[Author's Note: This took a week longer than I expected. A new job will do that to you. Anyways, in Part 7, Winter gets her first mission, and Tivoli meets with the main woman. The exposition from Vivian was originally going to be Part 1, but it wasn't furry enough. Next week, Tivoli learns the system, and her fate.]
Venom: Beautiful Killers. Part 7.
"Out of nowhere...these two wolves arrived."
St. Croix sits at the front desk, trying to arrange the papers on it into a respectable-looking pile. Among the work-related pieces of paper that are common to the office, there lies a different pile of laminated papers. These laminated pieces look like small, freshly-made posters. Like gems, they glisten under the fluorescent lights of the lobby. There are about twenty of them in the pile. There had been more, but the anthros in the room have been picking through them one by one, taking one or two with them. On each one is a face, a picture of a man or woman, usually human. Underneath each face are words and figures describing the person being depicted. Some of the faces look blurry, as if the pictures were taken by an amateur photographer.
While St. Croix tries to clean up the desk, the anthros, about ten of them, mill around the waiting room. They seem to be comparing and contemplating the faces they have taken. Among them is Winter, being thoroughly ignored, not that she minds. She bides her time, and when the front desk is less crowded, she moves to it, rifling through the laminated papers.
The gray wolf smiles at her. "So, you got all three apprentice hunts finished? You one of us now?"
"I guess so," she answers, not looking at him. "The guys over there clearly don't want me to be."
"Nah. They do that to anyone new. Change seems to scare them. But what really makes them mad is that you're Shiloh's girl. He has a reputation here that is second to none. They either hate him or fear him, so they can't do anything to you."
"They don't have the guts."
Winter now looks at him. She returns his smile with one of her own. "I'm Winter."
"I know. We've met already. I saw you the first time you came here and introduced myself."
"Well, now it's official." She holds out her right hand. He shakes it. "St. Croix. That's a nice name you got there. Say, what happened to the carpet?"
He shrugs. "There was a fight. One of the workers got into it with one of the executives. Blood was spilled."
"Wow." She releases her grip. "Who would fight one of the bosses?"
"Pamila, that's who. You don't know her. She's--"
Winter scoffs. "The female red fox. Actually I do know her. She made fun of me the first time I was here. She treated me as if I did something wrong to her.
"She was angry at someone else at the time. She just transferred her ire toward you."
"Who was she angry with?"
St. Croix shakes his head. "Sorry. Not gonna tell you. Everyone else in here gossips like crazy. I'm not one of them. If you want to know so bad, you can ask Pamila yourself."
"Hmm." Winter shrugs and turns her attention to the laminated papers. "These are the marks, huh?"
"Yep. All marked for death, as the saying goes. You ready to pick one?"
"Well...." She looks on at the choices, less confident than before.
"Yeah, everyone is uncertain of their picks the first time they hunt solo. You want some advice? Pick a mark close to home. If you're lucky, you don't have to travel very far, you're more likely to get who you're after, and you'll sleep in your own bed that same night."
"Well, after the ones Shiloh and I did together, it doesn't seem so difficult to do." She laughs. "And it shouldn't be a problem just...picking one at random."
"Don't act so flippant. It's not as easy as going up to your mark and killing him. The best workers choose carefully because doing this job takes a lot of study. You gotta--"
"I'm not worried. I'll bet you I can easily go after the first mark I choose among all these ones." She flips through the laminated pile. "I learned from the best."
"Just like that? You're not gonna even scrutinize the others?"
"The one I choose will be just as good as all the rest, right? So it shouldn't matter which I pick."
"I think it will, and I don't think you wanna chase the very first guy you draw from that pile. You're gonna lose that bet. There's no shame in looking them all over. Just pick the one that's right for you at the moment."
Winter laughs again. "What? You don't think I can do it?"
"I'm saying you shouldn't."
The white wolf leers at her gray companion, showing what one would rightfully call and wicked smile. "Don't worry. This will be easy." Still looking at him, she pulls a piece of paper from the center of the pile of marks. Satisfied with her choice, she walks behind the desk and stands next to St. Croix. Smugly, she holds the paper to her face.
He shakes his head. "So? What's it say?"
