Professor Falstaff stood at the microphone, as if it was just recently invented. His dress did nothing to dispel the old school magician vibe. His comely assistant, Tracy Sullivan, led the proceedings. He pinched the mic a few times, like he was tenderizing it. After he was done he leaned like the mic was going to poison him. Most of the audience presumed the tenderizing was an attempt to remove the mic from the stand.
“Good evening,” he said in a vague Eastern European accent, doing further damage to the possibility of him not being a magician. “Tonight, we are here to learn about teamwork. Let me tell you something about teamwork. There is no ‘I’ in team.” He punctuated each word with his index finger, bobbing up and down like he was taking his first drum lesson.
“There's no we either, asshole,” Cheryl whispered, arms and legs crossed on a folding plastic chair. Hundreds of such chairs were arrayed in rows and columns, filling the ballroom. The chairs were then filled with smiling, staring faces locking their attention on Falstaff. Cheryl twiddled her phone.
“Shh,” Sophie snickered.
“He said that like he made it up.”
“Shh,” Sophie said trending toward a laugh, then leaned forward clasping her hands over her head and convulsed.
“Don’t tell me to shush when you’re having library giggles.”
“Shh,” came a chorus from the rows behind them.
Cheryl waved them off. Sophie, red faced and grimacing, gave the best penitent hand gesture she could perform under the conditions.
“And now I’d like to introduce my assistant, Tracy Sullivan, who will be available after this presentation for free massage, reiki, acupuncture and all those things your demographic loves.”
The audience tittered. Sophie had since regained her composure. Tracy moved to the front of the stage with a peppy jog. The ponytail she'd threaded through the strap on the back of her golf cap bounced to her steps. After a big cheesecake grin and ecstatic waves to the audience she returned to her position by the video projector.
“The one real thing this guy said and they think it’s a gag,” Cheryl whispered.
“Not getting involved this time,” Sophie said.
“Are you going to be commenting the whole presentation?” Ian leaned forward and scolded Cheryl.
“Presentation,” Cheryl said leaning across Sophie, “You know what happens at presentations? People try and sell you shit you shouldn’t ought to buy. There’s a reason the weekend is free. Because these assholes are gonna throw a lot a money at this bullshit. Most of these middle aged, doughy sacks of shit are here to be groped by that cheerleader up there for ten minutes without having to pay for it.”
“Would you please keep quiet,” came the strongly worded requests from behind.
Cheryl and Ian sat back.
“As I’ve been made aware,” Falstaff began, “We have a very special guest here tonight, Mr. Max Merkin, CEO of Mathers Chemical. Stand up, sir. Round of applause please."
“Give any more employees cancer,” Cheryl shouted just below the applause.
“Cheryl,” said Sophie.
“Like nobody knows that.”
“Keep it down,” she laughed.
“I know. I didn’t want him to hear. It would just give him a chance to born-again grandstand about mercy and forgiveness. And chemotherapy,” Cheryl stood, “Well, I'm out.”
“Where are you going?” Ian asked in hushed bark.
“I'm not staying here with people like this,” Cheryl snapped. “If I was to eat at the same buffet as him, I'm literally breaking bread with a sociopathic monster.”
“Can you go two minutes without launching a crusade?”
“Cmon, Cher,” Sophie begged her. “Just stick it out. It’s gotta be over soon...right?” she turned to Ian.
Cheryl glared at Sophie, “I need a smoke.”
“As a team, ‘we’ is your greatest we-apon,” Falstaff said in a proud bellow.
Cheryl’s eyes popped and she left the auditorium.
Cheryl stood in the parking lot smoking. Cheryl somehow managed the feat of sometimes going months without a cigarette. She had no idea how old this torn up pack was, but they tasted like shit. She pinched the cigarette in the middle to cover the tear in the bend. She drew hard to hasten the ember’s progress toward the break. A round, middle aged woman and her paunchy husband were walking toward the hotel. The woman caught sight of Cheryl and increased the pace of her waddle.
“Oh, I’m not late am I?” she called to Cheryl as she ambled closer.
“Yeah,” Cheryl grumbled, “But you didn’t miss anything.”
