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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, Dylan,” Baker replies.

***

“Damnit, damnit, DAMNIT!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ceiling doesn’t respond back.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEREK NGUYEN: No. Me lol

NICOLE JARRETT: Cool. It sounds great.

DEREK BUYEN: r u watching it now?

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

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

NICOLE JARRETT: Will do.

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

“Ugh. This sucks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dog Day Afternoon,” Nicole answers.

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

“I believe so. Yes.”

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

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

Nobody laughs this time.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steal something? This is a robbery?”

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

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

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

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

“What’s holding up the party?”

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

“Did we give him a departure time?”

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

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

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

Little did he know…

***

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

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

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

“Hey! Stop right there!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CLICK!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hear you. What should we do?”

“Did you kill him?” Peggy asks.

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

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

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

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

“Oh my God!” Monique screams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come here, you black bitch!”

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

“FUCK!” he curses aloud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. You are,” Peggy says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See?!” Monique insists.

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

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

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

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

“HOLY FUCKING SHIT!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Learn the right way to treat a lady.”

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

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

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

“HOLY SHIT!” Monique shrieks.

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

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

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

“How are you, girl?”

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

“How badly are you hurt?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey! Where did he go?”

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

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

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

“Hey! What the fuck happened here?”

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

“Oh my God…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn straight,” Peggy says.

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

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

“What the hell is going on?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We cannot comment on that at this time.”

“I will neither confirm nor deny those rumors.”

“Don’t quote me on that.”

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

“Fuck off.”

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

“Hey there. How is everyone doing?”

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

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

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

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

Nobody speaks for a long, long time.

***

“Sit down, both of you.”

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

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

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

“Ah, fuck!” Roddy curses to himself.

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

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

“Yes, indeed.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“And what about transport to Boeing Field?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh? What lesson is that?”

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

“PLEASE! Don’t!” Dylan pleads.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“OW!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ohhhhhhh…fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck…”

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

SNAP!

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It misses. By a few inches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I’ve heard.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean by that?”

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

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

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or would he?

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

Silence. No one breathes or moves a muscle.

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

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

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

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

“Uh, yeah. Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

SNAP!

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

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

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

“Holy shit, I feel like crap.”

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

“WHAT THE FUCK? HOLY SHIT!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You took my gun, right?”

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

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

“Damn!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit!” Melanie says a bit too loudly.

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

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

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

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

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

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK! OWWWWWWW!!!”

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

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

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

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

“Well, shit. Just kill me. Go ahead.”

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

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

“Uh oh!”

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

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

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

“Are you okay? Is it bad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the King’s Queens – Chapter 12: Breaking News

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn it.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Mendoza wants to know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many associates do you have with you?”

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

“I see. Is anyone hurt?”

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

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

“Oh? And what point is that, Rob?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah…sorry man–”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEREK NGUYEN: It sure is lol

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

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

NICOLE JARRETT: Thanks Derek

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

NICOLE JARRETT: I won’t lol

DEREK NGUYEN: 😊

NICOLE JARRETT: 😉

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

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

Something sinister is brewing at Dylan Tanaka’s house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you hurt?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“What is he doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the King’s Queens – Chapter 11: The Good Old Days

Monique St. Martin’s road to the Olympics hasn’t been easy. Then again, if it were easy it wouldn’t be worth it. For five days a week, she spends four hours at the AJ Athletic Club, a private gym that specifically caters to aspiring Olympians, professional athletes, and bodybuilders in Miami. The owners are Alex and Julia Hernandez, a husband-wife team who’ve operated the joint for almost twenty years. Both of their parents are Afro-Cuban immigrants who fled the island shortly after Castro’s rise to power. Team AJ, as they’re known locally, has built a mini-empire down in South Beach in the fitness, training, and athletics industry.

The clientele of AJ Athletic Club is not your usual type of gym-goer who just shows up to run on the treadmill and casually lift weights. Here, you see people doing super heavy Olympic lifts, working on improving their 40-yard dash time for the NFL Combine, getting ready for MLB spring training, training for the Mr. Olympia, and ordering nutrient-rich protein shakes and other post-workout beverages. Everyone knows each other, though there are certain clients you only see during certain times of the year. During football, baseball, basketball, or hockey season they go away, but when it’s their offseason they come right back (as if they never left).

On one particular Tuesday morning in the spring of 2014, Monique was working on improving her forearm strength. She noticed one of the biggest inhibitors blocking her ability to progress with deadlifts was grip strength. No matter what type of gloves she wore, when she reached a certain point the bar kept slipping out of her hands. She estimates she’s used more chalk than a whole district’s worth of elementary schools. It helps dry her hands so she can better grip the bar – but she’s plateaued. And in the world of Olympic weightlifting, “plateau” is a dirty word. The dreaded P-word is probably the worst word in the English language for an aspiring weightlifter. It’s the “yips” for baseball infielders. It’s the deep-seated fear that one has reached their peak physical limitations and cannot progress further. It’s what separates a bona fide Olympic athlete from someone who gets a pat on the back after failing at the local trials. Both are well-trained, hard-working athletes. But one was able to overcome their physical limitations while the other was stonewalled by it. Monique is determined not to let that nightmare scenario happen to her, come hell or high water.

At this very moment, Monique has her earbuds in, is locked in, and has no time for casual conversation as she does hammer curls in the corner of the spacious free weight area. It’s the first week of the month, so Dylan Tanaka has already wired his monthly sum of $5,000 into the private bank account he set up for her three years ago. She didn’t make it to London in 2012 but should be a shoo-in for Rio De Janeiro in 2016. Her coaches seem to think it’s practically set in stone. However, she’s learned the hard way to never expect a roster spot because nothing in life is guaranteed. Not making the London roster was a real wake-up call. She won’t make that mistake a second time.

Between sets, Monique pats herself dry with an ocean blue AJ Athletic Club sweat towel. The podcast she’s listening to is almost coming to an end, which is too bad because she was genuinely interested in learning about the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The circumstances around it are deeply embedded in the history of Cubans living in Florida, including many of her closest friends. Most people assume she’s also Cuban, but that isn’t true. Her ancestry is Caribbean, so she’s more in line with Rihanna (other than the musical talent) than the minor league baseball players who grew up playing catch in the streets.

“Want your usual?” a faint voice asks her from behind. Monique takes out her earbuds and turns around to see who it is. Sure enough, the voice belongs to Julia Hernandez, the second half of Team AJ. She’s a confident, astute, affable, statuesque woman who’s built like a tank. Tall, sturdy, and pretty enough to temporarily distract many of the male clients from their training, Julia lights up a room when she walks into it. Her husband isn’t much of a talker, so it’s her job to build relationships with the community and make sure everyone is happy.

“Yes please,” Monique answers. “Do you have fresh energy bars left, or are they kind of old and stale by now?” Realizing she (sort of) just insulted her, Julia rolls her eyes but doesn’t seem too offended. Before Monique can issue a correction, Julia puts her hands on her hips and smirks at the young Olympian.

“Well now! I just baked them last night, so they’re as fresh as you are! Damn, what does a girl have to do to get respect around here?” She gives Monique a playful punch on the shoulder, which hurts more than it’s supposed to. That’s what happens when someone with considerable strength occasionally forgets how strong they really are. Though it’s not a big deal because Monique believes she deserves it.

“Sorry, girl! That’s not what I meant. You know I love your energy bars…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what you mean. You’re good,” she reassures her customer. “I made the ones with extra flaxseed so you better get them while you can. You see those guys over there?” She points to a group of young college football players doing bench presses in hope of improving their NFL Draft position. “They say they’re going to eat everything I have in stock once they’re done, which means you better get some soon before they run out. That’s why I’m here to warn you, girl.”

“Ah, thanks for the heads up!” Monique takes a long swig of her Gatorade. She notices one particularly attractive wide receiver who may not be a first round pick but would definitely be her first pick to take back to her apartment if her boyfriend isn’t home. “I’ll make sure to stop by the café before I leave. Maybe I’ll stop by now and put it in my bag.”

“Whatever works for you. That might be the better bet, for sure,” Julia says as she starts to walk away. At most normal fitness centers, it’s perfectly normal to engage in long casual conversations with your clients. However, the folks here aren’t doing this for casual exercise. It’s not a hobby. This is a job. Julia (and Alex, to an extent) respects that and doesn’t come out to chat with people unless it’s to tell them something important like their favorite post-workout energy bar might be sold out before they even take their shower. As usual, once Julia is out of earshot Monique is back to work, this time heading over to the pull-up bar to crank out a dozen repetitions. Back strength is another area she needs to work on, or so says her coach.

Forty minutes later Monique wanders over to the café to purchase her usual fruit smoothie (with about $8 worth of extra protein, boosters, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin C, and other supplements) and homemade energy bar. Julia wraps it in aluminum foil, a sure sign that she’s out of plastic saran wrap. She has about $19.50 left on her tab, according to the receipt. Monique makes a mental note to refill it the next time she’s here. Having a tab is very convenient for athletes who need a quick booster shake or protein bar but don’t want to trudge back to the locker room to get their wallet. They can pay in advance and get whatever they want until their tab runs dry. In addition to offering world-class equipment and lots of space to work (the building used to be a Wal-Mart, which provides perspective of how large the gym is), Alex and Julia understand how professional athletes think and operate. When they’re “in the zone” they are as locked in as one could possibly be. Tunnel vision. Hyper focused. Determined. Anal retentive. Fussy about little details like the exact number of shots of whey protein and calcium tablets they want to be added to their kale shake (which Monique despises but drinks on occasion anyway). You can even order what you want via an app and expect everything to be ready by the time you’re done showering.

“Bye girl!” Julia yells to Monique as she approaches the exit.

“See you later, alligator!” she replies, in typical fashion for a Floridian who grew up around swamps full of such creatures.

As she walks out the front door and into the parking lot, Monique tries to figure out what she needs to do next. First, she must go to the grocery store and pick up more tilapia, steak, broccoli, cauliflower, and brown rice. Second, she needs to pick up a new package that’s waiting for her at the post office. And third, she should hurry and head to the bank before it closes (it’s a few blocks away from her one-bedroom apartment in downtown Miami) to cash out the $5,000 Dylan Tanaka has just wired to her account. She looks at her phone and sees the time is now 11:15 in the morning. The first two destinations should be easy to get to since traffic is light at this time of day. On Tuesdays, the bank closes early at 2:00 p.m. for reasons that she still has not figured out. It’s usually open until 4:30 every other day (except for Sundays, when it’s not open at all) of the week. Monique isn’t short on money quite yet (the rent check is expected to be taken to the bank within a day or two) but having $5,000 in cash handy never hurts.

When she gets to her car, she puts her bag in the trunk and finishes eating the energy bar. She crushes the foil into a ball, sees a nearby trash can, and tosses it inside. Magically, she doesn’t miss. Her hit rate is usually 20%, which is why weightlifting is the sport she chose to pursue. Very little hand-eye coordination is necessary for lifting heavy weights. Before she can take off, a familiar (and totally unexpected) voice speaks to her out of nowhere.

“Nice shot! Dwayne Wade would be proud.”

Monique freezes, lifts an eyebrow, and turns around to see who is speaking to her. Sure enough, it’s Dylan Tanaka: her friend, former boss, and financial benefactor. Dylan rarely makes trips down to South Beach to check-in on her, so this is (genuinely) a pleasant surprise.

“Dylan! Oh my God, it’s so good to see you!” Monique runs to him, throws her strong arms around his torso, and essentially lifts him off the ground. Dylan lets out a small noise of protest when he feels his feet leave the pavement. When his feet eventually land back on solid ground, he kisses her on the cheek. “Like, seriously! What the hell are you doing here?”

“I decided to give you your monthly payment in person this month.” He discreetly hands her an envelope full of cash. Without breaking eye contact, Monique takes it and stuffs it in her purse. “Did you notice that I hadn’t deposited your usual amount in your account yet?”

“Oh no, I just assumed you did. I hadn’t checked yet. I was actually just about to head to the bank before I got home.” Intuitively, Monique looks around to see if anybody in the parking lot is watching them converse. Dylan may not be a household name (though he is quite popular among tech geeks and business leaders) but he did mention a long time ago that he would prefer their friendship remain private. However, he’s the one who decided to pay her a surprise visit out in the open, so he’s the one taking the risk, not her.

“Well, now you don’t need to! What other errands do you have to run?”

“Oh, I need to go shopping and then, uh, to the post office to pick up a package. I’m expecting a new posing swimsuit that I got from Celine. I’m excited to try it on!” Celine Jackson is a retired professional bodybuilder who now sells her own line of posing outfits for competitors. She’s basically Monique’s unofficial second mother. She took Monique under her wing when they met at the Tampa Pro back in 2010. Monique briefly dabbled in the world of bodybuilding before giving up that lifestyle to become an Olympian. It was Celine’s final competition. She ended up placing 8th, which was a significant drop off from last year when she placed 3rd. That was the sign that it was time to “hang up the cleats,” so to speak. Her drive to improve her craft had diminished to the point that, at the ripe age of 48, she retired from competing. However, she loved the people and missed hanging out with everyone on a regular basis. So, she decided to learn how to sew, attended several clothing design seminars, and now runs her own one-woman business making swimsuits for bodybuilders and fitness models.

Monique, while she’s in a comfortable position from a financial perspective, still supplements that income by doing modeling on the side. There are plenty of bikini models in South Beach (too much, to be exact) but not too many of them on the muscular side. Monique’s rare blend of natural beauty, grace, symmetrical musculature, and charming personality make her a photographer’s dream come true. Her rich dark skin glows when viewed through a camera lens, a fact that many local (and national) fashion photographers have noticed. She’s not the tallest gal you’ll ever meet at 5’ 7”, but if she’s alone in the frame and you shoot her at the right angle, she’s as powerful and marvelous to behold as anyone in the world. There’s a reason why Dylan Tanaka immediately was enraptured by her when he first laid eyes on her.

“Celine is the best in the business, for sure,” Dylan remarks. “Are you planning another photoshoot in the near future?”

“Yes! With Charlie Ang. Do you know him?”

Dylan thinks for a moment and shakes his head. “Uh, no. I’ve never heard the name. Is he related to Margaret Ang?”

“Oh, yes. I believe so. I think they’re brother and sister.” Margaret Ang is a Chinese-American fitness model (and former competitor) based in New York City. Dylan met her once at a fundraising gala in NYC several years ago and tried to flirt with her. When she informed him that she’s a lesbian and isn’t interested in dating men, that was the end of it. Dylan cut his losses, smiled at her, and moved on to chatting with someone else. He knows Margaret has a younger brother who works as a professional freelance photographer, though he never caught his name. Apparently, his name is Charlie. And he knows Monique.

“That’s cool. I didn’t know that. I guess I learn something new every day.” For an awkward moment, Dylan and Monique look at each other in complete silence.

“Where are you staying?”

“Oh, I’m at the Bentley Beach Club over in Miami Beach,” he says. “Would you, um, like to come over to visit?”

Dylan hopes this request isn’t seen as an ultimatum or a condition of receiving payment from him. From the very beginning, Dylan hasn’t asked for much in return. Just her assurance that she’ll try her hardest to win the gold medal and that she’ll keep their “business arrangement” a closely guarded secret. Only a small handful of times has Dylan paid her a visit. All of those times he texted her in advance so she’d know about it. And every time they meet all he asks is for the opportunity to be with her for just one hour. It usually happens in his hotel room. She gets dressed in lingerie, a bikini, or skimpy athletic wear. Then, Dylan “worships” her by feeling her rock-hard body to his heart’s delight. Sex is never involved. Monique isn’t above making sure Dylan leaves their meeting “satisfied,” though. But no penetrative sex. Ever. All in all, being able to worship her is the only thing he asks in return. She doesn’t mind, though it was awkward at first. She’s been in a relationship with her boyfriend, Jake, for several years now. He’s aware of her friendship with Dylan and the monetary compensation she receives monthly from him. He doesn’t mind them meeting every once in a while on the condition that they never “go too far,” a requirement that every party understands well.

“Of course. I’m not expected to be home for a while. I can…be with you for the rest of the day.” She smiles at him in an attempt to lighten the mood. Still, Dylan doesn’t feel like she’s totally comfortable with him being here unannounced.

“Seriously, darling. You don’t need to say “yes.” You can say no and not feel bad about it. I’d hate to disrupt your day like this. I’m actually here for a technology conference that kicks off tomorrow. I decided to show up a day early to get some sun and, uh, see you.” Monique approaches him and plants a long, wet kiss on his cheek. This eases the tension a bit.

“I know. I get it. Our relationship is always kind of, you know, weird,” she says. Dylan nods his head silently. “But I do like spending time with you. Even though we don’t see each other all that much. Seriously, I’d love to visit you at your hotel. I’ve heard of the Bentley but have never actually been there. I’d like to see it.”

“Thank you. First, let’s go pick up your package. I’d love to get a preview of what Charlie will later capture on film.”

“Sounds good! Let’s get rolling.”

After a quick hug, Dylan and Monique get in their separate vehicles (Dylan is driving a rented car from a high-end car rental dealership that he can never remember the name of) and head to the post office. After waiting in line for a grand total of seven minutes, Monique comes out with a small package in hand. She winks at Dylan, who chose to remain in his car so he could listen to the radio. All he could stand was three minutes of two morons screaming about which University of Miami player the Dolphins should draft before he turned it off. Their next stop was Dylan’s suite at the Bentley, a four-star resort hotel located away from the downtown area. Monique decides to go shopping later this evening. She can use that as an excuse in case Jake wonders why she’s late returning home. Thirty-eight minutes later Monique is parking her car in an underground guest area while Dylan situates himself in a VIP spot located next to the service elevators. Being rich sure has its benefits, Monique observes unironically.

Monique has been to Las Vegas many times, so she knows what a luxury hotel looks like. The Bentley is just like many others she’s been to over the years – including several right here in South Beach – so nothing she sees is surprising. However, that doesn’t mean she isn’t envious of how filthy rich people like Dylan Tanaka can live. He could definitely afford to purchase an oceanside condo for her and her boyfriend, but that would make Jake feel more emasculated than he already is. Jake refuses to think of himself as being cuckolded, though the feeling still persists after all these years. He and Monique met via a mutual friend. She was honest and forthright about her business relationship with Dylan. So he cannot accuse her of hiding anything from him. He knew what he was getting himself into. She was fully transparent and honest. At first, the chance to be with a woman like Monique St. Martin was irresistible. How can anyone say no to her? But as time has gone on, he’s grown weary of her long-distance “friendship” with a rich billionaire who gives her a measly $5,000 a month (he could give her $500,000 a month and he’d barely miss it). And, he’s not comfortable with her allowing him to touch her body like that. Jake believes Monique when she says they’ve never had penetrative sex, but that’s still not enough to make him feel less uncomfortable with the circumstances. Monique is keenly aware of Jake’s reticence. Hopefully, once they get married they can put all of this behind them. She’ll tell Dylan that his days of “worshipping” her are over. He’ll understand and respect her wishes, she believes. If not, by then if she’s already won a gold medal, she can decide to break off their business partnership. The monthly payments will dry up, but at that point what difference would it make?

Dylan and Monique move quickly to his suite, which is located on the opposite end of where the parking lot is situated. They don’t want to be seen together, since Dylan suspects there’s a strong possibility many of tomorrow’s conference attendees might also be spending the whole week here. He doesn’t want any rumors to spread about him. Several witnesses seeing him escorting an attractive muscular woman to his suite is guaranteed to get folks in the tech world gossiping. Twelve minutes after parking, the two friends find themselves inside Dylan’s spacious suite.

“Wow! What a place. You can see the ocean! Hell, you can smell the ocean from here. DAMN!” Monique runs to an open window and gazes at the endless blue horizon. No matter how long she lives in South Beach, she’ll never get tired of the ocean. She loves how it looks, how it sounds, how it smells, everything about it. As Dylan puts his wallet and keys away, Monique takes out a small pocketknife from her purse and opens the package. He watches her gleefully, not knowing what to expect.

“What kind of swimsuit did you order?”

“A red, white, and blue one for the Fourth of July!” After unboxing it, she holds it up so Dylan can better see it. “Charlie says I can be featured in the June issue of Sports Illustrated if we take photos now. You know, so he can submit them early.”

“For the swimsuit issue?”

Monique laughs. “Sadly, no. Just for an advertisement for aviator sunglasses. I can’t remember the name of the company, but they’ve asked the general public to submit photos of people wearing their brand of shades. I have a pair at home. It’s a new company looking to break into the industry. Charlie is a good friend of someone in their marketing department, so I’m practically guaranteed to be featured if we take good patriotic-looking pictures.” She gives Dylan a few practice modeling poses. He smiles. “Want to see me try it on?”

“Please. I’d love to see you in it.” He leans over to kiss her on the cheek. Monique looks into his fiery eyes before strutting to the bathroom to change. As he waits, Dylan unbuttons the top of his shirt so his neck could properly breathe. He removes his shoes and socks, hangs his blazer up in the closet, and checks himself out in a mirror. Dylan regrets that he didn’t shave before leaving Seattle. In his personal (and somewhat objective) opinion, he thinks he looks better with a perpetual five o’clock shadow than cleanly shaven. However, he’s not at his best – by his own admission – when his facial hair gets too long. Dylan doesn’t like to travel despite his many years of experience riding on airplanes, both private and commercial. One reason for that is that he gets so fussy thinking about arrival and departure times that little things like shaving the night before slip his mind. He makes a mental note to shave tonight before going to bed so he’ll be fresh for the conference tomorrow morning.

In the bathroom, Monique removes her hoodie, jeans, socks, and sports bra. She leaves them neatly folded up and sitting on top of a large basket meant for wet towels. Normally, she wears a minimal amount of makeup, especially after a workout. She only gets “dolled up” for date nights, public appearances, and, obviously, modeling shoots. For this special occasion, Monique decides to present to Dylan the best version of herself that she possibly can in such short order. She fishes out of her purse a tube of lipstick, mascara, blush, and glittery gel to place around her eyes. After many years of practice applying makeup on the fly, less than ninety seconds later she looks at herself in the mirror and is surprised that she actually likes what’s reflected back to her. She brushes off some packaging dust from the swimsuit and then blows on it for good measure. While there’s no need to get dressed in a hurry, she doesn’t like making people wait for her. Dylan is a patient man and would wait twelve hours for her if it were necessary. However, she doesn’t want to spend all day in the bathroom. After getting into the swimsuit, Monique takes one last look at her painted face. It looks great. She flexes her right bicep for the mirror, which looks especially full because she’s less than an hour removed from her workout. Finally satisfied with how she looks, Monique leaves the bathroom to present herself to her one adoring fan.

Dylan, meanwhile, is sitting on a lounge chair, respectfully waiting for her to come out. He’s not on his phone or flipping through a magazine as if he’s waiting for his number to be called at the DMV. When he hears the bathroom door open, he looks as attentive as an overachieving kid on the first day of school. Monique dances out of the bathroom with the audacity of someone auditioning for a Broadway musical. She looks radiant, energetic, bright, and full of happy vibes. The red, white, and blue swimsuit would make anybody want to scream “God bless America” from the rooftops.

“My God, you look incredible. Absolutely amazing.” He continues to remain seated, allowing this drop-dead gorgeous woman to approach him at her own pace.

“Thank you, baby. I like how it feels. Very comfy! Celine knows how to design for comfort and, well, sexiness.” Monique twirls around so Dylan can see all of her. He wants nothing more than to cup her full, round glutes in his hands. Hopefully, that reality will soon come to pass.

“She knows what she’s doing. There’s a reason why it’s become such a lucrative business for her,” Dylan assesses. “But can we talk for a moment about…you? You look fabulous! I can see so much growth and development since the last time I saw you. God, your hamstrings are off the charts! And you could rest a freight train across your shoulders, for crying out loud. Wow!” While developing fullness to her muscles isn’t her ultimate goal, all that training will eventually produce the kind of results Dylan has just described. He reaches out to touch her quads. Monique lifts her left leg up so he can better access it. Almost immediately Dylan feels something developing in his underwear. Monique turns around, bends over, and shakes her butt in his face. He then grabs a handful of her glutes, marveling at how hard and bubbly they are.

“My God! Your glutes are, oh baby, life-affirming,” Dylan breathlessly says. “It should be illegal for you to ever sit down or wear a skirt that covers up this magnificent butt of yours.”

“That would make my life very difficult!” Monique laughs.

“I’m kidding, of course. But what I’m not kidding about is, uh, everything about you. You’re…you’re…um, you’re so beautiful. Breathtaking. Your face…your eyes brighten a room.” Dylan finally stands up, unable to take it anymore. Monique cups his groin, sensing his growing arousal. He proceeds to feel her entire body, from head to toe. She closes her eyes, enjoying the soft, delicate touch of Dylan’s fingers against her hard body. Dylan adores the feel of Monique’s silky smooth black skin and the tight muscle fibers hiding underneath it. He’s always hated the term “exotic,” especially given his Asian heritage and the historical connotations of that word. Yet, he cannot come up with a better word to describe Monique St. Martin’s entire being. She’s exotic. She looks like she should be displayed in a museum. Like many Caribbean women, her sharp eyes, angular face, and rich chocolate complexion make her seem like the Almighty spent a little bit more time designing her. She’s blessed with DNA that puts her at an advantage over every other woman on the planet. It’s easy for her to develop muscle mass, which is why she (sort of) looks like a bodybuilder despite the fact she doesn’t train like one. Without question, there are plenty of competitive bodybuilders who are jealous of how effortless her physique looks.

“You feel…amazing. Utterly amazing.”

“Baby, I love the feel of your fingers against my skin. I mean it when I say that.” Monique’s eyes are still closed, while Dylan’s eyes are wide open, taking in her entire physical presence. He’s drinking in her essence, appreciating her physicality, enjoying her aura. “You can touch me wherever you like, darling.”

Especially in their relationship, where business often mixes with pleasure, where they remain platonic friends but are perfectly willing to indulge in sensual activities like this, verbal consent is important. Dylan and Monique both genuinely treasure their unusual, strange, and occasionally awkward friendship. Their relationship isn’t romantic, but it’s difficult to ignore the deeply held feelings they have for each other. She has a boyfriend (and he’s casually dating Amanda McDermott, a senior executive at Perseus Analytics who would be next in line to the throne of CEO should Dylan step down or unexpectedly get fired) who tolerates this weird social arrangement up to a certain point. Dylan is financially supporting her but doesn’t officially expect anything tangible in return…except he sort of does. Monique does enjoy meeting Dylan for these sensual muscle worship visits…though she would be lying if she said she doesn’t always have Jake’s disappointed face etched into her brain the whole time they’re together. Nevertheless, verbal consent is the key to maintaining their longstanding friendship and preventing anything from going off the rails. So far, it’s worked remarkably well.

“I intend to, my dear,” Dylan declares as his hands move down her six-pack abdomen. Monique flexes both arms so she can show off her impressive biceps, triceps, and forearm development. Dylan does not hesitate to follow her lead. He playfully squeezes her bicep peak. She kindly flexes it as hard as she can, relishing the fact his fingers cannot contain her muscle growth. Dylan lays a trail of kisses down her arm until he lightly massages her pecs. Like many athletes, Monique’s breasts have shrunken down to basically nothing. She doesn’t plan to get enhancement surgery anytime soon. It’s not because it’s considered taboo within the Olympian community, but more because she doesn’t want the general public to believe having small boobs makes her less of a woman. She still has curves in all the right places, a pretty face, and plenty of confidence to show she is a force to be reckoned with.

Eventually, Monique and Dylan move to the bed. She’s still wearing her swimsuit while Dylan has stripped down to his boxers. His erection is unmistakable now. While she hasn’t said this out loud, she doesn’t intend to get naked with him. Not today. She has in the past, but she’s not in the mood right now. Dylan senses this and doesn’t say anything about it. The sight of Monique St. Martin in a red, white, and blue swimsuit is enough to make any man’s heart stop mid-beat. Dylan is now kissing her bubbly butt. She wiggles her glutes as a favor to him. She looks at the clock and sees the time is now 4:09. She told Jake she’d be home by 5:00 or so (with groceries in hand), and she intends to keep that promise. Without saying a word, Monique hooks her fingers around Dylan’s boxers and slides them down his legs. He knows what’s going to happen next.

“I have a bottle of oil in my luggage,” he says.

“That’s good. I forgot to put mine in my purse. You know, because I wasn’t expecting to have to use it today!” She giggles. Then, she kisses Dylan on the lips. Remarkably, this is the first time their lips have come together today. He’s kissed almost every inch of her body up to this point (excluding the parts of her that are covered up by Celine’s tailor-made swimsuit) except for her lips. He rejoices at tasting her strawberry-flavored gloss. Thirty seconds later, Dylan returns to the bed with a small bottle of baby oil. He lies down. Already as stiff as can be, Monique applies a small dab of oil onto the palm of her hand and begins to stroke his shaft up and down.

“Oh my God, darling…yes…”

Dylan’s head falls back onto his hotel pillow. Now it’s his turn to close his eyes and enjoy the sensual experience overcoming him. Monique has perfected her technique by now, knowing not to squeeze too hard and allow her strong calloused fingers to do the work. She knows Dylan enjoys long fluid strokes as opposed to short jerky pulls. His breathing intensifies, a sure sign he’s close to completion. Monique smiles. For good measure, she caresses his legs with her free hand, also noticing that Dylan has kept up his personal workout regimen. He (obviously) doesn’t exercise nearly as often – or as intensively – as she does, but Monique can appreciate a full male thigh when she encounters one.

“I…I love this so much…”

“Come for me, baby.”

Right on cue, Dylan spurts all over himself. Hot milky white semen shoots out onto his tummy and chest in four powerful squirts. Monique loves watching Dylan come. It’s the biggest reason why she happily gets him off at the end of their time together. Dylan has one special talent that her boyfriend Jake definitely does not have. Dylan shoots. Far. Jake, unfortunately for her, oozes out slowly. It is, no pun intended, quite anti-climactic. Whenever she manually stimulates her boyfriend, it always ends in disappointment – from her point of view. He’s great in the sack but lacks the ability to “entertain” her when he climaxes. Dylan, to his credit, always delivers a good show that deserves a standing ovation and a bouquet of flowers.

“Oh, wow. That was incredible. I keep saying this, but you are so good at this,” Dylan awakens from his daze. When he looks down, he sees a huge mess on his torso. Monique dashes to the bathroom to retrieve a moist towelette. He’s careful not to move or else he risks staining the bedsheets. That’s not something he wants to call room service about. Fortunately for him, Monique returns quickly with a towel. She hands it to him, letting him clean up his own mess. Dylan goes into the bathroom to properly wash up.

When Monique checks her phone, she sees a text from Jake. It reads: “Just went shopping to get the things on your list. No need to go, in case you haven’t already.”

Good to know, Monique thinks to herself. That’s one fewer errand she needs to run before returning home. Soon afterward, Dylan emerges from the bathroom and proceeds to get his clothes back on. Now it’s her turn to disappear back into the bathroom. Minutes later, she returns fully dressed and all her makeup wiped off. She still looks like she just endured a long grueling workout at AJ Athletic Club. That’s the way she plans to present herself to her boyfriend later this evening.

“You probably need to get going, like right now,” Dylan says.

“Yep. I need to get back home. It’s getting late.” The time is now 4:31. Rush hour traffic has already started. She estimates it will take at least forty minutes to return home. If she’s home at least by 5:30 she won’t have to come up with an excuse for what she was doing all afternoon.

“I’ll escort you to the parking lot. You think you can find your way home?”

“Yes!” She holds up her iPhone. “GPS will tell me everything I need to know. Including which roads to avoid.”

“Excellent!” He leans over and kisses her on the cheek. A few fragments of glitter can still be seen under her eyes. “Let’s get going.”

The good news for Monique is that the drive home took about as long as she was expecting. As she walked through her front door at 5:28, she smells dinner cooking in the kitchen. Esmerelda, her fluffy orange kitten, is waiting for her. She picks her up and kisses the kitty on the head. Esmerelda meows quietly. Monique puts the cat back on the floor, who immediately scurries off into the living room.

“Hi baby. I’m home. Traffic was a bitch tonight,” she says as she puts her gym bag away in the closet. Jake comes out of the kitchen, struggling to open a jar of pickled onions.

“Good evening, babe. Alright. I’m probably going to feel emasculated by this, but could you, uh, open this for me?” Jake sheepishly smiles at his girlfriend. Without hesitation, Monique takes the jar from him, wraps her fingers around the lid, and twists it open in one fell swoop. The jar makes the oh-so-satisfying popping sound that comes from air escaping after several weeks in captivity. She hands the jar back to her boyfriend, grinning like she just won the lottery.

“Don’t worry, baby. You’re still the man of the house, the man in my life.” She kisses him deeply on the lips, making sure she puts a little extra oomph into it. “Physical strength doesn’t change anything. You’re still a man. I’m still a woman. It’s that simple.”

“Thanks, darling.” Jake returns to the kitchen to resume stirring some pork cutlets. Tonight, he’s making Mexican-style tortas. The pickled onions should add texture to the sandwiches. “If I were training for the Olympics, I can guarantee I’d be waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay stronger than you!”

“Uh huh, keep telling yourself babe!” she teases him.

Together, they enjoyed a pleasant dinner that night, with Esmerelda laying at her feet underneath the dining table. Never once did Monique mention her brief meeting with Dylan Tanaka or the fact that he’s in town. She did, however, talk up the new swimsuit she got in the mail today. She promises that when she shows it off for him later this evening, he won’t be able to take his hands off her. After all these years together, Monique has learned one important lesson about her boyfriend, who occasionally feels emotionally insecure from her superhuman strength. A lively romp in the bedroom where she (even if she has to slightly exaggerate things) is screaming her head off in ecstasy is usually enough to make Jake feel like a Man again. Tonight, she feels he’s entitled to a particularly lengthy session of orgasmic pleasure.

She was right.

At 10:38 p.m., while Monique and Jake are passionately making love in their cramped one-bedroom apartment, Dylan Tanaka is alone in his hotel room finishing off a grilled panini he ordered from room service. The television is on, but he is in no mood to watch anything. All he can think about is Monique. Her body. Her face. Her warm personality. Her drive to be great at what she sets out to do. In a different parallel universe, he’d be dating her. Or, better yet, married to her and making lots of beautiful half-Caribbean half-Japanese babies. But alas, that is not his reality. Nor hers. After watching on his laptop a short video of his favorite porn star, Peggy Cole, masturbating with a series of colorful vibrators, Dylan decides he should do the same thing.

With the lights turned down low, Dylan turns off the TV, removes all his clothing, lies down on the bed, and closes his eyes. He thinks long and hard about Monique’s perfect body that was right in this room just a few hours ago. He reaches down and strokes his own penis, awakening it back to life. At 10:46 p.m., Dylan climaxes for the second time that day. At the exact same time several miles away, Monique experiences her fifth orgasm thanks to her boyfriend’s considerable bedroom skills. He may be a raging math nerd, but he knows how to please a woman in the sheets. She recognizes this and constantly reminds him of it. This is one way she makes her man feel like a Big Man, despite the fact she’s significantly stronger than him in every way possible.

At around 11:15 p.m., both Dylan Tanaka and Monique St. Martin fall asleep. Jake is in the shower, cleaning off the grime of the day. It was surely an eventful day for all involved. It would also not be the last eventful day they’d ever experience.

***

“How the fuck do you expect me to fit his whole dick in my mouth?”

Peggy Cole, dressed in a black BDSM outfit and carrying a faux leather whip in her hand, is sitting on a large cage where a male actor has spent all afternoon hunched over inside. Today’s video shoot is at the private residence of Gordon DeLorenzo, a retired Wall Street investor and avid porn enthusiast who now lives in Spring Valley, Nevada. Gordon isn’t currently home, but a modest film crew of eight, plus four actors, have taken up temporary residence at his lavish estate. The director, Tony, is good buddies with Gordon (who’s invested many dollars into past projects) and is grateful that he frequently lets him film videos at his home for free.

All Gordon asks is that they properly clean up after themselves. No candy wrappers, condom wrappers, or muddy tracks in the house after they’re gone. Tony diligently makes sure they leave the place cleaner than they found it every single time.

