The Hunt – Part 2 of SDCC 2016 Trilogy Exclusive

“The Hunt” – The Origin of Ben Johnson

“Extermination appointment is confirmed for the 1st.  Lafites at 12.” 

Ben Johnson smiled.  At last.  After all this time.  He looked back over the mess of code.  Encrypted in the programming language of a very popular app, one which had undergone update after update, his eyes fixated on the deciphered message, and he let out a contented sigh.  I knew there was something to it, he thought, realizing that the constant updates to the downloadable game would be a perfect way of spreading messages to those who knew where to look.  In the days of high-tech espionage, it was almost ingenious because it would be the last place anyone would suspect.

Ben almost laughed.  Technology made it a different world nowadays.  And now I have the key to the Syndicate’s network.  Ben had always wondered how the renowned assassin group was able to communicate undercover so freely.  The popular websites sites that hitmen and women used for wet work were taken down as quickly as they were put up, and even the deep clandestine ones were being slowly eradicated one by one.  Silk road, bitcoin, all the means for contacting and paying assassins on the Deep Web are having to go farther and father underground just to stand a chance.  The Deep Web was a matrix of encrypted websites and a free marketplace for specialists in dealing death, but somehow the Syndicate had never really made much of an appearance. Now I know why.  They have a much better system.  It had all started when Ben was scrolling some of the comments on one of his favorite apps, a hitman-centered download.  There were some user notes that seemed like thinly-veiled requests for service.  After one he flagged disappeared after an update, Ben’s interest was piqued.  When the process repeated the following week, Ben started digging.  It had taken some time, but he finally cracked the code.  And now I have the key, Ben thought staring at the screen, one hand running over the cold steel of a Reminton 45.  And now it’s time to see about that extermination appointment…

Ben hadn’t always grown up knowing he wanted to be an assassin, but when he was relentlessly teased in high school for his slightly overweight frame and braces, he’d started with Jiu-jitsu.  The technique was slow in coming, but Ben didn’t give up and one day it was like a light switch went on in his head, everything coming together.  From then on out, no one messed with him.  Still, it wasn’t until one fortuitous encounter that his life changed forever. Ben was coming home late from a college class, an education that he was starting to regret pursuing because his computer skills were far beyond those of his teachers, when he’d heard the scream.  It was a woman, and she was clearly in trouble.  A starving student on a budget, Ben lived in a rough area at the time, and as he rounded an alley he saw a man with a knife to a very frantic woman’s throat.  “Scream again and it’ll be the last thing you do,” the assailant had sneered.

Ben didn’t hesitate.  He rushed forward, diving for a double leg takedown.  The assailant never knew what hit him, Ben’s momentum knocking the man to the pavement in a perfect wrestling tackle.  The attacker slashed at him with the knife, but Ben was well trained, dodging the blow and forcing the arm to the side.  Gaining the upper hand, he rained down a hail of elbows to the man’s face.  Bloodied, the attacker rolled to his belly and Ben sank in a rear naked choke.  The attacker squirmed and squealed, but then finally went still.  The rage wouldn’t leave Ben, however, and he didn’t let go.  He kept squeezing, tighter and tighter.  It wasn’t until he felt the gentle touch of the woman he’d saved tapping his shoulder that Ben released the hold.  The attacker was long dead, and when the woman realized it, she just nodded stoically.  “Thank you,” she said, and looked about to turn.  Ben was standing at the time, but he remembered vividly how she turned and drove her high-heeled pump into the dead attacker’s temple with a soccer kick.  She said nothing else, merely turning and walking away.

In the aftermath, that same light switch that made everything come together with Jiu-Jitsu flicked on again in Ben’s head, and he realized it was a new awakening.  In that moment, he knew why college seemed so boring to him.  There was adventure in his blood.  The next few months he was on cloud nine, but then things started to return to mediocrity.  Finally, Ben dropped his unit load down to the bare minimum and picked up a job teaching Jiu-Jitsu, but nothing compared to what he felt that night.  And after several more months that seemed to lack any edge, any excitement, he realized he needed to make a change.  He explored making contact with some of the more prominent hitman groups on the web, but quickly concluded that linking up with any one of them was likely to lead him on a one-way trip to the electric chair.  At that point, he’d decided to go to the best of the best: The Syndicate.  The only problem was, the group was so good, there was no way he knew of to make contact.  It took him two years, a time where he began to wonder if the Syndicate was an invitation-only organization, before he finally figured out the secret of the app.

