Madeleine Maby Must Die - Part 1

Sarah Montgomery sat at a table piled high with drugs, guns, medical equipment and books filled with cutting edge theories of bio-mechanical engineering and philosophical tracts on war. She was feeding data into a supercomputer made from parts stolen from a military outpost 5 miles underneath the Mojave Desert and held together by duct tape and vengeance. Her eyes bulged with the pressure of an intense drug cocktail that was metaphysically and literally expanding her mind. Her fingers were a blur of movement and her teeth were grinding so hard she had been forced to put in her mouth guard. She hated her mouth guard. It tasted like 7th grade gym.

“WASHINGTON!” she yelled, her jaw popping with the sudden movement. There was a commotion in the adjoining room, then a monkey dressed in a rather sharp tuxedo strolled into the room, casually munching on a chili cheese dog.

“Whattup, sassy ass?” said the monkey, as though he owned the place. He adjusted the crotch of his tuxedo pants with one hand and crammed the rest of the chili cheese dog into his mouth.

“Call me that again and I’ll cut off your balls, turn them into earrings and force you to wear them on our next zoo visit.”

“Damn, that’s some fucked up shit,” said Washington. He jumped onto the back of Sarah’s chair and began massaging her shoulders. “What’s the trauma?”

“The trauma is the future, Washington! It arrives today! I have worked for years gathering knowledge, living on the edge of science, reason and accountability. I’ve crossbred a Shetland pony with a giant squid, I’ve reversed the circulation of the magma at the earth’s core, piloted a high-jacked experimental NASA aircraft to slingshot Mars while high on crank, turned a piece of coal into a diamond through sheer power of mind and calf muscles and given a normal monkey the intelligence of a 14-year-old, but tonight I’m finally ready for my greatest achievement.”

“What’s that?” asked Washington, picking things out of Sarah’s hair and eating them.

“Tonight, I have given myself the means to kill Madeleine Maby.”

***

Madeleine Maby sat in the middle of the center of operations for B.I.T.C.H., the Biological Initiative for Transcending Contemptible Humanity. Although she sat in her power suit as the head of one of the largest secret underground military R+D divisions, with her legs pulled up beneath her, spinning herself in circles in a desk chair while chewing on a pen in thought, if one didn’t know any better they would think Madeleine Maby was a kind, humble woman with a good heart. However, if one did in fact think that, one would be a fucking idiot.

What, you don’t know who Madeleine Maby is? Grab a dictionary and look up “Bad Ass Motherfucker.” Oh wait, you didn’t find an entry for “Bad Ass Motherfucker” in your dictionary? You know why? Because Madeleine Maby didn’t want you to, that’s why. Madeleine Maby did the K-12 in a tank top, boy shorts and a pair of Crocs. Madeleine Maby ate a live puffer fish on a dare from the Premier of China. Madeleine Maby avenged the murder of her mentor by hollowing out his killer’s dog and wearing its skin into the killer’s bedroom, then wearing the killer’s skin out. Madeleine Maby spliced the genes of a hippopotamus and a tiger together just to find out what it would feel like to hunt and kill it. Madeleine Maby bio-engineered herself entirely new skin that was thick as a rhino’s while still being as smooth and soft as a baby. Madeleine Maby knows what the worst sin you ever committed was, and she thinks it’s cute.

A subordinate approached her chair and coughed quietly. Madeleine stopped spinning. “What do you want?”

“Ms. Maby, the test subject is ready.”

Madeleine and the subordinate walked down an impossibly long white corridor, their footsteps creating echoes so maddening the subordinate could feel the fillings in his teeth. Finally they stopped at a door. Madeleine punched in a code and then lowered her eye for a retinal scan. Once the scan was complete the large metal door slid open.

The two entered into an observation room. The small, white, sterile box was surrounded by large plexiglass windows that looked down onto a white room. In the center of the room was an infant, no older than two. Madeleine stared down at the child for a moment and then leaned over to an intercom. She pressed a large red button and spoke.

“Open the gates.”

On three different sides of the large white room three different panels in the wall opened. Out of one door came a long, dangerous Burmese python. Out of another door came a grizzly bear. Out of the last door came a wild boar. All three creatures were crazed with hunger. All three creatures made their way to the baby.

As they slowly approached the baby got on all fours and began to awkwardly try to stand. The boar was the first to reach the infant. “Piggy!” shouted the baby. As the boar opened its jaws, face to face with the infant, the baby reached up and grabbed the boar’s large tusks with both hands. In one fluid, horrible motion the baby moved both hands outwards, ripping the tusks from the boar’s face. The boar squealed in pain and rage. The baby did a move not unlike a breakdancer, dropping to the ground on its back, tusks still in hand, and then reaching up with its legs to grab the boar by the throat. The baby then twisted its body, using the torque to topple the boar, slamming it to the ground. The child, now on top of the overturned boar, raised the tusks high into the air and then jabbed them violently into the boar’s eyes. Blood gushed out of the eyeholes and covered the baby in gore. The boar’s body writhed on the ground for a moment, then lay still.

The baby sat atop the dead boar, breathing deeply and wiping the blood from its eyes. Before it had time to collect itself the python lunged forward, hoping to take advantage of the baby’s resting period. Quick as a flash, however, the baby turned and grabbed the python by the throat, stopping it in mid-lunge. The baby then brought the snake’s throat to its face and, with a voracious attack of vicious bites, the child began tearing through the snake’s throat with its nubby baby teeth.

The bear was now standing the corner, unsure of what to do other than make itself look as large as possible. Once the baby was done tearing off the snake’s head it turned to the bear. The child and the bear squared off, the child bobbing and weaving like a mongoose, back and forth, up and down. Suddenly and with great speed the child drew up its hand that still held the python and cracked the large snake like a whip, wrapping its body around the large bear’s neck. The bear howled in fury, but with one mighty pull the baby yanked the beast onto all fours. The baby then swung on the snake’s body to hoist itself up onto the bear’s back. It planted one foot on the back of the bear’s skull and then pulled both ends of the snake hard, cutting off the bear’s oxygen. The bear gasped and groaned, swaying unstably as it grew light-headed. Finally its eyes rolled into the back of its head, and then it collapsed, dead, to the floor. The child sat down quietly, pensively atop the bear and looked around the room, surveying the carnage it had wrought.

“Impressive,” said Madeleine. “Let’s see what this baby is really made of.” Madeleine reached down to the intercom button again and cleared her throat. “Send in… the Ultimate Weapon.”

The subordinate’s face went white. He could not believe what he had just heard. They hadn’t pitted The Ultimate Weapon against one of the Children’s Ultimate Neutralization Team in ages, not since that last time. That last time… The subordinate pressed his face to the glass.

Inside the large white room a fourth and final panel opened. The baby, cocky and torpid with the glory of his kills, rolled its head languidly to see what approached. Upon seeing the creature the baby snaps to attention, taking a defensive stance. Suddenly, there is something different about the baby. Something stinky and unwholesome. Fear.

Out of the darkness came a noise somewhere between a gurgle and whinny. The noise was followed by the sound of sloshing and oozing, augmented by occasional clumping. Slowly, like an old god, out of the shadows came a beast that is half giant squid, half Shetland pony. Long, grasping tentacles crept forth from a small, compact body of fur and muscle. The creature’s head was giant, and centered in the front of its face was a long muzzle that culminated in a large open hole of a mouth filled with concentric circles of big, blocky, razor-sharp teeth. It was a creature whispered about in the break rooms, dreamt about in the nightmares of the staff, etched into the memory of anyone who had ever seen it. It went by many names, but officially, on the documents describing its creation and potential as biological weaponry that were kept under tight lock and key within the pentagon, it was referred to as The Montgomery Conundrum.

The subordinate watched as the baby panicked briefly and then dove behind the cover of the grizzly bear’s large, hulking frame, obviously hoping to hide and buy some time to strategize. All for naught, unfortunately, as one of the giant squid’s two longer feeding tentacles rose in the air and swooped down behind the bear, wrapping itself around the child and hoisting it into the air. The subordinate then saw the giant squid toss the child into the air like someone would toss a piece of popcorn or an M+M, and then the creature turned its face upward and opened its mouth wide.

The subordinate turned away quickly, unable to watch the inevitable, grizzly finale. He stared at the door, wishing he could leave. In his periphery vision he saw Madeleine Maby staring sternly at the terror happening beneath them. Her mouth was drawn tight into a frown. “Dammit, Sarah. No matter how good the children are, this creature of yours comes out on top,” Madeleine said aloud not so much to herself as to a specter that haunted her days and plagued her nights.

“Why are you doing this?” the subordinate asked as he turned to her, sure to avoid looking out the windows, overwhelmed by the seeming senselessness of it all. “What could possibly be the point?”

“Hmmm,” said Madeleine, as though the question had never occurred to her, had never been asked before. “Why do we do this?” She lifted her head to look at the ceiling, her eyes wandered to the right, as though searching for an answer. She lifted a knee to her chest, hugging her leg with her arm as though she were stretching a hamstring. Then, as though her legs were spring-loaded, Madeleine shot out her long, slender appendage with a snap, kicking the subordinate directly in the groin with so much force that he flew backwards, his testicles now firmly inside his abdominal cavity.

“Because we are too weak,” she said, then exited the room.

***

Sarah Montgomery sat before her table. Behind her was a large, whirring machine. Three tubes came out of the machine like long, clear proboscises, IVs transferring fluids into and out of its host. One IV, attached to Sarah’s left arm, pumped out a steady stream of red liquid. In her right arm was a second IV that pumped a darker, almost velvety fluid into her. A third IV, on a much slower drip dropping a bright pink fluid into the drowsy woman, was in the crook of her neck. A strange, sloppy smile wiggled and wormed across Sarah’s face. Washington stared on with concern.

“What are all these tubes?” asked Washington.

“Mmm, these tubes?” Sarah mumbled, her half-opened eyelids fluttered. “Well, this one,” she pointed to her left arm, “this one is taking out some blood. And then this one,” she pointed to her right arm, “is pumping in a synthetic blood substitute of my own design. I’ve been doing a few body modifications on myself here, Washington, a little personal tinkering. Tonight’s the big finale. Either it works, or I guess I’m pretty well screwed. Ideally this synthetic blood will allow me to improve my human machine. Combined with some neural updating and rewiring what this should do is give me a bit of an upgrade. Like going from a dial-up to a DSL internet connection. More information, quicker, better reflexes and adaptability. Eh, we’ll see.”

Washington pointed to the IV connected near Sarah’s neck. “What about that one?”

“Ah, that one,” Sarah said through a slow, rolling giggle. “That’s a pina colada.”

A red light on the machine began blinking and a strange noise burst forth from the machine. The fluid stopped moving. “All done!” said Sarah, drowsily pleased. Her hands sloppily pulled the tubes out of her arms and neck, leaving little trails of blood eking out of the new track marks. Sarah shook her head and then picked a small chunk of metal off of the table. It was a small silver box about the size and shape of a small cell phone. There was an LCD screen on the top and an array of buttons that was protected by a sliding cover. The bottom of the box had had a small, screw-like protrusion about half an inch in length. Sarah stared intensely at the box, as if making a very important decision in her head.

Washington hopped onto the table. “What’s that?”

“The last step,” said Sarah, and she plunged the protrusion into her forearm.

A whirring began and a smell of burning skin and bone filled the air. Sarah let out a scream as the skin around the now implanted device twisted and pulled. Her body bent over double, the arm reaching out across the table as though it were trying to escape the body. Washington stared on in horror as he saw something from within the device snake out underneath Sarah’s skin about an inch up and down the arm. The machine’s movements ended. Sarah let out a final groan of pain and collapsed onto the table. A small green light on the device blinked twice. A small beep sounded. The LCD screen lit up, showing the words “BATTLE SETTING: ENGAGED.”

Sarah’s body lay motionless on the table. Washington approached it slowly, reaching a hand out tentatively towards Sarah’s shoulder. Just as he was about to touch her she bolted upright. Her hair, normally down in her face, was now thrown back, as if blown by an unseen wind. Her eyes were sharp and alert, one pupil pinpoint small, the other huge and dilated. Although her form stood stock-still, all over Sarah was twitching and flinching, her entire body making small adjustments and alterations. Her shoulders rolled back, she lowered her center of gravity, her jaw set itself. She shot a look at Washington that was so intense the monkey nearly shat a brick.

“Throw something at me.”

“What!?!?” shrieked Washington.

“Throw something at me, you mindless primate! THROW SOMETHING AT MY FACE.”

Washington froze in place, his mouth agape. Sarah rolled her eyes.

“Need an introductory course, Washington? It goes something like this.” Sarah grabbed a half-finished can of Red Bull and chucked it at Washington, hitting him square in the face. Washington came out of his daze, wiped the energy drink off his face, then took a screw driver from the table and threw it at Sarah with all his might. Sarah snatched the screw driver out of the air by the handle, flipped it over and grabbed the axial shaft and then threw it across the room. The screwdriver embedded itself right between the eyes of a photo of Madeleine Maby pasted onto the wall.

“Good,” said Sarah with a smile. She walked over to the table and picked up a Glock 17 handgun. With expert precision she disassembled the gun, leaving it in parts across the table. She then walked back across the room and turned to face Washington, still perched on the table.

“Washington, what I want you to do is throw each individual part to me as fast as you can. Do not pause, do not hesitate, just throw. Do you understand?” Washington nodded.

“On my command,” said Sarah. She shook herself, rubbed her eyes and moved her head from side to side. She stared at the picture of Madeleine, newly defaced, on the wall. Her eyes closed into small slits.

"Go.”

Washington began lobbing piece after piece of the handgun at Sarah. As she grabbed the gun parts Sarah assembled the gun where she stood. If Washington threw here a part she wasn’t ready to use, she tossed it up into the air and grabbed it when she needed it. One of these pieces was the ammo magazine, which Sarah threw spinning into the air. She snapped the last piece to the gun in place, reached up and grabbed the magazine out of the air and shoved it into place. She pulled back the slide, loading the first bullet into the chamber, then spun around and fired. The first bullet tore across the lab and shot the screwdriver out of the picture. Sarah then proceeded to unload the ensuing sixteen rounds while jumping, diving and rolling across the lab. Each bullet landed perfectly between Madeleine’s eyes. When she was finished Sarah walked over to the picture. The slugs had now formed a ball the size of baby’s fist. Sarah pried the ball out of the wall and held it up to examine it.

“Better,” she said.

She tossed the ball onto the table and walked out of the laboratory.

Washington, scared out of his gourd and unsure what to do, slowly followed. Inside the kitchen area adjacent to the lab Sarah was standing by the microwave, watching it intently.

“Well, that was… impressive,” Washington said.

“Yes, it was.”

“You’ve really got it out for this Madeleine, huh?”

“She has it coming.”

“What did she do?” asked Washington. The buzzer on the microwave sounded. Sarah threw open the door and withdrew a steaming hot chili cheese dog.

“The bitch told me I could fly,” said Sarah as she took a large bite from the dog, chewing it voraciously and then swallowing.

"She lied."

Madeleine Maby Must Die - Part 2

They weren’t always like this.

Sarah and Madeleine had become best friends as soon as they met at the initiation for prospective government experimental research associates in a top secret government facility hidden 300 yards underneath the city of Cedar Grove, Michigan. Most of the other prospectives, mostly men, had been smart enough, but lacked the flair for the creative that made Sarah and Madeleine the standouts. Sarah pitched a plan for a bio-suit made out of enzymes that would be as thin as an extra layer of skin and would modulate even the most extreme temperatures to a comfortable 80 degrees. Madeleine had pitched the whimsical and horrifying idea of creating a biological bomb that could lay latently inside the body of a kitten and then be engaged and detonated by remote control.

The two were taken on and transferred to a state of the art facility hidden inside Mt. Rushmore. It was there that their friendship began to falter under the strain of the highly competitive atmosphere. The two constantly challenged each other, at first enjoying the one-upsmanship game, claiming that the competition kept them on their toes and forced them to continuously bring their A-game. However, things began to turn seriously sour at the creation of The Montgomery Conundrum.

It had been a Wednesday like any other when the head of the initiative, General Ignatius D. Cuddles, burst into the laboratory. "Word has come from on high!" yelled General Cuddles so abruptly an intern spilled a container of hydrochloric acid on himself. "The boys at the pentagon got an itch in their panties to get themselves a bona fide goddam monster!" The general took his cigar out of his mouth and pointed it at the room of scientists. "It's up to you, lab rats. I want to see you hop to. I want to see a real-life goddam Godzilla movie marathon in here. We've got about nine months to whip something up. That's about how long it took your mamas to push you maggots out of her diseased and twisted womb, that's how long you've got to impress me. They want a creature that is deadly, trainable and can be sent into battle areas to create maximum destruction. Inspire some serious shock and awe. No more bombs, gentlemen. We've been assigned to make nightmares." The general put his cigar back in his mouth. "Any questions?"

"Doesn't this seem kind of silly?" said a new member of the staff. The general took a souped up tranquilizer gun from his hip and fired a dart directly into his forehead. The staffer dropped to the ground. The room got quiet and everyone stared at the general.

"Get over it, it's just a tranq dart," said General Cuddles, rolling his eyes.

"I still don't think you're supposed to shoot it directly into his brain," suggested another staffer. The general fired a dart into his eye.

"Any more questions or suggestions?" asked the general. "Good. Make me monsters, maggots."

Everyone hit the labs, going for the more obvious connections, giving tigers the muscles of a rhinoceros, combining a shark and an elephant, putting wings onto a king cobra. When Sarah pitched her idea for the Conundrum everyone laughed. Madeleine comforted her, saying that it was great that she was trying to think outside the box, but that perhaps she should stick to something a little more logical. Sarah would not be persuaded and continued day and night working on her creature, sneaking into labs and doing unauthorized experiments. Finally, she had her creature, her Conundrum.

A day was set for everyone to come and exhibit their creations. All the creatures would then be thrown into a gladiatorial arena and the one left standing would be studied further for its possible use. Everyone presented their creations, which had been closely monitored and largely discussed and critiqued over the previous months of development. So when Sarah came with her Conundrum the crowd was shocked. The creature was more fierce and terrifying than anyone could have imagined. One of the scientists, a small, pudgy man who had created a cross between a scorpion and a polar bear, found the creature so taxing to even comprehend that he suffered a minor stroke and had to be escorted to the medical center.

The competition was, of course, a slaughter. The Montgomery Conundrum destroyed everything in its path, grabbing, slashing and biting its way through every creature in the arena without receiving even a scratch. The Conundrum, showing exceptional intelligence, dipped its tentacles in the blood of its many victims and painted the story of the battle on the walls of the arena in pictorial form, like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs or Roman triumphal paintings. General Cuddles was ecstatic, his crisp, pressed uniform unable to hide his enthused erection. However, the creature, although considered a rather rousing success, was also seen as being dangerously intelligent and it was decided that it would be kept under intense surveillance to assess not only its ability, but its stability.

Even though the creature did not become the immediate new military innovation that had been requested Sarah became the golden child, the first of her contemporaries to create a truly astonishing leap forward. Madeleine took this hard. She locked herself away for weeks, drawing mad scribblings on any surface she could find, making strange phone calls to leading geneticists that got her multiple restraining orders. She would only leave her room to go on a daily 5 mile run and to pick up more food, which consisted of giant slabs of beef and whole milk. Occasionally she would simply steal a cow. After a couple months of not hearing from Madeleine, Sarah decided to go check in on her friend.

As she walked down the dormitory hallway towards Madeleine’s room Sarah began to notice a strange aroma. It got stronger and more overwhelming as she approached Madeleine’s door. Sarah knocked quietly three times. “Madeleine?” she said quietly.

The door flung open. Madeleine Maby stood in the doorway like a mad prophet, a PowerPuff Girls bed sheet wrapped around her like a toga and dotted black lines drawn all over her body in magic marker, cordoning her off like cuts of beef.

"Have the gods descended upon us?!? The great Sarah Montgomery comes to visit lowly mortal Madeleine Maby! Planning on impregnating me with a golden rain? Or maybe sewing my fetal intelligence into your godly thigh?"

The two stared at each other for a tense second, then Madeleine moved aside and waved her arm. "Please, come in."

Sarah stepped inside. Madeleine ushered her over to the stove, where she pulled open the stove door and ushered Sarah to sit. Madeleine then pulled open washing machine and sat herself.

“So,” said Sarah. “How’ve you been?”

“Good, good, really starting to make some progress.” An egg timer on the counter rang and Madeleine stood to turn it off. “Gotta turn the spit.” She walked over to the couch and removed the seat cushions, revealing underneath a burning fire and an entire side of beef slowly roasting on a large spit. She gave it one half turn and then returned to her seat on the dishwashing machine.

