It was past nightfall now, and the sounds from the Bad Room had finally ceased. Orchid sighed and leaned back against a marble pillar of the reception hall, closing her eyes and massaging the lids with her fingertips. Hack had been down there for hours. The sounds from below were unearthly -- inhuman, and frightening even to her. The bestial snarls and howls of rage were enough to make her shiver, but worse than either were the muffled sobs, weak and distant, that surfaced now and then at odd moments. She was sure that they came from Melvin.
Rolling her head against the cold stone, Orchid blinked back hot, stinging tears. They didn't tell you about this sort of thing. When you saw movies and television and even the news, they never showed this part. Supervillains were dark figures melting into the shadows at the approach of the police, or laughing, contemptuous titans hurling bolts of energy and sneered insults at the approaching heroes. They never showed you how they lived. They never showed you how they felt. They never showed you what it was like day after day, cut off from the world, denied every human pleasure, eating your heart in bitterness and envy.
Where do villains come from, she thought, with a sneer to her invisible audience. I wonder. Spontaneous generation, no doubt. They're a miracle. They have no roots. They have no family, no friends, no background; no one ever went to school or out on a date with one. She snorted derisively. Bullshit. No one comes from nothing. Human beings don't spring into existence fully formed; they are created. We are all created. And who can revile the work of their own hands? Can the potter blame the clay? Can the sculptor lay the fault for his failure upon the stone? Stone I may be, but someone made me. Someone chipped and hammered and rasped upon me until I took shape and became what I am.
With a growl, she pushed off of the pillar, stalking the floor in frustration. The next time that flying frat boy Omega got on the television to whine about what people wanted him to be, maybe he ought to try the other side first. Pressure? Let's talk about pressure. Pressure isn't having your sexcapades aired on the national news because you were too stupid to indulge in them quietly. Pressure isn't being offered an obscenely rich promotional contract and being forced (how shocking!) to work for it. Pressure isn't finding out that your reputation isn't bulletproof even if your skin is.
Yes, let's talk about pressure, she seethed. Pressure is waking up every evening trying not to think about the fact that your heart is no longer beating. Every night you fail and spend your first minutes awake on the floor in dry heaves. Pressure is Daxrathas and his damned "Gift" singing bloodlust in your ears while you dig your nails into what is left of your humanity and try to cling to it. Pressure is listening to Hack night after night, tormenting and tormented, screaming and howling down in that damned pit. Pressure is watching your best friend, your only friend, eaten from the inside out by what he has become, an unstoppable killing machine who has to be clothed and bathed and fed with a spoon because that's all the loving, caring, grinding, crushing, immense and stony weight of society saw fit to leave of him. That is fucking pressure, she thought with a snarl. When do I get my spot on national television to explain that to everyone?
The inner debate left her irritable and hungry. With an impatient snarl, she stalked through the far wall and was gone into the night.
The Lemon Tart moaned and leaned forward, letting her forehead thump into the padded headboard of the bed as he grabbed her ass with both hands and shoved home harder. She was hot and juicy, a luscious little cream puff who'd been more than eager to get down on all fours for a little philanthropic donation. She'd had a nametag an hour ago, but he hadn't paid it much attention; Lemon Tarts were Lemon Tarts, and he thanked Tom Wolfe for the one-size-fits-all name. There was always a raft of them at big functions, half of them posing as someone's trophy wife and the rest ready and eager to get their names on the waiting list for the next Mrs. Higgins. He'd developed quite an eye for talent by now, and this one fit his style perfectly: young, athletic, not too many opinions, and vacuous enough to be flattered by the flowers he would send tomorrow without his phone number. No sense in burning bridges behind you. On the occasional lonely night, a member of the Howard Higgins Floral Appreciation Society could generally be found and persuaded to sooth the brow of fevered commerce.
Throwing his head back, he let a long groan of release slide from his lips as he buried himself in her and came. He grabbed a handful of hair and tugged it sharply. The damned girl was still grinding away and he liked peace, absolute peace at that best of moments. She quieted humbly and kept her head down like a good girl. He kept his eyes closed for a few seconds, savoring the last of it, then pulled off of her and flopped down on the other side of the bed with a weary sigh.
He had a few moments of blissful oblivion before he looked up at the ornate ceiling. That damned Jansczek deal for the opera house was going down tomorrow. Councilman Congreve was being more than usually piggish -- that was one hog that he needed to get out of the trough, but he had to let him keep his snout in until the deal was through.
He was vaguely aware of the Lemon Tart pestering him and swatted at her carelessly as he tried to concentrate. Helen was due back in town later this evening. That meant showering with no soap; the woman was half bloodhound and she could scent Cashmere Caress at a hundred meters. Juniper bodywash he might have gotten away with as a business trip, but that cashmere junk only showed up in places like this: cheap and nasty. He liked it that way, but it was attended with certain difficulties. His shirt he could leave at the downtown launderer's. He used to just throw them away, but she'd started giving him shirts as "presents," each one a little different from the others. Plotting harpy. She ought to work as a damned intelligence operative.
