Vorpal: Gyre and Gimble #5
Zoe never returned to Ruy’s. She wasn’t expected to return the next day. For alibi purposes, they always checked into a motel room each, then slipped out unnoticed, returning there afterward to give the illusion that they had been there the whole time.
Not knowing what else to do, and with her mind still spiraling around the horror of what she just did, she followed rote. Even after an hour of showering with the hottest water and bleaching her suit so harshly that her eyes and sinuses burned, she couldn’t feel clean of what happened.
Especially since she already knew she had to do it again. And again. Until she felt something approaching closure. It was like a curse that Ludlam had put on him with his dying breath: there were others involved in destroying her home and everyone she loved and she could never be at peace until they were dead.
The thought of doing it again, all that blood and the lifeless, staring eyes—it made her shiver and her stomach churn, but it had to be done. She knew this. It was the only thing she knew to be absolutely true anymore.
In the morning, she went to de Campos to collect her payment. Most of it came in the form of donations to aide organizations that were still helping the living victims of Juiz de Fora two years later. Zoe only took a fraction in cash, and turned those into traveler’s checks.
The last thing she did in Rio was buy a top of the line palmtop and load it with programs for tracking people down.
Then her pilgrimage began.
Groundwire was the brainchild of a think tank that was, itself a branch of the US’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Over one hundred DARPA scientists and technicians actually worked on Groundwire, but ten were actually behind the design and testing. Kirk Ludlam had been one of them, an expert on superconductors and the creator of the ‘payload mechanism’ that was the primary function of the device.
That left nine from the project team. In addition, there was a military chain of command that put Groundwire in play.
Ultimately, the order had come from President Claybourne, who was already dead by his own hand. Below him was Air Force General Leanne Coventry. All sources placed her as the one that suggested to the president that Groundwire was ready for a field test and recommended Juiz de Fora.
After careful consideration, and having viewed the infamous ‘we’re the bastards’ tape dozens of times in the aftermath of the attack, Zoe decided to spare the pilots; they really didn’t know and they had not been happy to discover what they’d been ordered to do.
Four of the ten were still in the US, so she went there first, establishing herself as a canny thief out of Miami that would take jobs anywhere in the country while she gathered information on her targets and waited for her opportunity.
General Coventry was first. Not six weeks after her first murder, she caught Coventry off-base, watching a minor league baseball game in Grand Rapids. The bleachers were high and made of steel and aluminum. The papers called it a freak accident, how the metal had weakened as the General was returning to her seat after a concession run. The stair she was on buckled and she fell all the way to the bottom. All very tragic.
This one was easier. No blood that Zoe saw; no contact at all. It didn’t stain her or strike at her emotionally. But it also didn’t make her feel better. In fact, it made her feel nothing at all. There has been horror before, even guilt for the monster she made Ludlam out to be, but this one made her feel nothing until a bitter shard of disappointment hit her that Coventry never even knew why she was killed.
A personal vendetta was just that, personal. As clean, as undetectable, and as easy as killing the General had been, it was the wrong way of going about it. No matter how awful Ludlam’s death was, she needed exactly that if justice was going to be served.
Three months later, she got extremely lucky. Someone wanted the proof of concept samples of a new coolant stolen from a small company in Fort Worth called Synthetica. As it so happened, Anthony Pennington, the man behind the chemical power cells of Groundwire, was Synthetica’s founder.
Zoe caught him working late in the lab and her need to make sure he knew exactly why she was killing him almost got her killed in the process.
Pennington shouted for help and the people who responded were not bog standard security drudges. They were obvious mercenaries hired from a private security firm that didn’t know the line between ‘private security’ and private army’.
There was a tense stand off with more guns than Zoe felt confident eluding until she spotted salvation: the fume hood over one of the lab tables. To anyone else, it was a claustrophobic death trap. To a metal controller, it was an escape tunnel that expanded or contracted on her whim.
She dragged Pennington over to the table, forcing him to keep close with another wire garrote. The intent was to stab him through the heart and make her getaway, but some dark, fluttering thing awoke in the back of her mind at the last minute.
‘Wouldn’t it be right and proper’, it said with her own voice, ‘If everyone involved with the Jabberwock lost their head?’
With effort, and a threatening tug on the garrote, she climbed on top of the table and made Pennington do the same.