Lafitte’s here I come, Ben thought with a broad smile, tucking his gun into his waistband.

*          *          *

Lafitte’s “Blacksmith Shop” was a misnomer.  There were no forges, wrought iron or anvils.  There were no trained craftsman or women bending metal to make weapons of war.  While the building, built between 1722 and 1732, was reported at one time to be a smithy, it was more famous for being the oldest structure used as a bar in the United States and was currently a popular watering hole.  Situated on Bourbon Street and St. Philip’s in the French Quarter, the bar was named after Jean Lafitte, pirate and hero of the Battle of New Orleans, the engagement that ended the War of 1812 against the British.  Tonight however, it wouldn’t be a smithy or a bar, it would be the scene of a contract killing.

Ben had thought it all through.  He knew from the correspondence in the code that the extermination was slated for Lafitte’s at 12.  Since a daytime hit was highly unlikely, Ben assumed it would be night.  Likewise, killing someone in a popular and crowded bar, despite the place’s penchant for poor lighting, seemed like a surefire way of capture in this day an age of cell phone and security cameras.  As a result, Ben reasoned it would likely be a long-ranged hit, probably a sniper shot.  He knew poison was an option, but he’d scoured the code carefully, and there were no other clues.  That meant, unless he had missed something, the Syndicate’s assassin would have nothing else to go off of.  There was no way to identify who to poison.

No, it has to be a sniper shot.  As Ben had mulled over the possibilities, he became more and more certain, and the lack of identifying information was what drove it home.  The time was precise.  That meant it would not be someone leaving the bar.  Even if the person organizing the hit was inside drinking with his or her intended victim, there was no way to assure that that person would leave at 12 exactly.  That left the obvious.  The orchestrator had clearly told his or her intended target to meet at the bar at 12.  It’s the only logical answer.  Still, as the minutes ticked by and the witching hour grew nearer and nearer, Ben began to grow nervous.  There were plenty of people coming and going, but he didn’t see any sign on the rooftop where he’d determined the shot had to come from.  There were only a few possibilities of where a killer could get a direct bead on someone coming in, and only one with a clean escape route.  It has to be there, it just has to be.

As the minute hand reached five ‘till midnight, Ben began to sweat more from fear than the humid Louisiana night.  What if I did miss something?  It was a disconcerting thought.  His plan was to wait until the hit took place and then intercept the hitman, making contact and laying out his credentials.  Holding the Remington in his hand as he kept to the shadows in an alley nearby, Ben knew he was taking a risk.  Still, he’d backed up the code hacking software he’d used on a cloud with a deadman switch, one that would release it to anyone and everyone on the Deep Web and even to the media if he didn’t input a failsafe shutdown keyword by 1 AM.  It would be the first thing he would tell the assassin when he made contact.

Glancing down at his watch, Ben’s tremor of doubt began to return.  Only a few minutes left.  The sweat ran down his face in runnels.  Why am I not seeing anything?  The rooftop remained dark.  Another minute ticked by.  Ben exhaled deeply, a voice in his head telling him that he must have calculated wrong.  But that was when he saw it.  The giveaway was subtle, but the tiny flash of refracted light was all he needed to see to know he’d been right.  Bingo.  It was the reflection of a sniper scope.  Now all I have to do is wait.

Midnight struck and Ben saw one patron after another enter the bar.  It was troubling.  How do you mark which one?  To Ben, it felt almost as if he had his own finger on the trigger.  Midnight turned into a minute past and then another.  Is there some kind of secret Syndicate time differential I don’t know about? Ben wondered.  He hadn’t found it, but he didn’t know.  Only the glint of reflected light kept him from complete despair.  Five more minutes passed, and another five still, but there was no shot, no body dropping on the doorstep of Lafitte’s.  Ben would have given up all hope, but he’d seen the glimmer reappear twice in the ten minute span, so he knew the hitman was still on the roof.  What’s the delay?  He wondered if the confluence of more than one person entering at midnight had the Syndicate assassin calling HQ for further orders.  One thing Ben knew, though, he couldn’t blow his opportunity.  What if the orders are to terminate the mission and head out?  Ben couldn’t afford to take that risk and he steeled himself, knowing what he had to do.

