Vipers And Lions
There’s blood in the bathtub. She watches the water take streaks of red to the drain while dried flakes persist in sticking to the edges. Short of opening a vein, she’s not sure what could cause this much red to flood her bathroom. It’s hard to remember with the pain so recent. She hurts. She hurts in places that she didn’t know could hurt like this. Her battered body shifts between the green enameled steel walls. The water from the showerhead starts to go cold. There’s too much blood. It’s still stained red.
Beyond the shower curtain, she’s not sure if there’s someone else in the basement. There are flashes of her bloody clothes dropping to the floor outside the tub. It’s too much, it can’t all be hers. The tight stitches her own hands made tug as she shifts again. Some of them spear through her tattoos, others criss-cross over older scars. Her body sticks in places, dry suction on a wet surface. The curved edge of the clawfoot tub has a red handprint on the edge. Finally, the pain killers are kicking in.
Droplets rain into her mouth as she manages to sit up. They taste of iron. Her feet are numb from the now freezing water playing over them. Finally, it starts to run clear. Red has been scrubbed out of everywhere; her hands, her hair, her thighs and between her toes. There are still flecks beneath her nails. Those she attacks with an old toothbrush.
Once she finishes, she wraps herself in a dark towel. The bundle of bloodstains goes into the tub. She watches herself cover the clothes in cold water and upends a bottle of hydrogen peroxide over everything. More red starts seeping out of the material in soft whisps. It’s probably a lost cause anyway. Three plastic bags wait for her when she turns around.
The oblong objects, their insides contorted to fit the longer than usual bags, don’t appear threatening. They’re warm still, and they lay heavy on the dirt floor. Of course, they have to go. She knows what she’s going to do. The only thing she’s worried about is the smell of plastic reaching the upper floors, where her children are asleep. As she passes the monitors linked to her security cameras, she silently thanks the god of luck that she’d decided to check them on a whim tonight. It was the only way she’d been able to confront her attackers before they’d made it inside. She goes upstairs to throw on an old sleep shirt and gets to work.
One by one, she takes the bags out the basement door, gritting her teeth and moving them to the fire pit installed last summer. There are kerosene-soaked logs that get things started, and vaseline rubbed on the bags to ensure they and the flesh beneath them catch. She waits until greasy black smoke is billowing out of the pit before retreating to her kitchen, just in time to see car lights trundle their way up the long driveway.
She doesn’t hesitate, cups are pulled down and coffee is brewed by the time the lights go off. A man enters her house. An old friend, he doesn’t knock before coming in. He’d been her first contact after the cameras picked up movement.
“Is it done?” he asks.
“It takes time.” She hands him a mug. Through the back window, she sees orange flames, the color of Hell, licking the air above the pit.
“I brought the stuff.” He pulls a dark bag, one she knows is filled with passports and cash, from under the counter. “Are you sure about this?” Droplets of coffee cling to his bristly mustache.
“I’m always sure,” she replies, easily drawing out and flipping through the small booklets. One was for her daughter, a new name, a new age, and a new address. The other was for her son, much the same. Her’s has a new name as well. Her children will have a lot to learn when they wake up tomorrow.
“You don’t have to leave the country though.”
“Yes, we do.”
“At least tell me where you’re going.”
At his pleading tone, she pauses. Her hand moves the supplies to the side. In her sleep shirt, she looks smaller, vulnerable. Even with the edges of the snake tattoo that curls around her thigh peeking beneath the soft fabric, he can’t assign her any danger. Inwardly, she smirks at his negligence. He should know better. He relies too much on their old friendship. Like the snake, she coils. She waits to see what he’ll do. Her lips curve up into a smile.
“Are you planning to visit me?” Her shirt billows as she leans forward, her elbows landing on the counter with a muted thud.
“Well, yeah,” he stutters. He’s always been weak to a woman’s smile. “The kids need to see their godfather, right?” Years of training are wasted as he lets down his guard in front of her. Still, there’s a tenseness to the lines around his eyes. A snarling lion is revealed on his bicep as he reaches up to scratch the back of his head. She takes account of the flush rising up his neck.
