Pandemic Files

Jaded

James throws the pen down and curses under his breath, dropping his forehead into his palms. He stays in that position for a solid ten seconds before looking back up, squinting through the light coming from his desk lamp. It’s been about a week since he swapped the bulb out for one with a lower wattage, the dimness making for a better writing environment. Though, if he’s truthful with himself, it was really Jade that demanded the increased darkness, her body needing the sheath of shadows like a shark needs the sea.

What Jade wants, Jade gets.

A gleam from the main window in his second floor bedroom catches James’ eye, a final flash as the sun dials down below the Manhattan skyline. Ten stories below, the lights in central park flicker on. James focuses on the line of glowing yellow balls reflected in his window. He used to relish this view, day in and day out, waking in the morning to open the blinds and let the sun’s rays warm his bare chest. Now, though.

Now.

The blinds are open, but it’s as if James is staring through stained glass; not a window looking out on the city he loves but a distorted depiction of the city he used to enjoy.

James’ cell phone rattles against the base of his file drawer, the unnerving generic ring tone pulling him out of his head. He grabs the contraption, presses talk and shoves it against his ear. The voice on the other end springs through the receiver before he even has a chance to say hello, and he can’t help cringing at Frank’s scratchy tone, like somebody’s been continuously punching him in the throat ever since he was born.

“Jim,” Frank barks, then chuckles for absolutely no discernible reason.

“Frank,” James says, quietly.

“Jimmy, buddy,” Frank says. “My man, my main man. How’s it going?”

“Good, Frank,” James says, closing his eyes and leaning back in his desk chair. He tries to keep the exasperation from entering his voice, but he knows what this call’s about. And though eknows Frank’s a good guy, loyal—a colleague—he also happens to be James’ agent. And it’s deadline time. Which brings money into the equation. Which is sort of like dropping raw meat between two tigers who’ve always typically been civil with each other.

James thought he had at least a couple of days before he received this call, though he isn’t surprised it’s happening now. He’s known Frank for the better part of a decade. If Frank died tomorrow, there’d be a clause in his will that instructed his remaining family members to CALL JAMES AND GET THAT FUCKING MANUSCRIPT!

“We’re waiting, Jim,” Frank says. James can picture Frank perfectly right then, sitting behind his desk in his office near Union Square, tie loosened, sleeves rolled up. There’s a fine mist on his forehead, the accompanying stains under his armpit, his belly just starting that middle age bulge over his belt. “The world’s waiting. You done yet?”

James squints down at his desk. “Another day or two Frank.”

“James, buddy, c’mon already.”

“Another couple of days.”

“Buddy, I mean, come—what am I supposed to tell Milton?”

“Two days,” James says, then before he can really think about it too much he ends the call, puts the phone on silent and tosses the thing across the room. It lands on the lumpy futon set up in the back corner of his bedroom, in between his queen size bed and the 60-inch Samsung flat-screen mounted on the wall.

Turning back to his desk, James snatches the bottle of whiskey from the corner and downs a mouthful, willing himself to avoid looking at the papers stacked in front of him, covered in his scribbled handwriting. Begging his mind to just let it go, move on. But the moment the words are in view his eyes are drawn in, deep into her figure, her essence. His mind reels with memories of their time together, the past few short months elongating and stretching like a breached cocoon, becoming a physical presence with life-altering weight.

Jim didn’t set out to find Jade. He didn’t even known that he craved something this—dysfunctional until it appeared, until she appeared. But even then, it wasn’t like it was love-at-first-sight. When Jade walked into Snappy’s liquor store that first day—back on page thirty-two, James had the entire passage memorized—she announced her presence with a pop of the gum tucked in her jaw and a jingle of the bell above the front door.

The moment James saw her, his mood went south. Jade stood there in the doorway for way longer than necessary, smiling, surveying, wearing those dingy low-riders, that plain red tank top, sporting that scorpion tattoo on the back of her left shoulder. He remembers that morning vividly how she stood tall in that doorway for the entirety of his breakfast, just fawning herself. James bristled at the distraction.

The style was to be expected in Gutterville though, the city James had created and placed in Central Florida long before Jade ever showed up. Back then, Nick Maverick had been barely a newborn, an inkling of an idea in James’ head.

