The scene was perfectly quiet and out of the ordinary--at least to anyone passing by. The park was mostly empty in the late evening, save for a stray child chasing a pet or an adult running around the track. Birds chirped overhead in the trees. The last rays of sun peered through the branches in laziness, casting patterns on the grass.
Away from all of the other people, a man in a business suit had settled on a bench, looking over a newspaper. Every now and then he checked his watch in annoyance and then looked up, as if seeking someone who was late. This was a man who was not accustomed to being kept waiting.
He never noticed or paid attention to the bushes and hedges several yards away. Save for the gentle breeze moving their branches, the plant life was also calm. Unseen by anyone, the barrel of a sniper rifle began to poke through the leaves of the hedge. It moved left and right, as if the one controlling the weapon was still orienting it properly. Then it froze, its target locked on sight.
In the next moment it silently fired, taking out some loose bark on a tree next to the bench. The man flew to his feet, staring in disbelief at the bark. Then he whirled, a vein bulging on his forehead as he faced the bushes.
"I know you're in there!" he fumed. "What do you think you're doing?!"
A low chuckle came from the hedge. The foliage rustled as the rifle was withdrawn, and in the next moment, a strange creature vaulted itself over the top of the hedge. It landed on its strong tail near the angry man, smirking as it pushed back its hat.
"Oh come on, mate," it replied in a thick accent, similar to Earth's Australia. "Have a little fun. You weren't the target."
The man did not look any less pleased. "We had an appointment," he snapped. "You're late."
"I was on time," was the objection. "You just didn't look for me."
He ignored that. "You're supposed to be the best, Fang the Sniper. You'd better be able to prove it to me."
"I don't miss the target," Fang said. "I was provin' it by shootin' that dead bark off the tree." Propping the rifle on the ground, he leaned on it. It was somewhat disconcerting to see that it was almost as tall as the creature himself. And he was really quite nondescript. He called himself a weasel, but he did not look that much like Earth weasels. But he did not fully resemble any other Earth animal, either. He may have come from a mixed heritage.
Not that it really mattered.
"Alright, alright." The man reached for a briefcase positioned on the bench. "You aren't adverse to detective work, are you?"
A shrug. "Mate, detective work's a big part of the job," Fang said. "So what's the problem? You said somethin' about a corporate dispute."
"Yes." The man opened the satchel, removing a folder which he handed to the sniper. Fang flipped it open, scanning the information on the pages inside. All the while he continued to rest his weight on his tail, moving up and down slightly to stay balanced.
After a moment he looked up. "So I'm s'pposed to spy on this crew, is that it?" he said.
A curt nod. "That's right. I just want you to tell me what my board of directors are up to. I suspect that they're setting me up for an 'accident' because they want control of the company." His eyes narrowed. "I want progress reports every day, if possible."
"Sure thing." Fang hopped to his feet, touching his hand to his hat in a mock saluting gesture. "And if I find out they do wanna off ya, what then?"
"Tell me and I'll figure out what to do." The other's voice was firm. "Don't take it into your own hands."
"Right." Fang slung the rifle over his shoulder, holding onto the folder with his other hand. "What about if you need me for a bodyguard? There's an extra charge for that."
"If they want to kill me, we'll discuss it. These things could have just been genuine accidents."
Fang pretended to think. "Let's see. . . . Runaway piano, out of control car, and uh . . . the gas bein' left on in your place. Yeah, a lot of accidental coincidences there, mate."
"I know it sounds preposterous," the man grumbled. "That's why I hired you in the first place!"
"Okay then. Deal!" Fang held out his hand.
With a sigh, the other took hold of it. Hopefully he would not regret this.
The creature observed as the man departed shortly afterward, crossing over the grounds to where he had left his limousine parked. The tycoon opened the door, not waiting for the chauffeur to get out, and climbed inside. "Drive," he snapped, pulling the door shut after him. Obeying his command, the chauffeur started the engine and began to back out of the parking lot.
Fang shrugged to himself, beginning to walk through the park. People really were uptight in this place. Not that pretty much having a death warrant on one's head was not a good reason for it. But it kept him busy, at any rate. If nobody was having problems with other people, he would be out of a job.
