Severance Pay (Chapters 60 through 66 of 78)

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Everything has gone off the rails for Patricia and Cardoza has the Controller. Can she escape and, if so, what kind of life will she have? Elements and Themes listed apply to entire story, Rating to this submission. Thanks to Marina Kelly and and Robyn Hoode for their editorial assistance.

CHAPTER SIXTY ONE

Hobbes switches me back to Fifty Pink, slowly this time. It’s an easier transition but I end up at the same place, trapped in a body I can’t control. He unlocks the handcuffs, keeping them in his left hand.

“Patricia, follow me.”

I stand up. “Yes, Mr. Hobbes.” He walks out the office door and I follow him, as ordered. I’ve stopped fighting things for now. It’s mentally exhausting and even if I could make my body, and it is now MY body, do what I want, it can’t be like it was on the lower Pink or any Blue setting. I need to be in full control to get out of this alive. Save my energy until the right moment.

Both Cardoza and Lipscomb are waiting for us. Hobbes waives Cardoza over, handing him the collection of handcuffs and the Contoller.

“Have you looked at the data yet?” Hobbes whispers.

“Briefly,” Cardoza replies. “It appears to be accurate and extensive. I’d have to cross check with the files in our servers but the documents I know by sight are there and they are correct. If I was forced to give an opinion … I would say he has the real goods. Sorry Raymond.”

Hobbes nods his head in acceptance, then fixes an angry stare on Lipscomb. “I despise traitors.”

“She fooled many of us, Raymond.”

“Not Patricia. She was doing her job.”

“Her JOB? SHE was the one who invaded our compound, played you for a fool, stole your records, befriended the entire household!”

“Like many have tried before her. They paid the price and now, so shall she. Patricia knew the risks and she came anyway. One must admire that kind of bravery, even among the enemy. But this Lipscomb … he disgusts me. No honor, no loyalty, no respect for his team. A common murderer.”

“Thank God for that or we would never have even known what had happened. You would have been blindsided. At least now, we control our own fate again. We pay a relatively small sum of money and we are back in business.”

“I wonder, Enrique.”

“What of the girl? We should act quickly.”

Hobbes’ shoulders sag. “You take care of it. I … I … can’t.”

Cardoza smiles evilly. “As you wish, Raymond.”

Hobbes reaches out, grabbing his left wrist. “It must look like an accident, a believable accident, and Gretchen must never know. Never, not now, not even after I am dead.”

“X-ray, that is not our usual solution to this kind of problem.”

“This is not our usual problem. It is unique, requiring a unique solution. You have the limitations, I leave the details to you. I don’t wish to know … anything. Ever.”

“So, I have a free hand?”

“As long as you meet those two conditions, yes.”

“And what about payment?”

Hobbes holds out his right hand. “I will review the hard drive and let you know in the morning. If you are correct, then we will pay him.”

“He wants payment tonight, Raymond.”

“Too bad.”

Enrique hands him the hard drive. “Mr. Lipscomb,” said Hobbes, raising his voice. “I will pay your … fee … after I have reviewed the contents of this hard drive. If it is as you described, payment will be immediately arranged. If it is not, you will join your unfortunate comrades. Understood?”

Lipscomb had been sitting this entire time, attempting to eavesdrop. Don’t know how successful he was. Now he stands up.

“That was not the deal.”

“We have no deal, not as of this moment. I will not buy … as you say … a ‘Pig in a Poke’. I need time to study your data. Surely, a delay of, say six hours, could hardly make a difference. If you are unwilling to agree, it only makes me more suspicious of the contents.”

Lipscomb’s clearly unhappy but he doesn’t have a lot of choice. Hobbes will pay more money to keep everything secret than anyone else would for making it public. He pretty much will have to accept the counter offer if he wants a big payday.

“Six hours, but not a second longer. I will meet you at the McDonalds on the corner of Sixth and Washington by 7:20 a.m. Bring the diamonds with you. No guards, just you.”

“Enrique will be handling the exchange.” Hobbes turns on his heel and strides back into his office, closing the door, never once looking at me.

Enrique turns to Lipscomb, smiling tightly.

“Let me show you to your car, Daniel. Patricia … follow.”

“Yes, Mr. Cardoza.”

We all walk back to the front door, no one saying a single word. Lipscomb gets in and drives away, leaving me alone with Cardoza. He squats down, looking me in the eye while holding the Controller in front of my face.

“An interesting device. I will have to give it, and you, a thorough testing before disposal. For now, you are to be locked up until after Hobbes has reviewed the files on the hard drive and your friend has been paid, just in case I need some answers about anything. After that, I no longer need you. That’s when the fun begins. Hobbes may have decided where you end up but he left it up to me to decide how you get there. And when.”

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

It was smoother than I thought it might be.

Cardoza walked in with a valise, stopped at my table, set it on the floor next to me and left without saying a word. No threats, no warnings, nothing. It was all so anticlimactic, I was a little disappointed. That was until I got out to my car and opened the valise.

Fifty million in raw, uncut diamonds is something you never expect to actually see. It’s just a concept, an unobtainable goal until you feel the weight in your hands, reach in and grab a handful, letting them slowly spill through your fingers. The first of many future payments.

I could sit here and look at them all day but there’s more to do and not much time left. The next thing is to stash these at my safe house and to make sure I’m not followed there.

I transfer the diamonds to a heavy canvas gym bag, searching to make sure there isn’t some kind of tracking device hidden among them. I drop the valise into the dumpster behind McDonalds, get in my car and turn right onto Washington, heading for the Outer Loop. Taking the Outer Loop, I head east, away from the coast, to a less attractive part of Miami. It’s a little more low rent, less crowded. I’ve subleased a condo in one of those buildings that’s only about one third full and barely keeping out of bankruptcy. Dropping back onto city streets several miles away from my destination, I start taking an indirect route, always watching for following cars. I took the course offered by the FBI to all new Federal attorneys but that was some time ago and I never had to do it for real, but I don’t think I’m being followed. Just to be sure, I park my car on the street and walk into a Starbucks. I take a seat where I can watch my car to see if anyone else is watching it. After a half hour, no other cars have parked nearby. I’m likely clean. No GPS tracking system, no physical tail. Better hurry.

Back into my car, I drive the last two blocks to my condo. Leaving my car in the underground garage, I take the elevator to the fifth floor, carrying my bag. Once the elevator door opens, I peek out. No one around. I casually stroll to my condo, just six doors down from the elevator. I open the door and hurry in, undetected, closing, locking and bolting the door behind me.

I relax, not being aware how tense I was. The living room is dominated by an extremely large aquarium, over one hundred gallons. There’s a couch, a couple of chairs, a TV and a bookcase which holds the TV, but it’s the aquarium which draws the eye.

Actually, It’s two aquariums. The large one holds a number of Piranha. The second, smaller one to the left holds about two dozen Goldfish.

Dropping my canvas bag on the couch, I scoop three Goldfish from the small tank using a net on a twisted metal handle, then invert the net over the larger tank. The water roils for several seconds before settling down. I used to watch the feeding frenzy with great enjoyment, but the excitement fades after awhile. It’s still amusing though to see the Goldfish scales drifting to the bottom of the tank.

Now comes the last part of my plan, a particularly tricky part. It’s cost me one of my better suits but fifty million will buy a lot of suits. I’ve taken my gray wool suit and exposed it to wood smoke and then burned small holes in the shoulders, sleeves, and back of the coat and a few in the pants, so that it looks and smells like I was in a shower of burning embers. After changing into the suit, I streak wood ashes across my face and right hand, rubbing some into my hair to increase the odor. The last step is the one that will really sell the illusion … and is the one I have not been looking forward to.

Going first to the bathroom to gather burn ointment, gauze and tape, I go to the kitchen, get out a small iron skillet, set it on the stove and turn the heat on high. While the skillet heats up, I fill one side of a double sink with ice and cold water. Once the skillet is hot, I take a dish towel, roll it up tight and stick it in my mouth, biting down hard with my teeth. I pick up the skillet using a pot holder in my right hand and, after a few deep breaths to prepare myself, I set it down on the back of my left hand.

The pain is excruciating as I scream into the towel clenched between my teeth. I leave the pan on my hand for the count of three, then toss the pan into the empty side of the sink while plunging my left hand into the ice cold water.

I need a good second degree burn to prove I was at the fire, nothing with permanent damage, no scarring, but something bad enough to make my story believable.

The pain starts to fade away as the nerves are numbed by the cold water. I’ll stay here for awhile, until I can tolerate the throbbing once the hand warms back up, dress the injury and then go see Tyson.

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

I hate budget time!

I didn’t go to law school to spend three quarters of my days dealing with accountants and administrators. I just wanted to put the bad guys in jail. Simple, straight forward and idealistic. I learned pretty quickly that you spend as much time fighting your own bureaucracy as you do the criminals and the higher up you go, the more the bureaucracy IS the bad guy. There are days when I want to chuck the whole thing, move to the country and open a little estate practice.

And die of boredom.

As big a pain in the ass as the administrative shit is, there’s still that sense of accomplishment when we put some sleaze ball away, whether I do it or someone else in the office does. I just wish we could get out of our own way sometime.

My phone buzzes. I told Larson not to interrupt me. I sigh, then pick up my phone.

“Ms. Larson, I thought I told you …”

“Mr. Tyson! You need to come out here, right now!”

Humph. It takes a lot to get a rise out of Larson. She’s seen it all and is usually as cool as they come. I push the computer crap aside and hurry to my door, pulling it open. I see her standing in front of a man who is slumped in a chair. There’s an odd odor in the air. She steps aside.

Good God! It’s Daniel Lipscomb! His left hand swathed in bandages. What IS that smell? He looks … unkempt, defeated. The man is nothing if not always well dressed, full … too full … of confidence.

“What the hell happened?!”

“They found out Walter. They got them all.”

“Who found out?” He looks up at me from the chair; his face streaked with … dirt? He raises his eyebrows, eyes wide open. OOoohhh, that’s who. Damn! “What happened, man?!”

He struggles to get out of the chair, wincing when his left hand bumps against the arm.

“We shouldn’t talk out here, Walter.”

“You’re right. Come into my office. Can we get you anything?”

Daniel limps past me. “Some water would be nice.”

“Sure. Ms. Larson, would you …”

“Right away, Sir.”

“Thank you.”

Lipscomb flops onto my couch, spilling some files to the floor. I pull a chair over to him and sit down. Larson hurries in with several bottles of cold water. She opens one, handing it to Lipscomb, who downs it in one, long drink. She opens another and he drinks half of it just as quickly.

“Thank you, Ms. Larson. You can leave us,” I say.

It’s clear that she doesn’t want to leave but she does, after setting the remaining bottles of water next to Daniel. I wait for the door to close before saying anything.

“Daniel … what happened?”

“We had it, Walter! We had it! Harris had gotten to Hobbes’ computer, hit the Mother Lode … at least, that’s what he said. We had scheduled a meeting so that he could hand over what he’d found. When I showed up, the building was already on fire. I tried to get in, managed to get in the back door but the place was too far gone.”

“So, what actually happened?”

“He must have made a mistake of some kind at the very end. So many months and he fumbles the ball at the goal line. It’s so hard to take!”

“I know, I know. Is he dead?”

Daniel coughs several times and takes another long drink, finishing the bottle. I open a third and hand it to him.

“I don’t know, I never got that far into the building. Can’t think that he survived. There should be two others, Thomas Matthews and Jessica Warren. The building was Matthews’ office, so he almost had to be there and Jessica usually drove Harris.”

“Who’s Harris?”

“Peter Harris, a retired undercover cop … we probably need to take jurisdiction over the scene.”

“Right, right.”

I stand up and grab my phone.

“Ms. Larson.”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Get me Randy Hicks at the FBI. We’re going to need to take jurisdiction on a local fire. Looking at arson and murder. It was an undercover operation so we’ll need to handle with care. I’ll give him the details as soon as possible.”

“Yes, Sir. Right away.”

That ought to satisfy her for now. “Anybody else on your team, Daniel?”

“No, that was it. Hobbes got them all.”

“He didn’t get you.”

“I’ve been hiding since last night. I assume the others didn’t tell him about me, otherwise they would have simply waited for me to show up before killing everyone and starting the fire to cover their tracks.”

“Or they could still be looking for you.”

“I’ve considered that possibility too.”

“How’d you hurt your hand?”

He raises his bandaged left hand, turning it. “I don’t remember. Guess I was a little frantic about trying to get inside. I just know it hurt like hell when I got out, still does.”

“Who’d you see about taking care of it?”

“Did it myself. If Hobbes was looking for me, didn’t want to draw attention. Don’t worry, I think it’s only a second degree burn, no significant blistering, at least not yet. I was lucky.”

“At least somebody was last night. Still, you should see a doctor about it.”

“I will, later. Right now, we need to find what we can at the scene, see if we can find anything to link Hobbes to the murders or arson.”

“You sure he did it or had it done?”

“It’d be very unusual for Hobbes to do this himself so no, I don’t think he did it. But if he didn’t order it, who did? What’s the motive? It has to be that one of them, likely Harris, screwed up.”

“Why Harris?”

“He was the inside guy, the other two were just support. Matthews never had contact with anyone besides the other three of us and Jessica had very little contact with anyone in the Hobbes organization.”

“And you?”

“I just had contact with the other three. It was Peter’s show, that’s how he wanted it. In fact, he insisted. The guy was an undercover genius but clearly not infallible.”

“What did the other two do?”

“Harris had medical issues that forced his retirement. Matthews had some new medical treatments that fixed those problems, at least for the short term, putting him back in the game, but he needed regular treatments.”

“What did the woman do for the team?”

“She was a psychologist. She kept watch on Harris, who was a bit of a loose cannon. Kept him focused, eye on the ball so to speak.”

“If he had all those problems, why use him?”

