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 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 9: Hostage Situation

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

This is one of those times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stephen?” Dylan asks the man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whoa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mine too,” Melanie says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah. Fucking wild.”

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

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

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

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

“What the fuck is this shit?”

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

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

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

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

“Was that the porno chick’s room?”

“Yeah, it was.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excellent. Shall we?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, love.”

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

“You have a lovely home,” Stephen says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

His time will come, she thinks to herself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah. That’s right,” Roddy says.

“Yup.” Xander acknowledges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To See Her is to Understand Her

To understand Yvette Bova, feast your eyes on her body. It’s the right thing to do.

“It’s impolite to stare” is a common piece of advice many of our mothers and grandmothers gave to us as children.

Whether the object we were staring at was a person in a wheelchair, a short person with dwarfism, or a man wearing a dress; the point our elder was trying to make is that by staring at this person for a longer than normal amount of time, we could be making them feel uncomfortable, singled out, or “freakish.” Nobody wants to feel like a social outcast, even if their outward appearance suggests the sentiment isn’t misplaced.

To not stare is to imply that this person should be treated as “normal,” even if they are not. Or even if they are intentionally trying to not be normal. You can’t tell me someone with a face tattoo doesn’t know this will bring additional attention to their appearance. If they get annoyed with people staring and asking them questions about it, why did they acquire it in the first place?

But the point is well taken. Very few of us want to be stared at because we don’t want to feel like an anomaly. We want to be accepted for who we are and not thought of as an outlier. People who appear abnormal on the outside – for whatever reason – just want to be accepted as normal. A small child stopping, staring, and *gasp* coming up to them and asking unwanted questions violates that very principle. So mom and grandma were correct (as usual). Just put yourself in their shoes (or high heels) and ask yourself how you would like to be treated.

This same idea, naturally, doesn’t always apply to female bodybuilders. FBBs, on the other hand, look the way they look by choice. They did not get there by accident or by happenstance. An FBB’s intentional choice to sculpt their bodies to look a certain way is etched into every muscle fiber. You see a female bodybuilder’s body and you can tell – with absolutely no ambiguity – who she is, what she stands for, and what her worldview revolves around.

Debi Laszewski has achieved her Final Form.

Can you tell who she voted for in the last presidential election or whether she prefers Elvis or the Beatles? Well, no. You can’t derive information that specific, but you can certainly deduce that she works out regularly, eats differently, and can probably defeat you in an arm-wrestling contest pretty easily. That much is really darn obvious.

Unlike a burn victim whose scars will forever tell the story of that tragic incident, a female bodybuilder proactively decides to be as bulky, sculpted, and aesthetically pleasing as she wants to be. It’s a choice, not a designation. Her muscles are part of her identity; an identity that she’s chosen to craft from scratch. And her hard work must be appreciated. After all, what’s the point of looking great if no one is around to look at you?

Whenever a female bodybuilder goes out in public, she knows that she will be stared at. And not just by children, but by everyone. Most well-behaved adults will try to be as inconspicuous as possible when they look at her. Some will be more successful than others at hiding their intentions. Whether you are intrigued by what you see, disgusted, grossed out, confused, curious, or uncontrollably aroused, we can all agree that one cannot simply look upon a muscular woman and not have any kind of emotional reaction. Unless you are so accustomed to being around female bodybuilders that seeing one in public is as mundane as seeing a Seattle hipster wearing flannel. If this is the case with you, please let me know where you live ASAP!

But here’s the difference. Whereas a person with a physical deformity or handicap deserves to be treated with respect and not singled out for being different, a female bodybuilder looks different on purpose…and wants to be looked at as being unique.

This, of course, doesn’t excuse rude comments, insults, or physical harassment. Then again, why anybody would want to provoke a strong female bodybuilder who could beat your ass to a pulp is beyond me. But I digress.

Go ahead. Look at Sondra Faas. It’s okay.

FBBs know they look unusual. They know their lifestyle (hours upon hours spent lifting at the gym, strict dieting, etc.) is out of the ordinary. They know not everyone approves of a woman having big muscles. They know they’re taking a risk. They know they could fail. They know they’re challenging taboos, social expectations, and norms. But these warnings do not deter them from pursuing their dreams. In fact, the desire to openly defy these realities may be fueling their life’s work.

So when an FBB goes to the grocery store (back before everyone had to wear face masks and carry around sanitizing wipes everywhere), she can expect that people will stop and stare at her. And you know what? That’s exactly the idea. Maybe not in every case, but generally speaking. Many FBBs talk about how fun it is for people to stare at them in public. They intentionally wear tight clothing because it shows off their muscles. They aren’t annoyed by the additional attention, but rather are flattered by it. Within reason, of course.

But more than feeding one’s ego, it’s important to remember why bodybuilders – both male and female – choose to do what they do. They build their bodies up to look a certain way because it makes them feel empowered, strong, dynamic, superhuman, and yes, freakish (but in a good way). This concept goes into overdrive when we’re talking about women who pursue bodybuilding.

Men are socially expected to be strong alpha providers. While technology, science, engineering, and innovation have made “strength” in the traditional sense somewhat obsolete for survival (we no longer have to hunt and gather our food, but instead patiently wait in line at Costco at least six feet apart from each other), the symbolic importance of physical strength still survives. There’s no practical reason for Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler, or Phil Heath to get as massive as they are. But there are plenty of reasons to do so from a professional perspective. You know we’ve advanced as a society when people can earn a living doing impractical – but awesome – things. Gaining hundreds of pounds of muscle isn’t going to make it easier for you to pay your mortgage, but the product endorsement deals you get because of your muscles certainly will.

Kim Buck on full display.

Okay, okay, so men are expected to be strong. We are accustomed to seeing men look big, muscular, invincible, and dominant. But what about women?

There’s no need to go too deep into this, but women are taking a much bigger risk in getting super bulky than men are. Their unnatural muscle mass makes them more unusual because we don’t expect women to ever get that big. Not because they are not able to, but because our society doesn’t encourage them to. The “strong independent woman” trope is more about attitude than it is about practicality. We want to raise our daughters to be mentally and emotionally strong, as opposed to literally strong. Unless you want your little girl to grow up to be a millionaire MMA fighter who can subsidize your future retirement.

All of this is to say that a woman with big muscles is a woman who defies social norms, whether she intends to or not. A woman gains big muscles proactively, not passively. And in doing so, she’s opening up herself to the types of criticism and backlash that a male counterpart would not face. So, what does this all mean?

This means that she is meant to be stared at. Maybe not intentionally, but in principle. An FBB is meant to be looked at. Her body of work (pun intended) is meant to be appreciated. It is meant to be a spectacle. She is a work of art who deserves to be displayed at a museum, even if this museum is more symbolic than literal. In this case, the museum she is displayed in is the real world she inhabits. A supermarket. A public park. A gym. A church. A busy street corner. A nightclub. A library. A restaurant. A bar. An airport. And so on.

Look at Kim Birtch. LOOK. AT. HER.

Wherever she is, whatever she’s doing, she’s meant to be seen. Because to see her is to understand her. You understand her raison d’etre. Her life’s purpose. Her muscles aren’t meant to be hidden. Her muscles aren’t a secret. They should be proudly exhibited as openly as possible.

Here’s a great example. Watch this video of Margie Martin at the 2019 Wings of Strength Rising Phoenix World Championship. It shows a portion of the show where an interviewer speaks to all (or most) of the contestants in front of the whole audience. Watch and be prepared to be dazzled:

Whew! Wow!!! What a moment. What a time to be alive. Can you imagine what it would have been like to be there at that moment in time? I think many of us would have passed out if we saw Margie unexpectedly strip down to a bikini – or try our best to suppress an uncomfortable erection straining in our underwear.

This moment perfectly encapsulates what I’m talking about when I say “to see her is to understand her.” Margie’s beautiful body doesn’t deserve to be hidden underneath that dress (despite her dress leaving little to the imagination as it is). Her beautiful body deserves to be proudly presented in front of an audience of hundreds of screaming fans. Her body deserves adoration. She deserves those screams and applause. That single moment was when Margie was at the Peak of Her Purpose. When her body was being SEEN by everyone in plain sight.

Granted, it would have been socially inappropriate for her to have stripped completely naked. So sporting just a bikini was the maximum of how far she could have gone. But the larger idea remains intact: she was bare. Or as bare as she could possibly be. Her nudity (or near nudity) didn’t make her vulnerable, however. The exact opposite, in fact. Her nude state made her as powerful as she could ever be. Wearing that dress was a disservice to herself, her identity, and her very philosophical purpose. In order for her to fulfill her maximum utility, she had to be as naked as possible in front of as large an audience as possible. There’s no other way around it. It was almost a requirement. Anything less than that would have been an abdication of duty.

Once her dress came off, she had accomplished her personal version of Nirvana. She had reached her summit. Her peak. Her true self. Her real form had finally taken shape. Not just the fact that she had spent the last several months training to become as hypermuscular as possible. No, more than that. In that moment, her body was being seen by the public. By the world. By the whole universe. Even God Himself had to stop whatever He was doing and say out loud, “Damn! She looks great!!!” This was the moment when her final form had reached its zenith.

This is how a female bodybuilder fulfills her destiny. When she’s SEEN. When people are LOOKING at her. When her body is out in the open, almost as in-your-face as possible. When she’s not holding back. When her audience gets more than they bargained for. More than they wanted. More than they actually deserved. When people are staring at her, they are not only doing her a service, they are almost obliged to. We are obligated to SEE her body. We MUST stare at her because to not stare at her would be a sin. It would be a moral failure on our part.

In that moment, Margie was making a statement, whether she knew it or not. She was making a statement that her body must be looked at. Closely. Inspected. Judged. Appreciated. Loved. If you want to truly understand who Margie is and why she does what she does, all you have to do is see her.

See.

Her.

Look.

At.

Her.

Watch.

Her.

Observe.

Her.

Margie’s body isn’t just a part of her identity. It’s the very foundation of her identity. If you don’t look at her body, you will never understand who she is. You’d be a blind person trying to describe an elephant to another blind person. You can try your best but you’ll always fail. In this spirit, go ahead. Look at her. Stare at her. Feast your eyes on her. Make sure she is SEEN. When you look at her body, you aren’t just looking at her body – you’re looking at her soul.

Building muscles is her job. Seeing those muscles is yours.

The Scantily Clad but Not Quite Nude Female Bodybuilder

Cindy is such a tease.

Is it possible for a female bodybuilder to be more beautiful than when she’s nude?

After all, it’s when we are able to see her in her full glory. Nothing hidden from view. Everything she has laid out bare. All her hard work, sacrifices, perfections, imperfections, and insecurities out in the open. She is vulnerable, yet invulnerable at the same time.

Being nude is a female bodybuilder’s natural state. That isn’t to say that all female bodybuilders are also nudists, however. “Nudism” is a cultural movement that seeks to advocate for and normalize nude social activities. That’s a separate thing unrelated to our discussion here. What we’re talking about is that in order for someone to see a female bodybuilder for who she really is, one must look at her when she’s naked. From head to toe. Then, you can see who she really is. This is when her true identity comes out.

Every curve, every muscle fiber, every square inch of her uniquely structured body on full display. She is hiding nothing because there is nothing to hide. She isn’t ashamed to reveal her life’s work, her masterpiece, her artistry. She is an artist and her body is her canvas.

Yet, that is not always when a female bodybuilder is at her most alluring. As strange as this may sound, an FBB might be at her most intriguing when she’s scantily clad – but not quite nude.

Uh, what?

Now, this may sound crazy. Okay, it flat out sounds crazy. But don’t tune out quite yet. Think of it this way:

Throughout the history of humankind, the practice of wearing clothes has almost been universal. Some primitive cultures that exist in hot tropical environments may not wear very much, but they at least cover up the “essentials.” But by and large, you get the idea. All people wear clothes most of the time – at least in public. You don’t need to be a literal believer in the Adam and Eve story to understand this.

