by Kelly McCullough
Kelly McCullough writes fantasy, science fiction, and books for younger readers. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. He has more than a dozen novels in print or forthcoming either from Penguin/Ace or Macmillan’s Feiwel and Friends. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education, having written short fiction for the National Science Foundation and co-created a science comic for NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope.
Life is never as deliciously real as it is when someone is trying to kill you. I thought about that as I stared out at the docks and the grey sea beyond. It was raining. It’s always raining in Vancouver. The icy drops burned as they hit the gash in my cheek. The cold fire felt good. Feeling anything was good.
The gash was a souvenir of the bomb that destroyed my home and killed my housekeeper. It had gone off a couple of seconds too early. I only caught a hail of glass shards from my front window instead of ending up smeared all over the street. Good body armor and better luck had saved me from a quick trip to the donor table. I remember a lot of running after that, and gunfire. That part’s a little blurry — probably due to whatever raised the big lump over my ear.
The running ended here, huddling in the doorway of an abandoned salmon cannery on the rough side of the docks. It’s a huge limestone building built early in the last century. The alcove is deep and dark, providing good cover. The smells of stale urine and mold saturate the air. Across the street stands a pile of broken crates. The gutters overflow with trash. In short, it looks like the set for one of my commercials.
I’m an actor. I play a detective in the most successful soda ad series in the history of the business. I won’t say for whom. I’m having some trouble with the company now and I’d rather not give them any free press. The problem is that the cola wars have really heated up lately and my ads are too successful. That can get you killed.
My employer’s main competitor offered me a deal; “Quit making commercials or quit breathing!”
Sure, my boss offered me protection; a private security detail, the works. You know how much that’s worth. Hell, the Congressional Security Service is the best in the world. And when was the last time a senator was voted out of office instead of leaving in a box? So, I turned in my resignation, bought some body armor and went looking for a new job.
That should have been the end of the matter. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. It seems that my agent, Eddy Tyler, signed me up to star in a series of P.I. films based on the ads without telling me about it first. Of course, my advertising value skyrocketed.
My old employer turned down my resignation and made me a counteroffer; “Be on the set on Monday and we won’t feed you to the fish!”
I had a dilemma. Before I could resolve it, one group or the other — I’m not sure which and at this point it probably doesn’t matter — blew up my home and my housekeeper.
The sharp crack of an S&W 100 cal. recoil-less shock-rifle filled the night just then, a pointed reminder that I was a long way from safe. It was followed by the heavy whumph of a depleted uranium round striking wood as the door next to me disintegrated in a shower of splinters. Never one to miss a cue, I dived through the space the door had so recently occupied, rolling wildly across the rubbish-strewn tile within.
Coming to my feet, I glanced around at what had once been a front office before going straight on through to the factory floor beyond. As I put some heavy machinery between me and the entrance, a couple more rounds buzzed by. I glanced behind to check for pursuit as I moved on.
Unfortunately you can only see in one direction at a time, so I didn’t spot the hole in the floor ahead of me. My foot came down on thin air and I flailed my arms madly for a moment, but there was nothing I could do. I dropped into darkness. It was a short fall, but the shock of the forty-five degree sea-water at the bottom of it made up for the lack of height. I made a valiant attempt at drowning, but Ultra-Kevlar is buoyant, and eventually I returned to the surface. When I got there, I could hear a muffled voice calling out.
“Hey, Lasher. We both know you’re in here, and we both know you aren’t going to be getting out alive. Why don’t you save me some work and you some pain, and give up?”
Lasher! Octavian Lasher, P.I.. That really steams me. If there’s anything I hate, it’s being called Lasher. Lasher is just a god-damned character I play in cola commercials, but nobody seems to be able to remember that. Doesn’t matter that my name is Dennis Chaparral and I’m a working actor instead of a P.I, for most of the world I am and will always be Octavian Lasher.
There was a scuffing noise from above and then a plunk as something small and heavy fell into the water nearby. The cola-killer was very close. Time to think of a bold plan of escape. Think. Think. Think.
The scuffing noise was repeated, this time much closer. “This is it,” I thought, “I’m a dead man.”
