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  • Writer's pictureJeff Arce/Jarce ArtThor

Striker’s Draw: a thriller


What is it: a short action adventure parody.


Genre: fiction/short thriller.


Synopsis: When the arm of the law can't reach anymore Agent Ash Striker is sent in to bring an egregious sinner to justice. With her artistic dexterity armed by an irresistible charm she uses subterfuge to draw her target out from the shadows and into her playing hand. But what happens when the game turns on her, and she is faced with an impossible task?



Reading level: adult. This story contains some graphic descriptions of gun violence, drug references, and a little bit of bad language. But it is a good time.


Reading time: about 45 minutes.



Dedicated to our friend,

Ash,

who has the coolest name ever.



Edited by Lia Fairchild

Assisted by Ash Ryder


Cover art and story by Jeff Arce



Striker’s Draw


Story:

She gazed intently at her stolid expression in the mirror. Her silver-blond hair was accentuated by dark brown, and black strips that flanked her scalp and coiled around the bun holding it all together. Her narrow, catlike eyes were intense, intelligent, and captivating—so blue they could hypnotize a cobra. With her high, prominent cheekbones, slender pink lips, ethereal hair, and unrelenting, perfect posture, she possessed a Scandinavian aura that was both beautiful and austere.


Her name was Ash Striker.


She dithered at the sink in the restroom, waiting for the other two women palavering beside her to move on with their insufferable business. Dressed in a form-fitting, shoulder-baring, lacy corset and wearing the most adorable pair of stiletto high heels that Ash had ever laid eyes on, the woman nearest to her suddenly halted her end of their banter. She was reapplying a fresh layer of gloss to her fat beak. Her gratuitous lip fillers looked like they were damn near about to burst out of her face. She looked like a science project. Ash’s rapacious eyes instinctively fell to her fancy footwear, however. Her shoes were far more interesting. The woman caught Ash admiring her gear in the mirror and flashed an indignant grimace at the silent stranger standing adjacent to her.


Ash wanted those shoes. What she did not want, though, was to be remembered by an aggrieved woman. Not on this boat. So, Ash smiled contritely at her before averting her eyes.


Even as the pair went scurrying out the ladies’ room, muttering their disdain, Ash couldn’t help but to fantasize how good those sparkling, icy pumps would go with her own black and white blazer and pinstriped pants. Alas, there was a job to do.


Work first, plunder later, she reminded herself.

Alone at last, she bit down hard on the false tooth filling up one of her back molars until she felt it crack. She collected the broken fragment with her tongue, bringing it to the edge of her mouth.


She plucked it from her lips and ran it under the faucet water to clean it off. After polishing the small device with the flap of her blazer she inserted it into her left ear. Then she pressed the sesame seed-sized button that was affixed to its white, glossy surface. A gentle BEEP echoed inside of her ear cavity, followed by a soft crackle.


Then she said, “Agent Striker, code name Gentileschi. On location. Copy?”


“We have you, Agent Striker,” a deep male voice answered from the contraption cradled in her ear. “Your signal is locked-on. Stand by…”


Ash stood there rigid, staring deeply at her own phlegmatic reflection as she awaited instructions.


Soon the voice was speaking to her again. “Exit left down the corridor, past exhibit A. Head to the bar. You know what to do there.”


“Copy that,” she said as she collected her purse, hung the leather strap over her naked shoulder and made for the exit.



They were forty nautical miles east from the coastline of Puerto Rico, just out of reach from America’s hand.


Perhaps nothing in the world of modern art was more perplexing to Ash Striker than the arcane craft of digital NFTs. And her current host was its biggest patron. She sat alone at the central bar surrounded by high-definition OLED flat screen displays of various sizes showing off some of their most curious possessions. There was an animated monkey wearing a hoodie with the words GET LIT emblazoned across his narrow chest. He was sporting Ray-Bans and covered from face to neck in a fresco of obscure tattoos as he piloted a rocket-powered jet ski over the moon. There was a massive holographic image floating just over the bar that featured a rotating piece of alien terrain. It was populated by two iridescent cartoon Venus flytraps as they were sharing puffs from a glass bong. A glowing mushroom with a morbidly amused grin stretching across its gaunt face floated over their smoldering heads. It was impressive, but confusing. Cuddly bears were springing in the air, gripping assault rifles and puffing on cigars. Strange avatars depicted with all kinds of cyber-tech hardware embedded into their bodies lined the walls around the main stage.


