A sketchy prologue
It was a macabre and yet peculiar sight.
The study wasn’t empty, but it was deathly quiet. The three men (two scientists and a businessman) stood around, watching as the woman knelt over a female corpse. The men watched with sheer horror and confusion on their faces. The woman, however, calmly stretched out her hand and closed the corpse’s eyes, freshly glazed over.
The body was exactly as the men had found it: lying on its back, legs sprawled on the stone-tiled floor, and arms limp, and a gun clutched tightly in its left hand. The woman felt through the body’s hair, long and fair but tainted with blood. The head was tilted slightly in a pool of the sticky substance, and the face had a solemn smile, as if this person was unwavering to the very end.
The businessman pulled out a cell-phone and flipped it open. The woman stood up in a flash and snatched it from his hand.
“Don’t you dare!” she snarled.
“But Madame,” he protested. “If we don’t tell them…”
“We tell them nothing! Nothing will happen to us if we say absolutely nothing!”
The Madame tossed the cell onto the ground and kicked it across the room. The scientists watched in surprise but didn’t speak up. She stared them all in the eye.
“One of you close the door,” she commanded. “Now!”
The younger of the scientists bowed his head and went for the door. The Madame waited until the door was completely shut before she continued. He stood by, listening for any approaching steps.
“Nicoli is still missing,” she said in a firm voice. “Remember that. He has disappeared and he continues to keep his whereabouts unknown. Are we clear on that?”
“So we lie?” asked the older scientist. “If they find out, we’ll all be…”
The Madame rose up over the older scientist, and he shut his mouth. “Dr. Hojo…do I like a fool to you?”
“N-no, Madame, but…”
Her eyes shot him with a menacing glare, so strong that he couldn’t get the words out of his mouth. The businessman became brave enough to speak again.
“But how will we make them believe us?” he mused. “They won’t just take our word for it.”
“It has already been taken care of,” the Madame replied. “This was all planned…and I’m ashamed to say this, but: not by me. If we play are cards right, everything will be in our favor…we can break out of this…”
“For what reason?” Hojo questioned. “Why do we…?”
“Take a guess… Think hard. You know why.”
Hojo pinched the bridge of his nose and adjusted his glasses. The businessman shrugged his shoulders and submitted himself to the Madame’s decision. The unnamed scientist remained silent, as if he were indifferent.
“Now that we all somewhat agree,” the Madame said, “We have one more problem.”
“And that is?” the businessman asked.
“Who will take care of the next Nicoli?”
The room grew quiet again, and the young scientist finally raised his head. No one said a word. The Madame examined all of their face, stopping her eyes on each of them for a moment before going onto the next. Over and over again.
“If you think that I’m doing it, you’re insane!” Hojo shouted. “I already have a son! And a wife! I will not risk their lives for this…this…madness!”
“And I don’t expect you to,” the Madame answered. “You bloody coward.”
The older scientist turned away, but too afraid bite back. The businessman knew that he was next for the picking.
“I can do it,” he said. “But I can’t guarantee complete safety. I am a public person, so it might be noticed.”
“What about your son?” the Madame questioned. “Isn’t he desperate for children?”
He frowned and shook his head. “Rufus would never go through with it. He has already made it clear… that he doesn’t want…those kinds of people in his house. Infancy would be no excuse for him…”
“That saddens me,” the Madame murmured. “So… are you willing to take care of him?”
As the businessman fumbled for an answer, a new voice shattered the atmosphere.
“I can do it…”
The younger scientist stood in front of the closed doorway, meek but serious. Everyone looked upon this quiet man in shock, including the Madame herself. When all of the eyes were fixed on him, he shrank for a moment and lost confidence. But he rose back up, despite himself, and nodded with determination.
“I can do it,” he repeated. “No one notices me.”
Dr. Hojo grunted and intervened. “Don’t pay attention him any mind. He’s a novice. He shouldn’t even be here!”
The Madame ignored him. She scanned this man closely from head to toe. He looked perfectly ordinary; he wasn’t very tall but he was lean. His eyes looked sharp and youthful, but they held a hint of uncertainty all same time. He carried himself in a tidy but non-excessive way; it showed in his hair and clothes. The Madame smiled with approval.
“As for the rest of you,” she declared, “You already know what to do.”
The older men bowed their heads and found their own way out of the room. As Hojo passed through the door, he gave his subordinate a scornful glare and snorted.
The Madame returned to the body and fell down on her knees again. She reached out to touch the body’s face and sighed.
“Oh, Nicky…” she whispered.
“You can catch a disease that way,” the young scientist warned.
Her eyes shot up towards him, and he was sure that he had said something wrong. She opened her mouth, and he winced.
“Forgive me, but I can’t remember your name.”
“S-strife. Jiro Strife…Madame…”
“And how long have you been with us?”
“Six years…since 2012.”
The Madame stood up and straightened the shirt of her dress.
“I suppose you think I’m going to ask why you stepped up to the plate,” she assumed.
She smiled devilishly and walked towards him, tossing her hair back. Jiro gulped, and she leaned into his personal space .
“Well, you’re wrong,” she murmured in his ear.
