Mesmer wasn’t welcome through the front door. She wasn’t welcome at all.
A manhole cover rose from its inset down an alley too narrow for streetlights. Mesmer pulled herself surface-side, her fingers white as bone against the blacktop. Those pale digits flicked a cockroach from her sleeve as she straightened, clotting her lungs with the alley’s miasma.
Steaming refuse crowded the exit of the restaurant that backed its haunches onto the fissure between buildings. It was a quiet stage setting for a solid second--until the trio of agents exploded through the door. Of course they did. Their guns were leveled. Of course they were. Her kick was an effective love tap, delivered with a force that sent the weapon spinning from the nearest man’s grasp. She recovered, using momentum to snap her arm forward and wrap her fingers around the man’s throat.
He gurgled. Struggled.
Stopped at her command.
Mesmer spun the stilled man, his body a shield against his cohorts. Her fingers pressed his skin, savoring the thrum beneath his stubbled jawline. The second agent, a slab-faced Moai of a man, averted his weapon but not his eyes, wide as they glanced over her broadening grin to stare into the pitts beneath brows. Agents were trained to look away from her, but never did. Hired muscle was unreliable; her mind ruled their matter. Her mind ruled everything.
She reached her will through the contact of eyes and flesh. “Subdue your compatriot. Leave me unharmed, unguarded, and allow no indication of danger. Tell me the quickest route to the President.”
Her diction was awkward, but clarity trumped elegance.
The third man, a whipcord with a shock of fair hair, squawked into his radio before his colleague knocked it from his hand. It skidded like a skipping stone at the same moment his lean cheek hit blacktop, at the same time his slab-faced friend pinned his arm back. The Moai grabbed a fistfull of blond hair, jerked the thin man’s head back with a stretch of tendons, and split his forehead against the asphalt. Bone cracked. Blood splattered, then pooled, granting color to the shadowed scene. The blonde man stilled. The other, straddling him, trembled.
Mesmer’s eyes trailed the flashing motions until they quieted, then released the first agent.
He measured a step back, testing the length of his leash, his fingers resting on the reddening points where Mesmer’s had pressed. “There’re air vents.” Eyelashes fluttered as his eyes flicked back and forth, searching for the solution to an unsolvable problem. “They start next to the ovens and go to the private dining room.”
“And that’s where the President is?”
The man’s face twitched as he surveyed the stage-settings of hanging shadows and seeping blood. In the silence, the Moai ripped from his comrade, staggered to a dumpster, and retched, his fingers red against its rusted rim.
Some still-born emotion curled in Mesmer’s stomach. She stifled it, focusing, and forced her smile back into position. “That’s where the President is?” She leaned forward, as if encouraging the man to share a secret flirtation.
The agent nodded, a grimace pulling at his mouth. “Yes.”
“Any other Secret Service along the way? Anyone in the kitchens?” Mesmer turned toward the door.
“No. The staff were sent home early.”
“Good.” Mesmer patted his shoulder, and a shudder rippled down his arm. Again, her smile faltered, and she wondered why she’d done it. Sadism, or a test to see if she was still she still reeked of death? She let her arm drop, and entered the kitchen, finding the vents near the ovens.
Her blunt fingernails pried the grating free, then pushed furrows in the layer of dust as she entered the too-tight space. She slithered forward, choking down coughs and stifling sneezes, the smell of charred meat and fine flour tickling her throat. Once the President of the United States was in her thrall, her territories would be untouchable. She would be untouchable. And from her place of safety, she could reach into the world and pluck from it those who had moved against her like plums from a cake...
Mesmer pushed the grating free and slipped behind the gold-fringed draperies of the restaurant’s private dining room. Tacky. Just like the man in office.
This would be easy.
“You didn’t think this would be easy.” The curtain rippled and Omega emerged, his bronze hair and eyes glowing against the hangings. The hero bared her way to where the quiver-chinned Commander in Chief sat, napkin tucked in shirt, before his repast.
“With you involved, how could it be anything but?” Mesmer smiled, full lips curling back as her stomach clenched. She counted on Omega for that spurt of adrenaline, that quickening in her pulse that came with villainy. “Now that you’re less hero and more maitre d...How long were you hovering at that idiot’s elbow, praying for me to arrive?”
Omega’s eyes glowed brighter. Perhaps she should’ve brought henchmen. Just to deal with the energy blasts.
But he launched himself toward her, fist hauled back. “Cheap insults.” The President upended his chair and trundled out a side door. “From a woman who’s caused the government such expense.”
Mesmer ducked and rolled in an orchestrated tangle of limbs. “The insults are at a discount. Trying to stop me will come with a price.” A decade ago it had been challenging to banter in the midst of a melee, but she’d become smooth with practice. Alien genetics greased Omega’s muscles. Grinding repetition, study, and a pill her scientists cooked up tightened Mesmer’s sinew. “And if words are cheap, you were the one who started flinging them.”
“True.” Omega’s launched his one fist, then the other, at her, firing and recoiling, an inexhaustible wind-up toy. A few blows caused her limbs to stutter before her trajectory could change. “I’ve always preferred action.”
“You mean you prefer the offense.” Mesmer twisted mid-lunge to let his fist slide by her nose with a tick and a whisper. “I like you on the ropes.”
“Oh, you’re offensive. Have you considered using your power for good?” He snapped a hand out too quickly, curled his fingers over her wrist, and spun her like a dancer to lock into his arms. “Make a positive change in the world. You control half the New West Coast. Why spread your evil?”
“If I weren’t a bad girl, what would you do with your nights?” Mesmer said, nose to nose with him, eyes locked. Omega remained stony-faced. Usually he showed his dimples at least once. He was trying harder this time.
“I can think of better things to do than sleep.”
“Are you enjoying yourself?” Omega growled.
Mesmer raised her eyebrows. “Are you not? Hardly what a girl wants to hear when you’re holding her. Rude, really.”
She writhed, but her usual moves weren’t effective. Usually she felt the rush of danger, the conceit of something that approached capture, but there had always been, in Omega’s eyes, the glint of a gamer where now they were steely grim.
Yes, she should’ve brought henchmen to distract him. Yes, she should’ve attacked first and quipped later. But what was he doing?
Mesmer rammed her heel down on the toe of his boot. He flinched. Tightened his arms. She shoved a knee between his legs. He blocked. Headbutted. Stifled. A flicker of emotion crossed Omega’s face, and she remembered this was no game. She’d gotten sloppy when gambling with her life, and there was no one to stop Omega from doing his duty. No henchmen to act as cannon fodder. No hostage to distract him. In desperation, she bent her head to the joint of his neck and shoulder and bit, worrying the wound like a dog. Salt, skin, and the iron tang of blood filled her mouth as she drove her heel down and pushed out with her arms. He would wear more than welts on his body; she’d torn sinew, tasted it.
For a moment, she wanted more. More of this danger. More of his blood. More of her own hopeless nihilism, all combined in this blazing, ignoble, helpless moment, a culmination of all that she fought against. She got it.
Omega shifted his hand to tangle in her long hair, the crackling pale strands striking against his bronze gloves. He wrenched her head back with a tearing of teeth through flesh. As his blood dripped from her chin, he blasted a bolt of energy from his flaring eyes into her black voids.
Other people would’ve been blinded, perhaps died, but this was Mesmer, the most infamous supervillain in the United States. But if the west coast was in her power, then she was in Omega’s. As she slumped unconscious in his arms, she finally was.