The cup of coffee cradled between her palms grounded her. It was solid and hot and something she could understand in a place that she hardly understood at all.
Michele Cho had been in her fair share of offices before, of course—though, honestly, she tried to avoid them and all the career implications they held that made her blood run cold—but she had to admit that she’d never been in one huge enough to have two small rooms inside it and still be grossly spacious. The doors to both were closed. She assumed one was probably a full bathroom. She wondered if the other one was a tiny bedroom. One corner of the office even had a kitchenette.
“Do you live here?” Michele asked and sipped at her coffee, Nice, strong, dark blend—thank God he doesn’t cheap out on the coffee like Isabella always does.
“It is my building,” Fortunato answered. “So, yes, I live in it. When you have a high-rise with a view of the water, why bother with mansions and estates just to have lots of lawn space?”
“No, I mean: Do you live in this office? I’ve seen single-family homes that are smaller,” she responded.
Fortunato laughed. “Working 12 to 18 hour days at times, I suppose one could argue I live here, but no, I have the entire top floor as my actual abode—the penthouse suite to end all penthouse suites, if I do say so.”
Michele was silent for nearly 10 seconds, though it felt more like several minutes. “I’m sorry,” she said, when she realized he was watching her closely, waiting for a response. “I’m very nervous being here. I don’t know how to talk to a billionaire.”
The smile Fortunato gave her was two parts narcissistic to one part comforting, and that ratio wasn’t lost on Michele—still, though, the comforting part was welcome, since she had anticipated something more predatory in its place. She sipped more coffee as if it would fuel her confidence.
“Talking to a billionaire is easy, Solstice,” Fortunato said. “You talk to me the same way you would talk to a multimillionaire,” he added, then paused. “Except that you add a few zeroes.”
“Hmmmm,” Michele murmured, smiling instead of giving him a nervous and insincere laugh, uneasy all over again with the awareness that he knew she was Solstice—probably knew more about her non-costumed life already than her own father did, and maybe more about her costumed and non-costumed life than her stepsister did. “But I don’t know how to talk to millionaires, either. I’m just a simple Goth girl with a costumed crime-fighting hobby.”
“Query is a millionaire,” Fortunato countered. “I estimate he has to pull in at least 300K each year somehow—maybe double or triple that—and probably has between three and ten million stashed away to do what he does. And you know him.”
“Barely,” Michele said. “He helped me out of a bit of a problem I had as Solstice, and he’s given me some tips. Reluctant part-time tutor more than friend, I’d say.”
“But still, you know him, and he and I are not that different,” he said, though Michele thought to herself: You may share similar issues over controlling situations, but I doubt you share much else. “And about that ‘trouble’…” Fortunato added. “…I have called you here to help with that. A bit of a favor to Query, so that I can gain some favor in return. But I would need something from you before I can offer you protection from the Emerald Godfather.”
“I’m not that kind of girl,” Michele said teasingly, trying to gain some kind of leverage in the conversation. Banter might make her seem less awkward and confused—might make her less of potential mark.
“Zoe—or perhaps I should start using her codename now instead when I talk shop—Loc-Down made similar jokes when we first met. Do I seem like the lecherous type?”
“Most men with lots of money are. Also, I tend not to trust moneyed people.”
“Also very like Loc-Down, Solstice; I think the two of you would get along well. But you see, while you may not trust moneyed people, money is what can save you. The right amounts, filtered through third parties so that he does not know who your patron is, could put the Emerald Godfather off you. Money as recompense on your behalf will solve everything, for he loves money more than he likes Marty the Hun. He will forget that you took Marty from him.”
“And what do you want in return for this help?”
“I am forming a team. I want you on it, mostly because you came highly recommended by Query, and his character judgment is sound, even if I doubt many other parts of his judgment. Full-time job, with salary and benefits—though, obviously, you wouldn’t be patrolling and fighting all the time. In fact, a good share of your time will be public relations and community relations work while in costume. Looking good and making people feel safe and giving the press something to write about. But you would need to be on call a good share of the week for field missions, and I would want you living here in the building—rent-free, of course—both to keep you close and keep you safe from those who might try to reach out for you. Just in case Marty has any friends I do not know about yet for whom money is not enough to quell their hurt.”
