Chapter 1: Chapter One
That night, she hadn't been feeling well. Her head was throbbing as early as breakfast, a dull ache behind the eyes working in tandem with the pressure building in her nasal passage. She tried to inhale, but couldn't get air through the blockage. It made her cough instead, and then she sneezed four times in a row, and then the headache got worse.
Phil noticed immediately, but he always did. Thirteen years she'd known him, and never in that time had she been able to hide anything from him. Eventually, she stopped trying. So when he ordered her back to her room to rest and even abandoned his morning coffee to personally escort her, she hadn't complained. Hadn't said a word except 'thank you' when he tucked her in and kissed her forehead. Back when she was twelve, she would've recoiled in disgust at the show of affection. Now, she welcomed it, at least on the inside. Outwardly, she grumbled a complaint, and was met with a chuckle. She really couldn't hide anything from Phil.
After that, she had slept. She slept long and she slept soundly, and when she next opened her eyes, it was late afternoon. Her head still hurt, but she could breath easier. Voices in the hall told her their guests had just arrived. Heavily accented arguing brought a hint of a smile to her face. As did the slightly older, deep female voice beneath their volume. Exactly what was being said, she couldn't tell. Knowing them, it had something to do with what movies they would watch and whether they ordered pizzas or Chinese food.
That, of course, prompted Audrey to chime in, reminding them that dinner was always homecooked in this house and if they wanted take out, they could just go home. It was too late to order out anyway. Commencement was an hour away, and everyone knows businesses closed way in advance on Purge night. They should all just sit down, wait for Phil to finish upgrading the alarm system, and for heaven's sake, stop making such a racket!
"You'll wake Daisy up!" Audrey snapped, like Fitz and Jemma were children and not a pair of scientists hailed as geniuses in their fields. "She was sick this morning and she needs her rest."
Such a mother, Audrey. It was a shame she'd been unable to have kids of her own and had to settle for a foster kid. Not that they ever regretted taking her in. She knew this, had been told by Audrey and Phil multiple times over the years, but she couldn't help but wonder…
Hunter and Bobbi came next. Sounded like their on-off relationship had just gone back to 'off', and she wondered how long it would last this time before the two of them made the walls shake again. Mack would be along soon, if he wasn't there already and just unconscious. He worked too hard in her opinion. He needed to relax a little. Stop to smell the flowers. Maybe find a nice girl and go on a date.
Speaking of which, and a peculiar sort of chill went down her spine as that person came to mind, she really hoped they were the only ones who would be present tonight. Her own love life was kind of a mess right now, and she really didn't want to see him any time soon. Hopefully, he'd found a safe place to wait out the night somewhere else.
She thought about getting up to go greet everyone, but her head was swimming and her body felt like lead. Better to stay where she was and let the fog pass. She drifted off to the sounds of sirens, and the cool female voice wishing America a safe and successful purge.
She awoke to silence, and a darkened room without a hint of starlight. Her first instinct was to fear blindness, but then she remembered what day it was. Those new window guards worked wonders. She didn't think even a blast from a cannon could break them. Feeling around for the light switch, she instead found her phone and settled for the LED light to guide herr. She pressed her ear against the door, listening for the TV or a voice.
That she could hear neither was not necessarily cause for concern, but it was strange. Purge night for her friends was more like movie night. They gathered together in the home of a semi-retired government agent with access to all manner of high tech security. The metal shields over the doors and windows rendered the small, one story house not only impenetrable, but also completely soundproof from the outside. They used it as an excuse to play action movies as loud as they wanted. She had not been woken up by an on-screen explosion or Audrey's shrieking at the sudden appearance of a hideous monster, so she was left with an uneasy feeling.
She couldn't even hear the microwave. No popcorn popping, or dishes clanking. No one was speaking. No one was moving. There was nothing. Nothing at all.
She didn't want to open the door, but she did it anyway. She let her rational side take over, the one that poo-pooed her fears, because of course nothing was wrong. Clearly, everyone had been too tired to watch a movie, so they'd gotten out their sleeping bags and turned in early. Of course everything was fine. Of course nothing had happened. Of course-
The smell hit her like a brick to the face. Overwhelming and acrid like copper. She was nearly knocked back and gasped for fresh air, only to find there was none. Pulling her shirt up over her nose, she walked forward. The smell grew stronger, but she pressed on. She could see a spot on the wall, staining the off-white paint with red. Halfway there, she recognized the handprint, and bile surged forth from her churning stomach. She held it in long enough to reach the living room, but what came out of her mouth at the sight of the blood, and the bodies, and the sheer raw black cloud of death was nothing tangible. It wasn't anything at all.
Phil was hunched over, a knife jutting out of his neck. He lay partially atop Audrey, her lifeless face turned towards the hallway, a tear paused halfway down her cheek. Mack was in the corner, his throat slashed. Hunter and Bobbi could've been sleeping where it not for their insides on the ground. Red pools spread out and joined together, creating a river of blood on Audrey's carpet. The new one she'd just installed last week. She'd been so proud of that carpet. Cost her a fortune.
She heard a gasp and came back to herself. A strangled cry as she tripped and fell at Jemma's side, holding her head up before she choked on her own spit.
Nobody called her that anymore. She'd discovered her true lineage last year after tirelessly combing over birth records and death certificates, and she'd taken back the name she'd been given at birth. Until today, only one person had ever refused to call her Daisy.
"I'm here," she croaked. She brushed the hair away from Jemma's eyes. It was a tangled mess; her scalp raw like she'd been pulled to the ground by her ponytail. "It'll be okay, Jemma. Stay with me."
"No…" Her head twitched. She was too weak to shake it. "Get out… get out of here… you have to… before he-"
Her breath hitched, all the muscles in her body tensing one final time. Jemma fell limp as the last visages of life left her. Her best friend was left to cradle her corpse, surrounded by the people with whom she'd built a life. A life she'd always believed she couldn't have. Everyone she had ever loved was dead at her feet, here in this house that should've protected them.
Their killer arrived by way of the kitchen, his steps slow and practicer. A true predator. Slowly, he approached. Every step was like a blade in her heart. His hand was ice on her shoulder, turning her to face him. Deceptively handsome features were marred by scratch marks. A second knife was at his side, bigger than the first and red from blade to hilt. He looked into her eyes like he knew her very soul.
"I'm sorry Skye," he said. "I'm so sorry, but I had to do it. For us."
ONE YEAR LATER
The microwave dinged, and Skye removed the plastic tray carefully by the edges. Her finger hit a hot spot and she jerked back. Luckily, the tray was still mostly in the microwave, so her dinner didn't end up on the floor. She grabbed a dishrag off the stove top and tried again. Slowly, painstakingly, it came out. Victory was hers. Heat seeped through the thin cloth, but with the edge taken off, it was as warm as the water she bathed in.
She carried it back to her desk and set it down next to a warm can of soda left over from lunch. Drinking it down, she crumpled the can and threw it across the room at the garbage can. Two or three more were littered around it. Eventually, she'd have to pick them up. This can hit smack on the rim, teetered for a bit, then fell inside.
"Nailed it," she said, pumping a fist.
She tapped the spacebar repeatedly until her laptop came to life. It took three seconds longer than last time, as she was reminded yet again that she needed a new laptop. The one she used for work was so advanced, she was pretty sure it was illegal in some parts of the world. The one time her personal laptop had a problem she couldn't fix, the repair guy snorted at the obsolete system and asked in a condescending voice why she'd even want to fix this 'glorified doorstop'.
If Skye had power over earth, she would've created a massive earthquake that split the ground under him and sent him on a freefall to the earth's core.
"I just like it," she said curtly. "A friend gave it to me."
She didn't think as she typed in the password. It was second nature to her. The first thing she saw when the loading bar disappeared was blackness, and then their faces popped up. The whole group posing in front of the Christmas tree, all whites and reds and greens. Skye wasn't in the photo. She'd been on the other side of the lens because the time delay button on Audrey's ancient clunker of a camera had stopped working.
She still remembered directing everyone to get in close and smile. She remembered the unusable first and second attempts, in which Trip and Hunter competed to see who could make the stupidest face. Then there was the third try, after Audrey had 'Mom Stared' the two overgrown boys into submission, only for Fitz to sneeze and startle Jemma, which in turn made her fall into Bobbi's lap. They finally got it right on the fourth try, and now it was their happy faces that greeted her every time she looked at her desktop.
Like a call from a long lost friend she'd never see again.
"Hey there, guys," she said. "Been up to anything since I was gone?"
If they could answer, Phil would talk about work (as much as he could); Audrey would offer to play the new piece she'd been working on for her next show; Fitz and Jemma would want to show her their latest experiments; Hunter and Bobbi would have two completely different accounts of their day which would inevitably lead to a passionate argument over Bobbi drinking the last soda and Hunter using up all the towels for a shower.
The picture smiled on.
She stuck her fork into thin linguini noodles. Bits of alfredo sauce dribbled down her chin as she sucked them into her mouth. As always, she squirmed at the papery texture and bland flavor of the TV dinner, but by the second bite, she hardly noticed it at all. She crossed her legs in her chair and flipped through a few old email accounts. Mostly they were just coupons and advertisements these days. There was an eighty percent off sale at Bed, Bath and Beyond this week, and if she used the special code, she could get a free two topping pizza at Pizza Hut any time before Friday. She read down the list, deleting everything she didn't need and leaving the rest to maybe be used later.
After an hour and a half of aimless web surfing, her phone buzzed. It was five o'clock. Time to get to work. Skye closed out her facebook page (no updates today), and shut down her laptop.
"Bye guys," she said as the desktop image faded to black. "See you tomorrow."
She only had a few projects to work on today. Some codes needed rewriting and a recent customer had requested a few tweaks for his website's main page. Other than that, today's agenda was mostly administrative stuff, the most wonderfully interesting part of the job. She sent out emails explaining her services to prospective clients; she responded to messages from current customers asking about rates and deadlines; she paid a small fee to keep her ad posted on the front page of her favorite design website; she checked her bank account for a payment that was supposed to come in today.
At a quarter to eight, Skye was in a Skype chat with one of her most recent customers, working hard to look straight ahead and not let her eyes stray to the clock.
"Everything looks great, Skye. Just like I wanted it."
"Glad to hear it, Ms. Hand," Skye said, smiling for the other woman's benefit.
"Sorry if some of my requests were a little particular."
"It was no trouble at all. I've dealt with a lot worse." Skye allowed herself one quick glance at the corner of the screen. Was it already that late? The nearest grocery store would be closing in half an hour. "If you have any other questions or concerns, you can email me anytime or request another Skype chat. Whatever works best for you."
"Well, I-" Someone off-screen interrupted her. Ms. Hand listened to them and nodded along. Skye couldn't make it out, but it must've been important as Ms. Hand almost got up and left before remembering they were still on the line. "Sorry, that was my assistant. I'm late for an emergency meeting with the chairman of the board."
"I understand," said Skye. She checked the clock again. Twenty eight minutes. "I've got some last minute prep work to do myself."
"Okay, Skye. Thanks again. And I will be recommending your services to my colleagues." She adjusted her perfectly coiffed hair and her perfectly pressed white pantsuit. "Stay safe."
"You too, Ms. Hand."
The call disconnected on the first 'you'. Skye didn't have time to stare at the blank screen or take another look at her empty address book. She'd need two minutes to get her jacket on and her purse out and seven to walk the two blocks to the store. That would give her eighteen minutes of shopping time, and she was going to make the most of it.
Her purse was next to the coat rack, cutting the projected two minutes down to one. She pulled on her jacket, slung it over her shoulder, and was out the door in seconds.
"Be back later," she called out to no one.
"Afternoon, Mrs. Baugh."
The old woman had her crossword puzzle out on the only clear section of her desk. Papers, pens, paperclips, and manilla folders made chaos of her tiny office. Seven filing cabinets were crammed against the wall, none of which could be closed for all that was inside them. A battered desk fan that was never used had been sitting on a pile of books since the day Skye moved in. A radio with an antenna sat next to it. Staticky doowop music faded in and out. Mrs. Baugh smacked it on one side, but that only made it worse.
One time, Skye asked why she hadn't implemented a computer system so she wouldn't need those bulky cabinets.
"I don't trust all this new technology," Mrs. Baugh had scoffed. "You know they monitor you with computers now? No thanks. Had enough of that during the Cold War."
Then again, that was exactly why Skye had signed the lease.
"Eight letter word for determination," she murmured though the pen cap clamped between her teeth. "Eight letter word… eight letter word…"
Mrs. Baugh's head shot up. "Oh Mary! Darling, I'm sorry, I didn't hear you come in."
"It's fine," Skye said tightly. "I was just saying good afternoon."
"Aren't you the sweetest," Mrs. Baugh said. She was a matronly woman of seventy, permed white hair atop her head and kind brown eyes behind thick bifocals. Her cheeks sagged down to her neck, her hands more vein than skin. Her nails were always polished. Bright pink or red, whatever color her granddaughters had gotten ahold of this week. "I hope you're getting all your shopping done before tomorrow."
"Believe me, Mrs. Baugh, as soon as I get back from the store, I'm locking my door and I'm not coming out until Sunday."
Mrs. Baugh sighed and shook her head. "If only everyone was as smart as you. I've tried my hardest, but Billy Felk in 7D insists he's going out hunting tomorrow. Apparently there's some boy he's been having trouble with."
"I'm sure he'll be fine. Maybe his mother will talk him out of it."
"We can only hope." Mrs. Baugh picked up her pen, writing a T in the first box of twenty seven down. "The NFFA made an announcement earlier. Did you hear it?"
"I don't listen to much political stuff these days."
"You should. Youngster like you needs to be involved. You know the turnout when the NFFA came into power was at a record low? How do you think we ended up here? I- oh, there it goes. There they go again!"
Mrs. Baugh's station had gone to commercial. A soothing acoustic guitar played over a soothing male voice.
'When we purge, we purge not only for ourselves. We purge for those we hold dearest to our hearts.'
'I purge for my children!' said an upbeat female voice.
'I purge because it's my civic duty as an American.' A boy probably fresh out of college.
'Someday, I'll purge with my whole family!' She couldn't have been more than six.
Mrs. Baugh's hand shot out and she flicked the radio off. Skye had never been more grateful since the day the old woman gave her a key with no references or credit checks.
"This country… how did it come to this?" She wiped a tear from her eye. "Now they're indoctrinating children. I swear, Canada is looking better every day."
"Yeah…" Skye played with the straps of her bag, shifting from foot to foot. Her throat buzzed with the need to speak, to give comfort to the poor woman. The sad truth was, Skye couldn't remember a time when the Purge wasn't around. For a woman who lived through the sixties with a dream of world peace and free love for all, what ever be said about the world they now lived in? "So uh… I'd better get going before the store closes."
"Oh, of course," Mrs. Baugh said, brushing herself off. "So sorry dear, you'll have to forgive a sensitive old woman. Thank you for the reminder, by the way. I needed to call to the insurance company."
She got on her phone, the cord dangling to the floor. Skye closed the office door behind her, granting her privacy to argue with the building's provider over rising coverage rates. Like car insurance after an accident, the Purge always sent prices skyrocketing, especially for the people least able to pay. Sometimes, Skye could see those smarmy agents in their offices, rubbing their tentacles together in glee as they fucked over another single mother or small business owner.
The streets were quiet this time of day. Rush hour had passed and most people were at home running last minute checks on their security systems. A few kids were grouped together, drinking and laughing about whatever it was teenagers drank and laughed over these days. Skye lamented having left her headphones at home as she passed them and caught snippets of their conversation.
