Cross my heart and hope to die

“It’s simple, really. We’ve tried to make this as easy as possible. You can come with us,” the man told him. “Or some time in the next few weeks the police can pull your body out of the Bernedigo River.” He spoke calmly, evenly, and without a hint of malice on his face.

Jevo stared at him, not sure whether to laugh. Was the corner of the man’s mouth lifting? Was this some crazy sort of joke? He glanced back up the pier toward the unmarked patrol car. Both cops were standing near the car, enigmatic shadows in front of the warehouse lighting. They had their arms folded, and they appeared to be watching him. “What do you mean?” he stammered. “Who are you?”

“I’m just a messenger. My name is unimportant. Try to concentrate on my message. This is your only chance.”

“I don’t understand. This is crazy. What’s going on?”

“Volunteers, Jevo. We’re looking for volunteers. You know the time table. You know the issues perhaps better than any other person still alive. We want you. Full time.”

“But I’m already working full time. Overtime, even. How much more do you want me to work?”

The man sighed, turned around, and walked to the end of the pier. “Come here, Jevo,” he said.

Jevo didn’t move. He watched as the man sat down, dangling his feet off the edge of the pier. The night was cloudy. The light from the city reflected off the clouds, which reflected shakily off the surface of the river. “Come on, Jevo. I’m not going to hurt you.” He gestured back toward the men standing alert by the car. “That’s their job. But only if you give me the wrong answer.”

Jevo took a cautious step toward him. “Are you threatening me?”

“We lost Chaucey a month ago.” The man spoke quietly, so that Jevo had to lean down to hear him.

Jevo had known Chaucey. A bright kid, energetic, outgoing. He had wanted him on his team, but Gloria got him. Put him on reports and documentation while he was learning the ropes. Then left him there, claiming he was too good to move to another position. Jevo had hated seeing his talents being wasted like that. Turned up missing a day before he would have been there one year. They found his body a week later. Gangs. Wrong place, wrong time. Kid must have looked like he had some money.

“Yesterday Millins was killed,” the man continued.

“Millins?” Jevo asked. He hadn’t heard about this. “The bioelectrical engineer working for….”

“Wagkin, that’s right. His apartment was ransacked. They found his body on the floor in his kitchen.” He picked up a clump of dirt off the pier and threw it into the water. “And this morning we got a call from Gloria’s team. She didn’t show up for work this morning.”

Jevo shuddered. “Gloria, too?”

The man sat there silently for a few moments, staring out over the water. “I’m not supposed to tell you this, but….” He paused, glancing back up the pier. “Sit down, Jevo.”

Jevo sat then, letting his feet hang over the pier toward the dark water below. Dull highlights shimmered up at him.

“Look, Jevo.” He stopped again, then turned to look at Jevo. “I’m not sure how to say this, but they found Gloria.”

Jevo nodded, not sure he wanted to hear what had happened to her.

“She was still alive when they found her. They don’t know who, and they don’t know why, but from what she was able to tell them, it appears that someone is hunting down members of our teams.”

Jevo’s mouth opened, then closed, then opened again. His eyes darted around the man’s face, and his eyelids were opened wide.

“We’re moving to ensure the safety of the team, Jevo. That’s why you’ve got to come with me. We’ve got a new facility just outside Torsdale, state of the art, everything you’ll need.”

“So we go there, what’s to keep them from following us and killing us there?”

“Because you’re already dead. They can’t kill you if you’re already dead.”

“I’m dead?”

“As good as dead. You disappear, nobody knows where to find you. These days, that won’t raise any red flags.”

“What will I tell Mirena? Come on, honey, we’re moving tonight. Don’t pack your bags, because we aren’t supposed to be alive anymore.”

“Your wife won’t be going. We don’t have the housing, and we can’t risk the exposure of entire families disappearing at once. You come alone. Nobody knows. You disappear tonight and you aren’t coming back until your job is done.”

“But I can’t leave my wife. I have a son! I can’t just abandon them.”

“We’ll take care of them. Not monetarily, of course. It can’t be anything that can be tracked. But later on, when it’s time to load the ships, we guarantee that their names will be picked.”

“So I come with you, and Mirena and Eloa become automatic Emigrates?”

“That’s right. It’s the least we can do.”

“But I’ll never see them again. They’ll think I’m dead.”

“Unfortunately, yes.” The man’s voice was emotionless. To him, this was an entirely rational transaction. The evidence was in, the numbers were tallied, and the answer was obvious. There was no point allowing emotion to second-guess the results. And Jevo knew that he was right. The picture was too clear.

“So what about the others? The same thing happens for the rest of my team?”

“We aren’t taking everybody. It’d tip our hand. We take you tonight, and you select five other team members, either from your team or from Gloria’s or Wakgin’s. Over the next few days, they all disappear. Nobody knows where they are, except you.”

“So I get to sign the death warrants for everybody?”

The man smiled. “You’re catching on.”

Why it happened, Jevo could not have explained, but somehow it was the smile that gave it away. A glint of lamplight relfected off one of the man’s teeth, and suddenly all the world seemed to swirl around him. The edges of Jevo’s vision darkened, and the world seemed to stop as shapes and colors streaked together, whirlpooling down, down, down, toward that single shining tooth in the man’s mouth. And in that instance, Jevo realized what was happening. He suddenly knew that the men on the pier were not cops. That the man he was talking to did not represent the government. That almost everything he had been told tonight was a lie.

Everything except the fact that these teams were being hunted down. That part, at least, was true. But the man was the hunter. He was hunting, but not to kill the team members. He wanted them alive. He had tried to trick Jevo into coming with him. But somehow, something in his story didn’t make sense.

Jevo stumbled to his feet, the world still spinning around him. He staggered, trying to keep his balance as he turned to run back up the pier. Was this the realization that Chaucey and Millins and Gloria had come to earlier? Had they heard the same story, the same lies? Is that why they were now dead?

“Jevo!” The man called out, but Jevo didn’t stop. He kept running, almost falling, trembling as he ran toward the entrance to the pier, where two dark figures stood waiting.

The cops. No. The killers. Jevo slid to a halt. His head pounded, and the wood beneath his feet kept tilting back and forth. He looked at the man, who by now was on his feet and headed toward him. He looked back at the two hit men. They had their guns drawn, but they were standing their ground. Evertyhing was small and dark. The world was shrinking around him, and he couldn’t keep his feet under him.

His eyes rested finally on the water. Slow steady patterns of light and dark undulated up at him, invitingly. He knew his only chance was to get in the water.

“Don’t do it, Jevo!” He didn’t know whose was the voice. The man’s? One of the hit-men? Himself? But he ignored it. He took three long strides, and jumped off the side of the pier.

As he jumped, he heard a loud bang, felt a sharp pain in his upper chest, and saw the river slowly rotate away from him to be replaced by the cloudy sky. An image of Mirena flashed into his mind, tears in her eyes, holding Eloa tightly against her.

He didn’t feel the crash of the water as his body plunged into the river and floated slowly downstream, quickly becoming indiscernable among the light and dark patches of water shimmering below the indifferent sky.

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