Sabretooth: The Hunt – Flipside – Chapter 4 – From Blinding Heights

If you take a life, do you know what you’ll give
Odds are, you won’t like what it is
When the storm arrives, would you be seen with me
By the merciless eyes I’ve deceived
I’ve seen angels fall from blinding heights
But you yourself are nothing so divine
Just next in line

Arm yourself because no-one else here will save you
The odds will betray you, and I will replace you
You can’t deny the prize; it may never fulfill you
It longs to kill you, are you willing to die?
The coldest blood runs through my veins
You know my name

If you come inside, things will not be the same
When you return to the night
If you think you’ve won, you never saw me change
The game that we have been playing

I’ve seen this diamond cut through harder men
Than you yourself
But if you must pretend, you may meet your end
The coldest blood runs through my veins
Try to hide your hand, forget how to feel
Life is gone with just a spin of the wheel

Arm yourself because no-one else here will save you
The odds will betray you, and I will replace you
You can’t deny the prize; it may never fulfill you
It longs to kill you, are you ready to die?

The coldest blood runs through my veins
You know my name, you know my name
You know my name!

~ You Know My Name (Chris Cornell, Bond Theme to Casino Royale)

“Do not try to fight a lion if you are not one yourself.” ~ Proverb

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The dealer passed the trio of men two hole cards each. Turning to Ebersol on his left, he stated, “Small blind.” Looking at Victor to the Hydra freak’s left, he added, “Big blind.”

First Ebersol and then Victor tossed in chips, followed by Paganucci.

Slumped in his chair, Victor struggled to keep his normally flawless poker face intact. They had to put the mark at ease.

A perfect storm of distractions teemed around him, and he could blame Paganucci for at least one of them. He’d selected the dealer, so he claimed, for the fellow’s skills at running a game. The slender and pretty young black man in a fancy charcoal suit was also unable to hide the scent of his attraction for large feral blond mutants. His behavior was icy and flawless – but his heat was threatening to drive Victor out of his skin.

Restless and bored as the poker game got underway, the brat kept getting up and sitting down again, twisting in the chair, or leaning half out of it to look out into the taproom. Taking liberties that surprised him, she now and then stood behind him and leaned on his shoulder to watch them play.

Victor had forbidden her to chew gum – the last thing his taxed concentration needed was a constant chorus of slurp-chew-blow-pop.

When Jubilee reached out from behind while leaning on Victor to touch the pair of cards he’d been given, he snarled at her and she yanked her hand back.

The dealer laid out three cards in the middle of the table, face up in a line: the flop. Deadly serious, the next bet went around the table, with each of them sliding or tossing chips and plaques into the pot.

No checks, no folds. Watch fer any tells, scents, anythin’ ya can use. Focus.

“This is super-exciting high-stakes poker?” Jubilee piped up. “I’m already bored. I’m gonna go find Peepers.”

Victor hissed at her as the others frowned. “Shut tha fuck up or I’ll toss yer larynx in tha pot.”

Ignoring the interruption and outburst, the dealer laid a fourth card in the line and they all bet again. Victor could almost hear the brat eye-rolling over his shoulder as the fifth card was laid down. She huffed out a breath and began to walk out past his chair.

Sick of her fussing and aware that they all were, he changed his mind about letting her leave the table – as long as she obeyed him. Pushing his chair back, he snatched her by the throat and squeezed slightly. Her widening eyes locked onto his as her hands gripped his wrist.

“Stay in tha bar – ya won’t like it if’n I gotta come after ya.” Belatedly remembering Typhoid Mary was out there, he added in a half-growl, “Don’t scamper far. Anybody bugs ya, get back here or sit at tha bar. Maurice can keep ‘em offa ya.” He let her go by giving her throat a light push, easily breaking her hold as she stumbled back a step.

Her hands rose to her neck as she glared at him. “Can he keep your dirty paws off me?” Turning on her heel, she went out muttering. Some of the words were pretty choice – soap worthy, even. He couldn’t help a smirk as he watched her go. Tracking her by scent, he stifled a low growl at the others and tried to get his head back in the game.

~ ~ ~

After her foray into the taproom out of sight, Jubilee reappeared with a tray she had swiped from Peepers.

Gotta admit, if’n she wants t’ play waitress, at least that obnoxious goblin is buggin’ me less. “‘Nother pitcher o’ beer, frail,” he tossed the order in her direction as he studied the other men.

“Same as before,” Paganucci added, giving her a smile that appeared weirdly genuine.

“Same,” Ebersol echoed as he met Victor’s stare. His preference for Jägermeister just made Victor’s fingertips itch.

“You want anything, dealer dude?”

Expressionless and cool as ever with the untouched glass of water – ice melting – at his elbow, the dealer answered, “Thank you, no, Miss Lee.” His voice was cultured and melted like butter over Victor’s tightening black jeans.

So Paganucci’s tha type t’ bring a mare in season int’ a race with stallions, huh? Bastard. What’s he playin’ at?

“Hey, ‘Tooth – you want more icky booze or just beer?”

“Said beer – that means beer.”

Victor frowned, glaring after her as she went out to the bar for more drinks. The saucy scrap even tossed him an arrogant smirk of her own as she did it, knowing he couldn’t take his attention off the game. Her antics were a nonstop distraction anyway and he had to keep working on ignoring her while also tracking her scent in the bar.

Gonna kick yer ass next time we run int’ each other, Logan – just fer yer neglect. Can’t even teach yer sidekick t’ fuckin’ mind a man proper.Could make ‘er obey, but I’d hafta break ‘er t’ do it an’ Tabs wouldn’t thank me fer that. His frown deepened when he noticed Ebersol watching her, too.

“Delightfully precocious, isn’t she?” Paganucci asked Ebersol.

“Not the description I would have used,” he replied, his tone and body language stiff.

“Ya spent ‘nuff time, effort, an’ manpower tryin’ t’ pry ‘er outta my mitts,” Victor rounded on the man as they all placed bets in turn. “No point tryin’ t’ act all indiff’rent now. Why’d ya want ‘er, anyhow?”

“Merely a gift for a potential friend I should like to do business with.”

Wow, he really is a moron. Better not t’ give intel away like free candy. “Ya break it, ya bought it – did ya forget t’ tell yer goose-steppers ya want ‘er alive?”

“I don’t believe I intimated that her condition was an issue – it was imparted to me that such a thing wasn’t important.”

Victor snorted. “Well, ya ran afoul o’ me an’ mine … again. Ya got fewer grunts now – not that ya give a shit.”

Ebersol turned to Paganucci as if Victor wasn’t important enough to continue speaking with. “At least crossing paths with you has afforded us the chance to meet properly. Your reputation as a powerful – and shall we say useful – ally, precedes you.”

The Italian’s chin lifted as his brief smile grew taut. “Flattery can take you far – but with all due respect, I haven’t offered myself as an ally just yet. There is still the matter of your interference in the job my man here was attempting to carry out at my behest.”

“Regrettable, indeed – it is my hope that we might salvage a mutually beneficial agreement from the ashes of misunderstandings.”

Behest, regrettable, an’ ‘my man’ – fuckin’ bloody hell! Wanna just crack both their heads t’gether so’s I can toss tha tasty on tha table an’ fuck ‘is cultured brains out. Where’s tha damn brat got off t’? She go t’ Guam fer tha booze? Turning his glare at the door back onto Ebersol, he grunted at all the polite dancing around they were doing. Fancy doubletalk sucks. Assholes.

“Why don’t we sweeten the pot,” Ebersol suggested. “Toss the mutant girl in.”

Expecting Paganucci to fuss so he wouldn’t have to – after he’d seemed so bent on being nice to the kid – Victor had to suppress a surprised growl when the Italian nodded and smiled.

“I concur – Victor won’t mind, since he was fetching her for me.” His almost paternal smug ‘play along now’ smile made the feral’s blood boil.

“Excellent,” the mark responded, just as smug.

“As long as we’re on the topic of making things sweeter…” Paganucci turned his head to widen the smile at Victor. “That little matter in Phoenix we’ve discussed – why don’t we consider that a side wager?”

The smile was the friendliest veiled threat Victor had ever seen beamed at him, at least from someone without blue tits. The challenge was clear.

Agree – t’ both wagers – or risk sabotage in tha middle o’ our plan. Fuck. Ain’t givin’ Short Round t’ any-fuckin’-body. “Fine by me,” he answered, swallowing another growl. Carrying the loaded tray, the kid returned. “Took ya long ‘nuff.”

“Wonderful!” Paganucci exclaimed. “So if you truly don’t want to do that job, all you have to do is win – then you can keep the girl as well or simply sell her to our mutual friend, here.”

