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– Atari Games 1985/ZX Spectrum port Gremlin Graphics Software/1987
There’s a point in a man’s life - a woman’s, too - when they realise they’re going to die. Not a distant possibility, but a harsh reality that’s utterly inescapable. It doesn’t matter what you do, you are going to die.
Henry Brandon reached that point in his doctor’s office at three fifteen in the afternoon, Middlesex County, MA, as he stared at kid’s drawings on a wall cupboard in slanting autumn light. He wasn’t really listening to the doctor. He got the gist. He wasn’t stupid. Overweight, nudging fifty, unfit and unlikely to get any fitter...all of those. But not stupid.
He was on his way to heart attack county.
At forty-nine years old it was around a decade after life became a temporary thing, but it was only then, in that crisp, clean room that Henry Brandon truly understood just how finite life was.
He stared at the drawings on the cupboard, didn’t listen, and thought about cholesterol and globules and wobbling things which shouldn’t rightly wobble.
There were three pictures, drawn on A4 paper. Must’ve been drawn by the doctor’s kids, he figured, because ordinary people didn’t keep stranger’s kid’s drawings in their office.
Below the drawings was a picture of the doctor and his family, probably, on a trip involving bikes and maybe a picnic. Fruit – strawberries, kiwis, dragon fruit. Weird things healthy people ate and doctors could afford.
Henry (never Hank, always Henry) had a fair pot belly, and scrawny arms and legs. He owed a nearly-dead flatbed truck, didn’t have a job any longer, used to have a wife who he’d managed to lose somewhere along the way, too. Three kids had all left home, the youngest twenty-five years old. She’d sent him a Christmas card, at least.
This year? Last year?
Henry couldn’t really remember, and it didn’t matter all that much. Pain and hurt are just as temporary as life.
What did he have left? Disabled, walking with two sticks because of a back that’d ache from now until he died.
“Cholesterol’s more than dangerously high, Henry. Anything up over 200 is not cool. You’re nudging 300.”
“What are you saying, doc? I’m done?”
“No, Hank. I’m saying you could be. Honestly? You will be...if you don’t do something. Eat a healthier diet. Move around more. Join a gym.”
“Gym?” Henry laughed.
He fell quiet for a moment and the doctor didn’t say anything, but waited while Henry stared back at the pictures on the wall. Happiness drawn in coloured pencils by the kids of the healthy, wealthy man who rode a ride bike worth more than Henry’s truck.
“I can’t move around much, doc. My truck’s just about closer to dying than me. I hope. Broke back, broke bank. Most expensive thing I got is my PC and most of that I jury-rigged with bits here, bits there. I got it so I didn’t have to go to the grocers, and by now I’m not so sure any of it’s what I bought in the first place. When I’m bored, or when the pain’s so bad I can’t move, I play. I get the games from the thrift store. TV got took last year. They didn’t want the damn truck. Believe that? Didn’t want the truck. I hid the PC in the shed with the pickles and the lawn mower. I’ve got Internet, but no cable, no satellite. I wash in cold water.”
The doctor, a pretty nice man, all in all, just listened. It didn’t really matter if Henry talked for another hour. He was a rare doctor. One who thought treating a patient wasn’t just about the ailment, but about the patient.
Henry wasn’t a proud man, either. He didn’t care if the doctor heard all about the state of his world. He didn’t care about an awful lot, right then, and if he was honest, it’d be a long time since he’d cared much about much.
“Fair enough, but you don’t need a gym, Henry. A couple of cans for weights. The floor, even. A pair of shoes. Go for a walk...” the doctor thought better of that, ‘well, move a couple of cans of peaches around. Eat a little less if you can’t afford to eat better. The money you save, spend on something else. Hell, get one of those VR headsets. Wave your arms around on the couch if you have to. Eat less, move more. It’s no more complicated than that, and doesn’t have to cost anything. In fact, it’ll cost you less. You’re not hugely overweight – it’s your diet which is the problem. Henry, I’ve been your doctor for a long time. All of this is optional, of course. I can give you something to lower the cholesterol, sure...but without making some changes?” The doctor shrugged, and held out his palms. Like, what are you going to do?
“I get it, doctor. I do.”
“A man’s life isn’t mine to change. But advice, Henry? You’re getting chest pains. Your weight’s making your back worse. You’re not moving and not working and I’m concerned about your mood. Choice is this, Henry – change something, or...”
Henry gave the man credit for not giving him a sympathetic smile along with the pep talk.
“Think about it?”
“Already did,” said Henry, and shook the doctor’s hand.
“You like games, right?”
“Always,”’ said Henry, smiling. Wives, kids, dogs...they came and went. If he still had a PC, he had...escape.
“There are no reloads,” said the doctor. “Right?”
“Truth,” said Henry, and nodded his thanks as he closed the door behind him.
Field Marshall Hunter sat with a heavy sigh at his desk. A green leather blotter covered most of the writing surface, the rest built of a dark, reddish wood. The whole thing was probably heavy enough to knock down a wall. A large drawer on the right held Scotch - Lagavulin – and two crystal glasses from Waterford. Good crystal wouldn’t be coming out of Waterford any longer. This was Eire – all that was left of it. Here, just south from Galway on the west coast, was the last Allied base left on the isle.
