This story may be completely understandable as a standalone tale, but as it take place as part of series events following what happens in the stories “Dividing by Zero,” “Ill Wind” and “Spreading the Love,” so I highly suggest you read those tales first to better understand Larry/Malady and Gustavo/Patient Zero. There will be at least one more story featuring Patient Zero, maybe even two or three more, following from these three chronologically.
Dividing his life into eras had become one of the key sanity-preserving hobbies of Larry Blanchard lately. The time before he had a largely scarred body and now the time after, where he looked like he’d been trampled by a stampede of vegetable peelers and steak knives and then trod on by the spurs of the cowboys trying to wrangle them. The time when he was a correctional officer and then the time he was a henchman for the world’s only known serial mass-murderer (and transhuman) Patient Zero.
Or, the time of his life he thought of B.C. (before coach) and now A.D. (automobile dominated).
There was a time when, if he needed to go a long distance, the challenge wasn’t how to get there fast but how to find the cheapest airfare. Now, as scarred as he was and considering that he was working for the most-wanted psycho in the world—well, certainly North America—he couldn’t just hop on a plane. His all-black ensemble, complete with sky mask and sunglasses, would pretty much advertise to those in the know that Malady was on board—and going in civilian mode would draw attention to him thanks to his ravaged visage, and thus still pose a risk.
And Gustavo Dobbins, otherwise known as Patient Zero, might be filthy rich from his career of killing off neighborhood, enclaves and sometimes whole towns for drug lords and other scum but he certainly wasn’t trying to blow his wealth on a private or chartered plane for his henchman.
So, lot of chauffeured car rides for Larry. Gustavo didn’t want him falling asleep at the wheel or arriving to carry out business affairs exhausted, and a good sedan or even limo was way cheaper than a plane or helicopter.
Today was yet another long ride, this time a rare one back from far north for a morally deficient land developer client in Canada who apparently wanted a small indigenous Indian tribe removed from the map.
Considering Gustavo’s nearest home these days was outside Mexico City, Malady—
No, I can’t let myself start calling myself that in my head; I have to be Malady for Patient Zero and in the grander scheme for my children’s future, but I have to remain who I was—who I am—for myself.
—Larry was ready for a long shower and a soft bed. Only minutes to go to get there, and as much as it strained his peace of mind, conscience and sanity to be in the same house as Patient Zero serving as henchman more intimately and directly than he had been for several days now, those were minutes of relief.
Soon, an end to my latest travel and maybe a rest for a bit before I either accompany Gustavo to lay waste to our latest target or carry a virus there myself that he’s created in his body and transferred to mine.
That sense of relief didn’t last long, though, when Larry noticed a man in costume clearly attending to Gustavo.
Clearly henching for him.
* * *
It took more than two hours of awkward silence and more awkward looks between Larry and the new guy before Gustavo addressed the elephant in the room. He’d clearly been relishing the many uncomfortable moments during that time.
“Malady,” Gustavo said to Larry, “meet Vector. I know it has been a great strain for you to be my henchman. I know you have had to make so many adjustments and compromises hunching for me. And all those lives you’ve helped me take cannot have made it easier. So I’ve employed new blood, Malady. So that you can go back to being Larry.”
“You never mentioned…” Larry began hesitantly, a tremor in his voice.
“…I wanted to surprise you,” Malady, said Gustavo, a glint in his eyes not unlike before he was getting ready to begin a job as Patient Zero. “You have done so much for me and been so patient. I want to reward that. And if you could devote yourself for the next few days before my next task to train Vector in your duties and my preferences, that would be lovely.”
The more the talk of henching and mass-murder assassination jobs went on, the less Larry saw Gustavo and the more he saw Patient Zero coming forth—the same man, of course, but the intensity and demeanor just slightly different in a way few others would notice. And that made Larry notice Patient Zero’s new henchman—his replacement—more closely. A costume so different from his own, in part because it didn’t need to hide scarring caused by carrying the virus that helped Patient Zero escape prison and imminent execution. A costume that was, in essence, a high-end suit with a biohazard symbol on one lapel of the coat, with a stylized lower-face mask that resembled a cross between a muzzle and a surgical mask.
“Sure,” Larry said finally. “Sure, boss, I can train him up for you. Um…thanks.”
* * *
That night, Larry awoke in a cold sweat with one thought: He’s gonna kill me.
What else could this be about? Why the sudden need for a new henchman?
Because you keep making it clear how unhappy you are to be one, dipshit. You’re not fully committed to your job.
True, he told himself. But then his thoughts went afield again. Patient Zero couldn’t let him go free as a potential witness.
