Chapter 1

Somewhere in the Atlantic. November, 1933.

Knock, knock.

"Captain," a deep voice called from the other side of the cabin door. The Venture's First Mate Benjamin Hayes voice carried an urgent tone.

Captain Will Englehorn turned underneath the blanket of his bunk, looking to the clock on the desk.

3:25 A.M., it read. Englehorn ran his hands through his disheveled blonde hair.

"What is it, Hayes?" he asked, his tone no doubt expressed his annoyance at being awoken at such an hour. Mr. Hayes had been assigned to work the helm through the night.

"That thing starting to wake up," Hayes replied.

Englehorn's icy blue eyes shot open. Though drowsy, he was awake.

"Tell Choy to use more chloroform!" he ordered as he grabbed one of his wrinkled maroon shirt from a nearby chair, pulling it on before grabbing his boots. His worn pants were in a worse shape than his shirt. However the state of his wardrobe was the least of his worries. Between the pitiful, crippled state of his ship plus the addition of the new "passenger", his mind was overwhelmed enough as it was.

The only silver linings to be thankful for were the survival of what few crewmen the ship still had. Hayes had survived. Lumpy the ship's Cook had also managed to make it through, as well as Choy, Jimmy, and two others. The rest of his crew which dared the Jungle's wrath, to save Ms. Ann Darrow from a worse than horrid fate, had all lost their lives to the perils of the island.

It had been a few weeks since they had left that God-forsaken island, and the chill of the northern winter was beginning to show. At night, occasional snow fall would descend upon the lone tramp steamer in the Atlantic.

The memories of the island haunted Englehorn, especially at night. He had survived the horrors of the submarine warfare in the World War which rocked all of Europe to its core. But the brutal wilderness of Skull Island was so intensely burned into the Venture's Captain's mind. Truth be told, he had an original deal with Carl Denham, the blasted movie director, to travel to Singapore for a grand, two grand actually. When the trip was underway, Denham had convinced him to keep course into unknown waters. Hayes was against it from the time the ship was apparently following a course far from the shipping lanes. Englehorn should have heeded the warnings his First Mate had offered. But no, the time in Kaiserliche Marine, or the Imperial German Navy, may have molded a bigger ego than he would have imagined. He thought he knew what he was doing. Old tales of haunted islands and monsters were nothing to him. Of course, he was wrong, and it nearly cost him his crew and his ship and his life.

A low and row sounded from the hull. It was the only place they were able to keep Kong. By removing the cages during the storm and throwing them overboard to lighten the weight of the ship, there was a space just barely large even to cram that oversized ape in, like sardines in a can. But what more could he do? He didn't want that damned animal, but he needed the money. He still remembered the conversation after they had rescued the survivors from the Spider Pit.

"I knew you would be okay," Captain Englehorn said, panting as he put up his Thompson Sub-machine gun. "That's the thing about cockroaches."

Carl Denham, his tired expression and his face showing his fatigue and melancholy at the loss of his cherished tripod and camera. His film was ruined. His heart was heavy.

"No matter how many times you flush them down the toilet. They always crawl back up the bowl," he said spitefully.

"Hey buddy, I'm out of the bowl," Carl replied, panting. "I'm drying my wings and trekkin' across the lid."

"Captain," Ben Hayes called, taking the hand of Bruce Baxter as the actor helped pull him up. He gave Baxter a nod of respect. The man really pulled through with his crazy antics of shooting from the swinging vine and whatnot. Baxter gave a somewhat modest shrug, which was uncanny for a man of his character, as he walked away to help another sailor up.

Englehorn turned, looking to his First Mate.

"Good to see you kept yourself alive," he said, his tone alone let Hayes know he meant that sincerely. Despite being a black man in this era, he had the respect of his captain, which was more than most people did.

"Probably wouldn't be if Jimmy had listened to me," Hayes stated. He patted Jimmy on the shoulders as he passed.

Jimmy had a smile on his face, running his hand through his hair as he replied modestly, "Ah, it was nothin' . You would have done it for anyone else…"

Englehorn folded his arms across his chest, "And what act of foolishness and heroism did the boy perform?"