He was known as a sniper, yet he was actually more of a jack-of-all-trades. He was a bounty hunter, a treasure hunter, a thief, a sniper . . . whatever the current mission required. "No hard feelings, mate," was something he was wont to say to whomever was in trouble as a result of his assignments. After all, he did not hold any grudges against them. As far as he was concerned, he was just a "simple man, tryin' to make his way in the universe."
And it was a dog-eat-dog universe, that was for sure--if the steady flow of jobs since he had arrived on Earth was any indication. People here were not that much different from people on his home planet. It was a rare thing to ever see someone concerned with the welfare of another, and for an unselfish reason.
"Excuse me, sir?"
He blinked, coming back to the present. A peach-colored rabbit was standing to the side, looking up at him with sad eyes.
"I saw your gun," she said. "I was wondering . . . did you ever have to kill any of your friends?"
He stared at her in disbelief. She was plum serious. And she did not look older than six or seven. What had she been getting into? Eh, probably nothing more than too much TV.
"I ain't got no friends, little missy," he said. "There's only me, myself, and I. Good ol' number one, that's all I can rely on." He tapped himself on the chest.
"Oh. . . ." The rabbit looked down, studying the cement. "Maybe it's better that way. I . . . had to kill someone I cared about."
He raised an eyebrow. A kid? This was new, even for him. He had to admit, now he was curious. "Yeah?" he said, tipping his hat back.
She gave a sad nod. "I know he was a robot, but he had real feelings! He was a good friend. But then something went wrong, and he started hurting my other friends, and I had to . . ." She trailed off, tears slipping from the edges of her eyes.
Maybe so, but still, just a robot? It was hard for him to imagine destroying a robot being the same thing as having to kill another living person. To a kid, he could maybe see it, but for he himself it would not mean much. After all, a robot could not have real feelings, even if it seemed to. It was still just a bucket of bolts, completely manmade.
"Well, if you had to, you had to," he said. "Couldn't let it kill everybody now, could you?"
She shook her head. "But that doesn't make me feel better," she protested. "What if we could've done something else? What if we could've helped him? Maybe it wouldn't have had to be like this!"
He crossed his arms, actually feeling awkward. Kids were not high on his list of favorite things to deal with, and he had rarely encountered them. The ones he had met before had been brats to boot. This one seemed nice enough, though he did not want to spend a long time conversing about this subject or any other. He had work to do. "It was a robot," he said. "Can't it just be rebuilt or something?"
"He's in the water," she sadly replied. "We can't get him back. Making another one like him wouldn't be him."
Tough customer. He moved to walk past her. "Too bad then," he said.
"Fang the Sniper! Wait!"
He froze at the new voice. Another kid? Something was flying towards him, something that looked like a really big bee. It stopped in front of him, its wings beating nonstop as it glared.
"I want to know about Mighty!" it demanded.
"Mighty?" he repeated.
"Charmy!" exclaimed the rabbit at the same time.
The bee blinked at her. "Cream? What are you doing here?" he asked. "This guy's bad news."
"Then why are you here?" Cream wanted to know.
Charmy looked back to the stunned weasel. "I've got unfinished business with him!" he declared.
"That's nice and all, but I still dunno what you want," Fang said. "I'm a busy fella."
"Don't you even remember Mighty?!" Charmy cried, his voice rising. "He was my friend--mine and Vector's and Espio's!" He clenched his small fists. "But now he's dead. You were the only guy around when we found him! You've gotta know something about it!"
Recognition began to dawn in the blue eyes. Mighty . . . Charmy . . . Vector and Espio. . . . He knew those names. They ran that detective agency. Mighty . . . of course he remembered that one. The names of people he had met tended to blur in his mind, unless something involving them stood out very strongly for some reason.
"The armadillo?" he said, looking to Charmy. "Crazy fool, that guy."