This week is dedicated to shooting a series of BDSM-themed scenes involving all sorts of performers. Peggy is one of several female bodybuilders Tony has worked with in the past – and by far his favorite. She’s willing to do almost anything imaginable on camera, unless it’s physically impossible. Today, she might have met her match.

“I know it’s quite a lot, but you have to try your best,” Tony reassures her. “Honestly, you don’t really need to get it all in. Half of it will be just fine. Just don’t choke. Look like you’re having a good time, if that makes sense.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll enjoy it, you better believe it. It’s just…a lot to take in, if you know what I mean!” Peggy smirks at Tony and Kit Styles, a relatively new performer in the business. Kit winks at her, knowing she’s famous for deep throating some of the largest dicks in the world without gagging. It’s part of her appeal, which everyone on set knows full well. Other than the fact she’s full of muscle, this is a large reason why she was asked to do this scene in the first place. Kit is a one-of-a-kind, which means it requires an equally unique costar to make it all work.

“If anybody should be nervous, it’s me!” Kit confesses. He hopes a little bit of levity will resolve this conflict.

“You’ve done enough of these things to not get nervous anymore,” Peggy tells him. “I can clearly see you’re ready to go, baby darling!”

Peggy points down at Kit’s erect 12-inch penis as all the evidence she needs that he’s not too nervous about shooting this scene. The other male performer, Jeff, is the man in the cage. He doesn’t really do anything except remain inside the cage looking as helpless as possible while wearing an oversized baby’s diaper and a ball gag. He’s basically set decoration, a role that Jeff is perfectly fine with. A paycheck’s a paycheck, after all. As long as the check clears, he’ll do whatever he’s asked.

“Are you ready?” Tony asks his cast. Jillian, who’s off to the side and doesn’t enter the scene until much later, gives him the thumbs up. “Are you ready, dear?”

“Sure. Let’s do this thing!” Peggy says.

“Yeah,” Kit replies softly.

“Good! Let’s roll.” Tony takes a few steps back to give his performers space. A boom mic operator stands at his normal position. The director of photography (DP) looks into the viewfinder to ensure the shot is framed perfectly. The “sound guy” crouches in the corner with a comically large pair of headphones on. He gives a silent “thumbs up” to Tony. A lighting assistant watches from the opposite corner. In another room is a makeup artist, a random production assistant, and the most important crewmember of all: the fluffer.

“Rolling,” the DP says.

“Go,” Tony commands.

Five seconds of silence follows. Then action commences.

“As you can see, I have your friend right where I want him.” Peggy pats the top of the cage. Jeff looks up, mumbles incoherently through the ball gag, and crawls into a fetal position. She stands up and walks slowly towards Kit, who’s standing twenty feet away from her, leaning against a doorframe. She makes sure the boom microphone picks up the sound of her heels clicking against the hardwood floor. “He’s powerless to escape. So are you. You wanted me, now you’re going to get me.”

“Oh I don’t know about this. This was his idea, not mine!” Kit begs the mistress. “If I do what you say, will you let me go?”

“I might,” she teases him, grabbing his scrotum and squeezing it lightly. A soft moan escapes from Kit’s throat. “I have a proposition for you. Would you like to hear it?”

“Oh, yes, miss. I would very much like to hear it.”

“EXCUSE ME? MISS? WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU JUST CALL ME, YOU LITTLE BITCH?” she grabs his throat in anger.

“Sorry! I’m so, so sorry! Mistress! Yes, mistress. Have mercy on me. I’d love to hear your proposition, please,” he squeaks. After a few seconds, Peggy releases his throat.

“Good, good. As you know, I’m looking for a brand new assistant to help me out with my bondage business. You and your buddy answered our job posting. Thank you for that,” she whispers in his ear. “However, I know for a fact he’d be perfect for the job. He’s short, skinny, stupid, and a little bitch. He’ll be easy to control. He’s a perfect slave for someone strong and dominant like me!”

“Oh no! Does that mean I have no chance of getting hired? Should I just, uh, go home?” Kit’s erection begins to deflate slightly, much to his chagrin. Tony isn’t concerned, considering Peggy is the queen at getting guys hard under pressure. Lots of new guys have “performance anxiety” that can be crippling to shooting a porn video. Kit is promising, though. He’s not only enormous down there, but he’s charming in a dorky kind of way and comes across as a natural on camera. Those qualities can take you far, Tony often advises him. That, and your enormous dick.

“Not so fast, buster! You ain’t going anywhere. I wasn’t finished yet,” Peggy says in her sternest voice possible. “Your friend may be my little bitch, but you’re going to be my little slut. Come here!” Kit takes a few steps toward her. Wearing nothing but a spiked collar around his neck, Peggy grabs onto it and drags him closer to the cage. Jeff, who doesn’t have any lines in this scene, just looks on like a puppy watching TV. “I’m about to show you boys what it’s like working at my agency, okay? You think you can handle me?”

Peggy gets down on her knees right in front of Kit’s penis. It’s even more deflated than before, a state of being that she plans to alter momentarily. She may be a self-professed “size queen” and someone who’s been around the block a few times, but Kit Styles takes the cake. She can name off the top of her head at least eight or nine guys who arrogantly claim they’re a solid 12-incher. None of them (though Peggy would never call them out publicly) are telling the truth. However, all that changed the day she met Kit a few weeks ago. He’s the real deal. It’s going to be a real struggle to deep throat him when she only has so much throat space. She knows she can’t wait forever or else Tony will yell “cut” and force everyone to do another take. And Peggy hates to make everyone have to do extra work just because she can’t do what she’s supposed to do.

The first thing she does is grab Kit’s penis by the base and tickle his scrotum. He lets out a persuasive moan that will play well for the camera. Not too over-the-top but realistic enough to feel genuine. Then, Peggy licks the tip with her entire tongue like it’s a huge scoop of ice cream. After several licks, Peggy finally attempts to put it inside her mouth. As she anticipated, she only gets halfway before his tip practically touches her larynx. She knows if she goes any deeper she’ll start to gag, which would be quite embarrassing to her professional reputation. Several laps with her tongue result in Kit getting fully hard – which also makes deep throating him an even more formidable challenge. Peggy looks up at him to see if he’s enjoying what she’s giving him. His head is tilted upward and his hands are caressing the back of her head. This is usually a good sign that he’s liking what’s happening. Peggy decides to give him double stimulation: stimulate the top half of his cock with her mouth and the bottom half with her hands. It’s guaranteed to get him off faster than usual, a risk she’s willing to take. If they need to do another take an hour from now (which is common after a male performer ejaculates and is still needed to get hard again for a different scene), so be it. It’s not like Gordon will care. He’s not charging them for using his home. And, he’s not expected back for at least three to four days.

“Ohhhhhhhhh baby…” Kit moans. She can tell he’s getting close by the way his pre-cum is dripping freely down her throat. He hasn’t fully come yet (at least, not to her knowledge), despite the considerable amount of fluid he’s already started leaking. Tony hasn’t stopped the scene yet, so apparently she’s doing something right…

One final jerk of the base of his penis is enough to bring Kit past the point of no return. Peggy follows the script – yes, this porno actually has a written script – and whips out his penis right as he starts to ejaculate. She closes her eyes and allows his semen to squirt all over her face. The hot stickiness awakens her senses. No matter how many blowjobs and hand jobs (technically speaking, this was both) she gives in her life, Peggy Cole will always be disgusted by the strong smell of semen. She doesn’t like it. She doesn’t like how it smells, tastes, or feels dripping down her face. She loves everything about sex; including kink play, toys, roleplaying, fetish scenes, gang bangs, and doing the deed with people of all gender identities; yet this is the one thing she truly doesn’t like. She’s pretty sure that’s the way it’s going to be for the rest of her life.

“Oh fuck yeah!” Kit screams in delight. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes baby…”

“Mmmmmmm, baby, that’s a very big dick you have,” Peggy says while standing up. “And lots of cum all over my pretty little face. Now, who should clean this up?”

“Uh, I can go get a towel…”

“That won’t be necessary, baby.” Peggy turns to face the opposite direction where the fictional kitchen is located. “Ooooooohhhhhhhhhhhh Kayla! Come here!”

“Who…who’s Kayla?”

“My, how do I say this, personal assistant! You’ll love her!” The one final thing Peggy has to do for this shot is dab a little bit of Kit’s semen onto her index finger and taste it. She does so right on cue, putting on the fakest smile she can possibly muster.

“And cut!” Tony yells. “Excellent! That’s a wrap. I’m very happy with that. Thank you all. We’ll finish the rest of the scene after lunch. What time is it?”

“11:39,” says a random production assistant.

“Great! Let’s break for lunch. Be back on set for the next scene at 12:45. Okay?” Everyone gives Tony a verbal reply acknowledging their new call time. The production assistant (PA) hands Peggy a hot steamed towel to wipe her face with. She graciously takes it and immediately starts to clean herself off. The same PA hands Kit a baby wipe to clean off his penis. She looks down quickly, admiring his considerable length and girth (even after it returns to a flaccid state). Kit smiles back, accustomed to receiving such looks from film crews. The PA looks embarrassed and hurries away to throw away the used baby wipe in the trash. As Peggy finishes cleaning her face, worried that her makeup has been ruined beyond salvaging, Kit gives her a light tap on the shoulder.

“Very good job, Peggy,” he says. “You were great. You’re excellent at making guys like me feel at ease. Damn, I was so fucking nervous when I woke up this morning. You want to know why?”

“Why is that?” she asks, excited to smell freshly baked bread instead of jizz.

“Because I couldn’t believe I was going to work with you. You’re a really, really big deal. Seriously. You are!”

“Oh darling, that’s too kind of you.” She kisses him on the cheek. “One day you’ll be a bigger deal than me. I’m not going to last forever in this business. But you have staying power. Just as long as you’re still able to get it up.” She points to his manhood, grins, then disappears into the bathroom to wash up (for real) and get changed. Peggy realizes just how hungry she actually is right now. Lunch sounds like a delight. Rumor has it they’re having fresh lasagna and toasted garlic bread. That must be where the scent of bread came from.

The rest of the day went by smoothly. Jillian, also a relative newbie to the porn industry, is a 23-year-old black girl from Queens, New York. She just decided to go into porn last year, having just moved to Las Vegas four months ago. Her role was to give a hand job to Jeff while Peggy straddles Kit on the floor between her strong legs. She did a marvelous job, which made Tony especially proud. Tony isn’t sure if Jillian has the same “staying power” as Kit Styles, but he has no doubt she’ll give it her best. In the end, that’s all one can do. Give it your all. Until there’s nothing left to give.

Tony informed the crew before everyone left at 4:45 p.m. that they should be done for the rest of the week. They shot everything they needed to shoot. After he and the DP look at the dailies they’ll determine if reshoots are necessary. But until everyone hears from him, they can safely assume their weeks’ worth of work is now done. Peggy graciously offers Kit a ride back to Aria, where’s he’s staying until his flight home leaves in two days. Once inside her car, Peggy navigates the Vegas Strip (and a few side streets) like a seasoned pro. Kit is impressed by how well she knows her way around town, especially during rush hour.

“How often do you visit the Strip?”

“You’d be surprised. Not often. Maybe three or four times a month. Usually for business or if I’m meeting a friend from out of town,” Peggy says, darting through traffic during a somewhat modest rush hour jam. “People who live in Vegas rarely visit the Strip. It’s too damn crowded, full of tourists, and well, not much else. A lot of neat things to take pictures of, but once you do that for a week you get tired of it, know what I mean?”

“Yeah. I know what you mean. I grew up in Brooklyn.”

“Holy shit! Jillian is from Queens.”

“We chatted about that, yeah,” he says before letting out a long yawn. “I can count on one hand how many times I’ve visited Times Square in the past year. Three times. And yeah, like you, once was for an audition and the other two times was when a couple buddies from high school were back in town. Real New Yorkers never visit Times Square. Only tourists.”

“Yup! You know what I mean.” A few moments later Peggy veers off Las Vegas Boulevard and onto a side street leading to a small outdoor parking lot. She sees it’ll cost a whopping $35 to park for two hours, so she comes up with an idea of how to make the price worthwhile. “Tell me, do you have a girlfriend, Kit?”

“Uh, no. I just got out of a, uh, fairly long relationship. But as of right now, no. Why?” Kit is about to get out of the car until Peggy grabs his forearm to stop him.

“I can drop you off right here, or you could invite me up to your place. What do you say?” Peggy flashes Kit a devilish grin, which he instantly knows how to interpret. The young porn actor turns around, sighs, and kisses Peggy on the cheek. She relishes his hot wet lips on her exhausted face.

“I say that’s a lovely idea. I don’t think we’re needed on set tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t have our fun,” he smiles. With that, Peggy speeds through the parking lot to find the first available spot. She practically leaps out of the vehicle, pays a meter with her credit card, and links her strong arm around his. Kit works out regularly, though he’s far from looking like a bodybuilder (by his own admission). As they enter Aria’s lobby, the large crowd of people milling around the casino and restaurants overwhelms the two of them. They aren’t tourists in search of cheap booze and slot machines; they’re two porn performers looking for a quick hookup. Neither of them is dressed like they’re hitting the town, with Peggy wearing a sweatshirt hoodie, jeans, and platform shoes and Kit wearing a fleece jacket and ripped up baggy black pants. There are quite a few folks dressed to the nines, with the occasional middle-aged guy in a Hawaiian shirt strutting around looking for a place to pee. Kit escorts Peggy through the gruesome traffic of people – similar to how she weaved the car through the crowd of vehicles – to the elevators.

“I’m impressed Tony was able to get you a room here. I figured you’d have to settle for a Holiday Inn or some cheap ass motel like that,” Peggy remarks. Kit shakes his head as he hits the “up” button on one of the elevators.

“So did I. I guess that rich dude likes Tony so much he makes sure we have, you know, all the right accommodations,” he says. “Let’s go.” They wait a short moment before the elevator they need to get on empties with people getting off on the ground floor. Peggy is now feeling a bit anxious, probably more so than Kit, although he seems to be breathing a little heavier than he should be. Luckily, they are the only ones who want to go up to floor #47, so they have the entire elevator to themselves.

“I’d fuck you right here in this elevator if I could,” Kit promises.

“Baby, I’d looooooooooooove that! But yeah, that would be the quickest way you’d get kicked out of here. And Tony, or Gordon, or whoever wouldn’t like that. Then again, you might be forced to stay with me! That would be fun…” Kit then leans over and kisses her on the lips with all the energy he could muster. He reaches back to grab Peggy’s thick butt cheeks, savoring their fullness. His ex-girlfriend was as skinny as you could possibly be without requiring hospitalization, so he knows he must appreciate Peggy’s curvy, meaty body for as long as he can. Who knows when he’ll be able to experience a woman quite like her again? In two days, he flies back to NYC to resume his boring life as a bartender at a second-rate Brooklyn strip club. He may not have the opportunity (or reason) to return to Las Vegas for quite some time.

A hop, skip, and a jump later, Peggy and Kit find themselves inside his small one-bed suite. He closes the door carefully behind him, making sure to put the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the outer doorknob. He never thought he’d have to utilize it on this trip, but he is glad to be surprised. Once he closes the door, he turns around to see Peggy immediately stripping her clothes off. She paid for two hours of parking, so perhaps she should slow down…

“Want to know something unique about me, baby?” Peggy is now completely naked, which, surprisingly enough, Kit hasn’t seen yet. Before, he saw her wearing a sexy BDSM dominatrix outfit. She looked great in it. However, this is his first time actually seeing her fully naked.

“Dear God in heaven! Will you look at that?” Kit cannot stop looking at the comic book-style bowling balls she has on her chest. He wonders how she can stand up straight with breasts that enormous without straining her back. How does she bench press? Does the bar literally bounce off her boobs? Or does she place the bar higher up? Kit can only ponder these questions. He doubts he’ll ever receive answers to them.

“I may struggle to fit your beautiful dick in my mouth,” she says, rubbing her boobs together like the world-famous erotic cam performer she is. “But I got all the room in my pussy for you. Come here, big boy!”

Peggy leaps into the arms of Kit Styles, a young man she’s wanted to nail the moment she first met him a few days ago. Once she heard from Tony that the rumors about Kit were true, her excitement to find out if this guy is for real doubled. Once she actually saw him in the flesh (and one piece of flesh in particular), her excitement tripled. Now that she has the opportunity to feel his lengthy penetration in the privacy of his suite – without cameras rolling – her excitement is through the roof. After ripping off his clothes, Peggy and Kit make out in front of a wide-open window overlooking the south side of the Strip. They know the window is one-way, but that doesn’t make them feel any less naughty about the fact somebody – however remote the chances are – could be watching them. The exhibitionistic thrill adds to the fevered atmosphere.

“God, you taste amazing!” Kit says between breaks sucking on her clitoris. Now lying in bed, Peggy feels she’s fully ready to take him in after multiple orgasms produced by his oral stimulation. If her throaty screams of pleasure couldn’t be heard through the hotel walls, then nothing can. Peggy grabs a handful of his beautiful hair and twists it playfully. Not usually into “rough stuff,” Kit takes it all in stride. “I’ll be back in a moment. Stay where you are, my dear.”

“I’m not going anywhere, baby. You can believe that!” She rubs a small amount of her vaginal moisture all over her labia until it glistens like rainfall on leaves. Kit goes to his suitcase to retrieve an extra-large condom. He rips the packet open and tosses it into a nearby wastebasket.

“Ooooooooooohhhh boy will that fit?”

“Let’s hope so. I have no desire to become a daddy yet!” Kit teases. He rolls the latex onto his 12-inch cock until it gets almost all of the way on. Peggy peers closely, estimating the condom is about an inch and a half shy of reaching the base of his lovely penis. That should be sufficient to prevent anything unfortunate from happening. Fully sheathed (for the most part), Kit leaps back onto the bed and straddles Peggy’s powerful body. With his left hand, he pinches Peggy’s nipple. With his right hand, he positions the broad head of his penis at her sensitive entrance. Even he has doubts that she’ll be able to fully take him in, though he’s heard rumors that Peggy Cole is the ultimate “Size Queen,” a role she plays in real life and not just on screen.

“Do it. I’m fucking ready.”

“Okay, darling. Here it goes…” Inch by inch, Kit carefully enters Peggy until he’s about three-quarters of the way in. He watches her face studiously to make sure she isn’t in pain or any kind of discomfort. Judging from the big grin she’s flashing him, Kit figures he’s doing just fine. She closes her eyes, relishing the feeling of a handsome-ish young man with a mammoth manhood penetrating her with such considerate finesse. Kit has had several girlfriends over the years, all of them privately confessing (sometimes after they broke up) that they found sex painful with him. This always made him feel bad. It’s not his fault that he has a freakishly large endowment. It’s genetics, right?

“Oh fuck yeah! I looooooooooooooooooove it, baby darling! LOVE IT!”

Full of confidence that he could never hurt her, Kit decides to do something that he has never been able to do before with a woman in the bedroom: Make love to her with reckless abandon, no fear, and no reason to hold back. It’s truly liberating, yet another reason why Peggy Cole is one hell of an extraordinary human being. Hopefully for both of them – but mostly for Kit’s sake – this could be the beginning of something special. She may be a solid decade or so older than him (he doesn’t know her actual age), but that shouldn’t matter, should it?

Kit decides it’s now or never. The time to think is later. Still feeling out whether or not she can handle his tremendous length and girth, Peggy grabs him by the cheeks and pulls him closer to kiss him. No hint of flirting or foreplay. That time has passed. Now, it’s all on him to perform his duties.

“Hold on, darling. It’s going to be one hell of a wild fucking ride.”

“Now you’re speaking my language, big boy. Ride me, cowboy!”

With that verbal cue, Kit and Peggy aggressively make love with all the energy they could summon after a long day on set. The bed squeaks in rhythm with every thrust and heave Kit throws at Peggy. It’s been at least two months since Kit last had sex, so he’s as hungry as he could possibly be. He pushes in and out of Peggy with so much force it startles him, forcing his mind to break concentration and wonder if he’s hurting her. Miss Cole’s passionate screams of delight tell a definitive story.

“YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASSSSSSSSSSSSS!!! FUCK MEEEEEEEEEEE! FUCK MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! FUCK MEEEEEEEEEEEE BABYYYYYYYYYY!!!”

A few minutes later, Kit feels the tightness build up in his body. Peggy cannot remember the last time a man has fucked her like this. Once this is over, she decides she’ll ask if he’d like to be added to her list of “lovers.” As far as she’s concerned, Mr. Styles has earned a spot permanently in her proverbial “black book” if he so wishes. When they look into each other’s eyes, they know it’s only a matter of seconds until both of them experience the sweet, sweet release that their tired souls need. First, Kit climaxes. One final thrust later, Peggy joins him. An inaudible gasp escapes from her throat as she comes. Kit looks up above him, seeing a painting of a stallion running through a grassy meadow. The poetic irony of a majestic male horse displayed right above their bed is not lost on him.

“Motherfucker…that’s what I needed, babe,” Kit, out of breath and sweating bullets, whispers in Peggy’s ear as she comes to her senses. He remains on top of her, not wanting this magical moment to end. As drained of energy as he is, he manages to peck her on the cheek, coaxing her to open her eyes so they can look at each other.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck that was amazing. Loved every moment of it,” she says back. If the grin on her face were any wider, it might remain that way permanently.

As Kit withdraws his penis from her, he is horrified when he sees an unstoppable pool of milky white fluid drain out of her vagina. It leaks onto the bedsheets, several drops splashing across her powerful thighs.

“Oh fuck! God damnit! The condom broke. Holy shit, this is a fucking nightmare. I’m so sorry, it looked fine when I put it on, honestly!” Before he could say another word, Peggy puts a finger onto his lips, a clear message to him to stop talking and calm down. When he looks into her eyes, all he sees is a calm, relaxed woman smiling like she doesn’t have a care in the world. Her serene attitude tells him he has nothing to fret about. The long wet kiss she plants on his cheek solidifies this conclusion.

“Don’t worry, baby. Don’t worry at all. You’re fine. Nothing broke. Despite everything, we’re going to be alright,” she says. Peggy looks down at the mess developing in front of her. She giggles. “Looks like I wet the bed!”

“What…what do you mean you wet the bed? Isn’t that, you know, me?” Kit inspects the condom still sheathed around his flaccid penis for any signs of tearing. So far, he cannot find any evidence that the prophylactic failed in any way. As a larger man, Kit is constantly paranoid that the protection he’s using will rip during sex. Peggy’s enthusiastic enjoyment of their coupling certainly alleviated some of those fears, though it only takes a situation like this to bring them all racing back.

“Congratulations, Mr. Styles. But you’re the first man to ever make me squirt during sex,” she declares. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure you’re the first. God, I made such a mess. You better call room service to bring you a clean set of sheets. Oh well. I’m sure they’re used to this sort of thing.”

“Wait, uh, what? Huh? You just, um, squirted?” Kit is keenly aware of the concept of female ejaculation, though he is clueless about the physiological science behind it. He’s seen it done in porn, but never in-person. So this is a first for him as well. “Wow! That’s really fucking hot. Dang, I had no idea you could do that. Fuck.”

Peggy sits up in bed, trying to avoid the wet spots as much as she can. “I’m famous for it, which obviously you didn’t know. That’s why you’re so surprised. Yeah, I can squirt with the best of them. You can say I’m the best in the world to ever do it. That’s what I believe. The only way I can squirt is if I use a really huge dildo and fuck myself as hard as I can. Long, even strokes. I need a lot of hardness inside my pussy. Most guys don’t have the machinery or the energy to get it done. But you, my lovely child, passed with flying colors.” She ruffles his hair like a schoolyard bully picking on a kid during yearbook picture day. “Thank you, baby. I loved it. Same time tomorrow?”

Several minutes later, Peggy dries herself off with a towel and gets dressed while Kit retreats to the bathroom. When he unrolls the condom and inspects it carefully, he is pleasantly surprised to see that it did not break, just as she predicted. After washing himself, peeing, and wiping a few lipstick stains from his face, Kit emerges from the bathroom to see Peggy fully dressed and answering a few texts.

“My boyfriend is wondering where I am. What should I tell him? The truth?” Peggy asks Kit, who quickly dresses so he can escort her out and go down to the ground floor to get something to eat. Her hypothetical question makes him squirm a bit.

“You have a boyfriend? Damn! Ha, yeah you probably should just tell him that filming took longer than expected. I think he’d be a little pissed off if he knew that you were fucking the handsome young stud you just met on set.”

“Nah, he wouldn’t care. I do this sort of thing all the time. So does he. And our girlfriend, too. We do whatever we want, just as long as nobody gets hurt.”

“Hold on!” he says with a sharp tone of shock. “You have a boyfriend…and a girlfriend?”

“Oh yeah! We’re polyamorous. Hell, I have right now fourteen different lovers. Do you want to be added to the list?” Peggy approaches Kit and almost kisses him but refrains when she notices he wiped off the lipstick from his face. She just reapplied some lip gloss and wouldn’t want to make him wash his face again.

“Shit, that’s something else. Wow! Fourteen lovers? Damn. I can barely handle one at a time,” Kit says, checking his phone for messages. He sees none that needs an immediate reply. “Well, that sounds like fun. Yeah! So you live with a boyfriend and a girlfriend. That’s…that’s awesome. Sort of weird, but awesome. Sorry, this is very, like, strange to me. I’m not judging or anything, you know? Just…yeah. Weird.” He laughs to ease the tension. Or more specifically, to ease his own tension.

“It’s okay, baby. Not everyone approves of how I live my life, so I’ve heard far worse. We’re happy, the three of us. You should meet them sometime. I think you’d like us.”

“I’d like that. Yeah. Sometime.”

Well within her two-hour limit, Peggy and Kit return to the parking lot. They exchange phone numbers, agree to meet again tomorrow evening for more sexy fun, and go their separate ways. On her way home, Peggy is pleasantly surprised to see that traffic has died down considerably. She listens to Whitney Houston in the car, humming along while replaying her time with Kit in her head. How can she be so lucky? Tomorrow, she decides, is the perfect time to attempt to lure Mr. Styles away from NYC and move permanently to Vegas. The porn scene is thriving down here, with plenty of side jobs available in the restaurant/hotel business, entertainment, and rideshare industries. Besides, she must be able to experience sex like that again. A Size Queen must get her fill (literally and figuratively), she believes, and Kit Styles is definitely the man equipped for the job. Twenty-ish minutes later Peggy parks her sedan on the street after seeing that George and Teresa have parked their cars in the driveway. After a short walk up a flight of stairs, when she opens the front door she sees a somewhat surprising but not shocking thing happening inside the living room: George, Teresa, and Gabriella (a trans woman and part-time stripper who regularly comes over for three or four-way orgies) on the floor – with blankets spread out everywhere – entangled in each other’s bodies. Usually, Peggy is kept in the loop if one of these erotic meetups is happening. She supposes being busy on set all day is a good reason why they didn’t bother to tell her in advance.

“Damn! That looks like fun. Mind if I join in?”

As of this moment, Gabrielle is penetrating Teresa’s anal cavity with her penis while Teresa is sucking on George’s dick. George appears to be fondling Gabriella’s ass and (it’s hard for Peggy to tell from this angle) Teresa appears to be wearing a strap-on. 99.999% of the world’s population would be scandalized if they saw this as they walked in through the front door after a long day at the office. But Peggy isn’t typical of most people. While sex is certainly on their mind right now, the only thing Peggy needs is sustenance. She really needs something to eat or else she fears she might pass out right here in front of everyone.

“Hi baby! Sorry for getting the party started without you,” Gabriella says. Peggy kisses her on the forehead, despite still being deeply inside Teresa’s anus.

“Hi darling! It’s great to see your pretty face again.”

“How was the shoot today?” George asks.

“Great! We got most of it done today, but chances are I’ll be needed again on set tomorrow afternoon, maybe early evening,” she lies to the group. George and Teresa aren’t normally prone to get jealous if Peggy decides to randomly hook-up with someone, but she feels like now is not the time to reveal her budding friendship with Kit Styles and his infamous endowment. There is a time and a place for that later. “Go ahead and finish what you’re doing. I’m starving. I’ll be in the kitchen.”

Peggy dashes to the kitchen to get her hands on a slice of cold pizza still sitting in the refrigerator. She was afraid someone would eat it by now, so she lucks out when she sees it still sitting there, all alone in plastic wrap. As she wolfs it down and flips through a random fashion magazine, she hears loud moaning and cries of orgasm echoing throughout the house, a two-bedroom apartment that looks like something out of a 1950’s sitcom. There’s even a white picket fence surrounding the property!

The orgy going on in the living room, however, would have been a bit too extreme for television of that era.

Before she returns to the refrigerator to fetch a LaCroix, Teresa sneaks up behind her, still wearing the strap-on dildo. She grabs Peggy’s boobs, squeezes them tightly, and turns Peggy’s head around so she could kiss her. No one says a word because no words need to be said. Still damp from her recent encounter with Kit, Peggy unzips her jeans and leans over the kitchen counter so Teresa could do her thing. And out of nowhere, just like that, Teresa pulls down Peggy’s underwear to her knees and enters her from behind with the strap-on. It’s already been properly lubed up from being used just now for the orgy. Peggy has no idea what George and Gabriella are up to now. Probably making out? Going outside to smoke pot? Watching TV? Peggy’s mind stops wandering as Teresa slides the dildo in and out of her, employing even strokes that quickly bring Peggy on the brink.

“OOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHH FUUUUUUUUUUUCK!” Peggy screams as the tip of the dildo hits her g-spot in the exact right place.

For the second time in less than an hour, Peggy releases a flood of liquid that splashes all over the kitchen tile. Teresa lessens the intensity of her pumps as Peggy’s vaginal walls pound rhythmically. It’s highly unusual for her to squirt like this without a large dildo, so she figures it’s the way that Kit “warmed her up” earlier that explains why. As her orgasm subsides, Teresa withdraws from her, grinning at how much ejaculate she is going to have to clean up. She promptly rips a few sheets of paper towels and gets on her knees to wipe it up. Peggy, remarkably, hasn’t collapsed on the floor. Still leaning over the countertop, only one single thought pops into her mind as the erotic memories of the last ten hours race through her brain:

I love my life.

***

The cold skies, dark grey clouds, and desolate sprinkles of rainwater act as a profound reminder that London isn’t nearly as romantic of a city as Paris, Venice, or Barcelona. As Melanie Wright looks out the window from the top floor of her rented flat, she hears the bathroom door open. She turns around to see Theodore “Teddy” Livingstone, one of her most loyal clients, wearing a leopard-pattern male thong.

“What do you think?” Thomas asks earnestly. Melanie, always polite and considerate of other people’s feelings, is fortunate that she doesn’t have to lie in this situation. Huh. He genuinely looks kind of sexy, she decides.

“Honestly? That’s hot. A little goofy, but actually hot. I’m serious!” Melanie, wearing nothing but a lacy white thong and black heels, goes up to him and tickles his scrotum. He’s already hard – in fact, he’s been hard since the moment he walked through the door more than two hours ago – and appreciative of her kind words (even though he suspects she’s lying through her teeth). What matters is having fun, he thinks, not impressing anybody.

Melanie plans to spend two weeks in Jolly Old England for a variety of reasons: a couple of modeling photoshoots, seeing friends, meeting a handful of muscle worship session clients, sightseeing, and scoping out a few places to possibly rent should she decide to live here full-time. The flat she’s staying at right now is one that belongs to three other friends of hers – all professional female bodybuilders like herself. The four of them, all spread out across the globe, split the monthly rent payments. Fully furnished and ideally situated in the heart of downtown London (and close to a major tube station), it’s the perfect place to host session clients, house parties, and set up shop as a home base if one is staying in the U.K. for a long time. Melanie arrived four days ago and has enjoyed a nearly nonstop schedule since the jet lag wore off.

Today, she’s spending almost the entire day with Mr. Livingstone. Teddy, as he prefers her to call him, is a wealthy CEO of an international shipping corporation, philanthropist, adventurer, playboy, and, of course, lover of muscular women. That part of his life is kept secret. Like Dylan Tanaka, another loyal client Melanie has seen at various times throughout the years, Teddy has more money than he could possibly know how to prudently spend. She doesn’t know his exact estimated net worth, though several appearances in Time magazine and Forbes should indicate that he’s not exactly hurting for money.

Teddy is a big enthusiast of playing “dress up” during their time together. He’s collected a series of costumes, outfits, and sexy male underwear over the years that he likes to show off to her. She also brings along in her massive suitcase a few fun pieces to wear as well. Even though she’s not wearing anything fancy right now (they still have the rest of the evening together since he paid a pretty penny for the privilege to spend the whole day with her), she’ll get there eventually.

“Thank you. I appreciate it,” Teddy says, his face turning beet red with embarrassment. “What have you brought with you on this trip? A Wonder Woman costume? An Amazonian princess? An icy cold winter queen?”

“After dinner, I’ll show you everything I miraculously managed to fit in my luggage,” Melanie smiles, pointing to her suitcase sitting in the far corner of the room. “For now, would you like to take my measurements?” She whips out a sewing measuring tape from her handbag. Teddy, almost to a fault, treats her more like a valuable piece of art than a living, breathing human being. He adores her. He’s not clingy – she’s had a few clients that she’s had to cut off because they wouldn’t stop texting, calling, or emailing her – but he has his moments. In his own words, his “thirst for muscular women is unquenchable.” Is this a creepy thing to say? Well, yes. But he’s a harmless man (with deep pockets), so it’s fine.

“Yes! Let’s do it.” Teddy gleefully takes the measuring tape, unwinds it, and sits down on the bed. Melanie follows suit. “I see you’re in great shape, as always. The Moscow International is next month, so I’m assuming you’re ramping up for that?” Miss Wright extends her right arm – her dominant arm – and flexes her enormous bicep. She made sure to do a quick workout at a nearby gym right before Teddy arrived so she’d be properly pumped up. He wraps the measuring tape around her mountain of muscle to see how much progress she’s made.

“Damn right I’m doing the Moscow International next month. I intend to win it this time, unlike last year when I was screwed over by the Swedish judge,” she complains. Melanie isn’t one to hold grudges, and she’s had her fair share of heartbreaking losses during her professional life, but she cannot fathom why the Swedish judge gave her low marks for her hamstrings. It’s arguably the best part of her legs! His argument was that they were too big and not proportional with her calves and quads. In a world where symmetry matters, apparently she failed in that department. Still, she’ll never let that go for as long as she lives.

“Wow! Eighteen beautiful inches. Let’s see your left arm. Do you think it’ll be less?”

“Yeah, slightly less. But not by much.” Teddy wraps the measuring tape around her left bicep.

“Seventeen and a half inches, so you’re right. Still, mighty impressive, Melanie dear. Quite impressive. I could never achieve that in a million years.” Melanie looks down at Teddy’s crotch, stifling her need to giggle at seeing his erection practically bursting out of his leopard thong. “Let’s move on to your legs…”

Like an archeologist studying precious dinosaur bones, Teddy measures Melanie’s muscles with exact scientific mathematical precision. It always amuses Melanie to watch him study her body with academic-like studiousness. When he gets to her thirty-inch thighs, that number alone – not twenty-eight, not twenty-nine, not twenty-nine and a half – makes him go crazy. He audibly moans when the end of the measuring tape lines up with the big 3-0. Melanie once again tries not to excessively smile at his joyful exuberance. She looks up at the clock and sees it’s 5:38. Their dinner reservation at some steak restaurant is at 7:00, so they need to wrap up their pre-dinner activities soon so they could have enough time to wash up, get dressed, and hail an Uber.

“THIRTY INCHES!” Teddy exclaims in a voice loud enough to make the walls shake. Melanie flinches at the sound of his bellowing voice.

“You better believe it. Kiss them. NOW!”

“Right away ma’am.” He obediently gets on his knees and trails several kisses up her left leg, starting at her foot and ending at the top of her thigh. She’s surprised the fabric of his thong hasn’t torn yet. When she bounces her quads up and down, Teddy loses his mind.