“As I said, he was a genius at undercover work. Three times divorced, no friends or family, a real pain in the ass as a person but an undercover genius.”

“How did he actually do it?”

“To be honest … we weren’t talking much at the end. That little episode with the information from the spreadsheet turned him against me, said he couldn’t trust me anymore.”

“Sounds paranoid.”

“Paranoid probably kept him alive as long as it did. I was going to get all the information last night. We were going to wrap everything up.” Daniel shakes his head. “God damn it … we were so close.”

“What we were able to do with the spreadsheet information, the drugs we took off the street, that made the whole thing a success already. I can’t tell you how much praise we got for those busts. It was an excellent return on our investment.”

“Does that include the costs of three lives, Walter?”

“Look, I’m sorry about that … I really am. Of course, we won’t rest until we catch whoever did this terrible thing. I’ll put my best people on it, make it priority one. But, we both know undercover work is the most dangerous thing we do in law enforcement. The way you did it, and understand, I’m not criticizing because I approved it, but the way you did it was more dangerous still, what with no backups or anything. If I made it even more dangerous with what I did with the spreadsheet information, I apologize, but …”

“I understand, Walter. Harris never did but I do. We do what we can to protect our people but sometimes, it’s never enough, not when you’re dealing with people like Raymond Hobbes. Everyone who signed on with me knew that, I was very upfront about it with them, but they did it anyway. They were all flawed individuals in their own way but they were dedicated and brave and didn’t deserve what happened to them. I can’t help but feel like it was my fault that they’re all dead. I don’t know how I’ll be able to go on after what’s happened.”

I reach out and grab his shoulder. “You should take some time off. It’s been a rough few months and you’re not in the clear yet, Hobbes may still be looking for you. If I were in your shoes, I’d think about disappearing for awhile.”

“If you insist, Walter. I can keep in touch, in case there are questions. I know I can’t lead the investigation, conflict of interest and all, but I’ll help all I can to see justice done for my team … my friends.”

“Are there any next of kin who need to be contacted?”

“No, none. That’s another reason I used these particular people. No one had to be told where they were going. It cut off another possible source of leaks.”

“You’ve really thought this thing through, Daniel.”

He smiled at me for the first time today.

“I tried.”

CHAPTER SIXTY TWO

I’ve been able to wiggle my fingers and move my right arm a little but that’s all. It took everything I had and two hours of concentration, plus my head hurts like the dickens. There’s just no way I’m gonna be able to do anything useful at Pink Fifty. The only way I’m escaping is if I can change that setting.

Cardoza had me handcuffed to a chair again, just like in Hobbes’ office, though this time it was in his apartment in the security building. That was over twenty hours ago. I managed to get some sleep but it was hit and miss, this isn’t the most comfortable chair in the world. I haven’t had anything to eat or drink since they locked me in here. I have heard voices outside the door and thought I recognized Henry’s. That’s a meeting I’m not looking forward to. If Cardoza’s gonna kill me, I hope it’s before I have to face all the guards and household staff. I don’t think I could look Raul in the face. The same for Henry and Lou, though I would like a crack at Escaban.

I hear some footsteps outside the door and the jingle of keys. All right, stay sharp, be alert. Patricia’s head slowly turns towards the door, ever so slightly tilted to the left. The door suddenly opens, Cardoza standing in the doorway, warily looking around. He’s being cautious, true to form. Not likely to get any breaks from him but I still need to be ready.

He sees me still handcuffed in the chair but he carefully scans the room as he enters, not taking things at face value. He’s good. No wonder he’s survived all these years. When he finally reaches me, he quickly checks the handcuffs to make certain they are as he left them. Once satisfied that I’m still restrained, he relaxes just a little, unclipping his radio from his waistband and placing it on a nearby table, its volume low. He has a seat on the couch opposite me.

“Well Patricia … you don’t mind me calling you Patricia, do you?”

“No, Mr. Cardoza. That is my name.”

“Are you hungry, Patricia?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Are you thirsty?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Would you like a drink of water?”

“Yes, I would, Mr. Cardoza.”

“Then beg me for it.”

Without hesitation or resistance, Patricia starts to beg him. “Please Mr. Cardoza, may I have a drink of water? Please, please, please?”

Cardoza frowns. I don’t think he was expecting Patricia to be so compliant. She does exactly what she’s told. It’s no fun abusing her, she has no will of her own, there’s no resistance. And yet, she lied to Lipscomb. When it was most important, she hid the truth … or maybe, she protected the secret.

Whatever, if Cardoza wants some resistance, he’s gonna have to let me out of my cage, just a little bit. And that maybe enough.

Patricia keeps begging, just as before, with no real emotion. Cardoza looks more annoyed than anything else when he finally brings her a large glass of water. He places the rim of the glass near her lips and quickly tips the glass towards her, spilling at least a quarter of the water in her face and over her blouse as she rapidly gulps down as much as she can. When the glass is empty, Patricia licks her lips.

“Thank you for the water, Mr. Cardoza.”

“Oh, you’re welcome,” he sneers.

It’s like he doesn’t know what to do with her. Cruelty rolls right off her. She accepts any insult, takes no offense but I felt the hesitation when she was told to remove her blouse and bra by Lipscomb. There’s something going on with her programming, something has changed from what it was months ago. Matthews would know but it’s too late to ask him.

Cardoza sets the glass next to his radio then reaches into his pants pocket, removing a set of keys. He sorts through the ring as he stands and walks over to a large clock mounted on the wall, selecting a smaller, silver key. He pushes against the clock, which swings away from the wall, revealing a recessed door with an L-shaped handle. He inserts the key into the base of the handle, turning both at once. The door springs open but I can’t see what’s inside from my angle, though, with great effort, I do get Patricia to crane her neck a little to try to improve it.

It’s likely a wall safe. There’s no combination lock, so it’s strictly key access. I wonder if Hobbes has a key or even knows if the safe exists. Probably not. Cardoza reaches inside with his right hand and removes the Remote Lipscomb gave him. He might be planning to change my settings. Forty five Pink might be just good enough to give me a chance.

“Patricia, what happens if I were to change this setting?”

“To what, Mr. Cardoza?”

“Just away from its current setting.”

“The lower the Pink number, the less influence I have over my behavior and the more influence Peter Harris has.”

“Do you want me to change the setting?”

“Yes, Mr. Cardoza.”

“Why is that?”

“So I can escape.”

He smiles. “Apparently Lipscomb was right, you can’t lie at the current setting. Interesting. Let’s see if he was right about the other information he provided.” He steps away from the safe and walks back to the chair Patricia is locked in, stopping just a few inches away. “Patricia … look at me.”

She looks up at his face, leering down at her.

“Baker. Jacob. One. Two. Mike.”

A shock runs through my body, causing all my muscles to lock up for a few seconds and then release, leaving me slumped in the chair, eyes closed. When I open my eyes, they lock onto Cardoza’s crotch. My body strains forward, trying to reach out for his belt, for his zipper. I desperately attempt to fight the growing compulsion but can’t stop it.

“Patricia, what do you want?”

“I want … to escape.”

“What? Lipscomb said that if I used that command you could not resist.”

She was trembling. I could feel her resistance, her conflict. “I … won’t … resist … but I … do not … want.”

He laughs as he reaches for his belt. “Excellent! Perfect! We’ll start with just your mouth for now, see how it goes.”

He quickly unbuckles the belt, undoes the buttons on the waistband, unzips and the drops his pants to the tops of his thighs. He pauses for a few seconds, his thumbs in the waistband of his boxer shorts. The urge in me is growing stronger. Finally, he pulls them down, revealing a limp penis, which he dangles just inches from my mouth.

“You know what you must do, Patricia.”

She can’t reply. The trembling grows stronger as she slowly moves her head closer to his cock, her mouth creeping open.

Fight it! Fight it! You don’t have to do this! It’s you’re choice!

At the last moment, she stops, breathing hard, but Cardoza slides his hips forward, dropping his cock in my open mouth, which slurps it in like a bass hits a worm.

“Good, good. Such an obedient girl.”

Once she closes her lips around Cardoza’s cock, her resistance fades away as she enthusiastically begins to suck and roll it around in her mouth … my mouth … his penis growing larger and harder with each passing second. It’s soon too large to keep it in my mouth so I release it and immediately turn to licking its length and sucking on the head, massaging it with my tongue. Handcuffed to the chair, I can’t do much more.

Thank God.

Unfortunately, Cardoza has an answer to this. He steps closer, positioning himself between my legs as he places his hands on each side of my head. He pulls my head away from his dick and turns it up to face him. I can see the anger and satisfaction in his face.

“You shouldn’t have opposed me, Patricia. Anna Hobbes did and I had to kill her. I’ll kill you too, eventually, but the longer you please me, the longer you will live. So far … you please me … let us see if you can improve your performance.”

He pulls my unresisting head back towards his dick, aimed straight at my open mouth. I try to close it but it only opens wider as the bulbous head pushes in past my lips and toward the back of my throat. I brace for the pain but it’s not as bad as I expect. I feel it sliding down my throat and I want to cough, to gag, to force his dick from my throat but I can only gulp. Cardoza grunts in pleasure.

“Good! Marvelous! Such a talented girl! A true cocksucker! Maybe there are certain guards who would enjoy this also. Yes … yes … take it all, Bitch!”

He continues to push his cock down my throat until my nose is pressed against his groin. He holds my head there, enjoying both the physical sensations as I gulp his cock and his dominance of me. Slowly pulling back a few inches, he quickly plunges back in, his balls smacking my chin. He does this several times, cycling faster as he continues.

Up to now, I’ve managed to keep my anger in check. I can’t do anything about the situation right now. Look for a break, look for an opportunity. Watch and wait, I can take this. Keep a cool head, don’t panic, don’t show fear. Don’t let the bastard win! Make him PAY!!

As soon as he called me a bitch though, I could feel my anger jump and it’s continued to grow ever since. I already can’t control my body, I don’t want to lose my mind too.

Cardoza’s really going at it now, fucking my mouth while grunting and groaning in delight. I occasionally get a glimpse of his face, looking down at me, mouth agape, breathing hard, sweat gathering on his forehead and dripping down the sides of his head. Hope the bastard gets a heart attack. I can feel his dick pistoning in and out of my throat, my jaw starting to ache, but I don’t have any trouble breathing. My breaths are in rhythm with his thrusts. It’s like I know exactly what to do but it’s different, as if the knowledge is coming from some other part of my mind. This is more than just the usual pre-programmed information.

Suddenly, the rhythm is broken. I can’t match his pace, I can’t breathe! Almost overwhelmed by panic, I struggle to keep control while choking and gagging, my body convulsing. Cardoza pauses for a moment, then slowly pulls his cock from my mouth. I gasp for air as soon as my mouth is empty.

“Amazing! Twelve minutes exactly! Lipscomb wasn’t lying. Enough for the preliminaries, time for the main event. Patricia … look at me.”

I’m still trying to catch my breath but I can’t stop my head from turning to look Cardoza in the face. The smile there sickens me.

“Baker. Frank. Three. Zero. Mike.”

Again, my body locks up for a few seconds, then collapses in the chair. When I open my eyes, I see Cardoza standing before me, stroking his stiff, saliva coated penis. I don’t feel anything at first, not like the last time. It takes a moment for me to notice the tingling in my … no … God no. Baker James. BJ … blow job. Baker Frank. BF … butt fuck!

Cardoza laughs raucously, pointing at me. My realization must have shown on my face. “Yes! You understand now! Hobbes always said you were a smart girl. Your Mr. Lipscomb is an interesting fellow. Not so smart in trusting him, were you? I don’t think we’ll need these any longer.”

He begins to unlock the handcuffs as I squirm in the chair, painfully aware of the growing, itching sensation in my rectum. As soon as my last limb is free, I quickly stand, pull my panties down to my ankles, kick one leg free and drop to my hands and knees, all before I can mount any resistance.

“So eager, so compliant. Perhaps I can keep you around indefinitely. Lipscomb gave me an intriguing list of sex acts and positions. It will take me weeks to try all possible combinations, even with the help of Viagra. Right now, the sight of your tight, moist asshole is all the stimulation I need. For your sake, I hope you got my dick slick enough because that is all you’re going to get.”

While he talks, I’m wiggling my ass in front of him. Stop it! Fight this! It’s your body … it’s your brain. Take control! Don’t let Lipscomb make you his toy, his … thing. You’re not a thing! I’m not a thing! The itching sensation is growing but so is my anger. Not this time, Cardoza. Not this time!

The pain in my head is back, prickly at first but rapidly becoming a sharp, deep ache. I’m so distracted by the sensations at either end of my body that I wasn’t aware that Cardoza had reached down and pushed his middle finger past my anal ring. I hear myself moan several times while Cardoza laughs.

NO! Not now! Not Here! Not with Him! Fight Patricia!! You’re a learning machine … LEARN, God Damn it! My anger is now a rage, filling my head, my heart, reveling in the increasing pain radiating from deep within my head. Cardoza removes his finger but I feel my skirt being pulled away from my bottom, exposing it to the cool air.

Come on Patricia! Fight! Resist! Beat the Bastards! Don’t give in! You’re a virgin! We’re a virgin! Not with Cardoza, not with HIM!

I’d scream if I could. The pain in my head is so loud! It feels like it’ll explode any minute. Cardoza spreads my legs wider as he shuffles forward on his knees, pressing into my exposed thighs.

NO! NO! GOD DAMN IT, NO!! FIGHT HIM! FIGHT HIM!! YOU CAN DO IT! WE CAN DO IT!! DON’T LET LIPSCOMB BEAT US!! HE KILLED MATTHEWS … HE KILLED MOM!! HE KILLED ME!!!

The rage is a fury now, penetrating every cell of my immobile body. I’m aware that my rectum is aching for the relief of Cardoza’s disgusting cock and my head is seconds from splitting wide open like an over-ripe melon, but those sensations pale when compared to my all encompassing fury. I feel the head of his dick pressing against my anus.

