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It was many years ago, give or take. Stemmons wasn’t exactly sure. It was back when both Stemmons and Rankin were fresh out of the Academy and were ready to save the world on a daily basis. Stemmons wasn’t into time back in those days, and looking back it’s all a blur now. Seemed like every day was a new adventure where either he or someone he knew was skirting with danger and dancing with death, mostly because despite their cocky confidence, none of them really knew what they were doing. The Academy could only teach so much about actual survival. The real lessons were learned out on the field. The teams to which Stemmons was assigned were usually between six and twenty depending on the situation. Out of convenience, Rankin and Stemmons sorta fell into a partnership. They had been study buddies throughout the Academy. Other friends and fellow agents would come and go in their circle of work and play relationships, but though they weren’t exactly joined at the hip, they often ended up in the same places at the same times back in the early days. They were close, and yet distant. Romantically, Stemmons found Rankin unpredictably hot and cold, and learned fast to just be available whenever she felt like it, and accept that it was never gonna be the other way around. He couldn’t figure her out, and quickly stopped trying. He simply didn’t have time to do the math.

Perhaps six weeks to six months into their first tour, Rankin and Stemmons met Crewalter, and some short time later were assigned on a team to “escort” Crewalter as he followed outrageous leads to what he claimed was an eco-disaster organization hellbent on killing millions of people to convince billions of people to stop using modern technology of any kind and essentially return to a nomadic archaic culture for all of mankind. Even agriculture was evil in the eyes of these people. Crewalter had made it his life’s ambition to put an end to these people, and whatever life he had before this was permanently left on the back burner to rot. He lived and breathed this like Captain Ahab had Moby Dick. Crewalter was not officially an agent. He hadn’t exactly done formal Agency training the way Stemmons and Rankin had, but he knew his way around an urban battle zone, and could do what needed to be done as good as any of them. He had obviously done his time in some form of military or similar organizations. Stemmons didn’t ask for Crewalter’s resume and at the time didn’t have a high enough clearance to request it.

Stemmons never quite figured out how Crewalter caught on to these guys, and for awhile thought they were a figment of Crewalter’s imagination. Since these guys didn’t believe in technology, there wasn’t exactly a convenient paper trail to follow. Crewalter’s ‘leads’ were unorthodox and Stemmons thought he was just seeing shadows that weren’t there.

On one particular evening when they were casing an urban cross between a Chinatown and a Little Italy in the Pennsylvania, Crewalter spotted someone in a crowd who then rabbited. Crewalter chased after him without uttering a word on the comm channel. Having eyeballed the situation, Stemmons chased after Crewalter, but didn’t yet see the suspect until after Crewalter followed him up a fire escape to the rooftops. Ranking and the rest of the team didn’t see the three of them climb up the roofs, so Stemmons attempted to communicate via comm device as they were running, but he quickly learned he was still too green to juggle chasing and talking at the same time. Back then the lower level agents were still assigned hand held devices like small walkie-talkies. The ear bud devices were much more expensive back then and reserved for higher ranking officers. They also admittedly weren’t much lighter.

Crewalter seemed to notice only one of his “escorts” had followed him on the roof, so every chance he had he threw anything in their path that wasn’t bolted down off the roof, hoping maybe the other escorts would get a clue. Why he didn’t use his comm, Stemmons didn’t know and didn’t have time to ask. Between Stemmons trying to talk to the others below and Crewalter stopping to knock stuff over the side, it was amazing they could keep a bead on the suspect. Stemmons caught up to Crewalter and then surpassed him, assuming their suspect was the only other person on the rooftops. He managed to get a conversation started with Rankin, but as mentioned before, their comm system consisted back in those days of more cumbersome hand held devices than the modern day ear buds. What Stemmons had was essentially a hand held two way radio, and Stemmons accidently dropped his as he followed the suspect jumping an alley.

The suspect ducked into a roof access doorway and Stemmons followed fast behind, not taking time to wonder why the suspect knew that door of all doors in the area was going to be open for him. They had passed several doors during the chase. The suspect wasn’t trying every door. He made a b-line for this one. Stemmons bounded through the same unlocked door and down the first landing before this incongruity even began to register in the back of his mind. Though it had been night outside, it had been a starry night and a very loud busy brightly lit part of town. It was too dark inside for his eyes to adjust fast enough. He thought he hear Crewalter enter the door above him an instant before Stemmons got colcocked from behind.

