In The Company Of Wolves, Part I


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Scene Title In the Company of Wolves, Part I
Synopsis Nothing is certain when Ash takes control of his life.
Date September 7th, 2019 — January 30th, 2020

Lyell Otis, Rochester, New York
September 7th
7:17 pm

He’s been here before.

“No, that’s not really my style anymore hermano…”

The kind of establishments that exist on the fringes of resettled cities vary wildly. On the south end of Rochester, past the bustle of the city center and toward the urban decay and industrial wasteland yet to be reclaimed, pop-up businesses are common. Unlicensed bars take advantage of overburdened and understaffed police, take advantage of the lack of proper inspections, take advantage of society still pulling itself up from the trenches of war.

“These days, I’m more a fan of Macanudo, when you can get them up from Cuba.”

He’s had this conversation before.

A dive bar called AJ’s Saloon is one such establishment. A grimy hole-in-the-wall frequented by Rochester natives and drug mules and dealers looking to push north from the Safe Zone. Criminals of all stripes and the people who live between criminal margins congregate here, under thick clouds of cigarette smoke and behind the curtains of pre-war music pumped out of a repaired jukebox.

“You want one?”

How many times now?

Ashley Williams is a criminal, he was designed to be one, a constructed identity crammed within the mind of Curtis Autumn and forced to dance to the tug of so many puppeteers over the years. Seated in a dimly lit booth in AJ’s, a bar he knows doesn’t really exist except in his mind, it’s hard not to feel like the puppet again. Ash has been lured here for years, ever since the war ended, to believe that he’s sharing drinks and stories with an old battle-buddy who helped push back the tide of violent bigotry and fight the good fight. Today, that weathered old Mexican bulldog he was made to believe he befriended during the war looks just as old as ever, offering out a freshly cut Cuban cigar across the table, held between calloused fingers. The same as he’s done time and again every time Curtis needs to become Ash.

It’s hard for Ash to be at ease in the bar. He’s on a heightened alert, ever since the script was flipped and something inside of his head broke the trigger switch that swapped his and Curtis’ roles in the driver’s seat. He’s hyper-aware of the illusion of reality around him projected by the telepath seated across from him. He’s tense, like a coiled viper waiting to strike. More tense than he’s been in his entire life, and he can’t control it. It’s reflexive. Places like this, lies like this, people who manipulate and use him… He's got a glass in front of him, some cheap whiskey in it, more yellow than amber, poured over a couple cubes of ice and he knows it isn’t real. They clink against the glass as he lifts it to take a small sip, nothing tongues his tongue but he tastes and feels it regardless. The glass is lowered as the cigar is offered over the table to him. He regards the stogie for a handful of seconds.

Today he chooses which side of the glass the caged animal is on.

Ash is a criminal yes. But he is so much more than that as well. Or rather, he could be so much more than that. If the controlling strings could only be cut. "No thank you." It's always offered, and it's always considered before being refused. "Still need my lungs intact. Maybe someday, but that day isn't today." Shoulders lift in a shrug as they always do, as if he feels bad for turning down the offer but turns it regardless. "Like you wouldn't smoke whatever happens to come your way."

There's a faint smirk, a ghost of a smile really that graces Ash's features before he lifts his glass to take another 'sip' again. "At least you can get your hands on them these days. Don't have to listen to you throwing another fit because you haven't had anything to smoke in two weeks." Ash's eyes are alert, sharp, watching the other man. How many times have they done this dance? Whether as Curtis or as Ash. How many times has Espinosa flipped that switch? His eyes watch that craggy scarred face for any hint of emotion. Remorse, pity, smugness anything that would give Ash a hint as to the telepath's feelings on this whole dog and pony show.

"You ever miss those days?" He asks in a quiet tone, as he always does. He sits up a little straighter in his seat and leans forwards, lifting his empty glass to finish off what wasn't there to begin with. The illusion is so real. Ash understands why Curtis has been taken in by it so many times. Every time Espinosa comes calling. Ash stretches his legs out in front of him, turning just a touch to the side in his chair as he holds his empty glass, swirling the ice around within it in the Espinosa Matrix.