Africa Carey (a.k.a. Coco Crush) showing us just enough of her immaculate beauty.

The Book of Genesis notwithstanding, the tendency to wear clothes is based on the assumption that the human body isn’t meant to be seen in full. And it’s not just because it’s cold in the winter. Nudity implies sexuality, even though the two are not synonymous. Nudity exposes genitals, which is central to reproductive activities. Enthusiasts of nudism (or naturism) would vehemently argue that there is nothing inherently sexual or dirty about the human body, even in nude form. That’s certainly debatable, but we cannot ignore that from our society’s point of view, nudity and sexuality are intimately intertwined.

Try not to visualize the words “intimately intertwined.”

So, we’ve decided that the taboo associated with nudity is both understandable and probably, if we’re being honest here, justified. Maybe not completely justified, but justified enough that we’d feel really, really uncomfortable if we learned that our kid’s kindergarten teacher took off her own bra during a makeshift anatomy lesson. That would be weird. Very weird.

But there are definitely variations of nudity that must be acknowledged. Nudity is a continuum, not a black or white matter. On one end of the spectrum we have someone wearing a hazmat suit, ready to clean up after an unfortunate nuclear spill. On the other end we have drunk college kids parading around the street naked in preparation for Mardi Gras. And everything in between. Let’s talk for a moment about what exists in the middle.

Generally speaking, what is the most amount of nudity a person can show in public and not get arrested for indecent exposure? For both men and women, it’s covering up the genitals. For women, it’s also covering up the nipples. Bare butts are discouraged, but acceptable depending on where you are specifically.

Cancun on spring break? Get cheeky with it.

Wading through a public pool at the senior center? Eh, don’t stick out too much if you can avoid it. For everyone’s sake.

God bless America, Kati Alander.

Alright, so no genitals, no bare butts (for the most part), and no female nipples. Got it. Is this fair? Probably not, but it is what it is. At least, this is the way it is for now. There is a hashtag trending on social media called #FreeTheNipple that’s being used to protest Facebook and Instagram’s policy of censoring female nipples. The argument is that if men are allowed to show their nipples without punishment, then women should be allowed the same courtesy. It remains to be seen how effective this awareness campaign will be.

But at the end of the day, this isn’t really a discussion about social standards. This is more about what we find to be erotically pleasing versus what will or will not land us in jail for a night.

Here’s a strange question: What’s more erotic, a nude female bodybuilder or a female bodybuilder wearing sexy lingerie?

Hm. This may seem obvious at first, but later it gets complicated the more you think about it. Yes, a fully nude female bodybuilder is a fantastic sight to see. That same FBB wearing lingerie or a bikini isn’t the same because you don’t see all of her. You see most of her, but not everything. She’s scantily clad, but not quite nude. Yet, as odd as this sounds, the latter is much more intriguing than the former.

A female bodybuilder wearing lingerie, a negligee, a bikini, shorts and gym bra, a towel, a cocktail dress, a blanket draped over her body, or her own hands covering up certain parts intrigues us because we see enough to get a great idea of what she looks like without getting the satisfaction of seeing everything she has to offer. We see her curves, musculature, striations, bulging mounds of flesh, and deep grooves. We see how hard she must work day-in and day-out to attain and maintain that physique. We see her sacrifices. We see her dedication on full display. However, we don’t see the intimate parts of her that she’s chosen not to reveal. And that point cannot be emphasized enough: she’s choosing to not reveal certain parts of her. And that’s perfectly okay, no matter how frustrating it may be for the rest of us.

Maybe she’s covering up certain parts of her because she doesn’t want to get censored or kicked off certain social media platforms. Or for her, full nudity is a bridge too far. The best example of this is Cindy Landolt. Cindy is one of the most beautiful women on planet Earth. She’s stunning. She’s absolutely gorgeous. She’s flawless. She’s a perfect demonstration that muscles do not compromise a woman’s femininity. In fact, muscles can enhance your femininity. For Cindy, her curvy muscles exemplify her feminine identity.

I cannot stop staring at Kim Birtch’s piercing eyes.

Cindy does not do full nudity. Ever. At least, not yet. And that is 100 percent her choice. She can choose to never ever show us her nipples or genitals. As much as we fans want her to “go all the way,” it’s her right to not do that. She is under no obligation to do so. No matter how much we beg her, if she stands firm and goes her entire career without going full nude, we just have to live with it. And we have no reason to feel slighted by her. She showcases her beauty in plenty of other ways. Her contribution to the world speaks for itself. Period.

In a way, Cindy’s choice to never do graphic nudity works to her advantage. It’s a “Holy Grail” of sort that her fans will clamor for as long as they live. It keeps our imaginations running wild. It teases us. Our hormones go into overdrive fantasizing about what Miss Landolt really looks like. Are her nipples long? Pink or brown? What does her clit look like? Is it large like Denise Masino’s clit, or is it normal-sized?

We will never know. Only Cindy’s lover knows. And he is one hell of a lucky guy!

Our continual fascination with Cindy’s mysterious bits makes her that much more alluring. It makes her seem otherworldly. We know she’s a real-life human being, but in the back of our minds we still suspect she’s either a robot constructed from an FBB fan’s wildest dreams or an animated “deep fake” character illustrated by a basement full of horny guys. The same goes for any FBB who chooses to forego full nudity.

It makes them appear more “classy.” That isn’t to say that FBBs – or any model, for that matter – who proudly show us everything God has given them are classless or filthy. They still deserve our respect and admiration. Angela Salvagno isn’t trashy because she leaves nothing to the imagination while Minna Pajulahti keeps things more guarded. Both women are beautiful. Both are unbelievably sexy. Both are irresistible. One chooses to share her intimate parts with the world while the other sticks to keeping things PG-13. Nothing wrong with either choice.

But getting back to our more “modest” FBBs, not only do they let our imaginations run wild and keep us begging for more, they inadvertently make us view them as pieces of art rather than pieces of meat. That isn’t to say that those who choose to go full nude in photoshoots and videos are deserving of ridicule, judgement, or rudeness. Quite the contrary. No one deserves dehumanizing treatment, regardless of their life’s choices. But there is something to be said about an FBB who selectively reveals her body. She knows her body is a work of art and she’s deliberate on how patrons of her art view it.

By showing us just enough but not everything, it leaves us begging for more. It leaves our appetites fulfilled, but not satiated. We will continuously come back, hoping that today is the day when we get to experience everything we want to experience. And even if we go home empty handed, we can still be counted on to come back the next day.

The Scantily Clad But Not Quite Nude Female Bodybuilder is both a tease and a skilled strategist. She toys with her captive audience like an experienced burlesque performer. She flaunts just enough without giving her fans so much that they start to devalue her. This is a key point: FBBs who deny you full nudity are taking a stand. Maybe it’s a principled stand or perhaps it’s a moral one. Regardless, they know that if they “give in” and provide the public everything they ever wanted, deep down inside these fans will think differently about her…whether they know it or not.

Fair or unfair, as mentioned before we as a society associate nudity with sexuality. And sexuality is directly connected with reproduction, then pregnancy, and then motherhood. By being scantily clad, an FBB is challenging us to not think of her as a sex object, but instead as an athlete. After all, she’s showing us all we need to see: her big muscles. Do we actually need to see anything else?

Alina Popa has huge, beautifully sculpted muscles. I don’t need to see what her nipples or clit looks like. Those parts of her body are mutually exclusive from her biceps, triceps, forearms, back, shoulders, abdomen, glutes, quads, and calves. She proudly puts those parts of her on full display. I can clearly see how impressive her physique is without seeing her intimate parts.

Does Nat Rochner show up at the gym looking like this?

Heck, just pay attention to the language we use to describe an FBB’s body: We like looking at her glutes, not her butt. The word “butt” has a sexual connotation. “Glutes” does not. See the difference?

I already know everything I need to know about Cindy Landolt’s physique. Would I love to see more of her? Well, yes. But it’s not necessary. Her identity is set in stone. She’s a gorgeous feminine woman with big strong muscles. Period. I don’t need to see her private parts in order to sufficiently come up with that conclusion. All the evidence I need is already right there before me.

In other words, by de-emphasizing an FBB’s sexuality, we are fully able to see her for who she really is: a world-class athlete. That isn’t to say that we can’t see her as both a world-class athlete and as a sex object, but the latter has a pernicious way of overshadowing the former.

A female bodybuilder who shows us enough but not everything may not be intentional about this, but I’d wager a guess that she is. Many FBBs don’t want to be sex objects. They don’t think of themselves as strippers or porn stars. They identify as athletes first and everything else second. There’s nothing wrong with that. By wearing a simple bikini, I can see all her muscles and hard work on display. I don’t need the bikini to come off. If it does, I’m definitely not going to complain (obviously!), but it’s not essential. Her modesty – or lack of modesty – is her choice, not mine.

To conclude, a scantily clad female bodybuilder may not be sexier than a fully nude female bodybuilder, but that’s beside the point. The actual point is that how she chooses to present herself is an intentional strategy meant to influence how we view her. Whatever her reasons are for not going “all the way,” we will be left wanting more. Begging for more. Perhaps one day she’ll give us what we want, or maybe that day will never come. Either way, what happens is up to her.

I still stand by my original assessment that a female bodybuilder’s natural state is being nude. Nothing has changed. But this is more practical than philosophical. I’d love to see every single one of my favorite FBBs in their birthday suits. A few I have. Many I have not. While nude is how to best experience an FBB’s body, it’s not a requirement to learning how to appreciate her. What she allows us to see is sufficient, no matter how frustrated that makes us feel. If she wants us to know that she’s a strong, independent woman who takes risks, lives life to the fullest, and doesn’t care what her haters have to say, we can see that whether she’s wearing underwear, gym attire, jeans and tee-shirt, a sweatshirt, or nothing at all.

A Most Magnificent Body of Work – Part One of Five

Tall muscle goddess Maria Wattel.

One more set, Debbie. That’s it. Just one more set.

Looking up at the bench press bar, Deborah knows she has only one more set of ten repetitions remaining before her chest workout would come to an end. Then she could cool down, work on her abs, shower, buy a protein smoothie, and go home.

At this point Deborah has worked her way up to benching 275 pounds. The only woman currently in the weight room, all eyes are on her and she’s well aware of it. Some men are rooting for her, others are hoping she will fail. But Deborah is determined to prove everybody wrong. Even her supporters.

“Alright, time to do this motherfucker,” Deborah whispers to no one in particular.

Deborah places both hands on the bar, equidistant apart, and lies down on the bench. Her forehead is dry, not a single drop of sweat is left remaining in her body. She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and imagines herself pumping this bar up and down ten times before putting it back on the rack. She can do this. She’s done this many times before. Even with all these idiots watching her. For her, pre-visualization is the key to success. If you cannot imagine yourself doing it, how can you actually do it?

Time to do it, Debbie. Time to make yourself stronger. Stronger than you’ve ever been before.

She opens her eyes, focuses on the ceiling fan above her, grips the bar tight with both hands, and lifts the bar off the rack.

Deep breath in.

Down, exhale, up. One.

Inhale.

Down, exhale, up. Two.

Inhale.

Down, exhale, up. Three.

Inhale.

Down, exhale, up. Four.

Inhale. Slight exhale. Another inhale.

Down, exhale, up. Five.

Inhale.

Down, exhale, up. Six.

Deep inhale. Holy shit. This is getting tough. Dammit.

Down, exhale, up. Seven.

Her eyes burn when a drip of sweat seeps into her eye socket. She was under the impression her body had no sweat left in it. She is wrong.

Fuck.

Inhale.

