Blood Victory – Christopher Rice

Whenever Cyrus Mattingly sees an automated ticket machine, he thinks of closed factories and good men thrown out of work, of winds whistling through the shuttered prairie towns of his youth, and he feels a combination of rage and despair so acute he usually ends up clenching his fists until the nubs of his filed fingernails make white indentations in his palms. He’s never considered himself a political man. His life affords him freedom from politics, along with many other things. But there’s no denying that the automation of the world around him and his country’s complete disregard for the places where he grew up go hand in hand. Throwing good men out of work circuit by circuit and swipe by swipe. He avoids swiping now. It’s one of Mother’s many rules. Cash only. Nothing traceable in the days leading up to a snatch. That includes his ticket to the 7:15 p.m. showing of Sister Trip. Another rule: wear clothes that hide the bulk of your figure. Nothing so ridiculous as a trench coat and sunglasses. More like light waffle-print coats and baggy hooded sweaters, even when it’s a touch too warm out to justify the outfit.

The whole world’s got cameras now, she constantly reminds them, and your figure can give away as much about you as your face. And she’s right. Cameras and automated ticket machines and those QR code things you can read on your phones. It’s like humans are trying to get rid of everything that requires effort. And that’s a shame. He’s found great peace in his efforts. But he didn’t find it alone. Dressed in a button-front leather coat and a Dallas Cowboys baseball cap, Cyrus walks through the entrance to the AMC NorthPark Center, leaving the cheerful buzz of the shopping mall behind him. The crowd’s thick, but it’s not quite what he’d hoped. The movie business is also changing.

He’d read an article just the other day that said the type of film he’d been using for years now, the “chick flick,” they called it, was showing up in theaters less and less. These online companies, the streamers, they called them, were making them so women could just sit at home on their sofas and watch one right after the other. No driving to the theater, no parking. No running into a man like him. That was all well and good, he guessed, but it made it all that much harder for him to find new seedlings. Used to be he could hit a multiplex on any given weekend and there’d be at least three or four to choose from. Movies about wedding planners who finally find love. Movies about sisters finding ways to get along that also snag them new boyfriends. Movies where the majority of the audience was women, most of them alone, some in the company of reluctant husbands and boyfriends and, more recently, homo friends, who seemed just as interested in the movie as they were. But for the past three weeks there’s been only one film in wide release that fits the bill.

He’d call it meaningless, but it’s so packed full of twisted, damaging messages about what it means to be a woman, he can’t dismiss it so easily. It’s called Sister Trip. The plot concerns three sisters who go on a road trip together. At every stop along the way, their inappropriate loudmouth behavior is rewarded with either new friends or degrading sex they pretend to enjoy. In the end, they finally make it to the lookout point where they’re supposed to throw their grandmother’s ashes off a cliff, but not before disrespecting almost every man they come across and pretty much disrupting the natural order of things everywhere they go. He’d much rather see a film in which all three sisters came across a man like him out in the dark, a man confident enough to break their spines. But while plenty of women attend those kinds of films, plenty of men do, too, so that’s a no go. A small popcorn and a soda, which he pays for in cash. Then he keeps his head down as he makes his way through the thicket of moviegoers in between him and his theater. It’s like the crowd’s moving in four different directions.

Another second or two and he realizes that’s exactly the case; they’re all staring at their phones as they walk, most of them completely unaware of where they’re headed. When he arrives at the red velour seat he picked out when he bought the ticket, he sees it’s a nice-enough-size crowd inside the screening room. Better yet, it’s mostly female, and not too many in groups. It’s a stadium-style theater, with a few rows of seats at floor level and a raked seating area behind. He’s second row, close to the center. Not as close as he’d like to be, but that’s a casualty of paying cash and not being able to reserve the seat in advance with a credit card. He tries not to eavesdrop on the chatter all around him. He doesn’t want his judgment of anything he overhears to bias his selection. By now he’s familiar with the chain of trailers that precede the film—a superhero saves the world from blowing up, long-dead kings and queens in some foreign country have stupid fights in expensive costumes, something with aliens but he’s not really sure because it’s really just a teaser, but in that one it looks like the world actually does blow up. So many damn people in Hollywood want to blow up the world.

Frustrated souls they are. They need a way to channel and focus all that rage so they can survive in the world without twisting it to their own ways. The world has enough dark corridors for men like him to slip into and feed their impulses before returning to daylit roadways, focused and purged. You just need someone like Mother to show you the way. Once the lights inside the theater go completely dark and the studio’s familiar logo fills the screen, Cyrus takes out his phone, turns up the brightness all the way, and begins swiping through a random assortment of web pages on his phone. Right away he feels the ripple of tension go through the women on all sides of him, and it sets off a warm churning in his gut. They shift in their seats; a few of them mutter curses under their breath. He’s willing to bet all of them are debating whether to say something to him about his rudeness. And that’s good. Because the one who does won’t have much longer to live.

