Chapter Three, Part I : Wearing Black
Editor's note: "Asya" is a Russian nickname for Anastasiya (Anastasia).
THE BARONESS' PRIVATE PLANE, AT ELEVEN-TEN AM
The Baroness's enjoyment of her flight to Atlanta was slightly perturbed. The meeting with DeCobray had gone as she had predicted - poorly. At least it had not gone badly, as she had been concerned. Of course, terminating her would be difficult, because she was such a public figure. Not to mention her influence on DeCobray's criminal empire, although he certainly didn't suspect it...But yes, poorly. He had raged at her in a more violent than typical fashion, demanding that she salvage the situation. Which she would, of course.
She'd already commanded the workers in the Atlanta office to start making preparations for the memorial, which would occur the day after tomorrow. And she'd already prepared a statement about the incident. Two, actually. One to be released publicly, and the other to tell what had really happened - to the best of everyone's knowledge. Apparently, the other workers at the lab had been told to take the day off by O'Hara, who had gone into work anyway. O'Hara was one of the workers at Cobra who was officially part of the legal business - although his inventions weren't used for it. The other scientists in similar situations didn't notice - or care if they did - the money was enough incentive for them to keep working and not question anything. But O'Hara had a stubborn idealistic streak. Honesty and accountability had their place, the Baroness would admit, but not in a criminal empire.
Dr. O'Hara, the fool, had caused a rather major setback in their plans. He'd destroyed not only the Cobra laboratory, but his home lab as well. And all his records, save a few vague, jargon-filled progress reports he had submitted, and a single video in which he explained his invention.
The only real good news was that he only had one surviving family member - a daughter named Sarah, or was it some other, Irish name? Shana, that was it. A minor, too,(age seventeen) which made things easier. She wished she'd known about the girl sooner; maybe they could've blackmailed O'Hara through his daughter. Someone in Research was going to pay for not bringing that fact to light... In fact, when the good doctor had come to work at Cobra, he'd taken advantage of their worker benefits and re-written his will, so his daughter would be "a recipient of aid and benefits from Cobra after the death of the signee, (insert full name here)". Apparently the old man had neglected to read the small (very small) print of that contract. Until Shana turned eighteen, her assets - property, money, and essentially, self - were under Cobra's control.
Anastasia smiled. She was lucky there were no such trusting, idealistic fools in her family tree.
The Cisarovnas had come from rather poor roots, despite her preferred nickname, Baroness (it was amazing what treasures one's genealogy contained once one had acquired enough money to be important). In fact, Ivan Cisarovna, Anastasia's great-great-grandfather, was a charismatic Russian peasant who had climbed up the ranks in the Red Army during the Russian Revolution, and then insinuated himself into the upper tiers of the USSR's elite. This tradition of side dealing, extortion, blackmail, and winner-takes-all mentality had been passed down through generations of Cisarovnas. Even young Asya's mother, Sonya, a Cisarovna by marriage, was a criminal mastermind - although she preferred the term "good businesswoman" - and had passed this tradition down to her daughter, after her husband Dmitry's death.
Ah, that was a rather sad tale. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the rotten dealings of the criminal underworld had expanded rapidly. Many newly rich, powerful families emerged as players on the crime scene, their money greatly due to illegal (or if not technically illegal, immoral) activities. Dmitry had been assassinated by a hired gun paid for by one such upstart family, which had promptly been wiped from the face of the Earth on Sonya's orders.
Hell hath no fury like an angry Russian woman. Anastasia could still remember the defiant set of her mother's jaw and her detached, steely gaze as she commanded her underlings.
After Dmitry's death, Sonya had begun to worry about the safety of the Cisarovan criminal empire - if the word "safe" could be applied to such a group - especially after she learned the identity the man who'd killed her husband. He had been an employee, fairly high up in the ranks. Sonya had decided that however large Russia was, it had become too small with so many competitors. So, why not move to America? She had several contacts there, especially a certain man who had access to John DeCobray, the elderly patriarch of the DeCobray family and founder of Cobra Industries. Which was, conveniently, looking for a new PR person. Not only for public dealings, actually, but private as well. And Sonya, with years of experience, fit the bill. Her new job provided well for her and young Asya, and gave her access to the legal business and the more lucrative, less scrupulous dealings of DeCobray's criminal network. Even after John's empire was taken over by his son, Adam, Sonya retained her position. All the while, she trained little Asya to take her place.
