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 12: Breaking News

The only thing Thomas Sellars can do is stay put. Two minutes ago, he received a text from Stephen Callahan telling him to stop drilling. There are police officers snooping around the property, meaning any unnecessary noise must come to a complete halt until they leave. Thomas is more than happy to comply. He has no intentions of going back to prison.

The last hour has been murder on his equipment. Dylan Tanaka’s safe is much more difficult to penetrate than he had originally anticipated it would be. Already he’s completely worn down three titanium drill bits. The fourth one that’s currently being used should last 10 to 15 more minutes. Judging from the reading produced by his ultrasonic thickness gauge, Thomas estimates he’s almost 80% through. That would probably mean sacrificing this drill bit and wearing down a fifth one pretty well, though it may be salvageable if he’s lucky. He’ll cross that bridge when he gets to it. For now, he will enjoy the unexpected break that – if he’s being honest – he really needs.

“Ahhhhhhhhhh,” he says after taking a long swig of water from his bottle. “That hits the spot.”

He wipes a cascade of sweat off his brow with his sleeve. Thomas knows he probably smells like old socks, though that is the least of his worries. The idea of cops on the premises, investigating some shit that happened outside (Thomas is certainly going to rain hellfire down on the dimwit who let one of the hostage escape, unless Stephen plans to torture them instead, in which case he’ll gladly sit back and watch that unfold), is enough to give him massive anxiety. He feels his chest tighten. He isn’t in any danger of suffering a heart attack, but an incredible amount of stress on the human body can do things you would never expect.

“Come on, everyone. Just settle down up there. Hold tight,” he whispers while looking up at the ceiling, imagining his comrades sitting around one floor up. “Those bastards will be gone before you know it. Just play it cool…and don’t make any noise or let any of those bitches escape again.”

Thomas peers down at his phone for updates from Stephen. So far, he’s received none since the initial text telling him to cease operations.

“Damn it.”

***

The ominous red glow of police vehicles is still making Stephen nervous, even though he has no imminent reason to feel fear. All he needs to do is wait them out until they all leave. Then, he and his team can resume their activities. The bandits and hostages are sitting around a long hallway stretching from the foyer all the way to the dining room on the far end of the house. It’s the only large part of the house that isn’t near any windows. Stephen is the only one standing, looking at his phone for updates from Bill Marks. He’d know if the police were to request special reinforcements to deal with a hostage situation. It definitely pays to have friends like that on your side.

So far, nothing noteworthy to report from Bill. This is good news, Stephen believes.

Through the kitchen sliding glass door, the group can see a few flashlights dancing around the backyard. They aren’t able to understand what the officers outside are talking about. However, that matters very little to the people trapped inside. Stephen decides to let the light coming from Dylan’s bedroom stay on in order to maintain the charade that he’s all alone. Dylan prays silently to himself that the cop he spoke to understood that he was talking in code. Will help be on the way? Will there be an end to this nightmare that results in these criminals getting what they deserve? Dylan could only hope so.

“How is everyone feeling?” Stephen whispers to the hostages. For a long moment, nobody speaks. Melanie finally looks up, appearing as exhausted as she’s ever looked before.

“Fine,” she whispers back, not wanting to talk too loudly and incur the wrath of her captors. “We’re all doing fine. I’m guessing no more bathroom breaks for the rest of us?” Melanie resists the urge to look at Peggy, who for whatever reason reeks of urine. She’s sure to have a compelling story to tell, though that will have to wait for later – assuming there is a “later.” That is not guaranteed.

“That’s right. I think your friend here, no pun intended, pissed that opportunity away for all of you,” Stephen remarks with too much self-indulgence. Nobody seems to be smiling from that, which is not a surprise. “Just sit back and don’t do shit. If you have to pee all over Dylan’s carpet, so be it. It’s not like that would be the worst thing to happen to him today. Would it, old friend?”

“No, it would not,” Dylan admits. “I’ve experienced far worse.” Shortly after settling in the hallway, Dylan was forced to undress and return to Stephen his pants and shirt. He is now naked again with a fleece blanket wrapped around his body.

Cortez tries to maintain a stone face while he replays in his mind the incident with Peggy Cole in the bathroom. How the fuck did he lose his self-control like that? He’s a professional who has been in this business long enough to know that you don’t screw around like that while on a job. When you’re at work, it’s all business until it’s over. He’s tried to avoid making eye contact with his colleagues – especially Stephen Callahan, the big boss – knowing he’s in for some sort of sadistic punishment after this is all over. Heck, he may never do another job again if word of this spreads among the organized crime community. If exile – similar to the type of ostracization that Dylan has experienced these past few years – is what he has to endure instead of a bullet through his skull, that’s a price he’s willing to pay. He can always (hopefully?) find a legitimate job that pays a decent salary somewhere. It won’t be nearly as thrilling as being a criminal, but it sure beats having to work with people who would always be suspicious of you. Or would have an itchy trigger finger if you screw up again.

And if there’s anything that’s considered a near-death sentence in this business, it’s being labeled as “unreliable.” That’s the quickest way for your work to dry up. Or for you to end up with a bullet in your head.

“I don’t see no more flashlights, boss,” Roddy says quietly to Stephen. He nods his head.

“Good. Go to the living room and take a quick look, alright? And, obviously, don’t be seen by anybody, got it?”

“Oh yeah. I got it. Don’t worry about me. You can trust me.” Roddy shoots Cortez a dirty look. Cortez looks down at the floor in shame. Xander, who truly feels bad for Cortex, wants to say something encouraging to him but knows that now is not the time nor the place. Roddy tiptoes across the hallway toward the foyer, which connects to the living room. Once there, he sees no more flashlights outside. But that doesn’t mean the pigs are gone for good.

Roddy rushes to the front curtains. He stands against the wall next to them, then lifts a portion of the curtain with his finger. As cautiously as he can, he peers out to see what’s going on outside. All he sees in the distance are a few cop cars still parked close to the main gate. It’s fortunate that it’s dark outside, which makes it easier to see flashlights. It doesn’t appear as though there are any more police officers on the property itself. This is good news. Finally, he spots a few flashlights bouncing around the house next door on the left. It’s too far away to make out any voices, but that’s good enough for him. As quickly as he left, Roddy tiptoes back to the hallway to report the wonderful development.

“Boss! It appears as though the pigs have left. They’ve moved on to the next house, over there.” He points in the direction of where he saw the flashlights dancing around in the night air. Xander, who apparently was given the task of going to the dining room and checking out the backyard for any remaining cops, suddenly returns behind him.

“All clear in the backyard. We’re all alone. Not a soul in sight,” Xander happily reports. This pleases their boss immensely.

“Excellent! This is exactly what I wanted to hear. That didn’t take long,” he turns to Dylan, who’s still sitting on the floor. “And you have one hell of a large backyard. I guess they really bought your story, that you’ve been asleep the whole time. They don’t suspect a thing. Wonderful!” Dylan looks up from the floor, trying to figure out what Stephen’s next move will be. It appears as though that dimwitted cop didn’t catch on to the clue he left of wishing him good luck on catching them. Dear Lord, how much more obvious did he have to make it?

“I say we return to the basement,” Stephen suggests. “Up, everyone. Let’s get moving!”

All the hostages comply with his command. Two minutes later, everyone is back inside the gym, huddled around the same spot as before. It’s as though nothing happened. As if Peggy’s daring escape attempt was all for naught.

