Chapter 43 – Special Delivery
Sands quirked a curious eyebrow in Karlin’s direction but said nothing, waiting for the elder man to continue. A funny thing had happened after he’d given himself up to the Company; he’d rediscovered the power of patience.
After all, the cat didn’t catch the canary when it couldn’t wait for the perfect moment to pounce. He had no intention of letting Karlin best him, but he had every intention of allowing Karlin to think that he had.
Silence quickly replaced conversation, and Sands’ lips twitched into an amused smile.
Karlin never had been one to rush a discussion. Sands let him set the pace as he thought about what the man was offering. He took another drag, relaxing into his chair and thinking about his possible return to the PANDORA project. It certainly wouldn’t be his first choice, but he had a feeling it would be the best he’d get from the Company in his current state and standing. He was sure that Karlin knew it too and was using it to his full advantage.
“PANDORA was fucked from the beginning, and you knew it. You had balls, coming out against your own project,” Karlin stated.
“That ship hit an iceberg long before I joined the crew.”
“The Company still wants something that will fulfill PANDORA’s promises.”
Sands chuckled, tapping the ashes of his cigarette onto the floor. “Naturally. Absolute power leaves little room for conflict.”
“You, of all people, wouldn’t be lecturing me on the corrupting effects of absolute power, would you?”
Sands smiled. “I dig the idea, but the results you’re lookin’ for kinda suck the fun out of wielding the power. It’s a groovy problem solver, though.”
“Unless, of course, it was you who was doing the wielding,” Karlin stated knowingly, and not without some amusement of his own.
A puff on his cigarette preceded Sands’ answer. He settled back into the chair, exhaling a large plume of smoke, and leaning his head back as he did so. “That goes without saying,” he drawled, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “You still have the irritating habit of beating around the bush, I see.”
His smirk didn’t falter. He’d walked right into that one, but he was quickly becoming accustomed to that tactic and it was growing old fast. “What are you offering me?”
“A chance to continue with the Company, and fuck with people’s heads.”
“Sounds like a romping good time,” Sands said with a shrug. Pausing, he stubbed out his cigarette on the table in front of him. “The catch?”
“The only other offer you’re going to get from the Company is forced retirement with disability.”
So that’s how they were going to play it… winner take all.
Well, he to could play at that game.
His smirk contorted into a cynically twisted grin as he moved out of his relaxed position and leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Oh? Is that so?”
Karlin chuckled. “If you aren’t crazy now, you will be once the boredom of retirement sets in. If you take this assignment, you’ll be in charge of the program that will replace PANDORA.”
Karlin dodged his question. Sands took note of that. He also took note of Karlin’s choice of words. As far as he knew, PANDORA had never made it past the testing stage.
Sands cocked his head and furrowed his brow. “Replace her…” he trailed off, nonplussed for a second as he absorbed the information.
Leaning back in his chair again, he couldn’t help but laugh.
So that’s why they wanted him back; to fix the mess they’d made. He couldn’t say he was surprised. “Didn’t work, did it?” he asked knowingly, suppressing his laughter.
“The Company was in need; still is. You can fill that need. That’s what it’s all about. I’d take advantage of it, if I were you.”
“But you’re not. Never could be.”
“How’s the old ball and chain?” Karlin asked, quickly diverting the conversation to a more sensitive topic. Sands heard the chair creak again and assumed that Karlin had stood.
“Don’t you know?” Sands asked coolly, not about to let Karlin rile him.
“Maybe I do.”
“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t. After all, she’s under PsyOps’ loving care.”
Unbeknownst to Sands, Karlin’s eyes had widened at his comment. Sands wasn’t supposed to be aware that PsyOps was in control of his wife’s therapy. However, Karlin kept his tone neutral as he continued. “Perhaps her situation could change…”
“Ah…” He was starting to see where all this was going. He propped his feet on the table, then asked, “Still looking for the magic elixir? Maybe you can ask Indiana Jones if he can help you find the Holy Grail while you’re at it.”