And Asya had proven adept at her lessons. In fact, after he mother's death, Anastasia had taken the name "Baroness" and succeeded her mother as the public face of Cobra. Soon, she would be the recipient of much more honor than that...Both the legal and criminal empires were growing strong. Still, Anastasia knew that a bloody battle would be wasteful of her resources. Controlling the world's population was more easily done through shrewd economic and political bartering as Cobra Industries slowly grasped power from everyone else's hands. And she, too, was slowly leaching power from DeCobray and her other competitors...so slowly that stupid Adam did not realize his control was slipping away. Which meant that she had to appear as a cringing lackey before him - something she had found vaguely irritating at first, but was beginning to chafe more each time she slipped on this particular mask.
It was a tricky thing, at first. Now, it was simply an irritant. She had to appear shrewd, not complacent, so he would not suspect her to be unfit or plotting, yet not so self-assured and brilliant that he felt she was a threat he needed to eliminate. She just needed to remember: patience.
EN ROUTE TO ATLANTA, GEORGIA, AT ONE-THIRTY-EIGHT PM
Shana stared out the window. She didn't want to look at Cerberus, whose hands were still glued to the minivan's steering wheel. She just want to -
God. She didn't know what she wanted.
She'd spent her whole life being decisive. Being in control had been especially important to her. Being in control meant no messiness, no random emotions. It meant she could be manipulative, powerful, above other people with their tears and laughter controlling their whims. People were emotional decision-makers, she knew; she took care to separate herself from that. She'd learned to sequester herself from her emotions, to shut down when things got too heavy.
And wasn't that just what her father had dome? No, he hadn't consciously opted out; he'd just shut down after Mother -
Pathetic. God-fucking-damn pathetic. Question is, which one of us is more so?
Frick. She must just be having a breakdown, psychoanalyzing herself... Of course, crazy people probably didn't realize they were crazy. Or depressed.
Sometimes, Shana wondered if her father had even know she was there -
Okay. Enoughenoughenough. Keep It Simple, Stupid. Don't think that far back. Manage things. The only thing Shana was managing right now was her urge to cry, bawl like a fricking baby... No. No, she would not. Never. I don't jump through hoops... The tissue box. The one on Pierce's desk, helpfully placed in case she started to cry. It was blue, with a blue, white and grey seashell design on it. White Kleenex, helpfully poking out of the box slot. Perfectly straight on the desk.
Details. Focus on the details .Then, the big picture...
Shana was sitting in Pierce's off-white office with the dark furniture. Cerberus had escorted her in and then left Shana with Ms Pierce. She was sitting on a hard, uncomfortable chair in front of Pierce's desk. Pierce was standing, glad, she figured, to be taller than Shana. At least until she stood up. The blinds were pulled tightly shut; the only light coming from the fluorescents overhead, which casted harsh shadows on Pierce's face, exaggerating her hooked nose. There were half a dozen filing cabinets lined up behind Pierce's desk. One was opened slightly, allowing Shana to see the manila folders inside, all stuffed with paperwork. One was on Pierce's desk. It was open. Probably student folders, with everyone's records. Good to know. That meant, though, that the open folder on Pierce's desk was Shana's.
Ms Pierce spoke, softly. "Shana, we've just been notified. Your father died two days ago at his workplace. Cobra Industries' public representative just phoned the school to give us the news. Apparently, they are willing to take care of the memorial service and pay for a nice headstone, but you need to go down to Atlanta."
There was a phone, sitting in its cradle on Pierce's desk next to the computer monitor. A flat-screen. They'd phoned the school. Her father was dead.
Pierce had said more, but Shana couldn't focus on the words. She stared straight ahead, at the vein on Pierce's face.
"...We'll certainly set you up with a grief counselor once you get back. Do you have any questions, darling?"
Darling. The saccharine endearment suggested that Pierce actually gave a shit what happened. And she didn't. No one did. it was enough to bring Shana out of her shocked stupor.
