Solace, North Dakota, 1999
In Gale’s humble twelve-year-old opinion, there was not much to be said for train yards at night. It had all seemed very poetic at first, the time-dimmed floodlights glistening off of steel tracks, the smells of tar and sulfur as the wooden ties lost the day’s heat, the hulking forms of local skyscrapers that–lit up with the white and blue light of the city–seemed worlds away from the train yard’s golden-hued glow. After an hour or three of sitting on the hard metal roof of the train office and waiting, though, the realities of sore muscles and boredom had chased all the poetry away.
On top of this, her mask–a simple greasepaint affair, usually quite comfortable–was beginning to itch.
She dug in her bag, looking for a distraction. Shifting aside syringes, a crumpled napkin, and a cool rock she’d found yesterday on the street, she was rewarded with the happy crinkle of candy-wrapper plastic. She poured a handful of jelly beans into her mouth, enjoying the clack of their hard shells against her teeth, if not their actual taste. With another orgy of crackling plastic, she held the bag out to Eric.
The cloaked and hooded figure shook his head. Eric–called Bowman while under his mask, as Gale was known as Sparrow under hers–had many strong points. Conversation was not one of them. Gale shrugged, brushed her bangs out of her face, and returned the bag of candy to her purse. Chewing on food, as it turned out, was a poor distraction. Thinking back, she tried going over the facts in her head once more.
Their mark was a man called Asher Bellicose. Ambrose had given them a file on the man a week ago, dropped it off one morning at breakfast and left before any kind of explanation could be wrung from him. Abandoning her toast, Gale read it, then handed it to Eric.
“It’s a mark,” she announced. “About as bad of baddie as Ambrose could dig up, I bet.” After a second thought, she amended: “Well, maybe not the baddest. Probably not even close. Sort of more of a really harsh businessman than–”
“Drug dealer?” Eric interrupted, scanning the file. Gale, swinging her legs in a broken rhythm off the edge of the table, nodded. Eric, more businesslike, leaned forward from a mildewed easy chair. Discounting sundry theater props and the vast carcass out of an out-of-commission printing press, the table, chair, and a couple of cots were the only furnishings the warehouse they both called home contained.
“Yeah, looks like it. Good luck proving it, though,” she said. “According to any public record you could refer to, he’s as clean as a whistle–a philanthropist, even, selling computer parts to third-world countries at ridiculously cheap prices.” she looked at Eric, waiting for him to catch her emphasis on ‘ridiculously cheap’.
“Laundering his money,” he said, without looking up from the file.
“And making it look like charity. He even won an award for it once–look.” Gale leaned over, pointing out a news article that Ambrose had included in the file for no apparent purpose but as an aesthetic. The headline read ‘Asher Bellicose–Rising Business Star Pays it Forward’, and was surmounted by a black-and-white photo of the man himself, smiling.
“Look at his smug rat face.” Gale was indignant.
Eric closed the file.
“And we can’t simply catch him red-handed because..?” he asked, returning to his breakfast.
“Well, technically he doesn’t actually do anything. Other people make the chemicals. Different people sell them. He just organizes everything and gets the money–which looks normal enough, considering his very philanthropic computer parts business.”
“So in essence, the only way we can do anything is if Bellicose suddenly decides to turn himself in?”
Gale smiled, took the file and stuffed it inside her bag.
Back in the train yard, Eric decided to break the silence, a voice scrambler twisting his familiar voice into something alien and threatening.
“What are you doing?”
The sudden sound was like a toaster going off; it was impossible not to jump. Mouth still full of jelly beans, Gale managed a reply.
“Twiddling my thumbs.”
Eric looked at her. His expression was hidden by his hood, but she could picture the probable look of utter bewilderment easily enough. He shut off the scrambler, and she could hear the bewilderment in his voice too.
She shrugged. “It’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re bored. I thought I’d give it a try.”
Eric shook his head slightly, straightening into hawklike alertness once more. Giving up on thumb-twiddling, Gale attempted to drum out a tune on the metal roof.
Eric hissed, signaling her to silence, and she looked up. A streamlined black car had turned off the main road and was sliding over the gravel towards the office, the tires crackling out faint popcorn pings as it slowed to a stop and shudderingly shut off. Eric hunched flat against the roof, pulling his hood over his head, and Gale followed his lead.