Growing up in Gainesville, James had stayed in The Swamp until college allowed him to escape his sweaty, bug-ridden hometown for the compacted, exhilarating streets of New York City. Back home though, James had met his fair share of beautiful double-wide-dwellers, and at first he figured Jade to be of the same kin: another hot, white trash floozy looking to make her own luck, by any means necessary.

In that manner, James first impression was set. By time Jade bumped into Nick Maverick in the whiskey aisle, near the shelves of Maker’s Mark, James had to use every ounce of self control to stop himself from intervening, turning Jade around and throwing her out of the store ass-first.

The Maverick, however—always allowing time for banter—just grinned and chuckled.

“Well, dang,” he said, staring Jade up and down. “You’re ‘bout alright, ain’t you?”

Jade giggled—literally giggled like a schoolgirl—tossing her hair around and popping her gum.

“You ain’t no slouch yourself,” she said.

The line made James’ eye twitch.

James kept on trying to ignore her for a little while, to get on with things. But after half a page of The Maverick and Jade just standing there staring at each other, James grunted and tossed his pen aside, done for the day.

That was the first week of February, and he remembers thinking then that if the book didn’t get finished by deadline—or, God forbid, didn’t get finished at all—it would be all that bitch’s fault.

So James was surprised the next day when he awoke with the familiar itch in his hand, that urge that spreads like blood poisoning up the arm to the brain, demanding a cure in the form of words, sentences, paragraphs, plot. The itch forced him back to his desk early, red-eyed and dry-mouthed, a pain in his right temple that only dulled when the tip of his pen scratched across paper.

Yet even at that point he was still trying to get rid of her; he had still not yet realized the effort was futile.

Looking back now, James knows he initially despised Jade out of envy. He wanted her gone simply to get The Maverick’s attention back where he wanted it, on himself and the plot that he—James, the architect—had created. The Maverick had things to do, places to be, people to kill.

James considers The Maverick to be his magnum opus; the hero every man wants to be, the lover every woman wishes she had. Six foot four, lean, muscled, shaggy-haired with a five o’clock shadow that screams adventure, The Maverick is indomitable. Jade—full name Jade Mourne, as she would later reveal—didn’t deserve his attention. Didn’t deserve The Maverick’s or any other character’s attention in the desolate world of Gutterville, especially not the autistic prodigy from chapter eight who hated everybody but somehow latched on to Jade at first sight. She didn’t deserve it, James repeated over and over as his hand cramped and convulsed through page after page.

Yet there she was. Every day, the moment he sat down.

Or…almost every day.

She disappeared for a while around chapter twelve, and James took the opportunity to toy with various ideas; a truck accident on the highway, maybe, that split her car—and her—in two. But James was already enthralled by that time, though he hadn’t known it yet.

Things would became doubly so later in that same chapter, when Jade pulled up next to The Maverick in her self-refurbished ‘79 Mustang. She did so just as Nick was recovering from a daring leap out the window of an exploding meth lab masquerading as a pharmacy, pieces of metal and wooden shrapnel flying around him an arc of fire. Getting to his feet and dusting off his torn shirt, Nick looked up at the flames shooting out of the third story window then turned to find Jade sitting on the car door with her feet up on the dashboard. The Maverick eyed Jade and Jade flashed her bright, white smile, twitching her button nose just a little.

“Need a ride, Sugar?” she asked.

The Maverick shrugged and hopped into the passenger seat, a break from his characteristic solitude. Jade took off trailing dust, screeching around a corner and off into the distance.

God, how James had hated that smile. So…smug.

As time progressed though, Jade started to intrigue him.

Gutterville was a shithole. James knew it; he had created it, had lived in it. How this mysterious, versatile woman could exist within the city was a question that haunted him more and more each time he saw her. So he let her stick around (or at least he convinced himself he had made the choice). She roamed in the background for a little while, at first, traveling the streets of Gutterville with a resolve that he wouldn’t recognize until later, in chapter twenty, when she appeared once again to divert The Maverick’s—and James’—attention after a nice little run-in with the FBI.

A stream of smashed cars lay behind them as she stood with her legs slightly apart, leather jacket slung over her shoulder. James stared into her blue eyes, captured in detail on page 154; the pupils so deep it was like falling into the ocean from space. Sweat glistened on her ample cleavage, the exposed skin beneath her curve-gripping wardrobe tinted a golden brown from the southern sun. That was the first moment James felt an inkling of something other than disdain for her, something more akin to awe.

