Chapter Three

Annie's world began to sway in a macabre dance of surrealism. Ghostly words reverberated in her skull like the rusted intonations of a funeral bell; slow, deathly...final:

Explosive bullet...in the head...

The sky-eyed girl who still played agelessly in memory - sunshine hair held at bay by Road Runner barrettes - disappeared in a flash of light. Geysering blood bathed her in scarlet. A skeletal finger raised, pointing...

God Almighty .

"Do you need to sit down?" The med tech's voice penetrated her visions.

She broke away from her thoughts, acutely aware of the surrounding stares.

"I'm fine." Her answer was an automatic response, just like the slow way she reached for, and removed, the palm-size computer on her belt. Fingers glided over its smallish screen with practiced ease, accessing the Global Criminal Information Network. Connected to the Web, its vast databanks catalogued evidence and indexed reports from every police agency on Earth. Annie entered her sister's name and initiated a download. She would have to read it later. West had only granted an hour of leave. After logging out, she returned her attention to Reilly.

The goateed man was watching her with gentle eyes. Seeing his compassion nearly broke what little control she retained over her emotions.

Unacceptable, Annie.

Years of training interceded. When a telepath became emotional, it affected everyone around him. The Academy drilled all trainees in emotional restraint, day in, day out.

It had been so damn long since she'd seen such warmth in the eyes of another, when they were looking at her, anyway.

Annie clenched her hands tightly, but a wan smile found its way to her lips. "Thank you," she whispered, then cleared her throat to force it open. "Are there any documents I need to sign?" Their eyes met.

He nodded twice, the first time in acknowledgement of the rapport they had just established, and the second to direct her to a wall-mounted monitor. Reilly liked her smile. As Annie stepped closer she could "see" how Reilly replayed the image of her smile in his mind. He momentarily concentrated on it, savoring it. She stepped back slightly.

Strengthen your shields, Annie. Eavesdropping is a poor coin with which to repay such simple kindness.

"Okay," the med tech began. "If you'll just jack in, we can finish this up fairly quickly." He extended a set of interface cables from the adjoining wall socket.

She held up a gloved hand to stop his motion. "I'm sorry Mr. Reilly, but I am not wired for direct computer interaction."

Hazel eyes frowned at her in confusion for half a second, then drifted to the tattoos on her face. "That's right. Cybernetics and telepathy are incompatible." He shook his head. "Sorry. I - um - forgot."

"That is all right," she smiled again.

Incompatible. Now there's an understatement.

The Guild experimented with augmentation in its early years. They quickly discovered that upon implanting even the most basic chipware, all telepathic ability was lost. Nor was removal a guarantee of restoration.

Annie stepped forward, removing a glove and activating the touch-screen interface. All computers were required by law to come equipped with them. Under an old U.S. government regulation, The Americans with Disabilities Act, those who could not be fitted with receiver plugs had to be "accommodated." It was ironic that telepaths fell under its blanket of protection.

The next several minutes were spent in selecting answers and affixing her digital signature.

El only half attended the activity. Her thoughts were swirling madly, out of control. Even before the flat crystal monitor displayed the rounded face of Angela Barnes, she knew it was the bubble headed target from last night.

It could not be coincidence, to kill a girl and hours later be shadowing her sister.

Another game.

No, really? Like that's some great revelation.

Aultman must have been extraordinarily bored to dream up a torment like this.

Another headache stabbed through her warring psyche. They had become a regular occurrence, like breathing.

I can't do this anymore. I can't.

And what are you going to do? The answering voice taunted.

Her head began to throb as the blossoming ache spread. Nothing.

There is nothing I can do.

El closed her eyes against the voice and its horrible finality. The caged animal of her rage was battering, hammering, flinging itself against her will. It was her only defense against the strain. Two years under Aultman's thumb. Two years of games, of lies. Things inside her were crumbling. Killing Angela Barnes hurt in a way that El had never experienced, a hollow pain that nagged her into submission.

