Never Look Back

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Chapter 77

Odera pictured the small dark room. Someone had removed its contents. Heavy metal shelves, the sole exception to the echoing emptiness in which clinking chains kept her company, doubled as a lousy pillow to lay her head against. Handcuffed to the corner of the metal shelves with almost no slack stopped her from stretching out. It forced her to shift every thirty minutes from hip to hip to avoid muscle cramps and bone soreness. The metal unit felt solid and without play when she tried to rock it out of its moorings. An overhead exhaust fan hummed. At the base of the door, a strip of light intruded. But for that meagre ribbon of hope, time waited dark and still. Little sound came from the hallway beyond the door.

Something small and furry and whiskered scurried across the tiles running parallel with the base of the door, intruding upon the blade of light knifing into the pitch-black room. And then it was gone. All was hushed. Had two or twelve hours passed? Drugged, false sleep had tired her out. Time crawled. Eyelids grew heavy with lethargy. Boredom made it difficult to remain alert. Past periods of tortured terror had instructed her nervous system to dump copious amounts of adrenaline into her bloodstream. It had sapped her energy.

Stressing over future episodes of mistreatment, combined with the uncomfortable position prohibited deep sleep and retarded her body’s ability to recuperate. Odera jumped at each little sound, hating herself for doing so. She felt like a frightened rabbit. Her nervous system swung from one extreme to the other. She tried to calm herself by focussing on something else. Anything else. Persistent aching in her limbs and the sharp throb in her finger were constant companions. She yearned for relief and sipped water from a bottle set close by and shifted position with her injured hand held above her heart so it throbbed less. Dregs of sedative dampened her dreams while dimming hope chipped at her spirit.

Hours later, she awakened more refreshed than she had been in three days, or was it longer? Probably longer. Odera counted meals, two a day, to approximate the passage of time, but they failed to deliver regular meals, not that she felt hungry. Depression threatened to overpower the smidgen of fortitude she had gathered. Seated on cold and hard cement, she wept silently with no one to heed her distress, feeling utterly alone. Brave thoughts about biding her time dissolved into the void of her steel-fettered doom. Gomez never mentioned a ransom. Not so much as a hint.

How would the police know where to search if they focussed on Bruce?

Bruce should have identified the chemical compound by now. He’s had three or four days. Maybe longer. So long. He should have solved the puzzle and gone to the police. Wouldn’t he? she asked herself again, doubting her earlier thoughts. Worries plagued her. Too much time to think. Deciphering the chemical compound should not have taken this long. Why hadn’t they moved her to another location? She recalled a snip-it of conversation.

Gomez had called in extra trucks and another shift into service. Why? The factory manufactured cocaine wallboards and rushed to empty its stock. Once they transported the evidence out of the building and sanitized it, the file she downloaded would be worthless, she reasoned. With the data erased from the computers and the illegal contraband removed, no one could prove the list had come from Cornerstone Gyprock, or that the plant had once produced cocaine wallboards. She would then be useless to Gomez. He would murder her and nobody would ever know why, except her. Bruce, where are you?

Have they killed you?

Have you abandoned me?

The distinct slapping of hard-leather soles hitting tile sounded far away. The footsteps grew louder and louder. She grew apprehensive and froze rock still. And though she had been feeling lonely minutes earlier, intense fear raced around her system unchecked. She prayed the footsteps would continue past the door. Prayed they would not stop. Twin shadows broke the light beneath the door. A key rasped into the lock cylinder.

They were coming for her!

Butterflies formed in Odera’s stomach. She drew her knees protectively to her chest. The metal door opened. Light streamed inside. Odera squinted as the person, backlit against the hallway’s fluorescent light, entered. Sylvia. The cruel woman with the black hair.

“We’re going for a walk.” Sylvia unfastened her from the shelves. “Stand up.”

She grabbed Odera roughly by one arm and yanked hard. Fingernails bit into Odera’s bicep when she stood, head turned down and to the side, eyes slowly adapting to the harsh light.

“Start walking.”

