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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, Dylan,” Baker replies.

***

“Damnit, damnit, DAMNIT!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ceiling doesn’t respond back.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEREK NGUYEN: No. Me lol

NICOLE JARRETT: Cool. It sounds great.

DEREK BUYEN: r u watching it now?

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

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

NICOLE JARRETT: Will do.

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

“Ugh. This sucks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dog Day Afternoon,” Nicole answers.

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

“I believe so. Yes.”

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

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

Nobody laughs this time.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steal something? This is a robbery?”

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

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

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

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

“What’s holding up the party?”

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

“Did we give him a departure time?”

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

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

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

Little did he know…

***

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

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

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

“Hey! Stop right there!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CLICK!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hear you. What should we do?”

“Did you kill him?” Peggy asks.

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

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

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

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

“Oh my God!” Monique screams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come here, you black bitch!”

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

“FUCK!” he curses aloud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. You are,” Peggy says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See?!” Monique insists.

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

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

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

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

“HOLY FUCKING SHIT!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Learn the right way to treat a lady.”

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

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

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

“HOLY SHIT!” Monique shrieks.

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

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

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

“How are you, girl?”

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

“How badly are you hurt?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey! Where did he go?”

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

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

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

“Hey! What the fuck happened here?”

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

“Oh my God…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn straight,” Peggy says.

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

Out of Bodybuilder Experience (part 1 of 2)

Helle Trevino wearing a sexy bikini.

“Want to hear a secret?”

Max, having just stripped down to nothing but his boxers, was about to approach Emily’s beautiful right bicep and kiss it before she unexpectedly asked this question.

“Uh, yeah. Sure. What is it?” Max Shimura politely asks. He walks right up to Emily, dressed in a sexy revealing white satin slip dress, and places his warm lips onto her hard bicep peak. He recalls her arms being 16.5 inches in circumference, but that could be when she’s in “competition shape.” Regardless, they seem noticeably bigger since the last time he saw her.

“This building is haunted. The front desk guy told me when I checked in.”

Genuinely curious, Max stops kissing her muscular arm and turns to face her. He gets lost in her gorgeous ocean blue eyes before refocusing on the conversation at hand. “Really? As in haunted by a specific ghost, or by mysterious apparitions in general?”

“By a ghost, I think,” she says. Emily Jakobsson is a 30-year-old professional bodybuilder and athletic apparel model from Sweden. Like many Scandinavian women, she has dense bone structure and the genetic makeup to grow large, impressive muscle mass. Max first saw her for a muscle worship session about 8 years ago when she was a 22-year-old powerlifter and he was a poor 20-year-old college student. The $350 he spent to see her that evening made a significant dent in his modest bank account, but it left quite an impression. He instantly became infatuated with her. Dare say, he fell in love? Max knows these sessions aren’t romantic in nature (he’s pretty sure she’s married, or at least engaged), but he can’t help but dream.

“Not sure who specifically, but he says somewhere within the halls, guests have seen the white figure of a dead woman float around in mid-air,” she says. A casual fan of the paranormal himself, Max actually wants to know more to this story. He’s not one for hunting ghosts, but if it’s right here in this very building, he definitely doesn’t need to travel far. “I haven’t seen her yet, but I’d love to!”

“Yeah, no kidding. I didn’t know this building was haunted, but I do know that this place wasn’t always a hotel. I believe it used to be an insane asylum,” Max says. “World War I era, I think. Maybe later. I don’t know exactly.”

Emily’s eyes widen. Max quickly steals a glance at her broad shoulders before returning his gaze toward her lovely face. “Seriously? That’s some top-notch horror movie shit right there!”

“Well, to be fair I think it was technically a regular hospital that happened to have a mental ward,” Max recalls. “It may have been in the basement? Who knows…”

Max places his fingers onto Emily’s sculpted pecs. She kindly flexes them in response. But she still seems preoccupied by the possibility of ghosts haunting the building to focus on giving her client a good time. No worries, though. Max appreciates Emily’s body with or without her attention being on him. From head to toe, Emily is a sight to behold. He can only count on one hand other women who’ve achieved her flawless balance of natural beauty, femininity, muscle mass, symmetry, and fun personality.

“Still, that’s quite a coincidence,” she observes.

