Philip fumbles with his tie clasp, while Howard slouches over the rickety, wooden table, eating what could quite possibly be considered the worst hamburger ever made. Howard never asked for a partner, much less one so dull-witted and painfully unimaginative. Bureaucracy doesn’t speak the language of comfort however. It only comprehends seniority, protocol and infectivity. Philip’s success within the organization is living proof that with enough time even a brick can slip through the cracks of any system. Finally at the tale end of his live field operative training, Philip will take down a fictional target based on flimsy information.
“Say, Howard, that burger looks mighty delicious. Delectable even. I would definitely have one if offered. I mean, had I known you’d be consuming such a thing, I’d wager that I myself would be eating one as well,” Philip says, never fully expressing the thought he wishes to communicate. He pulls his suspender straps and snaps them on his torso, then presses his thick glasses to his face. “Yup. If given the chance, I sure wouldn’t mind a burger.” He sighs. Years of working behind a desk with the other uncreative hiveminds of the office made him well-versed in saying much to express very little. Philip stares at Howard, expecting a response. After all, responding is what people do. Howard is a person, therefore when posed with a statement, it is only proper that he responds in turn, at least if he wants to get recognized a great partner and employee when the mid-years get written. Only a braindead, monster would disregard the nuances required for corporate advancement. Howard is many things, but even he recognizes the value of networking. Surely, he does.
Howard bites his burger, staring through the faded and stained motel wallpaper. He tracks a pair of cockroaches scrambling toward a hole between the wall and the ceiling. With great effort, he swallows the dry, crispy mystery meat bathed in suspiciously creamy condiments and sandwiched between stale buns. Howard groans. He takes another bite and cringes, imagining a beak-nosed, freckled teenager smashing roaches into a frozen patty, then frying the patty and chuckling as he passes an order to a customer. Howard, hardened by years of field work, takes solace in the quiet discomfort of life on the road. His tenure, predicated by unrecognized, exemplary servitude, has been overshadowed by his declarations of common sense when necessary. Unfortunately, Howard’s partners’ and bosses’ successes often boil down to one of the three “N”s: nepotism, networking or narcissism. As a result, his great suggestions get ignored, discredited or blatantly shot down until a more favorable face expresses them. At least Howard’s particular “n” makes it clear he can never get fired without very detailed justification.
Howard wipes his hands and tosses the napkin into a trash bin next to the leaky fridge. “My man! Nice shot. Do you play hoops? You know, basketball?” Philip asks, gesturing a shot. Howard shrugs. “Come on, I see it in you, big guy. You could probably shoot 3’s like a champ!” Philip exclaims, leaning against the wall. He crosses his arms and sighs. “Yep. Hoops. That’s what we called it growing up in Oklahoma. Tulsa, Oklahoma. Yessir. Good ‘ol fashioned hoops. America’s real past time. Round ball,” Philip pontificates, taking a deep breath. Howard sits up and washes his hands in the large, broken sink under a water-stained mirror. To his left, the bathroom door is open. The toilet seat is down and speckled with urine. Howard ignores the unflushed bowl and puts his suitcase on the table. It pops open after he enters a code.
“Any idea why we need this?” Howard asks, examining the rifle in the case.
Relieved Howard finally spoke, Philip shrugs. “No clue. It seems like overkill for someone who… uh… Come to think of it, I have no idea what the hell our target was actually charged with or why we’re after him. We’ve been following him for a while, but I don’t feel like I know why. Do you remember anything from the original briefing? I feel like the chief said something important, but I can’t for the life of me recall it.” Philip shakes his head. “Sorry. I think my nerves might have gotten the better of me. I do know he’s a H-V-T.”
“Good enough. It’s your first full-fledged field operation, so don’t worry about not knowing all the details. Truth be told, I don’t recall much either, except the grainy photo we got,” Howard says. He slides the briefcase over and points at the disassembled rifle. “You can have the shot, but you’re putting it together, and cleaning it. If you want. If it’s not our guy, I’ll take the heat.” Like a child on Christmas morning, Philip skips over to his gift. Philip pokes at the rifle parts and smirks at the scope. “You do know how, right?” Howard asks.
Click. Snap. Click. Pop. Smack.
“You bet I do!” Philip says, assembling the rifle in seconds. “The only thing that wasn’t covered in the training is putting a cap in a criminal’s skull. But, that’s probably just as simple as aiming and squeezing. And, with this silencer, no one will hear a thing. The target’s just going to drop and the clean up crew will grab the corpse. Easy enough,” he remarks. Philip pulls a seat by the window and slides the window open. He mounts the weapon on a tripod. “I still don’t understand why there’s a video recorder on the scope, but whatever. Above my pay grade. This should still be easy peasy lemon squeezy. They always say the easiest part is always pulling the trigger, after all.”