“What the hell?” Jubilee had just put down the last of their drinks, at least. She looked like she was considering hitting somebody with the tray until she noticed Victor’s snarl.

“Get over here,” he ordered.

Despite his murderous glare, he was still surprised when she finally obeyed. Peepers appeared and Victor snatched the tray from her and tossed it to him like a frisbee. Grabbing her arm, he yanked her onto his lap and held her there with one hand on her stomach. Staring at Ebersol, he smirked.

“I’d rather kill ‘er, but if’n ya want ‘er so bad, maybe I’ll listen t’ how bad that happens t’ be.”

“Certainly – provided you win the game.”

“You bet me? You bet me!” she repeated, her voice turning shrill.

Palm on the back of her head, he bent her double in his lap and hissed in her ear. “Not gonna be sassin’ nothin’ if’n ya keep irritatin’ me. Behave or else. What’d ya think I stole ya fer? I’m a businessman, shortcake. Yer nothin’ but a payday or a snack – yer pick.” He held her bent over right under his teeth until he scented tears. “One paf an’ I’ll eat ya, capiche? I can always toss yer corpse on tha table with tha rest – probly worth more dead anyhow.”

Releasing her once she wilted, he picked her up by her hips and ass and dropped her on her chair.

Subdued, she sat quietly for a while; he didn’t expect it to last, and he was right. When she reached out and touched his arm, respectful for once, he nodded to allow her to whisper to him.

“Can I go talk to Peepers or help him work? I can’t just sit here…”

“Stay in tha taproom an’ outta trouble.”

He watched her go out, shoulders slumped and smelling like fear. She wasn’t giving up – X-freaks never did – so he’d have to stay on his toes. He also needed to win or protecting her was going to get messy for all involved, including his business reputation.

The bets went around the table as cards were dealt and the pot grew downright tasty. He didn’t need it but winning was always good for an ego stroke. For all he could tell, riches almost bored Paganucci. Ebersol hardly seemed to care about any of it, even as he bet all of his plaques and chips.

Their scents bear that out. Poker faces that can beat my nose make up a bloody short list. So by pure bent o’ give-a-shit, Lady Luck oughta pick me.

Outside the room, Victor heard the kid prattling on at the bar to that bitch Typhoid. The talk around him faded as he sharpened his attention on the mismatched pair of females.

Much as I hate an’ don’t trust tha murderous cunt, at least she ain’t likely t’ actually hurt tha girl, cuz tha puffy kitten ain’t a man. Typhoid can def keep tha other dogs away from ‘er, too. I’ll take it. Wish Frank or John was here t’night, could use a real ally. Is tha mini X-twit actually askin’ that psycho whore if she’s cold in tha fishnets? Runt, how ya put up with this brat – I got no words. Ballsy, though … gotta admit that.

It was his bet next. All eyes turned on him. The dealer’s face was impassive but as he met his gaze, those pretty dark eyes widened, the nostrils flaring slightly. The warm gaze fell to Victor’s hands on the scattered plastic money in front of him as the scent of heat came on stronger.

Ear tips twitching in annoyance at his least favorite distraction, he growled and stacked up more chips and plaques. Pushing them out, he turned his head to pin a baleful stare on the fascist asshole across the table and rasped, “Raise, one million.”

He ended up in a staring match with Paganucci next. The fool was sitting there with his lips moving, counting his chips.

Paganucci glanced up at Victor, devoid of a decent poker face, and winked at him. Making his stacks of chips over plaques perfectly neat first, he smiled as he gathered up every bit of plastic in front of him and slid the stacks over the line. “Five million.”

The dealer spoke next, watching them in turn. “Raise, all in.”

Time seemed to crawl, yet only seconds passed. Jubilee reappeared and stood just inside the open door. She smelled understandably anxious, unlike his fellow players. He wasn’t aware of what Ebersol’s financial situation was, but he did know the money at stake was chump change to himself and the Italian.

Maybe he has access t’ Hydra’s budget?

Peepers brought him another bourbon. Ebersol was still drinking Jägermeister, and there was a fresh martini on the tray for Paganucci. The fact that the bug-eyed idiot had brought Jubilee a third Dr. Pepper made Victor launch an eye-roll of his own. She wandered up beside him and slurped it, making his ears pin.

Like tha li’l poptart needs more sugar.

Shaking it off and downing the booze, he glared at the small clutch of spectators that appeared around the doorway to watch.

An audience – oh, joy. Victor studied the faces at the table and the flop cards. Ace o’ hearts, then tha rest are spades: eight, six, four, ace.

Moving the single chip off his hole cards, he curled them up a little to gloat at them: six of hearts and ace of clubs.

Good odds on a full house. Tha li’l Italian bastard’s gonna have a hard time beatin’ that, an’ Hydra scum over there barely knows what he’s doin’. Hmm… “Gotta call ya on that one,” he spoke to Paganucci.

Casually, as if he were as bored as the brat claimed to be, he gave his collection of plastic a gentle brushing toss over the line, letting them spill.

“Gentlemen, please show your cards,” the dealer directed.

Ebersol slid his hole cards toward the dealer, turning them face up. He had a pair of eights, clubs and hearts. The dealer rearranged the cards, dropping the six and four and lining up the trio of eights between the aces.

“Full house,” the dealer announced, “eights full of aces.”

Victor snorted. Aces an’ Eights. Tha dead man gets tha Dead Man’s Hand. Too many aces on this bloody table, so Paganucci’s cards probly can’t beat mine. What a shame. I can make a full house that’ll end Ebersol’s. Well, here we go – don’t weep fer me, Arizona. He flipped his hole cards over and pushed them to the dealer. He managed to knock over one of his client’s neat chip stacks on the way there.

“A superior full house, aces full of sixes. Mr. Paganucci?”

The Italian gave a small smile, a pleased smile. Slowly, he turned his hole cards over for the dealer. A gasp went up outside the room. The dealer cut through it and Victor’s growl.

“A five and seven of spades, straight flush. Four through eight of spades, the high hand. Mr. Paganucci wins.” Without looking at the dealer, the Italian cut him one of the plaques as a tip. “Thank you very much, sir.”

Jubilee half-fell and half-sat on her chair. Her hands gripped the glass of pop as if she was considering throwing it but hadn’t yet decided on a target. Her wide blue eyes ticked between them as if trying to sort out if the devil she knew was better or worse for real.

Glaring at Paganucci’s smile as it widened and beamed at him, Victor’s eyes narrowed at his client as the growl lowered.

He cheerfully ignored the warning. “Well, now that I have what I wanted, I’m afraid I must go – I have a meeting. About your scheduling concerns – I’ll call to arrange a new date, after your trip farther north.”

“Ain’t lettin’ ya have tha kid.” He felt the girl’s eyes on him but ignored her.

“If you want to take her as payment for a job well done, be my guest – I’ll even donate the pot.” He pulled a fancy checkbook and pen from his suit jacket breast pocket and wrote a check, tearing it loose and handing it over. “I’ll leave you to settle up with Herr Ebersol, assuming he brought his checkbook, and I look forward to seeing you again – in Phoenix. Don’t be late.”

Victor had to retract claws to get them out of his whiskey glass in order to take the check. He folded it with barely a glance and handed it to the kid. “Put that in yer belt fer me.”

Standing, Paganucci held out his pudgy hand. Victor rose and shook it. He was aware the man had technically snookered him, but the surrender of the stakes – all of them – soothed his anger.

“Mr. Paganucci,” Ebersol called out as he stood, “we haven’t had a chance to discuss a possible alliance? We are working to create the sort of changes you wish to see. Hydra can be quite an asset.”

The short man straightened as far as he could with pride. “My apologies, sir – as delightful as this little distraction has been, my business here is concluded. All things considered, an alliance with a fascist order probably isn’t any more lucrative for the average Italian now than it was in the 1940s. Good evening to you.”

Victor swallowed his smirk as Paganucci swept out through the scattering crowd of onlookers with his tantalizing dealer in his wake. Slowly, Victor resumed his seat and invited the miffed Ebersol to do the same with an open-handed gesture and a carefully controlled toothy smile. Laying his arm out across the back of the kid’s chair, his hand closed over her shoulder as she froze.

“He don’t wanna play ball – but maybe now I’ll listen t’ how bad ya want my property.”

Ebersol sat and watched him carefully. “She is a mere trifle. The real prize is your talents and services. Your feud with Hydra is old. Perhaps it’s long past time to discover what you could achieve in real power and riches – from within our ranks.”