Before Ben could answer the captain, Jimmy interrupted.

"Well we were crossing this huge old log across the pit before this huge ape which we think had Ms. Darrow came outta nowhere and grabbed ," the boy recounted with a quick tongue. " was like, 'Jimmy get back', and the ape was just staring at and he was about to throw him before I pointed the gun at him and shot the hand holding Mr. Hayes. I must have hit a sensitive spot or something, but He dropped Mr. Hayes so fast, but then he came after us on the log. I nearly fell off when he was rolling it, but Mr. Hayes jumped onto the log and grabbed me then helped Lumpy get Choy. But then the log rolled off the edge and…"

"Okay Jimmy, we get it!" Hayes laughed, ruffling the kid's hair. The boy had grown in the past few days. He was beginning to be more of a man. And Ben respected him for that.

Jimmy laughed a little, putting his hat back on. "Yeah, well it was all pretty thrilling."

"Oy, watch it you bloody fool," Lumpy's voice was hard to miss. Englehorn and the others turned to him as Choy helped him up.

"Don't be so moody," Choy snapped back. "You just mad cause you lost hat! Don't be taking it out on me!"

Jimmy couldn't help but laugh as Lumpy gave Choy a withering look. But you could tell that the man was relieved he didn't lose his friend. If Ben hadn't helped pull Choy up, Lumpy knew that he wouldn't have survived the fall. Then something else caught his attention. Movement across the pit.

"Driscoll…" he said under his breath.

All eyes shifted to the other side of the pit.

"Jack!" Carl called.

"Driscoll! Don't be a fool," Captain Englehorn yelled across the chasm. "She's dead."

Jack Driscoll, Denham's playwright, turned. He was breathing heavy, sweat a mud covered him from head to toe. As tired as he was, the look in his dark eyes revealed that he wasn't finished. He would save Ann, even if it was the last thing he ever did.

"She's not dead," he called back. "I'm gonna bring her back."

A moment of silence, and Jack turned around and started off.

"Jack!" Carl called again.

Jack stopped, took a breath a turned.

"Take care, buddy," he said. Something in his voice made Jack believe he was actually meant it.

"Keep the gate open for me, would ya?" he asked.

"Sure thing, pal," the director replied.

With that said, the New York Playwright turned, and disappeared in the tunnel which led to Kong…and hopefully to Ann.

The rest of the crew started back towards the gates. Lumpy and Choy, who each took a moment to regain their strength, were the first two to head back with Preston, Jimmy, and Bruce right behind them.

"Captain," Denham said, walking over to the captain. But Englehorn was in no mood to be annoyed by him right now.

"Go away Denham. Head back to the gates. It's over," he said in disgust. "Your film is gone."

"Wait!" the Director protested with vigor. "And Jack? He's gonna bring her back, Englehorn. And that ape will be right on their heels…"

"Denham…" Englehorn started. The tone in his voice should have been warning enough.

"We can still come out this okay," Denham stated. "More than okay…"

Hayes was still standing there. He didn't like the direction this conversation was turning.

"Think about it. You got a boat full of chloroform we could put to good use…" Carl stated. There was something his look that bordered determination and insanity. Hayes could see it. He only hoped that Englehorn would see it too. This voyage should have been over long ago.

"You want to capture the ape?" A moment of silence, and Denham didn't refute the accusation. Englehorn could only laugh at the thought. "I don't think so."

"But isn't that what you do? Live animal capture? I heard you were the best…" Denham stated. Flattery and persuasion was bound to work.

Englehorn didn't reply. He shot a glance at Hayes. The look his first mate gave him was enough to let him know that he didn't like this idea at all. Truthfully, Englehorn didn't like the idea any more than Hayes. But could he refuse? Without his film, Denham was broke, and soon to be arrested once they reach New York. How the hell would he get any money from this voyage? The only way was to bring something back worth some money. And that ape would bring in some big bucks.

The Captain kept this idea in mind as he began walking back to the ship.

