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The Siege Part I

Written by DustyBottums :: [Sunday, 29 August 2010 16:27] Last updated by :: [Monday, 06 August 2012 11:21]

 

The Siege

Attack of the Amazons

By Dusty B.

 

Comments? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Warning: the following story is simple fantasy -- it (hopefully) contains moments of redemption and worthwhile sentiment. But it also has a notable share of extreme, super-powered violence and extended interludes of a sexual nature. So, consider yourself warned. If it isn't your thing, look elsewhere, and good luck to you. If it is to your liking, good, I'm glad you enjoy it. There'll be more of it soon. And now....

 

I

 

 

TOP SECRET - EYES ONLY

Resource file: RF920758

Washington, D.C.

 

7840260-07467ARF

 

The following is taken from the memoirs of Daniel J. Pittman, a mid-level security consultant employed at Kent-Allan Contactors, Inc., in Baltimore, Maryland, from August 2004 to March 2009. The material here is provided strictly as background information on the first contact made in reference to PROJECT: BRAZIL (see file 8493262309ARF) yet found. No recommendations are made from this testimony, it is provided strictly as resource material.

 

 

            I guess it was around the beginning of April when I met Cassie.

            I know that's why I've been instructed to write this, to put this all down, but still. It doesn't mean anything unless you know at least a little about me, about the situation first, or else you might misjudge her, and her importance in the incredible turn of events that have followed my small part in this...conflagration.

            Anyway, my name's Dan Pittman. I'm 38 years old. I work as a security consultant with Kent-Allan and Partners, Inc, a military contractor here in Baltimore. Yes, the same kind of contractor that got such a bad name in the events in the Middle East. We handled security considerations for diplomats and military prisons all over the world, though, not just in the Middle East. I believed it to be a good company. I chose to treat the hazy reports about Blackwater with a grain of salt. Through Cassie's intervention, I've since learned a little more about the affairs of the military-industrial complex, and it's mostly information I wish I could forget.

            I grew up in a small suburb of Columbus, and my background is pretty ordinary. Parents who divorced when I was five but remained civil, with both active in my life until lung cancer took my dad four years ago. One older sister who died in a car accident at 17, two younger brothers. My school career was solid but not particularly remarkable, I graduated high school with a 3.2 GPA and went on to a junior college and later Ohio State, where I graduated with a degree in history.

            I joined the Army the week after I finished college. Most people are a little puzzled by that scheduling, but it was as I had planned it all along. College was tough, financially, since I came from strictly middle class roots, but it was do-able. And this way, when I signed up, I went in as an officer. I figured, I was too young for Desert Storm, and I'd be too old for the next major engagement. As an officer at 23, I'd have a shot at making major before my 20 was over. Then, I could retire from the military, score an advanced degree, and get a teaching job at a community college or something, and have two full incomes by the time I was 45. Pretty sweet deal, right?

            Except it didn't really turn out that way.

            A bunch of clowns decided to attack New York back in 2001, and that changed my plans, big time.

            I ended up serving in the big "I" for two tours...almost. Halfway through my second stint, the 'Vee I was in hit a roadside bomb, and effectively ended my active military career.

            I was lucky. I could still see, and after a couple of weeks, I could mostly hear again. After a few months, I could walk again, too. I pretty much was able to get back to normal, except for this little limp on the right side that I just can't shake. I guess losing an inch and a half of femur will do that to a guy. I was lucky. Most of the guys in that 'Vee weren't. So I can't complain.

            Anyway, I was looking at trying to land that teaching job a little early. But just as I was getting out, I bumped into an old squad mate, this Italian guy from Brooklyn named Vito Pitrelli, and he told me about the contracting biz. He knew I was a good soldier who couldn't officially be a soldier anymore. So he turns me onto Kent-Allan, and the rest, as they say, is history.

            I got lucky, I hired in making far more cash than I ever did in the Army, and through a series of lucky moves (and some politically savvy machinations on my part, if I do say so myself,) I was able to not have to go back to anyplace hot and sandy. I did a year at a military prison in Germany, then I got promoted to a training officer stateside, at Kent's facility just south of Pittsburgh. A year after that, I was promoted again to a regional management position at the company's Baltimore headquarters, and that was kind of a big deal. It put me way into the six-figure salary range, which I never really expected to ever see in my lifetime, and also put me on a solid track to maybe be a bigwig in the company someday. I guess they saw something in me they liked. The regional position carried quite a bit of weight, and if I needed something, I usually got it. The main thing, though, that told me I had arrived was the speed of information flow, however.

            In my business, you talk to the military. A lot. Every day. Nearly every hour. Which is nice, because ostensibly, they pay your salary. When I was working in the prison system over in Munich, we'd request an information exchange with the Pentagon, and it would happen...eventually. Definitely in the range of several weeks, sometimes a month. But it would come.

            Then, as a trainer in PA, it came faster. Maybe a week. Maybe 5 days.

            Then, after I leapfrogged district manager and went regional, my access to the military liaisons was exceptional. I mean, when I called, people jumped. I'd have responses to my inquiries in hours. Hell, minutes. I knew I had arrived when I got a call back from the Secret's assistant before I had finished dialing my next call. I'm not saying I was on an ego trip about it. Well, not much of one, maybe. But still, it was gratifying to know that yeah, I was doing okay for myself, and that I was doing some good, real good, for my country and her interests. At least, I thought I was.

            Of course, this all came with a price. I had an apartment that stood cold and empty. It was a nice place; I had gotten in on early on a new building in downtown Baltimore. Okay, I'll admit...I used some connections to get in on the deal, but still. It was a sweet place. And when I say new, I really mean, old.

            A developer had gotten the idea of taking old abandoned warehouses in the middle of downtown and turning them into these posh new apartments. This would, in theory, attract young, well-off professionals to live in the downtown area again, helping the local economy, while the developer made some cash to boot. It was part of this whole urban renewal thing that was going on then.

            The thing is, it worked.

            I got a fourth floor apartment, which was a bonus, in a way. The building itself was this beautiful old brick monster that had been abused for about 40 years of bad weather and bad crime. The first three floors were pretty nice, and folks on the first floor paid a little extra for street access. me, I took the opposite route. See, the building itself was actually seven stories high. When they revamped it into apartments, the fourth floor places - including mine - were given these incredible three story ceilings. I had two bedrooms on the first two floors, and a combined loft/den on the third. The staircase was this huge, amazing wrought-iron spiral thing, and the floors themselves were connected by a webworm of these very spare, utilitarian-looking iron catwalks. It was strange, this quasi-industrial space, but with a few homey touches, the catwalks, staircase, and landings actually became very 'in,' very post-modern, and very, very cool. And the best part -- the rear wall of the apartment had a huge roll-up grate and a sliding door...and behind that, the freight elevator. I was one of only four people with direct access, and you better believe I made sure it worked before I moved in, especially with a slight limp that seemed to get worse in cold or bad weather. As it turned out, it was handy in more ways than one.

            I paid a little extra for the huge space, but hey, I had the money. And there were only four apartments on the fourth floor, that's show big they were. Pretty cool stuff. After I moved in, my mother showed up out of the blue with a few carefully chosen items of a domestic nature, and in the course of an afternoon she had the place looking great; the couches became fashionable once she dressed them correctly, the lamps were carefully and arranged, plants brought in, and the recessed lighting high in the ceiling threw dim cones of light here and there. I liked it immediately, it looked like a combination new yuppie/utilitarian workspace and art gallery, rolled into one. And yeah, before she left, mom made another little comment about how 'empty' the place was. Meaning...yep.  No wife, no serious girlfriend. I didn't even have a dog. It wouldn't have been fair, I mean, I was working 80 hour weeks, sometimes.

            It didn't bother me that much, not at first, maybe not for a while, a long while. But...well. You know. A guy reaches a certain age, and it's time, you know? Life doesn't look so hot after you spend a lot of time staring it down alone.

            Well, I had been in the regional position for a while, long enough to familiar with the faces around the office, and for me to upgrade my security clearance at the Pentagon. It was rare that we actually had to go there to make pitches, but we did occasionally, and every once in a while our input was asked about a new toy.

            That's what Trevor Sainsbury had come to see me about. Trevor worked as a military liaison for AdvanTech, one of the fastest growing military contractors in existence. Remember those hovering gunships a while back, that were incredibly impressive, but far too pricey and not quite mechanically reliable? Yeah, those guys.

            So Trevor comes to see me, since a lot of the time it's our guys who will actually be driving AdvanTech's vehicles or flying it's gunships. That's the way the world works in today's increasingly 'war-for-profit' environment. Listen, I'm not saying it's right, I'm just saying it's the way it is. And I was getting pretty rich at the business.

            I liked Trevor. He was a young guy, maybe only two or three years older than I was. He was from London and he and his wife only lived about 45 minutes from my place. They had a good spread, a little more in the country, about 8 acres at the end of this private little road. Since only a few people in my building had access to the freight elevator, we were really the only ones with our cars right on the property; I parked my old Tahoe in the rear alley, in one of the spots that the building's maintenance crew used so many years ago. It wasn't out of the ordinary for me to grab the car and pop out to Trevor's place for a game or even just a cup of coffee or something. Trevor's wife Lizzie was a trip, one of the funniest people I've ever known and hanging out with them was fun, even if they did have to tend to their two kids,  George, 8, and Ellie, 15, from time to time.

            So anyway, I was in my office that first week of April when I heard the door open and I glanced up, expecting to see Tina, my secretary. Instead, I got an eyeful of Trevor Ainsbury, who leaned in the door with a wry grin on his face. He stopped by often enough that Tina usually didn't even announce his arrival, she would just buzz him in. that probably would have rankled the brass, but hey, he was my friend.

            "Hey, Trev, how're you?"

            "Tops," he said, and strolled in, the door closing behind him. "Tops, my boy."

            "I'd ask you about the family, but I was just out there last week."

            "Much to our great consternation," he said, his expression one of smug satisfaction.

            "Okay, I'll bite. What's up?"

            "Can't a fellow just call on an old friend? Hmm? Must there always be a reason?" he asked comically, a look of mock hurt on his face.

            "All right, all right," I said, trying to not to grin. I closed the file folder that I had been leafing through and set it on the corner of my desk. "You have my undivided attention."

            "At last," he said, and finally laughed a bit as his smug facade broke.

            "So how long are we--"

            "I'm going to retire a very wealthy man, Daniel," he said, his face suddenly serious.

            I wasn't sure what to make out of his expression. "You were going to do that anyway, Trev," I said.

            "No, I mean shortly," he said.

            "Okay...like, how shortly?"

            "Let's just say I'm on the verge of closing the biggest..." and here he actually leaned forward after glancing around my huge - and very empty - office. "...the biggest military weapons contract since the Second World War."

            "Okay."

            "No, seriously."

            "Okay."

            "Daniel!"

            "I said, okay! I believe you. Okay, not really, but that's not the point. What wonderful new gift have you devised for our men in uniform?" I asked, amused.

            "I can't talk about it."

            "And yet you show up at my office to gloat."

            "Precisely."

            I let out a long sigh and smiled at my old friend. "Are you saying you can tell me? Or that you can't?"     

            "I can tell you that we're going to completely re-arm the United States military."

            "Um-hmm."

            "I just can't tell you with what."

            "That's not fair," I said.

            "I'm not exaggerating," he shot back.

            "I didn't say you were."

            "Your face did," he laughed.

            "Whatever."

            "How clever. Were you on the debate team?"

            "Trevor!"

            He laughed and leaned close. "Pulse technology," was all he said, and then he stood and walked back to the door. "So maybe we'll see you at the house? The draft?" Trevor was a convert to American football. He had left his precious Manchester United back in the mother country, it seemed, and had embraced the NFL with an almost frightening abandon. He was a Ravens season ticket holder, and I went with him to games Lizzie couldn't or wouldn't attend. The draft was coming up in about three weeks, and it was a quickly forming tradition that he and I watched the first round while stuffing our faces with Lizzie's desserts.

            "The draft," I nodded back. "Looking forward to it."

            "Very good then," he smiled, and ducked out through the door.

            I gave it a few minutes, then I got up and crossed the floor of my office and went out to the little waiting area. It stood empty, as it normally did; the only movement was the little bob of Tina's head behind her desk as she typed away on some miscellaneous report. Tina Hanson had been my receptionist ever since I had transferred to the position, and she did a good job, she mostly kept me from getting myself into too much trouble.

            "Hey Tina," I said as I passed her desk. "Heading down to records."

            "Ewww. Take a sweater."

            "What does that mean?"

            "It's always cold down there," she said, and shivered, as if that would illustrate her point any better.

            "Okay. Thanks for the tip."

            The elevator ride down was uneventful; no one else entered the bare stainless steel passenger compartment. I leaned against the wall as it went down to the sub-basement where the records division was kept. I couldn't shake Trevor's smugness, or his obvious excitement. Obviously there was a significant conflict of interests in his disclosure, but he had only given me enough information to get started. I dimly remembered something about the term he had used, pulse technology.

            Pulse...pulse technology. It rang a bell, I recalled seeing some kind of brief about the name, I wanted to say it had something to do with new forms of armament, some kind of firearms development, but I just couldn't be sure.

            Luckily, K&A is, or was, just about the only security contracting firm with its own records division. Sure, it was kept a floor below even the basement, poorly heated (according to Tina), and was the next thing to a career dead-end as my company had to offer, but at least it had one. K&A collected as much data about weapons development and military intel as it could. My own personal theory? I had a pet theory that Kent was actually looking to get into manufacturing end of contracting itself. That way, the company could provide both weapons foe the field and the personnel to use them. I thought it was a pretty good plan, and kind of hoped it would go that way -- sure, it would be difficult to break the stranglehold that Grumman and KBR held on the Pentagon, but it could be done. And there would be a big payoff when we did it.

            The elevator stopped and the door slid open. I stepped out into the sub-basement lobby of the record division; there were no desks, no tables, not even a chair. It was just a blank white room with a solid-looking security door on the far wall, with a keypad on the wall to the right of the door. I walked over to the device and typed my company ID number on the keypad, and then pressed my thumb into the scanner below it. After a three seconds there was a tiny flash of light beneath my thumb, the little LED flashed from red to green, and I heard the lock in the door click open. Somewhere a computer upstairs was logging my entrance to the room, I knew.

            The door closed behind me and I heard the 'chunk' sound of it automatically relocking. The room itself was quite large, about fifty yards long, with bare concrete walls with a fifteen foot ceiling. the space was divided into five rows of reference materials, mostly boxes, folders, and boxes of folders. These were loaded onto steel shelving that went from the floor to the ceiling.

            Yep, I thought. Gonna go full bore. The only reason to have this much material on anything.

            "Can I help you?" a voice beside me asked, and I jumped about three inches off the ground in surprise.

            I looked to my right where a waist-high counter was crudely attached to an old, broken-down desk. I leaned over and saw the back of someone, a woman, bent down as she taped a cardboard box shut with some of that tough brown packing tape on a dispenser.

            "Hi," I said.

            "Hello. What can I do for you?" she asked, still bent over, not looking up.

            "Oh, nothing, I was just down to pick through some-"

            I never really got the chance to finish that answer.

            Okay, this is the part that gets a little...well, cheesy. A person not knowing anything about what happened would swear I was making this up, that I was a lonely old widower who had read too many romance novels and this was but one more in a long string of clichés. But it's true, I was asked to write down what happened, as it happened, and this did occur. It's also difficult to discuss...for a whole myriad of reasons, but we'll get to that later.

            I didn't finish the sentence because she stood up, and my words died in my throat, and when I saw her, I got really, really dumb.

            I mean, the intelligence just went out of my head, out of the freaking room, out of the building. Once, when I was a little younger, my family had kind of a cookout-shindig type of reunion/get-together thing. One of my brothers married young, and he brought along his wife and her sister, his sister-in law. And it had been a lot like this.

            Everybody knows at least one attractive person. Everybody has maybe seen someone who is truly noteworthy, in the sense of real, striking physical beauty. It's a type of face we're familiar with, from movies and TV, actors and actresses of good physical breeding who seem to look far, far better that what the masses could normally manage to produce. But then there's this other, less definable category. There's this thing, this quality...it's...hard to describe. It's elemental. Kids today would call it 'hotness,' but it's more than that, that's just a crude term that tries name a narrow occurrence with a wide swath of paint. Yes, physical beauty is part of it, but not all of it. There's more...the best way to describe it is to describe what happened at that family picnic.

            So my brother's sister-in-law walks in, and within 10 minutes, every man in room was rendered as stupid as a second grader, myself included, making stupid jokes (and knowing they're stupid, and not caring). All the 'men folk' lined up to make inane conversation with her, not so much to talk to her but just to have her look at us. She was very nice, she was reasonably intelligent and had a good sense of humor, but she had to know what was going on. Or maybe she was so used to it she had become oblivious to it, the way the very attractive sometimes do. The women in the family just rolled their eyes and gave each other knowing glances; I saw them do it, and knew what it was they were shaking their heads at, and still I persisted with the rest of the guys, I didn't care. That's the kinds if extra "oomph" I'm talking about.

            Well, the young woman that stood up, my words died in my mouth, and I got really really dumb because she made my brother's sister-in-law look like a dirt sandwich. She wasn't absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, but she had...she had a thing.

            She gave a new meaning to 'blonde and blue-eyed.' Her hair was shorter than average, and cut in a fancy, but not overly dressy fashion; it was just slightly lower than her jaw line, resembled a bit of a bob 'do, and was parted in the left/center, half of it trying to flow down over her right eye. Her eyes themselves were a crystal sky-blue, nearly electric in the brightness and intensity. The striking eyes looked out from behind some glasses, not those Ashley-Banfield-smart-and-sexy rectangular things, either; these were large round lenses that were definitely out of style. Cute nose, nice face. A jaw that bordered on being maybe just a tad too square than the ideal, but somehow this tiny imperfection made her seem all the more perfect. She actually looked a little familiar, like maybe she resembled a celebrity...I tried to think of the name, but it just wouldn't come to my stunned brain. It would come to me eventually.

            She wore a gray business outfit, a loose jacket over a white blouse and matching loose pants rather than a skirt. She was tall, nearly as tall as my own 5'11", she was 5'9", maybe more. She was obviously young, maybe 25...and yet not. Something...some kind of other indefinable notion I couldn't describe...it hinted to me that she was probably a little older than that, but not much. She had what looked like a decent figure; it was hard to tell, given the fact that she wore that outfit.

            So I hope that I have clearly illustrated the scene, and of her appearance. Yes, she was young and attractive, but I swear it was more than that. The second she stood up...I don't know. I don't know how to say it without being cheesy, so maybe I should just be out with it. I've never been an overly sensitive guy, and I wasn't looking to have my life changed, per se. And I totally never believed in that 'love-at-first-sight' stuff.

            Until the day I saw Cassie.

            "Hey there," she said cheerily. Her voice was mid-range, her words slightly clipped and girlish in their delivery.

            I wish I could say I answered with some witty repartee, but I didn't. I just kind of stood there and stammered.

            "Uh...I....uh...Oh."

            I was like a deer in headlights, anyone could have seen it, but she didn't even pause, she acted as if she didn't even notice.

            "Haven't seen you down here before," she offered.

            "Oh...I...well. Yeah. I mean, no," I managed to choke out.

            "Gee, you're talkative today. What floor are you from?"

            "Floor?" I asked, and she blinked and nodded earnestly. "Well, not a floor, I..uh. Well, I'm Dan Pittman. I'm the director. A director. Regional. Regional director."

            "Regional?" she asked her eyes going wide. If I hadn't been hooked by that point, what she did next made me fall in love with her.

            "Well, I guess we should be official, then," she chirped, and clicked her heels together with a click. She stood stiffly at attention, looking comically past me, and snapped off a sharp salute. "Cassandra O'Connor, at your service, sir," she sang out.

            I was still coming out of my strange initial shock but I wasn't so clueless that I couldn't start playing along. I returned the salute and smiled. "At ease, soldier," I smiled, and did the cool, casual 'I'm the commanding officer' style of salute back. She grinned broadly at me doing that, and that was it. Check, please. She could have asked me to jump off a cliff, and I wouldn't have been happy about it, but I probably would have done it.

            I guess women don't think men still think like that. I mean, in terms of affection. Sure, of course attractiveness enters into it, it has to, but they might be surprised that men still think in terms of courtly, nearly chaste love. Well. Surprise. We do.

            "So what brings you down here, Mr. Big Shot?" she asked, her grin widening even further.

            "Can't tell you," I said solemnly.

            "Hmm. Top Secret?"

            "Very."

            She nodded, looked side to side, and leaned in a bit. I could smell her, a perfume maybe? A faint, pleasant clean smell, like fruit. "I can keep a secret."

            "That's what they all say."

            "And who exactly are ‘they?’"

            "Those who try to find out my secrets."

            "Oh," she said, nodding, still playing along. She straightened up, and I could see how tall she was. Probably only inches shy of six feet. “I see. We should be wary of them.”