She was weak. Weak things die. And the war began anew...

She was innocent and helpless.

Stop it!

Then there were the Enforcers. Living reminders of violation and betrayal. Fear, that alien emotion, threatened to defeat her, to reduce her into a quivering pile. The Hounds were demons in dull gray swimming out of her nightmares.

Now one of the demons had lost a sister.

Kill her.

The answering silence was oppressive. El shied from it, but it sucked her in. There was a part of her, buried deep under the anger, behind the fear, that did not want to ice the little Enforcer. Never mind that murdering a Hound was tantamount to suicide, that the Guild would scan every citizen in creation just to find the killer. Practical reason had nothing whatever to do with her hesitation. Something in those jade green eyes...the haunted look they held...the phantoms of agony that were hinted at...made her feel - kinship - with this stranger.

Made her feel .

"Are you all right?" McKenzie's lyrical alto jolted her to awareness. El opened her lids to find herself alone with the petite blonde. Reilly was nowhere to be seen.

"Just fucking bored," she growled a response. "You about done?"

The Hound was not fooled. Concern painted golden highlights in the grassy plains of McKenzie's eyes. Like an idiot, Maelstrom stared into the warm expanses of green, getting lost in them. She could almost see herself astride a thundering horse, hair billowing behind; a lovely, young blonde woman holding fast to her waist.

Snap the fuck out of this.

Peripherally she noticed that her heart rate had slowed. Lifesavers' internal biomonitor also reported a decrease in respiration. Even the pounding between her temples had eased.

"On a scale of one to ten," McKenzie's voice washed over her once more. "How much do you hate telepaths?"

El cut her optics at the shorter woman, surprised by the question and the perception that fueled it. Most people could not gauge her reactions with any accuracy. Unlike the majority of cybernetic implants, hers were specifically designed not to display the subtle shifting of light and shadow that were characteristic of human eyes. "Twelve." Her answer was clipped, more a staccato tap than a word.

Whatever the esper might have said was cut off by Reilly's entrance.

"She's ready." The balding man's expression was guarded, as though afraid he would reveal too much. "Um - what do you want done with the remains?"

McKenzie was already heading past him, but paused to consider. What difference does it really make? Once the wine is gone of what use is the bottle? Logically she should have no preference about the disposal of Angela's body, but she did. Wanting to hold onto some piece of her sister was foolishly irrational. You can't let it go, can you? Apparently not. "Please cremate her and send the ashes to me care of Guild Headquarters. "

Annie stepped from Hell's antechamber and into the stainless steel abyss beyond. The smell of formaldehyde was much stronger. Competing with it for dominance was the cloying aroma of death. She hesitated before looking around, remembering another morgue on another planet.

A resonating baritone thrummed through her mind. " God, I hate fuckin' crypts!"

Her lips smiled at the replay of words. Annie could see his shaved head and thick brown mustache as if the Ranger Captain were standing next to her. Stephen Fogle was commonly considered to be out of his flaming mind. And he was, in a very good, very healthy kind of way. She'd teamed up with him on Titan, her first colonial assignment. In truth, he was the only positive thing she'd encountered there. They'd gotten off to a rocky start, but had somehow become friends. Real friends. It was his recommendation that had earned her a berth in the Rangers.

The first thing she'd had to learn was Fogle's rather unique language.

Crypts were morgues. Ghouls were coroners. Residents were corpses.

The man was crack-brained.

You've delayed long enough, Annie. Get to it.

Green eyes were forced to the cold-metal slab. It was worse than her imagination. She tried desperately not to see the empty space above Angela's shoulders. An impossible task. The raw meat of her neck had faded to pink. Spatters of blood stained the white blouse and hot pink tights. Long-fingered hands resting oh-so-peacefully atop hardened steel were a sickly white, the nails blue.

Reflexively, her eyes traveled down the body noting smudges of dirt. Her nose identified the stale aroma of beer and the musky remnants of sex. The breath she drew in trembled through her.