"Captain!" Hayes called after him. "You can't be seriously thinking about this!"

"Do we really have any option?" Englehorn replied. "Do you know how much this fool cost me? Cost us? It will take months to repair the ship properly. Not to mention the fact that Denham has literally nothing gained from this fiasco! His godforsaken film, no matter how ridiculous, was the only way we would get paid. And now I've got no money to pay the salary of my crew!"

Englehorn didn't realize his tone had increased. Hayes stood back and let the Captain gain a breather from his rant. A lot of frustration was bound to build after the time spent on this damn island.

"You really think the money would be worth it?" Ben tried to reason. "I've looked into that thing's eyes. He's smart. Worse, he gets angry pretty damned quick. We can't bring that thing to New York. Imagine the damage it could cause if someone has incapable as Denham were to have a say-so in its handling? Eh? Ever think about that?"

Englehorn let his anger simmer. He hated arguing with Ben. Worse, he hated it when Ben was right.

"We don't have any option but to do this. Chances are, since I failed to turn my ship around and bring Denham back, they may have just filed for my arrest as well. My ship will be impounded by the government and I will end up in prison right with that ass, Denham. If we have nothing to show for it, the Venture is gone. I've thought about that, Ben!"

Sighing, Ben wiped the sweat from his brow with his hand as he took a deep breath.

"This ain't a good idea, Captain. This thing is dangerous. He ain't just an animal. He's a monster!"

The Captain sighed, giving nothing but a small shrug as he patted his First Mate's shoulder.

"We get him to New York. He won't be our problem after that," he stated in finality. That was all he was going to say. The matter was finished.

Ben just stood there, his hands on his hips and his eyes downcast. This was wrong. He knew it. That ape wasn't like any animals he'd helped the Captain capture in the past. His eyes were haunting, intelligent as if he were calculating the situation. The look in that beast's eyes was stuck in Ben's mind. It was if the creature had stared into his very soul. It reminded him of a man sizing him up as a friend or foe, like he was casting judgment on him, a foreigner in his vast island kingdom. He thought of the ape as a King, because there was no way there was anything more intelligent or fierce on that island.

Looking up, the First Mate spotted Denham staring out across the chasm. He wanted that ape more than anything. Ben feared what lengths a desperate man would go to get what he wants in this place. Turning, he made sure his gewehr 98-bolt action rifle was loaded and ready for the trek back to the Wall.

Moments later, Englehorn was pulled out of his recap of that day three weeks ago as Ben Hayes entered the bridge. The Captain had taken over as helmsman for Mr. Hayes as he told Choy his orders to give Kong another dose of chloroform to keep him under control for the voyage. Despite the unruly hour of being awoken, he had ordered Ben to notify him each time Kong starts to wake. Though a seaman, Englehorn was efficient at capturing animals and knew how to tend to them. As a bonus, he had Choy. Choy had helped his father and grandfather back in Shanghai with animal capture.

Choy and his father had taught Englehorn how to properly capture wildlife, and the Venture's business, however questionable it may be in terms of ethics, was rather lucrative, even if the ship's appearance didn't show it.

"Choy's giving the beast another dose of chloroform," Ben said, standing in the door. "Ms. Darrow still hasn't left his side."

"I didn't think she would," Englehorn replied in an annoyed tone.

Since their departure from the island, Ann Darrow was a changed woman. She didn't smile much, or at all for that matter. No one really did. Carl barely left his cabin. Baxter, Preston, and Jack started helping out the crew in their duties since so many were dead. Jack sat with Ann each night, and he would hold her and help her sleep.

At first, Jimmy and Ben were distant from her. She blamed them along with Carl and everyone else who helped capture Kong, despite the protests she made against them. But Jack spoke with her, and a few days after leaving the island, she apologized to them both. She meant it sincerely, and nearly broke out into tears as she spoke with them. She heard how they had risked their lives to rescue her and how so many died. They forgave her. Jimmy even gave her a warm hug. She tried to persuade them to not hate Kong. She recounted all the tales of how he protected her. Ann tried to make them understand that he felt threatened by the crew, and that in truth he was only trying to protect her. Days of trying to make people understand passed by. She knew Jack understood, even if he didn't show it. Jimmy started believing her, at least after spending time with Kong in the hull. Though not fully conscious, he would from time to time interact in a drowsy manner by holding out his hand, or paws, Jimmy guessed.

