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So Stands the Matador

by Lisa VanGalen 10 months ago in Short Story
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Life is a game...until it isn't

Cameron watched through the blinds as the truck drove past the office building. An alert pinged on his cell phone, giving him less than thirty seconds to abort the mission or proceed. Adrenaline surged through his muscles as his heart rate quickened. This was it. The final test. The chance to prove himself as a worthy adversary. Or a quitter.

All of his life he was a quitter. Can't stick the landing? Walk away. Fumble the winning touchdown? Leave the field. Nothing he ever started came to a satisfactory end. Even his marriage had crumbled in a heap of broken promises and empty vows.

This? This was different. This he felt in his bones, in every fibre of his being. It sounded corny, but it was the truth. He was good at this. So very good it sometimes scared him. Second alert. Fifteen seconds. He sniffed. “Mission is a go. I repeat. Mission is a go.”

He peered back out through the slats as the truck finished its circuit, tail-lights flashing the three pulse signal. Message received. Cameron was on his own. He carefully set the blinds back in place and eased away from the window. Sitting silently beside the plastic ficus, he reviewed the floor plans so meticulously memorized over the past two days. He had been tempted to take the time off work just to go over the details, but the whole point was to be able to live in the real world and compete in the games at the same time.

The games. Cameron's hands were slick with sweat as he recalled the rules and the possible outcome. If he proved his worth, he advanced to the next level. He had beat the last four without issue. This one had an added risk. Get caught and you were out. And he didn't think they meant 'out' like in baseball. These people played for keeps. The message board was peppered with questions for players who never responded, their profiles maintained by the Organization, black ribbons draped over the pictures.

At one time, he had been curious enough to ask about Kendra, someone he had run into on a job. His inquiries were quietly deleted, the profile erased. Only her photo remained. Cameron kept to himself after that, trying to be noticed but not spotlighted. This opportunity was his ticket in, he could feel it. Either way, tonight would be the biggest one of his measly life.

His patience was met with the hollow feeling of an empty building. Abandoned after the Uprising, dust coated the surfaces and debris was everywhere, a detail he had overlooked when he arrived. Cameron looked back at the blind and the spaces left in the pristine dust covering the slats. How to hide his error, he wondered. Leaving the slat there would be a beacon to his presence. Maybe he could remove the one slat without disturbing anything else. As he pondered, his eyes dropped to the warped linoleum floor. Bare spots showed his footprints, every one of them. He could see where he entered, what he touched, the length of his stride. It would be easier to blow up the building than to hide where he had been.

Well, if he couldn't fix the damage, perhaps it would be better to do more, to disguise his objective under the pretense of petty thievery. Cameron set about trashing the office as quietly as possible pulling drawers, opening doors, turning over chairs. Satisfied the focus of any investigation would start in this room, he headed down the hallway to the former president's suite. The condition of the outer offices convinced him nothing of value was left after the riots.

Thankfully, there were plenty of photos taken of the scene following the assassination. They were locked in his memory as well as on his phone. Creeping deeper into the maze of castoff useless items, he was astonished about how much remained. Some could still be sold for the metal, a thought he tucked away for another time. Reclamation specialists made good coin, more if they re-purpose it. Without the abundance of manufacturing and the glut of industry, it was interesting to study what still held value.

He stood solemnly in the centre of the room, turning clockwise to anchor the memorized images over the visual chaos. Mentally stripping away the junk and piles of broken furniture, Cameron imagined the painting, hanging as it had for a decade, the ornate walnut frame provided a stark contrast to the cream-coloured walls. It was missing, as he had expected. But he only needed the clues hidden in the portrait of a matador preparing for victory. He thought of the image as a metaphor for his life, fancying himself a Spanish bullfighter, holding fast against the raging beast.

The presented objective had appeared deceptively simple prior to his arrival. With his first mistake behind him, Cameron settled into thief mode. His mother had scoffed at his propensity to play games, to memorize the smallest detail with recall that rivalled the most powerful computer. If she could see him now. Maybe not. She would surely find fault with his new line of work, getting paid to sort out other people's problems.

No matter. She had perished along with his father when the mob burned his neighbourhood to its foundations. Somewhere inside, he knew that he should feel bad about that. But emotions served no one. What good would it do to mourn the only two people who had never understood him. He shook his head. More had been lost than just his parents. Tragedy creates victims or warriors. Surprisingly, Cameron had chosen the second path.

