Something in me, dark and sticky
All the time it’s getting strong
No way of dealing with this feeling
Can’t go on like this too long
This time you’ve gone too far
This time you’ve gone too far
I told you, I told you, I told you
Don’t talk back
Just drive the car
Shut your mouth
I know what you are
Don’t say nothing
Keep your hands on the wheel
Don’t turn around
This is for real
Digging in the dirt
Stay with me, I need support
I’m digging in the dirt
To find the places I got hurt
Open up the places I got hurt
The more I look, the more I find
As I close on in, I get so blind
I feel it in my head, I feel it in my toes
I feel it in my sex, that’s the place it goes
I’m digging in the dirt
Stay with me I need support
I’m digging in the dirt
To find the places I got hurt
To open up the places I got hurt
Digging in the dirt
To find the places we got hurt
~ Digging in The Dirt (Peter Gabriel)
Tabitha woke out of breath, clutching at her stomach as the nightmare broke, the old terror washing over her. Hoping she hadn’t screamed out loud and disturbed anyone else in the hotel, she let her face sink into her hands and waited for the nausea to subside.
The memories clashed and bled together in her thoughts, but not all of them were horrid – that, of course, made it worse. How many times had Cable and Beast told her to name her fear in order to render it powerless?
“Sabretooth,” she whispered, shivering as if saying the name could conjure the psychopath. “You bastard – it never works on you.”
For a time, she had dared to call Victor Creed a friend, but that had been a silly fantasy, pointed out often by her peers and superiors alike. Wolverine had lobotomized the feral mutant with a claw when he escaped his cage, and the childlike innocence that had followed had only been the holding pattern his mind had taken up while his healing factor worked to repair his brain.
Tabitha had been drawn to him for many reasons; first and foremost, was her belief in the possibility of redemption. If a monster like Sabretooth could change, why couldn’t someone else; someone like her drunken abusive father, or even herself?
At the same time, Sam had joined the X-Men. She had been so proud, until she realized his ambition to fight with the dream team would slowly tear them apart. The first time she had snuck into the Danger Room to visit Creed had been the morning Sam had turned her away, not even caring that she had arranged to have the whole day to spend with him after a long absence already.
That morning, Creed had been like a kitten. It seemed insane now and her stomach twisted again at the recollection of all the warnings she had ignored, once the others began to figure out what she was doing.
Wasn’t any harm at first, I know it, she thought. Pure kitten, wouldn’t hurt a butterfly – so I brought him a bowl of milk that night. Guilt seeped in and shamed her. How long had it been before she touched him? The hair on the man, like a blonde pelt, almost; I wanted to know if it was soft. Tears rose. It was.
In the time that followed, for three weeks, she brought him milk every night after everyone else went to bed. At first, he hadn’t been able to speak and didn’t seem to know who or what he was. She’d liked him better then. She had spilled her secrets to him, her fears, her past, her self-hatred.
As Sam grew more busy and was gone longer and longer, ignoring her or brushing her off when he did see her, her loneliness had driven her to things she had never admitted to anyone.
Biting her lip, Tabitha let the tears fall. “It’s not like he was a kid; the man was massive and pretty damn all-grown-up. Why’d they dress him in those obscene black cycle shorts, anyway? Not my fault, is it? Hell, maybe one of the other gals liked him in them, too, picked them out for him?”
The lie burned her eyes. He couldn’t talk, so he couldn’t tell, and it was obvious he hadn’t understood what she was doing, even when his body reacted to her tentative curious caresses.
It was huge, curving under the shorts like that. All of him, the muscles, the … bigger than Sam. Maybe better, too. God, I was such an idiot… Then Wolverine showed up in my bedroom after that, to ‘warn’ me, told me I had ‘Creed’s smell on me’. Did he know what I did? Couldn’t have. He could smell who I touched, not what – and who touched me.
Creed had rolled into her when she stoked his back, while he’d been lapping up the milk. He’d purred and rubbed against her, his expressive pointed ears twitching, and she’d nearly…
“Stop torturing yourself, dummy. You didn’t, and he couldn’t have, could he? He didn’t know what end was what then.” Drawing in a deep breath, she let it out slowly. “Then he started talking. Oh, lord, that threw me, but he didn’t seem to remember anything beyond the visits, the milk.”
He’d asked her to change the holographic cage from a jungle scene to the grounds outside of the mansion. After a few bad tries, she’d gotten it. When she went back in, he’d offered his hand and invited her to go for a walk. All thoughts of inappropriate touching had died then.
It was too creepy, having him walk and talk like a man. So tall, I could barely reach his shoulder – just never noticed it while he was keeping to all-fours and lying around in the ‘sun’. That was the real moment when I got addicted though, wasn’t it – having someone talk to me, having him want me around, be pleased to see me. No one else…
Holding that hand in her memory, feeling the long, thick fingers laced with hers, the deadly claws retracted, she knew she was safe. She had been happy again, too, for such a short time. Then her teammates, her boyfriend, and finally Professor Xavier had sprung their “intervention”. They’d changed her access code for the Danger Room control booth, locking her out to keep her away from the only person who understood how alone, how desolate she was.
“I never got to walk with him again.” Holding herself tightly, she shuddered. “Got to talk to him again, though, didn’t I? Why the hell didn’t Betsy pull me out of there the minute she saw me go in?”
Professor Xavier had admitted defeat and he was about to turn the fully healed and rabid, mocking monster over to the authorities. Betsy Braddock, the telepathic ninja warrior Psylocke, had been watching in the control booth after the professor left.
Creed, trapped in a metal chair-like contraption that encased his legs from below the knees, his arms below the elbows, had been immobile. Other bands of metal had held his elbows, shoulders, and chest – even his face. Only his insane laugher was free to ring out in the Danger Room.
Betsy had known, hadn’t she? That she needed to face him. She probably didn’t know how easily he could goad her. Yet Betsy had told her telepathically to leave; Tabitha had blown her off, insisting she could handle herself, and him.
“He called me a failure, called me ‘white trash’, a loser – like him. He spoke about my dad, being a drunk, he knew … because I told him. That means he’d remembered everything I ever said to him while I thought he was…”
His cruel taunting had pushed her to attack him and as her trio of time bombs exploded into his face and chest, they had destroyed the chair, the restraints, and the bands of metal that restricted his fangs. He’d erupted out of the wreckage, hair and skin on fire, and launched at her. Thrown to the floor by the blast, her power momentarily depleted, she’d been helpless.
He’d have torn my face off if Betsy … if she hadn’t… Flashing across her thoughts was the large hand she had held. It was the same! It was the same, when he … when he slashed…
Tabitha launched off of the bed, her hand clamped over her mouth, and ran for the bathroom. When the sickness subsided, her throat raw from dry heaving, she ran a shaking hand through sweaty curls. Her other hand wiped at her lips and she hissed when she realized she’d bruised her knees falling in front of the toilet.
“Stop thinking about it, you stupid wretch; that was a long time ago. Clean up, go out – you have a job to do.”
