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The Cold Man

“Lou has withdrawn his protection. Did you understand that she was left to die in Chile?” The Ad Hoc purses out a smile. “She didn’t.”

The Cold Man pours a packet of sugar into his spoon and eats it.

“We’ve been asked to eliminate you, and we need a new hound. Her skills are acceptable. We’d use her to track you. I believe this is called poetic justice, yes?”

“I’ll-ll warn h-her.”

“Her ability to disappear does not approach your expertise. But we’ll forget about her,” it purrs, “if you agree. Your attributes are both unique and essential to the operation.”

Rita

“It’s a-a-a cave,” says the Cold Man.

“How far did hough.” Rita’s still coughing up rock dust. “Did we fall? Jesus faagh.

“Oh,” he says, and pokes his head into the shaft of light. “I forg-g-got you c-can’t–”

She waves him off and tries to stand. Nothing gives yet. She spits.

“No flashlight,” she murmurs.

“I-I can sssee,” he says. “C-can you see m-m-me?” He steps back. She can, though she can’t see anything around him.

“Yes,” she says.

“Y-you shouldn’t,” he smiles. “Bu-b-but that’s g-g-g-good.”

He holds out one gloved hand, and for the second time, she takes it.

Rita

“Let’s count atheists,” Rita murmurs eventually. “One.”

“T-two,” says the Cold Man, “but it-t’s n-n-not mmmuch of a f-f-fox foxhole.”

It doesn’t have to be. Rita imagined war as tracers and shelling, or tanks painted desert tan, but Chile is quiet. They can’t afford tanks here. Bombs are passé.

“You’re not–” Rita starts, then waits as somebody’s Uzi knockoff chatters nearby. “Not cold. I mean, I can tell you have body heat.”

“It’s ab-b-b-out electromagnet-t-t-tism,” he says. “And-and per-p-perceptions.” He snaps his fingers and produces a four of diamonds. “W-w-watch this,” he grins, and then they fall through the floor.

Rita

He can’t see her when she opens the door, but he doesn’t need to.

“Y-y-you came,” he says.

“Why not Sandra?” she asks. “Why not Mary, why not–”

“You b-b-bel-beb believed in t-t-t-rust,” he whispers. “In-n s-s-acrif-f-fice. Like I d-did.”

“It costs too much.” She shakes her head. “It costs too much.”

“Then y-you’re sm-m-marter about it-t-t,” he says, “th-th-n I was.”

“Stand up,” she whispers, but he can’t, so she empties the Glock into him there on the floor.

The Cold Man

“Well?” asks the flat voice.

His empty revolver clatters on the floor.

“The prisoner brings five bodies,” says one of the Ad Hocs ringing the room. “In the van’s cargo compartment.”

“What?”

“Scan indicates no heartbeat or biothermals,” says another.

“You fools! You fools!” The voice isn’t flat anymore.

The five dead men are up and out, guns cold, unblinking. He peels off his jacket and its pocket heat pads; he pulls off his sunglasses.

“G-got g-g-gotcha,” smiles the Cold Man.

Then the Ad Hocs are tumbling away, pulse and crack as the Numismata loose their iron bullets.

The Cold Man

“You are human,” says the flat voice. “You’ll give in eventually.”

“But it costs you, doesn’t it?” He gags and spits black, then grins; his teeth are full of blood. “Every minute I hold out costs you.” He doesn’t stutter. Not yet.

Silence, then: “Your price?”

“There’s people that need killing.”

“Name them.”

“No. I’ll do it. I want six bullets, and my life back for long enough to spend them.”

Six things tink on the concrete. One of them is a key.

“I said six.”

“I have no illusions,” says the voice, dry now, “about the target of the last.”

The Cold Man

One day, when he’s ten, before he develops his stutter, the boy who will be the Cold Man walks bravely up to the crazy man in the park. The man’s snapping pictures of families, humming to himself. The boy taps him on the shoulder.

“You always keep the lens cap on,” he says bluntly. “Is that because you’re crazy?”

The man blinks at him and, too slowly, smiles. “No,” he says. “It’s because cameras can capture other things than light.”

The boy sees that the man’s irises are a perfect silver, and that, like coins, their rims are stamped with words.

Rita

In the days since they put her into the dark, Rita’s had plenty of time to wonder whether the Cold Man’s life is worth it. When she couldn’t decide, she passed the hours exploring something new inside her: something that was once warm and scattered, now tightly aligned, a cold and perfect checkerboard.

Then they open the lid, and take the heavy dollars from her eyelids.

“You are of the Numismata,” says the flat voice. “You are of the Coined.”

Rita opens her eyes at the cold touch, and everything’s etched in silver. She’ll never be warm or see color again.

Rita

Rita’s vaguely aware that she’s dreaming. The Cold Man is in her dream, and he’s sitting at a table with other men. There’s something wrong with them: a flickering in peripheral vision, a cruel and articulated menace, hint of beetle-wing sheen.

The Cold Man removes his hat. His head has shrunken and withered, and his eyes are darkly enormous. “I am jessed and hooded,” he tells her, and somehow this makes a terrible sense. “They have made of me a dog to hunt.”

A deep gasp of cold air, and her hand is on the Glock before she knows she’s awake.

The Cold Man

The Ad Hoc is deadly calm, switched down to conversation. The Cold Man remembers them as harsh and robotically terse, but this one’s voice is like butterscotch.

“Your attributes are both unique and essential to the operation,” it purrs, “and it’s known that your fidelity has an excellent return on investment.”

“Th-think ab-abou-ab-at-about i-it?” He manages. “G-gotta pi-p-p-piss.”

It nods like a drinking bird.

In the bathroom, thinking fast, the Cold Man drops his gaze from the wall to the urinal. The bulbous head of its pipe-cap doubles his reflection, makes it reversible: one trunk, two heads, like a playing card.

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