Emily motions for Max to lift her dress over her head. He happily obliges. Wearing nothing but a creamy orange-colored bikini and stiletto heels, Emily is in full Goddess Mode. She lifts her left leg up and impressively bounces her quads up and down, mesmerizing her client. They have to be at least 28 inches around. Maybe 30 inches? Max can’t help but feel a chill go down his spine just thinking about it. He can see every striation, every individual muscle dancing in response to her flexing.

“God, you look amazing. Absolutely perfect, Emily.” She stops daydreaming and turns toward Max. She smiles to acknowledge his compliment.

“Why, thank you kind sir. I suppose I should stop talking about ghosts and instead start showing off my rock-hard body!” And with that, Emily does exactly that. Emily takes a small step back to give her room to showcase all the main bodybuilding poses. Max gets down on his knees to watch the Scandinavian Muscle Goddess in action. He reaches out to touch her meaty calves, tree trunk thighs, and bulging hamstrings. He’s always been a leg guy, in case that hasn’t been made clear yet.

“Mmmm, unbelievable. Love these legs. Love how much hard work you put into them.”

“Thanks, darling. Thank you very much. I’m glad someone notices.” She then turns around to show off her back muscles. As wide as a freight train, Max cannot fathom how a woman can be so damn large and remain as unquestionably feminine at the same time. Miss Jakobsson has achieved the seemingly impossible. She’s peerless.

“Oh, I’ve noticed. I follow you on Instagram, so I’ve kept track of–”

Out of nowhere, the lights suddenly start to flicker. Emily stops posing. Max stops regarding her immaculate figure. They both look up at the ceiling light fixture. After about a dozen rapid flickers, it finally goes out. The bathroom fan turns off. The air conditioning unit – which had been blowing in gentle warm air to heat up this small room on this late October evening – stops humming.

Darkness. Nothing but darkness and…eerie silence.

An ominous hotel hallway.

There appears to be a power outage. No need to be an electrician to understand that.

“Well, shit. That sucks,” Emily says. She walks over to the desk phone sitting on a small bedside table. “Is it just us, or has the entire building gone dark?”

“Let me check.” Max quickly pokes his head out the door to see what the hallway looks like. He’s careful not to step outside because he’s wearing nothing but boxer shorts…and sporting a massive erection. How embarrassing would it be if somebody saw that?

“Hm.”

All the lights appear to be on in the long corridor hallway. And, as a side note, there isn’t a single soul in sight. Which seems odd considering how many tourists he saw in the lobby an hour ago, milling around and chatting up a storm. So it must be just their room that’s without power.

Max closes the door. He sees Emily on the phone, speaking to a front desk staff person. She nods her head, mumbles something unintelligible, then hangs up.

“What did they say?”

“They said it’s an old building and that shit like this happens frequently,” she says, rolling her eyes. “They recommend finding the electrical panel and manually switching the room lights back on. If that doesn’t work, they’ll send over a maintenance guy to inspect what’s gone wrong.”

Great. A fucking maintenance guy showing up? That’ll ruin the mood!

Max turns back toward the door to look for the electrical panel. He doesn’t see one. Emily also starts to search. In complete darkness, it’s difficult to see anything. A moment later, she apparently finds it.

“I think this is it.” Emily pulls back a small painting of a 1920s speakeasy hanging on the north-facing wall. “It’s a weird place to put it. And why would they hide it behind a painting?”

Emily tries to open the old rusty metal door situated at eye level. It’s somewhat jammed shut, so she has to force it open with all her (considerable) strength. Once she does, a cloud of dust greets her as the door flies open.

“Oh gross! Ugh.”

Max is now standing behind her. He cannot help but admire her rounded butt. Holy shit, she must squat a lot. Or do endless walking lunges. Or both. Damn! Before he can caress it, a brown leather-bounded book drops to the floor. Emily picks it up.

“What the fuck is this? This isn’t the electrical panel. It’s some sort of safety deposit box,” Max says. He leans over to see what kind of book it is. It appears to be a diary.

“It’s a journal. It’s really old. Take a look at it,” Emily says. She opens the curtain to let in some moonlight. There’s a full moon out with not a single cloud in the sky. Max takes the diary and thumbs through it. Indeed, it’s somebody’s old journal. Emily finds her cell phone, turns on the flashlight app, and shines it on the crusty yellow pages of the diary. Max finds a random passage and decides to read it.

