The orange rays of the dying sun filtered down through the canopy of the thick Angolan jungle, illuminating the scattered array of tents and outlining the silhouetted soldier who stood at one large, grimy open flap. It was a familiar sight that he saw as he gazed out over the mercenary camp, one that had haunted him like a suffocating shadow in the years since he'd first arrived on this godforsaken continent. He'd tried to get out once, almost three years ago now, back in '83. He'd gone legit, gotten a real job, but the jungle had proved too strong a lure and hardly four months had passed before he was back, employed by so-and-so with the money to fight for the something-or-other cause.
The merc swiped a hand through his matted brown hair, fingers digging through a week's worth of sweat and humidity as a shout rang out to his left and the dull thuds of flesh on flesh echoed through the temporary settlement. He didn't have to look to recognise another one of those deadly games that always seemed to spring up around these parts. In the jungle, you'd do anything to keep from losing your mind.
"Oi, Jackie!" The merc turned at the sound of his name, peering around his tent. "Caught these sneaking around the edges of the camp. The General wants to know why, and they say you're the best at getting answers."
A group of five was walking up behind him, two men being lead at gunpoint. They were dressed in standard camouflage gear, and Jackie O'Neal caught sight of two sets of – now empty – knife and gun holsters. The taller of the two was dark and muscular, limping distinctly with deep red stain blooming through his right trouser leg. The shorter was sporting what appeared to be a broken nose, blood splattered across his face and through his short blonde hair. O'Neal gave a sharp nod.
"Bring them in, then," he said, turning back and walking through the flap onto the uncovered leafy ground. The three armed mercenaries followed, forcing the prisoners into the centre of the canvassed area before scattering to stand guard around the edges. O'Neal reached over to zip shut the entrance before starting to speak.
"This doesn't have to be difficult, you know. Just answer a few question and we'll let you go." That was a lie, of course. No one who knew the position of the camp would ever be let free, but they didn't have to know that. Yet. "So, who are you, and how did you find us?"
The two men stayed resolutely silent. O'Neal's lips quirked up in a sneer before he dropped his gaze to look them both over, trying to decide which one would be easier to crack. After a few seconds of contemplation he gave a nod to the mercenary standing opposite him, gesturing towards the brunette who was standing just a tad straighter on his feet.
The mercenary stepped forward, pressing a rifle against the dark man's cheek and roughly jerking him back, leaving the blonde standing alone in the middle. O'Neal felt a pang of cruel satisfaction as he heard the barest quickening of the shorter man's breath, walking up to the prisoner slowly and circling twice before coming to a stop behind him.
"You know about the spinal column, don't you?" he began. "You know it controls all bodily movement, and if something were to happen to it, it'd all over, wouldn't it? But I know a bit more, you see. Knowledge from experience, so they say, experiences like these for example. Now if something were to get you, say, in the back of your neck, then you're dead from your chin down. Completely dead. Can't move anything except maybe your eyebrows and possibly with a lot of therapy you could learn to stick your tongue out."
The soft slide of a leather holster told the prisoner what he couldn't see. O'Neal felt his pulse beginning to creep upwards, blood rushing through his temples as he pulled out the small .45 Glock 30 that he kept for special occasions. A familiar little voice started to claw in his mind, a bare hint of a conscience struggling vainly against the edges of this thoughts, but he'd leaned to ignore that years ago. He was a merc, a killer, this was what he lived for.
"Don't think I'm joking, here. I pull the trigger and your body's gone." He could almost taste the tension, the tang of suppressed panic in the man before him. He paused for just a moment before continuing, letting the silence stretch. "But then again, maybe I won't go that far. I could always get one in the centre of the lower back there, take out everything below the waist. Can't walk, can't move by yourself. Even this bloody jungle isn't that far off the map, we could probably get you to a hospital in time. And once they fix you up best they can, which mind you isn't going to be very well, you'll end up in one of those hospices for the rest of your life, trying not to go insane. And possibly not quite succeeding."
The words came faster now, some beginning to lisp together. The rest of the world was detaching, his whole focus centring in that canvas-wrapped square as the adrenaline burned in his veins. O'Neal very slowly and deliberately clicked off the safety and took aim.
"Or I could always compromise, go for that little spot between your shoulder blades. You'll be able to shrug your shoulders, move your arms a bit, but that's about it. Can't use your hands, can't breathe without a machine. Wouldn't you like that?"
An ugly laugh broke from the merc's lips. This was his world. This was why he couldn't leave the jungle.
"But that's a difficult shot, that is. Who knows? Maybe you'll be lucky."
