Sometimes, when he was feeling nostalgic, Schuldig liked to take a walk on the low rent side of town. He was so far from the austere wealth of the tourist book Stockholm that it almost seemed a different city. More like one of the red light districts in less enlightened countries where flesh for sale loitered on the streets flaunting their dubious attractions. Where boys and girls would go down on you for a quick fix and bend over and spread for not much more. Anything for a few more blissful hours of high. Anything for escape.
Funny how he didn’t feel pity, staring at the faces of kids that could have been no more than twelve or fourteen, hovering at the edges of the shadows, beckoning with skinny bodies and worn out pick-up lines. Odd that he didn’t feel anything but disinterest as he passed them by, hands stuffed in the pockets of a jacket that cost more money than they’d see in a year of their pitiful existence. He felt more pity for the mongrel dog that worried at some bit of refuse spilled out from an overturned trash can at the edge of an alley. In the depths of that alley some faceless, middle aged John was jacking off on the face of a skinny kid on his knees in the trash at his feet. If the kid was lucky, he’d get a few bills for his trouble. If not he’d get a fist in the face, maybe the toe of a shoe in the balls and he’d have nothing to show for the cum on his face but bruises and one more piece of his pride shattered and ground into dust.
Funny that Schuldig didn’t feel pity, since he’d been there himself once upon a time, a lifetime ago . . but he didn’t. He was just killing time until he got the call from Crawford that the mission was a go.
“Hey gorgeous, you looking for something special?” A woman that must have been young from the look of her body canted her head at him, bare shoulder resting against the chipped stone edge of a building, body out at an angle from it, long legs crossed at the ankles. Her top was sheer, the dark rouge of her nipples showing clearly through. Her body was fit and sleek, but her face was old, and there was nothing makeup could do to cover the toll of a brutal life. He paused regardless, interest pricked more with her, than it had been with any of the kids peddling their bodies. There was still a spark of vitality behind the exhaustion. Still some sense of spirit.
He looked her up and down, eyes lingering on the long line of legs in their spiked heeled shoes. He had a thing for long, well shaped legs. And necks. Long and graceful preferably.
“I like the hair.” She said and meant it. He could feel the appreciation seeping out of her. She was an open book, her mind as easy as her body. She didn’t get many John’s who didn’t repulse her. He was a dream come true . . . she thought.
He inclined his head and this month’s leaf green locks slid forward over his shoulder, along his cheeks. She wanted to touch him, badly, but she needed to establish a price first. No matter how good he looked, she was out for business first and foremost. He grinned a little at that practicality and knew that if he wanted, he could have had her for less than what those crack kids were asking back by the alley.
“I like the legs.” He said and got up close and personal, not quite touching, with his predator’s smile painted on his lips. She didn’t flinch, didn’t back down, turned on by the threat she was most definitely feeling. He knew men . . . damned dangerous men who backed down when he got this close into their personal space with this particular look in his eyes. It didn’t matter to her that he was dangerous or that he might hurt her. The worst he could do was kill her and honestly, would that be so bad, considering what she had to look forward to for the rest of her life? How little she knew, but still, it took some of the thrill out of it for him, that lack of fear. Courage without fear of death bordered on psychosis. Farfarello didn’t fear death and he was certifiable in every sense of the word.
Schuldig was looking for something elusive and he wasn’t going to find it on the mean streets of a red light district. There was no challenge here. Nothing courageous and nothing pure, just dread and hopelessness and poverty and weren’t those familiar enough woes that he hardly needed exert the effort to crack them open and examine them from the inside out. The only thing to be had here was a quick fix for the itch in his pants and that was a risky business, considering the plethora of diseases a well used whore might carry.
The cell in his pocket buzzed. Without backing off from the woman, he brought it out, flipped it open and put it to his ear.
“No go. Come in. Now.”
That was it. Crawford’s crisp American voice on the other end. Five words and then the connection was cut. An emphasis on the last word, which meant Crawford was on edge about something. If the mission was a no go then it meant a lot of time in planning was down the drain. That would be enough to piss Brad off considerably. It would put him in a sour mood. Making him wait while Schuldig indulged in a little extracurricular activity would push his buttons with fabulous efficiency. Schuldig liked pushing Crawford’s buttons, when he thought he could get away with it. He liked reminding the man that he wasn’t a trained dog to heel at command. He wasn’t a freak on a leash like Farfarello nor an obedient child like Nagi.
He smiled at the whore and put the phone away, sliding his hand back out with a few high denomination bills.
“I’ve got a little time to kill. What do you do?”
