All the King’s Queens – Chapter 14: The Upper Hand

All Stephen Callahan can do is hurry up and wait. For several minutes, he stares at the cops and FBI agents talking amongst themselves from the other side of the gate while occasionally glancing over at Dylan and his chef. Nobody on this side of the gate’s bars dare to say anything. The irony of being locked inside a symbolic cage is not lost on Stephen, especially with trigger-happy lawmen (and women) on the other side giving him dirty looks.

“Steve, a moment,” Baker beckons. He motions to Stephen to come hither.

Without looking at Dylan or Henry, Stephen carefully walks up to the gate with his head down. Pondering his next move, he must account for the possibility that the escape jet is all a ploy to give him a false sense of hope. However, it is possible that the feds aren’t lying about this. They really are preparing a jet for him to board. Maybe they did buy into the fake bomb threat. Or they don’t want to see anybody from Dylan’s party get hurt.

“Yes?”

“The van has just arrived. You and your men may leave for Boeing Field at any time,” Baker announces. As monotone as possible, Robert L. Baker is an expert at hiding his emotions – an ideal skill when one is also trying to hide one’s intentions. He glimpses at Special Agent Mendoza, who also remains stone faced. “I suggest you gather your men, your stuff, and get moving as quickly as possible. Before we find out for sure that you’re bullshitting us about the bomb planted somewhere in the city.”

“Why? Are you actually searching the entire city? That’ll take months,” Stephen taunts. This makes Officers Dietrich and Gutierrez boil with rage. The two cops are less adept at hiding their feelings when the city they love is being threatened by a madman. “Thank you for the update, Rob. I shall inform my men at once.”

“You better be quick. Before I shoot you in the back myself!” Dietrich threatens.

“Stop it! NOW!” Mendoza chastises him. “Shut the fuck up with that shit! You could jeopardize this whole situation with that kind of shit!” As Stephen turns his back to the law enforcement officers behind the gate, he cannot help but smile. He’s always been suspicious of cops, well before spending three years of his life locked up in a federal prison cell. Being released back into police society hasn’t waned that animosity a bit. It’s gotten more intense, if anything.

“Looks like I’m about to be released on good behavior,” Stephen says to Dylan and Henry. The two men glare at him with judgmental eyes. “It’s been a lovely evening. I’m afraid I can’t stay for breakfast. Although I’m sure you would have prepared something delicious, my good sir.” Henry refuses to acknowledge the compliment. Without expecting a reply, Stephen casually struts over to the front door.

“Good luck in there,” Dylan says. “If I don’t tear you to shreds, my lady friends will certainly do the job for me.”

“We’ll see about that. Stay put, you two.” Stephen gives Dylan the middle finger and walks through the front door, slamming it shut behind him. Cory Langdon, the sharpshooter who has been laying on the roof of one of the neighboring houses this whole time, finally has a clear shot of the lead terrorist without any civilians near him. Unfortunately, he just received orders not to fire at anyone. These orders are infuriating but he has no choice but to obey them.

“You two okay?” Special Agent Mendoza yells from behind the gate.

“I’ve had better weekends, to be honest,” Dylan replies. “I’m sure you’d rather be sleeping than spending the whole night in front of my lovely home. I’d invite you all in for tea, but, well, I don’t think that’s in the cards right now.” This quip makes the two feds smile.

“You’re lucky to be alive, Mr. Tanaka. You’re also lucky that he didn’t kill you right away. Both of you could be dead by now,” Baker says. Dylan shakes his head.

“Nah, he wasn’t going to kill me, not yet. He hasn’t stolen his loot yet.”

Baker and Mendoza quickly glance at each other. They both turn their heads to Dylan, expressions of surprise etched on their faces. Mendoza speaks first.

“Hold on, what? They came here to steal something? I thought he wanted to–”

“Kill me? That may have been part of it, but it’s not his whole plan,” Dylan explains. “Hold on. This is news to you? He didn’t tell you the actual reason why he and his men showed up?”

“No, he did not,” Baker answers. “What is it?”

“I have a safe in my basement. Well, it’s more of a vault. A very big vault. Inside are top-secret documents from a project we were doing for the government before, well, you know. All the shit that went down. The information inside that safe is worth billions of dollars. Maybe more. I don’t know,” Dylan says. “Anyway, he came here tonight to steal it all. I don’t know exactly what he plans to do with it, but that’s not my concern. All you need to know is that he didn’t come here to just execute me. He could have done that hours ago and left without anyone knowing he and his boys were here. Nah, he came here to steal my stuff. He probably would’ve put a bullet in my head before he skedaddled. But that’s neither here nor there. Now you know the rest.”

“Wow!” Baker exclaims. “This changes the equation, sort of. His boys aren’t here because they want to help him kill Mr. Dylan Tanaka. They’re here because they want to get rich. Or powerful. Or whatever.”

“That doesn’t mean he’s lying about the bomb threat,” Special Agent Mendoza points out.

“True. It just means this isn’t an attempted hit job. It’s…armed robbery. Of some really important shit, apparently. Thank you for telling us that, Mr. Tanaka,” Baker says.

“Please, call me Dylan. You might as well. I’m naked, scared, and vulnerable. The formality would seem odd,” Dylan smirks. “Given the circumstances, that is.”

“Of course, Dylan,” Baker replies.

***

“Damnit, damnit, DAMNIT!”

Bill Marks is frantically pacing around his living room in utter agony. He randomly flipped on the TV to see if anything good is on this late at night. When he stumbled across CNN and saw the hostage situation at Dylan Tanaka’s home dominating the station’s coverage, Bill went berserk.

Smoking a cigarette and sweating like a marathon runner, Bill cannot believe Stephen Callahan would find a way to screw up so badly. He, it should be noted, has done everything that was expected of him with flying colors. MPSS’s headquarters have reported no unusual signals coming from Tanaka’s residence. His security systems have not triggered a 9-1-1 call, so how the heck did the police find out about what’s going on?

“Shit, this is bad. This is bad, this is bad, this is REALLY bad!” Bill wants to tear his hair out, but he barely has any hair left to tear out. Instead, he decides to fill his lungs with carcinogenic smoke. It helps ease his nerves to a degree, though not enough to fully calm him down.

He has no plan for what to do if anything were to go wrong. He anticipated that Stephen and his experienced crew of professional criminals would do their jobs correctly. No screw-ups. No unexpected hurdles to cross. Nothing that would jeopardize the mission. Apparently, that was not the case. Bill is too frantic to pay attention to the television broadcast. All he knows is that it’s bad news. Bad for him. Bad for Stephen. Bad for everyone involved.

“What the fuck am I going to do? Seriously, what choices do I have?”

Bill scurries to the front of the house to peer out the window. So far, it’s still eerily quiet in his neighborhood. No cop cars in sight. No traffic of any kind. If he’s being watched, they’re doing a darn good job at hiding themselves from view. When he returns to the living room, Bill says a silent prayer hoping Stephen hasn’t left behind a paper trail that would lead the cops to him. They decided to use different cell phones for this job. The GPS trackers should be disabled. Theoretically, there shouldn’t be anything tying him directly to this monstrosity. Other than circumstantial evidence…which isn’t always admissible in court.

He’s not a religious man, but he now understands the mantra “there are no atheists in a foxhole.” He doesn’t believe in God, but he could sure use divine intervention right now.

“Oh God, please have mercy on my soul!” Bill shouts to the ceiling.

The ceiling doesn’t respond back.

***

“Look! You can see us on TV!” a random voice shouts to the whole group.

Nicole Jarrett sits quietly in the corner of the Martinelli’s cramped basement. It’s been at least an hour since she last sent a text to Derek Nguyen. By now, the story has broken wide open. Every major cable TV news channel is covering it. Everyone can hear the helicopters flying in the sky. The noise is not only deafening, but unnerving too. It sounds like being trapped in the middle of a warzone – which is not entirely untrue.

“Cool! Hot damn, I need to get a haircut!” another voice screams. The whole basement erupts in laughter. Nicole doesn’t find anything amusing about this. She just hopes she gets credit from the higher-ups at Channel 7 News that she’s responsible for breaking the story. She’ll get majorly upset if Derek takes all the credit. He’s not the type of guy who would do that, but he and her have been eyeing the Chief News Editor job that will most likely become vacant next year. Mike, who supervises them both, plans to retire in 2020 and live the rest of his life tending to his plants and babysitting his grandkids. Internal conversations have produced the rumor that either Nicole or Derek will get promoted to that job. Who gets primary credit for breaking this story could be the deal breaker.

A sudden buzzing of her phone breaks her concentration. She checks it. Darn. Apparently, Derek may actually be doing the thing she fears he would.

DEREK NGUYEN: Crazy shit going down over here. This is the story of the century. Everyone is running on coffee and adrenaline.

NICOLE JARRETT: Wish I could be there. Is Mike there?

DEREK NGUYEN: No. Still at home. Says he’ll be here soon. Plans to show up at his normal time.

NICOLE JARRETT: Who’s writing and approving the copy? Julie?

DEREK NGUYEN: No. Me lol

NICOLE JARRETT: Cool. It sounds great.

DEREK BUYEN: r u watching it now?

NICOLE JARRETT: Yeah. We’re still down in my neighbor’s basement. TV is on. Everyone’s eyes are glued to the screen.

DEREK NGUYEN: Glad ur safe. Keep me posted on latest deets

NICOLE JARRETT: Will do.

Blast it! Nicole doesn’t think Derek is taking credit for breaking the story, but he certainly is given the golden opportunity to take command in the newsroom during an historic crisis. Julie is the Station Director (and Mike’s boss) who would normally take over copywriting (and final approval) duties if Mike is absent. But for her to put Derek temporarily in charge is nearly unprecedented. This worries Nicole considerably. She could still secure Mike’s coveted position after he leaves, though being stuck here in this basement while all the action is going on at the Tanaka residence isn’t helping matters. She can’t even be outside taking pictures or capturing video on her phone. The police won’t allow her – or anybody – to leave the Martinelli’s house under any circumstances. She’s trapped like a rat, or like a hamster spinning in a never-ending wheel of frustration.

“Ugh. This sucks.”

“If anybody needs to use the toilet, it’s down this hall to your right,” Veronica Martinelli announces to the group like a considerate hostess. Everyone murmurs some sort of verbal acknowledgement. Nicole pokes her head up to watch the television broadcast. Someone has just changed it to Channel 4. She considers protesting, but figures she’d be outnumbered and overruled.

“It appears as though a van has pulled through the barricade of police and emergency response vehicles,” the voice of Hilary Mackenzie says. Hilary is Channel 4’s rising star. She also went to college with Nicole several years ago. She and her are on good terms, despite working at rival stations. If Derek ends up getting the Chief News Editor position, Hilary has told Nicole that a similar opportunity may open up at Channel 4 within two to three years. Nicole has put this in the back of her mind as part of her contingency plan.

“It is unclear at this time the purpose of this van, but it does seem to be important. Several police officers have moved their cars off to the side to make room for this van to approach the front gate of Dylan Tanaka’s home,” Hilary says.

“Hey, they might be heading for the airport!” someone randomly blurts out. “What countries don’t have extradition policies? Venezuela? Switzerland?”

“North Korea!” another person shouts. This makes everyone in the room laugh. Even Nicole finds that amusing.

“What was that movie with Al Pacino where he robs a bank and tries to get away with it? I think it ends with him getting shot at the airport? Do you know what I’m talking about?” Cory Martinelli asks the group.

“Dog Day Afternoon,” Nicole answers.

“Oh yeah! That’s right. It’s an old one, but a good one. It ends with them going to the airport and getting shot by police, right?”

“I believe so. Yes.”

“Huh. I wonder if that’s going to happen here.” The room becomes quiet as everyone ponders what’s going to happen next in this captivating drama.

“I hope so. I need my beauty rest. I didn’t expect to have houseguests over at this hour. You’re like my in-laws, except I actually like all of you,” Veronica jokes.

Nobody laughs this time.

***

A nondescript black van with no markings and a basic Washington State license plate snakes through several police cars to get to the end of the cul-de-sac. One police car backed up to make room and promptly dented a mailbox. The driver hopes nobody notices.

Special Agent Mendoza cannot believe this is happening. She’s normally accustomed to dealing with simple crimes like idiots sending threatening letters to federal buildings or a venture capitalist funneling money into a private offshore bank account. A hostage crisis, specifically one involving a billionaire who’s been accused of committing war crimes and profiting from people’s deaths, is rare but not unheard of. Usually it involves a jilted lover putting a knife to the throat of their ex or a depressed lunatic threatening a murder-suicide of themselves and their spouse. What is exceedingly rare, however, is a high-stakes game like this. And, to add to the unbearable tension, one of the bad guys says a bomb will go off somewhere in the city of his demands aren’t met. This transforms things from being a case of a “disgruntled former employee taking matters too far” into a “domestic terrorism situation” that requires further involvement from the feds. A “mass casualty incident” ups the ante past her paygrade. She hopes she’ll get a promotion once this is over.

The difference between Mendoza and Nicole Jarrett is that Nicole’s promotion would be based on the perception of how much credit she deserves for breaking this story. Mendoza’s promotion is dependent on people not dying.

“It’s here. Shall we provide an update to Mr. Callahan?” Special Agent Mendoza asks Robert L. Baker. He looks back at Dylan Tanaka’s property. Mr. Tanaka and his chef are still outside. Callahan is nowhere to be found.

“Not sure where he is. He hasn’t returned since he left ten minutes ago.” Baker looks at his watch. It’s approaching 4:00 a.m. This crisis has been going on for more than two hours. The news helicopters are still whirling around in the sky. The police helicopter has flown back several hundred yards in anticipation of escorting the van to the airport. Just as the van comes to a complete stop, Officer Dietrich approaches the veteran hostage negotiator with urgency.

“What the hell is going on in there?” Dietrich wants to know. Baker shakes his head.

“No clue. Callahan said he was going to inform his men that we’re going to escort him and Dylan Tanaka to Boeing Field. I’m assuming that’s what he’s doing.” Baker checks his phone. He and Mendoza both receive a text from a colleague saying the two Special Forces officers and two Navy SEALS have been briefed and are ready to go. They understand their mission, the fact they must protect one unarmed civilian from harm, and the possibility that they might be breaking multiple international laws in the process. The U.S. government will issue apologies later. They’re taking to heart the mantra that it’s easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.

“Yeah. But I’m still nervous. Something doesn’t smell right, know what I mean?”

“I know what you mean. Nothing about tonight seems right. The fact Dylan Tanaka doesn’t have a bullet through his head is weird. But we found out why. He’s trying to steal something from him. Something valuable. Documents, or some shit like that.”

Steal something? This is a robbery?”

“Yes, sir. It certainly appears like it is. Mr. Tanaka confirmed that with us a few minutes ago.” Baker watches Special Agent Mendoza speak to the driver of the van. “His chance of getting whatever he wants is gone now. Ruined. Us being here made that official.”

“Hm. No matter what he’s after, I get the feeling he’s got something up his sleeve. That guy seems a lot more sinister than your usual punk who fantasizes about shooting his boss as he sleeps,” Dietrich says. “And robbing him blind afterward.” Mendoza walks toward them, apparently done speaking with the van driver. Dietrich estimates the sun will start to peek over the horizon within an hour. Soon, the whole city of Seattle will know that one of their most infamous residents is being escorted by police to Boeing Field to leave on an airplane with a group of armed terrorists. Dietrich speaks for the whole police force when he hopes this fiasco can end before everyone wakes up. That will make escorting them across town a lot easier.

“I just spoke with the driver. He’s aware of what to do. Follow the police caravan to SoDo, drop off the passengers on the tarmac next to the private jet, and drive away,” Mendoza reports. “He knows we’re not planning anything until after everyone has boarded the plane. So he shouldn’t worry about snipers taking anyone out while he’s still behind the wheel.”

“Thanks. That’ll put his mind at ease,” Baker says.

“What’s holding up the party?”

“Callahan and his men haven’t come out of the house yet,” Dietrich says. He points to the front of the house. “He says he’s rounding up his crew so they can all leave. Not sure when they’ll be out.”

“Did we give him a departure time?”

Baker shakes his head. “No. Damn it. I didn’t think of that. I should have told him that. Shit.”

“It’s okay. He knows we’re not going to wait for him forever. He knows the clock is ticking. He knows as soon as daylight hits the snipers on the roofs will have a much easier time targeting him and his guys. I’m guessing he’ll be out in less than ten minutes,” Mendoza predicts. She watches Dylan and Henry sitting together on the other side of the gate, chatting away like old buddies reliving their high school days. Except she knows nothing about this evening has been pleasant for anyone. While Callahan and his men are en route to Boeing Field, she and her crew will immediately start to question the hostages (who, she sincerely hopes, are still alive) to find out what they know before anyone boards the jet. It’s possible they could shed light on the issue of whether or not there’s actually a bomb hidden somewhere in the city. If not, this changes their equation of when the military personnel inside the airplane can spring to action.

“I hope so,” Baker says. The news helicopters flying overhead are not only a nuisance, but they’re also drowning out any noise that could be coming out of the house. All hell could be breaking loose inside and nobody standing around outside would know.

Little did he know…

***

Xander sprints across the gym, keeping his eyes straight ahead so he doesn’t accidentally look at Cortez’s dead body on the ground. Maintaining tunnel vision is his best way to avoid reinvigorating his anger against the bitches who killed him. He’s not a moron. He knows he’s unarmed and that they aren’t. Confronting them directly would be a fool’s errand.

“Motherfucker!” he cries out. This evening has not gone according to plan. And it’s shocking how quickly things spiraled out of control. At first, he and his team had the upper hand. The hostages were naked, scared, unarmed, and powerless. Now, they are still naked but armed, motivated, and thirsty for vengeance. And on top of that, the whole house is surrounded with cops. Xander knows he’s screwed big time. The only question remaining for him is how can he make the best out of a shitty situation?

Before he can come up with any possible answers, Xander exits the gym and hears a voice scream from far away. He stops dead in his tracks.

“Hey! Stop right there!”

At the far end of the long hallway is the cute black chick, armed with a shotgun and a Glock 19. Xander doesn’t have time to ponder how she came about to possess these weapons. All he can reflexively do is make a hard right turn and dash up the stairs.

“Fuck! STOP!” Monique aims the Glock at Xander and fires multiple shots at him. All of them miss, except for the final bullet that grazes his shoe. Xander stumbles momentarily, picks himself up, and continues running up the stairs. Full of visceral fear and adrenaline, he has no plan now except to run for his life. It’s not glamorous, but it’s the only thing he can do.

Monique doesn’t know how many rounds are left in the pistol. By her estimation, it’s probably less than four or five. She knows she has to proceed carefully. From the sounds of Xander running up the staircase, it’s clear he’s either unarmed or wasn’t in the best position to fire back. The hallway is dark, so her visibility is limited.

On the ground floor, Xander’s survival instincts kick in. He sees the long spiral staircase and continues going up until he gets to the second floor. He’d rather get arrested than shot dead. Both aren’t ideal situations, but “idealism” went out the window hours ago. All he wants to do is not end up dead. Once he reaches the second floor, he sees the entrance of the cabaret room where the party started and then notices the hallway leading to the bedrooms.

“Holy shit, where do I go?” Out of breath and experiencing a bad headache from being bashed in the face with a rock, Xander weighs his options. For no reason whatsoever, he chooses to hide in one of the guest bedrooms. He hates to flee and hide, but that appears to be his only choice.

It is at that very moment that Stephen Callahan enters the house through the front entrance. He smells the air, noticing the strong stench of gunpowder. This does not bode well for us, he thinks to himself. Someone is dead around here for sure. But who?

Monique, creeping up the stairs cautiously so that nobody could hear her footsteps, knows someone has just entered the house. Not sure exactly who it is, she decides to assume this person has a gun. Once she reaches the last few remaining steps, she carefully puts the shotgun down so she can handle the pistol with both hands. Aim will be important, so now is not the time to act like a Hollywood action hero who can handle two weapons at once. She knows the safecracker guy who’s bleeding from the groin isn’t a threat any longer. He has either passed out or is on the verge of bleeding to death. Either way, she can afford to place one of her firearms on the staircase and proceed forward with only one weapon.

When she sees the side of Stephen Callahan’s face emerge through the foyer, Monique takes a deep breath, cocks her pistol, and fires a single shot in his direction.

“SHIT!” Stephen screams. He falls to the ground, fortunate the bullet misses him and hits a painting hanging on the wall behind him. He takes out his Glock and fires three random shots in the direction of the shooter. He knows he’ll miss but he has to do whatever he can to frighten whoever is trying to kill him. “Well, look at this! I’m impressed. Looks like Dylan’s bitches have broken free and taken matters into their own hands. That’s quite a turnaround.”

“Yeah, well, we’re full of surprises,” Monique responds. Stephen cannot see her but he can tell from her voice that it’s the cute black chick who tried to shoot him. In a parallel universe where he’s not a dangerous criminal; he’d flirt with her, fall in love with her, and fuck her brains out every night. Maybe they’d get married and start a family. But right now, they’re mortal enemies. In this universe, there will be no happy endings. “I can tell you this. The guy who’s trying to break into the vault? You know that guy?”

Stephen closes his eyes and sighs. He knows what she’s about to tell him. “Uh huh. What about him? Is he dead?”

“No,” she starts. “He’s not dead. At least, not yet. He probably will soon. Thanks to me, he’s not exactly the man he used to be. If you know what I mean. Even if he survives, I doubt he’ll want to continue living. He can’t even jerk off because he has nothing left to jerk off!” Monique cackles with glee. She slowly arises from the staircase, careful not to be seen or heard. If she can get in a better position, she’s confident she can finish him off.

“Wow. That sucks for him. You ladies sure know how to handle guys like us,” he says. He too is waiting for her to enter his sightline. Stephen aims his pistol at the intersection where the top of the foyer leads to the staircase going to the basement. The moment he sees her head, he intends to blow her brains out all over Dylan’s carpet. “Some dudes are into that sort of thing. Being emasculated by bitches like you. But you had to take it one step too far.”

Now standing on the ground floor, Monique shuffles her feet away from the edge of the staircase. Little did she know that Xander – who was about to run and hide inside the bedrooms until he heard the commotion going on downstairs – is watching her like a hawk from above. He waits for the right time to warn his boss that she’s about to shoot him. All of a sudden, Monique remembers that the living room on the right side of the house can be entered through the foyer. She tiptoes to the living room so she can strike him from behind where he’d least expect it.

Xander watches the cute black girl sneak off in a hurry, making him suspicious that she has something up her sleeve (so to speak). “Hey boss! She’s behind you!”

“WHAT?” Stephen replies. He turns around and sees a shadow form across the living room floor. He slides across the carpet, aiming his weapon at his target. In complete darkness, he fires several shots, hoping at least one of them hits the cute black girl. Monique dives backwards toward the kitchen and avoids getting hit. The sound of a bullet hitting a cast iron skillet makes a loud DING noise that echoes across the house.

“DAMNIT!” Stephen curses. “Where are you?”

Before he can stand up, Monique recklessly fires the Glock’s two remaining rounds into the living room. One bullet goes through a window and the other hits the top of a sofa. A wild explosion of white feathery foam floats around everywhere. She pulls the trigger again, but nothing comes out. Stephen hears that she’s empty and can only laugh.

“Well, well, well. Looks like you’re out of bullets. That’s too bad for you!” Stephen catches his breath. He’s thankful that he’s delayed death by at least a few more minutes. He suddenly remembers that it was Xander who warned him about the incoming ambush. “Thanks Xan! I appreciate the heads up. It saved my motherfucking life.”

“You’re welcome, boss,” a distant voice responds from a long way away.

“Now, let’s deal with you, young lady.” Stephen inches toward the kitchen, aching for the opportunity to put her out of her misery. He cannot see her but knows she’s harmless. “You might as well give up. You can run but you can’t hide. This evening may be going to shit for me, but I’m determined to get at least some satisfaction before this is all over. You hear?”

“Yeah, I hear you.” Monique ducks behind the long kitchen island. She sees a cutlery set sitting on top. As quickly as possible, she chooses a random knife to arm herself with. Fortunately for her, it’s a long chef’s knife. Not better than a projectile weapon, but it’s something. Sweat drips down her face like rainfall. Her heart pounds so loudly she’s certain he could hear it from several feet away. If this is the moment she’s going to die, she’s decided to go out with a bang. She hasn’t come this far just to go down with a soft whimper.

“You and your friends are dead. You know that, right?” he taunts her.

“Nah, I don’t think so. They’re big girls. They can handle themselves,” Monique says. “It’s you who’s trapped like a rat. You have no escape. You’re surrounded by cops. Unless Scotty beams you up back to your spaceship, you’re completely fucked.”

“No, I don’t exactly have anyone ready to beam me up,” he laughs, appreciating the unexpected pop culture reference. “I don’t need that. I have a backup to my backup plan, in case you’re curious.” He continues to inch closer to her, making sure the sound of his voice doesn’t give away his proximity to her location. He doubts Xander is able to see where everyone is, which makes him basically useless at this point. Stephen is curious why he’s on the second floor and not joining in on the hunt. Is he armed? If not, what happened to him?

“I am curious, but I highly doubt you’ll tell me shit.” Monique doesn’t dare poke her head above the kitchen island. That’s a sure way to get her brains blown out. If he comes around the kitchen, she’ll try to stab him in the legs to distract him. Then, she hopes she can wrestle the gun out of his possession and grab it. Monique is disappointed that the shotgun is so far away, still sitting on one of the stair steps. If she had it, she’d have the upper hand right now.

“No, I won’t tell you shit. You’re right about that. Because I’d much rather shoot you and then pick off the rest of your cunty friends, one by one…”

Before he can finish his threat, a powerful shotgun blast blows a massive hole through the inner wall of the living room. The deafening sound of drywall exploding in millions of dusty pieces knocks him back to the floor. He lets out several curse words in rapid succession. Xander, still upstairs, covers his ears and falls on his belly. He prays the next slug fired doesn’t hit him. Monique freezes, unsure who found the shotgun and fired it. Though she’s thankful for it, no matter who it was. She doesn’t dare speak in case the person who fired it was actually aiming for her but didn’t know which room she was in.