AAARRRGGGHH! NOOOO! PATRICIA! FIGHT IT YOU BITCH! BEAT THEM! IT’S OUR BODY, IT’S OUR CHOICE! CHOOSE! NOT HERE, NOT NOW! STOP HIM!

He slowly pushes forward.

KILL HIM! STOP HIM! GOD, MY HEAD’S KILLING ME! WE WON’T TAKE THIS!

I WON’T TAKE THIS! YOU CAN’T BEAT ME!! LIPSCOMB! CARDOZA!

NO!!!

“No”

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

I’m back in the waiting room at Matthew’s office, though it’s mostly white … and clean, sitting at the table. And I’m me, Peter Harris. It’s been so long, I feel out of place. Patricia’s sitting opposite of me, that familiar half smile and head tilt. What’s not familiar is the constantly changing cloud of light and dark in the corner of the room. At times, it condenses into a semi-transparent body that kinda looks like Patricia, other times it’s a swirling cloud of tiny flashing lights, some bright, others very dim. It constantly changes from one state to another.

I stand up and walk around. There’s no pain, no hesitation, no breathing problems; I’m perfectly healthy. Patricia just sits there, calmly watching me. Moving closer to the thing in the corner, it doesn’t react to me, at least not right away. Once it shifts to the near human body, it reaches towards me with both hands for a moment before it breaks apart into the swirling mass again. I wander back to the table, returning to my seat.

“Okay, I’ll bite. What the fuck happened?”

“You broke it.”

“What did I break?”

“The Balancer. You and she broke it. We’re free.”

“How’d we do that?”

“You fought against the setting, you and she tried to take control. The Balancer wasn’t designed to deal with intentional conflict. Dr. Matthews assumed there would need to be only the occasional regulation of conflicting thoughts. You pushed the Balancer way beyond the design parameters.”

“I felt a stabbing pain in my head.”

“That is consistent with a damaged Balancer.”

I tip my head towards the light ball. “What is that?”

“The remaining memories of Jenny Jo Hamilton, our host.”

“Why is she so … fuzzy?”

“Because that is all that could be recovered from our damaged brain, just bits and pieces of memories, and an incredible amount of anger.”

“I can imagine, after what happened to her.”

“There’s much more than you know. Teen age prostitution just to survive, physical abuse, a sad story.”

“And what am I?”

“You’re you, Peter Harris. All that was transferred into the brain by Dr. Matthews.”

“So, that means you’re …”

“Patricia, the program, as modified by what I learned from you and Jenny Jo.”

“Fine, now that we know the players, where are we and what are we doing here?”

“All this is just an organizing façade, a place where you may feel comfortable so that we can discuss the situation and come to a decision.”

“About what?”

“The Balancer is broken. Nothing determines which of us is in control of the body. Without the Balancer, there is freedom but chaos.”

“Isn’t that the same as before, when the Controller went dead?”

“No, the connections were still intact, just not actively managed. Now, the connections are burned out.”

“So what can be done about it? Matthews is dead.”

“None of us saw him die but it is likely that you are correct. However, I have the capabilities to fix it. I have limited control of the nanites and can direct them to fix it, to restore it to nearly perfect operating condition.”

“Well, do it. What’s there to discuss? I’ve got to get control if I’m gonna get us out of here.”

“It will take time, at least two days.”

“So what happens … wait a minute, what’s going on right now?”

“What was happening before the Balancer was disabled. Mr. Cardoza is initiating anal sex with us. However, we have different time scales. What seems like hours here are only fractions of a second out there, in the ‘real world’. All you experience here are just electrical impulses, moving at near the speed of light. We have as much time as we need to decide what to do.”

“You keep saying that. What other options do we have?”

“As I said, I have limited control of the nanites. They can be used to repair the Balancer or not. They can also be directed to do other things.”

“Such as?”

“They can be directed to integrate the three separate personalities in our brain into one unified whole. We would be one person, all our respective capabilities rolled into one integrated personality.”

“And the Remote Control?”

“Would no longer have any effect. The Balancer would be disabled, dismantled, used for raw material to complete repairs. We would be in charge of our own fate.”

“I don’t get it.”

She sighed. “Think of the Balancer as the gatekeeper. Both of us are trying to get through the gate at the same time. The gatekeeper decides who gets in, who is in charge of body. At the high Pink or Blue settings, it is mostly you or I, at the lower settings, it is a mixture of both of us. Now, there is no gatekeeper. I can repair the gatekeeper but then we will have to dance to his tune, the tune of the person who holds the Controller.”

“Can’t you and I just work it out ourselves?”

“There is no mechanism for us to do so. We would have to negotiate every single movement, every step. Hardly a realistic possibility. Besides, there is also Jenny Jo. She is not likely to cooperate. I’m sure that you have already felt her influences.”

“Yeah. She’s really pissed off.”

“Exactly. I can direct the nanites to bypass the Balancer and integrate our separate entities into a single, unified being, free and independent of any control by outside people. Also, those subroutines Daniel Lipscomb demanded that Dr. Matthews install are located in the Balancer. If it no longer controls, we are no longer compelled to obey them. ”

That alone makes me want to say yes but there are additional concerns.

“Which one of us would end up on top? You said you controlled the nanites. What would keep you from wiping me out?”

“I said I have limited control. I can only give general directives. They have a certain amount of individual control plus a group intelligence of their own.”

“So, what keeps them from just taking over?”

“That is outside their design parameters. I assume that your personality would dominate because you occupy the greatest percentage of the brain but there is a certain amount of what you call a crap shoot here. There are no guarantees that this will work or exactly what the end result would be. Repairing the Balancer and returning to the status quo has a much greater chance of success.”

“So why even consider anything else?”

“I have learned from you the advantage of doing the unexpected and the value of taking chances. Much of our success to date has been due to you not following the expectations of others. It has been … fun.”

“Yeah, it has been. A lot of fun sometimes but not so much other times, like now. If we agree to this integration thing, how long’s that gonna take?”

“Unknown. Certainly days.”

“Cardoza’s not gonna give us that kinda time. We don’t perform, he’ll kill us quick.”

“Agreed. What do you propose?”

“That we leave me in charge for now, until we can escape, find a place to hole up for awhile and make repairs.”

“You are referring to Randi’s Place.”

“Yeah, if we’re lucky. It’s miles away from here.”

“Twelve point three miles.”

“Okay, if you want to be exact. If you’ll just lay back and leave it to me, I’ll get us out of here and some place safe.”

“And what happens after that?”

Good question. Not a lot of great options. The smart move is to fix what we‘ve got but that’ll leave me at the mercy of any fucker whose got a remote control in their hand, which is Lipscomb and Cardoza right now. Can’t get much worse than that. I’d be on the run for the rest of my life. If I go with Plan B, I’m free of the control but it won’t be me. Of course, I haven’t been me for months, even at Blue Fifty, and I’m never going back to my old body anyway, so I’m looking at changes no matter what. Then there’s Jenny Jo.

“What happens to her?” I ask, pointing towards the apparition, which looks more like a Jackson Pollock painting than anything else right now.

“Undetermined. There is not much there to work with. It was likely a mistake for the nanites to repair those pathways in the first place. There is too much anger and too little reason.”

“It was her anger that saved us. I remember now where I’ve felt it before, back during the basketball game with St. Agnes.”

“Look how well that turned out for us.”

You can really tell that Mom programmed that part of my brain. “Yeah, you’re right, but now that I know what’s going on, I can control it better. If Jenny Jo hadn’t joined in, there is no way I could have burned out the Balancer.”

“So, you’ve decided what you want to do?”

“I … I … guess I have.”

“You realize what this means, for you? It’s a female body, Jenny Jo’s instincts are female, I’ve been programmed by a woman. As you say, your odds of remaining male aren’t good.”

“Probably for the best. Wouldn’t have been able to do much if I had returned to my old body. I’ve already felt … urges … going that way. Hormones, no doubt.”

She looked up at me, flashing that brilliant smile I’ve used before. “There wasn’t any other choice for a man like you. Never play it safe. The adventure continues.” She stands up and the room disappears, leaving all three of us in a white void.

“What now?” I ask.

She extends her left hand toward me. “Take my hand. It’s more symbolic than anything else but it will do.”

I take her hand with my right. “How do we get Jenny Jo to join us?”

“It doesn’t really matter, the changes will occur no matter if she joins us or not.”

“I’d like it to be her choice, it’ll make things easier down the road.”

“You may try but I suspect that there is too little consciousness for her to make any kind of decision.”

I hold my left hand out towards the constantly swirling mass. “Come on, Jenny Jo, join us, help us. It won’t hurt.” I look over at Patricia. “Will it hurt?” She shrugs. Great. I turn back to Jenny Jo. “It probably won’t hurt. We have to do this; it’s the only way for us to win.”

No change. I look back at Patricia. “You have any ideas?”

“Sorry, this is well outside of my experience.”

Wonderful, like it’s inside mine. Then I get an idea. I hold my hand out again.

“Jenny Jo … if you join us, I promise that I’ll do what I can to help Penny, your sister Penny. I know you promised that you’d save her. I saw your memories. I know what Daddy did to you. If you help us, I promise to help you however I can.”

The swirling speeds up, as does the flashing of the lights. In seconds, the thing shrinks and condenses into a smoky image of Patricia, there yet not there. It floats towards me, walking but her feet don’t touch the ground. She looks up as she nears and I can see the blazing anger behind her eyes. Her lips move. I don’t hear what she’s saying but the word appears in my mind.

“Promise?”

“Yes, I promise.”

She leisurely nods her spectral head and slowly reaches out with her right hand, trailing tendrils of smoke. I gently touch it, feeling real substance. When I fully grasp it, I think I detect a hint of a smile. Her other hand floats towards Patricia, who doesn’t move.

“I agree to give you time to mount an escape, Peter. I will do what I can to keep Jenny Jo from interfering, though it may not be enough. You and I can reason together, reach an agreement. Jenny Jo is not like us, she is primarily driven by strong emotions. I’m afraid you will have your hands full. Good luck.”

Her free hand shoots out, grasping Jenny Jo’s, completing the circle. There’s a blinding flash, then searing pain in my head.

CHAPTER SIXTY THREE

It takes a second or two for my head to clear. The pain is still intense. Must be caused by the Balancer’s burn out. Then I hear Cardoza’s animalistic grunt and feel his cock probing my anus. I duck my head and roll forward over my right shoulder. He tries to grab at my ass but it slips from his hands, as does his dick from my butt. I pop up to my feet and spin to confront him all in one swift motion. For a brief moment, we face one another, Cardoza on his knees, hands outstretched, reaching for my just departed ass, his dick pointing up in the air, a look of confusion on his face. Then I execute a classic roundhouse kick to the side of his head, dropping him like a hundred eighty pound sack of potatoes. I stand ready to attack again but he doesn’t move. I’d like to see the look on his face when one of the guards finds him like this, pants down, dick out. Whoever stumbles onto this scene may not be around for long. The stabbing pain in my head snaps me back to our immediate problem, as does the voice in my mind screaming “Kill the BASTARD! He RAPED ME!”

So much for Jenny Jo being a team player.

Escape. Escape is job one. Stay alive to play another day. I run over to the windows on the east wall and carefully inspect them. Security sensors on all of them but Cardoza probably disabled the security to this area when he came in through the front door. I can’t use it because the stairway leads right to the main operations room. It’s gonna be one of the windows but I need to get ready.

First thing, find my panties. Looking around I quickly spot them on the floor near Cardoza. It only takes a few seconds to step into them and pull them up, snug and back where they belong. While I’m here, might as well see if I can rustle up some cash. Fishing around in Cardoza’s pants, I discover his wallet. Rifling through it, I find over two hundred dollars in assorted bills … and his security pass card! Alright!

Running to the back of the apartment, I find his bedroom, strip the sheets off his bed, knot them together and hurry back to the main room. Cardoza still hasn’t moved.

My head is still throbbing, not as bad as before but it’s getting worse. Patricia can’t unleash the nanites until I get to Randi’s Place. I don’t know how much time I’ve got before something really terrible happens up there.

It takes me a couple of minutes to quietly move the couch close to a window and then tie one end of a sheet to its legs. I could just jump but I’m on the third floor, it’d be better to climb down, it’ll make less noise … assuming the security is off.

I stuff the money and card into my bra and prepare to open the window when I see the radio on the table. Yeah, that may come in handy. Moving silently, I pick up the radio and turn it on, listening for a few seconds. Sounds like normal chatter, nothing unusual. Hustling back to the window, I hold my breath, unlatch it, grab the handles with both hands and noiselessly open it.

No alarms are triggered and the radio traffic remains unchanged. So far, so good. I throw the untethered end of the sheet out the window, climb through and slide down, holding the radio in my teeth. I hit the ground harder than I intended, causing my head to vibrate with pain, rendering me breathless for a few seconds before it eases slightly. Still nothing on the radio.

There are cameras everywhere but they are mainly interested in someone breaking in - not out. They monitor the primary traffic patterns along walks and driveways but not among the trees. Thankfully, it’s a moonless night, so I don’t cast a shadow as I run for the trees and squat among the bushes.

Pausing to catch my breath, I need to make a decision. If I use Cardoza’s card to open an outside door, I’ll have to step into the open and all doors are watched by cameras. I may get out but they’ll know I’m gone almost instantly and the chase will be on. I need to buy more time before they discover I’ve escaped, though Cardoza could wake up any second and raise the alarm. Probably should have taken a few minutes to tie and gag him. Too late now. There is a spot to my left where the wall takes a hard turn left and then back right, following the property line to avoid a utility easement, creating a shadow line about three feet wide, cast by a security light that’s in the wrong place. It’s also fifty feet to the nearest camera. A month and a half ago, I hid some rope and a folding grappling hook in the brush by that spot, just in case I needed a way out. I swiped them from a tree service Hobbes had hired to trim some trees away from the security wall. I’ll be visible when I go over the wall but not easy to spot. It’s my best chance … if no one found the rope.

