The Willow Society

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Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Manfred used his toe to poke at the still twitching corpse now steadily staining the expensive carpet of his hotel suite's floor. He sighed, they were definitely going to bill his credit card for that. Looking past the corpse and up towards the wide bank of windows, heavy curtains drawn, of course, where Donna stood replacing a small caliber pistol into a cleverly disguised holster under her sport-coat. A look of mild annoyance flashed across her face, which was odd, she was usually cold enough to frost every room she was in, in fact, Manfred was quite sure he had never before seen her annoyed. Of course, Donna was not her real name, anymore than Manfred was his, but while he was fairly certain he knew her real name, as certain as he was she did not know his, he was equally certain she would shoot him if he called her by it.

It would be a shame to kill her.

The look of annoyance was gone now, her cold, blank expression of normalcy returned. She noticed him looked at her and now looked back at him questioningly. If a direct stare, unblinking, could be said to be questioning. Manfred knew her well enough to know it was.

“Did you have to kill him, Donna?“ he asked witheringly. He could afford a little attitude, after all, he was necessary to her and for the moment, still her superior. But he couldn't help himself, he put his hand into his pants pocket, finding comfort in the feel of the rectangular device secreted there. It was no match in a gunfight of course, but it could do things no gun could do.

Donna's expression didn't change, but her posture did as her eyes followed Manfred's hand into his pocket, her legs spread wider, shoulders arched back. So? She feels threatened and doesn't want to let on, does she?

Manfred was always amused people spent so much time learning about weapons, technology, marketing or acting; yet overlooked the truth, glossed over it really, by not studying people themselves. If you can understand a person, merely by observing them and determining the appropriate patterns, you could control and predict them. Why learn how to use a gun when you can have some else take the risk? Normally this thought would elicit a chortle from Manfred, but he knew Donna would take his laughter personally, which would bring him back to the problem of her shooting at him. He sighed again.

“He was expendable. And a liability.“ Donna replied to Manfred's question. She said it matter-of-factually. She wanted him to have no doubts she could, would, kill without remorse. As if he didn't know. Manfred might have laughed at this as well, people who tried to be subtle and threatening were often idiots, amusing, but idiots nonetheless.

“Yes, but now we'll have to have him scrubbed and disposed of. And someone will have to take over the New York job.“ Manfred tried to make it clear it would not be his responsibility to find such a someone.

Donna waved dismissively. “I'll call my cleaner if you're too chickenshit to call yours. As for the New York job, I will handle that personally. I already have a team in place to run the operation.“

Is it my imagination or did she glance at my pocket when she said that?

Had she somehow learned of the device already? It was supposed to be a tightly held secret, but if she already had a team operating inside the New York job, it was likely she knew something, if not everything. Well, she was bound to have learned of it eventually. He pulled his hand out of his pocket and looked away from her.

“That will not be necessary. I will take care of the cleaner. But if you think I am going to cede control of the New York job to you, Donna, my dear...“ He knew she hated that little endearment, apparently from a bad childhood memory - if his dossier on her was correct - which was, of course, why Manfred used it. “...then you are sadly mistaken. But for now, I will support you as the point person.“

And Manfred would support her, because the New York job was just the first salvo, an important game, but not the money shot. Failure there however would result in definite reactions from the others in Command. Manfred would prefer those reactions fell on Donna's head rather than his own. Pain was always preferable happening to others. Donna nodded at him frostily. Her hand twitched as though she were eager to pet her gun again. The woman is so transparent!

“Good. We should get going, the others will be there shortly. I don't want to miss anything.“ Donna said, tartly.

Which was absurd. While the others in Command had immense influence and could collectively erase both himself AND Donna with enough effort, he was still the Head of Command. They would not start a meeting without him, or he had to admit, frustratingly, without her either. She had not been with Command very long, nothing like the decades Manfred had devoted to the organization, but had already proven her worth to the others, and, if he was honest with himself, to Manfred as well. Which was, of course, the reason he disliked her so much. She was young , effective, and brutally intelligent, for the most part, the perfect up-and-comer who would try and supersede Manfred himself. She was definitely ambitious enough to try it. That was not something he could take lightly.

He was always a pragmatist and knew it would be wasteful not to use her as long as he could. That did not mean she would be allowed to live long enough to rise higher than he wished, however. Manfred did not shoot people personally, he found it barbaric and rather distasteful. The last time he had done it he found it necessary to replace his whole wardrobe before he felt comfortable again. Any number of the others in Command would partner with him to see it done. They had ambitions if not quite the level of Donna's ability.

No, she definitely bore watching. Closely.

