Chapter 1: Jennifer
Jennifer with your orange hair
Jennifer with your green eyes
Jennifer with your dress of deepest purple
Where are you tonight?
Jennifer Moranis was sorting through the papers she'd brought from home when she came upon the letter. It was over a year old, written in handwriting that gave new life to the word "illegible", but still she froze in horror, that she'd unwittingly brought it to work. What if someone had seen it, and read it? (Little chance of that-- it had taken her three years to learn the handwriting. But still.) By habit, she glanced through it, checking to see if there was anything incriminating.
"Jennifer-- Intended to write you three months ago, regarding the child, but things here have been... somewhat hectic. If you've followed the news I'm sure you can guess why. Still, I hope to have a breakthrough soon (I mean it this time). I have not been well, and will not ask how you are, since we both know I'm heartless. My reputation is at stake, after all. I will, however, inquire after the child. Is she well? How are her grades? I expect straight A's, as I'm sure she knows. Is the school agreeing with her? Being your daughter, I expect she'll have her entire class twisted around her little finger, not being handicapped as I was. I would see her happy if possible, and successful if happiness fails. Happiness is such an elusive beast in any case. I would like to visit her, and you if agreeable, but finding the time is the problem. If I succeed this latest project, or if I can manage to unearth some spare time, I shall be in touch with you. It is not at all unlike me to show up on your doorstep without warning, so I would hope for your sake you're not seeing anyone else (and for their sake. I am still a jealous creature.)
"And I still want you, you know.
"Hardly yours, but reasonably sincere. At least, this time."
It was unsigned, and she breathed a sigh of relief. There was nothing incriminating in the letter. If anyone *had* read it, and asked about it, she could have just said it was from her ex-- which was true enough. Still, the fact that she'd accidentally brought the letter to work indicated a failure of necessary paranoia. What if it *had* been a signed letter, and someone had deciphered the signature? It would be all over then. The letter's writer wouldn't lift a finger to save her, not unless she deployed her blackmail material and that would mean an active attempt to kill her, sooner or later.
*Losing your edge, Moranis*, she thought as she locked up her desk, the letter stashed safely in her bag. *You're not free of Galactor, and the past. You never will be. Remember that.*
5:00-- time to go. She headed out to her car, lost in thought. Six years since she'd talked her way out of Galactor, six years since she'd given up being the power behind a potential throne-- or it had been taken from her. She missed it, oh yes. The money and power, yes, but most of all having someone to control, someone who was brilliant and powerful and challenging and sexy... But, no choice. It'd been leave or have an "accident", cleverly arranged by Sosai X. And if given the choice, she wouldn't go back, not now. Her lover might still want her, but now it would be as a toy, most likely. The age difference would no longer mean anything, and there would be too many changes. She'd seen them for herself, what six years under Sosai X had done. Too hard, and ruthless, and manic, and downright crazy for that matter. She couldn't control *that.* She wouldn't even try...
There was a sound behind her in the parking garage. Paranoia awakened, Jennifer spun. Not paranoid enough. There was a man with a gun of some sort. She threw herself behind her car, but it was too late. A spot of numbing pain in her chest. Going down, down...
*So you've finally decided to kill me, Berg,* she thought, terrified, and then there was no more room for terror, or anything.
"Package for you, sir," the secretary said.
Berg Katse looked up. The woman was holding a manila envelope. "Did you check it?"
"X-ray, chemicals and sonics. It's clean, sir."
"Then you open it," Katse said. The secretary obeyed, and as nothing untoward happened to her, he took the opened envelope from her hand and dismissed her.
He dumped the contents on his desk. Five photographs and a note, all wrong way up. He flipped over one of the photos and was surprised to see Jennifer Moranis' face. Dressed in smart business clothing, her red hair styled expensively, simultaneously cool and sharp with a smile like the Mona Lisa and no real sign of age. It was a recent picture, though-- the clothes were brand-new fashions. She looked better at 35 than he did at 30. Bitch. But then, she *was* wearing a good bit of makeup-- with that much makeup on, he could be a knockout too.