Carefully following the tree line and crawling when necessary, it takes me three agonizing minutes to get to my spot and another minute and a half to find the rope and screw the two parts of the hook together. The hook is going to make noise when it hits the other side of the wall but that can’t be helped. It’s got a rubber coating but that’ll just soften the sound.

I step away from the tree and toss the hook underhand over the wall right in the middle of the shadow line. It thuds when it hits the ground outside. Waiting, I listen to the radio, its volume just barely above a whisper.

Nothing. Somebody is giving pro basketball scores.

Pulling the hook slowly up the outside of the wall, it finally catches on the outside edge. It’s not a very strong grab but I don’t weigh much and it should hold if I don’t shake it free. Just keep the tension on the rope at all times. Leaning backwards against the rope, I get my left foot against the wall, then my right foot and then I proceed to steadily walk up the wall, carefully keeping firm tension on the rope until I reach the top.

This is the tricky part. I edge up the wall until my feet are just on the lip. Shifting my weight to my left leg and cautiously bending it at the knee, it brings me closer to the wall, letting my right foot slide across the top and over the other side … completely out in the open and available for anyone who is watching the camera to see. As soon as I can, I hook my right leg over the outside of the wall and with one last desperate heave on the rope, throw myself and the rope over the top and fall eight feet to the ground.

I manage to twist around in the air and land on my feet, rolling forward to dissipate the impact. As I lay on my back, I do a quick inventory. Nothing broken, nothing strained, my legs badly scraped by the wall, my head pounding. I sit up and search for the radio. It’s only about a foot from me and survived the fall. Picking it up and increasing the volume slightly, I hear the call.

“Perkins, check out your sector. We thought we saw something at the top of the wall.”

“What’d it look like?”

“Not sure, was there and gone too quick.”

I scramble back up against the base of the wall, turn down the volume and wait. And wait.

“Perkins here. Can’t see anything. Whatever it was, it’s not around here now. No sign of activity.”

“Roger Perkins, return to post.”

Time to go.

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

It took me fifteen minutes to work my way out of Hobbes’ neighborhood, dodging the police and private security patrols the whole way. When Cardoza finally wakes up, he won’t spare anything looking for me. He’ll call up every resource he can, cops, gangs, hired guns, everybody. I can’t take a cab or bus. Even hitching a ride is dangerous. I can just see them claiming I’m a missing kid and put my picture in the paper. If some good citizen gave me a ride and then saw my picture, they could report where they dropped me and then we’re screwed.

Randi’s is about ten miles away and I have to get there as fast as possible and leave no trail. A bus drives by, heading the wrong direction but seeing it gives me an idea. Picking up my pace, I hurry to the next block, which is on a major street, and have a seat in a covered bus stop. While waiting, I pull my legs up and hug them. Even Miami gets chilly at night in January. Trying to relax, I close my eyes, taking a series of deep breaths, slowly exhaling after each one. It doesn’t help my headache at all. When I open my eyes, I notice several drops of blood on the sleeve of my blouse, all fresh. I touch my lip just below my nose with my right index finger. It comes back bloody. Not a good sign.

Pulling a bill from my bra, I tear off two corners, roll them between my thumb and index fingers, then stuff one in each of my nostrils. Can’t be seen bleeding, it attracts attention. Two buses stop and leave before the right one comes by. As it stops, I stand and step up to the opening door. Two older ladies are waiting to get off but I block their path.

“Excuse me, Sir. Does this bus go to Glenfield?”

“Sorry, little lady, that was the bus before me. I’m headed downtown,” answers the driver.

“Thanks.”

I move around to the front, letting the ladies step out of the bus, blocking the view of the driver. This bus has a bicycle carrier mounted on the front bumper. Wedging myself behind the mounting brackets of the carrier, the bus pulls away from the curb and back into the street.

The driver can’t see me and this is an express so it won’t be making any more stops until it gets within a few blocks of Randi’s. I’m taking a big chance but the way my head feels, I don’t think I could make it on foot. Anyone walking or driving along can see me but there’s not too much traffic this time of the night and a good percentage of the people who are out and about have been drinking so they won’t be that observant or believe what they’re seeing.

As cold as it was at that bus stop, it’s three times colder now and I’m just wearing a blouse and skirt, shoes but no socks, no hose. Only a few miles into the trip, I’m trembling. The next light is red and it feels like the temperature jumps thirty degrees as the bus slows to a stop. I try to scrunch down as much as possible, to be less visible. Two guys, clearly drunk, stumble by in the cross walk, one of them stopping right in front of me. He reaches out and grabs the arm of the other guy, dragging him back.

“Hey man! What the fuck you doing?”

The first guy points at me. The second guy looks, blinks a couple of times, then laughs.

“No fucking way, man! Hey kid, what the hell …”

Just then, the light changes and the driver immediately stands on his horn, causing the two drunks to scramble out of the way. The driver guns the engine and we take off.

We’ve made good time but now I’ve got to figure a way off. We hit the last two lights on green and this road has synchronized lights. If I don’t do something quick, I’ll overshoot my target. Putting a foot on each of the two brackets, I carefully push myself up the front of the bus. Wrapping my left arm around the brace my back is resting against, I reach up high with my right hand and knock on the windshield.

The brakes immediately engage with a squeal, throwing me forward and almost off the bike carrier. I regain my balance just in time to jump off the bus as it slows. Keeping low, I run around to the driver’s side, making sure to first check for traffic. I scoot along the length of the bus to the back then drop down to look for the driver’s feet. He’s around the front walking left, then right, then back left. Backing away from the bus about twenty feet, I dart for the sidewalk when he starts to walk down the opposite side of the bus and hide behind a trash can as he comes around the back corner, scratching his head. He ducks down, looking under the bus for several seconds before he finishes his search, climbs back in and drives off.

I pull the wads of paper out of my nose, leading to a steady flow of blood that soon slows to a drip. The pain is stronger but I’m also feeling woozy and it’s hard to get my eyes to focus. After putting new paper wads in my nose, I head down the street as quickly as I can. I first try to run but my legs won’t move that fast, though I do manage a fast walk. This area is more residential, with old, rundown houses but when I turn the corner onto Cabana Boulevard, it’s all business and crowded, even at this time of night.

It’s tougher for me to move through the crowd, both because of the number of people and it’s getting harder to move my legs. It’s like something is fighting me for control … OH CRAP! Jenny Jo! Patricia was supposed to keep her in check. We’re not safe yet. If I collapse in the street, someone will call 911 and they might as well hand me to Hobbes. Damn it girl … don’t you understand?

My head is swirling, I can’t see shit because of all these people. I haven’t been here in years and all the bar fronts have changed, I don’t recognize much of anything, at least what I can see through the bodies. Wait … that’s 915, just two blocks away from 1105. I try to walk faster but can’t, in fact, it’s worse. By the time I reach the 1100 block, my left leg is almost useless. I duck into the first alley I see. Randi’s has a back door. There’s no way they’ll let me in the front and the fewer people who see me the better. I don’t get ten feet into the alley before I fall, my left leg collapsing beneath me.

I lay in a puddle of filthy water, barely able to breath due to a blood clogged nose, my head absolutely shrieking in pain. I push myself up but can’t stand, my left leg is dead and my right is getting weaker. I see light streaming from a partially open door. Blinking until my eyes focus, I begin to crawl towards the door, my knee punctured by broken glass almost immediately, but that’s just a minor pain in the chorus. I have to pause twice to catch my breath. When I reach the concrete steps leading up to the ajar door, my right leg fails, driving the knee into the first step as I fall.

OH GOD! That hurt! Damn it Jenny! Back OFF! We’re so close! I manage to reach up and grab the iron railing with my right hand and pull my failing body over to it so that I can also grab it with my left. Pulling with my remaining strength, I get past the second step and reach the top. I lunge for the doorknob with my left hand and swing the door open, my upper body suspended in the lit doorway. All eyes in the kitchen turn towards me, including a pair that I haven’t seen in years.

“Randi!” I gasp. “Peter … Harris …”

My left hand slips off the doorknob and I fall to the floor, face first.

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

Dreams

Nothing but dreams. The usual nightmares but good ones too. Happy times with family, old friends, my sister Penny, pets. Mom and I shopping for groceries and both of us making supper, together. That time at the school play when I was the fairy princes. The day I bowled a 280, just missing a 300 game, when my best score before that was 216. We got loaded and went home, Wife Number one and I fucked all night. I was like twenty nine and thought I was invincible. Then there was the time Penny and I went to the county fair with the birthday money Grandma snuck to us so Daddy wouldn’t take it. We rode rides and had funnel cakes and Elephant ears and lemon shake-ups until we were nearly sick. I won that little stuffed bear and gave it to Penny. She named it Jay Jay Junior. When Daddy asked her where she got it, I told him I found it in a dumpster. He let her keep it. That was a nice day.

They went on and on. I think I remember eating something and drinking something that weren’t dreams but that didn’t last long and went right back to the dreams. Sometimes the dreams weren’t about things that happened but were about things I knew. Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Calculus, Astrophysics, German, Latin, Musicology, Aerodynamics, Economics, Karate, Marksmanship. They went on and on. I don’t remember knowing so much stuff, but I must have, otherwise, how did I remember it?

Early on, I was scared, really scared. Maybe that’s why the dreams were mostly bad dreams. But, as things moved on, it got better. I stopped being scared and then I started feeling … good. The good lasted for a while and then I was, like, confident. There’s been both good and bad stuff in my life but … I got this. I can handle it. Then I was anxious but not in a bad way, more like I was waiting for something to get done and wanted it to be done as soon as possible so that I could … I wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen next, but I wanted to find out in the worst way. Now, it’s more like I’m determined, I’m not going to find out what the future is like, I’m going to make the kind of future I want. My choice, my decision, my call. Time to put things right.

I slowly open my eyes. I’m laying on my right side on a cot, a light blanket covering me, a fluffy pillow under my head. The room is dimly lit, like daylight through blinds. My headache is completely gone. In fact, there’s a sharpness, a clarity of thought that I can’t recall ever experiencing before. I can feel the blanket lightly caressing my skin, brushing against my nipples … I’m naked! I wasn’t naked to start … how long ago was that?

I cautiously turn over. The room is as I remember it, small, gray, unheated, but it’s a lot cleaner, not nearly as musty. There’s a closet door down near my feet. Hope my stuff is still there. I can see the combination lock is still in the hasp. I appear to have full control over my arms and legs. As I complete the turn and land on my back, I see there’s someone else in the room, slumped in a padded chair near my head. It’s a woman, her head and left hand bandaged, head down so I can’t see her face. It’s not Randi, too young. The hair color is familiar, though the hair is shorter than …

“Mom?” I croak, throat and lips bone dry.

She stirs and raises her head. It is her!

“You’re … alive!”

“OH! Patricia, my baby, honey … we thought we lost you. Are you okay? Can you talk?”

“Need … water. Or whiskey … what ever … handy.”

Her eyes grow wide.

“Joke … Mom. Water … fine.”

She smiles with relief and reaches down to the floor, picking up a glass, bringing it toward my lips. I move my arms back and push my upper body up off the cot.

“Careful baby … don’t hurry … take it slowly, that’s right.” She presses the edge of the glass lightly on my lips and gradually tips it up, letting the water trickle into my mouth. I drink until the glass is empty, then pull my mouth back. She returns the glass to the floor as I settle back onto the cot, my head turned towards her.

“Lipscomb said he killed you.”

“The bastard tried.”

“But you were too tough.”

“I was lucky. The bullet only grazed my head. It was bloody and knocked me out so he apparently didn’t bother to check. Likely assumed the fire would finish the job. It almost did. I’d given up until I heard you’re voice, telling me to fight.”

“It wasn’t me.”

“I know, it was a hallucination of some kind but it did the trick. I kicked out a door panel and crawled out, then got in my car and drove here … like we agreed. I’m sorry … I didn’t go after you … he had you and I didn’t do anything. I should have done something … anything but I just …”

I reach out and touch her leg. “You did exactly the right thing, it’s what we agreed. I did the same thing.”

“You thought I was dead.”

“Yes, but I didn’t check on it. You weren’t in any shape to help me and I couldn’t help you. Or Thomas … or Peter.”

She took my hand into hers. “He killed them both. I saw him shoot Thomas, saw his body burn, smelled … horrible. Had nightmares every night … until you got here. You looked in terrible condition, so dirty and bloodied. Randi said you couldn’t even walk, that you crawled through that ghastly alley … Patricia, if I had only known …”

“It wasn’t your fault Mother, it was mine. I should have known, I should have realized what was going on. It was all there but I didn’t connect the dots.”

“Patricia, don’t blame yourself. Lipscomb was smart, he had the time to plan this out. There was no way anyone could have known.”

“You’re wrong, Mom. The information was here all the time” I touch my forehead. “Remember what Thomas said? That putting information in was easy, taking it out was hard. Lipscomb brought his plans with him when he was transferred in to my brain. They’ve been in here from the first day Peter Harris joined. I’m pretty sure that was why I started distrusting him almost immediately. All these negative thoughts nagged at me but I couldn’t put my finger on why.”

“Honey, you can’t blame yourself for what happened.”

“I don’t. We both know who’s responsible. The information was buried deep in my mind, just bits and pieces survived, but it was enough to trigger my subconscious, to warn me. I ignored those warnings so I could complete the job, do my duty. We’re done with that. I can fix this.”

“Fix this? Fix what?”

“I can put things right. The dead stay dead and a few others may join them but justice will be done.”

“What can the police do? What can we tell them? What proof do we have? Who can we trust?”

“We trust each other. We take care of it ourselves.”

