Jaded

James’ pen quivers, his hand casting a jittery shadow across the desk. It takes him a moment to realize the calculation in the movement, the repeated motion of his hand, spelling the letters of her name in midair: J-A-D-E. Over and over again, like an incantation.

James throws the pen down and stares at his open palm, cursing under his breath then closing his eyes and rubbing his forehead. When he opens them again, he’s staring directly at the desk lamp, and he squints. It’s been about a week since he swapped out the bulb in the lamp for one with lower wattage, convincing himself that the dimness made for a better writing environment. The truth is Jade demanded it, her body needing the sheath of shadows like a shark needs the sea, seamlessly flitting through his mind.

It’s really all quite ridiculous, he knows that. And he really wishes he could just tell her to dick off. James gave up resisting Jade’s impulsive demands a while ago, though. There’s no point in even trying anymore. What Jade wants, Jade gets.

A gleam from the window to the left catches James’ eye, a final flash as the sun dials down, falling below Manhattan’s skyline. The lights in central park flicker on ten stories below, and James focuses on the yellow glow reflecting in his window. He used to relish the view from that same window, 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 suddenly staring through stained glass; not a window looking out on Manhattan but a distorted depiction of the city he used to enjoy.

James’ cell phone rattles against the base of his file drawer, the unnerving 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 seemingly no other reason than to sound like he’s not about to have a heart attack.

“Frank,” James says, quietly.

“Jimmy, buddy,” Frank says. “My man. My main, 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, a friend even—friend might be pushing it—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 this call, though he isn’t surprised. He’s known Frank for the better part of a decade. If Frank died tomorrow, there’d probably be a clause in his will that instructed his remaining family to “CALL JAMES AND GET THAT FUCKING MANUSCRIPT!

“We’re waiting, Jim,” Frank says. Another forced chuckle before he clears his throat, and James can picture him perfectly, sitting behind his desk in his office, tie loosened, sleeves rolled up, fine mist on his forehead with accompanying stains under his armpit, belly just starting the middle age bulge over his belt. “The world’s waiting. You done yet?”

James squints down again at his desk.

“Another day or two Frank,” he says.

“James, buddy, c’mon,” Frank whines. “What am I supposed to tell Milton?”

“Another day or two,” James says, then before he can really think about it too much he presses END CALL, puts the phone on silent, then turns and tosses the thing across the room onto his lumpy futon.

Turning his chair back around, James snatches up the bottle of whiskey from the corner of his desk and downs a mouthful, willing himself not to look at the stack of papers covered in his scribbled handwriting. Begging his mind to avoid thoughts of her. But the moment the papers are in view his eyes are drawn to her figure and his mind reels with memories of their time together, the past few short months elongating and stretching like a breached cocoon into a physical presence with life-altering weight.

Jim didn’t set out with Jade in mind. He didn’t even known that he craved something this—dysfunctional until it appeared, until she appeared. It wasn’t like it was love-at-first-sight though.

When Jade walked into Snappy’s liquor store that first day—back around page thirty-two—announcing her presence with a pop of the gum tucked in her jaw and a jingle of the bell above the front door, James’ mood immediately went south. Jade stood there in the doorway for way longer than necessary, smiling, surveying, wearing those dingy low-rider jeans, that plain red tank top, sporting that scorpion tattoo on the back of her left shoulder, and 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 when Nick Maverick had been barely a newborn, an inkling of an idea in James’ head.

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

In that manner, James first impression was set. And 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 headfirst.

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—and tossed her hair back, popping her gum again.

“You ain’t no slouch yourself,” she said, which made James’ eye twitch. He tried to ignore her, 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.

And yet he woke the next day with the familiar itch in his hand, that urge that spreads like blood poisoning up his arm to his brain and demands a cure, in the form of words, sentences, plot. It forced him back to his desk early that morning, red-eyed and dry-mouthed, a pain in his right temple that only dulled when the tip of his pen scratched across the paper. And even at that point he tried to get rid of her, but Jade stuck to the pages like a verbal leech.

