Monthly Archives: March 2018

The Second Chance Club – Ep 06 – Act 4

When Val stepped into the ring it felt like coming home. All at once she was thirteen again, the roar of the women who’d gathered for Lara and Sam’s bachelorette party the same as the roar of the first crowd she’d fought in front of.

Fighting was something that was in Val’s blood. It had been since before she’d even started training in martial arts. Fighting in an arena was different though. She could be a showman. She could play to the crowd and sell hits that hadn’t landed with anywhere near enough force to knock her down. Performing was an art however, one that distanced her from the honest clarity a good fight offered.

The trouble was, no one wanted to see an honest brawl. They wanted exciting moments. They wanted a good back and forth between the fighters. If it looked like an even contest, a good pair of performers could send the audiences’ emotions on a rollercoaster like no other. A one sided slaughter though was boring for everyone involved.

From her corner, Val watched as Nike, her opponent, entered the ring. Val tried to judge from how the woman carried herself and how she approached the fight whether she was going to play along with a more theatrical bout for the crowd’s sake.

Nike climbed through the ropes and locked eyes with Val, sizing her up with a fire in gaze that told Val Nike was taking the fight seriously.

They had a few moments to prepare in their corners before the bell rang, and Val breathed, settling her mind into the state of relaxed awareness that a really good battle required.

That turned out to be the right tact to take as Nike came out swinging the instant the bell sounded.

She was taller than Val, but for as furious as her initial flurry of blows was, Nike didn’t commit herself to any of them. They were questions, asked in a language Val spoke fluently.

How far can you reach? the first punch asked.

How fast can you react? the second punch inquired.

Val responded with the standard Muay Thai answer of attacking the attacks, meeting Nike’s punches with ones of her own.

I can’t reach as far as you, but I’m faster, Val said with well timed blows to Nike’s arms.

The two danced apart after the initial fray.

You think you’re good enough to hang with me? Val’s posture and footwork asked, playful and taunting.

Try me, Nike responded with a posture that was all business and focus.

Ok, I will, Val said by lunging forward with a low kick to Nike’s legs. Val didn’t want to cripple her or end the fight early, so she pulled the force from the blow. That was a mistake.

No respect? Nike caught Val with a hard knee to the midsection, anger driving it in deeper as an exclamation point.

Oh, you want to play for real? Val’s smirk asked, after she recovered from the blow.

Prove you’re in my league or I don’t have any time for you, Nike said by unleashing a hail of close in blows.

She wasn’t holding back or going for theatrics. She threw her shots with enough force that if they landed they would have put Val on the mat. Even being able to defend against them required having the a well honed fighting mindset.

Where the pain from the first punch to connect would have rattled a new fighter and left them wide open to be obliterated, Val knew the right answer without thinking. She turtled up catching two blows on her arms and leaned into the assault, reducing Nike’s range of motion and opening the taller women up for a series of counter attacks that pushed the two of them apart.

Ok, let’s do this then, Val said with a series of short, hard strikes, not committing herself fully to any of them but rather using each one to bait out a response from her foe.

Nike was too cagey of a fighter to fall for that trap. She ranged outside Val’s reach, wary and ready for their next engagement.

They’d agreed on the terms of the battle in their first few exchanges, and demonstrated a little of their prowess to convince the other they were serious. Despite that, Nike still looked unconvinced that Val was really much of a threat.

You’ve got nothing, Nike said with a series of hard punches that brought her in close enough to unleash a brutally fast knee strike to Val’s ribs. The hits weren’t taunts, they weren’t focused on making Val mad or humiliating her. They were an assertion. Nike didn’t feel like playing around more than she had to, so she threw her blows to end the fight immediately.

Val blocked each of the attacks with counterstrikes targeting the limbs Nike extended.

Punch. Counter to the forearm.

Punch. Counter to the wrist.

Kick. Counter to the knee.

Val had been playing before, but in the face of Nike’s attacks, she got serious. Not deadly serious, and certainly not “call on magical aid” serious. The fight wasn’t a joke though, and it wasn’t about pretending. Nike demanded a real battle, and so Val honored that desire.

You’re fast, she said with a series of rapid strike that flashed around Nike’s body, targeting head, groin, and ribs. They weren’t individually decisive but even with Nike blocking them, the cumulative effect was considerable.

Out of respect for Nike’s strength and speed each of Val’s attacks snapped back to a defensive guard the instant after landing. She was fighting with the caution that someone who was facing a skilled foe would employ, landing hits that drove towards victory while at the same time foregoing risky openings, even when they were ones Nike hadn’t intended to leave.

For her part, Nike answered in kind.

You’re stronger than you look, she said, dancing away from Val’s blows rather than muscling through them.

You’re not afraid to take hits, Val said by giving Nike an opening that Nike had to pay for by absorbing a shot right across her temple.

Neither are you, Nike said with a trio of knee strikes that Val was able to diminish the force of by moving into them rather than trying to get away.

Good form, Val said.

Good balance, Nike said.

You’re looser than I expected, Val said.

I’m always loose when I’m fighting, Nike said. I love this stuff.

It’s the only time everything drops away and things just feel right isn’t it? Val asked.

Exactly, Nike said.

That’s why you don’t like fooling around in a fight isn’t it? Val asked

Yeah, I hate when people don’t take it seriously.

Because they’re not taking you seriously?

Nah, I don’t care what anybody thinks about me, Nike’s footwork and gaze said.

That’s tough to do, Val said.

I’m pretty tough.

Pretty and tough you mean, Val’s smile said.

You ain’t so bad either for a latina girl, Nike said with an answering smile.

Thanks, Val said, I’m not quite as tough as you, I guess. People can really bum me out.

Well, yeah, that can suck.

Whether it’s in and out of the ring right?


How are the folks here? You get many good matches? Val asked.

I got a good match going now, Nike said.

Folks here ain’t on your level though, are they? Val asked.

Nah, Nike said. I mean some are ok, but they ain’t really where I need to be.

You ever try teaching? Val asked.

I’m not a good teacher, Nike said.

Now that ain’t true, Val said. You’re showing me some nice footwork and that knee jab combo? I’m already stealing that.

Yeah, but you listen to me. You get it. The normal girls here, they just don’t.

I’ve had a lot of practice being a student, Val said.

Not me, Nike said. I just pick stuff up, you know?

I do, Val said. When you’re gifted, it’s hard to find any teachers that can keep up with you.

Yeah, I don’t want to play around and get sloppy, but when I take a fight seriously suddenly people get all mad at me, Nike said.

Because they think you’re mad at them, Val said.

Nah, I’m never mad when I get in the ring, Nike said. This is where the fun happens.

It’s the intensity, Val said. What you bring to the ring is so much more than what they’re used to that they think you’re holding back a ton of rage.

So what, I’m supposed to be nice and smile more?

Nah, you be you, and anybody tells you to smile more? That’s when you get mad, Val said. We just need to get you fighting with the right crowd.

You got some Warrior Princess friends? Nike asked.

Yeah and I think I’m making a new one now, Val said.


The wedding was a simple affair, with family and friends close enough to be family in attendance. There were only a few important seats empty and despite that Sam looked radiant, and Lara’s gown gave Val a brief thrill and regret that things hadn’t turned out differently between them.

The art gallery where they held the ceremony felt like both a distant land to Val and also the natural milieu where the two brides belonged.

Lara had always been a gym rat, more comfortable in sweats and a t-shirt than anything else. Seeing her in a formal gown, hand in hand with the woman she loved, though Val felt like she was at last seeing the complete picture of her oldest and dearest friend.

There’d always been an elegance and serenity inside Lara just biding its time, and with Sam she’d found someone who could draw that part of her out and allow her to be everything she could be.

A tear creased Val’s eye. Whether it was from knowing that she couldn’t have been that person for Lara, or happiness for her friend, or even the distant hope of finding someone like that for herself, Val couldn’t decide.

“You know, technically, you didn’t win that bet,” Lara said later as Val swept her onto the dance floor.

“And yet, here I am dancing with you, so I’d say technically I did,” Val said, spinning Lara out before pulling her back in for a deep dip.

“Tell me the truth,” Lara said. “You threw that fight didn’t you?”

“Throwing the fight would suggest that I Iost it, and I point out, that I did not lose,” Val said.

“Yeah, but a tie? Really? Come on, when have you ever tied before?” Lara asked.

“All the times I didn’t win or lose,” Val said, smiling. “Seriously though, Oyenike is that good. She’s a prodigy.”

“It’s nice what you’re doing for her,” Lara said.

“The Nationals trip?” Val said. “That’s only part of what she needs. I’m going to see if I can hook her up with some of the people I’ve trained under. She’s so damn gifted, but a lot of what she knows she’s had to pick up and work out for herself.”

“I thought that’s what all the great masters did?” Lara asked.

“To some extent, but it’s always nice to have someone who knows what they’re talking about there to provide another perspective.”

“To see the mistakes you’re making?” Lara asked.

“Or the things you’re doing right that you don’t want to lose,” Val said.

“So what kind of external perspective can you give me?” Lara asked.

“Today? You are doing everything right today,” Val said.

“I couldn’t believe I was going through with it this morning,” Lara said. “I never thought this day would ever really happen.”

“I’m glad it did,” Val said. “Sam’s put a smile on your face that I never could.”

“You put plenty of smiles on my face,” Lara said.

“Yeah, but not like this one,” Val said. “We had crazy, wild times, and I hope we’ll still have them again, but this? What I see today? You look…peaceful. Like your soul is in harmony with all of the rest of you. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you looking like that.”

“I think that’s what scares me,” Lara said. “What I’ve got here is so good.”

“For what it’s worth, Sam looks exactly the same,” Val said.

“Thank you,” Lara said, tears sparkling in her eyes.

“For what?” Val asked. “I’m only saying what everyone here can see.”

“For more than that,” Lara said. “For being you. For this dance. Everyone knows it was supposed to be my Dad who had the first dance, but he…”

“He should have been here sooner,” her father said and asked, “may I cut in?”

Lara blinked back the tears as surprise and amazement stole over her features. Her father had been the last hold out, the last one resisting the idea of his daughter marrying another woman, but here he was, in a perfectly fitted tuxedo, looking as dapper and suave as he’d ever been.

Lara looked at Val, who nodded in confirmation. It had taken only a few words from Val and a small intervention on Jimmy B’s part to get the tuxedo, but her father wasn’t going to miss one of the best days in his daughter’s life.

Sometimes rifts are too deep to mend but sometimes all people need is a second chance to do the right thing.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 06 – Act 3

As a teenager, Val had always relished a good fight, whether it was in or out of the ring. Walking into the “Pathways to Health Fitness Center”, she felt a tingle of nerves dance along her fingertips. She wasn’t there for a fight, not yet, but the anticipation was starting to sing within her.

“It’s been awhile since I’ve been in the ring,” she said, glancing over at Lara who was holding the main door open for her.