Mr. Hayes was unconvinced that Kong was anything but a monster. But he learned not take it out on Ann. For the next couple of weeks, when everyone was asleep, he would sit down in the hull with Kong, and watch him as he phased in and out of consciousness. He would stare into the creature's eyes. Those same dark eyes stared back. But instead of anger, he saw sadness. Kong was no longer in his kingdom, free to roam amongst the beasts. He was alone, trapped in a cage. He left Kong when dawn approached, putting his hand on the creature's paw for a moment before walking away.

The next day, he spoke with Ann.

"Ms. Darrow," he said, getting her attention as she sat alone in the hull next to Kong. She was reading the play Jack and written for. She must have read it a thousand times, but she never put it down.

"Mr. Hayes," she greeted with a small, forced smile. She barely ever smiled. Her heart was too heavy.

"I wanted to apologize," he said. "I didn't want to capture Kong. But what was done was done. I don't hate him. He…isn't just an animal. But my orders are orders."

Ann was quite for a moment, "Once in the army, always in the army."

Mr. Hayes gave a small, sad smile.

"I'm truly sorry," he said.

"I know. But you shouldn't be," she stated. "You almost died, trying to save me…"

"Ms. Darrow," Mr. Hayes interrupted. "You've already thanked us for that."

"I know, but I should thank you again. And again. And again. All of you—Choy, Jimmy, Lumpy, Jack… Because what you all did, you didn't have to do. You could have left. Men would still be alive if you did. But you kept going. You came back! And I can't thank you enough…." She said. "But Kong…he came back for me, too. He didn't understand that I didn't belong. He wanted to protect me. Just like you and Jack and all the others did. So I don't hate you for this. I wish with all my heart it never happened. That Kong would be safe on his island. That we would have just left before ever stepping foot on that island. But you're right. What's done is done. "

Ann had finally put down her book, and had begun pacing back and forth as she spoke. Kong started stirring, but only to fall into a deeper sleep. When Ann stopped, he caught her breath. Ben could tell her nerves were nearly shot.

Ann looked at Kong, then back at Hayes.

"What will happen to him?" she asked.

Ben gave a shrug. "All I know is Denham takes him once we reach port. After that, we get repairs and we're done. We go on to another port."

Taking a seat, Anne sighed. "I was afraid of that."

Looking down, Ben could hear the sadness in her voice.

"Thank you, ," she said finally, looking back to him.

"Don't thank me, Ms. Darrow," he replied sadly. "I'm one of the men who took him away from his home."

A moment of silence followed, before Benjamin Hayes left the hull and returned to the bridge.

One of the younger crewmen was working the helm and Hayes could hear Englehorn going through what sounded like paper, maybe charts or something. When he entered the room, he spotted his captain pulling out some records. Mostly, Englehorn favored classical music. When asked once, he stated it simply was relaxing.

"What are you looking for?" Hayes asked, getting the Captain's attention with a small knock on the frame of the doorway.

Englehorn looked up, putting out one of his cigarettes. He held up one of the records.

"Beethoven. Ninth Symphony," he replied.

After a moment, Ben said, "We'll be in New York by tomorrow evening."

Taking a moment out of his search for his record, Englehorn looked to his first mate.

"Yes we will. And?"

Ben kept his eyes on the captain.

"Are you sure you want to do this? I mean-"

"Are you seriously going to keep at this?" Englehorn interrupted. His thick German voice revealed he was in no mood for further discussion on the subject.

"Yes, dammit, I am!" Hayes retorted. "Kong should never have left that place. We should never have gone there to begin with. What's lost should stay lost!"

Englehorn glared at him, his icy blue eyes burning with anger.