Why had someone sent him a photo of Jennifer?
He turned the other photos over, and understood.
The quality on these photos was not as high. They were grainy and amateurishly done. But then, they were hardly the sort of things one would frame and put on one's walls. Katse stared, unable to look away, unable to quite explain why fury and revulsion and grief were rising within him. The men in the pictures were digitally blurred-- no way to tell who they were. But if he could decipher something, some hint-- He looked at Jennifer in the pictures, at the two showing her face, trying to read a message from her. But all he could see was terror and humiliation and pain. And yes, she *didn't* look as good without her makeup on, and with the marks of abuse on her face.
The note was laser-printed, and had only one sentence on it. "Get your Galactor dicks out of Chementria, and maybe we'll get ours out of her."
Chementria. How dare they. How *dare* they? Jennifer Moranis was *his.* Katse looked back at the photographs. If it had been someone else in the pictures, he might even have found them erotic, though still amateurish. He had seen worse, caused worse, *done* worse for that matter. Why did it hurt so?-- But that was Jennifer, Jennifer...
So it was Jennifer. So what? He hadn't loved her, any more than he loved his current paramour. She'd been good in bed, sure, but André was better, and capable of more variety. And he'd let her go willingly, off to raise Lissandra to be what he needed her to be. Lissandra, yes, Lissa was important. But Jennifer had just been a tool, hadn't she? Hadn't she?
There was no question of responding, of course. Berg Katse could not be blackmailed. Even if the demand was minor, unimportant, there was a principle involved. And as it happened, Chementria was very important, to his plans and Sosai's. The country was probably the most corrupt nation on the planet, under heavy sanction by just about everybody. Twelve criminal families ruled, jockeying with each other for power. Galactor was backing the Pironello Family, giving them what they needed to crush their rivals. They would be the sole power in Chementria, and Galactor would rule them.
The other families knew perfectly well what was happening, of course, but there was nothing they could do. The UN sanctions on Chementria would prevent them asking ISO for help, because if they officially requested aid, ISO could demand that they clean up their act in return. Chementria bordered Italy and Frambell; Katse had allies in Frambell and already controlled several large sections of Italy. When Chementria fell, the holdout Mafia families would realize that keeping their independence from Galactor was a losing proposition. They'd capitulate, giving Katse all of Italy, and then Frambell could be dealt with easily. That would more than make up for their setback in losing Huntwall.
It was obvious to Katse that one of the other families had taken Jennifer. But his hands were tied as well. He knew ISO better than the Chementrians did; Nambu wouldn't wait for an official request if he got wind of Galactor presence in Chementria, and killing all the other families indiscriminately would be like sending Nambu a telegram. His own spy network, unfortunately, didn't penetrate Chementria deeply enough to find Jennifer (and Casabian, the head of Intelligence, had better have a good explanation why not, or he would be minus a head), while asking the Pironellos to find her for him was admitting to weakness. No, he had to let them wipe out their competition, slowly.
So. No choice. Eventually Jennifer would be avenged; but for now, he wrote her off in his head, determining her to be already dead. All he could do was move to protect what he could.
Like clockwork, the children at the Rathis School for the Gifted crowded around the mailboxes at 3:30 each day, right after class ended. Today Lissandra Moranis, a leggy nine-year-old redhead, shoved her way through the crowd, praying for mail. It had been a whole *week* since Mommy's last letter.
In her mind, she crowed as she saw the box contained an envelope. Quickly she unlocked the glass front, pulled out the envelope, and ran up to her room, where she could read it in privacy. Daddy's money ensured she had a room all to herself, and she needed it. There were a *lot* of secrets Lissa had to keep-- from her friends, from the teachers, from Daddy himself. Only Mommy knew everything. Only Mommy could be told everything.
She unlocked her door, threw her schoolbag in a corner, and sat down on the bed. There was no return address-- that was odd. What was odder still was that the paper inside was pale purple.
It wasn't from Mommy, then. Disappointment curdled through Lissa's heart, making her want to roll up the letter and throw it in the trash-- but mail was mail, even if Daddy sent it. Besides, sometimes he sent money. So she opened it and read.