“I’m guessing there’s a contract involved. Signed in blood?” Michele taunted mildly. Silently, though, she was cheering. A chance to get paid for what she did essentially did as an avocation now? She enjoyed freelance graphic design and improv comedy work, but she wouldn’t be able to pay the bills with either if she didn’t regularly lift cash off he criminals she took down.
“Ink will do,” Fortunato said. “The contract is more about non-disclosure on your part, severance terms if you’re fired and things like that. There is no contracted term of employment because I feel I need a bit of a probationary period to assess you. And before you ask: Yes, you can take time to have an attorney look the contract for a few days before you sign it. I figure the odds are about 50-50 that Query has already offered his pet lawyer to you for that task.”
Michele shrugged noncommittally—Query hadn’t done any such thing, but she could ask him later if he would, and if Fortunato thought Query had her back, she wasn’t about to give him a reason to think otherwise.
“A job like that sounds good,” she said, and realized there was still a tremor of nervousness in her voice. She’d have to get over being unnerved by this man’s money and power—and soon, she realized. “If the money is right. But I’m going to need something, too.”
“They always do,” Fortunato said. “And what special thing do you want in addition to me saving you from a mobster and paying you well?”
“Whatever apartment or suite or condo or whatever you plan on putting me up in, well…”
“It’s going to need to be big enough for two, I think,” and then she paused, reconsidering her words and remembering that she was in some kind of position to negotiate here, and shouldn’t leave a single detail vague. “Or maybe it would be better to say it needs to be half-again to twice as big as what you were planning to give me, with at least two bedrooms. And we’d better make it two bathrooms as well.”
* * *
She slid through the shadows, feeling like a child pretending poorly to be a ninja. It didn’t matter how thoroughly she’d been trained and how well she was taking to the skills; they seemed to her like ill-fitting clothes.
Or maybe more accurate to say they’re like someone else’s clothes—someone with a fashion sense totally counter to mine, Vanessa considered. She glanced down at the tight, shiny, light-blue gloves of her Allison Wonderland costume and sighed as she began to tap out a message on her iPhone Sextet. I don’t like the feel of this role, but I don’t have a choice, and I’ll play it as I need to. But only when I must.
Hey, Zoe, Vanessa texted on her phone. Whatcha doin?
A minute later, the response: Thinking about hitting dance floor to woo a cute guy. Whassup Vanessa? Hey aren’t you on patrol tonight? Field ops?
Boss wants me to fine trouble but mostly testing GPS trackers, field op software package and communications, Vanessa texted back. Talking with Fortunato on Bluetooth while I text ya in fact.
Is that a good idea?
For my safety or bc it’ll make him mad if he finds out?
Either/Or, Zoe responded.
Allow me me passive-aggressive outlets for dealing w the bastard & I won’t pester you about going to church weekly.
Agreed. Now let me hit one this guy.
Gotta run anyway. Looks like I found trouble, Vanessa texted, and then slipped the phone into a pocket of her costume. Far ahead, a group of people were gathered in a way that might not otherwise immediately be suspicious except that Fortunato had sent her to the worst part of the Hollows. Nothing much good ever happened in the streets of this part of New Judah at night.
She put a tiny pair of night-vision binoculars to her eyes and spied several weapons, though she couldn’t make out what was going on. If Fortunato’s contacts were reliable, there were no police operations going on right now around here, so it was likely a dirty deal.
“Base, this is Allison Wonderland,” she said with a syrupy tone into the Bluetooth device hugging her ear.
“I have been talking with you this entire time,” Fortunato responded icily. “You hardly need to announce yourself.”
“Yes, but you wanted to test equipment, policy, protocols and procedures,” she said smugly, “and I just ran into what is probably a drugs or arms deal. So I’m talking all official-like now. Do you want me in field mode mindset or not?”
