by
Homo Habilis
20 Feb 2012





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Posted 20 Feb 2012 07:16
Last edited 29 Feb 2012 06:17
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Venom: Beautiful Killers. Part 22.

#23 of Venom: Beautiful Killers

Author's note: First off, an apology. This is a little long. Longer than I expected it would be. It was so long, I cut out the parts where the dreamer wakes up. I'm sorry if you find part or all of this boring, but it has a death. That's good, right?
Anyway, three short stories made into one chapter. I think I succeeded in what I wanted to do--get Tivoli involved without getting her hands too dirty. Part 23 early next month. Enjoy.

Venom:  Beautiful Killers.  Part 22.

 

"I love my job."

 

Mieri exits her car, the only one currently at the Rapid Recovery parking lot.  It is a nice-looking, black sedan--something she has probably just bought.  Sure enough, it does not have a real license plate, but a temporary one taped to the rear windshield.  As she closes the door, she stares at the building with wide eyes and an open mouth.  It has been a while since she last stepped foot inside, before Monday morning.  The look on her face says that she is a virtual stranger, even though she hardly is.

She is wearing a long, slimming, black dress that reaches all the way down to her ankles.  It makes her look like she is floating as she walks to the front door.  She is the first person there; the door is locked and the lights are off.  She presses her hands against the door and looks through the glass.  A sharp, protracted sigh escapes her mouth and she presses her forehead against it too. 

"I love my job," she says.  "I love my job.  I love my job."

She repeats that line quickly and quietly for the next few minutes, then sits down on the steps in front of the building.  Yawning loudly, she rests the back of her head on the door. 

A black station wagon now creeps across the street and into the lot.  It rolls along the ground quietly, stopping for a brief second to turn into one of the many empty spaces.  It is so quiet, it does not even register to Mieri, who still has her eyes closed.  The front door opens to reveal a well-dressed, freshly-groomed executive.  Simon is wearing a tan suit and slacks, a far cry from the black that the bosses usually wear.  His attitude is also different; he is smiling and humming to himself.  Once he sees his guest, however, his face pretty much returns to normal.

He slams the car door.  "Well, if it isn't the prodigal red panda.  You're pretty damn early. "

Mieri's startled eyes move quickly back and forth.  She looks around for the source of the sound.  In her confusion, she looks at the door behind her, thinking that it's finally open.

"When you last left us, I didn't think you were ever coming back.  It's Thursday, you know.  You said you'd be here on Tuesday morning.  You were pretty adamant about it, in fact.  So what happened?"

"Help me up, please."  She stretches out her right hand and allows him to pick her up off the steps.  "Thank you."

"I shelved your pay in the treasure chest.  I can't get it out now without Ted's permission.  He might not even give it to you after the harsh words you two had on Monday."

"I'm sorry.  I just needed time to...gather myself.  I'm not myself these days."

"You were gone over a month after getting your last mark.  Something bad must have happened, because you're usually eager to do your next job.  It's only me now.  Why don't you tell me what's wrong?"

She dusts off her backside while Simon opens the front door.  She follows him closely, all the while keeping her mouth shut.  He turns the lights on and the lobby glows in its usual warm and familiar form.  There are just twenty chairs again, all facing the television.  The carpet has the dug-in marks of a vacuum cleaner.  The front desk is not just clean, but polished.  Mieri sharply inhales the scent and emits a short chuckle.  "Smells like lemon."

"That's a nice dress you have on.  I'm glad you're finally wearing something formal for the meeting.  It's a nice departure from the T-shirts you always wear."

"Oh, I'm not attending this meeting.  I put this on because I'm going to a funeral at ten.  It's for a friend who died at the Imbroglio.  I just came here to get paid.  Barring that, I want to go back to hunting, and I wanted to see if there are any marks left over from yesterday.  I'm not particular who it is or how much he's worth.  I just wanna go back to work."  Her voice starts to crack slightly.

"I'm sorry.  I feel for you and I'd like to do that, but there's already too much negative fallout from Monday.  Shiloh took a mark worth a large price and everyone's been complaining since.  If I give you one now outside of the meeting, then it'll only--"

"Please...."  Mieri slowly approaches Simon and clasps her hands in front of her.  Her long limbs hang firmly at her sides, trying to desperately hide the fact that she is starting to tremble.  "Please give me a break."

The executive purses his lips and looks at the ceiling.  For reasons he cannot understand, the conditions are getting tense.  Dumbfounded, he shrugs.  "All right.  Wait here; I'll be back in a minute.  Do you want some coffee?"

She shakes her head quickly.  Her attempt at showing a smile is quite pathetic and only strengthens Simon's suspicions.  As he exits, she turns the television on and looks for a seat.

"Good morning, Los Angeles, and happy Thursday!  It's the last day of July, and we are in for a wild August, that is if the last week is any indication.  The gubernatorial race is heating up, a new controversial same-sex marriage issue is now on the ballot, and both LA baseball teams are in their respective playoff hunts.  All this, and there are massive thunderstorms threatening the coast that have been predicted to last for the next couple of days!  All in all, we have a remarkable weekend ahead of us...."

The newscaster is pert and bubbly, practically yelling the news at the viewer.  Mieri closes her eyes and rubs her temples with her fingers.  "Please, shut up," she whispers.  Her shakiness seems to be gone and is giving way to anger.  She folds her arms and listens to the woman at the news desk.  When the lady disappears to make way for the weather and traffic reports, Mieri takes notice.  When she returns on screen minutes later, the panda shuts her eyes once again.

"And now, the news.  To start, California governor Benton 'Eagle' Cartwright continues his reelection campaign and his latest stop is Los Angeles.  It has been a tumultuous month for his administration, but his fortunes may be starting to turn around.  During his press conference, which takes place in about three hours time, the governor is set to announce a new personal aide, just one week after replacing his chief of staff.  It has been a couple of weeks since his old aide, Cam Morris, died in that cowardly bombing attack at the Imbroglio Italian Restaurant.  It has also been over a month since the mysterious death of former chief of staff Lawrence Kaminski.  While both cases are still ongoing, Governor Cartwright is optimistic that...."

