Posts Tagged ‘Business’

The couch broke against Lindsay’s arms as she brought them up to cover her face. With superhuman speed, she grabbed a broken two-by-four left from the shattered pieces and flung it like a small javelin at Allen. He caught it, the friction warming his impervious skin. The force nearly pulled him back, but he steeled himself, then took off so fast it left spider cracks in the marble floor. Lindsay dashed forward in the air at speeds that produced a sonic wave that shattered the glassware at the bar. She went in for a right cross, which cracked Allen’s cheekbone and drew blood that spilled from his nose and mouth. It left her open for his attack, a powerful kick to the side. A crippling pain spread through her lower back, and she doubled over, bile rising in her mouth. Allen followed through with a swift kick to her face, but she glanced up just in time. She caught his leg in a vice grip, gathered her wits out of sheer determination, and launched a counter attack. She spun and flung him bodily at the floor.

Allen picked himself up unsteadily and glanced over his shoulder in time to see Lindsay dash in for a body slam. He jumped to the side, then twisted, taking a boxer’s stance with his hands protecting his face. As she recovered, she was met with Allen’s fist when he jabbed it at her. She dodged once, twice, three times before she blocked it and offered a counter-jab of her own. He twisted, letting her fist skid across his face without doing much damage. He missed her follow-through. Her left fist connected with the bottom of his jaw, and he rocketed into the air, smashed into the ceiling, and regained control before slamming his right food, left knee, and a single fist into the floor amid a hail of tiles and plaster. He left the debris as a trail in his wake as he darted back into close combat. His face throbbed. Lindsay was fast, but Allen was tougher. He wasn’t even close to being out of this fight.

* * * *

“Quite the entertainment you have tonight,” Tom’s guest remarked.

Tom grunted. His opportunistic streak didn’t come built with snappy comebacks. “You got the money?”

The man smirked. “Down to business, then.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. With a few taps on the screen, he set up a money transfer. His thumb hovered over the button that would complete it. “Let’s see it first, hm?”

Tom’s expression didn’t budge as he slid his fist, palm down, across the bar, leaving the small, subtle device behind. “Does it work?” The man asked, “or is that the reason for this impressive display going on here?” His head twitched in the direction of the squabbling teens. “After all, I’d imagine Solstice would like to know what they’re buying. You planning on nullifying one of those kids’ powers? Do that and the victor’s fist will go through the other’s head.” A twisted lust for violence glinted in the man’s eyes.

“Uh. Sure,” Tom grunted. “You gotta get close, though. It has a short range.”

The corner of the man’s mouth twitched. “So, who’s gonna bell that cat?” he drawled, glancing over. “I didn’t even see that flurry of punches, dunno about you.”

Tom shifted in his seat. He had no idea how to answer that.

“This weapon is all about subtlety.” Tom nearly hit the cracking roof at the sound of Lyndria’s voice. His stern face nearly cracked. She slipped delicate fingers across the man’s bony shoulder, trailed them up the turtleneck, then teased at the edge of his ear. “The right tool for the right job.” A smile crossed her full lips. “Right?”

Tom gaped at her. For the first time in years, he felt his heart race with a foreign emotion that felt a lot like fear. Not the combat adrenalin rush, but the nauseating realization that you done fucked up and you were going to die like a coward for a stupid mistake. She smiled at him over top the man’s head. Did he imagine the gears clicking into place that spelled his unceremonious end?

“Thanks for getting this meeting started,” she told him. “I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.” She turned her charm on the Solstice contact. “Let me introduce myself. I’m Lyndria Wilson. I own that device. Tom has my authority to enact this business transaction. Don’t worry your very pretty little head about that.” Her fingers danced across his blond hair beneath his fedora.

“Then let me pose this question to you,” he said, shifting away from her touch. “Does the device work?” Tom wished that distancing himself would be that easy. Should he run? Perhaps he’d underestimated Lyndria’s ability to keep her family under control. Would she kill him for his betrayal?

Fear kept him glued to his seat, though all of his fighter’s instinct told him to run and never look back. No! If you run, you will be running for the rest of your life. With any luck, you can talk your way out of this. If that doesn’t work, you can always make the choice to take off again. He swallowed.

Lyndria smiled. “You want to see a display? I can arrange that. One of those fighters is my bodyguard. I’ve grown quite fond of her, and I do believe the feeling is mutual. I could go over there and tell them to stop fighting. She will listen to me. I can walk over there and shake the hand of her opponent, and his powers will instantly vanish.”

The man smirked, raising his eyebrow. “If you claim to exercise such control over your subordinates, why are you letting them trash this establishment? I hear you’re having cash flow issues. Why risk thousands upon thousands of damage? Not even using this fight to convince me to buy the device would be worth it.”

“Because this fight is amusing. I’m quite in suspense. I want to see if my bodyguard will actually win against an opponent like this. Besides, a trashed establishment doesn’t concern me. I imagine I’m not going to be able to make a lot of money off of this place after tonight. You see, there’s going to be a murder.”

Tom’s heart leaped into his throat. Run! She is going to kill you!

The man chuckled. “I thought you said your man had your authorization.”

“Oh, his isn’t the murder I’m talking about. You see, I just said that to keep the conversation going between you and I. Subtlety really is the best weapon sometimes. I was stalling while the poison I brushed on your skin soaked into your system.”

The man’s eyes went wide. His skin paled, and he clutched at his throat, suddenly unable to breathe. Lyndria smiled. “Like I said…right tool for the right job.”

The man jerked up off his seat, then collapsed, twice gave a full-bodied twitch, then stiffened, eyes glassy with death’s onset.

Lyndria’s gaze turned to Tom. Disappointment clouded her pouty face. “Oh, honey.”

* * * *

Allen held himself in a defensive position as Lindsay sped around him. Few could keep track of her as she moved faster than the eye could see, but the ability to process such movement came hand in hand with Allen’s own super speed. She was slowing down. This fight was starting to wear on her. She was trying to use her speed to randomize the angle of attack, but that was becoming increasingly less likely. The tactic would have worked on just about anyone else, and even Allen had already taken a beating. He couldn’t see out of one eye, each breath pained him, and the match had turned into an aerial battle because he could no longer put weight on either of his legs. However, Allen may have lacked full vision, the superior speed, and the three years of training that Lindsay had, but there was something else Allen didn’t have.

He had no intention of giving up.

Allen could tell she was tiring, and patience was winning him this round. He watched closely. At the right moment, he stepped to the side, twisted, and jabbed his fist. Lindsay ran right into it. She flipped end over end, finally spilling onto a pile of broken tables. “Are you done yet?” Allen called.

She snarled at him. The dust spun into a whirling dervish as she sprung into the air after him, but the attack was lacking in conviction. Allen clamped his fists together and bashed them against her head. Lindsay hit the ground so hard it cratered. She staggered to her feet.

“Just stay down, Lindsay. Please.” Allen touched down beside her, then remembered his fractured ankle and floated just a few inches. “It’s over.”

She snarled at him, but she was too exhausted to argue. She sank to her knees.

“I don’t want to fight, Lindsay. I just want you to see what Stryker was really trying to tell us. There’s gotta be a reason to fight. You’re faster than me, you’ve been trained to fight longer, by all rights you’re the better fighter…but you’ve let go of what you’re fighting for.” He floated down and knelt gingerly. The adrenalin was wearing off, and his whole body ached. He extended his hand. “Will you let me help you find it again?”

“I believe you’ve made your point, Mr. Gray.”