“I’m not sentimental,” the old man says. It’s a lie. A lie he’s told before. He is sentimental, just not for those times. “We all had our leashes,” he says — it’s a familiar saying — bringing the cigar he’d offered to Curtis up to his own mouth, fishing a lighter from his leather vest pocket. The flint wheel flicks a few times, sparks and then finally flame. “You got out,” the old man says, smoke wafting slowly from his mouth. “Me? I had to be liberated.”

Turning the cigar around in his hand, the old man looks at the glowing orange ember at the end. Then, looking up to Curtis he offers a yellow smile. “Liberation’s a funny thing,” he continues, taking a puff of the cigar, “I was nine years old when Che Guevara came to Mexico City. He wasn’t a revolutionary then, but it was being there that lit that fire in him…” The old man lays tired eyes up on Curtis. “Same fire burned in me too, back when the government tried to make me an attack dog on a leash.”

They’ve done this dance so very many times in the past. So many times. But this time is different, this time Ash is in the driver’s seat. This time there’s a gun under the table, the motion to stretch his legs out to the side allowing him to slip the weapon free of the waistline of his pants under the table, the business end pointed directly at Espinosa’s stomach.

Slowly, Espenosa lowers the cigar from his mouth and looks Curtis square in the eyes. “Some of my brothers in chains, they didn’t see them like that. They thought they were fr—”

“Hey Espinosa?” He’d waited to see if the hispanic man started to give the rote responses before interrupting with that question.

The interruption gives Espenosa pause, followed by a subtle crease of his brows. “Huh?”

Some lives are defined by a single moment. Some lives are defined by many moments. Curtis Sebastien Autumn's life has been defined by many moments. The shouting match he had with his father when he wanted to join the military. The moment he graduated and became a Marine. When he met the man who would become one of his best friends, Michael Spalding. The day he agreed to take on an undercover mission and become Ashley Williams. And so many moments since then, as Ash and as Curtis. So many moments have been the point on which his whole life could swing. Decisions made continued his story at the cost of others. But one thing that neither Curtis nor Ash have been in a very long time? Free.

"You are the chain that binds Espinosa. And it's time I broke my chains." As he spoke his finger was tightening on the trigger, easing it back until it's just before the click, a spot he knows so very well. He's been on the delivering end of it more times than either of his personalities would like to remember. And tonight he'll be on the delivering end once again. As his words end the trigger is pulled back that extra hair, clicking over and sending a .45 caliber bullet racing down the barrel of the gun. It's an old gun. Battered. It's been through a lot. It's Ash's gun. It's been sitting in the bottom of Curtis's footlocker for years, Curtis unable to get rid of it so just leaving it there at the bottom of a trunk full of bad memories.

But the pistol is kept clean and operational, so that when it would be needed it would be ready. The trigger isn't pulled just once, before the ear splitting crack of the gun firing can even fade there's a rapid click as a second round is fired, this one higher, aimed up into Espinosa's chest toward his heart, but the guiding hand doesn't stop, it rises yet higher, the perfected strength of Ash's hand keeping the recoil of the .45 under complete control as the gun rises higher, the barrel pointing towards Espinosa's forehead and Ash's finger pulls back on the trigger for a third time.

It all happens in the blink of an eye. Most people who balk at the idea of a telepath being caught unaware by something, especially a person’s intentions, but that isn’t what Daniel Espenosa’s ability did. That isn’t how it worked. His wasn’t about mind-reading but more about mind manipulation. Now, his ability is a spattering of brain, bone, and blood scattered across the floor of an empty bar, abandoned a decade ago.

Espenosa slides sideways out of his chair and crashes to the floor, his cigarette landing tip-down on the hardwood floor, bouncing twice before rolling to a stop at the edge of Ash’s boot. Blood immediately pools out beneath Espenosa, whose lifeless eyes stare out vacantly at the far wall. For the first time in his entire life, Ash feels at once liberated and directionless. The subtle tremor of Curtis at the back of his mind is still there, a vibration growing stronger with each passing day that the trigger in his subconscious is not flipped, but today it is drowned out by the beat of his own heart.