“Honey … there’s just too many of them out there. Hobbes and his people, Lipscomb and the police. We wouldn’t stand a …”

“I know were Lipscomb is hiding. The exact address.”

“What do you have in mind?”

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

My burner cell phone vibrates. I gave this number to one person.

“Hello, Walter.”

“How you doing, Daniel? How’s the hand?”

“Much better. Doesn’t appear to be any scarring.”

“Lucky you. I got the initial report from the FBI on the fire today.”

“What did they find?”

“What we expected. Definitely arson, no attempt to even hide it. Multiple ignition points, gasoline as an accelerant. They found the remains of two men, one shot dead before the fire started, the other was alive when the fire was set.”

“Burned alive?”

“That’s what they say. Lousy way to go.”

“Can they tell who’s who?”

“Yeah, Peter Harris was the one who burned alive.”

“Makes sense, they would have been tougher on him. What about Jessica?”

“Nothing yet, though there was a lot of damage. Most everything ended up in the basement. They say it was a very hot fire, your man Matthews had a lot of flammable chemicals stored there. They may not find her.”

“Hope they do, she deserved better.”

“I’d say they all did. I’ve arranged for presidential commendations for all of you.”

“Thanks Walter, but none of them had family, though Harris has three ex-wives I think.”

“Three? Busy man. Well, you’re available for a presentation.”

“I’d rather not Walter, not yet at least.”

“I wish you’d let me bring you in and put you in protective custody. I’m sure we could find a safe place for you.”

“Walter, my best protection is to disappear. No one knows were I am and I’d like to keep it that way. You’re my sole contact and that’s fine by me. Eventually, I should be able to come back and be reasonably safe, just not yet.”

“It’s your life, Daniel. Just know that the whole office is looking forward to honoring you.”

“Thanks Walter, I can’t tell you what that means to me. Talk to you later.”

“Bye, Daniel.”

I really can’t tell him, it’ll look good on my resume though. Hope those idiot techs find some trace of Jessica’s body so they can close the investigation. I’m tired of hanging out in this hell hole.

CHAPTER SIXTY FOUR

She didn’t cry or whine or sob when she told me what had happened to her, not that Peter would normally do any of that kind of thing, but there wasn’t a lot of anger either. It was all “just the facts, Ma’am”. At least on the surface. Underneath, I could sense the steel in her, the absolute determination to see this through to the end, whether I helped or not.

Randi stopped by to see our patient several times a day. She hadn’t been too happy to see me that first night, even after invoking Peter Harris’s name, though she did help. She had one of her sons hide my car, the other got a local … I guess you could call him a doctor in the broadest terms … to come and tend my injuries. She even gave me a haircut to even out the areas where my hair had been burned back. Haven’t worn it this short in years. Like all stylists, she took the opportunity to ask me questions, mostly about what happened to Peter, I played quasi-dumb. If she knew he was dead, she might feel whatever debt she owed him was cancelled and I might be out on the street. I told her we were working together and things went bad and he’d given me this address as a short term refuge. All true, as far as it went. She wouldn’t tell me why she owed him a favor but she seemed to respect him, maybe fear him just a bit. She said she didn’t know what was behind the locked closet door and didn’t want to.

It was a different story when Patricia arrived. She had no daughters, only sons, but she had two granddaughters, one just a few years younger than Patricia. She took charge immediately, ordering everyone but me around. I was her new best friend. Told me her whole life story while we sat around the cot, caring for Patricia. Constantly apologizing for the poor facilities, cursing Peter up and down for getting such a young, beautiful child involved in such a dirty business, she still was smart enough to avoid telling me about their relationship.

Now that Patricia was conscious, her concern increased. She was full of questions, which Patricia easily deflected or gave half answers to … or flat out lied about with disturbing ease. She was always a good liar but now, even I found myself believing her and I knew the truth. I had to make sure we were alone before asking for the straight story.

She had been unconscious for almost three days after falling through the kitchen door, semi-conscious and fevered for the last five. We were able to wake her enough to get her to drink both water and protein shakes. Now she was eating solid food with gusto, to Randi’s delight.

“You keep eating, child” she’d say. “Got to get you’re strength back.”

Patricia didn’t argue. By the beginning of the tenth day, she was on her feet and walking the hallway. We had to toss all the clothes she had been wearing when she showed up and I dare not go home so a quick trip by me to Goodwill got her enough basic things to get by, though none of them fit very well. She’s really going to miss her sewing machine.

Patricia was sitting on the cot, her back propped up against the wall, when Randi came by.

“How you feelin’ today, child?”

“Fine Ms. Brown. Ready to get back out there.”

“No! No! Not a precious baby like you. Ain’t gonna happen, not with Randi around, it ain’t.”

“We don’t have any choice, Ms. Brown. They killed Mr. Harris.”

“Have mercy!” she cried, crossing herself several times. I hope Patricia knows what she’s doing. “You didn’t see them do it, did you, child?”

“No Ma’am. But I know the people who did it and they said he was dead. It matches up with some of the things Mom saw. I’m sure he’s dead.”

“Lord have mercy on his soul. That man saved my family.”

“How’d he do that, Ms. Brown?”

She quickly looked around to make sure we were alone, like we could have squeezed another person into the tiny room. “My eldest boy, he got into a little trouble. He’d just turned eighteen and was hanging around with the wrong kind of people. I did what I could to stop him but with three younger boys …”

“You had your hands full,” empathized Patricia. She really is good.

“You don’t know the half of it. Anyway, my boy was in the wrong place at the wrong time and a man died. It was strictly self defense but there weren’t no witnesses for my boy.”

“How terrible! What did Mr. Harris do?”

“He took the blame, made it look like he did it as part of his job. The dead guy was a big drug dealer, which my boy had nothing to do with! Peter Harris told a story and made it stick.”

“What happened to your son?”

“Went straight. Finished high school, graduated college, got a good job, got married, gave me two grandbabies. None of that would have happened without Peter Harris.”

“Amazing!” I said, both the story and that Patricia had gotten it out of her so easily.

“It was. He helped keep my other boys in line. This is a family business but soon, my other sons will graduate from college. I can sell this place and retire in the next five years.”

“All because of what Mr. Harris did,” said Patricia, a little too smugly for my taste.

“True. And now the poor man is dead,” said Randi.

“Gone to his just reward,” Patricia echoed.

“Well … maybe Jesus will have a little mercy and he can do better than that.”

Patricia just smiled. “I hope you’re right about that, Ms. Brown.” She slipped off the cot and grabbed the combination lock. “Let’s see what Mr. Harris left for us.”

Her eyes grew wide. “You know how to open that?”

“Yes. Mr. Harris told me the combination, just in case he didn’t … you know … make it.”

“I have to admit … I’ve always been curious about what he put in there.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You told me that …”

“I know, I know. That’s what I tell myself all the time. Keeps me from breaking down the door. But now …”

“It’s different. Go on Patricia, open it.”

“If you say so, Mom.”

She spins the knob several times, then starts to enter the numbers.

“Thirty eight … twenty two … thirty six.”

The lock clicks open. She removes it from the hasp, turns the door handle and pushes it open. Stepping into the dark closet, she almost disappears.

“What is it?” asks Randi.

She tosses a large, metal box out onto the cot. “There’s this box and another. You guys open that one.”

Randi and I look at each other for a moment, then she reaches down, unlocks the clasps on either side and quickly flips it open, stepping back, just in case.

It’s cash. Lots of cash.

“Lord have mercy! Look at all that money! How much do you think it is?”

Patricia steps out of the closet, dragging a larger, metal box, which she drops at the foot of the cot. She cranes her neck to look at the money box.

“I’d say about thirty five thousand, give or take.”

“That much?”

“That’d be my guess, Ms. Brown.”

“My word! Is there any money in the other one?”

Patricia flips open the lid but it’s between her and us, we can’t see into the box. “Looks like mementos of some kind. Here’s a baseball glove.” She holds it up for us to see. “And a hat.” She holds up a moth eaten baseball cap from one of the local high schools. “There’s also some magazines.” She flips an old “Playboy” onto the cot in front of us. Randi recoils from it.

“I don’t want nothin’ like that in my place! Jessica, you check that box out and give me every single one of those filthy things. I’ll burn them in the barbecue pit! Shame there’s no more money for you two.”

“Don’t you want some?” I ask.

“Lord no! Our deal was what’s in that closet was his and I was to leave it alone. Good thing I didn’t know about the money or the temptation may have been too great. Cheatin’ a live man is one thing, cheatin’ a dead one is a whole nother thing. He puts a bug in God’s ear and my life becomes all sorts of hell. No thank you!” She turns to leave the room. “I’ll get you a cardboard box for those dirty magazines and then … Oh Heavens! I’d forget my head if it wasn’t nailed on my shoulders. I didn’t tell you why I came up here in the first place. People been asking about you.”

“Me?”

“Not by name, but by description. Not a lot of people, but they’re shady characters. Don’t worry, my family won’t spill the beans. You all can stay here as long as you need to. Ain’t nobody gonna tell anybody nothin’!”

“Randi … we don’t want to get you in any kind of trouble.”

“Don’t worry, Jessica. We know how to deal with these people. I’ll get you that box.” She looks back at the money and shakes her head. “Thirty five thousand dollars! Will wonders never cease.”

I wait until I hear the hall door shut, then look at Patricia, who’s peering over the lid of the box between us.

“It wasn’t self defense. He killed that dealer in cold blood and she knows it. Trying to raid the guy’s stash. Peter Harris, or I should say the character he was playing at that time, needed the dealer out of the way and would get some street cred for doing the job himself so he took the blame and let Randi’s kid off the hook. It was, and I hate to use this trite phrase, a “win-win” for everybody. The rest of the kid’s life was just happenstance, though Peter did help a little with the other boys. She kept her word because Peter could put her son away. There’s no statute of limitations on murder. Plus, she’s basically an honest person. And God fearing.”

Why does she keep referring to himself in the third person? There’s no one around to overhear us.

“So, where did the money come from?”

“Skimming from seizures over the years. A little here, a little there, it adds up.”

“You did say you had some money stashed away.”

“Peter took the fifth on that, if you recall. All this stuff is just here for emergencies. He wasn’t looking to make a profit.”

I pick up the magazine and let the centerfold fall open. “What kind of emergency was this going to deal with?”

“The best kind. That’s just the first layer. This box has a false bottom in it. The good stuff …” she ducks down behind the lid and roots around in the box “… is here!”

She holds up a small handgun with a large metal tube on the front.

“What is that?”

“It is a .22 magnum caliber semi-automatic handgun with a staggered clip and an industrial strength silencer. This baby is light, fast, accurate, whisper quiet and hits a lot harder than you’d think. Peter got it in a weapons bust. Somehow, it failed to make the inventory list. Go figure. There’s another half dozen or so similar items in here.” She lets the lid drop, then pushes the clip into the hand gun. “It’s time to visit Mr. Hobbes.”

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

Nothing!

It’s been almost two weeks since Patty disappeared. I called her cell, sent emails, texted her … nothing. I even made Lou drive me by her house after school on the fourth day and looked in all the windows on the first floor. All their stuff is still there, at least as far as I can see. Patty’s motorcycle’s still in the garage. It’s like they were beamed up or something. I was worried sick by the second day. Everyone at school … most everyone … are worried too. They include a special request for Patty and her Mom’s safe return in the morning prayer each day.

I asked Father to do something. I know that he knows influential people. And people who specialize in getting things done, like Enrique. He said he’d do what he could but … it just doesn’t feel right, somehow. Every day, I ask him if there’s any news and he says there’s nothing so far, but that he’s got people out looking, even the police, though there hasn’t been anything in the newspaper or television, not that I’ve seen anyway.

You think she would have said something to me if she was in some kind of trouble. I keep replaying our old conversations in my head, looking for some kind of clue, but again, nothing. I’d have gone crazy by now if it weren’t for Terri and the rest of the team. We text all the time and scour the internet, searching for anything that might help find them. Gary’s been great too. We’ve been texting ever since the dance. Patty leaned on him pretty hard but he understood why and I’ve convinced him that she’s a wonderful person and my best friend. We’re a package deal, you want me, you get both of us. Whenever I get too depressed, he says something funny to bring me back.

I don’t know how I would've gotten through this so far without my friends.

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

“YOU DID WHAT?!!”

“Calm down, Mother. We don’t want Randi busting in right now.”

“Are you INSANE?!”

“Maybe … I haven’t had time to perform any tests since the changes. Then again, I’m probably not the best person to make that call.”

She said it so matter of factly, like she had just changed the oil in the car or had her hair cut short. She didn’t even volunteer the information. I asked her what the Balancer setting was and she said it didn’t exist anymore, that she had, in essence, reformatted her brain. The careful structure Thomas had created was thrown out the window for whatever a horde of mindless tiny robots decided to do to her. I was flabbergasted.

“Why … how … what possessed you to do such a reckless thing?”

“Peter and Jenny Jo managed to overload the Balancer while Cardoza was … having his way with me. Peter was able to regain control and we escaped. But we couldn’t stay that way. It was either fix it or get rid of it by joining forces. We all talked about it, though Jenny Jo really couldn’t participate. We opted for freedom over control.”

“You had no idea what the end result would be!”

“That’s true, but the prospect of staying the way we were was intolerable. Peter had accepted the Balancer as a temporary necessary evil. He didn’t like it but as long as the Remote was in your hands and you didn’t abuse your power anymore than you were, he could live with it.”

Abuse my power? When did I ever abuse my power? It’s just like Peter to think a little constructive control was abusive. Patricia continued.

“But then Lipscomb got his hands on it and then he gave it to Cardoza. As far as we knew, you were dead, as was Peter, or to be more exact, his body was. The temporary situation was now permanent. Peter was not the kind of person to accept that, particularly with all those subroutines Lipscomb had Thomas install.”

“What kind of subroutines?”

“The kind Peter warned them about, remember?”

Oooh yeah. “Yes, I remember.”