“What the fuck?” Stephen mutters to himself. The ringing in his ears is both distracting and an impediment to hearing which direction the next threat will arrive from. The only thing he can do is stay low and hope the darkness protects him from being shot.

“Alright, you motherfucking piece of shit! Don’t you dare hurt my Monique. That baby girl is practically my little sister,” Peggy screams at the hole in the wall. The foyer fills with smoke. Monique smiles, relieved to know the shotgun blast came from someone friendly. She hears Peggy pump the shotgun to load the next cartridge. “If you’ve harmed a hair on that girl’s head, I swear to God I’ll make sure you don’t have a motherfucking head left! Believe that!”

“Be careful Peggy darling,” Monique warns her. “He’s armed for sure, and you only have two shots left in that gun.”

“Thanks, baby. Are you okay?” Peggy and Melanie slowly emerge up to the ground floor. Still bleeding, Peggy is reminded of the burning pain in her left boob every time she speaks. Before heading upstairs, Melanie tore off a piece of Cortez’s shirt and wrapped it around Peggy’s bleeding breast. It’s not a perfect solution but it’ll do for now. Melanie isn’t exactly Florence Nightingale.

“Yeah. I’m okay. I’m not hurt. Too bad, that is. How are you?”

“I’ve been better. I’ve been shot, but I’ll be fine. It hurts like a bitch, though. FUUUUUUUCK!” Peggy stumbles, a sharp jolt of pain shocking her back to reality. Melanie holds onto her to prevent her from falling down. It’s like the pain is spreading throughout her whole body like a ravenous cancer. She really needs medical attention right now but knows she has unfinished business before that can ever happen.

“Easy! Easy there, Peggy,” Melanie comforts her. Before coming up the stairs, Melanie put down the chainsaw when she and Peggy found the shotgun. Peggy took it and gave the pistol to her. Melanie still doesn’t know if she can properly handle a firearm, though she knows that’s irrelevant at the moment, given the circumstances. A projectile weapon is preferable to a chainsaw, no matter how scary it looks. “Don’t worry about her, Monique sweetie. Peggy is a warrior. She’ll be okay, I’m sure of it.”

“Okay. I’m sure of it too.” Monique still clutches the knife tightly, knowing the battle is far from over. She isn’t sure how many other guys are still roaming around the house. She’s aware of the dude upstairs and that’s it.

Still on the floor, Stephen tries to think of his next move. No rational or strategically advantageous ideas come to mind. The only thing he can do is lay there and listen in on their conversation. His head is facing the entryway to the kitchen while behind him is the exit to the foyer. He cannot account for both ends. He’s more screwed if they sneak up behind him. Can Xander be counted on to bail him out somehow?

As Peggy falls to her knees, unable to bear the burning pain in her left breast, Melanie makes the decision to go after Stephen herself. Peggy plops herself on the floor, breathing hard and trying to focus her attention away from the agony her body is experiencing. Less than twenty feet away, Monique is separated from her by only a wall. She wants to help Peggy but doesn’t know how. She hears footsteps in the foyer, which she hopes is Melanie taking charge of the situation. Melanie being proactive is the only thing that can save them at this point.

Melanie ducks her head underneath the hole in the wall to avoid being seen. With both hands gripping the pistol, she tiptoes across the floor toward the living room. After waiting a split second to gain her composure, she bolts inside. It’s dark, so her eyes need a moment to adjust. After hearing a noise from behind him, Stephen flips onto his back to engage his new target. When he does, he accidentally drops the gun to his side. Before he can find it, he looks up to see the silhouette of a massive, bulky woman standing over him. She’s pointing the Glock directly at his chest. Stephen’s breathing stops as he makes peace with the fact that he’s about to die.

CLICK!

Stephen reopens his eyes to see what happened. Why isn’t he dead? Doesn’t this tranny bitch know how to fire a gun? Is she (or he) stupid? Hasn’t she ever seen a fucking movie before?

“Uh, what? Oh shit. What’s going on?” Melanie pulls the trigger a few more times, but nothing happens. Stephen’s breathing resumes. “Damnit!”

“Oh baby! Shit! The safety is still on. I forgot to turn it off. Can you do that, honey?” Peggy instructs her. Stephen watches Melanie fumble with the gun. She clearly has never fired a gun before or knows the first thing about firearms and firearm safety. He looks to his right and sees his Glock a couple feet away from him. As he slowly reaches for it, Melanie swears to herself.

“FUCK! I don’t know how,” Melanie complains. Then, she sees Stephen reach for his gun. “SHIT!”

Out of sheer terror, Melanie dives onto Stephen’s body before he can locate his Glock. She grabs his head and slams it against the floor. The carpet lessens the impact. Stunned and upset with himself that he couldn’t find the gun sooner, Stephen can do nothing productive except take the beating. Monique stands up and sees them wrestling on the ground. Melanie punches Stephen several times in the face. She may not know how to fire a gun, but she can sure as hell use her fists instead. Melanie then takes her Glock and with all her might pistol-whips him on the forehead. This temporarily knocks him out. She looks up and sees Monique standing over her holding a knife.

“Hi, baby. Good to see you.” Melanie stands up and hugs her. Monique tosses the knife away onto the coffee table. “I’m not good with guns. I suck at it.”

“No worries. It’s not for everyone.” Monique bends down and picks up both guns. She and Melanie look at Stephen’s unconscious body sprawled out on the carpet. She flips the safety switch and hands the pistol back to Melanie. “Here. Be careful. The safety’s off. That means, well, you know what that means.”

“Thanks, baby girl. Come on.” The two of them go to Peggy, who’s almost ready to pass out from the excruciating pain. She’s still gripping the shotgun just in case she needs it.

“Hey, you two. I’m glad you’re okay,” Peggy says to Monique. “God, I’m a fucking mess. This hurts like a motherfucker. Like a bitch. Like a cunty slutty fucking whore bitch.” Peggy leans her head back against the wall, wanting nothing more than to receive a shot of morphine (and bourbon). Monique gets down on her knees and carefully hugs her, cognizant about not touching her wounded area.

“We need to get you to a doctor, stat,” Monique jokes. “Can you stand up?”

“If I don’t have to stand up, I’d prefer to stay here,” Peggy admits. She takes shallow breaths to minimize the pain.

“I hear you. What should we do?”

“Did you kill him?” Peggy asks.

“No, he’s still alive. I just knocked him out. He’s still in there, sleeping like a baby,” Melanie says. All three women are gathered in the end of the hallway where the foyer, entrance to the kitchen, and staircase leading down to the basement intersect. Peggy, still sitting, clearly doesn’t want to move. Monique and Melanie both know they can’t stay here forever. Eventually, Stephen is going to wake up. They can still shoot him, but they prefer to not shoot an unarmed man.

“That…that’s good,” Peggy mumbles. “I have some painkillers in my purse, but that’s all the way upstairs. Shit.”

“Oh yeah, I need to warn you both. Another guy is up there. Not sure who, but I tried to shoot him…but he escaped,” Monique whispers so Xander cannot hear their conversation. He’s still on the second floor, eavesdropping on the warzone happening below him. “We got to deal with him too. Unfortunately.”

“Okay, thanks. We’ll do that. First, we need to get Peggy out of here. She’s in no condition to be…” Before Melanie can complete her thought, the ear-splitting sound of a drill blares from behind them. Melanie and Monique turn around to see what horrible thing is happening now.

“Oh my God!” Monique screams.

Thomas Sellars, bleeding profusely from the groin, has somehow managed to muster enough energy to stumble up the stairs. Carrying his powerful drill with both hands, he’s determined to slice the bitch in half who shot him in the testicles. He did (in fact) pass out for a moment from the pain but woke up a few minutes later. After struggling to stand up, he picked up the drill and trudged at a snail’s pace across the storage room, down the long basement hallway, and up the stairs. He knew this would be a suicide mission, but that’s the least of his worries. All he wants now is vengeance. The drill has about forty minutes worth of battery life when it’s not plugged in. Plenty of time to slice up the cute black girl like a gutted fish.

“Look you fucking bitch! You’re going to die for that!” He waves the drill violently around, hoping to intimidate them. He’s successfully managed to ignore the pain, his body resorting to its natural defense mechanisms to keep going. Still, his ability to walk has been compromised.

Melanie points her pistol right at Thomas. Before she can squeeze the trigger, he lunges forward with the drill. The sharp edge slices the pistol in half like warm butter. An explosion of sparks flies across the hallway, prompting Melanie to drop what’s left of the firearm. She gasps. Emboldened, Thomas takes a few more steps forward. His gaze is laser-focused on Monique St. Martin, the Castrator of Men. She attempts to shoot him as well but meets a similar fate when he manages to slice her gun in half.

L…looks like both of you are half-cocked, like me!” Thomas laughs, still somehow able to joke around despite the outrageous circumstances. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Melanie attempt to lunge at him. He swings the drill at her face, slicing her right cheek. Melanie falls backward in pain, the sharp drill ripping a piece of her flesh off. Now it’s her turn to bleed like a stabbed pig in a butcher shop. Monique is horrified, hoping she’s okay.

“OWWWWWW!” Melanie screams. She grabs her face and feels warm blood trickling through her fingers.

Thomas ignores her wails, believing she’s no longer an active threat. He takes a few more steps closer to Monique, who’s instinctively backing up in fear.

“Come here, you fucking little bitch! I have a surprise for you!”

The safecracker jabs the drill at Monique’s torso. With the grace of a running back juking a would-be tackler, Miss St. Martin avoids being stabbed with Thomas Sellars’ powerful weapon by sidestepping to her left. This causes him to wobble a bit. He regains his footing, not expecting she’d move that fast. He can sense his blood supply running low. It’s only a matter of time before he passes out or dies from blood loss. Before he can take another step, Peggy extends her leg to trip him. He falls forward, dropping the drill close to Monique’s feet.

“Shit!” Monique jumps backward to avoid getting her ankles sawed off. Her butt bounces off the kitchen island. She looks down to see the drill on the floor. Thomas’s finger is no longer holding down the button so it stops spinning. After standing back up, Thomas kicks Peggy in the face. She falls onto her back. He then stomps on her wounded left boob with all his might.

“AAAAAAAAUGH!!! OOOOOWWWWWWWWWWW!!! FUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!!!!” Peggy screams at the top of her lungs. The world-famous porn star passes out from the unbearable pain. She lays limp on the floor like a dead body.

Satisfied with himself, he turns back to Monique, his real target. Melanie is still on the floor, holding her face with her right hand. Even though the drill didn’t puncture her cheek completely, she can still taste blood coating the inside of her mouth. Whatever he did, he ripped a chunk of flesh off her face. She knows it’ll leave a hideous scar that will never go away.

Without a weapon in hand, all Monique can do is lunge toward the drill. Thomas does the same simultaneously.

“Come here, you black bitch!”

Enraged by his racist slur, Monique and Thomas both struggle to get ahold of the drill. Monique presses down on the trigger, making the sharp edge spin again. With every ounce of energy he has left, Thomas attempts to pull the machine away from her. He does so, but accidentally smashes the drill against the doorframe. This causes the battery to pop out. The drill stops spinning.

“FUCK!” he curses aloud.

“What are you going to do now, you piece of shit?” Monique spits at him. For a moment, both combatants can only stare at each other. Finally, he throws the drill at her like an Olympic shotput star. Monique dodges it. The drill crashes into the refrigerator and falls to the ground.

“What…what am I going to…to…to do now?” Thomas, now feeling his consciousness fade away, knows he can only pounce at her. That’s all he can do at this point. “I’m going to rip you to fucking pieces!”

Thomas leaps at her and tackles her to the ground. Monique kicks him in the face. She stands up and looks for another knife to fight with. Before she can do that, Thomas gets to his feet and punches her in the back of her head. Monique’s forehead bonks into the cast iron skillet with the bullet hole in it. This temporarily disorients her. She leans over the kitchen island to grab any random knife from the cutlery set. After she finds a paring knife, Thomas grabs her by the hips and violently swings her against the pantry door. She crashes through it, breaking the wooden door in half. Monique is amazed that Thomas still has the vigor to engage in hand-to-hand combat, despite his considerable blood loss.

Inside the pantry, Monique tries to find the knife. She dropped it but has no idea where it went. When she sees Thomas’s shadow enter the pantry, she finds a large can of tomatoes and throws it at him. It lands with a thud against his chest. He grabs her hair and pulls her to her feet. Monique screams at the pain of having her hair yanked.

“Go fuck yourself!” she mumbles. Thomas slaps her hard across the face. She then kicks him in the groin. As if flipping off his body’s “defense mechanisms” like a light switch, a sharp thunderbolt of pain rips through his lower body. He falls backward, catching himself on the edge of the kitchen island.

When he sees her running at him with a balled fist, he preemptively counters by grabbing her right hand just as she attempts to punch him. Thomas steps on her left ankle, forcing her to bend over. Then, he grabs her with both hands around her midsection and, with the only fumes of energy he has left, throws her across the kitchen island. She slides across the surface, knocking down cookbooks, cutlery, a bottle of cooking wine, spices, a jar of mustard, and other random objects to the floor. She lands on the hard kitchen linoleum and bangs her head against a countertop. A dirty wine glass falls to the floor and shatters.

Thomas, who knows he’s about to faint at any moment, wobbles around. His legs feel like jelly. He struggles to stand up straight. Monique’s entire body aches. She’s pretty sure she fractured her wrist and may have just suffered a mild concussion. All she can do is lay there as helplessly as a baby crying out for its mother. By now, it’s only a matter of time before both of them pass out. The safecracker holds onto the flat surface of the kitchen island as he shuffles his feet closer to her.

“Now…now you little cunt,” Thomas squeaks. “I don’t know how I’m going to kill you, but you are about to die.”

“No. You are,” Peggy says.

As if it’s happening in slow motion like in a movie, Thomas Sellars turns his neck toward the sound of Peggy’s voice. He sees the frightening end of a shotgun pointed right at his forehead. Before he can say anything, Peggy pulls the trigger. The thunderous BOOM fills the whole kitchen. Monique half expects the wine glasses sitting in a cupboard above her head to shatter, like an opera singer hitting a high note that makes the conductor’s glasses crack. Monique shields her face with both arms as globs of brain matter splatter across the kitchen. Thomas, whose head has almost completely been blasted off, falls backward. His death may have come instantaneously, but the mess his corpse leaves behind takes its sweet time to spread everywhere. Peggy closes her eyes so she doesn’t get blinded by gooey blood. The slug not only explodes Thomas’s head, it also makes several small holes in the outer wall facing the backyard. Shards of skull land in all directions, forming a ghastly perimeter around the dead body. Once Peggy and Monique’s ears stop ringing, they take a moment to stare at the gory entrails dripping everywhere. It’s like a scene out of a horror flick.

“Oh, fuck. That’s disgusting.” Peggy whispers.

“My God, this is such a fucking disaster,” Monique points out, as if it needed to be said. “The next time Dylan invites me over for a dinner party, I think I’ll politely decline.” Both women laugh. Melanie then enters the scene. Her face is completely covered in blood. She gazes upon the macabre scene with horror, dismayed at what she finds. Tiny droplets of blood can be found everywhere. What’s left of Thomas’s head consists of his entire jaw line, parts of his cheeks, most of his nose, and nothing else. The rest is a blob of warm stinky red ooze. Strands of his hair are still floating around in the air. It makes her want to vomit.

“Goddamn! How the fuck can you ladies be laughing at a time like this?”

“Holy shit! Are you okay?” Monique gets to her feet, suddenly concerned with Melanie’s wellbeing. Melanie finds a roll of paper towels sitting on the floor and rips off a few sheets.

“Do I look okay? I mean, let’s face it. None of us are okay right now. We’re all feeling like shit.” She wipes a lot of the blood off her face. She wishes she had something to wrap around her wound. The deep cut is sure to leak more blood if she doesn’t do anything about it. Peggy, whose defense mechanisms have also kicked in, forgets momentarily about her own pain and instead chooses to focus on the mission at hand. This nightmare is far from over.

“That we are, sugar. What do we do now?”

As the three women chat in the kitchen, several feet away Stephen Callahan wakes up. He feels his forehead and notices a large bump has formed on it. It also hurts like hell. He reaches out to find his gun but does not feel it. Alright, now it’s time to resort to Plan Z, he decides. He doesn’t want to do it, but it looks like he has no other choice. Most of his men are dead (Xander is probably still alive) and he doubts the private jet thing will actually work. Chances are there will be a team of snipers waiting for them at the airport. He will never board that airplane. He’ll be shot before that happens, with Dylan Tanaka being triumphantly rescued in the process. That’s an outcome he cannot accept. So, it’s time to go on a suicide mission. Because there’s nothing left but sweet, sweet revenge. Nothing else matters. Nothing else is feasible.

The original mission is a failure, so he now must adjust his mission parameters. It’s the only logical thing to do.

Stephen stands up, peers into the kitchen to see the three women talking amongst themselves, and tiptoes away to the basement. As he passes by the chainsaw, he sees it, considers picking it up, but declines and speeds down toward the vault.

That chainsaw looks like a fine weapon, but he has something much more explosive in mind!

“Alright, let’s take care of this asshole,” Melanie says. When she leads the two other ladies back into the living room, everyone stops dead in their tracks when they see that it’s empty. “Oh shit!”

Monique looks around for a light switch. When she finds it, she flips it on. “He’s gone! Wasn’t he knocked out cold?” Melanie and Monique look under the furniture to see if he’s hiding. Peggy, who can barely stand, pokes her head in the hallway. She doesn’t find him there either.

“FUCK! He’s gone. Probably outside?” Melanie wonders.

“Nah, we’d have heard the door shut if he went out there. Probably downstairs back to the vault?” Peggy guesses. Everyone agrees that this is the likely scenario. “Whatever. We need to go outside and get the fucking cops to storm this castle. I don’t know why they haven’t already. What are they waiting for?”

“They’re probably worried we’re still being held at gunpoint,” Monique says. “I’ll go outside and tell them we’re free.” Before she can take one step toward the front door, Peggy puts her hand on her meaty shoulder to stop her.

“Hold on. Let’s not go anywhere yet. There’s still one more motherfucker upstairs. Remember?” Peggy points up. Monique and Melanie look at each other for a brief moment. Peggy is still armed with a shotgun that has only one cartridge left in it. The other pistols have either been sawed in half or are in somebody else’s possession. As Monique can testify, in all probability the guy upstairs is unarmed, though they don’t know that for sure. “We need to deal with him first. After all, we have strength in numbers. Right, girls?”

“I don’t know about that. You have a fucking shotgun. You can handle him, baby,” Melanie suggests. “Here’s what we’ll do. Me and Peggy will go upstairs and deal with that. You, go outside and tell the cops to come in here as soon as possible and take care of the main asshole. Got it?”

“Gee, I don’t know!” Monique protests. “Shouldn’t we all go outside and get the police? We’re not trained for this sort of thing. Yeah, we’ve handled ourselves pretty good so far, but I don’t know about you, but I’m tired as fuck. I hurt everywhere. Hell, Peggy’s BEEN SHOT! That’s crazy. She could bleed to death if we’re not careful.” Monique points to Peggy’s wound. The ripped cloth is completely soaked in blood. The very mention of the words “been shot” instantly brings the tortuous agony of pain back into the forefront of Peggy’s mind.

“Oh fuck! Thanks for mentioning that.” Peggy falls to one knee, unable to bear the suffering for much longer.

“See?!” Monique insists.

While the three ladies argue downstairs, Xander formulates his next move. It’s not a matter of if, but when the cops arrive and haul him away to the slammer. Suddenly, Xander remembers something. When he and Roddy were sent upstairs to Dylan Tanaka’s bedroom to fetch his key, they stumbled upon a beautiful Remington sniper rifle with a scope sitting in a glass case. Dylan doesn’t consider hunting deer one of his hobbies, but it’s something he used to do on a few occasions before the scandal. He and a few Perseus Analytics executives would travel to Montana (and Colorado a couple of times) to hunt whatever prey they wanted to eat that night. Dylan hasn’t gone hunting in at least four years. The rifle was given to him as a gift by a British MP who felt like Dylan, a wealthy American who grew up playing violent video games all his life, would love to possess a deadly weapon. Surprisingly, Dylan isn’t into guns. However, he accepted the gift graciously and promised the man he’d use it when he can. He did not break his promise.

Xander hurries upstairs to retrieve the weapon. He’s lucky he knows exactly where to find it. The sounds of the ladies arguing fade away as he enters Dylan Tanaka’s bedroom. He picks up a baseball bat autographed by Ken Griffey Jr. sitting on a display pedestal and smashes it into the glass case. After several whacks, enough glass breaks so that he can reach into it and remove the rifle. He pulls out a box of rounds from a nearby drawer. After loading the weapon, Xander scurries down the stairs to return to the front part of the house. He squints to see whether or not anyone is visible through the hole in the wall. It’s dark, so he decides that’s not a viable option. Instead, he’ll wait for one of them to make the first move. It appears as though their discussion is coming to an end.

“Okay, okay, okay!” Peggy concedes. “We’ll all go outside and get the police. Sheesh.”

Peggy Cole takes the lead and steps into the foyer. Without looking into the scope, Xander positions the gun, the barrel of the rifle sitting on top of the wooden railing. He fires a single shot without properly aiming. The bullet grazes the top of Peggy’s right boob and ultimately hits a bookshelf. She screams bloody murder, drops the shotgun to the floor, and falls backward.

“HOLY FUCKING SHIT!”

This time, the pain is too much for her to handle. She has a high pain threshold but two bullet wounds in both breasts is the tipping point. Peggy faints almost immediately after hitting the carpet. Melanie and Monique pull her by the arms back into the living room so the rest of her body isn’t exposed to gunfire. After plopping her body onto one of the sofas, Melanie checks Peggy’s vitals. Thankfully, she still has a pulse. She’s just going to take a short nap for now.

“DAMNIT!” Monique screams. She has no idea how the guy upstairs got ahold of a (new) gun, but now that’s a new problem they’re going to have to deal with. She regrets not being able to hit him the first time.

“She’s alive, but clearly unconscious,” Melanie whispers. Monique squeezes Peggy’s hand out of solidarity. It’s still warm, a sure sign that she’s not dead.

“Hey, hey, hey ladies! I’m back!” Xander yells. “You should have killed me when you had the chance.”

“Yeah, we all make mistakes,” Monique replies. “FUCK! You should just give up. Surrender. What’s the point? Why try to kill us? You’ll only screw yourself even further.”

“True, but I’m not going down that easily. You bitches have made this entire evening a fucking nightmare. Now you’ll pay.” Xander looks into the scope to get a better view of the foyer. He cannot see anyone but knows they’re down there. Trapped like rats.

“Hold on! You’re blaming us for causing this? What the fuck? YOU broke into this house and took us hostage. This shit is your goddamn fault! We had nothing to do with it. Don’t blame us for this shit.” Monique’s blood pressure rises to unprecedented levels. Melanie looks back into the kitchen and suddenly remembers that Dylan has a fire escape ladder going down this side of the house.

“I’ll be back. Just keep distracting him,” Melanie whispers to Monique. Before she can respond, Melanie dashes off toward the kitchen. She has no idea what she’s up to, but now isn’t the time for questioning it.

“Yeah, you’re right about that,” Xander laughs. “This shit is sort of our fault. But hell, if you bitches hadn’t gotten out of hand, we would have stolen whatever the fuck we came here to steal and, you know, leave as peacefully as we came. Shit. Too bad it ain’t like that. Too bad people had to die.” He remembers the ghastly image of Cortez’s head crushed by a dumbbell, which further enrages him. He never considered himself capable of committing cold-blooded murder, but that is about to be put to the test shortly.

“Soon, you’ll be added to the list of dead bodies,” Monique taunts him. Melanie instructed her to distract him. That’s exactly what she intends to do.

In the kitchen, Melanie sneaks up to the sliding glass door and carefully opens it. She doesn’t think he’ll be able to hear it from this far away, but she can’t be too sure. The cacophony of helicopters flying in the sky blows her away. She quickly closes the door so no further noise can escape into the house. Melanie hurries to the fire escape ladder connected on the north side of Dylan’s home. Feeling like a secret agent breaking into the enemy’s lair, Melanie climbs up the ladder until she reaches the second floor. She hopes to God that Monique is still chatting with the asshole upstairs. Otherwise, this plan will all be for naught. After hopping off the ladder onto a small balcony, Melanie twists the handle of the door. To her luck, it’s unlocked. She creeps back inside and promptly shuts the door behind her. She’s at the far side of the second floor, next to the cabaret room. She can hear Monique’s voice faintly in the distance.

“Oh yeah? You think the shit he has in that safe is worthless? How do you know that?” Xander, full of indignation, shouts to his opponent.

“He told me,” Monique lies. She adds a tiny giggle to further upset him.

“WHAT? He told you about the safe? About the top-secret shit he has in there? WHEN?”

“Oh, just the other day. When he invited me over here for dinner. He told me all about it!” Monique doesn’t know how much longer she can improvise this baloney. She hopes Melanie returns with whatever brilliant plan she has in mind. Is she going to get a gun that she just remembered is lying around somewhere? Or does she have another trick up her sleeve?

“BULLSHIT! I don’t believe that for a second. You’re a lying bitch, you know that? He never told you shit about what he has hiding in that–”

Melanie creeps up behind Xander, sees him in possession of some sort of hunting rifle, and tackles him to the ground. The gun drops off the railing and lands on the ground floor. Melanie straddles him so she can better control him. Monique cheers as she watches the world-class female bodybuilder pummel Xander to a pulp.