Down, exhale, up. Eight.

Fuck!!!

Inhale.

Down, exhale, up. Nine.

Oh, shit. She has to give up. Her arms tremble. She feels her elbows start to wobble. She’s going to drop the bar and smash her neck in half. She needs a spotter. But no! She refuses to give up. Nobody tells Deborah she can’t do anything. Fuck that shit. Deborah can do whatever the fuck she wants. Fuck the world. Fuck her doubters. Fuck anybody who thinks she’s a weakling because she’s a woman. Fuck that!!!

Inhale.

Down, exhale, up, up, up, up!

Just a little bit more….

Ten.

Deborah groans loudly, her booming voice reverberating across the room. She couldn’t care less if she’s distracting her fellow exercisers. This is all about her, nobody else. Fuck everybody else.

On the verge of collapsing, Deborah places the bar back on the rack and drops her arms to the floor. She’s gasping for air harder than a heavyweight prize fighter after the twelfth round. Her chest feels so tight it could burst with the prick of a needle. Her arms feel like jelly. She doubts she can move a single muscle until tomorrow morning.

But she has to move. She can’t spend the night and sleep here. No way. No fucking way.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. This is a classic case of mind vs. matter. And in Deborah Frost’s case, her mind won. She kicked matter’s ass. Big time. Oh yeah.

Yet another tall muscle goddess, this time it’s Shawn Tan.

After a minute or two (which felt like an hour), Deborah sits up, grabs her towel, and wipes herself off. She then stands up, wipes down the bench, and proceeds to take the weight plates off the bar and place them back where they belong. Her “audience” has moved on and returned to their own little worlds. She just bench pressed all that fucking weight and her doubters are left to eat their own shit. Let them eat shit.

Time to do some ab work.

Deborah’s tall 6 foot 2 inch frame is covered from head to toe with big, thick muscles. As ripped as a professional bodybuilder and athletic as an Olympic gymnast, Deborah Frost is a unique, one-of-a-kind physical specimen. She doubts anybody in the world has ever had a body quite like hers. And she’s determined to make sure it stays that way.

At 27 years old, Deborah is certainly young enough to still be in the prime of her physical potential. Everything depends on her work ethic. And her work ethic is off the charts.

Forty-five minutes later, Deborah is stark naked and standing at a shower stall, feeling the hot water cascade off her strong, muscular body. She is not alone, showering alongside a short elderly woman, a grossly obese high school girl, and a young ditzy blonde who looks like she could be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.

Mmmm. Delicious. She’d love to lick her sweet pussy. She looks so soft, so sweet. She must smell like roses.

But Deborah isn’t usually into girls like her. She prefers women like Cassandra, her long-time girlfriend who lives with her. Like Deborah, Cassandra is as strong as an ox and refuses to let anybody tell her she can’t do anything. She’s just got back home after serving an eight month-long tour of duty in Afghanistan with the U.S. Marines. Cassandra was wounded when a road-side bomb hit her patrol vehicle, lodging a long piece of metal into her left leg. She sees a physical therapist every single day to help her recover.

But all Deborah could think about is fantasizing about Cheerleader Girl. That, and getting clean. Maybe she should focus more on getting clean.

Cheerleader Girl turns off her shower and walks away to her towel hanging on the wall. Deborah watches her curvy, round butt sway from side to side as she struts. Deborah can feel an electrical current pulsate between her legs. God, she needs release. Really bad. All this pent-up energy can’t be taken out through a workout. She needs a good, old-fashioned fuck.

Cassandra can help her with this when she gets home.

Gorgeous blonde FBB Cindy Phillips.

After her shower, Deborah quickly dresses and buys a small protein smoothie at the gym’s food bar. Her preference is banana strawberry. It’s fucking fantastic.

“Thank you. Have a good night,” the Smoothie Guy says. Deborah cannot remember his name to save her life and it’s beyond the point of embarrassment to ask him again. So she just smiles and nods as pleasantly as she can.

“You’re welcome. See you next time!”

He’s cute. A bit short and pudgy, his dark hair and perpetual five o’clock shadow is too irresistible to ignore. Deborah hasn’t had sex with a guy in nearly a decade, but she’d consider it if Smoothie Guy ever mustered up the courage to ask her. Or the foolishness to ask her. Same thing.

“See you tomorrow, right?” The Front Desk Gal asks.

“Yup, tomorrow. For sure. Today was chest day, so tomorrow is back and shoulders. Got to balance yourself out, you know what I mean?” Front Desk Gal nods. Deborah flashes her a subtle smile and sashays out of the gym.

The time approaches 10:30 p.m., which is a little bit later than she’s used to working out. Today she had a late start because she had to drive Cassandra to and from her therapy appointment. Usually she can snag a ride from her sister, but not today. Today, Cassie’s sister was meeting with her brand new sugar daddy. Deborah hopes things work out this time. Heaven knows she needs one right now.

Tonight, Deborah parked her car in the back lot. The gym’s super popular Zumba teacher taught back-to-back classes today so the front lot was completely full when Deborah arrived. Oh well. It could be worse. Heck, odds are stupid aerobic classes like that keep the gym in business. So she doesn’t have a whole lot to complain about.

Deborah fumbles with her car keys. She really needs to simplify how many damn keys she carries around in her tiny purse–

“Miss Frost?”

Deborah turns around to see whose voice it is that called out her name. It’s pitch black outside, so it’s nearly impossible to properly see who it is.

“Yes? Who is it?”

Standing next to a broken light post smoking a cigarette is a thin man wearing a black overcoat, a burgundy red fleece scarf, and a light gray fedora. The man approaches her nonchalantly. Even though she has every reason to feel threatened, she remains calm and collected. The man takes one last drag and tosses the cigarette on the ground. He steps on it for good measure.

“Good evening. Don’t feel alarmed. I’m not with the paparazzi or anything like that,” the man says. “I know people like that are constantly swarming you.”

“From time to time. But not for a while.” Deborah briefly dated in college a guy who was the school’s stud quarterback. He was drafted in the top ten and played two seasons in the NFL before overdosing on heroin. Deborah had broken up with him prior to his death, but the mysterious circumstances surrounding his sudden passing made her the subject of a criminal investigation. His fame, combined with her unusual muscular body, created a temporary media firestorm. Eventually, her name was cleared and she resumed living her life as normal.

Mysterious man wearing a fedora and smoking a cigarette.

She and William never had sex because he was secretly gay but refused to publicly come out. She was just a “girlfriend” for show. He felt like being outed would hurt his chances of playing in the pros. He wasn’t totally wrong. She went along with the charade as long as she received a cut of his paycheck. He agreed to this arrangement. Their phony relationship resulted in her receiving $15,000 per month from him in cash. They were both happy with this “business arrangement.” They both benefitted. But eventually even that had to come to an end, like everything does.

“I’m glad. It’s good to see your life has returned back to the way it was.”

“What do you want? An autograph?”

The Thin Fedora Man takes another step toward her. Deborah’s heart rate increases slightly.

“Oh, no. I’m not looking for that at all. I’m actually here to deliver a message to you. Would you like to hear it? I believe you will find it financially rewarding.” Deborah’s ears perk up at the mention of money. Due to her living life as a professional bodybuilder – which pays very little – and Cassandra having to spend so much of her money on therapy sessions, money is always tight with them. Always.

“Go away.” Deborah unlocks her car and takes one step toward it.

“Very well. As you wish. I will inform my client that you have refused his offer before even hearing it. He will be quite displeased with this news.” The Thin Fedora Man turns around and walks away. Impulsively, Deborah shouts back at him.

“Wait! Come back. I want to hear your offer.” The Thin Fedora Man stops dead in his tracks and smiles. He turns around and faces Deborah, a woman who is by far the most muscular he’s ever seen in his life.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I want to hear it. Go on.” How fucking pathetic does she look right now? Deborah shudders at the thought of her actually talking to a complete stranger who claims to represent someone interested in giving her a lot of money…

“Fantastic. I will not reveal my client’s name, but he will reveal himself if you choose to meet with him. He is offering you this: My client wants to spend one evening with you at a location of his choosing. The time parameters will be agreed upon beforehand,” he says.

“During this time together, he asks that you allow him to do whatever he pleases with you. Whatever he pleases, if I may reiterate that crucial point. Don’t worry, no physical or psychological harm will come to you. He can assure you of that. In return, you will receive $1 million in cash on the spot. No questions asked. No need to do anything else after that.”

Deborah can smell Thin Fedora Man’s smoky breath from several paces away. She tries to not cough. The struggle is real.

“Wow. That’s quite an offer. I’ll give you and your client credit. I’ve never been approached before about something so elaborate. But my answer is still no,” Deborah says. She begins to walk away toward her car for the second time.

“He figured you would immediately refuse. I also can sympathize with your reaction. This is why he’s offering you this ahead of time.” Thin Fedora Man takes out a white envelope from his coat pocket and hands it to Deborah. “It’s $10,000 in cash. Straight up. Even if you ultimately refuse my client’s offer, the money is still yours. No need to return it. Go ahead. Open it. It’s yours.”

Cautiously, Deborah takes the envelope from him and opens it. She peers inside. Sure enough, a thick stack of 100 dollar bills greets her. She gasps.

“Fuck me. You’re not joking around,” she mutters under her breath.

An envelope full of cash.

“No, he is not,” Thin Fedora Man chuckles. “Also inside this envelop is a business card with a phone number that you are to call if you would like to take him up on his generous offer. You have 48 hours to respond. If he does not hear from you, he will then pursue other potential candidates for this particular escapade. Understood?”

Unable to believe her eyes, Deborah looks up at Thin Fedora Man and nods her head faintly. “Yes, I understand completely.”

“Good! We look forward to your response. Have a pleasant rest of your evening, Miss Frost.”

And just like that, Thin Fedora Man turns around and calmly walks away. He gets inside a car parked several yards away and turns on the engine. Deborah still has not moved an inch since looking at the stack of bills. She sees red break lights illuminate the pitch black parking lot as the vehicle driven by the enigmatic man backs up. A chill runs down her spine.

“Holy hell. Is this guy for real?” she says to herself.

Dumbstruck and clutching the envelope as if her life depended upon it, Deborah can do nothing but watch Thin Fedora Man’s car speed off toward the main highway, leaving behind a thin trail of dust floating around in the darkness.

To be continued…

Nude: A Muscular Woman’s Natural State (NSFW)

Emery Miller in her natural state.
Emery Miller in her natural state.

One year ago, I published a post titled “A Muscular Woman is Always Nude in Public, Even When Fully Clothed.” The basic gist of my article is that a woman with muscles cannot easily hide her muscles from the public. Even if she wears baggy clothing and acts as inconspicuous as possible, she can never fully conceal the fact that she is indeed a woman with big muscles.

So no matter what she does, where she goes, or who she associates with, her identity as a “female bodybuilder” is forever branded on her body – that is, until she decides to stop training and lets her muscles atrophy. She can run, but she can’t hide.

However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One does not pursue bodybuilding unless he or she is okay with, ahem, looking like a bodybuilder. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Yes, it is the whole point. No arguments there. I’d like to follow up this post with more thoughts on the concept of female muscle and nudity. Here it goes. Not only is a female bodybuilder always nude even when she’s fully clothed, when she is nude she’s actually in her “natural state.”

By “natural state,” I mean the way in which nature intended for something to be presented. As human beings living in human civilization, it is not encouraged to be naked in public. Nor is it natural for people to live clustered sedentary lives where they spend all their free time glued to a computer screen. In-person human interaction involving people actually looking at and talking to another human being has (nearly) gone by the wayside, thanks to the introduction of social media, texting, and other digital distractions. Life in the 21st Century may resemble a quasi-dystopian (and heavily exaggerated pre-apocalyptic) reality, but that doesn’t mean we can’t occasionally turn back the clock and return back to how we were supposed to behave.