"Were you close to her?" Reilly's voice made her flinch. She snapped her head around to stare at him, finding it difficult to decipher his words for a moment.

They eventually sank in. "I haven't seen her in 14 years."

It isn't that we were close. It was just knowing that she was out there...somewhere.

Annie tugged off a glove, wrapping warm fingers around cold ones. Skin met skin. Her sister's hand was soft, uncalloused. Unbidden, her eyes closed. It had been - she couldn't remember the last time her flesh had touched another's.

Titan. Her mind supplied that answer, but Annie turned from it.

Direct contact increased telepathic sensitivity. Normals feared it. Espers, the ethical ones at least, avoided it.

"What are you getting?" The med tech's voice was an awed murmur.

His comment forced a near-hysterical laugh from Annie's too tight, too dry throat. He thinks I can read her...even without a head. She released her sister's hand then pulled the glove back on. Both hands trembled. Small wonder since her insides were shaking themselves into pieces.

"Nothing." Her eyes once more connected with Reilly's. "Telepaths can only hear the living."

Turning away, Annie found Maelstrom observing from the doorway. The tall woman's expressionless mask was back. Still, it was obvious that something had shaken her earlier, something heart-deep. It was comforting in a perverse way, to know someone else was having troubles.

Kinda makes your own seem smaller, doesn't it, Annie? Tonight, when you have time to think, when your emotions crush you under a tidal wave of feeling, you can turn your mind to the puzzle that is Maelstrom.

 

Chapter Four

West's expression resembled a thundercloud in winter. Storm-gray eyes flashed with the lightning of anger amid a face as glacial as the polar dawn. Brimstone rolled his cerulean implants and El quirked a brow in response. The Master Enforcer paced around McKenzie rapidly. He did not speak, but it was clear from their expressions that the Hounds were arguing.

The little esper's face was tight with tension. Her gloved fingers curled inwards, almost forming fists. "I apologize, sir." The musical voice was quiet. El found it surprising that the telepath would choose to speak when her partner had not.

Apparently, West was taken aback as well for he abruptly stopped, wheeling around to slash gunmetal eyes across McKenzie's face. She flinched. It was no more than a minute twitch of her head, a stiffening of her neck.

Before she could stop herself, Maelstrom had stepped forward. The senior Hound spun on her. "Is there something I can do for you?" he asked, voice dripping with sarcasm.

What the fuck are you doing? Her mind was racing, thoughts tumbling over one another in a vain attempt to catch up with her heartbeat. She opened her mouth to reply.

McKenzie was even quicker. "You were being discourteous, sir."

El was keenly aware of Brimstone's incredulous stare. When the inevitable questions were asked, she feared that she would have no answer for him.

The blonde telepath captured West's attention once more. "By holding a silent conversation in the presence of Normals." There was a note of patient explanation in her lilting alto, as if she addressed a recalcitrant child instead of a senior Enforcer.

Something changed then. Silvered optics narrowed as El watched the two Hounds suddenly engage in a flurry of silent communication. McKenzie's verdant pools flickered in anger. West merely sneered, and suddenly the blonde woman froze, her face losing all expression. At length, she nodded. "I'll need a moment to prepare, sir."

 

Annie left the conference room, which had suddenly become too confining, too stagnant. Despite her placid demeanor, a tempest of anger was roaring within.

Of all the stupid, buggering, high-handed, asinine...

She cut off the mental tirade. All those things may be true, but he is in charge, Annie. Never forget that, not for an instant.

Drawing in a lungful of air, she let it out to a slow count of ten. The corridor around her was carpeted with a sleek synthetic mesh that felt like air beneath her feet. It was a utilitarian gray, and would no doubt wear like the titanium alloy it resembled. White walls, tinted with copper, framed her in a warm kind of professionalism that seemed out of place considering the ruthless workings of corporate life. Her footsteps continued aimlessly while her mind ruminated on the conversation with West.

It had been disastrous.

The Hunt-Master did not appreciate her "inordinate" attachment to a Normal, birth sister or no.

