BOOK ONEYOU CAN NEVER LEAVE
“Not a place I would have picked.”
“For a meeting?”
“You didn’t pick it.”
“Just saying that I wouldn’t have.”
The suit blocks my view. The suit is tall, black, looks expensive, and comes with a smile made for board rooms. The suit has a name.
I don’t care what it is. It’s a suit.
He sits down in the seat next to me. Looks at the view. Doesn’t appreciate it. Nobody does. Not unless they are somebody like me.
“Not in a long time.”
“All the time.”
The view. Long stretches of tarmac. Blue skies. Me, on the inside, looking out. Separated from it all by glass. The view, through panorama windows. Panels of glass that shake every time, tremble enough so I can feel it underneath my fingertips. Every time it happens. Airplanes, taking off and landing. Going somewhere. Coming from somewhere else. Arrivals. Depatures. LAX. As far as I was going to go. As far as they allow me to go. Watching the birds. Flying free. Punishment. A life sentence.
“Who sent you?”
“Somebody who recommended you.”
“Somebody with a name?”
“A name you willing to share?”
The suit, a board room smile.
“You know how it goes.”
“You been around long enough.”
Both of us, sitting. Not looking at each other. That’s how these things work. Two guys. In an airport. Strangers. No names. No past. No future.
“Did you really know him?” the suit asks.
“Yes. How did you know?”
“Because everybody asks me. May not be the first question. Not even the second, maybe, but eventually, all of you ask the same thing.”
“And? Did you?”
The suit, disappointed. I smile.
“Didn’t think they’d send somebody from DC to ask about ancient history.”
“What makes you think somebody send me?”
“Not made for Los Angeles weather. Too dark. Too heavy. So you can’t be one of the local boys. Then there’s your shoes. White rims on black leather. Snow marks. Recent. City shoes. Not made for walking, at least not for more than a quick distance, say, from a car to an office and back.”
I nod up at the Arrivals.
Flights delayed. Flights cancelled. Flights landing. East Coast. East Coast. East Coast. Snow storms, slowly shutting down the Eastern Seaboard.
“Or from the Los Angeles airport’s baggage claims to a cab. Seven flights that landed in the past hour. Only one from Washington, DC.”
I nod at the suit.
“No suitcase, meaning that you have no intention to stay too long. Not even long enough to leave the airport, maybe.”
I smile again.
“Oh, and yes,” I said. “You knew who I am.”
“A lot of people do.”
“A lot of people know my name. Doesn’t mean they know who I am. You’d need top secret clearance to know that. That narrows it down, just a little.”
The suit laughs.
“These days in DC? Top secret would only narrow it down to about 800,000 people.”
“What you call them then, these days? The people who know who I am?”
Me, quiet, then – “Yeah.”
I get out a smoke from my jacket. The suit nods at a NO SMOKING sign. I nod at him. Fire from an old gas lighter. The tip of a small cigar, burning up. Smoke that drifts into my mouth, washes over my tongue before going down into my lungs. Some of the people around give me stares. Some give me shit. Some give threats to call airport security.
I give them the finger.
“You’re not what I expected,” the suit said.
The smoke, leaving my body through my nostrils. Words, coming out with it.
“Yeah. That’s what he said, too.”
“So you did meet him?”
“If you would like to call it that, yeah.”
“What was he like?”
Silence. This time it’s him. He waits. Wants to know more. All of them do. After they have read the files. The ones the people I had served in a war still fought in black and white buried in long file cabinets at undisclosed locations, together with all the other things nobody is supposed to know.
They had hoped to bury me as well, these people, decades ago, an unmarked grave, maybe, no service, no medals, no gun salute.
No such luck.
“You haven’t changed,” the suit says.
“Since then, I mean. Except for the hair.”
The hair had been the first thing that had changed., of course. By the time they had finished with me, in their laboratories and secret facilities, it had become white. The difference between then and now? I no longer color it. Now it’s a wild gush that comes out from my scalp, its skin just as white.
“They never been able to do it again, you know.”
The suit is suprised. First time for everything.
I have seen that look before. This here isn’t the first of these conversations, not for me, and they all more or less follow the same path. “Thought you were no longer in the game.”
“Thought they retired you.”
“Long time ago.”
“Before I was born.”