Car doors slammed, feet tramping first over gravel, then up the wooden stairs into the office. Three men–a short, slight man struggling with a briefcase, a muscular bodyguard, and–finally– Asher, tall and blond with a lazy stride. The door to the office squealed open, voices murmuring inside as the office lights clicked on and slowly hummed to life. Sliding carefully off the roof, Gale took her position by the window as Eric assumed his, tuning her ear to what was being said on the other side of the glass.
“For the last time, Will,” Asher was saying. “I don’t need a new identity!”
The man with the briefcase–Will, Gale guessed–looked offended.
“With all due respect, Mr. Bellicose,” he began, as the hulking back of the bodyguard moved in front of the window to obscure Gale’s vision, “A new identity is the absolute key to a successful cut-and-run. My cousin happens to be a true artist in the alternate identity business, and–”
“Save us all from nepotism!” Asher burst out, half-laughing. Gale could see just enough of the room past the bodyguard’s elbow to watch him swing himself into the its lone chair, lacing his fingers behind his head and propping his feet up on the desk. He turned to the bodyguard, and Gale ducked out of view. “Teymour, remind me to hire an accountant with no cousins next time.”
“Yes, sir,” Teymour replied, in tones deep enough to rival Eric’s voice scrambler.
“In case you hadn’t heard, Will, this is not a cut-and-run. This is…” he trailed off, looking for a word, and Gale pulled herself up to look in the window again. “A vacation.” Asher decided. “A temporary cessation of business. Just long enough for anyone getting curious about our operation to get bored and forget they ever suspected anything. My identity has not been compromised; and I’d like to keep it that way.”
The bodyguard shifted his stance, getting comfortable for what looked like a long and uneventful night, and Gale was allowed a glimpse of the accountant’s disgruntled expression.
“Very well,” Will said stiffly. “If you’re certain–”
“Very certain,” Asher said, his voice just as stiff. “With that out of the way, have you brought your records?”
There was something in his voice besides offense. A tension, an expectancy that the accountant, digging disconsolately in his briefcase with little thought for the world around him, failed to notice.
“Of course I brought them. Though you should be aware that they were perfectly safe back at my office, there’s really no need to drag them across town–or me, for that matter.”
Teymour shifted again, but not to get comfortable. No, he was drawing himself up for action. He took a slight, unconscious step forward, and Gale tensed, slipping a hand in her bag to slide the cap off of one of the syringes inside it. She clicked open the latch on the window–Teymour’s unthinking movement had allowed her just enough space to slide in.
“See? Perfectly safe,” Will said, pulling the ledgers from his briefcase an inch or two before stuffing them back in.
“Good,” Asher said, voice smooth as ice now.
“Now, what are we really here for?” Will was vehement, put off in the extreme, but Asher only smiled.
“Of course. If you wouldn’t mind explaining, Teymour?”
The henchman pulled a pistol from his coat and aimed it cooly at the accountant’s head.
For one split second, everyone’s eyes were trained on it, and not on the girl slipping in through the window.
Will paled at the sight of the gun, but somewhat courageously did not fall to babbling right away.
“Why?” he asked, voice trembling. “There hasn’t been one order out of your mouth I haven’t obeyed to the letter–I’m valuable to you. Please, don’t–”
“I told you,” Asher said, leaning back in his chair, “I’m taking a vacation. My apologies, but I can’t risk letting anyone connected to me go running around town, can I? Besides–” –he grinned– “–Accountants, even impressively obedient ones, are easy to find these days.”
Gale pulled out the uncapped syringe and stuck it into the back of Teymour’s knee. She felt him flinch, but other than that the man was too distracted to pay much attention to the tiny pin-prick of pain. Once the needle was empty, she shoved it back in her bag, stuck out her tongue at Asher Bellicose’s back, and ducked behind the desk to wait for Eric.
Asher’s voice was annoyed.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” he asked, apparently addressing Teymour.
“Please, please, don’t do this!” Will was pleading.
But there was no time for either of them to get an answer; for immediately then, the lights flickered and went out.
“What the hell?” Asher asked the sudden darkness; Will had stopped pleading.
The short silence that followed was invaded, quite suddenly, by the sound of shattering glass, and Gale smiled.
The Bowman had arrived.