Her second shower was hotter and it felt good on cramping muscles. She tilted her face up into the spray and let it hide her fresh tears, let it wash them away.
~ ~ ~
“Oh honey, I don’t think you should go around asking about Fisk. He doesn’t come into Faro much, anyway. His servants do, mostly for supplies, but that’s about it.”
Tabitha sipped her Dr. Pepper and smiled at the kind old woman behind the counter at the small diner. “Not going to go looking for him,” she lied, smooth as butter. “I’m just curious about him, after some of the wild stories my buddy Phil told me. Besides, I have some serious fun to chase up here, no time for much else.”
“Well, yes. For supplies, go see Debbie at the general store, then Eddy can rent you the snowmobile and camping gear. There’ll be other tourists around where Eddy’s building is, so you can ask someone to go out there with you; it’s not safe alone in those mountains. There’re bears, wolves, and worse.”
Lions, and tigers, and bears – oh my! “Got it.”
She paid for her meager breakfast, having mostly eaten the mound of toast that came with it, and headed off to see Debbie and Eddy. Soon enough, she had everything rented, gathered, repacked, and tucked away.
For the sake of “safety first” everyone lectured about, she had told Margie, the woman at her hotel, that she’d be back after a week or so of camping. It stung a bit to lie to every resident of Faro that she met; they were all so friendly and kind. Sighing, she left Eddy’s rental shop and climbed up onto the snowmobile.
Grateful for everything that Cable, the X-Men, and eventually Pete Wisdom had ever taught her, she started the machine up with ease. The few other tourists at the shop were easy to ditch – they were all families. Tabitha waved to them before driving off out of town and onto the marked trails that surrounded the Tintina Valley. She let out a whoop of excitement that was more than just for pseudo-tourist appearances – the day was gorgeous if freezing, and snowmobiling was anything but boring. It almost made her forget to hate snow.
As she struck out to the northeast, heading for the North Canol Road, she thought about the locals’ opinion of her mark. None of them knew much about Fisk, but what they suspected didn’t make them like the man. They admitted to liking his pair of French servants well enough, an older and a younger man. Apparently, the Frenchmen were house-sitting year round, but their boss was only there once or twice a year and never for very long.
Maybe Goshana will be there even if he isn’t? That’d be convenient as all hell. Couple of French dudes I can handle, no problem. No one in town has seen a child, girl, or woman with the servants, though. Guess that makes sense – if she’s Fisk’s captive, they wouldn’t bring her along on a grocery run. Question is, do they know about her at all, and if so, are they in cahoots with their boss enough to fight me for her?
Her mission packet had already told her what the locals had offered reluctantly – Fisk owned an obscene mansion with a lot of estate land fenced in, the whole of it nestled at the base of the Selwyn Mountains, the next range over. According to her information on the mansion, it was actually built into the mountains, maybe even partially carved into the rock.
Well, that’ll narrow it down, anyway – hard to end up at the neighbor’s by mistake.
Apparently, she could avoid the rivers and make serious time by borrowing the North Canol Road, which was officially closed in winter. Once she left the road, all she had to do was double back southwest a bit and start looking for the estate in the mountains, somewhere between the branches of the Hess and MacMillan Rivers.
Rothenberg had not provided much detail on any home defenses Fisk might have in place. She’d pried out of Phil the fact that no one knew much about her mark at all, including Rothenberg himself. The man had broken into the estate in Seattle, stolen Goshana and escaped – almost without anyone knowing.
Tabitha got onto the snowy hump of the road once she finally found it and then travelled along its winding way as fast as she could manage without ditching. That leg of the trip took the most time, but without the road, it would have taken forever. She tried not to let her mind wander, either; they hadn’t closed the road due to it being safe to travel on in winter.
~ ~ ~
It was getting close to nightfall by the time she left the road and started looping back to the southwest. The mountain trails were more like animal tracks this far out from Faro. Tabitha had hung her binoculars around her neck and stopped often, the better to spot any sign of Fisk’s place in the mountain range around her.
Maybe I need to be a little more to the northwest? Where’s the damn branch of the Hess?
Dusk was settling around her before she spotted the gray column of smoke twining up out of the thick forest, to the northwest, as she had suspected. Stopping the snowmobile, she picked up the binoculars again.
Gotcha. Wow, that’s a swanky setup for lumberjack sheik.
The binoculars helped her pick out quite a few windows, chimneys, and even balconies dotting the mountainside over and around the part of the structures that actually looked like a house.
Not far out in front, a snowed-in road led to a massive stone and cast iron gate. The other end of it probably connected to the North Canol Road somewhere and she grinned to think that she might have driven up to the gate and rung the bell if she could have found the turnoff.
In the distance, she finally picked out the branch of the Hess River she’d been hunting for. The MacMillan branch was out of sight in the other direction, but it had to be there.
Swinging back to the monstrous house, she studied what little she could see of it among the trees. The fences were cast iron too, sporting a lot of razor spikes in between thick stone posts. At any point she could see, it had to be over ten feet tall. The whole fence line couldn’t be seen, as it curved out around the front of the mansion and into the forest on both sides.
Now, that looks like an über Bond villain pad if ever I saw one. Crap. Wish I knew what lethal goodies are rigged up to deter unwanted guests! Can’t monkey with it now, though; got to set up camp before it’s all the way dark. I’ll work on getting into those woods over there tomorrow night after a good rest; then I can try sneaking in the back way.
Dropping the binoculars to her chest, she drove a little farther into the trees and found a space big enough for a tent and a fire pit. The work of setting up camp almost had her sweating in the heavy arctic clothing, but the minute she sat down on the fallen tree she’d put her fire next to, the freezing air worked its way back into her lungs and bones.
Spooning canned beef stew out of her cooking pot, she shivered and stomped her boots in the snow.
“Too bad I can’t explode a bomb just to warm up my feet. I am not looking forward to needing to pee again.” She spoke aloud just to hear a human voice. The wind and forest sounds vied with a creepy utter silence, the two trading off attempts to drive her crazy. “Got to head for California the second I get paid. Maybe L.A., check out Hollywood – anything but San Francisco.”
Memories of her time there with the remnants of X-Force, and once again with Sam, came flooding in. Yet thinking about their training and later adventures with the English black-ops mutant, Pete Wisdom, only made her feel more alone.
“Thanks to Pete, though, I’m a pretty damn dangerous girl these days. The time bombs can be round or spikes and I can control them a hell of a lot better, too. Add up the rest: martial arts, computer hacking, and a bunch of other black-ops spy crap, and maybe Mr. Dangerous Fisk should be running from me.”
Try as she might, she couldn’t stop herself from thinking about Sam. Over the years, when he had left her, with or without breaking up first, she had ended up with others. Her track record of shacking up with teammates had almost become a joke.
“If Sam hadn’t been there, I might have ended up with Pete; he had that girl-melting broody bad boy vibe working pretty hard. Aw, who am I kidding? I’m a perfect match for the bad boy type, but that just makes me go for the clean-cut good boy type.” Sighing, she bit her lip and let the spoon clank into the empty pot. “Sam is the sort of guy the girl I want to be should end up with. Figures, I didn’t end up with him. Maybe I should quit trying to reach over my head and just canoodle with a good old bad boy? They have certain advantages, especially in bed.”
