Chapter 5

Wet Work

BY PHILIP NUTMAN

Corvino, pulling the trigger...

... and the film loop turns again. Twenty years the same image; slight variations, but ultimately the same: blood, death.

The bullet takes the Negro straight between the eyes, exiting the back of the cranium, spraying bone, blood, cerebral matter over the wall.

A professional assassin, his aim is true. A dead shot.

The body of the janitor lies on the floor, legs splayed open in a V pattern. What is left of the head lolls to the left. Above the corpse, a crimson skid mark.

Corvino, exhaling.

So easy. Squeeze a trigger, snuff out a candle. Another life taken.

He steps between the disorganized desks that clutter the classroom, proceeding to check the supply cupboard.

Empty.

From down the hallway the sound of breaking glass; three rapid-fire shots.

The brain, Harris. The brain.

Silence hangs heavy in the still atmosphere.

(...the white room in the apartment block overlooking the Potomac. Simple, Spartan, befitting an assassin. The two abstract paintings in the style of Pollack. One composed of blue and orange slashes, paradoxically both dynamic and tranquil. The other a red arc on white, like a seppuku mat...)

Harris's aim is deteriorating under the stress of the past week.

(...his room, his retreat from the insanity of the world's war zones, where only his eye for accuracy had kept him alive... Vietnam... the Middle East... Nicaragua...)

They call him One-Shot, or Mr. Trigger. Dominic Corvino, the most reliable wet-work operative the Department owns. Guns are his friends. In the art of killing he is a master craftsman.

Now the stakes have changed.

(...his sanctuary defiled... the shadowy figure suddenly appearing in the doorway... the hiss of a suppressor... and a white-hot poker of pain piercing his chest...)

Now it is all down to basics.

He sits on a desk, pulling a Camel from his chest pocket, lights it, and exhales. The stench of death an old companion, the taste of a cigarette rare pleasure. Smoke catches at the back of his throat. Too dry, the tobacco stale. Corvino grinds it out with the heel of his right boot as he stands, checking the clip in his .45 automatic.

In life only one thing is certain: change.

The whole apple cart has fallen; not to the left or the right but straight down on its axle, spilling the load in every direction so there is no escape from the fallout.

Strange times in Casablanca.

All the same: the streets and suburbs of the world's cities awash with blood. Friend against friend, brother against sister.

(...followed instantaneously by a suffocating weight of blackness...)

Survival instinct overriding sentiment. There is no time to care, just the will to survive.

Corvino catches sight of his reflection in the window, the encroaching darkness defining the face that stares back at him, illuminated from above by cold electric light. Shadows pool his dark brown, deep-set Italian eyes, framed by his thick, black brows, the pallor of his skin wan and mottled in the unnatural light. His mouth is a faint, terse red slash. The nature of his work, the index of his experiences, do not encourage levity; he is a serious man who performs serious tasks with irrevocable results.

He scratches at his jawline, his fingernails grating against the fringe of stubble that coats his cheeks. Layers of dry skin adhere to the nails. He flicks them away.

Lack of proper nourishment.

Corvino steps into the corridor. To his left, Skolomowsky and Lewis stand outside their respective classrooms, the latter's navy blue jacket splashed with dark patches. Skolomowsky smiling. Cordite and the copper aroma of blood drift in the stale air of the high school. Corvino looks to the right. No sign of Harris. As he is about to move toward the room, Harris appears.

"Clear," he states in his harsh Brooklyn accent.

Corvino nods, turns to Skolomowsky and Lewis.

"Ditto," says the Pole.

Corvino pulls the radio from its holster as he replaces his Colt automatic in its sheath under his left arm.

"Alpha to Cleanup. Fourth floor sweep and clean complete. Start bagging them."

He signals visual confirmation to the bag boys in the parking lot from the wide windows next to the stairwell. Ten men in teams of two, each with a body bag, trot in formation up the steps and through the open doors.

"Are there any other rooms in this building that have not been swept?" He addresses the question to Lewis, but Skolomowsky answers.

"No," the big man replies. "Every inch of this place that's worth checking has been covered. We've got them all."

Corvino nods slowly. "Any resistance?"

"Nope," Lewis says.

Corvino notices a bullet hole on Lewis's jacket, fringed by a brown stain.

"Nada," mutters Harris.

"Not enough," Skolomowsky adds, smiling. "Too easy."

