The night before the massacre, Devon gathered his crew of ne’er-do-wells to sharpen their claws for a caper. A smooth syndicate of old-fashioned marauders, they lived for spoils and carnage. Taking all credit, leaving no evidence. They were criminal poltergeists with an arsenal.
Devon “the Scalpel” stood and filled his lungs, which cued the crew to simmer down. Devon was in charge of planning (and everything else) — his silk-stocking plots always knifelike. World markets soared and plummeted at the sound of his voice. And tonight was the night to learn what came next.
The lair faded to pin-drop silence. Devon’s crew leaned forward, six deadly villains, the worst of the worst, cracking knuckles and dreaming of future violence and intrigue.
An instant before the anticipation went nuclear, the Scalpel finally spoke:
“I don’t like Christian’s girlfriend.”
His announcement was met with many seconds of nothing. Six villains exhaled bafflement, while noticing for the first time that Cat’s-Paw Christian — the eighth of the worst of the worst — was absent from the table.
A faint cough nudged the quiet. Someone said, “Um… What?”
Devon said, “Christian’s girlfriend. She’s terrible. One star.” And then he rapped the steel conference table as though his fist doubled as a courtroom gavel.
Six of the seven baddies squinted at each other, which was customary as the lair was both light and shadow in equal parts. But this time, the squinnies were more from bewilderment than vision trouble.
“She is absolutely atrocious.” Devon stretched each syllable, making the final word sound like: ahhh-trowww-shusssss. “I’m telling you. She’s second-class. We need to close her down.”
He waited till the words swirled and soaked and permeated the crew’s thinking. Behind him, through the lair’s floor-to-ceiling windows, several volcanoes erupted followed by a cacophony of tipsy cheers.
These were the sights and sounds of the ’Cano, a popular island-themed restaurant that served as the syndicate’s money laundering facade. Popular, but terrible. Customers swallowed heavy pours of rum and pineapple liqueurs while choking on spit-roast pigs and goats in a sugary pineapple glaze.
The ’Cano also served hot dogs.
It was secretly the worst restaurant in town, but God help anyone who admitted it.
Eight fiberglass volcanoes entertained the drunken feasters in the dining room. They were each the size of a millionaire’s Christmas tree, each launching fireballs every four and a half minutes.
Above all the fire and pork and wieners and drunken voices shouting “Salud!” and “Ke aloha!” was the syndicate’s lair, a tasteful but unholy loft overlooking the ’Cano. In the center of the open-concept hideaway was the steel conference table, where six of its seven occupants were squinting, mystified.
“Well?” asked Devon the Scalpel, getting antsy.
Michel was the first of the worst to raise his hand, a massive man with bratwurst fingers whose specialty was picking locks with tiny pins.
“Uh… Is this the meeting?” he asked skittishly.
Devon looked like a toothpick next to Michel, but that didn’t stop him from plundering the big man’s personal space. He seethed and spat, “Oh, come on, Mee-shell — Is this the meeting? Yes!”
“I just thought, you know … we’d be talkin’ about a bank robbery, or something.”
Devon rocked his head back and forth, like a man full of demons. “No, no, no. We need to do something about that Veronica.”
Tender Sam cleared his throat. “I think you mean Vanessa.”
Tender Sam’s real name was Henderson. Once during a heist on the high sea, a hostage begged for mercy. Henderson granted the opposite. So, Devon dubbed him Tender Sam forevermore. As a joke.
“No,” said Michel. “I-I’m so sorry to disagree, Tender Sam, but I think Vanessa is actually the name of Zula’s sister.”
“That’s correct,” Zula confirmed with a nod. They called her Zula Blunderbuss for her apocalyptic skills with heavy weaponry. She looked at Devon with wide eyes, eager for his approval. “But we don’t have to worry about my sister. She’s dead.”
“Right,” the Scalpel said, “Because it’s Christian’s girlfriend we cannot tolerate.”
Michel nodded. “Veruca?”
“Well then, who am I thinking of?”
At this point, the Destroyer of Worlds lifted a finger. “If I may…” He licked the airborne finger and whipped through several pages in a thick ledger. “Every question has an answer in the reckoning book.”
The Destroyer of Worlds had zero kills. His weapons were mouth and pen. He was actually the crew’s accountant-slash-attorney — a slippery calculator who once got a federal prosecutor to admit their crimes were legal. “The reckoning shows her name as…”
His expression darkened. He looked over at Renoir, the TNT King. Devon named him “Fun War” for the ridiculous things he would say while blowing shit up.
Daddy’s touring the pickle farm tonight! SKA-DOOOOSH!!!
