Ben Bryan had been afraid to get out of es car, despite being in the middle of nowhere. There hadn't been a single person in sight, and that frightened em: in es line of business, it's what one doesn't know that gets em killed, and e was all too aware of how little e knew. It was a new experience for Ben, and e didn't care for it. The winds offered no consolation, whistling just loud enough to keep em from concentrating es thoughts. E remained content to remain ducked down out of sight until Mike's car appeared. Mike, as usual, lets little escape es notice:
"Were you just hiding when I arrived?"
"Yes. I feel better now, though, since you're here."
"Whoa. That's not like you. At all."
"I know. Or more correctly, I don't know, and that's the problem."
"...Should I be calling the kind gentlemen in the white coats?"
"...Hello to you too, asshole."
"Sorry. But you're starting to get me worried."
"Sam is 'here', so to speak, right?"
"Yeah, of course. E always is, you know that."
Ben unleashes an enormous sigh of relief. "Thank you. Then I'm not worried. At least, not while I'm here."
"You think someone is after you?"
"I know someone is after me. Unfortunately, that's about all I know. Something very serious is brewing, and some major puppetry is at work. Mike... I've been fired."
Mike is rarely at a loss for words. Es "job", for lack of a better term, is mostly negotiation and thinking on es feet. Es advance plans often find themselves crumbling, but e always finds an alternative, and the good guys ultimately live to run away. Being shocked, or stuck without anything to say, is the worst condition Mike could possibly be in.
Mike is shocked, and stuck without anything to say. Ben was Mike's connection to the feds. Mike would get the signal message on es cell; they would meet in this secluded plain, flat and featureless, during a bright morning hour; Ben would present the fifty-thousand-dollar under-the-counter salary and explain the mission; Mike would rarely decline, with e and Sam splitting the money and doing their thing. Ben was always extremely thorough in es descriptions and meticulous in es plans, and had an air of confidence about em Mike found admirable. Mike looked up to Ben, and did es best to emulate em; e saw Ben not just as a boss, but also a mentor... and even a friend. Mike could picture Zhuge Liang's star falling in es mind's eye...
"I don't blame you if you want to pass on this one. I know I'll be telling you a lot less than-"
"Talk to me." Mike spends the next two seconds mentally searching emself to see if any part of em regretted saying that; e finds no unconditional objections, but one slightly uneasy feeling.
"Thank you so much!"
"No promises, but I'm listening." That makes em feel much better.
"Since I can't give you mission details, I'll give you the background instead. A piece of paper went by my desk recently, titled 'The Mycroft Initiative'."
Mike no longer feels better. In fact, e feels like the dirtiest shit that was ever dumped on the planet. Es mind begins to race.
"About three-quarters of it was obfuscated. What they did let me read was about this secret factory where they're manufacturing some kind of power source."
What the fuck have I done, Mike thinks to emself, taking great care to not let Ben - or Sam - read anything out of place on es face. At least e has something in abundance e typically lacks - time to think - and a simple tactic e usually can't afford but now can't afford not using: playing dumb.
"My supervisor fed me the usual governmental crap: revolutionize society, better place to live, science fiction into reality, you know how it goes. Only that sort of thing tends to be proudly advertised across the land. It doesn't come with a censored summary. There's something about it they don't want anyone knowing, including me."
Be glad you don't, you poor bastard.
"But they wanted someone outside the project to keep a proverbial eye on the place, and they said I was the best man for the job, what with my connections and my finger on the pulse."
"They're right about that one." I am SO sorry, Ben... I had no idea you were involved...
"I thought so too. But the place was raided two nights ago. Nobody was supposed to know where this place even was, much less what was in it, but some two-bit group of thugs broke in, went straight for the prototypes, and got out of there before anyone knew they were gone. By the time we tracked them down, it was the following afternoon. Did you hear about that freak warehouse explosion last night?"
"Of course, it was all over the news." I can't let you be killed... it just isn't right...
"It wasn't an old gas main, and the criminals didn't have a munitions stockpile. It wasn't terrorism thwarted by dumb luck. Props to the spin doctors for that one - great story. Shame it isn't true. I was there. I tracked the thieves to that warehouse, and the whole damn building blew up right in front of me. Idiot squad drivers freaked and crashed up my car. Good thing I'm friends with the pool mechanic and got it repaired that night before they canned me."
"You think it was what they stole that caused it to explode?" Everything I care about... everything you taught me...
"I know it was. I didn't have the fucking radio on like the rest of the dumbasses there; I heard a gunshot just before the explosion. From outside. The front door was wide open. The bodies inside were practically melted, but I know a shootout when I see one. They didn't die in the blast. They were all shot in advance, and then the building was set off from outside. Any doubt I would have had about that was dispelled by when - and how - the forensic team was called off. I know a cover-up when I see one; they must have already known that shit was a major explosive."