***

A quarter of a mile down the road, close to where the bandits parked their two vehicles, a SWAT van creeps up behind three more police cars. Right behind them are two FBI vehicles, one a sedan and the other an SUV. Four ambulances are not far behind them, obviously without their lights or sirens on. As quietly as possible, the six blocks of 43rd Avenue are taped off to prevent motorists or pedestrians from getting through. At this ungodly hour that shouldn’t be a major problem. However, precautions must be taken when hostages are involved. Two cops are situated on the street, each facing a different direction, instructed to tell drivers to take alternative routes for the time being.

Inside the SWAT van are four highly trained snipers who will be placed on the roofs of the two houses neighboring the Tanaka residence; as well as eight additional team members who are specially trained to handle hostage situations. Riding shotgun in the FBI car is Special Agent Jillian Mendoza (who will be the point person during the duration of this crisis), who is hard at work debriefing Robert L. Baker, the hostage negotiator sitting in the back seat.

“Once we make contact with whoever the hell is holding this woman and, presumably, Dylan Tanaka hostage, we will make sure to remind them that we have snipers up on the roofs and additional SWAT officers ready to storm the premises at our command,” Mendoza says. Baker takes notes on a pad of paper, the old-fashioned way. She appreciates that touch. “Sound good? I just want to be clear that this could be nothing close to resembling the crisis we think it is. It’s possible Tanaka is an abusive boyfriend who’s holding that woman against her will. However, we can’t assume that.”

“I understand,” Baker says. “Anticipate the worst, hope for the best. I know how it goes.” After scribbling down his last final notes, Baker checks his phone to see what time it is. It’s 2:19 a.m. The sun won’t be up for another four hours or so. The cover of darkness will work to their advantage, at least for the time being. “Great. Let’s get this show on the road. I don’t exactly find these types of assignments fun per se, but it is what it is. It’s work, important work, and it needs to get done or people die. Can’t have that happen, can we?”

“No, we can’t. You’re right about that. Okay, we’re here,” Mendoza says.

The SWAT van parks near the entrance of the cul-de-sac, far away out of sight from anybody inside the Tanaka residence. Unless they have night-vision goggles, there’s no way anyone can see a black van and SWAT officers dressed in all black from this far distance. As quietly as possible, the police already on the scene, led by Officers Dietrich and Gutierrez, have evacuated all the neighbors and moved them to a single house right at the corner of Winchester Drive and 43rd Avenue. Most of them are wearing pajamas or whatever clothes they could put on in a hurry. Mendoza notices how frightened the final few neighbors are who enter the safe house. It always breaks her heart to see innocent civilians caught up in horrifying situations like this.

A few police officers with flashlights pretend to inspect the houses next to the Tanaka residence. Within five minutes, all four snipers are inside their respective houses, looking for entrances to access the roofs. Getting ready is always the part that makes Mendoza the most nervous. She believes that a hostage-taker is the most likely to lose their cool and start killing hostages when they see police getting in position. Once everyone is in place, guttural fear kicks in and they are less likely to act irrationally. She hopes that pattern continues on this fateful early morning.

“Are we ready?” she asks into her earpiece.

“Yes, we are. All the snipers are in place. Over.” She recognizes the voice responding back to her as Cory Langdon, one of the best sharpshooters in the region. The SWAT are technically police officers, so they don’t work too closely with the FBI unless the shit hits the fan. But everyone in the regional Bureau office knows who Cory Langdon is – he’s that renowned.

She looks up to visually confirm that all the snipers are in position. They are. Good!

“Good evening, everyone,” Officer Dietrich says to the newly arrived feds. “Me and my associate, Officer Gutierrez, have successfully evacuated all civilians to the safe house down the road. No innocents should be in the line of fire.”

“Great! Thank you for that. I’m impressed you were able to wake up that many people at this late hour of the day,” Special Agent Mendoza remarks. “As you can see, the snipers are on the roofs. The SWAT members are in position in front of the brick wall. They’re all wearing enough body armor to shield them from any spikes on top of the wall. We’re ready!”

“Okay, let’s roll. I’ve already been on the property, so I’ll make the introductions, sound good?” When Dietrich sees the hostage negotiator approach him, he immediately gets the feeling he’s about to be usurped by someone above his paygrade.

“Hello, Officer Dietrich. My name is Robert L. Baker. I’m the hostage negotiator,” Baker introduces himself to the veteran cop. He and Dietrich shake hands.

“Yes, I know who you are,” Dietrich says.

“Your reputation precedes you,” Gutierrez chimes in, who suddenly materialized out of nowhere. Even Mendoza, who’s usually hyper-observant when engaging in a crime scene, is surprised to see this young lady show up to the conversation without being seen. “No activity on the ground floor, from what we can tell. Very few lights are on, except for one single light in the foyer. As you can tell, there’s one light on somewhere on the third floor. Probably a bedroom. We don’t have blueprints of the house, so I’m just guessing here. Rich people like Tanaka can keep secrets your typical ordinary person can’t. And I don’t know if you know this already, but our guys found something of keen interest in the backyard.”

“What is it?” Mendoza wants to know.

“A ten-inch half-circle of glass was cut in his screen door. Someone broke into his home for sure. No doubt about it,” Gutierrez reports. The two FBI agents look at each other, their nonverbal glances signaling that this is confirmation that something is afoot. Tanaka isn’t alone in his own home. After a brief moment of silence, Special Agent Mendoza turns to Dietrich.

“How did you make contact with Tanaka?” Mendoza asks.

“Right over there by pressing the call button,” Dietrich says, pointing to the callbox next to the gate. “That’s how we spoke at first. I asked him to come down and he did so after an unusually long time.”

“How long?” Baker asks. He takes out his pad of paper and restarts taking notes. The two police officers aren’t as impressed by his diligence as Mendoza was.

“Five or six minutes. I can’t imagine it would take him that long to get from his upstairs bedroom to the front door, but it did,” Dietrich says. “Especially when a police officer wants to talk to you after a shooting. The way he dressed was also unusual. He wore black pants and a black shirt that was way too tight on him. Almost like it wasn’t his. Like he had to wear it for appearance’s sake.”

“Hm. That is strange,” Mendoza concurs. “Well, let’s get started. Go to the callbox and request to speak to him again. Tell him we suspect the shooter is somewhere inside his house and that we request to enter his home. If he refuses or seems tongue-tied, that’ll tip us off that either he’s directly involved in something sinister…or someone inside his house is up to something sinister. Either way, we’re going to have to intervene whether he likes it or not. Sound like a plan?” Baker, Dietrich, and Gutierrez all verbalize the consensus that this is a solid plan. As Special Agent Mendoza and Baker chat among themselves, Officer Dietrich slowly approaches the callbox that he used earlier. He takes a deep breath, looks up at the sole light emanating from the third floor, and presses the “call” button. It takes a few moments until someone answers it. After a brief muffled sound, Dylan’s voice can be heard on the speaker.

“Yeah? Hello Officer. Did you catch the bastard who shot my neighbor?” Dylan Tanaka asks, a slight hint of nervousness in his voice. After many years on duty, Dietrich has grown adept at interpreting the various ways people attempt to hide their nervousness. Tanaka, to his credit, is doing a pretty good job at appearing to be (somewhat) calm.