“Long time before you were born, kid. Looking at you, I’d guess a long time before your parents were born, too.”
“1969,” the suit says.
On the other side of the panorama window, an Airbus 800 slowly rolls onto the tarmac, engines minutes away from howling for their freedom.
Growling against gravity.
“When my parents were born,” the suit says. “One small step for man, one giant leap for humanity.”
I flick the rest of my cigar. A mother glares at me. I wave at her daughter. The mother glares. Drags the child along.
“It wasn’t Armstrong, you know.”
“Who said it?”
“Who was the first man on the moon.”
“You telling me you believe we had them locked down in a television studio somewhere in Arizona?”
“Not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that Neil Armstrong wasn’t the first man on the moon. We were there in 1954.”
Another sign of surprise. Good.
“You’re shitting me.”
“Had to do it before the Russians had their Sputnik up there, had to do it in secret, three men crew, that much they got right when they did the remake for the civilians.”
“1954? You’re shitting me.”
“I look like I do?”
“No. Just... well, shit, I never would have thought something like this, something this big could have been kept a secret.”
“You’d be surprised.” He looks at me. One of these secrets that should have been too big to be kept. “Last year, it’s been seventy years. And how many would have had to know about me?”
“You were different,” the suit said.
“It was the war. Easier to keep secrets in a war. Especially the one back then.”
“Nothing’s easy in a war, kid.”
“You were the fourth man.”
“I was the fourth, yeah.”
“The one who survived.”
“They’ve never been able to do it again.”
“So you keep telling me.”
“If it were, you wouldn’t be here.”
The suit grins. Muscles, under his white shirt. Moving. Flexing. Enhanced. Pumped up. Waiting.
“What gave it away?”
“You’re not the first, kid.”
“Want to take it outside?”
The suit puts on sunglasses. In them, I look at my own reflection. White. Pale. Tired and retired. The suit’s grin. White. Perfect and All-American.
“Think we should,” I say. “Don’t want to cause a scene, do we?”
“Think you still could?”
“Cause a scene?”
“What do you think, kid?”
“I think you’re almost a century old.”
“And yet, I’m still here. Should give you cause to consider what you’re about to do. Why they sent you to me. Should give you a reason to think.”
That grin, continuing to split his face.
“I know why they sent me. So do you.”
LAX airport, all around us, still busy. Civilians. Collateral damage, waiting to happen. I get up from my seat. The suit follows.
“You think I can go to the restroom first?”
“Already pissing your pants?”
“You get my age –”
Through the crowds, I let him follow me. Breathing down my neck. Noisy. These kids they send these days, they all are so damn noisy.
The restroom. At the end of the corridor. Urinals, stalls and Muzak. Pissing to elevator music and soft lights. Despite the crowds outside, empty. Lucky.
Lucky old man.
“You want a helping hand?”
The thing about restrooms. Modern ones, like this one here at LAX, they have mirrors over their urinals. Piss and watch, boys and girls.
Behind me, the suit. In front of me, his reflection. Three steps behind, two steps to the side. Trained. Weight on both feet. Military. The suit, just another uniform. Waiting for me to finish.
Young. Arrogant. Stupid.
The restroom. Close quarters. Close combat. The kind that wouldn’t allow for any major enhancements to be useful. Drugs, maybe. They had him probably pumped up on them. Would explain the twitching muscles. Neural feed, most likely. Easiest way to enhance an operative. Cheapest way, too. All about cutting down budgets, these days.
It took them three years and more than two billion dollars to build me. 1941 dollars, not the cheap paper shit of today. Still, less than to build Fat Man and Little Boy. Then again, if they had dropped me down on Hiroshima or Nagasaki, all I would have been able to do? Kill Japs one by one.
Too expensive to be a weapon, even back then. And too dangerous to be a symbol, especially when the American public became aware of what the Germans had done. In their laboratories.
And what we had done. In ours.
To men like me.
“You know why they started up the program again? Why people like you even exist?” I ask. “Publicity. The bad kind. See, that was the problem with the atom bomb, the moment we decided to drop it. Bad publicity. Don’t get me wrong, you drop it on somebody, you do a lot of damage. Can end a war. Can end the world, even. But it makes you look bad. Makes you look like a coward, not like a cowboy, even if the press, they called it cowboy politics for most of the Sixties, some of the Eighties, too.”