At the far corner of the ballroom, a flamboyantly dressed band occupied the stage. They were performing an outrageous hodgepodge concoction of jazz and dubstep, meeting halfway with an experimental form of punk-rock that assaulted Ash’s musical senses. It sounded like an awkward cacophony of instruments playing in reverse. But nobody else seemed to mind. They were out on the floor swaying right along with the noise, snorting enough powder to ameliorate the chaos. Ash was all but certain that being high as a kite was the whole selling point to all of this digital garbage.


She tuned it out. The soothingly somnolent waters flowing beneath their anchored yacht relaxed her nerves. Ash soon found herself in a trance, hearing only the whispering of her fast-moving pencil as she drew. Seeing only her subject: her target. He was seated across from the bar in a dimly lit VIP lounge populated by a retinue of friends, slatterns in revealing wardrobe, and well-tailored, suited men armed to the teeth.


“Do you see him?” the deep voice in her ear inquired.


Exasperated, Ash sighed, “I see him.”


Hovering pertinaciously over her drawing pad, she began working in the finer details of the man’s dark, slovenly groomed hair and goatee. His robust head of wild curls cascaded down to the reach of his shoulders and tumbled across his left brow. She chanced a furtive glance at her subject as though to collect more of what she already had memorized about his features. He saw her looking and simpered. He nudged his wire-rimmed over the bridge of his round nose. Feigning diffidence, he retreated his gaze to the dregs of Champagne left in his glass. Inflaming his ego was of course part of Ash’s game. She could have drawn him with her eyes closed.


“Don’t fall in love, Ash,” the voice chided.


Ash frowned at that. “Fuck off, Tess.”


Tess sniggered on the line. Then he said, “I mean it. He might seem dashing, but these people are dangerous. Paul Sulida is wanted for conspiracy, murder, and fraud. He’s hot.”


That he is, Ash mused.


“Are you armed?”


Scribbling in the undulate shapes that made up her subject’s spirals of hair, she answered, “Couldn’t get my piece past the guards coming on board. Had to toss it. They took my cell too.”


Another hardy chuckle came through her earpiece. “How ironic.”


“Indeed.”


“Well, my friend, you’re going to need to acquire one.”


Ash looked again, her piercing blue eyes consuming far more information than only the countenance of her subject’s face. A bang fell loose over her intent brow. Her target smirked, believing she was enamored, caught in the spiderweb of his irresistible charm. But Ash was admiring something else. Ash caught sight of the Mac-11 with the extended clip cradled in the relaxed hands of one of his nearby guards.


“I’ll get one,” Ash promised, turning her attention back onto her drawing. “Though, nothing I’m bound to wrap my hands around is going to mean much if they get that Hellcat up on deck in the air.”


“Roger that,” Tess replied. “We saw it on the manifest. Drones are inbound as we speak. We got you covered.”


“Good. I hate Hellcats.”


Tess said, “Just get him back to international waters. The Feds can take it from there. If all goes well, we should have Paul Sulida in custody and his assets seized before dawn.”


Ash was finishing up the final touches to her drawing. Never settling her pencil, she said, “We better. I need to be back in Florida by three and no later. I’m scheduled to open.”


“This man and his goons have ripped off thousands of American investors. Some of them were artists like you. And they have killed hundreds more in the process. Your little county fair, I think, can wait.”


Ash froze, the sharply honed point of her pencil hanging over the near-complete illustration. Sternly, she pressed, “Alibis don’t wait… Backstory means everything in this line of work. It is sacred. Sacrosanct. Without it, I am a bloody blade naked of its scabbard. We will finish this tonight, and I arrive for my shift on time.

“Very good!” Tess was pleased with that response. “Let’s get it done then.”


“Excuse me, ma’am,” a man greeted Ash genially from behind.


Ash turned away from her drawing to acknowledge him. He stood there clad in his black suit and silver tie, hands composed and gentle at his side, empty of threat. Another one of Paul Sulida’s staunch bodyguards to be sure, but for the moment he was merely acting as his envoy. And quite the charmer he was, indeed. Tall, fit, and ruggedly handsome, Ash couldn’t help but to blush at his presence.


“Oh, hello there,” Ash said, playing coy.


The beguiling young man in the snazzy black suit and silver tie leaned in to take a gander at her work. His brazen confidence, olive completion, dark stubble, squared jaw, and dimpled chin were aesthetic features that could make any woman melt right there in his lap. He reached over to turn the drawing pad his way. Ash allowed it. She moved her arm back from the bar, inviting him in for a more intimate look. Ash was good at playing the any woman role that she sensed this man was accustomed to.