"...so we set the ax up here and we wait up on the roof. We pull the cord and then, BAM! Some fucker gets his nuts sliced off-"
Skye quickened her pace. She hid her face under her collar, as if that would protect her if they wanted to start something. She felt for the knife in her pocket and turned onto a busier street. The grocery store would be a quick trek from here, and then she could get home, barricade her door, and once again pretend this wasn't reality.
The sun set over the dark silhouette of a man on the roof of a three-story building. He looked down at the street. There was a man peddling masks to random passers-by, most of whom ignored him. In all the time Rumlow watched, he sold one bloody Statue of Liberty mask to a bleach blonde walking with her boyfriend.
Through his binoculars, he could see her hand him a fifty. Her nails were professionally polished and probably fake. Her hair was perfect, not a strand out of place. Her boyfriend examined a realistic Thomas Jefferson mask until she got her change, and then they moved on. Unless they're rich enough to pay some poor bastard to be murdered in the safety of their home, neither would last an hour tomorrow.
Turning away, he caught a glimpse of a face he both loved and loathed seeing. He was in a car with the top down, chatting away on his phone. He wore a suit like this was Wall Street and not some dump in the heart of Queens. He had his tablet out and a few words on his lips indicated he was getting information on someone. Who it was didn't matter. The important thing was that Rumlow had finally found him, and that was one more person on his list accounted for.
He sat down on the ledge, flipping through his battered notebook. The first page was packed with names. Nine in all. The first two were the only ones missing a little check mark next to them. He added one to the second name.
"Rollins…" he growled. One name only would he spew with more venom than that one. He could still see them, running away as he dragged his battered body after them, crying out pathetically for help that wouldn't come. Bakshi was holding the gun he'd filched from him. Rollins laughed at him like the noxious bastard he was.
"Good luck, Commander!"
They were going to need good luck this time. Not that it would do them any good.
He read the top name again, but he refused to remember that face or that smile as that voice announced the team's 'change in management.' When Rumlow was 'thanked' for his many years of service, because it was just 'so sad' that they had to let him go. He'd save it all for the moment that little bitch was half dead at his feet. Then he'd give back every single word.
He put the notebook away and withdrew his gun. He aimed at the metal door.
"Your total today is $21.45," said Ralph the checkout guy with a wink, "but if you agree to go to dinner with me, you might get a discount."
Skye, too tired to be creeped out by the forty year old man's leering smile or crud covered fingernails almost touching her skin, shook her head politely. "That hasn't worked the last few times, Ralph. Not gonna work now."
He pouted. "Why you gotta be so mean?"
"I'm not looking for a date, even if it means five bucks off my grocery order." She pulled a twenty and a five out of her wallet and handed them to him. "I've got far too much to do."
"Work," Skye said, counting off on her fingers. She paused on the second one. "And… well, I have a lot of work."
He took the bills and placed them in the register, taking his sweet time counting out three singles and nine nickels. "You know, it's a big night tomorrow. Any plans?"
"Tons," said Skye as she bagged her groceries. "Most of them involve cowering behind a metal shield over my windows."
"Ah, that's no fun. Purging is a good, clean American sport! Minus the clean part. You know it took me two weeks last year to get all the blood off my shoes?"
Blood… so much blood… everywhere…
Phil… Audrey… Jemma… everyone...
Skye clenched her eyes shut. When she opened them again, the mangled bodies of her friends were gone, and Ralph remained, still smiling. Like her mild episode hadn't penetrated his thick skull.
"You know, I just picked up a brand new Remington Model 700. Best hunting rifle on the market. If you're worried about staying safe, you should stick with me."
"I'm more worried about my neighbors on the lower levels." She wrapped three shopping bags around her wrists, holding out her hands for the money. At this point, she was tempted to just let him have it so she could get out of here quicker. "I live on the top floor, so I'm good."
"If you say so." He placed the last five cents on the conveyor belt and slid it over to her. "I just think-"
"See you later, Ralph. Stay safe tomorrow!" Skye jogged out the door, breathing easily now that she was alone. It wasn't that she was scared of Ralph, he just seemed like the kind of guy you shouldn't be alone with if you're a woman with minimal self defense training. The moves she'd learned from Phil would come in handy worst case scenario, but she often wished she'd taken up his offer to learn the more advanced stuff.
Someone barrelling down the street with their hood up and their head down bumped her shoulder, knocking her grocery bag to and froe and not slowing his pace even a little. Even after Skye righted herself and shouted after him:
He had his hands in the pockets of his coat. It was a long, black one that touched the sidewalk. He looked fairly tall, at least compared to her, but other than that, there were no distinguishing features. Best Skye could figure, he was another wannabe gunslinger scoping out the area for a good spot to set up camp.
'That would explain the coat,' she thought to herself.
Around the corner, a mask seller shouted at everyone who would listen that all doll masks were half off, and for an additional two bucks, he'd write whatever message they wanted on it. As if nobody in the world owned a sharpie pen. Skye crossed to the other side of the street and mustered up every bit of indifference she'd learned as a child of New York City to block him out.
"Step right up, Ladies and Gentlemen. The time has come! The Purge is upon us! Tomorrow, we will become our own Gods! Get started right here at Harry's Mask Emporium!"
As the man with the masks continued to yell, Rumlow stepped into the grocery store that woman he'd run into had exited from. He would've stopped to apologize any other time, but today he had a mission. No time for anything that didn't get him what he needed.
Entering the shop, he noted only two registers were open. The first was manned by a decrepit old woman shakily running an item over the scanner, her pace so slow it was a wonder the teenager being checked out hadn't strangled her yet. He'd talk to her last.
He went up to the other cashier, a middle aged man with thinning brown hair and an unpleasant look in his eye. "Pack of Marlboro reds," Rumlow said.
"We're out," said the cashier.
"Could you check?"
The man- name tag said Ralph- glared at him over his brow. He was on the tall side, but if he thought Rumlow would be intimidated by that alone, he'd picked the wrong guy. Slowly, he turned his head. There was indeed one pack of Marlboro reds sitting in the dispenser. "Well I'll be."
Rumlow smiled and gave the man a ten dollar bill. With it was a black and white photograph. "Maybe you can help me out. You seen this guy anywhere?"
Ralph bent over to get a better look. "Nope. Can't say that I have."
Rumlow pursed his lips. He fished another photo out of his pocket. "How about this one?"
"Mack, do you know how many people come through here every week?"
"Just look at the picture, please."
The man grumbled like a child, but took the photo anyway and gave it a once over. He started to give it back, but then he stopped. He scrunched up his eyes and looked at the picture again. "Wait… I did see this guy. He was in here two days ago. Fucker tried to sneak an extra beer out with his six pack. I would've called the cops if his buddy hadn't come in and paid the difference."
"He wasn't alone?"
"He was with some British sounding guy," said Ralph. "Had a weird name. 'Back sheep' or something. I don't know. I don't care as long as I don't get cheated. Man's gotta make a living, you know? I just blew all my spare cash on a new gun. Can't afford to lose any more."
"Maybe you should've gone for a cheaper model."
"Hey, do I tell you how to purge?"
Rumlow took his change and the cigarettes. He put them both in his pocket with the pictures. "No, I guess not. Thanks for the help."
As he left the store, Rumlow wrote down another note. '5th street to Main street are hotspots. Pay close attention when scouting the area.'
If he did everything right, it would all be over by Sunday morning. Every name on his list would be crossed out, everyone who'd betrayed him would be dead, and he would…
Well, he would cross that bridge when he came to it.
The sirens started at seven pm the next night. Skye curled up under the heavy quilt Mrs. Baugh made her for Christmas, the only gift she'd received that day. She cried when she got it. Her TV switched from a rerun of Full House to the blood red warning sign with the NFFA seal emblazoned in the center.
The sirens started at seven pm the next night. Skye curled up under the heavy quilt Mrs. Baugh made her for Christmas, the only gift she'd received that day. She cried when she got it. Her TV switched from a rerun of Full House to the blood red warning sign with the NFFA seal emblazoned in the center.
"This is not a test. This is your emergency broadcast system announcing the commencement of the Annual Purge sanctioned by the U.S. Government."
Skye mouthed along the part about restricted weaponry and Government bureaucrats who were safe because money. Already, she could hear gunshots going off. Some people were so trigger happy, they couldn't even wait for the commencement message to finish. Skye would be listening to it all night until she fell asleep. No matter how much she saved up, Mrs. Baugh could never afford soundproof glass.
"Commencing at the siren, any and all crime, including murder, will be legal for 12 continuous hours. Police, fire, and emergency medical services will be unavailable until tomorrow morning until 7 a.m. when The Purge concludes. Blessed be our New Founding Fathers and America, a nation reborn."
"May God be with you all," Skye said in time with the recording. As the sirens blared and the screams of pain and glee grew louder, she buried herself under the blanket. She put a pillow over her head. If only this thick bit of cloth was made of steel or was bulletproof. If only she'd had something like that a year ago. Maybe she'd still be at home. Maybe she'd still have a family and friends who loved her.
Maybe she'd still be happy.
The metal shields over her windows covered all light from the outside world. Nothing but the glow of the TV, back now to Danny Tanner teaching DJ and Stephanie an important life lesson over saccharine music, kept her from total darkness. Skye changed the channel a few times before shutting it off entirely. She closed her eyes, willing herself not to hear the crescendo of chants rising from the streets below.
"Purge and Purify! Purge and Purify! Purge and Purify!"
It was going to be a long night.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
If Skye were keeping a tally of every gunshot, car crash, or psuedo-religious chant she'd heard in the last sixty minutes, her laptop would've run out of memory by now. As such, she counted seventeen bangs followed by a whooping war cry and a death scream. Whoever had won the battle shot a few more times into the air (or so Skye hoped) before a car door slammed and tires screeched. For one blissful second, all was silence.
Her personal laptop was on, kept out of sleep mode by a wireless mouse. Every few minutes, Sky would push it along with her foot. Sometimes left, sometimes right. The family photo watched her like a guardian angel, keeping her safe tonight.
"Remember that one Christmas when we did our first Secret Santa exchange?" Skye bit her lip so she wouldn't laugh out loud. "Hunter replaced Fitz's gift to Jemma as a prank. I don't know who looked like they wanted to die more when she unwrapped that book of tantric positions."
It had taken days for Fitz to convince Jemma it wasn't her real gift. At least he thought it did. Jemma privately confided in Skye on Boxing Day that she knew he hadn't picked it. He wouldn't have had the guts. Skye never found out if Jemma ever came clean to him. The following Christmas was spent on the couch, cocooned in Mrs. Baugh's quilt, staring at her laptop screen.
She went to get a water bottle out of the fridge. Smoke leaked through the shield over her kitchen window, but she wasn't perturbed. The back alley was a popular spot for would be arsonists. Earlier, she heard two men were arguing over sports statistics while setting their boss's head on fire. She grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl. Biting into it, she deliberately got some of the juices on her nose. The sweet scent almost completely overtook the ash.
The phone rang right as she was sitting down, which would've been fine, even on Purge night, except it wasn't Skye's smartphone. The cord phone nailed to the wall was a relic from the pre-cell phone days that only remained because Mrs. Baugh saw no reason to remove it. If it rang, it was only ever her calling. What she wanted now of all times, Skye didn't know, but a black cloud of dread settled over her intuition.
"Hi Mrs. Baugh, is everything okay?"
"Mary! I'm so glad you answered," Mrs. Baugh said, her breath labored. "Yes, yes, everything's fine, but could you please come down to my office? It'll only take a second."
From outside came an ear piercing schwing, then howling laughter mixed with screams of pain, and a voice saying, "Just missed his nuts!'"
"Mary? Are you there?"
"Yeah, sorry," Skye said, turning away from the window. "I'll be right down."
The elevators were turned off for the night as a safety precaution, and Skye was halfway to the ground floor when it hit her that she'd left her cell phone. She felt her pockets to be sure, but they were flat and empty save for lint. She was three steps up from the fourth floor and going back meant climbing six stories when she'd already have to do all ten later. Skye made a point to keep physically active, but just this once, she decided to be lazy. It wasn't like she would need it for anything.
Mrs. Baugh wasn't alone when Skye got to her office, and in retrospect, that should've been the first red flag. There were two men, well over six foot and packed with fat and muscle. It was a wonder they'd even gotten through the door. One had a beard and brown eyes. The other had a scar on his neck and blue eyes. Aside from that, they were virtually indistinguishable, right down to the unsavoury way they appraised her like a slab of meat on a rack.
"Oh good, you're here!" Mrs. Baugh ran to her with tears in the corners of her eyes. "I was afraid you weren't coming."
Why would that be? They'd only hung up a minute ago. It didn't take that long to climb the stairs. "Sorry, I didn't mean to worry you." She kept her eyes on the two men. "What's going on?"
Mrs. Baugh shook her head. "It's awful, Mary. The insurance company raised the premium on my Purge insurance yesterday. They wanted three times the normal rate!"
"Three times?" Skye exclaimed. "You've got to be kidding me! They can't get away with this."
"They can, Mary, and they do," Mrs. Baugh sniffled. "But there is good news. These gentlemen represent a non-profit organization for the protection of low income homes on Purge night, and they've graciously offered their services. Gentlemen, this is Mary."
"Nice to meet you, Ms. Poots," the blue eyed one said. He had a higher-pitched voice than his size would imply, but there was still evil in his tone. Skye didn't want to acknowledge him, or the way he said that name. Almost as if he knew...
"That's great, Mrs. Baugh," she said. "Why did you want me to come down, though?"
At this, Mrs Baugh's face fell. It wasn't that she stopped smiling. Every bit of happiness she'd ever experienced seemed to have drained away in an instant. What was left was an old woman who had never looked more her age. "Sweetheart, I… I need you to understand how important it is to me that everyone under my roof is safe."
"I do understand," said Skye. That feeling of dread was coming back.
"And while they don't charge a monetary fee, I do have to give them something in return."
Rough hands clamped down on her arms, pulling Skye off her feet. Her vision seemed to darken, but it was only the ceiling as her head was thrown back. Her brain rattled, any struggling mere instinct and not a conscious thought. It wouldn't have mattered if it was, their bruising grips were impossible to break. Adrenaline roared in Skye's ears, allowing her to think clearly once more and realize they were kidnapping her right now, but even that wasn't enough
"Let me go!" she shouted, kicking at the man on her left and missing by a wide margin. "Get off- Mrs. Baugh, help me!"
The landlady cried into her hands, turning away from the scene. "I'm sorry, Mary. They wanted one person for their Purge. I didn't pick you, please don't think I did. It was them. I didn't want to."
"Then don't!" Skye screamed desperately. The blue eyed man motioned at the grunts and they dragged her out. Skye's nails scratched the door frame, seeking any sort of leverage, meager as it may be. "Tell them you won't do it. Tell them!"
"I have to!" Mrs. Baugh sobbed. "Don't you understand? There are children here! Innocent people. Oh God forgive me! God forgive me!"
They got Skye outside. She smelled smoke and tasted blood. One of the men grabbed her flailing legs before she kicked his teeth out, but if he thought that would stop her, he was about to learn. Until they got her in the car, Skye screamed, writhed, scratched, kicked, and punched. Even after throwing her into the backseat, she pounded at the windows. The door handle was gone and the locks looked like they'd been glued in place. One of the men got in after her and grabbed her by the hair, yanking her back.
"Keep your goddamn mouth shut," he growled in her face.
"Why should I?" Skye spat out. "Not like anyone's going to care. If you can kill me and get away with it, then I can scream as much as I want."
"Not in here you can't," he said. "Because it annoys me, and if you keep annoying me, you're not gonna like what happens next."
"Bobby!" the man in the driver's seat snapped. "Fuck off with that shit. You know what the boss said. No one touches her but him."
