Originally posted in 2015, on a blog that used to be around here.
Mike got caught skimming money from the bank where he was manager and served two years in minimum security prison. Legitimate employers had no interest in hiring a felon, even when he applied for worse and worse jobs, until he had no options left but some warehouse job at a facility "on a remote tropical island," which advertised paid relocation and all backgrounds welcome. It was his only chance to live down his mistakes and make a new start.
When the warehouse was broken into, the bosses blamed the manager on duty at the time. Otto had a tattoo of his ex-wife’s name on his back. "I could never get her off my back when we were married," he liked to joke, "so why should things change now that we’re divorced?" The higher-ups must have really been harsh when they fired him, because he didn’t even come back to say goodbye.
"This organization does not tolerate failure" is a frightening memo to circulate, but everyone else made sure their jobs were done right after that, and Mike applied to take Otto's place running the night shift.
It was a good day when he traded in his work gloves for a necktie, climbing the ladder of success again at last.
He was intimidated when the company sent over Portia Tussel, number seven employee in the whole globe-spanning organization, to beef up security. She showed up in a zebra-print suit, said there'd been people in the upper ranks disappearing lately, presumed dead. Rumors popped up in the break room that they were all killed by the same person, but that was ridiculous. How could one person take on all of SCEPTRE?
Miss Tussel increased patrols of the security guards who walked the catwalks with rifles. Mike knew some parts of the warehouse held advanced weaponry, all part of some deterrence project by the higher-ups. Apparently, the break-in had nearly ruined some new and highly technical ordnance which they were now supposed to keep especially safe.
Mike was glad to move upstairs, to the office overlooking the floor he shared with the day and swing shift managers, a little ways away from those weapon stores, at least. Tensions were still high, and not everyone respected his new position. Several times, a guard named Dylan knocked on the office window with his rifle aimed at Mike and then laughed at his surprise. Mike started spending more of his time standing at the window, watching the guards watching the floor below.
He couldn’t let another break-in happen on his watch. Otto had been in the office, doing paperwork, with no idea the break-in was happening, but all the blame had still come down on him. If Mike got fired from here, nobody else in the world would hire him, but if he could stick it out, build up some success as a manager, maybe he could find work somewhere he wasn't surrounded by deadly weapons.
Everyone in the company had to go through a gun training weekend every six months. Mike had tried to skip his, because weekends were the only time he got off the island to see his girlfriend. Hwa waited tables in a cafe on the mainland and spoke passable English. He helped her practice it as they lay in her bed, talking about nothing. Her grandfather owned the cafe where she worked and spoke not a word of English. He liked to sit there and tell dirty jokes nobody would translate. Mike laughed when the old man did, and they seemed to get along.
The warehouse's new proximity alarm went off. It was a week after the first break-in, and Mike watched the guards scramble, tuning his walkie-talkie to the security channel. He should be out there, or risk the bosses blaming him later for doing nothing about this.
He ran down the steps to the main floor, walkie in hand. He could get around the building on the catwalks, but he'd spent much more time on the warehouse floor.
"I think I found him," came over the security channel, and Mike recognized Phil’s voice. He liked Phil, who’d also come from a bank, working as a security guard. "He’s coming in by the loading d–AAAAAAAAHH!"
Mike froze at the scream from the tinny speaker, and had that been a gunshot before it? The guards were supposed to use their rifles only under orders. Whoever was breaking in must have fired. The intruder shot Phil, who was away from his family, who planned to go back and buy them a house when this contract was up. Could it be that the rumors of someone killing their people was true? Was that killer now breaking into this warehouse?
The warehouse staff streamed away from the loading dock and out the emergency exits. Mike had been part of that staff until recently. Going with them would keep him safe from the gunfire, but not from his bosses. He would stay safely behind the trained guards with guns and say later he'd helped them defend the place.
He wove through the stampede, focused on the chatter from the walkie. There was a lot of confusion. Between the interference from two guards trying to use the channel at once, Mike picked out that security was converging on the threat.
He was halfway to the loading dock when Ian, the head of security, gave the order to fire. The deafening gunfire echoed from every direction off the metal shipping containers. Mike covered an ear with his free hand and fought his terror to keep walking.
When he came in view of the dock, he saw a dozen guards with automatic rifles firing from the high ground, but the single intruder, popping out from behind the thick concrete of the loading dock’s outer frame, returned fire with a pistol and never took a hit.
The guards screamed as the intruder killed them each with single shots, one after another. Why didn’t they hide? Why stand and wait for death? What were the odds that they missed this man with every single bullet? Some of those guards didn’t even have life insurance. Like him, they had nobody else in the world to leave it to.
Mike took cover behind a shipping container.
A corpse fell from the catwalk and hit the ground that he recognized as Dylan. A small part of him was relieved, and that immediately horrified him. Teasing him through the window didn’t mean Dylan deserved to die. Mike felt bad he didn’t feel worse.
As the last guard fell, after the echoes died down, the warehouse was silent, but Mike's ears still rang. He peeked around the corner at the blood-splattered bodies.
