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One

8:43PM, Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

The elevator doors dinged open on the first floor and Gabriella finally broke the news. “I just finished submitting the paperwork.”

“What?” Sean’s voice thundered out of the phone, sending unintelligible echoes ricocheting off of the implacable marble slab facing the elevator doors. Gabriella winced as she walked briskly out of the elevator. The outburst wasn’t enough to wipe the smile from her face.

“Stop yelling,” she said, returning the phone to her ear. “Phil will be thrilled that I got the signatures.”

“Of course Phil’s gonna be thrilled! He doesn’t give a crap as long as there’s a sale,” Sean said, and his voice took on a familiar sulking tone. “Gabriella, we’re supposed to be working as a team!” Gabriella rolled her eyes. Here we go again, she thought. “When I agreed to this whole ‘Equal Weight’ thing, it wasn’t with the understanding that you’d be cutting me out of every single sale!”

“For the past three months I have done my absolute best to work with you, and this is how you continue to repay me,” Sean continued, and now the heat was rising, as frustration fueled anger. “Have you ever considered that this stuff will eventually come back to bite you in the ass?”

“No.” There wasn’t even a hint of question in her voice, and her hazel eyes sparked mischievously as she savored the anticipation of Sean’s predictable reaction. “Maybe you need to learn to hustle better. After all, that was the point of all of this, right? So you could learn something?” This time she pulled the phone away from her ear preemptively.

“Are you f------ kidding me?” Sean’s voice echoed loudly in the atrium entrance of the building, a three story sparkling edifice of steel and glass. For once Gabriella was glad it was late and the building was mostly deserted. As it was, the guard at the front desk looked her way in alarm. Gabriella smiled and waved him off. Her heels clicked staccato beats on the tile stairs as she climbed towards the second floor balcony; from there she could cross the walkway to the garage. Then, her car would carry her home, and she could finally take that relaxing hot bath she’d been promising herself all day. She deserved it.

As she crested the stairs she realized that Sean was still talking. She slid the phone back in place against her ear. “What?”

“That’s right: Very. Exclusive.” His voice punched a universe of excess meaning into each word. “And coming to a close. I’m at the airport now. Tonight will be our last little sit down, and by tomorrow morning I will have ink on paper. Then we’ll see who’s learned how to hustle.”

Gabriella rolled her eyes again. If Sean had ever had the ability to close we wouldn’t be in this ‘partnership’ in the first place. She let her voice carry her sneer into the phone. “So where is this imaginary – I’m sorry; I meant to say, where is your oh-so-very-real-and-important meeting taking place?”

“What was that phrase you said to me? Oh right: ‘Eat s--- and die’,” he said. “I’ve been trying – really trying – and you haven’t. Bye, Gabs. I’m done.” The speaker clicked; he’d hung up the call. Sean’s use of that nickname grated – it wasn’t his to use – but Gabriella let it slide off. Instead, she simply shook her head and chuckled as she slid the phone into her purse. She rated the chances of him actually securing a deal – any deal – at somewhere between “nil” and “f------ nil”. Maybe next time he’ll think things through more carefully before trying to f--- me over.

She let the glass doors of the office building shut behind her, and looked up at the stars as she made her way across the balcony. Most of her coworkers hated the fact that the walkway wasn’t covered; it made rainy days absolutely miserable. On cold nights like this, though, the open design showcased the few diamonds that dared to glitter on the swatch of black velvet stretched above the bright city lights. Gabriella let out a long contented sigh, and pulled the silver barrette free from her russet brown hair. It spilled down over her shoulders in loose ringlets, and she massaged her scalp with her free hand. Yeah, she thought to herself. I’m going to soak in the tub all night.

“Gabriella Elizabeth de la Rosa.” A rough voice startled her out of her reverie, and she almost tripped as her thoughts were dumped unceremoniously back into her body. In front of her two men in long black trench coats stood blocking the garage entrance. Wide brimmed hats threw deep shadows across their faces, adding to the air of menace surrounding them. “Gabriella Elizabeth de la Rosa. You will come with us.”

The hairs on the back of Gabriella’s neck stood on end, and she stopped dead in her tracks. “I don’t think so,” she said, and turned around. She could just as easily step back into the building and–

Through the doors she could see two more men approaching. Their dark clothing seemed to soak up the light as they walked, draining away the color and spark, the very vitality of the building, with each soundless step they took.

Gabriella involuntarily backed up, away from the doors, and her stomach turned somersaults. She didn’t know who they were or what they wanted, but she did know that she most certainly did not want to go with them. She idly thought about jumping the railing; the thought was quickly discarded. Even if she could survive the twenty foot fall, she doubted she’d be in much shape at the bottom to escape. She turned back towards the garage entrance instead. “Listen, perhaps if you make an appointment with my secretary, I could–”

One of the men pointed at her. “You assume you have choice in this matter,” the rough voice said. Suddenly they were on her, crossing a dozen feet faster than physically possible. “You will come with us. Now.