“Don’t you call my friend a bitch! YOU’RE the bitch!” Melanie balls her fist tightly and socks Xander repeatedly in the nose. The only thing he can do is cry out in pain. After knocking out one of Xander’s front teeth, Melanie pulls back her fist to inspect the damage. Xander’s face is almost unrecognizable, with blood and pus oozing out of every pore imaginable. Instead of crying or surrendering, from Melanie’s perspective it looks as though his anger is intensifying. Without expecting him to have enough wherewithal to fight back, Xander lands an upper cut that clocks Melanie square in the jaw.

Melanie’s head rocks back. She manages to remain on top of him despite her chin burning with pain. Xander takes this opportunity to squirm away from her grasp. Once free, he balls his fists and begins punching her everywhere he can. Body blows, hits to the face, even one that smacks her right in the neck. Monique watches with horror, wondering if she should rush upstairs to help her friend.

“Alright, you whore. You don’t scare me,” Xander taunts her. In his spare time, Xander practices mixed martial arts at his local gym. He’s not particularly good at it (by his own admission), though right now that’s not important. All that matters is teaching this woman (or man) that if he’s going to meet his untimely demise tonight, he’s going to get his money’s worth.

“I don’t need to,” Melanie spits blood out of her mouth onto the carpet. She’ll have to apologize to Dylan later for that. “I just want to teach you a valuable lesson.” She swings her fist at him but misses. She tries to punch him with the other fist but it gets blocked. Xander twists her arm counterclockwise and trips her with his right leg. Melanie falls to the floor. He then kicks her hard on the side. She tightens her abdominal muscles to protect herself. It helps a little.

“Oh yeah? What lesson is that?” Xander, cocky as ever, rolls his neck in circles like a prizefighter getting ready for the big knockout blow.

“Learn the right way to treat a lady.”

A self-defense class she took many decades ago suddenly pops back into her mind. She can’t remember much from it (she took it in 1989 or 1990, give or take a few years) but what she does remember is that when you find yourself in a dangerous situation, you should take advantage of the element of surprise. She notices a grand opportunity. Bracing her hands against the carpet, she swings both legs right at Xander’s legs, tripping him to the ground. The back of his head lands on top of the wood railing. Once on the ground, Melanie gingerly stands up, tries to block out the fact that every square inch of her body aches, and picks up Xander by the collar. She also remembers learning that you must take advantage of your opponent’s weakness. His weakness (clearly) is that he doesn’t respect her as a woman. Heck, he still suspects she may be a man. So, she decides to fully lean into the obvious tactical advantage she has over him: pure brute strength.

“What…what the fuck?” Xander, still in a daze, tries his hardest to refocus on the task at hand. Melanie’s grip on him is unbreakable. He suddenly feels his feet levitate off the floor. Then, with the same force as being hit by a car, Melanie smashes Xander’s entire body against the opposite wall. He feels his shoulder get badly sprained. Still full of indefatigable rage, Melanie throws Xander against the railing as forcefully as she can. His body crashes through the wood as if it was made of toothpicks.

Monique watches Xander fall one floor down and crash on the ground on his belly. She cringes when she sees his body bounce up and down. He’s not dead – he’s still breathing – but he’s in bad shape. What shocks her even more is what happens next. High on adrenaline, Melanie runs forward and jumps off the edge.

“HOLY SHIT!” Monique shrieks.

The moment Melanie leaps off the second floor, she knows she’s just done something that she’ll soon regret. It takes her less than two seconds to land directly on top of Xander’s lifeless body. Her elbows, knees, and torso land squarely onto his personage, breaking her fall. She’s watched too many James Bond and Mission: Impossible movies over the years, believing that such stunts could be performed in real life with no consequences. She is, sadly, mistaken.

“Aaaaggghhhhhhh! SHIT!” Xander squeals as this 215-pound muscle woman lands right on him.

Melanie rolls over next to him. Her joints are now screaming in pain. She looks at Monique, communicating with her wincing that she needs assistance. Monique runs to her, forgetting that the hunting rifle is sitting just a few yards away. She turns Xander over on his back to inspect what shape he’s in. His whole face is bruised and bloody, a sure testament to the fact that he’s not doing so well right now. Monique ignores him and attends to Melanie. She is on her back, ready to pass out from the intense aches and pains she’s feeling.

“How are you, girl?”

“I agree with you about what you said about Dylan inviting us over again,” Melanie mumbles. “I too will decline. But probably not as politely as you.” Both ladies laugh, if only to add a little bit of light to a dark, horrific evening.

“How badly are you hurt?”

“Oh, I hurt everywhere. I really need to go to a hospital, like right now.”

“I know, Melanie baby. I know. I’m sure there’s an ambulance out there somewhere,” Monique gestures toward the front of the house. “Dylan should be out there, too. Let’s go get some help. We can’t stop that motherfucker all by ourselves, now can we?”

“W…what motherfucker are you talking about?” Melanie tries to make sense out what’s going on, which is made difficult from the multiple blows to the head that she’s taken all night. “Oh, you mean the guy who wants to break into that safe? Y…you mean that g…guy?”

“Yeah, that’s who I mean. That guy. We need to stop him, like right now, you hear?”

“Oh, I hear you. Yeah, let’s go do that.” Melanie wipes some blood dripping off her cheek. Most of the wound has clotted up. She knows it’ll leave a permanent scar, but she cannot worry about that right now.

While they were chatting, Xander wakes up and crawls away toward the hunting rifle as silently as possible. Once he gets within reach of it, Melanie looks over to check on the guy she just landed on and sees that he’s disappeared. Her concentration returns to full capacity.

“Hey! Where did he go?”

Monique looks over her shoulder and watches Xander grab the rifle. She screams. Melanie grabs Monique’s hand and pulls her away from the line of fire. Xander fumbles with the rifle, his desire to shoot both women dead clashing with the massive concussion he got from landing on the hardwood floor. Both ladies dash to the kitchen. Xander manages to get one shot off. It misses by a mile, but it does cause Monique and Melanie to let go of their hands. Monique dives into the kitchen while Melanie tumbles down the stairs to the basement. Xander screams an obscenity and fires a random shot up in the air. Unfortunately, it hits Dylan’s newly installed 128-light tiered chandelier. Several lightbulbs shatter, sending a flurry of glass particles falling to the ground like snow.

“Time to finish off both of you bitches, one by one,” Xander threatens. He realizes he has only one round left in the chamber (which makes the superfluous shot at the chandelier that much costlier), so he needs to be wise how he uses it. He can see the cute black girl’s legs protruding out of the kitchen’s entryway. He decides to pursue her first. The other one who fell down the stairs will have to be dealt with a bit later.

After scrambling to her feet, Monique finds a large butcher knife sitting on the floor. She snatches it and hides on the other side of the kitchen island. She looks to her right and sees the headless corpse still lying there. She fights the urge to vomit. When Xander storms into the kitchen, he becomes disoriented and confused at the sight of blood splattered everywhere.

“Hey! What the fuck happened here?”

Once he sees a pair of legs wearing black pants and black shoes lying on the floor on the opposite side of the kitchen island, he receives his answer. Forgetting temporarily that he’s in here to kill the cute black girl, Xander inches toward the body, dreading what he’s about to discover. Sure enough, what he witnesses is exponentially worse than what he was expecting in his feverish imagination. Xander gasps when he sees Thomas (or what’s left of him) the safecracker lying on the ground without his head intact. The bottom half of his head is mostly there, but that’s about it. When he takes several more steps forward and leans in, his suspicions are confirmed. It is Thomas Sellars. With no head. Lifeless. Was it a shotgun blast that did him in? It sure looks like it, although Xander is no forensic expert. He’s seen enough dead bodies throughout his life to not get shocked at approaching one. However, this is his first time seeing a man with no head and brains splattered across the floor like from a scene in “Friday the 13th.”

“Oh my God…”

When he turns his head, he sees the black girl crouching down on the floor. Holding a long butcher knife as if her life depends on it, she’s paralyzed with fear. He has a rifle…and she doesn’t. She has a clear tactical disadvantage. If Thomas has to lose his head because these bitches got in the way of their plans, Xander rationalizes, then it’s only fair that he’d return the favor.

Just as Xander points the rifle at Monique’s forehead, he hears a loud rumbling noise coming from the hallway. Even Monique turns her head to see what all the commotion is about. The whole kitchen shakes violently as the rumbling noise gets louder and louder. Soon, the rumbling transitions into a vicious buzzing sound that’s unmistakable. Now it’s his turn to be paralyzed with fear as he realizes what’s about to bust into the room. Monique’s eyes widen when she finally looks upon Melanie Wright, full of acidic vengeful spite, wielding the gas-powered Helinski Class-A chainsaw. It’s so loud the fine china sitting in a nearby cabinet dance around as if they were performing a choreographed routine. Xander can only stand there in disbelief. His hands shake. His knees are weak. Sensing his vulnerability, Monique kicks the rifle out of his hand. It falls to the ground unceremoniously.

“WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS SHIT?” Xander screeches. Suddenly, Monique stands up and grabs both of his wrists. She pulls them backward like a police officer making an arrest. The forceful reverberation of the chainsaw echoes throughout the entire bottom floor. Melanie charges right at him. Before he can utter a word of protest, Xander feels an excruciating explosion of pain as the chain saw enters the right side of his torso. Monique backs off a bit to protect herself from the chainsaw’s savagely sharp teeth.

“Pretty soon, you’ll be half the man you used to be!” Melanie screams with delight.

Warm dark red blood splatters everywhere, in all conceivable directions, as the chainsaw rips through Xander’s stomach. Melanie pushes the sharp rumbling blade as far into his torso as possible, wanting to savor this moment as long as she can. His screams of pain become gurgled as blood spills into his lungs. Monique closes her eyes as red droplets spray all around her. She will never forget how warm it feels against her naked skin. His hands go limp after his spinal cord is severed, causing her to let go and step back to avoid being in the path of the chainsaw’s wrath. Melanie screams several obscenities as she slices the man in half. The pulsating noise of the chainsaw gives Monique a headache and Melanie macabre pleasure. Both women experience a sopping wet red shower that seems to go on forever. The awful smell of gasoline adds to the ghastly experience. At last, with only a couple of inches left to go, Melanie stops for a moment, takes a deep breath, and jerks the chainsaw to her left, completing severing the top half of Xander’s body from the bottom. This causes what seems like gallons and gallons of blood to burst forth like a whale leaping into the ocean. Melanie lets go of the chainsaw, which lands on top of the kitchen island. She slips to the floor, her bare feet covered in blood, loose skin, raw flesh, intestines, and stomach lining. Xander’s body topples over. Monique backs up, runs into a countertop, and falls onto her bare butt.

The chainsaw slowly (but surely) stops buzzing. Melanie is out of breath, seething with visceral anger, and completely covered in blood and gore. Monique wipes her face so she can see clearly. Nobody speaks for a long, long time. What just transpired makes Thomas Sellars’s head being blown off by a shotgun feel like child’s play. The top half of Xander’s body is lying face-first in the sink. Most of his left lung has fallen into a nearby recycling bin. The bottom half is snuggled closely next to Melanie’s legs. Between Melanie and Monique are several yards of gooey guts strewn across the floor. Both women can smell the stench of the chainsaw’s exhaust wafting in the air. It’s a thoroughly unpleasant scent, but right now it’s far from the worst thing happening in the kitchen. Neither of them wants Henry to see what has gone on in his workspace. Or Dylan, for that matter. He’s bound to have to pay several hundred thousand dollars in damages when all of this atrocious nonsense is over.

After returning to her senses, Monique is the first to stand up. With one hand leaning on the countertop and the other wiping more blood off her face, she starts to breathe again normally after realizing that the job isn’t finished yet. They still have business to attend to. Monique tiptoes around the intestines spread across the linoleum like oversized spaghetti noodles covered in crimson marinara sauce. The Helinski Class-A chainsaw has finally stopped making any noise. She extends her hand to help Melanie to her feet. This breaks Melanie from her spell, too. Miss Wright finds a roll of paper towels and wipes her feet off so she doesn’t slip and fall a second time. Monique rips off a few more sheets so she can clean her hands. It helps a little, but not much.

“Well, that’s a first for me,” Melanie says. She’s out of breath, exhausted, emotionally drained, and full of adrenaline. “Can’t say I’ve ever done that before.”

“Oh, baby, that was some hardcore shit you just did. Damn…” Monique looks at the two dead bodies on the ground. The local city coroner is going to have a field day with this.

Not knowing whether to laugh or cry (or both), both women just stare at each other in complete silence for several minutes. Neither woman would describe herself as religious, but both of them feel the need to confess to a priest when all of this is over. What breaks the quietness is Peggy Cole limping into the kitchen, both of her breasts bleeding profusely.

“Hey, girls. What’s cooking in here?” When she sees the gory mess that her two friends are caked in, she shrieks loudly. “HOLY SHIT! WHAT THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED IN HERE? GODDAMNIT!!!”

“Whoa there! Calm down Peggy darling. We’re fine. Sort of. Relatively speaking,” Monique assures her. They approach her cautiously, pleasantly surprised that she’s still able to walk and talk. Peggy becomes traumatized when she notices that almost every square inch of the kitchen is covered in red drops. The cabinets, sink, kitchen island, oven, cupboards, everywhere. It’s worse than a horror movie. It’s like something you’d see in a nightmare, a grotesque night terror that’s so petrifying and chilling that you’d swear no such scenario could ever play out in real life. As it turns out, it could happen if everyone involved is properly motivated.

“Alright, enough chit chat,” Melanie takes command. “I think we’ve taken care of everyone except for the main guy. Stephen. Right?”

“Yeah, I believe that’s right,” Monique confirms.

“Great. So, he’s probably downstairs trying to steal whatever is in Dylan’s safe,” Melanie begins, pausing for dramatic effect. “Or getting another weapon to hunt us down with. Either way, we’re not safe up here. We need to go outside and get the police. This time, we’re doing this together. No more splitting up. No more doing things on our own. We’re a team. We’re in this together. I trust both of you with my life. I hope you all feel the same way.”

“Damn straight,” Peggy says.

“Fuck yeah,” Monique echoes. This makes Melanie smile. “Good. Then let’s go. Hurry. We haven’t a moment to lose!”

All the King’s Queens – Chapter 13: Hide and Go Seek

“What the hell is going on?”

Officer Cunningham, who feels left out because he’s too young and inexperienced to belong at the “adult’s table,” urges Officer Gutierrez to fill him in on what’s happening. Gutierrez just sent a couple dozen texts to colleagues back at the police station who will have (in all likelihood) hordes of media people inundating them with phone calls and inquiries. By now, the national news media have picked up the story. It’s only a matter of time until the local press wakes up and smells the coffee.

“We don’t know for sure, but shit is definitely going down,” she says calmly. “The guy claims he’s hidden a bomb somewhere in the city. He’s threatened us by saying if we try to interfere with whatever it is he’s trying to do, he’ll give the order for the bomb to detonate. He claims the bomb can kill twenty to thirty people. Hell, we think he’s lying just to save his ass, but we can’t be too sure of that.”

“Holy shit!” Cunningham looks around at the small army of cops, SWAT officers, and FBI agents swarming the crowded street. All of them are itching to break down the gate and heroically rescue the hostages. Like in the movie “Braveheart,” you can only hold them back for so long until they snap and charge the hill with reckless abandon. But, they know better than that. If they storm the house right now, they increase the chances of hostages getting hurt. That would be unacceptable. “This is bad. Wow. I agree with you. I think he’s bullshitting us. But damn. Times are different. Shit like that happens all the time these days. We have to act like he’s telling the truth.”

“That’s the exact same conclusion we all came up with.” Gutierrez rolls her head in a circle several times to ease her built-up tension. She really needs a deep tissue massage from her favorite therapist once this crisis is over. And a tall stiff drink. “We just called a bomb disposal unit to show up here, with a few others on call just in case we need them elsewhere. Let’s pray it doesn’t come to that. God, what a nightmare.”

“It sure is…” This is all Cunningham can think to say.

Down the street, at least twenty news vans have parked just outside the blocked-off zone. The cops in charge of making sure nobody breaches the yellow tape hope they can be seen on camera, wanting their fifteen minutes of fame. Very few people enter into this profession for personal glory, but the allure of looking like a badass on the evening news can be irresistible. A few other cops are taking questions from reporters and giving standard scripted answers:

“We cannot comment on that at this time.”

“I will neither confirm nor deny those rumors.”

“Don’t quote me on that.”

“We will release a public statement about this on-going situation shortly. Please stand by.”

“Fuck off.”

Cunningham and Gutierrez chat for a few moments until Officer Dietrich interrupts them. Now with the feds essentially taking over the situation, he feels useless. Even though he won’t say this out loud, he doesn’t consider this situation serious enough to warrant federal intervention. This is a relatively standard armed standoff that he’s dealt with a handful of times before. Granted, those situations usually involved a single gunman holding (usually) an estranged wife or ex-girlfriend hostage. So the size, scale, and individual players involved (an infamous billionaire, three mysterious female companions, and a disgruntled employee) are the only factors that make this unique. Nevertheless, he wishes he could still be in charge instead of the stiffs wearing overly starched suits.

“Hey there. How is everyone doing?”

“Oh, you know. Wishing I were in bed sleeping instead of dealing with this crap,” Cunningham admits. This makes everyone chuckle.

“I know what you mean,” Dietrich admits. “Let’s not kid ourselves. This could get ugly. I also have my doubts about the whole bomb threat, but we can’t ignore it. Are they really going to arrange a private jet to pick them up as he requested?”

“Unfortunately, yes.” Gutierrez sighs, not wanting to give in to a terrorist’s demands. “We’re working on getting a small twin-jet airplane fueled and ready at Boeing Field. I sure hope the feds have a plan, you know, that they’re not making this shit up as they go. Because I don’t want to have to escort these assholes all the way to SoDo like they’re fucking royalty.”

“I hear you loud and clear,” Dietrich consoles. He looks down at the pavement.

Nobody speaks for a long, long time.

***

“Sit down, both of you.”

Stephen motions for Dylan and Henry to sit down on a stone bench situated between the garage door and the lip of the driveway. The feeling of cold, dusty rock against his bare butt makes Dylan wish he hadn’t let moss grow all over it. Henry doesn’t look like he’s enjoying sitting down on it either. Over on the other side of the gate, the cops and feds are still watching them like hawks circling their prey. The hostage negotiator guy and FBI lady confer amongst themselves, planning their next move like a chess grandmaster plotting their endgame.

“So you think you can get away with this, huh?” Dylan asks. Stephen whispers something inaudible to Roddy. He’s probably telling him that the whole bomb threat was complete horseshit and that he’s happy with how he played along and didn’t act surprised during the conversation.

“I sure hope so, buddy boy.” Stephen spits on the ground like a baseball player who’s stood in center field for far too long. “This wasn’t a suicide mission. This was supposed to be an easy job. In, out, go home, and make myself some pancakes before the sun rises. I guess breakfast will have to wait. Hell, I may have just eaten my last meal.” Stephen’s levelheaded tone surprises Dylan, as if he’s making peace with the fact that he won’t make it out of this situation alive. Roddy, on the other hand, doesn’t seem too keen on dying any time soon.

“Ah, fuck!” Roddy curses to himself.

“Don’t worry, my friend,” Stephen reassures his partner in crime. He places a hand on his weary shoulder. “Have some faith. I can figure out a way for you to get out of this. If the escape jet plot works, then we’ll go somewhere friendly, like a country without extradition laws. If not, and you do get arrested, I’ll still figure out a way for us to get off easy. Though, unfortunately, you may have to…snitch a bit.”

Roddy hates snitching (and those who snitch to avoid long prison sentences), but he understands its necessity. He’d have no moral qualms about snitching on someone who deserves to go down (for example, he knows a few drug dealers who are also into child pornography. As far as he’s concerned, they deserve to be taken out of business). Still, snitching is considered taboo for a reason. “Yeah, I figured. Fuck. Well, shit. Whatever it takes. Right?”

“Yes, indeed.”

Dylan and Henry look at each other. Henry has demonstrated remarkable composure in the face of all this chaos. When times are tough, you truly see who people really are. Henry, as Dylan has discovered tonight, is strong, resilient, and unafraid to do what’s right.

“I’m sorry you have to go through this,” Dylan tells his loyal chef. If surviving this nightmare isn’t deserving of a raise, what else would be?

“Don’t worry, boss. It’s all good. When we get out of this, I now have a fun story I can tell girls at the bar,” he laughs. Dylan smiles at his chef’s sense of humor. No matter what happens from here on out, Dylan knows he and Henry can live the rest of their lives with a clean conscience. Stephen and Roddy, however, will have to constantly watch their backs, look over their shoulders, pay attention to who’s driving behind them in the review mirror, and live in constant fear of being taken out by federal agents, military assassins, or fellow criminals who suspect they’ve snitched to the authorities. If that lack of comfort is their eternal punishment, so be it. Dylan knows full well what it’s like to live in fear, with guilt, with loneliness.

If these scoundrels have to live that exact same life, it’s the least they deserve.

***

“What do we do about him?” Monique points to Xander, who’s still breathing but solidly unconscious. Peggy and Melanie gather around his body while considering the moral implications of killing him like they killed Cortez.

“He’s not actively threatening us, but he’s far from innocent,” Melanie observes. She lightly taps him in the face with her foot. He doesn’t stir.

“I could shoot him in the fucking face right now,” Monique threatens, pointing the barrel of her gun directly at Xander’s sleeping head. “But fuck! It wouldn’t feel right.”

“Let’s just go. He’s unarmed. He’s not dangerous anymore,” Peggy, the sudden voice of reason, suggests. “We have bigger fish to fry. Like taking out the guy who’s breaking into the safe. Or rescuing Dylan and Henry. I don’t know where the fuck they are, but we have the upper hand now.” Peggy looks back at Cortez’s bashed-in face. The pool of blood around his corpse flows toward the free weight area. She hopes Dylan doesn’t mind the gory mess they’ve left behind.

“You’re right. Let’s ignore him,” Melanie decides on everyone’s behalf.

“Cool. Honey, you can take care of the guy trying to drill into Dylan’s safe,” Peggy says to Monique. The Olympic weightlifter nods her head. “Fantastic. Me and Melanie can go look for Dylan and Henry. We’re both armed, so we should be able to take on Stephen and that other motherfucker pretty easily. Oh, and sweetie, be careful. I wouldn’t be surprised if the safecracker dude is armed, too.”

“He is. But I have the element of surprise,” Monique points out. “Don’t worry about me. I’ve fired guns before. You don’t grow up in the Cuban neighborhoods of Miami without knowing how to protect yourself.” She clicks the safety switch off the Glock. Both Peggy and Melanie seem satisfied with her ability to handle a weapon.

“Damn, girl. I need you the next time I’m walking alone at night all by myself,” Peggy says. “Have you ever fired a gun before, girl?”

“No, never,” Melanie admits. She hates guns, to the point that she’s marched in more anti-gun protests than she can count. As a long-time Chicago resident, Melanie Wright knows far too well the destabilizing effect guns can have on a community. She’d prefer to carry the switchblade if she had a choice in the matter (despite where it’s been).

“Okay, no worries. Here. Take the knife. I’ve fired plenty of guns before, so I know what I’m doing.” Peggy and Melanie switch weapons. “It’s simple. Flip this switch to take the blade out. Just stab whoever is coming at you. It’s that simple. Look at what I did to that poor bastard. It’s very fucking sharp, so be careful. It’s a hunting knife, not something you’d use to open a Christmas present.”

Melanie looks back at Cortez’s dead body, remembering how easily the blade pierced his torso. It’s just like how it looks in the movies. Peggy is strong, but she’s no Michael Myers, or Jason Voorhees, or whatever horror villain you can think of. “Yeah, I figured it’s sharp. Thanks for the reminder,” Melanie jokes.

Peggy laughs. “Fucking fantastic. Let’s do this. Good luck, everyone.” The three ladies go in for a group hug. They’ve been through so much so far. Now is not the time to back down. Now is the time to take the fight to them. The three of them have lived their whole lives rebelling against what the culture believes about women and their role in society. They haven’t gotten to where they are now by acting passively. They arrived by being proactive, a little reckless, and forging their own path. This is nothing new to any of them.

“I’ll see you ladies on the other side,” Monique says. Ten seconds later, everyone splits up to carry out their assignments. What the “other side” looks like is now entirely up to them.

***

“Excuse me, Steve. We have an update for you,” Baker yells from afar. Stephen Callahan strolls back to the gate’s entrance at a leisurely pace in an attempt to convey confidence. He’s been in Big Business long enough to know that acting smart is oftentimes more beneficial than being smart. The same goes for self-confidence. Acting like you know what you’re doing will do more to persuade the people around you than actually knowing what you’re doing. He hopes this type of theatricality rubs off on these FBI spooks.

“What is it?”

“Your plane is almost ready,” Special Agent Mendoza says. “In case you don’t believe us, we have a live stream from Boeing Field that you can watch with your own eyes.” She takes out a Microsoft Surface Pro and holds it up for Stephen to see. He watches a live video feed of a small twin-engine jet being fueled and taxied onto a runway. It’s white with red stripes going down the sides. Not exactly the perfect aesthetic, but at this point of the evening’s festivities, beggars can’t be choosers.

“Excellent. Thanks. How far can this go?”

“From what I’ve been told, this is capable of making a transoceanic flight. You can pretty much land anywhere in the world without having to refuel, except for some parts of Africa and Central Asia. Unless you plan to arrive in Uganda or Kazakhstan, you can go anywhere without having to make a pit stop,” Mendoza explains. Stephen raises an eyebrow, as if he’s suspicious that this arrangement is too good to be true.

“Sounds fantastic. Do I get my own cocktail waitress to go along with it?” he jokes.

“No, that’s not part of the deal. And there’s no in-flight movie or complimentary bags of peanuts,” Mendoza responds dryly. “It should be ready in about fifteen minutes. We’ve expedited the process, so you don’t need to wait too long in line, so to speak.”

“And what about transport to Boeing Field?”

“All arranged. We’ll have a van ready for you, your men, and Mr. Tanaka in five minutes. We’re working on the logistics of clearing a path so no traffic will impede your journey. We wouldn’t want any concerned citizens to become vigilantes and take matters into their own hands, now would we?”