Shuffling awkwardly on stiff limbs, Odera covertly appraised Sylvia. Bloodshot eyes glowed red and raw. Sylvia continuously knuckled them, inflaming their tender rawness. Odera grimaced in pain. The shackled metal bands encasing her ankles gouged her flesh. Achilles’ tendons ached at each jerk and snag. Sharp and lancing agony greeted each step. More pain pulsed in her finger. When her damaged finger accidentally rubbed against her hip, she flinched and softly whimpered.

Office windows and wooden doors lined one side of the hallway. Steel desks, a filing cabinet, a bookshelf and a few chairs, comprised most offices they passed. Plants, children’s photos, stylized coffee- and tea mugs, personalized the workspaces. Plastic plaques mounted on each door announced name and title. Thrumming machines, the clacking of metal and the hissing of compressed air sounded faint from the other side of the offices, as though the sound came from much further away than the plant floor. Odera caught glimpses of the production area through double-thick safety glass.

Production seemed to be running full bore. They turned down another hallway. The cacophony of noises grew louder when a stairwell door opened and faded as it closed. Odera limped. She slowed and then stumbled. Only Sylvia’s vigilant grip prevented her from falling.

“Hurry up.”

“The shackles are too tight.”

“Too fucking bad. I’ll drag you if you can’t walk on your own.”

Lucien Gomez sat behind a wide desk with a computer monitor and keyboard in front of him. Dan, the burly giant with the stitched lip and hoarse voice, stood at his side leaning on a pair of crutches. A steel knee brace and cast combination covered his right knee. Another stocky Latino sat on Gomez’s other side. One of those hospital metal bands, the strong and thin variety with a white foam bandage that kept the broken bone straight, was taped to the stocky man’s nose. It looked like a giant breath-rite strip. Above a swollen and tender nose, above nostrils plugged by dried black blood, furious raccoon eyes glared hatefully at Odera. He knuckled tears away the same way Butch, the Spandex bitch wiped at her eyes. Odera lowered herself into a chair across the desk from Gomez.

“Sylvia, sit,” Gomez ordered. “Estevan, check the line. Dan, go make yourself useful and head to the control room. Coordinate each truck and load. No one leaves the building until cleanup is finished. I want the final run completed by eight hundred hours, Friday.”

“That’s not much time.”

“Make it enough. By twelve hundred hours, I want this place to pass canine inspection. Spread the word. Tell Garcia to cleanse the weapons lockers. Get everything ready for transport. Let’s go, people. Vamos. Vamos.

Estevan carefully rose to his feet. His face contorted. He limped, grimacing through each ginger step. Dan hobbled behind him on crutches. The cast and knee brace was bent ten degrees backward to enable his foot to clear the floor when he used crutches. Each of them had had a run-in with Bruce, thought Odera, relieved her betrayal had not caused his capture, or worse, or had it?

Was Bruce dead?

She was not sure about anything. Guilt for doubting him and the disappointment she felt earlier receded. Some part of her remained angry he had not rescued her. Estevan’s injuries filled her with hope. Bruce must still be alive. Estevan, Dan and Steven were the ones who removed the tape from her mouth, she remembered. Only Dan had injuries back then. Steven had never reappeared. Gomez laced his fingers beneath his chin while his dark brown eyes watched her intently. Odera shuffled her feet to a more comfortable position, taking the weight off them so her tendons hurt less. She flinched when Sylvia jostled her legs as she brushed past to sit in the chair beside her.

“Won’t you loosen my legs? I can barely feel my feet.”

“Do it,” said Gomez motioning with a finger.

Sylvia knelt in front of Odera. A small key resembling the one used for jewellery boxes slipped into the lock. The shackle loosened. Immediate relief followed. Odera sighed. Gomez studied her while Sylvia loosened the other ankle before returning to her seat. Keys went into her right, hip pocket, Odera noted. She met Gomez’s cool brown gaze as he turned the computer monitor toward Odera.

“Read it. Aloud.”

“Harm the woman and the list goes public. I have no interest in turning you over to the police. Can we reach a business arrangement? I know who you are Lucien, your wife, Ramira and your three young children. Soon I’ll know the name of the Panamanian hospital that spat you out. Is Sylvia with you? Nice of you to list board members and file tax returns. Was that Sylvia at the convention? Have I met Raymond Fernandez yet?”

