The Girl With the Red Hair
Not for the first time, Agent Oliver Benson reflected on how much he hated the rain.
It was a bad joke at his expense that he’d been assigned here, to Portland. After seven years in The Great Northwest he still wasn’t used to the long months of unending grey days. “At least it wasn’t Seattle,” he thought, watching the winter rain spatter and trickle down his windshield, joining together into silvery rivulets that caught and warped the tall lights of the parking lot.
“And at least I’m not out there,” he said to the empty car, looking across the lot toward the hunched and miserable-looking back of Agent Barnes. The man stood leaning against the cold metal of a grey and green drive-through ATM near the building, but its tiny overhang provided very little cover from the rain, if any.
Agents Toby and Christopher, both on loan from Virginia, had entered the glass side entrance of the wide, six-story office building just a few minutes before. They had insisted on having agents posted at every door to the lobby and that a car be kept running in case this Hawkins person tried to make a run for it.
Benson thought they were being oddly over-zealous. He’d seen surveillance photos of the kid, and nothing had led him to believe that he was very… athletic. Nothing that warranted the extra manpower needed to cover every exit while two agents went upstairs to question him, anyway. It wasn’t like he was dangerous.
As Benson understood it, one Henry C. Hawkins, age twenty-four, was in possession of some very experimental, very costly government-funded technology that needed to be back in the lab as quickly and as quietly as possible, with an emphasis on quietly. How a kid barely over drinking-age with the lowliest and most general of computer-related degrees had obtained said technology was still a mystery to him.
Toby and Christopher had been frustratingly but unsurprisingly obtuse on the matter, and Benson hadn’t felt like pushing it. He wouldn’t have been surprised if it (whatever “it” was—more Virginian frustration) had been accidentally shipped to Hawkins’ home, or something equally mundane. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
Benson sighed heavily as he considered relieving Barnes of his waterlogged post. As the supervising agent he could display solidarity by taking the other man’s place outside, or he could enjoy his station as the senior member of the team and keep warm and dry. He’d done his share of miserable stakeouts, and the higher-ups he’d respected most were exactly the kind that would stand in the rain for a while. On the other hand, what’s the point of putting in the time if you can’t enjoy the little things seniority buys?
His musings were interrupted by a flickering in his left periphery, towards the building. He looked over but it’d stopped, and figured the cleaning crew was switching lights off for the night or something.
He sighed again, longer this time, and capped it off with a resigned “Yep,” ordering himself to give Barnes a thirty-minute break from the pissing rain.
Glancing towards the agent as he reached for the door, he noticed a sudden change in his posture that gave Benson pause.
He switched on the wiper blades; they cleared his view just as Barnes slowly withdrew his sidearm from the holster on his belt. All Benson could see through the foggy windshield was the wet, raven-haired back of his head and broad soaked shoulders, but he was evidently very focused on something happening through the glass doors of the building. Benson craned his neck but couldn’t see anything past the banking machines.
He pressed the button on his radio: “Barnes, status update, ASAP.” No response. He tried again, “Toby, Christopher, what’s your 20, over?” Nothing. Not even static. He tried to check the frequency but the numerical display was garbled like a busted alarm clock. Turning it off didn’t work either, he had to disconnect the heavy battery pack just to get it powered down. It wouldn’t turn back on once he’d replaced it.
He looked up in time to see Barnes fire once through the double glass walls of the building’s entrance.
“Jesus Christ!” Benson yelled, kicking the door open, dead radio forgotten in his hand. “Barnes! What the hell are you doing!” Benson crouch-jogged towards where the agent had been hunkered, but by the time he rounded the bumper of a vintage Focus he saw Barnes had already sprinted towards the lit entrance and had just reached the doors. Benson sprang up to follow but tripped over a wet concrete ledge covered in multiple layers of thick No Parking-yellow paint.
“Shit!” he cursed, falling into a wide puddle of cold rainwater. He immediately jumped to his feet but it was too late—the entire length of his back and legs was soaked through to the skin. He looked down at his dripping suit trying hard not to get angrier than he was already. He noticed the radio was still in his hand and shoved it carelessly into a sagging wet pocket of his tan trench coat.
Benson started for the door again, squinting against the rain and trying to shield his eyes with a soaked forearm. Agent Barnes was nowhere in sight, although the path his round had taken was visible enough: both walls of thick glass that formed the enclosed entrance sported sets of neat entry and exit holes, like tiny drills had made their way through cross-sections of glacial sea-green ice.
“That asshole better have a good god-damn reason for this,” Benson thought, yanking open the heavy inner door and storming into the long hallway, “or both our asses—“
Something was off. He could see halfway through the building, right into the lobby, and nobody was there. He hadn’t been that far behind Barnes, and surely the agent would have called out to the other two stationed nearby for backup. Even if all their radios were down they should have been well within earshot.
