It was the tea.
There was no reason to suspect it, at the time; Jeremy was on tea-service duty this last week of the school year, as he had been several times before, and our intensive revision for final exams was pleasantly interrupted for an hour. The pent-up stress of the exams had gotten the better of some of the boys, who began firing bits of their biscuits at each other using rubber bands. It was mildly amusing, if admittedly childish, but I didn't join in, as I had rather abruptly begun to feel unwell.
A touch of the flu, I suspected; it had been making the rounds at Eton of late. Wretched timing, typically, but what could I do? I hastily gathered my books and returned to my flat, hoping that the queasiness I felt soon settled down into mere discomfort, so that I could return to my studies. I was due to fly home to New York in a few days, and while I could easily weather a spell at Kane Manor if necessary, I was eager to return to the States. There were too many events here in England that I wanted to forget, and distance always helped. New York might be just across the pond, as it were, but it was a plenty big pond.
I rubbed my left wrist. It wasn't sore anymore, but I had three metal pins in it now, thanks to Omar. Plus a small metal plate in the back of my head. At least the leg had healed cleanly; I would still be able to dance. He'd really done a number on me; even now I was too skittish to knowingly turn my back on someone, regardless of who they were and how much I trusted them. I'd trusted Omar, too, and it had gotten me as far as the hospital.
I had met Omar al-Hadif earlier this year, here at Eton. He was from Saudi Arabia, the son of a wealthy oil businessman. Like everyone else at Eton, he had grown up in a life of privilege; he was cultured, well-read, accustomed to the finer things in life. Unlike almost everyone else at Eton, he was drop-dead gorgeous. And he knew it.
He was attracted to me the moment we met. I, on the other hand, wasn't so easily swayed. Despite being an artist, I don't think with my eyes. Or maybe it's because I'm an artist; I'm always looking below the surface, trying to determine the true source of outward beauty -- the better to capture it on canvas, I suppose. I should have looked a hell of a lot harder at Omar.
I wasn't immune to his charismatic personality, and when he went to the effort to learn basic sign language -- and American sign, at that -- I couldn't hide the fact that I was touched. He was charming, attentive, and so gracious that I instantly forgave him the times when he was imperious and even controlling.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.
Omar's cosmopolitan veneer hid an ugly side I never imagined he had. Even after he caught me unaware and beat me so viciously I could barely drag myself to bed several hours later, I still couldn't quite make myself believe that the assault had been premeditated. After all, he'd gotten utterly plastered at a party, and alcohol always brings out the worst in people. And he'd been so contrite the next morning; he was obviously embarrassed by his outburst, to the point where he swore it would never happen again.
Except that it did.
The second time was much, much worse. As before, I didn't see it coming; Omar liked to attack from behind, probably because he knew I was more than a match for him if I had time to defend myself. One moment I was studying for exams, the next there was a flash of blinding pain, then darkness, and I awoke in the hospital... three days later.
He'd concocted a tale that convinced all the authorities I'd been the victim of a gang of hooligans from another school. Omar was exceedingly persuasive, and it took very little effort on his part to spin a believable yarn. It only stunk like a rubbish tip to me because I knew better. I couldn't forgive him anymore; to do so would be sheer suicide. I let him know as much when he came to visit, strutting into the room as though he hadn't a thing to hide. One look in my eyes told him otherwise. He didn't try to bully me into backing down, although I saw him consider it; he just turned and left, without so much as a 'goodbye'. It was a hollow victory, but a victory nonetheless.
The hospital released me a month later, after all my broken bones had healed well enough for me to move about on my own. I didn't have to worry about fending off Omar; he'd abruptly left for Saudi Arabia shortly after his departure from my hospital room. But he'd left me a twisted parting gift: the splintered, bloodstained cricket bat he'd used on me.
I tossed it, of course, just like I'd gotten rid of everything that even remotely reminded me of his past presence in the flat. There had been nothing else to do all day, immobilized as I'd been with the casts and the doctor's orders to avoid anything strenuous. Had it been earlier in the year, I would have been assigned a new flatmate, but as it was, I had the place to myself; it gave me great peace of mind to know that I could close my eyes at night without fear of being attacked.
I dropped my books on my desk the moment I got home and stared at my hands. They were shaking. A wave of dizziness swept over me, and I leaned against the wall for support, wondering if I could make it as far as the bed without collapsing. If this was the flu, it was the most aggressive virus I'd ever encountered.
Why I hadn't seen him standing there, I'll never know. Maybe he'd been hiding; more likely, I was too disoriented. But his lightly-accented voice sent cold fingers of pure horror down my spine, and I nearly fell over as I wheeled around to stare at him.
"Do you like the little treat I had Jeremy add to your tea?" Omar purred, clearly enjoying my fear. "I told him it was something that would make you happy to see me." He crossed the distance between us like a stalking panther, trapping me against the wall. "Well," he admitted, "maybe not 'happy' per se, but at the very least unable to protest overly much. I see it's working quite nicely, too."
He took hold of my arms, pulling me away from the wall and toward the bed. I tried to resist, but it was all I could do to remain on my feet; my strength was fading with every step. Whatever he had slipped into my tea was taking effect with a vengeance, and he forced me down on the bed with ease.
My body felt leaden, my mind full of cotton wool. He ran his fingers through my hair, smiling down at me gently. Bending his head close to my ear, he whispered, "You're mine now, beautiful angel. Body and soul, forever."
If he said anything else, I missed it as I slid into unconsciousness.