Stemmons faded in and out of consciousness for awhile, and seemed interspersed with enjoyable dreams he had not had since his childhood, making it difficult for awhile to discern fantasy from reality. Friendly bullfrogs on lily pads giving way to men in beards with shovels and fists giving way to to grandma’s cooking in an upside down kitchen, giving way to Crewalter farting in his face as they traversed rocky terrain inside of what may have been the trunk of a car or the back of a van. There was a lot of pain involved, but when Stemmons fell unconscious, his childhood would show up to alleviate things somewhat. Stemmons had experienced torture techniques at the Academy, but it was nothing like actually being helpless in the hands of the enemy. Nothing could have prepared him for how he actually reacted under the real stress of being unable to fight for one’s own survival. He was almost embarrassed by how he seemed to be regressing like a baby.

After awhile he was able to tell that reality came with more pain and a ringing in his ears, whereas fantasy involved less pain and sounds that drowned out the ringing temporarily. Beyond that, attempts to call to his training proved all but fruitless. He couldn’t maintain his senses or get his bearings. Just when he thought he was in control again, something or someone would hit him upside the head and next he knew Stemmons would be swimming in plastic balls in a Chuck E Cheese or dancing with his cousins around a sprinkler on freshly mowed summer grass. People would be calling him by his first name, which hadn’t happened since some time before he joined the Academy. He just went by Stemmons.

“..Stemmons?”

The lights had been intentionally left on. That was to give them hope. Stemmons did the math though. It was late Friday afternoon when all this started. Just past sundown. This was a rural area they were in now judging from the rocky terrain of the dirt roads they’d taken to get here. He only knew that from how bumpy the drive had been when he was remotely coherent and there had been rural smells of pine trees and dirt roads, quite different from the more suburban smells he could now differentiate from his childhood dreams. Or at least he thought. It was still difficult to concentrate, and one of the bullfrogs on the lilly pads was now calling him by his last name again.

No one would be in this building until early Monday morning. Stemmons looked around. Empty meat hooks hung from the ceiling of a room rougthly thirty by fifty feet that was mostly empty. A couple neglected slabs of cow carcass beef in a corner. The room was uncomfortably bleached white with ceramic tiles along the walls and floor. The bullfrog was now hanging beside him. The lilly pad melted away. The two men had been stripped naked, hands and feet tied, and each of them were hung by their leather restraints on meat hooks like another couple slabs of cow carcass. Stemmons heard silence except for an occasional drip of liquid. He looked down at his feet, the ringing in his ears seemingly getting worse.

In the exact center of the room, roughly eight feet away from where they were hanging, was a circular drain. Two trickles of blood went towards it. One from Stemmons. One from Crewalter, who Stemmons could now make out with his good eye (the other one apparently swelled shut from repeated blows to the head) was no longer the bullfrog. Both men had been beaten up pretty bad. Stemmons couldn’t exactly tell which of the wounds on his body were bleeding out. Maybe it was all of them. It was cold in there, but not ice cold like one would expect for a meat packing plant. Both men had been sweating in the car which may have been contributing to what looked like blood loss, but the cold air in the room was simultaneously stirring Stemmons awake and making him drowsy. Stemmons could not tell how much of the trickles was sweat and how much was blood, but both had been hanging there long enough for two tiny streams of them to slowly be draining away to the center of the room. They may have been there for hours, or it could have been just minutes since their assailants had left them this way.

There were no footprints on the floor. Looked like people didn’t walk in here much except to clean it or do inventory. The meat hooks were hanging from horizontal tracks above their heads near the ceiling that led out of the room. Stemmons faded out of consciousness, his nanny put a pumpkin pie in his face and invited him to take a smell, and he jolted back awake with the delicious pumpkin still in his nostrils. If Stemmons and Crewalter had been brought here by some automated system from another part of the building, he’d been asleep for that ride, but it would explain why there were no footprints. They were placed on the meat hooks and then moved mechanically into the room like slabs of beef. Stemmons wasn’t sure if that was a rational assessment but he pretended it meant he was making progress cuz he didn’t want his fat cousin Bertha to sit on him again like on Saint Patty’s day when he was four.