“You wouldn’t want one?” Karlin asked, ignoring Sands’ jibe as he made his way around the table. “You can’t tell me that you wouldn’t give anything to see again.”
“If you really think I’m that desperate, or that stupid, then I wouldn’t be the man you’re looking for.”
Karlin didn’t answer at first, taking a drag of his cigarette. Sands listened as he exhaled slowly, and then finally said, “True. You up to it?”
Sands waved a hand in dismissal. “It’s pure gravy. Just not sure I want to take the gig.”
“I don’t ask twice.”
“You don’t ask at all,” Sands stated wryly. “However, my keen intellect tells me that I’m getting a decent deal here.” His tone was dripping with sarcasm, betraying his words and any hint of gratitude which may have been hidden there.
Karlin missed – or ignored – the tone, however. “The best that you’re going to be offered.”
Sands gave a derisive snort. “Do you want me to say thank you?”
“I wouldn’t want you to embarrass yourself, Sands.”
“Maybe I’ll send you a card,” Sands said with a smile that was less than friendly. He sat silently as he listened to the sound of Karlin’s footsteps retreat to the door, bringing an end to the conversation.
“So, is that a yes?” Karlin asked.
“You know I get a perverse kick out of performing a good mind fuck. How could I resist?” he said lightly.
“I had a feeling you’d come around,” Karlin answered.
The smugness in Karlin’s voice did not go unnoticed by Sands. “By the by, who unearthed the bitch?” Sands asked with grim amusement. Somebody had done some digging, and he wanted Karlin to know that he was fully aware of what was going on.
Karlin’s only answer was an amused laugh as he walked out the door and shut it firmly behind him.
The offer sounded all well and good on the surface, but a sinister little gremlin was lurking underneath. It didn’t take a rocket scientist – or even an experienced CIA officer – to figure out that he was being set up for a fall. He suspected that a more powerful suit than Karlin had found out a bit too much about PANDORA, and they were looking for someone’s head to put on the chopping block.
Karlin and the Company had another thing coming if they thought that person was going to be him. His mind drifted to El suddenly, and he wondered if the Mariachi had held up his end of the deal or bolted to some secluded hide-away to brood about bygone days.
Karlin walked down the sterile hall at a brisk clip, meeting up with two other officers waiting by the elevators.
“He buy it?” the female officer asked, while her partner kept an eye out for any eavesdroppers in the immediate area, doing his best to look nonchalant as he did so.
“Hook, line and sinker,” Karlin said confidently. The woman made him nervous, though he did his best not to show it. “He knows we’re up to something, but he underestimates the Company.”
“Did you find a trigger?”
“Yeah. I don’t think Sands’ll be too happy in the near future.”
She gave a sharp nod, then signaled to her partner that it was time to leave. Turning her icy stare back on Karlin she said, “Get this wrapped up, or you’re history.”
Karlin swallowed thickly. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”
She quirked a well-kept eyebrow. “Don’t make the same mistake he is,” she said, then looked him up and down before turning to leave. Her partner was holding the elevator for her as she stepped inside.
“Bitch,” Karlin muttered as soon as the doors closed. Straightening his tie, he set out to find Ava and let her know that he was through with Sands.
2 Days Later
“I don’t understand you, Sands,” Cam said with a shake of his head. “You’re back in D.C., you get to work for PsyOps again, Martin’s practically a vegetable… shouldn’t you be happy right now?” he asked lightly, as he and Sands walked down one of the paths in Lincoln Park.
Sands frowned slightly, miffed that Cam had noticed his mood. His cane tapped lightly in front of him as he walked, and he was aware that Cam had probably chosen Lincoln Park because it had paved walks.
He couldn’t say that he wasn’t happy about Martin’s current vegetative state… still, he had a bad vibe that he just couldn’t seem to shake. “What makes you think I’m not chipper as a jay bird right now?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I haven’t received my daily put-down from you yet,” Cam tried to joke. “You’re remarkably dull, a word I thought I’d never associate with you.”
Sands stopped dead in his tracks. “Dull!” he scoffed.