Kathy Johansson showing off her best side.
Kathy Johansson showing off her best side.

As a particular sub-species of humanity, female bodybuilders belong in a unique category. Female bodybuilders are, in many respects, a prototypical 21st Century human being: Strong, independent, rebellious, entrepreneurial, and “feminine” by her own definition. Never mind the fact that female bodybuilders are not celebrated by our culture in quite the same way that pop stars and loudmouth politicians are; FBBs are women who are known to exist but aren’t given the adequate public space that they deserve to exist in.

So in a realistic sense, FBBs will forever be relegated to the backburner of greater society’s consciousness. Or more specifically, they’ll inhabit the backburner of the stove located in the shanty sitting 20 miles away from our culture’s proverbial kitchen. It’s a hard knock life, but a life that our beloved FBBs are willing and able to wade through.

But within the female muscle fan community – and to be sure, God knows how many of us are out there – the accomplishments of FBBs do not go unnoticed. In fact, we spend an inordinate amount of time experiencing these ladies as many ways as we can: Meeting them for muscle worship/wrestling sessions, watching their videos, looking at their photos, reading articles about them, following them on Instagram, etc. And if there is one theme that consistently comes up, it’s that we love seeing our gorgeous strong ladies wearing as little clothing as possible.

Granted, the desire to see a beautiful person without clothing isn’t particularly unusual. Adam didn’t notice Eve while she was wearing a nuclear hazmat suit. He noticed her when she was wearing…uh, nothing at all. I’m pretty sure if any of us were to see a beautiful person walking down the street wearing his or her birthday suit, we’d all stop what we’re doing and stare. If you wouldn’t so such a thing, well, I don’t know what to say to you.

However, in a strangely poetic way, female bodybuilders aren’t just beautiful women whom we would like to see naked. They’re beautiful women who should be naked all the time. A muscular woman should never be covered up. Her body should always be displayed in all its natural glory. A clothed muscular woman is a travesty. It’s an abomination. It’s unnatural, just like eating tropical fruit in the winter or listening to Christmas music in July.

The gorgeous Lindsay Mulinazzi.
The gorgeous Lindsay Mulinazzi.

As bodybuilders, FBBs dedicate their whole lives to developing their physical bodies to fit a certain desired aesthetic. It’s not a hobby. Nor is it just a career choice. It’s a lifestyle. What they eat, how they train, when they sleep, where they find themselves at any given moment, what they spend their money on; it’s all part of the life of being a pro (or exceedingly dedicated amateur) bodybuilder. In short, you don’t become a bodybuilder. Bodybuilding becomes you!

And the human body, when deliberately sculpted to look a certain way, deserves to be seen in its proper context. There’s a reason why bodybuilding contests feature contestants wearing almost nothing. Obviously, the competitors won’t wear anything that isn’t acceptable at any public beach, because “going commando” is still pretty taboo. It’s like going to the movies: Seeing hundreds of people get shot and blown up is okay, but seeing a bare female breast is totally wrong.

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but plenty of things in life don’t make a lick of sense when you think about it.

So forget about this in a practical sense. I’m not suggesting female bodybuilders – and male bodybuilders, I suppose – should go around completely naked all the time. This is more of a philosophical discussion with regards to who female bodybuilders are and what they represent, not a call to action to defy indecent exposure laws!

Simply put, female bodybuilders should be appreciated in the nude whenever possible. Yes, it can be incredibly sexy to see a gorgeous FBB wearing frilly lingerie or a g-string bikini or a French maid’s outfit. But that’s all fun and games. I’m talking about how a female bodybuilder deserves to be seen.

What can you conclude by seeing Michelle Tuggle fully nude?
What can you conclude by seeing Michelle Tuggle fully nude?

You cannot fully appreciate her hard work unless you see every single square inch of her body. Her calves. Her quads. Her hips. Her butt. Her abs. Her arms. Her chest. Her neck. Her back. Her face. Her breasts. And yes, her genitals.

Her genitals may seem inconsequential, but they are not. Seeing a woman with big muscles and female genitalia proves the point once and for all that she’s a real woman. Whether her clitoris is small or abnormally large doesn’t really matter. What matters is the stark reminder that this hypermuscular human body is also a female body. Whether her breasts are small or large also doesn’t matter. They need to be seen. If her breasts are normal-sized, they serve as further reinforcement of her femininity. If they are flat, they could then be used to argue either that one doesn’t need breasts in order to be a woman or that “womanhood” needs to be redefined. Or more specifically, our concept of “womanhood” needs to be tossed out the window altogether.

The size of her muscles, the appearance of her genitalia and breasts, and the confidence in which she carries herself (or perhaps, lack of confidence if she’s self-conscious about anything) all tell us the complete story about her. If she’s embarrassed by her small breasts and large clit, this offers a clue to how she views her own femininity. If she’s damn proud of her big muscles, flat chest, and oversized genitals, we can surmise that she doesn’t give a damn what society says or that she wants society to dramatically change the way we view women.

As I’ve written before in a previous blog article, a large clitoris is beneficial for the perception of women and their sexualities. It proves that women are indeed sexually sovereign beings who deserve to experience pleasure whenever they desire to. The vagina is often (unfairly) mischaracterized as a passive bodily organ that only serves to receive a man’s penis during intercourse and to deliver a child during birth. Add to it a clitoris that is often too small to see (without zooming in very closely!) and you get a set of genitals that can be viewed as being submissive, dependent, and unremarkable.

A very sultry Desiree Ellis.
A very sultry Desiree Ellis.

However, that’s not even close to being true. But as far as perception goes, a big clitoris that resembles a very small penis can go a long way in proving the point that women do in fact possess an organ that exists solely to give her pleasure. We might know that in the back of our minds, but a larger-than-life clitoris that shocks you when you see it accentuates that point a hundred-fold.

Thus, yes, her genitals do matter. Every single inch of her body matters. You cannot truly understand who a female bodybuilder is unless you see her completely nude. But do not mistaken nudity with vulnerability. There’s a difference between being naked and being nude. “Naked” is when someone lacks clothing. “Nude” is a state of being in which one shows off all their skin. In other words, “naked” implies vulnerability, deficiency, and being unprotected. “Nude,” on the other hand, connotes an active choice to be bare.

Being naked is humiliating. Being nude is an empowering choice. See the difference?

A nude female bodybuilder is most likely to be in the “empowered” camp. But I guess that’s not always the case. In addition to being embarrassed by her genitalia or breasts, not everyone is comfortable being naked…regardless of the circumstances. Obviously, bodybuilders (male and female) tend to have fantastic looking bodies, but we all hold differing mores when it comes to showing off skin to the public.

There’s an undeniable difference between seeing a muscular woman clothed and a muscular woman completely nude. When clothed, we are reminded of her ordinariness. She wears shirts, pants, socks, shoes, and jackets just like the rest of us. It’s like she’s covering up who she really is, as if wearing clothes is just like Clark Kent wearing glasses to disguise the fact that he’s actually Superman. A female bodybuilder who’s wearing clothes is shielding her identity, albeit not completely.

Yes, you can still tell that she’s really darn muscular. Her tight jeans may generously show off her sculpted glutes and rock hard thighs, but it’s not even close to seeing the actual thing. I’m sure Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen suspected that Mr. Kent was actually somebody else, but who in their right mind would go all the way and suggest that he’s actually the Man of Steel? Preposterous!

Likewise, it’s not the same to look upon a fully-clothed female bodybuilder with a similar amount of awe and wonder if she were nude. That even goes for her wearing a bikini. She’s mostly nude…however there are still a few crucial parts still left uncovered.

Now, contrast that with a fully nude muscular woman. It’s as though you’re seeing her from a whole new perspective. She transcends her humanity and becomes a goddess. When you see her in her “natural state,” you truly are able to comprehend just how amazing her body is. You witness not just her physical beauty; you also get to experience her entire essence. Her personality, her hard work, her sacrifices, her lifestyle choices, her fears, her doubts, her dreams, her hopes; everything is right there on display. She hides nothing because this is who she really is.

This is how she’s meant to be seen.

You may be asking yourself: Does the same apply to a gorgeous non-bodybuilder woman? Well, not really. Without question, the sight of a beautiful nude woman is always pleasant to regard, whether she has big muscles or not. I’m only human. However, the major dissimilarity is that an FBB’s sculpted body is so crucial to her identity. Her chiseled physique is central to who she is as a person and what she’s dedicated her life toward accomplishing.

The real Jungle Woman: Rita Sargo.
The real Jungle Woman: Rita Sargo.

A beautiful non-muscular woman isn’t quite the same. A supermodel can wear a sultry black dress and make jaws drop to the floor (although I believe “slay” has become the currently accepted nomenclature). If a female bodybuilder were to wear the exact same dress, she could garner the exact same reaction…but it wouldn’t feel the same. Instead, the dress would seem like a burden. The dress becomes a distraction, an unnecessary diversion away from what’s really important.

And what is actually important? You guessed it! Her hard chiseled muscles.

Perhaps that’s the heart of this discussion. That’s my core message. Clothing seems unnatural when placed on a female bodybuilder’s body. And not just unnatural; it seems sacrilegious. A masterpiece by Monet deserves to be viewed by millions of people at a museum, not locked away in a vault somewhere in an undisclosed underground location. A grand piano deserves to be played, as opposed to serving as a glorified piece of furniture. A novel sitting on a shelf and doing nothing is degrading. It must be read and enjoyed, not relegated as common clutter.

In the same manner, a female bodybuilder’s body needs to be seen in its entirety. And that means she must be fully nude. I’m not suggesting every single bodybuilder must be forced to strip naked and pose for pictures. Heavens no! That’s the furthest thing that I would advocate for, trust me. Rather, I’m talking about this in a metaphysical sense.

A female bodybuilder’s body is maximizing its utility (or purpose) when it’s displayed in the nude. More than being athletes, female bodybuilders are also artists. And like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci before them, FBBs warrant having their handiwork displayed in a way that provides the viewer an optimal experience:

Nude. No clothing. At all. Just her beautiful body and nothing else shielding it. That’s the way she is meant to be seen. That’s the way nature intended it.

Anything else would be a disservice to all her years and years of shedding blood, sweat, and tears. Maybe I was wrong in my initial assessment that a muscular woman is always nude in public, even when she’s fully clothed. When she’s wearing clothes, she’s just like the Monet sitting in a dark vault or the masterpiece of a novel collecting dust. We’re in the presence of greatness; we just don’t know it. And this is perhaps the greatest tragedy of them all.

That being said, when she’s completely nude, our eyes aren’t the only things that become wide open. So do our minds, hearts, and souls.

Naked, Proud, and Defiant: The Fantasy of Seeing a Nude Muscular Woman in Public

Who wouldn't want to see Alina Popa working out at their gym?
Who wouldn’t want to see Alina Popa working out at their gym?

I’ve seen a fair share of muscular women in my life. I’ve seen gorgeous fit women at the gym. I’ve met a number of female bodybuilders for muscle worship sessions. I’ve seen most of these female bodybuilders wearing their Birthday Suit, which means (for those of you in which English is not your first language) wearing absolutely nothing.

Seeing a muscular woman naked is like a spiritual experience. It’s like seeing a divine creature up close and not feeling worthy of being able to do so. It’s like being a layman and visiting the Holy of Holies inside Solomon’s Temple. You know it’s strictly forbidden, but your curiosity will always get the better of you.

As a fan of female bodybuilders, I have plenty of fantasies that I daydream about with great frequency. Making love to a female bodybuilder, having a romantic dinner with a female bodybuilder, snuggling closely with a female bodybuilder by a crackling fireplace, and lots of others. Most of them are quite mundane. Most of my fantasies aren’t kinky, violent, or contain any shred of BDSM fetishism. I don’t want a muscular woman to pee on me (gross!) or to stomp her high heels onto my scrotum (ouch!). If that’s your “thing,” so be it. It’s not mine!