It was just a couple of trickles of blood, but three days of that trickling and both men would be dead, and the ringing in his ears was making him wish that would happen sooner than later. Stemmons had to hope the rest of their team had been following them, otherwise this was the end. Whoever did this did not intend for them to be found, but they did want Crewalter to know he had been beaten. Otherwise they coulda just killed him outright. This was personal. Crewalter had gotten someone very mad at him. Ironically, Stemmons took this as the first solid evidence he had that Crewalter wasn’t just making up these eco terrorists in his head. Crewalter would have taken this news as good, because it meant he was closer than he thought, close enough to start annoying and even scaring them. Stemmons took this news as an opportunity to sneak in and grab a cupcake off the counter while the aunts were arguing over details regarding Thanksgiving dinner.

“Hey kid. You awake?”

Stemmons awoke from a pleasant dream involving a jump into a pile of leaves that smelled like cherry pies and marshmallows. He opened his good eye and found himself hanging again, still, by his tied up arms a couple feet off the ceramic tiled floor with the drain revealing two trickles of blood, like sands from broken hour glasses. The scratchy voice came from the bullfrog again, but Stemmons knew who it really was.

“Crewalter,” Stemmons choked, as if he hadn’t used his voice in a decade.

“Yeah it’s me. What luck huh? They put us in the same room!”

Cherry pies and marshmallows gave way in his nose to ammonia and a faint scent of raw meat. He guessed this to be a slaughterhouse of some sort in rural Pennsylvania. His head was still pounding from the blows he took, and the ringing in his ears was only now dissipating, which made him wonder if maybe he was now dreaming again. Stemmons was presuming he suffered from a concussion and may be in shock, until he could somehow prove otherwise.

“Luck?” he barely recognized his own voice in the strange acoustics of the room, “how is being stuck like this, with YOU, lucky?”

“I been meaning to talk to ya, Stemmons. Hard to get you kids separate from each other. You shadows are practically joined at the hip.”

“We’re not shadows. We’re agents.”

“Yeah well you’re my shadow.”

“Is that a racial slur, sir?”

“Oh really? You gonna call me racist now?”

“I’m only following you cuz it’s our job. My job is to chase after your crazy white ass. We all been chasing in the same direction for days, after you. We’re supposed to keep you out of trouble!”

“About that. You guys suck at keeping me out of trouble.”

“That’s cuz you refuse to follow directions!”

“you dojn’t boss me around, kid. I got a job to do too.”

“Right. Save the world from a nonexistent doomsday device.”

“I don’t wanna talk about that right now. I don’t know how much time we have.”

“Before what? The bad guys show up and torture us again before they kill us?”

“Naw. It won’t come to that. Raven will be here soon.”

“RANKIN!” Stemmons shouted loud enough to rattle his brains and make his own head ache worse. His own voice echoed back a half second later as if they were hovering over the grand canyon and not a grated drain.

“..you hear that?” Crewalter said after an extended silence.

“I don’t hear anything.” Stemmons mumbled.

“Precisely!” Crewalter’s scratchy voice was like sandpaper to Stemmons’ headache. He could not imagine a worse predicament to be in, whereas Crewalter seemed almost giddy at their circumstance. “I couldn’t have planned this better. We’re more alone than alone.”

“I wish I was alone! You call me “Shadow.” You call Rankin “Raven.” You are a heartless white racist pig.”

“All five of you are shadows. Rankin’s not black she’s hispanic.”

“What?”

“You didn’t know that? Well. She’s a mixed breed actually. Half black. Honest mistake.”

“How the hell you think you know that?”

“Wanna call me some white racist thing?”

“No cuz I don’t do that shit! Unlike you!”

“I’ll try not to take that hard,” Crewalter smiled at him, and Stemmons noticed a tooth in Crewalter’s head was missing and replaced with a disturbing smile encrusted with dried blood and a split lip. Stemmons could only imagine he looked just as bad, but at least Crewalter could still see out of both eyes.

Stemmon’s huffed at Crewalter and looked away “My head’s killing me.”

“Yeah you’ve looked better.”