“No, that wouldn’t be ideal,” Stephen agrees.

“We’ll let you know when the van arrives,” Baker says. “You should probably go let your friends know about the deal you successfully struck with us. I’m sure they’ll be impressed to hear about it.”

“I think they will! I love this deal already. Thank you, kind lady. And sir.” Stephen salutes the two feds and then walks away. Baker and Mendoza don’t say anything as they watch him return to his comrade and two hostages. They didn’t, for obvious reasons, tell him that the plane is loaded with tracking devices, hidden cameras and microphones, and half the fuel capacity. She lied when she said the jet could make a transoceanic flight. It will barely get them to Hawaii, if they’re lucky to make it that far. The pilot is a trained Navy SEAL who will wear a normal-looking professional suit and tie. The co-pilot is also a SEAL. Two Special Forces agents will be hidden in the cargo trunk. Wherever they land, even if it’s in a country with no extradition laws, they’ll have a surprise waiting for them. It’s not a perfect plan, but they can’t be too careful if he’s telling the truth about a hidden bomb in the city.

Stephen Callahan excitedly approaches Roddy, Dylan, and Henry. After quickly explaining the plan, he instructs Roddy to go back inside the house and fill in the others about what’s going to happen. He hopes Thomas has broken into the safe by now so they can get away with the heist in addition to getting away scot-free. Stephen has already accepted the possibility that stealing Dylan’s documents will not succeed, but one never knows. It could still work if all goes right. After Roddy returns inside the house, Stephen sits down next to Dylan and Henry on the stone bench.

“God, my feet are killing me. I feel like I’ve been on my feet the whole time,” Stephen laments. “Looks like I’m about to get away with this, old sport.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure. You know they have something up their sleeve. The FBI won’t allow a common crook like you to escape with your balls intact. Don’t act so cocky,” Dylan warns.

“I’m sure they have something planned. But it looks like my bomb threat really scared them straight. Well, even if I don’t get away with this, and this is my last day on Earth, at least you learned your lesson, Dylan boy.”

“Oh? What lesson is that?”

“No bad deed goes unpunished.” Stephen points the barrel of his gun at Dylan’s penis as subtly as possible so nobody on the other side of the gate sees it. Dylan flinches. Henry does too.

“PLEASE! Don’t!” Dylan pleads.

Stephen puts the gun back in his holster. “Don’t worry, old sport. I wouldn’t do such a thing right now, not when I’m this close to getting away with it. But when we land in our final destination, wherever that is, you can be assured I’ll make you suffer before I kill you.”

Dylan stares straight ahead, refusing to dignify his threat with a response. Only Henry feels bold enough to speak up.

“No matter what you do to him, he’ll always have bigger balls than you.”

This makes Stephen smile. “I have no doubt about that. No doubt at all.”

***

Peggy and Melanie cautiously tiptoe up the stairs. All seems quiet on the ground floor. That doesn’t, however, mean that there isn’t any danger. The helicopters circling up in the sky get louder and louder with each step. Just as the two women arrive at the top of the staircase, they see Roddy enter the house through the front door. Both ladies duck to avoid being seen. Unfortunately, Roddy sees enough of Peggy’s wild frilly hair before they were able to hide from his sight.

“What the fuck? How did you escape?” Roddy shouts.

“Damn it! He saw us!” Melanie whispers to Peggy. Between the foyer and the staircase leading to the basement, there is a priceless marble statue of an Amazonian warrior princess sitting on top of a wooden pedestal. If a shootout is going to occur, it’s going to damage several pieces of expensive art. Yet another horrifying mess Dylan is going to have to deal with.

“Yeah, I know. DAMN!” Peggy whispers back. She decides to cut the pretense of them sneaking around. “Hey, asshole! We escaped again. But this time, we’re not going to run. We’re going to fight back.”

“We’ll see about that.” Roddy takes out his pistol and fires three shots in the direction of the staircase. One bullet pierces the marble statue, breaking it in half. The other two make the wood handrails explode in a cloud of sawdust. Melanie falls backward, landing on the ground floor with a hard THUD. Peggy doesn’t check to see if she’s okay because she’s too busy returning fire. She shoots a single shot randomly toward the door, hoping to either hit him or frighten him to death. It seems to work. Roddy hides behind a wall, looking down at the floor to see any suspicious shadows lurking around.

“Take that, motherfucker!” Peggy taunts. She briefly looks back to see if Melanie is okay. Both ladies are still naked, so they have nothing to break their fall. It doesn’t look like she was hit with a bullet, which brings Peggy relief. “You okay, girl?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Melanie stands up, picks up the switchblade, and notices a bruise developing on her right butt cheek. Peggy is glad to see she hasn’t been shot but must instead focus on the enemy at hand.

“Alright, you cock sucking piece of shit. We’ve been through enough. This ends NOW!” Peggy carefully raises her head above the top of the staircase to see where Roddy is. He’s nowhere to be seen.

Roddy creeps up along the wall to get in a better position to shoot back. He almost hits his head against a painting of Cory Everson that Dylan commissioned to be created just for him. Roddy’s heart is beating rapidly, his pulse racing a million miles per second. He believes the element of surprise can work to his advantage, so he stops just shy of the edge of the wall and takes a deep breath. With his pistol in hand, Roddy dives across the floor and fires two more shots in the direction of Peggy’s voice. Both rounds hit a glass door leading to the living room, shattering it into thousands of shards. Peggy is nowhere to be seen because a moment earlier she snuck by and positioned herself on the opposite side of the wall from Roddy. He stands up, looks around, and wonders where the lady with the oversized boobs went.

Before he can react, Peggy swings her body around the wall and tackles Roddy to the ground. One of her former boyfriends happened to be a martial arts instructor who taught her a few lessons in hand-to-hand combat. Never in a million years did she expect those lessons would ever pay off. Peggy grabs Roddy’s head and slams it against the hardwood floor several times. His gun slides across the hallway, out of reach of either of them. Peggy’s gun falls no more than seven feet away, landing on top of a row of shoes. Roddy comes to his senses and kicks her in the shin. She falls backward in pain. He looks around to see where his gun landed but is met with a roundhouse kick to the chin before he can find it.

“OW!”

“That’s right, motherfucker! You’re about to be in a world of hurt!” Peggy backs up her words by punching him in the jaw with a swift uppercut. Roddy stumbles backward but does not fall down. Both combatants exchange a series of wild punches – some land, most of them don’t – until Roddy backs up into a coatrack. Peggy knees him in the crotch and then elbows him in the back of the head, causing him to crash to the floor. Dazed and suffering from dizziness, Roddy regains enough consciousness to wrap his arms around Peggy’s muscular legs and body slam her to the ground. She falls hard on the wooden floor.

The only thing Peggy can do is kick wildly in the air. Once Roddy regains his footing, he picks up the coatrack and tosses it at her. It’s not heavy, but the assortment of raincoats and jackets swamp her temporarily. Roddy eyes a gun lying on the floor no more than five feet away from him. He dashes to pick it up. This gives Peggy enough time to crawl away from the pile of coats and the tall wooden rack sitting on top of her. Just as Roddy takes ahold of the gun, she sees out of the corner of her eye a commemorative porcelain plate celebrating Dylan Tanaka’s graduation from the Hamburg Institute of Futurist Technology. It’s sitting harmlessly on a nearby table. She grabs it and smashes the plate against Roddy’s head before he can fire the gun. It shatters into thousands of pieces. Roddy falls backward, landing in the entryway of the dining room.

“Damn. Sorry, Dylan,” Peggy mutters under her breath, genuinely apologetic that she destroyed one of Dylan’s most cherished heirlooms.

Meanwhile, Melanie is still in the basement, wondering if Peggy could handle herself or if she should instead assist Monique. Thinking as quickly as she can, Melanie decides she needs a better weapon than a switchblade. A sharp knife is fine for close-quarters combat but not when you’re dealing with enemies with firearms. After a moment, she decides to go outside and try to find help. The police may be holding back because they’re afraid the hostages inside are being held at gunpoint and would be executed if law enforcement officers breached the premises. However, since all hell has broken loose indoors, that’s no longer relevant. Melanie remembers that there’s a door in the gym that leads to the backyard. She sprints at full speed back inside the gym.

On the ground floor, Roddy gets up and immediately realizes he’s in the dining room. He jumps on top of the dining table and hides behind the other side of it. Peggy finds a gun lying on the floor, picks it up, and slowly tiptoes toward her enemy. Even without shoes, he can hear her approach. This works to my advantage, Roddy thinks to himself. Come here, you little bitch.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are, motherfucker!” Peggy sings to her opponent. With both hands gripping the gun, she cautiously enters the dining room to look for him. He’s nowhere to be seen. This changes when Roddy grabs a chair and throws it at her. The chair lands exactly where it’s supposed to. Peggy falls backward and hits her head hard against the floor. She drops the gun in the process of falling down. Roddy then leaps over the table, finds a random steak knife still sitting around (which Henry preset for tomorrow’s breakfast), and charges toward the lady with big boobs who can handle herself pretty well in a fight.

“Fuck off!” Roddy picks up Peggy by the hair. He then stabs her in the stomach, but the blade doesn’t come close to penetrating her torso, unlike the switchblade that is specifically designed to cut through flesh. Still, it causes her to bleed. Roddy decides to try a different approach. He swings the steak knife at her face, slashing her cheek. Peggy screams in pain as the blade pierces her skin. She kicks Roddy in the knee, which momentarily disorients him.

Peggy retreats a few feet back to the far end of the dining room. Roddy takes several aggressive steps in her direction, swinging the knife wildly in pure anger. She touches her cheek, feeling warm blood trickling down her hand. This enrages her more. The stab wound in her stomach hurts less, though it’s real pain that she can’t ignore. Unarmed, Peggy’s back hits the wall, with Roddy still inching closer to her.

“You’re dead, bitch. I don’t give a fuck what happens to me. You’re mine.”

He charges with the knife. Peggy ducks the blade, which sticks to the wall. Roddy tries to dig it out of the drywall but cannot remove it. With all her might, Peggy balls her fist, cocks her arm back, and punches him square in the nose with every ounce of energy she has. This breaks his nose and sends him flying backward. Roddy’s head smashes against a window. The glass cracks but doesn’t break. Peggy grabs her fist and winces, sensing a few of her fingers may have gotten broken with that one powerful punch. Out of breath and bleeding profusely from both nostrils, Roddy smiles at the situation at hand. This isn’t his first rodeo. He’s been in several fistfights before. But never with a woman. Especially a woman who could hold her own against him.

“Damn. You muscle chicks are tough as nails,” he compliments her. He coughs up blood and spits it on the floor in front of her.

“Thank you, motherfucker. Even when you’re about to die, you remember to be kind and courteous.”

“Hold on. I’m about to die? No, no, no. You fucking bitch. You’re about to die!”

With all his strength, Roddy runs to her and tackles her to the ground like a professional football player. He puts both hands around her neck and squeezed hard. Peggy writhes around desperately, helpless to escape from his clutches. As he chokes her, Peggy feels her heart beating so hard she’s fully expecting it to leap out of her chest. Full of rage and adrenaline, Roddy is determined to choke her to death, which is the least she deserves. Her vision blurs. Her breathing becomes weaker and weaker by the second. Just as the oxygen is starting to cut off from her brain, Peggy attempts one final “Hail Mary” maneuver to avoid being murdered. She swings both of her powerful legs behind Roddy’s torso and wraps them around as tightly as she can. His hands fall away from her throat. After a few quick emergency breaths, Peggy moves her legs up around his neck. It’s a miracle she still has enough energy to do this successfully.

“Sorry, you son of a bitch,” Peggy taunts. “You’re about to find out how tough I really am!”

In one swell swoop, Peggy scissors her strong muscular legs around Roddy’s neck. Just a few days ago at her favorite gym in Las Vegas, Peggy successfully squatted 405 pounds for an astonishing 25 repetitions. Every single person in attendance paused their workout to watch her accomplish this amazing feat. She was as tired as can be afterward, but it was well worth it. She high-fived several people as sweat was dripping off her face. Today, she has the opportunity to utilize her strength for a good cause. Once she positions her left calf in front of Roddy’s neck and her right knee on the back, Peggy squeezes as hard as she’s ever squeezed before.

“Ohhhhhhh…fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck…”

As feeble as a newborn baby, Roddy feels the oxygen leave his system as Peggy’s powerful legs constrict his throat. He swings his arms around in a frantic attempt to fight back. It’s a useless gesture. Wanting to finish him off in style, Peggy jerks her legs together as suddenly as she can, like a real pair of scissors.

SNAP!

The sound of Roddy’s neck snapping in half echoes across the dining room. He falls to the floor like a ragdoll. No more breathing, no more moving, no more flailing of his limbs, no more of anything. He’s dead. Lifeless. Gone. Peggy’s face is dripping with both sweat and blood. She struggles to stand up, drained of energy and still in pain from multiple stab wounds (and having a chair thrown at her). She backs up against the wall, observing Roddy’s dead body lying awkwardly on the floor. His eyes are still wide open, which adds to the spookiness. Even though she just took a man’s life, she feels no remorse or regret. She’d do it again if she had to. In fact, she very well may have to soon.

“You see? That’s how tough I am, you fucking piece of shit.” Peggy sits down on the floor, catching her breath and trying to regain her composure before making her next move. “Rest in peace, motherfucker.”

***

Thomas has not stopped drilling away at the safe after Stephen gave him permission to resume his evening’s work. There’s no need to remain quiet, so why not keep going?

Isolated inside the storage room, Thomas is vaguely aware that there are potential problems involving the police going on. However, he doesn’t consider that his major concern. His first – and only – priority is to break into the safe. He estimates that he’s practically there.

“Alright, you son of a bitch,” Thomas says to the safe. “I think I’ve about had it with you. I’ll break into you soon enough. Just you wait.” He stares at the four used drill bits lying on the floor. All worn down to the sharpness of a butter knife. His fifth one is now firmly attached to the drill. He brought one more and hopes he doesn’t have to resort to using it. Pure Titanium drill accessories cost a fortune. Perhaps the loot they’re going to steal will help pay for it. But that’s not something he can think about right now.

If worse comes to worst, Thomas brought an emergency substance that could possibly help him get through the final few millimeters of metal. In his duffle bag, he has a large veil of aqua regia, a potent acid that can dissolve metal. There’s a syringe gun to go along with it. A mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acids, the combined corrosive effect can get the job done in a pinch. The reddish-orange color gives it an appearance of danger. Thomas doesn’t want to use it right away because of the poisonous fumes it releases after usage. He brought a gas mask just in case he’d have to resort to using the acid. His teammates, however, do not have such protection. Plus, he only brought enough to burn through the last final tiny layer of metal remaining. Once he creates a hole large enough, he will use a wire contraption that he brought to open the handle from the inside. It seems elementary, but that’s the way this safe is designed. It’s a walk-in safe, meaning people can walk through it and close the door if they so choose. It locks from the outside (obviously) but not the inside. So it’ll be like breaking into a car. Squeeze through the windshield and use a bent clothes hanger to do the rest. It’s that simple…theoretically.

Thomas chugs the rest of his water bottle and tosses it aside. He doesn’t care if he litters in this rich guy’s humungous house. That’ll be the least of his worries. Right now, he needs to focus on keeping his friends and himself alive. Stephen sounded really pissed when he last spoke to him on the phone. Thomas doesn’t want to know what’s been transpiring while he’s been cooped up inside here all alone.

After taking a short break, Thomas resumes drilling. He apologizes to the fifth drill bit in advance, knowing it’ll soon become as smooth as an elementary school kid’s pair of art class scissors. He puts his earmuffs, gloves, and welding mask back on and gets going.

Right outside the door, Monique creeps along the edge to listen to what’s going on. As she expected, it’s as loud as a construction site. The group could hear the drilling all the way in the gym, but the door being closed muffled the sound. She twists the doorknob and cracks open the door. A sudden blanket of noise assaults her as if she were suddenly transported to the middle of a naval shipbuilding yard. Monique cringes at the loud cacophony rumbling through her eardrums. She cautiously pokes her head through the door and is relieved to see Thomas Sellars all by himself. He is turned away from the front of the room. He’s hard at work, with sparks flying everywhere. She can’t see it now, but the carpet around the safe has been completely singed. It’s going to have to be replaced later. It’s beyond salvageable. Yet another expense to add to the bill.

The dreadful sound of metal scraping against metal at a rapid pace deters her from fully entering the room. Monique looks back to see if anybody is behind her. The coast is clear. She’s all alone with this guy. She decides that maybe it’s not necessary for her to get close after all. She has a gun, a projectile weapon that can be fired from a distance. Her uncle taught her how to shoot several years ago so she could protect herself from savages who may want to take advantage of her or rob her. It’s been a while since she last fired a gun, so she lacks the confidence to accurately hit her target from a distance. However, she can’t think that way. It’s now or never. She has to be a hero or die a victim.

It’s fortunate that Thomas remains somewhat still. He’s attached the drill to a tripod and just has to stand behind it and press the trigger while pushing into the safe’s door. This should make hitting him a bit easier. She extends both of her arms, squints both eyes, and aims for the back of his head. After taking two deep breaths, she fires one shot at the safecracker.

It misses. By a few inches.

“What the fuck?” Thomas rolls to the ground. Monique swears to herself. The bullet missed the top of his head by two or three inches. It makes a loud CLANG noise as it hits the safe’s metal door. The drilling stops. It wasn’t the noise that alerted Thomas to the fact that someone just tried to shoot him. It was the flash of light that flew across his face as the bullet made contact with the vault. Thomas crawls as fast as he can to his duffle bag. Monique dives behind an old couch sitting in the storage room.

“Well, well, well, it looks like someone escaped.” Thomas takes off the earmuffs, welding mask, and gloves. He throws the discarded items next to his bag. He removes a Remington 887 Nitro Mag shotgun, turns around to make sure another bullet isn’t heading his way, and points the weapon threateningly at whoever attempted to murder him. “Hey, asshole! Try that again and I’ll fuck your shit up. Don’t test me. I can handle myself in a fight, you hear? Who was that? Was that you, Dylan Tanaka? The black guy? The cute black girl? The, uh, other two bitches who are here? Huh? WHO’S THERE?”

Monique isn’t sure if she should respond or remain quiet. She knew he’d be armed, which is why she should have just sucked it up, entered the room despite the loud noises, and shot him at point-blank range instead of relying on her rusty aim. She doesn’t hear any footsteps, so she knows he hasn’t moved at all from his position.

“Don’t worry. You don’t have to be the talkative type. Soon, I’ll make sure you don’t have anything to say at all.”

He fires the shotgun at one of the glass shelves holding several of Dylan’s awards. It shatters everywhere, leaving several small holes in the wall behind it. The seismic boom pierces Monique’s eardrums. Even Thomas regrets removing his earmuffs. The shotgun blast leaves a small cloud of smoke near the vault. Monique figures this would happen, so she takes a risk and pops her head up from behind the couch. Before Thomas can pump his firearm to load another shell into the chamber, Monique fires two more shots in his direction. Both miss again, but they do temporarily disorient him. Thomas gets down on his belly and covers his head with his hands, as if that would make a difference.

“FUCK! God damnit, stop it! STOP! Let’s talk about this like civilized adults.” He looks up, hoping he can reason with whoever is trying to kill him.

“Civilized, you say? That’s rich, coming from assholes like you. Who broke into this house and started to terrorize us? It wasn’t me. It was you, motherfucker!” Monique waits for the cloud of smoke to dissipate so she can get a better look at him. He seems as scared as can be. The Remington is lying on the ground next to him. Thomas knows if he reaches for it, she’ll shoot him for sure. When his vision focuses on the person talking to him, he sees that it is indeed the cute black girl with the banging hot body. Although, while he objectively thinks she’s smoking hot, right now she’s a threat to his very life.

“True, true,” he says. “You’re right. We are the ones who spoiled your little naked party, or whatever the fuck you people were up to. I don’t give a shit. But hear me out. The shit we’re stealing is worth a fortune. You know that, right?”

“Yeah, I’ve heard.”

“Good. So you know that we’re here for a really fucking good reason. This isn’t a social visit. This isn’t my boss wanting revenge on his old boss. We’re here to steal intel that’s worth hundreds of billions of dollars on the black market. If you don’t kill me, and you help us escape, we’re sure to give you a cut of whatever we get for it. You hear me?” Thomas notices that his elbows are burning from pressing against the singed carpet. He tries to hide the pain and focuses instead on the imminent threat at hand.

“I hear you, but never in a million years would I strike a deal with you,” Monique declares confidently. “Dylan is a friend of mine. I would never betray him. Besides, what makes you think you and your boys will make it out of here alive? The place is roaming with cops. They’re everywhere. You’re trapped. There’s no escaping this.”

“WHAT? Stephen told me they’d be gone shortly. What the fuck happened?”

“I don’t know why he thought that or what he promised you, but there are literally hundreds of cops out there, surrounding the house on all sides,” she says, hoping there’s a kernel of truth to that last part. “You’re done. Your ass is going to jail. You might as well give up. Move your hands away from the shotgun, you hear? If you don’t do as I say, I’ll blow your head off.” Monique steps closer to him, careful to avoid stepping on any broken glass. She doesn’t look to inspect the damage because her gaze is laser-focused on her enemy’s face. She stops walking when she reaches within ten yards of him.

“Oh my God, you look so fucking hot,” he marvels. Thomas moves both of his hands behind his back. He’s still lying on his belly. As Monique steps underneath a ceiling light, he gets a better look at her figure. She’s sculpted from head to toe, perfectly curvy, and as strong as an ox. She’s not tall, but that doesn’t mean she’s not intimidating. She’s as strikingly beautiful as any woman you’ll ever lay eyes on. Absolutely breathtaking. If he’s going to die now, he’s glad she’s the last thing he sees before meeting his maker. “I’m sure you know that already.”

“As you can tell, I keep myself in pretty decent shape,” she teases. “I’m glad you noticed. It may be the last thing your eyes ever see.”

“If that’s the case, so be it. I can die a happy man.”

Still naked, Monique St. Martin’s gorgeous black skin perfectly complements her chiseled muscles. She’s not as bulky as Melanie Wright or as erotically built as Peggy Cole (her small breasts won’t earn her any brownie points from teenage boys or immature men), but she definitely can hold her own against anyone. Dylan once said her body is like poetry; an artistic rendering created to demonstrate what the human physique is capable of achieving. Her strength gives her raw power that comes out in all sorts of ways: how she walks, how she talks, how she moves, how she lives her life. At first, she thought he was exaggerating. But as time has gone on, she’s fully realized the power she can have over people. She’s always been able to stop people dead in their tracks, even before becoming a world-class athlete. But since she started training for the Olympics, she’s noticed people have been treating her differently. She’s not just a cute, fit black girl from South Beach. She’s a goddess. An angel. A queen. A one-of-a-kind.

“That might be your fate. Maybe.” Monique points the gun at Thomas’s head. He closes his eyes, accepting his inevitable fate. Then, she takes her finger off the trigger and lowers the Glock back to her side. Thomas opens his eyes after several seconds of deafening silence. He expects to be dead but clearly isn’t.

“What? Can’t bring yourself to kill someone?” Thomas’s heart is racing like an Olympic sprinter. He sees a hint of sadness in her pretty face, a shroud of regret. What’s with her change of heart? Is she considering taking him up on his offer? What gives?

“No, I already killed someone today. Your friend. The guy with the accent. Don’t know his name, though.”

“Oh shit. Him. Well, he’s a dumbass and had it coming. But still. Fuck you for that!” Thomas slowly rolls away from the shotgun so he can get in a better position to converse with her. Talking while on your stomach is difficult work. Monique notices him moving into a sitting position but doesn’t stop him from doing so. As long as he’s not attempting to retrieve his gun, she won’t shoot him.

“Thank you, I appreciate your honesty,” she smirks. Monique takes a few more steps forward so she really won’t have an excuse to miss if she had to fire. “Tell me, do you have any, you know, potential buyers of the stuff Dylan has sitting in that vault? Hm?”

This makes Thomas smile. Maybe this black bitch does want to make a deal! He will see how far he can push this opportunity. “We do, actually. Two potential buyers, but one who really, really, really seems interested. I can’t tell you his name, but he’s kind of a big deal in our world. The other buyer is a rogue state that’s about to be overthrown anyway, if the CIA hasn’t done so already. Still, they’re in the market if they offer us enough dough. And if their currency is still worth a damn.”

“Who is this guy, if you don’t mind me asking?” Monique winks, hoping this catches his attention. He’s clearly aroused by her, a fact that has not escaped her. She can see a budding erection forming in his pants. He’s not trying to hide it.

“Oh, I can’t tell you that. You know the way things are. People in my business prefer to remain anonymous.” Monique spreads her legs out slightly, exposing her hard pink clitoris. He doesn’t even attempt to pretend like he doesn’t notice it. Her large meaty bud looks so enticing to him. He wants to lick it so badly, even if it’s the last thing he ever does. “I mean, uh, I’d probably get killed if I told you about any of our buyers. Heck…I…I’ve already said…said too much.”

“Would you rather die now, or die later? I think Dylan would like to know who’s interested in buying his top-secret information. If you don’t squeal, I’ll shoot you dead right now and not think twice about it. If you talk, like a good little boy, I’ll make it worth your while.” She flexes her left bicep, bouncing it up and down at will. Thomas feels his groin further tighten. His breathing intensifies. He’s trying to not lose control but is failing spectacularly.

“H…how would you, um, do that? What would you make it worth my while?” His jaw drops wide open, taking in every inch of Monique’s flawless physique. Her pubic hair is neatly shaved down to a narrow strip. He can only imagine what her pussy tastes like. He’d love nothing more than to suck on that pretty pink clit of hers until she comes and comes and comes and comes…

“Just use your imagination, little boy. Your dirty, filthy imagination.”

