Chapter 11

 

Yule pulled the glass cork from the carafe and poured the liquid into a crystal tumbler. Downing the scotch in one gulp, he re-filled the glass.

Michael had taken a seat on the leather couch and Ravenswood had chosen to sit in the chair behind the desk. Yule wanted to stand. He was already on edge and knew he would only fidget if he was seated. Instead, he walked to the fireplace and leaned heavily on it. He realized he must look like something out of an old movie, a dark brooding character about to tell a tale of woe and gloom. Though the truth of the matter was, that’s exactly what he planned to do.

Seeing the men were settled, Yule started to talk, addressing his son. “You never knew your grandfather, my father. He died before you were born. He had two sons, me and my brother, David. Real estate was the family business, but neither of us wanted anything to do with it. David was always the humanitarian. From the time he was a kid, he wanted to save the world. It didn’t surprise anyone when he ended up going to medical school. Me, I was the hotshot. I was a young buck who wanted to take on the world. I didn’t want a desk job. I enlisted in the military the moment I could. I was 17, just out of school, and more ambitious than anyone could imagine. I joined the Marines because I wanted to be one of the elite. I plowed through boot camp, busted my ass through those early years. My fire and determination won me high praises and top security clearance. The only thing that stood in my way was Rick Frank.”

Michael’s eyebrow twitched up. Yule smiled. “Yes, your other grandfather. He was head of operations of a project I wanted in on. He thought I was too cocky for it. I hated that. I did everything I could to get into that man’s good graces. Nothing worked... until I met Sally.”

Michael’s jaw hardened and his eyes moved to the floor. Yule turned and faced the private eye. “Sally was Rick’s daughter. She was young, shy, and innocent. She’d been sheltered her whole life and dreamed of doing something wild and dangerous. Turned out I was that something wild and dangerous. I was a bad boy and she was crazy about me. After that first date, when I brought her home, Rick shook my hand. As we began dating, he started to warm up to me. The day I bought Sally the engagement ring, Rick let me into the project. By the time our first anniversary rolled around, I was head of the project.”

“So you married Sally to advance in the military?” Ravenswood asked.

“Partially. Sally was beautiful and I did care about her. But we were both young and naive. Of course, it didn’t help matters that Sally got pregnant a few weeks after we married. Stevie was born ten months after the wedding. Anyhow, Sally had grown up in a military family. She had a mother who had been married to a famous general. She grew up watching how to be a good military wife, keep up the pretense of a happy home—and how to turn a blind eye to the indiscretions of her husband.

“When my father died, my brother and I decided I would be the one to take over the company. I left the Corps, but things pretty much carried on the same way. It was never spoken of, but I knew that as long as I came home to her, Sally would look the other way with respect to my extra-marital affairs. We went on like that for years. That is, until Maggie...”

 

<<< Matthew Bruce lay across the small couch. His Black Torrent missions had grown so frequent, his time as CEO had started to suffer. Working late hours in the boardroom and then on the rooftops, the two hour commute to and from home was simply impossible. After too many nights of sleeping in his office, he had finally taken on a small flat where he could bunk out during the week. While it was a legitimate necessity, the apartment also provided a safe location for his liaisons with his brother’s wife.

Though they had agreed to meet that afternoon for a romantic tryst, Matt had been caught out in the rain the night before while tracking a gas station bandit. He had developed a bad cold and felt awful. Maggie suggested they skip any intimacy and instead insisted on giving him a back rub.

Running her fingers over his skin, she stopped at a long rough patch along his right shoulder blade. “What’s this one from?”

“Some punk kid pulled out a leather strap a week ago. Totally didn’t see it coming.”

Kneading the mark with the palm of her hand, she moved down to the middle of his spine. “And that one?”

“That’s actually a medical scar. I got shot in the leg doing a Torrent job to bring down a human trafficking ring. They used a spinal to numb me to remove the bullet.”

Rubbing oil over his skin, Maggie’s fingers trailed downward, stopping at a scar along his lower back. “What about this one?”

“I ended up slipping off a two-story building and landing in a dumpster. Unlike the movies, it wasn’t filled with soft newspaper shavings. I think it was a broken beer bottle.”

Shaking her head, Maggie slid down onto the floor so her face was level with his. “You’d better be careful, Mr. Torrent. You’re gonna end up getting killed one day.”

Running his finger down her cheekbone, Matt smiled. “Question is, will it be the bad guys that get me... or the good guys?”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Where are you, you bastard?