Even though it was all just an act for her she quite enjoyed the feel of him, making it exceptionally difficult not to be ensorcelled by his magnetic charm. He was strong but tranquil, with a sultry voice, and a pair of intoxicating, smokey brown eyes. All his guard was down. All his attention stolen by her adroit artistry. Ash liked that the most about him. Now here’s a man so sure in himself he can let it all go. What the man had not noticed as he got in close, however, was the way she had turned her pencil around in her hand. She gripped it with her thumb pressed down against the butt, might she need the extra support if she decided to use the freshly sharpened pencil as a shiv.


Taking up her empty glass with her other hand, she brought her lips close to his ear. She purred, “Do you like it?”


“It’s wonderful,” he said with the joy of an excited child.


Ash’s fair skin was made for glowing, so she blushed as her answer to that.


The man then nodded at her glass and asked, “What are you having?”


She beamed shyly at him. “Whatever you’re buying.”


He winked at her.


Then he waved over the bartender and ordered a glass of Champagne with a name that Ash could hardly pronounce, which could only mean one thing: it was rich-man’s water. Graciously, she accepted his generous offer.


“A gift from our host…” he proclaimed, proudly. He then waved a hand toward his boss who was sitting way over in the darkly lit VIP lounge. Ash’s target raised his glass to acknowledge her. “Would you like to meet him?”


Ash gasped. “Me? Oh, please, I don’t want to be a bother. I just saw that…”


“Not at all, Miss…” The man paused, making it more of an inquiry.


“Striker,” she said, setting down her glass to offer her hand, “Ash Striker.”


He accepted her docile grip firmly in his. On any other day, Ash possessed a mean handshake that could rival the best, but for the sake of character she let him win that exchange. It always amused her how easily she could ingratiate a man with only her pretty eyes and a feeble hand. Then they were on their way, Silver Tie leading her around the bar and toward the party of the hour.


Two barrel-chested men stopped them just at the threshold. The one on the left gestured for her to spread out her arms. She shot an accusatory glance over at her new friend, who only answered with a compunctious grin. Then she sucked her teeth and did as she was asked, holding her drink high with one hand and her art pad and pencil in the other.


The one to her left patted her down with calloused hands as the other quickly rummaged through the contents of her small purse. Finding nothing interesting on her person they at last withdrew from her, returning to their original still-as-a-gargoyle state.


“Can’t be too careful,” Silver Tie japed as he extended his hand to invite her onward.


Ash refixed the strap to her purse over her shoulder and relaxed her arms. She took a step forward, noting that Paul Sulida was already grinning at her. He set his empty glass aside and began to rise from his chair to greet them. Suddenly, a breathtakingly beautiful yet frightening white tiger came stalking around the chair on her big heavy paws. She was nine feet long, standing seven feet from the ground and must have weighed somewhere between two hundred and three hundred pounds. The big cat’s chained tether only let her get so far from Sulida’s reach, but it was quite enough to draw a breath of startled shock from Ash’s lips. She did not have to fake her alarm with that encounter.


“Easy, Isis,” Paul soothed as he patted the ol’ girl along the back of her downy white coat. He shot a daring glance over at Ash and said, “Don’t be afraid. She only bites if I allow it.”


That didn’t do much to placate Ash’s racing heart, but she forced a fabricated smile, nevertheless. What is it with playboys and freaking tigers? she wondered.


Paul leaned in deep and kissed Isis on her bristly face. “Come now,” he insisted, as he sat up right, “let her have a smell. It helps her to trust you.”


The tiger’s pale gray eyes looked curiously up at Ash.


Trepidation leapt into her throat, but still she drew in toward the beast. Then the guard standing to the right of her reached over in front of Silver Tie. He seized her up under the arm. He forcefully brought her hand up toward his scowling, twisted face, to scrutinize the small art pad and pencil she was clutching there in her fist.


“What the hell, dude!” Ash snarled, letting her true-self accidentally break through her character’s taciturn demeanor.


Silver Tie moved in behind her, marking the guard with an acerbic glower.


The guard’s hard face was covered in coarse wrinkles and riddled with old scars from years of brutality. But his flinty eyes never faltered. He gazed darkly at the pencil in her hand and demanded, “What’s this for?”