Allen nearly toppled over in his haste to turn around. Samantha Clive stood at the doorway, now three times its size after a counter top had been thrown through it. She was the picture of poise, unsullied by the seedy filth of the destroyed bar. The raunchy music stopped, as if quailed by her arrival. Silence followed. Even the dust didn’t dare stir in her presence.

Allen gaped at her. Lindsay spoke first. “I thought you couldn’t be here! I-I mean, I thought Delta—”

“Until just a few minutes ago, Delta did not have jurisdiction in Quebec, it’s true. However, the authorities felt they were unequipped to deal with conflicts such as two super powered teenagers coming to blows in a downtown bar.” Her mouth tipped in a smile. “My thanks for your service, you two. You have been instrumental in bringing this country into our little family. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Something about that didn’t sit well with Allen. He glanced around for Donald and Liam; both had vanished. Donald seemed like an anarchist, and he didn’t think he’d be affected one way or another by this new development. Liam, on the other hand, had moved a full country away from his family for the sake of freedom. “The way Delta forces kids into fighting their battles makes me throw up in my mouth a little.” The fire controller’s words rang in his ears.

Allen couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d just been used.

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Tom Carter was an opportunist. Some months ago, Jacob Wilson, self-styled patriarch of the Montreal metahuman mafia had hired him as muscle in a deal with an ambitious, rapidly growing gang of metas. The bartering collateral in question was a piece of technology that would revolutionize meta warfare. Powers were always an interesting element in a meta mob war, especially since no one really wanted the general population to know who had powers and who didn’t. Tom wasn’t a meta. He had no investment in the meta community’s continued existence, except that some of them happened to pay his exorbitant fees.

Some tinkerer from this new meta gang had invented a small device the size of one’s thumb that would instantly nullify a target’s powers. There was some risk involved–one wrong move, and both parties would find themselves temporarily without their special abilities. Still, a number of these devices in the right hands could change the outcome of the war.

And it was something Solstice would pay dearly for.

The Jacob Wilson had no intention of such a thing falling into Solstice hands, and of course he had no love for his opposition. With metas inexplicably on the rise in the last decade, a few had joined forces with more than one rival mob family. The man didn’t have powers himself, but his boys and his precious little princess had been born with meta abilities. Jacob didn’t want to see his family put in harms way.

Tom, on the other hand, would sell his own grandmother if it would make him a buck.

He appeared to be a nice enough fellow, if not a bit gruff. He was ugly and snarling, but the heart of gold underneath all that was a double bluff. He gave exactly zero fucks about anyone but himself. With the old Jacob dead, Tom  was the only person who knew the technology existed, save for leadership of the splinter group. A bit of money in the right hands, and that gang was eliminated, narrowing even further the list of people aware of the tech.

With the death of Jacob Wilson, it was time to make some real money. Solstice had unbelievable connections, and they were willing to do anything to get them a leg up in what they considered to be a crucial war for the sake of mankind. Metas, as far as they were concerned, were a diseased form of humanity that had to be purged before they plunged the whole world into entropy. It was all a bit high-minded, but as far as he was concerned, they could believe in a goddamned fish Jesus if it meant they’d pay him for bait and tackle.

Lyndria’s club was busy. Tom threaded his way through partiers gyrating to the music under a canopy of smoke and light shows. Lyndria was wasted. A man of greater conscience would be troubled by stealing from her a device that threatened her very existence when the girl was dealing with the death of her whole family, but it was this death that gave Tom the opportunity. He wasn’t about to pass it off.

Once in the old man’s study, he opened the safe with the combination that he’d long since memorized. He might have been surprised that Lyndria hadn’t changed it, but the girl didn’t have two brain cells to rub together. Prototype acquired, he walked downstairs with his small cargo centered in the palm of his hand. He looked across the crowded room and gave a subtle nod to a man dressed in khaki pants and a fitted, long-sleeve black shirt. He had a close-shaved beard, with the rest of his face shrouded by the fedora he wore. A subtle tip of the hat was the non-verbal agreement Tom was looking for.

Lyndria deserved to be stolen from. She was so far gone now, Tom was certain she had no capabilities of noticing this deal going down under her own nose in her own club. Tom allowed himself a small smirk.

Something made him glance over to the door. For a reason he couldn’t adequately explain, his attention was arrested by three people that joined the undulating crowd. One was a kid, barely of age, with brown hair and a leather jacket over a red t-shirt and jeans. Two were older men; one of them Asian, the other with a shock of flaming red hair. Tom shook his head. They were inconsequential. As he glanced away, he vaguely beheld them make their way to Lyndria. Maybe the kid was looking to lose his virginity. He wouldn’t be the first dumb cluck to hit up the easiest chick in the country.

Whatever their reason, it had nothing to do with him. Tom made his way to the man at the bar.

* * * *

Allen’s heart sat in his throat. He was so nervous, he couldn’t rightly tell if his palms were sweaty from the humidity or the fact that even his paragon endurance was put to the test with his excessive heart rate. He wiped them on his jeans. That didn’t help.

He spotted Lindsay the second they walked in. She hadn’t changed a lot, though she’d traded her simple trendy outfit to something that involved more leather and buckles. For some reason he half expected an emo makeup on her, though she didn’t seem given to that cliche. He took a breath and walked forward. The plan was for the older men to engage this Lyndria person with questions about her family, but that wasn’t Allen’s main concern. Their conversation would free him up to talk to Lindsay. Donald was sure that the Wilson’s family’s disappearance was somehow connected to the shit that had been going on with Delta, and Allen couldn’t come up with a reason for why that wasn’t so; still he was singular-minded in his objective. Lindsay was the one person in this situation who mattered to him.

He weaved his way through the crowd until he stood by her. She didn’t notice until he spoke. “Hey, Lindsay.”

She nearly hit the roof. “Allen! What the hell? What are you doing here?”

Allen shrugged and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Looking for you.” It sounded cliche, like wooden dialog from a movie he and Tracy would watch together in a bad movie marathon.

Lindsay wasn’t helping. She crossed her arms and looked away. “Well, you found me. Now you can turn around and just walk away.”

Allen sighed. “Lindsay…don’t be like that. Look, do you know what you left behind?”

She said nothing, refusing to make eye contact.

“Marcus is–”

“Don’t. Okay? I don’t…I don’t want to know.”

“Why not? Lindsay, he loves you!”

“Don’t you think I know that? God, he–” She glanced at Allen, and her eyes glistened with tears in the flashing purple and blue lights. “Just go. Okay? I just…I need some space.”

“A whole country of space? God damn it, Lindsay! This isn’t–”

“This isn’t what? What a hero is supposed to do?”

“No, it’s not. It’s not what a hero would do.”

She looked at him, and her eyes seemed sad. “That’s fine then. Allen…I’m not a hero.”

“Yes, Lindsay, you are. Okay, I know we never really got along that well, but you’re a hero because Stryker said–”

“Don’t you dare speak his name!”

Allen stepped back, startled by the vehemence with which she spat the words at him. For a moment, he was angry. He took a deep breath as the anger welled inside him, choking him like someone had just shoved a fist down his throat. “Linsday, I have had enough of your shit! You have no right to tell me what I should and shouldn’t feel, and right now I am hurting because I lost someone I care about, and you can’t say I’m not allowed to feel broken. Furthermore, I’ve got a best friend who’s in pieces because his girlfriend abandoned him. I can’t fix the first one, but I am not going to stand by and let the second one slide. I will do everything I can to help him because that’s what friends do!”