“Right back atcha.”

Crewalter laughed at that and his laughter echoed maniacally throughout the room and down a ways, echoing back another half second later making it even more unnerving. “This is thrilling! I haven’t felt so alive in years!”

“I wish I were dead.”

“Nah! If the bad guys come back and start torturing us then you’ll wish you were dead.”

“You’ll probably enjoy it.”

“Well, torture ain’t death. Wish I’d known about the Agency back when I was young enough to fully appreciate it. I been close to death a couple few times in my life but most of my life I spent behind desks or in boring meetings. That’s being dead. This is being alive. ”

“Until we’re dead.”

“You know you’re a glass is half empty kind of guy.”

“So I been told.”

“Why live like that? Enjoy what we have!”

“Are you kidding me? We are here cuz you insisted on chasing that guy over rooftops and he led us into an ambush.”

“Don’t cry over spilt milk.”

“It’s my blood I’m cryin over! And yours too! Lookit!” Stemmons referred to the drain by lifting his bound legs haphazardly in its direction.

“I see it.”

“Rankin and the gang are not gonna find us. They have no idea where we went!”

“Raven will figure it out.”

“It’s RANKIN!”

“Not to me.”

“Yes it is!”

“It’s actually Maria Santiago de la Rosa Gonzales White.”

Stemmons blinked at him with his good eye.

The two men stared at each other awhile.

“Quite a mouthful, eh?”

“Are you completely mental?”

“You know I amaze myself that I still remember that. It’s been decades, but the first time I met you guys, it all came rushing back. At first it felt like someone ripped out my heart and fed it back to me, but I been thinking about it. I think this is meant to be. You believe in fate, kid?”

“When we first met you took one look at Gina and you looked like saw a ghost and I asked you about it–”

“And I told you to shut the fuck up.”

“Yeah!”

“Yep.”

“So why the fuck you bringing this up NOW!?”

“Forgive me Father for I have sinned..”

Stemmons groaned. Crewalter continued.

“..it’s been several reincarnations since my last confession.”

“Okay now I’m looking forward to the torture.”

“That’s the spirit!”

“Just stop talking to me.”

“I thought you of all people would want to know the truth, I mean she is your girl after all.”

“She’s not my girl.”

“You guys fuck.”

“How can you tell?”

“Body language, and the way you just now didn’t deny it.”

“DAMMIT! ..Once. And she’s not mine she’s made that abundantly clear!”

“She could be.”

“She’s impossible!”

“The best ones always are.”

“We are hanging from meat hooks like two future Happy Meals and you wanna talk about MY sex life?”

“We’re alright.”

“You’re bleeding!”

“So are you.”

“Just stop talking to me. You’re a mental old bigoted crazy white man and I can’t believe I been following you around all four corners of god’s green earth just to end up here dying. Just stop talking to me.”

They hung there awhile. Stemmons wished his childhood would come back but it didn’t. He heard a drip of blood but couldn’t tell if it was Crewalter’s or his own.

“I met your girl before. Long time ago. When she was a baby. Held her in my arms even. Her fist held my pinky like it was a gun. I could tell even then she was a fighter.”

“How do you know it was her?” Stemmons managed a laugh, “You recognized her?”

“Her eyes are still the same. Also.. ‘Regina Rankin.’ I made up that name.”

Stemmons groaned again.

“Shame she goes by Gina. I always liked the consonance. Like Peter Parker or Clark Kent. Regina Rankin!”

“No way.”

“Yes. Consonance. That’s a thing. Read a damn poem for once in your uncultured life.”

“No I mean there is no way you made up her name when she was a baby.”

“I made up names for her parents, too. Rankin is Scandinavian or something for ‘shield.’ Merely a coincidence I assure you, but seemed fitting at the time. I was trying to protect them.”

“GUARDS!” Stemmons shouted as loud as he could, “BAD GUYS!?? HELLO?? Someone get over here and gag him, please!”

“They’re long gone.”

“I’m ready for the torture now!”

“They left us for dead.”

“How do–you can’t know that!”

“No, I can. I’m pretty sure.”

“You got X-Ray vision now mister Clark Kent!?”

“I’ve left other people for dead. I know what it looks like. Never been on this side of things before. Interesting perspective.”

