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Jason Austin

Jason Austin

Book 
DUES OF MORTALITY


Sample Chapter: Prologue

Somewhere in upstate Ohio
August 24, 8:41 am.

I hate this place, Miles Gabriel thought. Hate it, hate it, hate it! In fact, he hated being anywhere near it, let alone inside the goddamn thing. It actually made him second-guess his career choice, which was something he'd never done. And it didn't have anything to do with the poison—the weaponized by-products of cherry-pits or Colombian frogs or any of that sticky yellow mist those ghouls in the underground labs had recently conjured up—being churned up all around him. All that shit had long since become a shockingly distant second. The real scourge of the place was, by far, the people, the living breathing filth he had to contend with all because Wallace refused to be bothered. People like that Japanese mobster who snorted more narcotics than he sold and that little pervert prince from the Middle East who'd become a blight on his family name, unable to control his urges. How he despised them. Hated the very sight of them parading around under the guise of politicians and potentates overwhelmed by the need to continuously blow smoke up his ass, thinking it was the only way to get what they wanted. Christ, as if Wallace or anyone else gave a flying fuck about their pointless causes, internal power struggles, or endless foreign rebellions. Someone just had to tell them that when you're trolling around a facility that isn't supposed to exist, buying weapons that aren't supposed to exist, with money that wasn't supposed to exist, you left your fucking theme music at home.
“We've increased the potency of the Saffron toxin so you can minimize the delivery system,” Gabriel assured the general's attache. “It will be ready by the end of next week, well ahead of schedule.”
“Good,” the woman answered. “It should give us the last bit of leverage we need to put our demands on the prime minister's list of priorities.”
Gabriel nodded. Smart move, on the general's part, he thought, to send such a serious piece-of-ass from—where was it? Uganda or something like that—to tie up the deal. He could use a quick lay. And quick it would have to be. He lost an hour of sleep for every minute the deployed prototype was active, and he needed to get back to Cleveland to retrieve its information and shut it down. He smiled at her directly, hoping she would be responsive to his overture. Which would be the least she could do, considering she'd insisted he remain in the room while that goddamn nerve toxin was unleashed within the hermetically sealed chamber no less than five feet away from them. It had turned the lab specimen to gelatin. She tapped at the phone bud in her right ear and uttered something in Swahili. A few seconds later Gabriel's smartwatch trilled and he punched up a text typed across its holographic display. It read, simply: PAYMENT RECEIVED.
He smirked at the woman, said, “Well, now that our business is complete...”
“I can get back to my country, yes,” she said, cutting him off...in every sense of the phrase. “I thank you for your services Mr. Gabriel. Should we ever be in need of them again, we know how to reach you. Goodbye.” She then turned and walked away from him without so much as a handshake.
Bitch.