With a derisive snort, she got up and started cleaning up the cooking equipment. She put out the fire, since she didn’t want it to draw too much attention while she wasn’t on watch. For morning coffee, she could just make another baby bomb and set more tinder on fire.
Slipping into the trees for another frozen pee, she almost ran into her tent and zipped it up against the cold. Her life saved by the metal heat lamp screwed onto a propane bottle that Eddy had suggested, she bedded down in her sleeping bag and blanket in all of her clothes, even the boots. The only clothing she removed was the puffy jacket, since it wouldn’t have let her move in the sleeping bag.
Briefly, the inspiration to play with herself bounced around in her head, but the thought of frozen fingers down her pants killed it. Keeping the gloves on, she tried to fall asleep while listening to the wind.
Soon enough, she huffed and sat up, digging in the front pocket of her duffel bag. “Who am I kidding? Nature Girl, I’m not.” Fishing out her iPod, she pushed the earpieces into her ears and dialed up her favorite playlist to chill out to. She didn’t bother looking at her cell phone – no one called it anymore.
~ ~ ~
Once, when she had to get up in the middle of the night to pee again, she grabbed the binoculars and walked off to the edge of the slope where she had checked out Fisk’s mansion before. There were a few lights shining through the trees, but they all seemed to be concentrated at the center of the main structures.
“I wonder what she’s doing – if she’s okay.” Her heart squeezed in sympathy for the unknown girl she’d been sent to rescue. “I’m not a complete moron, either – Rothenberg’s no saint. When I get you out of there, Goshana, I’ll ask you where you want to go. We can always show up in Seattle, get my money and then blast our way back out. Next stop, Disneyland! Unless you like that arrogant toad; then fine, drop you off, get paid, and walk on.” Frowning at her puffing white breath, she added, “Destination: bikini weather.”
She went back into the trees, found a spot to squat and freeze, and bolted back to the warm tent again with the binoculars bouncing on their strap against her chest. Ditching the binoculars and jacket on top of the duffel bag and pushing Christina Aguilera back into her ears, she slowly drifted off to sleep.
~ ~ ~
Tabitha broke camp the next afternoon, covering the fire pit with snow and trying to make her campsite less obvious. Driving a bit deeper into the trees and closer to the estate house, she started looking for a good spot to stash the snowmobile.
She almost wished she’d spent as much time with Wolverine as her friend Jubilee had – the crash course in living in the wild might have been handy. I’d have had to put up with Wolvie, though, so maybe not. I’m doing all right … not too shabby.
She often told herself she didn’t dislike Wolverine – she just didn’t appreciate his thorny my-way-or-the-highway attitude, especially when he had an opinion on how she should run her life. She gulped at the memory that his last opinion, about Sabretooth, had been right on the money.
“Oh shut up,” she said, berating the circling thoughts. “They were right, I was wrong, ancient history. Paid my dues, man.” Paid with someone else’s blood…
When she stopped and got off of the snowmobile, she glared at a thin tree branch in the snow at her feet and stomped on it, relishing the snap under her boot.
I’ll never make up for that, but I’ve saved a lot of lives since, and damn it, that ought to balance the scales a little bit. Hell, I’m about to save another life on this miserable jaunt – playing the hero game as well as I can on my own, even if I’m getting paid for it now. Frowning, she added, Or I will be, someday.
Tabitha didn’t set up camp again. At mealtimes, she fished some food out that she wouldn’t need to cook. Waiting for nightfall so she could get started, she worked at cutting some brush to lay over and around her snowmobile. Then she suited up with what she thought she might need for a stealthy raid and packed away the rest before covering the vehicle.
Getting the lay of the land around her with the last of the daylight, she worked her way northwest through the trees. Once night fell, it was hard to keep her direction straight. She could barely see her hand in front of her face and she was afraid she’d find the fence by smacking into it before she saw it. A flashlight waited in an inner pocket of her jacket, but she didn’t dare use it this close to the enemy.
Twisting with a start, she looked behind her and tried to find the source of the noise she’d heard, unsure if it was wind and branches, or something worse.
Was that a scraping? Maybe it’s a deer, crunching in the snow… Yeah, and maybe it’s Frankenstein’s monster creeping up to chew on your spine. Focus, Tab – get in, grab, get out.
She took another step forward and screamed as a beam of red light fired and burned a hole through the sleeve of her jacket, an inch below the elbow.
“Holy shit!” Was that a laser? Get a grip, Tab, you knew this place would be loaded for bear. She stood still for several breathes, expecting to be fired at again when she moved, but one tentative step after another was rewarded with silence and no hostile action. Automated systems? Got to be motion sensors triggering the laser shots. So why isn’t it keeping it up?
She stiffened and stopped again when something large and wide appeared in the gloom across her path, slanting upward. It took her a few moments and a couple more careful advancing steps to recognize the estate’s cast iron fence.
Really don’t want to scale that in the pitch dark. Hundred thousand, hundred thousand, hundred thousand – it’ll be worth it. Think of Goshana: scared, needing help … my help. Okay, here I go.
She reached for the coil of rope on her belt, but before she could take it off of its catch, she was struck from behind by something big. Shouting in fear and outrage, she formed one fireball of plasma energy per palm and launched them behind her, but in the same instant, she was launched herself – up and right over the ten foot fence.
Barely clearing the spikes at the top, she landed hard in a heap, on her face in the snow. Whatever had picked her up and thrown her was on her back before she could rise, knocking the wind out of her a second time. Her bombs exploded harmlessly in the air in the place where her assailant had been when she was struck.
It moved off of her and then another came at her from her right. Her mind snapped into focus in an instant, forming and throwing the balls of plasma as fast as she could. Her attackers seemed to come in from all sides, darting forward and back to avoid her bombs, and they were moving too quickly to be seen in the light of the explosions.
Going to exhaust that option quick at this rate. Can I hit these things? What the hell are they?
She took a martial arts stance and tried to aim a hook kick at one of the creatures. Shocked when her boot actually connected with something furry, she stepped out and prepared to strike again.
A low growl sounded right at her ear and she whirled, but before she could get her boot around, the massive thing rose up and something heavy smashed onto the top of her head, tumbling her into blackness.
~ ~ ~
A splitting headache woke her, but for a moment, Tabitha wasn’t sure she was awake; the scene around her looked more like one of her nightmares, or a first-person shooter video game.
Something constricting her throat made her cough. When her fingers lifted and touched a metal collar, she glared at the stone walls and metal door of her cage.
Okay, what gives? Did I get captured by a gamer convention with a rich backer, or what? This is really ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ in overdrive.
The next thing she noticed was that all of her gear was gone and most of her warm clothes, which explained why she was freezing worse than ever. Dressed in nothing but a t-shirt, jeans, and her boots, she shuddered, cursing the cold.
A quick bit of plasma energy in the form of a sliver took care of the collar. The metal ring and chain fell to the stone floor with a loud clank. Some sort of light source beyond the door, possibly torchlight, showed her surroundings dimly.