Though Bobby seemed to have the temper of an irate gorilla, this boss of theirs was scary enough that he let go of her hair and moved to the other end of the car, a stony glare his final act of warning. They drove down a road Skye had yet to explore. She'd heard it was a bad neighborhood full of drunks and reprobates, and anyone who went there at the wrong time didn't come back alive. A frightening thought when you already lived on the bad side of town.
On this night, the worst of the worst paraded opening through the streets, guns out and knives drawn. Two men on motorcycles rode past them, shooting out windows and streetlights. An unsettling enough sight without a man's torso dragged along by chains. His lower jaw rested on his collarbone, his face grey and frozen in eternal fear. A trail of blood was left in his wake; he'd already run out of guts to spill out.
A woman sat on the curb in a red stained wedding dress, the mutilated bodies of a man and a woman at her feet. She bobbed her head, humming 'Before He Cheats' and licking the soiled blade of a machete.
A group of high schoolers in ghoulish Uncle Sam masks danced around another group of high schoolers hogtied and sobbing through ballgags. One girl had been handcuffed spread eagle between two poles and the Purgers were taking turns throwing knives at her. A boy in an Abe Lincoln hat got her in the eye, earning the respect and envy of his peers for such impeccable marksmanship.
At that point, Skye had to look away. If she was going to die tonight, it would not be in tears. Her life in foster care had taught her to be tough, and her lessons with Phil taught her to be fearless before an enemy. Even as her insides shriveled up and the blood drained from her veins, they would never see her beg.
"Hey, relax," said Bobby, wheezing as he laughed. "Nobody said you're gonna die for sure. We don't know what the boss wants with you. Maybe you'll live through this."
"Yeah. It'd be a waste to kill a sexy thing like you. Maybe he just wants to have some fun." Bobby's partner in the driver's seat said. He watched her through the rearview mirror. It was impossible to tell from this vantage point, but Skye didn't think he was looking at her eyes. She curled up into a ball, hiding everything from view. "Come on, don't be like that. It's a compliment."
After she finished throwing up in her mouth, Skye would've happily told him where he could stick his 'compliment'. The car jolted before she could, skidding along the sidewalk, pushed by whatever had just rammed into them. The impact sent Skye flying, her undone seat belt limp and useless as she cracked her head on the glass. Her head, still burning from Bobby's manhandling earlier, exploded anew with pain. A black shape took form, the light of a single blinking streetlight unable to penetrate the darkness. Skye rubbed away the cloud over her eyes and traced the faint outline of a car's hood.
"What the hell was that?" Bobby shouted.
"Some idiot ran into us," said the driver.
He whipped out his gun and stepped out. The door locked automatically and tempting as it was to try, making a break for it now would only get her beaten into unconsciousness. Or shot dead if Bobby decided it was worth the reprimand.
That was reinforced when Bobby shoved the barrel of his gun under her neck. Skye closed her mouth tight. She didn't even breathe. She saw Phil and Audrey and all her friends, one by one in her mind's eye. All the most important moments in her life played out like a slide show.
"You ever been shot before, sweetheart?" He clicked off the safety. "I got a bullet in the leg once. Worst pain I ever had. You even think about getting outta this car, you're gonna find out what that's like."
He shoved her down and exited the car. Though it auto-locked like the driver's side door, the handle was intact. It stared at Skye invitingly. Unless they'd tricked out the central lock system to only open with a key, there was nothing keeping her from getting out and running until the skin peeled off her feet. Nothing except that bullet to the leg.
Her captors approached the other car, guns get the ready. The window was still open from when Bobby threw away a cigarette butt. Not enough to facilitate an escape, but enough that she could hear them.
"Yoo-hoo!" Bobby's partner sang, aiming at the driver. "Hey buddy, you okay?"
The man in the other car groaned. He was face down on the dashboard, limp and most likely injured from the collision. Skye crawled into the front seat to get a better look. The thought of getting behind the wheel and driving away came and went. Bobby's friend had the keys and hot wiring took forever, if it worked at all.
The man in the car whimpered and tried to lift his head. Whatever he'd broken must've been serious. Even using both arms, he couldn't support his own weight. "Oh God… it hurts…"
"That looks bad, partner," said Bobby. He poked his gun in through the passenger side window, which was rolled all the way down for some idiotic reason. "Anything we can do to help?"
The man in the car shivered and sobbed. "W-well actually…" He pushed the muzzle of a 12 gauge shotgun into Bobby's face. "You can burn."
The bullet tore Billy's brains out.
Or was his name Bobby?
Ah, whatever. Not like it mattered. He was dead and soon his partner would be banging on Hell's gate with him. Rumlow didn't remember his name either, but he knew his face and that was good enough.
Billy or Bobby's brains painted the walls of a run down tobacco shop. His fat body crumpled to the ground, a pistol falling from his hands at Rumlow's feet. He left it for now. No Name had recovered from the shock and bullets were flying in all directions. That was no exaggeration. This guy was either stupid or shitting himself too hard to aim. One kick to the chest knocked him off his feet. He clung to the gun for dear life, but once he hit the pavement, his fingers slipped. Rumlow stomped on them as No Name reached for his weapon, breaking one instantly.
"Not this time," he said.
The last time he saw No Name, the slimy bastard had been giving him crocodile tears because the mission had gone south and his men needed him. He'd let Rumlow go in first, because as the leader, it was his job to lead. He'd jammed his gun into Rumlow's back as Rollins dispatched him of every weapon on his person, leaving him defenseless. When the bastard who'd turned Rumlow's men against him congratulated No Name, the little weasel was practically coming in his pants. He licked his new leaders boots while the others forced Rumlow to his knees.
"I-I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for what I did!" No Name's eyes watered. Blood and snot gushed from both nostrils. He pawed at Rumlow's leg. God help him if he tried kissing anything.
"No, you're not," Rumlow said, pressing down harder on No Name's hand. His cracking bones made the most satisfying sound. "You're scared. Big difference."
He kicked No Name in the stomach, winding him. As he struggled for air, Rumlow shot him twice in the chest and throat. No Name spat out mouthfuls of blood, gurgled, and died in agony. Rumlow watched until he couldn't anymore. Pulling the trigger hadn't made him retch in twenty years, but he was on a schedule and time was wasting.
Other than the pistols, all Billy (or Bobby) and No Name had on them were stun guns and a knives strapped to their legs. Rumlow grimaced at the latter. He was decent in a knife fight, but guns and hand to hand were more in his comfort zone. He took them anyway. One never knew when a serrated steel blade might come in handy.
Smoke billowed from the dented hood of their car. If they'd lived, they'd never drive it again. His car was just fine, fully armored with reinforced glass on the windows. Ramming them from the side might not have been his best idea, but it had certainly done the trick. Two down, ten to go.
His sharp eyes swept over the car one final time. There was movement from the back seat. A head ducked out of sight, not fast enough to evade notice. Rumlow cocked his gun and stepped over No Name. He added another tally to the kill board in his head. Whichever of his old compatriots thought they could survive by cowering like a dog was about to get a devastating wake up call.
The side door opened easily, the lock in pieces with the glass. Rumlow withdrew a handgun. He pointed the laser at a head covered by a pair of hands. Hands that were small, uncalloused, and probably not belonging to anyone on his list.
"Don't shoot!" a female voice squeaked. "I'm not with them. They kidnapped me. Please don't shoot!"
Make that definitely.
Rumlow grumbled as he replaced the gun in its holster. What a waste of thirty seconds that had been. It was almost nine and he still hadn't found Rollins or Bakshi. A bright light shined from the cup holder, square and blue. A lockscreen with a standard issue background requested a passcode to unlock it. One of those geniuses had left their phone in plain sight, like a gift for him. All it needed was a bow on top.
Rumlow reached around the girl to snatch it up. Returning to his car, he did a quick inspection for minor damage. A thin scratch ran along the body and he frowned. It would take forever to buff that out. That girl was out of the car and on the sidewalk, her arms crossed over her chest as she bent over. She choked on what little air she could take in. He knew that feeling. Near death experiences hit you right in the gut, whether you were a civilian or a highly trained soldier turned mercenary.
She wiped her eyes as they landed squarely on his car. On him. Darkness made the color hard to discern, but he would guess brown. She paused with a foot in the air, like she'd wanted to run after him but thought better of it. If she was really smart, she'd get her ass off the street now before some other eager purgers made a prize out of her.
His headlights blinded her. She shied away, but not before Rumlow caught a glimpse of her face. She was young, late twenties at the most, not short but not tall either. She was a little too thin, but she had a pretty face. The kind that would immediately catch his attention at the bar. Too bad they couldn't have met twenty four hours from now.
He pressed on the pedal, the roaring engine her cue to move away before she became roadkill. "Do you mind? I have to go."
She started at his words, shouted out the window over a distant barrage of gunshots. She looked over her shoulder, a reflexive act. Those shots weren't anywhere close to them. No fear of stray bullets unless he fired them.
"Y-you're not going to kill me?" She moved now, but closer to him rather than away.
"I'm going to kill a lot of people," he said. "You're not one of them."
"But you…" she looked at the bodies. No Name's hand was an inch from her shoe and she kicked her foot back to avoid it.
"I've been hunting their whole group down for months. Would've killed them with or without you." He revved the engine twice, but it flew over her head as she continued to stand her ground. "Please get out of the way."
"Why do you want to kill them?" She pulled her spine straighter. It did not make her look calmer.
"Personal reasons," he said. "That's what Purging is for. Releasing the rage. Catharsis and shit. And I need to get a move on if I want all that rage out by sunrise."
"Wait! Do you need help?"
Rumlow laughed, even though that was rude, even for him. By the look on her face, she couldn't believe she'd said that anymore than he could. Regardless, her chance to back down came and went. She changed her stance to one of total surety and waited patiently for him to compose himself. "Okay, that was cute. Look, if you need a weapon, I can spot you a taser. You should hurry up and go home before you get hurt."
"I can't go home," she snapped. "My landlady… ex-landlady if I survive long enough… she sold me out to whatever group they work for. One purge victim in exchange for their protection. I was the lucky winner of that honor."
"There were others with them?" Rumlow jumped out of the car, photos in his hand seemingly by magic. He didn't remember picking them up. A wave of fear crossed her face and she clenched a fist. If she tried to punch him, he had a feeling her arm would shatter. She wasn't so small as to seem delicate, but she was clearly no fighter either. Just her luck she got dragged into heat of the Purge. He held the photographs under her nose. "Did any of them look like this?"
She pushed his hand away, making a sound of objection at his lack of personal space. Rumlow backed up a step, giving her room but keeping the photos in her line of sight.
"I don't think so," she said finally. "None of them look familiar."
Rumlow clicked his tongue. "Just hired guns then…" He had one more picture he hadn't shown her, but what were the odds of that smarmy dipshit doing any of his own dirty work? Zero, that's what. Less than zero.
Stuffing the photos in his pocket, Rumlow stomped back to his car, his heavy footfalls not loud enough to drown out the extra ones behind him. "You'll find them a lot faster with me."
"What could you possibly do to help?" he snapped "Why would you even want to?"
"To answer your first question, more than you think," she said confidently. "As for your second, here are my options right now: I could try to walk past more than a dozen groups of purgers who all have guns and knives and boobie traps just waiting for people like me. If by some miracle I got home alive, I'd just get re-kidnapped or else killed on the spot. Or I could stay and help you, in which case you'll have no choice but to protect me. So basically, I can either definitely die or possibly survive."
'Or I could shoot you and leave.'
Even as he thought it, Rumlow knew it was just a fantasy. He had a mission in mind and the senseless slaughter of innocents did not factor in, annoying as said innocent might be. She peeked around him into his car, the wheels in her head clearly turning. "I hope you know the password."
No Name's phone was in plain sight and well within her reach. "Do you know it?" he asked mockingly.
She shrugged and held out a hand. There must've been a carbon monoxide leak or some kind of fumes he was unknowingly inhaling, because he didn't get in and drive off like a sane person would. Instead he deposited the phone in her waiting grasp and watched silently as she fiddled with it. Goddammit, maybe he really was getting soft with age. It was her fault for giving him those wide puppy eyes. Nothing more dangerous than a pretty girl who knew how to use it.
Seconds passed as she clicked rapidly, her eyebrows knitted together, her tongue between her teeth. Rumlow checked his watch, waving goodbye to the precious moments he was wasting here. She cursed once or twice as whatever she had attempted presumably failed. "If you can't do it-"
A ping, then a click. She grinned and presented him with a screen full of apps and one of the standard backgrounds all phones came in. That was a surprise. For a guy like No Name, he was expecting porn.
"Good luck trying that on your own," she gloated. "Did I mention I can hack into almost anything? Up to and including government owned servers?"
Rumlow blinked. "No, you left that off your resume."
"And that's why you need me. How else are you going to get through their defenses?"
"With my guns," he replied, patting his sidearm. "I'm in their system now so what else is there to do?"
"More than you think," she said. "Do you know how long it took me to break the passcode?"
"One minute?" Rumlow guessed.
"Forty-eight seconds," she said. "I know because I counted. It should've taken me under ten."
"Maybe you're off your game."
"Or maybe they're using super advanced encryptions and firewalls. Do you think someone with access to that kind of technology is going to be squatting in the red light district? They're under the tightest security imaginable, especially tonight. How are you going to get past that?"
To her credit, she wasn't wrong.
"I'm not computer illiterate if that's what you're implying." He really should've just left by now. "I know exactly what kind of defenses they have because I helped set them up. Whatever I can't do on my own, that's what their tech people are for."
"You think they're going to help you kill their boss?" she asked, eyebrow raised.
Rumlow walked around to the trunk, running his hand over the car as he went. Pulling the latch, the lid sprang open. Inside would be pitch black without proper lighting. At least until her eyes adjusted and made out the unambiguous shape of scopes, trigger guards and a seemingly endless supply of bullets. Her face turned white. He should've done this from the start.
"I'm a real persuasive kind of guy," he said, closing his mini armory back up. "Anything else?"
She bent backwards as he took the long way to the driver's side, the way that required him to pass her by, so close his fingers grazed her jacket. He felt her stiffen, equal parts relief and, strangely enough, disappointment at the thought that he'd finally scared her away.
'This is why you don't do relationships,' he thought to himself. 'Stop getting attached. She'll probably be dead soon anyway.'
"Don't you think it would be easier to have someone who wants to help you?" she asked.
Rumlow shook his head. "You don't know when to quit."
"Buddy, you have no idea." She then proceeded to do something so bold and so monumentally stupid that Rumlow was struck dumb for at least a minute. The whole time they'd been talking, the driver's side door was left open. It hung there like an invitation, one she was only too happy to take. She crawled into his car and plopped her butt in the passenger seat. Pushing it back, she crossed her arms over her chest. She still had No Name's phone in her hand.
"Get out of my car," Rumlow ordered.
She tapped a few apps, typing away like this was normal and she belonged here.
"I'm not going to say it again."
"Good," she said, "because we're burning daylight, figuratively speaking."
Again, she wasn't wrong. Exasperating, yes, but not wrong. Never before had admiration for someone's tenacity and the need to snap someone's neck so powerfully intertwined in Rumlow's psyche. He could see there was no winning this battle, and she did have a point. He'd save a lot more time than he'd lost if he didn't have to beat information out of everyone. Plus, she was better than all those other tech guys by a wide margin. It used to take them ten minutes to do what she did in one. For his own sake, he put on a harsh face as he got into the car.
"You stay in here unless I tell you to get out," he said. "If you start to slow me down, I will leave you behind. Clear?"
"Crystal, bossman," she said with a mock salute.