But then again, if he wanted Larry dead, that would be easy. Patient Zero could concoct a wildly deadly virus with his transhuman powers, introduce it into Larry and then lock him in his bedroom for a few hours—a couple days at most—until he was dead. Or, more efficient yet, have one of the people in his employ simply shoot Larry in the back of the head. Larry hadn’t gotten any training; why would Gustavo have him train Vector unless he saw value in Larry’s experience and skills?
Gustavo was a sociopath to be sure. And creepy as hell. And both to the Nth degree when he was in full Patient Zero mode. But he wasn’t sadistic. He didn’t drag out pain and suffering for some deviant joy in playing with his prey like a cat with a mouse.
And besides, letting Larry go wasn’t, as far as risks went, all that risky for Patient Zero. Larry couldn’t afford to rat on Gustavo because then he’d draw attention to himself. If he did that, people would know Larry Blanchard was still alive. That would mean being named as a direct accessory in not only Patient Zero’s escape but the virus-initiated murders of hundreds of people in and near the prison. That would mean the almost-certain uncovering of the accounts into which Larry’s payment for the prison break had been deposited. That would mean his children never getting the security in adulthood that the money had been intended for. It would mean failing his children and losing to his ex-wife.
But if he doesn’t want to kill me, what? Or is there any kind of angle? Can I finally be free?
* * *
The next day was much less awkward. Gustavo was in good humor and Vector seemed to be taking Larry’s training in stride. The two henchman—current and future—even traded a couple jokes.
Gustavo took lunch with Vector alone and left Larry to his own devices. Not that it meant any lack of sustenance; Larry simply had the live-in housekeeper cook up a nice plate of tortillas, rice and carnitas. But he felt a little twinge of being out of the loop. No doubt the two would be talking details of the upcoming job.
But still, Larry reminded himself, this meant being free. No more carrying viruses inside his body to be a willing Typhoid Mary-like murderer. No more assaults and plotting and violations of women’s bodies and dozens or hundreds of deaths on his conscience.
Because he didn’t enjoy any of that. Didn’t enjoy the power—well, the sense of power; he wasn’t choosing these paths, after all.
It’s not like I sought out the pleasure of rape or killing. I mean, I don’t really like it. It’s not that much of a rush.
And those four words echoing in his head: I can be free.
* * *
Another fitful night of sleep. Another early-morning epiphany.
What would I be returning to?
Larry couldn’t re-enter his children’s lives. And a personal life? The way he looked, he’d never attract a woman worth having until he literally paid for her regular services or burned up the money meant for his kids to have a truly kept woman who knew how to pretend he wasn’t hideous.
He couldn’t live where he wanted. He’d have to hole up in backwater towns in Mexico and Central America, probably. He could do that comfortably enough for years without much denting the money meant for his kids, but it wouldn’t be as comfortable as his life now. And he’d have to be looking over his shoulder wondering if someone who was attached to one of Patient Zero’s targets or an enemy of one his clients might recognize and kill him.
Where would I go? What would I do? Who would care about me?
* * *
The next day, Vector was sitting in front of one of Gustavo’s computers while Larry ran him through some of the daily and weekly tasks of scheduling, procurement and the like.
Gustavo walked in, smiling at both of them.
“How goes the training, Larry,” Patient Zero asked him. “Is Vector coming along nicely? Are you looking forward to a normal life again?”
Normal? There could never be “normal” again.
“And Vector, are you looking forward to the job? So many things to show you.”
A future. Where is my future? What is my future?
“I’ll leave you two boys to it, then,” said Patient Zero. He smiled more broadly at Larry.
Larry pulled the Bowie knife that he kept on his belt. He plunged it deep. Deep into Vector’s throat. Blood sprayed across the computer monitor and keyboard. Splattered the desk. Wetted Larry’s black clothes, leaving them stick and shiny but, of course, the red nearly invisible against the black.
Larry plunged the knife again and again. Listened to Vector’s cries as they turned to gasps and as they turned to barely hitching breaths and then to low, tortured moans.
Malady kept stabbing when Vector wasn’t even making any sounds anymore. He did it two dozen more times before he stopped.
Before Malady looked into the eyes of Patient Zero. His only benefactor. His only ally. The only one who understood him. Who understood the Malady that had taken the place of Larry. The only one who understood Malady’s place.
“You don’t need a replacement, boss,” Malady said, with no tremor. “I’ve got you covered.”
Patient Zero regarded him calmly, intently for a few moments. Then he smiled again. That smile Malady had seen so often. One that might be called seductive if there were anything sexual or even the hint of it between the men.
“Very good, Malady. I’ll leave you to clean up the loose ends, then.”