“Fine. You have found a possible crime, Wonderland. Confirm that it is a crime. And then fight it.”
“Not so fast, Base,” she said. “I have no vested authority to intervene in a crime or to detain suspects. Citizen’s arrest rules probably don’t apply 100-percent to what I’m about to do. Vigilantism and obstruction of justice might, though.”
“New Judah is very tolerant of costumed crimefighters,” Fortunato responded. “Do not play games with me.”
“This is no game. I’ve already had the misfortune to be strong-armed into joining your team. Last thing I need is to be arrested for acting like a cop when I’m not one. The way my luck is going lately…”
“I almost have all of my pieces in place. Every member of the team, including yourself, will enjoy police-equivalent credentials soon. Local and state for everyone, and likely federal authority for select members within the next year or two.”
“Soon isn’t now, and a criminal record is forever.”
“Are you refusing to do your job as my employee?”
“No, I’m demanding a promise. And my iPhone has been on record mode this entire time, so it will be on the record,” Vanessa said stiffly.
“What are you demanding? And make it quick.”
“Simple,” she said. “You promise if I’m arrested for doing this, you will bail me out. You will hire me the best attorney money can buy. If I am found guilty of a crime, you will pay for counsel for me to fight for me through every last appeal I’m entitled to. You will pay any fines I am assessed. If I go to prison, you will continue to pay my salary for every day I’m there and put it into an account in my name so that I can have a life when I get out. That’s what I want.”
“Done and promised on all counts. You could have said all this before you left the building tonight,” he noted.
“I won’t expect anything from you ever again, or trust your word ever again, unless I have leverage over you, like I do now, because you want me to wade into a mess and test my powers and test your systems and throw weight around on your behalf. Leverage. Manipulation. That’s what you taught me matters when you left me no choice but to sign a contract to be on your team. That’s a lesson I won’t ever forget.”
“I am sorry to hear that is what you have taken as a lesson out of our earlier negotiations,” he said.
“I am, too. Sorry because I used to like working for you and sorry that you think what you did to me was a negotiation instead of flat-out extortion. Confirm that your systems have my position at roughly 500 Jervis Street.”
“GPS confirms,” Fortunato said. “We have your position and are tracking.”
“Are my vitals transmitting clearly?”
“Engaging targets; contact the authorities in two minutes,” Vanessa said, and fixed her mind on the task. Put aside Vanessa Santos and took on the role of Allison Wonderland. She strode forward, keeping to the shadows as much as possible, and pulled her firearm from the holster at the lower back of the glistening, aqua costume that, along with the blonde wig on her head, made her look something like an R-rated version of Alice from the Wonderland novels and movies.
When she was within about ten yards, Allison Wonderland sprinted from the shadows. Five men, and two of them noticed her right off. As they did, the other three pairs of eyes turned toward her. The two men who had spotted her first were raising their guns, and she forced down her panic.
Patience…patience…just a another moment or…
All of them were looking directly at her now, and she closed her eyes, letting loose with her Luminar powers to project a blindingly bright explosion of multicolored lights in front of her. She remembered the two men who had her in their sights and spun away from where she had been immediately, opening her eyes as she ceased her lightshow.
I wish Fortunato’s people would hurry up with the mask they promised to protect me from my own light shows without compromising my vision in dark places.
The three men who had been slowest to notice her were pulling their guns now, but seemed unable to get a fix on anything after being dazzled by Allison Wonderland’s powers. One of the two men who had been getting ready to shoot her from the start was too confused to fire; the other one sent three rounds blindly in the general direction of where she had been just a moment before.
Congratulations, Trigger-Happy Boy, you’ve just volunteered as the primary threat.
She aimed for his head, feeling a little twinge at the prospect. Her pistol was filled with rubber bullets for theoretically non-lethal effect, but she knew all too well from her combat education that when rubber bullets did lead to fatalities, it was often because of a headshot. “Shit,” she said softly under her breath, and fired two pepper rounds at his skull. The twin impacts were enough to stun him already, and now he was coughing and tearing up from the light haze of pepper mist released near his face.