In the corner of the screen was a thumbnail of a calico cat.

“This email address is valid for twenty minutes once opened. What’s the cat’s name? Fail to answer this question within the allotted time and it begins. I’ll be in touch with terms. Your house on Maple Street is being watched.”

The clock at the bottom of the screen showed just over ten minutes had passed since Gomez opened the email. Bruce had found her, had safeguarded her, Odera thought to herself. That was why he avoided the police. Bruce knows how to think like Gomez, like a criminal. Gomez would kill to protect his identity. Indirectly, he had already killed Julia, she reminded herself.

“What’s the name?”

“My chains first.”

Gomez made a motion to Sylvia, who turned in her seat and backhanded Odera across the mouth, making her ears ring and her cheek sting.

“Don’t fuck with me! I can just as easily force it out of you. Just because your boyfriend happens to be resourceful, doesn’t guarantee I won’t take a finger. What’s the cat’s fucking name?”

The confidence Odera felt, faded. Crippled or whole, she could talk. She glared at Gomez anyway.

“You commit that error at risk. I may supply the wrong information. Would you risk your family’s lives?”

“I won’t ask again.”

Odera met Gomez’s unfeeling gaze, discerned his thinly restrained brutality. If she gave the wrong information, she sealed her death. If Gomez killed her, he doomed his family. By watching Gomez’s house, Bruce kept her safe, for the time being, and within reason, she told herself. Wait. Bruce wrote the words, business arrangement. Why on earth would he hint at trading her for money? Why would he warn Gomez about watching his house? Bruce seldom volunteered anything, even to her. Even now, after two years of friendship Bruce seldom shared his thoughts publicly. He was just beginning to open himself to her. And never to strangers. It revealed his intent. What had Sun-tzu written?

Remember. Think hard.

Buried within a breach of Sun-tzu doctrine, Bruce buried a message for her eyes only. She began to remember; she began to process every conversation they ever held about Sun-tzu and Kendo and prison and strategy. What was Bruce saying to her? Survival is victory; death is defeat, she recalled clearly. Why would the email address be accessible for twenty minutes?

What did a time limit achieve?

Think.

Everything Bruce wrote had significance. Not a single word in the email was random. Was Bruce afraid they would find him? No, not that. A time limit required Gomez to keep her close to answer questions, obviously. Why was that important? What’s beneath the surface? Bruce contacted Gomez. He knows Gomez’s email address. He must have figured out how the variable list connects to Cornerstone Gyprock.

That was it!

Bruce wanted her kept close to Gomez because he knows how to find Gomez.

“The cat’s name is Avalon.”

They could have any information they wanted. He was practically begging her to reveal everything about him. By telling them everything, he could pick and choose what to use against Gomez. Bruce had found a way to predict their actions. Of course. He knew all along she would talk. He had planned for it. Nothing he wrote meant what it said. Everything in that email was a ploy. She nearly smiled, and then she thought to herself, ‘Took him long enough to find me; I almost lost a fucking finger. How hard was it to learn about Cornerstone? I mean, really.’

“You know what will happen if you’re lying?”

“Yes.”

After Gomez sent the reply, he reclined in his chair and observed the elation growing in the woman’s body language. Reading her boyfriend’s words had instilled hope. It showed clearly. Making her feel safer would help him to acquire information. Whenever he wanted, he could cut hope out of the equation. For now, it worked in his favour to let the woman feel she had a future. Sylvia wiped at her red-raw eyes. Odera met Gomez’s gaze.

The computer beeped. Gomez clicked the email flag.

“Correct.”

Gomez typed a second email and hit the send button. The email bounced back unopened. An error message followed. Sending it a second time produced the same result. Nothing. Garland somehow rebounded his email. After slamming his fist into the desk, Gomez barked something in Spanish. It was not difficult to tell he cursed. He picked up the telephone and punched four digits.

“Send Wayne over here.” Gomez slammed the telephone into its cradle and looked up. “Would he kill my children?”

“Would you kill innocents in his place? Prison breeds hard men.”