Charmy's eyes flashed. "What did you do to him?!" he yelled. "Mighty never did anything to you. He was just trying to solve the mystery we'd been hired to figure out! And then we . . . we found him laying there, shot. . . ." He swallowed the lump in his throat. The images were flashing before his mind's eyes, images that had plagued him for ages. Mighty sprawled lifeless on the ground, the blood pooling under him . . . his eyes closed, never to open again. . . . Charmy had screamed when they had found him. He had collapsed to his knees, shaking the still form and pleading for him to get up. But Mighty had never moved, and Charmy had dissolved into tears.
He would not cry now. Not in front of the one who was probably responsible for ending Mighty's life.
Cream was staring at Charmy in alarm. She had never known about Mighty. So Charmy had lost a friend too. This was horrible! She whirled, looking back to the purple-and-white sniper. "What happened?!" she exclaimed. "Did you kill him?"
Fang pushed his hat back on his head. "Now, that's not an easy question to answer," he said.
"What's so hard about it?!" Charmy burst out. "Did you or didn't you?! And if you didn't, who did?!"
Before Fang could decide how to answer, his ear twitched, picking up a faint sound. He whirled, glowering at a bullet that was coming right at him. "Get out of the way!" he ordered. He leaped to the side, dodging it just in time. Cream screamed, jumping away as the lead pounded into the grass and dirt near where she had been standing.
Charmy gawked. "Now what's going on?!" he cried.
"I don't know," Fang said--and he was telling the truth. He had been sniped at before, but only when he was deeply involved in a case. There was no reason why someone should want to take a potshot at him right now. He had just barely been hired by his latest client, and he had not even begun the investigation yet! As he stared in the direction from whence the bullet had come, nothing and no one was visible. There were only the trees in the park, and beyond them the buildings of Station Square.
"All I know is that it's not safe for you kids to be hanging around me," he continued, keeping a tight grip on his own sniper rifle. "And I'm not a baby-sitter. So go on now--skedaddle!"
"I'm not leaving until I find out about Mighty!" Charmy retorted.
Cream gave a firm nod. "I won't go, either!" she said. "I'm Charmy's friend, and I'm going to stay here with him." True, they had not interacted that much, but Cream still considered Charmy a friend. She was very sweet and sociable that way. And she was certain that Charmy should not be alone with this person.
"Well, I'm not in any mood to be givin' you your explanations," Fang retorted. Stepping to where the trees' foliage was especially thick, he raised the weapon and peered through the tracking lens. Save for the evening breeze, everything was quite still. Whoever had fired had either already fled . . . or else was still hiding in the vicinity and staying like a statue. Was that a bit of camoflage clothing he could see in the tree ahead?
"You want the short version?" Fang snapped. Out of the corner of his eye he could see that the kids were still hanging around. That was only serving to make him frustrated and annoyed.
"We want the truth!" Charmy said.
"Then I'll give ya the truth," Fang said. "Mighty died 'cause he did somethin' stupid. I didn't kill him; his own actions did."
There! Through the branches he could see a vague movement, and the black of another sniper rifle. It was raising, aiming for him . . .
"It sounds more like you're just trying to not take responsibility for what you did!" Charmy cried.
Fang was only half-listening. At the same moment his opponent fired, he fired back. Each was using a silencer. The bullets cut through the air, heading for their intended targets. Fang jumped to the side as the lead hit a rock. His own bullet snapped a twig off of the tree. There was a muttered curse in the foliage, followed by rustling as whoever was up there began to change position.
"Maybe we should go, Charmy," Cream said. This was something so new to her, and it was frightening. What if Charmy got hurt? Or what if she got hurt and Charmy had to see her laying there like he had seen Mighty? Maybe they would even both be hurt. And Fang might just leave them and go away.
"I'm not leaving until he tells what happened!" Charmy said.
"But it's not safe!" Cream exclaimed. "Someone's shooting at us!"
"They're shooting at him!" Charmy said. "We'll just stay out of the way."
Instead, the next bullet was directed at Charmy. He yelped in shock as it came towards him, spinning out of the way just in time. Fang fired in the direction of the shot.
