The Mercenary

Kill her, the Passion whispered in his ear.  Hunt her down, tie her up, force her to submit.  Never let her leave you again.  Never let her HURT you again.

Aiden squeezed the bridge of his nose with two fingers and turned to look out of the window.  The Passion’s voice was getting harder to ignore, as of late.  He redoubled the strength of his mental barriers, internally reciting the words of his mother’s favorite poem, and even that didn’t have the same effect it once had.  Still, it gave him a few moments of relief from the presence and those seconds of space allowed him to think.

She was here, in London.  He’d been so close; closer than he’d been since she’d left his side, in the first place.  Only a single door had blocked his path, and she had still managed to escape.  He was as impressed by her ingenuity as he was angered by the evasion.  There was a certain allure to the chase, though.  Considering how close he was, Aiden was positive he could identify and follow any trail she left.  It was only a matter of time before he caught up to her again.  When he managed that, he knew he could talk to her, convince her that all was forgiven, demonstrate that her proper place was as a member of his team.

She abandoned you.  Abandoned everything you built for her, discarded the security you offered, and ran.  SHE RAN.

Movement might help.  It did, sometimes.  He stood, ignoring the subtle tremor in his left leg, and walked away from the window into the kitchen of his accommodations.  A slim folder lay on the counter, opened to reveal a single photograph and a note card filled with information.  The name of the target, how much money was being offered for the job, an accepted amount of collateral damage he was allowed in pursuit of his goal.  He read through it all for the fourth time since returning.   He saw nothing there that he hadn’t seen before.

On the surface, nothing about the job should have attracted her attention.  Emilia provided a very specific set of services, and nothing that took place at the manor house made sense given those skills.  In order to get past the manor house’s guards, a man had masqueraded as a German official who Aiden had personally made disappear, several months prior.  Someone had also penetrated the manor house’s security system and done serious damage to the network, even after the pretenders were barricaded within the little girl’s room.  According to the men he’d questioned after their escape, there had been at least three men, in addition to the child, who’d made their escape from the manor house during the gunfight.  One of those was, presumably, the driver of the tiny SUV who had managed to evade and exasperate Carlos’ attempts at capture.

Why had Emilia been there, with them?  She worked alone.  She always worked alone, since –

Since she cut you loose, shed you like dead skin, moved on to better things, the Passion hissed.  You should never have trusted her, never given her your faith, never let her get so close.

– since they’d parted ways.  Infiltration wasn’t her specialty.  Subterfuge wasn’t something Emilia used; it wasn’t even something she was particularly talented at.  She was a weapon, to be wielded against anyone foolish or unlucky enough to find themselves standing against the inferno of rage she kept inside her; she was an animal, to be unleashed as needed, to savage any target in her way.

She was his.

With that thought, he felt the shift.  It was familiar to him now; not exactly unpleasant, but unusual.  It was as though his consciousness shifted elsewhere and, in its place, the Passion took control.  Aiden swept out a hand, sending the folder and its contents fluttering to the ground.  That wasn’t enough destruction.  He took an empty bottle from a nearby table and hurled it against the far wall.  It shattered into shards and chunks of glass that rained down to the floor.  The rest of his actions were a blur, after that.  The Passion didn’t have any understanding about reasonable force, limitations, or control; it didn’t concern itself with self-harm or social mores.  It was only need and hatred, both directed at the same person: Thorn, Emilia, the woman who had left him after he had saved her.  The anger poured out of him, while the Passion howled vile curses and maledictions against her.  The Professional, shunted out of Aiden’s body, stood by, watching in silent disdain.

Are you done?  The Professional asked, after an unknowable period of time.  Is any of this helping?

Aiden spun and kicked a wooden panel hard enough to split it in two.  “You were mine!  You were just like me!  And you left!”

Then, the Professional said in an intent mental tone, how do we get her back?

