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Joel Peterson’s ears rang insistently as he walked down the long hallway - his footsteps echoing loudly off of the tiled floors - although neither sounds managed to drown out the utter noise that was coming from the speakers installed above him.
While the so-called “music” – yet another beyond-overplayed song by pop-sensation Taylor Swift - infuriated the young man to no end, the tiresome songs that seemed to resonate inside his bones the farther he strayed from his office were beginning to act as a repetitive soundtrack to Peterson’s grim quest.
That quest being to shut down John FM 86.5 radio station.
That quest being to turn off the music.
At any cost.
A ravenous smile clung to Peterson’s ashen face as he dreamed of the sweet silence that would follow his outrageous act. A sweet silence that he knew - even as he roamed the hallways of the enormous office building of which he had committed to memory – would only be a temporary bliss before he was dragged away by law enforcement, most likely sentenced to life in prison for the first-degree murder of Rupert Stein.
It’ll all be worth it, he reminded himself, swerving to the right to avoid the armed guard mindlessly pacing to his left, I will be remembered as the man who killed the nefarious Rupert Stein.
Ah, Rupert Stein: the cruel businessman who started this madness. This madness being the gradual brainwashing of the entire nation through the monotonous garbage that was played by John FM 86.5 radio station 24/7, three-hundred and sixty-five days a year. Anytime one would unsuspectingly tune into their radio station on their way to work or on their drive back home, they wouldn’t realize that they were being slowly hypnotized by Rupert Stein and his multi-billion dollar corporation.
As to what Stein planned to hypnotize his innocent listeners to do once they were all under his unyielding grip still remained a mystery.
Peterson hoped to God that Stein wouldn’t be around long enough for his sinister plans to come to fruition.
Hence his divine mission to infiltrate the John FM building by pretending to be another one of Stein’s puppets. Not only did his meticulously-crafted plan allow him to learn the ins and outs of the building – security guard posts, what hallways would be free of guards at what times of each day, when and where Stein would present himself – in the span of a mere five months, he was also able to obtain invaluable information about Stein’s business, such as its origins as a radio station that “played anything” before it ultimately transformed into the repetitious drivel that it was known for today as well as bits and pieces of Stein’s master plan, some of which had already begun to snap together in Peterson’s mind, causing him to feel the need to hasten his plans as he moved the date of Stein’s assassination to April 20th.
Peterson’s heart beat loudly in his chest as he hastily flattened himself against a white wall to avoid an unexpected guard, his body thrumming with anticipation and nerves. He knew he couldn’t afford to succumb to the ever-growing desire to turn in his resignation and high-tail it out of this madhouse, but he still couldn’t help but feel panicked as he turned every corner, walked down every hallway and spotted any flash of silver from the sentries’ uniform, including his own.
While the clever idea to pose as one of the many night-watchmen for that evening seemed to be working well in concealing his true intentions, Peterson proceeded with caution as he knew that his deliberate gait and the knowing look in his sober eyes would be a dead-giveaway that he was indeed not one of Stein’s zombies.
And he never would be, thanks to his apparent immunity to Stein’s mind-numbing tracks - yet another reason Peterson felt it was his God-given duty to rid the world of Rupert Stein once and for all.
Or die trying to, he thought to himself, walking even faster as he checked his large-face watch: 5:55 PM. Stein was in town for a corporate meeting to supposedly discuss matters of funding (although Peterson believed it was really to outline the next phases of his despicable plan) and, while the assembly had already disbanded at 5:30 PM sharp, Peterson knew that, whenever Stein attended these bi-weekly seminars, he always brought a packed dinner with him that he proceeded to indulge in for approximately thirty minutes, taking his time inside his locked and guarded office where he seemed to be the most at-ease.
His office also happened to be the radio station’s main control room where each and every trashy song was transmitted to the tall, iconic radio tower at the very top of the John FM building.
The convenient placement of the head of the business inside the head control room made Peterson’s own plans that much easier to go through with as he made a left turn in what he recalled to be one of the last hallways that led to Stein’s office.
