Ingrid Schmidt eyed the small pile of white powder in the palm of her hand. As it turned out, you could never have too much soap, as long as there was running water–clean running tap water, chlorinated, preferably. With gristled abandon, she rubbed her hands together, luxuriating in the way the skin turned ruddy, digging and gouging in the spaces between her fingers, wedging around her cuticles and under her nails, until her nails actually looked longer. The trick was to push the battle worn tissue as far as possible without breaking the skin, though there was a certain perverse satisfaction in violating the dermal layer, too, for truly, as long as there was skin, you could never be absolutely certain it was clean.
Water running off her arms, she completed the ritual, once, twice, and then turned the faucet off with her elbow. Her elbows got washed twice a day whether they needed it or not, but she had more or less learned to live with them. The thought that there was a dry, wrinkled little rotunda of bacteria at the point where her upper arm and forearm met periodically rushed in on her awareness, but she could keep them at bay with thoughts of luffa sponges and body scrubs. She stood dripping and realized there was nothing remotely sterile with which to dry her hands, and with only three other woman working swing shift at the computer center, she might be stuck for a while.
As luck would have it, her desk mate Agnes chose that moment to open the bathroom door. Hands up, Ingrid scooted around her and tried to regain control of her breathing all the way down the hall, waving her hands in little drying circles, until she came to the office door. Now it was decision time. She could fish her card key out of her pocket—she’d done it before—but that would mean more washing in the break room, and in one of the great bacterial ironies of her life, the sink in the breakroom was less sanitary than the one in the bathroom. There was always the chance that one of the other girls would come out the door and save her from the awful choice, but that only happened twice a month if she was lucky. In the end, she waited for Agnes to finish and followed her inside.
“Forgot your key again, I see.” Agnes said, not disapprovingly. Ingrid watched her go and wondered idly who would open the door for her when Agnes was gone. Normally, she would never mix her cover with her work, but Agnes was special. In the past few months, she had developed a habit of touching Ingrid on the shoulder when she walked by. This was intolerable, but equally intolerable was the thought of talking to anyone about anything personal. Agnes would have to go.
Ingrid settled cautiously into her chair, taking great pains not to touch anything. Finally settled, she eyed her keyboard, reluctant as always to touch it. She glanced up at Agnes, who was already hard at it again. Industrious, that one. And reasonably clean, as people went, but there was only one way to truly sanitize a human body—with fire. Fire hot enough to homogenize the organics. Heat sufficient to undo the bonds of atoms would be preferable, but the power to propel the Earth into the Sun was a child’s dream, and she had given it up long ago. God did what he could with the dust mites, but it wasn’t enough, and she was content to stand in the gap and do her part. One day soon, need and opportunity would meet, and Agnes would leave work and never be seen again. There would be no body, and no evidence of a crime.
Ingrid never left a body, not in 25 years. While her classmates were learning the unpleasant monthly price of becoming a woman, Ingrid was doing what she could to reduce the number of stray animals in town. An abnormal thyroid prevented her from developing secondary sexual characteristics, gave her larger than normal hands and made her freakishly strong. If she had the capacity for anger, she could have easily wrung the neck of any of the teenage girls who verbally abused her throughout high school, but as it turned out only one of them went missing, and she had nothing to do with it. Her specialty was solitary, unattached homeless people. Typically underfed and inactive, they were easily overpowered, and no one ever asked any difficult questions; the elimination of this particular subset of humanity dovetailed nicely with her mission of cleansing. Thermite was a revelation. With a combustion temperature of 4,000 degrees, it was far superior to any of your usual OTC accelerants.
When time came to go to college, she went for one reason—chemistry. Her laser focus was to discover the formula for an enzymatic cleaner that would remove every trace of genetic material. In her second year, the police took an interest in the declining number of homeless people, so she switched briefly to students, preferring the men for hygienic reasons, but the women were easier targets. The alarm was raised, the homeless quickly forgotten, and she moved comfortably back into her old pattern. In her third year, she found the formula, dropped out, and never looked back. No thought of selling it or sharing it. This mission was hers, and now she had all the tools she needed. But one victim every few weeks in ever-widening circles to avoid suspicion was slow going and she soon found herself disenchanted with her chosen path. The tragic events of 9/11 caught her attention but not like anyone else. Unencumbered by empathy, she found she agreed in principle with the terrorists—though on a much larger scale—but found their methods clumsy and messy, two words she hated. The idea of rogue nuclear devices wormed its way into her daily musings, finally nudging her into the application process at the C.I.A.
Perhaps if she started as an analyst she could become a field agent and get assigned to a part of the world where such a device might cross her path. However, one psych. eval. put her on a fast track to special projects, and a man with no name met with her in a windowless room to make her an unexpected offer. Ever so often she would get a phone call and go to a post office mailbox to find a large envelope. Inside would be a piece of paper with a name and address. When she was finished disposing of the target, in the same box would be five $4,000 checks from a dummy corporation, for deposit at separate institutions to avoid triggering an investigation by Homeland Security. That was seven years ago, and while the bi-monthly excursions to other cities—and occasionally other countries—were welcome, it was too infrequent and so, things were not looking good for Agnes. Ingrid tilted her neck to one side to clear her thoughts and was about to get back to work, when her cell phone rang, and she answered it.
The voice on the other end was clipped: “We have a job for you.”
Ingrid closed the phone, dashed off a curt email saying that she was taking paid time off, grabbed her sweater off a hook on the wall, and walked out into the night without a word.