Last Full Measure

Last Full Measure
By Ellie Dauber  © 2010

This is another story of Jakov Pauli, an assassin who specializes in identity death.

* * * * *

For the third time, Mike Ryan stared up from his booth at the clock on the wall of the diner. “14:33 hours,” he mumbled under his breath. “He’s late.”

“In point of fact,” a voice said, “that clock is five minutes fast. I am early.”

Mike spun around. A tall, slender man — about 40, Mike guessed — stood looking down at him. “Are you Pauli?” Mike asked.

“I am Jakov Pauli,” the other replied. “And you, I would assume are Sergeant Michael Ryan.”

“Mike’s good enough,” he said with a heavy sigh, “‘specially when I’m sitting here in civvies.”

Pauli glanced down at the man. ‘Almost civvies,’ he thought. The other man wore a gray “Property of the U.S. Army” T-shirt under an opened pale green “Hawaiian” shirt that was covered with a swarm of bright blue and yellow flowers. Aloud, he answered, “Mike then, may I join you?”

“Please.” He gestured at the chair on the other side of the table. As the man sat, Mike studied him. He had a narrow face, with an aquiline nose and jet black hair combed straight back. His dark grey suit was well-tailored and looked to have cost more than a couple months’ of a soldier’s pay.

The waitress, a plump, gray-haired woman in a blue uniform set an empty cup down in front of Pauli. “Coffee, dear?” she asked in a motherly tone.

“Yes,” he looked up at her with a smile. “Thank you.”

She filled the cup with a pot she was holding. “Menu’s right there.” She pointed at two yellow cards in a rack attached to the napkin holder. “You boys just let me know when you’re ready to order.”

“Sure thing, Roz,” Ryan answered. He waited while she walked back from their booth at the back of the eatery and taken a seat at the long lunch counter before speaking. “I know it’s a little late for lunch, but you really should try their pie. Ira, he’s the cook, bakes it fresh every morning.” He paused a beat. “When I was… in country, sometimes, I’d-I’d spend hours thinking about… thinking about a slice of Ira’s apple pie, piping hot and with a scoop of vanilla — Mr. Pauli, I understand that you kill people for a living.”

“I do — in a way.” He spoke casually with no surprise at the abrupt change of subject or the nature of the question. “I prefer to say that I remove obstacles.” He looked into Mike Ryan’s eyes as if he already knew the answer to what he was about to ask. “Whom did you wish me to… remove?”

“Me. I want you to kill me… please.”

“Might I ask why?”

“You’re a professional, aren’t you?” Mike waited until Pauli nodded before he continued. “I’ll pay you to kill me, what more do you need than that?”

“Normally, that _would_ be enough, but, in this instance, I must admit to some curiosity.”

“And if I don’t tell you?”

“Then I shall leave, without removing you, without even having that slice of pie you recommended.”

“I’ll just get somebody else to do it. Hell, I could just as easily do it myself.”

“Then why don’t you. You’re in the military. You suggested that you’d even been in combat, so you most certainly are familiar with weapons. That being the case, why do you feel the need to hire my services?”

“Because… because however much I want to die, I — my father, my family, they just wouldn’t understand. It would destroy them if they thought I-I couldn’t take it, that I went psycho and offed myself.”

“Are you certain that you want to die? The regard you show for your family is more what I should expect of a man who wants to live.”

“That’s just it. I do want to live. I-I just can’t live with myself.”

“Iraq… Afghanistan,” he continued. “I’ve been over there three times, I just got called back again. I leave in two weeks.” He looked down at the table and shook his head. “I can’t do it, lead men into combat. Have them depend on me for their very lives.” He sighed. “I’ve seen men die, Mr. Pauli, not just the enemy — friends.”

“The last time… we were on patrol north of Kabul. Frank Antonelli and a new guy were in the first vehicle — Frank was driving. It… hit a mine. The new guy was lucky; he just lost his right leg from the knee down. Frank — when I got to him, he was sitting up against the side of a house, trying to.” Ryan made a sound that was almost a sob. “He was trying to shove his guts back into what was left of his belly. He looked up at men and said, ‘damn, I almost made it.’ Then he just closed his eyes and… and died.”

“I trained with Frank; we were best friends, in the same unit for two years. We had each other’s back in combat more times than I can count, and each time we got out alive, we got stinking drunk together to celebrate. And…” He gave a deep sigh. “…ten days — ten fucking _days_ — before we were due to be rotated out of that hellhole, he buys it. I-I can’t go back to that.” Now he _was_ sobbing. “I just can’t. And I can’t live with myself for being too much of a damned coward to want to not go back.”

