The tunnel they had entered wasn’t long but it was dark. Joel felt a chill run down his back, it was like they were escaping from prison. Tess waited near the exit, crouched, hiding in the shadows. As Joel rounded the corner, he saw the locked gate blocking their path and concrete stairs rising up on the other side. The fence had double strands of razor wire along the top.
Tess pulled at the gate and cursed.
“Shit. Not goin’ through here.”
She looked around impatiently and spotted the concrete ledge to her left. A large sign was affixed to the cracked concrete wall just below the ledge:
AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY
Tess, ignoring it, turned to Joel.
“Hey, boost me,” she said, nodding to the ledge.
Joel understood and began to assume the customary position, placing his back against the wall.
“Alright,” he said with a quick jerk of his head. “C’mon.”
He had a feeling they were going to be spotted at any moment. If they were going to do this, they needed to be quick about it.
His hands formed a cradle on his knee and Tess took a running start and leaped into it, placing her foot in his hands and her hands on his shoulders. In one smooth motion, Joel propelled her up to the ledge.
She grabbed at the surface with her fingers, grunted, and quickly scrambled up. Next, she spun her body around and lowered a hand to Joel, bracing herself with the other.
“Gimme your hand,” she panted.
Joel took a step back and jumped, grabbing her extended hand. Tess grunted with effort as her muscles flexed to raise Joel up. He managed to get his knee over the edge and scrambled the rest of the way on his own.
“There you go,” said Tess, her lungs out of breath as she placed a hand on Joel’s shoulder.
“Alright,” he sighed, catching his own breath.
The sun was practically set as they hurried down a brick alley way toward the docks. Rats scurried out of their path seeking shadows at the sound of their approach. They descended a short flight of concrete steps and found themselves on a rooftop landing just overlooking the wharf. A metal fence with more razor wire blocked their path, but a large hole had been cut through, affording them a makeshift exit.
Tess went to the narrow hole in the fence, pulling it further apart with her hands.
“Over here, Joel.”
The landing they were on faced a tall white building in a courtyard punctuated by large metal air conditioning units, their fans long since dormant. Metal grates lay scattered on the ground.
The large building facing them sported several windowless archways around the bottom floor. Outside, several crates covered in weathered tarps sat decaying in the fading sunlight, and the sound of cawing seagulls drifted in with the cool ocean breeze.
Joel slipped through the fence without a sound and dropped to the ground. A moment later, Tess dropped silently behind him. Together they assumed a position behind one of the tarped crates, being careful to remain out of sight.
Two men walked impassively out into the courtyard through one of the doorless archways.
Joel heard Tess release a sigh and say in a cursed whisper:
“More of Robert’s guys.”
“Shit,” Joel replied. “I see ‘em.”
As the two men strolled single file out into the courtyard, their voices echoed in the vacant square.
“How do you know they’re coming?” asked the one trailing behind, his tone shrouded in doubt.
The lead lookout spoke with a tinge of fear in his voice.
“Two of our guys died trying to take Tess out. I guarantee that she and Joel are on their way here, right now to get Robert.”
At the mention of their comrades deaths at the hands of his partner, Joel remembered his conversation with Tess earlier in his apartment. He glanced at her and she gave him a brief shrug in response.
“Jesus,” sighed the man following behind. “We shouldn’t a taken this job.”
“Not our call. Let’s spread out and make sure no one’s creeping around in here.”
“Nice and quiet, Texas,” whispered Tess, preparing to pounce.
In the next instant, Joel watched Tess move quickly, like a cat.
She fell in step behind the man trailing his partner as her right hand produced a makeshift shiv from her back pocket. She was directly behind the unsuspecting goon, ready to strike.
In one fluid move, her left hand wrapped around her victim’s throat while the other went up, paused a split second, then came down sharply. The man released an agonizing death gasp as she drove the shiv deep into his neck.
Just as quietly and just as smoothly, she eased the body to the ground. The handiwork of a true professional which Joel had witnessed many times over.
As Joel reached her, she was issuing commands.
“Move up,” she ushered. “Move up.”
Joel crouched walked quickly, trailing the unsuspecting lookout as he wandered past an opened fenced gate with the typical bundle of razor wire bunched on top. The place was quiet save for the sound of seagulls floating on the ocean breeze. Luckily, the overcast sky above removed the threat of his shadow giving him away.
