy tourists. At ground level the skyscrapers blot out most of the daylight, leaving everything down here cloaked in a sort of permanent twilight. Refuse litters the wayside, as do vagrants, sifting through trash in search of their next meal, or their next victim. As I march down a derelict avenue the air is beginning to congeal with a lot more odors than just smoke. It’s oddly comforting.
I arrive at the corner of 197 Place Tillon, ancient, crumbling wreck of a building long since marked off for renovation by spools of bright yellow warning tape. No running water, no electricity, and no cameras, making it perfect for hiding smuggled caches of equipment for later use. Like I said, rotting husks. Useful if you know how to sift through their entrails correctly.
Stepping past the threshold I proceed to remove the mouldering floorboards in the ground floor living room. Lying underneath, already covered in dust and dead spiders, is a locked, lead-lined strongbox containing the equivalent of my Sunday best. A bit paranoid I know, especially given the European Commonwealth’s lax stance on, well, pretty much everything. Still, there are a few items in there that might’ve raised some eyebrows in customs. Better safe than sorry. I haul the box out and pop the lid.
Apparel goes on first. Kevlar tac vest, check. Shoulder holster, check. Belt sheath, double check. Ankle holster, triple check. Finally, over it all goes the trench coat, the world’s most underrated tactical garment. Now for the good stuff. The Rhino Automatic Battle Pistol (hello beautiful), gets the seat of honor in the shoulder rig, along with two clips of spare ammo. The combat knife goes in the sheath, pressing comfortably against the small of my back. Alongside it are few more spare clips, the RABP’s silencer, and a pair of flashbangs. Last but not least is the ankle gun, holstered exactly where you think it is.
Now I feel less naked.
First step of my mission: pay a visit to the man that helped get my gear into the country in the first place. Roch LeClair, age thirty-six, caucasian, standing at exactly six feet, weighing in at about one-hundred and forty-five pounds. A small-time smuggler and Fire Elemental, better known in the French underworld as “Roch le Cafard” (literally Roch the Roach) for his surprising survivability. Parisian authorities have cracked down on his operations no less than six times in the last five years and yet, somehow, le Cafard always manages to bounce back. Because of this he has his finger on the pulse when it comes to all the various shady goings-on in his city. If anyone has a clue as to where Argider’s holed up, it would be him.
My dossier says he’s currently running his illicit business out of a closed-down parking lot bordering the massive ditch that once was the River Seine. As I approach the crumbling concrete edifice, two thugs (for what else can they be?) confront me.
“Private property. Start walkin’ the other way.” Says Thug Number One, a rat-faced individual fingering the handle of a knife tucked into the waistband of his tattered jeans. Meanwhile, Thug Number Two, a barrel-chested man of obvious african descent, crosses his arms and scowls.
I resist the urge to crack a grin at their attempts at intimidation. “Easy. I’m here to see your boss. Tell him a Mr. Jones wants to have a word.”
Thug One looks quizzically at Thug Two. Thug Two looks back and shrugs. I look at them both, bemused. I can practically hear the gears turning in their heads. Eventually Thug One relents, muttering “keep an eye on ‘im” to his partner before departing into the lot. A few awkward moments pass, with Thug Two scowling like his life depends on it all the while.
Eventually Thug One returns, surprise evident on his rat face, and I’m ushered in. Inside it’s a veritable beehive of activity as a dozen undesirable-looking types sort, stack, and transport parcels of various shapes and sizes. Everything from smartphones to switchblades are on display here, all neatly packed into containers and loaded onto all manner of trucks and cars with surprising efficiency. Le Cafard is right in the middle of it all, inspecting a box of what looks for all the world like spare android limbs.
He turns to face me, a wiry but not unhandsome individual, resplendent in cargo pants and a matte black wife beater, his bare arms a tapestry of multicolored tattoos and more than a few burn scars. Lively green eyes observe me from under an unruly mop of dark hair.
“Il faut dire, que vous ne ressemblez pas à un ‘Jones’.” He says, by way of greeting.
“And you don’t look like a cockroach. Mind if we switch to English?” I reply.
