The Protector

iowa city fire

© J Hardy Carroll

The Present

“I’m gonna help you out Devon, but it’s the last time.”

Devon Willis was recovering from a compound fracture of his right arm at Rush University Medical Center. He’d told the police that he’d gotten into a fight with three other guys. Didn’t want to identify them and didn’t want to press charges. His doctor said he should stay for another day or two, but he had to get out of Chicago. His brother Cameron was going to drive him to the place he kept in Iowa City. Only Cameron knew about it, Devon’s hideaway.

“I know. I appreciate it. I swear I’ll pay you back.”

“The only thing I want from you is to never hear from you again. You broke poor Mama’s heart more times than I know. I haven’t told her you called me again. Figure she don’t need the grief.”

“I just need to get away from here. The other night…”

“I don’t want to hear it, Devon. Like you said, I didn’t go to your place to get any of your stuff, but I picked up some of your old clothes you left at my house. If you ready, they’ve got a wheelchair for you so you don’t have to walk to the parking lot.”

Devon hadn’t been in a fight, at least not the one he described to the police or his brother. Two nights ago, he’d been outside that crummy warehouse guarding the northeast corner. The prisoner had escaped but he figured she’d never get as far as him. He was wrong. She broke his arm in two places and gave him a concussion. He didn’t remember ditching his firearm and mask after everyone was told to get out. Managed to get to the street, stagger a few blocks, then call Cameron. He always leaned on his older brother when he screwed up. Didn’t blame him from being pissed.

This was the last time, it really was. He’d made plenty of money working for that dude, the one the higher-ups called Hellspite and even more when he signed on to feed information to the Feds. Now he was ready to be done with them all. Heard the prisoner had killed five other guys. She could have done him too but didn’t. This was his wake up call. If he stayed in the business any longer, he wasn’t gonna make it.

“Yeah, I’m ready. Let’s get out of here.”

Cameron opened the door and waved the nurse in. She brought the chair and the two of them helped Devon in. Cameron grabbed the gym bag he used to carry his brother’s meager belongings and they all headed for the elevator.

Cam pulled his car in front of the hospital doors and they got Devon into the passenger seat. “Be sure to have your doctor check your arm when you get home, Mr. Willis.”

“Yes, ma’am. Thanks.” Devon had no intention of having a doctor do anything, at least no doctor within a thousand miles of anyplace he’d ever been before.

Cameron pulled up the on ramp heading west on the Chicago-Kansas City Expressway.

“Figure it’ll take three-and-a-half or four hours to get you there. Once I drop you off, that’s it, Devon. You’re on your own. I don’t ever want you to call me again.”

Devon couldn’t blame him. He’d been in and out of trouble with the law since he was thirteen, mostly petty crimes. He was hired as an enforcer for one of the local drug dealers and then someone big noticed him, hired him onto a really sweet job for good pay, or at least that’s what it seemed like at the time. The higher-ups never told him or the others what they were really doing, but he’d heard rumors, rumors that started him thinking maybe he should get out.

Then he got caught, but not by the cops. Pulled right off the street, blindfolded, didn’t know where he’d been taken. They were some kind of Feds but he never saw any badges and they didn’t say who they worked for. Just that they had enough to put him away for 10 to 15 in Joliet if he didn’t work for them, give them info on what went on where he worked. Said they’d pay him. Set up an account for him they said no one could trace. Money started being deposited.

He did the best he could, but after they’d taken that chick captive and moved the operation, it was locked down so tight, he couldn’t reach his contact. Just as well. Whoever she was, she was more than he ever wanted to deal with.

Devon would rest up for a few days in that crummy third-floor apartment he rented under a different name. Then he’d take any of the evidence he had there and burn it, make it look like an oven fire. Figured he had enough to get out of the country, go someplace he’d never been before, start a new life, and leave all the pain and grief he’d caused behind. It would be better for Cameron and especially Mama if he got out for good.