The next time my eyes opened, it was to a haze of featureless white. It took me a while to comprehend that I'd been wrapped like a mummy in my bedsheet. What the devil was Omar getting at this time? Thank God the sheet was as thin as it was, or I would have suffocated by now. Served me right, I guess, for not thinking to change the damn lock, but I'd been so certain he wouldn't dare come back. Attempting to free myself was useless; the drugs hadn't fully worn off yet, and the sheets were bound so tightly around me that I suspected they were secured with ropes.
The same time I realized that I was no longer lying in bed but rather sitting in a reclining seat, a hand tugged the sheets away from my face and I found myself looking up at Omar's irritated scowl. "You insist on being troublesome, Joseph," he chided. "First you make me take you home, and now you've shaken off the sedative far too soon."
He sat back in his seat and began rummaging through a leather travel bag at his feet. I watched him distantly, wondering what he'd meant. There was a small oval window set into the wall beside him, but the view was only darkness. Terror knotted my stomach as my brain finally kicked into gear, recognizing my surroundings as Omar's private jet. "Home" was Saudi Arabia, and from the look of things, we were already well underway. I frantically renewed my efforts to escape from the sheets, ignoring the futility of such an action when we were already in the air. Flashbacks of the Jackal overwhelmed me; the last time I'd been kidnapped, I nearly died, and I had no desire to repeat that experience.
Unconcerned with my struggles, Omar retrieved a vial of clear liquid from his travel bag and leaned toward me. I turned my head away, the best I could do for resistance with the rest of me still trussed up. He grabbed my jaw angrily, pushing my head back and digging his fingers into my cheeks to pry my lips apart. Pouring the fluid into my mouth, he immediately clamped his hand tightly over my mouth to prevent me from spitting it out. With his free hand, he pressed his thumb into my throat, triggering a gag reflex that compelled me to swallow the drug.
His brief fury vanished abruptly, and he turned his oddly possessive smile on me once more. "I never pegged you as the defiant sort," he murmured, gently wiping away the tears that rolled slowly down my cheeks. "That was my one mistake. Who would have guessed what steel lay behind those quiet, sea-green eyes? But you managed to become my favorite, in spite of it all."
He planted a quick kiss on my forehead before enshrouding me in the sheet once again. I didn't fight it; instead, I used what little time I had to pray that someone would notify my mother of my absence. She would investigate immediately and thoroughly... she was my only hope, now. Then the undiluted double dose of sedative took hold, dragging me and my frail hopes into oblivion.
Pain pounded in my temples, worming its way into my brain and settling behind my closed eyes. I'd been having headaches ever since Omar cracked my skull open, but never this bad. The doctors had warned me to avoid stress, since an increase in blood pressure translated into an increase in cranial pressure, which was the last thing my brain needed. I'd have given anything to avoid this particular stress, but Omar had other plans.
Even before I was fully awake, I was aware of lying on a hard surface. Opening my eyes, I saw I was on the floor of a small, featureless white room. There was no window, but a single fluorescent light flickered annoyingly overhead. The light hurt my eyes, making my headache that much worse. At least the temperature was nicely climate-controlled, which was especially good in that I wasn't wearing anything.
Well, nothing that counted as clothes, at any rate.
I frowned at the manacles circling my wrists and ankles. They weren't as restrictive as handcuffs, but the foot-long length of chain still didn't allow for much movement -- walking would be all but impossible. It shouldn't have surprised me, since Omar knew I was a skilled fighter, and he had every reason to anticipate a fight. Not that it would do much good, at this point; if I'd been taken to Saudi Arabia, escaping from Omar would do little if I couldn't then get home.
I sat up and was nearly pulled back down by the short chain which fastened the metal collar around my neck to the floor. Among a host of bad signs so far, this was the worst. Was this just another of Omar's sadistic twists, or was there something even more ominous behind this odd restraint?
I sighed. It was one more of many things that made no sense. Why was I here to begin with? I definitely hadn't been kidnapped for ransom; Omar's family had loads more money than both of my parents combined. And Omar had been quick enough to leave the hospital the moment he saw that I wouldn't put up with his abuse any longer, so the thought that he'd abducted me because he couldn't let go of our relationship was simply absurd. Nor did political motives appear to have anything to do with it, as Saudi Arabia was on friendly terms with both England and America, and I wasn't from a politically-important family, at any rate. Which meant I could still hope that this was all just a bizarre nightmare, from which I would awaken at any moment now.
No such luck.
Well, that left only selling me as an exotic sex-slave to some Arab sheik. It wasn't really funny -- things like that still happened, in too many countries -- but it was either laugh or get hysterical, and somehow, I didn't think hysteria would help me any. Besides, why else would Omar have taken my clothes? Eton's school uniform wasn't that nice.
I had to concentrate on something other than my current situation, or I would get hysterical. Unfortunately, the room left little else on which to focus my attention. Floor, walls, and ceiling were all covered in white linoleum, certainly an odd decor choice, but not one to hold my interest for any length of time. There was a drain set into the floor near my feet, despite the fact that there was no visible source of water that might require plumbing. The sole door was narrow and tightly sealed to its frame, making me suspect that the room was soundproofed... yet another bad sign.
I busied myself with trying to squirm free of my bonds -- a hopeless task, but it kept my mind off Omar. Whatever he had planned was not going to be good, and if there was a chance I could escape, I would take it, however tiny it may be. If only my damn headache would go away; I had enough problems already without my eyes feeling like they were going to pop out of my skull.
