Green, brown, black and yellow. Colors of a forest that is undecided if it’s dressing for Spring or Autumn. Rain falls over it. Thick and heavy, drumming over leaves and branches. A pair of boots trudges across the muddy ground while another pair is dragged. A new color now comes into play: Red.
Erno considered praying but he had always been a pragmatist. He believed in a practical approach to things, a goal to focus on. Religion, he felt, was too emotional, too impractical, too demanding. While never holding a grudge against it he had decided to maintain a polite indifference towards all theological matters. It made his partnership with Bautista -a practicing Catholic- a less tiring affair on the day to day.
Right now his goal was to get Bautista and himself to safety to rest and recover. He dragged the older man across the mud and muck while the rain soaked them to the bone. The Argentinian was mumbling, but Erno could not understand him due to the noise of rain. A prayer probably – Catholics never wasted a moment.
“It’s done. Zurkov gave me the coordinates to the old Soviet armory. Less than two hours after we wired the money and now we know were vault 146 is. Our golden ticket!”, Erno smiled through the haze inside the stuffy hotel room. Sickly green pastels splattered the wall; a cheap place to plan their next job. Bautista frowned while he held his Cuban cigar between his index and middle fingers.
“Zurkov is a piece of shit, Erno, I’m telling you, man. That cabron can go fu-”
“I know you don’t like him, but his intel always comes through”, Erno cut him off. Now was not the time for old grudges.
Years ago in some dark alley in Kiev, Bautista and Zurkov had an unpleasant encounter that resulted in the death of someone and the Argentinian having to scramble out of the city with nothing but the clothes on his back.
“It’s dangerous, but the prize is good. Worth the risk, partner. We can probably get Markovich to aid us on this one. That drunk Slav still owes you a favor, no?”
Bautista chewed on the cigar nervously while fidgeting with a bowie knife for a moment. He raised his head and looked at Erno, a glint shone in his eyes.
Looming in the distance they finally saw it: a giant cinder block covered in moss. Paint had chipped away over the years of neglect, showing the dull grayness underneath. Soviet architecture at its finest.
Finally, Erno thought relieved. They could rest and catch their breath, get Bautista patched up and, with any luck, make it out of this mess alive.
The rain drummed incessantly over their tent. A small rechargeable lamp lit the space while outside the forest was swallowed in darkness. Bautista chipped away at a piece of wood with a bowie knife. Years of merc work had left him in a permanent state of restlessness. “You don’t get to live long in this business if you’re too relaxed.”, was always his excuse.
Erno flipped the pages of a spy novel he had brought over to read whenever they made camp. Cheesy and inaccurate, Erno guiltily enjoyed the glitz and glamour that most authors portrayed these stories with. Bautista had never been a fan of them, considering them too frivolous and fantastic.
A clicking sound was heard and Erno lowered his book to look at Bautista on the other side of the tent. The Argentinian was still chipping away at the piece of wood.
Bautista simply shrugged. The piece of wood on his hand was starting to look like a small crude stake. Erno opted for a silent truce and resumed his lecture.
“James Bond is bullshit. That just doesn’t happen in real life, boludo.”
Erno did not even bother to lower the book this time.
“Fancy suits, neat inventions, flashy drinks and always getting the girl. That’s all a load of shit, che. A man like you should not read that. It’ll rot your brain.”
“We all have our guilty pleasures, Bau. Live and let live: I never complain about your cigars now, do I?”.
“La puta que te pario…” was barely heard over the crackling of burning wooden logs. Erno suppressed a smile. Bautista always dropped the argument whenever his smoking habit came into the discussion.
Erno placed Bautista on a leaning position next to the vault’s steel entrance; “146” was partially legible in large faded characters. A Cold Era armory, with enough firepower to sponsor an invasion to Madagascar. This should have been their golden ticket.
It took five days of trekking across the dense forest from some nowhere farmer village -as close as Markovich could get them with the chopper- and after a few setbacks of rain and lousy terrain conditions, they were close to the vault according to the map: only a half day’s march. The rain was pouring and seemed to grow in intensity at every step they took.
A shot was heard and Erno saw Bautista’s body turn half circle and fall hard on one knee with a loud grunt of pain. Two seconds later machine gun fire erupted several meters ahead of them.