One aspect of my female muscle fantasies that comes close to entering the realm of kinky is voyeurism. Voyeurism isn’t all that kinky or bizarre, but it can cross that threshold if taken to certain extremes. Here’s one simple voyeuristic female muscle fantasy that I have that I often think about:

Imagine you’re taking a casual stroll through a crowded street in a big metropolitan city. It’s Sunday afternoon and you see shoppers milling around, people eating brunch, tourists enjoying what the town has to offer, joggers, dog owners walking their pooches, and teenage kids being up to no good. In other words, it’s a typical pleasant carefree day.

You’re walking round aimlessly, minding your own business. Not a chore to do in the world. All of a sudden, out of the corner of your eye, you see a sight that you’ll never forget. Nor will anybody else who is also witnessing this event. On the opposite side of the street, you see a naked woman nonchalantly walking down the sidewalk; and not just any kind of woman, but a drop-dead gorgeous female bodybuilder.

She’s tall. She’s muscular. She’s completely ripped from head to toe with big swollen muscles. Her thighs could crush a watermelon. She can bend steel with her bare hands. Her broad shoulders take up almost the entire sidewalk. Her perfectly round butt bounces up and down poetically with every step she takes. She isn’t wearing a single article of clothing. She’s willingly allowing people to see every square inch of her stunningly chiseled physique.

People don’t recognize her and treat her like she’s an extraterrestrial visitor from another solar system. Nobody can look away. All eyes are helplessly glued to her. In fact, nobody wants to look away from her. Some are disgusted by her. Others are instantly turned on by her. But everybody stops what they’re doing, dead in their tracks, and stares at her theatrical nude promenade.

Everyone sees her – children, families, little old ladies, packs of teenagers, Catholic nuns, stoners, homeless drifters begging for spare change, police officers on patrol, dogs, cats, birds, and every living being within view of her immaculate body.

Not only is she boldly strolling around a crowded public place in the nude, but she’s proud to be doing this! She’s confident. She’s defiant. She’s empowered. She knows she has everyone in the palm of her calloused hand. No one can resist looking at her. And from what she can tell, no one has any desire to resist staring at her powerful body.

The police won’t arrest her for indecent exposure because they’re enchanted with her. The nuns won’t chastise her because they feel like they’re seeing the splitting image of God walking before them. The stoners and drunks sober up immediately. A few homeless folks offer to give her whatever nickels and dimes they have for just the opportunity to get a closer look at her. But she ignores all of these people. She doesn’t have a care in the world. As she continues her triumphant constitutional, she develops a following of people. No one dares touch her, talk to her, or bother her. They react to her with a combination of awe, erotic curiosity, and fear.

The countless individuals who follow her create traffic jams. Cars can’t pass through intersections. A jogger who notices this naked muscular woman accidentally runs into a telephone poll. People take out their cell phones and snap pictures of her. She loves the attention. She craves it. She doesn’t care if her flamboyant performance goes viral. She loves being who she is and will never apologize for it.

She’s worked her entire life to achieve this impeccably muscular body. She knows her body will receive mixed reactions. She knows this exhibitionistic exercise violates social norms. She knows her body is polarizing. But she doesn’t care. All she wants is for the entire fucking world to see it!

Wow. Imagine that for a moment. How would you react if you were one of the thousands of people who witness this moment? What do you think is going through the mind of the female bodybuilder who’s choosing to proudly display her body (and years of hard work) to the masses of onlookers?

But, let’s specifically focus on the narrator of the story. Let’s assume the narrator of the story is a secret admirer of muscular women. He (or she) may be caught off guard by our audacious performer (let’s call her “Ginger”), but once he realizes it’s happening he goes with the flow and loves every minute of it. Or, let’s assume he knows it’s going to happen ahead of time and enjoys watches it unfold just to see how other people will react.

Oh boy. Tatianna Butler.
Oh boy. Tatianna Butler.

Will Ginger get jeers from unpleasant trolls? Will the police try to arrest her? Will mothers cover the eyes of their children? Will husbands get slapped in the face by their wives because they can’t stop drooling over her? Will the kindly grandmas suddenly become militant and start to lecture her about the lack of decency she’s exhibiting? Will she inadvertently cause car collisions and pedestrians to trip over themselves? How far is Ginger planning to stroll through the neighborhood? Will she ignore the voices hurling unsolicited remarks toward her? Will she do something more daring like pose for pictures or allow strangers to touch her body?

I fantasize about being our protagonist. I’m just as aroused by seeing a muscular naked woman in public as I am witnessing people’s reaction to her. So my fantasy is less about voyeurism and more about exhibitionism. Call it “proxy exhibitionism” or “surrogate exhibitionism.” I’m not the one who’s nude in public, but I’m on her team. By extension, her display of courageous nudity is also mine as well. Ginger and I could be in cahoots. Maybe I’m conspicuously video recording the whole ordeal. Maybe I’m working with Ginger to make her go viral. Maybe I’m collaborating with her to plan and execute this innovative guerrilla marketing campaign.

Regardless, I love the feeling of making other people uncomfortable. No matter who you are, you cannot witness a naked muscular woman in public (or even a non-muscular naked woman) without feeling some sort of visceral reaction. How can you not?

This fantasy is rooted in the desire to break down social norms and shove certain sexual taboos into people’s faces. It’s one thing to see a naked muscular woman in the privacy of her hotel room (and, it should be noted, this whole interaction is completely consensual) and it’s quite another to see her out in public in the least private manner possible. Meeting her for a muscle worship session is intimate; this fantasy is the total opposite of intimate.

I’ve seen interviews with FBBs who say they enjoy getting stares from people when they’re in public spaces. I’m sure there are many who do not like such unwarranted attention. But it’s undeniable that a number of them do receive a thrill from knowing there are hundreds of pairs of eyeballs fixated in their direction. Likewise, I want to see people react to seeing an FBB out in the open. Even though I am not a female bodybuilder, I also receive a thrill (by extension) from the intense attention she receives.

Theresa Ivancik wearing a sexy red dress. Meow.
Theresa Ivancik wearing a sexy red dress. Meow.

Female bodybuilders receive two kinds of responses from people: lust and disgust. Just read the comments left behind on YouTube videos of FBBs. Some commenters are completely in love with them, and others are irrationally repulsed by them. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground. So the fantasy I described above panders to both audiences: it gives the people who lust over her a little “show” that they’re bound to enjoy and it gives the people who are disgusted by her a demonstration of defiance and spite.

The best way to counter the “haters” isn’t to ignore them, but to intentionally shove your successes down their throats.

Ah yes. How sweet it is!

A part of this fantasy can be partially explained by my own personal life. As an Asian man, I often hear jokes about guys like me having a small penis. Even when people aren’t joking, they just assume that I’m “small down there” because of my ethnicity. It’s either people trolling me (and guys like me) or spouting off what they think to be “scientific-based” evidence. Regardless, I get pretty sick and tired of hearing this.

I often fantasize about doing this exact same thing as Ginger. I want to walk down a crowded street completely naked and see how people react to me doing this. I want my body (and penis) to be seen by everyone around me. Will women giggle and whisper to their friends all sorts of insulting things? Will men smirk at me and insist their packages are much larger than mine? Or will neither of those things happen?

Part of me wants to do this (although I won’t ever actually do this!) just for the sake of self-empowerment. It sounds clichéd, but it is what it is. Instead of being ashamed of my body (or a certain part of my body), I want to defiantly show it off no matter what the consequences would be. Likewise, I also fantasize about seeing a female bodybuilder do this. People might make fun of her shrunken breasts. Other will comment about her large clitoris and insist that it’s really a man’s penis. Some may even call her a man. But it doesn’t faze her at all. She’s going to be who she is despite what her critics say.

Naked, Proud, and Defiant.

On a side note, have you noticed that people who tend to say “I don’t care what the critics say” are usually the ones who (ironically) really care what their critics have to say? This claim is a defense mechanism that’s meant to downplay the role that critics play in your life. If you view outside voices as being irrelevant to your life’s choices, then what point is there to getting emotional over what those voices have to say?

If women like Kristy Hawkins strolled around the pool more often, I'd go swimming every single day!
If women like Kristy Hawkins strolled around the pool more often, I’d go swimming every single day!

I often wonder how well female bodybuilders tune out negative voices. To a certain degree, they all can. But realistically speaking, it’s nearly impossible to avoid vitriol in every moment of your waking life. Sooner or later, you’re going to hear hurtful or spiteful remarks directed your way. So how do you counter them? One method is to do what I’ve fantasized about: put yourself so out there that eventually your critics get sick and tired of saying damaging things to you. Obviously you can’t just prance around naked in public areas, but there are alternative methods at your disposal.

You can wear short sleeved shirts. You can wear shorts (in the summertime) that generously show off your thick legs. You can wear skimpy athletic swag at the gym. And of course, you can choose to post photos of your beautiful body on the Internet. These suggestions of alternative ways to flaunt what you got are being done by large numbers of FBBs already.

But the “Naked, Proud, and Defiant” fantasy has less to do with how a muscular woman feels about herself and more to do with how fans of muscular women feel about themselves. We don’t expect a muscular woman to feel compelled to put herself out there. She is under absolutely no obligation to do so. She can be as private as she chooses to be. If her husband (or wife) is the only person on planet Earth who is privileged to see her naked, so be it. As fans, we are not entitled to her body. But in our private thoughts, we can fantasize about whatever we want to.

Deep down inside, female muscle fans want their fetishes to be validated. I suppose that’s true of every fetish, sexual orientation, and kinky interest in existence. We want muscular women to be more accepted in society because, logically speaking, that could potentially lead more women to pursue bodybuilding, CrossFit, and lifting at the gym – which then leads to a surplus of more women with big muscles in the world (yay!).

Muscular women are rare in our society and female muscle fans want nothing more than for that to drastically change. But we all know realistically that’s not going to happen. So, we fantasize about the next best thing and wish that one day we’ll miraculously witness a gorgeous strong woman proudly showcase her nude body to all who surround her.

Seeing a beautiful non-muscular woman in public is not a big deal, though still a pleasant sight nevertheless. Most of us who catch a glimpse of a pretty lady will appreciate how she looks and quickly forget about her minutes after she leaves. For example, yesterday I saw an incredibly gorgeous Asian girl on a public train in Downtown Seattle. I did not think about her again until I wrote this sentence. Why did I forget about her? Because she was damn pretty, but not out of the ordinary. That’s why.

But what if I saw a gorgeous muscular woman (of any ethnicity) sitting on the same train wearing a revealing sundress that leaves very little to the imagination? I can guarantee you I wouldn’t stop thinking about her. Heck, I might write an entire blog post dedicated entirely to describing my experience seeing her sitting on that train! I’d jot down that article in 10 minutes flat and promptly publish it without editing it too much, spelling and punctuation errors be damned. But alas, she was undeniably beautiful but not exceptionally remarkable.

Seeing Colette Nelson in private is one thing, but seeing her dressed like this in the "outside world" would be a totally different animal.
Seeing Colette Nelson in private is one thing, but seeing her dressed like this in the “outside world” would be a totally different animal.

So, this fantasy speaks to my desire to see something remarkable unfold without prior expectation of it happening. When I visit a female bodybuilder for a muscle worship session, I know what to (reasonably) expect. The anticipation, excitement, and nervousness will still be there, but nothing that happens in the next hour will shock or surprise me. On the other hand, running into a complete stranger of a female bodybuilder in the outside world is a whole different matter. In the “outside world,” I don’t expect to run into women who look like Theresa Ivancik. If I were to do so, all bets are off!