Time was not on my side. The door opened silently and Omar stepped into the room, dressed in black and carrying a duffel bag. He didn't look at me as he locked the door behind him and began searching through his bag. I caught a glimpse of a small garden hose, a whip, and what looked like a butcher knife before he pulled out the object he'd been searching for and zipped the bag closed.
I have to admit I've never seen a silverplated crowbar before. I hope to God I never see one again. Knowing Omar's penchant for violence, I had no doubt as to what he intended to do with it. That he would even have such a thing, treated as a prized possession no less, was sick beyond words.
'They'll be looking for me at Eton,' I warned him, stalling for time. 'By now, everyone knows that you were the last person to see me there.'
He smiled, but unlike before, his expression held no affection; it was the cold, feral grin of a predator, nothing more. "What of it?" he replied lightly, casually caressing the crowbar. "We had a fling for old time's sake, you saw me off to my jet, and that's the last I saw of you. If you never made it home, well, these things happen occasionally. Perhaps that gang of hooligans found you again, and dumped your body in the Thames. The hue and cry will die down soon enough; it always does."
He said that as though he knew it to be the truth. 'My mother won't be so easily dissuaded. She'll hunt you down here in Saudi Arabia to find out what happened to me.'
That got a laugh. "She won't be the first to try. But you won't be anywhere she can find you, by then."
Even with all the cues, I hadn't wanted to acknowledge what I'd feared all along, but looking into Omar's dead, emotionless eyes, I couldn't deny it any longer. Omar was more than an abusive ex, more than a demented kidnapper.
Omar was a serial killer.
Everything suddenly fell into place. He couldn't kill me at our flat; that would have pointed directly to him. I was supposed to have died in the hospital, with no one the wiser. But my subsequent recovery and refusal to cower in the face of his violence was a threat to his anonymity. He'd been forced to take more extreme action, fearing that I would eventually tell the authorities, who might then track him down. Not that he had to fear extradition to a Western country, but it would put a serious crimp in his favorite hobby.
"You're the first one I've had to take home," he explained, tapping the crowbar against his open palm. "You should feel honored."
My expression told him what I thought about that particular "honor". I was trapped in a specially-designed killing room with a murderous psychopath, but I wasn't about to go down without a fight, chains or no chains. Omar seemed to find that concept amusing. When he swung the crowbar down at my head, I brought up my arms to block the blow, wrapping the length of chain around the end of the crowbar and immobilizing it between my wrists.
No longer amused, he planted a swift kick in my ribs, and I cried out in pain as I felt the newly-healed bones give way. Pulling the crowbar free, he stood over me and prepared to deliver the coup de grace. Knowing I couldn't stop him, I glared up at him, wishing there was some way I could free myself and force him to drop the crowbar.
Our eyes met, and my wish came true.
There was an odd wrenching sensation, as though I had thrown myself forward, and suddenly I was standing, looking down at a pair of empty manacles. The crowbar fell from my hand in shock, and as it hit the floor, I realized that somehow I was now in Omar's body. What had happened to my own body was a mystery; it had vanished into thin air. Would I be able to get it back? I certainly hoped so; the last thing I wanted to do was spend the rest of my life as Omar.
Omar felt the same way, only with more fury. I was in his mind, could sense his thoughts, his emotions -- and his twisted memories, full of blood and death. Oh God, I didn't want to see this, I didn't want to know, but I didn't even know how I'd gotten into his head, much less how to get out again. His body moved haltingly to my commands, not his, with the exception of his voice, which cursed loudly in Arabic at me. Strangely enough, I understood everything he said, even though I didn't know a word of Arabic.
Maybe if I willed myself out, the way I had willed myself in, I would be free of him. I felt our contact dissolve, and with a jarring shift in perspective I was standing next to him, once more in my own body. He was clutching his head as if in pain; ironic, since my headache had miraculously disappeared. This once, I was glad my mother had taught me how to fight, and I used that skill to kick Omar unconscious. Snatching up his fallen crowbar, I aimed it at his head, stopping myself in mid-swing and hurling the weapon away. Good Lord, what had I been about to do? Was that my own rage, or some leftover effect of having been in Omar's mind? I fervently hoped it was the latter.
I had to escape while he was still unconscious. The door had a combination lock, but I unlocked it before I had time to be surprised that I knew the combination. I had picked up a lot of information from Omar; not consciously, but it was there nonetheless. The other side of the door was painted in decorative Arabic geometric and floral designs. A banner arched over the doorway which read, "Allah is God". The fact that it was written in Arabic didn't prevent me from reading it.
The room beyond the door was Omar's bedroom. Sick, sick, sick. He hadn't even put his killing room in the basement or an outdoor shed; it was right next to his private quarters. He probably enjoyed the lingering smell of blood that would permeate his bedroom. Or maybe he hadn't thought it out well; I was the first, he'd said.
I had to find my clothes. I knew he still had them; all serial killers keep trophies, and the usual body parts would be a tad too incriminating for his taste. I stopped trying to second-guess where he might keep such things, and let my subconscious knowledge direct me to the proper place. Not surprisingly, it was his giant walk-in closet -- a room in and of itself -- where he tucked his trophies away on a special rack. Nearly a dozen boxes were stored there, each neatly labelled with three letters and a date.