Allison Wonderland knew that every second ticking by was one second closer to her opponents regaining their bearings, and her focus slipped a little with that sense of unease. The next two rounds struck one of the men in his ribs before a third struck his right temple. Her next four bullets all struck the torso of the man nearest him, and Allison hoped that was enough to keep him out of action as she fired on the fourth man, two shots catching him near the back of the head as she regained her focus.
She tried to target the fifth man, but he was gone. Four down, and one having found cover—and soon to regain his sight probably, too. Allison Wonderland wasted no time pulling a can of pepper spray out of her belt and quickly blasted each man on the ground in the face to ensure that they’d be useless in the short run even if they weren’t fully knocked out by the bullets, circling as she did, trying to reacquire the last man or, better yet, confirm that he had fled and was no longer part of the scenario.
“You’re a bitch!” he shouted from behind some nearby garbage cans. “But at least you dressed sexy. Gotta love a trans woman who’ll dress like a hottie from the comics. Last transhuman bitch I put down dressed like a member of a SWAT team with a mask fetish. Maybe you’ll still be breathing enough for me to show you a good time before I kill you.”
He fired twice from behind his cover and Allison Wonderland was desperately in search for cover herself as the bullets whizzed all too close to her head.
“Wonderland! Situation!” Fortunato barked over her Bluetooth.
“One target left. Armed and firing. Situation currently fucked up!” she shouted back at him.
“Police are being notified now,” he said. “Stay alive.”
Another bullet passed all too close to her as she headed for the recessed entrance to a local store that was, like all of them nearby, closed for the night. She paused just a moment to fire a shot in the direction of her last target, hoping to buy a few more seconds, and then felt the burning impact of a bullet in the center of her chest. She stumbled back and hit the brick wall of the nearby building, cursing herself silently.
I was just a few feet away from cover, she thought miserably. She heard the footsteps of her assailant and the smug “Hey hey hey” from his mouth. “Gotcha,” he said, “and now to get…”
He paused and she realized he had finally noticed something wrong with her chest.
No blood between the exposed cleft of her large breasts.
And I only have porn-star sized breasts because they’re actually part of my torso armor, she thought. Distracting eye candy and an irresistible target.
Before he could collect his thoughts, she attacked him with her Interfacer powers. There were too many people before to use those abilities, but one person was perfect. One person to feel a sudden sense of visual distortion and accompanying dizzy disorientation, plus hallucinations. Judging by the way he was suddenly batting at the air, Allison Wonderland was guessing something like bats or wasps in his case. Her chest hurt with the bruise forming underneath her chest armor, but she smiled all the same as she projected a spray of colored light into the man’s face with her Luminar powers to enhance the disorientation from her Interfacer powers. He still had a gun, though. She remembered the other man, who’d fired blindly, and she reminded herself that her head and limbs had no ballistic armor to protect them.
So, as the man swiped at things only he could see, while dazzled by a rainbow-hued cacophony that was all too real, Allison Wonderland calmly raised her gun.
Three pepper bullets left in her pistol’s magazine, she knew.
She unloaded every one of them, aiming right between his eyes.
As he slumped against a newspaper vending machine, Allison Wonderland found she cared a lot less now about whether one of those “less than lethal” bullets might result in a lethal outcome or whether one of them might have taken out an eye, and decided now was as good a time as any to practice her muay Thai skills as she landed a pair of roundhouse kicks to his head. He slumped flat to the ground, unmoving but still breathing.
“Status,” Fortunato barked.
“Alive,” Vanessa said with a faint groan, suddenly feeling a lot less Allison Wonderland-ish with the battle over. Even less so as she heard the first of the approaching sirens. “Hit in chest, but armor held up. Bruised but nothing broken, I’m pretty sure. Get me pickup six blocks east of current position. We’re done for tonight. And for all the nights until you have at least one other person in a costume to cover my ass.”