The young man felt for the baton meticulously strapped to his belt, his fingers tingling as they touched the cool metal of the blunt object that Peterson planned to use to end Stein’s life with. If it were up to him, he would’ve preferred to perform the deed with his pistol, but the weapon was unfortunately barred entry from the building the second he stepped foot inside John FM headquarters months ago and committed himself to this insane ploy.
Insanity is relative, Peterson thought to himself fondly, quoting Ray Bradbury - one of his favorite authors of all time, it depends on who has who locked in what cage…
The proverb felt fitting for the situation the young man now faced.
Finally, after over twenty minutes of harried speed-walking, paranoid glances every-which-way and insistent doubts, Peterson stood breathlessly at the foot of Stein’s surprisingly small office door. While the size of the steel door didn’t accurately scream of the evils that lurked beyond its metal gate, Peterson still felt in awe of the brink that he was about to cross, the sin he was about to commit in the name of humankind.
And it all started with the greedy, middle-aged business man who would soon find himself a sitting duck inside his supposed safe-haven.
Supposed safe-haven, the phrase struck a chord in the back of Peterson’s mind, causing his eyebrows to scrunch together in confusion as his calloused hand stopped mid-way from pulling the improvised weapon from his backside belt loop.
Then, it hit him.
Where are Stein’s armed guards?
The wind was abruptly knocked out of him as a pair of large muscles wrapped themselves around Peterson’s torso. Despite this, the jarring tackle only delayed the young man by a fraction of a second before the shock of the moment dissipated and Peterson was already wriggling his arms free from the other person’s iron grip. The young man grunted in unison with his attacker as he stumbled backward, kicking the tackler in the forehead with the tip of his boot in the process.
Peterson only got a glimpse of silver-on-silver and the mad look in the other man’s eyes before he was wrestled to the ground once more, this time his face being smothered underneath his aggressor’s barreled chest.
Although Peterson’s senses were muffled, he could still make out the faint aroma of cologne coming off of his assailant’s chest as well as the ironic soundtrack to Peterson’s pathetic attempt at fighting back – this being “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran.
The young man didn’t know if he should laugh or cry out in despair.
Before his mind could even acknowledge this information, however, Peterson suddenly found the ability to breathe fresh - albeit filtered – air once more as his attacker lifted himself off of the young man, startling Peterson but not hindering his ability to speak:
“What the hell are you doing!?” he shouted at the man above him, unsure if he was referring to the act of attacking him or the act of letting him go.
Despite his previous act of mercy, the other man proceeded to hoist Peterson up by the front of his silver uniform and back him into the farthest corner of the white hallway before speaking in a surprisingly composed tone of voice, “I could ask you the same question, young man.”
Peterson was baffled, not only by the strange statement but by the fact that this man could answer him at all, “What do you mean? How are you sober? Who are you?” he asked in a strained voice.
At these questions, a cloud of aggravation passed over the other man’s face as his thick eyebrows furrowed together and his eyes began to turn bloodshot-red, yet his voice remained relatively leveled, despite the fact he now spoke through gritted teeth, “Never mind how I am awake and speaking to you now,” he said slowly, as if addressing a child, “The name’s Garraway and I must say you are completely in over your head, kid.”
Garraway’s patronizing tone of voice combined with the way he referred to Peterson as kid struck a nerve in the younger man as he had an unwelcome flashback to a different time.
A time of red eyes and red noses opposite of red bruises and red scars.
A time of condescending lectures, demeaning punishments and scowls every-which-way.
A time of hatred, fear and the suffocating feeling of being trapped, trapped, trapped.
These unwanted emotions filled Peterson with fury as he spat back at Garraway, “Kid? Just who do you think you are? I’ll have you know that I am about to save this country from certain destruction!”
Peterson became so momentarily caught up in his own glorious schemes that he didn’t notice the moment that Garraway’s anger boiled over until he was flat on his back with warm blood trickling down his chin.