“My love for you is unending. It has no bounds. But society will not let us be together. I am unwell and everyone knows it. You have your whole life in front of you. You say you want to go off and fight in the war against the Germans. While you are in the trenches, I shall be here. Rotting away in my little room. All alone.” Max reads aloud.

“Damn. That’s sad. It must be the personal diary of a former patient here. You said it used to be a hospital, right?” Emily asks. Max nods his head. He continues to read:

“The world will not allow us to be together. But we are stronger than that. We are meant to be together, in love, for all eternity. If we cannot be together in this life, we shall be together in the next life. I know a witch who understands the ancient incantations. She has taught me how to give us eternal life. So no matter what happens, we will live our lives together in love forever and ever. With or without society’s approval. I love you, Private Max Kincaid. Sincerely, Emily Carroll. August 7, 1916.”

Both Emily and Max are silent for a moment, deep in thought.

“Whoa. I mean, holy fucking shit. Her name is Emily and his name is Max. Just like us!” Max whispers to Emily. She too is stunned. This shocking coincidence disturbs them both.

“This is from World War I. This Emily Carroll girl seems like a patient at this hospital. She says she’s ‘unwell,’ so that probably means she was a mental patient,” Emily ponders. “And Max Kincaid is a private, so that must mean he was in the military. Maybe he worked at this hospital as an orderly. Or maybe he was a patient as well, but not a mental patient. Just a regular one.”

“Fort Brennan is 30 miles away from here. Maybe he was injured in a basic training accident. Wow. What a find! I wonder if the local museum would want this.” Max wonders aloud.

A leather-bound diary.

“She mentions knowing a witch. Was Emily Carroll into witchcraft?” Emily asks. She takes the book, finds another random page, and reads out loud: “Today is the day we choose to die together. Our fates are bound. There is no going back. This is the path we choose. At the stroke of midnight, we will slice our throats and bleed out all the hate that has been oppressing us. All the demons that have denied us our happiness. And before our hearts stop beating, we will say the ancient incantations that will grant us eternal life. Sincerely, Emily Carroll. October 31, 1916.”

“Wow! It was Halloween night, more than 100 years ago when she wrote this. They carried out a suicide pact. Fuck! That’s intense.” Emily exclaims. By now, it’s a mini-miracle that Max has completely forgotten that he’s currently in the presence of a beautiful, scantily clad female bodybuilder. He’s seen her three times before for a muscle worship session, and usually savors every minute of it. But tonight, on Halloween Night 2020, they’re both distracted by the personal diary of a long-dead woman whose tragic story is yet to be fully uncovered.

“I’ll bet you’re right. Private Max Kincaid was either an orderly at the hospital or a patient here. They met, fell in love, and understood that their families wouldn’t approve of them being together. There’s no way his parents would want him to marry an unstable woman who was committed to an insane asylum. So they formed a suicide pact, probably went through with it, and hoped their souls would forever haunt this building, so they could actually be together for all eternity,” Max speculates. “Ancient incantations? A witch? Holy shit, that’s fucking intense.”

“I found it! The incantations, or whatever it’s called,” Emily announces after flipping through more pages of the diary.

Emily shines her phone at a slightly torn out page located at the very end of the diary. It’s written in English but seems to be Sumerian in origin. Max is no historian, but his father is a history professor at the local university. So he knows a bit about ancient civilizations. The scribbled writing is Miss Carroll’s attempt to phonetically spell out an ancient language.

“Shall we read it together?”

Emily looks up at Max after he asks this. Max doesn’t blink. A wicked smile forms across her gorgeous face.

“Yes! That’ll be fun. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Well. Famous last words, Max thought to himself. But what the heck?

“Let’s do it.”

To be continued

A Female Bodybuilder Christmas Carol (part 1 of 3)

When you picture what Bobbi Cratchit would look like, think of Hannah May Southwood.

“Sorry, my friend. But my mind is made up.”