****
Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 24, 11:02 p.m.

The song was called “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, a tune from an old Disney film. Stanley Edinburgh had never seen the film, and he knew less than half the words to the song, but that didn't stop him from whistling bar after winsome bar of it as he strode through the new biotech wing inside the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's University Park. He just couldn't help it, he thought, as he practically skipped through the indoor atrium, a little earlier than usual, completing another patrol. The high brought on by his epiphany-slash-victory over Dolores was like nothing he'd ever felt before, like somehow being in the presence of divinity itself.
The argument had begun just as had so many of the rest before them. Stanley had just looked at his wife—after coming home from less than an hour at the bar and finding the toilet seat up and her with that familiar grin on her face—shook his head as if to say, “how stupid do you think I am?” and had given her all the excuse she'd needed.
“What's your problem?” she'd blared, leading off with her classic reversal. From there it had segued into how he was never doing enough, didn't make enough money and how she was tired of driving a goddamn bus every day to make ends meet and so on and so on. It was apparently no matter that the true source of their money issues was her hair salons, skin treatments and gym memberships, all maintained to impress the other and mostly younger men that he'd continued to get offhand reports of her entertaining like Bigfoot sightings, in and around town, ducking from motel to restaurant with her hanging all over them like seaweed on a beached dolphin.
As she carried on, the moment in question, as he recalled, had happened somewhere after “worthless fuck” and before “biggest mistake of my life”. Without missing a beat, he'd just smiled at her and said, “I love you too, dear.”
And realized he'd meant it.
Not in the romantic “forever and ever” way he once did, but in the “it's all going to be all right” kind of way. At first he'd thought it had been the result of an emotional breakdown or something, but that wasn't it. It had come from...inside him. Someplace deep down that he was shocked to find existed.
“You're crazy,” Dolores bitched.
“Well, I might be crazy,” he'd rebutted, “but I sure ain't miserable.”
After that, she just stared at him, looking like a deer in the headlights as he walked out the door.
As Stanley continued to rollick in his newly discovered liberation, he used his baton flashlight to tap on his shoulder the beat of another song he had queued up in his mental ApTunes. Halfway through the song, a soft clatter, from what seemed to be one of the student labs, wafted out into the dimmed corridor. He beamed his light at the spot: a pair of double doors just a few feet from his left, saw nothing. He walked up to the doors anyway and selected a code key from his belt. He decoded the lock and eased the door open while stepping sideways and aiming the light inside.
He angled carefully inside the lab, holstered the flashlight and rested a palm over the low-charged MAG strapped at his hip. He commanded the lights and a lusty whiteness instantly saturated the room. Millions of dollars' worth of state-of-the-art computers and 3D microscopes sat atop row after row of powder blue, laminate casework. Shelves filled with beakers, bottles and boxes of god-knows-what were hunkered beneath the raceways of industrial pipes traversing the ceiling. Stanley never forgot the disaster potential that existed in these rooms. He always regarded them as one stray shot away from Fukushima. He continued to look around the lab, until his eyes fell upon an air vent over his right shoulder, saw something protruding from its slots. He walked over to the vent and discovered the foreign object to be a flat, wide nylon loop, perhaps a strap. He redrew his flashlight to inspect it, but the overlapping slots made it impossible to determine how it was attached inside. He holstered the light once more, unfastened the catches on the vent's cover and pulled it down on its hinges. He saw that the loop was indeed a strap to a lumpy black dufflebag that had been stuffed inside the vent. He removed the bag and, when going to place it on the nearest table, glimpsed what looked like a faint footwear-print on its otherwise spotless surface. He then cautiously laid the bag, which must have been about ten pounds, give or take, on an adjacent table and reached for his radio. The bag had an unzipped flap over a side compartment and, before uttering a word, Stanley curiously flipped it up with his other hand. His eyes locked immediately on the bold red LED numbers of a timing device fixed to a solid brick-shaped object stacked on top others of its kind inside the bag that bore the grouping C4 printed on it.
The timer was at three seconds.
He turned his head as if someone were in the room with him and said, “God, don't let anyone else get hurt.”


Chapter 1

Cleveland, Ohio, August 25, 8:34 a.m.