“Yeah. But now that I think about it, boring is more the word.” Cam stopped walking as well, but knowing that his teasing might not be well received, he kept a safe distance in case Sands retaliated with his fist or cane.
Sands arched a dark eyebrow in Cam’s direction, remaining dangerously still. He refrained from doing anything rash, as real revenge was better taken when Cam was least expecting it. Instead, he took his time lighting a cigarette. He said nothing, knowing it would freak Cam out more than anything he could say.
After watching Sands take a deep drag of his cigarette, he said with finality, “You’re going to get me for this later, aren’t you?”
Sands flashed Cam a twisted smile. “Ah, but an eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.”
“Thank you, Gandhi,” Cam said, looking up at the approaching storm clouds before returning his gaze to Sands. “Please, we went to the Farm together. I know you better than that.”
“You presume to know me so well. Don’t you think that might be a mistake?” Sands took a puff of his cigarette as he resumed walking. The heavy moisture in the air signaled an approaching storm.
“Have you heard from El?” Sands asked, curious.
Cam shook his head. “No.”
“Hmm, bailed as soon as I cut him loose,” Sands said as if to himself. Just one more example of how you couldn’t control something, or someone, once it left your immediate influence. Luckily, he’d considered the possibility before he’d let El go and didn’t have to rely solely on El to blackmail the Company.
Still, he’d thought he’d pegged El as an honest man… at least for a murderer. He was a little disappointed that he’d up and split without doing the job.
“Is it going to be a problem?”
Sands shook his head, no, taking another puff of his cigarette. “It just would have been the icing on the cake.”
“Do you want me to see if I can find him?” Cam asked after a moment.
As much as teaching El a lesson appealed to him, he knew it wasn’t a good idea, and he simply didn’t have the energy to do it. He’d been told this morning that he was going to need reconstructive surgery on his eyes and soon. He wasn’t surprised. They’d told him that when he was first in the hospital. Still, he wasn’t thrilled at the idea of going back under the knife so soon. “Did you send off what I gave you?” he asked after a couple minutes.
Cam halted, and Sands followed suit. “I did what you told me to.”
“Shit,” Sands muttered with a shake of his head. He’d half-expected that would be the case. After all, Cam had always been – at the very least – true to his word.
He was glad the proof he’d obtained in Mexico was safe; he just wasn’t too keen on who he’d sent it off to. Sure, it was the only option at the time, but he still thought he must have had a complete meltdown to go through with it.
“Right,” Cam directed when they came to another pathway, leading them both back to his car. “Jeff, what’s going on?”
Sands sighed, feeling a few raindrops hit his face. “You remember that list that was circulating around the Company a few years back? Washington Rules? One of them was ‘there’s always one more son of a bitch than you counted on’.”
Cam laughed lightly. “Oh, yeah.” He sobered up when he realized what Sands was implying. “Do you think there’s another traitor?”
“Fallaces sunt rerum species. I’m getting a few too many bad vibes.”
Cameron pulled up alongside the curb in front of Sands’ apartment building. He shot Sands a worried sidelong glance as he came to a halt, wishing he didn’t have a shit-load of work piling up on his desk. Sands was acting a bit off, there was no doubt about it. He wondered if more had happened in the psych ward than what he’d been told. “I need to get going. I’ve got paperwork coming out the wazoo.”
Sands nodded, listening to the raindrops as they hit the windshield. The light sprinkling had turned into heavy rain and Sands braced himself for a quick dash. Swinging open the car door, he jumped out quickly and, familiar with the area, had no trouble making a hasty retreat into the apartment building. He heard Cam pull away just as he stepped inside.
The stuffiness of the old apartment building assailed his remaining senses full force, and he thought for the first time in a long while that he might want to move.
Pulling wet strands of hair back, he dried his face with the sleeve of his coat and headed up the nearest stairwell.
Once up the stairs he quickly hurried down the hall to his apartment, and was surprised when the toe of his shoe hit something sitting on the floor in front of his door. Bending down to pick it up Sands realized that it was a package.