Monique is now inches away from him. She kicks the shotgun off to the side so it’s well out of reach. Thomas doesn’t seem to notice or care. All he can focus on is her. Monique understands her sexuality well and how to use it to her advantage. She’s done that all her life. It’s why it infuriates her that she suspects Jake is having an affair with another woman. Who could possibly stray when they get to fuck a woman like her every single night? It doesn’t make sense. This is why she strongly hinted to Dylan earlier today that he may get extra lucky with her. She wants to fuck Dylan just to get back at Jake for fucking, of all people, her sister!

Monique’s sister, Charlotte St. Martin, has always been a flirty girl. She was the social butterfly while Monique was the quiet athletic one. While Charlotte was partying away, Monique was at the gym, working on her craft. Even though she’s younger, Charlotte has had three husbands already before turning 24. Her third husband seems to be on his way out the door, meaning she’ll get married a fourth time sooner or later. Probably before Christmas. For as long as she’s known Jake, Charlotte has always flirted with him in a playful, harmless manner. Apparently, the “harmless” part came to an end when she caught her giving him a blowjob in the garage during their cousin’s birthday party. Monique never confronted him about it. She knew it would devastate their relationship. She also has no idea how long this had been going on. She still wants to marry him, but the image of Charlotte on her knees servicing him is forever seared into her memory. So instead of making a big deal of it, she decided she’d cheat herself. Dylan Tanaka is the perfect man to do it with. Jake’s already jealous of his wealth. He’s never felt right about him sponsoring her. He’s really not comfortable with Monique and Dylan meeting occasionally for muscle worship “playtime.” He puts up with it because it’s free money, but the emasculated feeling he gets knowing another man gets to (consensually) touch his girlfriend’s body has driven him bonkers to the point that he felt like he needed to “get back” at her somehow. Giving in to Charlotte’s flirty charms was how he chose to exact his emotional payback. Still, Monique hopes this was a one-time fall from grace, not a habitual sin.

“My God, you are sooooooooooo fucking gorgeous!” Monique extends her foot toward him. Thomas reaches out to feel her calves. He’s not normally into “muscle chicks,” but he’s going to have to reconsider his thinking after seeing a woman like her up close. “Unbelievable. I can see why you were invited here to this party. Why Dylan Tanaka likes you so…so damn much. No party would be complete without, uh, you here. Wow!”

“Keep touching me. Please. Touch my body to your heart’s delight!”

Thomas takes her commandment to heart and runs with it. He squeezes one of her thighs with both hands, feeling its rock-hard structure. He cannot believe a woman could be built like this! Next, he lightly flicks her pink clit with his index finger. She pretends to moan with delight, when in reality she wishes he had clipped his fingernails ahead of time. Thomas leans in closer so he can lick her hamstrings. Monique turns around so he could have full access to her ass. He doesn’t hesitate to inspect it. Cupping both butt cheeks greedily, she kindly wiggles her hips so he can experience their jiggle. He sniffs her anus, hoping a fart comes out so he could smell it. He becomes disappointed when nothing happens. Feeling her perfect butt will have to suffice, then. His erection is ready to tear his underwear.

“Would you like a lap dance, baby boy?”

“YESSSSSSSSSS! That would be incredible. Yes, please. Girl. Ma’am.” Before he can stick his nose up her butt, Monique turns around to chastise him.

“First. I’m a woman, not a girl. Second. You don’t get a lap dance, or anything, for that matter, unless you tell me the name of your buyer. Sorry, but that’s the rules. You must abide by them.”

This breaks Thomas out of his trance. He returns to normal, puts aside his horniness for a moment, and regains his professionalism. “WOW! Damnit, woman. You almost had me. Sorry, but no can do. That’s confidential information. There’s no way I’m telling you that, unless you agree to help us get out of this mess. Will you do that?”

“Let’s discuss this logically,” she offers. Upset that her plan didn’t work, she now attempts to use reason to uncover their plot. “What the fuck can I do to help you escape? It’s not like I’m aware of some secret passageway that leads to an escape hatch. I don’t think Dylan has a panic room where you can hide out until this whole thing blows over. You’re stuck. Soon, the police will storm the house and find you all, if they haven’t already. I don’t know. We’re in the basement. I’m sure there’s a lot of shit happening upstairs that I’m not aware of. Anyway, what can actually I do to help you? Huh?”

Thomas leans against the safe in a sitting position. He must tread carefully if this is going to succeed. He can tell this isn’t a dumb bimbo he’s dealing with. She’s smart. She knows what she’s doing and the unfortunate pickle he’s in. “Alright, fair points. All of them. Okay, you’re right. What can you do for us now? Well, I’m not talking about now. I’m talking about later. You’re right that we’re not going to escape. We’re going to get caught, arrested, tried, and convicted for multiple felonies. That’s inevitable. It’s going to happen. I’ve accepted that outcome. That also means the loot inside this vault isn’t going anywhere. But, the cat’s out of the bag. You, your friends, and all of us know what’s in there. We know how valuable it is. Hell, some of it may be illegal. Who knows? What I do know is that it can’t stay hidden there forever. Dylan Tanaka can try to hide his past, but he can’t ever run from it. It’ll catch up to him eventually.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“What I mean is that even if we don’t succeed at stealing his precious documents, someone else will. Others are aware of what he has hiding in here. We’re just the only ones with the balls to try to steal it. Stephen Callahan, my boss, approached several guys to help him with this job. Most of them said no. The four of us, however, said yes. Which means a shitload of people out there knows what he has hidden behind this metal door. Oh sure, he’ll increase security by an exponential amount once this hostage crisis comes to an end. That’s also inevitable. But he can’t remain secure forever. He knows this technology, this “smart combat tech,” or whatever the fuck it’s called, will eventually fall into the wrong hands. Maybe by criminals like us, or government bureaucrats looking for better ways to kill Arabs.”

Thomas looks like he’s building a cohesive argument, but Monique can’t quite figure out what it is yet. “Where are you getting at?” she asks. She has to know.

“Where am I getting at? Isn’t it obvious? I’m sure the police and the FBI, or even the CIA, will want to know what Dylan has hidden in here. So the next person who attempts to open this safe won’t be using a drill like me, but instead will come armed with a search warrant. Tanaka doesn’t want this shit to get in the hands of the feds. That’s why he locked it up here in the first place, right?”

“Right.”

“So let’s make a deal. You and me. Screw the others. They’re fucked, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll stop drilling right now. I’m close, but not close enough. When I get arrested and find myself rotting in a federal prison cell, you tell Tanaka that one of our sellers is one of the most ruthless criminals in the world. That’s not a lie. That’s a fact. Trust me. So, he can either risk this guy, who’s one bad motherfucker, coming over with a whole army of armed thugs…or he can sell it off to a more respectable group of people, like the CIA or the Army or whatever. Yeah, they’re armed thugs too, but they’re, you know, considered “respectable” for whatever fucked up reason.” Thomas feels his mouth getting dry. He wishes he had another full bottle of water around. He’ll have to push through it if he’s going to persuade her successfully. She hasn’t interrupted him, which is a good sign that she’s actually thinking about what he’s saying.

“And how does this masterful plot involve you and me?” Monique raises an eyebrow. She keeps a close watch on him, making sure he’s not stalling just so he can dive for the shotgun and blast her to bits. That would be less than ideal.

“Ah, I was just getting there,” he begins. “Tanaka won’t want to sell it to any bad guy, obviously. He’s a monster who let innocent Arabs die, but he has a heart. Sort of. He also doesn’t want a repeat of tonight’s festivities. When word gets around that Dylan Tanaka has valuable intelligence hidden in his home, other people will come by to try to steal it. And they’ll come in larger numbers than the five of us who showed up tonight. You think we’re dangerous? Ha! You ain’t seen nothing yet, sister. We’re boy scouts compared to the guys our primary buyer has at his disposal. So, he can choose to sell it to the government. Given the national scandal that happened last time, this sale would have to be kept real secret. As in, so secret nobody without a top-level security clearance would know about it. That includes criminals like our potential buyer.”

“Oh, I see,” she interrupts. “Even if Dylan sells his documents to the government, thugs like you and your buyer will still stop by thinking he still has it. Right?”

“You’re smarter than you look.” Monique stomps on his shin. He grimaces in pain. “OW! FUCK! Sorry about that. Damn. Okay, okay, okay. So, if Dylan wants to live the rest of his life in peace and quiet, not paranoid every night that an army of gangsters will show up at any given moment and bomb his house back to the Stone Age, he needs to sell his stuff to a disreputable buyer, like the rogue state I mentioned. Or a terrorist organization. Or one of the Mexican cartels. Or a rival corporation that does business in warzones. Doesn’t matter. Word about that would definitely get around the campfire. If he does that, he’ll wash his hands of this shit, and never spend another day in his life worried that someone will try to put a bullet through his brain.”

“So, my job is to not only convince him of this but to insist that you should help facilitate this deal?” Monique gives Thomas a self-satisfied look. She may not look like a bookworm, but she loves spy novels. It’s one of her guilty pleasures. She’s always been fascinated by dirty deals like this. She never imagined she’d ever be a part of one. This goes to show that one never knows which direction life will take you.

Thomas laughs heartily. He loves the fact that she’s a smart cookie who doesn’t need anything spelled out for her. “YES! That’s exactly it! Dylan can make a deal with the courts to get me a reduced sentence. I’ll serve a year in prison, maybe less. In exchange, I’ll be a free man with a much larger reputation in the criminal underworld. I will spread rumors that Dylan Tanaka sold every scrap of paper he owns to the government. He’s now clean. He’s worthless. He’s useless. He’s not worth bothering anymore. Hell, maybe I’d be telling the truth! Maybe Dylan Tanaka will sell his intel to the feds. Who knows? I don’t care. I don’t give a fuck. What does matter is that I can serve a useful role in spreading that rumor across the criminal community. Everyone will think this is true, whether it is or not. And he, and you and your friends, will spend the rest of your lives in peace and tranquility.”

“What if I refuse to go along with your charade?”

“If you refuse to play along, dear lady, and every criminal out there, including the Big Enchilada I mentioned to you, still thinks Dylan Tanaka is in possession of the smart armor tech documents, well, fuck. He’s screwed. And guess what? So would you. And your friends. And that chef guy. Everyone Dylan Tanaka knows will be vulnerable. You could get kidnapped at any moment. Snatched right off the street. Or while you’re sleeping. You’d be held for ransom. Then Dylan would have to give away his dirty laundry. Or else you’d die. Or he’d die. Get the picture?” He pauses to breathe. Monique seems to understand exactly where he’s getting at. She looks down at the ground for a moment, soaking it all in. Is he right? Is that nightmare scenario likely? Can she risk it? She’s already experienced enough trauma for one night. She cannot imagine having to live the rest of her life in fear. Fear of death, torture, kidnapping, and other horrible things. This asshole could serve a useful purpose in convincing the criminal underworld that Dylan is no longer in possession of the buried treasure.

Or would he?

“Whether you like it or not, whether you realize it or not, you’re now just as involved in this as me, Dylan Tanaka, my boss, or anyone else,” he continues. “You can’t escape this. Your fate and his fate are now tied together. What do you say?”

Silence. No one breathes or moves a muscle.

“You make a persuasive case,” she finally says. “I’m impressed. You really just pull that out of your ass?”

“Well, not really.” Thomas chuckles. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while. You don’t agree to do a job like this unless you have an escape plan, a Plan B, a get-out-of-jail-free card. In this case, a literal get-out-of-jail-free card. This ain’t Monopoly. This is real life. So, what’s your answer? Can I expect your cooperation?”

Thinking long and hard about his proposal, Monique wanders off a few paces, away from Thomas Sellars. He eyes his shotgun, waiting for the perfect time to snatch it. She doesn’t turn her back toward him so that such a thing doesn’t happen.

“Sorry, but I still got to say no. You make a strong argument. You really do.” A profound look of disappointment casts over Thomas’s face. He truly thought he could strike a fortuitous deal with her. “Oh. By the way, you know how you said only you and your friends had the balls to come over here and crash our party?”

“Uh, yeah. Why?”

“That may have been true a minute ago. But not anymore.”

Monique points the Glock 19 at Thomas’s balls and fires a single shot. Unlike the last three times she attempted to shoot him, this one is a direct hit. Monique tunes out the sound of Thomas Sellars screaming his lungs out as his testicles explode in his pants. The sound of a drill screeching against metal is thoroughly unpleasant, but the sound of an egotistical asshole painfully getting castrated is music to her ears.

“Ouch. That’s got to hurt,” she murmurs to herself.

A pool of blood rapidly forms around Thomas as he writhes around in pain. He grabs his crotch in a desperate attempt to keep whatever genitals he has left intact. It’s an exercise in futility. There’s nothing left to salvage. He wheezes as his dry mouth and empty lungs make screaming impossible. Monique stands over him, trying to think of something witty to say. Nothing clever comes to mind.

“Oh well,” she laments. “I guess I’ll just have to enjoy this without a laugh line.”

***

Melanie was careful to walk around Xander’s sleeping body as she approached the door leading to the backyard. Thankfully, he didn’t stir. Still sleeping like a baby, Melanie made sure he was still breathing. He was. That was enough to ease her guilt. She could have sworn she choked him to death. It would have been a legally justifiable homicide, but it still would have wracked her conscience for years to come.

After carefully closing the door behind her without making any noise, Melanie is greeted by the deafening sound of helicopters flying overhead. She waves her arms wildly, hoping it would catch somebody’s attention. Unfortunately, they’re flying too far high to see her. Plus, their searchlights aren’t pointing at the backyard. This angers her.

“Damn! Come on, what’s going on here?” She sprints around the side of the house to access the driveway but stops when she sees an endless stream of red and blue lights flickering in the distance. “Wow! Look at that. The whole police department must be here.”

Without her glasses, she can’t see beyond the gate. There’s a crowd gathered behind it. She isn’t sure if there’s anyone on the inside of the gate (other than Dylan, Henry, and the bad guys, of course). She watches to see any sign that the police have already broken through and stormed the house. That doesn’t appear to be the case. She’s also hesitant to walk through the driveway out of fear that Stephen Callahan or the other guy would shoot her if they saw her sneaking around.

Melanie turns around and sees through a window Peggy fighting one of the goons in the dining room. “Holy shit!” she exclaims. She runs to the window to see if there’s any way she could help. It seems like Peggy is handling herself pretty well. She and the guy are on the floor. She has her legs wrapped around his neck and…

SNAP!

“Wow!” Melanie exclaims with pride. “Damn! You go girl!”

It’s obvious to anyone who’s watching that the guy’s neck snaps like a twig. Melanie doesn’t need to hear it to know it. He falls to the floor, as lifeless as a stuffed teddy bear. She watches Peggy stand up, wipe some blood off her face, and mutter something to the dead corpse lying on the floor in front of her. As of now, at least two of the five bad guys are dead. There could be others – Monique could have killed the safecracker guy by now – but she doesn’t know for sure. No use speculating on things you don’t know for certain. Melanie decides it might be best to return inside to check on Peggy and assist Monique (if she needs it). The world-class professional female bodybuilder turns around to go back indoors the same way she came.

Simultaneously, Xander’s eyes open. Groggy and suffering a massive headache, he cannot remember what just happened to him. He looks around, noticing that he’s still inside the gym. The lights are off and nobody else is here with him. Where did everyone go?

“Holy shit, I feel like crap.”

Xander attempts to stand up and promptly fails. He knows he needs to get some oxygen through his system before he can do anything physical. After twisting his head in a circle a few times, he notices someone lying on the floor. He’s dressed in all black, so it must be one of his guys. Xander gets to his feet and wobbles closer to the unmoving figure.

“WHAT THE FUCK? HOLY SHIT!”

The sight of Cortez’s face bashed in by a heavy dumbbell is enough to make him want to vomit. The splatter of brain tissue and pool of blood forming around his body gives off an awful smell that Xander will never forget for the rest of his life. He takes a step backward, looks away, and coughs once the stench of gory flesh seeps into his nose. Then, he reaches for his holster to look for his Glock. When he realizes nothing is there, he begins to panic.

“Those bitches escaped! Where did they go? I’m fucked!” He tries to think of an escape plan. It’s become clear to him that the mission has failed. It’s unsalvageable. He might as well quit and try to dodge jail time. He notices a door leading to the outside. The cops are sure to be everywhere, but are they patrolling the lake? Xander chooses to take this risk and swim away if that is what’s necessary to avoid capture.

Before he can take a step toward the door, it suddenly opens. Melanie, still naked and looking as intimidating as ever, stops dead in her tracks in the doorframe. She and Xander stare at each other for a long time in complete silence. A few loud POP-POP-POP sounds in the background break their makeshift staring contest.

“What the fuck happened here?” Xander growls. Melanie clears her throat to speak.

“You’re about to lose. Your friend here is dead, you’re completely surrounded by cops, and there’s no way to escape,” she says. Both of them flinch when a super loud BANG noise echoes throughout the basement. “Just give up. You can’t win.”

Xander examines Melanie’s big bulky body from head to toe. He could have sworn that she’s a dude who got a sex change (or something like that). Her voice is deep, but not deep like a guy. More like deep like a teenage boy going through puberty. She seems feminine enough, though she has more muscle than most football players he’s seen on TV. She’s not pretty enough to compensate for the fact that she’s built like a man. She even has a small dick – or whatever that thing is between her legs. He’s definitely not turned on by her, but he is intrigued by her physique. In a parallel universe, he’d hit on her if he saw her in a bar. But right now, she’s the enemy who may have a gun.

“You took my gun, right?”

“No, I actually just have this.” She takes out the switchblade, waving it in the air as she releases the blade. “So you’re not in danger of getting shot. Besides, I’ve never fired a gun in my life, so I’d probably miss if I tried to.”

“Uh huh. Well, that’s good for me. You may have stolen my pistol, but I have a backup!” Xander reaches into his back pocket and takes out a Colt King Cobra, a six-shooter revolver that’s small enough to hide in his jacket pocket. As if everything were moving in slow motion, Melanie’s brain immediately recognizes that Xander has pulled out a weapon and intends to use it. She dives to the ground on her right side to avoid getting hit. Xander fires the Colt once at her, missing by several inches. The bullet ultimately hits a wooden fence a few hundred feet away.

“Damn!”

Melanie crawls away to escape the line of fire. Once her feet clear the doorway, she stands up and sprints away from the house as fast as she can. Since she’s trained most of her adult life to become as bulky as possible, she’ll admit that she’s a slow runner. Her muscles add more weight to her frame, making it difficult to pick up speed. Hopefully, the darkness of night will provide cover from gunfire. As panicked as she’s ever been, Melanie heads for a large rhododendron bush located near the pond. She’s walked through Dylan’s gorgeous Japanese-style garden many times before, so she’s familiar with the entire layout. She just hopes her memory is good enough to lead her through the maze of plants, trees, and shrubbery in complete darkness.

“Where the hell are you?” Xander screams as he dashes outside. Melanie ducks behind the bush, hoping he didn’t see or hear her. She doesn’t dare stick her head up to find out.

The beautiful backyard is nothing new to Xander. The entire team has seen photographs of it from both satellite pictures and gardening magazines. Before Dylan’s fall from grace, several home and garden publications frequently came over to profile his famous backyard. Stephen Callahan wanted to make sure his team became familiar with every square inch of Dylan Tanaka’s property. So when Xander storms around looking for Melanie, he doesn’t stop to admire the scenery. The only thing on his mind is finding her. Or him. He still doesn’t know which it is.

A sudden rustle of branches makes Xander turn around and fire one shot at a harmless willow tree. He doesn’t hear anybody cry out in pain, so that was a waste of ammunition. Speaking of which, he takes a mental note that he now has four rounds remaining. His box of spare rounds is sitting in the SUV, which seems so, so far away. When he listens to the sound of helicopters flying in the sky and sees several flashing red and blue lights off in the distance, it makes the distance between here and their parked vehicles seem that much further away. If he’s going to escape from this place alive, he’s going to have to go through the water in the opposite direction.

“Hmmmmmm…” Xander ponders to himself. Should he try to hunt down this bitch or save his own hide and escape now? He knows Lake Washington is just a hop, skip, and a jump away. He’ll have to climb a fence to escape the property, but that’s small potatoes. He’s done shit like that many times before. However, the memory of Cortez’s brain splattered across the floor will never go away. He feels obligated to avenge his death (as a professional courtesy).

Even if it means delaying his grand escape by a few minutes.

“This fucker really wants to kill me,” Melanie whispers to herself under her breath. “He could easily escape, but he’s not. Why?”

Xander runs toward the walking bridge connecting one side of the pond to the other. Melanie, safely located about eighty to ninety feet away, watches him hastily move away from her. This is a fortunate development, she thinks. The further away from him, the better off I’ll be.

“Hey girl! Where you at?” Peggy yells off in the distance.

“Shit!” Melanie says a bit too loudly.

After crossing the walking bridge, Xander turns around and sees the chick with the big boobs wandering around with two pistols. She’s still naked (does anyone wear clothes around here?) and totally oblivious to his presence in the garden. He crouches low to avoid being seen. There’s a single lamp attached to the bridge, so he could be seen if he’s not careful. And she’s packing heat. He must tread carefully if he’s to make it out of here alive.

“Melanie! Where are you? I killed one of them. That’s two down, I think? Did you get the other guy?”

Melanie really, really, really, really wants to tell her to shut up – for her own sake. The “other guy” she was supposed to kill is not only still alive – he’s armed with a revolver and is somewhere in the garden! Melanie looks around the ground and finds a rock. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do.

“So, you killed two of my boys?” Xander mutters to himself, filled with rage. “Fuck this shit!”

He fires two shots in Peggy’s direction. The first bullet misses and pierces a small stone water fountain. The other bullet enters the side of Peggy’s left boob and exits through the other side. Her right boob is unharmed. She falls to the ground, grabbing her chest, crying out in pain.

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK! OWWWWWWW!!!”

“Peggy! NOOOOOOOOOO!!!” Melanie stands up, locates Xander, and throws the rock as hard as she can at him. It hits him right in the face, square in the nose. Melanie was never very good at sports, so it impresses her that she apparently possesses the throwing accuracy of a baseball infielder during times of duress. Xander drops the gun in the pond and falls backward. He lands on his butt. Like a lioness protecting her cubs from an apex predator, Melanie leaps to her feet and sprints toward her enemy combatant. Full of scorching hot anger, her sense of logic has been thrown out the window. She doesn’t know how badly Peggy has been hit, but that doesn’t matter right now. All she wants is payback for what he just did to her.

Just as Xander gets to his feet, Melanie dives at him and knocks him back to the ground. They wrestle on the grass for a few moments. Once she lands on top of him, Melanie wildly punches him repeatedly in the face. Out of breath and seething with wrath, she looks down at her victim. His entire face is a bloody mess. His nose is broken beyond repair. He’s even lost one of his front teeth. Before Melanie can punch him again, Xander tries to plead with her.

“Stop! Stop! STOP! Stop it right there. Fuck! I got it. I’m fucked. You have me. I dropped my fucking gun in the water. So you’re okay,” he says. Xander coughs when a river of blood pours into his mouth. Melanie quickly turns her head to check on Peggy. Miraculously, she’s still standing; holding her left boob with one hand and carrying a Glock with the other. She turns back to Xander and punches him in the throat for good measure. He gasps, all the air suddenly leaving his lungs.

“You’re damn right you’re fucked. You just shot my friend, you fucking piece of shit. You bastard!” She tightens her strong legs around his torso, squeezing the last few particles of air out of his lungs. He decides that if he’s going to die right here, it’s not the worst way to go.

“Well, shit. Just kill me. Go ahead.”

“I…I have nothing to kill you with. Unless you want me to choke you to death. I put you to sleep once. I can put you to sleep permanently if you’d like.”

“No, that’s okay.” He coughs again. “Being killed by you would be an honor. I never thought a tranny would be the one to do me in…” Before she can punch him again, Xander finds the rock that she threw at him and bashes her in the face with it. Melanie falls to the ground, rolls to her side, and tumbles into the pond. The SPLASH sound makes him laugh out loud. He then gets up, spits into the water, and sees Peggy pointing the Glock right at him. Her entire body is shaking from both the pain of being shot and the uncontrollable rage of almost being killed.

“Uh oh!”

Xander runs away, leaping over hedges and ducking low hanging tree branches as Peggy fires every round at the bastard who tried to murder her. After emptying the magazine, she tosses the useless weapon aside. She didn’t hit him once, a testament to how much pain she’s in. Even though it’s dark, she can clearly see him sprint back inside the house. This isn’t the first time Xander has had to duck gunfire. While serving in the U.S. Marines, he got into several firefights with Iraqi insurgents before being dishonorably discharged from service. He breathes a sigh of relief when he returns back indoors.

Peggy sees Melanie crawl out of the pond, soaking wet and consumed with anger. Then, Peggy falls helplessly to her knees.

“Oh FUCK! This hurts like a son of a bitch,” Peggy wails. Melanie bends down to attend to her friend. There’s blood, but not as much as she was expecting.

“Are you okay? Is it bad?”

“Nah, it’s not too bad. It hurts like a motherfucker, but I’ll be alright,” she says. “It… it went through my boob. Which…which is basically all silicone. So I guess you can say, uh, he didn’t hit any flesh. W…which is good.” Peggy laughs to brighten the mood. Still mad as hell, Melanie smiles at her friend’s lightheartedness. Even after being shot by a maniac, she can still find the humor in it all. That’s quite an accomplishment.

“When all this is over, looks like you’re going to have to see your surgeon again,” Melanie jokes.

This makes Peggy laugh some more, but she stops when the pain suddenly returns. “Damn it! This night has been one long fucking nightmare. The bastard ran back in the house. Is Monique okay?”

“I have no idea. Shit! I forgot about Monique. I hope she’s fine.” Melanie brushes away a leaf that’s stuck in her hair. She feels her cheek. Chances are it’s bruising up badly. It is.

“We need to rescue her.” Peggy stands up with Melanie’s assistance. Her boob is bleeding a little bit, but not as bad as one would expect. Probably because the bullet hit mostly silicone and not internal flesh. “The other gun is over there, right where I dropped it.”