James hated Jade back then out of envy though, he knows that now. He wanted her gone, to give the reins of The Maverick’s attention back to James himself. The Maverick had things to do, places to be, people to kill. Thinking about it now, about his futile resistance, gives James abdominal pains, actual physical pangs in his gut which make him double over, groaning and swiping for the bottle of whiskey. To think that he’d thought she wasn’t good enough for him. Or even worse—not good enough for Nick Maverick. To think.

The Maverick himself is James’ magnum opus; the hero every man wants to be, the lover every woman wishes her man was. Six foot two, lean, muscled, shaggy-haired with a five o’clock shadow that screams adventure, The Maverick is indomitable. Jade Mourne didn’t deserve his attention, James had thought. 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 still, Jade kept popping up.

She disappeared for a while around chapter twelve, and James contemplated adding a short aside: 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. He still despised her though, with her stunning beauty and sly intelligence, even more so later on when she pulled up next to The Maverick in her self-refurbished ‘79 Mustang, just as Nick was recovering from a daring leap out the window of an exploding building. Getting to his feet and dusting off his torn shirt, Nick looked up at the flames shooting out of the fourth story window then turned, eyeing Jade as she flashed her bright, white smile, twitching her button nose just a little.

“Need a ride, Sugar?” she asked, nonchalantly.

The Maverick shrugged and hopped into the passenger seat of her car, a break from his characteristic solitude. Jade took off seconds later with a smile, screeching around a corner and off into the distance.

James had hated that smile most of all.

But, at the same time, without him realizing it, Jade had started to intrigue him. Gutterville was a shithole. James knew it; he had created it, had lived in it. How this mysterious, versatile woman existed in the city was a question that haunted him more and more each time he saw her.

So she stuck around, in the background 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 on page 154 as James stared into her blue eyes, 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.

James raised his pen from the paper, leaning back in his desk chair and studying the short, blunt lines of dialogue that she generated with such poise. He scrutinized them and analyzed them then bit his lip and attempted to rewrite them, to take away that hypnotic factor that seemed to make everything else around her fall into the category of “mundane.” His efforts were fruitless though, and James was left wondering how anybody could be so bold and hold such a resonating tone yet still possess such courage and fearlessness with an unmatched level of sexual prowess and energy, like the perfect genetic combination of a supermodel, a middle-aged college professor, and a U.S. Marine.

“Keep ‘em wanting more,” Jade said, glancing at Nick and batting her eyelashes as she lowered the smoking cannon of a gun clutched in both her hands. “Like my ma always said, keep ‘em wanting more.”

Both James and The Maverick froze, her voice capturing them both. The effect was maddening, and the lengthy writing session he’d planned for that evening ended after only an hour. He threw his pen down and turned off his desk lamp, those same few lines of quick dialogue staring up at him, taunting him, still visible in the fading daylight.

James spent the next day out in the streets, avoiding his desk, roaming the park and Midtown, staring at buildings as he crossed one intersection after another. Manhattan is a beautiful city, busy, full of confident women, and by that afternoon James had set his eyes on one at a coffee shop in Columbus Circle.

James first noticed Carol because of her eyes, blue with long lashes and deep pupils, like a pool with no bottom. She sat alone at a table with an open laptop and a fat-free vanilla latte, typing away with a small grin on her face. James ordered his coffee and sat at the table next to her, waiting a moment before turning in his seat and leaning towards her.

“Seems to me,” he said, flashing a quick, hopefully disarming smile. “Like whatever you’re writing is seriously amusing.” James pointed at her laptop. “You’ve been grinning non-stop for like ten minutes now.”

She turned and smiled wider, her cheeks flushing as she looked James up and down.

“Have I?” she said. “I didn’t even notice. That’s embarrassing.”

James shook his head, smiled again and introduced himself, watching her tongue touch the roof of her mouth as she formed the “L” in Carol. 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 closed the screen and turned back to him. “Everything okay with you, James?” The way she said his name made his stomach tingle.

“I’m just fine,” James said, studying her, allowing himself the freedom of expectation for just a moment until he noticed the wedding ring on Carol’s right finger. His face dropped suddenly and he glanced at Carol’s face, the faint scatter of freckles on her cheeks, hair pulled back in a bouncy ponytail.

“You look familiar,” Carol said, squinting. Her eyes suddenly went wide and she turned away for a second, reaching into her purse and—to James’ dismay—pulling out a book.

