Pinot’s War by Maggie Tiojakin
Now he’s at the foot of a hill, stuck in a wetland, searching for a house which has been vacant for years and is now used as an operational base by a group of notorious armed thugs. There are hostages inside the house.
Fatima, the agency’s executive secretary in charge of the mission’s intelligence feeds, continues to guide him. Turn left from the rendezvous point. Assume position at — north latitude and — west longitude and follow the direction of the footpath. Stop behind an abandoned warehouse. Get inside. Find the first-aid box. Grab the M-16. If there are flashlights around, get your hands on them. Beware of tripwires. Pinot runs across the winding path and minds his coordinates. Every few minutes, he stops to observe his surroundings. The swamp is loud with insects and through the trees he sees the abandoned warehouse. In the distance, the sun is about to set. He is losing the light. He goes inside the warehouse and gropes his way around the dusty cabinets and shelves.
He finds the first-aid box, the M-16. Two flashlights. He goes into an open field. He crouches and waits behind the tall grass and checks his wristwatch. It won’t be long now. He wishes Fatima would say something. Anything.
When day turns to night, he loses the light completely. Pinot rises to his feet and double-checks his equipment: a Glock-18, a recently acquired M-16, a Berretta 8000, a MAG-7, a C-4, a flashbang and a tactical mirror. Out in the open, the mirror has little use, so he shoves it back in his backpack and arms himself with the Glock-18 and the Berretta 8000. His friends would laugh at him for his choices, but he doesn’t care. Pinot prefers the handgun. Lighter, faster and easier to handle.
“I don’t need to tell you how important this mission is for us,” Fatima’s voice returns. “I want you to be extra careful.”
Pinot takes a few steps farther into the field, his shoes are slippery and thick with mud. He is in position: less than 20 meters away from the target. He inches closer. Ten, eight, five. He dons a pair of infra-red goggles to help him see in the dark.
“Remember,” says the woman. “Be extra careful. Keep the line open.”
Pinot shakes his head in mild disbelief. Any sane person would always use caution in these situations and to assume otherwise is downright mad. He is about to launch an assault upon a house of armed thugs by himself and rescue the hostages. What did she think he was going to do — storm in like an angry person and just shoot at anything that moves?
Anyway. He appreciates the attention. And he admits there were times when he wished she would’ve talked more to him: When he was sent to go after a team member who went rogue, or a fugitive known for his special skills in assembling explosives — Fatima’s voice was the only thing that kept him in check. Or now, as he waits for the perfect moment to...
“Damn it!” Pinot mutters under his breath. One of the guards spots him while combing the field with a spotlight. “Sial,” says Pinot. He quickly drops to his knees and begins to crawl. There’s mud all over him. The guard calls out to him, addressing him as an intruder. Pinot lies flat on his belly, holding his breath.
The guard sends out a word of warning to the others. More guards emerge from the house, well-armed with powerful short-range shotguns.
“They’re on to you,” says Fatima. “You think?” “Head to the west entrance now.” Pinot does as told, moving his elbows and knees as quickly as is humanly possible. According to the blueprint, the west entrance has less protection, even though it is not the perfect entry point into the building. He isn’t sure why. He imagines a pack of hyenas waiting for him behind the door. Or cobras. Or other beasts just as terrifying.
While the guards are busy searching for him elsewhere, Pinot makes his way toward the west entrance. He is surprised to find it completely defenseless. He takes out a short wire from inside his vest pocket and picks the lock. The door opens. His goggles do not detect any body heat around him. No hyenas. No cobras. No beasts.
“You’re in,” says Fatima. “This is the last time you will hear from me. From here on out, you’re on your own. Should you carry out this mission successfully, you will get that promotion you’ve been after. It is an honor to have served you in these last few missions, Commander —” “Wait.” “Good luck.” Pinot stops in his tracks for a moment. He lets the message sink in. Then he gets right down to business. He screws on the suppressors and points his guns to the left and right, arms outstretched.
He goes up the stairs toward a door on the second floor and hears two men having a conversation in muffled voices. He takes a step back and kicks the door open, then pulls his triggers. Both men quickly slump to the ground with temporal wounds. Clean shots. Pinot drags their bodies and hides them behind a pile of crates, each filled to the brim with firearms.
The lighting inside the house is minimal and some of the lights flicker in the semi-darkness. The paint on the wall is peeling, while other parts of the wall seem swollen from excessive heat. Pinot looks up and observes the ceiling. There’s a low electricity buzz emanating from the light fixtures. He hasn’t a lot of time. A hallway which leads to a number of rooms. The doors are sealed from the other side. Pinot picks the locks one after another and begins to shoot. He aims for the head, neck and chest. In his mind, he is a musician composing the soundtrack of a movie — full of dramatic tunes.
Even as bodies begin to fall like flies around him, Pinot isn’t finished. He arms himself with an M-16 and walks up another flight of stairs toward the third floor. More guards have been alerted of his presence. The music crescendos. A concerto is playing in his head. Bullets are raining down on him and Pinot uses up nearly all his ammo, aiming for instant kills.
One particular guard convulses while oozing bright red blood from a gaping wound to the neck.
Pinot finishes him with a few more shots to the head.
Pinot heads for the final room in the house, where the hostages are kept. He opens the door. There’s only one hostage.
“Please,” the hostage pleads with him. “Help me.” Pinot points his gun at the hostage’s head. “Help me.”
From the corner of his eye, Pinot catches a flitting shadow. He turns around: there’s no one there. He takes a deep breath. He presses the radio button on his chest. “Mission accomplished,” he whispers.
Perhaps Fatima is on the other end, listening. She always listens.
However, as soon as Pinot moves to untie the hostage, he sees the smile on the hostage’s face. Or maybe he is imagining the smile.
The hostage isn’t a hostage, after all.
Before he manages to reach for his gun, the hostage presses a cold metal against Pinot’s forehead.
Then, just as the hostage is about to pull the trigger, Pinot hears — playing inside his head — the final part of the music composition. Beautiful. Ironic. And sad.
*** His footsteps were heavy and weak as he walked across the linoleum floor, which had not been cleaned for days. He hunched forward at the cashier’s desk where a girl in a ponytail sat with her chin in her hands. She was twelve. The girl extended her hand toward Pinot, palm outstretched.
“That will be seventy-five thousand rupiah,” she said.
Pinot took out a pair of seventy-thousand rupiah bills from his back pocket. The only money he had left from the week’s school allowance.
“Keep the change,” he said. “Same time next week?” He nodded. “Same time next week.” Outside, the afternoon sun was bright and very warm. Pinot slipped his thumbs under the backpack straps which were pressing hard against his shoulders, heavy with school textbooks. It was a hot day, the sort that made him feel weak and uncomfortable as he walked the short distance from the internet cafe to his house. He could hear Fatima’s voice in his ears.
There was a strange flutter in his chest each time the voice came back to him; and it seized him like a jolt of electricity. At least, once a week he would let himself lie cold on the floor of the target house out in the open field, across the tall grass — dead from a gunshot wound to the head. Imaginary blood pooled around his dead body. Again and again. And again.
And that was fine. He didn’t mind it, at all.