“My feud with Hydra is with Catalyst – yer predecessor by a tidy few years in tha Science Division gig. Make a gift o’ ‘im first, then maybe we can talk ‘bout … opportunities.” Studying the mark, he opened every sense he had. Instantly, the micro expressions, body language, heart rate, and scent combined into the same irrefutable conclusion. He ain’t got no damn clue. Fuck.

“Catalyst? He is practically a myth – listed as deceased for decades. As I understand it, the fool was pushed into his own moat of piranhas; all they found was scraps. Such a person is purely ridiculous, piranha moats? How very medieval. So alas, this boon is not mine to give.”

“Is yer part o’ tha pot here yers t’ give? Or did ya conveniently forget yer purse?”

With a calculated tolerant sigh, he produced a checkbook of his own – devoid of Hydra emblems. Fingers quick and precise, he wrote and tore off a check with lots of zeros at the end. Victor folded it like the other one and gave it to the kid. He didn’t take his glaring stare off the prey as her belt zip sounded beside him.

Ebersol tucked the checkbook away and leaned forward on his elbows with fingers meshed and expression eager. “Allow me to guess your true offense – you wish to kill Tony Stark and I sent Osiris to steal that privilege from you. I presume his meddling hampered your attempt? This is a mutual aim of ours, Mr. Creed – I think if you consider all that is on the table this time, you will see that what I offer you now is something far greater than hollow vengeance on a man long dead.”

Victor snorted. “Mits off Stark – that’s my prey. Ain’t gonna bet that.”

“Conceded. All I require is his death. From within Hydra, you would find it far easier to make another attempt.”

Images flashed in his head as he tapped the table with a claw on his free hand. The only constant in the memories was one man. He was a scrawny thing with no chin who had held him with a leash of fear – a man who had efficiently organized the death of millions. Victor’s hand tightened on the kid’s shoulder as claws cut through his fingertips, just the tips winking under the weak lights.

He was a coward, like this one. Treatin’ me like garbage while he had Paganucci t’ smooze… Only reason I’m gettin’ this offer is cuz he’d like t’ leave this bar alive someday. I could kill ‘em all without payin’ too high a price, but I ain’t gonna convince ‘im t’ leave tha kid here. Out there, when tha claws an’ bullets start flyin’, Short Round’ll be tha first thing they plug. Gotta make ‘im hungry, make ‘im really want this. Rolling the dice since the kid would hear it all too, he huffed out a breath. “Consider me tempted. I’m guessin’ ya know what I was doin’ in tha 40s.”

“Gestapo, rumored to be a favorite of the Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. I should very much enjoy hearing those tales over drinks someday. Yet many other rumors paint quite a different picture of your loyalties to the ideology he championed.”

“Yeah, well … once ya torch tha real Picasso, tha forgeries ain’t worth much, are they?”

Ebersol’s smile widened. “True, I agree. Yet the Hydra of today is far more organized and efficient than the Reich of your glory days. You move from job to job, spending your money as fast as you earn it without building a true powerbase, yes?”

Victor’s eyes narrowed. “Always more jobs, ain’t been a prob.”

“The pageantry, the might – you saw that first hand. You could have it again … no more hiding in the shadows.”

“Modern Hydra hides in any shadow it can find. Ya don’t gotta clue what it was like t’ walk in tha sun down a street where every buildin’ had a red flag flutterin’, sportin’ a black hakenkreuz. Yer playin’ dress up, Ebersol – wearin’ granddaddy’s jackboots that ya ain’t able or worthy t’ fill.”

“You are a visionary, then – Mr. Creed, I had no idea. I swear to you – we are striving to make that past our future. Help us to do that. Guide us back to that light, to that pride of place in a world that needs order desperately.”

Gotcha. Victor let a smirk stretch and split into a sharp grin. “Maybe ya got tha stones after all.”

“One man can’t achieve this dream.”

“Yer right ‘bout that, but I still want a re-up bonus – that’s somethin’ one man can achieve. Ya claim Catalyst is Tetramin, so … Revilo Timchs still works fer ya?”

“He does, under my direct command.”

“I don’t like ‘im, neither. Gimme ‘im as a … good faith gift.”

“Done.”

“I ain’t gonna be no grunt. If’n I hire on, better be ‘nuff bling on my motherfuckin’ shoulders t’ keep me interested in playin’ with ya – that an’ barrels o’ cash. Toss in a few skirts, maybe – those can be one’s ya wanna be rid o’ though – I’m rough with my toys.”

“Rank and privilege are assessed by the candidate’s worth – I have no doubt you will be high ranking in the order before the ink dries on the dotted line.”

“Ya get a kickback fer bringin’ in tha likes o’ me?”

“Oh, yes. Yet that is immaterial to the greater good and glory of the order.”

“Natch.” Victor hauled the kid onto his lap and licked a tear off her cheek as she clenched her teeth and fists at once. “Even trade, the kid fer Timchs – an’ then we jaw ‘bout just how fast I’m gonna end up outrankin’ ya before I’m done.”

Ebersol’s smile was pure greed with a sprinkling of hubris. “Hail Hydra.”

“If’n yer a man o’ yer word – yeah.” Victor rose, pulling up the kid with him. “Ya want me t’ kill ‘er fer ya? Easier an’ quieter in transit that way. Don’t make no diff’rence t’ me, already sick o’ ‘er noise.”

Ebersol stood, preening like a bald Nazi peacock. “Alive is worth more – as it happens.”

“Yer call,” Victor answered, slipping into the old body language and tone of a loyal underling. The need for it enraged him, yet not a hint of that showed – he was practiced at both skills. He set the girl on her feet but kept a hand on the back of her neck.

Ignoring him, she glared up at Ebersol. “Who are you selling me to – I have a right to know.”

“Whatever gave you that idea?” He sneered at her before looking back up at Victor. “You may as well continue to keep her docile, for now. We can be rid of her in a matter of hours.”

“Small mercies,” Victor muttered.

Removing his hand from her neck, he let the claws slide out long. Staring down at her as the man left the table and headed into the taproom, he growled when Ebersol disappeared out of sight.

Jubilee whirled and hissed an outraged whisper up at him, “You hate Hydra, Logan told me that, you told me that. You’re up to something, obviously a plot to kill them all. Do I get to survive it?”

Honestly surprised she’d seen through the fascist hand-jobbing bullshit, he smirked at her. “Ya can pay attention after all – handy skill, that. Don’t worry ‘bout who ‘is buyer is – yer my property, won ya fair an’ square.”

“You lost.”

“Shut yer pancake hole. That Nazi chew-toy needs t’ think I’m a fan o’ those bastards or keepin’ ya free o’ lead might could get harder t’ manage.”

“That makes no sense. You know that, right?”

“Ya wanna stay alive?”

“Duh.”

“Then try t’ keep up an’ play along – maybe lend a firework or two t’ tha cause when tha bullets start t’ fly. Go fer their guns an’ any crazy tech shit that guy tries t’ toss at me.”

“The devil I know, huh?”

“Yup.”

“Geez. When I get home, I’m telling Logan you’re trying to kill Iron Man.”

A grin split his face. “Knock yerself out. Nazi boy’s comin’ back, since ya yak forever. Hold yer breath an’ practice yer poker face – play along time starts now. Gotta make it look good.”

“Huh? Hey!”

Victor grabbed her and shoved her against the wall. One hand on a shoulder, the other on a hip, he bent his head and licked up her throat as she let loose an ear-ringing scream. It was anybody’s guess if it was real or fake.

“If you must do that, can it wait? We have a time window on delivery.”

The kid nearly swallowed her tongue but then she surprised him. “Please get him off me – whoever you’re taking me too, maybe they want me unharmed?”

Going for the Oscar, Victor rasped in her ear, “Think I can’t fuck ya without damagin’ tha goods? Sounds like a challenge t’ me.”

“Come along, Mr. Creed – this does not serve the order’s goals.”

With a hiss, he let her go. Grabbing her upper arm, he tugged at her. “Saved by tha boss, frail.”

As they moved through the taproom, he ignored the shocked stares of some and the smirks hidden behind the hands of others. It was a toss-up which of them would have the guts to tease him about this next time. He caught sight of Typhoid Mary at the end of the bar and it was hard not to grin when she raised her glass to him.

Mutual hate can’t stand in tha way o’ mutual respect fer a good murder plot. Cheers, bitch. Catch ya on tha flipside. Might even let ya win a hand or two in our next poker game – fer free babysittin’.

