“Go on, Ms. Curry. Please load and fire the weapon at the target downrange.” Mr. Klint held out a pair of shooter’s earplugs, which the “applicant” took with a trembling hand.

Curry desperately hoped that her hosts couldn’t see the sweat beginning to bead along her upper lip, the hairs on her forearms prickling alarmedly. She was in over her head, and those kindly and dapper assassins had told her not minutes ago that failing the test would lead to her immediate death.

“Why, whatever is the matter, Ms. Curry?” said Mr. Wyd with exceptional politeness. “Would you prefer a different weapon, or a different load? The Imanishi 9 is our standard pistol…”

“…but you could use a Moses Model 19…” added Mr. Klint.

“…or a Grünwald KPK if that is your preference,” finished Mr. Wyd.

“I…would prefer the Grünwald,” said Curry. She hoped that the Germans’ reputation for engineering would mean that such a gun would be easier to use for someone who’d never fired one in her life, but any hope of successfully bluffing her way into the organization and getting an idea of where they’d taken Chris seemed to be swiftly fading.

“Very well!” Mr. Wyd swapped out the gun with blistering speed; Curry tried to see how he unloaded the Imanishi and popped a bullet from the top part of the gun by pulling it back, but the master assassin’s hands were a blur.”

“Would you prefer a full metal jacket load, or hollow-point?” asked Mr. Klint, holding up two magazines.

“We’ve depleted uranium, sabot, and ratshot as well,” chimed Mr. Wyd, “but I’m sure you’ll agree that they are nor suitable for such a demonstration.”

“Of…of course…” stammered Curry. “I’ll take the hollow-point.”

The assassin chose one of the magazines–not the one Curry thought she’d chosen, but he didn’t seem to notice–and, to her great relief, loaded it for her and made it ready to fire. With trembling hands, she took aim.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“The thing is, we get a lot of wannabes in this business,” said Mr. Klint

“Posers,” added Mr. Wyd.

“Impostors.”

“Frauds.”

“Charlatans. So we have a little test we like to run applicant through.” Mr. Klint gestured toward the range. “A quick shooting demonstration.”

Curry felt hot panic sweat begin to prickle along her neck. “I beg your pardon?”

“A true mercenary knows how to handle a weapon properly, able to hit a target and reload without incident,” said Mr. Wyd. “So we have a selection of weapons for you to shoot while we look on.”

“Nothing to it,” added Mr. Klint. “Except when something goes wrong, of course. Remember when that poor fool picked up the left-handed Steyr AUG and was burned by hot ejecting brass across his face?”

“Or the Dirty Harry who tried firing a .44 Dan Wesson with one hand and wound up with the hammer spur buried in the web of his hand?” said Mr. Wyd.

“Or the so-called ‘sniper’ who got a half-moon cut from the scope of his own rifle being driven into his face?”

“Or the fool who hit the slide release when he meant for the mag release?”

“What happens when there’s an…error…like that?” Curry asked, trying her best to keep up her facade and not show an ounce of panic.

“Well, most of the time we’ll simply have to kill them on the spot,” said Mr. Wyd. “Knowing what they do about our operation…it wouldn’t be prudent to do otherwise. Not always, though.”

Mr. Klint hit a switch on the range, raising the bulletproof shutters to reveal a man in fatigues handing by meathooks and groaning softly. “Sometimes we can still find a good use for them. Don’t worry; we’re not heartless. His next of kin will get his full fee.”

Easy money.

An artillery shell slammed into one of the adobe buildings across the compound. The defenders within, who had been returning fire with small arms, went out as a fine mist.

Easy money. That’s what Campbell had said.

The first line of skirmishers arrived, disembarking from a BMP. Most of them were killed or wounded, but there was far less, and far less accurate, fire from the rebel positions than there had been moments ago.

Easy money. A tottering autocratic regime, enthusiastic rebels rising up all over the country. Only a few firefights and then cash and poontang from grateful locals.

A second BMP–or, rather, a Chinese-made copy bought and paid for not three weeks ago–disgorged its squad. Bull raked them with heavy machine gun fire, but these weren’t the militia they’d fought earlier. They were disciplined, organized, took cover, laid suppressing fire. Polymer helmets, gas masks, and Chinese kevlar.

Easy money.

Sarcosi examined the equipment, lined up and labeled on a table. “Amateurish. You would think that someone with the audacity to steal from me would be better armed and trained.”

“Tell us, for the class, what it is that makes this man an amateur,” Hodgkin said. “Enlighten them while showing that you are not to be trifled with.”

Sarcosi hefted the mercenary’s pistol, a Desert Eagle. “Take this sidearm. A ridiculous toy, nearly three kilograms heavy when fully loaded. It is loud, it cannot be concealed properly, and cannot be drawn quickly. Won’t take a proper suppressor. Fires heavy, bulky rifle ammunition.”

The students nodded murmuring among themselves.

“Quite right,” Hodgkin said. “This man has forgotten our maxim: the right tool for the right job. A pistol should be small, easily concealed, and used as a backup weapon or close-in wetwork tool only. Anything else ought to be done with a proper rifle from a distance.”

“This man has evidently seen too many Hollywood movies, where men carry this weapon because it looks impressive,” Sarcosi added. “The appearance of a weapon is irrelevent. Anti-material rifles are ugly to a one but nothing is better suited to taking out a target in an armored and bombproof limousine. Furthermore, by allowing himself to be influenced by fantasy, this man has revealed himself to be an amateur who only deludes himself into thinking he’s a professional.”

“You heard the man,” Hodgkin said to the students. “Release this amateur into the live-fire range.”

Benedict was seated on an ammo crate, feet up. The tropical sun reflected off his Ray-Bans and the foil highlights on the Metallica shirt that peeked out from under his body armor.

“I don’t get it. The sunglasses, the t-shirt, the sneakers,” Cameron said. “You’re a professional. Why don’t you dress like one?”

“Does it really matter what I wear as long as they’re dead?” said Benedict. Seeing that wasn’t going to satisfy Cameron, he continued. “There are exactly two kinds of fighters out there. Those that’re intimidated by a uniform, and those that aren’t.”

“I…don’t follow.” Cameron said.

“I’m not here to intimidate anyone. You want to pay me for intimidation, fine. I’ll pour myself into a uniform, but it won’t come cheap. Otherwise, it’s better for my peace of mind and your bottom line if you let me dress however I please.” The sneer on Benedict’s face said that he’d given that speech before, and enjoyed it.

Cameron swallowed. “Point taken.”

“You think Lassiter’s out there wearing some itchy uniform instead of fighting comfortably?” Benedict said. He picked up a nearby magazine and began filling it with 9mm rounds. “Not bloody likely.”