He’d be long gone by the time firefighters put out the blaze. Whoever that crazy Asian woman was, she did him the biggest favor of his life by busting him up as bad as she did. At least she left him alive. Now it was time to make a new start.

Three Days Ago

“Say Baby, what you hiding behind that dumpster for?”

Mikiko finally got her stomach to settle down. She was beginning to feel calmer. The implants must be working, stabilizing her emotions. Why hadn’t they worked before, when she became a crazy person, a killing machine?

She was sitting behind the dumpster in the alley near Orleans and Hubbard in Chicago. The contact should be here in the next few minutes.

Mikiko looked up at the sound of the voice but she didn’t really need to. Three of them, young, probably under the influence of something, didn’t matter what. They were aroused, probably intended to rob and assault, maybe rape her. She stood slowly, keeping eye contact with the man who spoke. He couldn’t be more than nineteen years old.

“I asked you a question, bitch!” His tone had been one of playfulness before but now it was decidedly hostile. Mikiko wasn’t in the mood to play games. She reached into her waistband and pulled out the Glock, aiming right between the speaker’s eyes.

“Get lost!” Her teeth were gritted as she pulled back the hammer. For an instant, all three of them were frozen in place. The one she was about to shoot actually raised his hands. Then there were lights, headlights from the other end of the alley to Mikiko’s right. They were approaching, getting brighter. At this range, she could smell the contact.

“Leon, run!” It was one of the others, the man to her right. The three took off down the alley away from the car, jumped a fence and were lost in the darkness.

Mikiko sighed in relief, not because she had been afraid of them hurting her, but because she didn’t have to kill again. She slowly released the hammer and replaced the firearm in her waistband just as the contact pulled up next to her.

He unrolled the window. “Get in.”

She ran around behind the car, opened the passenger door and slid into the seat. She was just closing the door when the contact gunned the engine, shot down the alley and then made a right on N. Orleans heading toward Chicago Avenue.

“Are you injured?”

Mikiko could hear the contact talking, but it was as if he were addressing someone else.

“Answer me, Mikiko. Are you shot? Are you injured?”

She was still covered in the blood of other men. She looked at her hands, she looked down at her clothes, and then up and over toward the contact. She could see his face clearly for the first time by the dashboard lights, by the street lights.

“I’m fine.” It didn’t even sound like her voice. She was a stranger to herself. What if something had gone wrong with the implants? She needed to talk with Hunt or someone on the medical team. If she were broken, malfunctioning, she might kill again. She might kill anyone, even the contact. No. That’s not what she felt. Lurking in the back of her mind was grief, remorse, guilt, self-disgust. The implants were working at least right now. She wasn’t overwhelmed with emotion, just observing it, as if she were watching television, as if this were happening to someone else.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’m fine. I’m not injured. This…this isn’t my blood.”

She expected him to react with horror, just as some part of her was reacting somewhere in the background of her mind, but although his voice registered concern, he was otherwise calm. The contact executed turns, increased velocity, decreased it as he approached stop lights, drove within the speed limit. He didn’t want to attract attention. It would be very unfortunate if a police officer should pull them over and see Mikiko right now.

“We’ll be in a safe house in less than fifteen minutes. You can get cleaned up. We have to debrief you. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I can understand you.” He must think she’s in shock. Maybe she was. It was hard to tell. Mikiko had never killed before, and now she could remember every detail of every person who she terminated, the look on each of the five faces as they died.

She remembered she enjoyed it.

The Present

“Colins tells me you’re not doing so well.”

“I’m fine, Dr. Hunt. Well, not exactly, but I’d rather talk about this in person.”

It had been three days since Mikiko had been brought in. She was still in the Chicago safe house. She thought the debriefing would have been a lot faster, but then there was the matter of Timothy Fleming’s escape from a top security wing of a local hospital. Geoffrey Colins was still conducting his investigation as to how the notorious Hellspite had managed it, but the fact remained that he was gone without a trace, as the saying goes.

