Contemporary Fiction

The Promotion

by Mackenzie Littledale

I was an assassin, yet nothing and no one I’d ever faced shook me to my core like seeing my mom in this hospital bed. Her supine frame—twenty pounds lighter than just a week ago—made me feel powerless, not the invincible son she’d raised. A forked tube disappeared into her nostrils; her mouth hung open. I’m six-four and my knees wobbled at the thought of losing her. I dropped down into the armchair and pulled up to her bedside. Her hand felt frail, even though just two months before, this same hand had stirred pots of my favorite curry goat stew for my birthday. I couldn’t even comprehend what day of the week it was. I slipped into the past and back so easily, it made me dizzy.

“Mom,” I said, praying my words weren’t in vain. “Please know that I will do everything in my power to make you healthy again.” I swiped at the hot tears rolling down my face. “Don’t die on me.”

Her head rolled toward me. “Mikali?” she whispered.

“I’m here, Mom,” I said, squeezing her hand.

“Too much money,” she rasped.

It took me a second to realize what she meant. The doctor had said her treatment would run into the tens of thousands. Every. Week. Despite insurance, we could be out of pocket over $300,000. My mom had tried to make a saver out of me, but I wanted to enjoy life and spent money left, right, and center. My bank account barely had $15,000. I’d built no equity to tap into. Guilt nibbled at me for being unprepared. I needed to win lottery. Or to quadruple my pay. Or to sell my soul to the highest bidder. Or to get promoted to special operations and take down more valuable targets. My thoughts went crazy.

“Mom, I will not let you die.” A sob burbled up my throat. “I’ll do anything.”

I remained sitting by her side, hoping she’d recover enough to have a conversation. There was nothing to do, so I stared at the wisps of grey at her temples. She used to braid her own hair but only managed to tangle it into knots. She’d tried teaching me to cook but I nearly melted a frying pan because I’d forgotten it on the stove. Mom had never complained. 

By time I noticed the clock, three hours had ticked by and the sun had gone down. She hadn’t said another word or opened her eyes. Wracked with misery and fear that she could slip away from my life, I left when the nurse announced visiting hours were long over.

The next day at work, I was busy writing the report for my latest assignment when Mr. Green called me into his office. “M.,” he said, businesslike, his Jamaican accent coloring his voice.

I stepped inside his space, never comfortable at his old-fashioned his taste in décor. Green took deep pride in his hunting. Small kills littered the shelves, in ‘natural’ poses, their eyes perpetually glossy as if their souls were trapped inside. I didn’t believe the animals deserved to have their carcasses on display. Killing was for bad guys. The sooner true evil was eradicated and forgotten, the better.

“Your work has gotten the attention it deserves,” he continued, tapping my shoulder. “Your last hit was even cleaner than corporate hoped for.” He gestured for me to sit, but the whole team knew he didn’t like anyone sitting, so I stood. “I’m offering you a chance at a promotion.”

I feared my eagerness burst through my professional exterior, so I stood straighter. “Thank you, Mr. Green.” My last assignment was difficult. It had been imperative to be careful.

Green smiled, exposing a wide gap between his front teeth. “When targets are too easy to hit, it’s common to get sloppy.” Mr. Green took an unlit cigar from a crystal ashtray on his credenza and planted it between his teeth. He lit it; something about them must have made him feel important and strong. 

“That’s true,” I said, wanting to vomit at the stench.

“But not you. You made Target-65’s death look like an accident.” Mr. Green tipped his head toward me, a subtle show of respect. “I admire your work. As you know, our department was sold to a new owner, a chap by the name of Morningstar. He’s an asshole and drives a hard bargain, but he’s promised to raise your pay twenty-five percent if you make this next target.” Green hitched his eyebrows. “If you can do it within forty-eight hours, there’s a six-figure bonus, as well. No one has been able to get close. Target-66 is…” He gestured with his cigar as if searching for words. “…well-protected, let’s say.”

I could afford my mom’s treatment if I succeeded. The target’s protection intrigued me. “Protected by how many?”

“Just one person, actually.”

