Warning: Unwarranted violence.
Author's Note: I have no idea what I'm doing anymore.
[summary: he's last year's model, playing last year's game]
[takes place in spring 2027]
_Old Dog's Tricks
Aiden got up in the afternoon, an hour or so before sunset when the light was already beginning to stream golden through the dusty windows of the cabin.
His body ached pleasantly, spilling a low groan from his lips as he stretched out sore muscles, surprised at how self-satisfied it made him feel. Throughout the winter, he'd gradually lost the habit of working out. First because the weather had been uninviting, then because he'd slept badly and eventually simply because he didn't feel like it. He'd painstakingly built an obstacle course out in the undergrowth, but tree branches and rocks were a poor substitute for an urban landscape and he didn't like the idea of slipping and breaking his neck. Or worse, slipping and injuring himself badly enough to need help.
He hadn't completely let himself go, but hunting and wood-chopping was no comprehensive workout to maintain his physical fitness. Yesterday, though, he'd picked himself back up, out of boredom more than anything. It hadn't felt half bad at all.
He stepped over to the stove and prepared himself a cup of instant coffee using the hot water from the kettle. With the cup and wrapped into a quilt, he walked outside and sat down on the rough-hewn bench by the door, soaking in the last heat of the sunlight. Spring had come early, brilliant and soft, but once the sun was gone, the mountainous region still dipped into frost quickly.
He settled back, leaned the tablet on his raised knee and took a sip of the coffee. He kept handwritten notes on his own online activities, monitoring whatever suspicious patterns he might develop. He used the internet like any normal person in his situation would. He browsed for the weather forecast, read news headlines, watched a bunch of senseless videos of cute baby animals. He even had a low-level social media presence, mostly to keep up with a handful of age- and gender appropriate celebrities and he maintained the expected taste and level of porn, music and television consumption.
Sometimes he even posted about some sports news or political event or random occurrence in his daily life.
The general store in Gallows sold their supplies via their website and he used it to acquire everything he needed. He paid, like any normal person did these days, through a moderately stocked online account.
He avoided tech news; it didn't fit the image of the character he had created. Bevan wasn't interested in these things, he used phones and computers, but he had no concept of their inner workings nor any desire to figure them out. Bevan was just fine while things worked.
Aiden on the other hand gleaned what he could from the headlines he saw when scrolling down news sites, reading the first few lines of each article for whatever information it was worth.
Whether any of it was working, or whether he was just performing a piece of theatre for his own benefit, he couldn't tell and had no way to check.
A few days earlier, he'd spotted a picture of Jacks and his business partner Weston. It was part of a series about successful start-ups. He'd have loved to read the article and he was even pretty sure nothing bad would happen if he did, but he hadn't dared. He'd written down the address on his notepad, a long string of seemingly meaningless numbers and letters. Perhaps in a few months, or even years, when he was more secure and the hunt for him had calmed down, it would be safe to come back to it.
He'd been out here long enough to recognise the sounds of the landscape around, the chirping of birds, the wind in the trees, the strange emptiness of the air otherwise. When the gravel crunched along the path he looked up and narrowed his eyes even before the three young men came around the bent of the path. They had the look of hikers, with the slow gait and somewhat puzzled expression of people unsure if they were lost or not.
Spotting the cabin and Aiden, they changed their direction and headed for him, slowed down just a fraction when Aiden watched them approach without any expression.
"Hello," one of them said. "Uh…"
Aiden looked him over, just a little too pleased with himself for shutting him up with just a look. He glanced over the two others, then returned his attention to the speaker.
He said, "This is private property."
One of the other two spoke up, "We apologise, we didn't know. We got lost."
Sensing Aiden's skepticism, the third one said, "It's our digital detox weekend. We left all our stuff at the hotel. No phones and all, that's the rules."
For another moment, Aiden said nothing. He knew, or at least was aware of, most arguments for and against smart devises. He agreed with some, understood the dangers of most. But the one thing he found deeply puzzling was people wilfully forgoing technology in the very circumstances it would actually be useful. Besides, while they probably had left their phones behind, their obviously high-tech jackets almost certainly were chipped. If they went missing, the chips could be scanned for and found by a UAV flying over the area.