German boats filled the bay, and the Nazi owned this last European bastion against the insatiable Kaiserreich from Cork to Belfast, and from Dublin all the way to Hunter’s command, here, were a man could imagine if he squinted and strained his eyes as the sun set, he might see the Americas out over the ocean.
This is where Europe ends.
It was true...
This is not where we lose, though.
...and that was just as true.
He vowed to remember that as he met his very own bullet.
Hunter pulled the cork and filled his glass to the brim, his hand shaking as he did so. The scotch overflowed and spilled across the desk. He filled the second glass, too. Meeting your death, it seemed like the right thing to do – to offer your killer a drink. Killing a man while you look him in the eye wasn’t easy. It shouldn’t be.
Hunter waited, looking between his last drink and the door.
A gunshot rang out down the hall, then, a barrage.
Hunter prided himself on a good ear. MP 34. Manufactured by the Waffenfabrik Steyr. There were newer, better weapons out there, but like his American cousins were so fond of saying - why change it if it ain’t broke?
“Hmm...Something like that.”
The man who came to end the Field Marshall’s career, and life, smashed the door open with the heel of a black boot. The door wasn’t even locked.
How very uncouth.
But even when faced with rudeness, a gentleman should always remain a gentleman.
“Drink?” said Hunter, indicating the Scotch across from him on the desk.
“The plans,” said the man. His accent wasn’t German, or Austrian. Not even something Hunter could place as an Axis tone.
“I’m surprised. I thought you’d be more...German.”
French? Swiss? Hunter’s ear was great with guns, not so good with accents, but he placed it, finally, by ticking through some kind of library of warped vinyl in his mind.
“A mercenary? Good heavens,” said Hunter. “Afrikaner? That’s a turn up for the old books, isn’t it?”
The man, broad in the shoulder, but not heavy, was blonde with pale skin and deep set eyes. His eyes were placid. Hunter understood something as the Afrikaner shook his head – this man didn’t need a stiff drink to take a life.
“The plans, please, Field Marshall. Let’s not drag this out.”
“I always thought it would take a certain kind of class to share a drink with one’s killer. I must say, I’m having second thoughts.”
“We can get this done with no unnecessary mess.”
“Doesn’t matter at all,” said Hunter, and took a healthy dose of Lagavulin to wash the taste of the man in the doorway from his mouth. “The plans are long gone. Your arrival isn’t a surprise, man. Nazi boots and tanks stomping across the continent for thirty years? We did notice, you know.”
“And you won’t tell, will you?” said the man, his warm submachine gun pointing without so much as a tremor at Hunter’s chest.
“Under duress? Of course I would. But you believe me, don’t you? Because if I did know, or if the plans were sitting here in my drawer, I wouldn’t be sitting drinking Scotch, waiting for you to bloody well get on with it, would I?”
“Very reasonable. Very...British.”
Hunter took that as a compliment, whether intended or not.
“And Herr Professor Sauer whereabouts, Field Marshall? Same reply, I imagine?”
“But of course. My mercenary friend, this war won’t be won today. Maybe tomorrow it’ll be your turn to lose. You won Europe, you won Asia. But you haven’t won the world. You haven’t won if it’s not over, have you? How do you like those apples, eh?”
Hunter smiled and finished his drink. He didn’t lie. He really didn’t know where the plans, or Sauer, had gone. But then the Professor’s genius wasn’t a matter of where, but when.
“Shall we?” said Hunter.
The mercenary nodded.
“I get paid either way.”
With a squeeze of his calloused trigger-finger the mercenary blew Field Marshall Hunter away.
Franziska Grim was a player of games.
Her education, however, had been a little broader than Henry Brandon’s.
She read the instructions by which she led her life one last time, and then set them aside. She would read her next instruction on the day she needed to. She understood the penalty for looking too far ahead. To know too much would not put her life in any more danger than it had been for the last 19 years of her life. Instead, it would be her soul she might lose.
No one should know too much of the future.
How that knowledge must have hurt her father. Such a heavy burden he had carried.
His script, as always, was small and scrawled, the writing of a man whose mind worked faster than his hand.
Redundancy, daughter, in all things.
In this, too. The Nazi may never know who you are, may never foresee their downfall...but we cannot assume a single thing. They must believe this man, John Severance, is dead.
Franziska looked at the ID she’d falsified. Everything would pass a cursory glance. Only the Driver’s Licence would not, but they would not check. The Nazi knew the man John Severance was French Canadian, mother still in France, a long-serving member of the European resistance. He would be out in the open just once.
Franziska laid the foundations for a man’s death.
The man she chose was an American Nazi collaborator. In the US, he was just a low level functionary serving in local Government, but for the Nazi he was an agent of long standing with a dark track record. She could live with his death.
I never actually killed anyone, she thought.
That would soon change. Her instructions were nearing an end, and with that end, her training would come into play.
A player of games, yes. But everything was a game, wasn’t it? Espionage, hacking, picking a lock, stripping down and cleaning a weapon, learning Krav Maga and Jujitsu for nearly twenty years...a deadly game, but still only two choices; win or lose.