By Roger Vallon


Vallon


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KILL FACTOR—CHAPTER ONE: UNWELCOME GUESTS

It was a good day for mowing the field. The sun was at the right angle, a mild breeze was blowing, and the other local farmers had harvested the last of the corn the day before. Hadrian maneuvered his John Deere over the leftover corn stubble at the edges of his vast field. The machine was holding up well, considering the deep furrows it had to navigate. Since he kept the mower high, the tractor traversed them with relative ease, the heavy-duty rotary cutters making a cheerful whirring sound as they mowed down the remaining stalks.

Hadrian was thinking ahead to the spring planting, and he longed to grab his plow and turn the soil under in preparation. He looked in the direction of an old willow tree and considered resting in its shade for a spell, but work beckoned. Taking a breather would have to wait. After spitting out his chew, he took a swig of sweet tea to quench his thirst and examined the dirt under his fingernails. Life on the lam had resulted in nothing but hard work.

Farming was physically new to him, but he’d been downloaded with specific skill sets that enabled him to blend in during his time here. Thanks to this, he had easily settled into his farmer persona over the past twelve months and could present a convincing simulation out here in the middle of nowhere. Although he was content for the time being, he had felt the first stirrings of restlessness, like a junkie having withdrawal symptoms, especially during the waiting period these past three days. The seventy-two hours had passed like decades. He knew what was about to occur, and just thinking about it made him salivate.

When he had first settled on the farm a year ago, he wondered how long it would last, how long he’d have to stay in hiding. He had enjoyed living a tranquil rural life, but knowing that Redrum carried on while he did so grieved and angered him. But today, he was through living the life of a farmer. Because they were coming.

Hadrian drove Betty through the furrows as he headed back to the barn. Such an odd name for a tractor, but she was a sweet old lady, always faithful and reliable. He broke from the field with the barn in sight, and he wasn’t surprised when he saw dust billowing in the distance—a black SUV was approaching on the mile-long dirt road. He could smell assassins in the air. He knew it was his time.

He was surprised it had taken them so long to find him. His eyes adjusted to the distance like a zoom lens and pulled the image of the vehicle closer. Four men in black suits rode inside. He hadn’t always been blessed with keen eyesight. That was another of their “tweaks.” His adjustable vision made him a great shot, of course, but other enhancements were even more remarkable. He could hit a target blindfolded if need be—and on several occasions he had.

“Hmm. Using the old government agency ploy,” Hadrian muttered to himself while staring at the vehicle bouncing along the road toward him. “How original.”

He pulled Betty up to the front of the barn as the SUV made its way up his drive. A worn saddlebag he had fastened to Betty’s side carried a little .22—his insurance as he worked the farm. Hadrian grabbed it and tucked it at the back of his waist in preparation for battle. He’d miss Betty, that was for sure. Who knew you could love a machine or respect the dirt, sweat, and tears that came by honest work? Had they hardwired that into him as well? He didn’t know.

“Mr. Blackburn. Mr. Blackburn,” one of them called from the SUV as Hadrian swung open the large barn door. He ignored them and hopped back on Betty. At a two-mile-an-hour crawl, he rolled her inside. He killed the engine when they called again. He looked in their direction and shot them an expression that signaled his annoyance at the intrusion. He could tell by the look in their eyes that, for a moment, they thought maybe they had the wrong guy. He decided to play into that.

“Name’s not Blackburn, needle nose,” Hadrian said in a slow drawl as he walked out of the barn. “It’s George Kenton. What you doin’ on my land?” He spit out his second chaw of tobacco for the morning, and it landed a little too close to the agent’s shoes to be an accident.

The agent glanced down at the ground for a moment, and then said, “We’ve been sent here to acquire your services, Mr. Blackburn. Or should I just call you ‘Black,’ which is your current designation?”

When Hadrian made no reply, the agent looked up at him, stared him full in the face. “Or perhaps you prefer your lofty name from the Principate,” he said. “Third dynasty, correct? Hadrian the Caesar.”

Hadrian stared back at him, said nothing.

“Well, I’ve got news for you, Hadrian,” the agent continued. “They made us all Caesars. But you they have a thing for. They think you’re special somehow.” The agent smiled and looked behind him, and the other three chuckled as if on cue. He turned back to Hadrian, his smile gone, his face a grim mask. “We, on the other hand, consider you a relic.”

Hadrian shook his head slowly, as if he were a first-grade teacher dealing with an exceptionally dense child. “I told you, you’ve got the wrong man. Might be a Blackburn a few miles down the road. I heard someone took over the old Griffith farm. Might want to check there.” Hadrian turned away as if he were done with them and their persistent silliness and walked around to the side of the barn. He smiled when he heard them following close behind.

The talkative agent continued his patter. “I guess I can skip the neat little speech I was supposed to give you, about the government needing your services, among other things. You and I both know you’re too smart to fall for that.”