“What are you working on?” asked Sarah.

“Babies,” said Madeleine.

“OH,” said Sarah. “Ummm… you’re… seeing someone, then?”

“Ha! No, silly! I’m not trying to make a baby!” Madeleine laughed. Sarah laughed too, and let out sigh of relief. Madeleine leaned over and looked Sarah straight in the eye. “I’m trying to make them better.” Madeleine winked at Sarah. Sarah almost threw up.

“What do you mean, make them better?” Sarah asked.

“Indestructible. Killing machines. Pure instinct.” Madeleine turned around and took a glass out of the dishwasher, went to the fridge and filled it with milk. She then strolled over to the couch, reached between two cushions and pulled out a large slab of meat still dripping with fat and juices. She dunked the meat into the milk like a cookie and then ate it. “Think about it! Have you ever looked at a baby, Sarah? I mean really, truly LOOKED AT A BABY? They’re fucking amazing. Perfect posture. Perfect breathing. Unadulterated potential. Children are the future, Sarah. The future… OF WAR!!!” Madeleine threw her head back in maniacal laughter, then chugged the entire glass of milk, streams of it running out of the sides of her mouth.

“You can’t do that to children!” yelled Sarah.

“Oh come on, you know we’ll just buy out some Chinese orphanages or something, they’ve got a ton of babies over there they aren’t using. They basically give baby girls away over there!”

“You don’t have the right, putting innocent children at risk like that, playing God!”

“Says the creator of The Montgomery Conundrum!” spat Madeleine. “Did God make that Shetland pony with giant tentacles? Huh? You think that thing thinks twice about killing a baby? It’s a beautiful, amoral beast. You should know, you created it! But I’m going to do you one better, Sarah Montgomery. I’m going to push human evolution ahead by millennia!”

Sarah stood and moved toward the door. “You’re crazy.”

“Check the name, bitch!” said Madeleine as her eyes widened with fury. “I’m not crazy. I’m MAD, M-A-D!!” Sarah ran out the door into the hallway, tears streaming down her face. Madeleine popped out of the door and yelled after her, “MAD MABY, BABY, AND DON’T YOU FUCKING FORGET IT.”

***

Under layers and layers of dirt, rock, concrete, steel and billions of dollars in government funding, Sarah Montgomery sat on the edge of a suspended metal grid system, dangling her legs over the edge, swinging them like a kindergartener on a tire swing. Beside her was a box of kittens, which she would occasionally reach into and pull out a young specimen and then toss it casually over the edge where, far below, her very own Conundrum awaited to gobble them up before they landed.

“Everything turns to shit,” Sarah muttered, lobbing another kitten. “Ideals. Friendships. Intentions. I just wanted to be the best scientific mind I could be! But where has that got me? Look at you. You are my most incredible creation, but Madeleine’s right, you’d totally kill a human baby, would you?”

The Conundrum took the kitten that was now in its tentacle and smashed it to the ground. It dipped its tentacle into the remains and then wrote on the wall, in perfect Antiqua script, “In a heartbeat.”

“Yep, that sounds about right,” said Sarah. She pushed the box and remaining kittens off of the grid, then got up and left.

Without her friend to keep her company Sarah's days at the institute grew long, lonely and cold. It began to affect her work. When Sarah created a localized personal atmospherics generator that caused an actual rain cloud to follow her around all day it was decided something needed to be done. General Cuddles called her into his office.

"It's no secret that I'm not a big fan of having ladies on my team," said the general, sitting behind his desk in front of a wall filled with citations, awards and pictures with prominent politicians. "They've got womany things, like vaginas and feelings. I don't understand these things. I also don't like all the thinking that goes on in this place. We're relying too much on you brainy types, in my opinion. So it should come as no surprise that I've been mighty wary of you, Montgomery. You're womanly and you're one of the smartest bookmaggots in this place, and frankly I find that combination about as enticing as eating an AIDS victim's vomit out of my dead mother's asshole, am I understood?"

"Graphically, sir."

"However, I like you, Montgomery. You know why?"

"Sir?"

"You've got instinct. You've got cunning. You've got a mind for war, and that I understand. I saw it in you the first day you stepped into my office, I could smell it on you, you and Maby both, and that's the only reason I've kept the two of you here. Now I don't know what Days of Our Lives, Susan Sontag, penis envy, vagina dentata bullshit the two of you estrogen factories have going on, but it needs to stop. It's turning my war machine into the goddam make-up department at Macy's and I won't have it. I don't care what you have to do to get over this, eat a bunch of ice cream, go see a Meg Ryan movie, share tampon secrets, just GET IT DONE. That's an order. Am I understood?"

"Yes, sir."

***

Three days later Madeleine and Sarah sat in one of the initiative's conference rooms at opposite ends of a long black table. In the middle of the table was a package from General Cuddles that had been left for them containing a box of tissues, a collection of make-up, a picture of two ponies running through a meadow, a Sarah McLachlan CD and a DVD of Hanging Up. A note attached read, "GET IT DONE. Love, General Ignatius D. Cuddles."

"Look, this is ridiculous," said Sarah, breaking the silence. "Can't we just put this behind us?"

"I'm sorry!" Madeleine rushed out as though she'd been holding her breath. "I just, I got so caught up in all of this, the competition and everything..."

"Don't worry about it," said Sarah. "I took it too personally when you didn't think the Conundrum was such a hot idea, I shut you out."

"I was the one who shut you out!" said Madeleine. "I went nuts! This place just got into my head, you know? I mean, killer babies? What type of place gets you to the point where THAT sounds like a good idea?"

"A place under the direction of General Cuddles," laughed Sarah, picking up the DVD of Hanging Up and tossing it to Madeleine, who began laughing as well.

"Look, I know something that actually will cheer us up," said Madeleine. "After I blew up at you I really started thinking about what I was doing, what I was making. I decided to put my efforts towards something positive, something really beautiful. I want you to be the first person who sees it."

"Really?" said Sarah. "Wow. Yeah! Sure, let's do it! I'd be honored."

"Come on!" said Madeleine. "Let's go topside."

On top of Mt. Rushmore Sarah and Madeleine stood at the part in Thomas Jefferson's hair. Evening was just beginning to set and the sky was a deep blue with the first shimmerings of stars beginning to appear.

Madeleine stared out at the landscape. "It's so beautiful here, so stunningly beautiful, and we spend all of our days buried underground, as though we were already dead. It's disgusting."

"You're right," agreed Sarah. "We should come out here more. We should enjoy this more! Really experience life!"

Madeleine turned to Sarah. "That's why I wanted to bring you up here. I've got something truly amazing to show you. Are you ready?" Sarah nodded. Madeleine took out a large, intimidating syringe and stuck it into Sarah's stomach.

"Ow! What the fuck! What did you just put into me?!?" Sarah yelled.

Madeleine grabbed her around the waist and pulled Sarah towards her, holding her there tightly. She put her other hand over Sarah's mouth. "Shh," said Madeleine. "Calm down, just calm down. Take in deep breaths. Deep, deep breaths." Sarah breathed in deeply. As she did so a calmness came over her. Suddenly she felt light and easy. She felt as though a weight had dropped off of her.

"Do you feel that?" asked Madeleine. "That weight being dropped from you?" Sarah nodded again. Madeleine dropped her hand from Sarah's face. "That's real. That's actual weight dropping from you. What I've given you, it's what I've come up with. It's incredible, a cocktail of enzymes, hormones, mutagens, they all work together to redistribute your weight, flush your system of any and all excesses, hollows out your bones, adjusts your muscle mass. Sarah, it let's you fly."

As the words came out of Madeleine's mouth Sarah could feel them in her body. She felt her body shifting. She felt her connection to the world around her becoming loose and tenuous. Everything suddenly felt warm and available. The entire world was in front of her. Not just the world, the sky! All of these years she had been fighting for credibility, she had fought so hard. She had worked harder to get here, and only now, standing atop Mt. Rushmore with her only true friend in the world, Sarah felt like she had accomplished something. She turned to Madeleine.

"How?"

"How isn't important, it's why," said Madeleine. "You made me want to do this, do something truly beautiful and astounding. This is yours." Madeleine went to hand the syringe to Sarah, then quickly pulled it back, wiped it down with her sweater, and then tossed it. Sarah grabbed it out of the air and stared at it in wonderment.

"Is it true? Really and truly true? I can fly?"

Madeleine leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. "It's absolutely true." Madeleine then turned, trotted over to the lip of Jefferson's head, jumped straight up in the air, and then stood there floating, free as a bird. "Let's go flying."

Sarah smiled and threw the syringe onto the ground. She too trotted towards the edge of the mountain and took a bounding leap over the edge. Madeleine stood staring as Sarah's body plummeted towards the earth. Madeleine reached down to a button on her belt and turned off the hoverboots she had lifted from the lab earlier that day. She floated quietly to rest back on top of Jefferson's part,

"Poor Sarah Montgomery," said Madeleine aloud to no one, walking over to where the syringe lay on the ground. "The pressure was just too much. She peaked too soon. Came up here, loaded herself up with government-grade hallucinogens and took a flying leap right off a national monument. A life cut tragically short."

Madeleine laughed to herself, a low, quiet laugh, then made her way back to the lab.

***

Sarah, of course, had not died. Miraculously, the Deus Ex Machina Pillow, Mattress and Beddings Company of Rutherford, New Jersey had set up a giant display at the base of Mt. Rushmore, displaying their new super-comfy, ultra-cushiony, super-duper soft mattresses and pillows for the Annual Bedroom Suppliers Showcase. Sarah Montgomery landed, drug-addled and confused, in a massive pile of mattresses, comforters and downy. By morning she had sobered up. Realizing what had happened Sarah withdrew all her money from the bank and began a long trek under the radar to New York City, where she would establish her own base of operations and set about traveling down the long, hard road to vengeance.

Sarah thought about that road as she piloted a highjacked experimental NASA aircraft towards Keystone, South Dakota. The end was close, she could feel it in her bones. Something was wrong. It all felt... hollow.

"So, we're going to Mt. Rushmore?" asked Washington, sitting in the co-pilot seat, wearing a pilot helmet much too large for him and speaking into the microphone even though he was sitting a foot away from Sarah in the perfectly quiet cockpit.

"Yes," said Sarah. "We're going to break into one of the most highly secret government laboratories and assassinate one of their top scientists."

"I didn't know there was a lab inside Mt. Rushmore," said Washington.

"Unless you work there, you don't know about it," responded Sarah.

"If this place is so super-secret what's your plan for getting inside?" asked Washington.

"Plan?" said Sarah. "I knew there was something I forgot."

Far in the distance Mt. Rushmore loomed outside the windshield of the aircraft. It was approaching. Fast.

"Tell me you've got codes or something, right?" said Washington.

Sarah thought about Madeleine, about all the years of planning, of living off vengeance. She wondered what Madeleine had done with those years. Had she been fueled by that fateful night on top of Jefferson's part the way that Sarah had? Did she ever still think about it? Did Sarah live in Madeleine's mind the way that Madeleine lived in hers?

"Maybe you've got some plastique or something, we can bust through the door? There is a door, right? You know where the entrance is, right? Sarah?"

Sarah thought about the confrontation that was now quickly approaching her. For the first time she thought about it practically. She stripped away the drug-like intoxication of fury and hatred, the righteousness of her anger and the rigid, militaristic fight training she had put herself through to turn herself into an implement of death and destruction. Taking all of that away, she thought about what it would be like to stand face to face with her friend. This woman who had at one time been the only person she ever really cared about. The woman who had tried to kill her. And now here she was, coming back to return the favor. But could she even hope to hurt Madeleine the way Madeleine had hurt her? It hadn't been the attempted murder that was making Sarah go to the ends of the earth and back for vengeance, it was the betrayal. It was the love that she had had for Madeleine that had been so casually tossed off the mountain that night that had truly pushed Sarah over the edge. For the first time Sarah wondered if killing Madeleine would be revenge enough. Could death even come close to making Madeleine hurt the way Sarah had?

"That mountain's coming up pretty quick there, Sarah. Where are you planning on landing? You're probably going to want to slow down a bit, Sarah. Please?"

Suddenly a thought occurred to Sarah that hit her like a sledgehammer to the chest. What if Madeleine didn't even remember her at all? What if she showed up and in these past few years, years Sarah had given up at the altar of a vengeful god to the annihilation of Madeleine Maby, Madeleine herself had been out living her life? What if she had found love? Started a family? What if she wasn't even AT the initiative anymore? All the intelligence Sarah had been able to beg or steal had pointed to her still being there, but how good was that information? How trusty? How old? She had prepared herself to face the raging, psychotic madwoman she had last seen. She had prepared herself for a woman just as damaged as she was. She hadn't thought too much about what she would do after facing off with Madeleine. Perhaps deep down she had always assumed that she wasn't going to make it out of the confrontation either, and so then it would all be over. But what if she lived? Could she ever actually expect to walk away from this? Could she ever expect to be happy? If Madeleine had found that piece of happiness, and if Sarah had destroyed her chances of ever finding it again with this quest of hers, wouldn't that, in a way, mean Madeleine had won? Again? Sarah felt these thoughts solidify into a hot, burning drill working away at the base of her skull. She bit the inside of her cheek with such intention she tasted blood. A small, hot tear escaped her eye.

"Sarah! Mountain approaching! Sarah? SARAH???" Washington had pushed himself into the back of the copilot seat, his hands covering his face.

"Cold," said Sarah, seeing the mountain large in front of the windshield. "Bored." She pushed down the thrust. The engine roared and the plane picked up speed. "Tired."

The plane had been designed for interplanetary travel. It had been made capable to break into the cold, distant surfaces of planets much further from the sun than ours to take samples and anchor itself. Sarah initiated the landing/subterranean exploration sequence for an alien planet. Two missiles launched into the base of Mt. Rushmore, creating a landing crater. A sharp, spiraling ridge rose from the nose of the craft. The plane crashed into the base of the mountain, it's hard casing breaking through the tough granite with no structural damage. The nose began spinning, digging the ship into the rocky earth. Down, down the ship went. Inside Washington curled into a fetal position on the chair, shaking and moaning. Sarah remained cold and placid. Finally they broke through the mountain and into a large, white observatory room. All around scientists and researchers dropped what they were doing and stared at the ship. Sarah stared back out at them. All these faces. She didn't recognize any of them, yet they all looked familiar. General Cuddle's little brain soldiers. Then Sarah saw what they had been observing. Inside a pit in the center of the room two small children were making their way through an obstacle course filled with explosions, machine gun fire, mines and razor wire. One of the children had an improvised cast on a broken arm fashioned out of the handle of a rattle and a cloth diaper. The color returned to Sarah's face. She looked down to the device on her arm. She pressed a few buttons on the LCD screen. The readout changed from "FLIGHT PROGRAM" to "BATTLE SETTING."

"Washington," she said, her body still twitching and flexing with adjustment.

"Yeah, boss?"

"Let's kick some ass." Sarah looked down at Washington and winked. Washington smiled and shimmied out of his seat belt.

The door to the aircraft exploded open. In a haze of smoke and light Sarah Montgomery and Washington exited the plane. Sarah was a walking armory, wearing enough firepower to supply a large battalion. Washington wore his tux. It looked damn good.

Sarah took out a large automatic rifle and changed the setting to "strafe." She cleared her throat.

“I stand before you today a woman with self-made superhuman abilities, an adolescent monkey with ADD, a comical amount of weaponry and a grudge. I have come here to kill Madeleine Maby. Make no mistake, gentlemen, I am armed up to my tits and hell comes to anyone who stands in my way.”

Madeleine Maby Must Die - Part 3

Madeleine Maby sat amidst a group of drooling, giggling toddlers who had covered the lab walls in crayon drawings of houses, doggies and diagrams of the 17 ways to kill a man using only your thumbs. She stared at the ceiling in exhaustion. “Come on, babies. This shouldn’t be so hard. I can get you to read, write, kill on command, explain the myriad of causes behind the Franco-Prussian engagement, and yet I cannot get you to put the crayons back in their proper boxes? Look at this. This is a box full of reds and yellows. Who wants a box full of just red and yellow crayons? Excluding Marcus.”

Marcus, a particularly cuddly ball of sprouting hair and baby fat, glanced up from his drawing of a gaping chest wound filled with oozing yellow puss and giggled out, “Aunt Maddy is silly!”

“Aunt Maddy is not silly,” said Madeleine. “Aunt Maddy is as serious as skull rape and about three months behind schedule, so let’s get these crayons in their proper boxes, you hear me, babies?”

A gentle knock came from the door and it opened slightly. The subordinate poked his head in. “Ms. Maby?”

“Oh my God, what is it? Can’t you see we’re in the middle of free draw time here? You know how I feel about free draw time.”

“There’s a situation.”

“It had better be serious.”

“It’s Sarah Montgomery,” said the subordinate.

Madeleine Maby stood up, walked over to the subordinate and slapped him in the face. “I thought I made it perfectly clear we don’t say that name here.”

“Ma’am,” said the subordinate, swallowing hard. “She’s in the building.”

The subordinate pulled out a small portable video player and showed Madeleine the security tape of Sarah Montgomery crash landing into research facility.

“How long ago was this taken?”

“About eight minutes ago.”

Madeleine slapped the subordinate again. “You should have been here in three.”

“Sorry, ma’am,” said the subordinate. “General Cuddles held all action.”

“Of course he did,” muttered Madeleine. “Cuddles.”

***

In the control center General Cuddles stared at a wall full of screens, his hands clasped tightly behind his back. Dead center showed Sarah Montgomery waltzing through the halls of the initiative strafing any personnel who got in her way. Behind her was a trail of destroyed equipment, scorched offices and broken bodies. The general chewed his cigar and smiled.

“Marvelous,” he said, nearly at tears. “Absolutely marvelous.”

He turned to the control center crew and threw up his pointing finger at the board. “You see that? That’s what we need more of here! Someone showing a little goddam spunk!”

“She’s single-handedly destroying the entire facility, sir,” pointed out one of the staffers.

“Whatever, we’re insured,” retorted the general.

“Don’t you think we should do something, sir?” asked another staffer.

“And exactly what do you recommend, my little Rommel?”

“Uuuh, I don’t know. Stop her?”

“Stop her?” replied the general. “I want to give her a job. Hell, I’m going to put her into consideration for a medal of honor.”

The general went over to his chair and took his hat from it, putting it on his head at what some might call a jaunty angle.

“I’m going mobile. I’ve got my earpiece set to radio frequency seven, keep that line clean and update me on her progress. I’m going to rendezvous.”

“And how exactly are we supposed to do that?” piped up a sharp young staffer.

“What the hell do you mean?” replied General Cuddles incredulously. “Watch them on the video screen, it don’t get much more simple than that!”

The young staffer pointed to the video monitors. One monitor after another went dark. “What the hell?” asked General Cuddles.

“Watch the monkey,” replied the staffer.

In a monitor on the lower left hand side of the wall Washington was doing a dance, a variation on the Charleston. Once he made it to the center of the screen Washington changed the dance to the Watusi, then he did a little squat, reached into the back of his pants, pulled out a handful of feces and threw it at the camera, blocking out its view.

“Did... did our surveillance just get compromised by... monkey poop? That’s...”

***

“GROSS.”

Washington was now doing the Cabbage Patch while beat boxing Justin Timberlake’s Rock Your Body. “Come on, funk strumpet, that’s the good shit right there.”

“You’ve covered every camera we’ve come across with your own crap. How do you even have that much crap?” asked Sarah, entirely unsure as to whether she actually wanted to know the answer or not.

“Always be prepared. I ate three boxes of Fiber Blast and a whole crate of prunes this morning. No camera stands a chance against my colon.” Washington raised the roof.

“Here’s the plan,” said Sarah, adjusting the AK-47 slung over her shoulder. “A quick run to demo storage, stop by the cafeteria, drop in on an old friend, and then we take out our primary target.”

“Any other words of wisdom, oh captain, my captain?” asked Washington, charging his stun gun and putting on a pair of aviator goggles.

Sarah cleared her throat and wiped the sweat from her brow. “I’m not going to lie to you, Washington, you’re going to see some real messed up shit here. Keep close, stay alert. And for God’s sake, keep an eye out for those babies.”

***

Madeleine Maby stood on a podium in front of an American flag as large as the side of a barn. Stretching out in front of her was a platoon of child soldiers, all arrayed in fatigues and armed with an assortment of small arms weaponry. Madeleine adjusted her form-fitting officer’s uniform and spoke into the podium’s microphone.