"All right. Matthew Ambrose. 39 years old, Caucasian. Simple so far." She clears her throat and skims the page until she gets to the end. "Price--Thirty thousand dollars. Last known location...." She leans against the wall behind her. "Um...."
"Last known location, Chino Hills." She lowers the paper. "Where in the world is Chino Hills? I mean, how far away is it?"
They look at each other confusedly. St. Croix looks uncomfortable; hearing the location has somehow caught him off guard. "Never been there," he says. "Hold on a second." He swivels his chair until he faces the front door where most of the workers have now gathered. "Hey, Hoeness!"
The German Shepherd breaks free from the leaving crowd, but stops halfway to the desk. "Yeah?"
"You know the L.A. suburbs better than I do. Where's Chino Hills?"
"It's Southeast of here. It's just off of--"
Winter interrupts. "Well how far away is it? Ten miles? Fifteen?"
Hoeness stares at her, chastising the interruption with a dirty look. "More like thirty. You'd have to go to the Santa Monica Freeway, then the San Bernardino Freeway, then...I don't know. That's a bit beyond my scope. If you're gonna go that far, you better get a map." With that, he leaves them.
St. Croix shakes his head again. "Looks like you're going all the way to San Bernardino County." He observes her face with great interest, feeling sorry for her as her confidence has clearly waned. "You still going after him?"
She looks at him sadly for a few seconds, banging her tail repeatedly against the wall. Suddenly, she stands up straight, tugging at her blouse to straighten the folds. "Yes. Yes I am."
He shrugs. "Good for you."
Winter tries to smile again. "I'll just get Shiloh to take me. He's the one of us that travels, so he'll help me a bunch."
St. Croix stands. "Um, you know that 'solo mission' implies that you do this yourself, right? In fact, the executives insist on it."
She nods. "Fine. I'll find a way." Pulling herself away from the front desk, she takes a couple of nervous, deep breaths. "I'm gonna get this guy. I'll get him and the five-figure bounty."
"I like your confidence. I wish you luck."
"By the way, the new girl you brought with you...she looks nice. What's her name?"
Before Winter could mention Tivoli, a well-dressed figure quickly enters the room from the hallway. It is Robert Crevecoeur, holding a paper plate in his left hand. The plate, and a corner of his mouth, have icing on them. "Listen up. There are refreshments in the conference room," he shouts, getting the attention of everyone in the room. "If anyone wants to have a little something before they leave, you can go in. You can take any of the food you want, but don't touch the wine. That's all." He returns back from where he came.
St. Croix and Winter watch as Hoeness, a couple of other dogs, and a couple of red foxes disappear through the hallway and to the food. "What's going on?" he asks.
Winter walks away from the desk, intent on following the herd. "It's an anniversary party. There's meat and cheese."
"Are you coming?" She runs into the hallway without waiting for an answer. St. Croix and a couple of others follow her. They enter the conference room, just in front of the door that leads to the chief's office.
Inside the office, meanwhile, it seems that Tivoli has turned the "job interview" on its head. It started with a few rudimentary questions; name, age, interests. The ocelot answered them nervously. Then her curiosity just took over. Now, she is the one asking questions and Vivian Cross is answering them, somewhat impatiently.
The chief keeps looking at her watch. "You know, it's highly irregular for me to be put on the spot like this, especially from someone who doesn't know the system. Especially from someone who hasn't even set foot in the premises until today."
Tivoli sighs. Her deep breathing gives away how fast her heart is pounding. She is so into the moment that it probably escapes her how offensive she is probably coming across to the interviewer. She tries to calm herself. "I'm sorry." She takes a few more breaths. "I'm...just really happy, that's all."
"That's not happy. That's hyper. You need to relax."
"No offense, but everyone keeps telling me that. My friends tell me that. The guys from the last place I worked always told me that. I can't relax on someone else time, so please bear with me."
Vivian waits a few seconds, then asks, "Where did you last work?"
"I worked...." She calmly swallows. "I used to work at a food pantry. It was only on a short-term basis, but I got my first shot at...seeing how a business is run."
"Why'd you stop?"
"I...um...." She closes her eyes as now she faces a dilemma. Her mind is racing, trying to figure out an excuse that does not include Winter killing a mark. "Hold on; it'll come to me."