Ash can see the piece of paper folded up in Espenosa’s palm; instructions to be delivered once the switch happened. But now, after all this time, Ash is free to make his own choices. The job is not mandatory, the will of Shedda Dinu is not necessarily his own. For the first time he stands on the precipice of the most terrifying cliff he ever has.

The precipice of free will.

Ash sits for what feels like a long time, but in all likelihood isn't much more than a minute, contemplating what has just happened, feeling the world change and shift on the pull of a trigger. Well three pulls of a trigger but that's not nearly so momentous sounding. He breathes in air suddenly thick with the scent and taste of copper, a smell that both Curtis and Ash are more than familiar with after years of being Death’s errand boy. Ash's next breath in is a deep one, pulling hard on the air around him as he rises to his feet, standing over the body of Daniel Espinosa.

"You know. I almost feel bad for this one old dog. I don't know though. A beaten dog will eventually turn on it's owner. And you just happened to be the one holding the chains. But we can't leave you out here for others to find now can we? What do you think? Roadside execution? I'll have to work fast for it to be believable." Ash's shoes grind on the dirty floor as he crouches down in front of the former telepath and retrieves the note from the man's hand. It's given a cursory glance before being tucked into a pocket.

"Maybe I'll go back to my old playbook. Let them think Humanis did this." A hand pats the folding Buck knife in its sheath at his hip. “Haven’t done that since the Messiah days. But it’ll work I think.” His head dips forwards in an almost respectful manner as he rises gracefully back to his full height. "We'll get this place cleaned up as best as we can, and get you out on the roadside for someone to find in a day or two, can’t have Shedda figuring this out too quick. And then we'll go get this guidance system and make sure it finds its way into hands that hopefully aren't genocidal."

And now, the end is near

Somewhere between femur and forearm, Ash’s mind starts to wander. Which, for someone with a consciousness as fractured as his is a dangerous prospect. The sink of a knife blade between meat and bone, the crack-snap-tear of ligaments separating brings a certain measure of mandatory disassociation. It became second nature a long time ago, but now the boundaries between what was Ash and what was Curtis feel precariously thin.

And so I face the final curtain

Gasoline and paint thinner are pretty common things in Rochester. Most hardware stores carry gallon drums of it the latter and the truck parked outside is a perfectly suitable source for the former. Together, the two form a strong non-polar solvent that destroys the hemoglobin found in blood and, after quick application of one burning match, ignites the flammable gasses in a quick combustion leaving neither scent nor invisible evidence of blood. Not even luminol works at that point. Ash can thank Uncle Sam for that know-how.

My friend, I'll say it clear

They also carry plastic bags at the hardware store. American flag printed trash bags feel both like someone’s idea of a bad joke and perfect for framing the “patriots” of Humanis First. All told, Daniel Espenosa is spread out across nine bags over a quarter mile of highway. It’ll take Shedda Dinu days, if not weeks to find him and even realize what it is they’ve found, weeks more — if ever — to piece together the evidence.

I'll state my case, of which I'm certain

Somewhere between the shoulder of Interstate 390 headed south out of Rochester and somewhere between nine or ten days later, Ash finds himself staring into a plate of sunny side up eggs, four strips of bacon, three mini pancakes, and a tall mug of coffee at an unfamiliar diner. The stretch of road between here and there is a blur, but the slightly blood-spattered piece of paper unfolded on the diner table beside him brings things into focus. It’s an address for an aerospace firm operating out of what must be, judging from the skyline out the window, Detroit.

I've lived a life that's full

The other details on the note are more subconsciously absorbed than really read. The paper is flushed down the toilet in the diner’s bathroom as an afterthought. Somewhere between five and eight minutes after that, Ash catches a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror. Dark circles around his eyes, heavy bags, his hair’s grown out a little — more than he remembers. He doesn’t feel tired, but the man looking back at him in the mirror looks it.