“Don’t worry, it’s like falling off a bike,” Lara said, smirking at Val’s unaccustomed nervousness.

“Got it. Break her fists with my face. I can do that.”

A call to James for some mystical assistance would allow Val to do exactly that, but this was absolutely not a scenario where the Second Chance Club’s arcane resources were appropriate, or even desired.

“Just put on a good show,” Lara said, leading them past the reception desk with a wave at the woman behind the counter. “This is supposed to be a fun night for the girls who’ve been supporting us.”

“So knocking Sam’s champion out in the first thirty seconds isn’t the game plan then?” Val asked. Against most opponents, Val wouldn’t need even the weakest of the Club’s enchantments to make good on that boast. Sam was putting forward her best fighter though, so Val figured the fight would last at least a minute or so.

Her confidence would have been unusual in someone who’d been as injured as she was, as recently as she’d been. Physical therapy wasn’t a fast process, and there were often complications or long term effects that took years to sort out. Even just the loss of six months worth of muscle development would have held a lot of people back from thinking they could compete at the level they had previously. Her physical state wasn’t a problem for Val though.

“You know, I didn’t think to ask, but you are cleared for this right?” Lara said. “I mean, you look fine…”

“Thank you,” Val said with a smile.

“But I know you lie about that kind of thing all the time, Ms ‘I’ll go to the prom with a fractured rib’.”

“That was a one time thing,” Val said. “And yes, I passed my last physical with flying colors. I’m probably in better shape now than I was when I was kid.”

Lara led her past a room with high tech exercise bikes, and another where a spinning class was in session.

“You must have been working with a great medical team,” Lara said.

“I was. Still wasn’t fun mind you, but they were some of the best people in the country.”

The Club’s medical benefits were impressive by any measure, and that was before accounting for the magical treatment options they had occasional access to.

“How did you afford all that? I thought the Army kicked you out?” Lara asked.

“Honorably discharged.” Val correct her. “The costs were all part of my signing bonus with the Second Chance Club.”

“That’s a pretty sweet deal then,” Lara said. “What do they have you doing for it though?”

“Investigation, troubleshooting, and problem resolution for a diverse mix of clientele,” Val said. “Or at least that’s what the official job description says. Mostly, we just find ways to help people who are in trouble.”

“That sounds nice. Vague, but nice. How’d you find them?” Lara stopped before a door with the words “Employees Only” on it.

“They found me,” Val said, following Lara into the health center’s back office. “I was still in a coma at the time and they arranged for my transfer to the facility where I woke up.”

“Wait, so they hired you before you were even conscious enough to interview?”

“Better than that, I was on the payroll from the first week I was in therapy,” Val said. “Charlene, that’s our boss, came to see me once I was conscious for more than a few minutes at a time and made the job offer.”

“Like there was some chance that you’d turn it down?” Lara asked.

“Yeah, I was kind of scrambled at that point,” Val said. “Part of me was thinking that if I could just get better fast enough that the Army would take me back. The more I worked at it though, the more I found I didn’t really want to go back. Of course part of that was Charlene cheating too.”

“How did she cheat?” Lara asked.

“She wouldn’t let me answer yes or no until my neural exams came back with a clean bill of health. Coming out of the coma I had a bit of impairment in my speech and attention. While I was recuperating though, she sent over some of the casefiles that Anna and Tam were working on.”

“Anna and Tam are your coworkers?”

“Yeah, we’re the field team,” Val said. “JB kept filling me in on these great things they were doing though. Stuff like locating a lost boat that was carrying a major supply shipment meant for refugees in Jordan, or the one where they ran witness protection for someone testifying against a corrupt police chief. It was like every day JB would drop by with some awesome adventure the their team was working on.”

“Who’s JB?” Lara asked, leading Val to a door labeled ‘Samantha Cruz’. The door was open but the woman inside was on the phone so Lara paused outside and indicated to Val to wait.

“They’re our public liaison,” Val said. “They handle dealing with the people on the periphery of our cases. Law enforcement, caterers, supply clerks. I don’t know if JB has an endless pool of contacts or if they’re just phenomenal at making friends in an eyeblink but they save us about ten million headaches every time we go out to deal with a crisis of some sort.”

“Are they looking for a new job?” the woman behind the head desk, Sam, asked, putting her phone on the desk. “Cause god I could use someone like that today.”

“City inspector’s still making excuses to not come by?” Lara asked, leading Val into Sam’s office.

“What needs inspection?” Val asked.

“We had our new pool building put up two months ago, but the inspector won’t get out here and give us the CO that we need to open it up for public use,” Sam said.

“What’s his excuse this time?” Lara asked, picking up a pamphlet of papers from Sam’s desk.

“He says it’s against his values,” Sam said. “He’s claiming he shouldn’t have to authorize buildings for a use that he finds offensive.”

“It’s a pool,” Lara said, frowning.

“Yeah, but it’s about who owns the pool, and who would be using the pool,” Sam said, massaging her temples.

“Given me one second,” Val said and tapped out a quick text to JB.

A reply appeared a few seconds later. Anna and Tam were enjoying some time off too so things were slow at the Club.

Sam and Lara watched curiously as a few more texts went back and forth before Val looked up.

“Ok, looks like Brad Cosgrave, your previously assigned inspector is going to be sent for some diversity training which he was overdue for, and Inspector Sara Meltzer will be out tomorrow to verify your pool installation.”

“What? Really?” Sam asked.

“Yeah. I wasn’t kidding when I said JB knows everybody.” She smiled. Sometimes wins were easy to come by but it didn’t make them feel any less awesome.

“I would kiss you but my fiance is right here,” Sam said.

“Get in line, I might kiss her first!” Lara said.

“I have sworn off kissing engaged people,” Val said with a laugh. “Too many things get thrown at me when I do that.”

“Lara told me about that,” Sam said. “But that was more of a ‘failed to get engaged’ scenario wasn’t it?”

“I think we’re filing that under ‘it was messy’,” Val said. “But it’s nice to see that it seems to have worked out for the best.” She gestured to the two of them and the picture of domestic harmony they were already radiating, noting in particular the engagement rings that Lara and Sam both wore. Sam smiled broadly and stretched her hand out to give Val a better look at it.

“I  suspect I don’t have to tell you how lucky I am to be wearing this?” she said.

“Your wife-to-be said pretty much the same thing about the one she’s got,” Val said, leaning back with a smile and taking the two women in. “So of course you’re going to start things out with a proxy war.”

“This surprises you?” Lara asked. “You’ve known me how long?”

“I have to confess, I have plans within plans here,” Sam said.

“Have a I mentioned that she’s really smart?” Lara said.

“What are you scheming?” Val asked.

She’d wondered if meeting Sam would be awkward, a fiance and an ex-lover don’t always make the best of impressions on each other, but Sam seemed secure enough in Lara’s affection and Val secure enough in having moved on that no cloud of jealousy boiled up between them. They were just two women who happened to care about the same person but in different ways.

“Lara says you’re good. After the fight, I need to hear what you think about the girl who’s getting into the ring for me,” Sam said.

“That sounds reasonable enough. What’s the catch?” Val asked.

“Oyenike Ladipo, have you heard of her?” Sam asked.

“Doesn’t ring a bell,” Val said, looking to Lara for a clue. Lara rolled her eyes in whatever the opposite of surprise was at Sam’s choice.

“Nike is going to be my champion for our bet,” Sam said. “She’s good. Really good. I want to encourage her to go for the nationals this year.”

“If she’s good shouldn’t she be shooting for that on her own?” Val asked.

“She’s got a few issues,” Sam said.

“Issues like what?”

“Like she’s never lost, so she’s got a huge chip on her shoulder and a terrible attitude towards competition,” Lara said.

“Maybe,” Sam said. “I think she’s got the makings of a great fighter, but I’m not a coach, and I’m certainly not a prize winning fighter myself.”

“So you’d like an expert opinion on whether she’ll be able to cope with the stress or wind up getting hurt?” Val asked.

“I’m more concerned whether she’ll hurt anyone else,” Sam said. “I don’t want to encourage her to go for something if she’s going to completely lose control.”

Val glanced over at Lara.

“And this is who I’m getting into the ring with?”

“She’ll be fine for this,” Sam said. “She knows this is a friendly bout, and that she’s supposed to put on a good show more than just knock you out.”

“Wait, she thinks she’s going to win this one?” Val asked.

“She’s in top shape, and she practices daily. No offense, but this will be your first time fighting since you recovered right? I know you were good back in the day but it sounds like you’re at least a little out of practice at the moment.”

Val laughed.

“Yeah, this will be the first time I’ll be back in the ring,” she said with a smile that lingered from her laughter.

“If you’re not sure about it, I can ask one of the other girls,” Lara said. “If you get hurt, you know that your mother will kill me so damn hard, and I don’t really want to miss my wedding on account of being dead.”

“I’ll be fine,” Val said, still amused.

She hadn’t been in a ring since before she joined the Army. That was true. Fighting however? That was something she was in better shape for than she’d ever been. Her daily workout routine would put most heavy weights to shame, and she’d had the chance to work with some very gifted teachers as part of her rehabilitation. Charlene had seen potential in her and hadn’t been lax about providing opportunities for Val to develop that potential, both in the areas she was strong in and the ones where she was weak.

“So, how about a side wager,” Val suggested.

“What did you have in mind?” Lara asked, eyes narrowing in suspicion. She knew Val far too well to trust what was going to come next.

“If I lose, I’ll make sure Nike has travel and lodging accommodations all set up for the nationals,” Val said.

“And if you win?” Sam asked.

“I get the first dance with my-friend-the-bride at the reception.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 06 – Act 2

Two years. It wasn’t a long time, but Val could recount almost every day of them. From the moment when the Jeep she was riding in was struck broadside by a minivan, to the agony and strain of just staying alive in the ambulance, and then the long months of rehab. Each tiring, terrifying days she spent stitching her shattered body back together was etched into her memory with perfect clarity. The only days she couldn’t recall were the six months when she’d been lost to the world entirely. Comatose, with no signs of possible recovery.

“But you remember the accident?” Lara asked. They’d managed to meet up on the day after the fitting, choosing a Starbucks near Lara’s gym for old times sake.

“Every bone crunching moment of it,” Val said. “One second we were heading back from a supply run laughing and joking and the next we got T-boned. Found out later the guy driving the other car had a heart attack, so, you know, not exactly his fault entirely.”

“Damn, that is bad luck,” Lara said. “I’m surprised you remember it though. I thought coma victims usually lost a lot of their memories?”

“It differs,” Val said. “I was out for a lot longer than most, but I had a great team helping with my recovery so it kind of balanced out.”

“That’s who you’re working for now right?” Lara asked.

“Yeah. Three months into my coma, the Army decided I wasn’t fit to serve, which was true,” Val said. “I can’t blame them. At that point there was no sign when, or if, I was going to wake up. And if I did wake up there was no guarantee that what was left of me would be able to serve in any capacity. My current team picked me up sometime after that.”

