Eric woke on the couch in his loft in downtown Tampa. He couldn't have been out long -- there was still a cigarette burning in the ashtray on the iron-and-glass coffee table in front of him. As he reached out to snuff out the burning cigarette, he noticed that Russel was sitting in the leather chair across from the couch, idly flipping a butter knife from Eric's kitchen around in his thin fingers.
"Oh. Hey, Russel. What brings you by? We have a job to do?"
Russel shook his head.
"We don't work together anymore, remember?"
The voice that came out of Russel's mouth was much deeper than his physical appearance would lead anyone to believe.
"Wait. You don't talk."
"I don't do anything," Russel shrugged. "I'm dead."
Eric furrowed his brow -- this was damned confusing. He'd just gotten back from a job for Julian. Russel was supposed to be in Ocala. Amanda was supposed to come over later that night. Eric wasn't entirely sure what was going on, but he decided to go with it anyway. He reached for the pack of Kamel Red Lights on the coffee table and took one out.
"You quit smoking, remember?"
"No I didn't. I've been smoking since I was 17."
"I. . . dreamt that I quit smoking."
"You dream that you killed me, too, Chief?"
Eric shook his head, but now that Russel mentioned it. . .
"Now get ready for the truth, kiddo. That wasn't the dream. This --" Russel spread his tattooed arms wide "-- is the dream."
"No. This is my apartment. I've lived here for two years. My Land Rover is parked outside."
"Bitch, you drive a 1994 Thunderbird. Or you did, until some ex-soldier bombed the hell out of it."
"You know what I find interesting?" Russel asked, leaning across the table and taking the cigarette out of Eric's hand. He lit the cigarette and took a deep drag.
"You don't smoke."
"See earlier 'I'm dead' comment," Russel smirked. "I find it just goddamned fascinating that, in a drug-addled dream state, you come back here. You know what that means?"
"It means you haven't changed at all. Sure, you can quit smoking, quit drinking, quit doing drugs. You can pretend to be one of the normal, upstanding citizens, even help out the cops. But deep down, at the core of your being. . . you're still the same shitty thug you were when you lived here."
Eric reached for the cigarette pack and found it empty. He crumpled the box in his hand and tossed it back on the table.
"I think I preferred you when you didn't talk."
"Well, obviously not. As, you know, I'm a figment of your imagination, and you're the one talking, really. Could be that you've always wondered what I would sound like -- more likely, it's guilt that you, well, kinda brutally slashed my throat and left me to bleed to death in the dirt. Just sayin'."
Eric shook his head.
"It couldn't be that. You were a horrible person, and you would have killed me if I hadn't killed you first."
"Hey. Watch the 'horrible person' remarks, kiddo. You're no saint, yourself. And you're confident that I would have killed you? Really? Or did I let you win?"
Eric knew he had another pack of cigarettes in the top drawer of his kitchen, so he got up to get them. When he opened the drawer, however, he didn't see the various junk that usually lived there -- he didn't even see the fresh pack of Lucky Strikes that Alexy had left behind the last time he was over. Instead, he saw a bland drop-ceiling and part of an overhead halogen light.
Eric looked up at Russel in confusion.
"What did you do to my kitchen?" Eric demanded.
"Wow. You really don't want to accept that you're not really here, do you? Wonder what that says about you. Anyway, it's about to become academic in three. . . two. . . one. . ."
* * *
Eric's eyes fluttered open. He was staring up at a bland drop-ceiling and part of an overhead light. A soft beeping noise off to his left pounded slowly, regularly.
"Eric? How you feeling, son?"
The voice came from Nathaniel, who was sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed.
"Which hospital am I in this time?"
"UNMC. Quickest one, since we were right down the street from it. You were pretty touch and go there for a while. You lost a lot of blood."
"Special Unit Omega?"
"Johnny got your email shortly before we got a call that you were in trouble. The last two guys -- Major Ericsson and Lieutenant Kim -- are in the holding cell over at our office."
"And the other guy? The one who wasn't with the rest? Captain Jason Black, I think it was?"
"Gone. We have his face plastered on every law-enforcement wall from here to Los Angeles, but I doubt we'll ever see him again."
"Home getting some sleep. It's four in the morning. Valder's here, though -- just went out to get some coffee."
Eric nodded. He debated on whether to mention Russel, but decided against it -- if Nathaniel didn't already know about the dead man, better not to have to explain.
"Uh, I don't know if you know, but your car blew up," Nathaniel mentioned.
"Damn. My iPod was in there."
"We traced the call that told us you were in trouble. Actually, there wasn't so much tracing involved -- we just found the cell phone that called Johnny's -- it was that Chinese Mafia hitman, Yang Shao. The one who started the firefight."