Ryan looked up at Pauli, his eyes still glistening with tears. “Does that answer your shit-assed question?”

“It does.” He put his hand on the soldier’s shoulder. “You are hardly a coward for what you are feeling.”

“Then you’ll do it, you’ll kill me?”

“Not exactly.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“I do not kill people. I… remove them. I have — my family has — a talent for altering reality. You will not die. Michael Ryan will not have been born. You will have always lived some other life.”

“Mr. Pauli, if it’s possible, you’re crazier than I am.”

“I do not believe you are crazy, Mr. Ryan… Mike, you are just very troubled by the horrors of what you have lived through.”

“Assuming that you aren’t crazy, that what you said is true, will I — will I remember?”

“No, and no one else, save myself will remember you.”

Mike sighed. “Well, there’s a mercy in that.” He reached into the pocket of his “Hawaiian” shirt and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “What about this?” He handed it to Pauli.

“Your check?” Pauli looked at the paper, a certified check for the amount he had mentioned when the two men had talked by phone to set up the meeting. “It will be attended to, I assure you.” He took what looked like a silver cigarette case from an inside pocket of his jacket, put the check in it, and put it back in his pocket.

Ryan sat up straight. “Do it; do it right now.”

“I shall, but, first, there is one additional fact that I feel ethically bound to tell you. The new — the alternative life — that you will be reborn into, it will be as a female.”

“A broad, why the hell is that?”

“I do not know the reason. A gender change is always part of the process. Man to woman, woman to man, it is just a fact of the transformation.”

“What the hell.” He shrugged. “I screwed up my life as a man. Maybe I’ll do better as a girl. Go ahead. Give me your best shot.”

Pauli took a thin, foot-long rod from inside his jacket. It seemed to be made of the same silvery metal as the case he’d just put the check in. He pointed it at Mike and spoke a few words. He spoke in a low voice, and, close as Mike was, he couldn’t make out a word or even be sure of what language the other man had spoken.

“Is that it?” Mike asked.

Ryan nodded. “Subtlety is very much a part of the magic.”

Mike was about to speak when the room filled with an odd gray light. He stared wide-eyed as he — and everyone else in the room — froze in place. Mike blinked, still aware of what was happening. He wondered if Roz and that other, blonde waitress behind the lunch counter knew that their reality was changing over in a corner of the room.

“And so it begins,” Pauli said. He never knew who or what a subject — he _never_ thought of them as victim — would become. He did hope that Mike Ryan’s new life would be a pleasant one.

As he watched, the man began to shrink. Pauli had judged him as being just over six foot tall when they’d met. Now, he was no more than five foot six. He was thinner, as well. The well-developed muscles of an active, male warrior melted away, leaving a slender form that was almost lost in a much bigger man’s clothing.

Mike felt a tingling, like a mild shock run through him. He could feel his sandy-brown hair growing out from the short, military cut he’d worn for so very long, down over his ears, down the back of his neck, and further yet. He didn’t know it, but it had darkened to a coppery brown with blonde highlights

His chest itched. ‘My new breasts,’ he told himself. Then he shivered as a gust of air brushed against his legs. He had known that he was getting smaller, as he watched the perspective of the room shift. ‘I must be tiny, now, if my pants fall down.’

His exposed legs developed a delightful, very feminine set of curves, as his waist narrowed, and his butt grew out. The breasts that he had felt grew larger, plums to delightful C-cup melons with large, dark nipples the size of half dollars. His smaller, now soft hands had longer, more slender fingers with well-shaped half-inch long nails.

There was a sudden lurch, and they were now seated on two stools a few feet apart at the lunch counter. Ryan’s pants and shoes were back at the booth, and his now oversized socks dangled on his tiny feet. ‘Interesting,’ Pauli thought. ‘Apparently, I am still a part of her new reality.’

The grayness diminished, but it was still there. Mike found that he could move again. “Am I…” A hand shot down to grope his groin. “Gone!” he muttered, as a finger discovered the feminine slit where his manhood had been.

“I’m a girl now, Mr. Pauli, but I’m still Mike Ryan. What went wrong?”

“Nothing,” the slender man answered. “The transformation is far from completed.”

Mike felt his — her — clothes shifting. Her shirt grew downward, almost to her knees. As the dress it had become tightened to fit her new curves, the colors muted into a forest green with a few yellow flowers. The bottom of her Army T-shirt, now hidden under the dress, moved up to just below her breasts. What was left tightened around those breasts, while the sleeves vanished and the collar widened. In a moment, only the thin strap of a bra stretched over her shoulders. The gray cotton of the T-shirt changed to a silky, pale green nylon. At the same time, her boxers tightened around her hips and ass to become a matching panty.

