Historical Note: In 1348, a great mind of the Florentine Renaissance, Giovanni Boccaccio, got to live The Black Death first hand. He survived and the muse sang to him dark music. So much so that he composed a work of short stories that were told over ten days while a fictional group of survivors self-quarantined to avoid Boubonic Plague. While I’m on exile from my office, I’ll see if I can pound out some stories of my own in honor of the scholar and survivor who, along with Geoffrey Chaucer, helped make the short story collection a staple of fictional literature.
Mark Talbot had chucked his last real, live fastball at age 17. He had probably cranked that sucker up to the low 80s if anyone had shot it with a radar gun. He’d put it right under some snotty, Faux-Goth’s first chin whiskers. The ball had emitted a nice, low, evil whistle in protest of being forcibly ejected from his hand as if shot from an overwound trebuchet. It inside a few inches and high. It had been ball four. The winning run had scored in the Bottom of The Eighth. Three futile at-bats later and his side had lost their final Babe Ruth League playoff game and his somewhat illustrious amateur career had come to an end.
The six years since then had been picaresque with Talbot as the anti-hero. Nope, no Hiro Protagonist was he. He had proven he couldn’t deliver to the point where the family had basically resigned themselves to his life failure. The meaningless women, dope, personal unreliability, and nomadic existence of a neer-do-well young man had carved some notches on his soul the same way he claimed to have carved a few on one of his bedposts. Now, at last; he was part of something that had a meaning. The New Inquisition had given him that. Ironically, they also called him “Fastball”.
When you joined the TNI, as they called themselves shorthand, you didn’t just get a shiny plastic Nerd-Card in the mail. Nor did you get a certificate. You got purified and offered the opportunity. They told you to work your opportunity and become more pure. You did this by cleaning the world. As Fastball, Talbot so endeavored by “striking-out” individuals that needed to be K’d.
Once on the TNI roster, you didn’t get put on “The Mound” to work an inning until you had been properly coached. This coaching had involved him pretty much changing everything. His real name wasn’t Mark Talbot. After the initiation, which featured the mind-job; he’d forgotten the name of the miscreant punk who’d walked in that game-losing run six years ago. It could have been John Galt. He somehow knew the event had happened the way that he vaguely remembered some dude name Charlemagne had been a king in Northern France. His agency therein no longer registered in the neurons of his forcibly rewired mind.
The dope was out of his veins. That had sucked. He lost enough groceries to feed Somalia during the cold-turkey, amateur rehab. He was just happy that the crapper still flushed after he had puked the last junk out of his body. The diet and running regimen had hardened him against ever needing it again. The only six-pack in his life right now was the one he could now see in the mirror for the first time in about half-a-decade.
Women were in proper perspective. He would now only screw the right one. When it was time to start making the copies. Otherwise, they only stood between him and destiny. They were a training distractor for the nonce. Things that came later would come later. The TNI had to come first.
That was the grist of it. The TNI came first. You renounced things for your own good. You swore total fealty, like the vassaldom in some medieval fantasy book, to the TNI. They controlled two things and plotted them for you on some sort of Cartesian Plane. Time crossed money. They handled the ordered pairs of both and you just executed.
So Talbot, who had once been some other guy; sat in his apartment overlooking a row of bad strip malls and a the stacks of a nearby manufacturing plant. He sat waiting for the call. He wanted that opportunity to go from Page-Boy to Knight. They had given him his second phone three weeks ago. It was a burner. Smash the SIM Card, and it would take a near-miracle to trace where it had been and what messages it had conveyed.
He had been to the range and had burned through his customary 40 rounds. Then he had done the dumbbell weights and some LSD — Long Slow Distance — involving several laps of a nearby nature park. Then he banged a few pages of his required doctrinal readings. This was interspersed with the pre-packaged training meals that dialed the chemical balances within his body to where the TNI doctor ordained they should be.
So after dinner, he once again hammered that hanging bag of sand. Jab-Jab-Cross, Body-Body-Upper-Cut. Shove him off, switch stance. Left hand high to pick-off the jab to the nose. Flurry to the ribs until his own lungs were on fire from the cardio. When his knuckles and wrists hurt through the gloves and he saw the neat colored spots in front of his eyes the same way he used to see them from The X, someone could stick a fork in him. He was done and off to the showers.
While he cleaned off the sweat and examined his bruised knuckles under a stream of hot shower-water, his burner went off. A few minutes later, he now had too much discipline to dally overlong under a hot shower, he got his message. It was simple, seemingly cryptic, but meant the world to Mark Talbot.
“You’re on the mound.” Read the text.
Talbot made himself presentable and dressed. He went downstairs knowing the blue package had already arrived. His landlord saw him coming.
