Around five o’clock, our guys came in bloody and stumbling into things, then they started bragging about some big fight they had gotten into.
Gitana was already in a bad mood because Vince hadn’t let her spend the night with him on the mattress in his office. She roused herself from her nest of blankets, took one look at the guys’ bloody clothes, and told them, “Good job, geniuses.” Then she threw on some clothes and sneaked out to get Sara.
Ozone and I did what we could while we waited for Sara, rinsing knife and bullet wounds with water and searching for clean rags for bandages. Vince watched in silence, his features impossible to read.
Finally Gitana returned with Sara, who yawned as she checked the work we had done, applying iodine and salves where needed. Each time she finished with someone, Vince would call him into his office to get his story, so that by the time Sara was done stitching an ugly cut on Speedball’s face, Vince looked about ready to explode.
By now it was time for me to go to the hospital, so even though I was curious to see how Vince would handle this situation, I offered to accompany Sara back to her apartment.
“It’s nice of you to let us get you out of bed for this sort of thing,” I told her.
Sara gave a little shrug. “It’s the least I can do after all Vince has done for me.”
We walked another block in silence. “So what’s he really like?” I finally asked.
“Who? My brother?” She looked at me and immediately guessed why I was asking. “He’s smart, impulsive, generous, and has a new girl every few months.”
“I kind of figured he was that way.”
“He doesn’t do it to be mean. He genuinely likes women. All of them. That's the problem.”
I left Sara at the door of her apartment building and went to give Ishkin his breakfast. Today, there was no doubt that some new illness had taken hold. The congestion had turned into a nasty cough, and his fever was back. I tried to get him to eat his oatmeal. “It won’t taste any better cold, and you won’t get well if you don’t eat.”
“It’s probably that stuff making me sick,” he said between coughs.
“Well, at least drink your aspen tea, so we can maybe bring your fever down. I put honey in it, so it should taste good.”
He choked down the tea, ate a little more oatmeal, then leaned back into his pillows and drew the blanket up to his chin, shivering. “Think they’ll give me another blanket?”
“I don’t see why not.”
I went to the nurse’s station, but of course they wouldn’t hear of giving Ishkin another blanket, citing “shortages.” I had to hunt around until I finally found an empty room on another floor and stole the blanket from the bed. I sneaked it into Ishkin’s room and tucked it around his thin body, and then we talked for awhile. Actually, I did most of the talking, since he was struggling to get enough air to keep up with that horrible coughing.
When I finally stood to leave, he grabbed my hand. “I’m not going to die here, am I? I’ll get well, right?”
“Of course you’ll get well,” I said. I kissed his forehead and went away, feeling like the biggest liar in the world.
Clearly, Ishkin needed better medicine, so I stopped by the communications place. Unbelievably, there was still no message for me. The man behind the counter was apologetic. “Would you like to try again today? I can reduce the rate for you.”
I tallied the days in my head. Even if he was telling the truth about trying to reach Castaño, Robert probably wasn’t there any more. Where would he have gone next? Contacting Unitas high command wasn't a good option, even though there was nothing they could do to me for failing to return to my unit. But Auntie’s new man, Miguel, would know how to reach Robert. Miguel was a retired regional commander, and sponsored a small network of ham operators.
“Can you get a radio message to El Cid Academy, near Estrella?” I asked. This was a trick question. Miguel has a twenty-four hour communication system across the northern region. Anyone can reach Miguel, any time.
The man behind the counter hemmed and hawed, while I tried to look like I didn’t know if he could do it. “Well,” he finally said, “I can give it a try. Same message?”
“No, a different one.”
“That’ll be full price, then.”
“That’s okay.” I wrote down the message and handed it over, along with a few coins. “When should I check back?”
“Tomorrow.” He handed me a receipt with a new message claim number.
I thanked him and went on my way, wishing it was already tomorrow and I could see how my trap had worked.
When I got back to headquarters, I was surprised to find no one at the door on guard duty. I was carrying only a knife, but I rested my hand on it and looked around, willing my eyes to adjust more quickly to the dim light.
Then I saw the blood, and the body, lying face-down a little ways away. Another trail of blood led to a still form slumped against the wall. Now I could hear an unfamiliar voice in the next room, speaking in occasional clipped syllables.