"But we did go there! And Kong did leave there! What's done is done, Mr. Hayes," Englehorn stated. That was that.

Hayes knew when the subject was closed for any further argument. He sighed.

"I hope it's worth it," he said. Quietly he turned and left the room with saying another word.

Leaning against his desk, Englehorn removed his worn cap and ran his fingers through his hair.

'So do I… 'he thought. But there was a gut-wrenching feeling that tore at his insides. It was like some omniscient force was guiding them down a path to which they could not avoid.

Englehorn could sense this force from the moment he laid his eyes on the rocky coast of Skull Island. That place was a relic of the past, all that was left of the ancient world. He could feel something dark and twisted hidden within the core of the island. There were more mysteries concealed beneath the mountains and jungles than the tramp steamer's captain would ever in his wildest dreams dare to uncover.

The Bronx, New York City, December 1933

The streets were busy this early December morning. Snow had fallen heavily the night before so school was cancelled. Not that it really mattered. In this part of the city, most of the children were from immigrant families that had traveled from Ireland, Italy, and China. And it was rare, especially in these times, that anyone could afford schooling regardless of race. Most families were to be concerned with keeping food on the tables and a roof over their heads.

Situated above a small Italian bakery located in amidst the roaring urban jungle of New York was a small yet comfy apartment. It was exactly a grand loft located in the more wealthy parts of the city, but it was cozy nonetheless.

But it was sure as hell the messiest apartment a person could lay eyes on.

Sprawled about the floor were pages of sheet music, unkempt piles of books, and countless sketches. Leaning against the barren, sandstone-hued walls were various paintings of all sorts of subjects ranging from landscapes to portraits of animals and humans to abstract art. On the table in the living room was a fine cello built of spruce, maple, and willow. Near it lay a violin made of the same materials.

A ring from a telephone sounded throughout the apartment. It sounded again. And again.

From in the inside of a bedroom ounded a small drowsy groan.

Underneath the covers of the bed reached a hand grasping for the telephone on the nearby nightstand. Once her fingers found that godforsaken invention of Alexander Graham Bell, the woman beneath the blanket put the phone to her ears with a growl.

"This had better be one damn good phone call," she warned sleepily.

"I see you're wide awake, Ashelia," replied the voice on the other end of the line. It was the last voice Ashe expected to hear. Sitting straight up, her jaw tightened as she maintained he composure. Taking a deep breath, she coolly continued.

"Cunningham? And here I was hoping you'd be dead by now."

A laugh was her reply on the other end. Jamison Cunningham's thick British accent was apparent in his chuckle.

"Dear child, your tone implies that you sound somewhat cross. Did I catch you at a bad time?"

"When have you not caught me at a bad time, old man?" she growled.

"For god's sake, girl," he sighed. "Here I thought the time off would have done you more good. Still angry, I see."

Ashe rolled her eyes.

"Time off?! You make it sound like I took a sabbatical," her tone grew more hostile. "I quit, you idiot! I'm finished with it. All of it! The Order, the Council, you... it's been five years... Try taking a hint."

"You really believe it's that simple?" Cunningham chided with a chuckle. "Dear girl, you're work with us is complete on our terms, not yours." Ashe held her tongue before she really lost it. True, it wasn't that simple. No one left the Order. The Contract made it quite clear.

"The Order would have found you sooner or later, child," he continued. "I take it that since you have just recently awoken that you have not taken a look at the latest headlines which have the city buzzing with excitement."

Trying to stifle another yawn, Ashe stretched her stiff limbs while she groaned.

"What part of 'I quit' do you not comprehend?" she groaned, rubbing the remnants of sleep from her eyes.

The humor in his voice faded, "Read the paper, Ashelia. We have much to discuss. I would like for you to meet me at the Café Délice on the corner of 5th and Maple Avenue around 1 o'clock.

Ashe moeaned, "Wait. What article am I even looking for?"

"Believe me, Ashelia, you'll know when you see it. I doubt it will be hard to miss," he said. "See you at the café." And with that said, the line when dead.