Mieri gasps sharply and looks behind her.  Simon has just tapped her shoulder.  "Here you are," he says.  "Four marks.  Look over them quickly."  He hands off the laminated papers to the nervous worker.  "I've got good news and bad news.  The good news is that the most profitable mark still among those is at five digits.  Arlo McDaniels.  The bad news is that nobody wants the job; his whereabouts are not specific enough, and no one wants to do the work to find him.  He's either in Beverly Hills or Bel-Air, or...wherever.  Ravi showed interest, but didn't know where to begin.  The other three marks are no slouches; they just won't pay as much."

"Thanks."  Mieri immediately starts going through the photos and statistics.

"Join me in the conference room once you've made your choice."

She barely listens as she sees the picture of Arlo McDaniels and starts reading the facts and figures below his name.  The sight of the governor being interviewed on television distracts her for a few seconds, but for the most part, she is focused on her task.  Meanwhile, the newscaster pops back on screen.

"Speaking of the Imbroglio, police have reported that they may have a break in the bombing case.  As detectives continue to pore through three sets of camera footage, they are finding new people of interest pretty much everywhere they look.  Working on a previous tip, they are particularly interested in questioning all of the foxes who were at the restaurant at the time the bomb went off.  As we last reported yesterday, the aforementioned tip led to police scouring hundreds of bars in Los Angeles for clues or suspects.  This drew the ire of numerous patrons and bar owners, some of whom have threatened to temporarily close in protest of the numerous raids."

Mieri nods; it looks like she has made her choice.  Just then, the door opens.  She looks up quickly, expecting something bad to happen.  Instead, Pamila slowly enters, cautiously looking around the lobby.  The fox is wearing the same angry look she had with her the last time she came here, so more than ever before, she looks like she is ready for a fight.  She definitely looks prepared with her navy blue tracksuit and tennis shoes.  She is breathing rapidly, having finished a brisk jog.

Mieri sighs loudly and places the marks on her lap.  The breath draws the fox's attention and the women look at one another.  The panda doesn't have a smile or anything similar on her face, but she looks happier to see Pamila than the fox is to see her.  Slowly, as if expecting trouble, with Mieri watching her intently, she creeps her way inside.  The door slowly eases itself closed behind her.  Only the sound of the television is softening the tension.

"Later this hour, we will talk with two such bartenders who are risking the anger of their customers by threatening to close their doors.  It's not just any bar, though.  They happen to be the owners of The Shark Pit, voted the trendiest bar in L.A. by the anthropomorphic community, and they say that the police presence has become 'stifling.'  We'll ask them their views on the investigation and also ask them if running their place is more important than finding the person or persons who bombed the restaurant.  After all, if the perpetrators are also patrons of theirs, they surely have a civic duty to turn them in.  I, for one, hope The Shark Pit cooperates with police in every way possible...."

Pamila flips the bird to the newscaster, "Asshole," then turns away from the television.  Mieri chuckles, quietly cheering her on, but the fox is not staying.  She starts to make her way to the hallway.

"Wait, Pam."  Mieri stands, dropping the marks, and trots to the angry guest.  "Hi, how are ya?"

They stare at each other again.  Pamila acknowledges her with an uninviting stare.  It's as if Mieri has wronged her somehow, even though they have not seen each other in quite a while.  The fox hates the world right now, so her behavior is not surprising.  She clenches her fists, but patiently stands her ground and says nothing.

"Listen, I'm...."  Mieri is nervous; this is her first time speaking with a co-worker in a long time.  "I don't mean to pry, but it was kinda forced on me.  I overheard what some of the guys said on Monday.  I'm really sorry and I wish things were different."  She stops, expecting Pamila to speak.  The fox looks back at her, keeping every part of her body still.  Apparently, the panda is the only one of the two who is going to talk.  "Look, I just wanted to say I'll try to help you in any way that I can...but only if you need it.  I know how much you like your independence."

Pamila suddenly turns away from her and again heads to the hallway.  She sighs and unclenches her fists.  She is less angry now, but the panda's help is most certainly not welcome.

Mieri quickly follows.  "I'm only saying this because it looks like the boys are really going to lord it over you."  She walks slowly, hoping Pamila will listen.  Sure enough, the fox stops.  "I just want you to know...I think they, Hoeness especially, are really looking forward to it.  In fact, I think they have something planned for you once you start...um...."  She stops and shakes her head.  "Again, I'm sorry you're not hunting for the next month.  Just watch out for Hoeness and the others, okay?"

She continues to peer at the back of Pamila's head.  The fox remains quiet and does not turn to face her.  She just stands there, deep in thought, quietly spurning Mieri's hopeful attempts.  After standing in place for about a minute, she starts to walk away again.

"This place is so big," Mieri says.  "I don't see how you can manage cleaning everything.  At least you'll have some help, right?"

Pamila stops again.  This time, she turns to the panda and opens her mouth.  Once again, nothing comes out, but she softens her posture and puts her hands on her hips.  With the panda watching, she walks through the hallway on her way to the cafeteria.  She walks slowly, basking in the darkness that surrounds her.  The surroundings certainly match her mood.

She briefly shades her eyes as she steps into the well-lit cafeteria.  The light from the fluorescent bulbs bounce everywhere, creating numerous reflections.  The room looks like it has been cleaned spotless, indicating the kind of work Tobias has put in.  She approaches the refrigerator and pushes a lever on the left side.  The lever operates the ice maker; a few small ice cubes fall into her cupped hand.  She puts a couple of them in her mouth and throws the others in the sink to her left.  On the counter next to the sink are the microwave and the coffee maker.  She carefully peers at the appliances; the coffee maker is housing a brand new coffeepot.  The coffee maker itself seems new.

The fox caresses the counter with her hands, as if inspecting for dust, then continues through the room.  Her eyes are now getting used to the impeccable brightness.  It is really an amazing display; the white tables are spotless and the chairs are neatly arranged.  The usually spotty windowpanes are clear of fingerprints and the white venetian blinds are clean too.  If anything, the cleanliness makes the cafeteria even bigger than it normally is.