No battalion? That surprised me. “What do you mean by a chance at a promotion, sir?” My peers who had received a promotion for special operations had simply been promoted. 

“Target-66 is special. If you can take her down before the deadline, you’ll get the promotion. We can’t give you any details or identifiable information.”

“I don’t understand.” Not one assignment had ever been conducted that way.

“New boss, new rule. Once your target is within striking distance, we’ll alert you straight into your earpiece.”

“That’s highly unusual, but as you wish, Mr. Green.”

“Target-66 is a pet project from Morningstar. He says she’s the most dangerous, most cunning criminal we know of.”

My heart pounded overtime. “Sounds personal. I can do this. Where was Target-66 last seen?” I asked. My adrenaline surged. There was no higher honor than to be trusted with a job that would earn me a higher position straightaway. I wanted to tell my mom that I got the promotion of my dreams, but as far as she knew, I was a mobile massage therapist, a job with no advancement possible except to open a practice. With a raise and bonus coming to me if I succeeded with this project, I’d be able to pay for her medical treatment and anything her tender heart desired, but she’d never believe I’d come into that kind of money. Secrets upon secrets.

“He said she’s in the local vicinity,” Mr. Green said without his usual self-assurance. His sharp bluish-grey eyes looked me over, though not coldly. “She’s very dangerous.” Green replaced the cigar in the ashtray. When he turned back to me, his eyes were stern, laser sharp. “When all was said and done, we couldn’t agree more that you’re the man for the job.”

“I appreciate your faith in me, Mr. Green,” I said, though not altogether humbly. I’d earned this. I knew I was a gifted assassin. When I watched The Professional with Jean Reno, it sealed my fate. I would never complicate my work with a kid or let a Mafioso handle my finances like Leon did in the movie. I kept my body in a perfect balance of leanness and muscle, speed and strength. The main quality I admired in myself was stealth. For that, I had Brad Pitt in Troy to thank. He fought like a god, and I trained to the bone to move like that. Take my opponent at will. I couldn’t delude myself into thinking she’d be easy to take down, but I planned to stop her dead in her tracks.

“Good man,” Mr. Green said. He clapped me on the back, the signal to get the hell out of his office and go get weapons. 

“Thank you, sir.” I said on my way out of his pine-paneled office. I headed to the Weaponry Department. I had to take a few deep breaths to steady myself. I was too excited to make this kill and knew overexcitement could cloud my judgment.

The whole reason I’d taken to assassination stemmed from my childhood. My father had a vile temper and took his anger out on my mom and me. One night, he’d nearly killed her, left her lying lifeless on the kitchen floor. Her royal bronze skin had been smeared with blood. A blind rage took over me and I stabbed him thirty times. I weighted him down with cinderblocks and dumped him into the Mississippi. My mother never asked any questions; all I knew was that we were free. We never spoke of his disappearance. She told friends and neighbors that my father got called into Marine service and I was happy to let it go at that.

J. of the Weapons Department laid out an assortment of pistols, silencers, scopes, hypodermic needles, knives, blades, poisons, and customized rifles. I would be well-equipped whether the target was at arm’s length or 500 feet away.

“How am I supposed to make my mark?” I wondered aloud. Without photos, video, or a dossier, I would be at the mercy of the judgment of a man whom I hadn’t even met yet.

“M.?” asked J. “What’s wrong?”

“Let me see to him,” said an unfamiliar voice, as smooth as cognac. A man wearing black-on-black with a crow on his shoulder came forward. Savvy, experienced eyes pierced through me from a youthful face. His appearance disarmed me. “I’m Morningstar,” he said and smiled, waving J. off to find somewhere else to be.

I nodded to J. to go. I needed answers from the new boss.

“I trust you’ve been given your new assignment,” Morningstar said.

“I have, sir. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Good.” Morningstar’s voice was silky. I imagined if it were a color, it would be crimson. It practically had a sheen.

“The parameters are a bit unconventional though.” 

“Trust is a premature thing to ask of you, since we’re only now meeting, but it’s a prerequisite. I demand resourcefulness and Green tells me you’re born for this.”

I could admit without humility that I was resourceful. “Yes, sir.”

“Call me Lucien.”

