Stark navigates the highway traffic with effortless precision, acutely aware of the space between lanes and cars at all times. While under Crata’s wing, she started as a beat cop who gained a reputation for chasing down all sorts of getaway drivers, from teenage joyriders, drag racers, and bank thieves. On rare occasions the three were mutual. It helped her a lot when she chased down Reddic’s collection of sports cars while using more mundane vehicles. She failed to uncover his motives then, and she still hasn’t. She vows to change that during this trip, come hell or high water.
Stark’s target sits across from her in the front seat, looking calm and happy. She understands him well enough to know it’s a mask, but she endeavors to see him when it’s off. Even now, as she enters the middle lane between two black trucks, she watches his eyes slide from one side to the other, though they retain one subject: Nuria.
I’ll have to learn that trick.
Stark spares a quick glance to the back seat. Shuri is busy fiddling with his camera between photos. Rum has his eyes on the jeep’s dashboard, watching how Stark drives very closely. While helping Shuri sandwich Rum, Nuria’s attention is all over the woods on the side of the road as if frantically searching for something.
“Ah, finally, there it is!”
“Pardon?” Stark asks.
“Springspell,” Reddic replies, “our first stop. Take exit 73 up ahead.”
“Springspell? I thought our destination was–”
“It is, but Springspell is an important part of what I hope to impart to the three behind us. Springspell isn’t as big as Jupiter City, but it has quite a reputable country club. For one, it is Ibri-owned, and they’re very welcoming to members and visitors alike.”
“Let me guess, you’re a member?”
“Guilty as charged. The Springspell club is another part of the culture that celebrates Ibri status. Four Hearts does so, too, but it has the burden of being forced to separate students by race. There are no such barriers in Springspell and I want them to experience that for themselves.”
“Sounds good to me,” Shuri says.
“I’m in,” Rum adds.
“Can we, Stark?” Nuria asks, a sour tone in her voice.
“Just for one night,” Reddic clarifies. “Then we’re back on the road in the morning.”
“One night? No. We’re making good travel time. We can stay until after dinner.”
“I’m afraid I’d need more time than that. The supplies I need to gather for future exercises are in the city, too.”
Stark hates reversing her decision, but she cannot pass up the chance to get in on Reddic’s secret. “We leave first thing in the morning. No exceptions.”
The other occupants in the jeep reply, “Yes, sir!” appreciatively, even Nuria.
“Ah, it’s been a while, Master Reddic,” an attendant on the terrace greets.
“Too long, Gates. Too long,” Reddic says, shaking Gates’ hand after disembarking the jeep. He salutes to the group of other attendants waiting on the side eagerly. “In addition to my usual accommodations, I shall need two extra rooms.”
“Of course, Master Reddic.”
“And make sure they’re connected by an adjoining door,” Stark demands.
“That shouldn’t be an issue, Mistress…”
“Master Stark will do.”
Reddic gives Gates a reassuring nod. The attendant smiles then snaps at the group of adjacent workers. One of them grabs the keys from Stark as the others gather the group’s bags and posits them on a trolley.
“Master Reddic, your room is ready,” Gates states, “however, the other two won’t be up to our standards for another hour. May I suggest you and your party visit the dining hall to refresh yourselves?”
“An excellent idea.” Reddic turns to the others. “Follow Gates. He will make certain you are taken care of.”
“You’re not coming with us?” Nuria asks.
“Such is the burden of instruction. I have to make haste to gather what we need in time. You all enjoy yourselves and take note of your surroundings while you’re here. Watch the people, look at the décor, explore. Gates, see to it that their desires are met.” Reddic flashes his jocund grin Nuria’s way. “I’ll return as soon as I can.”
Stark slowly turns away, waiting to determine which end of the street Reddic marches down. After he vanishes, she dashes to catch up with the students and Gates.
“On second thought, Gates, have my bags sent to Master Reddic’s room. I’ve been driving all morning and would love to freshen up.”
“Oh, we have a spa with a variety of baths, scented or not for your choosing,” Gates states.
“I’m sorry, but I’ve never been comfortable in communal bathing. A simple shower is all I require.”
“Your wish, my command, Master Stark.” Gates bows humbly, showing no signs of stress in his posture.
He’s either a great concierge or Reddic chose an excellent con artist partner. How will he react to this, though?
“And can you have someone deliver a map of Springspell to the room, also? I’d like to go out and explore more of Springspell afterward.”