Lindsay opened her mouth and shut it again, which was just as well, because Allen wasn’t done talking.

“Do you honestly have any idea what you’ve gotten yourself into? Stryker trained you to be a hero, but you’re not acting like it. I know you’re in pain. I know that sometimes you just gotta do stupid things, but this? Do you even know?”

He glanced around. The girl Lindsay had been with had now vanished. For the life of him, Allen couldn’t remember what she looked like, and he certainly couldn’t pick her out of a crowd this size. But she wasn’t there, and that was the important thing to drop this bombshell. “Your boss, the girl you’ve been guarding? Do you actually know who she is? She’s Lyndria Wilson. Of the mafia family.”

Lindsay’s eyes went wide. Then it was her turn to get angry. “You know what? Fuck you. You come in here being all high and mighty, fucking mister perfect telling me how to live my life–”

“I’m not–”

“No! You’re not! You’re not perfect so stop fucking acting like it! You tell me that I have no right to tell you how to feel, well how about taking some of your own goddamn advice. You don’t have the right either to tell me how to live my life.”

“So you’re just going to throw away everything you’ve been taught? Lindsay, don’t you see? When you’re with her–maybe you’re right. When you’re with her you’re not a hero, or at least not acting like it. You’re acting like a villain.”

The words leaped from his mouth before he could stop them. Her eyes widened, and he wanted more than anything to stuff them back into his mouth. She looked at him with narrowed eyes. “Well, maybe I am.”

Allen sighed. “No, Lindsay, you’re not, forget I said that. I’m sorry. But that doesn’t change one simple fact. This?” He waved his arm across the floor. “This is not what Stryker would have wanted.”

Nothing prepared him for the fist that flew in his face. With a loud crack, Lindsay’s fist sailed across his face. His neck jerked back, and he stumbled. The copper taste of blood coated his teeth. “Now I’ve had enough,” she snarled. “Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Allen’s fists clenched at his side. “I’m a hero. I’m Stryker’s protege, and though I always believe that title could be shared by both of us, clearly I was wrong!” He smirked. “I guess if you’re going to throw the first punch, that means there’s only one thing left to do.” He rose into the air. “I’m going to show you how a hero fights. How Stryker showed me to fight!”

He dashed toward her, but she slipped to the side. Allen noticed just in time to correct his course, though his countering punch lost a lot of its force. His fist slammed into her shoulder, and she rolled with it, unharmed. She brought her leg up to knee him in the kidneys, and he jerked his arm downward to block her with his elbow. His funny bone tingled as he slammed into her kneecap, following through with a right cross to her face. It landed with a smack. Color leaped to her cheek.

She pushed him away and picked up a lamp stand. With a feral scream, she broke it against his back as he turned to grab the nearby couch.

People screamed and scattered, which was just as well. They were going to have it out, that much was certain. The only question was, how much collateral damage was there going to be?

Allen didn’t care. So long as there were no people inside, he would level the whole goddamn club if it meant he could convince Lindsay to come home. To come to terms with the loss they shared. Donald and Liam cleared the area, though a few stayed to watch. This was the most exciting thing to happen in their lives, and they weren’t going to miss it.

It occurred to Allen that he was giving them a show. Every person that stayed behind had their phones out, and this was going to go up on the Internet right beside the video of his table throw in his high school cafeteria. That should have made him uncomfortable, but he was so far past caring. He flung the couch. “I will win this fight, Lindsay. Then we’ll see who’s really ready to carry on Stryker’s legacy!”

Bel’kethel was having the time of his life. Up until now, Earth had rarely been spoken of above hushed tones, a mere step away from Forbidden knowledge. It had not been written out of the annals of Elven history only because it would have been ignorance indeed to ignore the Earthborn population of about three million on Myrathelle. Ignorance was the only thing more uncomfortable than the knowledge that they had once had contact with the ancient people of Earth many centuries ago.

The existence of Earth, of course, was empirical. As a child, it had fascinated the young Elf; he’d even imagined a version of his name that the average Earthborn tongue would be able to pronounce. It had caused his father great consternation when he’d gone through a brief period of only answering to ‘Keth’. It had been a disappointing time indeed after Keth was told repeatedly under no uncertain terms that Elves did not concern themselves with Earthborn. Atlantis held itself aloof from the affairs of the rest of Myrathelle.

But now at last his fixation on Earth would bear fruit. Sadly, his knowledge of the Common language of Myrathelle’s Earthborn was useless. It was a dialect of a dead language that few on Earth actually spoke. He’d have been better off learning English, but those that spoke it on Myrathelle numbered in the hundreds. Nonetheless, Keth expended great effort making up for lost time. He was a savant, even by Elven standards, having mastered four out of the six schools of elemental magic, where most struggled to master two. A charmingly idiosyncratic language like English was a refreshing change from the rigid specificity of spellcasting.

The Elven leaders were reluctant to work with the Earthborn. It was a hotly debated issue discussed at great length within the senate; a conclusion had yet to be reached. Even with all the knowledge of the Elves, few had yet found the courage to state the obvious: the Elves must find peace with the Earthborn because Earth would be their home for the foreseeable future. Not one of them could state with certainty that they would ever again be home.

Keth was one of three Elves sent to explore the chilly tundra that was the new resting place of their fair city. They weren’t all spellcasters. Magic was not the only form of knowledge the pursuit of which brought glory to the All. Ken’hir was a warrior. His knowledge of combat was surpassed only by his mentor, the woman in charge of the Elven army. Myran had not mastered any forms of magic, but observed and recorded its effects and the functions of the natural world. Keth frequently felt the woman’s increased frustration with him. Myran believed in the practical over the theoretical, and delighted in pointing out the importance of her work, implying that it was greater than Keth’s academics. For his part, Keth found their discussions stimulating.

The group skimmed over the snow and ice in an air bubble, insulated against the biting cold with a combination of Air and Fire spells. Myran wasn’t speaking to him, and Ken’hir maintained his stoic affect, so that left Keth to carry the conversation all by himself. It was dreadfully one-sided and only exacerbated Myran’s aggravation. “Will you cease your endless prattle, Bel’kethel!” she commanded about halfway through a lengthy description of a particular television show the Earthborn called a “sit-com” that he’d been watching in his effort to learn English.

But something had already caused Keth’s monologue to come to a screeching halt. “What is that?” He pointed at half a dozen prone figures frozen so fast they were nearly part of the landscape. Snow had blown up around the bumps in the ice, but Keth could still make out four limbs and a face for each. “They look like humans!”

“Dead,” commented the taciturn Ken’hir.

“The best kind,” Myran muttered.

Keth cast her a dark look. With a word, he directed the air bubble over to the frigid corpses. “The Earthborn send expeditions to explore this area,” he supplied, though the others didn’t ask. “Though they tend to be better prepared than this. These men are scarcely dressed for temperate weather, let alone an environment such as this.”

“It is not our concern,” Myran said, but Keth ignored her.

“There’s a mystery here,” he stated. “Six men dead in the middle of the Antarctic for no apparent reason.”

“The only mystery is why you care, Bel’kethel.”

“We must go back! Inform the Earthborn that men of their kind have perished here.” He touched his thumb and forefinger to his forehead in a gesture of mourning. Myran rolled her eyes.

Let her be disinterested. An Earthborn mystery! What could be better?

Sadly, it was resolved too quickly for Keth’s taste. The thrill of discovery came to an end when the appropriate authorities arrived to remove the bodies. Keth never did find out who they were.