“Is this more confessions from you? I ain’t even catholic!”

“I’ll have to save the rest for later. We’re about to be rescued.”

“You are a delusional crazy person, you know that?”

“After we get out of here, we’l have to find the facility.”

“There you go again with the facility bullcrap! Your doomsday device that we can’t find! That doesn’t exist! We’re hanging like rotting meat over your wild goose chase!”

“Keep shouting like that. It’s helpful..”

“Don’t tell me what to do! You’re not in charge of our unit! You’re the asset that we are charged to protect and your rash behavior has gotten us both killed!”

“MY rash behavior?”

“YEAH! YOUR RASH BEHAVIOR!”

Crewalter lowered his voice as if suddenly he thought someone was listening. “I’m not a fivesome of rash obnoxious teeny boppers on a joy ride in suits running around like chickens with your heads cut off thinking you’ll live forever.”

“WE’RE RUNNING AROUND AFTER YOU! YOU’RE GONNA KILL US ALL!”

“yeah you might have a point at that.”

“MIGHT???? YOU THINK I **MIGHT** HAVE A POINT??? WE HAVE BEEN LEFT FOR DEAD YOU IGNORANT WHITE OLD BALDING ASSHOLE! WHAT MORE EVIDENCE DO I NEED THAT I **MIGHT** BE RIGHT YOU FUCKING PRICK FUCKTARD FUCKING MOTHER FUCKING MOTHER FUCKER FUCKING FUCKER!??”

“you hear that?”

“DO I HEAR WHAT!??”

“we’ll have to finish this later,” Crewalter whispered.

“Stemmons? Is that you?” a distant echo of Rankin’s voice could barely be heard. Stemmons’ heart stopped and he looked back at Crewalter with his one good wide eye and gaping maw of a mouth.

“I figured Raven woudl deduce which building we were in, but she was gonna need an audio clue to find us from there, and I don’t feel up to shouting. So.” Crewalter intentionally pushed Stemmons’ buttons to get him mad enough to shout loud enough so the others could find them. Stemmons felt dumbfounded in the presence of this master manipulating bastard.

“so. keep shouting.” Crewalter was almost inaudible now, “it’s helpful..”

In the distance, Stemmons could now hear Rankin and the others shouting for him to say something again, but now he was suddenly speechless, his wide eye frozen on Crewalter, apparently in much worse shape than either of them had previously thought. Both men had been dripping in sweat and blood despite the temperature in the room. When Stemmons looked down earlier it was just a couple trickles of blood. Now it was a almost none from himself and a slightly larger one from Crewalter. His life’s blood leading into the grating just a couple yards away from their feet. In his early twenties, Stemmons could handle a little blood loss, but he figured Crewalter was pushing sixty at least.

Stemmons swallowed hard and tried to wet his mouth but it was dry and parched. Still he managed to scream gutturally like a sick animal, forcing his voice back into commission. “OH NO! DON’T YOU DIE ON ME NOW OLD MAN! GUYS!??? GUYS, IT’S ME! IT’S STEMMONS AND CREWALTER IS HERE TOO! BRING A PINT OF BLOOD IF YOU GOT IT! CREWALTER! WAKE UP YOU FUCKING FUCK!”

That was many years ago now. Crewalter did wake up. Both men spent a few days in hospital and then continued on with their search. They eventually did find the facility, and Stemmons learned along with Rankin and Crewalter that the doomsday device was essentially a brand new nuclear power plant that had just been commissioned into service which the eco terrorists set to blow in order to prove their point. Stemmons and his team managed to thwart the ecoterrorists’ plans, but Crewalter had to sacrifice his own life to save the other Agents assigned to protect him, as well as half the eastern seaboard. After his death, Stemmons and Rankin and a few other agents spent the next several weeks following the leads Crewalter had shown them, and they brought the ecoterrorists to justice.

Stemmons never told another soul what Crewalter revealed to him in confidence, until he found ‘Maria Santiago de la Rosa Gonzales White’ listed for the first time as an alias in Gina Rankin’s records, some twenty or so years after Crewalter’s death. He felt he had no choice but to tell Gina what he knew, and why Crewalter called her Raven.

But even Stemmons didn’t know what that would truly mean.

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