“I never had you pegged as the “involved” type.” He wasn’t. He has his own children he avoids like the plague. He wants something from her.
He chuckles. “Yeah, I-” Her smile curves further as his throat closes up. The flush rises higher, taking over his face and making his eyes bulge. His hands make aborted attempts to wrap around his throat or move at all— instead, they stall where they lay, one on the chair arm, the other on the counter. His empty mug sits next to her untouched one mockingly.
“Who sent them? How did they know where to find me?” She smiles as she interrogates him, bland and unsympathetic to his situation. His choked gargling is the only answer. She pulls down the needle with the antidote from where it’s taped under the counter, right next to a knife that she slips into a sheath under her shirt.
“You want this, right?” She waves the needle beneath his nose coyly. He nods. “Then tell me what I want to know.” He nods and tears leak from the corners of his eyes as the slight amount of air he’s actually able to take in wheezes into his throat. She gives him credit. He was withstanding the burn of the poison beautifully. His body had to be on fire. Most of her previous victims hadn’t stopped panicking at the sensation long enough to realize they still could breathe.
The needle pierces his skin with a silent pop. It and the poison were her own special brew, her venom. Usually, she’d keep them in reserve, saved it for a special job. However, with her body a mess of stitched and fresh wounds, this was her safest bet. The effects are almost instant. The color begins to fade and his airways open up, but his hands remain immobile. Drool falls from the corner of his mouth as he takes in gulps of air and gags at the sudden change. She knows there should be bile threatening to come up.
“You were going to tell me the truth.” Her voice is firm, but friendly, completely at odds with the daggers he’s glaring at her.
“How could I forget,” he hisses. “You’re a stone-cold bitch.”
“Flattery gets you everywhere.” She places a finger under his chin and raises it until he’s looking directly into her eyes.
“Who did you sell me out to, Leo?” She digs a thumbnail into the tender area just below his ear. Leo groans.
“I swear,” he says. “I only did it ‘cause I had to.”
“Say I believe you,” she says, digging the nail in deeper. “Who was it?” The pressure increases until he gasps, unable to writhe away from her hand.
“March,” he cries. She lets up the pressure.
“March Hare? The trafficker?”
“He put a bounty on you.”
She thinks about her kids upstairs, kids she’d liberated from one of Hare’s suppliers, along with thousands of others. Hare’s trafficking ring had been dismantled in under a month. She hadn’t wanted credit, but the name Viper had been plastered all over the official reports before she’d retired.
“He would.” She considers him. “You were going to tell him where I was going weren’t you?” He doesn’t answer, but his shifting glance tells her enough. No honor among mercenaries, she supposes. Leo’s fingers twitch on the chair. She couldn’t have that now could she?
“Thank you old friend.” She moves behind him.
“Hey!” As much as he can, he turns to face her. “I told you! Let me go!” His expression morphs between panic and cajoling. “We’re friends, right?”
In a sick sense, he was right. Sellouts in the mercenary world are about as commonplace as a handshake. Once upon a time, she would have let his betrayal slide. She would have left him at the table to purge the poison and disappeared, only to meet up for drinks at their favorite bar a year later. She thinks about the two heartbeats upstairs sleeping blissfully because she has the house soundproofed in every room and keeps her weapons where she can reach one at all times. They’ll sleep for a few more hours, until she’s done.
He can’t crane his head enough to see, but she fingers the hilt of the knife under her shirt before drawing it out. She’d never liked loud weapons like guns. In any situation, if you treat it right, cold steel will never let you down. The tip comes to rest beneath his chin.
“No! Hey!” He struggles more, but not enough to shake her. “What are you doing!”
“Cleaning up my mess.”
The sharp steel hisses as it draws across his neck, not deep enough to kill him immediately, but he’d bleed out in a half-hour if left alone. He gargles. Every indrawn breath and exhale sends droplets of blood onto her countertops. She lets his head fall forward before raising the knife.
“Farewell, old friend.” The blade plunges down just in front of the node where the spine meets the neck. It severs the spinal cord with a pop and a crunch. Leo is dead in her kitchen. Her children are still asleep upstairs.