Bobbi Cratchit, a brand new 24-year-old intern at the West Coast Bodybuilding Federation, could not help but eavesdrop on her boss’s conversation with his director of marketing. She knows this is a crucial discussion that will determine the fate of the WCBF’s female bodybuilding division. An aspiring bodybuilder herself, Bobbi’s heart sinks at the tone of her boss’s voice. She knows what’s about to happen.

“There’s nothing I can do about it. This decision has to be made,” Ebenezer Scrooge growls into the phone. “The lady competitors don’t bring in the crowds like they used to. Hell, let’s be perfectly frank, Charlie. Those ‘roided up chicks never brought in large crowds. It’s just the truth.”

“Shit,” Bobbi whispers under her breath.

Ebenezer stands up and looks out the window of his spacious office. A newly minted sheet of snow has just fallen across town, giving it a unique poetic beauty that even the grumpy Mr. Scrooge can appreciate. But he’d never acknowledge it out loud, of course. That’s not who he is.

“Listen, Charlie. My fucking mind is made up, alright?” Ebenezer pours a small amount of whiskey into his coffee cup and sips it with the delight of a powerhouse boss who doesn’t care what other people think. “Take off all mentions of the FBB Division from the website and scrub it from our social media accounts. But tell our sponsors that we intend to keep the bikini and fitness chicks. They can draw a crowd!”

Bobbi nearly snaps her pen in half in response to her boss’s sexist attitude. She has nothing against the bikini and fitness girls personally, but philosophically she’s totally offended that they’re allowed to compete in a bodybuilding contest when most of them probably couldn’t do a single pull-up to save their lives. Bobbi aspires to be a heavyweight bodybuilder like Alina Popa and Anne Freitas – which takes building a hell of a lot more muscle than any bikini competitor can even comprehend of. But her anger is outweighed by her sadness that her dreams of becoming a big-time female bodybuilder is about to get shattered for good.

A few minutes later Ebenezer hangs up the phone and downs the rest of his whiskey. He burps loudly and walks out of his office.

“You probably heard every word of that conversation, right Bobbi?”

“Of course,” she says with the fakest smile she can possibly muster. “How can I not? You and Charlie always have spirited conversations.”

Sitting at her desk near the main entrance, she’s well within earshot of Mr. Scrooge’s palatial corner office. It has a nice leather couch, a well-stocked bar, and plenty of posters of nude and near nude female bodybuilders lining the walls. He may not think much of them as financial assets, but he sure has hell seems to like how they look. It’s almost pornographic, as many outside visitors have observed over the years.

“Well, that’s certainly true.” Ebenezer scratches his salt and pepper colored hair as he peers outside the window on the opposite side of Bobbi’s desk. He notices out of the corner of his eye a familiar car park in one of the guest spots. He sighs. “But business is business. I have to do it. I’ve held out long enough, but now is the proper time to make this difficult decision. The Female Bodybuilding Division has to–”

“Sir, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but can I persuade you to change your mind?”

Bobbi gets out from her desk and approaches her boss. She may be a woman with well sculpted muscles, but she still lacks the confidence to firmly reprimand her superior. Hopefully she can use her own personal story to persuade him to change his mind…

Ebenezer chuckles condescendingly. “You can try, my dear. But you won’t. My mind is made up. I know you desperately want to one day become a competitive bodybuilder. And that’s great. I don’t want to dash your dreams. But if you’re going to do that, you’ll have to move away from the West Coast and head somewhere else.”

A power executive office.

A virtuous knock on the door interrupts their awkward exchange. Ebenezer tries to ignore it even though he knows very well who their visitor is going to be.

“Yes, it definitely appears that way. But it’s my dream to get on that stage and compete with the best women in the world. And I have some great ideas of how we can market it moving forward…” Before she can finish, the door opens and Fred, Mr. Scrooge’s chipper nephew, struts on in. He knows he doesn’t have to knock on the door – it is a business, not a private residence after all – but he does so anyway because he never wants to appear to be rude.

“Oh, uncle! Good day to you! And it’s very nice to see you, Miss Cratchit.” Fred enters the room wearing a fashionable pea coat, Seattle Seahawks beanie, and red wool scarf. “Oh, I almost forgot. Merry Christmas to you both!”

Well, it’s not technically Christmas yet. It’s still Christmas Eve. But everyone knew where Fred was getting at.