“Oh…my…fucking…GOD!” Teddy stands up, pulls his thong down to his knees, and kicks them away. His raging erection is finally free at last. He positions himself right above her. Melanie can guess what he’s about to do next. Right on cue, Teddy finds a small bottle of baby oil, opens it, and applies a small amount on the palm of his hand. Then, he takes his penis in his hand and starts to furiously jerk it. Teddy Livingstone is normally a level-headed, rational, and even keel sort of man. But when he’s in the presence of a world-class female bodybuilder with eighteen-inch biceps and thirty-inch quads, he loses all control of himself. His fetishistic love of female muscle takes over his faculties. Almost as if he’s in a supernatural-like trance, Teddy continues to masturbate as Melanie bounces her quads right under him. She decides a little verbal encouragement could go a long way to speed things along.

“Do it. Do it. DO IT! Come all over me. Come all over my quads. NOW, DAMNIT!”

That’s all the hype he needs, apparently. A few seconds later Melanie feels several hot squirts of semen drip onto her leg. One drop rolls down her calf. She hopes it doesn’t stain the carpet. Teddy groans loudly. Melanie still talks dirty to him, well after his pulses subside.

“Your seed may make my muscles grow even more,” she suggests, tongue-in-cheek. This breaks Teddy from his “spell,” returning his mind back to normal. “Maybe after dinner it’ll be thirty-one or thirty-two inches!”

Teddy laughs. “That would be amazing. Thanks, darling. I needed that. That was amazing. God, your legs are incredible. Brilliant. You’re unbelievably beautiful. Sooooooooo much muscle everywhere.” One final kiss, and Teddy and Melanie take turns cleaning themselves up in the bathroom. Less than thirty minutes later, both of them are downstairs in the lobby. Teddy has just hailed an Uber to take them to dinner but neither of them wants to wait outside in the freezing cold rain.

They are dressed like they’re ready to paint the town red, so to speak. Teddy is wearing a traditional charcoal black tuxedo and a bowler’s hat. Melanie has on a classy velvet green Vera Wang dress that generously shows off her considerable body mass. It’ll be impossible for strangers to resist the urge to stop and stare at her arms. While Teddy chooses to keep his fetish for muscular women a secret, he’s not shy about taking beautiful female bodybuilders out on dates in public. He’s taken Melanie before to the theatre, opera, an outdoor Mozart concert, and the finest restaurants in the U.K. He’s famous within business circles, but not the general public. He doubts any of his closest friends or family will ever find out his secret second life that he enjoys privately with some of the finest muscular women on the planet. And if they do discover this part of his life, so what? He’s filthy rich and living his best life possible. Awkwardness would be a small price to pay. That’s not worth denying one’s self the finer things in life.

“It’s here. Shall we?” Teddy puts his phone back in his jacket pocket. He leans over to kiss Melanie on the cheek. The front desk clerk, a young man in this late 20s, tries his hardest not to stare at the mysterious woman with outrageously huge muscles. He’s seen her before, but she’s usually wearing a thick fur coat to cover up her eye-popping physique. No offense to her, but Melanie’s face isn’t pretty enough to be memorable, though her muscles are definitely hard to forget. The clerk whistles after Melanie and Teddy leave the building.

“Yes, let’s go eat. I’m famished,” she replies back. Walking into the unforgiving London rainstorm hand-in-hand, both Teddy and Melanie look forward to a delicious dinner, followed by whatever erotic shenanigans will transpire in the bedroom afterward.

All the King’s Queens – Chapter 10: Daring Escape

For twenty-eight minutes, four bandits and five hostages sit together in complete silence. Nobody even wants to make too much noise breathing (which becomes more difficult the longer everyone has to endure each other). Melanie has snuggled up next to Dylan. Peggy still has not let go of his hand. Monique and Henry are leaning against each other shoulder to shoulder. After what seems like an eternity, the silence is interrupted when Thomas Sellars briskly barges into the room. Stephen gets up when he sees him enter and approaches him. They speak together near the door, their conversation unintelligible, conducted in hushed tones. A few minutes later, Thomas returns to the storage room while Stephen lumbers back to his spot. When he sits down, he decides to break the gym’s silence.

“He’s making good progress. He says he should be done within an hour. That’s good news for all of us. We can leave soon with our loot, and you can leave with your lives,” Stephen promises the hostages. He looks at everyone individually. “This nightmare will soon be over. Trust me.” He looks at his watch and sees the time is now 1:14 in the morning. Moments ago, Stephen received a text from Bill Marks informing him that the security systems are now back online everywhere in the region. This means they cannot leave the property without being caught on camera. However, that shouldn’t be a problem because they’ll leave with masks on. Plus, the bandits have every reason to believe that none of the hostages will report them to the police.

“How do you plan to get away with this? We clearly know who you are,” Henry asks. Stephen is amused that it’s Dylan’s chef who asks this probing question.

“Ah, yes. You’re right. You do know who I am. You may not know the first and last names of my associates, but you certainly know me, which theoretically should be good enough,” Stephen says. “However, we also know who all of you are. You’re Henry, the cook. That’s Peggy, the porn star. This is Melanie, the professional bodybuilder. And that’s Monique, the aspiring Olympic athlete and future gold medalist. And of course, the man of the hour, Mr. Dylan Tanaka. So your identities are not a secret.” Stephen flips through everyone’s confiscated driver’s licenses, reading the names and addresses of all of his hostages. He flashes them in front of his audience, like a magician showing the anxious crowd his deck of cards.

“Miss Wright lives in Chicago at 19903 87th Avenue Southeast, the lovely Miss St. Martin resides at 2477 Santiago Boulevard North in Miami, our famous porn actress Peggy Cole lives at 9090 Cortez Road Southeast, apartment number 540 in Las Vegas, and Henry lives in a humble little condo in West Seattle. Pretty close to one of my favorite pizza places,” Stephen taunts the crowd. “And we all know where Dylan lives and sleeps. Hell, I also know who he sleeps with. Or at least, who is willing to actually sleep with him.” He gives Dylan a cruel look, knowing he’s as emotionally drained as can be. Dylan doesn’t justify his taunts with a response. Besides, he has none to give.

“Damn it,” Peggy murmurs.

“Oh yeah, you can see why it would be dangerous for any of you to turn us in to the police. Or the FBI, CIA, NSA, DOD, DOJ, or whatever alphabet soup federal bureaucracy would have jurisdiction over an investigation into our, um, illegal activities.” Whistling at the sudden realization that he could be potentially in extremely hot water if caught, Stephen drops the taunting act and becomes serious for a moment. “So, you all keep your mouths shut. Don’t say a word about what happened here, what we stole, and whatever we plan to do with it. Actually, I don’t think any of you know what we plan to do with the intel we retrieve tonight. That’s advantageous to us. Let’s keep it that way. What’s the expression, Dylan boy?”

“Loose lips sink ships,” Dylan educates the group.

“Bingo! That’s exactly right. I could never keep the verb tenses straight. Thanks for knowing the exact phrasing. Anyway, you all saw how we easily broke into Dylan’s very expensive home and took you all hostage. You see we have guns and are not afraid to use them. If we have the technical know-how to subvert Dylan’s advanced security systems, you can be damn well assured that we can track all of you down and hunt you down like wild rabbits. We’re deeply connected. We have associates everywhere. Literally everywhere. Am I right, boys?”

“Oh yeah. Everywhere. For sure,” Roddy confirms.

“I got a buddy who lives not far from you, Miss Wright,” Xander says directly to Melanie. Her eyes widen, goosebumps suddenly forming on her skin. She doesn’t know if he’s being serious or if he’s just trying to frighten her, but can she really take a chance? Her life depends on it.

“Wow. That’s crazy. What a small world!” Stephen smirks. He’s pretty sure he’s scared the hostages straight. None of them are going to try anything stupid or unnecessarily heroic. Now is the time to hammer the point home in case there is still any ambiguity. “This means you stay silent about tonight for the rest of your lives. If you squeal to the authorities, we’ll know about it. We may not know exactly who squealed, so that means we’ll just have to silence all of you just to make sure. Do you want to risk it? Do you want to risk your life and the lives of everyone sitting next to you? And we won’t just come after you all. We’ll come after your friends, family, and anyone we think is important to you. I mean, we know Dylan is important to all of you. I can easily come on over at any time and put a bullet between his slanty Asian eyes.”

Dylan, still committed to not giving Stephen the satisfaction of getting a rise out of him, dismisses this racist comment as being par for the course. He always assumed Stephen was an honorable man. One supposes that notion should have challenged during their time working for the Department of Defense. The occasional glee he would exhibit when a successful drone strike killed hundreds of militants (they tried to avoid using the word “terrorist” because not all of them were formal members of al-Qaeda, ISIS, or Boko Haram) should have raised alarm bells. Unfortunately, Dylan just assumed his colleague was excited to have contributed toward a heroic effort to save innocent civilians from barbarians. How wrong he was, in retrospect. Stephen is and always has been a “grade A” psychopath.

“You just keep getting more and more charming,” Monique says to her captor. “You may get away with this, but one day your time will come. Your luck will run out. You can’t keep doing things like this forever. Eventually, your fun will come crashing down.”

“Oh, I have no doubt about that,” Stephen admits. “You’re right, Missy. One day I will face my day of reckoning. Some day. Not sure when, but I’m sure it’ll be thoroughly unpleasant. But, I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. That day is not today, I’m sure of it. Your day of reckoning, however, could be today if you do anything stupid to piss me off.”

All the hostages look down to the floor, almost simultaneously. Stephen gives a look to Roddy. Both men seem to agree that their message has been received and understood with crystal clarity. They shouldn’t have any persisting issues with these five frightened, vulnerable souls. In less than an hour, they should be able to stroll out of this place with their loot successfully stolen and not a care in the world. Soon, they’ll have wealthy bidders from across the globe begging them to sell their intel to them. And Stephen will make sure he gets the best deal he possibly could. Nothing less than the most lucrative.

“Hey. Speaking of getting pissy, I got to pee. Like, real bad,” Peggy speaks up. The other hostages all look at her. Stephen turns around to face Miss Cole.

“Well, we’re all human. I’m glad none of you pissed or shitted yourselves up to this point. I’m quite impressed with that. I may be a cruel monster, but I can’t deny that when nature calls, one must pick up the phone.” Stephen looks at Cortez, who appears to be getting bored listening to everyone lecture each other while they wait for Thomas to break into the vault. “Cortez. Take her to the bathroom. I saw one across the hall, is that correct?”

“Yes. It’s a changing room with shower stalls and lots of toilets,” Dylan confirms. “You can take her there. It’s literally just across the hall.”

“Uh huh. Go. And don’t do anything stupid, you hear me? No drama. No foolishness. Nothing that will risk your life or the lives of your beloved friends,” Stephen issues a stern warning. He looks right at Peggy’s face as she stands up and drops the blanket to the floor, revealing her naked muscular body. Until now, all the bandits have forgotten that the hostages are actually naked since they’ve been huddled up in these fleece blankets for the past thirty minutes. Cortez’s heart jumps at the sight of one of his favorite porn performers walking toward him as nude as the day she was born.

“I hear you. Yeah, nothing stupid. I got it. I’m just going to take a piss, wash my hands, and come back here like a good little girl,” Peggy promises her lead captor. Stephen nods his head without saying a word. He glances at Cortez, who starts to head to the exit.

“Let’s go,” Cortez instructs Peggy. She follows behind him at a timid pace.

“If any of you also need a bathroom break, just speak up. But you can only go one at a time. No group trips to the toilet. Got it?” Stephen offers. Everyone nods their heads meekly. As Cortez and Peggy leave the gym, the four remaining hostages return gazing at the floor. This is enough of a confirmation. “Good. I’m so happy at how cooperative we all are. This is going swimmingly!”

***

Cortez, like a true gentleman, opens the door to the locker room/shower room for Peggy. She smiles at him, showing her appreciation for his kindness. Yes, she’s angry at all five of the thugs who’ve taken them hostage, but the bulk of her rage has been directed at Stephen Callahan. She knows the rest are simply hired goons doing a job for a paycheck. For the rest, it’s not personal. It’s all business. As a former professional bodybuilder and current hotshot in the adult entertainment industry, Peggy Cole knows a thing or two about doing whatever paying job you can to get by. The bills must be paid somehow. Food won’t just materialize on the table out of thin air. You have to work in order to eat, sleep, and play. So because of this, she can rationalize why these men have turned to a life of crime in order to make their living. It’s certainly not an honorable living…but it is a living nevertheless. She hopes one day they will all wake up and decide to abandon the life of crime. Everybody has a conscience, right?

Right?

The locker room is spacious, just like the other rooms in the building. It looks just like one you’d see at a small fitness gym. Dylan sure knows how to spend his money, Peggy thinks to herself. There are wooden benches everywhere, a few metal lockers (for guests), and a row of sinks with ceiling-high mirrors. On the far side of the room, there’s a short hallway that leads to a walk-in sauna and a few individual toilet stalls. Cortez struggles to find the light switch but eventually does. Peggy watches him check her out once the room is fully lit.

“Do you like what you see?” Peggy asks him with a strong condescending tone.

“Uh, yeah, actually,” Cortez stammers. “Um, er, hey, I actually know who you are. I’m a big fan. I’m actually one of your subscribers. I love your videos.”

Before entering into the nearest toilet stall, Peggy turns around to face him. She looks surprised. “Really? Well, that’s quite a coincidence. Never in a million years did I ever think one of my fans would hold me and my friends hostage at gunpoint. Are you still going to subscribe to my channel even after what you and your loser buddies are doing tonight?”

“Oh yeah, of course. I, uh, I hope you aren’t pissed off at me. Honestly, this is just a job. I don’t want to hurt any of you. I don’t want anyone to get shot or nothing. That’s not my style, you feel me?” Out of nowhere, Peggy’s intuition kicks in. She sees an opportunity. She clearly heard Stephen’s fire and brimstone speech about the damnation they’d experience if they squealed to the cops or attempted to escape. However, Peggy doesn’t intend to let these bastards get away with it. Not if she could help it. Keeping mum forever isn’t in her DNA.

“I can believe it. To tell you the truth, I’m not really angry at you or the other guys. The main guy, that motherfucker, I hate his fucking guts. You can believe that!”

“Oh, I believe you. I’ll be honest, I don’t really like him neither, you feel me? He’s smart and all, but he can get really intense for no reason, you know what I mean?” By now, Peggy realizes that they are down the hall in another room separated by large glass doors and a longer hallway. Plus, everyone is hanging out on the far side of the gym. That means she and Cortez are really far away from everybody. Nothing they talk about can be heard, which also means they can make a lot of noise and (theoretically) nobody will be able to hear them. Peggy keeps this observation to herself as she formulates in her mind an escape plan. She has a funny feeling about that Callahan guy. He may seem calm on the surface, but he’s shown just enough “crazy” to tell her that he could be a loose cannon. He insists he doesn’t want to shoot any of them, but how sure can they be of that? What if he decides at the last minute to execute every single one of them just as they walk out the front entrance with their loot? Or, what if he decides to kill just Dylan? The thought of that poor man lying on the floor surrounded in a pool of blood is enough to make hers boil.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. I know you’re no innocent boy, but I don’t hold anything against you. How long have you been living this kind of life?” Peggy comes closer to him, drawing his gaze entirely on her face (a face, it should be noted, that many plastic surgeons have worked on over the years). Cortez looks down at her puffy red lips, wanting to kiss her sooooooooooo badly. But he’s a professional and cannot let his guard down. Right now, she says she needs to use the bathroom, so that’s what she’s going to do.

“Uh, not too long. Say, didn’t you say you had to pee? May…maybe you should, uh, do that now, you know?” Peggy strategically circles around him so that her strong body is covering the exit. If he wants to go back to the locker room, he’ll need to get through her first. Also, she knows he cannot resist her. She’s met enough of her fans throughout the years to know how they normally react when they see her in-person for the first time. They usually go nuts, losing all sense of dignity and sense of decorum. This guy appears to be no exception. This can work to her advantage.

“I do. Now you tell me, big boy, how long have you known about me?” She rubs her enormous breasts together and pinches her nipples so that they stand straight out like pointed arrows. Cortez cannot help but stare at her 40FF cup size. He swears they’re the largest pair of boobs he’s ever seen before. Involuntarily, as if under the control of a magic spell, he begins rubbing his fingers across her hardened nipples.

“At least four years. Maybe longer than that. I don’t know for sure…”

Before Peggy can ball her hand in a fist and punch him in the face, Cortez snaps out of his trance and back off a few paces away from her. He takes a deep breath, refocusing himself on the job at hand…and ignores the growing erection developing in his pants.

“Okay, okay, okay, let’s stop this. Right now. You said you have to pee. Now, do it. Just DO IT, NOW!” He points to the closest toilet stall. The authoritative tone of his voice tells her that he’s smart enough to not let his horny imagination get the best of him. Unless…

“Okay, sugar pie. You’re right. You win.”

“Hold it!” Cortez puts out his arm to stop her from going into the stall. “You, uh, do have to pee, right?”

“Yeah, I’m about to burst if I don’t go right now, so move it or lose it buster.”

“Uh, um, would you mind if…uh…would you mind doing me a favor?” Almost giving up on the idea of executing a daring escape, Peggy sees that perhaps this guy is being led by his horniness after all. This could be the opportunity she so desperately needs!

“Go on, sugar. What favor can I do for you?” She gives him a coy look. When she bites her lower lip suggestively, this makes Cortez unwillingly blurt out his deepest, most forbidden fantasies to a woman he’s had a celebrity crush on for years.

“This will sound really weird, but…” he tails off. Peggy urges him to go on by raising her eyebrow. He takes this as permission to say whatever he needs to say to her.

“…Could you pee in my mouth?”

Stunned but not scandalized, Peggy’s eyes open wide after hearing Cortez’s dirty request. She’s been in the porn industry long enough to have seen and done it all. It’s been several years since she’s participated in a fetishistic video involving urinating in someone’s mouth, but she (technically speaking) does have experience in this arena. Her first foray into a “pee-pee video” was a gang-bang episode of a now-defunct late-night pay-per-view erotic public access TV channel. This must have been at least twenty years ago, maybe longer. She laid on the floor while eight (or nine) men stood around her and peed into her mouth, all over her face, and everywhere else on her body. She hated doing it, but it paid a decent amount of money. The director eventually became a close friend of hers, and they went on to make several videos together in the coming years (none of them involving urine, for the record). So in a gross sort of way, it was totally worth it. Peggy insists she still gets the occasional nightmare where she can distinctly smell it in her sleep. And when she wakes up, Peggy feels like going to the bathroom will trigger her PTSD. But this time around, he’d be the one receiving it, not her. That’s a step in the right direction.

“Sure, baby. I do that all the time,” she fibs. “Get on the floor, NOW!”

Without hesitation, Cortez lies down on the floor like a trained puppy. He slaps himself in the face a few times, as if trying to test to see whether or not this is a dream. It’s not. Or maybe he likes getting slapped before a bitch pees on him. Who knows? Peggy stands over him, spreads her legs wide, and squats down so that she positions her vagina directly over his mouth. Now it’s her turn to take a deep breath so she can calm her nerves.

“You ready, darling?”

“Oh yeah! I’m ready. You know I’m ready. LET’S GO!”

“Good. Just lay there like a good, obedient little boy and let mama do the rest.” A few seconds later, Peggy releases her bladder. She goes as slowly as she can so that she doesn’t urinate too fast or too much. Cortez’s mouth is wide open, gleefully taking in as much of her golden yellow urine as possible. He makes a nauseating gurgling noise as he drinks Peggy’s hot smelly liquid. She looks up so he cannot see her face as she cringes with disgust. Peggy becomes even more repulsed as she feels a steady stream of warm urine overflow out of his mouth and pool around her bare feet. She struggles not to gag. Cortez, to his credit, appears to be having the time of his life. For as long as she lives, Peggy Cole will never understand why people have this fetish. But they do. And they apparently get turned on by this. She’s not usually a judgmental person. However, the strong odor and uncontrollable sounds of arousal coming out of him make for another horrid memory that will forever be burned into her brain.

Finally, she completely empties her bladder. She has nothing left to give him. She stands up straight and looks down at Cortez. His eyes are closed, and he has the biggest shit-eating (or pee-drinking) grin on his face. He licks his lips so he can enjoy every last drop. Seeing this makes Peggy want to vomit all over him. Maybe he’d enjoy that too?

“Oh, girl. That was fantastic. I loved it. Every second of it. Thank you, baby girl.” Cortez gets up off the floor and looks at himself in the mirror. He sees his shirt is all wet. Thankfully, he’s wearing all black so none of the guys will notice. However, they might note the pungent smell…

Before he can turn on a faucet to wash up, Peggy grabs the back of Cortez’s head and knees him in the face. He lets out a sharp cry of pain. Now properly bewildered, Peggy holds on to as much hair on the back of his head as possible and sees a white-painted brick wall in front of them. She winds up, grits her teeth, and smashes his head against the wall as hard as she can three times. Peggy lets go and watches Cortez drop to the floor like a ventriloquist dummy. She leans over him, seeing an ugly gash on his forehead and a modest amount of blood dripping down his cheek. The three powerful collisions knock Cortez out cold. She backs off so she can accurately observe his unconscious body. Cortez doesn’t move. Sure enough, he’s not getting up anytime soon.

“Sweet dreams, you sick fuck,” she says to him, knowing he cannot hear a single word she says.

Peggy sees Cortez’s gun in its holster. She picks it up and flips the safety switch from “safe” to “fire” with her thumb. She takes one last look at the perverted idiot lying on the floor like a pathetic passed-out drunk. Satisfied with her beat down of him, she exits the bathroom. Treading carefully, she knows not having shoes on will make it easier for her to walk around without being heard. As she leaves the locker room, she looks down the hallway to see if the safecracker guy is still at work. She can hear the dreadfully annoying sound of his drill cutting through metal to confirm that he is in fact still going at it. The gym door is closed, so no one inside can see her sneaking around with a loaded Glock 19.

It’s been almost a year since Peggy last fired a gun. One of her boyfriends is named Wally, a proud self-professed gun nut who lives on a survivalist ranch in the middle of the Nevada desert. They met while shooting a promotional video for a gun convention that was coming to the MGM Grand Conference Center. She wore a skimpy bikini, carrying a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle as suggestively as possible, and strutted around a stage as Wally and some other spokesman stood front and center to invite the viewers to the convention. During their lunch break, she and Wally snuck off to the bathroom to quickly fuck. They exchanged phone numbers and stayed in touch. For the last four years he’s been one of the seventeen lovers (Peggy is proudly polyamorous to a fault) that she sees regularly. Dylan is one of them, of course, but Wally is great because he lives in close proximity and shatters the smear that guys like to shoot guns because they have small penises. Wally isn’t nearly as big as Kit or Henry, but he can hold his own and not feel ashamed. He taught her how to shoot all sorts of guns, pistols included. She’s not a great markswoman by any stretch of the imagination, but for the time being she’s probably the most experienced shooter out of all her friends holed up in the basement.

“What the fuck should I do?” Peggy desperately whispers aloud to herself. Should she storm inside the room and blast her way toward liberating her friends? Or would that put her and her pals in even more danger? She thinks long and hard about what to do.

I have a gun, but so do the three other men that are inside that room, she figures. My friends would be in the line of fire if I went in there “guns blazing.” That is a risk I cannot take. Instead, I need to get out of here and call for help. Once I’m outside, I can start screaming my head off until one of the neighbors hears me. They can call 9-1-1 and get a fucking SWAT team in here to take care of the rest of these motherfuckers.

“Yes, that’s what I’m going to do. Call for help,” Peggy decides. She hurries up the stairs, her body running on pure adrenaline. She sprints toward the front door and dashes outside. The fresh cool summer air has never felt so damn good. Knowing time is of the essence, Peggy has to get help as soon as she can. By now, that Stephen guy is probably getting suspicious at why they’ve been in the bathroom for so long. Suspicion breeds paranoia, which breeds anger, which could lead to his friends getting shot by the madman. She must act now.

It takes only twenty-five seconds for Peggy to run down the driveway and reach the front gate. The darkness of night prevents her from seeing the walk-through pedestrian door located right next to the car gate. She frantically looks around for a way to leave the property.

“Damn Dylan, how the fuck do you get out of here?” She yells in frustration. “How the fuck do I leave? There has to be a door somewhere!”

Giving up trying to leave the traditional way, she looks up at the gate and wonders if she could climb over it. The ominous metal spikes at the top deter her from even trying. She spots a lone light coming from the next-door neighbor’s house. On the second floor, only one window is illuminated. And, it appears as though the window is open! Peggy can faintly see a pair of white curtains waving gently in the cool summer breeze. Deciding that her options are limited, she does the only thing she knows she can do at the moment.

“HEEEEEEEYYYYYYYYYYYY!!! CAN YOU HEAR MEEEEEEE? HELLO!!! HELP! SOMEBODY GET HELP! CALL THE FUCKING POLICE!!! HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELLLLP!!!” Peggy screams at the top of her lungs. She’s never screamed this loud before in her entire life. Out of breath and desperately trying to save her friends from untimely deaths, Peggy almost gives up screaming until she sees a porch light turn on at the house. If she had her glasses on she could better see the figure of the woman sticking her head out the window. A few seconds later, an older man in his mid to late 60s walks out the front door, an annoyed look on his face. She doesn’t blame him, though. She’d be upset too if an insane woman interrupted everyone’s sleep by screaming her head off nonstop in the middle of the night.

The old man trudges along slowly, drowsy and not wanting to deal with this commotion. His name is Kurt Ward. His wife, Bethany, is the woman who’s watching the drama unfold from her bedroom window. The Wards are friendly to Dylan Tanaka, but they are not exactly good friends. In the months after the federal trial ended, a seemingly endless stream of newspaper reporters, TV news vans, helicopters, bloggers, and idiotic tourists came by the neighborhood on a daily basis to get in contact with Seattle’s newly infamous war criminal who got away scot-free. The racket these intrusive morons caused made living in this cul-de-sac an absolute nightmare. There were times when Kurt couldn’t even drive to and from his house to run errands. The massive crowd of people would clog up the street. A few times TV news vans would actually block his driveway! He had to call the cops in several instances when they wouldn’t leave at a decent hour. The good news was that after about six or seven months, the bothersome traffic subsided and life eventually returned back to normal. Still, Kurt and Bethany couldn’t forgive Dylan for those hellish several months.

They also aren’t the biggest of fans of endless Middle Eastern wars, which is a whole other matter.

“Quit your yapping! Dear God, stop making so much goddamn noise! People are trying to sleep around here. Damn it. What seems to be the problem?” Kurt asks as he approaches the front gate of the Tanaka Residence.

***

“What the fuck is taking so long?” Stephen asks his men. “She said she had to pee, not take a long shit. I don’t like it. Xan, go check it out. Tell her to get going and not wipe her ass.”

Xander, amused but not willing to show it, leaves the room without saying a word. Now that there are only two gunmen and four hostages, both Stephen and Roddy remove their firearms. This sends the message that being outnumbered is no reason for any of the four remaining captives to try anything bold.

“Trust us, we’re not attempting shit,” Henry reassures both gunmen. “We’re staying put.”

“It’s just a precaution,” Roddy insists. This sort of puts everyone at ease. But not really. It’s never a comfortable feeling when men with guns are standing within an earshot of you. Melanie begins to worry for Peggy, unsure if she’s done anything imprudent that could lead to her tragic demise. Dylan sits back and wonders how this nightmare will eventually end, if at all.

Across the hallway, Xander pokes his head into the locker room. The lights are on, though nobody seems to be around. He can’t hear the sound of anyone peeing.

“Damn, look at this place,” he says to himself as he meanders around. “It’s like a real gym in here. Shoot, the rich sure know how to live!” As he approaches the toilets, Xander instantly notices the horrible smell of urine wafting down the narrow corridor. Whether it’s a blessing or a curse, Xander has always had an excellent sense of smell. Right now, it’s definitely a curse. His eyes look down, as if his nose knows which direction the smell is coming from. He gasps when he sees Cortez lying on his back, apparently either knocked out…or dead.

“Holy shit! Cortez, you alright?” He bends down and shakes him violently. Xander tries his hardest not to puke as the smell of urine invades his delicate senses. “Motherfucker, what happened here? Did that chick pee on you and knock you the fuck out?”

As if the accusation alone caused him to awaken so that he could defend himself against such a factually accurate guess, Cortez’s eyes slowly open, his vision foggy from his head being slammed against the wall multiple times. Xander grabs him and brings him to a sitting position. Then, he sees the blood trickling down Cortez’s face. He grabs a nearby towel, places it on his forehead, and tries to wake him up even faster.

“Dude, what the fuck happened to you? You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay…” Cortez looks around at his surroundings but can barely remember what just happened to him. He knows he has a concussion, though this is something he’ll have to soldier through. Right now he has much bigger fish to fry. “That bitch knocked me out cold. For real. Where is she?”

“No idea. The boss man asked me to come over to check on you. You were gone a long time. He got suspicious. That’s all. Looks like he was right,” Xander says, cleaning off the blood from Cortez’s cheek, chin, and neck. The wound has already begun to clot, so the worse of the bleeding has stopped. From Cortez’s perspective, everything is blurry, hazy, and unfocused. He hopes this doesn’t last long.

“I…I think that bitch got away,” Cortez reaches for his gun and doesn’t find it. “Oh shit! She took my gun. Fuck, she’s packing heat now!”

“Damn it! We got to go. Come on.” Xander gives Cortez a hand to help him to his feet. Xander sprints back to the gym with his partner struggling to keep up. Standing up and running is only making his massive headache even worse. Less than twenty seconds later, both men burst through the doors to alert their boss about the missing hostage.

“Boss, boss! She’s gone. The bitch disappeared. She knocked him out, took his gun, and fled somewhere. We don’t know where,” Xander blurts out. Everyone freezes when they wait for Stephen’s reaction. Mr. Callahan closes his eyes for a moment, then picks up his chair and throws it across the room. It lands on top of a stationary bicycle, making a loud CLANG noise.

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!! What the fuck do I pay you pieces of shit for? How the fuck did she escape? You had a gun. She’s unarmed. No, she literally had NO FUCKING CLOTHES ON, YOU ABSOLUTE DIPSHIT!” Stephen’s face becomes red with hot rage. Both men, including Roddy, flinch at their boss’s explosive temper. Dylan can only smile, enjoying seeing his former colleague throw a tantrum like a small child.

“Go look for her. NOW! She’s probably trying to escape. Try the front gate. And keep things quiet,” Stephen growls. “All three of you, get going. I’ll stay behind. And don’t start shooting unless she shoots first. I don’t want to wake up the neighbors. GO!”

The three men don’t bother to ask any questions. They immediately take off, running up the stairs on the way to the front door. Stephen paces around, his head looking down, trying to formulate his next move. An escaped hostage was not in his plans. In fact, Dylan was the only person he anticipated would be home. The four others were a total surprise. If this bitch blows their cover and somehow gets ahold of the police, this operation will be a failure. He’d have no choice but to tell Thomas to stop drilling, pack up his things, and get out before the cops arrive. And any chance of repeating this operation is next to nil. This is a once-in-a-lifetime heist that could go off the rails in a hurry if his men don’t catch up to her in time.

“Well, now I know how you feel, Dylan,” Stephen remarks, surprisingly in a much calmer mood.

“How so?”

“Now I know what it’s like to have to work with incompetent underlings. I’m sure this isn’t foreign to you, is it?” Stephen cannot bear to look at Dylan, knowing he’s probably enjoying seeing him explode in a rage. His eyes remain focused on the floor.

“Yeah, I know what this is like,” Dylan says. “I mean, who hasn’t had to deal with the occasional intern who makes the coffee too strong…or the hired thug who lets an unarmed naked woman beat him up and steal his gun?” This elicits a laugh from the rest of the hostages, further enraging the lone criminal left in the room.

“Fuck you all! Fuck this shit. I’d stop laughing if I were you. When my boys catch up with her, I’ll bring her back down here and shoot her in the head myself. All of you will have to watch her brains explode out of her skull. How does that sound? Huh?” Stephen’s threat shuts up the hostages immediately. The reality sinks in that if she gets caught, Peggy would certainly be executed. Everyone returns to feeling grim. “Oh yeah. That’s what I thought. You’re not laughing anymore. Are you?”

Silence.

“That’s what I thought.”

***

It wasn’t until Kurt Ward came within twenty feet of the front gate that he noticed three highly unusual things about the woman whose screaming has woken up the entire neighborhood (Kurt has already taken his contact lenses out, limiting his vision). First, she’s naked. Second, she’s muscular. As in, more muscular than a lot of the guys who work out at the YMCA he regularly goes to. Third, she’s carrying a firearm. These three facts make Kurt realize that his evening is about to get a whole lot more interesting.

“Um, ma’am. What’s going on? Why…uh, why are you not wearing any clothes? What the hell is going on here?” Kurt is a modest man who realizes his wife may be watching this interaction. He tries his best to only look at the woman’s face and not dip his eyes too low.

“You got to call the cops! NOW! We were having a party, then these armed men showed up and took me and my friends hostage, you got to call 9-1-1 right now! They took our phones. Do you have your phone on you?” Nearly out of breath, Peggy almost starts crying tears of joy knowing help may soon be on the way. Her heart sinks when she sees the man reach into his back pocket and not take out a phone.

“A hostage situation? Sweet Jesus. Uh, my phone? Oh, no I do not. My phone is in my house. I, uh, I can go back and–”

Before Kurt can finish his sentence, both he and Peggy hear the front door of Dylan’s home burst open. She turns around and sees three dark figures running toward her. Out of instinct, she drops to the ground even though she’s carrying a loaded gun. This move saves her life, as she hears a loud “BANG!” noise reverberate throughout this (previously) quiet neighborhood. She watches the man fall to the ground next to her. Peggy cannot tell who fired the shot, but it hits the man directly in his stomach. Her ears burn from hearing him holler out a blood-curdling scream that certainly will wake up even more neighbors. Her second instinctive decision, this time motivated by vengeance instead of self-preservation, is to point her gun at the three black figures and randomly fire two shots in their direction. The three men start shouting as they fall to the ground to avoid getting hit. Both shots miss. One bullet hits the garage door and the other hits the top of a chain-link fence. The distinct “CLANG!” sound is a dead giveaway. The shouting from the men ceases as they come to the realization that unnecessary sound will reveal their locations.

“Don’t move! Or I’ll fire again. And trust me, motherfuckers, this time I won’t miss!” Peggy quickly looks up and notices a porch light hanging right above her. It’s attached to the top of the front gate. There’s another one on the opposite side but this particular one is of more interest to her. If it’s activated by a motion sensor, a sudden move could turn it on. This would certainly give away her position and make her a sitting duck. She creeps away from the light just to make sure.

“Ohhhhhhh, my God! I…I’ve been sh…shot!” the man cries to anyone who’s willing to listen. Peggy doesn’t dare look back because she needs to concentrate instead on the three gunmen laying on their bellies ahead of her. She can’t see them but she knows they’re out there. They are wise to not make any noise.

Several hundred feet away, Bethany Ward, who heard all three gunshots but (as of yet) is not aware that her husband is currently laying on the pavement bleeding to death, goes to her phone and calls 9-1-1 like a good citizen. Her voice shakes as she waits for the operator to pick up on the other side.

“9-1-1 what is your emergency?”

“Oh! Uh. Hi, my name is Bethany. I live on Winchester Drive, right off 43rd Avenue. Th…there seems to have been a shooting. My husband is out there, trying to figure out what’s going on. He’s not back yet, I don’t know where he is…”

“Ma’am, please try to remain calm. You said there were shots fired? About how many?”

“Oh, uh, three I think. Yeah. Three.”

“Okay. Three shots fired. Has anyone been wounded, as far as you can tell?”

“I don’t know. Oh my God, my husband is out there! He might be hurt! I need to go to him–”

“No, please ma’am. You need to stay on the line. We need more information. Please don’t go. You said you live on Winchester and 43rd Avenue. Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you. Where did the shooting take place, exactly? On your property or somewhere on the street?”

