Culley Holderfield writes poetry, fiction, and essays. A graduate of the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his short stories have appeared in Wildfire Magazine, Literally Stories, and Yellow Mama. His poems have appeared in Earth and Soul: An Anthology of North Carolina Poetry, Damfino Press, and is forthcoming in Kakalak 2016. He is currently shopping two completed novels, The Storm from Afar, a spy thriller about what happens when a country out-sources intelligence to the lowest bidder, and Hemlock Hollow, an Appalachian family mystery set in the 1890s.
Credit Where Credit is Due
Cold steel against his throat woke Jayden earlier than his normal 11:30 alarm. Two thoughts sprang to mind. First, why the fuck was someone waking him up this early? Second, why the fuck were they were waking him with a scimitar to the throat? He couldn't turn his neck without the movement slicing him open, so he couldn't satisfy his curiosity about what time it was.
"What the fuck?" he asked.
"That's exactly what I asked when I checked my bank account yesterday, Scumbag," a gravely voice responded.
Jayden ran an interior recognition search for the voice and came up with nothing.
"You're think you're some sort of computer genius, don't you?" the voice continued.
Jayden didn't think it. It was true. He was only 22, but he had already built a reputation for being able to build and execute anything that could be imagined in a virtual world. He was an artist, and the internet was his canvas. He could do anything, but like artists everywhere, no one would pay him a living wage for his virtuosity. He had recently diversified his client base. He just nodded slightly.
"Well." He felt the blade lighten a bit on his neck. "Today is not your lucky day, Jayden Lang. Yesterday, my account was supposed to have thirty thousand dollars in it. I know, because I had been saving up for a year."
"Uh...okay," Jayden said, swallowing.
"But, then I went to get the cashier's check so I could make my down payment on my house, and guess how much was actually there."
He couldn't exactly shake his head. "Zero?" he offered.
"Might as well have been. It's too bad for you the cops don't give a shit, or this could have been handled in a civilized way. Instead...instead I'm going to get Taliban on your ass."
"Wait...wait...what?" Jayden didn't ever get excited about much. He assumed his lack of emotionality was due to borderline, undiagnosed autism, but now his heart rate was pounding. He wasn't a thief. He had never stolen anything in his life. He was a good student. His dad was an accountant and his mother a nurse manager. He played hand bells at the United Methodist Church for chrissake.
"You're the author of the code that was used to swipe my debit card number that resulted in the theft of the down payment on the house for my wife and kids. Now they've denied my loan and the yard my kids were going to play in tomorrow is going to have someone else's Golden Lab shitting it all up, and the jacuzzi tub that my wife was going to lounge naked in tonight is going to overflow with the weight of someone else's fatass wife, and the garage where I had already parked my 1965 Mustang is gone, with the Mustang in it."
"So, you want thirty thousand dollars?" Jayden offered. He could probably come up with it. His parents would float him a loan.
"Nope," the voice answered too cheerfully.
"Well...why are you here?"
"I'm going to chop your fucking head off, asshole."
"I didn't steal your money!"
"Doesn't matter. You made it happen by selling your code to Victor Kirin. He's in the Ukraine and you're in Baltimore. So, I thought I'd stop by before I hop my flight to Moscow."
"Turns out there aren't any direct flights to Kiev."
"Who the hell are you?"
"Your worst mistake come to life."
The movement was practiced and efficient, almost caring in a clinical sort of way, and he didn't know what was happening until the searing pain ceased and his pillow went warm and wet with what he realized too late was his own blood. For a split second, he was aware that he could not move or speak...then he wasn't anymore.
Pacing is everything in this universe of fire and ash. You don't move so fast as to miss details, and you don't move so slow as to make yourself a target. You learn early on to go steady and smooth, like a ghost. And like a ghost, you're only seen when it's to your advantage to be seen. The night is yours, darkness your ally. Any mission you start, you finish or die trying.
Cops streamed in and out of the suburban Baltimore home. A police psychiatrist sat in the living room, her hands on the mother's hands. The father's eyes had gone wide and unblinking, as if the scene he discovered in his son's bedroom had seared them open for all time.