“No, however my officers suspect whoever shot your neighbor might actually be hiding somewhere inside your home. We saw that the sliding glass door in your backyard had a portion cut out of it. We think someone has broken into your home. May several of my guys enter your premises, Mr. Tanaka?” Dietrich sees a few officers taking a couple steps forward so they can listen in on their conversation. The experienced officer shoos them away with his hand, not wanting too many people in blue uniforms to be seen in the security camera view. The fact it’s taking Tanaka a long time to respond is indicative that something is definitely not right.

Downstairs in the gym, Dylan is holding the transistor radio close to his chest as Stephen screams obscenities upon hearing Officer Dietrich request several cops to enter the home and search the premises. There’s no way everyone can hide in a closet or pantry while multiple officers search every nook and cranny. The mess Thomas has already made trying to break into the safe is damning enough. The five hostages relish watching their usually rational captor suddenly become explosively irrational at the flip of a switch. Dylan, who attempts to remain emotionless on the surface, cannot help but feel joy inside seeing his former colleague realize that his master plan is tumbling down like a ton of bricks.

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKKKKKK!!!” Stephen screams at the top of his lungs. His associates cower in fear as they realize that they too are going down with the sinking ship. Stephen kicks a wastebasket across the room. Thankfully, it’s empty. “Give me that bloody radio, NOW!”

Dylan obliges. Stephen, with the radio in hand, takes several deep breaths. He knows he must remain calm and logical if he and his men are to have a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting out of this mess intact. Of course, he hasn’t forgotten about the secret ace up his sleeve that he has enclosed in his backpack (which is sitting next to Thomas Sellars’ duffle bag of equipment). In fact, he brought that along just in case disaster were to strike. This, unfortunately, constitutes such a disaster.

“Hello, officer,” Stephen calmly says to Dietrich. “Well done. Well played. I thought I could get away with it, but apparently that wasn’t in the cards for me tonight.”

On the street level, Dietrich looks back at Special Agent Mendoza and Robert L. Baker. Both of them scurry over to the callbox to listen in on the conversation unfolding. “Who am I speaking to, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“My name is unimportant. You will find out soon enough. For now, you can call me Steve.”

Baker’s eyes pierce into Dietrich’s eyes. This is where a professional hostage negotiator is needed, and everyone present knows it. Officer Dietrich kindly steps aside to let the FBI man do his job. Meanwhile, Officer Cunningham and a few other police officers are setting up several powerful floodlights across the street, all pointed at Dylan Tanaka’s house. Four lights are being set up in the bedrooms of the two neighboring houses (to give the snipers a better view of the property) and three more in front of the gate. Any moment now, the entire mansion will be lit up like a Christmas tree. There’d be nowhere for someone hiding behind a curtain to evade being seen.

“Hello, Steve. My name is Robert Baker. You can call me Rob. I am with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Is it safe for me to assume that we have more than a simple house party happening in there?” Baker, a veteran FBI agent in his mid-40s, is a tall balding man with a grey goatee, thin brown-rimmed glasses, and a logo-less dark blue baseball cap. The first thing he wants to do is discover the hostage-taker’s intentions.

“Yeah, you can say that. I suppose there’s no reason for me to lie to you, huh? I’m surrounded by cops, FBI spooks like yourself, and probably the National Guard right at this moment, am I right?” Stephen paces back and forth in front of Dylan and the four other hostages. Roddy, Xander, and Cortez split up to see what kind of mess has developed outside the house.

“I can’t say we invited the National Guard, but everyone else you spoke about is here right now, yes,” Baker politely informs “Steve,” the villain of tonight’s festivities. “Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? You seem like a smart, reasonable man. Who are you, Steve, and how many people are inside that house?”

“Let’s just say I’m a former disgruntled employee,” Stephen says, which is technically not a fib. “I have beef with Dylan Tanaka. Well, a lot of people do, so that biographical tidbit shouldn’t reveal who I am just yet. And I’ll be honest with you, Rob. I have five hostages in here. Dylan is one of them. You probably met the naked woman who tried to escape, right?”

“Actually, no. I heard about her, but I have not personally met her. In fact, I just arrived a few minutes ago. So I’m new to the party. I apologize for not bringing beer.” In an instant, all the floodlights turn on almost simultaneously. The bright white light temporarily blinds everyone near the gate, including Baker. He squints and faces away from the lights in order to regain his vision. “Do you see that?”

The floodlights are very visible through the gym’s upper windows. “Yes, I clearly see that you’ve apparently turned on all the lights in the neighborhood. Well done,” Stephen sarcastically remarks. The lights do add a much-needed ambient radiance to the basement, though no one is in a mood to form interior decorating observations at the moment. “Let me guess. There’s a SWAT team that’s about to arrive.”

“No, the SWAT team is already here. We have multiple snipers hiding in various locations, all with a clear view of the property. The street has been closed off to the public. And the neighbors have been woken up and escorted to safety. So, we can hang out and chat all night long, if you’d like. But I somehow doubt that would interest you.”

Stephen releases the “talk” button and swears to himself. “You’re all pretty lucky right now,” he says to the hostages. “You may have a way out of this that doesn’t result in a bullet going through your head. Good for you, fuckers.” He returns to speaking to Baker on the radio. “No, that would not interest me. Not in the slightest.”

“How many associates do you have with you?”

“Four others. All armed. Including me.” Stephen takes out his pistol and cocks it for good measure, making sure that the sound goes through to the other side.

“I see. Is anyone hurt?”

“No, just my pride. I thought I had an airtight plan. Everything was going so well until that slutty bitch escaped from our grasp.” Stephen glares at Peggy. She smiles back at him, satisfied that her daring escape ended up bearing fruit. Seeing this makes Stephen point his gun right at her face. Everyone gasps. “Speaking of which, I could shoot her right now. She’s in front of me, just a few feet away. One pull of the trigger and her brains will be smeared all over the wall. Should I do that, Rob?”

“Of course not, Steve. Let’s not do anything that you’ll regret later. Breaking and entering, combined with taking hostages and threatening to do them harm, carries a hefty enough prison sentence for you and your friends. If you add murder to that list, the consequences will be more severe. Don’t do it. Spare their lives. You don’t need to hurt anyone to prove your point.” Everyone surrounding Baker cannot believe how cool and collected he is right now, including Special Agent Mendoza, who smiles watching him go to work.

“Oh? And what point is that, Rob?”

“I don’t know for sure, but you said you’re a disgruntled employee. I’m thinking you want to punish Mr. Tanaka for wrongdoing. You want to kill him and his friends. Is that right? Why else would you be there?” Off in the distance, Baker sees that the entire cul-de-sac is packed with police cars, ambulances, and a few firetrucks (just in case). Combined with snipers on the rooftops and powerful floodlights making the mansion glow like it’s in the middle of a fish tank, it’s quite a scene right here in this (usually) quiet neighborhood.

“That’s exactly why I’m here, very perceptive of you,” Stephen lies. “So in other words, you’re trying to convince me that Dylan here has already learned his lesson, you know, being taken hostage at gunpoint, that sort of thing. Pretty traumatizing unto itself, huh?”