For as much as he liked lobbing verbal zingers, “Fun War” Renoir was unusually quiet the night before the massacre. He gave Devon one hundred percent of his attention, still and unblinking.
“Interesting,” the Destroyer of Worlds mumbled while closing his ledger. He told Devon, “My reckoning is out of paper.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Devon said. “Whatever her name, V-Something, she’s a problem.”
“Cheese,” said Cheese, the syndicate’s bloodthirsty archivist.
He took a photograph with his obnoxious Speed Graphic camera, the kind used by press photographers in old gangster movies. Cheese upgraded his antique with a digital sensor and WiFi, so that it would instantly teleport an 8x10 to his photo printer like a long-distance Polaroid. Cheese collected the group snapshot and tacked it to his weirdo wall of unspeakable exploits.
Devon said, “V-Something is infesting Christian’s brain. She’s clingy and disruptive and changing him in terrible ways. He’s not the same.”
“Oh no!” Michel gasped. “Did Christian botch the Moroccan snatch?”
“No, he ensnared it without a drop.”
“Did he fail to bribe and double-cross the ex-head of the Texas Ethics Collective?” Zula asked.
“No, no. The Ethics Collective was corrupted and dismantled like gangbusters.”
“Did he forget to send you a Christmas card?” asked Tender Sam, reaching.
“Christian never forgets Christmas.”
“Obviously,” the Destroyer of Worlds prompted (still looking dark, and now a little green), “we must be enlightened of these terrible changes you see in our Christian.”
The Scalpel shook his head, as though pondering all the world’s injustices. The crew waited.
“He wouldn’t help me move,” Devon told them.
“What…” Tender Sam began after a beat. “To your new stronghold in the mountains?”
“I asked Christian to help,” Devon said, counting off each point on his fingers, “he said he would, then an hour before we were set to load up the U-Haul, he calls me and says he’s sick.”
Tender Sam thought about it. “Didn’t you have, like, ten private contractors doing all the heavy lifting?”
“And I had to plug them all by my lonesome. I wanted Cat’s-Paw to be there.”
“I remember him being sick,” Michel said. “I brought him soup.”
“But, see, he wasn’t sick. That’s what I’m saying. Because Zula’s sister’s caper-scout saw him and V-Something renting movies at the video store.”
“My dead sister’s former caper-scout,” Zula clarified.
“What’s a video store?” asked Tender Sam.
“Forget the video store,” Devon said. “He lied to me. Meeeee! She put him up to it.”
Michel shrugged. “What if the soup made him feel better?”
“Stop going on about soup, Mee-shell. It’s more than soup. She’s weird, always wearing red or purple contacts—”
“Those are bionic implants,” the Destroyer of Worlds said.
“—and they’ve been a thing for, what, four months? She still sits on his lap in a crowd, and holds his hand in public, and-and-and they whisper to each other and giggle, for God’s sake.”
“Oh, I think that’s sweet,” Tender Sam cooed, leaning on his elbow, living up to his nickname for once.
The Scalpel scoffed. “It’s not sweet. It’s weird. He’s different.”
“Well…” Zula said. “Come to think of it… He has been dressing better.”
“Thank you!” Devon shouted, giving Blunderbuss a bow.
Zula twisted in her chair. Gold star.
“Yeah,” said Tender Sam, snapping fingers. “Cat’s-Paw ditched his open button-down flannels for … Armani? He used to come in here wearing those ratty tennies, remember? Now he lifts classy kicks onto the table … the kind with red soles. Loo-butt-teens, or whatever. Right?”
“Cheese!” said Cheese, popping another old-fashioned flashbulb.
The Destroyer of Worlds interpreted, “Cheese noticed that Christian stopped mixing his wines and whiskeys with Coca-Cola.”
“This is important,” Devon said, swirling his finger like a whirlpool.
“Yyyyeahhh.” Michel nodded. “And Cat’s-Paw found his no’s.”
“His nose?” Zula asked.
“No, his no-o-o-o-o-o’s.” Michel clarified gently. “He used to say yes to everything. And if he had to decline an invite (to, like, a party or a slaying), he’d almost start crying. ‘Oh, boo-hoo-hoo, I wish I could be there.’ But, lately, he’s been like, ‘Nah,’ without regret.”
“Oh, no.” Zula gasped. She reached for Devon’s hand, but stopped herself an inch away. She pretended to stretch. “It’s that girlfriend of his.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Devon confirmed. “V-Something. She’s a terrible influence. She’s ruining him.”
Zula nodded. “One star?”
“One star!” Devon cried, slapping the table with an open palm this time.
A voice in the dark had the syndicate spinning and quick-drawing heaters and blades. It said, “You already know, then?”