Garraway’s chest heaved as he stood over Peterson’s body and pointed a trembling, accusatory finger at the young man, shouting, “And I’ll have you know that this situation is more complicated than you know and will ever know! Get out while you still can and let us professionals take care of everything.”
Professionals? Situation? What was this guy going on about? Peterson wondered to himself dimly, wistfully dreaming of only a few moments ago when he had one clear, simple goal in mind: assassinate Rupert Stein.
Now he had to deal with this recluse too.
“Is that a threat?” he huffed, feeling an odd urge to smile at the sheer gall of his attacker.
Instead of playing along and answering him, however, Garraway simply yanked Peterson to his feet, pulled the young man’s arms behind his back and reached for something in his back pocket, grumbling, “This is for your own good.”
Peterson’s heart leapt to his throat as he assumed the worst. Immediately, he began to hysterically fling himself left and right before being reminded with a jolt of the concealed baton in the back of his weapons belt.
Garraway seemed to notice the shine of the metallic object at the same time as Peterson as he growled, “Hey!”
However, before he could grab the improvised weapon with his occupied hand, Peterson had already pulled the truncheon free of its belt loop.
Shock overcame Garraway as he momentarily loosened his grasp on the now-armed man, giving Peterson the upper-hand as he pulled completely free of the lunatic’s clutches, blindly swinging the club in the direction of his attacker.
Peterson backed himself into a corner and watched the older man crumble to the ground with a loud thump!
Good thing Stein’s office is soundproof, he thought to himself, suppressing the peculiar urge to giggle.
Peterson kicked his former attacker in the ribs – both out of frustration and satisfaction – and a pair of silver handcuffs flew out of the unconscious man’s back pocket.
He wasn’t going to kill me, the thought slithered its way into Peterson’s mind, causing him to feel both guilty and confused: Peterson never set out to harm anyone other than Rupert Stein himself when he took on the burden of this noble quest and he couldn’t help but feel ashamed at how this one hurdle had caused Peterson to lose control.
And yet, he also couldn’t help but question the other man’s intentions: How did he get to be in the ranks of Stein when he was self-aware this whole time? What was the point of attacking me, if not to kill me?
Peterson could only think of one semi-logical answer in that moment: Garraway must have had the same goal as Peterson in mind and wanted all the glory to himself.
Peterson bent down towards Garraway and tsked-tsked him, muttering, “We could’ve been allies, my friend.”
The words tasted bitter and wrong in Peterson’s mouth, giving him an inkling that something about this conclusion was off, but before his mind could branch out into different scenarios, Peterson stood up and shook his head, telling himself, I must stay focused on my mission.
And, before he could even begin to second-guess himself once more, he tightened his sweaty grip on the club in his hand and grimly made his way towards the steel door.
Peterson fumbled in his back pocket for the spare key that he had stolen from an unknowing sentry hours earlier and jammed the key into the complex lock, swinging the door open into the unknown where the fates of both Stein and the young man himself would be sealed forever.
“Goddamnit,” Rupert Stein grumbled under his breath as he stared helplessly at yet another error message that flashed insistently in front of the main audio console of the John FM radio studio, cursing himself for developing a software so sophisticated that even he could not break through its full-proof firewall in order to transmit just a square mile of a wider signal.
We only need a few more, he reminded himself for the hundredth time that evening, unsure of whether he should feel thrilled at being so close to victory or frustrated that he could not seem to do this one last thing to make all of his wildest dreams come true.
Stein slapped his meaty palms together in exasperation as another accursed error message seemed to brand itself into his rubbed-red eyeballs.
Exhaustion rolled over the middle-aged man like an oncoming tidal wave as he spun his swivel-chair 180 degrees and ran his large hands down his haggard face, doubting himself for the umpteenth time since starting this ambitious, dangerous endeavor many years ago…
It’ll all be worth it, he assured himself over and over, it’ll all be worth it when-
His reassurances were cut short as he caught a glimpse of movement through the gaps between his fingers, paralyzed with shock as he realized all-too-late that someone was unlocking the door to his office from the outside.
