This story turned ten years old this week. It’s a good, scary bit of work inspired by a report on NPR I heard while driving the streets of Los Angeles, and some personal darkness I had to deal with at the time. It’s the product of withdrawals, sleepless nights, and cigarettes. It remains one of my greatest hits. Enjoy.
Tarrabuye was just another backend, shithole village in South Central Africa; population of a couple of hundred, gods older than the dirt the natives slept on. An eighteenth century relic resting in the middle of the twenty-first. Rumor tells that the villagers kill and eat Christian missionaries to keep the modern world away and steal the power of its gods. Nice thought. I don’t like Christians either But the modern world is knockin’ ‘cause we need Terrabuye.
Welsh squawks through my earpiece.
“It’s all clear,” he whispers. “Infrared shows no sentries.”
“They’re just waiting for the harvest,” I mutter. This moment before it begins always makes me wistful. Thoughts of another life in a beautiful, untouched world makes me regret the choices that brought me here under the cover of night. Then I remember the money and the real existence. Regret turns to envy and anger. Usually helps get the job done.
“Reapers. Maneuver Roosevelt. Usual stats and frequencies,” I order “Headkills will only be accepted, gentlemen, if lethal force is required, as per your contracts. DO NOT DAMAGE ANY VITAL ORGANS.”
It always worked to format. The boys are pros, learned the work under my eye. Step 1 requires stealth, so the sneakiest ones approach the huts or trailers real quiet and toss in the gas. Gas alone gets us a good score, but someone always wakes up screaming
Step 2: organized chaos; we stay organized while confusion overtakes the targets. They run, screaming questions and commands in their incomprehensible baby talk. The shooters target them while they scatter, increasing the score with the claws. It’s a simple machine. Getting hit by one hurts enough, but it holds onto the flesh and sends an electromagnetic pulse through the nervous system. Fries like a bitch, but that’s the downside of running from the gas. The sleepers never know they’re dead. The shocked have terror as their last memory
“Dooley…check this out,” Rankin laughs over the comm. The stragglers are making cover. Our numbers look good so we don’t hunt, so we all saunter over to Rankin.
She crouches before us, an angry tigress protecting her cubs against a score of hyenas. Determination tightens her jowls while she waves the rusty .38 at the eight figures wearing dark armor. Rankin disengages his faceplate unable to contain his giggles. No one else gets it, and he’s violated a reg with the exposure.
“Look at her….She’s gonna kill us.”
The gun thunders and Rankin screams. Unprepared for the kick, the woman fall, dropping her piece. Her wrist swells, sprained or broken.
Blood drizzles from Rankin’s ear. Crusty burns border the space that was once the lobe. His buggy eyes singe furious before he goes for his piece, but I’m quicker with the remote. His armor seizes, and he squirms, a prisoner of his own prowess.
“Remember your contract, Timmy,” I say with a smile. The rest of the reapers finish the work, laughing.
“Easy?” Louis chuckles as he lights another cigarette. “When did you want the work to become hard?”
Mango juice sticks to my fingers. Waxy skin falls to the floor in strips, revealing the sweet fruit within.
“It’s not a hunt. It’s not interesting anymore. Rickety huts and decaying trailers. There’s no challenge.”
Three long drags. That’s how Louis chainsmokes.
“Carl, we specifically targeted fourth world nations to supply our product.”
“Product,” I hiss. “That’s fresh.”
“That’s all they are,” he answers. Then the smoldering ember of one smoke brings life to its next of kin. “This continent doesn’t exist by civilized law. There’s tribal warfare, rampant epidemics, rape, and institutionalized ignorance. We’re doing these poor souls a favor.”
“Bullshit! We’re in this for profit!”
“True,” he grins through his yellow teeth. “But we come from the land of opportunity. And in our culture the pursuit of profit defines nobility.”
“We’d be in jail in our culture.”
“Which is why we operate over here. Here they can’t see us, so their morality is not offended by our necessary service. Do you know that 32% of our yearly grosses comes from corporate and governmental research. They’re restricted by their own laws, so they come to the black market for their fetal tissue and organ donors, and the black market is we.”
This discussion occurs every time I harvest for extended periods. The gore and screams wear on me. My weariness exceeds my age by a thousand years.
“How’s Rankin?” Louis wonders.
“He’s in the cutting room watching the women who shot him and her kids get dissected.” I return to my mango momentarily. “He’s tired, Louis. We’re all tired.”
Another cigarette burns with noxious contemplation.
“So, that’s how you want to die?” I ask. “Wheezing?”
“I have lungs to spare should I require a set.”
“Yeah, but they might not take.”
“I’ll use DNA sheathing.”
“Sheathing only brings the success rate of transplants to 45%.”
Louis exhales the gray ghosts of air sacks.