Melanie looks in the pond for the revolver. She cannot locate it in the dark murky water. “Well, I’m still unarmed. Sort of. I still have the knife.” She points to the switchblade sitting behind the rhododendron bush. Suddenly, she notices the chashitsu (a traditional Japanese teahouse) several yards away. “Hey, do you know what’s in there?”

Peggy looks to where Melanie is pointing. “Oh yeah. It’s where Dylan stores the gardening equipment. Why?”

“There may be something useful in there. Come on.”

First, Melanie jogs to the rhododendron bush to retrieve the switchblade. Then, she and Peggy trudge toward the teahouse. They see it’s locked by a padlock. Melanie sticks the edge of the blade into the lock and twists it, hoping this works just like it does in the movies.

“Come on, come on, come on!” Melanie pleads with the padlock.

“It’s not going to work. That shit only happens on TV…” Peggy stops speaking when Melanie successfully unlocks it. She smiles at her friend. Melanie tosses the padlock to the ground and opens the teahouse door. “Good for you, girl! That’s some gangsta shit right there.”

After fumbling around in the dark for a few seconds, Melanie finds a light switch and flips it on. Two bright lights turn on, brilliantly illuminating the interior of Dylan’s glorified toolshed. Inside the teahouse are various gardening tools, bags of fertilizer, spare work gloves, tree and lawn care books, rags, buckets, birdseed, hoses, a lawnmower, a leaf blower, and…

…a 20-inch gas-powered Helinski Class-A chainsaw.

Joey, Dylan’s stoner gardener, just purchased this chainsaw earlier this week. He used it for the first time yesterday morning to trim the willow trees. It’s obnoxiously loud and intimidating to wield, a fact that makes Dylan thankful that he hired someone else to do this type of work. Melanie sees it hung up on the far wall. She looks back at Peggy, who seems to be thinking the exact same thing she’s thinking.

“You get the gun,” Melanie gleefully instructs her friend. “I’ll take this.”

All the King’s Queens – Chapter 9: Hostage Situation

Dylan Tanaka doesn’t believe in the paranormal. He has an auntie who claims to possess extra-sensory perception (and can talk to the spirits of the recently deceased who haven’t yet “passed on to the afterlife”), which confirms his skepticism in such baloney. She’s kooky in more ways than that, a fact that her six ex-husbands could corroborate. Yet, despite his condescending attitude towards people claiming to have ESP, a “sixth sense,” or anything like that, Dylan can occasionally “feel” when something is out of place without knowing why or how…or having any evidence to back up his feelings.

This is one of those times.

He and his party guests are still in the cabaret room, drinking and dancing the night away, completely lost in the little world that they’ve cultivated for themselves. Melanie has stopped teaching Henry how to pose like a bodybuilder and has moved on to asking him how to properly fillet a fish. Henry pontificates with the expert credentials of a tenured college professor. Monique listens intently, also interested in learning proper seafood preparation techniques from Dylan’s talented chef. Peggy is at the bar making herself a margarita. She saw Monique drinking one and decided she should consume one as well.

“Hey, are you okay?” Monique has drifted away from Melanie and Henry’s conversation toward the host, who seems lost in his own thoughts. “You’re just standing around all by yourself. What’s up, honey?” She kisses him on the cheek. Dylan remains in a state of alertness.

“I don’t know why, but I got a funny feeling. I think…someone’s downstairs. Or coming up the stairs, or…”

Before Dylan can finish his thought, the doors at the front of the room violently swing open. Right over Monique’s right shoulder, he sees several moving figures dressed in all black sweep into the cabaret room. In a moment that takes only five seconds but feels like an eternity, the first figure shouts something Dylan cannot understand while the others behind him point pistols at the party guests. Monique turns around to see what the commotion is all about and lets out a high-pitched scream when she sees the men with guns. They aren’t wearing masks – probably because it would attract suspicion and unwanted attention – but without question, they are armed and carry malevolent intent.

“Everybody FREEZE!” the lead man shouts. Peggy drops her margarita to the floor and also screams. Melanie and Henry – who are standing in front of the balcony, furthest away from the entrance – stop conversing and stare in horror at what’s unfolding in front of them.

“What the fuck is this?” Henry says to Melanie. Before she can respond, everyone freezes when the man who shouted fires a single round straight into the ceiling. The bullet blasts a Fresnel stage light into a thousand shards of glass and metal.

“All of you, get your fucking hands up in the goddamn air, right now! I will not repeat myself,” the lead man warns. “Then, I want you all to walk slowly towards Mr. Tanaka and gather around him. Do it NOW!”

Dylan’s eyes finally adjust to the traumatic scene. It is at this very moment that he finally recognizes the leader of this pack of armed men. It’s unmistakable.

“Stephen?” Dylan asks the man.

Thomas, Roddy, Cortez, and Xander also adjust their eyes to the bright lights in the cabaret room. Once they finally see that every single person in this room is naked, they react with a mixture of shock and morbid curiosity. They may be dangerous men in “assault mode,” but they are men nevertheless. Nothing, not even a high-stakes heist, can change that.

“Hello Dylan. It’s, uh, nice to see you again. WOW! Look at you. Look at this place. I thought you were all alone. I seriously thought you’d be here, all alone, jerking off to an old VHS tape you hid under your childhood bed,” Stephen teases his former boss. He stops to regard the scene. His eyes get wide when he sees every partygoer is as naked as the day they were born. “HEY! Damn. What in the actual fuck is going on here? What is this, a Roman Empire-style orgy? Yikes. Can we all join in?”

Dylan doesn’t say a word. He’s too stunned to comprehend what his former employee is saying to him. It’s been at least three years since he last spoke to Stephen Callahan. Their last meeting wasn’t exactly cordial. In fact, it included a lot of cursing, innuendo, threats, and unforgiving stares of bitter anger. And that came from both sides. Peggy cautiously walks closer to Dylan, who has a frightened Monique standing by her side. She quickly glances down to avoid stepping on broken glass with her bare feet. Melanie and Henry, their hands still high above their ears, come closer to their fellow party guests at a snail’s pace. Everyone’s heart rate is racing a million miles per minute.

“Seriously, Dylan Tanaka. What the fuck is going on here? I have to know, my friend.” Stephen’s four companions (miraculously) remain as professional as can be. Cortez, however, recognizes Peggy Cole right away. He would never admit it to anyone, but he’s been a loyal subscriber to her videos and livestreams for years now. It’s like he’s seeing a celebrity!

“We’re just having a party. Maybe not quite like a Roman orgy, but pretty damn close,” Dylan says between gritted teeth. “Are you planning to kill me? Because if that’s your plan, just kill me. Spare my friends. Let them go. They didn’t do anything to you. Your beef is entirely with me. Not them. They’re innocent.”

“Oh, I know they’re innocent. And you’re absolutely right, Dylan boy. I have a lot of beef with you, you fucking coward.” Stephen takes a step closer to him, taunting him by pointing the barrel of his Glock 19 right at Dylan’s genitals. “Hell, I could just blow off your tiny little dick right here and leave the rest of you in peace. It’ll be messy, but hey, that’s why you have a butler, right? To clean up shit like that? But no, I have bigger plans in store for you.”

Dylan is accustomed to hearing taunts about having a “tiny Asian dick” from idiots like him (middle school was the worst years of his life), but the fact he and his men are pointing loaded guns directly at his friends is an entirely different experience. Filling him with rage, he knows he must remain calm and rational so that no one gets hurt. He sighs. “What plans, exactly?”

“Oh, you’ll see,” he grins. At last, all of Dylan’s party guests are standing in a row right in front of Stephen’s band of armed goons. Once he refocuses his eyes on the rest of the partygoers, Stephen realizes these aren’t just normal people Dylan has invited over on this fateful Saturday evening. The tall chubby black man is Dylan’s personal chef. He doesn’t know his name, but he knows his occupation and purpose for regularly visiting the house. The other three are women…

…but not your typical looking women. They are women with…big muscles.

Whoa.

Big muscles. Big, big, big muscles. Really fucking big muscles.

“Holy shit. Are you a fag? A secret fag? What the fuck is with all these muscle chicks? Sweet mother of God, this is fucking incredible. You are a woman, right?” Stephen zeroes in and taunts Melanie. Miss Wright gives him a dirty look that would make even the most sadistic serial killer cringe. “HOT DAMN! I didn’t know you were into muscle chicks! I suppose that’s not something you usually tell people, let alone your coworkers.” Stephen circles slowly around Melanie, keeping his gun pointed right at her head. Melanie, usually full of confidence and raw power, feels utterly helpless in this situation. She may have much larger muscles than this guy, but he has a gun pointed at her. That more than tips the scale in his favor.

Inside his mind, Stephen cannot actually believe that he just used the word “fag” in a derogatory sense. Having grown up in a traditionally liberal northeastern family, he’d been taught all his life that you should never use the f-word. Ever. Especially in today’s era when the gay rights movement has achieved so much progress. But in this case, he’s using it not as a homophobic slur, but as a self-aware immature schoolyard bully insult intended to belittle a man he abhors. He knows this doesn’t excuse his atrocious behavior, but tonight is not a night for taking the moral high ground. That ship has sailed. That will wait until a later day.

“Let me guess,” Stephen says to Melanie. “You have a bigger dick than him? I guess that wouldn’t take much…”

“Fuck off,” Melanie mutters. Everyone holds their breath. Melanie wonders if this will be the final thing she ever utters. He looks her in the eye. Instead of being angered, however, Stephen is amused.

“Whoa, your voice isn’t as manly as I had expected it to be. You actually sound like a real woman, so congratulations you slut.” There he is again, with the sophomoric schoolyard insults. Dylan has never heard him talk like this before, even back when they used to go out for drinks after work. “Well, you may end up surviving this if Mr. Tanaka here behaves like a good little Asian boy, like his mommy and daddy raised him to be. So, no pressure.” Stephen glances down at Melanie’s clit to see if it is indeed as large as a small penis. Yikes. It’s considerably huge, he notes, but alas – not as large as Dylan’s small pee-pee. Oh well, it’s still a funny joke.

“I have no fucking clue what you’re all doing here, wearing nothing at all, but that actually works to our favor, doesn’t it?” Stephen glances at Thomas, who still cannot fathom the bizarre sights he’s seeing right in front of him.

“Uh, yeah, very convenient,” Thomas stammers, struggling to return to “bad guy” mode. “We’d probably end up stripping you naked anyway, or at least down to your underwear. The good news is that we know none of you have your phones on you. So, uh. Where are your phones?”

Nobody speaks for a while. The five naked hostages can barely breathe. Roddy, Xander, and Cortez look at the nude women with lustful intentions. The three women notice this unwanted attention but are powerless to do anything about it. Finally, Henry decides to break the awkward silence.

“My stuff is in her bedroom,” he says, pointing to Peggy. She nods.

“Yeah, me too. My phone, my clothes, my luggage, everything is also in my bedroom,” Peggy says. She declined to point out her sex toys, vibrators, collection of lingerie, lube, condoms, and BDSM paraphernalia are also in her bedroom, though she figures these armed jackasses will find that out soon enough. “It’s all there. Nothing is on me. As you can clearly see.”

“I can see that,” Thomas says, checking out Peggy’s body from head to toe. His eyes leer at her enormous breast implants for a moment before he returns to barking out orders. “What about the rest of you? Speak up or I put a bullet through Dylan’s forehead.”

“My phone is also in my bedroom,” Monique squeaks. Her legs are shaking and she is on the verge of tears. Out of everyone currently involved in this mess, Dylan feels the most empathy for her. She’s the one who’s experienced the most trauma up to this point.

“Mine too,” Melanie says.

“My phone is right on that counter over there, by the bar,” Dylan points to the area where Peggy dropped her margarita. Immediately, Xander walks over to it, avoids stepping on the broken glass, and grabs Dylan’s iPhone. He returns to his original spot.

“Fantastic. Give it to me,” Thomas requests. Xander does so. The safecracker takes a small brown leather sack out of his coat pocket and puts the phone inside it. “Where are these bedrooms that you’re speaking of?”

“Go out through the doors you can in, turn left, and walk down that long hallway,” Dylan instructs them. “You’ll find a series of guest bedrooms at the far end. I have no clue who is staying where, so you’ll have to search through all of them. All the doors should be unlocked.”

Stephen nods at the three men to leave the room and search for the other four phones. Xander, Roddy, and Cortez put their Glocks back in their holsters and promptly exit the room. Everyone watches them leave. “Excellent. So far, I like the cooperation I’ve been seeing out of all of you,” Stephen says. “If you want to leave this luscious house alive, just keep up being good girls and boys.”

Suddenly, Stephen looks down at Henry’s penis. He cannot help but be impressed by what Dylan’s chef has hanging between his legs. The jaw-dropping sight of his endowment makes him chuckle.

“Huh. Well. I might as well blast Dylan’s dick off,” he says while pointing his gun back at Dylan’s genitals. “It’s not like anyone will miss it. If I did the same to you, Mr. Chef, I’m guessing a lot of ladies would be sorely disappointed. Emphasis on sore.” He lets out a self-congratulatory laugh. Thomas politely follows suit.

“Go fuck yourself, you fucking piece of shit!” Henry defiantly curses at him. Stephen then points the barrel of his Glock right at the tip of Henry’s member. Dylan closes his eyes tightly, anticipating a gunshot that would be followed by a horrifying scream and gushing blood.

“What did you say to me?” Stephen threatens.

“You heard what I said. Go ahead and shoot me. If it makes you feel like a big man to cut a man like me down to size. Come on. Do your worst,” Henry says coolly. This act of defiance makes Stephen back off from Dylan’s trusted chef. He returns to standing next to Thomas and repoints his gun at the entire group.

“Wooooooooooo, I like your friends, Dylan. They have spunk. They have balls. Literally, I’m sure you ladies also have balls, if you know what I mean.” This elicits a dirty look from Peggy and Melanie. Monique is still too frightened to feel any emotion other than paralysis caused by guttural fear. “Anyway, enough chit chat. Let’s cut to the chase. As soon as my three comrades return with your phones, we’re going to take a little field trip to the basement. Can you guess why we’re going there, Dylan?”

Dylan pauses for a bit and bows his head. From the moment his brain processed that Stephen Callahan and four unknown associates had broken into his home, he knew the purpose of their unfortunate visit.

“I do. I know exactly why you’d want us to go down there.”

Melanie tries to turn her head to look at Dylan, but she decides it would be safer to not make any sudden moves. She wonders what he could possibly have hidden down there.

“Great. I’m glad we’re on the same page,” Stephen sends his former boss a wicked smile. Dylan Tanaka can only stand there, naked and shaking, as scared and vulnerable as he’s ever felt in his life – hoping he and his friends survive until the morning.

***

“Dude, like what the fuck is going on? Did you see the chicks that are in that room?” Roddy cannot contain his excitement as he and his two companions briskly walk toward the guest bedrooms. “I’ve literally never seen shit like that in my life. Fuuuuuuuuuuck dudes!”

“Yeah, this shit is crazy. For sure,” Xander adds. He hopes his fledging erection isn’t visible through his pants.

“Want to know something? I actually recognized one of them,” Cortez quietly confesses.

Roddy and Xander stop dead in their tracks. They turn around to see Cortez following behind them. He has a sheepish look on his face. Roddy has to know what Cortez is talking about. “Really? Who?”

“You know the chick with those enormous boobs? Yeah, she’s like a, uh, a pornographic actress, or whatever they’re called. She’s in porn, for real guys. I sort of, uh, subscribe to her videos.” Cortez looks embarrassed to be confessing to knowing who LATINAMUSCLEPRINCESS67 is. For the past three years he’s been a monthly subscriber to her videos, livestream chats, and photo albums. That part isn’t something he’ll reveal, though.

“Damn, dude. That’s fucking sick. But I shouldn’t judge. I’m into some kinky ass shit myself,” Xander jokes. At last, they reach the part of the hallway where the guest bedrooms are located. Cortez wants their conversation to come to a swift end for obvious reasons. Hopefully, the search for everyone’s phones will do the trick.

“Bruh, what kind of porn does she do?” Xander inquires.

“I don’t know how I found her, but she does the usual shit. Girl on girl. Her with a guy, or two, or three, or fifty,” Cortez smiles. “She does a lot of normal shit, no joke dude. And she’s a real chick, not a guy who became a chick or nothing. Seriously.” As they chat, Roddy enters an empty bedroom, takes a quick look around, and moves on to the next room. He is now in what is currently Melanie’s bedroom.

“Where the fuck is it?” Roddy asks himself. “Ah, there it is.” He finds a larger-than-usual phone with a fuchsia-colored case sitting on a bedside table. He figures it’s rather fitting that a huge lady (at least he thinks she’s a lady) would possess such a huge phone. Seems logical enough. He picks it up and leaves the room, turning off the lights before closing the door.

“Wow, that’s like, uh, weird that she’d be here. But I guess that makes sense. Rich motherfucker like him could invite skanks like her over to his place. He’s rich enough.”

“Oh yeah. So I subscribe to her videos. It’s pretty cheap. Only two dollars a month,” Cortez lies. It’s actually $19.99 a month to subscribe just to her videos. It’s an extra $4.99 on top of that for the weekly livestreams. And subscribers have to pay a shit ton more for personal one-on-one virtual chats. He’s never done that, though. He doesn’t have that kind of money to burn. “It’s a pretty good deal. Yeah, it’s pretty wild that she’s here. Fuck, man.”

“Oh yeah. Fucking wild.”

“Hey, you pathetic little fuckwads. Get to work!” Roddy commands them. This snaps Xander and Cortez out of their pleasant little chat. Xander dashes to the bedroom next to the one Roddy just came out of. Sure enough, it’s the one belonging to Monique St. Martin. The hot black chick seems like she’d be a good fuck (like a lot of sisters who keep themselves in shape), except for the fact she was on the verge of tears the whole time. That’s not hot at all, Xander thinks. It’s too bad there had to be innocent bystanders unexpectedly inside the house during this time. He really hates to get people who don’t deserve shit all covered in shit. It’s a stain on his professional record, not to mention a permanent black mark on his conscience. Even though he’s lived the life of a criminal-for-hire for several years now, he still has enough of the proverbial angel sitting on his shoulder to remind him that he’s still a human being. And, that the people he encounters during jobs are also human beings.

After sifting through the black girl’s purse, Xander finds her phone, stashed away next to a tube of lipstick, a taser, a spare tampon, a small travel makeup kit, a phone charger, and her wallet. He looks at the tampon and imagines what it would be like to shove it up her tight little pussy, watching her squirm as she experiences this unexpected painful penetration.

(Like he said to his partners in crime, Xander is into some kinky ass shit. He is not necessarily proud of this fact)

At the same time, Cortez silently prays that he’d be the one who could enter into LATINAMUSCLEPRINCESS67’s room. It would be like walking into a holy house of worship, a sacred palace, an historical monument. And to his pleasant surprise, it sure looks like the bedroom his (favorite) pornographic actress is staying in. The bed is a complete mess. Cortez sniffs at it, noticing the distinct scent of sweat and body odor. The muskiness is enough to send shivers down his spine. He turns on the lights and audibly gasps at what he sees.

“What the fuck is this shit?”

The room is littered with clothing and costume pieces strewn across the floor. Several bottles/tubes of makeup are lined up perfectly on top of a pearl white dressing table, with a suitcase full of sex toys and erotic equipment sitting in the corner. Cortez’s professionalism instantaneously goes out the window as he regards the beautiful mess surrounding him. It truly feels like walking into a sacred altar where one could experience the Divine. He picks up a clear glass dildo that looks about eight to nine inches long, significantly longer than his own dick. He puts it down once he sees on the floor by the foot of the bed a pair of sparkly, scarlet-colored bikini bottoms. After bending down to pick it up, Cortez takes one long sniff of it, taking in the musk and history this bikini has gone through. He looks around to make sure his compatriots aren’t spying on him. Thankfully, they are nowhere to be seen. He stuffs the bikini bottom into his inside coat pocket, hoping he can have fun with it later once this job is complete. Several seconds later, he finds her phone sitting on a chair, next to her wallet. He opens the wallet to see if her driver’s license is inside. It is.

“Peggy Cole. That’s her name. Wow. I had no idea. And she lives in Vegas. I guess I already knew that…”

“Hey, have you found it yet, you horny bastard?” Roddy’s voice beckons in the distance. Cortez takes the phone, drops the wallet back on the chair, and turns around to leave the room. He is, at the moment, a horny bastard, but he can’t act out on his horniness until they successfully steal whatever it is that they came here to steal. That means later. Much later.

“Yeah, I found it!” Cortez slams the door shut behind him to rejoin his other two companions. Roddy says nothing as they walk back to the cabaret room. Xander, however, has one last question for him.

“Was that the porno chick’s room?”

“Yeah, it was.”

“Did you find anything, uh, weird in it?” Roddy is several steps ahead of them, clearly not interested in this conversation. “I’m just curious, man.”

“Oh yeah, there’s some weird ass stuff in that room. We’ll come back later tonight to check it out. Trust me, my dude, she’s one hell of a fine bitch. I’ll show you a video of her squirting all this juice out of her pussy…”

“Squirting? What the fuck? Wow, that’s hot shit for sure. Real hot shit!”

“Hey, you two, get off the horny train and get your mind back in the game,” Roddy chastises them without turning around to look at them. Their sudden silence tells him all he needs to know. Those two horny idiots may have their alternative preferences, but Roddy won’t allow that to distract them from the job at hand. He knows Stephen and Thomas would agree. The stakes of this heist are too high to allow unnecessary levity to seep in.

The walk back to the cabaret room did not include any further chatter about LATINAMUSCLEPRINCESS67 or her breathtaking anatomical abilities.

***

“I learned a lot while in prison, Dylan.” Stephen finds a plate of maraschino cherries sitting on the bar and eats one. “I learned a lot about myself, the world, the criminal justice system in our country, and, most importantly, the ins and outs of being a top-notch professional thief.” He glances at Thomas, who feels touched by the direct acknowledgment of his expertise. Stephen flicks the cherry stem on the floor carelessly, showing little regard to cleanliness. “The things I learned and the shit I experienced have led me to this moment. And you know what I want from you, don’t you?”

By now, Dylan, Henry, Melanie, Peggy, and Monique are bunched together, as if this formation gives them the most power in a scenario where they lack all power. Thomas has his gun in hand but not pointed at anyone in particular. Stephen’s firearm is now in his holster. “I do. But you’ll have a difficult time getting it. I made sure of that,” Dylan says.

“Oh? You were expecting me?” Stephen laughs. Dylan’s face remains cold and unchanged. “Whether you were or weren’t, I’m flattered you wouldn’t just let any old associate of yours waltz in here and take whatever they want. Who knows? I may decide to take more than I had anticipated.” He pinches Monique’s left nipple, causing her to squirm. Melanie almost comes forward to her defense but chooses to not directly confront two armed men while she and her friends are standing around as naked as the day they were born.

“Don’t touch me,” Monique warns in a low voice. Stephen backs off, apparently remembering that he’s still a civilized human being, despite the present circumstances. Watching his former deputy violate Monique makes Dylan seethe with rage.

“Sorry, my dear. I got ahead of myself.”

The tension is broken when Stephen’s three hired goons return with a sack full of everyone’s phones. Roddy hands it to Thomas. He looks inside, pokes around, closes the sack, and nods his head to Stephen, signaling that everything they need to collect has been collected. Stephen nods back. “Excellent. It would appear our business up here is done. And I must say, Dylan, I love what you’ve done with the place. You have some sort of stripper joint right here in your home. Is that what this place is?”

“It’s a cabaret room,” Dylan says coldly.

“Oh. Whatever you call it, it’s quite a sight to see. I feel like I’m on Broadway.” Stephen takes a deep breath and sighs. “Well, let’s get on with it. Time is short. I don’t want to be here all night. Where is it?”

Henry and the three ladies look at Dylan, still confused as to what he and this vicious monster is talking about. As Dylan’s loyal chef, Henry has been to this house thousands of times over the years. He’s never been aware that anything valuable or important is hidden here. He’s well aware of his boss’s taste in women, but nothing that would incentivize armed bandits to break into his house and commit multiple felonies over.

“Downstairs. In the basement. Where everything about my past life is stored,” Dylan says.

“Excellent. Shall we?”

“No, not yet,” Dylan insists. “Please. Let my friends go. Let them get dressed, gather their things, and leave this property. I asked you before to let them go. I’m asking you again. You have their phones. You can get whatever you want without them here. I’m sure they’ll promise not to call the cops because if they do, you’d no doubt execute me, right?”

Stephen eyes Dylan’s friends. He can tell they are all tremendously uncomfortable, wondering how this fun evening suddenly came to a crashing halt. “Yeah, that’s what I’d do. But I don’t want to risk it. Whether you like it or not, your friends are now a part of this. They’re in this until the very end. Sorry about that, old pal. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. Let’s get moving. Now.”

“Let’s go. Move it. Lead on,” Thomas demands.

“Okay.” Dylan turns to his friends. “I’m so, so, so sorry about this. I had no idea this would happen. Please forgive me…”

“Hey, boss man. It’s all good. It’s not your fault. It’s their fault. He’s doing this to us, not you. You’re good, my man. You’re good. He’s the one doing this,” Henry reassures his employer. The rest signal their agreement in their own way.

“That’s right. We’re here and we’re not going anywhere,” Peggy declares. “We’re here to protect you, Dylan darling. We all love you. If this motherfucker, or any of these motherfuckers, lay even one goddamn finger on you, there’ll be hell to pay. For sure.”

“Thanks, love.”

“Oh, how charming! The love in this room is palpable,” Thomas says sarcastically. “Let’s fucking move! Downstairs, NOW. All of you. Let’s move it or someone will get a bullet through their skull.” Dylan (reluctantly) leads the way as the group exits the cabaret room. Everyone walks in a single file line to their ultimate destination. Xander and Cortez cannot help but stare at Monique’s perfectly round butt as she walks by. It’s still a shame that she’s practically been on the verge of tears for as long as they’ve been here. Roddy shows no emotion as he decides to be the one at the back of the line. Dylan leads, followed by Stephen, Thomas, Henry, Peggy, Monique, Melanie, Xander, Cortez, and Roddy at the tail. The three guys in the back have holstered their firearms but are prepared to draw them in the event that any of the hostages decide to make a run for it. Chances are nobody will do anything foolish. Especially since all the hostages are without clothing, weapons, or a reason to run.