Her instinctive reply of "bite me" slipped past her mental walls and into West's already churning thoughts before she could clamp down on it.

Bad move, that.

Annie felt her lips turn upward in a wry grin. The balding man had been enraged by her insubordination. What followed was a lengthy harangue on the importance of courtesy and decorum. Even her whispered repentance had not mollified him. She winced at the memory of his psionic slap, a hand rising to press against her temple.

Maelstrom's intervention had thrown him off stride, though.

Her graceful movement had been predatory, fostering visions of some great cat stalking prey. There was no change in her face, no weapon in her hand, but she'd packed more threat into that single motion than was carried in an army of cybergrunts.

But you couldn't leave well enough alone, could you? Oh no...you just had to turn West's commentary on courtesy against him.

The Master had lost all semblance of control over his fury. He upbraided her without mercy, each word striking her mind like a physical blow, knowing that she dared not retaliate against him. She'd been called everything from irresponsible to negligent. Her actions had wasted Guild time. Her lengthy absence had forced him to proceed with Creel's scan independently.

Annie stopped short, giving that memory total concentration.

Guild regulations were very clear. Screenings conducted on fellow espers were done in tandem. At least two telepaths of equal or higher rating were required. Only in cases of "extreme" emergency could such scans be conducted alone.

He's dirty.

Maybe. Then again, he could just be arrogantly foolish.

Annie gradually became aware of a presence behind her. Both cold and heated, crackling with danger, promising dissipation ...she knew without turning that it was Maelstrom.

 

When the little Enforcer suddenly halted, it had taken every millisecond of El's enhanced reaction time to keep from bowling her over. As it was, they stood separated by a scant inch of air. The assassin breathed deeply of cinnamon. Combining with the clean aroma of soap and the faint traces of coffee, it formed a veil of sweetness that crept into her lungs, down her spine, sparking a tendril of flame when it reached bottom. Heartbeats multiplied. No one moved.

Slowly, McKenzie turned her head, and El watched a soft rosy hue creep over the pale complexion. Sound returned to the world. With it came other people. Junior executives rushed passed, not even pausing to frown. An armored security guard watched them, his bearded face creased by a knowing smile. El was seized by the sudden urge to tear out his Adam's apple.

You aren't moving.

No.

"You lost?" she asked in a throaty rumble. Her breath stirred the hair on McKenzie's neck, causing a tremor to skitter across slender shoulders.

The blonde woman swallowed twice before nodding.

Step back, El.

She obeyed after endless seconds and for the first time noticed the wee smile that gave birth to twin dimples on her companion's face. Emerald eyes swept upward lingering on El's. They were alive with warmth.

"What you did earlier -- Thank you." The verdant gaze dropped as McKenzie struggled to find words.

Dozens of smart-assed rejoinders passed through El's consciousness. Rather than voice them, she elected to say, "So now what...another interview with his holiness?"

The smile widened. "West was schooled in seagull management." The telepath glanced shyly around before continuing. "Fly in. Raise Hell. Shit all over everything, and leave. I'm given to understand that he was valedictorian of his class."

She's joking with you. Maelstrom allowed herself a short snort of humor before motioning back the way they'd come. When was the last time that happened?

Annie followed the enigmatic woman. It took far too much willpower than was proper to turn her thoughts back on business. "Now," she belatedly answered. "I have to scan the puppet."

Long fingers twitched at her words, and a tangible blanket of tension descended between them. She noted the signs absently, filing them away for later analysis.

Puppet...the slang term for Normals who had been psionically altered. Here, at least, West was following protocol. The Guild required they be screened in separate sweeps, first by the junior Enforcer, then the senior. Over and over the order was repeated, each scan progressively deeper, until both were satisfied that all tampering had been discovered. The final phase was one of restoration.

Her thoughts would not stay still. They returned to the past and ricocheted to the future.

What are you going to do?