On the front cover: the twenty-two-year-old male model who’d been chosen to portray Nick Maverick throughout the series, bare-chested and slightly-bloodied in all the right places, holding a machine gun in one hand, a beautiful brunette in the other. Back cover: James’ smiling portrait, ten years younger. Carol grinned, her eyes glazing over for a moment.

“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 and James looked up.

“I love your work,” she whispered, leaning forward and touching James’ knee. She gave him a shy stare, glanced at her computer then back at him. “We should hang out some time.”

James frowned, his mind 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 it. He was hooked.

But even though all this attention on Jade was affecting James in various ways, it seemingly hadn’t affected his ability to move forward with the story. Until that point, 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 always 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 steadily-wrinkling face in the mirror—stepping in Nick Maverick’s way would probably yield a boot to the skull, or The Maverick 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. Until Jade.

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 known over the years—was attracted to power. James understood this about her; took solace in it, in fact, because—in all reality—who was more powerful than him? He had created her dammit, had given her the most precious of all commodities: life. There was nothing greater than that, greater than the intimacy of crafting something from nothing.

And yet she still stayed focused on Nick Maverick, this man with nothing to offer other than a few cheap thrills. This man who had captured Jade’s interest, this 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 was 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. She was in love. James had no idea when or how it had happened, but Jade had become enraptured by The Maverick’s presence.

The moment it dawned on him: Jade and Nick stood in an alley awaiting Devin Will, The Maverick’s childhood friend—only friend in Gutterville, to tell the truth—and their supplier for a wide array of weaponry. 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 as she whispered her words.

“I don’t know what’s happening here, Sugar, I just—” Her voice faltered a bit and she stared into The Maverick’s eyes, caressing his cheek before looking away, shaking her head, then looking back at him longingly. “Just take care of yourself out there.”

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

“I’m always careful, babe,” he said, putting a hand on top of the car and flicking his hair out of his face. “Don’t worry about me.”

James tried to toss a rabid dog into that scene, but it just didn’t work.

That was around the time Jade’s dialogue began to expand, from brief quotes to long-winded exposés, much more revealing and yet still so seductive. James learned things about her that transformed the last bit of contempt he held for her into something much greater, a feeling that even 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 the 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?” Jade asked.

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

The Maverick. Reading Chaucer. James fell out of his chair laughing again.

“No, ma’am,” The Maverick finally responded. “Can’t say I have.”

“He’s a poet,” Jade said, glancing up at Nick and smiling, the set of her lips displaying both shyness and cunning. “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, in The Canterbury Tales, called ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale,’” she said.

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

“There’s this line in the poem,” Jade said, stepping closer to Nick. “‘Filth and old age, I’m sure you will agree, are powerful wardens upon chastity.’” She paused, let it sink in while The Maverick put the clip down, handful of bullets rattling together as his eyes raised towards the ceiling, brain attempting to crank through the syntax.

“That rhymes,” The Maverick said.

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

“Poems don’t always rhyme, babe,” The Maverick said, in an almost gloating tone of voice.

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

“Alright,” he says. “You got me. What’s he talking about?”

Taking another step forward, Jade came face-to-face with Nick, her eyes drooping lustfully.

“He’s saying that being old and dirty is a turn-off,” she whispered, brushing a finger across The Maverick’s mud-stained cheek and rubbing the residue between her fingers. “And I’m saying—I understand the old part.” Jade licked her lips. “But I think Chaucer was wrong about the dirt.”

James’ smile disappeared right then, and if it wasn’t for the explosion that rocked Jade’s apartment building a minute later, he doesn’t know if he would have been able to make it through the next few pages.

It was that day James realized two profound truths: Jade was much deeper than he had previously thought, so intense that he felt ashamed for ever believing she was anything else; and The Maverick had no idea what he had in the palm of his hand.

The Maverick: the ultimate sex symbol, the one man every woman in Gutterville would gladly cheat on their husbands and boyfriends with. And Nick Maverick, oh yes, he accepted the role, proving himself anything but true to Jade. Nick flirted with the outer reaches of infidelity on a daily basis, with every other girl that popped their enticing figures into a scene.