“Like Ma always used to say,” Jade said, winking at Nick with a smoking cannon of a gun clutched at her side. “Keep ‘em wanting more.”

James stared at that line of dialogue for an hour that day before throwing down his pen and turning off his desk lamp. And even then, those same lines stared up at him, taunting him in the fading daylight.

James spent the rest of that evening and all of the next day out in the streets, avoiding his desk. He roamed through the park, coming out at the south exit and passing Midtown down to the Flatiron district. He stared up at the buildings as he crossed one intersection after another, eventually stopping in at a coffee shop buried between a Duane Reade and a bookstore. It was here that James met Carol.

James first noticed Carol because of her eyes, blue with long lashes. Her eyes were familiar, deep, like a pool with no bottom. She sat alone at a table with an open laptop and a cup of coffee without a lid, steam wafting near her face as she typed away. She gave a slight grin that seemed almost mischievous. James ordered his coffee—black—and sat at a table close by, waiting a moment before turning to face her.

“Seems to me,” he said, flashing a quick, hopefully disarming smile. “Like whatever you’re writing is seriously amusing.”

“Huh?” she said, absently. She glanced at him and squinted curiously.

“I couldn’t help but notice you grinning over here,” James said.

The woman smiled wider, her cheeks flushing as she gave James a quick head-to-toe scan.

“Have I?” she said, touching her chest daintily. “I didn’t even notice, how embarrassing.”

“Embarrassing, no,” James said, shaking his head. “You look happy. If anything we need more vibes like that in this godforsaken city.”

She laughed, nodding. James held his hand out and introduced himself. She took his hand and her skin was soft. James watched her tongue touch the roof of her mouth as she formed the “L” in Carol, and he was about to ask if he could join her when she looked away quickly, towards her laptop screen, frowning.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“Sure,” she said, her hand stroking the side of her computer. She gently closed the computer screen and turned back to him. “Is everything okay with you, James?” she asked.

The way she said his name made his stomach tingle.

“I’m fine,” James said, feeling a strange sense of accomplishment for just a moment before he noticed the wedding ring on Carol’s right finger. His face dropped suddenly. He looked up at Carol’s, at the faint scatter of freckles on her cheeks, hair pulled back in a bouncy ponytail.

“You look really familiar,” she said, squinting. Suddenly her eyes shot open. She dropped James hand and reached into her purse and—to James’ dismay—pulled out a book.

On the front cover, a twenty-two-year-old male model stood bare-chested and slightly-bloodied in all the right places, holding a machine gun in one hand, a beautiful brunette in the other. The model—a man James had never met or cared to meet—had been commissioned to do all the cover art for the Nick Maverick series. Carol flipped the book over to show the back cover, where a decade-old portrait of twenty-five year old James smiled up at them. Carol grinned, her eyes glazing over for a moment.

“It is you, isn’t it?” she said.

James pursed his lips and held his hands up. “In the flesh.”

“You think you could sign this for me?” she asked.

James reluctantly took the book and opened it to the inside cover. Carol handed him a pen and he was about to start writing when she cleared her throat. James looked up.

“I love your work,” she whispered, leaning forward and touching James’ knee. She gave him a shy stare, glancing at her computer then back at him. “We should hang out some time. I’d love to, you know…pick your brain.”

James frowned, his mind instantly turning back to the papers on his desk. Back to Jade. He left the store a few minutes later, promptly returning home to sit in his office with a pen in hand. And that had been pretty much the end of all discussions.

Which was exactly when the block set in.

Up until that point—even with all this new attention directed at Jade—James had found it surprisingly easy to move forward with the story. The Maverick had been James’ pride and joy, the closest thing he had to a best friend, and there was still enough of that sentiment there to see what came next.

The next gunfight, the next mystery, the next moment of comic relief.

James held no misconceptions though; if he were any normal resident of Gutterville, with the same middle-aged physical attributes he possessed every morning—waking up in his Manhattan condo to trudge into the bathroom and take a piss and brush his teeth and stare at his increasingly-wrinkled face in the mirror—stepping in Nick Maverick’s way would probably yield a boot to the skull, or him using James’ spinal column as floss, or ripping his leg off and beating him to death with it, or eating cereal out of a bowl made from his skull, etc. But as creator relating with created? James and The Maverick had always had a healthy, non-violent relationship.