“To draw your ugly tree face, Groot!” Ash fumed.


Silver Tie set his hand on the guard’s wrist and said, “It’s fine. Simmer down.”


The guard blinked over at Paul Sulida. His boss was scowling at him. The guard grudgingly disengaged, letting her go.


Ash yanked back her arm, nearly spilling the expensive drink in her other hand in the process.


Silver Tie pressed at the small of her back to urge her away from the guards. He said, “Forgive them. They’re not known for their chivalry.”


“Tree people rarely are,” Ash seethed, staring derisively at the brooding guard as she followed Silver Tie’s lead. “I’m half surprised he didn’t start chucking apples at me.”


Silver Tie threw back his head and guffawed. That was when Ash saw that he was wearing a true tie in lieu of a clip-on. It was a rather poor wardrobe choice, considering the job. Those were neck ornaments that quickly became inexorable nooses in a scuffle. I guess I’ll need to teach him that lesson, Ash thought.

She then turned to observe Paul Sulfide. He was a stout man with light brown skin, and a rather corpulent midsection, but his dark heavy-lidded eyes and gentle ambiance were disarming and inviting. He was uniquely attractive. His silken flannel polo and black jeans gave him the air of a man who was insouciant and carefree, though rich with power. He possessed all the right ingredients for the cult leader he was vast becoming.


Again, he was about to rise from his chair to meet her when his action was cut unexpectedly short by a vivacious and dainty little creature. She sauntered in between the wall of massive bodies that encompassed Paul’s lounge. Strutting around his tiger on long, athletic legs, she broke between Ash and her man. She then planted herself firmly onto his lap. The weight of her small body was just enough to put Paul back down into his seat. The little woman giggled as she sank into his embrace, throwing a long pink, naked leg high into the air, almost directly at Ash’s face. She had to take a half-step back to bypass the swing of the newcomer’s red heel as it came slashing up toward her nose.


Her crimson red, low-cut, V-neck dress was formfitting and dazzling under the influence of the surrounding lights. Stars winked across her bosom with every bubble of animated laughter that coursed through her. She was like a Chihuahua with more bark than a body to endure it, as she writhed in Paul’s grasp. When her mirth at last subsided in her ample chest, she set a vicious gaze upon Ash Striker. It was a baleful glower. Ash could do nothing but stare right back at the fiery little brunette, with her pouty red lips and complacent disposition.


“Forgive me, Melissa Jade,” Paul said to his lap cat, “but we have a guest. We shouldn’t be so rude.”


Melissa did not rein in her envy, but for a moment, Ash could have sworn there was perhaps a hint of salacious interest leering somewhere behind her unrelenting mask of disgust. Melissa bit down on her lip. Even this action appeared a tough lascivious. She said, “Do we, now? And what does this guest want with us?”


“She’s a rather good artist,” Silver Tie provided. Then he turned toward Ash and said, “Show him.”


“Please,” Paul invited, thrusting out a wanting palm for her art pad.


Ash was reluctant. She blinked diffidently down at her sketchbook before she started to lift her arm to hand it over.


Suddenly a long, pointed steel prod shot out from a mechanical apparatus wrapped around Melissa’s wrist. Ash had mistaken it for some sort of smart watch, or artful bracelet when she first laid eyes upon the ornate contraption. Now she could see that it was a retractable weapon hidden in plain sight. Ash recoiled, fumbling her sketchbook to the floor in the process.


Jesus-fucking-Christ,” she cursed.


Melissa simpered. The blade then collapsed back into the face of her silver wristwatch, disappearing in an instant. It seemed to be initiated by the venomous woman’s very thoughts alone. That was a new one for Ash.


“Melissa, please,” Paul rebuked in the vein of an apathetic father reprimanding a disobedient child.


Grinning sinisterly at Ash, Melissa pouted, “Oops! It must have slipped, my love.” Then she charmed him with a sideways smile over her bare shoulder as she purred, “Won’t, let it happen again.”


She swung her lusty legs around to disengage herself from his lap, prompting Ash to take another cautious step farther away from her considerable reach and closer toward the guard with the Uzi hanging by his side.

Ash found herself wondering, how could someone so small have legs that damn long?


Melissa paused, her probing brown eyes half enjoying and half denigrating Ash at the same time. “Don’t you worry, dear. I just want to have a look.” She plucked the sketchbook off the floor and eased herself back into Paul’s burley arms. She again crossed her legs between the high slit in her dress and opened the journal, all the while grinning snarkily at their guest with cruel intent.