~ ~ ~

One alley over, just as Paganucci said, Victor and his bait were taken to the rest of the troopers – or what was left of them. A box truck was parked deeper down the alley in the gloom of distant streetlights with its back doors hanging open. The cargo area had been outfitted with padding, and a collection of chain and handcuff shackles hung from an open locker just inside one door. The fishmonger signs were painted on, the license plates no doubt stolen.

Victor marched the kid up to the modified refrigerator truck, ignoring the glaring scowls of the men around him. There were only seventeen of them left, thanks to him. The hardest stare came from the beefy Revilo Timchs, but he didn’t let it distract him – he’d be dealing with him soon enough.

He had to struggle not to laugh at the prison-style shackles as he grabbed a set of them. Only idiots would think Cracker Jack toy shit like this can control a mutant with incendiary talents. She knows it, too. Good girl. Victor cuffed her wrists, gathering the chain up to grab the attached ankle cuffs. “Whatever ya do, stay in tha truck – it’s cover, got it?” he whispered as he crouched to fasten them above her sneakers.

She didn’t react, but when he lifted her up to stand her inside it, she didn’t fuss. Her little hands fisted as her eyes ticked from man to man, noting where all the guns were. He rose as the mark approached behind him with a goon in tow. Turning, he made a mental note of where they all were and sized them up just as the girl had.

“She’ll have to be drugged for the trip,” Ebersol ordered, waving a man forward who had a field medic satchel over one shoulder.

“My bonus comes first – so’s I know yer an honest man.”

“Timchs, come forward,” Ebersol ordered.

The tall and heavy Russian obeyed but he already looked suspicious. None of the wounds had stuck of course, but the man had gotten enough licks in over the years to make Victor respect his skills. His father was a former KGB officer and he’d raised a son who was smarter than most of the goons in Hydra, with a legitimate interest in the welfare of his troopers. When a failing economy had neutered the Soviet Union and it finally dissolved, ending the Cold War, Timchs had turned his back on the country his father had died defending.

Yakov Timchs was an admirable adversary back in tha day. It’s a damn honest shame ‘is son’s in league with tha goose-steppers – I coulda introduced ‘im t’ Mags or found a way t’ employ ‘im myself. Can’t carve tha fascist outta ‘em, though.

“Why is this animal with you?” Timchs asked, glaring at Victor. “He took my squads apart.”

“For the greater good of the order – Victor Creed is joining our ranks.”

“Sir – he’s destroyed more Hydra loyalists than you’ve even met!”

“Perhaps – but he is only going to kill one more. Herr Creed, I present your gift.”

Victor lost no time leaping on the only threat among the troopers. Claws flashing, he shuddered at the voice of hubris behind him that echoed the few men he had truly feared and hated more than any others.

“Hail Hydra.”

Spurred by that fear, he let it enhance his speed. Incapacitating Timchs fast and messily, he left him breathing but unconscious and whirled on Ebersol. His jump, as instantaneous as it was, lost him surprise. His boots hit the man and brought him down but even as they landed, a laser shot through the bones of his foot.

Roaring in pain, again letting it spur him on, he ignored the tech and reached for the throat. The sharp whine of the laser weapon sounded but before it could fire again, the weapon exploded.

As though they’d been woken from a spell, the remaining troopers began to shoot at him and the kid. Punching Ebersol in the temple, he got in their way. A few bullets got past him to lodge in the doorframe of the truck – far too close to her.

Victor spared Jubilee a look and grinned to see her hit her chains with fireworks. That hindrance broken in seconds, she took cover and began destroying weapons. Trying to dodge her shots won him more bullet holes, but he shrugged it off and kept opening them up until parts of them began to fall. When the last two broke and ran, catching them was laughably easy.

Turning back, he snarled to see the kid running for the cab of the truck. She got it started but before she could fuss with the rough gearshift, he simply reached down and picked up the front end of the truck.

They stared at each other through the windshield as the front-wheel drive spun the tires uselessly.

“Cut it off, kid, or I will.” When she slumped and turned off the ignition, hands up, he set the truck down. “Get outta there.”

She came out talking. “You got them all, got what you wanted – it’s been fun, huh? I helped you, dude, like a lot. Let me go home.”

“Tha two I really wanted ain’t dead.”

“They sure look it.”

“Yup – but they ain’t, an’ I need time an’ privacy t’ question ‘em. Get in tha back o’ tha truck.”

“See, main objective achieved, bait now pointless, going off somewhere private with you is mega super dumb – which I’m not.” She yelped when his bloody clawed fingers shot out to lightly grip her hair.

“Wasn’t dispensin’ options, Short Round.”

Wilting, she whispered, “I’d rather not suffocate in the dark.”

Victor used the hand gripping her hair turn her head. “See that bulb? Tha AC unit an’ vents? Ya won’t. This rig was outfitted t’ transport ya breathin’, probly with a guard. Tables turned now, with ya on guard. Move.” He backed her into it by her hair, only letting go when she began to step up. “We need t’ get outta here. Ya can have ‘nother shot at talkin’ me int’ lettin’ ya go at tha next stop.”

Backing up to lean on the wall farthest from him, she watched in horror as he picked up Ebersol and Timchs one at a time. Dropping their bloody and moaning bodies on the padded floor of the truck, he used their own provided shackles to truss them up. An extra chain around their necks let him cuff the hands against their faces so that if they struggled, they would begin to strangle.

“Sit down an’ grab some walls, shortcake – getaway cars don’t ride easy. Keep an eye on these asswipes, paf ‘em one if’n they try t’ fuck with ya.”

“Does that go for you, too?”

“What tha fuck do ya think?” he asked with a growling rumble under the words.

Victor grabbed the doors and prepared to shut them as Ebersol roused enough to glare at him. “Don’t take this course, Creed – it will go ill with you.”

Jubilee’s anger flared and to Victor’s surprise, she aimed it at the Nazi bastard bleeding at her feet. “Great, antagonize him more. You’re the moron he used me as bait to get. Now we’re all Little Friskies, dude.”

Grinning in at them, Victor closed and secured the doors. To the tune of sirens in the distance, he fired up the truck and drove away heading south, nice and slow, until he hit the first main road away from the bar: 12th Avenue and on down to West 30th Street.

Gotta be tha garage – known turf full o’ tools, even if it’s a bit farther away. Can use the time t’ think. Maybe fer tha kid’s sake, I won’t hit every pothole I find – maybe.

~ ~ ~

Gatti’s Auto, the mechanic shop out in Chelsea near Hudson Yards where he had his favorite Cadillac serviced, was closed and empty. Fishing out the hidden key under a discarded and burned up engine block in the back, he moved the truck into one of the service bays.

As he turned it off and stepped out, all the smells of things he could play with were already assaulting his nose, including a barrel of waste oil and the chemicals of blowtorches and antifreeze. The array of tools hanging up or stowed around the garage were enough to make him drool with anticipation. Yet it was largely nothing more than a stage – which he quickly made ready for a performance he intended to play for Timchs. Just for fun, the brat could enjoy the show, too.

Wish I could torture these assholes fer tha intel I need t’ find even a sniff o’ Catalyst, but Ebersol obvs dunno zip ‘bout that an’ if’n Timchs knows squat, ‘is type don’t respond t’ torture anyhow. Cryin’ shame. Ebersol’s gonna die ugly though – fer payin’ t’ have Tony killed. Might could get news o’ where Hydra’s Science Division is holed up these days, but I doubt it. Fuck, I hate loyal fascist freaks. When tha cause is worth more’n their lives t’ ‘em, ain’t worth breakin’ a sweat t’ twist ‘em, really. He unlocked and opened the doors at the back of the truck, smirking in at the trio of captives. “Time t’ play, boys.”

Hauling them out, he dumped them, chained and shackled, onto the concrete floor. Crooking a finger at her, he beckoned to the trembling ball of Jubilee.

“Got yer own chair again – know ya like that. Saved ya a front row seat.”

Since she didn’t want him to come in and get her, she slowly emerged from the truck, flinching when he gripped her waist and swung her down onto her feet.

“I helped you, Sabretooth,” she reminded him, “that should count for something.”

“Sure it does. Sit.” Pointing at her chair, he watched as she moved, trailing broken chains, to sit gingerly on it. “Don’t move an’ ya won’t get hurt.” For good measure, he grabbed the duct tape he’d spotted and pinned her arms, hands pointed behind her, to the metal chair.

Turning away, he picked the other two up by their chains and dropped them onto chairs facing each other, a good ten paces apart. He ran out of duct tape on Timchs, but Ebersol wouldn’t need as much of it for long.

Cracking his knuckles for effect, he picked up the hand torch he’d selected and fired it up with a low chuckle.