Of course, Jade changed all of that.

James realized right away that Jade’s advances towards Nick were warranted: The Maverick was a powerful man, and Jade—like most women James had come in contact with throughout the years—was attracted to said power. James understood this about her. In fact, he took solace in it because—in all reality—who was more powerful than him? He had created her and Nick Maverick, dammit, had given them both the most precious of all commodities:

Life.

There’s nothing greater than that.

And yet still, Jade stayed focused on Nick Maverick, this man with—when you got down to the nuts and bolts of it all—nothing to really offer more than a few cheap thrills. This man who had captured Jade’s interest was nothing more than a mediocre stunt artist posing as a bad boy. James looked at The Maverick then—really looked at him: the straggly blond hair, the piercing green eyes, the hawk tattoo blazing up the right side of his neck. He studied the toned muscles and gruff voice and sly over-confidence. James looked at The Maverick fully for the first time since he’d created him, and realized how shallow this man had turned out to be. The Maverick and his one liners—dialogue James had once thought witty and clever—now felt like broken glass grinding against his nerves, even more so after he realized Jade was falling in love with the man.

And it was true, he knew it the moment the thought entered his mind. She was in love.

James first saw it that day in the alley behind the hardware store on the main street of Downtown Gutterville. Jade and Nick were waiting on Devin Will, The Maverick’s childhood friend—only friend in Gutterville, to tell the truth—who also happened to be his weapons supplier. James was just beginning to wonder how Jade had suddenly become The Maverick’s sidekick when she faced Nick, placing one hand on his chest, the other in the palm of his right hand.

“I don’t know what’s happening here, Sugar. I just—” Her voice faltered a bit and she stared into The Maverick’s eyes, reaching up to caress his cheek before looking away. She looked out at the dusty alley ahead of them, shook her head once then turned to him again, staring at him longingly. “Just take care of yourself out there.”

James glared at The Maverick as the man flicked his spent cigarette onto a parked car, dropped Jade’s hand and turned away.

“I’m always careful, babe,” he said, broodingly flicking his curly hair out of his face. “Don’t worry about me.”

James tried tossing a rabid dog in the mix just to shut him the hell up, but it didn’t work.

It was around that time that Jade’s dialogue started to change and elongate, expanding from brief quotes to long-winded exposés. Revealing prose that managed to be both emotionally impactful and seductive in its delivery. James learned things about her in these moments that transformed the last bit of contempt he held for her into something much greater, a feeling that even the words admiration and love couldn’t describe.

“Nick?” she said to The Maverick one evening, in the tiny kitchen at her apartment in West Gutterville. Covered in grime, she and The Maverick stood side by side, cleaning their pistols and the M-16 he’d taken off that Colombian drug lord’s chubby sidekick. Stacking packages of C-4 in the duffel bag at their feet, Jade glanced at Nick.

“You ever read any Chaucer?” she asked.

At the question, James burst out laughing at his desk, hysterics so all-consuming he had to drop his pen for a moment, shaking his head and swiping at his eyes and hacking until spit dripped from his lips to the carpet. He laughed for two straight minutes before he finally got a hold of himself, long enough to grab his pen and reread the lines.

The Maverick. Chaucer.

James fell out laughing again.

“No, ma’am,” The Maverick eventually responded with a smirk. “Can’t say I ever even heard of this Choicer.”

Chaucer,” Jade said, glancing up at Nick and smiling, the set of her lips displaying both shyness and cunning. “And he’s a great poet. Was a great poet, in the 14th century.”

“Uh huh,” The Maverick said, scrubbing the inside of the M-16’s barrel with a toothbrush.

Jade dropped her pistol and turned to The Maverick, leaning against the counter and sizing him up.

“He wrote this one poem I love, ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale.’”

“That’s nice, Babe,” The Maverick said, jamming a bullet into a clip.

“There’s this line,” Jade said, stepping closer to Nick. “My favorite. It goes: ‘Filth and old age, I’m sure you will agree, are powerful wardens upon chastity.’” She paused, watching The Maverick put the clip down and raise his eyes towards the ceiling, cranking that particular syntax through his caveman brain processors.