Detective Jonas Barton lurked in the hall, watching the parents. He had been on the force for twelve years now, and the sad truth of these things was that murder was rarely random, especially the more gruesome affairs. Nine times out of town, it was the father or stepfather. But, searching the visage of the man across the room, he could find no evidence of guilt.
"Any drugs?" he asked an officer emerging from the grisly crime scene.
"None yet. Ton of computer stuff."
"I don't know what half of it is."
"Well, might as well get computer forensics out here to take a look." Jonas didn't believe in hunches, but he did believe in leaving no stone unturned. There could be information on the computers about things the kid was involved in that could have led to this, this the most gruesome crime he had ever seen.
He turned, and found himself face to face with the Chief.
"We've got media outside," the Chief said.
He nodded. The media always complicated things, seeking answers before they had developed the right questions. They would want to know who had done this terrible thing and what the parents were going through right now and that justice was to be served. And, the truth was that the blood wasn't even dry yet and the parents were dong exactly what you would expect parents to do in this situation, and it wasn't time yet to start telling ourselves the stories we create every time something like this happens. People want assurance that these things are exceptional, that there was something incredibly amiss in this household that made them not the normal suburban family they appeared to be. It's the only way to mask the cruelty all of us deny being capable of, but are.
"Tell them a bad thing happened and the family is heart-broken. Tell them to fuck off."
The Chief scowled. "What do we know so far?"
"Jayden Lang, aged 22, woke up this morning decapitated. His father found him at eight o'clock. His mother still hasn't been in the room. No sign of forced entry or robbery. The parents heard nothing unusual last night."
"Any suspects? The father?"
"Well, he tracked blood out of the room, but just the one time. We've got the shoes. Haven't found a weapon, but the nature of the cut would indicate that the blade had surgical sharpness and that whoever did it knew what they were doing. The father's an accountant."
"And the mother?"
"Well, she would have access to the tools."
"We'll follow up with the hospital, but I don't think she did it. This was somebody who had done this before. More than once I would guess. This was not a crime of passion."
The Chief shook his head. "Great."
It's not about good or bad. It's not about being strong or daring. It's not even about having the skills and the gear, though nothing can be done without those vital components. It's mainly about mind control and will, pure will. It's amazing how far you can get with just a little bit of credit and a passport. Thirteen hours and you're padding through the cold streets of Moscow looking for a man named Abram. Abram can get you to Kiev under the radar for a less than your maximum cash advance on your Capital One card. You find him in the coffee house where he is supposed to be.
"All of me loves all of you," he said, pressing an open palm against her bare chest.
She smiled, and Victor's heart became liquid and poured a warmth from the center of his body all the way to his fingertips. They kissed. Victor wasn't a young man, yet he knew that this moment had the potential to be the best moment of his entire life. Knowing that, he savored it, allowed his eyes to linger on Adriana's face and shoulders and breasts. He breathed in her scent and delighted. She had said yes...finally. The $90,000 ring he had given her was the only thing she was wearing now. It glinted in the candlelight whenever she moved her hand. Victor couldn't stop smiling and kissing her. He didn't just want to possess her. He wanted all of himself inside of her, wanted his entire body to be surrounded by her entire body.
"All of you?" she asked. "Even this?" She placed her finger on his nose.
"Even this?" She place her finger on a mole on his upper chest.
She stopped talking suddenly. Her eyes focused on something above him, then went dull and dimmed. She slumped away from him, landing askew on the floor. Before he knew what was happening, a grizzled man replaced her in front of him.
"What?" Victor asked.
"You speak English don't you?" he asked.
"Yes. What is this?" Victor tried to push back, but the man held him against the couch. "What did you do to Adriana?"
Anger and panic rose in his throat like vomit, and he surged up from the couch intent on thrashing and killing the man. But as he rose, something pierced his chest, plunging hard through bone and sinking deep into a lung. Immediately he fell back, breathing suddenly the hardest thing he had ever done.
"You're dying now," the man said calmly. "You're dying because you stole thirty thousand dollars from me, and there's nothing any law enforcement anywhere was willing to do about it. You were failed by the Knoxville Police Department, the FBI, Interpol, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs here in Kiev. If they had only been willing to do the work that I did, you wouldn't be dead now. It was really easy to find you. I'm no forensic genius and here I am in your apartment. Too bad. You could have just been going to jail now."