“I…I…I don’t know. It’s dark. I can’t see real good. There was a woman shouting just now. My husband, Kurt, he went outside to see what all the commotion was about.”

“Is the woman possibly the shooter?”

“Maybe. Th…that’s possible. She…she was screaming her head off, making a lot of racket. Probably woke up the entire neighborhood. But I don’t know. It’s too dark to see. Please hurry!”

“Don’t worry, ma’am. We’ve just dispatched some patrol cars to come your way. They should be here in a few minutes. Please stay on the line and provide us updates if anything new happens.”

“Uh, okay. I…I can do that.”

“Please remain calm. Help is on the way. You’re doing great. You really are.”

On the other end of the line, the operator sends a message to all patrol cars on active duty in the area to head over to 43rd and Winchester to investigate a possible “active shooter” situation. Specifics are unclear. No known casualties. Three shots fired. A woman was screaming earlier. She could possibly be the shooter. Proceed with caution.

Just as the police scanner begins to alert nearby patrol cars to arrive at the scene as soon as possible, Peggy stands up and runs behind a neatly trimmed rosebush located about twelve feet away from Kurt’s body. She’s still on the other side of the gate, unaware of how to escape. But right now, escaping is not on her mind. Avoiding being shot by not one, but three gunmen, is currently at the top of her “to-do” list. She quickly glances at the man and is relieved to see he’s still alive. He’s not making any noise, but she can clearly see him writhing around the pavement, holding his stomach with both hands. Poor fellow, she thinks to herself. He may have been rude to her, but he’s still an innocent bystander in all of this.

“Okay, fuckers! I’m packing heat. You know that now. I know you all are, too. So let’s not do anything stupid, alright?” Peggy yells into the darkness.

“Fair enough,” Roddy says, still laying on his belly in the driveway. Xander and Cortez are lucky to be on the grass where it’s much more comfortable. “You want to be a good girl and come back inside with us? I have a clear shot at that old man. I can kill him right now if you don’t do what I say. Do you want his death on your conscience, you bitch?”

This makes Peggy stop and think. She looks back at the wounded old man, hoping somebody has called the paramedics by now. If help isn’t on the way, he’ll bleed out and die. Now, it’s not just her life that’s on the line. It’s also his.

“No, I don’t want that on my conscience. You son of a bitch. Okay, you win. All of you. I’m coming out…”

“Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah! Hold it right there. Not so fucking fast. Toss your gun toward us. Any direction. We don’t give a shit. Toss it back to us and come out with your hands up. You hear me?” Roddy orders. Peggy curses under her breath, knowing she has to give back to them her only trump card. But if she doesn’t, he’ll murder this poor old man. She lobs the gun high in the air in the direction of the voice. It lands six feet away from Xander. He picks it up and hands it back to Cortez. “That’s a good girl. Thank you.”

“I’m coming out now. Don’t shoot me or him, you promise?”

“Oh yeah, I promise. I’m a man of my word. Come on out, you raggedy old bitch,” Roddy snarls at her. He gets on his feet, which gives permission to Xander and Cortez to follow suit. Peggy hates being blatantly insulted like that, but she knows there’s not a damn thing she can do about it. Not right now.

Taking one cautious step at a time, Peggy stands up and walks out from behind the rosebush. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see the old man still wiggling around outside the gate. A dark red pool has formed around his body. She tries not to react to the sight of blood. Peggy Cole loves all sorts of movies and TV shows – except for horror. She can’t do horror. It’s too much for her. All that dying, killing, bleeding, and screaming…it’s all so oppressively unpleasant to watch.

“Okay,” she begins. “Here I am. Let’s go back inside.”

Before Roddy can respond, the distinct sound of police sirens echoes softly in the distance. All three gunmen look at each other, horrified at what’s about to happen. Given the distance of the sound, Roddy estimates they’re about two to three minutes away, tops.

“Fuck! Run for it! Back inside the house, NOW! GO, GO, GO!” Roddy commands his two comrades. Xander and Cortez do not hesitate, sprinting back to the front door and reentering the mansion as fast as possible. Roddy waits a split second to make sure Peggy doesn’t attempt another dash for freedom. When he sees Peggy catching up to him, he turns around to catch up with the others. Roddy stumbles a bit when he trips over a step leading back to the house. Peggy notices a small object fall out of his inner jacket pocket. Roddy, however, is so scared of being caught by the police that he doesn’t notice that he’s dropped something. As he runs inside the house, Peggy bends down to see what he dropped. She picks it up and sees that it’s a switchblade. Nine inches, give or take (she’s an expert at guessing the exact measurements of objects that long).

Looks ideal for hunting wild game, Peggy determines. Or evil men.

“Well, well, well. Look at what we have here…” She tries to hide the long knife behind her forearm by cupping it in the palm of her hand. It’s awkward, but she’s got to do what she’s got to do. Desperate times call for desperate measures. She no longer has a gun, so this gift left behind by that idiot will have to suffice. Suddenly, that idiot shouts at her from inside the house.

“Get back in here, you fucking bitch! If you don’t, I’ll fucking execute your fucking friends!” This forces Peggy to have to make a quick decision. She needs a weapon but has to hide it somehow. She can try to keep it behind her forearm…but it would only be a matter of time before they discover it.

Then, it suddenly dawns on her what she needs to do.

Fifteen seconds later, Peggy Cole is back inside the house. The sounds of the police sirens grow louder and louder. Cortez slams the door shut. Xander finds all the light switches in the foyer and turns them off. Peggy stops dead in her tracks when she sees Roddy pointing his gun directly at her forehead.

“Come with me, you fucking cunt. And don’t you even think about escaping a second time. If you do, your friends will be no more. Guaranteed. We’re done fucking around. Got it?”

Peggy gulps after hearing this unambiguous threat. “Yeah. I got it.”

“Follow me. RIGHT NOW!”

Roddy storms back to the basement. Peggy follows him. Xander and Cortez remain behind just in case she does anything unwise. She can still smell her urine drenched all over Cortez’s clothes. Peggy wonders if he’s told any of his colleagues why he reeks like that. She doubts it.

They reach the bottom of the staircase just as two police cars enter the cul-de-sac. A third is not far behind. Dylan’s home is constructed well enough to block out a lot of outside noise. When a thunderstorm hits he can barely hear it. None of the people down in the gym can hear the police sirens, a testament to how well the contractors built his home all those years ago. Roddy dreads having to deliver even more bad news to his boss, but it has to be said as soon as possible if they’re going to have any chance of getting through this without finding themselves in a jail cell.

“Boss! Bad news, man. We got her, but she somehow called the cops. Or some old man on the street called the cops. We don’t know for sure,” Roddy reveals as he and the rest come back into the gym. By now, Stephen looks haggard, ready to burst at the seams at the slightest provocation. “They’re coming. The fucking cops are coming. We’re fucked.”

“No, we’re not. Not yet,” Stephen says in a voice so soothing it shocks everyone in the room that he can remain so calm when he demonstrated a lack of emotional control just a few minutes earlier. “Did anyone see you?”

“No. Someone saw her, though.”

“Okay, but not you? Or Xan? Or the other one?” Stephen insults Cortez by not even mentioning him by name. Cortez knows he deserves it so he doesn’t feel too bad about it.

“I don’t think so. We all got away before the cops or anyone else saw us.”

“What about the old man?” Xander asks Roddy.

“What old man?” Stephen asks. “You mentioned him before. Who is he?”

“I don’t know. Some guy who happened to be talking to her on the other side of the gate. I shot him, when I was really trying to shoot her. It was an accident,” Roddy confesses.

“Is he dead?”

“Nope. He’s hurt bad, but not dead. At least, not yet,” Peggy answers. Stephen walks up right to her and slaps her in the face with the back of his hand. Dylan and Henry make a sound of protest, but nobody pays attention to them. Melanie and Monique stay quiet, not wanting to incur the wrath of any of these men who are about to lose their minds.

Peggy rubs her cheek to soothe the pain. This is not the first time an angry man has slapped her out of nowhere. It’s happened to her far too many times to count. An abusive ex-boyfriend of hers, back before she lived a polyamorous lifestyle, frequently slapped her when she didn’t do what he asked her to do exactly the way he wanted it done. Cooking, cleaning, household chores, grocery shopping, you name it. He was a former porn producer who was exiled from the industry after being verbally abusive to too many young actresses on set. That should have been a red flag to warn her to stay away from him, but she couldn’t help herself. He was handsome, charismatic, wealthy, and devilishly arrogant. They broke up after two rocky years together. She learned many valuable lessons from that failed relationship.

“You sure do know how to treat a lady,” she teases Stephen. “Your mother must be so proud of you.”

Stephen considers pistol-whipping her but decides against it. Now is the time to solve a much more pressing crisis at hand, not punish this worthless slut for disobedience.

“Sit down. Over there.” He points to where the other hostages are sitting. Peggy complies without putting up a fight. Melanie stands up to hug her as she returns to her friends. Dylan is too emotionally numb to move.

“Dylan. Do you have a room anywhere where we can view a live feed of the security cameras?” Stephen asks. He hesitates to take too many steps toward the hostages out of fear that all of them will pounce at once and rip his heart out.

“Yes. It’s actually upstairs. Second floor. Close to where you found us.”

“Show me.”

“Okay.”

Dylan stands up with his blanket still wrapped around his naked body. He takes a moment to regard his former colleague, who looks like he’s about to have a nervous breakdown. Dylan is pretty sure he’ll have one himself soon enough. Misery loves company, right? Melanie extends her hand toward him, wishing him good luck. Dylan grabs it and grips it tightly for a moment before letting go. He and Stephen leave the room to go upstairs, leaving the three exhausted gunmen alone with the four remaining hostages. Nobody says a word while the two former Perseus Analytics executives go search for a view of what’s happening outside.

Outside near the gate, two of the police vehicles stop in front of the body lying on the pavement. The third vehicle parks in front of the Ward’s driveway. Bethany runs outside, still in her pajamas, wanting to see what’s happening with her dear husband. One of the police officers calls for an ambulance to show up. The other, a man named Connor Dietrich, is a 57-year-old burly cop who’s been on the force for 31 years. Officer Dietrich inspects the body of Kurt Ward and is thankful to see he’s still breathing. The younger officer accompanying him, a short young man named Cunningham, attends to the wounded victim. He gently turns the man on his back so he can better inspect the wound. Sure enough, it’s one single gunshot to the stomach.

“Gunshot wound, sir. Just one. I don’t see any other trauma on the body,” Officer Cunningham tells the elder officer. “I assume you’ve already called for an ambulance?”

“Yes, it’s on its way,” Officer Dietrich reassures the youngster. Cunningham nods.

Immediately, Dietrich recognizes the property. He knows this neighborhood is home to a lot of super-duper rich families. The type of folks who would expect a top-notch police response if anything bad were to happen around here. Usually, nothing too dramatic occurs in these parts of town. This is probably a first, at least for the residents of this cul-de-sac. Dietrich pulls out a flashlight and shines it on the property behind the gate.

“This is Dylan Tanaka’s house,” Dietrich proclaims. “I knew it looked familiar. Wow. He sure does live like a king.”

“Really? Dylan Tanaka? Damn. I knew he lived around here, but I never knew exactly where,” Officer Cunningham says as he tries to keep the old man at bay until the paramedics come. “Sir, are you okay? Can you hear me?”

“Yeah, I can hear you just fine,” Kurt Ward says to the young officer. “Fuck, eh…whoever shot me better…better get the electric chair, y…you know?”

“We’ll see to that, trust me,” Officer Cunningham comforts the wounded man. “What’s your name?”

“Kurt.”

“Well, Kurt. Don’t you worry. An ambulance is on its way. You’re heading to the emergency room pretty soon. Probably not the way you’d like to spend your Saturday evening, huh?”

Kurt grumbles something unintelligible, clearly not in the mood for small talk. Officer Dietrich gives the young man a dirty look, telling him to cool it with the gratuitous chatter. This shuts Cunningham up really quick. The sound of an ambulance making a sharp turn into the cul-de-sac distracts everyone from the momentary awkward pause.

“You see? They’re right on time,” Cunningham says. Unfortunately for the two officers, the wounded victim passes out from shock, preventing either of them from asking additional questions.

“Damn it!” Dietrich curses.

“Looks like we’re going to have to do some old-fashioned detective work,” Cunningham says.

Officer Dietrich grumbles. He sees the third police officer, a young woman named Kerry Gutierrez, trying to comfort the man’s wife. Bethany Ward is screaming and crying, desperately attempting to get closer to her husband. Officer Gutierrez tells her that seeing her husband surrounded by a pool of blood would be too upsetting to witness and could traumatize her. She does her best to restrain her. Dietrich turns away, figuring that part of the situation is already taken care of. He steps away to make room for the paramedics to attend to the gunshot victim. Right now, he notices several households in the cul-de-sac have turned on their bedroom or porch lights, awoken and curious to see what all the hubbub is about. Two paramedics pull out a stretcher from the back of the ambulance. Officer Cunningham assists in lifting the man up onto the stretcher. Dietrich figures a younger man without creaky knees should do the backbreaking labor instead.

As Officer Gutierrez questions the distraught wife and offers to give her a ride to the hospital, Dietrich shines a flashlight onto Dylan Tanaka’s property. Nothing seems out of the ordinary. Not a single soul in sight. As dead as a morgue. He approaches the gate and tries to open the pedestrian door. It doesn’t budge. So, he concludes, the shooter couldn’t have run through the property. How would he or she have gotten in?

“It seems like nobody saw who did the shooting,” Cunningham tells Dietrich. “The wife heard the gunshots but couldn’t see clearly who fired the bullets. In fact, believe it or not, she had no idea her husband was hit until she came outside her house and saw him lying on the pavement. Can you imagine that?”

“Hm. It’s dark and this street is poorly lit, so that’s not a surprise,” Dietrich says. There doesn’t appear to be a single light on in Tanaka’s house, which is curious considering every other household in the neighborhood has its lights on by now. A few folks have even stuck their heads out their front doors to see what all the excitement is about. Yet, Dylan Tanaka is nowhere to be seen. The shooting, after all, did happen right in front of his property.

“What should we do?” the younger officer asks.

Officer Dietrich sees a callbox located next to the pedestrian gate. The next logical step seems all the more obvious.

“We ask Mr. Tanaka what the hell just happened.”

***

Off to the side of the cabaret room is a large closet that Dylan converted into a security room. He asked the folks at McDonald & Pierce Security Systems to install several large computer monitors in this room, all of them showing a live feed of all twelve security cameras located outside the house. The few cameras that are inside the house just have their feeds directly stored onto the cloud. Dylan and Stephen enter the room, turn on the lights, and look for which monitor feeds from the front gate camera. Monitor #7 appears to be the one.

“Holy shit, Dylan. This place looks like a casino. Look at all these monitors.”

“Yeah, something like that. Speaking of which, how the fuck did you break into my house without triggering any of the alarms?”

“I’ll tell you later, old sport,” Stephen says with a smile. Dylan chooses not to react. “The police have arrived. Not too many cop cars, from what I can tell. There’s already an ambulance taking that guy away. I hope he lives.”

“Damn. That’s Kurt,” Dylan says remorsefully. He can tell by the man’s terrible comb-over that it’s Kurt Ward. “Fuck, I hope he makes it.”

“It looks like one of the cops is trying to buzz in. Can you answer it when he does?”

“Yes.” Dylan picks up a wireless transistor radio sitting in a charging station. “I can talk to whoever is at the gate right from here. No need to access my phone, although I do get a notification when someone tries to speak to me. Lawrence does too, so if he’s up at this hour – which I sincerely doubt – he’ll see that someone is trying to buzz in too.”

“When that cop does try to talk to you, you play along and say everything is cool and quiet around here, you understand?” Stephen taps the gun in his holster. Dylan doesn’t need to be told twice what that means.

“Oh yes. I understand as clear as day.”

“Good.”

A split second later, the transistor radio starts making a sweet melodic ringing sound. Dylan waits a few seconds so it doesn’t appear as though he’s standing right by the radio expecting a late-night visitor out of the blue. Stephen was about to tell him to answer it until he figures out what Dylan is doing. He smirks at his former boss’s cleverness. Finally, Dylan picks it up and presses the “talk” button.

“Yeah? What do you want? It’s late. I’m trying to sleep.”

“I’m sorry, sir. But my name is Officer Connor Dietrich. I’m with the Seattle Police Department. There’s been a shooting right here outside your home. Can you please open the gate so I can come to talk to you?”

Dylan gives Stephen a quick look. Stephen nods his head silently.

“A shooting? Oh my God! That’s horrible. I’m a heavy sleeper so I didn’t hear anything. Yes, I’ll open the gate and will be down in a few moments.” Dylan presses a button on a control panel, which opens the front gate. Stephen and Dylan watch on monitor #7 the gate slowly open and Officer Dietrich walk onto the driveway. Dylan puts the transistor radio back in the charging station.

“I need to get dressed. In something. I can’t just come out wearing nothing but a fucking blanket.”

“You’re right. That’ll look, uh, odd. Hold on.”

Stephen backs off and proceeds to strip off a few items of clothes. He takes off his pants, jacket, and black t-shirt. He’s a tad taller than Dylan, so it won’t be a perfect fit. However, time is precious and this is the best he can do for now. Dylan takes the hint. He puts on Stephen’s black pants, zips it up, and puts on his shirt. It’s way too tight (Dylan’s persistent workout routine has really paid off, apparently), but it’ll do. Stephen decides against giving him the jacket.

“This is good enough,” Dylan says.

“I agree. Now go downstairs to the front door. I’ll stand close by, out of sight. Remember, if you do anything stupid, you and your friends will pay the price. Not just me.”

“Uh huh. No worries, old friend. I got this.”

Less than a minute later Dylan turns on a light in the foyer while Stephen finds a convenient place to hide behind a couch in the living room. The curtains are drawn in the living room, but he wants to play it safe. Stephen is less than forty feet away from the front door. Dylan sighs, then opens the door. The bright red police lights flashing in the distance temporarily blind him.

“Good evening, officer.”

“Good evening. You are Mr. Tanaka, am I right?” Officer Dietrich politely inquires. He looks at Dylan’s strange appearance and wonders how a man so wealthy could dress so…plainly? A black pair of pants, no socks, and a black shirt that looks like something he wore back in high school isn’t the type of clothing he’d expect a billionaire to wear around his palatial home. Dietrich makes a mental note of it and quickly moves on to questioning him.

“Yes, that’s me. You must recognize the house.”

“Yup, that’s the reason why. Tell me, Mr. Tanaka, I want to be clear that you didn’t hear any gunshots just a few moments ago? Probably about ten or twelve minutes ago.”

“No, officer. Like I said, I’m a heavy sleeper. And I’ll be honest with you, I’m sort of feeling a slight hangover right now. Too much scotch earlier today, if you know what I mean.”

“Yes, I know exactly what you mean,” Officer Dietrich laughs. “I am so sorry to have to wake you up at this late hour. But as you can see over my shoulder, a man has just been shot.” Dylan sidesteps to the left so he can see the ambulance beginning to back up so it can race to the nearest hospital. The sight of Bethany, tears streaming down her face, is heartbreaking. “We have not been able to identify the shooter, however, given the fact the victim was lying on the ground right in front of your property and facing your property, it seems reasonable to me that the shot came in this direction. I’m about to call in more officers to look around your property, is that alright with you?”

“Oh, yes. Please do so. By all means. If there’s a dangerous shooter in this area, we need to find him immediately,” Dylan urges. He feels the palms of his hands get sweaty as he watches Officer Dietrich mumble something into his radio, most likely calling in for reinforcements. Seemingly within seconds, a few more police cars show up out of thin air, as if he had magically conjured them up. But Dylan realizes those additional cars were probably already on their way. “Does that mean I need to keep the pedestrian gate unlocked for the time being?

“Yes, that would be great. I wouldn’t want any of my boys to have to climb the fence, now would we? Anyway, we recommend you stay in your home and not leave until me or another officer gives everyone in the neighborhood the “all clear” signal, alright?”

“Of course, that makes sense. I can do that.” Dylan’s left eye begins to twitch. Dietrich sees this but says nothing.

“Good. Have a nice rest of your evening, sir. We may be in touch later if we find further evidence that warrants your attention.” In the back of his mind, Officer Dietrich believes the shooter is hiding somewhere on Dylan Tanaka’s property. This is his first time actually talking to the man…and he seems just like how he appeared on TV interviews. Polite, well-spoken, and saying exactly what needs to be said using the exact words necessary. He still cannot believe that the guy is allegedly a war criminal. He seems nice enough.

“Sounds like a plan. Good luck catching them,” Dylan says with special emphasis on the last word.

Officer Dietrich walks away, noticing the weird way he said “them” just now. Why would he use the plural form of “him” (or “her”) when there is only one alleged shooter? Was he just being “gender neutral,” which apparently is all the rage with society these days? As he ponders this, Dietrich walks by the garage door and notices something strange. He shines his flashlight on the top left corner and sees a small hole. After looking at the hole for several seconds, it dawns on him that it’s a bullet hole. Whoa. And given the strange way Dylan Tanaka behaved…

“Cunningham,” Dietrich says to the young officer as he walks through the pedestrian door back onto the street. “Tell the new guys who just showed up that we’re inspecting the Tanaka residence first. And…”

“Uh, yeah?” Cunningham asks, confused why Dietrich would pause mid-sentence.

“…I think either he’s involved with the shooting, or there’s an uninvited guest staying inside his house. I don’t know why, but I got a funny feeling. He acted like he was, I don’t know, being watched by someone, you know what I mean?” Like Dylan Tanaka himself, Connor Dietrich has always had a keen sixth sense about oddities like this. He’s dealt with enough domestic violence cases to know when someone is trying to act normal but struggles to because their abuser is watching them from a distance, testing them to see if they’ll remain loyal or rat them out to the cops. This probably isn’t one of those cases, however there are some similarities, he notes.

As of now, seven police cars are parked in various places around the cul-de-sac. The ambulance is long gone. Officer Gutierrez approaches Dietrich as he watches Cunningham summon the other officers to plan an inspection of Tanaka’s front and backyard.

“Hey there. So I just got done speaking to both the wife and, very briefly, the man who was shot. Remarkably, he woke up and was actually able to speak to us,” she says. “Despite the wound to the stomach. He’s lucky the round didn’t pierce any major organs. I’m guessing after minor surgery he’ll be back home within a day or two.”

“Well, you don’t know that until a doctor gets to look at him. What did he have to say?”

“He says the woman who was screaming was standing on the other side of the gate over there,” Gutierrez points to Dylan’s front gate. This further confirms Dietrich’s theory that Dylan Tanaka is directly involved somehow. “And you won’t believe this part. Are you ready for this?”

“Not only was she armed, but she was naked. She actually fired two shots toward the house, most likely at whoever was chasing her around,” she continues. “I think we got ourselves either a really, really, really bad case of domestic violence here, or…”

“…Or what?” Dietrich asks.

“Or she’s being held hostage in there. The man didn’t know how many people were chasing her. At least two, maybe more. I think this is serious. Want to know my theory?”

“Please, do tell.”

“I think whoever was chasing the woman was trying to shoot her but accidentally shot the old man instead. It wasn’t intentional. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. She screamed for help, he came out of his home to investigate, and a bullet intended for her pierced him instead. That sounds feasible to me,” Gutierrez concludes. Dietrich has no doubt that this young lady will make a fine police detective one day. She’s bright, easy to talk to (which comes in handy when you’re interrogating people, especially serial liars and psychopaths), and can think like a criminal. Those skills are what police departments look for when deciding who should and shouldn’t get promoted to better paying jobs.

“I think your theory is right,” Dietrich confirms. “I walked past his garage door and saw a bullet hole on the top left corner. It must have been from when the woman fired back at her captors.” Oh, great. Now they’ve got a much more complicated mess on their hands. This is going to be a long night, he fears. His shift ends in two hours, but he has another funny feeling that he’s going to have to work overtime today. “Damn! I’m one lucky son of a bitch.”

“Huh?” Gutierrez was about to turn to leave. “Why do you say that?”

“I’m glad you told me that now, not before I spoke to him,” Dietrich thinks aloud. “If I had mentioned to him a shootout had just happened on his property, if he also is being held hostage – which is a possibility – whoever the bad guy is might have killed him right after our conversation ended.”

“Wait, what? You didn’t tell him there was a shootout? What did you tell him?”

“I told him a man was shot. I didn’t say a woman was involved or that she shot back…in the direction of his house. If I had asked him about the, uh, naked woman who was on his property, he would have been forced to acknowledge her. And that would’ve complicated matters…” Dietrich rubs his chin. The stubble reminds him to shave whenever he gets the chance.

“Which leads you to believe he’s being held up at gunpoint by someone who was right behind him, out of sight?” she posits. Both officers look at each other and don’t need to say anything. They know this is a likely theory. Whoever is holding him and the woman hostage told Dylan Tanaka to “play it cool” and pretend he was sleeping the whole time. Hell, he even lied about being hungover just to make his story more believable. If Dietrich had mentioned that there were two people exchanging gunfire, one of them a naked woman who was screaming bloody murder on his property, him sleeping like a baby and being completely oblivious to whatever had just happened wouldn’t have been plausible. That explains why Dylan was dressed so weird and referred to the shooters as them

“Holy shit,” Dietrich curses to himself. “We need a SWAT team and a hostage negotiator here, NOW! And keep things quiet. Don’t make any sudden moves. I think we’re being watched.” Officer Dietrich points up toward a security camera perched high above the front gate. Officer Gutierrez peeks at it without moving her head too much. Once again, they don’t have to say what needed to be said because they were both thinking the same thing.

“What else do you know about this…naked woman?” he asks. “Besides the fact she was screaming like a banshee?” This question makes Gutierrez blush a little.

“Well, he said that she’s, um, that she’s muscular…”

Dietrich cranes his neck forward. “Wait, WHAT? Muscular? Like a, uh, like a bodybuilder?”

She nods. “Yup. Like a bodybuilder. Or a football player. And, she has gigantic boobs.”

Dietrich blinks after hearing this news. Gutierrez smiles. For once, he’s completely speechless.

***

“Good job, old boy,” Stephen says as he and Dylan walk back down the stairs. He gives his former boss a light pat on the shoulder. “I think he believed your story. They’ll just send a few cops to look around your backyard, find nothing suspicious, and move on over to the other houses. I think me and the boys dodged a bullet, no pun intended. And they seem to have no clue about your slutty little friend who tried to escape. That’s good. They think you’re all alone in your quiet little mansion. Just you sleeping off a hangover. Oh by the way, I liked that touch.”

“Yes, it appears as though that’s what they think,” Dylan says, hoping that the cop caught on to the clue he spilled at the end. Stephen didn’t appear to notice. “Well done. You just might get away with this score of yours.”

“Yes, it does look that way.” Stephen’s triumphant grin makes Dylan want to punch him in the face so, so hard.

“Who do you think the cops will think shot my neighbor?” Dylan asks as they reach the basement.

“Oh, they’ll probably conclude it was a common burglar who wanted to steal his wallet or something. It looks like your neighbor either had already died or has passed out from the pain. Either way, he’s obviously in no position to talk about what happened to him.” Stephen and Dylan come back into the gym. Judging from the mortuary-like atmosphere, it seems as though nobody had moved an inch since they left. This is probably a good thing. Everyone stares at them as they approach, eagerly anticipating an update.

“Good news, gentlemen!” Stephen begins, in a much more positive mood than before. Everyone is a bit confused why Dylan is wearing some of Stephen’s clothes. “We’re in luck. Hell, we should head to Vegas after this and gamble to our heart’s delight because we’re on a lucky streak! First, the cops have no clue about us. They think Dylan is all by himself in here. Second, the old man you shot hasn’t talked yet, so they have no idea about that bitch over there or any of you. So he’s either dead or passed out from the pain.” This news brightens the faces of all the bandits. None of the hostages seems too thrilled; believing their one chance at being rescued has been squandered for good. Dylan sits back down next to Melanie. He takes her hand again.

“However, we’re not out of the woods yet. The cops are coming over to inspect the property. Just the outside, so don’t worry too much. This means we need to move to an interior room.” Stephen points to the windows on the opposite corner. “Let’s move. NOW.”

Relieved to know their screw-up didn’t result in them getting caught, the bandits instruct the hostages to stand up and follow them. The hostages, deflated that their chances of escaping this nightmare unscathed are still dire, do not protest and obediently follow orders. Melanie and Dylan hold hands. Henry stands close to Monique and Peggy as if he’s taken it upon himself to act as their personal bodyguard.

Though he doesn’t say anything, Dylan is confident there is light at the end of the tunnel. He doesn’t know why. It’s just a gut feeling. The only question is:

How long is the tunnel?

All the King’s Queens – Chapter 8: Party Crashers

Stephen Callahan estimates his crew should arrive at Dylan Tanaka’s property at a quarter to 11 o’clock. That should give him plenty of time to coordinate the shutting off of Dylan’s security systems. Bill Marks, a man Stephen has known for several years from their days working together at a Silicon Valley startup that eventually folded, is currently the Regional Manager of the West Coast office of McDonald & Pierce Security Systems, a private home security company that specifically caters to the rich and famous. MPSS’s clients span professional athletes to Hollywood celebrities, corporate CEOs, government officials, lobbyists, media personalities, investors, and anyone with enough money (and a healthy dose of paranoia) to pay for such expensive services. Bill, who did some contract work for Perseus Analytics back in the day, is also not a fan of Dylan Tanaka. He feels strongly that Stephen was the convenient scapegoat who served the role as the sacrificial lamb so PA’s higher-ups could avoid prison time.

Bill, knowing his actions could cost him both his job and prison time for himself, enthusiastically agreed to join in on the scheme when Stephen first approached him about it. His role is fairly simple but no less crucial: His job is to temporarily create a systems error between midnight and 3:00 a.m. on Sunday, June 30. MPSS regularly goes through a region-wide system reboot/update on the final day of every month for a few hours, usually beginning at midnight. This is completely routine and happens as scheduled every single month. Occasionally, this system reboot will cause a small handful of homes to lose the connection between their security system and the main servers at the MPSS regional headquarters. It’s typical for anywhere between 5-10 homes on the West Coast (Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California, and Utah) to temporarily experience this technical glitch for no more than an hour or two. MPSS tries to minimize this bug, but technology isn’t always a perfect ally. Since they have more than 170,000 clients in these five U.S. states, that number isn’t trivial but is small enough that if it were to happen, it wouldn’t be considered unusual.

Stephen proposed to Bill the simple scheme of intentionally cutting off the connection between Dylan Tanaka’s house during those critical three hours. As far as he’s concerned, his motion detectors, security cameras, door locks, and direct lines to emergency services will still operate – but any data captured from those systems will not feed back to HQ (located in Redwood City, CA, where Bill lives and works). Which basically means Dylan’s security systems will be useless during that window of time. He won’t receive any error messages on his end, but that won’t matter because for three hours the Internet connection between his home and Redwood City HQ will be cut off. All of this, while “tragic,” is perfectly normal. Thankfully for MPSS (whose main corporate headquarters is in Austin, TX) this secret technical glitch hasn’t come back to haunt them – yet. It’s only a matter of time, Stephen and Bill have decided, when a regularly scheduled systems reboot would result in a catastrophic event where a rich man whose house is being broken into isn’t reported to the local police. And, no footage of the crime is ever recorded onto MPSS’s cloud servers.

During their initial planning discussion, Bill estimates this would cost the company dearly in a lawsuit brought upon by Mr. Tanaka, as well as bad publicity. But since Mr. Tanaka has become a social pariah after being dubbed a “war profiteer” by a Congressional defense committee, he will most likely receive very little public support. MPSS’s stockholders and board members will temporarily freak out, but the market has a funny way of returning back to normal after the news cycle moves on to something new. You’re only one controversial Donald Trump tweet away from your sins being forgotten by the media. They are easily distracted. And the current U.S. president has a knack for distracting people from what’s really going on around the country.

Still, such a plan comes with immense risk. After lengthy brainstorming, Stephen Callahan and Bill Marks decided that every client in the greater Seattle area should experience the same “technical glitch” as Dylan in order to minimize any suspicion that this was an inside job. That would victimize only 378 homes – including a few business buildings – a fairly small number compared to MPSS’s total number of clients, but large enough to make it look like Dylan Tanaka’s home wasn’t specifically targeted. This “outage” could also be shorter or longer for some people. Some people may only experience a glitch lasting 20 seconds. Or 10 minutes. Or 30 minutes. Or three hours. Dylan’s home should experience some of the longer outages, of course, which would give Stephen’s team plenty of time to break in, steal whatever they need to steal, and get out without giving Dylan or any of his nosy neighbors a chance to call the cops.

In return for this invaluable service, Stephen promised he’d pay Bill and two unnamed mid-level employees at MPSS (it would be nearly impossible for Bill to singlehandedly execute a plot of his magnitude and technical difficulty) $175,000 each upfront and at least $1.5 million afterward. They could get more if the information Stephen steals ends up being as valuable on the black market as he suspects it is. All in all, Stephen will have to pay at least $5,025,000 to ascertain Dylan’s hidden documents. However, he knows that’s small potatoes compared to their estimated worth: At least $40 billion when you consider the fortune you’d make producing state-of-the-art artificial intelligence programs for foreign governments, militaries, corporations, NGOs, and any party who desires to weaponize data to their advantage.

None of the people involved in this plot seem morally concerned about the potential blowback this operation could create. Oh well. Life goes on.

Until it doesn’t.

“Dude, this drive is long and boring as hell. There’s nothing to see. It’s just darkness.” Thomas resists the urge to yawn, which could communicate tiredness (which he is at the moment) and the possibility that his mind wouldn’t be sufficiently sharp enough to complete the mission. Despite the late hour, Stephen doubts anyone on his team will actually fall asleep on the job. The stakes are way too high.

“You should try driving this road during the day. It’s no better. But we’re not here to be tourists.” Stephen looks at his trusty safecracker for any sign that he’s considering backing out. Unlike most gigs he’s worked on, the loot they’re stealing is potentially worth billions of dollars. This is a scale Thomas has never experienced before. He’s accustomed to stealing boring shit like passports, birth certificates, legally-binding contracts, wills, jewelry, expensive watches, or the occasional key to a safety deposit box. He has never been asked to actually go to the bank and retrieve whatever is in that box, just to steal the key to get in. So not even the jobs where really valuable stuff is involved is directly stolen by him. However, this evening is a whole new ballgame, a whole different can of worms.

“Relax, we’re going to be okay. We’ll be there before you know it. Just pretend like you just chugged seven Red Bulls. That’ll do the trick.”

“Hm,” Thomas reacts with less enthusiasm than a little kid eating a plate full of brussels sprouts. Usually, Thomas does jobs where his only stake in the game is the payment for doing it successfully. It’s never personal, just business. This, however, is a slightly different matter. He doesn’t necessarily consider Stephen a friend, so failure tonight wouldn’t devastate him too much emotionally (unless they get caught by the police, which goes without saying). That doesn’t mean he isn’t rooting for Stephen to win. Thomas has no qualms about stealing money or assets from a super-rich billionaire. It’s not like Dylan Tanaka will miss it. After all, he’s the one who’s chosen to sit on these documents for all these years. He could have easily chosen to sell them to a third-party bidder at a ridiculously high price. That isn’t something he’s done – yet. So if a man like Stephen Callahan, who deserves his fair shake after the clown show that was the congressional investigation and hearings, can’t be faulted too much for taking something that Mr. Tanaka refuses to give away. Morality is a funny thing, Thomas often thinks. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Meanwhile, inside the SUV Xander carefully removes a small flask out of his coat pocket and takes a small swig. He knows he’s supposed to remain “clean and sober” until the job is done, but feelings of nervousness cannot easily be shaken off. He’s only human. The small amount of bourbon he drinks will calm his nerves, loosen him up, and make him more at ease once they get to the rich guy’s mansion. What’s the harm in that?

“How are we all feeling?” Roddy asks his passengers. His gaze is focused on the road.