"I remember you telling me why you joined: so that you can keep them honest. You're the only reason I was ever willing to do their work to begin with. I believe you. What else can you tell me?" How can I get you through this...
"Only the painfully obvious to an old gumshoe: that one of the criminals was hip to the project. E knew where Superbomb was and what it would do. From there, I have no idea. E could be in on the whole thing or went renegade against it, I can't say. I wasn't given the chance to even try to find out. I was canned and kicked out the building far too quickly."
"You've been with them too long for that sort of farewell." How can you remain both safe and ignorant...
"They must think I know too much, whoever 'they' are. And that's what I'd like you and Sam to do for me: find out who 'they' are and expose them. I may never be able to get my job back, but I want my life back."
THAT'S IT! OF COURSE! "Ben, I promise you, I'll see to it that you'll be safe and they'll be brought to justice."
"You have NO idea how much that means to me. I have your fifty-kay in the car. It's out of my own pocket. It's all I have, but it-"
"Keep it, Ben. I don't need your money. You do. You'll need it to survive. I'll pay Sam myself if I have to."
"If you insist-"
"I do. It's part of my plan."
"You have a plan already?"
"Absolutely. But if I'm to implement it, I need to know more, starting with how you know someone is after you."
"I know because my car took a bullet on the way here."
Mike gasps despite emself. Even e isn't sure if it was facade or not.
"Irony is, if some retard didn't try to cut me off right in front of the tunnel and make me slam on the brakes, the bullet might have hit me instead. Come around the side here and I'll show you."
Mike reaches into es pocket and presses a button on a communicator within. "Sure."
Sam Colbert hates it when Mike changes position, especially when it involves going behind something. Sam's rifle isn't a rail gun, and Sam doesn't have x-ray vision, despite popular belief. Other superpowers Sam lacks include super hearing, telepathy, and magical divination, so not only is e blind to where Mike is, but deaf to what's going on as well. And so far, this encounter has NOT been going the way it normally does. E should have seen the money by now. Any and all doubts e may have, however, are assuaged by the green light that appears on Sam's communicator. As always, e just has to trust that Mike knows what e's doing.
Trusting Mike comes easy for Sam, and e certainly doesn't need to be reminded of why. The past can stay there as far as e's concerned. Sure, so e's now a contract killer, and a legendary one at that, but e's one of the good guys. They get missions from the feds, and sometimes take missions for the feds without the feds even knowing. Why, just yesterday, e and Mike managed to stop a terrorist threat, destroying the stolen prototypes for a new kind of miniature bomb. Which reminds em: e needs to get over that little fear of shooting at explosives - that hesitation could have gotten a fed blown up. As it was, it caused a big crash. Mike may have congratulated em on the drama afterward, but e knows that's really not a good thing.
It's a shame the news had to hide the truth behind the explosion, but why freak the populace, right? It's also a shame Mike wasn't able to salvage any of the bombs - Sam knew that would have been a better result. Perhaps they could have been reverse-engineered and the technology used for something beneficial - you know, they really did look like batteries... oh well. Sam's instructions were simple: either Mike's walking out with the box or running out without it, and if the latter, protect the feds by setting off the bombs early.
Between Mike's great connections and negotiation and Sam's incredible skill, there's almost nothing that they cannot do together. They're like a pair of guardian angels for the country, and when Ben is involved, that's exactly what they're needed for. And so Sam patiently waits, watching, scanning the area for... things just like that. No automatic-fire heavy weapons, so there's no immediate threat, but it may be carrying a sniper. Sam wastes no time in getting the shot lined up. If it stops, it drops....
Mike examines the bullet hole in the car frame, right on the support section between the windshield and the front driver's-side window, with a pocket flashlight. The tail end of the bullet is visible within. E doesn't like what e sees - at first. "This is a sniper's round." Which means this just got a lot tougher to deal with. Unless e's dumb enough to...
As if on cue, Mike's right hip pocket begins to shudder.
"I KNEW it! What'd I tell you? They want me dead!"
It has to be. Sam will know for certain, and know what to do. Mike casually reaches into es pocket and presses the other button on the vibrating communicator. "We may be able to use this to our advantage."
"I don't follow."
"I bet the sniper will, though. Follow, that is. Follow you. Here. To the killing grou-"
The sound of a moderately distant crash interrupts Mike. Ben, however, heard something just prior.
"Way to go, Sam. Let's check it out."
"Did I hear a gunshot from the south?"
"You heard Sam. Few get to do that and live - consider yourself lucky. I suggest we go north and see what we can learn from your pursuer."
Ben is still looking south. "I can't see anyone there! How far away is e?"
"E just saved your life - don't make em kill you now. This is one thing you're just going to have to trust me on."
"Good. Let's take our cars."
A few moments later, the twisted wreckage of a fallen helicopter stood before Mike and Ben. It had apparently simply plummeted, its pilot absent and its stability claimed by the winds. A short distance away, they find the missing pilot, with a gunshot wound to the neck.