Mikiko had related the location where she had been held, and while all of the personnel had escaped before Agency operatives closed in, the five bodies were still present, as well as a plethora of evidence to be sifted through. As nearly as Colins could tell, both from the examination of the facilities in Chicago and Cicero and well as the one in France, each had contained only a few of Fleming’s direct employees. The majority of them were merely “hired muscle.” If Hellspite had an organization of any kind, it was actually quite small. However small or not, what was its purpose?

“I can appreciate that, Mikiko, but I can’t come to the U.S. right now, and Colins says he’s not ready to send you back home.”

“I need to come in, Dr. Hunt.” Mikiko could feel desperation rising within her right before the neural implants triggered, returning her to a relative state of calm. I’m sure Geof…Mr. Colins told you about me…in his report.”

They were communicating over a much more secure version of the application known as Skype, Mikiko was sitting in front of a laptop placed on a table in front of her. The room she was in was bare except for that table and the chair she was in.

“Yes, the adaptations you reported are…well, somewhat unprecedented.”

“Somewhat, Doctor? I had no idea anything of the sort was possible. Are you saying you did?”

“In theory Mikiko, but I never dreamed you would be able to modify your physical structure so rapidly and to such an extent. I always thought that you could continue to adapt, but only over long periods of time and when exposed to a significant change in your environment.”

She lowered her eyes. He’d been keeping secrets about her from her. If she couldn’t trust him of all people…No that wasn’t right. He’d just admitted that whatever happened to her back at the warehouse, he didn’t believe it could have occurred so radically and so rapidly.

“But I should come back to the Project, Doctor. If my adaptation was unexpected, then I may have something seriously wrong with me. Perhaps I can no longer be trusted in the open. I could be a danger to the public.”

“We’ll have you on a plane back to Japan within the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Colins says there are still a number of elements in play and he may need you on site for a little while longer. After reading his report and those of his agents in the field, I suspect you are only dangerous when threatened, Mikiko. Most of us are, even if we don’t like to admit it.”

She had the feeling he was trying to tell her something clandestinely, but she wasn’t sure what that could be.

“Very well, Doctor. If you feel it’s best, I’ll stay. I just don’t want to hurt anymore people.”

“I can appreciate that, Mikiko. Please keep in mind though that you only acted out of self-preservation. You were being held against your will, put under the influence of drugs, perhaps even threatened with torture. Under those circumstances, anyone would do almost anything to escape.”

“My abilities though…”

“They may have saved your life, Mikiko. Besides, disbanding that gang of thugs may have saved a lot of lives. Remember, you saved Sienna Thomas.”

“Her kidnapper escaped.”

“Not your fault, Mikiko. Just sit tight and I’ll see you in a few days.”

“Very well, Dr. Hunt. I…I hope everything works out okay…with me, I mean.”

“I’m sure it will. See you soon. Hunt out.”

He broke the connection. In retrospect, she was surprised he’d spent as much time with her as he did, especially if he didn’t think she was as dangerous as she believed she was.

Maybe he was right. She had been trained for two years to defend herself with every means at her disposal, including her adaptive abilities. This was the first time she’d been tested by an imminent and sustained threat. Her hand-to-hand combat trainer and her MI6 firearms and sniper tutor both told her this would happen if she performed field work. They had been hired both because they were top experts in their areas of expertise and because they had killed in the line of duty, Eaton in the U.S. Marines and Pierce as an MI6 assassin.

But they had chosen their careers, Mikiko hadn’t. She’d been horribly mutilated in a nuclear plant accident and without her knowledge or consent, had been rebuilt, almost from nothing, using synthetic processes and materials based on artificial DNA that nearly mimicked her own, in order to not only make her human again but more than human.

“Without my consent.” Mikiko said the words out loud wondering if she’d been given a choice, would she have really elected to remain a lump of scar tissue, a head, torso, and four stumps that were once her limbs, blind, mute, deaf, and dying. If Daniel Hunt hadn’t injected her with the first group of nanoprobes along with the synthecon materials they used to begin her internal reconstruction, she would have been dead within a week.