When he was close enough, Joel sprang upward like a coiled snake, gripping the man’s neck in a choke hold. With one iron forearm across his victim’s throat, the other arm applied downward pressure to the back of his neck. This was his forte, a move he had practiced to perfection.
The key to success was making his hand as thin as possible, and sliding it all the way under his victim's chin so that the throat ended in the v of his bent arm. With his left hand all the way through, Joel would then grip the bicep of his other arm. With the head locked in a cross-section of Joel's arms, he now only needed to pull his shoulders back and squeeze. Sometimes there was a crunch as the neck snapped; most of the time the victim simply ran out of air and crumpled to the ground.
Joel eased the dead man to the ground and quickly turned to his right toward the open windows of the brick warehouse. He approached while staying low and caught a glimpse of at least two others still inside. He made his way to the open window being careful to stay out of sight.
The men inside were in the midst of a conversation.
“I meant to tell you,” the one closest to Joel said, with a hint of disgust. “I was down on Jordan Street, and all these soldiers showed up with a group of about five civs, all in handcuffs.”
“Let me guess. Fireflies?” the other guard replied.
“Yup. They lined ‘em up against the wall and bang, bang, bang. They just executed all of them.”
The guard exhaled and said, “Holy shit.”
Peeking over the ledge, Joel saw the men had turned their backs to the window. With his heartbeat picking up steam, he silently vaulted over the low sill and slipped quietly into the room.
“Yeah,” continued the first. “I hear it’s like that all over the city. They’re cracking down on ‘em hard.”
“I got a cousin with ‘em.”
“Seriously?” the first man asked.
“Yeah. Idiot thinks he’s gonna save the world.” He paused before adding an afterthought. “I hope he’s alright.”
The two men were facing away from him. To his right, he caught a glimpse of Tess hiding just beyond the door to the adjacent room, having entered through one of the windows herself.
She jerked her head to the man to Joel’s left while making it clear she had her sights set on the one closest to her: You take one out, I’ll take the other.
Joel nodded in response and, keeping in sync with his partner, he crept up behind his next victim and grabbed the man in a choke hold. His range of vision afforded him a view of Tess as she drove a shiv into the throat of the man to his right.
Another death gasp, another body hitting the floor, but this time, something different. A clink. The sound of metal bouncing on concrete.
Joel glanced around the body and then spotted it.
He quickly scooped it up.
They were standing in an office of some type. Wooden countertops with ash trays, aged monitors and lifeless computers. A couple of yellow, weathered bulletin boards hung askew here and there. There was a tall red metal tool chest, and a set of wooden cupboards with cardboard boxes along the wall. A dingy old water cooler squatted near the door.
“Good to have you around,” Tess said, panting with adrenaline. “Let’s search the area.”
Joel quickly slipped into the adjacent room and looked around: a desk with playing cards, some rusted oil cans, a set of shelves with not much on them.
He left the room the way he found it and headed to the open door at the far end of the room he had first entered. Several overfilled metal garbage cans lined the wall to his left. He passed those and went through the open doorway with Tess following close on his heels.
There was a short hall that ended in a locked metal door. Joel slipped the key he had found quietly into the lock and pushed the door open.
The two walked into a large open room mostly vacant except for a few wooden crates lying here and there. Almost immediately, Joel and Tess heard voices and ducked for cover; at least two men were approaching from the outside.
“Hey,” one of the men said, jogging up to the other. “We consolidated the crates in the south warehouse. Supplies are locked up.”
“Good,” replied his partner. “Let’s do another once over and then head out. It’s getting close to curfew.”
Joel caught a glimpse of an empty bottle lying on the crate in front of him and, without thinking, he picked it up. It had been a long standing practice to scoop up anything that might serve as a distraction.
He crept closer to the open door, ducking behind another crate. The room he was in was dark, the only light filtering in from the cloud-covered sun above. There were bars on the open window to his left.
“What about Robert?” he heard one of the goons ask. “Who’s he holing up with tonight? Guy’s too paranoid to stay here by himself.”
Joel grunted. That was an understatement.
“Fuck if I know,” came the reply. “We’ll check in with the others and come up with something.”
From what Joel could discern from his limited vantage point, there were at least three of the guards making the rounds. One seemed to be holding back, a large black man with a semi-automatic pistol in his hand. He turned unexpectedly and entered the room where Joel and Tess hid.
Luckily for Joel, the man turned his back to the room as he took a lookout position by the open door. Now was the perfect opportunity to strike. As Joel approached, he happened to glance out the open window to his right and saw one of the guards ascending a metal staircase.