Vivian taps the desk with a stray pencil. "This meeting isn't going very smoothly."
Tivoli slumps her shoulders and nods in agreement. Whatever good feelings she had upon entering the building had all but disappeared when the interview started. Now she looks completely debilitated.
The chief looks at her watch yet again, then sees the state of the ocelot. Exhaling with frustration, she moves her chair until it is directly in front of the ocelot. She sits right in front of her; they can now no longer ignore each other's eyes. "I think I'm hurting you more than I'm helping you. Look at me, okay? Settle down. You seemed to be more comfortable when you were asking me these questions. I like that you're inquisitive. I've interviewed a couple of felines who were just the same way. But you're asking too many unrelated questions and mixing them together. You're not going to satisfy your curiosity that way. Just tell me what you want to know, and I'll try not to get angry. Okay?"
Vivian's voice is soothing and deliberately paced. The ocelot looks and listens, slowing her breathing and resting her hands on her lap. She humbly nods and opens her eyes. "Winter gave me some details about this place and...what is done here. I didn't expect someone like you to be...." Now she's trying to find the right words to use.
"I used to get that a lot from the workers here. 'I can't believe you're the person in charge.' They hear about the hits, and they want to join the club and make the money. They are told that the chief has to interview them first, so they are sent to little ol' me." Vivian laughs softly. "It blows their minds. You want to know how it happened?" She waits for Tivoli's answer--a nod of the head. "Good. I'll tell you what. I'll tell you the full story and then we'll do the interview properly. I don't want to you be afraid of me. First of all, I'm completely legit. If you look behind you, next to the door, you'll see my credentials. I know everything there is to know about--"
"Again, no offense, but I've seen diplomas. Everyone shows them off these days. They don't mean anything to me."
"Ah." Vivian stands and goes behind her desk. She opens one of the drawers and pulls out two magazines. One is a local publication, distributed all over that particular county. Her top half is seen posing on the front cover. The other is a publication with a much broader reach. She is on this one too, posing side by side with Ted, one of the men at the anniversary celebration in the conference room. "As you can see, we're quite a big deal. I just want to show you that I know what I'm doing. This company has been thriving for three years, and we're quickly becoming one of the biggest names in this city."
"Impressive. Who's this guy?" She picks up the magazine.
"That is one of the executives of the company, and my partner. His name is Theodore. If you choose to join us, he'll be your boss. He's the one who leads the 'hitman' part of the company. I'm the loan officer who leads the titles-and-loans part."
"Extraordinary. But I can't believe you'd be the type to allow killers to work with you. Again, no offense meant."
"Actually, I kind of encouraged Theodore in his endeavors." Vivian sighs. "As a matter of fact, I have, believe it or not, killed someone myself."
Tivoli drops, then picks up the magazine. It shakes slightly in her nervous hands. "Who?"
"My first husband."
The ocelot drops the magazine again. This time, she fumbles trying to pick it back up. The chief slowly walks to her and kneels down to pick up the magazine, scaring Tivoli into breathing heavily once again.
"Are you all right?"
"You killed him? What happened?"
"Well...let's just say that he...didn't handle stress very well. He was great when things went the way they were supposed to. But when the shit hit the fan, he hit me." She stands, taking the magazine to the desk with her. "It carried on for a couple of years."
"Well, why didn't you bolt? There couldn't have been a good enough reason to stay with him. Why didn't you just leave?"
"The reason was three years old at the time." Vivian sits on her side of the desk. "I thought she made the marriage worth saving. The fact that we had a kid only softened him a little, but it never stopped him. At about the time she turned four, I decided that I had been beaten enough. So, three years ago last summer, I ended it for good."
Tivoli whispers, "Wow," looking at the chief as if she were looking at a brand new car.
"One of my friends is a lawyer, a prosecutor, who had many assault and murder cases under her belt. She pretty much specialized in putting away dumb shits like my first husband. I learned much about the law from her. She also tried to convince me to leave him. But I was determined to make it work, so I didn't listen. It's kind of ironic. When I did kill him, she was the first person I called. When she arrived at my house, she saw everything the way I arranged it."
"You planned the killing? That makes it premeditated, doesn't it? That's first degree murder."
