The doctors told him that he’d be lucky to breathe unassisted let alone walk and talk again, but after a few months of rehab, Ben Bostick took his first steps since his near-death experience at Black C.A.S.T.L.E. The grim spectre of death had been close at hand those first few hours under medical care, and only slightly farther back in the days and weeks that followed. When he’d regained enough strength, the Feds were allowed to get his story. Everyone involved was happy to see that Ben’s memory was also intact; his would be a necessary testimony to nail Stan Kijek to the wall, should they ever find him.
Another upside was that Ben seemed to suffer no long-term effects that rigorous physical therapy and a diligent work ethic couldn’t improve. The bonus for Ben was that his PT nurse was very young, and very attractive.
“Looking good, Ben,” she said as he worked his way slowly but surely along a set of parallel bars that helped to guide his steps. “You’ll be running out those doors in no time.”
“I’d never run away from you, Maria,” Ben said, grunting and red-faced with the exertion of keeping his body upright with just his arms and shoulders.
“You say that to all the nurses,” she teased. She knew that wasn’t true. “I’m sure you have big plans once you get out of here.”
Ben certainly did. His long talks with the FBI coupled with his service record and his display of heroism under extreme duress during the raid on Black C.A.S.T.L.E. put the young man high on the recruitment list for quite a few government positions, many of which came with strong political connections. If he could get his body back in working order, Ben thought he had a shot at getting back into the field again. And if he couldn’t, his mind and his experience were still a useful commodity for a career in public service. That wasn’t a bad backup plan as far as Ben was concerned. But at the moment, he only had one real plan on his mind.
“The first thing I’m going to do, Maria,” he said. Ben reached the end of the parallel bars, turned, and paused. “Is take you dancing.” She laughed and her face turned red against her wishes as Ben made his way back up the path.
In truth, the only other certainty Ben had at that very moment was that he’d walk through the courtroom doors on the day that Stan Kijek was put on trial, just to see the look on the man’s face. Ben would never get that chance.
Stan had been dealt a raw deal, or at least that’s how he saw it. He’d played his part perfectly. Someone else fucked it all up along the way. Cohen was supposed to ice Malanan and then hand over the drugs to the courier waiting to transport them through the hospital. From there, they’d go to the buyer, a rival drug lord Stan neither knew about nor cared to know about, so long as he got his cut from Cohen. The DEA agent had been the real mastermind behind the whole thing; he was the one who came to Stan, after all. But the idiot went and got himself collared because he couldn’t take out a little girl.
If he was being honest with himself, that little girl had gotten the best of Ol’ Stan, too. That had thrown the whole performance out of whack. The courier got spooked, or so Stan figured, and left $50 million in meth sitting there gift-wrapped for the clueless DEA to make a headline-grabbing bust. Easy peasy.
For Stan, it was anything but. He found himself with a warrant out for his arrest, and bounties on his head from the two rival drug lords. He could not have played his part better and yet the very theater itself was now burning down around him. A bus ticket to Cleveland, paid for in cash, and an overnight bag stuffed with the necessaries was all that Stan had the time to pull together.
But a six-figure bounty attracted a lot of attention, and two of them attracted twice as much. Stan Kijek made it as far as a rest stop off of I-76 outside of Youngstown. A hard man with an addict’s debt waited for him there. The man had a picture of Stan on a prepaid phone and a razor sharp Bowie knife holstered under his jacket. That knife slid real clean between the ribs of Ol’ Stan while he stood unawares at the rest stop urinal. He was still alive when the junkie pressed the blade to Stan’s neck and began to claim the necessary token for his bounty.
Ol’ Stan had seen his final curtain call.
Even in prison, Cohen still had friends. You didn’t climb the ranks of the DEA without making deals with a few scumbags. Cohen counted his blessings that some of those scumbags were high-earners who owed him more than a few favors.
The first confirmation that his friends had kept their end of the bargain came from within his own department. One of his subordinates reported that, despite the best efforts of the medical staff, the mercenary and suspected eco-terrorist Harry Strong had succumbed to his severe burns. Cohen didn’t need to know how it happened, just that it was done.
The second confirmation came from a mid-level runner from the Cortez cartel who was doing time solely to build up his connections in lock-up. He’d heard word that some junkie in Ohio collected Stan Kijek’s head and the bounty that came with it. For Cohen, that meant that his partners in crime could no longer turn evidence against him.
Two down…two to go, he thought from his county jail cell. There was a chance that he’d still make it out of this thing whole, that he could call in his favors and flip the script enough to reduce his sentence. Getting out of the charges altogether was out of the question, the little bitch and her friend had seen to that with their little walkie talkie trick.
Cohen would bide his time. Certainly not today, not tomorrow, but sometime in the future, he’d be back on the street. In the meantime, he had friends–scary friends–on the inside who could pay those two a visit once they got out. And he had friends on the outside who could make their lives a living hell in the interim. Yes, Cohen had friends. He had time. And he had patience. That would sustain him until his day of retribution.
Mulgrew had friends, too. They were none too happy with his failure. The First Horseman had been intended as a herald to the coming of The Four Horsemen and a reshaping of the world in their image. Instead, he’d been defeated by an unarmed woman while millions of would-be victims and converts looked on. It was a PR nightmare that set their plan back by months, if not years. They would continue forward, but Mulgrew was not the answer they needed.