Black Torrent glanced around the darkened room. Even though the fire that had gutted the building occurred months earlier, the air still smelled heavily of soot and charred flesh. Testing to see if the stairs were stable, he climbed to the second floor.

During his time crimefighting, Torrent had run into a variety of criminals. Most were the typical fare: street thugs, drug kingpins, and organized crime bosses. There were a few costumed villains on occasion, but their personas were more for show than anything. That is until Necro appeared. The man dressed in a dark blue bodysuit with a tight hood. His black gloves ran up the length of his arms and his thick boots stopped just past his knees. On his face, he wore a pair of silver goggles which obstructed his face and gave him special vision abilities. Over the past six months, his crimes had increased and it was clear he was doing things just to bait the superhero.

“I have an arch-nemesis, now,” he had told Maggie.

Pulling out a small flashlight, Torrent shone it across the room. Necro had sent a letter to the police station, stating he planned to commandeer a local ferry boat and blow it up. There was something about the note that didn’t ring true. While the police went to secure the local commuter vessels, Torrent had gone to a secondary location and found Necro just as expected. After a scuffle, the villain had managed to get away... but not too far away. He taunted Torrent to follow him, and threatened that if he didn’t there would be others who regretted it. As much as Matt didn’t like giving in to the man, he knew the criminal wasn’t bluffing, so he had no choice but to play the cat and mouse.

A sound came from the back of the room. The hero whirled around, his cape flaring out around him. He shone the light into the corner. There was a muffled scream as it illuminated a young woman, bound and gagged—she couldn’t be more than sixteen. Torrent rushed towards her, pulling the white cloth from her mouth.

“Oh, thank God,” she sobbed. “Please get me out of here. I’m so scared. He’s insane.”

A creaking sound came from behind them. The girl glanced beyond the crimefighter and let out a shrill scream.

Torrent jumped out of the way just as the pick axe came down, embedding into the floor where he had been standing. As the young woman continued to shriek, Torrent pushed her back. He lunged towards the costumed criminal and tackled him to the floor. Necro cackled as a fine mist sprayed from his glove, hitting the crimefighter’s face. It was pepper based and Matt screamed as his eyes began to burn. In a fluid movement, Necro pulled his legs up to his chest, using them to thrust the hero off and back.

This guy is good. Too good.

Necro punched him several times in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. He then clipped his knees, bringing him to the ground. Torrent coughed as the thick dust on the floor rose, rushing into his lungs and gagging him. Spatting twice, he glanced up just in time to see the villain disappear out the door. The woman in the corner was gone.

“No,” he groaned.

Rubbing the burn from his eyes, Torrent staggered to the doorway, taking pursuit. He noticed the door on the ground level was opened a crack. Leaping from the railing, he landed on the first floor and darted through without slowing down. A muffled scream sounded, sending chills into his spine. Torrent followed the fresh footsteps in the grass to the back of the property. In the middle of the yard, Necro stood alone, smiling wide.

“Who are you?” Torrent sneered, stopping mere feet from the villain.

“Look in the mirror and you’ll see who I am. And look behind you and you’ll see what I see.”

It was reflex, but Torrent whirled around. The young woman he had seen just a few minutes earlier was on the other side of the yard. He could hear Necro dashing off behind him, but Matt made the decision to go to the girl. She was laying on the grass, face down, and it wasn’t until he touched her that he noticed the pool of blood. Turning her over, he gasped—her throat was slit ear to ear.

“No!” he screamed, clenching his fists.

In the distance, there was the faint sound of laughing.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Matt made it to the briefing room ten minutes early. Rick Frank was already there. The general gave him a irritated look and continued to review his paperwork. Nathan Hammer walked in, a stack of folders in his hands. Next to him was Nancy Miller, a new face in the crowd, but from what Matt had heard, she was an up-and-coming star in the program.

“Nice of you to make it, Mr. Bruce.” Hammer’s voice was cold and impersonal. “I think you’re averaging one out of every three meetings these days.”

“I’ve been busy.”

Hammer motioned for everyone to take their seats. Once the room was quiet, he turned his attention to the Torrent operative. “Matt, we’re concerned about your dedication to this project. There have been four assignments that were either ignored or the end result was altered based on your personal preference. Your non-sanctioned exploits are proving difficult to contain. Black Torrent is getting too much exposure, something we wanted to avoid.”