* * * *

Lyndria was pleasantly buzzed. The night had barely begun, and she was looking forward to the wildly intoxicated stage. She grinned in anticipation. Good thing she had a bodyguard capable of lifting her bodily into bed. Idly the thought wandered across her mind to bring Lindsay into the bed with her. The petite paragon was well on the path to corruption, and that would make a most pleasant point in progression. Lyndria had a preference for cock, and the bigger the better, but that was a bit like picking a favorite food. One might say they preferred pizza, but tacos were equally as satisfying. She would quite enjoy eating out Lindsay.

Through somewhat foggy vision she saw two men in business suits approaching, bearing the exact definition of dull and uninteresting. Her lovely brow furrowed for a brief moment before her face cleared. She didn’t want her skin getting any ridiculous ideas about frown lines. Where have I seen them before?

Lindsay started turning them away before they could get to Lyndria and destroy her buzz, but that exact second Lyndria remembered where she’d seen them. “Hey,” she slurred and waved them forward. “You’re Daddy’s lawyers, right? You find a way I can get my money?”

They exchanged a look that she was sure meant something, but she was far too inebriated to interpret. “Miss Wilson, we have a private business matter to discuss. Is there a place we can talk?”

“Here’s fine. Anything you can tell me you can tell Lindsay too.” She was just drunk enough that her suggestion seemed like a good idea.  Besides, she wasn’t positive she’d make it across the room right this second.

She nodded through the series of “Are you sure” until they got to the point. “Miss Wilson…your father and brothers have been found. I’m afraid…I’m afraid all six of them are dead.”

Lyndria had never sobered so quickly in her life. She sat up so quickly the room spun. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lindsay move closer, heard her soft, sympathetic gasp. It annoyed Lyndria. “I see.”

“An Elf uncovered their bodies in Antarctica. As you can imagine, authorities are looking into the unusual set of circumstances.”

She nodded as if that made sense. Elves were always finding things, right?

“There’s a number of legal hoops you’ll have to jump through in order to take control of the estate,” the one man continued. Lyndria couldn’t remember his name, and couldn’t be bothered to dig it out of her memory at this moment.

“Of course,” she said with curious calm. She was calmly curious about how serene she was being. “I believe that can be taken care of in the morning.”

“Of course, Miss Wilson. Uh—on behalf of—”

“Sir. This is a business transaction. Sympathy is misplaced, and false empathy is distasteful. I’d appreciate a display of neither.”

“Of course, miss.”

“Tomorrow, then.”

They nodded and scuttled off.

Lyndria must have been more intoxicated than she estimated, because she was across the threshold of her bedroom before she realized how she got there.

Lindsay followed her. “Lyndria, I…look, if there’s anything I can—”

“There’s an object behind you called a door, Lindsay. I’m sure you understand its function. See to it you’re on the other side.”

Lindsay opened her mouth and closed it several times like a gaping fish. “All right,” she said finally with a nod. “Call if you need anything.”

The door clicked shut.

It’s customary to cry right now, Lyndria told herself. She evidently didn’t listen. Her eyes remained dry.

It’s all mine now. The words meant nothing. Her brain tried and failed to attach some sort of reason to care about them.

All his money, all his business. Hey! I’m in charge! Something about that made her laugh out loud. The idea that she was in charge of anything was amusing. She could barely keep gerbils alive.

The thought was exciting, though. The most exciting thing that had ever happened to her. She had actual real live responsibility. People actually thought she was responsible. It was hilarious. She laughed again. “Oh my god,” she told the empty room. “That’s a laugh. I’ve gotta tell—”

Alex. The youngest of her six older brothers, they were closest in age and almost passed for actual friends. He’s dead.

“Oh my god,” she whispered. Her voice echoed loudly, like it bounced off the walls of the empty house.

That was when she began to cry.

Lindsay stared at the small, clear blue, crystal-shaped pill, still encased in the plastic baggy. Her heart pounded and she licked her lips. Your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, her mom would always say. That was one of her many rules. No drugs, no alcohol, and no sex until you got married, and even then only to breed a litter. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, she’d quote, So are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. That was her entire reason for adopting so many kids, or at least the excuse she’d give when asked. No one could argue with a Bible verse.

Lindsay hated it. You’re chosen! You’re special, dear. It was hard to believe that when she was one of three ‘chosen’. You just want to tell everyone you have lots of kids. You don’t actually care. If you did, you wouldn’t ignore me all the time. Her fist clenched around the small bag. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters. Not your stupid rules or your stupid God.

Her fist opened. She’d accidentally halfway crushed the crystal pill into powder that shredded the bag. It was now chunks of dust in the palm of her hand. I’m not a hero anymore. And I don’t want to be. She shook the bag loose and tossed it. If she was going to do drugs and watch her new friend having sex on the couch, might as well add littering to her list of wrongdoings. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. With her thumb, she crushed the rest of the pill into powder and licked it off her hand.

It tasted sweet, like strawberries, dissolving instantly in her saliva. She let it swish around her mouth a little before swallowing, and it coated her tongue, teeth, and the back of her throat with a slick, waxy substance that lingered. Nothing happened. She wasn’t quite sure what to expect—a switch to flip that turned her into a wild and crazy party-goer or something? Or at the very least for God to strike her dead.

Lyndria plopped back on the couch beside her. She smelled funny. The air was thick with the cloying scent of something thick and salty. “Well? How do you feel?” Her voice was so loud.

Lindsay shrugged. “I dunno. No different, really.” The heavy bass of the music pumped in her veins and made her heart feel funny. “Why did you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Fuck that guy because of me?” Wait, what did I just say?

“Sweetie, first thing you gotta learn about me. I fuck someone cause I want to. It just happens to be mutually beneficial a lot of the time. Believe me, there’s no better way to control someone than to give ‘em a good go of it and make them beg for more.”

“Does it hurt? To have sex. Mom always told me it would hurt.” Somebody had turned up the lights. It made her head ache.

“The first time, maybe. That turns some guys on, though. Some of ‘em like doing virgins. My brother was super in debt to a rival family, because he’s an idiot, so I went and slept with the boss’ number two, and he bankrolled the whole thing. Problem solved. Look, sweetie. Anyone, men or women, will pay for good sex, and I’m not just talking money. And there’s no better way to use someone. Nine times out of ten they don’t even realize it because they’re too busy to pay attention to what’s down here—” She pointed between her legs. “—To notice what’s going on in here.” She tapped her temple.

Lindsay nodded, as if that made sense. Wait, did she just say she lost her virginity to a mob boss? Isn’t that fucked up? “The lights,” she mumbled. “They’re all…” She searched for an appropriate word. “Flashy…ee.” That didn’t sound right. “What’s wrong with my mouth?”

“Oh, that’s just the drug. Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal. Just relax a little and enjoy the high. Lean back, sweetie. You’ll feel like you’re flying in no time.”

“I can already fly. See? Look.” She stumbled to her feet. “I can fly.” She jumped, and the floor came crashing back at her with sudden and unexpected force. Her hand went out to catch herself, and she knocked over Lyndria’s martini glass. It shattered and pain shot up her arm. She pulled her hand away and looked at it, confused. “It’s red. Why’s my hand red?”

Lyndria said something, but her words were unclear. All Lindsay could hear was the thrumming of the bass. Lyndria took her hand, so Lindsay left it with her and wandered away because she thought she saw someone she knew. Something gold flashed in the undulating lights. Golden hair and eyes with a modern day flak jacket that looked like it was designed by the ancient Romans. “What are you doing?” The golden eyes asked. They looked so sad and disappointed. “I taught you better than this.”

