Lana raced down the stairs below me. Above me in a dark corridor lay bloody carnage. Even as I tackled the treacherous and dimly lit steps, I felt the dawning realisation I was leaving the safety and certainty of my previous life. Whatever it was that Lana had shown me, the job she had offered, the stories she was telling, I now had no real choice about my future. Whether it had been part of the plan to confront enemy agents, or just an unlucky happenstance, I was riding a fast moving river and could only go with the flow.
A loud bark flashed below me. Lana's gun had already spoken five times in the office corridor, each time finding its mark with deadly results. I stopped for a moment and called out her name, but her footsteps continued uninterrupted in a frantic dash for the lobby. I cursed and began running even faster down the stairs.
On the next landing, a huddled form sprawled across the floor. Breaking my stride, I tried to jump over the body, but a strong hand grabbed and twisted my ankle. Pain shot up my leg as I fell to the ground. I tried to kick the hand away, but the grip grew tighter. Kicking again, I rolled over to see my assailant watching me with glittering eyes. He growled and began to sit up, the faint light now falling on his face. Blood flowed freely from his mouth and nose, as well as a prominent stain on his chest. I pointed my gun unsteadily at him, but his face twisted into a grin. He gave me a sharp and powerful tug, sending my first shot into the wall behind him. The second shot clipped his shoulder, but he laughed at me with murderous glee. As he leaned forward and bared his teeth, his blood dripped warmly on my trouser leg. The noise he made wasn't human.
I fired again, and then once more. Both shots hit him in the shoulder, but he crawled closer without flinching, a maniacal grin on his face. I cried out and pulled the trigger twice more, the final shot clipping his head and jerking it backwards. Blood sprayed from his mouth on my hands and face, and a sickly smell settled around me. The only sound was my breathing. I pulled my leg free and pulled the trigger again. The gun clicked uselessly, but my assailant didn't move either.
Getting to my feet was easy, but limping down the stairs became a battle with pain. I shouted every obscenity I knew until I reached the front door and stumbled into the street. I looked both ways, seeing a dark coloured saloon parked at the end of the alley. My stomach leaped, knowing that I was out of bullets and could barely walk. I began to turn away when Lana's voice cut through the late night mist. She stood motionless in the shadows near the car, an arm resting lightly on its open door.
I walked as quickly as I could towards the car. Behind me, I thought I heard the sound of breaking glass, but dared not turn around. Ahead of me, Lana stepped away from the car and stood still. Raising her gun carefully, she aimed it right at me and fired twice. Two loud whines streaked past my head to meet a shriek of pain behind me. Fear overcame the agony of my twisted ankle, and I forced myself into a slow run. By the time I reached the car, I was drenched in sweat and my body was quivering with fatigue.
Lana gave me a quiet nod and stepped into the back of the car, pulling the front passenger seat back for me to get in. I hesitated for a moment, looking into the black interior of the car, but another murderous cry rose behind me.
I jumped into the car and slammed the door shut.
The car sped away, pushing me hard into the passenger seat. The driver next to me was impassive, steering with cool precision through the deserted streets and glancing occasionally in the mirror.
'Those men, those agents,' I coughed. 'Something about them wasn't right.' I looked down at my trembling hands. 'My gun had no effect,' I added breathlessly. 'If it wasn't for you, Lana.'
'I'm sorry you had to go through that, Mr Ashley,' said a man's voice behind me. It was cultured and well bred, with a tone well used to command. 'I'm sorry that you have become involved. As Miss Golding will have explained, we just needed you to find someone for us, but now it seems the Fascists have taken a distinct dislike to you.'
I tried to turn towards the voice, but a strong hand gripped my right shoulder.
'I would advise you not to turn around, Mr Ashley.' The man's voice had taken on a harsher tone.'
I stiffened and kept my eyes straight ahead.
'Don't worry, this isn't what Miss Golding might colourfully call a stick up, but in my business, discretion is everything.'
'Who are you?' I gasped between breaths.
'My name is Templeton,' said the man in clipped tones. 'It was I who arranged your recent assignment, and for Miss Golding here to visit you today. You have unique talents, Mr Ashley, valuable skills that we need. Sadly, by employing those talents, I have drawn you into something much deeper and more terrible than you can imagine.'
I shivered. 'What are you doing here, what's your interest?'
'Mr Templeton is the head of our London bureau,' said Lana brightly.
'What she means is that I run MIRANDA HQ.' Templeton's voice became strained with suppressed humour. 'Miss Golding and her fellow Americans seem to think that by providing funding for our organisation, they're now running the show. I can assure you that MIRANDA is a wholly British invention, but as usual, our American friends arrived late for the party.'
I took another deep breath and wiped my brow. 'I saw that name on Lana's card. What is MIRANDA?'
There was an uneasy silence.
'There's time enough later for questions, Mr Ashley,' said Templeton firmly. 'First, we need to get you to a place of safety.'
I nodded and loosened my shirt collar. 'I hope they serve drinks there, Templeton. l hope they serve large ones, because I need one right now.'
'Mr Ashley,' said Lana softly in my ear, suddenly very close behind me. "I'm very sorry about this.'
I felt a sharp pain in my neck, and fell instantly into darkness.
Cinema 4D, Poser, and Photoshop.