“This baby is a Bernzomatic series TS4000T, shuts off when ya release tha trim button, fires when ya push it again, so it don’t waste any gas. Aluminum, brass, an’ stainless steel – high output … I’d own one myself. Let’s get started – lots t’ talk ‘bout.”

The first time the propane-fueled flame touched Ebersol’s flesh, he screamed a bass line in counterpoint to the kid’s high-pitched shriek. Just in case, Victor took out the fancy metal tech with red lights that was mounted over his right eye and against his forehead. Melting it all together over that side of his face, he spared the left eye for effect.

Leaving the flame on, he used claws to cut away the clothing and set the torch to any metal he found over or under it. The temptation to keep any of the tech he wore and give it to Tony came and went fast. He had no idea if any of it could alert Hydra to their location and it wasn’t worth the risk. By the time it was melted and fused over smoking destroyed flesh, there wasn’t much left of the man that had wanted Tony dead.

“So much fer askin’ this one questions, huh? Funny thing is,” he told his horrified audience, “once tha real pain starts, most folks give up easy.”

Tears ran down the kid’s face. She hadn’t watched but hearing it probably hadn’t been a picnic, either. “Please stop – he won’t be able to tell you anything!”

Grinning over at her, he played with the button that sparked the flame on and off. “Don’t need this filth t’ talk, Short Round – already found out he dunno nothin’ I wanna hear.”

“Then why do that?”

“Cuz it’s fun, that’s why – an’ it’s a good example fer tha next guy.” Turning his head slowly to stare down at Timchs, he rasped, “Hiya, next guy.”

Timchs had coldly watched as he took his boss apart, physically and psychologically, bit by bit. He hadn’t missed the fact that Ebersol had made a gift of his life to their enemy.

Ebersol’s ruined voice gurgled to life again. Victor gave him his full attention. Blood from a bitten tongue dripped from his mouth as he struggled to speak.

“You make … a martyr of me while you gain … nothing, for I will give you nothing. The man you seek is dead. I die for a cause greater than Himmler’s, greater … than myself.”

“Martyr, is it? Yeah, I don’t think so. I ain’t stupid like ya assumed, see, an’ I gotta few things figged out on tha drive over here. Ya kept tryin’ t’ recruit Paganucci, tried t’ recruit me. Ya admitted ya want tha brat over there t’ give t’ some other asshole, a ‘potential friend’ ya wanna do biz with, a few hours drive away, wasn’t that it? Catalyst was tha boss o’ Hydra’s science geeks an’ he didn’t spend ‘is time playin’ two-bit goon out gatherin’ allies. So I think ya got demoted from yer fancy title – fer tha same reason ya want Stark dead. Yer not anywhere near ‘is class, Ebersol, an’ Hydra found that out.”

Growling, Victor released the button and set the torch aside. Slapping a palm down on that bald head, claws pricking it, he pushed it back to force the man to look up at him with one wide eye. Aiming a claw, he let it cut through the melted metal that had destroyed the other eye. Grinning at the fresh screams, his and the kid’s, he let the finger root around in there a bit. Pulling it free, he wiped it off on the hideously burned cheek under the remaining eye.

He glanced at the others and saw Timchs’s iron stare. The kid had her eyes clamped shut with tears running over clenched teeth. Odds were, she’d been dumb enough to look.

“They don’t throw out a good loyal fascist, though, so they gave ya a new job. What’d they call it – business development? Got ya drummin’ up membership an’ makin’ deals. They give ya a cool title, put soldiers under yer orders t’ help ya feel like a big man? Bet they let ya keep makin’ toys fer ‘em, too – but yer not talented ‘nuff at it t’ be worth keepin’ ya in their R an’ D groups, huh? Probly moved tha geeks’ HQ ya were at an’ changed tha locks. Yeah. They find a round hole fer their square pegs, they learned that from tha Nazis, too. Bottom line, motherfucker: ya weren’t good ‘nuff.”

“It does not matter. I am … only one of many. Hail Hydra…”

Snarling, his claws moved faster than breath as his free hand caved in the man’s sternum, half-cutting and half-smashing bones to grasp the slowing heart beneath.

Leaning over the carnage, Victor’s saliva dripped from fangs into the man’s open gagging mouth. “Hail me.” Yanking the organ out of the bloody hole, he bit into it and swallowed as he watched his enemy die.

For one red haze moment with hated blood in his throat and under his claws, it was hard not to slaughter all that watched. Forcing his breathing to slow and deepen, he pushed the impulse back down. Rejecting the idea of smashing Ebersol’s skull, he got a hand bloodier in the chest cavity and smacked it down on top of the bald head to leave a perfect handprint.

“Next best thing t’ signin’ tha bastard’s empty head,” he muttered in a low rasp.

Feeling the stare of Timchs, he stabbed claws into the chest to cut out small pieces of flesh. Holding them in one hand, the other pried his jaw open. Grinning fiercely, he dropped the scarlet gobbets in, shut the mouth and stroked the throat until it was all swallowed.

“Good dog.”

Choking and gagging as he strained against his chains and duct tape, Timchs struggled to speak. “May as well get on with it and kill me, freak. You know I won’t tell you a damn thing.”

“If’n ya throw that up, just gonna stuff more down ya.” Grabbing his chin, he made him look up at him. “Ain’t gonna be me ya give up yer secrets t’ though. I got tha best toys. Fer now, take a nap. Ya earned it.” He released his face and cold-cocked him in the head. It took two hits before he passed out. “Impressed in spite o’ myself. How ‘bout ya, Short Round?”

When he turned his head to look, she still had her eyes scrunched shut tight. Moving away from Timchs, he strolled around the girl. The little fists were clenched and trembling behind her chair. Her breath was short and sharp, the fear stink thick around her.

Puffy kitten thinks this is it. Maybe I gotta respectable compromise goin’ between killin’ ‘er an’ teachin’ ‘er a grab bag o’ really useful lessons. Facing her again, he crossed his arms over his messy chest and frowned down at her. “Look at me, kid. Now.” She hesitated, so he threw in a goad. “Cowards hide from their last moments breathin’ – courageous folks like me an’ Logan, we watch it come at us. Which one are ya? With spine or without?”

Her blue eyes were red, wet, and full of hate and terror. “With.” She nearly spat the word at him.

“Paul Norbert Ebersol a.k.a. tha Fixer used t’ be an auto mechanic, native o’ Dayton, Ohio.”

“Why do I care? Hydra scum is what he … was…”

“Was is damn right. Good answer. Ya should care, kid. He’s an example o’ how far bad a person can go.”

“You’re example enough without him.”

“True ‘nuff, gotta give ya that.”

“It was all lies, back at that scummy bar – telling him you’d sell me to him. Dude, we both know you wouldn’t do that.”

“We jawed ‘bout this back there, why bring it up here? I could still sell ya t’ ‘is buyer myself – gotta fuckin’ great guess who it is.”

“You won’t do that. You don’t want to.”

“Yeah? What makes ya think that?” He crouched in front of her with claws out, wrists on his knees.

“If some other jerk was gonna plug me, you wouldn’t let it be them and not you.” She swallowed hard. “You don’t want to kill me, though.”

“I don’t?” His smirk curled and stretched.

“Nope.”

“Amuse me, shortcake. Why don’t I?”

“Because you miss Tabitha – and if you killed me, she’d miss me. So … um…”

Her name pierced him and it took all he had not to show it. Fuck me runnin’, tha kid’s callin’ my bluff again – brass balls, that. Wouldn’t feed ‘er head-first t’ Sinister anyhow – done with that shit. Can’t let ‘er off without one more good spook though, gotta rep t’ protect. “I do want somethin’ from ya.”

Reaching out with blood dripping here and there from his claws, he locked stares with her as he let the red tips scratch her belt.

“Please don’t,” she whispered.

Her small body was as taut as it could get without breaking something. Just before she screamed, he tapped the belt pouch zipper with a claw tip. “Want my checks. At least one o’ ‘em needs t’ be cashed damn quick.”

“Wha-what?”

Grinning, he reached around her, warm breath at her throat, and sliced the gray tape to free her hands. He managed it without a scratch by scents alone.

Standing, he watched her fumble to open the zipper with shaking fingers. When she handed both checks over, he walked off to put them by the shop phone on Arturo Gatti’s desk in the office at the back. He leaned on the doorframe to watch as she fought with the remains of the tape and shot colorful plasmoids at the shackles.

The kid moved gingerly through the shop to approach him, probably more to get away from the men still bound to chairs rather than any desire to be close to him. She got to the counter in front of the office and stopped.

“Now what?” Her glare was kind of cute, to be honest. He could almost hear the hiss.