He put the car into drive. "Do me a favor and don't call me that again."
"Not like I have an alternative yet," she said with an expectant look.
"Brock Rumlow," he said. No use lying or giving his old codename. "Just Rumlow to most people."
"Cool. I'm Da-" she paused, glancing at her lap with searching eyes. Searching for what, he didn't know, but it sounded important. "I mean… Skye. Call me Skye."
Skye it is then. If she thought her hesitance would pique his curiosity and she'd have someone to spill her life story to, she should get used to disappointment. Whatever need for socialization normal people possessed had been long since burned out of Rumlow. He would keep her alive until morning as long as she kept being useful. When the Purge was over, they'd go their separate ways and never see each other again. She'd return to her normal, carefree life with the loving family undoubtedly waiting for her, and he'd return to...
Chapter 3: Chapter Three
Three men entered his office. He saw them coming through the glass. He would've turned, but the lack of a particular female presence among them vexed him.
They weren't the men he'd sent to retrieve her either, which was even more disturbing. He'd received the call half an hour ago. The building was under their command and the package en route. She'd be there in twenty minutes, he'd been told. Thirty minutes later, these three chose to show up empty handed, huddled together like children awaiting punishment.
He looked out at the New York skyline, darker than usual for this time of night. One could almost see the stars if they looked hard enough. On Purge night, most families who couldn't afford the rising costs of purge insurance chose to barricade themselves in the basement, all their lights off in the hopes that an empty house would only be attractive to looters, and not those looking for a more blood-soaked cleanse.
This building had twelve floors, eleven of which hadn't been used since the Reagan era. The top floor was their home base, had been for the last week and would be until morning. Snipers hidden in the shadows of the roof ensured no one else would use this building tonight. A shot went off as another hapless would be purger got too close was taken out. He didn't bother to check. There were already a dozen bodies littering the streets.
"Where is she?"
The three men tensed. The one in the middle, Daryl something or other, swallowed as his companions inched behind him out of sight. No honor among thieves as they say. "Sir, Bobby and his partner had her-"
"And where are Bobby and his partner?"
"They uh…" Daryl swallowed again. "We lost touch with them, but Jim was able to breach the security feed from a store nearby. It looks like… well, it looks like someone might've taken them out."
He closed his eyes, breathed in deeply through his nose. He heard their breathing stop as he faced them. "The girl?"
Daryl shook his head. "We didn't find her. Their car has a huge dent in one side. We think whoever hit them either kidnapped her or maybe she went willingly."
"But you have no idea who did it."
"Not yet, sir. Jim is working on it. Since most people have to turn their cameras off tonight, it might take some time."
He hummed. Jim was one of the best hackers in the business (he said 'one of' because no matter how much Jim liked to honk his own horn he knew who the very best was), so it wouldn't be more than an hour before half the city was in their hands. A lot could happen in an hour, though. If she'd been taken by other purgers, she'd be dead by now. Dead thanks to the gross incompetence of his own men.
Well now, that wouldn't stand.
"What's your name?" he asked the man on the right.
"Er-Filkins," he said. He was a new recruit, unaccustomed to how the hierarchy of their group worked. That was fine. He'd learn fast.
"Filkins, I want you to understand how important this mission is." He went to his desk and pulled a photo out of the top drawer. He smiled at her beautiful face, which smiled right back. She'd been so happy the day he took this picture. It was their first date at the park. She loved the park. "This is who we're looking for. Memorize her face. You have to know exactly how to pick her out in a crowd if we're going to find her."
Filkins nodded, taking the picture and studying it intently. Daryl watched the exchange with confusion. "Sir, why are you telling Filkins?"
"Because he's the head of the recovery team," he said, as though Daryl should already know that.
"But sir, I'm the head of the recovery-"
The bullet punched through his forehead, fired with expert speed from the gun he kept under her photo. Daryl's body crashed to the floor, his two friends shaking from the aftershock. He thought about killing the third guy, just so Filkins understood what kind of punishment failure entailed.
But maybe not, he thought next. Filkins was quaking in his boots and he'd be no use to anyone a frightened, sniveling mess on the floor. He motioned for the third man to remove the body and be quick about it. The last thing he needed was that worthless husk stinking up the place with death.
"Get her here alive and unharmed before sunrise," he hissed in Filkins' sweat drenched face. "Unless you want to go the way Daryl did."
He returned to the window as Filkins scrambled to leave, a bug by any other name. Caring for nothing but his own survival. He'd give the idiot two hours out there if he was lucky. As long as he had Skye, every one of his men could rot for all he cared. They were replaceable. Everyone was replaceable.
'Well,' he clutched the photo, careful not to rip it. 'Almost everyone.'
"Sir, what should we do if she's with anyone?" Filkins asked at the door.
"Kill whoever gets in your way," he said. "That shouldn't be hard even for you. There's no one alive who could take all of us."
I think I can access the security cameras," Skye said several miles later. Conversation had been thin, which is to say 'non-existent.' Other than snapping at her for touching the radio, his lips were sealed. He must've been more peeved about her intrusion into his revenge scheme than she thought.
"Is that so?" He sounded like he didn't believe a word of it.
"It would be a piece of cake." She crossed her arms. "Much easier than breaking into the tablet."
"Which cameras are you talking?"
"All of them."
Skye could admit, beneath the permeating unease of being out on a proverbial hunting ground, his moment of gobsmacked silence instilled in her a sense of pride. 'That's right,' she thought, 'watch and see how much you need me.'
"All of them," he repeated. "Like every camera around us right now."
"I'd need a laptop and something with an antenna, but as long as they don't have the same super encryptions as the tablet, I can get you a bird's eye view of the city in ten minutes or le-AH!"
Rumlow slammed on the brakes. He would've sent Skye flying were it not for her seat belt. She'd buckled it just a minute ago as an afterthought, and because the little 'seat belt' alert on his dashboard was bugging the hell out of her. Add one more tick to the 'Brush with Death' board. If only she'd been so quick thinking an hour ago when she obviously wouldn't need her cell phone.
"What the hell was that," she screamed.
"Let's go, we don't have much time," said Rumlow, getting out of the car.
"Time for what?"
He ignored her and walked around to the sidewalk, where Skye now saw the darkened sign over a Mom n Pop electronics store. This was yet another block where the streetlights had been vandalized, and the loopy font of the store name didn't help matters. Skye would never know the name, but a few other key details told her what she needed about the owners.
They loved their store. That was shown in the reinforced steel shutters covering the windows. It rendered the storefront dark and silent. Skye walked over and tapped it once. The echo was endless. This looked like the same metal Phil had used. He got it discounted from work. These people must've paid a pretty penny for it.
At the same time, they weren't the smartest. Their idea of a secure door was the same durable metal held down by a padlock, and a key padlock no less. Though Skye had yet to voice her incredulity, Rumlow expressed his agreement with a single shot to the door. The ruined padlock bounced off the shield and rolled away. He fired once more and Skye heard a scream from inside.
Rumlow pulled the shutter up, enough to open the front door where they were immediately charged by an overweight middle-aged man and his equally large son wielding a butcher knife. Rumlow fearlessly raised his gun, stopping them dead in their tracks.
"Sit down," he ordered. He carried a powerful air of authority, so much so that Skye almost dropped to the floor herself. "We're not here for you. My friend needs to pick up a few things and then we'll be on our way."
He motioned at Skye to go ahead of him. She unstuck her feet and ran down the aisle, grabbing a brand new notebook and a few other potentially useful odds and ends. The only rational thought her brain could process was to add up the price of everything in her head. Her arms were full when she was done, and on her way back she spied a sobbing woman curled up behind the register. Her heart broke.
"I'm sorry," she croaked, the weight of her 'purchases' keeping her from reaching a hand out. "I promise I'll come back and pay for all of this."
She headed back to Rumlow where he towered over the incensed store owner. "What the hell are you doing with a padlock on your door?"
The man lowered his head and grumbled: "We ran out of bolts…"
Rumlow rolled his eyes and walked back to the car. From the trunk he withdrew a pair of pistols and some boxes of ammo. Going back he dropped them at the owner's feet. "Know how to use one?"
The man, who seemed to be deciding if he shouldn't grab one of the guns and demand the return of his merchandise, held tight to his son's hand and wordlessly nodded. Rumlow nodded back.
"Stay safe tonight," he said before pulling the shutter back down.
The store once again had the illusion of safety. Skye checked up and down the streets for purgers. Their voices came from every direction, but no shadows lurked and no cars covered in bones drove around. This block was as empty as a ghost town.
"Will they be okay?" she asked, though they both knew what a stupid question it was.
"This area never gets much attention," said Rumlow. "Not rich enough. Long as they don't shoot their faces off, they've got a chance."
Getting back in the car, Rumlow wasted no time speeding into the night. He drove back the way they came and turned left on the intersection, onto a street so dark it was as if there never were lights here, much less working ones. As they passed abandoned decaying building after abandoned decaying building, a spark of familiarity flare. Skye had seen this place before. In the back seat of a cab on the way to her new apartment. The driver had warned her never to come here alone. "'Specially not this time of day," he'd said, "now's when all the drug deals and robberies go down. Those New Founding Bastards sure didn't fix this."
That was at one in the afternoon on an average sunny day. Now it was after midnight on Purge night. Skye squeezed a loose piece of leather upholstery, only to realize too late that was Rumlow's sleeve. She snatched her hand back, praying he hadn't felt it.
"You got everything you need?" he asked, his eyes on the road. "Don't me to rush you, but I'd rather not make another stop."
Skye had known her reluctant savior for an hour, and in that time he'd proven himself to be a bundle of contradictions. He rescued her from certain death, but only because she'd been 'lucky' enough to get kidnapped by the right people. He gave a terrified family a way to defend themselves after breaking into their shop and robbing them. He had an armory fit for a small army, but on his person he carried only the smallest and least lethal weapons. So many questions and so few answers, but asking would be pointless. If there was one thing Skye was certain of, it was that Brock Rumlow was as open as a vault in Fort Knox.
He told her he would abandon her if she slowed him down. The optimist in her said he was bluffing, but the jaded cynic in her wasn't ready to test that theory.
"This should be fine," she said. She balanced the notebook in her lap and used her nail to cut through the tape. Frequent bumps in the road hindered her progress. She dug her finger into the slit and ripped the tape off from the inside. Fortunately it was the less sturdy kind. It came up easily and left behind no residual adhesive.
"There's a spot up ahead with unprotected wi-fi," he explained.
Skye eyed the shattered windows and untamed vegetation sprouting between bricks. "Here?"
He shrugged. "I didn't set it up."
They parked in front of the cleanest stoop for miles. Minimal cracks, no big chunks missing, and no graffiti. If someone climbed it, they'd most likely reach the top step without it caving in on them. Starting up the laptop, Skye was relieved to find full battery life and a single available network. The signal strength, while not the best, got her online and into all of her numerous email accounts. After securing the connection, she opened a file containing encrypted codes and got to work.
"Okay," she said, catching her tongue between her teeth. "Make sure no one shoots me for the next five minutes?"
He stuck his head out the window, checking the area for hidden Purgers. He had his gun ready, his finger on the trigger. "I'll do my best."
"That's all I ask," Skye muttered. Her fingers flew across the keyboard as her brain worked out all the shortcuts she'd need. Breaking into the mainframe was the hardest part. Six separate firewalls would've brought her efforts to shit had she been any less determined. Three went down in a minute's time. She was chipping away at the fourth when a gunshot cracked over their heads and she had to bite her thumb so not to scream.
"Relax," said Rumlow, who'd barely moved since she started. "They're not close yet."
'Yet?' Skye didn't want to know.
She punched through two more firewalls. The last lock would be the toughest. State law dictated all street cameras must be disabled during the Purge in accordance with the Purger Protection Act of 2015. The irony of a law relating to the lawless Purge night appeared to be lost on them. Skye did a sweep of the area, locating a single camera mounted on a lamppost and pointed due south.
"Come to momma." Skye input the commands and glowed with satisfaction as the wall came crumbling down. "We're in."
"Took you long enough." Rumlow grumbled, getting back in the car "How far of a range do we have?"
Skye frowned as she pulled up a map of the city. Yellow dots indicated every camera she'd reactivated, almost thirty in total. "Looks like we have a proximity of ten to twelve miles to work with."
"That'll do for now," Rumlow said. He pulled out his phone. "What's your email? I'm going to send you some pictures."
Skye gave it, and a minute later her browser pinged with a new message received from an address made of random letters and numbers. Opening the files, Skye got to work running facial recognition. Two positive matches came up on a street corner five blocks away. One more she caught on a traffic cam near Times Square, prowling after a group of female purgers.
"How many are you looking for?"
"Ten," Rumlow answered, consulting a waterlogged notebook. "Those three are grunts, even lower than the fuckers who nabbed you. The rest will be hiding with their boss in whatever hole he's dug."
"Any ideas on how to find it?" she asked.
Rumlow shot her a withering look. "That was your job, last I checked." He put the book and the phone away and started the engine. "If we're lucky, they'll have someone outside guarding the entrance. Even if they don't, none of these guys are that loyal. They'll talk."
"Yeah, if you promise not to kill them."
"Promises are broken all the time," Rumlow said, a hint of darkness leaking into his tone. "Especially in my line of work."
"What's your line of-"
He made a hard and completely unnecessary right turn. No other cars were on the road, and the only purgers around kept to the sidewalk. They had a man hogtied and carried medieval flails Skye hoped against hope weren't real. At sixty miles an hour, they were long gone before she could see what they planned to do, but the matter slipped her mind as she caught the intensity in Rumlow's eyes. He stared straight ahead as if trying to forget she existed. And here she thought they were moving past the cold stage of their relationship.
"I hope I've done a good job speeding things up for you," she boldly said.
"You haven't slowed me down yet," he said.
"You don't have the words 'thank you' in your personal dictionary, do you?"
"Do something worth thanking and we'll talk." He swerved around a pothole lined with spikes, leaving many disappointed howls in their wake. "Everything you're doing, I could've gotten one of their guys to do."
"Yeah, I forgot. Because you're so persuasive," she badly mimicked his voice. "You bat your pretty eyes and smile all handsome like and everyone around you bends to your will, is that right?"
He actually did smile then. "You think I'm handsome?"
Skye sputtered, her cheeks on fire. "Wha- I didn't mean it like that!"
"But you do think I'm handsome."
"Does it matter in the slightest?"
"Not really." With that, the discussion was closed. Not because either of them was finished, the bullets popping their front tires were just a more pressing issue.
Rumlow hit the brakes. His timing was excellent and they missed ramming into a street sign by a fraction of an inch. Skye let the laptop drop and put her head down, bracing herself for an impact which didn't come. The car spun in a circle and dinged a mailbox, knocking it on its side and spilling envelopes everywhere.
Another bullet bounced off the door on Skye's side. Her life flashed before her eyes until her brain got the message she hadn't been hit. Curses spewed from Rumlow's mouth as he whipped out his sidearm, opened the window a crack, and fired two warning shots. Three more bullets were the response. One got the window and cracked it; another blew out their left back tire, taking any chance of escape with it. Rumlow continued to shoot at their as of yet unseen attackers. A face appeared in the darkness, latex perfection with a white goatee and painfully wide smile full of teeth. A red, white, and blue hat adorned the skulking figure's head. His assault rifle was similarly painted with a crude approximation of the American flag. The word 'obey' was sprayed over it, like any halfway decent Big Brother wannabe would.
"Evening, folks," Uncle Sam said. Two more masked figures appeared to flank him. A taller man with an iron cage over his bald head carried a hunting rifle. A girl in a blood soaked evening gown wore Raggedy Ann hair and a baby mask. She aimed a Gatling gun twice her size at Skye's head and giggled at nothing. "Having a nice Purge?"