Chapter 32: Jade hadn’t gone but two stores over in the Downtown Gutterville Mall to search for disguises that The Maverick should have been looking for himself, when a sexy young blonde in a mini-skirt and tank top showing off her flat stomach and gleaming belly ring—cusps of her butt cheeks barely covered by the thinnest fabric known to man—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 and 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, and he had to turn in early.

The Maverick could have had anybody, but he chose to string Jade along, this woman who began her life in Gutterville with so much confidence, so much buoyancy that it had made even James react defensively. He shuddered to think that he had mistaken his own insecurity for hatred.

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, to James’ face in Gutterville’s stars. She smiled when he did this, and James’ softened for a moment, rubbing the paper between his fingers lovingly.

Reaching over, Jade touched The Maverick’s hands, and James watched as Nick wrapped his fingers around hers, engulfing them in his massive palms, the first sign of genuine affection he’d shown up to that point.

James frowned and jumped up, knocking his chair back and storming away from the papers, standing at his window, fists clenched as he stared down at the park with all the tiny people strolling and laughing and pissing him off. He didn’t return to his desk until much later, after he’d calmed down, had a couple sips of scotch and eaten a bowl of peanuts. But by then his simmering resentment had taken a seat deep in the darkest reaches of his psyche.

He couldn’t deal with it, Jade’s ignorance as she bypassed him and went straight to Nick whenever something bad happened. And The Maverick showed no gratitude, no sense of appreciation for the will of this world he had been born into, this world that bent—reformed—its very laws of physics around Nick Maverick’s well being. Why, if it wasn’t for James—for the discarded knife he’d placed in the warehouse when Nick was near death, tied up by the Haitian warlord and awaiting a rusty machete to the throat, or the overlooked pistol in the ankle holster while staring in the face of the sadistic KKK member tweaking on meth—Nick Maverick would have been buried in five different places by chapter 36. End of story, goodbye, do not pass go, do not collect your two hundred dollars.

And what then?

Would Jade have turned to James for consolation? He didn’t think so.

And to James’ dismay, The Maverick—instead of recognizing his mortality and approaching the situation with humble gratitude towards the man who had fashioned his survival—just smiled his sly smile, brandishing the knife or happened-upon nine millimeter or spontaneously materializing coil of razor wire as if they had all been there the whole time, Jade sitting near, smiling and wide-eyed with sickening admiration.

On one occasion, James even tried withdrawing his help. He just sat back and vowed to let The Maverick figure it out himself, see how long he lasted then. Nick subsequently used a monkey wrench to murder six men, earning both a rocket launcher and a kiss from Jade. James kicked a hole in his closet door that night.

So it was only inevitable that the thought would enter James’ head, the seed that developed into a festering sore of an idea, a finality that could possibly fix his quandary once and for all. He played around with the scenario in his mind, dismissing it repeatedly week after week, chapter after chapter.

James was not a murderer.

He could not get rid of the only hero he had 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, keeping the urges at bay semi-successfully for some time. Then one evening he sat staring at the paper, throat clenched as Jade and The Maverick stumbled into Nick’s apartment, into his sparsely furnished bedroom, only a single dresser and the bare mattress in the middle of the floor which Jade fell back on, 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.

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 laid, sweat dripping on The Maverick’s chest as her legs tightly gripped his back, her taut thighs glowing in the moonlight.

Frank called around the time James realized what he had to do.

James stands now, ignoring his blinking phone on the futon as it rings again and again. He knows Frank; the man isn’t going to give up, not until he’s got a manuscript or James’ balls in his hands. But James can’t think about Frank right now. He clenches his jaw and squeezes the whiskey bottle in his fist to the point of shattering it, then slowly relaxes, takes a deep breath, nods.

He will not give up. He will not admit defeat, not with so much at stake. Love. Companionship. Sanity.

James hovers over the papers on his desk, staring menacingly at The Maverick, pen between his fingers, steeling himself for the task at hand. Within moments, though, Jade fills his vision, and he tries in vain to see her without the tint of adoration clouding his judgment, her curves just barely visible beneath the white bed sheets. Nick Maverick’s white bed sheets.