“Bah, humbug,” Scrooge mutters to himself. “We were just talking business. And you have the nerve to barge in like this, dear nephew?”

Fred is carrying a gift basket full of wine, cheeses, fruit, jams, and crackers. He places it on Bobbi’s desk and smiles at her. “How is your family, Miss Cratchit? And how old is your son now?”

“Oh, you remembered!” Bobbi exclaims. “He’s doing very well. Just started first grade this fall. He turns six in three months.” Ebenezer walks into the bathroom to pee. He has no interest in talking to his annoying nephew or hearing about Bobbi Cratchit’s pitiful family matters. The father of her child is the son of Jacob Marley, Ebenezer’s former business partner. Jacob passed away seven years ago from cancer. He battled it for several years, but it finally conquered him. Ebenezer won’t admit this to anyone, but that tragic event changed him forever. He became colder and more distant. And definitely more emotionally detached. But because Bobbi’s son is Jacob’s grandson, Ebenezer felt an obligation to give her a job at the WCBF front office as an administrative intern. He’s too cheap to pay for a full-time employee, so he just simply cycles through intern after intern so he can take advantage of their affordability.

Plus, most employees tend to not last very long around Mr. Scrooge, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody.

“That’s lovely. Tell him I wish him and his mother a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,” Fred proclaims. “Wow! You’ve certainly been working out, huh?”

Today, Bobbi is wearing a short-sleeved blouse that shows off her big muscles. She began lifting four years ago after her son Tim was born. She usually wears a sweater to the office – especially on cold winter days like this – but she plans to attend a Christmas Eve party later this evening and she wanted to look “classy.”

“Thanks for noticing!”

“Well, how can I not? You look impressive. One day you’ll be a world-class bodybuilder,” Fred says. “I can sense it!”

Ebenezer flushes the toilet and forgets to wash his hands. He storms out of the bathroom and revels in being able to break to his nephew the cheerfully bad news. “Unfortunately, nephew, that’s not going to happen as long as she lives around here. I’m axing the FBB Division for good. It’s official as of today. Or more specifically, as of ten minutes ago.”

Competitors from Wings of Strength.

Fred turns toward his uncle with an exasperated look on his face. “Are you serious? You aren’t joking?”

“No, dear Fred. I’m being perfectly serious at this moment. After years of staving off this harsh reality, I’m afraid this is the time to do what should have been done years ago. I’m eliminating the women’s bodybuilding class for good. Permanently.” Scrooge sits down in a comfortable leather chair and basks in his unsentimental despotism. Fred turns to his uncle and pleads his case.

“Oh, please reconsider, dear uncle,” he begins. “The women deserve their time in the spotlight, too. They work just as hard as the male competitors, if not harder. They’re incredibly hardworking athletes who deserve to have their blood, sweat, and tears recognized. Please don’t do this, Uncle Scrooge.”

Fred’s uncle shakes his head with the look of a man who refuses to be persuaded otherwise. “Sorry, nephew. My mind is made up. I already spoke with Charlie about altering all our marketing materials to reflect this new reality. The FBB Division is a dead goose. But the bikini and fitness girls will be allowed to remain, if that’s any consolation prize.”

“Consolation prize?” Fred interjects with righteous indignation. “This isn’t about what I want. This is about fairness, equality, empowerment, and doing the right thing. Women have made an indelible impact on the history of this sport. Don’t turn your back on them!”

“Nope.” Scrooge leans back, demonstrating his power and prestige with the careless smugness of a totalitarian dictator. “My mind is made up. Business is business. End of story.”

Fred, knowing putting up a further fight would be fruitless, turns toward Bobbi and smiles at her. “Well, so be it. I hope you are able to achieve your hopes and dreams, Miss Cratchit. Even if you need to move away from my uncle’s jurisdiction.” Bobbi is crushed to hear such a nice man like Fred become such a cynic so quickly. That’s what happens when you engage in a business conversation with the infamous Ebenezer Scrooge.

“Thanks,” Bobbi says meekly.

“Well, my reason for coming here is to invite you to my Christmas Eve party, dear uncle. But I get the feeling you won’t feel charitable enough to attend.”