"I've had better," Rumlow answered, stepping slowly out of the car without lowering his gun. "Would like to be on my way so I can finish it."
Uncle Sam clicked his tongue. "I'm sorry, but I can't let you do that."
Raggedy Ann shook with excitement. "I wanna shoot 'em, Frankie. Can I shoot 'em now?"
"Not yet, Liz," Uncle Sam said. He smiled apologetically at Rumlow and Skye. "Please excuse her, she's had a little too much to drink. She's usually not like this."
"Gonna shoot 'em…" Raggedy Ann ran her hands up and down the shaft of the gun, her head thrown back in ecstasy. "Gonna shoot 'em to bits… gonna lick their blood off my hands… gonna be the best Purge ever…"
Rumlow eyed Skye as she reached for the door. His expression was clear: don't even think about leaving this car unless I say so. Skye shoved her hands in her pocket and shrunk out of sight.
"Look, I get that tonight is exciting for you guys, and maybe you haven't come across anyone before us, but I'd appreciate it if you could wait a little longer and let us pass."
To his credit, Uncle Sam hesitated, as if he actually was considering letting them go. A line of drool dripping from under Raggedy Ann's mask. She tugged Uncle Sam's arm. "Need blood… their blood… let's Purge now!"
Uncle Sam patted her hand and shrugged at Rumlow. "Looks like it's not up to me. Please lower your weapon."
Iron Cage shot the air over the car. Skye screamed and covered her ears, burying her face in the seat cushions. She inhaled through her nose until her lungs were full, exactly the way Phil had taught her. The trick to surviving a life or death situation was to stay calm, he would say. Never lose focus. Never let the enemy see you sweat. If only he could see her now, crying and cowering, waiting for some man she barely knew to rescue her. Assuming he wasn't riddled with bullets in the next few seconds. This seemed increasingly likely as the trio formed a circle around him. With a single, most likely empty pistol as his only means of defense, Rumlow approached the situation as any sane Purge victim would.
"I guess we'll have to fight it out." He sighed as though the imminent threat to their lives was a minor inconvenience.
"We have a right to purge!" Iron Box cocked his gun.
"So do we," said Rumlow, "you guys could very well be my purge."
"That's true," Uncle Sam conceded, "but with all due respect, sir, you're outnumbered and outgunned."
There was a gun sticking out of the drink holder. Skye didn't know how she'd missed it for so long, but as her eyes adjusted it was unmistakeable. A long, sleek barrel with a six round chamber. Phil's idea of 'father-daughter' bonding had been a crash course in firearm safety at the local shooting range. Under his guidance, she'd learned how to handle every make and model on the market, including a few less than legal. Audrey never approved, but Phil kept up her lessons until he was confident Skye could point at a target and shoot.
That's just it, though. She'd only ever shot steel. Not people. Phil had beat it into her brain: never turn your gun on another human unless you fully intend to kill them.
Here she was on her first Purge night with no Phil to guide her. No Audrey to protect her. No friends to care if she lived or died. She had nothing and no one but Rumlow, and if she didn't pick up that gun and do as she'd been trained to do, she was going to lose him too. He'd go the same way they did.
(There would be so much blood…)
"Please lower your weapon," Uncle Sam repeated, louder and more firmly this time. "I doubt you have any bullets left."
"You sure about that?" Rumlow was bluffing and they all knew it.
Skye wrapped her fingers around the stock. It was colder than she remembered, and heavier. She fumbled with it, careful to make as little noise as possible. Peeking out the window, her heart sank. Iron Cage and Raggedy Ann had closed in, their guns pressed to Rumlow's temples. Uncle Sam came in from the front. As the leader, he got first pickings it seemed. Raggedy Ann shivered in anticipation.
"Hurry up hurry up hurry up-" she chanted.
Skye had no idea who to shoot first. Rumlow's broad frame blocked her view of Uncle Sam, but she had a clear shot at Raggedy Ann. Being the loose cannon of the group, she was the logical choice, but she wouldn't be still. Her movements were so frenetic, Skye was more likely to hit Rumlow than her. Iron Cage comparatively was like a statue, but he was on the far side away from Skye. She might be able to hit him, but then again, she might not...
'Quit stalling you idiot. You can't be afraid right now. What would Phil say? What would any of them say?'
If Phil had kept a gun with him last year, she'd never have to ask that question.
The hair on the back of her neck stood up and the sweat coating her fingers turned cold. She knew both unconscious signals and what they meant. Hazel eyes like tiny pinpricks poked out from Uncle Sam's mask. They were locked on her as he peered over Rumlow's shoulder. His sidekicks followed suit, gazing at her with unconcealed bloodlust.
She was caught.
Rumlow didn't react, not even when Uncle Sam sidestepped him and stepped toward the car. "Miss, would you please-"
Skye didn't hear the rest. She'd never know if pulling the trigger was a conscious act or a reflex. The world was on fast forward. Nothing was clear to her except the ringing in her ears, Uncle Sam on the ground clutching his side, and Rumlow whipping a second gun out of his pants and shooting Iron Cage dead at point blank range.
Raggedy Ann let out a rageful shriek and fired randomly, her mask falling from her face to reveal a wild eyed woman foaming at the mouth. The other three hundred and sixty four days of the year, she might've been pretty. Tonight, she was an animal, and Rumlow had no problem putting her down. He avoided the onslaught and knocked her to the ground with a powerful punch. Picking up her gun, he discharged what remained of the magazine into her chest. She breathed her last and fell limp. Uncle Sam was on his feet and moving, undeterred by the blood gushing from his wound.
"Rumlow, behind you!" Skye shouted.
He already knew. He dodged a blow to the head and elbowed Uncle Sam in the face, disorienting him. A second bullet put him out of commission and ended the fight before it began. Breathing hard, Rumlow rolled off Uncle Sam's broken body. His mask was in place and as Skye stumbled out of the car on weak legs, his eyes were on the stars. His gun was an inch from his hand, but he didn't try to reach for it.
"Wow," he wheezed. "Never thought it'd end like this… good luck with the rest of your purge, sir."
Rumlow nodded and turned away, Skye close behind him. She'd watched four people die tonight, and bad as they might've been, it was four too many. She found Rumlow crouched at the side of the car, examining what was left of his tires. He muttered curses to himself and moved from one side of the car to the other.
"How bad is it?" Skye asked.
"We have one tire left out of four. You tell me," he growled. "Wasn't I a fucking genius leaving the spare at home."
He slammed his fists on the trunk and it popped open. Going through his cache of weapons, he armed himself with two handguns and a shotgun, the names of which she probably knew but was too emotionally drained to remember. Next he grabbed some knives and strapped them to his belt. Two more went around his ankles for good measure. After securing the last one, he reached inside one more time and withdrew another pistol.
He'd attached so much weaponry to himself, Skye had no idea how he thought he could carry more. That was before he held the gun out to her. "Here. We're going on foot."
Skye blinked. "What? I- I don't think I should-"
He shoved it into her hands. "Don't give me any bullshit about not knowing how. I saw you shoot that guy."
"Yeah but… I didn't like it."
"Do you like being alive?" He took a set of knives out of the trunk and stuck them in her pocket. Thankfully, they were sheathed and not too heavy. "I told you I'd leave you behind if you slow me down. I have no choice but to go ahead on foot, but if you'd rather stay here just say the word."
'He's bluffing again,' she told herself. 'There are still parts of the city he doesn't have access to. He needs you.'
It was a convincing argument, hampered by his impeccable poker face. If he walked away right now and never looked back, it would horrify and devastate her, but it wouldn't surprise her. He'd given her a choice which was no choice at all. She gathered the tablet and the laptop from the front seat, arranging them under her arm for ease of transport. She'd neglected to filch a case off that store and now she was paying the price.
"Let's move," he said, blending into the shadows.
Skye was not ready and nearly dropped the laptop trying to organize everything she only had her two hands to carry. Rumlow moved stealthily as though he wasn't weighed down by several pounds of deadly instruments. She didn't expect much from him by way of sympathy.
"I said let's move," he snapped when she took half a second too long catching up to him. "Clean your ears out."
"You must be a lot of fun at parties," Skye grumbled, readjusting her hold on the gun for the fourth time.
"I don't go to parties," Rumlow said. "No friends."
"Well, that makes two of us."
His quick pace slowed, enough for Skye to overtake him. She felt his eyes on her, saw a flash of contemplation in them. He still had nothing to say, and for the next three blocks, not a word was spoken.
Chapter 4: Chapter Four
They found a hollowed out shell of a building on the corner of Eighth Avenue. Smoke billowed from a ten by ten crater where the front entrance used to be. Whoever had been here was long gone, but given the lack of cooling bodies and the general disarray inside, they probably weren't out for blood. Rumlow found two desk chairs with only a single rip down the middle and dragged them over to a large computer desk. He swept books and papers aside, clearing a space for Skye to set down her equipment.
"Fucking stupid," Rumlow muttered, crumpling up a piece of blank looseleaf paper. "Don't they know banks move their money during the Purge?"
"Call it naive optimism," said Skye as she pushed aside a cracked monitor with a blade through it.
"I'll call it what it is: fucking stupid."
Skye giggled, and it was not unpleasant to his ears. Actually, she had a very nice laugh. Not that he was the best judge (he once cracked a smile at a joke five or six years ago) but if she happened to laugh at anything else he said, he wouldn't mind. He reclined his seat as far as it would go. A quick power nap would do him good, but every time he closed his eyes they were open again in seconds. He rubbed his arm, which had been bugging him since they got here. Catching a rip in the seams he pushed a finger inside and came up with blood running down his wrist.
"Were you hit?"
Rumlow was not a man one could sneak up on. If someone was twenty feet away and had bad intentions, he'd know before they took one step. So he'd take it to the grave how Skye's words made his heart miss a beat. Cold sweat formed on his brow, a result of his brain finally realizing he should be in pain. He shucked his jacket to get a better look at the wound. Fortunately, he'd worn a black shirt. Rolling up the sleeve he nearly retched. That was a fucking rank stench. The wound itself wasn't bad, though. Just a graze.
"Oh my god!" Skye took off deeper into in the building. He'd think she was looking for a back exit, but she kept muttering 'first aid kit' as she dug through the cabinet drawers and closets.
"I'm fine," Rumlow called out. "I've been hurt a lot worse than this."
"There's this little thing called infections, though." She returned with a pocket-sized white box and rifled through it on the desk, pulling out a bottle of antiseptic and a roll of bandages.
Rumlow whistled. "What do they need that at a bank for?"
"If you have to ask, you've never paid taxes." Skye grabbed his arm and forced his sleeve up higher. "Now shut up and let me do this."
She sprayed antiseptic on a piece of bandage and rubbed it lightly on the wound. Rumlow grit his teeth hard enough to crack. He'd heard cleaning a wound was often more painful than receiving one, he'd just never believed it until now.
"Oh fuck," he groaned as she sprayed it a second time.
"Don't be a baby. It can't be that bad," said Skye.
"Yeah? How about next time, you get shot and I'll clean your wound? We'll see how much it doesn't hurt then."
"Is that supposed to be a threat?" This was the weirdest question he'd ever heard, if only for how nonchalantly it was posed.
"Trust me, if I'm threatening you, you'll know."
He completely failed at intimidation, and in a better situation, Skye would be on the floor laughing. Not that it couldn't have worked. He was a scary guy for sure. He just failed to reach those dark, guttural depths of primal fear when his voice was an octave too high.
Skye bit her lip hard until the need to laugh died down. Most of the wound was clean already, but she dabbed it with antiseptic one more time to be sure. He hissed and fidgeted anew, a big baby under that battle-hardened exterior. It was nice to peel away another layer of the onion, but Skye wouldn't press her luck.
"Almost done," she said. "There's one part I can't reach. We might have to take the sleeve off."
He did her one better by pulling his shirt over his head. He winced as the fabric rubbed against the wound but didn't make a sound. He relaxed his muscles, offering his arm as Skye carefully examined everything except the wound. Her head spun. Of course, a man with his physicality would be well built, but imagining a chiseled torso and six-pack abs and actually seeing them were two very different things. As was getting a face full of said abs while checking for other injuries. Actually, on further inspection, that six-pack was more like an eight-pack...
"It's my arm."
Skye blinked. "What?"
"I got hit on my arm. Not my chest. You can stop staring now," he spoke with a hint of humor and a smirk. If she didn't know better she'd say he was flexing, too, just to tease her.
"I was looking at your arm," Skye insisted, hiding her red face in some loose sections of hair.
"Sure you were," he said. Skye sprayed anti-septic directly over the wound and enjoyed his scream like nothing else. "Fucking bitch!"
"You're welcome." She wrapped some gauze around the wound once she'd stopped the bleeding. To her eternal amusement, the only roll of tape was pink and Hello Kitty themed.
"Goddammit," he grumbled as she cut off three long strips.
"If you want to preserve your masculinity, try not getting shot next time." Skye secured the tape around the wound, tight but not too tight. Like Phil always said, there's a big difference between a proper tourniquet and a well-intentioned torture device. "There you go. All better?"
She handed him his shirt, disappointed when he put it on while simultaneously annoyed with herself for being disappointed. Returning to the computer, she found the screen dark and tapped a few random keys to get it out of sleep mode. None of her progress had been lost thankfully. She entered a few commands and watched boredly as the bank's piss poor security crumbled. This was a 'private' firm without a second location, and she had a good idea why that was.
"Looks like none of our cameras have been shut down," Skye said, moving from one screen to the next in quick succession. "A couple are already compromised. Someone else had the same idea as us."
"It's them," Rumlow growled. He stared into the distance like a wandering lone gunman. "I should've known. Those assholes are smart."
"Not as smart as me," Skye said cockily.
"I hope you're right," said Rumlow, without any sarcasm or malice, which Skye appreciated.
"I haven't steered you wrong yet, have I?"
He conceded with a hum. That was probably the best she'd ever get from him, which was fine. It was progress. She stretched her neck before going to work. If some other bloodthirsty purger showed up and they had to leave in a hurry, she'd do herself no favors being too tense to run. As she typed, the click-clacking of the keys soothed her. This was why she loved desktop keyboards. You just couldn't get the same experience with laptops. Rumlow played with a pocket knife while she worked, flicking the blade up and pushing it back down. Skye knocked out a few decoy locks and felt a surge of anticipation as a series of code long enough to circle the globe twice appeared.
"So," she said as she dragged a pen and notepad over to do some quick math, "what's your story?"
The knife flicking stopped. "What?"
Skye spun her chair to face him, keeping one hand on the mouse. "I'm curious. I don't know anything about you."
"I don't know you either," he said like they were on the playground.
"I asked first," Skye said because two can play that game.
"I don't know where to start," he said with feigned enthusiasm. "Let's see... I made my first kill when I was sixteen. Some drunk asshole with rotting teeth who thought he could control me just because he was my dad."
Skye's fingers slipped. Random keys were hit, ruining the code she'd been working on which meant she'd have to start over. "Oh uh… that's too bad. I'm sorry…"
He snorted. "Why are you apologizing? I did it on purpose."
"Was it self-defense?"
"Technically," he said, and then he paused as if wishing he hadn't opened his big mouth. "My dad was a 'put cigars out on your skin' kind of guy. I got fed up with that, so one Purge night, I slit his throat with a serrated knife."
Skye nodded, at a loss for how to respond. "What about your mom?"
"No idea. She ran out when I was twelve. Said she was sick of my dad and I guess she was sick of me, too. I don't blame her."
"Didn't you have siblings or grandparents? Or friends?"