Her eyes fixed on the bills, then drifted back up to his face with a sly smile. “For you. Anything.”
He got in a cab and made his way across town to where the buildings wept marble tears of wealth and the beautiful, expensively dressed people performed the complex steps of their existence, never content in their dance of acquisition. Whores of a different nature, but still whores. He could blend with these people as seemlessly as he could with the dregs of humanity. He hadn’t quite quenched his thirst with the whore, at least not the deeper cravings that went beyond physical. She’d been adept enough at the physical. She’d had a talented and highly creative mouth. As far as she knew and she was practical enough to get regular checkups, she wasn’t carrying anything potentially contagious. He hadn’t bothered asking, just picked it up from her mind before unzipping. He’d worn a condom, never the less, far too protective of his own comfort for risk.
They were renting a suite in an office building amidst a flurry of respectable tenets, under the guise of an internet trading company. Crawford had been monitoring the entire operation from there, while Schuldig and Nagi had been doing the footwork. They hadn’t called Farfarello out yet, not ready to show their hand with his particular brand of violence. He’d be disappointed to the point of bleak depression now that Crawford had nixed the job.
Oh well. Farfarello’s disappointments had never ranked high on Schuldig’s list of vital concerns. Not unless the little freak had the upper had on him.
He got onto an elevator along with a half dozen power brokers in thousand dollar suits and red carpet haircuts. He got looks from the corners of eyes, flashes of curiosity/ lust/wariness over the color of his hair, the predatory gleam in his eyes, the reckless cut of his clothing in a place where everyone else wore suits tailored to Wall street and its counterparts. He was the one colored pebble among a pile full of gray stones. His mouth twitched in a smile; he opened his mind and allowed himself to bathe in their emotions, letting down his shields here in this confined space where there were only a half dozen minds to bombard him instead of hundreds.
The door opened on his floor and he sauntered off, pleased with himself, pleased with his small rebellion of coming back an hour later than Crawford had instructed. He keyed the code into the electronic lock at the door to the suite and slipped into the outer office. It was furnished just like any other reception area, complete with receptionist’s desk, potted plants and comfy chairs. Anyone passing by that got a glimpse into the room would think nothing of it. The offices behind the small reception facade were another matter.
The first thing he picked up was elation. Unfocused, aimless anticipation, tinged almost with a sexual excitement. Farfarello. It was not an unfamiliar emotion to pick up from him. Farfarello emanated the same thing when he was about to go out on a job, knowing that pain and death were soon to be his to distribute. It was somewhat of a curiosity, considering that the mission had been scrubbed, but he could pick up no more definite thoughts from the mad Irishman. Schuldig frowned, shutting Farfarello out and searching for a hint of Crawford.
Nothing. When Crawford did not wish to be read, Crawford wasn’t read. For a man that was not telepathic, (as far as Schuldig knew) he had some of the strongest shields that Schuldig had ever come across.
Past the outer office and into the depths of their temporary headquarters, where there were maps on the wall and photo’s of the targets during their everyday lives. Where there were weapons laid out on the desk and computers and surveillance equipment far more advanced than anything one would expect to see in a building of this nature.
Farfarello was lounging on a couch, turning a thin stiletto over and over in his hands. There were tiny bloody pricks along the inside of his arm where he’d entertained himself by the drawing of his own blood. Whether he’d felt pain from it was anyone’s guess, Farfarello’s pain receptor’s being the warped things that they were. Crawford stood with his back to the room, hands clasped behind his back, staring out of a window that took up one entire wall of the room. He was impeccable, as ever, in a smoke gray suit that made his hair stand out all the blacker and the skin of his neck seem all the paler in contrast. He did not immediately move and something in that quiet stance, that patient ‘waiting’, made the hairs on the back of Schuldig’s arms stand up. Farfarello must have sensed it, that unconscious unease, for a slow, mad smile spread over his face and he rose, slow and focused, like a cat zeroing in on prey.
“Fuck off, freak!” Schuldig snarled at him when he padded close, caressing the blade in his hands like another man might stroke his cock.
“Farfarello,” Crawford said without turning. “Go find something else to do. Don’t find trouble.”
Farfarello’s face fell, the smile wilting. Though Crawford’s voice had been mild, there was the hint of something within it that brooked no argument, even from mad Irishmen.
After Farfarello had skulked from the room, shutting the door softly in his wake, Crawford made the simple observation. “You’re late. I called you over an hour ago.”
“Yeah, well, Things to do, people to screw. You know . . .”
“Just killing time.” Crawford added quietly.
Schuldig shrugged, uneasy and covering it with a casual smirk. “What of it? You said no job, so I figured we weren’t on the clock.”