No answer from Gomez. Silence answered for him. He worried Bruce would fulfil his threat because Gomez would do so if their positions were reversed. Bruce would not harm children. Of course, he did not watch Gomez’s house. Keep your enemy off-balance, keep them guessing and preparing for every eventuality except the one scenario you plan to execute. Do not follow rules; create opportunities. Do not announce war, become war, she recalled, remembering more so she would know how to help. Seconds and then minutes ticked by. The slim laptop man who ordered Julia’s death appeared in the doorway. Odera glared at him. The man looked tired. They all looked worn down.

“Can you trace this address?” questioned Gomez without preamble.

“Not unless the user left the computer running, or if the person who sent it was dumb enough to use his own account. Even then, he could be mobile. Without access to repeater stations, it’ll be impossible to triangulate on mobile usage. Given the error message, he’s either rescinded the account address or used a boomerang.”

“Try anyway.”

“You’re wasting your time,” Odera added helpfully.

Gomez probed Wayne, “How would a person obtain a company’s executive board member list?”

“It wouldn’t be difficult. All companies have numbers. The numbers are public record. In twenty-four hours, I could find the names, addresses, the types of cars the board members drove, their salaries, and how much in taxes they paid. Fuck, in a couple of days, I could tell you where they vacationed, if they have drug prescriptions and their favourite gas station. Metadata reveals everything if you know how to ask the right questions.”

“Find that address.” As Wayne departed, Gomez turned to Odera. “Tell me about this man. Surely you realize I can’t let you go until I retrieve the list. He knows that. What’s he up to?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you imagine the pain caused by crushing your nipples between vice-grips? Snipping off a finger would almost be welcomed in comparison. Sylvia would love to show you, wouldn’t you?” All pretence of holding a civil conversation had evacuated his voice. “If that doesn’t persuade you, we can peal your fingernails off with a pair of needle-nosed pliers. Your choice.”

“I love foreplay,” Sylvia answered, and moved around behind Odera where she stroked her hair.

Odera shivered at Sylvia’s touch and at Gomez’s lifeless eyes. Not many bargaining chips were available to her. Fear and anger mixed and swirled, coursing through her as Sylvia ran her hands over Odera’s front, cupping her breasts and then suddenly ripped open her shirt. Buttons clattered and bounced off the tiles. Odera gasped and tried to pull away.

“I don’t know what he’s up to,” she repeated, a tremor in her voice. “I’ve never seen him act like this.”

“Lucien asked you a question, honey. If I have to unclasp your bra, you’ll force me to begin. Your choice.”

Tears welled. She trembled when Gomez placed vice-grips between them. Sylvia reached down to open the bra’s front clasp.

A rush of words tumbled out of Odera, “He’ll want to trade the list for me. He’ll want money to leave the country if what you said is true and the police are after him. He’ll go back to prison if he stays, so he’ll run. He’s figured out you have lots of cash and he can’t go home or contact his family for help. Running takes money. He’ll want me to go with him. He’ll take your children hostage and trade them for me if he must. He’s desperate.”

Gomez smiled.

Sylvia frowned.

Gomez had reached virtually identical conclusions. The criminal mind was uncomplicated. Money was nearly always the answer. In the end, Garland cared less for the woman than he did for his own worthless hide. It was only natural. It was to be expected. The prick was going to use her to squeeze money out of him. Perhaps Garland even fantasized about the two of them living on a tropical island somewhere. It did not matter what reasons motivated Garland. The woman would slow Garland down, would make it easier for Gomez to find them and to have them killed. Both had to die. Garland knew that. The convict had a vague idea how profitable their operation was and hoped to benefit while not being smart enough to know that nowhere on Earth was safe from Gomez. That was all. Garland correctly assumed a diminishing window of opportunity. Soon the woman would be worthless, so Garland had to make his deal quickly, or grab his kids so he would not miss out if the woman died.

“What are the names of his friends?”

“I don’t know.”

“Wrong answer,” replied Gomez and nodded.

Sylvia began to unfasten her bra.

“He doesn’t have any, only his jail friends that I’ve never met,” she uttered quickly. “After more than a decade inside, he became a loner. He lost contact with all his friends and army buddies. Since his discharge, he told me no one wanted to have contact with a disgraced rifleman.”