Corvino looks penetratingly at the Pole. Skolomowsky's passion for bloodletting threatens to cloud his professionalism again.

(...Tehran... Juzl dead... Lewis wounded... Skolomowsky's cock-up? ... mission aborted...)

Skolomowsky: professional killer; professional sadist.

He distrusts the Pole, who has perverse tastes.

(...Nashville... Skolomowsky... the remains of a prostitute... skinned alive... the motel room awash with blood... unnecessary...)

Skolomowsky continues to smile at Corvino.

"Something wrong?"

Before he responds, the first duo of bag boys appear at the top of the stairs.

"Where?" one inquires.

"Each room... No," he says finally to the Pole. "Check weapons, then return to the parking lot."

Corvino turns his gaze to the window, aware Skolomowsky is still staring at him. On the horizon small pockets of fire pulse in the South Washington suburbs. He looks down at his gun, pulling it free from the velcro strap, pops the clip, and replaces the cartridge with a full one.

Just in case.

A second duo run up the steps. He points to the nearest classroom. Lewis, Skolomowsky, and Harris file past him, heading to the first floor.

He has dispelled the question of what is happening. Like any good government employee he obeys orders; speculation is for the Think Tank, a foot soldier merely carries out orders.

Below him Lewis, Skolomowsky, and Harris gather in the parking lot next to the two gray armored vehicles. Bag boys and Beta team emerge from the school entrance to join them.

Corvino pulls the cigarette pack from his pocket without thinking, places a smoke between his dry lips, pauses, removes it, replaces it in the box.

He screws up the pack and tosses it to one side.

A sharp chill has settled in the air. Lewis paces by the truck, his M16 slung over his shoulder; expression calm, his movements indicate his internal feelings: stress, too many sleepless nights, and the psychological aftershock of what the Hit teams refer to as AZ - After Zombification -  clearly taking their toll on his flayed nerves. Corvino can see he is a prime candidate for postoperation crack-up.

"Hey, Lewis," the Pole says. "Lewis. I'm talking to you."

Lewis does not respond.

"Lewis. You're slowing up. You hear me?"

Corvino is walking across the parking lot as Skolomowsky speaks.

"...I said you're losing it. Just like in Tehran."

"Sweep complete?" Hutson, the Beta team leader asks Corvino.

As he is about to answer, a movement at the right corner of his field of vision: Lewis swinging the butt of his M16 in an arc to connect with Skolomowsky's jaw. A crunch as the Pole backflips to the tarmac. Lewis shrieks, diving on his downed partner, his mouth wide.

Corvino pulls the .45 from his holster, squeezing the trigger as the barrel comes into line with the side of Lewis's head: Lewis, at Skolomowsky's throat, tearing out the soft flesh and chewy esophageal tract. Dark blood fountains in the night air.

He's missed!

The thought frags his concentration as he squeezes off a second shot. That, too, goes wild. But the third finds its target and the right side of Lewis's head explodes. Lewis deflates over the Pole's still twitching body.

Corvino's mind is out of sync.

He's missed.

One-Shot Corvino, Mr. Trigger, has actually missed.

The Pole is still moving. The squeal he made as Lewis ripped out his trachea ceases, replaced by a harsh, rasping wheeze as his lungs draw in oxygen directly through the gaping throat wound. The Pole heaves the corpse off him, sits up. The wheezing increases, his shrunken eyes retreating farther into the withered sockets. Like a stunned yet still enraged bull, he lumbers to his feet, his face a rictus of rage.

Harris opens fire with his .357 magnum.

The first bullet catches the Pole in the groin. He bucks to one side but continues standing. The second catches him in the chest, exiting with a sound like snapping branches. The third takes his right arm off at the elbow.

What the fuck is Harris playing at?

The head, always the head; Corvino aims and fires...

...and the Pole's face disappears, the body sagging to the ground with a wet thud.

Corvino turns to Harris. The team member's face is a blank chalkboard, his features an unwritten text.

"Once we get back to Capitol Hill you're off duty, Harris."

Harris says nothing. He stares with empty eyes, his magnum smoking in his fist.

Corvino moves away from the vacant assassin to face Beta team, all of whom have their guns up.

"Clean this mess up," he nods in the direction of Skolomowsky and Lewis. "Let's load up and get this chuck wagon back to the White House. The president needs fresh meat."