“Between the cancer suppressants and the strides in cloning technology, we’ll be out of business and they’ll be able to grow me any organ I need It’s been a big year, Carl. Why don’t you and your crew take a few days to unwind while I package the product for delivery.”
I toss the mango near the trash, wiping my hands on my jeans while I walk to the door It was too soft. Too ripe.
“I’ll be in Bay Town getting drunk and fucking whores.”
“Don’t catch anything foul.”
“Too late for that.”
“Really?” Louis muses, rolling his next cigarette between his yellow fingers. “Internal or external?”
“You’re not the only one waiting to have new parts grown.”
“You poor boy,” he smiles. “Why don’t you grab yourself a new cock?”
“I’d rather hold onto my lumpy Irish curse than fall into that 55%.” I open the door en route to escapism. “Don’t try to find me for a while.”
The hatred of Whites in Bay Town runs through ancient memory. It was a slave port long ago where the natives watched their kin shackled and loaded onto to old frigates and cargo ships. People on the street don’t look up at pale faces, and there’s a fuck you behind every pleasant smile.
They hate my skin, my language, and that, when I appear, they belong to me. The cops and militia are mine; blind to me and my men by the shimmer of my bribes. The owners of the dope dens and brothels know that my resources exceed theirs, and value my business. They’ve never tried to kill me. I guess they know the habits of this devil and his demons. The next one might be crueler.
Mogwa says his rum is spiced, but with what he never tells. It’s a guerilla shooter, sneaky and ferocious when it takes. The local brew chases the rum down my throat. The bartender binds her big tits with a half shirt, showing a little nipple. She replaces beer after beer, leaving the bottle of rum. Six of her coworkers wait in my room upstairs. They know I’ll be a while. My routine is always the same.
FOX mutters on the television, English with local subtitles. The too pretty to be a serious journalist anchor talks about America, cloning, and organ donation. My business. Seems the Justice Department is investigating allegations of corruption in the program that compensates funeral costs to the families of donors from underprivileged nations. No shit. That’s where me and Louis found our starting capital The Attorney General has issued subpoenas to the heads of all private, corporate, and educational research facilities in the country. Sanctimonious motherfucker I cut your mother’s new liver out myself.
The liquor begins to burn into the crevasses of my brain, igniting the fury repressed for too long. My brain twists and my heart thumps double time, bombarding my body with intoxicating adrenaline. The devil within me whispers its lies of invincibility. I hunger for every word.
Growls rasp my throat. Glass shatters and skewers my palm. Warm blood fills my fist as I throw my barstool at a table. It’s time.
A god stands, seven feet tall and dark as a moonless jungle. No fear passes his eyes. I press the glass deeper into my palm, letting the pain fuel me for this challenge. I am fury and rabid chaos.
“What’s you waitin’ on, nigger?”
We clash: god against devil, good versus evil, black and white.
He lunges for me, powerful but slow. I strike low, kicking out his knee while crushing and twisting his balls in my good hand. He lurches forward. I go for his throat. The glass impaled in my open palm punctures his larynx. The shards rips from my hand as the giant tears away. The pain is exquisite. The floor rumbles from his collapse to hands and knees. His giant paw tries desperately to fill the hole in his throat.
Flesh tears as my kick shatters the giant’s jaw. He will die soon, but I can’t cease. I feel his face splintering below my heel. I can see the meat that was once his head. But that’s all he ever was to me. Meat.
The witnesses stare at me with horror and uncertainty, and for the first time I see them for what they are. Packages of cell and arteries, intestines and bone, organs and nerves Every one of them just a collection of simple cells with an ego. Powerless and worth more in pieces.
“You’re all nothing but product to me!!!” I scream while I storm to my room.
My sex is violent and deranged. I tell the whores to hit me and cut me with their nails I give them razors, but they’re too afraid. I want to know what it’s like to be in pieces, to be my prey. The frightened refusals anger me, deepening my rage against them. I reclaim the razors, slitting my chest and forearms. The whores shriek as they bathe in my dark essence. They try to run, but no one leaves until I am finished.
I remember nothing until I wake to Rankin’s giggles. Flaky, rusty blood covers my body, the sheets, walls, and door. I know nothing of the time, or how long I’ve been here. That is the beauty of the binge. It takes away so much life.
“Sweet, boss,” Rankin smiles. “Real special. Me and my girl didn’t sleep all night next door. And Mogwa sure is pissed. You sent his best to hospital in ambulance.”
There is nothing to say, no recriminations to expect. I end life and destroy beauty knowing money will cover it all. The gorge rising from my stomach and the dry thumping in my head are the only real consequences. Everything else is written off as recreational expenses.
The cold train waits while we inventory and load. Louis and I came to Africa with so little five years ago. Now, the business thrives, and the local governments we deal with, the ones that built our train tracks and take our bribes, list us as generous foreign investors and entrepreneurs.