“Very much so. I’m pretty sure this is a night none of your hostages will ever forget, no matter how long they live.” Special Agent Mendoza, listening in on the conversation, is surprised at how intelligent this “Steve” guy sounds. If he’s a former disgruntled employee, as he claims he is, he certainly passes the smell test. Baker resumes the conversation. “Your situation is hopeless. We have you surrounded. You know that. You and your friends are going to face criminal punishment since you’ve already committed many felonies. Adding murder to that list will do you no good. Now, I can foresee you looking at this as a suicidal mission. Your beef is with Mr. Tanaka, but chances are your associates don’t feel the same way about him. Is that correct?”

Stephen looks at his fellow bandits, who have all returned to the gym after inspecting the outside. The look of dreadful fear on everyone’s faces is palpable. “Yes, you can say that.”

“Alright, so that means they probably are not up for a suicidal mission, even if you are. You might be willing to shoot every single hostage and then take your own life shortly before the police come running into the house. However, since we just established your associates don’t feel the same level of hatred against Mr. Tanaka as you do, they wouldn’t want to add “accessory to murder” on their rap sheet. Am I on the right track here?”

“Yes, you are,” Stephen says with a strong hint of defeat in his voice. He knows where this guy is going with this.

“So, that means they probably wouldn’t want to see you kill any of them. Because doing so would make their punishments even more brutal than it already will be. And since we established they aren’t as willing as you are to take your own life before the cavalry rides up over the nearest hill, odds are…they’ll try to stop you from killing anyone. They have every incentive to do so, right?”

“Yes.”

“At any moment, one of your guys may attempt to frag their commanding officer, or stage a mutiny, or whatever analogy you want to use. Are you familiar with this terminology, Steve?”

“I am, Rob. I’ve read about the Vietnam War in school. I know what fragging means.”

“Good. So…you don’t really want to shoot any of the hostages. Not Dylan Tanaka, not the woman, not anyone else we haven’t met yet.” Baker knows he’s this close to talking Steve off the ledge. The best way to do that is to frame his actions in terms of his own value system and how irrational behavior will undermine his own objectives. This is the best way to save lives. Persuade the hostage-taker that killing hostages will invalidate the very reason he’s taking hostages in the first place. Thus far, it seems to be working. “I shall be blunt. You seem like a smart guy. If you kill any of the hostages, your own men will probably do the same to you shortly afterward…to save their own hides. From our conversation so far, it doesn’t seem like you’re best friends with any of your associates. They’re probably hired guns, right? Employees working with you on a one-time basis. You don’t particularly care about them…and they don’t particularly care about you. Which means one of them – or all of them – will not hesitate to take you out if it means minimizing the body count and saving themselves from additional prison time. There’s a major difference between ten years in a federal penitentiary and, oh, say twenty-five years, or forty years, wouldn’t you say, Steve?”

“There certainly is, Robby boy,” Stephen smirks at his new pal. “Damn. You’re good at what you do. I can tell this isn’t the first hostage situation you’ve tried to diffuse. Very clever.”

“Thank you. But let’s return to your predicament, shall we? Since we just established your friends aren’t willing to go on a suicide mission, even if you are, you want some semblance of a victory, am I correct? You know your situation is hopeless, but that doesn’t mean it has to be meaningless. Unfortunately for you, the longer you talk, the more likely this fragging is bound to happen. So, this means you need to surrender as quickly as possible, lest you risk that terrible outcome becoming more and more likely to happen by the second.” Baker is confident he’s got him where he needs him. He has just (hopefully) saved that woman’s life, and possibly everyone else’s lives. If this ordeal ends with no dead bodies – pending the poor man who’s being rushed to the hospital at this very moment – that’s an A+ grade he deserves for this job.

“Hot damn. You’re good. Very good. Alright. Very well. You win. I think we should meet face-to-face, Rob. How does that sound?” Stephen looks right at Dylan, who also has a twinge of hope in his eyes. Melanie whispers something into Henry’s ear. Peggy and Monique are huddled close together but don’t say anything to each other. As angry as he is right now, Stephen isn’t a monster (technically speaking) who wants to actually kill people just for spite. And as much as he hates Dylan with a fiery passion, he probably couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger and end his life if it came to that point. He’s thought about it, of course, but he’s smart enough to know that obsessive feelings you get while stewing in your prison cell don’t necessarily translate into the real world.

“Okay, that sounds good to me. I would–”

“Except I’ll bring along two guests, just to prove that I haven’t already killed everyone. Well, you already heard from Dylan Tanaka briefly, so you know he’s alive. But, you don’t know for sure that the other four are alive as well, am I right?”

Baker, Special Agent Mendoza, and Officers Dietrich and Gutierrez give each other suspicious looks. Where is he getting at? “You are correct. We do not know for sure that you haven’t already killed anyone. Do you plan to visit us by the gate? I can assure you no one will impede your walk from wherever you are to the front gate,” Baker says. He makes a hand signal asking the police to clear the area as much as possible. After the officers had finished searching the property, they kindly left the area and shut the gate behind them by pressing a button located on the interior of the brick wall. They have no way of getting back in unless they break down the gate or scale the wall.

“I like that sound of that. Over and out,” Stephen says tongue-in-cheek. He switches off the transistor radio and tosses it to Roddy. He catches it with one hand, with his Glock in the other. “Dylan and the black guy. Come with me. Calmly.” He points at Dylan and Henry, who both slowly stand up after being summoned. Henry shakes his leg to get rid of a mild cramp. Dylan is the first to walk toward the door. Henry trudges along behind him. Stephen carefully follows both of them from behind just in case either of them decides to dash to their freedom like Peggy Cole attempted to do.

“Roddy, come with me. You two, stay behind and make sure none of these bitches do anything stupid, okay?” Xander and Cortez both verbally communicate their understanding of their boss’s order. Roddy unsheathes his firearm and follows Stephen, Dylan, and Henry to the door. Cortez, who’s keenly aware of his role in creating this mess in the first place, watches the three women like a hawk, determined not to repeat his earlier mistake again. Then again, he’s also aware that any of his associates will shoot him on the spot if he even comes close to screwing up a second time. Professional criminals tend to protect their own…until the very moment a dimwitted idiot jeopardizes their lives or livelihood.

Once their boss, Roddy, and the two hostages have left the gym, Xander decides to break the silence and take charge.

“Now, I’m only going to say this once. If any of you bitches decide to do anything, I can’t speak for anybody else, but I won’t hesitate to kill you. Got it? I got orders to only shoot you if you attempt to mess up our plan. Well, clearly that shit has already happened, hasn’t it, you dumbass?” He doesn’t need to look at Cortez in order to get his point across.

“Yeah…sorry man–”

“Ah, ah, ah, ah! I don’t need a fucking apology from you, you dumb piece of shit. Because of your dumbass, we’re all going to fucking prison, unless the boss man has any tricks up his sleeve. But whatever. If the loot we’re stealing is as valuable as everyone says it is, we may be able to cut a deal and avoid time in the slammer,” Xander says, who seems to be trying to talk his way into persuading himself that everything will be all right. So far, it sort of appears to be working.

“We get it. You want us to sit still and not move a muscle,” Melanie speaks up. “Or you’ll shoot us dead. Or whatever. Is that what you’re trying to say?”

“Yeah, you tranny. That’s exactly what I’m trying to say.” Xander points his gun right between Melanie’s eyes. She doesn’t flinch, though Monique and Peggy do. This makes him laugh. “I don’t know if you’re a dude or a ‘roided up chick, but you have balls. For sure. I got to respect that, as fucked up as that sounds.”