I grabbed the box marked "JWW" and flicked off the lid. Sure enough, my clothes were there, cleaned, pressed, and folded as though they were brand-new. Socks, underwear, shoes, everything. Despite my broken ribs, I was dressed in record time, but once I returned to Omar's bedroom, I was at a loss as to how I should proceed. The mansion was huge, and filled with people. He lived there with his parents, six younger siblings, and a widowed older sister and her four children. By day, there were also nearly a hundred hired helpers roaming around, busy at their various tasks. There was no way I would make it out of his bedroom unnoticed.
But I couldn't stay here indefinitely. When Omar awoke, he would escape from his hidden room as easily as I had. I wanted to be long gone by then. In search of something that might aid my flight, I prowled around his quarters. It was more than a mere bedroom and closet; he had his own suite of rooms, including a kitchen and a huge marble-tiled bathroom, complete with a giant fish tank.
Ravenous, I raided the kitchen, taking the last of his hummus, a couple of pitas, and a glass of iced tea. Wandering back out into his lounge, I spied his wallet lying on the table. Would having that help me in any way? I wasn't planning on buying anything -- other than a one-way ticket home, and I had my own credit card for that. I checked my jacket pocket, but my wallet was gone. Doubtless Omar had left it at Eton, not wanting traceable evidence in his home. And his credit cards were probably photo-ID, making them useless for me. Damn.
But I was curious. Dropping onto the soft suede couch, I picked up Omar's eelskin wallet and flipped it open. The standard ID card, credit cards, family photo. A few bills for small purchases; evidently the majority of his shopping was done by credit. I almost closed the wallet when I noticed something tucked into one of the nearly-hidden inside pockets.
It was a thin plastic photo file. Each slot held two photos, back to back. Picture after picture of young, handsome, blonde, European men. By the time I reached my own photo, I was too numb to respond. So many men, and I was the only one of them still alive... though not for long, if I didn't get out of Omar's house soon. I slid the photos into my pocket and tossed Omar's wallet back onto the table.
Peeking out from behind one velvet curtain, I surveyed the grounds beyond Omar's window. I couldn't see much, since it was night, but that would work in my favor. Omar's rooms were on the third floor, and I would have to descend to ground level outside in order to avoid the mansion's numerous occupants. The less people who could see me in the darkness, the better.
I turned off all the lights in his room -- no incriminating silhouette to arouse idle curiosity -- and slid open the balcony door. There was a downspout running along the wall next to the edge of the balcony. I hoped it was strong enough to support my weight, because it was the only way I was going to make it down to the ground. And if not, well, I would find out soon enough.
I quickly discovered as I swung myself out over the balcony's ledge that such maneuvers were agonizing when performed with broken ribs. I nearly lost my grip on the downspout as burning knives of pain stabbed deep into my chest; as it was, my descent was much more rapid than I would have preferred. The shock as I hit the ground drove me to my knees and triggered a violent bout of coughing. I could taste blood -- that and my shortness of breath told me I'd punctured a lung. With any luck I wouldn't have to outrun anyone and it wouldn't matter.
I walked as rapidly as I could across the compound, avoiding the marble paths and their lights. The surrounding fence was more decoration than true barrier, and scaling it was simple enough, even injured as I was. But free of Omar's home didn't mean safe. I was still in Saudi Arabia -- illegally, I was sure -- and the only remotely safe place would be either the British or American embassy.
The American embassy was across town, but the British one was only a mile away. It would work just as well, since I was a duel citizen of both countries. Maybe even better, since I'd been taken from England; they'd have more of a personal interest in seeing me back home and safe. Thank God my new powers had picked up the information I needed from Omar.
My new powers... good Lord, I was a mutant. The realization struck me so hard I stopped dead in my tracks. What would people think? There weren't that many mutants around, but people didn't seem too happy with the ones they knew about. Would my friends reject me if they knew? Would my mother? I didn't think so, but... it didn't take a genius to figure out where these abilities came from. I was born after dad had gone through the Army experiments; as he'd been changed, so I was changed. My powers might be too reminiscent of dad's for mom's taste. After all, without those powers, he never would have become Deathstroke the Terminator, and had he never taken on the life of a mercenary, I never would have been attacked by the Jackal. He and mom would still be married. Grant wouldn't have followed in his father's footsteps and died as a result. As much as my mother loved me, I could see that this would not be an easy revelation for her to accept.
First things first. Mom would never know anything if I didn't escape from Riyadh. I forced myself onward, slowing only once I approached the embassy grounds. Western embassies were on alert throughout the Middle East, ever since a terrorist attack on a US embassy had left several hundred people dead. Despite my European appearance, they weren't going to grant me entry in the middle of the night with no ID and no one to back up my implausible yet true tale.
A lone guard paced the outer perimeter of the embassy. Could I use my new power on him without his knowledge? Omar had been aware of my presence in his head, but then, Omar had seen me vanish right in front of him. I focused on the guard, trying to project myself forward, as had happened with Omar.
Maybe my power required proximity; I was still pretty far away from the guard, and I'd been mere centimeters from Omar. That memory triggered an alarming realization. I hadn't taken the manacles when I'd possessed Omar -- would I be able to take my clothes? This power would quickly prove to be less than practical if I ended up starkers after using it. Since there was no way for me to know the answer to that question without using the power again, I pushed it to the back of my mind and concentrated on how to use my power in the first place.
I was now as close as I could get to the guard without being spotted, and it still wasn't helping. I hadn't been in physical contact with Omar; what else was different that my power wasn't working now? Other than being a second away from death.
The answer hit me the same moment that the guard turned at stared right at me. Eye contact. In less than a heartbeat, I felt my body dissipate like mist, my consciousness leaping ahead to land in my borrowed host body. My first act as the guard was to carefully scrutinize the spot where I'd been standing moments before. Empty. Good, that meant I'd be wearing something when I phased back out.