The Lemon Tart got up in a sniffy way and moved into the bathroom. He should probably make some effort with her. He knew that he ought to, but there was just too much else to do. Keeping the candy sweet took a hell of a lot more time than it was really worth when the sugar brigade were knocking on his door down anyway. Yeah, he was sorry that Cindi or Bambi or Alexis or whoever wasn't going to get to play house with him, but there were a lot of contenders for that role and he couldn't go around patting the heads of all of them. She was tough enough; she'd probably rolled her panties down for half of the contributors on the Board by now, and one more either way wouldn't make much of a difference. And the Board wasn't getting much else out of him, either. That conniving shit Barelli had promised him first shot at the new hospital bid and then handed it to Mullihan on a platter. They weren't going to pull that kind of shit on him twice. They obviously thought that he was napping, and it was time for a wakeup call. He lay musing, staring at the ceiling as the Lemon Tart bumped and clattered around in the bathroom. Maybe when she came back he could get her a little more cheerful. It was a fine line, leaving them just happy enough to keep their mouths shut and not so damned delighted that they tried to get through to his secretary.
"Well, well, big boy. Looks like you're expecting me."
She hated that line. It was all about expectations, even when she knew she was doing it. When you're in the freaks-in-tights game, one of the things expected of you is throwaway humor and slick lines. She knew it was stupid and she wasn't even very good at it, but nonetheless she found herself standing over people saying things like "Well, well, big boy. Looks like you're expecting me." What was she supposed to say? -- "So. You're naked and I've come to kill you?"
Despite his health-club physique, he looked unimpressive and vulnerable. Maybe the real estate world shook at his approach and Forbes wet its collective pants at the thought of an interview, but right now he was just another Yuppie Ken doll with all of his frailties exposed to the world in a pathetic white tan line. She felt a moment of pity before she remembered what an ass he was. Swindler, jet-setting snob, serial philanderer, and prep-school boy; verbal abuser of his Mexican maid, black-baller of his two ex-wives, and owner of half of the below-code firetraps in the city. He was the root of evil. People like him were vortexes of misery, dragging down everything that strayed into their influence. He demanded poverty, vacuity, obsequiousness, and slander, and he spread it wherever he went. That he might live in a mansion, others lived in cesspits; that he might gorge, others starved; that he might satiate his sensual desires without effort, others were trained to be vapid, artificial, and vain.
The clay revolts against the potter's hand.
She was a wet dream in leather. Thoughts of Cindi or Candi or whatever she was flew out of his mind as his gaze traveled up long legs, taut breasts, sensual face and shadowy hair. Only habit kept him to his usual pattern; he liked to drink them in from the feet up, let them feel his gaze moving up their bodies. It was a good trick for getting their attention, but this one hardly needed it. She was standing at the foot of the bed, and his only conscious thought was a fleeting hope that the Lemon Tart would either stay in the bathroom or prove very open minded.
She smiled slowly and leaned toward him. One part of his brain noticed that his mouth was open, and so he closed it; the rest just watched her approach. She moved to the side of the bed and leaned down, placing a hand on either side of his body as she stooped close enough to brush his ear with her lips. Her breath was a warm tickle as she whispered:
"Have you been a very bad boy, Howard?"
YES! was his immediate thought. He was faintly surprised with the part of him that wasn't drowning in the sensual scent of woman and leather. This sort usually turned him off. He liked to call the shots; women with an agenda were a hassle he didn't need, and that leather gloves and bodysuit getup made her look theatrical and a little menacing. He preferred blonde, fluffy, and a little trashy if he could get it, but this woman had something about her that spoke directly to his libido. The feeling of her lips brushing his ear sent electricity straight down his spine in a hot tingling bolt.
She stood up, smiling indulgently, and sat down on the other bed, leaning back on her elbows and bending one knee up to rest her foot on the bed. As he clambered up to a sitting position, she narrowed her eyes and spoke in a sultry purr:
"Tell me all about it."
He couldn't wait. Something about her was deeply and erotically compelling. He spilled everything he could think of, desperate to keep those smoldering eyes on himself. She looked fascinated with him, studying him as he hastily detailed every action he could think of that might make him a very bad boy. He knew beyond a doubt that this was what he wanted to be if she was involved, and he told her everything from his afternoon fling with the Lemon Tart to the fire that ravaged his latest rival's home. She drank it all in with flattering attention. Finally, a woman who appreciated his work! A woman who understood every Machiavellian twist and smiled as each coiled plot was picked open and laid before her! It was almost too good to be true. Howard could hardly stop himself from tripping over his words in his eagerness, and when at last she held up one silken white hand for silence, he felt a keen pang of disappointment.
"Enough. You certainly have been busy."
He nodded mutely, watching her with barely restrained eagerness. He was trying not to hang on her every word, but it was difficult to do. There was something about her eyes she was mesmerizing.
"Howard, there's something I'd like you to do for me. Something that would make me verrrrry happy."