Because of his choice, here he stood, in the presidential office, kicking over stacks of books and rummaging through crumpled documents. He froze, his mind replaying the scene as it looked upon entering. So focused on the location of the hidden vault, he had disturbed more than he should have. Turning back to the books, he flicked through his memory and righted the pile.

There it was. The one clue he couldn't glean from the briefing file. A smile warped his face, more of a grimace really being unaccustomed to happiness. Stepping back from his recreated tower, he leaned in to adjust the spines. They must be precise.

A small shake of his shaved head signalled his brief reluctance to accept the message. But there it was, printed in bold. Cameron looked around the room, scanning for the recording device. The mission had changed. The test had changed. Bracing himself, he exhaled any resistance.

“I accept,” he said, his voice cracking as he spoke. Reaching for his weapon, he undid the clip holding it tight in the holster. The point of no return. These people were clever. Giving him a task that needed brains and shift it to one of brawn. A true test of his training.

Cameron stepped closer to the wall, all thought of his original mission sidelined as he quieted. He listened to the building again. Apparently, it was no longer as empty as it had been. His heart raced in anticipation, sweat slicking his hands. Wiping them on his cargo pants, he grimaced at the grimy smears left behind.

There. A click. Cameron's breathing slowed, his hearing tuning in to the slightest sound. Paper sliding. A footstep, delicately placed. His target was much more careful than he had been. But then again, his original mission had not called for discretion, only speed and accuracy. He glanced at the wall to the right of the window. Judging the distance between targets, he hesitated. Could he take out his hunter and still retrieve the package? The threat lay with the assassin sneaking up on his position.

A smile, a real smile, creased his face. This is what he was born to do, born to become. With care and precision, Cameron slid the knife from its sheath, the steel glinting in the feeble moonlight cascading through the slats. His throat dried, making swallowing difficult. No matter. He had an old bottle of whisky waiting for his return. One last assessment before he crouched in the alcove. Standing was the preferred position, giving maximum force behind an attack. But it was also what the enemy expected. Cameron delighted in being unpredictable.

In the quiet, his thoughts drifted to the matador, cape swirling in the dusty arena like a superhero. That was it. He was a superhero, ridding the city of vermin. They finally saw his true abilities, this change of plans calling him to fulfill his god-given right to kill people.

Wait.

The silence had been disturbed by the slightest brush of fabric against...something. He couldn't tell where it had come from. He needed another point of reference. His ears hurt from the strain, his calf muscles screaming. If he moved now, he risked discovery before he could attack. If he didn't, maybe he couldn't kill his target at all, the cramps preventing fluid movement. Damn it. Too late to learn that lesson. In the games, it looked so easy.

Without a sound, Cameron found himself pulled from his hiding place and thrown out into the room. Sliding into the desk, the air propelled from his lungs. Sharp pain indicated a broken rib, his spine creaking from being bent around the wooden leg. He slowly staggered to his feet, disoriented and unable to hear anything. A form passed by, quicker than he could hope to move, nor more than a shrouded shape in the near darkness.

His fingers felt curiously empty, his knife out of sight. A blow from his left side sent him careening over the desk. As he fell onto the stack of books, they scattered, their words mocking him. He had been so close to victory, so close he could taste it. Now all he could taste was the cloying iron of blood as it welled up in his throat. A shadow crossed his face as he lay in the debris.

“You!” he spit out, blood drooling down his chin. “But you were already dead.” Breathing was becoming difficult, the puncture to his lungs ensuring death.

The assassin stepped out of his reach, staring down at the red-tinged droplets on her shoe. “We all are,” came a whispered reply. “We just don't know it yet.”

Cameron's eyes fluttered as the last of his breath escaped. Deep within in his own mind the fading image of his target loomed, the glint of a golden ring and a pair of grief-filled eyes the last he would recall before death claimed him.

Kendra stepped to the window of the outer office. The truck idled in the street below. Sadly she looked back at the remains of the only person who had cared enough to wonder about her disappearance. A drip of Cameron's blood fell onto the tip of her shoe. Staring up at the secreted camera, she found the strength to utter two words:

“Mission accomplished.”

Short Story

About the author

Lisa VanGalen

I am a panster by nature, discovering my characters as they reveal themselves. To date, my novel writing has involved the paranormal or magick within a more familiar setting, blending it with mysteries, police procedurals, or thrillers.

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