“I am not here today to inspire you, my precious little war babies. This is no Saint Crispin’s Day speech. Only the weak-willed need to be inspired, only the cowardly need to be told they are brave. You are not weak, children. You are no cowards.

“Instead I come to give you the facts. We are under attack, toddler troopers. We are in the sites of one of the greatest enemies we will ever face.” Madeleine looked down to a small child in the front of the audience, a strong, savvy-looking baby. His nametag read “Hinkley.” Madeleine nodded to Hinkley, who flipped on a projection machine, causing a large image of Sarah Montgomery to be thrown onto the wall behind Madeleine.

“There she is, babies. Sarah Montgomery. Enemy of the initiative. Hater of progress. Creator of your greatest obstacle, the Montgomery Conundrum. Truly, if ever there was one, Sarah Montgomery is a meany stinky-head.”

A great chorus of whoops and hollers came from the crowd. Madeleine raised then lowered her hands to quiet the throng of toddlers.

“She has infiltrated our home. Make no mistake, she is coming for us. Hell bent on destroying our way of life. I don’t need to tell you to be careful. I don’t need to tell you to remember your training. I’ve watched you all from the beginning, I have the utmost faith in you. All I have to tell you is to do what you do well, babies. Seek and destroy.”

The children began screaming and yelling. They prepped their weapons and charged out of the room, eager for the hunt. Only Madeleine and Hinkley stayed behind. Madeleine came and sat down on the edge of the stage, pulling a cigarette out of her uniform and sliding it into her mouth. Hinkley ambled up beside her and pulled a lighter out of his back pocket, flipped it open and gave her a light.

“What we do, Aunt Maddy?” asked Hinkley as he adjusted the crotch of his Huggies and took a dip of snuff from his flak jacket pocket and nestled it into his lower jaw right at the base of his newly sprouted teeth.

“We wait for the past to catch up with us,” said Madeleine, taking a slow drag from her cigarette as she stared out across the empty room.

***

Once again Sarah found herself atop the steel-wrought walkway high above the pit containing her crowning achievement, the Montgomery Conundrum. Sarah had sent Washington ahead to the kitchen on an errand, leaving her some time alone with her creation. Upon her entrance the Conundrum had stopped its feasting on the mangled corpse of large male caribou and waved a giant tentacle at her in a sign of familiarity. Sarah waved back.

She sat there for a while, watching the creature tear into its meal. Once it was nearly finished Sarah called out, “I hope you saved room for dessert!” She then opened a small duffle bag which held three small kittens. She took a kitten out of the bag and held it aloft so the Conundrum could see it. The conundrum clapped its two giant tentacles together and gave out a spine-chilling, gurgling whinny. Sarah tossed the first kitten off the railing and the Conundrum caught it directly in its mouth. Sarah saw the kitten’s horrified expression as it disappeared into the gullet of the awful creature, to be swallowed whole and slowly broken apart and processed in the Conundrum’s confused, nightmarish digestive system. Sarah felt a wave of something between sadness and nostalgia come over her, not out of any sort of empathy for the kitten’s fate, but out of a recognition that only in the distant, indistinct memories of a self she barely recognized anymore could she conjure a time where such a sight would have seemed grotesque at all.

“You’re really not much of a conundrum at all, are you?” Sarah asked rhetorically to the abomination below. “The entire name is a complete fallacy. I know exactly what you are. You’re not my conundrum, you’re me. Perhaps more distinctly, my id. The Montgomery Id. Doesn’t have the same ring to it, I suppose.”

The Conundrum took a mass of caribou intestine and spelled out in cursive on the floor “Freud was a joke.”

“You would say that, wouldn’t you, you mad equestriopod,” chuckled Sarah. She took out the second kitten and tossed it over the edge. This time the Conundrum grabbed the kitten, yet remained looking up at Sarah. Sarah looked back at the beast, her face a tangle of mixed emotions and racing thoughts. The Conundrum reached down with his free tentacle and grabbed the caribou’s head and what remained of its left hind leg and began juggling the caribou parts and kitten in a gruesome yet amusing display of agility. Sarah smiled out of the side of her mouth, then shook her head.

“You’re only proving my point,” she said, breathing out a sigh of resignation. “You only know the barest distinction between pleasure and pain, reward and punishment. You’ve no ability for subtlety, for true discernment. You are, at absolute best, amoral. You are sheer drive and instinct, doing nothing but consuming, and so you will be consumed. You are the basest, grossest element of life.”

Sarah took out the final kitten from the bag. This one was a bit larger than the other two, and when Sarah cradled the kitten in her arms she felt the angles and coiling of metal and wire. She scratched the kitten between its ears, rubbed its belly for a moment, then tossed it over the edge. The kitten fell downward, straight into the awaiting abyss of the Conundrum’s horrific open jaws.

“I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” said Sarah, as she stood and walked from the room. Once the door was closed she leaned her back against it and reached within her suit pulling out a small remote control. She turned a small key which ignited a green light on the control labeled activated. From within the Conundrum’s monstrous stomach came a whirring and a grinding as one of the prototypes of Madeleine Maby’s kitten bombs assembled and armed itself. Then, with only the briefest hesitation, Sarah pushed the large red button on the remote. Within the chamber the Conundrum exploded into a fireball of guts, gore, cartilage and bone. A fireball rose to the roof of the chamber and the room became coated with the remains of its former tenant. However, due to the tremendous structural integrity of the building the explosion was only felt as a small tremor against the door against which Sarah rested her back. The vibration echoed through her for a moment, then was silent. Sarah threw down the remote and took out her walkie-talkie.

“Washington?”

“Yeah, boss?”

“How’s it coming?”

“Like a virgin in a whorehouse, quick and easy,” Washington’s voice spoke through the speaker.

“That’s disgusting.”

“You love it.”

“Meet me in the main concourse, level six.”

***

The pitter-patter of little feet sounded loudly as dozens of armed babies ran through the hallways of the underground base, hell bent on destroying Sarah Montgomery. They navigated the twists and turns of the research facility with expert knowledge. They knew the obvious place to go, the central location for the entirely facility, the main concourse. Level six. Sarah would have to go there, and that’s where the babies would intercept her.

As they neared the main concourse a baby near the front held up his hand in a fist, telling all the other babies to stop. The children all readied their weapons. The lead baby, named Gutierrez, put up two fingers, then flapped his hand three times signaling a formation which all the other babies instantly put themselves in. Gutierrez then pumped his fist twice and pointed forward. The platoon moved forward.

At the door to the main concourse the lead baby made a circular gesture with his hand and the babies all position themselves on either side of the door. Gutierrez pointed to Harper, a baby with a large bag on his back and a sweatband on his bald head. Harper, an expert in tactical explosions, placed a forward thrusting explosive device on the door, set the timer for 15 seconds, then quickly ducked aside. All the babies waited with great anticipation as the timer counted down. Just as the numbers hit zero there was a deafening boom and the door blew inward and a great billow of smoke appeared. “Go! Go! Go!” barked Gutierrez. All the babies ran into the main concourse in perfect attack formation.

As the smoke cleared Sarah Montgomery and Washington could be seen sitting dead center in a couple of lounge chairs, their feet propped up on footstools and their weapons down at their sides. Surrounding them on all sides were children foot soldiers with weapons drawn and aimed.

“You cannot possibly be serious,” said Sarah Montgomery, a look of pained incomprehension across her face. “You actually think Nas is a better MC than Jay-Z? You’ve been dipping into my drugs again, haven’t you?”

“What?!” yelled Washington, throwing up his hands. “Nas has the true street cred!”

“Street cred is inverted hype,” p’shawed Sarah Montgomery.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” scoffed Washington.

“No it isn’t,” defended Sarah. “I read it. In Spin Magazine.”

“You read Spin Magazine?” asked Washington doubtfully. “Wigga please. Nobody reads Spin Magazine.”

“AHEM,” coughed Gutierrez, walking slowly over to the woman and monkey.

“Just a second, short stack,” Sarah said to the approaching baby. “I’ve got to teach this primate what a real MC is. You see, Washington, I’m not talking about posturing or image, I’m talking straight-up flow, I’m talking music. ‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’? ‘Hard Knock Life’? Nas dreams of dropping shit like that.”

“True, true, ‘Hard Knock Life’ is pretty fucking sweet, I forgot about that one.”

“Plus look at widespread influence, look at everything J-Hova’s pushed through! Plus, shit, he made Linkin Park look cool.”

“I’m sowwy, I hate to intewupt dis widdle tawk,” said Gutierrez, “but Auntie Maby seems to want you taken care of, so take care of you we must. Pwus, Kanye’s de only MC worth a damn nowadays.”

“Whoa, hey, nobody’s saying anything against Kanye!” said Washington.

“He’s ya boy,” said Sarah. “Defend ya boy.”

“All wight, on your feet,” said Gutierrez.

Sarah and Washington stood slowly. Sarah let out a long sigh. “It’s such a shame,” said Sarah. “I hate to get killed right before the big ice cream party.”

Gutierrez paused. “Ice cweam pawty?”

“Yeah,” said Sarah. “I set up a whole ice cream party. It was going to be just me and Washington and whichever babies decided not to kill us today. It was going to be pretty sweet.”

“It was going to be off the hook!” yelled Washington. “I was going to get MAD sick off of some sweet pistachio, that shit is crazy delicious!”

“You know, that’s one of the great things about ice cream,” Sarah thought aloud. “Even if you get sick from it, it’s still ice cream. It practically tastes just as good going out as it does going in.”

“Where is dis ice cweam?” asked Gutierrez suspiciously.

“Psh, like we’d tell you now, you’re going to kill us!” said Sarah.

“Well. Maybe we wouldn’t have to kill you,” said Gutierrez. “At weast not wight away.”

“Hmmm,” thought Sarah. “Well, I was really looking forward to some rocky road.”

“Pwease!” begged Gutierrez.

“All right, fine,” said Sarah. “Let’s have some ice cream.”

“Yay!” shouted the babies. Sarah smiled. Washington did the robot.

Sarah and Washington led the babies into the huge central kitchen. They paraded them through the back and into the giant walk-in refrigeration unit. While Sarah had made her good bye visit to the Conundrum Washington had set up a huge banquet of ice cream inside the freezer. There was a long row of tables all filled with ice creams of every flavor imaginable. The child soldiers stood staring at the ice cream in total wonderment. Gutierrez shook himself out of his daze and yelled to the babies “Awwight men! Wet’s eat!” The babies all stormed the freezer, grabbing their seats and reaching for whatever ice cream they could. One industrious baby forewent seating altogether and simply jumped up on the table and stuck his entire face into a vat of cookies and cream.

“Oh hey, uh, babies?” said Sarah, slowly backing up. “I just realized I forgot to bring in some butterscotch. So. I’m going to go do that. You just keep eating.” Gutierrez dismissed them with a wave of his left hand, while his right hand continued pouring a giant mound of Hershey’s Special Dark semi-sweet morsels all over a mountain of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. Sarah and Washington slowly backed out of the room. Once they made it outside they slammed the door shut and locked it from the outside.

“Whelp, that ought to take care of them for a while,” said Washington, strutting down the hallway back towards the main concourse.

“We won’t need long,” said Sarah, opening two secret compartments in her vest and removing two automatic handguns. “It’s almost finished.”

***

General Cuddles tore through hallways after hallway, making his way closer to Sarah.

"Talk to me!" he screamed into his transmitter. "What's the status?"

"It looks like Montgomery has just taken out the entire Children's Ultimate Neutralization Team, sir."

"How?" demanded the general.

"With ice cream. Sir," responded the staffer.

"Babies," muttered the general. "Patch me through to Maby."

In the conference room baby Hinkley was massaging Madeleine's feet while she flipped through a copy of Eccentric Scientist's Monthly when there was a burst of static and suddenly Madeleine's earpiece billowed out the voice of General Cuddles, yelling "Maby? Maby? Do you copy?"

Madeleine kicked Hinkley off her feet and across the room, adjusted her transmitter and spoke. "Here, sir."

"I just thought I'd let you know," sneered Cuddles with an obvious air of superiority, "That Montgomery's got your entire platoon of footsie soldiers trapped inside the kitchen refrigeration unit."

"What?" screamed Madeleine. "HOW?"

"Ice cream," spat the general.

"Their only weakness!" yelled Madeleine, raising her fists to the sky. "How did she know?!"

"Because she's a goddam soldier, not a babysitter," barked the general. "Now if you see her I want her taken alive. We can reprogram her, get her back on our side. Maybe then we'll start seeing some results around here!" With a click the general ended the conversation. Madeleine fumed.

"Hinkley," said Madeleine through gritted teeth. "Bring me... my shoes."

***

Sarah and Washington ran through the labyrinthine hallways of the facility, going further and further down into structure. Sarah was convinced she would find Madeleine at the deepest, most secret levels. "You know, like Dante's Inferno," she said to Washington. "The deepest level is the one reserved for traitors."

Sarah hung a hard right around a corner only to stop dead in her tracks. At the other end of the hallways was General Cuddles. He stood stock still, letting his cigar burn slowly in his mouth. Finally he brought his hands up and began a slow, steady clap.

"Well played, Montgomery! Well played. I always knew you had it in you."

"Had what in me? The ability go batshit and destroy an entire secret underground laboratory?"

"Precisely!" exclaimed Cuddles. "We're a lot alike, you and I."

"Oh please," Sarah rolled her eyes.

"I want you to come back to us," said Cuddles. "We've got anything you could ever want right here. You can even have Maby's job, if you'd like."

"No dice," replied Sarah. "I like the private sector."

"Well, just know this," said the general, taking out his cigar and throwing it to the ground. "I will try to do everything I can to take you alive."

The general quick-drawed his tranq gun from his side and fired off a shot. As the needle sped through the air Sarah felt her adrenaline pick up. She felt the device on her arm flood her system with performance enhancers. Suddenly the dart wasn't speeding through the air, but appeared to be coming more like a softly lobbed frisbee. Sarah picked it out of the air easily, then broke it open, drank it's contents and threw it aside.

"What the hell?" said the general.

"You wouldn't understand," said Sarah. "It's a womanly thing."

Sarah charged at Cuddles. The general lowered himself into a defensive position and then he too began to run. The two collided in the middle of the hallway, the sound of crunching bones and body impact exploded from the wreck. The two began tossing and grappling around on the floor. Sarah landed a punch to General Cuddles face. General Cuddles absorbed the hit as though it had come from a throw pillow and returned with a quick one-two combination to Sarah's torso. Sarah stumbled backwards and the General used the distance to wind back his leg and deliver a swift kick to Sarah's crotch and let out a victorious "Haha!" Sarah grunted slightly then looked at the general.

"Umm, I'm a girl. Remember?"

"Oh balls," said the general.

"Actually, not. That's kind of the point," said Sarah. She then ducked and rolled, coming up to hip level and then delivered a sweep kick that knocked the general off his feet. The general dropped to the floor. Sarah pounced on his back and grabbed his left arm, twisting it around his back to lock him down. The general put his right arm at an odd angle then contorted his body, dislocating the arm from its socket. He then thrust his with great intensity, launching up his now dislocated arm at what would have been an impossible angle and hitting Sarah directly in the boob. "Fuck!" said Sarah, and let go enough for the general to throw her off of him and turn around. He delivered a hard blow directly to Sarah's face, bloodying her nose. He then stood over her.

"Like I stated previously, I won't kill you," said Cuddles. "However, I need to take away a little bit of this pep, make sure you don't try anything like this again." Cuddles removed an imposing looking knife from his tall boot. "Perhaps a little impromptu surgery." The general began to come down towards Sarah, then suddenly bolted upright, his arms flailed back and his muscles twisting and contorting. Sarah heard the zap of Washington's stun gun and smelled the burning ozone that usually accompanied it. She lay her head back against the floor and took in a deep breath. She heard General Cuddles unconscious body hit the ground.

"Nice work, Washington," said Sarah as she began to prop herself up. "Took a little long, but..." Sarah stopped speaking. Behind the still body of the general stood Madeleine Maby. She had Washington's stun gun in one hand, and in the other she had Washington himself. The monkey was locked in a chokehold, a look of terror in his eyes.

"Hello, Sarah," said Madeleine. "Nice to see you. I thought you were dead."

"Not hardly," said Sarah, slowly bringing herself to her feet. "This is between you and me, Madeleine. Let the monkey go."

"Mmm. I don't think so," said Madeleine, slowly backing down the hallway. "I think I'm going to keep him with me until I'm safe and sound. You just stay here for a while, you can check the place out. It's changed a bit since your time, we have a soda machine in the break room now, it's nice."

"Take care of that monkey for me," said Sarah as she struggled to her feet. "He's a good one. Loyal. Honest. Trustworthy. Most importantly, he has a true sense of doody." Sarah put a strong influence on the last word and gave Washington a look. Washington caught it and gave Sarah a wink. Then he scrunched up his face with intense concentration and let out a massive shit. Madeleine's knees buckled, she began to gag. Sarah used the diversion to pick up General Cuddle's knife and throw it into Madeleine's shoulder. Madeleine wailed in pain. She grabbed Washington by the back of his neck and threw him at Sarah with all her strength. Sarah caught the monkey, throwing her off-balance and knocking her backwards. Madeleine took off running down the hallway.

"You all right?" Madeleine asked.

"I'm going to need a new tux," said Washington. "But other than that, I'm fine."

"Good," said Sarah. "Let's go kill this bitch."

Sarah and Washington followed Madeleine using the blood trail from her leaking shoulder wound. They finally caught up with her just as she was entering a personal id code into a secret express elevator. When she heard Sarah and Washington approach Madeleine pulled the knife out of her shoulder and launched it at them. Sarah grabbed Washington and pulled him back around the corner, just barely getting out of the way of the projectile. When they came back around the elevator door had opened and was now closing. Sarah grabbed a cylindrical metal garbage can and threw it down the end of the hall, having it stop right between the closing elevator doors. She threw Washington on her shoulder and went down the hall at a blinding speed, jumping through the elevator doors while kicking the out the garbage can. The doors closed on an empty elevator.

"Where the hell..." said Sarah as the elevator began shooting towards the surface. She looked up and saw a bloody handprint on the ceiling tile. "Oh fuck." Shots began raining down from above, the bullets tearing large holes in the elevator's roof. Sarah jumped up and threw open the roof hatch. Madeleine's right boot was right at the edge of the opening. Sarah grabbed it and pulled Madeleine inside. The two become a flurry of carnage, punching, scratching, grabbing, clawing and biting. Blood and bruises began welling up from both of them. Madeleine still had the large hand cannon and would occasionally get off a shot. Sarah would dodge them, causing large holes to begin appearing around the small elevator.

"Why won't you just stand still so I can KILL YOU," screamed Madeleine.

***

General Cuddles awoke sore and twisted on the floor. "Dammit," he muttered to himself. He turned on his transmitter.

"Where are they?" he demanded.

"It looks like they're on the express exit lift to the surface, sir," replied the staffer on the other end.

"Initiate self destruction of that elevator," ordered the general. "If I can't have them, no one can."

***

Madeleine had Sarah pinned to the ground and was trying to shoot her head off, but Sarah's device allowed her quick movements and tactical evasions. However, as Madeleine kept missing she kept blowing more holes in the floor.

"Ummm, ladies," said Washington, taking notice of this occurrence. "Ladies? The floor?"

"SHUT UP, you smelly little chimp!" yelled Madeleine, raising the gun to Washington. Washington did an elegant salsa step, then jumped on Madeleine's arm. The shot went off straight into the floor, blowing the hole that broke the floor's resistance. The bottom of the elevator crumbled beneath them. Sarah and Madeleine grabbed onto the edges that remained of the elevator floor while Washington held onto Madeleine's belt. As Sarah tried to get her wits back she noticed a small, packaged device attached to the elevator's bottom. It began blinking and beeping, and then suddenly the small green light on it changed to red.

"Oh shit," said Sarah. "BOMB!" Sarah and Madeleine both let go of the elevator, plummeting down the elevator shaft. They grabbed onto available suspension wires about 20 feet down just in time for the elevator to explode into flames. The explosion had been meant to destroy the elevator, sending the blast up and out. The explosion was so forceful it blew out George Washington's right eye. Washington the monkey quickly climbed up the tunnel and out onto the rim of George Washington's now exploded eye socket. Soon afterwards Madeleine and Sarah both climbed out as well, collapsing to the ground with exhaustion and effort.

"So, here we are," said Madeleine, finally having caught her breath. "Back where this all started. Well, close enough."

"It's as good a place to end it as any," said Sarah, pulling herself up to her feet.

