Heart of the Assassin:
by Robert Ferrigno
all rights reserved
Lester Gravenholtz stood beside an old fashioned red phone booth, stood there in the Florida sun waiting to kill the Atzlan oil minister and get back into some air conditioning. Sweat rolled down his bare scalp as a tour bus filled with tourists drove past, their voices going silent as they caught sight of him. He scratched his nose, fingers bumping up against the bumpy, mottled-blue prosthetic that covered half his face, running from one ear down across his chin. He couldn’t remember what kind of damn genetic disorder he was supposed to have, but the plasti-flesh molding was so realistic that when he checked himself out in the mirror he wanted to puke. The Old One’s medics had watched way too many horror movies, if you asked him. Sweat dripped into his eyes and burned. A little hair might have helped, but the old one had insisted on his head being shaved, leaving only a few tufts of reddish hair sticking out at odd angles to complete the picture. He looked like a hyena with mange.
Over six feet tall, fishbelly white, with a heavily muscled torso and huge hands, Gravenholtz wore a filthy, oversize coat that concealed his powerful frame, but left him steaming hot, itchy and miserable. Ninety-eight degrees in the shade, and there weren’t no shade for him. If he hadn’t wanted to kill somebody before standing out here for two days, he sure as fuck wanted to do it now. Actually… he was always ready to do some damage. That’s what the Old One said he liked about him. A natural aptitude, that’s what he called it. Aptitude. Gravenholtz had killed five men in the last ten months, here, there and everywhere the Old One sent him. He shifted in the sun, wished this Mexican oil fuck would show up so his aptitude could kick in, and he could get back to his air-conditioned suite and those frosty rum drinks that Baby had introduced him to. He rubbed the fake-pustules dappled across his forehead, wanting to tear his face off.
Don’t fret, Lester, Baby had said after the medics finished with him. You’re going to be as handsome as ever when this is over.
Maybe even handsome enough to throw a fuck to, that’s what Gravenholtz had thought. Ever since they had shown up at the old man’s Miami hideaway ten months ago, Baby had kept him at arm’s distance. Her daddy, the Old One, was as Muslim as they come, and she was still technically a married woman, but that was just an excuse. Ten long months without getting up close and personal with her. Last night, while the two of them watched the beach from the veranda of the penthouse, she had given him a perfunctory jerkoff, not even taking his dick out of his pants, laughing as he popped his cork within moments. Ha-ha.
The Old One. What a crock. Baby tried to tell him that her father was at least 120 or 130 years old, but the geezer wasn’t a day over 70, tops. Gravenholtz played along --- guy was a billionaire, a gazillionaire for all he knew, with his own private army, everybody bowing and scarping towards him. He could call himself fucking Methuselah for all Gravenholtz cared. He remembered hearing about this guy, some big news about how it wasn’t the Jews dirty-bombed New York and D.C. and Mecca thirty years ago --- it was the Old One and his crazy ass master plan. The Muslim messiah come to bring on the Caliphate, which was evidently dancing girls and flying carpets from sea to shining sea. Tell that to his grandma who was in a rocking chair in South Carolina, smoking a pipe and waiting for the warrior Christ to lead the charge at Armageddon. Truth be told, Gravenholtz didn’t give a shit if the Jews toasted New York, or if it was the Old One or the Sugarplum Fairy. That was ancient history and somebody else’s bad luck, not his.
One thing for certain, the old man had enough enemies for more than one lifetime. Not that it seemed to concern him much. Baby said the only one he was really worried about was Rakkim Epps.
You’re shitting me, Gravenholtz had said when she toldhim. You have got to be shitting me. That was all it took to convince him to sign on with the Old One. Not that he had a choice. But still… Gravenholtz would have paid money for the chance to kill that Fedayeen fuck.