“Well, the Army’s loss right?” Lara said. “You’re looking pretty good from what I can see.”

“Says the evil woman who’s marrying someone else,” Val words would have held pain and recrimination half a decade earlier but that was a lifetime ago, and even before the accident she and Lara had made peace with what seemed like the insurmountable mountain of drama between them at the time.

“You had your chance girl,” Lara said shaking her forefinger back and forth.

“Hey, I tried to give you a ring,” Val objected. “You threw it back at me! No, I correct myself, you pitched it at me like a fastball! Overhand!”

“Yeah, whatever happened with you two?” Elena asked. “You got in some big fight didn’t you? Right before Val left for the Army?”

“She cheated on me,” Lara said.

“Now wait, that’s technically true, but there was a whole lot of cheating and miscommunication going on there, you’ve got to own up to that,” Val said.

Lara bowed her head and shrugged.

“Yeah, we were young and stupid,” she said. “I mean that wasn’t even that long ago but I look back now and I want to slap my teenage self. She was such an idiot.”

“At least you didn’t sleep with Kevin Louganis,” Val said. “God why? What was I thinking?”

“That you needed to get back at me,” Lara said.

“For something you hadn’t even done!” Val groaned.

“So you two were dating, then you broke up and slept around, and now she’s your Maid of Honor?” Elena asked. “How does that work?”

“Lara is a very forgiving person,” Val said.

“And Val’s good at apologizing sincerely,” Lara said. “After I returned her ring, I started feeling a bit bad about, you know, hurling it at her face.”

“Wait, back up, why was there a ring involved at all here?” Elena asked.

“The usual reason,” Val said. “I asked her to marry me.”

“You did what?” Elena jumped in her seat. “Did Mom and Dad know?”

“Not exactly,” Val said.

“She wanted to elope,” Lara said. “What did you say? ‘I was stupid, here you wanted this, let’s grab a bus to Vegas’?”

“In my defense, it seemed like a great plan at the time, but I did come to see that there would have been a few problems with it,” Val said.

“Yeah, the first one being that your mother wouldn’t have had time to kill us, because we would have killed each other first,” Lara said.

“We might have made it as far as Philly before that though,” Val said. “That would have been a nice long engagement right?”

“So how did you get from ‘murder each other on a bus’ to here?” Elena asked.

“Step one was throwing the ring back at her,” Lara said.

“Step two was going away and thinking about what I really wanted,” Val said. “The ring and the proposal weren’t really honest. I felt bad, and I thought I could buy forgiveness by making a giant gesture.”

“I didn’t want a huge thing though,” Lara said.

“Yeah, I didn’t either it turned out,” Val said. “I just wanted my friend back.”

“So did you two never…?” Elena asked.

“Sleep together? Oh that wasn’t problem,” Lara said. “That part was fantastic. It was what it did to the rest of our relationship that sucked.”

“I don’t know if either of us were ready for a relationship like that,” Val said. “I know I wasn’t, and I think I kind of went overboard.”

“Oh, I was out of my mind too,” Lara said. “I remember being livid – like burst a blood vessel enraged – when you gave me that ring. When I look back now though, I don’t get it. I mean I know what I was thinking at the time, that you weren’t taking me serious and were just mocking my feelings,  but how the hell couldn’t I see where you were coming from? That you were just so hurting and trying to make things right?”

“The same way I couldn’t see just how bad stabbing you in the back had hurt you. It’s easy to get lost in our own pain.”

“You were leaving too,” Lara said. “I think that’s where everything started for me. I knew I was going to lose you to the Army after school ended and then all the stupid drama happened and suddenly I was losing you right away. I had a dump truck full of sadness and anger inside me and it had to come out somewhere and make an ugly mess.”

“The funny thing is? I wasn’t even thinking of the Army as being a big deal for us,” Val said. “I thought, ‘I’ll go to the Army, and Lara will be there when I get out and we’ll make some kind of awesome life for ourselves’.”

“So why didn’t you?” Elena asked. “No offense to Sam, but if you two made up after your big fight, why not get back together?”

“We talked about it,” Lara said.

“I was still leaving for the Army though,” Val said. “And once we were broken up, it was easier to go back to being friends. Right?”

“Definitely,” Lara said. “I’ve loved you since second grade, but we were just not meant to be in love with each other. Not like that at least.”

“Sam’s the one though is she?” Val asked, stirring her coffee and watching it swirl.

“I think so,” Lara said with a happy sigh.

“What’s the she like?” Val asked, looking up to take in the contentment in her best friends eyes.

“She’s grounded, like a rock I can hold onto,” Lara said.

“And then there are the parts of her that aren’t her abs,” Elena said and ducked a playful swat from Lara.

“No, seriously, I know I can be a bit over the top sometimes. It doesn’t take much to drive me up a wall. Sam though? She’s able to bring me back down.”

“That sounds a lot healthier than what we had,” Val said. “You’d go off on something and I’d be there going off twice as loud.”

“I think that’s why you were always my best friend,” Lara said. “No matter what, you always had my back.”

“Damn straight,” Val said and held up her fist.

“Straight as a rainbow,” Lara said completing the fist bump.

“Oh my god you two!” Elena said, mocking a scandalized expression. “If you’re like this now, you must have been disasters when you were in school.”


“We were.”

“Why did Mom ever let you out of the house?” Elena asked, turning to Val.

“It was either let me out or I’d sneak out,” Val said. “Plus she knew Lara had enough sense to keep me from getting in too much trouble.”

“What’s hysterical is that my mother though the same thing about you,” Lara said.

“If they only knew,” Val said.

“I used to think we were clever, but you know, I think they had a good idea the kind of things we got up to. I mean they were teenagers once too, and from the stories I’ve heard they raised all kinds of hell before they settled down.”

“Probably best if we never dig too deep into that, but now that you’ve said it, I’ve got to admit I am damn curious to know what Teen Sophia was like,” Val said.

“Picture us I guess, but in the 70s and 80s,” Lara said.

“And now I regret my curiosity,” Val said with a chuckle. She drained her coffee before adding, “You said you had a special request to make though didn’t you? Some unusual part of the wedding?”

“Not the wedding, the bachelorette party,” Lara said.

“I could swear you once said you had no interest in having one of those?” Val said.

“That’s when my mother was talking about marrying me off to some guy,” Lara said. “And anyways, this is more than a bachelorette party. It’s an affair of honor.”

Val drew back and cocked her head to the side.

“A what now?”

“Sam owns a women’s fitness club,” Lara said. “It’s how we met. She came by my gym to see if she could expand by buying me out.”

“And you told her to go to hell because you’d never sell your grandad’s place,” Val said.

“I could have done that, but instead I asked her out to dinner to talk about it,” Lara said.

“Were you seriously considering selling?” Val asked. Lara had been unimaginably proud when she’d inherited the gym. Unless the business was in deep distress, Val couldn’t imagine Lara parting with it.

“No. Never. But as Elena said; Abs. My god, they were hypnotic.”

“Okay then,” Val said with an appreciative laugh. “Did you propose that night?”

“No, we just had a nice meal,” Lara said. “I didn’t know she was even into me at all until the third time we went out.”

“Oh that is typical Lara,” Val said. “Tell me she didn’t throw you onto a bed and just smooch you?”

“Wait, is that what you did to her?” Elena asked.

“Yes, it is,” Lara said. “And no, Sam was much more polite about it.”

“You dared me to do it!” Val said.

“I believe I mentioned we were stupid when we were kids,” Lara said as an aside to Elena.

“Ok, but tell her about your bet!” Elena said.

“I was getting to that,” Lara said. “When we decided to get married, we went back to the idea of combining our businesses. Sam’s place is more of a health club with a decent set of speciality courses, and mine’s more of a boxing gym with a smaller number of general fitness programs.”

“Sounds like an excellent match then,” Val said.

“It is. What we’re trying to decide is which of our business names we want to consolidate under,” Lara said.

“And this is something special you’re planning to work out at your Bachelorette?” Val asked in disbelief. “Is the honeymoon going to be a trip to the tax assessor’s office?”

“Oh, we’re not talking this one out,” Lara said. “We going to mats over it.”

“What?” Val asked, perplexed.

“The girls from our places wanted to help us celebrate, and so we wanted to put on a bit of a show for them,” Lara said. “Sam had the idea to make a wager for the naming of our combined businesses, and then we’d have a Champion’s Battle between our best fighters to see whose honor would reign supreme!”

“That sounds like the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Val said try to hold back the grin from her lips.

“Aww, you don’t want to be part of it?” Lara asked, her bottom lip dropping into a pout.

“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss this for world!”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 06 – Act 1

Val stepped out of the taxi cab and sighed. No matter how far she traveled, or the dizzying number of people she met, there really was no place like home. That didn’t mean returning was necessarily easy though.

“You’re late!” Sophia Perez, Val’s mother said, bapping her daughter on the shoulder. Val’s mother wasn’t a fighter. Not in the technical sense that Val was anyways. That didn’t mean she couldn’t throw a decent punch though. Val’s interest in fighting had been fostered by her mother first and foremost. Fortunately her mother didn’t throw actual punches at her loved ones. Those were reserved for the people who dared to raise a hand against her family.

“Hey!” Val complained. “I got here an hour before I said I would!”

“An hour early and a year late!” her mother said, and picked up both of Val’s bags as the taxi cab driver passed them over. Val groaned. It wasn’t that her mother was wrong but that didn’t mean Val felt like admitting that she hadn’t been home in far, far too long.

“Is Elena home yet?” Val asked, wishing her sister had been the one to meet her rather than her mother. Elena would have teased her too, but Val would have been able to tease her back.

“You probably know better than I do,” her mother said, starting up the stairs that lead to their second floor apartment. “She talks to you on the texts more that she talks to me.”

Val tagged along in her mother’s wake, knowing that trying to wrestle her bags away was not a battle she needed to wage at the moment. Sophia Perez had opinions about her children leaving her, and while she was far more reasonable than she pretended to be, there were times when she felt the need to demonstrate her feelings forcefully.

Val could have objected. She was an adult and could have demanded to be treated like one. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Or the hundreth probably. Moreso than wanting to avoid a fight though, Val went along with her mother’s desire to herd her into the apartment because she felt like she was the Prodigal daughter coming home at last.

They’d parted on poor terms many times in the past, but their last parting hadn’t been a bad one. It had been in a hospital, the day before Val was moved to a facility to start six months of physical therapy. There’d been tears but they’d been happy ones.

Six months was a long time though, and it had been longer than that before Val was back to feeling 100%, and in that time, a strange guilt over not reaching out to her mother had settled into her.

On the long list of items she had to work on while she was home, making up for her long absence was near the top of the list.

“Val? You’re early!” Elena called out when they got into the apartment. Their mother scowled at that but didn’t correct her youngest daughter.