"No, ma'am. I think we're finished here." Shana put a little bite into that. She kept her face blank. She was not going to give Pierce any signs of grief.
If she said, "I'm so sorry for your loss," Shana was going to punch her, right in that fricking hooked nose. Pierce opened her mouth, but then reconsidered whatever she was going to say and shut it.
Shana got up, scraping back the chair's legs on the floor. "May I be excused?' Barely polite, almost insolent.
Pierce swallowed. "Of course. Miss Evans will be right outside, waiting for you. She'll be driving you down."
Shana turned and yanked the door handle, pulling the door open. Sure enough, Cerberus was waiting with Shana's suitcase.
Shana felt angry. She was angry at Pierce, at Evans, at Holly Osborn, at her father, at herself, at the whole fricking world. Inside that anger, though, she just felt hollow, numb. Like her insides had been pulled out. Like she was in suspended animation, frozen until someone took her out of the cyro chamber and reanimated her. The though slipped in her mind every few seconds, in rhythm with her heartbeat: my Father's dead. He is dead.
GRIMSBY ROAD, AT EIGHT PAST SIX PM
Dave Card had been driving down Grimsby, as he always did at the end of his shift as a firefighter, eager to get home to Augusta and their daughters, Emily and Karen. Today had been particularly difficult. There was a fire out at a bar, caused by some sort of explosion in the kitchen. Just a few miles down Grimsby, actually. Several people had had to be hospitalized for burns and the place was a wreck. He really should have been home earlier, but with the aftermath...
Grimsby Road was bordered on both sides by forest, so he'd been scanning the road as he usually did. It was autumn, and deer were likely to be out and about. He certainly didn't wanted to hit one. Think of how badly that could damage the truck! But, well, if he was being scrupulously honest, it wasn't really the car he was worried about. Dave had a soft spot for animals (which was why he'd really given up hunting, although he wouldn't let Jon know that, the man would tease him relentlessly). Dave also had a soft spot for helping people, which was why he'd volunteered as a firefighter.
Dave scanned up ahead, looking - what the heck is that? It wasn't a deer. Whatever it was, was lying half-on, half-off the road. Dave pulled over to the side of the road and cut the engine. He grabbed his cell phone from the glove box and stuck it in his pants pocket. As he got out of the car, shutting the blue door of his truck behind him, he saw that it looked vaguely human. Oh, hell ... hellfire ... Dave was not easy to scare. His years of firefighting had prepared him for the worst kinds of tragedies - or so he'd thought. But this ... person, Dave couldn't tell if he/she was a man or woman ... this poor person had been burned. All over. Dave sneaked another glance at the person and took a step closer. Okay, male. A man. A badly burned man lying on the side of the road. How the hell'd he get there? There were second and third degree burns covering his body, as evidenced by the red and white patches of skin and the bloody blisters; some of his clothes had been burned away and others seared into his flesh. There was black char and, oh God, he even smelled of burning... Was he alive?
Dave bent down next to the man, the smell of charred flesh making his eyes water. He lifted up a wrist and tested for a pulse. The man's heart was still beating, but he was unconscious. And his skin was dirty. Dave pulled out his cell phone, and sent up a brief prayer for reception. Three bars, thank God. He punched in 9-1-1.
COBRA INDUSTRIES PUBLIC OFFICE, ATLANTA, GEORGIA
The Baroness entered the office lobby. The door closed with a thud behind her. She was immediately caught on-screen by five different cameras and bathed in harsh florescent light. The walls of the lobby were painted cream with white trim; modern art hung on the walls. She identified herself to the receptionist, who nervously pressed a buzzer on her desk, signaling the Baroness' arrival. The receptionist, a tiny, nervous girl with thin hair, then passed her boss a badge, which the Russian woman took without comment. She stalked towards the elevator and jammed her finger on the 4 button. As the elevator moved upward, Anastasia smoothed her hair and though about what she would say to her underlings. Hopefully, they had come up with some sort of plan for the memorial service.
