Penny For Your Thoughts

The goons keep coming for Penny, but now something’s different – it all seems too easy. Could someone be pulling strings behind the scenes? All Penny Cain wants to do is kill people, but there are people in the world who would like her talents put to better use…

‘Penny For Your Thoughts’ continues the darkly comic adventures of sociopathic assassin Penny Cain.

In an empty apartment, six stories up in a Budapest suburb, Penny Cain headbutted a man she’d met less than an hour ago and smiled with satisfaction as she felt the bridge of his nose give way. He staggered back, blood gushing from his broken nose. One of his eyes was already swollen closed and he now moved with a noticeable limp. But he was still standing. She hadn’t escaped entirely unscathed herself – she had a nasty cut above her eye, an angry bruise she could feel spreading across her shoulder and, to cap it all off, she’d broken a nail. It was all she could do to maintain a sunny demeanour at a time like this. “Who sent you?!” she bellowed, kicking the man smartly in the gut and sending him crashing against the wall.

“Fuck you!” he screamed back, pulling out a knife and making a wild slash at her. He swung wide by nearly a foot, a clear sign his depth-perception was suffering due to his injured eye. She grabbed his arm and twisted the knife from his grip, then drove the point of her other elbow into his spine, knocking him down to his knees. She kept hold of his arm, painfully hyper-extending it as he went down.

“Answer me!” She kicked at the gun on the floor that she’d taken right from his hand just a few moments ago. “Mobsters don’t carry weapons like that! Which is it? CIA? MI6?” She narrowed her eyes. “You’re not with the fucking Russians, are you? That would be a real buzzkill, shithead!” She screamed this last into his face, making him flinch.

“What does it matter who I’m with?” the man asked, spitting out a broken, bloody tooth. “You’re going to kill me anyway, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am.” She kicked him in the head and he went rolling away across the room with a groan. “Honestly, I thought you might be a bit more impressive than the other goons they sent after me. After all you managed to do this,” she gestured at the bleeding cut on her forehead, “and gave me a whack across the back that just hurts like all fuckery.” She rolled her shoulder with a wince. “But…” She walked over, and found the man motionless, his eyes rolled back in his head. “Oh what?” She tilted her head back, holding out her arms, imploring the heedless heavens for mercy, or at least some kind of explanation. “I barely touched him! This is complete bullshit!”

She knelt down, grabbing his chin roughly and tilted his face from side to side, trying to see where the mortal blow had landed. Then she saw the gap where the tooth had been, and the neat little hole in his gums that had been left. She sighed and scrabbled around on the floorboards for a few seconds, looking for the tooth. When she found it she straightened and held it up to the pale light filtering in through the curtainless window across from her. “Yep. As I thought. Fake. And you were probably hiding a cyanide capsule underneath weren’t you, you little cunt.” She flung the false tooth at him and was about to walk over and give the corpse a good kicking when the window smashed and a bullet flashed about an inch from her nose and embedded itself in the wall behind her. She turned slowly to regard the smoking hole with a calmly arched eyebrow. “Well…fuck.”

She flung herself back against the wall beside the window as another shot rang out across the street. Then, quickly, risked peeking around to try and figure out where the sniper was. Almost directly across from her, a sash dropped over a window in another faceless apartment block. No more shots came. She frowned and did a few quick calculations. Then she looked accusingly at the dead man in the room. “You’re not playing fair, buddy – I didn’t bring a friend, did I?” The most frustrating thing was that she wouldn’t have any time to clean up after herself. Hopefully she’d be long gone by the time they ran her prints. Still, it was an annoying loose end. Moving fast, she picked up the knife and the gun and tucked them both into her belt, making sure her coat hid any suspicious bulges, then made her exit.

Down on ground level, it was a cold, early-Spring day. Winter was stubbornly clinging on to the Northern Hemisphere like a political commentator holding his hands over his ears and singing tunelessly to himself as the revolutionaries storm the Bastille. Penny crossed the road with only a perfunctory glance either way, happy to let cars scream to a halt behind her in the name of making good time. She picked up her pace, sprinting into the other building’s lobby and then taking stock once she was inside, even as she moved. The lift was no good. Too dangerous. But as luck would have it it was on the ground floor and she pressed the button to open the door, then ducked inside long enough to press every button and send it on its laborious way up the building. Anyone with half a brain would know how to override that, but she might as well make things as difficult as possible, in case she was dealing with another moron.