"He's gonna shoot at you two to distract me," he said, "and I know I'm not intending to croak today. So unless you wanna hop aboard a one-way train to see your chum, you'll get out of here."
Cream was all too willing. What he was saying was making sense and seemed to be being proven true. "Please come, Charmy!" she begged, reaching to grab for his hand. "You can come home with me for a while, if you want. I'm sure Chris wouldn't mind!"
"I might not be able to find him another time!" Charmy said. "You can go if you want to. I'll just hide and wait. This has to stop sometime!" Again the bullets were flying. He dived into a nearby bush.
Cream leaped in after him. "I can't just leave you here!" she exclaimed. "That isn't what friends do."
"Friends don't let other friends get into danger, either," Charmy said. "I don't want you to be here."
Cream looked down. "I'm not worried," she said. "After all, I beat Emerl. . . ."
"That doesn't mean you can beat everything else!" Charmy gasped. "Mighty was the strongest member of the Chaotix. And now he's gone."
Cream looked back to him. "I never knew about Mighty," she said. "I thought there was just the three of you."
"After he . . . died, Vector and Espio stopped talking about him," Charmy said, a bit of frustration creeping in with his sadness. "I went along with it for a while, when I saw they weren't going to stop. But then today I heard that Fang was here, and I wanted to talk to him. I have to know what happened!" He clenched his fists, his voice dropping in desperation. "I have to. . . ."
"But maybe he won't tell you any more than he just did," Cream said, her own voice growing softer. "He doesn't act like he wants to. . . ."
"He acts like he thinks what he said is good enough," Charmy replied, "and it isn't! After all this time, we don't know why Mighty died. We never got the mystery solved. Fang was the only clue we had, and he disappeared!" He looked down. "It feels like everything's been falling apart since then," he said, the regret obvious in his voice. "I just know we can't keep going on like this. If we just knew what really happened, maybe we could start trying to get better. A big part of the problem is that Vector's too scared to know the truth, and Espio just lets him have his way."
"Maybe you should talk to them," Cream suggested. "Then you could all try to solve the mystery together."
"They won't talk!" Charmy exclaimed in frustration. "I tried it the very first thing, but they wouldn't do anything about it, so I came out looking by myself."
"They'd just let you look for someone dangerous like Fang?!" Cream said in horror.
"Vector sure didn't seem to care," Charmy grumbled. "And I don't know about Espio, either. Sometimes I wonder if he really does want to stay. He was a detective on his own before he joined up with us, and he's always getting frustrated thinking I don't take the missions serious enough and that Vector doesn't have what it takes to even try." He sighed. "I can't speak for Vector, but when he and Espio are both so serious, somebody needs to lighten things up at the agency. Mighty used to do that, but . . ." He trailed off. What was he doing telling all of this to Cream, anyway? He never unloaded his problems on anyone anymore. Mighty had been the one he had gone to in the past.
"I'm sure Mighty wouldn't want all of you to go away," Cream said.
"I know he wouldn't," Charmy agreed. "I just don't know what to do anymore!"
The sound of grass rustling brought them both to attention. As they peered through the brush, Fang came into view. He was walking over to the bush, his sniper rifle slung over his shoulder.
"Bloke got away," he announced, parting the foliage on his side as well. "And you anklebiters aren't gonna be safe now that he's seen you here." This was said with distinct annoyance.
"We'll be okay," Cream said in resolution. "We have Sonic to protect us."
"The hedgehog?" Fang snorted. "He doesn't know about these kinda people. He thinks running fast can fix everything."
"So who is that guy?" Charmy frowned.
"I don't know," Fang said, "but I know his type. And I don't feel like havin' you two get kidnapped by him."
"Why would he do that?" Cream asked, the worry beginning to increase in her stomach.
"He'd think you could tell him somethin' about me," Fang said. "Maybe he'd even think he could use you to draw me out."
Charmy glared. "So what're you going to do?" he demanded, his tone and stance defensive.
Without warning Fang grabbed them both by the wrists. "I'm afraid for now you two are gonna havta come with me," he said as they struggled. "And I wouldn't try to get away or scream. I can get rid of you both any time I feel like it."