“Well, you didn’t teach me the most important thing,” Lindsay said, but then realized that she was high, so she should be yelling things louder. “You didn’t teach me what to do after you were dead!

Yeah, that’ll teach him. Teach him to die on me.

“Sweetie, you’d better go to bed,” Lyndria said.

Lindsay looked at her hand. It wasn’t red anymore. It was white. “Why does my hand keep changing colors?” Something soft and feathery wrapped her body. “Mmm. Never mind. That feels nice. Hey, the music stopped.”

“We’re home now,” Marcus said. He took Lindsay’s hand.

“No, not that one,” she muttered. “It hurts. Hold my other hand.” She rolled over and it turned out she was wrong about which side of the bed he was on. At least now he could hold her hand that didn’t feel like it was on fire. She curled her fingers into his. His touch felt like pink satin sheets. “Your hands are expensive,” she said.

Tears rolled down her cheeks. “I don’t know why you love me.” Her voice quivered and a sob caught in her throat. “I need you too much.  You’re sweet and kind and charming, and your sister’s really powerful, and people like me better when I’m with you. And I’m going to break your heart. I need you, Marcus. But I don’t love you.”

* * * *

Lyndria let the door swing shut behind her, leaving Lindsay to mumble at the wall in the empty room. Some foreign mothering instinct made her smile. She was a sweet kid. It would almost make her feel sad when Lindsay’s naivete was no longer a part of her. Sad, but not devastated. A paragon on their side was going to be useful.

After leaving her new baby bodyguard in a drug-induced sleep, Lyndria made a point of going to her own room, then proceeded to turn around and duck all the cameras on the way out the back door. Her own, untampered security would give her an alibi should she need one; though the night would have to turn out badly indeed to make that a possibility.

The downtown train terminal caught a mousy, forgettable brunette in a plain green sweatshirt catching the 4:37 AM train into the downtown core. It was possible the surveillance would catch her face, but Lyndria had adjusted her features enough to fool any facial recognition software. A few minutes later, and she walked into an all-night fast-food restaurant and took a seat with a number of men, all of them dwarfed by Tom Carter.

“You’re late,” he grumbled. “We were five minutes away from doing the job without you.” He scowled at her, though it didn’t change his face much.

“Aren’t you a lucky boy,” she cooed. “I showed up just five minutes before you ended up on somebody’s hit list.”

“I don’t appreciate threats, Princess.”

“Look, can we cut the arguments and get to the job?” Reece Smith grumbled.

Lyndria didn’t believe that was his real name for a second. She didn’t begrudge him his alias, though. He appeared to be the kind of person who blended into the background on purpose. He was five-foot-eight with an exceedingly average body type and facial features. Everything about him was instantly forgettable. It had actually taken Lyndria their first five jobs to remember his damn name, alias or not.

The fourth member of their team nodded. Tony Mendez was a small boy, hardly more than seventeen. His nervous demeanor would have given them away if he didn’t just look like the kind of kid who was constantly expecting some bully to sneak up behind him, throw him in a locker, and steal his lunch money. His red-rimmed eyes and glazed expression might have irked someone more professional, but Lindsay knew better than to throw stones, considering she was just getting off one hell of a buzz herself. Besides, the kid could hack faster when he was high than when he was stone cold sober.

Tom sighed and grumbled something about self-entitled…something she didn’t quite catch, but she was sure it was vulgar and insulting. She ignored the comment and he launched into a brief explanation. “With the meta community in our territory growing, the demand for Null’s getting higher, and the Salt Creek Gang is supplying.”

“They’re not on our payroll,” Lyndria interjected.

“No shit. They’re on Piroux’s. Which means they’re cutting into our business. The plan’s to cut them off at the knees, find out where they’re getting the shipments. It’s all coming through McClaine Imports/Exports, so their offices would be a good place to check out. That’s where we’re headed tonight. The opening manager’s in on it, and he grabs breakfast and a coffee here every morning, so we’ll follow him out.” He jutted his chin over to a man dressed in black, pressed pants and a blazer.

Lyndria glanced over. Her eyes met with the man’s. She suppressed a reaction and instead turned to Tom. “You mean to tell me,” she said evenly, “that you’re explaining our entire plan not ten feet away from our mark?” She smiled sweetly and put her hand on his large mitt. “You’re an idiot.” She leaned in. “Okay, guys, give me about half an hour and I’ll have us in. Track my phone, and don’t blow it.

She got up from there and headed to the bathroom where she hung up her sweatshirt, leaving a sleeveless dusty rose top with a lacy trip on its scoop neck. A bit of focus grew her breasts and altered her features into almost elf-like sharpness. Her hair turned a pretty burnt orange, and her eyes startlingly blue. A glance down showed her ass filling out her jeans just enough that her pink thong peeked out from the waist.

She left the sweatshirt in the bathroom. Some homeless kid was going to get a nice surprise. From there, she walked out and slid into the chair just across from their man. A charming smile played on her delicate lips. “Okay, so I know this is going to sound really forward, but I’ve been watching you come in every day. I work drive-through, so you probably don’t see me much, but I’ve always thought you were kinda cute.” She bit her lip and made a sweet blush appear on her cheeks. “You think we could hang out sometime?”

In about five minutes, she had him eating out of the palm of her hand, willing to take her anywhere. She subtly planted the idea that he wanted to show off his work…and maybe put his hitherto boring desk to good use.

It was shockingly easy keeping him there until the rest of her crew could get to the office. His sense of betrayal was palatable when she gagged him and tied him up on his computer chair. Her lips graced his neck and her hand slid down the inside of his thigh. “Oh, you know you like it.” She didn’t hear him argue.

It took Tony all of five minutes to hack into the files and grab the information they were looking for, while Tom and Reece stood guard. Together they cleaned the place when they were done.

“What do we do with him now?” Tony asked nervously, glancing over at the poor clerk. “He’s seen our faces.”

“Mind wipe him,” Reece suggested. “I know a guy in the city who’ll do it for a fee.”

“That’s unreliable,” Tom interjected. “Look, his service is useful, and I’ll bet we can pay more than the assclowns that think they own him.”

“Bought loyalty is about as useful as tits on an AK-47,” Reece grumbled.

“You want to say that to my face?” Tony took offense at that.

“Guys, chill,” Lyndria broke in, annoyed at their squabbles, and more so that they missed the obvious. She gave them a sly smile and slid up beside Reece. “Relax, boys. I got this.”

In a single swift motion, she yanked Reece’s sidearm out and put a bullet through the clerk’s head.

“Sorry, sweetie. Nothing personal. Just business. Tony, get the drawers open and take the cash. For all anyone knows, this was a simple robbery, and who’ll know the difference?” She smiled. “You know what they say: dead men tell no tales.”

Lyndria Wilson watched the body language of her newly-acquired bodyguard. The poor girl looked like a fish out of water. She was probably wondering what the hell she had gotten herself into. Lindsay White was refreshingly adorable, short of stature and slight of figure. The thought of corrupting her innocence brought a smile to Lyndria’s face.

So stinkin’ cute. She’s got go goddamn idea.

Lyndria was spending a few hours at the bar she’d been given as an eighteenth birthday present—and by ‘few hours’ she meant ‘all-night affair’. Erotic entertainment played on the stage to music as thick with bass as the air was with cigarette smoke and the scent of marijuana. The dancers sparkled in the flashing lights, exposing Lindsay to more glistening flesh exposed than the poor girl had ever seen in her entire lifetime. She stared open-mouthed at the gyrating muscles, having quite lost sight of Lyndria some time ago.