Gravenholtz squinted in the sun, amazed at all the sky tattoos. He had seen them in the Bible Belt a few times, a baby Jesus in the manger sketched over Atlanta at Christmas, and the stars and bars on Independence Day, but here… there were all kinds of ads plastered across the sky here, offering everything from timeshare underwater condos to sex drink specials at the beachfront nightclubs. One of the largest tattoos looked just like the ocean, a full-on underwater scene up there in the clouds, manta rays and dolphins swimming in perfect unison around that French singer with the big tits.
He changed position, his pants sticking to him in the heat so he had to adjust his pecker, and he thought about the hump-girl in the pigtails last night. The old man might be territorial about his daughter, but he didn’t mind importing pussy for Gravenholtz. Every night a new one appeared at his door. All colors and ages, from young to younger. Slim ones and big ripe ones with hungry eyes and soft mouths. Some of them spoke English and some didn’t speak at all, which was just as well. Gravenholtz let them in, gave them the best workout they had probably ever had, and sent them on their way. It didn’t help. They weren’t Baby. He requested ones that looked like her --- long legged southern girls with honey hair, all pouty and pink as far as the eye could see… He would close his eyes and pretend they were her, but he didn’t really have that kind of imagination. He got mad sometimes, busted a few of the girls up pretty bad. That helped, but it didn’t last.
A party bus drove by, music blaring out this chunky Latin beat that he could feel running up his thighbones. People danced on the top deck of the bus, hoisted pastel umbrella drinks, women shaking their bare brown titties for all the world to see. Neuvo Florida, where the world comes to cut loose. Bonerama, nonstop.
Say what you want, the Cubans who ran Nuevo Florida knew how to have fun. The couple hundred miles of white sand beach fronting the Atlantic was covered with luxury resorts: Alligator Ballet, the Fountain of Youth, Everglades Under Glass… but it was Viva Libertad! drew the most tourists, Viva Libertad!, a thousand acre thumb in the eye to that bearded Commie prick who ruled Cuba once upon a time. No fun in the old Cuba, just work work work and rationed toilet paper. Viva Libertad! was all glitz and glamour, a theme park development of manicured beaches and fairytale hotels. At the center of the resort was Castroland, a run-down slum modeled after old Havana, a crumbling façade of cheap buildings, falling apart cars and beggars hustling handouts.
He watched the scraggly, legless teenager across the street, saw him hop over and take a beer from a cooler hidden in an abandoned sofa. Stumpy popped the beer --- his fourth of the afternoon --- and finished it in two long swallows. He smiled at Gravenholtz as his belch echoed, tossed the empty bottle against a brick wall, broken glass glittering in the sunlight.
Gravenholtz didn’t react, just stayed there sweating as the buses and limos rolled past, and thinking how much he missed the Belt. He had been happy working for the Colonel back in Tennessee. The Colonel was the most powerful warlord in the Belt, and Gravenholtz his special enforcer, keeping the shitbirds in line. Like the old song said, dirty deeds done dirt-cheap. And loving every fucking minute of it. Hillbillies or Mexicans, it made no never mind, they were all wetbacks to him. Muslims too. Yeah, it was one sweet situation, until Baby gave him the look that one afternoon, the Colonel’s young wife just back from horseback riding, sitting up on that white stallion like the fucking queen of Sheba. How you doing, Lester? she had said, staring down at him with those green eyes, the top button of her blouse undone so he could see the beauty mark between her breasts. The Colonel had been gone that day, gone to Murfreesboro, and when Baby shook out her hair it was like a golden net he couldn’t escape. “I’m bored, Lester Gravenholtz. Why don’t you come by the house and keep me company?”
If he had said no to Baby that day… if he had said he had business to attend to, Gravenholtz would still have been second in command of the Colonel’s army, his strong right arm, feared by everyone. Instead… he waved at the gnats that buzzed his mouth and nostrils… instead, he was standing under a phony banyan tree while tourists threw money into his basket and never looked him in the eye. Not once. Stumpy across the street got flowers along with five-peso notes dropped in his begging basket, even had his picture taken with the tourists. Not Gravenholtz. People hurried past, crossed themselves and thanked God that they didn’t have whatever the fuck he was supposed to have. Not that he blamed them.