“I just want to go home.” She wasn’t sure what she meant by that. The Project? It was the only home she had left. Her mother and step-father thought she was dead. Their house, the house she’d grown up in, had been leveled in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Her fiance’ mourned her and then finally married another woman. He’s to become a father for the first time next spring. Everyplace and every person she thought of as “home” was denied to her. Where could Mikiko go now to be safe?

“Damnit!” Colins pressed the button on his cell to disconnect the call. “Williams” was sitting in the makeshift office with him wondering why “London” was so upset. The last time he’d seen him this way was when Fleming had escaped.

“What is it?”

“A nightmare, Williams.” Colins stood and stared at the wall for a moment, then turned to the American operative. “Sienna Thomas’s flight arrived at Heathrow right on schedule and her escort, three highly trained agents, took her to the parking garage and to the car they were to use to transport her to a safe location in the city.”

“Obviously that didn’t happen.”

“No, Williams. Instead, airport police found all three agents shot to death next to their car and no sign of Sienna.”

“Hellspite?”

“Or his operatives. In any case, Fleming is truly living up to his reputation.”

“Anything we can do on this end, Colins?”

“Keep going over what we found at his condo and the warehouses. I’ve sent the same data to our people in London. Hopefully between the two teams, we’ll come up with something that will help us predict his next move.”

“Do you want to tell her or should I?”

“If you mean Mikiko, I’ll tell her, Williams. I brought her into this.”

“Yes sir.”

Williams didn’t get up as Colins walked over to the door, opened it, and left. When he was alone, he slowly inhaled and then exhaled. The whole op had gone from golden to shit in just a few hours. Now days later, they were still eating shit.

He was glad Colins was going to break the news to her. It wasn’t that Williams was afraid of what Mikiko might do. It was watching her go through that initial jolt of reaction, as if she were about to explode into a rage or break down into wailing histrionics, only to recover somehow and then just stare at you with those sad brown eyes.

When this was over, he was going to go home, hug and kiss his three children and tell them how much he loved them. Then he was going to make love to his wife and hope it was long and hard enough to burn out the haunting image of Mikiko’s face from his mind.

“Please. Not again. Just let me go. I won’t tell anyone.”

Sienna Thomas thought she was finally safe when she got on the flight from Chicago to London. She was assured that the three men accompanying her would protect her, get her to someplace she could relax, where no one could find her or hurt her. She wanted to see her brother. That man Colins said he’d arrange it.

But then after they left the terminal, got to the parking garage, approached the car, three muffled shots sounded, and then the three men were dead. She was grabbed from behind, something put over her nose and mouth, a strange smell, and then she was here, another darkened room, another prison.

“I told you, I won’t hurt you. It’s me, Timothy. I had to get you out of their hands. You’ll be safe now.”

“Please, please, if you have any pity, if you really are my brother, just let me go. I want to go home.” She was crying now. She could see his shadow in front of her in the dim light.

“No dear sister. Not now. We can’t leave yet. They’ll be looking for us.”

Sienna didn’t see as Timothy nodded to someone behind her. She felt a pinch on her arm, another needle. Then she blacked out.

Mary checked her vitals and when she was satisfied the teenager was unconscious, she put the syringe back in its case.

“Damnit, Timothy. Why did you have to bring her into this again? Why bring me to England at all? I just wanted to lay low and wait for the heat to blow over. It never will now until they find her and you. Then they’ll find me, too.”

“Oh hush up, Mary. Everything will be fine. I needed you to get me back here and to watch over her. You’re being well paid. Check your account if you don’t believe me.”

“The money won’t do me much good if I’m in prison, Timothy, and you’re taking a hell of a chance coming back here. What if you’re recognized?”

“That’s another reason I had you come along, Mary. It’s been nearly twenty years since I last saw this place, but you’re right. It’s still possible an old-timer or two may recognize me from the old days. However, no one knows who you are here. Just an American tourist taking in the sights.