She barged through the door to the staircase and headed up as quickly as possible. Stealth was important, but speed would serve her better right now. She was quite confident she could overpower whoever was waiting for her, and he – or she – would know perfectly well that she was coming for them. No point being quiet about it. Might as well try to scare the fucker. She reached the floor she knew she’d been shot at from and went straight into the long corridor that spanned the width of the building. There was an open door about halfway down and, at the far end, an open window leading out into a fire escape. A cold breeze stirred the stained curtains hanging there. “Why does everyone always assume I’m as stupid as they are?” she sighed.

Penny walked down the corridor calmly, making sure to close the door to the stairwell loudly behind her, until she came to the open door. It opened inwards, on the side closest to her and she flattened herself against the wall. She waited there for almost a minute until she heard some movement from within. It was very quiet at first, just someone shuffling, maybe peering out from a hiding place. She held her breath, straining as much as possible to hear everything from inside the apartment, trying to picture the layout, trying to imagine exactly where the sniper was now. There was a creak of floorboards, and a very slight dimming of the light on the carpet at her feet. The blinds were down now, of course, but she could tell someone had moved in front of the window. The shadow changed slightly, and now she could hear very soft footsteps coming closer. She had to time it just right. How large was the room? There was no way to work it out; she’d have to rely on her instincts. The man – tall, bald, looked Eastern-European – was at the door when she thrust her hand around the corner and grabbed the handle, jerking the door closed in such a way that he was sandwiched between it and the frame. He let out a strangled cry and she kicked him in the face as hard as she could manage while still holding onto a door knob.

He tried to wrestle the door free of her grip and she let him win, releasing it abruptly so that he fell backwards on his behind. He stared up at her stupidly as she kneed him in the temple. He had a gun in his hand but she relieved him of it by stamping until he let go. “It’s one thing to botch as assassination,” she observed as she hauled him up to his feet, “quite another to do it twice in one day. Who do you work for? I want to e-mail them with some pointers.”

“Fuck you, bitch!” the sniper said as he spat in her face. He had a thick Russian accent.

“That is a horrible, horrible habit,” Penny said, blinking the saliva away and kneeing him in the crotch. He doubled over and then she grabbed him hard between the legs before he could fall. “Just for forgetting how to be a gentleman, I’m going to remind you of how important it really is by relieving you of the obligation. They do say you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.” He took a swing at her and she grabbed his fist out of the air and crunched it with a vice-like grip. “Boys like you, they think they don’t need to keep in shape. I know how it is. You swagger around, using your size, your weight, to intimidate people. But how much strength do you really have? Those muscles don’t keep trim by themselves you know. And then there’s the smoking, the drinking, the drugs, I’m sure. Someone told you to come here and kill a woman, you thought it was money for nothing. Hilarious.” She finally let him fall to the floor and then knocked him out cold with a precision kick to the head. He slumped lifelessly to the floorboards.

Penny looked around. Like the apartment across the street, this one was empty. There was a case, no doubt holding a neatly packed-away sniper rifle, next to the window with the blinds down. She closed the door gently behind her then made a quick sweep of the apartment. There was no one else there, and nothing else worth seeing really. Clearly she’d been led into a trap: the other man had been sent to draw her to the other building, then this guy was supposed to have shot her. It only went wrong because he missed. She pulled on the blind and sent it rattling back up. The window was almost right opposite the room she’d been in a few minutes ago. And, when she peered across and made out the shape of the other man’s corpse still lying there, she saw what an easy target she must have made. She glanced back at the unconscious sniper. “How the fuck did you miss that?” she demanded.

She walked over to him. “Hey! Wake up now!” But no amount of slapping brought him around, and she realised the same trick had been played on her again. She let him go with a bitten off curse and then searched him for anything useful. Not that she was stupid enough to think he’d have any ID with him but… “Hmmm…” She pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. An address, written in Cyrillic. It was somewhere outside the city, right in the sticks. Maybe where he was supposed to rendezvous afterwards? She got out her phone and Googled it quickly. Satellite view showed her a featureless sprawl of grey buildings, ringed with what might have been a chain link fence. There was a helipad too, and no indication of what the facility might be. “Are you kidding me?” she asked the dead man, waving the screen at him. “You’ve got the address of your base in your pocket? You miss a shot like that? Come on.”