The floor, walls, ceiling – they’re rough-hewn rock, not blocks like a castle. I’m inside the mountain. Is Goshana being held down here, too? “Hey, can anyone hear me? Goshana?”
Only silence answered her. Tabitha created another bomb the size of a golf ball as she struggled to her feet. Going to the metal door, she stood on tiptoes to try and look through the small barred window hole.
A line of torches in wall brackets marched down a narrow long chamber into darkness. She thought there was another cell door next to hers, but she couldn’t see far in that direction. The other way sported another metal door, and through its window, she could see stone steps leading up.
Up is usually the best way to go in the shooter games when you land in a dungeon, so up it is. I’ll find someone I can intimidate and make them take me to Goshana. Then we’re out of here. “One, two, three!”
On her count of three, the small bomb floating over her palm shot into the lock of her door and blew the entire rectangular slab of it off of its hinges.
Wow, feeling a bit depleted. Must not have been out cold too long after I got jumped. I’ll have to be a bit conservative, then – save them for special occasions.
Stepping through the cell door, she froze at the sound of a dark and cruel chuckle. When the low, rasping voice spoke, saying her name like it was tasting it, she couldn’t stop the shake that weakened her limbs and churned in her gut.
“Hiya, Tabitha. Mmm… I’ve missed ya, frail – been a long time.”
She refused to turn, knowing the dark corner where the torches stopped would turn into her nightmare made real if she looked at it. Without a thought, she bolted forward, tossing another small bomb at the outer door. Her hands struck the metal as it fell, her boots slamming it over to skid down the steps. Jumping to clear it, she began to run.
Noises behind her, a growl and then a roar, spurred her on. Flying up the stairs, she saw nothing of the stone chamber she entered. Racing across the open space, she tripped on something thick and heavy on the floor. She shouted when she fell, expecting to land on stone, waiting to feel the claws in her back – but instead she fell and kept falling, until she crashed at the bottom of a deep narrow shaft.
Gasping, trying to get away from sharp and hard things that had nearly impaled her, she jerked her head up to look at the lip of the hole she’d fallen into.
A black silhouette waited there, limned by fluttering yellow torchlight. It was huge, and twin amber lights glowed in its face, watching her.
“Oops – guess I forgot t’ put tha cover back on that.”
Terror stole her breath. Forming a large bomb and floating it over her head, she panted and coughed.
“Might wanna save yer energy, girl. Ya can fry me ‘til ya burn out, but I’ll just heal an’ come get ya anyway.”
Coughing again, she tried to speak, the bomb tightly controlled and waiting. “He … he hired you… Fisk?”
The shadow laughed, a loud and mocking noise that echoed crazily. “Fisk hired me – oh, that’s rich; I like it.”
Swallowing hard, Tabitha answered, “I demand to talk to him!”
“Ya are talkin’ t’ ‘im; he’s me.”
“What? That can’t –”
“Who sent ya, frail? Rothenberg? Heh. It just gets better an’ better. What’d he do, ship ya out here t’ take back what’s ‘is?”
“I’m here for Goshana. If you’ve killed her, you monster, I’ll –”
“Do tell. Have ya noticed where ya are? Use tha fireball an’ look.”
Dropping her eyes only a fraction, afraid to take them off of him, she soon swept her gaze around her in horror.
Bones, skulls, and worse – heads, torsos, limbs: the shaft was filled with bodies, all in varying stages of decomposition. She clamped down on the scream building at the back of her throat and looked down. There was no floor that she could see – she was sprawled on the skeletons and rotting corpses of his victims, with no way to tell how far down the pile went below her.
“Aw, yeah, there it is – tha smell o’ terrified female; ain’t nothin’ sweeter, ‘cept maybe ‘er blood on my claws.”
“Let me out of here!”
“Ya wanna come up here with me? Sure we could find somethin’ t’ do, huh? I know – ya can tell me all ‘bout tha horrors o’ growin’ up with a drunken fuck o’ a father. Wanna braid my hair an’ make cookies, too? Need somethin’ t’ go with our milk, don’t we?”
Tabitha turned her head to the wall of the stone shaft, her hands fisting as her tears began to fall. “I can’t, I can’t, oh, God, please…”
A loud clunk of metal made her look up, her eyes wide. He had pushed a massive round object next to the lip of the hole; it was what she had tripped on. Belatedly, she realized it was a cover.
“Guess ya don’t wanna play with ol’ Uncle Victor just yet. Bet ya wouldn’t be happy goin’ back t’ yer cell neither, so ya may as well stay in tha oubliette fer a bit.” With a hideous scraping noise, he began to push the cover over the opening. “Tell ya what, frail – ya want outta that hole, just holler. I’ll hear ya … eventually.”
She couldn’t move, her fear rooting her in place. Tears streamed down her face as she watched the cover shift, watched it block out the torchlight. When it crunched into place, it sounded as if no noise or hint of the outside world could get through it – until she distinctly heard his cruel laughter, echoing and quieting as he retreated away from the shaft.
Tabitha remained silent, listening to her rapid heartbeat. Then she drew in a deep breath and let her scream split the air in the stone shaft. The bomb grew bigger before it shot upward and burst against the metal cover.
She snapped her eyes shut as dry stone dust rained down. When she could risk a look, only blackness waited over her head – the cover hadn’t moved.
Shifting, trying to stand, her boot crunched through the dome of a skull. Falling back into the piled corpses, she moaned. Desperate, she tried to form another bomb, but nothing happened. The fight in the snow had drained her and now she would have to wait for her mutant power to recover.
While sitting in the dark – on dead people – with him waiting above. She almost choked on the stench thickening around her. Sabretooth … he’s here and he’s got me. He’s Fisk? Oh God, I’ve been set up – and this time I’m probably going to die … for real.
Victor’s claws clacked on the polished wooden floor of the entrance hall as restless energy drove him to pace. Arms crossed over his bare chest, he stared down at the gleaming metal claws on his toes.
He had dressed in nothing more than a worn pair of jeans and a choker necklace of small finger bones and teeth that lay close to the base of his throat.
Glancing up, he narrowed his eyes at the bright chandelier hanging in the space over the grand staircase. It was made of antlers from many animals and rigged to be raised and lowered by its cable on a winch. The candles, hundreds of them, dripped wax into the curved glass plate beneath it, the various colors making a mad modern art smear.
The house had never been rigged with electricity for lighting or heat. The cost of such an endeavor would have been pointless. Candles, torches, and fireplaces did the trick just fine. What little electrical work he’d had done since buying the place had been aimed at running the security systems and the equipment and luxuries in a few select rooms. All of that was powered by giant generators farther back in the mountain.
Sounds overhead turned his attention to the top of the stairs. His servants were coming back down.
“The room is ready, sir,” Brys announced. “Will you be bringing the young lady up directly?”
Victor smirked, but shook his head. “I’d bet good money she’s gonna fight too much t’ make it all that direct. Where’d ya set it up?”