This had all happened on his watch. He was responsible for this place, and his bosses did not tolerate failure. He felt guilty for worrying about his career, but he was terrified of what they would do to him, especially if he did nothing now, when he was the only one left. Mike couldn't breathe. Nothing would matter if he just got himself killed.
The intruder stepped into the light. He was a stocky man with dark, stylish hair, dressed in a tuxedo. He looked around at all the corpses, slipped the pistol inside his jacket. "Well, that'sh one way to clear a room," he said in a strange accent.
Then another figure dropped into Mike's view, rappelling from the rafters. They were in shadow, but Mike recognized the zebra-print suit. It was his superior from SCEPTRE, Portia Tussel. Where had she been this whole time, hiding? Why? At least Mike wasn't the only one left anymore. He was so relieved to let her deal with this.
Mike watched as the dark-haired man climbed the handful of steps up the loading dock to the warehouse floor, while the woman slinked through the shadows in her odd camouflage. She closed the distance to the intruder, who made his way to the same equipment which had been sabotaged the week before. Mike crept forward and got them both in view. Tussel stepped up behind the intruder, holding a large pistol.
Then she said, "You shouldn’t have come back here." She had a clear shot. Why give herself away?
The man turned to face her and raised his hands. "I wouldn’t have had to come back, if we’d finished this the lasht time."
She lowered her gun slightly, her voice softening. "You never finish anything right." Did they know each other?
The intruder stepped towards her. "I’ll have more than it takesh to finish you." With a wide arcing kick, he knocked her gun away, and the two of them battled hand to hand.
Mike used it as his chance to sneak around and trade the walkie-talkie for one of the fallen guard’s rifles.
The intruder got the woman in a head lock, saying, "Good to shee you’ve lived up to your name, Mish Tusshel — twishe."
Mike moved quickly to where he could shoot the man, but he’d never aimed a gun at a real person before. The intruder saw him and flipped Tussel onto the floor, reached inside his jacket and drew his pistol again.
Mike had never had a gun pointed at him either. He felt the terror of death, and adrenaline surged. His right hand squeezed the trigger.
His spray of bullets went high and wide. The intruder ducked.
Tussel was up by then and grabbed for the intruder’s pistol. As they wrestled over it, Mike took a deep breath and aimed the rifle carefully, trying to remember his semiannual training, but the two combatants were too intertwined. He didn’t want to risk shooting his superior.
Tussel shouted, "Kill him, you fool. Shoot!"
Mike followed orders. His finger squeezed again.
Two cries, as intertwined as their bodies, echoed off the metal walls. Tussel and the man collapsed together, and Mike stood still in shock.
Then Tussel’s body started to move. There was hope again, but the motion came from the intruder moving out from under her corpse. How could this man keep getting so lucky?
Mike moved forward. He looked at the dead woman. He was responsible for that death, more so than all the others. He'd killed, and the warehouse still wasn't safe.
He wished he'd never taken this job, that he could just leave, but if he backed down now, he knew things would only get worse for him. He advanced on the man, who was still half-pinned under the corpse.
What was the point? Vengeance on the intruder wouldn’t bring back the lives he'd taken. Mike stared into the killer’s dark eyes and tried to sound threatening. "Before I kill you, I have to ask, how could you do this? What would make you kill all these people?"
"Looking for shome pointersh to help you pull that trigger?" The intruder’s voice was labored. He must have been injured. "Lishen to me, there’sh a weapon here that hash the power to shtop SChEPTRE."
Mike hesitated. "Why would I want to stop them? They pay my salary."
"They’re a vasht evil conshpiracy with tiesh all over the world. Here'sh your chance to be one of the good guysh."
The man was offering him a job. Mike remembered all the mistrust he'd faced after his release from prison, wondering if that would always be how people saw him. Maybe this was his chance to change that. "I’m not a bad guy." His left hand let go of the forward grip on the rifle.
"It doeshn't matter who you are. SChEPTRE musht be shtopped, and I'm the one to do it!" The intruder’s hand whipped out from under Tussel’s corpse, holding the pistol, and Mike’s whole body tensed. His hand squeezed without thinking, and the rifle went off, a spray of bullets splattering the man’s blood everywhere.
The pistol dropped to the ground. Mike dropped the rifle, and the warehouse was eerily silent again. Mike sat with his back to a crate, surrounded by gore, until someone else showed up.
The heads of SCEPTRE were overjoyed. Apparently, the intruder had been running circles around their people for years. They wanted to promote Mike to head of security for their "volcano project," but he ended up talking his way into a desk job in Milan.
Hwa didn't come with him. She had a life, and he didn't push too hard for her to uproot everything for her murderer boyfriend.
In Milan, Mike made banking transfers he knew weren't legal, but he kept his mouth shut. This was the new start he'd been hoping for, better than he could have hoped for. Mike counted himself lucky, or maybe he'd just happened to be on the other end of the rifle when the other man's luck had run out.
Every time he had his semiannual gun safety weekend, the feelings haunted him again, that maybe the intruder was right, that he worked for a vast evil conspiracy, that he was nothing but one in an endless supply of bad guys.