Scrooge laughs and stands up. “No, my dear nephew. I will not be attending. I don’t like parties. Parties make me uncomfortable. Too many people having a good time. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.” Scrooge grabs his coat and briefcase from his office and locks his office door. Bobbi quickly glances at the clock and sees it’s nearly 4 p.m. How fast time flies! “Have fun, Fred. And tell your wife I said hello.”

“I shall,” Fred begins. “If you change your mind, you know where I live. My address hasn’t changed. The party starts at 6 and will go on all night.”

“Bah, humbug. I won’t change my mind, I can guarantee you that!” Just as Scrooge is about to exit through the front door, Bobbi suddenly remembers an email solicitation that arrived in her inbox just this morning.

“Oh, Mr. Scrooge? We got a letter today from the local homeless shelter. They’re asking if we’d like to sponsor their annual year-end holiday fundraising dinner. Can I tell them yes or…”

Scrooge stops dead in his tracks. Without hesitation, he provides his answer. “Tell them not this year. No fucking way. We gave them $1,500 last year and the homeless problem is even worse. Worse! I tell you, someone needs to address the issue of this pitiful surplus population plaguing our fine town. It’s cluttering up our streets!” And with that, Scrooge slams the door shut, leaving Fred and Bobbi completely and utterly speechless.

How can a man be so cruel and unfeeling? It boggles the mind.

“Merry Christmas, uncle,” Fred mutters with much sadness.

The drive home was long and arduous for Ebenezer Scrooge. When it snows, people in Seattle become idiots and can no longer drive like civilized people. On a clear day, he can make it back to his condominium in twenty minutes flat. But today, it takes almost forty-five minutes. Bah, humbug indeed.

Winter in Seattle.

Scrooge parks his car in his usual spot and trudges toward the front door. The chilly air assaults his senses. A few neighborhood kids are building a snowman. A larger group of kids are making snow angels on a nearby baseball field. Scrooge hates the snow. And the rain. And sunshine can be a bother if it gets too hot. Basically, Scrooge hates a lot of things.

He takes his keys from his pocket and proceeds to unlock the door. But before he can do that, he looks at the brass door knocker and sees the reflection of a familiar looking man. Scrooge’s heart skips a beat.

“What? Who are you?” Scrooge violently turns around to see who has crept up behind him. He sees…nobody. How fucking strange! He then turns around and looks at the door knocker again. There is no one in the reflection. Not even Scrooge himself. The man in the reflection looked oddly enough like his late partner Jacob Marley. But that’s impossible, Scrooge thinks to himself. Of course it is, but the resemblance was uncanny. He must be exhausted from working so damn much. Nothing a short nap and a tall glass of brandy can’t cure!

Moments later Scrooge is pouring himself a glass of brandy and opening up a bag of barbecue chips. Though he is a 57-year-old man, Ebenezer still snacks like a small child. He regrets nothing. He eats nearly the entire bag. Satisfied for now, he puts the chips away back in the pantry. He knows in a short while he’ll crave actual food. But now is not that time.

By now, the sun has completely set and the unforgiving coldness of winter makes its presence felt. Ebenezer finds an old blanket sitting in the laundry basket and wraps it around his body. He turns on the fireplace. Within seconds a generous warm orange glow fills the room. Scrooge sits down in his favorite lounge chair and takes out his phone.

“What the hell should be open at this time? Chinese? Thai? Greek?” Ebenezer opens a take-out delivery app and scrolls through his various options. Nothing excites him. So he has to settle for Chang’s Family Restaurant, one of the worst Chinese joints in the city. It isn’t bad on its own, but it certainly doesn’t satisfy his desire for a nice juicy steak. So stir fried green beans and noodles will have to do for tonight.

He makes his order and sees his dinner should arrive in 22 minutes. Fantastic. Scrooge turns on the TV to see what’s on. Nothing much except for a college football bowl game featuring two teams he doesn’t care about. After flipping through channel after channel chock full of God-forsaken Christmas cheer, Scrooge opens Netflix and peruses through whatever terrible options it has to offer. More of the same. More Christmas. More dreadfully happy people enjoying this superfluous commercialized monstrosity of a holiday.

Bah, humbug.

Scrooge turns off the TV in disgust. He checks his phone and sees his dinner will arrive in 19 minutes. Can time move any slower?