“Thank you, Lucien.” Thoughts of my mom in the hospital barged their way into my consciousness, throwing my mind into chaos. I forgot what I wanted to ask.

“You go on about your life, M. Target-66 is close. Keep your earpiece in place and follow orders to the letter.” Lucien sucked on his teeth and straightened his suit jacket. The crow beat its wings and settled down. “J. will get you the weapon you need.”

“Weapon? Only one?” If I were to be honest with myself, I had no idea how to go on about my life while my mom lay in the hospital.

“Yes, the only one that can take down Target-66,” he said, as if it should be obvious. “If you have anywhere you’d like to be, you go.” He made a courteous nod of his head and walked down the grey stone hallway.

I was a bit thunderstruck at how enormous the opportunity was for me, for my mom. The air conditioning kicked on and I felt a chill. I’d soaked my uniform in sweat.

I followed after Lucien Morningstar, but I couldn’t catch up. His footsteps suddenly stopped as though he’d evaporated. J. handed me a violin case. I took it and turned a corner down the corridor leading to the locker rooms. Once in street clothes, I dropped off my uniform at Wardrobe and left for the hospital. The sun reached a tipping point slightly above the horizon. It seemed to drip colored lights into the sky, reminding me of my mother’s house rules: “Bettah not lemme find yah outside dis house when de sun go down.” I had to laugh at the memory. It had been a hard rule to follow in autumn when the sun slipped out of the sky earlier and earlier. By wintertime, I’d been happy to come in from the cold and dark for split pea soup.

As I parked in the visitors’ garage, I decided to take the violin case with me to prevent theft. The only thing I knew was certain violins could be collector’s items. Now, once inside the hospital, everything was the same, but somehow different. The elevator seemed slower; the lights glowed greyer; the hallways leading to her room seemed longer, narrower, emptier, and colder. At last, I reached my mom’s room. Her breathing remained shallow. Had she lost even more weight since yesterday? 

My earpiece whispered to life. “You’re close, M.”

I was tempted to remove my earpiece. The timing couldn’t be worse. Hadn’t Lucien told me to go about my business? I reached for it, but decided to leave it in. Close to what? “Come again, sir?”

“I thought you were going home, but you’ve tracked down Target-66.”

“In the hospital?” I asked, wondering if a nurse, doctor, radiologist, or visitor could be Target-66. “I need some sort of physical description.”

“Negative,” Lucien said. “Just follow directions. You’re a mere six feet from her.”

I looked around the room. The other bed was empty. I peeked outside the door, looking up and down the hallway, but there were no people. “Sir, I believe you’re mistaken. There’s no one that close…” I looked at my mom. “Except my own mother.”

“Makeesha Lewis is wanted dead, M.” Lucien’s sharp tone shot through my ear. “Take her down and I’ll explain later.”

Uproarious laughter bellowed through my head. This guy is crazy. “Mr. Morningstar, you’re mistaken and I can’t trust you enough to take down my own mom.”

“I’ve been called many names throughout the ages, M. The woman you call ‘Mother’ is an escapee. She’s not even the Makeesha Lewis you’ve known your whole life.”

His matter-of-fact tone had a soft edge to it. Serious. Not a prank, but I remained suspicious. My stomach began a mild protest, sloshing, churning. I felt a wave of dizziness for a second.

“Perhaps you should sit down,” Lucien said. “Target-66 isn’t going anywhere, but we don’t have time. If she dies naturally, we lose.”

I sat in the armchair without pulling up close to my mom. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Normally I wouldn’t care, but seeing as how this is my mother…”

“Let’s start with your father, M. She led you to believe you’d killed him.”

“How do you even know that?” Who the fuck was this guy?

“She toyed with your memory. She killed him, and he was a prime asset to me. She let you believe his death was at your hand.” He clucked. “Sinful to lay blame on her innocent son. Makeesha slipped into a catatonic state. She was about to die of a broken heart when Target-66 took over her soul. Target-66 escaped my gatekeepers and needs to go back where she belongs.”

It was so outlandish. It had to be April 1st. “Lucien isn’t exactly your name, is it.” 