“Humm.” Crawford turned, hands still clasped loosely at his back, eyes blue and unreadable behind the lens of his glasses. “So you ‘figured’ that I’d just let it slide?”
Another shrug, the silk of his shirt tickling across Schuldig’s shoulders. Not something he might normally have noted, save that he’d gone wary and alert, like prey sniffing for telltale sign of a predator. Damned if he didn’t hate feeling like prey. Despised it with a passion.
“I figured it’d piss you off. That alone was enough reason to take my time.” He said it casually, a simple bravado that he couldn’t help but show. It was beyond him not to put up a facade, even if Crawford knew all his games inside and out. Well, at least Crawford thought he knew them all.
Crawford smiled. He actually smiled before he stepped up to Schuldig and smashed the back of his closed fist up against the side of Schuldig’s mouth. The soft flesh inside his lips tore as it smashed against teeth. Blood start to fill his mouth.
“Fuck . . .” he brought up a hand to his lips gingerly, glaring daggers at Crawford, hand shaking just a little as he turned over the options in his head. Option one; strike back and savor the shocked look on Crawford’s face when he actually got hit – if Schuldig’s blow actually connected. Crawford was damned good at not being in the spot you expected him to be when blows were exchanged. Only problem was, if he started a fight with Crawford, it might be his last one. If Crawford didn’t finish him, the people Crawford answered to might and Schuldig didn’t particularly relish being on the run for the rest of his most likely short life.
Option two; stand there and let Crawford hit him. Which was more painful by far than option one, and far more humiliating, but less likely to end up with him on the bad end of a Rosencroft hit.
Option three; try and talk his way out of whatever the hell it was that had crawled up Crawford’s ass. Standing here and taking abuse for something he didn’t even know he’d done was simply out of the question. He liked the sound of option three, even if it had the highest percentage of failure in his estimation.
“Wait a minute. Just wait . . .” he backed up a step, holding up his hands to stave off further blows. “I know you just didn’t split my fucking lip because I was a few minutes late. What’s your problem, Brad?”
Crawford stepped forward, closing the space between them. Schuldig made to back up another step, common sense winning out over pride when it came to serious showdowns with Brad Crawford. Crawford held up a finger, a warning that took a few precious seconds for Schuldig to get. Don’t move. Don’t try and wriggle out of this or worse things will happen. Schuldig froze, saw the blow coming and stood there and took it. More blood. The side of his face felt like a dozen hot needles had just been plunged in.
What the fuck? What the fuck? What the fuck? He hunched over, hand to his cheek, fear starting to make his heart race more than the pain induced adrenaline. Something was up. Something bad.
“I got a call from Bruno Hoffman, this morning.” Crawford said impassionately. “Do you know what he told me?”
Teeth clattering, Schuldig shook his head. “No.”
“He told me that I was to terminate your employment.”
Schuldig’s breath stalled. He couldn’t quite make it start up again and stood there, fighting for oxygen, vision tunneling with Crawford a blurry face at the end of it as the impact that simple instruction hit home. No one left Rosencroft employment in anything but a body bag.
“It seems,” Crawford folded his hands behind his back again, circling Schuldig. “That someone received a tip that there were funds being skimmed from several Rosencroft interests. Funds stolen and funneled into certain Swiss accounts under the name Adolph Bremer. A fictional name, it seems, but not an untraceable one, for someone who knows where to look. Three million, US. Not that much, really, considering the scope of Rosencroft assets. A drop in the bucket. But then, you didn’t really need it, did you? It was more for the thrill of getting away with it. Of giving the finger to the powers that be.”
“Who . . .?” Schuldig whispered, turning his head to surreptitiously follow Crawford’s movement. “Who tipped them?”
Impact to his kidneys that he only half saw coming. He gasped and went down, knees crumpling from under him, doubled over and clutching his middle in a vain effort to shut out the piercing pain. Fingers tangled in his hair, jerking his head up.
“Who? Who’s more important than begging for your life?”
“Begging won’t help if Rosencroft’s ordered the hit, will it?” Schuldig ground out. “If I’m going to hell, I damn sure want to know who to wait for on the other side to thank for it.”
Crawford lifted a brow. Straightened up and took off his glasses, carefully folding them and putting them in the inside pocket of his jacket. When he withdrew his hand he had a gun.
“You tight-assed, cynical mother fucker.” Schuldig whispered. “You must have danced for joy when they gave you the orders. The chance to get rid of me. You never could control me. Never could take me to heel like the freak and the kid. Maybe they’ll send you somebody that’ll jump when you say, next time. Hope he licks your ass good.”