“In the smaller suite at the end of the hall from yours, sir, though the windows are not barred.”
“Won’t matter. She can blast ‘er way outta most cages. Trick is makin’ ‘er not want t’ do it.”
The dubious look on the cook’s face almost made Victor frown. Perrin interjected his own two bits at that point, probably to stop his beau from annoying their boss.
“If Rothenberg sent her, then she might be swayed by money.”
“Maybe. Got some history with this skirt, though – oughta make it challengin’, t’ say tha least.”
“Sir, she’s been without food or water for almost two days. Perhaps she –”
“That’s part o’ tha plan, Brys. Make a need an’ then fill it – didn’t ya ever serve in tha military or do a turn in prison?”
“Well, hell, a bloody saint’s among us. Ya don’t mind fuckin’ a saint, boy?”
“Haven’t minded yet. Angels and devils have entirely different skills to offer.”
“Ain’t that tha fuckin’ truth. Get scarce, both o’ ya. I’ll make nice an’ introduce ya once I know if she’ll play ball. Cat’s still out?”
Victor nodded and walked off, heading for the basement level stairs underneath the grand staircase. The door was hidden in the stone wall. Tripping the catch, he watched the section of stone slide into the wall to reveal a thick wooden door.
As soon as he opened the inner door, the humans could hear her screaming for help. Glancing over his shoulder, he snorted when he saw Brys’s face go pale as his bedmate was ushering him through a side door into the servant’s wing of the house. Catching Perrin’s eye, Victor grinned when the boy tossed him a wink.
Gonna hafta let tha boy torture somebody fer me one o’ these days, bet he’d be a natural.
Reaching the ten-inch thick and three-foot diameter metal cover over the oubliette, he dropped down on one knee to shove it out of the way, his long hair swinging forward over his chest.
She had gone quiet the moment the metal scraped on stone. Looking down at her, Victor grinned again.
“Ya wanted somethin’, frail?”
The blonde slip of a girl had managed to shift a few of the bodies, for a purpose he couldn’t begin to guess at. It must have been hard for her – the stink of old vomit was present in more than one place beneath the sharp stench of the dead.
“You left me here to suffocate and starve! Get me out of here!”
“There’s air holes, ya know – in tha rock over yer head. Whole point o’ an oubliette’s t’ make it take a while fer people t’ die in it. Plus, thirst would get ya before hunger. Starvin’ takes longer. Got quite a bit o’ meat in there, though – some o’ it’s still fresh enough, ‘specially with how cold it is down here. Trick’s knowin’ what’s tainted an’ what ain’t. Gotta watch tha ones where tha gut’s been pierced – spoils tha meat.”
He’d kept talking until she looked like she might try to be sick again and then grinned. When he sat and put his feet over the edge, using his claws on hands and feet to begin scaling down the wall of the shaft, she gasped. She put stone at her back as he continued down, her feet stumbling in bones and bodies.
“What are you doing?”
“Gettin’ ya out. Ain’t no game o’ chutes an’ ladders – we’ve only got tha chutes here.”
Wickedly aware of what it meant for her, he stretched out his long arm and held his hand out to her, the claws on it pulling back slowly, until they fully retracted without a sound.
For a moment, he wondered if she really would get sick again, though she couldn’t have had anything left to throw up. Her face a mask of terror, she pressed herself against the stone as if she was thinking about trying to dig through it.
“Won’t hurt ya, girl – least not if ya don’t try t’ burn me. Ya want outta tha hole or not?”
“You just want me up there where you’ll have more room to stretch my guts out good and long.”
“Hmmm… Don’t think that’d work, tell ya tha truth. Chamber ain’t big enough. Guts’re longer’n ya’d think.”
He watched hungrily as desperation warred with fear on her delicate heart-shaped face. Her blue eyes were huge and bright with tears. The scent of her, with flecks and smears of rotting flesh and dust of stone and bones clinging to her clothes and hair made his cock twitch and start to swell. The blood crashing through her veins and the trapped prey heartbeat were loud in his ears.
“You like to hunt – give me a running start, a fighting chance?”
“Sure – fer ol’ time’s sake.” He shifted and turned his body slightly to hide the growing erection in the shadows. No point in tippin’ my hand too soon. “Ain’t gonna hang here all day like a fuckin’ bat, frail.”
She gulped and shook when she moved away from the stone. Unsteady boots trying not to trip on the uneven footing, she lifted her small hand up. The tears that had been wetting her eyes spilled down the moment he grabbed her wrist.
Hauling her up by it a bit too fast, surprised by how little she weighed, he used the momentum to toss her up like a ragdoll and wrap his arm around her tiny waist instead. The soft hopeless trapped sounds she made under her breath clawed at his belly, cresting his lust.
His claws punched little holes in the wall of the shaft as he climbed back up, the movement more jerky one-handed. Once he could get his hand over the lip, he pulled himself up by brute strength. The weight of his captive barely registered.
Landing in a predatory crouch, he opened his arm’s grip and let the girl tumble across the stone. The doors to the stairs and the entrance hall were open.
She began to move, trying to make her limbs obey her, to make them allow her to stand. Victor knew she’d had enough time for her mutant power to recover, but figured she wouldn’t risk it. Muscles twitching in anticipation, he waited for her to make a move for the door.
He growled when she managed to surprise him – launching a bomb right at his face instead of immediately trying to run. He avoided the blast by leaping back down the oubliette, his claws cutting furrows in the stone until he could dig in and stop the slide. Pulling against that grip, he pushed off of the shaft with his legs and jumped up in time to see her fleeing up the stairs.
Roaring in anger and heat, he bounded after her, reveling in the scream when his claws snagged her boot and made her fall. In a heartbeat, he was on her, claws cutting her wrist when he grabbed it, fingers nearly crushing the bones.
The smell of her blood as it dripped over his fingers and the spike of her fear pushed his mind over the edge into red. Vague plans melted away and when they were forgotten, his claws went to work.
Using the weight of his chest to pin her to the rough stone steps, he shredded the cotton material she wore into strips. Her cries and curses heightened his pleasure, tightening his lust. He almost couldn’t free himself without destroying his own clothes, one claw tip scratching his cock as he jerked it out.
Pressing the head of it against her torn white panties inside the ruined denim, Victor laid his full weight onto her slender body from behind. Her soft, shaved skin was hot against his tip and he sucked in his breath as the tight opening began to push his foreskin back. He bent his head down, his tongue slipping out to lick a salty tear from a high bruised cheekbone.
Victor felt the shift when her hands tried to move from under her face, and smelled the weird essence of her power collecting, just before the plasma bombs would form. Memory of burning pain twisted in his mind, in his gut, and the shredded plans were remembered, piercing the heat of lust.
Moving his entire body with a fluid grace that belied his bulk, he jumped over her and landed on the top steps. In the light of a quickly growing bomb, he put his jeans back together and hauled the abused buttonfly fastened again. Resting his elbows on his knees, letting his hands hang, he retracted all of his claws at once.
The frail was panting, delicious terror cresting. He half expected her to throw the bomb anyway, but when it stopped growing and began to reduce in size, he let a smirk tug lightly at one corner of his mouth.