The thing about Castroland was, that even though it was a big fake, all the individual pieces were real. Real buildings carted over from the real Havana, real cripples and war vets, real street signs and wall posters encouraging the people to save scrap, save power, save whatever the fuck they had because the Yanqui capitalists were determined to strangle the people’s revolution. Gravenholtz squeezed out a dry fart.
Gravenholtz just didn’t get Castroland. The Mt. Carmel theme park, outside of Waco, Texas, featured Janet Reno voodoo dolls and reenactments of the tank assault on Davey Koresh’s compound. Graceland had the King’s music playing everywhere and the best peanut butter and banana sandwiches you could imagine. Castroland, though…Castroland was just one long, miserable nutbuster.
Most tourists quickly tired of the monotony of the vast slum, preferring to spend their time on the sugar sand beaches and wave pools instead. That’s where Gravenholtz would like to be, lying around in the warm water, drinking mango daiquiris and watching the girls in their string bikinis. Stumpy across the street did a flip, walked around on his hands to applause from the small crowd gathered around him.
A South American tour group walked past Gravenholtz, Brazilians with their gold jewelry flashing, hurrying now as they got a good look at him. A little girl with short black hair started crying, buried her face into her mother’s hips, was quickly lifted into the senora’s arms. First time she had ever seen the boogeyman.
Gravenholtz watched the helicopters fluttering overhead, hotel guests heading out to what was left of the Bahamas, or circling overhead to get a good overview of the park. He used to like riding in helicopters when he served under the Colonel… used to feel like God himself looking down at the world, maybe lean out the doorway and take a few potshots at cows as they skimmed over the treetops. Even took down a farmer or two when he was in a particularly foul mood. That was then. Now, all he could do was look at tourists and try not to clench his fists.
Ten months ago, he and Baby had fled the mountain in Tennessee where the Colonel was searching for a weapon hidden away by the old regime. John Moseby. the Colonel’s finder, had located the weapon at the bottom of an underground lake and brought it up from the depths. Almost killed himself doing it too. Baby and Gravenholtz stole the weapon right out from under the Colonel’s nose, took the weapon and the Colonel’s prize Chinese helicopter for good measure. They flew the chopper into Florida, Baby, Gravenholtz and three of his best men. Supposed to sell it to the Chinese ambassador in Miami, sell it for enough that they could all live high and easy for the rest of their days. Good plan, but Baby changed it.
Baby had them set down the chopper in the Everglades. They barely got out before Baby shot his boys in the head, one-two-three, just like that. You’d think she’d been waiting forever to do it from the look on her face. Relieved somehow… and excited too. She told Gravenholtz there was somebody she wanted him to meet. Turned out it was the old man. This A-rab with a faint British accent and eyes like dirty ice. Her daddy. Old man was richer than anybody he had ever met, had a whole floor of the biggest hotel in Miami and all kinds of people around him. Capable fuckers too.
Not capable enough though. He smiled, his mouth crinkled against the prosthetic that bubbled over his lip in a mass of pustules. A week after Baby brought him to meet her pappy, Gravenholtz was attacked in his suite by three of the old man’s operators. Four a.m., dreaming about power fucking Baby and suddenly the door opens and these gooks slip inside, knives in their hands. Good thing he was a light sleeper. He caught one of them upside the head, turned his brain to mush, but left himself open, and the other two slashed him up. He bled all over the floor, but the wounds were superficial --- just cut through his skin, his real skin, but didn’t penetrate the second, armored layer underneath. A few minutes later the ops were dead, arms and legs snapped, bones sticking out. Gravenholtz was crisscrossed with cuts, but nothing a few hundred stitches wouldn’t fix.
He watched a big barefoot mamacita waddle out of a nearby shanty and start hanging clothes on a line. Bright colored tops with frayed sleeves, shorts with holes in them. He could hear her huffing and puffing from where he stood, raising herself up to pin down the clothes. This undercover nonsense went against his grain, pretending to be something he wasn’t. Gravenholtz believed in direct action. Hit it and move on. Baby though… she had different ideas. Said ripe fruit was the sweetest. He wasn’t even sure what that meant, but fine, he’d give this patience shit a roll. Sooner or later though… tickety fucking tock.