“I’ll accept your respect, for what it’s worth.”

Xander nods his head. Cortez lowers his gun, not wanting to accidentally shoot anyone prematurely before he has a reason to. Monique seems to be on the verge of tears again. And Peggy, the muscle chick responsible for getting the police here, can only grin at her captors. The two guys may hope that Stephen has an ace up his sleeve, but she has a hidden surprise of her own that she plans to reveal soon when the time is right.

***

Most of Dylan Tanaka’s neighbors are wealthy but largely anonymous individuals. They made their fortunes the traditional way: Climbing up the corporate ladder, stocks and investments, or family wealth passed down from generation to generation. Being woken up in the middle of the night to police officers telling them to quickly dress, evacuate their homes, and stay put in a safe house until a hostage crisis down the road comes to an end is certainly not a chain of events that any of these folks have ever experienced before…or will experience ever again.

There is, however, one neighbor who may not have ever personally experienced a crisis like this, but she’s reported on it as part of her day job.

Nicole Jarrett, a television video editor with eight years of experience working for Channel 7 News, and her husband live three houses away from Dylan Tanaka. During the media blitz that rocked their quiet little neighborhood in the wake of a national scandal involving their most famous (or infamous) resident, Nicole’s network was given easy access to interviews with the man himself because of her proximity to Dylan. And, it goes without saying, because they’re on friendly terms from being good next-door neighbors. Nicole has always treated Dylan with respect – even when the label “war profiteer” was maliciously thrown at him – which he deeply appreciated. When times were tough, Nicole was able to put her personal opinions aside (she actually thinks Dylan belongs in prison, though she’d never tell him that to his face) and still treat him kindly. That’s the spirit that has allowed her to work in the cutthroat business of television news media for so long.

Even though the police warned all the neighbors not to call or text their friends and family about this ordeal – because they were afraid if this were featured on the news the bad guys would panic and start shooting the hostages out of fear of being caught – Nicole couldn’t help herself. She’s a newswoman, and she must do what she’s been trained to do for the majority of her professional life: Report newsworthy information to her colleagues as soon as possible, lest they risk a rival station breaking it first.

Right now, all the civilians have gathered in the basement of Cory and Veronica Martinelli, who live in a house closest to the entrance of the cul-de-sac, on the corner of Winchester Drive and 43rd Avenue. Cory and Veronica have made hot tea for everyone (including a few of the police officers who’ve regularly checked in with them to provide infrequent updates on the ongoing situation) so they aren’t seen as indifferent hosts. Very few conversations are happening. Some folks have miraculously fallen back asleep. Nicole cannot fathom how anyone could go back to sleep when a group of armed terrorists has broken into Dylan Tanaka’s house and taken him hostage. When no one is looking, she texts her colleagues at the station who would be up at this time. The morning news broadcast begins at 6:00 a.m., which isn’t for another four hours, give or take. However, the anchors and crewmembers working the morning shift should be up by now, eating breakfast and showering. Thankfully, Derek Nguyen, the morning producer who decides which stories will be featured in every broadcast, is awake and excitedly responding to her illicit texts. As they’re texting each other, a news van is speeding toward their location, with a helicopter not far behind. She tries to respond to his messages without anyone seeing her – especially the cops.

DEREK NGUYEN: Holy shit! If this is for real this is the story of the century lol

NICOLE JARRETT: No kidding. Cops are everywhere. More cop cars and FBI guys are showing up literally every minute. It’s a circus. SOOOOOOOOOOO EXCITING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

DEREK NGUYEN: It sure is lol

NICOLE JARRETT: You have Bob and Candace on the way, right?

DEREK NGUYEN: Yes ma’am! They’re literally on the road right now. They should be there in less than 10 min. No traffic. Should get there soooooooon

NICOLE JARRETT: Thanks Derek

DEREK NGUYEN: Ur welcome. Stay safe. Don’t get shot!

NICOLE JARRETT: I won’t lol

DEREK NGUYEN: 😊

NICOLE JARRETT: 😉

And with that, the very scenario that the authorities were trying to avoid is about to unfold. Word spreads quickly around the local news scene, so it would only be a matter of time before a few of their rival networks – Channel 4, 5, and 13, respectively – caught wind of the word on the street that one of Seattle’s most infamous residents may be executed by a gang of terrorists.

Sure enough, word does spread like wildfire, even at this late hour. Newspapers, TV stations, bloggers, and magazines never sleep. And people who spend way too much time on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram also rarely get the eight hours of shuteye that they need. The army of police cars with their lights flashing makes this section of Seattle look like a block-wide Christmas decoration. Many of the neighbors within a quarter of a mile have also awoken to the endless sirens that have roared throughout the night. With this comes people complaining about this on social media. And eventually, local news people will catch on and see a pattern.

Something sinister is brewing at Dylan Tanaka’s house.

By 3:00 a.m., the story begins trending on Twitter. The phrases “Dylan Tanaka,” “hostage situation,” “terrorist attack,” and “active shooter” all trend locally, but so far not a peep nationally. It is already 6:00 on Sunday morning for people on the East Coast, so it’s only a matter of time before they find out about it. And when they do, it’s sure to lead all the Sunday morning news shows. No talk about politics, the 2020 presidential election, or the economy. All the attention is bound to be on a small scale but dramatic scene happening inside one single home in Seattle, Washington. This is, without question, not the kind of attention Stephen Callahan had wanted when he planned this heist.

Nicole also has friends who work at a rival news station. She sends them a few cryptic messages saying her station has the scoop for the story of the year. One person has already responded, indignant that she’s not revealing more information. The other two are probably still asleep. Even though she’s full of adrenaline at the moment, Nicole would rather be sleeping if she could help it. However, sleep will have to wait.

Five miles away, the Channel 7 News van races toward the scene. Inside are a reporter, camera operator, photographer, and technician (who is also driving). As they pull up to 43rd Avenue, the van screeches to a halt when they see the whole street blocked off with yellow police tape. One of the officers swears to himself when he sees the news media have shown up. A few moments later another news van from Channel 5 appears. Then, a Seattle Times reporter riding a bicycle finds himself temporarily blinded by the seemingly thousands of red and blue lights flickering all over the neighborhood. Up above, a police helicopter has finally arrived on the scene, shining a bright spotlight – as if Winchester Drive needed additional bright lights – on the roof of Dylan Tanaka’s mansion. An already maniacal scene has just been kicked up a notch. Soon, it’ll get much worse once the national news outlets find out about this developing crisis.

What helps spread the word is an anonymous Twitter personality named Rufus P. Little, a Seattle resident who tweets nothing but weird rumors, hearsay, and chatter collected from a police scanner radio he (or she or they) owns. With an incredible 278,549 followers, Rufus tweets content at all hours of the night – including federal holidays – and is usually pretty reliable. Or at the very least, his content is entertaining enough for more than a quarter of a million people to want to consume it. As of right now, Rufus is tweeting furiously about a developing situation happening in the private home of infamous Seattleite Dylan Tanaka, the former CEO of Perseus Analytics who should be in prison but isn’t. His first tweet announcing the shocking news that Mr. Tanaka is being held at gunpoint by terrorists (or some sort of group of criminals) was retweeted 57,102 times within ten minutes of it being sent out. Subsequent tweets have accumulated similar engagement statistics.