“Meh. Let’s just get it over with. It’s been a while since I’ve been on a job,” Cortez says. “I feel out of shape, know what I mean? This shit better not take all night, that’s all I’m asking.” Xander, sitting in the back seat, takes a second swig of bourbon before sharing his answer with the group. Before speaking, he puts the flask back inside his coat pocket, thankful that nobody seemed to have noticed it.

“I’m good. Kind of excited. I’m like you, Cortez. Haven’t been on a job in a long time. Damn. Probably my second one this year. Shit.” Xander shifts around in his seat, genuinely surprised at his lack of activity this year.

“That’s it? You worked with Tony Morocco and his boys, right? They snuck all those trucks full of cocaine across the Mexican border right around Valentine’s Day. The DEA had no fucking idea it happened. They probably still don’t. As far as the Border Patrol is concerned, those trucks had corn maize in it,” Roddy says. Tony Morocco is an infamous drug smuggler who is intimately connected with many of the big Mexican and Central American cartels. He’s born and raised in the United States, has lots of personal (and family) connections south of the border, and knows the right federal officials and law enforcement personnel to pay off in order to keep the flow of narcotics onto American streets going smoothly. Almost every hired goon on the West Coast has worked for him before, either directly or indirectly. Roddy, to his credit, knows almost every major player in the game. His knowledge of everyone’s sordid history should come as no surprise. He didn’t assemble this team himself – it was Thomas who gathered all the players on Stephen’s behalf – but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know who he’s riding with.

“To be fair, they did have some corn maize in them,” Cortez chuckles. “But not all those boxes, that’s for damn sure.”

“Tony’s a big bad cat. Never met the dude, but I’ve worked with his boys before. But that was a while ago.” Xander hopes this will end the conversation. He won’t ever admit it, but Xander once ratted out one of Tony’s homeboys to the FBI because he tried to sleep with his then-girlfriend. The feds know who Xander is, even though they won’t officially bring him in on criminal charges. He’s too low-level for that, plus he can be helpful in conducting internal “house cleaning” of gangsters who stray too far from the “code.” Therefore, Xander isn’t technically speaking an FBI informant, though he has been an informant before. This isn’t a rare occurrence. Lots of dudes low on the totem pole have talked to the police, FBI, Border Patrol, DEA – even the CIA – at some point. They just don’t rat out the “big fish” swimming in the pond. They only talk to either save their own hides or eliminate idiots on their own side who are about to get caught or killed anyway. Tony’s friend, in addition to trying to fuck Xander’s girl, had a tendency to get sloppy with his hit jobs. One unfortunate mistake led to a pregnant woman getting killed by a car bomb when the intended target was a female judge who happened to share the same name as her. The judge, who at the time was presiding over a case involving submachine guns smuggled across the border by one of the cartels, doesn’t get a scratch on her head (she was in another part of Ciudad Juárez at the time) while the pregnant woman gets killed along with three other innocent bystanders. This mistake was forgiven at the time, but it certainly put him on the “expendable” list by the powers-that-be inside the cartels. His death was inevitable. Xander ratting him out made sure that instead of him getting killed by a cartel assassin, he’d hang himself inside his holding cell with bedsheets. Which he did.

“I see. Yeah, he’s a bad motherfucker. Never met him either,” Roddy adds.

“I have,” Cortez chimes in. Both passengers express their pleasant surprise. “Once. About a year ago. I was at his daughter’s birthday party. Can’t tell you where, but it was by the beach. Nice ass place. Goddamn, he’s a rich motherfucker, just like this asshole we’re about to meet right now. I’m telling you, he has about eight different wives, or girlfriends, or whatever. I don’t know who those bitches were. But hot damn! He gets more pussy in a day than we do all year. Fuck man.”

“Wow. I’ve heard stories about him, bro. But you actually met him?” Roddy asks. He genuinely wants to know.

“Yeah, but we’re not friends or nothing. I just met him once, know what I mean?” Cortez squirms in his seat a bit, knowing he probably just said too much. Tony Morocco is infamous for having a lot of mistresses at any given time. However, that doesn’t mean he likes his employees talking about it openly. He’s a man with typical male desires, but he’s also (technically speaking) a family man with a wife and four kids. He’s also a violent gangster who’s responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people over the years, a fact that doesn’t obscure the truth that he’s also a philanderer. Nobody’s perfect. “So I don’t know a whole lot about him other than the rumors I’ve heard. We’ve all heard rumors about him, right?”

“Right.” Xander quietly coughs to himself, wanting to hide the one final swig of bourbon he just swallowed. This is it for now, he thinks to himself. “Lots of rumors of a lot of people, man. Fuck, it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s not, you dig? Hell, motherfuckers out there are probably saying shit about us, you know?”

“For real. Our boss on this job, Callahan, is new to the game. Nobody knows shit about him, except he spent years in the Big House with Tommy,” Roddy says. “I don’t know him, but he seems like he knows what he’s doing. It makes me feel better about our chances.”

“Oh yeah, for sure.” Xander adds.

Cortez checks his firearm to make sure the safety is still on. It is. “This shit should be easy. I’ve had to break into far worse situations. Remember that boathouse, bro?”

“Oh yeah, that shit was wild,” Roddy remembers. Five years ago, Roddy and Cortez first met doing a hit job on some hotshot lawyer who represented the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC was investigating a Ponzi scheme set up by a former Wall Street executive. They and two other guys had to locate this man’s boathouse in the middle of a well-guarded Florida Keys dock, put two bullets into the back of his skull, and get away before his private security guards showed up. The hit was successful and the SEC eventually eased off on the investigation. But Roddy and Cortez had to learn how to scuba dive (!) in order to sneak onto the dude’s boat unnoticed. It was cold, windy, rainy, and dark outside. Thankfully, all four hitmen were paid handsomely for their work. “We don’t have to go swimming this time around, thank God. If our insider at the security company works, we don’t even have to worry about how long it takes. Just get in, steal whatever the fuck we’re stealing, and get out of there in time for breakfast. Shouldn’t be too bad.”

It was at this exact moment that all three men realize that they had broken the one unbreakable rule of the business: they said it would be “easy.” You never do that. Ever. It’s considered bad luck, a sure-fire jinx that would (nearly) guarantee things won’t be as easy as they think it will be. With that, the three men nod their heads quietly, refocus their minds on the mission at hand, and sit silently in the SUV as they approach their ultimate destination.

***

“He’s so different in real life, you know? He’s not what you think he is. For real. That’s true of a lot of guys in the business.”

Peggy Cole has garnered an attentive audience eager to learn about the dirty little secrets of the porn industry. Sitting on Henry’s lap on a comfortable eggshell white L-shaped couch, Peggy has spent the last twenty minutes sipping whiskey, passing a joint around the group, and recalling her favorite moments working as a pornographic actress. Dylan and Melanie are cuddling on the carpet while Monique is sitting by herself at Peggy’s feet. At the moment they are hearing Peggy dish about Kit Styles, a b-level porn actor who is considered a “rising star” among those who pay attention to this sort of thing. “He’s shy and legit an introvert. Seriously. He gets really awkward around girls like me, and, well, people in general, I guess. But he’s a real sweetheart,” Peggy says.

“He reads off a script when he’s making his videos, so that’s not surprising. I can’t imagine someone being that smooth with the ladies all the time,” Dylan says, inhaling a bit of marijuana smoke. Melanie playfully pinches his shoulder. It’s been at least six months since he last smoked weed. It was New Year’s Eve 2018. He was hanging out with a few friends who were visiting from Europe. Thankfully for Dylan, he’s not as much of a pariah overseas as he is domestically. It’s not that Europeans aren’t aware of Dylan’s legal troubles, it’s more that they can’t bring themselves to hate an American suspected of being a war criminal more than a European suspected of being a war criminal. Dylan considered moving to either France or the U.K. at one point. He doubts he’ll ever leave the United States. “Although porn scripts aren’t exactly that well written in the first place, if we’re just being honest for a moment.”

The group laughs. Peggy, not surprisingly, isn’t too offended by everyone poking fun at her chosen profession. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’re not known for our Oscar-worthy writing. Who gives a shit? All people want to see are boobs, pussy, dicks, and flesh banging against flesh. What conversation they have before isn’t on anybody’s mind when they’re trying to jack off in the privacy of their own homes,” Peggy argues. Melanie reaches over to caress Dylan’s limp penis, attempting to bring it back to life. Dylan, to his credit, would rather hang out with his friends, smoke pot, drink whiskey, and talk about whatever is on their minds instead of going at it with Melanie again. He loves sex, but he loves being in the company of friends even more. He gets enough sex throughout the year (normally) but not nearly enough quality time hanging out with friendly company.

“I’ve seen a few of his videos,” Monique confesses, a look of embarrassment forming across her face. “He’s not my type, but DAMN he’s big AS FUCK down there!”

“He sure is, baby.” Peggy tickles Henry’s scrotum, making him squirm with her on his lap. “But here’s the thing. He’s got a big dick, but he ain’t a big dick, if that makes any sense. Sort of like you, Henry baby. Big down there, but that don’t mean he’s a jerk or nothing. He’s sweet and humble. He treats everyone with respect.” Henry rolls his eyes, not wanting the sort of attention Peggy is giving him. Yes, he’s aware of what he has between his legs. But he’s not proud of it (or ashamed of it). To him, it’s ridiculous to be proud of something that you’re born with. It’s not like he climbed Mt. Everest or graduated from MIT or was elected President of the United States. He has a large penis. So what? Peggy seems to like it (quite vocally, in fact). That must count for something. But not much, Henry thinks.

“I’d imagine there are a lot of egos going on in your business, just like mine. Or rather, the business I used to be in,” Dylan adds. “I can’t say I’ve ever heard of Kit Styles before, but he sounds like quite the character. When will your podcast launch?”

“Oh, we don’t know yet. This fall? Maybe during the winter? Or we could launch it next year. Or never. We don’t really have a plan yet. He’s still down in L.A. trying to break into Hollywood. Legitimate filmmaking,” Peggy says. “He wants to be an actor. Like, a real actor. He says he wants to eventually stop doing porn. I hope for the best, but don’t hold your breath. He’s cute and all, but once you do porn a few times that reputation sticks with you. Plus, all he can do is memorize and say whatever shitty lines he’s given. That’s it. He ain’t cut out for Shakespeare, that’s for damn sure.”

Everyone laughs. Peggy, embarrassed that she just threw her good friend under the bus, attempts to steer the conversation away from Kit’s lack of acting abilities. “But you can go to classes for shit like that. L.A. has a shit ton of acting coaches. I’ve taken lessons, he tells me. We’ll see if it works. I hope it does for him, I truly do.”

“I’m sure he’ll figure out a path that works best for him,” Melanie says. “We all have to give ourselves permission to step outside of our comfort zone and leap into the great unknown. If we fail, then we fail. So be it. It happens. Failure happens. It’s inevitable. What really matters is how we bounce back, if we do at all.” Dylan, wondering if this pep talk is indirectly pointed at him, kisses Melanie’s shoulder. She leans her head back on his chest, closing her eyes as he plants more kisses on her body.

“I know what failure is like. I also know what it means to bounce back,” Monique chimes in. “You’re right, baby girl. Failure happens to all of us. What matters is what we do with it.”

“Goddamn, I feel like I’m attending a wellness seminar!” Henry jokes. Peggy giggles charitably, slowly rolling the back of her index fingernail up his shaft. She hopes to get him hard again so she’ll have an excuse to get that 7.5 inch dick stuffed again inside her pussy. However, she decides against it and shifts gears.

“Dylan, baby darling. Did you like my performance earlier? What did you think about it?” Dylan whistles, suddenly remembering Peggy’s remarkable demonstration of her unique anatomical talent. Melanie immediately catches on that Peggy is trying to seduce him, which is something she fully expected from the beginning would eventually happen.

“Oooohhh, I loved it. You were amazing. I’ve literally never seen a woman do that before. Thank you for sharing your special talent with us. It was a joy to watch,” Dylan beams. Even after making love to Melanie twice tonight, his desire for Peggy hasn’t waned one iota. He stares at her enormous breasts, imagining what it would be like to stuff his face between them. He intends to find out sooner rather than later.

“Thank you, darling.” Peggy’s eyes zoom in on Dylan. She slowly stands up, careful to avoid scraping her long fingernails against Henry’s skin. Monique smiles devilishly, knowing what’s about to come next. She looks at the bar, wondering if there are more fresh limes in the refrigerator. “Say, you know that special toy I brought with me? Would you like me to show it to you up close? Would you like a closer inspection?”

Melanie suddenly experiences a strong twinge of jealousy. She knows Dylan intends to have sex with Peggy at some point during this weekend’s festivities. It, like failure, is inevitable. Yet, she feels strange about it. She feels possessive about Dylan, like he’s her man and nobody else’s. This is ridiculous, Melanie thinks to herself, especially considering not even 30 minutes ago she was considering “breaking up” with him for good. Why does she feel this way? What’s going on?

“I would, yes.”

“Then come with me to my bedroom. Enjoy the rest of your evening, ladies and gentleman,” Peggy teases the group. She winks at Melanie, Monique, and Henry as she takes Dylan’s hand. “I need a few private moments with our host, if you don’t mind.”

“Nah, girl. Go get it. Go do whatever you got to do!” Monique cheers her on.

“Have fun, Boss Man!” Henry shouts.

Melanie Wright doesn’t say a word. Nobody except for Dylan notices this.

“Let’s go!” Peggy aggressively pulls Dylan away from the group. Everyone remains sitting together huddled up and naked in the cabaret room. Monique is already walking up to the bar to fix herself (hopefully) a margarita. Henry stands up, stretches, and decides to pour himself some more champagne. Melanie is still on the floor, watching Peggy and Dylan leave the room, not budging an inch. Hoping nobody notices, she closes her eyes and bows her head, wiping away tears that have unexpectedly formed.

***

At 10:52 p.m., the Buick and SUV quietly arrive about 50 yards away from the cul-de-sac entrance that leads to Dylan Tanaka’s home. A large public park (where Lawrence picked up Dylan’s three guests earlier this afternoon) sits at the base of a busy residential street. The street – and park, for that matter – runs parallel to the north-south edge of Lake Washington. To the east are several private roads that lead to very expensive houses. Many of them are gated. Dylan’s cul-de-sac, however, is not gated since six other homes are located on this small street. Dylan and his neighbors have discussed installing a gate at the entrance over the years, but nothing has ever materialized. After tonight’s events, that will probably change.

The main road has a few open parking spots. Motorists have to pay to park between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. (but not on Sundays or holidays) but at this hour you can basically park wherever you like for as long as you like. Parking fare enforcement officers rarely show up in wealthy neighborhoods like this one. They’re too busy patrolling the Downtown shopping areas and business districts to care about what happens in this (usually) quiet part of town. During their weekly scouting trips, Stephen’s team noticed several security cameras installed around the private properties. It wouldn’t be wise for two unusual vehicles to park anywhere around the cul-de-sac. The main road, however, contains very few security cameras outside of the major intersections. Fortunately for Stephen Callahan and his team, Dylan’s home is located in a cul-de-sac several hundred feet away from any intersection. They should be able to park on the side of the road and not attract any unwanted attention.

Stephen and Thomas park the Buick ahead of the SUV. Once they shut off the engine, Roddy does the same to his vehicle. Both drivers take out walkie-talkie two-way radios to communicate instead of getting out of the car to chat, not wanting any passerby to eavesdrop on their conversation. “Okay, so we’re pretty lucky right now. Almost no traffic around here. That’s not a surprise. This is a quiet rich neighborhood. No party houses or college kids in sight. The pedestrians who are around seem more interested in either going home or going to the nearest bar instead of strolling around the neighborhood,” Stephen assesses. “What do you think? Am I far off?”

“No, I don’t think you are. I noticed one cop car a couple miles back. Not sure what they were up to. Probably looking out for drunk drivers at this time of night,” Roddy says. “I see two pedestrians about 100 yards ahead of us. They’re walking straight toward us. Do you see them?”

“Yes, I do,” Stephen squints his eyes to see what looks to be a man and a woman holding hands, walking their German Shepherd. It’s way too late to be taking your pooch out to take a crap, Stephen thinks to himself, but people run on all sorts of different schedules. “Just lay low until they pass. They should be behind us in two to three minutes. Put your radio down, now.”

All five men try to remain inconspicuous as the couple strolls by, oblivious to the fact that the shiny Buick and mud-stained SUV are full of armed bandits. Roddy peers at them through the review mirror. The girl has a nice ass, he observes. Thirty seconds after they’ve passed by their vehicles, Roddy picks up his radio again to talk to his boss. “Alright, we’re good now. What’s next? Are you going to call your man at the security company?”

“Yes, that’s the next step.” Stephen hands the radio to Thomas. The veteran safecracker watches Stephen dig his Android out of his pocket to make a crucial phone call. After dialing the number, Stephen waits a few seconds for Bill Marks to pick up. “Hello? Bill?”

“It’s me. Good evening, sir,” Bill answers. Sitting alone in his home office in Redwood City, Bill Marks is drinking his fourth cup of coffee and shaking like a death row inmate nervously awaiting the electric chair. Bill’s two co-conspirators at McDonald & Pierce Security Systems are currently working the graveyard shift at the West Coast Regional Headquarters, located about two and a half miles away from Bill’s plush seaside home overlooking the San Francisco Bay. It would be considered highly unusual for the Regional Manager to be at the office this late – especially since his normal office hours are the typical 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. shift – so he decided to conduct his role in tonight’s heist from the comfort of his private home. His wife is aware of the plot to rob the “war profiteer guy,” as she dubbed him. However, she’s been sworn to secrecy – which should be easy to maintain considering the vast sum of money that’s been promised to come their way should this score succeed. Besides, her husband has assured her that if things were to go to hell in a handbasket, she and Bill would summon a private helicopter that would take them to a noncommercial airport where they’d board a chartered jet to an undisclosed location in the Caribbean. There, they’d either live out the rest of their days on a beachside resort home or relocate to a country that doesn’t care that they’re white-collar criminals.

“Good evening. We’ve just arrived at the target’s home. From what we can tell, nobody is tailing us. Nobody is watching us. No one suspects what we’re up to. We’re good to go,” Stephen reassures his partner in crime. Stephen understands that he has the most to lose if this job goes south, but that doesn’t change the fact that the others involved also have skin in the game. “Can I say the same with you and your boys?”

Bill resists the urge to tell Stephen that one of his co-conspirators is a woman, instead preferring to keep as many strategic secrets as possible. “Yeah, we’re ready as well. I just sent a text to one of them a few minutes ago. I received a response almost immediately. We’re ready to begin rebooting the system once the clock strikes midnight. We sometimes do it earlier, but let’s not do anything out of the ordinary. Not tonight.”

“Damn straight. Keep me posted. From my watch, it’s 11:03. Does your watch say the same thing?”

“It does.”

“Great. Fantastic. Very good. Let’s start as close to midnight as possible. In the meantime, me and my guys will review what’s about to happen once more. When you’re ready, text me. Then the show will get going.” Stephen looks at Thomas for approval of the plan. He nods. Taking this as a “yes,” Stephen signs off. “Over.”

“Over and out,” Bill responds with the glee of a child playing a spy game with his buddies. Stephen puts the radio back inside his jacket pocket. Bill puts his radio back on his desk. To calm his frazzled nerves, Bill gets up to get himself some scotch.

No ice, he decides. Now’s not the time for that.

After spending ten minutes reviewing the plan to his crew for the umpteenth time, all five men are now feeling confident in what they are about to do. There’s no going back. It’s now or never. Bill has repeatedly told Stephen that if any technical glitches were to unexpectedly come their way (such as a citywide power outage or large-scale systemic failure at the Austin HQ), he’d immediately tell him about it. Then, Stephen would have to decide whether or not to abort the whole mission. Bill doubts any such emergency would happen. Stephen, on the other hand, refuses to leave any stone unturned. He doesn’t believe in luck. He believes in preparation. Meticulous, intelligent, forthright preparation. Anything less than that would increase their odds of failure.

And as the cliché goes, failure is not an option. Not tonight. Not after all the countless hours and sleepless nights Stephan Callahan has had to endure because his former boss, Dylan Tanaka, betrayed him and threw him to the wolves.

This time, he intends to be the wolf.

***

“Here it is. The star of this evening’s show. My new favorite toy.” Peggy hands the 10.5-inch long dildo to Dylan. He inspects it with admiration, wondering in awe at how she was able to fit the entire thing inside her vagina. “I call it “Mr. Jerry,” as you found out. What do you think of him?”

“He’s something else,” Dylan observes. “Can’t say I’ve ever seen one as large as this before. I can see why you like it. It’s right up your alley, no pun intended!” This gets a mild snicker out of Peggy. At the end of the day, she’s no different than any other woman who’s ever walked this planet. Just because she works in the porn industry doesn’t mean she’s constantly thinking about sex, desiring sex, or wanting to have sex with anything with a pulse. She does have a plurality of partners – eight, to be exact – but they’re spread out across the world. She doesn’t see them all the time. Her currently live-in boyfriend, Roger, is a bisexual porn producer who also has multiple lovers (of all genders) scattered around the country. They have sex maybe once or twice a week, tops. Most of the time Peggy is at the gym, lifting heavy weights and working out just like any typical professional bodybuilder would. She’s not technically a professional bodybuilder at the moment, but her chosen profession does require her to be in top physical shape. Her appeal as a “sexy, curvy muscular Latina” has earned her tens of thousands of loyal fans across the globe. In addition to Roger, she also regularly goes to Morgan, a fellow female bodybuilder based in Las Vegas, for conjugal visits. Peggy loves dick, but she also loves pussy. Especially muscular pussy like hers. They have sex quite often, sometimes multiple times a day. That’s the advantage of lesbian relationships: They can go at it for as long as they want to without stopping, unlike guys. Peggy takes full advantage of her female parts when she’s with Morgan.

“Yeah, it’s quite a piece of machinery,” she says, eyeing Dylan’s penis getting a little bigger and bigger as their conversation continues. “But nothing beats the feeling of a real man inside me. I mean that honestly.”

Dylan turns to face Peggy. He knows she’s been with hundreds of lovers before (this is probably not an exaggeration). That doesn’t mean he wants to “rise above” any of them. He has nothing to prove. Still, he cannot help but feel some anxiety being with a woman whose experience with sex can fill multiple lifetimes. “Is that true? I…I saw the way this made you, you know, squirt to the high heavens. That was impressive.”

Luckily, it seems as though Peggy cleaned off “Mr. Jerry” between her earlier performance and now. It’s not sticky or dripping wet. Peggy takes the dildo out of Dylan’s hand and places it on top of a nearby credenza. She kisses him passionately. Dylan rubs his hands across her firm butt. Her pointed nipples dig into Dylan’s chest like a stab wound. He doesn’t mind it.

“It’s true. I love dildos. I love sex toys of all kinds. I really do,” Peggy says, moving her hands across his back to bring his body close to hers. “But nothing, I mean nothing, beats the feeling of a man inside me. And you can believe that. Take it to the bank, good sir.” Peggy gets down on her knees to lick the underside of Dylan’s scrotum. He moans, looking up at the ceiling as he feels her experienced tongue lap his sensitive flesh. By now, Peggy has become a true expert at giving head, but that’s not what’s in store for her and her lover. Tonight, she plans to do something a bit more…special.

“Go down on me. NOW!” she commands. Dylan obeys.

Peggy plops herself down on the bed, the sheets still containing the smells from her earlier coupling with Henry. Dylan also notices it, but figures it’s a new brand of fragrance she’s wearing. She spreads her legs out wide, inviting Dylan to taste her musky feminine parts. He gladly accepts her invitation, getting down on his knees and leaning his chest against the edge of the mattress so he can inspect her bits. Her engorged clitoris is large…though not as large as Melanie’s. Nobody in the history of womankind has had a larger clit than Melanie Wright, Dylan believes wholeheartedly. Peggy wouldn’t disagree with this assessment. Still, it’s a sight to behold. Dylan pokes with his tongue the large pink head protruding out of her dark brown clitoral hood. Her folds are already dripping wet, almost as if she’s in a state of constant arousal. Peggy groans as Dylan’s hot tongue touches her ultrasensitive bud. When Dylan slowly laps his tongue across it, shivers creep down her spine. She grabs hold of the bedsheets to brace herself for what she hopes will be an earthshattering orgasm.

“Oh fuck yeah, fuck yesssss babyyyyyyyy,” Peggy moans.

Dylan’s mouth envelopes her entire sex. Peggy closes her eyes as Dylan dutifully strokes her clit with his entire tongue. When he closes his lips around her bud, she knows this will end well. Dylan’s oral skills are second to none, as Melanie would testify to if she were here as a witness. Peggy feels the heat radiating off her body. She’s surprised the windows haven’t steamed up yet. Dylan’s mouth is exhausted between orally pleasing Melanie first and now Peggy. He doesn’t mind one bit. Both women deserve all the pleasure they can get. And then some.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck………”

One final gentle tug at her clit with his lips is all it takes to send her over the edge. Waves of orgasm careen through her body. She’s enjoying it too much to say anything, not that there’s anything meaningful to say at the moment. Dylan’s lips come apart from her. He watches intently as she wiggles around the bed. Watching a woman orgasm might be just as fun as giving her an orgasm, Dylan decides.

After her heavy breathing subsides, Peggy reaches over to her purse to take out a condom. Unlike Melanie, Peggy’s prolific bedroom escapades require her to be as cautious as possible. Mostly for the sake of her lovers, not just her. She tears the foil, beckons Dylan to come closer to her, and kisses him once more. By now, his erection is standing at full attention. He knows he can’t compete with Kit, Henry, or “Mr. Jerry,” so they both agreed to a compromise, one that both of them find beneficial. After rolling the condom onto Dylan’s penis, Peggy also removes a bottle of lubrication from her purse. She opens it and hands it over to Dylan. He squeezes a small amount onto his index finger. Peggy turns around and gets on all fours, her butt facing out to him.

“Beautiful. Just beautiful,” Dylan remarks, admiring her muscular butt. Peggy slaps it hard, wanting to excite both him and her. It works.

“Come and get it!” she demands.

Slowly and methodically, Dylan inserts his lubed-up finger inside Peggy’s anus. Little by little, he pushes forth until his finger is completely inside her. Dylan made sure to clip his fingernails earlier this morning just for this reason. He circles it around, noticing this gives her a jolt of pleasure. The sound of her moans is music to his ears. He then removes his finger from her ass and applies additional lubrication to more of his fingers. Dylan strokes his hardened manhood, wanting to add more jelly to it despite the condom already being oiled. For this kind of penetration, it’s better to be safe than sorry. For the sake of everyone involved.

Once everything is properly prepared, Dylan grips Peggy’s hips with both hands. He positions his penis right in front of her tight entrance. She doesn’t speak a word. Neither does he. Carefully and cautiously, he pushes the head of his penis inside her anus, paying close attention to her body language. She doesn’t twitch or anything, a sure indication that he’s good to go. He now feels confident to go all in. Peggy’s moans get louder as Dylan fully enters her tight cavity. He also groans at the indescribable feeling of being in such a constricted space. It makes him feel like a “Man” with a capital M to be so tightly inside a woman like Peggy Cole, someone who’s had more lovers than most people have casual acquaintances. Full of confidence, he pushes in and out of her, his hands still gripping her hips. Peggy, to her credit, drops the fake “porn star orgasming shtick” and just enjoys the moment by rocking back and forth to Dylan’s rhythm. She’s been a porn actress for so long that she sometimes doesn’t know how to get out of character and be herself. This is one of those times when she wants to be who she really is.

Peggy’s reputation as a “size queen” is well deserved. Her sexual preferences require larger-than-normal vaginal penetration. However, for other types of sex she is as normal as one can imagine. For what they are engaging in at this very moment, Dylan is more than perfectly suited for the job.

“Oh, God damn it, Dylan. Fuck baby…”

“Fuck, I’m close, I’m so fucking close,” Dylan clenches his teeth, anticipating his third climax of the evening. He continues to rock back and forth, sliding himself as far in as he can go without losing balance. Making love to Melanie was a truly erotic experience rooted in genuine mutual affection. This, on the other hand, is a pure hard drive toward orgasm, an exercise in fucking a porn star in a way that thousands of people around the world could only dream of. He knows there are countless men who would commit murder to take his place at this moment. Dylan intends to cherish his privileged position for as long as possible.

Peggy’s throaty cries fill the room. Dylan, feeling as sexually empowered as he’s ever been in his life, drinks in her shrieks like a hypnotic drug. Peggy rejoices in the deep anal massage this man is joyfully giving her, thankful for the large amount of lube they used beforehand. She feels her pussy dripping wet as Dylan continues to pound relentlessly into her.

“Yesssssssssssssssss…” Peggy hisses.

One final forceful thrust sends Dylan to the point of no return. He collapses on top of her. Peggy falls to her belly, still spreading her legs so he can climax inside of her. This climax isn’t nearly as consequential as his previous ones, a testament to him being drained of energy and his relationship with Peggy. He loves her as a friend, but nothing more. She feels the exact same way about him. While he’s on her “list” of lovers, he’s not near the top. They both know it, so it’s not an awkward designation. It’s the way both of them want it.

“I haven’t done anal in a while. Whew! Fuck me, that was amazing. You’re good at this, Dylan baby darling.” Peggy scooches away from Dylan, forcing his softened manhood to slip out. Incredibly, the condom remains all the way on. After several moments of laying on his tummy, out of breath and still slightly drunk from the champagne (not to mention high from taking a few hits of Peggy’s joint), Dylan gets up and heads to the bathroom to clean up. Peggy checks herself in the mirror to make sure her makeup still looks presentable. It doesn’t. She digs through her purse to find some mascara, which desperately needs reapplication. A few moments later, Dylan emerges from the bathroom in mid-yawn. He watches Peggy reapply her face paint. Even though he knows nothing about makeup, there is something intriguing about watching an expert participate in their craft. Before becoming a bodybuilder and porn star, Peggy worked briefly as a makeup artist for one of Las Vegas’s local TV news stations. She was excellent at her job but didn’t find it satisfying enough. She wanted to do much more with her life. Thankfully for everyone who adores her, she eventually did.

“You look beautiful, Peggy,” Dylan kisses her on the neck. She closes her eyes, soaking in the feel of his warm lips on her skin. “You look like a queen.”

“How many queens look like a ‘roided up sex doll?” Peggy smirks. When she’s calm and collected (or high as a kite) she can exhibit a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. This is obviously one of those times. She flexes her left bicep, looking at both herself and Dylan in the mirror.

“Oh dear, you shouldn’t tease yourself like that.” Dylan kisses her bicep peak. It’s not as full as Melanie’s biceps (very few women have biceps as large and vascular as Melanie Wright), a fact that doesn’t take away from Peggy’s accomplishments. Her physique is still impressive compared to most women, despite the fact she’s not as perfectly symmetrical or jaw-droppingly massive as Melanie. She’s big enough to earn her title as a “muscle chick” and hot enough in all the right places – including her massive breasts – to endear her to the porn community. “Though you do look like a ‘roided up sex doll, if I may say so myself!”

“You rude little boy!” Peggy playfully scolds him. She gives him a light slap on the butt as punishment. “I don’t look like a traditional woman, but then again I wouldn’t be where I am if I had stuck to tradition, that’s for damn sure. It pays to be different.”

“And…to not be afraid to be different.”

“Damn straight!” Peggy stands up. A few inches shorter than Dylan, she tilts her head up slightly to look into his eyes. Peggy thinks he’s fairly handsome, maybe a good professional haircut away from being low-key sexy. She’s told him this many times before, but Dylan simply brushes it off as her being nice to him. She kisses him. Their lips take a long time to come apart. Neither of them wants to rush this. “This has been a lovely evening, baby. I’ve had a great time. I seriously can’t think of the last time I had this much fun.”

“Seriously? Isn’t your life one long continuous party?”

“That’s funny, but no,” Peggy laughs. “You’d think the life of a porn star is all fun, glitz, glamour, and orgasms, but it’s much more boring than you’d think. Arguing over pay, complaining about the shitty food on set, waiting forever for the male performers to get hard again, fighting with lawyers over bootleg copies of our DVDs, shit like that. Not to mention all the backstabbing, gossiping, and other shit that happens in every workplace. It’s funny to think of it that way, but it is a workplace. Not like the places you’ve worked, but similar. I guess.”

“That makes sense. Workplace politics is universal, whether we think it is or not.” Dylan fondles Peggy’s breasts, teasing her nipples with his fingers. They’re a handful, both literally and figuratively. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Please, baby. Ask away.”

“It’s fine if you did, and I’m not upset or anything, I’m just curious. Did you and Henry hook up earlier tonight?”

Peggy’s face becomes serious. She’s certain Dylan means what he says when he claims he’s not angry about it, though it is curious why he’d ask about it. “Yeah, we did. A few times. Right here, in fact. While you and Melanie were up in your bedroom. He’s a sweet man. You know that. And he’s great in bed, as I just found out.”

Dylan smiles, nodding his head with gleeful approval. “That’s great. For both of you. He’s a big fan of yours. He loves you. Over the years we’ve talked endlessly about you, your career, and your best videos. He was really excited to see you this weekend. I’m sure it never occurred to him that he’d be able to, uh, you know, bang you. Pardon my language.”

“No apology needed.” Peggy pinches Dylan’s soft penis, hoping to wake it up again. She knows guys can’t go at it as often as women can, but there’s always hope. Even if it’s faint. Dylan shakes his head, signaling he’s not in the mood – and probably done for the evening. As much as he’d love to, Dylan knows he’s spent. Anything more would probably cause him to fall asleep right then and there. As the host of the evening’s festivities, that would be supremely rude.

“Thanks, but I think I’ve had enough fun for one night,” Dylan declares. Peggy kisses him on the cheek, which tells him she understands where he stands. She takes his hand into her hand, swinging it back and forth. They head back to the cabaret room hand-in-hand, Peggy’s head lightly leaning against his shoulder. A triumphant grin can be seen on Dylan’s face.

***

“Make sure you keep your back as straight as you can,” Melanie instructs Henry. “Think of it like there’s a metal rod going straight down your spine from your head down to your butt. Meaning you can’t arch your back no matter how hard you try.”

Henry is currently standing on stage in the cabaret room, attempting a few bodybuilding poses while being coached up by Melanie and Monique. Melanie is the true expert here, although Monique has dabbled in amateur bodybuilding before. The chef-turned-faux-bodybuilder has already demonstrated side chest and front lat spread. He’s now attempting side triceps. Melanie gives him a candid smirk of approval. He feels a bit silly, especially because he’s “out of shape” by his own definition and is surrounded by three beautiful athletic ladies who are a cut above anything he could ever dream of being. A tad out of his league, Henry decides to be a good sport and do his best.

The ladies seem to be enjoying themselves, so that counts for something.

“Like this?” Henry holds his breath, hoping that sucking in his potbelly will help matters. He doubts it will. Monique stifles a laugh.

“Yeah, just like that. Just hold that pose for eight to ten seconds, if you can,” Melanie teases. “I’m just kidding. You can drop it whenever you feel like it. You may not look like a pro, but you are worth, ahem, looking at.” She shifts her eyes downward toward Henry’s impressive member. He blushes, which is probably not noticeable under the oppressively bright stage lights. It’s definitely not normal for him to be this naked for this long in front of more than one woman (let alone three!), so he’s not exactly accustomed to all this attention. His clothes are still sitting in Peggy’s bedroom.

“Ah, thanks Miss Melanie. I appreciate the compliment.”

“Melanie! I think you’re embarrassing him,” Monique chastises. “As a black woman, I can attest to the fact that the stereotypes you’ve heard about black men aren’t always true. Buuuuuuuuuuut…” Both ladies are now staring impolitely at Henry’s crotch, enjoying the opportunity to unapologetically objectify a man for a change. “You, my dear, do in fact fit every stereotype in the goddamn book. Wowee!”

Usually a polite man himself, Henry chooses to remain quiet once he realizes it’s only fair that these ladies should be able to ogle him in the same way he ogles cute girls he sees on the street. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s well worth it, Henry rationalizes. As fortune would have it, the tension breaks when Peggy and Dylan reenter the room. Holding hands like old lovers, Henry looks to see Melanie’s reaction. Her face is as unexpressive as a bald eagle. This does not surprise him. Melanie’s not the jealous type, or so he’s heard.