Benson noticed a powdery gray crater in the wall to his right near a sign that read “Stairwell.” He quickly made his way towards it, assuming Barnes had gone through there in pursuit of whoever it was he was going to get his ass chewed for shooting at.
Just before he reached the alcove leading to the stairs he saw a pair of outstretched legs on the floor, motionless. He slowed and drew his weapon from the wet holster at his side. Approaching silently, he prayed that Agent Barnes hadn’t shot some poor cubicle schlub by mistake. His mind raced, imagining having to explain personally to the victim’s family why their loved one had accidentally been—the legs finally moved. Benson let out a quiet breath of relief, then spun around the corner, gun out.
He stared in mild disbelief. It was that kid, Hawking or whatever. Benson could see he wasn’t shot, but he wasn’t going anywhere. The skin around his eyes was an angry red, and he couldn’t keep them open for more than a few seconds without wincing in pain and squeezing them shut again. Tears had left clean, wet lines of pink skin in the grey dust on his cheeks.
Weapon aimed in the general direction of his captive’s torso, Benson stood trying to decide what to do. Why the hell had Barnes tried to cap the kid? He obviously wasn’t armed. The poor guy kept trying to look up at him through the grit in his eyes. He didn’t look that much older than Benson’s oldest boy, who was going to be a sophomore in high school next year.
He had just bent down to help the kid to his feet when something moved very quickly in the corner of his eye, just down the hall towards the lobby. His gun automatically retuned to where it had been pointing as he cautiously glanced over his shoulder.
Now that he could see the lobby more clearly he knew something was definitely wrong. A massive landscape painting with a heavy-looking wooden frame hung askew, partially revealing the wall behind it, which was caved in. What looked to have once been a padded purple bench lay in a pile of kindling off to one side of the elevators, and along the creme-colored wall to his right there appeared to be a long streak of blood. It ran for a couple of feet just above the orangish wooden baseboard before disappearing around the corner.
Benson was about to ask what the fuck to no one in particular when Agent Barnes slammed face-down into the marbled floor. The sound reminded him of a bowling ball being dropped onto bare concrete. A blur of green was on top of him instantly, gripping his legs and back with a chicken-bone crunch and bashing him into the wall with a sudden, stunning violence like he weighed nothing.
Barnes hadn’t moved, his body as limp and unprotesting as a stuffed toy. Benson found himself hoping that he’d been dead before he hit the floor. When he fell to the ground again something terrible was wrong with the way his wet clothes jutted and stretched over his body.
Benson looked up from the broken heap to see a girl looking at him. She was short, with red hair and pale skin. Her eyes, which were grey, fixed on him with a predator’s stare that made his balls tighten in his body’s instinctual preparation for flight.
Time slowed to a surreal crawl: He noticed the purple Converse shoes, and how the color was beginning to fade around the creases. He noted the tight fit of her green hooded sweatshirt, and that under different circumstances he’d find this young woman very appealing. More than enough to seriously wonder how old she was.
His eyes moved from the soft material stretched across her chest to the smooth skin of her neck, which struck him as strangely delicate, and then down her arm to her hand, which he realized with the same detached calm was covered in blood up to the wrist. Thick droplets were gathering at her fingertips and falling on what had become of Agent Barnes.
He looked to her face again and saw she wasn’t staring at him anymore. He followed her intense gaze and found she was looking down at his gun. Which, he slowly recalled, was still aimed at the blinded boy on the floor.
He snapped his head up in time to meet her eyes as she charged toward him with unbelievable speed, her face the lethally focused mask of a jungle cat closing within striking distance of its prey. Benson could only watch in graceful slow-motion as the girl who’d so easily destroyed Barnes came to kill him.
“Sway! Don’t!” The boy was still on the floor but had leaned out into the hallway.
“Nice try kid, but thanks,” he thought, feeling a surreal swell of gratitude for this useless attempt to save his life just as his red-headed death stopped before him.
“Wow, she’s pretty short,” he thought, dreamlike, looking down at the part in her hair as she brought both arms back and then forward into his chest more quickly than his eyes could see.
Agent Benson suddenly found himself in mid-air, like he’d missed a beat. Another missed beat, then his heels hit the ground a split-second before his back and head struck the glass door.
The air had gone from his lungs and could not be convinced to return. As he clawed for breath a hundred rusty swords racked his chest. His vision was brown and fuzzy at the edges and it felt like he was falling into the deepest sleep of his life. He didn’t bother trying to stand.
As his vision darkened from brown to black, he watched the girl with the red hair carefully lift the wounded boy to his feet. She got his arm around her shoulders and helped him out the door without looking down at Benson as they passed.
“Well shit,” he thought, and then thankfully, finally, was allowed to pass out.