The grip of the gun smashed against Shuldig’s temple. He saw bright lights. The tip of Crawford’s well shined shoe dug into gut when he doubled over. He rolled to his side, knees drawn up, wondering distantly why he wasn’t fighting tooth and nail for his life. Maybe because he’d had it ground into him time and again that you just couldn’t out think, out maneuver, or out fight a man who knew what you were going to do before you did.
“I have perfect control over you.” Crawford said softly. “You’re simply too egotistical to realize it. I told Bruno Hoffman that the time and effort it would take to integrate another telepath seamlessly into my team would effectively sideline Schwarz for the better part of a year. He didn’t seem to care in the face of the disloyalty you had shown.”
Crawford kicked him again, in the back between the shoulders, knocking the breath out of his lungs with a single sharp impact. “I explained that you had a certain value. Telepaths are not easy to come by and tend to be, by nature unpredictable and not entirely stable. That like a child, you often acted on impulse and rebellion and that like a child, with enough hard lessons you would learn proper manners.”
“Fuck . . . you.” Schuldig gasped with what breath he could force back into his lungs. The next kick caught him in the head, behind the ear.
“I went to great lengths to convince Mr. Hoffman and those he represents. I staked more than my reputation upon that recommendation, do you understand?”
Schuldig shuddered, curled around himself, trying to wrap his mind around words that seemed intent on scattering before they formed a coherent whole. Crawford had fought for him? Had put his own life on the line to keep Rosencroft from eliminating Schuldig?
Crawford tilted his head, a strand of black hair falling across his forehead. So very handsome even when he was kicking the crap out of a man. Like a picture on the cover of a gentleman’s magazine, crisp and clean and elegantly emotionless. God, Schuldig hated that lack of proper emotion. If Crawford was going to kick his ass, at least he could show a little passion in the doing. At least he could emanate a little anger, violence, righteousness . . . anything to feed need for human emotion that curled up like an addiction inside Schuldig’s head.
“I told you. I don’t want to disrupt the effectiveness of this team.”
“You’re not going to kill me?” He went very still, barely breathing, staring intently, through blood and wavering vision at Brad Crawford’s calm face. Crawford smoothed out an imaginary wrinkle in his jacket sleeve.
“Not at the moment. You are on probation. You are alive at my whim. You fuck up and I may change my mind.”
Schuldig laughed, flooded with relief, spattering blood on the carpet as he did. “At your whim? Should I get on my knees and suck your cock now, or do you want to wait until I wash the blood out of my mouth?”
Crawford just stared, not amused. “I haven’t finished your lesson yet.”
Oh . . . fuck. “You didn’t tell me,” Schuldig was grasping for something, anything to forestall the inevitable. “Who ratted me out?”
“Krittiker. Or more accurately a Krittiker agent. Whether was he working at the behest of the organization or not is in question. Kudoh Yoji’s job description generally doesn’t extend beyond wet work, so I had to wonder what spurred him to go to such lengths to discredit you with Rosencroft.”
“Kudoh . . . Yoji?” Schuldig lay there, hurting, mind working furiously, knowing very well just what things might have pushed an assassin over the edge. Godamn the little prick.
“So I asked Farfarello what he might know.” Crawford said. “And he told me about your little party with Fujimiya and your side excursions afterward.”
“The freak has a big mouth.”
“No. Actually, his detail was limited. I know you well enough to deduce what he left out. You were never sanctioned to go after Weiß. You put this team and this organization at risk. Yet again. And they burned you for it. Burned us.”
Brad straightened, back to the light coming in from the window, face an unreadable silhouette against the brightness. He unbuttoned his jacket, taking it off and carefully lying it across the back of a chair. Casually, unfastened his cuffs and rolled up crisp white sleeves. Fuck. And fuck again.
“If you go sniffing after any member of Weiß again without a direct order from me, what happens today will seem like a slap on the wrist, understand?”
“Yes.” Schuldig assured him immediately, whole heatedly. He was leaking fear, he knew he was, could feel the barriers he’d spent years constructing around his oh so special mind crumbling under the stress and the pain. Things were slipping in that he normally kept out without a conscious thought. No clear thoughts, but a barrage of emotion from people within his not inconsiderable range. Avarice, concentration, placid acceptance, deception, lust, despair . . . closer still a heated excitement that was Farfarello outside the door, too enthralled by the prospect of Schuldig’s punishment to stray far, hoping to catch the whiff of blood, the hint of pain. But still, nothing from Crawford. God damned cold bastard.
“No,” Crawford said. “I don’t think you do. We’re not finished yet.”