By Leon Placid
Back to Introduction
A WRY SMILE CROSSED the Elite recruiter's face as he applauded, gloved hands clapping in a slow, deliberate rhythm.
"Well done! Well done indeed." He praised, "You are everything I could have hoped for, and more!"
"Who's there?" A pixilated image snarled in reply, tossing the assault helmet it had been wearing roughly to the side. Even from such a vantage point, it was relatively easy for the Elite recruiter to tell Ashura Ketchum was ticked. "Show yourself!" his image demanded.
A short, stout man in a sharp tuxedo studied the surveillance screen in front of him, rubbing his chin, amused, "Calmness, please, Mr. Ketchum." He replied, speaking reassuringly to the image in the screen. "You have passed the initiation. All of you." He added with a decisive tone. "And now, if you-"
"Wait," Brock Stone's voice crackled through the audio receptors, projecting crisply and cutting the tuxedoed man off in mid-sentence. "A bunch of hired thugs start shooting up the place, nearly kill us, blow the hell out of a perfectly good buffet table…" the surveillance cams registered his statuesque image as he gestured toward the destroyed remains of the party's food-now hopelessly filled with broken glass and spread halfway across the room. "…and you're telling us that it was all a test?"
The Elite recruiter nodded while simultaneously speaking into a small mic attached to his suit's lapel. "That's correct, Mr. Stone. You have all passed. Welcome to The Elite." He boomed into the system, letting his voice reverberate through their eardrums for a moment. "And now," He continued, "If you will adjourn upstairs, I assure you that all your questions will be answered."
"And what if we do not wish to join this 'Elite' business you have so generously offered." Samurai's minute image countered.
"Awful big noise for a country club," his much taller partner added ("Does she have to throw in her two cents?" the Elite's brow furrowed slightly, annoyed at this particular recruit's apparent lust for lime-light).
He paused for a moment, considering how best to respond to such an obvious yet astute inquiry. The recruiter began again, "I admit that our methods may seem a bit callous," he stated slowly, "But I assure you, we are far from a 'Country Club.' Our business, as you call it, Mr. Shoto, is no less than world-saving. I promise you," he added after a minute, "If you would all join me in the"-he happened to glance at the floor-"Green Room upstairs, all of your questions will be answered, and a matter of great importance will be brought to light."
Reaching down with his left hand, the recruiter picked up a slim glass filled with gleaming, clear liquid, alternately reaching across his chest and disengaging his mic. He paused for a moment, watching as first two and then the remaining three individuals departed from the ballroom and ascended the adjacent flight of stairs, presumably taking him up on his grand proposition.
Ferdinand Carlos smiled to himself. Once called, no one had ever refused The Elites' once-in-a-lifetime offer. He took a deep imbibe of the sparkling Martini, savoring it thoroughly before setting the remnants of the exquisite liquor down on its Tiffany coffee table. Closing his eyes, he ran his cobalt-black gloved hand through his sleek, jet-black hair, smoothing it back with an overpowering air of blissful bravado. He breathed in deep and slow, then let the expended oxygen out in a contented and unbroken stream. The whole of his stocky, five-foot-six frame radiated with contagious and triumphant pride, like a father who's just watched his kid make that unforgettable first touchdown. Even his crisp, hyper-professional coal-black suit and sunshades couldn't hide it.
Turning on the heels of his Oxfords, he came around to face his accompanying agents.
"Well, gentlemen," Carlos quipped, his deep, rich voice marinated in a regality inherent to none other than a true son of full-blooded Spanish royalty, "where are your 'personal reservations' now?"
A screen of translucent jade light radiated behind him, stretching the room's full ten feet from floor to ceiling and spanning another ten feet across. Carlos's head turned in a slow, deliberate half circle as he looked expectantly from one stoic face to another.
Finally, a tall, fair-headed buck in his mid-to-late twenties stepped forward.
"I still have them." He stated flatly.
Carlos looked slightly perturbed. He shifted his hazel eyes halfway back down the line. "And why, Mr. Griffin, would that be?" He countered, mild tone unwavering.