Standing in the hall, dripping wet, he held the package as if it was an alien creature. Frowning, he wondered what it could possibly be. He hadn’t been expecting anything, and he couldn’t help but feel uneasy.
Hearing someone else come up the stairs, Sands hurried to find his keys. Opening the door and stepping inside, he took off his coat and set it on a small table by the door, along with his cane.
He carried the package into the living room and set it on the sofa.
He had the feeling that he needed a drink before opening it. Whatever it was, he held little hope that it would be good. Feeling a cold breeze, he realized that he had left the living room window open and went over to shut it.
As he did so, his thoughts remained on the package.
Why are you so edgy about a fucking package? It’s probably from dear ol’ dad. Or Cam. Or the Company…even El if you really want to grasp at straws.
But he couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t from any of them. Damn it, if only he could see the return address – or lack of one – it wouldn’t be such a mystery.
Going into the kitchen, he grabbed himself a beer from the fridge and returned to the living room, taking a long swig from the bottle as he did so.
It’s probably a bomb, come to end your misery.
Sands actually chuckled at the morbid thought.
Setting the beer down on the table, Sands grabbed his pocket knife and sliced open the packing tape before returning the blade to his pocket. He sat down heavily on the sofa, picked up the package and opened the top flaps.
Curiosity killed the cat, didn’t it?
Sands reached into the box, finding a lot of packaging popcorn, and had to fish around for a moment before his fingers felt something plastic and bumpy…
Pulling the object from the foam popcorn, he unwrapped it to find that his fingers were holding something cool and slick… like glass. Feeling the shape he discovered that it was a glass jar.
He sat there for a minute bewildered until a thought entered his mind, tainting and poisoning every thought after it. A cold shudder passed through him and he set the jar heavily on the table in front of him.
Don’t jump to conclusions. It could be… could be…
Leaning forward he held his head in his hands, trying to calm himself down as he attempted to breathe deeply.
It’s just not possible.
Suddenly he thought of Jackson. The note found on him in Braille.
But Martin had been responsible for that…
Sands turned back to the empty box and, with a feeling of dread, felt inside. At the very bottom of the package, he found a piece of paper and pulled it out with a shaky hand.
Again, it was printed in Braille. As he read the short sentence his stomach twisted into a tight knot.
Something to remember me by.
It wasn’t signed. He let out a shuddering breath, dropping the note to the floor. If this was what he thought it was, it was far worse than a bomb. Far worse.
Sanity be damned, he had to know.
With a new resolve, he snatched up the jar and went into the kitchen. It can’t be. Over and over again his mind chanted that. He couldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t believe it. That man was dead. He had to be.
In front of the sink, he unscrewed the jar. He felt sick as the lid came off; so much so that he had to set the open vessel down and lean against the counter before continuing.
Please, let it be a fucking jar of jam.
Taking one last deep breath, he moved the jar over the sink, then poked a couple fingers inside it.
His fingers made contact with something that was a little thicker than water, before diving deeper into the jar. Then he felt it, soft and fleshy against his fingertips.
He let out a cry as he yanked his hand out of the jar, and the jar fell. He heard it shatter as it hit the bottom of the sink and several shards of glass flew up and embedded themselves in his hands.
No, no, no, no, no.
Determined to prove himself wrong, he reached into the sink desperately; the glass bit into his hands as he searched. When he found what he was searching for, he was unable to touch it any longer than was necessary to identify it.
Something to remember me by.
It was his fucking eyes.
Dropping it, he backed away from the sink. Truly sick, he stumbled out of the kitchen as fast as he could. The unseen world seemed to tilt and spin beneath him.
He knocked over a lamp as he lurched into the bathroom. The contents of his lunch were soon in the toilet.
Collapsing onto the floor, he fell against the wall behind him. When he came back to his senses he realized that his face was wet, and it wasn’t from the rain. He drew up a knee and rested his elbow on top of it, leaning his head in his hand.
He remained that way for a good five minutes before he realized his hands were bleeding badly, and glass was digging painfully into his palms.
The mere name made his blood run cold.