“Glad to hear that ‘can-do’ eager spirit,” Fortunato said, “because Loc-Down’s costume and gear will be ready tomorrow and Solstice’s by Thursday. This should be a fruitful week for you testing things out in the field.”
“Shit,” Vanessa swore softly.
“Yes. Do keep that in mind,” Fortunato drawled, “the next time you want to get a little insubordinate with me—otherwise, you would have been enjoying a few days of R&R instead.”
* * *
Isabella was shocked to walk into the apartment and find hot food waiting, and plates on the table—actual silverware, too. A candle burning in the center of the table and drinks out. This was just plain weird; Michele was even less domestic than she was.
“Did I walk in on the middle of a date?” Isabella asked, glancing toward the short hallway that led to the bedrooms and bathroom and then back at her stepsister and roommate, who was sitting on their small couch in the living room right next to their tiny kitchen and eating area, sipping at some red wine in an actual wine glass. She didn’t even know they had wine glasses. “Should I go…or call up a date of my own to share the feast?”
“You’re kinda the guest of honor,” Michele said, “as much as you don’t deserve it. But it’s a celebration, and I need someone to join me.”
“What are we celebrating that I’m not worthy of celebrating?” Isabelle shot back.
“Well, Izzie, we’re celebrating that it looks like I’ll have a high-paying new job with Fortunato,” Michele said, walking to the small table and sitting down before her empty plate.
“Well, we should be moving into a bigger place, then,” Isabella said as she joined Michele at the table.
“I will be,” Michele said. “Very soon.”
“Oh,” Isabella said, keeping her tone neutral, having picked up on the I instead of we.
Michele let her stepsister twist for a while as she served up food for both of them and poured a glass of wine for Isabella, refilling her own after downing the last of it.
“It’s going to be a great place,” Michele said. “And rent-free. I’ll even get comped at the restaurants in Fortunato’s building. Gonna be great for my retirement plan with all the money I can save.”
“Or blow on your nightclub lifestyle,” Isabella sneered.
“Yeah. Problem is, it’s a big place. Too big.”
“Yeah, big problem for you there,” Isabella said. “My heart bleeds for you.”
“I was just thinking that we tolerate each other well enough most days, Izzie. I’d feel a tiny bit guilty leaving you in the lurch with no roommate. And I dunno…Fortunato may be able to benefit from someone inside the motor vehicle department like you, for those times when he needs info on someone’s address. I dunno. Probably a bad idea…” Michele said, trailing off casually. Say “yes” you obnoxious twat, she thought. Don’t be a prideful bitch.
“I suppose you’ll charge me rent to live with you,” Isabella said.
“Of course,” Michele said. “I figure $200 a month should do it. That’ll cover the cigarettes you steal from me, the feminine hygiene products you steal from me, the booze you steal from me, the condoms you steal from me. And so on.”
“Hmmmm. I guess that’s a fair price,” Isabella answered, trying to hide her delight at the thought of her rent being cut by more than two-thirds. You just can’t comfortably say you love me in some heartwarming fashion any more than I can say it to you, can you?
“So, you in? I mean, it’s cool if you don’t want to. You can have your independence and all if you don’t.”
“Yeah, I could. But someone’s gotta keep you grounded and give you proper advice on how to navigate men and shit. Especially now that you’re juggling a billionaire man that you probably can’t trust.”
“Not like I can trust you, either,” Michele lied blandly, “but you’ve done right by me a few times.”
“Well, we’ve been stuck with each other this long,” Isabella said. “I suppose I can let you cramp my style a little longer. We’ll just take it day by day, right?”
“Right, Izzie,” Michele agreed, digging into her food quickly to mask her sigh of relief.
* * *
The trip to Florida had been the perfect thing to clear his mind. He’d been getting precious little personal time or real sleep trying to build his criminal empire in Newark, and a vacation had been in order. Not to mention that verbally abusing Janus and spreading around knowledge about how he had faced down the criminal kingpin had made it prudent to skip town for a while.