Howard closed his eyes, swaying with pleasure. He could please her! Sure, he normally worried more about pleasing himself, but this time it looked like it would be the same thing. Pleasing this woman was a goal much more worthy of him than something as simple as pleasing himself.
"I'd like you to run yourself into that doorframe as hard as you can." She gestured at the bathroom door. "Don't worry; your little friend is having a nap in the tub. But don't hit your head. We need you to stay conscious for a bit."
Howard sprang to his feet eagerly and hurled himself at the doorframe. Sure, it hurt, but that gleam in her eyes was all he needed to keep him going. Looking back at her, he saw her nod with an approving smile, and he hurled himself against it again. She was pleased! There was no doubt about it.
"That's wonderful, Howard. Try to get as many of the bruises as possible down the left side of your body -- yes, that's it. A bit harder, if you can." He slammed himself into the doorframe again, delirious with the glow of pleasing her. As he crashed against it for the fourth time, someone in the room next door started pounding on the wall.
"Excellent." Her voice was a throaty purr. "Really, Howard, you do delight me. Now, if you could just scream, as loudly as you can, 'No, Omega! Please!' You can keep throwing yourself into the floor and walls as you like, and feel free to extemporize on the Omega theme."
Howard threw all of his energy into it, glad now that he had fought middle age to a standstill in the health club. He made sure to flex his physique in the most flattering light as he staggered around the room, trying to stop his head from spinning as he trashed the hotel room as well as he could. He did his best to be inventive, screaming to the nonexistent Omega that he was sorry that he had talked to the press about the Jaguar Grill and that he swore that he would never mention the hookers and the ludes to anyone. The woman blew him a kiss and gave him some silent applause for that one, and he straightened up proudly, trying not to snuffle on the blood from his now broken nose. She drew closer, holding out a hand to keep him a step back. He blushed, trying not to drip blood on her beautiful boots.
"That was wonderful, Howard. Really exceptional. Now, I just want you to remember one more thing."
She leaned closer, and Howard felt a surge of raw joy at the thought that she might kiss him. She whispered in his ear:
"You are a scumbag."
Howard had only a second to feel the total misery of having failed to please her before she brought her knee up into his crotch with enough force to jerk him off of his feet. He collapsed in a whimpering heap on the floor and writhed there as she drew her hand back. The last thing he felt was his cheekbone breaking under the force of her backhand.
Orchid sighed, pushing a wayward strand of hair back as she stooped over the broken corpse. There was no heat in her body, let alone sweat, but it had taken some effort to get Howard looking right. She'd flipped him onto his back and wrenched his arm up behind him until it broke, then gripped both wrists with all of her power several times, breaking and pulping them while trying not to leave a recognizable handprint. Remarkably, he'd still been breathing when she'd punched him in the face the first time. Now he looked like a bloody rag -- and hopefully at least a little like someone who'd genuinely irritated a superhuman wrestler with a bad temper. She'd thought about just carving an omega into his chest, but she seriously doubted that even the flying frat boy would be that stupid. The management was getting determined about forcing the door; she could hear the hatchet blows. She walked into the bathroom and waved at Blonde and Squeaky, then put her finger to her lips.
"Okay," she murmured, sotto voce, "let's go meet that nice man I told you about." She took the girl's wrist and walked through the back wall of the room.
Back at the Sunny Day Asylum ("where every day is a sunny day!"), Orchid slouched against the pillar and let the marble cool her frayed nerves. From below, the noises were dying down. She'd listened to the woman all the way home as she described her search for the perfect husband (wealthy, preferably handsome, and with loopholes in the pre-nups that you could drive a tractor through) and her loathing for everything that wasn't part of her perfect little world. Was she evil? Probably not. Not intentionally. But look at what she created. All around her, like thumbprints in wet clay, were plain women and poor men without hope or self-respect, rich men without morals, and predatory women without compunction in their competition. Pain spreads; misery is contagious, and greed and self-worship are the germ of the disease, Orchid thought. In the end she'd been disgusted, and she'd told the woman that she was a canary and could say nothing but "cheep."
The screams of "Cheep! CHEEP!" from below had been amusing in a macabre way, but Orchid couldn't be sure even in her own mind if she did this to torment her victim or to torment herself. It was all one to Hack; he'd nodded when she'd handed the woman over, and nothing more.
Orchid moved to the window, looking out to the east as the black began to grow faintly blue with the dawn. Her skin began to tingle, a sensation unmatched in her chest. Bracing herself, she felt her mind touch on it again: My heart is not beating. She clenched her fists, took a deep breath that she didn't need
HOW QUAINT. THE CREATURE RESPIRES BY HABIT. Daxrathas had been amused by it -- the habit of humanity. When she forgot it, she stopped; when she remembered, the nausea ran through her in a bolt. She stood looking out past the asylum gates, still gazing into the east until long after the heat on her skin had begun to burn.
Sunny Day Asylum. Orchid sighed. Where every day is a sunny day.
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