The tops of her socks slid slowly up her legs. The material became more sheer as it moved, until the two pieces met and merged at her waist to become a pair of pantyhose. The part of the hose covering each foot split into two parts. The inner became sheer hose, while the outer part hardened. A piece grew out from each heel, and, in a moment, she wore a pair of shoes the same green as her dress, with a two-inch heel.

“Unbe-fucking-lievable.” Ryan exclaimed. Them the same magic moved her down to the end of the counter, well away from Pauli. She shook her head in surprise. “And I’m still… still me.” For some reason, her eyes filled with tears. “What’s the matter with me?” she moaned. She felt dizzy, but, she knew, all of a sudden, that it was understandable.

The last of the grayness disappeared. The younger waitress, the one behind the lunch counter, came over to where Pauli was now sitting. “You ready to order, hon?”

“In a minute,” he answered, then pointed to the woman Ryan had become. “That young woman over there, she seems very upset about something. Do you know why?” He thought he might as well explore this new reality his magic had created.

The waitress nodded. “I do, but I don’t know if I should say anything; you being a stranger and all.”

“Please do; perhaps I can be of some assistance.”

Roz had been close enough to overhear. “Oh, go ahead and tell him, Mandy. It’s not like it’s anything she should be ashamed of. Besides, just about everybody else knows.”

“Oh, all right.” She leaned in towards Pauli and began to speak in a low voice. “Her name’s Shelly, Shelly Ryan. She was a sergeant over in Afghanistan, but the Army sent her home when she got pregnant. Her and her fiancé, Tony — the guy that _got_ her pregnant, was supposed to get married when he came home, but he got killed by a mine or something about two weeks before he was set to leave. She’s living with her folks, now, but her dad got cut back to part time, and she can’t get a job. The Army isn’t helping much, so there ain’t a whole lot of money for her or the baby.”

Pauli stood up. “Thank you, Mandy.” He picked up his half-filled coffee cup and walked over to the girl. As he approached he could see that she was now about six months pregnant. “Excuse me, Ms. Ryan,” he said softly. “May I speak with you for a moment?”

Shelly looked up from the counter she’d been staring at. “I-I guess, what do you want?”

“A… ah, a former client of mine, a friend of your late fiancé --”

“He knew Frank? Was he someone in Frank’s outfit?”

“I really cannot say. In any event, you would not recognize his name. He was, however, a very close friend of Frank Antonelli.” He reached into his jacket pocket. ‘I’ve done this for years,’ he thought, ‘and the magic still surprises me.’ He took out the small, silver case, opened it, and handed her the paper that was still inside. “My client would want you to have this.”

She took the paper and opened it. “This is a check,” she said, her eyes wide. “And for so much, why?”

“For you, and for the baby you are so obviously carrying, to pay for some of the things you will both need.” He sighed and told himself that a bit of pro bono work once in a while wasn’t that bad an idea.

She looked at the check again, then at Pauli. “Gringotts, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that bank.”

“It is a very real bank, I assure you, very old and very well established, with a rather specialized clientele.”

She looked at the check again, her eyes glistening, but a smile on her lips. “This will help _so_ much. I-I don’t know how to thank you.”

“No thanks are necessary — really.”

“Please, I can certainly afford it now.”

“Very well, you can buy me a slice of apple pie. I’ve been given to understand that it is rather good — especially when topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.”

“Amazing, that’s just the way I like it. We’ll each have some pie. And we’ll eat it in honor of the wonderful man, whoever he is, who gave me a way to get on with my life.”

“An excellent idea and one that I am quite certain he would have liked.”

The End

* * * * *

I got the idea for this story while watching the new HBO documentary about the history of shell shock/combat fatigue/post traumatic stress disorder last Thursday. Veterans’ Day should be a celebration of American’s veterans and what they’ve accomplished and what they’ve sacrificed on our behalf, not a discussion of what the stress of war has done to them and of how poorly they — and all of us — have been at handling it. I’m proud to be the child of two veterans. My father was in the Army Signal Corps, and my mother served as an Army nurse. This story is dedicated, belatedly, to them and to all their fellow veterans and to all of those currently serving who, I sincerely hope, will all live to become the healthy, honored, and successful veterans they deserve to be.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the USO are two real organizations that run all manner of support programs for those now serving and those who have served in the wars in those two countries and their families. The IAVA website is www.iava.org, and the USO may be found at www.uso.org.



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