Ash’s illustrations were undeniably adept. Both Melissa and her companion were impressed by her precocious technique. Silver Tie drew in close to join them. Laughing and pointing at every doodle like it was the most entertaining thing any of them had ever seen before. Even the guard with the gun began leaning in with interest.


“Pretty good,” Melissa confessed.


Then Silver Tie chuckled, and said, “Pretty Good? I can’t even draw a stick figure.”


They all suddenly erupted in a fit of gratuitous laughter as if the jest was one of the funniest things they had ever heard in their lives.


Ash had to fight the reflexive impulse to cringe and roll her eyes.


Nobody can resist a caricature, Ash thought mordantly. Then she jammed her pencil into the jugular vein on the right side of the guard’s throat, prompting him to release the Uzi so he could rake at the burst of blood spitting out from his wound.


Ash quickly reached over with her free hand to seize Silver Tie by his neck-noose and yanked him in close. The tiger lurched off her haunches, snarling savagely, but the leash restrained her, cutting her short. Tree-Face brought up his pistol, a .45 auto, and began popping off rounds in Ash’s directions. She wrestled Silver Tie into the pathway of his gunfire. Red holes exploded into his chest as she took possession of the discarded Mac 11 on the floor. Then she swept its previous owner off his tottering feet with a dexterous scissor-sweep from her powerful legs and rolled onto her side all in one swift motion. She flanked Tree-Face as she sprang back up onto one knee, the Uzi armed and ready. She squeezed hard on the trigger until she hemmed a bloody line of bullet holes from his left knee to his jawbone. The latter hit with a sickening smack. The blast caved-in his desiccated skull and sent the big man tumbling to earth like a dead log. How perfectly fitting.


The party was over.


As the deafening sound of staccato muzzle blasts erupted, the crypto art patrons stirred, scrambling in a frantic rampage for the exit. They were screaming and jostling one another in their selfish flight for safe refuge.


Ash moved like a machine, aiming, firing, ducking, pivoting, and firing again, dropping Paul Sulida’s guards one by one. Melissa was quick to respond, kicking herself back into Paul’s chest so hard that the chair went tumbling away from Ash’s onslaught. The tiger’s chain was set loose from Paul’s hold as they went tumbling over. The eager animal ran off to escape the disorienting, menacing gunfire. Together, Melissa and Paul rolled across the floor in a tangled heap. She mounted herself on top of him and drew out her blades from the apparatuses attached to her wrists.


Looking down at a startled Paul Sulida, she asked, “Are you hit?”


He shook his head.


“Good,” Melissa spat. “Get to the Sea-Doo—Now! I’ll take care of this chick!”


Ash was busy chewing up Sulida’s hired goons with her purloined Uzi, eliminating them with expert precision when she happened upon the girl with the fancy heels from the ladies’ room. The terrified woman was sprinting after the nearest exit, but as predicted, she staggered over her own footwear and went careening into one of the strange art displays. Her shoulder crashed through the sculpture’s display case, sending it smashing to splinters against the wooden floor. More chagrined than hurt, she cursed her bad fortune and kicked off the wretched heels that tripped her up before she got back to her feet to flee the scene.


Click! Clack!


The clip was dry. Ash threw down the spent Uzi and began frantically searching her surroundings. Mangled, twisted bodies in tattered suits were lying everywhere, transforming Sulida’s VIP lounge into a spattered blood pit. Shattered flatscreens hung crookedly from the walls. Crystalline shards from broken bottles and wine glasses littered the bar, and smoldering perforations stitched the walls.


The ballroom fell quiet.


“Tess…where’s Paul,” Ash implored. Then Paul suddenly jumped up from behind the overturned furniture and darted for the elevator across the way.


“Got him.” Ash gave chase.


Melissa Jade suddenly pounced at her with her blades drawn, shrieking like a feral lunatic. Ash intuitively rolled across the floor, narrowly dodging the sickle-shaped swords attached to her adversary’s wrists like a vapid Marvel villain. Melissa slashed for her neck. She missed, hacking off a silver lock of hair from Ash’s head. That loosened the knot and sent her lengthy hair spilling down around her shoulders. The impetus from her swift evasion left Ash skidding across the floor on her knees. When she came to a still, she saw Paul Sulida waving at her with a cocksure smirk on his face just as the elevator doors closed him inside.


Shit!


