CARLOS WAS JUST GETTING OUT OF THE
shower when the phone rang. He wrapped a towel around his waist and stumbled out into the cramped living room, nearly tripping over a still unopened box of books in his haste to get to the bleating phone; he hadn't had time to get an answering machine since moving to the city, and only the new field office had his number. It wouldn't pay to miss any calls, particularly since Umbrella was footing his bills.
He snatched up the receiver with one dripping hand and tried not to sound too out of breath.
"Carlos, it's Mitch Hirami."
Unconsciously, Carlos stood up a little straighter, still clutching the damp towel. "Yes, sir."
Hirami was his squad leader. Carlos had only met him twice, not enough time to get a solid read on him, but he seemed competent enough - as did the other guys in the squad.
Competent, if not exactly up-front... Like Carlos, no one talked much about their past, although he knew for a fact that Hirami had been involved in gunrunning through South America a few years back before he'd started to work for Umbrella. It seemed that everyone he'd met on the U.B.C.S. had a secret or two - most of them involving activities not strictly legal.
"Orders just came down on a developing situation.
We're calling everyone in on this, ASAP. You got an hour to report, and we leave in two, that's 1500 hours, comprende?"
"Si-uh, yes, sir." Carlos had been fluent in English for years, but he was still getting used to speaking it full-time. "Is there any info on what kind of situation?"
"Negative. You'll be briefed along with the rest of us when you come in."
Hirami's tone of voice suggested that he had more to say. Carlos waited, starting to feel chilled by the water drying on his body.
"Word is, it's a chemical spill," Hirami said, and Carlos thought he could hear a thread of unease in the squad leader's voice. "Something that's making people ... making them act differently."
Carlos frowned. "Differently how?"
Hirami sighed. "They don't pay us to ask questions, Oliveira, do they? Now you know as much as I do. Just get here."
"Yes, sir," Carlos said, but Hirami had already hung up.
∗ ∗ ∗
Carlos dropped the receiver into its cradle, not sure if he should feel excited or nervous about his first U.B.C.S. operation. Umbrella Biohazard Countermea-sure Service: an impressive title for a group of hired ex-mercenaries and ex-military, most with combat experience and shady backgrounds. The recruiter in Hon-duras had said that they'd be called upon to "deal" with situations that Umbrella needed handled quickly and aggressively - and legally. After three years of fighting in private little wars between rival gangs and revolu-tionaries, of living in mud shacks and eating out of cans, the promise of real employment - and at an as-tonishingly good wage - was like an answered prayer.
Too good to be true, that's what I thought ... and what if it turns out that I was right?
Carlos shook his head. He wasn't going to find out standing around in a towel. In any case, it couldn't possibly be worse man shooting it out with a bunch of coked-up pendejos in some anonymous jungle, wondering if he'd hear the bullet that finally took him out.
He had an hour, and it was a twenty-minute walk to the office. He turned toward the bedroom, suddenly determined to show up early, to see if he could get any more out of Hirami about what was going on. Already, he could feel the warm build of nervous adrenaline in his gut, a feeling he'd grown up with and knew better than any other - part anticipation, part excitement, and a healthy dose of fear...
Carlos grinned as he finished toweling off, amused at himself. He'd spent too much time in the jungle. He was in the United States now, working for a legitimate phar-maceutical company - what was there to be afraid of?
"Nada," he said, and, still smiling, he went to find his fatigues.
Late September in the outskirts of the big city; it was a sunny day, but Carlos could feel the first whisper of autumn as he hurried toward the field office, a kind of thinning of the air, leaves beginning to wilt on the branches overhead. Not that there were very many trees; his apartment was at the edge of a sprawling industrial area - a few dingy fabrication plants, fenced lots overgrown with weeds, seeming acres of run-down storage facilities. The U.B.C.S. office was actually a renovated warehouse on an Umbrella-owned lot, surrounded by a fairly modern shipping complex complete with helipad and loading docks - a nice setup, although Carlos wondered again why they'd decided to build in such a crummy area. They could obviously afford much better.
Carlos checked his watch as he headed up Everett Street and started to walk a little faster. He wasn't going to be late, but he still wanted to get there before the briefing, see what the other guys were saying. Hirami had said they were calling in everyone - four platoons, three squads of ten in each platoon, 120 people all total. Carlos was a corporal in squad A of platoon D; ridiculous, how these things were set up, but he supposed it was necessary to keep track of everyone.
Somebody had to know something...
He took a right where Everett met 374th, his thoughts wandering, vaguely curious about where they were being sent...
... when a man stepped out of an alley only a few meters in front of him, a well-dressed stranger wearing a wide smile. He stood there, hands jammed into the pockets of an expensive trench coat, apparently waiting for Carlos to reach him.
Carlos kept his expression carefully neutral, studying the man warily. Tall, thin, dark hair and eyes but definitely Caucasian, early to mid-40s - and grinning as though he meant to share an exceptionally funny joke.
Carlos prepared to walk past him, reminding himself of how many crazies lived in any decent-sized city, an unavoidable hazard of urban life.
He probably wants to tell me about the aliens monitoring his brain waves, maybe babble some conspiracy theory...
"Carlos Oliveira?" the man asked, but it was more of a statement than a question.
Carlos stopped in his tracks, his whole body tensing, instinctively letting his right hand drop to where he wore a gun - except he wasn't carrying, hadn't since crossing the border, carajo...
As if sensing the upset he'd caused, the stranger took a step back, holding his hands up in the air. He seemed amused, but not especially threatening.
"Who's asking?" Carlos snapped. "And how the hell did you know my name?"