            “More,” I said, comically serious. “Very wary. Ultra, even. Ultra-wary.”

            “Infinitely steadfast,” she said, deadly serious.

            “At least.”

            “That goes without saying.”

            “But I just said it,” she muttered.

            “But you could not have, ‘cause it goes without it.”

            “Wow,” she kind of sighed.

            “Yeah. Listen, can I take you out to dinner?”

            It just popped out of my mouth. I didn’t think about it; I don’t think I could have thought about it at the moment if I had tried. My pulse had quickened a bit and I could feel my ears burning. The feeling wasn’t unpleasant.

            “Oh, yes,” she sighed; she relaxed and she finally smiled again. “I was so worried.”

            “Worried about what?”

            “That you wouldn’t ask,” she confessed, blushing a bit herself. And here we stand, ladies and gentleman, two schoolchildren in love. I’ll see you in study hall.

           

II

 

            So I got the files I needed, spending about six times as much time as was necessary in the records department. So much time that we didn’t actually get to have that date: Instead of taking her out, I just ordered in and we had Thai takeout at her desk sometime after seven that first night. I asked her out for a drink later, and she said yes, but it would have to be after a short wait; it would look better if the security system didn’t record our departure at the same time. She promised to meet up with me at Finnegan’s, a small Irish pub about three blocks from my apartment building.  I stopped in, took a quick shower, changed into a pair of khakis and white cotton shirt, rolled up the sleeves. My heart was thrumming along a quick clip the whole time. I was worried that something would happen, she would suddenly get cold feet. A find like this? Something had to happen to screw it up, right?

            So I sat at my window seat at the pub, watching , waiting. About twenty minutes after I got there, a figure swung into an empty curbside parking spot on an old yellow motorcycle. I’ve got something more than an appreciation, call it a minor hobby, when it comes to bikes, so I watched, vaguely interested as the rider stepped off, took the riding gloves off, slipped off the helmet…yeah, you can see where this is going.

            She trotted in, helmet under one arm. She wore jeans and bulky black leather jacket. She looked around, saw me, and skipped over, sliding gracefully into her seat before I could stand to greet her.

            “You’re kidding me,” I said, shaking my head incredulously.

            “What?” she asked with a smile.

            “A Honda? What is it, a CB 750?”

            Her grin widened. “900.”

            “Yep. ’78? ’79?”

            “78. You too, huh?”

            “Yeah, I’ve got an old BSA.”

            “Get out.”

            “Yeah.”

            “Wow, look at you, Mr. Fancy Pants,” she said, and kicked me under the table. “So when is good for you?”

            “Good for what?”

            “For us to go riding?” she said, with an exaggerated ‘duh’ expression on her face.

            “Um, today’s Thursday.”

            “Wow. Were you an honors student?”

            “We have to work tomorrow.”

            “So that makes Saturday morning. 11:00.”

            “That was easy,” I grinned.

            “Not everything will be that simple,” she said, her eyes locked on mine suddenly.

            “Okay,” I chuckled.

            “Too bad we have to wait, I’d like to go tomorrow. Plus, I’ve got no reason to see you tomorrow, now.”

            “Well, I still have the files I took today,” I said. “I’m going to have to bring them back.”

            “Oh, yes.”

            “And I could be persuaded to do that around lunchtime? And I could, say, maybe bring something to nibble on,” I continued.

            “Or I could just nibble on you,” she said, her eyes still fixed on my own.

            I think my heart stopped for a second. I felt about half the blood in my body rush up to my face, and she burst out laughing.

            “Mowrrr,” she purred comically, hooking her hands into claws in front of her. “Gotcha.”

            I started laughing too, and waved the waitress over. She was a cute little college kid in black blouse with little shamrocks all over it, a sign that the bar was definitely taking a turn for the cheesy.

            “You first,” Cassie said as she picked up a drink menu.

            “Hey guys, what can I get you?” the server chirped cheerfully.

            “I’ll take a white Russian,” I said.

            “No problem,” she said as she jotted it down. “And you, miss…”

            Something happened to her when she turned to Cassie, I saw it. I happened to be watching the young waitress’s face, and I saw it happen. She went from a happy, cheerful expression to one of indecision, to outright distaste, all in the space of about two seconds. Cassie didn’t notice it, or, if she did, she did acknowledge it, not at first. But I saw it, I did.

            “…What do you want?” the waitress finished.

            “Uh…can I just get a screwdriver?” Cassie asked.

            “Sure,” the waitress nearly spat, and turned away.

            Cassie swung her gaze back in my direction. “Jeez. Sorry.” 

            “For what?” I asked.

            “For whatever I did to ruin her night.”

            “Yeah, what was that about?” I asked.

            Cassie shrugged and looked down at the table. “Who knows.”

            A moment passed, and I realized with disappointment that some of the energy had left the air.

            “I do,” I said.

            “Huh?”

            I know. Her problem. You.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Look at her,” I said. “She’s young, she’s cute. Little Ms. Cutey McCo-ed. I bet she gets ‘em all going in whatever dorm she lives in.”

            “Uh….yeah. Okay. Not sure where this is going.”

            “And in walks you. And the rules change.”

            Cassie frowned at this. “Why?”

            “Cause now the queen bee is here and the worker bee don’t like it,” I quipped, and was glad to see Cassie grin anew.

            “Stop,” she said.

            “Seriously. Do you own a mirror?”

            “Huh?”

            I was coming to my senses, though. “Sorry.”

            “What?”

            “I….no. I just. Nah. Never mind.”

            “What? No fair!” she said, and grinned. “Finish.”

            “Nah, I was just going to say…I just. Well. You’re…”

            “What?!”

            I looked down at the table, gathered my thoughts, and tried to make it sound as nice as I could. “Well, obviously…she’s jealous. You came to her home court and stole her thunder.”

            “By doing what, exactly?”

            “By being you. And looking like you do.”

            “Oh, stop.”

            “Yeah, okay. You’re right. You’re absolutely horrid.”

            “Har har,” she laughed, and kicked me under the table again. “Wise guy.”

            “Yeah,” I said, and let the moment play out a little. “That’s it, though. I promise you.”

            “Yeah, well…” Cassie said, her words trailing off as she looked away.

            And that was another point that sold me on her, as if I hadn’t fallen for her at first glance. I know this sounds awful, but I was used to hearing a certain cattiness from women my own age, and I expected to hear more, for Cassie to sit there and spend the next two or three minutes verbally dressing down the waitress. But she didn’t do it. She shrugged it off; she let it go and was ready to move on to something new, and I found that very appealing.

            “So, about me seeing you tomorrow,” I started, and she turned her vision back to me.

            “Yes?”
            “Are we talking, in a business way, or in a social way, or…?”

            “Which would you like it to be? Is the whole dating someone at work thing a problem for you? Or for the company?”

            “So we’re dating now?”

            “You were an honors student. I knew it!”

            “I just wanted make sure.”

            “And now you’re sure,” she smiled.

            “Has anybody told you that you’re very…”

            “Pushy?” she asked.

            “I was going to call it forthright.”

            “Hmm, forthright. Such tact.”

            “I try.”

            “And you succeed,” she said. “Yeah, maybe I’ve heard that a time or two.”

            “You big flirt,” I teased.

            “Hey, it’s only flirting if it doesn’t go anywhere,” she said, and I could feel myself blush just the tiniest bit.

            The conversation paused for a second as the waitress brought back our order, and then vanished with a flash of her tray and one quick, slit-eyed glance in Cassie’s direction.

“So what do you want from me?” I asked.

            “Excuse me?”

            “For lunch,” I grinned. “Tomorrow. I’m taking you out for lunch tomorrow, remember? What do you want for lunch?”

            Cassie stared at me over the rim of her glass, her bright – very bright – blue eyes fixed on my own with laser-like, rock-steady precision.

            “I don’t know,” she said. “Ask me that after you’ve bought me breakfast.”

            I nearly dropped my drink. The shock hit me, her words sunk in. Then, try as I might, I could not suppress the little smile that crept onto my face, very similar to the one she was displaying as well.

            “Okay,” I replied, careful not to trip on the words. “Deal.”

            “You said you lived around here?” she asked.

            “Yeah, just a few blocks.”

            She drained the rest of her drink in one huge swallow. “I think we need to go there.”

            “Okay,” I smiled.

            Cassie stood, and pulled on my shoulder, drawing me to my feet.

            “I mean…now,” she said.

           

           

            “So that’s how I came to land a place like this,” I finished as the metal grate rolled up and we stepped from the freight elevator into my apartment. “And over here is—“

            My words were cut off when Cassie spun around and grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled me forward into her kiss. It was easily the best kiss of my life. After a moment she broke it and looked at me closely with a strange, half-expectant look on her face.

            “Nice place,” she whispered.

            “Thanks,” I gasped. I shifted on my feet a little. First, her kiss and her nearness, now combined with the sound of her whispering voice…my pulse began to gallop and I sprang to sudden and swollen life.

            She studied my face for a moment, finally drawing her vision up to mine once again. She smiled sweetly and whispered, “Hi.”

            I don’t know what it was, if it was her perfume or what, but I could smell something sweet, a sticky, thick, citrus-like smell – it was delightful. It was almost like I could feel my lungs open up further to let as much of it in as I could. I wrapped my arms around her and drew her closer.

            “God, you smell good,” I groaned. I squeezed her gently and took in the smell of her, the scent of her hair.

            “Thank you,” she said softly, and I felt her lips pulling on an earlobe. My hands traced the outline of her shoulders, down toward her waist. The thick motorcycle jacket she wore made it hard to tell, but she seemed a little leaner than I had expected. My heart pounded harder as I imagined slipping first the jacket, then the rest of her clothes, off of her body.

            We did the funny walk that couples sometimes do when they are embracing but don’t want to part long enough to get something done separately. A little awkward shuffling, grasping, shrug off some clothing, then some shuffling followed by groping hands and groping tongues. Finally we made it to the huge leather couch that dominated the living area, and Cassie shoved me roughly in the chest. I laughed and teetered backward, finally falling into the soft material. She simply fell down on top of me.

            I’ll spare you a lot of the details. It was pretty typical at first, actually. My relationship with Cassie was moving along much faster than I was used to, but with the way she looked, I didn’t mind. Plus, she seemed as funny and kind as she was gorgeous. What more could I possibly have expected?

            Eventually, my hands drifted up and I rubbed her thighs softly, then caressed the swell of her butt through the jeans she wore. I raised my right hand slowly and took hold of the zipper on her jacket. She had a strange, blank expectant expression on her face. I drew it down, slowly, seemingly one tooth at a time, with her watching, a slow smile appearing on her lips.

            Her jacket swung open a little and my hands found the sides of her waist. She was slimmer than I had first thought. Until now, I had only seen her in unflattering business attire and a bulky leather jacket. But now, underneath it, I was starting to see that not only did Cassie have an amazing facial beauty, but she also sported a rocking bod.

            My hands traced the slim waistline, the smoothness of her hips. I pushed the front of the jacket aside, touching her sides, the surprisingly firm, smooth surface of her belly. It was like a dream come true; I had always found athletic women appealing, as long as they stayed feminine. By the feel, Cassie was definitely an athlete. She was a ‘sleeper,’ as they called them in street racing. An old, rusty car pulls up next to you, you bet everything you own against it, and then it smokes you in the quarter mile because under its hood is a perfectly tuned aluminum block 427 side oiler.

            It was the same with Cassie. Gorgeous, sure, but I never would have suspected she had a body like this under all those clothes. My hand wandered up, up as we kissed. Finally I could feel the swell of her breasts under my fingertips, and I fondled her through the blue T-shirt she wore under the jacket. Her surprising physical appearance didn’t stop with her trim waist and what I suspected was a washboard of abs; I’m going to sound like a complete, stereotypical male jerk here, but she had the best rack I’ve ever touched, that I’ve ever seen. Our lips were locked firmly together as she straddled me on the couch, and I caressed her breasts softly, marveling at their perfect size, their firmness. To quote the old fairy tale, they weren’t too big or too small, too high or too low….they were just right. I could feel the active, cognitive parts of my mind slowing to a stop as the deep, instinctual urges took hold. Here I was, a mostly healthy male, straddled by a beautiful young woman who could have easily had a career as a model. Let’s just say that I was responding appropriately.

            Evidently I wasn’t alone. Cassie’s breathing deepened, and she began to rock her hips slowly against my own. She moaned softly, almost a purr, and her hands latched onto my own, which were still firmly fixed to her chest. She rocked back and forth, a little harder now, breathing heavily through her mouth, and her hands clenched down on mine, forcing hands to grip her even more firmly. Now it seemed like I was kneading her breasts like bread dough; harder than I would have on my own, but she seemed to like it: her breathing shortened, became more rapid. She threw her head back and moaned, loud, which both surprised and excited me greatly. Her hands dropped to my waist and with a metallic jangle my belt was undone and my pants were unbuttoned…

            “No!” she barked suddenly, and then it was over. 

            She was off of me and standing in the dimly lit room, facing away from me, hand clutching the front of her jacket tight around her.

            “Um…Cassie. What’s wrong?” I managed, once my sense came back to me.

            She shook her head, paused, and sighed. “Nothing. Everything. Hell, I don’t know,” she muttered, and sat down on the edge of the sofa, still facing away from me.

            “I didn’t…I mean, was I…”

            “No, you’re fine. You’re great,” she shook her head. “That’s the problem.”

            “What?”

            “Never mind. It’s nothing.”

            “Obviously, it’s more than nothing. It’s definitely a something.”

            She glanced at me over her shoulder, the first hint of a smile on her face again. “Maybe just a little thing.”

            “Can I help?”

            Her smile widened, but it was a slow, sad smile at best. “I kind of think it’s a little ‘ol me only thing,” she confessed. She suddenly looked, intensely, desperately unhappy, and a little bit of my heart broke.

            I watched her for a moment. “Okay,” I said.

            “What?”

            “Okay,” I repeated, and patted her back from where I was laying behind her. “Just know I’m here, and I’ll help if I can.”

            She half-turned to see me. “You’re a good man, Daniel.”

            “I try.”

            “No, I mean it. I’m serious.”

            “Thanks.”

            “I’d still like to stay.”

            “Okay.”

            “I mean, we can’t…we can’t… I mean…”

            “I know what you mean.”

            She paused. “And that’s okay? You don’t mind?”

            “Of course not.” I was a grown man, after all. Sure, my motor had been fired up, but I was old enough to not go crazy if I didn’t cross the finish line.

            Cassie slowly turned and laid down beside me, her head came to rest just below my own, on top of my right arm. She laid her right arm across my chest and draped a leg over my lower body. She curled up around me and I was lost again in the warmth and smell of her. I closed my arms around her and drew her close.

            “This is nice,” she said softly at last.

            “Yeah, it is.”

            “Thank you, Daniel.”

            “For what?”

            “Pretty much everything,” she said, and closed her eyes.

            I thought for sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep, that I would lie awake and just watch her all night. But soon enough I found comfort in the nearness of her form, and I drifted off to sleep.

 

III

 

            Things progressed the next day, and the day after. I spent more and more time with Cassie, in and out of the office. I made good on my promise, buying her both breakfast and lunch. She politely declined my offer of dinner to make it a perfect hat trick, but insisted on the motorcycle date the next day.

            It turned out to be a beautiful day to ride. Spring was officially upon us, and the chill of the early morning gave way to a perfect late morning ride.

            Initially, I took point, the chrome on my old BSA winking smartly as we leaned through the gentle curves in the suburban area outside of the city. Cass rode just behind and to the right of me, and was I was struck at how expertly she handled her bike. Her pace never wavered, she didn’t have to keep adjusting for speed to keep up or slow down. It was as if she was stuck to my side.

            After about an hour of pleasant cruising, she pulled alongside me. I looked over, and flashed her a smile. She wore a full face helmet, but I could sense she was smiling back. But then she made a ‘c’mon’ gesture with her left hand, winked, and nailed her throttle.

            Her Honda opened up with its signature combination of exhaust growl and transmission whine. She leapt ahead like she had been shot from a gun.

            “Oh, boy,” I muttered to myself, and throttled up as well.

            I spent the next thirty minutes trying to catch her.

            She tore down the now rural roads, doing 70, 80 miles per hour. Once, when we came to a particularly sharp corner on the old road that lead around Lake Porter, I thought she would either slow down to negotiate it, or worse, keep going in a straight line and fly off into the woods that surrounded the highway. But she kept steady, and tucked herself in around the engine, her head barely higher than the handlebars. She stuck out her right knee and leaned it over, and blasted around the corner; somehow she was able to make a 30+ year old 900 cc cruiser handle like a brand new crotch rocket.

            For the record, it was more than I could do. I slowed down, way down, and putted around the corner at a comfortable pace. I caught up to her on the straightaway.

            “You’re nuts!” I shouted over the roar of the wind.

            Her eyes sparkled back at me, bright and alive, slightly crinkled from the grin I knew she wore. She shrugged, and with another angry-hornet sounding burst of speed, she was off once again, and it was all I could do to keep up with her.    

            Which pretty much describes out entire relationship. I had a hard time keeping up with Cassie, she seemed to have an inexhaustible reserve of energy. We could work all day, even putting in extra time, then grab dinner together, then a movie, and as we would leave the theater, she’d say she wanted to go out dancing. I’d shake my head, torn between two emotions. I was glad she wanted to be with me for longer and longer periods, but also annoyed by the fact that I, unlike Cassie herself, needed to sleep sometimes.

            I was also growing steadily more concerned about our relationship as a whole. Cassie was fun, incredibly intelligent and very well-read. She was a beautiful young woman by all measure, not the most attractive woman I’d ever seen, but not far from it. I was nothing to write home about, maybe a slightly better than average looking guy who had never had trouble finding casual partners before. And there was a definite attraction. I felt it. I’m sure she felt it.

            And yet nothing happened. The same type of ritual as our first night together played out over and over. We would begin with some joking and laughter, then fall into some heavy petting, and then she would recoil at the last minute, apologize, and then tell me that we couldn’t be together yet. And after each physical debacle, she would look even sadder than she had the last time. I was starting to wonder if it was a sign of some deeper psychosis that I didn’t know about or understand, some fundamental flaw that kept her from opening up to anyone new in her life. It became the only uncomfortable aspect of our relationship; it created a strange tension by being this big subject that neither of us would broach, let alone talk about.

            I was having thoughts like these a couple of months into the relationship when my telephone rang at my desk, and I saw her extension on the digital readout panel.

            “Hey there,” she chirped.

            “Hey yourself.”

            “So I was thinking.”

            “I thought I smelled smoke.”

            “Today is Friday,” she said.

            “Last time I checked.”

            “And tonight is Friday night.”

            “I don’t know how to break this to you, sweetheart, but they usually go together.”

            “So, if somebody was to say to somebody else, ‘Hey, let’s go to a movie tonight,’ I think the other somebody might tell the first somebody, ‘Okay.’”

            “Jesus,” I moaned. “Do you always talk like this?”

            “Was that an invite?” she laughed.

            “Yep.”

            “Then I accept. But let’s play dress up,” she said.

            “Huh?”

            “This time I’m buying you dinner, and we’re going somewhere fancy.”

            “So,” I smiled into the receiver. “You saying I’m cheap. That I don’t take you nice places.”

            “Pretty much,” she laughed. “You cheapskate.”

            “I accept that,” I laughed back. “That has some merit.”

            “I hope you look good all cleaned up,” she said, suddenly more serious.

            “And why is that?”

            “Cause if you do, maybe you’ll get lucky,” she said, and hung up quickly.

            My smile froze, then faded slowly, and I could feel a tiny little surge in my heart rate. She had never brought up the subject on her own before…it was going to be an interesting night.

           

IV

 

            I think my jaw hit the floor.

            She stood inside the freight elevator, ankles crossed, a long coat resting on one forearm. She wore a short, slinky black dress that showed off her hourglass figure perfectly. It fit her as if it had been tailor-made, and was the perfect blend between classy and scandalous. She wore black heels to match, and she had had her hair done, it framed her perfectly made up face with flattering precision. She was a vision and a half, I tell you. “I took a cab,” she said simply, with a slow smile.

“Oh, wow. Cassie. Wow.”

“Oh, stop,” she said, waving me off with a smile.

“No, seriously.”

“You too.”

I raised my arms and glanced down. A dark brown sport coat, with a simple white dress shirt and some khakis. Hardly dressed to impress. “Not really.”

“Really,” she smiled, and kissed me, slowly. Deeply.

            “Nice,” I said when she slowly pulled away.

            She nodded. “Mm-hmm. But just wait till later.”

            “Do we have to?”

            She nodded again, her smile widening. “Yes. I’m hungry.”

            “You’re always hungry.”

            “Yes. But not just for food.”

            I gulped, she laughed, and off we went.

            Dinner itself was an experience. The French restaurant was a mystery to me, I limited my palate to things Italian, Mexican, and Chinese. The menu might as well have been written in Greek.

            When the waiter arrived, I leaned over toward Cassie, the dim romantic lighting setting the scene, and I raised my voice just above the quiet piano that drifted through the place.

