Before Midnight is the next link and trails behind Cinderella, a thief sent to the ball for a single purpose.
Flecks of sanguine nail polish dotted the receipt, circling the tip line as if to highlight her problems in blood. The unfinished manicure dropped the thin paper back into her pocket before thundering raindrops could run the flimsy ink, erasing the access code. Her head lifted high towards the solitary streetlight flourishing through the rising storm. Rain splattered across her exposed chin, the evanescent sliver of this gasping city death throe-ing all over her.
"The Cottage" should have been a quaint sign, something out of an old fairy book about mice having tea, crookedly hung below a thatched roof; but it was jaggedly etched out of industrial metal heavily bolted to crackling stones from an age when children were considered present labor not future. The corners shimmered an edge so certain that if the "cottage" should ever fall some unlucky bystander might lose a head.
Winds tinted with human contaminate tried to buffet at her wool hood, the crimson lining flashed her sentimental calling card to the world. As she rarely worked where another soul stirred, the agency let it be as long as she maintained her black outerwear uniform. Still, she pulled the hood down over her weary lids, shutting out her bit of color in the monotone world. Red would have cursed the rain if it could amount to anything more than a waste of breath. She was supposed to be at her makeshift flat, slurping down some pad thai noodles after failing to acquire a fork, and blending in with her new neighbors before one of them needed to be dispatched.
But a shadow stalked the corners of her narrow world. Whispers bounded around her agency's imaginary halls as agents traded information on the discarded papers of a city all speaking of one creature: wolf. Most assumed it referred to a rival agency, or perhaps another vigilante group attempting to stall the necessary duties of Red and her kind cleaning the streets. The leader was known as Big, or so said a trio of Taco Bell packets, and was circling about their fattening company with drooling fangs. Red filed it as little more than myth, a coincidence gumming up their not always precise data stream. For nearly a month she chased down a man called "The King" before she learning they'd all been had by a poorly thought out marketing strategy that failed miserably with the public. The advertising agency itself was dropped after their creative director failed to show for work.
Wolf was nothing more than another King, getting teenagers to hose their pocked skin down in artificial fragrance to repel the opposite gender. The words were slotted deep in the background of Red's mind like so much of human life she never concerned herself with and almost forgotten until another name appeared within the intel: Grandmother.
Her head snapped to the deserted street corner as a lone cart rattled out of the filthy alley followed by what could barely be called a person anymore. With the build up of every coat and shirt it could find, the vagrant appeared like a bear wandering down the derelict and empty streets of what used to be the heart of industry before it learned Mandarin. Amazing how so many people can walk right past the creature and not see it, the more monstrous its appearance the more invisible it becomes. She wondered how many of her fellows in the agency attempted the same maneuver, at times falling in with the human litter across pavement to avoid pursuit, sometimes from the very employers who trained them to disappear. It was not a life for the lighthearted.
But the vagrant didn't turn to her, instead it took the right path away from the pelting winds towards the living sections of the city, though it'd have a hell of a time begging for scraps from blitzed spoiled children in this weather. Red checked her pockets for the third time, making another account of her inventory lest it changed in the past five minutes. She shouldn't be nervous, she'd been successful at this job for over eight years now. Two more and she'd get a pin. But Grandmother...
Everyone knew Grandmother. She was, well, she was the grandmother; the woman (or possibly a man, code names had little to do with an agent's appearance) had her fingers into every sticky vein of the agency. She kept the petty cash flowing, the agents down on their luck in enough food and housing until it turned around, and she even occasionally baked cookies. Granted, they were full of thalidomide for an assassin to slip onto a dessert tray, but the love was clearly there.
What did the Big Wolf want with Grandmother?
Red shook her head, that wasn't her concern. She was only to provide reconnaissance, check upon the safe house Grandmother secluded herself to and await further instructions. A simple job, the kind that didn't require someone of her skill. That made her more nervous.
Patting down her pockets, she extracted the receipt for the final time and, after muttering the code under her breath, spat her gum into the paper and wadded it up. Tossing the incriminating evidence to the ground where it'd wash away with the rest of the litter, Red strode up the sagging concrete stairs to the Cottage's front door. An intercom box was nestled securely away from the dripping rain in the entryway beside the heavily boarded up door. Would it be against the rules to call up, check on her Grandmother through the intercom, and head home? Her dinner might still be lukewarm after this time, or she could sneak into that motel down the street and alleviate them of their microwave.
As she raised her unpolished finger to the button, the intercom sprang to life. "Come in, dearie."
It was barely a voice, more a series of words carved from a rasp grating across wood, but Red understood them. She'd never heard Grandmother speak before, or anyone with the agency in over five years. It was possible, after decades of smoking, the human vocal cords could disintegrate down to that rasp; but the agency would never hire a smoker, they leave behind evidence. Red's hand dipped into her pocket and gripped the butt of her new pistol. Pushing off the safety, her free one leaned into the button, "Thank you...granny."