Give credit to Rufus P. Little (who’s garnered a following beyond the Pacific Northwest, though the majority of his audience is from the greater Seattle area) for ensuring that newsmakers on the east coast are alerted to this dramatic situation. While he’s not a fan of Mr. Tanaka, he doesn’t want any harm to come to him. Unless the people holding him hostage are Syrian parents whose children were killed in a drone strike caused by faulty analytical intelligence. Then it would be him getting his comeuppance.

By 3:15 a.m. (6:15 on the east coast), all the major national television news stations have picked up on the story. ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and BBC are all reporting on what’s going on to millions of viewers in the United States and the United Kingdom. The usual left-wing and right-wing commentators choose to emphasize either the “corrupt billionaire experiencing blowback thanks to his crimes against humanity” or “(possible foreign) terrorists hold American civilians hostage” angle, depending on what gets them more clicks and social media followers. Even the crackpot conspiracy theory websites, who still think Dylan Tanaka is somehow a member of the Illuminati or the New World Order or whatever, get in on the action, insisting Dylan has been continuing his top-secret work for the Pentagon and the Department of Defense and that he’s now become “expendable” in the plot to take over the world. Or, Dylan “found out too much” and is being executed in order to ensure his silence. No matter where you choose to get your news, the CRISIS BREWING IN SEATTLE (a not-so-subtle reference to the Emerald City’s greatest cultural contribution, the Starbucks Corporation) is the top trending story across the nation (and certain parts across the globe).

A sample of announcements should shed light on what the “national conversation” sounds and feels like:

CNN: Breaking news out of Seattle, Washington. A few hours ago, local police were alerted to a possible hostage situation developing in the home of Dylan Tanaka, the former CEO of Perseus Analytics and consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense. At around 1:40 in the morning local time, a 9-1-1 call was made claiming a shooting had happened right outside Mr. Tanaka’s private residence. When police arrived on the scene, they discovered that he and at least one other houseguest were being held hostage by armed gunmen inside his home. It is unknown at this time how many gunmen there are, how many hostages there are, and whether or not Mr. Tanaka or anyone else has been shot or killed. This is a developing story, so stay tuned for further updates on this…

Fox News: We’ve just gotten reports that multiple armed terrorists have broken and entered into the home of former U.S. military contractor Dylan Tanaka, who you may remember was subject to a lengthy and public federal investigation for his activities combatting terrorism in the Middle East. Local police are not speaking to the media at this time, but an unnamed source close to the situation says a hostage crisis is brewing in Seattle. We will try to gather further testimony from eyewitnesses in the meantime. We do not yet know if anyone has been killed, though we do know at least one adult male has been shot and is being taken to a local hospital. More on this story a little later…

MSNBC: We interrupt for breaking news developing in Seattle. There are reports of a hostage crisis happening inside the residence of Dylan Tanaka, the former CEO of Perseus Analytics who had previously been working on a top-secret antiterrorism project for the U.S. government. Tanaka was the subject of a congressional investigation into his activities developing drone technology for the military and American intelligence agencies. The investigation resulted in Tanaka resigning from his position, Perseus Analytics dissolving, and several of his top lieutenants serving federal prison sentences. As you may recall, the reclusive billionaire did not face any jail time for his actions. Now, it seems like he is being held hostage inside his own home. Local authorities are not speaking to reporters on the ground. Eyewitnesses say several people, not just Tanaka, are being held at gunpoint. It is unknown at this time how many gunmen there are on the scene or if there are any casualties. One source who lives in the neighborhood says a man was taken to a local hospital after suffering some sort of injury. We will update this story as further developments come in. In other news, it appears that the White House will…

BBC: Good morning. Breaking news from the United States. American businessman and former military contractor Dylan Tanaka is reportedly being held at gunpoint inside his home in Seattle, Washington. At about 1:40 in the morning local time, police were alerted to an alleged shooting that had occurred outside Mr. Tanaka’s private home. Authorities later discovered a much more serious situation developing, though it is unclear at this moment how that happened. Several eyewitnesses say a significant police presence is now on the ground, as civilians have been escorted out of their homes and transported far away from ordeal. In addition to serving as a consultant for the American military, Tanaka’s former company, Perseus Analytics, contracted with the British government on several top-secret defense projects. Perseus Analytics’ U.K. headquarters used to be located in London before the company dissolved and merged with The McDermott Corporation. It is unknown whether or not there have been any fatalities. According to a source inside Parliament, the Prime Minister has been briefed on the situation, as Mr. Tanaka was working on a special project for the RAF before resigning from his position as CEO. We will keep you informed about this ongoing situation as we learn about further updates…

As national news outlets begin to report feverishly on this crisis, Rufus P. Little is rapidly becoming something of an international celebrity. His keenly accurate tweets, or at least they’re seen as accurate by the millions of people who are sharing his updates, have reached the furthest corners of the globe. Reporters who are too lazy to fly out to Seattle to investigate are simply sending him DMs asking for timely updates before he gives them away to the public for free. Rufus, not surprisingly, “blocks” them out of spite. Just because he’s willing to do their job for them doesn’t mean he’s going to give them inside knowledge just so they can chase Twitter clout. Rufus is a man of the people, after all. And the people deserve better.

As Stephen, Dylan, Henry, and Roddy walk outside on the driveway, at least half a dozen helicopters (two belonging to the police and FBI and the other four to local TV news stations) are swirling around up above. The deafening noise hurts their ears, though they quickly adjust and do their best to drown out the bedlam. They have more important matters to worry about. The driveway is clear but it is impossible to not notice the large crowd of people – mostly police and SWAT officers – gathered on the other side of the gate. It looks like an angry mob of armed militants getting ready to storm a foreign embassy. Stephen is walking right behind Dylan with a gun pointed at his neck. Roddy decides to be less dramatic, choosing to have his firearm in hand but not pointed at Henry directly. He knows the chef won’t attempt to do anything stupid like flee or climb the gate to escape. Stephen estimates there has to be at least forty or fifty police officers, and a dozen or so SWAT members, in attendance of today’s makeshift neighborhood block party. He sees a couple plainclothes people in front of the gate, which he guesses are the FBI people he spoke to earlier.

“Good morning, Steve,” Baker says to Stephen as the group comes to a complete stop. The fact that there are dozens of guns pointed in his direction makes his heart race a million miles a minute. He’s sure the others are feeling the same way.

“Is it morning already? God, it’s been a long night,” Stephen wryly replies.

“Yes, it has. You’ve been busy.” Baker takes a look at the man he just spoke to through the gate callbox. He’s exactly what he expected him to be: Fairly tall, clean-shaven, dark brown hair, dressed in all black, well-spoken, and determined to get away with whatever it is he’s trying to get away with. “Steve” looks like a schemer who’s planned this out, even for a worst-case-scenario such as this one. Stephen stops about ten feet away from the gate. Baker takes this as his cue to resume speaking. “Let’s talk like adults. As you can see, there’s no way you’re escaping from this nightmare. Eventually, even if it takes all day, or all week for that matter, you and your men will be brought into police custody. There’s no denying that. Do you agree, Steve?”

“I agree. Mr. Tanaka here and his personal chef are sure to want to end this nightmare as soon as possible,” Stephen says. Henry raises his hand to make sure the authorities know who he is. Dylan will never forgive himself for putting his friends in harm’s way. “You’ve probably noticed how calm I am right now, have you not?”