Aiden took another leisurely sip from the cup, fingers sliding over the screen of his tablet — old, non-flexible — looking for familiar buttons to respond to his touch. It took him a minute to understand why the three of them bothered him. They obviously weren't a threat, nothing in their body language betrayed any ulterior motive — though the one who'd spoken second was looking back at Aiden with a sightly too thoughtful expression.
Even their story made a certain kind of sense. It was a popular trend among college kids these days, a way to ascertain their independence against the sense of unease with Blume and their cohorts pushing into every aspect of life. It wasn't illegal not to carry a smart devise, of course, though law enforcement and insurance companies were doing their level best to get there. It was a question of time, but for now, these kids were just being stupid.
Aiden raised the cup, folded his index and middle finger away from the metal to point.
"Down that way," he said. "Until you get to the road, turn left and follow it. Takes you to Gallows. 'bout five miles."
"Thanks, bro," the first speaker said, gave him a smile and turned away.
"No bad feelings, right?"
They trailed after the first guy, while Aiden left their remarks uncommented. He watched them as they marched along the gravel path for as long as he could see them. Just before the path took them out of sight behind shrubbery and a rocky outcropping, one of them send a long glance back over his shoulder.
Aiden drummed his fingers on the screen of his tablet, narrowing his eyes in the direction of the three young men while anger slowly worked itself from his subconsciousness to the forefront of his thoughts.
Since Praeterea's introduction, he'd slowly began to roll back most of his own surveillance of the land he owned. It was impossible to make a wifi network sufficiently secure and hide it well enough from Blume's sweeps. He could've buried cables of his own in the rocky ground, but it'd require a lot of material to maintain and he doubted he could hide that much in his everyday shopping habits, even if Nate kept some of it off the books.
He did, however, have fairly good control of the area directly surrounding his cabin. He pulled himself from the comfy embrace of the quilt and went back inside to where an ordinary looking tower and solid flatscreen were the front of his rig, he'd housed it in the empty shell of a cast iron oven. Ventilation was still an issue, but he was working on drilling discreet grills into the iron and install a better fan.
He woke the system up and flipped through the recent surveillance recordings of the cameras hidden around the area. He found the three young men and retraced their steps as far as he could, found nothing suspicious there either. He took shots of their faces, put them through an enhancer and put a sandboxed Profiler to identify them.
[Nigel A. Byers, 21, UIC student]
[Jasper Munelly, 20, UIC student]
Vanilla Profiler could only display information which the people had chosen to share. Ignoring the locked profile for now, Aiden dived into what was available about the other two. They were both philosophy students, Jasper did stand-up comedy in a club every week and wanted people to find him easily. Nigel was doing a lot of charity work, volunteering in soup kitchens and blogged about it. Skimming through, Aiden thought the kid didn't even have all bad ideas about how to solve some social problems. Going 'digital detox' worked with both their world views, so at least their story was checking out.
The third one, though, he was an issue. He cropped up in pictures with the other two, which was how Aiden found his name was Dylan and he was doing philosophy like them. No surname, though. He could feed his picture in a reverse image search, but the potential risk made Aiden hesitate. How much dust could he afford to kick up, investigating these three? There was no telling how sensitive Blume's system was to irregular online behaviour and he couldn't come up with an innocuous reason why some guy outside Gallows should cyber-stalk a random UIC student called Dylan.
He sat for long minutes, staring at his screen, finger resting over the mouse until his wrist started to ache. He flexed his fingers, then made a fist he hovered in indecision above the table. He didn't smack it down. Instead, he uncurled his fingers, gave himself a shove away from the desk and stood up abruptly.
There was nothing he could do. Now. Like this. No way to know. He was just pretending any of this made a difference, made him safer, when in truth there was only a narrow line between him and disaster and he could not see it. He was just treading water, last year's version of the game, long gone obsolete.
Suddenly, the cabin was too small and too cluttered. Too much quaint, rough wood furniture and plaid curtains, cast iron ovens, quilted bedding. He stomped away to where his clothes were untidily heaped on a rickety chair and dressed quickly.
When the computer screen darkened, he glanced at it and envisioned for an insane second how he'd take a baseball bat to it. It nailed him to the spot, his self-control scrambling to make him go through the motions of putting a cap on his head, sling a shawl around his neck and put on a jacket. He picked up his hunting rifle on the way out, slamming the door behind him, though because of the insulation it made only a muffled, unsatisfying sound.