“They also say the hard part is what comes after pulling the trigger,” Howard replies, grabbing a book from his duffel bag. He lies back on the bed. As long as the target is hit, nothing else really matters. Philip will learn eventually. Hopefully, the partnership is only for this training operation. He just needs to pull the trigger on the blanks and we can move on.
Unaware that the operation is fake, Philip guides the muzzle over the unassuming criminal. The target is young man, possibly mixed race, possibly Hispanic, possibly middle eastern. He’s fairly tall. Non-threatening, except for an empty, glossed-over look on his face. “I’m not so sure about this,” Philip announces, quiet and pensive. “This guy. Our target. He’s a kid, Howard. Probably 20-something. Are you sure he’s the right guy?”
Howard continues reading. “We’ve been following dead ends and cold leads for months. Who care’s if he’s not. Just pull the trigger. Pretend he’s someone else if it makes it easier to shoot him,” he responds, impatient. Howard rubs his forehead and glances sideways at Philip, whose hands are trembling. He sighs. “Philip, I’ll take the shot. Just tighten the hinges on the tripod so it move when we switch.” Philip nods and moves out of the way. For the most part, this entire operation is a success. Philip helped find the target and assembled the rifle very quickly. Even if he doesn’t pull the trigger, he’s still operationally viable and will likely make a good agent.
“I’m sorry, partner. I just can’t do it,” he declares, ashamed and sullen. Philip crosses his arms and groans. He sighs and rinses his face, then examines his face in the mirror.
Philip’s knees buckle and the blood drains from his face. In slow motion, he shivers while turning to look at Howard. Philip’s fear couldn’t prepare him for the horrified look on his partner’s face: Howard’s jaw hangs open as his eyes bulge out from his head, struggling to make sense of what he sees.
“Th-that was two shots. Right through his head,” Howard mutters. He slowly pulls the gun from the tripod and moves away from the window. “Call it in.” Philip stands there, observing his partner, hearing Howards order, unable to speak or move. “The HVT has been hit. Two rounds to the head. Still moving. Still breathing. Call it in, god dammit!” Howard commands. Philip radios in Howard’s order, his hands quivering and his words barely registering.
“Ta-Target hit. Team Hotel. Papa. Lima. Do not engage. Target is responsive. I repeat, do not engage target is responsive. Over,” Philip declares.
“HQ here. We read you lima charlie, Team Hotel Papa Lima. Did you record the target on the scope? Over,” asks the voice on the other end.
Philip stands frozen. Howard snatches the secure radio from Philip’s hands. “Team Hotel Papa Lima. All standard protocols follows. Over,” Howard responds, still in clear shock. “Target Kilo Alpha Lima Charlie Yankee Papa Hotel India Romeo has been hit twice in the t-box. Both rounds directly through and recorded on video. Target is not neutralized. Do not send cleaning crew. Target last seen looking for direction of shots. Over.”
“Great work, team. Return to HQ for debrief. Over,” the HQ liaison relays.
Confounded, Howard and Philip exchange glances. They nod in unison confirming the command. Howard, the more senior member of the team, grabs the phone in the room and dials someone on speaker phone.
“Chief Roberts speaking. Hello?”
“Chief it’s Howard. Howard and Philip. Team Hotel Papa Lima. We just-“
“Great work,” Chief Roberts interrupts. “I just heard while you were calling. Woulda’ congratulated you sooner, but I didn’t check who was calling.”
Ignoring the chief, Howard asks, “What exactly was our mission and who was our target? Who is Kalcyphir?”
“We’ll fill you in arrival. Good work team,” Chief Roberts replies, hanging up.
Howard and Philip bolt out of the motel and hit the road in their inconspicuous vehicle. They take 8th Avenue to 42nd Street and ditch the unmarked vehicle in a government parking lot. They enter the Times Square Police Station and make their way to the joint FBI, CIA wing of the massive building. Still shaken, the two men walk into the briefing room, received by claps and cheers from men and women they’ve never met.
“All right, all right, simmer down,” Chief Roberts says walking in with a serious old man in khaki pants and white collared shirt. “Gentlemen, this is Mister Serrig. He oversees covert fringe operations.”
“I’m not sure I follow, chief,” Philip declares. He looks around the room, growing even more concerned and confused. Not a single familiar face. What could all of this be about?
“He means, X-Files level ops, Philip,” Howard responds, regaining his bearings. His demeanor is calm and alert. “So, what? This Kalcyphir -“
“Kal-se-fur,” Serrig interrupts, correcting Howard. “The target is an immortal named Kalcyphir. He’s been wandering my streets for hundred of years. We’ve known of him and about him. We’ve never been able to ID him. His face doesn’t show up on film, so how you two managed to find and shoot him with the flimsy information we’ve given everyone in this room is completely beyond me.” Serrig waves his hands and someone shuts off the lights. He flips on a projector and several blurry images come up. “For years, we’ve been developing a task force to track these things down and understand them. Our goal is to determine the source of their immortality and find a way to construct impervious humans for space and marine exploration. But, in order to do that, we need at least three of them. What you shot the target with was a chip. A tracker. We are going to monitor him, ID everyone he interacts with and one-by-one, grab as many immortal people as we can. It won’t be easy, but with people like the two of you in the task force, we should be able to make some progress. So, how about it, any interest?”