Taking a few minutes to consider what the hell she just got herself into, Ashe finally decided to roll out of bed. She lightly touched the hardwood floors with her petite feet, feeling the chill of the floor all the way from the tips of her toes to her forehead. The heater wasn't working as well as she would have hoped, but she could never get the landlord to take a look at it.

After taking a deep breath of the cool air, she stood up. Her form was slender, yet very fit. She wasn't exactly pixie-sized petite. Far from it, actually. She was tall, her figure statuesque and dignified. Her hair fell in raven black locks past her waist with a slight wavy curl. Ashe's skin was a fair, almost pale white in the dim light showing through the frost-covered windows.

She walked to the shabby dresser covered with countless papers and notes just strung about carelessly, looking into the mirror. Staring back at her were dark hazel, rimmed with a deep jade hue. Though she was young in appearance, seemingly no older than her mid twenties to early thirties, Ashe's eyes revealed a heavy heart. Dark circles tainted the skin under her eyes, a result of one too many sleepless nights. She was an old soul, feeling much more aged than what she should be. But all she's seen... all she's done... it's to be expected

Sighing in annoyance, Ashe put her hair up in a loose bun with a few strands hanging loose in her face. She grabbed one of her robes from the hook on the door and wrapped it around her white satin nightgown.

Leaving her bedroom, she made her way down the hall then downstairs to the small bakery. It was closed today. The blinds had all been pulled down low on all the windows and the doors. The owner's father had recently passed away, so he and his family had decided to go out of town for a few days to attend the funeral and meet with family. She walked to the entrance and unlocked the door before cracking it open. A light breeze brought about an icy chill which ran down her spine. Ashe growled. She hated the cold, more than she hated mornings. It was December now, and in New York that equaled a lot of snow and ice. She'd been thinking of relocating to a more tropical climate, but she had her reasons for staying here. New York City had more than a bustling night life and beautiful attractions. In her opinion, fewer places were easier to hide in plain sight.

Taking a quick peek out the door, Ashe spotted the newest addition to the New York Times on the last step of her stoop. Gathering enough courage to brave the cold, she hastily ran down the six steps and snatched the paper as quick as she could before jumping back into the bakery. She shivered and wrapped the robe closer around her.

Before she even looked at the paper she set it down on the one of the tabletops before walking around the counter and putting on a fresh pot of coffee. God she needed coffee. Any caffeine really. After waiting for the pot to finish, she poured herself a fresh cup and added a little bit of cream with a lot of sugar. Just how she liked it.

She yawned, taking a seat at the table. She unfolded the paper, not really sure what to look for. Lighting a cigarette, she took a sip of her coffee while her eyes fell on the paper, and narrowed at the bulging heading.

"The Eighth Wonder of the World"

"Pulling into New York City's harbor the day before yesterday, the tramp steamer known as the S.S. Venture brought with it the latest addition to the world's greatest wonders. After departing in early September this year on an expedition financed by Carl Denham, a relatively new rising star within the film industry, the tramp steamer was on a course for the country of Singapore. Sources say that the navigation system had some sort of malfunctioning problems and eventually the ship digressed from the shipping lanes and ran aground on an undiscovered island. It has no official name, yet it is rumored to have been given the appellation "Skull Island" by those who had visited –"

Ashe couldn't help herself when she impulsively spit out what little coffee she had just drank after reading the newspaper. Her hold on her mug slipped, and she jumped at the sound of it made when it shattered upon hitting the ground.

"What the hell?!" she muttered, followed by various curses in various languages. She rubbed her forehead with the tips of her fingers, feeling a headache coming on.

She took a few deep breaths and looked back at the paper, her eyes now basically scanning over it. Her eyes instantly shot to the words "Natives", "Dinosaurs", "Kong". She cursed again, this time louder, slinging the paper on the floor. She waited a few moments to regain her composure before moving from her seat to clean up her mess. Afterwards, Ashe returned to her room to get changed and meet Cunningham.

It was near a quarter till one and Ashe saw no sign of the old man so she had made herself comfortable at a small table. The waiter approached and asked if she was ready to order, yet all she requested was a simple cup of coffee. Personally, she had little intention on staying long.