He gave her a withering look. "Any other questions?"
Just one. "Why are you doing this?"
He frowned and pushed back his chair, propping his legs up on the desk. He rested his head in his hands, blase as could be. "Why does anyone purge? It's cleansing."
"That's not it."
"Yes, it is. We already had this conversation."
"No, you wouldn't be looking for someone specific if you just wanted to kill indiscriminately."
"Sure I would. You know how tough these guys are? They're big fish. Way better than the easy pickings you get with a shitty pendulum in an alley."
"So there's absolutely no reason why you want to kill these guys. Nothing personal about it at all?"
"That's right. It's the thrill of the hunt."
"I don't believe you."
He slammed a hand on the desk, his knife clenched tight in the other. Skye pushed her chair out, putting as much distance between them as she could. Deep down, she knew he wouldn't attack her. He wasn't that kind of person. If anything, he'd walk out of here and leave her to fend for herself, but something told her that wouldn't happen either. Regardless, he was a big, strong man armed to the teeth, and she was a skinny, five and a half foot unarmed woman with minimal self-defense training she barely remembered. She picked up a pen and held it point up. Better than nothing.
"Do you think I care what you think?" he snapped. "You don't know me."
"I know you lose your temper at the drop of a hat," Skye quipped. "And I know you care enough not to let me die."
"I care as long as you get me what I need."
"Which you said you could get on your own. These guys we're after are trained. They use equipment that shouldn't exist yet and they're organized. I'm not so scared that I don't notice these things. Now, who are they? Mercenaries? Bounty hunters? Are they rounding up victims for rich families to kill at home?"
"First one," Rumlow growled, his eyes dark. "They kill for money. Long time ago, I was their leader."
"Is that so?" Skye was not going to back down no matter what he said, even as the truth of his words rang out loud and clear.
"We worked for the NFFA taking out political rivals and resistance group leaders. Eventually, one of my guys decided he didn't like taking orders. He convinced the rest of the team to turn on me, and they left me for dead after a botched raid. That was eighteen months ago. Last year, I couldn't find them on Purge night, but this time, I know exactly where they're hiding. I'm going to smoke the bastards out and send every single one of them to an early grave."
He pushed the tip of the blade into the desk, shaving off chips and splinters. Someone was not going to be happy when they came into work tomorrow. Purger insurance only covered substantial property damage like that hole in the wall or the ripped up carpets. Employees stupid enough to leave family photos and personal belongings out in the open were shit out of luck.
"So it's revenge," Skye said. "That's what this is all about."
He narrowed his eyes and walked to the windows, looking out. "You get it now? I'm not some vigilante hero out to save people. I'm in it for myself. As long as I get what I want, everyone else can fend for themselves, including you."
He hit the last word hard to get his point across. It hurt like a punch to the gut, but Skye didn't falter. She was used to this. She understood this. While packing her bags in the aftermath of last year's purge, a few neighbors sent sympathy cards and gift baskets, as if a year's worth of free moisturizing lotion was enough to replace her family. She left it all on the curb with the rest of the trash, then drove away from her tainted home and never looked back.
She left her post. The system could run on its own from here. She carefully approached Rumlow from behind, afraid he might catch her and bark at her to go away. The knife poked out between his fingers, but that she didn't fear. She kept her hands to herself, though the need to touch him was overwhelming. Physical contact was cleansing for some people, but she doubted Rumlow was one of them. Neither was she.
"My family was killed last year," she said. Her eyes were closed and she had no idea if he was listening. "On Purge night… someone I used to love murdered them. He thought if they were gone, we'd be together again. Like they were the reason I left him."
"Sounds like you had a few reasons," said Rumlow.
'You don't know the half of it,' Skye thought. "Ever since then, I've been in hiding. I know he's still looking for me, and every morning, I wake up wondering if today will be the day he finds me. He'll never stop until he's dead."
"If you need help with that, I charge an hourly rate."
Skye chuckled sadly. "Thanks, but I don't know where he is. I'd like to keep it that way."
He spared her a quick glance but looked away when they locked eyes. His fingers around the knife flexed as he slid it in his pocket. Suddenly his carefully maintained imposing aura vanished. "I'm sorry for your loss," he said. "It sounds rough."
"Yeah… I'd be sorry for yours, too, but..." His lips quirked. Skye watched the night grow darker as distant billows of smoke blocked out the moon. "What I'm trying to say is I know how you feel."
He turned to face her. "How's that?"
"Because I'm alone, too." She let their shared silence linger. Everything that needed to be said had been said and anything else would be superfluous.
An hour passed with gunshots and screaming interwoven with hysterical laughter and homemade, non-traditional weapons grinding and exploding. Only one person had come within a four-block radius of the bank. A woman skipping- yes skipping- dragging a burnt corpse and singing an off-key rendition of 'Come On Get Happy'. Rumlow might have napped through it. He was unnaturally still with his head on his shoulder. Skye checked him every five minutes to make sure he hadn't died on her. Though he never opened his eyes, his chest rose and fell as normal.
She didn't know how their little heart to heart would affect their relationship ('as if you have one,' she snorted to herself), but it had been a good talk. He was honest about his crappy life and far better than any therapist she'd ever gone to. How strange a contradiction the Purge could be. It tore friends and families apart without mercy, but sometimes in that deep darkness of humanity's base depravity, you found the people you needed, if only until sunrise.
Skye was ready to take a nap herself when her radar pinged with new activity. Three bogeys walking northeast on a direct path to their current location. "Hey, something's happening."
Rumlow was next to her in an instant as if teleporting from one spot to another. "Where are they?"
"Not in close range," said Skye. "I got a look at them through a store cam, but they were distant."
"Which one?" There were ten different feeds on screen.
"Top left corner. They're in the street." Skye pulled up a few more feeds, closer to the bank. One camera set up by the insurance company next door gave her a much better look as they skulked in the shadows. "Looks like it's just them. I'll get a still shot so you can see them better."
"Don't bother," he said, that deep, hate-fueled tone from earlier coming back with a vengeance. "I know them."
"They're on your list?"
Rumlow pointed at the man on the left. He was decent looking, tan with dark hair and a clean-shaven face. He carried a military grade assault rifle and his gait was that of a predator who thrived off fear. If he'd been the one to intercept Skye's kidnapping, she had a feeling he would've shot her dead when he was done with her captors, just for the hell of it.
"Bakshi," Rumlow growled. "He's on the list all right."
He grabbed his gun and reloaded. His injured arm had an odd bend to it, but any pain he was experiencing took a backseat to raw determination and an unquenchable thirst for blood.
"Hang on," Skye chased after him as he made for the door. "You're going out there alone?"
"You're not coming with me, so yes."
"You just got shot!"
"You need to rest!"
"I once pulled a slug out of my shoulder with a pair of forceps and no anesthetic. Any questions?"
"Okay, you know what? I get it. You're a big tough scary badass. You've proved it fifty times over, but don't you think you should have a plan before you go up against three guys by yourself? Or do you want to get shot again?"
That gave him pause and Skye breathed easier when he lowered the gun. Her relief was short-lived as a trio of shadowy figures came into view. In profile, their features were concealed in pitch black. They might even be wearing masks, through the shape of their heads appeared natural.
Rumlow grit his teeth. His finger on the trigger twitched. Masks or no, he knew who was coming. "Back up."
"No," Skye said, even as her rationale screamed 'yes'. "You'll die."
He raised the gun, aiming for her head. "Move."
"Or what?" she demanded. "You'll kill me?"
"They'll kill you. To get to me." He released the safety. That he'd had it on in the first place was nothing short of a miracle. "I already told you, I won't save you. Move or die. Those are your options."
Skye didn't move, and he didn't shoot her. He took out the glass instead, the bullet whizzing over her head as he shoved her to the ground. The three men had their guns out. Skye saw them through the gap in Rumlow's legs as she crawled behind him. A dying streetlamp cast a yellowish light on them. Two wore black ski masks (how creative). The last one's face was bare. He was a handsome man. At least he would've been without the cold deadness of his eyes which made him look almost inhumane. Worst of all, he was staring past Rumlow at her.
"Good evening," he said smoothly. "We've been looking for you. First, let's take care of business."
The man on his right fired a silenced shot at Rumlow. His aim was off. That was another bullet hole in the wall of this already battle-scarred bank. Rumlow fired back twice. The first shot knocked the gun out of his attacker's hand. The second took his eye out. He was dead before he hit the floor, but his partner wasn't so lucky. Three bullets to the chest meant he'd die slowly. He moaned in agony as his boss kicked him in the stomach on his way inside.
"That wasn't very nice," he said mockingly. "I liked those guys. What'd they ever do to you?"
Rumlow stepped forward, gun still raised. He was not in a talking mood and the only reason Skye could think of for why they weren't all dead was that Rumlow wanted to savor this particular kill. His opponent fingered the gun on his belt. He appraised Rumlow, his smile changing from gleeful to inquisitive.
"Have we met? I swear I've seen that face in a gutter somewhere."
"You mean the one you left me in, Bakshi?"
The man chuckled as they met in the center of the wrecked office, on one of the only clean patches of floor left. Perfect for a fight to the death between two hated enemies. "Brock Rumlow, what a surprise. I thought you were dead."
Rumlow punched him in the face. Skye didn't see it coming, and neither did Bakshi. He stumbled but didn't fall, using a desk for leverage. Blood gushed freely from a badly broken nose. He wiped it off with his sleeve and shot Rumlow a hateful stare.
"You want another just say the word," Rumlow growled.
Bakshi chuckled, reaching for his gun. "God, I missed you, Brock. Things haven't been as much fun without you."
"Should've thought of that before you left me for dead." They circled each other like jungle cats on the prowl.
"It wasn't personal, Brock, really. I didn't even want to do it. We were friends."
"But it's all about money, isn't it?"
Bakshi rolled his eyes. "Don't act so high and mighty. You'd have done the exact same thing to me."
"Maybe." Rumlow pulled the trigger. The bullet grazed Bakshi's arm in almost exactly the same spot at his own wound. Baskhi hissed in pain, blood already soaking into his formerly pristine jacket.
"Oh I'm sorry," Rumlow grinned viciously. "Did that hurt?"
"Not as bad as this."
He lunged at Rumlow, aiming for his throat. Rumlow caught his hand and countered with a kidney punch, that was at least one rib broken, but Bakshi wasn't out for the count. He tackled Rumlow, knocking the gun out of his hand. It skidded into the shadows far from Skye's hiding place. She watched it go, wishing she still had the piece Rumlow gave her. Like the genius every other teacher said she was, she'd left it on the desk with her laptop.
'Maybe if I'm quiet I can make a run for it,' she thought as the two combatants stumbled dangerously close to Skye's hiding place. 'Or maybe not.'
Rumlow threw Bakshi across the room into a filing cabinet. He pulled a knife out of his belt and swung at Bakshi's face. The momentum sent him spinning, but he barely nicked his opponent's shoulder. Keeping up with the fight was becoming impossible, and a waste of time Skye could've spent helping or running. That she'd choose the former was either a testament to her own reckless stupidity or just how much she'd come to rely on this angry, broken man over the course of six hours.
Yet as he subdued Bakshi with a whirlwind of punches to the face and chest, Skye ran not for the door but for her gun and aimed at the back of Bakshi's head. Her finger was off the trigger. This was proper gun safety and it no way to do with some stupid trauma reaction that almost got her head blown off by a psychotic purger. If she had to, she'd shoot. She'd have no choice. Rumlow's life depended on it. Bakshi was clearly made of something other than flesh and bone. He'd taken every blow with stride and even now, with his ankle twisted and one eye swollen shut, he got up every time and gave as good as he got.
"Get out of here!" Rumlow shouted at her as he was thrown to the ground. "Go!"
"I can't leave you!"
"I'll catch up, just get out!"
Headlights shined on them as a black town car screeched to a halt outside. Four more men jumped out. Skye backed away, her fight or flight response making a coward of her as she ran for the back door. It was a safe assumption that one existed. Around a corner, she found it. Solid metal with a knob, a blinking EXIT sign overhead. Her ticket to freedom. Or relative freedom until those hellish sirens went off. With just a few more steps, she'd be out of this building and away from those men who, for whatever reason, wanted to purge her so much they'd spent the whole night chasing her.
She could save herself at the cost of Rumlow's life.
She took one step forward. She took one step back. She fumbled with the gun, it was heavy with five bullets left. Five bullets for five men. Behind her, Rumlow grunted as he hit and was hit. The gunshot wound was clearly hindering his movements. Against one opponent, he could make up the difference with his speed and stamina. Against five he'd be lucky to keep that arm, let alone stay alive. Bullets flew in all directions. Skye hit the floor and covered her head. A body fell with a dull thump, and for a second, she thought it was Rumlow. She peered over her shoulder, twisting her neck to get a glimpse of combat boots and gray camo gear. On his belt was an empty holster. Rumlow had ducked behind a desk, now wielding two guns. Blood seeped freely from his arm. They were boxing him in.
Skye made her decision, the only one she ever could've made. There was little to nothing she could do as an out of practice amateur against four trained professionals, so leaving and saving herself was a perfectly reasonable and logical choice. It was also perfectly wrong, and so she fired at the nearest man's leg and brought him down with a high kick to the face. She slammed her entire weight into the man trading gunfire with Rumlow. Her sudden appearance caught him off guard and his bulky gear slowed his reaction time. He dropped his gun and punched at her face, knocking her off him. This was a poor move on his part as Rumlow sprung out of hiding and put a bullet in his head.
Two men left. They fought back to back. Skye took the smaller one who might have been a new recruit for how poorly he moved. Though she ached for him, she didn't hold back. This was life or death and he'd chosen the wrong side. She kicked him in the groin, sending him to his knees. Then she bashed his skull in with the butt of her gun. He was out like a light and maybe if he survived, he'd clean up his act. Skye took his gun and turned to find Rumlow and Bakshi back at it. That man was like an energizer bunny. He never stopped.
Fortunately, neither did Rumlow.
"This is why I missed you," he groaned, air hissing through brand new gaps in his teeth. "No one else fights like you. New guys are all fucking pansies."
"They're scared of you," Rumlow said, spitting out a mouthful of blood. "'Cause they never met me."
He kicked Bakshi in the stomach. Bakshi fell hard on his back and wheezed as the wind was knocked out of him. Rumlow stomped on his chest. So much for that sternum. Skye had one bullet left after exchanging several with his fallen comrades and she steeled herself to pull the trigger one more time. No hesitation. When Rumlow gave the word, she'd do it.
Like she should've so long ago.
"Fuck," Bakshi said weakly, struggling in vain to breathe as Rumlow slowly crushed his lungs. "You're fucking good. I was afraid I'd… end up an old man… die in my sleep… like a nothing."
"Yeah, better to die in a blown up bank like a nothing," said Rumlow. "Or in a ditch."
Bakshi shook his head. "Gotta let it go, friend. It's not healthy to hold a grudge."
"Tell me about it." Rumlow bent over. He'd be the last thing Bakshi ever saw. "Don't worry. I have a feeling I'll be in a much better place after tonight."
"Maybe," Bakshi chuckled. He stared evilly into Rumlow's eyes, "but I don't think Hell is so nice."
With a final burst of strength, Bakshi grabbed Rumlow's leg, knocking him off balance. He used the momentum to sit up and claw at Skye's face. She screamed and took hold of his broken nose, twisting it hard. His bones crunched as he howled in agony. She let go and Rumlow shot him in the mouth. He fell once more, never to rise again.