“You have a lovely home,” Stephen says.

“Go fuck yourself, old buddy,” Dylan responds. This makes Stephen so happy to see Dylan so pissed off, scared, angry, confused, embarrassed, powerless, emasculated, and whatever else emotions he’s feeling at the moment. They say vengeance rarely tastes as delicious as one would hope, however, so far Stephen begs to differ. This is going exactly the way he thought it would. Watching Dylan’s pathetic naked self, full of dread and guilt, is as satisfying as he had fantasized about while sitting in his prison cell.

The group trudges down the spiral staircase at a leisurely pace. Like dominoes, all it takes is for one person to accidentally trip to send everyone crashing down to the ground like ragdolls. Nobody says a word the rest of the way. Dylan is careful not to make any sudden moves or take any sharp turns, out of fear that all it takes is one of Stephen’s men with an itchy trigger finger to cause an unnecessary bloodbath. Once everyone is on the ground floor, Dylan leads the group to the staircase leading downstairs to the wine cellar (where he, Monique, and Melanie were earlier this evening before dinner, which seems like centuries ago), home gym, a meditation room (which Dylan rarely uses), and a storage room. This is where they are eventually going. It’s here where Dylan has allowed many things to collect dust over the years. It’s also where he keeps his walk-in safe. Very few people are aware that he has this. Lawrence does. A few former Perseus Analytics executives also know. So does a friend who lives in London. Henry doesn’t, nor does Joey the landscaper. It is in this room where Dylan’s memories from the good old days are stored, along with a few unexpected surprises.

“That’s one impressive collection of wine,” Stephen observes casually.

“It is,” Melanie chimes in, feeling more confident to stand up to her captors. “Dylan appreciates the finer things in life. He has no time for low-brow trash.”

Stephen stops mid-stride. He turns around to look at Melanie. Even compared to his hired goons, Melanie’s size is remarkable to see up-close. She truly is a large muscular woman who could snap his neck in half if she had to. No doubt she wants to at this moment. “Ouch. That hurts. You should hold your tongue, young man.”

Melanie’s eyes widen. Nothing makes her angrier than to hear a man sarcastically refer to her as a man. She didn’t mind when that little boy at the airport didn’t know whether she was a boy or a girl, but he’s a kid who doesn’t know any better. This prick is a full-grown adult. She considers making a comeback but refrains after Peggy gently grabs her hand to warn her to cool it. Melanie’s better nature comes out, telling her to remain quiet.

His time will come, she thinks to herself.

“We’re almost there,” Dylan says, trying to calm everyone down. He’s the last person who wants to see anybody get hurt this evening. That would live on his conscience until the day he dies.

The large home gym takes up the majority of the basement’s floor layout. Once you get to the bottom of the stairs, you see a long hallway that sort of looks something out of a horror film if all the lights are turned off. When Dylan, Melanie, and Monique went downstairs earlier to fetch a couple bottles of wine and spirits, they kept the lights on, almost as if they intuitively knew they’d soon return down here. The gym is on the left side. On the right is a shower/changing room, a meditation room, a few emergency guest bedrooms (with futons instead of actual furnished beds), and finally, a spacious storage room. Stephen sees that the thick glass door has no handle. Before he turns to Thomas to ask him to break through it, Dylan sticks his thumb onto a small scanner pad. It makes a small “beep” noise, which unlocks the door. This makes Stephen smile. Thomas is also amused at this. Henry, who hasn’t been down in the basement in a while, cannot believe there’s a secret room in this house that’s secured behind a thumbprint scanner. How long has this been installed? What could Dylan possibly be hiding that’s so important?

“Here we are,” Dylan says. “The last time I cleaned this place up was last summer. So that was almost a whole year ago. Forgive the mess.”

“Not to worry. I don’t give a shit about how your interior decorating preferences,” Stephen responds. “No offense.”

The large room (though not as large as the gym) is filled with glass shelves showcasing the various plaques, awards, honorary degrees, and trophies Dylan has earned throughout the years. Every institution, from Harvard University to the Sierra Club to the U.S. Department of Defense to the Seattle Seahawks, have at some point in time given him an award. It’s basically all symbolic. There’s also some spare furniture, a few paintings that Dylan couldn’t find wall space for, a small bookshelf full of old college textbooks, Christmas decorations, and clothing that he’s been too lazy to donate to charity. It’s not quite an obstacle course to get around it all, but one must be careful about where one steps. Dylan switches on a light that illuminates all the treasure (and worthless junk, which makes for an interesting juxtaposition) the room has to offer. Finally, Stephen sees clearly a modest metallic door in the far corner of the room, surrounded by a sturdy dark gray frame. The wall itself looks like it could withstand a tank shell blast from point-blank range. This is the “Holy Grail” Stephen Callahan has been seeking all these years, right here in front of him. Right within his grasp.

“At long last, here we are. Look at it, I’m impressed. It looks like a bank vault,” Stephen observes. Indeed, he is correct. There’s a long vertical steel handle on the left side, a round black security camera hanging over the top with an ominous red light glowing at all times, and a white panel right next to the handle that’s connected to the wall. Thomas takes a closer inspection and sighs when he sees the white panel contains two keyholes.

“Fuck. Damn it. This shit isn’t going to be the walk in the park that I hoped it would be,” Thomas complains. “It can only be opened by two keys. I’m assuming he has one of them, right?” The safecracker turns to Dylan. Everyone also looks at him. For the first time since these thieves crashed his fun little party, Dylan Tanaka cracks a genuine smile.

“I do. In my bedroom. But you’re wasting your time. You’re right. It takes two keys to open it. I have one upstairs. The other, however, is in Europe. A friend of mine who shall remain nameless has it in their possession. They live in London, in case you care. I’m assuming you don’t have a plane scheduled to land in Heathrow anytime soon?” Dylan gives Stephen a sassy look, believing this stumbling block will derail his carefully laid out plans. “What are you going to do now?”

“You’re right, we don’t have any contacts heading to Europe or based in Europe. At least, not yet. We may get there, eventually.” Stephen rubs his temples, realizing now that he’s in for a long night. “I get it. We knew this would be a possibility. It’s impossible for you to open the safe by yourself. You need a second person, or more specifically, a second key, to open it. I can threaten you, your friends, or even burn down your entire fucking house, but that wouldn’t make any difference. At all.”

“That’s correct, Stephen boy,” Dylan taunts him. “Kill me. Shoot me right in the chest. It won’t get you any closer to accessing the contents of this safe. It’s a fail-safe system, no pun intended. I can’t open it even if I wanted to. You can clearly see it for yourself. It can only be opened if my friend hops on a jet, flies across the Atlantic Ocean, gets their ass down here, and provides us with the second key. Do you want to know where my key is?”

“Yes.”

“Fourth floor. You’ll find it on the bedside table, bottom drawer. Underneath an old high school yearbook.”

Thomas turns to Roddy and Xander. “Go get it. Now.” The two men promptly leave to fetch it. Cortez takes a few steps back so he can have all five hostages in his sightline. His hand hovers over his firearm but he does not remove it. Melanie just realizes that she and Dylan made love near this key that apparently can help unlock this safe that she (like Henry) never knew existed. This surreal feeling brings goosebumps down her massive body. Monique can feel her shivering.

“Sit down, all of you.” Stephen eyes a long couch sitting along the wall. Melanie, Peggy, Monique, and Henry sit down. Dylan defiantly remains standing. Even though it’s summer, all five nude hostages suddenly start to feel chilly. Basements are supposed to be chilly, Henry reminds himself. That’s why they always put the wine cellars down here. It makes sense.

“I want to make sure he’s not lying. We’ll try opening the safe with just one key,” Stephen thinks aloud. “If it doesn’t work, as I expect it wouldn’t, then we’ll go with Plan B. Can you get that ready, please?”

“Sure thing.” Thomas squats down, unzips his duffle bag, and takes out a series of gadgets and devices. The four hostages sitting on the couch lean over to watch, curious what equipment a professional thief has at his disposal. Dylan’s eyes remain locked on Stephen, the inner rage against this man boiling over to an almost unbearable temperature. He never thought he’d ever see his former deputy again. And if he did, it certainly wouldn’t have been under these circumstances. Dylan’s mind is spinning a million miles per second. This is making an escape plan almost impossible to come up with. For now, he’s just going to have to accept that he and his four beloved friends are stuck being hostages. It stinks, but it is what it is. Any resistance will certainly be met with punishment.

“While we wait for your key to be retrieved, do you want to tell your friends why I’m here and why this safe is so fucking important?” Stephen gives his former boss a self-satisfied smile, knowing he’s just getting deeper and deeper under Dylan’s skin. “I’m sure they’re eagerly waiting for an explanation of why they’re down here, naked, afraid, and at the mercy of a bunch of thugs like us.”

Dylan turns toward his friends, as he’s lost all interest in looking at Stephen’s face. His voice is calm but authoritative. He knows the truth must be revealed in order to prevent a massacre from happening. All four of his friends watch him intently. Dylan takes a deep breath and starts speaking.

“Right before I resigned from my position as Chief Executive Officer of Perseus Analytics, a company I love, founded, and worked tirelessly to grow, I took with me a bunch of documents outlining an ambitious project we were in talks to do for the U.S. government. We were developing a prototype for a Battlefield Smart Armor Tech suit. It’s basically a wearable suit of armor that incorporated the most advanced artificial intelligence capabilities available to us. It would have been a game-changer in the world of modern warfare,” he says.

“Stephen and I worked tirelessly behind the scenes to get this program up and running. Pilotless drones could kill people high above the sky, but they’re prone to lead to civilian casualties,” Dylan continues. “We all know what led to my downfall. So the military wanted my help in developing armor that could protect our troops from bullets, bombs, IEDs, biological and chemical agents, and any other conventional weapons they encounter on the battlefield. No technology in the world could replace the necessity of boots on the ground. No technology can replace human agility.”

“And,” Stephen interjects. “We were sooooooooo close to getting something substantial to the Department of Defense until, well, until the wheels came off the bus. And just as Perseus Analytics fell like the Roman Empire being sacked by the Visigoths, Dylan here made sure this new cutting-edge technology wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. Or anybody’s hands, for that matter. Isn’t that right?”

“Yes, you are correct,” Dylan admits. His gaze remains fixated on the floor, utterly embarrassed to look at his friends in the eye. “The documents I took with me outlined everything we were doing. Sketches, 3D models, code, concept reports, documentation, transcripts of planning meetings, you name it. I took papers, DVDs, thumb drives, blueprints, photographs, even one of Stephen’s personal diaries. I took it all. I left behind only meaningless things that were meant to give the DOD the impression that this program was still in its infancy. In reality, we were much deeper into the project than we led on.”

“We were two years away from an earth-shattering breakthrough that could revolutionize the future of warfare for good,” Stephen beams. “Unfortunately, this progress has stalled. For three years it’s been stonewalled, forgotten, locked away in this secret hidden vault that you see before you. Dylan holds the intel that could give any nation the military might they need to become unquestioned superpowers. The U.S., China, the European Union, the Russians, Saudis, Iranians, you name it. However, it’s not just this particular technology that could change world history forever. It’s the doors that this tech would open. The future is limitless. This would only be the beginning.”

Stephen takes a deep breath, proud of the future that will be in the palm of his hands. Thomas and Cortez look at each other, this being the first time they’ve ever heard in full detail what it is they are intending to steal. They knew they were snatching something important, but they had no idea it was this important. Smart tech that could transform ordinary human beings into super soldiers? This is definitely a game-changer if put into the proper hands. Military vehicles, troops, and commanders equipped with state-of-the-art smart technology? That would be a force to be reckoned with. That type of power is unprecedented.

“Damn. That sounds like some scary ass shit,” Peggy breaks the room’s silence. This elicits a faint snicker from Thomas. Melanie, who is hearing this for the first time, is in shock. She had no idea Dylan was this close to inventing tech that could lead to world domination. While that’s probably an over-exaggeration, to hear it directly from both Dylan and his former partner speaks volumes. She knew Dylan was involved in things that he’d rather not talk about, but this is a whole other ballgame. This is about human lives on a massive scale. This could tip the scale of geopolitical game theory. This is about what a hypothetical World War III would look like. Melanie hangs her head low, dreading the fact she may have to reconsider her entire view of a man she loves.

“This is as scary as it gets,” Stephen says to Peggy. “Dylan here has many skeletons in the closet. Before tonight, I had no idea he was into, um, women like you. I thought he was normal. Amanda McDermott isn’t a bodybuilder, is she? She’s about as skinny as it gets, if I recall.” Dylan looks up at him, miffed that he’s referencing his ex-girlfriend and current CEO of The McDermott Corporation, the company that “merged” with Perseus Analytics during the aftermath of the federal investigation. Amanda isn’t strong physically but she’s as mentally strong as any human being on planet Earth. Dylan resents Stephen mentioning her name.

“No, Amanda isn’t like these women you see before you,” Dylan mutters under his breath. He gives a loving look at Melanie, Monique, and Peggy, regretting even more the fact that they had to be dragged into this personal vendetta. He also sees Henry, his buddy and loyal chef, sitting quietly on the edge of the couch, processing everything that he’s just heard. All four of his friends appear to be thinking long and hard about their relationship with Dylan and whether or not they want to continue being his friend once this nightmare comes to an end. Assuming they all make it out alive, that is. “Well, I can assure you that if you want to steal the contents of this safe, you’re going to need one hell of a powerful drill. You need two keys to open it. The other one is on another continent, I promise you. You can strip this house down to its last floorboard. You’ll never find the second key here.”

“Oh, I believe you, but I must do my due diligence,” Stephen says. “You understand, don’t you? Never leave any stone unturned.”

“That’s right. Why, if you don’t mind me asking, do you believe me? I could be lying. The second key could actually be somewhere in this house,” Dylan inquires.

“It could be, but I doubt it,” Stephen begins. “I know you pretty well. Better than you think. We go way back, after all. But if there’s one thing I know about you, it’s that you believe in accountability. Checks and balances. That sort of thing. Which means, there’s no way you’d allow anyone to singlehandedly access this safe’s contents. Even you. You know how dangerous that would be.”

“Very good, old buddy. You do indeed know me pretty well.”

“That, I do. Plus, I have no patience for tearing this house down brick by brick. It would be easier, and more cost-effective, to just break in the old-fashioned way. I trust my man to do just that. It shouldn’t be too difficult, right Dylan?”

Before Dylan can respond, two of Stephen’s goons return with a long silver key that was (until tonight) safely stored in his bedroom. The key looks unremarkable, except for the length and the inordinate number of grooves on it. If you look at it from afar, it’s just like any other key that would lock and unlock a liquor cabinet or backyard fence. But upon closer inspection, one could clearly see that it’s designed to be “uncopiable,” meaning one could not simply go to a Home Depot and get it replicated. Roddy hands the silver key to Thomas. The safecracker gives his boss a quick look. Stephen nods his head. Thomas walks up to the key panel, inserts the key into the right slot, and turns it. He then attempts to open the door, but it won’t budge. He then inserts the key into the left slot and turns it. Once again, the door doesn’t open. He faces his boss and shakes his head in defeat. They are indeed in for a long night.

“Sorry, boss. He wasn’t lying. The key works, but we need two of them to open this sucker. I should get to work right now if we want to open this thing up before morning.” Thomas leans over to pick up a high-powered drill and a few spare Titanium drill bits. Everyone watches with interest as Thomas sets up his industrial drill meant to cut through steel beams. He inserts a fully charged battery into the bottom, locks it in place, and inspects the safety vault’s door to look for a logical place to start drilling.

“Well, well, well. It looks like we’re going to be here a bit longer than we had anticipated,” Stephen says, no hint of disappointment found in his voice. “Will it be loud?”

“Oh yeah, very fucking loud. It’s going to sound like a construction site in here really soon,” Thomas warns. “I recommend that everyone leave if they don’t want their eardrums blown out.” Taking his own advice, Thomas puts around his neck a pair of yellow over-the-head earmuffs. Once he finds the right place to begin drilling, he fully intends to wear them properly so he doesn’t go deaf.

“Hm. In that case, let’s get out of here and shut the door behind us. You don’t need us, do you?”

“No, sir. I can do this all by myself. I should have an estimate of how long it’ll take once I start seeing what I’ve got to work with,” Thomas promises. “Honestly, it’s impossible to tell at this juncture. I need to begin. Like, now.”

“Sounds good. Let’s get out of here and let Mr. Sellars get to work,” Stephen says. “Let’s move to that home gym I saw while coming down here. I’m sure you’ll all feel right at home there, am I right ladies?” The three women refuse to give Stephen Callahan any acknowledgment whatsoever. Henry shows no emotion. Dylan also remains silent. This pleases him. He doubts any of them will put up a fight. “Let’s move it.”

“Up, sugar tits,” Xander says to Peggy, who then gives him a dirty look while standing up. Dylan leads the way, followed by Stephen, Henry, Melanie, Peggy, Monique, and Xander, with Cortez at the rear. Dylan sees a few old fleece blankets sitting on a pile of clothes and bedding in the corner of the room. He stops and turns around to face Stephen.

“If we’re going to be down here for an extended period of time, the five of us are probably going to get cold. Do you see those blankets over there?”

Stephen glances over at the corner and sees the blankets. “Yes, I do.”

“Can we bring a few of them with us so we don’t catch a cold? And to cover our modesty, if that means anything to you.” Stephen smiles, looking down at Dylan’s penis and over at the three naked ladies and naked black man. The chilly basement may be unflattering to Dylan Tanaka, but it certainly hasn’t affected his chef one bit, Stephen observes. Shrinkage is all relative, after all. And we all know who hit the genetic jackpot.

“Yeah, we can do that. Cortez, grab a few blankets and take them with us, please.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Cortez acknowledges. He goes over to the pile of blankets and picks out a few at random. He coughs when a cloud of dust poofs in the air. After wiping the dust away with his hand, Cortez chooses five large fleece blankets, rolls them up, and takes the bundle with him. One by one, they file out of the room, leaving Thomas all alone to begin drilling through the vault’s door. By now, he’s put on a pair of heat-resistant work gloves, a welding mask, and a protective jacket (in addition to his earmuffs). Stephen snickers at how ridiculous he looks, but he realizes Thomas isn’t trying to win a fashion contest. He’s a professional thief on the job, doing what he does best, facing a monumental task. He’s entitled to look however he needs to look.

As quiet as church mice, the group silently walks down the long hallway. You can hear a pin drop, as the old cliché goes. The mortuary-like atmosphere is not lost on anyone. The five hostages don’t feel like dead bodies yet, but they have no illusions that they could very well be living their final moments on Earth. Their next destination could be an actual morgue. This is why none of them have any intentions of acting out or crossing their captors in any way. It may not just be them who receives a bullet through their skull. It could be others, too. This gives them a sense of responsibility and incentive to not act irrationally.

Once they enter the home gym, Stephen spots a few metal folding chairs and a long wooden bench situated on the far right-hand corner. He decides this will be their “home base” for the time being. He leads the group over there, walking past a fruit smoothie bar, several exercise machines, a box full of kettlebells and elastic cables, and a stack of clean white towels. He points to everyone to sit on the wooden bench. All five hostages sit down without saying a word and immediately grimace at the thought of wood splinters poking their naked bottoms. Cortez hands out a blanket to everyone. Dylan just holds his while the four others wrap them around their naked bodies. Eventually, Dylan follows suit and puts a red and green Christmas-themed blanket around his torso.

“Damn, this room is also impressive as fuck,” Stephen marvels. “You could open this place to the general public, not just the two girls who come here on a weekly basis.”

“How…how do you know about that?” Dylan asks. Only three people use this gym on a regular basis: Dylan Tanaka, Lindsay Wells, and Laura Kang. Their presence is kept under-the-radar for obvious reasons, a mutually agreed-upon arrangement that benefits all parties involved. Dylan is horrified that Stephen would know this fact about him and his deal with those two women.

“We’ve done reconnaissance work for the past several weeks, Dylan boy. Do you honestly think we just showed up out of thin air without scoping out the place first? Come on! Gives us more credit than that,” Stephen replies. Dylan finally realizes that’s where the mysterious marijuana smell came from earlier today. It wasn’t Joey lighting up on the job. It was one of these goons snooping around his property.

“Did you know we were going to be here tonight?” Melanie asks. It suddenly dawns on her that Stephen Callahan knows a lot about Dylan’s normal routine, but not necessarily his plans for this weekend. Were they a monkey wrench thrown into the engine? Are they a wild card element he wasn’t expecting?

“To tell you the truth, no. I did not expect you to all be here. I knew Dylan’s landscaper would be here this morning and that he’d leave before lunch. I figured your butler would be gone before eight o’clock and your cook shortly before that. I fully expected you’d be all alone, old sport. I guess I was wrong.” By now, Roddy is standing at Stephen’s side while Cortez and Xander are leaning against the wall. Stephen pulls up a folding chair and sits to face his hostages at their level. “That’s okay. Luckily, none of you are any threat to us. I mean, how dangerous can a naked person be?” He reaches out to stroke Monique’s supple leg. She, once again, squirms at this unwanted touching.

“Don’t touch her like that!” Dylan lashes out. “I mean it. Don’t even think about it. Leave them alone, do you hear me? Don’t you fucking touch her!”

Amused but not angered, Stephen pulls away and leans back in his chair, letting everyone know he doesn’t intend to make anyone feel more uncomfortable than they already are. “Forgive me, my dear. I may be a monster to you, but I am still a man. You are one gorgeous, delicious little cookie. You don’t look like the other two. You clearly keep yourself in shape, but you’re different. Who are you, exactly?”

“Don’t talk to him. You don’t owe him shit!” Peggy warns Monique. “He doesn’t deserve to know anything about you, honey dear.”

“It’s okay sweetie. I can handle myself,” Monique says, breaking her long silence. “In case you must know, I’m an Olympic athlete. A weightlifter. I do the clean and jerk and the snatch. I competed at Rio and tore my UCL while attempting a heavy lift. Maybe you recall that?”

“Oh shit! I remember watching that. Holy fuck, that was you?” Xander interrupts. Everyone looks at him. “Damn, I remember watching you on the floor, crying and shit. Wow. I didn’t recognize you.”

“Uh huh. Well, yeah, that was me.” Monique lifts her right arm and flexes it, showing off her full bicep. “As you can tell, I’m training for next year’s games in Tokyo. I intend to compete and win the gold. If anything happens to me tonight, you can bet the whole world will hear about it. There’d be nowhere for any of you fuckers to run.”

Xander raises an eyebrow. Cortez lets out a whistle. Stephen and Roddy look at each other, thoroughly impressed that the silent black girl who looked like she was on the verge of tears had some spunk in her. Apparently, they had an international celebrity (not just Dylan) as one of their hostages. And Cortez is fully aware of how famous LATINAMUSCLEPRINCESS67 is in the world of online porn. He’s now just discovered her full name but that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of people around the globe know who she is. And none of them know who Melanie Wright is, though it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a woman with a sculpted body like hers probably isn’t completely anonymous. All of a sudden, it dawns on the bandits that they must tread carefully because they aren’t holding hostage a bunch of nameless, faceless nobodies that wouldn’t be missed if they were killed off. Rather, they’re actual somebodies who would garner a lot of attention if they were to meet their untimely demise.

“Unbelievable. So you’re a famous Olympic athlete. I had no idea. I don’t pay attention to sports, so I wouldn’t have known that otherwise,” Stephen confesses. “I guess that means we must treat you with respect, right? I apologize for touching you inappropriately like that. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.”

“Fuck that. That should be the least of your worries,” Monique scolds. “You’ll pay for this. One day. Mark my words.” Dylan wants to tell her to cool it. He refrains from adding fuel to the fire.

“Oh, that’s quite the threat. I believe you when you say that. We will all get our comeuppance. Some day. Maybe not tonight. But perhaps later. I don’t know.” Stephen sits up in his chair. He takes out his pistol and waves it in the direction of his hostages. This causes all of them to flinch. “Huh. If I were to kill one of you, that would surely make the evening news. Or at the very least, trend on Twitter for a few hours. So I shouldn’t do that if I ever intend to get away with this little heist unscathed. Good to know.”

“Look, let’s just sit here quietly while your guy tries to break into my safe,” Dylan suggests, trying to avoid any bloodshed. “I won’t put up a fight. I promise. You’ve already won. I’ve lost. You’ll leave here with your treasure, go along your merry way, and we’ll remain here suffering from PTSD. Right?” It’s clear Dylan wants to play peacekeeper. He hates Stephen’s guts but doesn’t want any of his friends to die. Dylan’s former friend also senses this attitude.

“Yes, that sounds like a prudent plan. Let’s just sit here, quietly, and not do anything stupid. We have these guns…but trust me. We don’t want to use them. Am I right, guys?” Stephen looks around at his associates.

“Oh yeah. That’s right,” Roddy says.

“Yup.” Xander acknowledges.

“Sure thing. We’re not animals. We just want to get what we came here for and leave as quietly as possible,” Cortez reassures the group of hostages.

“Excellent! So we’re all in agreement. I love it,” Stephen taunts Dylan. He leans back in his folding chair with a self-satisfied grin on his face. After several moments of silence, he turns to Roddy to ask him a question.

“Check on Mr. Sellars to see how much progress he’s made so far.”

“Of course, boss. I’ll be back.” Roddy exits out of the gym and goes to the storage room.

“He can’t get in without me,” Dylan reminds Stephen. “He can’t get in unless he has my thumbprint. Get him to come back.”