Gabriella’s skin crawled as clammy hands closed around her wrist. Adrenaline flooded her body, and she instinctively jerked backwards. “No!” she said, and shoved against the man holding her. “Let go of me!”

The shove might have been more effective against a stone wall, considering how little the guy reacted to it. Another hand closed on her upper arm, and yet another searched for a hold on her waist. Behind her, metal slammed into brick, and rapid footsteps echoed in the far-too-small space between the buildings. The sound of breaking glass danced around her like chimes on the wind.

Gabriella’s breath came in short bursts, and she twisted wildly as she struggled against the men fighting to hold her. Her hand closed on something soft and yielding, and without thought she sunk her fingers in, digging nails deep until they struck the solid core beneath. It moved and slid, sloughing off like molted scales. Gabriella risked a glimpse at the hat lying lifeless and perforated in her hand; her eyes automatically tracked up to look into the face of her assailant.

At a distance, she might have wondered if this thing that stared back at her was human. Up close, however, she was quite certain that it was not. It might have been human once, long ago. It had skin, for example, but instead of the normally warm pinks, reds, and browns of healthy people it had only a greyish white pallor, as if all vitality and life had been drained away, and replaced with cold malice. No nose served as landmark in the center of this thing’s face; the long jagged lip-less gash that served as a mouth curled upward into a cruel smirk. It was the eyes that were most dreadful, however: white voids with no pupil, or iris, or eyelid, or eyelashes, pulsing and churning chaotically, as if some creature trapped just below the surface struggled as it suffocated, vainly trying to escape those terrible wax traps. The creature smiled at her, and opened its jaw much further than she would have thought probable, or even possible; suddenly she was staring into a vast bloody pit lined with jagged spears of stained ivory.

Gabriella’s heart leapt into her throat as if trying to escape her body, perhaps save itself and leave the rest to be consumed by these awful monsters. Panic rose, beat against the levies of her mind, threatening to overwhelm the defenses of sanity and wash her away on a sea of madness. She could feel the tension in her body building; the urge to flee, to fight, to somehow escape drove adrenaline and pulse to levels she didn’t dream possible. Something else was there, too; it twisted and squirmed within her like a chick in an egg impatiently waiting to emerge triumphant into the world. Gabriella drew all of her energy in, then flung outward with everything she had. “Let go of me!”

Blood roared, and time stopped. For a second it felt like the egg would hold firm. Then a crack formed, propagated like lightning across its surface. A single fragment flapped open, and then shut, but it was enough. Light poured out of Gabriella, and reality flexed in response. Surprise bloomed on the creature’s face just before the wave of power struck him full in the chest. Then he was flying away, flung like a ragdoll by the force of the blow. He sailed upward in a graceful arc that carried him over the railing and down towards the street two stories below.

Gabriella slumped to her knees, dazed and spent. “What – what the f--- was that?” she asked no one in particular, and no one in particular responded – a quick glance around confirmed that she was now alone on the walkway. She rose, ignoring the protest of her legs and knees, and looked over the railing. Four bodies lie sprawled on the pavement below like broken toys. Their trench coats lay open, and it was obvious that all of them were similar, conceived and birthed from the same foul womb of wicked depravity that had birthed all of the world’s worst evils. At least they were dead now, or, if not dead, then certainly injured. Her breathing slowed as she calmed, and she idly wondered who she should call to come get them. Building security? The police? Scientists, or the media? Gabriella smiled as she imagined the press: ‘Woman fights off four mysterious attackers alone, donates strange bodies to Science.’ Perhaps there would be a reward? Or, better yet, an autopsy video for which millions would pay! $9.99? $19.99? Gabriella’s mind was just beginning to work out the appropriate price point when movement below caught her attention.

The first of the creatures twitched, then sat up. It rubbed the back of its head, then looked up and snarled. As it rose to its feet, the second sat up, and then the third, and finally the fourth. At the end of the block three figures in trench coats loped around the corner with inhumanly long strides, heading towards the four figures looking up at her from below. Those four were moving too, impossibly fast, to the grey concrete wall of the parking garage and then up the wall, slamming long pallid fingers into the surface like nails into drywall as they easily climbed the structure. All the while they stared up at her malevolently, their blank white eyes pulsing and twisting with hatred.

Gabriella shuddered, and her heart fluttered against her ribcage. She backed away from the railing to break away from their gaze, and twisted in the wind. Her legs itched to run, to hide, and she searched her surroundings for an escape route. Finally, she darted through the big opening to the garage, and stabbed the elevator button repeatedly.

“Come on, come on,” she said, and cast nervous glances back at the walkway, half expecting those things to be there, ready to pounce and devour her. Instinct screamed – too long! taking too long! “S---!”

She abandoned the effort, and instead slid quickly and quietly through the door of the stairwell. Some shred of cunning kept her hand on the door, and the door squeaked quietly to a close instead of slamming shut. Then she was fleeing for her life up the stairs.

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