“Lucien, Lucifer, Morningstar. A rose by any other name and all,” he said, laughing quietly. “If you’re clever, you’ll have your cake and eat it, too.”

“What do you mean by ‘cake’?”

“Target-66 is possessing your mother’s body, which is weakening your mother; that’s why she’s in the hospital. If you can extract her soul, your mother has a chance to live. Take her out.”

I thought of my secrets from my mother, and here her own secret plagued me with guilt for killing my father since I was sixteen.

I stared at the violin case and then looked at her. Would I go through with this assignment? Was Lucien telling the truth? When I opened the case, there was actually a violin inside.

“Play it,” Lucien said into my ear.

This day was getting weirder and weirder. I had no idea how to play a violin. The instrument had a pentagram and the initials L.M. carved into its back. I held the violin under my chin like I’d seen on TV and picked up the bow. Without finesse, I dragged the bow across the strings and AC-DC’s “Hell’s Bells” came out.

“Perfect,” said Lucien. “That’s the one.”

I kept pulling and pushing the bow. My mother’s eyes opened wide and a chorus of screams wailed out of her gaping mouth. “No!”

“Yes,” Lucien hissed. “Tell her to go to hell.”

“But what about my mom?” I asked, caught in a vice. If I succeeded and sent Target-66 to hell, would my mom live? I’d get the bonus and then I could afford the treatment. The doctors would bring her back from the brink of death. If I failed, Target-66 would remain in possession of my mom’s body. If Lucien was lying or simply wrong, my mother would be dead at my hand.

“Keep playing.”

“Hell’s Bells” continued to screech out of the violin. Target-66 writhed and convulsed. Her skin paled from bronze to grey until her back arched and her mouth unleashed a deafening scream. Then all went silent. The monitors stopped beeping. The screaming ended and a green sphere of light escaped Target-66’s mouth. It floated upward.

“Lucien, what do I do with a ball of light?” 

“I’ll take over from here.”

The ceiling split open and a finely-woven net of black and red light descended, encircling the green sphere. It closed tight around it and swooped back up through the split. The ceiling closed again seamlessly.

“Karma is a beautiful thing,” said Lucien.

“Why did you need me when it was that fast and easy?” I put the violin back in the case and sat down next to my mother.

“No one else could have done this because it’s your Karma mingled with hers. Only you could untangle your fate from sharing in hers. Your bonus is being wired to your account as I speak.” The connection in my ear went silent. 

My mom sat up and called my name. Mikali, her one protector.

September 03, 2021 00:49

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Nick Jordan
10:39 Sep 09, 2021

First of all, great story, really engaging and imaginative. Importantly for me, because I have a horrendously short attention span, I didn't once feel like quitting. I wanted to find out what happened. I guess maybe you structured it this way, but I did immediately guess that the target was going to be his mother. What I didn't foresee was the nasty supernatural twist. At some point it did click that 'Morning Star' is a name for the Devil, but you played it really well into a good twist. Nothing I could offer in the way of improving it, I ju...


21:43 Sep 09, 2021

Nick, your comments brightened my day, even if one of my twists didn't surprise you. I. So glad you couldn't stop reading. Be well Mackenzie


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Dawn Hosmer
17:42 Sep 08, 2021

Whoa! Superb story with an excellent twist. Well done!


21:44 Sep 09, 2021

Hello Dawn, Given that you're the queen of twists, that is the highest praise indeed. I couldn't hope for better. Thank you so much. Be well, Mackenzie


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Eric D.
03:02 Sep 08, 2021

That ending was phenomenal so much unfolded, I know this is digital but I'm still saying it, it's a friggin page turner. Well developed setting and everything.


13:51 Sep 08, 2021

Good morning Eric, thank you so much for reading and sharing your impressions. I love hearing back from readers! It makes me very happy. Be well Mackenzie


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Terri Harrington
02:31 Sep 03, 2021

Great job, Mack! You really pulled this one off! I love this tension and suspense. Terrific!


13:52 Sep 08, 2021

Good morning Terri, Thank you so much for taking time to read and share your impressions of my story. I appreciate it. Be well Mackenzie


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