“People need help. I help them.”

Rick Frank rose. “We have an important assignment for you, Matt. Straight from the Oval Office. You can’t fuck this up; you’re jeopardizing the future of this project.”

Matt’s jaw hardened, but he remained silent.

“Senator Daniel Hauser has decided to run for re-election next year, despite urging from the White House to step down. His personal escapades are an embarrassment and have caused significant damage to his reputation. He’s trailing in the polls, and if he loses, it will cause a shift in the senate that is undesirable to the administration. Black Torrent needs to expose his illicit drug use and bring the man into the spotlight so he will have no choice but to resign.”

“What drugs does he currently use?”

“He doesn’t,” Hammer answered. “We intend to plant cocaine and heroine before the police arrive.”

The Torrent operative grimaced. “You want me to plant evidence and frame a man for something he didn’t do?”

“He didn’t do this,” Miller explained. “But he’s done plenty of other illegal things.”

“Then have me bust him for that.”

“It’s doubtful it would have the same impact. We need to assure he steps down.”

He shook his head. “I refuse to do it.”

“You can’t refuse,” Rick roared. “You follow orders, period. You don’t question.”

Matt stared at the man, wanting to tell him to go to Hell. But he didn’t. The tension between him and his father-in-law was growing, and he was getting nervous about the implications beyond the project. For the sake of momentary peace, he decided not to press the issue.

“This is the last time,” he announced. “I’ll do it, but after this I go by the book. No more of this bullshit.”

Rick and Nathan exchanged a glance. Nancy shifted her attention to the legal pad in front of her. The rest at the table simply looked away.

Folding his hands, Hammer nodded. “By the book, Matt. From now on, by the book.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“In a dramatic turn of events in the senatorial race, Daniel Hauser announced he is no longer seeking re-election. Though rumors abound that the decision stems from the discovery of purported drug use, the politician insists the move is being made so he can focus more time on his family.”

Matt turned off the television and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his temples. Stephen walked in, a book and pad of paper in his hand. “Dad, can you help me with my math?”

When the boy smiled, Matt couldn’t help but return the gesture. He was twelve and already so big. Handsome, too. In a few years, he’d be quite the ladies’ man. “I have a terrible headache right now. Can we do it after dinner?”

“Yeah, sure. And then we can play a video game together?”

“That racing game you like. Promise.”

The boy turned and left, walking past his mother on the way out. Sally approached his desk, sitting in the chair opposite him. “I just put on a pot of coffee. Should be done in a few minutes.”

“Thank you.” His wife lingered and Matt could tell there was something else. “What is it?”

“I’ve been thinking.” She glanced down, wringing her fingers. “I never get to see you anymore. Neither do the kids. You’re either at work or you’re out as Torrent. When you’re home, you’re too preoccupied or too tired to spend time with us. Our marriage is crap.”

“Our marriage has always been crap.”

“You’re right,” Sally agreed. “But I want to work on it. I want to work on us.” She leaned forward, her fingers touching his. “I love you, Matt. I’m tired of being worried that you’re going to get killed. I’m tired of being a single mother five nights out of the week. I want to work on our relationship... on us. I can’t do that when you’re married to a costume and a cape. You don’t even do it for the military anymore.”

Matt had started to feel a bit of guilt at the woman’s words, but his ears perked at the last bit. “Military? Why should that matter?” His eyes narrowed. “This isn’t about us. Your father put you up to this, didn’t he?”

Even though Sally tried to stay composed, her nervousness was showing—she wasn’t a good liar. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You know damn well what I’m talking about.” He rose, staring down at her. “Do you even care about my feelings? About how important doing this is to me?”

“No, I don’t care. Why should I when you care more about a group of strangers than you do about our family. Do you even care about me?”

Glancing away, Matt found himself unable to respond. “I’m going to go help Stevie with his homework.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Matt looked at the clock on his office wall. It was 10:30. For the first time in six months, his desk was clear and he didn’t have a string of meetings scheduled. Part of him wanted to go home to spend the day with the boys. However, things between him and Sally had gotten more tense. Out of the blue, just the night before, she had made an insinuation as to his “girlfriend.” Though Matt had been confident she didn’t know about his affair with Maggie, now he wasn’t so sure. It didn’t help matters that his repeated calls to his sister-in-law had gone unanswered.

Picking up the phone to call the redhead again, Matt jolted as the woman entered the office.