            “Cass…I don’t have a clue what…”

            “I’ve got it,” she whispered back.

            “Well, unless you speak Fr-….”

            She rattled off a phrase in French to the waiter, who seemed as surprised as I was at first, but whose expression melted into one first of appreciation and then admiration. And she spoke it with none of the halting awkwardness that plagues the casual language user. It flowed out of her mouth like warm butter, to use a strange analogy. I had never understood the so-called romantic attraction of the French language, it never really did anything for me. But then Cassie used it. She made it her own. And then I realized that when it’s spoken by a beautiful woman, French is an amazing language.

            When he had gone, she laughed when she saw my shocked expression. “Close your mouth, you’ll catch flies.”

            “Not in this place. Where did you learn to do that?”

            “Paris.”

            “Paris? Jeez. What, did you live there, or something?”

“Yeah, for a while.”

“It must have been a few decades by the sound of it.”

“Not that long. But a while.”

“Lady,” I sighed, “there’s a lot I have to learn about you.”

“That’s true,” she said, and her smile faded a little as she looked down at the table.

“Hey. Hey, I was just joking.”

She nodded, and smiled, but it wasn’t as bright a smile as she wore before.

 

 

We finished dinner, and as the cliché goes, walked a few blocks up the street to take in a movie. The film was a standard romantic affair, where a young woman who was very thin (nearly gaunt, actually) fell in love with a young man who was also thin, had rumpled hair, and a two-day beard. Apparently they were unable to be happy apart. After much angst and several scenes featuring horrible pop music (soundtrack available on Capitol Records! the end titles screamed), the walked off into the sunset together. Literally. Into a sunset. Accompanied by a song by Michelle Branch. The movie had the ability to make me feel a little queasy in the stomach, cynical about love, and very, very old – I realized I had outgrown Hollywood with my 25th birthday.

Cassie felt the same, but she managed to laugh her way through it anyway. Just being together was enough. The show ended, and we made our way back to the street, our hands locked together firmly.

It’s funny that you can’t see huge life-events coming before they happen.

Looking back, it was kind of like a scene from a bad movie itself, you know? A couple walks along a dark alley a little later than they should have. A chance encounter with some hoodlums. Things go badly; their lives would never be the same. Yeah, right.

            Well, it sure played out like a movie. And I'm pretty sure we'll never be the same again.

            We were so into each other, into basking in the glow of the other's presence that we hadn't noticed where our path was taking us, as we first left the theater, then walked down the city street. Gradually, there were fewer and fewer people around us, and before either of us had noticed, we were standing on a deserted street corner. I least that's how I remembered it at the time. Looking back now, I can recall things Cassie had said.

            "Wait, let's go back."

            "Is this the best way to get there?"

            "I don't remember coming this way."

            And of course, each of these I brushed aside, and on we went. Until the silence of that street corner fell around us, and she stepped a little nearer to me. I jumped a little when the first man's voice came to us.

            "Say, lookit here," he said, and stepped out of the mouth of a darkened alley to our left.

            I took in a quick breath and shuddered when I heard his voice break the silence, yet, just for a second, a tiny part of my mind noticed something funny.

            Cassie didn't jump at all. She just turned slowly to face him, as if she had been expecting it.

            He stepped out of the shadows, and I could see he wasn't much more than a kid. He was wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt and gloves, but I could make out enough of his lower face to tell he was black, and young, maybe 20 at most. As I sized him up, two more figures stepped out of the gloom of the alley.

            "Ah, shit," I said under my breath, and felt my heart speed up, a light ringing began in my ears. One guy, maybe. But three?

            The others were dressed like the first guy. Hooded sweatshirts all around. I guess it was the uniform of the urban underclass, I don't know. One was black, similar to the first guy in size and build, but the third guy was a huge white guy, probably 6'3" or 4" and around 300 pounds. His forehead was low and bulbous, like it was sliding down over his face.

            "You don't want to do this," Cassie said, her voice soft, reassuring, yet firm.

            Waittaminute. That's my line, I thought.

            "Yeah!" I added, and nearly winced at the sound. Cassie didn't move, she simply stood statue-still as she watched the trio emerge from the mouth of the alley and spread around us in a semicircle.

            "No, wrong, honey. I think we want to do this. You know how this works. Come on," the leader said, motioning toward the darkened passage.

            "No way," I said, the blood pounding in my ears now.

            "You really don't want to do this," Cassie said, her voice calm and even.

            Leader-guy just kind of smirked, and in a flash he held a knife of staggering proportions in his right hand. He waved it toward the alley, his grin even broader. "Get in here, asshole," he grinned. "And tell your bitch to shut up."

            I looked to Cassie's face and saw no trace of emotion there, which was even more alarming than if she had been panicked. Instead, her vision fixed on the eyes of the head of the trio and was completely flat and devoid of any strain or emotion.

            "What did you call me." It wasn't a question. I heard the strange tone in her voice, and was worried by it. More than worried. Frightened.

            "Oh, I'm sorry, bitch. I called you a bitch. Now get your bitch ass into the alley, and we'll decide if you get to keep it. Bitch." He gestured with the knife, and slowly but surely we were  herded toward the darkened space by the slowly encroaching young men.

            Here, it was significantly darker than the street, but there was enough ambient light to see things clearly once my eyes had adjusted. Cassie was directly in front of me, with the head thug in front of her. Another goon was to our right and the huge one brought up the rear behind me.

            "No...first we gonna see what's in our pockets...bitch. Then we gonna see what's under that bitch coat of yours," the thug said, his grin huge in the alley's gloom.

            I had pretty much given up hope of talking our way out of the situation. I was slowly coming to see that the night would probably end with me stuck in the guts and Cassie raped, maybe worse. I clenched my hands into fists, took a deep breath...and froze.

            Cassie smiled.

            I had decided long before that night that I loved this woman. She was kind and thoughtful, she was beautiful and I found her maddeningly attractive, even after our noted lack of intimacy. In my eyes she was perfect, and I had been waiting for the right moment to tell her exactly how I felt. But I must admit that one movement, that one expression made question everything I had felt up until that moment. Cassie had been verbally abused, threatened with physical and sexual harm, and she had smiled.

            And it had been evil.

            As dangerous as these thugs were (and I believed they were, even with their youth and probable criminal inexperience), Cassie's slow smile easily eclipsed the depravity of their intent. I recognized the emotion behind her look; it was one of cold, impersonal malice, of detached, bottomless hate, and the freedom given by handing oneself over to it.

            It was a look of murder.

            The head thug took a single step toward us, bringing him close to us for the first time. "Now, listen, bitch, this is how..."

            That was as far as he got. The rest happened so fast I couldn't see it properly or understand exactly how it occurred. It was like how you close your eyes against the flash and thunder, but see an afterimage of a lightning bolt on the inside of your eyelids when one crashes down nearby. I can only describe my impressions of what happened in the flash of a split-second.

            The thug stepped forward, and raised the knife. Cassie squared her shoulders and took a single step forward, effectively closing the distance between them. Her left hand shot out, lightning fast. She seized his forearm, about three inches above the wrist. Before he could even turn his head, she simply rotated her grip like someone would turn a doorknob. The thug's arm snapped like it was nothing more than a matchstick, with a shockingly loud CRACK and bent double on itself. The knife fell from his grasp. He opened his mouth and sucked in a breath to scream. Cassie's right hand flashed out to backhand him across the face; I saw flecks of white glitter away from him in the dim light of the alley. Teeth. Without a pause, she pivoted and her right flashed back in the opposite direction, smashing his face in a vicious right cross. His face broke. She released his right arm. Cassie's left hand pistoned up, fingers curled inward, her palm blasting his forehead. He recoiled. Cassie's right hand flashed out, flattened into a knife edge that she chopped into his throat. There was a POP! as his eyes went wide. Cassie pivoted on her feet again, leaned in, and placed her left hand on the left side of the thug's forehead. Her right crossed this touch to grasp the right side of his jaw. There was no pause or effort. Cassie's hands flashed outward from this strange cross grip. The thug's head spun one way, then the other, much faster than seemed possible. There was a harsh, sharp report. CRACK! The thug slid to the ground in a liquid heap. No movement. No sound.

            Keep in mind this all happened, literally, in about two seconds. She had moved so fast she had been little more than a blur.

            The sounds made by her hands striking the young man were shockingly loud; too loud to seem real. I had seen plenty of bar fights before, trust me. A punch doesn't sound like they do in the movies. It's a flat, silly-sounding, light slapping sound. But not these. When Cassie hit the guy, it was LOUD. A heavy, concussive report;  it was filled with a meaty thudding sound. Like there was power in the blows.

            I've been in combat. I've taken enemy automatic weapons fire, and returned my fair share of it. I've dodged mortars. Defused land mines. I should be used to extreme situations. It's a fair statement to say that my reaction to what I saw stunned me. I hate to admit it. But it did. I froze. My brain literally shut down for a few moments as I took in what my rational thought process said was impossible.

            The thugs froze, too. They looked at the body of their friend lying on the concrete, and they didn't move.

            But Cassie did. Again, like she had expected it. In a few unhurried, even slow movements, she undid the belt of her overcoat, and slid it down from her shoulders. She shrugged it off her arms and gently tossed it to me.

            "Catch," she said simply.

            And then she stood there, in that black dress. She reached down below her knee and grasped the material in her fists. She pulled outward, and the material split in a tear straight up the seam, revealing the smoothness of her thigh. But her arms! When she had put pressure on the material, I had seen it. Her arms swelled visibly, becoming fuller, the musculature far more defined. Her shoulders went from normal, trim-looking shoulders to cut, and I mean, professional figure-fitness model cut, in a single movement. She straightened up to her full height (was she taller, now, somehow?), and squared her (and wider?) shoulders. I was at a complete loss; she had changed fundamentally in some way, but I was completely unable to describe how. She just looked...more.

            Thug #2 snapped out of it and charged her just as she straightened up. Again, she flashed into motion, nearly too fast for my vision to track her movements. She pivoted on a single foot, spinning in circle, her left foot rising, extended, in a picture-perfect spinning kick that struck the advancing thug squarely in the chest. I expected guy to grunt, to hear a loud SMACK when her blow struck home.

            What I didn't expect was the thick, meaty bass note of the BOOM when her foot whistled into its target. Nor did I expect the thug's body to rocket away from her extended leg; he didn't stagger back a step or two but instead flew backward as if shot from a gun; he rose in the air and sailed backward to slam into the alley wall thirty yards away. His body smashed into the wall a dozen feet off the ground with a cracking thud, rebounded, and smashed loudly into a pile of half-empty trash cans on the street below, where he came to rest without moving.

            If I hadn't already been frozen by shock, I would have been after seeing that. Her picture-perfect kick had blasted the guy farther than most people could throw a football. I mean, a full grown man, launched through the air like he had been shot from a cannon. Imagine it! I didn't have to; I had seen it with my own eyes.

            Thug 3, the behemoth, should have run. But he didn't. He moved around me and charged her. Again, her fists moved nearly to fast to see, and I heard one, two, three, four crunching, explosive impacts. The behemoth staggered, he seemed to sink into his shoes a bit. Cassie seized his huge right arm, spun him around, jerked the arm into an awkward position with a vicious tug. It broke with a resounding CRACK. Thug 3 didn't cry out, his eyes were glassy, I'm sure he didn't fully know who he was or what was happening at the moment. Cassie reached under his arm with her right hand, clamped her left into a wad of muscle at the base of the man's neck, and kicked out his knee with her left foot. Behemoth sank to his knees without a sound. I stood there, still frozen, unable to move. But then thought returned to my brain as I saw her look up into my face as she held him. She still wore that flat, predatory, terrifyingly blank expression.

            "Turn around," she said softly.

            Somehow, my mouth began working. "Cass-"

            "Do it. Now." she commanded.

            What could I do? Here I was, an ex-soldier in his physical prime, and I was both shocked and intimidated, and I think rightly so, by my slip of a girlfriend. I slowly turned on my heels and stopped to regard the far side of the street. There was no movement, no sound for a few seconds. And then...

            The gentle hiss of the movement of air. A thick, meaty crackle, a tearing sound. A single low, soft grunt, a quiet exclamation of "Huhhn!" in a male's voice. The sound of a large body collapsing. Silence. Then, a series of quick, tiny, frantic scratching, clawing motions. Jesus.

            He was twitching.

            I was wondering what to do or say next, when she spoke in my ear, close, little more than a whisper. I jumped; I hadn't heard her approach, not even in her high heels which should have clicked loudly on the concrete.

            "Don't move," she said softly, her voice still in that strange, scary flat tone.

            "Okay," I said, and began to turn anyway.

            She grabbed my left arm just above the elbow. Her fingers dug into the flesh like it was bread dough. My whole arm went numb instantly, then I felt a fiery pain trace its way from my elbow to my wrist as she twisted my arm, pulling it behind me and pushing up at the same time. I hissed in a breath and began to stammer an unintelligible "Yi yi yi," sound, and felt her grab my right shoulder in her right hand to steady me. She spoke low again, close to my left ear. I could feel the warmth of her breath.

            "I told you not to move," she said.

            "Okay, okay," I gasped. She twisted even harder, my God, her hands were like hydraulic steel clamps around me, I couldn't believe it. "Ow! ow, ow...Cassie...you're hurting me."

            "I know," she said, and I could hear the smile in her voice. She leaned even closer, and whispered, "Good." Then she kissed my ear softly, pulling on the lobe for a second with her lips. She paired this with an even harder twist of her hands, and I groaned again as her fingers bit into me. I was still in an utter state of confusion, but one thought was above all others.

            "Cassie...you...you killed those guys?" I said in a half-question.

            "Maybe," she answered, and my blood turned icy when she chuckled softly and added: "Probably."

            "Oh, Cassie, how..."

            "Did you like it?"

            "What?!" I nearly shouted back at her. She leaned closer, her lips against my ear, and whispered her question again.

            "Did you like it? Did you like watching me punish them?"

            My confusion began to mix with the dawning sense that maybe I was in some kind of danger here, maybe she was some kind of psycho, I don't know, I thought I knew her, and how was she able to do what she had done, how was she able to hold me like I was stuck in some iron clamp, and how--

            "What? No! How can you ask that? And how did you--"

            Her right hand left my shoulder and slid down my back, a pause, and then suddenly she reached around and cupped the mountainous bulge at my crotch. In my shock and surprise, I hadn't realized I was sporting the biggest hard-on in history. We're talking enormous. The Titanic. The Hindenburg. An Apollo rocket. Made of granite. She began massaging it through my khakis with her hand, the same hand that had just apparently killed three men.

            "Mmmm...I think you did," she said, and the smile in her voice was even more pronounced.

            "Cassie--" I began, and the rubbing of her right hand intensified, grew more powerful. It wasn't painful...yet.

            "Shut up," she commanded. "There's something we have to do now," she said, and stuck her tongue into my ear. And then we were moving.

            Or rather, she was moving, and I was trotting on my tip-toes to keep up with her. She kept her fearsome, impossible grip on my arm with her right hand as we walked, and I'm being serious when I say that I had a hard time keeping up. I was practically running, albeit awkwardly, considering her grip on my arm, but still....she didn't appear to be straining at all. The click of her heels were solid and even, her legs scissoring back and forth powerfully as she strode down the street, back in the direction we had come. Even her pace was impossible; she should have been running, given our haste. But she wasn't. Just her long, lean legs striding forward in a steady, purposeful pace. Her eyes swept the street, surveying, studying...intent. She was looking for something. No, more than that. She was hunting.

            After a few blocks, we passed under the dark green awning of the Fontainebleau, one of the snazziest hotels in town. Just as we reached the strip of red carpet that led from its brass doors to the street, she suddenly jerked me in another direction. She pushed me through the huge, slowly revolving door and suddenly we were in the lobby of the hotel.

            It was a huge expanse of dark green marble that reeked of money. Exotic plants in tasteful planters decorated the huge room; leather and oak furniture of a gigantic dimension was arranged around rugs that cost more than my family made in a year when I was a kid.

            I didn't get a chance to admire it long. Cassie's grip on my arm tightened even further - I was starting to wonder about the extended loss of blood circulation by now -- and she steered me over to the long, low counter that ran the length of the room. A young, dark-haired guy stepped forward, his hands resting on the inside countertop, his dark green jacket contrasting the stark pale shade of his face. "May I help you?" he asked as he stared down and the registry on his counter.

            Cassie changed her hold, subtly reaching around me with her right arm. She held me now in a half-hug, and crushed me into her tightly so I couldn't move. She traced her left index finger playfully along the front of my jacket. Her faced betrayed no effort as she held me in a grip stronger than any vice I'd ever seen. She smiled at the clerk winningly.

            "Hi there," she cooed. "We were hoping you had a room."

            "No, I'm sorry, we're totally booked--" he began, and then his vision came up from the desk and fixed on us. The kid's vision fell from me to Cassie, since she was speaking for us. And I saw it happen. He kind of...fell...into her vision. She smiled broadly at him, and I saw the kid's knees go weak.

            "You don't have anything?" she pouted.

            "Gee...no ma'am, I'm sorry."

            "Nuh....thing?" she asked, leaning forward, dress dipping. She was putting on a show.

            The clerk just shook his head, but his eyes were riveted to the perfect example of cleavage before him.

            Cassie reached out with her free left hand (her right still had a fearsome hold on my arm) and touched his hand. He actually jumped a little bit, as if she somehow shocked him. He looked at her, and he looked like a guy that's had one too many beers. She batted her eyes at him playfully.

            "Well...maybe...maybe I could..."

            "Yes," she said, smiling. "Could you?"

            He wobbled a bit, his head clearly spinning. he started typing on a keyboard, his eyes darting back and forth between Cassie and his computer screen. "There's a reservation for someone coming in later tonight," he explained. "But he's a corporate guest. A reservation made by my manager..."

            "Yes?" she asked, concern on her face.

            "But...I could say....well, here." He hit the delete key. "Without the expiration date of his credit card, I can't authorize the charges in advance....so, I guess I can't hold the room."

            "Awww, what a sweetie!" Cassie cooed, and leaned far over the desk to give the clerk a peck on the cheek, the whole while never letting go of my arm, which was now screaming in agony.

            The clerk's eyes actually closed, and for a second I thought he was going over. But then his eyes opened and he steadied a bit.

            "You're so sweet. Thank you."

            "Thanks...thanks. You too. You're the most...I...thanks," he stammered. "But...you should know...the only room left is the penthouse on the top floor. It's very pricey," he finished, holding out the electronic door key. "And on the 35th floor."

            Her hand stole into my back pocket and pulled out my wallet. "American Express?"

            "Sure," the clerk said.

            "Here you go," she said, and flipped him the entire wallet. "Amex, and register it to his name. His license....waittaminute."

            Cassie's brow furrowed in thought. The clerk paused, frowning, concerned for the spirits of  a woman he didn't even know.

            Cassie spoke again. "Can you put it under another name?"

            The clerk looked vaguely uncomfortable. "Look, I don't know if I should....if I--"

            "There's no trouble or anything," Cassie reassured him. "We just don't want...we don't want his wife finding out, you know?" she said, and playfully tweaked my arm until I faked a conspiratorial smile.

            "I...well...okay. I guess. But...but the actual charge will still show his real name."

            Cassie paused, only for a second. "That's all right. They won't find that for a couple of days, I think."

            "They?" I asked.

            She replied by gazing into my face, and her expression of mirth melted away. "Yes. They. Your wife and the man she hired. Right, darling?"

            Cassie twisted my arm a little, and I thought she might tear it off where we stood. I gasped a little and nodded.

            The clerk made a few selected keystrokes, paused, and nodded. "Well....okay, then. Enjoy your stay, Mr. and Mrs......Anderson."

            Cassie beamed her broadest, brightest smile at the clerk. "You are a complete doll," she cooed, and snatched the keycard from his outstretched hand. "I won't forget it."

            "Oh, it's nothing," he said, flushed, and I could see the beads of sweat on his brow.

            "Keep the wallet. We'll pick it up in the morning," she said, and pushed me toward the elevator.

            "Uhhh....okay," the clerk said, but we were already moving. We turned a right around the huge marble column containing the elevator, just as the doors were closing.

            Cassie finally released my arm, and gave me a shove in the center of my back. She only used one arm and didn't appear to put much into it, but I took flight just the same. I sailed into the elevator, slamming roughly into the far wall. She stepped in as the doors slid shut. I wondered why the doors didn't reopen, surely she had broken the little sensor, right? I didn't have much time to wonder, though, her left arm shot out to hold her palm against my chest. She slammed my back against the wall, and then she pressed. I mean, hard. Suddenly my feet were six inches off the ground, and I couldn't breathe. I grabbed her forearm, but it felt like I was grabbing at a stone statue. There was no give whatsoever. She looked up at me, her eyes narrowed, a slight smile on her face. I gagged loudly, and she pressed even harder. I whimpered a bit, and her smile widened. "Shhhh," she said, and pressed the floor number with her right.