“That rhymes,” he said finally.

“Yes,” Jade said, nodding. “It’s a poem.”

“Poems don’t always rhyme, babe,” The Maverick said, almost gloatingly.

“Also true,” she said quietly, touching his arm.

“Alright,” he said. “You got me. What’s this Chancer guy talking about?”

“Chaucer,” she corrected again, taking another step forward so they were standing face-to-face, lust in her eyes as she brushed a finger across The Maverick’s mud-stained cheek. She rubbed the residue between her fingers. “And he’s saying that being old and dirty is a turn-off.”

“That right?” The Maverick said slyly. “That what you think?”

“I mean, I understand the being old part,” she started, wrapping her arms around his waist and looking up at him, biting her bottom lip. “But I think he was a little off about the dirt.”

James’ smile disappeared right then, and if it wasn’t for the explosion that rocked Jade’s apartment just seconds later, he doesn’t think he’d have been able to make it through the next few pages.

It was that day James realized two profound truths about his relationship with this woman  The Maverick didn’t deserve her.

Sure, Nick Maverick was the ultimate sex symbol. The one man every woman in Gutterville would gladly cheat on their husbands and boyfriends with oh yes, The Maverick gladly accepted his role. In the process though, the man ended up flirting with the outer reaches of infidelity on a near-daily basis, proving himself anything but true to Jade. Like Chapter 32, when Jade went off in search for disguises in the Downtown Gutterville Mall—disguises that The Maverick should have been looking for himself. Jade was gone for all of five minutes when a sexy young blonde in a mini-skirt and mid-riff tank top walked into Nick’s line of sight. The Maverick was on her in a second, cornering her by a hot dog stand, mouth an inch from her ear, whispering utter nonsense while Jade walked past display after display, frantic with worry. James ground his teeth so much that day his head started pounding.

One evening, James couldn’t take it anymore and summoned enough courage to sit at his desk and try to turn Jade’s eyes skyward towards James’, hoping maybe his face would be present somewhere in the stars shining above Gutterville. She smiled as she looked up, like a woman tilting her head back at the touch of her lover’s finger under her chin. James’ softened for a moment, rubbing the paper between his fingers lovingly. Jade reached over and touched The Maverick’s hands, and James watched painfully as Nick wrapped his fingers around hers, engulfing them in his massive palms, the first sign of genuine affection he’d shown her throughout the entire story.

James jumped up, knocking his chair back, storming away from the papers. He spent an hour standing at his window with his fists clenched, staring down at Central Park and all the tiny people strolling and laughing and pissing him off. He didn’t return to his desk until late that evening, after he’d calmed down, had a couple sips of scotch and eaten a bowl of peanuts. But by then his simmering resentment was cemented.

Because, really, who is Nick Maverick?

A freeloader, James answered himself. He is a freeloader.

Showing absolutely no gratitude, no sense of appreciation for the good will he had been born into, Nick Maverick traveled self-righteously through a world that literally bent its very laws of physics around his will. If it wasn’t for James, Nick Maverick would have died five books ago. His help was well-documented and not simply occasional. It was readily apparent in the discarded knife he’d placed in the warehouse while Nick was tied up by the Haitian warlord, awaiting a rusty machete to the throat. The overlooked pistol left in his ankle holster while Nick glared into the fiery eyes of the sadistic KKK member tweaking on bad rocks. If it wasn’t for James, Nick Maverick would have been buried in five different places out in the Everglades before anybody even knew who the fuck The Maverick was!

End of story! Goodbye! Do not pass go, do not collect your two hundred measly fucking dollars!

And what then?

Nevertheless, to James’ dismay, The Maverick—instead of recognizing his mortality and approaching his circumstances with humble gratitude towards the man who had fashioned his survival—continued smiling his sly smile, brandishing his knife or happened-upon nine millimeter or spontaneously-materialized coil of razor wire as if they had all been right there next to his leg the entire time. All with Jade always standing nearby, grinning and wide-eyed with sickening admiration.

All of this to say it was inevitable that the thought would eventually enter James’ head, the seed that developed into a festering sore of an idea. He played around with it in his mind for weeks before it finally settled into a believable scenario.

