A dark figure walked across the crooked pavements towards a flickering light in the distance. He trod carefully, examining his surroundings thoughtfully, yet surreptitiously – as if aware that he might be watched. His shoes clacked on the broken sidewalk, his own footsteps ringing in his ears. He neared the flickering light – emitted from a wide, two-floored building – and he wrinkled his nose as a musky smell pulsed out of it. He could hear drunken, gurgled laughter mingled with slurry words of intoxicated pleasure and others of heated argument. He halted, looking up with calculating blue eyes, and read the chipped sign that hung on creaking rusty chains:
The Eighth Ring
He nodded to himself, and – finding no doorman on the porch – let himself in.
The power of the stench made the man turn his head aside – the reek of fermentation, of vomit, and of what could only be described as livestock made his stomach lurch. He recovered quickly, however, and looked around, finding who he was expecting. The man made his way – barging past a thickset customer who was singing a drunken song, and curving around a busy waitress whose tray of filled beer mugs looked very close to falling over as she passed by looking rather flustered – towards a seated woman with her back to him.
From behind, you could not be sure she was a woman at all.
She had a habit of covering her head – by hat or hood – and was inclined to never remove her head-covering, and her shoulders were very built and broad. She also happened to be very tall, and some might say that she loomed over them when she stood at her full height. The man made his way to her, nonetheless, as only she could have the answer to his current predicament.
She heard him approach and turned marginally in greeting: “It’s about time you got here,” she said, smiling. She paused as he sat opposite her – a habit she’d developed in case the person she was addressing had something to say – and then said, “A suit is hardly fitting attire for such a place, Agent.”
The man looked at her in an irritable manner, loosening his tie as he became more aware of the stuffiness of his cheerfully miserable surroundings, “Why would you choose ‘such a place’?”
“Because this is a slum district equivalent, Agent, there is no one here that hasn’t committed a crime.”
He looked at her in a dumbfounded fashion – one reason being that he didn’t seem to remember her face looking the way it did, and the other being that her statement wasn’t fully explained.
She let out an exasperated sigh, “No one would leave here to go and report something to a higher place, for fear they would be found out. All that’s said here, stays here.”
“You assume someone is listening to all this?”
“Trust the fact that someone probably is,” she paused again, and then added slightly more jovially, “Would you like something to drink, Agent?”
The man smirked, “Why, what would you recommend?”
“Is there none iced?”
“You can try the iced kind, but I cannot guarantee it will not have adverse effects on you.”
He frowned, “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Look around you. You tell me.”
“But why do you assume that the tepid is safe?”
“Because I brought my own water. I did not come to dine here, Agent, I came here for business. Why did you wish to see me?”
“Ah, right,” the man leaned in closer, “Why is there a hit on me, H025?”
She snorted, “I beg your pardon?”
“Why are they hunting me down?”
“Do you see that mark on your arm, Agent?” she pointed to his left arm. There was no need to lift his sleeve and show him what was there on his bare skin. He knew full well.
She continued, “It is a mark of ownership. A stamp of property. You belong to them, Agent – they can do what they like with you.”
“I am not a slave.”
“You’re a… pet, of sorts. As was I, until they threw me to the wolves also. Did you honestly believe that just because you do their dirty work for them for a pricey fee, you’d be safe from all harm? Didn’t you think someone might want you… removed?”
“But who would want me removed? I’ve kept my terms, and my place.”
“Terms and place? They fed you, they sheltered you, they clothed you. They trained you. But that did not mean that they loved you, in any way, or that they ever needed you as a single unit. If there’s a client that wants you gone and the pay is high enough – you will disappear,” she paused, “Unless you can outfox the wolves.”
“And how would I do that, H025? I’m an assassin, not a target.”
H025 saw movement from the corner of her vision, “You’ll have to learn to be both, Agent.” she rose quickly, “Run.”