The square was nothing more than an enclosure of dusty buildings. Shattered windows and torn chunks of stone, the scars of steel rain, decorated every wall. Warm wind whistled through the open plaza, piercing the quiet. Once-colourful linens fluttered from the wooden skeletons of abandoned vendors’ stalls, tattered and bloodstained. The air was thick with the smell of rust and decay, the putrefaction of bodies left in the hellish heat.
Tucked into the shadows, a young man crouched. His dusty skin and dark hair melted into the wall beside him, invisible to even the most sharp-eyed observer. His contempt was just as imperceptible; the blank look on his face concealed all but the flash of his eyes.
Twenty civilians dead without so much as a single enemy injury.
The contractors had messed up. Aiden covered his mouth with his shirt. The waste laid by clumsy hands disgusted him.
He glanced over at the twins, awaiting their signal. They hid behind a bullet-riddled car, twenty feet away. Revulsion replaced the usual laughter in their eyes.
The sound came first: the quiet click of a weapon being loaded. The twins motioned with their fingers, indicating the source of the noise. Aiden nodded, already eyeing the hole in the façade of an opposing building, about the size of a fist. Behind it, the enemy waited.
Positioning himself, Aiden’s trousers scraped against the dirt; a whisper that died in the breeze. Soon, the clamour would take hold. He took aim.
The killing was the easy part; everything before and after was hard.
Another click; his own weapon this time. A slow exhalation, and he squeezed the trigger. Beneath the gunshot’s echo, the thud of a body as it fell to the floor.
The remaining insurgents scattered, giving away their positions as they jumped back from their fallen comrade.
They ran for cover, or perhaps to fight back. They never got the chance. Aiden traced the sound of their footfalls, firing each time one materialized in front of shot-out windows. One by one, six men went down. It took only six shots: three from Aiden, two from Frankie, and one from Colton. It was over in seconds. Aiden returned to the cover of the building, leaning his back against the rough stone wall.
Silence returned to the square.
Another soldier might have assumed it was over. Aiden never made assumptions, and he knew it was never over. Frankie held up two fingers.
With their backs to each other, Aiden and the twins skirted the outside of the square in opposite directions, advancing on the hideout in a soundless way.
A soft patter prickled his ears, and he glanced up. Ten feet above his head was a balcony, half of its banister crumbled away. Aiden examined the wall. There were no gutter pipes or ledges to hold onto, but there were the notches and chunks in the stone, handily carved by bullets and grenade shrapnel.
He swung his rifle, a 7.62-mm SCAR-heavy, over his shoulder and began to climb, listening for noises between each upward movement. He heard the swoosh of fabric and the pacing of bare feet, followed by a muffled, distinctly childish cry. He groaned inwardly. It was always more complicated with kids.
Aiden reached the balcony and swung himself over, landing in a crouch on the banister. A small, wide-eyed boy stood in front of him, trembling hands squeezed together in a fisted prayer. A living shield. The insurgent standing behind the boy held a pistol in his right hand. Once, twice, three times; he fired in rapid succession.
Aiden twisted and leapt off the ledge, thankful for the enemy’s poor marksmanship. His own weapon was drawn and aimed before he landed.
A click. The insurgent had run out of bullets. His eyes widened with recognition at the inhumanly agile movements.
“That’s flattering,” Aiden muttered, covering any sign of uneasiness. But uneasy he was; he stalled, when he should have shot the man in the head.
“Put the gun down,” Aiden commanded in Arabic.
The man hardened his expression. He gripped his gun tighter and nudged the boy forward, as if the presence of the child might dissuade Aiden from shooting.
“Baba!” the boy screamed as the insurgent fell.
“Damn,” Colton groaned. He’d slipped in through the front door. “That was the son?”
“Apparently.” Aiden snatched up the dead man’s gun before the boy could embrace his father. He turned the pistol in his hands. It was an M9 pistol, almost certainly stolen from the body of an American soldier.