A couple weeks will have sufficed, I think, thought Paul Eisenhower, looking like any random middle-aged executive with two employees in tow—albeit employees with bigger muscles than most—as he entered the Newark Liberty International Airport terminal from his United flight in a three-piece suit, rather than sporting his gray bodysuit and a full-head mask that resembled a bone-white demonic visage with golden veins, small black eyes and small demonic faces all across the brow—the face he presented as Rancor. Janus has too much on his plate to think about me; shit, he probably doesn’t even know what’s going on in Newark. No one does—no one cares—that’s why I’m on the top of the criminal food chain here.
A position further solidified by being a man who’d turn down Janus boldly. Word was that Estaban was ready to link up with Rancor and put his drug and prostitution territories under the transhuman’s control. People feared and respected him more now, and so the world was good.
All gain for me, Rancor considered, and no real loss for Janus. Win-win.
After the luggage had been retrieved and they had reached his silver Cadillac CTS in the long-term parking lot, though, the winning feeling dulled a bit when one of his men clicked the button on his key fob to start and unlock the vehicle and nothing happened. No beeps. No flashing lights.
“Boss, hold up a bit,” he said, and nodded to the other man, who tried his own matching electronic fob and got the same result. “Boss, it might just be something wrong with the car, but let’s move back while Nick calls for someone to pick us up and someone to tow the car. Could be a bomb or something. Just gotta be careful.”
Rancor nodded, and they fell back about 20 yards. As Nick began to make a call, Rancor heard footsteps, and turned quickly. His lead man had reacted the same, and they saw Underworld approach in full costume, wearing a black catsuit and an ornate crimson and gold domino-style mask. Her green-lipsticked lips curled into a smile. Her hands were empty, but Rancor saw his man’s hand push aside the suit coat and reach for his gun, before swearing quietly.
The guns are in the car, because we just got off a flight, Rancor remembered. I should have had some guys meet us here; seems my identity isn’t as secret outside of my costume as I thought.
But Underworld wasn’t armed right now, and Rancor took comfort in that, even as he began to second-guess his decision to be so bold with Janus before.
“I distinctly remember a non-disclosure demand when you were invited to join up with us,” Underworld said.
“Well,” Rancor noted, “it wasn’t exactly a contract, was it? And the demand came along with the invitation, so it wasn’t as if I was given any chance to even not know what you were up to. If I chose to share…”
“If you had only spilled the beans about us forming a team, Rancor, I might not be so irritated,” she interrupted. “And insulting Janus? I normally couldn’t care less. But then there’s both together, plus you’ve been disparaging our entire operation and puffing yourself up as some tough guy who’s too good for us, and that means you’re fucking with my reputation and my business, too.”
“So, what do we do about that?” Rancor asked, considering his options and deciding that launching a Psi attack and kicking in his Primal powers for a fight was a bad idea—to directly assault her would be to declare war against Janus’ entire operation. “You’re clearly delivering a warning, and I don’t really want beef with you. How do we make things right?”
“Who says I’m delivering a warning?” Underworld responded.
“So this is just a social call, and my Caddy just happens to be non-functional as a coincidence?” Rancor said dubiously. “You happened to be Newark and thought you’d stop by to meet me at the airport?”
“No, Rancor. I hate most urban parts of New Jersey, to be honest, and I think Newark is an armpit,” she said. “But I’m not here to deliver a warning or obtain compensation for your insult. I’m here to send a message.”
With that, everything suddenly went black. Rancor and his men found themselves plunged into total darkness. Rancor tried to reach out with his fear-inducing powers, but couldn’t get a lock on Underworld. He couldn’t see her, and she must not be where she had been before. Not that he was surprised by that, considering that among her many powers, she was a Speedster. He tried to remember if she could see in her own darkness, and realized he wasn’t sure if anyone knew the answer to that.
But he did know that the size of the area she could rob of light was limited, and he began to back up, trying to remember where the other cars in the parking lot were around him, bumping into a few as he moved.