“Seems I’ve remembered my manners. Truce, frail – put that somewhere else an’ I’ll take ya upstairs, get ya water an’ somethin’ t’ eat. Deal?”
She glared up at him until her eyes turned glazed. He watched, fascinated, as the plasma withdrew back into her palm, disappearing entirely.
“Didn’t know ya could suck ‘em back up,” he told her. Then he grinned. The haunted eyes had closed and a breath later, the slip of a thing had passed out.
She hadn’t lost much weight during her stint in the hole, but she was thinner than she’d been when he’d last seen her. Carrying her up quite a few stairs to the third floor guest suite was like hauling a feather.
It didn’t take her long to wake up out of her faint, or to stiffen and then struggle when she found herself in his arms. The door was still open, but he decided to put her back on her own feet anyway.
Instantly, she tried to attack him, but she had poor timing. The snow leopard had returned from hunting and slunk into the room behind him. When Tabitha screamed and struck out at his chest with her small fists, the cat growled and swiped at her around his leg, powerful hooked claws ripping through denim to scratch bloody tracks across her thigh.
The girl backed away and nearly fell. Victor came forward and scooped her up again, dropping her down onto the bed. Before she could make any more bombs, he struck her across the temple with a fist – just hard enough to knock her out.
Ignoring the hissing gibber behind him, he sat beside the girl to inspect the cuts, both his and the cat’s. They were scratches, not too deep or serious.
Keeping his claws in, he gripped her shoulder and lifted her up to strip off the t-shirt he’d opened at the back. His claw had severed her bra too, and it hung loosely from her shoulders. Pinching the central strap between the cups in his fingertips, he tore it from her when he let her body fall back.
The breasts moved invitingly before they settled. The perfect spheres were not quite as heavy as some, but they weren’t the breasts of a girl in a uniform anymore, either. A tempting distraction bloomed in his head, but he curbed it. To avoid it further, he didn’t linger in looking at the bruises on her ribs and legs either, where he’d pressed her down into the dungeon stairs.
Unlacing the boots and yanking them off, he tossed them across the room near the open bathroom door. Her jeans were easy to remove – there wasn’t much left of them, or of the panties. Socks soon followed the boots. Getting up to fetch a washcloth from the bathroom, he brought it back damp and wiped the blood away from her thigh and wrist, resisting the urge to lick it off of her smooth, lightly tanned skin.
Returning to the bathroom, he tossed the washcloth in the sink and pulled the light green bathrobe off the edge of the tall clawfoot tub. It was clean, though the faint scent of the boy lingered on the sash.
Holding it in one hand, he paused when he stood looking down at her nude and unconscious form. His undisciplined body was still eager to take advantage of the situation, but that was no way to make a plan go smoothly. He almost sat again, just to sniff at her sex, maybe taste it – but he knew it wouldn’t stop there if he got started.
Staying on his feet, he laid the robe out beside her, rolled her into it and pulled her arms through the sleeves. He had to pick her up again to lay her out properly on her back. Giving the vulnerable flesh one last long look, he wrapped the edges of the robe around it and tied the sash.
Moving to a large wingchair in the corner, he stretched his legs out, the toes flexing, and settled in to wait. One hand shifted his unsatisfied cock through the denim and gave it more room to give up and relax.
His guest crept up to him, her warm breath huffing on his dangling fingers. His hand stroked her fur idly, mostly to calm her.
Victor heard it when the frail woke, but didn’t look up. One sniff from her and he knew she could smell the covered food on the silver serving tray on the table. His nose was distracted by the leaking fear scent as she noticed that she’d been wrapped naked into a bathrobe.
To stop any silly posturing speech she had in mind, he broke the silence first. “Food’s fer ya, got mine already. There’s water, too.”
“What… Why are you doing this?”
“Not gutting me. Not … doing that to me, what you did before.”
“Almost did, ya mean. I’m pretty impressed with my restraint, frail – don’t bother t’ quit often.”
“Don’t call me ‘frail’.”
“From where I’m sittin’ yer pretty fuckin’ frail … Tabitha.”
Her arms moved and she pushed herself to sit up. She drew her legs up and under the robe, her hands tucking the terrycloth around her quickly and securely before her arms circled her knees and held them.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Not gonna, neither – not ‘til ya eat.”
“Why do you care if I eat?”
“Damn fuckin’ naggin’ dirty cunts!”
He stood so fast, ears pinning back and claws snapping out, that the snow leopard hissed in surprise. His hackles rose a moment before the cat’s.
The girl’s entire body tensed, but her hands were already buzzing, ready to make explosives to defend herself. Victor tried to breathe more deeply to calm his anger, to make the hairs on his body smooth down. He retracted his claws, his hands curling into fists. Letting the last breath go slowly, he answered her in as even a voice as he could manage.
“I care, cuz I’m tha one that decided t’ starve ya out fer a bit. Mostly, so ya’d lemme pluck ya outta tha damn pit. Gotta reason fer doin’ that, too, a fine one in fact, an’ it’s got jack t’do with guttin’ or fuckin’ ya. Now if I leave ya be a while, will ya eat? Weak an’ shivery ain’t gonna be any good t’ me.”
Bold as brass, she asked, “Did you poison it?”
The question stumped him; in the next breath, it amused him, leaking away his anger. “Why would I poison anybody? Rather rip ‘em, wouldn’t I? Eat. I’ll be back later, an’ maybe we can talk civil; talk business, too – if ya learn t’ curb yer damn female tongue just a hair.”
She got his hopes up by remaining silent as he stalked to the door. The cat shot out of it first past his legs. Without giving the girl a backward glance, he shut and locked the door.
Leaning against it, he waited, listening. She stirred, got up and approached the tray on the table without even coming over to rattle the knob or send a baby bomb through the lock. Odds were, she’d guessed he was standing right there.
A clink of silver sounded as she lifted and set aside the domed cover. He heard the small intake of breath that gave voice to her pain seconds before she screamed in outrage. The door was struck by something heavy that instantly shattered, a thick liquid splashing. On cue, she’d picked up the cut crystal bowl of milk he’d thoughtfully added to her meal and hurled it at the approximate level of his head.
Letting a wicked laugh ring out, he walked away. He went to the study between her suite and his, where he could hear or smell her if she tried to emerge from that room. Passing the sitting area lined with bookcases, he sat behind the massive mahogany desk to wait. He wasn’t surprised when the snow leopard decided to leave him to his own devices for a bit.
On the desk, a few personal items from the flamethrower jackass waited. No I.D. of any civilian sort, but Perrin had taken and printed a photograph of the tattoo on the man’s bicep. It was a stylized German eagle, not too close to a Nazi image, ringed by three circles: black, red, and black. He’d seen it before; the oubliette might have been full of the image – if flesh and ink didn’t have a tendency to rot together.
~ ~ ~
When he returned to check on his captive, he found her trying to open one of the locked and sealed windows. She jumped and whirled to face him, and he snorted in amusement to see that she’d put her boots back on under the bathrobe in addition to wrapping a wool blanket from the bed around her.
