It was such an ordinary robbery. It was almost routine, in fact. Location: A small 7-eleven in downtown Chicago. Criminal: A tall man wearing a leather jacket, blue jeans and a ski mask over his head who wielded a nondescript handgun. Victim: An old cashier who had been manning this particular cash register for more decades than he cared to remember.
Ben Stoker had seen it all before. The man with the ski mask charged in through the door and immediately pointed his gun at the cashier. In a voice harsh, loud voice, he demanded all the money in the register. They always shouted for some reason. They always seemed to want to frighten their victims with that shouting, as if pointing a gun directly at someone’s face wasn’t frightening enough. And in the end it really didn’t matter. A cashier confronted with a gun knows what to do. No amount of intimidation can increase the amount of money in the drawer. And shouting only revealed your voice—to be recognized later.
It was definitely unprofessional, and Stoker smiled inwardly. This would be just like the last time. Standing in an aisle where he could not be seen, he quietly drew his Magnum and took aim. He always used a Magnum. There were fancier weapons, but Stoker had yet to see a gun that could punch through obstacles like his old six-shooter.
He was aiming at the robber’s gun. There was absolutely no possibility that he could miss. Several years of training as an agent of the Carrington Institute guaranteed that. Slowly, deliberately, he squeezed the trigger.
He had to admit that he didn’t hit his target. This robber was a nervous one. At the very last instant, his hand had moved a bit to the side. That meant that Stoker’s bullet hit his hand instead of the gun. Those kinds of things happened, and it was all the same in the end anyway. Besides, Stoker had the satisfaction of hearing a cry of pain rip out of his victim’s throat. “All right, you’re under arrest.” Stoker refused to employ one of the several one-liners that popped into his head. His victim might not be professional, but he would be damned if he would also stoop down to that level.
He would never know exactly what happened next. The robber in the leather jacket quickly dove to his right. Stoker had been anticipating that something like that might happen, but he was still not fast enough. The bullet he fired missed. Then the robber was gone. Stoker’s heart began to clench. He had never seen anyone move that fast before. It was simply impossible. His reflexes were first-rate: only Jonathan had ever earned a better score in that category. Fearing that the situation might be growing steadily out of control, he scanned all the areas in front of him for a sign of that leather jacket or black ski mask.
Stoker can be forgiven for not looking behind himself. It had never occurred to him that someone could move so fast as to be behind him already. It was a mistake all the same: this man had gotten behind him. The only warning he had was the sudden premonition people sometimes get that there is someone behind them. He only had enough time to whirl about and catch a glimpse of the black mask before he felt his gun seized. Then a sharp pain lanced up his arm accompanied by a snap, and he knew that his arm was broken. He only had enough time to realize this before his feet were swept out from under him and he was on his back. For the first time, he felt the cold embrace of fear and the certain knowledge that this was the end. He looked up, past his own gun pointed at him and into the blue eyes of the man holding it. “Who the hell are you?” he whispered. He never found out.
It had been a bad day for Daniel Carrington. The local news reported that crime had jumped up another percentage point this month. In particular, certain criminals were striking often, and nothing the police did ever seemed to stop them. They just seemed superhuman somehow.
And to top it all off, one of his most promising agents had been killed.
He needed a break to get away from it all. Daniel Carrington got up from his computer terminal for a walk. He always paced randomly through the halls of his building, but lately, he had been visiting one particular place more often than others. Who could blame him for remembering better times? In particular, the world had seemed so much safer nine years ago. Carrington’s footsteps led him into the gallery where the photographs of dead agents were hung on the wall. Stoker’s picture would be up there pretty soon.
Carrington walked along slowly, looking into the faces of all the agents who had given up their lives for his cause. They were like his children, really. None of these agents had been older than thirty-five at death.
And there she was. She had been the one who set examples for everyone else to follow. At a time of crisis, she had saved the world. She had carried the hopes of the Carrington Institute on her shoulders, and she had carried it well. She was the one they had called Perfect.
Daniel Carrington stared for a long moment at her picture and sighed. “I wish you were still with us, Joanna.”