Melissa was shrieking again, bringing up her arm to cut down at Ash’s spine. Ash dove out from her reach, fast as a nimble squirrel, leaving her swiping at nothing. Ash then found the two discarded heels abandoned by the woman she had met in the bathroom. She scooped them up as she rolled across the floor. She then pivoted to her back and threw up the shoes to shield herself from yet another explosive attack. Melissa’s savage blades came down against the soles of the heels where their momentum was halted at last. They were well-made pumps indeed, Ash mused, as she ensnared her adversary’s attack. Melissa applied her weight into the steel to drive Ash’s back flat against the floor.


She hovered over Ash, hanging her head between her two blades, pressing down on the high heels. She licked her glimmering, pink lips. Then she pouted, “You are a pretty little thing now, aren’t you?


Little,” Ash scoffed through gritted teeth, “that’s a big word coming from a Hobbit.”


Melissa pushed down harder. “Pity I must take your heart now. We coulda had so much fun together.”


Pressing Melissa’s swords away from her face, Ash rasped, “Maybe we can kick it later, toots!”


Then, Ash used her right foot to kick out Melissa Jade’s left knee. Availed by this maneuver, Ash was able to spin on her hip, freeing the heels from the bite of Melissa’s swords. She cracked Melissa across the brow with a sharp pointed elbow as hard as she could manage. In the same motion, she launched her left leg upward, throwing Melissa’s body off to the side. A red weeping gash was left carved into Melissa’s right eyebrow.


Ash scrambled free from her assailant’s reach. She crawled for the .45 Auto that had once belonged to Tree-Face before he was chopped down. She lunged after it. Grabbing it up she turned, aimed, and fired three rounds.


Melissa quickly jumped to her feet, ready to intercept Ash’s gunfire. She crossed her blades just in time to meet the barrage of bullets. A piercing TING pulsed through Melissa’s arms and rang in her skull as glowing embers sprayed off the steel. The force of the gun-blast jettisoned Melissa’s small body through an open window behind her. She went somersaulting out into the breezy night before splashing into a plume of cold ocean water. It did not take long for her to navigate her way up to the surface.


Melissa clenched her fists and retracted her blades. Icy runnels sluiced down her face and around her gnashing teeth. Glaring up at the superyacht she roared defiantly, “I’ll see you again soon, Striker! "


Ash sprinted for the elevator. A disconcerting sound suddenly seized her heart. Isis’s rumbling growl stole her attention as it bubbled behind her. She turned around to face the beast just when it began loping right for her. She saw the chained leash flailing from Isis’s neck as the creature leapt into the air. She sprawled beneath the airborne cat. Then she reached up and grabbed the tether. She braced herself on her knees and pulled, ripping the creature back down to the floor in a twisted heap. Knowing that she would never make it to the elevator before Isis regained her composure, Ash bounced back up and darted for the stairs instead. She jumped in the air and drop-kicked open the access door to dive in. The tiger scrabbled frantically to get after her. She saw Isis closing the distance in the slither of space between the door and its frame. She slammed it shut with her shoulder. There was a thunderous crash on the other side. The door rattled in its hinges. Isis bulled against it, snarling pertinaciously through the crack. Safe now, Ash stole a few seconds to catch her breath before she continued her way. She then stood up and raced down the stairs, taking three or four in a single bound.


Panting, she said, “Tess…do you…do you see our target?”


A voice crackled in her ear, “Yes, Age—t Striker… You better move.”


“Where is he?”


“Marine Galley, lower deck,” Tess said. “They seem to have an exit portal down there. He’s got a jet ski.”


Ash jumped several more steps, landed, and rolled. She said, “What kind of jet ski?”


“The really fast kind… Hurry!


She burst through the double doors into the Marine Galley. She was greeted by more gaudy sculptures, a line of antique arcade cabinets, and a bizarre collection of tribal masks mounting the walls. The room was dimly lit with blacklights. They made steamy, incandescent lines and shapes across the walls, giving the pool table there in the center of the space a purple glow. The soft sound of lapping water was ubiquitous. It was somnolent and nearly hypnotizing. All that quiescence was suddenly disrupted by the grating sound of a supercharged 300-HP engine from the Sea-Doo RXP when it roared to life. Ash whirled toward the sound. She saw it and its rider, Paul Sulida, far on the other side of the banister that boxed in the galley. He was looking back at her, seated on the sleek water ski as it floated overtop the narrow pool that sprawled out before her. Paul’s curly hair was rippling against the wind. It gusted in through the wide-open portal door directly ahead of him. He winked at her, and then he was off, the watercraft kicking up a surge of white spray and mist in its wake. The portal deposited him out the starboard side of the superyacht, leaving Ash alone and momentarily nonplussed.