“Yes, that has crossed my mind,” Baker says. “How are you, Mr. Tanaka?”

“Oh, I’ve had better Saturday evenings,” Dylan jokes. “I sort of, uh, wish I had decided to binge-watch something on Netflix instead of dealing with this circus.”

“Are you hurt?”

“No, not even a scratch or a bruise. Other than the fact Mr. Callahan here and his buddies have been pointing guns at me all night long, I’m doing just fine.” Dylan looks at Stephen to see if he’s upset that he just revealed his name. The cops would have found out who he is sooner or later.

“Are you Stephen Callahan?” Baker asks. “The former Perseus Analytics executive who spent two years in prison–”

“Three,” Stephen interrupts. “Three. I spent three years in prison. Yes, you probably recognize me from the congressional hearings. Or that stupid PSA I did for Greenpeace all those years ago. I am indeed Stephen Callahan, Mr. Tanaka’s former right-hand man. We used to be close. We used to be friends. Well, I think it’s safe to say that’s not exactly true anymore, isn’t it?” He raises his gun to the back of Dylan’s head. The cops behind Robert L. Baker and Special Agent Mendoza draw their weapons in response. Baker puts his hand up to tell everyone to stand down. The police lower their weapons.

“Yeah, I’d say our friendship has come to an end. That ship has sailed. You’ve burned a hell of a lot of bridges tonight, buddy,” Dylan says. “Don’t expect a Christmas card from me this year.”

“I guess no letter of recommendation for you,” Henry chimes in. This makes Baker and Mendoza laugh. Roddy wants to laugh but refrains. Dylan smiles.

“Enough chit chat,” Stephen begins. “Let’s get down to brass tacks. I do have a backup plan, believe it or not. And Rob, this involves you. And you.” He points to Special Agent Mendoza, correctly sensing a well-dressed woman standing next to the hostage negotiator would be a person of importance. “I figured there would be a small chance that tonight’s plan would go haywire. So I planned accordingly. I have an ace up my sleeve. Want to hear what it is?”

Dylan and Henry, who are both aware of Stephen’s plan to steal top-secret scientific documents, have no idea what this “ace up his sleeve” is, or the fact that he even had one to begin with. The two men figured Stephen and his bandits simply planned to show up, break in, threaten Dylan with his life if he doesn’t cooperate, steal the loot, and walk out of here as quietly as church mice. As they are about to find out, Stephen came prepared.

“I am quite curious how you intend to get out of this pickle.” Baker points up in the sky at the police helicopters flying circles around the neighborhood. He doesn’t need to remind them of the dozens of police officers, highly trained SWAT team members, and snipers strategically positioned from above. “What is it?”

Stephen clears his throat, enjoying his temporary moment in the spotlight (both literally and figuratively speaking). He hopes he delivers a convincing performance since he’s pulling this out of thin air. He brought the dirty bomb with him, but that’s a last resort, not a Plan B. “I have several associates that I’m working with. Four of them are working with me tonight.” He gestures to Roddy, who nods his head. Roddy doesn’t know where Stephen is going with this, but he decides to play along and pretend like he’s fully informed about what he’s about to say. “The others are working, let’s say, elsewhere. Here it goes. I’ve planted a bomb in this city. It’s not large, but it’s significant enough to kill everyone who’s within, say, a 25-foot range. Now, in five to six hours, a new day will begin in Seattle. It’s Sunday, but not everyone likes to sleep in. People like to go to brunch, church, or watch sports in their favorite bar. Hidden somewhere is a bomb that will go off if anything were to happen to me or my men. Understand?

Special Agent Mendoza, Robert L. Baker, and Officers Dietrich and Gutierrez exchange quick glances at each other, expressions of surprise and dread filling their faces.

“Do you know where this bomb is located, Steve?” Baker asks. His eyes focus on Stephen’s face and voice inflection. Part of his FBI training included reading people’s verbal and physical expressions to see if they’re lying or not. Callahan, whether he knows this or not, is a hard man to read. This was evident during the congressional hearings. It’s evident now.

“I do not. That’s the beauty of my plot. I gave orders to my associates to hide the bomb in a random location. It could be anywhere. A car trunk. Inside a trash can. Under a restaurant table. In a library. Under a bus seat. Near the train tracks. Anywhere. It’s small enough to hide in plain sight,” Stephen teases. He senses genuine fear out of the hardened FBI spooks and the lead cops. “You can’t possibly evacuate the entire city. You can send the bomb squad to every public location possible, but that’ll only make my friends paranoid that something has happened to me. And if they feel like our mission has failed, they’ll detonate the bomb just out of spite. You could see upwards to twenty, maybe thirty people dead. Maybe more, if they hid the bomb in the right place. Wow, what a predicament! Bet you didn’t see this coming, did you?”

“How do we know you’re telling the truth? You could be lying.” Baker counters with no emotion in his voice. Dylan, who’s just as shocked as everyone else is, hopes Stephen is lying through his teeth to save his own hide. He’s a bad man (as he clearly found out tonight), but he’s not a mass murderer. Unless you count the work they did in Iraq and Syria…

“Yeah, I figured you’d say that.” Stephen puts down the gun once he sees the police back off. “Well, can you really take that chance? Can you really assume I’m lying just to save me and my colleagues from facing jail time? I could be. I could have just pulled that out of my ass. But…can you risk it? One of my men inside the house can send a simple text to a certain someone and, well, the bomb goes off. Yeah, it may not do that much damage at this early hour, but for sure people will die. Is that something you want to have to deal with, officers?”

Dietrich and Gutierrez both look down at the ground. They’re still trying to process the horror of possibly having to deal with a Boston Marathon-style terrorist attack in their very own city. They choose to not say anything to him out of defiance. Dylan suspects Stephen’s lying and that there is no bomb, but then again before tonight he never thought he’d be angry enough to pull off everything he’s already pulled off up to this point. So, it’s not totally unreasonable.

“I thought so,” Stephen says triumphantly. “That, ladies and gentlemen, is the ace up my sleeve. If I don’t make it out alive, I can guarantee you that people in this city will die. That’s the truth. You can choose to not believe me, but you do so at your own peril. Can you risk it?”

“No, we cannot risk it. Whether we want to or not, we have to take your threat seriously,” Baker acknowledges with a hint of defeat. “Okay, Steve. I hear you loud and clear. How shall we proceed?”

“I’m glad you asked!” Stephen quickly looks back at Roddy, whose expressionless face signifies that he’s also adept at playing along. Roddy knows the bomb threat is bullshit…but he’s doing a heck of a job selling it. For that, he deserves to be commended. “I want a private airplane waiting for us at Boeing Field. Me, my four men, and Dylan will all board it and go to a place of my choosing. After the flight has landed, I will call my other men and tell them to retrieve the bomb from wherever they’ve hidden it and dismantle it. There will be no evidence. The city will be safe. The four other hostages, one of them the black fellow standing right over there, will be left behind. As soon as my plane is ready, they will be released. How does that sound? Do we have a deal?”

A long silence ensues. Baker, Mendoza, Dietrich, Gutierrez, and a few other high-ranking police officers all huddle together like a football team planning their next drive. Stephen, self-satisfied with his performance, looks back at Dylan and Henry. Both men are trying to figure out if Stephen is telling the truth or is full of bullshit. So far, neither of them has any clue. Three excruciating minutes later, the feds and cops break the huddle and return to chatting with Mr. Callahan.

