When Villains Rise – Rebecca Schaeffer

NITA STARED at the cell phone screen, her eyes wide and her mind still trying to process what she was reading. It was eerily silent all around her. Normally, she never noticed the sounds of Toronto, the roar of cars, the hum of air-conditioning units, the honks and shouts and creaks of life. But she certainly noticed their absence when the soundproofing blocked them out. It made her uneasy. Her breathing was short and fast as she reread the email. But the words didn’t change, and the truth they told her didn’t either. Henry, Kovit’s surrogate father and former employer, had sold Kovit’s information to the International Non-Human Police. Henry had sent them videos of Kovit as a child torturing people to eat their pain, which would be plenty of evidence to convince INHUP that Kovit was a zannie. As a species on the Dangerous Unnaturals List, he could be killed, and it would be considered preemptive self-defense. He would get no trial. No jury would convict him. No judge would sentence him to prison or community service. He would just be murdered. Once the paperwork went through, in one week’s time, his face, his name, his life would go up on an international wanted poster that would be spread across media outlets worldwide.

He’d be hunted down, and when he was caught, he would be brutally slaughtered. In one week’s time, Kovit, Nita’s best friend and only ally, was going to die. Nita clenched the phone in her sweaty palm, and then angrily shoved it in her pocket, as if pushing the phone and its incriminating emails out of sight would somehow make the terrible truth go away. Across from her, lying on a cot on the floor, was Kovit’s internet friend and former colleague in the Family, Gold. Her bleached-blond hair was short and pressed flat against her scalp like a helmet, and half a dozen earrings danced up one ear. Her face had a bandage on one side from where Nita had burned her with acid, one arm was in a sling, and a crutch lay beside her cot, from when Kovit had dislocated her knee and shoulder. “Did you know?” Nita asked, her voice tight and angry. “Know what?” Gold rasped, still hoarse from screaming earlier. “Did you know Henry was going to give INHUP evidence that Kovit was a zannie?” Nita snapped. Gold was quiet a long moment, and then shook her head and looked away.

“No.” Nita’s shoulders slumped, and her fingers curled into her palms. She wanted to hurt Henry for what he’d done. But Henry was dead now, and there was nothing Nita could do to punish him, nothing she could do to vent her rage at this final betrayal. No, now they had to deal with the fallout. She turned around slowly, knowing the next step was to tell Kovit. He needed to know what had happened. She thought of his face, the moment after he’d killed Henry. The absolute devastation in his eyes as he realized he’d broken his own rules, he’d killed someone who was like a parent to him. The rage as he made Gold scream, as something inside him broke, and he began to spiral downward into a dangerous place.

But she’d stopped him. Or he’d stopped himself. Or they’d stopped him together. For now, he was okay. Picking up the pieces of his shattered soul and forgetting his pain by causing pain to someone else. Nita looked down the white hall at the pastel blue door at the end. Beyond that baby blue barrier, Kovit was doing what zannies did best. Hurting people and enjoying it. Because Nita had asked him to. She couldn’t hear the screams—the soundproofing was excellent.

So she couldn’t hear what horrors he was committing to make himself feel better. Comfort food, he’d called it once, but she tried not to think too hard about the fact that he gained the same comfort from skinning people alive that others got from eating ice cream. Her steps were silent as she approached the innocuous blue door. She hesitated in front of it. Maybe she should just wait for Kovit to be finished. He’d had a hard day. He deserved some downtime. Surely this news could wait until he’d had a good meal. She closed her eyes. Did she really want to wait for Kovit’s sake, or because she didn’t want to see the grisly results of her decision? She hadn’t done well seeing Kovit torture an INHUP agent—the memory of his gurgling, tongueless screams was far too fresh.

Taking a deep breath, Nita knocked on the door. Then, remembering it was soundproofed and Kovit definitely couldn’t hear her, she pushed it open. The screams hit her first. Fabricio generally had a soft, unassuming voice. It was the kind of voice that you trusted. It was the kind of voice that belonged on a gentle soul, not on a traitorous jerk who sold the person who saved him to the black market. His screaming was high-pitched and sharp, serrated and coated in something angry. It was a scream of pain and rage, not a scream of pain and fear. Nita wasn’t sure how she could tell the difference, but she could. Fabricio slumped in his chair, wrists and ankles bound by silver duct tape.