Only a few hours after sunrise the next morning, Aiden was woken unkindly by someone insistently knocking on the door. By the time his sleep-dazed mind even registered the sound, it had been going on for a few minutes. Sprawled on his stomach, Aiden buried his face back into the pillow, consoling himself with the realisation that SWAT wouldn't have knocked anyway so his lack of reflexes wouldn't have mattered. He rolled to his back and dropped a foot down to the floor.
"Shut up and wait!" he shouted and the knocking thankfully obeyed. It was probably just Nate, or some other local. Maybe they'd found an errant grizzly again and needed the manpower to get it away from the village.
He yanked himself to his feet, narrowed his eyes against the drowsy vertigo swimming up in his vision, picked up a woollen cardigan on the way to the door and slipped it on over his bare chest against the cold he expected to hit him the moment he opened the door.
It was not Nate or another local. Perhaps he should've known but that was doing full all to help him now. Dylan stood on the porch, he gave a smile.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't want to disturb you, but I…"
"What the fuck?" Aiden asked.
"I'm Dylan," he said. "I was here yesterday with my friends, you remember?"
"What the fuck you doing here?"
Dylan seemed caught between determination and hesitancy, his smile wavering just a little, but his gaze digging into Aiden's without blinking often enough.
"I just wanted to say… uh, well," Dylan said and stopped, fixed Aiden even harder and his expression settled. "I recognised you. I know who you are."
Aiden shifted his head back, but otherwise going still at the words, looking at the young man, almost as if he was observing the situation from a distance, gauging its ramification at leisure.
After a moment, he said, "You want a coffee? Come in."
He turned away and stepped back inside, walked to the stove without checking if Dylan was following him. The young man hesitated for just a second, then did.
"Close the door, it's getting cold," Aiden said over his shoulder as he busied himself at the stove. "Sit down."
He heard the scraping of the chair across the floorboards, the low groaning of the wood as the young man did sit down. Silence dropped, the chink of the iron kettle against the rim of the mugs too loud, the scent of the coffee too chemical.
Aiden returned to the table and dropped a mug in front of Dylan.
"Sorry it's just instant," he said.
"I don't mind, thank you," Dylan said and picked it, watched wide-eyed as Aiden dropped himself in the chair opposite him.
Completely ignoring his own cup, Aiden watched his guest take a careful sip, suppress a grimace at the taste.
Aiden said, "What now?"
"You don't have to worry," Dylan said quickly. "I totally don't mean you any harm. I just… I mean, you don't get to meet a celebrity every day and I kind of… I couldn't just go away, uh…"
Dylan trailed off into silence under Aiden's gaze until he couldn't bear it any longer looked down into his cup to get away from it.
Aiden made a quiet sigh, then relaxed in his seat, smile bleeding a little into his voice to make Dylan relax, too.
"I'm a celebrity now? You want a selfie or something?"
Dylan laughed. "Why not? If you're offering, I mean."
"Not exactly," Aiden said, but maintained his smile. "How did you recognise me?"
"Well, there was this series of talks on cyber crime last year. There was that big thing in Pawnee at the police station and it's interesting, academically I mean. There was something on DedSec and on that DeepWed site fixers use to get in touch. What's it called?"
Dylan's smile broadened. "Yeah, that's it."
"Haven't they shut it down by now?"
Dylan pursed his lips thoughtfully. "I heard it was taken down. After the company that backed it, Uplink, was swallowed by Blume and their dirty laundry got aired. But it's still interesting, because it's this shadow world, but it's like… a dark mirror version of the real world."
Aiden shook his head, snorted a brief laugh. "So, they talk about me at university now."
"Your case is pretty fascinating," Dylan said. "I know some guys doing criminal psychology and there are some good theories about you."
"Theories about what?"
"You motives, your drive, your history. There's a lot to learn," he leaned forward as he spoke. "The idea is that because our society gets ever more regulated and orderly, some people will slip. Like," he lifted his hands and wrapped them around empty air. "Imagine control getting ever tighter, but some cracks remain and what's inside slips out. Like that. The idea is that it's inevitable that people like you exist. That's how we don't become stagnant, it's the people who cause revolutions."