Panic flooded through me -- not mine, the guard's. I clamped both hands tightly over his mouth and wondered what to do next; I couldn't keep him quiet indefinitely. I decided to make a run for the embassy, and hope that I could get to the ambassador before the guard figured out that he could still make noise despite the hands over his mouth.
A second guard sat at the front desk, flipping through a magazine as I rushed past. "Too much curry for dinner again, Fitch?" he teased, returning to his reading without another thought. That was one good thing about this new ability of mine; no one thought to question the seemingly-familiar face I presented.
The ambassador was asleep. Idiot, I thought to myself. It's the middle of the night -- of course he's asleep! I had to wake him, but doing so would mean taking at least one hand away from the guard's mouth. There was no choice; I couldn't exactly stand here until morning.
I pounded fiercely on the ambassador's door. Unfortunately, my host had reached the limit of his tolerance for me, and he bit down hard on the hand that I still held over his mouth. The pain startled me enough to break my concentration, whereupon I learned that my concentration was essential to maintaining possession of my host. As quickly as I had phased into him I was out, so disoriented by the sudden change that I just stood there, swaying slightly.
He took advantage of my confusion, slamming me against the wall and pinning me there with his arm pressed against my throat. His other hand reached behind him, searching for his baton. "Use me for a puppet, will you, you bleedin' mutant freak? Let's see you play those mind-games after I pan your head in!"
I threw my hands up to block his attack, too rattled to focus my concentration enough to use my power on him again. As the baton swung down toward me, another hand reached up and grabbed hold of Fitch's arm, stopping him instantly.
"What's all this, then? Good God, man," the newly-awoken ambassador hissed, "I won't have you thrashing helpless children like that! Let the poor lad alone!"
"Sir? What are you on about?" Fitch asked, genuinely surprised at the interruption. "'Helpless' he's not! Do you think I'd be wound up over nothing, sir? This 'child' here is one of those genetic mistakes we're always hearing about on the telly!"
"Which is no reason to attempt to kill him," the ambassador replied. "You have my leave to return to your post; I'll deal with this young man."
"Yes, sir," Fitch muttered, releasing me reluctantly and marching off down the hall.
The ambassador looked after him and sighed. "He's a good man, truly," he said, glancing back at me. "Even if he doesn't recognize an Eton school uniform. Your power must be quite odd to have upset him so fiercely."
I could only nod, too embarrassed by the whole notion of having special powers to attempt an explanation. I was grateful for the timely rescue, though. 'Thank you,' I signed.
His eyebrow quirked. "Oh dear, I'm afraid I don't know sign language. Come inside; I've a tablet you can write on." He spoke too loudly and gestured toward the door, not realizing that there was nothing wrong with my hearing.
'Inside' was the ambassador's personal quarters. I don't know why I expected his office, but after all I'd been through, I could be excused for not thinking clearly. I stood by the door, not wanting to brazenly invade his personal space.
He noticed my reticence and smiled encouragingly, beckoning me further into the room. I wandered over to the nearby couch and sat down as the ambassador closed the door that lead to the rest of his family's living area. He then rummaged about in a desk on the far side of the room, eventually producing a small tablet of lined paper and a pen, both of which he handed to me before sitting down next to me.
"Tell me why you came here," he all but shouted at me. Wincing, I covered my ears to indicate that he was being too loud. He was puzzled by my inability to speak when I could obviously hear unimpeded, so I pulled open my collar to show him the scar across my throat. That alone was a good measure of my desperation. I was incredibly self-conscious about that scar; it was no coincidence that I wore turtlenecks for as long as the weather allowed, and kept my shirt buttoned up the rest of the year.
He nodded and pointed to the tablet. I wrote as quickly as I could, outlining who I was and how I had come to be in Saudi Arabia. My story looked even more outlandish in print, a fact reflected in the ambassador's face as he read what I'd written. I hastily added that my story was true regardless of how it sounded, and all I wanted of him was safe haven until my mother could arrange for me to be flown back to England or to America.
He sighed, staring down at the paper in his hands. "Most assuredly, I shall contact your mother in New York, but as to the rest of this..." He smiled sheepishly. "You do realize Mr. al-Hadif's family is quite important here in Saudi Arabia, and charges of kidnapping and attempted murder are not likely to be well-received. Made public, this could have international consequences of the sort the Queen would not greatly appreciate."
I slid the photo holder from my pocket and handed it to him, along with another note suggesting that he give the photos to MI5 or to their American equivalent, the FBI. With the exception of the last photo -- mine -- they would find that all men had been bludgeoned to death, and if the information was available, they might also find the proximity of Omar al-Hadif in every case.
Not that anyone would be looking, I could tell from his expression. I was beginning to understand the common dislike of politicians; apparently, my life meant much less than avoiding any international upheavals, no matter how minor. Fine, let the blood of all of Omar's future victims be on his hands; I did my best to bring him to justice. Recalling the confidence with which Omar had told me that the clamor over my death would die down long before anyone could link him to the crime, I had no doubt he'd have laughed himself silly if he'd known how na•vely I had expected the ambassador to take action.
It was no longer any concern of mine. I would stay here, safe, for a day or so, then head home to New York, and never have to think about Omar al-Hadif again.
We both jumped at the unexpected knock on the door. The ambassador rose and opened the door to find Fitch standing there, another person half hidden behind him. "A Mr. Omar al-Hadif to see you, sir," he reported, backing away to allow Omar access to the ambassador.