The crux of the problem came down to this: James was not a murderer. And even if he was, he couldn’t get rid of the only hero he’d ever truly known. Nick was a part of him, whether James liked it or not. And Jade was The Maverick’s girl. Whether James accepted it or not.

James told himself these things, which kept the urge at bay for a little while. Then one evening he sat staring at the paper, throat clenched as Jade and The Maverick stumbled through the front door of Nick’s apartment, into his sparsely furnished bedroom. A single dresser stood in the corner, a bare mattress in the middle of the floor which Jade fell back on happily, squirming with desire. Pulling The Maverick on top of her, Jade wrapped her arms and legs around him, swarming The Maverick with every inch of her body, biting, sucking, teasing, ripping. Flipping him over, Jade climbed The Maverick as if she meant to conquer him, and screamed with an ecstasy that instantly shattered James’ resolve.

When they were done, Jade looked up at Nick Maverick, the white blankets falling just below her breasts. As if sensing her gaze, The Maverick turned from the sliding glass door leading out to his balcony, overlooking all of Gutterville. He stood before Jade completely nude, the moon illuminating him in a milky glow.

“I love you,” Jade said.

The words were like a gunshot to James midsection. He dropped his pen and bent over, holding his stomach and chest and biting down on his tongue, stifling the moan that threatened to tear his throat apart. Jumping away from his desk, his eyes stinging with tears, James ran to the living room and grabbed the bottle of whiskey from the top shelf of his liquor cabinet. Bringing it back to the room with him, he yanked off the cap and downed a quarter before he was able to look back at the jagged lines of script. And there she rested, sweat dripping on The Maverick’s sheets, her taut thighs glowing in the moonlight.

Frank called a few minutes later. James glances back at the phone lying on the futon and sighs as the light flickers, the phone buzzing against the fabric.

James clenches his jaw and squeezes the whiskey bottle in his fist nearly to the point of shattering it, then slowly relaxes, taking a deep breath and nodding.

Accepting the task ahead of him.

His free hand hovers over the papers on his desk as he stares menacingly at The Maverick. Picking up the pen, he rolls it between his fingers, cracking his neck and plopping back down on his chair. James closes his eyes and feels a tear slip down his cheek as he touches pen to paper.

The Maverick takes a tentative step towards Jade, opens his mouth, closes it again, turns his head to the side a little, thoughtful, scratching his stomach.

“I-” he says, unsteadily, then clears his throat. “I love you too.” The way he says it, it’s almost as if he’s surprised.

James’ hand goes to work then, possessed, stabbing the pen into the next few words. Running on instinct now, James is surprised at the fury that flares up in him, as if a fire has been set in his very soul. Jade coaxes The Maverick back to bed, sliding across the sheets and tucking herself beneath Nick’s arms. Then, thankfully, James is able to move away from the couple, into the muggy, night-time air of Gutterville, right outside The Maverick’s apartment. James takes a moment to glance around, savor the serenity of the scene, before a van screeches to a halt right outside The Maverick’s building.

The van’s side door opens and three men sporting jet-black ski masks jump out, followed by a fourth man, blurry for a moment in the haze of streetlight. He takes a few steps forward and his face clears, revealing a slightly distraught Devin Will, The Maverick’s best friend and weapons supplier. Devin looks like he’s been knocked around a little, a fresh cut beneath his right eye, his left just starting to swell. But there’s also a gleam of elation in his stare as he walks around the van and approaches the passenger door, opening it. A sandaled foot drops to the ground, then another, and the Colombian drug lord from Chapter 20 emerges, surveying the area with a measured glare before settling on The Maverick’s apartment building.

“You are sure,” he says, turning back to Devin Will, who manages to meet the drug lord’s eyes without too much fear in his own. “He is here?”

“Positive,” Devin says. “Now, about my payment. I think—”

“You will get your money, puta,” the drug lord says, turning back to the van and pulling out a four foot long rusty machete. He studies in the moonlight, turning it over, then glances at Devin. “When The Maŕicon’s head is nailed to my wall, you will get your money.”

“The Mary-what?” Devin says, looking confused for a moment before nodding with recognition. “Oh, you mean The Maverick, right?”

