Chapter 2: Bohemian Rhapsody

Smith left with a single file folder. On the bus home he looked at the assignment. It looked like one of those 3-D pictures you were supposed to stare at cross-eyed, a jumble of random dots with no clear writing.

As soon as he closed the door into his apartment, Smith checked his phone to see if he had any messages. Manolios had returned the little Nokia with a knowing smile, but it had obviously been upgraded while in his care. There was a tiny camera attached to the back and linked into the phone battery. Smith had heard that the Redshirts were at least a decade ahead of civilian technology, but he’d never expect something as mundane as all this.

As per Manolios’s instruction, Smith used the camera to take a picture of the scrambled up sheet of paper. After less than a minute of loading, the tiny screen showed an even smaller picture of a man’s face with his name and place of residence written underneath. Smith didn’t need to see the name to identify him. It was Bailey Greenburg. He was a political pundit and local celebrity, even good friends with a few senators.

Smith was not provided with a weapon or any further instructions. All that had been given to him was enough money up front to organize his own assassination. Fewer ties to the company, Engelbert had said. Smith made a holster out of an old boot. He bought a Taser and a can of spray paint and a new pack of cigarettes and made sure his old handgun was loaded. With a new light jacket and the right placement, he didn’t even look like he was carrying anything.

Greenburg’s show aired on a local lot. Smith had never done anything like this, but there wasn’t much security. Just a regular television set with some cameras and locked doors. It was easy enough to get inside. Smith bought a backstage pass with a fake name from a scalper and was staring at the door to Bailey’s dressing room before long.

Smith spray-painted both the cameras in sight before checking the lock. Flimsy, really. There was no reason that anybody couldn’t just walk in and kill Greenburg. Not even a guard at the door. Smith would have been suspicious, but he rationalized that since the Redshirts were behind all of this and they were the most likely company to supply security in the first place, things must have been going exactly as planned.

The only problem was that Bailey Greenburg was nowhere in sight. There was a couch, a mirror with some makeup, an open closet full of suits and various props, even a little window above a desk with a mini-fridge, but no Bailey. Smith checked his phone for the time and patted his gun under his jacket nervously for a moment before he heard stomping outside.

The door opened and the pundit walked in. Greenburg was a mess, sweating and shaking so badly that he looked nothing like he did on screen. He didn’t even notice his would-be assassin at first, it seemed, for he was working so hard at muttering to himself.

He got to the middle of the room before noticing anything. Smith slammed the door shut and pulled his gun straight at the man, only shaking a little bit. “Mr. Greenburg, you’ll be happy to know that you’re my first customer.” It was a cheesy line, but Smith hoped he had given it the confidence he lacked.

To Smith’s surprise, Greenburg barely reacted. He raised his hands above his head and slowly backed away, but he was sweating no more than before. “What do you want? Who are you? Please, don’t shoot. My security will hear it, and they’ll-“

Smith pulled his taser out and shot a small length of wire into Greenburg’s chest. For such a large man, he barely made a noise as he fell to the ground, twitching and gasping for air. Smith kind of wished there would’ve been a fight or something. He’d been tempted to shout “Thunder!” with his attack, although of course that would’ve thrown the whole idea of a silent assassination out the window.

Smith holstered his weapon and propped the couch up against the door so that nobody could get in. He lit a cigarette and started puffing wildly, shaking the can of spray paint in his other hand. “Mr. Greenburg, I know it may be hard to talk back, but I’d like to tell you, at least, that you aren’t going to be in pain much longer.”

He sprayed the couch. The expensive-looking brown leather turned black and there was the smell of streets and cities.

“I’m going to shoot you, but I’m going to get away with it, too. See, up until recently I was unemployed, but now I’ve got a steady gig killing rich, fat, motherfuckers like you. You’re going to die so that I can live. It’s just like nature, you know? Dog eat dog.” Smith pulled the cigarette from his mouth and held it in front of the spray can’s nozzle, lighting the paint on fire.

The couch caught spectacularly. Smith grinned, and this time did allow himself a happy whisper of “Fire!” By the time anybody was able to answer the fire alarm, Greenburg would be alone in the room with a bullet in his head.

Or at least, he would’ve, if it weren’t for a loud banging on the door.

Smith had the options of fight or flight, but either way, he had to make sure to complete the job he’d been hired for. He pulled the last weapon he’d brought out of his jacket and pointed it at Greenburg. The unconscious man was starting to stir and by now the banging on the door had stopped, which to Smith only meant his time was running out.

He tried to pull the trigger. In his head, the deed was already done. Smith had run away, thrown any evidence in a dumpster somewhere and collected the rest of his assassin’s pay. Nobody would connect it to him. Nobody would know.