“We’re back! Did you miss us?” Peggy throws her hands up like a princess entering the throne room. Once she sees Henry standing on stage under the bright lights, she runs to him like a paparazzi chasing after a Grammy Award-winning singer. “Well, I’ll be damned! Henry my dear, you should seriously consider becoming a bodybuilder like the rest of us. You’ve got great body composition. You can tell when someone has the natural physique for being a competitor, even if they haven’t never lifted a weight in their life. You can tell, am I right girls?”

“Oh yeah, you can tell by the fullness of someone’s legs, the way their body fat is dispersed, and how much muscle they can develop without lifting,” Melanie posits. She rubs her chin like a scientist spelling out a groundbreaking hypothesis. “That’s what somebody told me all the way back in middle school. I looked like an athlete, even though I hated gym class and never did sports before. I think he was just hitting on me, though. I can’t remember.” Dylan winks at Henry, a nonverbal cue that he appreciates the fact he’s putting up with the ladies’ shenanigans like a complete gentleman. Henry sighs, acknowledging his boss’s show of appreciation. Dylan pours himself another glass of champagne – the bottles are now practically empty – and sips it as he walks to the front of the dais.

“Whatever he was doing, he was right. And prescient.” Dylan squeezes Melanie’s meaty forearms. She seems happy with this gesture, as if he’s proactively trying to make her forget that he and Peggy just made love. “Words of encouragement can go a long way, especially when we’re young. That’s something we should always remember and never forget. Our words have power. I suppose that’s still true when an adult speaks to an adult. I remember the first time I really had a conversation with Monique. Remember that, my darling?”

“The rooftop restaurant in Miami? Oh yeah, I remember that. How could I forget?” Monique reminisces about that fateful luncheon. It was then when Dylan revealed his intentions to financially sponsor her Olympic bid. “For whatever reason, I just really admire women who break the traditional mold by being strong, athletic, and driven to win,” was what he told her. Those words are forever burned into Monique’s memory. She’ll remember it word-for-word for the rest of her life. She always thought of herself as someone who strives to “break the mold,” but nobody had ever told her that before. Those were words she never heard anybody say to her, despite a bounty of evidence that that’s exactly what she wants to be.

Someone who defies expectations and does things people literally say are impossible.

Just retire.

You’ll never win a Gold medal.

You’ll never overcome your injury.

You had a good run. Quit while you’re ahead.

She’s heard all that bullshit before, oftentimes from the people closest to her. Her parents, her friends, her trainers, even her boyfriend from time to time. But not Dylan Tanaka. He’s always believed in her…and never ceases to remind her of his belief in her. That means something. Always has, always will.

“That’s why I try to act intentionally,” Dylan continues. “In everything I do. I try to treat everyone with respect and dignity, even when they haven’t done the same for me.” He bows his head and stares down at his lukewarm champagne. Melanie wraps her enormous arms around him, squeezing him tightly. He tries not to cry, a feat he (astonishingly enough) actually accomplishes. Peggy, Henry, and Monique can only awkwardly look around the room in silence, hoping someone will speak first.

Nobody does.

***

“It’s time.”

Stephen Callahan decides it’s now or never. Moments earlier Bill Marks sent him a simple text message that says:

Ready.

That’s all he needs to know.

He sends a quick message back instructing him to “get the show on the road.” Then, Stephen turns on his Bluetooth earpiece so he can communicate with Bill verbally. “Let’s start the fireworks, old boy. We’re heading out.” After raising his hand so the inhabitants of the SUV can see the signal, all five men exit their respective vehicles. Stephen is carrying an empty briefcase and wearing his backpack. Thomas trudges along with his rolling suitcase and duffle bag. Roddy is also carrying a duffle bag, but this one is empty. Xander and Cortez are not carrying anything, but they do have spare clips hiding underneath their coats.

“Everything is ready to go, hang on a moment,” Bill says over the phone. He opens an encrypted chat window with one of his MPSS co-conspirators. The time is now 11:57 p.m. In three minutes, his criminal act officially begins. From the engineering side of the scheme, all seems ready to go as well. “I can confirm that we’re ready to get going once the clock strikes midnight. Hopefully, Cinderella doesn’t have a pumpkin carriage waiting for her outside the ballroom.”

“If so, we’re all royally fucked, with or without the glass slipper,” Stephen replies back. The five men quietly stroll through the neighborhood toward Dylan’s property. For such a wealthy community, Stephen is surprised at how little lighting there is on this small street. Only one tall streetlight located right at the entrance of the cul-de-sac. Because of this, he and his men can go by without anyone seeing them. So far, they do not see any pedestrians enjoying a late-night walk through the neighborhood.

“One minute until showtime,” Bill announces.

“Copy that.”

Roddy, Cortez, and Xander remain uncharacteristically quiet. This is, in their estimation, the riskiest part of the heist. Getting in. After that, they don’t expect Dylan to put up much of a fight. He’s all alone in his big fancy mansion. No bodyguards. No butler. No cook. No guests. No one except for this lousy, pathetic, and lonely parasite. Stephen wishes he could catch him while he’s jerking off to a b-level 90’s-era HBO sex movie just to embarrass him even more. That would be delicious. It would be fitting for what he aims to do.

“Ready. Stand by.” Bill wipes a drop of sweat from his brow. He can feel his heart racing a million beats per minute. If he were to drop dead from a heart attack right then and there, it would be pure poetic justice, he’s decided. He’d probably deserve it, too.

Bill watches his computer screen move through the normal routine of a monthly system reboot. A popup window says it’s about to begin. He waits for it to disappear under his “notifications” tab. A progress bar shows up, showing the reboot has begun. So far, it’s at 1%. It takes approximately 15 to 18 minutes for the process to finish. Right on schedule, he receives a text from Roger, one of his co-conspirators, telling him all the homes in the 98112, 98122, and 98144 zip codes are officially “disconnected” from the mother system. Bill breathes a sigh of relief.

“Systems are down in your zone, I repeat, systems are down in your zone. You and your men are clear to enter the property as undetected as a housefly,” Bill informs Stephen. While Bill may be struggling to maintain his composure, on the other end, Stephen Callahan is struggling to contain his excitement.

“Thank you, buddy. I appreciate the good news. Anything else you wish to inform me before we cut off communication for now?” The four men surrounding Stephen stop breathing momentarily so they can listen in on their conversation.

“No, boss. We’re good to go. Nothing else to discuss, unless you want to talk about the Dodgers and whether or not they’ll win the World Series this year.” Bill amuses himself with his own irreverence. He eyes an unopened bottle of scotch sitting on a shelf across the room, tempting him like a Greek Siren. He needs something to help him calm down.

“Good. I’ll be in touch soon. Over and out.” Stephen doesn’t wait for verbal confirmation to turn off his Bluetooth earpiece. By now, the five men are standing right outside Dylan Tanaka’s main gate. There’s a modest pedestrian entrance off to the left side and a keypad above the door handle. Thomas takes out a device that looks like a ballpoint pen, holds it against the keypad, and twists the clip outward. This activates the machine. Roddy, Cortez, and Xander watch with amazement as this gadget disguised as a writing utensil scrambles the keypad, essentially deactivating it. Thomas puts the “pen” back in his pocket and leisurely opens the door as if he owned the place.

“Excellent. Follow me.” Stephen leads the way. Thomas closes the door behind him once everyone has entered the property.

“Damn! I got to get me one of those!” Xander whispers to Cortez. Roddy hushes him up, not wanting to make any unnecessary noise, especially now that they’ve entered the hot zone.

The house’s spacious driveway is enclosed by tall grey and white brick walls, ensuring none of his nosey neighbors could spy on him (or see who enters and leaves the property). Stephen crouches low regardless just to be safe and is pleased to see his four comrades following suit. They gently walk in a straight line along the bricks to make sure anyone inside the house to the right – which is four stories high but situated about a hundred yards away – can’t possibly see them. The cover of darkness also makes this an irrelevant precaution. Still, Stephen refuses to allow even the possibility of failure to creep into tonight’s activities.

Stephen and his men have decided to first locate Dylan before breaking in so that he doesn’t have time to find his phone and call the cops. All five men have night vision binoculars and are looking at every visible window. Dylan’s three-story house (Stephen doesn’t consider the attic an actual floor) appears to be completely empty except for the man himself. Nobody is in the kitchen or dining room (both are visible through the left side of the first floor), as well as any of the bedrooms on the second floor. There is a light on in the foyer and the living room, but nobody appears to be in either of those spaces. As the thieves make their way into the backyard, all five men are startled by the beauty of Dylan’s spacious Japanese garden and try to block it from their thinking. Now is not the time to sightsee.

Damn. This place looks nicer up close than in satellite photos, Stephen thinks. So this is how he chooses to spend his blood money. It must be nice being a rich, petty fool with no conscience. You can spend it on extravagancies like this while old friends like me rot away in prison. Fuck that.

“Ah ha! Look up there,” Thomas points to the second and third floors. A faint light is seen coming out of the third-floor balcony. The flickering suggests it’s from a fireplace. A longer balcony going across the entire backside of the second story, on the other hand, clearly shows a much brighter light emanating from behind the scarlet red curtains. No flickering detected.

“He must be on the second floor. What do you think?” Roddy asks. Stephen shakes his head.

“It’s impossible to tell from this angle. Perhaps if we–” Before Stephen can finish his sentence, all five men see a shadow quickly fly across the scarlet curtains. Indistinct music can be heard, which further provides evidence that Mr. Tanaka is on the other side of those curtains.

“Can you hear some music?” Cortez asks. Everyone nods their heads silently.

“It’s confirmed. He’s up there,” Stephen decides. He cocks his pistol. “Let’s go inside and make ourselves comfortable.”

“With pleasure,” Thomas says. With that, the veteran safecracker calmly walks up to the screen door leading to the kitchen/dining area. Not worried about sounding any alarms, he takes out a tiny drill, points it right at the door handle, and cuts away a ten-inch-long half-circle of glass so he can access the lock from the other side. The four other men marvel at how silently the drill cuts away at the glass. Thomas fashioned an extremely sharp blade at the end of a low-power drill, which gives him the ability to pierce the thick glass without having to generate a lot of torque – and noise that comes with high torque. Within 90 seconds, he’s cut away all the glass he needs. Thomas gently places the glass on the ground and unlocks the door. The men enter Dylan’s home. Out of the corner of his eye, Xander sees a blinking red light coming from a wall right across from the screen door. He knows the signal won’t reach the security company or the local police station, but his heart cannot help but skip a beat just at the sight of it blinking like mad. It’s an involuntary reflex.

“Relax. We’re good. Trust my people to do what they’re supposed to do. We’re fine. We’re good,” Stephen reassures his men. This brings Xander’s heart rate back to normal, whatever that was before.

As the group weaves through all the rooms, they finally reach the front of the house and see the gothic-looking spiral staircase that leads to the second (and presumably third) floor. It’s in the foyer that the music becomes more pronounced. It’s definitely confirmed that Dylan Tanaka is there, probably drowning his sorrows all alone to cheap second-rate jazz music he probably got off Spotify.

“Let’s get it.” Stephen arrogantly says in a normal voice. The four other men are surprised by his cockiness.

One by one, the five armed bandits nonchalantly walk up the staircase as if they were welcomed guests themselves, awaiting what they expect to be a pathetic lonely man sitting all by himself drinking cheap wine and listening to knockoff Miles Davis.

All the King’s Queens – Chapter 6: Dinner and a Show

Leave the place cleaner than you found it.

These words are ingrained in Henry’s psyche. They’re practically his life’s guiding principle. It’s not enough to simply tidy up after yourself and make it look like you were never there. No, that’s not enough. You must also do a service to the people around you by cleaning, scrubbing, sweeping, washing, and dusting the whole place till it’s shining so brightly the room seems to be winking back at you. Tonight is no exception. Maybe he’s working harder than usual because he’s both super nervous and super excited to see Peggy again live and in the flesh.

“Heeyyyyyyyy baby!”

Henry, who’s huffing and puffing while scrubbing a roasting tray laden with sticky honey sauce, turns around to see where that voice came from. But he doesn’t need to investigate whose voice that is because he already knows.

Miss Peggy.

“Oh my Lord in Heaven, is that the voice of Miss Peggy I hear?” Henry drops the sponge in the sink and dries his hands with a towel. And sure enough, standing in the kitchen entrance wearing a crimson red V-neck dress that leaves very little to the imagination (especially her enormous breasts) is none other than Henry’s favorite erotic webcam performer. “Yes it is! I knew it was you the moment I heard your voice when you came in.”

“Hi baby. It’s been forever since I last saw you,” Peggy hugs one of her most loyal clients, then kisses him on the cheek. “I always look forward to our little chats together. It always makes my day.”

“Oh baby, tell me about it. Trust me, I’m waaaaaaay more excited for them than you are!” Still as professional as ever, Henry pauses his attempt to not focusing on Peggy’s boobs for a quick moment to turn off the stovetop keeping the garlic mashed potatoes warm. After another kiss on the cheek, Peggy roams over the oven to see what’s cooking.

“I know it! So, baby, what are you preparing for us tonight? It smells delicious.”

“On the menu are sweet and sticky braised short ribs, curried vegetables, classic niçoise salad, garlic mashed potatoes, and blueberry cream puff pastries,” Henry announces as theatrically as a TV show host. Slow-cooking tough cuts of meat requires braising them in a red wine reduction sauce for at least three hours, meaning Henry has been working his butt off in the kitchen nearly all day. Peggy acutely senses how much work her favorite client has put in to preparing tonight’s dinner. For that, she wants to reward him for his artistry, loyalty, and optimistic attitude.

“Sounds delightful! I’m sure Dylan is taking Melanie and Monique down to the wine cellar to select a few bottles for supper, so we have a few moments alone together,” Peggy kisses him once more, then gets down on her knees to unzip Henry’s pants. He looks around the kitchen for Lawrence, who seems to be out of sight.

“Oh baby, this…this is unexpected! This is, um, quite a way to say hello to a fella!” Henry shuffles his feet toward a large walk-in pantry full of canned food, spices, flour, breakfast cereal, and oatmeal. Peggy follows along on her knees, laboring to pull out Henry’s penis from his boxers.

“I aim to please.”

Finally, once they are settled in the pantry Henry closes the door behind them and switches on a lightbulb hanging in the middle of the small, cramped room. At last, Peggy frees Henry’s bulging length from his underwear.

“Ah! There it is!” Peggy exclaims.

“It’s been waiting for you, baby.”

The reason why Henry is Peggy’s favorite client is because of his most noteworthy and memorable physical asset: His prodigious member. Reluctant to fit the tired old stereotype associated with black men like him, Henry has always known that he’s unusual in this regard. Peggy has been with many men in her life of all races and ethnicities, so she knows the stereotype that all black men have big dicks isn’t universally true. But in Henry’s case, it’s as true as the sky is blue. During their webcam chats, Peggy genuinely looks forward to mutually masturbating with him because she loves watching him stroke his enormous penis as she rubs her clitoris along with him. Very few clients actually turn Peggy on (to be honest, most of her clients are overweight balding middle-aged men with zero sex appeal), but Henry is a notable exception to the rule. Watching his enormous member get hard, harder, and eventually spurt everywhere is something that Peggy dreams about. It gets her genuinely excited.

Henry may not be able to compete with her dear friend Kit Styles, but then again very few men in the history of the human race are able to. If the podcast scheme doesn’t work out with Kit, perhaps Henry would be a suitable replacement.

“I know it has. I know!” Peggy wraps her fingers around the base of Henry’s manhood and strokes it up and down. It instantly gets as hard as stone. Henry has told Peggy that his penis measures 7.5 inches when erect, a claim she believes 100%. He also claims that if he’s aroused enough, he can get up to 7.8 inches, which Peggy can also believe. A self-professed “size queen,” Peggy has seen her fair share of dicks in her life. Some big, some small, many that are average, and a few enormous ones that stand out in her memory. Henry’s is definitely in the “memorable” category.

“I wasn’t expecting this…” Henry drifts off as Peggy opens her mouth wide and takes in his manhood. Earlier today he was talking to his boss about the possibility of (maybe) seeing Peggy tomorrow afternoon just before everyone is about to leave. He had no idea Peggy would proactively seek him out and do…this.

“Ooooohhhh Peggy baby…” She grips the back of Henry’s knees and deep throats him as far as she can go. She gets more than ¾ of the way home until she begins to gag a little. But that doesn’t stop her from servicing the portion of him that she can. Henry’s eyes roll to the back of his head as Peggy’s experienced little mouth does its work. He can tell she knows what she’s doing and has plenty of experience to perfect certain techniques.

“Are you close?” Peggy temporarily gives her lips, tongue, and mouth a break. “Because I want to taste all of you baby.”

“OHHHHHH, yeah. Yeah, baby, I’m close…”

Before he can finish his sentence, Peggy licks Henry’s sensitive tip and resumes her work. A small gasp escapes from him as he struggles to stifle loud noises in case Dylan, Lawrence, or the other two ladies are within earshot. His manhood has grown hot, pulsating to its largest capacity possible. Peggy senses he’s near the end. She hopes he is. She’s been craving this moment from the moment she stepped off the plane.

“Oh baby!”

Henry knocks a can of tomato paste to the floor as he releases deep inside Peggy’s mouth. Five powerful pulses of hot semen roll down her throat. It’s a miracle he doesn’t collapse from the sheer ecstasy of the moment. Peggy obediently swallows everything Henry has to offer, circling her tongue around him in order to lap every single drop. He tastes like most guys. Nothing unusual or noteworthy. She hopes the supper Henry prepared will wash the taste out of her mouth. Totally spent, she pulls his manhood out of her mouth slowly and watches it drop innocently between his legs. She stands up to kiss him on the cheek.

“Oh yeah, baby. That’s one heck of an appetizer,” she teases him. Still in a trance, Henry smirks at her, unable to speak. “I can’t wait for dinner.”

“Y…you’re welcome, Miss Peggy,” he stammers. “I…I sure didn’t expect you to greet a fella like…like that.”

“Well, I am a woman of many surprises,” she quips while exiting the pantry. “I’ll see you later tonight after supper. Take care!”

And with that, Peggy casually strolls out of the kitchen toward the dining room as Henry remains standing surrounded by old boxes of Wheaties and linguine noodles, still in a daze. A happy daze, more specifically.

“Wow! What a woman!”

***

Sure enough, Dylan and the other two ladies also have taken a detour. They are off to the basement to select a few bottles of wine – and other spirits – to enjoy both during dinner and afterward. Dylan suspects Peggy went to go chat with Henry. He has no idea their “meet and greet” would transpire quite the way it did. So, the rest of the crew remains oblivious to what’s happening upstairs.

“Damn, this is an impressive collection,” Melanie marvels. She leans over the middle shelf in Dylan’s wine cellar to read the labels on the bottles. Not an expert on the subject, she selects a 2017 Chateau Ste. Michelle cabernet sauvignon for no reason other than the design looks pretty. Monique knows a bit more about spirits (her grandparents owned a liquor store in Cuba before the Castro regime deemed the establishment an unnecessary “symbol of capitalist indulgences”) and chooses a bottle of Glenlivet XXV for sipping after dinner.

“Thank you. I’m not exactly an expert on wine and spirits, but luckily I know people who are,” Dylan says while inspecting his collection. “Leave it up to those who know what they’re talking about, right?”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Monique says. “There’s no way I could train for the Olympics without a whole team of people telling me what to do.”

Dylan chooses a 2018 Columbia Valley Syrah, a 2017 Malbec, and an unopened bottle of Macallan 25. He is happy with these selections. “Sometimes it’s best just to let people tell you what to do. It makes life so much simpler.”

“True,” Melanie chimes in. “But you surrender a little bit of your, uh, agency when you do that. But maybe I’m being a little overdramatic.”

“Ha, yeah, probably a little bit,” Monique says. “I mean, I still decide how I train. It’s my life. But it makes me feel better knowing I’m not going at it alone.”

Dylan locks the sliding glass door (he technically doesn’t need to do this since no kids live in his home, but old habits die hard), turns off the light in the cellar room, and leads the way back upstairs with their drink selections in hand. On the way up, Melanie cannot help but notice a prominent painting of herself winning the 1998 Tampa Pro. Is it a painting Dylan had commissioned or is it a photograph that was made to look like a painting using a clever Photoshop filter? Melanie cannot tell which it is.

A few moments later, Dylan, Melanie, and Monique enter the dining room and find Peggy already sitting down and buttering a piece of toasted sourdough bread. She has the biggest grin on her face. Gee, does she like bread that much?

“Whatever Henry has in store for us smells great!” Peggy takes a quick nibble of her bread. “I literally can’t wait. What drinks did you get for us?”

“A few bottles of wine from local wineries and a couple of my best scotches,” Dylan announces with beaming pride. Peggy seems amused enough. He takes his seat at the head of the table. Melanie sits right next to him, with Monique and Peggy sitting next to each other on the opposite side. Lawrence has already lit the four tall candles sitting in the middle of the table – each candle representing all the people sharing this meal together.

“Thank you all for being here,” Dylan begins. “As you know, my life can get quite lonely. It hasn’t been easy for me these past few years, but I refuse to wallow around in self-pity.” His three guests nod along in silent agreement. Melanie gets a corkscrew and pops open all three bottles of wine. She pours everyone a short glass.

“Thanks, dear,” Monique whispers. “Self-pity is a terrible place to be. Trust me, I know what that’s all about. After my accident, every single day was a challenge. Not just physically, you know, but emotionally too. For real.”

“My life ain’t been perfect, but I got nothing to complain about too much,” Peggy says. “But damn, I feel both of you. For sure. That’s why you got us in your life, Dylan baby.”

“Oh yeah, do I know it!” Dylan fights the urge to cry.

“My career was able to recover from it, but I know a thing or two about having your whole damn reputation destroyed,” Melanie sips her Syrah, marveling at its fully developed flavor. “I still won’t ever forget the sick pit-in-the-stomach feeling I got while sitting in that jail cell. You know, in Budapest. God, I try so hard to forget that night. Worst time of my life.”

The room remains silent for a while. Lawrence quietly enters the dining room with a rolling cart with four plates of niçoise salad, more bread, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.

“Good evening ladies. I’ve placed all your luggage in your rooms. Is there anything else you need from me?” Looking as dapper as ever, Lawrence tries to respectfully look everyone in the eye and avoid inadvertently looking at the conspicuous cleavage revealed in the three women’s choices of dresses.

“No, Lawrence dear,” Peggy says. Lawrence avoids looking at Peggy in particular, especially given the fact her dress doesn’t seem to want to contain her enormous breasts. While he doesn’t share the same “tastes” as his boss, Lawrence does appreciate a beautiful woman when he sees one. But he does whatever he can to remain as professional as possible. Even though he knows it’s not necessary. After all, Lawrence did in fact accidentally walk in on the sounds of moaning coming from inside the kitchen pantry. He immediately identified what the cacophony signified and quickly walked in the other direction. Mr. Tanaka’s esteemed chef and Miss Cole were obviously engaging in very “intimate” activities. Lawrence felt it would have been awkward for him to do what he had originally intended to do when he came into the kitchen: Check on the bread to ensure it wasn’t overcooking. Thankfully, it hadn’t.

“Excellent. The rest of dinner will be served shortly. Enjoy.”

“Thanks Lawrence.” Dylan nods at his loyal butler with approval. Lawrence nods back and exits back into the kitchen. “I think it’s safe to say we’ve all done things in our past that we regret. But what matters isn’t what we’ve done, but what we are doing now and what we will do moving forward. At least I think that’s the case.”

“I think it is,” Monique says. “What happens to us happens for a reason. I don’t know why, but I truly believe that.”

Peggy claps her hands in agreement. “Amen! Ya’ll know that not everyone I know and love approves of what I do, but I’ve made peace with that a long, long, long time ago.” Everyone has by now dug into their salads. Including Dylan, who is usually too nervous or self-conscious to enjoy a meal when in the company of a beautiful muscular woman, let alone three at a time. “I’ve never been happier. So, I win!”

“You certainly have, my dear!” Dylan agrees. Peggy grins.

“Making peace with ourselves is sometimes our only option,” Melanie quips. Everyone seems to agree with that.

After the second bottle of wine is completely finished, Lawrence finally brings out the entrées. Sweet and sticky braised short ribs (slow-cooked to make the meat as tender as possible), curried vegetables (inspired by Indian cuisine), and garlic mashed potatoes (as classic as you can imagine). By now, Dylan and his guests are a bit drunk – not too much, for the record – and have moved on to less dire subject matter. What does a group of bodybuilders (and one token fan of bodybuilding) usually talk about?

Bodybuilding.

“For years now I’ve tried to make my delts fuller. But I could never figure out how,” Peggy complains. “It’s like I’m genetically not allowed to have them. I’ve done it all. Bent-over reverse flies, chin-ups, standing shoulder press, hell, doing fucking kettlebell exercises for two fucking hours! Still, nothing. NOTHING! I swear, it never works out. Can’t figure out why for the life of me.”

“Oh sad. I’m pretty lucky in that area. Not sure how, but my delts are one of the best parts of my body.” Melanie demonstrates this by turning her back toward the group and raising both arms toward the sky. Monique almost chokes on her food looking at her impressive striations.

“Damn woman! You have muscles on top of muscles where I’m pretty sure they don’t exist on my body!” Monique exclaims. “Good for you.”

“Melanie has accomplished many things most of us could only dream about,” Dylan says. He runs his index finger along Melanie’s back to feel the full meatiness of her shoulder. “Wow. Impressive, indeed. How on Earth do you get this?” He knows he’ll have plenty of time later this evening to explore Melanie’s body, but he cannot resist it while sitting at the dinner table next to her. It’s a miracle Dylan has been able to hold out for this long.

“Not eating delicious food like this. Or drinking too much wine!” Melanie empties her glass, pours herself another one, and takes one final bite of her braised beef. “I obviously can’t eat like this during my training schedule. But in the off-season? Yeah, occasionally.”

Lawrence enters with the dessert cart. He’s happy to see everyone has loosened up, including his boss. Liquid courage will do that to you. Tonight’s menu concludes with a blueberry cream puff pastry. Henry let him try a few leftover scraps to get a preview of what everyone will be enjoying after dinner. Lawrence was not disappointed. Nor will the diners be, either.

“Lawrence dear, tell the cook that I’ve loved everything he’s prepared tonight,” Monique says.

“You can tell him yourself, Miss St. Martin. I’ll bring him out. He’s currently washing dishes, but that can wait until the morning,” Lawrence pats Dylan on the shoulder, which is his subtle way of asking permission to bring the chef out into the dining room.

“That sounds lovely,” Dylan says with approval. “I’m sure we’d all love to pay our compliments to the chef for the lovely evening we’ve had thus far.”

“Excellent. I’ll let him know he’s invited to make an appearance at his earliest convenience.” Lawrence disappears back into the kitchen. Henry is also an expert at preparing just enough food that you feel full and satisfied afterward but not overstuffed. Feeling too full is a great way to ruin the rest of your evening. Yet another reason why Dylan has kept him around for so long.

“This dessert is giving my mouth an orgasm!” Peggy exclaims. Monique blushes at this rather blunt description of a simple puff pastry. Melanie smiles. Dylan sips some espresso, trying not to laugh. He fails.

“Well, that’s definitely one way to put it!” Dylan says. Peggy doesn’t seem to hear what anyone is saying anymore. She has a sweet tooth that’s difficult to satiate.

“Hello lovely ladies!” Henry barges into the dining room. He shakes hands with Dylan. Melanie lightly rubs his shoulder. Monique waves at him. Peggy, now done wolfing down her dessert, gets up to give Henry a big hug, nearly lifting him off the floor.

“Baby, dinner was fabulous. FABULOUS! Goddamn, can this man cook!” Peggy lightly grabs Henry’s crotch and squeezes it, a subtle move no one seems to notice. Except for Henry, of course. “My highest compliments to the chef!”

“Thanks darling. I cannot believe how lucky my boss is right now! Look at this!” Henry gestures toward the group. Monique pretends to “tip her cap” to the chef. Dylan once again shakes the hand of his faithful cook as a demonstration of his appreciation. It may not be scientifically proven that delicious food is an aphrodisiac, but in this moment, Dylan can only hope that there is a semblance of truth to it.

“Yes, I am one lucky son of a bitch,” Dylan proclaims. “And you’ve truly outdone yourself, Henry. Dinner was remarkable. Perfectly prepared, all around.”

“Well, I have plenty of dishes to wash. Rumor has it ya’ll have got something special planned for Mr. Tanaka, am I right?”

“We do, yeah,” Peggy nods in agreement. “We’ve got a special little show in store for Dylan baby here. It’s going to be fucking fantastic. You should drop by after you’re done with your chores.” She kisses Henry on the cheek suggestively. By now, Dylan has caught on that she and Henry may start their own fireworks show sooner rather than later.

“Can’t wait. In fact, why wait? Come with me to the cabaret room!” Dylan proclaims as if he’s Willy Wonka inviting his guests to tour the mysterious chocolate factory. Yes, Dylan does in fact have a professionally designed cabaret-style room in his home. Modeled after a 1920s speakeasy, it contains a fully stocked bar, tall scarlet red curtains, cushy leather sofas, a small stage large enough for a few performers, A/V equipment, a modest light setup, and a Broadway-like spotlight at the back of the room. The room isn’t used terribly often, but when it is Dylan makes sure his private entertainers are given the best environment to showcase their talents.

“I cannot wait to see this!” Monique says to Melanie. She smiles back with equal anticipation.

Located on the second floor toward the back, Dylan leads his three guests up a gothic-looking spiral staircase. The guest bedrooms are also on this floor, which is convenient for everyone involved. Melanie, who’s seen the cabaret room before, goes straight to her bedroom to get changed. She realizes she’ll most likely spend the night in Dylan’s spacious bedroom, but that still means she needs someplace to put her luggage. She decides she’ll get dressed in her sexy little number as the host gives the other two girls a tour of the new cabaret room.

“I had this room specifically designed to look this way,” Dylan says, leading Monique and Peggy inside the cabaret room. “Before, it was basically a glorified library, or study, as you both may recall. But I wanted to do something special with it. And here we are!”

Both women are gobsmacked when they see the cabaret room in all its glory.

“Sweet mother of God, this is fucking fantastic!” Peggy slides her fingers down the scarlet curtains, admiring the texture. “I love what you’ve done here! Who did you hire to do it?”

“Some guy I know who used to work on Broadway. He’s now retired and does contract work for rich idiots like me.” Monique sneaks up behind Dylan to plant a wet kiss on the back of his neck. He turns around, smiling at her. She smiles back, placing the palm of her right hand underneath his groin. This is an unusually bold move for her, Dylan notes to himself. What’s going on?

“Do…do you like it?” Dylan asks.

“Oh, I hadn’t been looking around much, but yeah, you can say that,” Monique answers. “And you’re no idiot, darling. I remember interning with you.”

Dylan laughs. “Yes, I’m sure you do. That was just a figure of speech, my dear. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Monique gives him a coy look. Dylan continues to wonder why she’s in such a flirty mood today. Peggy is still amazed at the authenticity of the room’s design. It’s remarkably similar to performance halls she’s seen in Paris, New York, London, and Las Vegas. She even imagines what it would be like to shoot erotic videos here since she doubts Dylan would charge a camera crew for the rights to use the space. That’s a conversation she’ll have to have with him later. She makes a mental note of it.

“Girls! It’s time to get dressed and get ready for showtime!” Melanie yells from a distance. Peggy and Monique give each other a look. They turn toward Dylan.

“I think we’re needed. We promised that we had a little show prepared for you. So we must be off,” Peggy remarks as she leaves the room. This leaves Monique alone with Dylan.

“I totally forgot the bottles of booze in the dining room. Should I go get them?” she asks.

“No, that’s fine. This room has a fully stocked bar. I’ll find something to sip on my own. Go on and get ready with the others,” Dylan instructs her. Monique dutifully leaves, giving him one final flirty wave as she exits. Gee, what’s with all these sexual vibes she’s giving him all of a sudden? Monique is usually not like this. She’s in a stable relationship with a man who barely approves of her coming over for dinner dates like this. Has she broken up with him without telling anyone? Or is she drunk and not thinking straight? Dylan ponders these things as he investigates the bar and chooses an already opened bottle of brandy to drink from.

Fifteen minutes later, Dylan receives a text message from Melanie telling him they’re almost ready to go. About a week ago, she sent him a Spotify playlist with various easy listening jazz artists on it. Dylan turns on the computer located at the back of the room, logs on to Spotify, and begins to play it. The playlist runs for three and a half hours, so they’re in no danger of running out of music. Besides, it’ll just automatically return back to the beginning once it finishes. Dylan then turns off the room lights and cranks up the stage lights. He leaves the spotlight off, as it’s so powerful that it can be overwhelming if you’re not accustomed to performing in front of it. The bright Fresnel and floodlights hanging overhead are impressive enough. He has no doubt they’ll give the three performers all the electromagnetic exposure they need to be adequately seen.

The smooth musical score provides complementary ambiance without being distracting. Dylan sees a small flutter in the curtains, indicating the three ladies are now behind it. With a glass of brandy in hand, he’s ready for the show of a lifetime. Suddenly, a long supple leg sticks out between the curtain slit.

“Oooooh, I like this already…” Dylan mutters under his breath. He takes another sip of brandy, nearly coughing afterward. His heart starts to race.

Little by little, it is revealed that the owner of the supple leg belongs to none other than Miss Monique St. Martin. She’s now wearing a classy green satin V-neck dress that makes her the “belle of the ball” who would undoubtedly capture the heart of any Prince Charming. He can only imagine he could be so lucky. Monique struts to center stage, twirling her arms in the air like a ballerina. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I can see we have a full house here tonight, and I have every confidence that you’re all in for a real treat. I am your host this evening, Monique St. Martin. But you can call me just…Monique.”

“Hi, Monique!” Dylan calls out from his comfortable leather chair located right in the center of the room. Monique waves back at him. Her hair is pulled back so he can clearly see her gorgeous face. She’s wearing a little bit of makeup to accentuate her features but not too much that it becomes distracting. Her natural beauty is distracting enough.

“Hi, sugar pie! As you can probably tell, I am an Olympic athlete who plans to compete at next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Can you tell how strong I am?” She gives the “audience” a double biceps pose, showing off her impressive physique. Dylan watches with amazement, then gives a silent nod of encouragement. Monique, seeing she’s properly captivated the crowd in attendance, removes her shoes (Dylan couldn’t quite figure out what kind of shoes they are) and does the spread-eagle splits with elegance and grace. It doesn’t appear to be challenging to her at all. “As you can clearly see, I take good care of my body. After all, my body is my life. And what puts food on the table. It’s my moneymaker. Can’t you tell?”

Once again, Dylan nods his head enthusiastically up and down. He refrains from verbalizing his enjoyment. “Well, I sure hope it’s obvious that I work out a lot. They don’t just let any old bum on the street compete in the Olympics.” Monique swings both of her legs forward, does a backward roll, and once she returns to her feet, performs a backflip in one sudden fluid motion. This causes Dylan to audibly gasp. She lands once again on her feet, bows to her audience, and gives herself a modest round of applause. The sound of Melanie and Peggy clapping from behind the curtain can be faintly heard.

“Whew! Not bad for someone who’s not a gymnast, huh?” This elicits a genuine laugh from Dylan and the two other ladies backstage. “So okay, I can do a few neat tricks like backflips and whatnot. But do you know why I’m actually going to Tokyo next summer? Any guesses?” Apparently, this is where she wants to solicit guesses from her captivated crowd. Audience participation, Dylan supposes.

“Uh, I think I can guess!” Dylan raises his hand. Monique grins. She points to her lone audience member sitting all by himself.