Striding mechanically over to stand beside Ferdinand in the center of the room, the other Elite agent gazed detachedly at the self-sustaining monitor screen that spread itself out before the two of them. He was a big man, standing at around seven-foot-two, dwarfing his colleagues. Broad-shouldered, and very heavily muscled, formal attire did little to conceal Clay Griffin. Even in large crowds, he was guaranteed to stick out like an Agron in a china shop. He brought a certain element of intimidation to The Elite. To ordinary folk, his name meant next to nothing. But to the VIP constituents of transcontinental intrigue and ploy, "Mr. Griffin of The Elite" meant it was time to clean things up. . . or become Sharpeedo feed.
Griffin had been a high-ranking member of the United State's special Ops before he was recruited into The Elite. Dispatching the world's most dangerous proponents of apocalyptic sedition came as second nature to him.
Through the dark shades that concealed his biomechanically reengineered visual receptors, Clay stared dispassionately at the five approaching figures displayed within the screen's pale-green luminescence. After a moment, he remarked simply, "They're resourceful, I'll give your nominees that." then, he let his dead gaze wonder past the suspended pixels that formed their transparent images to roam the sparse contents of the room beyond, eyes resting on nothing in particular, brain preoccupied with the tempo of his own mind's orchestra.
Ferdinand snorted indignantly.
"Resourceful!? Is that it!?" He retaliated, turning a hard, sardonic note. Scooping up his Martini, he finished the sparkling beverage off in one, quick swig. "Did you pay no attention at all to anything!? Maybe I should just play the whole thing over again for you!" He set his empty wineglass back down on the table. "Show some faith, man!" He half-shouted, clearly exasperated with his colleague's lack of enthusiasm.
"In what?" the other stated flatly, turning to face his fellow agent. He removed his shades, revealing a pair of cold, crystal gray eyes. He bored through the other's defiant gaze, "Look, Carlos, you and I both know those five wouldn't last two and a half seconds in a real fight, doing what we really do, dealing with the real, high level, international scum we're called to put behind bars or dispose of every day." He nodded sideways at the high-resolution screen, "By my evaluation, that was not Elite-worthy performance."
Carlos snorted, put-off and clearly unconvinced. He turned back toward the floating monitor, dismissively waving a gloved hand in the other's direction, shaking his head incredulously.
Clay leaned forward slightly, pressing his point. "You've been with this thing from the beginning-me, real close to that-and I can turn around right now and show you five other junior agents who did far better on their initiations than those wannabe mercenaries." He pointed his own black, leather-clad index finger at the five slightly pixilated apparitions, "Unless they've got some hidden potential I don't know about, none of them will cut it."
Griffin straightened, re-donning his liquid black visors, once again enveloped in a façade devoid of personal emotion or biased partiality. He gave his partner a wry, half smile. "But of course, you are the recruiter. It's all entirely up to you."
"Indeed." Carlos thoughtfully stroked the pointed goatee adorning his square chin. "We'll see if your alleged misgivings prove genuine, Mr. Griffin." He looked back at the other agents in the room. "In the meantime, I want the rest of you to pack this equipment and take your positions in the adjacent rooms. It'll be just myself and Mr. Griffin when the initiates arrive." He clapped his hands together. "Let's move! Pronto!"
The other five agents sprang to life, shifting their identically suited frames effortlessly from at-ease to full motion. Each knew his task and performed it with swift efficiency, moving fluidly about the communal work area without blundering into any of his comrades. In a matter of seconds, the iridescent monitor screen and its accompanying, nondescript hardware were packed neatly into two large, black, briefcase-like containers.
Their work complete, four of the five tuxedoed men stood away from the sealed boxes, while the fifth walked in between and around the containers' casing, quickly inspecting their integrity. Satisfied, he stood up, nodding affirmatively to Carlos, who casually saluted back.
An oblong portion of the ceiling above the twin cases slid open, leaving an approximate five-by-six-foot portal. Two proportionate Ninjask descended, single file, through the breach. Alighting atop their intended cargo, they grasped the containers' edges with their stout, insectoid feet and re-ascended the way they'd come, taking the black containers with them. Finally, with a unified salute to their superiors, the junior agents departed. Shoes clacking monotonously on the jade and white-granite mosaic tiled floor, they dispersed in multiple directions, vanishing like black suited phantoms behind several hidden entryways.
Carlos and Griffin appeared alone within the spacious confines of the so-called Green Room, their formally clad images replicated and multiplied by the mirror-paneled walls that ran the entire enclosure. A static silence enveloped them, broken slightly by the barely audible hum emanating from thirty-two inset florescent lamps ringing the room's oval perimeter.