“Yes, yes. We should go.“ Manfred murmured, sourly, his eyes back on the corpse. He would need to change suites after the meeting, a tiresome bother in itself. Manfred hated packing and unpacking multiple times on a trip. Without his man Bucks to do the work for him Manfred felt the tedium keenly. But he could no more bring Bucks along than he could let the others know his own real name. Somewhere records existed with that name. Men and women had been toppled with far less. Manfred had no plans to be toppled until Mother Nature took care of the job herself.

Donna nodded, impatient. Manfred waved her past. She glared for a moment, stalked past him, haughty and frigid. Despite the cold glare she was quite beautiful: blond, willowy, elegant, and refined - clearly from a wealthy family - but Manfred would as soon fondle a gold plated Ford Focus. Donna looked as though she were made of alabaster left in a deep freeze for several decades. Frosty just scratched the surface of things when it came to her. Once she had passed by him, Manfred looked at the corpse one last time and wondered if maybe he ought to search the man himself, before his cleaner removed it. His cleaner had never failed to be discreet over many,many such jobs. Several of which Manfred had organized solely to test the man's work ethic – honesty and discretion were requirements of such a person. The man had never failed those tests.

Still, people were always doing what you least expected, and this was important, if not the most important plan Manfred had in the works. Donna left the room and Manfred bent gracefully, he thought, for a man his age, and searched the dead man's pockets, careful not to get any blood on his loafers or clothing. That would definitely ruin his day! There was nothing. Which was as it should be. The man had been a member of Command, in addition to his other job: the Chief of Staff for the Mayor of New York City. He had not been privy to everything. In fact, his only real use had been to keep a eye on those two grasping little bitches in New York City, the two developing the technology behind the device in Manfred's pocket. Manfred did not trust them and the dead man had been a way of balancing that lack of trust. Manfred sighed, the man would need to be replaced. He would need to find someone to serve as the Mayor's new Chief of Staff, someone who could keep that same eye on those two bitches, but this time the person would report only to Manfred, he would not make the mistake of involving any of the others this time.

Manfred straightened up and walked out of the room. In the hallway, Donna was waiting, arms crossed over her chest, face impassive to the casual glance, but clearly showing impatience to Manfred. As they walked to the elevator, Donna asked him a question which drew his attention away from thinking of who he would select to replace the now unemployed man dying on the carpet of his unusable hotel suite.

“Do you. have any suggestions as to where we can find another hacker?“ Donna said, "He brought the current one in and we can't let the kid start asking the wrong questions.“

Great, now I'm going to have to clean up another corpse.

He could order her to let the young man be - he was hardly a kid, in fact, Manfred was certain the man was at least five years older than Donna herself, but still quite young to Manfred himself - he could order such, but she would wonder why and start looking into things which might be dangerous for her to see. No, he would just have to let her do as she wished. For now. My cleaner is going to need prodding to arrange two dead bodies in such quick succession. Regardless, Manfred did have a suggestion.

“Yes, yes, my dear. I will take care of it. In fact, I already have the perfect person in mind.“ The funny thing was, this time it truly was a kid. Which served Manfred's purposes perfectly. Younger people were laughably easy to manipulate and control, they often refused to see the strings even when you put them before their very faces! But this time he would hedge his bets; technology was a fantastic tool, and Manfred was well versed in it, but even he saw the need to employ talents of those who grew up attached to such machines. Teenagers. At least they have some use! They had the instinctual grasp he himself lacked. He would not rely on just one this time, though. Nor would he let the target know just who was doing the recruiting. Much simpler if he just wove a net, let the fish swim into it, zap him with the device long enough to find a more permanent measure of control. That was in the works as well, and very likely would be ready soon. Manfred almost rubbed his hands together gleefully at the thought, but the image of himself doing such was simply to passe to countenance.

He had been what most people would think of as a very, very bad man for a very, very long time, but soon he would be so powerful it would no longer be necessary to wonder or care what people thought of him.

Technology really is grand, truly.

He did laugh at that thought.

At the sound of his laugh. Donna grimaced. Or maybe it was because he had finally: used one too many “my dears” on her. But she said nothing. Which was to the good. They had a meeting to attend and it was always best to be on even footing when dealing with the others in Command, most especially when they were not. Manfred could tell from her posture and grimace she was positioned just right to lever the others out of balance. Anything more and she might go too far, not a disaster, of course, but Manfred had a lunch appointment he did not,want to miss, he hardly wanted to spend his afternoon arranging to have them all killed because dear Donna had pushed them all too far. Already he had much to do with arrangements for a new suite and having two bodies permanently disposed.

It was going to be a busy afternoon.

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