"That's. . . odd. I had the suspicion he'd been following me."
"Any idea why he'd try to save you?"
"None," Eric lied. He knew the real reason, though -- that he and Yang Shao had, after a fashion, become friends. And that friendship may have been part of the reason the Chinese hitman had decided on suicide by cop.
"Well, in any event, I think that wraps it up, then," Nathaniel said.
"Not quite. We've gone this far -- let's finish the case. I'm going to need access to your photos from the crime scene. Let Johnny know I'm going to need his acting talents this evening."
Nathaniel just nodded. He stood from his chair and stretched out his arms and legs -- Eric guessed he had been sitting there since the moment Eric was brought in.
"I'm going to let you get some rest. Valder's going to want to talk to you soon, though -- he tells me the paperwork to move you is going through. Doesn't look like you'll be hanging around much longer."
"All the more reason to make the best use of the time, then."
"Agreed. Get a few hours of sleep -- we'll start prepping at nine."
Nathaniel left the room, and Eric tried to sit up. It was tough -- he was still dizzy and still had God-knows how many drugs floating around in his bloodstream -- but he managed to struggle into a sitting position without too much vertigo. He looked around the room, and found that his clothes were sitting on a chair next to the bed. Eric pulled the envelope Russel had thrown at him out of his cargo pocket, opened it, and pulled out sixteen neatly-folded pages in Russel's obsessive, blocky script.
Eric leaned back in the bed and began to read:
In 1914, soldiers of the Allied forces would sometimes write a letter to their families or friends before going into battle. I have no family, and, as I'm sure you'll agree, I'm not great at making friends. So I'm writing to you -- apart from Julian, you're the only friend I have.
The irony, of course, is that I'm going into battle against the same person to whom I'm writing this letter -- my enemy and my friend are the same person. The only way this letter will see the light of day is if you kill me, and if you do, then it was all as it was supposed to be.
You're wondering, of course, why I took the time to write this letter. There are a few reasons, as there always are.
First, I want someone to know who I was. You probably already think you know this, but you don't. I want someone in the world to know I was a person, a human being -- not just a robot with knives for hands, which I know is the way I often appear.
Eric looked up from the letter. He knew that reading the rest of it was going to make him feel horrible about killing Russel, and he hadn't even felt great about it when he'd done it. Still, though, he owed it to the departed, this man he'd worked with side by side for eight years. He sighed, took a sip from the water sitting on his bedside table, and kept reading.
* * *
Eric knew how Yang Shao felt -- he was juiced to the gills on Dexadrine just so he could move around. He was wearing a longsleeved shirt to hide as many of the knife wounds from the night before as possible, but there was no way to hide the two deep slashes on his face. The stitches in his arm, shoulder, and face itched a little, but even after the morphine had worn off, there wasn't much pain.
"You sure you're up to this? We can just take them down the old-fashioned way," Johnny commented as he pulled up to Alexander's.
"We've put in most of the work already. Might as well get the payoff. You in contact with your people?" Eric asked, trying not to scratch at the stitches on his arm.
"Yep. Either one of us says the word, and they'll be on that place in four seconds flat."
"Right on. Um, what's the word?"
"It's two words, actually. 'Bad news.'"
"All right, let's do this. I need a nap."
Eric and Johnny got out of Johnny's new truck, a 2007 Range Rover. Pyotr was waiting for them at the door to the club -- he didn't look happy, which Eric took to mean that Volkov had taken their deal. It was early yet, and the club was only minorly busy -- Pyotr walked them back to the same room as before, where Andrey Volkov was sitting at the end of the table, flanked by huge guards on either side.
"You look horrible, my friend," Volkov frowned at Eric.
"Cut myself shaving. You've had time to consider our offer. What's it to be?"
Volkov had a file folder in front of him. He picked it up, but didn't immediately hand it over to Eric or Johnny.
"First, you will tell me who they are."
"Sure. Like I told you earlier, they're a government unit. Department of Homeland Security pays them to take out people like you, since arresting you guys wasn't doing much good. Every one of them's a combat veteran, and honestly, your guys couldn't take down one of them, much less all six."
It was entirely the truth Eric told -- he'd pieced it together from the files he'd hacked, and confirmed most of it with Russel's letter.
"Then how do you propose to take them out? And you have no problems with killing Federal Agents?"
"It just raises the price. Hand the folder to my man, there."
Volkov frowned again, but did as he was told. Johnny flipped open the folder and looked through the pages -- Eric saw that, in obsessive detail, the entire operations of the Russian Mob in Omaha were laid out neatly.