"You know this isn't a fair fight," said Madeleine.

"No such thing as a fair fight. Learned that a long time ago," said Sarah.

"You've got your little personal enhancer, you've got your monkey. I only had my gun, and I lost it in the explosion."

"This isn't Washington's fight, he'll stay put," said Sarah. "As for my personal enhancer..." Sarah brought her arm up to her face. She grabbed the device with her teeth and then ripped it out of her arm, a slow trickle of blood oozed out of the wound. "No enhancers. No back up. No weapons. No surprises. I promise," said Sarah, helping Madeleine up to her feet. "Everybody's got something to hide, except for me and my monkey."

As they prepared to fight Sarah took in her opponent. Madeleine looked tired. Not just from the knife wound and the explosion. She looked metaphysically tired. She looked like a woman who had bent her ideals to her wants so much that they had broken, and their shards were now embedded in her soul. Despite herself Sarah couldn't help but feel pity.

"Let's get this over with," spat Madeleine. "I have some very disappointing children to discipline."

"Let's go," said Sarah.

The fight was quick and brutal. It was the result of two friends who knew each other well, knew their strengths and weaknesses. Sarah went straight for a kick to Madeleine's bad left knee. Madeleine caught Sarah in an arm hold, then gave a sharp twist, breaking her right wrist. Sarah head-butted Madeleine in the jaw, removing three teeth. Madeleine delivered three sharp stomps with the steel heel of her boot to Sarah's left foot, breaking four toes and cracking the bridge. Sarah bent down in pain, grabbing the foot. Then, with every ounce of strength she had, she delivered a punishing roundhouse kick, connecting her broken foot to the right side of Madeleine's face. Madeleine reeled backwards. Sarah took the moment to pounce, delivering a bone-crunching string of punches to Madeleine's face. Madeleine's head rolled, pucnh-drunk and bleeding. Sarah stood over her, her hands clenching the neck of Madeleine's uniform.

"What do you want from me?" yelled Madeleine through a broken mouth, tears, snot and drool dripping down her face and mixing with blood to form a small pink puddle beside her on the stone floor. "WHAT DO YOU WANT??" she sobbed.

"What do I want?" repeated Sarah. "I want to see if you really can fly."

"No," sobbed Madeleine as Sarah dragged her to the edge of the cliff. "No, please God, no. NO!!" Sarah tossed Madeleine's destroyed body over the edge of the cliff and watched it as it plummeted into darkness. Washington joined her at the edge and looked over.

"Should we go check on the body?" Washington asked.

"If she survived, then she earned it," Sarah replied. "Let's get the hell out of here."

Sarah walked back to the exploded elevator shaft and began to pull herself up slowly with her good arm. She winced in pain. "It looks like you'll be driving," she said to Washington.

"Sweet!" said Washington, breaking into the funky chicken.

"I get to control the radio," said Sarah.

"WHAT!" said Washington. "Come on! You know you're just going to pass out! And you're going to get all broody and put on some slow jams crap. We just kicked some serious butt, sassy ass! It's time to blast some Ghostface Killah! Greedy Bitches!"

"Just get in the plane, you silly primate," said Sarah, pulling herself up to their escape.

***

At the base of Mt. Rushmore Madeleine Maby's body lay motionless and still. But not quiet. Her hoverboots were sputtering and spitting, damaged from the fall but still functional. Madeleine had switched them on while plummeting, and though they hadn't been strong enough to stop the fall, they had softened it. A slow, raspy, labored breathing came from Madeleine's damaged torso.

Footsteps approached. Hinkley came up to the body and bent down over Madeleine, assessing the damage. "Mady?" he said quietly. "Aunty Mady?"

Madeleine's arm shot up and grabbed Hinkley by the neck. She pulled his ear right next to her lips and, using all her strength, whispered to him, "Prep the lab. We've got work to do."

Madeleine Maby Must Die - Part 4

It had been months since Sarah Montgomery had thrown Madeleine Maby off of Mt. Rushmore to what she had incorrectly assumed was certain death. She had escaped with her monkey companion, Washington, and returned to her secret laboratory in New York. Madeleine, who had not died, had been taken back to her lab, where her children soldiers nursed her back to health. She had left the service of the United States Government and gone rogue, setting up her own secret laboratory deep within a little known cave system hidden inside the Appalachian Mountains.

And General Cuddles? General Cuddles was PISSED.

When he saw two of the smartest, most ruthless lab maggots to come under his charge go at each other with such ferocity and ingenuity he had felt a tingle run up his spine. He had felt, for the very first time since being assigned this shit detail, that there might be hope for this project yet. And then they were gone.

So he had ended up here, in the very last place he wanted to be.

“Welcome to Denny’s, sir! May I take your order?”

“Coffee. Black. You use real eggs in this place?”

“What?”

“Real. Eggs. None of that poured-out-of-a-cardboard-carton crap. Real, actual, pulled from a goddamn chicken’s ass eggs?”

“Yessir, real eggs, sir.”

“So then if I were to ask you for a plate full of scrambled egg whites, ONLY the whites, you and the rest of the one-chromosome banjo gang back in the kitchen will know what I mean?”

“Yessir.”

“Good. Then one plate piled with scrambled egg whites and another plate filled to the exact same height with equal portions bacon and sausage. Understood?”

“Yessir.”

“And just so you know...” General Cuddles looked at the boy’s name tag. “Clarence, I can smell the fear-stink that comes off a gnat and I can taste a bad idea on the tip of your brain, so if anyone decides to add any ‘special ingredients’ to my order I will crawl into your ass feet-first, live inside you for nine months and then birth myself out of your urethra and call you ‘daddy’ until the day you die. If you’ve understood me, just nod that malformed horror you call a head and then scamper back into the kitchen with the rest of the rodents.”

Clarence nodded his head.

“Good. Now scat, and don’t be stingy on the coffee refills.” Clarence hustled back into the kitchen.

“You sure you want him to go just yet? He still might have some of his dignity left.” A slender, attractive woman in a stylish black trench coat slid into the seat across from the general.

“Disgusting abnormalities, all of them,” said General Cuddles as he looked around the restaurant.

“I thought these were the people you’re fighting so hard to protect.” The woman gave a devious look to the general with one troublesome blue eye while the other hid behind a cascading wave of brown hair.

“I fight for my fellow soldiers. I fight with and for the men who are willing to take a stand. The rest of these poor bovines have become weak by being mollycoddled by so-called ‘society’ and ‘progress.’”

“I couldn’t agree more,” said the woman. The general frowned and snorted through his nose.

“Here’s your coffee, sir,” said Clarence, timidly approaching the table. He set down a cup and then filled it out of a large, portable pot of coffee. “And you, ma’am? Can I get you...” He was cut off by Cuddles making a grand show of taking the cup and downing it in one gulp, after which he looked up at Clarence. Clarence poured the general another cup. “And for you ma’a....” The general repeated the show. Clarence poured another cup. This exercise continued until the pot was exhausted.

“That’s how fast you’re going to need to keep these coming,” said the general. “In fact, you should just leave a whole pot here. In fact, if you can move the brewing station to right here beside this booth, that would be great. Now, why haven’t you taken this woman’s order yet? Where are your manners?”

Clarence was shaking slightly. “Ma’am?”

“I’ll have a Grand Slam,” said the woman. “And some extra butter for the pancakes.”

“Sure thing,” said Clarence, jotting down the order.

“Thank you, sweetie,” said the woman, giving Clarence a wink.

“Oh, and Clarence,” piped up Cuddles. “Don’t think you need to bring our food out together. Don’t let that ‘sweetie’ comment fool you, this lady is just as big an asshole as I am, and I don’t want my egg whites sitting under a heat lamp out of some bullshit sense of chivalry, so you just go ahead and bring them plates out when they’re ready, okeedoke?”

“Yessir,” Clarence said, then exited.

“I’ve got to say,” said the woman, “I was a bit surprised to hear from you, much less receive such a... hospitable encounter.”

“Hospitable might be a bit much. After all I do have fifty class-A marksmen scattered throughout a mile radius of this place and thirty more undercover soldiers ready to take you down the minute you look at me wrong, so I don’t exactly come in peace.”

“Fair enough. In the interest of full disclosure I should say that I also have twenty-three of my people stationed with electro-pulse emitters and magnet cannons aimed at your 16 operations vans ready to completely destroy any maneuver made against me and mine.”

“HA!” sneered Cuddles. “We have 17 operational vehicles!”

“Oh please,” said the woman. “That other one is a Mercedes S-class sedan with nothing more than GPS, some walkie-talkies and automatic windows. If we wanted to compromise that ‘operational vehicle’ we’ll just slash its tires.”

General Cuddles pursed his lips tightly and drew in a deep breath. “We need your help.”

“My help?” laughed the woman. “That’s a bit humorous, seeing as how you work for the military’s technological R+D department and I work with a techno-terrorist organization whose sole mission is to halt, hinder or destroy any and all militaristic technological advancement.”

“We’ve got a couple of lost sheep.” Cuddles tossed two dossiers onto the table. The woman picked them up and flipped through them. She whistled.

“Sarah Montgomery? As in The Montgomery Conundrum, Sarah Montgomery?”

“The one and only.”

“I thought she was dead?”

“Hardly.” Clarence put a fresh pot of coffee on the table, which General Cuddles proceeded to drink straight out of. “Turns out these ladies can take a punch. And a fall off a national monument. You can see why we might find this... upsetting.”

“Understandable. But why me?”

“We’ve got no idea what these women are capable of. Maby cleared out her entire lab and all of her prototypes when she left, Montgomery’s been working on her own for years now, who knows what they’ve come up with. You want to stop the production of rampant, unchecked military technology it doesn’t get much bigger than these two, especially left to their own devices. Believe it or not, we reined them in over at B.I.T.C.H., gave them guidelines, projects with parameters. They’re free radicals now, and I’m not going to lie, this one’s going to be messy. Very messy. Too messy for us to get officially involved in, if you catch my drift.”

“Drift caught. So you come to the person outside the grid most adept at taking down experimental fringe technology, figuring you could play a little ‘The enemy of your enemy is your friend?’” said the woman.

“We were thinking something along the lines of ‘The devil you know is better than the one you don’t.’”

“Ah. A little ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’”

“It takes one to know one.”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

“Don’t go chasing waterfalls.”

“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

“I’m glad we understand each other.”

Clarence came to the table and delivered General Cuddles’ order. He told the woman her food would be ready in a few minutes.

The woman leaned over the table. “OK, Cuddles. You’ve told me the job, now give me the offer. What’s in this for me?”

“A clean slate,” said Cuddles. “We completely expunge your record.”

The woman laughed. “Come on, Cuddles! My boys are techno-wizards hell-bent on destruction. If I wanted my record clean I could have broken into your system and done it myself years ago. I love my record. In fact, I broke into the system and ADDED things to my record. That bestiality warrant didn’t seem a little weird to you?”

“You mean that’s... not real?” said Cuddles, looking a bit dejected.

“Try again, general.”

“We’re prepared to pay. Handsomely,” said Cuddles, taking out an envelope and passing it to the woman. She opened it, took out a piece of paper with a very large number written on it.

“I would have expected a bit more.”

“That’s your base fee,” said the general. “We want them alive. Get them both to us unharmed, we double it. However, we understand, due to the nature of the mission, that that might not be possible. You’ll get a bonus on a sliding scale according to the quality of the product upon delivery.”

“So if one of them loses a leg in this thing, that takes a few thousand off my tip?”

“Legs we don’t really care about. An arm, though, we’d have to dock you.”

“Fair enough.”

General Cuddles shoveled a large forkful of egg into his mouth, then paused. He chewed slowly, thoughtfully.

“Son of a bitch.”

The general turned around and whistled loudly. He spotted Clarence near the back of the restaurant and waved him over to them.

“You know what a special order is, Clarence?” Cuddles asked the boy once he arrived at the table.

“Sir?”

“Like if my friends here asked for home fries instead of hash browns, you’d do that, right?”

“Yessir.”

“Or if she ordered a garden salad and asked for no tomatoes, you wouldn’t put any tomatoes in her garden salad, correct?”

“Yessir.”

“So then tell me why, when I very specifically asked for no one to put any ‘special ingredients’ into my food, did I get eggs lightly flavored with snot?”

“Sir?”

“Don’t bullshit me, son, I know boogers when I taste them. Someone launched a snot rocket offensive on my eggs, and I want to know why?”

“It wasn’t me, sir, I swear!” said Clarence, beginning to sweat.

“That doesn’t matter,” said General Cuddles. “You’re responsible. See, what I imagine happened was something like this: You went into the back and placed my order, and then you told the cave dwellers who work back there that the guy who ordered them was a real dick. So they take it upon themselves to try and take me down a peg or two. Now what you should have done is gone back there, placed my order, and said ‘The man who ordered this is one stone-cold slab of fucker, and if any of you even look at this food incorrectly he won’t have the time to give you the bone-smashing you so richly deserve because I will have already killed you dead as disco, ground you up into bits and turned you into a goulash of appeasement to beg for his forgiveness. But you didn’t, did you? Did you?”

Clarence shook his head.

“No, you just went back there and bitched, didn’t you?”

Clarence nodded.

“And now I’ve got a mouth full of nose treasure. Normally that doesn’t bother me. I work in the military; I figure there isn’t a meal that goes by where I’m not ingesting the detritus of some mess hall flunky. What concerns me currently is that this snot came from the type of drug-addled, disease-ridden, ridge-browed mouth-breathers that can only be found in two places: the most inbred backwoods of West Virginia or the kitchen of a Denny’s.”

General Cuddles took a small electronic device out of his jacket that looked like a cell phone.

“I’ve been in combat. I’ve been outgunned. I’ve fought hand to hand with a lion cranked up on amphetamines, and I’m terrified of what might happen to me after ingesting something from those troglodytes.”

General Cuddles flipped open the device, revealing a large red button.

“If I’m terrified, and you caused it, do you know what that makes you?”

Clarence shook his head. General Cuddles moved his thumb to the button.

“Don’t do this, Cuddles,” said the woman.

“That makes you a terrorist. And do you know what the U.S. Government does to terrorists?”

Clarence shook his head. General Cuddles pressed the button.

“Get ready to find out, Clarence.”

The large glass windows of the Denny’s exploded inward. Men in all black flak suits, armor and weaponry flooded into the restaurant.

“Ah, shit,” muttered the woman. A loud, vibrating noise came from outside and suddenly all the lights went out. Everything electronic shut down, circuits fritzed, sparks exploded from the larger electronic devices. An old woman with a pace-maker collapsed in a booth near the door. Three men in black rushed Clarence, threw a bag over his head, cuffed his hands, picked him up like a battering ram and ran out of the restaurant. The woman looked down at her wristwatch, a fancy affair which had been full of bells and whistles but was now dark and unresponsive.

“Dammit. I really liked that watch,” said the woman, taking it off and tossing it onto the table.

“I know a way you can get a little funny money,” said Cuddles, pushing the dossiers further towards the woman. “Get yourself a nice new watch.”

“I’ll do it,” said the woman, taking the dossiers and getting up from the table.

***

Deep within her mountain hideaway Madeleine Maby was in a training room, surrounded by exercise machines, sparring weapons and practice equipment. She was dressed in sweats, a headband holding her hair out of her eyes, bouncing on the balls of her feet with her hands in fight position. In front of her was a wall covered in spikes, slabs, staffs, knives and poles. Madeleine cracked her neck, checked her breathing and then steadied herself.

"Attack."

The wall roared to life. Weapons of all sorts jabbed, swung, punched and stabbed at Madeleine, who became a blur of movement, evading the attacks, blocking weapons and returning punches.

"HARDER."

The machine moved faster. So did Madeleine. She was huffing and panting now, grunting with the force of contact and occasionally yelling out in pain.

"COME ON, YOU PUSSY-ASS WALL, GIVE IT TO ME."

The blows came so hard now that even when they were blocked they knocked Madeleine off-balance. She began favoring one leg over the other, and the machine noticed. It attacked hard on Madeleine's upper right hand side with a heavy bo staff. When Madeleine put out both hands to absorb the hit the wall threw out a quick low attack on her left leg with a hard hit to the knee. Madeleine screamed in pain and fell to the floor. The wall stopped its attack and retracted all its weapons. Madeleine sat on the ground and pulled her damaged knee up to examine it.

The skin had torn, but instead of blood or bone there was only a mess of wire and metal. A few sparks shot out of the wound. Madeleine gritted her teeth.

"Repair kit."

A small box came out of the wall. Madeleine opened it, revealing a host of tools. She got to work fixing the wound. As she began soldering and rewiring she winced in pain. Although she had recovered extraordinarily well from her fall from Mt. Rushmore there had been some damage that had needed some extra-biological assistance. Her body was now filled with attachments, prosthetics and wires. She could have healed well enough on her own but she had insisted on the additions. The fight with Sarah had been brutal, and Madeleine wanted to be prepared for the next time. Because there would be a next time. Madeleine would see to that.

"Give me the rundown," Madeleine spoke to the room. On the wall opposite the weapons wall a large screen played back a recording off the fight and displayed statistics and analysis of Madeleine's progress and skill level. Madeleine was taking in the information while continuing the work on her leg when suddenly the entire room shut down and went black.

"What the fuck?" Madeleine reached out for her gym bag and took her communi-watch. She pressed a button and spoke into the watch.

"Hinkley, what's going on?"

In a small screen on the watch face a video of baby Hinkley appeared. He was sitting in a command center in an OshKosh B'Gosh uniform and wearing a headset.

"Something happened to the main exterior generator," said Hinkley. "We're running on back-up at the moment, so all secondary power usages have been shut down."

Madeleine cursed. "It's probably those raccoons again. Why do they plague me so?"

"We're sending maintenance outside now for repairs, we should be back to full capacity soon."

"I'll do it," said Madeleine, closing the wound with advanced medical adhesive and rising to her feet with a small groan of pain. "I'll take one of the assault rifles with me. It'll do me good to kill something small and cute." Madeleine limped slightly out into the hallway where a small indoor vehicle awaited her. She climbed in, threw the assault rifle into the back, and took off for the cave's main entrance.

When she arrived she got out of the vehicle and entered a code in the keypad near the entrance. A fake rock wall slowly rose up like a garage door, opening the cave to the outside world. Madeleine began to return to the vehicle when she saw in the cave's mouth a feminine silhouette against the sun setting on the horizon.

"Who are you?" Madeleine called out.

"I'm an analog ghost in a digital world." The woman began walking slowly into the cave. Her right hand was resting on her swaying hips, where Madeleine believed she could see a holster. Madeleine looked at the automatic in the back of the cart. If it really was a gun, and if the woman was any kind of shot at all, Madeleine knew there was no way she could make it in time. Madeleine had to think fast. She moved her hand over to her watch and paged Hinkley back at command. She left her finger on the talk button, broadcasting straight to Hinkley.

"You took out the generator," Madeleine said.

"That's just the beginning of what I'm going to do," said the woman, still approaching.

"You've got no idea what you're getting into here," said Madeleine, beginning to feel a small, cold shiver at the base of her spine. "It'd be best if you just turned around and left."

"Or what? You're going to page your baby army with your little Dick Tracy watch?" said the woman. "Sorry, sweetie. That's not going to stop what's coming."

"Who are you, bitch?" said Madeleine.

The woman stepped into the flat, green-tinted halogen lights at the back of the cave's entrance. She brushed a wave of dark hair out of her bright, sparkling eyes. A smile crawled across her face revealing two large dimples.

"I'm Emily French."

The color drained from Madeleine's face. Her eyes widened. Her mouth dried and a knot formed hard and fast in her stomach. She jumped for the automatic in the back of the cart. Barely before she could leave the ground Emily French pulled the gun out of its holster, aimed and fired.

There was a hum and a bright flash. There was a fizzle and crack as everything electronic that laid before the woman had shorted and died. Madeleine fell hard to the ground. She reached down for her left leg. Nothing. She checked her right shoulder and the small of her back. Nothing. All of her enhancements were dead. Out of reflex and panic Madeleine pulled her communi-watch and pressed talk. "HINKLEY!" she yelled, then looked at the watch to see only a blank screen staring back at her.

"That's a real shame," said Emily French, standing above Madeleine. "That seemed like a damn nice watch."

***

"Montgomery, you are so dead."

In her hidden laboratory in Brooklyn, New York Sarah Montgomery was engaged in a heated battle. Washington had beaten her an unprecedented four times in a row at Mortal Kombat, and unless she could pull it out in this final round, she would be forced to admit defeat to a primate with the intelligence of a 14 year old.