What the fuck am I going to do with my eyes?
He tried to convince himself that he should wash the blood off his hands, get the glass out, clean up the mess… yet he seemed unable to move. He was distantly aware of the phone ringing, but even if he was in any condition to get up, he was in no condition to answer.
He couldn’t think, couldn’t focus; it was as if his mind and body had ground to a halt. Everything was still and silent, even his mind… and that was the most eerie thing of all.
He sat there – immobilized and unthinking – for who knew how long. Could have been ten seconds or ten minutes. Fuck, it could have been ten hours or ten days for all it mattered.
Then, suddenly, something penetrated the stillness; it was the hum of his heater as it kicked on. His body bolted upright as if he’d been shocked.
Oh yeah, he was trembling, wasn’t he? Still, he was pretty sure the cause wasn’t the chill of the air.
A single question entered his mind: Why couldn’t it have been a bomb?
He considered the thought for a moment, and then began to laugh wildly.
I really thought I’d gotten them all. How could I be so stupid?
There’s always one more.
Always one more.
His thoughts ground to a halt.
The ceiling creaked as his neighbors in the apartment above walked about.
Not a thought, but a command from his brain. He made a weak attempt to push himself up, but slid back down to the ground.
You going to sit there forever, or do something about it?
He tried again with a little more effort and managed to bring himself to a semi-standing position.
Christ. What the hell was wrong with him? He wasn’t wounded.
Are you going to let Guevara get away with this?
He pushed himself up completely, but still leaned heavily against the wall. He forced himself to concentrate on the things he needed to do, and tried not to think about what he’d just received in the mail.
But something like that doesn’t just go away, and despite focusing on washing the blood off and pulling the glass out of his hands, his thoughts still drifted back.
“He had no eyes. No eyes, no soul.”
Well, he may still be in search of his soul but he had at least one eye in the kitchen sink.
He grimaced as he pulled a large piece of glass from his left palm and dropped it into the sink.
She stood beside him, smiling as amusement twinkled in her eyes.
“You’re a thinker, Shelly. The ideas man.” She absently fixed his collar as he got ready. “Why do you try to be the man of action?”
He shook himself clear of his memory. He hated to admit it, but he’d known she was right then and it was painfully clear how right she was now.
He made things happen, he pulled the strings, but he was never meant to be the man of action.
When had he forgotten that?
The Day of the Dead? Before?
When did you stop running Mexico with your cell phone and become a real pawn in the game?
The phone rang again as he finished pulling the glass out of his hands. He took the gauze from the cabinet above the sink and opened the wrapper. The answering machine picked up, and although he couldn’t make out the words from the bathroom, he could tell it was a woman’s voice.
He wrapped the deepest cuts as best he could. Finished with that, he tiredly made his way out of the bathroom and into his bedroom.
He stayed as far away from the kitchen as possible. He couldn’t. Not now…
Tomorrow. He’d do… something about it tomorrow.
He sat heavily on the bed. Thinking about the phone call again, he reached over to the answering machine and hit the play button.
“Hi Sands. I need to talk to you… mihi cura futuri.”
She didn’t leave her name, but he knew who it was. Ava – who was a little more overeducated than she’d first let on.
She did leave her number and when the message was over, he made sure to save it. He’d call her tomorrow.
He fell back onto the bed; still dressed and lying crooked across the mattress. It was probably still light outside. He didn’t care. He just wanted to sleep – escape – and forget… if only for the night.
Tomorrow he’d come up with a plan.
And tomorrow he’d remember where his strengths truly did lie.
Fallaces sunt rerum species. – The appearances of things are deceptive.
Mihi cura futuri. – I care for the future.
Well, that's all she wrote! Yes, it's somewhat evil, but I sense you all wouldn't except any less. I really, really hope you've enjoyed the ride... I sure have enjoyed writing it.
A huge thank you to everyone who replied to the last chapter or two, and didn't let me forget about this story.
Always, a big thanks to my beta, Stella-Maria.
As for a sequel... well, I don't think it can be stopped! My only question is, are you all up to it?