Removing his shades, Carlos slipped them inside his tailored double-breast. He made a quick visual check of the room. All seemed as it should be.
"Okay, let's get down to business." He stated jovially, cracking his knuckles. Carlos directed his visual attention to the glass coffee table sitting inconspicuously a few feet away. "Mimique, go fetch our prospects." He ordered curtly.
The crystalline work of art's transparent surface rippled as it sprang nimbly onto two of its four spherical feet, sending Carlos's wineglass spinning like a gyroscope into the air. From its flat, vertical ellipse, a pair of glassy feminine legs erupted with vivacious fluidity, followed by supple hips, waist, generous bosom, slight shoulders, and two slender arms, one of which thrust forward, intercepting Carlos's flying glassware as its acrobatics turned into a kamikaze free-fall aimed at the mosaics below. The head emerged last, its translucent tendrils of fiery emerald hair slithering forth and whipping dramatically into place. Glassy eyelids unfurled, exposing two russet orbs of sparkling mischief. One arm remained ethereally attached to the standing table, the other extending in a come-hither gesture, holding the Elite agent's wineglass out like bait on a hook.
"Well, it's about time, Ferdy-birdy!" the lucent figurine's sensual voice reverberated through the room. It's smooth, polished legs moved alluringly as it strutted forward a few paces on elevated heels. "Come get your nut-cup, baby."
Carlos crossed his muscular arms and firmly shook his head. "No games from you and your shape-shifter today. This is business. Go bring Samurai, Ashura, and company here. Pronto!"
Duplica Mimique let go of her Ditto-currently in guise as the Tiffany-made coffee table. All the color and texture of her true features instantly reestablished themselves.
"Aw, did you hear that Ditto?" She whined to the coffee table. "Ferdinand doesn't wanna play with us."
"Ditto. . ." the adroit article of glass furniture responded, sagging forward in mock disappointment.
Carlos snapped his fingers irritably. "Enough. Go."
Duplica sighed, drumming her fingers flippantly on her hips. But she seemed to render appropriate heed to the Elite's warning tone. "Fine, just chill'it already." She tossed the wineglass back to its stocky owner. "I'll bring you your quarry."
Carlos whipped his stout hand out, catching the glass and bringing it behind his back in a quick circular motion. He gave the pair a tight smile. "Good. Your cooperation is vital, Duplica, and most appreciated."
Duplica frowned. "You Elite people need to have more fun."
Carlos merely shrugged at her comment, "Our work comes first." Glancing sideways at Clay, he nodded toward the room's entrance (also cloaked in mirror paneling, though only on the inside). "Griffon, show our señiorita the door."
Clay nodded back. "Gladly." Motioning for Duplica to follow, he headed toward the mirror-clad wall on his right.
Dulpica's Ditto returned to its natural form and hopped (if "hop" is the correct word) onto her shoulder as she glided after the towering man in black.
Reaching the door ahead of them, Clay extended his open palm before the barrier's imbedded hand scanners. After a moment, a series of internal locks disengaged within the panel's complex structure, and it swung silently out and to the side.
Clay paused, instinctively listening for anything out of place before turning to Duplica, "There you are. Return as soon as you find them."
It was everything the emerald-headed player could do to keep from drooling all over the prize stud in front of her. "Oh," she half moaned, "I'll be back." She shifted her stance, allowing one of her sculpted legs to peek enticingly through the open hem running along the side of her lustrous gown. Hands set provocatively on her sensuous hips, Duplica fixed Clay with her dazzling brown eyes, brazen as ever. "You'll still be here, won't you?" she cooed sweetly.
There was a brief cessation as Griffin regarded Mimique, considering her seductress's invitation.
Unfortunately, the Elite agent did not respond quite the way she had anticipated. Instead of melting into a puddle of liquid testosterone, Clay grasped Duplica hard by the shoulders. In one powerful, unhindered motion, he lifting her petrified frame off the ground so that she found herself staring into his ebony shades, her own wide-eyed reflection staring back. Her Ditto lost its balance and tumbled numbly to the floor. Tears began to form at the corners of her eyes as the titan's iron grip dug into her soft flesh. She could feel Griffin's hard, gray eyes drilling right through hers.