Vivian chuckles. "Well, look who knows a little something about the law. Or did you just get that from television? "
"How'd you get away with it?"
"I made sure that any damage done to me was fresh and visible. That meant that I wouldn't do it the way other abused wives kill their husbands, with him asleep. I had to let him hit me first, and it had to be a noticeable injury. Sure enough, the day I planned to kill him, he was angry and drunk. Jackpot. It took about an hour after he came home, but true to form, he came after me. I made sure I was combative so that he wouldn't miss an opportunity. He punched me in the face, breaking a couple of teeth. I think I was out of it for a few seconds, but when he picked me up to hit me again, the plan was in full effect. I managed to run upstairs and into the bedroom, where I had the gun ready. It was hidden under the mattress. I picked up the Colt, sat on the floor in front of the door, and waited for him. When he came in, he got one, right between the eyes." She stops to observe Tivoli's awed face. "He was closer than I had planned, but everything else went as I wanted it to. When I called my friend to come over, I waited at the front door. I made sure she saw what he did to me before she saw him lying there, with half his head gone. When the cops came, I made sure they focused more on me than on the blood and brain matter in the room. I wanted--"
"All right! I get it!" Tivoli shakes her head disgustedly. "You don't need to be so hardcore."
Vivian looks at her angrily. "Guess what, girly. You better get used to it. If you really want to do what the other workers are doing, you better get used to blood and gore. It's part of the job. That is, unless you're like a couple of the guys who prefer to kill by asphyxiation."
Tivoli looks at her knees. "I'm sorry."
"Forget it. You still look really nervous. Would you like something to drink?"
"No, I'm fine." She takes more deep breaths. "So you got away with it."
"It was tricky for a while. My kid and I were separated. I went to a holding cell and she went...." She exhales. "Well, never mind where they took her. I also had to fight off a civil lawsuit that lasted a couple of months. This is the time when Max got involved. I'd like you to know this because he is the reason this entire setup exists. Max is a friend of mine, a distinguished member of the police force. He came to the house a couple of times whenever the neighbors called police to settle any 'domestic disturbances.' We became fast friends. He helped pay for my defense since I had little money. My husband was the breadwinner. He also hid a lot of money from me, so when I killed him, I lost access to it forever. I owe Max my life. After I got cleared and the case was closed, he tried to help me find a job. I didn't feel like working for anyone, so I scoured the internet for at-home jobs."
"Now why didn't I think of that?"
Tivoli chuckles. "Nothing. So you were looking for a job and you found this, huh?"
"I have a degree in business management. So, when I saw "at-home loan broker," I jumped at the chance right away. I got the job a few weeks later. At about the same time, Max retired. At the retirement party, I told him the job I got, and he laughed at the thought of me giving out loans from my house. He said he'd help me get properly situated. A couple of days later, he brought me here, to this building. I asked him what we were doing here, and he said, 'It's where your new office is.'" Vivian laughs.
"He bought this entire thing? He must have felt sorry for you."
"Well, perhaps. Back in 2010, this building was much smaller, and it was affordable. The old business that used to be here closed down. It was a victim of the shoddy economy. Max chose this place because it's close to a strip mall. I could go there to get furniture and other things I needed for this place. He helped me pay for advertising while I spruced up the offices and got a new computer. Two weeks later, I started my new career. And let me tell you, the dividends came almost immediately. Everyone who came to me had big financial problems and needed loans big time. I remember one day, I served almost eighty people before lunchtime. It was hard work, but it would pay handsomely."
"I'll bet. I wish I had that sweet a gig." Tivoli crosses her legs, making herself more informal toward the woman interviewing her. She laughs. "So when do the furries come in?"
The chief gives a broad smile. "Max made it a possibility but they came in because of Ted. One month into my new job, Max was so impressed with my abilities, and the potential monetary benefits, that he joined me. He knew what to do and he helped decrease my workload. You should know that Max, being as old as he was, had a lot of friends. Many of them were ex- cops who visited him from time to time. And when they heard that he was working here, they'd come here to see him. One of them was Ted, the guy you just saw in this magazine." She holds it up for Tivoli to see. "On the day he came here to see Max, he had been involved in a shooting and had been put on leave. He would eventually lose his job. Max felt sorry for him and set him up to work with us. A couple of months later, the three of us are helping the community and making money hand over fist."