I traveled each and every highway

Maybe that’s why he wakes up in bed, a roll of fifty dollar bills in a money clip beside the bed next to a loaded handgun and his knife. Neon lights spill through the white curtains and paint colors in shades of pink and blue across the walls. Traffic sounds outside drown out the voices in his head, the chatter of gunfire, screams, things that haunt him between waking and sleeping.

But more, much more than this, I did it my way

Wiping rain from his brow, Ash observes the comings and goings of trucks from the industrial park surrounding the Honeywell aerospace manufacturing plant. There’s dozens of buildings surrounding the plant that provide ample fields of cover. Ash has been on six or seven of them, it feels like. Staring down a rangefinder mounted to the top of a long rifle he hadn’t remembered bringing with him, he tracks the movements in and out of the facility. It’s cold, drizzling, he can see his breath.

Regrets, I've had a few

When he wipes his hand over the fogged up glass, Christmas decorations present themselves in the storefront. The noise of traffic at Ash’s back draws his attention away from the vibrant green and reds of animatronic elves and a light-up snowman. A plow truck scrapes down the street, some kids across the road are playing in a snowbank, one of them wielding a shovel like an axe. Ash wonders what his childhood was really like. Was he ever a child? It’s hard to remember.

But then again, too few to mention

There’s photographs everywhere now, though. It helps to remember things that way. Captured through a telescopic lens, photographs of the Honeywell factory help provide a layout for the exterior of the building. There’s minimal security on site, five overglorified mall security officers with flashlights and radios. But the Detroit Police have a station less than a mile up the road with a SWAT team operating out of it. Wouldn’t take long to deploy, five or six minutes. So many trucks.

I did what I had to do, Isaw it through without exemption

The box truck in the empty parking lot of a derelict Chuck-E-Cheese looks like all the others. White, no logos, Michigan plates. The car parked next to it will need to be burned, which is why Ash is filling it with gasoline at the moment. The clunk-clank of fluid pumping out of an aluminum can is a steady enough rhythm to catch his attention. There’s a spare delivery driver uniform on the passenger seat of the truck, someone tied up in the car. Burn the evidence.

I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway

Burn the toast. Four eggs, sunny side up, hashbrowns, four sausage links, and they burned the toast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, though.

And more, much more than this, I did it my way

But Midnight comes fast. There’s a water stain on the ceiling of his hotel room, it started about the size of a saucer when he first rented the room. Now it’s about the size of a frisbee. It’s been raining a lot, Christmas and New Years’ both. Ash doesn’t remember the ball dropping, but his arms and legs ache too much to think about that. He hopes 2010 will be a better year for him. Only remembers it’s going to be 2020 right before he falls asleep.

And yes, there were times, I'm sure you knew

At the wheel again. When the radio switches back from a commercial Ash jerks his head up off the steering wheel. The sky is a hazy sheet of gray and it’s snowing again, gusting wind blowing it sideways. His gun is half loaded in his lap, bullets on the floor of the truck. He’s hungry.

When I bit off more than I could chew

But walking a dog is a good excuse to go places you’re not supposed to. The golden retriever/chocolate lab mix named Mojo loves walks. More often than not it feels like Ash is being walked by him, even if he knows — assumes? — it’s not the case. Mojo is an old dog, gray in the muzzle, a rescue of the most literal sense. Ash never saw himself as much of a pet person, but Mojo likes to shit in the woods behind the aerospace plant. He’ll need more money to feed him.

But through it all, when there was doubt

Chlorine bleach has a more acrid smell than gasoline and paint thinner, it also doesn’t work as well to remove industrial spills. Oil. But at least he has a mop and bucket. The bathrooms aren’t going to clean themselves, though as Ash looks at himself in the mirror and how bloodshot his eyes are, he can’t help but wonder when his shift will end.