"I was just being nice to you before," Sarah said, working her control as fast as she could. "You are now fighting Noob Saibot. No one can defeat Noob Saibot."

"You poor, poor fool," said Washington, shaking his head. "Kitana can easily defeat Noob Saibot. Kitana can defeat God."

Suddenly the doorbell rang. "Who the hell is that?" asked Sarah, looking back towards the door. Washington used the distraction to execute a punishing double-combo, destroying Noob Saibot.

"Oh, come on, that is so cheap," said Sarah.

"Wow," said Washington, staring at the screen. "It's just... you're so dead. I mean, Jesus. How many times did I kill you? Have you been keeping track because I, I just totally lost it. My poor monkey brain can't count that high."

"Shut up," said Sarah. She got off the couch and went over to the video monitors showing the outside door. Standing on the welcome mat was a figure in a trench coat and fedora that was obviously three babies standing on top of each other. The baby on top looked up at the camera, showing a large fake mustache and dark glasses. A small pudgy arm reached out of the top of the coat and waved a white flag.

"Well, that's surpri... actually, you know what? That's really not that surprising. What the hell happened to our lives?" Sarah buzzed the babies inside.

After disassembling their disguise and accepting hot cocoa from Washington the babies all sat on the couch. Washington sat in his bean bag chair and Sarah took her place on the armchair. "So," said Sarah. "I take it Madeleine's not dead."

"Actually, at this point we're not really sure," said the head baby, still wearing his fake mustache. "We've been staking out your place for the past couple of weeks, but something has happened back at base camp. Something bad. We didn't know what else to do."

"You don't have any information?" asked Sarah.

"We got an S.O.S. message before communication shut down entirely. The message came with an image." The head baby took a digital image viewer from his uniform and passed it to Sarah. Sarah turned it on. The picture displayed showed a large mound of rocks, just outside the entrance of a cave. Painted across the rocks in red spray paint were the words, "Bonjour, Sarah! Je viens pour vous. Bonne chance."

Washington came up behind Sarah and looked at the screen. "What's that?"

Sarah's eyes burned. Her muscles tensed so tightly her cheek began to twitch. Her face turned red. Sarah grimaced. Through clench jaws she growled her reply.

"It's French."

Madeleine Maby Must Die - Part 5

Rain.

Rain. Fucking. Everywhere.

It coated the city, a flood that washed out all color and made the whole world gray and wet. It crept into every hidden crevice of the metropolis, taking away the sheen of the brand new buildings that seemed to pop up daily, slowly breaking down the old ones crumb by crumb until some poor sap was given the job of holding an entire urban jungle together by fighting against nature herself with concrete and spackle. It rained everywhere. It rained in the ivory corporate towers of midtown, the tenements of the alphabet city, in the slums of East New York and on Wall Street.

Kathryn Ekblad stood at the exit of the Delancey Street stop on the JMZ subway line. Looking up, Kathryn saw the deluge that hadn't been going on when she'd left the apartment and felt the weight of no umbrella in her purse. She pulled her trench coat around her neck, put her newspaper over her head, took a breath and ran out of the subway station.

During her stint in the French Foreign Legion a Moroccan officer had once claimed that she could walk between raindrops. Not quite, but if anyone could come close, it was Kathryn. Slight and graceful, Kathryn darted from cover to cover, edging along buildings and bounding from awnings to construction covers finding relief where she could. She even shadowed a fat man for an entire block, walking so close behind him that she stayed dry underneath his giant red umbrella without his ever noticing her presence. When she ducked into the office building on Chrystie Street she was barely wet.

The office for Dunlap Enterprises resided at the top floor of a shabby old building that their real estate agent had described as having "a lot of character." Bridgette Dunlap, the CEO of Dunlap Enterprises, had agreed. "It does have character," she had whispered to Kathryn as the real estate agent continued ahead of them on the tour. "Sinister character! Bwahahaha!" she cackled, wiggling her fingers creepily and then bouncing off after the agent, holding her hands above her head like an old movie werewolf. She'd bought the place that day, and it had become their second home.

Kathryn walked up the five flights of stairs to the top floor where the office was located. She approached a small metal box beside a large metal door, then punched in a six digit code and pressed her hand against a scanner. There was a brief flash of light, and then the large door opened. Inside was the main office of Dunlap Enterprises - a large, open studio space that looked less like an office than the basement in a museum of oddities. In one area there was an operating table from the eighteenth century and shining metal cabinets filled with medical equipment of every kind spanning the past few centuries. In another area there were stacks of armor and (mostly) disabled weaponry, from long swords to assault rifles. There was a large replica of the solar system, maps, tables and charts of all kinds, timelines, card catalogues. There was a chunk of the hull of a ship, which housed within it models of ships, aeroplanes and automobiles. All along the walls, from carpet to ceiling, were books. Stacks and stacks, books of all sorts. In the middle of the room was a tower of technology. It looked like a volcano. Ten feet tall, with a diameter of 28 feet, the tower was comprised of CPUs, modems, servers, hard drives, soldering equipment, scanners, printers, hardware, software, wires, disks, microprocessors, compilers, debuggers, rebuggers, A.I. systems and rumor had it there was a secret spintronics prototype. Kathryn was fairly certain she'd seen an Atari 2600 while cleaning one day, but when she went back to look for it, it was nowhere to be seen. At the top of the technocano a large, flat screen monitor was suspended from the ceiling and two smaller screens to either side propped up by poles. There was a large, high back desk chair at a desk with three keyboards on it, each attached to a different processor and screen. On the chair, her legs folded under her in the pose of a meditating Buddhist, sat Bridgette Dunlap.

"Is it raining out?" asked Bridgette.

"Brilliant deduction," said Kathryn, shaking off her newspaper. She looked at it, saw the ink run, turning paragraphs about wars, pestilence and greed into black, flowing rivers. She threw the paper in the garbage.

"We've got a job," said Bridgette. "A lady - rich lady - has an itch she wants us to scratch."

"You gonna need me?" asked Kathryn.

"Of course!" said Bridgette, throwing up her hands, her eyes getting wide. "You're my muscle! I need you to go out! And... muscle!"

Bridgette seemed excited, which bothered Kathryn. Usually when Bridgette got excited, Kathryn got in trouble. "What are we in for?"

"Information!" shouted Bridgette, turning on the giant computer screen and bathing herself in a luminescent green glow. "The currency of the new century, Kathryn!"

Kathryn sat on a sarcophagus and lay down, staring up at the ceiling. "I don't see why I have to go out for information when you've got Mission Control right here in the office."

Bridgette put on a pair of aviation goggles and stared into the green screen, lines of code filter past her, reflected on the goggles' lenses. "We're in a technological age. Our memories are digital, our mothers are motherboards and our communities are in cyberspace. Yes, I am a technological genius. Yes, I can play these electronics like instruments and make a symphony, but so can thousands of other people. This is microwave information, quick, easy and accessible. But someone needs to do the actual harvesting, the true, organic information, the kind of thing you can't do from a computer. And as that skill becomes increasingly rarer, that information becomes more..."

"Expensive," said Kathryn.

"Exactly," said Bridgette. She climbed down from her post and handed Kathryn a manila folder. "Someone's up to shenanigans. We have to find the whos, whats, wheres and hows. These are the leads. Do your thing."

"Her thing" led Kathryn back out into the rain and over to O'Malley's Bar, a dive at the south end of the meatpacking district, the part that still actually packed meat. The folder hadn't provided much. The client was the daughter of a wealthy engineer who specialized in cutting edge scientific equipment. The father had gone missing, and his daughter suspected foul play. The fold contained pictures of the man, a short biography, a list of friends and associates, as well as a shorter list of some of the more shady elements her father engaged with. One of the names on the list, Maxwell Spoonbottom, was a name Kathryn knew, and knew how to find.

Due to the early hour, O'Malley's was only lightly populated by career drinkers. As such they were all lined up at the bar, heads bowed over their glasses in a mock penitence, as though taking communion. The tables were all empty, as career drinkers are self-starters and good independent workers, preferring to drink alone. Kathryn shook out her umbrella and set it in a bin beside the door, then saddled up to a weathered man in a wrinkled suit and sat on the stool next to his.

"What are you drinking, Max?"

"Orange juice, sprinkled lightly over vodka."

"Want another?"

"No thanks, I'm trying to quit. I just came down here at ten in the morning to have one little taste of the stuff to remind me how wicked it is."

"One more for the charming hobo, and I'll have the same, only without the vodka."

Maxwell Spoonbottom finished off the drink in his hand and turned his eyes to Kathryn. "What brings you to my little slice of heaven?"

"I've got a job," said Kathryn. "Scientist fellah's gone missing. His daughter gave me a bunch of names. Yours was on the naughty list." Kathryn pulled out the scientist's photo and passed it over to Max. "Recognize him?"

"Ah, shit. That's Henry. Henry Neptune. He's gone missing?"

"Nobody's heard from him for three days," said Kathryn, taking back the picture and returning it to the manila folder. "Want to tell me why you're on his bad list?"

The bartender came and set down the drinks. Maxwell threw down one heavy gulp, then eyed Kathryn. "I move things, that's what I do. This guy, he wanted some things that aren't too easy to come by and cost a penny as pretty as the nose on your face. I worked with him a few times, found him a few crates that fell off of a few heavily guarded trucks, but that wasn't good enough for Mr. Neptune. He didn't seem to understand that if you wanted to get something without paying the full market price, especially the kind of things he wanted, especially at the amounts he wanted, it takes some time. So the guy threw a fuss, threatened to refuse payment, all that rigmarole." Maxwell took another sip.

"How did that end up working out?" asked Kathryn.

"I got paid."

"Yeah?" Kathryn asked, leaning in slightly on Maxwell.

"Yeah," Max sneered, leaning in towards Kathryn. "Won him over with my charm. Look, I may be on Henry Neptune's shit list, but he's on mine, too. I stick my neck out, I don't need some MIT jackass withholding payment. It's bad for business, and it's bad for my blood pressure. I got my money, then I made Henry persona non grata. You know what that means?"

Kathryn rolled her eyes. "It's Latin for 'An unwelcome person.'"

"What it means, smart ass, is that he won't be getting a birthday card from me anymore. What it doesn't mean is that he gets murdered or kidnapped or whatever it is you think happened. Not by me."

"Know anyone who might want to hurt Mr. Neptune?"

"I only ask one question of my clients. 'When do I get paid?' Seeing as how Mr. Neptune couldn't even answer that, I don't know nothing."

"When was the last time you saw Henry?"

"Year and a half ago, I guess?"

"When you got your money?"

"When I got my money, yes."

"And what was that money for, exactly?"

"Diamonds."

Kathryn paused. She tapped a finger against the rim of her glass. "Diamonds?" she asked. "What for? Was he building a very scientific tiara? Maybe something for the Little Miss Microscope Pageant?"

"Industrial diamonds. Jesus, aren't you supposed to work for some kind of genius or something? Don't some of that rub off? Industrial diamonds, used for machinery and whatnot."

"What was he using them for?"

"I don't know. He needed a lot of them, though."

"Hmmm," Kathryn jotted down "industrial diamonds" on the manila folder. "Did he come alone?"

"No, he usually had a couple guys with him. One big guy, bulky, looked Dominican, I think? Then there was another guy, tall too, but wiry. Kind of weird looking. Bulgy eyes, you know? He called them his 'lab assistants.'"

Kathryn stood up, finished the rest of her orange juice, then threw ten dollars on the bar.

"You got any invoice or something for those diamonds?"

"I might be able to find some paperwork."

"Send it to the office. You think of anything else, you let me know."

Outside the bar Kathryn opened her umbrella to fend of the continuing downpour. As she began walking she took out her cell phone and dialed Bridgette.

"Just checking in. Max doesn't know much. Sold Neptune a bunch of industrial diamonds a year and a half ago, then cut off business ties when Neptune got cranky with the payment."

"You believe him?" asked Bridgette.

"Yeah, he's telling the truth."

"Hum hum hum. Industrial diamonds, that's interesting."

"I thought so."

"You know what else is interesting? If I eat a handful of hot wasabi peas and then drink Mountain Dew I can very distinctly feel the back of my eyes. I wonder if there are other food combinations that can isolate sensation. I want to distinctly feel my knees."

"Fascinating."

"You know what ELSE is interesting?"

"Does it have something to do with the case?"

"Mr. Neptune hasn't paid taxes in twenty years."

Kathryn stopped walking. "Oh really?"

"Yeeeeah," said Bridgette. "He's been contracted for multiple high-profile government projects, but it's extraordinarily difficult to find him on the books."

"Well, that is interesting."

"I thought so. Where are you going now?"

"Max mentioned something about two goons Neptune used to bring with him, called them his 'lab assistants.' They were probably protection, but it got me thinking that I should go check out the lab."

"I'll send you the directions," said Bridgette.

"Am I going to have trouble?"

"Maybe. I don't know. It's in a rented warehouse in Brooklyn, not the best part of town. Be careful."

"I will. Anything else?"

"When you come back, can you pick up some food? Things that make your knees tingle, if you can think of something. I'm thinking ox tail in a sweet and sour sauce, but mixed with what?"

Kathryn hung up. When she was in the Israeli Army Kathryn had been given the nickname First Alert because of her ability to feel when something wasn't right. She could feel those same sensations tugging at her now. Her phone beeped and Kathryn noted the directions to the lab. She went to the subway.

Inside the subway station in Brooklyn Kathryn again looked up into the rain. With all the money Bridgette had sunk into the House of Wonders that their office had become it seemed to Kathryn that they could spare a little money for a car. She hated the subway. She hated the rain. Not her day.

It took Kathryn twelve minutes of walking to find the warehouse. The building was looked old and worn, yet when she approached the front door she saw security cameras and a keypad to a SecuriTech security system. Kathryn shrugged her shoulders and went to the large doors. She rang a bell that she heard echo inside the building. Nothing happened. She waited a moment, then rang again. Still nothing. Kathryn walked down a small alleyway off to the side of the building to the back. There was a fire escape about twenty feet off the ground. Further down the back of the building was a large extension ladder.

"Dumbasses," said Kathryn.

Kathryn sadly put aside her umbrella and climbed her way up to the roof. She stood before the door to the roof access, rain drenching her from head to toe. She pulled out her phone and dialed.

"The doors and windows are locked into a SecuriTech system, but SecuriTech sucks and frequently doesn't do roof access unless specifically asked and for a ridiculous fee. I'm about to do some breaking and entering," said Kathryn. "Thoughts?"

"Engage," said Bridgette.

Kathryn kicked open to door to the roof. She entered, checking the doorframe for security wires. Finding none, she proceeded down the stairs. The top floor was a long hallway of rooms. As Kathryn walked she peeked into the handful of rooms, which were all set up as one room apartments, mostly decorated like dorm rooms.

"Any specifics on what I'm looking for here?" asked Kathryn.

"Business papers would probably be best, although if you can find some info on exactly what our good Mr. Neptune was up to project-wise, that would probably help, too."

"All I'm seeing right now are some sort of staff quarters, I'm guessing." Kathryn reached the end of the hallway and turned to a stairway. She stopped short. Instead of a short staircase taking her down another floor, there was one long staircase that wrapped all the way around the rest of the building, which was one giant open laboratory. At the bottom two large men, one Dominican and one with large, bulging eyes, were taking down the lab, disassembling and packing up the equipment.

Kathryn backpedaled into the hallway.

"Get this," she whispered into the phone. "Those goons Max was talking about. Looks like they actually are lab assistants."

"Huh," said Bridgette. "Lab goons."

"I'm going to go see what they know," said Kathryn.

"If things get rough, don't hit them in the throat!" Bridgette yelled into the phone. "I know how much you like hitting people in the throat, but you hit them in the throat they can't talk!"

"Noted," said Kathryn. "I'll call you back in a bit."

Kathryn hung up the phone. She remembered what her sensai had taught her during her dojo training on Yoronjima. "Hot headed frog captures no flies, cool headed frog is fat and gassy." Granted, her Japanese wasn't spectacular, but she's pretty sure she got the point. She walked out onto the long staircase.

Below her the two lab assistants kept working to break down the lab. Kathryn got a lay of the land, and then loudly cleared her throat. The men looked up.

"Don't you boys know it's rude not to answer the door when a lady rings?"

The wiry man with the bulging eyes pulled out a gun and shot. Kathryn ran along the descending stairs, bullets clanging off the staircase behind her. Once she got close enough Kathryn jumped the rail, landing on a wheeled office chair and rolling across the lab. The chair hit a lab table and Kathryn jumped off, sliding across the table, sending equipment flying in all directions.

"Get out here, bitch!" yelled the wiry man.

"It's hard to hit a moving target from far away, isn't it?" Kathryn yelled back. She kicked off her sneakers. "Don't worry. I'm about to get a lot closer." Kathryn tied the shoes' laces together. She got on her knees and crouched behind the table. With one shoe in her hand she began twirling the other shoe like a slingshot. Once she built up momentum she moved from her crouch into a beginning sprint position. As she continued spinning the shoe she listened closely. After a moment she heard movement about 14 yards in front of her. "Go," she said to herself.

Kathryn leapt up and launched the shoes at the wiry man with the bulging eyes. Before he could fire a shot the shoes wrapped around his neck and sent him toppling. The Dominican man panicked and picked up a Bunsen burner and threw it at Kathryn, missing by a good few feet. Kathryn picked up a beaker and spun around, launching the beaker at the Dominican. The Dominican opened his mouth to yell, but was muzzled by the beaker going open-end first into his mouth, draining its contents into the man's mouth. The man spit out the beaker, then began hacking and coughing up blood. The beaker's acidic contents began eating the man's throat. The Dominican ran to a cabinet and took out a container of calcium gluconate gel. He poured it in his mouth and began gurgling with it, which proved difficult while he sobbed with pain.

Kathryn walked over to the wiry man on the floor. The man was grabbling with the laces wrapped tightly around his neck, cutting off his breathing. Kathryn kicked the gun away, then dug her fingers under the laces at the front of the man's neck and used them to pull the man to his feet. She unwrapped the shoes, then pushed the man against one of the lab tables.

"Why were you shooting at me?"

"We thought you were them!" gasped the man. "They're coming!"

Kathryn shook the man by his shoulders. "Who? Who are they?"

"Whoever, man!" said the wiry man, his head twitching and jerking as he spoke. "Feds, spooks, homeland security, whoever they're sending out on cleanup duty today."

Kathryn slapped the man. "Government boys don't ring the bell or announce themselves on a staircase, you dipshit, they just blow the door down."

At that moment the front door exploded open in a cloud of smoke. A half dozen red laser sites cut through the haze, searching out targets. While Kathryn was distracted by the explosion the wiry man gave her a sucker punch to the kidneys. Kathryn dropped to the ground. The wiry man grabbed the gun and with a scream began firing towards the front door. There was a grunt and one of the red laser sites faltered, then fell to the ground. The other five sites instantly honed in on the wiry man with the bulging eyes, and in an instant he was torn apart by a hail of bullets.

"Hold your fire!" yelled Kathryn. "We're not armed!"

Kathryn was answered by more bullets.

"Well, then," said Kathryn, picking up the wiry man's gun. "Let's have a dialogue."

Kathryn put her head around the side of the table. She checked the gun. Only a few shots left. Fortunately, laser sites worked both ways, giving Kathryn a line to follow back to their owners. Kathryn stood up and with the calmness of a Zen master squeezed off four shots at as many targets, and then the bullets were gone. Three of the men dropped, the fourth merely grazed. The grazed man yelled out in pain and dropped his gun. Kathryn ran over where she heard the man grunt. In the haze she could barely make out the man's profile. Walking on the balls of her bare feet Kathryn crept forward until the injured man was between her and the final laser site.

"Shoot me now, fucker!" yelled Kathryn. The final laser site pointed in her direction, but rested on the injured man. Before he could identify himself three bullets ripped through his torso and sent him to the ground. Kathryn dove behind a table.

"Fuck," Kathryn heard the last man mutter. He turned off his laser site.

"Smart," said Kathryn. "Caught onto my little trick there, did you? I've got a lot more, trust me, but you're only going to see one of them. Unless you put that gun down and talk to me. You going to put that gun down?"