Perhaps it can. Scrooge leans back in his chair and sighs. If there’s anything in the world he hates more than Christmas and holiday cheer, it’s having to wait a long time to satisfy his hunger. Scrooge is not a man who is accustomed to waiting. Whatever he wants he gets. Immediately. It’s been like that his whole life. A great example is how his first marriage came to be. Gail was her name. She was a rising star in the bodybuilding industry, having graced the covers of several magazines and appeared in a few documentaries and television commercials. He had to have her. No one else could. Scrooge remembers the first time they met. Gail just wrapped up a photoshoot with a well-known photographer. It was at Venice Beach in 1989. He was a young scout recruiting new athletes to join the newly established West Coast Bodybuilding Federation. She wore a revealing red bikini and looked radiant. Scrooge approached her boldly and asked if she was interested in turning pro. She blushed and replied enthusiastically “yes!” He was lost in her deep blue eyes, unable to think or complete a coherent sentence. He could not stop looking at her magnificent body. She had a lot of muscle but had the potential to build so much more. She just needed a few more years and a better personal trainer who knew…

A knock on the door interrupts Scrooge’s trip down memory lane. He looks at his phone and sees 20 minutes have passed. Did he fall asleep? Scrooge could have sworn he only closed his eyes momentarily. Surely he didn’t take a nap without intending to!

Chinese takeout food.

Scrooge gets up from his chair and heads to the front door. He greets the delivery man, a youngster in his early 20s who looks annoyed that he has to work on Christmas Eve. Ebenezer pays the kid and slams the door shut, locking it with authority. Soon, Ebenezer returns to his favorite chair and eats in silence. The green beans were fine. Not the best, but not the worst either. But it was the noodles that pleasantly surprised him. They’re much tastier than he was expecting.

After he finishes eating, Scrooge looks at the huge pile of dishes sitting in the sink and scowls. He doesn’t have any inclination to clean up after himself. It’s a holiday, after all! Can’t he be lazy just for one day out of the stinking year? Yes, that’s perfectly okay. So he decides to take a real nap instead of an accidental nap. That’ll cap off this frightful evening…

Within moments, Ebenezer Scrooge falls asleep for real.

He cannot remember if he dreamt of anything. But something startled him awake. Something was happening downstairs. There was a loud clanking sound repeating itself again and again on the bottom floor. Scrooge opens his eyes and sits up. The noise continues unabated.

“Is that…someone deadlifting?” Scrooge asks himself. He knows this is absurd, considering he’s the only person in the house. And he doesn’t have a personal gym downstairs. Ebenezer gets up and picks up a baseball bat sitting on top of a pool table. In “attack” position, Ebenezer cautiously walks down the stairs to investigate the source of this unexplainable cacophony. Once he reaches the ground floor, he notices a light shining in the living room. Scrooge raises the bat high in the air before pouncing toward his intruder.

An ominous light creeping behind a door in a dark hallway.

“You there! Get the fuck out of my house, asshole!”

Just before his eyes can adjust to the light, a familiar voice replies to him.

“Ebenezer, cut it out old friend! You said I was welcome into your home anytime I was in the neighborhood,” the voice beckons. Scrooge lowers the bat and drops it to the floor once he is able to comprehend what is in front of him. Sure enough, sitting in the middle of his living room is a makeshift home gym. He could have sworn none of this existed an hour ago! He sees a bar with four 45-pound weights on each side lying on the floor. And sitting on a bench is the figure of a man Scrooge had known for decades.

Jacob Marley, his old business partner!

“Jacob! I must be dreaming. You can’t possibly be alive,” Scrooge observes in a daze. Jacob – if that’s what this apparition can be called – appears to be working out…right in Scrooge’s living room. He’s just got done deadlifting 405 pounds for who-knows-how-many reps. Very impressive. Jacob was always a gym rat at heart. He just sort of abandoned it later in his life and substituted going to the gym for snorting cocaine, partying all night, and heavy drinking. It’s what ended up killing him, unfortunately. His liver couldn’t handle his over-the-top lifestyle and became too sick to function.

“I’m not,” the apparition replies.

“Then…who are you?” The ghost blinks.