Crossing the street, being careful to avoid looking like anything other than a late night reveler, Ben made his way to the entrance of the building where the contract killer was perched.  The shop was closed for the day, but he saw a fire escape in the alley running alongside the building.  Making his way over to it, Ben leapt up silently, grabbing onto the bottom rung of the low-hanging ladder.  Thankful for the darkness in the alley, Ben hoisted himself up.   Making his way slowly up the fire escape, wincing with each step as the whole metal structure seemed to creak, he climbed up one level and then the next.  As he reached the third, he peered over onto the roof.  Seeing a shadowy figure with a sniper rifle at the far end, Ben congratulated himself on being able to get the drop on the assassin.  Careful not to make a sound, he slowly crept onto the roof.

Cautiously advancing on the figure, Ben suddenly felt the world go out from under him.  One minute he was creeping forward, the next he was flying through the air, landing hard on the roof, a heavy weight atop him.  Realizing he’d been ambushed, and now having the assassin, a large and fit man, atop him, Ben let his instincts take over.  Shifting his hips and bridging out with his legs and pelvis, he attempted to put space between himself and the hitman.  He’d nearly freed himself when he felt the cold steel pressed against his temple.  “You’re good, Ben,” the voice said with genuine admiration, “but you’re in a weak position against a guy with a gun.”

Ben sputtered, unable to form words.  Finally he mustered, “I’ve cracked the code and if you kill me…”

At this the man laughed, “No one’s going to kill you, and while you’re good, blasting out info on the app isn’t going to take down our operation if that’s what you’re thinking.”  Ben’s eyes went wide.  “Let’s get you up and I’ll explain.”

The man stood up, and as he did, he extended one hand.  Ben took it.  “Sorry about the rough welcome,” he said once they were both vertical, “but first contact is always hard and we never know how someone will react.”

“First contact…?”  Ben’s mind couldn’t quite wrap itself around the concept.  Staring over the man’s shoulder at the figure with the sniper rifle, the assassin seemed to catch the glance.

“It’s a dummy, put up there as a distraction,” the assassin replied.

“But the extermination…12 o’clock…the message.”

The hitman stepped forward, and Ben was struck by his rugged good looks.  “The message was for you.”

“What?” Ben said, and then felt his stomach clinch.  “Oh no…” he mumbled, all the time thinking in his head, who could possibly want me dead?  He took a step back, and as he did, he felt his foot nearly fall off the edge.  There was nowhere to go.

“Wait, no,” the assassin said, seeming genuinely distressed, “that’s not what I meant, you’re not a mark.  Come here and I’ll explain everything.”

Ben took one weary step forward and then another, glad to be moving away from the precious drop to the alley below.  “I’m listening,” he said, voice unsteady.

“When I say it’s for you, I mean that we put together programs like that app to search for new recruits for the Syndicate.  We’re always on the lookout for people with interest, and skills.”  Ben exhaled as the man continued on.  “And ever since you discovered the code, and we in turn discovered you, we’ve been learning about you.  After talking it over, we decided that you’ll be a good addition to the squad.  That is what you want, isn’t it?”

Ben’s heart hammered in his chest.  It was like being told that he was going to be given a winning lottery ticket.  “Yes,” he said, and the enthusiasm was palpable.  “But I still don’t get it.”

“A lot of people want to join the Syndicate.  Some people discover the code, or other calling cards we’ve left in the past, and it’s only the ones we think are truly worthy and have potential we make contact with,” the man stepped forward, extending his hand once again, only this time for a shake, “name’s Dante, and welcome to the Syndicate.”

Ben took the proffered hand and shook it with enthusiasm.  It was only after an instant that a look of regret flashed in Ben’s eyes.  “What is it?” Dante asked.

“It’s just, I was so excited about this hit, I was hoping to get to see it go down.”

Dante laughed again.  “Don’t worry,” he said with a grin, “I have a hit all set up that I’m going on and I’m taking you with me.  You’ll get your taste of blood soon enough.”

“That’s what I was waiting to hear,” Ben said, eager to begin a new journey.

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