Aiden shook his head again. "That's stupid."
"So what do you say?" Dylan said, his earlier timidness falling away more the longer he talked. "What's your drive? How did it happen? How did you happen?"
"How did I happen?" Aiden echoed, arching his brows. "I certainly happen not to be a revolutionary. As for what I'm now, better not ask."
"And before? In Chicago? Why did you do all that?" Dylan said.
Aiden regarded him.
"What did I do?" he asked and Dylan must have noticed the tonal shift, the smile on his face growing tense.
"I meant nothing by it," Dylan said. "I just…" He stopped himself and took a breath. "Look, it's a strange world. Hearing about you and DedSec and Blume, got me thinking. It's part of the reason we're doing this digital detox. It's to keep us sane, but it's also to keep people out of our business where they don't belong. I think you recognised it. You knew what was happening, how society would change."
"Kid," Aiden said. "I'm just a criminal. I exploit society, that's all I cared about."
Determined, Dylan shook his head, staring back at Aiden. "I don't believe it."
Aiden snorted a laugh. "You don't believe it," he said, shaking his head. He let the laughter fade away. "I don't know why you're here, or what you want me to say. I don't owe you my life's story."
Dylan slid his fingers along the cup, considering. Tension was running up and down his body, thoughts crossing his face as he went through the possibilities. He glanced up again. "How did you end up here?"
Dylan glanced around to indicate the cabin and possibly the empty landscape beyond.
"I ran away."
"Just like that?"
Aiden paused before he answered. "You're a philosophy student, I'm sure you can come up with something better about… I dunno, the futility of fighting the tide. Or something poetic like that." He leaned forward a little, voice hard. "It wasn't working anymore. I couldn't crack Praeterea and without it, I was going to go down. No two ways about it. So I made a choice. I ran. And here I am."
He picked up his own cup and drank. "I'm sorry if that's a disappointment."
"Wouldn't it be more accurate to say you decided not to let them win by catching you?" Dylan offered.
"If dressing it up like that makes you feel better, be my guest."
Aiden watched the expressions on Dylan's face as they crossed it, tagging each one. After a moment, Aiden sighed, letting the tension run out just a little.
"Look, kid, I'm sorry," Aiden said. "I'm giving you attitude."
He got up and wandered over to the stove, crouched down to open it and shove another log it, staring into the flames as they eagerly licked up at the fresh material.
"No, I get it," Dylan said immediately. "I was rude coming here like that. I'm sure you're on the edge, but I promise I'm not going to endanger you. I got no interest in that, I was just hoping for a chat. I mean, how often will I get the chance, right? But if you don't want, I'll just leave you alone."
Nodding to himself, Aiden stood back up, picked up his own cup and prepared himself some instant coffee, back still to Dylan.
"Nevermind, it's actually nice to have a guest for a change," he returned to the table and sat down, nursing his cup. "What do you want to know?"
He held up his hand as Dylan sucked in a breath to answer. Aiden said, "I mean serious questions, no philosophising because I suck at that."
Dylan laughed. "Fair enough. I'll try. Uh… you said you were a criminal. Like a fixer?"
"For a time, yeah. Well-paying work."
Aiden shook his head again, couldn't help smirking a little to himself. "Didn't feel like it, it was… just what I did. I grew up in Bridgeport, pretty fucking poor neighbourhood. Pretty fucking rough. Didn't make sense not to be rough in return. I didn't question it. Hell, I don't question it now, but I know now how fucked up that is. I've seen it often enough in others. They just never see another opportunity."
"Have you thought of getting out? Like, ever?"
"A few times," Aiden admitted. "But just thinking is worth nothing. Never got around to it. Do it too long and it gets hard, cops have too much shit on you and you get used to making your own rules. It's comfortable, too."
"I can't really imagine," Dylan laughed. He pushed himself a little away from the table to gain enough room to take off his jacket as the stove filled the room with heat.
"Can I see it?" Aiden asked when Dylan made to sling the jacket over the back of his chair. The young man gave him a curious look, but shrugged and handed it over.
Aiden took the jacket, folded the collar back to where the label was, brushed a finger over it, then traced down along the inside seams.
"Ah," he said. "Digital detox. Cut out the chip next time."
"What?" Dylan asked and craned his neck.