Frankie shook his head. “Aiden, restrain him while we search the place.”
Aiden studied the boy while the twins ransacked the apartment. The boy clutched his dead father, sullying himself with blood. He couldn’t have been more than five years old.
“Gold mine!” Colton exclaimed. Aiden knew from the enthusiastic reaction that whatever he’d found was not what they were looking for.
Colton held up a stash of magazines with mostly-undressed women on the covers. “Someone’s been naughty.”
Frankie snatched a magazine from his twin and inspected the front cover. “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition? A conservative idea of a gold mine,” Frankie frowned. “More like prospecting. Teasing, but never quite satisfactory.”
“It’s sad that your idea of satisfactory is limited to magazines, Frankie,” Aiden remarked.
Colton snorted into a stack of yellowed papers. “No wonder we’re always out of Kleenex.”
Aiden returned his attention to the suddenly bereaved son. The boy’s eyes were drying, and his grief would soon become a silly notion of revenge. They needed to move. “Did you find anything useful yet?”
“Of course. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t hide this stuff very well,” Frankie replied, pulling out a large, ornate box filled with papers and a video camera. He toyed with the camera, twisting it one way, then another. “Sermons, or decapitations?”
“Bit of both, most likely,” Colton guessed as he folded a few sheets of the paper in half, and placed them in a plastic bag. “Familiar names here.” He tucked the bag inside his jacket and picked up the magazine, flicking through the opening pages. “But really, this is far more useful. Practically essential for staying sane in this hell-hole – ”
“Iblis!” the boy cried, pointing at them in accusation. He waved his hands in a frantic shooing motion. “Emshi, Iblis! Emshi!”
Aiden shifted uncomfortably. “Let’s go.”
“He recognizes us, Aiden,” Frankie said quietly.
“They always do,” Aiden pointed out. Everywhere they went, no matter what language the people spoke or what gods they worshiped, the Paragons were depicted as some variety or other of evil mythological creatures. If someone asked the wrong questions and came too close to the truth, then that notoriety would be dangerous.
“That’s the third time this month,” Colton added.
“Much as I also resent being called a demon,” Aiden responded bitingly, “I’m not going to shoot a kid over it. Let’s just do as he suggests and go away.”
Frankie hesitated. “If he tells anyone -”
“Then it was my fault,” Aiden cut him off. “Leave him.”
“Fine, but I’m taking this,” Colton decided, shoving the magazine under his arm and grabbing the intelligence papers he’d gathered. He picked up the radio from his belt. “Kappa-one to base.”
There was a moment of static in the background before they received a reply. It was Aldous on the other end. “Roger Kappa-one. This is Alpha-one. All clear?”
Colton glanced at the boy, and then at Aiden. Aiden pressed his lips into a thin, determined line. Colton cleared his throat. “Affirmative.”
“You have fifteen minutes before the Iraqi police get there.”
A barbed wire fence surrounded the compound. Inside the fence were long rows of large canvas tents for housing the troops. Further inward were the long, gray concrete buildings: a cafeteria, a gym, a health clinic, and a computer lab with internet access – from which Aiden was forbidden. These structures converged on the large, two-story administrative building. The Paragons did not sleep with the regular troops; they were housed in a wing of the administrative building.
Aiden slipped through the foyer. As he passed, he noticed two civilians, clearly American, overdressed in business suits and looking both miserably uncomfortable and authoritatively angry. Standing beside them, Aiden recognized an Iraqi police official. They must have been informed of the bungled incident in the square. Aiden paused. The incident had annoyed him initially; the Paragons were a day away from returning stateside when they’d been dragged in to clean up the mess. With any luck, Aiden considered optimistically, these officials were going to revoke the Suspiral contract, and he might have a week off.
“Hey,” Aldous called, catching up to him as he entered the Paragon’s wing. He clapped Aiden on the back. “Well done.”
“Probably would have been harder if the contractors hadn’t cleared out the place.”