The Old One’s operatives were good, but not nearly as good as Fedayeen. Not even close. Fedayeen were the best the fighters the Islamic republic had and Gravenholtz had killed plenty of them over the years, sent them off to Muslim heaven C.O.D. That’s what Gravenholtz was designed for. To kill an elite warrior, the Belt had created an even better warrior. Hoped to anyway.
The Belt generals knew nothing could match Fedayeen training and their genetic boosters, so they brought this Jap scientist over to build their own super soldiers, build them from scratch. Augment the raw human material, the psychos and sadists used for the experiments. Jap jobs they were called by the few Belt officials who knew of their existence. Like the insulting name somehow made them inferior to the men who paid the bills. Gravenholtz knew better. The officials were afraid of the Jap jobs. Almost as much as they were afraid of the Fedayeen.
Took at least thirty operations to make a Jap job, painful shit too… not that he remembered much about it, but the dreams were bad enough, dreams of bright lights and sharp knives peeling him open layer by layer like a pink onion. The Jap scientist had done something else to them… tweaked their frontal lobes a little bit. Removed some moral governor that most human beings had. You ask Gravenholtz, that was the best thing that gook ever done for him. A conscience just slowed a man down.
Gravenholtz inhaled as he spotted a dark blue limo approaching. It looked just like the other hotel limos, but this one rode a little low from the added weight, one of the VIP German models, fully armored, top, bottom and sides. He kept his head down, watching the limo through raised eyes… watched it slow… slow… finally came to a stop in front of him. He stared at his reflection in the smoked security glass.
The limo stayed there, idling softly.
Gravenholtz shuffled closer, edged his begging basket ahead of him with the toe of his shoe. He stopped well short of the door, rocking gently on his heels. The sun burnt the back of his neck, heat rippling through him clear down to his fingertips. He watched the legless kid from across the street reflected in the polished side of the limo, watched him approach, swinging along on his hands, begging basket clenched between his teeth.
The passenger door of the limo swung open and a slender, light-skinned Mexican got out, a machine pistol swinging from a shoulder rig. Gravenholtz got a glimpse of the driver looking over at him with disgust before the door thudded shut.
He stared blankly ahead as the light-skinned Mexican wanded him, taking his time, paying particular attention to the seams of Gravenholtz’s overcoat. Explosives, metal, nuclear or biologic toxins, the wand screened for everything… but there wasn’t any metal in Gravenholtz. Not a pin, not a screw, not a staple.
The Jap scientist had used biologic body armor on Gravenholtz. Flexible body armor with hardly any seams. Made of some unique material where the more in was compressed, the stronger it got. The early jobs had killed plenty of Fedayeen with their reinforced fists and feet, their heavy density joints. The early models were good, but Gravenholtz was the prototype for the new model. New and improved, just like laundry detergent and mouth rinse. Might have made a real difference if they were ever put into full production… might have ended the stalemate between the Belt and the republic, but, something happened. Gravenholtz was on a solo training mission, killing wildly, like he was hungry for it and never going to get his fill. He came back to the lab a couple days later and found everyone dead. Everyone. All the other Jap jobs, the Jap scientist himself and the rest of his team. Must have taken a full Fedayeen strike force. Gravenholtz had been shocked at first, scared too, he had to admit it… then he thought, maybe it wasn’t so bad to be the last of his kind. Made him even more special.
The light-skinned Mexican had him raise his shoes so he could test the soles, and when the man bent forward, Gravenholtz could see a tiny bald spot on the crown of his head, right there among that nest of fine brown hair. Would have been a problem for him in a few years… so there was that to thank him for. Not that anyone ever thanked Gravenholtz. In the smoked glass, he could see the legless kid hovering nearby, keeping just out of range of the wand.
The light-skinned Mexican nodded to somebody inside the limo. Pivoted, the machine-pistol making a slow arc. He jerked his chin at the legless kid, ordered him back.