Aiden held out the jacket for Dylan and the length of silvery stitching taking the place of the thread along the side.
"That's a tracker. It's passive, it doesn't broadcast your position, but if someone's looking for you, they'll find you."
"I didn't know," Dylan said. "Don't they have to tell me that sort of thing?"
"Yeah, but you probably signed a waver somewhere without reading it," Aiden leaned forward and hung the jacket over the back of his own chair. He folded his hands around his cup and watched the young man.
"If you ask me, it's kinda smart. People used to get lost a lot around here, this is much safer."
"I thought you were against this?"
"No, DedSec is the one you want to be talking to about that. I don't really care. It's a tool, you can suffer it, or you circumvent it or you let it work for you. Lots of fixers got the hang of it really quickly. The ones who didn't go under."
"You didn't go under."
"Not at first," Aiden said. "It was good for a time. A land of plenty for people like me."
"What changed?" Dylan asked. "You became the vigilante, that's something else. You started helping people."
"I started…" Aiden said, stopped himself and looked down into his cup. "I started trying to silence my guilt. I told myself I cared for these people, I needed to make up for what I'd done. Make it…"
He shook his head.
"It was your niece, right?" Dylan asked, gently. "She died in a hit aimed at you."
"That's public knowledge now, huh?"
"It's probably private," Dylan said and looked a little guilty about it. "But it's important to know how things happened, how they fit together. Only if we understand it we can prevent it in the future."
Aiden gave the young man a wry smile. "Then who would you be obsessing over? If fucked up people like me didn't exist?"
Dylan's look was wide-eyed. "I don't think you really believe that," he said. "I think you're someone who made a mistake and who didn't know how to fix it without making it worse. That's the real tragedy, I think, but it's not your fault. When I look at your profile, what you've done, the why is pretty obvious. You can do the wrong things for the right reasons, and that's you. I think it's important to take those risks for things that matter."
"I'm sure that argument goes down well with the families of victims," Aiden said with tired amusement.
"Not really, no. But demonising is never going to make any difference either. It's important to understand what's going on inside people's heads."
Aiden fixed him. "I agree," he said. "Otherwise how would you play them?"
Dylan frowned. "That's not what I meant."
"I know, but that's what it's like for 'people like me'," he drew quotation marks in the air, then settled his hands back on the table. "The sociopaths, you're not going to analyse us until we're working members of society. We're never going to fit, we'll always use you. The only thing you can hope for, at the end, is that we're driven off, like I am, to die in obscurity where no one cares and can be hurt by me anymore."
For a moment, Dylan was visibly lost for words, searching Aiden's face for some hint to help him interpret the words, he found bitterness and impotent anger, but no doubt.
"I don't think you're a sociopath," Dylan said then. "I think you just needed help and you didn't get it in time. I'm sorry about that, I really am."
Aiden nodded, pursed his lips as if he'd tasted something bad.
"What about your friends?" he asked. "Are they going to show up wanting a selfie, too?"
Dylan blinked, momentarily confused by the change in topic, but latched on to the levity quickly. "No no, I didn't tell them. They wanted to sleep in and I left them a message, I said I was gonna hike another round, but I didn't mention you."
Aiden took a sip from his cup, then got up. He looked at Dylan's cup, saw that it was empty and carried it to the sink. From there, he walked through the cabin to his dresser, glancing back over his shoulder at Dylan.
"You got new hiking boots?" he asked.
"Huh?" Dylan turned in the chair to give Aiden a quizzical look, pulled his feet out from under the table to reveal, yes indeed he had.
"They'll be chipped, too," Aiden said, pulled a plaited jacket from the bottom drawer. "Take them off."
"I said, take your boots off, I'll give you another pair," Aiden said, tossed the jacket on the table as he walked past Dylan and to where boots were lined up against the wall. He picked the most worn pair and carried it back to the table.
Dylan frowned in confusion, watching Aiden, looking back at the jacket. "I don't understand…"
Aiden dropped the boots on the floor by Dylan's side, took a step back and carefully put a gun on the table, casually out of his hands and within easy reach.
Dylan paled, though the confusion was still apparent. "What are you doing? Why?"
"I'm sorry," Aiden said, but the phrase might equally be just something he'd recite without meaning it. "You shouldn't have come here. Put on the boots, put on the jacket. Now."