Hidden in the man’s shadow, Joel performed the same move as before, only now Joel had the muzzle of his gun pressed hard against his victim’s temple.
Before the man could react, Joel dragged him back inside the darkness of the empty room, dropped to one knee and applied his chokehold with all his might. The man put up a fight, trying to reach the unknown assailant behind him, but all he could manage to do was scrape jagged fingernails across Joel’s cheek.
Joel gritted his teeth and squeezed with a sudden burst of exertion. In the next instant, a snap , and the man went limp.
Outside sat various jacks, their forks under wooden pallets of sandbags piled waist-high. Pieces of busted pallets were strewn here and there among the heavily cracked, weed-infested concrete.
Joel had his choice. Follow the visible guard walking ahead of him into a darkened, rusted bay or take the flight of metal stairs to his right.
He choose the stairs.
Staying low, Joel quickly ascended, keeping his eyes and ears open. At the top of the stairs, a broken window. Joel hung back a moment, staying as close to the outside wall as possible. Hearing nothing, he turned the corner and that’s when the saw the third guard standing casually under an open metal doorway.
A large mechanical press dominated the center of the room which Joel quietly used as cover. Elsewhere were tool boxes, shelves with large plastic buckets, paint cans and other miscellaneous debris. A timeclock hung on the wall next to a rack of withered time cards.
The man standing under the door wore a ball cap, and tennis shoes, a sleeveless jacket over a dirty tee-shirt. One of his fingerless gloves held a semi-automatic pistol.
As quiet as a snake Joel slithered behind the unsuspecting guard. He had to be quick; grabbing him in the open could alert the others. He sprang from his crouched position and in a flash slid his arm under the man’s chin and around his throat. Just as before, he used the muzzle of his gun to get his point across: Silence was golden.
The man understood, but it would be the last revelation he would ever have.
Joel dragged him back into the shadows and dropped to one knee to allow himself maximum exertion.
In a matter of seconds, it was all over.
Joel turned and let the dead man crumple to the ground. By now his arms were getting quite tired and he wondered vaguely about the number of necks he could handle.
Staying low, Joel went through the open metal doorway and turned right. He entered a space denoted by a short hallway; some kind of supervisory office with windows facing outward. On the wall hung a whiteboard used for scheduling workers. In the corner a desk. Joel caught sight of a makeshift shiv lying on the counter and quickly scooped it up and slid it into his pocket.
As he turned the corner, he froze.
Two men were standing right outside the doorless entryway. He was about to reevaluate his options when they broke apart and began walking away. Joel saw his opportunity and struck.
He grabbed the man closest to him and pulled him back into the shadows, again using the muzzle of his gun as a warning. Before the man could state his case, Joel issued the verdict: death by affixation. As he squeezed the life from the man, his eyes followed his next intended victim, a large black man who strolled casually away, oblivious to his impending doom.
But Joel’s mistake was not staying clear of the door. Before he could duck out of the way, the other man turned and caught sight of Joel’s movement, startling him. He drew his weapon and cautiously approached as Joel slid back into the shadows of the narrow office.
As the man stuck his head through the open doorway, he caught sight of Joel hiding. Before Joel could react, the man struck him hard across the nose with a left cross.
Joel was momentarily blinded by searing pain, and as his assailant moved in to strike again, Joel used the bottle he had picked up earlier to smash against the black man’s head. The brawler retreated, just far enough for Joel to bridge the distance and slide his arm around the big man’s throat.
Now the two were out in the open, struggling on the catwalk, and their ruckus had drawn the attention of the last guard standing alone in the cargo-filled bay below them.
“Let him go, asshole!” yelled the man below, gripping his weapon with two hands in an attempt to steady his aim.
Using the brawler in his neckhold as a shield, Joel raised his gun and took aim at the man standing in the open bay below. Struggling made aiming difficult, but he managed to nail the bastard with his second shot.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Joel turned the gun back on his human shield and fired a bullet into the black man’s temple. He released his grip and the body fell in a heap at his feet.
Tess was just at that moment turning the corner, following in his footsteps.
She sucked in a breath as she surveyed the carnage around them, relieved to see Joel was still standing.
“We shoulda brought more people,” she said.
Joel, his lungs empty from exertion, his arms sore and raw, his face bloody and throbbing, replied by stating the obvious:
“They’d just slow us down.”