TRUTH BE TOLD
Lee watched the smoke from his cigarette turn blue as it twisted through the air in front of the bank of computers. Intermittently, he idly snatched images off the screens and examined them as if looking at playing cards. Through his bleary eyes he watched the play of smoke and mirages.
Normally he would take off the design glove rather than risk exposing the sensitive piece of equipment to contaminants. After getting less than 10 hours of sleep over the past week it would have been difficult for him to care less. Between the clandestine flight to Leavenworth and the arrangements Jhel had required after that, Lee had not seen the sun in quite some time. He smoked the cigarette, taking what little pleasure he could from the Chinese tobacco. He rubbed at the pain in his temples.
“Well?” Lee looked up at the utterance. He must have dozed off. Jhel was standing no more than a meter from him, looking dapper and well rested in his newly pressed suit.
Couldn’t have been asleep long; the cigarette hadn’t burned down more than a centimeter. He put it to his lips for a long drag, examining Jhel to make sure he wasn’t some exhaustion-induced hallucination. When Lee was certain Jhel was real he responded, “Well what?”
“Don’t be coy with me Lee. Is it done?”
Lee swiveled his chair and began flipping virtual switches with the glove. Assorted images danced out from the computers; a few cityscapes and two headshots.
“He’s in Madrid,” he said, waving at the cityscape. “There was an asset on his trail,” directing the glove at a headshot of a man who could have been an All American quarterback from the 20th century. “As requested, I pulled files to find someone who knew your Butcher,” wave at the other headshot, a cocky looking fellow of Mongolian descent. Or maybe he was Chinese, Lee couldn’t remember exactly anymore. “They’re on the scene now. When the job’s done they’ll load the mission details into the Blackbox. I’ve got an intercept protocol inserted, so I’ll be able to modify the after-action report as we see fit.”
Lee rotated back to Jhel, intentionally exhaling smoke at him. “Just a matter of waiting now.”
Jhel ignored the smoke, but Lee could tell by his rapid blinking that it irritated him. “Good.” He turned to leave.
“You know,” Lee called after him, stopping him before he covered half the distance to the door. “It was damn near impossible hacking through nearly a decade of black files in order to find one of your Butcher’s playmates. Why the fuck did we need that? Come to think of it, why are we taking the risk of using GT assets? Any of the higher-ups figure out what we’ve been up to, it’ll be early retirement time. Why didn’t we just use the Street?”
Jhel took a moment before he turned around, the calm mask that was previously there replaced by a hard, small smile. That smile usually made Lee nervous, but the good thing about having no sleep and being strung out on amphetamines was that he just didn’t give a fuck.
“First of all,” Jhel began, slowly covering the distance back to Lee as he spoke, “Street assets would never be able to touch the Butcher. You read the file; five years military, three of which were in a Special Forces unit noted for cybernetic augmentation. He can shrug off nine millimeter bullets like you or I shake off rain drops. And God knows what they had him doing after they sprang him from Leavenworth. Any group of street punks you could pull in would get eaten alive.”
Jhel stopped just short of Lee, bathed in the blue green lights of the images, looking every bit the devil in the smoke that curled around him.
“Second; I don’t want a hit squad on this. That wouldn’t be enough. I want a crusader. And given that the Butcher leaves a wake of destruction behind him, I’m certain that anyone that’s worked with him in the past is probably still carrying a grudge. My only regret is that we couldn’t find someone who served with him in Malagay.”
The room filled with a hollow popping noise as Lee thumbed the lid off a pill bottle, shaking out a little red oval into his hand. He crunched it between his teeth as he said, “The Board finds out about this little personal crusade, you’re done for.”
Jhel leaned forward, gripping the armrests of the chair Lee sat in. Lee would remember it as one of the few times Jhel Phen got that close to him.
“Did they care when that piece of Kansas farmland just fell into their laps? Did they care about the grandmother the hazmat crews found in the closet with her own sewing needles jammed into her eyes? Did they give a fuck about the sole survivor?
“No they fucking well didn’t. They were just glad they finally got a complete and total lock on one of the last great natural resources of the United States without having to negotiate with a bunch of stupid hicks.”
Jhel stood up straight, tucking his tie back into his jacket.
“If the Board didn’t care about the Butcher when they pulled him out of that hellhole crying about his grandmother, they sure as Hell won’t care about him now, with what he’s become.”