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Zach

Had Zach completed the training Hidebound claimed to have given him, he would have known that the impact of a bullet while wearing a vest is like a kick to the breadbasket by a medium-sized ungulate with smallish hooves. Had Hidebound been trying to show off, he might have used his favorite example, the okapi.

This would not have helped Zach, who believes that okapis are total nerds from Japan.

“Whough,” he says, falling gracelessly, denied any useful point of comparison. The Vulpine Phalanger has already vanished. Hidebound curses himself for aiming at the center of mass: training, you know.

Zach

At length, Hidebound retires.

Zach doesn’t actually cry until he’s alone in the darkened room. He stops crying after a while, and gets angry, as his hands and feet pulse with the maddening pain-tingle of blistered burns. He explains aloud the reasons that this whole situation is so stupid, and whose fault it is, and why, and fuck them. Then he cries some more. It’s awkward, trying to wipe his eyes and nose on his shoulders.

Zach sleeps. A woman enters, unbinds him, and mists lidocaine onto his wounds.

She is the Vulpine Phalanger.

She is going to kill someone.

Zach

THE MUSEUM OF TERROR, says the shadow of a stencil on the concrete wall. Hidebound fiddles with the fire exit and drags him in; Zach wonders if he is to be the latest exhibit, or a curator.

There’s an old chair with straps on it. Hidebound sits him down hard, puts the straps to their intended use, and pulls up a little stool.

“Why are we here?” says Zach. He can feel holes in the chair under his hands and feet.

“Atmosphere,” says Hidebound. He removes a silver cigarette lighter from his boot.

Hidebound, Zach happens to know, does not smoke.

Zach

István leaves to go to the bathroom and Hidebound kills Pál with a knife. It’s that quick, so Zach is still staring at the blood and wondering if this is a prank when two scarred fingers drag him by the nostrils out of the safehouse.

“Ow fuck!” says Zach. Upon consideration, he adds: “Shit!”

“Whatever puppydog pity she took on you, be grateful for it,” says Hidebound, “because it’s the only thing keeping my fist out of your brains right now. How does it feel to be a hostage, Zach?”

Like so many things in Budapest, Zach reflects glumly, it hurts.

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

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

“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

“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.

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