The legless kid did a one-armed pushup.
The light-skinned Mexican laughed.
The rear door of the limo slid open, a bulky, darker Mexican in the doorway, beckoning.
Gravenholtz didn’t move. The legless kid bounced around.
“Andele!” snapped the bodyguard in the doorway.
Gravenholtz moved closer, dragging one foot. He stepped into the limo, swayed in the doorway. The bodyguard made a move to grab him, but flinched slightly at the idea of touching Gravenholtz.
At that moment, stumpy bounded toward the limo.
Gravenholtz was supposed to hold the door open just long enough for the kid to fling himself inside, then step out and slam it shut. The blast would pulverize everyone inside the limo, leaving Gravenholtz free to kill the remaining bodyguard and escape. He and stumpy had practiced the move for the last two days while Baby watched, practiced over and over until it was perfect. Kid never said a word the whole time, just had that same weird little smile on his face like he had now as he launched himself at the open door, bullets ricocheting off the pavement.
The bulky bodyguard tried to shove him aside, but Gravenholtz held his ground, his eyes on stumpy and the smile that got bigger and bigger as he shot through the air… Gravenholtz slammed the door in the kid’s face.
The blast rocked the limo, the light blinding for an instant, even through the privacy glass. Gravenholtz fell back against the bulky bodyguard, the man cursing as the limo raced erratically down the street, tires squealing.
“Jefe… Jefe, esta usted bien?” gasped the bodyguard, pulling himself to his feet. He looked out the back window for pursuers. There were none. “Jefe?”
“Estoy bien, Estaban. Muy bien.” The oil minister nestled in the plush leather benchseat facing Gravenholtz, his hands gripped together to hide their trembling.
“Madre Dios,” muttered the bodyguard, sitting back down, one hand resting on his pistol.
“Hablez espanol, senor?” the oil minister said to Gravenholtz.
Gravenholtz watched police helicopters circling the blast site. “What’d you say?”
“Do you speak English, sir?” said the oil minister without a trace of an accent.
Gravenholtz ignored the question, cocked his head at the tooth lodged in the pitted blastproof window. His mollusk mouth twisted, plasti-flesh flapping around his gums. “Tooth fairy… “ He tapped the glass. “If you put that under your pillow tonight, the tooth fairy will leave you money.”
The bodyguard edged away from Gravenholtz, nose wrinkling from the smell of sour sweat, but the oil minister breathed steadily as ever.
“Thank you for saving my life,” said the oil minister.
Gravenholtz scratched at his matted hair. “I dint want to let the cold air out.”
“Of course. It’s very hot outside, isn’t it?” said the oil minister.
“I like cold air,” said Gravenholtz.
“Jefe, por favor---” started the bodyguard.
The oil minister silenced him with a glance, pressed a finger to his ear, listening. “I’m fine. No, that won’t be necessary.” His eyes stayed on Gravenholtz. “I don’t want an escort, is that clear?” He settled back in his seat. What is your name, senor?”
“Do you know who I am, Lester?”
“A man with air conditioning,” said Lester.
The oil minister smiled. “Yes, Lester I am a man with air-conditioning.” He had eyes like gray pearls, smooth brown skin and a finely-trimmed moustache. Shiny black suit and a necktie of woven platinum. Shiny black shoes. “I am also a man with a son who looks very much like you.”
“There… there ain’t nobody like me,” said Gravenholtz.
“My son feels exactly the same way. He’s twenty-four years old next month… and very lonely.” The oil minister plucked at the crease in his slacks. “I’m afraid I don’t get to spend much time with him. Hardly anyone even knows of his existence. Oh, he’s well cared for… very well cared for, but a man in my position... He looked out the window for a few moments, then turned back to Gravenholtz. “Are you lonely, Lester?”
“I see,” said the oil minister, but he didn’t. “Do you have family?”
Gravenholtz shook his head.
“Well, then perhaps you could do me a favor. Would you like to come live with my son? Keep him company? Be his friend?”
