“Can I come in?” I ask, unsure of whether or not she’s changed her mind. She hesitates, but eventually backs up into her apartment, her stride slow and fluid like she’s moving through water. She keeps the gun pointed at me.
“Have a seat,” she says as I shut the door softly. She waves her gun toward the couch to signal me to sit down. I have the sudden urge to smile harder. This all seems like an act or a desperate attempt at making me believe that she doesn’t trust me. She believes me, and she took my warning from earlier seriously. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have let me in and I’m almost sure that she wouldn’t have offered me a seat. The only thing that I can’t figure out is her casual response to me showing her what I am.
“You know, you can put that down. I have no desire to hurt you,” I say. I can’t believe what I’m saying. The words spew cleanly out of my mouth like a stream of water: I have no desire to hurt you. But it’s partially true. Tracy is ballsy, not like most people who just curl up, die, and accept death. She is the first one of my assignments who has put up this big of a fight. I don’t have a desire to hurt her; I have a desire to finish my assignment. There’s a big difference. Someone like her doesn’t deserve to die by Joseph’s violent hands. She doesn’t deserve to die at all; but it must be done.
“Gotcha. Start talking,” she says cocking the gun.
“My name is Chris. I’m not trying to harm you,” I start.
“Got that part. Keep going.” She bites her bottom lip—something that she also did while standing at the door a few minutes ago. She apparently does this when she’s nervous.
“Right. Well, I—I—.” My eyes suddenly dart to the short and tight pair of shorts that she has chosen to put on. They are not much longer than the grey sweatshirt that caresses her thighs like a bed sheet when she moves. My words are small pebbles that I keep tripping over. Nothing that comes together forms a complete sentence or makes sense.
I think of Joseph and his long teeth and ugly smile, and I’m back to wanting to knock his head off. “I’m trying to help you,” I say, finally getting it together. I’m trying to help us. Better for her to go peacefully than to die in some cheap murder or crime scheme. “Joseph, the man who gave you these photographs,” I say, holding up the grey box, “is trying to murder you.”
But so am I…or was I? Is it any different to murder someone versus killing them slowly? Maybe a more accurate statement would have been: Joseph is trying to murder you…prematurely. My first mind has never been to kill her; she’s not a target that’s easy for me to detach from like most others are. But I have to. Or do I? I think of Mortimus’s missing Death Leaders from long ago and then of the other Death Leaders from different quadrants and cities, happily tarnishing my family name. I can’t have that. Once you’re gone, you’re gone; and once your name is tarnished, that’s all you’ll be remembered for.
There is only one day left. According to the assignment that Franco has given me, she must die by my hands tomorrow. This is why there are rules. This is why Franco doesn’t want us talking to assignments. I need to detach. I can save her from Joseph at the very least, if nothing else. She doesn’t deserve to die by murder.
“Joseph?” she asks. “And which one was Joseph? Why would he be trying to murder me? You sound crazy. Hell, you probably are crazy.”
“Wait, what? What do you mean which one? You mean, more than one person gave you these pictures?” I ask. I automatically swallow hard, hoping that the knot in my throat doesn’t drop to my stomach.
“Maybe, but I’m not telling you any more else until you give me a darn good reason for why you’re following me.” The word “darn” sounds funny coming out of her mouth. She is like metal on the outside and cotton on the inside. Although my smile has faded, that fact makes it come back.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” I say.
She looks at me expectantly, with her gun raised, waiting on me to explain. I tell her a couple half-truths: that I’m 22-years-old, not 16; and that Joseph is trying to murder her and set me up—I leave out the part about me being a 100-year-old Death Leader who needs to inflict some deadly illness or disease on her in the next day or so. Talking to her is like talking to a doll: her expression doesn’t change much except for when she blinks, and she is quiet and still when she listens. When I finally finish, I return her blank stare and wait for her to comment. Once she can get a word in, she wastes no time: “Okay. Righhhhht. Hey, stay right there.”
She walks over to the phone quickly. I want to snatch it, but I can’t for fear that I might touch her. And then it occurs to me: is she hurt at all? Had Joseph touched her? I decide not to ask. Explaining the concept of touch would be too much right now.
“Tracy, I’m telling you the truth,” I plead. “Just listen to me. Hear me out.” I consider telling her that I know about her son, but I decide to save that for another time, for fear it may upset her too much. I have to act quickly. She has to know that I’m not lying—at least, not about me trying to save her. She has the phone in her hand and is preparing to dial. Is she actually that scared that she would really call the police, or is she just trying to scare me? “Tracy,” I say, nearly yelling.
She whips around. Her eyes are big and dark with fear. She’s not ready for the truth. Not yet. “I’m a cop,” I say. “There. I’m an undercover detective. It’s all out on the table.”
Her expression changes from fear to disbelief. If her fear is gone, it doesn’t stop her from holding the gun at my face. “Bullshit,” she says. “Where’s your badge? Show me your badge.”
“I don’t have it on me,” I lie smoothly. I silently hope that the calm in my voice puts her at ease. “I’d be happy to show it to you later. But I’m letting you know that you’re making a mistake. Put the gun and the phone down.”
“The gunshot. What about the gunshot wound? I saw it with my own eyes. You were shot and it didn’t even affect you. You’re lying. You lying sack of—“
Tracy has a point. She saw the bullet hole engrained in me, pushed into my skin like a cork. I need to think of something and I need to do it quick. It’s times like these that I’m grateful that I don’t sweat. “Bullet-proof vest,” I say cutting her off. “New type of skin graft vest that the department is trying out. It’s more discreet for undercover missions. Do me a favor and keep it under wraps. It’s still something they’re trying out.”
She seems to buy it, so I let her move on and sigh underneath my breath. “If you’re a cop, why can’t I call the cops?” she asks, shaking her head to get a piece of hair out of her eye.
“Because you’re not the case I’m supposed to be working right now. I’m supposed to be investigating a murder on 14th and Paulina. But I’m here, with you. I’m trying to help you. Put the gun and the phone down.” I try to sound authoritative with my last sentence, like a cop would.
She squints her eyes and stares at me for a second. I can imagine what she is thinking: He looks a little young. Why didn’t he just tell me he was a cop in the first place? How did he get here if people in this area seldom call the cops?
However much she may be thinking, she doesn’t voice it. Instead she stares at me and lowers the gun slowly. She sits the phone down on its charging station. It makes a beeping sound and flashes a red light. The battery has been dead the whole time. I don’t let her know that I notice this.
She sits down on the couch with her gun and slumps over. This is my chance to get more information from her. She’s mentally defeated, tired of trying to untie a maze of knots.
“Who gave you the pictures?” I ask. I make sure I stand a few feet away so that I don’t touch her.
“Two guys,” she says. “One tall, one short with super curly hair,” she says.
Tracy’s words smack hard against my face. I can only stand here, stunned like I’ve been shot with some type of tranquilizer dart. As soon as she says it—before the words can even escape her lips fully—I know exactly who she is describing.