"That's the most amazing shot I've ever seen!"
"Sam never misses. No matter the distance."
"Sam a robot or something?"
"DON'T ask questions about my partner. Ever again."
"Fine! Excuse me for living! Fuck!"
I wish e didn't have such a potty-mouth. That's probably where I got it from. "Anyway..." Mike turns the face-down corpse over. "...this anyone you know?"
"...Oh, shit. Oh, fuck. Yes, it is. It's Terrence Whitehall. E's the best sniper we had!"
"E's a fed?" Dirty lying bastards said they didn't have any insiders.
"Yeah. Well, that clinches it, the feds are definitely - wait, no, e's not in uniform... e wouldn't be hiding es identity if I were declared an enemy of the state."
"E must have been in on this secret project. Which means e came after you alone, and isn't reporting to the feds." Whoever was holding this dog's leash is a dead man. "That means we have time, but not much. Okay, listen good, cause I have to make this quick." Mike produces a business card and a pen from es pocket and quickly scribbles 'TRUST ME, COPPERFIELD' on the back, then hands the card to Ben. "Take this to the Chinese laundromat on 14th Street and ask for Gong. Bring the cash. E's the best fader in the business. Nobody stalks 'dead' people."
Ben is stunned. "A fader?! In my city?! ...That YOU KNOW?!"
It pains Mike knowing e can't explain right now. "Hopefully you'll forgive me when it's over. I trust Gong with my life, and e trusts me - that card will get you in, even if you were a fed. But you have to promise me you'll lay low. I know you'll be encountering some people you'd rather see behind bars, but you're going to have to stay hidden if you want to survive this. Don't ask anyone questions, or they'll be liable to off you themselves."
"Are you fucking serious about this?"
"Deathly. But I promise it's only temporary. And I promise you'll be able to walk the streets without fear, with your real identity, when we're done. This guy's ID is enough of a lead for me to go on. I'll get to the bottom of this, and keep you informed along the way."
"I guess I have no choice but to trust you on this."
"I get that a lot - and haven't let one down yet. Now go 'die' before some other conspirator figures out their sniper failed."
Ben hustles back into es car. "Thank you for everything!"
"Thank you, Ben. I'll carry your torch, I promise!"
Mike pulls out es cell as Ben speeds away. "...Gong, please. Tell em it's Hartford. ...Hey, Gong, I have an emergency special for you coming your way. Temporary fade, about a week I figure. Vee-eye-pee, you follow? ...Yes, I need open communication. ...Fifty-kay. ...Yes, e is. I have only three friends in this life, and e and you are two of them. Treat em like you'd treat me. ...Of course I know you treat everyone impeccably, that's why I send business your way. But do me a favor: don't ask em any questions. You'll only regret it. Oh, and I know this isn't always possible, but try to keep em away from other fadees. It's for es own good. ...Technically, former fed - it's complicated. ...Calm down - it won't be an issue, promise. For that kind of money, I'm sure you can handle it. Besides, if e gets ungrateful, let me know and I'll deal with it, promise. ...I know I make a lot of promises, but I always keep them. ...I know that you know I do. Card says 'TRUST ME, COPPERFIELD', got that? ...Awesome. Now look, I know you hate custom jobs, but you're getting this one on a silver platter: E took a sniper's bullet in the eastern plain. E's arriving by car; use it. It even comes pre-installed with an extra bullet hole. Easy-peasy. Mark my current GP, but you'll know the spot - there's a downed chopper here with the dead sniper near it. Here's the fun part - the sniper's a fed, too, but I don't want you to cover that up. I want it to look like they were both hit by a third party. ...Yeah, I'd think the feds have better things to shoot at than each other, too. Here's the clincher - I want you to seed the press first when you're ready. I actually want the feds caught with their pants down by this. ...Crikey indeed. Enjoy the lulz. ...Yeah, you'll have to work fast, but you're the best. ...Thank you very much. ...Catch you later."
Mike takes a deep breath as e returns the cell to es pocket. Okay. So far, so good. The feds are going to be spazzing out over this, giving me the perfect opportunity to find the mole before tonight's meeting. It's rare I get everything wrapped up so nice and ne- E suddenly realizes e's left a glaring loose end. SHIT! Sam's so much like a ghost sometimes, I forget about em! E surely saw me turn down the money - who knows what e's going to think. E'll be expecting a briefing just to find out if we have a mission, and... oh, no... NO... if I haven't explained this before it gets plastered all over the news that TWO feds died on the plain, Sam will be ripshit! I need to figure out what to tell em, and fast... Actually, it shouldn't be too hard. ...Yeah, I got this. I know what to say to em. And I definitely know what I'm telling the council tonight. One of those dickwads is going to pay, and pay dearly. Nobody breaks a promise to me, and nobody - NOBODY - hurts my friends. ...Shit, Ben, why did it have to be you? Well, what you don't know won't hurt you. Not if I can help it. And believe me, Ben, I can, and how.