Léon opened his eyes in the darkness.
Something had stirred in the darkness of his apartment. He lay perfectly still, breathing slow and steady, casting his eyes around the room behind his dark glasses.
He took in the small space slowly, meticulously; the water stain on the ceiling in the corner by the bathroom, the murphy bed folded up into its spot in the wall, a dresser blocking it from falling down on its defective hinges, the soft plip plip of water in the leaky kitchen sink, a thousand other subtle details he had memorized over his fifteen years of living here.
He spoke into the shadows.
"You got my gun away. I'm impressed; not many that could sneak up on me, let alone take my gun away."
His voice was rusty with disuse; he hadn't spoken to anyone in over a month.
From the darkness, a rustle. A flick of a lighter and then a spark, a dim circle of flame to a cigarette. The intruder sat casually in Léon's only other chair, his gun trained on Léon's chest, Léon's own gun sitting in the man's lap.
"A Beretta 92FS. Impressive. Custom job, AL-GI-MEC compensators. fitted for optional silencers. Doesn't do you a whole lot of good to have one of these things if you're just going to let me pick it up, though."
Léon shrugged slightly, watching the man carefully for any signs of nervousness. The gun never wavered a centimeter.
"Yeah, well, I'm not as young as I used t'be," he said calmly. The other man chuckled slightly at that.
"None of us are.
"So tell me, Léon, what did you do to end up in my folder? Normally I don't talk to the subjects; it makes my job harder. You're special, though. Usually I get a folder a foot thick, photos, documents, research on all types of things, sleeping patterns, food allergies… but I got nothin' with you, man. A folder, a photo, a name."
Léon shrugged again.
"Not for you. If you're gon' shoot me, shoot me and get it over with."
The other man took a drag on his cigarette, the ember lighting up his boyish features. Black hair, smooth forehead, nondescript black suit, shirt and tie.
"Don't rush me, please. I'm not here to hurt you, Léon. My dossier told me where you were, but it also told me not to shoot you."
Léon sat forward in his chair. The younger man was instantly on his feet, the gun on Léon's face.
"Don't. I'm not here to shoot you."
"Well then maybe you shouldn't have told me that," Léon said, standing and walking forward.
He crossed the three feet of space between them until the gun touched his throat. The younger man, to his credit, didn't flinch, even though Léon towered over him by a foot.
"I came to deliver a message, Léon. Just let me deliver it and I'll go. Don't make this into something I have to explain to someone tomorrow."
Léon studied the younger man's face intently.
After a moment, he spoke.
"I came here to give you two things: a message and a gift. The message is this: You're all out of tricks and you're all out of friends. They've got her and they're coming for you soon."
"And the gift?"
The younger man reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a small jewelry box. He passed it over to Léon and lowered his gun.
"My job's done here. I'm going to go and y—"
His sentence was cut off as Léon's gun slipped past his teeth. He gagged on the cold steel and Léon cocked the trigger.
"It is a nice gun. It came in a pair. Sit down."
The man sat.
Léon sat back down in his own chair and turned the small table lamp next to him on, casting a watery yellow light on the man's features.
"Before I open the box, is there something in here that's gon' make me kill you?"
"I'm not paid enough to care and I'm paid well enough to not want to."
Léon stared in silence for a moment before speaking again.
"I know you."
"You probably do. I got blacklisted about twenty years ago. Every spook and cleaner was out for me for a while. Took me a couple of years to clear that business up."
"Blank. You're Blank."
"Why are you takin' jobs on me, Blank?"
"Well, for starters I don't know you, so if you're supposed to have some kind of reputation I'm supposed to be afraid of, I don't know about it. Other than that, the money was good to deliver a message."
"You check this thing for bombs?" he asked, gesturing to the small box.
"No, but the amount of explosive you could fit in one of those things would probably only take you apart from the torso up."
"Who hired you, Blank?"
"I don't talk directly to the clients anymore. That cost me a good secretary ten years ago. The woman could make a mean chicken soup."
The two men stared at each other. The faint sounds of traffic and rain drifted through the open window Blank had crawled through.
Blank's eyes opened wide.
"Bullshit. He died. Pretty spectacularly, if I remember correctly. Took a chunk of downtown New York with him."
Léon put the jewelry box on the end table and pulled down his shirt collar to show Blank the mass of scar tissue on the side of his neck.
"I took a hit trying to make it out from a safehouse. DEA man. He snuck up on me, shot me in the back of the head. I blew him up."
Blank sat back and took a deep drag on his cigarette. Léon frowned. "Put that out. I don't like the smoke."
Blank stubbed the cigarette out and put the butt in his pocket. "So you just blew up a fed and then, what, teleported yourself out of there?"
Léon frowned. "Tele…? Sorry, my English isn't so great."
"Sorry. Bugged out. Disappeared."
"I shot him in the chest and blew up the tunnel to cover it up. I was in SWAT gear. Walked right out after I shot him."
"And, what, you've just been squatting here for the last twenty years, man? Twenty years. No one sits in one spot for twenty years."
"I haven't. I walk to the grocery for milk every now and then."
Blank chuckled. "Cute. So that's it, then. You just sit here and drink milk in the dark?"
"Sometimes I shoot clumsy burglars."
"Two for two. If you don't mind, I'm going to be going now. Not to be rude, but you kind of creep me out, man."
Léon gestured to the door and Blank stood. "Thanks. I can't get through windows as easily as I used to."
As the younger man stepped out into the hallway, Léon spoke up a final time.
"This is what happens to all of us, Blank. One day we mess up and someone comes for us. Remember."
Blank lit a fresh cigarette and checked the hallway.
"It's not me… it's not personal. And Léon? Sleep with one eye open. Didn't anyone ever tell you it's bad for your health to sleep in a chair?"
Léon stiffened slightly.
"Someone did a long time ago."
Blank closed the door softly.
Léon stared at the jewelry box in silence for hours, until the sun came up. The bright orange rays, always so vivid through the light haze hanging over the city, played slowly across his ancient carpet and up the wall. Finally, he picked up the box and opened it.
Inside was a small leaf.
Léon picked it up and turned it over in his fingers. It was dried and starting to turn brown at the tips, but he recognized it, even though he hadn't seen the plant in twenty years.
Mathilda was in trouble.