The last time Ruso was betrayed by his handler was also his first. He wasn’t prepared for it. No one really would. Ten years in the business made him a professional, but not professional enough. Old-fashioned backstabbing was still painful.
Crawling back to his safe house in a bullet-ridden aerocar that no longer flew, he swore it would never happen again.
At least the medicine cabinet was well-stocked. The liquor shelf? Less so. For two moons, Ruso holed up in the dingy apartment in the slum. A perfect place to let his wounds heal while drowning in self-pity. A perfect time to consider early retirement from the job—one didn’t involve in his unnatural death, hopefully.
He was laying low, but it wasn’t easy. Lowdwellers talked, a lot. He could not take a walk on the street without the bounty hunters from a galaxy away hearing about. He had always been an outsider, even among his own people. Not a lot of Ghrusculs became assassins. Too cumbersome. Ruso was a small runt abandoned at birth and raised by the streets. Unwelcomed at most places he used to call home.
He wanted revenge. His handler was all fake smiles and hidden clauses. He hung Ruso out to dry, calling it a “vacation” and sent another asset to do the job. It went south, and he made Ruso take the fall. The number was half a million credits for his head, the last he heard of it.
He woke up sick. The medicine cabinet was empty. He considered a venture outside for some pain injections. Then, as if on cue, the telephone rang.
He wondered if it was telemarketing, just for the sheer irony. The phone was an old fashioned landline, one that not even the trash recycler wanted. It startled him when it worked, and was shrieking at such obnoxious volume, too.
“Hey, are you open for business?” The voice sounded young and lightly accented. Some dumb kid.
“Wrong number,” Ruso was about to hang up.
“No—wait, wait!” The voice called. Ruso stayed on, because he was getting used to the headache and bored. “Check your front door. Janajati, 200mg.”
Ruso hung up. He grabbed the rail pistol from under the couch and checked the front door through the slit. No one was outside his door. He checked the only window, next to the door and in the kitchen. Nothing stood up, just the bustling stackable dirty streets. He went to open the door. The hall was empty. A small package in yellow wrapping was sitting on the ground.
He locked the door and returned. The line rang again.
Ruso picked up.
“You kill people for a living, right?” Same kid, same trick trying to sound older than his age. “My employer wants someone dead.”
“I’m not in the business,” Ruso said tensely. He turned the package over. It has a smiley face sticker from Cha’s Pharmacy on the back. “Who am I talking to?”
“People call me ‘Green’,” the caller winced. His voice wavered briefly, perhaps was the bad connection. “Yeah…Look, man, I can’t do this mysterious benefactor thing. Woll’uyen…Tash-kor? I butchered that, didn’t I? The name’s on the file, along with his pic. Dead by Thursdays, that’s…let’s see, in five days.”
Along with the injector pack was a crumbled up, hand-written note. Ruso assumed it was the file. A printed photo of an Issiosiax in a three-piece suit.
“It’s ‘’Green’,” the caller corrected him. “Dumb, I know.”
“Green. So you’re my new handler? You’re human. A human working for the Ranorks?”
“What? No, no,” Green said. “This is private interest. Half a million points’ already in your account. The other half after he makes the news. Good?”
“Who do you work for and how did you find me?”
Already, Ruso felt his resolve weakened. He couldn’t hide in this shithole forever. He had some savings from past jobs, but not enough to last. He needed this. He knew.
“My employer has their ways, I suppose,” Green was pulling away from the microphone. “Sorry, give me a sec.”
There were noises coming from Green’s side of the line. People talking. Ruso pressed the phone to his largest ear, straining to hear the conversation. Nothing much he could hear, but Green’s voice was still coming through.
“Coming, coming!” Green’s voice came from far away. “Yeah, sure, I’ll buy coffee. Latte? Two lattes half sugar, and a matcha green tea, got it.” He came back. “Sorry about that. The comm device in the package, clip it to your ear so you don’t have to lug this antique everywhere. So, we good?”
Retirement could wait, said every hitman ever.
Thus begin a new career with this strange human handler. Russo was making good money so he didn’t complain. Actually, there was no much to complain about. The jobs were never too simple or challenging. It kept him on his feet. In three months, he had infiltrated a galactic corporation’s regional office, poisoned a tourist trying out local street food, and got rid of a drug dealer who was getting ahead of himself. Not big-time contracts, but not small either.
Green’s voice was there to guide him, as annoying as that sounded. He seemed to know Ruso’s every move, and made odd comments now and then through the comm piece. Yet he also knew when to shut up and let Ruso do the work.
Risk had gotten used to his presence. One thing was clear. Humans were scary conversationists. They could spend hours talking about nothing.
He was sitting in a dingy diner that served “American-styled” food. Green recommended this place, said their food printer was high-quality import so it was almost the real deal.
The Contact was sitting across from him. In the private space of the red plastic booth, they discussed the target.