When Sylvia looked for permission, Gomez shook his head.

“Tell me about the Japanese man and woman.”

“Kira and Miyamoto Sasamori?”

“Precisely.”

“Bruce takes kendo lessons from them. He doesn’t have a personal relationship outside of the dojo. Miyamoto and Kira mostly teach kids, but Bruce wanted a hobby.”

“Why is the woman working with him?”

“Working with him? I don’t know what you mean. She’s an instructor trained by her father to take over the family business. To my knowledge, Bruce and Kira have never even met outside the dojo.”

“That’s no longer true. They’ve been seen together. Rather interesting they joined forces at this point, wouldn’t you say? I’m told she’s an extraordinarily attractive woman. Perhaps Bruce intends to take the money and run away with his new girlfriend? Perhaps that’s why he hasn’t gone to the police to clear his name. Perhaps Kira has been his real hobby all along. Maybe he went to the dojo because he needed a place to crash for a night. Maybe he went there because he’s slept there before.”

“What? I mean. No. He wouldn’t. She’s just his instructor. She’s barely said ten words to me in all the time that I’ve known her.” An element of confusion entered her voice. Uncertainty tried to diminish her faith. “He wouldn’t take the money and betray me.”

“The police are looking for her as well, and her father is in protective custody. A fascinating set of circumstances, wouldn’t you say?”

Lucien let the question hang in the air for what seemed an eternity before darting off down a different avenue.

“Somebody is helping him, providing shelter and money now that his dojo princess is homeless. Has he never spoken of prison?; boyhood friends? What about family?”

“Never names. Not even a jail story. After his dishonourable discharge, most of his friends drifted away. Manslaughter isn’t exactly coffee table conversation. And he had a ‘do not associate’ condition on his parole that stops him from staying in contact with prison acquaintances. Even his phone’s speed dial and address book are empty,” she declared, establishing trust. They must have searched his apartment. “His sister hates him. Can’t stand what his crime did to the family. He’s estranged from his family and seldom sees them unless it’s a funeral or wedding. He knows the police will have interviewed them, so he won’t contact them.”

“Yes, I know. No credit cards. No magazine subscriptions or newspapers. Doesn’t use his real name at the YMCA. Doesn’t publish under his own name. The last time the police charged Garland was so many years ago, the rap sheet information is useless. No paper or electronic trail. Even the information on his computer was encrypted and he uses a month-by-month cell phone. Not very trusting, this man.”

“Prison. What are you going to do with me?”

“That’s up to him. We’ll soon see if he intends to take the money and run away with his Asian sweetheart, or if he’s really hoping to trade for your release.” He turned to Sylvia. “Put her back in storage. Have downtown run his motorcycle tags. Look for traffic tickets and at what locations they were issued. See if those locations match up with any ‘non-association’ contacts. Do a sweep of his most frequented hangouts. Question everyone. Somebody has to have seen this fucking ghost. Have Wayne set up a trace. Maybe we can use the twenty-minute window to advantage the next time he contacts us. Track this fucker down. Assign a four-man team to transport my family to the lake house. I want around-the-clock shifts watching them until we catch this prick.”

“We should move the woman.”

“I was going to, but now I want her kept close, at least until he shows his true colours. The next time this fucker pops his head up, I want it blown off.”

“I was beginning to enjoy myself,” complained Sylvia stroking Odera’s long red hair. “We need to make an example out of Garland and the Asian. No one fucks with our organization.”

“You can retrieve the operational information they hold about production. No telling if they’ve shared it with anyone else. I want to know if they’ve shared it. Use any means available.”

Sylvia experienced disappointment. The red-haired bitch had given up her cheating boyfriend at the first indication of pain and then abandoned all loyalty at the first hint he might be interested in someone else. Typical. It was better when they resisted. Better when they snivelled and prostrated themselves begging for relief from torment. Beneath her hands, she felt quaking and trembling. Anticipation quickened Sylvia’s pulse: her loins grew slick and her breasts ached. This one would do anything she wanted with a little coaxing. Fear, innocence and vulnerability, oozed out of the red-haired wench.