“Vittu tätä paskaa!”, Erno swore loudly. He went over to where Bautista was and dragged him behind cover over a fallen tree trunk that was nearby. Bullets grazed close, but the rain made it hard to get an easy shot. Lucky, but for how long?
The Argentinian was shivering and gulping for air as a dark stain spread over his camouflage shirt and pants from his lower torso. His mouth moved but Erno could not understand yet he managed to read his comrade’s lips: Hijo de puta.
Son of a bitch. Zurkov had sold the vault coordinates to other buyers.
Erno had been dishonorably discharged from the Finnish army seven years ago after punching a sergeant on the nose; they had a disagreement over a few drinks at a bar near the base he was stationed in. Thanks to his military connections it was not long before he was holding a gun again, except that now he answered only to clients and good pay.
“The two things I was always good at ever since I was a horny teenager was shooting and playing chess. Guess how many chess tournaments I’ve won?”, he told Bautista once in a bar in Mexico City. The place smelled of cheap cigarettes and stale beer; an old prostitute, dressed up like a very ratty doll, nuzzled on a man’s neck nearby. Both mercs were enjoying some well-earned pay after finishing a three-week security detail for a foreign diplomat.
“I’m going to guess zero.”
“Such little faith for being a choir boy, Bau. I’m shocked!”
“God is one thing, you being full of it is another. How many then, pelotudo?”
“Three. Two from my school and one in a national competition.”
Bautista raised an eyebrow and followed it with a scoff. “Not the oddest thing I’ve found on the job.”
“What would you say was the oddest?”
Bautista pondered for a moment and answered plainly, “A person with a clean conscience.”
Erno snorted, “Those exist?”.
“Not in this shithole. Certainly not us.”
“Amen. I’ll drink to that.”
Bautista’s skin had turned a stronger shade of white. Erno patched the wound as best as he could. He knew it was bad when he saw it: an entry wound on the right lumbar area with no exit wound. He feared they might have hit Bautista’s intestines which could quickly lead to a severe infection, and death. That is if the internal bleeding didn’t kill him first. Bautista had his eyes closed, his breathing came in very shallow breaths.
“Markovich, Markovich, come in! There were wasps in the nest, we need pick up, asap. We’re at the big box. Over.”, static only. He repeated the message. Erno kept a wary eye out into the forest, waiting to catch anyone who might try to pick them off unaware.
“-vich here. On my way. Pickup in thirty. Over.”, the radio crackled to life. Thirty minutes. He looked back to where Bautista was resting with his eyes closed. If he didn’t get treated soon… Erno cursed softly under his breath as he stared upwards as if hoping to see the helicopter any moment now.
Bullets splintered chunks of wood from the trunk they were covering from while Bautista groaned in pain. Erno knew that if they let themselves be pinned down they were dead. “Bau!”, Bautista slowly turned around to face him. Erno used sign language to relay a message that the rain would not muddle: I’ll throw a flashbang. Use covering fire afterwards. Keep them distracted.
Bautista nodded and with effort turned around, gritting his teeth. The stain grew bigger and bigger, but there was no time to patch it up right now, so he simply pressed one hand hard over it and readied his gun with the other.
Inside his head he began to count as he slowly started to crawl on the ground. The forest was densely packed with foliage and it was relatively easy to hide. He grabbed a flashbang from his vest, pulled the pin and threw it at the general direction of the gunfire. A few seconds later a loud explosion was heard followed by gunfire from Bautista.
After what seemed like hours of crawling on the mud -probably mere minutes- he reached a small elevation in the terrain. Gunfire sounded louder next to it. He crawled for a few more meters and reached an edge. Erno peeked over and saw that he was on top of them. Three people dressed in brown and green camouflage: two were firing in short bursts in Bautista’s direction, the third was using a radio, probably trying to call in for reinforcements. Erno crawled back out of sight, grabbed a grenade from his vest, pulled the pin and counted in silence for a few seconds, then threw it over. The explosion mingled with screams was music to his ears.
Slowly, he crawled and peeked over again, gun ready. Two bodies, all bloodied up, lied still on the muddy floor. The radio caller appeared to still be alive. His chest rose slowly up and down, he was shaking as the lower left side of his torso bled profusely. Erno stood up slowly, aimed his shot with care and fired twice.