It was a trap, and an obvious one. But that piqued Penny’s interest. Besides, she’d just been denied some fun – not once, but twice – and she wanted to meet the organisation that could pay two (more-or-less) trained assassins enough to kill themselves just to try and trap Penny Cain.

“And I wanted to do some shopping this afternoon,” she snarled as she stalked out of the empty room.

*

Dusk was in full swing as Penny scrambled up a wooded rise to a position overlooking the base in the valley below. It was as the satellite images had promised – non-descript grey buildings, looking official and vaguely soviet, which was hardly unusual in this part of the world. A ragged-looking fence surrounded everything, with Cyrillic signs warning everyone to stay out. She could make out the dark shape of a guard patrolling the perimeter with a big dog padding along beside him. It was quite an extensive facility, but looked laughably easy to access. Only a civilian would be deterred by such feeble defences.

There was a rustle from the trees to her left and she ducked down into the undergrowth to watch as another guard walked out. He didn’t have a dog, but he did have dark fatigues with no visible insignia. He had a submachine gun in his arms and, from the way he moved, Penny could see he was trained. She sized him up as he got closer. Military, certainly, but a little older than she might have expected. He had a grizzled look to him, and a few scars on his face. Probably a mercenary then. That fit with the two men who hadn’t tried to kill her earlier – if this was a set-up, you’d use hired hands, not your own people. She kept completely still as he passed within feet of her hiding place. Then shifted her leg just slightly. It was barely a muscle twitch, but it was enough to make the guard falter and miss a step. That was the only sign he’d heard, except for a sudden wariness to his movements. His hands moved on his gun. Then he changed direction, just slightly, without altering his pace, as if it was just part of his patrol. But his course would take him downhill, away from the ridge he ought to be guarding, and down into the cover of another copse.

Penny let him keep going then, once she judged he was out of earshot, gradually eased her way out from the brush. If she stood up, she’d be silhouetted against the purpling sky, and she wasn’t yet certain that the guard wouldn’t shoot to kill. Whoever was in charge of this place obviously wanted her here, and it couldn’t just be to gun her down – they’d had the chance to do that back in the city – but a gun was a gun, and she’d prefer to avoid being in one’s sights if she could avoid it. So she kept low, moving in a sort of crouching crawl down the hill, as quickly and as quietly as possible. She didn’t think there was much chance of another guard coming up on her unawares. This one and the one down by the fence were the only ones she’d seen and she had no reason to think they were patrolling in twos. Even in the fading light, she could make out the shape of the sentry in the trees. He’d stopped now, and was looking around nonchalantly, as if he’d seen or heard something closer to his position. But he was angled such that he could keep an eye on the patch of undergrowth she’d been hiding in in his peripheral vision.

Keeping her eyes on him, Penny pulled a stone free from the cold ground and sent it skimming into the bushes over to the guard’s left. It made a loud thunking noise at it hit a solid branch and she cursed under her breath. The guard’s gun was up, but it was trained on everything but the place the noise came from. Smart boy. She grabbed another stone, and this time knocked it on a branch lying right in front of her. Now he was wary, backing up slowly to give himself the widest field of fire possible as he moved his weapon across the entire hillside, watching and listening for any movement. Experimentally, she picked up a third stone, and this time tossed it over her shoulder blindly. It bounced off a tree with another thunk. The guard looked that way, and she could just make out the frown on his face. Then he actually seemed to relax. Penny nodded to herself. He put his gun down and kept walking, like nothing had happened.

Smiling very slightly, she stood up and ghosted across the intervening space to the trees. She knew perfectly well that she snapped twigs and rustled leaves as she moved, but the guard suddenly seemed to have gone deaf. He was probably little more than twenty feet from her as she ducked behind a tree to watch him. He kept on his patrol, but he’d slowed down, and he’d stop every couple of feet, pretending to listen for something. She pulled out the gun she’d taken from the first assassin earlier and aimed it directly at his head. Then she cocked it, loudly. He whirled on his heel, quick as a cat, and a blaze of gunfire rang out. She didn’t move an inch, but not one bullet hit her. She’d had the foresight to close her eyes, so her vision was clear as she looked at the guard in the dying light. He was blinking, trying to focus on her through the purple spots that were no-doubt clouding his vision. “Can I assume you’ve been expecting me?” she asked mildly.

