By Michael A. and Shell “Presto” DiBaggio; illustrated by Shell “Presto” DiBaggio
She was walking down the street with her fingers tucked into the hip pockets of her jeans, head nodding and thumbs tapping to the thrumming of the Mendicants’ electric bass piped into her ears. The sound of her name cut through the music, and without bothering to turn it off, she turned slowly in the direction from which she thought it had come.
There was a young guy in a suit jacket with necktie slightly askew, lean and roguishly cute with glossy black hair coming over his ears and down to his collar. Reflective sunglasses added a captivating mystery to a face whose thin, curving lips already suggested mischief. Kali had no idea who he was. She smiled at him, sort of.
“Kali Georgine Hutira?” he elaborated, took a step closer. Kali frowned at the mention of her middle name, clicked off her ear buds.
“Yeah, what’s up?” she said.
“I’m here to give you a ride,” he said, and those lips curled up even more. “To the reception.”
She squinted so deeply her eyebrows nearly touched. “Do I know you?”
“My name’s Cal. I’m with the agency,” he said, then stumbled over his words for a moment, like a stage actor who just realized he’d flubbed his lines. “You know,” he recovered, “that scholarship you won for the poem?”
Cal’s less-than-convincing delivery set Kali on edge. She started to walk again, but kept her eyes on him. “Oh, didn’t you get my return letter? I said I couldn’t attend. I appreciate it, though.”
Cal kept pace with her and didn’t seem anxious. “Really? I can’t speak to that, Kali. I was just told you RSVP’d and to pick you up at your house. You weren’t there, so…”
Kali grimaced. She wondered if her mom hadn’t pulled that letter out of the trash and committed her to go. It seemed probable. They had a fight about it, furious that she had torn up the first solicitation without mentioning it to her parents. Kali assured them that nobody could actually like the poem she was required to write as part of her English assignment, that the letter was just a scam. She’d heard about it before: this company sends a letter to every author of mediocre verse they can find, professing that the work was highly regarded by their editors and that they intend to publish it in their latest expensive yearly volume, and wouldn’t you like to see your work in print? Just remit $20 for this handsome, leather-bound display volume, etc etc… And to sweeten the deal, they invite you to attend a ceremony with similarly ‘esteemed’ hacks, where the very best will receive some meager reward. After explaining all that, her father angrily reminded her that college (which she didn’t want to attend, not like that mattered) wasn’t going to pay for itself and her anguished mother wondered why she had to be such a downer all the time. Still, she thought the matter was settled when she crumbled up the slip and tossed it in the garbage.
Kali rounded on him, her voice and expression reflecting her anger at her parents’ credulity. “Look, I’m sorry to waste your time and everything, but I didn’t say I was coming. My mom must’ve filled it out for me. I know what this thing is about, I know it’s a scam, and I don’t want any part of it.”
Cal grinned, flashing a perfectly ordered set of white teeth, and Kali thought again that he was pretty attractive and felt bad about taking it out on him. “No offense, man. We all have to make a living, but I’m just saying.” she offered.
“So you don’t want the money? Are you sure?” he said, gesturing with one arm towards an idling black sedan about half a block away, presumably the one he had come in. Kali looked at it, seemed indecisive.
“So I won the scholarship for definite sure? Because the letter just said I had a chance at it,” she said.
“Yeah, kid, you definitely won,” Cal assured her.
Kali sighed disgustedly. “You have to be kidding me. You know that poem was awful, right? It’s practically a self-parody. All the heavy, brooding, Bohemian crap… I thought it would’ve been obvious. It’s so bad it would’ve made Ashbless blush…” She threw up her hands. “Why am I arguing with you? You’re just the chauffeur.”
Kali rolled up the too-long sleeves of her flannel and turned back around. “Sorry, chief. Not interested.”
She heard Cal’s oxfords clopping on the pavement as he sped up behind her. “Come on, kid, just come with me and get your money, will you? You’ll be sorry if you don’t.”
“I’ll be sorry if I do. It’s a matter of principle.” She turned her music back on and resolved to ignore him, even though regret of her rudeness and the potential loss of $2,000 tugged at the pit of her stomach.
