Kent at a Crossroad

The windshield wipers were waging a seemingly hopeless battle with the streams of water. The truck struggled from pothole to pothole, sending fountains splashing from each one it hit. The gush in the cabin competed with the deluge outside. The driver’s mouth spewed without ceasing, drenching Kent’s ears in an endless stream of words.
»… stop there, just ahead. We’ll take Mongkut along. His brother and I were…»
Passengers? Kent was suddenly wide awake. She shoved her hand under her vest and groped for the trigger of the Glock. Her focus muffled the sound of his voice.
Her attention was now directed to the street. Two figures emerged the downpour, one a man and the other a woman. They wore straw hats that diverted the rain onto their shoulders in rivulets. The driver stopped the truck with a jerk and lowered the window. The couple waved as they approached him, and the three broke out in animated conversation. The driver then pointed his thumb toward the rear. They climbed onto the loading bed, and the truck started off again, lurching forward as hard as it had braked.
Kent folded down the sun visor, pushed up the mirror and shifted her position. Now she was able to keep an eye on the loading bed and the roadway at the same time.
»… we are lucky this year. Last monsoon, this road was no longer passable. Mongkut kept me at his home and fed me for weeks. But the rice harvest! We …«
It became quiet. The driver grinned at Kent. »You see, what did I say? This year’s monsoon isn’t worthy of the name.«
The windshield wipers had now gained the upper hand in the unequal contest.
»In other words, your rice harvest will be pretty meagre this year.«
The driver commented on the biting remark with a stream of curses.
The potholes gradually became smaller, now that one could see farther than two steps in any direction, and the track they called a road finally resembled one. They were met by an increasing stream of people, travelling by foot or in vehicles of all kinds.
The first buildings of Phatthalung came into view. The gravel gave way to asphalt, cracked and broken by tree roots, but asphalt, nonetheless. Low houses with high entrances passed by. The driver halted at a larger square, braking the truck to a stop as sudden as if it had crashed into a wall.
Kent looked around. The smell of incense came from the temple in the middle of the square and mixed with the steaming air. In front of the temple a few people stood in loose groups, passers-by hustled across the square, and children splashed playfully in puddles. All in all, the scene made for a picture of serenity. She checked the blade on her forearm and the seat of her Glock, reached into her pocket and threw a handful of baht onto the driver’s lap.
After checking the low roofs of the surrounding area, she opened the door, got out and left it open behind her. The driver cursed and slammed it shut with a clang. The truck drew the attention of the small crowd, so with just a few quick steps she was able duck into the shadow of the buildings unnoticed. There she leaned comfortably against a wall, pulled her hat down over her face and let the atmosphere sink in.
People came, met, exchanged courtesies, and moved on. People were good actors, and so Kent paid more attention to the countless dogs that trotted through the alleys in search of food. Their flews were pulled up in relaxed grins, their tails wagging placidly from side to side. Nothing in their behavior indicated an underlying threat.
Kent eventually satisfied herself that the area was secure. She entered the Roti Canai, and without waiting to be greeted, took a seat at a table against the wall that afforded her a good view of the whole establishment, including the doors to the street and to the kitchen. The window reflected an inconspicuous door at her back. It took less than a minute for a waitress to come to the table and offer her a cool greeting.
Kent paid her no attention. She took off her rice hat and shook out her wet, red mane. The color drained from the girl’s face, sweat appeared on her forehead and her whole body trembled. Muttering apologies, she disappeared, bowing as she backed into the kitchen. A few seconds later, the door crashed open. A much more sophisticatedly dressed woman stepped to Kent’s table, served lime tea, bowed, and respectfully left her valued guest alone.
Kent paid attention to the time that elapsed. After drinking the tea and setting down the cup, minutes still passed before the door opened. That had taken too long. She looked around unobtrusively.