"Ah, yes," the ambassador smiled warmly at Omar, "we were just discussing you. Please, do come in."
I froze like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. My heart pounded so hard I was getting lightheaded. Even at this distance, Omar knew the effect his presence had on me, and flicked a casual glance in my direction that rested just a little too long on the tablet crumpled in my clenched fists. He knew damn well what it meant, just as I knew he would find a way to use it to his advantage. It didn't calm me any to see the black eye my kick had given him, knowing he would factor that into his equation for revenge. Actually, though, I was much more concerned about the ambassador. Omar I could almost predict, but if the ambassador fell into his web of lies, my safety would evaporate into mist.
"I'm so sorry you've been inconvenienced," Omar was telling the ambassador. "Joseph is my father's ward; his parents were employed in one of our companies, and killed in an unfortunate accident many years ago. My father, generous man that he is, took in their orphaned son, even knowing about his... condition." A poisonous smile spread sweetly across his face. "He suffers from manic depression, you see, which makes him prone to hyperactive paranoia -- and violence," he added, indicating his eye. "Not to frighten you, since he's more likely to be a danger to himself. Doubtless he's also spun fantastic tales to you about who he is and how he got here, or claims that my family is out to kill him."
The ambassador nodded, laughing lightly. "Well, yes, he did have a rather incredulous reason for breaking into the embassy."
'No!' I signed, forgetting that the ambassador couldn't understand me. 'Don't listen to him -- it's all lies! I told you the truth!' He stared at me blankly, and I grabbed the tablet to write out what I had said.
Omar took the opportunity to intervene. "If you'll be so kind, sir, allow me to speak with him," he purred, his soft tone and polite words the epitome of false modesty. He turned to face me, his concerned expression at odds with the deadly anger in his eyes. 'Stop this foolishness, Joseph,' he warned, ignoring the ambassador's useless presence. 'No Saudi agency will prosecute me. No Western nation will agree to be pulled into a conflict over the likes of you. And you should know that there's no place on earth you can run where I can't follow.' He took a step closer and I jumped up from the couch, backing away from him and toward the fireplace. If I had to, I could grab a poker to ward him off; the thought of using my power on him again -- of being trapped in his head for any amount of time -- made me too physically ill to contemplate.
He smiled at my terror, a predator toying with his prey. 'If you give up now, I promise to make your death quick and painless. That much, you've earned. But drag this out any more, and I'll make you regret it.'
I wrote on the tablet in large block letters and held it up for the ambassador to see: I CLAIM POLITICAL ASYLUM IN THIS EMBASSY. The ambassador had to grant it to me, at least temporarily, and we all knew it. I threw the tablet on the table and glared at Omar. 'It's over. I won.'
He dropped all pretense of hiding his anger. 'Not as long as you're still breathing, it isn't.' He made a visible effort to twist his face into a mask of sympathetic regret before turning back to the ambassador. "He's still very agitated, as you can see. Would you be so kind as to keep him here in the embassy for a day or so? I'll get his medication from home; once we get him sedated, I'll be able to get him back where he belongs without any more hassle. But I do so hate to disturb you further with this."
"Not at all, my good man," the ambassador fawned, "he'll be well-kept until you return, have no fear."
I heaved a shaky sigh of relief as Omar allowed himself to be escorted from the embassy. For all intents and purposes, I would be held under house arrest until his return, but that gave me at least the next few hours to come up with something that would convince the ambassador my parents were alive and well and not in any way connected to Omar or his family.
Many people find that the stress of an approaching deadline focuses their thoughts perfectly. Apparently, I wasn't one of those people. For the life of me -- literally! -- I couldn't think of a single thing to say that would change the ambassador's perception of me. The indiscriminate use of my new power certainly wouldn't help; it was highly unlikely that the ambassador would forgive that particular transgression more than once. I sat in my room feeling like a death row inmate, watching helplessly as the last minutes of my life ticked by and were gone.
Two hours stretched to six hours, and then to ten. The ambassador had more important things to do than keep me informed of the situation, of course, and since to him I was just a looney anyway, it didn't much matter. I rejected any food or drink they offered; if Omar had slipped drugs into my tea before, he could do it again, and he'd made no secret of using that option to get me back under his control. My stomach let me know just how unappreciated my paranoia was, but it couldn't be helped.
After twenty-eight hours, I was woken from my light doze by the sound of the door opening. My stomach clenched; it was the ambassador himself. Before he could say anything, though, he was pushed aside by an irate Adeline Kane Wilson. The relief I felt at the sight of my mother -- when I had been expecting Omar -- was too powerful for mere words to convey. Ignoring the pain in my side when I moved, I sprang off the bed and into her arms like a rambunctious five-year-old. If the ambassador thought me even odder than before, I couldn't have cared less.
Judging by his expression, my mother had already ripped into the ambassador well and truly good. She didn't waste any more words on him, ignoring even his bumbling apologies as she led me out of the embassy and to her waiting limousine. As we pulled away, she lit a cigarette and snarled, "Incompetent bureaucratic idiot!" Flicking her cigarette at the ashtray, she explained her outburst. It had taken her Searchers, Inc. mole, the ambassador's maid, to contact her about my situation. The ambassador himself hadn't bothered, being perfectly content to believe every word Omar spoke.