            I got the same treatment when she opened the penthouse door. I was airborne again, and I landed on the huge brown leather couch in the middle of the room. The suite was amazing, the most incredible hotel room I'd ever seen, but I didn't have time to appreciate it. As soon as the door was closed, she was on me.

            I'm old fashioned, okay? I'm a bit of a prude, even. But I was asked to relate what happened, so I have to tell you. But...I'll try to sum it up without being too caught up in details.

            It was pathetic. She was like a cat playing with a mouse. My head was still spinning. I kept seeing flashes in my mind of what she had done. Three young, healthy men...nothing. Probably dead. Two of them, certainly. Her completely inhuman grip on  my arm. Making the clerk do a 180 by batting her eyes, and leaning in close to him...and what else? That smell? I swear, she was giving off a scent, one I could barely define, that clean, sweet smell....like flowers. Like freshly cut fruit...I smelled it now, that, combined with her touch, the look of her eyes...my God! My head was absolutely swimming. I can't describe it to you. I should have been horrified, and at some level I was, but on another level, I didn't care. All I wanted, all I could see, was her. The second she touched me on the couch, my body responded, it betrayed my emotions.

            She grabbed me and pulled me to my feet. Her hands grabbed the front of my coat and shirt and pulled, and to my already shocked mind there was yet more: her arms leapt into stark relief again. Her forearms flexed, her biceps bulged into shocking (though still feminine) mounds. She actually growled, like a cat, her expression a snarl, as the clothes on me tore away from my body like they were made of tissue paper. She curled a hand under my belt and tugged, I heard the buckle squeal in protest and felt it give. A similar motion and my pants were off, leaving me only in my socks. Another shove, and this time I tumbled backwards, the more ridiculous part of my anatomy standing out hugely from my form and wagging stupidly, through the doorway where I finally came to rest on the bed.

            Cassie strode into the same doorway, and stretched, her arms gripping the doorframe, her body rising up onto her toes. She looked at me lying there, her eyes traveling over my inert form, and she licked her lips, nearly drooling. A low noise, a half-purr, half-moan began deep in her chest, and she stepped forward, moving slowly, more gracefully than I have ever seen anyone move. She stepped out of her heels, but somehow, her height didn't seem to decrease. She shimmied this way and that, and the black dress fell away from her. My breath froze in my throat.

            This was the first time I had seen her, truly seen her. She had the best body I've ever seen. Easily. She was firm, and awesomely fit. The small bulges of her abs were clearly defined, tapering out to the gentle swing of her hips, likewise widening to the breadth and depth of her chest; breasts perfectly formed, standing out proudly from her chest, caps of defined, feminine muscle padding her shoulders. Her eyes, now smoky with desire, traveled up and down my body as I watched her come closer, a slow step at a time. Her movements were deliberate, fluid; she moved like a wild thing, like a panther. Then she smiled, sprang, and was on me. I don't know how else to say it.

            She raped me.

            By all reasonable measure, I shouldn't have wanted what happened to happen. I had seen her kill three men and entrance another. But I too was under whatever spell she was casting, and even if I had not wanted her more desperately than anything in this life, I could not have made her stop. She played with my body as she wanted. I'm a fit, full-grown man, yet my struggles beneath her were no more effective than if I had been a child. Her mouth on mine, her scarlet lips pressing against my own, her tongue in my mouth, darting, licking. Her breath in my ear. Her lips against my throat, and mine on hers. Then I would come to my senses and try to push her away; she would laugh, low and throaty, and effortlessly push my hands away. That night she used me as I had never been used before; it was nearly obscene. I ceased to be a man for a time, I was only a tool used for her own pleasure. With a seemingly limitless strength she would maneuver me into position after position, some seeming impossible given the limits of human anatomy; others, painful at times.

            And when she finally rolled me over onto my back, and with a fierce growl and thrust of her hips drove my full length into herself, I surrendered totally with no pretense. I came instantly, waves of pounding pleasuring radiating up my torso to spike into my brain. On and on it went, and I became aware that I was crying out, grunting with each second-long explosion coming from deep inside myself, gasping from the force of the orgasm. I looked above me, and saw Cassie's head thrown back in similar pleasure, her mouth open and gasping. I looked down her body as the feeling continued, my very toes seemed to be curling upward in a mixture of exquisite delight and pleasure. My eyes widened even further when I saw her midsection; the abs that had shown such amazing definition before were moving; they were crawling up and down her torso, her midsection positively rippled, and I could feel the grasping touch of strange, unknown muscles caressing me deep inside her, pulling me deeper and then forcing me back out, pulling the very seed from me as the waves of sensation went on and on.

            Here, my conscious, reasonable thought left me. I only remember dim fragments, and thank God for that. I remember my pounding, beating pulse beginning to sound in my own ears. I remember grunting out with the force of the orgasmic bliss that went with the experience. I remember Cassie above me, growling aloud in her own world of pleasure. And I remember that strange, wonderful, and somewhat frightening grip along my entire length; a pulsing, slick grip that simultaneously goaded each drop from me and bent me to its will. The normal ten or fifteen second limit to an orgasm came and went...now more...longer...pulsing on and on!

            I remember the pounding drumbeat of my pulse in my ear getting louder and louder...and mixed in with the exquisite sensation, a new concern: how long could a man's heart tolerate this? On and on it went, for 30 seconds....60....two full minutes....I began to thrash about, from pleasure so intense my synapses began to mistake it for mortal pain. Two and a half minutes...still it went on, her body pulling every drop, every breath from me...

            "Cassie!" I gasped. "Cassie.....uhhhhhh..."

            Her growl turned into a howl, an animalistic cry of triumph, and something in her seized me in a grip of steel. I screamed with what little breath I had; it felt as if someone had put my most delicate part into an iron clamp. Cassie's wail of triumph turned into a snarling laughter, and with a massive surge of muscular power, she spun the two of us over, never for a moment relinquishing her strange grip on me. Now we were in a classic missionary, and I actually heard a fleshy WHACK! as her feet met and snapped together behind me. A new feeling filled my sense; a crushing pressure on either side of my hips. I gagged from the monumental pressure her stone-hard legs were putting on me.

            "Ahhhh.....oh God! Cassie......I...." I cried out, but she merely moaned, and arched her back. I tried prying her legs from me, but it was no use. It was like trying to force apart steel jaws which had clamped shut around me.

            Then, the squeezing inner grip began again. My hips thrust forward, and back, in and out; yet it was not of my own doing. Cassie's own hips remained still as well. It was only whatever force was inside her, whatever strange array of inner muscle, that moved my entire form as if I were some oversized sex toy.

            "Wait...no! Cassie, I...." I gasped, but to no avail. Her laughter and turned back into that blood-chilling, cat-like growl. "Cassie!" I gasped, and was hit again by the pounding waves of an orgasm. On and on it went again, pulling from me every drop of fluid, every drop of energy I had...

            With an exhausted form of reasoning, I realized my vision was darkening. My pulse pounded in my ears, it was all I could hear. "Cassie," I heard myself mutter weakly, but it sounded far away and muffled. I realized my heart was skipping a beat....then two....then a whole stuttering number of them, taking away what little breath I still felt I had in my lungs...the crushing force of her legs constricting around me came again, but I didn't care. Something deep, way down in my lower abdomen, down by my hips...something deep there groaned in protest; I felt something shift, pop, and begin to give under the unimaginable force she was putting on my body. But I didn't care...Everything was fading, and I resigned myself to never waking up from the sleep she was crushing me into.

 

            But I did.

 

            The room swam into focus. It was still dark. A shaft of moonlight came in through the now open window, splashing itself across the foot of the bed. Across her bare shoulder. She was sitting on the edge of the foot of the bed, facing away from me, her legs drawn up so her knees met under her chin and her arms held her knees close.

            I went to sit up, but a sudden blast of pain from my tortured hips put me back into the pillows. I gasped, and sparks danced in my vision. "Cassie," I began, but the words stopped short in my mouth as I heard another sound, a softer sound. I frowned lightly in the darkened room, not at the pain in my abused body, not from the weak sound of my own voice, but because of this new, quiet, stark sound I could softly hear.

            She was crying.

 

 

V.

 

            "Damn it!" Carmine muttered, and he fingered the speakerphone on his desk again. "Bruno!" he shouted. There was no answer.

            There should have been. When Carmine Dugino called, people answered. Unless they wanted to find out what it was like at the bottom of the Hudson.

            "What is it, Boss?" his bodyguard, known only as Nicky F., asked from the shadows at the far end of the room. God bless him -- he would have taken a bullet for Carmine, but he was a moron if God ever made one.

            "What do you mean, what is it?" Carmine barked. "Nobody's answering the damn phone, is what. Eight morons on the payroll, and nobody wants to answer the fuckin' phone."

            Dugino's secret little townhouse was in Manhattan's East side, built into the rear of a commercial building that provided both cover for his underworld dealings and a mean pepperoni pizza for those late nights when dirty dealings left no time for a proper meal (and which Carmine Duglio could fairly be said to have had one too many of. At 46, he was about 30 lbs over his recommended weight. 'Well -- fuck it, he would have said. Life is for living. Gimme another slice'). It was quiet, it was secure, and most of all, it was fairly secret. Not too many people knew of Carmine's hideaway -- only a select few from his syndicate, his bookie, and the few girls he would call in from Rita, his madame. Hence, the call he was trying to make at the moment. All told, there were two metal gates off of an alley entrance (the only one), a steel door from a hallway, and five different rooms, about 3000 square feet's worth, all poured concrete walls, and then Carmine's private office way in the back. he liked the place because he felt safe there, like a bunker. When the end of the world came, Carmine knew where he would be headed.

            But right now he couldn't get anybody. Two staffers, and six of Nicky's boys for protection, including Bruno, Nicky's own brother.

            "What the blue fuck is going on?" Carmine roared, as he was not a patient man. "I got that meeting later, and Rita was supposed to--"

            He was interrupted by a loud knock on the heavy oak door to the office.

            "Jesus. Fuck. Bruno! Get your ass in here," he shouted over the loud lounge-style jazz music that still played on his custom stereo. The door swung about halfway open, and someone stepped through, but it sure wasn't Bruno.

            Long arm. Feminine. Body. Amazing. Long, lean legs. Brunette. And....Holeeeee--shit. Time to give Rita a raise, a BIG one. This chick was smoking hot, in a whole other league from what Carmine was used to seeing.

            She was a stunning brunette, tall, easily 5'9" or 5'10', shit, maybe more. Wide, athletic-looking shoulders. Amazing rack, stuffed into this tight little black dress that clung to her narrow middle and ended in a short -- way short -- skirt that bared every inch of her amazing legs. Her legs! Goddam! They went on for days. She wore some of those shiny black boots that Carmine liked so much, that went to just below her knee, on a long heel that made her calf muscle and lower thigh swell as she walked....and goddam if she wasn't the best lookin' woman Carmine had ever seen. Jesus!

            Nicky must have thought so, too. Carmine heard him cough from the shadows. Carmine made eye contact with him, and nodded toward the door. Nicky's enormous bulk rose, and he stared at the woman as he went out the door. Amazingly, he wasn't that much taller than she; odd, since he tended to dominate any room with just his huge physical presence.

            The woman stared him down with a strange little smirk on her face, all the way until Nicky was out and she turned to shut the door.

            Carmine's eyes were locked on the firm, rounded wonder that was her bottom. The minidress hugged every curve, leaving next to nothing to the imagination. She had already turned fully around to regard him before his eyes traveled back up to her face. She still wore that strange little cocky grin, scarlet lips raised to one side.

            "So," Carmine said, and stretched out in the leather recliner he used behind the huge, dark oak of his desk. "You're new."

            "Mmm-hmm," was all she replied.

            "Okay. Rita sent you?"

            Her grin widened. "You could say that."

            He smile back a bit. "Please," he said as he held out a hand before him, "have a seat."

            She positively slithered into the room, moving with a fluid grace that was both entrancing and a little strangely unnerving. She sank down into the overstuffed leather chair in front of his desk as if she weighed no more than a feather. Carmine shifted in his seat a little; just being this close to her...he felt himself growing aroused just by her presence. No little blue pill needed tonight, he thought. 

            "So....what's your name, beautiful?"

            "Angelique."

            "Pretty name."

            "Thank you."

            "Pretty like you."

            "Nice. You sweet talking me?"

            "No. Don't need to," Carmine said dismissively.

            "And why is that?" she asked, obviously not caring.

            "Because either way, this night is gonna end the same," he said, his eyes locking on her own.

            "Is that so?" she asked, her smile widening further, he eyebrows raised in amusement. "And how is that?'

            "With me fucking you," Carmine said flatly.

            She laughed out loud at that, and Carmine's demeanor faltered just a tiny little bit. He had had girls exhibit every kind of reaction to that, his standard declaration, but never had one simply laugh it off before.

            "My my," she purred. "Aren't you just the most romantic little thing?" she asked.

            "Get your ass over here," Carmine said, unzipping his pants to relieve some of the growing pressure there. "I've got a romantic thing for ya, but it ain't little."

            She rose gracefully and came closer, her hand on his shoulder as she sat on the edge of his desk...the smell of her combined with her proximity was too much, and he felt himself spring massively to life. She reached down and traced the bulge under his boxers with a single fingernail; she could see him tremble beneath her teasing touch. Her eyes met his as she leaned in close, and spoke as much to his anatomy as to him.

            "Hello there, precious," she said, and grinned as she leaned in closer.

 

 

            Goddam, was all Nicky could think. Goddam. Hope I get to be a big boss someday. For that fuckin' reason alone. Goddam.

            He walked down the short hall, past a series of doors, to step into a small office that served as a waiting room. Jesus Christ -- where the fuck was everybody?

            "Hey, where the fuck is everybody?" he said aloud. "Bruno? Guys?"

            He glanced into a couple of the rooms, but to no avail. He used his keys to open the small room across the hall, the surveillance room. Nobody here, either. he walked around the counter, but the chair was empty, the huge bank of black and white monitors displayed their images to no one. his brow knitted in slow, ponderous thought. Where the hell was everybody?

            As his poor excuse for brain matter did its best to examine the situation, his eyes traveled over the empty chair...the console...the glowing monitors....and it took him a minute to realize what he was seeing, far longer than a person of even average intelligence would have...but to his credit, his slow-moving mind did manage to put two and two together.

            Nicky plopped his huge frame down in the office chair, and his eyes began their rounds on the black and white monitors, the flickering images they displayed soaking through the muddle of his mind.

            Camera one: the outside gate in the alley. No one guarding it. And the iron grating that formed the perimeter? Nearly an inch thick, iron bars. And they were all bent. Bent and twisted, standing off in all different directions like they were made of nothing more than pipe cleaners.

            Camera 2: The iron gate just outside the door. Completely missing. Jagged pieces of metal hanging off where the hinges were supposed to be...like someone drove a truck straight through it...or tore the gate off.

            Camera 3: The two-inch solid steel door at the main entrance. Hanging awkwardly by the bottom hinge, the top third of the door peeled down like a limp banana skin, with big dings all over the front of it, making deep craters in the metal.

            Camera 4: Oh, boy. Oh, boy oh boy oh boy.

            There were three guys lying on the floor of the front office. One was sprawled against the desk, another was in the center of the frame. The last, to the right, was instantly familiar.

            "Bruno," Nicky breathed softly.

            His equally massive brother was lying on the floor, face turned toward the camera. his eyes were wide and glassy, his expression a frozen look of shock. Nicky stared at the image for a second, something about it wasn't right...then it occurred to him what was off about it: Bruno's limbs didn't match the angle of his body. His arms jutted out at weird, impossible angles, his lower left leg was hyperextended so badly it looked as if he had died trying to kick himself in the chest. His hips and entire midsection were tiny; they looked squashed, giving him an exaggerated, cartoony appearance.

            Nicky's heart began to thud heavily, his pulse beat in his ears. he swore in Italian and stood quickly, his hand producing a nickel-plated .45 from the holster under his arm. He turned and calmly headed back the way he had come, toward Carmine's office. Damned if they weren’t under attack, and by a whole squadron of goons. Probably Chelli's men, and...

            He paused, and threw open the door of one of the offices he had passed earlier. Here, the story was told in color. Three more men were stacked, lifeless, against the far wall. All along the left wall was a deep, thick crimson smear that ran the whole length of the room, ending at Joel's head, which looked oddly flattened as he lay on top of the other two hired guns.

            "Oh, fuck," Nicky muttered, and jumped when he heard the scream.

            The sound was short, fast, and male. It was strangely choked-off sounding, too. From down the hall. Carmine's office.

            Carmine.

            "Shit!" Nicky sprinted the length of the hall; his right foot raised up and smashed the heavy door open like it was made of paper; Nicky was a huge man and his progress didn't slow when he hit the door. It burst open with a shower of splinters, and he knew instantly two things: he was too late, and that he himself was as good as dead, too.

            Carmine was on top of this desk, his eyes staring skyward. His heels were beside his ears. His head rested on his buttocks. his entire midsection was a bright red from a great pressure and distention.

            Someone had folded Carmine Duglio in half, backwards.

            His arms were out, hands hooked into claws.  His tongue protruded from his mouth, probably from the pressure exerted on his torso. He was dead. Then came part two of the realization, the less pleasant one for the bodyguard known as Nicky F.

            He turned slightly to the left when he caught the flash of movement in his peripheral vision. But again, it was too late, and a part of his mind, the only quick-thinking part, the trained killer part of his mind, already processed it before it happened, before he truly saw the tall brunette step close to him from her position in the door's blind 'kill zone.'

            Whap! POP! Thud. CRACK! Wham. Unnngh!

            It took less than two seconds. WHAP: the brunette seized the wrist of his gun hand in her own grip. POP: her hand became an iron vise, his delicate wrist bones splintered instantly. He grimaced and dropped the heavy pistol, where it dropped to the floor with a THUD. CRACK: this fearsome woman with impossible strength rotated her grip up with a jerk, and Nicky's arm bent 90 degrees in the wrong direction -- his breath froze as his elbow broke with a startlingly loud report. WHAM: She kicked out his left knee, her leg powering down like a piston, demolishing his left knee as it bent in a direction it was never designed to go, and he fell to his knees with a thud and breathless, wordless cry. UNNNGH: In her final movement, the brunette placed two extended fingers against his throat, just in front of and under his left ear, and with a shockingly muscular burst from her upper body, drove them deep into his neck.

            "Gurk!" he hiccupped, and heard the meaty crackle as something that felt vitally important inside of him broke and tore in an irreparable fashion. He started to topple to the right as she released him.

            Two seconds. An instant-long series of surgical strikes delivered by a tall, gorgeous brunette woman had reduced a huge, trained killer to a useless heap of dead flesh before he could even cry out. Wow, she's really good, Nicky had time to think before his vision darkened. He was dead before he hit the floor. 

 

VI

 

Resource file: RF920758

(continued)

 

                She was crying.

            I don't know what kind of condition my mind was in after everything through. Probably not Very solid. But I sure knew how my body felt.

            It reminded me of the kind of pain I had been in after I had been wounded in the military. not as severe, of course, but close. Damn! My legs were throbbing. My arm sang a high chorus of pain from where she had grabbed me in her steel grip. Hell, even my nether region felt sprained and abused. But my hips were the worst. The sides of my pelvis, upper thighs, and lower midsection...jeezus. It was like her legs had clamped me in an iron vise. I went to move, and a fresh pain stabbed out through my core. Yikes. That was going to be a long time healing, I thought.

            And yet, I heard her sob softly, and she was all I could think about.

            I dropped my legs off the side of the bed and spun around -- slowly, gingerly -- so I could stretch out and touch her shoulder. "Cassie?" I whispered.

            She jumped as if shocked a little, and turned her head to look at me. I could see the single, shining streak left on her cheek reflected in the moonlight, and dear God, even though she had waded through three attackers like they were children and nearly killed me in bed...my heart broke a little.

            "Cassie. What's....what's wrong?" She just snuffled a little and stared back at me. "Cass...tell me what's..."

            "I love you," she said.

            I batted my eyes in surprise. Of all things, this was not what I had expected. Up until a couple hours before, I had been convinced I loved her like I had no other, and to hear her say those words to me, first, would have made me the happiest guy on the planet. But now, it was odd. I still didn't know how she had done it, but she had nearly killed me -- some deep, unnamable sense told me that this was true. Yet, here she was, declaring her love...and being sad about it?

            "I...Cass, I don't under--"

            "I was supposed to kill you," she said softly, and her face wrinkled up in fresh anguish. I leaned forward further, ignoring the dull throb of protest from my hips, and held her close. She buried her head against my chest and I felt her shake softly for a time.

            She stayed there so long, I thought for a moment that she had fallen asleep. But finally she sat up a bit, wiped her eyes, and actually gave me a small peck on the cheek.

            "Thank you, Daniel," she said softly. I could see she was barely keeping it together, that she was doing all she could to not break down again...but things were so incredibly confused that I had to have someone -- anyone -- answer some questions right away. 

            "Cassie...I...I know it's probably not the time. But...I have to know...some things."