It was a worthy question. And one for which she had no adequate answer. West was a decorated, respected officer. Reporting him, even for a flagrant rules violation, would be little more than wasted time. Another confrontation would be as fruitless as the first.

Creel.

The esper's bird-like face swam into view. He'd submitted to a solo scan. Or they're both lying about it outright. Maybe it never took place at all.

It wasn't adding up.

Allegations of psionic tampering, a lead Enforcer who disregarded regulations, and a corporate esper who allowed his own rights to be violated.

Enough. Deal with the present, Annie. Everything else is gravy.

Maelstrom stopped and Annie turned inquiring eyes toward her, then realized that they had returned to the interrogation room. Hesitating briefly, she entered, dropping mental barriers, allowing the surrounding space to speak to her.

It crackled with residual energy. There was no staying still. Her gloves were shed without a second thought and Annie was moving through the eddies and ripples of an invisible sea.

Unrest. Unease. Something not right...could not be seen, only felt. She moved toward the room's center and stopped. You won't get it, you know. The best you can do is be aware of the room's energy and adapt, because it will never reveal its secrets.

 

While McKenzie went through her pre-screening rituals, El headed into an observation room. High-priced monitors displayed the room from several angles. Brimstone, Creel, and West were already crowded around the largest viewscreen. The Security Chief had tiny jewels of sweat above his lip. It was painfully obvious that the two snoops were creeping him out. Just being in the same room was enough to make her skin crawl...sitting so close to them was unimaginable.

Monofilament Rippers imbedded in her arm wanted to push out from her knuckles. The 6-inch blades would carve a razor-edge path across both necks, severing head from body and leaving strips of flesh in their wake. Blood would shower her in crimson rain. It would cleanse away some of her fear, her fury.

Would it?

Something has to.

Rather than compete for space, she pulled a set of cables from her chromed arm and jacked into the security network, dividing her world into two, with the little Enforcer neatly displayed on one side and the three stooges huddled on the other.

You don't want to see this.

An outsider would wonder why everyone was so interested. Kyle Richmond was a middle-aged lab rat who had worked for Shogunata going on 13 years. The brief rundown she'd uploaded listed him as a widower and father of one son, Kevin. Very boring. Except that the portly gentleman worked in Research and Development.

R & D. Proud parents of modern innovation. Want faster reflexes? Try booster chips. Need to fly a shuttle? Here's piloting 101. Oh, and let's not forget the nastier devices. Explosive implants triggered through sub-space radio waves. Death at the edge of the galaxy, and the killer didn't have to leave his living room. Controller chips, drugs...worse things.

Her stomach knotted tightly. You know all about black ops hardware, don't you, El?

Richmond was escorted into the interrogation room. The lines of tension etched in his face told a tale of nervousness and fear. McKenzie rose to greet him and gestured toward the padded chair opposite hers. Her face softened. Even through the imperfect lens of a camera, the telepath communicated a gentle solidity, an almost tangible calm that was as contagious as it was alluring.

"Hello, Mr. Richmond." The blonde woman's soft accent floated over the intercom. "I'm Anna McKenzie."

Annie watched apprehension flit along the lab tech's rounded features. He was an older man, possessing a thick mop of graying hair worn a trifle too long to be conservative. His brown eyes were human, natural. Fear's face was starkly visible through their panes.

"Is this your first screening?" Her eyes tracked to the beefy fingers that were twisting together. They were not the finely tuned instruments one expected from a technician.

"No." There was a quaver to his rich baritone. "This will be my fifth."

Green eyes dropped to the tiny screen of her handheld unit and confirmed the information. Four previous scans...four different telepaths...all was in order. She faced him once more. Perspiration dotted the florid forehead.

"How can I ease your discomfort?" That's it, Annie, quiet tones. If you can't get him to settle down, this will be horribly painful for the both of you.

Her question elicited a wry grin. Richmond's dark eyes appraised her carefully as if seeing her for the first time. "Well, Officer, short of not doing this, I don't see how."