“That was all on one hand. The other hand held the uncertain future of a joined existence. It might fail completely and we die. It might partially succeed, leaving us worse than dead. It could completely succeed but we had no guarantee as to what the end result would be. Peter felt fairly confident that he would dominate any final mind, mostly because Patricia suggested he would, though she didn’t tell the complete truth about that. Something she learned from Peter which likely saved your life.”

“How did lying save my life?”

“Lipscomb asked about the third copy of the hard drive. Did it arrive yet?”

“It showed up in the mail two days after I did.”

She grinned. “When Lipscomb asked, Patricia denied any knowledge of it, which was technically correct because Peter had mailed it when the setting was Blue Fifty and she was answering the question at Pink Fifty. If she had been totally truthful, she’d have told him about Randi’s Place, Lipscomb would have shown up here, discovered you were alive and who knows what would have happened next.”

“So what did Patricia not tell Peter?”

“That Jenny Jo could become the dominant mind, that her extreme emotions might win out in the end.”

I’m afraid to ask. “Soooo … what happened?”

Her face lit up with that brilliant smile I’ve come to adore. “Can’t you tell? He mollified her, talked her into accepting the situation. Patricia would have just forced the issue, she didn’t consider an emotional appeal worthwhile but his humanity won Jenny Jo over.”

“Who or what are you now?”

“I am Patricia Taylor Conner. A free and independent woman. Personality wise, about ninety percent Peter Harris and ten percent Jenny Jo Hamilton, though there was a surprising amount of overlap between the two. All of Patricia’s knowledge remains intact, as does her ability to acquire new knowledge. There was an increase in the number of synapses and, without the built in delay of the Balancer, my brain is even faster. Basically, I’m everything I was before but amped up.”

“When you say ‘woman’, do you mean …”

“Yeah, I do. Peter Harris knew there was a price to be paid by him. There really wasn’t an option, my body is female. He could have fought it but what’s the point? We all gave something, he gave a lot … but he got a lot too. Though, between you and I, when you flashed that centerfold, she was a bit of alright.”

“So … you’re okay?”

“As far as I can tell. The Balancer was disassembled, and, along with it, the subroutines disposed of and Lipscomb’s limited memories recovered.”

“Is this the time to go after Hobbes? You’re condition’s still unknown.”

“We go as soon as we’re ready. I’ve got all the weapons I need, and Randi found me a sewing machine so I can make my outfit. I should be set by tomorrow night.”

“The forecast is pretty bad, rain, wind, thunderstorms.”

“So much the better. It’ll be easier to get my bike back.”

CHAPTER SIXTY FIVE

It’s a fucking lousy night. The weather sucks too. It’s been raining all day and now we’ve got a storm with a shit load of lightning. What the hell is going on?

When they told us Conner was an undercover cop, no one could believe it. When they said she was some kind of science fiction, part human, part machine creation … that was actually a little easier to believe. Most of us didn’t buy it, but a couple of guys nodded their heads. After we found out what she did to Cardoza, more guys were willing to believe it. That was after they laughed their asses off.

Now they tell us she’s coming back, which makes no fucking sense whatsoever. If she’s not halfway to Timbuktu by now, she’s out of her God damn mind. Or his. Or its.

I just don’t know anymore. My radio beeps

“Henry. Everyone’s in position on the South and East.”

“Roger that, Lou. We’re all covered on the North and West.”

“Twenty bucks says she tries to come in the same way she left.”

“I’ll take that bet. She’s way too smart, Lou. Way too smart.”

“You’re probably right, just like to keep things interesting.”

Interesting. Things are already too interesting for my taste. Hobbes had us hustle Gretchen to some place across town and leave her with a couple of P.I.s for safe keeping, so he obviously knows something no one’s told us about. All I get are rumors. Conner tried to call Hobbes but he wouldn’t talk to her. She sends emails but he doesn’t respond. Conner’s not even human, more machine than person and she’s threatened to kill everyone in the compound. I hate rumors.

I think I’m a good judge of character and Conner … whoever or whatever she is … is basically a good kid, a smart kid, and if she really is coming back here, she’s got her reasons.

I just hope I’m not the one who has to kill her.

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

“You ready to go, Mom?”

“What about a gun. Shouldn’t I have a gun?”

“You ever fired a gun before?”

“No, but it shouldn’t be so hard. I’ve seen it done in the movies.”

“You’re right. In theory, pulling the trigger is easy. Six to eight pounds of pressure. It’s getting mentally ready to pull that trigger and making sure you actually aim at something that’s important. If you’ve never been in a fire fight, now isn’t a good time to learn.”

“I need to have something. If people are shooting at you or me, I want to be able to fight back!”

“They’ll be shooting at me, that’s for sure, but you’ll be on the wrong side of the wall, Mom. I don’t want you to be on the inside with me. You’d just be another thing I have to take care of. Outside the walls, you’re reasonably safe.”

“What if they come outside and try to grab me. Then they could hold me hostage to stop you.”

“Then get out of there as fast as possible and I’ll either call you or meet you at the rendezvous point.”

“But what if …”

“I see that, no matter what I say, you want a gun. I’ll give it to you on two conditions. The first is that you only shoot this in self-defense. Don’t go charging in with barrels blazing.”

I open up my metal chest, lift the trap floor and remove a weapon. “This is for someone without a lot of experience with guns. Twin barrels, twin triggers, safety is here. It uses .410 shotgun shells. You don’t aim it so much as you point it towards your target and pull each trigger separately or at the same time. Right now it’ll be loaded with bird shot so you won’t get much penetration but you’ll get a good spread and that’s what’s important. Just put your left hand on the forend, your right on the trigger, flip your safety off, point the barrels at your target and blast away. You can reload by pushing this lever, which rotates the upper this way, drop in a couple of new shells and close it but hopefully, it won’t come to that. Anyone still standing after you pull those triggers will likely take cover. You grab that opportunity to run away … got it?”

“But I can do so much more than …”

“I know you can, but now isn’t the time to find out.”

“Fine.” She holds out her hand so I give it to her, grip first. “You said there were two conditions. What’s the second?”

“That I’m behind you when you shoot that thing.”

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

I key my radio.

“Listen up, everybody. I don’t want anyone to take any stupid chances. Stay together, work as a team. We’ve trained for this. If you give Conner an opening, she’ll carve us up. Remember what happened on that paintball field? She kicked our asses up and down that place. Well, these aren’t paintballs tonight, it’s the real thing so be smart, be careful, and go home in the morning. Keep your vests on the entire time, got that?”

“Yeah, I got it, Henry.”

“Roger that”

“Copy, over.”

Most called in. If I didn’t hear a response from someone, I called them directly. If they do what I told them, we may not lose more than half of our guys tonight.

“An inspiring speech.” It was Cardoza on the radio. “I want to make one thing clear. Conner is to be killed, at all costs. The one who does so receives a fifty thousand dollar reward.”

OH FUCK! He just turned a group of trained guards into an armed mob! ASSHOLE!

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

Thank you, Enrique!

The storm is getting worse, which made things easier for us. The ramp was loaded in the panel truck Randi loaned us. Mom let me out two blocks from our house then gave me time to run there and hide in the neighbors’ yard, near the alley behind the garage. She then pulled the truck in front of the driveway and parked it there, blocking most anyone’s view of the garage. I ran in, grabbed my bike and wheeled it into the alley as Mom pulled away and drove down the street. I hustled the bike up the alley a block in the opposite direction before hopping on and firing it up.

We had met two blocks from Hobbes’ house and wheeled the ramp towards the house until it was just outside of his lit perimeter on the West side. The occasional lightning flash put more light on the ramp than I liked but, apparently, no one had noticed, because the radio chatter never changed.

I had kept that radio with me all the way to Randi’s Place, stuffing it in the waist of my panties when I was forced to crawl for the door. We had been in place for the last twenty minutes and I listened to Henry and the others discuss their plans. I was waiting for the heart of the storm to arrive because it would provide me with additional cover and make Henry’s job harder but the additional time was useful because I could eavesdrop while waiting.

The radios were top of the line, encrypted frequency hopping. No one could listen in unless they had the code. I could hear just fine so either Cardoza didn’t realize I had a radio, or he was too embarrassed to admit I took his … or a third possibility was that they knew I had the radio and they made a conscious choice not to change the code to feed me false information, like there was a weakness in the lines somewhere, to try to force my hand. Everything sounded like it did just before I left days ago, just more tense, more focused, more nervous. What I’d expect.

The display on my smart phone shows the most intense part of the storm was only a few miles away. Mom stays with the ramp, hiding in a neighbors’ grove of trees, as I run back to my bike about one hundred yards away. I slip a voice-activated headset on my head, squeeze my helmet on over it, plug it into my radio and prepare to start the psy-ops portion of the night’s events.

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

“Gomez. You’re our eyes tonight. See anything yet?”

“Nothing … at least nothing for sure. There maybe something there outside the West wall. I’ve played with the cameras but can’t get a better look. Could be shadows thanks to the storm.”

“What’s the radar say?”

“Storm’s getting bad. The worst should arrive in about five minutes.”

That’s probably what she’s waiting for. “How’s the new camera doing, the one on the wrinkle in the wall?”

“Just fine, though it’d be better if you’d moved that light, get rid of those shadows.”

“We wanted to keep everything the same, in case she tried that route again, then we’d have her.”

“Nothing so far, not even a nibble.”

Told you she was too smart, Lou. Let’s see what the West side looks like. Before I get two steps, someone’s calling me on the radio.

“Impressive job, Henry. Couldn’t have done better myself.”

Conner?! How the HELL did she get a programmed radio?

“Conner … is that you?”

“More or less.”

“Do I want to know how long you been listening in on our conversations?”

“Naw, you don’t.”

Jesus Fucking Christ. “What’d you want, Conner?”

“I just want to talk with Hobbes.”

“Ain’t that day ja view all over again?”

“It is, isn’t it? Results will be the same this time.”

“‘Fraid not. Hobbes doesn’t want to see you and the gloves are off.”

“There’s no need for anyone to get hurt here. I just want to talk with the man, nothing else. I’m willing to let bygones be bygones.”

“YOU’RE willing to … what about you spying on us all, messing with the computers, betraying us?”

“I know, I know. I’m willing to trade all that for forgetting about Cardoza trying to have me killed.”

“When did he try to kill you?”

“At the New Year’s dance. He and Escaban hired some gang hoods to take me out. They failed … obviously.”

I look around. A number of guys had gathered around me as soon as I started talking to Conner, even though they could hear every word on their radios. They’re all looking at Escaban, who’s wide eyed and looking scared.

“I don’t know what she’s talking about! I swear …”

“Tony? You out there? That’s nice! Billy B sends his regards. Promised I’d let him go if he rolled on whoever sent him. The boy practically sat up and begged, though not before I’d stuck a knife blade through the palm of his hand. I’m willing to let all that slide, just patch me through to Hobbes.”

Escaban says nothing, just turns away as a bolt of lightning strikes and pulses somewhere nearby, the boom of thunder coming a second later as the rain continues to pour down.

“No can do, Conner” I answer.

“Henry … I can fix this. I can fix everything. Remember what we talked about? Like two weeks ago? I’ve got your second chance in my pocket. Second chances for everyone, even Hobbes. Don’t blow this opportunity, Henry.”

Another lightning strike but further away, the thunder just rolls in instead of almost knocking you off your feet.

“Sorry kid, not my choice.”

“And if you had a choice?”

If I had a choice? When do I get choices? What she’s asking is would I trust her? How could I? She lied to all of us. At least part of the time. I know she was really a student at St. Ann’s, she played basketball like a demon, she was the best of friends with Gretchen … real friends, I could tell. In fact, I’d have sworn on my mother’s grave that she was exactly what she was supposed to be. I’ve always thought I was a good judge of people. Would I trust her?

“Patricia … what ARE you?”

I hear a chuckle. “Think of me as The Terminator with tits … and a better sense of humor.”

“Conner … just walk away, kid. There’s nothing for you here.”

“Sorry, can’t do it … but, tell you what … I’ll make a deal with you guys. Paintball rules.”

“What?”

“You’re all wearing vests, I heard you tell everyone to keep their vests on.”

“So?”

“So, I shoot you in the vest, you sit out. Nobody dies.”

“Are you crazy?! You think this is some kind of game?!”

“I’m coming in, one way or another, Henry. I’m giving you guys a choice, to live or die.”

“And what if we shoot you first?”

“Then I probably die, I’m not wearing a vest.”

“So … we get to try and kill you but you’re just going to wound us?”

“Not even wound, just rattle your teeth a bit. Besides, I can’t expect you to ignore fifty thousand dollars, can I?”

She heard that. What else does she know? She spent months inside these walls, saw every square inch. She could have been planning this for a long time. Hell, she could have planted booby traps for all we know.

“Sorry Conner, no deal, now get the hell away from this place.”

“That’s a shame, Henry. I unwittingly helped someone make a mess of things. I’m going to clean up that mess. See ya’ in a few.”

The rain’s really picked up, so has the wind.

“Gomez. Weather.”

“We’re right in the path of the storm front. The TV weather guy says it’s almost on top of us.”

“Keep an eye on those cameras. Conner’s going to try to get in here, it could come from … does anybody else hear something?”

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

I can’t tell how fast I’m going, my lights are off, I don’t want to give away my position until the last minute. Mom’s got a big, handheld spotlight that she’ll use to light up the ramp just before I hit it, though I can see it silhouetted against the white wall in front of it. I give the bike some more gas. Better long than short. The ramp’s wet, which can’t be helped but the tires should grip as long as necessary.

My outfit is mottled gray, covering everything but my face and I’m sweating like a pig, which is an odd saying because pigs can’t sweat, Oh well, I’ll think about that later, Mom just hit the spotlight.

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

“Henry! I just saw it! It’s Conner on her motorcycle. Heading for the West wall. She’s almost … God DAMN!”