Val and her mother were starkly different in their appearance. There were a few similarities, the shape of their noses, the cast of their chin, things an artist might notice but weren’t strong enough to mark them as related to unfamiliar eyes. Elena on the other hand could have been her mother’s clone. Pictures of Sophia from when she was 16 years old and pictures of Elena as she currently was could have been mistaken for images of the same girl.

The only differences lay in their eyes and the expressions they most commonly wore. At 16, Sophia’s eyes showed the toughness that she would carry with her throughout her life. Her lips were often tight and her jaw set, ready to kick life right back in the teeth when it tried to knock her down. Elena’s outlook was a hundred degrees warmer. She hadn’t lived a perfect life, but she’d had people behind her, helping her up when she fell, and urging her onwards when she was ready to fly on to new things.

Sophia Perez had failed at many things in her life, but she had never failed to give her children the love and support she herself had always craved.

“I was afraid the flight back from Denver wouldn’t arrive on time, so I hopped on an earlier one,” Val said. She didn’t explain that she’d been connecting through Denver after spending a weekend at an amusement park. If she had, they might have asked why she needed a weekend off in the middle of the country and an answer of “to soak away the Nazi blood I got all over myself when I rescued a bus full of kidnapped children” would have led to entirely too many questions she didn’t feel like getting into.

“Must be nice,” her sister said.

It was and it wasn’t. Val liked being able to believe in the work she did. She was overwhelmingly glad she’d been able to get to the right place, at the right time to save a little boy from some of the worst monsters to ever walk the earth. Despite that though, men had died. Killed by their comrades thanks to her subterfuges. Men who arguably deserved to die, but celebrating their deaths was a path Val knew she didn’t want to start walking down.

It was glorious to be alive, it was wonderful to feel safe again, but the cost of that had been confirming that the men who died would never be anything more than the monsters they’d devolved into. Val was a soldier, despite her honorable discharge, and she knew that sometimes winning required acknowledging that the best solution was unreachable. Sometimes for someone to win, somebody else had to lose. A true victory though didn’t leave people dead. A true victory left them changed. It left the people who were imperiled safe and secure and those who imperiled them yearning with all their hearts to change for the better.

“You’re in your old room. Nothing’s changed,” her mother said, dropping Val’s bags on the bed that she’d slept on since she was twelve.

Val glanced into the room. Her mother’s claim wasn’t strictly true. The room was clean for one thing and it had never looked like that when it was Val’s personal sanctum. Apart from that though, it did look reasonably similar to how she’d last left it.

On the top of the bureau stood her collection of trophies, including the two Regional Championship trophies for Muay Thai kickboxing and the one for Escrima. They’d been a source of pride to the whole family when she’d won them, her mother’s cheering only slightly louder than her father’s during Val’s final bouts.

The trophies weren’t in their old arrangement though. And her nightstand didn’t have her favorite frog charm on it any longer. In her absence things had changed, but Val had to smile at the work her mother had done to put things back as best as they could be. Whatever else was missing, the love was still there.

“It looks perfect,” she said.

“Don’t settle in too much,” Elena said. “We should get going to the fitting. If we’re late for that Lara’s going to kill us.”

Val glanced at her mother, wondering what the reaction would be to her leaving so soon after arriving.

“You know when dinner is,” her mother said and wandered off to the kitchen. In Mom-speak that was code for “you are free to go”.


The fitting for her bridal gown turned out to be Val’s least favorite part of the day. Not because the gowns were terrible. Lara had chosen a golden cream color for her bridesmaids that Val felt she looked reasonably decent in. The seamstress was in a hurry to get through the fitting though and jabbed Val more than once, in what Val suspected was revenge for Val not standing perfectly still.

“I thought Lara was going to be here with us?” Val asked, thinking that some forms of suffering were meant to be shared.

“She had her fitting last week,” Elena said. “Her and Sam were going to check out the spot they had picked out for the bachelorette party.”

“Together?” Val asked, turning to see if Elena was serious. That earned her another jab from the seamstress. A deliberate one.

“Yeah, they wanted to make sure it was going to have enough space,” Elena said.

Val’s thoughts swam.

“Wait, I thought Lara didn’t want a bachelorette? Is this Sam’s idea?” she asked. “How many people are going to be there?”

She thought she’d signed up to be part of a small, relatively quiet affair. Sam’s family wasn’t local and Lara’s was a not yet sure about the wedding.

“Just a few people.” Elena was terrible at lying when she was amused. Prying the truth out of her would have required bribery equal to whatever the surprise was though and Val didn’t think she had that kind of capital to work with.

“So what’s this Sam like anyways?” Val asked, frowning but staying still, lest she take another needle jab to a soft bit of flesh.

“She reminds me of you,” Elena said.

“She’s been in the military?” Val asked, wondering why she’d never asked Lara for a picture of her fiance.

“No. She’s a fighter though,” Elena said. “She’s got a bunch of trophies like you do, but hers are newer.”

“Ha.” Val didn’t dare move or actually laugh at the notion. She didn’t really need to either. Her competition trophies felt like they were from another life. One she was glad to have lived, but that she could put behind her too. Tournaments were fun, but they demanded a lot of preparation and commitment. Joining the Second Chance Club had given her rewards that were a lot more fulfilling than a collection of statues on a bureau. Especially the rewards with names and lives that they got to keep on living.

“Were you going to swing by the gym?” Elena asked.

“Why? Need me to spot you?” Val asked in return.

“No, I’m not fighting anymore,” Elena said.

“I thought you were planning to go to the City Wide tournament this year?” Val asked.

“I was. I still could I guess, but tournament training isn’t that fun. I just like sparring.”

“You’re still working at Lara’s gym though?” Val asked.

“Yeah, I’ve decided I want to go into sports medicine,” Elena said.

“Really? That’s awesome!” Val said. She knew her kid sister was smart, but there’d always been a question of how Elena would choose to apply her gifts. This was the first time Val could remember that Elena had expressed a definite interest in something. “What made you look into that?”

Working at the women’s boxing gym that Lara owned, would have given Elena plenty of opportunity to see various forms of sport-related injuries. Between the classes in Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu, people were regularly bruised and battered in any number of novel ways.

“You did,” Elena said.

“What?? I’ve never studied medicine,” Val said, which wasn’t strictly true but she didn’t count the first aid training she’d received in the Army the same as the kind of training Elena was looking for. The healing magics the Second Chance Club had access to were also a different matter, since they were unreliably available and usually required calling in favors that were better saved for as long as possible.

“Not like that,” Elena said. “More like, well, we didn’t really start texting until you were doing your recovery. I mean, I know that whole thing sucked for you, but the stuff you talked about? A lot of that it made sense. How they had to work each muscle independently and as a whole system. I remember seeing you on the hospital bed. That was not good. I didn’t think you’d ever be walking again. But, look, here you are!”

Val knew even better than Elena or anyone else did how bad off she’d been. If fate had followed its natural course, the car crash that ended her military career would have done more than put her in a coma for six months.

By all rights, Val knew she was supposed to be dead.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 05 – Act 4

Anna pulled the trigger and the hammer clicked on an empty chamber. Just like she knew it would. The weight of the gun had been wrong, but more importantly she’d been able to verify that it wasn’t loaded in the brief interval when the Brotherhood brought the young boy who stood before her into the room.

She made a show of checking the weapon as though it might have misfired, but everyone in the room knew it hadn’t. The Brotherhood hadn’t trusted her and the last thing you want to give to someone you don’t trust is a loaded firearm.

Once Anna had proven that the firearm was in working order, she held out her hand for a replacement, being careful to appear visibly unhappy with the trick they’d attempted to pull on her.

No one wanted to give her their own gun of course. Even those who were rapidly coming to believe her story found Anna’s demeanor intimidating.

Anna shrugged and reached into her pocket. That was too much for one of the jumpier members of the Brotherhood. Driven by a frothing panic, he drew his own firearm and stepped within a few feet of her, demanding that she drop the gun she was obviously reaching for.

Instead, she finished withdrawing her hand from her pocket, along with the buzzing smart phone she’d reached for.

The Brotherhood member was not pacified by site of a phone in place of the pistol he’d assumed she was reaching for. From his reaction to it, the phone was even more threatening of a weapon than a gun would have been.

Flecks of spittle flew from his mouth as he demanded to know who was on the other end of the line. He would shoot her if she didn’t tell him. He would shoot her right there, right in the head.

The flecks of spittle were shortly joined by a spray of blood.

In his panic and rage, he’d walked within Anna’s arm’s reach.

There are many methods of disarming someone. Anna chose one that would produce an audible snap as the bones in the man’s wrist shattered. Before the pistol could hit the floor, she scooped it up in the hand which had broken the man’s wrist, and then, before the other Brotherhood members could react, she used the pistol to smash the man in the face, breaking his nose and shattering his jaw.

The time for pretense was done, she had a large room of people to deal with, and she needed to make sure that the most trigger happy one among them wasn’t going to be a problem later.

Shooting him would have been the most efficient option to ensure he didn’t become a problem again, but she held back. Broken bones could heal, bruises would mend, but if she ended his life, that ended too many other things. Gone would be the slim chance that he would turn around and repudiate the man he’d devolved into, and gone would be the very real possibility of seeing justice done for the crimes he had been party to.

No one in the room was going to die.

That didn’t mean everyone would be leaving under their own power however. Or fully intact.

The primary myth of the gun is that bearing one is a path to safety. People see the power offered by a firearm as a means of guaranteeing their safety. When danger threatens they imagine that their gun will allow them to fight back, to shoot the other guy before they get shot themselves.

The reality however is that danger doesn’t arrive when you’re ready and prepared for it. It strikes at unforeseen moments, and usually has the initiative on even the most well prepared of people.

The Brotherhood had brought Anna into the control center questioning whether they were going to trust her or bury her in some forgotten acre of the forest. Anna, by contrast, had entered the control room knowing she was going to take down every last person inside it.

The numbers were against her, but she knew the general plan of what she would do before she stepped into the building. The specifics came to her in the moment, with some degree of improvisation (no plan survives exposure to reality), but overall she moved without pause or delay.

From the man with the broken wrist and face, she turned to the next most dangerous person in the room.

He started reaching for his gun the moment she turned her eyes on him, but her reflexes were already executing her plan while his were still figuring out exactly what he wanted to do.

She shot him in the hand. Hands aren’t critical body parts, but they are composed of highly delicate bones. Even after a number of surgeries, he wouldn’t regain full use of it, though he would learn, in time, to sketch portraits quite well with his diminished manual dexterity.

The next man to draw his weapon received the firearm Anna was holding as a projectile to his throat. He went down gagging and choking, in far too much pain to think about the rifle Anna took from his unresponsive fingers.

Of the rest of the men, the whole group had been sure that when they were in a life threatening situation they would instantly react just as their favorite action stars did, dropping one-liners and responding with clear headed speed and precision.

Precisely none of them managed that however.