"Mac." Annie let her back come to rest in the chair. "Call me Mac." Layer by layer, she lowered her shielding. The distant voice tapping at her brain transformed into a muffled mumble, chaotic in its haphazard rambling. As another wall was dismantled, Richmond's surface thoughts clarified. They were erratic, jumping from one topic to the next without pause. Remembered pain, pointed loathing characterized his recollections of prior screenings. One of the espers, a tall brunette with pale gray eyes, was particularly unpleasant. Her resentment of Normals had been transmitted quite clearly to Richmond. Annie made a note of that for follow up later. "It won't be like that, this time," she told him, putting all the reassurance she could muster in those words.

Her statement startled the lab tech. "How did you -" Surprise gave way to stunned disbelief. "You've already started?" At her nod he continued. "I didn't... I didn't feel you." Gratitude flooded across their link, warming her from the inside. Richmond's next hope-filled thought made her heart constrict for the pain one of her brethren had inflicted. "Maybe it won't hurt. God that would be nice."

You're getting too close, Annie.

She stilled her empathic response and refocused.

Richmond wanted to trust her. She was inside him now and could easily pick up on his internal dialogue. "She has such pretty eyes, and kind. Like Kimiko's eyes. Not the color, but the warmth." A small Asian woman walked through the corridors of his mind. Annie could fairly hear the brushed whisper of her kimono, the quiet tread of her bare feet. A restaurant...she worked at a restaurant. Soon a backdrop was painted in his consciousness. Rice paper walls, gleaming floors, soft pillows on which to sit arrayed themselves neatly .

"What is it called?"

"The Petal Throne. I've been a regular for about 6 years."

The last vestiges of dread seeped away from her tablemate, and soon he was roaming around the thoughtscape restaurant like a toddler bent on discovery. "It's so real!" More details surfaced and soon the small business was fairly humming with patrons. "How are you doing this?"

His reaction made her smile, a wide, genuine smile. Richmond's pleasure pulsed like orchestral music, vibrating in her, striking a chord of harmonious response. When Kimiko stepped into their crowded room, though, his thoughts vectored in a more primal direction. Their heartbeats quickened together. "She's truly lovely." His mind's eye followed the curve of a calf and up to a hip's graceful swell and higher...

Whoa there, Annie.

Warmth suffused her cheeks. Every time this happened she was always surprised and inevitably embarrassed.

He's right, though. She's magnificently beautiful .

She shook her head to shake away the man's reactions. "Kyle?"

"Yes?" His answer was a distant afterthought.

"It's time to go to work."

It was the techs turn to be embarrassed. The poor fellow stumbled over his own thoughts several times trying to make an excuse, then discarding it, trying to apologize, but losing the words, trying to shrink into a tiny, unnoticeable lump, but finding that physics was simply not cooperating. Annie brushed her thoughts across his. "Don't worry about it."

Richmond's embarrassment over falling into fantasy made him turn to his job with a convert's zeal. Soon they were traipsing past black laboratory counters amid smells of ozone and other metallic, chemical smells. Glass beakers and Bunsen burners adorned the flat surfaces like warped decorations.

A mad scientist's living room .

Her companion chuckled at the thought. She had not meant to transmit it. Such accidental crossovers were common though. With gentle, but firm, purpose she guided Richmond through his recent memories, watching them scroll past with pointed concentration. Her influence kept the lab tech's agile mind from wandering too far afield. Most of it was singularly dull, an endless parade of chemicals and printouts that blurred past with reassuring monotony. After their impromptu rendezvous at The Throne, her partner found this phase of the scan to be tedious beyond belief. Laced with boredom, however, remained an amazement that he was enjoying the screening - for once.

Then it happened. The smooth flow of memory jumped. Not much. Scarcely a ripple, in fact. "Go back, Kyle," she instructed. "Please."

He complied readily enough, confusion making him more alert.