“Who!?” he unintentionally exclaimed out loud, sending his swivel chair tumbling as he leapt from his seat.
Stein’s heartbeat relaxed for a fraction of a second as the door opened enough to reveal a man in silver. However, the moment Stein got a good look at the younger man’s bruised face - realizing with a jolt that he’d never seen this man before in his life - Stein knew something was wrong.
As if to confirm his dread, the younger man spoke after a long pause, a smirk on his bloodied lips: “Well, if it isn’t the notorious Rupert Stein. Recruiting more of your puppets, I see?” he asked inquisitively as he looked over Stein’s shoulder and caught a glimpse of his futile attempts at transmitting a wider signal.
Stein was baffled, “What-what is this?” he stammered, feeling the pit of trepidation sink further and further into his gut.
“This, my good man, is your demise,” he said with a savage undertone in his voice and a mad look in his eyes as he not-so-subtly locked the door behind him and stepped forward like a lion surrounding its prey.
Stein’s heartbeat thundered in his ears and, before he knew it, he found himself backed up against the station’s audio console, his sweaty palms painfully pressed against the many intricate dials and buttons behind him, “They-they said they’d give me more time,” he spluttered, half to himself as he tried to calm his racing pulse and half to the menacing man before him as if these words alone would will the fast-approaching attacker from existence, “They assured me that-I-wait!” he shouted this last part, blocking his face with his trembling arms.
Fortunately for Stein, the moment he held up his arms in self-defense, the intruder had just pulled out his weapon of choice – a slim silver baton that all of Stein’s sentries possessed. This delay gave Stein just enough time to react accordingly as he grabbed the invader’s armed hand before he could launch the truncheon at Stein’s head. However, just when Stein comprehended this small victory, the younger man uppercutted Stein in the jaw with his free left hand, sending the businessman flying against the machinery behind him.
Before Stein could even begin to recover from this punch and tumble, he felt himself being bombarded by blow and blow after blow, these jabs sending even greater amounts of pain across the middle-aged man’s temple. Dark spots invaded Stein’s line of vision and the thundering of his heart transformed into a piercing ringing in his ears.
We were so close, the thought trickled into his failing brain, so close...
Stein could have sworn he heard someone cackle in delight before the ever-growing darkness won.
Shrapnel flew and wires sparked in mid-air as Peterson brought down his club again and again and again, no longer aiming at the bloodied skull of Rupert Stein but instead at the complex machinery that the late businessman was slumped over, the young man’s pride increasing as the destruction grew and Stein finally fell to the tiled floor with a satisfying thump!
Cackles erupted in Peterson’s chest, causing him to feel almost maniacal as he kicked a large piece of metal casing away with the tip of his boot.
No not maniacal, he corrected himself, triumphant! For I have slayed the wicked Rupert Stein and have saved this planet from total annihilation!
His laughter became even louder as he thought of all the glorious riches he would be showered with once he left this foul building, his head held high with the body of Rupert Stein being happily disposed of in the background.
I’ll be a hero, Peterson the Savior! A-
“What have you done!?”
“Freeze! Drop the weapon and put your hands where I can see them!”
The young man spun around at these accusations, remnants of a wide smile still plastered on his face despite his obvious confusion, “What is this, some sort of charade?” he asked incredulously, his lighthearted tone of voice gradually becoming more rattled as he realized with wide eyes just how many armed men and women surrounded him with furious expressions on their faces, “Is this how you plan on celebrating your liberation? With guns?”
A tall, dark-skinned women in silver uniform stepped forward from the angry mob of eight or so, her composed and confident presence a stark contrast to the others, all of whom looked as if – at any given moment - they might use Peterson for target practice, “You’ve made a grave mistake, Joel Peterson. Drop your weapon or we’ll be forced to use these,” she commanded, motioning to the variety of heavy artillery that suddenly filled the sterile-white studio.
Peterson could hardly believe what he was hearing, “Mistake!? Why, I’ve killed our greatest enemy!” he affirmed, motioning at the pathetic body of Rupert Stein that lay utterly motionless in the corner of the room.