Pamila makes her way to the other "half" of the large room, the "gym."  From the clean brilliance of the tables, she enters the strong, gritty, masculine forest of gym equipment and weights.  She passes three treadmills and a couple of stationary bicycles before stopping in front of the weight machines.  Of all the pieces of equipment in the room, she is most attracted to the weight training bench.

There is a stack of disk weights neatly placed behind the bench.  She grabs two pairs of twenty-pounders and methodically affixes them to each side of the nearby barbell.  The act of putting the entire thing together makes her look somewhat like a mechanic.  She definitely knows what she is doing and finishes in seconds.  With that done, she takes off her shirt and tosses it aside.  Then, she slowly removes her pants, snagging her tail in the process.  It looks like it hurt; she grunts, but does not wince.  She kicks the pants onto the nearest treadmill. 

With her entire tracksuit off, she exposes the omnipresent pair of green camo shorts.  Her sports bra also has a green camouflage design.  About to bench press eighty pounds, she lies down on the bench.  Breathing heavily, she lowers the barbell down to her chest and starts to lift.  Her positioning and posture look good; her back is on the bench and her feet are square on the floor.

The first ten lifts are effortlessly done; after the tenth one, she holds the bar up for a few seconds before lowering it back on her chest.  Nodding proudly, she barely gives herself time to rest before lifting the bar ten more times.  After those twenty lifts, she replaces the barbell and sits herself upright.  There are sounds coming through the cafeteria doorway.  It is the unmistakable voice of Vivian Cross.  It sounds like Ted and one other executive are with her.  It has been a while since the fox had seen the chief, but their last encounter is still fresh in her mind.  Whatever anger that was sapped during the exercise quickly returns and she lies back down on the bench.

Her arms must be stinging.  At the very least, her fingers are.  However, she pulls the barbell off its perch and puts it back on her chest.  A couple of deep, venomous breaths later, she begins lifting once again.  With every lift, she lets out a grunt.  The first five lifts yield soft grunts.  But the more she lifts, the louder the grunts.  One push, one grunt.

Fifteen lifts later, she is struggling to lift the weight.  She is now shrieking with every arduous press.  Number sixteen comes with a "Shit!" attached.  At seventeen, she grits her teeth.  At number eighteen, her arms start to slightly shake.  Number nineteen takes five seconds to lift; her arms almost collapse as she quickly lowers the barbell to her chest once again.

"Just once more!"  She opens her mouth and screams as her powerful arms straighten, lifting the bar above her head.  Her muscles strain as they are forced to obey her will.  Number twenty is successful, but she hardly has the strength to replace the heavy bar.  Still screaming, she tosses it aside and hangs her arms at her sides.  The heavy panting escaping her mouth is a testament to her weariness and anger. 

Pamila closes her eyes.  She is completely spent.  There is an unsettling, unearthly shakiness coming from her panting now.  It almost sounds like she has hurt herself.  After spending a few minutes lying on the bench, she begins to collect her thoughts and sits straight up.  The sounds of Vivian and Ted are still coming from behind her, but there are others sounds coming from in front.  She stands and goes to the cafeteria windows.  Peering through the blinds gives her a familiar view.

Three cars have just arrived at the rear lot.  The occupants have left those vehicles and are making their way around the building.  Looking through the blinds, Pamila sees Dunn, the swift fox, Pica, the bobcat, and Hoeness.  They are about to attend the meeting and possibly take marks.  They seem happy; in fact, Hoeness looks positively jubilant.  The fox's anger returns.

It seems that none of the guys will be deprived of anything today.  They will go about their business as usual.  Even if they don't get a mark to hunt, at least they will not be dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, or mopping.  They have the life that she likes, the life that she will not be a part of for a while.  After completely closing the blinds and shutting out the light, she returns to the bench.  On her way, she grabs her clothes from the places she threw them.  Her breathing is still unstable, but at least she is trying to calm herself.  She sits back on the bench, folds her tracksuit on her lap, and covers her face with her hands.  She intends to exhibit strength, so there will be no screaming when the boys are in the house....

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

The sun is out on another hot day.  It is probably noon, maybe one in the afternoon.  The outdoors are oppressively hot and muggy, making for a quiet neighborhood.  The suburbs have probably never been so quiet.  There are a few cars that dot the road, but there isn't much out there to indicate life.

A blue Jetta crawls down the suburban area's lonely streets, making as little noise as possible.  It enters a cul de sac and stops in front of a brick house; its engine shuts off soon after that.  While it sits there, baking in the heat, its occupants, Paraná and Tivoli, lean back in their seats.  It is her car, but he is doing the driving.  She looks at the roof, breathing methodically, trying to keep herself cool.  Thanks to the air conditioning, the interior of the car is comfortable, but things will get hot quickly.  While the ocelot relaxes, her partner is scanning some words he has written on the notepad he is holding.  He mumbles something to himself and nods with vigor.

The sight of his head moving makes Tivoli laugh.  "What are you doing?  I thought we've been over everything."

"Don't worry.  We won't go over the lessons again.  Two days straight is enough."  He coughs and clears his throat.  It sounds like a dry cough.  "Once again, let me apologize for the last two days.  I didn't know Mr. Moros would be out of town.  The thought just never occurred to me."

"Forget about it.  He's apparently home today."

"You nervous?"

"Well...."  She tousles her hair and turns away from him, looking at the world outside her window.

Like a weary father, Paraná shakes his head.  "What's the matter?  If you have any questions, just ask."

After a sigh, Tivoli turns back to him.  "Look, after we finish this hunt, when do we start the next one?  I mean...how do you determine that?"

"Ah, good question.  When you become full-fledged, you can choose your own pace.  But for an apprentice, the handler chooses how long the hunts will take.  Now, while you were relaxing at home, I went to the meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday.  I have chosen the other two marks that I think you should be able to handle; I wrote them down on this pad.  We'll finish off Mr. Moros today, then I will go to tomorrow's meeting and officially assign these other two to us.  Since all of them are not too far from the workplace, I think we can finish your three apprentice hunts in just one week's time."

"That fast?"