It was a simple replay. She saw words multiply across a computer display amid the raucous sounds of "Slash City," a poser band that mimicked an ancient rock group called The Goo Goo Dolls. Richmond's taste in music was...questionable. Annie felt his slight grin. The memory flickered. They watched again. And again. Each time the thought stream skipped - like her heart did when Maelstrom stood close enough for them to share warmth.

Her mind suddenly filled with the dark woman's image, bronzed length leaning casually against a tree, glacier blue eyes warmed with bright sunlight, surrounded by the smells of leather...loam...and life.

McKenzie. What. Are. You. Doing?

There was no need to continue. Tampering had been confirmed. Carefully she began to disengage her thoughts from those of Richmond. The poor man was disturbed by their findings. She couldn't blame him. Someone had wiped out a portion of his memory and substituted something else.

Good job, too. I'd say Orange Rating, an eight at least.

But there are no telepaths of such power assigned to Shogunata.

Damn. He might have been tapped by a rival corporation.

That would extend the investigation indefinitely, and significantly raise the difficulty of success.

Their minds separated. She and the tech regarded each other silently. These moments -- when a scan ended, when it had been pleasant - these moments always left her feeling empty and alone. Casting Richmond a gentle half-smile, she made ready to report her findings.

 

Chapter Five

Pain from El's fingers drew her out of the Hades of her own thoughts. Her flesh hand was closed in a fist so tight that the blood was forced out. Only white knuckles and blue fingernails remained. She opened her hand slowly.

The two Hounds were finally finished for the day. All that remained was for them to file preliminary findings with Shogunata and the Guild. Brimstone had graciously volunteered to stay with them - especially when she stalked out of the room without a backward glance.

El paced inside the elevator. Tonight it seemed to be moving slower than normal. Its silent climb left too much time to reflect.

She did not want to think about McKenzie. She didn't want to remember how careful the esper had seemed while poking around in Richmond's mind. Those emerald eyes had watched his face steadily. Each movement of his eyes, the tiny muscles at his cheeks and temples, even the thinning of his lips had been noted. Occasionally she glanced down at his hands, but always, always she was watching.

You were watching too. Watching the way she smiled at his pleasure, listening to her voice become soothing and gentle when he was agitated.

Polished brass doors opened. She stepped into a hallway plushly carpeted in lavender. Walls just a paler shade than the floor led down to a massive door of gleaming mahogany. The cadre of suited bodyguards made way, respecting the hardened look of menace staining her features. One of them whispered through an intradermal link, paused, then nodded to his fellows. The door was opened.

Aultman's office glittered in a hypnotic display of silver. It coated doorknobs, highlighted the massive black desk, and framed the huge wall of windows that looked out upon a bleak city skyline. Alexandra Aultman was a tall woman, just shy of El's height, but thinner. The argent beauty that surrounded her only made the woman's golden radiance more obvious. She was a goddess in vermeil, offering the promise of riches, of warm luxury - but only on the surface.

Frigid brown eyes looked up. "You are disturbing me, Maelstrom."

The sensible part of her was screaming in alarm. She should just leave, but pent up frustration and blistering rage drowned out all restraint. El slammed both hands onto the obsidian desk. "Just what fucking game are you playing now?"

A sensual smile played with the woman's full lips. "I wish that for once, little Ellie, you would try to start your conversations at the beginning." Her voice was coy, seductive. She rose. Wrapped in an azure dress that fit like the pleasure of sin, Alexandra was so lovely it hurt to look at her. That lanky body drifted around the desk, seeming to float above the lavender sea of carpet rather than touch it.

Maelstrom's eyes refused to tear away from the flaxen vision that approached. Heated moisture began a slow trickle as her body remembered the feel of sweat-coated skin against skin. Power and passion were the weapons of their battle, and their bodies the fields on which war was waged. No prisoners were taken. For El it was the oblivion of sensation that attracted. Her demons were smothered, and all that mattered was the hand tangling in her hair, the mouth, brutal in its demands, blazing a swath of fire down her neck. Soldiers of torment, they scrambled pleasure with pain, forcing responses beyond human capacity.

Don't.