            She turned to look at me, and I could actually see her summon up some small reserve of emotional courage from deep inside herself. Seeing her be so brave gave me an odd sense of pride, and made me realize of some level that I did indeed still care for her as much as ever, even after the whirlwind of that night.

            "I know. Okay."

            "I need some answers about what happened. About what's still happening."

            "Yes. I'll tell you what I can," she said, looking into her lap. But at this, she looked up and her eyes bore into my own, the force of her gaze shocking, even in the dim moonlight. "But Daniel" -- she never called me Daniel, until now….it made me realize something was different, something had changed, fundamentally -- "you may not like what you hear. And if I tell you what you want to know...if I do...everything is going to change for you. Everything. And maybe not for the better. I won't be able to guarantee your safety. It...it may already be too late for that. There's a chance....a good one....that's you're going to wind up dead."

            "You're scaring me a little bit, Cassie," I told her.

            "Good. You should be. But not a little. A lot. If you knew what was coming, you'd be terrified."

            "Well, I'll just have to deal with that as it comes," I said. She nodded. She took in a deep breath, wiped her eyes and cheeks once more, sighed, and looked me straight in the eye.

            "All right then. Ask away."

            A series of images flashed through my mind, disjointed and rushed. The three street thugs. Cassie, tossing them around like dolls. The clerk at the desk. My own vision, growing darker as she basically crushed me unconscious. All whirled together into one huge, neon-flashing light of a question. I paused, exasperated, then asked the question the only way I knew how to phrase it.

            "Cassie...what are you?"

            She studied my face for a moment, as if rethinking her promise to tell me what I wanted to know. But then her eyes fixed on mine, and she made up her mind, and she spoke quickly, matter-of-factly, with no hesitation.

            "I'm an Amazon," she said.

 

VII

 

            It wasn't even 7 a.m. yet, and already FBI Special Agent Jennifer Carnes had a headache.

            And it was going to be one of those real humdingers, too. It started in the back of her head and threatened to crawl forward over the top of her skull, with its restless dull pounding. The headaches weren't new, she was getting used to them, but they did seem to be getting both stronger and more frequent lately.

            And now here she stood, standing over the corpse of one of New York's most notorious gangsters, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and the smoldering stub of a Marlboro in the other, coat open due to the unusual warmth of the spring day, one of the budding young stars of the Bureau.

            A little too 'budding,' maybe. Law degree by 23. A four year stint in the Army, tearing through OCS like few before her. Left a white hot military career (and a certain immediate promotion to captain) for a field agent position. Near the top of her class at Quantico. Well-liked. Told she was kind, upright, and funny. Most men found her to be attractive, medium height and build, brownish-red hair and all.

            But now she was in the trenches, trying to make a name for herself, and she was starting to butt heads with those above her, who resented her easy rise through the ranks. Easy to them, because they weren't there for the endless nights of academic cramming, or the missed vacations and parties, the missed fulfilling home life...the lack of kids, a husband, or even meaningful relationship.

            Jen sighed in frustration, took the last drag on her cig and put it out on her heel. She looked around for a second, realized she was at a crime scene, rolled her eyes at herself, and slipped the stub into her coat pocket.

            Nice. Walking ashtray, Great.

            Her cell phone rang, the simple, annoying bleep that it had come preprogrammed with.

            "Cripes, get a different ringtone," Nelson, the agent next to her muttered.

            "If I had time," Jan said and flipped the phone open. "Carnes."

            "Carnes?!" The voice on the other end of the line shouted. "So help me God, if you had anything to do with this, your ass is grass," her regional director barked in her ear. "We've been tailing Duglio for a year. A fucking year! And now this mess!"

            "I know."

            "And now...fuck!" the gruff voice of Regional Director Roger J. McCall stuttered to a stop. Jen could imagine him hustling out of his office to a waiting car, salt and pepper crewcut at attention, teeth mashing down on a cigar stub. "Jesus wept."

            "Yes," was all she could say in agreement.

            "I'm on my way, goddamn it. And so help me God, if you fuck up another crime scene, you're through. You didn't smoke in this one, did you?"

            Fuck.

            Jen closed her eyes as her silence gave her away and a fresh string of obscenities rang out from her cell phone. 

 

VIII

 

Resource file: RF920758

(continued)

 

            We didn't really talk as we dressed. I don't know where she went just after 6 a.m., or what store she could possible find open at that time of the morning...but Cassie left the room, seemingly only for a moment, but she returned dressed in a fashionable, tight-fitting dark blue sweater of thin, slightly fuzzy velvet-like material, form-hugging jeans, and black athletic sneakers. It was hardly a racy ensemble, but compared to what I was used to see her wearing, it was like she was suddenly very risqué.

            She also returned with some new clothes for me, since most of mine hadn't survived the night's festivities. A white cotton dress shirt and new khakis, socks and boxer briefs, all new and of the perfect fit.

            "How'd you know my size?"

            "Hmmm, not sure," she said as she began straightening up the room. "I've always had an eye for sizes and measurements."

            "Is that one of your superpowers?" I asked wryly.

            She glanced at me irritably. I was trying to use humor to smooth over a rough patch, like I normally do, but I guess it wasn't a good idea. She bent over to pick up the tall floor lamp that had fallen over during our ruckus the night before, and paused halfway up. She stood it in its corner, and slowly put her hand on top of the television, which peeked out of the open cabinet. She held her hand on top of it, head slightly turned in my direction, and I saw her expression darken a little more, just a bit, even though mostly her back was to me.

            "Did they find them yet?" she asked softly.

            "Cassie, I didn't--"

            "It's still warm. Did they find them?"

            I sighed. "No. Or, if they did, they're not saying anything." I wadded up my ruined shirt and jacket and let them drop into the wicker wastebasket by the bed.

            She turned to face me, her expression curiously blank. "You think I'm crazy."

            "No, I don't. Not at all."

            "It wasn't a question."

            Silence hung between us, much like the silence that had come after her so-called confession and the few small bits of information that had followed it. Information that was just so damn....wacky that I couldn't believe much of it. Not even after what I had seen -- and felt -- her do the night before. Hell, maybe she was a stuntwoman. A circus freak? Maybe a --

            "I'm not any of those things," she said, looking at me with maybe a twinge of sadness in her eyes.

            "Damn it! How do you do that?"

            "I don't know, she said, and shrugged, putting her hand in the front pockets of her jeans.

            "Are you reading my mind?"

            "No," she shook her head. "I just kind of...well, I get impressions. Like, ideas? Ideas about what you might be thinking? And when I put it together with the conversation, it isn't hard to figure it out."

            "And what am I thinking right now?"

            Her eyes fixed on mine. "That I'm crazy. Or, if not crazy, I'm just over the county line from it."

            "No, really, I'm n--"

            "...and also that you like the new outfit."

            "Huh?'

            "My face is up here," she said, her hands now in front of her chest, fingers pointing up. I hadn't even realized I was doing it, but damn if she didn't fill out the new clothes in an amazing way. Sure, her story about being part of a quasi-mystical female warrior race was crazier than a shithouse rat, but she sure had the body for it. My ribs and hips still ached as I remembered the power she had poured on not long before.

            "And now you're thinking about it again. Last night. What it was like."

            "Goddamn it! Knock that shit off!"

            "Sorry. Can't help it." she actually smiled a little at this, but the smile didn't last. "If I'm only crazy, how was I able to do it? What....what I did?"

            "I don't know."

            "Come on."

            "I said I don't know!"

            "What are you, 6'3'?"

            "Almost."

            "About 216?"

            "221. Quit it."

            "And you bench what...210? You're in pretty good shape. Benching, you max out at what, 250? 255?"

            This was getting weird again. "260," I replied, adding five pounds to my best lift ever. "So what's your point?"

            "I'm a 28 year old female, right? Five-nine. Maybe 130 pounds, right?"

            "I guess. I guess that's about right."

            "But I'm not," she said, and took a single step closer to me. I could see her chest rising and falling as she began taking deeper, fuller breaths. "Look."

            Her arms rose a little bit, and she sighed a little. She tilted her head back a couple of degrees, and then she...hold on. Waitasecond. What did she just do?

            "You look taller," I said stupidly.

            "I know," she said, her voice different. Huskier.

            Just for a second, there, I thought she...wait. Come on. What the hell was going on?

            "Wait...Cass. Stop. Hold on. What the hell? Are you...."

            The fuzzy blue of her sweater now seemed much tighter than it had even a moment ago. There was more of her pale skin visible at the end of the sleeves now, they now ended only halfway down her forearm. And her forearm! I could see creases of exceptional muscle tone there now, too. Her designer jeans, snug before, now looked far too tight, her thighs swelling outward slightly. I looked back at her face...and stopped. Her eyes had taken on a slightly glassy look that was all too familiar. I hesitated for a second. She seemed to almost be looking past me.

            "Back up, Daniel. take a step back....oh," she said, and lowered her arms to her sides again.

            "What? I don't--"

            "Get away from me!" she ordered, her voice full and stern. I danced back several steps quickly, nearly involuntarily. She closed her eyes, and took several deep, long breaths, holding the last one for a time before letting it out in a soft sigh....after a minute or so, she opened her eyes and looked at me from behind her blonde bangs with obvious shame.

            "I'm sorry, Daniel. I didn't mean to get...that way. But I had to show you. I think I may still have to."

            "What the hell is going on, Cassie?" I asked. I was slowly building up an anger, I was in the dark and I didn't like it much.

            "I told you, you just didn't want to believe it."

            "Cassie. Come on. Put yourself in my shoes, just for a sec--"

            "Damn it, Danny. I was almost six feet tall right there, I could feel it. And pushing 150, maybe 160 pounds."

            "Wait. You just fucking grew?"

            "Yeah, we do that."

            "Who?" I demanded.

            She was watching me strangely. "My sisters and I."

            "Damn it." I shook my head. "Listen, Cass, we're gonna have to do something here, we're going to have to go to the police. Something has happened here, and we have to get you some hel--"

            I didn't have the chance to finish my sentence. In a flash she stood before me; she had moved across the room in the blink of an eye, much faster than anyone should have been able move from a dead stop. Her right hand shot out and she grabbed the thick leather of my new belt in an underhanded grip. Without taking her eyes from mine, she pulled.

            No, she didn't. I take that back. She curled. She kept her left hand planted on her hip in the shape of a fist, and with her right, she pulled my entire bodyweight off the floor. I began swaying this way and that, so I reached out and grabbed her forearm with both of my hands to steady myself. It was like grabbing the limb of a marble statue.

            "Jeezus!" I gasped. "Cassie! What...what..."

            Her eyes never wavered. With no obvious sign of strain, she began curling my entire form. Up, down. Up, down. I lost count at a dozen reps. Her shoulder and arm swelled a bit, the feminine curve of her bicep now pushed the sweater's blue material out in a clearly defined mound of muscle of a very respectable size.

            She slowed down, and then held me out at arm's length. It was like I was dangling from the end of a steel construction crane; her arm never shook or wavered from the effort. There was the slightest hint of a lopsided grin forming on her face, and she slowly arched one eyebrow.

            "Well?" she asked.

            "Put me down," I said.

            The eyebrow went down and her expression darkened. "What?"

            "Put me down now....please."

            My feet met the floor with a soft thump as she let me drop. Already the enhanced mass of her arm and shoulder were fading; not that it was all that apparent in the first place.

            "Well?" was all she asked.

            "That didn't just happen," I stammered, and sat down on the bed. My head was spinning. I felt like I was now somewhat disconnected from reality, like I was stuck in some weird dream that I was waiting to end.

            "Unbelievable," Cassie spat, and I could clearly see she was irritated.

            "Hey, don't get all pissy at me. You can't just drop...something, I don't even know what, on my lap like this and expect me to just--"

            "You know, it's just like a man to ignore what his eyes tell him is true, and--"

            "--just accept what can't possibly......what?" I asked.

            "Hmmm?" she asked, suddenly looking nervous, glancing at me sideways beneath her blonde bangs.

            "What did you just say? About men?"

            "Huh?"

            "Don't play stupid, Cassie, you're no good at it. You just said something about men, and now...what are you?"

            "Listen, it's not like that. I...men are great. But the sisters..."

            "What, is it like a sorority? Huh? Some feminist thing? 'Cause if you--"

            "Come on," she barked, and pulled me to my feet -- none too gently, either.

            "Where we going?" I asked.

            "You still don't believe me," she said simply as she led me by the hand through the suite and into the hotel hallway. "So I'm gonna have to show you."

            "Where are you taking me?"

 

 

            She took me to the roof.

            "Cassie, get off of there," I said, my voice low, deadly serious in tone.

            Her sneakers were less than an inch from the edge of the building. She had led me through the halls of the hotel, searching for doors marked "Staff Only," finding a series of them unlocked...all except one. The last door, the one leading to the actual roof of the hotel was locked, a heavy steel door. She had shielded as much of the view from me as she could, but I could hear the high, squealing sound of tortured metal, and I saw the misshapen, waffled look of the handle when she pushed the door open. And I caught the faintest whiff of that flowery-clean, citrus smell just before the pale light of the breaking day flooded into the staircase. But then we were on the roof, and she was standing at the edge. Below us, I could see the loading docks where trucks delivered supplies to the hotel's rear entrance. The truck down there looked very, very small.

            "Cassie, please, honey. You don't have to prove anything."

            "It's okay, Danny. I'll be fine. It's actually fun. But listen. Just remember...coming back I'm going to have to be quick. It's early, so hopefully not many people are up yet. But still. Keep your eyes peeled," she said, pointing to the apartment high-rise that was on the opposite side of the alley from the hotel's rear entrance.

            "What?"

            "I'll be back in a minute," she said, smiled, and waved.

            And then she stepped off the roof of a 35-story hotel. She dropped down below my vision without a sound.

            "Cass!" I screamed, and started forward. My hips still ached, and my bad leg kind of crumpled a bit, and down onto the asphalt roof I went. I scrambled, panicked, to the side, my heart frozen in my chest. The stumble didn't slow me down much; three, maybe four seconds. I didn't want to look down. But I had to.

            I dragged myself up to the little elevated ledge of the building, fresh tears starting in my eyes, and no one will ever know the sheer force of will it took for me to turn my eyes toward the ground, where she would be laying in some strange, awkward position.

But she wasn't.

            Cassie stood in the middle of the alley, over 350 feet below me, with her face turned up in my direction. She waved when she saw me, and something deep inside me told me that she was smiling.

            I think it was that point when I finally arrived at the place at which she hoped I would get to. The point where I was done with the shock, the anger, the irritation. The point where I laid my previously firm assertions aside and was ready to listen, to really listen to what she was saying... and believe what she told me. So she didn't really need to do what she did next. But she did it anyway.

            After looking up and down the alley to make sure no one was standing around watching, she turned to face the apartment building. She took two quick steps forward and sprang up, arms raised skyward, in a strangely graceful and effortless leap.

            Except she jumped higher and farther than what was humanly possible.

            She rose as if catapulted, up and across the alley, where she landed, nimble, catlike, and nearly silently, on the apartment building's fire escape. It was with a foggy, numb kind of realization that I counted....one. Two...three. She was standing on the third floor fire escape landing. She looked around for observers, saw none, and then paused to wave at me once again. She stood, crouched down, and sprang toward me, up, and at the hotel. She sailed under my range of vision, limited as it was by the wall of the building. But after a moment, she flew back across the alley, arms and legs outstretched like the world's most agile dancer....except she was now MUCH closer to me. She landed much the same way on the iron catwalk, this time on the 12th or 13th floor.

            Back and forth, she continued these graceful and utterly impossible leaps before my very eyes. After only a few more seconds, she stood across from me, only two floors lower. She judged the distance, crouched, and sprang. Now that I had a better vantage point, I could see the real nature of her motion. What seemed delicate and graceful from above now looked fast and powerful up close. She rocketed across the alley toward me, hair ruffling in the wind created by her flight. She had misjudged her jump: she sailed over the hotel's ledge, over my head before her path peaked. She completed her impossible maneuver with a forward mid-air somersault. She tucked her head as her entire form whickered through the air, her feet coming to rest on the hotel's roof with barely a sound, her arms raised skyward. She turned to face me, her expression one of curiosity, her breathing fast as she gasped for breath.

            "Well?" she said between gasps, "Did I stick the landing?"

            My mouth opened, but no sound came out. I just stood there in shock. After a moment, I just closed my mouth again.

            She nodded. "Come on," she said, taking my hand once more. "Let's go back to the room. Somebody might have seen something. Besides, I'm hungry."

 

 

            She ate like a person that had been starving.

            I just sat there in stunned silence the entire time it took for room service to bring up a tray. And the time it took for her to devour her eggs. And then my plate of pancakes, after I shook my head at her obvious question. She would look at me with a concerned expression on her face, but silence reigned all the same. Then she ate the sausage. And the toast.

            Finally, she finished, and sat back from the dining table, her hunger satisfied at last. She sipped a glass of orange juice and stared at me over the edge of it.

            "So," she said.

            "So."

            "So you have questions, right?"

            "Millions of them."

            She glanced at the clock. "We'll let's start. We still have time."

            "Why are you so concerned with the time all of a sudden?"

            "I'll explain later. It'll make more sense later."

            Silence.

            "Well?"

            "I'm sorry..." I stammered. I just...I don't....I can't..."

            "Believe it?"

            "Yeah."

            She nodded. "I'm sure it's a shock."

            "A little bit."

            "Look, the easiest way to do this is for you to just fire away, and I'll answer what I can, and that way you can sort it out the best way for your own understanding."

            "Okay." I sighed, my mind spinning. I couldn't believe we were about to have this conversation. A part of me still refused the information, still refused to believe what I had seen.

            "It was real. You didn't imagine it."

            "Please don't do that anymore."

            She looked at her lap, ashamed. "I'm sorry. I can't help it. I don't mean to."

            "Okay," I said, "Let's have it. You said you were..."

            "An Amazon," she said, nodding. "Yeah."

            "That's what you call yourself?"

            "That what I am. Who we are."

            "There's more of you?"

            She nodded again. "Many. Lots."

            "How many?"

            "I don't know, we don't have a census bureau." 

            "Hey."

            "Sorry. I was just trying to be funny. I don't know how many, exactly. Many thousands, at least."

            "All women?"

            "Well, that's kind of the requirement."

            "That's impossible. The society wouldn't survive. How would you reproduce? Repopulate?"

            Cassie's expression darkened, and she fidgeted. "All right, okay. I promised you I would tell you everything. Right?"

            "Okay."

            "Well, some of it....a lot of it...is going to be very difficult for me to say. Harder for you to hear. A lot of it isn't pretty. And it all comes down to the reason I'm telling you this."

            "Which is what, exactly?"

            She looked up at me then, searching my face, and the anguished expression she wore broke my heart in two as I knew the answer before she spoke. "Because I love you. And I promise….I swear I will never hurt you again. Ever."

            I paused, and nodded.

            "Do you love me?" she asked. She seemed on the verge of tears, although she would never have admitted it.

            The entire crazy mess of the last 24 hours had confused me beyond my ability to comprehend, but I was shocked by the finality of my answer.

            "Yes. From the moment we met, I think. You scare me a little. A lot, actually, when I take last night into account." She didn't reply, so I went on. "But...it's almost like you weren't yourself. Like you were...another person. Someone you didn't really want to be, except for the short time you were in the moment. But yeah. Yeah, I love you."

            She smiled sadly at this, and we touched hands across the table, and left them there, clasped tightly for the duration of the conversation. "I thought as much. I hoped so," she said.

            "So I have to know. I have to know everything."

            She looked into my face searchingly, nodded, and began to speak.

 

IV

 

            Carnes couldn't believe it.

            The interior of the strip club was in shambles. Chairs lay smashed into pieces on the ground, tables were overturned, broken glass and broken mirrors made elegant designs in the industrial carpeting of the place like flecks of mica in a granite countertop. It was like a bomb had gone off in the place.

            And the bodies. Bodies everywhere.

            All of them prominent figures in the Duglio family. There were eleven of them in all, of all different rankings in the family hierarchy. But their endings had all been the same, each of them beaten to death with such force and brutality that even the most cynical field agent among them had a queasy stomach.

            Here, Anton Chigleise, 61, mafia don. His head was visibly caved in, as if it had been squeezed in a winepress like a grape.

            Billy "Golden Boy" Frechetti, 42, bodyguard, and at one time a golden gloves boxer. Two arms with multiple fractures, a spine twisted like a corkscrew.

            Timothy Fentonelli, 52, accountant. His body was found on the east side of the strip club's cavernous main room. And on the west side. And on the stage. And behind the bar.

            Burt "Finks" Walton, 30, bodyguard. The steel pole from the stage was tied around his torso like a ribbon on a Christmas present, except the knot was half as big around as Burt's torso was. Judging from the expression frozen on Burt's face forever, it had been an unpleasant way to go.

