Disclaimer: I'm sitting in my room with my back against a broken radiator and a cuddly hippogriff sitting on the floor next to me. I'm gonna go with that means I'm not Joss Stirling…. Ergo I don't own this book series. I do however own Thirteen. But that is all.
(Staring down myself)
There is nothing like cheap, gas station coffee first thing in the morning to remind you how much you hate your job. As I chuck a fistful of dollar bills down on the counter, I stare at the row upon row of cigarette packets behind the checkout girls head. I don't smoke, never have, never will – it kills you know – but I need something, anything, to look at. The brightly colored packets and big bold writing are just inoffensive enough for me not to care what they actually say, but just eye-catching enough to keep me from needing to look at anything else, to think about anything else – or anyone else.
"First coffee of the morning?" the girl asks me. She's painted a sweet, theoretically understanding expression on her face, but there's something more there, I can tell.
I try the same trick, forcing my mouth into an awkward grin. "How did you know?" I try for a laugh, but it gets stuck in my throat. I wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans, trying to keep the nerves that are beginning to writhe in the pit of my stomach from appearing on my face. Something's not right about the look on her face, something's coming.
She shrugs. "You're a couple dollars short," she points at the crumpled stack of notes on the counter. Even as I let myself relax I curse my own paranoia for making me freak out over nothing. I have so much more to worry about that morning than being a little short for a cup of coffee. Still, best to get out as quickly as possible. I've spent too long here already.
I slap a few more notes down on the counter and take the coffee without saying another word. As soon as I'm out of the store, the cold hits me like a slap in the face. It's still Fall, but out here near the Rockies, it might as well be December. I wrap my hands around the warm Styrofoam coffee cup and take a small sip. It's pretty much tasteless, nothing more than muddy brown water, but it's warm and caffeinated, which is all I really need right now.
Absent mindedly I count the months since I had a decent cup of coffee. Four, five? No, six, if I remember correctly. Not since I started this latest job anyway.
Six months. Longer than it's ever taken me to finish a job. Far longer than it should've taken. Far, far longer than my employer paid for. I cross the gas station parking lot, searching my jacket pockets for the keys to the Chevy as I go.
The heater in the truck's broken. I forget until I'm inside the cab, with the engine running and no heat coming out at all. I roll my eyes and groan, letting my head fall back against the chair. I hate being cold, it makes me feel closed off, empty inside, like all the life is draining from my body with the heat. But there's nothing I can do about it, I don't have the money to get the heater fixed. Hell, I barely have the money to pay for a cup of crappy coffee.
That brings me back to earth. The question of money always does. The first thing you learn living by yourself is that without money there is no way you can possibly survive. Time to get back to work.
From under the seat I drag a battered road map and spread it across my knees. Brushing strands of red hair out of my face, I lean forward and flip to the pages that show Denver, Colorado.
Little red crosses are scattered across the map, marking all the places I've already been to. All the places the trail's gone cold. My employer is the kind of person that hires only the best. I'm the best there is, no question about it, and I'm failing. I don't even want to think about what'll happen to me if I don't find a way of finishing the job soon. All I know is that the nerves tangled up in the pit of my stomach won't leave until I do.
From the depths of my pocket I pull something else. A chunk of hair, about as blonde as it gets. It's all I need in theory. I close my eyes and breathe out slowly, count to three in my head then breathe in again, bracing myself for pain.
I am the ultimate tracker. I can find anybody, no matter where they are. I've always been able to do it, as long as I've known I'm a Savant, anyway. In a lot of ways it's a wonderful gift to have, a brilliant, brilliant power. But God does it hurt.
White hot agony explodes through my body, popping across every inch of skin, burning through my veins. If I wasn't so used to it, I'd scream. Instead I just swear through gritted teeth, trying as hard as I possibly can to stay calm, to concentrate despite the pain.
'Focus Thirteen' I snarl to myself. I need to finish this now.
Inside my head, I see the twinkling lights of Denver City, I see the Rockies, already carpeted in snow, I see forest – then all I see is blackness.
Whoever this person is, and I can't tell from a bit of hair whether they're male, female – anything about them at all really – they're an extremely powerful Savant. No-one's ever been able to block me out like this before. I'm so very close I can feel it. A few seconds longer and I would've been able to pinpoint the exact location of the target, but now, nothing.
I'm suddenly overwhelmed with anger and irritation. I lash out at the steering wheel, my eyes itching with tears I am absolutely not going to let spill over. Failure and I aren't great friends – I'm not particularly used to it and it's not used to me – and to have such a lethal dose of it all at once is just more than I can handle.
Then I catch sight of something else, something that makes the anger, the irritation, the failure, fade into nothingness. I can't feel any of it any more, I'm frozen solid. More than that, I'm screwed.
(Leave me out with the waste, this is not what I do)
To give me some credit I know it's insanely ungrateful to be dissatisfied with a job thousands of people would kill to have. Especially if you're lucky – like it has to be said I am – to have a decent job at all.
Maybe it's to do with the totally dismal Monday morningness of it all. Mondays mean the start of the working week, and an obscenely early morning after a night of driving back to Denver after seeing the family. It's hard to do a job perfectly with your mind half frozen with sleep, and if I can't do a job perfectly, I don't want it done at all.