“We catch this asshole when he fucks up, and then we terminate anyway who can even pronounce Cornerstone Gyprock. I want to move at a moment’s notice. Get a recent photograph to our law-enforcement associates. Spread the net wider. Find a way to include the kendo whore’s photo in the next news hour report. Double our premium.”

“We’ll be ready. Stand up.”

Odera stood, head bent toward the floor, listless with apathy. She stared at her feet. To be effective was to pretend ineffectiveness. It did not matter if they planned to kill her. Their threats and intentions were meaningless now. Freedom depended on Bruce, not on Gomez, not on the police who did not know what, or whom they were dealing with. Odera knew exactly why Bruce had visited the dojo. He went for weapons and for Kira’s help. She was Samurai. On numerous occasions, Odera and Miyamoto had observed Kira and Bruce training and duelling. No question about it, Kira was strikingly beautiful, and a skilled swordswoman. A pang of jealousy tried to locate a chink in her love. Odera pictured them together on the dojo floor. They shared a connection. No doubt about that. No doubt about it that she felt a pang of jealousy.

She re-visited the ferocious green eyes that shared her rape story, which had drawn her inside to suckle strength from his spirit. As she re-sampled the fire spirit’s inheritance, she remembered what it felt like to focus on one thing and no other, to cast away doubt. Courage and hope poured into her. There was no one she trusted more. Bruce and she shared a connection unattainable by Kira or anyone else. Lucien and Sylvia thought the worst of Bruce and Kira because if the positions had been reversed, they would have acted inappropriately.

Now that the shackles had been loosened, she shuffled more easily, although she could no more run now, than beforehand. In one of the offices they passed, Wayne, the skinny New Yorker, worked at a computer. Bruce was not careless. His meticulous attention to detail would negate him committing reckless mistakes. All of a sudden, she found herself enjoying his and her father’s shared quirk for details. Odera allowed herself to feel a larger dosage of hope as she looked around. The production line ran full bore. People scrambled up and down the line. Worry and stress had shown on Gomez’s expression. How long would it take him to turn the plant legitimate? Dan seemed to think Friday morning was insufficient time, but Gomez said by eight hundred hours. That is why everyone looked tired. They worked around the clock.

Odera noticed the exit door for the first time. She did not know how many doors stood between her and freedom. The exit door with the crash bar symbolized liberation. Before Sylvia noticed her interest, Odera looked away. The storage room lay up ahead and around the corner, no more than a twenty- or thirty-second walk from her current position. It would be so simple to pass through that door. Even wearing shackles, she could easily hobble downstairs to the main floor. Perhaps if the plant workers saw her, someone would call 911. Maybe once she was downstairs, she could locate an exit leading outside. Not everyone was on Lucien’s payroll, otherwise the administrative staff would be here, which they were not, she reasoned. Different escape scenarios played across her mind.

“Home sweet home, baby.”

Dipping into her pocket, Sylvia produced the key to release Odera’s hands from the belly chain. When her hands came free, Odera brought them up forcefully underneath Sylvia’s chin, cracking her teeth shut. Pain and surprise sowed across Sylvia’s lips. The swift strike pushed her off-balance, making her retreat a step. Odera lowered her head and mounted a shuffling charge, trying to bowl Sylvia over, to knock her into the cement wall so she could run downstairs and call for help. Stepping to the side with unpredicted speed and agility, Sylvia easily avoided Odera’s clumsy attack. She stuck her foot out, tripping Odera to the floor, where she immediately attempted to gain her feet.

“That wasn’t very smart.” Sylvia laughed. Standing over her, Sylvia kicked Odera in the side when she had risen to her hands and knees. “Stay on your belly, bitch.”

“Fuck you!”

Grabbing the handcuff chain in one hand and a fistful of hair in the other, Sylvia dragged Odera kicking and struggling over to the shelves.

“Maybe later. We’ll see how long your spirit lasts when your boyfriend’s dead. When we don’t need you alive and I can do what I want with you.”

Sylvia secured Odera to the metal shelves.

“How are your eyes, and Dan’s leg? Bruce will find a way so we can enjoy your money somewhere warm and safe.”

