One look at his face as he walked into the room told her the story but she asked anyway. She knew he needed her to ask. "Termination, then?"
"Yeah." He sighed and sat down in the chair across from her. She picked up the rifle lying on the table and began to clean it.
"I hate these jobs," he said, with more emotion in his voice than she would have expected.
"You told me once, long ago, that they were necessary." She slanted a look at him. "Changed your mind?"
"Well then. When's it to be?"
"Tonight. The old man will be with him."
She raised her brows at that. "Why?"
"This one's different."
"Then let him do it. He's done it before." She was surprised at her own tone. Just part of the job, wasn't it? Bitterness was unseemly.
He shook his head slowly, his eyes distant. "No, I don't think he can this time."
"Come on," she scoffed.
"No, straight up. Bodie means a lot to him."
She stilled; encouraged the stillness to cover her like ice. Emotions had no place here. "Then it's his duty."
Silence then and she could have let it drop but she needed to know. Chose to know. Her hands resumed the familiar cleaning ritual. "Bodie. He was with CI5 wasn't he?"
He stirred, coming back from wherever it was his thoughts led him. "Yeah. One of the best, if not the best."
"You knew him?"
"A little; not well."
"I thought he was one of the safely retired."
"Come on, what happened?" She sighted the barrel. "Did he run amok?"
"Well then, what? Why termination at this late date?"
He slipped into instruction mode. She thought she'd cured him of that. "Why does the old man ever order termination?"
"Playing God appeals to him."
He smiled for the first time. "True enough."
She waited for more, and when he stayed silent, she sighed and repeated the well-known words: "'The former agent, unless properly secured, is a danger to himself and to the public.' It's all hogwash, you know."
Unable to answer, to her own chagrin, she shrugged and concentrated on the gun in her hands.
"So why do you do it?" he asked.
She looked at him earnestly. "They pay me very well."
Her reward was a rude noise and a twitch that might have been a grin. "I reckon we're putting the poor bastards out of their misery," he said lightly.
"Like mad dogs, eh?" Her voice was sharper than she had intended.
He rubbed a hand over his face. "It's responsibility. We're accountable to the public, even for our own."
"If it makes you feel better. The ones we kill don't see it that way."
"They signed into the game. Do you think they didn't know the score? How it was going to go down? It'll happen to you and me, in our turn."
"Not if I get them first," she vowed.
He smiled again, tightly. "That's the game. Don't deny it's part of the attraction. And whoever comes for you will be holding all the cards--just like us."
Their eyes met and held, and she wondered if he knew the vow had been for him, as well. She set the gleaming rifle down, gently, and kept her eyes lowered.
"You haven't told me why now, why Bodie," she said.
His voice was quiet. "His partner died."
"So, with Doyle dead and Bodie out of CI5, he becomes too much of a security risk for the old man."
"Bring him back into the fold."
"He won't come."
"He understands the risk, surely?"
"Of all men, I think he understands it the best."
She raised her head quickly. "Is it suicide, then?"
His eyes shifted to the window. "I shouldn't think so. No. More...challenging fate."
"He'll fight us?"
"Oh yes. I reckon that's why the old man is leading him to us personally. Bodie might not be expecting a move this quickly." He looked down at his hands.
"Yes, to the old man most of all. But like I said, Bodie means a lot to him."
"Putting him out of his misery."
"You could say that."
She shook her head. "Mad bastards all of them. Us too." He said nothing to that and after a few minutes she continued. "So the partner was the chain to CI5? Or to the old man?"
He thought about it. "No. Or at least--it worked the other way around. Bodie was always closer to the old man than Doyle. After they left, Bodie was the one who kept in proper contact. Bodie always understood the unwritten rules better than Doyle did."
"But they were allowed to retire, to leave?"
"Bodie secured Doyle?" she hazarded.
"They secured each other." He was looking steadily at her now, and she felt the warmth of his attention.
"And with Doyle dead, Bodie is prone to go on a rampage?" She made her skepticism plain.
He shrugged. "I doubt it. But it leaves him unsecured. Unpredictable. You understand that."
"His relationship with the old man--"
"--isn't strong enough. It won't keep him here now that Doyle is gone. Before, well, they could each be used to control the other. They were open to the proper manipulation. They must have been well aware of it--must have deemed the price worth the rewards. Why do any of us choose this life? Choose to stay when we realize what end will come?" His eyes were narrowed, focused on her. The intensity a fire she would never choose to leave. What risk would she accept for it? What risk would she court for it?
He spoke again. "We all are secured one way or another. Even the old man. But Bodie--now there is nothing left that he values more than his own mind and will. So he's loose; so we're to terminate him."
"It's a cold business."
"It's life with George Cowley."
-- THE END --
Originally published in Second Variation on the Theme of B and D, Keynote Press, February 1999