The elevator dinged, and the doors opened. The Baroness stepped out onto the fourth floor. The walls up here were painted the same cream color, but there wasn't anything hanging on the walls, and the space was divided neatly into cubicles. She stood up straight, looking like a vengeful, evil god. "Eric Foster!" She barked. An overweight man with greasy hair and large glasses waddled over to her. He'd gotten fatter, she noted, and, evidently, had not thoroughly acquainted himself with soap. "How are the preparations?"
In an effort to look professional, Eric straightened his tie, and fidgeted with his clipboard. He was part of the legal Cobra empire. He had a healthy respect for the Baroness. In fact, he was afraid of her - although he wouldn't admit it. "Um, well, we, umm, have some plans. The funeral-slash-memorial will occur, um, day after tomorrow. At the, umm -"
"Oh, just give me that." The Baroness reached out a delicate pale hand for the clipboard. "The poor man just died, and you can't even manage his memorial correctly?" The look on her face was equal parts sadness over a tragedy and exasperation.
"We're doing the best we can, Bar -" He wheezed.
She held up a hand and walked off in the direction of her office.
Oh, shit. Eric winced. While the Baroness was gone - the Atlanta office was not often her base of operations - they had set up a Foosball table in her office. Everyone in the department either played the game or betted on the outcome. Currently, he was in deadlock with Debbie Myers for the championship game. He hoped Eddie had removed the table while he was talking to the boss lady.
THE CARD HOUSHOLD, AFTER DINNER
Jon Bentley had come over for dinner as he always did on Thursdays. It was a tradition - either the Cards when over to Jon's house, or he came to theirs. Jon was always good for a laugh, and the girls, Emily and Karen, were always thrilled when Uncle Jon stopped by. Today, though, the mood was more somber than usual. Because of the bar fire, and the mysterious burned man.
After dinner, Jon and Dave had retreated into the home office. Dave hadn't wanted to talk about the man in front of his daughters. They settled in the plush blue chairs, facing each other.
"Jon, do you know how he got burned up like that?"
"You know I can't give out the details of an ongoing investigation, Dave," Jon said primly. Then he sighed. Jon and Dave had been friends since grade school. They'd both talked about becoming police officers - detectives. Jon had, but Dave had found his calling as a firefighter.
Jon sighed again. Usually he was full of frenetic energy - he'd always been borderline ADHD. "We don't know. We haven't questioned him. The guy was sent to the hospital in the city. They've got some crack burn doctor there. I hope they'll be able to fix 'em up. But, right now, we really have no idea what happened. My best guess is, he was at the bar and somehow ended up trying to walk home. " Jon leaned forward a little, staring at Dave intensely. "We need to get you down to the station tomorrow to do another report."
Dave shrugged, frowning. "First time I saw him was on the side of Grimsby. He had dirt on him; must've been crawling. Dressed in dark clothes, I'd guess, but it's hard to tell with the char. Do you even know who he is?"
Jon made a sound of disgust in the back of his throat. He tugged on his shirtsleeve. He was a problem-solver; he hated not to have the answers. "Ach, no. Nothing on him to ID the guy. Tattoo on his forearm - red bars - don't know what to make of it. My best guess is a drifter. Maybe a motorcyclist, those types pass through here every so often."
"Alone?" Dave frowned. Motorcyclists typically traveled in groups.
"Well, maybe he was a loner. Who's to say? We didn't actually find a vehicle, but he could've hitch hiked." Jon shrugged, again. He still fidgeted with his shirtsleeve. " Media probably won't pick it up, 'cause we don't know who the guy is. Intriguing, sure, but no real lasting interest factor. Besides, there's all this shit about the Cobra factory or lab or whatever blowing up over near Milton. And then the president's latest bill he's trying to pass, and that whole thing with the kid who disappeared up in Wyoming..."
"You think the guy walked all the way from the bar down Grimsby?"
"What? Well, people do all sorts of crazy things..." Jon rolled his eyes and leaned back, putting his hands behind his head. "It's the only theory we've got right now, to be honest about it, Dave. What, you got another idea?"
It was Dave's turn to shrug. "Nah. I just don't like what happened to the guy. Those burns would be nasty to heal, and then he was on the ground, so there's the increased risk of infection..."