Then, at the last second, I had an idea. It wasn’t a great idea, it wasn’t even a good idea. It was a sort of feeble-grasping-at-straws idea. But at least that was something. The idea was simply: “What would Lasher do?” He’s the heroic type, he could figure his way out of this.
I took a deep breath to center myself, and then I reached into that part of my psyche where I store my characters. I felt the Lasher persona take over. Instantly, I felt better, more confident, more badass. I had a plan! Feeling around in the dark I found one of the pilings that supported the floor above. In a flash I went up the side of it and shifted over to a beam. From there I was able to move along to a spot beside the trap door I had fallen through. After that it was only a matter of patience.
I was soon rewarded. Slowly, almost tentatively, the barrel of a shock rifle came down through the hole. I waited just a little longer. The S&W comes with a standard night sight, but it’s located far back on the weapon, just above the stock. The assassin would have to put most of the gun down here before he would be able to see much of anything along my beam. More and more of the weapon came into view.
I waited until I could make out the tip of the scope, then I grabbed the gun barrel and pulled hard. The cola-mercenary’s reaction was instinctive and predictable. He convulsively tightened his grip, firing a round into the dark. That’s when I swung out and put my full weight on the rifle. Together we plunged into the water.
It was still painfully cold, but this time I was prepared for it. The cola-goon wasn’t. While he was still in shock I slid around and got a solid grip on him from behind. The rest was easy. I simply held his head under the surface until he stopped thrashing. It only took a little more work to get back to the factory floor and rig a rope to haul the corpse out of the water. As I searched the body I discovered half a dozen small and useful weapons, a wallet full of cash, and — when I removed the helmet — that he was a she.
I threw up then. Now, I’m all for sexual equality in all things, and since it was her or me I’m glad it was her. Lasher, on the other hand, is a bit of a chauvinist pig, and that discovery was enough to take the wind out of his sails and put Dennis back in full control. Never having killed a real human being before Dennis didn’t take it very well.
When I was done with curling up in a little ball in the corner I decided it was time to stop running away. Time to do something proactive. Time to shoot my agent.
He was the one who signed me up for the ads in the first place. This was all his fault. Sure, it might not do me any tangible good, but it’d make me feel soooo much better. Hell, with a firm goal in sight, I was already feeling happier. I quickly sorted the dead cola-goon’s gear, deciding what I would need and what would be more trouble than it was worth. In the end, I kept the 50 cal. shock-pistol with the shoulder holster, a good vanadium steel combat knife, a derringer in a hide-away wrist sheath, and a half dozen smoke grenades. Everything else went back into the water, except of course for the money.
As I cleaned the shock-pistol I thanked the stars that my former employer didn’t believe in stunt doubles. Every weapon check, every combat scene, every fall in the Lasher commercials…it was all done by yours truly. I’m not sure what my employer’s motivation for that is.
Eddy tells me it’s because they want everything to look as real as possible, but I have a sneaking suspicion they’re hoping that my death or serious injury will drive the ratings of the commercials up. That’s because I have a low and vicious mind. Whatever the reason, it means that I’m fairly good at hand to hand combat, and that I know everything there is to know about the more telegenic hardware of death.
It took almost a full day to reach Los Angeles by bus. A day where the mere sight of a soda machine could send me into a near homicidal rage. But, finally, I ended up outside the offices of the Artists Creating agency.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one. The A.C. offices is fronted by a plaza with a small open air café called Que Chic. The food is mediocre and hideously overpriced. The place exists for one reason and one reason only — conspicuous schmoozing. Real deals are never done here, but important people are seen together so that they can keep their precious little names in the news. But then, I probably shouldn’t throw stones, I’m enough of a regular that the waiter knows my order by heart.
At the moment however, it looked like nothing so much as a heavily contested border zone. A small group of thuggish-looking individuals sat around a wrought iron table on my side of the plaza. They wore Ultra-Kevlar with flash-treated, rigid back and breast plates and vambraces, all blazoned with the red and white corporate logo of my former employer. Automatic shock rifles hung on combat straps from their shoulders, and helmets sat on a nearby table, likewise brand identified. On the opposite side of the area a group of equally unpleasant and similarly equipped evolutionary dead-ends played personal billboard in the colors of the enemy cola. Between them was an empty sea of tables. Not even the California talent-agency types were crazy enough to get in the middle of that stare-off.