Who cared about this guy, anyway? From the few times Smith had seen his program, Bailey Greenburg was just another opinionated talking head. Most of his views were fairly by-the-book in the center right wing, but the guy had stirred some controversy with his talk of humanoid integration. Elffolk, Plantkin, Centaurs, the man had even suggested that Minos could enter the working class and do some good for society. Not a popular opinion, especially since a giant grasshopper molt had been found near the scene of a triple homicide two weeks before.

But he couldn’t do it. Smith’s hand shook and his eyes started to water as he stared, unblinking, at the man twitching on the floor. He was about to holster his gun, think of some other way to do it, maybe leave the guy to burn to death, when another loud noise took his attention.

CRACK!

There was a large hole in the top corner of the door, well out of the way of the flames rising through the couch. Bursting through the hole was what looked like a giant yellow snake. The snake curled around, grasping for something. Grasping? Smith peered closer, dropping his gun in shock at what looked like a hand where the snake’s head should be. The hand grabbed the doorknob and turned it slowly until Smith heard the audible click of the door unlocking.

He’d heard of humanoid monstrosities, weird beasts resulting from the interbreeding of humans with other races, from deals with demons from another world or any number of terrifying scientific experiments. It was no secret that there were men out there who could destroy your body from the inside with a thought and women out there who could lift a car with one hand. Smith backed away slowly. What the hell was coming after him?

After a few crashing thumps came an enormous boom. An explosion blew the door and the flaming couch into a hundred fractured pieces. Smith stumbled back into Greenburg’s desk, his arms held above his head to block the burning debris.

“Brother, I’m tired. Can’t you handle the rest?” Smith lifted his arm away from his eyes to see the source of the whining.

Two men stood in what once had been the doorway. One was short and fat, obviously the source of the explosion as he held the barrel of a large gun in his arms in front of his generous stomach. The other man, Smith couldn’t tell if he was short or tall or what because his whole body seemed to be melting in the hazy heat and dust.

Smith rubbed his eyes in disbelief, but when he looked again the twisting man was still twisting. Even though his whole body rippled like he was being tortured, the man was smiling. As the dust cleared, Smith could see that he was dressed all in yellow, and as his arms bent every which way Smith knew this had to be the snake-armed man from earlier. The other one was dressed in pink. Despite their differences in build, they were obviously related- both had squinty eyes, snub noses and ears that stuck out at a weird angle. They even dressed alike. Matching hats and sweatshirts, the exact same in all but color.

“You’re tired after one shot, Brother?” The flexible brother talked through his teeth, smiling fully despite the circumstances. “Come on, Devin, you can take our client off to get medical attention.”

Devin, the short one, squashed his mouth into a wide frown. “You always get to go in for the kill, Kevin. Why can’t you take Greenburg?”

Kevin twisted his arms around his neck and lolled his head to the side. Smith’s stomach rose into his throat as he realized that the guy had a flexible neck as well- anybody else would’ve killed themselves with a move like that, but the yellow brother was still smiling.      “You got to blow up the door, Devin. We’re just lucky you didn’t kill our man in the blast, or I’d have your head!”

Smith reached for his gun, only to grasp an empty holster. He looked back at the brothers to see Devin rousing Greenburg and helping him up. The gun was right there on the floor next to them. Smith considered running for it, but in another moment he froze again.

Kevin wasn’t the only strange one of the brothers. As Devin stood up, Smith could see the cannon he’d used to blow up the door still sticking out of his stomach. No, not sticking out. It was attached, as much a part of his body as an arm or a leg.

“You…” Smith didn’t know what to say. He felt behind him for something to use against the brothers. The desk would make a good vantage point, but the fridge, the only thing on it, was far too big to throw. He slowly climbed onto the desk, all the time keeping an eye on his enemies. “You’ve got a weeeeird belly button, dude.”

Devin’s face went as pink as his clothes and he opened his mouth to reply before Kevin lifted a hand to silence his brother. The snake-spined man walked briskly toward Smith. “Now, now, you long-nosed freak.” Yeah. He was the freak. “You don’t want to anger my little brother, or he might just blow you away before I get the chance.”

At this, Smith stood up on the desk, stooping to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling. His hands flew back to grip the wall and he felt something cold and smooth. The window!

But by the time Smith could work the lock and open the window, the yellow smiling brother Kevin was upon him. His arm wrapped around one of Smith’s legs and held him tight, his gleaming teeth the only thing Smith could see through the smoke and terror.

“Not today, long-nose.”

Gripped with a sudden intuition, Smith lifted his other leg to the back of the mini-fridge. He kicked with all his might, adrenaline pushing the appliance straight into Kevin’s smiling face. This time he yelled the name of his attack, using the momentum to jettison out the window.

“BLIZZARD!” he cried, shrieking as he fell onto the lawn outside.

When Smith came to, all he could see was flashing lights. Firemen, here in response to the fire he’d set? An ambulance to help the man he’d tried to murder? Or maybe the police, here to take him away. Whoever it was, Smith was alive, and nothing else mattered for now.

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