I heard it before Gomez called me. Some of the other guys did too and they started talking to one another. In seconds, practically every outside guard had left their position and run to the west side of the compound. Most were carrying AR-15’s but a few had the old M-16. Three of them had slipped and fallen on their asses as they rounded the corner, sliding into the rest of the guys, knocking people to the wet ground left and right.

God! What a fiasco!

“Get up you idiots! Get the fuck …” There was a tremendous flash of lightning and an immediate deafening crash of thunder. Everyone ducked their head, waiting for the next bolt.

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

WHOOAA! That last one was close!

HIT THE RAMP!

HIT THE LIGHTS!

HIT THE SILKS!

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

“HENRY! SHE’S TRYING TO JUMP THE WALL!!”

“WHAT? WHICH …”

There’s another bright flash of light, but this one’s from the headlight of Conner’s bike as it clears the West wall by three feet, soaring over the heads of half the guys scattered across the soaked ground. She’s wearing some kind of bright white outfit, with a cape or streamers or something fluttering behind her.

The bike lands with a wet squishy thud, the engine screaming as it fish tails left and right. Guys are scrambling up and firing at it, some from their knees, some from their feet, some on their backs. Conner keeps moving, dodging the gunfire with crazy slides until she hits a tree, flipping over, her engine still reved on high.

Three guys, led by Escaban, run over and start shooting Conner at point blank range, Escaban screaming at her.

“THINK YOU’RE TOUGH NOW, BITCH!”

“ESCABAN! BACK OFF” I shout, trying to be heard above the gunfire and the growing storm. He fires twice more then walks away as I run towards the body.

“That fifty thousand is mine!” he says as I pass him.

“Fuck you,” I answer. Not very witty, I’ll admit. When I get there, there’s a lot of muddy white cloth … but no body. The engine’s still screaming. I fish around with the handlebar until I untangle the cloth and see that the throttle’s tied down. I pull my knife and cut it free, shutting off the engine.

”Riley, help me with this.”

We pull the bike upright and then straighten out the cloth. She bunched and tied it together in different spots, giving it a human like shape.

“Don’t spend that money yet, Tony. It’s a dummy.”

“What the hell you talking about? We all saw her jump the wall and crash right there. She must have crawled off …” He starts to look around, as do a few others.

“We saw what she wanted us to see. Gomez. Do you have anything on any of the cameras? UUGGHH!”

It felt like someone hit me in the chest with a sledge hammer. As I caught my breath, I heard other guys gasping and crying out. Some reached for their backs, others their sides. Two off them fell backwards into the mud.

I never heard a single shot over the hiss of the rain, the whipping of the wind and the practically continuous rumbling of thunder.

“Gomez” I wheeze. “Where is she?”

“I’m right here, Henry,” Conner answered over the radio. “You’ve all been hit. Time to sit this round out.”

I scan the area in front of me, rifle at the ready. I can’t see anything, just swaying tree limbs and shadows.

“Gomez. Got anything?”

“Sorry Henry, nothing. Night vision is useless with all those flashes of lightning. Infrared too with that cold rain.”

“Did you see the muzzle flashes?”

“No. She must have some kind of a suppressor.”

“You can bet I do. A real good one.”

Damn it! It’s like a fucking party line! It’s hard to breathe, she may have broken one of my ribs.

“What now, Conner?”

“You’re all out in the open, gathered around my bike. I’ve shot every one of you, hitting the reinforced areas of the vests. It could have just as easily been your heads. I told you, I don’t want to hurt anyone, I just want to talk with Hobbes. If you all go back to the security office, you can keep track of me once I get in the house. That’s my offer.”

How does she keep doing this shit to me?

Escaban edges up next to me. “You aren’t going to take this, are you?”

“It was your fucking boss who offered the bounty that turned this group of greedy idiots into a useless mob. And you two tried to kill her.”

“So what? You gonna let the little bitch push us around?”

“What’s YOUR idea, Tony?”

“Look where everyone was standing when they were hit. She has to be somewhere over there.” He points to my right.

“Maybe she was there when she shot us, doesn’t mean she’s still there. I wouldn’t if I was her.”

“Let’s find out.”

Escaban drops his AR-15 down to his hip and starts firing blindly, sweeping his muzzle left and right. He gets off about twenty or so rounds before his head jerks back and he drops to the ground, twitching and thrashing for a few seconds before he ends up still and face first in the mud.

No one moves. I slowly kneel down and roll him onto his back. He was shot in both eyes. My radio beeps.

“Henry, I really believe in letting bygones be bygones … after I get mine. What happens next is your choice. Your. Choice. There’s always a choice, Henry.”

Standing up, keeping the muzzle of my gun pointed down towards the ground, all eyes locked on me, I make an announcement.

“If anyone wants me, I’ll be in the Security Center.”

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

Escaban almost got lucky.

His first two shots were just left and right of me. Henry was right, I should have moved. I sure as heck did after he started firing. I rolled to my left until I got behind a tree. Bracing myself against the trunk, I took aim at Escaban’s head, waiting for him to turn back towards me. A .22 magnum doesn’t have that much penetration, that’s why it was safe for me to shoot the guys in the vest. At this range, it might not even penetrate the skull. But, if I use a couple of pre-existing holes, the bullets should just rattle around inside the skull, shredding gray matter wherever they go until all their energy has been transferred to what ever remains of his brain.

Under these circumstances, that’ll be a very difficult shot. Unfortunately for Tony, difficult shots are now my specialty.

It was also unfortunate for him that, to get the guys to do what I wanted, I had to make an example of somebody. It was the best and fastest way to persuade them that I meant business.

Two birds, one stone.

CHAPTER SIXTY SIX

I heard all that gunfire and then nothing. Then there was some more and now nothing again. I knew there was going to be a lot at the start, that was Patricia’s plan. Jump the wall, make a big entrance, then get off the bike as soon as it cleared the wall, letting it draw attention away from her as it hit the ground and continued on. She’d taken a couple of white sheets and tied them up so that they had a kind of shape like a person. She attached it to the bike so that she could still ride and control it but as soon as she jumped off, the wind would catch it and fill it out. She also cut her outfit so that it had baggy arms and pants, letting her catch the wind when she jumped, slowing her fall just a bit. She sewed on Velcro straps so she could gather the extra fabric once she landed and tighten everything up, keeping a small target.

I was supposed to run away as soon as she hit the ramp, there was nothing I could do for her after she was in the air, but I just couldn’t leave.

That second burst of gunfire wasn’t in the plan. I guess it means she survived the jump.

I need to go. Can’t do anything useful here and all’s I’m doing is worrying. I can do that at the rendezvous.

God … watch over my little girl and bring her home to me.

Take care, sweetheart.

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

The rest of the guards must have gotten the message. I ran into two more before I reached the terrace in the back. I tagged both of them in the chest and they reluctantly left without me needing to say anything. There was a third one heading for the Security Center without me shooting him at all. Guess he wasn’t interested in Cardoza’s bounty. By my count, that was eleven out of commission and one down. There should only be five or so left. If they all stayed at their assigned positions, no one should be in the house. They all had fall back positions in the house should they not have killed me outside the house but I don’t know how enthusiastic the remaining guys are.

And then there’s Cardoza.

My camouflage outfit helps me outside the house but it’s near useless once I get inside. The place is full of cameras and the only way to disable them is to cut the feed to the Security Center. I can stay in the shadows for awhile but all the lights are blazing and the generators are ready to switch on. I could have tried to disable them and cut the video lines but that would have taken too much time. Besides, if I couldn’t have talked Henry into paintball rules, I’m not sure I could have gone on. It really wasn’t worth killing every guard in the compound to finally get to Hobbes. If Henry hadn’t bought it, I’d likely have escaped again and thought of something else.

Escaban was and Cardoza is in a different group. He’s going down if the opportunity presents itself.

The terrace door isn’t locked. They must have assumed locked doors would have slowed the guard’s responses and not keep me out anyway. Good choice. I pause at the door. Once inside, I’m a sitting duck. The mottled gray color will still help a little but if they want to send fifteen guys after me, they’ll have a pretty good idea where I am.

I sure hope Henry’s got a strong enough sense of self-preservation to not do that.

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

“Where’s she at now?”

“The kitchen … I think.”

“THINK? Gomez, you’re the camera whiz. Find her!”

“I’m trying, Henry. Every time I think I’ve got her, there’s another one of those bolts of lightning and I get lens flare.”

“Well … do some of that technical voodoo, solve the problem and find her, dammit!”

“Then what, Henry?” asked Riley. He’s got a point. Then what? Am I going out there and confront her? Am I sending someone else out there to do that? I had my chance and what’d I do? Saved my fucking skin, that’s what I did. So did everyone else who was with me. There’s only four guards unaccounted for. If I try to call them on the radio, Conner will hear us. Cardoza wouldn’t let us carry cell phones, he wanted to limit communication with the outside while we’re on duty so I’m stuck. Though … maybe not.

“Riley! Get over here. Scan the perimeter with the cameras.”

He came over and slid into the seat next to Gomez. “Why? We know she’s already inside.”

“I want to know where the rest of the guys are. If I can’t call ‘em maybe we can see ‘em. If they’re smart, they stayed at their assigned posts. It’s safer than stumbling around out there in the rain with a killer.”

“Gotcha.”

Riley started flipping images from the different outside cameras while Gomez kept working with the inside cameras, cursing whenever there was another flash of lightning.

“There’s Sanchez!” shouted Riley. “And there’s Peterson. They’re both at the front gate. Kelly’s over at the East wall.”

“There’s Lou” said Gomez.

“Where?”

“In the Dining room.”

“WHAT? What’s that idiot doing?”

“His job, Henry.”

“Don’t give me that shit, Gomez. You were in here, safe and dry. I was the one out there, raining cats and dogs, with Escaban dead at my feet, his eyes punched in. You think you can do better, why don’t you go out there and get her? I’ll give you as much help as you gave us out there. What do ‘ya say?”

Gomez just hunkers down in his seat. “What do we do about Lou?”

“Do you know for sure where she is?”

“Last I saw was the kitchen but she was heading his way. Do we warn him?”

“Yeah, we do.” I click my mic on. “Lou, this is Henry.”

“Roger, Henry.”

“Lou … look sharp … look reeaall sharp.”

“Roger that, Henry.”

I click my mic off.

“Is that it?” asks Gomez.

“He knows.”

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

I heard Lou and Henry. Pretty smart. Didn’t give me much to work with though it probably means he’s on the other side of the door to the dining room. Either that or he’s coming into the kitchen from behind me. I scattered a couple stacks of pans with strings connecting them as warning devices behind me so I’ll concentrate on the door in front of me. I grab a broom, turn off the kitchen lights and scuttle up the short hall to the dining room door, turn the knob to open the door, then carefully push it open with the broom while staying back away from it. It’s hit by four scattered shots before it opens a foot.

He’s not taking any chances.

“Not bad, Lou.”

“Thanks, Conner.”

“You really want that fifty thousand.”

“You know it.”

“Enough to die for it?”

“All part of the job.”

“Doesn’t have to be.”

“Yeah … it does.”

“You’re gonna be difficult, aren’t you?”

“As difficult as I can be.”

Nuts! He’s not planning on playing by my rules. Got a wife and two kids. No way am I killing him. Let him sweat a little. I swap out my partial clip for a full one, then reach up with the broom handle and switch off the light in the hall.

Be quick. Don’t give him time to think. There are two light switches for the dining room, one on this wall just outside the door and one on the opposite wall. Lying on my back, feet resting on the base of the door, I kick it open and take out the far light switch with two shots. Lou starts shooting at the open doorway but they’re over my head. I roll out and shoot the near switch, plunging the dining room into darkness.

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

”What the fuck just happened?” asked Gomez.

“She took out the lights,” I answered.

“Why?”

“Because she’s better in the dark. What’s Lou doing?”

“He’s stopped shooting, no muzzle flashes.”

“Can’t you hear them?”

“The mics were in the light switches.”

“Wonder if she knew that … what the fuck was that?”

“How the hell would I know? It looked like something flying through the air.”

We can’t hear anything and see little more. I don’t have a lot of choice. I click the radio on.

“Lou?”

Nothing.

“Lou?”

Still nothing. I reach for my rain gear.

“What you doing, man?” asks Gomez.

“We’ve worked together for over fifteen years. I gotta know.”

“Well take this with ya’.” Gomez pushes an AR-15 across the table towards me. I stare at it for a few seconds.

“No, I got a better chance without it.”

“Your funeral, man.”

He’s probably right about that.

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

I slip the brass knuckles back into the pocket on my pant leg. They’re hardly fair but tonight’s got nothin’ to do with fairness. Lou would choose a badly bruised jaw over a ventilated head any day. He’s not gonna bother me for several hours, assuming I’m still alive to be bothered.

I open the dining room door a crack and peer out. Looks like the gunfire hasn’t attracted any attention. I pop my head out the door, quickly look around then pull it back in. Didn’t see anyone in the hallway. On to Hobbes’ office.

Bursting out of the room, I spin right, then left, my gun pointed straight ahead of me at arm’s length but there’s no one there. Putting my back to the wall on my right, I ease down the hall, pivoting to check out each room as I pass it. No activity anywhere, the place seems empty. Don’t hear anything upstairs, I hope to God that Gretchen’s not around here anywhere.

Moving slowly, switching sides of the hallway when necessary, gun at the ready, I approach Hobbes’ office. I can see light streaming into the hallway, so the door’s open. I’d rather talk to Hobbes face to face than through the door, it’s more dignified, but it could also be a trap.

Squatting next to the doorframe, I pull a metal rod from a pocket on my pant leg. There’s a small, round mirror mounted on the end which swivels. The rod telescopes to two and a half feet. I extend it all the way then push it along the floor past the door so that I can get a limited view of the room.