“I’m Pam.” She shot her hand at Cheryl. “Pam Francis. That’s my husband Larry.”
“That’s great,” Cheryl said avoiding eye contact and hiding behind her cigarette.
“You probably think it’s weird going to a teamwork conference as a couple, huh?”
“No. In fact, I’m thinking about it at all.”
“But a marriage is a team right?”
Cheryl dropped her head and sighed, staring hard at the ground and taking out a third of the cigarette in one draw.
“Larry is an…”
“How did you know?”
Cheryl looked Larry up and down, “It just came to me.”
“You should be a psychic,” Pam tapped Cheryl’s arm with the back of her hand.
“And have to listen to your thoughts too?” Cheryl thought, “Did I say that out loud?”
“What does your husband do?”
Cheryl made eye contact with Pam for the first time and hoped she looked as much like this woman’s particular death as possible. “I don’t have to be a psychic when you leave no thought unexpressed.”
Larry made a low rumbling chuckle. Pam’s smile shriveled and began pushing Larry toward the hotel. Sophie, Ian, and Carl emerged and spotted Cheryl. Cheryl turned away toward the street and nursed the stump of the cigarette before lighting a new one on the dying spark of the first.
“Soph, get your bow,” she said as Sophie approached. “Put one between my eyes.”
“Oh, stop,” Sophie replied.
“This is lame.”
“I don't know, maybe. But it might be exactly what we need.”
“Give me a break, Soph. This shit’s a scam.”
“I've been willing to follow you from public humiliation to public humiliation. I don't think it's asking much for you to return the favor just once. But if you want it to just be you and Sophie again I'm happy to oblige,” Ian said as he stepped close to Cheryl.
“That would be great,” Cheryl said.
“No. It wouldn't.” Sophie stepped between them. “Let's just...I don't know. Go for a walk or something. Calm down.”
“Well if you still feel like being a team, I’ll be at the breakout.” Ian stalked back the hotel.
“The very vocabulary of this shit puts my teeth on edge,” Cheryl seethed.
Carl looked like a lost sasquatch.
Carl scratched the back of his head and squinted.
“Really? This is something you need to think about?” Cheryl said, shifting her weight.
“I don't know, Cher. We're already here. It's worth a shot. Or at least a laugh.” Carl said.
Cheryl rolled her eyes, shook her head, and let out an exasperated grunt. “You too, Judas? A walk sounds good.”
She spun on her heel and walked away. Sophie put her hands to her head and sighed. Carl looked hangdog as he went to catch up with Ian. Carl looked back at Sophie. She gave him a pantomime sad face and consolatory wave. She jogged to catch up with Cheryl.
The breakout was conducted by the Blue Scarf Ladies, a group of older women who known for being savvy investors. Their combined worth, a total of fourteen members, was close to a billion. They peddled in a folksy charm that emboldened the average man to blow a lot of money in the stock market.
Ian sat in a plastic chair and Carl sat cross legged on the floor.
After forty seven minutes of a droning presentation that exhibited no signs of relenting, Ian leaned to Carl, “You’ve known Cheryl for a while, is this just her?”
“Cheryl is a tough one. You just have to accept the fact that she is always going to be walking around in a suit of armor.”
“I’m accustomed to her suit of armor, it’s these fixations she gets. She wants us to work better as a team, but doesn’t actually want to do anything to advance that goal. She’d rather just keep slamming our heads into a brick wall going after an absurd gang. That’s not what I signed up for. We’ve completely ignored Vyx. His campaign is rolling right along. And the only one who could possibly get through to her is always carrying water for her.”
“Oh, Soph, well, you gotta understand, Sophie and Cher are like sisters. Sophie went to live with Cher’s folks when her mother died. Sophie is the only one that Cher doesn’t wear the armor around.”
“I understand that, but at some point if you keep standing with the dictator and don’t question their edicts, you’re complicit."
“And we put it all into pumpkin futures…” the Blue Scarves buzzed.
“As much as I hate to eat crow,” Ian muttered, “Cheryl has a point about this retreat.”
“A retreat at a hotel on the expressway.”
“Now,” the apparent lead Scarf announced, “We’re going to pass around this apple. When you get the apple, I want you stand up and give a few words about how you feel about the apple.”