“He was no enemy,” the imposing woman stated matter-of-factly, “You haven’t been briefed on this situation like the rest of us and therefore have no clue what you are talking about. Drop. Your. Weapon,” her initially-composed demeanor swiftly transformed into red-hot anger as she growled this last command out.
“Us?” Peterson repeated bewildered, looking at the motley crowd of armed misfits that stood before him, “Just who are you people?” he spat out.
A comedically short man with a submachine gun slung over his back waddled forward and spoke, his deep voice juxtaposing his puny stature, “We are a newly-developed branch of the CIA, tasked with the essential mission of preserving the world as we know it from unavoidable catastrophe and you, Joel Montgomery Peterson, have trespassed inside this limited-access facility, assaulted our head of security and assassinated the very founder of this organization. Get on your knees!” he shouted this last part, menacingly aiming his SMG at Peterson’s head.
What remained of the young man’s smile crumpled as this dwarf’s words filled his ears, the room seeming to tilt beneath Peterson’s feet the longer he let himself listen to this-this-
Nonsense, the term wormed itself inside the self-proclaimed hero’s head, acting as a desperately-thrown lifeline that Peterson, in this impossible situation, had no choice but to grasp on to with all of his might.
“No-this can’t be true,” he stammered, trying to justify the furious stares, locked-and-loaded guns and otherworldly explanations, “I am the hero, not the villain! You’re wrong - all of you are mere puppets of Stein’s, leftovers of his crude brainwashing, here to kill me for killing your master! Well, I will see to it that-" his mad ramble was cut short by a loud, gruff voice that entered the now-cramped studio space.
“See to it that you shut the hell up,” a familiar angry voice shouted from the back of the room. Dread seemed to slither its way into Peterson’s throat as the crowd of people parted for the tall, older man whom Peterson fought on his way inside the studio only twenty minutes earlier.
Garraway’s left hand clutched his head in pain as droplets of blood trickled their way down the man’s temple.
In his other hand, Garraway clutched a pistol, his right pointer finger hovering dangerously close to the trigger.
Peterson’s heart skipped a beat at the sight of the mad look in the other man’s eyes.
“I told you to stay out of this, Peterson,” Garraway growled, his presence seeming even more hostile the closer he got to the trembling young man.
“What is this…?” Peterson quivered, “I thought I-"
“Killed me?” Garraway finished for him brusquely, “You can’t get rid of Harold Garraway that easy! Now, this is your last warning. Either drop the weapon and get on the ground or I will shoot you,” he said, his left hand leaving his bloodied head as he aimed his pistol at Peterson’s heart.
Fury and frustration brewed and boiled in Peterson’s chest, his eyesight going blurry as logic and reason lost all meaning for the young man.
“No!” someone shouted, whether it was Peterson himself or the tall woman who spoke earlier – who, in that moment, made her way to Garraway’s side and put her hands up in appeal, seeming opposed to the idea of a dogfight between the two men – the young man didn’t care as he ran full speed at the armed, imposing figure before him, replaying the anticipated moment over and over in which he would rain blow upon blow on Garraway’s no-good, rotten head-
Bang! Bang! Bang!
The deafening sound of gunshots rang through the soundproofed room at the same time that pain tore through Peterson’s body like he was nothing more than a sheet of paper, stabbed again and again by the razor-sharp tip of a pencil. He crumbled to the ground, unable to move even one of his limbs as his body went into total shock.
As Peterson wheezed out what he knew in his heart to be his last breath, he found himself marveling not at the unanticipated turn of events nor at the utter failure that this so-called “noble quest” had turned out to be, but rather at the sheer lack of sound that filled Peterson’s empty head – no pop trash resonated from the ceiling above, something that the young man hadn’t fully appreciated since Stein’s death, no grimaces of pain escaped Peterson’s bruised lips and the crowd that hovered just above the dying young man offered no cries of protests at what had just transpired.
Only blissful radio silence, something that the young man had sought for a long time, carried Peterson into the dark.