Dumbfounded and lost for words, Dylan found himself obeying, though with a sluggish command of his limbs, trying to parse what was happening and struggling to comprehend the gravity of the situation.
"You wearing any other hiking gear?" Aiden asked.
Mutely, Dylan shook his head. "I'm not that serious about it."
He sucked in a deep breath as he straightened from changing the boots. Aiden's boots were a little too large for him and he'd pulled the laces as tight as he could. He looked up at Aiden, blinking rapidly as if he had trouble focussing on him.
"Jacket," Aiden reminded him. He reached out for the gun and Dylan flinched, though Aiden only picked it up and stuffed it into the waistband of his trousers, then stepped back to put on his own coat and shawl.
Aiden inclined his head towards the door and Dylan walked there on suddenly shaking legs. The cold outside seemed to wake him up again a little.
"What are you going to do?" Dylan asked and trailed off into shocked silence when Aiden picked up a shovel from the edge of the patio where other tools leaned around.
"We're going to take a hike," Aiden said, his gaze indicating the way Dylan was supposed to be going.
With reluctance, but clearly unable to figure out what else he could be doing, Dylan started walking silently. First along the wide path he and his friends had come the day before, but soon enough, Aiden directed him to turn into a much narrower, badly-kept path leading into the undergrowth of the countryside. The path wound through tall conifers, shadowing the ground even in bright daylight. Patches of frost lingered and made the way treacherous, turning and twisting until civilisation seemed a long journey away. In truth, they were barely a mile away from Aiden's cabin, still on the land he owned, but Dylan didn't know that and probably wouldn't have known what to do with that knowledge.
"Where are we going?" Dylan asked after a while, his voice croaking in the cold.
At first, Aiden didn't answer at all and they walked in silence, just the sound of their breathing and the snap of twigs under their boots.
Eventually, Aiden said, "Do you know what happens if you lied about your friends?"
Dylan flicked a glance over his shoulder, but didn't turn around far enough to actually see Aiden.
"I didn't lie, they don't know anything," he said. "Are you going to kill me?"
"You only got yourself to blame," Aiden said.
They reached a more open area below where a rock wall fell down sharply and boulders were strewn around. Someone had painstakingly changed the place to resemble, on first look, a collection of walkways spanning between the trees, ladders and branches laid across boulders and ropes wrapping around trees.
"What's this?" Dylan asked, looking up.
"I used to train here."
"What do you mean 'used to'?"
"Just keep walking."
Past the obstacle course, the path ran out and Aiden pushed Dylan on into the undergrowth without giving any indication of where he was going. The sun had come up high enough to peer through the treetops, warm enough to meld the frost and turn the ground into soft sludge.
"Stop," Aiden said and Dylan complied. He looked around and turned to face Aiden, who used the shovel to sketch out a rough square in the muddy ground, then stepped close to Dylan, holding out the shovel.
"Dig," he said.
Dylan stared at the tool, what blood there still was drained from his face as the horror of the situation finally hit him, standing in the middle of what was obviously meant to be the outline of his grave. Clenching his fists by his side, he said, "You can't make me."
"True," Aiden agreed, too readily. "I can just shoot you and dig myself. But don't you want a chance to talk me out of it?"
Dylan blinked and hesitated. He suspected he was being toyed with, but the choice between dying now or later was an easy one. He took the shovel from Aiden's hand and hacked it down into the dirt.
Aiden retreated to the edge of the small clearing he'd picked and leaned his shoulder into a tree, watching Dylan work sullenly.
"You aren't talking," Aiden said after a while.
Dylan glanced up. "If you don't want to shoot me, then don't," he said. "I don't know what'd change your mind. I didn't lie. Everything I said is true. I won't tell anyone about you, I swear. That's all I've got."
Aiden tilted his head a little to the side, watching the other man.
"My problem is, how do I know?"
"What do you mean?"
"I can't make sure. I don't know you, you're a stranger with a private Profiler account. I know nothing about you. If you're a sociopath, I couldn't see through you just by talking to you for fifteen minutes. It's a risk I can't take."
"Why do you think I'm a sociopath?"
"Why do you think I'm not?"