Luckily for Ash, there was another unattended Sea-Doo docked in the sloshing pool as well, waiting for her to fire it up and give chase. That she did, as ecstatic as a kid on a free rollercoaster ride.


The jet ski skipped incessantly over the waves, jarring Ash in her seat. Nevertheless, she refused to ease off on the clutch. She urged the craft to pick up momentum. Before long she was gaining on him. She got as close as she dared, their twin jet skis only a mere couple inches apart.


Aiming her borrowed .45 at his back, she yelled, “Give it up, Paul. There’s nowhere to run!”


But then she heard a daunting sound that made her gut sink. It was the distinct sound of rotors chopping across the sky. She looked up, and to her dread there it was, hovering after her. The WY-55 Hellcat was hot on her trail. Armed with two heavy-hitting miniguns capable of casting five thousand rounds of 7.62 mm bullets right up her ass. Ash knew that she was done for.


Despite her evident disadvantage, she pointed the .45 at the nose of the chopper and squeezed the trigger.


CLAP! CLAP! CLAP!


Her gunfire was followed by the most disappointing flat, dull, metallic sounds, indicating that her bullets had only struck its impenetrable armored hide.


She banked left, away from Paul’s Sea-Doo. He sneered and waved at her as she aborted his side.


“The drones, Tess,” she urged. “I need the fucking drones!”


The Hellcat dove in on her and immediately opened fire. Ash instinctively performed evasive maneuvers as best she could manage with the shoddy controls of the Sea-Doo. White lines zipped across the sky, so close she could feel the heat from them before the shrapnel smacked into the unsuspecting ocean. The jet ski swerved right. The helicopter shadowed her movements, slugging the rippling waters with a barrage of staccato bullet fire. Ash swung the craft left again, causing it to bow hard over the surface. Her left knee was getting slapped by the unforgiving waves as she performed her razor-sharp turns. More bullets were stitching that side of the water, sending up tiny plumes. One struck home, blowing a hole in the portside of her jet ski, just missing her calf muscle by half an inch.


Tess!


Suddenly she heard a screaming whistle cutting across the sky as a Reaper MQ-9 aerial drone swooped in after the Hellcat from behind.


“Ash,” Tess’s voice rang in her ear. “Hello, Ash!”


The reaper launched its missiles, and the heavens were instantly engulfed by flames. Ash felt the rage of the fire raking her back. The skin on the palm of her hands screamed as she twisted the throttle with all her strength. Golden, smoldering debris was raining down on all sides of her. The water surrounding her jet ski was roiling, seething. The ocean was ablaze, turning suddenly into molten lava. Ash was on fire.


AAAAASH STRIKER!



Ash jolted, suddenly awake. She gasped. All the sounds from the real world inundated her skull in one bursting moment, startling her clean out of her wits. She sat up straight, blinking furiously at a startled Paul Sulida. He was observing her through his wire-rimmed glasses with consternation and angst evident in his wide, dark brown eyes. He possessed the ambiance of a troubled friend trying to decide whether or not he should call for help.


“You okay?” he asked.


I… I’m fine… I think,” Ash stammered, confused. “Where am I?”


Obfuscated, Paul asked again, “Are you sure you’re okay?”


Ash studied the logo embroidered on the left breast pocket of his blue T-shirt. It read in big bold ostentatious circus font, Welcome to The Florida State Fair.


Her lip quavered a little as her memories began to rush back to her. She was at a show—a carnival. She was there under a big red and blue striped concession tent. The laughter of happy children and incessant chattering of gaiety carnival patrons surrounded her. She looked this way and that, her head on a swivel. Set up adjacent to their stand was a corndog booth. Its perpetual line of eager, hungry guests was already encroaching into their reserved space. It was about to start blocking their visibility again. Three French box easels were standing on their tripod trestles along the front opening of the tent. Melissa Jade was busy at one of the easels, drawing an ardent woman and her friend seated beside her. They were giggling away at whatever dubious banter they had been sharing before Ash came back to reality. The exaggerated cartoon depictions of faces with diverse features were emblazoned on colorful banners that hung across every corner of the stand. Ash was there for a gig… Ash was there to draw caricatures at a ten-day fair in Orlando Florida.