Opening her mouth to speak, a pathetic "Ow!" was all Duplica managed to get out.
From beneath the black mirrors obscuring his harsh gaze, Clay inwardly scowled at his hapless captive's lack of true substance or backbone.
He stated coldly, "Do you really think you can screw with me?"
Duplica struggled to find her tongue. "No! No, I. . . I" the foiled temptress sputtered desperately, "I was just-!"
"That's right," Clay's baritone voice cut her off, "you were just thinking about it; innocent fantasies; nothing special-sure. Here's a bit of advice, kid." He brought her face inches away from his. "Don't screw with The Elite. We don't need you or anybody else; and if we call your name, that's our gracious offer, not yours. We don't play games. We don't have time for games. We're here to make sure the rest of you mindless idiots can wake up every morning and have a regular life-to save your sorry butts from all the ridiculous crap you get yourselves into." Clay tightened his grip, hammering mercilessly at Duplica's shredded self-esteem, "Don't even begin to think you're someone special. You're just lucky to be here."
With that, he abruptly released her, letting the stupefied woman fall backward into her Ditto's protective, flubbery arms. Leaning over them both, Griffin pointed meaningfully out the open portal. "Get your surgically enhance behind out there and do your job."
Duplica's Ditto, with a quickness one might have thought impossible for a blob of pink gelatin, enveloped its mistress and propelled them both out the door, emitting an-ever so slightly frightened-"Ditto!" on the way out, choosing to evacuate of its own accord rather than wait for its trainer to recover and give the order herself.
Clay grunted in satisfaction. He'd been quick and too the point-just the way he liked things-and, for the present, it seemed to have worked. Ever since He and Carlos had started doing business with Duplica, he'd become increasingly incensed with the slippery, female rogue's infuriating brand of "charm."
Passing his hand across the opening through which the pair had fled, its imbedded sensors registered his command and the room's yawning entrance resealed itself without a hiss or squeak. Griffin removed his reflectant shades and clomped wearily back toward Carlos, who has currently in the process of passing his spent wineglass to an automated beverage server, hidden behind a cleverly cut slide of glass paneling.
Carlos looked up, giving his comrade a reassuring nod, "You did well-don't be so glum."
Griffin shook his head. All the steely cold was gone from his eyes, replaced instead by a look that fell somewhere between exasperation and pure disdain.
"Oh, sure-not worried about that." He gingerly massaged his forehead. "Tell me again, why are we consorting with this. . .this international whore?"
Carlos held his hands out in front of him, examining their leather housing, "Because that 'international whore', as you put it, will not only help us convince Ashura Ketchum to join us. . ." he readjusted his left glove, tightening it, "but she also has the potential to become an Elite."
Griffin almost choked on his own spit, "What!?"
"Is that really so astonishing to you?" Carlos folded his hands behind him, regarding his fuming colleague with an air of regal amusement.
Clay glared, "I'd rather grant membership to some drunk bum off the side of road! For the love of this hell-bound planet, why her!?"
"Because," Carlos stated calmly, "she, like the other five, has the raw potential." He met Griffin's cold stare, "Unlike you, Mr. Griffin, I see all individuals for what they could be-regardless of what they currently are."
Clay snorted his indifference, "Your point?"
"If it's pertinent to you, my point is this: if I didn't choose our recruits the way I do, one ex-Green Beret I happen to know wouldn't be standing here right now, berating the methods that made him the man of substance he is today."
Clay fell silent for a moment. Painful as it was for him to admit, what Carlos said was true. He'd gone from being one of his country's most dependable servicemen, decorated with every honorary medal a member of his exclusive class could receive, to drug addict, to convicted felon, to inmate on deathrow, rejected and disowned by his government and fellow soldiers when Ferdinand Carlos of The Elite found him, fought the legal battle to get him off, and ultimately remade Clay Griffin into the intercontinental lawman he was now.
Honestly, for all her glaring fallacies, not even the promiscuous emerald kitten could top that.
But Clay was a master at proving cold hearts do die hard. "Grand gestures of grace, Ferdinand," he replied callously, "are of small consequence here. In the real world, who really cares how they arrive," he put his sunglasses back on, "so long as they do?"
Carlos stood unperturbed. "I disagree."