“No, no, you dumbass! Ask me who I was!” Taken aback, Scrooge swallows his pride and does as the ghost tells him to do. After all, it’s a fucking ghost he’s dealing with here.

“Alright, you prick. Who were you, then?”

The ghost, seemingly satisfied with getting everyone’s vernacular on the same page, takes a few steps toward Ebenezer. He backs up with fear.

“In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley.”

Ebenezer stands still and ponders what the ghost has just told him. He wonders if he’s still dreaming or if that Chinese food he ate was secretly spiked with LSD. Maybe this is what happens when you don’t leave a generous tip…

“You don’t believe me, do you old sport?” Jacob asks.

“Of course not! You’ve been dead for fucking seven years! There’s no way you’re still alive. This is just a fucked up dream, that’s all.” Just as Ebenezer was about to turn away, Jacob picks up the bar with one hand and tosses it across the room. Instead of smashing his coffee table into a million pieces, it instead disappears into thin air. Nevertheless, Ebenezer lets out a gasp when it happens.

“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your own senses? Why do you doubt your senses?” Jacob floats toward Ebenezer and stops right in front of him. Up close, he looks as real as a freshly trimmed hedge. Refusing to back down, Ebenezer ignores the philosophical implications of the existence of ghosts and addresses his old friend directly.

“Because,” says Scrooge, “A little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You may be an undigested bit of beef broccoli, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone chow mein. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” Unconvinced, Jacob demonstrates his “realness” by picking up Scrooge and wrestling him to the ground. He pins Ebenezer to the ground and nearly chokes him. That’s enough to persuade him that Jacob is, more or less, real. “Alright, you fucking asshole! I get it, you’re real. God damn.”

Both men stand up and Jacob wipes off sweat from his brow. “Good. Because I’m as real as I’m going to get in this current reality. You’re probably curious why I’m appearing before you. Right?”

“Yes, of course,” Scrooge says.

“Good. Well, it appears the Powers That Be aren’t too happy with you. Especially since you’re planning to discontinue the Female Bodybuilding Division for good.”

“Oh shit. Is that what this is about? Mother fucker!” Scrooge leans against the wall and groans. “Why the fuck do the Powers That Be, or whatever the hell they want to be called, give a rat’s ass about what happens to the fucking Female Bodybuilding Division? It doesn’t make money and has no hope of ever making any money. Alright?”

Jacob Marley drinks from an imaginary water bottle. “True, but it can in fact make money and become really successful if you give it a chance. If you rebrand it. If you take my daughter-in-law’s advice.” Scrooge stands up straight.

A nice looking home gym.

“Well, this is fucking fantastic. You can hear my private conversations. Yes, you’re right that Bobbi mentioned she has some ideas of how we can make the FBB Division more successful. But I’m not convinced it’ll work. It’s not even worth a try…”

“Not worth a try? Oh come on, Ebenezer. That’s not the Ebenezer Scrooge I know. The real Scrooge loves muscular women. Almost too much,” Jacob smirks. “Your first four wives were all bodybuilders, were they not?”

“Of course they were!” Scrooge begins. “I love them as partners and lovers. But not as business commodities. I know it sounds harsh, but that’s how the real world works. There’s nothing I can do to change that.”

“Hm, I somehow doubt that’s the real reason. I think you’ve ignored your entire life just how important female bodybuilders are to you, your industry, and the world at large. Thankfully, I’m here to change all that!” Jacob rises into the air, with a brilliant white light filling the entire house. Scrooge squints in response. “More specifically, my friends are! You will be visited by three spirits. The first will arrive at the stroke of one. The other at two. And the third at three. Heed the lessons they teach you! I died a bitter man with lots of regrets. I drank and did lots of coke because it filled the void in my soul. Don’t make the same mistakes I made!”

The ethereal light gets brighter and brighter. Eventually, Jacob Marley’s body disintegrates into a fine white powder that looks ironically like the same kind of white powder he’d frequently snort off the butt cheeks of Brazilian supermodels. Within seconds the room returns to normal. The home gym disappears into the ether. The light is gone. Jacob Marley is no more. The house is dead quiet.

Scrooge remains frozen. Absolutely stunned. He cannot believe what he just witnessed. But he gets the horrid feeling that the fucked up shenanigans are just getting started.

Continued in part two