Victor was confused and scared. Stole? He stole? No. The Russians were the thieves, corrupting the economy so that the only way anyone could make a real living here was by running scams. And the Ministry...they didn't care about crime. They just cared about protecting the oligarchs. What was he to have done? He never stole much from anyone. Thirty thousand dollars was nothing to an American. Americans were all protected by their banks and their credit cards, and they could always make more. Thirty thousand dollars. What a stupid, stupid thing to die in this way...
"Check this out, Barton," the IT technician said as he entered the detective's office. "On the Lang case."
"You got something?" Jonas asked. "Tell me."
"The kid was a goddamn genius," the tech said.
Great. Not only was this the most gruesome murder he'd ever come across, now it was going to be the death of an internet Mozart to top it off. "What'd you find?"
"It looks like our victim didn't have such a clean nose after all. He had been cooking up some code, and it turns out that his computer was the source of the code that facilitated the big department store data breach."
"What was it? Forty, fifty million credit cards exposed?"
"And this kid did that?"
"Well, not himself. He wrote the code and apparently sold it."
Barton flung his pen to his desk and stared hard at his own computer, still a mainframe terminal decades after those had gone out like eight-tracks. A kid with a machine bought at Best Buy could wreak havoc on the country, and get in so much trouble as to wind up dead. Now he had forty to fifty million people who had lost billions of dollars to this kid's genius. The suspect pool had just exploded.
"Who'd he sell it to?"
"Some Ukrainian dude."
Like an accordion of infinite size, the pool of suspects condensed back down. "Okay. Let me get a hold of the FBI. This one's going up the flagpole."
Home is still the basement apartment it was two weeks ago. You pull up into the shared drive and sigh at the steps that plunge down to your front door. You know that when you open that door the musty smell of mildew will fill your nostrils and it will smell like failure. A man provides for his family. And you've tried your best, but you're not nearly as good a husband as you are a warrior. Taking the contract work in Afghanistan had enabled you to save up the down payment for the house even though it meant twelve months away from the family. The house was going to change everything. In the house, the kids would each have had their own room. In the house, your wife would have a big kitchen and a gas stove just like Emeril. There would have been a backyard and cookouts and a garage that would fill up with the detritus of an active life: skies, boogie boards, bicycles, and balls. Basketballs, volleyballs, soccer balls, and footballs. Instead, you come home to this, this low-class din of dank one level up from hell. You slam the gearshift into park and shut the truck off. The apartment door opens, and out rushes three year-old Daniel. "Daddy!!" he yells, rushing the truck, and despite everything that has transpired, you can't wipe the smile off your face.
Some cases are easier than others. Barton had just put the period on the end of the summary that wrapped up the investigation of the theft of an advanced copying machine from a graphics studio. Turns out each machine has a unique imprint on the copies it makes. Turns out it was an inside job by one of the firm's employees.
"Barton," the Chief said, barging into the office.
"Sure, Chief," he said. "I have a minute."
"There's some news on the Lang murder."
"Victor Kirin, the man who paid Lang for the code, was found dead this morning. Both he and his girlfriend were stabbed to death. Each had a single puncture wound. Hers right through the heart. His through the lung. Surgical precision."
"That's got be our guy."
"I would say so."
The chief shook his head. "The FBI got there and turned the place over. Nothing. No sign of forced entry. No prints. No murder weapon. Nothing. It's like they were killed by a ghost."
"Just like Jayden."
"And we only have forty million people who would have wanted these two dead."
"Yep. Count me as one of them."
"I got my checking account statement yesterday and I had five thousand less dollars than I was supposed to have."
"You shop at Target?"
The chief nodded.
"So where were you on the night of Jayden Lang's murder?"
The chief's perpetual scowl turned into a smile that conveyed more ire than his scowl ever could. "Lay off, Barton."
Barton chuckled. "Don't worry, Chief. Whoever did this had a lot more self-control and precision than you would ever be capable of."