But not only do I want to witness something unexpectedly beautiful, I also want others to experience it too. I don’t want to see car accidents happen as a result of a beautiful FBB strolling down the sidewalk, but a sick side of me sort of does! I want people to be stunned by her. I want her shake up our social order. I want her to cause chaos. I want others to be as spellbound by her as I am.

I want a muscular woman to proudly be herself and people who don’t like her can go f**k themselves!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yikes. That’s quite an emotional response, but sexual fantasies aren’t always perfectly rational. To conclude, the “Naked, Proud and Defiant” fantasy can be explained by the pent up frustration female muscle fans often feel when it comes to the women we love. We love them to death, but not everyone else does. People can say the most horrifying things about them, and we feel powerless to do anything about it. Trolls feel emboldened to insult, diminish, and belittle these women, and we feel that they’re also attacking us indirectly.

We feel helpless and voiceless, so we secretly want an FBB or two to take direct action and shut up these “haters” in the most bold and audacious way possible. But we also want them to change the hearts and minds of those who aren’t necessarily “haters” but are either indifferent or on-the-fence about them. Basically, we want them to be more “out there” than they currently are.

Their bodies are beautiful. Like patrons visiting a prestigious art museum, we want to immerse ourselves in beauty whenever possible. The “Naked, Proud, and Defiant” fantasy opens the doors for that to happen.

In the Palm of Her Calloused Hand: Female Bodybuilders and Exhibitionism

Seeing Gillian Kovack wearing that dress in public would definitely make me stop dead in my tracks.
Seeing Gillian Kovack wearing that dress in public would definitely make me stop dead in my tracks.

When a female bodybuilder walks into a crowded shopping mall, how can you not stop whatever you’re doing and just stare at her?

After you pick your jaw up from the floor, you might need to sit down on a nearby bench to prevent your heart from going into overdrive. You wouldn’t want to die from cardiac arrest right then and there, huh?

Well, if a brief moment of regarding upon the stunning physique of a beautiful female bodybuilder happens to be your final life experience before the Almighty claims you, at least you died happy!

But consider this: The moment our hypothetical female bodybuilder walks into that public space, does she want people to notice her? Does she want people to freeze in place and do nothing but stare at her body? Does she want her muscles to be the center of attention?

Obviously, the answer more often than not is “no.” Female bodybuilders, like celebrities and other famous people, want to be able to enjoy their lives with a minimal amount of disruptions. She wants to be able to go to the movies without being harassed. She wants to be able to take her dog out for a walk without being the unintended cause of a fender bender caused by a negligent driver who was distracted by her and took his eyes off the road. She wants to be able to be in public without seeing people whisper to each other about her, gossip about her, or creepily fetishize her. These are all things non-bodybuilders and non-famous people take for granted.

Yet, it is interesting to wonder whether or not if, deep down inside, a female bodybuilder wants people to stare at her. Maybe not all the time, but at certain moments. If she’s going out to a popular nightclub and is wearing a sexy revealing dress, that’s certainly an example of her wanting people to notice her body. She obviously doesn’t want people to harass her, but perhaps she’d welcome a few conspicuous stares of admiration, awe, and lust.

On this blog there is an article discussing the fact that female bodybuilders are always nude in public, even when fully clothed. Please read that column before reading this one. To summarize, it discusses the idea that because large muscular women are rare in our society, she stands out like a sore thumb. So even if she has no intention of being seen or noticed in public, she can’t help but be seen and noticed in public. She can’t wear an oversized parka for the rest of her life. So she’s always nude (in a symbolic sense, of course) whether she wants to be or not.

This article is a sort of follow-up piece to the previous one. This time, we’re going to discuss the flip side of the coin. We now know a female bodybuilder will inevitably receive unwelcomed and unsolicited attention from complete strangers purely because of the shape of her body. Most of the time, our culture would interpret this as her being in a vulnerable position. Our society teaches us not to judge other people by their looks, but a female bodybuilder is constantly being judged by her looks.

In fact, if she’s a competitive bodybuilder (or physique/fitness/bikini competitor) she intentionally goes out of her way to be judged by her looks. Therefore, the other side of the issue is this: Instead of a female bodybuilder being in a position of vulnerability when she’s in public, is she instead in a position of immense and total power?

Sophie Arvebrink has a body that can cause time to stop.
Sophie Arvebrink has a body that can cause time to stop.

Her body can cause car accidents. Her body can make men (and women and children) stop dead in their tracks and lose all sense of appropriate social behavior. Her body can make guys shell out hundreds of their hard-earned dollars just for the opportunity to touch it. Her body can spark arguments over the Internet. Her body alone can provide her hundreds of thousands of social media followers. Her body can give her a stable career, money in her pocket, and adoration from fans across the globe.

That’s power. That is a tremendous amount of power. A muscular woman’s body is so powerful she can gain massive amounts of attention with little to no effort toward promoting herself. An anonymous woman with an affinity toward exercise and fitness could post a selfie taken in her wretched bathroom on Instagram, use the right hashtags, and find herself in front of thousands of eyeballs around the world within minutes. And she didn’t have to spend a single dime to gather that kind of international attention.

Wow. What a world we live in these days!

A woman with a muscular body has an asset (or several assets, if you get my meaning) that’s indispensable. Her body can be as financially lucrative as she wants it to be. If our hypothetical female bodybuilder wants to offer muscle worship sessions, she can easily earn $1,000 of tax-free income (yay for avoiding government regulations!) for one evening’s worth of work. If you take traveling expenses out of the equation, that’s a significant chunk of change.

But let’s talk about this from another angle. Does there exist deep within her psyche a hidden streak of exhibitionism? In case you need a refresher, exhibitionism is defined as:

  1. A perversion in which sexual gratification is obtained from the indecent exposure of one’s genitals (as to a stranger).
  2. The act or practice of behaving so as to attract attention to oneself.

Psychologically speaking, exhibitionism is when someone fetishizes the act of exposing himself or herself to the public. Streakers at professional sporting games or creepy people who flash their genitals to complete strangers are prime examples. Theoretically, one could also include people who like to send unsolicited “dick pics,” web cam performers, and Tumblr users who enjoy uploading their own amateurish porn. But in this context, we’re talking about exhibitionism in a more casual sense.

We’re dealing with definition #2 instead of definition #1. Deep down inside, are female bodybuilders inherently exhibitionistic? It’s an interesting question; one that doesn’t have a definitive answer but should be explored nevertheless.

There probably isn’t any concrete scientific research to back this up either way, but it seems like a small streak of exhibitionism is sort of inevitable when we’re dealing with female bodybuilders. As mentioned earlier, FBBs exist in a world that runs counter to what our society is currently teaching us not to do.

Remember those ads launched by Unilever (an Anglo-Dutch multinational consumer goods company that specializes in creating food, beverage, cleaning agents, and personal care products) called The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty? The marketing campaign aimed to show what “real women” looked like, which was presumably supposed to provide a counterbalance to the countless Photoshopped supermodels we traditionally see in mainstream advertising. Despite its criticism, the ads were effective in changing the national conversation around beauty standards and how we should (or shouldn’t) judge women’s bodies.

This national and international movement to change people’s minds around beauty standards has caught fire in the past few decades. Anyone who values self-worth should applaud these developments. The creators of these marketing campaigns are right that the images of women (and men) you see in mass media do not accurately represent the entirety of womanhood. These images that are reinforced everywhere – movies, television, billboards, magazines, books, Internet ads, pornography, etc. – have the unfortunate symptom of creating self-esteem issues for women of all ages, shapes, and sizes.

Every body is beautiful. Especially the body of Coco Crush.
Every body is beautiful. Especially the body of Coco Crush.

But standing in stark contrast to this – but not in opposition to, it should be noted – is the industry of bodybuilding. We are taught to not judge women by their looks, but female bodybuilders are encouraging people (or more specifically, a panel of judges) to do exactly that. Competitive FBBs train, diet, and work for years and years on end for the purpose of gaining certain people’s approval. It’s a strange juxtaposition, but that’s the nature of the business.

So logically, it follows that female bodybuilders, to a certain extent, want to be noticed by people. She wants to be judged. She wants the public to observe her physicality. She wants all her hard work to be put on display and appreciated by others. A female bodybuilder doesn’t just sculpt her body for the sake of a few judges. She sculpts her body for a whole host of people to see: Fellow bodybuilders, customers, fans of the sport, the media, corporate sponsors, friends and family, and so on.

Lindsay Mulinazzi doesn’t bust her tail just for a small select number of people to see her fabulous figure. Rather, she wants as many people as possible to see the fruits of her innumerable hours of sweat and labor. Many FBBs proudly display their bodies on social media and other places on the web. Obviously, we are grateful for such presentations of their beautiful bodies. Debi Laszewski doesn’t hide her hard work. She makes damn sure we all know she’s a bodybuilder. Whether we’re disgusted by her or aroused by her, she doesn’t apologize for her muscles. Nor does she go out of her way to shield her muscles from public view.

Whether it’s a small child or a Catholic nun walking by her, it doesn’t matter. Debi will not hide who she is. She’s a muscular woman. Deal with it.

Yes, there definitely is an element of exhibitionism inherent in the sport of bodybuilding. Whether an FBB receives any sexual thrills from displaying her body is almost beside the point. She wouldn’t be doing what she’s doing unless she enjoys people noticing her work.

A classically trained pianist doesn’t practice for hours upon hours just to play their instrument in complete solitude. He or she wants to eventually play at Carnegie Hall. A painter doesn’t dedicate his or her life to creating gorgeous canvases just to allow their artwork to collect dust in their basements. They dream of having their work hung up in The Louvre. No little kid grows up dreaming of playing basketball in the driveway with their buddies. They aspire to make slam dunks in front of thousands of screaming fans in jam packed stadiums across the country.

Likewise, a female bodybuilder doesn’t endure the daily grind of being a bodybuilder just to wear baggy clothing all day and be anti-social. She craves the attention. She feeds off of the jealousy, lust, and admiration her body instigates. Her body is a catalyst for sparking strong societal reactions – both negative and positive – whether she intends it to or not. And this isn’t necessarily an intentional choice; it’s an inevitable outcome.

Karen Zaremba is a woman who inspired me to start this blog four years ago. I highly doubt it was ever Miss Zaremba’s intention to motivate a random guy like me to launch a website dedicated to talking about female muscle. But whether she knows it or not (I highly doubt Karen even knows this website exists), she did indeed inspire that kind of action. She never asked me to do this. She’s never spoken with me or communicated with me in any way. All she did was display her gorgeous body on the Internet. And the rest is history.

However, I do wonder if FBBs care about the ramifications of their bodies being displayed in public. I wonder how often Pamela Anderson (who will be 50 next year!) ever thinks about the hundreds of thousands of adolescent boys and young men (and older men) over the years who have masturbated while thinking about her. Think about how many millions of self-induced orgasms Miss Anderson has encouraged throughout the past few decades. Count me in as someone who has contributed to this phenomenon.

Does Pamela Anderson get an erotic thrill knowing she solicits this kind of reaction out of people? Or for that matter, any high profile female celebrity who puts herself out there? It’s an interesting question. Female bodybuilders should be included in this conversation as well. But, to add fuel to the fire, unlike most mainstream female celebrities, the reactions elicited from an FBB’s body can be polarizing. To be fair, every celebrity is going to have their fair share of critics, but without a doubt muscular women will have much more.

They may not have the sheer volume of passionate vitriol thrown their way, but within mainstream culture muscular women are polarizing. To add an additional layer to this conversation, not only are muscular women primed to be noticed by the public, they also frequently spark debate, arguments, and raging fits of jealousy. I wonder how a lot of FBBs feel about that.

A lineup of gorgeous ladies at the 2015 Arnold Classic Australia.
A lineup of gorgeous ladies at the 2015 Arnold Classic Australia.