2 Lebanon, Kansas Lightning strikes so close to the end of the airstrip, Cole Graydon’s security director makes a sound like he’s been kneed in the gut. The blinking wing lights of the Gulfstream they watched descend out of the stormy sky have vanished, Cole’s sure of it. Heart hammering, he waits for a plume of orange on the horizon, proof that he was wrong to ignore his security director’s earlier warnings. Look, I know Noah Turlington could use several pieces of humble pie, but think twice before you send him hurtling headfirst through a tornado. Cole had pretended to indulge Scott Durham’s concerns by leaving the decision whether to land in the hands of the Gulfstream’s pilot. But secretly he’d been savoring the image of Noah— beautiful, strong, brilliant, ice-water-in-his-veins Noah, the man who’s caused him so much grief for so many years—gripping armrests while trying not to hurl. There’ve been several breaks in the rain since Cole and Scott stepped from the Suburban and took shelter under the overhang next to the airstrip. The wind, however, hasn’t let up once. Every now and then it drives residual droplets from the overhang’s roof into their faces with stinging force. Cole spots the plane again, wings canted, fighting crosswinds.

It’s too close to the ground now to recover if wind shear drives it into the earth like an angry god’s fist. That’s when he realizes how right Scott is—Noah is incredibly valuable, maybe as valuable an investment as Charlotte Rowe, the test subject his more iron-hearted business partners still call Bluebird. Project Bluebird is the name for their collective effort to harness the powers Noah’s drug unleashes in Charlotte’s blood. Still, he’s worried his business partners have come to view her as more of a lab rat than a person. Noah’s drug might be Cole’s passport to changing the world, but changing the world becomes more of a challenge in those moments when it seems like he might have to tear Charlotte’s life apart to do it. Maybe it’s time he extended the same courtesy to Noah, despite their tortured history. Cole reminds himself that all of Noah’s work at the island this past year has been logged, monitored, and backed up and backed up again. His days of conducting rogue scientific experiments on unsuspecting private citizens like Charlotte Rowe are long over. So if the plane does go down, it won’t be a total loss. The truth is, when you operate at the level of Graydon Pharmaceuticals, there’s no such thing as a total loss.

A few minutes later, Noah’s the first person to step off the parked jet. A blush in his cheeks, he descends the staircase with steady steps, ignoring the handrail. There’s no vomit on his windbreaker, either. The security team filing out behind him is another story. The two guys in the lead grip the staircase rails like they’re battling throbbing hangovers, and Cole figures the only reason Noah was able to slip ahead of them is because the terrifying landing has left the men’s stomachs in their throats. Cole’s been watching Noah’s confident approach so closely he jumps at the sudden whump of Scott opening an umbrella over their heads. Head bowed to hide his embarrassment, Cole starts forward, Scott accompanying him with his customary Secret Service–style attentiveness. “Well, I knew you wouldn’t pull me from the lab for something that wasn’t important,” Noah says. “I just don’t know what could be so important in South Dakota.” “Nothing,” Cole tells him.

“You’re not in South Dakota.” “Nebraska, then.” “Why would you be under the impression that you know where you are?” He directs the question at Noah’s security team, but the recovering men don’t even flinch at their employer’s suggestion they told Noah more than they were supposed to. “I’ve got a great sense of direction.” “With blacked-out windows, even?” “I’ve got a compass in my head.” “Uh-huh. Welcome to Kansas.” “It was the storm, then. We were doing more up and down than forward, I guess. Threw me off a bit.

How are you, Cole? It’s good to see you in person for a change.” In their recent past, Noah would have kicked off this type of unexpected meeting with some crude reference to their sexual history designed to embarrass Cole in front of his men. But now that he’s back in his labs at Cole’s expense, he’s been all charm. It’s like he’s baiting Cole into being the dark shadow in the perpetual sunny day in which he now lives. “Did you get some sleep like I asked?” “Some, yes,” Noah answers. “I’d like to shower and change if that’s OK.” “Of course.” “So, we’re going to be up for a while, I take it.” “Possibly, yes.” “More storm chasing?” “You’re grounded for now, and the storm’s only supposed to last another few hours.