His tousled brown hair fell over his face, and the skin around his eyes was bright red from crying, the tear streaks mixing with the blood from his broken nose and painting pink lines down his cheeks. Kovit stood in front of Fabricio, a twisted smile curling his mouth into something obscene, even as his body shivered in ecstasy from Fabricio’s pain. His hands were sticky with dark red blood, though from her angle, she couldn’t actually see the source of it. His black hair was glossy as a shampoo commercial, his skin almost glowing with health, his black eyes bright and hungry. The more pain he ate, the more beautiful he became, and as his body trembled with pleasure as Fabricio’s pain slid through him, Nita could see the subtle changes the pain made on his appearance. He lowered the scalpel when he saw Nita, and his smile fell a little, concern replacing the manic glee that had been there moments before. In front of him, Fabricio chokesobbed, his shoulders heaving for breath. Nita spoke without looking directly at either of them, her words a rush, because she wanted to get them out. “Kovit, can we talk outside for a moment? It’s important. Something’s happened.

” Kovit’s frown deepened, but he nodded slowly. “All right.” He wiped his bloody hands on Fabricio’s tattered T-shirt, but not all the blood came off. The brownish dried streaks looked almost like melted chocolate. Kovit turned to look at Fabricio and leaned forward, a hungry, delighted smile on his face. “Don’t worry, we’re not done here. I’ll be back later.” Fabricio choked, trying to lean away, and gasped great heaving breaths that turned quickly into sobs. Nita turned around quickly, unable to look at Fabricio any longer. It wasn’t guilt she felt when she looked at him, because she didn’t feel guilty.

He deserved everything that Kovit was doing to him. But she did feel something, and she didn’t like what it was. It was different than her discomfort when Kovit had made other people scream—though there was still plenty of that too—but looking at Fabricio meant facing her own part in his screams. It meant facing that she didn’t actually feel bad about what she’d done. She left the room, and Kovit followed her out, still shivering with Fabricio’s pain, closing the door behind him and sealing Fabricio’s sobs away. Nita gestured toward the reception room of the recording studio so that they could have some privacy away from Gold. She dodged past the ultramodern reception desk and then hesitated in front of the black leather couches. Finally, she turned to him. “You better sit down for this.” Worry etched lines in Kovit’s face.

“Nita . ” “Just sit.” He sat down, and she stared at him for a moment, struck by the incongruity of the monster she’d seen a moment before, hungry and viciously cruel as he caused pain, and the young man sitting in front of her, patient and concerned. Sometimes it was hard to reconcile that all the different facets of Kovit were the same person. She sat down beside him, their legs just brushing against each other. She could feel the warmth of his body faintly against her. She looked down at her hands, and then forced herself to meet his eyes. “It’s about Henry.” He looked away, hair falling over his eyes. “What about him?” Nita could still hear the snap of Henry’s neck as Kovit broke it.

It was echoed by a snap in Kovit’s soul as he broke something in himself doing it. “After you came back to him, before he died . ” She took a deep breath for courage. “He sold your information to INHUP.” Kovit froze, his whole body so still she wasn’t even sure he was breathing. “What?” His voice cracked slightly. “He sent them all the videos. All the pictures. It’s in processing right now, but the INHUP contact said your face would be made public in about a week.” Kovit was silent for a long moment.

His voice, when it came out, was small and shattered. “Why?” She bowed her head. “The email said he did it to make sure you couldn’t leave again. So you’d be trapped with him. So you’d need his protection to survive.” Kovit laughed, a tinny, broken sound, and tipped his head back to look at the fluorescents above him. “So this is it, then. This is the end.” “This is not the end,” Nita snarled, putting her hands on either side of his face and forcing him to look at her. “We won’t let it be.

” She thought of her list of corrupt INHUP agents. She thought of all the things Kovit knew about the Family he’d worked for and wondered if he could sell them for protection. Though they probably wouldn’t do witness protection for a zannie. He trembled softly and shook his head. “No one’s ever survived being up on one of the list’s wanted posters. The longest anyone lasted was two weeks.” He closed his eyes, and she could see him beginning to spiral into despair again. “It’s over.” Nita clenched her teeth and pulled his face closer to hers. She wouldn’t let him give up, not when they’d come so far.

“No one had ever escaped from Mercado de la Muerte, and we burned it to the ground. No one’s ever been the subject of as high profile a black market hunt as me, and I’m still here.” For now, anyway. “We’ll find a way, Kovit. Trust me.” Kovit met her eyes, and she could see he wanted to believe her, he hungered for her to be right, but he couldn’t quite accept it. “It’s too late. It’s not like we can take the information back from INHUP.” “No,” Nita agreed. “We can’t.

But we can prevent INHUP from publicizing it.” “How?” Nita looked at him, from his long, dark eyelashes to his trembling lips. Beneath her hands, his skin was soft, and she rubbed her thumbs gently over his cheeks, wiping away the spots of blood that patterned his face like tears. Finally she whispered, “I have an idea.”

.

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