"And Ted's gonna become my boss, right?"
"Yeah, about that. Ted is a maniac about law and order. He's real big on fairness. So even though he had a job with us, he was always stewing about his firing. He was even more angry when he heard that the guys he had been chasing, the felons who cost him his job, got off on 'technicalities.' I tolerated his outbursts until it started to interfere with his work."
"You couldn't fire him?"
"You kidding? He put in the long hours. He even worked on Saturdays to handle the upsurge in clients. Anyone else I hired would pale in comparison. I had to keep him, so I asked him what I could to do handle his issues. He told me, without mincing words, that he wanted them dead. The felons that cost him his job. He had been after them for a long time, and it would always eat at him until they got what they deserved. If he could go after them, vigilante style, he would. But he didn't know where to begin. That evening, I called my lawyer friend and asked her if she knew of them, a small group of three armed robbers. She not only knew them, she had arraigned them in the past. I lied to her, telling her that those guys could come here, to the office, and come after Ted, since he's seen their faces."
"Did this make Ted feel better?"
"I made the call from the lobby. Ted was there too, looking at me as if I were his savior. My friend told me that the police were still looking for them everywhere, but she would also get her private investigator to ask around. Well, a couple of days later, it happened. It was reported that two of the robbers in that three-man team had been killed, and there was no sign of Sergio, the third one. Ted saw it on TV during his lunch break. I can only imagine the delight he felt at that moment. He was in high spirits the rest of the day. That night, at closing time, we argued. I thought that his obsession would be over, but he wanted the third one dead too. I told him to stop--"
"Wait! Wait a minute. Who killed the other two?"
"A couple of wolves. We didn't know that at the time, and it was a mystery for a few days. After those two felons got killed, I wanted it to be all over. Ted wouldn't give it a rest, and I knew it would interfere with our work once again. He went so far as to tell me that he would pay any price for Sergio, the ringleader, to be killed too. He had been getting the better of Ted for more than a year. My partner wanted vengeance, and I wanted peace. So the next morning, against my better judgment, I called my friend again. She didn't answer, but her P.I. did. I was about to leave a message when, Ted...." Vivian chuckles. "My God, he was a maniac. He snatched the phone from me and yelled at the P.I, telling him to find Sergio and get back to him. Ted was gonna go all vigilante this time."
Tivoli shakes her head. "This is the guy I'm gonna be working for? He sounds really unbalanced."
"Trust me. He's really smart and level-headed, just not at that moment. He told the private investigator what he told me. He would pay any price, and he meant any price, for Sergio's head. They talked for a couple of more minutes before he hung up. Then he told me, 'They're on their way over. They'll be here in a few hours.' I got scared. I asked him who was coming. He said the private investigator was coming, and he was bringing someone over. We went to work that day really nervous, and I was starting to dread my partnership with Theodore. Out of nowhere, at closing time, these two wolves arrived." Vivian stands. "I don't mind telling you, I was intimidated."
"Were they the ones who killed the robbers?"
"That's right. Lucky for us, they arrived after hours. They were each at least six feet tall--two gray wolves. They were muscular; very fit and lively. Get this straight--if I told you to picture what a pair of hired killers would look like, you would picture these two. We were about to leave the office when they arrived. The shorter one introduced himself as St. Croix. He was my friend's private investigator. The taller one, he introduced as Shiloh. He was the one who killed Sergio's accomplices."
"Now, Shiloh I know."
"Yeah, he's the one who had me talk to you. He said you were someone I really should know."
Tivoli chuckles. "Wow. He said that, huh?"
"Was he wrong?" She looks at the ocelot, carefully examining her behavior.
Tivoli clears her throat. "I hope not. I would really like this job."
Vivian smiles as she stretches her arms above her head. "Excuse me. I haven't had to reminisce in so long."
"I know Shiloh still works here. What about the other one?"
"Yep. St. Croix works here too. In fact, he works both jobs--killer and loan broker."
"He's no longer a P.I.?"
