Chapter Five: More corpses than at the city morgue.
When we finally got to the Mall, there were scattered corpses all over the place. Cleaners, out of their skinsuits, lying next to dead SWAT and civilians.
"Jesus," Carter swore, "it's like a fuckin' warzone out here!"
"That's 'cause it is," I said. "The war that the cleaners have been fighting since two years ago."
"Whatever it is, we've gotta get in there and help the civilians out!" Bravura said. "C'mon!"
We ran in, Berreta's at the ready. Bravura suggested we split up, each of us taking a different direction. I took the top floor, and went down the right fork, Carter taking the bottom of the same.
After a while, I noticed one thing that there weren't any more corpses. No civilians, no cleaners, no SWAT.
"Where the hell is everyone?" I muttered to myself.
The answer to that question came in the form of a hail of bullets that tore through the floor. I dove for cover, and took a peek around a corner of bench.
Dozens of cleaners were running around, smashing windows, searching for something. There was something odd about them, as if they were different somehow... I couldn't put my finger on it.
"Freeze, NYPD!" I yelled, aiming my Berreta at them. They responded with another hail of bullets. Time seemed to slow down, and I started shooting. Yells from the cleaners reached my ears.
I shot the first two cleaners straight through the head, before rolling and taking a second out. Three more rolled into cover and aimed thier Colt Commandos at me, but I was already picking a grenade up from one of the dead cleaners and throwing it.
"Crap!" one of them yelled, before the grenade exploded and their dead bodies sailed over the railings to the floor below.
"Hey!" I heard a familiar voice yell. "Don't send the bodies down here Payne, I've got enough to handle as it is!"
Carter was in trouble. Two cleaners had him pinned down. I picked up one of the rifles and aimed it, before releasing a hail of bullets. The cleaners died.
"Thanks!" Carter yelled. I went further on, and kept my eyes open.
After a moment, I ended up outside a Starbucks, where a bunch of cleaners were holding a guy hostage. Some old guy in a suit was with them, talking to this guy - who was younger, in jeans and a T-Shirt.
"Don't kill me!" the young guy said. He was short, and unimpressive.
"I won't," the old guy smiled menacingly, "if you tell me what I want to know."
"I told you, I don't know anything!"
The old guy sighed.
"If you insist on this, then so be it. Michaels... the knife."
One of the commandos held a knife up and handed it to the old guy.
"Now, are you sure you won't reconsider, John?" the man asked. I took that as my cue to jump out, Berreta aimed.
"NYPD, drop the knife!" I yelled. The old man stared at me for a moment.
"Max Payne," he said. "Well, well, I was expecting you."
"Were you?" I asked. "Glad I made the appointment."
"Yes," the old guy smiled. "It is good to know that you are still on the case."
"Yeah, yeah, drop your knife, and get your goons here to drop thier guns," I ordered him. He ignored me, and turned back to the man.
"You know, I think I might let you go," he said. "Tell your master that Max Payne is back at large."
"Y-yessir," the little guy - John - said. He ran off, and the old guy turned to me.
"Terribly sorry I have to cut this short, Mr Payne," he said, "but I have other engagments to keep. Goodbye."
He ran out the back entrance, and his Commandos took that as the cue to start firing at me. I dicked behind a table and reloaded my Berreta, before standing up and firing back. The first Commando dropped almost instantly, and the other two took cover behind a table. One of them stood up to take another shot at me, but then he fell, as a Desert Eagle blammed near my position. I turned, and there was Lisa, looking for all the world like Mona Sax ressurected. She blew the Commandos away, before smiling at me.
"Hi Max," she grinned. Then she cocked her head - footsteps were coming this way. I heard Carters voice yelling "gunshots, up here! C'mon!"
She turned back to me.
"Bye, Max," she said, before running off. A moment later, Carter ran inside, and aimed his gun around.
"Payne, what happened in here?" he asked me.
Where to start? An old guy, with a bunch of Commandos behind him, who just screamed Inner Circle to me? What about Lisa, who seemed to have followed in her late sisters footsteps? I didn't know where to begin, so I just shook my head at him, and sighed. Another mystery, for another time.
At night, my dreams always haunted me. Sometimes I would relive that night, almost seven years ago, when everything had changed. Sometimes, the green nightmare of Valkyr would reassert itself, the stains on my soul coming back. And sometimes, there would be nightmares that made no sense at all... like this one.
I was in my old apartment. There was nothing abnormal about it. Music was playing in the distance, so faint I could barely make it out.
"I can't decide whether you should live or die..."
I walked off, out of the door, and found myself in a corridor that belonged to Alfred Wodens manor house. I looked around, and saw the gaping hole in the floor that Vlad had blown. Mona was there, looking at me.
"Hello Max," she said.
"Mona," I replied, in the dream. "Looking good."
"I've looked better," she said. "Lots better."
"I guess," I replied. "Look, we need to -"
"Talk about my sister, yeah," she said. "Look, you know full well, I'm not real, right?"
"Yeah," I told her. "I know."
"And that talking to me is basically talking to yourself, right?"
"Exactly," she said, nodding, looking satisfied. "So there's really no point."
Then I turned to the Panic room. Alfred Woden came out.
"The man with all the answers," I said as he came. "I suppose you're not gonna help either."
"On the contrary Mr Payne, I'm going to help as best I can - given my nature as an unreal creation of your mind."
He smiled at me.
"I suppose," I began, "that you can't tell me whether that old guy belongs to the Inner Circle, can you?"
"I'm afriad not," Woden said.
"My dreams always come up with explanations for something," I said. "I remember dreaming how Vinnie died, how Vlad got shot..."
"That, Mr Payne, was your subconscious creating a possible scenario - and Mr Gognitti isn't dead, so obviously your subconscious was mistaken there."
I nodded in comprehension.
"So," I said. "If you represent my subconscious, start telling me some ideas."
He rolled over to me, closer than before.
"The Commandos you fought in the Shopping Mall, Mr Payne, were not the same kind of Commandos that you fought at Gognittis mansion," he told me. "You know as much yourself of course, but might I draw you attention to four years ago, when you fought the mercenaries at the Deep Six?"
"Yeah? What of 'em?"
"They're the same kind of mercenary," Woden told me. "Right down to the Colt Commandos. If I was to hazard a guess, considering my nature as an -"
"Unreal creation of my mind, yeah."
"I would hazard a guess that they are a sort of standardized private army belonging to the Inner Circle. Nicole Horne used them, as did I when I faked my own death."
"Which you didn't do very well, I might add."
"It wasn't really me, so it's a moot point."
"So your telling me that there are two groupsd of balaclava wearing Commandos out there?"
"I'm theorising. That's all either of us can do."
A noise sounded in the distance.
"Ah, that would be your cue to wake up Mr Payne," Woden smiled. "Beep."
And then, I shot awake. I was lying in my old bed. Nothing was wrong.
And now I had a theory.