“Just pull the trigger,” Xavier muttered to himself as he let the barrel of the revolver, he'd picked up in the trash, slip all too slowly between his teeth. Hours ago he'd watched a boy, no more than twelve or thirteen years-old, lob it into a dumpster so the cop who'd been running after him wouldn't find it in his pockets. Xavier thanked God he hadn't been spotted by the uniform as he'd hunkered into his shadowy spot at the other end of the alleyway. Every suburbanite cop on the street these days had it in for the homeless, a result of the H-ball epidemic. And he had had his fill for the day of being smacked around by the worst of them. After the cop had caught and dragged the kid off, Xavier had gone over and climbed into the dumpster, at first assuming the discarded object to be a stolen smartwatch or something else he could sell that would translate into a bottle of the good stuff for a change. He hadn't known it was actually a gun until he'd found it; the fading sunlight and his distance from the action being too significant. Not that he wouldn't have taken it regardless; nothing sold faster on the street than a gun, even if it wasn't magnetic acceleration like most nowadays.
Though, it wasn't money or even booze he was thinking about now.
What he was thinking about right now, as he tasted the metal on the end of his tongue, were the mechanics. About how, barring any folly, the bullet would enter just above the tonsils and exit through the back of his skull, taking most or all of the brain-stem with it. Easy, he figured. After all, plenty of soldiers had done it. Ones that had seen even less than him, watched fewer people take a bullet or fall on a grenade...and damn sure ones that hadn't made the same mistakes he had.
He raised his head, letting the barrel slide out of his mouth, gazed crookedly out one of the windows in the erstwhile living area of the old home's apartment. None of the second floor unit's windows had been boarded over like the first floor's, and it had a direct view of a terribly bright streetlamp that burned its way through. He stared into the heart of it in attempt of some lame sadomasochistic ritual. A half-minute was about all he could endure before he stopped, trying to blink away the light's dancing imprint. He thought how the eyesore of a house had seemed to just materialize, earlier, right under the brim of Granddad Willie's old baseball cap as he wandered the streets of this particularly gritty section of East Cleveland. The first thing he'd noticed was how the bricked concrete steps leading to its porch were cracked in a way that resembled tiers of giant teeth smiling back at him. Perfect, he'd thought as he tossed back a shot of gin from his old stainless steel flask, flexing his jaw on the swallow. After marching around to its rear, he'd found the back door completely unobstructed. No panels nailed over it barring entrance. Just a neon-colored sign that read NO TRESSPASSING, UNSAFE TO OCCUPY. Which to a homeless person translated as “break in at your own risk; if you die inside, no one will find you”. He then tried the door's knob hoping for a stroke of luck. Stupid, yes, but not nearly as stupid as almost breaking his neck climbing to a second-story window only to find the door was miraculously unlocked the whole time. In the end, it had taken a couple of solid kicks and the aid of an all-too heavy branch from a blown-over tree to divorce the stubborn door from its jamb. There was an obvious risk concerning noise, though many of the surrounding homes were, as well, vacant and the ones that weren't likely contained folks who were dead asleep or just wouldn't care what they'd heard. Once inside, Xavier surveyed the first floor as best he could through the combination of murky space and drunken stupor. The road-mapped ceilings ran brown with water stains and scraps of old wallpaper formed curls of striped leaflets desperate to escape the remains of plaster. The parquet floors creaked ominously under his feet. They were shy a few boards in some spots, so he had to watch his step, lest he discover a ten-foot drop to the basement. A damp musty stench clung in the air: a mélange of rotted wood and rat-droppings that instantly made him sick. The nausea overcame him and he realized what it had taken to get inside the house would not be without a price. He'd dropped to his knees and leaning over one of the larger holes in the floor, heaved violently, his eyes feeling as if they would spurt from their sockets. Echoes of vomit splashing against the basement's cement reminded him of frying food, which added an extra wring in the pit of his stomach. Afterwards, empty and exhausted, a dry corner of the room appeared to him like an oasis in the middle of a baking desert and he'd crawled over to it where he remained since.
He slid the barrel of the gun under his chin, wondered just how long it might take before someone smelled the results of his effort and discovered him lying on the floor of this abandoned shit-hole, all rotting and being chewed on by a horde of rats. It sure as hell wouldn't be the gunshot that got anybody's attention; shit, three square blocks of this poverty-stricken paradise could be blown to smithereens without pricking a single ear. Pull the trigger, dammit. Just...pull...the trigger!
“Colleen,” he whispered. He so wished she was here right now. She'd know what to do...what to say. She'd hit him with some long-forgotten sliver of wisdom from Shakespeare or Confucius and have him thinking what an idiot he was being.
But Colleen wasn't here.
She wasn't here and he was. What would her genius poets and philosophers have to say about the justice in that?
He closed his eyes, immediately saw the crime-scene again. Saw those fucking footprints. Jesus, there was so much blood. Buckets of it. Moses had tracked it all over the floor like an absent-minded child who'd come in after playing in the mud. Colleen...I'm so sorry.