Dylan frowned at the question, slowed his digging for a moment and then answered his own question, "Because we expect others to be like us, right? You see the worst, and I just see the normal."
He continued to dig for several minutes. It was slow, even softened, the ground was full of rocks and roots.
"The world must be a messed up place through your eyes," Dylan said. "Is it really just death and destruction to you?"
"No, but death and destruction have a habit of showing up on my doorstep."
"You don't think that's got something to do with you?"
Aiden chuckled. "It sure does."
Despite this, Aiden didn't seem to be in a good mood, though Dylan only stole a quick look at him here or there. He didn't quite dare being sloppy about his digging effort, but neither was he too keen on getting finished. He was fit, but the ground was bad and he wasn't making much progress. The sun climbed even higher. Dylan was beginning to feel stifled in the plait jacket, sweat slowly congealing underneath it.
He'd dug himself knee-deep by then, probably deep enough for a shallow grave already.
"For what it's worth," Dylan said. "I'm sorry about your niece. It's heartbreaking."
"If she'd lived… what would she think of you? Have you ever wondered about that?"
Dylan used his moment to straighten up and flex his aching back and shoulders. Across the clearing, Aiden wasn't looking at him, focussed on some point in mid-air between them, contemplative.
"I had a dream about that," Aiden said, surprising Dylan who'd have sworn the other wouldn't answer. Dylan said nothing, too afraid to shatter the moment.
"Or, well, more like a nightmare, about if Lena had lived," Aiden spoke slowly. "She was such a wild child. Nothing scared her. When we went camping on weekends, she sat at the fire and invented monsters lurking in the dark around us. It was not threatening to her, it was just fascinating. And now you're asking me what she would think?"
He looked up at Dylan and narrowed his eyes. "I think she'd have put a bullet through your head faster than I ever would."
"Sounds like a nightmare all right," Dylan muttered.
"In my dream she's holding a gun," Aiden said as if Dylan had never said anything. "It's… if she'd lived and grown up to be… like that. I see her coming to me and ask for a name, or a job, or some trick she can use. And you know what? I'd have been flattered and given her anything she wanted."
He took a deep breath. "You see, there's no version of this in which I'm not bad for her."
He fell silent, not looking back at Dylan who had gone still, watching him.
Aiden squared his shoulders against the tree, narrowed his eyes and turned his gaze sharply at Dylan.
"Did I tell you to stop?"
Dylan jabbed the shovel into the dirt again.
"You realise you can always stop?" Dylan asked. "Tell me to stop and tell me to go home. Tell me to forget about all of this and I will."
"Can't trust you."
"Why the fuck not? You're going to murder me for nothing. My friends will panic when I don't come back, they'll blame themselves forever. Jasper talked me into it, I didn't even want to come this year. What about my family? Family matters to you."
"You should shut up."
Dylan shook his head fervently. "You said to talk, now I'm talking. Not my fault if it's not something you want to hear. You always got that bullet you're going to use anyway. Why should I care?"
He stabbed the shovel down again, stepped on it to force it a little deeper, than hung with his weight behind it to lever the heavy dirt up. He heaved it up and tossed it over his shoulder.
He stabbed the shovel down.
"You don't have to hurt me, man, you don't."
He tossed the dirt over his shoulder.
"You said you heard about me in a lecture," Aiden said and despite everything, him mentioning it took Dylan by surprise.
"You said I'm interesting to a lot of academics. Intellectuals. Like you. I believe you'd sit on this. For a few months. Or a year. But you couldn't let it be. You'd want to, but you couldn't. And you'll start dropping vague hints, writing something in your social media, asking a revealing question when the topic of the vigilante comes up. You couldn't help yourself, because you'll know I'm out here."
Dylan only shook his head. "Please don't kill me."
"I'm telling you why I have no choice."
Dylan swallowed, jaw clenched. He almost laughed at the new realisation, but it came out shaky and desperate. "And you want my approval?"
He heaved up another shovel-full of dirt, changed his grip on the shovel as it threatened to slip from his sweaty palms.
"I want you to know that it's all on you," Aiden said.
Dylan hissed through bared teeth, changed his grip on the shovel again, but instead of tossing it over his shoulder like all the times before he threw the dirt right at Aiden. Screaming, he followed after it with the shovel, though getting out of the ditch took him much longer than he would've liked. Aiden might or might not have seen the move coming, but he was too slow to evade it completely. Some of the dirt hit his face and he let himself fall back, away from the tree and Dylan to gain some space, his arm thrown in front of his face.