Ash was daydreaming again. Yes, just a daydream.

She blinked at Paul and blushed. “Oh, I’m… I’m fine. Sorry. I guess I just got lost in my thoughts.”


Paul nodded his understanding. “It is a long day, I know.”


Then she remembered something. “Where’s…Tess?”


Paul shrugged. “He went out for lunch about half an hour ago. I’m sure he’ll be back soon.”


Ash then noticed a tall woman with strawberry-blond hair. She was waiting patiently with her boy pressing close at her side. She was about thirty. The boy looked to be around the age of eight. When their eyes met, the woman brightened up and whispered to her son, “Oh, I think they got her attention. Are you ready?” The boy nodded emphatically.


Ash turned again to Paul, who promptly explained, “Yeah, they’ve been waiting for quite a while. I think they like your style.”


“I am so sorry,” Ash apologized, springing up from the stool she had been lounging in for the past twenty minutes, lost in her fantasy.


Paul chuckled and said, “It’s all good, just making sure you weren’t sick or nothing. Was worried about ya.”


“Well thanks for looking out.”


Ash scuttled over to meet with her guests. They shared in a laugh. Ash bent down to the boy’s level to shake his little hand, and then she invited them to have a seat in her guest chairs.

She was then caught by surprise as a small, white calico cat with pale blue eyes and black stripes suddenly leapt into the guest chair. The animal wallowed in their seat, nuzzling against the frame of the metal chair, purring.


“A cat,” the boy exclaimed.


Paul sucked his teeth. He then rushed over to pluck the cat up out of the way. “Isis, come on. Ash needs to draw now.” He winked at Ash. There seemed to be a species of subterfuge in this action.


As he walked away with his pet snuggling lovingly in the warmth of his arms, Ash narrowed her scrutiny.


When did he get a cat? she wondered.


Ash shrugged off her nagging suspicion for a spell of anxiety.


Then she returned to the matter at hand. Her guests took their places in the chairs, and she was soon busy drawing at her easel. She decided to start with the little one first.


“Ash… Striker, is it?” the woman with the strawberry-blond hair inquired, leaning in to read the ID card pinned to her lapel.


“Last I checked,” Ash said flatly, never breaking her attention away from the drawing board.


The boy smiled and decided, “That’s a cool name!”


Ash peeked around the board and winked at him. “So, I’ve been told.”


“That’s so neat that you get to draw all day,” the mom opined.


Ash nodded. “It can be pretty cool.”


“I just gotta ask,” the mom said, deviously. “What’s your real job?”


Ash could feel Melissa Jade rolling her eyes beside her, as she tittered under her breath as a response to this remark.


Ash Striker simply gave the woman her best, most patient smirk and said, “I’m a secret agent.”


There was an awkward pause between them for a moment. It seemed as if the mother was trying to decide the veracity in her statement.


The boy broke the tension. He burst out chuckling and said, “She’s cool, Mom!”


His mother smiled at that. “Yeah, I think so too.”


Ash finished the drawing. “You guys ready?”


YES,” her guests both cheered in unison.



What they did not know is that a hidden camera was watching them. It was attached to a towering wooden post for a powerline. The man observing the feed sat alone in the dark sipping at a steaming mug of tea. The video of Ash as she was tearing off the drawing to reveal it to her guests reflected on his wire-rimmed glasses. He had a heavy mustache over the rim of his mug, and what appeared to be a long knotted scar slashed across his left jaw line.

The LCD screen of a smartphone ignited from the surface of his cluttered desk. He set his mug down and reached for it. His hand hovered over four photographs laying side by side in front of the computer monitor. One picture showed Ash when she was seated at the bar onboard Paul’s superyacht. Another had been taken over her shoulder, framing an image of the illustration she was drawing of Paul. The final photo was a staticky aerial shot. It had been taken from a drone. The white target crosshairs from its scope enshrined the body of a woman floating in the ocean. She was unconscious. Her silver-blond hair with its black strips spread through the water like tendrils of seaweed. Her black and white suit was left tattered and covered in soot.


The mysterious man with the mustache answered the phone.


“Hello,” he said gruffly.


There was a pause as he listened to the person talking to him on the other line.


The man with the mustache breathed a sigh and then said, “Gentileschi is neutralized… for now.”


Pause.


“You may proceed with Operation Redraw…”



THE END.






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