From a sitting position on the floor, Odera glared at Sylvia, the pain in her finger and in her side forgotten. Sylvia crouched on her heels before Odera. A slow, cruel grin thinned Sylvia’s mouth.

“If he thinks he can profit, we’ll nail him. Can you imagine what pliers and a blowtorch does to flesh? Once we catch him, you can watch.” Unhurried and lasciviously, Sylvia dragged the backs of her fingernails down Odera’s chest, between her breasts where she caressed lightly. “We don’t have to be enemies. I can be a very good friend. Your very best friend. You’re going to need my friendship.”

Remaining silent and unmoving, scorn and contempt painted Odera’s expression. Sadistic pleasure entered Sylvia’s eyes. Even as Sylvia’s touch turned from soft to rough, and then to cruel, as she squeezed and twisted and mauled tender flesh, Odera endured. Concentrating on Sylvia’s muddy-brown eyes, Odera poured hate and loathing into her gaze. Ineffable fury, heaped upon a platter of warm vengeance, dulled her physical anguish.

“Brave bitch.” The perverse excitement Sylvia felt earlier, faded. “You’ll beg me to do anything I want when it’s your turn under the torch.”

Odera spat into Sylvia’s face. Laughing, Sylvia wiped the spittle away with two fingers and licked them clean. Burning blue sapphires denounced Sylvia’s ability to intimidate. Bruce was coming. Not even the promise of vice-grips held power to frighten her. All the hurt, all the pain she had recognized in Bruce, everything she had replaced with love and kindness had been undone by these animals. For that reason alone, she detested Gomez and his crew. Goodness and kindness could not assist her. Negotiating with these losers would not free her. She saw that now. Only the strong survived. Only the smart endured. Winter sat long and hard in Odera’s heart, chilling it to the core.

At Odera’s stony silence, at the pressed grin pursing her lips, Sylvia struck her with an open hand. The blow rocked Odera’s head sideways. Why didn’t the bitch cry out? Sylvia slapped her again, irate that Odera suffered silently, enflamed she did not flinch. Joy spread throughout her being when her subjects begged and quavered. Inflicting pain was not enough. She needed her victims to feel she had utter control over them. On whether they lived or died rested on a whim. The next slap split Odera’s lip and still the woman suffered silently. Had not so much as raised her arms, nor tried to curl into a protective ball.

When Odera lifted her head, blood leaked from a torn lip. Hair covered half of her face and a cold countenance had kidnapped hurricane eyes whose stormy depths were dark with swirling contempt. A tight grin persisted. She had suffered far worse to her body in the past. This was nothing. Never again would she allow herself to feel less than a person because of another’s actions. Let it come. Now that she had savoured her pain, she could detach herself from it. By embracing pain, she drew strength from it, yearned more of it to keep her strong and to nourish her resolve. At last, she understood what had enabled Bruce to survive prison’s harshness: why he had learned to become cold. Compassion and kindness kindled warm feelings others might use for diabolical reasons: hate brought numbed bliss. It protected her inner self. Vengeance and hate wanted more pain to feel less. They could have her body, but not her spirit.

“Enveloped in winter the beast shall claim its own,” Odera proclaimed, her voice iceberg hard, almost lifeless.

“What’s that, a biblical reference?” Hand poised in the air, Sylvia yelled, “Answer the fucking question!”

Lingering belligerently, Odera invited Sylvia to strike, to nourish the entity, to bring her additional strength, to help her to endure.

Having licked the blood from her lip, Odera said, “A revelation.”

Sylvia locked the steel door after she had departed the room while evaluating the woman’s declaration. Gone was the fear she so much enjoyed. Fucking religious fanatics. She had seen enough of them to recognize unshakeable belief. Fanatic or not, she would enjoy breaking Odera’s spirit when the time came. No one denied the blowtorch and pliers their due.

Not ever.

Not once.

They all pleaded when skin blistered and smoked; when flesh melted; when blood instantly boiled; when tendons curled away from bone. First, they had to catch the worthless boyfriend and the Asian bitch. Hearing Odera scream that she would do anything if she’d stop blowtorching her boyfriend would go a long way toward improving Sylvia’s mood. The Asian beauty promised further fun.
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