Aldous dropped his pleasant expression, replacing it with one of stern exasperation. “I was just in a meeting. A UN investigator was there. He went in with the police after you three cleared out. They found a boy, alive.”
Aiden remained impassive. “Lucky boy.”
“There were twenty dead civilians, Aiden,” he hissed. “He would have been accounted for. Now he’s given them a description of a purple-eyed demon.”
“That just seems ludicrous.”
Aldous glared. “Jackson wasn’t pleased.”
“It was my fault,” Aiden declared easily. “The twins had nothing to do with it.”
Aldous pressed his lips together. “They’ve arranged for Iris to question him, then he’ll be your problem. We can’t be recognized, Aiden.”
Aiden nodded, and went on his way. The boy would be his problem, which was another way of saying that he would have to get rid of him. The wasted effort irritated him.
After debriefing, he made his way back to his room. He knocked four times, twice fast, twice slow, before entering. Colton was lounging with his feet up on the circular dining table, drinking coffee and eating pita bread dipped in hummus, flipping through his new issue of Sports Illustrated. Frankie was snoring softly on his cot, a triangle of pita bread still clutched in his fist.
Aiden poured himself a mug of lukewarm goat’s milk and pulled out a chair. The room was bare but for the dining table with three chairs, three beds and a bathroom off to one side. Aiden should have technically had his own room, but space was limited at this camp. He picked up a round of pita and tore the stale bread between his teeth, his stomach telling him that it wouldn’t be enough.
Colton tossed the magazine at him and yawned. “I’m gonna crash before dinner. Make sure you wake me up.”
Aiden cringed at the sour taste of the milk as he considered Colton enviously. He’d like to sleep as well, but closing his eyes would only make the images of his kills more vivid. Instead, he flicked idly through the magazine. Girls were nice, when he could have them. He rarely had time for leisurely pursuits.
He turned page after page absent-mindedly, when something caught his eye. He flipped back to the page. His mouthful of milk sprayed out in a fountain, splattering all over the spread. He jumped up with a yelp, and Colton and Frankie both leapt out of bed, sidearms brandished.
“What?” Frankie demanded.
Aiden could hardly breathe. He slammed the magazine on the table, open to a two-page spread with the title Northern Lights across the top. On either page were a young man in shorts and a girl in a bikini. He pointed his finger. “It’s her.”
One could tell from the expression on her face and the awkward pose that the girl was not a model. It was obvious she’d rather be anywhere than in front of the camera. She studied the camera suspiciously, muscles tensed, ready to flee if the photographer came any closer.
The twins curled their lips simultaneously into identical mocking grins.
Colton tucked his pistol back into his trousers and smacked Aiden on the back of the head. “You’re supposed to appreciate the photos discreetly.”
“You don’t understand,” Aiden was adamant, ushering them to take a closer look. “Look at her eyes.”
They stood beside him over the magazine. Indeed, the girl’s eyes stood out against the page. They were bright, widely spaced and large. They would have been her defining feature even without the colour, but the irises had jumped out at Aiden first. They were an unnatural, downright impossible, yet undeniable and wholly familiar shade.
“Could be the lighting,” Colton offered.
“Could be contacts,” Frankie suggested.
“She’s not even wearing make-up.” Aiden shook his head and read from a passage. “While the near-supernatural unusualities of this young prodigy seem too many to be true, perhaps the most striking feature is the colour of her eyes; bright violet irises that whisper of wit and wisdom, hinting at the intellect her shy, monosyllabic comments bely.”
“Is unusualities even a word?” Colton evaded.
“I wouldn’t know,” Frankie pointed to his eyes. “But my whispering irises might.”
“Her bright violet irises,” Aiden repeated.
The twins went silent, and Aiden understood their scepticism. He stared at the photo, and he became adamant. They were her eyes. They were his eyes. He ran his finger over the page, searching for a name. He found it written in bold near the top of the page.
Triumph spread across his lips. “Got you.”