"After they introduced themselves, St. Croix confessed that they killed Sergio's guys. He said it was an accident; she told him to look for anything about the group and report back to her later. With Shiloh's help, they started looking. They went to their connections--other furries who don't trust police. Thanks to the information, they found Sergio's group. Problem was, when they got to the location, Sergio got the drop on them. St. Croix told us that he was completely overpowered when Shiloh struck. Apparently, Shiloh got them with his bare hands."
"He can do that?"
"Well, after seeing what that wolf looks like, I don't blame those two for dying. Anyway, St. Croix said that he was so ashamed, he turned in his resignation that very day. But since Ted told him he would pay any price to find Sergio, they came right over. True to his word, Ted went to his office, and then came out with a handful of hundred dollar bills. The bills were his, not the company's. He gave the wolves a little piece, then said they'd get even more if they got to Sergio, and to take all the time they needed."
Suddenly, a loud crash springs from outside the office. The crash was followed by laughter and shouts of anger. Tivoli chuckles, recognizing Winter's laugh. Vivian exhales and leaves her desk to investigate the noise. While she is away, the ocelot leaves her seat and goes to the front of the desk. She picks up the magazine with Vivian and Ted on it and stares at the man, trying to study him.
Ted has a toothy grin that embellishes his strong jaw line. The business suit he is wearing makes him look like a billionaire. "You look forty," Tivoli says. "Maybe fifty. You don't look like an ex-cop." She scoffs. "You look nice, but you're not fooling anyone with that hair." She smirks as she tosses the paper on the messy desk. "I'm no good with authority figures. If you're not a cop anymore, I think I can manage this."
The door opens, making room for the chief. Vivian creeps inside, looking tired. "Someone dropped a plate of food. At least the wine is safe. So, listen. If you have doubts about Ted, I've told him to stay in the conference room until we're done here. Then you can see him and ask him anything you want. In fact, he's the guy who'll decide your fate within our walls."
"Thanks." Tivoli seems better. She is at least more able to smile. "Was Sergio ever caught?"
"Caught and killed. Shiloh and St. Croix took the little cash Ted gave them and were gone for three days. They would come back here hours after the news of Sergio's death made the rounds. No clues, no witnesses. Thing is, they came back with someone. There was a dog with them." She folds her arms and looks at the ceiling. "I don't remember his name, but St. Croix solicited his help in getting Sergio. Ted gave them each ten thousand dollars. The dog was so impressed...." Vivian laughs. "That's right! He left us a card. Hold on a minute." She moves past Tivoli, who quickly gets out of the way. She opens a drawer and fishes through the papers inside. After a few seconds, she pulls out a small card and hands it to the ocelot.
"T. R. Prosper. He gave you this?"
"After he got his ten grand, he gave it to Ted and told us to call him if we ever needed his services again."
"We didn't ask. Anyway, they took Ted's money and left as if nothing happened. Ted paid his price and was as happy as he had ever been."
"But that wasn't it. Clearly it wasn't. That wasn't only two wolves that I passed in the waiting room this morning."
"It was supposed to be over, but Ted, just like Max, has loads of friends. They're mostly cops and ex-cops. Ted set two of them to work here after they lost their jobs. Then two others came to see Max and ended up working here too. Eventually, Ted told them how he got Sergio. That excited them enough that he gave them Prosper's number. Soon, they hired hitmen of their own, and the rest is history. Anyway, they're all here, and I'd like you to meet...." Suddenly, Vivian's face sours in anger. She tsks with dread. "Actually, one of them is in the hospital. I'm gonna visit him after I'm done with you. But you'll get to meet the other four."
"Why so many? Will I be working with them?"
"As far as the loan business goes, Ted and Joseph both have accounting degrees, so they know how to handle the job. They're a big help. As far as the 'hitman' part, Ted and his friends each have specific duties. They facilitate the hunts and the payment plans, so in essence, you'll be working for them, not with them."
"All four of them?!"
"Five actually, as soon as Colin returns." Vivian laughs as Tivoli's panic manifests. She puts her arm around the nervous feline. "Don't get scared. It's not as bad as it sounds. Would you like a tour of the place?"
The ocelot puts her hands behind her back; her fingers are interlocked on the base of her tail. She nods and smiles as the chief leads her out the door. Her heart rate has slowed and she is slowly getting used to the office atmosphere. "I really appreciate that."