He licked his lips. His gun was pointed right at her, but she knew she had nothing to fear now. That would change, she was certain, if she was fool enough to try shooting him herself. She held up her hands and dropped the gun. “Stay there,” he said in an accent she couldn’t place. Not Russian, certainly.

“You’d better call for help,” she suggested.

“You stay there!” he barked again.

“You put on a good show,” Penny went on, walking towards him in defiance of his orders, “all that sneaking around, getting behind me, not falling for the stone trick. But you made a mistake when you ignored the third one. Anyone really patrolling this area would be ready for more than one person. But you knew it was just little old me, didn’t you? Someone told you to expect Penny Cain. When you heard that third stone, you knew it was just me playing games. So you pretended to drop your guard, hoping I’d get cocky. And then what? You were trying to scare me? If your orders were to kill me, I’d already be dead. Well…I might at least have a new scar or two.”

The guard looked uncomfortable. There was something in his eyes Penny didn’t like. Mercenaries didn’t usually do things like this, at least not willingly. He must know he was in danger. But something stronger than fear of her was making him hold back. Who had that much money? Or maybe it was something else.

“Okay, put the gun down and let’s talk about this.” He shook his head. She could see the sweat trickling down his brow, see how his hands moved nervously on his gun. He was fighting every instinct he had right now. It was quite unpleasant to watch. She was only a few feet from him. “I know this is a trap,” she said in a low voice, “there’s no way I’m walking into that facility. Your employer must think I’m very stupid, but no one who could pay what it cost to keep a man like you at bay in a situation like this could possibly be that dumb. There’s no need for us to fight here. We have a common enemy, right?”

He didn’t say anything, but his gun stayed trained on her. He licked his lips again nervously.

“Let me make this simple: out here, right now, it’s you or me. If you aren’t going to pull that trigger, things are going to end pretty badly for you.”

Their gazes were locked. She knew, just from the expression in his eyes, from the cold blackness she saw there, that he was a killer. She’d seen it a thousand times. But this was a killer on a leash. Who was holding the other end? She saw his finger twitch, saw him cycle through all the possible outcomes in his head. She saw, in the most minute flicker of his cheek muscle, the very moment when he made his decision, and that was the very same moment that she flicked the knife from her sleeve and buried it in his eye socket. He stumbled backwards, the gun falling from his hands and, in a rare moment of human mercy, Penny stepped up behind him and broke his neck with one expert twist. He dropped to the floor, quite quite dead. “A shame,” she said, “but you’re as caught up in this as I am. No time to play. And you might not even deserve it.”

She considered taking his gun, but it was a little large and unwieldy for her taste, so she stuck with her stolen pistol. She retrieved her knife, wiping it off on the dead guard’s jacket, and hurried up the rise to her spot overlooking the facility. There were no guards to be seen now and night had truly fallen. There were no lights on. Part of her wanted to thumb her nose at whoever thought to trap her and waltz in there, brazen as anything. Let them try to kill her if they could. But, more likely, that wasn’t their aim. She’d spent years pissing off a lot of dangerous people. Penny Cain feared nothing, but if there was one thing she regarded with supreme distaste, it was the idea of a cage. Her enemies had imaginations far more twisted than hers and were capable of almost anything. She didn’t relish any plans they might have for her. But she had to do something…

She looked across the facility and saw, outside one warehouse, a truck with its rear doors open. She crouched down and waited. After a few minutes, two men came out of the warehouse carrying a crate, and loaded it up. Because of the dark and the distance, she couldn’t even guess what the crate might contain, but the truck was an armoured one, so it was likely to be important. More crates went on board, and she saw her opportunity to get to the real threat. She’d scouted out the whole area pretty thoroughly, and she knew there was a spot just a mile or so back up the road where a low bridge crossed the only way out of the valley. When that truck left, it’d pass beneath that bridge. And that’s where she’d be.

*

Penny was fortunate in that she’d never really required much sleep. Or food. In fact, she sometimes wondered if she had some sort of weird genetic condition that allowed her to pursue her aims with tireless strength as long as she wanted whatever it was badly enough. She’d probably have excelled in any number of fields, if she’d had the slightest interest in anything besides killing. All this went through her mind as she sat on the bridge – an overgrown heap of brick, long disused – in the shadows to one side, picking at her nails with the point of her knife. She really was pissed off about breaking that one. She had a bad habit of biting them, and she’d been trying to stop for months. She’d just started to get them looking nice. Life was difficult.