He still hadn’t found the light. Rancor was pretty sure the effect of her darkness was less than a 50-foot radius around her and now, as he ventured blindly into unknown territory in the parking lot, unsure of where he was now and increasingly running into things, he knew he must have gone that far or farther by now.
Oh, God, she’s staying with me. She’s pacing me and making sure she stays close enough to keep me in darkness.
He continued to reach out, trying to grab her mind with his and fill her with fear. That was his only hope. But his Psionic powers didn’t work well for seeking out a mind and he generally needed to know where the person was to make a link. He thought about activating his Primal powers to enter his rage state, but he could only keep that up for a limited time, and he would need that ability badly if he got into an actual fight with her.
Maybe this is the message, he thought. Maybe this won’t get violent. She wants me to know just how outclassed I am. Wants to put me in my place and make me wet myself. Well, I may not actually buy into the idea that I’m outclassed, but she definitely got the drop on me this time. We can still work this…
“Boo!” Underworld shouted from nearby, and suddenly Rancor’s world was filled with bright sunlight again. The suddenness dazzled his eyes and cause him to stumble as he ran his left shin into the front bumper of a beat-up Ford Tempo. Her hands were on him and he reached out to her mind, but his focus was shot—fear and momentary blindness. It only got worse as she lifted him up—she hadn’t really grabbed him; it was like he was glued to her palms and when he was over her head, she slammed him down on the roof of a car, knocking the wind out of him.
Whatever slight hold he had gained on her mind was snuffed out.
She kept hold of him with her contact telekinesis and slammed him into the side of a neighboring vehicle even as she produced a dome of darkness around her again to keep his associates from trying to take her down or save Rancor. Slammed him onto the hood of the first car and then into the pavement of the parking lot.
Over and over, until she could feel him literally breaking underneath the assault. The prolonged use of her telekinetic power was taxing, but she kept smashing him into the ground and the vehicles around her until she was relatively sure his rib cage and skull were thoroughly shattered, and then flung him away as she lifted the darkness again.
She looked at his broken body on the ground several yards away, and saw him breathing raggedly. Whether he would survive was the question now, though she doubted he would. If he did, he’d be in no position to run anything or exact any revenge. He’d be lucky if he wasn’t crippled.
But death seemed more likely, and while she wasn’t much for murder most days, Underworld wasn’t about to let anyone casually mess with an operation she was half in charge of. People needed a reminder that she could be a threat when she wanted to be, and that she was no pushover.
Underworld looked at one of Rancor’s well-dressed goons and then the other. Neither was making a move on her.
“The message, in case it isn’t clear,” she said loudly, “is for both of you to deliver. To Rancor’s former crew and any other low-life assholes you associate with. Spread the word that this is what happens,” she added, pointing to Rancor’s still body, “when you insult Janus or me or try to act like you’re tougher than us. Make sure you talk about this a lot, gentlemen, or I’ll be visiting you like I did Rancor, and someone else will be delivering the message instead of you—after they attend your funerals.”
She looked at each man in turn again.
“Was I not clear enough?” she said with venom in her tone, and both men fled.
Underworld’s phone started ringing and she pulled in from the pouch at her waist.
“Since I’m not allowed to track you anymore, would you mind telling me where you are?” Janus asked.
Such perfect timing, Underworld thought, that I’m suspicious he’s still got trackers on me or someone watching me. But I’ll chalk this up to coincidental timing and a gut feeling on his part. No need to get too paranoid or I’ll be jumping at all the shadows.
“Just running an errand in Newark,” she said, pulling a small set of night-vision goggles down from her face to drape from her like necklace.
“Oh,” he said, understanding immediately. “I assumed you would send someone else to do that.”
“Some things require a personal touch,” she said, looking at Rancor’s body. If he was breathing now, it was too shallow to notice, and it was certainly time for her to move on before any authorities or potential witnesses arrived. “Some things, in fact, require a woman’s touch.”
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