“Far be it from me to question your methods, ‘Princess’, but why the effing bloody hell did you bring a hero into this?” Tom Carter towered above her, even from his perch on a nearby stool at the bar. He was a massive man, with arms the size of tree trunks and shoulders that nearly swallowed his thick neck. His face wasn’t handsome to look at. His jaw was square and his chin was too big, and his forehead seemed determined to leap off its face and become sentient. To call him a friend was stretching it, but Tom was one of the very few people that Lyndria trusted, and they worked together—which was the sole reason she hadn’t fucked him yet. Everything about his physique was what her body constantly craved, but it was a bad idea to shit where you ate.

Lyndria ignored the sarcasm dripping off the title the man gave her. Daddy’s money bought a lot, and some people resented that. She didn’t care. They could resent it all the fuck they wanted, so long as they responded in a predictable manner. Tom liked money, and he knew what side his bread was buttered on. He wouldn’t screw her over. Which was more than she could say for most of the people she interacted with on a daily basis.

“You can always tell what a hero’s gonna do. They’re predictable. Almost more so than wise-ass, safe-cracking trolls that Daddy pays a lot of money to. She’ll be useful. She just needs a little corrupting.”

He glowered at her. “Your dad’s not around, now is he?”

“His money is, and that’s the important part, now isn’t it?” She put her hand on his arm. “Now, why don’t you be a good little troll and go get your gear. We got a job to do tonight. I’ll meet you in an hour.”

She wandered away, drink in hand, preferring to distract him with her swaying ass so he’d stop asking stupid questions. Questions that cut a little to close to the truth.

Daddy had been gone for months. Lyndria had a litany of older brothers that were supposed to pick up the slack on the family business should her father be incapacitated, but they’d vanished too. It left Lyndria holding the proverbial bag, but even she had to admit she was ill-equipped. She had no interest in the business—only the lifestyle it provided. Daddy had always indulged her.

Except for the last time they’d talked.

The conversation took place in the patriarch’s ostentatious study that she’d been dutifully sent to just days after a particularly interesting outing that involved the family estate of a local rising star politician. Somebody (Lyndria was way too high at the time to remember who) had set fire to the family’s heirlooms. The cops were called, and Lyndria barely escaped being busted for possession. She still had no idea where her clothes had vanished that night.

Lyndria chewed her lip in what she hoped was a contrite gesture, doing her best to fake an inability to look her father in the eye. In reality, she was barely holding back the laughter.

“Exactly what part of this do you find humorous, Lyndria?” Jacob Wilson wasn’t fooled. He spoke in a cool voice, his hands folded casually on his desk, the subtle tones in his rumbling baritone and ice in his eyes the only indication of his anger.

“Nothing, Daddy.” She glanced over to her brother, Glen, standing arms crossed over his barrel chest. With his jaw set and his piercing eyes staring at her, he looked the spitting image of their father.

No help from there, then. She was on her own. She shrugged innocently. “It wasn’t that bad.”

Jacob raised an eyebrow. “Several valuable tapestries in the Taylor estate library were burnt down.”

She couldn’t hold the grin anymore. “What can I say? Sexually repressed socialites know how to party once they really get going.”

Jacob sighed and put a hand to his forehead. “Lyndria, we’ve talked about this. You need to concern yourself with the family business. My stockholders need to know I can hold together the business, and you and your…indiscretions are putting doubts in their minds. The tabloids love a story like this, and the more they run with it, the more our stock goes down. After all, how can I be trusted with a company when I can’t even control my own daughter?”

Lyndria shrugged. “I fail to see how it is of their concern.”

“You should concern yourself with the paparazzi that photographed the entire event.”

“Oh, photos were taken? I hope they got my good side.” She snickered. “Who am I kidding? I don’t have a bad side. Besides, no one takes the tabloids seriously.”

“Seriously enough. Watch yourself, Lyndria. Blowing the story of a drunk little girl is their stock and trade.”

This lecture was getting boring. Lyndria crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” The old man would get everything out of his system in a few hours and then they would move on.

“Lyndria, I’m serious.”

“What are you going to do? Ground me?  I think I’m a little old for that.”

“It wouldn’t work anyway. You’d just sneak out of the house.”

Lyndria grinned. “Damn right I would.”

“I’ve done something much more effective. I’ve called my bank and canceled your credit cards. I’ve had my lawyers draw up paperwork barring my entire financial network from allowing you access.”

Her smile disappeared. “You what?”

“I’m cutting you off, young lady. You want to make an ass of yourself, you do it on your own dime.”

“But, Daddy, I—”

“No buts. Get out there and make your own money. You’re a capable person if put your mind to it. Put aside your hedonistic tenancies for a while. Learn the real world.”

“But Sara Smith’s birthday party is next week, and I gotta have money for that. Everybody who’s anybody is going to be there. What are people going to think if I don’t show up?”

“Then you’d better earn fast. And if you want any goodwill with the Taylor’s, you’d better figure out how to pay for those tapestries.”

“You mean you’re not—”

“No, I’m not paying for them. From here on out, you rise and fall on your own merit.” He tapped the desk with his index finger for emphasis.

“But I—”

“Dismissed.”

“But—”

“Dismissed, young lady!”

Lyndria narrowed her eyes, allowing tears to pool up. “I hate you.” She turned on her heel and stormed out of the room.

One of her other brothers, Alex, stood outside the door. He smiled a bit and leaned down conspiratorially to her as they walked down the hallway. “The classic ‘I hate you’ line. Think it’ll work?”

She smiled at him. “I give it two days.”

“You go, girl.” He held up his hand and she slapped it in a high five.

She woke up the next morning to an empty house. She couldn’t really say how she knew it was empty, it just felt that way. She shook off the feeling and began to prepare for her Breakfast Manipulation Plan. It took her the better part of an hour and a half to get dressed, decide what face she was going to wear that day, then apply makeup to it. The best part about being a metamorph was that she could change her hair and eye color easier than most people changed their clothes. She waffled for a while between a conservative mousy brown hair approach, and the wild, blue hair rebellious method. Did she want to appear sorry for what she’d done, or reinforce how much she hated him?

In the end, she stuck with her original plan and added some green streaks to the blue. She applied a deep black lipstick and thick eyelashes to go along with a tight, lacy bodice barely appropriate outside of the bedroom, and a plaid short skirt that only pretended to cover her ass.

Her efforts were wasted. Jacob Wilson didn’t show up for breakfast. Or lunch. The staff all assumed he’d gone out for the day, but when Lyndria made her way to the office, he wasn’t there either. By the time dinner rolled around, Lyndria was worried. She’d never get her money back if he didn’t show soon.

The day ended and then stretched into weeks. Her father didn’t return. Worse, her brothers, who should have been running the estate in his absence, had also vanished. Every day drove her deeper and deeper into debt, borrowing money on her father’s good name, promising to repay it when she got a hold of her father’s estate. They were going to come back. They had to. Lyndria refused to be worried, because that was a waste of brainspace.

She grabbed another drink on her way back to her brand new, adorably cute bodyguard, grinning a little at the other girl’s enthralled look. Lyndria didn’t blame her. There were some fine specimens of humanity on-stage.

The loud music covered her approach as she snuck up behind Lindsay and spoke in her ear. “Oh, that’s a cute face.” Lindsay jumped.