She was brought out of her reverie by the sound of a vehicle approaching from the direction of the mysterious facility. She leaned back further into the shadows, but she needn’t have worried – its lights were off. Dangerous, but hopefully they had better drivers than they did guards. She leaned out, judging its speed as best she could in the darkness. There was only the merest glimmer of a reflection on its bodywork; it was an overcast night. The sound told her more though. She crawled over to the middle of the bridge, eased herself to the very edge of the wall and, as the truck passed beneath, dropped neatly onto its roof. The fall was only a few feet, but she couldn’t be certain she wasn’t heard. She clung low as the bridge passed over her, then stayed exactly where she was, spread-eagled like that, just waiting for the truck to stop and be discovered. She wasn’t too worried about that: she was confident she could handle a couple of drivers, but it would mean not finding out where they were taking those crates of valuable…whatever it was.

Nothing happened. The truck just kept rumbling on through the night. She eased herself into a crouch, still keeping one hand on the heaving roof. It was a little precarious, but she had good balance. They were coming to a main road now: she could see the flashes of headlights in the middle distance. As if on cue, the truck’s own lights came on. Things were about to get risky. She scrambled towards the back of the truck and lowered herself down onto the back bumper. The road was a narrow track, really, so they weren’t going fast, but once they got on the highway, a woman clinging to the back of a vehicle was going to attract attention. She examined the lock on the back doors. It didn’t look too strong. She took out her gun and smashed it with the stock a few times until it came free. Someone in the front was certain to have heard that, even over the engine, but still nothing. That made her suspicious, but what else could she do? She leant back and let one door swing open, then jumped inside. As the motion of the truck brought the door back towards her, she grabbed the interior handle and closed it as gently as she could, then found a bolt to slide into place to keep it shut. “Handy,” she whispered to herself. Too handy, a voice in her brain said.

She carried a torch, and now lit it so she could see around. The interior of the truck was filled with the crates she’d seen being loaded up back at the facility, all stacked up neatly on shelves and secured in place with heavy cabling. Moving unsteadily on the heaving floor, she leant over the closest one. There was no window from the cab to the back, so she used the trick with the gun on its lock. She eased it open, her breath held and inside was…nothing.

“Huh?” She looked around, then became aware of a strong smell of vinegar. She stared down at the empty box, wondering what could possibly be causing it, then everything started to go dark and she fell limply to the floor, just as the truck ground to a halt.

*

“Miss Cain? Miss Cain? Are you feeling okay?”

She started into consciousness, aware of nothing except a muzzy feeling in her head and, a few seconds later, of pounding agony replacing it, like someone with a jackhammer was trying to dig his way out of her skull. “Oh! Oh fuck!” She pressed her hands to her head. She couldn’t even open her eyes to look around.

“Yes, I’m very sorry, Miss Cain, but we had to…”

“You fucker!” She could tell from his voice he was only a few feet from her and, even in the state she was in, even with her eyes closed, nothing would stand in the way of her fury. She lurched forward on unsteady legs and reached out with a hand, feeling the thrill of satisfaction that came only from a firm grip on another person’s windpipe. Instinctively, she reached to her belt for a knife, but there wasn’t one there.

“I wouldn’t…do that….Miss Cain…” the man said.

“What did you do to me?” She finally managed to open her eyes and saw she was choking a small man with a grey, neatly trimmed beat and an understated suit. His eyes were bulging amusingly. He tried to gurgle something, then pointed with his thumb over his shoulder. There was a man, in dark fatigues like the guard from the facility, pointing a very similar gun right at her. “Can he shoot straight?” she said, “or is he like the others?”

She decided not to test it out and released the little man, sending him staggering backwards and she slumped down in the chair she’d evidently just been sitting in. As her vision started to clear, she took stock of her surroundings. It was just a room. Empty, mostly, except for a battered-looking desk. There was a bare light bulb overhead. One exit: a heavy door, locked. There was something about the feel of the place that told her she was underground. A cage. “Where am I?” she demanded.

The man was massaging his throat. “Safe,” he croaked.