Aiden paused, just long enough to catch his breath.  The brief cessation of outpoured rage was enough to allow the Professional control again.  The Passion coalesced into its regular form nearby: a small Maori boy, several years away from even his first tattoo.

Mine, it hissed.  The Passion’s lips moved without a sound; the words formed inside Aiden’s head without ever touching the air.  Mine.

Aiden sighed, exhausted from the outburst.  Those were becoming more frequent as the days turned into months.  If the doctors were right, the Passion would begin to hold greater sway over his actions as the illness progressed.  It was even possible that another phantom guest might appear, though Aiden personally thought that was unlikely.  The struggle between his professionalism and his passions wasn’t something new.  All the sickness really did was provide a visual representation for the parts of himself he tried to keep in check.

A knock came at the door.  Aiden jerked in that direction, reaching for his handgun as he did so.  The joints in his body ached at the sudden movement; he squashed the pinprick flare of pain with a brief effort of will.  “Sir?”  The speaker had an accent.  Aiden had never been good at identifying accents without additional information, but there were only two men who would dare to knock on Aiden’s door after an episode, and their accents were different enough that even he could easily deduce the speaker’s identity.

“Yes, Raphael?”

“It’s Carlos,” the voice said.  “Sir.”

Of course, it was Carlos.  Raphael was dead; fallen in a hail of bullets several years ago.  Aiden knew that.  It wasn’t that his memory was coming and going in unpredictable patches.  He was just tired.  The struggle for mental control had drained him and he’d misspoken.  That was all.

“Carlos, of course.  What do you need?”

“I…had a question, sir.”

Aiden swept a quick look around the room.  There was no real way of fixing the damage to the furniture, the walls, or the glassware.  He didn’t understand how he could have created so much wreckage but, at the same time, he was forced to admit to himself that he wasn’t really sure how long the Passion had been in control.  He decided, after a second spent considering the options, that it would cause more damage in the long run if he ignored Carlos or sent him away.  The image that Aiden – specifically, that the Professional – cultivated was that of a benevolent father figure.  If Carlos was struggling with doubts, it was important to control that problem before it grew into a festering sore that required more thorough solutions.  One spoiled apple, et cetera.

“Come in,” he said and stepped back, so that he stood almost in the center of the room.  That forced the ghostly image of the Passion back into a corner, but it wasn’t as though the phantom actually needed comfort.

Carlos entered, cautiously.  Aiden could see as the man’s eyes took in the devastation of torn upholstery and glass shrapnel.  It was obvious that he wanted to know what had transpired – there was almost no way the Passion had been silent during the episode – but training and conditioning kept him from breathing a word about what he saw.

“Yes?”  Aiden asked.  He was calm and controlled, each movement of his body specifically chosen to elicit the appropriate effect.  His voice, soft enough that it forced others to actually listen, was a skill he’d inherited from his father.  “How can I help?”

“It’s about…”  Carlos stopped and Aiden could practically hear the gears in the Spanish man’s mind grind to a halt, only to switch tracks and gradually work their way back up to speed.  He’d excised her name, at the last moment.  “It’s about the girl.  Our target, sir.”

“Yes?  What about her?”

“We…didn’t get her, sir.  Are we going after the people who managed to extract her before we got there?”

Find her.  The Passion was almost purring and every muscle in Aiden’s body, every fiber of his being, longed to do exactly that, in that moment.  Bring her back.  Force her to stay.  Never let her leave.

“We will,” Aiden said.  “When the time comes.”

“When do you – ?”

Aiden interrupted the man in that maddeningly soft voice.  “Do you know why we failed to retrieve the girl?”

Carlos blinked.  “Sir?”

“This was just a nine year old girl.  All of her guards were bought and paid for, even before we got on a plane.  This should have been the easiest retrieval of our lives.  So, tell me; what went wrong?”

Carlos opened his mouth, performed another of his obvious last second word swaps, and then spoke.  “Someone got there first,” he said.