I will admit to giving serious consideration to turning around and going home at that point, but then an irresistible notion popped into my head. Well, I no longer had a house to go home to. So I scooted across the street and into the cover of the trendy palms at the bistro’s entrance.
If any of them spotted me on my way across the game was over, but I waited a good ten minutes after becoming one with the decorative foliage. When nothing happened, I knew I was set. From my hiding place I lobbed a pebble into the gazebo where the counter was located, then waved the maitre d’ over when he poked his head cautiously around the corner.
“Francois,” I said, “how good to see you. I would like my usual table for lunch.”
“I am not so sure that is such a good idea, Monsieur Chaparral. Things are very tense out there, and I do not believe that you are the one to calm them down. After all, you are a, shall we say, ‘partisan’ in the current conflict.”
“Nonsense, Francois. I want a table and I want it now.” I put my hands in my pockets.
“I’m afraid I cannot seat you at this time, mon ami.” He actually started wringing his hands at that point.
“That’s all right, Francois, I’ll seat myself.”
Before he could react, I dodged past him and into the middle of the restaurant. As I moved, I thumbed the activation switches on a pair of the smoke grenades in my pockets. I turned to the nearest set of cola-goons.
“Yoohoo, boys. I’m right here.” For a moment they simply gazed at me in stunned shock.
It was an entrance any actor would have killed for. I grinned at them and lobbed a smoke grenade into their midst. When I turned around, the soda-warriors at the other table were just starting to scoop up their weapons. I tossed them the other grenade and hit the dirt.
Two seconds later, hell came to Que Chic. Explosions and the sounds of cycling shock rifles filled the air. The screams started shortly after that. I made my exit on hands and knees, scuttling like mad towards the A.C. building. A perfect take.
I lobbed a smoke grenade at the building guards and brandished my pistol, but I don’t think they even noticed me. They had much bigger worries because one of the cola goons had spotted me going through the front door, and now both teams were closing on the building with guns blazing. While the guards hit the panic button that slammed the big armored shutters into place across the front of the building I quietly slipped down the hall and into a stairwell.
It was an eerie experience. I had never used the stairs in the A.C. building. For that matter, I didn’t think anyone else had either. If you were important, you took the elevator. If you weren’t, you didn’t get into the building. They should have been dusty from disuse, but, like everything else in the place, they were spotless. You could have performed surgery on those steps. I raced up them two at a time leaving grimy bootprints on the pristine treads. At the third floor I threw open the door and stepped into a carpeted corridor.
Eddy’s office was four doors down, so I pulled my pistol and headed that way. I wanted to kick the door in, but I knew better. It’s three inches thick and made of rainforest hardwood. My foot would break long before I managed to do more than scuff the finish. Instead, I quietly turned the knob and stepped through, concealing the shock pistol within a fold of my trenchcoat. I waved jauntily to Eddy’s secretary, Sheila. She waved back and reached for the intercom button. I shook my head no and put the index finger of my left hand to my lips.
“It’s a surprise,” I whispered. “He still thinks I’m on location in British Columbia, but we finished up a couple of days early. I wanted to catch him off guard and take him out for a celebratory lunch. Is anybody in there?” She smiled and shook her head. “Good. Is it okay if I go in?”
She rolled her eyes, but nodded reluctantly and gestured me toward the door. I could understand the hesitance. If Tyler was having a bad day, letting me in without warning could get her into real trouble. On the other hand I was Eddy’s most lucrative client, and it wouldn’t do to piss me off either. I felt a little sorry for her, but consoled myself with the thought that in a few minutes Eddy Tyler would no longer be among the living, so she wouldn’t need to worry about it.
Eddy looked up as I entered. “Dennis, what are you doing here? Where have you been? Are you all right? What’s all this about a resignation? I’ve been worried sick.”
I closed the door before responding. “You bastard! How dare you sign me up for a movie without consulting me! Do you know the kind of trouble you’ve gotten me into!? There are people trying to kill me.”