“How can that possibly be of any value?” Ian said louder than he had intended.
When Sophie caught up with Cheryl she grabbed her shoulder and spun her around.
“What is your deal?” Sophie snapped.
“My deal is I'm tired of wasting time.”
“Like chasing after idiot bank robbers for months?”
“If you don't like the way I do things maybe you should go and be a little team with them.”
“You're taking your shit out on me now?”
“I work better on my own.” Cheryl started walking away. Sophie pulled her back.
“Bullshit. What was I there for? Just to be a sounding board for your bitching?”
“It's probably time you stopped glomming onto me. Show a little independence for once in your clingy life.”
If Sophie was capable of making an enraged face she was making one now.
“I put my life on the line for your stupid crusade, because I believe in you. Out there in the middle of the night torching useless warehouses by myself, while you sat at home stewing about how everyone else makes your life difficult.”
“I never asked you to help me. You just attached yourself to me like always. You've been doing that since we were kids. If I asked mom and dad for something, you'd want it too. I joined the field hockey team, you joined the field hockey team. You didn't give a shit about field hockey. Everywhere we went you were stuck to me like a tick.”
“Because you're my sister. I looked up to you. I wanted to be just like you.”
“You were adopted.”
Sophie's eyes welled and her lip quivered.
“Fuck you,” she shook. “I barely recognize you anymore.”
“Get a good look, because this is me.”
Sophie could no longer dictate the volume and frequency of the tears that escaped her eyes. Cheryl tossed her the room key, it landed on the floor by her feet.
“If you're going to ugly cry you might want to go lock yourself in the room for it.” Cheryl turned and walked away.
Sophie wrapped one arm around herself and covered her face with her hand. Her body shook with soft sobs. She bent down and snatched the room key off the floor. She hurried off before she lost her composure.
Cheryl returned from her lengthy constitutional and two ambulances were in the baggage roundabout in front of the hotel, loading laden stretchers. Cheryl could see in one stretcher rested the former Max Merkin.
“No big loss,” she thought.
In the other stretcher laid the lifeless body of Pam Francis.
“What the hell happened?” Cheryl asked a paramedic.
“Cardiac arrest,” the medic replied, “Both of them.”
Among the crowd of rubberneckers and gawkers, was a cluster of attempted empathy gathered around Tracy Sullivan, who was sobbing and hanging her head.
“Did she get cut from the pep squad?” Cheryl asked a bystander who happened to be Larry Francis.
“She found ‘em both,” Larry said in the same apparent emotional state he was in while trudging through the parking, earlier, on Pam’s invisible leash, “Within fifteen minutes of each other.”
“Is cheerleader doing full service? Fehrle I would expect, but I would have never guessed Pam had a naughty streak."
“Where were you?”
“I hear that.”
Cheryl stood and regarded the weeping Tracy. Tracy turned her to wipe her tears on her sleeve.
“Bone dry,” Cheryl thought. “Her eyeliner is perfect. Drama queen.”
Cheryl entered the lobby of the hotel. The complementary massage, reiki, whatever appointment book was sitting on a pedestal by the check in desk. Cheryl scanned the entries.
Max Fehrle: 7:15
Pam Francis: 7:30
The names were written in the same handwriting and in a darker ink than the rest of the names, which had been written using the fading pen resting in the spine of the book. The other names were also in all different handwritings. She flipped the page. Next to the entry for 8:45 was written "Sophia Fischer" in the darker ink and flowery hand of Max and Pam’s entries.
“Sophia?” she thought. “Since when?”
To the right of the podium was a display filled with autographed pictures of Falstaff and Tracy. Tracy’s autograph matched the ornate handwriting.
Cheryl looked at her phone. She rummaged through her coat pockets, then dropped her head and grunted.
“Right. I threw the key at Sophie. I’m a fucking idiot.”
Tracy entered the lobby and made her way toward the hall leading to the rooms.
“Tough break, Pep Squad,” Cheryl said over her shoulder.
“I’m sorry, but I’m late for an appointment.”
“Right back to work. What a trooper. Hey, let me ask you, what mascara do you use? I have terrible allergies and when my eyes water it runs like a motherfucker.”