“Indeed.”  Aiden stepped carefully over the ruined knickknacks scattered across the room’s floor and headed for a glass decanter of liquor that had somehow survived his rage.  He filled two glasses with the alcohol.  “Here.  Have a drink with me.”

It was a calculated gesture.  Aiden kept his teams small, on purpose; it was easier to maintain mystique and control, if your followers were kept relatively isolated.  He removed himself, even from them, by never relaxing in their presence.  It served to keep him as a figure above them.  By allowing Carlos to drink with him, Aiden was elevating the man to something like an equal, even if only for a moment.

It didn’t hurt matters that Aiden really wanted a drink himself.  He noticed, as he handed one glass over to Carlos, that his knuckles were torn and bleeding.  When had that happened?  How had he not noticed?

Kill the ones who stole her from you.  Murder them, make them suffer.  Take her.  Have her again.

Carlos accepted the offering and waited until Aiden raised his own glass in toast.  They clinked glasses softly and drained the containers in a single go.

“We failed,” Aiden said in that soft, fatherly voice, “because we didn’t know enough.  We were sent to retrieve the girl, but we didn’t know about the secret passage.  We didn’t know about the tunnels.  We didn’t know about this…other party, and their interest in the girl.”

Carlos nodded slowly, understanding the general idea.  Aiden hadn’t chosen him for his intelligence, but the man was reasonably quick at picking up concepts.  That made him an asset for the moment; it also meant that, eventually, Carlos would find himself in the unenviable position of being a liability.

Conquer, crush, kill, the Passion said.  This was an old, familiar recitation.  Dominate the weak. 

“I don’t intend to find myself in that position again,” Aiden said.  “The terms of our contract were perfectly clear.  Conveniently, there was no mention of a time constraint.”

“So, sir, you’re going to…?”

“Plan,” Aiden said.  “Use the resources at my disposal to uncover as much information as possible about the individuals in question.  Then, I will close off every avenue of escape, every hole they might choose to hide in, and close in.  The next time I see them will be the last time they are seen by anyone at all.”

One of the tricks he’d acquired over the years was nothing more or less than careful use of pronouns.  By using the plural earlier, when discussing their failure, he folded Carlos and himself into a single unit.  Doing so deflected the blame for any failures across all parties.  There were ways of exonerating himself, and those techniques would certainly be used at a later date, but it was important to make certain that Carlos understood he had a part in the failed job.

By using the singular now, Aiden isolated himself once more.  The disaster at the manor house was a shame that could be divided amongst the entire team.  The ability to succeed, the will and intelligence required to circumvent whatever obstacles cropped up in the future, the resources such an undertaking would require…all of those things, and more, belonged exclusively to Aiden.

“Even Thorn?”  Carlos’ lips turned down slightly into the beginnings of a frown as he remembered who Emilia had been, when they’d worked on the same team.

Their relationship, Aiden recalled, had always been antagonistic.  Of course, Aiden had wanted it that way; Emilia had emerged from the conflict with greater prestige and a higher place in Aiden’s eyes.  Carlos had apparently never gotten over the insult.

“Thorn poses a different dilemma,” Aiden said.  He poured two more drinks, but drank his own before Carlos had a chance to do the same.  “Her familiarity with my tactics creates a certain additional level of difficulty.  Not an unmanageable one, but still something that requires attention.”

Carlos tipped his glass and emptied it a second time.  “She was working with them, sir,” he said.  “Whoever got to the girl before us…they did it with Thorn’s help.”

Traitor, the Passion growled.  She is a traitor.

“I am aware of the work she has done since our…parting,” Aiden said.  He bared his teeth in an expression that Carlos would almost certainly read as a grin, but was closer to a grimace in reality.  The idea that she would take the skills he had painstakingly taught her and to protect with them was…disquieting.