“I’ve been trying to get a hold of you,” he said, irritation in his voice.

The woman’s face was void of expression as she pushed the door half-closed behind her. “Matt, it’s over.”

Letting out a groan, he buried his head in his hands. Maggie was prone to periods of guilt. There had been several times during their affair where she had told him she wanted to call it off. It was usually when David was involved in some humanitarian effort and her conscience was getting the best of her. Every time, however, her resolve had lasted less than a week. He would just have to call her or stop by and it was enough to heat the fires again. A few times, she had returned on her own, the seduction of their relationship too much to pass up.

“Maggie, don’t do this. You know you don’t mean it.” He rose, taking a few steps towards her.

Squaring her shoulders, her lips started to tremble. “I’m pregnant.”

Matt stopped dead in his tracks. “Pregnant?” His mind whirled. “Is it mine?”

“Of course it’s yours,” she said, her composure breaking.

It still was too incredible to believe. “I know David has problems, but I’ve heard of situations where someone thinks they’re sterile, but then they go on to—”

“I haven’t slept with him in six months,” she blurted. She covered her eyes as tears began to flow. “Every time I tried, I would think of his lies... or think of you... and then I couldn’t.”

The revelation was staggering and Matt struggled with the wave of emotions. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Then don’t say anything,” another voice spoke. David Bruce stepped into the room, closing the door behind him.

Fear and panic gripped Matt. He took a step backwards.

David moved to his wife, wrapping a protective arm around her. “She told me everything. I can understand what she did. She was hurt and desperate. But you—”

“I never meant to hurt you,” Matt stammered.

“We’re going to raise this baby,” David announced. “It’s our baby and no one is ever going to be the wiser.”

Matt nodded, his body numb. Then realization hit. “You told Sally about the baby.”

Wiping the tears from her eyes, Maggie managed a weak nod. “I told her that David and I were expecting.”

And I told her David was sterile a few months ago, he thought.

His brother glared at him. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive you.”

“I’m sorry,” Matt whispered.

The couple turned and walked from the room. As the door closed, Matt stood alone, his world crumbling down around him.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Mary Frank set down her fork, dabbing a napkin at her mouth. “Sally, that was the best lasagna I’ve ever had. You are an amazing cook.”

“Yeah, it was great mom,” Stephen added, holding out his plate. “Can I have another piece?”

Rick Frank rose, moving to the small bar at the far end of the dining room. “I’m going to take a quick walk outside. I’m afraid if I sit too long, I’ll fall asleep.”

“Can I come, Grampa Rick?” Mikey asked, excitement in his eyes. “It’s not even cold out.”

“No, son. Not right now. I was hoping your father would take a walk with me and talk about grown-up stuff.”

Matt heard the request and realized he didn’t have a choice in the matter. Shoveling the last bite of food into his mouth, he washed it down with the rest of his wine and headed out onto the lawn.

“Nancy told me that you cleared the last three missions without problem or resistance.”

Matt nodded. Hammer had made good on his word and the ops were all on the level. “Yes, sir.”

“This project is important to me,” Rick continued. “It’s the culmination of my life’s work. I need you to know that, to understand why I’ve acted the way I have, and why I have to do the things I do.”

“I know. But you have to know that I’m not a mindless drone like I was when I joined the service. Black Torrent is important to me and that’s why I have to do what I do.”

“I understand that.” The general turned to face his son-in-law. “Things have been difficult between us and I know it’s taking a toll on Sally. She confided in me that you’re having marital problems over this. I don’t want this to break us apart, I want to focus on family for a change. You know we have a chateau in Switzerland.”

“Yes, that’s where you and Mary lived when you were in the service. After you got married, you kept a home there.”

“I want to take you, Sally, and the kids there for the holiday. In fact, I want to take the whole family, your brother and sister-in-law, too.”

“That’s very generous, sir, but I don’t know if David would be okay with that.”

“I’ve already had Sally call and his wife seemed agreeable.” He smiled wide. “She really loves your kids.”

The thought of being alone in a chateau with Maggie both frightened and excited Matt. Regardless of his feelings, though, he realized turning down the offer was not an option. “Christmas in the Alps sounds great, Rick. Thank you.”

With a smile, his father-in-law slapped him on the back. “It’s all about family, y’know.”

Matt nodded. “Yes, family.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“I want to put some tinsel on the tree,” Michael whined, pushing his brother back.

“We can both do it, squirt. Don’t be a pootie.”