Philip exclaims, “Yes, sir!”
Howard sighs. “So, you give me a fake training operation and I pull the trigger on some kid you were actually after? What if we had the wrong target and I actually killed some random boy on the street?” he asks Serrig. Howard glares at Chief Roberts. “What the hell, Chief! This whole time, you knew this was a real exercise? Meanwhile, I’m riding around with this pencil-pusher thinking I’m just showing him to scout and tail a target. I can’t and won’t be part of any of this.” Howard prepares to walk out of the room, unconcerned with all of the eyes gawking at him, wishing they could be in his shows. Serrig grabs his arm.
“Look, Howard,” Serrig says. “You aren’t leaving this room knowing what you know. You want to leave you do it in a body bag. Everyone here, except the two of you, was in on the operation. Those two men, those women, that guy and her, were the first recruits for this task force,” he declares pointing at the people in the briefing room. “You are hands down the FBIs best and brightest field agent. You were since day one. And, we’ve been keeping tabs on you, purposefully holding back your promotion so the bureau wouldn’t give you so much responsibility that they couldn’t lose you. You’ve shown your worth and value. The CIA has wanted you for a long time. We just needed to know that you can be a team player, and proved it.” Serrig smiles at Philip. “And, Philip, of all the pencil pushers, you have the most drive. Both of you, bring separate talents, but are by far the best. We’ve monitored all your communications via bugs on your suitcases and pens. While I won’t say that it’s a partnership made in operational heaven, the fact that you were able to communicate well enough to coordinate this exercise speaks volumes. And, Howard, even under the guise that it was fake, you went above and beyond. We want you. You leave, well, you die. We’ll kill you and we’ll kill Philip. No one else can partner with him.” Serrig plops his pistol on the long, oval-shaped briefing table. “That’s a custom-made silent .45. Make your choice. Join us or rot.”
“I guess this is our first official day as partners,” Philip declares, sipping coffee in the passenger seat. He takes a bite of his ham and swiss bagel. “Who knew being 30 and single would work to both of our advantages, huh?” he asks, spitting food while he speaks. In the distance, Kalcyphir walks down the road with an older man and an attractive woman. “Now, let’s see what our boy is doing.”
“He’s leaving those two,” Howard says, taking photos. “Judging by what we know so far, Kalcyphir is incredibly old, incredibly rich and meets with random people all day. It’s wonder he isn’t eating around the clock. He’s walked all over the east side since last night, according to the tracking data.” Howard snaps pictures of Kalcyphir heading toward a heavy set man having ice cream with a child. “There’s something you don’t see every day. I wonder who they are.” He clicks the flash-less polaroid camera in succession, pouring out dozens of photos. While Howard observes, Philip thumbs through each snapshot.
“Ah, dang it!” Philip shouts. “This could have been a perfect picture of that girl’s ass, but there’s this weird shadow blocking her legs.” He holds up the image and turns with it. “It looks like a midget in a robe, right?” he asks, pushing the photo in Howard’s face.
“Come on, man, stop,” Howard says, slapping Philip’s hand away. “We need these photos. We can go through them later. For now, just separate the ones that are two blurry. Make sure you get everyone our guy’s interacted with, including the group of teenagers he spoke with on his way to the old guy and the woman, and that waiter in the restaurant. I’ll keep snapping this guy.” Philip nods and eats his bagel while scouring through the pictures. Many of them have the same weird dark smudge in them. “I wonder what he could be saying. That guy looks-he just doesn’t look right.”
“No kidding, Howie,” Philip responds. “That smudge is next to the target’s POI in these pictures you just took.”
Howard gives Philip a dirty look and shakes his head. “First, don’t ever call me that. Second, enough with the shadow. Sort the images and note anything important. We already know the immortals’ faces look blurry on film. For all we know, it’s just another effect from that,” Howard says, shifting in his seat to get better angles.
“I still maintain the position that you could be wrong, Howard. The only immortal we’re aware of is this Kal-see guy. No one else’s face is blurry in any of our photos. Maybe the immortals are people who sold their souls and depending who they sold their soul to, they have weird quirks. Strange things, you know. It’s like my pappy used to say, ‘ The Devil’s deals are always different. You never know what someone will trade for something they want‘… or something like that.”
Howard tries to ignores Philip, but lets out a chuckle.
“Huh, so you do laugh,” Philip says, jotting notes behind the images.
“Yeah. Typically at bullshit. I’ve been a field agent since I joined. I can spot an obvious lie,” Howard responds, deadpanning to Philip. “Anyway, our guy seems to be meeting up with the girl and her father in the park. And, they-“
“Holy shit, Howard! Quick drive after that car! The POI just put the kid in the trunk!” Philip yells.