“Okay, Steve. You win. We all think you’re lying, by the way, but we’ve come to a consensus that we can’t take that chance. You could be telling the truth. And if you are, there could be major blood spilled on the streets of our city. We can’t abide by that. Not one damn bit. If you’ll excuse us, we have several phone calls to make. We’ll let you know when your chartered flight is ready. Now, how does that sound to you?”

“Like music to my ears,” Stephen says with the smuggest expression one could possibly give.

***

“I don’t like how long they’re taking,” Xander whispers to Cortez.

“Relax, man. The boss man knows what he’s doing. Yeah, he was pissed off, but he looked like he knew what he was doing,” Cortez reassures him. Melanie, Peggy, and Monique are still sitting together underneath their blankets. Melanie really has to pee but knows there’s no chance she’ll be able to. Not after what Peggy pulled earlier. She’ll be lucky to fart and not get shot.

“What is he doing?”

“I don’t know man. I’m just trying to stay positive, you know? Maybe he has a backup plan, I don’t know,” Cortez says with frustration. Still mad at being responsible for this mess, Cortez is doing whatever he can to redeem himself. Remaining positive and steadfast in accomplishing the mission is the only thing he can do right now. That, and prevent any of the three ladies from trying to escape again.

“Hey, baby,” Peggy says to Cortez. She has a plan to escape…and sincerely hopes the other two gals are game as well. If they aren’t, this could backfire spectacularly. “Would you like to tell everyone how I managed to escape? It’s quite a story, if I may say so myself.”

“Shut the fuck up, bitch!” Cortez snaps. “No, I ain’t saying shit! Nothing! And you shut your mouth, okay? If you talk again, if any of you say shit, I’ll put a bullet right through your fucking head.” He points his pistol at all three women in an attempt to demonstrate toughness. Peggy knows she has him right where she wants him.

“No kidding! The reason you won’t say shit is because you were too busy drinking my piss!” Peggy laughs hysterically. Melanie and Monique look at her, shocked to hear what they just heard. “Isn’t that right? That’s how I did it, girls. He couldn’t help himself. He knows who I am. He loves me. He worships me. He’s one of my loyal subscribers, after all.”

“Oh, wow!” Monique says. “You are a celebrity, baby girl. Of course this perverted asshole knows who you are!”

“I sure am!” Peggy continues. “He really, really, really, reeaaaaaaaaaally wanted to drink my piss. Like, for real. He literally asked to drink my pee. That’s fucking gross, but it’s what he wanted. And when I did, when I crouched down over his face and pissed everything my bladder was holding, this creep literally drank it all! Like he was at a piss fountain!”

Xander bursts out in laughter. Melanie and Monique play along and add to the ruckus. Cortez is beet red, blushing like he’s never blushed before. Peggy smiles at him, knowing she’s pushing all the right buttons.

“SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU FUCKING BITCH!!! YOU FUCKING CUNT! YOU FUCKING WHORE CUNT!” Cortez screams at the top of his lungs.

Instead of shooting her, he decides to walk right up to her and slap her in the face. Peggy wanted him to do this so she could pull off her escape plan. Just as he’s a few feet away from her, Peggy stands up, bends her knees slightly, and pulls the switchblade out of her vagina, where it’s been secretly hidden this whole time. Peggy struggles to push the little release switch because her vaginal juices have made the knife slippery. Fortunately, she succeeds at extending the blade before Cortez could comprehend what was happening. In the blink of an eye, Peggy grabs Cortez’s right shoulder and jabs the blade as deep into his belly as she possibly can. Cortez goes from feeling extreme anger to feeling extreme pain. He cries out, in shock that a blade that long has penetrated his torso…seemingly out of nowhere.

“What the fuck?” Xander blurts out as he watches his comrade get attacked by the lady with big boobs. Melanie, who’s sitting closest to where Xander is standing, leaps from the bench and tackles him to the floor. Monique, surprised at first that all of this is happening so fast, stands up and tries to find a weapon to fight with. She cannot find one.

“Sorry, buddy,” Peggy says, twisting the knife inside Cortez’s stomach. “It’s not personal. I hate to lose a customer tonight, but you’re an asshole who deserves what he’s about to get. I’ll make sure to piss on your grave after they’ve buried you. I’m sure you’ll actually enjoy that!” Peggy pulls the knife out of Cortez’s belly and shoves it back in. This makes him scream even louder. He coughs up blood and spits it all over the floor.

Meanwhile, Melanie overpowers Xander. She knocks the gun to the floor. As he attempts to reach for it, Melanie wraps her powerful right arm around Xander’s neck. She doesn’t want to kill him, but she doesn’t know what other choice she has. She watched enough WWF wrestling back in the ‘80s to know what a sleeper hold is. A few of her muscle worship clients have requested that they put them in a sleeper hold, but every single time she’s refused, saying it’s too dangerous. She regrets not trying it at least once so she could have the experience of successfully doing it.

“Good night, sleep tight!” Melanie says to Xander as he struggles to escape from her strong grip. As the seconds pass by, his resistance diminishes noticeably.

A few feet away, Cortez falls to the ground, bleeding profusely. Peggy holds the knife above his face. She considers going for the kill shot, until Monique interrupts her thought process.

“Hold on, darling. I know how to finish him off,” Monique says. She notices out of the corner of her eye a bunch of heavy free weights lying around about twenty feet away. Monique, who has been training nonstop for the Olympics for the past nine years of her life, finds a 150-pound dumbbell sitting on the floor. She bends down, picks it up with perfect weightlifting form, and walks it back toward Cortez.

“Holy shit, baby…” Peggy mutters under her breath.

“The bastard deserves this. They all do.” With that, Monique squats down and (without arching her back) with all the force she could muster heaves the 150-pound dumbbell high in the air. It’s not quite a clean and jerk maneuver, but it’s pretty damn close. The heavy cast iron dumbbell lands squarely on Cortez’s face, exploding it in a pool of gooey blood and loose flesh. Peggy stands back to avoid the carnage landing on her bare skin.

Out of breath and feeling as powerful as she’s ever felt, Monique leans forward to admire her handiwork. Sure enough, Cortez’s skull has been completely smashed. Brain matter is splattered across the floor. Combined with being stabbed in the belly twice, Cortez is as dead as a doornail. Peggy wipes sweat off her brow. Monique can feel her shoulder and back get strained while attempting this heavy lift (without stretching or using proper form). Even Melanie, who’s still trying to put Xander to sleep, stops what she’s doing to react to what Monique has just done.

“HOLY SHIT! Wow! Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn girl,” Peggy squeals, punching Monique lightly on the shoulder. “You just killed him. Fuck, he’s dead. No doubt about it. He’s soooooooooooo dead. You fucked up his face real, real, reeeeeeeeeeal good!”

Melanie, Peggy, and Monique all gather around Cortez’s carcass. Xander is fast asleep several feet away. No man alive can ever escape from the clutches of Melanie’s enormous biceps. Monique takes Cortez’s gun. Melanie picks up Xander’s pistol. Peggy wipes off the switchblade with one of the blankets. The three strong, confident ladies look at each other, knowing they have one mission and one mission only. Peggy decides to speak for everyone.

“Let’s go rescue Dylan and Henry, and bring these motherfuckers to justice.”

Melanie and Monique don’t say anything because there is nothing else to say.

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.