The voice belonged to Singh, a silent assassin who also served as the ’Cano’s front-of-house manager. He stood in the doorway, a shadow with folded hands.
“Jeepers creepers, Singh!” Devon shouted. “I didn’t even hear the blast door open. What is it?”
“The one-star review,” the assassin replied.
“Wait … one star for the ’Cano?”
Singh read from a glass tablet. “Too much pineapple in the pineapple glaze. Erupting volcanoes are nothing but a distraction from the poor service. I could make juicier pigs on the toilet. One star.”
“Son of a bitch,” the Scalpel fumed. “When?”
“Just now. He’s still downstairs. Drinking rum.”
Devon went to the floor-to-ceiling windows. “Where?”
Singh pointed the would-be critic out. “Right there.”
“Cheese!” A flashbulb popped and crisped. Cheese’s photo printer inked an 8x10 of Devon, snarling, his spittle frozen in midair.
“What does he know about authentic island rum and pigs? He’s gonna criticize me?” Devon growled, actually growled. He gritted his teeth and said, “You know what to do, Singh.”
The Scalpel turned to give the assassin an encouraging squeeze on the shoulder, but Singh was already gone, already halfway to task. The blast door closed and relocked.
Devon returned to the table. He took a breath. “Look. How many jobs have we pulled off as a crew?”
“Devonty,” Zula said, quickly shaking it off with a chuckle. “I mean seventy.”
“I propose seventy-one be a rescue mission!”
Michel raised his hand again. “What are you thinking?”
Behind Devon, the volcanoes burped fire. Buried in the burp, hidden from the ears of the fearful pig-eaters, a muffled gun shot popped. One less critic in the world.
The Scalpel leaned over the table, spreading his arms wide. “I’m thinking we remove this nobody-tart from Cat’s-Paw Christian’s life. No booty, no bounty … just returning our man to good-ol’ hunky-dory. For the syndicate.”
“Where is Christian?” The Destroyer of World’s question was blunt and challenging. He gestured to the empty chair.
“I didn’t invite him,” Devon said. “We already talked.”
“You did?” asked Michel.
“What did you say?” Tender Sam asked.
Zula seized up. “Did he tell you what I said? Because I was drunk on wine and Coke… Ah-cola.”
“I took him to dinner,” the Scalpel said. “Not here, a nice place. Italian. No guns in the washroom. I told him V-Whatever was a no-good, trouble-making, crew-wrecker.”
The worst of the worst gasped.
“What’d he say?” Michel asked, chewing on a fingernail.
“He bawled like a baby,” Devon said.
“Ohhh, that sounds like our Cat’s-Paw,” Zula replied. “He takes everything so personally.”
“Then he said, ‘It’s come to this.’”
“Way-wha…” Tender Sam stammered vowels. “What does that mean?”
“It means we have to do something.” Devon’s eyes sparkled in the half-light. “I have a plan. As sharp and as slick as every job that’s ended in riches. This time, our spoils will be the return of Christian, back in flannel, saying yes, and sipping a Pappy-Coke cocktail.”
The Scalpel unfolded his convoluted plan —a plot involving kidnapping and murder, body doubles and scapegoats, finally heartbreak and revenge-theater (“Christian will blame our rivals, the Ding-Dong-Ditchers”). Meanwhile, the Destroyer of Worlds spun his eyes around the lair, thinking and calculating. He looked at the floor-to-ceiling windows, at the far corner of the lair, then at each of the worst of the worst in turn. His face grimaced.
“Oh, I see,” he mumbled.
Devon said, “Who’s in?”
Four out of six reached a hand for the ceiling (which were vaulted with criss-crossing industrial beams, very on-trend for villainous lairs).
Devon glared at the Destroyer of Worlds, who left both hands on the table. “What’s the problem, D?”
“This is pointless.”
The Destroyer of Worlds sighed and stood. “You can’t slap the shine off a star. It will scorch you into ash from three million miles away.”
“Love is volatile. Love is sun fuel. Try to drain it, watch your skin blister and melt. We have no business meddling with stars.” The Destroyer of Worlds moved to the far corner of the lair and wedged himself between the fold in the walls. “My words might as well be helium. No weight. Too late. It’s come to this.”
“What are you doing?” Devon asked.
“Getting out of the way.”
“Weirdo,” Devon said, then switched to Renoir. “What about you, Fun War? Why do you dull the Scalpel?”
Renoir shrugged. Devon squinted, frowning.
Below them all in the ’Cano’s dining room, the PA announced the midnight rum punch by playing Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” which wasn’t actually island music but sounded close enough for the syndicate.
Renoir shrugged again.