The drug lord gives Devin a wary look then turns away, nodding at the three masked men as they each pull sleek black M-16s out of the van. The men immediately hop into action, whispering commands in Spanish. As soon as they’re clear of the van, another three men emerge from the back, wearing the same black masks and holding identical black M-16s. The six of them approach the front door of the apartment building with the drug lord close behind, strutting with his machete hanging loosely at his side. James can’t help smiling at the fluidity of the scene as the group moves with soldier-like precision through each floor up to the fourth, where Nick Maverick’s apartment door stands at the very end of the hall.

And yes, James also feels a slight amount of guilt, he’s not a monster. The guilt is almost undetectable, but it’s there. He tries to dispel it by telling himself there’s nothing he could do to stop the Colombians now, even if he wanted to. They’re on a mission, set in motion the moment Nick decided to throw this particular drug lord’s younger brother off the roof of a five-story Bank of America building.

Creeping up the stairs, the group of men move in silence, the only sound the faint rattle of the chain straps on their M-16s, the steady scratch of James’ pen as it flies over the paper. Seconds later The Maverick’s door explodes inward, slamming into the small refrigerator in his tiny kitchen. Six angry South Americans storm the entrance with guns blazing, taking out the sink and the stove. It takes them all of three seconds to reach The Maverick’s bedroom.

But The Maverick, he’s a quick one. Too quick.

James realizes his error almost immediately, an error born from his own ability to construct the perfect killing specimen. Kicking himself for not bringing more men, James watches helplessly as Nick dives off the mattress towards his dresser, reaching up into the top drawer and pulling out his most prized possessions: two gold-plated Desert Eagles. The Maverick kisses each one, clicks the barrels together and grins.

“Thanks for invitin’ me to the party, hombres,” he says, his voice low. “Was startin’ to get a little quiet ‘round here.”

Somersaulting across the floor, Nick rushes the bedroom doorway with his guns held out in front of him, barrels flashing. The reports are so loud that James can almost hear them from right behind him, tearing through his own apartment. He spins around for a moment, fully expecting his bedroom to be a disaster scene: torn blinds, broken window, brains on walls, his own body slumped in the corner, bloated with bullets, a single stream of blood trailing from the corner of his mouth.

The room is totally in order though. James turns back to the paper just in time to catch the back end of the extravagant gun fight, The Maverick’s apartment glowing so bright it looks radioactive from the outside.

The last shell casing clatters to the floor, followed by a piercing, heavy silence, For a moment, James finds it difficult to breathe as he searches through the rubble of the aftermath, the torn up couch cushions, shattered shelves, bullet-filled walls. Eventually James finds The Maverick crouched in a corner, eyes closed, breathing evenly. Beside him, his guns lay smoking, the barrels sizzling as a drop of sweat falls off Nick’s forehead. James studies Nick, shaking his head in disbelief when he realizes The Maverick is practically unscathed; aside from a small nick on his cheek from an errant wood chip, there’s barely a blemish on his entire, unclothed body.

“Motherfucker,” James whispers as Nick suddenly stands, studying the debris that used to be his apartment. Bodies strewn across the floor, a hole in his wall the size of a car giving him a clear view into the living room, Devin Will and the Colombian drug lord lay with blank eyes just inside the front door, the drug lord’s machete draped across both their chests. The Maverick gives the scene the same unfazed stare he reserves for all acts of carnage, until he turns to face his bed and both he and James’ let out screams of horror.

Even in death, Jade’s eyes hold that deep, bottomless-ocean blue, her body wrapped in bed sheets no longer white but almost black, soaked in blood. James wonders for a second if there’s maybe a mistake, if maybe she’s not actually dead. Blood shouldn’t be that dark. Then James sees her leg, just one lying exposed and spotted with crimson dots, like deathly freckles.

James drops the pen, sinking his head into his hands and trying in vain to steady breaths that shoot like cannon blasts from his lungs. After a moment he forces himself to take another look at the paper, hoping to see something different, something that can redeem this situation.

But Jade remains motionless, eyes open, still, her lips slightly parted and colorless.

Jumping up from his seat, James knocks the lamp off his desk and slaps both hands down on the back of his chair. Before he can stop himself, he picks up the chair and tosses it across the room, the legs slamming into the wall below his mounted TV with a tremendous clatter. A piece of plaster drops onto the carpet, the base of the chair splitting in half as James falls to his knees sobbing, holding his shaking, pale hands in front of his face.