With a snort, he turned and grabbed the phone receiver, dialing quickly. Raul was good at picking up weird cues on the fly. Pretending he was a cabby was kid’s play. Keeping an eye on her, he sounded casual when his driver picked up.

“Yellow Cab, gotta fare fer ya. West 30th Street, Gatti’s Auto – shop near Hudson Yards. She’s goin’ up t’ Westchester, bar in Salem Center called tha Auger Inn. I’m buyin’; tha faster ya get here, tha bigger tha tip.” Setting the receiver down, he retracted his claws and stuffed his fingertips into his jeans pockets. “T’ quote Dr. Frank-N-Furter, ‘Well, how ‘bout that.’”

“Um, ‘kay … thanks. Why the Auger Inn?”

“Close ‘nuff by half. If’n ya ain’t never been in tha joint, just tell ‘em yer Logan’s. They’ll let ya use their phone t’ call home.”

She nearly snapped out a retort but wisely retracted it. “Yeah, close enough.”

“C’mon, out – lessen ya really enjoy tha ambiance in here.”

He led the way out to the street and she followed, gobsmacked into a rare silence. The sky was lightening around them. Logan’s favorite roughtrade biker bar was closed now, but by the time she arrived, someone would be there. After all the gumption the girl had shown, he had no doubt she could find her way home once he got her that far.

Victor moved to the white painted brick wall and leaned his shoulders on it, arms crossed again. He was full of lead and it had to come out. The jeans were holding up, but the dress shirt was in tatters and he was smeared with enough blood to draw unwanted attention. His foot had healed, but grit had gotten into the boot through the bullet hole.

Silent and still, he watched Jubilee stand and fidget. Raul’s gotta pick up tha fake cab first, but he shouldn’t take too long. Once she’s outta my hair, I can get Timchs out an’ ship ‘im up t’ Montreal. Then food, bullet extractions, somethin’ t’ fuck, an’ sleep – in that order. Might could be worth waitin’ ‘til I get there fer tha fuck, though. Mmm…

“Could that be it?” the kid asked in a small I-can’t-believe-it voice.

Turning his head, he sniffed and watched the approaching taxi. “Probly.”

They both tracked it until it pulled up at the curb. Raul sat at the wheel cool as ever and managed not to look as surprised as the kid that he was letting her go in one piece.

When he moved, so did she. Heading straight for the back door, she hopped in and closed it. Victor went to the driver’s door as Raul put the window down. “Bill me, huh? Ya know tha name.”

“Yes, sir – of course, no problem. Happy to be of service.”

He gave the roof a pat and stepped out of the way. Back on the sidewalk, he waited.

Jubilee rolled her window down and looked out at him. “Dude – seriously – thanks. I’d tell Tabitha you say hi, but … it might upset her? Unless … you want me to, say that.”

“Don’t bother. Had us an interestin’ walk on tha wildside, kid. Tha flipside o’ bein’ a predator pretty much blows goats, but ya never lemme get bored, huh? Give Wolvie a wet smooch fer me – if’n ya ever see tha cur again.”

“Um… Right.” She dug out her gum and popped a piece in. The fruity sweet scent wafted to him on the morning breeze. “D’know if it matters … but yeah… Thanks, ‘Tooth.”

Victor smirked and gave her a nod. The nickname was something Hank McCoy often called him. She was a sponge, soaking up the bullshit of her elders just like the rest of them. He watched the taxi until it turned a corner out of sight. Within it, she was still watching him, too.

“Shake it off, asshole,” he muttered under his breath, “gotta clean up tha shop before tha crew gets in – promises an’ all.”

Back inside, he used their phone again to call his bank. Once he gave his name, he was patched through to a representative that could handle anything.

“Need tha removers. Gatti’s Auto.”

Once the order was acknowledged, he hung up. While he waited for the team to arrive, he borrowed some paper and a pen from the counter and scrawled a note to Arturo about the truck. They could cut it up for parts without a trace.

Timchs was still out, and what was left of Ebersol was worthy of being recorded. He’d have the cleaners snap a few photos for him before they did their thing.

Guess I’ll just catch a ride with ‘em back t’ tha bank, too. Fuck, I’m hungry. Glancing over at the Hydra boss’s corpse, he shrugged and chuckled. Hair o’ tha dog it is.

Humming as he returned to his kill, he broke into his ragtag baritone and let the song stuck in his head come on out.

Tim Curry would wince, maybe – eh, don’t care. “Well, ya got caught with a flat! Well, how ‘bout that? Well, babies, don’t ya panic! By tha light o’ tha night, it’ll all seem awright! I’ll get ya a satanic mechanic!”

~ ~ ~

Victor settled as still as he could manage on the metal sheet Araunya had spread with her magnetism talent over his bed in the bank suite. He had eaten well and slept until she arrived. He liked to watch her work the metal; that particular power held a morbid fascination for him.

Sometimes he worried about her continued loyalty, knowing what she could do against him if someone got to her. Yet she wasn’t the sort of person anyone could persuade with bribes. Lenusya had called it a long time ago – the girl was too zen for the machinations of his enemies. Also, she was paid better by him and Obinata, and allowed to take other clients as she wished. He’d heard that sometimes she didn’t charge them at all beyond some hippie thing about paying it forward. Lenusya had also called her incorruptible. He generally scoffed at that but so far, she’d been proven right.

They had done this many times, yet ever since she’d had help with the aftercare upstate, he hadn’t spoken to her much. The slender black-haired gypsy girl wasn’t a chatterbox, either. Back then, in his room in a brothel, she had spoken more to the nervous traumatized blonde who had wanted to help massage oils into his skin after Araunya had yanked the bullets back out through it.

This time, plagued by that loss, he struggled to be calm when the time came. It didn’t matter. As she lifted his body by controlling the metal on his bones, he couldn’t easily move at all. He had never wanted to see if he could break her hold – half afraid to find out if he couldn’t. The idea that such a tiny thing wrapped in beige and green cotton could hold him down with a thought was enough to rattle the beast within.

He gritted his teeth when the other tug hit him all over. How she could hold the Adamantium while tearing the bullets out, how she knew the difference, was a mystery to him. He growled and snarled through the pain, trying to control himself even half as well as she was.

The abrupt scattered pattering of crushed bullets striking the metal sheet made his pointed ears pin down harder. They didn’t roll on it – they were absorbed instantly into it. She held him up a few minutes longer to give the healing factor a chance to begin its work without his weight or movement hindering it. Once he was lowered to the metal, he felt her power release him and grip the sheet instead.

Using a hand to roll as it retracted into itself from underneath, he ended up on his belly. He rested there trying to slow his breathing as the healing buzzed throughout his body. It could be soothing and painful at once if he was fed enough prior to fuel it. Exhausted by all the insanity he’d gone through with the brat in tow, he almost napped out.

A tink of glass bottles woke him but he didn’t turn his head to look. She was getting into her fancy collection of massage oils in the wooden case that was older than she was.

“Sage,” he muttered, knowing she would ask. “An’ … lavender.”

Wordless and respectful, she obliged and used both. Smooth strong hands, warmed oils, and a rough square of terrycloth worked to clean away blood left by the path of the extracted bullets. The massage and the oils helped sooth the trauma of violence from the muscles and skin.

Flashing through his mind was the image of sweet Bonnie, unafraid and full of wonder – with the scent of lavender oil warmed by her beautiful breasts and hands all around them as she had helped to care for him. The loss still haunted him, but he couldn’t afford to indulge it. He would only end up trying to think of ways to change it and a far deeper horror lurked behind every open or locked door along that path.

Casting about for a distraction, he remembered other things Lenusya had told him about this girl, more recently.

“Heard ‘bout yer ma,” he spoke into his folded forearms. “Was sorry t’ hear that.”

The skilled hands paused for only a breath of hesitation. “Thank you. She is at peace, now.”

Her light soprano voice always reminded him of a bright spring day. Everything about her smelled clean, except for the metal sheet that reeked of lead, brass, and blood.

Peace. Was Bonnie at peace? “She died,” he said, his voice low and flat. “Bonnie. She was … sick. Those … things, what she was runnin’ from, they poisoned ‘er.”

“I am sorry. She had a warm and sweet aura.”

Victor sighed. “Nobody that shoulda been with tha likes o’ me, anyhow.”

“I would say she had an edge to her, though – she seemed … like she fit.”

Fit every dream I never dared t’ want … but dead’s dead and should … stay that way. All he said was a muttered, “Yeah, maybe.” He rolled to his back when she asked but closed his eyes as she continued to work. He couldn’t quite manage to pretend she was Bonnie. My girl woulda gone fer tha goods. His light growl didn’t make Araunya pause. Wish I could dig up or haul up those freak zombie bastards just t’ kill ‘em again.