Two members of Beta place their Ml6s against the nearest truck and pull fresh body sacks from the vehicle's rear.

In the space of one minute, total change.

It begins with a crescent of muzzle flashes and a thunderous roar.

Fifteen seconds: As Corvino turns, a bullet catches Hutson in the throat; he gags, blood spurting from his mouth as he stumbles back; two bullets take Corvino in the stomach, spinning him around; five Cleanup members fall; some begin blasting back with their Ml6s at the gunfire that comes from the perimeter of the parking lot; Corvino's .45 jerks in his hands as he pulls off five rapid shots: blood pumps from his stomach where a section of small intestine bulges from the large hole in his combat jacket; behind him, a figure tries to stand as more bullets rip into its torso; others drop to the ground.

Thirty seconds: Popping the spent clip from his pistol, Corvino speed-reloads, continues to fire, oblivious to his damaged internal organs. A bullet grazes his forehead, sending a stream of red into his eyes; he fires blind, tugging another cartridge from his ammo belt as he goes into a crouch that pushes his viscera through the now gaping hole; brains leave a head; the downed men writhe on the gore-soaked ground as wave upon wave of bullets tear into their bodies.

Forty-five seconds: Corvino keels over, his gun spinning from his hand: He twitches spastically as he tries to crawl toward a truck. The parking lot is a firework display; as if punctuating the performance, one of the trucks (the one toward which Corvino crawls) explodes as a stray shell hits the gas tank, sending a fireball up up into the darkness, flaming gasoline spraying his smashed body.

Fifty-seven seconds: Corvino continues to crawl, his intestines uncoiling snakelike as his body burns. He is dying for the second time. There is no pain.

Sixty seconds: Corvino fades to black.

Nick Packard pulled the clip from the Ingram. His ears were ringing. Someone shouted, but whatever was called did not register against the pealing bells sounding out in glorious jubilation inside his head.

The young policeman, who had joined the Washington force only six months before, had hardly ever used a gun. Now the Ingram felt like an extension of his right arm. And hot shit, did it feel good!

Captain Stipe waved to the group composed of cops and civilians to advance. The flaming truck illuminated the carnage. Several gore-slicked zombies thrashed on the ground like maggots. One was trying to lift an M16 with a broken arm, so Packard fired a quick burst at the creature's head.

Take that, you friggin' sonofabitch fuck-faced flesh-eater!

"No more shooting!" shouted Stipe. Packard's ears were beginning to clear.

"Okay!"

There were thirty of them: seven cops and a ragged assortment of men and women, their ages ranging from late teens to mid-fifties. All were armed to the teeth with a wide selection of handguns, rifles, axes, pitchforks, a couple of crossbows, and numerous knives. One kid, a zit-covered geek, even had a homemade flamethrower, a Hudson sprayer/blow-torch combo that, despite its primitivism, could really kick ass.

"Packard," Stipe signaled to the young cop. "You're keen to wipe these things out, so finish 'em off."

"Fuckin' A."

Packard fired three short bursts and the last of the dead meat stopped moving. All but one.

What remained of Dominic Corvino rolled over, a final twitch of the death nerve. Packard plucked his .38 special from his hip holster and fired twice into the burning head of what had once been Dominic Corvino.

Hell, you couldn't be too careful these days.

Stipe walked over to a bullet-riddled body that lay face down on the tarmac. The police captain pushed it over with his foot. "Government assholes."

"Say again?" Packard said as he drew near.

"These are government dicks. I recognize this one."

"So what?" Packard hawked up a ball of phlegm, which he spat on the creature's face. "They're still fuckin' zombies. Dead scum." He kicked the body, his boot breaking a rib.

"Yes, but these were organized, right? They were working together, not running rampant. I mean, if some of these things are retaining intelligence, we're in deeper shit than we think." Stipe wiped the back of a hand across his forehead.

He went to the back of the truck that was not on fire and unzipped a body bag. It contained the corpse of a small child, a little girl about seven, shot through the chest, her once rosy cheeks dotted with chickenpoxlike splashes of dried blood.

The child had been normal.

"Sheeit!" Packard's eyes widened. "This still gets to me, especially the kids. So what do you reckon?" He continued to look at the dead girl, her dimpled cheeks frozen marble under the light of the police captain's torch.

Stipe turned to him, his lips pursed.

"I think it's time we visited the White House."

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