James took a deep breath as he sat down at the restaurant table. The job hadn’t gone well. It was a new member of James’ crew working her very first job. She’d asked to be called Babygirl. Everyone in the industry had a nickname–a street name. James’ street name was Paradox. This new girl wanted to be called Babygirl. They all tried to talk her out of it, but she insisted, so Babygirl it was. She’d taken several rounds in her abdomen and she very nearly died. Now she was at a speakeasy clinic in critical condition, last he’d heard. It hardly mattered to James that the job was successful. He had almost lost someone he was responsible for and it was eating him up. James took a break from nervously drumming his fingers on the thick red and white-checqued tablecloth to check the glowing display on his watch.
Chicago, IL – Dunning – Donatello’s Restaurant
Partly cloudy – 64 degrees
No calls – No Messages
May 18, 2094
Merrick was four minutes late, and Merrick was never late. James wrestled his mind free from his heavy feelings so he could think. Had Merrick decided not to come? It was possible–even likely. Babygirl was his niece, after all. Family meant everything to some people. Yes, it was Babygirl’s first job, but he was sure she was ready and she had proved that she was. The job was going smooth as silk. Phantom had got them past the perimeter without incident. Once the team was inside, Babygirl patched her cranial into a security console. She uploaded a program that hacked their system so thoroughly that she was able to set up a system maintenance account that granted her unrestricted access to the entire networked system. Whenever she was jacked in she would be able to see everything their security monitors could see. After launching a global search on their internal systems for the data they’d been hired to retrieve, she accessed the patrol schedule and directed the team to a quiet location where they could hole up, away from the patrol routes, while the search routine did its work.
Once she located the data, Babygirl relayed the information to James and rejoined the team. Babygirl told them that, given the nature of the data and where it was located in the database, they should consider extracting the data at a terminal in the executive suite. They were way beyond the security patrols at that point and, apart from the small chance that they might encounter an eager employee working past 7pm, they really only had to worry about triggering a proximity alarm or affecting the environment enough to generate a security check. she verified the data cache, and copied the files they were looking for, all without anyone having a clue they were even there. It wasn’t some rookie mistake that got her hurt. Sometimes, things just go south and there’s nothing you can do. But, knowing that didn’t make him feel any better.
The chair across the table from him moved, causing him to nearly jump out of his seat. Merrick slid effortlessly into it, his face hard as stone.
“So, were you this distracted when Babygirl got hit?” Merrick asked.
James sat up a little straighter even as his head sank.
“No. That security team wasn’t supposed to be there, Merrick. I’ve gone over it in my head a hundred times and I still don’t know how they were there.”
Merrick cleared his throat to interrupt. “Alright. Slow down. Just tell me what happened.”
James nodded and took a deep breath.
“When we first approached that room, I looked in my spirit vision through the wall and saw a security team there. Standard corporate security team–six guys. Babygirl logged into the security system and posted a sec-check request for a room way down the hall. They bit on it and cleared out of the area. I watched all of them leave. I gave the all-clear and Babygirl logged herself safely out inside of two minutes. I couldn’t maintain the vision for that long, but it should’ve taken them at least four minutes to run a security sweep that far away. There were no alarms. Everything looked like it worked. All the same, it’s on me. It was my op, Merrick. It’s on me.”
Merrick had debriefed hundreds of jobs over the years and watched James carefully as he spoke. He knew how to discern between nerves and lies. Paradox was telling the truth and the story he was hearing squared with his neice’s version. He relaxed slightly.
“We can talk more about that later, and we will. Right now, we have to take care of business. Do you have it?”
“Yeah, I have it.”
James pushed a data chip toward the center of the table.
“So, you’re handing it over, just like that? No verification? You’re being really sloppy, Paradox.”