“I heard you’re the most feared assassin in this part of the galaxy,” the man said, blowing smoke after inhaling from a pipe-like device. “Is it true?”
Ruso was not particularly interested in the man’s information. He trusted Green would find out about everything he needed.
“I wonder if an apple pie still counts as an apple.” In the earpiece, Green was on one of his usual rants.
“Sure,” Ruso said. “If you say so.”
“Be glad your boss paid me enough to talk. Here, the guard schedule,” the Contact pushed a little chip toward Ruso. “The warlord usually wine-and-dines in the hot spring area before moonfall.”
“Back on Earth, we’ve got a saying,” Green pauses for dramatic effect. “An apple a day, keep the doctors away.”
Ruso forked his slice of synthetic apple pie.
“That sounds like an expensive lifestyle,” he said, chewing on the syrupy part.
His Contact did not have the appetite, nor did he noticed the other conversation going on, parallel to his own.
“The area is open and has plenty of roofspaces nearby,” he looked anxious, with his voice lowered even though there were few other costumers nearby.
“You’re also very well paid, if I may add.
It’s ancient wisdom,” Green said. “Hey, it’s not just in Commonspeak. It rhymes in English, too. Also Chinese. A lot of humans grow up hearing this phrase.”
“Do I look like a ninja to you?” Ruso huffed.
“Ninja is Japanese, not Chinese. You really should read more about human history. Fascinating stuff.”
“Not exactly,” the Contact said, looking away to check their surroundings the tenth time since they sat down.
“We’re done here,” Ruso said, standing up. He picked up the empty plate and handed it to the cleaning bot.
“Hey there, excuse me.” On his way out, he asked the waitress. “Do you know of a fresh produce market nearby?”
“Yes!” Green yelled, victorious, a little too loud in his ear. His voice synced with the waitress nodding. “I know I can convert you. You will see the benefit of the Earthling way!”
Ruso cleared his throat. He did not grin. He knew the area like the back of his hand.
Ruso would never become a stealth guy, not in a million years. His approach to disposing of the target was straight forward. He first takes out the waiter on a smoke break. He could not disguise as him—the uniform was too small—so he took the key card. He climbed through the outer wall of the hot spring resort, walked across to the other end of the private property, and entered the building through the roof access door.
The guards were simple. Their footsteps sounded like thunders, thanks to his great hearing. So they were easy to avoid. Since getting Green as his handler, Ruso no longer had to worry about the surveillance cameras. The human took care of them on his end.
Once inside, he took an elevator to the ground floor. The halls were empty, except for expensive vases and revolutionary-styled paintings.
He noticed the Ranork family emblem. Instantly recognizable, too. He did not comment on it. He was always silent during missions.
He strode toward the outdoor spring. This pool of pinkish water was a rare luxury in the entire Ishtri system. Someone like Tezux Ranork who dealt in shady businesses could surely afford it. Ruso knew him well.
Revenge was right under his nose, so Ruso admitted he might have gone overboard. Shot all the guards and then seven bullets into Ranork’s head. By the end, there wasn’t much left to shoot at.
“Woah,” Green spoke in the comm, for the first time since Ruso entered the resort. “Let’s not meet in real life. Now get the hell out of there.”
Later that night, near the morning, Ruso ate his apple pie at a different dinner. It tasted different, though he could not tell which was more authentic.
Green ranted away in the earpiece.
“…not that it wasn’t a mission accomplished. I’m glad Target’s done, and all, but—it’s supposed to look like an accidental drowning!” Green paused to catch a breath. “Now look at all the paperwork I have to do. How am I gonna explain now? Target shot all his guards while naked in the pool and then accidentally drowned?”
“Those gills-men drowning? You are bad at jokes,” Ruso grunted. “I’m sure you can make it work.”
“Fine, fine.” The keyboard cluttered away on Green’s end. “Ugh, my boss is gonna kill me.”
“You sent me to kill my former handler. Anything you want to clue me in?”
“My employer wants him dead. I’m just the middleman…” Green hushed his voice. “A middleman who can pick which asset does the job, and I thought…you might appreciate this.”
Appreciate killing the man who stabbed him in the back? Ruso certainly did.
“Thank you,” Ruso said. He had been considered saying this all night. It seemed like the perfect opportunity. “There is something I need to ask you, face to face.
“What? Why? This channel is totally secure, you can ask anything here.”
“If you say so,” Ruso paused briefly. “Who am I working for? Who is your employer?”
“Look,” Green exhaled noisily. “I’m just the intern here. It’s a giant organization. One beyond the imagination of either of us. We are cogs, so let’s do what cogs do best.”
“Work, get paid, and shut up about it?”
“Exactly,” Green said. “Simple.”
So it was. Ruso was a simple man. The first time he was betrayed by his handler was also his last.
This one is not so bad.