Victor stepped over the shards of broken glass and pooling milk on the wood floor and shut the door behind him, leaning back against it with arms and ankles crossed casually in an effort to appear less threatening.
“Tryin’ t’ run away in that in tha dead o’ a Yukon winter wouldn’t get ya too far, frail – even without me comin’ after ya.”
“Better than staying here – or ending up back in that death pit.”
“Why’d ya start movin’ bodies ‘round? Were ya lookin’ fer Hoggle t’ help ya escape tha Labyrinth?”
“I thought I could climb them.”
“Huh. Didn’t get too far.”
He glanced at the table and smiled – she had eaten the food and most of the water was gone from the glass pitcher, too. Her fingers gripped the window sill, her scent displaying her fear and confusion as clearly as the wary expression on her face.
Victor realized slowly that it was difficult for her to deal with him as an intelligent and free man, instead of either the childlike lobotomized feral she had once helped nurse back to health, or the rabid, drooling killer.
Still stuck on notions o’ redemption, frail? he thought. Hell if that might not play ya right int’ my hands. What else have I got t’ work with? All sorts o’ shit t’ piss ya off, but how ‘bout fer reelin’ ya in?
Memories of their visits together during his imprisonment in the Danger Room were clear as a bell after he’d regained the ability to speak; they got a bit fuzzier the further he pushed into the mindless time. Anything she had said to him was easy to pick out, but not the rest. He remembered the milk – just thinking about it made him angry again.
Abruptly, he recalled the feel of her hands on his body. Fueled by the proximity of her alluring scent, the memory came on more vividly than it had in years. She had petted his back as he drank, but she had petted other things, too. Struggling to keep the wide grin from taking over his face, he worked it into a lopsided smirk.
“What are you … smiling at?”
“Just reminiscin’, that’s all.” He moved off of the door, amused by her flinch, and went to sit in the wingchair again. “Grab some wood, girl – let’s chat.”
As expected, she veered wide from both the bed and him and pulled one of the wooden chairs away from the table. She almost fell into it as her knees buckled. Staring at him from across the table, her hands fisted the edges of the robe closed at her throat.
“Ya got any questions fer me, before we get rollin’? But leave off tha ‘will I kill ya’ shit, huh? It gets old.”
“Why did you say you were Fisk?”
“Richard ‘Dick’ Fisk is an old alias from outta British Columbia years ago. It’s also tha name o’ tha Kingpin, Wilson Fisk’s son, who went sorta straight. I enjoy screwin’ up ‘is brandy new rep fer tha hell o’ it. Also, there’s plenty o’ assholes lookin’ fer me; I get more relax time if they think rumors o’ me are him. Yer boss Rothenberg knows tha alias – it’s tha name I was usin’ when he tried t’ hire me.”
“He’s not my boss, he’s a client. ‘Tried’ to hire you?”
Victor let the grin go. “Couldn’t afford me – then or now. He seems a touch bitter ‘bout it.”
“He said you stole something, someone valuable … from him.”
“Man duped ya, but he didn’t lie there.”
“Sabretooth, please –”
“Call me Victor,” he offered, morphing the grin into an approximation of a friendly smile. “Ya never needed an invite before, Tabitha.”
Ignoring the gibe, she pleaded, “Don’t play games with me, please. If you’re honest with me, I’ll be honest with you. No games. Okay?”
“We’ll see, won’t we?”
“Where is Goshana? Is she in your dungeon?”
“Ya were tha only one down there, only one alive anyway.”
“Where is she? What have you done to her?”
“She’s close, somewhere – got tha run o’ tha place. She’s been sleepin’ in my bed.”
The girl went pale. “Is she … a child?”
“Depends on yer point o’ view. She’s ‘bout two or three, near as I can guess.”
“You monster! She’s a baby!” The girl jumped to her feet, her anger snapping in the chilled air.
Victor frowned at her, but he kept his seat and his temper. Her implication didn’t bother him, but defiance always made him hungry for blood. His claws slid out slow and unbidden from fingers and toes. “She was grown up enough t’ leave ‘er mother, t’ start huntin’ on ‘er own. That’s when Rothenberg’s apes caught ‘er.” Smiling again at her confusion, he added, “It’s tha cat, ya stupid li’l skirt.”
He gave a gruff growling call to the animal, having scented her lurking outside the door. Through the wood, they heard her low chuffing response. Victor rose and went to open the door, brushing the large hunks of broken glass out of the way with the side of his foot.
The stunned girl fell back into her chair and watched as the cat leapt smoothly over the spilled milk to pace at his side across the room. He’d left the door open, in case she wanted to slip away again, but she settled at his feet instead as soon as he reclaimed his chair.
Her voice thin and brittle, the girl whispered, “That’s Goshana?”
“Nope – that’s a snow leopard. I don’t call ‘er by any name that human offal saddled ‘er with while he had ‘er. He was starvin’ ‘er, so she’d eat anyone he dropped int’ ‘er cage. Real ‘Dr. Evil’, that shithead, or so he thinks. I heard ‘bout it from some o’ ‘is goons at tha local waterhole. Pissed me tha fuck off, so I stole ‘er. She doesn’t like ya cuz ya kicked ‘er tha night we caught ya.”
“So now she’s just going to be your pet?”
“No, but I gotta schedule t’ keep, so she’s just chillin’ out with me here ‘til I can take ‘er back t’ where she belongs.”
“Where is that?”
“Nepal.” Victor frowned at her. “Now ya get it, girl? How he played ya? Got ya thinkin’ it was a human skirt, didn’t he? Sent ya on a rescue mission – right int’ my teeth. In war, an’ in tha contract business, that’s called a suicide run.”
“I figured that out, thanks.”
“What tha hell did ya do t’ piss ‘im off that bad?”
“I was supposed to catch a man who had double-crossed him and bring him back to Seattle, turn him over.” She swallowed hard, trying not to shed the tears gathering in her eyes. “I screwed it up and the Anchorage cops got him. Rothenberg said if I killed the guy, he’d pay me; I refused.”
Victor whistled. “Old toad wouldn’t like that, frail. Put yer foot in it good.”
“I asked if I could do anything else to fix things and he offered to pay me to get his property back.”
“$100,000 in cash.”
Shaking his head, Victor chuckled. He slid down in the chair to a comfortable slump, his arms stretched along the wide arms of the chair, ankles crossing again. “I wouldn’t fetch a cat out o’ a tree fer that.”
“He called it hazard pay – for dealing with Fisk.”
That made Victor laugh outright. “Gotta admit, ya had a few clues it might turn out bad fer ya.” He could almost smell the rusty wheels turning in her head as she watched him. Once, her gaze dipped down and then back up, taking in his long, stretched out slouch in the chair. It made his blood burn, made it flow in a rush below his waistband, too. “Say what’s on yer mind, girl – got free rein on yer tongue here, wherever ya might be thinkin’ o’ puttin’ it.”
She didn’t blush, proving that she was still too terrified to remember that she had once been drawn to touch him quite a bit. Her next question was verbally vague, but reading both expression and scent made her meaning clear.