Eric did not particularly enjoy crashing through windows. It was messy, impractical, and difficult to arrange. Its one advantage was that it was an extremely reliable method of making a noticeable entrance, and in the business of vigilante-ing that requirement often surpassed all others. Everyone stared at the newcomer, frozen in a paused tragedy. Unseen by anyone but Eric, Gale popped her head over the edge of the desk and waved at him happily. For his own part, Eric was focused on the bodyguard. The giant of a man had wisely forgotten Will the accountant and was now aiming his pistol at the cloak-and-cowl figure who had just burst in through the window. A sight waver of the man’s arm, a rapid succession of blinking, told Eric that Gale’s concoction of anesthetics was taking effect.
“I think it’s time for you to sleep now,” Eric said.
The bodyguard frowned, took a step forward, and fell flat on his face. The gun skittered on the floor, and Eric kicked it away. As the sound of the guard’s soft breathing regulated, Eric turned to face Bellicose, ignoring the accountant cowering in the corner. Asher had not moved. He was still leaned back in his chair, feet up on the desk; but his eyes were wide, hands held tense. The flying glass that had heralded the Bowman’s entrance had not been entirely harmless; blood, black in the dim light, dripped from a cut on Bellicose’s cheek. Eric stepped towards him.
“Give yourself up.” the voice scrambler made his words sound otherworldly and terrible, even to himself; but Asher was not a man who showed fear easily. He smiled a forced smile into Eric’s face.
“Give myself up… for what?”
Eric smiled too–a slow, natural smile that had nothing to do with happiness. Watching for the tics on Asher’s face, he addressed his next remark to the accountant.
“You had better leave.”
The little man scrambled, seizing the briefcase from the desk as though he was rescuing it from a den of vipers, and fled the room. His feet rumbled down the wooden steps, and Eric could picture him running towards the road, desperately attempting to hail a taxi. There was really no need for the rush; it wasn’t the accountant Eric was interested in.
He wanted the boss.
“the ‘Bowman,’” Asher said, making a joke of the word. Eric let the semi-jab pass unchallenged, amused by the following increase in Bellicose’s confidence. “I thought he was an urban legend of some kind,” Asher continued, smug now. “Congratulations, you’ve proved me wrong. What exactly is it I’ve done, that calls for your…” he looked to the window, then Eric again, the short silence he allowed disturbed by a distant train whistle. “…visit?”
“Nothing I can prove.” The Bowman, shorter than Asher if they had both been standing, was towering over him now. Asher could stand up, but that would be a confrontation, and a confrontation would imply he cared. Sometimes, caring was as much of weakness as fear–and as important to hide. He let the man stand above him, listening lazily to what he said. The train rumbled nearer, causing the ground to tremble.
“So you’re here to threaten me with… what, exactly?” he asked, doing his best to sound detached. The Bowman leaned in, close enough for Asher to hear the man’s voice, plain and even under the distortion of a scrambler. The dichotomy, oddly similar to the difference between the distorting greasepaint mask and the human face Asher knew lay beneath it, made the words and the man who spoke them somehow more threatening. The train was very close now, blowing its whistle again and shaking the office like a child’s toy.
“I give you one chance to give yourself up,” the plain voice and its demon echo said. Asher had to stop himself from agreeing. Bowman was making him afraid, and Asher would be damned before he did anything out of fear. He had to think, find the heart of the Bowman’s bluff and call it out.
“What happens to me if I don’t?” he asked. The bodyguard, whatever the Bowman had done to him, was still breathing; and he’d let that idiot of an accountant go as well. Asher was willing to gamble that he was no killer. A moralist, with no edge to his threats.
The Bowman’s stillness, and silence, convinced Asher his gamble had worked. He smiled, gaining confidence.
“You could always turn me in yourself… but you can’t, can you?” Asher continued. “So what exactly are you threatening, if I fail to follow your precious orders? Because if you’re threatening to kill me–”
The train was in the station, rattling the walls, the floor, hiding Asher’s next words in its deafening wail. But the Bowman’s actions spoke clearly enough. Hooking a leg of Asher’s tipped chair with his heel, he jerked it back hard enough to pull the chair out from under him and send it skittering across the room. Asher landed on the floor, his head slamming on the wood planks hard enough to send sparks into his vision. The Bowman fell on him, digging a knee into Asher’s chest. The train’s whistle reached its pitch, and for a moment Asher thought that the bluff he’d called might not have been a bluff after all.
“The chance to turn yourself in was a kindness. An offer to let you keep control,” the Bowman said. The man’s voice was hidden by the scream of the train, only its unnatural echo surviving the rival sound. “What happens now is your own fault.”
Asher clenched his fists, glaring up at the man on top of him. He would not close his eyes, not even in the face of death. He wouldn’t flinch.