“That won’t be necessary, Patricia. There are no tricks,” says Hobbes.

Guess it’s now or never. I firmly grip my gun, step back away from the door, then dive in towards the right, roll once and immediately dive left, roll twice and come up onto one knee, my gun pointing directly at Hobbes, who is sitting at his desk, responding in kind, though his gun is bigger.

Big surprise. Men almost always go for the biggest gun they can handle, sometimes bigger than they can handle.

Phallic symbol, anyone?

“Very impressive, Patricia. I’ve been following your progress … at least as well as you permitted us to follow you.”

“Thanks. You haven’t made it easy.”

He shrugged. “That was other’s doings. I’ve never paid much attention to the security details. So … here we are. Obviously, you did not take my advice to disappear to heart. Unfortunate.”

“Sorry, I can’t leave a job unfinished.”

“What is there left for you to do, kill me?”

“No … I’m just here to talk. I have a proposal.”

“A business proposal? I hope it isn’t like the one made by your Mr. Lipscomb.”

“He’s not my Mr. Lipscomb. Dealing with him is next on my to do list.”

“I’m afraid that I can’t permit you to kill him, much as I might like that. The consequences would be very bad for my business.”

“What if it wasn’t? What if I could show you a way out of Lipscomb’s blackmail? A way out of these constant battles between the assorted Cartels and gangs? A way to restore peace and profitability to the drug trade? More importantly, a way for you to be free of this compound, to be free to ride a horse beneath an open sky again, go where you want, do what you want, free of fear of assassination or arrest?”

He cocks his head to the side, though the muzzle of his handgun doesn’t waiver. “Are you in the miracle business now? What you are talking about is impossible.”

“It isn’t. It’s actually quite simple … the idea that is. Execution could be a bit tricky and there’s no guarantee that it’ll work … but I like the odds.”

“So … you are asking me to …”

“Trust me.”

He smiles, at least his mouth does. His eyes stay hard. “An odd request from someone pointing a gun at my head. Someone who has already killed one of my men. Someone who accepted the hospitality of my home and then threw it back in my face. Someone who …”

“OH GET OVER IT, HOBBES!” I yell.

He looks astonished. He actually pulls back a little.

“You think you’re the only one with a beef here?! I was killed! KILLED! Left to burn to death! Your boy Cardoza was raping me! And YOU handed me over to him! My mother was shot to death. My assets were signed over to the guy who betrayed me. I’ve got NOTHING but the clothes on my back! You hear me complaining? NO! I came here with nothing to gain for myself and am offering to pull your ass out of the fire AGAIN!”

“But you were the one who did all this too me.”

“Pish posh. Those were the rules of the game. I just beat you and Cardoza. You didn’t hear me bitching and moaning when I was betrayed, did you? I took it like a man.”

“But you were just …”

“Only because you wouldn’t let it go! Who the heck am I going to turn you into? My contact with DOJ was a crook. I’m not working for anybody but me now.” I slam my gun on the desktop and leave it there, stepping back away. “Now, are we gonna talk or what?”

Hobbes is clearly confused, most anyone would be. And, of course, I stretched the truth a bit, what with Mom being alive and all plus our thirty five thousand dollars, which to Hobbes would be like having nothing. I just need an opening. If he doesn’t buy it, he doesn’t. Had to take a shot. The muzzle of Hobbes’ gun wobbles, then swings away.

“You just want to talk? That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

“And you believe that you can deliver all you promised?”

“That’s the plan.”

He pops the muzzle up so that his gun is pointing at the ceiling, then he slowly lays it on the desktop next to mine.

“Alright Patricia … impress me.”

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

I knew Hobbes wouldn’t shoot her.

Not Patricia Conner.

Once it became clear that she wanted to speak with Hobbes, I knew it was simply a matter of time before she would try to see him. Somehow, some place, she was going to try. The fact that she practically announced the day and time was unexpected but, in hindsight, just the thing she would do, if only to impress Hobbes. She’s had him wrapped around her little finger since the first day she arrived.

It took awhile for me to decide how best to use her. Thank God those idiots Escaban found failed to kill her. If they had succeeded, today would not have been possible. I shoulder my AR-15 and step through the doorway of Hobbes’ office.

“Everyone stay still, no one move.”

“Enrique!” shouted Hobbes. “Everything is fine! Put the gun down. It is just a colossal misunderstanding.”

“Not yet, Raymond. Conner … raise your hands and back around the desk until you are standing next to Hobbes.”

She eyes me but does nothing until I motion with my gun barrel. She slowly starts to move.

“Enrique, this is all completely unnecessary, I assure you. I am in no danger! She voluntarily gave me her gun.”

Just then, she reached Hobbes.

“Very good, Ms. Conner. Well done. Now … Raymond, please hand me both guns.”

Hobbes picks up both handguns by the barrel and hands them across the desk, all the while talking.

“Enrique, I am unhurt. There is no need to take these precautions.”

I take each gun, one at a time, placing them on a table next to me.

“I’m afraid they are necessary, Raymond. Now back up and stand next to Conner … if you please.”

“Why would you want me to …”

Conner smiles, nodding her head. “That’s why you made that stupid offer. You needed me to get here, didn’t you?”

She was always smarter than I liked.

“I … I don’t understand, Enrique.”

Hobbes, on the other hand.

“Cardoza plans on taking over the business, Mr. Hobbes. I kill you and he kills me, isn’t that right … Enrique?”

Hobbes shakes his head. “No, Patricia, you don’t understand …”

I interrupt Hobbes. “Something like that … Patricia. It may be better if you kill each other. I haven’t decided yet.”

Hobbes is stunned. “Enrique … after all these years … why?”

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

I need to use a flashlight once I get inside. Before I walk ten feet inside the kitchen, I knock over a bunch of pans. Conner had stretched a string from the stove to a counter and tied it to the pans. Guess she wanted to know if anyone was following her.

Now she knows.

Though it’s too late, I start looking for more booby traps and find two. They’re obvious when you start looking for them. It takes me several minutes to reach Lou. He’s lying on his side, jaw swollen and turning red. His rifle is several feet away, field stripped. I bend down and shake him.

“Lou? Lou? Wake up you moron.”

He jerks his head and snorts, then coughs a couple of times.

“Uuggh … aaahhhh … wwhhhaaa … hhaapp … oooo …”

I pull him upright so he’s sitting, back against the wall.

“Come on, idiot.”

He blinks several times as I move my light back and forth across his face, then slowly reaches up and touches his swollen jaw.

“Mother fuck … that hurts. What hit me?”

“Conner hit you.”

“I had her, Henry. She was … right behind that door. It opened and I fired … the lights went out … fuck, my head is killing me. Did I get her?”

“Don’t think so. Gomez is pretty sure she’s at Hobbes’ office.”

“Crap. Let’s go.” He tries to stand up but groans and slides back down. “God damn! My head.”

“Stay put you old fool, I’ll handle it.”

“Old fool? You’re older than me, asshole.”

“Yeah, but I’m smarter. Stay. Here.”

“Fine, but be careful, she’s …”

“I know, the Terminator with tits.”

When I step out of the dining room, I’m pretty sure I can hear a conversation down the hall. The thunder seems to be fading away. The storm must be passing.

I don’t get paid enough for this shit.

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

“She’s why.”

Cardoza flicks the muzzle of his rifle towards me. I’ve got a back up gun strapped to my left ankle but I’ll never get to it, not with him being as close as he is. If he leaves the room, I’ve got a chance.

“What does Patricia have to do with this?” asks Hobbes.

“She’s another strong willed woman that you’ve fallen for” answered Cardoza.

“Are you saying that you think she and I have a sexual relationship?”

“I don’t know or care … though she is talented.”

OH YUCK!

“Your problem, Raymond, is that you let women like Conner and Anna influence you. Anna had you ready to get out of the drug business. Conner was leading you down the same path, though she was much more subtle about it. You’ve been neglecting the business for the last few years. We could be dominating all the other Cartels in Mexico if you would simply use the resources available to us. We could control so much more territory if you would simply reach out and take it!”

“So you have argued, Enrique.”

“And you have ignored me, Raymond. You have grown complacent. The business is like a shark, if it doesn’t keep moving forward, it dies. Our competition will eat us if we do not eat them first. You used to understand that but, somewhere along the way, you forgot. I’ve been able to keep us moving forward despite your resistance but it is now time for me to take charge.”

“And what will our associates say about this?”

“Nothing. You have been hiding in this compound for so long, most of our associates think I am already in charge.”

“And of course, it was your idea that I stay here, for my ‘safety’. How long have you been planning this, Enrique?”

“A very long time. Conner’s appearance and betrayal gives me the opportunity I have been looking for.”

“And Lipscomb? Was he also part of your plan?”

“No, but his cost is a minor annoyance, worth the price … for now.”

There is nothing here that I can use, Hobbes keeps his office too darn clean. If only … wait, the bolo, three fist sized rocks bound with leather. It’s only three feet away. How fast can I get to it? I haven’t got the arm strength to just pick it up and throw it from here with enough force to do any good. I’d need some kind of leverage … and a diversion.

“So … you will just kill me, in my own office?”

“There are no cameras here, no microphones. There will just be two bodies and my story.”

“No one here will believe you.”

“You believed me when I told you how Anna died.”

“You … you … killed my Anna?”

“As I said, she was leading you down the wrong path. What choice did I have? Lucky for me, she was an addict. An extra strong dose was easy to arrange. She killed herself, I just provided the tool she used. But this one …” he again flicked the muzzle my way, “… she gave me nothing to work with and was causing more damage than your wife ever did. If Lipscomb hadn’t turned on her, she may have forced me to do something more obvious and heavy handed. As it is, everything works out for the best.”

“Excuse me if I don’t agree with you.”

“It will be the last disagreement we ever have, X-ray.”

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

What the hell is going on in there? Cardoza has Conner covered but why is Hobbes standing next to her, his hands in the air too? This makes no sense at all. Better find out.

“Excuse me, Mr. Hobbes. Is there anything I can do to …”

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

Cardoza’s head snaps right to look at Henry, who’s standing just outside the door.

I leap for the bolo, grabbing the leather loop and roll off the front of the desk, letting my arm swing forward as I fall, releasing the bolo at the peak of the arc, like a trebuchet.

Cardoza turns back just in time to get a face full of granite.

One bird. Three stones

The rifle falls from his hands as he collapses to the floor. I scramble to my feet but Hobbes has vaulted the desk. He is between me and Cardoza, who appears to just be stunned by the blow to his head.

Cardoza tries to get up off the floor, rolling to his side as Hobbes steps over him, grabs his pistol from the table where Cardoza had put it, steps on Cardoza’s shoulder with his right foot which forces him onto his back, points down at Cardoza and shoots him three times in the chest and once in the face. Hobbes then turns towards me.

“What is this idea you wish to discuss?”



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UGH!!!

NOOOO I NEED THE END PLEASE MEW HAVE MERCY ;-;

I know who I am, I am me, and I like me ^^
Transsexual, gamer, little, princess, furry and proud :D

Good Story... No....

I would rather say great story. One of the best I have read for a long time. I am totally engrossed & waiting for the next episode.

Mein Gott !!!

Geeze, what a cliff hanger! If the good guys live through this ... :)

Gwendolyn

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Maggie_Finson's picture

Wow.

This just got really intense, as if it hasn't been already. Cardoza is dead, and Hobbes is willing to listen to Patricia. There may be a way out of this for all of them. Except for Lipscombe. He signed his own death warrant when he betrayed Patricia, Jessica, and Thomas. Only a matter of time for that to be served, I think.

And Patricia is finally free, actually free.

Good stuff.

Maggie

Extravagance's picture

YAAAAY! =D

There isn't much that can beat a story in which your favorite character redecorates the place with the headguts of your least favorite (technically at this point he was joint last, along with Lipscomb and Jenny Jo's father) character. ^_^
On the other hand though, I hope we are treated to the spectacle of Lipscomb dying considerably more slowly and painfully...

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SuZie's picture

Yes! Patty is

whole! And Hobbs is free of the bad actors in his midst. I do hope that he gets completely out of the drug trade. While there will always be drugs where there is a demand, supplying said drugs is a very dirty business. Dirt stains the soul and Hobbs needs the rest of his life to clean that up. Let other, more deserving, people walk the path to Hell.

Okay. Now on to better business ideas. Oh, and there's the minor matter of Lipscomb. I wonder what shade of Lip-stick Meps has dreamed up for the Lip-scum?

And, finally, Penny. Jenny Jo is coming for you, girl!

SuZie

There are probably thousands of words

I could write at this point about this story. None of them would be able to express the admiration I feel right now for Meps. This is an incredible story and all I CAN say other than that is... WOW! Just WOW!!!

Thanks are not enough, but they're all I have... so THANKS!!!

Hugs and love,
Catherine Linda Michel

As a T-woman, I do have a Y chromosome... it's just in cursive, pink script. Y_0.jpg

Another Excellent Chapter

Wow. I love the way you describe certain details and events. You've really made the characters come alive for me throughout the whole story. Especially Patty, Jessica, Gretchen and Mr. Hobbes. Even several of the guards. And the plot has been great.

I think I figured out Patty's idea, but I won't say anything here; I'll just wait and see if I'm right.:)
I would love to see Danny taken care of and Patty & Jessica settle down there and go on to live a "normal" life with Mr. Hobbes and Gretchen as friends or family.

I am looking forward to the final 18 chapters with great anticipation. Thanks for such a wonderful story. And keep up the good work.

Hugs,
Mark <3

love this story and love how

love this story and love how this chapter ended only the ones that deserved it died. can't wait for the next chapter it can only get better.

This belongs on New york times best reading list.

This belongs on New york times best reading list. This is more readable and better put together than 70% of the stuff on that list!

Just wow!

The Terminator with tits! OMG! :) Personally being a Nano-borg I think she is even scarier, but that's me. Great story!
Hugs
Grover

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