His breathing was harsh, pulse strumming through his body. The excitement, the power, the life of a soldier – this was what he knew, all that he knew. He stepped forward, barrel pressed harshly against the prisoner's back, voice dropping to a whisper.
"Maybe I'll miss, and get you right through the heart."
All that could be heard in the tent were the merc's ragged, almost panting breaths. O'Neal stepped back, a predator surveying his prey.
"Last chance to walk out of here as a whole man."
He allowed the silence to ring for just a few seconds before pulling the trigger.
The gunshot cracked through the tent, followed by a savage grunt from the prisoner as the bullet tore through the back of his left knee. He collapsed onto his right leg, red dripping from his mouth where he had almost bitten through his lip, hands braced on the ground as he kept himself upright with sheer force of will.
"Tell me what I want to know, and you may still be able to limp out of here."
The prisoner only cursed. O'Neal raised his gun again, the second shot cutting through the base of the spine and sending the man to the ground with a hoarse cry. The merc regarded his victim obtusely, watching the blood spill freely onto the foliage as the man twisted on the ground in pain. He could drag this out, make the prisoner's last moments an agony that may possibly wrench some answers from his dying throat depending on how well trained he was, but the presence of the other captive gave him pause. With neither room nor time to work on two men, perhaps it would be better to cut down on the baggage first.
"Stubborn bastard, aren't you?" he said, dark promise dripping from his voice. "Maybe your friend here will have a bit more common sense." Right lung, this time, accompanied by the familiar gasps of a man unable to even draw the breath to scream. The second prisoner's expression was unreadable as O'Neal looked up and into the passive face. He holstered the pistol and plucked out his knife, still holding the eye contact as he stepped forward and bent down to slit the dying man's throat.
With every high there came a low, and O'Neal took a deep breath as he broke the gaze to survey the body before him. Heartbeat now returning to normal and the adrenaline filtering out of his system, a second feeling was creeping in, one that he ruthlessly suppressed. He was a human being, a member of a race built for war. Killing was just another part of life, and anything he felt afterwards had no place in the heart of a merc.
Wiping his knife clean on the moist ground before sticking it back into his belt, O'Neal straightened and looked again at the second prisoner.
"He," he indicated to the broken man on the ground, "got the easy way out. I could have made it worse." He moved forward, stepping over the still form. "And unless you tell me what I want to know, I will make it much, much worse, for you. Do you doubt it?"
"Not at all." The accent was English and the tone frighteningly conversational, with just the barest hint of the iron will below the surface. "I'll talk. Just get them out of here first." He gestured towards the other mercenaries.
O'Neal paused for a moment, considering, before conceding and turning to the men. "Leave us. And take that away, will you." He waved his hand at the ground.
The two standing guard stepped forward, one zipping open the flap while the other took hold of the body and began to drag it out. The mercenary restraining the prisoner glared at his charge disdainfully. "If you're thinking about trying anything, don't bother. You're right in the middle of our camp and–"
"I have done the research, yes," the prisoner interjected with something not too unlike a smirk, drawing a spat-out curse from the mercenary as he lowered his rifle and followed the others out of the tent. As soon the three live men and one dead one were gone, the prisoner limped over to the flap and shut it once more, wincing slightly as he moved.
"Just going to take a seat, you know, leg's giving me a bit of a hard time." He nodded his head toward a small wooden stool in one of the corners.
The merc pulled out his own chair from the sparsely furnished living space, upper lip curling slightly as the prisoner continued without waiting for a reply. The other man clunkily made his way to the stool, sitting himself down with a grateful sigh. His gaze passed over the bundle of blankets that lay on the bare ground behind where the merc was sitting, pausing on the array of tools and weapons that littered the space around it before looking back up at his opponent.
"Liverpool, isn't it?"
"Liverpool docks," the prisoner said. "Evened out by years out of the country, but some accents never quite fade away."
The merc narrowed his eyes.
"I'm from England too, myself," the man continued casually. "But, may I ask, how on Earth did you get from Liverpool to the jungles of Africa?"
"As much as I'd like to sit here discussing my life history," O'Neal said curtly, "I've got a job to do. You said you'd talk, now do it before I decide to get my gun out again."
"No need to be unfriendly," the prisoner hastened, looking actually taken aback by the refusal. He stretched his injured leg out in front of him with a groan before looking up at the merc inquisitively. "I must confess to some degree of wondering regarding your kind. You answer my questions, and I'll answer yours."
The merc scoffed. "Or how about you answer my questions, and I don't put a bullet through every place I know that won't kill you straight away?"
The prisoner raised a brow. "Surely you'll at least sate a soon-to-be-dead man's interest, Jackie? Persuasion is more effective than pain, you know that."