Agent Talkative had just made a mistake. Hadrian now knew for sure that they wanted him alive, otherwise there would have been no need for a prepared speech about needing his services. Besides, if they wanted to kill him, they would have made their move by now. When he grabbed the pitchfork that was leaning against the side of the barn, the four agents simultaneously flinched and took a step back.

“What’s the matter, boys?” Hadrian said. “You never seen a real farm tool before?”

The four men relaxed as Hadrian dug into a small pile of hay next to the barn and tossed forkfuls into an old rusty wheelbarrow.

“I had a little mishap while moving some bundles last night,” he said with a half-smile. “Guess I need to quit hitting the bottle so hard.”

“Let’s cut the act, Hadrian, or Black, or whatever you’re calling yourself these days,” the lead agent said.

“The name’s Kenton, George Kenton,” Hadrian said without turning from his work at the hay pile. “You need to work on your memory skills, partner.”

“You like Kenton? Very well. You know why we’re here, Kenton. But if not, let me make it clear. Redrum isn’t mad at you. In fact, they commended you for your amazing abilities. And, luckily for you, they had backups in Geneva, so you didn’t destroy all the files. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be standing here having this lovely chat. So, let’s not make this harder than it needs to be. Get in the truck and let’s go.”

Hadrian realized that they must know he had the chip. He stood up straight and made a quarter turn to his left. He cocked his head and said, “What did you say?” Out of the corner of his eye he spotted a potential opening and zoomed in. The vein at the side of Agent Talkative’s temple was pulsing. The man was fearful or anxious about something. That would weaken him and make him vulnerable. He would hesitate, second-guess his instincts. Good instincts were what kept you alive in the field. Lose them or ignore them, and you were doomed.

As the agent repeated his statement, he suddenly stiffened, his face a mask of shock and surprise as he looked down at the pitchfork that was plunged into his guts nearly to the wooden handle. He had never seen Hadrian make his move.

Before the cerebral cortexes of the three remaining Redrum agents could register what had just happened and before the dead agent’s corpse even hit the ground, Hadrian snapped the pitchfork handle over his knee and broke it in two. His movements were swift and graceful, like tai chi in fast motion, as he launched into a backspin. Another agent went down, his features gripped with fear as he clutched at the wooden stake buried in his heart.

The other two agents crouched down and reached into their blazers for their guns. They began firing rounds in Hadrian’s direction, but he tumbled out of the way and dived into the barn while firing backward shots from his .22 to keep the agents at bay. That bought him a few seconds, enough time to slam the barn door shut. He knew the bolt wouldn’t hold for long.

Bullets pierced the barn door, and streams of sunlight poked through. Hadrian climbed a ladder up to the loft and kicked the slanted cover off a crate he kept in the corner. Semi-automatic weapons and ammo lay inside. He grabbed a machine gun, stuck a clip in, and set it down while he loaded another.

The barn door finally gave way. The agents stood just outside the doorway and fired blind shots in every direction but Hadrian’s. Hadrian’s vantage point gave him the upper hand. He crouched and kept an eye on the doorway, but the agents refused to enter. They were waiting for Hadrian to return fire and give away his location. It didn’t take long for the two to empty their clips. When they ducked out of sight to reload, Hadrian seized the opportunity. He flipped over the loft rail and landed on one knee, guns in hand. He moved forward and fired at the walls on either side of the barn entrance, where the agents would be reloading. Bullets ripped through wood, and the agents bolted away from the danger. When Hadrian made it outside, he saw the two agents running in separate directions, but they got off a few shots before he felled one of them by the haystack.

Hadrian shot the second agent as he ran toward the SUV parked in the driveway. The man fell on the hood of the vehicle and slid to the ground, bleeding from several wounds.

Hadrian dragged the four bodies into the barn and lined them up on top of a bed of hay. He shut the barn door and pulled Betty to the side with a sigh of regret, knowing he’d never see his trusted field companion again. He bent down to kiss the hood of her engine as she purred, gave her an affectionate slap with his palm. The land had made him a little sentimental, and the tractor was the closest thing to a faithful partner he’d ever had.

His thoughts drifted for a moment as he took in the silence. The sound of crickets almost made it seem as though peace had been restored to this countryside farm. He climbed off Betty and made his way to the back of the barn, unveiling the red ’69 Ford Mustang hidden under a huge gray tarp. He climbed in, started the engine, and pulled her out of the barn. His yearlong vacation was over. It was time to put an end to Redrum Industries.

As he cleared the curve of Cherry Lane, he reached into his glove compartment and grabbed a small black box with a blinking red switch. Hadrian flipped the switch. Two seconds later, he saw a massive explosion in his rearview mirror, and a split second after that he felt the shock wave roll over the Mustang. When the smoke cleared, his two-story countryside house and barn were leveled, the four assassins and sweet Betty along with them.