Skye scrambled off him. Rumlow's arms came around her as she drew herself up. He left bloodstains all over her midsection, but he was so warm, she didn't want him to let go. She filled her lungs with more air than they could take until it hurt to inhale. Dearth surrounded them, but all she saw was Rumlow, beaten and bruised, but alive. She touched his swollen cheek. He winced. She felt her chest. Her heart pumped. Alive.
"You okay?" he gasped.
"Oh, yeah," she said. "I feel great."
He smiled. "You were great."
"Thanks. So were you." She bit hard on her lip. His eyes were like pure gold. "Is it bad that I kind of want to have sex with you right now?"
He started to laugh, but his bruised chest wouldn't let him. She helped him sit on a desk just as a tiny metal ball rolled to a stop at their feet. For a split second, she saw his face change, from relief to horror. Then the room filled with smoke.
A dozen black shadows poured inside, wrenching her and Rumlow apart. He called her name, but the smoke was too thick. It filled her mouth if she tried to open it and stung her eyes like a hundred bee stings. Skye threw out her hands, flailing wildly to no avail. She was lifted and carried out screaming. Outside, a black van waited for them. The man holding Skye's arms stuck a needle in her neck. Then the world spun and faded to nothing.
She awoke in an elevator, propped up by two men dressed for war. There were at least two more behind her, possibly three. Hard to tell when the ground had yet to decide if it should be up or down. Skye blinked her watery eyes, her vision slowly clearing. She could make out the silver walls, the rectangular space, the blinking red lights counting twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six-
They were going up.
Her stomach churned, either from the sedative or the rapid ascension. God if Phil could see her now, how disappointed he would be. Never let your guard down just because you think the danger has passed. In the Purge, there's no such thing as safety. Of course, a mercenary like Bakshi would have more backup just in case things went south. Goddamn, she was stupid. So stupid, she was about to get herself killed. All that running and fighting for nothing. At least she'd finally know why they wanted her so bad, but it was a shitty consolation prize.
"Is it worth asking you guys to make it quick?" she asked. No one answered.
At the fortieth floor, they got off. A dimly lit antechamber led into a broken down office, not unlike the one she just helped demolish. Rotting upturned boxes and rusted monitors indicated the years since this building was in use. The only light came from a ceiling lamp hanging by a wire. It flickered tauntingly. One pop of a bulb and Skye would spend her final moments in near darkness.
A man was silhouetted against a desk. He watched out the window as a housing complex burnt to the ground. It was so far away and yet Skye's ears rang. She was dragged across the room, her steps clumsy from the aftereffects of the drug. Her cognitive functions had mostly returned, but it wasn't enough for her to fight back.
"Sir, we have her," said her escort.
The man at the desk rolled his shoulders and stood tall. Very tall. At least half a head taller than Rumlow. "Thank you, Filkins. You can go."
Her escort, Filkins, seemed taken aback. He opened his mouth but thought better of complaining. He murmured a 'yes sir' and backed away, leaving Skye to her fate, whatever it may be. He and his partners stepped into the elevator. Part of her hoped the cables were as ancient the rest of the building; maybe one of them would snap.
She stared the man down. His face was shadowed, but she knew he was watching her. Like any purger with a sadistic streak, he'd want her to cry. To get down on her knees and beg for her life would be the greatest pleasure she could give him. That was assuming he just wanted to kill her and not 'have some fun' first.
"Well," she said, straightening her spine. "You got me. I don't know why I'm so special, but here I am. I'm in your clutches. But if you think I won't go out swinging, you've got another thing-"
"I know you would." He brought his hands behind his back. The light shined on his clean black shoes and pressed slacks. He had an attractive visage. Probably worked out regularly. That wasn't what held Skye's attention though. It was his voice. The very same one she heard in her nightmares. "But I could never hurt you. I'd rather die myself."
He stepped into the light. First his suit jacket and button-up shirt, then his stubbled cheeks, then his black eyes filled with what he thought was love. Like a dying candle, every bit of resolve she'd painstakingly built over the last twelve months was snuffed out. She was no longer the woman who went toe to toe with trained killers and lived. She was a frightened child covered in her best friend's blood, standing between her family and the monster who murdered them. "No… God no…"
And Ward just smiled. "I've been looking everywhere for you, Skye."
Skye was gone. He knew it long before the smoke cleared that they'd taken her. Bodies littered the ground, half of them names on his list. They'd just handed themselves to him on a silver platter, and in all honesty, it was a hollow victory. Rumlow was a hunter by nature. He lived for the chase just as much, if not more than the kill. In his fantasies, he had them backed into a corner, pissing themselves with fear, crying out to their gods, not knowing that he was their god now, and he did not know mercy.
Two names remained; the top two. He pulled each mask off, but Rollins wasn't among them. Disappointing, but not surprising. The cowardly bastard wouldn't dream of doing the dirty work if someone younger and weaker than him was around. He'd have to mow down all the mooks if he wanted a shot at the boss.
A clock ticked merrily, either on the wall or in his head. He had no watch and his phone was destroyed. No way to tell the time without going outside and checking the moon. For now, Rumlow had to be objective. Never mind his pounding heart that seemed inexplicably preoccupied with the lack of Skye's presence. She wasn't important. This was.
He did a quick rundown of the damage.
There were eleven bodies, seven definitely dead and three maybes. One guy by the door gasped for air, but his right hand was gone and his legs were a mess of blood and bone marrow. Rumlow ignored him for now. He searched the bodies, stripping them clean of knives and spare ammo. He stuffed whatever he could in his pockets and kneeled over one of the 'maybe dead guys'. He had no heartbeat and an Exacto knife.
"Gotta be fucking kidding me." Rumlow kicked him in the stomach as his body expelled a puff of air.
The sole survivor had his remaining hand on the door, but no strength to push it. He put all his body weight against it, slamming his head repeatedly on the glass. A red bloodstain got bigger and messier with each hit. Rumlow glanced at the 'please pull' sign just out of the mook's line of sight.
"You know," he said, stepping over the mess of body parts that once was Bakshi, "I almost don't want to kill you. Feels too cruel."
"Fuck you," the mook hissed, spitting a mouthful of blood in Rumlow's direction. He missed by about a foot.
Rumlow grabbed his neck. "Be nice, kid. Your life is in my hands."
He spat again but had nothing left in his mouth.
"Where'd they take the girl?" Rumlow lessened his grip enough for him to speak.
"None of your business, fuckface."
He tightened it again. "Let's try that one more time. Why does Ward want the girl?"
"It's Purge night…" the mook gasped. "We need… to Purge. All of us. Even you."
Rumlow pursed his lips, appraising the man. He was on the younger side; probably Skye's age. A shame he'd chosen this path over hundreds, if not thousands, of better ones. Maybe then he wouldn't have one foot in the grave. Metaphorically speaking of course. His actual feet were more like fleshy stumps at this point.
He saw the flash of a blade and blocked it without looking. Twisting the mook's wrist around, he applied pressure until the bones snapped and the knife fell. Rumlow picked it up and held it to his next victim's throat.
"Last chance," he said.
"Go to hell," said the mook.
The blade cut through his skin like butter. Rumlow ran it from one side of the mook's neck to the other, severing his vocal cords and both carotid arteries. He left him alone to bleed out in peace. For the first time in years, he wanted a cigarette.
"Save me a seat," he mumbled.
So here he was, back at square one. He'd lost his car, most of his armory, and now even Skye was gone. Not that the last part mattered (it didn't) but if there was one thing Brock Rumlow hated, it was failure. He had two missions tonight: take out Ward's Merry Men and protect Skye. The latter might not have been part of his original plan, but he'd kept her alive this long. Now he'd gone and gotten himself dedicated to the cause.
He stepped over the cooling corpse and searched him. Within the inner lining of his coat was a set of car keys, but nothing resembling a weapon. On the keychain was an alarm. Rumlow pressed it and a black Sedan parked across the street beeped.
He gathered his contraband and checked all corners for potential ambushers. The gunfight appeared to have scared them all away, but he kept a gun trained on the windows and darkened alleyways anyway. Reaching the car, he unlocked the driver's side door and slid inside. The vehicle was unmarked with license plates he assumed were stolen. The tank was three-quarters full and the engine purred like a kitten when he started it. Plugged into the dashboard was a GPS tracker. The bank's address had been entered in. Rumlow tapped a few buttons and nearly laughed out loud as 'Home Base' popped up.
It was ten minutes away. Not too bad, but not great either. By now, they'd have Skye locked up somewhere, waiting to find out whatever sick plan they had in store for her. If she was still alive when he got there, he hoped she'd keep her head down, or else this time, she'd probably lose it.
This completely logical and factual train of thought was immediately derailed by a feeling of dread. It burrowed into his chest and wouldn't leave. As he swerved around bear traps and spikes in the road, the taste of sweet revenge was on the tip of his tongue. He savored it as best he could, but it did little to abate the sourness in the back of his throat as the image of Skye dead or dying lingered in his thoughts.
Skye was going to die tonight, if not by a purger's hand, then from the pain of her heart bursting in her chest. An entire year of running, of building a new identity, only to find she never really escaped the mousetrap. She had no idea how Ward had found her. He could've traced her IP or recognized her work on some random pizza restaurant's website. Maybe he'd had people following her all this time, just waiting for the right time to snatch her up with no repercussions.
Maybe he got Mrs. Baugh's insurance canceled.
She felt numb, unable to fight him as he led her to a table set for two. He hadn't changed a bit since the last time she saw him; he just looked cleaner. He placed a mug of coffee before her. French roast, her favorite. She'd never drink it again after tonight.
"I always knew this day would come," Ward said. He reminded her of The Notebook, the couple reuniting in the rain after so many years apart. She'd never watch that movie again after tonight. "When I lost you the first time, I swore I wouldn't rest until we were together again."
"Never occurred to you that I left for a reason," Skye muttered.
Ward frowned. He tapped his fingers, seemingly at a loss. "Skye, I know you're angry. I completely understand and I know it seems like what I did is unforgivable, but-"
"You murdered my family," Skye seethed through prickling tears. "My friends. Your friends."
Ward shook his head. "They weren't my friends. Even if they were, you're more important. I'm not saying I enjoyed it, but I had to do what was best for us."
She snorted. "Yeah, sure. You killed them for me."
"Yes, Skye, I did. It was my legal right to purge-"
"YOU'RE A MURDERER!" Skye picked up the mug and threw it at his head. He dodged. It hit the wall and shattered. "You make me sick, Grant. Just looking at you. You're nothing but a filthy, disgusting monster, and I hate you, do you hear me? I hate you!"
She threw a wild punch. He caught it, and she wanted to scream all over again, at him and at herself. His hand closed over her fist. He used the momentum to pull her flush against him. He was rock solid in a way that used to make her crazy with lust. Once upon a time, this would've been a prelude to a much sinful encounter. He'd been her first, and she used to think he'd be her only.
Now it all just drove her deeper into loathing.
"Please don't say that again," he said, his voice low and threatening. He squeezed her wrist, leaving purple splotches that would take weeks to fade, assuming she lived long enough. "I'll let it go this time."
"How generous of you."
He released her and Skye went on the offensive. The heel of her hand made contact with his cheek. She followed it with a knee to the groin and then she was running. She slammed into the elevator and pressed each button, again and again, praying for a miracle that didn't come.
Her greatest mistake was forgetting how good Ward was at planning ahead. Of course, the elevator wouldn't just be sitting there in case she made a run for it. If possible, he'd have the whole car removed, leaving nothing but an empty shaft for her to fall through. Maybe that would be preferable.
He dragged her across the room, throwing her into a corner and standing over her like a jungle predator. Pure rage shone in his eyes. His clean-cut exterior was nothing but a mask, hiding the savage beast she should've realized a long time ago he truly was.
"You're gonna regret that," he hissed, and she noted with some satisfaction a cut on his cheek.
"So now what? You'll kill me, too?" She laughed in his face, knowing it would piss him off more, and not caring. "Go ahead. At least I'll see my family again."
"They did not love you the way I do," Ward snapped. His arms caged her in. "They wouldn't have done half the things I've done for you. You're my entire world, Skye."
"Then you have a shit way of showing it."
He growled and pushed off her. Amidst the pain and disorientation his brutal treatment invoked, she managed to stay upright. Her legs weren't working yet, and she'd need to conserve her energy in case she found another opening. Ward stood by the window, his hands behind his back. He probably thought he looked like a criminal overlord. His suit was too big for him, though, and that pout would've been more intimidating on a ten-year-old.
"I know you've been working with Brock Rumlow," he said, shaking his head. "Goddamn, that son of a bitch. Just when you think he's out for the count, he pops back up. Sometimes, I think he's indestructible."
He looked at her, and she savored his incredulous expression. "Of what?"
"You know what," she said. "He's going to kill you. He told me so himself. He's got a list, and you're on it."
Of course, she didn't know that for sure, but under the circumstances, it seemed more than probable.
"Skye," he said, "I don't know what's going on between you and Rumlow, but he's no knight in shining armor looking out for the little guy. He's a merc to the bone and only cares about lining his own pockets. Even if he did want you, he'd use you once and then toss you aside. Women are objects to him."
"Well, Grant, I'd rather be his object than yours."
His face turned to stone, his shoulders rolling. He kneeled until he was eye level with her. His hand flew, knocking her on her side. She cried out at the searing pain, air catching in her throat as she tried her damnedest not to cry. A shard of glass on the floor showed her what she looked like: beaten, bruised, a nothing. Ward was behind her, staring at the floor.
"You brought that on yourself," he said.
Skye looked away from him. She wished she had a gun in her hand or even a knife. Anything she could use to give back the months of anguish she'd suffered at Grant Ward's hands. Even if it was a fruitless effort and she did no more damage than her first attack, at least she could tell Phil in the afterlife that she went down fighting.
Instead, she was on her ass, dizzy and exhausted, waiting like for a man who might not even care to save her.
This really sucked.
"Really sucks to be you, doesn't it?"
Rumlow was talking to the man guarding the front door, or what was left of him. Having driven to the curb and waited for the overly macho looking dumbass to get close enough, he put a bullet in his stomach and then in his head. Nobody rushed to his rescue, they either didn't hear it or were planning a sneak attack. Rumlow grabbed the corpse's gun and his access card. He unlocked the front door and stepped inside.
Immediately, two more men appeared. Option two, then. They fired randomly, almost hitting Rumlow as he ducked for cover. He crawled on his stomach behind a large potted plant, which was shot to hell without remorse. Now covered in dirt, he sprung up to shoot the nearest man in the shoulder. He missed.
Cursing, he dodged another barrage of bullets. These guys were smart and boxed him in from both directions, leaving him nowhere to go. Perfect.
Rumlow held his breath and tossed a smoke bomb over his shoulder. It worked better than he thought, flashing white blinding light as the smoke was released. The two men tried to shield their eyes, but it was a grave mistake. Now they were both wide open.
He sprinted towards the first one, knocking him out with a punch. He shot him dead and then took out his partner. The smoke cleared and he watched them twitch, making sure they were really out for the count. The last thing he needed was some last minute second wind bullshit slowing him down.
Rumlow used the filched keycard to summon the elevator. On the inner wall was a single bloodstain about five and a half feet up. 'Skye…'
He hit the top button. Knowing Ward, he'd want to stand above all his underlings and the innocent civilians who were nothing but playthings to him.
On the way up, he reloaded his gun and checked his stock of knives. None of them had been lost in the fight and he was feeling confident. On the seventh floor, the elevator stopped. Rumlow fingered a blade as the doors opened and a large body dropped on him.
The doors closed, trapping them inside. Rumlow's next opponent stood, massive and foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog. Those facial scars sure weren't doing him any favors.
"Good to see you, Jack," Rumlow said, and then he pounced.