“Oh yeah? Then why did you gas me?”

He smiled faintly. “Sorry about that. Fentanyl gas. Sadly, ‘knockout gas’ belongs firmly to the realms of fiction.”

Penny was aware of the faint taste of vinegar in her mouth, and she worked her tongue to get rid of it. “Nerve gas? Was that absolutely necessary?”

“Would you have submitted to anything else?” He poured a glass of water from the decanter on the desk. The guard’s gun was still trained on her. “Here. This will help.”

“No thanks. You already poisoned me once.”

“Very well.” He drank it himself instead.

Penny looked around again. “Am I somewhere else, or back in the facility?”

“Somewhere else.”

“That’s something then. Was there anything there at all?”

“Nothing worth finding.”

“I knew it was a trap.”

“Yes,” the man said, “but you didn’t know the truck was a trap, did you?”

Penny rubbed her head. “Most people aren’t smart enough to pull something so elaborate, in my experience. My bad. Won’t happen again.”

“I hope not.”

She glared at him. “So, what now? Torture me to death? I warn you, my pain threshold is very high, and I know next to nothing about my clients. I’m just a hired killer. I don’t do espionage.”

“No indeed. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t involved in it.”

“Huh?”

“The best spies, Miss Cain, don’t even know they’re spies.”

“Unless someone has a camera in my head, I don’t fall into that category. I’ve never told anyone a thing about what I do.”

“Quite. But you’re well known, in the right circles. And that’s why I need to speak to you.”

“You could’ve just e-mailed.” She gave the room a good scan now, looking for any weaknesses. She couldn’t see any. One of these guys must have a key. The guard was the one she had to go for. But the little guy could be carrying a weapon too. He hadn’t stopped her strangling him, but that could all be part of the game. “Who are you?” she asked.

“You can call me Falcon.”

“I’m not going to though,” she snorted.

He looked slightly put out. “Fine. Just Frank then. Whatever makes you happy.”

“Nothing about this makes me happy, Frankie. I notice I’m not tied up though. You’re that confident.”

“We don’t intend to harm you.”

“Except for the nerve gas.”

“I already apologised for that.”

“Yeah, not enough.” She massaged her temples. “Can we cut to the chase? I kind of want to go home and get some sleep.”

“You won’t be going home, I’m afraid, Miss Cain. Unless you agree to my terms, you’ll never leave this room.”

“Fine, whatever. Just tell me what you want. I’m all fucking ears, Francis.”

He folded his arms and leant back on the desk. “All right. As I mentioned, you’ve come to the attention of a few people recently, Miss Cain.”

“I know, they keep sending people to be killed by me. It’s almost getting boring. I had to buy a bunch of new stuff just to keep it interesting. What did we all do before the internet, eh?”

“As I was saying, your name is bandied around in certain circles these days. You may not be aware of this, but you are a pawn in a much larger game than you imagine. Your employers have been many and varied, but they have been directing you with what appears to be a single will.”

Penny lifted an eyebrow. “You don’t say…”

“Yes indeed. Without knowing it, you have been an unwitting player in high-level corporate espionage. The targets you have disposed of with your customary…uh…aplomb…have all been key individuals involved in certain business deals, between governments and multinationals and so forth, whose removal has all lead inexorably to the rise of certain…elements…that may endanger certain other interests.”

“Right…”

“You don’t seem impressed.”

“I don’t really care, Franklin,” she shrugged. “I mean, I do what I do. That’s it. People pay me, but what’s money? Just a concept. A human concept. And I never cared much about those sorts of things.”

“No, you have a unique mind, Miss Cain. People like you – and I hope you won’t be offended if I employ the term ‘sociopath’ to describe you – generally have turbulent backgrounds, childhood trauma, things like that. But you had a perfectly ordinary life. You never showed any violent tendencies, you weren’t abused, you grew up in a loving home.”

“That’s what the records say.”

“And what do you say?”

“Nothing. But you’re right, in principle. No one knows why I’m like I am.”

“Would you care to hazard a guess?”

“Well, since you’re asking,” she grinned, “I happen to think I’m a sort of…evolutionary dead end. A kind of weird mutant whose state of mind would be so destructive to the gene pool that my DNA has an inbuilt defence mechanism. I don’t want kids, you’ll be pleased to hear. In fact, I’m not remotely interested in relationships, or sex, or any of that stuff. I just want to cut people. Is that crazy? I’ve always been told so. But what of it? We all have our lives to live. I was born this way. Who can fight genetics?”