Silence. Kathryn reached up onto the table and found a row of small glass vials. She took them silently out of their container and then tossed them all high into the air in different directions. A few moments later glass began shattering all over the laboratory. The final gunman let out a few rounds in various directions, unsure of where anything was anymore. Kathryn used the gunfire to place the shooter and then ran; fast, silent and low to the ground. She connected hard with the man's stomach, knocking the wind out of him and pushing him back against the wall. Kathryn reached between the man's legs and grabbed his balls with one hand, then grabbed the collar of his Kevlar vest with the other. She put the man on her shoulders and lifted him up, and then threw him so the small of his back hit the hard corner of one of the lab tables. The man's gun went sprawling on the ground. He lay on his side, his hand on the small of his back, twisted in pain. Kathryn grabbed the back of his bullet proof jacket and drug him outside, tossing him down the steps. Kathryn went back inside and got the man's gun. She walked out onto the porch and stood, looking down at the man lying on the cement. Rain ran through Kathryn's hair and made long, slow trails down the muzzle of the gun.

"Who do you work for?" she asked. "Why did you come here? Do you know Henry Neptune?" The man sneered. Kathryn walked down two steps. "I know you're not government. Not NSA, CIA, FBI, none of them. I want to know who the fuck you are."

"I ain't telling you shit!" spat the man.

"Then what good are you," said Kathryn, raising the gun and firing two shots into the man's crotch. The man screamed. He went to hold his fresh wound, but then shot backwards as he reawakened the pain in his back. Kathryn walked the rest of the way down the steps and stood over the man. Her face was hard and her eyes were cold. She put the gun up to the man's mouth.

"I don't take well to being shot at. It puts me in an awkward position. If I let you go, some people might get it into their heads that they can shoot at me without repercussion, but if I kill you I don't get anything more than another check mark on my bad-ass rep. So I'm going to need you to give me a really, really good reason not to kill you."

"Go to hell," said the man.

"Not good enough," said Kathryn, and pulled the trigger.

Kathryn walked back inside. She tossed the gun aside and went to find the Dominican. He was crouched in the back of the lab, curled into a ball sitting in a puddle of his own urine. Kathryn pulled him to his feet.

"Information," she said to him. "I need it. What in here is going to tell me the most about what I need to know?" The Dominican pointed to a box in the back that was opened and contained a handful of Mac Mini hard drives. "Good. You got a car?" The man nodded. "We're taking it. Come on, let's go."

Kathryn grabbed the box and pulled the man outside. He led her to a nondescript gray sedan parked on the street and opened the door. "I'm driving, you're shotgun," she said.

Going into the city over the bridge Kathryn turned to the man. "All right, spill," she ordered. "I need you to tell me everything you know."

The man looked at her with big, scared eyes, then pointed to his throat and waved his hands in a 'no good' gesture. He opened his mouth to speak and only wheezed.

"What?" yelled Kathryn.

The man mimed the bottle of acid getting thrown in his mouth.

"Oh, right," said Kathryn. "Great. Bridgette's going to love this."

Kathryn pulled into the back alley behind the office building. "Stay here," she told the Dominican. She ran to the bodega on the corner and then came back with a pad and pen. "I'm looking for Henry Neptune. You're going to write down everything I need to find him. I'm going to run upstairs and get my associate. You stay here. Write. Don't move. Those men are looking for you, and if you don't stay in my protection, they're going to find you. I'll be back in a minute."

Kathryn went into the back entrance of the building and ran up the stairs. At the top she put in her code and pressed her hand against the scanner. The doors opened.

"Back up the bare essentials," she yelled to Bridgette. "This is getting ugly."

"What did the lab assistants tell you?" asked Bridgette as she began shutting down the system and gathering items in a large duffle bag.

"Neither of them are really speaking at the moment," said Kathryn, packing a bag herself.

"No! Not with the throat punching!" yelled Bridgette. "I thought we talked about that!"

"I didn't punch anyone in the throat!" Kathryn yelled back. "I just, I mean, okay, I accidentally threw acid down this one guy's throat." Bridgette looked at her with disappointment. "But the other guy got shot, and that was totally not my fault! Besides, I've got Mr. Acid Influx writing a statement in the car right now, which is exactly where we should be, so let's GO."

Kathryn finished packing her bag and closed it. Bridgette was waiting by a humming server. "What are you waiting for?"

"Downloading everything I need to an external hard drive. It'll take a couple minutes, that's all."

"So," said Kathryn, taking a full breath for the first time in what felt like ages. "Did you find out anything interesting?"

"Only nothing," said Bridgette. "Which is actually everything!"

"Explain," said Kathryn.

"You know when paranoids and conspiracy theorists talk about 'Them'? Those unnamed people who are the puppet masters behind all the little pulleys and levers of the world? Well, one of them just got a lot less nameless. Henry Neptune. At one point or another he's been in the same room with every major technological innovator in the past fifty years and been on-site for every great discovery and exhibition in just as long, and yet he's not officially on anyone's payroll, he's not in any government agency and he's not a part of any University. He's a ghost in broad daylight. Kathryn, this is some spooky, spooky stuff."

Just then the doorbell rang. Kathryn ran over to the security monitors. Two men in suits stood outside the office door.

"Shit!" said Kathryn. "I think these might be the same guys that attacked the lab!"

"Maybe if we don't answer they'll just go away?" suggested Bridgette.

The man closest to the door, a severe looking man who held more gravity than his partner though he appeared to be about five years younger, looked up at the security camera. He then took a pad from his jacket pocket and scribbled a note on it, then held it up to the camera. It read, "We know you're in there, Ms. Dunlap. Open up."

Bridgette checked on the external hard drive. "We're nearly done," she said. "What do you think we should do?"

Kathryn reached into her bag and pulled out a small hand gun. "We let the wolves in."

The door opened. The two men stepped inside.

"Ms. Dunlap," said the younger man, bowing slightly to Bridgette. "And you must be Ms. Ekblad."

"Charmed," said Kathryn.

"My name is Agent Michaels," said the young man. "This is Agent Burkle. We'd like to ask you all a few questions."

"Unfortunately we were just leaving," said Kathryn. "You'll have to excuse us."

Agent Michaels put out his hand to block Kathryn's exit. "I'm afraid these questions are a bit... mandatory, Ms. Ekblad."

"I see, Agent Michaels. By the way, I must not have caught it, you're an agent of what, exactly?"

"NSA," said Agent Michaels.

"Aha," said Kathryn. "You wouldn't mind if I asked to see some credentials, would you?"

"Of course not," said Agent Michaels, taking out a badge and showing it to Kathryn.

"Might I ask what all this is in reference to?" asked Bridgette.

"There's been a high-level security breach," said Agent Michaels. "I think you know what I'm talking about."

"I suppose I might," said Bridgette.

"Now will you please come with us," said Agent Michaels.

"We will," said Bridgette. Kathryn looked at her accusingly. "But only on one condition. You must promise us safe passage for our client, Mr. Neptune."

"You have Henry Neptune?" asked Agent Michaels.

"No," smiled Bridgette. "And apparently neither do you."

Agent Michaels frowned. "Let's go. Now."

"I have a question," said Kathryn. "Who taught you to lie? Because they did it very well. There are about eight fairly reliable body language tells for when a person is lying, and you've got most of them beat. Most of them. But you're not NSA. I think the only reason you've left us alive is because you want to know what we know, so once again, who are you?"

"I can assure you, we're from the NSA," said Agent Michaels, not nearly as convincingly as the first time. "All your questions will be answered in due time, now please, come with us."

"Just one more question before we go," said Kathryn.

"FINE, what is it?" said Agent Michaels.

"It's not for you, Mr. Ego Trip," replied Kathryn. "It's for my associate, Bridgette. Bridgette?"

"Yes, Kathryn?"

"I was wondering if I could punch these men in the throat."

"I think that would be entirely appropriate."

Agent Michaels reached for his side holster, but before he could remove the fire arm Kathryn delivered a left-right-left two-finger throat jab that crushed Agent Michaels windpipe.

Agent Burkle pulled out a radio. "Help! Help! Agents requesting back..." Kathryn delivered a roundhouse kick to the man's neck, slamming him against the wall. With incredible poise Kathryn raised her leg and placed her foot on Agent Burkle's neck, pushing it against the wall.

"When I was training at the Russian Ballet they worked our lower body strength so hard that we could crack a wooden plank between our legs." Kathryn pushed her leg forward and up, raising the man slightly up the wall. "Who'd you call, Burkle? Who do you work for?" Burkle only shook his head. "Fine," said Kathryn. She pulled her lower leg back, and as soon as Burkle's feet were on the floor her foot snapped back out again, connecting to the man's neck with an audible thump. Burkle crashed to the floor in a heap. Kathryn took out her gun then leaned over and picked up the radio.

"Your boy called for backup," she said, then threw the radio aside. She motioned for Bridgette to grab the bags and get behind her. She walked slowly to the door and put her hand on the "open" button. She turned back to Bridgette and signaled with her fingers, "four... three... two... one..." She punched the button.

The hallway was empty. Kathryn stepped outside and glanced over the stairwell. No one. She came back in to Bridgette. "Guess they've got some pretty shitty backup."

There was a whistling sound, and then an explosion as a shoulder-launched missile blew a hole in the outer wall of the office. Kathryn stared out through the hole in the wall and saw two men on the roof across the street. She fired her gun but hit nothing. She saw one of the men come up for another launch.

"Go, go, GO!" she said to Bridgette, pushing her out the door as a second whistle screamed through the air. Kathryn and Bridgette were half way down the stairs when the second missile connected with the technology tower, turning it into ashes and scrap. Charred bits of technology and rubble crashed down the center of the stairwell as Kathryn and Bridgette descended. Kathryn saw a man in a suit step into the center of the downstairs level to look at some of the debris. He then looked up. Kathryn put a bullet through his head. A second agent came out with his gun drawn. He saw Kathryn and fired. Kathryn fired back. The agent moved back to take cover and Kathryn used the pause to jump over the handrail. She landed on the body of the first agent. She stood and emptied the gun into the second.

"COME ON!" she yelled to Bridgette. Bridgette hustled down the rest of the stairs. "Out the back!" ordered Kathryn.

Kathryn ran to the car, then stopped. The passenger window was smashed, and inside the Dominican was slumped over with a bullet hole in his temple.

"Stay there!" Kathryn yelled to Bridgette. She opened the door and propped up the body. She grabbed the pad of paper, then let the body slump back over and shut the door. She went back to Bridgette.

"They know about the car. Do you still have our friend underground?"

Bridgette nodded.

Kathryn reached behind a dumpster in the alley and pulled out a crowbar. She walked over to a sewer grate and pried it open.

"You first," she offered to Bridgette.

"No, no," said Bridgette. "You first. I hate sewers."

"Yes, but I'm the one who's going to have to close the lid," reasoned Kathryn. "You first."

Bridgette climbed down into the sewer, then Kathryn climbed in after, closing the lid. Underneath the street was a large round subway tunnel in which sat an object chained to the access ladder and covered by a musty sheet. Kathryn threw off the sheet to reveal a vehicle that bore a striking resemblance to a four-wheeler. She took out her key ring and undid the chain, then hopped into the driver's seat. Bridgette climbed on behind her and wrapped her arms around Kathryn's waist. Kathryn started the vehicle.

After they'd driven for about twenty minutes through the winding tunnels of the New York Sewer System Kathryn stopped. She turned to Bridgette.

"What do we do now," she asked.

"I don't know," replied Bridgette. "I'm a little out of my element here."

"Well, if I were you," said Kathryn, "The first thing I'd do would be to find the daughter. If they're coming after the lab and they're coming after us, they're probably coming after her too. Once we get the daughter, if we get the daughter, we follow our lead the Dominican gave us."

"And what's that?" asked Bridgette.

"One name," said Kathryn, handing Bridgette the bloodied note pad. Bridgette read the name aloud.

"Sarah Montgomery."

 

Girl's Night

The beat of the subway was so pervading that Daphne turned off her i-pod and listened to the train rattle like an appreciative music critic. They were above ground, going over the river from Manhattan into Brooklyn and the train car was swaying with wind and movement and keeping such excellent time that the image of James Brown crept into Daphne's mind. He used to cut five dollars off of his band's salary every time they went off rhythm. There would be no deductions on this N train. Get up off that thing, she thought. Dance till you feel better.

Outside the subway Daphne pulled the jacket around her neck. It was cold, the kind of cold that she liked. It energized her, as if she needed energy. There was a buzz in the back of her brain that she new would require a sacrifice of dancing, drinks, drugs, loud music, and she was feeling particularly fervent. The whole night felt holy. She wasn't religious, but she believed in the confluence of forces, the invisible movements of the world, the rivulets and streams of energy that occasionally found each other and turned into a river, a rapids, a forceful flow that was undeniable. Maybe it was rhythm, aligning ones internal movements with the beat of the world. Whatever it was, it was there, then, in the moment, and when Stacy came down when Daphne rang her apartment bell she could see in Stacy's eyes that she felt it too.

The two walked down the small street, their feet in step, their asses shaking in that way that they knew drew stares. They didn't talk because they didn't have to. Stacy pulled out a packet of cigarettes and Daphne bummed one. They lit the tobacco sticks without their pace faltering. Daphne had quite three months ago, but Stacy didn't question this indiscretion. It was one of those nights, and more likely than not they'd be doing a lot of things tonight they'd previously swore would never happen again.

In the bodega the two prowled the aisles, stocking up on ammunition. Sugar, caffeine, cigarettes, gum. They shared a pizza bagel to fuel their stomachs. Onward.

Their heels clicked staccato on the sidewalk. Janice was waiting outside the club. Now the trio was complete. Inside they went, giving the bouncer a nod and slinking past the line. They put their coats in coat check, the small fee well worth the not having to think about their possessions. Tonight wasn't for thinking. Tonight was for instinct.

The music was loud, its bass line vibrating Daphne from within like a second heartbeat. She pulled her shoulders in, collapsing her chest, causing her back to pop. She rolled her shoulders back, posturing herself for the hunt. She caught the eye of a man near the bar. His hair was styled, but not overly so, not in so obnoxious or typical a way as most of the men here. He wore a suit whose purple color was so dark it almost looked black, with a bright red interior lining that shone in the instances it caught light. His eyes were dark and his smile was cold but inviting. Walking towards him she shamelessly adjusted her bra from the front of her low-cut shirt, further accenting her already displayed cleavage. The man had the bartender waiting by the time she arrived. She didn't make him wait, telling him her order before he even asked. He tried asking her name, but she shook her head. She took his hand and held it flat and level with his collar bone. Find the rhythm of the music, she told him. When he didn't understand, she took his hand in hers and bounced it up and down in the air to the rhythm of the music. She let go and the man continued keeping the rhythm. The girl nodded along with the bouncing hand and the pulsing music. When her drink came the man reached into his pocket with one hand and fished out a credit card and kept the other in time. Daphne raised the glass to him, then emptied it in one smooth go, never breaking eye contact. When she finished she placed the glass back on the bar. The man had watched her intently and his hand was now off time. Daphne reached up and took his hand again, reestablishing the beat. Then she took his hand and lowered it slowly onto her hip, which was now pulsing in time as well. The man's hands slid down over Daphne's ass and she moved in closer, her mouth now just below the man's ear at the joint of his jaw, her favorite place on a man's body. She got close enough that her breasts touched his chest, her hips moved against his, her lips grazed his stubble. She wanted to grab him, pull him onto her, lick him, suck on his ear lobe, whisper dirty, demanding orders into his ear. She calmed herself down. There was an order to this, there was a musicality to be obeyed, a crescendo to build to. A cheap denouement would leave her strung out the next morning, itchy, raw and unsatisfied as a glutton after an appetizer.

Instead she snaked two fingers into two belt loops and pulled herself close, feeling the weight of herself against him, feeling him push back, feeling her face nuzzling all the way up his in a provocative, unearned intimacy, and then she was away, out onto the dance floor.

This was the reason they came here, the three women. It was one of the few places left where you could actually get out on the floor and dance, free and easy. The boys knew here, they were informed somehow. Wherever else they went they were constantly accosted, men easing up to them, unwanted and yet assurance of a written invitation. They were despised, they were rejected, and yet they also seemed omnipresent. Here, however, they were respected. They were assessed correctly, viewed to be women apart, the three of them gathering in the center of the dance floor, together in a triangle of unabashed feminine unity. It was never cheapened with insincere displays of bisexuality-chic. They never danced on each other, for each other, or for anyone else. They danced with each other, truly with each other. They were a trinity, simple and pure. The only interruptions allowed were offerings to the slinky, swerving demigods in the form of alcohol and, on occasion, recreational chemicals.

The union was only broken by one of its own members. Stacy was the first to go, gliding over to a stocky businessman in a nice suit who looked five years beyond the expiration date for a place like this. Daphne watched and laughed, constantly amused by Stacy's fascination for such men. She said it was their desperation she loved, their wild clawing, grabbing veracity as they tried to retain the slightest hold on youth. You will never find a more eager and attentive lover, Stacy had told Daphne. Be that as it may, thought Daphne, rolling her eyes and her attention turning away from Stacy and the businessman and back to the music. She didn't even notice Janice grab a young hipster with tight jeans and a laughable haircut and begin working him over, moving a leg between his, rubbing her thigh against his crotch so hard that he visibly shuddered. Daphne kept moving, kept striving for that moment where her mind would divorce itself from her body, her natural prowess taking over. It was close, it was so close and it was all she wanted. Drink after drink came and went, her body warm with alcohol and movement, a glistening layer of sweat making her entire form shine under the flashing lights. She was on her own now, but never without a partner. She moved around the floor, taking on whoever was available; man, woman, older, younger, she took them all on. She didn't touch them, she barely looked at them, but she connected with them, and for a moment the room was just the two of them, then it was off to another partner. A trail of electric sensuality followed her, making a circuit around the dance floor. In her wake was a frenzied mass of clustering partnerships, men and women reaching out in headless desire to fill the void created when she'd gone.

Abruptly she stopped. In front of her stood the man with the cold smile. Though no longer a storm of movement Daphne's body still gyrated in small little eddies along with the music. The man saw, and with his hand flat at the level of his collarbone he matched Daphne's movements. She gave a broad smile that poked out from behind her damp strands of hair that hung unruly and primal around her face. She moved her head so that the man's hand ran a long trail down her face, her neck, her shoulder. Standing straight in her high heels she was a strikingly tall woman. Eye to eye with the man she breathed in his breath, followed his eyes with hers, moved her body with his, waiting to see where he would go, what liberties he might try and take. His hand hovered at her shoulder, unsure of where to go. Daphne snaked her hands underneath his arms, between his shirt and his jacket. She ran her hands up his back, feeling the sweat sticking to his shirt, noting his muscles and broad shoulders. Her hands climbed out of the neck of jacket, weaving their fingers into the man's hair. She held him close with her arms, keeping his head at a distance from hers. She knew he wanted to kiss her, but no. She moved with him in slow, simple movements. She put her head on his shoulder, like she was slow dancing at a high school prom. Her mind was still present, unrelenting in its insistence to shadow every moment with thought and analysis. She imagined that she held the man almost like a ventriloquist dummy, her arm up his back, her hand controlling her head. She thought of asking him a question, asking if she was the most beautiful girl in the room. She gave his hair a couple of tugs, causing his head to nod up and down, which made her giggle into the lapel of his jacket.

A hand pulled her away from her embrace by the shoulder strap of her shirt. Daphne didn't even need to turn around to know it was Stacy. She moved backwards, keeping her eyes on the man, giving him a parting smile and a wave as he watched her go, his cold smile growing a little colder.

Stacy dragged Daphne into the bathroom and through the door to the third stall in. Janice was already there, bouncing up and down in quick little movements, grinning from ear to ear.

"Wayne has coke," Stacy said.

"What? Wayne?"

"The business guy. Wayne. Has coke," Stacy repeated.

"It's really good," added Janice, still bouncing.

"I got him to give us some."

"You know he's going to want something for this," said Daphne, looking at the little white lines cordoned out on Stacy's compact mirror.

"Maybe he'll get it," said Stacy, winking.

"Well then..." Daphne took a rolled up dollar bill from Janice, bobbed her head down, took in two lines, then came back up.

"It's good," said Stacy, her eyes adjusting to the new chemical view.

"It's really good," said Janice.

"I fucking love businessmen," said Stacy, reappearing after taking a couple hits herself.

Back on the floor Daphne danced like a woman possessed. She positioned herself in the middle of the room because she wanted to take it all in. She wanted so much. She wanted someone to fall in love with her, she wanted more coke, she wanted a hostile take-over of the DJ booth, she wanted to fuck, she wanted to scream through the streets while shedding her clothes, she wanted two beers, one for each hand, and she told a boy as much. Moments later she stared down at the two beers in her hands. "These are the least of my concerns," she heard herself say out loud. She tipped her head back and held her arms above her, pouring both beers at the same time. The stream came steady into her mouth, sometimes splashing over the side, running down her neck and chest, dampening her shirt and cooling her skin. When she was done she simply held her arms out until someone took the bottles away. Her head remained staring at the ceiling, hypnotized by the lights, their movements and the patterns of their blinking, almost like a code, almost as though they were trying to tell her something.