Lindsay stammered and nearly tripped over the arm of the nearby couch. Only her flight ability saved her, and she ended up seated stiffly on the edge of the red plush piece of furniture. “I, uh, I…I—”

Lyndria slid in beside her. “Your mouth’s hanging open so wide it’s like it wants to devour the man-flesh on stage.” She grinned. “Want one?”

Lindsay shook her head, eyes wide. “I-I, uh…I have a boyfriend. Back home. I-I have a boyfriend.”

She chuckled. “That don’t mean anything. He’s there. You’re here. And it’s been how long? Seriously. How long’s it been since you had a guy hard inside you?”

Shock dropped Lindsay’s jaw and set her cheeks aflame. She clamped her mouth together so hard her teeth rattled. At a loss for words, she shook her head vigorously in the negative.

“Oh aren’t you adorable. Sweetie, it’s okay, I know a virgin when I see one. I won’t push.” The sigh of relief had barely exited out of Lindsay’s mouth before Lyndria continued, “Of course, the one in the blue thong is looking right at you.”

Lindsay shook her head. “No. No, I-I…I’m not…” She trailed off before she could say something that could potentially offend her libidinous employer.

“A slut?” Lyndria smirked.

“I didn’t say that.” It was written on her face, though.

“Relax, you’re hardly the first to say it. Whatever, I take it as a compliment. Sex is the most basic biological urge beyond eating, drinking, and breathing, and is equally as essential. Trust me when I say this, you got the ability to provide sex? You got something everybody wants.”

Lindsay crossed her legs and hugged her arms to her body. “I’m not sure I want boys looking at me that way.”

“Oh, it’s not about ‘boys’.” She raised her fingers in air quotes. “It’s about human experience. And what’s more human than sex?” She jerked her head toward the stage where two of the men locked lips while a third traced his mouth down the back of one of them.

“I guess…” She shrugged. “I dunno. My boyfriend and I are pretty close. Or…we were. I sort of left things hanging when I came here.”

It could have been a trick of the flashing lights, but it looked to Lyndria like the other girl was close to tears. “You think he might have found someone else?” she asked softly.

Lindsay shook her head vigorously. “No! Nothing like that. Believe me, he’s the last person who would ever do something like that. It’s just…I don’t know when I’m going home. Or even…even if I am.”

“Well, don’t think about it.” It seemed an obvious solution to Lyndria. “Look, if it’s meant to happen, it’ll happen. In the meantime…there’s booze.”

“I can’t get drunk.”

“Oh, come on. I’m your boss. You can get drunk if I say you can get drunk.”

“No, I mean I physically can’t. My metabolism processes the alcohol too fast.”

Lyndria shrugged. She tipped her head backward over the couch and bellowed, “Hey, Crystal!”

A mousy looking guy in a gray hoodie and baggy pants shambled over. “You still dealing?” Lyndria asked.

Crystal raised his eyebrow. “Since when do you do Null?”

“Since never. Don’t need to shit on my powers to get high. My friend here, however…”

“Yeah, yeah, fine. You got money?”

“You want money, or you want me to ride your cock for a bit?”

Lindsay made a sound of protest, but Lyndria waved her off. Crystal jumped over the back of the couch and fished a small package out of his pocket containing a single pill shaped like his namesake. Lyndria took it from him with one hand, while the other worked at his jeans. She handed the pill to Lindsay. “Here. Take it. Get high. Forget your life for a while.” She grinned. “Seriously? It’s not that fucking bad.”

“So you’re taking point on the investigation.” Sam was a little stunned, and Eric couldn’t blame her.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“I have to admit, I’m a little surprised.”

“No more than I.”

“Have you any background in investigation, Mr. Harrington? What qualifies you for this position?”

That was a damn good question. “I’m a fan of detective novels, does that count?” He meant it as a joke, but the woman didn’t even crack a smile. “To be honest, I’m not sure. All I know is that Drake asked me. The man’s incapable of leaving something this important in the hands of someone he doesn’t trust.”

“I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that assessment. I do think I should give this assignment to someone with more training.”

“With all due respect, Ma’am, I don’t believe that’s your call.” He found that he relished the look of surprise on her face. “Look, I get that you’re the one in the Director’s chair, and that’s fine. Your intellect and people skills are unparalleled. You may not think much of me because of the internal feud you’ve got going on with my girlfriend, but to be perfectly honest, that’s irrelevant.

“Thing is, I’ve learned you put your people in positions for a reason. You’re damn good at understanding people’s capabilities, at working with what they will and won’t do. Drake’s a good man. A little bat-crap crazy if you don’t mind me saying, but a good man nonetheless. There are reasons he’s your best investigator. And there are reasons he chose me to work where he can’t. Those reasons might baffle you and I, but frankly I’d rather trust him and trust his faith in me. I’ll do my damndest. All I ask is that you let me.”

Sam wasn’t the kind to be swayed by a pretty speech. She regarded him for a moment that seemed to take forever as she picked up the teacup from her desk. Sam had a weakness for Earl Grey tea, a habit shared by her predecessor to the Director’s office—and his girlfriend. Eric wondered what Charity would say if she knew her arch nemesis liked the same kind of tea she did.

“Frankly, Mr. Harrington, you haven’t the luxury of experience,” she said, just before taking a sip. “You’ve been here all of, what, four years now? I’m having difficulty with—”

She stopped short. In fact, she stopped breathing altogether. “With—” She coughed. The teacup rattled onto the desk. “Call the doc—”

That was all she managed before she collapsed.

Eric had no love for the woman either, but he wasn’t about to stand back and see her suffer. The fact that she could be dying didn’t occur to him, but he did have the presence of mind to hit the intercom as he dashed behind the desk to catch her as she fell. “Geoff, get Dr. Franks in immediately.”

Her lips were blue and she wasn’t breathing. A part of his mind noticed with some irony that Sam was possibly the only one who could give dignity to choking to death.

Sam’s secretary practically broke the door down with the doctor in his arms. Geoff found a corner to stand in and wring his hands, while Dr. Franks knelt beside Sam. “It’s okay, Ma’am, relax, I’m here.” She glanced at Eric. “Was she eating or drinking anything?”

“The tea,” Eric said, with a glance at the offending teacup.

The doctor nodded and dipped a finger in the liquid. The woman had control over the chemical composition of liquids. As soon as she understood the poison, she touched Sam’s face and broke down the chemical clawing its way inside.

Sam gasped and sat up. “Easy, easy, Director,” Dr. Franks said. “You’re okay.”

Eric got to his feet. “Dr. Franks, I’d like you to make sure an analysis is run on the tea. I want to know every molecule in it. Geoff, walk me through—”

“I can tell you what’s in it, Eric,” Dr. Franks interrupted, rather annoyed. “It’s composed of—”

“Thank you, Doctor, your mental analysis is quite accurate, I’m sure, but I’d like to get the evidence on paper if you don’t mind. Now, Geoff—”

“Hold on, who died and made you king?” Dr. Franks snapped.

Eric just looked at her. “I’m taking point on the investigation into Stryker’s death. One of our own has been murdered, and we just came damn close to making that two. Do you believe that’s a coincidence? Run the analysis. I want everything above board and by the book, understand?”

Dr. Franks looked at him with surprise. She glanced at Sam, who nodded. Then her gaze went back to Eric, clearly unimpressed. “Fine.”

Eric nodded. He took a breath and tried, again, to question Geoff. “Can you walk me through the process of making the tea?”