A large, thuggish man in a pinstripe suit held the door open for her. She made him wait a few moments before she stood. As she approached him, she paid close attention to his posture but failed to detect anything unusual about him. The door opened directly into the empty kitchen. To the right, a narrow staircase led them up into a small anteroom that contained a few chairs, and on the opposite end, another man held open a richly decorated door. He also passed her scrutiny. Nothing served to confirm her vague feeling of suspicion. Kent stepped into a lavishly appointed office.
Behind a table, a man with the stature of Buddha and the eyes of a cobra sat awaiting her. Next to him stood a third suit wearer.
»Ivy Kent, how nice to see you. Please sit down.«
Kent wordlessly took her seat.
»My little birds have been chirping songs of praise about you.« His cheerfulness noticeably diminished in the face of her silence. »Kent, cool as always. Don’t you want to share in my joy? May I offer you something?«
Kent watched her counterpart closely. His laughter was not reflected in his eyes. The bullish thug standing at the wall constantly shifted his weight. Her nervousness grew.
Maintaining his fixed smile, the man pushed an envelope over the table. »As always, we are extremely satisfied with your services.«
Kent did not move. Her attention was focused on the man’s hand. When he had pulled it back from the envelope it had come to rest at a different place than before. The index finger lowered onto an inlay on the tabletop and pressed down. A clack sounded from under the table, followed by the plop of a silenced weapon.
Moving as fast as a striking snake, Kent thrust her left arm forward. A dagger leapt from her sleeve and drilled into the fat man’s neck. At the same instant, her right hand dove into her jacket and ripped out the Glock.
A dull thud to the left made her head jerk around. There was an inch-sized hole in the wall, surrounded by red splatters. She immediately whirled toward the window. Glass powder was still trickling out of a round hole. The Glock had reached its firing position, but its target was gone: the bullish thug slowly slid down the wall until he came to rest in a rapidly growing pool of red.
Kent whirled to throw herself out of the chair, away from the window, but her legs would not react. Her arm slowly sank, and her momentum tipped her over the arm of the chair. A pipe protruded from under the tabletop, a fine plume of smoke floated from its end. Only now did she realize she had been hit, only then did she feel the pain in her gut and the moisture running down her body.
She tried to turn as she fell, battling the spreading, leaden weakness – in vain. She ended up on the floor lying on her right arm, her gun pinned beneath.
Everything had happened quickly and silently. From where had the shot come that hit the thug? Who had fired it? She turned her attention to the door. No one outside would have noticed anything. When would someone come to check on things? She expected no one to help her.
From outside, she could hear dull plopping sounds. Those were sound-suppressed weapons, heavy caliber by the sound! What was happening here? The door quietly swung inward, only slightly at first. Then everything went fast. Three soldiers dressed in black stormed into the room and secured it. They checked the two corpses and then left them where they lay. A soldier kicked her Glock away, knelt next to her and pulled off the mask. Kent registered the face of what looked like a very young girl.
»Ivy Kent? I’m Natalie Ward. You’ve been shot. I’ll look after you now. Please do not resist.«
As if she had a choice! Natalie turned Kent onto her back and inspected the wound. Kent saw consternation spread on her face. Natalie firmly applied a compress on her stomach.
»Natalie, why have they sent a little girl like you on this mission?« Kent hated the faint sound of her voice.
»I like shooting criminals. Now be quiet.« Natalie pressed down so firmly that Kent screamed in pain. Natalie bit her teeth and relaxed the pressure a bit. Her gaze spoke volumes. Kent looked at her in horror. Natalie had been perfectly frank. In her eyes, Kent she was no better than a mound of filth.
Aloud, Natalie said, »You’ll be alright.« The tremble in her voice betrayed the lie. The wound had to be serious.
»You wouldn’t mind at all if things here didn’t turn out alright, would you,« Kent laughed softly. »But it’s not up to you, is it?«
»Damn it, keep your mouth shut, then maybe we’ll get you through this.«
»Get me through this? Only to strap me to an electric chair after a few pleasant conversations?« Her head sank weakly to one side; she could no longer see how Natalie reacted to her scorn. She heard the beeping of a radio and Natalie’s voice speak a combination of numbers. She did not receive an answer.