“Did you know you had a package?” The lump-back old man asked him as he presented a shoe-box to him that had been wrapped in inocuous light-blue paper.
“I reckoned.” Replied Talbot. Laconic and meaningless. Just like the TNI had taught him to deal with people still asleep.
“Must be your lucky day.” He the old man joked.
“Maybe so. Thanks.” Talbot smiled innocuously and went back upstairs. He tried not to show the nerves or the excitement. He was switching to job mode. Just like the doctrine he read daily instructed him to.
Mark packed his GOOD bag. The cash-money, the fake IDs, and the car key to the vehicle he had never seen were required. As were the two non-descript outfits and the bright red tie. The tie matched none of his clothing. It was a mulligan. Like David Lee Roth’s No Brown M&Ms Rule on the Van Halen Concert Rider. The TNI handlers put it on the list so they could check him out later to see if he really had read the doctrine well.
He also packed the other things he wasn’t supposed to. The things he’d put together that time the boys in The Dugout had to get on his ass for going froggy. These consisted of a different stack of cash the TNI wouldn’t have a GPS locator chip inside of. This was the stack he had formerly kept hidden under some crown molding. In case Bruno or George paid him a margin call for the vig when he bought too much heroin on credit.
He had another set of keys as well. This set went to the slightly used Subaru SUV he had bought in cash from Car Max and had hidden off in the woods while he was going froggy. It had perhaps been the last completely sane day in his new life. The .22 drop gun was the last bit he had time for. He had set up his other GOOD kit. In case the whole TNI thing went Tango-Uniform like most of the rest of his recent existence.
The Dugout Boys had gotten way pissed. He had been off grid for six hours. This required corrective discipline. The two personal trainers sent over for his remedial training session had administered what his old buddies in High School would have referred to as the “El Guapo Fvcking Beat Down” with a touching note of adolescent awe in their voices.
He had been trained well by the TNI. He lied effectively. Kept it brief, consistent, and plausible. He earned the grudging and humorous respect of the trainers. He took that extra helping of sadistic physical damage as a Type II Diabetes Piggy would load that third plate at The Western Sizzlin.
“Mo PT, ‘Toon Sargeant!” He remarked to one of the goons.
The next two miserable minutes of his existence involved a martial arts flurry worthy of one of The Matrix Movies. He had collapsed in a state of bloody, ass-kicked misery. The two goons sauntered to the door.
“Don’t make us have to come back. That was your last easy day.”
“Come on.” He replied as he staggered up to a bent-over, wobbling facsimile of a fighting stance. “I’ll miss you guys.” He finished while licking a viscous trail of nasal blood off of his upper lip.
“Get well soon, Fvck-Tard. Don’t ever even think of going froggy again.” Said Thing Number Two as they left.
His reminiscing over gay old times ended as he locked the doors, closed the drapes and opened the blue package. It was to the point. The gun was a .38 Special. Nothing complicated. Point the business end at The Big Blue Meanie. Squeeze trigger repeatedly. The gloves and mask were a nice touch. Homage to the Wuhan Wipeout. The mask would cover up over his nose. The cheap sun-glasses would cover his eyes. These TNI boys were the cure for infection.
The kit also contained a set of earbuds and an old I-Pad player that would have the podcast. It was always entitled “Blue Movie,” and it would tell him the who, when and where he would pitch his inning.
The Who was some Leprechaun apparently in need of his own personal Potato Famine named Blaine Morrison. He was rumored to be a piece of work whose Daddy had a gig with the IRA. Morrison now went by the sobriquet Ivan Chenkov and drove a Dodge Charger Uber-V. He was supposed to pick up a “gentleman” named Vladamir Schimdt. The letter wasn’t joking. Vladamir Schmidt.
The Where was outside an illegal Gentleman’s Establishment Called Fox Tales. The address was surrounded by just the sort of high value property you’d expect to find positioned near a Pervert’s Speak-Easy. “Tasteful.” Thought Fastball to himself. “Like Frosty Lucky Charms.”
Then When was 2PM. With the world locked down, these guys just thought they could be themselves in spite of the bans on everything. They did illegal things, in illegal ways, in an illegal Budda-Bing, during a pandemic lockdown. Then again, if these guys were Dugout Guy, Doug Rollins’ old weirdo enemies from a group that called itself Russian Math, they weren’t exactly obeying the other laws either. Respect for authority ran low in supply amongst the sort of Ex-Speznatz people that even Vladimir Putin had supposedly ordered a hit against.
These guys were like the old Yankee’s Murderer’s Row. And He, Mark Talbot; was about to take the mound against these soul-sucking futher-muckers. The adrenaline tickled his stomach. It was like game day all over again. TNI had really bought in and trusted him on this one.