            And Tiny Tony Duglio himself, brother to the recently deceased Carmine, 32. In some ways he was the worst. His body was on its back, on top of a partially collapsed pool table, stripped naked. His midsection had been completely crushed; the skin was a shiny purple from the trauma and distention. His hips had been pulverized, the soft tissue damage enormous. His eyes stared at the green felt of the table: his head was twisted 180 degrees on the stump of his neck.

            Carnes blew out a breath as she reentered the room, leaving most of the smoke she exhaled in the outside air. Her eyes took in the scene around her as she made her way to the small changing rooms in the back of the building.

            Extravagant costumes hung on racks everywhere. The light was far too bright to be comfortable, Jen guessed it made it easier to apply make-up in the huge mirrors on the wall.

            Several agents crowded around the huge barber-style swivel chair in the center of the room. On it was Candy, she of the enormous boobs, bad perm, and slightly saggy abdomen 10 years past its stripper prime. She regarded them all -- Jen included -- with the same stupid, petulant stare she had worn two hours ago when they had pulled her from her bed and dragged her here.

            "Listen, I tell ya," she screeched in her nasal whine, "It's just like I said!"

            "Yeah, but the part where --"

            "Listen, ya goddamn creep! It's just like I said, these guys come in, Tiny and his whole crew, and I know, sometimes they get a little too much, ya know? Too much booze. Too many girls, you know, the whole thing. So me and Sophie and Peaches, we all clear out right away. We don't wanna be part of that whole scene again. Fuck that, no way. So we see em come in, and everybody clears out, I mean everybody."

            "No staff stayed once Duglio came in?" Jen asked. 

            "Just Bennie. Poor Bennie."

            "Bennie?" Jen asked, brow furrowed.

            "Benson Gortley. Bartender.....deceased," the agent beside Carnes muttered in her ear.

            "Yeah. Poor Bennie. He was such a sweetheart. This one time, he--"

            "Listen, once the Duglio family came in, there was nobody left in the club once you decided to leave?"

            "Right."

            "Not one person?"

            "Nope. Nobody besides Bennie."

            "Okay, then. Well, I suggest we--"

            "Bennie and Big Red."

            Jen stopped, and turned back to the worn-out looking woman sprawled in the chair before her. "Who?"

            "Big Red."

            "Who exactly, is Big Red?"

            "Big Red the dancer," Candy spat, as if the entire cadre of federal agents was too stupid to follow her simple logic. "You can't have a strip club without a stripper on the stage, can ya?"

            "So there was a woman in here when you left? A woman here when Duglio and his men entered?"

            "Fuck yeah, she had just gone on when they walked in. Bitch."

            "Okay, so there was a woman on stage. Obviously you didn't care for her?"

            "Fuck, no."

            Carnes nodded, mentally filing this away. "Why not?"

            "She was a bitch. I mean, class-A, 100% pure bitch. She treated all us girls like she was better than we were. Are. Whatever."

            "So...she was popular with the crowds, then?"

            "Well....yeah. She was new, ya know, and normally it takes a while for a new girl who's the hot new thing to build up a rep. But shit, she had only been here maybe a week, and she had em lining up. Weird."

            "Why is that weird, Candy?"

            "Cause she was so big," Candy said, frowning. "I mean, she was big."

            "You mean heavy? Fat?"

            "Shit, no, the opposite. She was jacked. I mean, she was ripped. She had arms, legs, ass, you name it. She had muscles on her muscles. And not in some, growing-a-beard steroid way, neither. She was all girl, for sure. But she had a six-pack; hell, an eight-pack. Big ol arms. Ass that wouldn't quit. And she could do this thing, she'd hold her arms out and she'd make her boobs bounce all around. I don't know how she did that. The guys loved that."

            "Okay..." Carnes said, not sure of what to say next. "But you didn't like her?"

            "Well...she was okay, I guess. A lot of the girls...I guess they were a little jealous, you know? I mean, she was in amazing shape. Amazing. Like, she could have been in the Olympics or something. And normally, girls get all freaky and sort of manly when they get like that. But not Red, she was all woman. Really hot. And she could move, fuck could she move. So yeah...I guess maybe I was a little jealous of the bitch. Even if she did kind of look down on us a little. Kind of full of herself."

            Jen hoped against hope and asked her next question. "You don't happen to know her real name, do you?"

            "Nah, I only knew her as Big Red. Cause of her hair. Huge head of dark red, really red hair."

            "So let me get this straight. She was here, in the club, when Duglio and his men came in, and everyone left?"

            "On the stage, yeah."

            "Did you speak to her?"

            "Yeah. I went up to the foot of the stage right before I left."

            Carnes nodded. "All right. Why? What did you say?"

            "I was trying to get her to get out with us. I could tell there was gonna be trouble."

            "And what did you say, exactly?"

            "Jeezus. I said, C'mon, let's get outta here, there's gonna be trouble. What do you think I said?"

            "How did she respond?"

            Candy's eyes flashed up to Jen's and paused there, concerned. "You know, it was weird."

            "How?"

            "Red wasn't worried. And after I left, I wasn't worried for her anymore."

            "What did she say?"

            Candy's vision held Jen's own. "She kind of crouched there to talk to me, and when I asked her to go, she kind of glanced up to where the high rollers had come in and squatted."

            "And?"

            "And she smiled," Candy said, and shivered. "She fuckin grinned, like she was expectin’

it. And she says, 'Don't worry ‘bout me, babe, I got this.'"

            Jen frowned. "Okay...that's a strange reaction."

            "Don't you fuckin' know it. And I gotta tell ya...that look on her face..." Candy shivered visibly once more. "If you could have seen her face...that look. Tell ya the truth: when I left, I was more worried for them than I was for her."

 

X

 

Resource file: RF920758

(continued)

 

 

            First, you have to forget most of what you think of when you hear the word 'Amazon.' What's the first thing you think of?

            Great big huge women.

            Right, that's mostly wrong. Mostly. What's next?

            Umm....Wonder Woman?

            Right. Forget that too. Well, most of it. That's actually a really irritating case for us, really. There basically was a leak back in the '40s, and for a time our actual physical existence was almost discovered. A lot of information came out with the invention of the whole Wonder Woman world, and some of it came too close for comfort. But we managed to convince everyone it was simple fantasy. Kind of like the vampire - Stoker thing.

            Okay. Wait....are you telling me that vampires are real?

            Shit.

            Vampires are real?

            This isn't going well.

            I can't believe this.

            Which is actually our strongest weapon when it comes to keeping our true existence a secret. Our greatest blessing is the ego of mankind.

            How?

            Because it's impossible for mankind...humankind...to accept the idea of anything, or anyone, being its superior.

            You think you're superior?

            As a species, as a race? Yes. Absolutely. That's the cornerstone of Amazon culture. Superiority. But culturally? Me? I don't know. I don't think so. No, I suppose.

            You're different than most Amazons?

            Yes. For a couple of reasons that I'll get to in a minute.

            Where are you from?

            I'm from Ohio.

            Amazons are from Ohio?

            Okay, maybe we'll get to it right now. Here we go...Amazons aren't part of this world. Not naturally. There are probably physics to it -- I don't know them, we're not really a scientific civilization -- but the short of it is, that there are many different dimensions, and doorways between them.

            Um. Okay.

            You with me so far?

            You just fell off a 35 story building and jumped back up to the top. I kind of have to take you at your word.

            I didn't fall. Not exactly.

            Uh.....okay. So you....wait. Oh, God. Don't tell me. No. It's impossible.

            I know it's hard to believe. But you have to ask.

            I can't believe I'm going to say it.

            Say it.

            You...you can fly?

            No.

            Then how--?

            Not exactly flying, no. Amazons can't....propel themselves, the way Superman does in the comic books. So it's not really flight. It's more...uh...it has to do with air, and sometimes wind. It's more like...like gliding. Yeah. Gliding. We can steer, and determine direction, but it's not like, 'I'm going to Tulsa -- zoom.'

            You glided down for a landing? Just now? Outside?

            Yeah. Side to side, kind of like a feather. It's a thing we can do. It's almost like a controlled fall, if you get me. Especially if there's wind. Without a breeze, it gets a little rough. It makes for a pretty hard landing when we can only use stagnant air to slow down.

            What if it's breezy? Really windy?

            If it's windy enough, we can actually climb. Go up, not down. And once we can get aloft, I mean, high up, there's plenty of wind currents to keep us up there.

            How long can you do this?

            It's hard to say. It comes down to the individual. You have to remain relaxed, yet at the same time maintain perfect balance at your core. It's difficult. Some sisters almost never get off the ground. Some can stay up there almost indefinitely.

            What about you?

            I'm not very good at it. I can't climb at all, under any circumstances. I can only drop -- and pretty fast at that. Landings usually hurt. For reasons I'll get to in a second. It's something we practice, back where I'm from. The dimension I came from.

            All right. So there's different dimensions. How many?'        

            No one knows. Maybe limitless. We've explored as many of them as we can. Some of them are quite beautiful, peaceful. Others...others aren't. And some...

            Yeah?

            Some of them we...they....conquered. Enslaved. Burned. Destroyed.

            Destroyed?

            Utterly. Totally.

            So...Amazons are warriors after all?

            You have no idea. Imagine the most gung-ho, militaristic civilization on the planet, and multiply by a hundred. By a thousand. Ten thousand. Fighting, and war, and conquest...this is the basis for Amazon culture. You know the Klingons on that Star Trek show?

            Um. Maybe a little.

            They're like, super-warrior types?

            Yeah.

            They wouldn't last a day where I come from. Hell, they'd be dead in an hour. Minutes. Amazons go to war over the drop of a hat. Quick to anger, and they relish in battle and blood.

            Jeez. Okay. But aren't those male traits? Stereotypical, sure, but male traits, usually?

            I suppose. In this dimension. Rules don't always apply from one dimension to another. From there to here. And vice versa.

            What's it like there? The Amazon dimension?

            Well, it's beautiful, for one thing. And that's one concept that got out with the Wonder Woman thing -- it's mostly islands. Very Mediterranean-looking. Warm. Tropical. Lush -- like Tuscany, I suppose. Parts of Greece. Corsica. With clear water the color of light blue, light emerald green, like the Bahamas. Mountainous islands. Waterfalls, tropical forests. It's beautiful. It really is.

            You miss it.

            In a way. I have been away for a long time. Decades.

            Yeah, well, I....waittaminute. Decades?

            Yes.

            But you're only 28...

            Time also moves differently between dimensions.

            Okay.

            Sometimes, a decade in one place is only a single day in another.

            So....so how old are you, in terms of here? In terms of this world?

            Uh...well. I...Let's just say...I look good for my age. And with you added to my personal life...I guess I'm officially a 'cougar.' A few times over.

            I always liked older women.

            Are you being funny on purpose?

            It's how I deal.

            So you must find this pretty entertaining.

            Hysterical.

            What else do you want to know?

            What's your home called?

            Again, that's another one that guy got right. It's called Themiscyra.

            How big is it? Your home?

            Small. Much smaller than the world of this dimension. But that's the thing. That's why I'm here. Why we're....why they're here.

            There's more of you here?

            Listen, this is important. This world, your world; it's bigger than most other worlds. Far bigger. Some dimensions are only a few feet across, I'm serious. Others, maybe the size of a state. I'm not the most well traveled among the sisters, but I'd guess Themiscyra is about as big as Alabama or Georgia, spread out as a couple dozen islands. But here! My Goddess! The size, the scope of the Earth here is mind boggling. It's really amazing.

            After seeing you do what you can do...the hear you say anything is mind-boggling is a little ironic.

            I suppose it would be. But that's why they're here.

            Why?

            Space. Resources. Scope. You have it. And they want it. And they have watched your science progress, your weaponry, and your technical advances have them concerned.

            Concerned?

            (nods) Yes. We...they...are worried that they won't be able to use this dimension as they have in the past, for resources, as they have...mostly undetected...in the past.

            So...you guys aren't here with a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift basket.

            No.

            I was afraid of that. How did you get here?

            Magic.

            Knock it off.

            I'm sorry, I'm serious. There are Amazon clerics that can open a doorway between dimensions. They're never very big, usually only a few feet across, and they don't last long, and they're hard to create. But that's how we...they can move between them.

            Why do you keep doing that?

            What?

            You keep changing it to 'they.' Aren't you one of them?

            (Sigh) Yes. And also no.

            Explain that, please.

            All right. yes, I am of the Amazon world. Of their culture. Of their blood, now. Of their rites and religion. But I am of human birth. Of this world.

            What? How does that work?

            I was young, little more than a child. I was...adopted by an Amazon regiment, a war party, and taken back to Themiscyra with them.

            From Ohio?

            And traveling through what's Wyoming, now, I think. My family was traveling west, and we were beset by natives.

            Wait. Natives?

            I told you, here, I'm much older than you are.

            Wait, Natives? Like, Native Americans?       

            Indians. Yeah. We called them redskins.

            Wait, you were in some fucking wagon train?

            A small one. An unlucky one.

            Oh, my God. Oh, boy. Are you serious?

            I told you that some of this would be difficult for you.

            Oh, fuck me. Goddamn. (pause) All right. Go on.

            We were set upon by a tribe of Indians. I think they were Lakota Sioux, if I remember correctly. I can't be sure, I was still very young. No older than 7 years.

            When?

            Daniel...

            What year, Cassie?

            1874.

            Oh, shit. Oh....oh shit. (pause)

            Do you need a minute? Are you going to be sick?

            No..(pause). No. Jeezus. I'm sorry, Cass...but...Jeezus. This is like a dream. Some weird, fucked-up dream.

            I'm sure it is.

            Go on, please.

            The natives swept down upon us at sunset, hundreds of them, killing all but a few of the women and children and a couple of teens. Those, they meant to take as their own. Odd, since this is one way we Amazons maintain and refresh our numbers as well. Anyway, it wasn't long after the slaughter stopped that another one began. A doorway formed, and about half a regiment of Amazons poured out of it, materializing around the night fires of the native tribe. It wasn't much of a fight.

            A regiment of Amazons?

            Half a regiment.

            How many is that?

            Ten.

            Wait. Ten? Ten women wiped out, what did you say? Hundreds of Indians? Ten women?

            No. Not ten women. Ten Amazons. It wasn't even a battle. It was barely a skirmish.

            Jeezus.

            I told you. Power, conquest, and battle. The Amazon code. There's nothing, no one in this dimension that can rival the blood lust of a battle-ready Amazon, let alone nearly a dozen of them. So it was over nearly before it began, and the sisters rounded up the survivors of my party. There were about 20 of us, mostly children. A dozen girls, eight or 9 boys. A handful of adult women.

            And you were all taken back to...to Themiscrya? (pause) Cassie? Cassie? What's wrong?  

            No.

            Cassie? What do you....oh, no. What do you mean? What happened?

            The sisters....they...they did their duty by the Amazon code.

            What did they do?

            What they had to.

            What did they do?!

            They...took the adult women, first. So they wouldn't have to....so they wouldn't have to see. They made it as easy as they could. They made it quick. There's a protocol, a procedure.

            Oh, God.

            ...there's a spot (indicating the back of the neck)...with the right pressure, it's instantaneous and nearly painless.

            God...

            They weren't happy about it! Believe me. The sisters wept as they did it, but after a certain age, the human body and mind are too rigid, too fully formed to accept the rites and procedures that can enhance it to an Amazon form. And anything less is an imperfect being, even if it is a female. (pause) So the adult women were first. It was quick, it was merciful. But then...the boys...(pause) that was not so quick. It was not merciful. And it is not so easy to forget.

            Oh, Cassie...

            They drew straws, Danny. They had to choose among themselves who would be the ones to kill the fragile young males. It was an honor, one they all desperately wanted. Even at 7, I was shocked by it. Maybe that's why I'm....I'm the way I am. Different.

            Cass.

            They killed them, Danny! They murdered them. Swung them like clubs, dashing their heads on the ground, shattering their little frail bodies. One after another, taking their time, the way a child would pull the wings off a fly! (pause, weeping) And the oldest male survivor...Gods! He was still young, 12? 13? No older than 13 or 14. The things they did to him.... (pause, weeping) it...oh, forgive me!

            Cassie, stop. Please.

            It was like you. Like you, last night. Only not so pleasant.

            Pleasant?

            You're still here to talk about it, aren't you? You might not be, if I wasn't...if I didn't feel the way I do about you.

            Cassie, come on.

            There have been others not so lucky.

            (a long period of silence)

            All right. Go on.

            They used him, as is they are wont to do. And when they had finished...there...there wasn't much left of him. (weeps)

            Cassie, don't cry.

            (pause, extended)

            The sisters traveled back to Themiscyra, taking the dozen or so young girls with them. Me, among them. And we each became one of their number, in time. Even me.

            So...you're actually...normal? You started your life as...

            A human?

            I guess.

            Yes. And that's probably technically correct. Like I said, I'm not a scientist, and I haven't seen the Amazon genetic code mapped out recently. But I have a theory. I think Amazons and what you think of as a normal human are very close, in a technical sense. After all, they can conceive together. But there are differences. Huge ones. I think Amazons are probably genetic cousins to 'normal' humans. But with some big differences.

            What you can do...I couldn't believe my eyes.

            (nods)

            If you're human to start, how can you do things like that?

            I'm not human, not anymore, not in the truest sense of the word. I was young enough, just barely, to warrant being kept alive and taken back to Themiscyra with them. It's a long process, and continues for years. I was fifteen before I had completed my Becoming.

            What?

            That's what they call it. The process. It's called 'Becoming.' At fifteen, an Amazon is deemed ready to participate in all manner of society, and is drafted to take part in military campaigns.

            15?

            (nods)

            In battle?

            Trust me...you don't want to meet a 15-year-old Amazon who feels she has something to prove. You're going to have a very bad day once she gets a hold of you.

            So 15 is the end of the training?

            Yes. But Amazon law requires she has to wait until 18 to mate.

            Sounds familiar.

            Umm..strange how that works out. Here, it's a maturity, become-an-adult thing. With Amazons, I think it's a way to weed out the poor soldiers. Bad soldiers die young. Those that are strong enough to survive get to reproduce.

            Oh, jeez. That's pretty vacant.

            It is what it is. But they have to finish the process of Becoming to even get that far.

            What exactly is the process? What does it involve?

            There's education. Schooling. But not like here. Schooling in a natural sense. Again, science? Not so much. Amazon culture is Earth-centered. Based on the land. It's very different, more sustainable, I suspect, because in the long run there's no negative consequences from what you'd call development. Amazons still live in stone homes. Some even live in huts. Elegant ones, sure, but huts all the same. There's no need to advance or change the behavior.

            Why not?

            Mankind used to live in castles. Cold, drafty. People got sick. Died. So mankind moved on to wood frame homes, and central heat.

            Okay.

            Well, Amazons don't get sick. They don't get colds. They almost never, ever die of natural causes. When an Amazon ages, she is expected to lead a war party and die in battle. Anything less would be a disgrace. So if we were walking around Themiscyra right now, you wouldn't see many women you would consider 'old,' even though they really were ancient by your standards.

            So how old in the Amazon retirement age?

            By your measurement, they'd appear to be in their mid-50s, maybe.

            But by your timeline?

            Old. Hundreds of years.

            Centuries?

            Many of them. Several. 

            Wow.

            Yeah.

            If I could bottle whatever they have, I'd make a mint selling it to Oil of Olay.

            Sure. But there wouldn't be anybody left to admire the new, youthful warrior-women.

            Point taken. (pause) So, schooling, hmm?

            Yes. About the culture. The Earth. Their history. (pause)

            And?

            And other things not so pleasant.

            Fighting?

            You have no idea.

            So, an Amazon elementary school is like boot camp?

            I'd say more like, umm, middle school. Early on, the girls are allowed to be silly and just enjoy being alive. It isn't until their 6th year that they begin their training. And every three years, there's a series of religious ceremonies they must complete, performed by the Amazon church. At 6, 9, 12, and the final one at 15 years.

            You said you barely made it at age 7?

            Yes, if an outsider doesn't begin by age 8...if she's older than that, she'd meet the same fate as the mothers of my wagon train. Amazon law says that the 8th birthday is the cutoff.

            Why 8?

            I'm not sure.

            So what do these...ceremonies....do, exactly?

            It's a mark of progression. Think of them as a form of...well, graduation. And the final one, at 15, marks her passage into womanhood. Of course, the way time moves between dimensions, sometimes backwards, sometimes forwards....it's hard to say. Time isn't quite the linear constant you might like it to be.

            But the ceremonies...

            They're tests, like mid-term exams. And the religious proceedings endow the student with successive levels of ability. Of strength. Power.

            From where?

            From the gods of the ancients. Demeter. Hera. Athena.

            Cassie, the gods don't exist. They were just stories.

            You mean, here. In this dimension.

            Uhh...

            In Themiscyra's dimension, they are very real. Well, were real. They no longer walk the Earth, but their spirit, their power, still does. I don't understand the particulars behind it, I'm not sure that even the priestesses that conduct the ceremony do...but somehow the power of those ancient ones is transferred to each Amazon, in stages.

            You're shitting me. Gods?

            Yes.

            What about God? I mean, you know, God, the singular?