O'Neal scowled at the familiarity, but couldn't quell the twinge of curiosity. There was almost a challenge in the way the man talked, as if he actually knew a single thing about who he was speaking with. If he wanted a sparring partner, then the merc would play along.
"Fine," he snapped. "I was raised on the docks, like you said. Worked there when I was older. Always wanted to get out, though, ship came along one day asking for some temporary help so I signed on and jumped at first port. Turns out it was here."
"So you decided to become a mercenary?"
Another scowl. "Grew up among the bad sorts, didn't I? Started stealing as soon as I could walk, knifed a bloke when I was a teen. Wasn't too big a step, jumping into merking." He hardened his gaze, staring into his captive's dark eyes. "You still haven't told me who you are."
The edges of the prisoner's lips lifted upwards in a small smile. "Fischer. Ryan Fischer, pleased to meet you. I'd go over and shake your hand but, you know."
"Alright, Mr. Fischer, then–"
"Agent Fischer, actually," he corrected. "MI6."
"MI6, eh? Aren't you boys taught to hold your tongue against anything?" A smirk curled the merc's mouth, only to fade again as he leaned forward. "So why exactly are you talking? You want to live like any person, but you're not scared either. Do want something, protection, a deal?"
Fischer sighed. "You mercs, thinking everyone always wants something just because you do." That bought a growl from his interlocutor. "I already said I'd talk, didn't I? I'm a man of my word." The evasion wasn't lost on O'Neal.
"Well, anyway, what's your lot doing here? Why were you in our camp?"
The agent shook his head ruefully, ignoring the query. "Tell me, what's it like?" he said after a few seconds of contemplation. "What's it like to be a soldier for hire? Selling yourself and your gun to the highest bidder, always changing sides, never having any loyalties?"
O'Neal's face darkened. "War will always happen," he said coldly, "and both sides always think they're right. What difference does it make which 'right' I fight for? And what difference do I make whether I decide to sit back and watch or cash in the action?"
"Do you really believe that?" Fischer asked quietly. The merc snorted.
"I know it."
There was a slight hesitation as the agent cast his eyes away before turning back to the previous question. "It's nothing complicated, really, why we're here. There are certain political powers in England which would benefit from an end to this war, and what better way to end a war than to get rid of the ones who fight it? MI6 was assigned a relatively simple task: locate and disable the soldiers."
O'Neal frowned. Now they had a group of British agents crawling through the jungle to look out for. This was going to be fun to explain to the General. "Great, a new lot of people to kill," he muttered.
"Do you ever think about them?"
"The people you've killed, do they ever bother you?"
It only took a split second for him to spit out, "Of course not." He straightened, jumping up off his seat and turning away from the agent. "Can't do that out here in the jungle. Can't dwell, can't let yourselves remember. Not if you want to stay sane."
"I do, you know," the soft voice said from behind him. "I think about them, I remember them. And sometimes I wonder if it's the only thing keeping me sane."
The sun had set now, disappearing beyond the horizon as the shadows started to inch their way forward. The merc walked over to the edge of the tent and took up a rusty lamp that stood beside his sleeping pallet. He flicked it on, letting the dim light spill onto the thin canvas walls before looking back at the agent. He had a job to do.
"Where is your camp?"
"I don't know," Fischer said. "We had it set up about fifteen kilometres east of here, but my partner and I were due to report back hours ago. They would have moved by now."
"Where is your next designated site?"
"Spontaneously decided while on the move."
O'Neal cursed under his breath. "And why the hell is that?"
"To eliminate the security risk, I'd imagine. To make sure that if one of our men were to, say, get captured and interrogated, he can't give the group away."
The merc glared at the slightly smug-looking agent, cursing again. "Bloody hell." He sat back down with a sigh and a pointed look to the man opposite.
Fischer's voice was almost hesitant when he spoke next, face pallid in the muted light. "Where and when – your first kill?"
O'Neal swallowed twice, harshly. "Nineteen," he replied eventually, "at the port after I jumped." His mouth twisted into a travesty of a smile as he continued. "Just as well, I guess. Caught a passing merc's eye, he got me my first job. Would have starved otherwise."
"Who was it?"
"Some dirty local who tried to rob me," O'Neal replied dismissively. "Got him with his own knife."
Fischer shifted in his seat. "We have a word for that, you know," he said. "It's called self-defence."
The only response to that was a sharp exhale as the merc snapped his eyes away. He was to interrogate this man, get all the info he could then take him out. But even with his next objective on the tip of his tongue, what came out was, "And what about you, then?"