“Yes, sir! You there, the Asian guy with the crisp-looking necktie. What sport do you think I compete in? Figure skating? Track and field? The discus throw? Curling? What?” The curling bit makes Peggy chuckle from backstage, but not Melanie. Maybe it’s because Melanie actually lived in Canada for several years (with her first husband) before moving to Chicago to live with her second husband. There, she developed a genuine respect for curling. This marriage ended in divorce, but that didn’t end her love for watching curling whenever the Winter Olympics were happening. She understands why Americans scoff at it. That doesn’t mean she still can’t like it!

“Well, I will say something like weightlifting? I mean, you do have some impressive guns there, young lady…” Dylan points to her arms, which at this point do not need any further pointing out. Now it’s Monique’s turn to nod her head.

“Very good guess, sir! Ding, ding, ding! You are absolutely correct. I am an Olympic weightlifter. For my final act, would you like to see me attempt a lift?” Dylan has no choice but to say “yes.” He pretends to look around at his fellow attendees to see if they also would like to see Monique attempt a really heavy lift. It appears as though the hundreds of imaginary people sitting around Dylan all agree wholeheartedly.

“Great! This will give me the opportunity to introduce our next performer, Miss Melanie Wright!” Monique steps toward the curtain and lifts it up to allow Melanie to enter the stage. Unlike Monique, she’s dressed in a mysteriously elegant fur coat that covers her entire body. This coat must be enormous because Melanie has quite a substantial torso. She appears to be wearing heels and…well, it’s unclear what else she’s wearing besides the fur coat. Melanie struts around, waves to the entire “audience” as if there were thousands of screaming fans in attendance, and stands right next to Monique. The size contrast couldn’t have been more obvious. Melanie is much bulkier than Monique – and three to four inches taller, even though both of them are wearing heels – a fact that anybody with a pair of functioning eyeballs could see. Monique is your typical athlete who looks fantastic when she’s wearing minimal clothing but can easily blend into a crowd if she’s in a heavy jacket. Melanie, on the other hand, is unmistakably a professional bodybuilder who takes her muscle-building endeavors seriously. She looks like she can barely fit through a door frame. Whenever she rides in a car, it’s a miracle the tires don’t blow out. While she’s no bigger (in terms of weight, not sheer muscle mass) than a lot of male bodybuilders, your brain isn’t accustomed to seeing a woman that large. And her muscles are evenly distributed from head to toe. No one would ever think of her as being fat. She’s a marvel to look at, no question about it.

“Hi, everyone! My name is Melanie. How is everyone doing tonight?”

Dylan decides to speak up this time, just for the fun of it. “We’re doing great! Couldn’t be better. I cannot imagine doing anything else right now than being here, watching you lovely ladies do your thing.” He gives them a brief round of applause to show his appreciation for their willingness to travel away from their homes and come out all the way to Seattle (which some people consider to practically be South Alaska) to his not-so-humble abode. The two ladies currently on stage take a bow to acknowledge this kind gesture.

“Well, thank you so much for that rowdy ovation!” Melanie acknowledges. “So, Monique, I hear you have a special lift you’d like to attempt. Is that true?”

“It sure is! I will lift you up off the ground, place you on my back, and squat you for at least 20 reps. How does that sound!” Dylan can hear Peggy proclaim something unintelligible from backstage. It seems as though not even she was privy to what Monique had in store. Melanie acts surprised, but it’s clear she knew what the plan was all along.

“Hot damn! That sounds like quite a feat. You should probably take those lovely shoes off first, my dear.” Monique nods her head. One by one, she removes her heels and places them off to the side. She then does a little bit of stretching to get ready. Dylan doesn’t want to worry that she’ll reaggravate her injury, but he can’t help himself. The horrific scene at the Rio Olympics will forever be seared into his memory. How can anybody forget that? Just the image of the ambulance’s lights and the stretcher being carried out by a team of medics is enough to trigger traumatic feelings. Nevertheless, Dylan figures Monique wouldn’t do this (and Melanie wouldn’t have agreed to participate) unless she was confident that she could do it safely. This eases the tension somewhat.

“Good suggestion, girl. Can’t wait! I’m sure our audience can’t wait either.”

After stretching out her quads, bending down to touch her toes, and swinging her arms in a helicopter pattern for several seconds, it appears as though Miss St. Martin is ready to attempt her feat of strength. She takes a deep breath. Dylan holds his. Melanie loosens up by twisting her torso around in a circle. Monique quickly looks into Melanie’s eyes, then turns her head to look directly at Dylan. He still has not released his breath. The naughty smile on her beautiful face reassures him that she isn’t going to put herself in jeopardy. Finally, Monique bends her upper body toward Melanie, grabs her left knee with her right hand, places her left hand underneath Miss Wright’s armpit (Melanie kindly places her left arm around Monique’s back), and lifts Melanie off the ground. Dylan’s mouth drops agape. Now, Melanie is completely resting on top of Monique’s back. Melanie lets out a quiet gasp after she finds herself completely parallel to the ground. Monique has still not made any noise, as if this whole stunt were totally normal. As if she does this sort of thing all the bloody time.

“Alright, time to show you all how strong my quads are!” Monique brags. “Are you ready?” She receives no audible response from anyone.

And sure enough, she bends her knees almost all the way to the floor and powerfully lifts them back up. One rep. It looks as though she isn’t even breaking a sweat. And…Dylan must keep in mind that she’s doing this all in a dress! Then she proceeds to do two reps. Then three. Then four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight…

The entire time Peggy is screaming “Go girl, go!” from backstage. Dylan wants to join in on the raucous cheering, but something compels him to just sit there like a respectful audience member. It must be his Japanese heritage that forces him to be quiet when other people have the spotlight on them (metaphorically speaking). Nine reps. Ten reps, eleven reps, twelve reps, thirteen reps, fourteen reps – by now, Dylan’s concern for Monique’s safety has shifted toward being genuinely impressed by her strength, balance, and endurance – fifteen reps, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one (she promised at least twenty repetitions, so from this point on everything else is just gravy on top), twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four…

It’s obvious that Monique is finally getting tired. So, she’s human after all. She attempts one more rep and then decides to quit.

Twenty-five!

After achieving five more reps than her initial goal, Monique gently puts Melanie down to the floor, ensuring she doesn’t slip and fall. Melanie appears to be just fine. Monique is now dripping sweat, which is also a product of standing under these hot stage lights for several minutes. She gives her audience a bow, which prompts Dylan to respond with an enthusiastic standing ovation. It’s the only thing he can do to demonstrate his appreciation for her performance.

“Wow! That was quite a ride,” Melanie exclaims. “Unbelievable!”

“I hope you don’t get motion sickness easily…” Before Melanie could respond, Monique slides the straps on her dress off her shoulders, dropping the green piece of fabric to the floor. She kicks it aside. Wearing nothing but a bright white pair of lacy panties, the Olympic goddess gives Dylan a triumphant pose, lifting her fingers toward the heavens as if an angel delivered her onto this earth. Monique’s small, flat breasts are outshone by her remarkably wide areola and inch-long nipples, which are standing at full attention. Dylan could only imagine what it would be like to circle his tongue around her long, thick nipples.

Monique gives her audience one final bow before slowly exiting the stage through the curtain. She soaks up every minute of her allotted stage time. Melanie stays behind, pretending to fan herself with her right hand. “WOW! Well, that girl sure knows how to put on a good show, am I right?” Dylan verbally responds in agreement. “Not sure how I can follow that up, but I’ll try…”

The music continues to play, which Dylan almost forgets is still on. He’s too distracted by the shenanigans going on onstage to pay attention to the ambient noise. Still wearing her enormous fur coat, Melanie walks downstage from left to right, teasing her audience of one, forcing him to guess what’s about to happen next. “As you can probably tell, I am a woman of mystery. I don’t like to reveal too much about myself unless it becomes absolutely necessary. I suppose it’s a product of my life experience, of the paths I’ve had to cross over the years.” Expressing more melancholy emotions than expected, Dylan isn’t quite sure where Melanie is going with this. “But that’s about to change right now. You folks are in for a real treat. As you may or may not know, I am a professional female bodybuilder. I love women with big muscles, don’t you?”

“Oh hell yeah!” Peggy yells from offstage. Dylan cannot help but smirk at her eagerness. He decides to remain silent and let Melanie do her thing uninterrupted.

“Thank you, baby. I appreciate your enthusiasm,” Melanie quips. “Society isn’t always open to seeing a woman with big muscles. Some people say it’s gross, or unfeminine, or too masculine, or unnatural. They say a woman shouldn’t look like that. That looking like that will turn folks off to her. Ouch. What do I think of that, you may wonder? I say we need to ignore the haters. After all, what have they ever accomplished in their lives?”

“Nothing!” Monique shouts from behind the curtain. Melanie smiles.

“That’s for damn sure. But I don’t believe that. Not for a second. And if anyone out here tonight feels the same way, that a woman with big muscles can’t be sexy, desirable, and majestic, well, prepare to have your mind blown!”

And with that, Melanie takes off the fur coat, dropping it to the floor with more pomp and circumstance than is necessary. But none of that matters because of what is revealed to have been hidden underneath that coat: A world-class muscular physique. Dylan’s heart almost leaps out of his chest when he regards her. There she is, in her full glory, right on display underneath the bright lights, exactly how she’s meant to be seen. Wearing a cute pink sparkly competition bikini, Melanie stands tall and proud, ready to show off her decades of hard work. She flexes both biceps, making sure all 18 inches are seen in full view (in actuality, her right bicep is 18 inches while her left one is 17.75 inches, but who cares?). Melanie turns to the side and hardens her meaty triceps. So full, so thick, so meaty. Dylan is in a trance-like state at this point. He feels his erection straining against his underwear. Next, she turns away from the audience to showcase her broad back, wide shoulders, and round butt. Indeed, it’s a mystery how she can fit through doors. She’s as wide as a truck but as graceful as a figure skater. Finally, she turns around again, takes a deep breath, and bounces her quads. Nearly 30 inches in diameter, even for a top-level competitor, Melanie’s thighs are famous throughout the industry for their girth, fullness, and ability to “bounce” on command. Her muscle control is also famous among people who pay attention to these things. Dylan definitely knows this. Henry also knows this. Melanie definitely knows this and revels in it.

Melanie proceeds to show Dylan all the standard bodybuilding poses: abdominal and thigh, front double biceps, front lat spread, side chest, side triceps, rear lat spread, rear double biceps, and the classic “most muscular” pose (which basically means a final pose where you get to show off all your front muscles from top to bottom). She’s a real pro, which one can tell by how seamlessly she can transition from one pose to another. Going in a whole circle, she makes sure no inch of her immaculate body is left unseen. Dylan has seen Melanie’s body many times before – including fully nude, which he expects to see again later this evening – but this time it’s different. Perhaps it’s because he hasn’t seen her in a long time. Maybe it’s because of the dreary funk he’s been in during the past several weeks. But at this moment, in this exact moment in time, Melanie has never looked better. And he’s not sure he’s ever witnessed a more beautiful woman. This means something, considering Monique St. Martin was just on stage a few minutes earlier. Monique looks like a finely chiseled athlete. Melanie, on the other hand, looks like a beast. A monster. A giantess. She looks like she was carved out of stone. She cannot possibly be from this earth, but she is. She’s a real flesh-and-blood human being as far as anyone can tell. It could also be the lighting that’s doing the trick. Stage lighting (especially good stage lighting coordinated by a professional designer) can make any normal human being look…ethereal.

But Melanie is far from a normal human being, with or without the stage lights cascading onto her gorgeous body. She may not have Monique’s natural beauty, but Melanie’s flawless physique more than makes up for it. In fact, her physique makes her a one-of-a-kind, a once-in-a-generation athlete. There will never be another Melanie Wright ever again.

“So…do I have your attention now? Are you still unsure if a woman can still be sexy, curvy, feminine, and undeniably hot with all these big muscles?” Melanie asks these rhetorical questions without expecting an answer. She knows the answers already. Everyone in this room does. Especially her host sitting all by himself in the house. He knows better than anyone.

“I hope this was an educational experience for you all. This is proof, once and for all, that muscles don’t make a woman look like a man. They make her look more like a woman!” With that, she strikes a final pose (similar to the Broadway-style pose Monique did earlier) and waits for applause. Dylan and the two other ladies backstage are more than happy to give it to her. And they do with cheerful enthusiasm.

“Wow! Bravo! Well done! You are so magnificent, so beautiful!” Dylan bellows.

“Thank you darling. Thank you all!” Just as Melanie is about to leave the stage, Peggy barges on stage wearing the most ridiculous costume imaginable. Dressed like a Las Vegas showgirl, she has a bright red feather hat that must be at least three feet tall and five feet wide, a scarlet-colored bikini with shiny sequins all over it, and matching scarlet stiletto shoes. Peggy wears long silver gloves that go up to her elbows, gold hoop earrings, a diamond-encrusted necklace that Dylan hopes isn’t actually real (for the sake of accidentally losing it at the airport), and enough makeup to supply an army of Beverly Hills housewives. “Over the top” would be an understatement. Melanie giggles as she leaves the stage.

“Hi baby! How are ya’ll doing out there tonight?” Dylan whoops and hollers, which isn’t usually his style, but it feels right for the occasion. “I can feel the love in here, oh yes I can. For the finale of tonight’s entertainment, it seems like we need to add some spice in the air, don’t you agree?”

“Yeah!” Monique and Melanie shout in unison.

“And if you need to heat things up, I’m your gal. Now, you might be wondering what it is that I have in my hand here…” Peggy coyly asks. Dylan was so focused on her outfit that he completely didn’t notice that Peggy entered the stage carrying a long black object. What was it…?

“This, my darlings, is a little friend of mine. Or shall I say, a large friend of mine?” Dylan is finally able to see that Peggy is carrying around an enormous black dildo, probably anywhere between eight to 10 inches long. When Peggy ordered it from Amazon.com several months ago, the manufacturer said it was a solid 12 inches long. When she unboxed it and measured it, it turned out to have been about 10.5 inches. Sort of a case of false advertising, but Peggy was too lazy to return it and demand a refund. Instead, she kept it and added it to her collection of naughty paraphernalia. As a professional erotic webcam performer, Peggy Cole must constantly replenish her stock of sex toys so that her audience doesn’t get bored of her act. It’s both exhilarating and a chore, a contradiction Peggy embraces.

By now, Dylan sees Monique and Melanie reenter the stage by sneaking on from the right-hand side. They’re standing off to the side, just as curious as Dylan is as to what stunt Peggy has planned. “This thing here is a good friend of mine. We’ll call him Jerry. Now, Mr. Jerry and I are closely acquainted. He’s long, he’s thick, he’s hard as a rock, and he stays hard forever and ever. Now, you ladies can sure appreciate someone like that, am I right?” Monique and Melanie improvise words of approval. Between servicing Henry earlier today and eating the mouthwatering dinner Henry had prepared for the group, Peggy is in an especially erotic mood. Good food, good wine, good friends, and good cock are guaranteed to get her horny. Already dripping wet down there, Peggy prances around the stage until she decides to sit on the front edge. She licks the tip of the dildo as vivaciously as one could possibly lick a piece of lifeless polyvinyl chloride.

“Mr. Jerry wants to come out and play. I think that would be a wonderful idea, don’t you all agree?” Her mesmerized audience verbalizes their opinion on the matter. “I’m feeling really, really, really horny right now. Why? Well, because I’m always horny!” She laughs to herself. No one laughs back, but that doesn’t seem to stop Peggy from enjoying herself. “So to release this pent-up tension that’s inside me, I figured I should ask Mr. Jerry for assistance.”

Peggy spreads her legs out wide. She removes her bikini bottom with the poetic ease of an experienced professional striptease artist. Which makes sense considering that’s one of her side gigs. Then, she tosses it into the crowd, hoping it lands close to Dylan. It does. Dylan leans over to pick it up. Sure enough, it’s soaking wet. This makes him chuckle. But when he looks up, what he sees next takes his breath away. Little by little, inch by inch, Peggy inserts the comically large black dildo inside her vagina, moaning softly along the way. Nobody could tell if she’s faking it or not. The box says it’s 7 inches in circumference, which Peggy has surprisingly never bothered to measure. It takes a while, but at last, Peggy manages to stuff the entire thing inside her vagina, a feat that the other two ladies are witnesses with a combination of shock and disgust.

“Hot damn! Isn’t that painful?” Monique whispers to Melanie.

“Well, she doesn’t look to be in pain. But I hear you. Holy shit…” Melanie responds.

While it seems like Peggy is grimacing in pain, Dylan can see a genuine smile spread across her face. Finally, she begins to slide the dildo in and out of her moist entrance. It’s slow at first, then becomes quicker as she builds up more natural wetness. Peggy made sure to cover it with enough lube jelly to make this stunt as painless as possible. She considers herself to be a bona fide “size queen,” but at her age she needs a little bit of assistance. Especially when dealing with a brand-new dildo as large as this one. As she masturbates for her audience, Melanie and Monique slowly creep up closer to inspect Peggy’s performance.

“Oh, baby, oh yes. This is what mama likes. This is what I like, baby doll.”

Dylan cannot sit still in his chair. By now, he’s actually afraid he might come in his shorts. It wouldn’t be the first time. His penis is as hard as rock and desperate for release.

“You like this? Does this turn you on? It’s turning me on, that’s for damn sure,” Peggy whispers to anyone willing to listen. “I like it big and hard, like Mr. Jerry here. Ohhhhh, baby…” A veteran masturbator, Peggy has never used this particular dildo before in public. During her cam shows, she’ll use all sorts of sex toys on herself. Vibrators, bullets, wands, beads, butt plugs, sex machines, clit toys, you name it. If it’s out there, she’s done it in front of her high-definition 4K webcam. But this toy is one she was saving for a special moment.

“Oh God, I’m going to come! Right all over this fucking floor. Do you want to see that? Do you? Oh, I’m soooooooooooo fucking close!” Dylan knows what’s about to happen. He’s seen her do it on her shows, but never live in-person. So this should be a treat. He’s not sure if Monique and Melanie have any clue as to what’s about to happen…

“OH FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!”

Peggy quickly pulls the dildo out of her vagina, spreads her legs as wide as they can go, and squirts three large spurts of milky white fluid out of her urethra. It travels almost three feet in front of her, making a small mess on the carpet. But that’s the least of Dylan’s worries. Peggy screams at the top of her lungs, writhes around violently, then collapses onto her back. A few more shudders travel throughout her body as her orgasm subsides. It must’ve been a powerful one. Maybe one of the most powerful ones she’s ever experienced.

Monique and Melanie are stunned. Obviously, they had no idea what Peggy had up her sleeve!

Dylan falls to the floor, applauding like a madman who’s just listened to the London Symphony Orchestra perform the climax of Beethoven’s 9th. Instead, he just watched Peggy perform a different sort of climax, but one much wetter and messier. For anyone who watches Peggy Cole’s cam shows (Dylan and Henry know this very well), she is infamous for being a prolific ejaculator. She’s convinced that she’s the best in the world. Nobody in the porn industry can do it better than her. No guy, no gal, nobody. She can launch her female ejaculate farther than anyone else on planet Earth. She may not squirt as much volume of liquid as others, but in terms of distance traveled, Peggy Cole is peerless. Unmatched. Unchallengeable. Undisputed.

If you need scientific proof that “female ejaculation” is a real thing, go introduce yourself to Miss Peggy Cole. She’ll persuade you in an instant that yes, it is in fact a real thing.

After several moments of catching her breath, Peggy gets up and beckons the other two ladies to join her. She puts the dildo down on the floor, joins hands with her compatriots, and takes a theatrical bow to their appreciative audience. Dylan gives them a rousing standing ovation, thanking them for their splendid show. Monique’s eyes widen when she sees how far Peggy’s “girl cum” shot out.

“Holy shit, girl. What the fuck was that? Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn!”

“I have special talents that nobody else can match,” Peggy brags. Monique doesn’t say anything because she doesn’t need to. She agrees wholeheartedly.

“Thank you for attending tonight’s performance! Don’t forget to tip your waitress. Drive home safe,” Melanie announces. Dylan stops clapping and runs toward his three guests. Monique jumps off the stage and gives him a warm embrace. Peggy kisses him all over his face, not letting him get a word in. Meanwhile, Melanie is inspecting the mess Miss Cole left behind.

“Sweet Jesus,” she mutters to no one. The milky white fluid on the floor looks like someone spilled a bottle of hand soap everywhere.

The music is still playing. The lights are still shining. And the evening has just gotten started. Dylan looks up at a nearby wall clock and sees it’s currently 8:49 p.m. The night is still young!

“Wonderful, ladies. Splendid. Holy shit, you surprised me. I didn’t know what to expect. But what I got was better than I could’ve imagined.” Dylan kisses Melanie on the cheek. She kisses him back on the lips. Her kiss is deeper and more meaningful than their first kiss. He knows it. Peggy and Monique know it. Everyone knows it.

“The show isn’t over yet. Are you in the mood for an encore?” Melanie unbuttons the top of Dylan’s shirt, then kisses his neck. Peggy growls. Monique can only stare in silence. Without needing to say a single word, Melanie grabs Dylan by his wrist and leads him toward the exit.

“We’ll see you two later. Bye!” Melanie says as she and Dylan leave the room.

Nobody moves for a moment. Finally, Monique turns to Peggy with an exasperated look on her face.

“Seriously, though. How the fuck did you do that?”

As they tidy up the room for the next few minutes, Peggy cannot stop laughing. Neither can Monique.

All the King’s Queens – Chapter 5: Meet and Greet

No matter how many hundreds of times Dylan has invited a female bodybuilder over to his home, he always gets butterflies in the stomach right before she arrives.

For the first time ever, he’s hosting three beautiful ladies all at once, which only adds layers upon layers to his current state of anxiety.

Before becoming a social pariah, Dylan frequently hosted dinner parties with high-level Perseus Analytics executives, lawmakers, media personalities, celebrities, athletes, and friends (the ones who didn’t object to his work with the U.S. military and government). But since then, these kinds of gatherings have become few and far between. In his estimation, which Lawrence confirmed recently, his last dinner party was more than a year ago. He was celebrating his older brother’s 40th birthday party with nearly three dozen guests – his parents and three surviving grandparents among them. Nothing too crazy happened (he comes from a Japanese-American family, so the bar for “craziness” is set pretty low) and it was a nice reminder of a time when life seemed normal. For Dylan, those days are getting further and further away. There was no talk about his past scandals, dead civilians in the Middle Eastern, or controversial government contracts. It was great.

Right now, Dylan is pacing around his living room, pretending to be looking at a picture book sitting on the coffee table. The photographs of boathouses in Maine, beaches in the Florida Keys, and horse stables in Utah are pretty to look at – but he’s not interested in them at the moment. Dylan estimates he’s burned at least 500 calories just pacing back and forth. Perhaps this should be the start of a new workout routine.

For security reasons, non-employees aren’t allowed to bypass the front gate without requesting access. There’s a callbox right outside the gate that visitors can use to communicate to someone on the inside. There are transistor radios strategically placed throughout the house, with a security room located on the second floor. This makes it easy for Dylan or Lawrence to speak to and let in visitors. Once the gate has been opened, they can go park on the driveway. Lawrence, Henry, and Joey have their own keycards so that they can come and go as they please. Uber/Lyft and taxicab drivers must instead drop off their passengers at a nearby public park (a dog park that’s mostly used for pooping and scooping purposes) and either walk up to the gate to request permission to enter or wait for Lawrence to personally escort them to the house. It’s rather bothersome when a large number of guests come over, but that’s the way it is. Being a billionaire has its drawbacks (in addition to a few perks). The dog park runs along several blocks of 43rd Avenue, with Dylan’s home located at the end of Winchester Drive.

“I just got a text from Miss Wright. Her driver is about a mile away from here. I’ll pick her up shortly,” Lawrence informs his boss. Still pacing around the living room, Dylan turns toward his loyal butler and smiles.

“Thanks Lawrence. I’m guessing Monique shouldn’t be too far behind,” Dylan says. “We’re expecting Peggy to be the last to arrive, yes?”

“That is correct, sir. She’s estimated to arrive shortly before dinner.” Lawrence knows his boss is nervous as hell. It’s obvious to anyone observing his behavior. The butler usually ignores this and pretends like everything is normal. He hopes this sense of “normalcy” will help put Mr. Tanaka’s mind at ease.

“Great. Thanks. Go ahead and wait for Melanie to arrive.” With that, Lawrence turns around and walks to the garage. Dylan finally sits down to calm his nerves. He doesn’t know why, but he feels an extra amount of anxiety at the moment. Which is perplexing, considering how excited he should be feeling instead. He’s about to spend quality time with three of the most beautiful women he’s ever met. This opportunity doesn’t present itself all the time. Perhaps that’s why he’s feeling so anxious.

He looks at the living room liquor cabinet, eyeing an unopened bottle of Glenlivet 25.

“Is it too early to drink?” Dylan asks himself. He looks at his watch. The time is 1:38 p.m. A single drop of sweat rolls down his cheek. His pulse is racing. He’s out of breath, even though he hasn’t been running.

“No, it’s not.”

***

Five minutes later, Lawrence is sitting in his red 2019 Toyota Avalon right next to the dog park, listening to the radio. At first he was listening to some random bozo complain about the Seattle Mariners bullpen. Was Henry complaining about that earlier this morning? Lawrence thinks so. Now, he’s listening to some Ariana Grande song. Lawrence has vaguely heard of her. He’s pretty sure she’s young enough to be his daughter.

Or granddaughter. Who knows?

Buzzzzzzzzz!

Lawrence’s phone starts to buzz, indicating an incoming text message. He checks it. Sure enough, it’s from Miss Wright. It reads:

“Hi Lawrence sweetie! I’m here. What are you driving?”

Before he can respond, Lawrence notices in the rearview mirror the figure of a large, shapely woman wearing a sleeveless blue polo shirt, white skinny jeans (which leave no doubt that she never skips leg day), and black platform boots. It would be difficult not to see her. She appears to be walking toward the car but still looking around for her ride. Just as she comes a bit closer, Lawrence lightly taps on the horn to alert her to his presence. She immediately spots the Avalon just ahead of her. The butler pops open the passenger side door.

“Greets, Miss Wright. How was your flight over here?” Keeping his composure and professionalism, Lawrence tries his hardest not to stare too long at Melanie’s broad shoulders, bulging biceps, or massive quads. He may not share the same “tastes” as his boss, but Lawrence knows a beautiful woman when he sees one. Even if she’s “non-traditional.” And he is without question in the presence of one fine looking lady.

“It was fine, just any other flight,” Melanie says while stuffing her luggage in the back seat. “I landed safely and didn’t get motion sickness, so that’s a bonus!” One disadvantage of being such a large woman is that it can be incredibly difficult for Melanie to get into cars. Her enormous frame forces her to uncomfortably contort herself as she bends over, enters the vehicle, sits down, and pulls the seatbelt over her massive torso. It stretches to its furthest limit.

“Indeed it is. It’s a blessing to be alive.” After managing to buckle her seatbelt, Lawrence starts the engine and drives toward his boss’s property. Twenty seconds later, his phone starts to buzz again. He pulls to the side of the road to check it. “That might be Miss St. Martin. She’s supposed to arrive shortly after you. But I wasn’t expecting her to arrive quite this soon.”

“I love that girl! I’m excited to see her again. It’s been forever.” Melanie takes out a pocket makeup mirror to see if her eyeliner needs to be touched up. It doesn’t. She puts the mirror away back in her handbag.

With the engine running, Lawrence gets out of the car to look for Monique St. Martin’s cab. In the distance, he sees one approaching the park from the south end. Not one to make a spectacle of himself, he waves his arms in the air (like he just doesn’t care) to catch the driver’s attention. It obviously works, as the taxi makes a hard right turn toward the red Avalon.

“Indeed it is her,” Lawrence informs Melanie. She looks up and sighs.

“I hope she’s doing okay. My heart still aches for her after what happened.” Like Dylan, Melanie couldn’t help but shed lots of tears as she watched that poor girl get carried out of that stadium on a stretcher. It didn’t help that the NBC camera crew kept focusing on Monique’s distraught coach weeping at her side. The esteemed television network received harsh public backlash from their coverage, which was labeled “exploitative” and “insensitive” by critics. To their credit, they later apologized.

A yellow taxicab stops thirty feet away from Lawrence and Melanie. The back-passenger side door opens, with a single supple leg stepping onto the pavement. Wearing a long-sleeved white t-shirt and tight-fitting jean shorts, Monique is also unafraid to wear clothing that generously shows off her fit, athletic body. While not nearly as muscular as Melanie, Monique still stands out in a crowd. Her sturdy body is hard to miss, with curves layered upon curves. Wherever she goes, she turns heads. All the time. She’s allowed her fluffy black hair to drape all over her scalp. As Lawrence tips the driver (in addition to the payment he’s already receiving automatically from Mr. Tanaka), Monique and Melanie embrace like two old friends who haven’t seen each other in ages.

“Girl! It’s so good to see you again!” Melanie has, for quite some time, become a surrogate “auntie” to Monique. After her accident at the Olympics, Melanie called and texted her every single day until her rehab was finished. Even after that, she still contacted her on a weekly basis to check in on her progress. Monique feels indebted to her. They met through Dylan, though their paths could have still crossed without him being in the picture.

“I’m doing great. There’s so much to talk about, trust me!” Monique says. After stuffing her luggage on top of Melanie’s suitcase in the back seat, the three of them are finally able to depart for Mr. Tanaka’s home. Lawrence doesn’t expect Miss Cole to arrive for at least a couple hours. He still has his phone handy though, in case the unexpected were to happen. One can never assume anything anymore.

A random jogger stops running to see what the commotion is all about. It’s quite unusual for this much activity to transpire in this quiet neighborhood. The sight of two gorgeous women with big muscles hugging on the sidewalk nearly makes him run into a mailbox.

Luckily for him, he doesn’t.

The black girl is short but sturdily built. She’s gorgeous as a supermodel and as fit as an Olympic athlete (which, unbeknownst to the jogger, she actually is). The other lady, however, is taller but much bulkier. Much, much bulkier. At least, he thinks she’s a “she.” There isn’t a chance that she could be a man in disguise, right? Or someone who used to be a man but is now a woman? What’s the proper term for that these days? As the two ladies enter the car, he can only stare impolitely and think such politically incorrect thoughts.

“What the fuck is going on here?” the jogger wonders aloud. “God damn…”

As the red Avalon drives off to the far end of the cul-de-sac, the jogger looks down and sees his erection straining against his gym shorts. There’s no hiding it. A little old lady sitting on a nearby park bench feeding some squirrels gives him a look of profound disapproval.

“Whoops.”

***

“DYLAN! It’s so good to see you again!” Melanie screeches with delight.

Embracing in the foyer, Dylan tries to wrap his arms around Melanie’s thick torso but fails to do so all the way. A testament to her substantial girth, Dylan cannot help but notice her new breast implants. Peggy Cole is still the Queen of Comically Oversized Boobs (she’s currently a 40FF, which is as eye-popping as you might expect), but Melanie has enhanced herself quite beautifully. But it still makes hugging her a challenge.

“Hi darling! It’s great to see you again too.” Dylan kisses her on the cheek. “I love what you’ve done with your hair! It looks fabulous.”

Once she turned 50, Melanie decided it was time to stop coloring her hair to remove the grey. Three years later, she’s fully embraced the white streaks complementing her dark brown locks. Standing at 5’ 10” and weighing 215 pounds, Melanie is a force to be reckoned with. Her statuesque figure and dazzling chiseled muscles make her stand out even amongst her bodybuilding peers. Famous for her enormous biceps, triceps, forearms, and quads, Melanie figures her hair is the last thing people will notice about her. She’s not wrong about that.

“I’ve finally decided to stop trying to be younger than I am,” Melanie says. “After all, with muscles like this who gives a shit what anybody thinks?” She strikes a double biceps pose, showing off her impressive guns. It steals Dylan’s breath away. Unable to control himself, he reaches out and places his fingers onto her hardened flesh. He squeezes her 18-inch bicep, focusing on the hardened peak at the top that very few female bodybuilders can say they have. It’s like she has muscle piled on top of other muscles. Dylan temporarily forgets that anyone else is in the room with him.

From a short distance away, Monique cannot help but laugh. “God damn! Wow, we’re starting the party early. Hey, don’t forget about me now.”

Dylan turns around to see Monique standing in the doorway. She bites her lower lip suggestively. Lawrence has already taken everyone’s luggage upstairs to the guest bedrooms. “My dear, my beautiful Monique. There’s no way I’d forget you! Come here.”

Monique picks up Dylan with her embrace, engulfing him into her warm body. Monique is smaller than Melanie (she’s 5’ 7” and 189 pounds) but she’s built like a World War II tank. Her legs could move mountains. Her calves are as large as most women’s thighs. Her six-pack abdomen looks and feels like small stones glued to her tummy in a symmetrical pattern. Dylan bets he could scrub his dirty clothes on them.

“Hello baby.” Her sweet smile sends his heart fluttering.

“I’m glad the two of you showed up together. That’s one fewer trip Lawrence needs to make.” Dylan kisses Monique’s cheek. Her distinct musky smell is like sweet perfume to Dylan’s senses. He could smell it all day and never grow tired of it. “I’m sure you’re both feeling a bit jet-lagged, perhaps?”

“I’m doing okay. I travel a lot, so I’m used to air travel.” Melanie points out. She looks at a marble statue of an Amazonian warrior sitting atop a stone pedestal. Not wanting to touch it out of fear of accidentally chipping this priceless piece of art, she marvels at its artistry instead from afar. This happens to be one of many artistic masterpieces he has in his collection. The others are located throughout the house and downstairs in a storage room. “Some little kid at the airport asked his mommy if I was a boy or a girl.”

“Oh my!” Dylan remarks. “I sure hope you didn’t feel the need to prove anything definitively!”

Melanie and Monique both laugh. “Ha, no. That wasn’t a problem,” Melanie reassures him. “It goes to show that you still don’t see women built like us out and about every day. I think I turned his world upside down today. He’ll probably never forget it as long as he lives.”

“I have no doubt you did,” Dylan approaches her, peering into Melanie’s dark green eyes. “You certainly turn my world upside down, even at this very moment.”

Dylan and Melanie share a long, deep kiss. Monique awkwardly tries to look away but cannot help but feel a sense of pride that Dylan, a man who’s stood by her through thick and through thin, can guiltlessly enjoy his life even for a brief moment in time. Dylan and Melanie are good people, even if the rest of the world doesn’t agree.

“Oh, get a room you two!” Monique playfully taps Dylan on his behind. This makes him gasp.

“We will!” Melanie devilishly declares. “Later tonight, we will.” She reaches down and strokes Dylan’s pulsating groin. It’s been a long time a woman has touched him like this, a fact that both Melanie and Monique know full well.

Dylan’s heart doesn’t stop mid-beat, but it might as well have. The wicked grin Melanie gives him reveals her intentions unambiguously.

Before this evening is over, they will make love.

***

Looking at himself in the mirror, Stephen Callahan suddenly realizes he’s living out a tired old Hollywood cliché. He’s the dastardly villain who’s looking at himself in the mirror before committing an evil act, wondering if a little bit of his soul will perish upon doing so. Or whether his soul already has. Not one to usually sympathize with history’s wicked men, Stephen is under no pretense that he’s a flawless human being who’s been wronged by powers beyond his control. He is a victim, yes, but he is not without blame himself. And, he can choose not to do this. He can still call it off if he wants to. There’s still time. They haven’t done anything illegal yet (at least nothing that they’d be caught doing). However, he has no intentions to abort the mission. It’s still on. Does that make him a complicated villain?

Perhaps.

“You’re about to burn the bacon, goddamn!” Xander yells at Roddy from the kitchen. Stephen was under the impression that it was Cortez’s turn to cook for the group (Xander prepared lunch), but that assumption is obviously wrong. “Do I have to do everything around here? Holy shit, dude.”

“Shut the fuck up!” Roddy fires back. “Don’t tell me what to do, motherfucker!”

“Come on, guys! Don’t get into a petty fight about goddamn bacon,” Thomas scolds them. “Seriously. Cut it out. Now.” This brings a smile to Stephen’s face. He’s glad Thomas has taken on a larger leadership role within the team. It was getting exhausting to do it all himself. While everyone in this outfit is a professional crook with a substantial résumé, that doesn’t mean everyone is going to get along at all times.