            The Christian God? He may exist. Or, as I like to think, She may exist. But if She does, it means She created all worlds, all dimensions, including Themiscrya and the deities there, as well.

            Jeez. Okay. So, the transference. You had them, right? Given? To you. You had them, right....transferred? That's how...

            Yes.

            What was it like? The ceremony?

            It was...incredible. The feeling of all that power, all that knowledge...just blasting down into my body, my mind. It's beyond description. The overwhelming surge of...everything. It's beyond consciousness. Beyond sex. It's everything. It's like...it's like being born. Trying to describe it is pointless. No words could possibly begin to describe it.

            So...what did you gain, when it was over? The ceremonies, the training? What do you have that people, human people, don't?

            You've seen it. Well, some of it.

            Yeah, it was pretty fucking scary.

            Please don't.

            (pause) I'm sorry. It's not you who was scary, it was...

            Don't lie. (pause) You were right to be frightened by it. So am I. But I can't control it. But I'm trying. I have to. Soon, it will make all the difference.

            So...what can you do? What...what differences do you have?

            (sigh, pause) Well. I'm obviously stronger than a normal human female. Or male, for that matter. Much, much stronger.

            I believe it. But how much, exactly? I need a reference, something I can gauge...

            I don't know, I don't know if there is one figure I can give you.

            You picked me up with one arm. You friggin' curled my body weight. (nod in reply) And it didn't even phase you.

            No.

            So, how much could you do? How strong are you? As much as two people? Three?

            No. More. More than that.

            Five?

            Uh...maybe more...more like...30.

            The strength of 30 people?!

            At least. Probably more, if I had to guess. 40, maybe.

            40. Christ. Wait...I can't even imagine...hold on. How much weight could a person, a human person, pick up and hold over their head?

            You'd know better than I would.

            Okay, say...say maybe 150 pounds. Wait, let's be conservative and say 100 lbs.

            All right.

            You could lift 40 times that amount?

            Yes.

            That's 4,000 pounds!

            Yes.

            That's most cars. You could pick up a car? A car?! And hold it over your head?!

            Then definitely, yes.

            What do you mean?

            Yes, I know I could, because I've done it.

            Seriously.

            Yes. And quite a long time ago. I was much younger. I might be able to manage more now.

            Jesus. I can't...oh, Christ.

            I know it must be hard to accept. Being a man, and all.

            What do you mean?

            I know how it is. In this world. This male-dominated world. Hunter-gatherers. Men make the wars. They do the fighting, the protecting. It's quite a blow to be confronted with the kind of strength we're talking about....especially if it's in female form. A woman.

            Hey, I don't....I don't....okay. Maybe. Maybe that's part of it. But I'm also working on the idea of trying to accept that superheroes....heroines, I guess, are real.

            Don't make that mistake. Amazons are real enough. But they aren't Wonder Women. They aren't heroic at all.

            But...40 times! Jeez. (pause) Okay. What else? What did you learn, or...were given?

            (pause) Well. There's a difference between strength and power. I...we are given the knowledge of each, and the ability to use it in combat. In Amazon culture, everything revolves around power. Around conquest. Around battle. And we're given knowledge of battle, of the skills necessary to conquer.

            Military-type stuff.

            Partially. But more on the physical side.

            Physical combat?

            Yes.

            Like, with weapons?

            Sometimes. There are a few traditional Amazon weapons. Usually very simple. The staff. The javelin. Bows and arrows. Swords and shields. But that's about it. An Amazon, left to her own devices, will almost always ignore weaponry and opt for physical, hand-to-hand combat.

            Hand-to-hand?

            Yes.

            Like, what? Karate? Kung fu?

            (smiles) Sorry. I've been in this world for quite some time. I know the words, the ideas you refer to. But trust me. You have no idea what an Amazon martial art is. You just don't.

            What do you mean?

            It's perfect. An Amazon, a full-blooded Amazon, engaged in physical combat, is a beautiful thing to behold, if you're on the right side of the conflict. She has beauty, superior grace and skill, and more power than you could imagine. An Amazon martial art is like poetry in motion; a mixture of dance, aggression, and conquest, and each blow is a killing strike. It's really something to see.

             I know.

            Hmm?

            I've seen it.

            What? When? Oh...No. No, you haven't.

            What do you mean?

            I'm not full-blooded, remember? There's a limit to what could be done to my mind, my body. I'm enhanced, but I'm not a true Amazon by any means.

            Wait...

            I'm a kind of…half-breed.

            Hold on....are you saying that a true Amazon, a full-blooded Amazon...are you saying they're somehow...more, everything, than you?

            Yes.

            How?

            They're faster. Stronger. More efficient killers.

            Baby, you're pretty good.

            They're better. Believe me.

            How much?

            Again, I can't say for sure. there's a huge range of Amazon ability, due to the way they reproduce and the genetics behind it.

            How much stronger?

            (sigh) A lot.

            Give me a number. Compared to a human.

            I don't know. (sighs) Many dozens. A hundred?

            A hundred times stronger?

            Maybe. Probably. On average, maybe? Some, the smaller ones, maybe a little less. Others, more. There are some Amazons, not many, but some that fit the first image you imagined -- huge, hulking women, bulging with muscle. The probably have the strength of...I don't know, several hundred men. Others, the priestesses, for instance. They tend to be tall and lithe, like dancers. They might only have my own level, or maybe only slightly more. 

            Holy shit. 200 times. Wait....hold on. That's like lifting...five or six cars. Oh...oh shit. Are you serious? An Amazon woman can lift five or six cars? 20,000 fucking pounds?!

            With the right leverage, yeah, some might be capable of that. Sure. Maybe more. 

            And this fighting ability you're talking about? Just, how do you mean?

            I really can't describe it, or guess at it. I...

            But you've seen it, right? Tell me some things you've seen.

            I'd rather not. I just ate.

            Oh. (pause)

            Look. I know this is probably blowing your mind right now. Just trust me on this. Amazons are incredible creatures, by this world's standards, yes. Just one of them, just one Amazon, alone, unarmed....she probably could have altered the course of your history, had she wanted. Bunker Hill? Tet Offensive? Troy? Who knows, maybe an Amazon could have turned the tide of all those battles, alone. They've certainly dabbled in your history from time to time, you just didn't know it.

            What?

            You have no idea how long they've been among you. Trust me on this.

            Seriously?

            Yeah.

            But...

            All the weird things that have happened throughout history? The battles that turned for no good reason? Against huge odds? Yeah. But the main one is the disappearances.

            Disappearances?

            Yeah. One here, one there. You know, guy goes out walking in the woods and nobody ever sees him again. They never find a body. That kind of thing.

            Okay. What about it?

            Well, one at a time brings a lot less attention than a whole village. And when you add up the single disappearances together, it's a huge number.

            So what are they taken for?

            (pause) We're talking about Amazons, remember?

            Yeah, so? I don't see what....wait. Okay.

            Yeah. For repopulation.

            Okay....wow. But...but you said older Amazons go off to die in combat. They can be killed?

            Absolutely. An Amazon is a incredible combat machine, granted. Fast, strong, agile. Superhuman in most senses of the word in this dimension. But it's not like they're like...uh...invulnerable.

            So what can kill them?

            Anything that can kill a human. It's similar. An Amazon can be shot. Stabbed. Blown up. Burned. It's all similar.

            But not exact.

            No. Amazons are far tougher. Far harder to kill. Remember how I...grew, a while back? How I got a little more...pumped up?    

            Oh, yes.

            That's the first step of an Amazon battle rage. She'll get all amped up, she'll get strong, really strong, and her body will toughen, it'll...harden. I've seen arrows deflected off of Amazon flesh when they're in this mode, barely drawing blood. You can shoot an Amazon, and kill her, but it better be a high powered slug and she better not see it coming.

            Why?

            That's another thing the comic got right, those bastards. Amazons almost always wear bracelets, or long gauntlets into battle. If they can see it coming, an Amazon can move just fast enough to deflect a bullet. Sometimes, more.

            Seriously?

            Yes.

            Can you do that?

            Yeah. But not really well. I can do maybe five or six rounds, but not if they're fired very rapidly. Some sisters are better than others. Once, years ago, I saw a North Vietnamese soldier empty his AK47 magazine point blank at my squad leader, an Amazon named Camilla. She was amazing -- her arms became a blur and she deflected everything he threw at her, until he just stood there, his trigger clicking.

            And then what?

            She killed him.

            Oh. How?

            I...you know, I'm not sure if...

            How?

            Why? Does it make you feel better to know? She pulled his arms off of his body. With her bare hands. Before she took his legs. Is that what you wanted to know? Do you feel better know? (silence) I'm sorry. I'm...I feel like this...this is hard for me. I feel sick. Like a traitor.

            Why, Cassie?

            I told you. You're...you're supposed to be dead. I was supposed to kill you. It was my mission to kill you. But...but I couldn't. I can't. It's wrong. It's not right.

            But...why? Why me?

            It's complicated.

            Tell me. It's my life we're talking about.

            Your job. You're involved in a weapons advancement that they find very troubling. They have a list of players involved in the path of a certain technology, and they've begun to move to keep it from happening. I was ordered to get close to you, to gain your trust. And then...then execute you.

            Oh, boy. (pause, sigh)

            Yeah.

            (clutches her hand) I'm glad you didn't.

            (laughs, wipes away single tear) Me too. But it won't matter.

            What?

            It won't matter.

            What do you mean?

            We need to move. We need to go, now. Last night was the termination of my mission, you weren't supposed to see the sun rise. Those guys in the alley, they were a coincidence, believe it or not. Sheer chance. They just made me reveal myself to you. I wanted to, I have wanted to for the longest time, to just be able to stop lying to you...and I probably would have, anyway, sooner or later. But they just forced me into it. But not...it...in the end, nothing matters.

            Cass?

            We're going to run. We're going to hide. We'll fight. And then we'll die. They'll find us. And then they'll kill us.

            Why?

            Because that's what they do.

 

XI

 

            "Thanks, baby," Doug Nueland said, and kissed his wife as they stood up from the kitchen table. He dropped his plate into the sink and ran his hands under the faucet.

            "Why so early?" Nadine asked from behind him. "And on a Saturday?"

            "Oh, it's that thing, that new contract," Doug explained, drying his hands on the dish towel hanging from the oven door handle. "You know how it is with the Pentagon. When they want something..."

            "...they want it now," she finished, and sighed. Her eyebrows wrinkled down in a slight frown, her head bowing a little in disappointment.

            "You got it." He turned, paused, and saw her expression. "Hey now, come on. Where's my girl? Hmm?"

            She glanced up at him through her bangs, her frown changing to the hint of a smile. She arched one brow, the way she knew he liked. "What?"

            "I didn't forget, you know," he said, drawing her close in a hug. He kissed her forehead.

            "You didn't?"

            "How could I? Married three years, today. And I'm grateful for every day. So tonight....tonight we're gonna celebrate."

            "Okay," she purred, and kissed him back, deeply.

            They embraced a little longer, until Doug went to step away.

            "Wait," Nadine said slyly, a light shining in her eyes. "Do you really have to go? Right now?"

            "Well, babe," Doug began, but she pulled him close once more, her breathing faster now, nearly panting. She kissed the side of his neck, pulled on his ear with her lips.

            "Do you really have to go?" she asked, and one hand fell to the growing bulge beneath his belt.

            "Oh....uh, yeah, unfortunately, baby, I'm sorry. No, wait. Wait," he said laughing, dancing away from her seeking hand. "The deal is definitely going through today, and I need to be there."

            "Are you sure?"

            "Yeah."

            "Oh, okay," she said, lip stuck out in a mocking, little-girl's pout.

            "But I'll be back. Tonight. I promise," he said, as he kissed her forehead and stepped away, his hand slipping out of her grasp.

            "Doug," she said.

            "Yeah?"

            "Goodbye," she said, and pulled softly on his hand.

            "Bye," he said, and turned toward her a little.

            "HOOO-WAA!" she cried out, in a weird mix of shriek and grunt. Her right arm flashed out, the knife edge of her hand blasted into Doug's exposed throat. The speed and power of her lethal strike ruptured blood vessels, pulped tissue, and cracked cartilage; Doug's larynx virtually exploded, his eyes widened as he recoiled and slammed into the wall, gasping for breath. Any single aspect of this injury would have been fatal, and the combined result of her strike insured a hasty death.

            But not quick enough for Nadine.

            She stepped up to him, his wife of three years, and encircled his spasming form with her arms.

            How....how could she do this? Doug wondered. Have her hands met behind my back? She is so much smaller...

            But she wasn't. Nadine was looking him eye to eye now. And her body! He could feel it suddenly grow tight against his own...then slowly she began to crush into him, driving his last breath from his body. He tried to cry out, but his ruined throat would make no sound.

            "I'm sorry," Nadine said softly to him. "It's nothing personal, Douglas. Quite the opposite. I quite like you, in fact. You're a kind-hearted, good person. And quite a good lover, as good as a fragile male can be, I suppose," she laughed, but there was no tenderness in the sound, only cold detachment. "But your time has come."

            Her embrace tightened even further, Doug could feel the dull thud of his fading pulse beating in his ears, his mouth opened to scream but only a weak, wet retching noise came forth.

            “Shhh," she mocked, smiling. A fine bead of sweat coated her upper lip, and he could feel her grind her hips against him instinctually. She began gasping a bit, her entire form pulsing against his agonized body.

            "You have no idea how hard it was," she gasped softly in his ear. "For three years. Hiding in plain sight. How I wanted to just end it all, to crush every pathetic person I met during this mundane existence. Ummm....and how hard it was not to kill you every night you came to me. Every time you made love to me, or at least tried to. You'll never know how hard it was for me not to just wrap my legs around you and crusssshhhhhh you..."

            She increased her torture further, a muscular pulse from her arms tightened their steely grip even further; a few of Doug's ribs popped audibly, and he gagged, head thrown back in semi-mute protest.  

            "But now...now the time had come to end you....Goodnight, my love," Nadine sneered, and poured on a new reserve of power.

            Doug bent backward at the mid-thorax under this assault, his entire ribcage shuddered, cracked, and then shattered; his spine shifted, popped out of alignment and then finally separated completely. His head dropped back, his legs twitched madly for a moment, and then he was still. His vision darkened, became a quickly closing iris of awareness, and he knew nothing more.

 

XII

           

Resource file: RF920758

(continued)

           

            "So what did you mean when you said they were going to kill us?"

            I was driving my truck, a black Tahoe SUV, down the Interstate. Cassie had made quite a fuss, and had been adamant that we start moving, right now.

            "They're going to be looking for us. For you, mostly."

            "But why?"

            "I told you, you were my mark. I was supposed to kill you last night. When they don't hear from me...they're going to come looking. For you, initially. They'll assume from my silence that somehow, unbelievable to them that it may be, that you somehow found me out or I was stopped in some way, and that I'm dead. They'll monitor the morgue reports, everything stream of data they can plug into, and once they figure out that I'm still breathing, they'll come after us both."

            "How can they do that? Monitor reports? Stuff like that?"

            "Remember, I said Amazons weren't a scientific civilization. I didn't say they were stupid. Actually, they’re highly intelligent. There are Amazon 'plants' all throughout your world."

            "Plants?" I asked, frowning.

            "Yes. I'd say a few hundred, at least. Think of them as sentries. They keep an eye on a particular level or category of your world, watching for anything that threatens Themiscyra with discovery."

            "Like, what? Politics?"

            Cassie nodded. "Sure. For millennia."

            "Do you know who they are?"

            "Some of them. Helen, for one."

            "Helen?"

            "Of Troy."

            I looked to see if she was joking, but her gaze was flat and unwavering.

            "Seriously?"

            "Yes."

            "Who else? Who else were these sentries?"

            She thought it over for a moment. "Mostly they stay in small, subordinate positions as to not attract attention. But once in a while, it's necessary for them to take power. There was a woman who posed as a...what did you call them, umm...Vikings?"

            "Okay."

            "Yes, a Viking. They told stories about her, I think they called her Brunhilde."

            "Yes, goddam. Okay. Anyone else? What about Cleopatra?"

            "No," Cassie laughed. "She was an imitator. And very human, believe me. She weighed 225 pounds."

            "Get out of here."

            "Really. And she wasn't even five feet tall. That's another trait, mostly. Amazons tend to be tall....but not always."

            "What about Joan of Ark?"

            Cassie shook her head. "Nope. You'd think she was one of us, but she wasn't. We actually contacted her to find out if there was some latent connection we had missed. Turns out she was just an exceptional human. In every way. Crazy, for one."

            "She was crazy?"

            "I believe the term is 'batshit crazy,'" Cassie half-smiled. "Off her nut. Totally."

            "Huh. All right. What about now? Are there any plants, or sentries, or whatever, that I would know now?"

             "Maybe a few. The American ambassador to Germany?"

            "Uh, nope."

            "Well, she's a sister."

             Hey, what about Oprah? Or Hillary?" I asked.

            "Nope, neither one. But that thing with the governor of New York?"

            "Uh, oh yeah, with the call girl? Wait! Her?"

            "Yeah."

            "No way."

            "Yeah. He was watched, and for some reason, his career path made the right sisters nervous, and she was introduced to him to ruin his future."

            "Wow."

            "And just think, he was paying thousands of dollars per hour to a woman who could have snapped him in half with one hand."

            "Uh.....yeah. Okay. I didn't think of it quite that way before. Thanks."

            "No problem." Cassie turned to look out the window again. "Just remember, they're everywhere. Even Hollywood."

            "You're kidding."

            "Nope."

            "I can't believe ---"

            "Carmen Electra."

            I nearly drove the SUV into a bridge abutment. "What? Carmen Electra is an Amazon?"

            Cassie nodded, smiling. "Yes. Do you really think a normal human being could ever have a body like that?"

            "Well, I guess...well, she...damn...Carmen Electra is an Amazon warrior?"

            "She's killed far more men in combat than I have, that's for sure."

            I turned to look at her. "And how many is that?"

            She turned to look out the window again. "A lot."

            It was obvious that she wasn't comfortable. I'm not sure I was entirely at ease, either. I mean, I had just found out that the woman I loved was a 150-year old warrior woman. As shocking as it was, I actually found that I could deal with it once the initial shock wore off, which is what it was doing, I was coming to terms with it quite easily. It wasn't hard to do after seeing her throw herself off the hotel roof and leap back to the top.

            But at the same time, there were elements that were more troubling. The references she had made. Killing people. I wouldn't have been human if that didn't bother me.

            "I'm awful, aren't I?" she said suddenly. She turned to me and there were fresh tears on her face.

            "No. No, you're not. Don't ever think that."

            "But I've taken human lives, Danny. A lot of them."

            "Because you were ordered to, right?"

            "Well, yes. But still..."

            "There you go," I said, trying to be reassuring. "You had to. You didn't like doing it did you?" I asked.

            "...no," she said in a small, miserable voice.

            "There you go."

            "Not always."

            I just turned to look at her, and she was staring back at me with an odd look that was completely devoid of emotion. It was the scariest look I had ever seen in my life, even if it was on the face of someone I loved intensely.

            "...but sometimes I did."

            The bottom dropped out of my stomach and I felt the hair on my arms stood up. "Cassie…”

            "Don't do that," she said.

            "Do what?"

            "Be frightened," she explained, her expression softening a bit. But only a little. 

            "I'm not."

            "Yes you are," she said, and one corner of her mouth rose just a bit. Her eyes narrowed the tiniest amount. Her lips parted as she breathed. "I'm scaring you right now."

            "No. No you're not," I tried to laugh, and it came out completely wrong. I was never a good actor.

            "Yes, I am, and you should be scared. You should be terrified. You say you love me, and I love you...but you've seen me kill three grown men with my bare hands. I broke them in two without breaking a sweat. It was nothing."

            "Nothing?"

            "It was nothing compared to what I've done before."

            "Cassie, listen, you--"

            "No, you listen. You listen close. So you know, so you understand what I am. What I've done."

            "Cass, I--"

            "A lone motorcyclist in New Mexico 20 years ago. I hitchhiked in the desert. Let him ride into the scrub brush and make a campfire. He tried to have sex with me. No....no, he tried to fuck me. Instead, I fucked him, and then I scissored him in half."

            I didn't say anything, couldn't say anything.

            "Right...in...fucking...half. Daniel, do you hear me?" Cassie was breathing heavy now, her eyes gleamed like they were lit from within. "In half. He split, like a goddamned sausage. He died screaming my name, screaming for me to stop."

            "Jesus....wait..."

            "A software developer with a sensitive government contract. But he liked hookers. Call girls. Ones with a kinky side."

            "Wait, goddamn it, no, Cassie, I--"

            "He wanted kink, so I gave it to him. I gave him a kink in his neck that you wouldn't believe, and I came as I did it."

            My words dried up and all I do was stare at the road ahead, my ears burning. She began to lean closer to me, and I could smell her, that weird, citrus-y smell of her arousal was nearly pungent. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that one of her hands had slid into her lap, and was making itself busy as she spoke.