A moment later, an ice-cold blue filled the room. Kent sought Natalie’s hand. Was it her time? Did Natalie see the light as well? The light went out as quickly as it had flared up. Kent heard a tack-tack sound approaching. A white stick came into her field of vision.
»Well done, Ward. If you would be kind enough to place Mrs. Kent in a somewhat more elegant position?«
Something soft was placed behind Kent’s neck. At last she could see who was there. Natalie’s face seemed anxious. A small man in a grey suit knelt next to her. He was wearing glasses with black lenses.
»Please remove the compress, Ward.«
Kent immediately felt blood flowing over her body. The man bent over her. His hand rested lightly on her stomach. A blue glow reflected in the black of his glasses. Then a wonderful warmth infused her abdomen and spread into her legs and arms, washing away her pain. With each breath she took, Kent felt stronger. She quickly had enough energy to look down at herself.
A deep blue glow disappeared into the blind man’s hand, which he then removed from her. Kent felt as healthy as she had rarely felt before.
»Please forgive me. In my haste, I have set aside all the rules of courtesy. May I introduce myself? My name is Elias Deubler.« He offered her his hand in a flawless manner and told her to stand up.
Not a single drop of blood appeared on his hand.
She felt a bit shaky on her feet, but that quickly passed. Natalie led her to a chair. Kent made an effort to conceal the tension she felt.
»Thank you. You already know my name.« And what else did they know? She really wanted to know who she was dealing with here. This unit certainly was no part of any of the local authorities; they were staying out of the way. No one here wore a rank badge or nametag. Natalie was an international name and she spoke accent-free English. Americans? Deubler’s name and his English sounded harsh. Maybe Russian? German?
She could no longer remain silent. »Deubler. If you wanted me dead, we wouldn’t be talking to each other now. So, make it short. What? How much?«
»I think this has something to do with the change in the attitude of your unexpectedly deceased business partner.« Deubler held out an envelope.
It took two tries until her trembling fingers were able to close around the envelope. She felt a rather stiff object inside. When she opened it, she expected neither money nor paper.
The photo of a little boy with flame-red hair fell into her lap. Kent felt a lump in her throat that quickly expanded and choked off her breathing. Without being able or wanting to hold them back, tears ran down her face.
With trembling fingers, she lifted the picture and stroked the boy’s face. She looked up.
Deubler’s voice became soft. »Did you really believe that you could win this private war on your own? You are looking for Ernesto? Pandiangan found you and your child!«
Deubler pointed his white cane at the buddha’s corpse. »His bounty must have been set very high.« He gave Kent a moment. She stroked the hair in the picture, placed her fingers around his chin. Nothing else mattered, nothing.
»Where is he? How is he? Is he alright? Please, I beg you, he is only a small child. Please, don’t harm him.«
»You annoy me, Kent, please do not accuse me of your own morality. We do not have your son, and we would not abuse a child.«
The fear for her child made her irrational. »Sorry, sorry, I didn’t want to say that. I didn’t mean that. Of course, you would never do such a thing. I…«
»Now take some deep breaths and get your thoughts in order.« Deubler took a handkerchief out of his lapel and laid it before her on the table.
Kent nodded, wiped tears from her eyes and blew her nose. Then she took a few deep breaths and looked at Deubler with restored composure.
»It should be clear that you have no future here,« and after brief pause, added, »Mrs. Pandiangan.«
Kent grew cold. Who were these people? How did they know so much, even her best-kept secret? Kent interlocked her fingers to hide the tremor that was shaking her hands. The mocking grin on Natalie’s face made it clear that it was far too late for that.
»Whatever you demand.« She directed a long look at Deubler.