“Sorry,” Xander and Roddy reply almost simultaneously. The bacon does smell burnt, but Thomas decides not to say anything about it. Xander backs off to give Roddy some space. Thomas smiles. Cortez is nowhere to be seen.

Stephen is not a fool. He knows the chances of today’s score being 100% successful isn’t guaranteed. Not by a long shot. Even though they’ll be well-armed – combined with Dylan’s lack of stringent security systems outside of a tall gate, a few security cameras hidden here and there, and the possibility that Lawrence the butler may be carrying a concealed firearm – anything can go wrong. That’s one difficult lesson Stephen has taken to heart in recent years. Even Stephen’s plan to temporarily disable his security systems isn’t guaranteed to work. It should, though. But always expect the unexpected.

This is why Stephen has a secret back-up plan. It’s so secret, he’s the only one who knows about it. His compatriots have no idea about it. And they never will unless they have to find out about it.

Several months ago, Stephen’s first robbery after being released from prison was at a local hospital. He snuck through the back of St. Mary’s Cancer Research Institute and entered the building by paying off a security guard with a wad of $100 bills. The guard was near retirement as it was, so he had nothing to lose. Once inside, Stephen and another man (who was too busy to work on this particular job) went to the radiology wing of the hospital. Disguised as maintenance workers, they stole a portable x-ray imaging machine – which is the size of a typical backyard grill – and left the premises without being harassed by anyone. They passed by about a dozen people, who didn’t seem to suspect anything nefarious was going on. He and his partner looked official, acted calm, and seemed like they belonged there. Two people dressed like technicians carrying a piece of equipment didn’t ring any alarm bells, both literal and figurative. It was one of the easiest scores both men have ever been a part of. In and out, just like that. They stuffed the machine carefully in the back of an unmarked van and casually drove off into the proverbial sunset. Stephen has never bothered to check whether or not the security guard they paid off was ever discovered or reprimanded. He also has no idea if the stolen x-ray machine caused a stir over there.

X-ray machines are useful for developing weapons because of the radioactive material found inside them. There’s a damn good reason why you wear a lead apron before getting pictures of your bones or internal organs taken. Long story short, afterward Stephen reached out to an expert chemist (who was a member of the controversial Weather Underground during the late 1960s) who had plenty of spare explosive materiel on hand and absolutely no love for coldblooded warmongering corporate assholes like Dylan Tanaka. For a modest fee, this gentleman reconfigured the x-ray machine to Stephen’s specifications. It took several weeks for him to finish this project, but he eventually got it done. Of course, there’s no way for Stephen or his bombmaker to test it, so there’s an element of faith at play here that the contraption won’t be a dud. However, given this man’s track record, Stephen has every reason to believe that it will work beautifully – though he hopes it doesn’t have to come down to that.

Today, what was once a device about the size of a gas-powered grill can now fit inside a backpack. It’s fitted with a timer that can be set at the most 48 hours ahead. That backpack is now sitting atop Stephen’s bed across the hallway, looking as innocent as a backpack can possibly look.

That’s why Stephen is looking at himself in the mirror and experiencing a momentary existential crisis. This is why he can’t be bothered with whatever arguments are happening elsewhere in the safehouse.

Because inside that backpack is Plan B just in case Plan A doesn’t work or gets derailed unexpectedly. If he can’t win, nobody can win. It’s that simple. It’s a device Thomas, Xander, Roddy, and Cortez have no idea exists because this is Stephen’s ace up his sleeve. His “break-glass-in-case-of-emergency” contingency plan. The rabbit he can pull out of his hat.

A dirty bomb.

***

An hour later, Dylan and his two guests are drinking margaritas in his spacious living room. Hearty laughter fills the air, a joyous noise that hasn’t been heard inside this household in a long time. Whatever nervousness Dylan felt earlier today is now completely gone. He’s finally relaxed and able to be himself for once. From a distance, Lawrence feels happy for his boss. This truly is one of the few times Dylan seems happy. While he doesn’t share his boss’s love for muscular women, he approves of him doing whatever brings him joy. After reading a short but crude text on his phone, he enters with a grand announcement.

“Miss Cole has arrived, sir.” And she certainly has, uh, an unusual communication style, Lawrence notes to himself.

Melanie and Monique’s eyes get wide. Dylan stands up, with his two guests following suit.

“Fantastic! Now we’re all here,” Dylan pronounces. All three hurry to the front door as quickly as they can.

Standing in the middle of the spacious foyer, Peggy admires the décor. She cannot remember the last time she came over, but it certainly was before Dylan’s legal troubles. Before she can take off her aviator shades, Melanie and Monique bust through the side of the hallway, sprinting as fast as they can toward her.

“Peggy! You’re here!” Melanie screams. She embraces Peggy as tightly as she can, lifting her off the ground. Melanie clearly takes every opportunity she can to showcase her impressive strength. When Peggy’s heels touch the floor, they make a loud double CLICK sound. “Excuse me baby girl, I may be a bit drunk already.”

“Damn girl! I need whatever you’re having because you’re thick AS FUCK! Damn woman!” Peggy pinches Melanie’s enormous biceps, admiring both their sheer size and vascularity. Peggy’s sexual orientation is “all over the map” (in her own words), so her admiration of Melanie’s body isn’t just professional. Suffice to say she’s quite appreciative of beautiful looking people of all gender identities. “I need to stretch out my legs, that plane ride doesn’t get any shorter. Then, I need a drink. Pronto!”

Dylan enters the foyer as meekly as a church mouse. He pauses a moment to take it all in. Right before his very eyes, standing in his own home, are three gorgeous strong women. It certainly wasn’t planned this way, but he cannot help but admire the diversity of his three guests: Melanie is tall, powerful, authoritative, and massive in size. Peggy is short (a modest 5’ 4”), squat, muscular (though not nearly as bulky as Melanie), and surgically enhanced in all sorts of places (her enormous boobs are the most obvious, but there are plenty of places that are not-so-obvious). Monique is slim, sturdy, curvy, strikingly beautiful, and possesses the picture-perfect “athlete’s body.” Melanie gives off “motherly” vibes. Peggy is a pure hedonist. Monique is calm, focused, goal-oriented, and determined. Melanie’s skin has a pale golden complexion that allows her muscles to shine. Peggy’s light brown caramel tone comes directly from her Peruvian side. Monique’s rich dark black skin is just as silky smooth to the touch as it looks from a distance. Dylan’s gaze cannot focus on any single one of his guests because all three present a feast for the eyes. This may be a few margaritas talking, but in this moment, he thinks they are the three most beautiful women on the planet. Nobody comes close.

“Hello Peggy. Welcome to my humble abode.”

As if time had suddenly stood still, Peggy’s eyes zero in on Dylan’s. Having perfected the art of the “sexy walk,” she saunters over to her host with the sultry confidence of a Brazilian supermodel. She and Dylan embrace. Her considerable chest makes it difficult to lean over to kiss her, but Dylan successfully does so by craning his neck as forward as he possibly can. It’s a miracle he doesn’t suffer any neck strain.

“It’s good to see you again, baby…” Peggy whispers in Dylan’s ear, causing the hairs on the back of his head to stand at attention. Dylan tries to contain his composure, which becomes even more difficult after Peggy lightly strokes his groin. “I have a special treat for you that I’ll show you later tonight!”

Dylan’s eyes widen. Melanie and Monique lean in with curiosity. Peggy, as usual, loves an attentive audience.

“Is that so? I’m intrigued.”

“Me too!” Monique chimes in.

“And I,” adds Melanie.

“Well, it looks like I’ve set expectations pretty damn high!” Peggy releases her grip from Dylan’s groin. She looks up at a remarkably beautiful 128-light candle-style tiered chandelier hanging from the ceiling. “Mother of God. Is that new? I don’t remember seeing that last time. Holy shit! Dylan baby, you know how to live the high life!”

Dylan tries to display modesty but cannot do so convincingly. “To answer your question, it is new. I had it installed last year. And yeah, I certainly do. Just because I’m holed up in here for the rest of my life doesn’t mean I can’t have nice things on the inside. You know how that is.”

An awkward silence ensues. Peggy’s gaze shifts from the chandelier – which cost Dylan more than $50,000 to have specially made, shipped, and installed by a team of expert interior decorators – to Dylan’s somber eyes. She knows he’s not literally trapped like a rat in his own house, but the sentiment has been conveyed loud and clear. He doesn’t have much of a social life. Weekends like this are all he has now. This makes it even more critical that this be a weekend to remember.

“Not exactly, but I can imagine,” Peggy rubs Dylan’s shoulders. “Still, I think you’re going to love this, uh, special treat I have in store for you. The two of you as well.”

Melanie and Monique nod along in agreement. Dylan and Peggy kiss once more. No one feels the need to say anything else.

“Ahem,” Lawrence interrupts them. For who knows how long, the butler is standing in the doorway leading to the dining room. Dylan’s faithful domestic employee found the time to change into a black tuxedo between breakfast this morning and this present moment. He was probably wearing the tux right before picking everyone up, but Dylan was in no mental state to notice or care. But right now, he looks urbane. He definitely respects decorum. “I have just been informed by Mr. Jameson that dinner is ready. And the dining table has already been set.”

“Henry’s last name is Jameson? I didn’t know that!” Peggy says. A naughty thought suddenly crosses her mind. She grins, hoping nobody notices.

“Indeed, it is, ma’am,” Lawrence answers. He turns around and promptly exits.

“Fantastic!” Dylan claps his hands in excitement. “Let’s eat. I’m starving.”

“As am I!” Monique declares. Melanie silently nods.

Just by luck, the grandfather clock sitting in the foyer rings six times, indicating it is now 6:00 p.m. on the dot. Henry’s ability to finish dinner on time is impeccable, yet another reason why Dylan keeps him around and will continue to keep him around. As Dylan and his guests scurry off to the dining room, Peggy breaks off from the main group and makes a beeline toward the kitchen.

“Speaking of Mr. Jameson, I’d like to poke my head in and say hi! Don’t mind me.” She scurries off to the kitchen. Dylan, Melanie, and Monique don’t think much of it. Then, Dylan decides they should go down to the wine cellar to pick out a few bottles for dinner – and afterward.

“I have a grand idea. Let’s go downstairs to the basement.”

“Why?” Monique asks, her tummy growling.

“I have a wine cellar down there. Let’s go select what we’re going to drink tonight. Have you seen it before?”

“No, but that sounds lovely. I’m not supposed to drink too often, but this weekend is an exception, for obvious reasons,” Monique says.

“It should be the most memorable weekend of our lives,” Melanie promises. She takes Dylan’s warm hand and leads them on. “Mark my words.”

All the King’s Queens – Chapter 4: The Guests of Honor

With a small suitcase packed and ready to go sitting near the front door, Monique takes one final look at herself in the bathroom mirror before heralding an Uber to go to the airport. Esmerelda, her four-year-old fluffy orange cat, jumps onto the toilet next to her, purring as loudly as a motorcycle cruising down the highway.

“Mama has to catch a flight soon to visit some friends,” she says to Esmerelda, lightly patting her head. “When I get back we’ll snuggle on the couch. Which should be tomorrow night!”

Esmerelda looks at her mother, quickly peers out the window after a gentle breeze lets itself in, and hops off the toilet. She scoots away to the laundry room, looking for a warm clean pile of socks to sleep in. Sadly, she will be disappointed that laundry day isn’t until Tuesday.

“Silly girl.” Monique shakes her head. Esmerelda chooses a dirty pile of clothes to sit on instead.

Monique St. Martin lives with her boyfriend in a crammed one-bedroom apartment in downtown Miami. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics is more than a year away (14 months, to be exact), but that doesn’t mean she isn’t hard at work training for the biggest athletic competition of her life. After her horrific injury at the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics where she suffered a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) in her left elbow after attempting the clean and jerk, doctors told her she’d need surgery and at least two years of rehabilitation work before she can even attempt such a lift again. One Boston-based surgeon she visited told her she probably should never attempt the clean and jerk ever again out of fear she may reaggravate the injury. But Monique knew 2020 would be her best – and most likely final – shot at winning a medal at the Olympics. She’s “on the bubble” as it is, with younger and younger athletes emerging who are so much stronger than she is. The powers-that-be at the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee says she’s basically guaranteed a spot at Tokyo but nothing beyond that.

Therefore, she’s in it to win it next year, the consequences be damned. If she does reinjure herself, Monique is confident she’ll have no regrets. Not trying will haunt her much more than trying and failing.

Before all of this happened, Monique met Dylan Tanaka by accident. Prior to becoming an Olympic athlete, during her junior year in college she scored a coveted internship at Perseus Analytics in their data modeling department. One day, Dylan paid a random visit to their Miami-based office to check on how everyone was doing. By a stroke of fate, she shook hands with Mr. Tanaka after her boss delivered a brief presentation on their progress on a supply chain modeling project. He remarked at how impressed he was at her grip strength. She casually said she’s currently training for the 2012 London Olympics. Like magic, his eyes lit up. He smiled at her and whispered in her ear “I’ll be in touch.”

And with that, he left the building and got back in his private helicopter to fly up to New York City to meet with PA’s east coast headquarters.

At first, Monique didn’t know what to think. Is the boss hitting on me? An intern? How crazy is that? she thought to herself. He wasn’t creepy (and Monique has encountered her fair share of creepy guys in her life) or seemed like he had bad intentions. In fact, he came off as warm, gentle, and caring. After a few weeks, she forgot about the whole incident. About a month later, she received an email from Mr. Tanaka himself inviting her to lunch. After picking up her jaw from the proverbial floor, she nervously but excitedly said yes. One week later, she and Dylan were enjoying blackened salmon Caesar salad, crab chowder, and toasted garlic breadsticks alone in a private dining room atop the Panorama Tower in Downtown Miami. After requesting that what they discuss not leave this room, Dylan revealed a secret interest in strong, athletic women.

“For whatever reason, I just really admire women who break the traditional mold. Women who are driven to win, who love being strong and athletic,” Dylan tells her. “I see those qualities in you, Miss St. Martin.” His kind eyes peered into her soul. Same as before, Monique did not feel uncomfortable having lunch with the CEO of the company. Her nervousness went away the moment they started chatting.

“Thank you, Mr. Tanaka!” Monique blushes. She can only stare at the last breadstick, which was getting colder by the minute.

“This will sound so ridiculously clichéd, but please call me Dylan,” he instructs her. She silently nods her head. He smiles back. “So, I have a modest proposition for you, since you appear to be striving toward competing in London next year…”

Dylan proceeded to offer Monique the opportunity to be sponsored by him. He’ll wire her $5,000 per month into a private bank account that he’ll create for her. This will be enough to cover the cost of her training, dieting, coaching, supplementation, and travel expenses. The only catch being that she must keep this business relationship a secret, even from close friends and family. Dylan admits his “secret admiration” for female athletes could harm his reputation if revealed to the public, a sentiment that Monique understood completely. She had lost count of how many times random guys have told her they “dig her muscles” in hushed tones, as if they were afraid someone would hear them say it out loud. She knows men like her muscles but cannot express that admiration publicly. It’s understandable why Dylan Tanaka would feel the same way. He’s not just the CEO. He’s a mini-celebrity. His public profile is much different than a random dude jogging on the treadmill at the gym.

From then on, Monique and Dylan formed an unusual friendship. They were rarely in geographic proximity to each other but always found time to chat on the phone or talk via teleconferencing. He would ask about her progress and Monique would gladly update him on what she’s been up to. After graduation, Monique decided to go into business for herself by becoming an Olympic-style personal trainer – while training for the Olympics herself! Most of her clients were high school and college students training for their sports teams. She learned a lot about running her own business from a nice couple who runs the gym she regularly attends. They taught her everything she knows. It isn’t always glamorous but it’s honest work. No offense to Mr. Tanaka – er, Dylan – but working in an office all day bored the hell out of Monique. She’d rather be on her feet and actually do stuff instead of sitting at a desk and stare at a computer screen for eight hours.

Dylan said if at any time she ever felt uncomfortable by his relationship with her, she could cut it off without any penalty. The money would eventually stop coming in (of course) but he wouldn’t launch any legal or personal vendetta against her. Monique always smiled and insisted she was perfectly happy with her friendship with him. Thus, their friendship-from-a-distance continued with no issues…and all in secret.

Unfortunately for Monique, a year later she did not even qualify for the London Games. She was disappointed, but not devastated. The same goes for Dylan. Despite her failure to earn a roster spot on the Olympic team, Dylan still offered to sponsor her for the next four years in preparation for 2016. Monique thanked him for his generosity. Even throughout the scandal, federal investigation, trial, and media circus that wore Dylan down to a nub, he still deposited that $5,000 into her account without pause. His fierce loyalty endeared him to her.

Then 2016 arrived. She qualified for Team USA! Dylan was ecstatic. So was she. Most experts didn’t think Monique would win a medal, but she did have an off chance of earning a bronze if everything went her way.

Sigh. As it turns out, things did not go her way.

Not only did she tear her UCL on live television, the heavy bar fell on her neck, fracturing four of her vertebrae. She was lucky she wasn’t paralyzed from the accident. As she lay there on the floor, screaming in pain and crying tears of agony as emergency medical personnel attended to her, Dylan sat on his couch thousands of miles away in stunned silence. Tears also formed in his eyes. Eventually, as an ambulance with ominous red flashing lights rushed into the stadium, Dylan couldn’t handle it anymore and had to turn off the TV. He sat there all night, unable to get up. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t do anything but think about Monique, a beautiful and intelligent young lady whose physical pain is outweighed by her emotional pain. During the following months, Monique spent a lot of time in hospitals between multiple surgeries and consultations with physicians about the future of her Olympic aspirations. Many told her she should quit. She refused to let her dreams die like that. If she’s going to go down, she’ll give it her all.

Dylan wisely kept his distance from her. They stopped talking to each other for long periods of time. But he still deposited that $5,000 into her account. Like clockwork. During a time of uncertainty, he felt like the one thing she needed most was certainty.

He was that certainty.

As she finishes reflecting on her past, Monique quickly touches up her eyeliner before heading out. She takes her phone out of her pocket and hails the Uber. It says it should be here in less than five minutes. Just enough time to turn off all the lights, lock up, and take the elevator downstairs.

Jake, her boyfriend, is currently at work. He’s a civil engineer for the City of Miami. She already kissed him goodbye earlier this morning. Even though it’s a Saturday, the city is attempting to close a major highway for construction next month, meaning structural engineers like Jake are having to work 60-hours a week in preparation for it. So only the cat is around. Which may be a good thing because she and Jake aren’t on the best of terms at the moment.

“You be good, Esmerelda,” Monique says to the feline.

“Meeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrr,” she responds back.

“I thought so!”

Jake knows that his girlfriend has a long-time friendship with a rich billionaire who has a secret fetish for strong muscular women. Dylan’s friendship with Monique predates their relationship. He says he doesn’t care what they do together as long as they don’t have sex. Monique has strong reasons to believe he’s lying about that. However, that’s not something she wants to think about right now. Her current priority is to dally off to the west coast to see Dylan, Peggy, and Melanie for the weekend. Whatever happens will happen. She’ll try to have the time of her life.

She may even break the longstanding “limitations” she has with Dylan. Previously, there were certain boundaries she refused to cross. Sex with Dylan was one of them. Dylan knows this. Monique knows this. Jake knows this. However…that may change.

With that, Monique turns off the living room lights, locks the door, and walks to the elevator.

***

As Melanie Wright sits at Gate D17 at O’Hare International Airport, she cannot help but notice a little boy staring at her. He must be at least five or six years old. Melanie has been a professional bodybuilder long enough to have grown accustomed to people – both children and adults – giving her strange looks in public. But there he is, sitting in a row of seats right across from her, unable to peel his young eyes from this unusually large lady.

The boy’s mother is reading something on her iPad, oblivious to the fact that her son is being rude to a perfectly innocent stranger.

“Mommy!” the boy taps his mother on the shoulder. “Is that a boy or a girl?”

The boy’s mother, perplexed and annoyed that her reading is being interrupted, looks up in the direction he’s pointing at. She notices Melanie sitting no more than six feet away. Her eyes widen when she sees Melanie’s enormous frame sitting across from her. She looks feminine, though she’s much bulkier on top than most women she knows. Melanie smiles at the mother. Embarrassed, she wags her finger in front of her son’s face.

“That’s a very rude thing to ask! She’s a lady, of course. Stop it!” At least, she thinks the giant woman sitting across from them is a woman. Could she be transgendered? Or a man in women’s clothing? She couldn’t be sure, but she wanted to nip this situation in the bud as soon as possible and not cause a scene.

“Oh, okay,” Unsatisfied with that answer, the boy continues to stare at Melanie’s 18-inch biceps, which are prominently displayed in her sleeveless blue polo shirt. The mother looks even more embarrassed, looking Melanie straight in the eye (and trying to avoid looking at her muscles as well, which are truly a sight to see!) and apologizing.

“Sorry for that,” she begins. “He’s young and doesn’t quite understand the art of proper etiquette. I mean, he is five. If he’s making you feel uncomfortable, I…”

“No, he’s fine. I’m used to it,” Melanie responds. Her deep voice almost makes the boy (and mother) jump out of his seat. She doesn’t sound like a man, but she also definitely doesn’t sound like a woman. Who is she? What’s her story? Where did she come from? Why does she look like that? The boy has so many questions that he’ll never get the answers to.

She lifts up both of her arms and gives the boy a quick double bicep flex. She smiles at him. The boy’s mouth remains agape, with a small bit of drool leaking out. This is also a fairly normal reaction from onlookers. Melanie loves the attention when she’s in the mood to receive it. Other times, she finds it annoying. This is one of those times when she sort of likes it. Especially coming from an impressionable young child. No doubt this kid will remember this moment for years to come.

The mother takes out her phone and tells her son to play Temple Run while they wait for the flight to Denver to depart. The son agrees wholeheartedly and starts to play, his eyes glued to the screen instead of Melanie’s figure. The mother gives Melanie one final apologetic look before resuming reading from her iPad. Melanie looks up at the clock and sees the time is 10:16 a.m. Even though she’s taking a private flight to Seattle, she still must wait somewhere in D Gate until she gets a text message from an airport employee telling her the jet is ready. Then, she’ll go up to the front counter and meet a different airport employee who will then escort her down to the tarmac. Sounds simple enough.

This isn’t the first time Melanie has ever flown over to Seattle to meet with Dylan. But this is the first time she’s flying in a private jet to do so! The flight is scheduled to leave at 11:00 a.m. But she was still asked to arrive at O’Hare two hours beforehand. She isn’t sure why but she didn’t think to question it.

Like many professional female bodybuilders, Melanie supplements her income by providing muscle worship sessions to paying customers. A “muscle worship session” is when a paying customer is given the opportunity to meet a female bodybuilder alone in a hotel room for about an hour or two. It’s usually men who pay to see her, though she’s had a small handful of bisexual and lesbian women as clients. For many professional female bodybuilders this is a great way to supplement their meager income. There isn’t much money to be had in competing. And it’s tough to hold down a 40-hour a week job on top of training for bodybuilding contests. So, providing sessions around the world is a sure way to earn income (tax-free, since all of this happens off-the-record) so one could continue pursuing the bodybuilding lifestyle without the fear of going broke.

Usually, she travels from city to city to offer these appointments, normally at a rate of $400 per hour (bikini) or $500 per hour (fully nude). These rates are a tad higher than what is considered “market value,” but Melanie is in high demand for good reason.

She’s a world-class bodybuilder with an eye-popping physique. And name recognition.

At 53 years old, Melanie is no spring chicken but she’s still at the top of her game. She hasn’t stopped competing professionally. Her first competition was in 1987 at the tender age of 21. She placed 8th at the IFBB Chicago Pro in the Women’s Lightweight Class. From there, her career took off at warp speed. Considered a “rising star” in the bodybuilding industry, Melanie placed higher and higher in regional competitions as the years went on. She even gained attention from Hollywood executives.

Her claim to fame was being in a deleted scene in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” She played a female cyborg that briefly clashed with Arnold Schwarzenegger in a flashback scene at a Skynet research facility. The director of the film, James Cameron, didn’t want the sight of an attractive woman with big muscles to distract viewers from their moviegoing experience (or polarize them), so her scene was left on the cutting room floor. To this day, the scene still has not been released on DVD or Blu-ray. Or YouTube. It still makes Melanie a little bitter for her hard work has never seen the light of day.

But that did not stop her from being on the cover of several fitness/bodybuilding magazines throughout the 90s and early 2000s. She wasn’t a major celebrity but those who paid attention to the sport of professional bodybuilding definitely knew her name. She’s racked up impressive wins throughout her career, culminating in placing 3rd in the Ms. Olympia in 2005, 5th in 2007, 6th in 2008, and 9th in 2010. Melanie is no fool and could clearly see the writing on the wall. She was declining. Her hopes of ever finishing in first place were diminishing quickly. To this day, she still competes at the highest level but has yet to recapture her “elite” status from a decade ago. Melanie has no regrets, however. There’s no shame in being a bonafide top 10 bodybuilder for a brief window of time. She still treasures her “brush with greatness” even to this day.

Melanie first met Dylan in 2009. She took a year off from competing in the Ms. Olympia due to a minor ankle injury that prevented her from training for a short period of time. She was, however, perfectly able to travel the globe to provide muscle worship sessions as usual. She was floored when Dylan first reached out to her. He was a major celebrity! Well, he was a well-known CEO, which is almost like being a celebrity. They met at The Westin hotel in Downtown Seattle one cold October evening. During their two hours together, she and Dylan really “hit it off” and formed a genuine friendship.

Then in 2015, almost at the exact same time Dylan was going through his own travails, Melanie’s life nearly came crashing down.

While traveling to Budapest, Melanie was arrested for illegal prostitution after local authorities caught her during an anti-human trafficking sting operation. She and her client (who apparently had a history of soliciting underage prostitutes, unbeknownst to Melanie) were both booked and spent the night at a local jail. Utterly humiliated, things got worse for Melanie after word of her arrest “went viral” and started to trend on social media. Ultimately, she was fined 1,500 Euros and avoided having to serve any prison time because of her American citizenship. The local authorities didn’t want to deal with the potential backlash of jailing a U.S. citizen for a minor crime. But the financial harm she experienced was no match for the personal turmoil this would incur on her life.

For about a year afterward, Melanie became sort of a social pariah within the bodybuilding community. Everyone knows that many female competitors offer sessions as an “off-the-record side job” in order to make a steady income. Everyone knows this but it’s taboo to talk about it. It’s the worst kept secret in the industry. Yet, her brush with the law was enough for several corporate sponsors to cut ties with her. Her friends dare not be seen publicly with her or stand up for her. She was branded a “prostitute,” a stamp that one cannot easily get rid of. It was like a scarlet letter being tattooed on her forehead. A permanent stain on her record. A grime that could never be washed off.

Her husband, an aspiring Illinois gubernatorial candidate, divorced her in a public spat that made local headlines. Her four adult children (and two infant grandchildren) still love and support her, but she knows her relationship with them has changed forever. She dreads what her grandchildren will go through once they’re old enough to learn about grandma’s sordid past. Will they still love her? Will they get teased for this? Will they lose respect for her?

After this, her friendship with Dylan deepened, as both of them knew what it was like to be banished from public life, shunned by the very people who once held them in high esteem. While they were together, they never talked about it. But they both knew each other’s tragic stories. It was an unspoken truth that hovered over their heads at all times.

Eventually, Melanie was able to reintegrate herself into the bodybuilding community. A small handful of sponsors came back. An athletic apparel line was willing to have her name and face appear on the boxes of fitness smartwatches. So unlike Dylan, she was able to ride the storm and come out on the other end fairly intact. A bit beaten and weary, of course. But still intact nevertheless.

Dylan was canceled. She was just postponed.

Just as Melanie was about to go to the Starbucks kiosk to buy a cup of coffee, her phone buzzes. She takes it out of her pocket and reads the text notification:

HELLO MELANIE WRIGHT. YOUR FLIGHT AXKPP18833 IS NOW READY FOR DEPARTURE. PLEASE SEE THE FRONT DESK AT YOUR EARLIEST CONVENIENCE. END MESSAGE.

“It’s go time!” she announces to herself. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

With that, instead of getting that elusive cup of overpriced coffee, Melanie picks up her carryon, puts her phone back in her pocket, and walks up to the front desk with her boarding pass in hand. The little boy looks up from playing Temple Run and waves good-bye to her. Melanie returns the favor and waves back. His mother is still staring at her iPad, more interested in reading about vampire hunters than witnessing a moment that her young child will remember for the rest of his life.

***

“Damn girl! Are you some sort of bodybuilder?”

Peggy readjusts her sunglasses, which are almost falling off her nose. Her kind-hearted but chatty taxi driver hasn’t quite gotten on her nerves yet, but that could change in short order. They’ve just left the airport and are now cruising north on the freeway toward Seattle. Traffic is light at the moment, which is common for a late Saturday afternoon in the Pacific Northwest. She – and her driver – knows this wouldn’t be the case if it were a weekday during rush hour.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I am,” Peggy tells the man, whose Jamaican accent and colorful rastacap are a dead giveaway of where he’s from. “I’ve been a bodybuilder for almost ten years now. Damn, has it been that long?”

“Whoooooeeeee! Yes ma’am. I see you girl. I see you!”

“Thanks sugar!”

As long as she’s been a professional bodybuilder, Peggy Cole has grown accustomed to curious strangers asking her all sorts of questions about her life. Some of them appropriate…others not so much. It probably doesn’t help matters that Peggy chooses to wear skimpy or tight-fitting clothing as often as she can! Nor the fact that she’s carrying around two large suitcases, which is suspicious considering she’s simply enjoying a “weekend getaway.” Or her enormous breast implants. Or the many plastic surgeries she’s had on her face. Or if you are into certain kinds of fetishes, you might recognize her by her Internet nom de plume:

LATINAMUSCLEPRINCESS67

So every time Peggy gets a weird look from a complete stranger, she’s left wondering if that person recognizes her for who she is…or just simply because she’s a woman with large muscles and even bigger boobs. There’s a part of Peggy that enjoys that kind of mysteriousness. It makes for great stories around the campfire.

“I know I shouldn’t be asking you this, uh, but do you mind if I ask you a personal question, my dear?”

He seems like a kind enough fellow, so Peggy decides to humor him. “I get the feeling you’re going to ask it no matter what I say.” She rolls her eyes. Hopefully he doesn’t see this.

He heartily laughs, knowing that not only is she right, but she can probably predict his every move. “Yeah, well, you got me there, sis! So, I got to know. Are you here in Seattle on vacation or are you seeing someone in particular?”

“Are you referring to the two large suitcases I brought with me?” Only one of them fits in the trunk, meaning the other one is currently sitting right next to Peggy in the back seat. The driver didn’t say anything when he saw her with her luggage, but she could tell from the look he gave her that his curiosity level was sure piqued. “Yeah, you’d be right, my man. I’m here to see a dear friend of mine. I won’t say his name, but he’s a pretty big deal. A big deal.”

“Oooooooh, is it Bill Gates? Jeff Bezos? Pete Carroll?” The driver frequently looks into the rearview mirror to gauge her reaction to his questions.

“Now, now,” Peggy chides him. “I said I won’t reveal his name. His identity is a secret. I gave him my word I’d protect his privacy. So I won’t tell. That’s the way it’s going to be.”

“Sorry, ma’am. I’m an old soul, so sometimes I can’t keep up with what’s right or wrong these days,” the driver defends himself. As they enter Downtown Seattle, traffic begins to noticeably pick up. Peggy hopes this doesn’t mean she’s stuck having to converse with this inquisitive person for too long. “But that’s cool, sis. That you’re seeing a friend. He’s a lucky man!”

“Yeah, you can say that.” Peggy knows Dylan’s life hasn’t been peachy since his downfall, but she doesn’t want to reveal that to her driver since that’ll be a sure giveaway. Instead, she decides to switch gears just for the fun of it.

“I’m also deeply involved in the adult entertainment industry, in case you’re curious about that.” Even though his head is turned away from her, she can sense his eyes bulging out of his eye sockets after that bombshell reveal!

“REALLY? WOW!!!” the driver screams. Peggy is afraid he might swerve off the road at any moment if he doesn’t contain himself. Luckily for both of them, he remains committed to being a safe motorist. She notices the car ahead of them switch lanes after getting peeved that the taxicab is tailing them too closely. “I can’t say I’ve spent too much time watching videos of that nature, but damn girl! Good for you! I’m glad you feel like you can put yourself out there like that, you feel me?”

“Thanks. I’m not super famous or anything. I’m no Jenna Jameson,” Peggy quips. This is ironic, considering Peggy has met Jenna before (and several years back did a couple of videos with her). But that’s a story for another time.

“I don’t know who that is, but I doubt she’s more beautiful than you!”

“Oh, that’s very kind of you.”

“You’re welcome!” The driver reveals a bold, toothy grin. Peggy raises an eyebrow in response, hoping this will please him. It appears that it does.

Peggy began her career as a professional bodybuilder but wasn’t quite able to win enough trophies to earn a lucrative living. At the age of 31, she dipped her toes in the world of adult entertainment by appearing in a few fetish-themed videos with other FBBs looking for quick cash. She had a tremendous amount of fun showing off her sculpted body to people who weren’t official IFBB judges (who could be a stuffy bunch). A turning point in her life was when she received a ton of fan mail after releasing a particularly steamy video where she gave blow jobs to a roomful of men (17, to be exact) wearing nothing but a skin-tight BDSM-style leather outfit and semen smeared all over her face. She was hogtied by rope and suspended from the ceiling several feet off the ground. At first, Peggy was reluctant to get too deep into this scene, but as more adult film production studios began to know her name, more job offers started to stream in. Eventually, she decided to quit bodybuilding to pursue porn full-time. She was probably going to quit competing anyway, so this was a convenient backup plan.

Her online avatar is Latina Muscle Princess, which is sort of true because her mother is half Peruvian. In reality, she’s half Irish, a quarter German, and a quarter Peruvian. But her olive complexion, jet black hair, curvy figure, and amber brown eyes make her look just as Latina as Shakira. So she went with that identity and never looked back. She’s carved out a fantastic niche for herself as a webcam performer who hosts both weekly shows for the general public (for a small fee) as well as offering personalized one-on-one shows for individual clients (at a significantly higher fee).

Dylan is, not surprisingly, one of her loyal clients. As is Henry.

Other than making videos and webcamming, Peggy is in talks to co-host a porn-themed podcast with Kit Styles – a male adult entertainment star known for his 12-inch-long penis and fabulous hair – but the details of this venture are still up in the air. She’s reluctant to wade through the choppy waters of podcasting, but it seems to be all the rage these days. Besides, caution never got her anywhere. Everything she does she does boldly. Maybe it’s prudent to continue to live life like this.

“We’re almost here, my dear. I received specific instructions to drop you off at a park near the house, but not at the house itself. Is that still fine?” Peggy has been to Dylan’s house many times, but she understands why he would want to instruct a taxicab driver to drop her off in close proximity to his house but not at it. It’s doubtful the driver would take it upon himself to investigate who lives at each house and “out” Dylan to the general public. But one can never be too careful. Especially these days.

“Yeah, that’s fine. Drop me off where you’ve been told to drop me off. I’m a big girl. I can carry my suitcases to my friend’s house just fine without any help.” Peggy pats her suitcase for good measure.

The driver looks into the rearview mirror to check out his passenger’s impressive biceps. If the mirror were a bit larger he could probably also see her big boobs. He wants nothing more than to stick his face inside her cleavage. That, most likely, would result in his termination. He knows that outcome would be unacceptable to him and his family.

“Oh, I know you don’t need my help, sister! I can believe that!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good. Thanks.”

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

Clean and sober until tonight.

Clean and sober until tonight

Clean and sober until tonight.

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

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

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

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

And tonight is guaranteed to be a great score.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s it. That’s the master plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Clean and sober until tonight,” Xander repeats.

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

“Here, here!” Roddy exclaims.

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

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

No way. No fucking way.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Yeah, I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

There’s work to do.