"Well...."  Paraná shakes his head.  "I do have a bit of a problem, you see.  There's this mark...one mark in particular that I was really looking forward to getting for us.  It would have been a good one to test your hunting skills on.  No one knows exactly where he is, but thanks to him, I'd teach you some lessons on tracking a mark."

"Oh, really?  Who is it?"

"Umm...his name is...Daniels."  The jaguar squints in thought and shakes his head again.  "No, McDaniels.  His name is McDaniels.  I...can't remember his first name."

"What's the big deal with him?"

"You were there, remember?  Ted told us that he is worth nineteen thousand.  That's a big number.  Imagine what you could do if paid that much at once.  Last I checked though, someone else wanted him.  Ravi, I think.  I couldn't take it from him, so I chose two others.  But there's still a chance Mr. McDaniels will be available.  I'll try again tomorrow."  He smiles at Tivoli, who responds with a slight nod and a hesitative breath.  "What's wrong now?"

"I'm sorry.  I...want to be cheerful like you are, but I just have so many questions..."

Paraná laughs.  "You're just stalling.  You can ask me exactly two more questions, then we have to get going."

She straightens herself and presses her mouth shut as she tries to muster up the necessary courage.  "I understand if you don't want to discuss this right now, but when we're paid for this, who gets what?"

His laugh grows livelier; he seems to be having a good time.  "Do me a favor.  Hand me the plastic bag behind you, okay?"

Tivoli looks at the seat behind her and reaches out for a small bag.  It looks like there is a sandwich in it.  "You're eating now?"

"I never kill on an empty stomach.  After we're done, I'll take you out for a proper lunch."  He takes the bag from her and opens it quickly.  "To answer your question, Mr. Moros is worth a meager five thousand.  I haven't yet decided 'who gets what,' but that depends on how you perform.  If you do everything I say, when I say it, and you don't hesitate, you could get quite a lot."  He unwraps his sandwich and takes a bite.

"I understand."  She tries to smile, but her nervousness is clearly shining through.

"Look, if you're worried, that's okay.  It's your first time.  But remember; do not try to justify trepidation.  We're about to kill someone.  You're either ready or you're not.  Don't try to rationalize your feelings any further than that.  Anyway, like I said, you'll have nothing to worry about because I'm doing the dirty work."

He obviously looks ready and willing.  In fact, he is acting like he has already done the job.  The action they are about to perform hardly fazes him.  On the other hand, his student is breathing deeply, trying to relax.  For the first time since they first met, she feels distant from him and is trying very hard to be as brave as he is.  She calmly watches him eat.  "I have one more question to ask; it's the thing I'm the most jumpy about."  She patiently waits for him to look at her before asking, "Do I really have to be your daughter?"

Paraná covers his mouth with both hands, trying to prevent the food from flying out while he laughs.  The remaining half of his sandwich drops from his lap onto his feet.  He successfully stifles his laugh and turns to his apprentice.  "So sorry.  I'm not laughing at you."

She clears her throat and turns away from him, still trying not to show her nervousness.  "I know."

"Do you not like the cover story?"

"The mark is not gonna fall for it.  I'm not a jaguar; I look nothing like one."

"First of all, not many kids look much like their parents until they hit puberty.  Also, we both know you're not a jaguar.  All furry creatures know who's who in the animal kindom.  But humans, Mr. Moros included, are inherently stupid.  They could never tell the difference between a jaguar and a leopard.  They think that if they both have spots all over their bodies, they're the same creature.  Mr. Moros will never know we're not related.  If I tell him you're my daughter, and you do your part well, he will believe it.  Besides, the way I've planned this, he won't see you for more than a few seconds.  He won't think that anything is wrong.  This will work."  His face suddenly turns serious.  "Oh!  That reminds me!  Where's the cat?"

Tivoli turns and looks behind her.  "Fluffy?"

Sure enough, next to a black purse, there is a small, white kitten sleeping in the back seats.  She reaches to grab it, waking it up in the process.

"You named it?"

She caresses the kitten and smiles lovingly.  "I know we're only using her, but I've become attached--"

"That's what I was afraid of.  I was hoping that wouldn't happen.  I had second thoughts about it, but I decided in the end to actually buy one.  Don't get too attached; we're not keeping it."

"Could I hide her?  I know the plan was for you to do it, but I can sneak just as quietly."

Paraná nods and finishes his dirt-covered sandwich.  "Fine, fine.  I trust you.  Once you hide...Fluffy...in the backyard, come back here as quickly as you can.  Then we can begin."  He has been all business up to this point.  Now he is really paying attention to his student, acting less like a teacher and more like a friend.  He watches her stroke the cat and nods with concern.  He can sense that she is stalling and reaches out to her, caressing her shoulder.

An irritated Fluffy meows loudly.  Tivoli sighs in response, as if dreading what is about to come.  She whispers "Sorry" to the cat and quickly turns to the jaguar.  "I'm ready."

"Are you sure?"  He caresses the back of her neck.  "Take a deep breath.  You've been doing it all day.  Take another one.   Then think about what you have to do.  I know you can do it."

She closes her eyes and does what she is told.  "I trust you.  I like your plan.  It's a good plan.  I hope I can do it justice.  Thanks for the short massage."  Smiling, she opens her door as quietly as she can and steps out.

The jaguar nods and turns away to reach for another sandwich on the back seat.  He puts it on his lap and brushes some stray breadcrumbs from his dark, cotton shirt.  Then, he looks at himself in the rearview mirror and cracks his knuckles.  Everything is ready.  Suddenly, the passenger door opens and Tivoli bolts inside.  She lowers her head as if trying to hide.  "There's a cop out there."

Paraná adjusts the rearview mirror and uses it to see behind him.  There is a white police car moving slowly across street, just bypassing the cul de sac.  "Ah, he's just on patrol.  He won't come this far.  Just wait in here a couple of minutes, then go back out."

She nods in agreement and sighs in relief.  The cat meows and tries to crawl off her lap.  The meowing helps to relax the ocelot and she regathers her composure.  "You think he saw the car?"

"Maybe, but there are a few other cars parked here.  Why would he focus on this one?"