Your mother is dead."
That couldn't be right. Had she read that right?
Your mother is dead. She was murdered by agents of the nation of Chementria, and I very much fear you are the next target. Do everything I tell you if you want to stay alive. I'll be sending my men to protect you-- they should be in place even now. Don't go with *anyone* unless they give you the password 'muggy-shoot'. Don't walk alone in the woods, don't go *anywhere* off the grounds alone-- in fact, don't go off the grounds, period. These people are ruthless enough to kill anyone that's with you in order to get to you. Accept no packages after this letter; they may be bombs. Being what you are, it's safe to eat, but if you value your friends' lives, don't let them have bites of your food. It may be poisoned, and if so, *you* will live, but they will not. On Thursday, I personally will come and pick you up. I have enclosed a photograph to confirm my appearance. Have your bags packed and ready-- it's no longer safe for you at Rathis.
"Your concerned father, Daddy."
Of course he didn't sign it with his *real* name; he and Mommy had indoctrinated Lissa *never* to use Daddy's real name or write it anywhere. Lissandra reread the letter, trying to believe it was a cruel joke, or something. How could Mommy be dead? Lissa was only nine, and everyone else in the world was a potential enemy. She still *needed* her mommy. She was too young.
With quivering lips, Lissa picked up the phone and dialed Mommy's number. At home she got the answering machine-- "This is the Moranis home. If you're looking for Jennifer or Brent, leave your name, number and the time you called, and we'll get back to you." There was no Brent, of course. It was an imaginary name that her father had used on her birth certificate-- certainly no one would ever call asking for him under than name. Or under any name-- Daddy didn't live at home, thank God. But Mommy had explained that the message was a trick, to make people think there was a man in the family, because criminals often attacked women living by themselves.
"...she was murdered..."
"Mommy?" Voice breaking. "This is Lissa. Please call me, okay? Please?"
Then she tried work. "Industrial Psychology Department."
"Is Jennifer Moranis there? This is very important."
"Afraid not. Is this Lissa?"
"Well, your mommy hasn't come in to work in a few days, honey. Have you tried your daddy?"
"I-- I--" *I got a letter from him, and he says Mommy's dead.* "Not yet."
"Well, you try him, okay, honey? Bye."
A sob escaped Lissa's throat before she could stop herself. There were others behind it, but she forced them down, choking. Wasn't she Berg Katse's daughter? Wasn't she strong and hard enough not to cry? She had to be-- because if Mommy was dead, she was all alone in the world now...
The photograph of her father had fallen on the bed. Long blond hair tied back in a ponytail, light blue business suit, red tie. His face looked oddly young, and handsome in a sort of effeminate way. He *was* male, though-- Lissa could tell. Either that, or he was wearing a really good disguise.
She hated him.
*You killed Mommy,* she thought, tears welling in her eyes. It hardly made a difference if he'd really killed her-- if he'd sent her killers-- or if he'd been telling the truth and the Chementrians had gotten her. The Chementrians had no quarrel with Mommy-- if they'd killed her, it was because of who Daddy was, and what he did. His fault. He'd killed her.
*Oh, Mommy, what am I going to do?*
Her control broke, and she began to sob. Daddy was going to take her away on Thursday, and she was too young to do anything about it. Mommy had taught her well-- not even she knew quite how much Lissandra hated Daddy. Most of her friends had parents in ISO, and all of them knew someone Daddy had killed. More than once, Lissa had had to comfort a friend who'd lost a parent to *her* parent's actions. Mommy had said he was hard and ruthless, but very generous with those he cared about. She'd never said he was evil. Lissa had figured *that* out for herself. Mommy had taught her to manipulate Daddy, to hide her real feelings and pretend to be his "little girl", so that he would give her stuff, and more importantly so that he never saw her as a potential threat. But not even Mommy knew quite how much of a threat Lissa wanted to be.
She *wasn't* going to let him take her, his reward for murdering Mommy. She wasn't. She'd die first.