The train’s scream ended uneventfully, and the Bowman stood up.
“Goodbye, Asher,” he said simply.
Then, leaving a very confused man on the floor behind him, he disappeared out the broken window.
Once Asher and Eric had started bantering, Gale had left the train yard and returned to the warehouse. For a full fifteen minutes, her only companions had been the silence and the smell of mildewed theatre props. Eric returned, entering the warehouse with a weary sigh, just as she was putting the finishing touches on her project. Gale looked up from her work as he unlatched the voice-scrambling collar and tossed it in the general direction of his cot.
“That was quick.”
Eric pulled of his cloak and threw it after the collar.
“He didn’t jump at the chance to turn himself in.”
“Well, nuts to him. Doesn’t know what he missed.”
Eric chuckled, easing himself onto the cot. “No, I suppose not,” he said. After a moment of expectant silence, he added, “You got them?”
Gale grinned and held up the package she’d been working on, an affair of bubble wrap, bright yellow paper, and wildly excessive postage.
“Ledgers!” she announced. “Two of them, with pretty damning implications–and Asher’s name is written all over them.” she rethought that last bit for a moment. “Well, not literally. It’s more heavily implied than anything. But I’m pretty sure it’ll be as obvious to the FBI as anyone.”
Eric was nodding thoughtfully, but didn’t reply.
“They’ll be able to convict him from these, right?” she asked, rousing Eric from his stupor.
“Most likely,” he answered, after a long moment. “At the very least, they’ll be able to find the accountant, and once his unlawful dealings are found out, he’ll have nothing to lose by turning on Asher. I doubt he’ll think twice on it, not after the man decided to try and kill him…” he thought it over for another moment. “Yes, I think Asher Bellicose is going to be in prison for a very long time.”
Gale grinned, fixing the last stamp on the package with dramatic flair.
“Then our work is done!” she announced happily.
Eric looked up at her–smiled–nodded–returned his gaze to the vast ruin of the warehouse, and Gale was reminded that no, their work was not done. In the line they both had chosen, it never would be done. It was a bit like washing dishes, really; it could only ever be done for now, with the assurance that it would have to be done again later.
She looked at the package again, suddenly solemn.
“Well, this is just about finished,” she said, holding it. “It just needs one more thing.”
Eric looked at her again, questioning, and Gale successfully hid her smile with an expression of businesslike curiosity.
“You wouldn’t happen to know the street address of the FBI, would you?”
Bellicose lingered over his desk, frowning down at the papers on it–notes for an upcoming news interview, a sales report from an oblivious marketing agent. He blinked at them, finding it difficult to focus.
There was no reason to be uneasy. The Bowman was a coward, as Asher had guessed. He’d cause no more trouble. Will would leave town and disappear–not ideal, but he was no danger. Asher’s life would continue as usual, nothing changed. Perfectly fine. No need to worry.
His cell phone lit up, buzzing angrily across the glass desktop, and Asher jumped, cursing himself for it immediately afterwards. He flipped it open and answered with a scowl, catching the voice of Will the accountant crackling over the uneasy connection. Will would have been smarter to run, but he assumed the man would attempt to weasel his way back into Asher’s employ instead. This was a power dynamic he could work with; he set his feet up on the desk, enjoying a moment of blase’ tranquility while Will jabbered half-incomprehensible sentences into his ear.
When the accountant’s scattered words congealed into definite meaning, Asher’s feet flew off the desk, slamming onto the floor.
“They have what?” he shouted into the phone.
“Accounts–ledgers–search warrant–offered a deal–” Will was stuttering, and so was the phone connection; Asher couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing.
“The ledgers were replaced with–what?”
His head snapped up as the door to his office shook under a heavy knock, accompanied by a voice roaring, ‘Asher Bellicose, we have a warrant or your arrest’, and it didn’t really matter what the ledgers were replaced with anymore. He dropped the phone as the police flooded his office, armed with shotguns and bits of paper, accusing him of everything they were never supposed to know. It didn’t matter what the ledgers had been replaced with, but as cuffs were clipped on his wrists and a droning voice listed the few rights he hadn’t just been deprived of, Asher couldn’t help but think over the accountant’s last crackling words, spoken in such haste in answer a question that didn’t matter. He thought about the syllables, trying to decipher them into something–anything–that would make sense. Of course they hadn’t been replaced with–
No, it was too ridiculous.
But he could have sworn that the accountant had answered, ‘jelly beans’.