It took two hours to go through the ten-minute process of brewing the tea. The poor secretary was terrified he was a suspect, despite the fact that it took the first two moments for Eric’s gut feeling to eliminate him. He was completely devoted to Sam, and furthermore, he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Gentle and built like a beanpole, the man was entirely uninterested in violence, let alone murdering someone.

The strange thing was that Sam habitually scanned with her retrocognition ability. She could read into the past of objects and people. As a security measure, she always read the past of anything she ate or drank. Of course she was a target. She’d been a target since she sat in the most powerful chair in the country—arguably the most powerful organization on the planet.

But it didn’t take very long for that avenue of investigation to run its course. Geoff had nothing to do with it; simply an unwitting pawn. The nearest they could figure out brought them full circle.

The Fae. Already they were massing together in a gathering unprecedented. The investigation into Ptah-Setker-Osiris proved fruitless, so either the little creatures were not involved with another god, or the Egyptian composite deity was doing a damned good job of hiding their tracks. Eric wasn’t sure which option he disliked more.

So that led him to an avenue of investigation that made him feel more than a little uncomfortable.

* * * *

The bell rang above the door of the Eyre’s Eye. Music nearly a century old played in the background, drowning out the voices of the sizable crowd in the bar. A few flicked their gaze over to his entrance, but most seemed entirely unaware of his presence. Eric wasn’t sure how he felt about this crowd. On the one hand, his meeting would hopefully go unnoticed; on the other, anyone who would go about noticing would also be lost in the mass of people.

He’d dressed down for the occasion, with a comfortable pair of jeans and a plaid shirt left unbuttoned over a white t-shirt. This was so not his usual crowd. College kids and blue-collar workers made up most of the customer base, which made sense considering the slightly shady part of town. It wasn’t that he felt distain for anyone who regularly lived paycheck to paycheck—after all, he’d deliberately gone to a public high school and subsequently met the love of his life there. He knew he was privileged. The problem was that they all did too and treated him often with contempt.

Charity was different. She kept him grounded and loved him for what was in his heart. He had more to give than money, and she saw that without a hint of a sarcastic ‘oh, poor little rich boy’. That alone was worth more than all the money he had.

He wasn’t entirely without street smarts. He knew not to ask for his favorite imported whiskey. The place wasn’t a dive, exactly, but they certainly didn’t have the budget for his regular drink. Instead he went with what they had. He ordered a bottle of the cheap stuff. He wouldn’t make such a ridiculous statement like “whiskey is whiskey”, but for the sake of not drawing attention, he’d be satisfied with something made of alcohol.

He was about halfway through the bottle when his contact finally showed. “You’re late,” he said.

“Not at all. I’ve been in the bar for an hour, arriving precisely at the time I said I would. Not my issue you didn’t see me.”

Eric didn’t rise to the bait. The man went by the handle the Spyder. No one really seemed to know his real name; frankly it didn’t matter. According to Delta’s file, he had super hearing and invisibility—and was one heck of an informant. He wore a black overcoat and a fedora that fit comfortably just over his eyes.

He smiled as he saw that Eric made no response. “I understand you and I have a transaction to make.”

Eric gave him the same smile: suspicious and without mirth. “Ah, yes. I’ve been told you see this as business. I suppose that’s fair. Knowledge is power, after all, and people will pay a great deal of money for power.”

The Spyder chuckled. “I find it quite amusing how many people assume I am motivated by money.” He shrugged. “An effective means to an end, to be sure, and if you’d like to buy your information by the dollar, I am prepared for that as well. I understand you’re quite capable of providing.”

“Then you know that I too am a businessman. I understand the value of commodities beyond that of a dollar. I have come with the necessary currency.”

“Then, by all means, shall we begin our negotiations?”

“Of course. Let’s start with the value of your business. I’d like to know more. After all, before I buy a piece of property, I do my research. Sometimes months go by before the paperwork is drawn. I see no reason why our deal should be any different.”

“Then you should know that requests for any personal details will bring an end to our negotiations immediately.”

Eric waved his hands dismissively. “You misunderstand me. I have no interest in what hides behind the name you chose to show the streets. Your past is a closely guarded secret.” He smiled. “And therefore of greater value to any who might actually know it.” Eric had no idea who the man was, but he pretended he did. After all, if he could unnerve the guy, it might give him an advantage.

The Spyder didn’t seem to buy his bluff. “You know my terms. What is it you wish to know?”

“I’m sure you’ve heard of the assassination of Stryker.”

“Sounds like the title of a bad chick lit movie.” He shrugged. “I’d have to be deaf and blind not to notice. I see that Delta’s spinning its tires to figure out the meaning of it all.”

“Do you know anything about the assassin?”

“That’s information. I’ll need something in exchange?”

Despite himself, Eric’s lip twitched in annoyance. “If you have no information, I fail to see why I should pay the fee.”

Spyder gave that smarmy smile again. Eric’s attempt to control the situation wasn’t going well. “When you buy a box of pills from the pharmacy, you trust that the pills are in the box; because who cares if they work or not if they’re not there? I don’t do bad business, Mr. Herrington. Let’s see what you have to offer, and we can continue. Rest assured, if I don’t have the answers you are looking for, you’ll be reciprocated.”

Eric didn’t like it, but he figured he needed to give him something. “Our analysis of the scene show that the man was entirely and intentionally unremarkable. Even a post-cog scan of the place revealed no details of the assassin. He—or she, if we are to show due equality of the sexes—was a complete professional, cleaning the place thoroughly. The shot was at a distance that would provide a challenge for anyone untrained as a sniper, yet close enough that even the marksmanship itself was not overly notable.”

“So in other words, you don’t have a damn clue about your culprit.”

Eric shrugged. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. What we know about the killer should be enough for me to know if you’ve got any information or not.”

He chuckled. “Indeed. As it happens, I know nothing about your assassin.”

That actually surprised Eric a little. “Among your entire network not one of your informants saw or heard anything? I was quite certain you had your eyes everywhere.”

When the Spyder hesitated to answer, Eric realized he finally had something of an advantage. It was his turn to give that deprecating chuckle. “If you’ll pardon a momentary science lesson, let me ask you: how do we know of the existence of black holes? Not because we can see them, certainly, but because we can’t. It is pure nothing.” He paused to let that sink in. “You’ve got a black hole in your information network, Spyder. Furthermore…I know why. So let me ask you…what is that information worth to you?”

The Spyder regarded him for a moment. “It’s not Solstice. They’re as baffled by this as you are. They haven’t the faintest idea how it was done. You’re just lucky your Mister X got to the bullet as fast as he did, or they’d be able to reverse engineer your fancy sonic scream that’s evidently brickhead’s weakness.” Eric stiffened at the insulting epithet for Stryker. “Oh, I’m sorry. The flying brickhead.”

Eric thought about that for a moment. Well, that was one suspect down. That was a bit of a relief, anyway. It meant they could focus on Fae involvement. Especially since it seemed their influence was more widespread than he first thought.

“What I’m about to tell you will seem like a crazy fantasy at best, but I assure you it’s true. There are creatures that live in this world that call themselves the Shadow Fae. They’re…not exactly from around here.” He held up his hand. “I am telling the truth, Stryker. After all, I know the necessities of quality of product as well. These creatures often take the image of small children. They have the ability to disguise themselves within the minds of others. They’ve even been known to fool technology. Frankly, the only reason why we generally know they exist is because they want us to.

“Infiltrating your information network would be…if you’ll pardon the pun…child’s play. They are masters of deception. And if they don’t want you to know something…then you won’t.”

The Spyder was quiet. “How does one counter such things?”

“You don’t. You get the hell out of dodge.”