‘One, two, one two…’ The darker version of herself recited, ‘And through and through…’
She silenced it by focusing on the rings on her fingers and the bracelets running up her arms. They melted and flowed into her palm and became a wavy bladed athame; a cruel blade she hoped was cruel enough to sate that thing inside her. Anything to keep from repeating what happened with Ludlam.
The fume hood was directly overhead now. She could escape any time she wanted. The security force wouldn’t risk shooting with Pennington between them and her. All the card were in her hand and it was just a matter of how she played them.
That is, up until the moment Pennington thought he felt some slack in the garrote. He twisted and tried to elbow her. He had no idea how little of a chance he stood.
With a thought, the wire became an impossible combination of thin and strong. Zoe pulled with one hand and shoved him toward the security guards with the other.
“Snicker-snack.” She wasn’t sure if she said it, or if it was just something echoing around in her head. Either way, in the moment of stupefied disbelief as those trained and heavily armed thugs watched a small woman decapitate their boss seemingly with a light push, she leapt into the fume hood and was gone.
Old habits died hard. After the job, she didn’t return to her rental, instead spending the night in yet another motel to establish an alibi. This time when the showered, there was no frantic scrubbing, or senses destroying bleaching. She washed and bitterly reflected on what was happening to her.
Despite still being conflicted about it, she knew that the next person she killed would die that same way as Pennington and Ludlam. They had to. She couldn’t explain how, but they did. And she would do it. No matter how much she hated it, how much she wanted to quit and go home or fine her aunt, she wasn’t allowed to give up.
The faces of all the people she lost stared coldly over her shoulder and the screams of future generations, victims of those who would be killed by irresponsible projects like Groundwire, echoed in her ears. There wasn’t another choice. No other options. Politicians and diplomats and everyone else involved had failed her family and friends and would fail again.
But if the legend spread; tales of how every scientist and military overseer attached to Groundwire died in a most gruesome manner, maybe others would finally get the message.
Breathing in the steamy air, she rested her head on the tiles. Was she strong enough to do that? Cold enough to do that? No. She was capable and clever and had powers, but more than that was necessary to decapitate a dozen people. It couldn’t even be called strength, that dark resolve that pushed a killer to take lives again and again without it destroying them.
But she’s already killed three, hadn’t she? There was something there, something that had spurred her on. Something she didn’t want to become. Except it was far too late for that.
Leaving the shower, she shivered in the relative cold of the bathroom and stared at herself in the mirror.
A woman by years, but by and by a girl. She hadn’t grown all that much since her teens; her hips were a bit rounder, her chest a little less flat, but her face was fresh and innocent as a fawn. The blood on her hands hadn’t touched her eyes.
Maybe one day, she could be that woman again. After she stopped being what her murdered loved ones needed her to be. Until then, Zoe was a liability. She had to go away for a while.
She exited the bathroom without even toweling off and snatched up her palmtop and began to search. She’d been forcing herself to go through with the… executions before. Now, she needed to be serious about it. No more cobbled together burglar’s kit and suit, no more haphazard rings and bracelets as sources of metal. She had to be professional, cold and set in her intent to be deadly.
For everyone she cared about and lost, she needed to lose herself and be remade into a perfect weapon of retribution. And like the vorpal blade in that damn poem, she would slay the monster once and for all and make them proud of her.
It took her most of the night, searching through her contacts until she found someone who could do what she wanted. His specialty was custom weapons and modifying mob vehicles to specs, but he’d also been known to design fitted armor; the kind that could stop a high caliber slug and yet be hidden under a tuxedo without being visible. They called him Gear and he operated in the higher echelon of the highly organized underworld of Mayfield, VA.
Six months of high dollar theft and espionage earned her the money and reputation necessary to put in an order to Gear.
That reputation was something approaching urban legend. She’d stopped meeting face to face to accept jobs, only communicating online, and if it was through a video link, she wore a hood like a medieval hangman that only showed her eyes. What people knew marked her as a master thief, rumor marked her an assassin or enforcer for whatever criminal empire the locals feared.
All that meant precisely jack and shit when it came to dealing in Mayfield. Unusual for a city that size, there was only one boss at the top there and whoever that was, he controlled every major illegal undertaking and brooked no argument. Even the street gangs, a natural occurrence in a large city, stayed as small and inconsequential as they were in a mid-sized town for fear of garnering the attention of the big fish.