“You’re leaving, too?” Rum asks.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be back before Reddic.”
“Why wouldn’t you?” Nuria comments while rolling her eyes. “I’ll take you up on the spa offer.”
“An excellent choice, Mistress…”
“Nuria. Mistress Nuria.”
Stark stays in place to watch the kids wander off in Gates’ wake. The look Rum tosses over his shoulder is a shadow of what Tameri’s been throwing her way. Being left alone now punctuates her standing in their party. It’s clear she’s not in with Reddic or Tameri, and Nuria and Rum have chosen to be on their mentors’ sides. Shuri hasn’t shown her any such animosity but expects he wouldn’t hesitate to back up his peers at the drop of a hat. When she goes up to Reddic’s room, she contacts her team.
“Syerus, I need you to email me a map of Springspell, specifically of any industrial parks.” She pauses to listen. “You have as long as it takes for me to take a shower. I have to change into streets first.”
Stark disrobes and rinses away her foul mood beneath the hot water. As she straightens her hair into a tight ponytail, she recommits to her resolve to uncover what she needs to know about Reddic. She packs her silver security uniform away but holds to all the duties and responsibilities it represents. By the time she dresses in a brown blouse, black jeans, and dark sneakers, as commanded, Syerus delivered a map of an industrial park not even four miles from the club. As Stark ventures out, she passes by a black truck pulling up to the club entrance.
The Springspell industrial park is far less expansive and secure than the one in Fraise. There are cameras posted only at the entrances and exits to monitor deliveries coming in and out. Most of the businesses have their logos pasted on their respective warehouses, making it easier to locate Reddic’s. She finds it in the section of one-story-sized warehouses, a line of windows at eye level. The shelves and boxes inside are identical to the ones in Reddic’s Fraise warehouse. She notices there’s no desk nor aquarium in this one, however.
Stark steps to the door, the lock on this one physical. She grabs it with a liquid hand and yanks when it glows faintly. The lock snaps like a twig.
What’s in this one?
Before the officer takes one step inside she hears the screech of tires nearby. A black truck rounds the corner to her right and shows no signs of stopping as it barrels towards her. Stark swiftly hops from the hood to the roof and lands behind the truck. A large liquid hand crashes through the tinted rear window and manacles Stark. The officer is yanked back as Liamria crashes through the rest of the window. A powerful backhand burns Stark’s cheek before she’s slammed against the warehouse wall.
Stark groans as she rises, making her arms liquid as she dashes forward. Her punch is interrupted as Liamria shoots a liquid fist through Stark’s extended arm, landing a punch to Stark’s forehead. Liamria grabs her daughter by the hair and pulls her back for three more punches, striking all three at once by splitting her large liquid fist into three normal-sized ones. One collides with Stark’s cheek, the second between her breasts, and the third against the top of her thigh.
Stark slams back against the wall, sinking to the ground. She hollers when Liamria stomps down on her left arm hard enough to dislocate her shoulder.
“Sorry to be so rough with you, dear, but you haven’t left me much choice. None of my traps seemed to get your attention,” Liamria says, her arms returning to normal. “Not the Winding Hills. Not Jupiter Mall. I considered targeting Crata next.”
Stark doesn’t fall for this trap, either. She knows she won’t survive this without a clear head. Whatever her mother wants, once she announces it and loses herself in hubris, Stark intends to strike back.
And I have just the trap myself.
Stark snickers. “I know. We’ve had some good laughs about those. Nuria told me all about how she scared off you and the woman from the mall. How’s it feel to be at the mercy of a child? Those burns on your knuckles must drive you mad.”
The shift from murderous intent to murderous rage in Liamria’s eyes is clear. “Don’t you worry about that! After today, that phoenix bitch will haunt me no longer! I’ll–”
Stark manipulates the liquid from her disconnected arm to uppercut her mother. She hollered louder than necessary when her shoulder was struck to placate her mother, knowing how much she enjoys physical suffering. She stands and calls her arm back to her. The liquid limb glows brighter than before. Stark steadies herself and corrects her breathing, ready to fight back.
“It’s my turn to put that fear into you!”
“I’d like to see you try!” Liamria shouts, morphing her arms to liquid as she charges. Her punch is ruined when her left arm is severed out of thin air. It splashes onto the ground at her feet.
“Mind if I give it a shot,” a guttural voice calls from behind Liamria.