James grunts loudly and flips the pen around in his hand, cracking his neck as he plops down on his desk chair. He closes his eyes and touches the pen to the paper, and is just summoning the courage to move forward when Jade looks up at The Maverick, holding a hand across her chest to keep the blankets in place. As if sensing her gaze, The Maverick turns from the sliding glass door leading out to his balcony, overlooking all of Gutterville. He stands before Jade completely nude, no shame, the moon illuminating him in a milky glow.

“I love you,” Jade says, and the words are like a gunshot to James midsection. He drops his pen and bends over, holding his stomach and chest and biting down on his tongue, stifling the moan that threatens to tear his throat apart.

It’s a long time before James manages to reach a shaking hand out towards the paper in front of him, brushing his fingertips over the slight indentation of the words. Raising his eyes, he wipes them with the back of his hand to clear his vision, and can’t help smiling as he watches Jade nestled in shadows. Her name stares up at him and he traces it with the pad of his thumb, grabbing the pen off the ground with his other hand.

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, the realization coming out of nowhere.

James’ eyebrows drop, his hand shooting forward reflexively as he stabs his 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. He hesitates for just a second as Jade coaxes The Maverick back to bed, closing his eyes and writing blind for a moment as she slides across the sheets and tucks herself beneath Nick’s arm. Then, thankfully, James is able to move away from them, into the muggy, night-time air of Gutterville, right outside The Maverick’s apartment. James takes a moment to glance around, savor the peacefulness of the scene, before a van screeches to a halt in front of The Maverick’s building.

The side door opens and three men in 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. Devin looks like he’s been knocked around a little, but there’s also a gleam of elation in his eyes 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 emerges, surveying the area before setting a complacent eye on The Maverick’s apartment.

“You are sure,” he says, turning back to Devin Will, who manages to meet the drug lord’s eyes but can’t hide his shaking fist. “He is here?”

“Yes,” Devin says, nodding and scratching his chest nervously. “Now, about my payment. I think—”

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

Devin looks confused for a moment.

“You mean The Maverick, right?” he asks.

The drug lord gives Devin a wary stare before turning away and nodding at the three masked men who immediately hop into action, whispering commands at each other in Spanish. As soon as they move, another five men emerge from the van, the total eight of them approaching the front door with the drug lord following, strutting with his machete hanging loosely at his side. James can’t help smiling at the entire scene, his lips parting into a grin filled with anguish and contempt and pure fucking hatred, coursing through every vein in his facial muscles. And a slight amount of guilt, yes, almost undetectable. He tells himself there’s nothing he could do to stop the Colombians now, even if he wanted to. They’re on a mission, already in motion. The justification seems to satisfy the tiny voice of morality in his head.

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, and the steady scratch of James’ pen as it flies over the paper.

And James can’t help it; he chuckles a little when The Maverick’s door explodes inward, eight angry Central Americans storming the entrance with guns blazing. It takes them all of five seconds to burst into The Maverick’s bedroom, but The Maverick is quick.

Too quick.

James realizes his error almost immediately, an error born in his own ability to construct the perfect specimen. James created Nick Maverick with a specific skill set in mind, one of these skills being a hair trigger reaction time. Kicking himself for not bringing more men, he watches helplessly as Nick dives off the bed without hesitation, simultaneously reaching up into the top drawer of his bedside dresser and pulling out his most prized possessions: two gold-plated Desert Eagles.

The Maverick kisses each one, clinks them together and grins.

“Thanks for invitin’ me to the party, hombres,” he says. “Was startin’ to get a little quiet ‘round here,” he adds, before somersaulting across the floor, guns held steady in front of him, barrels bursting with explosive gunfire so loud James spins around for a moment, fully expecting his office to be a disaster scene: torn blinds, broken window, brains on walls, his own body slumped in the corner, bloated with bullets and a single stream of blood trailing from the corner of his mouth. Everything is in order though, and James turns back to the paper just in time to catch the back end of the extravagant gun fight, Nick Maverick’s apartment glowing so bright it looks radioactive from the outside.