“But of course.” Offers Roch, his accent laying thick on the vowels. He takes pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, places one in his mouth, and lights it with a spark from his finger. My gun hand unconsciously twitches. I had a bad experience with a fire Elemental once.
“So, Monsieur Jones, can I do anything else for you or have you just come here to congratulate me on a job well done?” He blows a lazy stream of smoke towards the crack-ridden ceiling. “Thanks isn’t necessary, but it is appreciated.”
I get right to the point. “I’m looking for Clayton Argider.”
With that announcement, Roch’s eyes widen ever so slightly. It’s a subtle tell, but to me he might as well be wearing a holographic sign proclaiming “I KNOW SOMETHING”. Now to see which alibi he goes with.
“Never heard of him.” He responds. Ah, that one’s a classic.
“Bullshit. Nothing illegal goes on here without you knowing something."
Le Cafard sighs dramatically, dropping the fag end of his spent cigarette and crushing it underneath his shoe.
“You know, it isn’t wise to call a man a liar inside his own place of business.”
He nods and something cold, metallic, and gun-like his pressed into the back of my skull.
“We’re done here.” Roch says flatly. “Goodbye, Monsieur Jones. My friend here will see you out.”
Judging by his tone, out most likely means face-first into a dumpster somewhere past the former Latin Quarter. I raise my hands above my head in surrender and let out a sigh of my own. This could have been so much simpler.
“That’s right, hands up. We’re goin’ for a walk mate.” Says the presumed wielder of the gun from behind me. Is that Thug One? Well at the very least this will be somewhat cathartic.
Placing one hand on my shoulder, he spins me around and frog-marches me towards the exit. Halfway there, he makes the critical mistake of letting me move ahead by just a few precious centimeters, removing his firearm from my head. I don’t hesitate, ducking down into low spinning kick and sweeping Thug One’s legs out from under him, even as my hand plunges into my coat to withdraw the RABP. With the time for subtlety well and truly over, I spray an arc of bullets at full auto, hoping to scatter Le Cafard’s crew.
It works. Crates and cars are perforated with forty-five millimeter holes, along with anyone who didn’t take cover fast enough. I switch to semi-auto, stand up, and shoot my prone opponent right in his rat face before ducking behind a concrete support column. From there I duck and weave my way through the maze of contraband, punctured crates spilling out all manner of merchandise onto the grimy floor. Gunfire sounds around me, but it’s unfocused and sporadic. Le Cafard’s men are still reeling from that opening salvo, so much so that most of them have lost track of me. A pair of particularly astute goons round the corner towards me, one armed with a pistol, the other with an almost machete-sized bowie knife. I take out the pistol-wielder first, blowing out his brainpan in a burst of crimson mist. I pivot my sights to the knife-wielder and- click.
Clip’s dry. This is what I get for switching firing modes mid-combat. I can see knife goon grinning at his luck even as he rushes me, his blade gleaming in the half-light. He swings it vertically towards my head, but I sidestep to the left and drive my right knee directly into his solar plexus. His own momentum forces the air out of his lungs, and as he doubles over wheezing I eject my spent magazine, load a fresh one, and put him out of his misery. No more mistakes. This time I’m counting.
Out of the corner of my eye I spy Roch making a break for it, but just as I’m about to line up when a shot a trio of rocks speed through the air towards me like angry fist-sized wasps. Surprised, I duck out of the way a millisecond too late. One concrete chunk flies past mere inches away from my head, another misses entirely, breaking through the window of a flatbed truck with a crash of shattering glass, but the third finds its mark and hits me center mass.
The sensation is comparable to being hit by a miniature battering ram. My vest takes some of the edge off, but the impact alone is enough to knock me flat on my back. Gritting my teeth at the pain, I prop myself up on a nearby fender to see, shock of all shocks, Thug Two. Naturally he’s still scowling like there’s no tomorrow, musclebound arms stretched to either side as pieces of the pavement break off from the floor around him, orbiting above his head in a halo of jagged debris.
So, le Cafard has other Elementals on the payroll. Oh joyous day.