She went for more oil once and he noticed she wasn’t even wearing shoes. What appeared to be sandal straps were only stones on hemp twine, circling the thin ankles and looping around the big toes. She never wore leather. He watched her return, glistening hands dripping over his thigh, and tried to relax as he studied her pretty face.

“Some folks I know would call ya an old soul. Seems easy sometimes t’ talk t’ ya – easy not t’, too. Ain’t been real chatty. Just knowin’ ya met ‘er…”

“There is a quote by Maya Angelou from When I Think of Death. At the end, she says, I find it impossible to let a friend or relative go into that country of no return. Disbelief becomes my close companion, and anger follows in its wake. I answer the heroic question, ‘Death, where is thy sting?’ with ‘it is here in my heart and mind and memories.’”

Victor was silent until she finished the massage and moved away. “I read some o’ ‘er caged bird stuff before,” he muttered. “An’ yeah, feels like that – fer tha ones I lost.”

She wiped her hands clean on another cloth, packed up the case, and gave him a soft and sad smile. “Living as long as you will, I hope you find many and lose no more of them. I wish you peace, Mr. Creed.”

Gathering up her things, she left. The silence gathered around him in the mostly soundproofed suite. He didn’t move except to roll to his side. Eventually, he did drift off to sleep. Hoping to dodge the worst of his most common nightmares, he focused his thoughts on the beautiful nude body of Tony Stark and attempted to bend lucid dreaming into giving him his lover. It worked for a while before the terror and darkness rose up again to claim him.

When he woke with a snarling slash of sheets, he growled and struggled out of the bed. In a rush to leave New York behind, he skipped the shower and dressed in street clothes that were stored there. Retrieving his wallet and phone from the safe, he called Raul to take him to JFK to meet his pilot.

Just before he left the suite, he noticed that the cleaning lady had wiped away his bloody hand prints from the window.

Wonder if’n she decided ‘erself or if Obinata said t’ do it?

~ ~ ~

On the drive, he asked about the brat and smirked to hear she had talked the man’s ears off the whole trip up to Salem Center. Raul had managed to keep her thinking he was only a taxi driver with no real connection to Victor.

“That kid was entertainin’, no lie – quite a scrapper, too.”

He fell silent for the rest of the trip, trying to keep his spirits up, but it was a challenge. Tony still hadn’t called but he knew he wasn’t ready to abandon that hope.

Glutton fer punishment. Yer an expert at takin’ it, not just dishin’ it out.

Slumping in the backseat of one of the bank’s Bentleys, he watched splashes of the Big Apple go by, so different now than when he’d first come here. Time weighed him down, pressing in like a knife to the throat of everything he cared about, while leaving him to wallow in a wasteland that never stopped changing.

With a low growl, he turned his back on all of it. He didn’t deny the truth, but he was trying to learn to savor things – as Michel had attempted to teach him so long ago in the Yukon.

Some day I’ll lose Tony too – one way or ‘nother – but not yet. We got time. We ain’t done yet.

Thoughts going in circles, he was grateful to finally park near his jet. Zane came out to greet him as Raul opened his door.

“Vermont gig, Montreal, and then Brazil or that thing in Phoenix?” Zane asked as they boarded the jet.

Victor sat in his favorite seat by the window and sighed. “Phoenix is pushed back, so Vermont. Stick close, though – ain’t gonna take long an’ won’t be stayin’ overnight. My entertainment got there?”

“He did – trussed up and ready to play. Another dirty pedophile, right?”

“That’s right – ‘is own baby sister, probly others. Marie Dearman – I broke daddy dearest’s neck fer ‘er in what’s gonna be my new house.” He stretched his legs out. “After the job, wanna come along an’ watch this time? Nice an’ private – ya could even lend a fist if’n ya wanted.”

“I do.” He didn’t need to see the pilot’s grin to appreciate it. “Appalachians or Montreal after? Mr. Obinata said he moved Montreal back, so you have time. Brazil is on track, though.”

“Swap ‘em, I can play in tha mountains chasin’ banjo freaks on tha way back down – gotta date in Montreal an’ extra time fer it prior to Brazil suits me fine. That asshole Timchs is headed there, too; finely got that bastard.”

“Happy to hear it, Boss. Break a leg for me.”

~ ~ ~

In the heart of Montreal’s Quartier international, at the restaurant Toqué, Victor managed not to get any of the fancy foie gras terrine on his bespoke suit or burgundy silk tie. His companion’s gaze still lingered on the double-breasted finery of herringbone tweed in olive green with burgundy check pattern. The crisp white linen shirt was still white, too, though he was tempted to loosen the tie and the collar.

Shaul Yahalom turned his head to smile at the waiter, signaling that they were ready for the next course: venison loin with a pile of hard-to-pronounce sauces and veggies for the lawyer, rack of pig loin sans veggies for the feral.

The young mutant had styled his thick black hair in romantic and dramatic waves that almost touched the shoulders of his bespoke suit – a satin floral jacquard in burgundy with roses all over it. The shirt was matte black, the tie a shiny satin the color of fresh blood. He was painfully handsome and had the attention of everyone in the restaurant – even without using his talents on them. When the mischievous gray eyes behind the red-tinted rectangular glasses met his, Victor’s pants tightened again.

“We should get your brown butter Bavarian cream to go – to use later when you fuck me.” The heat came off him in waves far more lustrous than his hair.

“Later, is it? Keep that shit up an’ I’m gonna be fuckin’ ya over yer fancy hunk o’ Bambi.”

“Hmm, just don’t spill the wine.”

Sipping the Bordeaux, a Pauillac 1995, Château Lefite Rothschild that went for $3,356 a glass, his smile warmed at the taste of black currants, violets and vanilla. The spicy oaky scent of it blended with the rest to fill his senses and place him willingly in the palm of that delicate yet strong pale hand.

Picking up his glass, he downed it like cheap swill just to avoid carrying out the threat right then and there.

“Watching you devastate fine things with all the cultured finesse of a longshoreman isn’t going to tamp down my lust, you realize.”

A trio of waiters arrived with the next round of fine grub and one of them refilled Victor’s glass. He dug into the pork in self-defense, only using utensils to spare his attire.

He had dessert at the table, wouldn’t allow Shaul to whammy the staff to make the meal free, paid for everything, and got him out of there as fast as he could before he popped. His regret for agreeing to drive the lawyer’s car ended after he got the new 2004 black Ferrari F360 Spider F-1 convertible on the road. The car was magnificent, but the grip of the hand rubbing and teasing his trapped cock was enough to make him risk breaking a lot more than the speed limit.

When they reached the lawyer’s house at 9 l’Orée-du-Bois Est in Verdun, Montreal, a decent pad at $12 million, Victor managed to park the car in the garage without sending it through the glass wall of the connecting wine cellar. Once they got into the house, they left a trail of bespoke castoffs that led upstairs to the master bedroom.

The fireplace that was open to the bedroom and sitting room was blazing, warming air that the air conditioning had previously chilled. The scent of the servant was fresh, but she wasn’t in the house now. The rooms were a blur of hardwoods, cream and sage colors, and Mediterranean décor. Through the wood frame and glass wall to the balcony, he could still see stars shining.

Far more enticing than the windows was the scent of the glass plug the young man had held sunk in his body all through dinner. Decorated by real diamonds, it flashed at him as the lithe athletic body climbed onto the center of the high four-poster bed. He still wore the glasses, but Victor planned to leave those alone – just in case. His immunity to telepathic powers wasn’t something he wanted to test tonight and the glasses helped Shaul tamp down his gifts so that he could make others obey rather than turn their brains into soup.

Pushing him up against the piled pillows, his fingers reached to slowly pull out the plug. Dropping it on the foot of the bed, he stuffed his stiff cock in its place the moment after those soft hands slicked it for him.

Victor curled around him to reach his mouth as he pumped hard, ramped up by the wait and teasing. He hadn’t come since the Beekman hotel, just to save it for this one.

Keeping his cock roughly urgent but his mouth gentle was a trick, but it was worth it to illicit the responses and noises he got. He came fast and shoved it deep, letting his roar make the glass rattle.

“Stay inside, kiss me again.”

“Ya know we got time, fer once. Gonna fuck ya as much as ya want, but it ain’t a race.”

“Mmm,” he almost purred, “Perhaps, but I know you – as soon as that Russian grunt is delivered, you’ll be all business.”

“Shoulda been here already.”

“I told them to aim for tomorrow.” The hot mouth on his got him going again in no time.