The last shell casings clatter to the floor, a silence piercing and heavy, sitting on James chest and making it difficult for him to breathe as he searches through the rubble of the aftermath. Eventually, James finds The Maverick crouched in a corner, eyes closed, willing his heart to slow down. Beside him, his guns lay smoking, the barrels sizzling as a drop of sweat falls off Nick’s forehead. James studies him, shaking his head in disbelief when he realizes The Maverick is practically unscathed; aside from a small nick on his cheek there’s barely a blemish on his entire, unclothed body.

“Motherfu-” James whispers, but is unable to finish 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 lying with blank eyes and the drug lord’s machete draped across both their chests, The Maverick gives it all the same unfazed stare, until he turns and both he and James’ faces transform with horror at the scene on the bed itself.

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

James drops the pen, hanging 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—anything—different.,But Jade remains motionless, eyes open but still, her lips colorless and slightly parted.

James jumps up suddenly, knocking the lamp off his desk and slapping both hands on the back of his chair. Before he has a moment to think about what he’s doing, he picks up the chair and tosses it across the room, the wheels on the bottom slamming into the wall with a tremendous clatter, a piece of plaster dropping onto the carpet and the base of the chair splitting in half as James falls to his knees. Sobbing, he holds his hands in front of his face, shaking and pale.

“What have I done?” he whispers, then his throat tightens and he bends over, grabbing his midsection.

Outside his window, the steady hum of Manhattan reaches James and he tastes bile in the back of his throat at the thought of everybody out there functioning as usual, at the thought of having to rejoin the masses of roaming, zombie-like individuals, constantly seeking happiness and truth that isn’t really there, happiness and truth that James finally found and just tossed away with the flick of a pen.

James doesn’t know how long he stays in that position, head bowed to the ground with his hands steadily rubbing the sides of his face. It seems like its hours later, though, that he finally raises his eyes, glaring and bloodshot with anger. Grabbing his pen off the floor, James jumps up and stumbles over to his desk, crouching and digging into the paper, forcing Nick Maverick to look at Jade, to look at what he’s caused, wishing for just a moment that he could bring Jade back just so Nick could see the blame in her eyes and know that this was all due to his negligence. 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 at the moment.

But Nick Maverick is Nick Maverick. He didn’t get his name by dwelling on the past, and in perfect Maverick fashion, Nick stands over Jade, takes in her entire profile with one sweeping gaze, touches his fingers to his lips and then to hers before getting dressed and walking 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 has disappeared into the rising sun, and James is left with a single sheet of blank 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 that James will always remember but knows he will never come in contact with again beyond tonight.

Because James knows things now. He knows now that this has always been about more than Jade, more than him, more than The Maverick. It’s been about them all, about humanity as a whole, about the end of an era, a step back into the abyss of the unknown. James will never see The Maverick again, and he curses the coward for leaving so hurriedly at the same time he thanks him for allowing James to experience true love, allowing him these last few moments alone with her.

Jade Mourne, everlasting beauty.

James leans away from his desk, grabbing the whiskey bottle and opening the bottom drawer and pulling out a crumpled pack of cigarettes. There’s one left, and he places it tentatively between his chapped lips, rummaging through the desk until he finds a matchbook with a single match sitting crooked. Pulling it out, he strikes it and watches the flare up, touching it to the tip of the cigarette then shaking it out. He pulls in deep, lets the smoke sit at the bottom of his lungs for a moment, savoring the burn, before he exhales and directs his attention back to the single blank sheet of paper.

For just a second, 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,” and James drops the pen and paper 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 savor 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 turns, picks up his discarded cell phone and dials Frank. The phone barely rings once before a hyper voice answers.

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

“It’s done,” James says quietly, glancing at the papers strewn across his desk, across the floor, and like that the feeling overtakes him, sudden but familiar. The wash of nonchalance that always accompanies the finishing of a novel. James sighs.

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

“Yeah, done,” James says, glancing out the window again, the Manhattan skyline blazing with streetlights. “Should be on your desk in the morning.”

Frank laughs and James can hear him clap in the background.

“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.” He pauses and 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 spittle out of the carpet.

“Everything okay, Jim?” Frank asks suddenly, which kind of catches James off guard. He continues to survey his room while considering Frank’s question.

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

Frank chuckles.

“A side effect of genius, my man,” he says, and James nods, though he knows nobody can see him doing it.

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