I dodge as the car I was just leaning on is reduced to scrap metal by an airborne avalanche. Deprived of any viable cover, I take a gamble and fire a tightly-grouped cluster of shots at Thug Two. He reaches out with open hands, as if he means to catch the bullets. In a sense he can, as Earth Elementals can manipulate trace amounts of earth inside some metals, including, for example, the trace amounts of earth inside of brass-jacketed pistol rounds. Except, the RABP doesn’t fire typical brass-jacketed rounds. Its ammunition is exclusively made out some kind of carbon-based polyalloy patented by EH for their Security Cartel’s private use.
No doubt to his eternal regret, Thug Two wasn’t privy to that particular bit of technical info. Said specialized rounds tear straight through the flesh and bone of his outstretched arms and into his chest. His trademark scowl is replaced by an expression of morbid shock as he falls, bleeding out from a dozen different wounds. I march up beside his body and empty one last round into his skull. If he wasn’t off to join Thug One in Thug Heaven before, he certainly is now.
By the this point most of the smuggler’s “assistants” have scattered to the winds after seeing their heavy hitter go down. I spin around at muffled cough of an engine starting only to see the Roch rush down the driveway opposite to me in another flatbed. I take aim, inhale, and fire at his rear wheels within the span between heartbeats.
Another fun fact about carbon-based rounds: they’re not great for long range, but they’re terrific for armor penetration. My shots pierce through the rear door and fender, popping rubber tires like party balloons. Le Cafard’s vehicle swerves to the right, upends, and skids right out the exit in a titanic, spark-throwing screech of steel on asphalt.
The smuggler crawls out of a shattered window on all fours, not unlike a cockroach. He stands up on shaky legs, blood pouring down his face from a painful-looking gash on his forehead. Red-orange flames begin to collect in his palms as I advance on him, gun holstered. He’s clearly in no state to bring his literal firepower to bear but he swings a fistful of flames at me anyway. I catch the blow on my forearm and reverse him into a rear wristlock, folding his tattooed arm behind him in an audible creak of hyperextended cartilage. With my left hand I grab him by the hair and piston him face-first into his own car. Bone impacts against the edge of the inverted door, and the door wins the day. A bit brutal, I know, but an unconscious Elemental is a less dangerous Elemental.
Roch LeClair slumps against the wreck at an odd angle as I check his pulse and survey my handiwork. Four men dead, several more wounded, no doubt thousand of euros worth of smuggled items irreparably damaged, and le Cafard subdued for seventh time in his career.
“Just another day in the life.” I mutter, slinging Roch’s limp body over my shoulder. “Just another day.”
The speed in which I secure all the materials I need to set up my little improvised interrogation is a testament to the diversity of le Cafard’s products. Within minutes I’ve acquired a sturdy wooden chair, some plastic twist ties, a liter of Russian vodka, and a slightly battered flint lighter. I prop Roch up in the chair in the center of the lot, secure his hands to said chair with the twist ties, and twist the top off one of the bottles. I then proceed to pour the bottle’s ethanol-smelling contents directly on top of the Fire Elemental’s head. The moment the clear droplets touch his gaping head wound he splutters awake.
“Ow. Baise. Baise!”
I don’t stop until the vodka bottle runs dry and Roch is thoroughly soaked from head to toe, fat tears of red-tinged alcohol sliding down face and neck. He blinks the liquor out of his eyes and stares at me, then down at himself, then back to me with murder in his gaze.
“Enfoiré. You think I can’t get out of this?”
I merely hold up the now empty glass liter. “I wouldn’t try burning your way out. Judging by those scars on your arms, I’m guessing you can make fire, but you're far from fireproof.”
The smuggler’s forest-colored eyes dart around the wreckage of his base, coming to a rest on the cooling bodies of his former associates.
“You didn’t kill all my boys.” He challenges. “You think they won’t come back for me?”
“They’re criminals living in a Sector where vigilante justice is not only allowed, it’s encouraged.” I respond. “You tell me.”