Gravenholtz pondered the questions. “Will there be air-conditioning?’
“Cold as you want, Lester. I’ll fly in a mountain of snow for you two to sled down if you like. My son has never had anyone to play with… no one who really wanted to play with him.” The oil minister leaned forward slightly. “You could have anything.”
Gravenholtz nodded. He was bored with the game. “Anything?”
Gravenholtz pointed at the bodyguard. “Could I kill that pissant ‘fore I kill you?”
The bodyguard was fast, already raising his pistol when Gravenholtz chopped him across the bridge of the nose, the armored edge of his hand driving the facial bones deep into the man’s brain.
The oil minister must have hit the emergency button, because there were lights flashing, and the driver hit the brakes so hard the limo skidded across the road, knocking oncoming cars out of the way like they were made of the aluminum cans. They finally came to rest after crashing through a holographic billboard advertising canned banana daiquiris that froze to a perfect slush when you opened the top.
Gravenholtz grabbed the oil minister by the necktie, jerked him close, close enough to smell the huevos rancheros the man had for breakfast. “I ain’t nobody’s playmate, Pancho,” he said, twisting the necktie, platinum links breaking off between his fingers as blood poured from the oil minister’s nose,
The oil minister’s lips moved as his eyes bulged out, but no sound came out.
Gravenholtz was watching blood leak from the oil minister’s eyes when he heard the partition slide open, felt himself thrown forward. Again. Again. Stung too. Ears ringing, he turned, saw the driver through the open partition, gun raised. The man fired again, a head shot this time, which was smart --- Gravenholtz lost a piece of his ear, but his skull was sheathed with the same material that protected the rest of him. He swatted the gun away, dragged the driver through the opening, the man crying out for somebody, his mama, his papa, Jesus H. Christ or the presidente of Atzlan, it didn’t make no difference.
Gravenholtz drove his fist through the man’s chest, ribs splintering like a bag of sticks. Blood everywhere, warm and slippery. Lester Gravenholtz had seen the inside of the human body more times than he could count, but it never ceased to disgust him. He wiped his hands off on the dead oil minister’s shirt, opened the door. A Hotel Viva! sunshine van on the way back from the beach had pulled over, tourists in bathing suits standing around ready to help. Until they saw Gravenholtz. He tore off a strip of his artificial scalp, drop kicked it twenty yards and one of the tourists screamed. Happy now, he walked around to the driver’s side. Got behind the wheel.
He backed out of the billboard, peeled out into traffic. The front end wobbled a little bit, but it was a good ride, Gravenholtz basking in the cold air. A small hologram was stuck to the dash… the driver and a woman holding hands in front of an Aztec pyramid. He turned on the ultra-sonic transmitter inside his overcoat, the transmitter broadcasting a signal keyed to the stitches the Old One’s techs had used for the stitches of his plasti-flesh. He could already feel his face loosening. Five more minutes the whole mess would slide off him like wet dough and he’d be back to his normal self again. He maxxed out the air-conditioning, trying to get rid of the stink from the rear compartment. Time to ditch the limo and make his way back to his pickup spot. He couldn’t wait to see the Old Man’s face. And Baby’s. They’d be pissed at him for changing the plan, but too fucking bad. Hold the door open for the gimp. Yaz, boss. Like Gravenholtz was some hotel doorman with gold-brush epaulets on his shoulders.
His back itched where the driver had shot him. No big deal. Only man who had ever really put a hurt on him was Rakkim. He had slipped a Fedayeen blade into Gravenholtz back at the Colonel’s base camp, cut right through to the soft parts like he had X-ray vision. Done it right in front of Baby too. Rakkim almost killed him, which was reason enough for Gravenholtz to go looking for him, prove to the man that he had just gotten lucky. It was more than that though. He had seen the way that Baby looked at Rakkim, heating things up… not that she made any effort to hide her interest.
Gravenholtz accelerated, one hand on the wheel. Revenge or jealousy, it didn’t matter. Either way, that shit couldn’t stand.