The apprentice looks back and sees the patrol vehicle driving away.  She nods vigorously and whispers, "Okay."  She quickly opens her door and runs out.

"Leave the door open," Paraná says.  "It will make us look desperate, and he'll buy our story a bit more."  He takes a bite out of the sandwich he is holding.

Tivoli is wearing a pink shirt and blue overalls that are cut off at the knees.  She is wearing slippers on her feet.  The ensemble makes her look much younger than she is.  Nobody who saw her would ever guess that she was twenty.  Holding the kitten against her chest, she looks around before quickly running behind the house in front of her.  The back yard of the Moros house is nothing special.  In fact, besides an oak tree in the center of the lawn, there is nothing but the lawn.  The atmosphere is quiet, with only the stray chirping of one or two birds making any sound.  There is no wind; only bright sun and dry heat. 

As her heart pounds, the pace of Tivoli's breathing increases.  She continues to look around her and finally decides to run to the tree.  She stops under its shade and kneels.  She covers her mouth with her left hand to soften what looks like hyperventilating.  About a minute later, after the umpteenth time of trying to calm herself, she carefully releases Fluffy.  "You'll be safe here.  Don't go too far."

The cat claws on the grass and chirps loudly.  While small and fragile, it looks perfectly safe where it is.  As it crawls behind the tree, the ocelot quietly runs back to the blue Jetta.  There, Paraná is standing in front her car, grinning with pride.  "Excellent.  Now, wear this."  He takes something from his left shirt pocket and gives it to her.

"A pink bow?"

"With a clip.  Put it on."

"Are you kidding?  I haven't worn one since--"

"Hey, what I say, you do.  Remember?  Just put it on."

She shrugs and obeys, clipping the bow to the left side of her head.  She bends down near the mirror of the driver side and sees her reflection.  "Ugh.  My face looks five again."

"If anyone asks, you're twelve.  Now let's do this, just like we planned.  I'll be right behind you.  Put your hands behind your back.  Look cute."

Paraná puts her hands on her shoulders as they walk to the front door.  Besides the birds, they are the only living beings around for miles.  With nobody watching, Tivoli feels safe and unafraid.  She moves forward with purpose, with her eyes on her goal.  Once they reach the steps, her handler releases his grip.  She knocks on the door softly and puts her hands in her pockets.

A thin, disheveled, middle-aged man bursts through the door.  "What?!  What do you want?!"  He is holding a crushed soda can in his left hand and a piece of paper with writing in the other hand.  It looks like he has received a bit of bad news.  He crumples the paper and throws it behind him, then looks ahead to see who knocked.  He looks around and sees nobody in front of him.  It takes him a few seconds to realize that his guest is shorter than he is.  He looks down at the smiling ocelot.

"Good morning, Mister," she says, bouncing on the balls of her feet.  She then slightly lowers her head in an attempt to look sad.  "Sorry for disturbing you, but I'm looking for my kitty.  Her name is Fluffy...and I was playing with her...then I left her with dad for a couple of minutes.  But when I got back, she was gone.  He says she must have ran from our yard to a house around here.  I don't like going into other people's backyards, but there's no one else her to ask permission, so...."  She looks up at the mark, making the biggest puppy-dog eyes she can.

The man is not pleased.  "Why aren't you in school?!"

Tivoli puts her hands behind her back and grasps the base of her tail nervously.  Swinging it around, she answers, "Um...it's July."

"Hmm?  Oh, right.  Sorry."  He sneaks a peak at Paraná and gives an approving shrug.  "Yeah, go on ahead." 

"Thanks, Mister!  I promise it won't take long.  I'll start with your house and then the one on the left...but I'm sure Fluffy will be here."  As she makes her way behind the house, she looks back, observing her handler.

The mark shakes the jaguar's hand.  "You the father?"

"Yes.  Sorry about all this."

"Not a problem.  Giorgios Moros.  That's a nice car you got there."

"Thanks.  I was hoping for something a little sportier, and with a little more horsepower, but I gotta think of the kids, you know?"

Tivoli stares wide-eyed at the conversation.  Paraná is mimicking a perfect American English accent.  It was as if the Brazilian in him just vanished.  She chuckles to herself and watches the mark let her teacher inside.  Once the door shuts, she springs to action.  She runs back to the oak tree and crawls under the shade.  "Fluffy?"  The kitten is not there.  It is no longer in the safety of the shade.

The ocelot quickly scampers away from the tree and looks around her.  "Fluffy?"  The whole backyard stares back at her.  The kitten would definitely stick out like a sore thumb in these verdant surroundings.  Right now though, it is nowhere in sight.  Breathing heavily, she runs to the picket fence that borders the property.  No cat here either.  She looks around by the back door and the nearby windows.  Then, she notices the open air garage.

Tivoli's heart races once again.  She clearly dreads going too close inside Mr. Moros' home, but she carefully looks inside.  "Fluffy?"  Her ears perk up to let in more sound; there may be no sign of the kitten, but maybe she could hear him.  Slowly sneaking in, she looks around.  In the middle of the garage is a dirty, white minivan.  Surrounding it are tools of all kinds, from hacksaws to spare tires to snow shovels.  There is a sawhorse sitting underneath the living room windows.  She puts a hand on it and tries to relax.  "Fluffy?  Where the devil are you?"

Her ears still alert, she hears a small meow coming next to her.  She looks at her feet, then at the minivan.  A smile crosses her face.  When she gets on all fours and looks under the vehicle, the search is over.  She reaches in and grabs Fluffy.  "There you are, you silly thing.  Didn't I tell you to stay?"  She brings it to her chest.  "There now.  You had me worried for--"

A loud crash stops the soothing talk.  It came from inside the house.  The crash is followed by yelling and grunting.  Tivoli looks at the nearby window to see what is happening.  There is a dark red curtain blocking her way, so only the sounds are getting through.  As she stares, her breathing picks up yet again.  This time, she has a tangible reason to be afraid.  The noises get louder and closer.  Mr. Moros sounds like he is struggling.  More items crash and slam against the floor. 