"You want to say it?" Johnny smirked.
"No, please, sir. You go right ahead," Eric smiled back.
"Say what? You people are not making sense!" Volkov slammed his fist down on the table. Despite the old man's frail appearance, the table shook.
"Well, Andrey, we have some bad news for you," Johnny grinned.
"What? What bad news?"
The doors to the room burst open, and two dozen riot-suited cops stormed in.
"You're under arrest," Johnny replied.
* * *
"So, you're going to be getting a new name soon, looks like," Nathaniel said. He, Johnny, and Eric were sitting on the back deck of Nathaniel's house. Nathaniel and Eric had @Newcastle Ales in their hands -- Eric had a @Rockstar_Energy.
"Yep. Looks like," Eric shrugged.
"Should give you this now, then."
Nathaniel handed Eric a legal-sized envelope with his name and address typed on the front. Eric opened it -- inside was a check for $1748.65, made out to Eric Hawkins.
"Two weeks as a consultant. Wish it was more, but county's in a bit of a budget crunch at the moment."
"You really didn't have to do this at all -- though I suppose I have to repair the apartment Omega dismantled with bullets."
"County's taking care of that, too. They'll reimburse you for your car, so long as you send them an invoice," Johnny smirked.
"Shit, Johnny. You know and I know that heap wasn't worth $50. My insurance'll give me more than that."
"Out of curiosity, how long did it take you to hack that computer?" Nathaniel asked.
"I dunno. Hour, hour and a half. Why? How long did it take your guy?"
"He's still working on it."
"You were right, Johnny. He kind of sucks."
"Too bad you can't stick around. We could use you in the office, both for the computer stuff and your knowledge of organized crime," Nathaniel sighed.
"Yeah, you'd have to fight the Marshal's service on that one."
"Oh! Heard my name, there," Valder smirked, walking around the side of the house with a six-pack of @samueladams in his right hand.
"Hey, Brian," Nathaniel nodded.
"You got a fridge for these? They're piss-poor warm," Valder said, holding up the beer.
"Yeah. Follow me."
Nathaniel stood up, stretched, and led Valder into the house. Johnny took a long sip from his beer and leaned over to Johnny.
"So, how'd you piece it all together?"
"The computer records, mostly. But Russel helped flesh out the picture a bit. Turns out he got picked up several months after Julian. Feds swooped in and gave him a deal -- he works for them as a gang consultant, they make his charges go away."
"Russel told you that?"
"And he's in the wind now. Great."
"Nope. Russel's dead."
"That freak Yang Shao, huh?"
Eric just nodded. He looked at Johnny for a moment -- the cop absolutely did not think for a second that Eric would have killed anyone, when just two weeks ago he'd referred to Eric as "Killer" rather than use his actual name.
As Johnny sat back in his chair and finished off his beer, Eric remembered a part of Russel's letter.
You probably haven't figured out yet that you are, in large part, responsible for the creation of Special Unit Omega. The information from various statements you made scared the hell out of some people in the DHS -- they had no idea Julian was even operating in Tampa, much less the extent of his operations. Your boy Enano is clean, though -- he knew nothing about it.
You should be aware that Special Unit Omega is only one very, very small part of a larger organization. I don't know where the other teams are, but I do know that there are a lot of them. A lot.
Eric still wasn't sure if he was going to tell Johnny and Nathaniel about the other units. He just hoped there wasn't one in his new town, wherever it was he was headed.
Valder and Nathaniel joined Johnny and Eric on the deck.
"Hey, Valder. When's the name change go through?" Eric asked.
"Judge should sign off on it sometime tomorrow morning. Should give you plenty of time to deposit the check and clear out your account," Valder told him.
"You picked out a new name yet?" Nathaniel asked.
"Well, let's just hope it's not something horrible," Johnny grinned.
The four of them hung out for several more hours, and Eric became genuinely sad that he was leaving Omaha in the next couple of days. All said, it wasn't such a bad town -- and he'd made friends with people he'd never expected to like.
I envy you, you know, Russel had written. You get the chance to start over, to invent yourself as whoever you'd like to be. I've been in Omaha a while, and I've been watching you (insert ominous music here -- I wasn't planning on going after you unless I got the word, which I realize isn't comforting, but still -- full disclosure). You seem to have invented a better person than the one who worked beside me for eight years, but this person is not as much of a creation as you think he is.
He's who you really are, deep down. I envy you. I never had that good a person inside, nor did I have the chance to reinvent myself. I know, I know, poor Russel. My life would have made a good country song -- and, you know, I would have liked to have sung it.