****

“You have a big head,” Colleen said, after sliding into the transport's passenger seat while Xavier set himself behind the wheel.
“That's the problem with women,” he replied. “You tend to see confidence where there's only arrogance. I'm just confident, that's all.”
“That's not what I meant. I mean you have like a really huge skull. For some reason, I just noticed how big it looked from the side. It's a miracle you can fit that helmet on it.”
“Shut up,” Xavier said in faux defense.
Colleen giggled. “ 'All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure', Mark Twain.”
“Ha, ha,” he deadpanned, thinking how she was the first woman ever to truly make him enjoy laughing at himself. And how, if not for her last name, they could enjoy so much more together. Well, her last name and...now this. He glanced in the rear-view mirror as Derrick Moses turned his back in pursuit of the barracks.
“I'm sorry, by the way, I didn't know you were on a date when your father sent me to take you home. I assume I wasn't supposed to see him...or that.”
Xavier had arrived just as Moses was kissing Colleen goodnight and partaking in a generous handful of her ass. Made him want to kill the son-of-bitch, seeing his filthy branch-grabbers all over her like that.
“My father doesn't like me dating soldiers,” she sighed. “Says the world is too unstable these days. Doesn't want me to end up kissing a flag-draped coffin or on the business end of some guy's PTSD.”
“He might have a point. Moses has crossed paths with the MPs more than once. Ask me, he's well on his way to a conduct discharge.”
“I'm a big girl; I can take care of myself.”
“That may be, but the one thing you can't do is change guy's like him.”
“Where the hell is all this coming from?” she asked, a measure of anger in her voice.
“From my...” Xavier literally bit his tongue. He had almost said it, almost let the cat out of the bag. In fact, he realized he'd never come so close. He looked at Colleen sitting next to him practically transfixed, her emerald-green eyes suddenly as big as traffic lights. “From my...experience.”
She said nothing. Didn't have to. At least not for him to know what she was thinking.
“You know what, forget it,” he stammered. “I'm sorry, I've had a long day. Don't pay me any mind.”
Colleen continued to stare at him for far too long. “It's okay. I understand,” she finally said with what Xavier could almost swear was sincere disappointment in her voice. Either that or she just felt sorry for him. She'd made it pretty clear, that's what she needed to find in a guy for him to be even the slightest bit interesting: to be broken, damaged somehow. Though, Xavier couldn't recall ever being described in that way. Charming, handsome and athletic, sure. Some women had said even his name was sexy: Xavier, pronounced with a Z sound at the beginning instead of an isolated X, like X-ray or some pretentious thing like that. “What the hell could you possibly need with me?” one of them had once asked. He had never heard the question before, but somehow knew if he wanted to keep her coming by, to answer, “I don't.”
They rode the short distance to the colonel's house in a cranked out silence. They exited the transport and Xavier glimpsed his friend and fellow MP, Max Porter, several yards away, getting a head start on patrol.
Colleen climbed the front steps, pausing just shy of the door, said, “Xavier, do you...”
“Don't worry. I'm not stupid,” he interrupted, rescuing himself.
She waited.
“I won't tell your father anything. He'd just take it out on me anyway.”
She smiled graciously and kissed his cheek with the gentlest brush of her skin to his stubble.
It electrified him.
“Good night, Xavier,” she said and went inside.