“Mommy, Stevie called me a pootie.”

Maggie giggled, handing some tinsel to the youngest boy. “There’s enough for everyone to help.”

Sally smiled, moving to her mother’s side. Mary was threading a line of string through pieces of popcorn. “This is all we could afford for decorations when I was a kid.”

Matt glanced around the room, taking a sip of his eggnog. “When are you supposed to go to see Santa? It’s nearly noon.”

“Oh goodness,” Mary said, pushing the bowl aside. “We need to go now. C’mon boys, let’s get ready.”

“Gramma, can I sit on Santa’s lap?” Mikey asked.

“You were too scared to do it last year, but we can give it another try.”

Maggie stood, helping the women get the boys into their coats. She was very pregnant. Matt had never found Sally particularly beautiful when pregnant, and could never understand the men who said they found their wives super-desirable when expecting. That is until he had seen Maggie. It took everything he had to keep from getting her alone and ravaging her. It irritated him that he should even have to deal with such temptation. He had expected David to turn down Rick’s offer to come for the holidays, but Maggie had argued that she wanted to mend family ties. With the baby due soon, she wanted her daughter to have a connection to her cousins.

Not cousins, brothers, he thought wryly.

Pouring some scotch into his eggnog, he moved out onto the balcony, watching the snow fall. Footsteps sounded behind him and soon David stood by his side.

“How are things with Black Torrent?”

“All right,” Matt answered.

David sighed. “Listen, I know I said I would never be able to forgive you, but I was wrong. I can’t say I’m happy with what happened, but it saved my marriage.” He turned to face his brother. “Maggie and I have never been this close. We’re really excited about the baby. It’s given us a new purpose. I don’t know how to reconcile all of that, but I just wanted you to know that I’m okay with things, and I don’t hate you.”

Feeling the effects of the alcohol, Matt smirked. “What about me hating myself?” Moving back into the house, he glanced around. “Did they leave?”

“A few minutes ago,” Maggie informed. “When’s Rick supposed to be back?”

The military was always number one in his father-in-law’s book, so it wasn’t surprising he’d left shortly after they had arrived to deal with an emergency in Malaysia. “He promised he’d be back Christmas Day.”

Maggie had just settled down to re-start the popcorn string when the door opened. Mikey walked in crying, Stevie and the women behind him.

“I want to see Santa Claus!” the boy whined.

“What happened?” Matt asked, scooping his son into his arms.

“The car won’t start,” Sally informed. “I can’t get any power at all.”

“Sounds like a dead battery,” David suggested.

“Problem is, we don’t have another car to jump it.” Mary tossed her purse onto the couch. “I could call a local shop, but I’m afraid we’re gonna miss going to the mall.”

That was enough to start the boy crying again. “I want Santa!”

“Next year, Mikey. Next year.” Sitting down to console his youngest, Matt watched as his wife and mother-in-law began to take off their coats. Though there was nothing wrong, he started to get a prickly feeling in the back of his neck.

“Can I try that?” Stephen asked Maggie, motioning to the popcorn.

“Sure.”

The boy grabbed the bowl and then glanced up, his face twisting. “What’s that smell? Eew, it’s awful.”

“I don’t smell anything,” Sally remarked.

Maggie gasped. “Oh, gosh, I smell it too. It’s dreadf—” The woman’s eyes rolled back into her head as she slumped backwards onto the couch.

“Maggie?” Matt called. A moment later, Sally collapsed onto the floor, then Mary and Stevie.

“Get out of here,” Matt called to David, pulling Mikey close to him. The boy was already unconscious.

David staggered forward two steps before falling to his knees.

Before Matt could call out once more, he felt the gas rush into his brain, blackness overcoming him.

 

“Wake up, Matty-boy.”

A crash of water hit Matt’s face, forcing his eyes open and causing him to gasp. He shook his head to clear the liquid from his eyes. His first reaction was to rise, but his arms were pinned to his sides and his legs strapped to a chair. Waiting for his vision to clear, he gasped as he saw the man in front of him.

“Necro.”

The villain smiled wide, teeth sparkling white. He surveyed his handiwork then glanced around the room. All of the patrons of the chateau were bound to chairs. Everyone was unconscious except Stephen, who was starting to come around. The maniac turned to his two henchmen. “Let’s give everyone a bath, boys. It’s no fun if they sleep through the party.”