When a female athlete decides to pursue the life of a bodybuilder, she’s making a bold choice. She isn’t just signing herself up for radically changing her exercise, diet, and sleep habits. She’s agreeing to put up with everything we just talked about: people will react to her with admiration, repulsion, respect, jealousy, fascination, lust, perplexity, confusion, cognitive dissonance, irrationality, etc. One cannot avoid this; it’s deeply embedded within the reality of being a female bodybuilder.

Thus, is it fair to say that some FBBs enjoy doing this to people? Do they welcome the “haters” just as much as they appreciate their adoring fans? Do they relish the fact there are guys and gals around her who are envious of her and wish for nothing but her downfall? Do they secretly get a thrill from knowing there are large numbers of men scattered around the world who masturbate to photos of them on the Internet? They obviously know this happens, but do they delight in all of it – the good, the bad, and the ugly?

The answers to these questions differ from FBB to FBB, of course. But even to the slightest degree, I’m sure every single muscular woman has a streak of exhibitionism residing inside her. There may not be a sexual component to this. Maybe she just loves the attention. It feeds her ego. It makes her feel empowered and emboldened. She loves the compliments. She loves seeing the looks on the faces of jealous girlfriends who cannot stop their boyfriends from staring at her. It’s just another day at the office.

The power a female bodybuilder has over the people around her cannot be underestimated. She holds more influence over people’s thoughts and feelings than she probably realizes. But undoubtedly there are plenty of FBBs who fully understand this power. And they stop at nothing to capitalize on it. These are the FBBs who are financially successful. They are the real winners, whether they formally compete or not.

Cindy Phillips is making many bold statements with her muscular body.
Cindy Phillips is making many bold statements with her muscular body.

So when a muscular woman goes to the gym and pumps iron, she’s not just making herself physically stronger. She’s also making her entire presence stronger. Her grip on other people’s minds becomes stronger and stronger with every muscle fiber growing in size. When she walks into a room, she has everyone inside it in the palm of her calloused hand. She controls how they think, what they think about, and even how they choose to behave.

Will the guy lifting next to her be able to concentrate on his workout…or will he be distracted and accidentally drop a dumbbell on his foot? When she goes out to eat at a fancy restaurant, will an infatuated waiter bump into an unsuspecting patron and drop $250 worth of steak and lobster on the floor? When she goes home and makes love to her husband, will a Peeping Tom neighbor try to sneak a peek through the semi-closed blinds?

That type of power isn’t given. It’s earned. Earned with blood, sweat, and tears. If power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, female bodybuilders must be constantly turned on every single moment of their waking lives.

Whoa. Now there’s a thought! No matter how many blog posts I write about female bodybuilders, I will always find more material to talk about. That’s another indication of the power they have over people like me.

And you know what? I’m not complaining one bit!

In closing, female bodybuilders may or may not be exhibitionistic. It’s impossible to assess who has that fetish and who doesn’t. But that’s not nearly as important as recognizing that FBBs are always being watched. And the people doing the watching often times cannot control their behavior, no matter how rational or sexually mature they think they are. When she’s being watched, she’s not in a position of vulnerability. She’s in a prime position of power. If that turns her on, so be it. If it doesn’t, I understand why. But no matter who we’re dealing with, even the most sexually prudent female bodybuilder must receive some kind of thrill from knowing she’s at the center of attention every damn time she’s in public.

Even if she doesn’t, we can all sleep well at night knowing there are millions of people on planet Earth who get a thrill from seeing her. That I can guarantee!

The Benevolent Voyeur and the Female Bodybuilder – Part One

When you think of Rebecca Tanaka, think of a younger Tomoko Kanda.
When you think of Rebecca Tanaka, think of a younger Tomoko Kanda.

Most people despise the daily grind. Rebecca Tanaka thrives in it.

Rebecca’s schedule is nonstop. Her evenings are always free – most of the time – but from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., she is one relentless busy bee, churning along at her own frenzied pace.

7:00 a.m. – Wake up, eat breakfast consisting of egg whites, oatmeal, and fruit smoothie

7:30 a.m. – Walk on the treadmill for an hour, interspersing with light jogging every 10 minutes

8:30 a.m. – Take short shower, dress, and drive to the gym

9:00 a.m. – Workout at the gym, regimen changes depending on the day (Monday: Chest and shoulders, Tuesday: Abs and back, Wednesday: Rest day, Thursday: Arms, Friday: Rest day, Saturday: Legs, Sunday: Rest day)

11:15 a.m. – Shower, dress, eat second meal of the day (brown rice, chicken, and steamed carrots)

12:00 p.m. – Drive to physical therapy clinic, work with clients

1:30 p.m. – Eat third meal of the day (sweet potato, steak, and raw broccoli)

6:00 p.m. – Leave work, drive to grocery store, drive home

6:30 p.m. – Arrive at home, eat fourth meal of the day (Salmon, kale, asparagus, couscous, and tomatoes)

7:00 p.m. – Answer e-mails, schedule personal training clients, set up photoshoots, etc.

9:00 p.m. – Eat fifth meal of the day (protein shake and raw fruit)

11:00 p.m. – Go to sleep, prepare to do it all again the next day

Rebecca, one of the world’s rising stars in the international bodybuilding industry, doesn’t have much time for relationships or pets. No dogs, no boyfriends. But this doesn’t bother her at all. She loves her life and wouldn’t change a single thing about it.

Except for one thing, however. Being a competitive bodybuilder and part-time physical therapist doesn’t pay a whole lot of money. Lucky for her, she inherited a nice studio condominium from her deceased aunt and uncle (they died tragically in a car accident while travelling through South America four years ago) located right in the heart of downtown Bellevue. However, living expenses are still living expenses. Money isn’t tight, but she can’t afford to not be frugal.

All of that changed one fateful Tuesday evening.

Rebecca drove home and parked her car in the underground parking garage like usual. With her massive gym bag slung over her broad shoulders, she takes the short flight of stairs up to the lobby. There, she sees Craig, the reliable and friendly front desk staff person.

“Good evening, Rebecca!” Craig greets her with a wide toothy grin.

“Hi Craig. Has your wife decided on whether she wants to take the promotion or not?” Rebecca takes her keys out of her pocket and walks toward the row of mail boxes.

“She has. She’s not interested. Macy loves where she is right now,” he says. “I guess that means I’m here to stay.”

Rebecca turns around and shoots Craig a happy smile of her own. “Oh well. Darn. I was just getting used to putting up with your antics!” Craig’s wife works at the city’s water treatment facility and was asked to move to Washington D.C. to supervise the federal government on crafting better national water policy. Apparently, Macy didn’t like that offer and would rather stay here and get paid less. Rebecca has never met Macy but she’s starting to like her more and more.

Craig laughs. The phone rings. He stops laughing, puts on his “professional” demeanor, and answers it. Rebecca chuckles to herself and approaches her mail box. She unlocks it and finds the usual assortment of junk: Grocery store coupons, a community newsletter, a postcard asking her to donate to needy children in Tanzania, her monthly cell phone bill, and a lone letter. She doesn’t usually get individually written letters anymore. For that matter, in today’s digital age, who does?

“Jones,” she reads aloud. The return address is somewhere in Kirkland. Only the sender’s last name is revealed. The 4”x3” letter is modest in size but remarkable in its simplicity. She stuffs the mail in a pouch on the side of her gym bag and heads toward the elevator. She nods at Craig, who is still talking to a potential tenant on the phone. He graciously nods back.

Five minutes later Rebecca opens the door to her 15th story condo unit and walks inside. She lays her heavy gym bag down on the floor and gently shuts the door behind her. Not thinking too much about the letter, she turns on the TV and tunes in to whatever baseball game happens to be going on. It appears the home team is losing by a score of 5-2. It’s the seventh inning. Whatever. Sports never interested Rebecca too much – except for bodybuilding, of course. That’s a sport she pays attention to with keen interest.

The clock in the kitchen says it is 6:39 p.m. Rebecca opens the refrigerator and pulls out a blue Tupperware container. Fish, veggies, and corn are inside. She pops it in the microwave and sets it for three and a half minutes. The humming of her dinner heating up provides the background music she needs to relax and unwind. Rebecca plops herself on her bed and turns on her laptop computer. Just as the home screen starts to boot up, the microwave makes the joyful “ping” sound.

Rebecca grabs a fork, napkin, bottle of FIJI Water, and the steaming hot Tupperware container. She returns to her bed and starts to eat. By now, the home team has scored another run and the score is now 5-3. The crowd goes wild. She couldn’t care less.

There are only four e-mail messages in her inbox. Two of them are junk. One is a balance statement from her bank and the other is a picture of a random man’s penis taken with his shitty cell phone camera. As a nationally known female bodybuilder, Rebecca is accustomed to receiving creepy or obscene e-mail messages from fans across the globe. She promptly deletes the dick pic and blocks the idiot from ever communicating with her again.

“Congratulations on being so well-endowed, buddy,” Rebecca says. “But you’re still a perverted jerk.”

A solo home run by the other team. 6-3 road team. The crowd goes silent. Rebecca swiftly changes the channel to the evening news. The first story she sees is a report that ISIS has kidnapped another European aid worker and has threatened to cut off his head. She decides to turn off the TV altogether. Nothing but bad news.

“It’s a hellish world we live in,” Rebecca whispers to herself. “God help us all.”

She looks at her gym bag and suddenly remembers the letter. After putting the dirty Tupperware in the sink, she takes a last sip from her FIJI Water and dumps the empty bottle in a recycling bin. Rebecca takes the envelope out of the pouch and opens it with a letter opener. She sits down on her comfortable leather sofa and reads it.

Rebecca gets plenty of fan mail, but they all go to her business mail box at the Post Office. So she has no idea who this could be from. Who does she know in Kirkland? The handwritten note says the following:

Dear Miss Tanaka,

I am a dear fan of yours. We’ve never met, but I’ve been following your career from the start. I see a lot of promise in you. You are destined for stardom, there’s no doubt in my mind about that.

I don’t know how much money you make being a professional bodybuilder, but I’d imagine it’s not nearly enough for you to live off. Or maybe you do make enough. Either way, who couldn’t use a little extra cash in their pocket?

That being said, I have a simple proposition for you, one you can refuse to do if you choose to with no consequences.

I happen to live within viewing distance of your condominium unit. With my trusty pair of binoculars, I have a clear view of your balcony. I have never made any effort to physically contact you, so do not feel alarmed. Thus, I’d like to offer you this: Every Tuesday evening at 9:00, I want you to stand outside on your balcony and strip naked for me. I want to see your beautiful body in all its splendor and glory. You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life.

Every time you do this, I will mail you $1,000 in cash the following day. I will also send you written instructions on what to do next. I will never ask you to do anything dangerous or unreasonable. But it will always involve me wanting to see your beautiful body.

Just to prove that I’m not joking, tonight at 9:00 please stand outside fully clothed for a solid 90 seconds. I will send you $500 in the mail tomorrow just for that simple gesture. If you do not do as I ask, I will interpret this as your refusal and I will never contact you ever again. I can promise you that.

I look forward to seeing where your career goes, Rebecca. Peace be with you Angelic Sweetheart.

Sincerely,

Jones

Uh, what? Rebecca looks up at the ceiling in disbelief, remaining frozen for what seems like forever.

What the fuck is this all about? Should she call the police? She knows the return address of this creep, so it wouldn’t be too difficult for the authorities to investigate and put this asshole in jail. However…

$1,000 is a lot of money. Fuck, that’s $52,000 in extra tax-free cash per year. Perhaps she should consider it.