Or maybe it's just the sheer pointlessness of it all. Working in the FBI should be fulfilling, you should be able to leave work every day feeling like you've done something, like you've achieved something fantastic. I guess it must just be one of those things – when you're actually on a job, out there in the field, and you're winning and everything's going according to plan, there's no way you want to be anywhere else. When you're stuck in meetings all day, left feeling restless and ineffective, painfully and inescapably aware of all the hours you've wasted sitting and talking because nobody else is capable of seeing that you're getting absolutely nowhere – well, you start to lose faith in it all just a little bit.
I lean back in my chair and close my eyes, only half paying attention to the hum of voices around me. I know what they'll all be saying. The target we're currently trying to apprehend has proven more elusive than by all rights he should be. They're trying to decide what would be the best approach to tracking him down. I already know the answer. On top of that, I know the answer they're going to come up with. Suffice to say there is a less than direct correlation between the two.
One voice in particular catches my attention; it's one of the new guys, so new I couldn't even begin to guess at what his name is. He speaks tentatively, nervously, as if he's scared he'll get laughed out of the room the minute the words leave his mouth. Poor bastard doesn't realize that none of the people that matter are even listening anymore.
I was sent to this meeting by my direct superiors in the Bureau, there had to be someone at this meeting who was a field agent – not an information analyst or a lawyer, a real agent. Someone who actually knows what it's like to be doing this job for real. Everyone else is out on the streets, combing every inch of Denver for the man we're looking for.
To put it simply, I drew the short straw. No-one else wanted to be at this meeting, no-one else wanted to sit for three hours listening to a bunch of people come up with a brilliant plan to comprehend a serial killer whose name they've likely already forgotten. This meeting is a formality only, whatever is decided here will inevitably be useless. I try my hardest to stifle a yawn. However useless this particular job is, someone's got to do it, and do it well.
The new guy's still talking. Well good for him, sounds like he's either realized we're not listening so it doesn't matter how stupid he sounds, or he's tricked himself into believing we're all nice, easy-going, understanding guys who'll support the new kid on the block until he settles in. Which would be stupid, incredibly stupid. So stupid that if that's the case, maybe I won't have to learn his name after all.
"It's just, it is literally impossible how quickly this guy is moving – it's practically supernatural –"
Without even opening my eyes, I know that the new guys words have prompted every room in the head to turn towards me. I open my eyes lazily and take in the sea of expectant looks my role as 'resident expert on anything even remotely freaky' has earned me. Oh God, they're taking this seriously.
I glance down at my notes, pretending to be deeply engrossed in them, buying myself time. I try and think of a way, any way, that I can possibly explain to them that this guy is not a Savant.
A string of murders across the western U.S, the victims generally girls between the ages of fourteen and twenty five found in deserted buildings, their backs and stomachs slashed open. All eleven murdered girls left to bleed out. A slow, remorseless and excruciatingly painful death, the kind I wouldn't wish on my most hated enemy. Just the thought of it has me gritting my teeth against the profanities building up in my throat but that doesn't change a thing.
No matter what, I refuse to believe that there's a rogue Savant out there that the Savant Net doesn't know about – I just refuse.
Maybe if I wasn't the only person capable of independent thought in the room we'd have caught him by now and I wouldn't have to sit here answering questions about things they'll never ever understand. The anger that's been lying dormant in the pit of my stomach flickers back into life. And I know just then, that if I don't leave, I'll do something that I'll regret. Something that won't be worth it in the end no matter how good it'd feel at the time.
Someone coughs. "Agent Benedict?" I glance up at the sound of my name and shake my head. "The only thing I can suggest gentlemen is that we stop sitting around and catch the bastard."
"We have all the suspects under surveillance, Agent Benedict," someone says. "If they make a move, we'll know about it."
They attempt to tell me they're trying everything they can think of. They know they're lying and so do I. You don't have to be a Savant to know that. Truth is – they don't care. They can't catch the bastard so they've decided not to care. I lean back in my seat again and remind myself that I love my job.
(A hymn called faith and misery)
I run a red light just outside the gas station. I run another one not far from that, and skid past a stop sign at the edge of Denver city. The accelerator pedal gets closer and closer to the floor the further out of the city I get. I don't bother to glance in my mirrors - whatever I do I am not looking back.
Taking one hand off of the wheel I turn the volume up on the radio until the music's so loud Billy Joel Armstrong's screaming loudly enough to imprint Green Day's lyrics straight into brain - it's still not enough to drown out the cacophony of fear resounding through my head.
The letter is lying there on my passenger seat. I grabbed it off of the windshield as fast as I could but I still wasn't fast enough to see who left it. The envelope's silver, just like all the other envelopes. Those are littering the back seat of the Chevy. I ripped them into as many pieces as I possibly could, hoping that by destroying them, I'd be able to erase the memory - but this envelope is still intact and the nightmare that never really went away is rearing its ugly head again.
I've received five of these letters already, one for every month I've been late delivering information concerning the target's whereabouts. I don't know how he finds me. All I know is it's not the way I find people, otherwise he wouldn't need me at all.
Before I can stop myself, I sneak a glance at this latest letter. There are only three words on the glittering silver paper, but they're enough to send shivers running up and down my spine. My hands are shaking on the steering wheel - I'm clutching at it like a lifeline, as if somehow, if I hold on tight enough, I'll be ok. Except I won't be. I tear my eyes away from the letter and force myself to look at the road instead. It doesn't make much of a difference, the words are super-imposed on my eyeballs.
I don't know much about my employer. But what I do know is enough. People don't live after he's decided he's had enough of them.
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