For all their practice and training, none of them had envisioned the situation they were in turning violent. In the first few precious moments they each scrambled to first understand what was occurring, then evaluate the area around themselves, then form a proper response. Even something as simple as “draw gun, aim, and fire” was complicated by the fact that Anna didn’t stand still like a target dummy, or pop out in a static set of locations like their practice range targets.

The room held nine men, plus Anna, plus the child named Gabriel. Ann put the first two men down before any of the rest registered that a conflict had even begun. The other seven couldn’t manage to get out of each other’s line of fire long enough to get a shot off. They scrambled to find an avenue of attack and Anna broke them one by one.

By the time the fifth one was writhing on the floor the remaining four’s morale broke and they tried to flee instead of engage. That wasn’t an option Anna could allow them though. Tam was supposed to have rescued the children in the bus but if she was delayed, Anna needed to buy her as much time as possible.

One man tried to take Gabriel hostage.

That was a mistake.

Anna broke his back.

The last to fall was beyond panic and could barely articulate his threat as he waved a detonator switch in the air.

He was threatening the children in the bus. They were all wearing explosive leggings, and he was more than willing to blow them all up if Anna didn’t let him go.

There was a long moment when it looked like they would be stuck in a deadly standoff, but then Anna’s phone dinged with the arrival of a new message from Tam.

She glanced at the phone and then at the last Brotherhood member still standing. The calm delight on her face was too unnerving. The man released the detonator and blew up…not the children but the large stockpile of weapons the Brotherhood had collected on the base.


“How did you get the kids out of there?” Val asked. “I thought you said removing their leg bombs was going to take too long?”

She was relaxing in the inground hot tub adjacent to the main pool at the Anderson Water and Amusement Park. Charlene had rented out the entire park for the weekend and after trekking through the wilderness for hours evading the Brotherhood hunters who hadn’t gotten the memo that they were beaten, a long relaxing soak was exactly what the doctor ordered.

“That turned out to be pretty easy,” Tam said. “A couple of the kids knew sign, so I explained how to take the ankle bracelets off to them with my really poor signing skills and then let them watch me unlock one. They helped show the other kids how to do it and we cut the job down to fraction of the time.”

“But the bus still blew up?” Anna asked. She was less sore than Val, but the warm water still felt good on shoulders. She didn’t like violence, and especially didn’t like the degree of it she’d had to inflict, but life didn’t always arrange itself according to one’s preferences.

“I wasn’t sure how long we had before the SWAT teams showed up, so once the kids were off I put a rock on the bus’s accelerator pedal and sent it into the nearest building I could see,” Tam said. She was sipping from a fruit filled adult beverage whose silly name she hadn’t bothered to ask. Just so long as it had an umbrella and a straw she was happy.

“Yeah, what happened with the SWAT guys? I thought they were supposed to be rallying to follow us as fast as they could?” Val asked.

“The first story was that there was a mix up in the lines of communication,” Anna said.

“But then we recovered the data from the sniffer Anna brought into their communications hub and we found out that one of the local SWAT commanders and a few of the on duty officers were members of the Brotherhood,” Tam said.

“So Charlene was right to have JB do an end run around them. Huh, color me not at all shocked,” Val said.

“It does make some sense, right? The Brotherhood chose the location they did because they had the local police on their side,” Tam said. “Any investigation that lead to the Brotherhood’s doorstep would go through the office of some of its senior members.”

“Speaking of that, how did we do with identifying the people behind the organization?” Val asked.

“Well, we got their full member roster,” Tam said. “So those guys will all be doing time in separate federal prisons fairly soon I imagine.”

“We also found a number of their financial backers,” Anna said. “Jimmy B is already tracing the connections between them to see if we can catch any who might not have shown up on the ledgers we copied.”

A young boy went running past the hot tub, chased by two girls and another boy. One after the other they cannonballed into the pool and swam to the other side, leaping out of the pool as quick as they’d entered it to race up the stairs that led to the top of the Twisty Turns Fun Slide.

“Gabriel seems to have come out his ordeal ok,” Tam said, nodding at the boy in the lead.

“This weekend will be good for him, and good for all the children, but the scars of their abduction will linger too,” Anna said.

“I was talking with some of their parents,” Val said. “A lot of them are considering moving, but none of them know where they could go.”

“I don’t think there are any good answers for that,” Anna said. “We want so much to protect the ones closest to us, but safety isn’t something we buy for any amount of coin.”

“Charlene asked me to work on that,” Tam said. “Not perfect safety,” she amended. “But something that will make staying as a part of their community easier.”

“What are you going to put together?” Val asked.

“There was a lot of support offered online to the families who were affected,” Tam said. “It may help a little that people in other states or other countries were reaching out, but a fair bit of the support came from people in the community the kids and their families are a part of. Jimmy B’s and I are helping some organizers there put together events to show that the people they live with are going to stand with them, and protect them.”

“I like that,” Val said.

“It’s the only answer that works,” Anna said. “We can give them a second chance, but only when people come together can they truly make the world a better place.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 05 – Act 3

Anna didn’t assault the Scarlet Freedom Brotherhood members like Val did. She didn’t evade them like Tam did either. Anna favored a more direct approach, so she rang their proverbial doorbell.

The upside to infiltrating a heavily monitored compound was that it was incredibly easy to get the inhabitants’ attention. After scoping out the Brotherhood’s base from a distance, and allowing Val and Tam the time they needed to get in place, Anna simply drove up the main road on her motorcycle and knocked on the security gate.

The guard there tried to turn her away. It was what he would have done on any day but especially during “hunting season” when there couldn’t be any breaches in security. Even the most rabid of members knew that organized mass murder wasn’t something they could walk away from if someone outside their cult found out.

Anna tossed the guard a trio of skulls, small ones, looped together by a silver chain drilled through the temples and asked, in a broad German accent, if she was too late to join the fun.

The skulls weren’t real, or at least weren’t the skulls of human children as they appeared to be. The guard had neither the training nor the instruments to determine that however. His ears heard the voice of the Nazi Reich he so admired, and his imagination was all too eager to cast the tall, light haired woman with eyes of steel as a modern day angel of the Iron Cross, so he did what any loyal, unquestioning follower was supposed to do; he called the main camp to ask his superiors for permission to bring her in.

Anna’s answering smile to the invitation said she was eager for the hunt, and it was true, except for the part where she wasn’t going to hunt children.

In her career in high finance, she’d run across all sorts of disgusting and disreputable people and the worst of them were the ones who cultivated groups like the Brotherhood. Some number of people were going to fixate on their hates under the best of circumstances, and the only thing easier to profit off than hate was the fear which bred it. She’d struggled over the years to drive those profit mongers into the ground, and met with mixed success because the victories always seemed to be indirect ones.

She shut down a company which peddled hateful rhetoric targeting the disadvantaged and kept an oligarch in power, but the cost of the shutdown was money and resources that could have done tremendous good if they could have been used to alleviate suffering elsewhere. Even something as simple as creating a community space where people could engage with those outside their isolated spheres, had cost her the opportunity to create a program which could foster a deeper understanding of other cultures for those who were already interested in learning.

The trade-offs were ones Anna believed were worth it at the time, but the urge to strike back in more a personal manner was a temptation that never went away.

She continued smiling as the guard opened the gate and passed her into the custody of two men in a jeep, each of whom was armed well enough to donate several thousand dollars of gear to the person who popped their fantasy bubbles of being an ‘elite warrior’ and simply shot them when they weren’t looking.

Anna wasn’t going to be that person though. In her eyes, their fates were already sealed. If they were lucky, Tam would get to them. If they weren’t Val would. And if they somehow escaped the Brotherhood’s compound before the end of the day? Well that would be the worst possible luck they could have. Then Charlene would be the one to deal with them.

When they arrived at the main camp, there was a small force waiting to meet them. Not the leadership of the Brotherhood. Those men were either out hunting or believed themselves too important to risk exposure to any unknown entities.

Anna repeated her story for them, but in greater detail.

She wanted to join their hunt.


Because she’d heard good things about their group and wanted to see if they could live up their online billing.

The hunt wasn’t advertised online. None of the members ever talked about. How had she heard about it? What branch of the government was she working for?

She offered them her hand. Run her fingerprints. See who she was. You’ve got cops on the member roll. It shouldn’t take long.

It didn’t. Interpol’s database had a very quick response when it came to the people on its global most wanted list.

Anna’s crimes were lengthy, at least as far as the dummy account assigned to Anna’s fingerprints showed. Tam had asked a helpful member of the Second Chance Club to create a fake profile tied to Anna’s real fingerprints. It would disappear within the hour but by then the need for deception would be long passed.

Among Anna’s fictional offenses was a string of murders of high profile civil rights activists, and several charges for organizing later day Nazi parties, which in Germany had been strictly illegal since WWII.

The false identity worked like a charm, which is to say it enchanted some of the Brotherhood members but others remained suspicious. As a whole though, they were willing to play along with the story, many of them immediately imagining how they could expand their reach to Europe and places Anna claimed to know where there were no extradition treaties with the U.S.

In the guise of welcoming her, the senior Brotherhood member assigned one of his trusted lieutenants to show Anna around. He explained that there was already a hunt in session, and that to make sure everyone had a chance to take part in the fun, they staggered things out into waves. If she wanted to be a part of a hunt, she would have to wait until one of the last rounds, once all the members had been a chance at “bagging a prize” first.

Anna shrugged. Waiting for last would be better than missing out entirely, she assured them, and she was pretty sure she’d win the best prize. Half of what she said there was true, just not the half the Brotherhood was going to be happy about.

The Brotherhood had its own plans though. To keep up the appearance of welcoming her, they gave Anna a tour of the compound while the first hunt was run. The first stop was the armory, which she made appreciative noises at. The members all had their own collection of weapons, but their siege mentality demanded that they build up as large a horde as possible for ‘the coming war’.

Anna could have pointed out the futility of maintaining a militia arsenal against a modern military force, but allowing evil men to misspend their resources was like planting a seed for victories yet to come.

She did talk to them about the prices she usually paid for weapons, and some of the dealers that she knew who could ship product internationally. The names were real, but they belonged either to dead men or law enforcement officers who specialized stopping the flow of  illegal weapons trading. With no easy method of verifying the names, the Brotherhood members who had joined her on the tour reacted only with disbelief that prices could be so low, or eagerness to increase their stockpiles at a discount.

As they talked, she drew info from them.

The members she spoke with mostly purchased their firearms legally, though they knew many routes to sidestep troublesome parts of the law, and more than a few methods of acquiring “untraceable” guns.

They were all proud of the collections they’d amassed in time for this year’s “hunt”, which was by far the biggest they’d ever attempted.

Usually the Brotherhood relied on kidnapping people from across the country within the month that led up to the hunt. That had proven to be more trouble than anyone cared for though. Kidnapped prisoners required upkeep – food and even medicine occasionally – or they wouldn’t be worth hunting at all.