Me, taking a piss in the urinal. And on that kind of thinking. Watch for that metaphor, boys and girls. Shake it loose, shake it, squeeze it to the last drop. And don’t forget to wash your hands after.
“Wars today, they get fought in cities. building by building, street by street. That’s what they were building me for. What they hoped they were building you for. I was your age, boy, they dropped me on Berlin. Single plane. Single man. Couldn’t allow the Russians to take the man alive, now, could we? Not with all the shit he knew. Same with their scientists. You know how we managed to get all the way up to the moon by ‘54? Nazi technology. Not something you’d like to advertise, no. Not even if it would have made the Russian piss in their pants.”
“You done?” the suit asks.
A tone that told me to zip it.
Not as fast as I used to be. Still, fast enough. My elbow, connecting with the suit’s face, now no longer just a grin splitting it. The suit’s nose breaks. Two steps to the side, but now tumbling back against the stalls. His blood a streak of deep red, following him. His voice is an angry gurgle, his hands reaching up, instinctively, to stop the bleeding.
One second. Two. Three. Spinning. Moving. Close combat. That’s what it’s about. Movement. It’s what these kids today don’t know. Don’t understand.
These kids, they have buttons to push, screens to watch, drones to fly. Decisions, made thousands of miles away from their targets, pixelated realities.
The suit drops against the stalls.
Wiping the blood from his face. Looking at me through a red haze or rage. Pumped up muscles. Neural charges releasing adrenaline.
The suit gets his fists up. Rushes me. Stupid. Angry. Stupid. No way to fight. A fist streaks past my cheek, breaking nothing but the speed of sound.
Got to give them that.
They are fast, these days. Faster than I ever was.
And a lot more stupid.
I spin around into the zone between arm and chest. There’s no cover there. My second blow goes to his chest. It should have crushed his ribcage.
I hit something hard and flexible. Poly-carbonated bones, most likely. Read about that.
Got to keep up with the times, if you’re like me. You want to keep on living, you better do like a good little nerd and google your balls out.
Tech porn, war porn, science porn.
Survival, all in the details.
Poly-carbonated shit, they tried that on some of the mutants in the 1960s. Somewhere in Canada, I thought, tried to pump them full with it, hoped that their genetics would make their bodies swallow it up without killing them first. Way folks told me, most of them died with black goo coming out of every pore of their bodies.
Looks like they had finally gotten it right.
That’s progress for you.
It stops my fingers reaching into the suit’s body and rip through his heart. It doesn’t stop the impact. The shock makes the suit exhale.
Lucky old man.
Still needs to breathe, the bastard.
Good. Lucky. Good.
A second thrust, this time again to his face.
Open hand, palm against his chin.
Snapping back his head.
Still breathing. Shit.
He gets his first punch in. Not good. Blind and angry, still, but close enough that a punch at the right spot might do me some damage.
The next punch. I feel it,
That’s what you get when you’re getting old. You get to live long enough to fight Americans.
I never liked fighting Americans.
It was easier with the Nazis.
You didn’t feel bad about killing them.
All around him and me, security cameras. Digital feeds pick up blurs, two shapes out of sync with the rest of the world.
Feeds tapped into by the ones who have sent the suit. Sitting in a bunker. Secure. Scientists and suits. Gathered around monitors and fast food.
Enjoying the show.
This is us, in slow motion.
Play. Fast Forward. Rewind.
Muzak, played for fists hitting flesh and bone.
Watch. Watch and learn.
That’s what they’re doing. Would be doing for the following days, weeks and months, down there in their bunker, breathing in filtered air and thinking filtered thoughts. Watch and learn, boys and girls.
The suit’s fist passes me. Hits the tiled marble wall. Cracks and craters it. Concrete rain, spat out around his knuckles, drifting into the air-conditioned room.
I take it into my lungs with my next breath.
So does he. Useless. This is useless.
Breathing heavily, both of us.
Freeze frame it. Look at it. Look at me. The old man and the suit. Standing. Both still standing. Breathing. Look at him. That’s right. Breathing.
For all his enhancements, the bastard still needs to breathe. Think about it. Act on it. Snap out of it. Out of the moment. Take him out. Take him down. Don’t play defense. They are still bits of him not protected, still bits that are human.
