The expression ‘quit while you’re ahead’ will forever remain lost on some people, like the kind that believe in doing what has to be done, in finishing what was started, or, in the case of some, in finding the end, just in case the means have to be justified.

* * *

The phone call came in around 6pm, which wasn’t anything unusual, in and of itself, except that it meant he’d been waiting for over fifteen hours since his original call. He answered it with the usual snap of “Brightman,” and listened, a furrow growing between his brows. He didn’t even bother to hang up before he turned, and in one swift, smooth motion, flung the tiny chrome thing across the length of the hotel room. When it hit the wall, paper and plaster exploded more easily than did the chunk of wires and buttons–still with Central talk talk talking, of course–sending a small shower of white dust down to the faded carpeting and dulled wood floor.

The phone itself didn’t squawk, but the woman on the other end did, and he could hear her tinny inquiries over and over for about a minute and a half, before the hotel phone rang.

Doubtless they were going to ask if he was shot, hurt, had some sort of disturbing seizure, all of which, he felt, would’ve somehow been preferable. Rather than answer the hotel phone, he picked up the cell and said, very softly, “Still here.” The hotel phone stopped ringing almost immediately, and on the phone a woman’s voice warbled and chirped things that were supposed to be informative and helpful.

He listened without caring, unreal-blue eyes closed, and finally signed off with a noncommittal grunt, hanging up and dropping the phone back to the floor.

When he sank down into the bed, putting his head in his hands, the protesting creak of old springs gave voice to the grinding, hollow cry he would’ve made, if he could’ve thought to make such a noise. If a person could, in fact, vomit up the noise of ancient metal and wood gone choked with dust and age, because he was certain, right then, that his insides were not soft viscera, but were bent springs and splintered beams, stuffed only meagerly with cracked, grey feathers.

Instead, he simply spoke to himself with what he felt was a necessary coldness, and even something like cruelty. “Should’ve quit when they didn’t transfer you, Brightman. Should’ve quit a hundred times before now.”

If it were a Hollywood movie, he’d be rubbing his eyes and wondering where it all went wrong, and it would trigger a flashback of events that would be important for foreshadowing, leading to some later epiphany in which he was able to burst through the door at the last moment, guns blazing, taking out the last of the enemy, scooping her up in his arms and walking her out into the sunset. A perfect rescue in just over 2 hours run-time.

But since she’d been gone since 9am the previous day?

It was already thirty three hours later, meaning the all-important 24-hour window was eclipsed, and he was a solid nine hours in the red. Every hour after this, the odds of finding her alive dropped. Every hour after this, the odds of finding her at all dropped.

And this wasn’t fucking Hollywood.

* * *

Climbing up the side of a building sans equipment was something like masturbating with the use of sandpaper: oddly satisfying, but stupidly dangerous, in and of itself.

It was wet and cold out, and he was dreading the idea of finding her out like this — that he’d find her, wet and cold and blue, tangled under the plastic black of garbage bags, tossed out with the rest of the refuse.

That she’d look like nothing more than a used up whore who had gotten a little too loud. Or hadn’t been loud enough.

He didn’t realize he was biting his tongue until he could taste the hot copper of it; once he reached the roof, he spat down, with the wind, and watched the bluedark of the night take hold of the perfect red, spiralling it out into a galaxy of droplets that hung, for just a moment, freezeframe — the beginning of worlds, caught in the red eye of some furiously drugged cameraman.

Then it was swallowed whole to spatter against stained cobbles, and offer up its own black by the time the sun came.

If nothing else, if he never found her, at least that mark against the stone would stand forever, no matter the rain, no matter the sun. There would be a remembrace of her, cast in his blood, staring up at the heavens.

For the briefest moment, a sick kind of comfort held him, warmed him at its breast and he stood there in the night’s light rain, hardly feeling the stinging drops spatter against bared neck and cheek.

The strange warmth was dulled by the realization that the alley he’d used was on the block slated for demolition in three weeks.

Very quietly, he murmured “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings.”

* * *

On the fifteenth day without her, Central told him to take 24, or they’d send someone with a tranq gun and a straightjacket. He wasn’t doing anyone any good at this point, they told him, and if he was exhausted, any mistakes he made, she might pay for with her life.

He politely told them precisely where they could go with their advice, and what, exactly, they could do with it, tossed his cell into the trashcan by the door, and was about to go out into another miserable night looking for a lead of any kind.

He had his hand on the door for the hundred-thousandth time in his existence that his mind took a long, hard look at his life and whispered, ‘After this, I quit.’