“What have I done?” he whispers.

Outside his window, the steady hum of Manhattan screams at him. He tastes bile in the back of his throat at the thought of everybody out there functioning as usual, sick at the notion of having to rejoin the masses of roaming zombies, constantly seeking happiness and truth that isn’t really there.

James stays in that position for a while, head bowed to the ground with his hands rubbing the sides of his face. When he finally raises his eyes, bloodshot with anger, he grabs his pen off the floor and slowly stands, stumbling over to his desk. He grabs the stack of papers and sits cross-legged on the floor, digging his pen into the top page. He gets Nick up off the spot where he lies crumpled on the floor and forces The Maverick to look at Jade, to look at what he’s done, wishing for just a moment that he could bring Jade back just so Nick could see the blame in her eyes, so he could know that this was all his fault. Force this imbecile of a man to feel everything, every crevice of emotion, all the sadness, remorse, and self-hatred that James himself is feeling in this moment.

But Nick is The Maverick. And The Maverick didn’t get his name by dwelling on the past.

In perfect Maverick fashion, Nick stands over Jade, takes in her entire profile with one sweeping gaze. He touches his fingers to his lips, holding them there for a few seconds before pressing them to hers. Then Nick Maverick gets dressed and walks out of the apartment. He steps over many bodies on the way, and the entire time James wishes The Maverick was lying with them.

Ten minutes later, Nick Maverick and Jade’s self-refurbished Mustang disappear into the rising sun, and James is left with a single blank sheet of paper. He glares at it, sniffling and wiping his nose with the back of his hand, holding the edge of his desk to steady his convulsing body. The front door to The Maverick’s shattered residence closes with a faint click and, in that instant, the apartment becomes a relic, a tomb of dead potential.

James knows then that he will never see The Maverick again.

Placing the stack of papers on the ground, James grabs the knocked-over whiskey bottle and opens the bottom drawer on his desk, pulling out an old, crumpled pack of cigarettes. There’s one left, which he takes and places tentatively between his chapped lips before rummaging through the desk to find a matchbook with a single match sitting crooked. He pulls it out, strikes it and watches the flare up, touching it to the tip of the cigarette and shaking it out. He drags in deep, lets the smoke sit at the bottom of his lungs for a moment, savoring the burn, before he exhales and glances at the single blank sheet of paper.

James contemplates writing something else—anything to assuage the nightmare. But when he touches the tip of his pen to the paper, the only thing that comes out is “The End.”

James drops the pen on the ground, scooting backward towards his futon with the cigarette between his lips, burning bright in the darkness. He gives himself some time to focus solely on the nicotine rush, smoking the thing down to the filter before licking his palm and sticking the lit end of the butt against it with a faint sizzle and a quick, sudden burn. Then James picks up his discarded cell phone and dials Frank. The phone barely rings before a hyper voice answers.

“Jim-my,” Frank yells. “Buddy, I lost you earlier. Sorry about that, didn’t get to fin—”

“It’s done,” James says quietly, glancing at the stack of papers on the floor beside his desk. Seeing the finished product sitting there like that, a feeling overtakes him, sudden but familiar: a wash of nonchalance, both calming and freeing in its totality

“Done?” Frank says, sounding so hopeful it’s sickening.

“Yeah,” James says, swiping at his eyes and chuckling softly. “I’m done.”

Frank laughs and James can hear him clap in the background. The window ahead of him looks out on the Manhattan skyline, blazing above the high-reaching Central Park trees.

“Where is it?” Frank asks.

“Should be on your desk by tomorrow,” James says.

“Jimmy, always my main man,” Franks says. “That’s great news. Great, great news. Gotta get Milton on the horn right now, but this should light a fire under their asses. Got ‘em on the ropes, Jimmy. On the ropes.”

James stares into the darkness of his office, the destruction. He realizes he’ll have to get that wall fixed, buy a new lamp, get somebody in here to clean the cigarette ash and spilled whiskey and puke out of the carpet.

“Everything okay, Jim?” Frank asks suddenly. There’s a sincerity in his tone that catches James off guard. He considers Frank’s question seriously for a moment.

“Yeah,” James says finally. “Just a little writing hangover.”

“A side effect of genius, my man,” Frank says with a barking laugh.

James nods, even though he knows Frank can’t see him doing it.

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