She could feel hot breath on her neck. Ghostly fingers slid up the back of her thighs, and around, and up...her dripping sex ached to feel them slick-coated with nectar, slipping in...

No.

She struggled away from those hands, that touch. "You set me up." Across the room wasn't far enough. The golden goddess could still reach her with a glance.

Teeth glistered white, like bone, caught in a lurid smile that passed the hazy border of sanity and dipped into the depths of madness. El's implants tore away from it and moved upward to the muddy orbs that stared into hers. Fury clouded them into spiraling black shadows. "And if I did, lover?" A graceful stride brought her within inches.

Aultman smelled of sex and ecstasy. The musky aroma mixed with perfume into a heady combination. It seeped into El like winter's chill. Only instead of leaving her shivering with cold, she was shaking with desire... raw, fiery desire.

Lips found her neck, biting, sucking. Unbidden, a moan escaped her throat. Hands yanked back her head savagely and El was falling... She cupped Aultman's backside, grinding their torsos together.

Then there was only pain.

It lanced through her, a hot-cold lightning bolt of agony that collapsed her to the floor. She whimpered.

"Never." Aultman's voice pierced her psyche. The bright, hot torture increased. "Ever." Another notch. El heard herself cry out against the shimmering conflagration in her head, that sharp spike of pain that drove her to curl on her side. "Demand an explanation from me again." Each word drove into her like shards of glass beneath the fingernails of her consciousness.

Make it stop. Please. Make it stop.

Aultman snatched up a handful of hair. "If little Ellie is worried about being caught by the nasty Enforcer..." A mouth pressed against hers, pressing lips against teeth, then biting, hard, drawing blood. From far away she felt it run down her chin. Breaking away, her tormentor finished in a hissed whisper. "Kill her." Fingers wrapped around her throat, squeezing, nails piercing.

"Please...the pain -" El's hoarse croak was barely audible, even to her own ears.

But Aultman heard it. "Yesssss." Silken strands of menace caressed her ears. "The pain."

She screamed when it increased. All thought fled. Warm liquid soaked into her black jeans as her last vestiges of control faded. This time when darkness beckoned, El welcomed it.

Alexandra Aultman stood over Maelstrom's body, watching as it continued to twitch long after the woman had lost consciousness. Tiny cries of pain still issued from her. It was...deliciously irresistible. The ebony-haired assassin lost her temper so seldom these days! She leaned back against her gleaming desk of volcanic rock, letting her mind subtly manipulate the intensity of pain being transmitted by the chips in her head. Spasms from the dark woman's body responded to its invisible signals.

All good things must end, though, Alex. Pity.

Her smirk widened as one long-boned finger stroked over her desk's intercom.

"Yes, ma'am?" Her new secretary answered from the adjoining room. The tentative tone used by the little Asian woman meant she'd no doubt heard Maelstrom's plaintive cries. A cruel smile widened her lips. Perhaps later this evening she would see whether Kimiko had been repulsed or excited by the sounds. The conquest promised to be intriguing at the very least.

"Send Journeyman Enforcer McKenzie to my office." She paused. "I have to step out for a moment, so just let her in and tell her to get comfortable."

"Yes, ma'am." The connection closed.

No, no, dear. That's "Mistress."

Sighing that her little round of discipline was at a reluctant end, Alex turned off the punishment chip. Malestrom's body went totally limp, a boneless heap lying in her own waste. She would be in a black, homicidal rage when she awoke - which should be about the time McKenzie arrived. Aultman stepped through her private entrance. Monitors for the hidden cameras in her office were only a few doors down, and she wanted to watch the show in comfort. The Hound would not have a chance to blink before joining her sister in death.

And then, my murderous assassin, you will be hunted by the Guild for the rest of your very short life. They'll track you to the edge of forever and then mind fuck you until you're an incoherent vegetable. Your last days will be spent in your own private, unending hell as you slowly starve to death in an oubliette.

A fitting end for the bitch who murdered my father. A fitting end indeed.


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