Kali was yanked backwards very abruptly. She would have spun off her feet if not for the rough grip of Cal’s hand around her forearm jerking her painfully upright. A gasp of pain and terror fled with all the air in her lungs as she crashed against Cal’s chest and felt a cylinder of cold metal pressing into her stomach.
“Actually, it’s a matter of life and death,” Cal whispered into her ear. “Now get in the fucking car.”
Kali’s face had gone white and she blinked back tears. But she forced herself to look up at him, confronting the reflection of her own terrified face in his sunglasses, took a deep breath, and screwed up a defiant courage within herself.
“Fine,” she growled. She glared at him and jerked her arm free before turning towards the car. In an instant he had a hold of her again, now with the barrel of the gun pressed in the small of her back as he frog-marched her to the car.
With a pistol pressed against her spine, the elevator ride to the eighth floor of the Hotel Imperial was a long one indeed. There was no calming muzak piping through the speakers, just the monotonous hum of the ventilation fan and the whine of the pulleys as they hoisted the ancient lift to her eventual, and perhaps final, destination. Kali kept hoping it would stop at another floor and someone would walk in, offering enough distraction to give her a chance at escape, but the old copper-plated doors didn’t open, and her heart sank.
She should have screamed for help and tried to flee or fight him rather than go willingly into the car with Cal. She knew that the odds of a kidnapping victim’s survival plummeted once in the car, but the desperate fear of being shot and, later on, the fear of what would happen if she threw herself from a moving vehicle, kept her from taking decisive action. ‘Just wait for a better opportunity’ she told herself, but as opportunities came and went, her chances for successful escape dwindled. She had been surprised when Cal pulled into the parking lot of the hotel and urged her out; she suspected her destination was some spot in the deep woods where she’d be raped and shot in the back of the head. But now the appalling mystery of the fate that awaited her made that horrifying end almost preferable by contrast.
“When we get to the room, there’s another girl there,” Cal whispered. “She’s nice. She came willingly. Behave in front of her. Don’t make a scene. Do you understand?”
Kali swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded. She had wanted to demand, to scream, to be told where she was going and what was going to happen to her, but she lost her voice. She shuddered, full of self-loathing that as little as a half hour ago she thought Cal was attractive, for now she hated him and every characteristic–especially that smug, sadistic grin–was revolting.
Room 802. Kali’s eyes kept their focus on the engraved bronze plaque set in the big oak door even as Cal unlocked it and pushed it open. With a deft move, her abductor slid his pistol into the waistband of his pants and cocked his head for her to go inside. Kali glowered, but complied.
Immediately, a pretty, pale blonde girl shot up out of a chair, beaming at them. Her fabulously bright blue eyes and flawless complexion seemed to glow as she was lit from behind by the halo of a bright lamp. She wore a fancy white dress and heels that put her head a good five inches above Kali’s. When Kali and Cal arrived, the girl had been brushing her wavy locks at a big mirrored dressing table, obviously concerned about looking her best for the phony ‘reception.’
“Cal, you’re back! Can we start?” the blonde said, almost giddily.
Kali judged from the girl’s build and voice that she had to be around the same age. And there was something familiar about her. She thought the girl looked vaguely like her, or perhaps her mother when she was younger. After a moment, Kali decided that the stranger had her mom’s cheeks. It seemed very strange to her that this fact seemed important.
“That depends if Miss Hutira wants to freshen up or not,” Cal said, charming and friendly and oily as a pond snake.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Kali huffed. Whether it was her anger overcoming her fear, or merely a subsidence of that fear brought about by the happy demeanor of her comrade in peril, she faced Cal and angrily declared that she would not be getting into costume.
“You’re not really going to go into the audition like that, are you?” the oblivious teenager asked her. The irony of the girl’s concern over Kali’s appearance, of all things, almost made her laugh.
“Oh, I’ll manage,” Kali replied, her voice flat.
Audition. Kali’s eyes suddenly opened wide. ‘So they told her this was an audition – for what? My God, what is this about? Did someone in my family cross the mob? Huh. Well, I was right that no one could really like that poem this much,’ she thought with dark humor.