Gear was very high up in that network, so no amount of mystique cowed him. If she wanted him to do any work for her, he demanded they deal in person. Fortunately for her, that didn’t mean face to face.
Just as in their initial meeting, she wore her hood and long, shapeless coat when she came to pick up her purchase.
The exchange was to go down in a garage in the middle of the commercial district. The place reeked of oil and metal and every other smell a dying car makes, but at the hour of their meeting, none of the mechanics were around, and the only car in residence was a van, which turned out to be where her new suit was waiting, along with a proud Gear Callahan.
“It’s a corset.” was the first thing she had to say. “What is this? I’m not trying to look sexy, I need something that moves with me, but can stop a bullet. What is this?” Gear was middle aged, his hair thinning and a less than amused expression at her comments. Heedless, she continued, “Just because I’m a woman, you think I need to be pinched into shape even while I’m working?”
“You done?” Callahan asked, arms folded.
“I just hope there’s a good excuse for this.”
“You’re the one that wanted chainmail integrated into the suit.” He gestured to the mannequin that was wearing the corset, long-sleeved underarmor and pants. A pair of ninja-style tabi and the mask sat in a box atop a nearby crate.
“Chain doesn’t move well, even fine rings and you didn’t want fine rings. So I designed the suit in layered panels. Each individual panel is thin and arranged so that the chain doesn’t have to move with you because everything else flexes while the chain stays stationary. To make that work, the torso section here needs to have a semi-rigid structure so it bends only as much as you bend and no more. So yeah, it’s a corset—because what you asked me to make turns out to look a lot like one and it’d damn well look like this no matter what’s going on between your legs.”
She considered what he said and took a closer look at the suit. The chainmail was where the seams would be on normal clothing, but now that she looked closer, she could see the segments where the layers overlapped. Without admitting that he might be telling the truth, she turned her attention to the mask, holding it in front of her.
Instead of an executioner’s hood, it was a ninja mask that covered everything but a thin stripe across the eyes. Only turning it over in the light revealed that the area over the mouth had a panel over it that was extra porous to allow easier breathing. Her new face.
“Two-fifty. Like we agreed.” She finally said.
“If it was my decision, the price would have gone up after you’re little snit.” said Callahan.
Her interest was piqued once again by the so called master of the Mayfield underworld. “He keeps that tight a hold that you don’t set your own prices?”
“He keeps that tight a hold because he knows that raising prices over some damn fool’s pointless jabbering is bad for business. No, he explained it well enough to me: I have something you want, you pay me for it, you take it and next time you want something, maybe I get paid again. We don’t play games here. And no one that likes playing games lasts very long here, understood?”
She shrugged, not letting the threat get to her. From what her homework told her about Mayfield, she wasn’t in any danger unless she tried to set up shop without permission. “You don’t have to worry about me playing any games. I’m just passing through.”
And then there were years of death and violence.
I can’t relate those lost years, she never confided in me about them. I know that she continued killing for her revenge, but along the way, others died. She refuses to regret killing the Groundwire project leads, but those others, whatever reason she ended their lives, they gnaw at her until she locks them away and pretends they didn’t happen.
My knowledge of psychology is limited, I admit, but I think this was where her mind truly started to drift. The first three, maybe four or five were crimes of passion. It may be difficult to consider premeditated murder a crime of passion, but all the anger and anguish over what happened to her family and nearly everyone else she knew ran so deep that I don’t know what to call it but passion.
It is a passion I don’t understand or endorse, but I can recognize it when I see it if I’m honest. To understand, I think one would need to face the same level of loss and betrayal as she has, and it might be selfish to say, but I’m glad I will never experience that horror. I know I would break, not just fracture like Zoe, but shatter entirely.
There is strength in her, that kept her from completely losing her mind and going catatonic, or worse, ending her own life. She doesn’t recognize it, because she is still sane enough that the weight of her sins keep her from it.
I only wish that I could take some of that pain away. That she would le me. Or anyone.
What I do know is that her quest ended years ago, on a snowy night in Marseille . There, she encountered Steven Hyde-Wright, the last man marked for death for his part in Groundwire. Coming to France to end him changed her, though I can’t say for sure what parts changed her the most.
It might be selfish, but I hope that a large part of it stems from the fact that that night is also the night she met me.
To Be Continued…
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