“What? Look, I’m late.”
“I just know after finding two dead bodies, I’d be a wreck. My shit would look like the saddest clown you’ve ever seen. Whatever you’re using is goddam waterproof.”
“I have to go,” Tracy did a limp sprint down the hall.
Cheryl looked at the time.
Cheryl turned the corner down a long hall to room she was sharing with Sophie. At the door was Tracy, hunched over and leaning on the door frame, sliding a credit card into the jam.
“Have you tried knocking?” Cheryl said, standing behind her.
“Sophia signed up for an appointment.”
“Really? And she signed up as ‘Sophia’?”
“Yes. It’s in the book. You can go look if that nosy.”
“I’ve known Sophie my whole life and not once has she ever referred to herself as ‘Sophia’. Not even on her drivers license.”
“Well she did tonight.”
“In your handwriting?”
“She asked me to pencil her in. So I did.”
“Look, lady, what is your deal?”
“I’m getting tired of being asked that.”
“I can see why you get asked that a lot.”
Cheryl put her hands on the wall on either side of Tracy and leaned in, “Look, cheerleader. I get Max Fehrle, the guy was a scumbag, but Pam Francis, world’s greatest Edie McClurg cosplayer? And now Sophie? I’m more curious in your deal.”
Tracy kicked Cheryl’s foot, spun her around and put her in an arm bar. Cheryl pulled her taser and zapped Tracy. She backed away and settled into a fighting stance.
“I normally prefer the subtle approach,” Tracy sneered. “Placing pressure on key nerve clusters. The victim doesn’t realize a thing until their heart explodes.”
Cheryl assumed a stance of her own and held the taser like a dagger, “So much for the cheerleader act.”
“Call me Pressure Point,” Tracy sneered.
“No,” said Cheryl.
“One, because it's dumb and two, what's the point of an alias when I already know who you are?”
“You tell me, Cheryl ‘Fanny Alexander’ Ellers.”
“How do you know that?”
“A combination of the news and your registration forms,” Tracy replied. “What good are aliases if you use your real names while bickering with each other in the middle of the war zones you help create?”
“It’s my turn to ask somebody what their deal is. What’s yours.”
“Pam Francis was the heiress to the Purnell fortune. The corporation that poisoned three midwestern towns. Babies died.”
“So the sins of the father?”
“Somebody had to pay. Because her father didn’t.”
“Max Fehrle ran a plant where hundreds of his employees developed the same cancer. And now he got his karma.”
“Like I said, I get why you’d off Fehrle.”
“Which brings me to you. I read your blog. It inspired me. I looked up to you. You were my hero.”
“There’s been a theme today.”
“You were out for the blood of Simon Vyx, but when your chance came you not only let him go, you saved his life.”
“It’s really simple. You sold out. You’d rather chase criminals around like you’re in a fucking comic book. I’m retiring you. Replacing you with a younger better looking model.”
“You’re finished, Blondie.”
“At least I'm natural.”
“Oh, I'm turning this thing up all the way,” Cheryl cranked a dial on her taser, “You’re into karma? A cardiac arrest should be sufficient.”
“You need toys to fight? Cute. You may be in the wrong line of work, grandma.”
After a series of blows, parries and dives, Tracy disarmed Cheryl and sent the taser smacking against the door. Tracy struck Cheryl with her finger several times up her arm, shoulder and neck. Cheryl went stiff. Only her eyes remained mobile. The door to the room opened and Sophie stepped out bleary eyed.
“Cheryl?” she said rubbing her eyes.
Tracy winked at Sophie and tapped Cheryl on the forehead. Cheryl tipped backwards like a plank and hit the floor.
“Cher,” Sophie shouted.
Tracy struck Sophie in the nose. She fell backward into her room, slid away from the advancing Tracy. She covered her nose with one hand. Blood streamed between her fingers. With the other, she pawed the top of the nightstand until she found one of Cheryl’s compact mirrors.
“The High Priestess can't take a punch? Maybe she should’ve stayed hidden in her library.”
“Do you know what flash is?” Sophie said through her hand.
“It's when you get sunburn on your eyes.”