The weather was chilly, as usual. How could it not be cold in New York? Especially during this time of the year. But it was sunny, which was something. It wouldn't last long though. But it was Christmas time, which usually helped Ashe's mood. It was her favorite time of the year. The lights. The Christmas trees. The ornaments. Sure, her apartment wasn't decorated. But she was short on cash, so it's not like she could deck the halls or anything. Still, she enjoyed the season.

In her hands she still held that page from the newspaper; her eyes kept flipping from paragraph to paragraph. Stunned was a good word. Shocked. Dismayed. Horrified. Pissed off. They all pretty much summed it up. It was hard to pick just a single word to fully express the extent of her emotions.

Cunningham had a great deal of explaining to do.

The waiter had returned promptly with her coffee, and Ashe was quick to add the correct amount of sugar and cream to it herself.

"Some things never change. Same posture, same attitude, and same choice of caffeine," the old man's voice called from behind her. Ashe didn't even turn around.

Cunningham took a seat at the table, calling the waiter over and ordering a cup of tea. A bemused smirk showed on her face.

"What is it with the English and their tea?" she quipped.

"You're the last person to criticize. I still don't see how you can stand to drink that ghastly liquid. It's like drinking bitter grease eroding the back of the throat. It's hardly healthy for you. Tea is far more the better choice."

"I think you still hold a grudge for a little tea party held in Boston a while back. Oh, and since when did you ever give a damn about me?" Ashe's voice tensed.

"You have your uses, my dear," he answered.

"How heartwarming," she noted sarcastically.

Taking a sip of her coffee, she leaned back in her chair and threw the paper on the table before him.

"Care to explain?"

"Straight to the point, I see. Well honestly, I doubt you would meet under lesser circumstances, correct?" Cunningham stated.

Ashe shrugged. He had her on that one. It wasn't like they were old friends. Far from it actually.

"I thought as much. Given your own history, I knew this assignment was one you might have a personal interest in." Ashe still remained silent.

"Rather funny isn't it?" he mused. "How the past has this tendency to surface in the most peculiar means. Wouldn't you agree?"

Practically slamming her coffee cup down on the table, Ashe took a deep breath and looked to the Englishman.

"That damn island was supposed to stay hidden. You said it would never be discovered!" she said sharply.

Holding his hands up to calm her down, Cunningham sighed.

"I said it was unlikely it would ever be discovered. And besides, the cat's out of the bag, as the saying goes."

A moment of silence fell between them. Finishing her coffee, Ashe took another minute to think before looking to Cunningham.

"You found me after five years to sort out some semblance of damage control."

He smiled, "Found you? Silly girl, we never lost you."

Ashe's gaze darkened, but he continued, "Your need for some space was understandable, no one denies that. But you've been granted more than enough time to come to peace with the past. It's time you returned."

"Is that an order? Or do I even have a choice?"

"There's always a choice. But you are bound by oath to uphold the Creed. Discarding your Contract is not as simple as you may like to believe. You know the consequences."

Ashe was quiet for a moment before she smirked, "While I loved such a poorly veiled threat as much as the next girl, I've made my decision quite clear. I guess I must decline the invitation. Nice pep talk, though. How about you wait ten years this time before the next little brunch.

She pushed her chair back and stood up, but Cunningham cleared his throat.

"I suspected leverage would be required," he sighed. He pulled out a small folded piece of paper. Her eyes looked at the paper and narrowed.

Cunningham slid the paper to her , and she picked it up

"Look familiar?" he asked.

She opened the paper. It read Too Easy.

A blank expression remained on her face. She looked to him.

"A tad bit vague. Care to share the context?" she asked innocently.

A chuckle came from the old man.

"It's your handwriting. It was placed where a recently stolen antiquity from the Metropolitan Museum of Art two weeks ago," he smirked. "Would you happen to know anything of the incident?"

Cocking her head to the side, Ashe mused with a naïve look on her face.