“Once yer done with ‘im,” Victor whispered between passionate kisses, “want ya t’ – help me kill it. Gonna hafta anyhow.”

“I thought we hated him due to his fascist Nazi wannabe hobby? Why the regretful tone?”

“Knew ‘is pa, respected tha man.”

“You killed his father, Victor.”

“Don’t change tha fact.”

Shaul’s laugh was sweet and slightly wicked. “You are delicious.”

He caught Victor’s bottom lip in his perfect teeth and bit it before kissing away the sting. The pretty head tilted until the glasses nearly slipped down his nose. A flash of randy mischief from those dangerous beautiful eyes ran a shiver down his spine as the brush of hackles lifted.

Victor smiled at him, the corners of it curling into a smirk. “Remind me why I don’t fuck ya on tha regular?”

“Because you don’t have a monogamous bone in your body, and I prefer not to share. You are a rare treat between boyfriends, which is a spot I currently happen to be in.”

“All yer talents an’ ya can’t keep a man ‘round long as ya want?”

The pout that got him sparked a growl of lust and he began a lazy thrusting rhythm.

“I’ve done that, it gets old. The larger challenge is to win one and keep him without turning him into a love slave. This – real and raw passion – is what I want.”

Victor slowed his pace more and kissed him gently as thoughts of Tony slipped in. He couldn’t answer with words so he used his body instead.

~ ~ ~

Revilo Timchs sagged on his knees on the concrete of the garage floor, unbound in his black boxers and bleeding from many cuts. The knife he held in his hand shook as he trembled. He’d spilled his guts about anything he knew in the first fifteen minutes, but it was longer than most subjects had ever held out under that cold gray stare.

His confessions and bits of knowledge mixed with rumor hadn’t been that helpful, though – he was only a grunt leading lesser grunts, after all. They took orders without question.

Shaul stood there in scarlet silk pajama bottoms and bare feet. His arms were crossed over that sculpted bare torso as one finger pushed the glasses back over his eyes.

“So a ‘better man’ claimed Ebersol’s spot, but this lump has no idea who that man is.”

“He said it could be Catalyst – or whatever tha freak’s callin’ ‘isself these days.”

“That was a guess tantamount to a lie – I watched him work it out in that mess of an anti-Semitic and racist brain.”

“A guess cuz he dunno if’n it’s Catalyst or not,” Victor muttered. Scowling at the raised eyebrow that won him, he growled. “Wishful fuckin’ thinkin’ or not, I’m still at a dead end.”

“Well, at least he confirmed that you were right about Ebersol being knocked out of that job. If you manage to get a shot at the new boss of their science and tech department, perhaps that person would know – if it’s not the man you want.”

“If’n I get that shot, I’ll take it. Least I got tha chance t’ thin their nasty ranks some.”

“Always a fine use of your time. Shall I end him for you or do you wish to?”

Victor waited for rage and revenge to rise in his blood, but it wouldn’t come. “Tell ya what – let’s use ‘im t’ make more PR headaches fer Hydra. Plant a suggestion – make ‘im go loony somewhere that’ll get him turned int’ a lead magnet fer cops. Shoutin’ ‘is bloody fuckin’ hail Hydras an’ shit. Go nuts. Just make sure they kill tha bastard. I don’t feel like bloodyin’ my claws on this one.”

“As you wish. What about you? Back to the salt mines?”

Victor frowned and then snarled. “Gotta work my way down t’ Brazil then all tha way back t’ Phoenix t’ play pitbull fer an annoyin’ li’l Italian prick who snookered me at poker.”

“Well, that’s a short list. How’d he manage that?”

“He played it like an idiot an’ got me t’ buy it. Plus, I had a class A distraction goin’ in tha form o’ a brat kid – tha one I used fer baitin’ Ebersol.”

“Oh yes, Jubilation Lee. I have to say I mind that one less than most of them. I’m surprised you didn’t just kill her.”

“Me, too. Couldn’t do it, though – Tabitha likes tha yappy scrap.”

“I see.” He stepped up and took Victor’s hand, lacing fingers while mindful of the claws. “I’ve changed my mind – my ex-boyfriend’s jogging pants are all wrong for you. We should go back upstairs and get you out of them.”

“What ‘bout tha fascist asshole?”

Shaul turned slightly, dragged the glasses down again and stared into the bloody man’s red-rimmed eyes. “He has something to get gunned down for. Don’t you?”

Timchs rose like a zombie, the gory knife he’d been forced to torture himself with still clutched in his fist. His eyes were vacant, yet somehow haunted. Without noticing them, he turned and headed for the outer garage door.

“Close that on the way out,” the pretty mutant admonished. “Now, where were we?” He pouted his lips as Victor nudged the glasses up himself. “Oh yes – fucking, while I still have you. Come along…”

Victor suppressed a shudder as he looked back to watch Timchs close the door and shuffle off. “He gonna kill anybody?”

“Of course not. When he doesn’t drop the knife and starts raving like a rabid Nazi, they’ll have no choice. Such a non-shame.” Releasing Victor’s hand, he walked off.

Swallowing hard, Victor turned away and followed. Watching the beguiling sylph head up the stairs ahead of him, he was reminded why he didn’t bed him that often.

Useful when they’re mine but still – those brain-fuckers gimme tha creeps, even so.

~ ~ ~

By the time he was chasing white-tailed deer through the spruce-fir forest on the Tennessee side of Clingmans Dome, he realized he had finally beaten the latest bout of self-destructive depression. Letting his prey escape when he scented water, he loped off to the bank of the Little River on the borders of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Wading into the river, he sat on a rock near its center and let the water rush over his clawed bare feet. The sun was warm and the sounds and scents of rushing water and nature all around soothed him.

It’s good t’ get back t’ … me. Thinking of everything that had happened since the most recent gloom had fallen over him, one bright colorful spark outshone everything else – the brat, Jubilee. Tearin’ up tha Big Apple with that noisy scrap o’ a thing was … fun. Damn if’n she didn’t have a sparkly hand in turnin’ my frown upside down.

He couldn’t begin to imagine what she might be doing at that moment while he was running naked along the Appalachian Trail – going to math class or fighting whatever Cueball pointed his flying monkeys at – but whatever it was, he hoped she was giving somebody as much hell as she’d given him.

Keep ‘em on their toes, Short Round – make ‘em regret tha day they ever gave ya any lip. That’s tha only way t’ fuckin’ live.

Hearing a fresh sound, a stamp on the earth and a swish through the brush, he rose and slipped from the water to the other side. Prey was there, alerted to his presence. The scents excited him for the chase as they began to run. Launching after them, he let out a roar and grinned at the terrified clatter of birds streaking up from the trees. A light wind gave the deer his scent as it tangled his long blond hair. The thunder of hooves down the next slope beat in time with his heart as his claws sent last year’s leaves flying up in his wake.

 

FINI.

(Sabretooth will return in the IronTooth story Crawfish Tango.)

*****************************************************************

Author’s Note: A large hunk of the poker game, including some dialogue for getting terms correct, was borrowed from James Bond: Casino Royale. If you watch the end of the big poker game, Ebersol is taking the place of Infante, Victor is in the villain Le Chiffre’s spot, and Paganucci is in Bond’s spot. Victor’s friends Frank and John refer to Frank Payne (Frank Schlichting) a.k.a. the Constrictor, and John Greycrow a.k.a. Scalphunter. Mags is of course Magneto, a man Victor appears to like and may even respect.

The auto shop I’m borrowing the address of exists, but I didn’t want to use their real name. I’m calling it Gatti’s Auto, owner Arturo Gatti. He’s an original character, but I got his name from a boxer of Italian and Canadian origins. “Arturo” is a form of the name Arthur. I haven’t written any scenes with him yet, but I want to, eventually. Araunya is another original character from my Overdrive fic, the gyspy girl with magnetism powers similar to Magneto but nowhere near his power level. She’s a peace/love non-violent type, so she uses her power to remove bullets for people who can’t go to a hospital. She also works as a masseuse for Victor after bullet extractions. She started out working just for him, but now she has many clients and travels to help them.

Victor is singing the song Sweet Transvestite from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Tim Curry is the singer, as the luscious Dr. Frank-N-Furter. The “caged bird stuff” of Maya Angelou refers to her autobiographical works, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. That title is from a line in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem Sympathy. Bambi the deer belongs to Disney.

Lenusya, Obinata, Raul, Araunya, and Shaul are a few of my original characters. Victor needed some allies, so I invented some. I just love writing him running naked in the woods, too. Thanks for reading! – AnonGrimm (@MET_Fic)

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PreviousSabretooth Series

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