I ate it up and spit it out

Or when it even began. Somewhere between his first day on the job as a janitor and his three month anniversary he finally started carrying rubber gloves in his back pocket. It makes cleanup easier on-site. Industrial aerospace lubricants aren’t safe for skin contact. People keep calling him Trevor. But Trevor burned alive in his car sometime before Thanksgiving, maybe? Trevor was also an asshole. He wouldn’t have liked this job.

I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way

Interior schematics of the plant are cobbled together from measurements by the literal foot. Hand drawn on lined notebook paper held together in multiple sheets by clear tape. The building is divided into three floors, nearly all of the upper floors are administrative and design, unnecessary distractions from where Ash stands. It’s the ground-level fabrication floor that he needs access to, the assembly line building the missile targeting modules. State of the art onboard targeting systems, machine-guided, no human interface needed. Pick a target and the missile will plan and re-calculate a trajectory. No human interface needed. Brutal, efficient, automated, instant.

I've loved, I've laughed and cried

Instant potatoes are an acquired taste. Uncooked they have the appearance and texture of sawdust, but when you mix a little cream and hot water into them, they become a soupy mess that is a rough approximation of runny mashed potatoes. Butter solves all sins, though, and money is running tight. Mojo is at least eating well, there’s more meat in his bowl than Ash’s.

I've had my fill, my share of losing

Ash’s phone is split into four pieces on the sidewalk. People kept calling. Isis, certainly, Epstein, likely. Garza would be on there if Ash had a phone. But it’s Curtis that some of them want to get in touch with. But he’s working. One last job and he’s out.

But now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing

Out of quarters. The machine is full of a heaping pile of wet laundry, and Ash can’t find a single fucking nickel in his pockets. Sucking in a breath he hauls the laundry out and back into the basket. It’ll have to air dry in the hotel. Janitorial work isn’t paying what it needs to.

To think I did all that

Somewhere between his last dollar spend on a 6-piece basket of fried chicken nuggets and when he broke a man’s neck with his bare hands, Ash became a thousand dollars richer. You work in these circles long enough you start to recognize the behavior patterns of specific criminal enterprises. Gun runners, carry more cash than delivery drivers who by-and-large also don’t tout small arsenals with them. Nobody will miss whatever his name is, floating face down in the flooded culvert. January is very rainy, snow is melting, 2020 feels like it’ll be a little warmer than last year.

And may I say, not in a shy way

Frank Sinatra has been playing on the radio in Ash’s truck for what feels like eight months. The song is only four minutes and thirty-one seconds long, though, so it can’t be that much. Tonight’s the night, though. Security shifts are accounted for, Ambien pills in beer bottles. Alarms will sound once he breaks into the production wing, couldn’t get the badges necessary for legitimate access. Semtex is like a key, though. It opens doors.

Oh, no, oh, no, not me, I did it my way

Ash was only able to make enough in his bathroom to blow one door. The metal cage door leading into the production floor. There’ll be two complete missile guidance modules in pre-ship just off the floor, locked in steel cages to be transported in the morning to wherever it is automated death need to be constructed. He should be able to rip the cage door off its hinges bare-handed. He hasn’t tested that much.

For what is a man, what has he got?

Two handguns, four extra magazines, a pump-action shotgun, his knife, and a vanishingly small amount of patience. That’s what Ashley Williams is bringing to the table, even though Curtis’ reflection in the rear-view mirror is making him wonder why he’s even doing any of this.

If not himself, then he has naught

Why is he sitting in a box truck in the empty parking lot of a Chuck-E-Cheese in Detroit at 3 in the morning with a loaded handgun? What life choices led Ash down this path? He thinks he knows, but at this point it’s hard to tell what’s reality and what’s fiction.

To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels

The small copse of trees behind the old Chuck-E-Cheese divides the empty parking lot from the Honeywell plant. Mojo stayed at the hotel room. Wouldn’t want him getting hurt.

The record shows, I took the blows and did it my way

After all, there’s a chance he might not make it out of this alive.

Yes, this was my way

Maybe that’s for the best.

Detroit, Michigan

January 30th



Ash turns off the radio. Time to get to work.

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