Scared and frustrated, she slowly backs away from the window.  Just then, the curtain falls and Mr. Moros' face appears.  His eyes are bulging out, he is making gurgling sounds, and his face is changing color.  Suddenly, the face bangs against the glass, scaring Tivoli into backing away; her back slams against the minivan and she drops Fluffy. 

Paraná has a cord around the mark's neck and is pressing his face against the window.  The action helps to muffle the yelling.  His muscles tense as he strains to choke the mark.  Tivoli has her hands pressed against both sides of her face, covering her ears.  She whimpers softly, but does not look away from the torment.  She watches as the mark bangs his hands against the glass, trying to escape.  Then he sees the ocelot and screams even louder.  Whether he was screaming for help or in anger is impossible to determine.

Without Fluffy, the ocelot runs from the garage and into the grass of the backyard.  She wants to go back to her car as quickly as possible; unfortunately, she trips over her own feet and falls on all fours.  Panic tortures her face as she crawls to the shade of the oak tree.  There she covers her ears again and closes her eyes.  Minutes pass.

The job done, Paraná exits the house through the back door and immediately spots the ocelot cowering under the tree.  He shakes his head in disbelief and whistles at her.  Once she spots her handler, she runs from the shade and right to him.  He holds out a hand, stopping her progress.  "Follow me," he says.

They enter the house through the back door.  They have entered the kitchen.  Cups and silverware lay scattered on the floor.  A glass of water on the table is lying on its side.  Tivoli is concentrating on the mess while following the jaguar.  She trips over the body and almost falls.  Parana catches her and helps her stand.  He holds on to her shoulders while they stop and stare at the prone body of Mr. Moros.  Trying very hard to be a brave student, she presses her lips closed to mute her panicked breathing. 

"I wanted to show you the dead mark.  If you do become one of us, you'll be seeing scenes like this throughout.  You may be breathing heavily now, but you'll get used to it in time.  There's something else I want to show you."

Tivoli quickly turns to him.  Her eyes show that she wants to go home.  "W-what?"

"This."  He holds out his right hand to her.  The nail from his middle finger has been torn off from its bed.  "See that?  I've lost a part of me and I need you to help me find it.  I lost it in the living room."  She follows him, taking a couple of more glances at the body.  While the student reacts with fear and reluctance, the teacher looks totally cool.  He has the demeanor of a man who has seen his share of death and is used to his job.

The uncarpeted living room is quite bare.  Mr. Moros must have moved in fairly recently.  There is a television on the floor in front of two video game consoles.  There are two beanbag chairs in front of it.  There is just one corner of the room that is in disarray.  Right by the windows that look out into the garage, a large bookcase has been toppled over.  At least thirty books are strewn all over the floor. 

Paraná gets down on his hands and knees.  "I've lost it around here.  We need to find it quickly."  He carefully moves a couple of books aside.

Tivoli kneels next to him, picking up one of the books.  Nervously, she flips through it and tosses it aside.  Then she presses her hands on the floor, trying to stop them from shaking so much.  She looks scared and exhausted, like she killed the mark.  The jaguar pays little attention to her; his missing fingernail is his main priority.

The ocelot swallows and shakily picks up another book.  She does not want her handler to hear her fear, so she continues to breathe steadily through her nose.  After a couple of deep breaths, she sidles close to him and looks at his face.  Swallowing once again, she asks, "Are you all right?"

Paraná chuckles.  "Didn't feel a thing.  I tell you what though.  Mr. Moros is strong--much stronger than I thought he would be.  I underestimated him a little.  Maybe I need to...how you say...hit the gym?"  He laughs.

She releases another shaky breath.  "Well, at least you're doing better than me.  I was terrible.  I had a chance to see you in action...and I ran."

"You...performed perfectly.  You did what you were told--you were the distraction--and you got out of the way when it was time.  You were perfect."

Tivoli sits cross-legged on the floor, taking in what her handler just told her.  She is not even helping him look for the nail anymore.  She just looks at him with what appears to be longing.  It is easy to tell that she is falling for him.

Paraná pants loudly as he moves more books out of his way.  "What about you?  How do you feel?"

"Um...."  She looks at the ceiling.  "Scared shitless."  She heaves a deep sigh and turns to the jaguar.  He starts to laugh, which in turn makes her smile.  "But I'm feeling much better now.  You know, you could have made it easier on yourself and used the knife in my purse."

"No.  I wanted this thing to be bloodless.  Ha!"  He slams the palm of his right hand on the floor.  "I found it!"  He picks up the fingernail and inspects the affected hand.  "It's important that I find this.  Otherwise, this is evidence, and we'll be caught."

"Oh.  Speaking of which, I dropped Fluffy back there."

"Ooh, you better go find her.  She might be a witness."  He laughs again and stands.  "I'll try to see if I lost any fur."

Tivoli nods and quickly runs out of the living room, through the kitchen, and out the back door.  Throwing off the fear that once crippled her, she is now spry and feisty.  She wants to find Fluffy and head to the car.  The white cat is back under the lone oak tree.  It is picked up while trying to catch a butterfly.  The ocelot hugs it tightly.  "Let's get out of here."

The atmosphere outside is as quiet as ever and is helping the apprentice finally relax.  She strolls through the back yard, talking to Fluffy throughout.  The constant meowing makes her laugh.  She makes it to the front yard and stops in her tracks.  Her face widens in surprise.

The patrol car is back and is now in the cul de sac, slowly creeping next to the blue Jetta.  Tivoli swallows and starts walking again, slowly and cautiously.  The car stops when the occupant sees her.  The cop is a Doberman.

"Hey there, little girl," he says in a deep voice.  "Is this your car?"  He watches the ocelot stammer and chuckles.  "Just kidding.  Is this your daddy's car?"

"Um...yeah!"  She forces herself to smile.

"That's great.  Are you guys going out?"

"Yeah.  Daddy will be ready...."  She puts a hand on Fluffy's mouth, trying to stop the meowing.  "He'll be ready in a few minutes."

"All right then.  I'll see you later.  Nice cat."  The officer adjusts his cap and continues on his way. 