Cal frowned and side-stepped toward a paneled wooden door and opened it, the soft strains of recorded chamber music suddenly audible. “Then let’s get started,” he said, and then under his breath as his mirrored shades scanned Kali, “Man, I hope you’re not the one.”
‘The one? What the hell does that mean?’ Kali thought as she stepped into a sitting room with crystal light fixtures and gold-leaf filigree inlaid at the base of crown molding made of polished teak. Two men and two women sat in padded chairs around an empty sofa and a marble-topped coffee table drinking from painted porcelain, except for the squat, thick-set man with an ugly, hostile face who slugged back something dark from a crystal snifter. All of them, even the ugly one, were clothed in tasteful suits or dresses comparable to the attire of Cal and the blonde, though Kali was much too preoccupied to feel ashamed of her state of undress.
Cal introduced them. “Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Amy and Kali, our long-awaited guests.”
The company smiled and nodded at them, and the fellow who was not the ugly squat one rose to kiss their hands—or Amy’s at any rate, as Kali refused to proffer hers. The man, dark-haired and dark-eyed with the beginnings of a double-chin, flashed a knowing look to Kali and thence to Cal, and then went back to his seat without making an issue out of the rudeness.
Presently, the sound of heels striking the hardwood drew Kali’s eyes up towards the large white double-doors behind the sofa and chairs. When the doors opened, Kali beheld the most striking women she’d ever seen. She was tall and full-figured with exactly the correct placement of curves and a golden ratio of their proportions to one another. The woman’s lustrous raven-black hair swooped over her left eye and curled up delicately at her bare shoulders. Opulently dressed in a sleek, shimmering silver gown, with diamond earrings and a chain of pearls around her neck, the woman was to the others in the room as they were to Kali; while they looked fit for a dinner at the yacht club, this woman looked like a movie star at a gala premiere. But entirely apart from her fashion and her gorgeous body, both of which could be purchased with enough money, she possessed qualities that were not available at any price: an easy grace of movement and an effortless femininity and sexuality that would have driven many men mad with lust and women with jealousy. Had she not had to deal with the more pressing concern for her life, Kali might have slunk away from her host with inconsolable feelings of inadequacy.
“Dear girls! I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for such a long time now,” the bombshell said in a husky, playful voice, which had the hint of a Brooklyn accent not fully eradicated despite long effort. She seated herself on the sofa, and, crossing her legs, extended her hand to invite the girls to sit in the open chairs. “Please make yourself comfortable and let’s chat a bit. I’m very sorry, by the way, about all the pretenses, but it was very important to me that you would attend and, frankly, it wouldn’t do to tell you what I really needed you for.”
There were some chuckles as Amy sat down, looking very confused. “D-do you mean this isn’t a modeling agency?” she asked.
Kali, who remained standing, rolled her eyes. It really was the first time that this poor girl sensed anything was amiss.
“Not exactly, love. But we are having tryouts, of a sort.”
“Who are you?” Kali ground out. Her throat was tight and her voice was low, but they must’ve heard her. The glamorous, dark-haired woman looked up at her, and Kali repeated herself, much louder.
“Oh!” the woman exclaimed, as if it had slipped her mind. “I’m Sofia Tavoularis, and this is my family.” She went around the room introducing them, starting with the jowly man who tried to kiss her hand and ending with the ugly brute: “my son, Philip; my eldest daughter, Katerina; my granddaughter, Elizabeth; and my longtime friend, Julius Muntz. And I guess you know Calvin who brought you here, who is also my grandson. Calvin and Elizabeth are Katerina’s babies.”
Kali’s head swam at the thought that the jaundiced, jowly man could possibly be this woman’s son, let alone that she could have grandchildren. She looked younger than everyone in the room except for Amy and Kali and maybe Elizabeth. She racked her brain trying to figure out where she’d heard the name Tavoularis before, but couldn’t place it.
Amy, however, had become very unsettled. She retreated into her chair until it looked like she might crawl up the back. All the color had gone out of her face. “Tavoularis?” she squeaked. “As… as in… the Tavoularis crime family?”
Everybody in the room—except for the two young girls, of course—laughed. Kali started to sweat. ‘Holy Christ! Sofia Tavoularis!’ she thought. ‘I have crossed the mob!’
