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Zach

“Quite a selection,” says the man in the black suit.

“We maintain the finest merc stable on the continent.” Littleford gestures. “Black Eye. Recoil. Hidebound. The Vulpine Phalanger.” The men and women in their piecemeal armor nod in turn. “The one with the chainsaw is Slapjack; that’s Psyclown and his partner Scarnage. And this is Zach.”

The black suit takes him in: lanky, glasses, no armor, no gun. “The most lethal of all,” he breathes. “Yes. Give him the contract, no matter the cost!” He strides out.

“I just–I just run the website,” says Zach hesitantly.

“Not anymore,” Littleford snaps.

Zach

“Listen, I wanted that contract myself,” confides Hidebound, “but no hard feelings. You ready to train?”

“Guess I’d better be,” says Zach.

What follows is intense: six hand-to-hand disciplines, melee, revolvers, semiautos, full assault. Stealth courses. Endurance. Zach learns to use ten grades of plastique, and how to roll with the shockwave; he learns urban camo and marksmanship. He learns how to kill with his pinky.

“I think we’re done,” he says, finally.

Hidebound smiles. “I think you’re right.”

Zach checks his watch. “And I can’t believe it only took two hours!”

“You’re a natural,” says Hidebound, smiling wider.

Zach

“This is called a dossier,” says Littleford patiently. “A full background workup, daily routines, brief precis of family and friends.” He scatters the contents of the red envelope.

“She’s a girl?” says Zach, a little startled.

“She’s an activist who’s making things very uncomfortable for certain Syrian… interests,” says Littleford. “The client’s actually done a lot of work for you, here. And they want it messy. Anything else?”

“I think,” Zach frowns, “I’m going to need more surveillance photos. Like, at her gym? Maybe in the shower.”

Littleford squints at him.

“Or at least more from the waist down,” Zach adds.

Zach

When Zach sinks into the first-class armchair on his flight to Budapest, he is wrong to believe he’s the only one on board connected to his mission. There’s Hidebound, for instance, incognito in aviators, crammed into two seats in the last row of coach. There are the three independent agents assigned to Hidebound at all times (FBI, CIA and FDA–it’s complicated). There’s Littleford, body stiffening slowly in an insulated camp cooler, down amongst the checked bags.

And in Zach’s black silicone wallet, a girl’s face, unaware that it’s being photographed: hastily xeroxed, in case they want the dossier back.

Zach

“What about you, what are you doing in Budapest?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Zach says mysteriously.

She rolls her eyes. “You can tell me if you’re plainclothes. I’ve worked with the police here, risk management for the nonviolent demonstrations. We get along fine.”

“I’m not plainclothes.”

Her eyes saccade between the points of glare on his glasses, and she decides to believe that. He’s got a sort of arrogant puppydog energy–he’s come into new privileges and they don’t quite fit across his shoulders. Useful.

“I’m Sara,” she says.

“I know,” Zach chuckles.

“What?” says Sara. “How?”

Zach

Invisible things chip the rooftop concrete as they sprint, accompanied by a staccato of sonic booms. Zach wrings his brain for what the training would have him do and remembers that, yes, this was the part where he got up to go potty.

As if summoned by the memory, Hidebound rises up before them, grinning, two-fisting pistols. “Move!” shouts Zach, grabs Sara by the waist, and hauls them both off the side of the roof.

“What the mother of shit!” she shrieks at him as they plummet.

“I was hoping I’d think of a follow-up by now,” Zach admits.

Zach

There are plenty of booths at the job fair, but only MAYHEM INCORPORATED has Ray-Bans and Tasers snarling at anyone who approaches. Consequently it also has by far the longest line of curious students.

Zach didn’t mean to join it; he thought the line led to the bathroom.

“Puny,” snarls Littleford, kicking his legs under the table. “Next. ROTC? Are you kidding me? Next. Next. Next!”

Zach finds himself at the front and automatically hands over a resume. Littleford glances at his name.

“You make websites, kid?” he snaps.

Zach blinks. “My computer has FrontPage.”

Littleford smiles like the Grinch.

Zach

Zach snaps out of the flashback and they hit the long vertical banners screaming. Sara’s fumbled a multitool from her pocket and she drives its pliers through the fabric, which is when Zach realizes she’s got their arms locked in some complicated grip, because it almost dislocates his shoulder.

They continue to descend, albeit more slowly, still screaming. Eventually Zach realizes it’s just him screaming and shuts up.

A jolt, as the pliers snap through the banner’s bottom hem; they fall fifteen feet to a balcony. Sara lands on Zach. He wishes his lungs would reinflate so he could enjoy it.

Zach

Once they stop shaking, Sara does noisy things to the roof door with her multitool. Zach scowls at shoppers in the mall below as she thumbs Euros down a phone, then leads him into an alley.

Szervusz,” says one of two enormous, shiny-headed men.

“You’ll never take us alive!” Zach says, trying to make his body peel off the wall and stand in front of Sara.

“Zach, meet István and Pál,” Sara sighs. “They’re friends. Friends of friends. Protection.”

“Oh.” Zach grins with relief. “I wish I’d known you had local security for yourself!”

“Sure,” says Sara carefully, “for myself.

Zach

“She should really trust me by now,” Zach mutters.

István looks up, then down again.

“I mean, yes, I was trained and hired specifically to murder her,” Zach says. “But can I help what I am? I’m like the guy in that Grosse Point Blank movie, where he has to kill Natalie Portman’s dad but then they have sex. You know? That’s what I’m supposed to be doing, not sitting in a room with you two while she’s out–whatever!”

Bukta,” István sighs.

Zach frowns at István. Istvan frowns at Pál.

“Gin,” says Pál mildly, spreading a hand full of diamonds.

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