As her finger broke the connection a door, hidden within the artifice of crumbling bricks, swung back from her right. She was surprised how silent the mechanism moved, as if it'd been recently oiled. Expecting visitors, Granny? Most normal humans would have to crunch down, but Red's limited stature made entering into the building a breeze. Casting her eyes once more down the decrepit street, she pushed her poorly painted fingers upon the false bricks and entered.
Only faint lights danced across the walls, false walls created from the quick addition of plywood illuminated by those stick up tap lights Red sat through the infomercials far too often for. Who knew what Granny was hiding within her impromptu walls, they cut off almost all of the old industrial building. Red's narrow cloak snagged upon some poorly sanded sections as she inched deeper, her shoulders barely fitting inside. Her dark eyes caught the tell tale black glass of a hidden camera stashed in the high corners of the ceiling, then another less than ten feet away. If she held her breath she could hear the whirr as one zoomed in on her blackened form.
"My, Granny," her voice echoed across the abandoned building, "what large security cameras you have."
"The better to see you with," the rasp responded beside her foot. Red flattened her back against the poor wall, waving her pistol at a black speaker tucked into a slit in the wall. Well whoever's here knows she's armed. Great.
Having recognized the first offending speaker, her brain noted the Radioshack inventory scattered across the narrow path. Drilled above the speakers were a series of holes coated over in foam that could be stuffed with only one thing.
"And what big hidden microphones you have," Red continued, her heavy heels landing upon the undisturbed dust of the concrete floor with increasing fervor. She turned a left, her loose hand trailing along the almost eye level microphones as she tracked her path. As soon as she thought she'd come to an opening, her gun would bounce into the wall and after back up, she'd find an opening on the right.
"All the better to hear you with, Dear," the voice taunted, enjoying the sight of the girl running through the maze.
Red cursed this game, she hated mazes; claustrophobia, being left behind, they all became agents deepest fears. Even if they didn't begin with them, training was certain to raise one out of the depths. Her free hand picked up a second splinter as she tracked around the maze, punching for a way free. Ducking down a small hole she finally spotted it; an open room lit by a circle of five heavy standing lamps. A black spot lay visible in the midst of it, the only blot in a sea of nothing.
Red stopped just before the light threshold of the room and whispered, hoping the mikes were crap, "Grandmother, is that you?"
The black shadow, nearly her minuscule height, didn't rise at her probing. Only the lights, flickering as a bulb succumb to its incandescence death, provided the bound subject any movement. Red watched down the narrow hall she'd climbed through, waiting to see black within black, but only the almost invisible whirr of cameras zooming in and out answered back. Taking a small breath, Red crossed into the circle and, lowering her pistol, ran towards the slumping shoulders of a person trussed up to a chair. Her right hand grazed the cold shoulder as she spoke, "Grandmother, I've come to help you."
But still the lady did not speak, her head lolling at an unnatural angle. As Red walked around the chair, a light flared from behind her, bleaching her retinas but casting the corpse into the accusatory domain of vision. She should have gasped, she would have screamed, possibly even vomited if she were a normal girl. The chest was almost completely caved in, ribs cracked like pretzel rods by a massive blow. Organs, blackening from the oxygen exposure, tumbled free from the open cavity, a kidney dangling hypnotically an inch from the floor. A face was long obliterated away from a second blow that crumpled the skull. Black blood congealed in a pool around the metal chair legs, untouched as the poor sod died alone.
Red's gun snapped up as the air shifted, her arm searching for whoever would inflict this monstrosity upon a person. Those images would tinge her mind as long as she drew breath. The wolf, Red spat even as her brain drudged up the word, was a terror that she accepted she must put down.
"I hadn't intended such a dramatic welcome for you," the raspy voice taunted from the speaker system circling her, "but he left me little choice."
"Show yourself," Red demanded, even as a small part of her prayed the wolf would crawl back into the depths of hell it ascended from.
"Did you know the Woodsman? No, probably not. Burly man, believed he was on the side of good. Funny thing about good, it's hard to tell which is the right side up when you're standing on your head."
"Good is not my concern," Red repeated the mantra drilled into her since she'd been caught picking a pocket outside her league.
"No," the voice smiled, "it never was, was it." The voice dropped from the mike, only a faint hissing answering back as Red steadied herself. Her eyes followed the shift of what could be clouds passing over the thick roof windows, or a wolf pack stalking the shadows. In the far distance, beyond the plywood walls, machinery clanked out of its dusty grave. A whomp from a cylinder pounded with every downbeat of her heart as Red cleared the shadows.
"Flannel." Red jumped, spinning her arm around to the voice. The new voice, crisper than the dusty bones taunting her to its nest, broke behind her. A single foot shuffled into the light; a mangey bunny slipper. "They called him the Woodsman because he wore so damn much flannel."
The slipper's mate joined the illuminated party as Red's prey and predator came into view. A fraying dressing gown, thicker than what most American's wore -- yanked from a Dickens novel -- dangled off frail bones. But her ropey muscles bulged as she aimed a rifle upon Red's heart, its butt digging deep into the shoulder that should disintegrate with one shot.
"Granny, what big guns you have," Red responded as she brought her own handgun around.