The plan to kidnap a bus of immigrant children had been put into place after the Brotherhood’s leadership saw it becoming clear that the political climate was changing, that hating foreigners was acceptable at the highest levels of government and that people across the country would leap to defend even the most vile of actions rather than allow ‘their side’ to look bad. Nazis and paedophiles had become ‘good people too’ in enough people’s eyes that the Brotherhood thought they could get away with anything they desired.

Killing kids wasn’t something good people did of course, but the Brotherhood broke through the “weaker” members resistance to that with the conviction that children weren’t really people. They were “illegals”, and they’d forfeited their rights they moment they “invaded”.

Anna had dealt with monsters before. She was able to feed them exactly the justifications they wanted to hear, anticipating the arguments they were used to being presented with and feeding them their own words before they even had a chance to speak in their defense.

For the members that wanted to believe she was on the level, her speaking their language was enough to win their eternal devotion. For those who were suspicious, her claims raised their concerns even further. She was too good to be true. They couldn’t accept life as ever being in their favor and certainly not when it came in the form of a stern and powerful older woman.

The tour ended at the communication hubs of the compound. The more technically gifted members were monitoring the progress of the hunt and watching the state and local police bands for any sign that they’d been detected.

The hunters weren’t wearing any kind of tracking devices, in part because no one wanted to give away their secrets in how they tracked and brought down their quarry, and in part because no one thought it was necessary.

The child who was being hunted though had been injected with a GPS transmitter, and was wearing one of their radio listening devices, so the central communications station knew exactly where he was.

It made for a festive environment in the tech bunker, as the members who were present watched the child’s movement and speculated wildly on what the hunters were doing to find him.

There was a betting pool on which hunter would find the boy first, and a separate one for who would make it back to their base with “the trophy”.

Anna kept well away from the computers and controls so that no one would be concerned about her meddling with things. The Brotherhood didn’t trust her yet, and any move that tested that trust was likely to be accompanied by a fatal blowback.

Also, with the device Tam had given her, and being within range of their wifi system, there really wasn’t any reason Anna needed to touch their computers to harvest the information she needed.

The hunt hit a snag when the tracking device on the boy showed him moving in a straight line off the compound and towards the mountains.

There was a wide open stretch of plain between the forest’s border and the proper rise of the mountains. Plenty of open space for a hunter to finish the target off but despite the fact that someone should have had a shot at the kid, the boy kept moving.

Something was amiss and the Brotherhood was not in a position to deal with things going wrong.

Anna watched as one of the members lead the next child to be hunted into the room.

The young boy had been “being prepared”, which meant outfitting him with the injectable GPS tracker and providing the proper motivation by telling him that he had to run or the other kids would die.

He was eight years old. Anna recognized him from his file. Gabriel Sanchez. A mother, a father, and two sisters were praying for his safe return. He stood before the assembled Brotherhood members trying to be brave, but he couldn’t keep his limbs from trembling.

They handed her a gun, which she checked with a quick glance. The safety was off.

They didn’t like what was happening, and so she was going to have to prove herself. She wanted to be part of the hunt? Time to pass her first real test then. If she was who she claimed to be, she wouldn’t have any problem bagging the next body.

On the other hand, if she was a Fed, or working for anyone who stood against the Brotherhood, if she hesitated in the slightest then they’d know she was part of whatever was happening, and they would act…

They never got to finish the threat.

Anna pointed the gun directly at Gabriel’s head and pulled the trigger.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 05 – Act 2

What Tam hated most about clever and useful tech was that the bad guys got to use it too.

The inner perimeter of the Scarlet Freedom Brotherhood was set about a hundred yards out from their central building complex. That was where the sensors that were set up to detect intruders switched from the simple listening devices to motion sensors and video monitors.

Sneaking up close to the base was practical if you knew to avoid the voice detecting microphones. Thanks to her rapid research on the flight in, Tam came pre-warned about the threat they posed, and even had a schematic of their locations downloaded to her phone once she was able to tap into the Brotherhood’s “secured’ wireless network.

The same hack which gave her those locations also provided an overview of the base’s other security features. Getting around the security the Brotherhood had in place was going to take more than a simple wifi hack though. Most of the systems were isolated from the central network and several had redundant local alarms on them, so not only would they alert the central control room, they’d also set off  a beeping (or in more extreme cases, sirens) where they were installed.

Tam held her position behind the wide trunk of an oak tree and fought back a growl of frustration. Time was marching on and she hadn’t been given a lot of it to start with.

Under normal circumstances, the vulnerabilities in the Brotherhood’s security system would have been easy to exploit.

The sensors have local alarms? Set them all off! Too many signals are just as good camouflage as the absence of an alert. For quick retrievals or fast escapes, that tactic worked perfectly against overly secured locations. If she tried it on the Brotherhood though, they would kill the children and destroy their bodies. It was a monstrous plan but given that death and destruction were the Brotherhood’s overall agenda, they were well prepared to put that plan in motion. Any sort of alert that Tam raised would simply accelerate the time table.

If she took too long being careful though another child would be selected for the hunt. Or Val or Anna’s work might be uncovered, in which case Operation: Dispose of the Evidence would be put in place immediately as well.

She had to somehow ghost past the sensors designed to prevent unwanted intrusions, free the kids and get them to safety all without anyone noticing. Tam was stealthy but she wasn’t a ghost yet, a condition the Brotherhood would be more than happy to change if they found her.

Two choices remained to her therefor. With the right application of James Baughsley’s connections, and a silent mystic incantation, she could turn into a spirit of the wind for a brief time. It was a taxing effect though, and not one she could use repeatedly. Once she called on the enchantment, the transformation would only last a few minutes and couldn’t be repeated for at least a fortnight.

So that was Option B.

Option A was more dangerous, but also much simpler. If a place was barred to you, often the easiest method of gaining entry was having someone else open the door.

Rather than sneaking in like a ninja, Tam caught a lift with a delivery truck.

Hitching a ride was somewhat tricky, but significantly less so than avoiding the careful array of sensors the Brotherhood had laid out. All it took was patience, and the right opportunity.

Tam let a few vehicles pass by her hiding spot while she waited for her “invitation”. A sedan came by first, loaded front and back with Brotherhood members who were late to the party. With the car’s inside full, Tam’s only option for using it would have been to cling to the outside. Being dragged along a dirt road for a mile wouldn’t have left her in any shape to save the kids however so she passed on that option.

The next vehicle was a truck with a single occupant. The driver didn’t have the doors locked, but getting into even a slow moving vehicle would have attracted attention. No one fails to notice a car door flying open when they driving along what was supposed to be an empty road.

Time continued to march on, chipping away at not only the children’s chances of survival but Val and Anna’s as well. Tam’s nerves were strung as tight as violin strings by the time a pickup truck turned onto the Brotherhood’s road. That was her ride.

The back of the pickup was wide open, and when it made the turn it slowed just enough that Tam was able to sling herself silently into bed.

Tam had disliked being short when she was growing up. She wound up getting carded well into her 20s whenever she went out with friends, and people looked at her girlfriends like they were robbing the cradle by carrying on with a someone as young as Tam appeared to be.

That had become less of an issue over time though, and from the day she’d taken up stage performing, Tam had come to love her “economical height”. Some illusions required long limbs but a vast number of them were easier to pull off when you weren’t quite as tall as the heels you wore and your long flowing waist cape made you out to be.

The concealment skills that let her vanish on stage, were just as valuable in the bed of the pickup truck. True, she hadn’t had time to configure the pickup’s contents to create a truly effective illusion, but as any magician will tell you, illusions don’t need to be perfect. All an illusion ever needs to do is fool the audience’s eye.

Some audiences are easy. People who want to be amazed, who want to believe what the magician suggests they see. They’re the ones who are delight to work for. Their energy feeds the performance and leaves everyone with a delightful high after the show.

The bad audiences aren’t the ones who can see through the illusion though. Performing for other magicians is difficult but a fellow illusionist may be delighted by an effect even if they know the secret of how it’s done. Craftsman can respect the craft involved in something even if they could do it better after all.

It’s the audiences who have no interest in the show, the ones who are there just to heckle, and just to disrupt other people’s enjoyment. They don’t care if they can’t figure out an effect. They’re not at the show to be amazed. They’re only happy if they can see someone else suffering.

That’s the sort of the audience the Brotherhood was, but Tam had an ace up her sleeve. The Brotherhood had no interest in being fooled by any illusion she showed them, but they also weren’t expecting anyone to try to fool them in the first place.

They didn’t care when she broke their security cordon because all they saw was the truck they’d been expecting. They didn’t bother checking the bed of the truck because the driver had the steaks and beer with him in the cabin.

No one paid attention to her as she climbed out of the truck’s bed and walked casually behind one of the buildings. No one saw her at all, because they felt safe and powerful and hidden.

Illusions aren’t only products of concealment though. It’s not enough to keep people from seeing what you’re doing. You have to give them something else to focus on and a story about it they can believe. The art of a magic trick is every bit as much in what you show your audience as what you keep hidden.

On the shadowed side of the building, Tam took a moment to calm herself and focus. If she was discovered it would be a death sentence. Best case scenario, she’d be added to the hunt, but she knew that was unlikely. Whoever found her was much more likely to panic and empty all of the ammunition they had into her.

The problem was that there were still several people standing guard around the bus that held the kidnapped children.

They were senior enough members to be trusted with guard duty but not physical fit enough for the hunt. Tam guessed that each of them had also already killed for the Brotherhood and were trusted to be willing to do so again if the kids showed any sign of escaping.

The driver who brought the steaks and beer left some of the latter with men standing guard and moved on within a few minutes to fire up the grills in the mess hall before the hunters got back with their first trophy.

Tam followed him, the prospect of fire appealing to her innate sense of how to stage a good show.

A few minutes later there was an explosion.

Nothing commands people’s attention like an explosion.

The guards around the children came to instant readiness, their rifles in hand and their eyes alert.

The driver, covered in smoke and soot came barreling back down the dirt pathway that lead to the mess hall. With choking gasps he sobbed an apology and explained how there’d been a leak in one of the grill lines that he hadn’t seen until it flared up. He got out in time but he wasn’t sure if anyone else had and now their mess hall was on fire.

All but one of the men left at a dead run. Fire is something humans understand on a primal level. It is the species’ oldest tool and most dangerous servant. No one wanted to see it run out of control and destroy the camp. Or at least none of the Brotherhood wanted that. Tam would have been delighted to leave the camp and all of its members as charred and forgotten stains on landscape.

The last guard was watchful and ready for trouble. Fires can break out for a lot of reasons but “enemy action” was what he saw behind every misfortune in his life and this was no exception. The minorities were coming for him. He was sure of it. Trying to stop the Brotherhood from thinning their numbers and keeping the herd of low lifes in check. It didn’t matter though. He had his gun and his freedom and that was all a righteous man needed.