“You sure this place is safe?”

“Closed for restoration Mary, except the money ran out and until more can be raised, no one will be working here or visiting. The perfect hideout I must say, and quite symbolic as well.”

“For Hellspite, that is, eh?”

“Well, I did choose the name for a reason, didn’t I?”

“Hellspite.”

Danae Parker had spent days going over all of the available information tying Richard Singleton, Timothy Fleming, Amanda Thomas, and her daughter Sienna together. She’d recently added the data collected from the relevant sites in Chicago and the surrounding area and had been collating it all hoping to come up with some sort of pattern, one that might predict where Hellspite had taken the younger Thomas and had gone to ground. She added it to what she also knew about the half-century of history between Singleton’s and Thomas’s families.

Richard Singleton married Eileen Nancy Fleming on 3 May 1980 and had a child together, Timothy, born 27 August 1987 in Dymchurch near Old Romney, the town she’d been born in. Raised the boy together in London until he was about ten. According to the new information, Eileen discovered Singleton was having an affair with Amanda Thomas and that Thomas had conceived a child by him. Her daughter Sienna. The two families made an arrangement to keep it all quiet. Richard and Eileen divorced and the settlement favored the ex-wife quite well. After a brief return to Old Romney, she took her son and emigrated to the U.S., Chicago specifically.

“Old Romney. Hellspite.”

Danae was working in a basement at a secure and obscure location, one she’d never been to before and probably wouldn’t visit again. It was after ten at night. She got up from her workstation, walked over to the hot plate to warm up the kettle for another cuppa.

“Old Romney and Dymchurch,” She mused. Then, “the legend of Dr. Syn! Of course!”

She ran back to the computer, sat down and started calling up the relevant files only stopping when the kettle behind her screamed for attention.

“You know where they are.”

“We believe we do, Mikiko.”

Colins was sitting in a chair facing the Japanese operative who was on the same sofa Sienna had used days before when she had first been liberated. It was about time to abandon the old bomb shelter, and in any case, circumstances demanded an immediate departure for England, for one of them at least.

“I…” She was torn between her desire to finish the job, to find and free Sienna from that monster, and going back to the Project. If something was wrong with her, then she was unreliable, maybe even dangerous, in spite Dr. Hunt’s reassurances. On the other hand, she had found Fleming once, stopped him, freed Sienna, and now all of that was undone. He’d escaped, intercepted Sienna in London, killed three covert operatives, and now was holding the girl again.

Geoffrey Colins thought he knew where, but even with the Agency’s resources, could they be sure to capture him while keeping Sienna safe?

“Do you want in?”

She did but she was afraid. Mikiko was afraid of herself, of what she might do. The faces of the five men she had killed and the one she had maimed kept haunting her, like accusing specters. She had just called Hellspite a monster, but then what did that make her?

“Mikiko, this isn’t over yet and we still need your services if you’re up to it.”

“Do you trust me, Geoffrey, I mean after what I’ve done?”

“You did what you had to do, and I assure you in your place, I’d have done the same thing.”

“I don’t think you could have done the same thing, not exactly, anyway.” She looked down at her hands and remembered the claws, remembered the fangs, remembered the taste of human blood in her mouth.

“This is a dangerous business, Mikiko. That was explained to you going in.”

“How can you explain what it’s like to kill another human being, Geoffrey?” She hadn’t meant to shout and was surprised the cybernetic brain implants had allowed her to feel so much that she did.

He took a breath. Right now, Colins, the all too human flesh and blood Colins was more composed than she was. “We have all trained for years for the work we have to do. We save lives but sometimes we have to take them as well. Even with the training, you never get used to it, not really. We all have to look in the mirror and see who we’ve become, and then remind ourselves that there’s a reason for it all.”