I take out his eyes. They are wet and soft, and burst underneath my fingertips. Another scream follows, no longer filled with rage, only pain.
The throat comes next.
The scream ends. The suit drops to the floor. On his knees. His hands rising up. Prayer, in progress. God isn’t listening. The suit dies quietly.
Lucky old man.
It takes me minutes teaching myself how to breathe again without wishing to throw up whatever is left of my breakfast.
It takes me even longer to twist and turn my body, trying to get everything back into the right places. All of which is very painful. All of which is good. It tells me I am still alive.
I look at the suit, not quite a Pez dispenser now, his empty eye sockets staring at the ceiling. I get his cell phone out. They all have one. I call them. Look at the cameras. Hear them pick up.
“Better luck next time,” I tell them.
They never reply. They never talk. They just listen. They just watch. They watch me drop the cell phone. They watch me spit out blood. They watch me light up. They watch me leave.
They watch me.
All the time. And one of these days, they will send somebody again. To see if they got it right that time.
They haven’t, so far.
I’m still breathing.
Outside the restroom, people see me. People point at me. The cleaners are already in place. Suits, all of them. They know me. I don’t know them.
We pass each other. We nod at each other.
I don’t look back.
Outside LAX, california.
Where nobody has a past, and everybody a future in a sunburnt reality. Harsh and bright, like a modern television show, overexposed and in need of a good public relations manager.
Outside LAX, celebrities.
Caught in lenses of the paparazzis. Look over here, give us a smile, baby, yeah, just like that, look, look at us. I pass through a crowd of them, starlets and stars, busy and buzzing, three, four, five clicks away from the tabloids, on their way to stardom, on their way out, but always on their way.
Outside LAX, cars.
Coming and going, on parking lots, on streets, on highways, on triple fast lanes that grind them to a halt, with me driving on them, returning to my cage. My free range prison. The city of angels.
Google earth it, boys and girls, that yellow brick road from LAX, heading back to LA, cutting through a sea of cancerous concrete, where everything is always a thirty minute’s drive away.
My car, a dinosaur, like me.
A 1958 Plymouth, top down, red and white, the American Dream on wheels, with a V8 engine that roars against climate change.
Me, giving the finger to the rest of the planet.
I call my handler.
He picks up.
He is not happy.
Bad vibes, bouncing off satellites, and reaching me before he says something. I give my code clearance. He doesn’t need it. I give my name. He knows it. I give him small talk. He doesn’t care for it.
Skip forward, get to the part that matters.
“They’re not happy,” he says. “Know how much money they spent on that guy?”
“I don’t care.”
“The GDP of a couple of small countries.”
“Any of them countries that matter?”
A voice shrug through the phone line.
“Eh. Probably not.”
“They should have thought of putting the money to better use, you ask me.”
“You should have,” I say. “How much?”
“Not including my cut?”
“The usual ten?”
“You should have been an agent.”
“Used to be.”
“Not that kind of agent.” He gives me Las Vegas laughter, a city hopper flight and a couple of casinos away. Calculating the spread, giving me numbers. Good numbers, too. The kind you can live on.
“It’s roughly 500 k,” he tells me.
“Not bad for three minutes work,” I say.
“Longest fight I ever seen you do.”
“They get better.”
“One of these days –”
Unspoken, the understanding that my time would be running out, sooner rather than later. One of these days, they would create a better, faster and stronger version of me, wrap him in the flag like they did with me, and have him kill me as his final test. There are moments when I wish for that day.
“But not today,” he says.
“No,” I say. “Not today.”
Today, I made a killing. It’s not quite like wrestling. Not quite like the bets you can place on baseball and football teams, but you can bet on anything in Vegas, even on an old war horse like me.
People in my community, they get bored. People in my community, they get their kicks out of things like this. Betting on fights like this. Win, lose, it’s all about the kick. That much we still have in common with the rest of the world.
We like to get entertained.
“I’ll have the money wired to your account.”
“Not a problem.”
He hangs up. He doesn’t say goodbye. I drive down the 105 and think about ways to spend the money. I plan to spend a lot of it on getting drunk and pity myself. I look at the sky, through mirrored shades.
It is a not perfect blue.
I’m thankful it isn’t.