The agent's jaw tightened, his first outward sign of discomfort since he'd been forced into the tent. He took two breaths before answering in a clipped tone. "Twenty-four. International heroin bust. I shot the one of the dealers."
"The first of many, I suppose," O'Neal replied, the coldness in his voice sounding just a touch forced.
"And for you?" Fischer found his gaze again, dark eyes boring into his. "How many?"
A bark of cold, cruel laughter ripped from the merc's lips at that query. Killing was second nature in the jungle, and there were two things you could do about it – you either let the lives you took slip past you without regard, or you kept the count as a badge of honour.
"All these questions about the people I've killed," he hissed. "Are you so eager to be one of them?" But looking into that cool gaze, that knowing gaze, he felt his last defence mechanism slipping away. The agent simply watched and waited until the merc forced his eyes away, slumping just the tiniest bit in his seat.
"Sixty-seven," he said hoarsely. "Sixty-eight including your partner."
Fischer looked down as his hands, the ambience of the jungle the only sound in the air for a few moments. "Forty-two for me," he said finally. "And I'm not any more proud of it than you are."
O'Neal's lips pulled back in a snarl. "Not proud of it? What makes you think I'm not proud of it?" He stood abruptly, marching over to stare straight into the agent's deathly calm face. "You keep talking to me, telling me what to fell, but here you were watching your own partner die without batting an eyelash!"
An strange look passed over Fischer's features. "You're right," he said quietly. "I didn't bat an eyelash, I didn't show anything, did I." Bracing him hands against the wood, he lifted himself to his feet to meet the the other man at eye-level. "Because it's true, emotions don't help the job, caring doesn't help the job. But just because I – we – don't show, doesn't meet we don't feel, and it doesn't mean they don't help us."
The agent nodded, once, barely perceptible. "Do you want to know why I talked?" He leaned closer, words mixing with the merc's breath. "I talked to you because I was watching as you held that knife. I was watching, and I saw the blood-lust, I saw the thrill of the kill. But that wasn't all. I saw regret, Jackie. You have a chance, you can still get out."
"Don't you think I haven't tried?" the merc rasped. "Oh, I've tried alright. Went to the city, got some security work, left the jungle, but I couldn't stay away. I can't get out, this is who I am, this is my life."
The agent shook his head. "No, it's not. Go home, Jackie, go back to England. You can start a new life, a better life."
At that, the merc snapped. With a roar of anger he ripped his gun from his holster, grabbing the prisoner's shoulder in a vice-like grip as he jammed the barrel into the soft, delicate, breakable flesh. "And what makes you think you're so much better?" he growled, tightening his hold painfully. "Your job isn't so different form merking, you know that? We both live to fight, get paid to kill, only for some reason you're clean. Authorised. Legal. Does having society's badge of approval really make a difference?"
The agent's voice was choked, cracked, barely a whisper, but it was steady.
"I think you already know the answer to that."
A single gunshot rang through the mercenary camp, followed by a scrambling of zips and fabric as the soldiers hurried out to congregate at the source of the noise. Men of the jungle, they could tell the difference between an interrogation and an execution.
Inside the dimly-lit tent lay a second pool of freshly spilled blood, seeping out from underneath a sprawled body. The inhabitant of the tent stood to the side, a smoking pistol in his hand.
"I got all I needed."
One of the other mercenaries stepped forward. "You want some help with that, Jackie?"
O'Neal shook his head. "Nah, there's no immediate danger. You guys go back to sleep, I'll clean up here and report to the General tomorrow." He waved the men off as they turned, a few nods here and there, making their way back to their sleeping bags.
But they never did hear that report, for the next morning they woke to find Jackie O'Neal's tent empty, completely bare except for the tell-tale blood on the ground. The body had been removed, drag marks pointing clearly towards the edge of the clearing and into the densest part of the jungle. In a line of work and a part of the world where disappearances were no irregular occurrence and enemies were made with every step, each knew that any attempt at investigation would be a fruitless effort.
Meanwhile, seven-and-a-half thousand kilometres away, two men were disembarking from a small private plane. The first was heavily favouring his left leg, sporting a white bandage around his jaw where something, perhaps a bullet, had scraped past, nicking the skin and drawing blood. The second was looking around in wonder, drinking in the scenery like a man seeing an old friend for the first time in many years, dirty brown hair tied back to reveal a face that spoke of years under the glaring sun. They made there way down to an unmarked car parked somewhat off to side where they were met with a brisk nod and a terse word.
"Care you explain, agent?"
The second man cut in before a reply could be given.
"Mr. Controller, sir, my name is John H. O'Neal, and I'd like to work for you."