Panic struck Matt. He had no clue how or why the villain would be there, but that thought was secondary. He’d seen the victims of the masked man. There were never any survivors.

One by one the others were doused, slapping them awake and sending them into varying states of terror. Mikey, however, still seemed groggy, and Matt worried that he had reacted badly to the gas.

“Ah,” the supervillain said, bouncing around the room. He stopped in front of each person for a moment. “We have mom, gramma, auntie, uncle, little boy, big boy, and...” He stood in front of Matt, his eyebrow ticking up. “Black Torrent.”

“Dad, what is he talking about?” Stevie asked.

Matt glanced at the adults in the room, their faces reflecting the fear and shock he was feeling. He wasn’t sure how the man had figured out his identity, but he didn’t care. “You don’t want them. You want me. Let them go and I won’t resist. You can do whatever you want to me.”

“Oh, Matt. I intend to do whatever I want with you. But first I mean you to watch your family die.”

Sally began to sob, her body shaking in fear. David shook his head, wiggling against his bindings. Matt had already started to work on the ropes that bound him, but he could tell from the feel that the villain had not taken chances. He had made sure to secure him extra tight.

“Why are you doing this?” he asked.

“Superheroes can do certain things. They can work outside of the law, but the law still binds them. Just like the law binds the military.” The man leaned forward, close enough for Matt to smell his breath. “When you want to get rid of a problem superhero, you send in a supervillain.”

“No,” Matt said, shaking his head in full understanding.

“You bastard,” a voice spoke. “You’re nothing but a coward. My dad’s the Black Torrent, he’s the greatest!”

Matt turned to his son, terror in his eyes. “Stevie, no. Be quiet.”

Necro sneered, turning to the boy. “Yes, Stevie, listen to your father.” The villain lifted his hand, revealing a gun. He aimed at the boy’s head and fired.

The room filled with screams, Sally’s voice above them all. Matt sat in shock, watching his son blown backwards and onto the floor. His limbs began to shake and for the first time since becoming Black Torrent, he regretted the decision.

Maggie and David quieted quickly, understanding the man’s psychosis. Mary’s screamed turned into a gurgling sound as she convulsed and her eyes rolled back into her head.

My God, she’s having a heart-attack.

Sally’s voice still shrieked, alternating between sobs. “Stevie, Stevie!”

“For the love of peace... SHUT UP!” Necro turned the gun on her, pulling the trigger again and again—two bullets ripped into the woman’s skull.

This time Mikey’s voice sounded, terror in the child’s screams. “Mommy! Mommy!”

Please, not my baby. Matt fought hard against his bindings, feeling them start to give.

“Little boy’s next.”

It was David who broke from his ropes first. He lunged forward and tackled Necro just as the criminal squeezed the trigger. Maggie screamed as Mikey flew back, the bullet tearing into his arm. The doctor grabbed the gun from the villain, turning to shoot one of the approaching henchmen.

It was just the distraction Matt needed. He fought hard against the ropes, finally managing to free himself. As the second henchmen darted forward, Matt grabbed the minion and snapped his neck.

The gun sounded again. Matt froze for a second, hopeful. Necro raised the smoking revolver above his head as David spat blood, collapsing onto the ground.

“No!” Matt leapt forward, tackling the villain. He managed to fling the gun across the room. The maniac didn’t seem phased—he was ready for a fight.

The men sparred for what seemed like forever. Their skills were perfectly matched—each punch, each kick, each maneuver was given and countered by the other with precision.

We were both trained well.

Across the room, Matt noticed Maggie had managed to free herself. She was standing over Mikey, who was unconscious and bleeding.

“Get him out of here,” he screamed as Necro dealt him a hard blow to the ribs.

The woman scooped up the boy and darted out the door.

The villain grabbed Matt, wrapping his arm around his neck, crushing his windpipe. He countered with a backwards headbutt.

I have to tire him out. The only way I’ll stop him is if I tire him out.

As Matt shifted his tactic, Necro paused a split second, looking up. The reaction confused Matt and he was ready to take advantage of the lull when he realized why the villain had stopped. There was a smell, faint but getting stronger. It was a different smell than before. A familiar smell.

Natural gas.

There was a cracking sound from the drop ceiling above. Matt recognized it. It was the spark from a charge.

“Those bastards,” Necro sneered.

 

There was fire... and there was burning.

Matt tried to scream, but he had no voice. He remembered a momentary sensation of flying, and then there was nothing more...