Something snapped in Bay Town. I stayed for two more nights at an opium den, trying to quiet my rage, but I failed. Used to stay dry at the complex; it made the binges sweeter and decadent. Now, I’ve been sipping from a bottle of 7 for the week I’ve been back just to quench the d.t.’s.
I know what I am, truly. The creature that comes out on binges when there’s no one to command and no responsibility is the real me. The me who relishes this life and gets hard off the scent of blood and the screams of people’s fear. That me is unstable and unfit to lead. Our agreement was that I’d unleash him occasionally if he hid deep, deep down. But, we’ve been clashing for supremacy since that night. So, I add myself to the list of the untrustworthy while I take another sip of rye. Never drank so much before or slept so little
My bottle and I take a supervisory role while the boys do the work. Rankin pilots the pallet jacks by remote, and the loading begins. Mullholand, Rice, and Cruz consolidate their ledgers while giggling about something. Then Cruz walks over to Rankin.
“Drop this, Timmy?” he says, holding an ear.
“Very fucking funny, mate,” Rankin grumbles back. “I got that bitch good for my ear. Cut her up myself. Revived her a bit first so’s she could watch and feel it for a while.”
“Stupid fucking risk,” I sneer. “Potentially losing healthy product to shock because you had to torture someone for your own mistake.” Whiskey burns angry. “Fucking moron.”
“Says you, boss.” He grins that misshapen, arrogant smile to placate me. “But, Ol’ Timmy found a fetus and Louis passed a bonus. You’re right, of course, made a stupid mistake in the field. So, I had a charm made in Bay Town to remind me not to make it again.”
He waves us over while unbuttoning his shirt. Dangling against his chest are four necklaces, each one smaller than the last. At first, I think they’re seashells or coral, but, when I step closer, I see that they’re teeth. Four strings: mommy’s was the longest, followed by the three kids.
My bottle shatters across his cheek, and Timmy Rankin howls until my hand clasps his throat Beautiful rage ensnares me, and I don’t stop hitting him until he falls to the floor. The others move to stop me, and I draw my .45. Backing them down, backing them off.
I sit on Timmy’s chest, smiling as the fun begins. He cries, screaming and covering up while I laugh and pistol whip him. His cheekbone snaps, just like the strings on his charms. Bits of Timmy and teeth begin to clutter the floor.
I want him dead. I’ll cut him up and sell what’s useful. A thousand wait to take his place, and I’ll find the one that doesn’t grin Then the sound comes, the cocking of firearms.
They wouldn’t have the balls to draw on me unless he stood with them. And there he is behind my crew, his little yellow legs and sandled feet trembling out of harm’s way. My men draw on Louis’s uncertain energy. What will I do, each of them wonders, if the boss begins to fire.
I sheath my bloody sidearm. This insurrection infuriates me, but it can wait. I have ideas. Rankin rasps and cries below me.
“Carl…,” Louis begins, the hidden voice of reason. “Carl, I-”
“In the office. NOW!” I growl, storming past them and up the metal stairs.
Smoking sapped my endurance, a most important quality in my profession. I quit before Africa, when I was still scoring stateside as a bounty hunter. Louis never knew me to smoke. I’m lighting my fourth of his contraband, English shitsticks when the office door opens.
“Carl,” he begins, softly, ”I’m your friend. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“Louis, we’ve known each other a long time,” I snarl,” but this is the first time you’ve ever had the bad taste to call me your friend. We don’t have that luxury. Our familiarity does not allow us to seek comfort from each other. Just the opposite. We know our roles. I hunt, you find the prey. You find the buyers, I make the deliveries. We use our brains and my muscle with no questions asked!”
“Well, then, as your partner I’ve noticed that you’re exhibiting behavior detrimental to our mutual interest. Frankly, you are losing it. And you couldn’t have chosen a less beneficial time for a breakdown.”
“America is coming. The current administration is very serious about unifying this dark continent as well as finding the suppliers of all those organs and stem cells. Many subterfuges are commencing against us. Many of our contacts within the local governments are severing relations. The danger is very real.”
“Yeah, yeah. Same as the old boss. We’re a viable industry, pal. They’ll just want their cut.”
“They’ll want faces to parade before the press corps first, and we are the monopolists of our secret industry. I suggest downsizing.”
“Maybe. After this run.”
“This run is postponed.”
“I don’t think so, partner.”
Then it passes across his face; the one thing he never had a contingency for. I empower him, and his authority falls and rises with my moods.
“Are you scared of me, Louis?”
“Of course I am. You’re a killer, Carl, a very adept one. Some more liberal thinkers might consider the levels of our production over the years mass murder, and the numbers would rank us among the elite in history. But that aspect of the trade is truly yours. I’d be dead if you wanted it.”
“While I‘m gone, think about a buyout. Think about a new partner.” I smile. “Or be more willing to get your hands dirty.”