            "A family --"

            "Cass!"

            "An entire fucking family in Glacier National Park, back in the '50s. Mom, Dad, and three sons. The woman and one son died straight away, he was too young. But Pops and the other two? I made it last. It was remote, and no one could hear them. Umm..." her hands rubbed the V of her crotch furiously now. She spoke around the little breathy gasps she took in. "I made it last. They begged me to let them go. Then they begged me to stop. And finally...they begged for death. And I gave it to them. But only after I took what I wanted anyway. And that scares you. It terrifies you."

            "Why are you telling me this?" I choked.

            "So you know. So you understand what I am. What it is that is scaring you so badly."

            "No, I'm not, I just--"

            "Don't deny it. I can sense it. I can smell it on you," she said, her voice dropping. She shifted in her seat a little, facing more to the front, now a little more toward my direction. "It's delicious," she nearly moaned.

            "Cassie, what are you--"

            "Yeah, you're scared," she said, and she broke into a cold, merciless grin. "Oh, yeah," she sighed, and her grin widened. Her hand worked even faster, harder. I could hear the friction of her grasp against her jeans. Her breathing deepened, and came more rapidly. I could plainly see the twin bulges her nipples made in her tight dark blue sweater. 

            "Cass--"

            "Shut up, Daniel."

            "Cassie, I don't know what you're doing right now."

            "Don't lie. I'm turning myself on."

            "I can see that."

            "And you too," she hissed, and one of her hands darted into my lap. I nearly drove off the road, from fear or excitement, I don't know.

            "Successfully, I see," she laughed, and with horror I realized she was right; I was sporting an enormous boner, a nearly painful one, as it was constricted by my pants and the way I was sitting.

            Suddenly she leaned way over, her face very close to my ear.

            "So who's the sick one now, Daniel?" she asked, mocking.

            And then it was over. She collapsed back in her seat, diminished. She took a few deep breaths, and then turned her gaze back to mine. Now, her eyes were brimming to the hilt with fresh tears.

            "Oh, Goddess," she whispered, and began to sob softly.

            I was completely flummoxed. Obviously.

            "Cass....Cassie. Are you okay? What....what was that?"

            "I'm so sorry, Daniel," she said, moaning in misery. "I...couldn't help it. Sometimes...I can't help it. It just happens."

            "What 'just happens?'" I demanded. I was scared, terrified even, and now a little pissed. I felt as emotionally confused as she looked to be.

            "When I...when we....sisters, I mean. When a sister..."

            "Sister?"

            "When an Amazon gets that way...when she talks about fighting....about conquest. or when she does it, takes part in actual combat...it just happens."

            "It's a turn-on?!" I demanded.

            "Like no other," she sniffled, now a little more in control of her emotions. She wiped her face dry with the palm of a hand, and sniffed again. "You have no idea," she said, her voice stronger.

            "Why?"

            "I think it's part of Becoming," Cassie said, looking out the window, but far past the passing cars. She stared off into space as she spoke. "You asked about it yourself. How can a society made up entirely of women repopulate itself?"

            "Good question, but I think I understand the answer."

            "You might think you do, but trust me, you really have no idea. Sure, for a lot of normal humans, there's always been a bit of a connection between sex and violence."

            "Um...I guess so."

            "It's okay. You're wired that way."

            "No, it's weird, I know, but---"

            "Just stop," Cassie said, looking at me lovingly, but a little sternly. "You saw what I did to those guys. You just heard me a second ago. And on some level, you liked it."

            "No! I...I.."

            "Don't lie. Your body betrayed you. As it does most men, most of the time. It's okay. You're not sick. You're not a sociopath. You don't truly want to see anybody hurt. You're still a good person. 99.9% of your brain is screaming out that what I did last night is wrong, isn't it?"

            It was useless to lie.

            "Yes, I said. "It's...it's somewhat lessened, because I believe they were bad people, and I firmly believe that people should get what they deserve."

            "But still, you thought it was wrong," she said.

            "Yes."

            "So do I." she looked back out the window.

            "Then why....oh, I am so frigging confused right now," I admitted.

            "The only way I can describe it is this: I don't know about all people, and probably not even most people, but for A LOT of people, there is a deep, subconscious link between sex and violence. It runs counter to what their conscious, thinking brain knows and wants. And there is a number of men -- and I know this part of men, believe me -- that enjoy that link. You're wired that way."

            "Why?"

            "Evolution," Cassie said. "Life is, at its core, about sustaining the species, right? The human body is designed to live just long enough to reproduce as many as times as possible, right? People only live as long as they do because of science and modern medicine."

            "I never thought of it that way before."

            "Trust me, it's true. And not just in this dimension. We found one populated by primitive men, you'd call them cavemen. They lived to see 30, maybe 35. And that was it."

            "Okay."

            "So the reproductive drive is very strong. What humans -- and Amazons -- find attractive in a prospective mate is determined by instinct. Either someone is attractive, or not."

            "Go on," I prodded, now interested.

            "Now, admittedly, different people find different things attractive. Some men could meet a curvy woman with some meat on her bones, with a big 'ol butt and big thighs, and see a healthy baby factory."

            "Yep. My mother called them 'birthin' hips,'" I offered.

            "There you go. So for some, that's the look they interpret their 'wiring' to want. For others, it's small women who don't pose a threat. And others...well...it's the opposite."

            "Strong mates make strong offspring?" I guessed.

            "Exactly. There's a segment of the population, the male population, who is obsessed with female athletes, right?"
            "Yeah. I ...cough cough...I might know a couple of those guys," I half-laughed.

            "I figured," Cassie said, and nearly let herself smile a little. "So there you go. Strong, fit women appeal to the same, unconscious drive in some men. A lot of men, more than would admit to it, since it isn't exactly the traditional female archetype."

            "Listen to you. You sound like some kind of professor."

            "I've just done a lot of thinking about it," she shrugged.

            "So that's your theory?"

            "Yeah. Why else would grown men tune in every week to watch Lynda Carter in a red white and blue swimsuit? Which is totally outrageous, by the way. That thing would never stay on in battle."

            "Because she was hot. Hell, she still is."

            "Sure. But it was even better. She was hot, and every week, she'd run fast, jump high, and beat the hell out of a bunch of men."

            "Yeah," I said, and grinned lecherously. "And tie them up with golden rope."

            "Now you're getting it."

            "But I'm still not sure I buy it," I admitted.

            "Xena," Cassie said.

            "Uh, all right. Hot girl..."

            "Beating the hell out of platoons of soldiers every week."

            "Yeah, but..." I tried to counter.

            "Buffy."

            "But..."

            "Charlie's Angels. Not one, but THREE hot women, beating the hell out of men."

            "Charlie's ---" I stammered.

            "Diana Rigg in The Avengers. Dark Angel. Trinity from The Matrix. The Bionic Woman. Every supporting female cast member of any action show on TV, since they were all gorgeous and knew kung-fu."

            "Hey."

            "Look at computer games. The art on the boxes. They're female warriors, with breasts as big as their heads."

            "That's what the programmers think Amazons look like," I tried to joke.

            "How'd they do?" Cassie purred, and thrust out her chest dramatically.

            "Not too far off," I winked.

            "And every fighting game? Filled with big breasted, muscular female fighters. Some of them don't have male characters at all."

            "But.."

            "Comic books! Have you seen the superheroines in those things? They're all 6 feet tall, some nicely muscled, with huge boobs and legs twice as long as their torsos."

            "Again, not far off the mark."

            "But you get my point. Men can poo-poo the idea of a strong woman, they can make a face and talk about how a fit or even moderately muscular girl is disgusting...and trust me, I've heard them say it. But somebody is buying all that stuff. Somebody out there likes it. ESPN broadcasts the female fitness and figure competitions in prime time for a reason. Even bodybuilding appeals to the same sensibility, albeit an exaggerated level of it."

            I was quiet for a time; I had sensed long ago that Cassie was venting and that I should just let her talk. Not long after, she did.

            "So that's why I don't want you feeling confused...or...anything. Even embarrassed...or ashamed...at what you find attractive. You're not a bad person. When you saw me do what I did...it wasn't actually the violence that turned you on. At all."

            "No. That was just scary. And wrong."

            "Exactly. It wasn't that I committed an act of great violence. It's that I could. That I was able to do it. That is what did it for you...then, and now."

            It was like a light bulb went off in my head. "Okay, yeah, all right," I said, instantly feeling better about myself, and the situation as a whole. But a dark cloud immediately crossed my mind. "But...but the reality still stands. You still killed those men."

            "Yes," she said, her faint smile fading. "That couldn't be helped. That's what we are. What we do. The same way human are 'wired' for reproduction, Amazons are built for the kill. And for them, sex and violence are far, far more intertwined than they are even for the most...salacious of humans."

            "Really?"

            She shuddered visibly. "Oh...you have no idea. Whatever process the Becoming truly is, whatever it entails...it links the two together. Fully. They become one and the same, honestly. To an Amazon, a good hand-to-hand kill is sex."

            "Jeezus."

            "I think it's to keep the Amazon population viable. It grew as a one-gender civilization, based entirely on war and conquest. To them, conquest could be on the battlefield or the bedroom. It's an Amazon's duty, her call, to dominate her foes in both arenas, and give birth to a new wave of sisters."

            "So, the men that are taken..."

            She nodded. "They're used. Horribly. Of course, they may not think so, not initially. As furious and terrible an Amazon can be, she's also built for sex. Amazons have refined their strength, their anatomy; they've researched the act over centuries, and they can do things to a man that would blow your mind."

            "I know," I smiled weakly at her.

            "Again, you only know part of it, trust me. Amazons are the best lovers in this or any other world, their very bodies are their great gifts, and the control they have over their strength and power extends to all parts of their anatomy...an experienced sister can bring a man to ecstasy in mere seconds, and prolong his performance for hours, if she so desires...but in the end...it's going to end the same way for any that are taken. The way it almost ended for you last night."

            As she spoke, I felt a familiar twinge in my bruised sides, and nodded. As if she could sense it, she looked into her lap in shame.

            "I'm sorry I hurt you," she said softly. "Even while I was doing it I was sorry, but when it happens, when the...the heat comes...I can barely control it. It's like I'm being driven, like I'm possessed. That Amazon instinct to crush, to kill, to conquer...." she paused, and took several deep breaths. I noticed there were a few tiny beads of sweat on her lip now. "...even now...It's hard....even to talk about it. Even describing it...it makes me...makes me want..."

            "Wow. I thought I had it bad as a teenager."

            "Oh..." she sighed, and paused. Deep breath. Another. She sighed. "You have no idea."

            "But you're trying to control it?"

            "Yes."

            "And you're saying Amazons don't?"

            "Quite the opposite. They give into it with great abandon. They revel in the kill, and the time that is allotted after each conquest for sexual dominance."

            "Seriously?"

            "Oh, yes."

            "What happens to the men?"

            "They die. Horribly. Sometimes they might survive one mating session. Maybe even two. Once in a great while, if he has a particularly strong constitution, or an impressive...uh, well, feature, he might be allowed to survive a few nights, but only through the highest restraint among the sisters. He might be passed around from tent to tent for the better part of a week. And at the end of it, when he's bruised, battered, and beaten...too sore and exhausted to be of any good...he'll be put to death by an Amazon who'll come as she kills him. Other times, it never even gets that far; often the survivors of a skirmish are taken right on the field of battle, and once she's finished, he's finished."

            "Oh…oh, boy."

            "You wanted to know."

            "Yeah. Yeah, I did. But you....you say you're different? You have remorse about it."

            "Yes."

            "Why?"

            "I'm not sure. I would say it's because I was born human...but there are others in the sisterhood who were once human as well, and some of them are the most bloodthirsty women I know. So it isn't that. I don't know what it is."

            "Are there others....others like you?" I asked.

            "An Amazon Fifth Column?" she asked. I nodded. "Yes, yes I suppose there is, but you couldn't really call it that. There are a few other sisters who I've seen express regret, but it's an emotion they squash pretty quickly. In our society, questioning Amazon law or rebelling against tradition is strike of shame on your house. It means banishment, at a minimum. More likely, it's a death sentence."

            "Christ."

            Cassie nodded. "Yeah, the girls take themselves pretty seriously. I just...I just hope you know...I want you to know...I'm not like that. I don't really want to hurt anybody. Especially not you."

            "I do. I believe it."

            "You do?" she asked, watching me closely.

            "Yes."

            "That's good," she said simply.

            "Why's that?" I asked. She took a moment to answer, but when she did speak again, my heart stood still in my chest.

            "Because I'm pregnant," she said.

             

 

XIII

 

 

            "What the blue fuck is going on here?" FBI Regional Director Roger McCall shouted.

            The stub of a cigar was firmly nestled in one corner of his mouth, a thin wisp of smoke that periodically issued from it was the only indication it was still lit. The voice on the other end of the phone went silent while he expressed his rage, as he was famously wont to do.

            The Baltimore field office was called first, early, to help local officials investigate a murder scene at a mid-level mafia hideout. Then, minutes later, a second call, to investigate a bloodbath at an area strip club: among the dead, more mid-level mafia figures. And now, nearly four hours later, a third call, to help secure a scene at a industrial park. Following that, an immediate retraction of that request, straight from the top.

            Agent Jennifer Carnes, positioned in the seat directly behind McCall's own in the big black Suburban shook her head and waited. They were at a loss for more info if their superiors decided to hold it from them. Keeping information from a field agent was one thing; keeping it from a regional director was another altogether. Something was up, something big.

            McCall snapped his phone shut with a growl. Silence descended among the number of agents in the SUV. Randall Timmons, a young field agent with the face of a ten-year-old and the body of a middle linebacker looked at Jen, half-smiled, and made the 'oh-jeez-what-is-he-going-to-do-now' face. Jen smiled back, and waited. Soon they had their answer.

            "It's an industrial building, an office type building. Down by the river, down near Tanglewood. They asked for us, and three minutes later told us not to come."

            "So what exactly are we going to do?" Jen asked softly.

            "Fuck!" McCall exploded, "What the fuck do you think we're going to do? We're going! We need to find out what the hell is happening in this town. Get this piece of shit moving, mister," he snarled, and the driver laid the appropriate amount of rubber behind them.

 

XIV

 

Resource file: RF920758

(continued)

 

            I nearly wrecked the truck.

            "What?" I stammered.

            "I'm pregnant," she repeated.

            It only took a few moments for me to get to the next exit, and we rode in silence as I pulled off the freeway and into the parking lot of a Citgo gas station. Cassie watched me with her brilliant blue eyes; they didn't waver at all as I tried to gauge the look on her face.

            "Are you serious, because I've had just about all the shocks I can stand today."

            "I know. I'm sorry."

            "And it's barely even lunch time."

            She smiled, sadly, and nodded.

            "So...let me get this straight...if there's no men on the island...whose is it?"

            She turned to gaze to me, and it was flat and more than a little scary after what I had seen and felt her do. "Mine," she said.

            "Of course it is. But...who...you know?"

            "You."

            "Me!?"

            She nodded.

            "But that's impossible! We just....just...you know! We just had sex. And it's only a few hours later! It would take..."

            "Minutes," she said. "It takes only moments. And I'd know. Just as I did last night."

            "Holy God," I muttered, amazed once again. "Jesus. Are you sure?"

            "Yes."

            "Oh, boy. Oh boy oh boy, oh boy." I blew out a breath and tried to absorb the new information as best I could. "So this....this is...it's an...Amazon thing, then?"

            She nodded once more.

            "Have you done this before? I mean, you've hinted that you've...you know, gone off to war or whatever for them in the past. And that fighting for them against men leads to...well, reproduction. So..has it? Has it happened for you before?"

            She nodded again. "Three times."

            "Three! You have three children?!"

            Her expression softened, and I could see the hint of fresh wetness along the lower rim of her eyes. "No," she said, nearly too soft to hear.

            "Hey, I'm sorry, I didn't mean..." the words froze in my mouth, and my eyes widened. She must have known what was running though my head again, because she dropped her gaze and looked even more miserable than ever.

            "Oh my God," I said softly. "Tell me it's not true."

            "It's their way," she said weakly.

            "But they were just children, Cassie."

            "The wrong kind of children," she said, her voice thick.

            "Unbelievable," I wondered aloud, and stared at the roof of the truck. "And they probably made you watch, didn't they?"

            "If only they had," she said, and her gaze met mine once more.

            "Cass--"

            "They made me do it, Danny," she cried, her beautiful face wrinkling up, tears pouring down her cheeks. Her mouth made a crinkled 'O' shape, it was obvious Cassie was a lousy crier; she never had a chance (or reason) to do it until that day. Hell, it was probably a punishable offense where she came from. But it didn't ease the shock of what she had said. "Oh, Goddess," she wept, "Why did they make me do it?"

 

 

            It took her a little while to compose herself.

 

 

            We drove in silence for a long time, my mind reeling from everything I'd had to absorb over the past 24 hours. Actually, I found it was getting easier; the more info came at me, the more I just accepted. I guess it's the mind's self-defense mechanism against sensory overload: don't worry, be happy.

Cassie eventually calmed down a little; in fact, her expression was now, curiously, one of a blank, impassive nature.

            “Are you okay?” I asked after some time had gone by.

            She answered without turning. “Yes.”

            “Good. I’m glad,” I offered, but she didn’t reply.

            We continued along for a few minutes, the tires humming pleasantly under the truck.

            “You need anything?”

            “No.”

            “You sure?”

            “Danny,” she said, and turned in my direction. Trying to read her expression was an impossible task. It was a mask of impassivity mixed with a poorly hidden irritation. “Listen to me. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.”

            “Ooookay.”

            “I don’t need your protection.”

            “I would agree with that.”

            “I’m here, actually, to protect you, as best I can,” she continued.

            “And it’s appreciated.”

            “I just don’t want you thinking…I mean, before…how I was just was…” she stammered, her brow wrinkling in dissatisfaction. Whatever it was she was trying to say, it was having a hard time coming out.

            “If you mean about being upset back there, hey, don’t sweat it. Who wouldn’t be? You’re dealing –“

            “With things I can handle,” she finished. “All right?”

            I shrugged and let a moment pass. “Boy,” I countered, “I guess Amazons don’t waste too much time talking about their feelings, do they?”

            “Why would we?” she sighed, looking at me with a combination of fatigue and rising anger. “It achieves nothing. Here…pull over here,” she said, pointing.

            “Why?”

            “Because I’m hungry.”

            “Already? It’s barely noon.”

            “You’ve got a lot to learn about us,” she said.

 

 

            Apparently, being the next thing to a superwoman makes a person hungry, because I’ve never seen anyone pack away food like Cassie did. She ate a cheese omelet, a pile of hashbrowns, some bacon, and an enormous stack of pancakes in just a few minutes, her fork a silver blur between her plate and mouth. The waitress at the diner we stopped at just kept filling out coffee mugs and watching her eat from afar with a series of appreciative glances.

            “I take it the food’s all right, then,” she said with a small smile on one of her short visits.

            “It’s delicious,” Cassie mumbled around a huge mouthful of pancake. “Thank you.”

            “Sure thing, honey,” the woman replied and sauntered off.

            “Not quite the same reaction,” I observed quietly.

            “Huh?”

            “Not the same reaction you got from the waitress at the pub not so long ago,” I repeated. “I wonder why?”

            Cassie shrugged. “Sometimes some women pick up on me being different. Maybe it’s a chemical thing. The pheromone thing. Some get catty, like at the pub. Almost like their subconscious is telling them that I’m competition. But some don’t mind it. Some like it.”

            “And the men?”

            “They all like it,” Cassie grinned back mischievously over her now empty plate.

            “Even me?”

            “Especially you.”

            “But I didn’t have any choice in the matter, did I?”

            Her smile faded a bit. “I can’t help what I am,” she said softly.

 

           

            We drove in near silence the rest of the day. We headed west, out of the city, and stopped at a motel off the interstate for the night.

            “This will be the last night you can use your credit card,” Cassie said. “From now on, we either get cash or we have to set up a fake ID or something.”

             “Where are we going to get enough cash to live? To survive? I can empty my savings and a couple of CD and stock purchases, but that will only keep us on the road for a few months, Cassie.”

            “I can get money,” she said.

            “But..”

            “Please. I can get money. And no, I don’t have to kill anybody to do it. But…I’m tired, Danny. Could you please just get us a room for the night? I’m actually really tired. Thinking about all this…”

            A moment went by as I studied her face. “Boy, you’re really scared of them, aren’t you?”

            “Yes,” she said softly. “I’m terrified. And you should be, too. You will be, soon enough.” She checked the clock in the dashboard of the truck, and shuddered visibly. “It’s only a few more hours left until it’s going to begin. In the big scheme of things, you might have survived, they might have let you go. But my…defection…no way. Now it’s a matter of honor. A matter of their justice. They’ll never stop. Never.” She sighed. “Yeah, I’m scared. You would be too if you knew what they could do. But trust me…” Her gaze rose to meet mine when she spoke again.

            “…you’re about to find out.”

 

 END PART ONE

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