“Come on, Amy! Don’t be scared!” Sofia chided her. “You can’t believe everything you hear in the news, can you?” Her laughter tinkled like the dainty porcelain cups on their saucers. “They’ve called me all sorts of ridiculous and slanderous names, like…”
“Lady Bloodbath,” daughter Katerina offered with a wink and a smile. “That’s always been my favorite.”
More laughter rang out, and from Philip in particular, it sounded quite sinister.
“Yes, well, there’s some truth to that one!” Sofia said.
“I’m not who you’re looking for!” Kali suddenly blurted. All eyes turned to look at her. She explained: “I can’t be. I’ve barely heard of you before and I don’t know anything about what you do. I don’t have any money, I don’t have anything valuable, and—”
Sofia waved her off. “Of course you’re who I’m looking for, silly girl! Well, one of you is anyway, and we’ll find that out shortly. Whichever of you lucky girls it is, you see a taste of the kind of life I can offer you, and there’s much better to show. And for the other girl…” Sofia turned over the palm of her hand, pursed her lips together in an expression of indecision. “Well, there won’t be any hard feelings!”
If the intended effect of that statement was to put either girl at ease, it failed miserably.
Kali closed her eyes and drew a deep breath, trying to slow her pounding heart and calm her frayed nerves. But she couldn’t. The more she tried, the more afraid and angry she became. ‘That bitch has me kidnapped, threatens my life, and now these bastards are smiling and joking. I feel sick. Maybe that’s what they want.’
Her thoughts pounded in her head so loudly that Kali didn’t hear the sudden choking and desperate gagging that abruptly broke out around her, nor the quaking china shattering as they slipped from limp hands onto the floor. It was only the loud thump of Cal’s body hitting the floor that startled her enough to make her open her eyes.
In front of her, Amy screamed as dark-red blood poured out of her nose and ears. The blonde cried out for help, thrashing with her arms in a desperate attempt to reach Kali, but she jumped back instinctively, and the girl fell to the floor in a puddle of blood and vomit. As she writhed there, still trying to reach Kali but straining in the wrong direction, Kali understood that somehow Amy had gone blind.
She saw Elizabeth slumped in her chair, her cheeks ashen except for the same trail of rich, dark blood that poured from her nose as it had Amy’s. She was perfectly still, but her eyes were open, transfixed in death. On the floor in front of her daughter, Katerina twitched spasmodically and great clumps of her hair and skin had fallen away, revealing rotting muscle tissue beneath.
Suddenly the struggling form of Julius Muntz overturned the coffee table, his hairy hands clamped around his throat as he tried to scratch open his own trachea. He stared up at Kali with a murderous but helpless fury, his face blue and pop-eyed. Somewhere beyond Kali’s gaze, Philip howled with pain and then, with a sudden gagging sound and a crash, his howls stopped and he was heard no more.
Kali was paralyzed with fright as she watched the scene unfold. The young girl was so stunned that it was some moments before she realized her own life might be in danger from whatever awful force stalked the room. She screamed and ran for the door for lack of any better options, and though she pulled at the latch, she could not get the door to open.
Then she stopped cold.
“What have… what have you done… to me… to my children?” The voice, reedy and breathlessly weak, came from Sofia Tavoularis. When Kali looked at her, the glamorous beauty of a few moments ago was gone, replaced with a cadaverous thing. Patches of skin sloughed off, along with that shiny black hair, into bloody pools on her elegant gown. Her hands and cheeks were nearly translucent, revealing blue spiderwebs of throbbing veins beneath. Foam and bile gathered at the corner of Sofia’s shriveled lips as she strained to speak.
Kali looked down at her shaking hands, breathed, and realized that she alone was not dying, that she alone was not literally falling apart. “I don’t understand,” she murmured. But then, as Sofia continued to croak at her and point accusingly, she did. Kali had done this to them, somehow, without intending to, without conscious control. She had killed everyone.
Steadying her trembling fingers around the doorknob, she finally managed to unlatch it. She ran for the elevator and never looked back.
Kali will appear again in the East End Irregulars series.
Read the Irregulars’ weird and heroic adventures in After Dark and The Dismal Tide.