Clay shrugged. "Whatever, man. I'm not ungrateful," he stuck a thumb over his hulk shoulder, "don't know about her."
"Leave her and the others to me, then."
Clay just stared off into space, fully satisfied with his own self-righteousness, already tuning out, "Fine."
After a moment of dead silence, Griffin turned back toward his colleague, "By the way, why did you tell them to go to the 'Green Room?'"
Carlos shrugged and pointed to the jade speckled floor.
Clay groaned, "Great-real brilliant."
Duplica, still terribly rattled, sat flat on her curvaceous, "surgically enhanced" buttocks in a narrow corridor outside the Green Room. Sagging back against her semi-transparent Pokèmon, the fallen siren's breathing came in sporadic gasps as she fought to control the psycho-emotional turmoil that surged through her. Though she could take a beating, the so-called mistress of disguise was used to being in control of things. It came easily for her. Her looks, her mannerisms, her infectious personality-Duplica Mimique was a natural at the manipulation game, finding people's buttons and pushing them left and right to her heart's content.
Wiping the moisture from her eyes, she struggled to her feet, fighting hard to stand on her extravagantly high high-heels. Her ever-loyal Ditto rushed to its trainer's aid, doing its best to give Duplica a bit of leverage as she tried to regain some measure of composure and dignity.
Mimique was her first name as much as it was her last. She could be almost anything to nearly anyone, and lived for the consuming power her elaborate ploys could give her over another.
The chase, the adrenaline rush, the lust for more-each and every time, she was always guaranteed the sweet taste of victory.
Leaning against the wall for support, Duplica shut her eyes, forcing herself to breathe evenly. . . deep and slow. . .
Yes, she always won. But occasionally, someone like Clay Griffin would show up and throw a wrench in her machine. Her quarry were of the exceptionally dangerous variety. . .
. . . In and out. . . deep and slow. . .
. . . but she was an exceptionally dangerous woman.
With renewed focus and inexhaustible flamboyancy, the emerald phoenix rose from the ashes of defeat, burning hotter and with more ornate brilliance than ever. It took more than one little, half-violent confrontation to permanently deter the huntress from her prey-a lot more. She had tested its strength. Now, she would give it time; feign capitulation, if necessary. When the opportunity presented itself, she would drive her opponent hard, and this time, there would be no quarter.
Heels sounding off in a sensuous, rhythmic click, Duplica glanced longingly over her shoulder. Then, with a playful toss of shimmering green waves and tresses, she glided, unruffled, through the narrow corridor and down the adjacent hallway.
There would be plenty of time to worm her way into the heart of The Elite. For now, she'd just focus on worming her way deeper into pre-tenderized meat.
A pair of concealed video cameras followed the group as they rounded a corner and entered another long hallway. The Waldorf-Astoria was proving to be way more capacious than any of the five pilgrims who trekked her lengthy halls, exquisite antechambers, spiraling staircases, and other wonders had previously anticipated. It felt rather more akin to a maze than it did a hotel. Though dully impressed at first, they were beginning to feel the first inexorable tinges of doubt creep slowly back through their already strung-out systems. No one spoke. No one felt like speaking. But they all knew exactly what the other person was thinking: "This whole business is straight-up bull!"
Ash trudged doggedly along, occasionally muttering barely audible curses and corresponding retributions, carrying on in silent debate with unseen opponents. Clearly, no one was enjoying this, but him least of all. He was tired, physically and emotionally drained. This whole thing was just way more than anybody should've been asked to go through in one night. Reviewing the evening's current list of highlights, he'd been 1) slapped across the face, 2) indecently toyed with, 3) shot at, 4) almost killed, and 5) involuntarily conned into serving as someone else's evening entertainment (yes, that's how he saw it).
Brock was right. We should've just gone to Saffron and avoided this entire fiasco! He grumbled to himself.
Mr. Stone marched stoically on Ash's left, spent riffle slung across his broad shoulders. At this point, He didn't really know what to think. Being violently assaulted-and having to return with like action-in the middle of a prestigious social event, of all things, was certainly not what he had expected, and if he had a choice, not at all something he would've put himself through. And on top of that, the whole event had been a farce-a preconceived heist orchestrated for no other reason than to weed out a few people who could stand up for themselves and were lucky enough not to get their heads blown to pieces in the process. It was ludicrous. But here they were, being offered the position of a lifetime-membership in an organization that allegedly made an international profession of what he and Ash had spent the last decade or so teaching themselves to do. So, despite his doubts, he walked on, whistling a little, but keeping his attention focussed on sweeping the area for any more unexpected surprises.