"It won't work, you know." Ward didn't look at her, but she knew he was listening. "Even if you can beat Rumlow, what makes you think I'll just roll over and let you have me? That I won't do whatever it takes to get away from you?"
"You won't kill yourself, Skye. You don't have it in you."
She narrowed her eyes. "You don't have the slightest idea what I'm capable of. And who says I was talking about killing myself?"
Rumlow smashed Rollins into the wall. He had his leg up on the handrail and couldn't lower it without relieving the pressure on Rollins' arm. It was twisted behind his back, the bones cracking as Rumlow bent it backward. Rollins' free hand left deep scratches in Rumlow's face, the other downside to this position.
Fighting in a five by five metal box suspended twenty stories up had to be the worst thing he'd ever done. Second only to dragging his half-dead body out of the sewer on a broken leg. Rumlow reached for his gun, unable to do more than graze the barrel with his nails. Seizing the moment, Rollins threw out his leg, kicking Rumlow in the stomach. Forced backward, Rumlow went on the offensive. He threw punches, jabs, and kicks. His shots were a mix of precise and indiscriminate, and he missed far more than he landed.
Rollins was in top form, not that that was saying much. He nailed Rumlow in the jaw, knocking a few teeth loose. Rumlow countered with a hit to the diaphragm, unguarded as always. He forced Rollins into a corner, driving his elbow into his chest.
"You know something, Jack? I honestly kind of liked you," he said, gritting his teeth as he summoned all his strength to keep the taller man down. "Shame I have to kill you now."
"Just try," Rollins spat. "Cause guess what? I always thought you were a giant prick."
"Well, you're not wrong," Rumlow grinned with bloody teeth. "Guess that makes you a little prick."
Rollins growled and threw a punch, missing by a mile and hitting solid metal. He groaned as the bones in his dominant hand snapped. Rumlow kicked him, sending him to the floor. It was suddenly a lot roomier in here.
"Fuck you," Rollins sneered. "Even if you beat me, you really think you're getting your little girlfriend back?"
"What girlfriend?" Rumlow walked behind Rollins, shoving him forward. "No idea what you're talking about."
"Never thought you'd lose your head over some girl, Brock. It's fucking disgusting."
"Oh, someone's losing their head tonight, but it's not me." Rumlow pulled out a knife.
"Might be both of us." Rollins slapped the knife away. He moved far faster than his broad, overly muscled form should have allowed. A bullet tore through the roof, knocking out the lights.
Rumlow felt his feet leave the ground before the wind was knocked out of him. What little illumination remained came from a single, dying emergency light bulb. Before Rollins' fists blocked it out.
The elevator dinged, but Skye had felt the rumbling under her feet long ago. Muffled thuds and grunts drew her eyes to the bisecting line between the doors. She willed them to open, praying that it would be Rumlow on the other side and no one else.
In the corner of her eye, Ward glared, and she couldn't ignore him no matter how hard she tried. "He won't save you, Skye. Even if he makes it up here, he's not coming for you. This was always his plan. You just got caught in the crossfire."
"I'll take my chances," Skye said.
If he wanted to respond or smack her again for her back talk, the final ding of the elevator stopped him. A man Skye had never seen before cast a long shadow over the crumbling floor. He stared into space, blood dripping from his scalp over his eyes. He was broad shouldered and well over six feet. He looked like the kind of man parents and teachers warned children to stay away from.
"Rollins?" Ward took a step.
The man swayed, then fell. He was a broken husk on the ground and Brock Rumlow, face swollen with blood gushing from his broken nose, stood victorious.
There was something magnificent about him at that moment and Skye was a little in love.
Rumlow nudged the body at his feet. It didn't move. It didn't even look human anymore. Just a mannequin with organs inside. He stared at it, clicking his tongue. His eyes slowly lifted to Ward. In them was the promise of death. "That's eleven. One more to go. Nice to see you again, Grant."
"You too," Ward said like this was a friendly chat over drinks. "I have to admit, when I thought you were dead, it was a real disappointment. You were one of the best. No way it would be that easy to take you down."
"Yeah, you shouldn't have left before I bled out." Rumlow rubbed his gun as if polishing it. Got to be spotless for the most important kill of the night. "That's why you've always sucked at this job. Never assume the target is dead without seeing a body."
Ward shrugged. "When you're right, you're right. I messed up and now all my best men are dead. Fortunately, unlike some people, I learn from my mistakes."
"Yeah, me too," Rumlow said. His eyes flicked to Skye, fast enough for her to nod at him that she was all right. His stance relaxed. "First rule: don't waste time talking."
He shot Ward in the leg. Ward screamed as blood seeped down his formerly pristine dress pants. "Fuck…"
"That looks painful," Rumlow smirked. "Here, let me help."
He shot Ward's other leg, knocking him to the ground. Ward rolled and moaned like a dying animal. Skye backed up to avoid his flailing arms. For all his posturing and acting like the Alpha dog, he sure rolled over fast.
"Don't tell me you're done already," Rumlow said, stalking closer.
Ward spat at him a mixture of blood and saliva. "You kidding? We're just getting started."
"Damn, if you didn't have two bullets in you, I might be intimidated." Rumlow pointed the gun at his chest. "What do you think, Skye? Has your boyfriend had enough?"
With renewed strength, Skye picked herself up and stood next to Rumlow. She looked Ward straight in the eye. "Shoot him again."
The next bullet tore through his shoulder. Ward shrieked and clutched his now useless left arm. Drenched in sweat with splotchy white skin, that handsome face which had once enticed her now inspired only revulsion. He was the ugliest, most pitiful thing she'd ever seen.
"Kill him," she whispered. "Just kill him already."
Rumlow glanced at her, taking in her rock-solid stance. The severity she hoped was clear in her eyes. He nodded, then turned to what was left of Ward.
"Hear that?" He leaned over until their foreheads touched. "You're gonna die now, Ward, and no one will mourn you. Least of all her."
Ward fought for air, but all three of them knew he was running out of time. "Yeah… you do everything for the one you love and this is the thanks you get. Typical."
"I'm weeping for you, buddy, but I think it's time we put this to rest."
He pressed the barrel under Ward's chin, missing it when Ward's sole undamaged arm stretched out. Skye did not. His hand was draped over a gun, fingers curling. Fear stabbed her in the gut, but even half dead, Ward was too fast. He slammed the gun into Rumlow's temple. Rumlow hissed in pain as Ward swung his less injured leg around to knock him over.
"No!" Skye shouted.
Ward fired a shot over her head. The single wire holding the ceiling lamp in place snapped. Sparks flew everywhere. Skye's ears rang and her chest constricted. Ward aimed at her heart, his eyes insane. This was it.
She closed her eyes as he pulled the trigger. To her surprise, dying didn't hurt. It felt like nothing at all. She didn't even have blood on her shirt. When she looked, her chest was free of bullet holes, but Rumlow was on the ground, clutching his stomach. His hands down to the wrists were pure red.
"Oh God…" Skye bent over him, applying more pressure to the wound. He was bleeding slowly, but surely.
Ward chuckled. "Well, what do you know? You were right, Skye, he really does care."
"You son of a bitch!"
Skye rushed him, ready to claw his face off. He grabbed a fistful of her hair and yanked hard. His strength was fading but he had just enough to toss her aside, far away from the action.
"You'll thank me for this someday," he groaned, limping towards Rumlow, gun at his side.
"No," Skye moaned, her whole body frozen. She'd gone back in time and Jemma was in front of her, barely hanging on to life and begging Skye to run. She hadn't seen Ward kill her, or any of them, but it must have looked just like this. "No…"
Ward nudged Rumlow until he rolled on his back. His eyes were turning glassy.
There was so much blood.
"This didn't pan out the way you'd hoped, huh Brock?" Ward stepped on Rumlow's fingers. Skye could hear the bones crack. "That's why you don't get attached. Makes you soft."
"You're soft…" Rumlow wheezed. He looked his killer in the eye. Wouldn't give him the satisfaction of anything else.
"Is that the best you can do? Sad…" Ward smiled. "You have great taste in women, Brock, I'll give you that, but Skye is mine. No one is taking her away from me. Least of all you."
This was it, Skye realized. Rumlow was about to die because of her. Just like everyone else she ever dared to call friend. He'd be one more face in her nightmares, begging her to tell him why she didn't save him.
He held her gaze, then closed his eyes, as if prompting her to do the same. She didn't. There on the floor, partially shadowed but still in plain view, was Rumlow's gun. Just sitting there. Calling to her.
Once upon a time, Skye had stood face to face with the man who destroyed her family, and she ran away. Not this time.
She didn't think, she just moved. The gun was in her hands, a bullet waiting in the chamber. Aimed it at Ward's back. Channeled all the anger and misery and hatred of three hundred and sixty-five days spent alone in the world, blaming herself when it was never her fault. It was his. Always his.
God, she loved him once...
She pulled the trigger.
The impact bent Ward's body inwards like he'd been folded in half the wrong way. It was like something out of a movie. He didn't fall right away. He had enough time to drop the gun and turn to look at her. In his eyes, betrayal mixed with an odd sort of wonder. When he fell, Skye didn't see it. She was too busy checking on Rumlow, making sure he was still breathing. The last thing Ward ever saw was the side of her face.
Skye let out a breath; it felt like she'd been holding it in for a year. Rumlow was still awake and alert, following her progress as she dragged herself to his side. She pulled his head in her lap, placing a hand on top of his. It was all the comfort she could provide, but it was something.
"I thought you said you wouldn't save me," she whimpered.
Rumlow tried to shrug, but he was too weak. "Guess I lied."
She held him for longer than she knew, humming a song Audrey used to sing at bedtime. He watched her sway back and forth to the music in her head. It kept him awake as the sky turned dark blue, and a roaring siren like an angel's horn rose over the deathly silence.
Another successful purge come and gone.
The epilogue will be out tomorrow. See you then!
Chapter 6: Chapter Six
Thank you to everyone who read this story. I hope you enjoy the final chapter!
TWO WEEKS LATER
Rumlow heard the metal door squeak open. The rusty hinges were like nails piercing his ear drums. He would've covered them but that would've ruined his, as Skye called it, 'mysterious gunslinger' image. Plus his arm still hurt like a bitch from the last blood draw.
He was on the ledge watching the sunset, his usual evening activity. The nurses had given up trying to stop him. That's what they get for not padlocking the door. He made sure to be back in bed as soon as night fell. It made their jobs easier and hopefully meant they wouldn't make good on their threats to get out the body restraints.
Down below on the streets, businessmen and women rushed home after their long work day. Groups of kids laughed while pouring over comic books. An old woman on a bench fed breadcrumbs to pigeons. Any one of them could've been wearing a bloody mask two weeks ago.
Business as usual.
A man on a motorcycle zoomed down the road. He popped a wheelie like a jackass and Rumlow wished he had a sniper rifle. In the absence of a churning engine, muted footsteps reached his ears. Sounded like old sneakers. He scooted over to make a spot for her, not that she'd take it. Something about his legs dangling over the edge of a building made her nauseous, she said. He didn't get it.
"How're you feeling?"
Rumlow stretched his neck, getting all the kinks out. "A little tired, a little achy. Really fucking bored."
Skye giggled. "But excited, right? You're getting discharged tomorrow."
"Yup. I get to sit around my dump of an apartment 'taking it easy' and 'not straining myself.' Damn doctors. This is why I never go to them."
"Right. Should've just handed you a knife and let you get that bullet out yourself like a man."
"You got it."
"And yet you're still here."
She hadn't been admitted to the hospital. Her injuries were superficial and required little more than antiseptic and some bandages. He couldn't even see the bruises anymore. Yet every day, without fail, she was in his room with a sandwich from the cafeteria and a magazine from the gift shop. At first, he thought she had nothing better to do. She'd gone back to her apartment just once to gather her belongings and drop off her key. Since then, he didn't know where she'd been living. It could be a motel like she said, or she could've been sneaking twenty minute naps in the waiting room.
By the fifth day, in which she unironically placed a bright pink Get Well card on his tray table, Rumlow had no choice but to consider the idea that she might actually like spending time with him.
"So…" he kicked out a leg, just to make her squirm, "you doing okay?"
She bit her lip, sitting with her back to the ledge. "I don't know. I think so."
"Feeling any better?"
"Yes… maybe." She sighed. "I wanted him dead for so long. I replayed that night so many times, finding more and more ways I could've ended everything if I'd just been brave enough. Now that he's gone, I'm starting to think that's all I was staying alive for. Now I don't know what to do."
Rumlow scoffed. "Seriously? You're giving him way too much credit."
"Yes." Rumlow turned, ignoring the sharp stab of his wound being pulled. "Grant Ward was a waste of air from the day he was born to the moment he died. He wasn't worth the ants he stepped on, let alone your life."
Her lips twitched, but still she hung her head. He understood. Baggage like hers didn't just disappear overnight. He should know better than anyone, and he was starting to think she was right when she said they were alike.
"They say to purge is to cleanse your soul. To release all your hate so you can be at peace for the rest of the year."
"Sounds like bullshit."
"Doesn't it?" She rolled her eyes. "It's not that I feel bad, because I don't, but I don't feel good about it either. There's no relief, I'm just going back to the rest of my life. All on my own."
Their hands were almost touching. He had the strangest desire to know if her skin was as soft as it looked. His were so rough, he might cut her with the pad of his thumb alone. Even so, they'd survived a Purge together, gone up against death multiple times, had sappy heart to hearts like over-emotional teenage girls. He'd taken a fucking bullet for her and God, those painkillers did a number on his brain. As far as he was concerned, they absolved him of guilt when he took her hand and rubbed it tenderly.
Skye stared at him. He didn't know what to make of it, but she hadn't slapped him yet. That had to be a good sign.
"Brock," she said, leaning closer, "I'm going to kiss you now."
He raised an eyebrow. "You serious?"
"Just giving you fair warning."
Her lips were softer than her hands. They moved clumsily against his. Her inexperience was obvious, but charming in its own way. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been with anyone. Well over a year at least. Great as sex was, he'd had far too much on his plate to think about finding a girlfriend. One of his favorite phrases to run through his head every time a woman eyed him in the bar was 'after they're all dead.' Now they were all dead, and this broken twenty something who kissed like an awkward virgin was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
He blamed the painkillers.
As she pulled away, her face was flushed, and he had a feeling so was his. Hopefully, that would give her a nice confidence boost. "You are really something else, Skye."
She smiled at him, for real this time. "Daisy."
"My real name is Daisy Johnson. I think I'm ready to use it again."
Rumlow smiled back. "That's cute. It suits you."
Skye- Daisy- blushed. "You think I'm cute."
"I said the name is cute, not you. You're just okay."
"And you're an ass."
"Is that the best you got? I've heard worse from my grandmother."
She covered her mouth as her shoulders shook with laughter. He wished she wouldn't, as now he couldn't kiss her again like he wanted. Instead, he had to listen to some guy driving down the road with his windows rolled down and his stereo blasting. He stopped at a red light and the pulsing dubstep cut out for a commercial at just the right moment.
'This year, we purged for the people we love. For our friends, our families, our children. We purge to rid ourselves of our demons. Because nothing mends a broken heart like taking up a gun and doing your God-given duty-'
The light changed and the car drove off, taking the soothing voice of the NFFA spokesperson with it. Rumlow felt pressure as Daisy rested her head on his shoulder. She was careful not to aggravate his wounds, her touch gentle and, dare he say it, loving.
"I was thinking," she muttered, "Canada sounds pretty good right now."
Rumlow stared straight ahead. The sun was long gone and darkness had fallen. All the newly repaired street lights shone bright like fireflies. An American flag hung from the side of a building across the street. The red stripes looked almost black. "Yeah, it does."