“Why did you stop?”
“Ya didn’t seem like tha happiest o’ campers.”
“I doubt that’s ever stopped you from raping a woman before. Why, Creed?”
“Seen tha error o’ my ways, maybe?”
She glared at him, anger beginning to edge out terror. “Bullshit. No games. Why?”
Victor grinned. “Awright, ya got me. I gotta job comin’ up out in Vancouver – caper like that, I could use a gal o’ yer talents. Way I figure it, yer more likely t’ play if I ain’t already hacked ya off by splittin’ ya without askin’.”
“What makes you think I’ll ‘play’ anyway?”
“Ya weren’t takin’ jobs with Rothenberg fer kicks. Ya need money. I don’t usually subcontract, bein’ I’m capable o’ doin’ most anythin’ myself, but this one’ll go a helluva lot smoother with ya on board, an’ I’m double booked as it is.”
“Your ‘jobs’ are rarely anything short of murder. I’m not a killer, so no dice.”
“Ya just ain’t tried it yet, but ya got that look ‘bout ya, like ya thought ‘bout it more’n once. ‘No games’ goes both ways, Tabitha. Ain’t ya wanted t’ taste what it’s like?”
“I have. I’ve wanted to kill you, as a matter of fact – still do.”
Victor grunted. “We can spar fer fun later.” He shifted and sat up straight in the chair, spreading his clawed fingers wide on his thighs. “Thing is, this job ain’t killin’; it’s sabotage. Major destruction o’ private property – a plant that’s bein’ built with an eye t’ makin’ bad shit, stuff that’d hurt a lot o’ folks. Tell Uncle Victor that ain’t just right up yer hero alley.”
“Why would you take on a job like that?”
“Pay’s good an’ destroyin’ shit’s a hoot – what’s not t’ like? Anyhow, consider yer options – I can pay ya t’ help me, or I can play with my food ‘til I get bored with it. First is tha more survivable.”
“That’s no choice at all, is it?”
“Is fer me. I’m fifty-fifty – either way sounds like a helluva lotta fun.”
“I guess this is the part where you lie and promise to let me go afterward, unharmed and richer?”
“Tell ya a secret ‘bout me, skirt, call it a freebie – I get t’ wantin’ comp’ny here an’ there. That’s why I let this an’ that human live in my safe houses an’ work fer me, ‘sides tha practical junk they’re good fer. Pencil yerself in on that list while tha offer’s good, an’ ya might still get t’ grow old. Ain’t gonna waste yer time or mine tellin’ ya I don’t double-cross. Fact is, I think it’s fun, most o’ tha time – tha looks on folk’s faces are nearly always worth it – but I only indulge when it ain’t gonna effect my bottom line.”
“Your bottom line is?”
“Heh, call yerself a contract gal. Bottom line’s money. Client’s gotta trust me, or word gets out – then it’s hard t’ get work no matter how good ya are. Natch, they all know what they’ll get if they play me – world o’ hurt an’ a burnin’ need fer a coroner. Gotta know tha game t’ survive playin’ it, on both sides. So – whattaya think?”
“What – exactly – is at stake?”
“Told ya that – need t’ wreck this shit an’ keep my schedule on track. Ya come on board fer that, maybe even help plan where t’ put yer bombs, an’ I’ll start t’ see ya as a partner instead o’ a toy, a fuck, an’ a snack – not strictly in that order, neither. Got it?”
She swallowed hard. “No killing involved?”
“Scout’s honor.” Victor smirked and held up his hand in a Boy Scout’s salute.
“You were never a Scout.”
“Aw, am I that transparent? Truth is, I’ve eaten a couple in my day, an’ I think that oughta count.”
She held herself tightly and he could smell the bile rising in her throat. “I can’t trust you.”
“Ain’t askin’ ya t’ trust me. I’m gettin’ two million fer this – I’ll cut ya in fer a quarter o’ that, seein’s I still gotta do most o’ tha hard work. That’s a damn sight more’n what tha shithead was gonna pay ya, so don’t that just tempt ya all t’ hell?”
“What, you’ll just hand me $500,000 cash in unmarked bills?”
“Why not? I gotta wrap up in Canada an’ get on with other jobs in tha States, Germany, an’ South Africa. Plus tha personal run up t’ Nepal, which is threatenin’ t’ push it all back. Dunno if ya looked at a map lately, but it ain’t on tha way t’ much else on my itinerary. With ya signed up, I can get goin’ a lot quicker.”
She struggled with the choice in spite of how graphically he’d illustrated that it wasn’t much of a choice at all. When she slumped in the chair, her tears falling, he knew he had her.
“Which’ll it be, frail? I already gotta itch gonna need scratchin’ if ya say no.”
“I’m in,” she whispered, “but as a partner in destruction of evil factories only. Don’t … touch me, and I’ll work for you.”
Victor smirked and rose out of the chair, stalking around the table until he towered over her. “Keep my mind outta tha gutter, an’ I’ll consider keepin’ it hands-off. Next time ya gimme tha once-over, though, I’ll figure it’s an invitation.” His voice dropped to a silken threatening purr under his words. “Now fer some rules – ya toss one more bomb at me, or any damn offensive action on my furry guest over there, or anythin’ else that’s mine, an’ I’ll gut ya where ya stand. Ya hear me?”
He stepped forward again, so close that one leg pressed against her clamped knees. Her clipped yelp and blast of fear stink made his half-awake erection twitch in his pants.
“Make no mistake, I’ll touch ya if I damn well please. How much I do it an’ with what might just depend on how ya behave. One bomb an’ ya die. Save it fer Vancouver an’ live t’ get paid an’ get gone. Ya still in now, frail?”
Trembling, unable to speak, she nodded quickly.
Victor held out his hand inches from her face, the metal claws long and gleaming. “Care t’ shake on it?”
“Not on your life,” she murmured.
Victor chuckled as he stepped back, then turned away and went to the door. “All tha same, I’ll take ya up on that sparrin’ match – t’morrow evenin’.”
“I’m not insane enough to spar with you, Creed.”
“Not playin’ fer keeps, girl. If I’m gonna rely on ya in tha field, I gotta know what yer capable o’ doin’ don’t I?”
“How quickly they forget.”
“Lot o’ blood under that bridge, frail; we’ve both changed since.” He let the cat slip past him and then paused in the doorway. “Tha matched set o’ Frenchmen are under my orders, but feel free t’ ask ‘em fer anythin’ ya need. Brys, tha older one, he’s tha cook. Perrin’s my … handyman, sorta ‘jack-o’-all-trades’. They can get ya clothes, too.”
“If you let me go back for my stuff –”
“Yeah, I see that happenin’ – already took care o’ that.”
When he began to walk away, leaving the door open, she called out, “Aren’t you going to lock me in?”
“Nope. Yer a soon t’ be paid member o’ tha staff now, far as I’m concerned. Fair warnin’, though, this house an’ tha grounds are booby-trapped all over tha fuckin’ place. So watch yer step – partner.”