The Podcast finished with mundanities. He knew which parking garage the dirty, Blue Ford Tempo was parked in. The money to pay at the gate was in the glove compartment. The description of the car that would drop him off near the hit vehicle and the time to embark were included. Talbot just needed a good night’s sleep and to eat enough biscuits the nest morning.
Fastball dressed for The Captain Trips Flu, hid the weapon and gloves in the pocket of an Arizona State University Hoodie, and caught his lift. The driver never looked at him. He stopped where he had been instructed. “Leave.” was about as close to “Good Luck” as this guy had managed after the trip. Talbot disembarked.
He got to his ride. The key opened the door somewhat grudgingly. WD-40 would have to go in his next blue package. Just in case. Fastball imagined incognito assassins only drove Banana Yellow Deloreans in Bad 80’s Bond Flicks. Around the exit route he drove and he paid up at the booth to leave. He had 15 minutes to get from here to Smutsville. Two traffic lights would intervene, and then it was time to infect Schmidt and Morrison with .38 Special Bat-AIDS.
He arrived a solid five minutes early. He found an alley across from the pick-up point for Schmidt. The plan wasn’t worthy of Guderian. He put an old football mouthpiece he had brought with in his mouth and waited. The Dodge arrived on schedule. Schmidt began to board his ride. Fastball floored pedal and prepared to ram Morrison’s Supercharged Paddymobile amidships in a manner reminiscent of a Viking War Party.
Things were not as the pod cast had described. The Ford hammered the Dodge like a nail. There were too many passengers in the Dodge. The one first impacted by Fastball’s ramming attack was an adorable litte girl. The unsubstantial man next to her must have been the soon-to-be-bereaved father. Schmidt and Morrison were upfront and had nary the clue of how bad their afternoons were about to become.
A third passenger in the back had his weapon already out. He had probably taken Daddy hostage and made him bring Little Petunia along for he ride as additional human collateral. She was now collateral damage as the back-seat thug’s weapon discharged inaccurately across Fastball’s bow. Morrison attempted to accelerate his damaged vehicle. It began to function despite the stoved-in gash to its chassie.
Fastball now couldn’t really ram Morrison harder without dealing more carnage to an already bleeding little girl. He couldn’t easily do Morrison, as his car was arear to the driver who was beginning his getaway. Fastball pulled the gun and dismounted his vehicle in a kneeling fire position and discharged twice. At least one of his two rounds was a good, clean strike. Morrison’s body shot forward and towards the center of the front seat as if he’d been shoved from the back by the ballistic kinetic energy.
With Morrison appparently hors-de-combat from Fastball’s intial fusilade, the car now rolled without intent or direction. Both doors on the opposite side of the vehicle from the driver sprang open. The third passenger from the back was now visible to Fastball from the knees down. He’d rolled out of the back and was apparently not succeeding yet at reorienting himself. Schimdt was either covered or concealed. This was a very bad thing for Talbot.
Fastball fired at the backseat thug’s lower legs and missed. The bullet spanged off the sidewalk and into some part of the cruddy building across the street. The few people about were now running away in the ducked-over gait that people used when they tried to flee random gunfire in a state of utter panic. This was Fastball’s opportunity to withdraw from a very unfavorable encounter. He grabbed his personal GOOD bag and left the TNI’s. He had just made a big decision. His luck got better when the errant car careered over a fire hydrant, knocked it ass-over-tea-kettle, and sent the predictable gusher all over the sidewalk.
He escaped back across the street as two rounds flew past. He felt the heat from one that ripped through the aether maybe an inch-or-so from his Left Shoulder. He was mildly relieved that neither of his functional opponents had seen fit to wing him in the ass for the troubles he had brought to bare. He had left behind a mess. A mess required a cleaner. To get that arranged, he had to text one more thing before smashing his second phone. “Bullpen.”
After sending the text, Fastball realized something troubling. He had no further doctrine telling him what happened next. Fastball had learned hard lessons from the crappy, tenuous jobs a guy could land as a serial drug and woman abuser. When the bosses knew what happened next and the worker didn’t, that worker typically got screwed. Talbot remembered the remedial training session and really didn’t want to see those guys under the current set of circumstances.
He smashed not just the second cell phone. He stamped down and ground heel on both of them. The last functioning locator chip was in a large stack of bills, to be found in a wrecked old Ford, at the scene of a brutal double-murder. Fastball needed to not be near that location.
The .38 went down a street drain into the municipal sewer. The ASU hoodie went in a garbage dumpster a block away. The gloves and mask stayed on and Talbot got ready to practice a whole new level of social distancing. One that could perhaps last decades after this Wuhan Wipeout lockdown was over.