The Madame strolled casually away towards the door and opened it.
“Just do a good job.”
The door was shut, and Jiro was left alone, waiting for the clean-up crew to arrive.
On the following morning, Dr. Hojo entered the lab and came upon an unpleasant surprise. The project that he was supposedly the head of had already begun without him. The body already lay naked in a cylindrical tube, cleaned and carefully preserved. Everything was prepared. The computers were finished warming up. All of the lab personnel, including minor scientists, were ready to go—masks, rubber gloves, goggles and all.
And Dr. Strife was about to give his next orders.
“What on earth is going on here?!” Hojo shouted.
The whole company turned to face him in silence. Many of the personnel pressed their lips together, trying to hold something back. Hojo pointed an accusing finger at Jiro.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m… I’m just doing as I’m told,” Jiro replied nervously. “Didn’t the Madame tell you?”
Hojo mustered up the strength to bellow at him, but another voice of authority interrupted.
“I have given Dr. Strife full charge over this project.”
Hojo felt the rims of his eyes widen under his glasses. The Madame leaned on the doorway and watched the entire spectacle with a sadistic pleasure. He swerved around to face her, mortified and bewildered.
“This must be a joke!” he retorted. “I am the head of this lab!”
“Don’t worry,” the Madame answered snidely. “You can still keep your job. Think of this…as a vacation opportunity.”
She sneered at him, turned her back on him, and slithered out of the lab. Hojo gritted his teeth in anger.
“Dr. Hojo,” Jiro whispered.
Hojo glared dangerously at him through his glasses. In a huff, the furious older scientist was gone. In the background, a dark cloud was washed away by a cheerful morale, and the personnel burst into tearful laughter.
And Jiro stood, completely overwhelmed amongst them.
Time simply wore on. Days to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years. When a long period of time goes by, there are too many trials, too many incidents, and too many memories to recite all at one. Yet, even the little, fleeting moments will stand out.
Among the scores of memories, there was a bathroom. And an unusual bathroom it was. The floor tiles were black and white checkers, and walls were pure white, giving off a clean, yet eerie feel. The walls were decorated eclectically with a few large, Chinese fans, framed Japanese murals, a couple of tasteful European paintings. There was a small, terra-cotta soldier on the sink counter. The bathtub was built into the floor.
All of this came from the eccentric whims of the woman of the house.
This particular woman was bathing quietly with her son in mild bath salts. Her blond hair was well pinned up, with Chinese chopsticks. The boy, around seven years, pressed his cheek against the tub’s ledge. His mother watched in fascination.
“When is Papa coming home again?” the boy asked.
“On Friday,” the mother replied patiently.
She reached down and ran her fingers threw his slightly damp hair.
After almost a decade with the boy, this mother still had yet to understand him. He was an odd child. Even then, as he laid his head on the floor, he was thinking about something without telling her what it was. Physically, he was born with many of her features: blonde hair, pale skin, and a glowing smile. His father’s eyes were his. But the way his hair grew, spiky and unruly as all get up, was still a mystery.
“Why does Aunt Lucrecia hate me?”
The mother sat upright in the bathtub. The boy stared at his mother with curious eyes. She saw bit of soap on his back and gently scooped water to wash it off.
“She doesn’t hate you,” she answered. “She just…doesn’t know how deal with you yet.”
The mother stretched out her arms and drew her son into a hug. He saw melancholy in her eyes.
“You’ll understand when you get older.”
The boy rested his head against his mother’s chest and felt the rhythm of her heartbeat.
“Maybe she’s jealous,” the boy proposed.
“And why would that be?” she asked.
“Because Scarlet came out rotten, and I didn’t.”
The mother gave her son a stern look.
“Don’t say things like that...that was very crude!”
The boy moaned in protest. She pushed his head off of her chest and made sure that they had eye contact.
“I won’t ask you to get along with her,” she said. “But whatever she does, whatever she says to you, I want you act like a gentleman.”
“I don’t feel like being one when I’m around her,” he muttered in contempt.
“I didn’t say you had to be ‘whitewash polite’.”
The boy cocked his to the side and raised his eyebrows, not quite understanding.
“If you want to effectively defeat your enemy,” the mother advised wisely, “You must fight cleverly and tactically. Turn the tables. Rushing at her head-on hasn’t helped, has it?”
“But what if Scarlet says something mean?”
“Do nothing but smile. That is the true meaning of gentleman: being able to do everything in style and class, whether it’s cooking, dining, being polite… or matching wits with your awful cousin. Trust me. If you do as I say, she’ll end being the villain instead of you.”
The boy frowned and started thinking again.
“What does crude mean?” he asked.
“Indecent, vulgar, ungentlemanly,” she explained.
The boy became silent and rested his head, back on her chest. The mother leaned back, and some stray hair fell out off the bun and clung to her soaked back. There was a window a few feet away from the bathtub, overlooking the field, just outside of London’s boundaries. There was a set of train tracks, and train had already passed, but it left no smoke behind.
“I wish Papa was here,” he said quietly.
The mother squeezed her son tight and sighed. He smelled like her…like bath salts.
“Ah… me too.”