Tam couldn’t let him fire his gun. It would have attracted too much attention. So she beat him with it.  One strike to throat to prevent a scream, followed by a quick disarming move to take control of the firearm and then a hard strike with the rifle to the back of the man’s skull.

A few inches lower and a little harder and she would have killed him. Tam wasn’t sure she could have done that, she wasn’t as trained as Val was, or as mentally prepared to take a life but, when she thought about what the Brotherhood was doing, imagining ending one of them became disturbingly easy.

That wild anger wasn’t quite gone from her eyes as she entered the boss and found the children huddled together towards the back.

She gestured to the microphones that had been placed inside the bus. They were the last line of defense. The guards had told the children to stay quiet or they’d be shot. The microphones were synced into the main security grid and were run through the same voice analysis software as the ones set farther out in the field.

Tam pointed to herself and to them. You and me. She pointed down the driveway. We’re getting out of here.

One of the children waved her hands frantically. No.  She pointed to a clunky bracelet that had been fashioned to her leg. We’ll die.

All the children wore them.

Tam recognized the design. They were intended to enforce house arrests. Usually they didn’t come with explosive charges strapped to them though.

That was a wrinkle none of them had foreseen. One that was going to literally blow up in their faces.

Tam was out of time. The guard she beat up was going to be a problem again shortly, and the ones who’d run off to fight the fire would be back in a few minutes. She didn’t have time to disarm each of the bombs on the children and any one of the bombs was sufficient to kill everyone in the bus.

They were stuck in a trap with no escape.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 5 – Act 1

Val couldn’t speak. The forest around her wasn’t silent. There were bird calls and the burbling of a nearby stream. In the far distance, she could hear a raucous band of men firing off their guns to punctuate their cheers and chants. Plenty of noise surrounded her, but lives depended on her refusing to let even a single word escape her lips.

When she was in Army, she’d gone through the finest training program the US Government could find the budget to pay for. She’d learned a lot during her abbreviated tour of duty. More than just new methods of killing people too. Those were simple. She’d learned repair skills, and teamwork, and how to do without nonessential things like sleep, and food, and (in a pinch) air.

Unfortunately she hadn’t been given any classes in wilderness tracking, and without that she could feel every second slipping through her grasp. Judging from the sounds of the men in the distance, the child she was trying to find hadn’t been located yet, but she knew it wouldn’t be long. The one thing the Scarlet Freedom Brotherhood wouldn’t allow their captives was any chance to escape the area they controlled.

Val wanted to curse. Or even better hit someone while cursing. The only problem was someone would hear her. Even out in the middle of wilderness, surrounded by a mix of tall pines and vibrant autumn leaf deciduous trees, with no people in sight, there were a thousand electronic ears listening specifically for the sound of a human voice.

Tam had detailed that particularly joyful twist on their mission after Charlene gave the associates the high level briefing.

Val shook her head at the thought of the scenario that was laid out before them.

A group of children, most of Mexican descent, had been kidnapped after boarding what their parents thought was their usual schoolbus. By an hour after the school day started, what should have been an ordinary morning had become a nightmare.

The bus was found in an abandoned warehouse, empty of the children but still containing their backpacks and school supplies. A statewide manhunt had been undertaken but Charlene had somehow known that wouldn’t be enough.

How she knew where to dispatch Anna, Tam, and Val to, or how she knew the identity of the kidnappers was a mystery to Val, but then it wasn’t hard to imagine that there were members of the club Charlene could draw on for expertise who would not be available to take calls from anyone else.

Normally, once they were armed with that knowledge, all that would have been required in a kidnapping situation would be to inform the local authorities of the kidnapper’s location and who they had kidnapped. The kidnappers in questions, Scarlet Freedom Brotherhood, however were not ‘normal’ kidnappers.

Many kidnappers are parents who have lost custody of their children and kidnap their kids to take them away from their ex’s. Others are far worse than that, but few had the sort of resources the Brotherhood possessed.

Starting with their compound, the Brotherhood had a parcel of land tucked at the end of a mile long dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Signs leading to the compound proclaimed that trespassers would be shot and then shot again, in case anyone made the mistake of thinking the Brotherhood members were rational adults.

The compound’s isolation wasn’t the primary obstacle to freeing the kidnapped child though. Nor were the guys running around with guns. The thing that could spell both Val and the children’s doom were the microphones which blanketed the area around the Brotherhood’s headquarters.

Tam had gone into more technical detail than Val could remember about the Brotherhood’s setup. The short form Val could recall was that in an incredibly wide radius around their compound, the Brotherhood had planted an enormous number of wide range listening devices to give them ears on anyone who tried to sneak into their domain.

“Ears” seemed like an odd choice for surveillance devices when they could have planted cameras instead, but it turned out there were some practical considerations that drove the decision of why the Brotherhood hadn’t gone with video feeds instead.

In addition to the greater ease of use and lower cost, the network of listening devices could be fed into a system that did voice analysis in real time. Since the vast majority of the time, there would be no useful input from any of the devices, using a human to monitor them was both impractical and doomed to failure. Computers on the other hand are happy to wait ages for an input and only then raise a red flag.

The listening devices were connected to a voice recognition engine for another reason though. Out in the deep woods, there are lots of sounds and lots of creatures who make them. If the microphones sent an alert every time they heard anything, they would be reporting false alerts on intruders around the clock.

There were additional surveillance defenses closer to the main base, ones which could detect the presence of intruders who were smart enough to approach silently, but a hunt that took place directly around the Brotherhood’s base wasn’t the sort of thing that would excite any of the members.

Instead they gave each child a head start. Then they started their own version of “The Most Dangerous Game” substituting young kids who fit their profile of hate instead of risking a confrontation with an actual adult.

Val and the rest had flown in and rode hell bent for leather once they knew where the kids had been taken. They’d formed their plans on the go, yelling ideas into their helmet cell phones until they got close enough to the compound’s borders that they had to go silent.

From there, everything was up to each of them accomplishing their missions flawlessly. Any mistakes and a child, or all the children, could wind up dead. The authorities would prosecute the Brotherhood for the death – there was no chance the organization would exist by the end of the next day as it was – but jail time and dissolving the Brotherhood’s finances to pay restitution to the grieving families was a far cry from bringing their small loved ones back home alive. Val had to find child the Brotherhood was hunting. The price of failure was simply too high.

She checked the map Tam had given her of the forest around the Brotherhood’s compound. To the northwest, tall mountains rose. That’s the direction she would have run in. Plenty of places to hide for an ambush, plenty of places to force her pursuers to come at her in a single file. Or she could have just climbed the mountain. That alone would have forced half the Brotherhood’s hunters to turn back, given their relative lack of fitness.

A run to the mountains required crossing over an open plain though. That would leave someone who was being pursued feeling very exposed, so she knew it wasn’t the direction the child had gone. Instead, she took off heading south instead.

They’d entered the Brotherhood’s lands from the west. Val had split with Anna and Tam when they saw the Brotherhood’s hunting parties starting to head out. Val’s job was to sae the one in immediate peril. She had to have faith in Tam and Anna that they could save the rest.

From what Val had overheard as the initial hunting parties headed out, the Brotherhood members who were driving ATVs were the ‘Elites’, at least in terms of seniority and influence. They were taking the first hunt as a measure of their status, and, probably, to convince the members who were less certain about committing violence against children that giving in to their hate was the natural and proper thing to do or, more precisely, that it was the required thing to do whether you could feel that hatred or not when looking at someone so young. Otherwise you didn’t belong in their movement and, in their world, people who didn’t belong in their movement belonged in the ground.

The path to the south lead into deeper trees, a part of the forest that was covered in shadows even while the sun was shining.

That was perfect from Val’s point of view. The darkness would have looked like a sanctuary to someone trying to get lost, and the path itself had a slight downward angle, letting someone who was fleeing for their life to run just a little bit faster.

Val was so intent on trying to find any positive signs of the child’s passage that she barely stopped herself in time when she heard a clatter of feet rushing on the other side of the hill from her.

A man gave a sharp yell of pain as he apparently smacked into a tree. Val froze where she was, placing a tree between herself and the man who came stumbling down a game trail which ran around the forested hill she’d been running beside.

She’d wondered, earlier, if she would find any allies in her quest, but if so, this man was not one of them.

He wore a heavy camouflage suit and carried a scoped rifle in his hands like a well worn extension of his body. He was rubbing his shoulder from where he’d bumped the tree and mumbling about not missing the Early Bird prize again this year. He thought he was in the lead. That he would be the one to “bag himself a body first”.

He passed by the tree Val was hidden behind and then felt his body below his neck go numb.

Charlene didn’t like her associates killing people, but that didn’t mean Val felt the need to leave people like the Brotherhood members particularly intact. Not when a single cry from them would be enough to bring the far spread group of hunters together onto the point where she was standing.

The blow to the man’s head had rendered him unconscious and likely given him a severe concussion. That wouldn’t leave him unconscious for long though. Movies lie about that all the time. In reality damaging someone’s brain enough that they lose consciousness is dangerous and a long term loss of consciousness can easily be fatal.

In the few seconds before he woke, Val was able to lash the man to tree with his own zip ties and then used his socks as a makeshift gag so that he wouldn’t be able to utter any words that were articulate enough for the voice recognition system to pick up.

The real treasure she found was the map the man was carrying. It had game trails marked on it, ones which her own topographic maps didn’t indicate. Since it was a safe bet the other Brotherhood members had access to the same information, she knew where they would be traveling in their search for their quarry.

So she began setting traps.

The next band of child-hunters were brothers. Intense and coordinated. They were so busy moving between what they thought were likely hiding holes that other hunters might have missed that they didn’t consider someone might be stalking them.

The elder brother saw Val first. One moment she was fifty feet away from him glaring like an angry war god. The next she was stepping from behind a tree right beside him. He never regained consciousness. Not because Val hit him excessively hard, but because his brother was quick on the trigger but rotten with his aim when he was panicked.

The younger brother lost the use of both hands, both knees and his jaw when Val made him eat the butt of the gun that he’d just killed his brother with.

Her day didn’t get kinder from there. Not until she found a small, clear waterfall where she could wash off the blood she was covered in.

She let the frosty stream run over her, chilling away the rage that surged in her heart. She’d hurt a lot of people, but it wasn’t enough. She had to keep crushing them. To remove the blight they spread on the world.

There was a small, suppressed squeak from behind the waterfall.

And suddenly she had something much more important to do that leave a wake of shattered evil doers in her wake.

Without speaking, Val knelt down beside the child who had been hunted for hours.

She put her hands up to show she offered the boy no harm, then placed a finger to her lips.

They had to be quiet.

He nodded.

She gestured to him and then herself and then away from the waterfall.

They had to go.

He shook his head.

It was too scary.

She nodded. Understanding. She gestured beyond the waterfall. All those guys? She punch her fist quietly into her palm and then indicated the blood stains that remained on her, gesturing beyond the waterfall again. She could handle them.

She smiled and opened her arms. He was safe with her.