Dylan swung the shovel in a arc, still screaming, but it hit the side of the tree rather than the man he'd been aiming for. Aiden ducked to the side as Dylan swung the shovel around, but Aiden snapped his hand up, closed it around the shaft and held it. He pulled hard at it and Dylan stumbled forward a step, bringing him face to face with Aiden. For barely a second, nothing else happened. Dylan trying to gather his wits and his strength to bring the shovel to bear again, transfixed in the cold, hard gaze right in front of him. In the end, Dylan could do nothing but watch frozen as Aiden pulled his gun and pressed it to Dylan's forehead, pulling the trigger the moment the muzzle connected.
The force of the blast propelled Dylan backward, his lax hands slipping from the shaft of the shovel as Aiden held on to it.
There was barely a shudder in Dylan's body, the shot had damaged his brain too thoroughly even for that. He crumpled to the ground lifelessly. He had only a tiny hole in his forehead, but the gaping exit wound had splattered blood, brain tissue and bone fragments all over the tree trunk and foliage behind him.
"Fucking idiot," Aiden said.
He shrugged out of his coat and dropped it over a nearby branch. He put the gun down because he didn't relish the thought of sticking a hot muzzle down the back of his pants, but kept it close just in case.
Suppressing a sigh, Aiden jumped into the pit to finish Dylan's work.
The stupid kid had been right, of course, he hadn't deserved it, but things just weren't ever fair. The only pity was that Dylan didn't get a chance to learn from it.
The dead young man didn't bother him, except for the inconvenience of it. The memory of Lena was much more unsettling. Aiden't hadn't even realised how disturbing his dream — his nightmare — had truly been until the kid had made him say it out loud. Was this really what he thought of her? Or was it just the he lacked the imagination to envision a future for Lena? One left unblemished by the collection of mistakes that contributed most of life's choices.
Could he really not picture her growing up happy and sane and normal, just because some tiny part of her seemed to share some splinter of his assertiveness?
Aiden gave Dylan's lifeless corpse a glare, blaming him for putting these questions ion the table and then skipping out of answering them.
He'd need to check the kid's clothes after all, Aiden realised. He couldn't trust him about the chipped clothes, it didn't matter much if it was deception or ignorance.
Later today, he needed to hunt and kill a deer, too. Bring it here and gut it to account for the scent of blood and the disturbed ground and broken shrubbery. Come to think of it, Aiden reasoned as he continued his work, Dylan really only had himself to blame for his situation. It was hardly Aiden's fault the young man had quite obviously paid more attention to Heather Quinn's stint into porn when he should have been learning from Vincent Fisher's execution. Aiden had made that disgusting little recording as a warning to anyone who would seek him out, whether enemy or worshipper. Either were complications he hadn't needed back then and he certainly wasn't equipped to the deal with them now, when he had no contingencies left.
The more he thought about it, replaying the conversation he'd had with Dylan, the more obvious it became that there'd been more to the young man than had met the eye. He'd been able to tease quite the confession from Aiden, after all, things he would never willingly admit to anyone, not even himself.
True, he'd been living in isolation and seclusion for months now, but… No, it was more likely that Aiden's assessment of Dylan's budding sociopathy had been true. It didn't matter if Dylan himself hadn't known about it.
In all probability, Dylan wouldn't have revealed Aiden to the world just by accident. Dylan might well have been tempted to use this knowledge against him, tried to use him. He'd hardly have been the first one. And they all ended up the same way, too. Killing Dylan now was just the most efficient solution.
If Aiden were home in Chicago he could've made another example out of Dylan and his amateurish attempt to get the upper hand against a man like Aiden Pearce.
Now, though, even the self-aggrandisement tasted stale. An attempt to attribute meaning to a senseless death and Aiden told himself he should really know better by now.
Still, some days he missed Chicago more than others. With the scent of wet earth mixing nauseatingly with the stench of dead meat and fresh blood, with the persistent aches in his joints in the cold and empty feeling slowly crawling through his muscles, today was turning out to be one of the worst.
End of _Old Dog's Tricks