Entry 4 – Trial and Error
A few hours later, I found myself in front of an inconspicuous-looking gun shop near the suburbs. A bad part of town, even for the Windy City. The seedy place looked all but closed with derelict buildings all around it. A couple of shady types eyed me from a distance, but the beat-up Chevelle I bought upon my return, my determined look and, most importantly, the AR-15 in my hands kept them away, or so I thought.
I entered the shop via its rickety wooden front door, an old-school bell announcing my present to the elderly owner ostentatiously reading an old newspaper behind the counter. He barely looked up. The place was stacked with low-quality hunting rifles, certainly not something I’d have expected in the area. No hunting to be done, unless the prey walked on two legs.
I expected as much, judging from what Hector told me. I repeated the sentence I was told over the phone, word for word, hoping I remembered it correctly. Writing it down felt embarrassing at the time, but now I felt sorry I hadn’t done just that.
“Even the summers are cold in Chicago, let me warm up a bit in your humble abode.”
Standing there all sweaty, I felt really stupid saying that. Who knew running a sixty-year old car without an A/C in a city where the sunlight amplified by the glass panels of highrises melt the tarmac below was a bad idea. And what the hell is an abode, who talks like that?
The old man finally looked up and raised his eyebrows. He reminded me of a kind grandfather figure with his age-old sweater, old-time silver-rimmed glasses, fading grey hair... I couldn’t have been more wrong. His eyes betrayed his true nature, blue and cold as steel.
“Ah yes. Master Thorpe, is it?”
He got up slowly from what turned out to be a wooden rocking chair. How quaint. The massive revolver hidden behind the news sheet made a loud thud despite being laid down rather gently on the wooden counter. That thing must weigh a lot, I thought. One shot and you’re done for, even with body armor. And the guy didn’t like the type that would miss. I swallowed hard. He could clearly see my nervousness and cracked a cold smile.
“Ezra Rosenstein, at your service. Please follow me, sir.”
I couldn’t quite place his accent. British perhaps? Canadian? I’ve been around, but I’ve never met a man like that. Few have and lived to tell about it, I suspected. The man had the air of a retired killer about him, probably ex-special forces, maybe even the CIA. I wasn’t dying to find out just much death had he seen, and how much of it was his own making.
He opened a door at the back of the shop, but instead of a dusty storage room that I expected, there was a set of concrete stairs leading to the bowels of the building. As I passed through the door, I noticed it was made of steel, at least an inch thick. Armored, I’d wager. This guy was not playing around and I realized in an instant just how he stayed safe in this neighborhood. Nobody was stupid enough to try to rob him.
As I was running a few escape scenarios if things went awry, we reached the bottom and entered a rather large room filled with tables, maps and, most importantly, weapons. Not the kind that was upstairs – cutting edge stuff. Assault rifles, combat shotguns, you name it. The ma deuce in the corner looked deadly in particular; clean, well-oiled, loaded and ready to go. The man pointed silently at an empty chair, and sat himself on another one facing towards me.
“Now then. Miss Norah asked me to evaluate you. I don’t normally do this anymore, but...”
Again that soul-chilling smile, like a snake preparing to swallow its victim whole.
“...she’s quite charming and persuasive, isn’t she,” he concluded, as if talking to himself while sifting through a pile of papers lying on the table to the left.
“Ah yes, here you are. Samuel Thorpe, born in 1997 in New York, yes?”
He cast a quick glance at me over the top rim of his glasses. I simply nodded. He read this file, mumbling to himself through the process.
“Orphaned aged 10, yes... gang violence, quite tragic. Hmm, it was a sad era... grew up in various foster homes... had a penchant for running away... joined the military but never truly felt like belonging... indeed, a common trait amongst the men of your profession... went private after Pollard...”
Confused, I interrupted him.
He frowned, his voice dripping with reproach. Suddenly, I felt like a kid again, a kid who hasn’t done his homework.
“Pollard versus New York, Master Thorpe. The Supreme Court sentence that cast down all Second Amendment restrictions, allowing private citizens like you to operate all the weaponry previously restricted to the United States military. Except for nuclear weapons, of course,” he added, smiling again ever so slightly.
I kept on nodding as he spoke, not willing to appear even more foolish than I already did.
“Quite,” he continued. “Now where were we... ah yes, your career as a private contractor. A couple of jobs, nothing of significance though. Some success, average results only. Hmm,” he mused, “not the usual type then.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that or how he knew so much about me, but somehow felt it unwise to ask him to elaborate. He finished studying the document, giving it one more cursory glance before discarding it back on the top of the pile.
“Let us begin.”
For the next several hours, he dissected every operation I’ve been a part of in excruciating detail, from my first mundane guard duties to the Dubai task. He quizzed me extensively about my tactics and firearms knowledge, language skills and problem-solving abilities, until we finally reached a topic I wasn’t entirely confident about. Armor.
“As you now know, Master Thorpe, the landmark Pollard ruling allows private citizens of the United States of America to freely operate armored vehicles, even those using what was previously legally known as ‘destructive devices’. That includes, but is not limited to tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, or even artillery. Should you succeed obtaining the job...”
I truly did not like his emphasis of the world “should”, but was too exhausted to argue at this point.
“...you’ll be asked to add armored vehicles into your employer’s arsenal while completing any and all missions assigned to you. Now, one more thing, if you will...”
I rolled my eyes discreetly, but apparently not discreetly enough, as the act did not escape my gracious but somewhat irritating host, who reacted with a frown.
“Master Thorpe, you do not realize the scope, or, indeed, the very nature of things that will be asked for you. Surely you do understand we do not need anyone to show our people which side of the gun points where. The tasks you will face...”
He suddenly paused, closing his eyes as if to recollect himself, rubbing his fingers against forehead. I got the feeling he was about to reveal something he shouldn’t have, something important. Behind the cool veneer was a level of anxiety I did not expect. But these miniscule cracks in facade went as quickly as they came. As composed as ever, he continued:
“It takes far more than wielding a gun to be a man. A man, Master Thorpe, a true man that is, must be capable of anything and know a bit of everything.”
That was a nice dodge, I thought, as I refocused on the task with renewed vigor. There’s definitely much more to this contract that I thought. The mask slipped once, it would slip again. Perhaps I could use that to leverage my future salary. We’d see. But one thing was for certain. This interview was almost over.
But before I could even say another word, my ever-enigmatic host proved again he was not one, but five steps ahead. He suddenly rose from his chair, putting his arms behind the back. He looked like an old-time butler; a butler that would sooner kill you with a small spoon than bring you a dessert.
“Very well. That concludes our meeting. I will be submitting my recommendations to Master Murdoch today. For now, in the trunk of your...”, a pause long just enough to make sure I notice his disapproval over the type of vehicle I drive, “...car, you will find a suitable attire for your meeting. Today, 7 o’clock sharp, Hotel Bellevue. Do not be late.”
He extended his right arm, expecting a shake. I had a million questions. Murdoch? Miss Norah? What company would I even be working for? What kind of job exactly was this for?
The meeting was, however, clearly over and it was even clearer that I wouldn’t get any answers from the man. At least not right now. Somewhat light-headed, I rose from my chair, shook the man’s hand and slowly made my way towards the stairs leading back to the shop. I'd get my answers, one way or another.
A few hours more wouldn’t kill me.