“Shit. You’re right. I forgot about that,” Stephen curses. “Go after him and open the door. And don’t do anything funny, or one of your lady friends will get a bullet between their eyes. Or up their pussy.” He points his pistol directly at Melanie’s crotch. She gasps, her heart skipping a beat. Dylan immediately stands up (with his blanket still wrapped around his body) and walks slowly toward the door. He glances at the group before exiting to make sure no harm comes to Miss Wright. He loves her dearly and would hate himself if any harm were to come her way. He’d also tear Stephen limb to limb if he actually shot her (even if it kills him). For his own sake, he’d better not do anything foolish.

“You sick motherfucker,” Melanie tells Stephen once Dylan has left the room. “Put that damn gun away. I’m not going to do anything. I’m not stupid enough to try to escape. Stop pointing that at me!” Now it’s Melanie’s turn to be on the verge of tears. For whatever reason, she feels protective over Dylan, Henry, Peggy, and Monique – as if she’s the mama bear looking out for her cubs. If anybody is to get hurt, it might as well be her…nobody else.

“Don’t worry, my man,” Stephen lowers the gun and puts it back in his holster. “You’re safe. You’re good. All of you. Oh! That reminds me. If you don’t mind me asking, you are a real woman, right?”

Melanie closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and reopens them to focus on her captor. “Yes. I am a woman. I’m more of a woman than you’ve ever known. You’ve never met anyone who’s more of a woman than me. Just because you’ll never be as strong as me, both literally and figuratively, doesn’t mean you can call me a man. I’m not a man. But if I were, I’d be more of a man than you’d ever be.”

Stephen stands up, takes out his Glock 19, and pistol-whips Melanie directly in the face. She lets out a sharp cry of pain. Henry, Peggy, and Monique jump up in shock. Even Roddy, Xander, and Cortez flinch at this sudden act of brutal violence. Stephen then points the barrel of the gun at the rest of the group and cocks it, warning them that they should remain seated if they want to avoid suffering a similar fate.

“Sit down, all of you. If you say one word, I’ll give you the same treatment.” He looks at Melanie, who’s already developing a dark blue bruise on her left cheek. A few drops of blood run down her jaw where the edge of the pistol sliced her skin. “Sorry my dear, but I hate being insulted like that. I suppose I should also apologize for mistaking you for a man. You are a woman. You talk like one, that’s for sure.”

“I’m glad we cleared the air on that,” Melanie grimaces in pain. “I don’t think Dylan will appreciate that you did that to me.”

“No doubt he’ll get pissy about that,” Stephen says, genuinely regretting his actions. “Let’s just sit here and not say another word until Dylan gets back with news about Mr. Sellar’s progress.” Everyone returns to a seated position. Stephen’s associates remain alert. The tension in the air lingers, even though all involved agree a bit of détente could go a long way.

Several moments pass. It’s the most awkwardly silent atmosphere that anyone in this room has ever experienced before. A few minutes pass until Roddy, Thomas, and Dylan enter through the home gym’s front door. Dylan is still wrapped in his blanket. Thomas is completely covered in his industrial “construction worker” gear. He’s mildly out of breath, acting as if he’s just run a country mile at full speed.

“Hey boss. I’ve made some progress but it’s going to take me, oh, an hour and a half to get the door busted down, I think,” Thomas estimates. “At a minimum, it’s going to take me seventy minutes. Two hours at the most. Good thing I brought extra drill bits because the one I’m currently using is being worn down pretty good. It’ll last about twenty more minutes until it’s reduced to nothing but a useless nub. But don’t worry. I’ll get it open. It’ll take time, but time is on our side. If the butler shows up early, we’ll capture him and bring him into our custody.”

“Thank you for the update. Keep at it. Give me updates every thirty minutes, alright?”

“Yeah, I can do that. I’ll keep you posted.” Thomas turns around and disappears from sight, eagerly wanting to return to his project. Thomas Sellars has broken into many safes in his life, but this one takes the cake. This is the Mt. Everest of safes, as far as he’s concerned. After Thomas leaves Dylan sits back down. Then, he notices the blood dripping from Melanie’s face.

“Wha…what happened?” Dylan caresses her face, careful not to touch the bruise.

“Ask him.” Melanie points to Stephen. Without needing to ask, Dylan boils over with rage.

“You…fucking…piece…of…SHIT!” Before he can stand up to confront him, Stephen and Roddy point their guns right at Dylan’s forehead. Cortez closes his eyes in anticipation of Mr. Tanaka’s brains being blown out, which would leave a graphic bloody mess. He doesn’t like gory horror movies and would hate to experience one in real life.

“Ah, ah, ah! Stay where you are. You don’t want to know what’ll happen to you if you charge at me like that,” Stephen warns his former boss. “Just sit down, shut up, and nothing terrible will happen to any of you. I won’t repeat myself. Got it?”

Dylan closes his eyes, breaths deeply through his nose, and calmly sits back down. He’s not normally a believer in “Zen” or whatever that means (this explains why the meditation room is rarely ever used). But right now, he needs all the positive vibes he can possibly muster. Melanie kisses him on the cheek. Peggy grabs his hand and holds it tightly. Monique grabs Henry’s hand, just so everyone feels connected and supported. Even Stephen decides to relax, sitting down in his chair and letting out a rasping sigh. The other three gunmen put their pistols away, sensing the détente happening before them is for real.

Nobody speaks a word for a long, long time. The silence is much welcomed.

All the King’s Queens – Chapter 3: The Master Plan

As smoke billows out from the makeshift barbecue pit, Stephen Callahan’s eyes begin to get watery. Rising out from the ground and surrounding him like an ash-filled blanket, it prompts him to try to remember the last time he shed tears.

Was it after the verdict was read by the judge? Or right after “lights out” during his first night in the federal penitentiary? Or was it after his first confessional with the prison priest?

Stephen cannot for the life of him recall at the moment. Perhaps it was before all of this shit had transpired. Or not.

For three long years, Stephen has been planning his revenge against his former boss. To him, Dylan Tanaka isn’t a bad man but rather a dishonorable one. He got away scott-free while Stephen had to sit in a federal prison cell for 1,095 days – stewing in his emotions, denied his freedom. Stephen knows what he did was wrong. But what he objects to is the fact that he got punished for it – and well as witnessed his reputation suffer – while Dylan simply was forced to resign from his position as CEO, pay a fine that he had no trouble paying, and quietly retire from public life. If unofficial house arrest in his palatial mansion is his “punishment,” then the least Stephen deserved was a mighty slap on the wrist. Which he did not end up getting.

“Lunch is almost ready, my man,” Xander, a professional thief he just met a week ago, happily reports to the team leader. Xander is a man recommended by Thomas Sellars, whom Stephen considers in high regard. While in prison, Stephen met Mr. Sellars, a professional safecracker who was caught breaking into a high-end New York City jewelry store and stealing nearly $1.8 million worth of merchandise (the majority of that coming in the form of a rare 1948 edition of a Rue de Pierre Flaubert Modernité XIIV wristwatch). He was convicted of that – as well as a robbery of Caesars Palace’s main casino vault in Las Vegas – and sentenced to five years in prison. Thomas was serving his final year just as Stephen was beginning his first. They formed a “friendship” (which tend to be dubious in nature due to the circumstances of living together with someone in forced confinement) and started plotting what they’d love to accomplish once they both get out. One ingenious plot they came up with was the one they are about to execute later tonight.

“Thanks Xan. Smells great,” Stephen says. “But no beer until tomorrow, remember?”

“Oh yeah, we’re staying clean and sober till our job is done,” Xander reassures his boss. “We all are. I got that, chief. Don’t worry about me.”

“Good. Thanks.”

Xander returns to the barbecue pit. He splashes a bit more honey glaze on the beef ribs so they don’t dry out too much. Roddy and Cortez, two of the other hired hands who’s worked with Thomas before, are lounging around on lawn chairs sipping Gatorade. It’s not their usual beverage of choice.

Clean and sober until tonight.

Clean and sober until tonight

Clean and sober until tonight.

“We can’t let anything distract us,” Stephen whispers to himself. He wipes away a cloud of smoke with both hands.

Stephen does feel a bit apprehensive about tonight’s job, but that’s natural. Until three years ago, he never considered himself a criminal. He always imagined the “bad guys” to be people not like him: Destructive, amoral, violent, psychopathic, jaded, and social misfits. It never occurred to him that crimes are committed for a wide range of reasons – fear, vengeance, impulsiveness, desperation, mental illness, social conditioning, and so on. His perspective of the world has certainly evolved over the past several years. Now, crime is not just something “bad people” do. Instead, it’s a clause in our Social Contract. Written (unofficially) in fine print. When society has wronged you, it is perfectly justifiable to wrong them back. Without such a system, where is the justice?

It’s not personal. It’s just business.

Dylan Tanaka has wronged Stephen Callahan. So it’s only fair to wrong him back. Thomas, Xander, Roddy, and Cortez have no direct connections to Dylan, Perseus Analytics, or the congressional show trial that engulfed the nation. However, they know a good score when they see it.

And tonight is guaranteed to be a great score.

In 2014, the year before the New York Times essentially ended his sense of “normalcy,” Stephen and Dylan were working on a top-secret project behind the scenes for the U.S. military. They were developing a prototype for a robotic suit that troops could wear on the battlefield. Basically, it took bullet-proof vests, helmets, communications equipment, and other types of armor to the next level. Far from being like Tony Stark in “Iron Man,” these suits couldn’t fly or shoot out laser blasts, but they were sturdy as hell, agile, and contained AI technology that could alert them to enemy movements, strategy, and predict future behavior. Not surprisingly, the military fell in love with the idea of what Dylan and Stephen were working on. Pilotless drones were fine, but sometimes you needed human boots on the ground to do the dirty work you can’t do from the sky. And, casualties are bad for morale back home. It’s terrible publicity. It causes voters to demand that wars come to an end well before the mission is complete. So, how do you fight wars with people without endangering those people?

This is when Perseus Analytics swept in. Already a trusted government contractor, PA’s top engineers drew up several plans for developing this “Battlefield Smart Armor Tech” that would eventually be presented to high-ranking military and government officials. The BSAT Program was in its infancy when the bombshell New York Times report made everything come to a crashing halt. The news that innocent Iraqi and Syrian civilians were being incinerated to death did not sit well with the public. Of course, they had few objections to the hundreds of terrorists PA’s technology helped kill. But photographs of charred men, women, and children should make anybody’s stomach churn.

After the federal trial wrapped up, Dylan quietly put all his research – blueprints, sketchbooks, CDs, DVDs, photographs, computer models on external hard drives, USB flash drives, and even a personal diary kept by Stephen himself – into a large impenetrable safety vault somewhere in his mansion. The BSAT Program may have come to an end, but the dream lives on.

That vault contains information that, if utilized by a rival tech company, could be worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Warfare is costly (especially in terms of soldiers’ lives), so anything governments can do to reduce that cost – with no regard to innocent civilians, of course – would be invaluable. Priceless. Coveted. Worth a damn fortune.

Tonight, Stephen and his crew plan to break into Dylan’s home, steal every piece of intel they can, and sell it to the highest bidder on the black market. Stephen may or may not kill Dylan in the process. He hasn’t decided yet. But afterward, all five men are guaranteed to become rich beyond their wildest dreams. There are already two interested buyers whom Stephen has already spoken to. Both have the financial resources to participate in this expensive transaction. No more petty crimes. No more jobs. No more “living the life” because there would no longer be any need to steal anything.

Stephen approaches Roddy and Cortez casually, wanting to take the temperature of the whole crew. “Hello fellas. How are things going? Nervous for tonight?”

“Nah, we should be fine. He has basic security and no armed guards at his place, right?” Cortez asks. He takes a sip of his Gatorade.

“That’s correct. His self-imposed exile has made his life so low-key he doesn’t think he needs it,” Stephen hypothesizes. “That means we can just simply walk up to the front door, knock, invite ourselves in, threaten him with our weapons, and take what we came to take.”

“Holy shit! Seriously? It’s going to be that easy?” Roddy asks. Stephen laughs.

“No, it’s going to be a little more complicated than that. But don’t worry. I’ve got it all figured out.” Stephen looks at both men, hoping neither of them is having second thoughts about tonight’s score. It would be a shame if anyone got cold feet this late in the game.

Roddy and Cortez nod along, seemingly happy with the plan. This puts Stephen at ease. As it were, the plan is to arrive at Dylan’s home in two separate vehicles. Stephen and Thomas would arrive in Stephen’s Buick; while Xander, Roddy, and Cortez would arrive in a spacious SUV with plenty of room to store their loot. They’d park their cars a block away at around 11:00, activate the anti-security system measures at around midnight, sneak onto the property, and armed with Glock 19s (Xander claims he has an Uzi, but no one has seen it yet), break in through the back door, and calmly round up Dylan Tanaka and put him in the basement. They would take his phone away and threaten to kill him (and any unlucky son of a bitch who happens to be there) if he disobeys.

Stephen anticipates Dylan will most likely be alone. From a safe distance, he and his team have spent a lot of time scoping out the joint. The landscaper shows up a few times a month. A couple of women (both of them hot, it should be noted) visit during the day but never on weekends. Henry, the cook, leaves by 7:00 p.m. Lawrence, the butler, normally leaves about an hour after that. Sometimes two hours. But by midnight, everyone should be gone except for the owner of the house. Dylan Tanaka.

He’ll occasionally have company over, but it’s usually a small crowd of no more than four or five guests. Assuming none of them are packing heat, Stephen and his crew should have no issues handling a small crowd – assuming such a small crowd will even exist tonight. Stephen doubts it. His former boss is living as a hermit. All alone. Living life aimlessly with no clear purpose. No more parties with celebrities. No more luncheons with politicians, powerful businessmen, and global influencers. That part of his life is over.

If Dylan refuses to hand over the loot willingly, Thomas says he can crack the safe in two or three hours. Most personal home safety vaults contain either a combination lock or a keypad and password. Thomas guesses the vault’s steel walls should be at least two inches thick. Using his supremely sharp drill, it might take a few hours to crack open the door. But none of them suspect it’ll come down to that. Most likely, Dylan will succumb to his survival instincts and just open the vault himself without putting up a fight. He knows the secrets contained in that vault cannot stay hidden forever. Eventually, it will come out into the light. But he has no idea tonight would be that day. Or who would show up to snatch it.

Once they get the booty, everyone will quietly exit the house, get into their vehicles, and drive back to the safehouse using different routes (so traffic cameras can’t spot them as easily).

So that’s it. That’s the master plan.

But right now, all Stephen and his crew are thinking about is lunch.

The safehouse is located in Cle Elum, a small town in Central Washington. About a two-hour drive away from Seattle (depending on traffic), it’s far enough from the crime scene that no one will suspect they’re holed up there. But it’s also close enough that they can drive there, steal their loot, and drive back before the sun rises.

“Let’s eat! Have at it,” Xander announces. Everyone hovers over the grill to see what’s been cooking. Ribs, corn on the cob, potato fingerlings, and some kind of homemade coleslaw. In addition to being a former U.S. Marine who was dishonorably discharged from active service after participating in a robbery of an Iraqi museum (he and a few of his fellow Marines drunkenly stole some priceless artifacts after one of their translators dared them to. They were caught and subsequently kicked out of the military after a speedy court-martial), Xander is apparently an excellent cook. He may have done that while on active duty. Or not.

“You know, I have a feeling – a gut feeling, you know – that this guy may not be alone tonight,” Roddy says nervously. “When I was there earlier this morning, he, I don’t know, seemed to be in a different kind of mood, you know? Like, he was excited for something, you know?” Taking a generous bite out of a succulent piece of barbecued beef rib, Roddy leaned against a moldy wooden picnic table to eat his lunch. The past few Saturdays, Stephen has sent at least one person on the team to scope out Dylan’s property in order to learn about his daily routine, movement patterns, and report back anything unusual. That, and to become familiar with the terrain.

“Excited for what? I’ve known the man for a long time,” Stephen says, cracking open a can of LaCroix. He sips it. “He doesn’t usually wear his emotions on his sleeve. Did he say anything strange?”

“Nah, man. I couldn’t hear him exactly, but he had, I don’t know, sort of like a skip in his step, know what I mean?” Roddy tries to replicate how he observed Dylan walk around the house, but it doesn’t seem to persuade anyone that anything would be out of the ordinary. Everyone shakes their heads dismissively.

“You’re just imagining things, my dude,” Cortez reassures him. “Please don’t tell me you were smoking weed at the time. That shit smells. And he notices bullshit like that, remember? I learned that the hard way.”

Stephen looks up at the group, chewing on a piece of grilled potato. “He does, yeah. Several years ago we sat next to each other at a board meeting and he literally could smell on my breath what I had for dinner the night before. It was pretty fucking insane. I brushed my teeth the night before, trust me. I’ve never met anyone who had that great sense of smell.” He meanders toward Roddy, eyeballing him carefully but not with any hint of intimidation. “Were you lighting up near his property?”

Roddy smiles sheepishly, trying to diffuse any hint of him messing up the mission. “Nah, man. It was nine o’clock in the fucking morning, dude! I don’t smoke that early, man. Nah, that ain’t me, bruh. Don’t worry about it, we’re good.” Seemingly convinced by his defense, Stephen resumes eating his lunch. Roddy looks around at the others. Nobody looks back at him. Thomas, who’s been silent practically the whole time, burps loudly. He stands up and grabs a second beef rib from the grill pit.

“Good. Let’s not be reckless. Not today. Not now. We’ve come this far, we’re not fucking up now.” Thomas rips a huge chunk of meat from the bone like a primitive caveman. He swallows it quickly, almost as if he didn’t even chew on it. “Clean and sober until tonight, am I right?”

“Fuck yeah, my man. Clean and sober until tonight, yeah, yeah, yeah,” Cortez grins. He finishes his Gatorade and tosses the bottle in a nearby recycling bin.

“Clean and sober until tonight,” Xander repeats.

“Because this time tomorrow, all five of us will be on our way to become rich beyond our wildest dreams,” Stephen promises. “Seriously. Whatever petty amount of money you’ve made before will pale in comparison to what we’re going to acquire from this. And that you can believe.”

“Here, here!” Roddy exclaims.

Roddy, who was in fact smoking pot earlier this morning while he was sneaking around Dylan’s spacious property, hopes his eyes aren’t bloodshot, which could reveal his lie. Still, he doubts this rich guy can smell that well from a distance. Nevertheless, he hopes his incessant smoking – which he does mostly to relieve himself of anxiety, which becomes more prevalent on the day of a risky job – didn’t blow his cover or the cover of the team. That would be fucking brutal. Not to mention he’d never work with this outfit – or any outfit – ever again. It would be career suicide. Word spreads fast in the business when people screw up big time.

After lunch, Stephen plans to gather everyone around and meticulously go over the master plan once more. If he’s learned anything during his brief life outside of prison, it’s that it’s impossible to be overprepared when you’re about to do something like this. Poor planning, complacency, or forgetfulness is a one-way ticket back to the slammer. And that’s something Stephen refuses to experience again. He’s done that before. He’s not doing that a second time.

No way. No fucking way.

***

After a brief ten-minute jog on the treadmill, Dylan walks into his home gym, an expansive room in his basement that contains enough equipment to open his own CrossFit business. Well, that might be an exaggeration, but it’s pretty damn close.

Dylan has always been (fairly) in shape, but never as much as he is now. During his days as a celebrity CEO, Dylan rarely had time to do anything health-wise. He’s always eaten right, never smokes, and drinks occasionally (a classic “social drinker”). But now that he has much more time on his hands, Dylan regularly works out in his home gym an average of 4 to 5 times a week. After all, he has nothing better to do with his copious spare time but run, lift weights, stretch, and down protein shakes afterward.

The other reason he built this gym was so his guests could have a place to work out while they’re over. Tonight won’t be the first time Melanie, Peggy, and Monique have visited his residence. Nor are they the only female bodybuilders and athletes he’s had over. Locally, 3 to 4 times a week a young woman named Lindsay Wells – a CrossFit star in the making – comes over to train. In fact, she comes here (where she doesn’t have to pay a membership fee) more often than she goes to her actual CF gym. In exchange, Lindsay is more than happy to “entertain” Dylan for an hour or two after she’s finished. She lives up in Snohomish, which is only about 35 minutes away in good traffic.

It’s a small price to pay for accessing world-class exercise equipment for free! There is also no crowd of creepy guys hitting on her or staring at her while she works out.

Dylan also invites Laura Kang, a half-Taiwanese amateur bodybuilder who lives down in Olympia, over for dinner about once a month. Her husband and 6 kids (you read that right!) have no idea she does that. They just think she drives up to Seattle for “business reasons,” which isn’t technically inaccurate. She’s 48-years-old but looks half that, a testament to the fact she’s Asian and she treats skincare like a religious ritual. She and Dylan have never had sex (that’s a strict limitation for her), but she appreciates a quiet place to lift and enjoy a fantastic Henry-cooked meal afterward.

All Dylan asks for is to be able to “worship” her for an hour in his bedroom. She gladly obliges. Then, she goes home and resumes her life as a working mom.

Today, Dylan decides to go light. A few sets of dumbbell back rows, pull-ups, seated dumbbell shoulder presses, front raises, and lat pull-downs are all that’s necessary for now. He usually finishes with stretching and several sets of incline bench sit-ups. Normally, Dylan does deadlifts on Saturdays, but today he’ll play it safe and not do any significant heavy lifting. He’s always cautious, but today is a special day – it could very well be the best day of the year! – and he wouldn’t want to accidentally injure himself in any way.

“Got to get the blood flowing, especially for tonight!” Dylan gleefully tells himself. He picks up a towel to wipe the sweat off his face.

Dylan is pretty sure Lindsay came over yesterday, but he can’t be certain. He can usually smell her scent. Miss Wells probably needs to consume more magnesium in her diet because her musky odor is noticeable even 24 hours after visiting. Then again, Dylan does possess remarkable olfactory senses, so perhaps he’s being a little (pardon the expression) oversensitive. He makes a mental note to talk with her about this the next time he sees her.

“I wonder if the four of us should work out together tomorrow morning before everyone leaves?” Dylan wonders aloud. Then, he proceeds to make his pre-workout smoothie. He pours protein powder, a banana, yogurt, and other frozen fruits into a blender and turns it on. The loud whirring of the machine fills the entire room. The thought of the four of them lifting weights together in the privacy of his own home is quite…arousing.

“Unless Henry wants his own private time with Peggy, of course. Devilish man, that Henry is.” He stops the machine, opens the lid, sticks his finger in it, and tastes the smoothie. It meets his standard of excellence. Dylan pours himself a tall glass and drinks it as quickly as he can. This turns out to be a mistake once “brain freeze” takes over and gives him a headache.

“Damnit! I got to be more careful next time.”

An hour later, Dylan walks over to the shower stalls located right next to the weight room. It contains four showerheads in one large room. Perfect for himself, Melanie, Peggy, and Monique! The very thought of the four of them, naked together and showering off their sweat and grime, is enough to give Dylan an unexpected erection. He looks down at his hardened penis, smiles, and chastises it. “Calm down, little fellow! You’re in for a real treat after dinner tonight. Just keep calm. Don’t want to get too excited yet! Your time will come. Literally.”

After drying off, Dylan gets dressed, puts on his shoes, and heads outside to take a casual stroll through the neighborhood.

This beautiful summer-like weather won’t enjoy itself, after all. Time to get some Vitamin D.

***

“You seem nervous. But you shouldn’t be,” Thomas says to Stephen, who’s noticeably twiddling his thumbs with enough anxious energy to power a whole skyscraper. Both men are still outside, lunch being long over. The other three companions are inside either cleaning their weapons or going over the schedule again.

“I know. We’ve done our due diligence. We’ve spied him outside his home almost every day for the past five weeks. We know his daily patterns, his sleep schedule, his normal activities, everything. We know who comes in and out of his house,” Stephen says. “I shouldn’t be nervous. But I am. Don’t know why.” He spits on the ground.

“I think you’re nervous about seeing him again, not the job,” Thomas replies, channeling his inner psychologist. This isn’t the first time he’s had to calm down an anxious colleague. “We have five armed guys robbing one rich guy with minimal security systems. And your guy is taking care of that. We have the clear advantage. His butler won’t be there. His fucking cook won’t either. The bitches who come over to work out won’t be there either. We’re good. We’re good to go.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Stephen stands up to stretch his legs. He hates long drives, which the five of them will be embarking on soon. The plan is to leave Cle Elum at 9:30 p.m. and arrive in Seattle at around 11:00 p.m. From there, things should be pretty straightforward. Stephen has a man inside the company that provides Dylan his security. He’ll make contact with him to get the party started. Once inside, the only issue is how easily Dylan surrenders and delivers to him what he wants. Will he put up a fight? Or will he capitulate the moment a gun is pointed at his forehead? And if he does, what will this vault be like? Can Dylan easily open it himself, or has he installed some special security protocol where a second authorized person (who could very well be thousands of miles away) has to help him open it? This is the nightmare scenario that is somewhat keeping Stephen on his toes.

But that’s why Thomas is along for the ride. He’s an expert safecracker who can do it all – and has seen it all. In fact, he was the one who suggested the possibility of the two-person authorization protocol (heck, it could require three or four people to open up this fucking vault, depending on how valuable its contents are). That’s why he’s bringing his high-powered drill and other specialized equipment with him. Just in case.

“Well, I’m guessing this’ll be much easier than we think it’s going to be. At first, I was concerned that he’ll have advanced systems like security cameras, electric fences, or even a 24-hour armed guard standing at attention at the front door. Thankfully, that’s not the case,” Thomas says. “Like you said before, he’s a loner and a social pariah. Who the fuck would want to break into his house anyway? Tourists? People looking for his autograph?”

“People like us, my dude. People like us.” Stephen and Thomas fist bump. Inside the safe house, they can hear Xander and Roddy arguing about which version of the Remington RP is better. It’s unclear who’s winning the argument. Probably neither of them. Cortez seems to be taking a nap on the sofa.

The two men who sat next to each other at the prison lunch table for nearly a year exchange a quick glance before returning back inside.

There’s work to do.