Now it was my turn to explain. I left out the exact nature of my relationship with Omar, saying instead that we were merely flatmates. Those weren't the vital details, anyway, and I hesitated as I got to recounting my escape. The moment of truth was here, and I had stalled just long enough that my mother knew whatever I was about to tell her was important. I took a deep breath and plunged on.
"Oh, honey," she smiled, patting my arm, "I suspected as much ever since the first reports of mutants began surfacing a few years ago. Even before then, I always wondered if the experiments Slade had undergone would have any lasting effect on you, but back then, I just dismissed it as the silly notion it appeared to be. I guess I should have let you know, but I didn't see any reason to bring it up if it turned out you weren't a mutant after all." She took one last drag from her cigarette and ground the butt into the ashtray. "I'm not concerned about it affecting your personality; having powers didn't bring out anything in your father that wasn't already there, I was just too blind to see it. But I do worry about it affecting you socially. I really don't think you should tell any of your friends; you never know when that sort of information can be used against you. Fortunately, your mutation isn't an obvious one, so no one is likely to figure it out -- including your father, thank heaven. I think he's done enough damage for one lifetime."
I turned my attention to the view outside the car. As much as I agreed with the sentiment, I always hated it when my parents fought. It didn't matter if one was in America and the other in Kenya, it felt wrong to have them say such things in my presence. Luckily, we were arriving in the airport, and there was plenty to distract me. The signs that surrounded us were written in Arabic, all of them no more than a series of beautiful and indecipherable squiggles and dots. I smiled to myself at the realization that Omar's presence in my head was fading; I could only hope that it would eventually fade into oblivion.
Mom had come here on a private jet owned by her company, Searchers, Inc. It made our departure faster than if we'd have had to stand in line for tickets and boarding, but it still wasn't fast enough for me. I was antsy right up to the moment when our plane's wheels left the ground. Then a surreal peace descended over me, and after mom and I had dinner, I headed to bed and slept for the rest of the flight.
With no baggage, we breezed through customs. I savored every sight in the airport as though it was some exotic locale I would never visit again; having a second lease on life does that to you. Even the crowds bustling through the terminal did nothing to dampen my mood. I was positively giddy with joy.
Until Omar crossed my path.
He only glanced at me in passing, as though we were complete strangers, but the look in his eye was unmistakable. He wasn't going to give up so easily. He wasn't going to give up at all; this would only end when one of us was dead, and he was convinced that he would be the one walking away.
I wasn't sure he was wrong.
Mom's voice startled me out of my trance. "Honey?" she asked, apparently not for the first time. "Are you all right? You're white as a sheet."
'Here,' I managed to sign with shaking hands. 'He's here. He's still after me.'
"You saw him?" Her eyes scanned the crowd, trying to pick out anyone my age who was even vaguely Arabic-looking. "Where is he?"
Gone, of course; vanished into the throng of people crowding the airport. Mom tugged me toward the exit, where her limousine waited. I followed mechanically, flinching away from anyone who passed too close to me. Once in the car, the reality of the situation caught up to me, and try as I might, I couldn't stop the tears. Neither of my parents had any use for crying, and I had learned early on to hide tears whenever possible. Now, though, it was not only impossible to hide, it was impossible to control.
Mom quickly poured a glass of scotch from the minibar and handed it to me. "Drink it," she ordered, seeing that I was about to decline. My hands were shaking so badly I could barely hold the glass, but I managed to down the alcohol in two quick gulps. I don't like the taste of hard alcohol, and I never drink it straight. I rarely drink it at all; it puts me to sleep. Mom knew that, which is why she forced me to drink another glass. Sure enough, within fifteen minutes I had drifted into a state of dreamless tranquility.
Unfortunately, it was only a short-term solution. Once home, I adamantly refused to leave the house for any reason; even our doctor had to come here to bandage my ribs. I started at shadows and constantly looked over my shoulder, expecting Omar to appear behind me at any second. He haunted my every moment, both awake and asleep. He was out there, waiting for me to drop my guard -- stalking me like the hyena he was. More than once I noticed a dark grey BMW repeatedly circling the block before driving off. Always the same car, at the same time of day. Did he know I was watching? Was this another oblique threat? Or was the mere thought of Omar's presence in New York driving me to new heights of paranoia?
At first, mom channeled her frustration into finding Omar's local hideout. He was too skilled to be tracked so easily, though, using a variety of false IDs and paying cash for most of his purchases. Her employees turned up scores of possible suspects, but New York was full of immigrants, and none of the photos was of Omar. All we knew for certain was that he had arrived the same time that we had, and as his plane was still in the hangar, he hadn't left yet.
After a month, though, her patience was at an end. She berated me for allowing Omar to run my life, but it wasn't as though my life would be normal if I set foot out of the house; I would be even more of a nervous wreck than I was at home. I actually snapped at her, saying that since she'd never had anything remotely like a serial killer stalking her, she couldn't exactly understand what I was going through. It was very unlike me to unleash my temper, especially at my mother, but I was less in control of myself as the days wore on.
Mom couldn't put her entire life on hold to stay home with me every day, so I was alone more and more frequently. I think I went through almost as many cigarettes as she did, and I usually smoke only one cigarette every three months or so, if even that. It succeeded in making me nauseous, but did absolutely nothing to calm my nerves.
I stood in the bathroom that led to my bedroom and stared at my reflection in the mirror. God, I looked awful. I had shadows under my eyes from lack of sleep and I had neglected to shave for days. I sighed and rested my head against the mirror; maybe mom was right, and I should get out of the house.