»You. Your skills, your connections, your knowledge.«
Kent nodded. »Can you be more specific?«
»You are to take care of someone.« Kent opened her mouth. Deubler quickly raised both arms. »No, not in your typical manner. She will be in bad condition, need a lot of help and love, but also a firm hand. I think you would be a good mentor.«
Kent opened her eyes and gave Deubler a perplexed look. That was the last thing she would have expected. »Me? What can I teach anyone?«
»Life as you have experienced it.«
»What did she do to you?«
»Do we have a deal? Not today, not tomorrow, not this year, and not the next.«
Kent hesitated as her fingers ran nervously over the picture. »I demand security for him.«
»That is easy to manage. Are we in business?«
Kent nodded.
»Say it.«
Kent swallowed, cleared her throat and answered with a firm voice: »Yes, we have a deal. Where do I sign?«
»You sign with your soul.«
Kent’s fingers clawed into the photo. »What do you mean? I sign every contract.«
The music came from Deubler, unlike anything she could put into words. It penetrated deep into her, through her eyes, her ears, her skin. She followed the music with senses she never even suspected she had before that moment.
In shock, she sensed herself being analyzed in detail, her every thought examined. She desperately strained to resist Deubler but could find no weapon to offer defense. With growing horror, she felt him penetrate deeper and deeper inside of her. In her awakened memories, ones she had buried an eternity ago, hidden fears and nightmares in the dark appeared in bright illumination.
Kent saw her whole life spread before her. Beatings, abasement, imprisonment, and torture – every conceivable horror from rape to emotional cruelty. She relived every single moment again, everything that could be inflicted upon a human being.
And at the same time, she felt every instance of beauty that had been given her, from her mother’s hug to the last, frenzied joy in a lover’s embrace, from her son’s first cry to the wild satisfaction she felt as she held the bloody knife over the corpse …
And Deubler dug even deeper.
At last he looked upon the very bottom of her soul. She felt naked, helpless, at his utter mercy, completely dependent on his grace. This moment would forever remain deeply implanted within her, become part of herself, persecute her until her death and beyond.
Why did Deubler hesitate? What else was there? What did he have in mind for her now that she was here before him? What else did he want?
Deubler drew her attention to one of her worst memories. She took the purse from her dying mother’s bedside table. Her mother opened her eyes and looked at her with a look of profound sadness. A humiliating sense of guilt dug itself into her soul for all time.
Deubler took her memories of all the crimes she had committed, one by one, every single murder, spared not a single one, and fused those deeds with that devastating feeling.
Slowly the terrible music ebbed away.
Deubler awakened a thought in her.
›You are not thoroughly corrupted. I grant you a second chance. Fulfill your mission to my satisfaction. But be warned. The girl I will put into your care is not of your kind.‹

She was alone in her soul. Nothing in the room had changed. She still held the photo in her fingers. It had taken Deubler only an instant to destroy her. He turned away.
»Ward, take care of Kent. And try to be nice. She is not an evil person.« He left the room.
Kent tried to cry, and when she could not, she clawed her nails into her eyes to pull them out. She sank from the chair to the floor and cowered down under the table. Here is where she belonged, in the filth, thoughtlessly discarded and forgotten like the corpse beside her, hidden from the sight of human beings.
The sound of steps approached. Kent looked up in torment. She did not want anyone to see her like this. Natalie knelt next to her.
»It’ll all be better soon.«
Kent turned away. Natalie put her arm around her and held her firmly.
»I know exactly how you feel,« she sighed. »I’m sorry if I was nasty earlier. You reminded me of – someone.«
»What did he do?« Kent said in a voice barely more than a whisper.
»He awakened a pretty bad memory in you, didn’t he?«
Kent closed her eyes. Natalie held Kent away from her and looked her in the eye. »I’ll take that as ›yes’. He didn’t deprive you of your free will. But you’ll never be able to do anything again without thinking back to whatever memory he has awakened.«
Kent saw grief and a deep earnestness in Natalie’s eyes. »You … You have …«
»Yes. He also gave me a second chance. Welcome to the team.«