Jon nodded. "Yeah. But this doctor is supposed to be really good, and the guy survived transport, so hopefully he'll end up okay." Jon leaned forward again. "You're worried." He laughed. "You worry about everyone, you know. That's why you gave up hunting - you were worried about hurting the animals."
Dave nodded, bracing himself for an insult. "Yeah. But you don't hunt much either."
Jon grinned. "Yeah. Man, we're going soft. Maybe before I arrest someone, I'll give out sympathy hugs."
"That's a great community-building exercise, " Dave said with a straight face. "It would really turn the gangsters and meth heads around."
"I know. I'm going to suggest it at the next department meeting." Jon grinned and started picking at one of his shirt buttons on the cuff of his sleeve.
ATLANTA, GEORGIA, ABOUT TEN-THIRTY PM
Shana was trapped in a hotel room. The room smelled vaguely of cigarette smoke - apparently the last occupant had been a smoker - and that smell was not helping her mood. The room was dark; the overhead lights were not on. Only a lamp on the bedside table illuminated the small room, which had tacky seashell wallpaper and a single chair in the corner, which held Shana's bag.
Cerberus was in the room next to Shana's. She had made a big deal about taping Shana's door shut with duct tape. "If you open this door, the tape will tear. I will know you got out."
Big Brother knows when you're sleeping, he knows if you're awake, and if you get out of your room, you've made a grave mistake... Okay, if she was singing 1984 Christmas carols, she was tired. And borderline hysterical. But she didn't really want to go to sleep. It wasn't sleeping that was the real problem, just trying to fall asleep. That was when she started to think about things. She wished she had some sleeping pills, so she'd just go to sleep, instead of trying to put herself to sleep by reciting the Periodic Table, like she'd dome since she was a little kid...
Hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium...
They'd sat down at the kitchen table together, early one Saturday morning, after they'd eaten pancakes for breakfast. She must've been five or six, but she could remember this clearly. He'd brought out a Periodic Table, and spread it out on the table almost reverently.
"See, Shana, these are the elements," Da had said, before Mother had died and he had become Father. "92 naturally occurring, others created in laboratories. They make up the entire universe. Even me, even you, we are made up of elements."
"Which ones?" Little Shana leaned in to look at the chart on the table, her pony tail swinging on her back.
"Mostly oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen," he'd said, pointing each one out on the Periodic Table. He winked. "Plus a few others."
Boron, carbon, nitrogen...
One of the things about being a scientist's daughter: you never forgot the elements.
Other memories flashed up inside Shana's head:
finding plants in the yard and classifying them, listening to the old Latin and Greek names;
reading a physics textbook with Da as a bedtime story, asking him to explain the long, technical words and give her the "abridged version";
pouring acid on rock samples to make them sizzle in the home laboratory, alongside Da, only to have Mother shake her head and make them promise to be careful -
God. Fucking pathetic. It's been nine years. Leave it the hell alone. Don't fricking think about it.
Wounds only heal when you stop picking at them, retard.
God. Here she was, arguing with herself. Shana walked over to the window, and pulled back the curtains. It was a cloudy night. She stared out the neon signs and car headlights. There were still lights on in the buildings. Other people were still up, talking and eating and driving, somewhere out there. It hit her, like a hard punch: Her father was gone. She was alone, really alone, for the first time.
A/N: I decided to split this chapter into two parts. The second bit will deal with Dr. O'Hara's memorial service. ( I figured more than 15 pages at one go was too much.) Shana and Snake Eyes will meet in the fifth chapter or so.
As for the car scene in the last chapter: I was trying to write it in a sort of detached way, and a little bit from Cerberus' (Carlotta Evans) perspective. And I did want the effect of the scene skip (from the office to the car, without a lot of detail) to be jarring, but not confusing, so hopefully this chapter explained what happened. Basically, Shana was informed that her father died and sent down to Atlanta for his funeral/memorial service, with Miss Evans (Cerberus) along to supervise.
Also, the head-yelling thing: It's basically what she does to prevent herself from showing strong emotions that she doesn't want other people to pick up on, or even experience - a sort of suppression tactic so she can compartmentalize things and deal with them later. (Or never.)
And thanks for the reviews - it helps me to know what you all are looking forward to having me write, and the things that confuse you so I can explain them.