The Scooner glides over waves at about a third of her theoretical speed. We fashioned her for our purposes, purchasing lightweight engines and battle plating for the hull from some world powers going out of business. Tarps cover the munitions on the deck. Freezer units, stuffed to capacity on this run, comprise most of the storage bays. She’s a smuggler’s dream, but I named her Boris after an old movie star I saw as a kid.
Sonar and radar blip at maximum range. International waters, all clear and calm, yet I don’t trust it. Instinct chews on the back of my skull, so the .45 in my holster decoys the one beneath my life jacket.
My mind just won’t stop shrieking voices from my past; the million heroes I could have been. That’s the problem. I’m feeling for the kill, remembering that this didn’t have to be my horrible, cynical life. A killer. A destroyer of uncountable dreams. I’ve created more pain than I could ever make right in this lifetime.
But isn’t that the story? The bad man does right, trying to balance the scales for all the wrong he’s done. Maybe that’s what all those protestors for a unified Africa need, a guiding hand. Someone who knows their enemies methods and habits because they were once his own. Someone to even the odds because that’s how demons become angels, right?
“Ten minutes to rendezvous,” says Cruz from the helm.
My standard crew of Cruz, Rankin at weapons, and Mulholland on navigation. We’ve made this run hundreds of times, and they’re all still here for my swan song. Maybe I’ll ask some of them to join my band of righteous mercenaries before I burn this operation around them.
The tanker looms on the horizon. She used to ship oil, but there ain’t much left, so many of her type were converted for more conventional shipping. Or whatever this is. We’ll dock, get paid, and transfer the cargo. Simple and predictable until I notice the sonar and radar screens are no longer on.
Rankin’s pistol is in my face before I can move. The scars I gave him deepen as he smiles and unholsters my piece. Cruz aims one at me, too. Mulholland keeps his back to me, watching the subs break the surface all around Boris. Fucking Americans. Even the tanker is American.
“Unidentified vessel. This is Commander Holloway of the USS Lincoln. You are ordered to drop anchor and prepare to be boarded.”
Mulholland hands Rankin a headset.
“Lincoln this is Rankin, Tim. Clearance Beta, 4, Alpha, Omega, 6. The vessel is secure and prepared for your men.”
He looks at me.
“Louis got himself that partner you mentioned. ‘fraid you‘re the patsy.”
He crashes my pistol across my jaw, sending me sprawling. My mouth is only blood and powdered, shattered teeth. Bone pierces my cheek, but Rankin won’t relent.
“This is the one you used on me, right!” he screams. “You’re gonna be one ugly looking scapegoat.”
I cover up, but he kicks my back and legs while whipping the pistol off my head. I think I feel my right eye fall out. Oh, Timmy. I trained you well.
Cruz gets between us. I reach under my life jacket.
“C’mon! C’mon! They still want him to face charges.”
I wish I could see their faces with two eyes when they turn to see my gun. So, I satisfy myself by blowing their balls off. Mulholland was up and aiming by the time I stood. Two shots crack the windshield before I hit his chest. I put two more bullets into Cruz’s and Rankin’s head, and limp to the control console
The anchor’s down and the engine’s idle. The navy’s already mooring motor boats to my hull. Hard to focus against shock. Skull rings. Think of options. Death. Death and fun. Choose latter.
Two button press, simultaneous. Gun turrets open around the hull, spraying lead into the boarding parties. Mortar shreds the tarp on deck, rending the tanker’s hide. The explosions are magnificent.
Chaos ensues from two contrary objectives: Detain me and mount a rescue.
Radio’s squawking. Fuck you, surrender. I hit the manual cut off for anchor and crank the throttle full. Hard to port. First sub I see. Open cargo bay doors The dump I never made before. First taste of the business boys.
There’s space! Open ocean. Seconds more and I’m free! Free to hunt again. First that little cocksucker Louis, then all these motherfuckers. I’ll unify Africa against them for no other reason than revenge. They want what I built, but I’ll burn the whole fucking continent first.
Then the torpedo tears Boris off the water, igniting the fuel cells. I’m mounted on the console like an ornament when the air turns torrid against my back. Clothes burn. Skin melts against the fire until the explosion unleashes and I’m flying high above the ocean.
I see myself floating on an ocean of gore. Cold organs of a thousand kills intermingle with warm pieces of me. Out of body experience, I guess. Funny how lucid I am For a minute there, I thought I found a nobler purpose, a ticket to paradise, but it was a fantasy. Just an excuse for more killing, and that‘s become too easy no matter what the cause. I am, or was, too far gone for nobility.
But, you know what, in the end it didn’t make a damn bit of difference because human life is still the cheapest commodity. What I was is too common place. I’m just like the rest. Meat. A construct of simple cells with a shitty perspective.