. . . Hmmm. . . surprises. . . Brock grinned as a new thought passed through his head, Wonder if the Elite keep any hot chicks on staff. . .
Misty stalked warily in front of her two former traveling partners, glancing around suspiciously. Like Brock, she was looking for the smallest tail-tail signs of something about to go awry, though in an ever so slightly more paranoid fashion. Her semi-auto's clip was empty and she didn't have a refill, but Misty kept the gun in front of her nonetheless, muzzle held upward and at the ready. Heck! At least she could look dangerous. If anyone with vile intent popped out, they just might think twice about engaging her openly. Yes sir. Misty had to admit, she possessed a lot more spunk than anyone would've thought-especially her. Doubtless she'd passed those traits on to her own daughter. . . She risked a brief peek over at Ash.
How's that kid of ours doing? she wondered.
Ahead of Misty, Giselle clicked along nonchalantly, head high and paying little obvious heed to the details of her surroundings. Her gaze was set on Samurai, who lead the group forward, supposedly in the direction of their alleged destination.
Ash and Brock had originally been in the lead, but after a few minutes of going in circles, Misty had strongly suggested someone else fill that role.
This, of course, had only fanned the coals of Ash's smoldering mood. But he relented, taking up rear guard, albeit grudgingly. After a while, however, everyone was beginning to wonder if there was a "Green Room" in the building. True, they did find one with green carpet and jade furnishings, but after spending several nervous minutes standing around listening to static, they concluded that it was not the Green Room they were looking for.
So, they moved on. No signs or personnel could point them in the right direction. In fact, though brightly lit, well furnished, and spotlessly clean, the entire hotel seemed eerily devoid of life.
Now, they came to the end of a long hallway, lined with locked guestrooms, out into what looked like a private ballroom (very much identical to the one they'd just finished demolishing, though only five-eighths the scale). They entered cautiously.
Samurai paused about three-quarters of a yard past the threshold, bringing the procession to a halt. He took a careful, optical sweep of the room, assessing its potential for hidden dangers. No cause for immediate alarm could be detected.
Reaching into his tuxedo coat, the short swordsman produced a small, metal boomerang-shaped object about the length of his forearm. Everyone watched quizzically as Samurai lunged swiftly forward, tapping the ground lightly with his feet, but hurling his new weapon with considerable force, grunting loudly as the livid blade shot forward. Rotating in imperceptible revolutions, it raced with perpetual acceleration down the foremost row of glass pillars, banking sharply as it neared the back of the room, turning with deft precision to head back the way it had come, this time down the other line of corresponding, translucent columns.
Samurai snatched the gleaming shard of rotating steel from flight as it came whistling by.
"Fancy toy you got there," Brock appraised.
Samurai glanced over his shoulder, "Thank you. If there are any automated weapons in this place, I'm hoping this fly," he held up his boomerang, "will take the hits for us." With that, he stepped back to his original position, then re-launched the shimmering cutter, this time sending it straight down the ballroom's center. Perceivably, it would continue its flight path, then turn sharply up, continuing around the enclosure's high-domed ceiling before descending to its owner.
However, a little over three-fourths of the way across ballroom's crystal floor, something visually indistinguishable from its lucid surroundings intercepted the fly's trajectory, catching it dead in mid-revolution and flooring the oversized shuriken with a resonating 'clink.'
The tranquil atmosphere instantly evaporated as everyone exploded into action. Samurai leapt back with lightning reflexes, drawing his sword and standing protectively in front of Giselle, who immediately assumed a low, wu-shu combat stance. Misty brought her empty weapon to bear, hoping desperately she wouldn't actually need it. Ash and Brock instantly darted in front of her, shoving their hands into their vests, Brock whipping out a high-capacity semi-auto, Ash producing two snub-nose six-shooters (Misty immediately complaining that she didn't get a back-up weapon).
"Here we go again!" Giselle and the trio quipped.
"Coward!" Samurai bellowed across the room in challenge, "Show yourself!"
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