Instinct said to get out. Instead I pulled off my boots and silently went to check the man on the floor. It was Xerox, and he was dead. He had dropped his gun nearby, and I picked it up. Then I checked the other man. He was alive, but pretty bad off. There was nothing I could do for him, though, so I moved toward the open doorway.
A man I had never seen before stood with his back to me, training an M4 carbine on a group that included Ozone and Gitana. Luckily my colleagues had the good sense to give no suggestion that they saw me. I ducked out of sight, and tried to collect my thoughts.
Shooting this man was my best option. One quick bullet to the head, just like hunting rabbits. But I could hear Vince arguing with someone in his office, and if the other man was as over-armed as this one, I couldn’t take a chance on making any noise.
I pulled out my knife and closed my eyes for a moment, trying to remember everything I knew about knife fighting. It wasn’t my best skill, but there was no time to worry about that now. I peeked around the doorway. The man still had his back to me, but his shoulders had relaxed slightly. He wasn’t expecting a thing.
I moved up behind him silently. I waited for the shouting in Vince’s office to grow louder, then plunged my knife into where I hoped a key tendon would be. The man let out a gasp of shock and his arm dropped to his side. As the weapon clattered to the floor, Ozone and the others rushed forward and tackled him. While they pinned the man down, I slit his throat.
Then we huddled together and in quick whispers, made a plan to rescue Vince. Luckily there was only one man in the office with him, but like the one we had just killed, he was packing way more firepower than was necessary, and if we didn’t kill him on our first try, Vince didn’t stand a chance.
By now I was feeling dizzy. It had been a long time since I had killed anyone at close range, and it didn’t help that I hadn’t had anything to eat yet today, so I was glad to give Ozone Xerox’s gun and let him take the lead on rescuing Vince. I know it was really weak of me, but the close smell of blood was getting to me. I hung back outside the office door with the others, out of sight, but waiting to rush the room as soon as we heard the first shot.
Ozone did a good job, catching the man in the temple as he was turning around to see who was there. Vince vaulted the desk as the man fell, and like I had done with the other one, cut the attacker's throat for good measure. And then he looked at all of us. “We have to leave.”
We didn’t need to ask what he meant, so we hurried back to the main room and started packing. I wanted to ask someone what all this was about. Who were those guys? Why had they had attacked us? Were there really only two of them, or were we still in danger? And where were we moving to, anyway?
I looked around, hoping someone could tell me what was happening, but even chatty Ozone was grim and silent as he rolled up his blankets and stuffed clothes and personal belongings into a duffel bag.
Suddenly I remembered we had a wounded man in the other room. Feeling like an idiot, I stopped what I was doing and hurried to where I had left him. I found Vince already there, dressing his wounds and murmuring something that sounded encouraging, even though the man appeared to be beyond the point of understanding.
“Should I get Sara?” I asked, wondering why I felt like I had to whisper.
“No, he needs to go to the hospital. I’ll send Gitana for a cart.”
“I can go.”
“You don’t know our contacts, and they don’t know you. Gitana will do it.” He finished tying a bandage, then smoothed the man’s hair with an oddly tender gesture, like that of a father comforting a child. Then he stood and came over to me. “You okay?”
“That’s what I’m supposed to ask you.”
He pulled me into his arms and I didn’t resist. All he said was “Thank you,” but there were a lot of things he didn’t say that I heard in those two words. He kissed the top of my head and was still holding me when Gitana entered the room.
I pulled away, feeling guilty even though I knew I had no reason to. Vince told her to go for a cart and burro, and she glared at me, but said nothing and flounced out the door. Then Vince made like he would say something to me, but I shook my head and returned to the other room.
We went to our new headquarters, a dump of an old warehouse.
I made my bed between Ozone and Fausto, not wanting to be too close to Gitana. Who knows what she thinks of me now?
Obviously, there was no mission tonight, so I went back to the hospital. I found Ishkin no better. He was coughing up a nasty, yellow-green fluid, and Sara told me it didn’t look good. She said even with the best drugs and care, it was up to him now. Either he would fight this thing off, or he would die.
So tonight I’m pretty depressed. After such a nice day yesterday, how is it that today, everything seems to be falling apart?
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