The boy choked back a sob and collapsed into her embrace.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 04 – Act 4

Ted Ogden hated his life. Nothing he was supposed to have ever worked out. Instead everyone always expected more from him than anyone could possibly give.

Get a good job? You’ve got to get a better one. Get a hot wife? Now you’ve got to have kids. Got a family? Better start raking in the big bucks because there’s college and cars and vacations and on and on and on. Every time you thought you’d won, every time you thought you were finally better than the competition, another problem would rise up to cut you down.

Ted was done with that though.

He spun into a hard stop that left his car straddling two spaces in front of the Silver Crescent hotel. They’d tow him if he stayed like that but it wasn’t going to matter. His business was going to be over nice and quick and then he’d never have to worry about any of the hassles that were plaguing his life anymore.

Pulling on a fresh pair of gloves, he grabbed his briefcase off the passenger’s seat, flung the car door open, and marched into the hotel’s lobby. The elevator wasn’t ready for him. Of course. He punched the button for the 8th floor and ignored the receptionists “Can I help you sir?” question. He didn’t have time to waste on peons. Room 808 was were his problem was and all he had to do was deal with it and move on.

Six other people joined him at the elevator before it finally opened up, and each one of them punched in a different floor. Ted gritted his teeth and fumed as they stopped at every floor. Every time the doors opened he had to wait for people to figure out it was where they needed to be and extricate themselves. By the time it was his turn to exit, his blood pressure was high enough to burst a steel pipe, but it didn’t matter. He knew just how to calm down. Eliminate a problem or two and the world always seemed a lot better.

He checked his briefcase. It only held one thing, but that was all that he needed to conclude this meeting. He smiled at thought. Always best to keep things simple.

“You’re late,” the Latino girl who opened the door to Room 808 said after he knocked. Like he cared. Like he was supposed to march to their time table.

“You’re asking for a lot of money,” Ted said. “That takes time.”

He wasn’t carrying any money, but the dead lady walking didn’t need to know that.

“We’re glad you choose to join us, Mr. Ogden,” a white haired woman said. She was sitting on a coach beside a younger Asian lady. There was a laptop open on the low table that was in between the couch they were sitting on and the couch facing them where the Latino girl was leading Ted. The rest of the hotel room was an open plan, except for the bathroom near the door which Ted could see was empty.

That was perfect. Three of them and not a gun in sight. The idiots seemed like they thought this really was going to go down like a simple business deal.

“It’s not like I had a lot of choice right?” he said

“People make all kinds of poor choices all the time.” The  old lady’s voice had the hint of an accent. Russian maybe? If she’d been younger, Ted would have been all over that, but he didn’t like his hookups to be past their 30 year expiration date. Any older and they got all wrinkly in his view.

“Poor choices? Yeah, I see a lot of those too,” Ted said. “Speaking of which, you said you had something I had to see right?”

“Yes. As we mentioned there is some video footage from Judge Klairborn’s office on the night of his murder that you’ll be interested in,” the Asian woman said.

“And how’d you get this footage?” Ted asked, sitting on the couch but keeping his briefcase at his side.

“Hidden surveillance camera,” the Asian woman said.

“That’s illegal,” Ted said, trying to wriggle out of being caught even though he had no intention of leaving anything unfinished by the time he exited the room.

“Yes it is,” the Russian woman said. “Judge Klairborn was ruling on some matters that interested our client however and people who play by the rules get left behind.”

She was preaching to the choir on that point as far as Ted was concerned.

“Why didn’t the cops pick this up then?” he asked.

“They did,” the Russian woman said. “But we have friends in a lot of places. The recording you’re about to see was stored on a drive within the camera, which, officially, is still in police custody. It hasn’t been reviewed yet as part of the case, and if our business concludes satisfactorily it never will be. Otherwise the drive will be returned to the police lockup and they’ll receive a tip to review it tomorrow morning.”

“You can’t use illegal recordings in a court case,” Ted said, quoting something he thought he’d heard on a TV show somewhere.

“That’s true for cases of entrapments,” the Asian woman said. “Interesting legal tidbit though, because it wasn’t the police or the government surveilling Klairborn, the recording we made can be entered in as evidence. Same as with footage from store security cams, or ATM monitoring devices.”

Ted had heard of ATM footage being entered in cases but he had no idea if that was true for criminal surveillance too. Whether it was or wasn’t didn’t matter though, he couldn’t allow the recording they to be seen by anyone else.

“And just what does this recording show?” Ted asked.

“See for yourself,” the Asian woman said, and turned the laptop to him.

A video window on the laptop showed a black and white scene of the judge’s office. In the video, Judge Klairborn sat in his chair, blind folded and struggling with his bonds as a figure about Ted’s size stripped a broken wire down to bare copper and then taped it to Klairborn’s chest.

Ted watched as the figure went back to the wall and plugged the wire in. The lights flickered as a surge of electricity stopped the Judge’s heart like a hit from a freight train.

Something seemed weird about the scene. The timing was a little off, and the movements sort of alien somehow. When the figure turned to look into the camera though, all of Ted’s doubts were swept away.

He was staring at himself on the screen.

He couldn’t remember the infinitesimal details of how things had gone but he couldn’t deny his own face.

They had him dead to rights.

Proof positive that he was Klairborn’s killer.

They could ruin everything.

Unless he ruined them first.

“That’s a bit of something you’ve got there, that’s for sure,” he said, gripping the handle of the briefcase even tighter. “How do I know you’re going to delete the copies you have though? Seems to me like this is a lot of money to pay for a product you can just keep reselling.”

“Any copies of this drive would be useless,” the Russian woman said. “With no chain of evidence to back them up, and no legal right to exist, it would be impossible to prove a copy wasn’t just a clever digital forgery.”

“I guess that’s all I needed to know then,” he said and pulled the handgun from his briefcase. It felt nice and heavy in his gloved hand. Powerful. Just like he was supposed to be.

The Russian woman didn’t seem impressed.

She was an idiot, but a scary looking one Ted had to admit.

Klairborn had been better. He’d been impressed with having a gun shoved in his face. One moment all ‘you can’t be in here’ and then next all nice and scared enough that he’d left himself be tied up, blindfolded and gagged. Probably never guessed what was really going to happen to him.

“I see you didn’t bring the money,” the Russian woman said. “What’s your plan? Kill us the same as you killed Judge Klairborn?”

“Nah,” Ted said, lying. “You said it yourself. I don’t need to kill you. Once I have that drive no one will ever be able to prove what I did. I’m just going to tie you up so you don’t make any trouble for me.”

Klairborn had believed the story. When it was that or get shot in the face, Ted guessed that everyone would choose to believe what he was saying.

“And if we resist?” the Russian woman asked.

“Then you get the same as Klairborn got,” Ted said.

“I don’t know,” the Asian woman said. “That looked kind of sloppy on the video. More like a crime of passion. Do you really have what it takes to kill someone in cold blood?”

“Please? I started planning Klairborn’s death the minute my ex went off on him,” Ted said, affronted that anyone would think a murder he’d gotten away with was poorly executed. “The pathetic twit could have caught me lurking in his closet at any point before Tessa came in, but did he even think to check? No, because he was an idiot, just like you three are.

The Latino woman was still standing to the side of the couch he was sitting on, but she had her hands raised like a good little robbery victim. He’d take care of her last, he decided.

“You killed Judge Klairborn in cold blood just to frame your wife?” the Russian woman asked. “Are you sure that wasn’t a crime of passion? It seems like a lot of work to go to for a custody battle.”

“It wasn’t about getting custody,” Ted said, anger starting to boil his already overheated blood. “I killed Klairborn because my ex made it so damn easy to. You think coming up with a plan like ‘plug him into the wall’ was a hard thing to do? No. What was hard was getting Tessa to show up there at the right time. She never did anything I told her to do right. Once she was played her part though? Oh killing Klairborn was simple as hell. And watching Tessa get dragged away for it? Pure heaven. I hope she rots in jail forever after what she did to me.”

“And what did your ex-wife do to you that warranted premeditated murder?” the Russian woman asked.

“She left me. She made a promise, she was supposed to be mine forever, and she had the gall to say we were done. Well, I’m the one who gets to decide that. Not her. So, yeah, now I’m done with her.”

“Sounds like you wanted to kill her too,” the Asian woman said.

“That would have been great, but you can’t be obvious like that. Woman dies, her ex is the one who did it, nine times out of ten. I don’t need that kind of hassle. Frame her for a Judge’s murder though? That’s so much better.”

“Indeed. Quite clever really,” the Russian woman said. “Is that sufficient?”

“Sufficient?” Ted asked.

“She wasn’t talking to you,” the Latino woman said, pointing to a purse that was placed on the table behind the couch the Russian woman was sitting on.

“Who’s that?” Ted asked, fear flooding through his veins when he caught the dark glint of a camera lens from the side of the bag. “Is someone watching us?”

“Detective Tonya Esteban,” the Russian woman said. “She and her partner will be here shortly since you’ve been so good as to confess to Judge Klairborn’s murder.”

“What? But the video?” Ted asked, trying to understand how the situation was spiraling out of his control so quickly.

“So, yeah, video forgery? It’s an actual thing,” the Asian woman said. “Surprisingly easy too if you’ve got a few pictures of the guy you want to cast as the murder. I mean it’s not my best work, but it was good enough to fool you, so mission accomplished I guess.”

Ted choked and blinked for just a second as blinding rage filled his world.

“You’re dead!” He tried to bring the gun to point at the Asian’s face but before that could happen it wasn’t in his hands any longer.

And he wasn’t on the couch.

And his face had glass in it.

From the table he’d been smashed through.

His wrist was bending in a place it wasn’t supposed to be either.

And there was pain.

So much pain.


Tessa Ogden was released that day and reunited with her children as she exited the police holding facility.

“How can I ever thank you enough?” she asked, trying to clear her tear streaked eyes.

“No thanks are necessary,” Anna said, lifting her motorcycle helmet from her handlebars and fitting it snugly over her head.

“JB’s a part of our team, and we wouldn’t be half as efficient without them,” Val said, putting her helmet on as well.

“They were the one who got me the production studio time I needed to make our fake video,” Tam said.

“And they hooked us up with the actors to play the parts,” Val said.

“And coordinated with the local police to have an official witness to our discussion with Theodore,” Anna said.

“Yeah. There is no chance he’s going to beat those charges now. Not with the confession he gave and the attempted murder charge we gave our sworn testimony too,” Val said.

“Not that he’ll be fit to stand trial for a while,” Tam said. “How many broken vertebrae did you give him?”

“I might have hit him a little harder than intended,” Val said. “In my defense though, he really shouldn’t have tried to point a gun at you.”

“Well his time in the hospital will give him a chance to reflect on where he went wrong,” JB said. “And maybe his time in prison will give him a chance to start over on a better path.”

“Second chances come in all different forms,” Anna said, and hopped her bike, ready to ride to their next case.