The old woman bared her teeth, "All the better to kill you with, my dear," but she didn't pull the trigger.
"You're the wolf," Red said uncertainly.
"I am," the old lady bowed her head slightly, causing her thin piled hair, whiter than snow, to drop down her shoulders.
"What have you done with Grandmother?" Red asked, hoping she could still salvage something of this mission. How in the hell was she going to explain a dead Woodsman and that the Wolf, the dreaded gnasher of agents, was a little old lady in a series of ketchup packets or bar coasters?
The wolf chuckled, the raspy voice returning as her laugh braided the ancient vocal cords, "Silly girl, I am. I am both wolf and grandmother."
"No," Red argued with the specter blocking her exit, but the wolf only tilted her head and smirked. Denying the information from your senses led to death. It was a mantra etched multiple times in the back of her unicorn notebook crumbling from age. Red changed her attack, trying to hide her fumble, "Why? The wolf destroys agents, botches jobs, consumes collateral."
Now Grandmother smiled wide, light failing to glisten a small hole in her dentures where the Woodsman must have gotten in a single throw before she crushed him under her paw. "Agents turn tail or try to wet their beak outside the expected 5%, jobs are double crosses, collateral can be traced if failed to be properly scrubbed. Information in one hand, destruction in the other."
"These are the pillars of our order," Red continued the familiar phrase even as she glared down the old woman's steady barrel, "but they never touch!"
It was simple, either you entered the data crunching field -- your days consumed with a raw backside digging into the hard plastic in the computer farms -- or you chose a weapon and slipped into the world. Each piece was separated from the other by runners who never got more than one piece of data in the long line. No one who pulled a trigger knew why they did it and no one ever thought to ask. It was easier to sleep at night.
The Wolf sighed, "You always take the well trod path? Never wandering off into the darkness to pluck a flower? No, of course not. Your Mother brought you up proper."
Blasphemy! To not only shatter the tenant of their family but to revel in it. The Grandmother was mad, it was the only explanation for her fervored state with agent's blood leaching into her fuzzy bunny slippers; but she was also the only means of escape. Red rolled back her shoulders, re-focusing her drooping arm. The wolf in turn shifted to follow, almost subconsciously.
"What will it be, Little One? Kill the Wolf or rescue the Grandmother? Either way, tonight you have to break your contract."
Panic squirmed through her core, the woman was right. If she killed the Wolf, she'd also fail to protect Grandmother. One side would reward her while the other would order her death for failure to comply. Heads I win, tails you lose. Red contemplated rushing past Grandmother, if she caught her off guard she might be able to throw the woman off her footing and vanish into the maze. The maze the wolf built, all while she pursued behind with her claws extended.
Grandmother watched every idea, every escape plan as it was created and destroyed in the same thought crossing the girl's smooth brow. "I did not invite you to my home to destroy you. Oh, that caught your attention. I understand why your instructors insisted you never be placed on infiltrate, you write your entire mind's eye across your face."
Red wiped at her forehead with her free hand before placing it back under the butt of her gun. She wanted to counter with "And the fact I'm barely four feet tall," but she was more curious to hear what this wolf in grandmother's clothing wanted, "Why did you invite me?"
The Wolf lowered her gun, letting the barrel slip to the ground as she held out her right hand in a friendly greeting, "For you to join me."
She could take the shot, kill the Wolf, lie and claim that grandmother was dead before she got here, then fade from what life she's known since she was seven years old. Getting work in a shop should be easy when your resume reads 1993--present Assassin. Ask for references.
"I am listening," Red said.
"My time is nearing an end," Grandmother's hand slipped behind her and she yanked forward a machine. Unhooking a mask, she turned a dial slowly letting oxygen flood depleting lungs. Midway through her fill, she explained, "lung cancer," before she finished and switched the oxygen off.
"But I do not intend to leave my post unguarded. The Wolf is a difficult necessity to our work, but so is the Grandmother. The angel and the demon in one skin saves on the family having to cut two paychecks," Grandmother chuckled to herself, using up her purchased oxygen.
"I have watched you Red. With enough proper guidance, you would become a terrifying Wolf and a passable Grandmother in time."
"That's it?" Red scoffed, her head shaking even as her aim remained true, "You wish me to abandon everything I have to become your, what, your pupil?"
"And what do you have?" Grandmother raised her painted eyebrow, "A box full of coagulated chinese food."
"Thai," Red corrected.
"Thai food," Grandmother continued, "a string of under-furnished and nearly uninhabitable apartments. Not a single love, friend or even acquaintance. Only your Mother, who sends you to your death to feed the big bad wolf.
"Join with me, become the Wolf, and I can give you what you've always wanted. What they refused you from the moment you signed on the metaphorical dotted line."
"And what is that?" Red asked. Her gun could crumple that thin woman's ribs, the same way she did the Woodsman's. Two rounds in three seconds and this futile debate would be over.
But Grandmother didn't read those thoughts walking across Red's face, or didn't care. Instead she inched closer to the girl dragging her oxygen with her, and -- folding her paper arms across her sunken chest -- answered with one word, "Freedom."
Red's gun clattered to the floor.