They drank ice cold beer in some small bar at the edge of the Colombian jungle. Erno was reading a Mexican noir novel, The Mongol Plot. “Any good?”, Bautista asked, taking a sip from his beer while watching a soccer game between Argentina and Brazil on the bar’s old TV set – Argentina was leading 2 to 1.
“Very, but man is it depressive.”
“And ours is a happy job, eh boludo?”
“Point taken, but then I don’t plan on doing this forever. Do you?”, Erno put his book down and looked at Bautista. He was smoking one of his Cuban’s again, a thoughtful expression on his face.
Bautista kept looking at the TV screen, the game was now tied. “No one does this kind of work forever. You’re either lucky and call it quits early on, or you end up dead from bullet in your head.”. He took another sip from his beer and sighed, “Doesn’t really matter. We’re all going to Hell anyway after we die. Might as well live it up now. ¡Vamos Argentina, coño!”.
We all exit the stage one day, he thought, and resumed reading.
He approached Bautista, “Markovich is coming. He’ll be here in less than thirty. We’re getting out of here, Bau, ok?”. The Argentinian still had his eyes closed, a trickle of dried blood rested over the right seam of his lips.
“You’re getting out of here. Not me, Erno.”, Bautista slowly opened his eyes and stared at the Finn’s face. “It had to happen sooner or later. Bastards like me don’t get to die peacefully in our beds.”, he tried sitting up, but he moaned in pain and laid down again.
“Fuck you, old man. I’m getting you out of here first. You can die in a warm hospital bed then.”, the rain appeared to be subsiding.
“Kid, I was done years ago. Only stuck around to carry your sorry ass for a bit.”, he chuckled weakly.
“Don’t talk. Markovich will be here soon.”.
“Not soon enough. You’re a pragmatic man, so lets face the facts here.”, Bautista closed his eyes again.
Erno turned around and took a few steps back as he resumed his watch for in silence. Markovich would come. Minutes passed as the rain continued to lessen.
“I was part of a death squad under the Argentinian military junta in the 80s.”
Bautista spoke from behind him. Erno did not reply, but his ears perked up.
“I won’t make excuses. I was young and stupid. It was bad, really bad.”, Bautista’s voice trembled and Erno turned around to look at him. The Argentinian managed to prop himself on a sitting position, and was clumsily lightning a cigar he had fished out from some vest pocket.
“For when we returned from the job. Might as well smoke it up now.”, he took a long drag, held it in briefly and let the smoke trail above his head.
“I killed children in front of their parents, then killed the parents. Many times slowly. Entire families died at my hands. Most of them were only guilty of speaking out against the junta. I was a monster.”
The rain had stopped now and Erno could hear every word clearly.
“It’s pretty ironic. I was already dying before this job.”, Bautista took another drag of his cigar and smiled.
“A medical check up I had six months ago came back with me having tumor growths inside both my lungs. Malignant and inoperable. Doc gave me about a year to live.”
Bautista stared at the cigar in his hand for a moment as if considering something, then threw it out into the muddy forest ground. Smoke still trailed from it.
“Tastes like copper, mierda. The truth is I wanted to cash in big and enjoy the last months in leisure. That’s gone now.”
The sound of a distant helicopter made Erno stand up. The part of the forest were the vault was located was less dense, with a clearing a few meters next to it where an old helicopter platform laid with cracks and moss covering it.
“It doesn’t matter: on the job, whenever things got hot, you always had my six, partner. We’re all monsters if we dig deep enough. No clean consciences, remember?”
“A merc with a clean conscience, heh. That would have been something to see, right Erno?”
Erno didn’t reply. He slowly turned around when Bautista kept quiet. A grin was frozen on his face.
Markovich finally landed a few minutes later on the clearing. Erno walked over to the copilot’s seat and put on a pair of headphones to talk. The Slav called out, “Where’s Bautista?”
“Dead. Bullet got him.”
Markovich said nothing and just nodded. They went up in the air and began to make their way back to the village. The clouds had begun to break apart letting patches of sunlight pour in. The forest’s colors shone brightly under the light. Erno simply stared into the horizon.