She wasn't sure how long she'd been staring at the ceiling, long enough for someone to tap her on the shoulder and ask if she was all right. She assured him that she was fine, then worked her way over to a booth on the edge of the club. Beside her sat a boy, young, probably too young to be in here. He was looking at her, but clumsily trying to hide it. She wasn't sure what it was, the drugs in her system, the feel of the music, the hypnosis of the lights, but for some reason in that moment the sexiest, most arousing thing she could imagine was a shy wallflower guiltily attempting to look down her shirt. She feigned an interest in something on the other side of the club, giving him plenty of room to look, then turned her head quickly, catching him in full stare. The boy turned away, but Daphne held her gaze. After a moment the boy's eyes darted over, feeling Daphne's stare, finding her eyes still holding strong onto his. This time he didn't look away. Daphne brought a hand up to her neck, then casually flicked one of her shirt straps off her shoulder. It fell, and took some of her shirt front with it, exposing a generous portion of her breast. The boy tried to keep his focus on her eyes, but Daphne could see them being pulled towards her exposure. She moved a hand across the boy to touch the side of his face, then grabbed his neck and pulled herself over on top of him. She took one of his hands and pulled it up to her breast, placing it underneath the shirt. His hand felt cool and thrilling on her warm body. She was worried that he would remain tentative, but the hand gripped her firmly, kneading her breast, playing with her nipple, pawing at her in a way that turned her on, like a man in need. Daphne kissed the boy, a slow, languid kiss. At first the boy brought up his other hand to handle the remaining breast, but quickly placed his arms around her, wrapping her in an embrace. Suddenly she felt trapped, pulled in, too enclosed. She backed away slightly and looked down at the boy. His eyes plead with her, his body moved underneath her, his hands pulled at her. Then her hands were pulling at him to, pulling at his belt, pulling down his zipper, reaching inside his pants and grabbing hold of his cock. The boy's movements stopped and he froze. He already felt out of his league, this was entirely beyond him. Daphne took his cock out of his pants and began stroking it slowly, secretly, not letting any of the people around them see the game she was playing. She admired the boy's penis in her hand. She liked penises, and this one was surprisingly nice. She held it in position with one hand, then turned around on his lap so that she faced outward. She reached another hand underneath her skirt, pulled her g-string over to the side, then put the boy inside her.

It felt incredible. It felt right. She stared out at the crowd, probably two hundred people or so dancing, moving, forgetting their lives for a few hours and letting go. She felt the boy's cock move inside her as she worked her pelvis, angling him just right so that he hit her spot exactly. Regardless of its utility in this particular instance, this was one of her favorite positions. The warm, flushed feeling of a good fuck began to overcome her, putting her squarely in her own body, and yet she also felt apart from herself, a part of the mass, the whole, the organism of the moment. She looked around the room and felt that it wasn't just her. The music had risen and taken everyone with it. They were moving as one now, the crowd had found the rhythm, the rhythm she'd been looking for all night. She turned back to the boy. "On the count of three, we're standing up," she said.

"What?!" the boy asked, knocked out of his foggy head of sex.

"On the count of three I'm standing up, and if you still want to have your cock inside me, you'd better stand up right along with me, got it? One… two… three."

The boy caught her drift and pushed himself up crotch first, keeping himself inside her. Thank god she'd worn heels, she thought. Her hips were at the right height to keep the boy inside her, and now they were standing, his cock still deep inside her. She put his hands on her hips and had him follow her closely out a few paces so they were at the edge of the dance floor. Then she began to move her hips, side to side, back to front, what would appear to the casual observer as simple grind, unless they looked closer. Unless they saw the back of her skirt hiked up a little too far. Unless they saw the distinct lack of space or movement between them. Unless they took their eyes off the girl's mesmerizing movements and noticed that the boy looked as though he was working extraordinarily hard to hold something back. And someone did notice. In the midst of her sexual throes Daphne caught eyes with the man with the cold smile. He was staring at her, a look of hurt mixed with disgust had taken over his previously cool exterior. Daphne smiled at him. Did he think that she was his? Did he think he was irresistible, that there was only one logical choice for a girl like her in a place like this? Did he think that she wouldn't take exactly what she wanted, or had he just assumed that she could only want him? Whatever he had thought, he had been wrong. If he could only see what she saw, if he could only feel the desire to become caught up in the moment, to give over to the unpredictability, the wild tide of the music. But he couldn't, and now he was livid with cheap emotions that he'd purchased on credit and been unable to cover, no matter how big his bank statement. She leaned back, nuzzling her face in the space right below the boy's ear, her space, and whispered an order to him to look at the man to his left, the man who was watching them, the man who was red with jealousy and thought he should be the one to fuck her. When the boy saw the man with the cold smile Daphne felt his cock get even harder inside her. "I chose you," she whispered to him. "Show him why."

The boy throbbed within her. She knew he would come soon, and looked out to the crowd. Perhaps it was her own body building to climax, but as the boy made his final thrusts into her she felt the whole room come together, felt them all reach out to each other, felt the lights brighten and the music become pure until it was no longer coming out of speakers but of themselves, out of the desire to give over to the rhythm, until finally, with his arms wrapped around her from behind, one across her chest and one across her waist, the boy pushed himself deep inside her and came. Feeling his semen coat her insides pushed her over the edge and Daphne's last thought was a thankful prayer that the boy had been holding onto her so tightly as the lights blurred into soft hues and her knees buckled beneath her in consciousness-shattering orgasm.

When it was over, when she had finally come down, the boy had already withdrawn himself and redone his pants. He was trying to say something but Daphne couldn't hear it, didn't want to hear it, and simply leaned over to kiss him on the cheek and then walked away. She stumbled into the bathroom and walked into the stall, the same stall that had previously been their little drug den. She pulled out a bit of toilet paper and pulled up her skirt, staring down at the trail of cum that had started to dribble down her leg. She smiled to herself, wishing she could hug the inventor of the pill. Hopefully she'd be feeling the same about the inventor of the STD screening she'd have to schedule soon, but that was for another day. For the moment she felt beautiful, ethereal. She wished the people at her job could see her now, fucked and filthy in a bathroom stall wiping the semen of a man whose name she didn't know off of her leg. This was how she felt all day, wanting to ask her boss if he had any idea how far his head had worked its way up his own ass, wanting to punch that bitch in accounting in the face, wanting to pull delivery men into utility closets and go down on them, wanting to take that bullshit muzac off the office speakers, throw on The Clash and break some shit, wanting to set fire to the photocopier and make it an altar to a pagan god where they would sacrifice their five year plans and phone etiquette manuals.

In the club the music had changed. It wasn't doing it for her anymore, her rhythm had altered. One demon had been appeased, there were more to go. Stacy wanted to stay with her businessman, so the trio became a duo as Daphne and Janice left the club. On the street Daphne pulled a cigarette from her bag and lit up with her cheap Bic lighter, breathing the smoke deep inside her. She held it for a minute before exhaling. Time to change the rhythm, she thought. Time to get that new beat, something darker, something smokier.

As she began to walk away she heard a voice calling out from behind her. She and Janice turned and saw the man with the cold smile coming after them.

"Thought you could get away?" said the man, jogging to them. Daphne smiled with the cigarette loose between her lips.

"Other songs to sing, my friend," she smiled, then turned and continued to walk. The man reached out and grabbed her arm. Daphne pulled but he held tighter. She turned to face him, her smile fading.

"I've got a nice record collection back at my place, we could go there, do some of that dancing you like so much," he said, his eyes barely hiding the menace that crept out underneath the tone of his voice. "You could even bring your friend along." The man looked at Janice. "She like to dance too?" Janice shot him a look of contempt. The man kept his smile.

"Look, buddy, we're heading out, so why don't you just let go of my arm, go back inside and find some other nice lady to creep out."

Daphne tried to walk away but the man pulled her back. "Hey, asshole," said Janice. "You don't stop this bullshit we'll get some cops involved."

"You try anything like that and neither of you are going to be this pretty for long." Daphne saw Janice grow more confused and scared by the second. She saw the man leer at her in a way she had never been leered at before. Only moments ago everything had been so good, had aligned so well, and now she felt frightened and alone. There was danger here, she felt it in her stomach. It was a sickness she'd felt before, a familiar nausea that she couldn't quite place.

"I don't like being played around with," the man was saying. "It makes my blood just fucking boil. And when my blood boils, I need someone to cool it down, ease that pressure, you understand me?"

"Sure, I understand you," said Daphne, talking through clenched lips to keep the cigarette from falling to the ground. The man noticed and grabbed the cigarette from her lips.

"So what's it going to be?" asked the man. Daphne stared at the cigarette in his hand. She placed the nausea. It was the same pain she felt when she was talked down to at work, when she was belittled by her boss or condescended to by the men in her office or when she was the particular focus of the ever-circulating gossip pool at work. It was that feeling of helplessness she carried with her all through the week. It was the feeling that drove her here in the first place. She felt the rhythm return to her head. A new rhythm. A dark rhythm.

"Why not?" she said.

Janice balked. "What, are you crazy?" she yelled. "This guy's a psycho!"

"I'm always up for a little fun," said Daphne, giving the man a sly smile. "Of course I am, a girl like me." She mover her free arm to his hip, grabbing his ass. "Fuck going all the way to your place, why don't we just do it in the alley down the block?"

"Dirty little slut," the man smiled. "Why not?" The man began leading her down towards the alley. "See you soon," the man said as he passed Janice, giving her a wink. Daphne caught Janice's eye and mouthed the words "get a cab," putting up her hands to signal "wait." Janice nodded, still somewhat dazed.

In the alley the man pulled Daphne behind a dumpster. Daphne reached her hands down and grabbed the man's cock through his pants. The man moaned, then undid himself and pulled out his cock. Daphne began stroking it hard.

"Oh yeah," said the man. "Let's do it. Come on, let's fuck."

"Uh uh, baby," said Daphne, increasing her speed. "You know I like to tease, don't you? You know why I do it?" The man shook his head, not really paying attention. "I do it cause I like getting you riled up. I want you to get all hot and bothered so that you fuck me as hard as you can. That's what a tease is all about, right?"

"I knew it," said the man, his head tilted back in pleasure. "I knew you wanted it, you little whore."

"Oh I do," she said, getting down on her knees. She put her face right next to his cock, continuing to jerk him off. Her other hand reached into her purse and pulled out her lighter. "I don't just want your blood to boil, baby." She reached her hand up behind him, positioning the lighter at the bottom of the man's untucked silk shirt. "I want you to burn." Her thumb flicked the lighter twice, and then the shirt caught fire. It spread up and out, setting the jacket on fire as well. Daphne crouched beneath the flames, pulling the still-lit Bic around front to quickly set the man's pubic hair on fire, then backed away.

The man was screaming, attempting to pat himself out. That failing he struggled to take off the jacket, but the shirt itself was still on fire, melting into the man's skin. He started to run to the street but Daphne stuck her leg out, causing the man to trip and collapse against the dumpster. On her feet now Daphne watched as the man scrambled to find footing in the slick alleyway. Daphne raised her leg and brought it down hard, driving her heel deep into the man's calf. His scream grew louder as he writhed on the ground, caught between trying to put out the remains of the flames and attending to the puncture wound on his calf that now bled profusely. Daphne took the man's leg and dragged him into a large puddle of stagnant rainwater, putting out the fire. The man lay there, his upper body severely burnt, his calf bleeding. He curled into a ball, his body shaking with shock.

"Don't get up," Daphne said. "Someone'll come get you. And when they do I want you to remember what little girls like me are capable of. I want you to tell all your asshole friends. Because I'm going to start carrying around a can of lighter fluid, and then next one of you that gets lit up, I ain't putting out, you hear me?"

Back out on the street Daphne took out a cigarette and lit it. She saw Janice waiting in a cab down the block. As she made her way there she passed two college kids walking out of the club. "Hey, I think I heard some guy getting mugged or something in the alley over there, could you guys check it out or call the cops or something?" The guys said sure and went to check it out. Daphne got in the cab.

"I was about to call the cops!?" said Janice. "What the hell happened?"

"No smoking in the cab, please!" yelled the driver.

"I've got a permit," said Daphne, pulling down her shirt and showing the driver her tits.

"Do as you like," said the driver, putting the car in gear.

"Did you actually fuck that guy?" asked Janice.

"Just put out his fire," said Daphne. Janice wanted to ask more questions, but didn't. Daphne cracked the window open and let her smoke waft out into night. She leaned her head against the glass and shut her eyes, listening to the thumping of the tires on the pavement, heading through a straight shot of green lights, pounding out a rhythm, dark and expectant.

She's So Lucky

"Don't you see!" said the guru, jumping up and down like a ninny, pantsless and covered in vinegar. "Enlightenment is not intelligence, but perception! You must realize that matter is meaningless, time is an illusion and all that we are are energies moving through space, transferring themselves from body to body, evolving shape yet staying constant in essence!"

"I just want to get some smokes," said Britney Spears. The pop star was staring at the pantsless man behind the counter of the convenience store thirty miles out of Los Angeles.

"No. You have come here for enlightenment."

"Nope," said Britney, her head hanging down in exhaustion. "Just smokes."

"You were compelled to come here through the ever-flowing energies of the universe!" proclaimed the guru as he jumped up onto the counter and stretched his arms out to the heavens, putting his pantsless crotch in the area of Britney's face. Britney turned away slightly.

"I came out here to avoid the press. Now Camels, please."

"But, but…" stammered the guru. "I took of my pants. I covered myself in vinegar."

"I know."

"I thought…" The guru climbed back down behind the counter and slowly put his pants back on. "I thought, you know, here I am, a guru working in a convenience store out in the boonies, and here comes a mega-celebrity in need of spiritual guidance. I thought it was destiny, the universe aligning paths of energy and…"

"Well, it wasn't," Britney said, grabbing a Diet Coke from a small refrigerator unit to the side of the counter. "Cigarettes or I'm leaving, and just taking the Coke."

The guru took down a pack of Camels and set them on the counter and rang up the items. Britney put down her money, opened the pack of cigarettes and put one in her mouth as she headed towards the exit.

"You know, as a singer you really shouldn't be smoking," said the guru after her.

"Like anyone thinks I'm a singer," said Britney, pushing open the door and walking out to her car.

It was a beautiful morning in California, so Britney decided to drive with the windows rolled down. Maybe she'd listen to some music, she thought. Really enjoy herself for a minute, a nice moment alone with herself. She had the new CD by Justin Timberlake in the car's stereo, and decided to turn it on. Britney looked at the city and listened to the music. It was good. Really good. It made her want to go dancing, get away from herself, just listen and move. But where would she go where there wouldn't be eyes on her, where people wouldn't swarm her? Britney felt her mouth go dry. "Fuck," she muttered, then turned the music off. Maybe some silence would be good.

"Hey!"

Britney heard the voice, but ignored it.

"HEY! HEY!!!"

Britney turned her head and saw in the lane to her left and saw a middle-aged woman with her window rolled down yelling at her. Britney gave a little smile and waved.

"WAY TO FUCK UP YOUR KIDS, YOU CRAZY BITCH!" yelled the woman. "YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING TO…"

Britney rolled up the window and kept driving.

"Great, you made it back," said her court-appointed parenting coach, coming out to the car with a folder of papers and a phone. "You're not drunk are you?"

"No," said Britney.

"Any accidents?"

"No."

"You wouldn't happen to have picked up a newspaper while you were out, did you?" asked the parenting coach, with more than a hint of snideness. Britney looked at the coach from under lowered eyes.

"Well, you're in it."

"I'm always in it," said Britney. "Which paper?"

"All of them."

"Jesus. What did I do now?"

The coach handed Britney a newspaper. On the front page was the grinning face of a handsome young man in the passenger's seat of a sports car. The headline screamed in all caps, "MAN TELLS ALL: MY WILD NIGHT WITH BRITNEY!"

"You know this guy?" asked the coach.

"Yeah," said Britney.

"You remember him?"

Oh yeah. She remembered him.

"Look, is this going to be bad?" asked the coach. "Are these things true?"

"Yep," said Britney, taking out a cigarette and putting it in her mouth as she walked into her mansion. Of course this would happen, she thought. He'd been so nice. He'd told her everything she'd wanted to hear. He'd let her just have fun and be young again. It had been the best night she'd had in a long, long time. What a little piece of shit.

"We can deal with this." The parenting coach was flipping through her phone. "I'll call your press agent, we'll send out an official statement. This guy says this all happened just before your coaching started, so that's good. The damage should be minimal."

"Good," said Britney. "I'd hate for my reputation to be tarnished."

Britney entered her house and began climbing the stairs to her bedroom. "Britney!" the coach yelled after her. "Britney, we've got a drug test today. You can't miss this one."

"I just took one!" moaned Britney loudly, dragging her body with exaggerated exhaustion.

"Well, it's time for another one."

"Honestly, what have I done? These past few days, what have I done? I've sat around this fucking house, listening to you tell me what an idiot I am, reading a library's worth of shit about me, most of it true, going out to millions of people. I've got a million people on my back just dying to tell someone whenever I fuck up. Trust me, if I was doing drugs, you'd be reading about it."

"I am reading about it!" said the publicist, holding up the paper. "He says you snorted coke off a girl's tits!"

Britney huffed and rolled her eyes. "Sure, yes, but that was before the court ordered me to do drug testing."

"This is not heartening news," said the coach, shaking the paper. "This isn't really helping us get your kids back."

"Maybe I shouldn't get my kids back," said Britney. She walked down two steps to get closer to the parenting coach. "You think I haven't noticed how everyone was hemming and hawing about how I should have my children taken away, and now that they have been taken away everyone's hemming and hawing at how much I should be working to try and get my kids back. Maybe they're better off with Kevin. Isn't that what everyone's saying? I notice he doesn't have any court-appointed parenting coach. Let him keep the kids. I'll see them once a week, with my court-appointed child supervisor, you can go back to doing whatever the hell it is you do when you're not riding my ass, and we can all be happy."

"You don't want your kids back?" asked the coach.

"I don't know what I want," said Britney, going up the rest of the stairs and into her bedroom.

"The drug testing!" yelled the coach as Britney slammed the door to her bedroom.

Britney's cigarette was nearly burnt up to her lips. She ashed what remained and put in a fresh one. As she lit the new cigarette she took a bottle of whiskey out of her dresser and poured herself a glass. She wondered if alcohol showed up on a drug test, and if it did, would it count against her? Fuck it, she thought, like I'm actually going to take that drug test. She crawled into her bed and turned the TV on. "It's time to play everyone's favorite drinking game," Britney said to herself, holding the full glass of whiskey in one hand and the remote in the other. "Train Wreck." She flipped through the channels, CNN, FoxNews, E!. She flipped past the morning shows, the news hours, the cooking shows. Every time someone mentioned her name, she took a drink. By the end of the hour she was hammered.

She felt restless and angsty. A head full of whiskey made her punchy, so Britney hopped out of bed and went to her closet. Her clothes felt heavy and wrong on her skin. She took them off and changed into her red silk pajamas. With the bottle of whiskey in hand she walked out onto the staircase and looked down into the foyer. "This is my house," she said. "MY HOUSE!" She walked slowly down the staircase, her hand clutching the railing to steady her.

"Ms. Spears?" Britney's housekeeper poked her head around the corner.

"You there!" shouted Britney, pointing to the old woman. "Tell me, what day is it?"

"June 12th," said the housekeeper.

"Christmas morning!" shouted Britney. "Then there's still time! I want you to go buy a goose, my lad. The biggest goose in all of London!"

"Ma'am?"

Britney hustled shakily down the staircase and put an arm around the housekeeper's neck. "Whose house is this?"

"Yours," said the housekeeper.

"Do you like it?" asked Britney. "Do you think it's a nice house?"

"Yes, ma'am," the housekeeper's voice wavered uncertainly. "Very nice house."

"I'm going to tell you a secret." Britney pulled the woman closer to her. "It's not a house."

"Ma'am?"

"Nope," Britney said. "It's a palace. I'm royalty. I'm a pop princess. A PRINCESS! A princess of pop, of popularity, of the populous. This is a palace built on the adoration of a nation! And do you know what you do with a palace built on the adoration of a nation, old woman?"

"No, ma'am," said the housekeeper.

"What every self-respecting American would do with a palace this big. Run through it bare-ass naked." And with that Britney shimmied out of her pajamas and ran through the house stark naked, waving her whiskey bottle as she hollered through the hallways of her Xanadu.