The three remaining Horsemen convened while Mulgrew was left to rot in the county jail. They had considered reaching out to Michael Martin, a former disciple of Mulgrew’s, with an offer to take the reins from his mentor, but he was already in Federal custody with a plan to testify against both Mulgrew and Malanan. There was no honor among thieves and cowards. But there was another option …
Mulgrew sat at the end of a long lunch table in the prison’s cafeteria. His new followers, mostly those who were just shy of being declared criminally insane or who were missing a few rungs on the intellectual ladder, listened intently. How much of Mulgrew’s ramblings actually made sense to them was anyone’s guess.
“This place is a petri dish, an incubator for government experimentation. You there!” Mulgrew pointed a dirty, sharpened fingernail at the acne-riddled face of a young man who wasn’t yet of legal drinking age. “Your pox will lead us into the new era! Only those who survive the coming plague will live to see the world as it was meant to be! I have survived the deadliest scourge this administration and its test tube-mafia could conjure up! Join me, and be cleansed!”
None of the men at the table moved or raised their arms in celebration; they merely stared at Mulgrew in slack-jawed wonder. A cafeteria guard spared the raving lunatic an extra few glances but nothing more. Once his gaze turned toward other inmates, a slender young man approached Mulgrew from behind with a kind of graceful confidence that was hung on him like a new, expensive suit.
He said, simply, “Join me in Death.”
Mulgrew turned and found himself face to face with his former mentor, Wesley West. The former First Horseman could only form an “o” of surprise with his mouth as West’s shiv rabbited into his kidneys, once, twice, three times and more. At his command, the table of reprobates rose to join him. They produced prison-made shanks of their own and went to work on Mulgrew until he was a lacerated mess of blood and flayed skin in a tattered, orange county jail jumpsuit. The guards sounded the alarm and eventually took West and his new recruits down, but they also took their sweet time doing so. They’d been paid handsomely, after all.
By unanimous consent, the remaining trio of Horsemen opted not to shift the title of Pestilence from Mulgrew to Wesley West. Rather, one of their existing order took up that mantle and set her own plans into motion. For War and Conquest, having a member within the prison system suited their needs just perfectly. West had quite literally emerged from a sort of crucible in Black C.A.S.T.L.E.’s autoclave, surviving intense heat and pressure to burn off his impurities and become something pristine. There would be no capitalistic system of barter and trade within the walls of the jail. There would be only loyalty or treachery, allegiance or rebellion, submission or execution.
West would lead these new recruits both inside and out, and he would reward those who were loyal with the promise of a new world. The rest he would greet as Death. And Hell would follow with him.
At the grand re-opening of Black C.A.S.T.L.E., Kacie Lin attended as a guest of honor. She found that distinction quite surprising considering she’d been the one who blew up a chunk of the 16th floor and put the whole facility out of commission for months. The testimonies of her fellow co-workers-turned-hostages and the recorded security footage, what little was available, that showed Kacie actively disrupting the terrorists’ plans swung opinion heavily in her favor. The families of Dr. Black and Dr. Nakatomi publicly commended her for preventing the loss of any more innocent lives. The ample insurance policy would more than take care of the damage sustained to the building and the compensation for both lost wages and the unfortunate loss of life. Federal funding flowed in, attempting to bolster the security of what was currently the highest-profile research facility on the planet since the panic that CERN would create a world-destroying black hole. Donations poured in from the public for those killed and injured in the attacks. So it was that Kacie Lin, widely regarded as a national hero, was in the clear.
That clean slate came with strings attached, however. She became an international celebrity overnight, leading to her becoming the face of the facility and a mouthpiece for any government organizations looking for a bump in their public opinion rating. It all happened very fast, and Kacie knew she’d made some mistakes in the early going. The people who really cared for her were her friends, her family, and the public who only saw her as a self-sacrificing hero. The rest were vultures and hucksters no matter how impressive their titles sounded. She figured this out quickly enough to decline any interview requests or speaking engagements after the first week. The speech at the grand re-opening of Black C.A.S.T.L.E. and the dedication to Dr. Black and Dr. Nakatomi, something she insisted upon, was the last time she planned to be in the spotlight.
She didn’t remember giving most of her speech. The only part that she knew she stuck for sure was her final prayer for Black and Nakatomi and their families. The other inevitability she danced around as much as possible, hoping to avoid it even during the post-speech celebration mixer. Up until this moment, only Kacie, her parents, and Dr. Ritter knew for sure.
“So you’re really not coming back,” Rick said, drink in hand. It wasn’t a question. He cut right to the point.
“No, I just can’t,” Kacie admitted. “I have some other opportunities that I’m considering, but … I just need some time to sort it all out.”
Rick looked angry for a moment but then just shrugged. “I get it, Kacie Kasem. Just keep the crime-fighting to a minimum out there, huh?” He wrapped Kacie up in an uncharacteristic hug. “And keep in touch, hear?”
“I will, promise,” she said as Rick let her go and her feet came back into contact with the ground.
It wasn’t long before she found herself sharing in a round of celebratory shots with the group of people who had become her closest friends, closer than she thought she’d ever have or would ever find again. The news of her decision not to return to work had spread, but there was no ill will.
“Here’s that drink I promised you!” Gemma said, passing Kacie a shot glass. “Three cheers for the hero!” They all gave a rousing chorus of hurrahs and toasted Kacie’s bravery once more.
While the party carried on, Gemma asked Kacie another of the questions she’d been dreading having to answer. “So what’s next for Kacie Lin?”
“Honestly, I could use a vacation,” Kacie said, laughing. “Maybe a trip to some remote tropical island, or a cruise, even.” She couldn’t say for sure because she honestly had no idea how she was going to top one of the wildest and most harrowing experiences of her life, or even to find a way to come back down to Earth. She was adrift.
“But for now,” she said with a smile. “How about another round?”