...except the burning.

Maggie, he tried to scream, then realized he no longer had a mouth.

...and there was burning.

I’m dead, he thought in terror. I’m dead and I’ve gone to Hell for my sins.

Burning... and burning... and burning...

Then the voice came. Did the devil speak in German?

“Oh, my God, I think he’s alive. We have a live one here!”

There was water, cool water. Yet it still burned. His skin, his whole body burned.

My face!

Hands lifted him, shooting pain through every part of his body. Agony.

...and then there was black.

 

“Jim. Jim. Are you awake?”

Matt’s face twitched. He tried to open his eyes, but they were swollen. He tried to open his mouth with the same non-results.

Another voice spoke. “It’s all right. Go ahead with the surgery. We’ll deal with the rest later.”

The smell of gas again and then darkness.

 

Matt awoke, but he was unable to open his eyes. There was something around his whole head. At first, he thought it might be his Black Torrent cowl, but it felt soft and heavy.

“Today’s the day, Jim,” a female voice spoke.

“Where am I?” His voice sounded nothing like his own.

“Trinity Naval Hospital.”

That’s in Italy, he thought. How did I get to Italy?

His mind was still cloudy and he couldn’t remember anything. Trying to move his hands, he realized they were bandaged, too.

I must have been in some kind of accident.

As the thought hit, the memories rushed forward.

“It’s all right. It’s going to be all right.”

“Williamson?”

“We’re going to remove the bandages. The doctors said you’ve healed enough that it’s better to have your face exposed to the air. They’re still going to need to do skin grafts on your arms and legs, but you’re a hundred times better than you were.”

Matt could feel them snipping away the bandages, the pressure around his face lessening. As they peeled away the layer over his eyes, light flooded forward, blinding him. Through the glare, he could see there was a room full of people, doctors and nurses staring at him. Williamson was next to him, his mouth gaping. “It’s amazing.”

“Where’s my family?” Matt asked.

“They’re dead, Mr. Butler.”

Confusion gripped him. He realized there must be a good reason his friend didn’t seem to know who he was, but he couldn’t come up with anything.

“Would you like to have a look?” the nurse asked.

Matt nodded and took the mirror from the woman. As he stared into it, his body began to shake.

Where’s my face? Where... is... my... face?

Williamson leaned towards him and whispered into his ear. “No survivors.” >>>

 

Yule was quiet for a long time. Ravenswood started to get nervous, thinking that perhaps he’d worked himself up to a heart-attack state again. Finally, the man shook off the memory and addressed the private eye. “It took me two years before I could get used to seeing that face in the mirror... this face.” He gulped down his scotch. “I had eight more surgeries after that, then spent fifteen months in a rehabilitation center in France. Williamson had arranged for me to take on the identity of another operative that had been killed on a covert mission a few days before the Swiss accident. Once my recovery was over, I was given a stipend and told to rebuild my life somewhere else. Problem was, I had nowhere to go.

“When I was in the military as a young man, I had met Barir Khouri, leader of a small country in the Middle East you’ve probably never heard of. He had joked that if I ever needed a job, he’d love to have me. It was fifteen years later, and I was terrified he’d turn me down, but I didn’t have any other options. Thankfully, he gave me a job, and a chance. And that’s where I stayed for the next twenty years.

“You know, after that day, I learned not to dream. You can train yourself to slip into a sleep where you don’t hit that REM pattern, where you don’t dream. But every now and then, if I think too hard, the nightmares come anyway. Gonna be one of those nights, tonight.” With a sardonic smile, Yule turned to his son. “So you wanted to know what happened in Switzerland, Michael. Now you know. You know about my illicit affair with your aunt, and how I was responsible for the death of my whole family.” He turned and stared at the empty fireplace. “And you know about my bastard daughter.”

Michael looked down, scrubbing his hands across his face.

“Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I’m going to take this bottle back up to my room, get sloshing drunk, and collapse into bed. I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t disturb me until at least 10 a.m. tomorrow morning.”

As the elder man staggered from the room, Ravenswood shook his head. “You know, I always thought your dad was a jerk. I guess I understand why, now. I actually kinda feel sorry for him.”

“I don’t,” Michael sneered, heading for the door. “He got what he deserved. I don’t want anything to do with him... or Sara Wolff.”

Looking around the empty room, the detective rubbed his hand across his forehead. “It’s a good thing Yule took that bottle. I could really use a drink right now.”