"He's a hero if you ask me," the Chief said. "I'm the goddamn head of this department and there's nothing I can do about my five thousand dollars. It makes you feel impotent to have this happen. We can file a report, the bank will cover the loss, and the FBI will add it to their analysis, but you and I both know that whoever actually orchestrated this is never going to be caught by the authorities."
"So, who would know this, be able to do the legwork to find Lang and Kirin, then execute them without leaving a trace?" Barton was uncomfortable with where this train of thought was taking him.
The Chief lifted his eyebrows.
Barton had never served in the military. He had gone to college, then law school, and took a lateral leap into law enforcement. The Chief, though, had been a Marine and knew a thing or two about the capabilities of highly trained men.
"Snake-eater, probably," he said.
"Special Forces Operator."
"There aren't that many of those, are there?" Barton asked, feeling like he was onto something.
"More than you would think. But, whoever did this was the elite of the elite."
"What? A SEAL?"
The Chief sneered. It wasn't often that he actually knew something Barton didn't. "There are units more elite than that."
Barton shuddered at the notion of eliteness being tied to an ability to carry out this gruesome of a thing. Shouldn't elite mean something beautiful and noble? There was neither here. This, this was brutal and unnecessary. "Well, let's get a list."
The Chief turned and left the office, shaking his head at Barton's naivety all the way to his own office. Barton shrugged, and picked up the phone. "Get me the Inspector General for the Department of Defense."
Once you've spent more than an hour or so in the apartment, you no longer smell the mildew. You sit on your couch, the one year-old climbing on your knees, three year-old Danny banging a plastic baseball bat against the leaning indoor basketball goal. What you'd really like is a bourbon, but you've sworn off drink, so you endure the ruckus sober.
"Honey!" Your wife's sweet voice carries through the tiny place from the foyer. Home from her job at the supermarket, she enters the den waving a thin envelope. "This is from the bank."
"The bank? Open it."
She tears open the envelope, and any excitement she had flees as she reads the letter.
"Declined," she says matter-of-factly. And that's what rips your heart out, not that the loan was actually denied, but that the fact of it being denied isn't a surprise to your wife. It's just one more failure in a long string of failures. The predictable outcome of a loser like you trying to get something nice for the people you love. You want to explain, but you say nothing.
"It says due to cash, insufficient income, and credit," she reads. "What does that mean?"
She doesn't know what she's asked. What does it mean? It means the house was never going to be yours, that those who stole from you and paid the ultimate price for doing so were not in the end responsible for this outcome. Thirty thousand dollars or a zero balance, your lot in life is simple: sit on this couch or go back to the killing fields. In truth, you've made your decision already. You made it when you went after the punk kid and followed the trail to Ukraine. In fact, you made it long before that, with each and every moment in which you chose mission over family. If you love them, you'll leave. If you care about anyone, you'll go back and do the only thing you've ever been good at. Isn't that what the experts say? Find something you love and are good at and do it?
"It means that you deserve better," you say. You rise from the couch, pat Danny on the head, kiss the little one, hug your wife, and leave.
Your future is a high desert where freedom weighs 147 grains and wears a steel jacket. It's an inhospitable terrain where jurisdiction has no translation.
Barton had the contents of a file strewn over his desk. The case had all makings of a great mystery. There was a femme fatale by the name of Rose and her accomplice, name as yet undetermined. They were running a scam in which they posed as a sales team for a prominent home security company and tricked homeowners into giving up their security codes. It was the kind of crime that took up ninety percent of Barton's day. He looked up to find the Chief standing in his doorway.
"How long have been there?" he asked.
The Chief looked at his watch. "Two minutes. See. I don't barge in, and my time gets wasted."
"Ever think of clearing your throat or just saying, 'Excuse me'?"
"No." The Chief thrust himself into the office. "You should know the Lang case is closed."
"They caught him?"
"No. Closed due to national security interests."
"I don't know what to tell the parents," the Chief confessed.
"Tell them he's collateral damage in the War on Terror."
The Chief started shaking his head and didn't stop. "Barton... You're of no use whatsoever." He wandered away, his head still bobbing like some inane doll, the sad truth not enough. It never was.