Three days earlier.
It was an oddly warm afternoon in March, and Gun was visiting a deserted office park in a second-rate suburb of Cleveland to see a man about a job. He drove a rental car to the meeting, a blue Civic. Not at all his natural preference, but for half a million dollars he was willing to concede to the guidelines in the contact information. Hence the placid rental car. Hence the ill-fitting suit that he had purchased that morning from a dingy cinder block thrift shop.
Hence the lack of a weapon, although this last requirement suited him fine. Gun had always been nervous around weapons. (He was well aware of the irony.)
656 Efficiency Court, a squat box of tan brick, overlooked a shallow, algae-choked retention pond. A swan seated on one of its few clear patches of water glared at Gun as he knocked the prescribed twelve times on the door. A buzzer sounded, and the door gave way.
Except for a maroon corrugated carpet, a gunmetal desk, the man seated behind the desk, and a cheap vacuum cleaner slumped in a corner, the small room was empty. There was no illumination but for the little sunlight that made it through the window blinds, so the man was difficult to make out, though Gun did get an impression of watery eyes and a receding hairline.
"Mister Reagan," the man said.
There were no empty chairs, so Gun imitated the vacuum and leaned against the wall. "Call me 'Gun,'" he said, "And I'll call you whatever you like in return."
"For the purposes of our business, Reagan, you'll know me as Bates."
"I said it's 'Gun.' Just the last syllable. Don't you of all people understand why a man would be sensitive about his name, 'Mister Bates?'"
"I'm not looking for a sensitive man, Reagan." Bates' voice didn't change, but the darkness around his face shifted in a way that might have indicated an unfriendly smile. "It's sensitive business I have, but I'll require an unsentimental man to carry it out."
"You'll have him. If you'll pay him."
"You've already been paid. As soon as you entered the office park, I contacted Messieurs Carpacci and Bannon and made good certain gambling monies that you owed them. In return, they will no longer pass information to the police about your activities and whereabouts. I'd imagine that it's hard enough being a fugitive from justice without the Midwestern underworld informing on you."
"You're kidding." Gun wasn't easily surprised, but he was happy to meet this revelation half way.
"No joke." Bates was definitely smiling now. "And that's just a little honorarium to get you in the right mood. Once you've finished the job, you'll receive five hundred thousand dollars - pure profit."
"The 'job,' the 'business'- what exactly do you have in mind?" Gun launched this casually, but he was conscious of the sweat lining his poorly fitted collar. The little drama with the gambling debt was more a demonstration of power than a down payment. Gun was in bed with Bates now, and if he tried to get out before the man had his way with him...
"If you're as good at improvisational deceit as I hear you are, you'll find this easy. There's a certain religious cult called the Ark of the Fourteenth Apostle - you'll not have heard of them - that has been experimenting with a combination of stem cell manipulation and nanotechnology. I understand that they intend to remake their doctrinal leader into the Messiah via the kiss of Science. Regardless of how feasible that plan may be, their recent research has borne very interesting fruit. I want you, in a manner of speaking, to steal into their orchard and pluck that fruit for me. Is that clear?"
"Not really. If you want their research notes, you'll need a hacker, not a burglar."
"I don't want the notes. I want the thing itself, the substance. Bring me a vial, flask, or tube of their formula. If you're unable to carry it out in glass, then ingest it and bring it to me in your flesh."
Gun glanced towards the door. "I'm not really an ingesting kind of guy."
"It would be harmless. The formula in its current form is inert, perfectly safe. Unless, of course, you're allergic to stigmata." Bates emitted a thin laugh that made Gun think of the swan outside. "A joke, Gun. You're free to turn me down. But don't you want six hundred grand? I think you do."
God help him, he did, and he shook Bates' hand. Bates had a very weak grip. It was almost a child's handshake.
Three days earlier.