“No, I’m not, Merick. You want to know why? Compassion. It’s me recognizing that you nearly lost family tonight, and I’m willing to bet that you have more important things on your mind right now than cheating me or my team. Besides, if you do decide not to pay me, I wouldn’t be half surprised. Like I said, this botch is on me. I’ll pay the team from my own pocket, if I have to. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’d much rather you pay the team than me, but I’ll probably sleep better tonight if you just keep my share. Give it to Babygirl.”
Merrick shook his head slowly, rolled up a sleeve and started tapping a holographic interface that appeared above the face of his watch.
“Alright. So, you had a team of five. You, Babygirl, and three more. I’m sending you…”, Merrick continued typing, “thirty-thousand net credits for the other three on your team.”
“Thanks, Merrick. They deserve it.”
“I’m sure they do”, Merrick said as he finished the transaction, rolled his sleeve down, shook his head and looked up at the ceiling before drawing his hands slowly down his face.
Before looking up from his hands, Merrick continued. “I was crazy to let Babygirl get involved in a job. How could I be so stupid?”
James was taken aback. The Merrick he knew was all business, all the time. This man, letting his guard down and criticizing himself out loud to a jobber, was almost a stranger.
“Is she going to be okay?” he asked.
Merrick took a deep breath and let it out, nodding.
“She came out of surgery about an hour ago. She’s still in serious condition, but it looks like she’ll recover. But, as soon as she woke up she told me she wants to do another job as soon as she can.”
“She can’t be serious.”
“You don’t know her like I do. She’s a sweetheart, sure; but underneath all that, I’ve never known anyone more driven to do what she wants to do. I have to find a way to stop her. This wretched business chews up everyone it touches. I’d lost sight of that until tonight. Not anymore.”
Merrick fell silent and James didn’t know what to say.
After half a minute, Merrick raked his fingers back through his hair and sighed.
“I think I’m done.”
James sat in stunned silence. He hadn’t seen this coming, but once the words were out of Merrick’s mouth, it made obvious sense. Except…
“How?”, he asked.
Merrick ignored him. “I can’t leave the industry, of course. I’m too far in. You know how it is. Once you’re in, you can never really get out.”
“I know”, James said, nodding. “What are you going to do?”
Merrick sat in silence, his face grim and determined.
“Follow me”, he said.
Merrick stood and walked briskly toward the door. James had to hurry to keep up with him.
Once outside, James caught a glimpse of Merrick as he turned down an alley.
“What in blazes…?”, James thought.
Dashing toward the corner, he turned just in time to see Merrick taking quick strides toward the end of the alley, pulling a handgun from inside his vest.
“Oh, please, no…”
James broke into a run, desperate to close the distance. He reached Merrick just as he stopped, about 25 feet from where the alley dead-ended.
“What are you doing, Merrick?”, James hissed, trying to keep quiet.
“You’ll see”, he replied as he fished a suppresser from a pouch on his belt. He screwed it onto the end of the short barrel and handed the gun to James, who eagerly took it.
“What’s this about, Merrick?”
“I need you to shoot me.”
“What? You’ve lost your mind!”
“Nope. Not at all. But I am putting a lot of trust in you. You can see inside other things, right?”
“And you’re an exceptional shot, right?”
“If I have time to focus, yes, but-”
“Then, I want you to back up about ten paces, look inside my skull, do that focus thing you do, pull the trigger, and put a bullet in my head so that it lodges next to my brain.”
James stared at Merrick, dumbfounded.
“Do you have any idea how crazy this is?”
“Of course. That’s why I’m relying on someone I can trust.”
“I won’t do this, Merrick. It’s insane.”
“It’s not, Paradox. Listen to me. It gets me out of the business, but I’ll be able to justify my retirement. It keeps me alive. After this, I’ll be able to convince Babygirl to take over my job. She’ll still have what she wants – she’ll be in the business – but this way, she’ll be in a lot less danger.”
“There’s no way, Merrick. You could have asked me to do anything in the world for you tonight, but I can’t do this.”
Merrick looked James hard in the eyes.
“Then don’t do it for me. Do it for her.”