“Dennis, Dennis, my golden boy. Calm down. Just wait till you see the deal I got for you. It’s-“
I cut him off by waving the gun in his face. “I don’t want to see the deal,” I said through clenched teeth. “I want the damned cola goons to stop trying to kill me. I also want a new agent. You,” I raised the shock-pistol until it was pointing right between his eyes, “are,” I cocked it, “fired.” I pulled the trigger.
The bullet blew apart the headrest of Eddy’s chair as he dived for the floor. “Wait! Don’t kill me!”
“Give me one good reason.” I stepped around the desk for a better shot.
“I can get the cola companies off your back, I swear!”
“Yes, yes! I know people! I can call in favors! Give me fifteen minutes, just fifteen minutes. Come on, you’ve seen me deal. I’m the best, you know that. How else could I have gotten you those commercials in the first place?”
I debated it for about a minute. I desperately wanted to make someone suffer for the misery I had gone through already and it was horribly tempting to blow his brains out. But even more than revenged I wanted to not go through any more misery. I lowered the gun.
“Okay, you’ve got fifteen minutes, but that’s it.”
He visibly sagged with relief. Then he climbed back into his chair. “You won’t regret this, I promise.” He reached into the coat pocket where he kept his phone. “You just have a seat and I’ll get everything fixed.” He gestured at me with the phone. I realized there was something odd about the way it looked in the split second before the lights went out.
Wracking muscle spasms woke me. The bastard had pulled a stun gun instead of his phone and tazed me.
Goddamnit, I thought, I’m such an idiot. Then I tried to sit up. I was prevented by the handcuffs. I struggled for a bit, but accomplished nothing more than tightening the cuffs. The left was uncomfortable. The right was worse. It was tight against the holster there and forcing the barrel of my derringer into the flesh of my wrist. I shifted, trying to make myself hurt less. It didn’t help because the cuffs were attached to whatever I was laying on.
That was when I opened my eyes and looked around. I recognized the place. It was a small room off of Tyler’s office. He used it as a sort of micro apartment when he was chasing an especially hot deal. It contained a shower, a small bar, a dorm fridge, a microwave and the cot to which I was currently cuffed. The door to the main office was open and I could clearly see Eddy sitting at his desk talking on the phone.
“Yeah,” he was saying, “I just took a look at the footage. It’s great! The way he took out the assassin in the cannery is beautiful, and that thing in the restaurant with the smoke grenades… Pure gold. I don’t think I’ve ever seen better footage for a movie trailer. This thing is going to make megabucks!”
It went on in this vein for some time while I got madder and madder. Finally, he hung up. “Eddy!” I yelled. “Get your ass in here and tell me what that call was about.”
He sauntered into the room. “That was your career heading for new heights. After this movie you are going to be a name! You’ll be able to pick your films. Name your prices. Whatever you want. You’ll be an opener.”
I closed my eyes and counted to ten before speaking. “Do you mean to tell me that the last three days have been some kind of demo reel? That I’ve gone through nine kinds of hell and killed someone and it’s all been FAKE?!”
“Oh no. It was all real — the bullets, the explosions, the death. Every bit was as real as you or I, and it cost a fortune, too. But it’s all going to be worth it. You are on your way to the top!”
“Wait a second. I want to be perfectly clear on this. You put a bomb in my house?” I could feel a throbbing in my temples.
“You hired people to kill me?”
“You set me up to kill other people?”
“Yes.” My head was really pounding.
“You did all that for a movie!?”
“No. I did it all for a BLOCKBUSTER!”
There were flashes of black at the edge of vision. I hadn’t realized it was possible to be this mad. I had one last question. “What if they had succeeded? What if they had killed me?”
“No problem. I’d have sold the rights to the other cola company. That’s why I had the assassin dress in their colors. Can’t you see it now? ‘Lasher P.I. brought down at last.’ It would easily have covered my costs. Besides, I knew you could do it, kid! I’ve got faith.”
What else could I do? I popped the derringer from its wrist sheath and shot him. Not fatally, mind you, after all, I’m a working actor and I was going to be a star.
A previous version of this story was published as “The Uncola” in Cosmic SF Issue 4.