I walked down the stairs, out the front door, and waited for the lift. Something seemed wrong as I stepped inside the white-tiled elevator, but I didn't know quite what. It wasn't until the doors closed that I saw him standing in the corner of the lift, just at the edge of my vision. The silver crowbar gleamed in the flickering fluorescent light as he swung it toward me --
-- and I jerked my head away from the mirror, gasping. I couldn't go on like this; I needed a decent night's sleep, at least. Splashing cold water on my face helped me to calm down enough to prepare for bed. I was determined to return to a regular routine, even though I was alone in the house. It was long past time that I took control of my life again. I took a deep breath and stepped back into my bedroom.
Something flashed in my peripheral vision and instinct took over; I dropped and rolled away, coming to my feet battle-ready. Even so, Omar's crowbar had only missed me by millimeters. The bastard had rappelled from the roof and wedged open one of my bedroom windows; his guide-lines were draped over the window sill. He had probably expected me to be asleep, since I hadn't turned on my overhead light. Either it was a sign of his desperation that he was willing to confront me on my own turf, or he was so confident of his victory that he didn't think it mattered.
Dressed entirely in black, with his face covered by a black silk scarf, he was even prepared for my new powers, wearing mirrored goggles that made it impossible for me to see his eyes. I didn't need my powers; I was sick and tired of running from Omar, and I was more than willing to fight him if that was what it took to get my life back.
He'd forgotten that I was the better fighter of the two of us. Since he'd only ever struck from behind, giving me no chance to defend myself, it was easy to see how that fact could have slipped past him. A high kick sent his crowbar flying into a wall; another one brought him down hard.
He cut my other leg out from under me with a scissor-kick. I converted my fall into a backflip and spun around to face him again. He'd retrieved the crowbar and eyed me warily, contemplating his next move. His hands seemed oddly oversized in the bulky gloves he wore, which hindered his grip on the crowbar. If he'd thought about it, he would have ditched the gloves by the window with the rest of his rappelling equipment. I laughed to myself as I realized my mother's battle analysis training was in full gear even in the midst of a life-or-death struggle that I was by no means guaranteed to win.
I braced myself as he charged me, dodging aside at the last moment and jabbing my elbow into his jaw. With a snarl, he was on me again, slashing at my face with the sharpened hooks of the crowbar. I grabbed his wrists and fell backward, using my momentum to flip him over me and onto his back. If he hadn't been so intent on holding onto the crowbar, he could have turned that move against me. Having lost his chance to do so, I pinned his wrists to the floor, immobilizing both his arms and his weapon.
Not that the crowbar was his only weapon. His legs shot forward, the soles of his feet hitting me in the face and knocking me backward. I rolled with the impact and righted myself on my knees, just as he came at me again. Grabbing the folded up easel leaning against the wall behind me, I blocked the crowbar as it descended toward my head. Countering his every attack with the heavy wooden easel, I fought to regain my footing before pressing my advantage. I was taller than Omar, and the easel outweighed his crowbar, allowing me to strike with greater force. I smashed one end into the side of his head and followed through quickly with the other end on his wrist, causing him to drop the crowbar. I kicked the crowbar away for the second time and slammed Omar against the wall, the easel pressed against his throat. It took all my strength of will not to crush his larynx; I knew from experience how easy it was to damage that structure permanently.
"Give up," I mouthed silently at him, glaring into my own reflection in his mirrored goggles.
Something pressed itself into my side, and before I could pull away a searing current of electricity burned through me, painfully convulsing every muscle in my body. I fell heavily, unable to stop myself, the easel falling from my nerveless fingers.
Omar knelt beside me, breathing hard from the fight. "I told you I'd make you regret dragging this out," he growled, jamming the stungun into my ribs again. A hoarse scream forced its way past my lips, but there was no one else in the house to hear it. Three more times he used the stunner on me, his heavy, insulated gloves protecting him from the paralyzing current.
I lay on the floor twitching, barely able to breathe from the tightness in my chest. There was no way I could fight him, now; nothing to do but wait for him to kill me. The waiting alone was agony, albeit of a different sort than what my body was experiencing.
He slid his hands under my arms and dragged me out into the hall. "Let's leave your mother a nice little present in her foyer, shall we?" he hissed in my ear. "For interfering in my hunt." We were at the top of the stairwell, but even so, I didn't really expect him to throw me down the stairs until he actually did.
That hurt. A lot. I came to rest on the landing, by sheer unfortunate coincidence positioned so that I could see Omar as he came down the stairs toward me, the evil silver crowbar once more lifted menacingly above his head.
" Now it ends, Joseph," he said, once more his deathly-calm self. "Now you die."
I closed my eyes, listening as each step brought him closer to fulfilling that statement.
The loud, reverberating noise that issued forth three times in quick succession surprised me enough that my eyes opened automatically. Omar stood over me, swaying slightly. The crowbar slipped from his fingers and hit the stairs with a dull thud, rolling to a stop against my arm. A second later Omar crumpled, his bullet-ridden body collapsing across my legs.
My mother took the stairs two at a time, bounding up to me and pushing Omar's corpse out of her way. She set her still-smoking gun down on the stair beside me and stroked my cheek with the back of her hand. "Honey, you'll be OK," she said, more to convince herself than me.
I managed a weak nod. At long last, it truly was over. And I'd won, after all.
I let the relief of my victory carry me off into sweet and long-awaited dreams.
© 2000 by Rachel Ehrlich Joseph Wilson and Adeline Kane Wilson © DC Comics All other characters © Rachel Ehrlich