When the parenting coach found her she was in the media room, blaring Madonna's Erotica album and jumping up and down on her couch while drinking whiskey straight from the bottle.

"So I'm guessing you're not planning on doing the drug testing then," the parenting coach said through pursed lips.

Britney stopped jumping and stood with wobbly legs on the couch. "That depends. Do you think they'd hold this against me?" she said, bending over and vomiting a stream of clear liquid onto the floor.

"I'll make some phone calls." The coach turned and walked away. Britney lay down on the couch and poked her stomach. "Tummy doesn't think she can handle any more boozy-booze." Britney reached out to the coffee table and grabbed the whiskey bottle. "Tummy is a fool."

By the time Erotica ended the bottle was empty and Britney was stumbling through the house in the search for more booze, or possibly food, or even more possibly both. In the kitchen Britney filled a bowl with Lucky Charms and then poured a quarter of a bottle of Jameson in as well. As she neared the bottom of the bowl Britney heard the parental coach come in.

"You know what's funny?" Britney asked. "You'd think Lucky Charms and Irish whiskey would go together really well. Well, you know what? You'd be absolutely fucking right." Britney picked up the bowl and slurped down the multi-colored contents. "Hell yeah. Now, I've only got one thing to ask you. Are you a fucking retard, or is it time to go driving?"

"Uh, neither?"

"You are so wrong."

Minutes later Britney and the court-appointed parental coach were weaving their way through downtown Los Angeles with Britney at the wheel.

"You know what I hate?" Britney yelled to the parental coach.

"Personal responsibility?" replied the coach.

"I hate the double standard. There's a double standard at work here, court-appointed parental coach. If I was a man, people would be loving me for my crazy antics. They'd say 'Aww, that Britney, he's a big ole rock star, just like the old days!' It's only cause I'm a woman that everybody's all pissed."

"Well, that and you have kids."

"Rock stars have kids! They have them all the time! Mick Jagger's probably having another kid right now! Or rap stars! What about rap stars? Rap stars get to do anything! Nobody expects a rapper to act responsibly."

"Maybe that says more about the subtle racism of society where we expect or encourage less of certain individuals than…"

"Who told you that? Did you learn that in college? I learned my shit on the streets."

"What streets?"

"Oh shit, we're on the wrong street."

Britney made a hard left across five lanes of traffic.

"All I'm saying is, if Common was acting like me he'd have his own reality show."

"You had your own reality show."

"Yeah, but I had to do it all by myself. My camerawork sucks!"

The parental coach clutched her handbag and turned her head down to the side so she couldn't see Britney's driving.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"There's some thing for Christina Aguilera's new perfume, I'm gonna show up and trash that bitch."

The coach began crying quietly. "Why are you doing this?"

"What's my job?" Britney yelled to the parental coach. "WHAT'S MY JOB?"

"An entertainer?" the coach choked out through small sobs.

"Damn straight. And let me ask you, in all honesty, how entertaining was my last album? Or my last live shows? Or anything I've put out in the last three years?"

"Not very."

"No. But I'm a professional," said Britney, looking at herself in the mirror and licking her finger, then futzing with her eye shadow. "I'm going to entertain people, and I'll do it any way I can. You know why?"

"Why?"

"Because I care," said Britney, pushing her foot down on the gas pedal. "I care SO. DAMN. MUCH."

The parenting coach put an arm out to brace herself against the dashboard. "Why are you speeding up?"

"You think Christina Aguilera would invite me to an opening?" said Britney. "No ma'am. We're crashing."

As they approached the red carpet entrance for the unveiling of Christina Aguilera's new fragrance 'Debutantes,' Britney twisted the steering wheel hard and careened into a row of parked cars. All the reporters and photographers turned and began taking pictures. Kelis, who was in the middle of an interview, screamed. The court-appointed parenting coach was slumped in the passenger's seat, unconscious, with a gash across her forehead. Britney opened the door and stumbled out of the car. She was bleeding from her left shoulder and was walking with a limp. She crawled onto the hood of her car and stood above the crowd.

"I come with a message!" yelled Britney. "Enlightenment is perception! Matter is meaningless, time is an illusion and we are energies moving through space, transferring ourselves from body to body! For the past three years I have taken in your negative energies, and I have stored them, stored them within my very heart! And now I bring you the great day of transference!" And with that Britney pulled her leg back and kicked Katherine Heigl square in the face.

"Oh shit!" yelled Ne-Yo. "Bitch just kicked Grey's Anatomy in the face!"

Britney let out a roar and jumped from the hood of her car onto John Mayer. She then went on to KITBASH Hilary Duff, throat-punch Heidi Montag and bloody Shia LaBeouf's face. As she was chasing Perez Hilton inside, threatening to strangle him with a camera strap, America watched all of the action live on CNN, CNBC, FoxNews, MSNBC, E!, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, The CW, TNT, TBS, The Home Shopping Network, Telemundo, The History Channel, Nick GAS, G4, Cartoon Network, USA, PBS, ABC Family, A&E, CourtTV, The Discovery Channel, Hallmark, Mtv, VH1, VH1 Classics, Fuse, Oh!, Spike, The Sci-Fi Channel and The Learning Channel, and they all sighed, shook their heads and smiled.

"That Britney!"

Who Keeps the Beekeepers?

It was a beautiful day, which made Vernon Wordsworth's depression all the worse. He sat on the back porch of his rented house in Washington state, staring out over acres of land and his Langstroth beehives, set to pollinate that year's apple orchards. It was March, and Vernon was well into the brooding of his colonies. However, this year, like the past few years, things had not gone well.

His numbers were down. Everyone's numbers were down. No one knew why. People had theories. They always do. It didn't help that the media had picked up on it, getting everyone into a big fuss over the impending "Bee Crisis." There had been an unending parade of talking heads giving their theories. It's cell phones, it's chemicals, it's evolving parasites, it's noise pollution, regular pollution, climate change, tectonic shifts, whatever. It all just made Vernon tired. The long and short of it was that his numbers were down, and there didn't seem to be a damn thing he could do about it.

He was supposed to be out right now, checking the hives, recording the numbers, assessing his progress. However, he had decided to stretch out his lunch, sipping on his fourth glass of lemonade while putting his feet up on the porch's guardrail and stretching out his legs. The results would only depress him further, why not spend a few more minutes leaning back in his rocking chair and relaxing?

At that moment a sparrow made a harried landing right on the arm of Vernon's chair. Vernon cast a bemused look at the bird, then saw a note attached to the bird's leg with a piece of string all tied in a bow. Vernon carefully undid the string and took out the note, which looked more like a business card now that he saw it. It read:

"Sometimes, when the mundanity of life becomes overwhelming, when the sheer blandness of life stretches before you like a desert, you need the assistance of Gerald Pesterak, Professional Crazy Person."

There was no phone number, no address, no email. Just the quote and a picture of a straight jacket embossed on the card. Vernon tucked the card into the upper pocket of his overalls and went back to his lemonade.

***

The next morning Vernon awoke with the sun. He'd stopped setting his alarm, as he no longer saw the point in rushing out to begin a day destined for failure and disappointment. He took a shower, ate his breakfast, brushed his teeth, and then decided it was time to go check on the bees.

As he walked out to the small storage shed that held his beekeeper's suit Vernon felt a rumbling from the ground. It didn't seem like an earthquake, but then Vernon had never been in an earthquake, so maybe he wasn't one to say. Vernon was debating whether to go back inside and call the weather service to see if they had any information about the commotion or just ignore the whole thing and put on his suit when he noticed a giant cloud of dust coming from the back road to the house. As the cloud came closer the shaking in the ground became harder. Something was coming. Something big.

He saw the top of the man's head first. It stared out at a cocksure angle, somehow making sure to keep itself constantly in profile. Atop the head was a hat a bit like an old buccaneer's, with a large feather protruding from the back. Vernon noticed that the man didn't appear to be moving right. He wasn't swaying with a normal gait, he was... bouncing.

The body that came next followed the same general stylishness as the head. The man was wearing a well-tailored, form fitting suit which had a very high, feminine frilled collar and appeared to be made of crushed velvet. He had a large belt around his waste which had two holsters resting on each hip, filled not with pistols, but with bananas. He also wore a codpiece. His legs were spread at a severe angle.

As the man rose above the hill the mystery of both his strange movement and the trembling ground was resolved. The man was riding perilously atop two elephants, one foot resting on each. He held two reins in his left hand and was guiding the stomping creatures directly towards Vernon's rented cottage. Not wanting to bring too much worry to the bees, Vernon began walking out to meet the man. Not wanting to bring too much worry to himself, he made sure to grab his shotgun.

"Hello there," said Vernon, approaching the man with caution. "Nice elephants."

"They're rentals," said the man in the cavalierly bored voice of a dandy. "I'm borrowing them from the San Diego zoo, and by borrow I mean stole, and by stole I mean absconded. That will be your vocabulary word for the day. 'Absconded.' Do you know what it means?"

"Stole," said Vernon, crossing his arms so as to also cradle the shotgun.

"You're far more clever than I thought," said the man, jumping down from his perch atop the two elephants. "It will make breaking you all the more harder."

"Breaking me?"

"Run away, pachyderms!" exclaimed the man while shooing away the elephants. "It is time for you to return to the wild, to nature! Might I recommend Seattle? The music scene is dead but their coffee remains delicious!" With that the elephants turned around and began traipsing away. The man turned to Vernon. "You and I have some work to do."

"Who are you?" asked Vernon.

"Gerald Pesterak. Professional Crazy Person? Didn't you get my card?" replied the man.

"Of course, sure. With the bird and all."

"He's good people, that bird. Good bird people. I killed his entire family, and one day he will kill me, but until then I am tutoring him. Where are your meats and cheeses?"

Inside the house Gerald Pesterak made a tower of roast beef and goat cheese and had set about eating it by the handful.

"You're probably wondering why I called you here," said Gerald between bites.

"This is my house," said Vernon.

Gerald stopped eating and stared at Vernon. "Do not lie to me, Vernon. If you lie, I cannot save you. Liars are not welcome into the kingdom. This is a rental, is it not?"

"Yes," said Vernon. "It's a rental, but I'm renting it, so for the moment..."

"Ownership is what this is all about, Vernon, so let's make no quibbles about to whom things actually belong. I am here because I am interested in what is solely yours. What truly belongs to Vernon Wordsworth. Confuse the issue again and I will tear off a fingernail."

"The hell you will!" yelled Vernon. "I'm not letting you anywhere near me."

"Not one of your fingernails," said Gerald. "One of mine. But I will make you watch, and I have a terribly low pain threshold. It will not be pretty."

"I want you to leave," said Vernon.

"Believe you me, I want to leave," said Gerald. "But my work here is not finished. Let's go see about those bees."

In the work shed Vernon tried to convince Gerald to put on one of his extra beekeeper suits. "No thank you," Gerald had said. "I refuse to wear anything that disguises the shape of my calf. Now take me to the honeymakers."

"These bees aren't really for making honey, they're for pollination," said Vernon.

"I see their true face," said Gerald. "They live as I do. They live for honey."

Out in the field Vernon told Gerald to wait at the edge of the colonies for him and if he had to move, move very slowly so as to avoid getting stung. Gerald nodded.

Vernon was about half way through his inspections when he heard a noise. He turned and saw Gerald prancing between the colonies, doing some strange sort of dance. The bees had surrounded him in thick, buzzing cloud. Gerald appeared to be in the throes of some sort of ecstasy. "Can you hear their song, Vernon? They are singing! They are singing just of us!!"

"They're not singing, they're stinging," said Vernon.

"And every sting a melody!" shouted Gerald.

"Please stop. You're scaring my bees, and you're scaring me," said Vernon. Gerald didn't stop. Vernon sighed and continued with his work.

That night Vernon prepared a small meal of chicken, corn bread and green beans. Vernon ate his meal quietly while Gerald sat across the table, unmoving. He had not touched his plate, had not, in fact, moved hardly an inch. He had, however, begun to swell all over with bee stings. His face was huge and puffy, with red and white splotches. He had been forced to loosen his collar and undo the cuffs of his shirt. His voice came out in a slow wheeze. His face was covered in a thin paste of sweat and the combination of pus and poison that would occasionally ooze forth from one of the wounds. His eyes, although swollen half shut, glistened and shone with a frightening intensity.

"You sure you don't want to go to the doctor?" asked Vernon.

"I have never felt more alive," said Gerald with the zeal of a religious convert.

"I'm amazed you haven't gone into anaphylactic shock," said Vernon, unimpressed.

"I have a surprise for you!" said Gerald, who then stared at Vernon with his same unsettling intensity for a silent minute, then vomited quickly and violently all over the table. "IT'S A GIFT FROM THE BEES!!!"

"It's toxic shock," said Vernon.

"I would like to be carried to bed now," said Gerald. Water was pouring from his eyes, and Vernon was unable to tell if it was tears or simply more escaping fluids. Regardless, the pouring liquid did nothing to quell the strange energy beaming out of Gerald's eyes. Vernon stood up from the table, walked over to Gerald's chair and picked him up in his arms. As Vernon carried him up the stairs Gerald pulled himself up to Vernon's left ear.

"I love you, pappa!" whispered Gerald.

"You scare the shit out of me," replied Vernon.

The next day when Gerald came down to breakfast his swelling had gone down considerably. His face was also covered in small band-aids used to cover shaving nicks.

"Your face looks better," said Vernon. "Looks like you had a hard time shaving, though."

"Oh no, I did a letting!" said Gerald. "I used one of your razors to make many small, deep cuts to drain out the poison."

"Does that really work?" asked Vernon.

"I don't know!" said Gerald.

"Doesn't that seem kind of dangerous?" pushed Vernon.

"I don't know!" said Gerald.

That day Vernon worked with the bees while Gerald began a secret project out behind the unused barn. He made Vernon swear not to look at it until it was time, which was fine by Vernon, as it also would have been fine by Vernon if he never saw this surprise nor its creator again.

Yet that evening there he was, just in time for supper. He sat at the table with a giant lobster bib on, giddy and eager.

"What will we be dining on tonight? How I do so love victuals!"

"A little bit of the same, with a slight change. Chicken, but this time we'll be having collard greens instead of green beans."

"It's a carnival for the senses! Better than Olive Garden! Yes, I said it, better even than beloved Olive Garden!"

"Sure."

Vernon put the food down on the table and watched as his houseguest began to eat.

"Say, Gerald, let me ask you something," said Vernon. "It's not that I don't like welcoming houseguests or anything but what exactly are you doing here?"

"You need help," said Gerald in between bites. "I am helping you."

"How do you figure?" asked Vernon.

"Do you not feel listless and weary? I am here to make you realize the beauty and sanctity of life! I am here to give you your groove back, Stella!"

"I think my groove is just fine."

"No it isn't. It's in the pits, the very pits! But I'm here to help you get them out. Don't you want to get out of the pits? Don't you want to know why your bees are dying?"

Vernon stopped eating. He looked hard at Gerald. "What do you know about my bees dying?"

"Probably nothing. Possibly everything! This is a journey we take together, starting tomorrow. Eat. Rest. Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of our lives!"

The first day of the rest of their lives started innocuously enough. Vernon went down for breakfast. He waited a moment for Gerald, and when he didn't come Vernon fixed himself some eggs and bacon and ate them in silence. Then he went out to the shed. As he was about to put his beekeeper's suit on Gerald ran up to him.

"It's finished! It's finished! Come take a look!" Gerald was jumping up and down with excitement. He took off running back towards the old barn. Vernon followed.

Behind the barn was a large tarp placed over an object that stood about five and a half feet high and seven feet long.

"Do you love your bees, Vernon?" Gerald asked. "Do you really and truly love your bees?"

"I suppose so?" replied Vernon.

"Then I hope you're ready for excitement, because boy are you about to get some!" said Gerald. With the flourish of an impresario he pulled the tarp away to reveal a large sculpture of a bee made out of chicken wire, discarded machine parts, paper mache, wax and rubber. The inside of the sculpture hummed with the sound of a couple hundred contained bees. The whole thing was painted to look as realistically like a bee as possible except for an area about the size of a man's fist at the back of the sculpture that was unmistakably meant to be a human vagina very realistically rendered out of rubber hose and pink satin drapes.

"Make love to your bees, Vernon!" screamed Gerald. "Make sweet, passionate love to your bees! I hope you don't mind sloppy seconds. Or thirds. Or eighths. It's been a very busy morning!" he said, nudging Vernon with his elbow.

"This is disgusting!" yelled Vernon.

"This is what you were meant for!" replied Gerald. "Feel it! Live it! Experience it in all its swelling-inducing glory! Become engorged with life!" Gerald dropped his pants and began to approach the sculpture. Vernon ran back to the house.

Vernon began gathering Gerald's things into the steamer trunk he came with. After a few minutes Gerald returned to the house, his clothes akimbo and his hair sweaty. "She's a fighter, but it's just to show how much she wants you," said Gerald, painfully adjusting his crotch. Vernon came down stairs dragging Gerald's trunk behind him.

"I want you out," said Vernon. "I want you out right now."

"I'm afraid I can't do that, Vernon," said Gerald. "I haven't completed my contract yet."

"You've got no contract with me, I don't give a damn what you have to complete, I want you out of my house!"

"I thought we talked about this," said Gerald, reaching into his coat and pulling out a pair of pliers. "I thought we talked about what would happen if you kept confusing what actually belongs to you." Gerald attached the pliers to one of his fingernails and slowly began to pull.

"What are you doing?" asked Vernon, turning pale.

"Fulfilling part of my contract," said Gerald as he grunted and pulled and twisted the pliers, tearing out the fingernail of his right ring finger. Vernon turned away and ran up the staircase. Gerald followed, screaming and waving his bloody finger. Vernon went into his bedroom and put his back against the door. Then, with a force Vernon could never have predicted, Gerald burst through the doorway, flinging Vernon onto his bed. Vernon curled into a ball, but Gerald pounced on top of him and straddled his chest, pinning Vernon's arms beneath his legs.

"What do you want from me?!?!" yelled Vernon.

"I am here to teach you! You must learn!" Gerald yelled back.

"What is this, am I supposed to be inspired?" asked Vernon. "Is this some kind of 'live life to the fullest' lesson?"

"Quite the opposite!" said Gerald. "This is an un-lesson! You've learned the secret, Vernon. You've learned that life is a pitiable exercise in meaninglessness and then we die and no one cares and no one misses us. You've learned that the only thing we truly own are our sad, sorry little lives. But that's bad for business, Vernon. That's bad for the bees. So what I'm here to do is to put the vivacity of ignorance back into you!"

Gerald leaned close to Vernon's face, putting his knees at the side of Vernon's head so that he couldn't look away. Gerald then raised a hand to his face, the hand with the missing fingernail.

"I want you to believe that you actually own your happiness." Gerald took the fingernail of his index finger in his teeth and then yanked his head, ripping it out. Vernon screamed. "I want you to believe that you own your own success." Middle finger. "Thoughts." Pinky finger. "Love." Thumb. "I want you to be so afraid of losing all of these beautiful things that you think you own that you will keep fighting, keep looking after those bees, keep pulling your weight."

Vernon was trying to close his eyes, but Gerald wouldn't let him. He placed two bloody fingers above Vernon's eyes, keeping them open. "Do you feel it?" he asked. "Do you feel that fear?"

"You're crazy!" screamed Vernon.

"That's the point!" said Gerald, who then took a large bite out of his own shoulder, spitting up meat and bone on Vernon. "Where's that fear?" he said, taking another bite out of himself, biting away at his body before Vernon's eyes. "Show me that fear, Vernon!" Another chunk gone.

"I'm afraid!" Vernon shrieked. "God help me, I'm afraid!"

Gerald began eating himself more and more vigorously until Vernon passed out amid a torrent of teeth, spit, blood and meat.

The next day Vernon awoke in a puddle of sweat. He went out into his work that day with a renewed sense of purpose. He worked harder than he had in a long, long time. The bees never reached the numbers they had, but the decline had stopped. Vernon kept working, kept moving, kept trying to keep ahead of that fear.

There were days, though, where he couldn't do it. There were days where it all came back to him, that weariness, that sense of purposelessness. When those days occurred, wherever they occurred, there would be a visit by a small sparrow with a note attached to its feet which read:

"Sometimes, when the mundanity of life becomes overwhelming, when the sheer blandness of life stretches before you like a desert, you need the assistance of Gerald Pesterak, Professional Crazy Person."

And scrawled on the back, written in jet black ink with droplets of blood, as though from a hand ripped of its fingernails, was the following message: "My dearest Vernon, Remember that fear. –G. Pesterak"