She watches the patrol car until it turns a corner and disappears.  Wasting no time, she runs into the driver's seat, closes the door, and puts her head on the steering wheel.  "That was close, girl.  Too close."  She looks up at the house.  "Too many close calls.  I don't know whether to laugh or...."

The front door opens and Paraná nonchalantly strolls outside.  As he closes the door, Tivoli's sharp eyes notice a small bandage wrapped around the affected finger.  He gets into the car and throws the keys to her.  In turn, she hands him the cat.

"Listen, I know you have a lot of questions, and we do have a lot to talk about, but let's not talk about this until we're free and clear of this place, okay?"  He watches Tivoli nod.  "I guess we can't return it, huh?"

"You mean Fluffy?  Nope."  She starts the car.

"Who's gonna keep it?"

"Well, Karen doesn't like cats, so--"

"Who?  Oh, that's right, your housemate."

"Yeah...so you'll have to take care of her."  Her heartbeat mellows as she pulls away from the crime scene.  "Remember, she likes to be held often."

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

The time on Vivian Cross' desk clock reads exactly 7:00, well past closing time.  Inside her office, the sounds of conversation and raised voices filter through.  The workers are getting paid.  With the distribution of money come the disputes over quantity.  The voices get louder as the day progresses.

Winter is not paying much attention to those petty squabbles.  She is focused on more important tasks.  Right now, she is seated at the desk.  She is making use of the chief's stationery, writing what looks like a letter.  Her eyes squint tensely; her pen writes furiously; her tongue comes out every so often to lick her mouth.  She is deep in thought as the words pour from her brain in onto the paper.  A few minutes later, apparently finished, she holds it up to her face and starts to read it.

The door slowly opens and a male voice calls out, "Chief?  You there?"

She quickly throws the letter down and stands, wheezing loudly.  The panic disappears, however, once she sees who just came in.  "Robert!"  She bounds her way to the door.

"Well, look who it is!"  Crevecoeur enters just in time to accept a big embrace from the white wolf.  He pats her back and she gives him a big squeeze.  "I haven't seen you since your final hunt with your man."

She laughs in his ear.  "God, that's right!  That was a couple of weeks ago."

"More than that."  He releases her.  "Is the chief here?"

"No!  She's...."  She folds her arms trying to remember.  "She was leaving as Shiloh and I came in.  She had to leave earlier than usual.  Her daughter is getting her tonsils taken out."

"Ah.  That's a hell of a reason.  Shiloh called me yesterday and told me what happened to your first solo hunt.  He told me that's the second time you had an FBI suspect for a mark.  I wanted to talk to the chief about it.  It might become a serious issue."

"Yeah, well I think a tonsillectomy is more important."  She playfully punches his left shoulder.  "You know what?  You were wrong.  You told me not to expect good things from you, not to rely on you, because of what your name means.  But I believe you being here is a good omen.  I think your presence leads to good things."

"Really?"

"Yeah.  For instance, you're gonna tell me...."  She runs to the desk and picks up the paper she dropped.  "...what you think about this.  Read it and tell me what you think."

The executive takes the paper and exhales loudly.  "Dear Shiloh, I'm writing you because it's the best way I know to put together what I want to say.  Our situation is quite delicate now, and if I tried to tell you face to face, without preparation, I would only stumble.  This way, there's no stalling and you'll read every word before you react."  He raises his eyebrows and clears his throat.  "I'm sorry I snapped at you.  It was a rotten thing to do and you were only trying to help.  I know that now.  I love you and I'm lucky to have you...."  He puts the note down mid-sentence.  "What is this?"

Winter puts her hands behind her back.  "I...uh...Shiloh was teaching me some things and I kinda lost my temper."

"Oh.  How'd he take it?"

"We're not speaking to each other much, but he brought me here an hour ago to cool off.  He told me he was going to come back with a surprise for me.  He should be back soon."

"Are you all right?"

"I am!  But I've done my three hunts with him.  It's just that I thought the lessons were over."

"Nope.  They're never over.  This isn't Spanish class.  What exactly did you snap at him for?"

"Well, he was teaching me to trade marks effectively.  It's the one thing about this job that I'm having the most trouble with.  I realized, during the lessons, that I don't know how to haggle.  I've never done it before.  I...got angry."

Crevecoeur shrugs.  "This won't fix it."  He crumples the letter.

The wolf gasps.  "What are you doing?!"

"Look, here's what you say.  'Honey, I'm sorry I yelled at you.  I know you meant well and your lessons are important.  I just got angry...and we're not ourselves when we're angry.  I'll try harder tomorrow.  I love you and...and if you forgive me, I'll pay for dinner.'  There.  That about does it."

She chuckles and sits in Vivian's chair.  "Well, it isn't long winded...it says what I want to convey in few sentences.  Why can't I just stay that?"

"Face it, woman.  You're tender and loving, but you communicate better when you're angry.  It's just in your nature.  You wolves are social creatures, but when you snap off at one another, it takes a while to bring the love back without traces of guilt or hurt feelings.  Apologies and forgiveness are more like human things, not wolf things."

"I'd be lost without him...in more ways than one."  Winter looks at the human sadly and leans back in the chair.

Crevecoeur goes to her and rubs her back.  Just then, the door opens.  The janitor has arrived.  Winter quickly stands.  The executive quickly puts his hands at his sides.  Tobias leers at them with suspicion, but shrugs off his feelings and enters the room.

"Good evening, Tobias."

"Good evening, Uncle Creve.  Good evening, ma'am."

Winter's smile returns and she saunters to the boy.  "Hello, Tobias.  Long time, no see."  She grabs his shoulders and shakes him gently.  "You staying out of trouble?"

He smiles back.  "Trying to."

"'Trying to.'"  Crevecoeur shakes his head.  "I gotta ask you, I saw a new coffee pot in the kitchen.  Did you get that?"

"Yes."

"What happened to the old one?"

"Um...it had a crack in it."  He scoffs and walks past them, removing a towel from his pants pocket.  "Don't worry.  I used my own money."

"All right then."  He puts a hand on the wolf's back.  "Would you like to wait in the lobby?  I'll keep you company if you want."