"That's rather funny. I recall reading about the ordeal in the paper," she said. "They said it was pulled off by a mastermind. A real expert. You know I've never bothered with petty crime."

"Of course not. Petty crime is far beneath you, Ashelia. But this is a felony charge. That is one year to sixteen months in prison if convicted," he said.

"Oh, spare me. The law has far better things to do with it's time than worry about a few robberies," she scoffed. "What with organized crime and whatnot, I'm the least of their priorities."

"I suppose it was a bit too much to hope you'd have learned an ounce of humility," Cunningham said with disappointment.

Ashe folded her arms across her chest, "Lecturing me on ego? Now that's rich..."

"Regardless of how you perceive me, I'm here to offer you a proposition."

She laughed, "Really, now? And what might that be? Instead of executing me for desertion, you plan to extort me? Nice to see the Order's methods haven't changed. Listen, this discussion is over. No missions... no assignments. I'm done."

Turning to leave without saying nothing, Cunningham stood up, "And if I said, this assignment would be the last? Complete it, and you get your freedom."

"Freedom?" she repeated, coming to a stop. Turning about, her eyes narrowed suspiciously, "I'm listening..."

"After this whole mess is cleaned up, you will be free. No longer called upon by the Order. No more assignments, no more missions. You will be allowed to live your life as you see fit," Cunningham said. "You're Contract will be fulfilled."

Ashe waited a moment before she let out a soft laugh.

"Your offer has a nice ring to it, but I've heard this tune before. Tell the Council...," she paused, then took a deep breath, "Tell them they know where to find me...if they dare." She'd made her peace, so she turned once more. It was no idle threat. She knew what walking away meant.

"The Syndicate is back, Ashe," he said, calling her by her name for the first time.

She stopped mid-step, a few feet away from hailing a can. It was enough to get her attention. Facing Cunningham, her eyes darkened ominously.

"…Come again?" she said, almost in a whisper.

"The Syndicate. They're back…" he said with a heavy voice. "We started noticing some activity recently. The Underground networks have been teeming with whispers of their movements. At first we weren't positive, but in late September we found conclusive evidence which confirmed our suspicions. "

Ashe felt her heart sink quicker than the Titanic. She bit her lip, taking a deep sigh. Putting her hands on her hips, she kept her eyes on his.

"You're lying," she said.

Cunningham shook his head, "I believe you should be informed of the story from the beginning. It's a bit more complicated than just a few simple answers could explain."

Her gaze narrowed, her posture stiffened.

"Is this a whole scheme just to get my help? 'Cause honestly….it's a little extreme…even for you," she said.

The old man shook his head. "No scheme. No games. No tricks. This nightmare is as real as you or me."

He stood up, paying for both the tea and coffee. Ashe didn't say it, but the thought to pay her bill crossed her mind. But it would be more fitting to make him pay up.

"Now, you and I are going to have retreat to a less social location. I doubt our meeting has gone unnoticed."

Looking around, Ashe muttered, "Well you're the idiot who suggested the café."

"True, but they brew the most fabulous tea. Not as rich as the home brew, but decent enough in this country, " Cunningham said in his own defense, walking to the edge of the sidewalk and hailing a cab.

She smiled, "You were right. Some things never change."

He turned back to her with an inquisitive expression.

"You're still a snob," she clarified.

Cunningham smiled. At least she still had her sense of humor.

"And, by the way," she added. "I never actually said I was going to help you."

"Yes," he replied simply. "You did."

"Oh? And when did you hear that?" she scoffed.

"I didn't hear it. You didn't say it with words, you said it in action. As you always have," he smiled. After taking a moment to muse at her baffled expression he continued.

"You put your hand on your hips. Jus t then, when you turned."

"So?"

"So, it means you've made up your mind. You have only ever done that when you set your mind on something and intend to do it," he replied. When a cab stopped near him he opened the door, allowing her to enter first.

"After you, my dear."

Before stepping into the cab, her expression became serious once more, "This...evidence you have...about the Syndicate?"

Cunningham straightened his posture, "I will have the files delivered to your home address by sundown. I'll explain what I can until then."