” “Pity. I enjoyed that part.” “Did you, though?” “Absolutely. If only you could have been there.” Noah’s acidic smile suggests he knows full well Cole played some hand in his flight’s terrifying final minutes. “I was,” Cole answers, “in spirit.” “I always knew you had more than you let on.” “More what?” “Spirit.” “That’s very kind of you. Let’s go to the house.

” “There’s a house?” Noah asks, looking in both directions. Cole smiles and starts for the car. When Scott touches his shoulder, he turns. Noah hasn’t moved an inch. The security team has encircled him. Another moment of this and they’ll be reaching for their weapons. Noah’s expression is blank now, no charming smile, no twinkle in his eye. “What is it, Noah?” Cole asks. “I’d like to know if she’s OK.” “Charley?” Noah nods.

Cole’s startled not just by the question but by the gentle, unaffected tone with which Noah asked it. Once, Noah endangered Charlotte’s life by making her an unwitting test subject in an experiment that could have killed her. The result was quite the opposite, and now Cole’s company is working to reap the rewards. But Noah’s actions then seemed to show a callous disregard for Charley’s well-being. And now he’s worried about her? Maybe that makes sense. Whether they like it or not, Noah and Charley are bound by more than just the consequences of Noah’s dangerous experiment; years ago, when they were both too young to remember, their mothers were both brutalized and murdered by the same serial killers, a married couple named Daniel and Abigail Banning. So maybe his concern is natural, if it’s genuine. And Cole’s hoping it is. “Of course she’s OK,” Cole says. “She’s operational.

” “And the operation’s in Kansas?” “Not quite, no.” “Then what am I doing here?” “I said I would explain at the—” “I heard you, but first, I have to be driven through the middle of nowhere while I’m hemmed in on all sides by your men with guns. The last time this happened I ended up in an underground cell for a few weeks. Perhaps just a bit more explanation before we—” “Oh, for Christ’s sake, you don’t really think I flew you halfway across the world to shoot you and bury you in some mud, do you?” “I didn’t say that, but stranger things have happened in our line of work.” “And you caused most of them.” “And you paid for them.” “If I wanted you dead, I could have just crashed your plane.” “You almost did.” “Come now, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, isn’t it?” “Is it?” Noah says to the security team surrounding him, all of whom turn to stone in response. “I mean, I’m not going to say I didn’t enjoy myself, but plenty of enjoyable things in the world make you feel like you’re about to die.

” “Speak for yourself, special ops.” “I am, if the faces of these gentlemen are any indication.” “Get in the car, Dylan,” Cole says, then does everything he can to conceal his frustration at having accidentally used Noah’s old name. The name he used to call him in bed, before he knew his real one. Maybe, Cole thinks, he’ll take my use of his chosen name, the name he still wants to be called, as a sign I’m not about to have him executed. “Kansas,” Noah mutters, surveying his vast, empty surroundings. “Huh. Will there be more of it when the sun rises?” He’s right—it’s too dark to see the farmhouse on the horizon, and they haven’t planted any of the fields. But the airstrip underfoot is new, installed only months before. Surely Noah won’t be willing to believe they bought a farm in the middle of nowhere and installed an airstrip just for the purpose of flying him here and killing him.

But there’s something else going on with his most important scientist, and it takes Cole a moment to puzzle through it. Noah actually has a life he loves now, and he doesn’t want to be pulled away from it for even a second. His residence on the island is plush, luxurious even. Of course, he lives as a prisoner, his movements constantly monitored, no contact with the outside world—other than Cole—allowed. But remarkably, after a year, he hasn’t asked for any. There’s nobody from his former life—lives plural, if you want to be technical about it—he wants to speak with. For Noah, the past year has been all work and no play, and he couldn’t be happier about it. And so the prospect of spending even a short amount of time in a temporary holding cell has him exhibiting signs of an emotion he almost never displays—fear. The charm with which Noah stepped off the plane was his cover for an emotion so out of character Cole had trouble recognizing it at first. “Did you have a bad experience in Kansas at some point?” Cole asks.

“No,” he says, “but you, good sir, have no experience here, and that’s what concerns me.” “How so?” “For God’s sake, Cole, you own your own helicopter, and you’ve never stayed in a hotel room that doesn’t look like either Versailles or an Apple Store. Your idea of roughing it is a house where you can hear the laundry room. And now you’re on a farm. In Kansas! And so am I, apparently. The whole thing’s very out of the ordinary, even for extraordinary men like us.” “Well, it’s what she wants,” Cole answers. “Charley?” Cole nods. “Does she want me here, too?” Noah asks. “No.

But I do.” “And why’s that?” “I’ll explain once we’re inside.” This time when Cole starts for the Suburban, he’s determined not to stop, even if the men behind him all begin shooting at each other.

.

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