She nods in response and they make their way into the dark hallway.  On the way to the lobby, they see St. Croix running up to them.  He smiles at the couple.  "You're here!  Excellent.  Shiloh's outside waiting for you.  He's got the surprise."

She sighs happily at the sound of his name, leaves the two men, and starts running to the lobby.  She stops short of it when she sees the remaining workers, all male, standing around the room, looking through the windows.  She resumes walking, then stops again as the loud sound of an engine roars to life.  It revs a couple of times; Winter knows what it is.  With the boys looking on, she runs out the door, bumping into Inverness as she does so.

Shiloh is right outside the door, standing next to a shiny, chrome-and-black motorcycle.  He shuts the engine off and stands there, looking at his mate like a bashful cub.  He smiles and scratches the back of his head.  "It's fixed."

Winter normally obsesses with keeping calm in front of others.  This time though, she cares little about that.  She squeals like a schoolgirl and runs into Shiloh's waiting arms.  She jumps on him and hugs him, with both her arms and her legs.  Her head rests on his shoulder and they stay like that for half a minute.  Meanwhile, the boys are looking at the hog with a mixture of jealousy and wonder.  Crevecoeur shows up at the doorway and folds his arms, grinning and nodding his head.

Winter steps down off her perch and tries to kiss Shiloh.  He grabs her shoulders and holds her back.  "I got something to show you."  He bends down and picks up two motorcycle helmets.  They are jet black, blacker than the cycle itself, with dark visors and "ears."  He gives her one of them, chuckling at her expression.  "This is yours.  These are custom made.  They even have space for your ears to stick out.  My friends do good work.  I like the one they made you so much, I had them make one for me too.  Expensive, but worth it."  With his free hand, he caresses the back of her neck.

"Shiloh, I'm sorry.  I--"

"I'm sorry too, babe.  Let's get out of here.  I owe you a dinner."

He climbs on the bike and grabs the handlebars.  She climbs on behind him.  As she is about to put her helmet on, she spots the executive looking at them through the door.  She laughs and yells, "What did I tell you, Robert?!  Good things!"  She puts the helmet on, and the couple ride through the lot and out into the waiting streets.

The commotion over, Crevecoeur stops smiling and stares at the curious workers.  "Hey!  What're you all still doing here?  You all got paid, didn't ya?  Go home.  Have a nice night."  He strolls back into the hallway and disappears.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the building, Pamila has just parked in the rear lot.  She exits her car, showing off a look that would surprise anyone who saw her.  She is dressed in much different attire than she is used to--an old, blue-tinged plaid shirt and a pair of Capri pants; nothing dark or formal this time.  Her outfit may be drastically different, but her demeanor is the same--angry.  After locking her door, she walks through the back door, through the cafeteria, and into the hall.  She sees the VIVIAN CROSS door and pushes it open. 

When the fox spots Tobias, she sighs and slumps.  It's as if the sight of him has defeated her. 

"Um...hi."  He had been wiping the liquor cabinet when she entered.  "Listen, I was just told about what you had to do.  I just want you to know that I'm on your side.  I don't know what you did to make them give you this job, but I--"

"I killed five people in one blow."  She is not looking at the boy, but at the cabinet.  Specifically, she is looking at a fancy bottle of Scotch at the very top.  She strolls past the desk and stops in front of it.

"Oh.  So you're the one who...."  He clears his throat nervously.  "As you know, ma'am, I'm not allowed to tell what goes on in here, or the money will stop coming and I'll be sent to boarding school.  I'm on your side and I hope you get your old job back.  In the meantime, I'll tell you how I do this and try to make it easier for you.  If I may say so, I could use the extra pair of hands."

Like a snake finding its target, and just as fast, Pamila grabs Tobias' collar and pulls him towards her.  Their noses touch.  "Listen!  I'm only going to say this once.  I accept the fact that I have to do this, and I accept, with great reluctance, that I have to work under you.  But I absolutely refuse to work in the same room with you!  So just tell me what I have to do and where to get the tools to do it!  Then I can begin, and maybe I won't kill you before the night is over."

Tobias grabs her coiled hand, struggling to release the grip on him.  Failing miserably, he drops his defenses and the towel.  "It...it doesn't quite work like that."  He is reasonably calm.  "There is a punch clock in the executive suite...that is, the conference room.  It's got punch cards next to it.  You have to punch in, just like they did in the old days.  That's how the executives and Mrs. Cross know when you arrived to clean.  When you're done, you punch out.  If they like the job you did, you get fifty dollars for that particular day."

Still very sour, she releases her grip and returns to looking at the liquor cabinet.  "I don't suppose you have the keys to this thing, do you?  I could use a belt."

"Sure I do...but the drinks are only for Mrs. Cross and the executives, and only after work.  She keeps tabs on everything.  If I let you have you any, she'd have my skin."

Pamila shakes her head forlornly and walks away, presumably to the conference room.

Tobias' heart is doing jumping jacks.  Shaking vigorously, he calls out, "Hey, wait a second.  Can I ask you something?"  He watches on as the fox stops walking and puts her hands on her hips.  The fact that she has stopped means she will listen, and he takes her actions as permission to speak.  "I gotta ask you, why are you doing it?"  He carefully creeps toward her while still keeping a respectable distance.  "I mean, you could have just sat out the thirty days instead of doing something you don't like.  You didn't have to agree to janitorial work.  Why not just stay home for the whole month?  If you did that, you'd be hiding from police too."

She does not look at him.  "Because I did not have that option.  It was either clean or quit, and I'm not a quitter."  Her head bows and her arms hang.  "Besides, if you must know, I'm planning to move out of my dingy apartment and into a proper house.  I've got a five thousand dollar loan from my parents and I've saved about a hundred thousand in the bank from all the work I've done.  I just need another hundred thousand to--"

"Why not just buy a foreclosed house?  There's plenty of them; many of them sell for just five figures.  You've already got the money stashed away.  It could be your best bet."

She turns to look at him.  She is less angry now and more inquisitive.  Her mouth opens, maybe to ask for more information, but no words materialize.  She shakes her head and walks out the door.

The janitor shrugs in amazement.  "Is that a 'thank you'?"



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