Mikiko turned his words over in her thoughts. She had become so focused on her feelings, her grief, her guilt, that she’d forgotten that Colins, Danae, everyone she’d met who worked with the Agency faced the same things. How do you live with yourself after you’ve killed? Yes, they’d chosen this life, but that probably didn’t make it any easier.

Eighteen Months Ago

“Do you ever think about them? The ones you killed?”

“As little as possible my dear.” Audrey Pierce was somewhere past 70 years old and for decades she had been one of the top covert assassins working for MI6. The number of confirmed kills on her record was classified but Mikiko imagined it must have been a large number, something nearly impossible for her to conceptualize.

“But how…?”

“Because it was necessary, Mikiko. Because if I didn’t do my job, for every life I’ve taken, hundreds might have died in their place.”

Audrey was teaching the young Japanese woman how to perform routine maintenance on an SR-25 semi-automatic sniper rifle. She had completely disassembled it and was supervising her pupil in how to clean and reassemble the firearm. Then they would take it to the shooting range and Mikiko would demonstrate her marksmanship, along with proving that she had put everything together correctly.

“Is it that easy, Audrey? That easy to kill and forget about it?”

“It’s never easy to kill, Mikiko. I hope I haven’t given you that impression. It’s never easy living with it.”

“Then how do you?”

“By remembering that I’m not killing because I enjoy it or because it’s some sort of bloody sport. I’m doing it, or rather did do it since those days have long passed, because I was acting as a protector, not a hunter.”

“A protector.”

“In my sort of business, we had to kill to protect others, soldiers, diplomats, innocent civilians. If I removed one terrorist from the field before he planted a bomb, then only one terrorist died rather than hundreds or thousands of morning commuters at Charing Cross station.”

“That’s not just a random example, Audrey.”

“No dear, and please don’t stop working just because we’re having a pleasant little chat. I am remembering a specific op. His target was the railway station. He was already carrying the device and if the police had approached him, he would have armed and detonated it killing anyone in the vicinity. He had to be taken out before he was aware he’d been detected. That was my job, Mikiko. If I hadn’t performed my duty, less than an hour later several hundred of people would have been blown to bits.”

“That’s how you live with it?”

“Mikiko, I hope you never have to live with it as well, but please remember, you are being trained not to become a murderer but to protect the lives of others. Given certain circumstances, you will have to decide who is going to live and die.”

“What if I have to decide between someone else and myself?”

“Self defense? That’s hardly a difficult choice and yes, I’ve made that one as well. As you can see, I’m still alive. Mikiko, there’s no shame in wanting to live. Don’t be afraid to survive. As long as you’re alive, you can still help others.”

“Don’t be afraid to survive.”

“What was that, Mikiko?”

She realized she’s spoken out loud. “Never mind, Geoffrey. Yes, if you are still offering, I want in. Hellspite has taken Sienna again, maybe as a hostage this time. If I can help, I want to. When to we leave for London?”

This story is the immediate sequel to The Most Dangerous Predator and reveals a great deal more about Mikiko’s nature and her terrifying abilities. Now she’ll have to learn to live with what she’s done but was the ability to kill so dramatically by design or has something truly gone wrong?

Timothy Fleming has escaped and with the operative known only as “Mary,” once again has kidnapped his half-sister Sienna. Does he truly mean to protect her from the human trafficking group known as the Organization as well as the Agency, or does he have a more sinister objective? Only Mikiko can find out if Colins is right about where to find them.

Here are other stories in Mikiko’s overall saga in the order I wrote them but not in chronological order. I’ve added the flash fiction piece “Five Years On” for continuity and context:

  1. The Reconstructed Woman
  2. Burn Victim
  3. Woman Under Repair
  4. Five Years On
  5. Woman in the Shadows
  6. The Search for Armageddon
  7. The Swimmer
  8. Murder at 900 North Michigan
  9. First Flight
  10. The Man in the Dark
  11. Hellspite.
  12. Pursuit.
  13. The Vengeful
  14. The Most Dangerous Predator

See you in the next chapter.

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