****

Max Porter had been signed on to a four-year hitch in the Army: two as an MP and another two as a trained sniper. He was also a Cleveland boy, just like Xavier. Grew up in Collinwood on the east side while Xavier in South Brooklyn on the west. They both loved the Cavaliers and hated the Denver Broncos and neither of them had ever visited the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, just didn't see the point. As they sat in the Brigade Tavern, less than a mile off base, they ordered up a couple of beers and argued the chances of the Browns making the playoffs this year. As usual, Max hardly touched his drink.
“I swear you have to be the only guy in the world that comes to a dive bar for the atmosphere,” Xavier said.
Max chuckled, his right ear wiggling along with the muscle contractions.
It was still the funniest damn thing Xavier had ever seen. Max had ears the size of Frisbees, and with him being only five-foot-seven and barely a hundred-fifty pounds, no doubt they could be used as flotation devices in the event of a water-bound emergency.
“I come here to get picked up,” Max said, glancing at a table of female patrons, none of whom were looking in his direction. Though, Xavier had already caught the eyes of all three and had subsequently ignored them.
“That's right, you met Sheila here,” Xavier recalled.
“Please don't mention that name,” Max complained.
“I tried to warn you.”
“Ay, I joined up to fight the enemies of America right? Well, that bitch certainly qualifies.”
Xavier laughed, said, “I thought you joined because you had all those family connections, career officers and shit.”
“Yeah, that too. Something in the blood makes us all strive for positions of life-threatening authority. Got them going back as far as World War Two in the OSS. Got a grandfather did thirty-six years in the NYPD and my dad is just one promotion away from heading up the Wade County Sheriff 's Department. Even my cousin Nate wants to be in the NSA...or CIA, or some shit like that. And that's just the men in my family. My second cousin, Tandy, she's a kickboxer working as a bouncer in Las Vegas.”
“And all this time I thought it was because your initials were MP.”
Max shrugged. “Shit, what was I going to do, you know? I've never really been good at anything else...and I've seen way too many people just drifting along, jumping from job to job, looking for some dream that will never come true. I figure, as long as I stick to what I'm good at and what I know, happiness and contentment will follow.”
Xavier chugged his last drop of beer in agreement, gaveled the bar with the bottle. He narrowly missed the bar itself and the bottle tipped off its rail. With a whip-snap of his uniform's sleeve, Max snagged the bottle by its neck with one hand firmly gripping it in all five fingers and returned it to the bar.
“Tell me, though, why are we speaking of my career and firebomb of a love-life, when yours is so much more interesting?” Max asked.
“Stop it. I know where you're going,” Xavier replied. “It's like I said before: the safety may be off but I'm keeping it holstered. Besides, I like being friends with her. She's really smart, knows all about politics and spirituality and all that deep shit. She's really opened my eyes about a lot of things.” He paused, thoughtful. “Things I thought I'd never get over. And anyway, what she doesn't know won't hurt her.”
“What makes you think she doesn't know?”
Xavier gave his friend a subtle side-eye, said, “Because I know what I'm doing. I know how to play my shit cool when it comes to women, it's my thing.”
“Yeah, you looked real cool last night, staring up at her like Prince Charming standing beneath the tower.”
“Either way, I'm not touching her. Hatten-the-Patton would chop off my head...then he'd decapitate me.”
Max laughed.
“Besides, she's already...involved with somebody on base.”
“You're shitting me? Who?”
Xavier sighed, knowing he'd said too much. But then Max was pretty good at keeping secrets. “Derrick Moses,” he replied.
“Moses? That dick? Aw, man, I'd rather you told me they outlawed internet porn or something.”
“She's one of those girls with a thing for wounded animals.”
“Wounded, my ass. That guy's just an animal. You'd be doing both her and yourself a favor by talking her down from that ledge.”
“No way. That's just asking for trouble. Trust me, sooner or later she'll realize she can't save him or he'll dump her and that'll be the end of it. She just doesn't want her father finding out, so keep the shit chill, okay?”

****

Xavier could barely think, drowning in the flood of memories. How many times had he asked himself if he could have done something different, could have saved her? How many times was the answer the same?
Yes! Yes, dammit, he could have. He could have, but he didn't. He'd failed! Meaning it was his fault. Meaning...he had killed...He started to cry, just like he always did when he remembered. It was always the same too, picking it apart from the second they showed up to grab that piece-of-shit from the locals, what felt like a million mistakes replaying in his head all at once.