There were plenty of opportunities for violence in that field, though.  There was something important in that tidbit.  No matter what she did, she wouldn’t ever be able to truly walk away from what they’d done together.  She’d never be able to change who she was, now.

Even her new name represented that.  Names, Aiden had found, told more about the person than most expected.  A name wasn’t just a method of identifying oneself to others; it was a way to frame one’s own self-identity.  The names he used for the warring aspects of his personality – the Professional, for the mercenary who’d inflicted violence in more than two dozen countries; and the Passion, who enjoyed the carnage for its own sake – were proof enough of that.  When Thorn had chosen her new name, she’d elected for something meaningful in her native language.  Emilia Espina Durante: the enduring thorn that protects.

She was Thorn now; she would always be Thorn.

My Thorn, the Passion rumbled in agreement.  Mine.

“I am certain, however,” Aiden continued, “that she can be convinced to…forego the path she’s chosen.  When I manage to remove the influences of whatever criminals she’s take up with, there will be time enough to identify and solve whatever concerns keep her from my side.”

Relaxed slightly by the alcohol and by the intoxicating presence of his leader, Carlos forgot himself for just an instant.  “Bitch doesn’t deserve a second chance, if you ask me.”

As soon as the sentence left his mouth, he regretted what he’d said but, by then, it was too late.  The Passion was too close, still too strong, and it rushed back into Aiden’s body.  He had Carlos by the throat in an instant; an eyeblink later, the Spanish man was bent backwards over the counter, his head a millimeter away from the glass decanter.  There were broken shards all over the space, and they bit into the skin on Carlos’ cheek.  Aiden doubled the pressure until Carlos cried out.

“That is my place to decide,” he growled, through painfully gritted teeth.  “Not yours.  I am the one who assembled this team; I am the one who trained you, taught you, gave you purpose.  I am the one who rescued you.”

“Of…of course, sir!”  Carlos practically screamed the words.  Even pressed against the counter by Aiden, he was too well trained to fight back.  That was the type of sin that led to a fatal resolution.  None of Aiden’s acolytes ever dared so much.

Except for Thorn, the Professional said.  He lounged in the corner where the Passion had been, wearing the guise of Aiden’s own father.  Why did that happen?

“We will bring her back,” Aiden said.  “And you will remember your place.”

He didn’t need to finish that thought with any threat.  Carlos nodded his agreement, adding another couple of cuts to his cheek, until Aiden relented.  The hot flash of rage dimmed enough for the Professional to reassert control.

Aiden stepped back and allowed Carlos to collect himself.  “Yes, sir,” the Spanish man said after a handful of seconds.  He went to attention and snapped off a quick salute.  “If that’s what you want, sir, then we will make it happen.”

Blood trickled down from Carlos’ cheek.  There was no way he didn’t notice the warm, wet sensation on his skin.  He made no move to wipe it away.

“Dismissed, soldier,” Aiden said.  He turned away from Carlos without another word.

“Sir, yes, sir!”

Because his back was turned, Aiden couldn’t actually watch Carlos leave, but he listened as the man’s boots crunched across the broken glass on the floor.  When he estimated that Carlos was at the door, he raised his voice slightly.  “Carlos.”

“Sir?”

“Send Mikhail in,” Aiden said.

“Yes, sir!”

There were two more crunches and then Carlos was gone.

Aiden counted to thirty before he relaxed.  Two outbursts in less than twenty minutes was a new record.  The medication wasn’t working as well, anymore.  He recited two of his mother’s favorite poems in his head, but the Passion still pressed against his thoughts.

Eventually, he would need to up the dosage.  There were side effects, but Aiden didn’t have any illusions about his lifespan: he wouldn’t be around long enough for the side effects to do much more than inconvenience him.  For now, in lieu of an ability to actually quiet the Passion, he closed his eyes and allowed an actual smile to crease his lips.

“I’ll be seeing you soon, Thorn,” he said to the air.

On that, both the Professional and the Passion agreed.

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