Damn it! That’s crazy talk. This guy is nuts and should be arrested for harassment! Rebecca tosses the letter in the trash can and closes the blinds on all her windows. The last time she ever had a stalker was back in college. A random dude kept writing her love notes despite the fact she was in a committed relationship at the time (they broke up when he later revealed he was gay, but that’s a whole other story for another time). She reported this to campus police and found out it ended up being not a student, but a tenured English professor. She (yes, it was a she) was fired and had to spend 150 hours doing community service and pay a small fine. Rebecca never saw her again.

Writing and sending handwritten letters is a lost art.
Writing and sending handwritten letters is a lost art.

The clock now says it is 7:45 p.m. Rebecca decides to call the police first thing in the morning and report this idiot. She logs on to Netflix and begins watching “House of Cards” to get her mind off of this shit. She may have seen this episode before. Or maybe she hasn’t. Whatever.

Time passes. Soon, it is 8:56 p.m. She looks at the time on her computer and smiles. Should she poke her head outside her balcony just to see if this asshole will actually pay her? Rebecca peeks at her phone bill and gasps when she sees how substantial it is. She’d used a lot of data this month, between using her phone for personal and business matters. Damn. How the fuck is she going to pay for all this shit?

8:58 p.m.

Fuck!

Rebecca puts on a pair of old slippers and cautiously opens the glass door leading to the balcony. She’s wearing pajama pants and a tank top but no makeup or a bra. Her jet black hair is a mess. She doesn’t think she looks terribly appealing at the moment, but this pervert apparently thinks she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen in his life. Rebecca doesn’t know what is compelling her to follow through with this, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Standing at a diminutive 5’2”, Rebecca is just as short as most Japanese women but is much huskier than usual. Her thick thighs, broad shoulders, big biceps, 8-pack abdomen, and rounded butt make her stand out against most women, Asian or not. Her 30th birthday is right around the corner, a fact she’s trying to not think about. She’s never been married but has never struggled to find a boyfriend. Most of her past boyfriends have been white, but she’s dated her fair share of Asian guys. But after committing her life to bodybuilding, she’s discovered fewer and fewer men want to be with her romantically. Maybe they’re intimidated by a woman with bigger muscles than them!

Rebecca looks up at the clock. 9:00 p.m. on the dot. Alright, time to do this.

She enters the outside and takes a deep breath. The sun is beginning to set. Earlier in the day it reached 85 degrees, which is practically the seventh level of Hades for someone who was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. She silently counts to 90 in her head. She looks around to see who this creepy stalker could possibly be. All around her are apartment buildings, office buildings, and fancy homes overlooking Lake Washington. There are hundreds of thousands of people who could see her at this moment. Is this guy for real? Or is this a prankster who gets off on writing disturbing letters to competitive female bodybuilders?

Rebecca may be willing to temporarily embarrass herself, but this is far from being the first time she’s ever felt helpless. Though she’s never been married, when Rebecca was 15 she became pregnant thanks to her then-boyfriend (who happened to be Asian like her) using a faulty condom. Her parents were outraged. The rest of her family shunned her. She eventually gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Rebecca reluctantly put the baby up for adoption. Within weeks of giving birth to the child, a couple in Indiana flew out to meet little Cecelia. They immediately fell in love with her. They hired some lawyers to draw up the adoption papers and within days the couple flew back home with a new daughter.

Rebecca has never seen her daughter since. Her family has never spoken about it. They’ve kept absolutely no contact with the couple from Indiana. She tries to not think about that dark chapter of her life, but every so often she’s reminded of it. This moment is one of those times.

A simple outdoor balcony overlooking a major metropolitan city (in this case, Chicago).
A simple outdoor balcony overlooking a major metropolitan city (in this case, Chicago).

90 seconds have officially passed. She returns back indoors and shuts the glass door. She locks it.

“That was the longest 90 seconds of my fucking life,” Rebecca says to nobody in particular.

Looking outside at the setting sun, she wonders if anyone was actually watching her. Who is this “Jones” guy? Was he a balding middle-aged loser who was jerking off at the sight of a female bodybuilder wearing pajama pants? God, that’s disgusting. The thought of this put a churning feeling in her stomach. Rebecca feels foolish that she even went outside on her balcony as the letter instructed in the first place. Wanting to forget the whole ordeal, Rebecca goes to the kitchen, takes out a wine glass, and pours herself some Chardonnay. She returns to bed and turns the television back on.

The home team tied it up in the bottom of the ninth and ended up winning it in the 12th thanks to a walk-off home run by the second baseman. Rebecca thinks he’s cute. Good for him. Good for his teammates. Hopefully, he’ll sleep tonight with a big fat smile on his face.

***

The next day Rebecca didn’t give a single thought to what had happened the previous evening. The thought of calling the police about the disconcerting letter never crosses her mind.

Wednesday is her rest day, so she can spend the morning working on her personal business before going to work at the clinic at noon. She spent the whole morning scouring the Internet for a new bikini. Her photographer tells her it’s about time they take new photos for her website. Now that the weather is improving, they agree to go down to the beach this Saturday and snap a few photos before the hordes of families, little kids, and drunk tourists show up.

Work is boring as usual. She sees four clients altogether. James, an 87-year-old former steel worker who’s suffering from chronic lower back pain. He thinks it’s caused by his days hauling gigantic hollowed rods across the mill he worked at back in Pennsylvania. Rebecca thinks it’s caused by the fact he’s in his late 80’s. Whatever. He doesn’t want to argue with “the pretty girl with big muscles.”

She also sees Tyler, a high school football player who suffered a major knee injury last season while returning a punt. Tyler’s a nice kid. He isn’t good enough to play at the college level, but Rebecca nevertheless feels he deserves a shot at being able to step onto the field again. He’s rehabbing his injury and hopes to be able to be ready in time for summer practices.

Rebecca is confident he’ll be able to do so. Tyler and his mother concur.

Sarah Hayes wearing a dress that shows off all her impressive assets.
Sarah Hayes wearing a dress that shows off all her impressive assets.

The other two clients are a married couple named Frankie and Loren. They’re both in their 60s but still manage to work at the local public school district. Rebecca cannot imagine why they still want to put up with spoiled bratty kids when they’re so close to retirement, but they seem to enjoy the work. They must be good at what they do, apparently.

“I do it for the kids. I can’t speak for Frankie, but I feel like it’s my duty to my community to put these youngsters on the right path,” Loren tells Rebecca and Julie, the clinic’s senior physical therapist. Frankie nods in agreement.

“Damn right! But don’t tell the kids I occasionally swear. I always get them in trouble for cursing, so I don’t want to seem like a hypocrite,” he fires back.

“Don’t worry you two,” Rebecca assures them. “Your secrets are safe with me. My lips are perfectly sealed. What’s discussed in this building doesn’t leave this building, I can assure you of that.”

Now it’s Julie’s turn to nod her head in agreement. It’s so wonderful when everyone agrees with one another. That’s what makes life pleasant.

“See you next time!” Rebecca exclaims as Frankie and Loren stroll out the door. She waves at them. They wave back. All is good and right with the world.

The drive home is messy but not a surprise. There’s a stretch of 8th avenue that’s being repaved. It’s a project the City Council promised to implement years ago, but it’s just now getting underway. Even in the most financially affluent cities it takes forever for simple government tasks to get done. Oh well. That’s the way things are, Rebecca supposes. Maybe that explains why Macy wants to stay put.

Like usual, she parks her car in the underground garage and hikes up the stairs to the main floor. It is at this moment that she remembers the strange letter she got yesterday from that mysterious creep. Today, Craig happens to not be working the front desk. That usually means he’s talking with the maintenance man to fix something. Instead, Hannah, a spunky 22-year-old blonde girl fresh out of college, is working in the lobby. Rebecca thinks Hannah is scared of her. It’s not a stretch of the imagination, however. It’s not too often you encounter a pretty Asian girl with big muscles!

“Hi Hannah. Where’s Craig?”

Hannah jumps in surprise at the sound of Rebecca’s voice. She is busy playing Temple Run on her phone and didn’t expect anyone to want to make casual conversation with her. Hannah puts the phone away and regains her composure.

“Oh, he’s milling around somewhere. A tenant on the 8th floor complained about a weird smell. He’s looking into it.” That’s what Rebecca thought Craig would be doing. Fixing a problem. Hannah is usually an on-call staff person who comes into work if Craig knows he has a lot of building maintenance work to do. Rebecca thinks Hannah works part-time as a cocktail waitress at a dive bar in Renton. She could be wrong about that, though.

“Hm. Thankfully for him, I don’t have any weird or offensive smells coming out of my unit,” Rebecca says. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to hear that.”

Hannah can only smile. That’s pretty much all Rebecca expects from her. This must confirm her suspicions that she’s frightened to death of her.

This is what the inside of Rebecca's condo would probably look like.
This is what the inside of Rebecca’s condo would probably look like.

Rebecca takes out her mail box key and puts it in the slot. She twists it and opens the small door. She reaches inside and only finds a single item.

A modest 4”x3” letter.

Oh fuck.

She looks at the return address. Sure enough, it says “Jones” followed by a Kirkland address.

Well, shit.

Stuffing the letter in her jacket pocket, Rebecca smiles at Hannah and scurries off to the elevators. She presses the button for the 15th floor. Three minutes pass until it shows up, which feel like ten. The door opens, Rebecca walks inside, and within moments she’s at her front door.

Rebecca isn’t usually a paranoid type of person, but how could you not be at this moment? Perhaps her decision to not notify the police was dead wrong. Before opening the door to her condo unit, she looks around the empty hallway. No one is in sight. That’s how it usually is at this hour. She unlocks the door and steps inside.

She immediately drops her purse on top of a nearby chair, tosses her jacket carelessly on the ground, and sits down on the leather sofa. Taking in a deep breath, Rebecca cautiously opens the letter without the letter opener. She doesn’t mind if she gets an innocuous paper cut. Fortunately, she’s just fine.

It’s another handwritten note. Of course. It reads:

Dear Miss Tanaka,

I’m glad you decided to follow through with my wishes last night. I did not know if you would ignore me or not. Fortunately for me, you made a choice I am most pleased with. Bravo to you.

In return, I’ve enclosed $500 in cash as I promised in my previous correspondence. I hope you put this newfound money to good use. I trust you will be judicious with it.

Your participation in last night’s trial run tells me you’re willing to play along with my proposition. I am pleased to learn of that. Now is the appropriate time to up the stakes. As I outlined before, I am willing to pay you $1,000 for further exhibitions. That offer is still on the table. I am only interested in watching you perform for me on Tuesday evenings at 9:00 p.m., so you have a full week before I am able to see you again. I cannot wait for our next encounter.

Next Tuesday, June 7, I want you to walk outside your balcony at 9:00 like last time. I want you to wear whatever clothing you happen to be wearing at the moment. I care not what it is. Once you are fully outside, I want you to meticulously strip naked until every single article of clothing is removed from your immaculate body. Then, I want you to twirl around slowly in a circle three times. No more, no less. I want to be able to see your entire body. It is my desire to be able to do so.

I want this full performance to last two minutes. Bring your phone with you if you need to keep track of time. Anything lasting less than two minutes will result in you not receiving any monetary compensation.

I trust you will agree with these terms. I look forward to seeing you next time.

Peace be with you Angelic Sweetheart.

Sincerely,

Jones

Rebecca freezes in stunned silence. Before she could reread the message, she digs into the envelope and finds five crisp $100 bills tucked inside. She holds the bills up to the light. As far as she can tell, they’re perfectly legit. A professional bank teller could tell the difference between a legitimate and a counterfeit $100 bill, but Rebecca’s amateurish opinion will have to suffice for now.

“Holy fucking shit.”

A chill runs down Rebecca’s spine. She isn’t sure if she wants to cry or call the police without a moment’s hesitation. Instead, she chooses to sit there on the sofa and stare off into the nothingness in front of her.