Sweat ran down Freddie Young’s face in sheets. His shirt stuck to him, heat radiating from his core. His breath came in ragged gasps, as he doubled over, his ribs aching. His lips pulled back into a grin, and he wiped the moisture from his forehead with the back of his wrist. He took as deep a breath as he could and straightened himself out. Spread out before him was a crowd of 10,000 fans, crying out for an encore. Freddie was not one to disappoint his fans.
He turned to his drummer and held up 2 fingers in a V, signalling him to start the count for “A Few Gentle Words,” his first big hit. It had been 5 years since that song first shot him to fame, but he never grew tired of performing it, especially when the women in the crowd showed their appreciation.
* * *
Erin Skinner was falling. For how long, she couldn’t say, but it occurred to her that she may have been falling forever. Maybe she never was in a hospital. Maybe she never was tortured by a sadistic psychiatrist. Of course, the burns on her thighs and belly told her that she was, in fact, tortured. She was thankful that the headache had passed, a throbbing pain that stretched from her temples to her jaw. She smiled despite her uncertainty. She could have jumped into the hole just a moment ago, or it could have been 1,000 years, though the latter seemed somewhat unlikely.
Her fall came to an abrupt end with a painful thud and a cloud of dirt. Pain racked her body, and the headache began to creep its way back up the side of her head. She felt warm blood make its way down from her nostril to her lip, before dropping onto the dusty ground beneath her. She did not move, afraid she may have broken some bones, afraid she was paralyzed.
A sudden noise to her left startled her, and she scrambled to her feet without thinking. She coughed in the dirt cloud and strained to see the figure standing before her. She was sure now that she was tortured, and she must be in a coma, dreaming a vivid, pain-filled dream.
Standing before her was a man, tall and barrel-chested, with a long, black beard. His black hair was pulled back from a serious face, with dark eyes, and a small, set mouth. He was wearing animal furs of some kind, though he must have dyed them, Erin had never seen any animal these colors in nature; deep purples, bright reds, and a smokey blue, they covered him from neck to ankle. On his feet he wore leather shoes, a dark, dark brown. His arms were enormous and scarred, each ending in hands that were both massive and rough. The hands of a worker.
“Erin,” he spoke, a deep sound that seemed to cause the air itself to vibrate. “Do you recognize me?”
She did, she realized, tears welling up in her eyes. Maybe not by sight, but that voice was unmistakable. It was her boy hero, Kaloyan.
“Yes, Kaloyan, I do, but,” she paused, looking around at the rocky landscape that surrounded them on all sides. She could see now that they were in a kind of ravine, between two massive mountains of black rock. “Where am I?”
“Welcome to my kingdom: Kóbor.”
* * *
Stripped to the waist, Cam Geary danced. She ran her hands over her breasts, motioning for Freddie Young to come hither. He obeyed, well aware that he was the one in control. This young girl would do anything for her favorite rock star, he would see to it. He grabbed her by the waist and spun her around. She continued dancing as he hooked his thumbs into the top of her skirt and pulled it down in one swift motion. She wore nothing underneath and did not resist as he slid his hand between her cheeks, teasing her with penetration. She giggled as he wrapped his freehand around front, grabbing her breasts and pulling her toward the couch.
He dropped her onto the couch, face-up, and pounced. He kissed her neck, tongued her ear, ran his hands over her erect nipples on his way down her long, lean torso. He had just about reached his goal when there was a knock at the door. He grunted in frustration, motioning for the girl to remain silent. “Who the fuck is it?!”
He was answered by a momentary silence, followed by a crash as the door caved in from the impact of a massive foot. Freddie rolled to the floor, dragging Cam with him, using her as a human shield. Three shots echoed in the small space, the girl screamed, gurgled, and died. If his ears hadn’t been ringing, Freddie would have heard the shooter’s footsteps disappear down the hall. As it was he could barely find his balance.
He lay under the dead girl for a moment, waiting for the harsh tone to dissipate. Then he climbed to his feet and reached under the couch cushion. He produced a small, black pistol and gave chase on the most likely path for his attacker to follow. A crowd had gathered in the hall, gasps and howls of surprise erupting all around him. He held the gun at eye level, making sure everyone around him saw it, making sure they cleared a path. The hall terminated at an emergency exit, the door was not fully closed.
Gun raised, ready to fire, Freddie Young burst through the emergency exit. He was seemingly alone in the small alley. He turned in time to see a dark figure drop to the other side of a chain-link fence. Freddie took aim, and fired. It was an impressive shot, passing through the fence with plenty of clearance and striking his target between the ribs, piercing his lung and stopping his heart. Freddie did not take a moment to savor the shot. He took off down the alley, climbing the fence in the blink of an eye.
His attacker, now his victim, lay prone, a reddish bubble forming at his lips. His lungs were filling with blood even as his oxygen deprived brain shut down. Freddie gave him mercy, a shot between the eyes, then knelt beside the body. He searched him for ID, coming up with only a business card. It was blank, save for an embossed, black star. Freddie recognized it immediately. This man was American black-0ps, one of Freddie’s many unknown partners. So why was his own organization trying to kill him?
* * *
Alexander De Felice lifted the glass to his lips and swallowed the bourbon. Then, again. And again. It was a nightly ritual that was as unstoppable as it was destructive. And again, another.
* * *
Sigmond Vipond blinked in the glare of the bright lights. He had been nearly asleep, though how one could sleep in this situation was beyond the understanding of the detectives.
“Wake up, Mr. Vipond.” The surlier of the two detectives entered the room, slapping a manilla envelope down on the table. “Go ahead, open it up.”
Sigmond did as he was instructed. He could see the dark things in the detective’s mind, knew the pain that would fall on him if he didn’t obey. Inside the folder were two glossy photographs, eight-by-tens. One was of McKenna Alvey: young, pretty, with dimpled cheeks and dark hair. She was smiling, her lips full and bare. She wore no make-up. The second photo was also of McKenna, but she looked anything but beautiful.
The young brunette’s throat had been torn open, her esophagus hanging by threads of skin. Her face had been beaten, severely. She was not even recognizable anymore, except to someone like Sigmond. Her mouth, her beautiful mouth, had been cut open from ear to ear. “You see that? That’s called a ‘Glasgow Smile’,” the quieter, and much younger of the two detectives spoke up.
“But you knew that already, didn’t you?” Sigmond just nodded. He did indeed know that.
“So tell us, Mr. Vipond,” the surly detective again, resting an almost friendly hand on Sigmond’s shoulder, “Why did you do it?”