****

“Here,” the officer said and he shoved Moses's dead weight at them like a sack of manure. He'd already been dragging him out of the cell by the time Max and Xavier had walked through the front doors of the Alexandria station house, eager as shit to get rid of him. “He's pretty well fried. He wouldn't shut up before you guys got here, but he shouldn't be much of a problem. H-ball makes you crash pretty hard.”
“You sure that's what it is?” Max asked.
“We had to put him in isolation because he thought the occupied cells were filled with man-eating sea turtles. That's the kind of shit the stuff makes you see. The skin on his face is spotting up from the broken capillaries and now he can barely walk, so yeah, I'm sure.”
The officer removed Moses's cuffs and Moses hit the floor with a thunderous slap.
“Aw, shit,” Max said, as he reached for his own cuffs.
“Hold on,” Xavier said. “Let's each take an arm over the shoulder. It'll be easier to drag him out.”
Max agreed and they hauled Moses outside to the truck with his toes scraping the ground the whole way.
“God, I'm glad we're not doing this in armor,” Max said. “In this heat, we'd be popping our turkey timers by now. I can't believe Colleen Hatten's taste could be this bad. I bet she eats black jelly beans, too.”
“Colleen,” Moses droned.
“Careful, huh,” Xavier said, glancing at their baggage.
“What?” Max said. “He's not gonna remember any of this by tomorrow. Fucking jerks like this always get the breaks.”
“Like I said, she'll wise up. She likes to give others the benefit of the doubt, but she's not stupid. Believe me, I know; my mother had to do the same once. My guess is, after this, she won't want to see him anytime soon.”
Max smiled, said, “Aha, already planning your opening salvo of studliness, huh? Or maybe you did that, last night, when you kissed her?”
“Ay, I didn't kiss her, she kissed me,” Xavier corrected him, while letting go of his side of Moses so he could retrieve the key to the transport. Before he knew it, a small serrated knife, capable of gutting a shark, had been buried into his chest and he dropped the keys, frozen. The sight of the blade's handle protruding from his chest had sent him into brain-lock, the fight-flight-or-freeze scenario turned inside out. It could happen to even the most hardened of military vets and for reasons that appeared totally out of bounds. Moses had moved like lightning as he drew the blade from, what they would later discover, had been a sheath sewn into the inside of his belt—easy for the local boys to miss, especially, if they didn't think him much of a threat. He then spun and kicked Max hard in the gut, knocked the wind right out of him. He filched Xavier's gun from its holster, actually laughed at him. Max reached for his own sidearm, but was too late to keep Moses from firing a round into his knee, a damn-sight more painful place to be shot than many. Moses then snatched up the keys to the transport, jumped into the driver's seat and burned out with the squeal of rubber against the road tearing through the night air.

****

According to the CID investigation, Colleen had never quite known what hit her. One moment, she was having a drink with friends at her apartment and the next she was laying in a pool of her own blood, her head barely attached to her body. The second she'd opened the door, the bastard shot her at close range with Xavier's own sidearm, a 3mm MAG recently made standard issue. Moses claimed he had had no idea it needed proper calibration, which was bullshit. Xavier always wondered if Moses had left him alive that night because he'd known what he was about to do would be even worse, would absolutely destroy him. And if that was the case...had worked perfectly.
Xavier closed his eyes and drew the gun under his chin, placed his thumb over the trigger. His tears were falling like rain now, his nose running like a broken faucet. Beads of sweat mixed with them as they bubbled down his face, leaving the salty tastes of failure and regret on his lips. He gripped the handle with both hands and used a forefinger to push back the hammer. Took a deep, literally last breath and held it.
Pulled the trigger.
Clack, he heard.
Fuck.
He pulled the gun from between his lips, thumbed its catch. The cylinder fell open, revealing five Smith & Wesson bullet rims and one empty chamber in the twelve o'clock position. He hesitated not a second, stuck the barrel back into his mouth, every muscle in his body tensed to its limit. Squeeze, goddamn you, squeeze.
But he couldn't.
Attempting to fire a bullet into his head had had a massive draining effect on his entire body, like he'd just run ten miles. He gazed over, once more, to the bare window. The rain had stopped and a mild breeze was crawling across his wet face. He needed a drink, he figured...or a nap—something, anything that rendered him as close to dead as possible. He zipped up his dirty blue flight jacket and rubbed a knee through his stained khakis, flattened a foot against the floor and pulled at the flap of sole from its worn boot. He shoved the .38 back into his jacket-pocket and coerced himself to his feet. He was so weak, he had to steady himself with each step as he trudged downstairs and out of the house, his hand never letting go of the gun.


writing ClydeFisk
Stan Lee is the greatest of all time!!!
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