“Who indeed.” Frank paused. “What I’m about to tell you is going to sound very strange.” He glanced at the guard. “Marcus, could you wait outside please?” The big man nodded, and unlocked the door before leaving. The lock clicked after him. She wondered if Frank had a key of his own. “Have you ever wondered about the future, Miss Cain?”

“Not particularly.”

“I don’t mean your own future – I’m sure your views on that are characteristically nihilistic – I mean the future of the human race as a whole.”

“I told you, I’m not really interested in human stuff. I’m a dead end, get it? You aren’t my people. You’re just…sacks of blood, walking around like you have any idea what life is about.”

“Yes, quite. My associates do wonder about the future, Miss Cain. They’ve spent a lot of time doing some very complex calculations about the future, and have reached some quite startling conclusions.”

“Calculations?”

“Indeed. There is no variable so complex it cannot be rounded out, given a large enough equation. Even the future.”

“Bullshit.”

He gave her that faint smile again. “I was sceptical too. But my associates are very, very powerful people. Let me make this clear: civilisation is on the cusp of a great transformation. The concept of the nation state is being gradually eroded. The internet is just the beginning. Soon, the very idea of physical borders will become absurd. When that happens, the world will be governed by new powers.”

“Corporations?” Penny rolled her eyes.

“Possibly. I represent a conglomeration of just such organisations who would rather that was not the case though.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Believe it or not, not everyone on this planet is motivated solely by money. According to the calculations, made by the most powerful computers ever invented, guided by the most brilliant mathematicians alive, in several centuries, the world will face a disaster at a scale unprecedented. A disaster with the power to wipe out humanity.”

“What kind of disaster?”

“That, we do not know. It could be natural – an asteroid impact, a supervolcano, cosmic rays, almost anything, it could be our own doing, or it might be something we can’t predict. Alien invasion, for example.”

A laugh burst from Penny. “Alien invasion?”

Frank wasn’t smiling. “I’m serious, Miss Cain. The numbers do not lie. I can take you through all the equations – your mind is adept enough to make some sense of them, at least – and, although we cannot anticipate its nature, an apocalypse is coming. Certainly within three-hundred years. When it happens, we must be prepared.”

“I’m confused, Frankle,” Penny said, shaking her head, “what does this have to do with corporate espionage again?”

Frank held out his hands. “Two paths lie ahead of us. In one, my associates make the changes necessary to the world that will save us from catastrophe. In the other, our enemies take over as they have been seeking to for some decades now, and lead us inexorably down the path of greed and corruption. It is these enemies who have been using you, secretly, as their instrument. Unwittingly, unknowingly, you have begun to usher in humanity’s doom.”

“Wow. It’s enough to give you a warm fuzzy feeling in your tummy…”

“This is no laughing matter, Miss Cain. We have noted well how you have been used. And we would like to turn your talents to a better use.”

“Would you now?”

“Oh yes. We would like to…shall we say…poach you. You have been working for the wrong side. Now we would like you to work for the right one.”

“As?”

“As an assassin, of course. The one task for which you are uniquely suited. Penny Cain, there is no better killer. And, more to the point, the enemy already believes you are in their pocket. We want you to be our inside woman.”

“Ah ha.” Penny folded her arms. “This is fascinating stuff. I mean, I don’t believe a fucking word of it, of course. But you have money, right? You said you represent a whole shitload of multinationals?”

“Correct.”

“Any I’d have heard of?”

“Masterson Enterprises, Pyrotech Industries, P&M Logistics, a number of others who prefer not to advertise their services.”

“Right…deep pockets, I guess. And these enemies? Who are they? When they make their counter offer, I’d like to be ready for it. I mean, if this is a battle for humanity’s future, I ought to be prepared, right?”

Frank gave her another cold, humourless smile. “The enemies are many and varied. But they are powerful and, as I said, you already work for them without realising. If they suspect for even an instant you are being used against them, they will crush you like an ant. It is what they do.”

“Again with the mystery. Who are ‘they’, Francisco?”

He poured another glass of water, then held it out to her. “Have you heard of the Hoshi-Wójcik Corporation, Miss Cain?”

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