Sophie faced the mirror at Tracy. The hallway became dark as the light channeled through the mirror and focused on her eyes. She turned away dazzled and mashed her palms into her eyes. Regaining her poise, she grabbed Sophie off the floor and tossed her in the hall. She struck her in the belly, then kicked her feet out from under her. Sophie pushed herself along the wall, backing away from Tracy. Tracy stalked over her, kicking her in the legs.
Tracy walked to Cheryl and crouched over her, “You guys are so disappointing. You gave me so much hope. I saw someone was finally taking a stand against the evil people in the world. But all you do is cause more hurting and chaos. You saved the miserable life of Simon Vyx. That can never be forgiven. So, how do I finish you two? A cardiac arrest would be nice and painful. No. I know. A stroke. There's a certain satisfaction in knowing you'll be vegetables for the rest of your useless lives. I'll give Simon Vyx your regards right before I do what you couldn't.”
She lifted Cheryl’s arm and began pressing points along her wrist to her elbow. Halfway up the bicep a palm the size of a hubcap grabbed her by the head and flung her several feet down the hall. She backflipped and landed in a crouch, sliding backwards. Carl and Ian stood between Tracy and Cheryl. Sophie emerged from her room with her bow and drew it. Tracy leaped and kicked off the wall and landed on Carl’s shoulders.
“It doesn’t matter how big you are,” Tracy whispered in his ear. “You have the same nervous system.”
She twirled around Carl’s frame like a gymnast, punching at his pressure points. Carl plucked her off and whipped her to the ground. He staggered backwards, holding his head. Ian whirled his flutes around him in wide circular patterns. He twiddled the keys and strange melody drifted through the corridor. Tracy became transfixed, but snapped her head and engaged Ian. As they fought she struggled to focus, but still held firm. Sophie took shots at Tracy as she eluded Ian’s attacks by running up and along the walls. The arrows missed, leaving charred craters in the wall. Tracy disarmed one of Ian flutes, then the other. She grabbed him and wrapped an arm around his neck. Ian rocked back and forth.
“Just relax Piper,” Tracy cooed, “It'll be quicker that way.”
In Ian’s struggling, he positioned Tracy’s back to Sophie. Sophie released a silver arrow that struck Tracy in the shoulder. Tracy gripped her shoulder and singed her hand on the smoking wound.
“Shit,” Tracy looked at Sophie like a enraged dog, “You bitch.”
She charged at Sophie. She leapt over Carl’s prone body. Carl snagged her leg and snapped her on the ground like a wet towel. Tracy’s head hit the floor and she fell unconscious.
Sophie knelt down next to Cheryl and supported her head in her lap.
“We still suck at teamwork,” Cheryl croaked.
“Are you okay?” Sophie said holding Cheryl's head.
Sophie nodded but her face showed her lingering sadness.
“No, you're not. You can't bullshit me. I'm your sister.”
Sophie smiled and let out a small laugh.
“I'm sorry, Sophie. High Priestess. I'm so sorry. You're were right. I'm full of shit. Things got real and I freaked out. I’m not supposed to be someone who freaks out.”
“We don't have to talk about this now.”
“We should, before my near death experience induced feeling of charity and self reflection goes away.”
“I'm scared and I'm taking it out on everybody. Having a team form around me made everything real. I'll also try to be less sarcastic toward everyone.”
“Don't do that. I love you, sarcasm included.”
Cheryl sat up, “You don't think I'd actually be able to keep that promise did you?”
Cheryl took Sophie's hand. “You are my sister. Since the day Ed Danvers brought you to live with us until the day you die...before me.”
Sophie gave Cheryl a playful slap on the hand and laughed. They hugged.
“Love you,” Cheryl said. “Savor that one. I'll be coming to my senses soon.
“Good lord, Ellers has feelings besides anger and derision,” Ian said.
“Shut the fuck up, Roland,” Cheryl snapped to her feet, then smiled at him, “I’m glad you're on the team.”
“You're scaring me,” Ian said.
“Oh, would you fuck off? Don’t we have a ‘workshop’ to go to or some shit?” she said ‘workshop’ through gritted teeth.
“Uh. I don't know. It kind of seemed like a bunch of bullshit.”
Like what you read? More installments here.