Devon mimicked Renoir’s shrug. “Mm? What’s that? Mm? Christian needs you! We need your booms to get over the suck—oh, sweet Jesus, what’s going on with your face?”
The Scalpel’s reaction made sense considering Renoir’s skin, which began sliding slug-like down his cheeks. Like all the body Velcro between skin and bone lost its grip.
“Are you melting?” Devon asked. “You look like you need about five and half emergency Botox injections. Are those extra lips poking out of your mouth? I can see eye sockets under your eye sockets. Nostrils beneath your nostrils. And why are your eyes glowing red?”
“Those are bionic implants,” said the Destroyer of Worlds from his corner.
“Ah…” which is when the Scalpel realized there was an impostor in the ’Cano, an impostor wearing Fun War Renoir’s face. Everyone else understood an instant later. “It’s you.”
“Veronica,” Zula mumbled.
“Vanessa,” Tender Sam whispered.
“Veruca,” Michel muttered.
The thing wearing Renoir’s face twitched two of her fingers. Something the size of a needle launched from her fingertips.
“V-Whatev—” Devon couldn’t finish. He clutched at his throat where a tiny pin just punctured his larynx. Michel recognized the pin as one of his, but refused to believe it.
Stunned silence, broken only by Devon’s gurgling.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the Destroyer of Worlds announced, bracing himself, “the night has become the morrow.”
Then came the massacre. All hell, as they say.
Michel bolted out of his chair and patted his pockets, finding them empty. “My lock picks! She’s a pickpocket of lock picks!”
At the same time, Tender Sam fell to his knees in anguish, screaming, “RENOIR!” Because somewhere in the world, the real Renoir was missing his face… And probably dead.
Zula Blunderbuss kicked back in her chair, suddenly holding artillery the size of a jackhammer. She jumped to her feet, howling, looking from Devon to Ren-V-Something, her composure and skill lost to passion. A savage beast now, lacking control. She unleashed fifty-caliber rockets across the open-concept lair. Rapid fire. Boom-boom-boom. Her tiny, muscular arms rippled like untamed Shake Weights.
Floor-to-ceiling windows exploded. Wild titan bullets struck volcanoes. The volcanoes resisted death. All eight went into endless eruption. Fireballs engulfed the ceiling.
The thing wearing Renoir’s face leaped across the table. Here. Now there. Moving fast. And brandishing a scalpel. Devon pointed a shaky finger as if accusing Ren-V-Something of copyright infringement.
Michel, seeing red, clasped his giant hands overhead into a Thor’s Hammer, but never got the chance to swing down upon Christian’s girlfriend. Because three of Zula’s feral fifty-cals disintegrated his kidneys and medulla oblongata. He staggered and fell, moaning like a ten-year-old with a bellyache.
Ren-V-Something dodged left and right, jumping out in front of Zula, patting the fifty-cal and smiling beneath Renoir’s saggy lips.
Blunderbuss took aim and fired, not realizing Christian’s girlfriend had shoved a foreign object into the barrel. The backfire launched Zula into the wall, breaking every inch of her spine.
Tender Sam lifted himself halfway with a machine-pistol in hand, tears blurring his vision. He squeezed the trigger and held it, decorating the walls with bullet holes.
The Destroyer of Worlds held his breath as several little ruptures outlined him in the corner.
Christian’s girlfriend zigzagged, slipped, spun, flipped, and struck. Tender Sam dropped, nursing several gushing wounds.
The volcano fuel ran dry. Darkness swallowed the lair for a brief moment. The last screams of fleeing feasters echoed into the rafters.
“I told you this place sucked!” someone hollered into the midnight mist.
Cheese had no weapons. Only his camera. “Cheese,” he said, flashing Christian’s girlfriend from across the dark lair.
“Cheese,” he said again, softer now, and this time Ren-V-something was closer in the lightning flicker.
“Cheese.” A whimper, a plea. And the impostor wearing a friend’s face loomed two feet away as the bulb flashed.
“Cheese.” A whisper now. And, in the final flash, all Cheese could see was a set of red eyes.
Christian’s girlfriend whispered to each of them as they lay moaning and groaning. She told them her name, not Veronica or Vanessa or Veruca or V-Something-Whatever, but her actual name — the last name they would ever hear.
Her scalpel swished five times. Devon was last.
And then she looked to the Destroyer of Worlds.
By now, the ’Cano was on fire. They could see each other in glowing shades of orange. He looked at the perfect arch of bullet holes in the walls around his shoulders. He said, “I’m on your side. I would never try to split you apart.”
She nodded — a mercy — and lowered her scalpel.
The Destroyer of Worlds smiled. “Do you and Christian need a good lawyer? I’m available.”