Checker wasn’t who he was looking for or anyone he had particularly hoped to find, but he bounced off the six and a half feet of tattooed alleged taxi-driver/partner/babysitter when he tried to walk out the just-opened door, and was just about to haul off and shove her out of the way, when something unexpected happened.

She hit him first.

A bottle of whiskey was thrust into his chest, and Checker snapped, “You’re putting the whole thing in your body if I have to funnel it into your goddamned ass and cork you. Then you’re passing out for about ten hours, eating enough food to choke three horses, taking a fucking shower for fuck’s sake, and then you’re going to deal with the info from Central, who are still looking, by the way, and not just sitting around with their thumbs up their asses.”

“Get out of my way befo–”

“I took the bullets out of your gun six hours ago when you were hallucinating from sleep dep and asking Abe Lincoln for advice, using the fruit basket, Simon.”

It was only silence that could answer that. If he were the sort prone to emotional displays other than violence, he might’ve burst into tears. Instead, he took the bottle and met her glare, saying evenly, “I can’t just leave her out there.”

“You’re not,” Checker said quietly. “Central’s still looking. You just need some fucking rest. Won’t find her if you’re passed out in a storm drain because you didn’t bother to take care of yourself while you went chasing. So do what I fucking tell you, already.”

“I–” he started, his expression faltering.

“Not out loud,” Checker hissed. “Never out loud, isn’t that what you told me?” Her tone was harsh, but the urgency on her face melted it into a strange comfort, even as she was herding him back into the hotel room.

Admitting fear was nothing to be ashamed of; in fact, to grasp the idea that your backbrain was terrified of something–and its reptilian mind would claw and shriek its way away from that something, and that there was damned fuckall you could do about it–was the kind of mental development not many adults ever really attained. Most people never examined fear, just happily repeated some little mantra–find a happy place, find a happy place!–then went on to ignore it. Simon liked to hold his close, marinate it in a glass or six of scotch, and look at it constantly in the privacy of his own thoughts. Understanding your fear was one thing. But saying it aloud, forming the fear with your mouth and giving it voice…

Well, that made it real.

The door got shut and locked, the windows were shut as well, and everything was drawn tight and close, giving the place a stuffy warmth, a cave-like feel, in which Simon hunkered down and fed off the whiskey like a nursing kitten.

He promised himself, because she wasn’t there to promise–and maybe because it was easier to promise yourself something, because you never had to say it out loud–that once it was over, it was over. He was done. He’d quit.

* * *

Somewhere around day forty-five, as talk of moving base was finalizing into particulars, as the end of summer had turned into the crispness of mid-fall, the nightmares about what had happened to her, what might’ve happened to her, began to sink teeth into his waking hours and not just those during which he pretended to get rest. He spent little time at the suite, no time with the suits who headed the department, and avoided Checker, if only to stay away from the knowing look on her face.

It was pure chance that had her walk into the bar, lifetimes ago, where he shot the television, took her home and kept her drunk for a solid week that was punctuated with more sex than any one man would have a right to experience. It was pure chance that she knew enough to be involved with the projects he was already on. It was pure chance they both worked at jobs that would have them dead before they were forty. It was pure chance that had her stunned and loaded into the back of a windowless van some month and a half ago, pure chance she would’ve followed the bait and done everything exactly as had to have been necessary for that abduction attempt to go off without a hitch.

And it was pure chance that he bothered to go back to the hotel room that night, instead of wait out the last three days in bars and then move to the next base, when Central finally stamped MIA in red ink on her files and dropped the only real evidence of her existence into a manila folder that would be locked away in a filing cabinet somewhere in the bowels of a foreign country.

Pure chance.

Had he simply walked past the hotel, she’d eventually have been found by the cleaning service, and perhaps the police would’ve been called–certainly the maid would have screamed at the sight of that much blood–but at that point, so much would’ve been compromised, Simon had no doubt that his next assignment would be to clean it up, not with a mop, but with a gun, the way his clean-up jobs always worked.

As it was, he was the one who found her, fetal on the trashbags carefully laid to keep from staining the mattress. As it was, he was the one she pointed the gun at the final time, as he checked for a pulse, and he was the one who took it from her weak fingers, setting it aside without so much as a word.

As it was, all that he’d done to find her, to rescue her, to get her back safely… it meant little to nothing. She’d had to crawl herself back here, alone, without him.

Silent, one shaking hand laid against a thin, bruised shoulder, he almost promised that he’d quit.

But he found that he was tired of lying to himself.

About Catastrophe Jones

Wretched word-goblin with enough interests that they're not particularly awesome at any of them. Terrible self-esteem and yet prone to hilarious bouts of hubris. Full of the worst flavors of self-awareness. Owns far too many craft supplies. Will sing to you at the slightest provocation.
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