Roch slumps visibly in his seat, his expression having changed from furious to simply exasperated. “Damn. And here I thought you were new to this town. So much for that angle.”
He sits up. “So, what do you want to know?”
I’m momentarily taken aback. “What, just like that?” I say, incredulous.
“Oui, just like that. I’m le Cafard. You think I got that name by holding onto my pride? This isn’t the first time I’ve been tied up and questioned, and it probably won’t be the last.”
Roch doesn’t seem to be bluffing, and his confession would certainly explain how he’s managed to last this long. I decide to humor him, for now.
Straight back to the point then. “Clayton Argider. Spill.” I demand.
Le Cafard, such as he is, leans back and begins his tale. “A few months back some anglais by that name got in touch with me and said that he’d make it worth my while if I made a special delivery for him. I nearly turned him down when said he needed drugs, but these meds turned out to be a bit outside the norm.”
He pauses. “Your guy Argider was looking for… something with a C… Carbo… Carboplatin! Yeah that’s it.”
I raise an eyebrow. “The hell is Carboplatin?”
Roch shrugs, not an easy thing to do when you’re tied to a chair. “Some kinda pharmaceutical drug. I know a guy at Hôpital Necker who’s reliable and doesn’t ask questions, so a set up a trade and boom, ten thousand in the bank.”
“You keep in touch since then?”
“Sometimes he looks me up to ask for some more special meds. I send someone with the goods to 101 Rue des Barres, and he comes back with briefcase full of cash. Just so happens I had a rendezvous planned for tonight.”
“Is that why you tried to take me out?”
Roch smiles sheepishly. “Well, that and Argider paid another five-thousand in advance for me to get rid of anyone who came asking after him. No hard feelings?”
I ponder for a moment. This lead’s turned out to be pretty solid. Too solid, in fact. Better safe than sorry.
The smuggler shifts in his seat, nervous at my silence. "The drop off's going down at 19:00, in case you're wondering..."
I draw Roch’s cigarettes from my coat pocket, and slowly, almost meticulously, select one from the carton and light it with my newly acquired flint lighter. The Fire Elemental looks on quizzically, but before he can voice a question I’m on him in the blink of an eye. I force his mouth open, stick the still-burning cigarette in his mouth, and take a step back.
Le Cafard’s eyes are now well and truly bugging out of his skull with panic, his favorite vice about to become his final one. I can almost see the thoughts racing behind those emerald windows to the soul. He dares not try and spit the cigarette out, for fear it might ignite the vodka puddled at his feet. He dares not speak or plead or even take deep breaths, for fear of it tumbling out of his mouth and into his alcohol-sodden lap. Pure hopelessness dawns across his face as he realizes that all he can do is sit and wait for the end as the fag end slowly burns closer to his face.
“You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?” I say, my tone casual. “You wouldn’t feed me a story you pulled straight out of your ass, right?”
The char is growing longer. He’s visibly trying not to shake, his every sinewy muscle tensed, hands gripping the armrests of the chair so hard the wood creaks. With agonizing slowness Roch shakes his head, cords standing out like cables in his neck.
“You sure? You did just admit you’d say anything to save your own skin. Are you absolutely sure I can trust you?”
Dear god, there are tears collecting in the corners of this hardened outlaw’s eyes. He nods, dipping his head ever so carefully, but that slight movement is enough to dislodge a clot of smoking ash that drops down… into my waiting hand.
Of course I wasn’t going to burn him alive. I’m not a monster. People just tend to be more honest when they’re scared to their wits’ end. Besides, the very act of killing Fire Elemental with fire is a bit too ironic for my tastes. I snatch the cigarette, now little more than a stub of charred paper, out of Roch’s mouth and he heaves out a massive breath. He looks up at me, too bewildered to speak. No doubt I’ve joined the likes of Satan and Stephanie Christielle on the list of people he considers to be pure evil.
“By the way, no hard feelings at all.” I conclude, punctuating my remark with a savage right hook that knocks Le Cafard unconscious for the second time today. His head hangs limply as I saw through his restrains with my knife.
As an afterthought, I toss Roch’s cigarette pack in his lap before I leave.