It wasn’t dawn.
* * * * *
“It happens in small rooms like this,” she whispered, sitting up in bed hugging her knees. “Fatal stanzas spoken in low voices.” She lit a fresh cigarette, a pale-skinned undernourished woman, next to a man in a shabby room. “All of us being fragile and prone to surrender, how could it be otherwise?”
“What was that?” Noah rose up from beneath the sheets and onto his elbows. A candle burned and spat on the nightstand.
“When they come,” she said, “their faces will be blank. Don’t look at them hoping for reason. The Greater Plan will have wiped them clean.”
Then she looked at him, and said, “Listen to me,” as though it was critical that he did. “This isn’t infatuation or about the sex.” She paused and slowly shook her head. “It’s not about your little gifts of contraband. It’s about who I am, in fact. In fact, I may be your exit. That’s what this is about, and I think you’ve figured that out in your own way.”
“Exit?” he said.
“You’re trying to get in, become a member of the Greater Plan, by being one of their assassins. We’ve discussed it, you and I, in passing.”
“You don’t know me,” she said. “Even after all these months.”
“That’s not your fault.”
“But I don’t want to know you,” he said. “You’re right. This isn’t about love.”
“The first two chambers of the gun weren’t loaded.”
How could she know that? He lit his own cigarette, and lied, “What gun? I don’t have a gun.”
“People like you never do,” she said, “or say they don’t. That’s smart, but when they give you a gun to do a job, a disposable one, one would think you’d check to make sure it was fully loaded. That’s what a professional does. But you didn’t this time. You trusted them, and you nearly botched the kill as a result. You shot his balls off first, by accident. Then you apologised like an idiot before you killed him proper. It was a test, the empty chambers. They tested your trust in them, and you passed. They made you look like a damn fool, but you passed the test because you didn’t inspect the weapon, because you trusted the Plan, and because of your lust to belong. And they know that you’ll return when called. That means you’re closer than ever to being invited in.”
He didn’t say anything for a moment. She was Rachel, no? An ageless gaunt woman he’d meet on a street corner two days a week, and take home. They’d share a meal, government canned meat, stale bread. He gave her cigarettes. Sometimes there was a bottle of mysterious clear liquor. Once a warm coat. And they’d sleep together. Bland sex. Dull conversation afterward. Then she’d leave, without saying good-bye. He’d watch her back as she left his room, into the hall. A stranger in a worn dress, no stockings, weathered shoes and the coat he’d gifted her.
“Who are you then?” he said, finally. “What are you?”
“Your salvation, so far. Your roomful of remaining days,” she said, poetically, but with a misty hint of menace. She even nearly smiled for the first time since they met. “Originally, my people sent me to kill you, but I convinced them that you might be useful. That we might infiltrate the Greater Plan using you, by following you in. You’re one of the Greater Plan’s darlings, you know? As it turns out. You don’t know it yet, but you’ve been placed at the top of their list.”
“Never mind that.”
“You’re the Faction, aren’t you?” He sounded hurt.
“There is no Faction,” she said. “It’s a myth.”
“But if there was, if the Faction were real, your people would be it, or a part of it, knowingly or otherwise.”
She put her feet onto the cold floor and got out of bed, naked. “I suppose you’re right,” she said, then pulled a gun out from under her pillow. It was the first time he’d ever seen one in her hand. Their eyes met for a moment, and she looked sinister in a way he’d never seen before. “It’s getting serious,” she said.
“Why would I ever work for you?” he said. “Risk everything?”
“Because people I know want you dead. Because you’re the sort that thinks he’s clever, or wants to. And a man who thinks he’s clever never is. I’ve kept you alive so far, and I’ll continue to do so as long as I can make use of you. You’re an asset in a bank, placed there for withdrawal, later on. And since you hold your life dear like everyone else in this dirty world, you’ll play along.”
“And you intend to make this dirty world a better place this way, is that it?”
“That’s the idea, or a small part of it.” She stepped into her dress, and then checked her hair and refreshed her lipstick in a mirror on the distressed sideboard.”
“That’s the real myth,” he said. “You’ve delusions of justice, righteousness.”
“They’ll test you again soon,” she said, putting on her coat and taking five packs of cigarettes out of the nightstand drawer, and placing them in her handbag. Her gun having disappeared somewhere else in the secret folds of the coat. “It may be your final test. If it is, it will be the most complex and dangerous. To test your cunning, which I’m not sure you have in adequate supply. But we’ll see. No more juvenile ticks with partially loaded revolvers, though. Please don’t do anything stupid, like getting yourself killed. You may be an valuable to me soon, in spite of your lack of guile in the face of what has so far been mild treachery. And don’t come to the corner anymore. I won’t be there. Someone will contact you when the moment is right.”
She left his room without closing the door behind her.
Getting up, he watched her cross the empty road through his second story window, and get into a ramshackle automobile. A man was at the wheel, white as a ghost in the dim streetlamp light. Looking up, the man gave Noah a short wave and a shady grin. It made Noah turn quickly, and stand out of sight with his back against the wall.
* * * * *
Author’s note: A new job makes for little time to write. Hence the shorter story length. In fact I intend to make this a very short novella, not quite flash fiction.
Read chapter 1 here.