Stark marvels that her mother not only recognizes the voice but that she seems to shiver in response to it. She had an inkling when Reddic mistook her identity for her mother’s, but now she’s sure; Reddic and her mother have met before. And the encounter left an impression.
From the tip of his hand- hidden behind Liamria’s neck- to the bottom of his dress shoes, Reddic’s person materializes like a misty phantom. His yellow and white eyes both resemble those of a leopard on the hunt, his predatory gaze fixed on Liamria. As the nails on his visible hands lengthen, she sees her mother wince and recognizes that he’s piercing her flesh.
“What have you done to Nuria?” Reddic’s guttural voice comes out around teeth too large for his mouth, fangs distending. His muscles shift unnaturally beneath his clothes.
Is he struggling not to transform?
“Little old me?” Liamria says. “Nothing. My associates argued for those kills. Since I wanted my daughter to myself, I obliged.”
“‘Those’?” Stark and Reddic parrot simultaneously.
Stark curses then. Her mother uses her trick, using her severed liquid arm to strike Reddic. Liamria vaults the black truck, planting a magnetic device near the roof. The device’s screen displays a countdown that starts at “00:10”.
The officer is swept up in Reddic’s arms before she knows it. She feels his muscles swell beneath his clothing, as well as the power they afford his grip.
Reddic shields Stark twice; first when he crashes through one of the nearby windows, and second when the explosion outside shatters the rest of them, keeping the glass from hitting her. The force of the explosion topples the shelves as well, some of the open boxes spilling their content. Taxidermy rabbits and squirrels, cables, and cardboard cutouts of people.
“Are you okay?” Reddic asks as he helps Stark to her feet.
“Get off me!” Stark throws his hand off, but still shivers, knowing he let her.
“You don’t have to be afraid of me, Stark.” His nails recede, but his fangs and muscles have yet to relax.
“Why shouldn’t I be? You kill people who get close to your secrets, don’t you? You almost killed me before!”
“Yes, but I incorrectly assumed you were your mother then. I’ve learned the truth since. And now that it’s out there,” he bows his head, “I’m sorry that Kirby and I endangered your life. We’d never have acted so rashly if we’d known otherwise.” He lifts his head and flashes her a grin, his teeth normal once again. His muscles also normalize a moment later. “I don’t kill to keep secrets. I kill only to protect what’s mine. It’s why I had some…issues just now with Liamria. I heard her threaten Nuria and saw red.”
It’s true that if he wanted me dead, he could’ve let my mother finish the job. I was not winning on my own after her damned ambush. And it’s true he revealed himself when Nuria was threatened…but perhaps he was always waiting for a moment before that happened?
Stark still shivers. “I want to…believe you…”
“I’ve decided that you and Neth knowing of my Ohaida affiliation can be beneficial. However, trust didn’t get you that information. So, I’m going to reveal something to you that only Nuria knows. I’m bringing you into our circle with this.”
Reddic opens the warehouse door and the heat from the burning truck permeates the room in seconds, only making Stark sweat more. As the heat warps the air, a full-grown leopard materializes in the same fashion Reddic employed, made all the more menacing by the waves of humidity. It walks past the fire on camouflaged legs.
“This is Fanger, a.k.a. the “lucky tooth” Nuria mentioned before.”
Side by side, Reddic and Fanger appear like devils, a hellish fire blazing at their backs. However, the looks they give Stark are a far cry from what her own mother showed her just moments ago.
He’s…he’s not lying.
“I can explain more on the way, but try and save some questions for later. The kids are in a safe place, but let’s not test that theory too much.”
Stark grits her teeth and moves to the edge of the door frame. She slams her shoulder against it, alleviating the dislocation with one sharp jerk. Once she exits the warehouse, she focuses on the air above the burning truck. She forms droplets from the moisture in the air, pooling them together as one massive puddle. She dumps the puddle over the truck and extinguishes the fire all at once. She turns and races away from the rising white smoke with Reddic and Fanger at her side. The three appear like avenging angels emerging from the heavens to strike down evil.
“Fanger, go on ahead! Take down anyone who tries to hurt the kids!” Reddic orders.
Fanger roars and speeds up.
As they race after the leopard, one of Reddic’s earlier comments nags at Stark.
“Only one question, Reddic. The only one I truly need answered.”
Reddic doesn’t speak but nods in her direction.
“Are you here to protect Nuria from the Avinian world government?”