Edelweiss stared at the Hard Response emblem that covered the dull metallic door he stood in front of. The emblem was a deep turquoise disc rimmed with gold; inside the disc in black silhouette a hammer and telephone were crossed, surmounted by a dollar sign, also in black. There was no name on the door because everyone knew whose office it was. Edelweiss was a baby-faced young man in a pinstripe shirt and cheap, conservative tie. His hair was cut very short yet managed to look a mess anyway. He was pale-skinned but his cheeks had a healthy flush that gave him the appearance of a startled virgin. All the women in the office secretly adored him, but were torn between bedding him lustily or tucking him in with a bedtime story. About a year ago he had taken a bullet for Monsieur Lapin, the director of Human Resources. Since then he had gone from being a junior administrator to an indispensable executive assistant. Lapin had taken the boy out of Administration only a day before he was to be initiated. The administrators cast him evil looks, but he was Lapin's from that day forth. Belonging to Lapin granted all sorts of immunity, although it was an infernal contract. He traced the line of scar tissue at the base of his neck; his .22 caliber promotion. He knew what Lapin was going to order, and knew that there was nothing to be done about it. All he could do with the knowledge was delay the inevitable. His gift to the innocents on the twelfth floor, who would never know he had done his best, and bought them a few minutes. A voice with a Parisian French accent came from beyond the door. "How long will you stand outside, Edelweiss, mon ami?" Damn his ears and their uncanny hearing. Edelweiss stepped through the door. The office was spacious and filled with fire-proof steel filing cabinets. One wall was dominated by a large print of Albrecht Durer's "Great Piece of Turf". The other wall was covered in framed certificates and awards. The boy stepped right up to the massive cherry wood desk, and began speaking immediately while staring down at his seated superior...whom he would have stared down at anyway. Edelweiss wasn't very tall, but Monsieur Lapin was very short. "I can see your position on this issue, Monsieur, but even if we disregard the human cost...we're courting a morale disaster, losing trained personnel..." He trailed off as his gaze was met by small, black eyes. "Human cost, eh? Hmmm. Morale or moral?" Lapin pursed his lips and stroked his chin. "The order is mine, but I did not sign off on this, young Edelweiss. You speak of losing trained personnel, and I'm inclined to agree with you, but come now. It is the human cost that concerns you most. Do you think I do not value life?" He continued to stroke his well-groomed chin. "I don't know." Edelweiss lowered his eyes to the desk's surface, polished so he could see a murky reflection. He knew people on that floor. Not well, but there were names for each face. "I value life very much. First of all I value my own. Then I value the lives of those such as yourself." "Myself?" "Of course, mon ami! It is not every day you can find someone that will take a bullet in their neck for you!" "You know I'm dedicated to this company..." The boy murmured. "Of course you are, you have proven it beyond the shadow of a doubt. I am grooming you to become an officer in our mighty army. You cannot have a war without casualties, Edelweiss. They are casualties, up on the twelfth floor, they have been so since the order came down. Be consoled by the knowledge their sacrifice is not in vain. Have you the forms?" "Yes, but...could we wait until after lunch? They should get a last meal." Edelweiss pulled a sheaf of papers from the portfolio he held and placed it on the desk. He wondered when knowledge of any sort actually consoled rather than damned. "I don't see a problem with that. Do yourself a favour, take an hour for lunch...and don't eat in the cafeteria. I'll give you my keys..." Lapin produced keys for his luxury sedan from a jacket pocket. "...go to a good restaurant, and here, put it on my corporate card." A credit card followed the keys into the boy's hand. "Thanks, Monsieur." Edelweiss zipped the portfolio shut and turned towards the door. Lapin called after him. "Edelweiss, I'll take care of morale, like I always do, no?" "Oui, Monsieur Lapin." Edelweiss smiled back, and Lapin laughed heartily as the door shut. Edelweiss had got between Lapin and an assassin's bullet, thereby proving his dedication and reaping the benefits of corporate heroism. He had tripped on his shoelace trying to duck. On his way out of the building, he noted that it was Wednesday, so the twelfth floor employees would have chicken fingers and plum sauce for their last meal, if they ate in the cafeteria. The boy swallowed his guilt and thanked his lucky stars he wasn't a telemarketer. * * * * * * * "This is a dirty job." "Filthy but I got my mouth to feed." "Cut the chatter." Captain Levy glared at his men. Joachim Levy had short graying hair and a powerful, athletic build. A police officer for thirteen years, he left the force when Hard Response and other corporations began assembling their private "security" forces a year previous. For the first little while it had been a dream job, good pay with short hours. All he did was stand around with a gun. But within months he'd been required to use that gun on the "enemy"; men just like him, hired by other Fortune 500 companies. Their job was to provide "...security and a safe environment in difficult times". The government and general public were up in arms over it, there were impassioned pleas and endless debate. In the meantime the hazard pay and the benefits package were phenomenal. Levy had fourteen men assembled on the ground floor of the building. Most of them were a lot younger than his forty-three years. Jackals, most of them, except for Jeff Foster. Foster was twenty-seven, cool under fire, slow to use force and intelligent. Two months ago there had been a bomb threat and Foster had risked his life to warn the janitorial staff. Because it was his job. Foster could be counted on. "We all know our job; those people up there were bought months ago by the same company that gassed a lot of our friends in September. They're professionals like us, and know the risks associated. We're terminating their employment contracts...the board of directors and the coroner's office will take care of the mess. If anyone is uncomfortable with this I'm not going up there with them." He surveyed the blue and black uniforms in front of him matter of factly, with innocent green eyes. One of the men sat down in a chair and shook his head. "For the record, I'm making a formal protest. Those people aren't armed, and I'm not an executioner." The man who spoke was Hines. He was twenty-five, covered in freckles and mean as hell. He looked around the room and then back to Levy and Foster. "We don't know they're unarmed. It's true that we are getting the drop on them." Levy squinted up at the fluorescent lighting while cracking his knuckles. "However, I respect your decision not to participate in this procedure." "That's right, I won't participate. Hey there they go...off to lunch. There's no way they got weapons in here." Hines stared out a window behind Levy. Levy drew in his breath and dropped the blinds on the window. "We haven't ruled out the possibility of armed retaliation." Levy looked blankly at Hines. Foster looked at his watch and fingered the cell phone where the call would come from. "Hines, go to underground parking and hang out with Degutis, he must be lonely." Foster's voice was steady. He looked to Levy to make sure he hadn't overstepped his bounds. Levy nodded his approval. "Good idea, Mr. Foster. Hines, go hang out with Degutis."
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